Landscapes in Piano Repertoire

The Composer’s Landscape features eight insightful essays on the piano repertoire, each chapter focusing on a single composer: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. In this book, Carol Montparker uses landscape as a metaphor for the score, whether it be a well-tended garden of Mozart or the thorny thickets on a Schumann page.  In her introduction, Montparker beautifully explains the reasoning behind her “landscape” metaphor.

A few words and metaphors will explain why I gave the series the name “the Composer’s landscape.” music is a language, and that language has a very broad spectrum. often referred to as “the universal language,” still it encompasses many styles, genres, and dialects. not only does each composer write in a unique language, but performing artists have to learn to “speak” and “sing” in these various tongues. Very often pianists find that they are fluent and conversant in many composers’ languages—but not all. Very few pianists play every composer equally convincingly. even if we are lucky enough to be born with talent, it usually has a territorial boundary, as my great teacher Leopold Mittman put it.

00124843To my eyes, a page from any score is a landscape, with its own contours and terrain, that is directly related to the language of that composer—a kind of visual depiction of the language. When a musician beholds a page from a Schumann score, it has an altogether different look from a page of Mozart; it can be as different as a jungle is from a well-tended garden, and an experienced musician can glance at a page and discern which composer wrote it, just from the appearance of the writing style.

Yes, there is the same system of notation: notes, clefs, phrase marks, dynamics, lines and spaces, and so on. But what gets much more com- plex is the “topography”: the shapes—the peaks and depths, the patches of bramble or thickets to plow through, the open plains to traverse, the circuitous routes of the melodic lines, the clotted harmonies, the busy thoroughfares where all the voices converge, the layers of their impor- tance, and the depth of meanings, stacked like the geological strata of a canyon, through which we must dig in order to get to the core of truth. We must, in essence, be explorers and, for me, the metaphor of landscape works so well that I could find endless parallels between the manuscript and any kind of geographical terrain.

Most concerts are eclectic and varied. This series proved to be a rare opportunity to present and examine one composer at a time and take note of the extraordinary and essential elements that distinguish one composer’s landscape from the next, and what the unique challenges are for the explorer-pianist.

A Very Verdi Fall

This Autumn, Amadeus Press will release Verdi: The Operas and Choral Works as part of the Unlocking the Masters Series. Read this glowing, exclusive excerpt from the introduction of the book below.

Verdi and the Culmination of Italian Opera

Sooner or later we learn that in this world popularity and quality do not go hand in hand—far from it, in fact. But in the case of Verdi, they do. Giuseppe Verdi, probably the most popular operatic composer of all, brought Italian opera to its peak, single-handedly saving and reanimating this beloved musical genre for the better part of a century. Italian opera of the 1840s, when Verdi came on the scene, was a hodge- podge of formulas spun out by mostly forgotten composers who were at the mercy of fickle audiences, self-promoting singers, and impresarios whose chief personal quality was greed. A few fine composers—Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti—had by their individuality and hard work carved out niches for themselves, achieving popularity that spread beyond Italy, over Europe, and across the Atlantic. But with the arrival of ambitious new ideas about musical drama, chiefly those of Wagner, German opera had become the avant-garde, what the cool kids, even in Italy, wanted to see. While even the finest works by Italians still sounded beautiful, they were rarely daring. With his musical and dramatic genius and force of character, Verdi gave Italian opera’s tired conventions new life, while continually raising its standards, ultimately adding sixteen indestructible operas (of the twenty-eight he composed) to the repertory.

Verdi’s music combines lyricism with power, helping it reach its vast and well-deserved popularity. His operas grab you by the throat, demanding your attention and making submission to their beauty and force your only course. They’re not always subtle, but that’s not generally a quality associated with Italian opera. Verdi refined his style continually, though, and his final opera, Falstaff, is nothing if not subtle. Opera, the Italian variety in particular, may be unsubtle, but it is the best musical formfor the direct expression of emotions, at which it is unsurpassed. By any analysis, it’s one of the most important limbs of the Western musical tree; you can perhaps think of it as standing opposite to German-Austrian instrumental music, which runs to the abstract and intellectual. German opera, the fruit of the romantic era, is moody, grandiose, often mystical. But the goals of Italian opera are the expression of emotions, often in showy ways, and sheer entertainment.

To say that opera in Italy fills a much wider position in the national culture than it does in 00118902the United States seems a truism; it’s also safe to say that nothing in American culture, where the boundaries between “high” and “low” are written in stone, is analogous to opera in Italy, where it’s accepted by millions as an essential element of their upbringing and national heritage. While Americans and others seem irritated or amused up to a point, or bored by opera; others feel intimidated, and many seem to be put off by its artificiality. But of course, placed in the proper light, any art—and any sport—can appear unnatural. There’s more than a bit of blood sport in being an opera fan in Italy, where fine performances are cheered, and bad ones booed enthusiastically; and where the ability of tenors and sopranos to execute fast passagework and hit high notes with ease and power—or their failure to do so—are applauded or condemned vigorously during performances. Verdi’s popularity in Italy arises, as we’ll see, not only from his role as perhaps Italy’s greatest composer, but also as a symbol of the national spirit during the unification struggles of the mid-nineteenth century.

Opera’s noble purpose is to say in music what everyone feels—no more, no less. The big solo numbers, or arias, typically express an emo- tion that the character is experiencing. In a duet, each character’s emotion should be clarified and heightened by the music. Termed affects, these are the feelings we’ve all known from early in our own lives: happiness, grief, anger, fear, and all the others. (It seems curious that opera should not gain a wider response in an age and a society in which open emotional expression is accorded high value.) By Verdi’s time, emphasis had begun to shift toward the expression of more complex psychological and dramatic truth, an art Verdi excelled at and brought to transcendent levels of mimesis.

The voice dominates Italian opera, and it is the dominant element of Verdi’s style. His works are written for singers, who at best inhabit their roles and hope to become known as great Lady Macbeths, Rigolettos, or Aidas. Verdi’s mastery of the orchestra was immense, as well, and three of the operatic overtures (Luisa Miller, I vespri siciliani, and La forza del destino) are played in the concert hall. With the exception of a few piano fantasies on Verdian themes by Franz Liszt, there are no suites of material lifted from the operas and played by the orchestra without a singer: the idea itself is preposterous. The opposite holds true for Verdi’s contempo- rary and fellow operatic titan Richard Wagner, whose music has always been excerpted and transcribed for orchestra without voice, and Wagner’s music generally stands up well to the treatment. Verdi came to maturity in an era in which the bel canto style dominated; the phrase means “beautiful singing,” and it’s characterized by elaborate and difficult vocal parts, with lots of high notes for the high voices and decoration of all vocal parts. The voice is what’s on display in bel canto operas, and much of what singers are asked to do requires not only vocal power, but also agility and subtlety. The popularity of singers in Italy, entirely comparable to that of professional athletes, typically rewards those who have mastered this difficult style of singing. As we’ll see, some of Verdi’s operas display bel canto characteristics, though he came into his prime as the style was losing its hold on the public. But even if he had been born a few years earlier, his development as a composer of musical drama would have strained the inherent limitations of the style.

 

But there is more for all of you Verdi fans! This October, Amadeus Press will also release Verdi’s Operas, which studies in detail each of Verdi’s 26 operas, from Oberto to Falstaff. Visit the website for more information about this publication.

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Celebrating Leonard Slatkin at Tanglewood

American conductor and composer Leonard Slatkin will be celebrating his 70th birthday today at the renowned Tanglewood festival. He will be taking the stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to lead the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom’s Circus Overture. The Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre National de Lyon as well as the recipient of numerous awards, Slatkin is also author of Conducting Business, a book that takes an insightful look at what conductors actually do for a living. In the following excerpt from Conducting Business, Slatkin speaks about his memorable experiences with the Tanglewood festival.

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Hot and humid. Bugs everywhere. Wine bottles clanking. Babies screaming. Ah, there is nothing like the sights and sounds of summer.

The alfresco concert has been with us for centuries now. Tribal drummers, troubadours and rock stars, even classical ensembles have enjoyed a place in the great outdoors. Handel must have loved the Royal Fireworks Music as he stood at a safe distance away from the barge that carried the musicians and explosives. We don’t know when the formally organized, professional, outdoor concert series was conceived. Major orchestras in America lacked summer homes until both the Chicago an the Boston Symphony moved out of town in 1936. The vision of Serge Koussevitzky helped forge Tanglewood, a bucolic venue in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains. The first concerts were played in a tent, but in two years’ time, the famous Shed was dedicated. The BSO plays and resides in the Lenox area almost all summer. Although located in Massachusetts, it amounts to a second home for New Yorkers who flock to the area, families in tow. This seasonal music center includes a well-known school for very dedicated young musicians, who play with master conductors and soloists. It is arguably the go-to place for serious music-making during the summer months.

Teaching, from its inception, has been fundamental to the Tanglewood ethic. A number of fine conductors have emerged from the program, and for most years, this class was held in Saranac, the original residence of Koussevitzky. All the greats have taught there and that history is so palpable, you can feel it oozing from the walls. Everyone respects the festival’s traditions, no doubt a factor in why it remains at the top of every music lover’s list for summertime listening.

Strauss – An Owner’s Manual

Last May, the latest in the Unlocking the Masters series was released: Richard Strauss! Below is author David Hurwitz’s preface to Richard Strauss – An Owner’s Manual. Be sure to check out the other books in the Unlocking the Masters series

00119744Richard Strauss wrote a huge amount of music in every one of the major media of his day: symphonies, symphonic poems, choral works, operas, songs, piano solo, and chamber music. However, his reputation stands on the symphonic poems and operas of his maturity, and on his orchestral music more generally. For that reason, this survey will consider all of the major works with orchestra and many of the minor ones, including the operas and the orchestral songs. The songs with piano (approximately two hundred of them), chamber music, and choral works belong in a special category of their own (the songs), or are mostly early and/or atypical (the chamber music), or, in the case of the choral works, don’t tell us anything especially significant that can’t be found in Strauss’s other vocal works.

There are also some major works that are barely known, or so seldom recorded that to spend time on them here when you can’t purchase them to enjoy at home would be an exercise in frustration. So they will not be discussed, however much I might have liked to deal with them. As it is, I feel guilty—well, almost guilty—sending you off to find a piece with an unpronounceable name (even in German), such as Panathenäenzug for piano left-hand and orchestra, no matter how delightful and sadly neglected it is.

In this “owner’s manual,” as in others in this series, I have focused on strategies for listening. Strauss’ music is “easy” in the sense that almost all of it is programmatic. That is, it describes an extramusical subject, and if you know the story behind the work, then you know the work, at least on one level, and nothing more need be said about it. For me, though, much of the fascination with Strauss’ orchestral music resides in how he shapes and assembles his material into satisfy- ing wholes whether you know anything about the program or not. I hope that this guide will suggest helpful ways to approach the music at this deeper level.

Strauss’ operas and songs represent his lifelong attempt to find new, fresh, but always appropriate ways to tackle the issue of the relationship between text and music. Many of these works are little known, but all of them have something valuable to offer the listener, and it will be a very great pleasure to describe them to you. Operas and songs are even simpler to hear than programmatic symphonic music: you just follow the text or synopsis and enjoy the show. The only serious issue you might have is making sufficient time to get to know the music really well. That is a problem that no book can solve completely, but it can at least point your attention in the right direc- tion so that the time you do have to invest will be spent productively.

In most of my guides for this series, including this one, I have taken great care to provide full orchestration lists for all of the works described. This was a major project, as most of Strauss’ mature works employ very large orchestras with a notably complicated layout, and the actual scores are sometimes imprecise in giving complete lists of their instrumental requirements. The woodwind section, especially, contains a huge number of “doubling” parts—that is, a single musician plays multiple instruments. A flutist also plays the piccolo; the second oboe doubles on English horn, and the clarinets may take any member of that family. Strauss routinely calls for clarinets in A, B-flat, D, C, and E-flat, and bass clarinets in A and B-flat, plus basset horns, and so as not make things even more complicated, I have simplified the lists somewhat by sticking to raw numbers within each instrumental family—clarinets, for example—where the question is simply one of key rather than significant differences in range or timbre.

Aside from the fact that this is a book primarily about orchestral music, you actually can learn a great deal about a work before you even hear it simply by looking at its scoring. In particular, the relative numbers of woodwinds and strings quite often give a very strong indi- cation of how the music is going to sound, whether the work (if it is an opera) will be comic or tragic, and what the composer’s compositional strategy might have been. Does the lack of a part for contrabassoon signal a general lightness of texture? Does the huge brass section in

An Alpine Symphony anticipate the grandeur of the symphonic journey up the mountain before it even begins? Take a guess and see if your preconception turns out to be correct. Either way, it’s a useful strategy to focus your attention when listening.

As with all the books in this series, there is no reason that you need to go through it in order. You can dip in at your pleasure, though I would suggest reading the introduction first, since it sets the stage and puts Strauss in a helpful context. Other than that, you should feel free to follow your own interests wherever they lead. 

In Memory of Lorin Maazel

Last Sunday, legendary conductor Lorin Maazel sadly passed away at the age of 84. He began conducting at the early age of nine, traveled the world to lead countless orchestras, and served as the leader of the New York Philharmonic from 2002-2009. This amazingly talented artist and scholar is featured prominently in John Canarina’s 2010 book entitled The New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel. The excerpt below describes Maazel’s first steps into orchestral fame and his rocky introduction to the New York Philharmonic. Critic Greg Sandow once described Maazel’s work as “impulsive” and “unpredictable”, however he also suggested that, as to Maazel’s impact on the Philharmonic, “We just might be surprised.” Maazel’s talent and passion (for the New York Philharmonic in particular) make him widely regarded as one of the world’s most prominent conductors. Thank you, Mr. Maazel:

 

When Lorin Maazel began his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was seventy-two years old. But he made his first podium appearance when he conducted the orchestra Layout 1of the Interlochen Music Camp at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 – when he was nine. At the more advanced age of eleven he conducted a nationwide radio broadcast with the NBC Orchestra, and conducted a nationwide radio broadcast with the NBC Orchestra, and in 1942, at the age of twelve, he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium. After appearances with other major American orchestras, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh at sixteen, received a Fullbright Fellowship in 1951 to study baroque music in Italy, and made his adult conducting debut in Catania, Sicily in 1953. Engagements with European orchestras followed, and in 1960 he became the first American and the youngest conductor to appear at Germany’s prestigious Bayreuth Festival. (The word “appear” is perhaps misleading, for the orchestra and conductor are hidden from view.)

His contract was for four years, and there were some in the profession who regarded it as something of a stopgap for the Philharmonic. Already there was talk of a search for Maazel’s successor. Maazel, however, spoke of his appointment as possibly “the fruition of my experience as a conductor, to work with an orchestra I really love…I’m more enthusiastic about my future with this orchestra than I have ever been about anything I have ever done anyplace.”

 

Watch: Inside Look at “In Character: Opera Portraiture”

 

In Character: Opera Portraiture, available from Amadeus Press 11/04/14,  memorably captures operatic performers away from the audience but fully inhabiting their roles. It showcases the work of John F. Martin, who for years set up a portable studio in the basement of the San Francisco Opera and photographed the players – in costume and full makeup – right before or after they took the stage. 

Their roles run the gamut of opera personalities: heroes and heroines, villains and outcasts, royalty and common folk, Biblical figures and creatures of myth. Facing Martin’s camera, each artist projects the essence of his or her character, however great or small the part.  A collection unlike any other, In Character will have broad appeal-to opera and theater buffs, costume and fashion aficionados, and anyone who appreciates fine art photography.

Q&A with Leonard Slatkin

Conducting Business by Leonard Slatkin gives a unique look inside a unique profession. Slatkin recently sat down with Stay Thirsty Magazine to answer some questions about his book and how he himself rose to the position of maestro. You can read the rest of the interview here!

 

00333460I’d like to begin with a biographical note from your 2012 publication, Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro (Amadeus Press). You were effectively assured of victory had you entered the international competition to determine an assistant conductor for the NY Philharmonic. This was back in the 1960’s, when Leonard Bernstein was at the podium and arguably at the height of his popularity (via the Young People’s Concerts, which ran on CBS from 1958 to 1972). Essentially, you “turned him down.” Did you ever fear repercussions in your career? Also, what are your thoughts vis-à-vis competitions for conductors?

At the time, I was still a student, and I really hadn’t thought about my career. I had a number of options to consider, beginning with getting drafted! I might have been in the army, in which case I would have been an arranger for NORAD. I was also offered the opportunity to become the assistant conductor at St. Louis, and I had this chance to go to the Mitropoulos Competition. The latter, however, I had to turn down, because I simply did not want to be in a position that I hadn’t earned legitimately. No, I didn’t really “think about it” all that much. It bothered me; it disturbed me. I realized I could win the competition not for what I could do, but simply for who I was. I found that notion annoying. I should append that to this day I generally recoil at the idea of competitions as the way to “spot a talent,” even though I’m involved with one – the Van Cliburn Competition. Moreover, there will be an announcement fairly soon about my relationship with that organization, and it will become clear why I have chosen to accept it.

Competitions are arguably more suited for athletics, and the similarity dissipates pretty quickly. Of course, we “play” music or some sport, and the competitor is deemed only as “good” as he is on that particular day. However, we really need the “long-term” to be able to judge, particularly with a conductor. How does the individual relate to the orchestra? Other questions arise as well – knowledge of the score, technical command, and ability to garner the respect of the orchestral musicians. It’s really pretty difficult, if not impossible, to tell that in a conducting competition, and I hope I never have to be in the position of judging one.

Of course, I do have to judge other conductors, especially when we audition assistant conductors, but usually I can start that process during the course of an interview that takes place. Obviously, one needs to be able to conduct and relate well to the orchestra, but I want to see what other things the applicants bring to the table – communication skills; whether they write well and speak well; the ideas they may have for educational programs:  in other words, the “total package.” However, these intangibles are not what judges score, and so I’m decidedly not a fan of conducting competitions, since I feel I can’t really learn anything substantive from them.

 

I agree. In fact, I am reminded of Arthur Rubinstein’s famous quote, “Competitions are for horses, not people.” 

I suppose that for some it’s a necessary evil. There are those who attune their entire mentalities toward the objective of winning a competition. However, what do they do for the rest of their lives?