Sviatoslav Richter

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I am embarrassed to say that I only recently discovered the magic of pianist Sviatoslav Richter.  While listening to Spotify, I happened across a recording of a Rachmaninoff prelude that I have listened to countless times and play myself, performed by Richter.  Rachmaninoff was known to include very little direction in his composition as to dynamics or tempo.  He did not regard his notation to be law but suggestion, and hoped to encourage performers to discover their own interpretation. This in itself is a wonderful thing, but what is even more wonderful is listening to someone so fantastically adept at interpretation perform his music.  I heard the prelude in an entirely new way: Each note so essential. Each pause perfectly chosen. Each dynamic impactful. In some ways, I am delighted that I only just found out about Richter, because it is so rare to come upon something so special at an age when I can fully appreciate the magnitude of the discovery.

Piece after piece, I was increasingly blown away by my new love affair.  I quickly visited his Wikipedia page to find that he sadly left this world in 1997 and was forced to accept that I would never see him perform live. With this acceptance, there was also gratitude that modern technology has made music so accessible. I was able to enjoy his performance of a Schumann piece that would have not remotely touched me had someone else been playing, but gave me chills by the second measure.  Surely this must have been a very kind man to be able to extract such tenderness out of the keys.  He had an extraordinary ability to turn a simple melody into something profound (see Mozart Concerto 20 in D Minor). This same pianist was able to play with virtuosity and power, portraying every bit as much theatrical tension and bravado as required.  The ability to play such a wide variety of music with not only expertise but with a chameleon-like intuition for music such that Laurence Olivier had for acting. Richter could paint a mystery, tell a joke, break your heart and make you believe in love again. Now that is real power.
Sviatoslav played because he loved to and knew that if he enjoyed what he was doing his audience would also enjoy it. He liked playing in small venues and was quoted as saying “Put a small piano in a truck and drive out on country roads; take time to discover new scenery; stop in a pretty place where there is a good church; unload the piano and tell the residents; give a concert; offer flowers to the people who have been so kind as to attend; leave again.”  What a glorious notion. It is not only the idea of an impromptu concert in an unlikely location that is so appealing, but that he would hand out flowers to those that attended, rather than expecting to receive flowers instead. I am so glad to have read this story. It fits perfectly with the man I imagined behind those talented hands.  I am altogether charmed, dazzled, and humbled.
Listening Guide:
  • Mozart: Concerto 20 in d minor k.466
  • Rachmaninoff: Prelude in g minor, op. 23, no. 5
  • Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26: II Romanz
  • Saint-Saenz: Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Op. 103 “The Egyptian”
  • Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595: III. Allegro

Review: The NY Philharmonic and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights

In a packed Lincoln Center auditorium, an audience sat completely captivated by an eighty-five-year-old black and white film.  Conductor Timothy Brock gave a somewhat shaky introduction to their production of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, which I can only imagine stemmed from his excitement at taking part in this incredible event. I was thrilled to see such a wide variety of people attending the show.  There were, of course, many senior citizens enjoying something they grew up with, but also a substantial number of younger people.  Everyone equally appreciated the humor.  Many are unaware that not only was Charlie a brilliant actor and director, but he was also a composer.  This production of City Lights featured the New York Philharmonic orchestra playing the score while we watched the projected film on a big screen.  The music was perfectly suited at all times. Charlie knew not only how to hook an audience with physical expression and how to craft a scene, he knew just the right note and ironic passage of music to compliment and even create a moment.

Charlie Chaplin, in his iconic role of the tramp, had the audience’s sympathy from the first scene, when he is unveiled sleeping on a statue during its public dedication.  His missteps while trying to get out of the public view in his ever polite and charming way made everyone smile, as though watching an adorable puppy struggle to complete a simple task, like walking up the stairs.  Charlie is perpetually the gentleman, no matter how he struggles.  He saves a rich man from suicide, who takes him in while intoxicated but treats him like refuse by the light of day.  We were delighted by the whirlwind music that so perfectly compliments the drunken dance scene.  We watched him fall in love with a beautiful, blind flower girl and struggle to aid her.  The boxing scene, which involves the tramp hiding behind the referee and misdirecting his opponents hits in unfortunate directions, had the audience absolutely roaring with laughter. When the tramp goes to jail to help the poor blind girl with whom he has fallen in love, we realize how smitten we are with Charlie.  We fear a sad ending when, at the end, the newly sighted girl mocks the tramp, not realizing he was her love. Thankfully, the tramp has a happy ending, as I don’t believe the audience could have withstood otherwise for this beloved character.  In short, we were all moved to laughter and tears by this man, who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand for 90 minutes, almost 90 years later.

What a rare thing it is to be relevant so many years after your time; to have so many people still relate to you.  I watch many old movies, and while I am a sentimentalist and a fan of most, I don’t believe that any are quite as universally appealing as Charlie’s. He does it all without speaking.  To be able to do physical comedy that is so far beyond physical requires a certain genius. It is all done with subtlety, grace, and nuance.   You delighted a crowd full of people, young and old, with your music, your direction, your gentle characterization.  I tip my hat to you, Mr. Chaplin. I do believe in magic.

Allow Me to Invite You to Love Classical Music

I was fortunate to grow up with a father who adored classical music.  During summer vacations as a child, I spent substantial time lounging around his office. He had an enormous collection of classical cassette tapes (and eventually cds!) which were played as background music and, when the patients were done for the day, turned up and blasted. We also frequented the symphony, I am a classically trained pianist, and dancing around the house to an opera or symphony is not unheard of in my family.  PBS was a go-to channel and I have known a fair amount about composers for as long as I can remember.  I highly recommend this kind of exposure to all the parents out there.  Although I did not realize it at the time, I would grow from co-existing with classical music to loving it.  This happened perhaps the same way a child of the nineties may feel suddenly happy when hearing an Alanis Morsette or Backstreet Boys song which he did not necessarily care for but that brings back school bus nostalgia so intense that they sing along and are lit up from the inside, realizing that it is a part of him.

This post is not intended for those who were gently nurtured into music appreciation, but for those who either don’t know how or what to like about classical music and also for those who are bored to death by the thought of a symphony.  My upbringing does not mean I don’t understand.  There are many highly regarded compositions that I don’t relate to. I don’t presume that you will like all classical music.  As a born and raised Upstate New Yorker, I do not even like all Dave Matthews songs (even though I may not have admitted it in high school or even college). My intention is that you open up to the genre. Find your niche.  Maybe it is Schubert, maybe Gershwin. Maybe it is opera, maybe piano sonatinas from the classical period.  You may have a very specific period of music that draws you in, or perhaps a preference for a certain instrument.  I urge you to explore. Find out what is out there for you because I guarantee there is something that will tug at you and make you feel something.  

I’d like to introduce you to a few different works, for those who might be overwhelmed by venturing out on your own right away. I’ll start with some pieces that are extremely likable, to give you a gentle, positive nudge into your explorations.  I challenge you to imagine a scene in a movie where the music would be appropriate.  Be the musical director for this movie. See where that takes you. This is something I do whenever I listen to music in general and it is a fun challenge and creative exercise.  Okay– Is your mind free from all pre-conceptions, misconceptions, and images of stuffy older types in tuxedos and evening finery for a night at the opera?  Good.

I recommend starting with my favorite, Liszt. Why should you be interested in Liszt? Well, who doesn’t love a good performance? Big, bold, brash Liszt.  In life, he had a gigantic personality. He was a real showman, excessively popular and famed for giving theatrical performances on stage. His charisma on stage extended into this personal life as well, and he was a particular favorite with the ladies. The countess d’Agout even left her husband, George Sand, for him in quite a scandal! Liszt had numerous lovers and was the toast of court and all of the most fashionable circles. Not only did his love life require virtuosity, his pieces did. The athleticism and a flair for the dramatic ingrained in Liszt’s works was something completely new.  What better way to begin to appreciate classical music than with a piece so exciting and infused with humor that it actually makes me laugh.  I take you to Hungarian Rhapsody #2. First, I’d like you to listen to the audio version so you can hear the humor, then I recommend watching a performance so you can see the virtuosity required of the pianist.

There are a few moments I would like to draw your attention to.   At 1:33, notice the playfulness the right hand starting to tease the listener. At 5:15 the humor really begins. Pay attention to the mimicry; the hands both engaged in a game of tag around the playground. Listen to the “loudness” that comes from the left hand in seemingly unintentional bursts and the teasing scales from the right hand in the upper register. This piece is designed in such a way that the listener can hardly believe that just one person is playing all of these different notes. You will hear themes repeated throughout the song, sometimes alternating between the right and left hand, and sometimes hidden behind a heavily accented distraction. It is all part of the magic and delight.   

Now for something slower and more lyrical, I suggest listening to “Romance” from “The Gadfly Suite” by Shostakovich. This was actually composed as part of a movie score. I have not seen this particular old Russian movie (or perhaps any?) so we have the opportunity to decide what kind of scene this was played during. I challenge it not to pull at your heart strings. From the first note, I feel the ache of love, perhaps unrequited?  When the second violin joins the first in its song, I imagine two lonely cartoon swans swimming together, having found each other at last. Just imagining it melts my heart  in the charming way only an old animated short can. What do you hear?  

For our final introduction, I would like to add something from the operatic genre.  I understand that opera can be difficult to take in. I apologize if my choice is a bit patronizing in its clear popularity and likelihood of being already familiar to you.  This is what is known in Italian, as brindisi or, as I hope you are familiar with– a drinking song! What could be more fun?  Just imagine a bunch of Italians, red in the face from wine, draped over one another, raising their glasses and bawdily singing this tune.  I bring you to a selection from Verdi‘s “La Traviata” called Libiamo ne’lieti calici. I know you hear the pure joy that only unabashed drunkenness can bring.  

I intend to revisit this subject later and perhaps introduce something a bit less familiar, but I hope by then, you will have taken the time to explore for yourself and maybe you can share some of your favorite pieces with me.  A few ideas:

  • If you are a runner, try running to classical music! It is surprisingly motivating, even the slower pieces.  It can add a touch of the dramatic to your workout that you might enjoy!
  • Try cooking to opera, especially Italian opera (Verdi, Puccini, Rossini).  This would be a fantastic way to familiarize yourself with some new music and also set the mood for a fun evening. 
  • Trying watching some youtube video’s of pianists! Particularly Liszt and Rachmaninoff pieces, which are impressive to see performed. Search for the Van Cliburn competition, which will give you a taste of some of the best modern talent. 

The Elegance of the Basset Hound

A basset hound? You might ask. How could a basset hound be elegant?  Isn’t this the dog with the droopy eyes and the loosely attached lips that release a steady drip-drop of drool while you nibble on your macarons? The hound with the perpetually wet ears collecting dirt and moisture due to their low hanging nature? Is this the same dog that might slobber on your polished leather shoes or shake and surprise you with a wet present inside your handbag?  What you must first understand is that this is no mere dog but rather, a gentleman.

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Dear readers, be assured that the basset hound possesses dignity. Real dignity. A basset hound does not hesitate to stand up for himself, but does so with a subtlety and grace that would make the Old English swoon or, at the very least, politely applaud.   A basset hound does not demand that you surrender to him the best seat on the couch, but rather sits quietly and resolutely in front of you and raises his chin ever so slightly, gazing at you with deep chestnut eyes.  In this, he trusts you to know that he would like you to kindly move over, please.  Only then will he, ever so gracefully, jump onto the sofa and settle into his rightful place (the most plump and comfortable of cushions, naturally).

A basset hound neither yaps nor barks. When vocal expression is necessary, as is every so often the case, a basset hound chooses not to bark, but to bestow upon the world a sonorous howl or bay.  This sound is of the hound’s choosing and is neither offensive nor irritating in the least.  In fact, the sound delights and amuses the human-folk to no end. The basset will sometimes indulge his companions, even when not in the mood. This is just one example of a basset hound’s supreme generosity.

A basset hound is one who is a friend to the common folk, but does not hesitate to embrace the luxuries in life.  This noble soul is never too proud to delight a child with a jovial wag of the tail or greet his humans at the door to make them feel special. He realizes that the entitled life is one that comes with great responsibility and he carries that weight with him on a daily basis.  It is this great weight that requires a basset hound to sleep a great deal, often on one’s back with legs relaxed, as this is the way to ensure maximum storage of energy and wisdom.

The basset hound is ever so intelligent,  but does not flaunt his gifts as does a Jack Russell Terrier or a Border Collie.  A basset hound, you see, is no servant to humans, but rather one of the nobility.  Such banal games and tricks are frankly beneath his dignity.  A basset hound believes strongly in reciprocation and compromise and will gladly favor his human with a shake of the hand or even a circle, but only if offered a fair and sufficient enticement in turn, such as a finely aged cheese or slice of pâté.

A basset hound always conducts himself with grace, tact, and decorum.  He never moves at a pace exceeding that of an elegant trot and never slower than a lilting amble unless, of course, an emergency situation requires heroics, such as the chasing of a dangerous stray cat or a suspicious scent requiring investigation. A basset hound is and always must be ready for action, as he lives life with a strong sense of duty and morality.  A basset hound’s nose is both his greatest asset and a burden of considerable size.  He bears the heavy responsibility of vast knowledge, taken in by this highly functioning asset.

One can be sure that there is no greater or more sophisticated dog than a basset hound. What could be more exquisite than the gentle swing of a basset’s ears as he takes in a walk with his human? What could be more noble than the puff of his chest as he graces a room with his presence?  What speaks more to refinement than a basset’s restraint and careful consideration of every action? His benevolent nature will endear other humans to you as you stroll the city streets together and his strong sense of what is right will surely remind humans that it is not polite to eat a biscuit without sharing.

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