Something new to me at least.
This is how it happened. One of the new features of the iPhone gives you some suggestions from Siri when you swipe to the right from the home screen. I see the people I have most recently contacted, the apps I have most recently used and some headlines from Apple’s news service. The LA times must have entered some financial agreement with Apple, because it seems that four out of the five headlines suggested by Siri are from the LA times. I’ve not decided whether this is an amazing upgrade of convenience, or some sort of Big Brother/Big Business effort to control the news to which I am exposed. In either case, I read a headline about the LA philharmonic starting a tour with a challenging orchestral program of relatively modern music. The program contained two different works by living composers, and other music from the twentieth century. There was a piano concerto that was described as “challenging” for the listener.
The concerto was the Piano Concerto No. 1, Opus 28 (1961) by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). I am delighted that I at least recognized the name Ginastera as a twentieth century composer, but I couldn’t recall ever hearing any of his music. I am a pretty big fan/student of twentieth century “classical” music, and at this point a bit of ego kicked in. It seemed like it was something I should have heard before, so I looked into finding a recording. Spotify came to my rescue by having the recording on the Naxos label available for me to stream. This was instant gratification at its finest, the music I wanted at my fingertips exactly when I wanted to hear it. I was blown away by the composition.
This concerto is just the sort of music that I sought out as a student composer. Modern sounding, not afraid of dissonance, rhythmically driving and grippingly expressive. Liner notes tell me that Ginastera is using a serial, atonal method of composition in putting this concerto together. I can hear that in the music, but what stands out in the foreground more than anything is the musical voice of Ginastera. The serial method that dominated musical academics and composers in the late 1950’s and 1960’s can be a very cumbersome tool, and in many hands it overwhelms the musical aspects. It takes some familiarity to begin to sort out bad serial music from good, and a lot of bad music can hide behind accusations that the listener wasn’t “sophisticated enough to understand”. This is not the case with the Alberto Ginastera. I hear music first, rhythm and expression and a very effective musical voice which happens to be using a particular method to construct the music. The method serves the music, not the other way around.
Alberto Ginastera, Piano Concerto No. 1, Opus 28 (1961)
Upon further reading about Ginastera, I learned a new bombshell. The progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer adapted the fourth movement of this same piano concerto. It appears as “Toccata” on an album titled “Brain Salad Surgery”, a 1973 release that was their fourth studio album. Even more remarkable, it seems that Ginastera approved and endorsed the effort. During the time they were recording the album, Keith Emerson traveled to Switzerland to meet with Alberto Ginastera to play the version of the movement that they had created. Ginastera didn’t speak much English, but with a little help from his wife the message was delivered that Ginastera was impressed and approved of the recording.
Clearly I have had my head buried in too much Shakespeare and Mozart in recent months. I am completely annoyed with myself for never having heard either the original Piano Concerto, or the Emerson, Lake and Palmer record before now. My proverbial socks are knocked off. I am delighted to familiarize myself with both versions. It seems that Ginastera has written a lot of music I haven’t heard, including three operas. One of the operas, “Bomarzo”, was banned in Argentina for a few years, which makes me want to listen to it at once! I can’t believe that my main man Mike didn’t share at least the Emerson, Lake and Palmer version with me years ago. He had to be familiar with it at the time. I wonder what old “Mike on Keys” thinks of the Ginastera concerto. In case you didn’t make it through the entire 30 minutes of the concerto in the above recording, I have included a video of the fourth movement by itself with a video of the Toccata from “Brain Salad Surgery”. It makes for a high octane 12 minutes to listen to them back to back.
Alberto Ginastera, Piano Concerto No. 1, Fourth Movement
Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Toccata” from “Brain Salad Surgery”
Check out Bomarzo immediately. I’m not sure quite why it got banned, but there’s a courtesan (Pantasilea) who appears half naked, and Bomarzo is spoiled and polysexual if I remember rightly.
Even more, look into Beatrice Cenci. My father played in the horn section of the premiere at the opening of the Kennedy Center, and I got to smeak into the rehearsals. The opening chorus is so ominous and disturbing, just the music alone, that I felt myself trying to slink away from the stage against the back of the seat and possibly over it. It’s based on an Alberto Moravia play about the historical Count Cenci who seems to have abused everyone in his reach and subjected his daughter Beatrice to chronic incest, causing her to eventually plot his death. There was nudity in that one too, a ripping away of the soprano’s bodice a split second before the stage was plunged in darkness, which was pretty edgy for Washington in 1971.
I recently re-visited an album by Peter Michael Hamel that the Allmusic guide described as ‘challenging’. My word was ‘transporting’. Isn’t that fantastic when the capricious gods of music cast something your way?
I agree. Sometimes the random “discoveries” are the best. I’ll have to check out the Hamel.
I wrote a few words on the P M Hamel here:
Keith Emerson introduced me to many classical themes. He was familiar with Ginastera, Janacek and Martinu, among others. He is best known for his adaptations of Copland’s Hoedown and Fanfare for the Common Man, Holst’s Mars, Pictures at an Exhibition, and Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet. ELP added much to my musical vocabulary as a teenager.
Thank you for tying together Ginastera and ELP in your post. Toccatta is a masterful piece. Ginastera’s comment that “Keith Emerson has beautifully caught the mood of my piece” was quite an honor for the ELP trio. Carl Palmer’s synthesized percussion added unique sounds to Toccatta. Keith Emerson’s keyboards were excellent, as usual, and Greg Lake’s guitar work was great. I have been a huge ELP fan since they released their first album back in 1970 — ELP remains my #1 favorite progressive rock band.
Never cared much for Emerson L&P, compared to other prog-giant, but interesting story with Emerson going to Switzerland and play his version to the master.
You should also listen to ELP’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” which is a take on the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition”. I think that you will enjoy it just as much as you did Toccatta. I just did a post about the album a couple weeks ago. https://forgottenrockclassics.com/2016/02/20/elp-pictures-at-an-exhibition/