Something new.

Something new to me at least.

siriThis 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.  

Alberto Ginastera

Alberto Ginastera

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)

ELP_-_Brain_Salad_SurgeryUpon 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”

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietI just finished watching the 1968 film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  The play is by far the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and I believe it is the earliest effort in the genre of tragedy that we have from the Bard.  The story is ubiquitous, and I hardly can imagine a rock to turn over where you wouldn’t find someone familiar with at least the outline of the play.  Even if you weren’t familiar, it is a tragedy, and as such really does not have any huge surprises.  It will turn out badly, everyone will die in the end, and the audience only has to sit there and watch it all unfold.  There is no suspense, as in a melodrama, where things may possibly turn out good in the end, just maybe.  Shakespeare makes it clear in the prologue of the play that the star-crossed lovers will die in the end. 

Zeffirelli cast two unknown young actors in the lead of his movie, Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet.  It was a bit of a risk, to place such weight of the production on two young people under the age of 18.  It worked out brilliantly, as the film remains a classic version of the play even until this day.

Interview with Whiting and Hussey

Zeffirelli has to edit and interpret the play, because Franco cannot leave well enough alone.  The biggest diversion from the original that I see is in the ending of the play, where Romeo encounters Paris at the tomb of Juliet.  In the film version, Paris is absent at the end, and action is streamlined to Romeo encountering what he believes is a deceased Juliet.  With my musician’s ears, the most distracting part of the film is not the changes in the text of the play, but the sentimental love theme in the soundtrack.  I suppose the musical melody is good enough the first time, or first dozen times it is heard.  My problem is that it does not wear well, and by the end of the film it seems a distracting sentimental bit of mush that detracts from my enjoyment.  You can hear the melody I am referring to in the opening of the trailer to the film.

Trailer for Romeo and Juliet, 1968

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

I studied the Overture-Fantasia  to Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky for the brilliant orchestration, but my favorite musical setting of the play is the ballet version composed by Sergei Prokofiev (1892-1953).  I think it is because of the familiarity of the story that the play is ripe for a ballet setting.  The audience knows the action, even without the text, and can follow a long story with only music and dance.  Sergei Prokofiev composed music for a ballet in 1935, following a synopsis of the play written by Adrian Piotrovsky.  Originally they had substituted a happy ending for the star-crossed lovers, but further revisions restored the tragic ending.  The ballet languished unperformed for five years, only receiving its premiere in Leningrad in January of 1940.  

Prokofiev extracted three different orchestral suites from the complete ballet.  These suites are performed and recorded fairly regularly, and represent some of the composer’s most familiar music.   I think my musical brother Mike prefers Dmitri Shostakovich to Prokofiev, and Sergei Rachmaninoff to almost everyone, but certainly Prokofiev is one of the major Russian composers of the twentieth century.

Tchaikovsky, Overture-Fantasia to Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2

Bolshoi Ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet