Music: my main source of sanity

When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest of times, and to the latest.

– Henry David Thoreau

Music has been and continues to be my main source of sanity during this insane time. I have self-quarantined in the company of my wife since March of 2020, enjoying the outdoors in our backyard and otherwise reading and doing a lot of listening to music and thereafter writing about it. Here are some of the cures that have helped me along:

Stewart Goodyear His recordings of anything are an addictive cure to Covid19 depression, especially his recording of the Beethoven piano concertos with Andrew Constantine leading the BBC Orchestra of Wales.

Time stops every time I listen to the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms played by the Alexander String Quartet and clarinetist Eli Eban in a Foghorn Records CD.

Mozart in Havana released by SONY features Simone Dinnerstein playing two Mozart concerti with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra led by José Antonio Méndez takes me on a trip to Salzburg and back via my birth hometown.

On a number of on-line radio stations and on You Tube I listen to everything from Brazilian pop music to French and Italian Baroque.

On more than one occasion watching her on TV specials I have been reminded of what a great singing artist Audra McDonald is.

At home I am often spoiled by my wife’s playing and singing of favorites from the Great American Songbook.

Concert Violinist Andrii Isakov shares his thoughts on 2020

The pandemic has lasted already almost a year. It is an obvious fact that many musicians have been suffering not only because there is almost no real communication between artists and the audience (I don’t count online as a real connection between those two), but also financially. It is a very sad, but an obvious fact.

From a student point of view, I have to say that I don’t think it has ever been easy for students to support themselves even before the pandemic. The pandemic made it even worse.

Speaking of myself, the amount of gigs I have had since the start of the pandemic has been close to zero. The gigs I was assigned to play were either cancelled or postponed until unknown times in the future.

I am able to pay my rent and make a living only because of my teaching. I think it is a good way for students to keep surviving. It might be not enough for more than rent and food, but at least it is something.

Because there is not any sureness as to what will happen in the future, I just try to keep going, keep improving, finding competitions, and making many recordings (since performing is a luxury nowadays).

Some of the competitions I got in are postponed until far from now, however, we should not give up even though it is very easy to do so during such a time as this.

However, we should fight even harder to keep improving and use this time for something that we might not be able to do during our normal super-busy musician lives.

Baritone James Newby sings songs of wandering

English baritone James Newby has just released a debut CD (BIS-2475)  on the BIS label. Titled I wonder as I wander the album features an unpredictably varied collection of Lieder thematically linked by the themes of an uprooted and restless sort of wandering and of searching often to no avail for a loved one all in an unquiet escape from loneliness.

Thus Beethoven with his Adelaide and An die ferne Geliebte and Schubert with Der Wanderer – both the lyrical Myrhofer setting and the intensely dramatic and better known Schlegel one are included, along with three somber Mahler songs: Revelge, Urlicht, and Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz.

Newby opens and ends his recital with a brace of songs by Benjamin Britten:  I wonder as I wander, There’s none to soothe, At the mid hour of night, The Last Rose of Summer, and  Sail on, sail on. Whether in the English or German languages, whether in the intimately Romantic Beethoven and Schubert or in the more operatic Mahler songs, James Newby displays full command of the musical and vocal challenges. He is capable of spinning a seamlessly long cantilena in The Last Rose of Summer and equally adept at a kind of jagged, semi-spoken delivery in certain moments of the Mahler Lieder. Throughout his vocal emission is even at full volume from several top F’s and G’s in Revelge to a full-voiced low E at the end of Der Wanderer.

This is, in short, an immensely promising young talent to be on the lookout for.

Pianist Joseph Middleton collaborates with James Newby throughout the more than a dozen selections in this CD with utmost attention to the pianistic and musical challenges presented by the music, achieving great results, most notably in the Mahler selections meant  originally created to be performed with orchestra.

Rafael de Acha

Wedding music from 1568

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One of the intriguing offerings from NAXOS CLASSICS at the start of 2021 is a collection of Renaissance vocal music by one of the most famous composers in 16th century Europe: the Flemish genius Orlande de Lassus, aka Orlando di Lasso.

The CD bears the title Lassus: Le Nozze in Baviera (8579063) and the “nozze” – Italian for wedding – to which the tile refers is the 1568 three-week nuptial bash celebrating the union of Renate of Lorraine and Wilhelm V of Bavaria, for which it is assumed that Orlando contributed a number of celebratory compositions.

Ensemble Origo, a superb early music ensemble brainchild of conductor Eric Rice authentically sings a number of compositions by Orlando that range from the pious to the downright naughty. Thus Te Deum laudamus  the lovely Motet that opens the CD is followed by Gratia sola Dei, a sacred song giving thanks to God, taken from the Cantiones aliquot (songs for several voices).

Then there follows a succession of madrigals, villanelle, and other Renaissance musical forms that utilize a mix of sacred and secular texts in several languages and dialects all idiomatically set by the multi-lingual Orlando and perfectly pronounced and exquisitely sung by the vocalists in the Ensemble Origo

Performing in both vocal and vocal-instrumental settings for 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8 voices and blending the voices with the instrumental ensemble the Ensemble Origo stylishly brings to life the music of Orlando di Lasso, a multi-national 16th-17th century master of polyphony and counterpoint.

Rafael de Acha

Vocal and instrumental music by Korngold, Lehár, Fried, and Schoenberg

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CHANDOS has just released a CD (CHSA 5243) of rare vocal and instrumental music by early 20th century composers.

Korngold’s Four Songs of Farewell use texts by Christina Rossetti, Edith Ronsperger, and Ernst Lothar. Through the use of a late Romantic, somewhat dissonant idiom the cycle deals with love-lost, longing, regret and involuntary separation between loved ones. At all times text and music work together to express fatalism, sadness, and helplessness before the forces of fate, life, or even war, as is the case with Gefasster Abschied, the fourth song in the cycle.

Franz Lehár wrote the song Fieber in 1915 as the closing one of his cycle Aus eiserner Zeit (From an iron time), giving the cycle an orchestral setting. The listener should be prepared to encounter a Lehár that inhabits a musically and textually desolate landscape far removed from the carefree worlds of the Land of Smiles and The Merry Widow.

Depicting the dying hours of a soldier in hospital the song is more of an operatic scene than a Lied, with the expected vocal and dramatic challenges that go along with the genre. Stuart Skelton once more avails himself of his keen dramatic instincts and his flawless vocalism as he brings to vivid life the turmoil and imaginings of a man in physical and mental pain.

Stuart Skelton and the fine mezzo-soprano Christine Rice join voices in Oscar Fried’s setting of Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Even though it provides both singers with fine material with which to work Fried’s version setting of the Richard Dehmel text pales by comparison to the all-instrumental Schoenberg version, here given a perfect reading by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

What makes this collection of early 20th century music so special is the inclusion of Korngold’s Four Songs of Farewell, the stand alone song Fieber, and the clarion-voiced Stuart Skelton gloriously singing perfectly-inflected and beautifully expressed German lyric poetry.

Rafael de Acha

Heartbreak, tenderness, denial, and an ultimate acceptance of the inevitable

Luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, founded the Violins of Hope project with the intention of bringing back to life violins that had been owned and played by Jewish musicians before the Holocaust. By allowing these invaluable instruments to be played today Amnon and Weinstein shed light on Jewish music history.

The Quartettsatz c-Moll (Quartet Movement in C minor) was composed by Franz Schubert in December 1820 as the first movement of a string quartet he did not complete. It occupies a segment of the superb PENTATONE MUSIC CD (PTC5186879 – UPC: 827949087967) which features Daniel Hope, Sean Mori, Kay Stern, Dawn Harms, Patricia Heller and Emile Miland  variously playing with a perfect mix of commitment, passion, mature musicality and elegant nobility the Quartettsatz, Jake Heggie’s song cycle Intonations, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as the peerless soloist, and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor.

Composed in 1847 and completed before he died two months later on November 4, 1847, Mendelssohn dedicated his last string quartet as a Requiem to the memory of Fanny Mendelssohn, his beloved sister, who had died just months before him.

All three of the works featured in this recording are uniformly dark-hued, soberly melodic, and often voiced in minor tonalities. All of the four movements that make up the Mendelsson quartet – three disquieting Allegros, one elegiac Adagio – are all imbued with a tragic tone.

Intonations: Songs of the Violins of Hope, a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and string instruments by Jake Heggie uses texts by Gene Scheer inspired by the stories of the Jewish musicians who played their violins in the concentration camps during one of mankind’s most terrible times.

Both the Schubert and the Mendelssohn works express impatience with the inexplicable aspect of mortality, while Heggie’s mature work uses Gene Scheer’s text to at certain moments lament, at others question the very meaning of life and death. Divided into seven segments, three of which feature the plangent voice of mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke Intonations: Songs of the Violins of Hope achieves the very essence of song as art in Feivel simultaneously conveying heartbreak, tenderness, denial, and an ultimate acceptance of the inevitable.

Rafael de Acha

Tangorama: a wonderful aural trip to the southernmost South American nation

Leave it to Paula Mlyn’s A440 Arts (www.a440asrts.com) to share the good word about interesting new CD’s. At the top of 2021 Naxos on its Grand Piano label has released Tangorama  [GP 856], the first of an upcoming series of tango albums lovingly selected and superbly played by the terrific Argentine-American pianist Mirian Conti.

This first in the series features over two dozen gems that trace the development of the Argentine tango from its humble origins rooted in Afro-Argentine and Cuban-influenced dance forms birthed in the bars an dives on the shores of the River Plate to the sophisticated compositions of mid-20th century composer-performers that inflected the form with European harmonies and counterpoint while retaining the syncopated underpinning of the original dance form.

In compositions such as the iconic La Cumparsita of Matos Gerardo Rodriguez and El Choclo of Angel Villoldo both of which have the ONE-two-three-four rhythmic DNA of all Tango to the fast-paced, cut-time, mid-century tango-milongas Milonga de mis Amores by Pedro Laurenz, Mi Regalo by Orlando Goñi, and Alfredo Aieta’s Corralera to the laid-back melancholy of Roberto Pansera’s Naturaleza Muerta, Enrique Francini’s Tema Otoñal and Julian Plaza’s Melancólico, Mirian Conti turns her piano into a Banda Porteña that takes the listener on a wonderful aural trip to the southernmost South American nation.

Rafael de Acha

Brazilian pianist Clelia Iruzun talks about artistic survival during Covid19

I had a very nice schedule of performances for 2020 and suddenly all the dates started to disappear from my diary one after the other.

From March onwards I had no concerts. My last live concert was a recital on the 7th March in New York on the day that the Mayor declared a state of emergency there. They decided to go ahead with the concert but everything was very strange and quite a lot of the public decided not to go, so I had half a house. Anyway it was brave of the ones who came as the atmosphere of fear was already strong in the city.

I felt upset and disappointed to see all my plans for the year end in a moment but I knew I was only one of the thousands of artists who were in the same situation.

Since March when I realised I was not going to have performances I decided to start making home videos. I started with some Brazilian composers, introducing the pieces. I also recorded some Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti and so on. I took part in an online festival in July called Encontro Internacional de Pianistas de Piracicaba which had the participation of several pianists from the USA, Brazil, Colombia, Israel, and other countries.

It was very interesting to teach students in different parts of the world by Zoom and listen to lectures and recitals without leaving my home in London. I recorded a recital for the Pianissimo festival in Colombia.

I also have a charity called Poliphonia (www.poliphonia.co.uk) with some colleagues and all our events had to be cancelled. Our aim is to encourage more musicians, especially the next generation of artists to play more music from the Americas. I was especially sorry for the Young Artists series which we were so enthusiastic about, but we will restart as soon as possible to hold live concerts. 

We managed to do one live streaming in September in which I took part with a singer and a flutist and to make a documentary called “Nazareth among friends” which are both on You Tube. I also released two new CDs at SOMM Recordings which I had recorded in 2019. The first with the Quintets by Henrique Oswald and Amy Beach which I recorded with the Coull Quartet and the second with the Concertos by Henrique Oswald and Saint-Saens and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Jac van Steen.

Apart from these activities I used the time to revisit some of my old repertoire and to learn new music.

I think this whole experience of surviving as an artist during the pandemic has brought many new ideas to all of us The concept of live streaming a performance may continue even when we are able to fill a hall with people, as it gives us the opportunity to bring music to many more people in different countries. It has made music accessible to new audiences who might not have considered listening to a classical concert before all this.

The sheer amount of live streaming and popularity of concerts online which exploded during this time has shown how much we all need a form of “Art” to fill the gaps of our existence.

Classical music played with bare feet and calluses on your hands

In spite of its lively rhythms Brazilian Choro (show-roo) or Chorinho (show-ree-nyo) means “cry” or “little cry” in Portuguese. A popular instrumental music from Brazil, it is usually played by the typically Brazilian stringed cavaquinho and the tambourine-like pandeiro along with melody instruments.

Heitor Villa-Lobos defined Choro as “the true incarnation of Brazilian soul.” Inspired by Choro, Darius Milhaud composed his ballet Le Boeuf sur le toit after serving as cultural attaché to the French Embassy in Brazil,

A popular Brazilian singer was heard to say ”Choro is classical music played with bare feet and calluses on your hands”

Four European Orchestras at home

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (https://philharmonia.co.uk) has a marvelous sound. They welcome donations if you wish to give and are able to help. On You Tube one can catch several of their pre-Covid concerts: one featuring excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung led by Sir Andrew Davis is especially good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bjSyn5RukY

The Czech Philharmonic (https://www.ceskafilharmonie.cz), just like so many orchestras worldwide has had to put its Season 2020-2021 on hold. Meanwhile one can catch it on You Tube in this superb rendering of Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique” with Simon Bychkov in the podium: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUMpLhLTn_4

The Philharmonia Orchestra (https://philharmonia.co.uk) is a British orchestra based in London. Among the conductors who have led it were Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini an Herbert von Karajan. Here they are with Nicola Benedetti playing Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, with Paavo Järvi at the helm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTAnEqH_FeA&t=2700s

Already highlighted in a previous post, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – the National Orchestra of Sweden –  www.gso.se/en/gsoplay broadcasts each year  the best among 100 concerts held in the Gothenburg Concert Hall. The orchestra broadcasts them on demand in full HD. Listen here (https://www.gso.se/en/gsoplay/video/piano-concerto-in-g-major) as they accompany pianist Alice Sara Ott in  Ravel’s piano concerto in G, led by principal conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali.