Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Sharon Isbin

As I write this, I am listening to Sharon Isbin plays Baroque Favorites for Guitar, the latest CD from classical guitarist Sharon Isbin.

Isbin seems to specialize in music which was not originally written for the guitar (although her repertoire does include many of standard classical works on many of her recordings). On this CD, she performs two pieces by Antonio Vivaldi, four by J.S. Bach, and one by Tommaso Alibinoni. The concerto pieces accompaniment by the Zurcher Kammerorchester under the direction of Howard Griffiths.

The opening piece is Vivaldi's Concerto in D major, R. 93. This is a work which is easily recognized, particularly the second movement, the Largo. Isbin is a master of the classical guitar (she is the director of the guitar department at the Julliard School), and her performance of Vivaldi is soulful and exciting. There's not a lot of ornamentation in the original music, but Isbin adds her own embellishments.

According to the liner notes, Vivaldi's A major concerto was originally composed as a trio sonata for violin, lute, and continuo, with the lute and violin parts nearly identical. Isbin uses arrangements for the work (and the D major piece) by Emilio Pujol, which add a viola, and makes the guitar part more prominent.

The works by Bach include a transcription of his Concerto in A minor BWV 1041, and Adagio from a keyboard concerto, a prelude, and the well-known Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.

According to her web site (which includes a lengthy list of groups with which she has performed) Isbin began playing guitar at the age of nine. It also says she is a bit of an outdoor enthusiast, backpacking and cross-country skiing. Her recordings have won Grammy Awards in classical music. She studied with the legendary Andres Segovia, and is one of the premier guitarists in the world. This article tells a bit of the story of how she was trained and how she got started.

Classical guitar can be a mood setting kind of music, in both solo works and as part of an ensemble. A person wanting to become acquainted with this aspect of classical music would do well to start with one of over twenty of Isbin's recordings.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Bix Beiderbecke

Bix Beiderbecke
Originally uploaded by mwthomas87.
Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke was one of the first great jazz musicians. His influence can still be felt to this day despite his early death due to alcoholism.
During his brief but brilliant career (he died at the age of 28) Bix crossed paths with an amazing cast of musicians from the golden age of jazz. As I mentioned previously Bix was friends with Bing Crosby when they both played for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the late 1920s. Other musical acquaintances included his good friend the alto saxophonist Frankie "Tram" Trumbauer, guitarist Eddie Lang (who would also die at a very young age), violinist Joe Venuti, trombonist Jack Teagarden, future band leaders Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, clarinetist Benny Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa.

You can read a couple of good, concise biographies of Bix here and here. There is a web site devoted to his memory here. His hometown of Davenport, Iowa also sponsors an annual festival in his honor.

You can listen to song samples from this two volume collection Vol. 1: Singin' the Blues and Vol. 2: At the Jazz Band Ball.

But my personal favorite is Bix 'N' Bing, a collection of recordings on which both he and Bing Crosby performed.

When I first began listening to Bix's music I could tell that it was different from the other great coronet players like Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis. But I was hard pressed to describe what about it was different. Here is how the biography at the Ken Burns web site tells it:

From relatively undistinguished influences, Beiderbecke developed a beautiful and original style. His distinctive, bell like tone (his friend Hoagy Carmichael described it as resembling a chime struck by a mallet) achieved additional intensity through his unorthodox fingering, which often led him to play certain notes as higher partials in lower overtone series, imparting a slightly different timbre and intonation to successive pitches. With his basically unchanging tone as a foil, Beiderbecke relied for expressiveness on pitch choice, pacing, and rhythmic placement (as opposed to Louis Armstrong, who systematically used variety of timbre).

Even more interesting, I thought, was this description on the Riverwalk Jazz site that talks about how Bix's music was influenced by some of the great classical composers of the time including Debussy, Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov:

...The music Bix left behind consists of his brilliant recorded work on cornet with the bands mentioned above, plus his solo piano compositions In A Mist, In The Dark, Candle Light, and Flashes, known collectively as the Modern Suite. In Bix's work, one clearly hears the influence of Impressionist composers Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and others as well as the great jazz masters. It is acknowledged that Bix had a wide musical influence on his contemporaries and beyond, especially on the young Hoagy Carmichael, whose composition Skylark originally bore the title Bix Licks.

Don Ingle says, "Bix was not only influenced by the Impressionists, but also by the post Romantics, including the transitional American McDowell, American impressionist Eastwood Lane, and to some extent by Russians like Rimsky-Korsakov. Dad [Red Ingle] recalled Bix playing Sheherezade on an old windup player while they were killing daytime before the gig at Castle Farms near Cincinnati in 1927. Bix was especially interested in how the orchestration made use of various combinations of instruments to achieve color. That, dad told me, suggested that his interest was shifting to the manner in which the music evolved, not just the playing of it."

Monday, September 20, 2004

Vivaldi Double Concerti

This morning I listened to a CD of Antonio Vivaldi's Six Double Concertos for Flute, Violin, Strings, and Harpsichord. This is a recording featuring Jean-Pierre Rampal on flute (a world reknown flautist), Isaac Stern on violin (a world reknown violinist), and the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra led by Janos Rolla.

The six concerti on this recording were originally written for two violins, but Stern and Rampal arranged them to include a flute. Where the music occasionally went outside the range of the flute, Stern and Rampal exchanged parts. It wasn't obvious to me where this was done, but that's part of the fun of playing and hearing Baroque music.

These are relatively short pieces; each three-part concerto ranges in time from eight to twelve minutes. All the concerti follow the familiar allegro-andante/largo-allegro (fast-slow-fast) tempo scheme. They are excellent examples of the Baroque musical style.

While Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a popular composer in his day, his music lay dormant for two hundred years before it was rediscovered and revived in the 1940's. Today Vivaldi's most familiar pieces are his Four Seasons concerti, which have been featured in film and television. But Vivaldi was a productive composer, writing mostly concerti of various types.

For thirty-five years Vivaldi worked in a school for orphaned girls. Many of his works were written to be performed in the school's Sunday afternoon public concerts. As many of these works are technical, the school orchestra must have been fairly talented. After awhile, the Viennese wealthy began sending their daughters to the school for musical training, though it was intended to be a school for the poor and orphaned.

It's pleasant to imagine a sunny Sunday afternoon with an all-girl orchestra, with two leading violinists out front, playing these concerti for any and all who would come to listen.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Mozart's Early Symphonies

Recently I was listening to a tape on the "Mozart Effect". On the tape, Don Campbell plays the first movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 1 in E Flat Major, K. 16.

This got me interested in Mozart's early work. His Symphony No. 1 was written when he was only eight years old in 1765. In all he wrote four symphonies that year. These are not staggeringly large compositions - the first symphony lasts around eight and a half minutes - but they show an amazing amount of talent for an eight year old. (His next symphony is only a little more than seven minutes long.) His first four are three movement pieces; after that he would compose four movement symphonies.

According to the biography Mozart by Marcia Davenport published in 1932 Mozart composed his first symphony when his musician father Leopold fell ill and silence was prescribed. Mozart used the quiet time to compose the work, with his sister by his side to "remind me that I give the horns plenty to do."

It's pretty hard to find recordings of his early symphonies. Usually you find them in collections of his complete symphonies, such as this one. At that link, however, you can hear parts of his early symphonies to get a taste of what they are like.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Heebie Jeebies

Louis Armstrong
Originally uploaded by mwthomas87.

Louis Armstrong's 1926 recording of Heebie Jeebies
was not the first song to introduce skat singing to the world, but it probably did more to popularize the vocal jazz form than anything before it.
What was originally intended to be a novelty song and the B-side behind Cornet Chop Suey turned out to be Armstrong's first hit, selling more than 40,000 copies within a few months.
The song starts out fairly simply with a strumming banjo and a piano establishing the basic rhythym before being joined by trombone, clarinet and Armstrong's coronet. It is a bright and peppy number, but what distinguishes it and makes it stand out is Armstrong's vocals in the middle of the song.
The Heebie Jeebie was a popular dance at the time and the lyrics which can be found here are not particularly remarkable except for Armstrong's enthusiastic delivery:

Say, I've got the heebies,
I mean the jeebies,
Talking about
The dance, the heebie jeebies,
Do, because they're boys,
Because it pleases me to be joy!
Say, don't you know it?
You don't know how, don't be blue,
Someone will teach you;
Come on, and do that dance,
They call the heebie jeebies dance,
Yes, ma'am,
Papa's got the heebie jeebies dance!

At this point, Armstrong suddenly takes off with a lengthy chorus of nonsense syllables that meld with the music:

Say, come on, now, and do that dance,
They call the heebie jeebies dance,
Sweet mama!
Papa's got to do the heebie jeebies dance!
Wooh! Got the heebie jeebies!
Whatcha doin' with the heebies?
I just have to have the heebies!

The legend that has evolved around this song is that Armstrong's skatting was not intentional and was prompted by his accidently knocking the sheet music to the floor in the middle of the recording. Because recordings were expensive, the producer did not want to stop and signaled for Louis to continue, which he did despite not knowing the words.
Of course, this isn't really what happened, but it is a fun story nonetheless and one that Armstrong is said to have encouraged after a while.

In the book that accompanies Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, Mezz Mezzrow, a Chicago-born clarinetist and contemporary of Bix Biederbecke, is quoted saying that for months after Heebie Jeebies was released you would hear people greeting each other all over Chicago with Louis' riffs and skatting to one another...

"Louis' skatting almost drove the English language out of the Windy City for good."

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Handel's Concerti Grossi Op. 6

Around the mid 1980's there was a series of TV commercials for investment firm E.F. Hutton. In these commercials, there would be two people in crowded surroundings talking about investments. At one point, one of the talkers would say, "Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton. And E.F. Hutton says..." at which point the speaker would look around and notice the crowd had stopped talking and were listening to what he was about to say. The kicker to the ad would be a voice that said, "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen."

About that same time, in one of those humor compilations in Reader's Digest, there was an anecdote in which a woman, fond of classical music, had a T-shirt made which said, "My Baroquer is G.F. Handel."

This week I've been listening to some of the concerti grossi of Handel's Op. 6. There are twelve of these in all, although the collections to which I've been listening has only numbers 1,2,6,7, and 10. (A recording for all of them can be found here.)

These works were composed all in a single month by Handel in the year 1739. The concerti include music and dances from all over Europe, including jigs and hornpipes.

Handel is probably best known for his Water Music, and his Music for the Royal Fireworks. There's a good website dedicated to him here, so I won't repeat what they have.

For those not in the know, the "Baroque" period in art is generally considered the time between 1600 and 1750. Art of this time is characterized by an attention to detail. Much of the music composed during this period uses polyphony, which is essentially multiple voices or instruments playing different tunes all at one time, the music written such that, rather than chaotic noise, the various melodies compliment each other. Example composers of this period include Handel, Vivaldi (known for The Four Seasons), and Bach (known for all kinds of stuff).

Handel's music has appeal to the intellect, as does much of Baroque music with its interplay of instruments and use of counterpoint. But there's whimsy to be found in his works, such as the Allegro movement of the No. 7 concerto, which reminds one of a chicken clucking. (You can hear a midi version of the music here.)
It's fun stuff, this Handel.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Evgeny Kissin

A few weeks ago I was in my doctor's office and she had a CD playing on her computer CD drive. I listened for a bit, and thought to myself, "That piece sounds familiar." On top of a stack of discs was the jewel case for the CD. It was Chopin's Piano Concerti 1 and 2. On the spine was the name Kissin.

As I listened, I thought to myself, "Pretty good. There's a lot of feeling in the piano playing." My doctor came in and said, "Oh, I'm sorry, does the music bother you?" "Not at all, I like this piece," I replied.

She said, "Would you believe the guy playing piano was only twelve years old when he recorded that?"


"Yeah! I thought you had to be pretty mature to play Chopin with so much feeling, but he was only twelve!"

And indeed he was. Evgeny Kissin was twelve when he recorded the two piano concerti on March 27, 1984, with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Dmitri Kitaenko.

Born in Moscow in 1971 (according to this site and many others), Kissin was the son of a piano playing mother and a father who was an engineer. He began playing piano at the age of two. At the age six he was sent off to a school for gifted youth, and history was made.

As I write this, the Chopin's Piano Concerto (No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11) is playing. It isn't just amazing that a twelve year old could put so much feeling into a piece, there's also a fantastic amount of skill and virtuosity on display in this recording. The concerto requires quite a bit of dexterity, and Kissin pulls it off with ease.

This week I got another recording of a Kissin performance, the Piano Concerto No. 3, in D minor, Op. 30, of Sergei Rachmaninoff. On this CD he plays with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Seiji Ozawa. Rachmaninoff was a fantastic piano player, and his own compositions were written to show off his talent. The third piano concerto is a highly technical piece, with alternative music for some of the more difficult passages. But Kissin plays the music as it was written, with its tremendous runs up and down the keyboard. Clearly, Kissin is a master of the piano, and shows it in this demanding piece.

The site listed above states that he also composes, though I have not seen any recordings of his own works. Apparently he plays a limited number of concerts. Hopefully there will be CD's of his compositions, they might prove to be historic.

(If you have realplayer, you can hear some of the Chopin here...scroll down.)