Happy Centenary, Rite of Spring!

Today is the centenary of the shocking premier of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Though I vaguely knew how famous the piece is, I hadn’t listened to it until last night. In addition to watching the impressive visualization of the piece (Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Part 1: The Adoration of the Earth  and Part 2: The Exalted Sacrifice ), I took in the Keeping Score documentary on the work, narrated with great passion by San Francisco Symphony director Michael Tilson Thomas (the ever charismatic MTT).  I look forward to listening to more versions of The Rite of Spring and reading more about the history of the piece.

Feelings on tap?

I just started reading Listen to This, a collection of edited essays by New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross.  As I sit down to write a presentation for next week, with all of Bach’s music on shuffle, one quote from Ross’ introduction pricks my conscience:  “For even as we worship our musical idols we also force them to produce particular emotions on cue.”  Guilty as charged?

Brahms and rap on today’s music menu

It’s time to learn German, just like it was time to do so twenty years ago, when I first wanted to feel for myself what the Bach cantatas must have have meant for Bach’s congregation.  Yesterday, it was a fun little Brahms song  Die Schwestern (“The Sisters”) ( Op 61 (Four Duets for soprano and alto with piano accompaniment) No 1.) that said to me, “you must learn German now.”  Listen and watch a version of the song by world famous singers Angelika Kirschlager and Barbara Bonney, as well as a homemade video of the Deuterettes singing at a piano keyboard.

On another musical note: this afternoon, I learned that a local rapper filmed a video at the barber shop where I get my hair cut, bringing the barber a bit of fame (and hopefully more fortune).   The video of Mac Miller is full of local Pittsburgh imagery, which is a lot of fun to someone living in Pgh.

NPR Music Takes Me Beyond Bach

The heart and soul of my musical life is the work of J. S. Bach. By no means, however, is Bach’s music is the only music I care about!  Bach absorbed so much music before and around him — and in turn, transformed music fundamentally for everyone who came after him.  I desire to partake in the world of music with the same omnivorous spirit as Bach had.

I’m working hard at broadening my musical understanding.  I’ve been exploring many different sources and hope to write about those sources.  (I’m reflecting on my sources not only to further my musical education but also to help me develop software to aid people to learn about music (among other things).)

Let me start with NPR Music, which strikes me , as a relatively new fan, as a vast source of musical news and knowledge.  Naturally, I’ve been consulting the classical music section to help me look more deeply into J. S. Bach but also to look beyond.  You would think that I would have already dug up all the good Bach treasures in the NPR archives, but I just found  such oldies but goodies as  “Variations on Bach, for a New Century” (from 2004).  There’s a fantastic archive of musical artists to explore. I’m slowly warming up to deceptive cadence, the new classical music blog.

I praise the intimate, informal, and energetic videos of the Tiny Desk Concerts for sparking an interest in music for which I had no previous exposure. Part of me thinks I should check out the entire archive of concerts, including upcoming live concerts. However, if I’m not careful, I can easily get overwhelmed with too many concerts to listen to.   Tiny Desk Concerts introduces new material at a good rate, not so much that I get overwhelmed; The videos are enticing enough for me to watch virtually everyone of them.

Abigail Washburn on NPR

NPR must love Abigail Washburn, who has been featured quite a bit lately.  I don’t mind.   I’ve gotten into learning about Washburn ever since I saw her Tiny Desk Concert and listened to her new album City of Refuge. Yesterday, she was interviewed on All Things Considered.  Fascinated by her connections to China (she was going to practice law there until she got a recording contract!), I particularly enjoy her rendition (YouTube) of Kangding Qingge.   BTW, Washburn is married to the legendary banjoist Béla Fleck, whom  I only recently came upon because of his appearance in Bach and Friends.

Learning about Opera By Books and Bits

Last week I picked up a book from the Squirrel Hill branch of the Pittsburgh Public Library — Sir Denis Forman’s A Night at the Opera. I had been looking for exactly this type of book because I’ve long wanted to immerse myself in the study of opera — both Western and Chinese. Forman’s book is primarily composed of chapters devoted to individual operas. Chapters have plot summaries, musical highlights, and overall critical appreciations/evaluations of specific operas.

I’ve long wanted to broaden my knowledge of opera. It’s certainly not a bad thing for me to reacquaint myself with the operas I’ve already listened to dozens of times. (Some great opera are boundlessly rich.) Operas with which I already have some level of familiarity include:

  • Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, Magic Flute, and Così fan tutte
  • Puccini’s La bohème
  • bits and pieces from Wagner’s Ring Cycle (primarily Das Rheingold, the first of four operas in the cycle)
  • Olivier Messiaen‘s Saint François d’Assise.

But I want to grow beyond listening over and over again to the same operas. There must be many new friends to be found — Forman’s book lists a good set to try out. But which ones to start with? It might be a caricature to say that the big three composers and Western opera are Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi. I’ve long wanted to learn more about Giuseppe Verdi. so I would pick one of his operas but which one?

When I saw that Verdi’s La Traviata is being performed in San Francisco next year, I decided to start with that opera. The opportunity to see a live performance of an opera under study is too much to pass p on.. So La Traviata it would be to start. (Moreover, Forman gives a rave review for La Traviata — ( grading it as an “alpha plus”) — so this opera seems to be as good a place to start as any other Verdi opera. It turns that La Traviata is been extremely popular opera in general (it’s #3 on a list of the 20 most performed operas in North America). Moreover, the Met is also performing it this season.

Rhapsody for online listening

As much as I would love to spend my time (and money) attending live opera, most of my exposure to opera will be through recordings. I was a big fan and subscriber of Yahoo! Music Unlimited when it was still in operation. I am even happier with Rhapsody (which took over my subscription), primarily because it gives me access to a substantial online classical music collection. (Classical music was not represented at all in Yahoo! Music.)

(By the way, there is also an API for Rhapsody. It be interesting to quickly brainstorm what I would use it for. (One idea comes to mind: writing a mashup that lets me quickly correlate albums that correspond to a given work — for example, something that shows me a list of all the recordings of La Bohème))

I’ve been listening to music primarily through Rhapsody’s desktop client (for Windows XP) although the web interface is intriguing for not only providing cross-platform access to my account but also the possibility of generating URLs to correspond to the given work or album or even track. (Unfortunately, the search results from the web interface cannot seem to be as good as those that come from the desktop interface. For instance, I had a hard time locating many recordings of Così fan tutte using the web interface. I wonder how well the API works for searching for albums.)

Wikipedia as a source of information about opera

The Wikipedia turns out to be an incredible source of basic taxonomic information about operas is in general. There is, of course, the article about the opera itself ( La traviata – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) as well as the composer (Giuseppe Verdi – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). There are all sorts of efforts to list and categorize operas and their composers:

In addition, there’s an effort to identify important operas and major composers. There are categories lists which are computed:

Summoning the spirit of Glenn Gould

My friend Dan referred me to Ghostly Grand Piano: Technical Marvel Plays Like an Old Pro – washingtonpost.com, which in turn led me to Zenph Studios – Glenn Gould’s – Bach Goldberg Variations – Connections Column – New York Times:

    Zenph also announced it had accomplished this feat
    of technological legerdemain with one of the most remarkable recordings
    of the last century: Glenn Gould’s 1955 mono rendition of Bach’s
    “Goldberg” Variations. Gould, who retreated from performance into the
    private realm of the recording studio where he could splice and fiddle
    with sound and phrase, would be posthumously pulled back into the realm
    of public performance.

I’m almost ready to plunk down the money to hear the recreation of Gould’s famous Bach recording. (See *BACH:
The Goldberg Variations – Glenn Gould’s 1955 performance re-created in
modern hi-res surround sound and hi-res binaural sound by Zenph – Sony
for the album cover.) Where can I buy it?