Monday, December 28, 2009

Greatest Moments of Singing VI

I couldn't resist but share another supreme example of Caruso in a Verdi ensemble. Here is "Solenne in quest'ora" from La forza del destino. It was recorded in 1906 -- the year some say was Caruso's prime:

The baritone was Antonio Scotti -- Caruso's friend, colleague, and compatriot (Scotti was also Neapolitan). It is said that Scotti was an invaluable advisor to Caruso in many matters of savoir faire. (Caruso, after all, came from peasant stock.)

Greatest Moments of Singing V

Caruso at his utterly glorious best: the famous trio from Verdi's I Lombardi with Frances Alda and Marcel Journet.

I love hearing Caruso in ensembles. What a great collaborative musician he was! Then, of course, that was that voice ...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Greatest Moments of Singing IV

Then you had a guy named Caruso ...

I've heard it said that 1906 was Caruso's "prime." Don't know if it's true, but here in any case is the 1906 recording of Tosti's beloved Ideale:

Greatest Moments of Singing III

Who sang Tosti like Gigli?

Greatest Moments of Singing II

Nicolai Gedda and Erik Werba rehearse for their 17 August 1961 recital at the Mozarteum, in Salzburg. Bask in this stunning version of Richard Strauss's Heimliche Aufforderung:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hope for the Catholic Church

Seems hard to believe that the following is this blog’s fiftieth post.

Recently I had the pleasure of working with a Roman Catholic priest who is, in my opinion, one of the finest liturgists in the Archdiocese. The church was filled with young people, teenagers, and young adults. What? Young people, attending a liturgy that adheres to the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM)? You mean the incense didn't scare them away? The good music didn't scare them away? The sacred silences didn't put them to sleep? You mean you can have a good liturgy, a liturgy that actually resembles a religious service, and young people will still come?

Perhaps the above is hard for some priests to believe. All the harder it will be for them to believe that this parish in question is growing and expanding.

As a child I walked into church and smelled incense. How nice to smell it again at this young, vibrant parish. At a different parish which I have served, I would walk in and smell coffee brewing (yes, in the actual sanctuary). Sacred silences were kept to a minimum, to avoid the "lulls" or "lack of momentum" that the pastor feared. The Post-Communion appeals for money were well thought out, the homilies not always. The music was carefully monitored so as not to be "too good." In short, the clergy made every effort to prevent the liturgy from being "too churchy," circumventing the GIRM at every turn, so as not to "scare away" the youth and young adults. The youth and young adults at this very same parish often voiced their preference for the very things these clerics were trying to avoid: the organ, the plainchant, the silences, the incense, the mystical aspect of the Holy Mass, even the Rosary. The youth weren't afraid of tradition; the clergy was.

Many of my colleagues are also noticing this trend. A chaplain at an important college told me in an e-mail (I quote), "The music you play is growing in popularity among the devout." The Director of Music at an important seminary told me (again, via e-mail),

Another stupid argument people make is that you have to use pop-sounding music to attract "the youth" and others who might have fallen away. This just isn't true; even if attracted temporarily by such stuff, those people usually don't stay for very long. There is a book by Marva Dawn (a Lutheran musician) called Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down. She describes a survey done of people who came back to church after being away for a long while, and the number one reason they returned was "at the invitation of a trusted friend," and not because of the pop music.

That is an interesting point that even the more fiscally minded pastors often miss. You're running a capital campaign. You're asking your parishioners for $500,000. Who's going to shell out that dough, the teenager who shows up once or twice to hear the new electric guitar band and then leaves, or the older parishioner whose family has been attending the church for 75 or 100 years? Why, then, would a pastor alienate these pillars of the church and then expect the parish to "grow"?

How nice, however, it was for me to experience these recent liturgies, carried out beautifully in every way. I felt that the most important thing to that pastor was the liturgy. Not the capital campaign, not the new school, not some poor attempt at liberation theology – the liturgy. Maybe a great liturgy in itself doesn't bring in the crowds. Maybe a bad liturgy in itself doesn't keep the crowds away. (Said coffee-brewing church is not empty, no matter how slipshod the liturgy.) However, I now know, more clearly than ever, that a beautiful Mass does not keep the youth away. Chances are, they will like it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

History's Greatest Pianists IV

The greatest two-piano recording ever made: Harold Bauer & Ossip Gabrilowitsch play Arensky (1929).

History's Greatest Pianists III

Paderewski: another pianist whose Romanticism and occasional wrong notes disqualified him from the respect of late 20th-century critics. If this isn't music-making of a great master, tell me what is.

History's Greatest Pianists I

When Liszt first heard Vladimir de Pachmann play, he said to the audience, "Those who have never heard Chopin before are hearing him this evening." Enough could never be said about this man's Chopin playing (see the fabulously informative website, ).

And yet, critics of the second half of the 20th century dismissed him completely. Harold C. Schonberg just did not take him seriously. After all, he occasionally missed some notes! How could he?!

Here is a link to actual footage of this legend. The music you hear in the background is actually a 1925 piano roll of Pachmann's playing -- it isn't even a recording. And yet the piano roll has more nuance than the actual recordings of today's pianists.

By contrast, an actual recording (not a roll) of Pachmann playing the same piece two years previous can be heard here:

History's Greatest Pianists II

Like Pachmann, Cortot was dismissed for much of the 20th century because he missed a couple of notes. The fact that he was one of the greatest musicians ever to touch a keyboard didn't seem to matter. My piano teacher whom I won't name but whose initials were Wha-Kyung Byun told me in a lesson, "In Korea, I listened to Cortot recordings, because that's all there was."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Greatest Moments of Singing I

"May I have your ear?" from The Bartered Bride (Smetana). Nicolai Gedda & Giorgio Tozzi (1959)

Friday, December 18, 2009

The much-more interesting world of opera

Today, I posted the following on a popular organist listserv. I'm guessing the organist-types won't care so much for it. I thought you would enjoy it more!

My good friend Andrew Farkas sent me this today:

It is entirely more interesting than anything going on in our little organist world. True, the musical and vocal level of singing has never been lower. But at least there's something INTERESTING to read about. Bigger-than-life personalities, like the Greek gods throwing lightning bolts at each other.

These folks aren't circus attractions who get 15 minutes of fame from their little trick. ("I can play 'Granada' with my ear lobes!") They do more than inspire curiosity. These are personages who dominate a stage, and what's more, they have a relationship with their audience. Their audience sees through the performer who says, "I want your attention and will stoop to absolutely anything to get it." These operatic titans are simply living their operatic lives, and they get attention because they are INTERESTING -- interesting people who are really living life -- not always cleanly, but living it they are.

Biggs and Fox were interesting. Menuhin was interesting, and he happened to be a prodigy. But just being a prodigy doesn't automatically make you interesting. (And what happens when you grow up? An old prodigy becomes like a retired baseball player, increasingly grateful for the people who still remember him. And if they're really unlucky, they live long enough that no one remembers them except some bespectacled librarian. "Oh, yes, I remember you! You pitched for the Manhattan Island Red Stockings in 1742.") Liberace was interesting, and he happened to wear sequins. But putting on sequins doesn't automatically make you interesting. There has to be something more.

Biggs and Fox had something more. Horowitz and Rubinstein had something more. And these operatic numina? Well, they don't sing so good, some of them. But boy, do they have that something more! I was on the edge of my seat reading about the Sicilian tenor and the Romanian soprano. And I immediately became sad that in my inbox today, there was nothing about organs that put me on the edge of my seat. In fact, it's not just today.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Organists as Musicians, Part II

Though it may seem like an artistic step backward, this notion of mass-producing pipe organs, I think the outcome would be the opposite.

In the 19th century, builders as diverse as E. & G. G. Hook and Cavaillé-Coll had catalogs that advertised "stock models." Model 1, Small Organ, X amount of stops, Y dollars. Model 2, Medium-Sized Organ, and so forth. And yet the quality was not lower than the organs of today but higher.

Why? There are many reasons, too numerous and complex to list here. However, a very significant reason is that they had the opportunity to build and rebuild and re-rebuild the same instrument. What if piano builders had to build a brand-new design for every single piano?! Think of how flawed these experimental pianos would be! Yet this is what pipe organ builders routinely do ... reinventing the wheel each time ... requiring formidable cost on the part of the consumer ... and the results are frankly variable.

If, instead, there were a stock-model organ, developed with the same type of trial and error that a Mason & Hamlin was developed, think of the instrument that would result! Movable organs, not tied to any church or building! Predictable tone colors that composers would know how to approach! Soon enough, there would be organ chamber ensembles, and composers providing repertoire for them! And did I mention that they would not be tied to the church?

If the highest quality tracker-action pipe organ costs $30,000-$40,000 per stop, it is inevitable that companies producing pipeless organs should be able to sway the public with instruments at a fraction of the cost. As the technology increases and these instruments sound "almost like pipe organs," the pipe organ companies are going to be in real doo-doo. As soon as someone figures out how to combine the Hauptwerk® set-up with those Bose® two-tower speakers, I doubt any church will buy a pipe organ. Why should they?

If, however, some pipe organ builder heeds my advice and starts building a 10-stop portable stock model organ, at a cost of say $100,000, and if fine composers started composing repertoire for it, I think this and only this would give the non-pipe companies a run for their money. If a concert hall can spend $100,000 on a 9-foot Steinway, they can just as easily do the same for this new type of pipe organ. It won't help for Saint-Saëns or Mahler, but it would be ideal for Bach, Handel, Haydn ... and all the wonderful chamber music and concertos yet to be written!

Organists as Musicians

A fascinating thread -- that is, a so-so thread that evoked a fascinating answer -- has appeared on a popular pipe organ listserv.

The poster was seeking ideas on "organ recitals with a twist." Another poster replied in part:

Organ with other solo instruments, besides brass, opens up a whole different range of repertoire, especially for 19th-21st century pieces. What you get may not be the big, splashy, all-stops-out organ fireworks, but you will get real chamber music with organ, which can draw interest from music lovers who might not otherwise attend an organ concert.

Or organ concertos with smaller, or unusual ensembles. Lots of those around from the 18th century on.

Whatever the antonym of a "can of worms" would be ("can of ... gold?"), that is what was opened up in that response.

Pianists, violinists, cellists, they all have the opportunity to make music with OTHER MUSICIANS! Fancy that: to actually leave one's practice room and make music with ANOTHER PERSON! It's not the fault of us organists: we simply don't have the chamber music repertoire that pianists, string players, woodwind players, etc. have.

This is something I thought a lot about during my teens, but I never knew how to overcome the problem of writing a work -- say, an "organ quartet" (organ, vln, vla, vc) -- that could be played on "most organs" and in "most situations."

That is: what good is writing such a piece if it would work only on 10% of organs or in 10% of choir lofts?

Many parish organists will read what I wrote about "making music with other musicians" and take great umbrage. They will hastily point out that they work regularly with their volunteer choir (heavy on the word "volunteer") or with their parishioner who happens to play the oboe (heavy on the word "parishioner"). Don't misunderstand what I'm saying: working with musicians within a parish is a great Christian opportunity, great cultural opportunity, and great community opportunity. Unfortunately, it is not always a great musical opportunity. I'm not talking about spiritual nourishment -- I have always loved working in the church. But for musical nourishment, we need to work with other musicians.

And so, I do not believe that organists will ever be as respected as other musicians unless we find a way to make chamber music viable.

So, how do we achieve that, and with what type of instruments?

Organs without pipes are not conducive to chamber music. Large, electro-pneumatic instruments (which I often enjoy) are not conducive to chamber music. Yet their movable consoles solve the basic problem of how to position the players. Therefore, the only way, in my opinion, to promote chamber music with organs is to have tracker instruments built in a way that four or five musicians can position themselves near the console and still project their sound to the audience.

However, because that would involve cooperation between organbuilders and architects -- which will never happen -- the only solution that I can see for promoting organ chamber music is the construction of small, two-manual-and-pedal pipe organs that are made to be portable.

An organbuilder should build a stock model, with Bourdons 16 & 8 in the pedal, Great Flute 8-String 8-Principal 4-Flute 2, Swell (under expression) Flute 8-Flute 4-Nazard-Principal 2-Tierce-Reed 8. The specs can be tweaked, but this instrument should be designed and mass-produced.

Yes, it would be an artistic compromise, just like the ubiquitous Steinway is an artistic compromise. But how nice to be able to compose a Piano Quintet and know, more or less, what the piano will sound like. How am I to compose an Organ Quintet if 90% of the consumers will not be able to adapt it to their instrument?