Friday, November 6, 2015

Canellakis & Brown: The Adventure Continues, Rachmaninoff Edition

Michael Brown & Nicholas Canellakis
If you're just tuning in to these posts about the Canellakis-Brown Duo's performance Saturday night at 8:00 at Market Square Church, I've also written about the first half of the program in this earlier post. Since I didn't want to turn that one into a marathon, I kept the Rachmaninoff Sonata that's on the second half of the program for... well, I guess last – second, anyway.

It's a good year for lovers of Russian music in Harrisburg – there was Rachmaninoff's rarely heard 1st Piano Sonata and Scriabin's Op. 11 Preludes with Peter Orth last month (read about that program of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff here), Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto in the opening concert of the season with the Harrisburg Symphony, continuing in January with Market Square Concerts' Artist Director and Harrisburg Symphony's Concertmaster, Peter Sirotin, playing the Glazunov Violin Concerto, with Stravinsky's Petrushka in February, Zuill Bailley returning in March for Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto, and to end the season in May, an all-Russian program with Shostakovich's 1st Symphony, Kabalevsky's suite “The Comedians,” and Ann Schein returning for Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto!

When I was teaching a course in “Russian and East European Art and Folk Music with a Historical and Cultural Perspective” (or “Russian Music” as it appeared in the curriculum) back in the late-1970s, a guest of the University of Connecticut's Slavic Center was one of the foremost anthropologists of the then Soviet Union and I asked her the question I most often get asked by Americans about Russian music: “Why is Russian music so sad?” thinking “finally, I can ask a real Russian this question!” I awaited the definitive answer like someone hoping for the latest news from the Kardashians.

She thought a while and said, “I don't really know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

Having spent three years of my life living in Rochester NY where locals say they have two seasons, Winter and the 4th of July, this, oddly enough, resonated with me.

Of course, if you figure how much time you have to spend indoors during a Russian winter between the cold and the snow and how you have to entertain yourself during that time, no wonder they write long gloomy novels and sad or wistful melodies, almost exclusively in dark minor keys with those tonal inflections that make it sound “uniquely Russian” with a soulfulness that examines what's left after the wind has stripped away everything else.

Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Hsin-Bei Lee, piano: Rachmaninoff Sonata in G Minor for Cello & Piano – Andante

The slow movement of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata is a case-in-point even if the very opening of the first movement may seem more like someone facing up to an impending winter. (Not that I want to point out that, despite summer-like temperatures at the beginning of November, winter, whatever it may bring, is lurking just around some not-too-distant corner...)

When we think of Rachmaninoff the composer, we see a man whose face looks like it was carved in granite (Stravinsky famously described him as a six-and-a-half-foot scowl). One of the little musical motives that keeps cropping up in so many of his pieces is the infamous Dies irae from the Latin Mass for the Dead, the “Day of Judgment.” He wrote a symphonic poem called “The Isle of the Dead.” I mean, this man must have been a laugh-riot to hang out with.

The one thing that saddens me even more is realizing that Nick Canellakis will never be able to film one of his conversations with Sergei Rachmaninoff.

But keep in mind that we're lucky to have this music at all, following the nuclear winter of his 1st Symphony's disastrous premiere when he had recently graduated from the conservatory. The dramatic failure of this work which he'd spent so much time and love on sent him into a period of depression – understandably, he was reluctant to compose anything – and then he went to see one of those new-fangled psychiatrists, Nikolai Dahl, who, through some imaginative and supportive therapy that reportedly included a bit of confidence-building hypnosis, managed to bring him out of these creative doldrums to compose his 2nd Piano Concerto which became one of those Greatest Hits. Its melodies even became the stuff of pop songs and the style would permeate the Hollywood Sound.

That symphony – originally inscribed with a biblical quote shared with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” – was composed in 1895 and premiered the following year (and never performed again in Rachmaninoff's lifetime).

The 2nd Piano Concerto was begun late in the summer of 1900 and completed the following spring, then premiered that November with the composer as the soloist. It was then published as his Op. 18.

The Cello Sonata was completed shortly after the concerto's premiere and itself performed on December 2nd, 1901, again with the composer at the piano. And published as his Op. 19.

So while the 2nd Piano Concerto was the break-through piece following four years of creative and personal depression, the Sonata was the work that proved he had fully recuperated. Given the works he would go on to compose, one might call that the “best vengeance.”

Keep in mind, when Rachmaninoff wrote this sonata, he was 28 years old.

Here is the legendary Russian cellist Natalia Gutman and pianist Viacheslav Poprugin

(Why Rachmaninoff practically stopped composing after leaving Russia in 1917 is beyond the scope of this post: not only is it another post, it could easily be another book...)

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Rachmaninoff also didn't like to refer to it as a “Cello Sonata.” To him, it should be the “Sonata for Cello and Piano” because he felt both instruments were equal, the piano not being just an accompaniment. And considering he wrote the piano part for himself, it is not something pianists who aren't confident being soloists tackle lightly.

Here's something to keep in mind, listening to this program: Robert Schumann was a pianist (and married to one of the greatest pianists of the 19th Century, Clara Schumann); Felix Mendelssohn was a pianist; Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists of the first half of the 20th Century; Janáček was, perhaps, an indifferent pianist who never tried making a career of it but he was an organist and a teacher of organ in his local conservatory in Brno, Moravia.

And Michael Brown, whose “Two Movements for Cello and Piano” is on the first half of the program, is also, obviously, a pianist.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that none of these composers were cellists...

Anyway, the role of an instrumental performer (one of those terms that seems to imply pianos are not instruments) usually requires the presence of a piano to make something more or less complete, as it were. You know, the “solo instrument” plays the melody while the accompanist thubs away boom-chucking the harmony.

And I hate to bust all those great violinists who play Beethoven Violin Sonatas with “an accompanist.” In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, the common description of such works was “Sonata for Piano and Violin” – even though it boggles the minds of listeners today, they were considered piano sonatas with the accompaniment of a violin. Go figure...

While I should point out you're going to be listening to the Canellakis-Brown Duo and not “Nicholas Canellakis, cellist (and we had to be pay extra so he could bring along his pianist),” here's another of those tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek Conversations with Nick Canellakis and the great pianist Emanuel Ax – who, by the way, recorded the Rachmaninoff Sonata with the equally great but incredibly better known Yo-Yo Ma which still remains one of the best recordings of the work out there.

There was a friend of mine, a pianist, from my days in New York City where I attempted to spend two years as a free-lance starving musician – let's call her Dora Matte – who had a totally obsequious view of her role as a pianist collaborating with other musicians. She saw herself as what they might call today a “Pianist with Benefits,” I guess – you know, “I get his coffee, I pick up his dry-cleaning before the concert, I walk the dog while he practices,” that kind of thing. And of course “I do whatever he tells me to do about interpretation, dynamics, tempo – the works.”

Listen to the old Heifetz recordings of the Beethoven sonatas with pianist Brooks Smith and hear violin noodlings during those “accompanimental passages” in the audio foreground while the piano playing the melody sounds like it's off somewhere in the wings, its sound being picked up only by the “soloist's” mike.

Now, Brooks Smith was an incredible pianist and teacher – he taught “accompanying” as a degree program at the Eastman School of Music when I was there, and friends of mine raved about the insights he would drop during a lesson (nothing about dry-cleaning, however).

When I say someone is a “fine accompanist,” I usually mean the pianist has the ability of a mind-reader to anticipate what the instrumentalist or vocalist is going to do (especially vocalists) – making those fine nuances of phrasing, quick turns in the tempo, matching dynamics in the build of a crescendo or the sudden change of a dramatic subito piano.

And, ironically, this is a real challenge even when playing the simplest of accompaniments, those boom-chucky mechanical harmonizations where you could just go along [boom-chuckboom-chuckboom-chuck] once you've set up the pattern, but that would put the “soloist” in a straight-jacket when, really, they just want to wallow in rubato, that stretching and pulling of the beat for emotion's sake, giving them time to toss the head back and roll their eyes.

A child could play some of those accompaniments – it's unfortunate that a lot of pianists sound like children when they're playing them, but I digress...

And that's not going to fly in something like the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata - I mean, the Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Today, most pianists who play sonatas with other musicians prefer to be called “collaborative artists” which some other instrumental musicians like to think of as another of those “politically correct” terms (“imagine, next they'll be wanting equal pay!”).

Rachmaninoff rarely ever “accompanied” another musician – he was primarily a soloist either playing concertos with orchestra or solo piano recitals. He did, on numerous occasions, play with the great violinist, Fritz Kreisler, who was a phenomenal musician if a little care-free in his practicing. One wonders how the stone-faced Russian Rachmaninoff and the ebullient Viennese Kreisler ever got along.

One famous story has it that, in the midst of one of those Beethoven sonatas, Kreisler had a memory slip and forgot where he was. He sidled up to Rachmaninoff, leaned over and whispered “where are we?”

Rachmaninoff, without missing a beat, said “Carnegie Hall.”

So, don't forget - the Canellakis-Brown Duo with cellist Nicholas Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown live at Market Square Church, Saturday Nov. 7th at 8pm, playing not only the Rachmaninoff Sonata but works by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Janáček and also Michael Brown as well as a Bulgarian Folk Dance (dancers not included).

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Canellakis-Brown Duo: Nick and Michael's Excellent Adventure

Canellakis-Brown Duo (Serious Pose) credit, Beowulf Sheehan
[tap tap tap] Testing - One. Two. Three. Is this thing on? [tap tap]

Okay. So, I'm really excited to get a chance to hear these guys Nick Canellakis and Michael Brown on Saturday night at Market Square Church because they're really great musicians for one thing – plus they'll be playing some great Romantic music by SchumMendelRacháček, some Bulgarian Folk Music and even something written by the pianist himself – but they're also, like, web celebrities!

And having spent too many years in radio arguing about how somebody's name should be pronounced, I know how important it is to be right-ish. So here's it is, straight from the cellist's mouth:

Their program is really eclectic which is a word commentators like me resort to using when they can't figure out why these pieces belong on the same program except there's a lot of variety, it's all great music and I bet they probably have a lot of fun playing it.

This post is about the works on the first half of the program. You can read the Rachmaninoff post, here.

Robert Schumann wrote most of his chamber music during 1842, his very busy “Year of Chamber Music,” but the “Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70” wasn't one of them. He wrote this one a few years later, after all those string quartets, the piano quintet and quartet and some other things that don't get played as much (do they?) and besides, he originally wrote it for horn and piano, by the way. Apparently, Schumann's publisher didn't think it would sell very well, so he directed that the horn part could be played by either a violin or a cello (can you say “Brahms Viola Sonatas”?).

Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70” with Mischa Maisky, cello, and Marta Argerich, piano:

The year was 1849 – picture it, Dresden (where Schumann and his family were living) was in flames and composer Richard Wagner was one of the rabble-rousers and I'm not talking about his music (he would later be charged with treason once the revolution was put down). There's a story about how Schumann was composing a piano piece while you could hear gunfire down the street – this was for his “Album for the Young,” such innocent music! Finally, they decided they had to get out of town: walking out through the back garden gate, Schumann (leaving with Clara and their 7-year-old daughter) barely avoided being forcibly drafted. They caught a train and then walked several miles to a friend's house about 13 miles south of Dresden. But get this: while Schumann was composing the “Spring Song” from his “Album for the Young” that evening, Clara, with two other women, walked back to Dresden to retrieve the other three children (aged 6, 4 and 1) left behind with neighbors, then after arriving home at 3am, turned around and walked all the way back (this, while Clara was seven months pregnant).

Cool story, but it has nothing to do with the music of this “Adagio and Allegro” which was completed in four days in February, about ten weeks earlier.

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The next piece on the program is an old favorite of mine, one I accompanied my Eastman roommate in back in the early-'70s (before he found himself in the Cleveland Orchestra cello section) – Leoš Janáček's Pohádka.

Now, speaking of how-to-pronounce-things, let's start with the “funny marks” and the fact the á here is not a stress accent as most English-speakers would assume. In Czech, words are usually (if not always) accented on the first syllable, so it's LAY-ōsh YAH-nah-check (without the á, it would be YAH-nuh-check which could make a big difference to someone who's Czech), and the title of this little piece for cello and piano is pronounced “POH-hahd-kuh.” Literally, it means “A Tale” in the sense of a fairy tale which is how it's usually translated.

Leos Janacek: Pohadka (Fairy Tale), David Finckel and Wu Han from David Finckel and Wu Han on Vimeo.

Sometimes it's called a “Sonata for Cello and Piano” but that's not an appropriate use of the term. Yes, it's a three-movement piece and yes, there's a sonata-like balance to the movements which have some similarities of moods and motives. The first two are kind of like versions of the same ideas – both are marked “Andante” (a walking tempo) but the second one has a brighter mood and comes off more like a scherzo. The lively third movement is, one would imagine, the “happy ending,” even though at the end it sounds like the story-teller is trying not to wake the child who's finally fallen asleep.

If the composer hadn't given it a “figurative” title, he could also have called it “Three Pieces for Cello and Piano.” Bor-ing...

So, what's the fairy tale? It was inspired by some vast epic poem by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky who died in 1852. I can't find any information about “The Tale of Tsar Berendey,” but it was apparently inspired by the same fairy tales that gave rise to a play about the Snow Maiden which inspired Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, Snegúrochka – and involves lots of magical transformations, mostly to avoid capture by somebody presumably evil. Somebody changes into a bee, a fish and, if I remember correctly, a church? Got me...

Whatever that has to do with this piece of music, I think it's best just to think of it as a “piece in the mood of a fairy tale.” Which may be why Janáček called it “A Tale” rather than “The Story of Tsar Berendey and the Princess Who Turned Right into a Church.” (ba dum bump).

So, what's it about? It's about 12 minutes or so.

Janáček was fascinated by the “tonal inflections” of the spoken voice and he often wrote down normal speaking – once, a minister's sermon – as if it were sung recitative (or "recitation") for an opera. This gave his “sung speech” a very natural flow and rhythm to it (and which must be hell for his translators). You can hear this, in a way, in the instrumental melodic lines here – they're not really tunes but doesn't it sound like someone talking to you, telling you a story? And then there's the opening's “Once upon a time” image and all the repetitions as if trying to get your attention before settling into the tale.

Curiously, for such a short piece, Janáček spent a lot of time finishing it. He wrote the “first version” in 1910 (he was 56) when it was intended to be part of a larger work. Then two years later he added a fourth movement which was supposed to represent the Tsarina singing a lullaby but in 1923 (he was now 68) he decided to delete this, return to the original three movements, and revise some spots along the way before it was premiered that spring.

It was also performed in London a few years later for his first appearance there: he wrote home to Kamila Stösslová (now there's a long story!), how his “nice music” was “just made for these calm Englishmen. They eat a lot here!”

Five days later, the concert at Wigmore Hall included his wind sextet “Mladi,” the 1st String Quartet (the one inspired by Tolstoy's short story, The Kreutzer Sonata), the Violin Sonata and Pohádka and it took place just after a General Strike was called so there was no publicity, no public transportation and the few people in the audience were those who could walk to the concert or who owned cars. There were also no reviews. (Been there, done that...)

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An even more lyrical interlude, next, with two pieces by Felix Mendelssohn, very short in the manner of those “character pieces” so popular in the mid-19th Century whether they have fanciful titles like the Romantic Schumann gave his (think "Blind Man's Bluff" or "Dream's Confusions") or abstract titles like the Neo-Classical Mendelssohn gave his. (By the way, Schumann dubbed his friend Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the 19th Century.”) You're probably not going to come up with stories to go along with something called “Assai tranquillo” (very tranquil) but you might wonder what the implied words could be to a “Song without Words.”

There are eight “books” of Songs without Words for solo piano that Mendelssohn published during his career, each book containing six “songs.” These were primarily geared to the amateur market and a big fan was Queen Victoria who enjoyed playing many of them. A few of them have fanciful titles like “Venetian Gondola Song” or the ever-popular “Spring Song,” but this one for cello and piano (which was published after Mendelssohn's death – apparently he didn't give it its title, either) is unrelated to the piano pieces. I just like telling you about those piano pieces.

Now, Mendelssohn was one of the great prodigies in music and perhaps one of its happiest, though that didn't keep him from dying at the age of 38 (Mozart only made it to 35). He was a brilliant pianist (his sister, Fanny, was considered by those who had a chance to hear her as more brilliant – she was also a very fine composer except in those days being a “woman composer” was more than just frowned upon, speaking of long stories...) and as a child Felix also played the violin. His brother Paul who decided to go into the family banking business (one of the reasons Felix could afford to be happy) was also a credible amateur cellist. It would be a good guess these pieces were originally composed for him to play at some family musicale.

Here's Steven Isserlis and Melvyn Tan (playing a piano from Mendelssohn's time)

and here's... well... somebody playing the Op. 109 Song without Words (perhaps the Sine Nomine Duo?)

And it probably took you longer to read all that than it did to listen to both pieces.

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So we could get all technical about that “eclectic” programming and say the program is beautifully shaped according to the key scheme, for all you theory geeks, starting with Schumann in A-flat, Janáček in a whole lot of flats (like six of them) but sounding more like he's in D-flat Major at the beginning (making the Schumann's A-flat the dominant of the Janáček's opening) though he never really settles down in any one key for very long but ends up finally in G-flat Major. Then there's Mendelssohn in B Minor (which if the Janáček were in F-sharp Major instead of G-flat would be another dominant-to-tonic relationship) and then to the D Major of the second Mendelssohn piece, the relative major of B Minor.

If you didn't get that, it'll just sound really nice, one after the other. Trust me.

Now, next on the program is a work by the pianist, Michael Brown, who, obviously, must also be a composer. He might not be great with titles because I think you could come up with something more interesting than “Two Movements for Cello and Piano.” Of course, lots of composers like Schubert and also Schoenberg wrote piano pieces called “Klavierstücke” which means “Piano Pieces.” Not very imaginative, but hey...

But the first movement of Brown's “Two Movements” is titled “Improvisation” and the second one is called “Dance.” So, what's wrong with “Improvisation and Dance”? Anyway, it got a pretty good review in the New York Times when it was premiered in late-August last year:

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'Michael Brown’s impressive “Two Movements for Cello and Piano” is the product of a confident young composer with a talent for precision. The first, “Improvisation,” is deliberately free of structure, and leaves the cellist (Nicholas Canellakis) to struggle fruitlessly. “Dance” was inspired by Bach’s gigues, and if it drops their characteristic rhythms, it keeps and develops a keen propulsion, despite quirky interruptions. Mr. Brown’s music looked forward, while David Del Tredici's “The Last Violin,” written for Bargemusic’s director, Mark Peskanov, was charmingly Schumannesque.'
(David Allen, New York Times, Aug. 28th, 2014)
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Here's an earlier piece Michael Brown wrote in 2009 called “5 AM (after Allen Ginsburg)” with the composer at the piano and cellist Nick Canellakis:

And here's the first of those “Conversations with Nick Canellakis” with guest Michael Brown, talking about his also being a composer:

I suspect leaving "the cellist to struggle fruitlessly" is the composer's pay-back for being second banana in all these videos.

By the way, in all seriousness, Michael Brown won a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant which is a big deal for a young classical artist. Check out this post from 2012 when he first appeared on the Market Square Concerts series as a solo pianist, playing Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. I usually don't do reviews, but I was just so amazed by his performance (and since no one in this town bothers to review classical music programs other than the symphony), I just had to do it.

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That brings us to – wait, how many pieces are we talking about on this program? Anyway, this one ends the first half of the program. Don't worry, many of them are pretty short, so it's not a marathon.

Classical music is generally considered “concert music,” what “cultured people” listen to dressed up in their evening finery in big fancy concert halls listening to music performed by people dressed like penguins. We talk of edification, spiritual enlightenment and sometimes, peripherally, enjoyment and even, running the risk of losing our elitist credentials, entertainment.

Folk music is what the peasants come up with to amuse themselves.

When a classical composer like Mikhail Glinka introduced some Russian folk songs into his operas, the good people of St. Petersburg said that was stuff their coachmen would listen to, not them. It was not considered “nice.”

But then, by the mid-19th Century, composers who were not German, French or Italian began trying to figure out how to sound different from the Germans, French or Italians who dominated the concert halls, people like Smetana and Dvořák in what is now the Czech Republic, Rimsky-Korsakoff and friends in Russia, and eventually Bartók and Kodály in Hungary in the early-20th Century. They “discovered” the folk music of their own ethnic heritage and gradually moved from arranging it for classical instruments to incorporating it into their own “serious” music, eventually moving on from actual quotations of it to writing original melodies imitating it.

You could call this the “Let Me Sing You the Song of My People” Movement.

Granted, there have not been a lot of composers from Bulgaria who've made it big in modern concert halls, but the Hungarian Bela Bartók was one composer who found its folk music fascinating. Compared to almost any other European folk culture, it has easily the most complex metric (or rhythmic) structure: instead of being able to march to something in 4/4 or waltz to something in 3/4, Bulgarians dance to something in seemingly ever-shifting groups of 2s and 3s, like the folk dance that Nick Canellakis arranged for him and Michael to perform in concert. Called “Gankino Horo,” the “Horo” is the type of dance and it basically means “Ganka's Dance” and Ganka can dance to something in 2+2+3+2+2 which is really 11/8 divided into 5 not always equal beats, right? Yeah, easy for you...

It's real toe-tapping music if you don't dislocate your toe in the process of trying to figure out where the beat is.

If you don't believe me, here's a dance group from Northern Bulgaria dancing... Gankino Horo!

Now, you try it!

(Disclaimer: I used to play those Nonesuch “Explorer Series” recordings of Bulgarian folk music for my percussionist roommate when I was teaching at UConn in the mid-'70s and enjoyed watching him respond to the beat but then go nuts trying to figure it out only to have it change to something completely different by the time he thought he got it. And he called himself a rock drummer...)

Here's another one they've posted on YouTube which I'll include just because it so fu... darn cool: another Horo, this is labeled simply “Wild Bulgarian Folk Dance.” Yeah.

And then there's Rachmaninoff on the second half.

Since this post is becoming a marathon, I'm going to save that for another one, so check back in, soon.

Again, the concert is this Saturday at 8pm at Market Square Church on the Square in downtown Harrisburg.

Come get your chamber groove on!

No? Well, how would you say it, then...?

Oh, okay...

(aaaand fade...)

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- Dick Strawser