Category Archives: Craig Blog

An Evening with Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

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We recently attended a performance at the beautiful Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.  We’d previously seen Felder perform as Leonard Bernstein and Frederic Chopin at the Berkeley Rep.  Hershey Felder does an absolutely amazing job of immersing himself in these great composers and performers.  Not only does he perform his original script, he sings and plays the piano throughout the performances.  After experiencing his one man shows, you leave the theater feeling that you’ve gotten to know who Irving Berlin really was.

Here’s some interesting things I learned about Irving Berlin during Mr. Felders wonderful performance:

Berlin didn’t read or write music!  When he composed, the self taught composer worked out the piece in the key of F sharp, which used all of the black keys.  Berlin said “The black keys are right there, under your fingers. The key of C is for people who study music.”

When Jewish Irving Berlin married Catholic Ellin Mackay, daughter of financier Clarence Mackay, the resulting news frenzy gave birth to the papazazzi, as they became known later.

Berlin donated all of his royalties from his song God Bless America to the Boys and Girls Scouts of America.  Berlin wrote the song in 1918, but set it aside until 1938, when it was introduced on an Armistice Day radio broadcast by Kate Smith.

La Traviata at the Ballpark: or How to Get to 2nd Base at the Opera

Before the Opera

Shirley and I had a great time recently when we attended the live simulcast of Verdi’s La Traviata, broadcast from the War Memorial Opera House directly to AT&T park.  We rode up to San Francisco on Caltrain, which was packed full of opera fans making their way to the stadium.  The opera is shown on a 103 foot wide HD screen, so there wasn’t a bad seat for any of the 26,000 in attendance.  In my opinion, the best place to sit isn’t a seat at all, but actually out on the field, which is opened up to a couple thousand lucky fans (get there early!).  We settled in between 1st and 2nd base with our collection of blankets (it gets cold- dress warm!).  The leads of La Traviata were played by husband-and-wife team Ailyn Perez (as Violetta Valery) and Stephen Costello (as Alfredo Germont), and they were wonderful.  Verdi’s music was a delight, as was the hot dog with grilled onions!  After the cast had taken their bows, each wearing their favorite Giants gear, it was fascinating (and slightly unnerving) to watch thousands of seagulls descend on the park in search of a late dinner.

After the Opera

 

Anderson & Roe Piano Duo

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Anderson & Roe were the featured performers at this year’s Music Teachers Association of California (MTAC) Conference in Los Angeles, and they put on an wildly entertaining and varied recital.  The pianists are sparkling virtuosos and, in addition, they’re brilliant arrangers; turning Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, as well as several selections from Mozart operas into two piano wonders.

A personal highlight was the performance of an original two piano work by Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b.  I was unfamiliar with this gorgeous piece and listening to these great performers, it was easy to imagine Johannes and Clara playing through it together for the first time, a love letter from the composer to the pianist.

Anderson & Roe are true entertainers, and it’s during the pieces when both pianists share one keyboard, such as Piazzolla’s Libertango or the Grand Scherzo from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, K.588, when things get interesting; smoldering looks betray what?..jealousy, passion, lust, you name it!   It’s all an act, but an enjoyable one to watch, not any different than what you’d expect to see at an opera.  The music is the thing, but it’s heightened by the drama unfolding between the performers.

After the recital ended (after several encores!), the performers stuck around and signed CDs and scores (yes, their arrangements are published and available on the Anderson & Roe website (http://www.andersonroe.com/scores/)  By the way, their arrangement of Gluck’s Ballet from Orphee et Eurydice is breathtakingly beautiful, and not outside the abilities of intermediate piano students.  I picked up both of their CDs and want to give special mention to their all-Mozart collection, An Amadeus Affair, which has been in constant rotation since returning home.  It contains four arrangements by Anderson & Roe, including their irreverent take on the Ronda alla turca, renamed Ragtime alla turca, as well as arrangements of Mozart by Busoni and Lizst, and the original Sonata for Two Piano in D major by Amadeus himself.

Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony

Shirley and I were fortunate to catch a screening of Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony at the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library in San Jose in June.  The screening was presented by The Beethoven Society and was hosted by the director, Kerry Candaele, who was kind enough to give an informative Q and A session at the conclusion.  Five years in the making, the film is a documentary that tells the story of places and moments that Beethoven’s final Symphony was used for great political and social purposes.  Moments that will stay with me:

  • Student dissidents in Tiananmen Square, tasting freedom for the first time in their lives, re-wiring the loudspeakers in order to play a cassette of the Ninth, giving themselves courage in the face of the Chinese Army.
  • In Chile during Pinochet’s cruel dictatorship, groups of women gather outside torture prisons to sing the Spanish version of the Ode to Joy, called El Himno de la Alegria, giving the prisoners inside the hope to survive another day.
  • An emotional telling of the fall of the Berlin Wall from the point of view of a young East German woman.  In Berlin, shortly after the Wall fell, Leonard Bernstein famously changed Schiller’s Ode to Joy to an Ode to Freedom.
  • A Sumo arena in Tokyo during the annual Daiku season, where an audience of 5000 enjoy a performance of the Ninth with a matching chorus of 5000!  Candaele pointed out how lucrative it is for the vocal coaches, conductors, and soloists in the months leading up to the yearly festival of renewal in Japan, as countless amateur singers prepare for their chance to be part of the Ninth.

During the reception in the Beethoven Center, Kerry Candaele was signing books (the companion book to the film is called Journeys With Beethoven: Following the Ninth, and Beyond, co-written with Greg Mitchell).  When Shirley and I spoke with him and asked to have our copy signed, Mr. Candaele cracked a smile and asked what month it was – a sign of a true artist!

Barantschik and the Prodigies

I recently took in a wonderful string orchestra concert led by San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.  The focus was on three of the greatest musical prodigies; Mozart, Mendelssohn and Britten.

Everyone is familiar with how overbearing Leopold toured his children all over Europe in search of gifts and position.  Exploitation for sure, but the kids, especially young Wolfgang, were amazingly talented.  Mozart wrote the Divertimento for Strings, K. 138 in 1772 (exact date unknown), around the time of his 17th birthday.

Barantschik took center stage as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for Violin and Strings, written in 1822.  Mendelssohn was 13 years old at the time, already an accomplished composer/virtuoso who liked to hang out with Johann Wolfgang von Geothe; author, one of the great minds of the 18th century, and the boy’s senior by 60 years.

As a prodigy, Benjamin Britten doesn’t stack up to the other two, but he deserves to be included due to his Simple Symphony.  The piece was composed, or more accurately, arranged when Britten was 20 years old, from material based on pieces that Britten wrote between the ages of 9 and 12.

 

The Pianist of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek

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I wrapped my Christmas/New Year’s break by taking in a performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Berkeley Rep.  It’s the story of Lisa Jura, as played by her pianist daughter, Mona Golabek.  Over the course of 90 minutes, Mona portrays her mother as a teenage Jewish girl intently focused on her piano studies as the shadow of Nazism begins to darken Vienna.  As her family’s safety becomes more and more tenuous, her parents manage to acquire a coveted space for the talented Lisa aboard the Kindertransport, which whisked her to Holland, then on to London.  Music plays a huge role in the play, as it did in Lisa Jura’s life – the center of the stage is dominated by a Steinway concert grand, and the Grieg Piano Concerto becomes a major character unto itself.  It’s Lisa’s favorite piece, and it bookends the performance.  Mona Golabek plays beautifully, and successfully weaves in the classical music so important to her mother during the war years.  We hear a beautiful, never-sadder Clair de Lune played by a young Lisa the day before she departs on the Kindertransport; we hear the thundering chords of the Grieg Piano Concerto go head to head against the terrifying explosions of the Blitz as Lisa’s hostel crumbles; we hear Mona Golabek channel the great Myra Hess playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring during one of her beloved afternoon concerts at the National Gallery.  “The Pianist of Willesden Lane’ is finishing up its extended run, and the remaining performances are sold out, so you may not have the chance to see it at the Berkeley Rep.  My recommendation is to read Mona Golabek’s 2003 book The Children of Willesden Lane; Beyond the Kindertransport; A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, co-written with Lee Cohen, on which the play is based.

Grieg: Op. 12, no. 8: National Song

Maestoso, indeed!  When I play this, I hear a brass band performing in a public square in Bergen, Norway, where Grieg had a country villa.  I’m using my imagination, but I’m sure it happens!  This piece is a fantastic way to practice bringing out the melody while playing chords.  Of course, there are secondary voices that should be clearly heard, as well.  Grieg was obviously paying close attention to voice leading while composing this final piece of Op. 12.

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 7: Album Leaf

With its two nicely contrasting sections, Album Leaf is a joy to play.  Grieg was obviously enjoying himself as he neared the end of Op. 12.  You’ll have a choice to make in m. 3 and 7 (and during the subsequent repeats) – do you use the pedal to connect the legato in the left hand, whereby losing the staccato in the right, or do you honor the staccato marking and give up the left hand legato?  I kept the staccato, by the way.  Decisions, decisions…

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 6: Norwegian Melody

The shortest of the Op. 12 pieces, Norwegian Melody packs a rhythmic punch.  Be careful to distinguish between eighth notes and triplets to maintain an steady pulse. In the middle section, pull back on the dynamics, but really bring out the forzato (with force, energy; the note or chord is to be strongly accented).

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Grieg: Op. 12, no. 5: Folk Melody

Folk Melody is marked con moto, so be careful not to let it drag (my version runs around 92 bpm). In measures 9-11 and 25-27 I found it much easier to play the dotted half notes with the left hand thumb.  I found that playing those notes with my right hand thumb tended to impede my ability to play the upper melody cleanly, and making the switch didn’t seem to make the playing of the left hand more difficult. I should point out that in the phrases that follow (measures 13-15 and 29-31) my Dover edition shows the dotted half notes of the same voice being taken with the left hand thumb.

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