Not on your Nellie, Downton Abbey!

Downton Abbey fever had gripped the rest of the world for some years, and now it is here as well. The British period drama television series depicts life in a fictional Yorkshire country estate with the aristocratic Grantham family and their household staff in the post-Edwardian era. It is one of the most widely watched television drama shows in the world, and a large part of its appeal lies in scriptwriter Julian Fellowes trying to be as authentic as possible to the unfolding timeline, the changing fashions and novel appliances and automobiles.

However the Downton team seem to have dropped the ball in Series Four, Episode Three. A chance meeting between Fellowes and the great New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at Glyndebourne Opera prompted him to write her into this episode, casting her in a cameo appearance as another great Dame from the 1920s, the Australian operatic lyric soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931). In this episode, Dame Melba is invited to entertain house guests at Downton Abbey. So far, so good. All very plausible.

But then we are asked to believe that head butler Carson snootily arranges for Dame Melba to be confined to her room with a cup of tea and a dinner tray, as she was deemed too ‘low’ to hobnob with the high-falootin’ family and their guests. Surely even in remote Yorkshire in 1922, one would still have expected an aristocratic family to have had sufficient access to news from the outside world to have known what a star Nellie Melba was. She was by then one of the world’s most famous singers. She had conquered the stage of every major opera house in the world, and their royalty and aristocracy were at her feet. She even had a dessert pudding named “Peach Melba” after her (there’s one for your cookbook, Mrs. Patmore!), invented by the French chef Auguste Escoffier at London’s Savoy Hotel in her honour. He went on to create Melba sauce, Melba toast, and Melba Garniture as well.

On the contrary, Dame Melba would perhaps never have agreed to such a private concert unless her hosts were really close to her, and the Granthams quite obviously weren’t.

In Downton, Te Kanawa’s Melba not only swallows the snub of not being invited to dinner before her concert with equanimity, but when Lady Grantham insists on Dame Melba joining the dinner party, the diva tries to impress her host Lord Grantham with her knowledge of claret, and her affinity to Haut Brion, and (shudder!) actually partakes of it, just before her concert. Any professional singer knew then and knows now that alcohol dries up the throat, and is best avoided several hours before a performance. Why did on-screen Melba/Te Kanawa not know this? It is rumoured that Dame Melba could drink quite heavily when “off-duty”, but she would never have done so just before a performance.

That said, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa apparently has a great interest in the career and oeuvre of Dame Melba and did a fair amount of research before taking on the part. In an interview to the British press, she said “I was trying to stay true to the character because as Julian Fellowes said ‘she’s the only true character’ that actually lived’.” She procured a log sheet of all the performances Dame Melba did, how many roles she played and how much she earned. In today’s money, her annual income would have been about £3 million. Which is why it stretches credulity to assume the diva would have allowed herself to be treated so shabbily by a provincial lord.

The research also influenced the choice of music depicted in the episode. Dvořák’s ‘Songs my mother taught me” was one of Dame Melba’s favourites, and it, along with ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, is on the programme. The latter aria prompts the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) to quip approvingly “You can always rely on Puccini.”

Kiri Te Kanawa as Dame Melba in Downton Abbey

Although Dame Melba’s early gramophone recordings for their technological shortcomings did not quite capture the vital overtones to her voice, depriving it for the body and warmth in real life, they are even today exemplars for an almost seamlessly pure lyric soprano voice with effortless coloratura, a smooth legato and phenomenally accurate intonation, “as reliable as a keyed instrument”. She is said to have had perfect pitch.

Dame Nellie Melba

Not all her music contemporaries were enamoured, though. Gustav Mahler remarked that he’d prefer “a good clarinettist” to her after hearing her sing in La Traviata. Sir Thomas Beecham was even more unkind, famously describing her as “uninterestingly perfect, and perfectly uninteresting.”

Te Kanawa found herself in an uncharacteristic state of “nervous excitement” at the prospect of playing Dame Melba on screen, being unable to sleep the night prior to the shoot. She nevertheless reduced the television crew to tears (for all the right reasons) with her performance in front of the cameras.

Te Kanawa, in true diva style, insisted on having her Pomeranians come with her to Highclere Castle, where the Downton Abbey series is being filmed, overriding its owner Lady Carnarvon’s objections. One of the Pomeranians was pregnant at the time, and the new pup has been named Abbey after the series. A better choice than Pooch-ini, for sure.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Gender, Charity and Music

In the book “Violin and Viola” by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and violist William Primrose, Menuhin waxes eloquent on the violin: “Its shape is in fact inspired by and symbolic of the most beautiful human object, the woman’s body….The varnish of a Stradivarius or Guarnerius evokes the sun caught in the silken texture of human skin. And like the female human voice, the violin combines the entire soprano and contralto range. I have often wondered whether psychologically there is a basic difference between the woman’s relationship to the violin and the man’s… Does the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves? Is there an element of narcissism in the woman’s relation to the violin..?”

And yet, through most of history until the last century or so, female violinists have been conspicuous by their sparse presence and acknowledgement. Today of course, women outnumber men in many major orchestras, notably the New York Philharmonic, where some years ago a male violinist actually filed a suit against the orchestra on grounds of gender discrimination when he was ousted.

One of the many thoughts that crossed my mind at the Hadar Rimon recital was the fact that here was a woman at the height of her violinistic powers, playing the works of composers who were all male!

If one looks at a list of outstanding female violinists through time, an interesting trend emerges when one narrows down the period from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s. A significant number of them seem to have come from and studied at the Ospedale della Pietà, Venice. As the name suggests, it was a charitable institution for orphans, particularly abandoned girls. Its orchestra and choir gained international renown for the sterling quality of their performances. The famous violinist-composer Antonio Vivaldi taught here from 1703 to 1740. Here abandoned infants who might otherwise have had to scrounge for a living or suffer worse fates, were given the best possible music education from a very young age, and the results were spectacular.

I was reminded of this again by Hadar Rimon, when she presented me a CD of her playing. The first work on the disc is Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat major, K. 454, the “Strinasacchi” sonata. I had often wondered at the provenance of the nickname. Epithets such as these often suggest the work might have been dedicated to a wealthy patron (think of Beethoven’s Razumovsky string quartets for example), or a testimony to the place to which they have a connection (Haydn’s “London” and “Oxford” symphonies; Mozart’s “Prague” and “Linz” symphonies). But every so often, the nickname immortalises the person it was written for.

Regina Strinasacchi was an Italian violin virtuoso in an age when women rarely if ever performed in public. Her name might have sunk without a trace had she not impressed Mozart with her playing, to the extent that he wrote this work expressly for her.

Regina Strinasacchi

We know she was born in Ostiglia, near Mantua in Italy but her date and year of birth are shrouded in mystery, with various historical accounts vacillating between 1761 to 1764, strongly hinting she was born out of wedlock. At some point, perhaps early on in her childhood, she was brought to the Ospedale, where in addition to acquiring phenomenal violin skills, she also learned to play guitar and to compose. Her story when told is often paired with that of Maddalena Lombardini who has similar life circumstances and was also trained at the Ospedale, but let us look more closely at Strinasacchi.

She began touring Europe around 1780, a very young age to be sure, whichever birth year you estimate her age by. It is an indicator of her prodigious prowess at her instrument. She toured what is today Italy, France and Germany, between 1780 and 1783, arriving in Vienna in 1784, where she had the famous encounter with Mozart. We know this because Mozart wrote a letter to his father Leopold at the end of April 1784: “At the moment we have here the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua, a very good violinist; she has a great deal of taste and feeling in her playing…. I am just now composing a Sonata, which we will perform together on Thursday at her concert at the Theatre.”

Strinasacchi and Mozart debuted the Sonata at the Kärtnerthor Theatre Vienna on 29 April 1784 at which the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was present. In a typical example of Mozart’s genius and haste, it was apparently completed just a day before the concert, and Mozart’s widow Constanze writes that he played his part from an empty music sheet or at best an incomplete score. The music was safely in his head; he needed no visual cue for the message to be sent from his brain to his fingers for his own freshly-conceived composition! But it is equally to Strinasacchi’s credit that she mastered the work in 24 hours to play it before such a distinguished audience.

In 1785, Strinasacchi married Johann Schlick, cellist and concertmaster of the court orchestra in Gotha. She played in the orchestra as well, making her arguably the first female orchestral player in history that we know of. She performed as a guitar virtuoso as well, and there are indications that she may have conducted the orchestra too! Sadly her own compositions have not survived. The couple had two children: Caroline, who became a pianist and an actress; and Johann who became a cellist and luthier. Upon her husband’s death in 1818, she moved with her son to Dresden, where she remained until her own demise in 1839.

Some accounts place her last public performance in 1809, in Rome. But in a letter dated 1824, Strinasacchi writes to her friend that she was still “making music”. Whether this was for the public or for more intimate circles is not clear.

The 1718 Stradivarius that she played upon, was subsequently owned by the great violinist-composer Lousi Spohr, and is currently in the safe hands of another female violinist, Miriam Fried.

It is very tempting to speculate whether it was a “good” thing or not for an ‘unwanted’ female child to be left at the doorstep of the Ospedale? What would have become of Regina Strinasacchi had this not happened? But because it did happen, it set off a chain of occurrences that led to her being remembered today, and posterity is the richer for a joyous Sonata which would not have seen light of day had Mozart not met the virtuoso Strinasacchi.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Time for Mozart: The Titan Ad

When a seventeen-year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart completed his ‘Sturm und Drang’ (Storm and Stress) Symphony no. 25 in G minor (K. 183/173dB) in Salzburg on 5 October 1773, he couldn’t possibly have foreseen that the bright interlude in its otherwise turbulent first movement would be commandeered to sell wristwatches two centuries later on another continent.

mozart time

The Titan advertising campaign began in the 1980s, and even today, three decades or so later, it is difficult to think of the Titan brand without the tune playing in your head in one of the various avatars it has taken on since then. It has become part of Titan’s very identity.

It was a smart choice. With a name like Titan, one could possibly have thought of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, the ‘Titan’, or something really over the top. But the Mozart excerpt is succinct, has a bubbling joie de vivre, and the clockwork precision that makes it perfect for an advertisement for a timepiece.

Of Mozart’s 41 ‘numbered’ symphonies and his several unnumbered ones, only three are in a minor key. And G minor in particular he used quite sparingly, in just two of his ‘numbered’ symphonies, no. 25 and 40 (also known as the ‘little’ and ‘great’ G minor symphonies respectively). G minor is the key through which Mozart best expressed disquiet, unease, sadness and tragedy. During the Classical period of music history, the use minor keys as the tonic (‘home’) key was unusual, which makes Mozart’s choice here even more significant. Such choices were not made arbitrarily or lightly.

The Titan team cleverly chose the ‘oasis’ of momentary calm and classical poise in B flat major, after the agitated G minor exposition, with its urgent syncopation and wide-leap melodic lines.

Mozart was undoubtedly hugely influenced here by another ‘Sturm und Drang’ work, Josef Haydn’s Symphony no. 39, also in G minor, written in 1767-68, the earliest of Haydn’s minor key symphonies, and opening with the same ‘nervous excitement’. Like Haydn, Mozart also scored his symphony no. 25 for four horns instead of the customary two. He would use this bold orchestration in his opera Idomeneo as well.

1773 was not a particularly happy time for young Mozart. He was still in his native Salzburg, champing at the bit to break free of the influence of his father Leopold, and working for an unappreciative employer, Archbishop Colloredo.

I am not sure what prompted the Titan advertising team to make this particular choice. After all, the Mozart’s oeuvre alone is full of so many elegant alternative options. The Academy award-winning Miloš Forman film ‘Amadeus’ (1984), which opens dramatically with this movement from Symphony no. 25, brought it to the forefront of popular imagination, and it may have caught the attention of team Titan too .

But this was not the first time a melody from a Mozart symphony had entered the Indian consciousness on such a large scale. The 1961 Hindi film ‘Chhaya’ used the opening melody of the other G minor symphony, the famous symphony no. 40, in the song ‘Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha’, sung by playback singers Talat Mehmood and Lata Mangueshkar.

The Titan ad campaign has featured Aishwarya Rai, Sheetal Mallar, Rani Mukherji, Aamir Khan, Tara Sharma, John Abraham, Minisha Lamba, Maria Gorreti, Praveen Dabas, Rahul Bose, Saira Mohan and other models, actors and actresses, many of them before they attained the stardom they enjoy today.

The advertisements initially celebrated the idea of the watch-as-gift; from father to daughter at her wedding; husband to wife on their anniversary, or at Diwali; and so on.

With the passage of time, the duration of the ads has shrunk, but Mozart’s music has remained in some shape or form. The early examples had the tune played either in its original form, or at the piano, but gradually it has been ‘jazzed up’ as well as Indianised. It is still recognizable to the listener.

In one creative example, Wagner’s famous Bridal March from Lohengrin segues quite cleverly into the Mozart tune as the bridal couple walk down the aisle, exchange vows, and wedding bells complete the tune as the watch is presented to the bride.

In another, a Carnatic violin plays a variation of the Mozart tune as a suitor cements his proposal by transferring his Titan watch from his wrist to hers.

An article in the Economic Times about the Titan branding strategy made interesting reading. Despite the issues faced by the brand from global rivals cornering the market, and the drop in popularity in the wristwatch as a gifting item due to competition from other luxury and utility products, it is heartening to note that Mozart is still considered timeless by these merchants of Time.

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Creativity Game

If one were to arbitrarily name a few living composers of classical music, several might come to mind: Pierre Boulez, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Sofia Gubaidulina, Peter Maxwell Davies, Thomas Adès, Marc-André Hamelin, Roxanna Panufnik, Jennifer Higdon.

But here’s the irony: while these composers do have a following, and their works are heard in the world’s concert halls, we are exposed much more often and more widely to the works of other composers whose names barely register in our minds. This is the lot of the film composer, whose music is sometimes taken for granted as ‘incidental’ to the movie, but which adds as much character and substance as any film actor could. And yet one often has to wait patiently after the film as the credits go up, to even learn their names. Julie Andrews put it succinctly at this year’s Academy Awards: “Great music not only enhances a film but cements our memories of it.” She added that the Godfather films would not be the same without Nino Rota’s music, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s without Henry Mancini, or Star Wars without John Williams.

Film music as a genre is often not given as much regard by classical music purists; it is perhaps perceived in some quarters as less “intellectual”, and for three reasons: firstly, that it is “subordinate” to the film as if this were a limitation; second, that it is music “on demand”, often written under pressure to a tight deadline; and lastly that by virtue of its very nature, a different “type” of composer is drawn to it, one who is perhaps more attracted to commercial success than being true to their art (whatever that might be).

All three of these stand on very shaky ground. Let us examine them one by one.

Much of the wealth of classical music rests in ballet and opera, and in both cases one could argue that the purpose of the music is to enhance what is happening on stage, but not necessarily to usurp the limelight. We might remember the music, but it still has a context for which it was written. We do not think any less of the operatic and ballet composers for venturing onto the stage. On the contrary, we regard Tchaikovsky even more highly for his ballets and Mozart for his operas.

Mozart’s genius was at its feverish best when he had a tight deadline; Rossini was the same. Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana is a one-act jewel which might not have seen light of day, had he not been spurred on by the deadline and the lure of a prize.

It is also pertinent to remember that even ‘serious’ composers that were fortunate to live in the era of the birth of the moving picture were excited by its potential and immediately took to this new art form. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote one of the first film scores ever, providing the music for the film L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908).

William Walton was reluctant at first, saying “Film music is not good film music if it can be used for any other purpose”. Today concert suites of music from his films are performed as a matter of routine. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and Dmitri Shostakovich are just a few others who wrote film music just as comfortably as they did symphonic works and other music for the concert hall.

But the film composer has become a subspecialty in its own right for some time now, and the burgeoning demand has allowed composers to devote much of their creativity to it. This year’s Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (for his original score to the film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) is a good case in point.

alexandre_desplat_oscars

He was introduced early to music, starting piano at five, and later trumpet and flute. He studied composition with Iannis Xenakis and Claude Ballif in France and Jack Hayes in the US. He drew inspiration equally from the French symphonists Debussy and Ravel as he did from jazz and more exotic world music from South America and Africa. The attraction to cinema also came early in his formative years. In an interview, he mentions the songs of 101 Dalmatians and the Jungle Book as an influence, and later Alex North’s music to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. By his early teens, he was collecting soundtrack albums. He acknowledges a debt of gratitude to the music of Max Steiner and Franz Waxman and more recently to Maurice Jarre and Georges Delerue. “I learnt so much from them.”

Although Desplat wrote music for French cinema, Hollywood sat up and took notice after his success with Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003). Since then, his notable films include Casanova, Syriana (2005), The Queen (2006), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2, Renoir (2012), The Monuments Men and The Imitation Game (2014).

“The first thing is, you can’t write movie music if you don’t know how to write quickly”, he asserts in a BBC interview. He wrote the music for The Queen and The Imitation Game in three weeks. He can be occupied with as many as ten films in one year.

Desplat gets his cues from the film, being careful not to “restate the obvious”. For example, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he resisted the temptation to write in a swing or big band sound. “It had to be subtle—maybe just an echo of Duke Ellington.” He creates “whirling excitement” in The Imitation Game to reflect the machinery and Turing’s churning mind.

He regards the orchestra that will perform his score as his “main audience”. “If I stand in front of the London Symphony Orchestra, I don’t want them to laugh at me – or even worse, be bored.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Campanula

When studying botany in college, I found the humble bean being described as ‘kidney-shaped’. And as a student of anatomy in medical college, it was amusing to find the kidney described as ‘bean-shaped’.

How about a sound-producing instrument used to describe a flower which in turn inspires and lends its name to another musical instrument? This is the curious story of the campanula.

Campanula is Latin for little bell and is used to describe the bell-shaped flowers of a certain plant genus therefore named Campanulaceae. Sometime in the 1980s, the renowned luthier Helmut Bleffert (whose award-winning cellos have found pride of place in the ranks of the Berlin Philharmonic and in the hands of equally distinguished musicians around the world) was awarded a contract to design an instrument modelled on a plant. This is not such a bizarre idea: after all, stringed instruments are made from wood, so why not go further and get their shape from the plant kingdom as well? In Indian music, the resonating chamber of the sitar is fashioned from a gourd.

Bleffert took the bellflower as his model. The campanula has some similarities with the viola d’amore of the Baroque period and with the Hardanger fiddle from Norway. Bleffert’s creation has four playing strings tuned in fifths as on a modern cello; and 16 additional ‘sympathetic’ or resonating strings fixed to the front of the instrument and tuned with pegs applied at the foot of the neck.

Campanula_Pic1

Georg Faust, former principal cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic, describes his experience with the instrument going back to 1986, when Bleffert presented the idea to him, in a blog post in this month’s issue of The Strad magazine. Faust had no free time to experiment with the campanula in 1986, being busy with the orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, and also as leader of the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic, and as chamber musician and soloist. It was only when he left the Berlin Philharmonic three years ago that he had more time “to investigate the musical and human message of the Campanula”.

If you listen to the video clip of the campanula being played, it really does sound like “playing in a cathedral”, as Faust puts it. The echoes of the resonating strings add depth and colour to the timbre of the instrument in a most intriguing manner.

The qualities of the instrument make it the ideal instrument for “fantasizing and improvising”, and make one’s own playing slower and more attentive, according to Faust.

The first Campanula festival was held in Schifferstadt, Germany in August last year, and Faust played the instrument at the Musical Instrument Museum in November. The luthier Bleffert has also fashioned Campanula violins and violas, which were also performed at the November concert.

So what would chamber music featuring these instruments sound like? A string trio or quartet? “Just magic”, if you ask Faust, who has first-hand experience.

Stefanie John, who is featured playing the instrument in a video clip on The Strad post and on Bleffert’s site, is similarly bewitched by the Campanula’s possibilities. The reverberating resonances arising when playing upon it inspire her to seek alternative phrasing for the work she is playing. She pauses more often to listen to the sound-world being created, which makes the playing much more introspective.

Ms John’s passion for the instrument extended to actually building one herself, under Bleffert’s supervision. She now plays exclusively on the instrument she has built herself, which gives her much satisfaction.

So is the Campanula “old wine in a new bottle”, a throw-back to similar instruments from the Baroque and Renaissance eras, or does it have a viable future. Faust certainly believes it does. “I am very convinced that the Campanula is ready to step on stage and enrich our musical lives. As any classical string player can just take a Campanula and play without having to learn new techniques, it offers a wonderful option for new musical experiences.”

This is a huge advantage. As the principal strings of a Campanula cello, viola or violin (perhaps even double-bass sometime in the future?) are tuned just as their modern counterparts and played no differently, it becomes easy to take up, and enter a whole new experience in string-playing.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 February 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Hats, Masks and Music at Carnival

If you’ve studied an instrument to even a basic level, chances are you are familiar with the “Carnival of Venice” tune. It is a lively tune in triple meter, and can be repeated unchanged, or more often is treated as a springboard for a string of variations upon the theme. It has seduced composers ranging from Paganini to Chopin to Tárrega and Briccialdi.

Its exact origin is unknown, but it is believed to be an old folk tune, the Neapolitan canzonetta ‘O cara Mamma mia”. The label “Carnival of Venice” became associated with it after it was quoted by the German composer Reinhard Kasser in his opera of the same name (Der Carneval von Venedig, 1707).

Over time, it has had English lyrics fitted to it: “My hat, it has three corners” (or in German, “Mein Hut, der hat drei Ecken”). The hat reference could again have to do with the fact that the tune was associated with the Venetian Carnival.

The most iconic item of the Venetian Carnival costume is of course the mask, and some scholars argue that ‘mask’ing the face was a ‘uniquely Venetian response’ to its rigid class hierarchy, one of the most orthodox in European history. But the hat completed the costume and helped to further obscure the identity. And the tricorn (three-cornered hat) was a popular addition in the 17th century, and has remained so.

Carnival of Venice

Many masks were directly borrowed from Commedia dell’arte, the theatre form featuring masked “types” that began in 16th century Italy: Columbina, Arlecchino (Harlequin), Zanni, Pantalone, etc. But there were others too: the distinctive Bauta covering the entire face, and with a beak-like chin to allow the wearer to talk, eat and drink but still preserve anonymity; and the Medico della peste (the Plague Doctor) with a long beak actually used during the plague in the (false) belief that it would somehow prevent the wearer from contracting the disease. The latter is commonly worn in the full costume of a doctor of the plague, as a Memento Mori, a reminder of the vanity and transience of life on earth and a reminder of our mortality, in the midst of all the revelry.

Back to the ‘Carnival of Venice’ tune. The full lyrics of this song are: “My hat it has three corners/Three corners has my hat/And had it not three corners, It would not be my hat”. The song is sung over and over, and commonly when sung by or for children, each time a word is omitted (‘hat’, ‘corners’, ‘three’), replaced by a gesture e.g. pointing to the head for ‘hat’, to the elbow for ‘corners’, etc.

In the hands of Niccolò Paganini, of course, this simple tune is transformed into a virtuosic showpiece, with a breathtaking twenty variations utilising every violinistic gimmick in the book, and lasting over twelve minutes in length. You can hear Salvatore Accardo toss it off effortlessly on YouTube.

And Frédéric Chopin uses the same tune to pay tribute to Paganini. His “Souvenir de Paganini”is a short, gentle lyrical salute in his unique style, in stark contrast to the narcissistic pyrotechnics in the Paganini. The left hand in the Chopin almost entirely keeps up the rocking accompaniment, while the right hand is left free to flourish and trill to its heart’s content. Again, if you visit YouTube, you can listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy and Idil Biret play this, back to back, each imprinting their own interpretation upon it.

If guitar is your thing, then listen to French guitarist Emmanuel Rossfelder play Francisco Tárrega’s Variations on ‘Carnival of Venice’. The preamble lasts a good two minutes before the theme makes an appearance and the variations commence. Quite remarkable is the way, about six variations in, the sound of a snare drum accompaniment is mimicked by pinching down the lowest two strings of the instrument. And the ‘scooping’ sound a few variations before it.

The parade continues. It seems like every conceivable instrument has had its iconic composer harness the potential of this simple tune. Paul Jeanjean has his version for clarinet and piano; you can hear Christopher Pell, accompanied by Noreen Polera at the piano. There is a really haunting, pianissimo variation in the minor key that is at its very centre, and the work finishes off with some impressive runs, perhaps involving circular breathing for it to be so seamless.

Then there’s Jean-Baptiste Arban with his tribute, for trumpet and orchestra. You have to hear Sergei Nakariakov, the ‘Heifetz’ of the trumpet, accompanied by the Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Yusupov. There are some spectacular displays of double and triple tonguing.

An even more recent take by Allen Vizzetti (b. 1952), ‘The Carnival of Venus’, is deemed one of the most difficult trumpet works ever written, in view of its interval range and its technical demands. There is even a version for euphonium by Herbert L. Clarke.

There is also a version for double bass by Giovanni Bottesini, for harp by Wilhelm Posse, for flute and orchestra by Giulio Briccialdi and flute and piano by Mike Mower.

The popular novelty song “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” (1952), sung memorably by Patti Page, is also derived from the ‘Carnival of Venice’ tune. Incidentally Page later became an advocate of animal rights and in 2009 recorded “Do you See That Doggie in the Shelter?” to underscore the suffering resulting from puppy mills in order to provide adorable pups in pet shops, and she championed the adoption of homeless animals in shelters instead.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 February 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Artistry of the first rank

Hadar Rimon (violin) and Natasha Tadson (piano) made a welcome return to Goa, and this concert at Menezes Braganza hall was just as spectacular as their first, at Kala Academy.

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The concert programme was structured much like those of the great violinist Itzhak Perlman, with redoubtable ‘serious’ masterworks of the violin repertoire in the first half, and with the second half packed with works of dazzling pyrotechnical brilliance.

An equal partnership between violin and piano in the spirit of true chamber music is called for in Beethoven’s third Sonata for Piano and Violin (E flat major Op.12) as indeed in all of the ‘violin’ sonatas written by the supreme pianist-composer. Each partner seemed to encourage even better playing in the other in a glorious upward spiral of stellar musicianship.

The second movement could well have inspired the famous ‘Pelagia’s Song’ love theme from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; the first eight notes of the tune are right in the middle of the movement. Coincidence or ‘inspiration?

The centerpiece of the concert for me was the Brahms Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 (G major Op.78). It was written just after the unexpected demise of Brahms’ 24-year old godson, the violinist and poet Felix Schumann, and the work is tinged with a gentle sadness. Here the playing by Rimon and Tadson was mature and refined, and the music seemed to build almost organically in bursts of creative energy. The second movement was rendered with utmost tenderness, and a real sense of drama in the dynamic central subject. The outer movements make fragmentary references to songs (Regenlied and Nachklang respectively or Rain Song and Echo) set by Brahms to text by his friend Klaus Groth. I heard also in the last movement creative material that Brahms would use five years later in his Fourth Symphony. In the text of Groth’s second poem, raindrops and tears mingle. Clara Schumann “could not help bursting into tears of joy”, and wished that “the last movement would accompany me to the next world.”

It certainly took us into the second half of the programme, a dizzying parade of virtuosic showpieces. Ernst’s aptly-named Brilliant Fantasy on themes from Rossini’s opera Othello is right up there in terms of violinistic technical demands, from double-stopping chromatic scales in thirds, passages in octaves, whistling harmonics, ‘coloratura’ leaping and descending passages across the register, up- and down-bow staccatos, the whole nine yards of bravura-ness. It was instructive to watch and listen to Rimon rehearse before the concert. She tossed off these works seemingly effortlessly, but the performance rested upon countless hours of meticulous attention to minute detail at her instrument.

Continuing the theme of opera-inspired fantasies, we next heard American violinist-composer Efrem Zimbalist’s Fantasy on his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Golden Cockerel”, with its ethereal harmonies and slithering chromatic passages.

Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brillante No.1 (D major, Op.4) and Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Paganini’s La Campanella (the bell-like theme from the Rondo of Paganini’s first violin concerto) followed in quick succession, played with even more daredevil virtuosity and sovereign technique.

Her encore piece was the rarely performed but delectable Cavatina by Joachim Raff, rendered with heroic intensity and in the hallmark polished, luscious full-bodied tone we now associate with Rimon. The second half thus closed, as it had begun, with operatic references, and brought the curtain down on a class act that we can only hope will return to Goa very soon.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times on 17 February 2015)

Wieniawski’s Légende: The things composers do for Lurve!

wieniawski isabella

When it comes to wearing their hearts on their sleeve and baring their emotions, composers are streets ahead of other ‘professions’. But it doesn’t always follow that there is a happy ending when it comes to romance.

What happens when a composer carries a torch for his sweetheart? Well, if she loves him back, they could elope, couldn’t they? That’s what Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck did, and some great music came out of that romance.

And if the object of affection doesn’t return the compliment, at least not in “that” way, it’s a non-starter. Beethoven and Brahms are good cases in point. But some great music always comes out of it. Or you could obsess about her to the point of distraction as Berlioz did. Again, anguish for him, great music for us.

But here’s a scenario that I’ve not come across before: what if the girl’s parents are dead against the match, so you decide to compose a piece of music so stirring, so power-packed with sentiment that they do a complete U-turn? That’s the story of Henryk Wieniawski’s Légende.

Polish violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) was born in Lublin.He shares his birth-date with me, and comes from a family with a medical background, but the similarity ends right there.

His father was Jewish, and had the names Wolf Helman or Tobias Pietruszka, but decided to convert to Catholicism, probably to better assimilate into society. As his family came from the Lublin neighbourhood of Wieniawa, he adopted the name Tadeus Wieniawski. He had a Master’s Degree in philosophy, medicine and surgery, and had a thriving medical practice. Henryk’s mother was Regina Wolff, daughter of a Jewish physician. She had studied the piano to a high level in Paris, and so the household was filled with music.

Yet Wieniawski chose the violin as his instrument at a very young age. At five, he had lessons with Jan Hornziel, pupil of Louis Spohr, and later, with Stanislaw Serwaczynski, who also taught another great violinist-composer Joseph Joachim. He made his public début aged seven, and at eight was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire under special exemption, as their minimum age for admission was twelve. He would also be the youngest graduate in the Conservatoire’s history, taking the top prize in the final competitive exam over his older colleagues.

He went on to become a concert violinist, with hectic tours of Europe through which he nevertheless still found the time to compose prodigious amounts of music for his instrument.

In 1858, Wieniawski was invited to tour London, where he was received with great acclaim by the public and his contemporaries. He was a member of the Beethoven Quartet Society, where he played viola with the likes of Joseph Joachim, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst and Alfred Piatti.

His pianist friend Anton Rubinstein introduced Wieniawski to the Hamptons and their daughter Isabella, and the two fell deeply in love. Within a year he was writing to a friend in Brussels of his intention to “marry a young English woman whom I Love more deeply than the finest Stradivarius or Guarneri”.

One would think that a violin virtuoso who was the toast of all Europe, with ringing endorsements of his genius from the likes of Vieuxtemps and Liszt, ought to be considered “a good catch”. But Isabella’s father would not hear of it. He wished his daughter to marry a man with “a more solid financial background”.

Here the story bifurcates into two versions. Take your pick. First version: Distraught at the idea of losing Isabella, Wieniawski feverishly wrote Légende, a concert piece for violin and orchestra (G minor, opus 17). He invited the parents to a private concert, at which he played the violin part himself. The parents were so impressed with the composition and the outpouring of emotion in it, and the passion and sincerity of Wieniawski’s playing that they withdrew all objections and readily gave the union their blessing. This is the more popular version and appears on the programme notes of Légende time and again. It is certainly much more romantic than the alternative version.

The second version is far more prosaic: Mr. Hampton was eventually persuaded by his wife and daughter to agree to the match, but he consent was conditional upon Wieniawski’s taking out a life-assurance policy for a huge sum of 200,000 francs and ‘settle down to married life.’ Perhaps Mr. Hampton had a premonition of doom: although it was not apparent at the time, Wieniawski suffered from a serious heart condition.

Perhaps there is a grain of truth in both versions. What is certain however is that they were wed in 1860.

Their married life was far from ‘settled’, however. Soon after their marriage, Wieniawski took up a teaching position in St. Petersburg from 1860-72, a concert tour of the US with Rubinstein from 1872-4, and replaced Vieuxtemps as Professor at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles in 1875. Isabella bore him seven children, which meant she was unable to accompany Wieniawski on his travels, except when it was convenient to leave the children with her in-laws at Lublin.

The hectic schedule took its toll. Wieniawski collapsed in Berlin in mid-performance during one concert tour. In 1879 he began a tour of Russia, but couldn’t complete it. He found himself in a Moscow paupers’ hospital, cheated of all his money by his tour organisers, with no means to survive. Musician friends and well-wishers, notably Nadezhda von Meck, who was also the patroness of Tchaikovsky, rallied and organised charity concerts to help him and his family. Isabella travelled from Brussels to be at Wieniawski’s bedside. He died in 1880, months before his forty-fifth birthday.

Légende is a miniature masterpiece, under eight minutes in duration, and its middle section in double-, triple- and quadruple stopping of strings is guaranteed to melt your heart. You might still not want to part with your daughter, but then again who knows? Maybe a private concert….

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 February 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Hadar Rimon to perform in Goa

Hadar Rimon - Violinist Natasha Tadson-Piano (1)

Music-lovers in Goa will be delighted to hear Hadar Rimon perform again in Goa. Many will remember her outstanding performance at the Kala Academy in 2012.

Hadar Rimon (violin) and Natasha Tadson (piano) will give a concert at the Menezes Braganza Hall on 9 February 2015 at 7 pm. The concert programme features works by Beethoven, Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov, Paganini and Wieniawski. Donation passes are available at Furtados Music stores at Panjim and Margão and at the door on the evening of the concert. The concert is organised by ProMusica and supported by Furtados Music and Panjim Inn.

Born in Tel–Aviv in 1986, Hadar Rimon began studying the violin at the age of five at the Catherine Lewis Music Conservatory in Tel– Aviv. She is a graduate of the Tel–Aviv School of the Arts, the Thelma–Yellin High School of the Arts, and the Buchmann–Mehta School of Music in Tel–Aviv University, where she studied with Irena Svetlova. She is currently studying at the Zurich University of the Arts. 

Rimon performed at the “Felicja Blumental” International Music Festival, which was held at the Tel–Aviv Museum. She also performed in chamber music concerts which were broadcast on radio at the Targ Music Center in Jerusalem, at the Jerusalem Music Center, and at Zavta Hall in Tel–Aviv. Representing Tel–Aviv University, she has performed in concerts in London, Glasgow, and Moscow. In March 2009, she performed a recital in Baden, Switzerland; in September 2009, at the Zurich Herbst Festival; and in June 2010, at the Henry Crown Hall in Jerusalem. 

Rimon performs recitals regularly with her mother, pianist Natasha Tadson. She performed as a soloist with the Thelma Yellin Symphony Orchestra, with the Buchmann–Mehta School of Music Symphony Orchestra, the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, the Novosibirsk Conservatory Orchestra, the Dohnányi de Budafók Symphony Orchestra, the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Natasha Tadson was born in the USSR. She graduated from the Gnessin School of Music in Moscow as a student of Victor Derevianko. She has won prizes in The National Russian Competition, Munich International Competition, Arthur Rubinstein Competition, and Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. She was also awarded the Gina Bachauer Award for extraordinary pianistic achievements. Her successful debut in Carnegie–Hall was followed by an invitation to the Marlborough Festival. Besides performing many recitals and chamber music concerts, Natasha has appeared with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Santa–Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the UK, and others. She has played under conductors such as Paul Paray, Michael Tilson–Thomas, Daniel Oren, Lucas Foss, Sergy Comissona, Mendy Rodan, and others. Her repertoire includes works from the Baroque era as well as contemporary music.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Buzz section on 8 February 2015)

The Bogányi Piano

Boganyi piano

One fringe benefit of organising concerts is the opportunity to spend time with the performers and get to know them a little better. Many of you will fondly remember the piano recital by Gergely Bogányi at Angels Resort Porvorim in November 2011. How quickly the years go by!

It was a fantastic concert, to be sure. His visit stands out in my memory for this of course, but also for the sense of urgency he showed for getting to the sun, surf and sand as quickly as was possible. Hungary was in the throes of one of its coldest winters, and temperatures had plummeted to serious double digits below zero. Bogányi needed some vitamin D in a hurry. I had gone to fetch him from the airport, and he didn’t want to wait even to first check into his hotel; where was the nearest beach? So we took a detour to Bogmalo. Bogányi shed his layers of winter clothing and donned swimwear he purchased at the beach, and in a trice, we were in the Arabian Sea, soaking in the afternoon sun.

We got talking, and it was then that Bogányi told me about a ‘new piano’ he was designing. The conversation then drifted on to other things, so I really did not get a sense of how developed and how close to fruition his piano project was.

So when news of a “revolutionary”, “Space-age”, “Wonder piano” began to trickle into my newsfeed on 21 January, it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that its creator was Gergely Bogányi. The piano made its début with Bogányi himself playing upon it at a gala concert at the Academy of Music in Budapest on 21 January, the eve of the Day of Hungarian Culture.

So what is the Bogányi piano, exactly? The promotional website has a glossy video on its home page triumphantly proclaiming “a new dimension of quality sound”, “born out of deep love and humble respect for the classical piano tradition.” It has a rather mystifying mantra: “Sound beyond Time”.

To look at, the Bogányi piano would fit right in aboard the Starship Enterprise. It has the aerodynamic design and sleek lines of a luxury automobile. It has two wide sweeping legs instead of the standard slender three, and their curved shape helps deflect the sound of the piano to the audience from below the instrument as well as from above.

The bigger innovation, however, lies within, unseen. The ‘soul’ of a bowed string instrument is its soundpost, and indeed it is even called ‘alma’ in many languages. Similarly the ‘soul’ of a piano is its soundboard. Traditionally made of wood, it is replaced in the Bogányi piano by a futuristic, space-age ‘composite,’ complex material used in space technology. As Bogányi explained in an interview, “Wood has both, its advantages and disadvantages. It’s fragile, it changes and reacts to all external effects. Composite is not prone to such changes”. So a Bogányi piano ought to be more weather-resistant. The elements (heat, humidity, cold, damp, dryness) are sworn enemies of any stringed instrument having wood in its design. The Bogányi piano promises to hold its tuning for longer as well.

The composite material is a multi-layered carbon-fibre with a rippled surface that is sprung and detached from the piano frame.

Bogányi explains how and why his piano needed to be born. “For years I have played with a sound in my head, different to that which I was playing. It was always in another dimension different from the actual sound coming from the piano. Somehow, it was a more beautiful harmonious, flowing sound. I understood this might have been the same with J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Franz Liszt. To the extent that Liszt, for example, worked with the piano manufactures at the time to modify and improve the sound to match the expectations he had in his mind.

“In those days these famous composers made a difference and some strides in the traditional piano design. Today, I have taken the same approach. I felt passionately and was intrigued to find out how I could make a difference. How could I bridge the gap between the ‘miraculous’ sound in my head and that of the sound I was hearing? 

“I had also spent countless hours with my professional piano tuner, who travelled the world with me. Trying to find that consistent, quality sound in every piano. It was always so difficult with each concert hall having such different conditions that affected the piano. Dryness, dust, humidity were always a factor. Could we find a way to keep this quality consistent?”

Bogányi also drew huge inspiration from the brilliant (but unsung after his death) Hungarian piano maker Lajos Beregszászy (1817-1891). Beregszászy made innovations to the piano action and soundboard that were bought by the famed piano manufacturer Bosendorfer. He made learned improvements upon the agraffe, the ‘hook’ that prevents a piano string from vibrating between the pin and the bridge. The Bogányi piano incorporates the Beregszászy agraffe system in its design. Bogányi felt the urge to take up the Hungarian thread of piano innovation following in Beregszászy’s footsteps.

The instrument is priced at around EUR 200,000 and has a patent in many countries, including the USA and China.

Piano expert Károli Reisinger, CEO and owner of New York’s piano repair shop Klavierhaus, was present at the début of the Bogányi piano and was “mesmerised” by its sound quality, which according to him restored lyrical qualities to the piano sound-world after a century spent of developing more power from the instrument. “In this design you will be able to hear the 1850-1860 era qualities, lyrical, bell-like, precise – and also the modern instrument that our time is used to, which is clarity”.

Four-time Grammy nominated jazz pianist Gerard Clayton was also impressed. “The sound almost feels as if you’re in a bubble, it’s so clear. It’s a new sensation”, he said.

The sound clip on the website is indeed beautiful, but I’d love to hear it up close. Will the Bogányi piano stand the test of time and enter the annals of the instrument’s history? Or will it be a quirky blip on its timeline? Will its Sound truly transcend Time, as its by-line suggests, earning it immortality and the worship of pianists everywhere? Only Time will tell.

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 February 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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