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.

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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.

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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)

Hadar Rimon, violin Natasha Tadson, piano 9 February 2015, 7 pm Menezes Braganza Hall

HADAR RIMON POSTER 2015

ProMusica presents Hadar Rimon, violin, and Natasha Tadson, piano, in a programme featuring works by Beethoven, Brahms, Paganini and Wieniawski.
Donation passes available at Furtado Music stores.

Many of you will have attended their previous concert in Goa in January 2012, so you’ll know this is going to be a wonderful concert!
For those who didn’t, here’s a review of that concert:
https://luisdias.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/hadar-rimon-stuff-of-legend/
“This is the stuff of legend, and those who gave her concert a miss are immeasurably the poorer for it.”
So get your passes quickly! This concert will probably get sold out, as it deserves to.
The donation passes to ProMusica concerts will henceforth be priced at Rs. 150 each.
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Just a few words on the logistics of organising such concerts:
It takes a lot of co-ordination, correspondence and planning to bring such high-calibre concerts to the Goan public. One has to be in constant touch with the artistes and with other organisers and impresarios in other parts of the country also planning the artistes’ concert tour.
The average cost per concert (which includes flights, hotel stay, performance fees, concert hall booking fees, and printing costs for flyers and donation passes) can range from Rs. 60,000 to 80,000.
So for these concerts to be offered at Rs. 150 per donation pass is a real bargain, and very good value for money. If one were to hear the same performer in Wigmore Hall London or in Carnegie Hall New York, one could easily be paying 10 or 20 times as much.
It is very hard to even recover the organising costs, and one needs to do this to keep on bringing such concerts to the Goan public in the future.
So please do support these concerts by coming yourselves, with all your friends and family and acquaintances. Spread the word by forwarding this email to your mailing list.
Print off our concert posters and put them up in your commercial establishments, or your local church or other places where they will be noticed.
Even if you are not able to come, please buy up our donation passes or make a contribution to help us defray costs of organising these really high-calibre events.
It is very important that our youth and the rest of us keep getting exposed to music of the highest quality, to inspire us, to aspire to play like them ourselves, and also to nourish those of us who just listen.

Peter and the Wolf

Peter & Lobo

On Sunday morning (25 January 2015) at 10.30 am, Child’s Play India Foundation will host a free screening of “Peter and the Wolf: A Prokofiev Fantasy” at Caritas Conference hall, St. Inez. Children and adults are welcome.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the both text and the music to this delightful children’s story soon after returning in 1936 to the USSR from his many years of travelling and living abroad. He was commissioned by the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow to write a new “symphony for children”. Prokofiev rose to this intriguing challenge, using his genius to complete this masterpiece in a matter of days. Some accounts say four, others fourteen days, but it is a remarkable piece of work. Prokofiev thought up the story himself, drawing upon memories from his own childhood.

It did not get off to a good start; it debuted on 2 May 1936, but, as Prokofiev put it, “[attendance] was poor and failed to attract much attention.”

Since then of course, it is ever popular with young children and music teachers alike, and is often found on CD recordings in combination with other children’s favourites: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

The text is spoken by a narrator, accompanied by orchestra. It is a great introduction to the instruments and the sound-world of the orchestra. A whole host of celebrities has stepped in as narrator over time: Eleanor Roosevelt, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Leonard Bernstein, Sean Connery, Richard Attenborough, David Attenborough, Mia Farrow, David Bowie, Itzhak Perlman, Prokofiev’s widow Lina and their son Oleg and grandson Gabriel, Christopher Lee, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Edna Everage, Sting, Ben Kingsley, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Sophia Loren, Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton among so many others.

Each character in the tale has a signature motif, played on a distinctive instrument or group of instruments. The ‘hero’ of the story is Peter, represented by a cheerful melody played by the stringed instruments of the orchestra: violin, viola, cello and double bass. He is a Young Pioneer, the Communist bloc equivalent of the Boy Scout. He lives with his grandfather in a clearing in the forest. One sunny day, Peter ventures out into the woods, leaving the garden gate open, so the duck (represented by the oboe) that lives in the yard waddles out for a swim in the nearby pond. He compares notes with a bird (represented by the flute): “What kind of bird are you if you can’t fly?” – “What kind of bird are you if you can’t swim?”

Peter’s pet cat (a furtive yet resolute tune played by the clarinet) stalks them both, until Peter lets out a shout, sending the bird scurrying into a tree while the duck swims out of reach into the middle of the pond.

Peter’s grandfather (played in the deep bass register by the bassoon) scolds Peter for his carelessness, but Peter is all bravado: “Young boys like me are not afraid of wolves”. The grandfather gets Peter back into the house and locks the gate. But the duck and the cat are still out.

Presently a “big grey wolf” (a sinister tune played in a minor key by a trio of French horns) does appear. The cat climbs to safety into a tree, but the panic-stricken duck jumps out of the pond, is pursued by the wolf, and swallowed in one great gulp.

Peter slips out of the house, taking with him a rope which he was fashioned into a noose to ensnare the wolf. With the bird as hid ally in distracting his quarry, he manages to slip the noose around the wolf’s tail.

A hunting party (woodwind theme, with gunshot sounds on timpani and bass drum) has been trailing the wolf and they raise their rifles to shoot, but Peter talks them into taking the beast to a zoo in a victory parade, headed by Peter, the bird, the hunters and the wolf, the cat, and a grumbling grandfather: “What if Peter hadn’t caught the wolf? What then?”

The story ends with the narrator telling us, “If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.”

The story has a lot of creative potential, and adaptations have included Walt Disney animation; a Dixieland band (with the part of the duck played by saxophone as Dixieland bands do not have oboe); a 1970s rock music version with Phil Collins, Manfred Mann, Alvin Lee and jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli among others; a Muppet version; and a Sesame Street version.

Conductor Claudio Abbado had recorded Peter and the Wolf with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1993 and wished to make a children’s film using the soundtrack and the muppets from the British satirical puppet show Spitting Image. It would be an expensive undertaking. In Spitting Image, political figures got several “appearances” in their muppet avatars, but the Peter and the Wolf characters would need to be specially created just for the film, and then have no further use. The soundtrack had other music as well, also by Prokofiev: his “Classical” Symphony; Overture on Hebrew Themes; and March in B flat Opus 99.

Director Christopher Swann cleverly weaves everything into this Prokofiev Fantasy, and ropes in Prokofiev himself who morphs into the Grandfather. The March begins and ends the film; the Overture becomes an old man’s (Prokofiev/Grandfather) recollection of old-world Russia; and the Classical Symphony becomes the perfect setting for a Musical Heaven, where all the composers the Prokofiev was both honouring and challenged by in writing the work, make cameo appearances: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner.

The narrator is Sting (the Italian version has actor-comedian Roberto Benigni doing the honours), and there is a fleeting Spitting Image appearance by our Zubin Mehta as well

(An edited version of this article was published on 25 January 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Butterfly Effect in my life

In the early 1950s, my father was a medical student in post-war Germany. In then West Berlin, in West Germany to be precise, as the country had been divided into two, with an ugly wall carving up the city as well.

One evening, not that long after his arrival, he needed to ask for directions to find his way about the city. It was fate, a roll of the dice, that made him stop a young German gentleman with film-star good looks, and more than a passing resemblance to the great young tenor Fritz Wunderlich. His name was Joachim Doll. Herr Doll happened to be going that way anyway, and offered to walk with him. And as they were passing his house, he invited my dad in. My dad met the familie Doll, and long story short, they took my dad into their home and into their hearts, as another family member.

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And so began a friendship that has spanned four generations and six decades. And counting.

My dad was in the small group of intimate friends and family invited to Joachim’s wedding. When my dad married and started a family in Germany, the Dolls were very much a part of it.

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Joachim’s mother (affectionately known as Tante Käte or Aunt Kate) became my elder brother’s godmother, and Joachim is my godfather.

When my family relocated to Goa in 1970, the connection with the Dolls continued, largely through letters (remember the good old aerogrammes?) but also periodic long-distance trunk calls for birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas. Our visits back and forth were sporadic. When I made my first solo trip to Europe in 1996, and my first return trip to the country of my birth after having left it in 1970, Joachim and Annemarie made a real effort to learn English in advance, as they were not sure how much German I’d remember. But we understood each other just fine. I made a couple of visits when I was based in England, and they came to my wedding ten years ago.

When Joachim and Annemarie’s granddaughter Viola came of age and had a gap year, she chose India as her volunteer destination because of the connection with us. The charity was based in Pune, and involved teaching children to read and write. Viola and a friend visited us for a couple of days, during which time she learnt about Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music charity that I had begun, that helped bring music education to underprivileged children.

Viola must have given an enthusiastic account of our work to her mentors at the placement agency through which she was sent to India from Germany. They got in touch with me, and even made a trip to Goa to see first-hand for themselves what we did.

Before long, we were entering into an agreement wherein they’d be happy to send us young Germans who had music skills and wished to work with the underprivileged sector. I explained our preference for volunteers able to play and teach cello, as we were in the process of setting up a cello project, and it needed all the help it could get.

By now, I’ve gotten accustomed to little miracles, tiny explosions of synchronicity or serendipity or whatever you prefer to call them, ever since the inception of Child’s Play in 2010. But even so, I found it hard to take in the speed at which things progressed from here.

Within months, I was asked whether we’d be willing to accept two young volunteers for a whole year, one for cello (!), and who also was a very good pianist; and another for recorder and flute. It was a whole new experience for us, and it meant having to learn all about contracts and agreements and registrations, but it has worked very well. Lukas Hartmann (cello, piano) and Friedrich Walzel (recorder, flute) have been with us since September 2014, and it’s been great.

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They help coach our kids at Hamara School St. Inez and at Mitsuko Trust, and worked with the rest of our Child’s Play team to prepare our children for the Christmas concert at Santa Cruz church, at which forty of our children performed an assortment of Suzuki tunes and Christmas songs. They also play in our ensemble, Camerata Child’s Play India.

As the New Year begins, it is time for us to prepare for the next batch of volunteers from Germany this September. And I can’t help thinking how all this was set in motion when two people met on a street in Berlin and struck up a friendship, and the chain reaction that ensued from there. What if my dad had stopped someone else? What if Joachim had been busy, and merely pointed out the directions instead of literally walking the extra mile with him? What if my dad hadn’t been lost on that day? Would they have passed each other on the street without so much as looking at each other or brushing shoulders? What if my dad had not needed to be in Germany at all, and had not been denied admission to study medicine in Portugal by the Salazar regime on account of his pro-Liberation views? So many “what ifs”.

It reminds me of the “butterfly effect”, how the flapping of a tiny, fragile butterfly’s wings can theoretically set in motion a chain of events leading to the elemental force of a hurricane much later.

And it leads me to conclude that even if this cascade of events hadn’t occurred, another one would have, and it might have been just as wonderful. Perhaps these little chain reactions are commencing right now, or are well under way.

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 January 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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