Posts Tagged ‘music’

Emperors and Bohemians

July 16, 2017

We went to Prague, and what a trip that was. I am quite sure there is no place like that Czech city on earth; Praha is a totally unique city–a surreal blend of medieval architecture and modern chutzpah.

One reason that ancient metropolis retains so much Old World ambience is that during the big war back in the ’40’s, Prague did not suffer major bombing damage. So there are parts of the city, particularly near the Castle, in which your wandering really does take on the feeling of a stroll through the Old Europe of medieval times, except for all the tourists waving their devices around.

Such as us.

We were right there, in with all that crowd of world-travelers snapping pics, gazing quizzily at our phones, searching for signs of meaning in the domiciles of Kafka and Havel.

Although I strive to write here with some profundity, I must admit that my few days there–although thoroughly edifying and significant–qualify me for nothing more that the status of being a tourist who was in awe of the place. I truly got the feeling that no, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

So now, today, as we roll along toward Budapest, I reflect on our time in Prague, but my mind also wanders back to our all-too-brief sojourn through Vienna, which came before Prague. My analytical, touristic mind wants to make a comparison. So here it is, in all its dubious oversimplification.

Prague is bizarre, proletarian, and cutting edge.

Vienna is presumptuous, regal and Establishment.

Great cities do have, you know, an identity. Think of the difference between, say San Francisco and Washington DC. What’s going on here in central Europe is somewhat like that. Think of, say, a bunch of hippies in 1968 showing up in Washington DC.

A century and a half ago, when the Vienna-based Hapsburgs were ruling their Austro-Hungarian empire, their noblesse oblige sensibilities must have been seriously ruffled when they would encounter, from time to time, the sight of wild-eyed Bohemians who had just rolled in from the Czech outback. On the back of a turnip cart, perhaps, these unrefined immigrants from the hinterlands rolled into staid Vienna with rocking chairs on the back of their carts like Granny Clampett, while their uncouth cousins probably strutted along, coaxing untamed gypsy melodies from their fiddles like there was no tomorrow.

Of course, when the First Big War finally ground down to a halt back in 1918, there was, in fact, no tomorrow for the Hapsburg royals. The jig was up for them and for their obsequious entourage of noblesse oblige courtesans who had populated  the royal courts of Vienna for half a millennium.

But the difference between these two great cities of Europe is retained in the feeling you get while visiting each one.

Vienna, as a major tourist destination, still capitalizes upon and cultivates that royal legacy with which they were born. You can feel it, you can see it plainly in what they emphasize in their presentation to us visitors.

Here are two pics from our Vienna hotel:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare this ambiance to  a pic I snapped from our first night in Prague:

 

You get the picture?

This morning in Hungary, I was recalling a statement that our Vienna tour guide had made when we were there last week. She was telling us about the financial patronage through which the Hapsburgs supported orchestral  Music in Vienna during the Classical Age, which was during a period  from about 1760 to 1810 or so.

Our guide spent a good while  talking about the Emperor’s favored composers, Mozart and Haydn. The music of these two composers embodies the dignified, perfectly structured character of Classical Music as it was appreciated and financed by powerful, order-cultivating imperial benefactors. Our guide Iva also mentioned that, toward the end of the Classical period, Beethoven became a recipient who benefited from  those Hapsburg pursestrings. But Beethoven’s status as a recipient of their order-cultivating, imperial patronage was somewhat questionable. His musical identity–his struggle to surpass the courtly bonds of Mozart/Haydn conventionality– was always on the edge of something terribly new and disruptive. Ludwig stood, in fact, on the dizzying precipice of a new 19th-century eruption in music. And he knew it. His opus would not turn out to be a kind of music that proceeds from the calm waters of courtly, post baroque, Classical concerts.

Ludwig’s music turned out to be expressive, emotional, even explosive. His orchestral movements were a harbinger of a newly-forming revolutionary age, a disruptive century to come. His booming symphonies resonated more with those Czech Bohemians than with his courtesan mentors Mozart and Haydn. Ludwig was a German from somewhere over there in the cauldron of  the Rhine/Ruhr, an upstart. And even though he was able to obtain support from Emperor Josef, he was never the comfortable courtesan composer like Mozart and Haydn had been.

Our Vienna guide, Iva, mentioned this. She explained that the the imperial support for that unpredictable young German was of a different nature. The times they were a-changing.  Ludvig von Beethoven wasn’t the mere conveyor of those raucous new symphonic strains; he was an (if not the) originator of the  new romanticism in music. When Iva concluded her spiel on the great  music that had come out of imperial Vienna, I felt that there was something she had left out.

(Excuse me) “What about Strauss?” I asked.

Her answer surprised me.

She said that the Strauss music–the waltzes, the Blue Danube, et al which came later in the 19th-century–were considered by the  Vienna Establishment to be “pop music.” They were equivalent to the “Dirty Dancing” of that time.

Strauss waltzes, the “Dirty dancing!” ?? of that day?

Duh! ????

She said that Strauss went to Chicago and did a concert for a hundred thousand people.

But that did not impress the Establishment in Vienna.  As far as they were concerned, Johann Strauss Jr and his thumping waltzes were in the same league with . . . dirty dancing.

I suppose the royals and their courtesans always preferred their little, intimate venues like this one in Vienna, a space where, as our Vienna guide explained, Mozart had done one of his last concerts.

I will never get a handle on how all this human art and music plays out.

Glass Chimera 

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Hilary, Liz and Dodd-Frank

February 21, 2017

Violin

Oh, there was a time, when I was a young man, when I would fiddle around, and that was nice enough for a while.

Then life came and went.

Nowadays, I find myself content to merely listen while life slips by.

In ages past, a maestro such as Felix Mendelssohn could  imagine something incredible; he could then summon up in his own mind and hands– an exquisite composition, an intricate stream of vibrations–as sublime as any that could ever be coaxed from a mere box constructed of wood and wire. He could then write the composition. Then, 170 years later Hilary could set bow to instrument and, with help from the orchestra, make it all happen so perfectly.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1dBg__wsuo

There’s a reason why my fiddle has been set aside all these years. Why bother? There’s somebody who can do it better. There’s somebody out there who can, in fact, do it perfectly.

Just listen. But I get to thinking. . .

Years go by. We pay attention, try to figure things out. There’s always somebody out there who can do things better than we can. Leave the complicated stuff to experts. And listen. Listen and learn. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.

Just daydreaming now; I think of Sally Field in Forrest Gump when she was playing his mother and she said life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.

Think about 2008. Everybody just lollygaggin’ along. . .then whoosh! well, you remember what happened. Everybody’s shell-shocked. Uncle Hank stammering on the Tube. They had to twist Congress’ arm two or three times before they’d come up with the money to fix the mess, at least temporarily.

Then the experts get trotted out to analyze, to testify, to figure what the hell happened in stock markets that made the thing come crashin’ down–something about market manipulations of MBS’s, unforeseen incredibilities of CDO’s, the incredulous defaulting of credit default swaps blah blah blah

As the thing unwinds, along come the explanations, the excuses, the wagging fingers, the committees, the commissions, the oversight agencies get rolled out, cranked up. Republicans in shock because Obama’s in. Democrats trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Democrats got to fix everything, so what do they do. . .

Let’s fix everything up, they say.

Ok. Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

Years go by. Big shock when Trump comes blasting’ into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave after those 8 years of Mr. Smooth.

Now this morning we hear Amy and Juan on the radio, and here’s Senator Liz whining about how the new Republican whirlwind wants to wind down Dodd-Frank, which was supposed to be the big fix, the big Democratic fix.  I mean, she’s a little bit crazy, like all Democrats, but there’s one thing about Liz, she can play the rhetoric like Hilary plays the violin. It’s no wonder Mitch had to cut her off last week. Anyway,  Liz is saying:

“Commercial and consumer lending is robust. Bank profits are at record levels. And our banks are blowing away their global competitors. So, why go after banking regulations? The president and the team of Goldman Sachs bankers that he has put in charge of the economy want to scrap the rules so they can go back to the good old days, when bankers could take huge risks and get huge bonuses if they got lucky, knowing that they could get taxpayer bailouts if their bets didn’t pay off. We did this kind of regulation before, and it resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We cannot afford to go down this road again.”

I mean, Liz might have a point there. If things are so ROBUST, why do we still get this feeling about the 20,000+ Dow? Is it deja vu, or deja due, or prescience, maybe too much twitter or not enough facebook, or a rerun of common sense or what? Maybe it’s all just a bunch of hot air blowin’ around and we keep wonderin’ about the whole house of cards but we can’t really put our finger on what’s wrong cuz you know the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind and life is like a box of chocolates anyway, a mere lala land where we think we got it figured out but really we don’t.

Although I do have to remind you, Liz, since I am a registered Republican: we can’t fix everything. If we could, and if we did, why, how boring would that be?

So my advice to you is we’d best leave the fiddlin’ to the experts. Sooner or later we’ll all have to face the music anyway.

Glass half-Full

from Ridiculous to Sublime

September 28, 2016

A couple of nights ago, I briefly tuned into that  greatly over-hyped debate. Donald was blathering about Hillary’s emails and she was going on and on about his failure to release tax returns.

Nothing new here, just more of the same old same old blah blah.

So I ditched it, and went back to what I had been doing before, because, I thought, this is ridiculous.

Well then a day or two rolls by.

This afternoon, while listening to WDAV on the radio, my soul was stirred profoundly by the hearing of an amazing selection of music. And I found myself wondering, what is it about this music that moves me so much?

I don’t know, but I can tell you one thing. This music it is sublime.

What is sublime? you may wonder. I cannot adequately explain to you what the word sublime means, but I can show you where the meaning is clearly demonstrated if you will listen to this:

   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOofwWT3Edc

As the changing drama within the music builds up, pay particular attention to these     minute-time points in the video: 2:58, 4:00, 5:55 and 8:32.

I recently read something about how or why  this artistic dynamism moves us so much. In his book, A Secular Age,

  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B002KFZLK2/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Charles Taylor says . .

“. . . such art can serve to disclose very deep truths which in the nature of things can never be obvious . . .”

This music is, after all physical analysis is said and done, merely a pounding of wood and metal beneath the orchestrated hands of trained men. How can it be, then, that it moves me so?

To try to understand why or how, you might as well try to comprehend how or why, over two centuries ago, some men and women like you and me had a luxurious building constructed and then  walked around on its mosaic floor like they owned the place and then later a bunch of other stuff happened and things changed and it got covered up for a long time and then one day some other people came along and dug it up and said . . .

“. . .well, gollee, what do you know about that?”

“Gosh, Jeb, it’s a mystery to me.”

RomanAthens

Glass Chimera

The Troubled Waters

July 26, 2016

TroubledRiver

Paul Simon presents a grim solemnity as he croons his old tune, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, for the convened Democrats yesterday in Philadelphia. In  sharing with them this classic, well-loved anthem that he wrote, Paul imparts a  sense of profound desperation. But the weary, hopeless person whose dire circumstance is so poetically described in the song receives, in the end,  a deliverance. Hope shines through when a caring friend intervenes.

Paul’s tender message of friendship is well-received by the Democrats. They take the inspiration to heart by joining in, and swaying to the music’s gentle rhythm.

   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v12fPV6QmeU

While viewing this scene on YouTube yesterday, I noticed Paul’s grave countenance, and I was a little surprised by the obvious aging that has reshaped his face.  Many years ago, I was greatly moved–as many of my boomer generation were– by his poetic, prophetic songs. Here is one from back in the day, for which he is perhaps most well-known:

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDIjj7CQYZw

 That was Paul Simon then, in 1965; but this is now, 2016. The world seems to be a very different place.

Yesterday in Philadelphia, the assembled Democrats responded empathetically to Paul’s solemn presentation of Bridge over Troubled Waters.      

But We Americans are a diverse collection of people. Those communitarian Democrats represent a certain segment of our population. There is, however, another strain of us Americana whose emphasis is not so much on community and everybody getting together to solve society’s problem.  I’m talking about the rugged individualists.

About the same time–mid 1960’s–that Paul Simon was so profoundly poeticizing our youthful alienation, there was– on the golden horizon of seasoned celebrity– another very popular singer. He was a smooth crooner whose older, mellowing generational zeitgeist had arisen from a very different historical time and circumstance.

Here’s a clip of Frank Sinatra, the original crooner a la 1940’s, as he belts out the song that became a theme for many, many Americans of his generation. It is a tune that expresses the determination and perseverance of his generation–the same generation that ran the Nazis and the Fascists back into their holes over there in old Europe.

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnXIPV6Jh4Y

Ole Blue Eyes Frank made it big during his given time. Back in his day it was all about celebrating the good times that settled in after the War, getting all dressed up, having a few drinks, and laughing.

A couple of decades later, the sensitive poet Simon, like Dylan and others, came along, touching the troubled nerve of a booming generation that couldn’t seem to find its place in that old way of viewing the world.

So, seeing yesterday, ole Paul as he lead the communitarians in wailing that tender tune–this had an meaningful impact on me. Finding myself now in a never-never land between two obese political parties, I am alienated, wandering, looking for the party, but unable to find one that celebrates what I know to be true.

Stranger in a strange country, I wonder as I wander. . . out under the darkening sky.

But every now and then I encounter something or someone that partly expresses what I dimly discern in this land of  troubled waters– a stubborn, though fragile, life that is draped in mystery, yet with occasional glimpses of our sure mortality, and a hopeful longing  for immortality.

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuXb4She_sU

Glass half-Full

The Inspiration of Harriet Tubman in 1937

April 21, 2016

In the novel, Smoke, which I published last year, a young American businessman, Philip Morrow, accompanies a refugee family through France in the year 1937. Across the border in Germany, the Nuremberg laws had established a set of dangerous restrictions promulgated by the Nazis to drive the Jews out of Germany, and to abscond their wealth.

In the story, the Eschen family has fled Munich in a hurry. Their hasty departure is provoked when their son/brother has been arrested and imprisoned at Dachau.

In this excerpt from chapter 14 of Smoke, we find the Eschens relieved to have crossed the French border into the province of Alsace. Gathered with some newfound French friends, they are sharing a meal and giving an account of their escape. Philip is inquiring about the conditions through which they fled from Munich to the border and then crossed into France. As Philip speaks, Hannah, the older sister makes mention of American woman whose daring enterprise is a benchmark of American history.

       “Harriet Tubman,” Hannah broke in.

       “Harriet who? What are you talking about?”

       “Tubman. Harriet Tubman,” the young woman repeated. “. . . an American Negro woman who escaped slavery about a hundred years ago. She went to the north, to the free states of America, where the practice of slavery had been outlawed. She started an organization for her people to escape the cotton plantations in the south, and go up to the free states in the north, where they could begin a new life.”

       “The Underground Railroad,” said Philip. “How did you know about that?” he asked, looking with surprised interest across and down the table at Hannah.

       “I’ve been reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,” she replied. “It just occurred to me that, in our predicament here, our family is like those slaves who had escaped before the American civil war. “The Negroes were, like us now, a stateless people. They had been sold into slavery in Africa, and shipped across the Atlantic in terrible ships, where they were forced to pick cotton for plantation owners for many generations, until Harriet Tubman escaped and set up secret itineraries for their escape.”

       “But you are not like Negro slaves. You are prosperous Jews,” objected Donald, gently.

       “Not any more, we’re not, Monsieur Satie,” Hannah answered. “This is the enormity of it—of the changes that the Third Reich has imposed. All that my father and mother have worked for—and our grandparents before them—has been robbed, a little bit at a time, from us!—including  my brother. And now the Nazis have built a slave camp, where they intend to concentrate us Jews—Heinrich is not the only one—and  force us into doing work to build up the wehrmacht, so Hitler can exact vengeance against us, and not only against us ‘prosperous’ Jews, but against you, too, you French people, and the British, who imposed the treaty of Versailles on Germany after the war.”

Such was a conversation might have taken place in Europe in 1937.

Looking forward forty-years, here’s a song I recorded in 1978 about yet newer manifestations of the Underground Railroad scenario:

Underground Railroad Rides Again

Smoke

Never Came the Song

March 29, 2016

Last night we heard Graeme Edge, drummer for the Moody Blues, celebrating his latest birthday. It was heartwarming to see a 75-year-old dude romping around onstage with his tambourine while his bandmates knocked out a 2016 version of one of their mystic-rock classics.

Before his little rockaround the stage jig, the septuegenarian percussionist had been performing his customary 50-year gig up on the platform behind his trap-set.

From my perspective, it looked something like this:

MoodyBlues

There’s the dancing drummer, glowing beneath a lightning bolt.

Below his illuminated perch, down there on center-right stage, Justin Hayward and John Lodge do their uniquely musical Moody thing for the full house of baby-geezers who had gathered here in Charlotte at the Blumenthal performing arts center.

A good time was had by all.

It was a little strange though, and not just because of the eerily beautiful quality in which their songs always vibrated. It was strange for me because I spent the whole night waiting to hear a song that never came.

Back in 1970, there was a particular song that captured my young imagination for a long time–a time that has stretched from then all the way into  this present time, 2016.

Even though I have always greatly appreciated the Moodys’ unprecedented, unduplicated, unsurpassable music, I spent almost the entire first half of the concert in disappointment, because all I was hearing was loud rock music–newer stuff with which I was not familiar. And not only newer and unfamiliar, but also Loud.  Maybe I’m just getting too old to appreciate this stuff I thought. Then, thankfully, one of the great classics crept into their presentation when they performed The Story in Your Eyes just before intermission.

Here’s a YouTube that shows you what that song is:

     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-iJ47in9YQ

After the break, a 20-minute period in which many of us frumpy, graying boomers populated the outer regions of the venue while noticing how many older people were wandering around and wondering where they all came from, even though we knew of course that they had breezed in from the cities and suburbs and hills and vales and cobwebs and freeways of my g-generation. . .the second part of the concert got steadily better when the band did much of their classic stuff.

I say the band. Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder were not there. No explanation about that. None necessary. Old folks like us understand these things. We know that people–even famous rock musicians– change, and move on to other groups or other gigs or other things they want to do with their life. So our concert was conducted by the three originals who remain: Justin Hayward, John Lodge and Graeme Edge, accompanied by their younger, very talented new recruits to handle the other instruments. Of course Mike Pindar’s powerful presence on the mellotron was missed, as was Ray Thomas with his flute, vocals and other woodwinds. Those absences were admirably filled by the 2016 members: Alan Hewitt on keyboards, Norda Mullen on flute, Denny Laine on keyboards.

But I never got to hear the song performed that I most wanted to hear. Never Comes the Day is a tender, romantic tune that originated in the plaintive heart of a young man (Justin Hayward) who has not time enough to spend with the girl he loves. Hearing that song back in my college days– included as it was on the Moody Blues’ Threshold of a Dream album there was a deep place of longing in my heart that was occupied for many years only by that song and a few other special love songs like it.

So while I did enjoy the trip down memory lane with this new iteration of the Moody Blues, there was nevertheless a certain old feeling of emptiness–maybe it was just nostaglia– at the end of the concert, because I had not heard that special song. I waited for it, but it never came.

But hey! It was nevertheless a great ending. The beautiful woman sitting next to me last night at the Moody Blues 2016 concert–I took  her home with me.

She’s the woman who answered that hearthrob call of Never Comes the Day deep in my heart. She’s the one who, thank God, filled that plaintive void, beginning with our courtship and marriage over 36 years ago. And last night we had a wonderful date listening, with a few a thousand or so other old couples, to the Moody Blues do their musical wonders.

 If you like this, here’s another selection from the most unique, most musical rock group of my g-generation. It’s the song–Question— with which they ended last night’s concert that we attended in Charlotte.

Glass half-Full

Bare Bach, Vivid Vivaldi

November 14, 2015

BareBrnchs

Summer’s done and leaves are gone:

branches bare, and death’s begun

to take its toll on the living one

whose active hands are not yet done.

 

Sound, summoned from somewhere deep inside,

strikes from string an imaginary ride

upon vibrations far and wide.

Here is life, and death must hide.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bVRTtcWmXI

While bare branches inspire a sparse domain

‘twixt Bach and Perlman’s music without name,

some strenuous feat is being strewn upon a stringy frame

as spider spins his precious game.

WebCedr

Bare-branched strains give way to woven strands

so, through ages, some vivid virtuoso stands

to spin a web of Stradivarius demands;

Vivaldi’s winter surrounds Samuelsen’s hands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KxzuY0fJ-s

 

Smoke

Aftermath of a Musical Dream

October 18, 2015

While catching up on some tasks around the homeplace yesterday, a mid-afternoon weariness came upon me, and so I decided to take a little siesta.

Having finished the outdoor chores, I was inside the house. WDAV was tuned in on the radio. My favorite deejay, Mike McKay, was introducing the station’s 3 pm airing of a performance by the Charlotte Symphony.

I lost track of what Mike was saying as I stretched me weary ole bones upon the floor to partake of a wee bit of personalized yoga recovery, otherwise known as dozing off while stretching.

The next thing I know, my mind was stirred in wakefulness that attended a hearing of some incredibly beautiful music.

The experience was ethereal, as if I were dreaming, and yet there I was, my conscious attention approaching some orchestral destination that was being played out in my mind, or in the airwaves, or in the room, or somewhere I’ve never been.

I listened.

A little while later, I checked the WDAV website to find out what that music was that had stirred my awareness up from a necessary mid-afternoon slumber.

http://www.wdav.org/1_33_38.cfm

Now, the next day, a little Google search brings me to some comprehension about the source of yesterday’s dreamy revery: Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by theme by Thomas Tallis.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasia_on_a_Theme_by_Thomas_Tallis

This symphonic piece was composed in 1910, and later revised in 1913 and 1919.

When I read the Wikipedia info about the dates of  this music’s conception and revision, I immediately thought of the First Big War, which had happened from 1914-1918. That war has been a subject of my research for the last few years, as its aftermath pertains to the novel, Smoke, that I published last year.

The composer, a Brit, Ralfph (pronounced Rafe) Von Williams wrote the music in 1910, four years before the cataclysmic conflagration of early 20th-century European history, World War I. He later revised that music in 1913, just before the war started, and then again after the war had ended.

And I am wondering, this bright autumn Sunday afternoon, if that traumatic experience of world war might have had some effect on Mr. Williams that compelled him to revise his 9-year old masterpiece.

I think that First Big War did had an impact on this incredibly voluptuous statement of orchestral pathos, or tragedy, or whatever it is this haunting Phrygian melody imposes on my soul.

The music is similar to, and a compositional precedent to, a famous piece written two decades later by Samuel Barber,  Adagio for Strings (1936).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adagio_for_Strings

That’s another great, prescient pre-war piece of musical angst created four years before a Big War (the Second one).

Perhaps there is some composer out there today writing such a piece, but entirely new and expressive of whatever the hell is going on in our world today.

I wanted to provide a link so you can hear the piece of music that has inspired all this. So I went back to the WDAV website, which represents a great media source for classical music enrichment and enjoyment. It was there I had learned the name of the music.

I treasure WDAV and support their work with an annual contribution. However, for purposes of this online presentation I . . . long story short, stumbled upon this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihx5LCF1yJY

from BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is captured for YouTube in a performance at a cathedral in England. If you watch the performance, you may agree that both the music and the setting represent the union of two elements of our profoundly great Western cultural heritage: music and church.

After composing, Vaughn Williams noted an association between this Fantasia and the message of Psalm 2:

Why are the nations in an uproar

and the peoples devising a vain thing?

The kings of the earth take their stand

and the rulers take counsel together

against the Lord and against his Anointed?

 

Smoke

Song

August 23, 2015

A few years ago some friends helped me record this song:

We’ve got a song to sing.

My great jazzified orchestral adventure

June 14, 2015

I had worked my 63-year-old body to a point of exhaustion last Wednesday afternoon, and so I took a little break from pressure-washing. The green mold that likes to grow on vinyl siding had now been blasted from two more high gable ends of the apartment buildings for which I am responsible. I am, you see, a maintenance guy.

So I slid slowly down the ladder and slogged over to my little shop. Plopping wearily into the padded chair, I activated the radio with expectations of easing for a little spell of time into some fanciful musical escapade. Alas, I was not disappointed. My favorite radio station, WDAV,   http://www.wdav.org/  immediately came through in classic style to whisk my overworked mind far beyond the ladder-heightened adventures of blasting H20 onto doomed algae colonies.

And then, strains of unfamiliar, though strangely captivating, orchestral sound came wafting to my ears. The music was soothing, with an elegant piano that stroked my worn-out being, but it was punctuated occasionally with bursts of symphonic divergence in a fashion that indicated some orchestral work of the early 20th century.

These impressionistic, mildly jazzy strains seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I could not place them. Surely it’s Gershwin, I wondered; the snappy snippets erupting here and there reminded me of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is one of my favorites. The very rhythmical slow-to-intense piano allegrettos landed me in a bewildered ponderance of trying to identify the composer. It was Gershwinesque, for sure, spicy with dynamic thrusts of emergent jazz, and slashing staccato poundings on the keyboard, while rambunctious woodwinds answered in the background, followed by lush strings that tamed the composer’s carefully-constructed disruptions into interludes of pure repose.

Then that captivating first movement energy slid languidly into an adagio second movement that soothed my weary soul like balm in Gilead. I had a few moments of unparalleled restorative calm, a true respite from my pressurizing labors.

Now comfortably installed at my shop’s work table, I began replacing the inner parts of a removed toilet tank, one of the 94 that I regularly maintain.

Suddenly, rapid bursts of precise piano, then bravissimo winds and sassy brass, were bursting forth in the last movement’s Presto prestissimo, affirming  my ruminations that surely this incredible piece of music was the work of some great composer. A few minutes later, sure enough, Joe Brant’s vocal coda identified the opus as Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_(Ravel)

Composed during 1929-31, it was a musical opus that Ravel had said “nearly killed him.” I learned this a day or two later on Wikipedia.

That 25-minute concerto took him two years to write. The piece’s intricacy and innovative energy, with brief boogie-woogified left hand in the last movement and all that jazz, convinces me that the composer’s desperate statement is “nearly” true. This intricate piece of music took a mountain of work. It was an exhaustive labor of love, the outcome of which was to to unify two great traditions of music, old European orchestral and new American jazz, in such a work as this.

Here’s pianist Helene Grimaud performing it with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbNoqzpbc0U

George Gershwin was doing similar renovations in classical music at about the same time as Maurice Ravel. And I was curious about this. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is, I think, so similar in feeling and era-sensitive timing to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I was wondering who came first. I was thinking that Gershwin’s Rhapsody had premiered in 1934. Yesterday I learned on Wikipedia that Ravel’s upstart, jazzified Concerto in G was first performed in 1932.

So Ravel’s groundbreaking innovation scooped Gershwin’s?

Actually, not. As it turned out, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered in 1924!  not 1934, as I had thought.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhapsody_in_Blue

Which only makes sense–that the American, being born and raised in the land of the blues, the western continent of jazz’s birth, with Louie Armstrong blowin’ his horn down in N’awlins, King Oliver movin’ up in Chicago, Duke Ellington finessin’ in New York, etc etc., it only makes sense that George would scoop the Frenchman Maurice Ravel in this musical transition from one golden age to another, one old continent to one new one.

Here’s a contemporary YouTube of pianist Makoto Ozone performing Rhapsody in Blue with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert. But warning! to you classical music purists out there: this is Ozone’s jazzed up version of Gershwin’s jazzed up original composition! George Gershwin would, I believe, be impressed:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxowOVIdnR0

But the discovery of this jazzed-up symphonic scoop is not the end of my story. A little further research early this morning online took me to one of the many black prodigies of American early jazz, Willie “the Lion” Smith. He was ticklin’ the ivories in Harlem and over on 52nd Street back in the day, early ’20’s, before George caught a vision for his blue masterpiece, and before Maurice grabbed hold of his jazzifyin’ Continental groundbreaker Concerto long abouts 1929-31.

Willie the Lion was an amazing, transitional piano impresario, and a legend back in the jazz age. Now this is where my great musical adventure, having begun in a moment of repose on Wednesday, and then morphing through Ravel and Gershwin, right into now, in the midst of Sunday morning’s research-driven blogfest. Are you ready for Willie?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBhbCjSnemE

Listen on!

 

Smoke