A Playlist for Holy Week

I love roller coasters, but I fully admit, the past few weeks have been one roller coaster that I want to get off of. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a seismic shift in the daily routines of billions of people worldwide, forcing us to adapt to new personal and public norms. For both me and countless others, there have been challenges (moving a 450-student Music Appreciation class to an online format), disappointments (having to cancel a planned trip), and frustrations (not being able to go out with friends or family). Of course, this is all for a common, honorable cause but it’s still been tough adjusting to a new normal.

All that said, though, this pandemic has brought about many good things—alternative social interactions with friends, more quality time with my immediate family, tons of exercise (i.e., so many walks!), decreased pollution levels. The list goes on. I have also listened to a lot of music. Like, a LOT. And this past week in particular, I’ve been reflecting on the incredible variety, quality, and scope of classical music written either for or in the spirit of Holy Week.

So, I decided to construct a Holy Week playlist. The selections in this playlist are wildly eclectic and span almost a thousand years, ranging from the meditative sounds of the 11th-century nun-poet-composer Hildegard von Bingen to the decisively-modern style of James MacMillan. A total of twenty-three composers are represented (Bach three times!). Of course, sadly, many had to be left out.

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Happy Birthday, Lenny!

Happy Birthday, Lenny!

Today—August 25, 2018—would have marked the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. One of the most (if not the most) distinguished American-born classical musicians, Bernstein succeeded in almost every aspect of musical life. He composed both “serious” classical pieces and lively theatrical works, sometimes even bridging the gap between the two. He conducted orchestras worldwide and served as music director of the illustrious New York Philharmonic for eleven years. He made hundreds of recordings, which encompass everything from canonic works to his own compositions. To top it all off, he was a fine pianist and a charismatic music educator, introducing both children and adults to the wonders of classical music.

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Lenny in his element!

Bernstein’s life was not without its flaws, though. His personal life was often complicated and marred with controversy. (Some aspects would undoubtedly raise more than a few eyebrows in the climate of the current MeToo movement.) He smoked almost constantly. He could occasionally be short-tempered and confrontational in rehearsal—one of my favorite clips, albeit a cringe-worthy one, involves Bernstein dealing with a miscast José Carreras during a recording session for West Side Story. It’s clear that Bernstein’s larger-than-life personality could sometimes get the better of him.

However, there’s no question that Bernstein succeeded in bringing classical music to millions of people, and his wide-ranging achievements are being celebrated this year by orchestras around the world.

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Copland’s Piano Concerto

The music of American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is no stranger to the concert hall (Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Fanfare for the Common Man are all played quite frequently), but some of his pieces are rarely brought out into the open. A good portion of this somewhat unfamiliar repertoire belongs to the early part of Copland’s career. In the early 1920s, Copland studied in Paris with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught a stunning array of other twentieth-century musicians. Boulanger encouraged Copland to cultivate his unique musical voice, and Copland followed suit with a style that embraced elements of modernism – dissonant tone clusters and jagged rhythms – as well as elements inspired by popular music, such as jazz. (The Spotify playlist below features an album of some of his “modernist” works, all brilliantly played by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.)

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Aaron Copland enjoying an ice cream cone at Interlochen in 1970. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

One product of Copland’s early style was his Piano Concerto, which was completed in 1926 and first performed in 1927, with Copland as the soloist. The first movement opens boldly, with a brass call-and-response before a soaring, cinematic melody is presented in the horns and strings. In a surprising turn, the piano is introduced by itself and softly, seemingly caught in an introspective moment. The music gradually builds in confidence – with help from the opening brass material – but is also full of conflict, becoming increasingly saturated with dissonant chords.

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