Bernstein at 100: “Fancy Free”

From the moment the action begins, with the sound of a juke box wailing behind the curtain, the ballet is strictly wartime America, 1944. The curtain rises on a street corner with a lamp post, a side-street bar, and New York skyscrapers pricked out with a crazy pattern of lights, making a dizzying backdrop. Three sailors explode onto the stage. They are on twenty-four-hour shore leave in the city and on the …

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A Sublime Moment from Khachaturian’s “Spartacus”

Today marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Soviet Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978). In celebration, let’s listen to a lushly beautiful excerpt from the second act of Khachaturian’s 1954 ballet, Spartacus. This soaring adagio occurs at the moment when the Thracian king, Spartacus, and his wife, Phrygia, celebrate their newfound freedom from captivity. This music is filled with the “exotic” modal scales of Armenian folk music. For example, listen to the clarinet’s statement around …

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An Obscure Corner of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge; Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends And northward reaches in that violet wedge Of Adirondacks! – Hart Crane, The Bridge: The Dance Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is usually heard in its concert suite form for full orchestra. (Leonard Bernstein’s 1982 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic remains one of my favorite performances of the suite). But the 1944 ballet, written for Martha Graham, was originally a more intimate chamber …

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Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty”

I spent last weekend in the orchestra pit playing Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty for Richmond Ballet. Even as I’ve moved on to new programs this week, fragments of Tchaikovsky’s haunting score have continued to play in my mind, inspiring me to investigate a few recordings, old and new. Premiered in January, 1890 at Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, The Sleeping Beauty is often overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s two other ballet scores, Swan Lake (1876) and The Nutcracker (1892). This is a shame, because it …

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Nutcracker Rag: A Sweet Travesty On Tchaikovsky

One of my biggest pet peeves is “cutesy” holiday music which weaves in references to classical music. This time of year, there seems to be no shortage of these kinds of cheap, gimmicky arrangements.  I’m sure you’ve already fallen victim. The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s premiere recording of Rick Benjamin’s Nutcracker Rag: A Sweet Travesty On Tchaikovsky doesn’t fall into this category. It transforms Tchaikovsky’s familiar themes into something new with an infectious sense of …

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“Rabbit and Rogue”: Danny Elfman’s Larger-Than-Life Ballet Score

Danny Elfman’s film and television scores frequently exhibit a kind of quirky, slightly deranged humor. For example, listen to the zany music which accompanies “The Breakfast Machine” scene from the 1985 comedy, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, in which the persistent pulse of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance meets 1920s Kurt Weill. I love the way the mechanized madness of that scene is launched by that quiet, initial rhythmic vamp in the bells. Something similar to those chimes from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure …

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Tchaikovsky’s Rhythmic Games

For all of its perceived bombast and emotional excess, a unique kind of elegance, lightness, and motion lies at the heart of much of Tchaikovsky’s music. Even when Tchaikovsky was not writing for the ballet, ballet music, with its eternal sense of motion, seemed to be coming out. Tchaikovsky was obsessed with the music of Mozart, perhaps the epitome of classical elegance. He said Mozart’s works were “the highest, most perfect culmination ever …

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