Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto: An Eruption of Youthful Vitality

Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto begins with a bold announcement. It’s a striking fanfare in the horns which evokes all of the ominous power of the fateful opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This fanfare unleashes an equally exuberant proclamation in the virtuosic solo piano, which erupts like a force of nature. Filled with audacious youthful vitality, this unstoppable sonic torrent seems to be saying, “My time has come, and nothing is going to get …

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Nat King Cole at 100

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the American jazz pianist and vocalist, Nat King Cole (1919-1965). In 1937, Nat King Cole’s jazz trio was formed in Los Angeles. In the group’s original lineup, Cole was joined by Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass. The trio influenced younger jazz musicians like Oscar Peterson and John Pizzarelli. Around the late 1940s, Cole transitioned to a more popular style, appearing …

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Debussy, Ravel, and the Battle of the Harps

In 1904, Pleyel, the Parisian instrument manufacturing company, commissioned Claude Debussy to write a piece showcasing what they hoped to be a revolutionary new kind of harp. The harpe chromatique, invented in 1894 by Pleyel’s director, Gustave Lyon, was a cross-string harp designed without need for foot pedals. The standard harp, with its 46 strings and range of six and a half octaves, cannot play all possible half step intervals without relying on seven pedals which can be …

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Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F Major: Delightfully Deceptive

An awe-inspiring musical drama unfolds in J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540. Developing with a sense of sublime inevitability and self-organizing structure, it is hard to believe that any mortal could have written such powerful and perfect music. The monumental Toccata is an exuberant celebration of canonic counterpoint. An unrelenting two-part canon expands across 108 measures over an unflinching pedal tone. Harmonically, the music pulls away from its firm foundation in F …

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Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony: A Haunting Farewell

A romantic myth has grown up around Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. The composer’s final work has been cast as a kind of despairing musical suicide note. It is true that Tchaikovsky died just over a week after conducting the Symphony’s premiere on October 28, 1893, probably as a result of drinking cholera-infected water. But while Tchaikovsky’s personal battles and bouts with depression have been well-documented, he completed the Sixth Symphony on an emotional upswing. …

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Keith Jarrett’s Improvisation on “Danny Boy”

With Saint Patrick’s Day around the corner, this seems like a good time to pause and take in the sublime beauty of Keith Jarrett’s improvisation on the ancient Irish melody, “Danny Boy.” This melody has been a rich source for jazz musicians, from the jubilant virtuosity of Art Tatum, to the sultry soulfulness of the Oscar Peterson Trio, to the far-reaching development of Bill Evans. Jarrett’s approach finds a songful simplicity and a celebration of the moment. Listening to …

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Remembering André Previn

André Previn passed away last Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89. Previn will be remembered as one of the great Renaissance men of twentieth century music. As a jazz pianist, he accompanied singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day and put his stamp on the “great American songbook.” As a composer, he contributed film scores, Broadway musicals, operas, orchestral music, chamber music, and songs. As a conductor, he …

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