Remembering Sam Pilafian

Tuba virtuoso Sam Pilafian passed away last week following a battle with cancer. He was 69. Pilafian was a founding member of the Empire Brass Quintet. He appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with a host of major orchestras, with Summit Brass, and with such diverse performers as the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Lionel Hampton, and Pink Floyd. (That is Pilafian on The Trial track from the rock band’s 1979 album, The Wall). As a teacher, Pilafian held positions …

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New Release: Duo Bednarz-Hiratsuka’s “Giya Kancheli: Sunny Night”

Giya Kancheli (b. 1935) is one of the most distinctive twentieth century composers to emerge from the former Soviet Union. Kancheli, who was born in Georgia and emigrated to Belgium following Soviet dissolution in 1991, has written seven symphonies as well as other large-scale orchestral works such as Mourned by the Wind, described as a “liturgy” for viola and orchestra. His catalogue also includes operas, chamber works, and numerous film scores. Many of …

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This Scherzo is No Joke

In Italian, the word “scherzo” means “joke” or “jest.” Theodore Baker’s Schirmer Pronouncing Pocket Manual of Musical Terms (an invaluable resource my first violin teacher recommended to me as a child) defines the musical scherzo as 1. An instrumental piece of a light, piquant, humorous character. 2. A vivacious movement in a symphony, with strongly marked rhythm and sharp and unexpected contrasts in rhythm and harmony; usually the third movement. There are a host of pieces which fit these …

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Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge”: From Teacher to Student

Last week, we listened to the vibrant orchestral tone poem Enter Spring by the maverick English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941). It was at the Norwich premiere of Enter Spring in 1927 that the 13-year-old Benjamin Britten first met Bridge, who would become Britten’s composition teacher and mentor. Britten recalled mammoth lessons: I remember we started at 10:30 and finished at tea time. Mrs Bridge came in and said “Really you must give the boy a break! …

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Frank Bridge’s “Enter Spring”: The Symphonic Poem as a Force of Nature

Enter Spring, a shimmering orchestral tone poem by the English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), blossoms like a force of nature. It evokes the bright colors, turbulent majesty, and joyful sense of renewal we associate with the seasonal change from winter to spring. It grows out of the English countryside— specifically the green rolling hills and chalk cliffs of Bridge’s native Sussex Downs on England’s south coast. But its harmonic language is also surprisingly daring, …

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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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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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