Two Festive Overtures: Shostakovich Meets Glinka

On Wednesday, we explored Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, one of the most haunting and tragic works of the twentieth century. This is the kind of music we often associate with Shostakovich, a composer surrounded, for much of his life, by death, destruction, and grinding political oppression. Yet, there is a more lighthearted side to Shostakovich, perhaps most evident in the sparkling and zany 1927 orchestration of the Vincent Youmans song, Tea for Two, produced …

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Remembering Lynn Harrell

The American cellist Lynn Harrell passed away unexpectedly on Monday. He was 76. Years ago when I was a student one summer at the Chautauqua Institution, I attended Harrell’s masterclass and recital. His down-to-earth, irreverent sense of humor, powerful, singing tone, and profound musicianship are etched in my memory. During a career that spanned six decades, Lynn Harrell appeared regularly with the world’s top orchestras. He will be remembered also as an accomplished …

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Bach’s St John Passion: A Divine Drama

J.S. Bach’s St John Passion is a haunting and dramatic musical depiction of the Passion of Christ, as told in the Gospel of John. The story of Jesus’ capture, judgment, and crucifixion, as outlined in biblical passages from John 18 and 19, are presented by the solo tenor (the Evangelist). A cast of other singers perform the roles of Jesus, Pilate, and the disciples, while the four-part choir represents the people at large. …

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Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”: Fritz Kreisler’s 1927 Recording

Irving Berlin’s timeless 1926 song, Blue Skies, was a last-minute addition to a Rodgers and Hart musical called Betsy, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The vaudeville singer and actress, Belle Baker, called up Berlin complaining that the show’s score didn’t contain a “Belle Baker song.” According to Philip Furia and Michael Lasser, Berlin resented the interpolation of songs by other composers into the score of his shows, but he must have been delighted at the …

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John Adams’ “Shaker Loops”: Riding Ferocious Sonic Waves

John Adams’ 1978 string septet, Shaker Loops, takes us on a ferocious and exhilarating sonic ride. It’s powerful music that is made up of elemental forces—pulse, gradually shifting patterns, and harmonic tension and release. At times, it unfolds with the frightening inevitability of an enormous, infernal, rumbling conveyor belt. At other times, we experience something similar to those mysterious, icy Sibelius tremolo passages which stand on the edge of silence. The title, Shaker Loops is …

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John Adams’ Piano Concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”

John Adams’ Piano Concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of its 2018-19 Centennial season. Technically, it counts as Adams’ “Piano Concerto No. 3,” following the exhilaratingly mechanical Century Rolls (1996) and the dreamy impressionism of Eros Piano (1989). The Concerto unfolds seamlessly in a single, continuous movement broken into three sections (fast-slow-fast). According to Adams, the title, attributed to Martin Luther, came from an article …

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Stravinsky’s “Song of the Nightingale”: A Shimmering, Impressionist Tone Poem

In 1908, the 26-year-old Igor Stravinsky, still a student of Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, completed the first act of an opera, Le Rossignol (“The Nightingale”), based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. When Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write the ballet score for The Firebird, the work was set aside. Only in 1914, after the completion of The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, did Stravinsky return to the project. Listening to the complete …

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