Gabriela Montero’s New Recording: Rachmaninov and “Ex Patria"

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is reinvigorating an old tradition: She performs all of the standard repertoire, yet she’s equally dedicated to improvising and performing her own compositions. She infuses her concerts with a refreshing sense of excitement and spontaneity, frequently improvising on melodies volunteered by the audience. The subjects of her improvisations have run the gamut from the theme from Harry Potter  and “Happy Birthday” to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, …

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Liszt’s "Forgotten Romance" with the Viola

It’s an example of one piece of music “giving birth” to another. In 1880 Franz Liszt’s publisher requested a reprint of a piece Liszt had written in 1848: the Romance in E for piano. The two minute Romance begins and ends in a slightly turbulent E minor. In between, it restlessly moves, first into the relative major key of G and then flirts with a distant and ultimately unattainable A-flat major. At this …

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Bring on the Wascally Wabbit

The Richmond Symphony season is winding down. But this weekend we’ll be busy performing the popular touring show, Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II with conductor George Daugherty. The show is a tribute to the music of classic Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Generations of viewers gained an exposure to classical music through these zany cartoons, which included: Schoenberg Meets Looney Tunes Cartoons had an interesting influence on John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, written in 1992. Here is an excerpt …

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La Folia’s Endless Possibilities

Good composers borrow. Great ones steal. -Igor Stravinsky La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Handel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it …

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The Bells of Strasburg: Liszt’s Forgotten Cantata

In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem, The Golden Legend, a storm rages as Lucifer and a host of demonic spirits (Powers of the Air) try to tear down the cross from the spire of Strasburg Cathedral. Ultimately, Lucifer is defeated by the ringing of the Gothic cathedral’s bells, which summon saints and guardian angels. This dramatic poem was the inspiration for Franz Liszt’s 1874 cantata, The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral. The work for baritone …

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Evening Harmonies

Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 11,“Harmonies du Soir” is part of a set of twelve demonically difficult technical studies for piano. It appeals to a certain euphoria we feel in the presence of danger…the amusement park ride which seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but miraculously never does. In the case of Étude No. 11, danger comes in the form of furiously fast broken chords, quick jumps from one end of the …

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Paganini’s Catchy Tune

It’s a simple and catchy melody…so memorable and ripe for development that, for over 200 years, composers haven’t been able to stop using it as the inspiration for an unending stream of variations. Set in A minor, the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 bounces between tonic and dominant (scale degrees I and V), before entering a downward sequence which brings the melody home. A series of variations follow, which almost push the …

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