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Can We Play Like Mozart Did?

Pianos during the 18th century were much different than their counterparts in the centuries from the 19th to the 21st. First of all, they were much smaller, normally comprising only five octaves instead of 7 1/3. Secondly, they were lightweight contraptions built using barely more materials than a harpsichord. Late 19th-century pianos were much sturdier and could withstand later compositional techniques. Liszt, for example, left a trail of destroyed pianos in his wake because the materials weren’t up-to-snuff.

The fortepiano that Mozart played almost daily during his last nine years.

The fortepiano that Mozart played almost daily during his last nine years.

It was different 100 years before when Mozart was making a world tour as a youngster. Instead of being hunched over the piano crashing one’s weight down upon it, performers were required to sit ramrod straight and keep their arms and elbows at their sides. Most playing was finger-driven with supple wrists that were raised and lowered with great delicacy. Tchaikovsky’s racing octaves, Rachmaninoff’s gigantic block chords and Liszt’s monumental tonal constructions were notably absent from pieces composed at that time.

Christina Kobb, who is heading up a project to promote 18th-century playing, such as might have been practiced by Mozart, notes that it is easier to play running 16th notes faster. It’s also simpler to play chords more accurately and smoothly. She maintains that pianists should, at the very least, familiarize themselves with the techniques to get better in touch with the thoughts and aspirations of the composers of the time.

Learn 18th century piano techique with Christina Kobb:

Read more at nytimes.com


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Pianist Gloria Cheng Entices Hollywood Greats to Explore the Piano

When I boarded the flight from Stockholm to Los Angeles on February 19, 2015, I knew that renowned, Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng had been working on a unique project since 2010. After receiving a set of contrasting character pieces from Bruce Broughton named ¨Five Pieces¨ as a gift for her that year, Ms. Cheng invited five more of the most prominent film composers of today to write new music for solo piano. Her aim was to inspire each of the composers to branch out from his usual “Hollywood film magic” and pen something intimate, personal and private. The project, including a film screening had its premiere at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena on February 20, 2015.

The project – Montage

Gloria Cheng at the piano with John Williams, Randy Newman and Don Davis (photo by lefterisphoto.com)

Gloria Cheng at the piano with John Williams, Randy Newman and Don Davis
(photo by lefterisphoto.com)

The works in the project MONTAGE – Great Film Composers and the Piano, were originally premiered in the Piano Spheres concert series in Los Angeles. Harmonia Mundi recorded and produced the CD, which was also filmed as a documentary. The film covered not only the recording sessions and concert but also Ms. Cheng’s interviews with each of the composers. The list reads like a who’s who of Academy Award nominations:

  • Bruce Broughton, (”Silverado” and “Young Sherlock Holmes”)
  • Don Davis, (”The Matrix” and “Beauty and the Beast”)
  • Alexandre Desplat, (”The Queen,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Budapest Hotel”)
  • Michael Giacchino, (”Up,” “Lost”, “Ratatouille” and ¨Jurassic World¨)
  • Randy Newman, (”Monsters, Inc.” and “Toy Story 3″)
  • John Williams, (”Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “ET” and “Harry Potter”)

These supremely talented composers have a combined 72 Oscar nominations and nine wins between them, and most of them are household names. The premiere in Pasadena included the first public showing of the film. Ms. Cheng also performed selected pieces from the album. To the delight of all in attendance, four of the composers were there in person. They enjoyed the fruits of their collaboration, and the thankful, enthusiastic crowd, comprising both music and film buffs, showered them with praise.

Randy Newman receiving accolades in Pasadena (photo by Carolyn Yarnell)

Randy Newman receiving accolades in Pasadena (photo by Carolyn Yarnell)

Writing for the piano – putting your hands inside a shark’s mouth?

So, what happens when one takes film composers out of their milieu? First, they immediately prove their skill and competence as composers. They also show a deep kinship with the piano, an instrument they greatly respect. Randy Newman thinks that his own technique tends to be slightly exposed with no place to hide. ¨With the piano you experience an enormous range and what is possible on it is almost limitless¨. Michael Giacchino explained that composing for the piano ¨is like putting your hands inside a shark’s mouth with all these teeth and to see where can I get least hurt?¨. Don Davis sees it like jumping into a pool where there is Beethoven and sonatas, as the greatest music in history always involve piano music. ¨The challenge is to come up with something which may enthuse a pianist to down Chopin and play my music instead.¨ For Alexandre Desplat it is just recently he found the nerve to write for concerts and not for the movies.

Bruce Broughton, Michael Giacchino, Gloria Cheng, Don Davis and Randy Newman

Bruce Broughton, Michael Giacchino, Gloria Cheng, Don Davis and Randy Newman

All composers agreed on the feeling of being exposed, as there are no strings, brass and woodwinds behind which to hide. Bruce Broughton, himself an excellent pianist, said that a composer had better have something important to say when writing for the piano. Inspired by the “aloneness” of composing for the piano, the six Hollywood legends created a multifaceted album of differing styles and communicated their ideas in a way most unfamiliar to film audiences.

John Williams, who had originally promised Ms. Cheng a one-page piece as an encore for a Cheng Tanglewood recital, got inspired and expanded his “Conversations” into a suite. This programmatic work implies conversations between very well-known individuals in much the same way as Mussorgsky implied paintings in “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Trumpet-playing composer Don Davis wrote “Surface Tensions,” which is a complex work elaborating on texture, dynamics and pitch. The piece meanders through different moods, many of which remind the listener of textures used in contemporary art music. The Newman family is renowned in Hollywood as musicians and composers. Did you know that Randy Newman’s uncle Lionel taught Marilyn Monroe how to sing? His five movement “Family Album” pays homage to three of his film-composer uncles: Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman.

As with many French composers, Desplat is enamored with blue notes and touched jazz techniques in composing his etude. Lang Lang played the premiere of the Three Etudes in 2012. “Composition 430,” by Giacchino, invites the listener to ride bikes with the composer through a small, New Jersey town. Through the musical interplay, the listener can hear the young Giacchino’s realization that his life was more important than it seemed.

Inspiring young people

When it comes to music education, these composers have all the necessary tools to create and develop music appreciation in today’s young people. Music appreciation develops through listening, explains Giacchino. Further, he maintains that live music is crucial to such development. Newman finds it disappointing that we don’t see many young people at 21st-century concerts. He’s currently considering composing a modern “Young Person´s Guide to the Orchestra” in the style of Benjamin Britten. Newman wants to create something that will compete with dance music’s irresistible beat and the electric guitar’s undeniable allure. Davis favors using technology to reach out to young people. To him, wide exposure is essential, and he’d love to see millennials listening to Wagner on their smartphones. Broughton thinks performance is the big draw. Being involved in a band or orchestra fosters the development of sports-like teamwork and inspires the performers always to improve.

A conversation with Gloria Cheng

Gloria Cheng with Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell

Gloria Cheng with Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell

Patrick Jovell: Gloria, you have great experience with classical music of all styles, including a contemporary emphasis, and this must undoubtedly be the basis for the film composer project. Who inspires you the way Lutoslawski inspired Davis or maybe as the American Songbook did in Randy Newman’s work?

Gloria Cheng: For me the joy and challenge of being a musician is in the opportunity to live inside the mind and soul of brilliant composers of all eras. Interpretation is not something I think about – my task is to probe, understand, and absorb the composer’s world in order to portray it as fully and accurately as I can. Don Davis’ music is obviously very different from Randy Newman’s. Every great composer is a rich universe of unique landscapes, ecosystems, and ideologies. It’s my job to communicate in the language of each universe.

Don Davis receives applause for his Surface Tension

Don Davis receives applause for his "Surface Tension"

Jovell: The composer must imbue the score with feelings and ideas as well as simple notes and complex progressions. The performer is responsible for translating those feelings and ideas of the composer into coherent sound. As Broughton said, “… You’d better have something to say” before embarking on writing for the piano. Can you tell us how and why Williams expanded “Conversations” from one page to four movements?

From the film. Gloria Cheng interviewing John Williams

From the film. Gloria Cheng interviewing John Williams

Cheng: Bruce Broughton and John Williams are both superb pianists, and have plenty to say at the piano! They both contributed large-scale, multi-movement suites to the MONTAGE project. John Williams wrote the first of the Conversations as an encore for my recital at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, where he has spent innumerable summers. He had long ago spoken of his idea for a piece he would one day write for me, and this was the chance to make it happen. Knowing how busy he always is, I suggested that even “just one page” from him would be wonderful. Well, the “one page” that arrived in my mailbox was rolled up like a scroll and measured over three feet long! Three more movements followed in the ensuing months, all of which invoke several well-known jazz icons in “conversation” with one another. These are not “jazzy” pieces, however – they are spikier and more abstract, complex and deep. I’m so glad that John Williams didn’t stop after “just one page” !

Excerpt from John William’s Conversations:

Jovell: These composers’ film works are massively popular; they speak to audiences and musicians alike at a visceral level. They inspire young people, both to begin a career in music and to continue in different directions as part of an already-established career. As the interpreter of these composers’ musical utterances, do you see a future for their continued contributions to the world of piano music outside the film studio?

Film capture. Oscar winner 2015, Alexandre Desplat  preparing for recording with Gloria Cheng

Film capture. Oscar winner 2015, Alexandre Desplat preparing for recording with Gloria Cheng

Cheng: I certainly hope so! So many children have their first exposure to orchestral music at the movies, and most of the beloved movie themes make their way into piano collections intended for young students. MONTAGE was an effort to reveal the “private” composers behind these such public film composers, to hear what they would write when given complete artistic freedom. In the documentary film about the MONTAGE project, the composers all speak about how challenging it is to write for solo piano, and how they have all avoided it. But I certainly hope they will write some more!

Don Davis, Gloria Cheng, Bruce Broughton and Michael Giacchino

Don Davis, Gloria Cheng, Bruce Broughton and Michael Giacchino


Free piano scores

Don Davis is generously offering Piano Street’s readers the score of his piece “Surface Tension” for free.
Piano score samples by Bruce Broughton are also available here.

Listen to samples!


See the film trailer


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What Did the Young Horowitz Sound Like?

In March of 1924, Vladimir Horowitz was a 20-year-old pianist ready to storm the gates of heaven with his soon-to-be-famous combination of bravura technique and passionate emotion. Alexander Samoilovich Petrokovsky was already an established music critic when their paths crossed in the capital of Soviet Georgia, Tiflis, which is now known as Tbilisi.

Petrokovsky, himself from Tiflis, was awed by what he saw. He sang Horowitz’s praises as a superstar, poet and deep thinker. He was mesmerized by the performance of Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B-Minor and charmed by the encore, “La Campanella,” by the same composer. Petrokovsky was effusive in his praise, if not outright worshipful. He wasn’t the only one either. An unnamed music critic published a review in a Leningrad paper during the same time period. The critic called Horowitz’s Chopin “… delicate with an astounding variety of timbre …” and noted that “His finger dexterity was incredible …” Petrokovsky’s only complaint about the recital concerned the quality of the instrument Horowitz was forced to play. He described the Becker piano as mediocre, at best, and lamented that a powerful Bechstein was available at another venue but was locked up for some undetermined reason.

Read Petrokovsky’s review from 1924 in Elijah Ho’s article on examiner.com “Liszt Night With Vladimir Horowitz”

Not suprisingly, no recording of the recital exist, but we can hear the young Horowitz play Liszt/Busoni’s Fantasia sulle Nozze di Figaro di Mozart in this piano roll recording from 1926:


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Famous Composers Alive and Just a Click Away
Schostakovich playing his first piano concerto

Schostakovich playing his first piano concerto

That a recording exists of the voice of Tchaikovsky tantalizes the imagination. If there is a Tchaikovsky recording on an Edison cylinder, might there not also be, hidden away in a dusty shoebox in an attic somewhere, another cylinder with Liszt at the piano? It’s not outside the realm of possibility. After all Liszt lived for almost nine years after Edison invented the phonograph. In the absence of that mythical cylinder, however, we can still enjoy some rare footage, both audio and video, of famous 20th-century composers, both on stage and at home. Rachmaninoff charms the audience in one film with his gruff good humor, while Toscanini and Walter commiserate in another.

Hear Sergey Prokofiev play one of the waltzes in his ballet Cinderella and speak about what he was working on at the time of the interview (1946) :

Translation from YT:
Prokofiev is being asked: “Sergei Sergeevich, maybe you will tell our viewers about your work?” He replies: “Well, right now I am working on a symphonic suite of waltzes, which will include three waltzes from Cinderella, two waltzes from War and Peace and one waltz from the movie score Lermontov. The War and Peace has just been brilliantly produced in Leningrad, where the composer Cheshko made an especially noteworthy appearance as a tenor, giving a superb performance in the role of Pierre Bezukhov. Besides this suite, I am working on a sonata for violin and piano [No. 1 in F minor], upon completion of which I will resume work on the Sixth Symphony, which I had started last year. I have just completed thre suites from the Cinderella ballet and I am now turning the score over to copyists for writing the parts, so that most likely the suites will already be performed at the beginning of the fall season.”

Even in silent film excerpts, the power and raw personal magnetism of such personalities as Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Faure are plainly evident. Certain performances of famous works by their composers shatter the myth of “standard performances,” such as Widor’s playing of his famous Toccata at a much slower tempo than expected. These 14 film excerpts listed on cmuse.org are amazing to watch and will give viewers another perspective on 20th-century composers and their music.


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Classical Music Everywhere – Interview with Simone Dinnerstein

Simone Dinnerstein is trying to boost awareness and appreciation of classical music in both children and adults in places as different as New York City and Havana, Cuba. On her recent trip to Cuba, she noted how the string players in Cuba’s National Youth Orchestra couldn’t afford strings. Despite the handicap of using telephone wires as a substitute, the young people were playing with great sensitivity and musicianship. She was inspired during her performance of a Mozart concerto with that orchestra, and she seeks to bring that inspiration back to the United States.
Hear NPR’s David Greene speak to Dinnerstein about her trip, her methods for teaching kids about Baroque music, and her past four difficult years:

Even as her excitement and forward thinking support her teaching efforts back at home, personal struggles also affect her and her art. Speaking candidly about multiple miscarriages and other difficulties with having another child, Dinnerstein relates how such tragedies are woven into her musical psyche.

In much the same way as a method actor or actress delves into, and even lives vicariously through, a part, Dinnerstein draws on her experiences to communicate more effectively with the audience. Her close friend, Philip Lasser, composed a piano concerto for her. Coincidentally, the period of time he spent writing it exactly matched the period Dinnerstein endured her fertility challenges. It’s called “The Circle and the Child,” and although it’s not directly related to Dinnerstein’s problems, it signifies the cycle of life and how it affects people in various ways.

Bachpacking to School

Dinnerstein introduces Bach’s Inventions to a room full of schoolchildren:

New album celebrating the transatlantic link

Earlier this year Sony Classical released Dinnerstein’s newest album, Broadway-Lafayette. The music on this album celebrates the time-honored transatlantic link between France and America through the music of George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, and Philip Lasser

Hear samples from Simone Dinnerstein’s new album “Broadway Lafayette” at amazon.com


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