Saturday, February 18, 2012

Music for Movies

Who can forget the impact of watching the first Star Wars movie in 1977?

A black screen with the words, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Then the now famous music of John Williams burst forth with the opening sequence, filling the audience in on the background of the story. That opening sequence, I think, is pure cinematic magic, and a stroke of genius on the part of filmmaker George Lucas. The music promises the great adventures that are to come.

Now imagine watching the same opening to the same movie, but without any music at all. Much of the impact is gone, isn’t it? To make a film without music is to take away an entire dimension of filmmaking. What I said above about Star Wars can be said about most of the movies that we have grown to love. Can we really imagine the opening of The Godfather without that famous trumpet solo? And can we see James Bond entering a scene without that taunt and suspenseful theme by John Barry?

In the wonderful Alfred Hitchcock film I Confess, a Catholic priest, played by Montgomery Clift, walks into a church into the middle of the night because he heard a noise. He is about to encounter a man who is about to confess that he had committed murder. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who wrote the musical score, quotes the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), the sequence from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. By using this sombre 13th century music, the composer immediately creates the tension and atmosphere that is to pervade throughout the film.

If music is such an integral part of films, why are composers who write music for film being held in such low esteem by critics and Classical music cognoscenti? Other than the fact that many people, especially critics, tend to like to label musicians into easily definable categories – he is a showman, she is a scholarly player, and so forth. Another reason may be that movies are viewed by many as entertainment and not art.

Conductor, composer and pianist André Previn, who spent his teenage and young adult years as composer and arranger for MGM Studios, had to fight against the labelling of “Hollywood composer” when he later embarked upon his career as a symphonic conductor. Early reviews for his concerts would, he said, inevitably begin with the phrase, “Last night, Hollywood’s André Previn…” He quipped that people would more likely forgive him for being a mass murderer, but not for having written music for films.

If we were to look at some of the “famous” composers who had written film music, the list is pretty impressive – Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Honegger, Richard Rodney Bennett, Aaron Copland, Phillip Glass and Sir William Walton. Hardly any of the men listed above would neatly fall under the labelling of “Hollywood composer”. Copland’s music for the movie The Red Pony is in a class of its own, and would even occasionally show up in concert programmes. The same can be said for Sir William Walton’s music for Battle of Britain. And John Williams’ moving music for Schindler’s List has entered the active repertoire for many of today’s great violinists.

There have been composers who managed to straddle the world of films and the concert hall. Miklós Rózsa’s violin concerto was written for Jascha Heifetz and his viola concerto for Pinchas Zuckerman. John Williams wrote concert music as well as his music for many memorable films. Nino Rota wrote two beautiful piano concerti. And the operas and symphonic music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold is slowly making their way back into concert halls, opera houses and recording studios. And yet, to quote Previn again, “Music critics have made it quite clear that any composer who ever contributed a four-bar jingle to a film was to be referred to as a “Hollywood composer” from then on.”

After a performance of a symphonic work by Sergei Rachmaninoff who, incidentally, never wrote a film score, a critic refers to the work as “music for Doctor Zhivago”. A few years back, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has consistently tried to extend himself as a performer, made a recording of the film music of Ennio Morricone. The music as well as the performance is beautiful and moving. Yet I am quite certain there are those who would accuse Mr. Ma as being a sell-out, and pandering to popular taste.

When will the distinguished writers of the press stop categorizing music and musicians and judge performance and musical works purely in terms of their merit, and help rather than hinder listeners in truly enjoying music?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Arthur Rubinstein in Hamburg

I am a Youtube addict.

But when you have documentaries and legendary performances by Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels, Bernstein, Mehta, Ozawa, Abbado, Von Karajan, Menuhin, Stern, Ferras, du Pre and Ma at the click of the mouse, how can you resist? Recently, a kind soul posted an entry that I have enjoyed immensely. If you go into the Youtube site and type “Rubinstein in Hamburg”, you will be rewarded with a documentary, less than 30 minutes in length, about Arthur Rubinstein’s visit to the Steinway & Sons factory in Hamburg.

Because of the tragedy of the two world wars, and especially because of the atrocities committed by Germany during World War II, Arthur Rubinstein made the decision not to perform in Germany and Austria. To this end, the pianist even directed royalties from records sold in Germany towards helping victims of the holocaust. He did, however, made several trips to these two countries for personal and professional reasons. He went to Salzburg to attend a performance of Wagner’s Meistersinger, one of his favourite operas (he named one of his daughters, Eva, after the heroine in the opera), Frankfurt to promote his memoirs, and Hamburg on a couple of occasions to choose pianos.

The documentary I mentioned before is a record of one of Rubinstein’s visit to the Steinway factory, to try out one of his pianos sent there for repairs. In it, the pianist tried out the piano by playing snippets from various works in his vast repertoire, works by Chopin, Ravel and Schubert. In addition to the historical significance of the visit, the documentary once again reinforced in my mind the greatness of this particular artist, and the emotional impact of hearing Arthur Rubinstein live.

Watching Rubinstein at the piano is a lesson, not just about playing the instrument, but on an artist’s entire approach to music and to art. Moreover, viewing a Rubinstein performance gives us a revelation of healthy use of one’s body. According to Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet, who frequently played and recorded with Mr. Rubinstein, music “was like food for him: he was living off the experience of making music. He wasn’t expending energy; he was getting energy.”

When Arthur Rubinstein plays the piano, he is intently listening to the music being made at the moment. When the pianist plays, he is not only playing an instrument, or even playing music, he is music. There is simplicity, as well as a complete naturalness and honesty in his playing, physically as well as musically, that I have witnessed in no other pianist. Daniel Barenboim commented that Rubinstein made it sound like someone who did no more than simply being willing to take the time.

I am grateful that such a moving documentary about Mr. Rubinstein exists and is available. In today’s musical world, where many artists are more concerned about what they wear on stage than the music they play, watching Arthur Rubinstein again reminds us of another time when music was a noble calling and not a mere “career”.

Friday, February 3, 2012

From Paris, With Love

In this age of mass-marketing of music, it is refreshing to encounter a performance that comes to the audience from the heart of the musician, and gets into the heart of the music. The latest CD release from pianist Henri-Paul Sicsic, a 2009 live recording from Paris’ famed Salle Cortot, delivers such a performance. The programme includes a generous helping of Chopin, including the Mazurka, Op. 59, No. 1, Impromptu No. 1, Op. 29, Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 1, Valse, Op. 42, and the Sonata No. 2, Op. 42, and continues with Toronto composer Alexina Louie’s I leap through the sky with stars, Maurice Ravel’s Ondine, and Évocation and Triana from Isaac Albeniz’s monumental and fiercely difficult Ibéria Suite.

While each composer challenges the performer in different ways, no composer of piano music is more difficult to play, technically as well as intellectually, than Chopin. Arthur Rubinstein confessed, “I could play a pyrotechnical Liszt sonata, requiring forty minutes for its performance, and get up from the piano without feeling tired, while even the shortest étude of Chopin compels me to an intense expenditure of effort.” The difficulty of Chopin’s music, though, lies within the inherent structure of the music. The many technical and musical challenges in Chopin’s music are never written for the sake of challenging the manual dexterity of the pianist – even though many world-famous pianists treat it as such. To be sure, it takes a virtuoso to play Chopin, but it takes so much more than a virtuoso to bring out the beauty and integrity of the music.

There is a sense of rightness in the style and flavour of Sicsic’s Chopin interpretation that is very much his own. Chopin wrote more than fifty Mazurkas, and they are the most elusive of his compositions. George Sand quipped, not without malice, that there is more music in one Chopin Mazurka than in all the operas of Meyerbeer. Perhaps more insightful is Liszt’s observation that one has to harness a major pianist to play a Mazurka of Chopin. The later Mazurkas are especially intricate to play, and calls for a balance of rhythm, timing and silence. I would agree with Liszt’s comment, and say that Henri-Paul Sicsic is a major pianist indeed. The rest of the pianist’s Chopin group is no less remarkable than the Mazurka performance. In the Impromptu, he captured the elfin lightness of the music. In the Nocturne, the other-worldly beauty of Chopin’s music is made all the more apparent. The Op. 42 Valse is probably the most difficult of the waltezs, and Sicsic once again rose to the occasion, capturing the many shifts in mood as well as the spirit of the dance.

Ever since the work was written, many pianists have attempted Chopin’s second sonata, but there is always room for another valid interpretation. Sicsic’s performance of the great Funeral March sonata is stunning. He takes the opening movement at a whirlwind tempo, which suits the impetuousness that the music calls for. The sounds he created in the shattering climaxes of the movement are overwhelming. There is relentlessness in his playing of the famous (and much maligned) Funeral March, and the lyrical middle section has never sounded more beautiful. In spite of having heard this work so often, the last movement of this work never fails to send chills up my spine. Sicsic’s playing of this movement is spooky indeed, and brings out the weirdness and the death-haunted feeling of this music.

Alexina Louie, no stranger to Canadian audiences, must be somewhat of an unknown quantity to the Parisian audience. Perhaps because of the title of the music, I have often thought of this work as having a very visual quality to it. It reminds me of the paintings of Marc Chagall, with people (and cows!) flying through the night sky. Henri-Paul Sicsic exploits, in the best sense of the word, the large palette of colours the composer put at his disposal, and paints a picture as vivid and vibrant that the music calls for.

In Ondine, the first movement of Maurice Ravel’s tone poem for piano, Gaspard de la nuit, Henri-Paul Sicsic effectively recreates the composer evocation of shimmering waters and its strange and beautiful watery spirit. There are pianists today who can play this difficult music as if it were child’s play, but not everyone can successfully capture the sonic ambience of this music. It struck me, at this point in the recital that Sicsic has, without us realizing it, taken us into a sound world that is so radically different from that of Chopin.

With the two pieces from Albeniz’s Iberia Suite, Henri-Paul Sicsic takes us into yet another realm of sound. This is not the sun-drenched Spain of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, which is a much more descriptive piece of music, or even the Spain of Bizet’s Carmen. In Iberia, Albeniz gives us an evocation of a landscape filled with shadow and mystery. Like the Chopin Mazurkas, there is a real danger of playing this music with a “foreign accent”. This is not the case here, for Sicsic’s playing of these two masterpieces is highly idiomatic, capturing the essence of the Spanish rhythm as well as the ever changing colours, and the lightness and shadow in the music.

Sicsic rewarded this enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore – Chopin’s Étude in A-flat Major, the first of the Op. 25 set of Études. The pianist’s playing of this euphonious music brings out the richness and beauty of Chopin’s harmonic and melodic inventiveness.

Henri-Paul Sicsic used to be an active member of the Vancouver music scene, but now teaches at the University of Toronto. One city’s loss, as they say, is another’s gain. I look forward to this wonderful pianist’s next return home.