Show cover of Sticky Notes: The Classical Music Podcast

Sticky Notes: The Classical Music Podcast

Sticky Notes is a classical music podcast for everyone. Whether you are a beginner just looking to get into classical music but don't know where to start, or a seasoned musician interested in the lives and ideas of your fellow artists, this podcast is for you. The show will feature interviews with the top artists of today, in-depth looks at specific pieces from the repertoire, and deep dives into each era of classical music, plus much more.

Tracks

Schubert Sonata in B Flat, D. 960 (Part 1)
For a long time I’ve received emails and messages from people asking, and sometimes demanding, that I explore the solo piano repertoire. Other than a look at the Goldberg Variations of Bach, I’ve basically neglected a huge amount music, including some of the greatest works ever written. Why have I been doing this? Well, if I’m totally honest, it’s been slightly out of a sense of intimidation. I’m not a pianist, and I’ve always been somewhat in awe of the piano and pianists. Even after spending years with this music, I still felt that I just simply didn’t know the solo piano repertoire well enough to do it justice. Well, now that I’ve gone through ALMOST all of the symphonic standard repertoire, and now that I’ve started exploring the string quartet repertoire, I think it’s time to throw off this sense of awe and dive right in. You might think I might not reach too high to start off, maybe an early Beethoven sonata, or a Mozart or Haydn Sonata. Well, in my opinion you’ve got to go big or go home, so I’ve decided to explore one of the towering masterpieces not only of the solo piano genre, but of all music, Schubert’s Sonata in B Flat Major. This is a piece that has been described as “well-nigh perfect,” as “beyond analysis,” as including “the most extraordinary trill in the history of music,” and as “the climax and apotheosis of Schubert’s instrumental lyricism and his simplicity of form.” These are just a few of the superlatives I’ve found in researching this piece. It was written in the last weeks of Schubert’s short life, and it truly does take the listener on an unforgettable journey. There is nothing quite like Schubert’s final works, and so over the next two episodes, I will take you through this remarkable sonata, a piece that Alex Ross has described as “a premature communication from the beyond.” This is a huge piece, with so much to talk about, so I’ve split this episode into two parts. This week we’ll look at the first movement, and then in two weeks we’ll cover the final three movements. Join us!
40:07 06/06/2024
Mozart Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466
H.C. Robbins Landon, the great musicologist, once wrote about Mozart that his music was “an excuse for mankind's existence and a small hope for our ultimate survival." I couldn’t agree more, especially when it comes to a piece like the one we’re going to talk about today, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, NO. 20, or K. 466. These days, Mozart is still one of the most popular composers in the world, one of two composers almost anyone on the street could name off the top of their head. But it might surprise you to know that Mozart was not always so popular. During the 19th century, Mozart’s music was seen as too light, graceful, and even superficial by the stormy Romantics who wanted to probe the deepest and darkest feelings of humanity and the natural world, by extreme means if necessary. Only a few of Mozart’s works were played regularly during this time period, and this concerto was one of them. It’s easy to say why - it is one of only two Mozart Piano Concertos in a minor key, and its stormy and dramatic character allowed the Romantics to create fantastical stories to go along with the piece, and to connect it to the one Mozart opera that remained popular throughout the 19th century, Don Giovanni. Strangely enough, I see a similar thing happening today, among young lovers of classical music. I often see Mozart’s music being criticized on social media by younger musicians as being too light and superficial, and sometimes I even see this criticism from musicians who seem to gravitate to works that have more extroverted dramatic intentions. But to me, Mozart is just as, if not more dramatic that many of the Romantic era composers. It's all just done in a very different way. This concerto might be the perfect example of all of this! It has all the drama you could ever want for you thrill seekers, and it also has all of the masterful subtlety that for me makes Mozart’s music so endlessly touching. This is a concerto of remarkable breadth of emotion, character, and feeling, and it’ll be a joy to take you through it this week. Join us!    Performance is Mitsuko Uchida with Camerata Salzburg. Assorted first movement cadenzas are performed by Michael Rische.        
48:12 24/05/2024
What is a Mode?
My first interaction with the musical term modes was Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant Young People’s Concert, also called What is a Mode? In that show, Bernstein showed how modes are an essential part of what makes modern music, meaning pop and rock music, tick. This was central to Bernstein’s point during this amazing show, which is available on Youtube, and he punctuated his discussion with multiple examples of pop music from the time that used modes. Today, on this Patreon sponsored episode, I was asked to go through all of the modes and show how they have been used in classical music. Much of my show today is modeled on and takes its inspiration from that Bernstein Young People’s Concert, and I’ll be peppering clips from that show throughout my own exploration. As Bernstein says, the common practice period of classical music, starting with Haydn and ending sometime early in the 20th century, didn’t feature a lot of modal music, though that doesn’t mean it was completely absent. So today I’ll explain what modes are, and we’ll go through each of the so called church modes, explaining their characteristics, and then showing you examples throughout musical history of exactly how these modes were used by the great composers. This show might seem a bit technical, but I think there’s a lot of really interesting and fascinating stuff here, so stick with me, and let’s explore modes together. Join us!
44:37 09/05/2024
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1
In 1857, Brahms wrote to his friend Joseph Joachim about his first Piano Concerto, saying, “ “I have no judgment about this piece anymore, nor any control over it.”  Brahms first began sketching his first piano concerto in 1853, but it would be five full years before Brahms finished the piece, and another year until its first performance.  During that time, the piece became a Sonata, then a symphony, then a sonata for two pianos, and then finally a concerto for Piano and orchestra, or as the joke goes, a concerto for piano VERSUS orchestra.  The piece, and Brahms’ struggles with it, are completely understandable considering Brahms’ youth, and the extraordinarily tumultuous circumstances of his private life during the years of 1853-1858.  During this time period, he was anointed by no less than the kingmaker of classical music at the time, Robert Schumann, as the Chosen One that represented the future of music. He became friendly with both Robert and Clara Schumann, began achieving huge successes, then witnessed the slow mental breakdown of Robert, culminating in a suicide attempt and institutionalization, all while falling deeper and deeper in love with Clara Schumann, and she with him.  The turbulence and emotional weight of all of this is reflected in one of Brahms’ most impassioned works, the first piano concerto.  We’ll talk about the historical background for the piece, Brahms’ working out process, and of course, the structure and insides of this massive, daunting piece.
63:25 25/04/2024
Fast, Furious, Fortissimo
Very often, when I tell people that I’m a classical musician, I am told, “wow, I love classical music! It’s so relaxing!” I think almost all classical musicians have heard that before, and you know what? Sometimes, it’s true! Classical music can be relaxing! But sometimes, and actually pretty often, classical music is NOT relaxing. It is exciting, emotional, passionate, and can make your heart race!  Don’t believe me? Today's show is all about proving that to you. I'm going to share with you some of the most thrilling, powerful,  and well, some of hte loudest music in the history of classical music. I should say SOME OF, because what we are going to play for you today is absolutely not an exhautive list. If you like what you hear today, there is so much more where that came from. What we’re going to do today is to take you through a kind of musical time machine of fast and furious symphonic music, trying to cover as many different styles and eras of classical music as possible. NOTE: What will appear on the podcast feed is a shortened version of a full live concert I did with the Aalborg Symphony a few weeks ago. I highly recommend listening to that version as well, which features full length performances of many of the pieces I'm talking about on the show. You can find that here: https://www.dr.dk/lyd/p2/p2-koncerten/p2-koncerten-2024/p2-koncerten-fuld-pedal-det-er-vildt-det-er-hoejt-det-er-weilersteins-stoerste-hits-12422443145 Enjoy!
46:31 12/04/2024
Copland Symphony No. 3
There has always been a debate about “The Great American Symphony.” By the time most prominent American composers got around to writing large scale symphonic works, the symphony had very nearly gone out of fashion. To many musicians and thinkers, the symphony had passed on with the death of Mahler. With the advent of atonality, which essentially destroyed the developmental structure that symphonies rested on, there seemed to be nowhere for the symphonic genre to go. The traditional udnerstanding is that composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Sibelius, among others, picked the symphony back up from its deathbed and resurrected it. But there was a generation of American composers also writing symphonies around this time, and many of them have never quite gotten the consideration they deserve. Ives wrote 4 brilliant symphonies, Bernstein wrote 3 ambitious symphonies, there are the symphonies by the first generation of Black American composers, namely William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, and then there are much less known symphonies by composers like Roy Harris, which were huge successes at the time of their premiers, but which have faded into obscurity. Despite many strong efforts, very few American symphonies have made their way into the standard “canon.” That is, except for one: Copland’s 3rd Symphony, which is almost certainly the most played American symphony. It was written as World War II was coming to an end, and it is one of Copland’s most ardent and life-affirming works. Naturally, connections were made to the Allied triumph in World War II, but Copland insisted that the symphony wasn’t a reflection of the era, writing: "if I forced myself, I could invent an ideological basis for the Third Symphony. But if I did, I'd be bluffing—or at any rate, adding something ex post facto, something that might or might not be true but that played no role at the moment of creation." Whatever the inspiration, this symphony has become one of Copland’s most enduring works, even though it is also in many ways one of his most complex. It is a massive work, nearly 40 minutes in length, and it requires a huge and virtuosic orchestra. It also features some of Copland’s most recognizable tunes, including of course, the Fanfare for the Common Man, which permeates the symphony and is in many ways its central theme. So today, on this Patreon Sponsored episode, we’ll dig deep into this symphony, mapping out its unusual form, and savoring the energy, optimism, and creativity with which Copland attacked the well-worn genre of the symphony. Join us! 
61:02 28/03/2024
An Exploration of Klezmer Music w/ Abigale Reisman
Klezmer music has always been very close to my heart, even as a classical violinist. During the pandemic I attempted to learn Klezmer clarinet, and soon I began collaborating with the great Klezmer(and classical!) violinist Abigale Reisman on her work for Klezmer band and orchestra called Gedanken. Abigale taught me so much about Klezmer music, including the fact that despite its reputation as a clarinet-centric genre, the violin is actually the original voice of the Klezmer sound. I've been wanting to do a show about Klezmer music for a while, and Abigale was the perfect person to talk to, as she has experience in both the classical and Klezmer worlds, and was able to talk about the differences between the two sounds, as well as all of the characteristics that make Klezmer music so instantly recognizable. We also talked about the similiarites between classical and Klezmer music, which classical violinists had the most Klezmer like sound, and how to tell the difference between a traditional Eastern European folk tune and a Jewish Klezmer folk tune. I so enjoyed this conversation and I hope you will too! You'll hear an excerpt of Abigale's band Ezekiel's Wheels at the end of the show, but check them out here:  https://www.youtube.com/@ewklezmer/videos Link to the concert I mentioned at the top of the show:  https://www.br-klassik.de/audio/20240308-on-demand-so-joshua-weilerstein-vilde-frang-strawinsky-schostakowitsch-100.html    
56:48 14/03/2024
Schumann Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish"
In 1850, Robert Schumann accepted a position as the new Music Director in Dusseldorf. This job had a lot of responsibilities, including conducting the city orchestra. Schumann, along with his wife, the legendary pianist Clara Schumann, and their 7 children moved to Dusseldorf. The city made a huge to do about the Schumann’s arrival, welcoming him with balls, speeches, and parades. This was a new adventure for the Schumann family, and Robert, at least at first, was invigorated. He loved the less reserved personality of the residents of Dusseldorf, and he was deeply inspired by the Rhine river. Very quickly, Schumann had begun composing at his usual feverish pace. He wrote his cello concerto in just two weeks, and then he began a new symphony, what would turn out to be his last symphony. It would be a celebration of the Rhineland and all of its prosperity, beauty, and charm. Soon after the symphony was written however, the euphoria turned towards catasprophe. Schumann was not a good conductor, and the musicians of the orchestra soon turned bitterly against him. His compositions were still not well understood, and his mental health began sliding towards a crisis point again. So Schumann’s 3rd symphony, the Rhenish, really represents a snapshot in time - a time of euphoria, of joy, of possibility. It is this boundless energy that comes up again and again in this remarkable symphony which we are going to talk about today. We’ll discuss the wonderful varieties of joy Schumann includes in the piece, its unusual structure, it’s transcendent fourth movement, and the unique challenges of performing Schumann’s music, which often bedevil conductors to this day. Join us!
54:36 29/02/2024
Beethoven String Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1
In 1806, the 36 year old Beethoven received a commission from the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky. Razumovsky wanted a set of string quartets for what would soon be his house string quartet which included some of the finest players Vienna had to offer. As part of his commission, Razumovsky asked Beethoven to include a Russian theme in each one of the quartets. Beethoven obliged him in 2 of the quartets, and the Razumovsky quartets, Op. 59 1, 2, and 3, were born. 1806 was near the height of Beethoven’s astonishing so called Middle Period, where the scale of his music drastically expanded from his earlier works and he began writing in a so called heroic style, with much more brash and adventurous music. This all started in 1803 with his Eroica Symphony, but Beethoven did not limit his adventures and his expanding palate to his symphonies. Everything with Beethoven’s music was expanding, including his string quartets.  These middle quartets form part of the core of most string quartets repertoires. They are astonishing works in every regard, where Beethoven starts pushing limits we didn’t even, or maybe he didn’t even, know he had. From the expansive 59, 1, to the intensely felt and taut 59, 2, to the often fun loving 59, 3, Beethoven explores every facet of string quartet playing and brings that heroic and passionate new style to the genre of the string quartet. For today, we’re going to go through Op. 59, 1, a remarkably expansive and brilliant piece that explores every facet of string quartet playing, pushing quartets to their technical and emotional limits in ways that were absolutely shocking at the time and still unbelievably challenging today. If you come to this show for symphonies, that’s great, but for me and many other musicians, Beethoven’s string quartets are the greatest collection of pieces by any composer in any genre. I hope that today’s exploration will help convince you of that! Join us!
58:38 15/02/2024
Ethel Smyth Serenade in D
I’ve mentioned Ethel Smyth a few times in the past on this show. This is partly because of her music, and partly because she remains one of the most interesting people who ever lived. She was a composer of course, but she was also a conductor and an author, as well as a political activist. Specifically, she was a suffragette, fiercely advocating for the rights of women to vote in her home country of the UK. As a composer Smyth wrote dozens of works, all of which are starting to become better known as performers and administrators look to bring more music by female composers onto concert stages around the world. Smyth did not have it easy, constantly fighting for her place, battling conductors, other composers, and even her own father, all for the right to be a composer.  Today, after I introduce you to a bit more of Smyth’s amazing biography, we’re going to focus on her first orchestral work, her Serenade in D Major. This is a piece that certainly doesn’t sound like a first orchestral piece, and it is full of all of the qualities that make Smyth’s music so enjoyable to listen to - lush warmth, humor, raucous intensity, and the quiet passion that runs through the music of so many great British composers. Smyth’s Serenade in D is starting to be performed more, and I’m really proud to be using my own recording of the piece for the show today, which I made with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra in 2021. It is only the second professional recording of the piece, and the recording has just been released on Claves Records. So today, we’re going to go through this wonderful piece and also spend some more time in the wild and unpredictable world of Dame Ethel Smyth. Join us!
48:09 01/02/2024
Dvorak Cello Concerto
When you think of the genre of the concerto, you might be thinking of something like this: virtuoso fireworks, perhaps over romantic gestures designed simply to show the soloist off, and a rather pedestrian orchestral part, giving the soloist all of the spotlight while the conductor and orchestra are mere accompanists.  Of course, this is a huge generalization and it isn’t true about many concertos.  But of all of the concertos that I conduct regularly, and hear regularly, there is one that always stands out as the exception to the rule: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto.  The Dvorak deserves every bit of popularity it has received over the years. In fact, you could argue that it is THE perfect concerto.  It's enjoyable to play, perfectly written for the cello, enjoyable to listen to, and enjoyable to accompany for the orchestra. It has everything, which makes it all the more shocking to think that before Dvorak wrote the piece, he didn’t even think of the cello as a suitable instrument for a solo piece!   But once convinced of the cello’s viability as a solo instrument, Dvorak gave everything to to the piece. We’ll talk all about the sometimes tragic history behind the writing of the concerto, the specific difficulties it places on the cellist, the conductor, and the orchestra, and of course, go through the piece in detail, pointing out all the different facets that result in the Dvorak being perhaps the greatest of all concertos. Join us! Cellist: Miklos Perenyi 
48:53 18/01/2024
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from Westside Story
We're back! Welcome to Season 10! Leonard Bernstein to his wife: "These days have flown so -- I don't sleep much; I work every -- literally every -- second (since I'm doing four jobs on this show -- composing, lyric-writing, orchestrating and rehearsing the cast). It's murder, but I'm excited. It may be something extraordinary. We're having our first run thru for PEOPLE on Friday -- Please may they dig it!."  Westside Story ran for 732 performances, spawned a movie that won 11 Academy Awards, and is still a go to on every list of the greatest Broadway Musicals ever written.  The collaboration between Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins was a revolution on par with the collaborations of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky with the Rite of Spring.  Simply put, no Broadway show had ever been so gritty, so tragic, and so raw. This was a musical, a comedy, a tragedy, a political statement, and most importantly, a stunningly revolutionary work of art by these collaborators.  And today, I want to tell you about the music, and more specifically, the Symphonic Dances from Westside Story; an arrangement that Bernstein made with his colleague Sid Ramin 3 years after the show’s premiere.  The Symphonic Dances brought Bernstein’s electric music from the theatre to the concert stage, and it’s stayed there ever since.  So today, we’ll go through each number, talking about just what makes this music so great, and also about the show itself - its background, its production, and the issues that Bernstein, Laurents, Sondheim, and Robbins were trying to tackle, all through the eyes of a tale of woe about Juliet and her Romeo, or of course, Maria and Tony. Join us!
46:37 04/01/2024
Dvorak Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" - LIVE with the Aalborg Symphony!
I had the great joy to do my first ever live edition of Sticky Notes last month with the Aalborg Symphony in Denmark. For this concert, I chose a piece that is extremely close to my heart, Dvorak's New World Symphony. The story of the New World Symphony is a fascinating one. The symphony was the result of an extraordinary series of events, with Dvorak coming to America in 1892, meeting the great singer Harry Burleigh, and falling in love with a totally new, to him, genre of music: Black American and Native American folk music. Listening to Burleigh and other voices around America, Dvorak had discovered a new “American” sound for his music, and even though he would end up staying in the US for just three years, in that time he composed two of his most popular pieces, the American String Quartet, and the New World Symphony But of course, the New World Symphony isn’t really an American piece. It is a piece written in America by a Czech composer, which means it embodies traits from both sides of the Atlantic.  Moments of Black American influence elide into Czech Slavonic Dances and back again with incredible ease.  All along the way, Dvorak infuses his highly traditional symphonic style with this "American" sound, a sound that enraptured the public from the very first time they heard it, and remains both incredibly popular and incredibly moving, today. Join myself and the Aalborg Symphony for this exploration of the symphony, followed by a complete performance. I'm extremely grateful to the Danish Radio for allowing me to use this performance for the show. 
102:05 16/11/2023
Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra
Throughout the history of Western Classical Music, folk music has imprinted itself as an invaluable resource for composers from all over the world. In fact, it’s easier to make a list of composers who never used folk music in their compositions than it is to make a list of the composers who did! This tradition began long before the 20th century, but the work of composers like Bartok and a resurgence in the influence of nationalist music sparked a massive increase in composers using folk music throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Bartok is thought of as the king of using folk music, as he was essentially the worlds first ethnomusicologist. But Stravinsky, who used dozens of uncredited folk tunes in his Rite of Spring, as well as Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Szymanowski, Dvorak, and so many others embraced folk music as an integral source for their music. This was in stark contrast to the second Viennese school composers like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and post World War II composers like Stockhausen, Boulez, and others who deliberately turned their backs on folk music. One composer who straddled both worlds during their lifetime was the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, a brilliant composer whose career started out in the folk music realm, though not entirely by choice, and ended up in music of aleatory, a kind of controlled chaos! One of his first major works, the Concerto for Orchestra is the topic for today’s show, and it is heavily influenced by folk music from start to finish. It is a piece also inspired and might even be a bit of an homage to the great Bela Bartok and his own Concerto for Orchestra, which was written just ten years earlier. Lutoslawski, if you’re not familiar with him, is one of those composers that once you learn about him, you can’t get enough of him. I’ll take you through this brilliant and utterly unique piece today from start to finish. Join us!
62:21 09/11/2023
R. Schumann Piano Concerto
In January of 1839, Clara Wieck, Robert's future wife, wrote to Robert, “Don’t take it amiss if I tell you that I’ve been seized by the desire to encourage you to write for orchestra. Your imagination and your spirit are too great for the weak piano.” Clara knew that she would have struck a nerve with Robert, whose history with the piano was full of trials and tribulations. Robert had trained as a pianist, but a 3 year period of reckless amounts of practicing as well as the exacerbating effects of experimental devices meant to strengthen his fingers had destroyed his ability to play professionally. But already from the age of 17, in 1827, Robert had considered writing a piano concerto, probably for himself to perform. He made 4 further attempts to write a concerto, but it seems, like so many things in Schumann’s life, that his marriage to Clara was the final inspiration that he needed to get over the hump. It made sense, as Clara Schumann was possibly the greatest pianist of her age, and someone who was ceaselessly devoted to promoting her husband’s works wherever she played. In 1841, one year after their marriage, Robert finished a one movement piano concerto in A minor, which he called a Phantasie. Clara reported adoring the piece, but no publisher was interested in the work of a still relatively unknown composer. They were especially uninterested in a on movement concerto, and so Robert knew he needed to “finish” the piece with two extra movements. It would take him 4 more years to finally tack on those extra movements, and the first performance would be given 4 years after that Phantasie had been written, of course with Clara as soloist. This concerto has remained popular practically ever since it was written, and there are so many reasons for it, from its arresting opening, to its abundant lyricism, to its constant interplay with the orchestra, something that Robert grappled with when writing this concerto. This piece is one that doesn’t have a story behind it, or any sort of narrative - it lives in the world as a sort of fantasy, constantly evolving in its beauty throughout. We’re going to talk about this piece in detail, from start to finish on this Patreon Sponsored Episode. Join us!
48:17 02/11/2023
Brahms Violin Concerto
Brahms’ violin concerto is one of the most difficult works for any violinist to tackle. It is as virtuosic as the hardest piece of Paganini as well as being as musically complex as a Brahms symphony. It takes most violinists years or even decades to feel comfortable with this piece, and many violinists consider it a kind of Mount Everest. Why? What makes this piece so complex, and yet so beautiful? What kind of choices do violinists make in their interpretations? For today, I'm not only going to tell you about this piece and how Brahms composed it, but I'm also going to compare 3 different recordings of the piece(Heifetz, Oistrakh, and Ferras) in order to show you the differences in interpretations between these 3 titanic violinists. We'll also talk about many of the topics we’ve covered before with Brahms; continuous development, gorgeous melodies, and that amazing Brahmsian quality of both respecting established forms while constantly subtly subverting them. Let's start the climb together and get to know this remarkable piece. Join us!
50:26 26/10/2023
What Does Music Mean?
Today is a bit of an unusual episode. Last month I was invited by the British Society of Aesthetics to address their annual conference. My task was to give a lecture on whatever topic I wanted, having to do with music. So, considering it was an Academic Philosophy conference, I chose the easiest and most straightforward topic possible - What Does Music Mean?  Obviously, this is a topic that has been interrogated from just about every different angle, and I certainly would never claim to have all the answers. But for my lecture, I decided to focus on how to find meaning in these amazing works from a performer's perspective. How do I study and learn these pieces so that I can find the meaning that I think is inside of them? What does history teach us about these pieces and can we use history to find meaning in these works? To try to answer these questions I chose three pieces to explore - Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, Barber's Adagio for Strings, and Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. After the lecture I realized it could easily be a podcast episode, so I've slightly changed a few things to make the lecture a bit more podcast-friendly. I hope you enjoy this one, and thanks to the British Society of Aesthetics for their invitation and their warm welcome!
52:27 19/10/2023
William Grant Still Symphony No. 1., "Afro-American"
On October 29th, 1931, The Rochester Philharmonic presented the world premiere of a new symphony by the composer William Grant Still. A symphonic premiere is always something to look out for in musical history, but this one had an even greater significance. The premiere of Wiliam Grant Still’s First Symphony, subtitled  “Afro American,” was the first time a symphony written by a Black American composer was performed by a leading orchestra. William Grant Still was a man of many firsts, whether he was the first Black American conductor to conduct a major orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major company, the first Black American to conduct an orchestra in the South of the United States, and much more.  Today we’re going to focus in on Grant Still’s first symphony, a piece that Grant Still had long thought about, conceptualized, and dreamed of. It was also a symphony wrapped up in the roiling currents of Black America at the time, with the Harlem Renaissance in full swing and Alain Locke’s tract The New Negro sparking discussion and debate all over the country. It was a symphony that attempted to do something no one had ever done before, that is, to marry together the genre of the Blues with that of symphonic music. At the time of its premiere and afterwards, it was quite a success, and until 1950, it was THE most performed symphony written by an American composer. After 1950, the symphony practically disappeared from concert stages, but due to the explosion of interest in Black American composers of the past and present, this brilliant symphony is making its way back into the repertoire of orchestras all over the world. The way that Grant Still constructed this meeting of two genres of music was ingenious and innovative from start to finish, and so today on the show we’ll explore all of the historical context of the symphony, what Grant Still was trying to do with his monumental new endeavor, and of course, all of the music itself. I'm also joined today by the great writer and linguist John McWhorter, who discusses the 4 Paul Laurence Dunbar poems Grant Still added to each movement as epigraphs, as well as their cultural context. Join us!
66:34 12/10/2023
(Part 2) - The Music of World War II and the Holocaust with "Time's Echo" writer Jeremy Eichler
This is another episode where I highly recommend listening to Part 1 from last week before listening to this episode! It was a great honor to speak with the critic and cultural historian Jeremy Eichler about his remarkable new book "Time's Echo." In today's episode, we speak about Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen, as well as the complicated and hotly debated questions about Strauss' activities during World War II. We also talk about Shostakovich and his 13th Symphony, entitled "Babi Yar," a piece of memorial for a place where no memorial had stood for decades. Finally, we speak about Benjamin Britten and his War Requiem. We talk about Britten's devout pacificism, about his visit to the Belsen Displaced Persons camp after World War II, and why his War Requiem seems to have more connection with World War I than with World War II. It was truly a joy to talk to Jeremy about all of these different great composers, as well as the memories they created with their works. Join us! 
55:13 05/10/2023
The Music of World War II and the Holocaust with "Time's Echo" writer Jeremy Eichler (Part 1)
I had the great pleasure and honor this week(and next week) to speak with the author of the new book Time's Echo Jeremy Eichler. The book chronicles four composers and their varied reactions to World War II and the Holocaust, including Schoenberg, Strauss, Shostakovich, and Britten. This week we talked about the historical symbiosis between Germans and German Jews, the concept of Bildung, a central idea in German culture throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Mendelssohn's role in creating a sense of "German" music, Schoenberg's remarkable prescience about what lay in the future after the Nazis took power in Germany, his remarkable Survivor from Warsaw, the first major musical memorial to the Holocaust, and the almost hard to believe it's so wild story of the premiere of the piece. This is truly one of my favorite books about classical music that I've ever read, so I highly recommend picking it up. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
57:45 28/09/2023
Mahler Symphony No. 4, Part 2
If you haven’t listened to Part 1 of this episode about Mahler's 4th symphony, I highly recommend doing that, as every movement of this symphony builds to the "Heavenly Life" of the last movement. On Part 2, we'll be going through the 3rd and 4th movements. Mahler told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner that the 3rd movement of the symphony was created by ”a vision of a tombstone on which was carved an image of the departed, with folded arms, in eternal sleep.” As you can imagine based on that description, there is an unearthly beauty to the slow movement of Mahler’s 4th. Much like the Heiliger Dankgesang movement from Beethoven’s Op. 132 string quartet I talked about a couple of weeks ago, we often get the feeling in the slow movement of Mahler’s 4th that we are listening to music that is coming to us from the other side. As the slow movement comes to its end, we are introduced to the last movement, a sublime and peaceful song Mahler entitled "The Heavenly Life." This is a symphony that leaves you in a state like no other in the musical world, and so today we’ll go through that slow movement, investigating just how Mahler makes it so extraordinary, and then we’ll talk about the last movement, a movement that has divided listeners from the beginning due to its unusual text. I can’t promise we’ll find all the answers, but along the way, we’ll get to listen to some truly divine music. We’ll also get to hear Mahler himself playing - that’s right, Mahler himself! Join us!
59:48 21/09/2023
Mahler Symphony No. 4, Part 1
After the truly heavenly slow movement of Mahler’s 4th symphony, a soprano emerges and sings a song literally called “The Heavenly Life.” It is a symphonic ending like no other, one that leaves the listener peaceful and contented after taking a long(but not as long as usual) and winding journey with Gustav Mahler and his 4th symphony. The 4th symphony is a symphony of moments, like the famous sleigh bells that begin the piece, and a symphony of long, massive, and momentous arcs, like in the timeless 3rd movement, which might be my single favorite movement of any Mahler symphony. But this symphony, so renowned for its contentedness and beauty also features complicated emotions, drama that clouds the blue skies, and a dark side that we never truly escape, perhaps not until the very end of the symphony. Mahler said that his symphony was “divinely serene, yet profoundly sad, it can only have you laughing and crying at the same time.” What a perfect way to define Mahler’s music, always full of dualisms, contradictions, ironies, and complexities, but that’s what makes Mahler’s music so irresistible; its ability to plumb the depths of not only the human spirit but also its psyche. Mahler’s music is truly musical therapy, and if there’s one of his symphonies that really exemplifies that, it’s this fourth symphony. With all that said, this is also his simplest and most easily grasped symphony in terms of its purely musical content. I’ve gotten a lot of emails in the past from folks who are skeptical or confused about Mahler and his appeal, so if you’re one of those people, than this symphony MIGHT just be the one that changes your mind. As always with Mahler, his symphonies get multi-part episodes, so this week I’ll go through the first two movements of the symphony, from the sleigh bells and brilliant sunshine of the first movement, to the devilish and ironic second movement. We’ll talk all about Mahler’s brilliant orchestration, his use(and deliberate misuse) of form, the pure beauty of this music, and the oddly negative reception that this symphony got when it was first performed. Join us!
51:49 14/09/2023
Beethoven String Quartet, Op. 132, Part 2
If you joined me last week, you heard about the severe intestinal illness that Beethoven suffered from during the year of 1825.  Beethoven thought that he was near death; he was spitting up blood, in terrible pain, and regularly begged his doctor for help.  Ensconced in Baden, a Viennese suburb known for its nature and calm, Beethoven slowly and miraculously recovered from the illness, giving him 2 more years to compose.  These two years brought us the quartets Op. 130 Op. 131, Op. 135, a series of canons, sketches for a 10th symphony. and of course, Op. 132.   Obviously, even as he suffered from this illness, Beethoven knew that he had much more in him left to compose.  The 4 quartets he wrote upon recovery from this illness ALL rank in the top 10 of the greatest musical compositions ever written by anyone.  During the slow movement of Op. 132, Beethoven takes the opportunity to thank the Deity, who or whatever that was to Beethoven, for his recovery.  This 15-20 minute movement is, as I said last week, beyond superlatives, but I’ll do my best to quell my enthusiasm and look at this movements structure, its fascinating harmonic language, and of course, its spiritual dimension.  We’ll then take apart the final two movements of the piece, two movements that teach us so much about Beethoven as a composer, as a person, and as a performer.  No piece of Beethoven’s struggles for so long before finally reaching a glorious conclusion, but don’t worry, we’ll get there in the end. Join us to explore part 2 of one of the greatest masterpieces of music ever written!
44:37 08/09/2023
Beethoven String Quartet, Op. 132, Part 1
I had long hesitated to write a show about any of Beethoven’s late string quartets.  These are pieces that professional quartets spend the better part of their careers grappling with, struggling with, failing with, and much more rarely, succeeding with.  They are some of the most extraordinary pieces of art ever conceived of.  5 quartets, Opus 127, Opus 130, Opus 131, Opus 132, and Opus 135, all written near or at the end of Beethoven’s life, arguably representing the pinnacle of everything Beethoven achieved. They explore not only every conceivable emotion, but they dig down into the core of those emotions, defiantly refusing to skim the surface and daring to ask and then answer the fundamental questions of life and death.  Everyone has a favorite Late Beethoven Quartet, but mine has always been Opus 132, and so this week I’m taking the opportunity to take the leap into Late Beethoven.  We’ll discuss Beethoven’s situation as he recovered from a life-threatening illness which he was sure was going to be his end, the unusual 5 movement structure of the piece, and this week, the first two movements of the quartet, the first of which, to me, defines everything that Sonata Form can do to express emotion and a narrative in a piece of absolute music. Join us!
45:01 31/08/2023
Nielsen Symphony No. 4, "Inextinguishable"
At the top of the score for the Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s 4th symphony, he wrote: “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable.” This could easily be the shortest podcast I’ve ever done. I could leave you with that quote and then play you the beginning of the symphony, and you would understand everything Nielsen wanted to portray in this remarkable music. But don’t worry, I won’t do that. Carl Nielsen’s music has never quite made it into the standard standard repertoire, but if there is one piece of his that is played more often than any other, it is his 4th symphony, subtitled The Inextinguishable. But as a whole, Nielsen’s 4th symphony is not easy to digest. It is a piece that is contradictory, in the sense that Nielsen uses an extremely small set of motives to write practically every note of music in the score, and yet sometimes the music can feel like a stream of consciousness. Nielsen himself wrote: “I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live ... just life and motion, though varied – very varied – yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”  There is a James Joyce-esque sense of jump-cutting between different ideas, as if that inextinguishable life force is unaffected by earthly things like form and recognizable structure. But if you peek under the hood of this piece, you find that it is really in 4 movements, and the first movement is even in a kind of a Sonata Form. It has an intermezzo, a slow movement, and a rambunctious finale. In many ways, this is a conventional symphony, but in terms of the musical material and the way Nielsen decided to manipulate that material, it is anything but conventional. We’ll talk about all of this today, including the influence of World War 1 on the symphony and on Nielsen himself, and the remarkable music that throws us along like a relentless and boundless current of energy. Join us!
59:36 24/08/2023
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream
The stories, legends, and myths about the trials and travails of composers lives are legion, like Beethoven’s battles against fate, Mozart and Schubert’s struggles with finances, Brahms’ failures with women, Mahler’s troubles with just about everyone, and Shostakovich’s near fatal interactions with the government.  These stories tend to add to the general understanding of these composers, and in fact they tend to enhance their reputations.  We see their struggles in their music, and it makes us admire them more for overcoming them.   With Mendelssohn, and to some extent Haydn as well, we have the opposite case.  Mendelssohn grew up in a happy, wealthy German family, and it was only late in his life when he underwent any major struggles at all.  Whether this happy upbringing contributed to the character of his music is anyone’s guess, but Mendelssohn seems to always get the short end of the stick when it comes to reputation, and I think that his generally cheerful music has a lot to do with this fact.  But Mendelssohn is no second-rate composer.  As I mentioned in April with my show about Mendelssohn’s Octet, he was certainly THE greatest composer under 18 that we know of(and yes I’m including Mozart in that), and his best music ranks up there with the best composers in history.  And today, our focus on both the overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the incidental music that Mendelssohn wrote 17 years later, allows us to enjoy the full breadth of Mendelssohn’s staggering talent.  This is not only clever and cheerful music. It is also fantastically orchestrated, perfectly structured, and in the case of the overture, it is full of invention and character that is simply mind-blowing from a composer who was just 17 years old at the time.  So today we’ll talk all about this, from the beauty and perfection of the overture to the incidental music that followed, meant to be performed alongside Shakespeare’s play. We’ll also talk about the role Shakespeare played in Germany at the time, and how Mendelssohn’s upbringing did indeed have a lot to do with the music he chose to write. Join us!
52:41 17/08/2023
Elgar Cello Concerto
Elgar's Cello Concerto was composed in the shadow of World War 1. It was a piece that marked a profound shift in Elgar's outlook on life and music, and was his last major work before a long silence caused by the death of his wife Alice. It is a piece of remarkable passion for a composer like Elgar, and never fails to move the audience with its combination of grief, melancholy, nostalgia, rage, but also tenderness. Elgar as a composer had been passed by with the invention of atonality and with composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg pushing the boundaries of where music could go. Elgar stubbornly stayed true to his Romantic impulses, but the concerto also displays some of the inescapable influence of those composers. It is one of the most powerful pieces of the 20th century, but one of the reasons we know the piece so well is an unforgettable recording made in 1965 by Jacqueline Du Pre. It is very unusual for a piece to be so associated with a single performer, but Du Pre truly made the Elgar a standard concerto for the cello and it is now a piece that every cellist makes a part of their repertoire. We'll talk about all this and more during the show today - join us!
52:24 10/08/2023
Romeo and Juliet in Classical Music
The "love theme" from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture is one of the most famous themes in the history of Western Classical Music.  The story it accompanies might be the most famous Western play ever written.   Just like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik seems to define the powdered wig era of classical music to the general public, the passionate theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet seems to define romanticism in music because Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy captures Shakespeare’s masterpiece with a roiling and unstoppable intensity.  But Tchaikovsky’s setting of Romeo and Juliet, while probably the most famous, is by no means the only reimagining of the play by classical composers.  There have been nearly a dozen adaptations of Romeo and Juliet by classical composers, including overtures, ballets, suites, and operas.  Romeo and Juliet, just like it has been for actors, directors, and the audience, is an inexhaustible source for composers in a way that few pieces of literature or dramatic theatre have been in history.  So today we’ll compare just some of them for you - I’ll be looking at Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, Prokofiev’s Ballet Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz’s choral symphony Romeo et Juliette, a brief look at Gounod’s opera Romeo and Juliet, and Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story.  We’ll take a look at how these 5 composers inserted their distinctive personalities onto the music, leaving no doubt that this was Shakespeare, and Romeo and Juliet, through their eyes.  I’ll do this by giving a general overview of each piece, and then I'll zero in on two ideas - the portrayal of Juliet, and the portrayal of Tybalt’s Death(or fighting in general).  This way we can see how these composers handled these pivotal characters and moments, all in markedly different ways. Join us!
49:19 03/08/2023
Mozart Symphony No. 38, "Prague"
Very few cities have had a relationship with a single person, especially a foreigner, like the city of Prague and its love affair with Mozart. Here’s what Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist for some of his greatest operas, said about it: "It is not easy to convey an adequate conception of the enthusiasm of the Bohemians for [Mozart's] music. The pieces which were admired least of all in other countries were regarded by those people as things divine; and, more wonderful still, the great beauties which other nations discovered in the music of that rare genius only after many, many performances, were perfectly appreciated by the Bohemians on the very first evening.” Mozart had been losing his popularity rapidly in Vienna, and so his trips to Prague were a boon to his self-esteem. He wrote in a letter, speaking of Prague’s euphoric reaction to his opera the Marriage of Figaro: "here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me!" Now whether or not Mozart actually wrote this 38th symphony FOR the city of Prague or not is disputed. It seems as if he finished the symphony before he was invited to come to Prague for the first time. All we know for sure is that the first performance of the piece was definitely in Prague, and it included a couple of details that point to Mozart writing it specifically with both the audience and the musicians of Prague in mind. But the most important thing about this symphony is that it marks the beginning of a late period in Mozart’s symphonies that sees him pushing at the bounds of symphonic form in a nearly Beethoven-like way. There is no symphony where that is more true than the one we’re going to talk about today, the 38th symphony. The sheer amount of invention alone in the first movement is enough to hold our attention for weeks, but we’ll talk about the whole symphony today, from its formal innovations, to its warmth and joy, and to the little clues that make us think that this symphony was a stunning and perhaps unprecedented gift from Mozart to the city that adored him so much. Join us!
53:28 27/07/2023
Jean-Louis Duport Cello Concerto No. 4
Thank you to Nicole for sponsoring today's show on Patreon! Have you ever heard of Jean-Louis Duport? I imagine that unless you are a professional cellist, or someone who studied cello as a child, you probably haven’t. Even though my sister is a professional cellist, I had never heard of him before I was asked to make this show. Duport is a historical figure who has been almost completely forgotten, though he was part of a fascinating group of musicians who encountered Beethoven, Frederick the Great, and even Napoleon! He and his brother Jean-Pierre were two of the greatest cellists of their era, and Jean-Louis lives on for cellists as the writer of a set of etudes or studies that are still used by cellists all over the world to refine their techniques. But Jean-Louis Duport also wrote 6 cello concertos, pieces which show his profound connection with the instrument, as well as his mastery of the style of his time. Today on the show I’ll take you through one of those concertos, his 4th, but I’m also going to do something a bit different. Since this will be my first time encountering the music of Duport, I want to show you how I might approach this piece as a conductor learning it for the first time. I’ve been conducting professionally now for almost 15 years, so there aren’t a lot of pieces that are brand new to me anymore, but if I were to conduct this concerto, it would be totally new to me, which means that I approach this music in a totally different way than a piece I’d conducted a few times before. So today on the show we’ll go through the piece, as well as my process for how I would learn a work like this, from start to finish. Join us!
43:05 20/07/2023

Similar podcasts