Nobuyuki Tsujii – simply a great pianist

Nobuyuki Tsujii is a phenomenon. Described by some as the ‘Miracle Pianist’, Tsujii is a Japanese musician who is setting the classical music world aflame at the tender age of 23.

He is a winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, an accomplished composer who regularly performs his own works and a thrilling musician, who has already graced the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall.

He also happens to be blind.

While Nobu (as he is fondly referred to) has risen to fame on an international scale, selling over 100,000 of his Cliburn CD in his native Japan and garnering the praise of critics, musicians, jurors and conductors across the globe, he has remained a hugely personable, warm and down-to-earth person. An excellent representative of his art.

When you see Nobu perform, you are blown away by the depth of feeling he exudes in his playing, his crystalline tone, the breathtaking ease with which he masters even the most complex passages of music and his obvious, unbridled love for his art. With this breadth of talent, perhaps the least of our thoughts should be devoted to the fact that he is blind.

Simply a pianist

In an article in Time Magazine titled ‘Nobu’ Fever: Japan Falls for a Blind Piano Prodigy’, the most striking quotation comes right at the end of the piece, where Nobu states:

“When I was small, I realized I was blind, but at the same time I said, ‘But I can play the piano, so it’s okay.’ I’d like everyone to think that I am simply a pianist.”

It’s an interesting thought that our judgments can often be swayed by something altogether unrelated to the main point in question. In the case of Tsujii we may well be overcome with the brave path his life journey has taken, rooting for an underdog who has displayed unnerving talent to triumph over physical disability.

While it is natural to feel such a strong connection to his personal story, this is a pianist who is most worthy of respect for the beauty of his playing alone.

Here’s a video of Tsujii at age two. I’ll repeat that for clarification: Two. Astonishingly, Nobu has demonstrated a natural kinship with the instrument from his earliest days:

Of course, while it is absolutely right that we judge Tsujji first and foremost on his talent, it’s fascinating to consider the challenges he must overcome to perform in a world that has little experience with accommodating a blind musician.

When he performs with an orchestra, the conductor may let out a low breath to signify the moment he expects him to begin to play. Then there is the ongoing struggle with acquiring musical scores, with other pianists regularly recording whole passages with musical notations added, so that Nobu is able to literally hear the preferences and instructions of a conductor.

But in the end, none of this would even matter if he couldn’t play. And Nobuyuki Tsujii can play.

So, while Nobu asks us to think of him as ‘simply a pianist’, it would perhaps to be more fitting to add another word to that phrase: Nobuyuki Tsujii: simply a great pianist.

Here is a video of Nobu performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor in the final of the 2009 Cliburn competition. I’ve also added a video of the final moments of his debut at Carnegie Hall.

Enjoy!

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Recuerdos de la Alhambra – one piece, two interpretations

*Today we are introducing a section of Classical Music Blogspot that is focused upon newer classical music fans. Of course, we hope that these posts will also be of interest to seasoned classical music lovers.

An overwhelming choice

One of the main problems that the classical music public faces (and particularly new fans) is the issue of which recording of a particular piece to listen to. When you walk into a record shop or scour the iTunes store, you will be left with what seems like an overwhelming choice of different versions of the same classical music piece.

You may make your decision based upon a recommendation or review. You may make your decision based upon the fact that you enjoyed a particular artist’s performance on another CD. Many people make their decisions based upon a whim – the front cover, the label the artist recorded on, the number of downloads a recording has. It can all seem quite arbitrary.

And then, when you take your recording home or put it on your playlist, you may even feel that that’s it. I get it. I know the piece and I enjoyed it or didn’t enjoy it, based upon this single performance.

The importance of interpretation

With classical music, interpretation is key. A single piece can sound vastly different when placed in the hands of different interpreters. The artist has the prerogative to make musical choices that can alter the dynamic of a recording to a surprising degree.

While the composer will create a piece of music that has distinct notes, guidance on tempo and defined stylistic considerations, the artist still has a great deal of freedom when interpreting the piece.

The greatest performances attempt to channel the original ideal of the composer. But, each artist will still approach a performance from a completely different viewpoint. All sorts of variances come into play – the education and musical school the artist emanates from, the style of playing they have developed over the years, the thoughts they themselves have on the original composer’s intention for the piece. All of these considerations – and many others – come into play.

Recuerdos de la Alhambra

As an example, let’s look at the famed classical guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, composed by Francisco Tarrega. The first rendition is performed by Andres Segovia, while the second is performed by Narciso Yepes.

Version 1 – Segovia:

Segovia was a pioneer of classical guitar and is probably still the most celebrated artist in the genre. His performance of Recuerdos de la Alhambra is earthly, natural and organic, seeming to work its way in and out of the architecture and acoustic space that surrounds him. The tremolo appears slowly out of nowhere, while great emphasis is placed upon the bottom three strings of the instrument, ensuring every bass note takes a prominent position in the overall interpretation. The piece sounds like the subtle rumble of the first moments of an earthquake, while the instrument itself seems to tremor and shake in Segovia’s hands as he rattles the strings.

Version 2 – Yepes:

The interpretation of Yepes could hardly be more different to that of Segovia. Firstly, what strikes the listener is the obvious difference in speed. Yepes’ version of the piece flies by in comparison, with the tremolo singing out in a quivering voice. The melody comes to the fore, with the bass notes acting as a subtle accompaniment to the main song. If Segovia’s version seems to come out from the earth, Yepes’ version seems to come down from the skies. If Segovia’s version seems to creep in and out of the surrounding atmosphere, Yepes’ version pierces through the elements with a bright and singular tone.

Final thoughts

It’s not for me to say which version of a piece is best or, in most cases, better. Personal preferences abound and you can often be confused, rather than assisted, by looking at two reviews of the same recording. The best advice I could give would be to cast a broad net, search out different versions of each piece you are drawn to, and enjoy the variety and dynamism that individual musicians bring to their art-form.

If you’d like to own some great musical interpretations by Segovia or Yepes, click on either of the photos below:

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Sunday Supplement – Martha Argerich plays Chopin

Each Sunday, instead of writing a full blog piece, we will be posting a video or audio recording of a classical music performance, with just a couple of lines of supporting text.

If you have a few minutes, it’s a good opportunity to simply watch or listen to the music, without the usual distractions of words.

Yesterday, we shared our thoughts on the Iamus computer that has caused a stir by creating new classical music compositions with no human intervention. Today’s piece is an exemplary illustration of an artist truly connecting to a composition.

Aside from the virtuosity on display (the sound quality isn’t exceptional), it’s an excellent visual representation of the connection between a soloist, the orchestra, the composer and the music.

So, with no further ado, here is the 2nd movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2, performed by the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich.

Enjoy!

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Iamus – the Beethoven of the future?

In September of this year The London Symphony Orchestra will feature on a new CD, along with a number of other classical music musicians. Nothing new there then.  But this IS a CD with a difference. You see, the disc showcases the works of an innovative, new composer: Iamus.

So what’s so different about Iamus?

Iamus hasn’t got anything on this guy.

The reason that this CD will be so groundbreaking is that the creator of the pieces is not your normal composer with all the human traits that sometimes sidetrack, stifle or limit talent. In fact, Iamus is not even human at all. It’s a computer.

This Spanish super-computer is able to create new compositions without any human intervention whatsoever. The results are… well, you can see for yourself in the video below.

Developments of the past

Innovation in music is essential for its continued growth. From Pythagoras’ invention of the Octave scale in 600 BC, through to the 17th century invention of the piano and the 19th century innovation of the modern conductor’s baton, developments in music have generally been focused upon expanding the tool-set of the human composer or musician, while making the process of creating art somewhat easier.

Not so here.

What Iamus does is manipulate and mutate sound and material in a way that makes it capable of producing an endless stream of musical pieces. Rather than being an innovation that aids or supports the musician, Iamus is more akin to the Infinite Monkey theorem, where a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time would reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare.

The monkey’s not quite there yet!

While you may be surprised or even wowed when listening to the compositions that Iamus produces, I couldn’t help thinking that the music does sound a little bit like, well, something that a computer would create. The piece ‘Hello World’ (video below) has a strangely space-agey feel to it, which I suppose is quite appropriate given the composer. However, it is perhaps the lack of obvious emotion in the piece that is most impactful.

You see, it’s one thing for a computer to put notes together, manipulate tempo and structure, to produce what one could deem to be music. It’s another thing altogether to have a human pour his own emotion and soul into a composition, giving life to music that is based, not just on structure, but on inspiration, experience, education, love, hope, sadness, joy, loss, politics, culture, religion, and all the other myriad influences and emotions that compel the listener to connect to a piece.

Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think I’ll be chucking out my classical music collection just yet.

Along with the good must come the bad.

In the end, it may well be that Iamus could be capable of reproducing the entire works of Mozart, or even creating new compositions that are equally inspired, artistic and beautiful. But who will be listening to hear when this truly great composition arises? Now that’s a job I wouldn’t want to have.

Here’s a link to the piece ‘Hello World’, the very first recorded composition of Iamus, performed by the Trio, Cristo Barrios (clarinet), Cecilia Bercovich (violin) and Gustavo Diaz-Jerez (piano):

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BBC Proms 2012 – imagining a world without Mozart

Mozart

There is an extremely interesting article that appeared on July 19th 2012 in the Guardian newspaper website that discusses the idea that the annual classical music behemoth, the BBC Proms, is guilty of a longstanding history of neglecting the music of Mozart.

The article sets out, in no uncertain terms, the pattern of neglect, going back to the 1980s, where the music of Mozart (and specifically his symphonies) has been overlooked in favour of other, perhaps lesser-known and less-celebrated, composers.

Let’s look at the facts on offer:

Mozart wrote 41 symphonies during his lifetime, with many of them considered to be at the pinnacle of symphonic artistry. Of course, it goes without saying that Mozart himself is one of the most celebrated, highly regarded and well-loved composers of all times.

In its 2012 season, the Proms is featuring exactly none of these symphonies in its program. In 2011, not one Mozart symphony was performed, zero in 2009, nada in 2007. In fact, from the 450 orchestral Proms over the past six seasons, there have been a total of three performances of Mozart symphonies.

During the same time period, there have been 32 performances of Beethoven symphonies, 12 of Brahms symphonies and 17 of Mahler symphonies. The total amount of symphonies written by these composers combined is 23… or 18 less than Mozart alone.

The crux of the matter

The most important argument the article’s author Martin Kettle promotes is that the musicians and performers of today will have no performance reference with which to guide and educate the future generations.

If you take the argument to its farthest extreme, what we will be faced with is a world where Mozart will have become so marginalised that his most important works will not only be overlooked, but forgotten.

It’s a worrying thought.

While the BBC itself comes in for some serious criticism in the article, the author does note that this is not a secluded incident in the world of classical music. To quote the article, ‘symphony orchestras everywhere (are) largely withdrawing from the pre-Beethoven repertoire in much of the orchestral world’ and period orchestras who ‘staked out Mozart as their own territory, now seem to have abandoned it in their turn, with nothing replacing them’.

So what does this all mean?

A quick skim through the article’s comments section sees some readers labelling Martin Kettle as an old-school traditionalist, pining for the past, using words like ‘prissy’ and ‘pedantic’ to make their disapproval felt. Still others on the site view this trend away from Mozart as neglectful, irresponsible and alarming.

It seems that the issue clearly divides opinion between those who feel the regular performance of Mozart’s works is imperative for the future wellbeing of classical music and those who either see no pattern appearing or have no problem with other composers’ works being showcased to a more prominent degree.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Here’s a direct link to the article in its entirety:

And, to take my own personal action towards bucking this trend, here’s a link to a video of Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra performing the Molto Allegro of Mozart’s Symphony 41 in C Major:

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5 great classical music pieces for kids!

While wandering aimlessly through the interweb yesterday, I stumbled across a fabulous article that came out in the 16th July 2012 edition of the Toronto Star, titled ‘5 tips to introduce children to classical music’.

The article was written in response to two concerts for children and their families that are being organized by the concert pianist Jason Cutmore and narrator Risk Phillips. Cutmore and Phillips also share five simple, practical tips for getting children engaged and interested in classical music. (A link to the full article can be found at the bottom of this post).

Reading the article inspired me to come up with a short list of pieces of music that are ideal for introducing children to the classical world. So, with the help of some close friends, I put together this list of 5 recommended recordings that are just great for kids. If you fancy buying any of these wonderful recordings, just click on the image.

Enjoy!

1. Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky

– The Nutcracker is rightly regarded as among the most magical ballets of all time. Waltz of the Flowers arrives at the end of the second act and has one of the most recognizable themes in all of classical music. Of course, if you can take your kids to see a live performance of the ballet – all the better!

2. The Carnival of the Animals (finale) by Saint-Saëns

– Saint Saëns’ wonderful Carnival of the Animals is a favourite of music teachers around the world – and for good reason. The fourteen movements of the suite take animals as their central influence, using orchestral instruments to mimic the sounds the animals make, while using their personalities and traits as the guiding force behind the music.

3. Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov

– Part of the 1890 opera ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’, the frantic tempo of the Flight of the Bumblebee brings to mind a buzzing bee going about its daily business in a frenzy of speed and movement. It has become a favourite of audiences of all ages but is a perfect piece to excite a passion for classical music among children.

4. The Sabre Dance by Khachaturian

– The Sabre Dance (from the ballet Gayane) brings to mind the whirling war dances that were traditionally used to display feats of swordsmanship in the composer’s native Armenia. The rhythm is highly exciting and clicks along at an incredible pace, making it a popular choice for a broad variety of film and television productions.

5. The Typewriter by Leroy Anderson

– The final piece of music on our list is Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter, which showcases the rhythmic qualities of an actual typewriter as it accompanies an orchestra throughout the musical journey. It’s a warm and amusing piece that transcends traditional orchestral conventions and brings beauty to what many of us would view as a mundane, monotonous task – typing.

And a little bit extra:

In addition to individual pieces of music, some of my fondest memories come from the magical experience of learning about music and different instruments at a young, tender age.

I can travel back in my mind’s eye right now to my school music class where we sat listening to Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, trying to distinguish between the different instruments while being taken on the fantastical journey that begins when great music is matched with great storytelling. This type of interactive experience is a fantastic introduction to classical music.

To listen to the classic Prokofiev masterpiece, check out Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame) and the Orchestre De L’Opera De Lyon’s 1994 recording.

Other highly recommendable gems of yester-year include Leonard Bernstein’s 1964 ‘Young People’s Concerts’ with the New York Philharmonic:

And, if you can possibly get hold of it, the documentary ‘Menuhin’s Children’ is an excellent production that details Yehudi Menuhin’s quest to teach a group of primary-aged English children the violin.

Of course, there are a plethora of other recordings that are perfect starting-points for introducing classical music to children. Feel free to comment on your personal favorites in the space below.

As promised, here’s the original article, ‘5 tips to introduce children to classical music’:

http://www.thestar.com/parentcentral/article/1226443–5-tips-to-introduce-children-to-classical-music

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‘Som Sabadell’ – classical music and the corporate world

Yesterday I was sent a link to a YouTube video (see below) that really had me in two minds.

My first reaction when watching it was that I was moved. But, by the very end of the video, I really didn’t know what to think.

You see, the video shows an amazing scene in Sabadell, Spain (nicknamed the Catalan Manchester), where an orchestra are playing the great Beethoven classic ‘Ode to Joy’, outdoors in a square full of bystanders.

The piece starts out with a single double bassist who is slowly joined by more musicians until there is a crescendo of music played by an orchestra and choir, made up of people dressed in casual clothing, who seemingly appeared from nowhere to join in the concert.

The reaction of the crowd (that grows in size as the music builds) is extremely touching. A young girl clambers up a lamp post to get a better view of the proceedings, while others in the crowd mouth along to the words and children passionately swing their arms to the music, as if they themselves were the real conductors of the show.

At a time in Spain’s history where issues of debt and unemployment are eating away at the soul of the country, this would seem to be a perfect example of how classical music can literally bring joy to people’s hearts.

And then comes the final frame of the video…

It’s an advertisement for a Spanish bank.

What is the right approach?

You see, the corporate world and classical music are often uneasy bed-fellows. Classical music has been used to great effect in advertising in the past (think British Airways) but to use this piece, at this time, in this context, really had me wondering.

Is this the right way to use classical music? Is ‘joy’ the right sentiment to be associated with a bank in Spain right now?

Or am I thinking too deeply and should I just take the advert in the spirit of hope? Maybe this is the perfect advertisement for this time?

I’d love to hear your opinions on the subject and the film itself, so here it is.

Enjoy!

P.S. – I just saw this intro to the performance (link below), which was provided by the bank itself. The comments are generally very positive, apart from the last one that states ‘This is lovely. But what a shame that such sublime music has to be associated with a Bank?’… I promise I didn’t write it!

http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2012/07/som-sabadell-orchestral-flashmob/

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The child prodigy – inspiration, perspiration or natural gift?

MozartChild prodigies have been a main-stay of classical music for hundreds of years, with some of the most famous composers and performers in history hailed as ‘prodigious talents’.

The ability of prodigies to master a skill while so young, to a level that often puts the highly trained professional in the shade, has caused widespread debate. Are these abilities a natural gift? To what extent can they be learned? Are the brains of such musicians, artists, philosophers, mathematicians etc. wired differently to you and I? Is this nature, nurture… or something else?

Talent without training?

What is clear is that many prodigies only had as much, or even less, access to the educational tools that the average person enjoys, but still excelled at a breathtaking rate.

In some cases, the adjective ‘alarming’ would be a better fit than ‘breathtaking’. Handel was so gifted a musician that his own father was deeply spooked by the idea that a child of his could possess such talent, forbidding him from meddling with musical instruments and pressuring him to study for an education in Civil Law. Of course, with prodigious talent comes prodigious tenacity, with the young Handel sneaking upstairs while his family slept to diligently practice his art on a hidden clavichord.

Other prodigies had little or no formal training. The lauded Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan was hailed as a ‘natural genius’ by the English mathematician G.H. Hardy, having mastered the few books he owned on advanced trigonometry by the age of 12 and gone on to discover highly complex theorems of his own with next to no guidance.

The example of Mozart

In music, we have the obvious example of Mozart – a composer still celebrated today as one of the greatest ever proponents of his art-form. Mozart began composing at the age of five, performing to royalty as a child and causing his own father (a composer in his own right) to give up composition altogether with the realization that his talent could never reach the heights of his own offspring. Pablo Picasso’s father did the same.

Mozart had the opportunity of a musical education and the guiding influence of his father, but the level of his talent, sprouting forth at such a young age, is still astounding.

Beethoven’s Muse

Another of the greatest composers in history, Beethoven, had this to say about his own youthful awakening to the world of composition:

“From the age of four, music began to be the most important of my youthful occupations. Having become familiar with the sweet Muse with which my soul was endowed for pure harmonies, I learned to cherish her and she, too, at least so it seemed to me, also took to me. Now I reached my eleventh year and from then on in sacred hours of inspiration my Muse would often whisper ‘try it out, write down the harmonies of your soul’.  Only eleven – I thought – what kind of figure would I cut as a composer? What would adults expert in the art say? I was almost intimidated. But my Muse insisted and I obeyed and composed”.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

The idea of the Muse is one that doesn’t often enter the modern-day discussion of the child prodigy, but it is clear that Beethoven felt that his Muse compelled him to compose, even in the face of self-doubt and uncertainty. Compelled him to put to paper the harmonies of his soul. He was at the mercy and service of music, a funnel, a conduit, a willing messenger for art… even as a child.

Final thoughts

To leave you today, I am linking to an excerpt from one of my favourite ever classical music recordings, Evgeny Kissin’s Legendary 1984 Moscow Concert, performed when the great pianist was only 12 years old. The full disc contains Chopin’s Piano Concertos Numbers 1 & 2 and is an excellent example of a child prodigy in his element. Of course, Chopin himself was no slouch, finishing the 2nd concerto (quickly followed by the 1st) at around age 20.

Enjoy!

And if you’d like to pick up the CD of the full recording, click on the photo below for a link to the product on Amazon:

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Keys of Change – reaching the world through classical music.

Do you remember your first introduction to classical music? Or the first live performance you ever attended? Many of us probably can’t think back that far. For others of us classical music has become so ingrained in our daily lives that it’s hard to remember the initial impact that music had on us.

Keys of Change is a remarkable charity, started by the concert pianist Panos Karan, that helps bring classical music to the farthest reaches of the world, with the aim of improving the lives of children and young people in remote communities.

One of the main projects Keys of Change has been involved in is Bach in the Amazon, where Karan travelled thousands of miles, keyboard in tow, to play the music of Bach to communities in the Amazon region who would never otherwise have the opportunity to hear a live performance.

Check out the remarkable video below to get a better idea.

At the heart of all of this is the belief that classical music can and does change people’s lives.

As Karan said in a 2011 interview with the BBC, the charity was created ‘with the belief that playing music doesn’t only make the world a better place, but it’s one of the simplest and strongest ways to build bridges for peace’.

As well as the Amazon project, Keys of Change has undertaken initiatives in troubled regions of the world as far afield as Tsunami-affected Japan and Sierra Leone, where the hope of change is vital following a harrowing 10-year civil war.

For many of the people that the charity reaches, this will be their very first introduction to the world of classical music. Personally, I find it extremely uplifting to hear the story of a charity that is so dedicated to spreading the beauty and positivity of classical music to new ears and audiences.

For more info on the Keys of Change charity, please visit www.keysofchange.org.

If you remember your first introduction to classical music, your first live performance or even the first piece of music that had a real impact on your life, please feel free to leave a note in the comment section.

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Classical music is for everyone… even if it doesn’t seem like it.

There is a long-held belief among people today that classical music is only for a certain type of person. The average audience member at a classical music concert would be (in many people’s estimation) old, most likely a bit posh and perhaps a little bit of a snob. Not all of this is even a stereotype. Greg Sandow of Yale University suggests that listeners to New York’s most popular classical music radio station, WQXR, have a median age of 73 and, as the ’active’ classical music audience drops in number, the only group of people still heading off to concerts in the numbers they used to are the over 65s.

Go to a concert today. See for yourself!

While there are a number of solid arguments as to why audience numbers are falling, I can’t help thinking that the lack of interest is, for the most part, down to a lack of identification. Now, I’m 33 years old, so, while I don’t exactly fit into the very young age group, I would like to think that I’m exactly the sort of person that people putting on concerts would like to attract. I love classical music. BUT, I do understand the idea that, for younger people, sometimes it seems like they just don’t fit.

There have been a load of attempts to fit classical music into modern ‘youth’ culture – and I’d hazard a guess that many of these could be best described as a massive fail. From electric violins through to pop-concert pyrotechnics and short-skirted girl-band-types looking to jazz up the world of classical music. At their best these attempts reek of desperation and at their worst they are seriously off-putting..

And then there’s the poor music, getting lost behind all that glitz and razmataz. And the artists, who spend their lives attempting to bring beauty to the world, struggling to express their art in the highest possible manner – and getting very little response in return.

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