Friday, June 27, 2014

Piano Etudes: Pedagogy or Art?

The Austrian composer and pianist Carl Czerny is notable for many reasons. Early on, he was a child prodigy and a pupil of (and personal assistant to) Ludwig van Beethoven. A renowned pedagogue, he taught, among others, the virtuoso Franz Liszt and wrote an extraordinary amount of music himself.

Above all, Czerny has the unfortunate reputation as a composer of tedious, really boring piano exercises (a good example: Op. 821, 160 Eight-Measure Exercises). While it is unfair and inaccurate to suggest that Czerny’s contributions are mediocre or of little lasting value, it is admittedly difficult to enjoy listening to his myriad books of piano etudes, or studies. Didactic and dry, they succeed in enhancing the playing technique of the performer, and perhaps little else.

It took the revolutionary ingenuity of Frederic Chopin to transform the etude from a bland exercise to a true art form. His piano etudes retain the original intent of the musical form – consider Op. 25, No. 10, which requires the performer to play a number of demanding octave passages, or Op. 10, No. 1, which focuses on right-hand arpeggios. At the same time, he imbues these exercises with a vitality, and often beauty, that is not present in the technical studies of a Czerny. Other composers followed suit: Liszt, with his extremely challenging Transcendental Etudes; Charles-Valentin Alkan, who experimented with innovative harmonies and structures in his etudes; and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who largely dispensed with the didactic ‘spirit’ of the etude form and instead explored compositional style and technique in his Études-Tableaux.

Though its origins may superficially be found in the pedagogical inclinations of the likes of Carl Czerny, the etude as a form has evolved considerably over the centuries. It can be something more: a work of beauty, of creativity and innovation, of experimentation and iconoclasm. The etudes of John Cage and György Ligeti bear little resemblance to those of Liszt and Chopin. Consider listening to piano etudes today!

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Jersey Boys" from Broadway to Movie Theaters

Clint Eastwood isn't exactly the first name that comes to mind when thinking of Broadway musicals. Yet just two days after reading a screenplay for "Jersey Boys," the award-winning actor and filmmaker agreed to direct the musical, bringing the megahit stage production about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to the big screen.

The film, which opens today, follows the group from their inauspicious beginnings in 1951, singing under lampposts in working class Belleville, New Jersey, to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Along the way, they sing hit after hit as their fraternal bond is tested by the pressures of fame, booze and ego.

Those hits -- "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "My Eyes Adored You," and more -- energize the film as they did the stage production. Eastwood even has his singers perform the songs live on camera (rather than pre-taping), for a slightly ragged, more realistic rock sound.

"Clint is a musician -- he's a good pianist, loves Jazz," says Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote (with Rick Elice) the book to the stage musical and the screenplay. "I can see when I watch the movie that there's a guy with a good ear behind the camera."

For fans of the original stage version, there's much here that'll feel familiar. The story has not been wildly re-imagined, just "deepened," says Brickman, and they've kept certain devices -- like talking directly to the audience.

As with the Broadway version, the film relies on the talents of four relative unknowns, most plucked from the casts of various "Jersey Boys" productions.

John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Valli in the Broadway run (winning a Tony), stars alongside "Gossip Girl's" Erich Bergen (who played songwriter Bob Gaudio in the Vegas company) and Michael Lomenda (bass guitarist Nick Massi in the San Francisco production). Vincent Piazza is the newbie (best known as gangster Lucky Luciano on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"), here taking on the role of street-savvy, self-destructing guitarist Tommy DeVito.

Have you seen "Jersey Boys?" Tell us what you think of the film version below!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Piano Repertoire for the Left-Hand Alone

Few pianists play or even know about repertoire for the left-hand alone. Certainly, many have practiced the myriad exercises, not unlike those found in the Hanon “Virtuoso Pianist,” that are designed to improve the strength and dexterity of the left-hand. But such exercises, played for hours on end, are dull and soulless. With a little creativity and ingenuity, could a composition with this arbitrary restriction be interesting, captivating, even beautiful?

In the early 20th century, several composers discovered that the answer is unequivocally “yes.” Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian concert pianist who became an American citizen, lost his right arm in the First World War. Rather than prematurely terminate his career, Wittgenstein commissioned works specifically for the left-hand from a number of famous composers in his day. Richard Strauss and Sergei Prokofiev responded, writing Panathenäenzug: Sinfonische Etüden in Form einer Passacaglia for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 74 and the Piano Concerto No. 4 for the left hand, Op. 53, respectively. Paul Hindemith composed his Klaviermusik mit Orchester, Op. 29 for Wittgenstein. Most famous is the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D by Maurice Ravel,  a sublime and technically challenging piece regularly performed today.

Other composers unaffiliated with Wittgenstein wrote for the left-hand alone as well. The Polish American pianist Leopold Godowsky is infamous for his extraordinarily difficult compositions, most notably his 53 Studies on Chopin’s Etudes. Here, Godowsky masterfully reengineers Chopin’s etudes, placing right-hand melodies in the left-hand part, combining etudes so that the pianist plays them simultaneously, generally taxing the skills of the player to the maximum. Included are twenty-two arrangements for the left-hand alone. This blogger’s favorite is Godowsky’s take on Op. 10, No. 12, the “Revolutionary Etude,” which still manages to sound as if it were played with two hands!

Though peculiar and perhaps niche, compositions for the left-hand alone are an important contribution to piano repertoire. They necessitate interesting and innovative techniques to make execution possible, and they force composers to work out new ways to make the music worthwhile both to the performer and the audience. Consider checking out some music for the left-hand today!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

2014 CMT Award Winners

Last night was a big night for Miranda Lambert, her husband Blake Shelton and Carrie Underwood as all three won big at the 2014 CMT Awards in Nashville.

Underwood won the top prize Video of the Year for "See You Again" and also took the stage alongside another CMT Award-winner, Miranda Lambert, on the song "Somethin' Bad."

For her part, Lambert picked up the Female Video of the Year for the fifth time in a row with her song "Automatic."

Also during the night, The Band Perry picked up Group Video of the Year for "Done," while Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie earned the CMT Performance of the Year. Bryan also won the award for collaborative video of the year with Florida Georgia Line on the song "This Is How We Roll."

Furthermore, Lambert's husband Blake Shelton earned Male Video of the Year with "Doin' What She Likes."

Also, "The Voice" champion Cassadee Pope earned her first-ever buckle award from Shelton, her mentor on the television series.

Performances included Brantley Gilbert singing "Bottoms Up" while Shelton performed "Boys 'Round Here." Little Big Town took on their song "Day Drinking," Hunter Hayes performed "Tattoo," and Jason Derulo joined Luke Bryan performed a medley during the CMT Music Awards.

A full list of the 2014 CMT Award winner is below.

Video of the Year
Carrie Underwood, "See You Again"

Group Video of the Year
The Band Perry, "Done"

Breakthrough Video of the Year
Cassadee Pope, "Wasting All These Tears"

Male Video of the Year
Blake Shelton, "Doin' What She Likes"

Female Video of the Year
Miranda Lambert, "Automatic"

Duo Video of the Year
Florida Georgia Line, "Round Here"

Collaborative Video of the Year
Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan, "This Is How We Roll"

CMT Performance of the Year
Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie, "Oh No/All Night Long"