Music for BrooklynJS #18

Last night, my husband (clarinetist Adrián Sandí) and I were the musical guests for BrooklynJS’s 18th edition. I gave a talk there last August on how being a trained musician has made me a better developer (a preliminary feeler for the talk I eventually fleshed out for WordCamp SF), so it was especially fitting to come back and be a musician for a night. I promised to publish a set list, and thought that a post with some more details would be nice, since 20th century clarinet and piano music is a little niche. As I do have two degrees in music, and Adrián three, we’re quite nerdy about classical music and this post is a bit long. I hope you enjoy it, anyway 🙂

One of the things Adrián and I like to do best is programming – not in the code sense, but in terms of how you put a concert program together. There’s what we consider “standard repertoire” for clarinet and piano – Brahms (we snuck some into the WordPress 4.0 release video), Mozart, Weber, and so on. But there’s also a lot of really interesting music out there that’s not performed as often, particularly newer compositions and arrangements. For one of my Master’s recitals, the first half was programmed as an exploratory arc of different styles of major works for clarinet and piano from 1954, 1920, and 1981. You can hear that entire arc on Adrián’s site. So, last night, we thought we’d do the same, but cast the net a little wider for six brief selections and introduce what’s always a really engaged audience to some things they probably didn’t know existed and are very meaningful to us as musicians and people.

1. Astor Piazzolla – Le Grand Tango (arranged by Adrián Sandí), final section

Astor Piazzolla was an Argentine tango composer/arranger and bandoneon player who really brought traditional tango music into the modern era, known as nuevo tango. He wrote Le Grand Tango in 1982 for legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and it has really become a staple of showy cello repertoire. But why let string players have all the fun? Arrangements are a really great way to flex your musical skills and expand repertoire for your instrument. I mean, sure, it seems silly to have the Franck violin sonata played by everything from flute to viola to tuba (yes, really), but why not?

I particularly like Piazzolla’s music because it contains clear influences from both the jazz and classical worlds, and is very listener-friendly as well as being fun to watch in performance. Try it out as your work day music sometime, whether original recordings or the fun little Piazzolla Remixed album. Here’s a video of Piazzolla himself on bandoneon as well as Yo-Yo Ma on cello, performing one of his most popular works, Libertango.

 2. Alexander Scriabin – Prelude in G-flat Major, op. 16 no. 3 (arranged by Willard Elliot)

This particular work is from 1895, so ever-so-slightly outside of the 20th century, but I very much consider Scriabin to be a 20th century composer. His early works are Romantic-sounding and tonal, with clear influences from Chopin. Check out his piano concerto if you’re into Chopin. However, later in life, Scriabin’s compositions became much more dissonant and atonal, and his synesthesia (associating tones with colors, in his case) led to his development of a color organ – an instrument that would project colors. His famous tone poem Prometheus includes a part for the instrument. Another NYC clarinetist friend of ours from Eastman days, Isabel Kim, is working on a project with The Nouveau Classical Project called Mysterium Novum, a realization of Scriabin’s unfinished sketches for the planned-grandiose Mysterium. If the idea of a synesthetic music and art installation excites you (it does me, as somebody whose 9th grade scientific research project was a survey asking people what color they associated with a given piece of music without knowing that synesthesia was a condition), keep your eye out for that in the next couple of years. Synesthesia itself is also a fun topic to read more about – if you loved The Phantom Tollbooth and something about the scene where an A is crunchy and crisp like an apple resonated with you, or you know who Richard Feynman is, you’ll especially enjoy it.

3. Dmitri Shostakovich – Prelude in D-flat Major, op. 87 no. 15

Written between 1950-1951, Shostakovich’s complete set of 24 Preludes and Fugues (one for each major and minor key) was written for Tatiana Nikolayeva after adjudicating her win in the first International J.S. Bach Competition. I learned the D-flat Major set for my college senior recital, and gave a lecture recital on its structure and parallels with its key parallel from the second volume of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The fugue is fiendishly hard – a fast-moving nearly-twelve-tone textbook fugue that eventually incorporates the rhythmic motif from the prelude. It’s also, in my view, an incredible work of art, and worth the pursuit. The prelude is less challenging (though still quite difficult, particularly for those of us with small hands), and always a fun piece for listeners. The ending is classical jokester Shostakovich – he fakes us out with three completely-wrong notes before finally ending. I’m personally partial to Keith Jarrett’s recording – despite being best known as a (temperamental) jazz pianist, his incredible technique as a pianist really comes through in his almost-too-fast rendition. However, it’s not available for streaming anywhere, so here’s Marc-André Hamelin performing the set live with the score overlaid – there are some hairy moments even by a guy who’s known for tackling music considered to be impossible, which just goes to show how hard it is.

4. Paquito D’Rivera – Lecuonerias from The Cape Cod Files

Lecuonerias is one of a set of small pieces written in 2009 for Jon Manasse (a former professor of Adrián’s) and Jon Nakamatsu (a pianist I’ve had masterclasses with). This third movement is a solo clarinet improvisation around melodies by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. It’s quite likely you’ve heard Lecuona’s Malagueña before. As a proud Tico (Costa Rican), Adrián is particularly dedicated to the inclusion of works by and influenced by Latino and other Hispanic composers in his programs.

5. Witold Lutosławski – Dance Preludes (movements 1 and 5)

Lutosławski’s Dance Preludes, from 1954, are one of our absolute favorite things to play. Each of the five movements is very short, ranging from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, and showcases the influence of Polish folk music. There are some very tricky meters contained within, much of which don’t even line up between the piano and clarinet parts. The end result is a delightful and whimsical off-kilter set of pieces that, like everything else we played in the set, really appeals to audiences.

6. Joseph Horovitz – Sonatina, movement 3

Also one of our favorite things to play, Horovitz’s jazz-influenced Sonatina for clarinet and piano from 1981 has really seen a good amount of traction in clarinet recital programs recently, and for good reason. From its beautifully flowing first movement to the gorgeous ballad of the second movement to the up-tempo final movement that clearly displays its jazz and popular influences, it’s both audience-friendly and challenging for both musicians. While Adrián and I are not particularly sentimental, if you asked us for “our song”, it would be the second movement, which we first learned together almost exactly ten years ago. Here’s us playing it at my Master’s recital in 2008.

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