domingo, 30 de octubre de 2011

The Unsung (Romantic) Heroes

In my experiences as a judge in piano competitions in Indonesia (I can't say a lot, since there are NOT a lot of (decent) piano competitions in this country), I've always been struck by one thing: the similarity of repertoire chosen by the participants. Even in my own Ananda Sukarlan Award competition, where participants can choose ANY piece of a romantic composer with a maximum duration of 12 minutes, I bet you that 70%+ chose a Chopin's Ballade or Scherzo. Then comes some Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies (yeah, their popularity in Indonesia somehow are decreasing, dunno why), Mendelssohn Variation Serieuses and very few other ones.

Certainly that situation is due to the limited repertoires of the teachers of the participants. That makes competitions quite boring to watch, since we are listening to the same pieces again and again, and most of the time in similar manners (again, due to the limited knowledge of the teachers and their inability to allow freedom of interpretation to their students, they just "teach" the student how to "interpret"). Gone are the expectations of boldly discovering "new" pieces that no (Indonesian) man has heard before. And yes, in this era where music scores and recordings can be downloaded free from internet, things haven't changed. We come to see competitions to listen how the same pieces are "executed", sometimes in a brutal way. There's so much inbuilt inertia in musical education, concert programmes etc here in Indonesia that it's very difficult do stimulate interest in the so-called "lesser" composers.

Now, who are the other Romantic composers, apart from the ones we know: Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Tschaikovsky? Certainly the most "romantic" of all is Gustav Mahler, but since I am talking in relation to the piano (competition), I can mention a few. Perhaps these names will help in arousing your curiosity in those beautiful music still unheard in Indonesia.

Carl Czerny (born in Vienna but from a family of Czech origin, hence his name, 1791 - 1857) may be considered one of the victims of history. Known almost exclusively as a lesser composer of boring, ugly and didactic (are they really?) piano pieces today, he was in fact a highly sophisticated artist who wrote in almost every know genre of music, including symphonies, masses, string quartets and much more, and his opus number goes up to the 800s. Student of Beethoven, Salieri and Hummel and teacher of Liszt and dozens more piano virtuosos of the 19th century he was arguably a key figure in his days. His most famous piano piece now is the Variations on the theme by Rode, since it was recorded by the great Vladimir Horowitz, but there are many, many other interesting and elaborate piano pieces of this great composer.

If you think that the title "Transcendental Etudes" only belongs to Liszt, you are wrong. There was another composer who also wrote 12 etudes of the same name, and they are not worse than those of the great Hungarian. Of course they were written inspired by Liszt's, but that's not a reason that we should think that he is "only" a followeer. His name is Sergey Lyapunov. In fact if you mention his family name, one's mind would go to his more famous brother, Aleksander who was an influential mathematician. Sergey's (1859-1924) most important works are in fact for solo piano. Himself a gifted pianist who concertized in Russia and Europe, his piano writing shows mastery of the instrument and a complete understanding of the piano's musical and technical capabilities. His finest works display considerable melodic gifts and, in its effective exploitation of the instrument's timbral subtleties, compares favorably with those of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, and Balakirev. As an orchestral composer, Liapunov wrote expertly in the style of colorful and imaginative orchestration that characterizes the works of the nationalist composers of his period. One hears that Liapunov had a voice of his own.

Now, have you ever heard of Sergey Taneyev's Prelude & Fugue in G# minor, op. 29? That's a great piece, I've played it several times during my busy concert career many years ago. That piece taught me that even a most "academic" form like a fugue can be poignant, expressive and .. well .. romantic. Taneyev (1865-1915) was an important Russian pianist, educator, and composer. Although he wrote a large quantity of keyboard, orchestral, vocal, and chamber music, he is known today primarily as the teacher of Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and Glière. As a young man, Taneyev made his first impact as a pianist, giving the first Russian performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, and the Russian premieres of all of Tchaikovsky's other works for piano and orchestra. For many years, Taneyev's teaching and administrative duties at the Moscow Conservatory prevented him from touring as a performer, but later in his life, he resumed his career as a pianist, particularly in chamber music. He was indeed a not-so-prolific composer due to his perfectionist mentality, but what he has written are mostly of very high artistic quality.

Apart from those 3 names I mentioned above, you should check these names too: Sigismond Thalberg, Moritz Moszkovski, Ignace Jan Paderewski (he was the Prime Minister of Poland, for God's sake!) ... and your curiosity will lead to hundreds of other names. And now, you can start to pick your pieces for the Ananda Sukarlan Award - BIMA International Piano Competition next year. Be innovative, be original and be creative, ok? Good luck!

jueves, 6 de octubre de 2011

Pain and pleasure (Violence in music)

I am glad that Laki-Laki Sejati's world premiere went so well, much more than I imagined. The singers, Indah Pristanti & Evelyn Merrelita performed their roles so brilliantly, technically and interpretatively speaking. Everyone adored their passion, their high expressivity, their total dedication, and some media have even written about "a discovery of new & brilliant talents". Erza ST of the Jakarta Post mentioned about both of them: "Evelyn not only excelled in performing this challenging part, but she did it in an elegant and effortless manner. Indah Pristanti’s velvety voice was the right combination with Evelyn’s, and together they gave a remarkable and harmonious performance."

What's next? Lots of things. Laki-laki Sejati (LLS) suddenly is in everybody's tongue and is now well in demand, with further new productions in Surabaya and another in THE classical music concert of the year: The Jakarta New Year Concert (JNYC). Everyone involved in the production of this event told me that Laki-Laki Sejati is just tailor-made for the typical JNYC audience: a "high-brow" one eager to have a light but classy entertainment. I don't want to call myself or my music classy, but certainly the quality of the performance up to the minute details (plus the posh costumes by Alleira Batik) can be defined as one.

But LLS is just half an hour long. So I have to do another thing to fill up the other half of the program. The program would then be an operatic double-bill. Therefore I am hard working on my next opera at the moment, again from a short story of Putu Wijaya, called Mendadak Kaya ("Suddenly rich"). It is a very Indonesian story about a guy who visits a witchdoctor, asking the latter to make him rich. His wish is always fulfilled, but something wrong always happens so he keeps coming back to "correct" his wish, which then make us delve into the psychology of the rich and the poor and the concept of happiness. But you're wrong if you think that this is just a typical money-doesn't-buy-happiness type of story. As usual with Putu Wijaya's stories, it is full of twists and philosophical ideas. This opera will be for an unusual formation of 2 tenors, and will be sung by winners of "Tembang Puitik" Ananda Sukarlan Vocal Award, Pharel Silaban and Adi "Didut" Nugroho.

I am trying to do a different kind of "humor" here, more of a slapstick one. That's why I've been watching a lot of cartoon movies these days, mostly my all time favorite Tom & Jerry and therefore I discovered the new element in music: violence. Of course you can hear those violent characters in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Britten's War Requiem and everywhere in Shostakovich and Prokofiev's music, but what I want to tell you here is the impact to us, getting pleasure from listening to it. In the extreme case, of course you can get it in rock music.
Visually speaking, one might not be aware (especially children) that there are a lot of violence in cartoon movies. How many times Jerry is smashed by Tom (and vice versa), how many times Tom bumps into a door and countless scenes like that? All those are accompanied by abrupt changes in music, which could work well even without the visual scenes.

The psychological impact of music to our lives is much much stronger than we could imagine. As music can make us better people, it can also make us extract the potential violence and all other dirty rubbish in our psyche. I am not talking about the violence in the words or text of a song, I am talking about the musical elements itself: It is odd to remember that Stalin got very nervous to the violence in the music of Shostakovich, while we know that he was a ruthless dictator. Up to a certain limit, I think the violence in music is a good cathartic method to relieve our anger, just as we like to listen to sad music or watch a sad movie when we are feeling blue. But as anything else, if it is too much (especially in classical music where it can easily carry you away) things could get out of hand eh?