We have a full symphony by Mahler to listen to after we enjoy highlights from the past 99 episodes! Let's take time to experience again the musicians who demonstrated their instruments, fascinating insights from guests, and our favorite moments from over the years.
John Banther: I'm John Banther and this is episode 100 of Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical in Washington. We are your guide to classical music and it's hard to believe that we have reached episode 100, something that felt so far off when this podcast started back in 2019. I want to thank each and every one of you for listening, writing in and sharing the podcast. Because of you, this has had even more downloads than I thought possible for a classical music podcast, and more importantly, we're all learning about this art form together. Rarely a day goes by I don't learn something new myself. And of course, a big thanks to everyone who has joined me on this podcast to share their unique perspectives and knowledge on this music that we all love so much.
So what to do for episode 100? I thought it might be fun to be a little more casual and look back together at a few moments, some things we've learned along the way, highlights, guests and more. Plus we have a full Mahler Symphony to enjoy at the end, so stay with me. First let's look back to all of the musicians that have come on to play for us and we'll start with the first one we had, which was Aaron Goldman, principal flute of the National Symphony Orchestra. He joined me for episode 21 in early March of 2020. Great timing. Actually, I remember sitting there as he was playing the flute across from me in this enclosed studio and feeling all that wind coming toward my face. That was definitely interesting, but it was all fine in the end and he demonstrated a couple of interesting flutes that I think most people don't get to hear.
So speaking of colors, we have many more flutes here on this table. What else do we have here?
Aaron Goldman: I also brought an alto flute, which is lower than the C flute. This is an alto flute in G, and I also brought a bass flute, which is an octave lower than the C flute.
John Banther: Have you ever had to use these playing in the NSO?
Aaron Goldman: So the alto flute is called for quite a bit. Well, quite a bit is an exaggeration.
John Banther: Quite a bit for what? The instrument is-
Aaron Goldman: For an alto flute, yes. Really, some of the most famous pieces that people would think about that have alto flute are the Revel Daphnis et Chloé, which has big alto flute part, also Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. You'll hear some alto flute in that, but it's not often.
John Banther: It's not often. Well, can we hear how it sounds?
Aaron Goldman: Yeah, so this is an alto flute.
John Banther: It is a very different sound. It's warmer and it's wider sounding as well.
Aaron Goldman: Absolutely. I always feel it's nice to play the alto flute, it's taking a nice warm bath, you just sit back, you're relaxed, it's comfortable. The bass flute though is that even more. The bass flute, even lower. I'll give you a sense of how low this can go.
John Banther: And it's such a big flute, it's actually kind of bent back on itself or else I guess you wouldn't be able to play it.
Aaron Goldman: Yeah, it wouldn't be possible to play. So the bass flute has a big curve in it so that the armature plate is sort of on top of the instrument instead of on the side. Yeah, you really wouldn't be able to play it otherwise.
John Banther: Ooh. It's almost like a spooky kind of sound as well. Have you ever had to play this bass flute in the orchestra?
Aaron Goldman: So the only time I've ever seen this called for is in music of John Williams. So some of the movie music he wrote for bass flute, but I've been waiting. I think composers should really utilize the bass flute more than they do. There are some contemporary composers who are using it, but it doesn't come up that often.
John Banther: He also plays some solos and moments from the orchestra too, so check out episode 21 for more on Aaron Goldman and the flute. Also from the NSO, their concertmaster, Nurit Bar- Josef. She joined me for episode number 34, and despite having played the solos in Rimsky- Korsakov's Scheherazade an uncountable amount of times, and I do mean that uncountable. She's played that at least thousands upon thousands of times in practice rooms in probably so many different ways up a half step, down a half step, different styles, everything. Despite all of that though, this is still something that's close to her heart and it shows really the common personal connections that musicians can have with something in music and it can carry them through their whole life.
What's another moment or something you want to play?
Nurit Bar-Josef: Well, I couldn't talk about being a concertmaster without talking about Scheherazade, which was written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. As we all know, it's very famous and loved by everyone. When I was a little girl, my parents had this LP, if people know what LPs are anymore.
John Banther: Oh, they're coming back in fashion.
Nurit Bar-Josef: That's true. And it was Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic with I think it was a 1959 recording, and the concertmaster was actually John Corigliano Sr, and I just remember hearing the glorious violin solo that enters basically almost at the top of the piece and just thinking, " God, it's just exquisite," and it really is one of my favorite pieces. I mean, no matter how many times we play it, I love the entire piece. I love the bassoon solos, I love every movement has something beautiful, but the violin solos, they really stand out to me and also because I think that Rimsky-Korsakov actually based the piece on so well.
John Banther: So what part of Scheherazade do you want to play right now?
Nurit Bar-Josef: The opening solo line that the violin has.
John Banther: That was beautiful.
Nurit Bar-Josef: Thank you.
John Banther: Are you brought back to that childhood moment, hearing it that first time from that LP?
Nurit Bar-Josef: I am definitely. Yeah, I feel like it's a piece that's been with me for so long and I happen to know it's one of my mom's favorite pieces and... I don't know. Yeah, I am always thinking about that every time we play it, every time I see it coming up on a program and it's based on the story of 1, 001 Nights or...
John Banther: And how often do you get to hear a concertmaster play one of the most iconic solo moments in their own practice room at home? I think it's as close to being a fly on the wall as we can get. Sue Heinemann joined me for episode number 40. She's principal bassoon of the NSO and she also played an excerpt from Scheherazade and she described the freedom she feels in this moment.
Sue Heinemann: So another really famous bassoon solo, and again, it's what we call an audition excerpt. It's on every audition is the solo from the second movement of Scheherazade. This is a pretty comfortable range for us to play and it's fun because you can have some freedom and flexibility. The violin plays this really high, just beautiful... She Scheherazade. I say she because for the past 20 years it's been Nurit and she's Scheherazade. So she plays this high just sweet, sweet little solo, and then I come in and it's a lot of dynamic and contrast and legato and staccato, short notes, long notes, whatever, and you get to stretch and it's really fun to play. It is quite free because the only other thing that's going on is low strings and you have to be kind of in contact with the conductor to let them know like, " Okay, I am going to come up to this place here where the bassist change notes," but other than that, you can have some freedom to just kind of pull and push a little bit. Yeah, that one's really fun to play.
John Banther: I mean, you have all this freedom here and it sounds like it's so characteristic. It's kind of easy to tell or kind of get stuck into this story that you're telling with the bassoon in this moment. Are you focused on at this time so much on what the violin has played or are you able to really be free, or are you kind of stuck with, "Well, she played this like this, so maybe I'll do something like this as well."?
Sue Heinemann: Oh, I think I really definitely feel free because it's just a big change. The violin ends and then it's like I'm coming in a different character and yeah, there should be quite a bit of contrast. I think because there's so much...
John Banther: That piece, despite being loved so much, is close to a lot of musicians today, myself included. It's the first work I ever played with an orchestra when I was in high school, and every time I hear those opening chords, I'm brought right back. Nicholas Stovall is principal oboe of the NSO. He joined me for episode number 65, and I love this bit by Brahms that he played for us because he's also describing a pretty unique moment for an oboist within a violin concerto.
Nicholas Stovall: So I've also brought for you the opening of the solo in the Brahms Violin Concerto second movement.
John Banther: Absolutely beautiful. And that is quite different from the Beethoven as well, it feels like. At certain points every note has so much length and determination to it almost. Describe for us how is this one compared to the Beethoven or what makes this one unique?
Nicholas Stovall: So this is another example of the oboe getting to play just a gorgeous, beautiful melody. It's distinct from the Beethoven I believe because it's in the second octave. It's in a higher range of the instrument here, and of all of the great composers, Brahms is the one that really requires breadth in the second octave, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.
John Banther: And is this one also used in auditions for orchestras or summer festivals, conservatories?
Nicholas Stovall: Yes, it is another one that everybody really must know, and it's an iconic moment in repertoire. It occurs at the beginning of the second movement and the oboe plays this extended melody while the violin soloist stands there doing nothing for a long time. I mean, I want to say it's about two minutes of music and the oboe gets to play the most gorgeous melody in the whole piece really, if you ask me, and the violin soloist has to just stand there and listen.
John Banther: What is it like when you're playing that and you're playing and...
Two minutes might not sound like a lot, but in music on stage, that can be a lifetime. Let's go to Daniel Foster next principal viola of the NSO, and he played one of the wildest things on the viola in episode number 45, something you've probably never heard before.
Daniel Foster: Just for a change of pace, I thought I'd play a segment of a movement of a sonata for solo viola by Paul Hindemith, a composer who is kind of out of favor these days. There was a couple of orchestral pieces that used to get played with some regularity, but you don't hear a lot of them anymore. But he's a really important composer for violists. He was a violist himself and wrote seven sonatas for viola, and so it really expanded the repertoire for the instrument and championed the instrument as its own solo voice. So we owe him a debt of gratitude.
The movement that I'm playing or the segment is just a complete break from sort of this idea of any kind of delicacy or sort of background element that you might think of as a viola, an accompanying instrument. This is a very super aggressive piece. It's supposed to be wild, and it says that the beauty of tone is of secondary importance, and so it has this kind of crazed sound to it, and there's also a lot of open C string, so you get to hear a lot of the lowest note that the viola can play.
John Banther: Dan, that is way more intense than I think you described. I kind of feel like Hindemith made up for all the times the viola sat idly by in Handel's Messiah in just a minute.
Daniel Foster: Yeah, that's true. I mean, it's an incredible musical expression of rage or hysteria or just sort of a musical manifestation of losing it.
John Banther: And to give you a little idea of some behind the scenes stuff, I always ask people when they're playing on the podcast if they want to play something again, even if I don't hear anything concerning for example. This was the one time I asked and I was kind of hesitant because of what we just heard and I remember him kind of laughing and just saying, " No, that was fine." So Lin Ma was on episode number 49, he's principal clarinet of the NSO, and he played one of the most iconic moments on the clarinet, and he offered an idea as to why Gershwin may have chosen it for this moment.
Lin Ma: Yeah. Next thing I would like to play is a little bit jazzy, is very different style than the classical music. Yes, here it is.
John Banther: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue has one of the most fun openings to a work I can think of for the orchestra. I imagine also for you it's also probably a little nerve- wracking starting off a whole piece like that in the orchestra by yourself.
Lin Ma: Actually, I'm very enjoying playing the jazz. You've probably heard this long glissando, this gliss from a low to a higher note, and that is a... We call it a special technique. I don't understand why it is given to the clarinet as it's a more flexible instrument than the other woodwind instruments
John Banther: That felt like another one of those practice room moments like with the concertmaster, Nurit Bar- Josef. It's just interesting to hear it isolated from the orchestra like that. Now onto Robert Oppelt, principal bass of the NSO, he joined me for episode number 62 and he played a lengthy section that opens a symphony by Gustav Mahler. And I usually save this kind of comment for later, but listen to how clear and immediate the notes speak when he's playing this instrument. The bass, it is a large instrument. It's one I actually used to play and he's making it sound way too easy.
Robert Oppelt: Okay. Well, what I'd like to play is the very opening of Mahler's second symphony, The Resurrection, and the reason I'm playing that is because I'm actually practicing it, preparing it now, Michael Tilson Thomas is going to come and conduct the National Symphony, and this is one of the works that we're going to be playing. It's also significant because it's also a passage that we ask on National Symphony bass auditions. So all bass players who want to be professional musicians, they know this passage.
John Banther: That is quite an incredible sound coming from the bass in the beginning of this symphony. There's so much happening. You're hearing different dynamics, sounds like different accents attacking notes, different ways, and I love the clarity of those low notes and just how they start to immediately there isn't this kind of woof or kind of sneaking in kind of sound. You think it's a huge instrument being unwieldy, but it just kind of pops right in there even with those low notes. So tell us what's going on with this one and what makes it challenging for the bass. What are you focusing on?
Robert Oppelt: Mahler wants it to sound incredibly violent and ominous, so what we're actually doing is employing, we talked about the bow before, playing on the string or off the string. Much of this is played off the string to get as much clarity as possible, but in the beginning there are two individual, as you might say, and then we go into this thematic material, and Mahler's very, very specific about what he wants. He always is specific about the tempo, the articulation...
John Banther: And that was another great opportunity to hear an instrument up close that we almost never get to. When they're playing in a section on stage, their sound is more diffuse and mixed in together by the time it gets to us in the audience. And the last musician here is our resident saxophone player at WETA Classical, Rich Kleinfeldt, who joined me for episode number 73 on everything about the saxophone. Now, Rich was previously in the United States Army Band here in DC and he currently plays in the Washington Saxophone Quartet. In addition to talking about all the different saxophones and their uses, he played this iconic moment from the orchestra.
Rich Kleinfeldt: The most well- known solo part in an orchestral arrangement, and it's The Old Castle in the Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel who included the saxophone. So as a saxophone player, you sit for a couple of movements and you wait, and then this movement comes along early in the orchestra, in the piece, and you are given this solo part that's just I think one of the prettiest for any player. And then after being included in a couple of parts, you play along with some other instruments, you actually end the piece. That movement, the saxophone is the last note to be heard and that's kind of a fun thing.
John Banther: I have to say, Rich, that's also one of my favorite moments for the saxophone as well in an orchestral work because it's this medieval castle that's kind of being depicted here and this troubadour is singing a song and these troubadours, I mean, centuries ago that they were around. It's haunting, it's mysterious. It's just one of the more intriguing things that I hear in the orchestra.
Rich Kleinfeldt: Yeah, I agree, and it's fun to hear how other players approach it. We all have our own ways of vibrato, which is an integral part of playing the saxophone, that vibrating sound like a singer. Some will play it very straight and very subdued, others bring it out a lot, but it's always very pretty, yeah.
John Banther: This was just a sampling of what all of these incredible musicians played. I encourage you to listen to these episodes to learn more about the instruments, but also about the players themselves and what their lives are like and how they're kind of different depending on the instrument. So let's go to some non- instrumental guests now. In episode number 10, What Does a Conductor Do? Michelle Merrill gave us a great explanation of what a conductor does, and then she described her early music experiences in rural Texas, which show how some of these smallest gestures or actions can really shape a person's life.
Okay. So you and I have performed together several times before, but let's pretend we've never met and I'm not even a musician. How would you describe to me what you do, like an elevator speech?
Michelle Merrill: Sure. Well, being a conductor I think is kind of an enigma for a lot of people and even some of my very best friends don't understand what it is I do or what the point of me even being up there is. So I basically like to tell people, especially if I'm with a room full of people, what would it be if all of you tried to say hello at the same time? And of course it's just a big jumbled mess, and so it's really my job with the 60, 80, 100, however many musicians on stage to first and foremost get everybody to play together at the same time, in the same tempo and hopefully kind of with the same flow and start to a piece.
So I think that is the number one thing that you've got to be there to do that when you have that many people on stage, but really it goes so much beyond that because I'm shaping not only this tempo of the piece, but hopefully imparting kind of the flow, the phrasing, the way that we might want to bring out dynamics, which is what we're talking about when we talk about the loudness or the softness of a piece, and I'm just trying to really make the music be what is on the page come out in life and what we might hear in the concert hall. What's so great about conductors is it's kind of like people have their favorite chefs and why do we go to those chefs? They use different ingredients, they use different spices to bring out certain flavors, and I think conductors do the same thing with music is we bring out different colors, different emotions, hopefully different phrasings in the music. Even though the instructions are right there just like a recipe, we're hopefully bringing it to life in new and interesting ways.
John Banther: Wow. This has been a long elevator ride, but that is the average person I think.
So Michelle, now you are flying around and you're conducting different orchestras, but that didn't just happen overnight.
Michelle Merrill: Very true.
John Banther: As a musician, what instrument do you play?
Michelle Merrill: Saxophone.
John Banther: I did not know that.
Michelle Merrill: I know, I knew you would be shocked. Which is a very odd instrument for an orchestral conductor to have played. Now, I started on piano. I was about seven or eight and I was trick- or- treating, and the lady that was handing out her candy bars had her business card on it, and I dumped out the candy when I got home and said, " Yeah, I want to play piano, let's do that." And so my parents got me a little Casio, eventually an old upright, and I loved it. I mean, I never had to be told to practice. I was playing piano all the time. My friends would want me to go to Six Flags or some other amusement park and I would be practicing. And it was my sister, who is eight years older than me, who played saxophone. And I grew up in this very, very tiny town called Canton, Texas, spelled C-A-N-T-O-N. So you would think Canton, but no, it's East Texas, so we say Canton. And 2000 people, I graduated with 100 people in my class,
So my parents weren't musicians. I didn't know that saxophone wasn't going to be an orchestral instrument. I wasn't thinking about that. I was thinking, " I'm going to be like my big sister, I want to play saxophone," and so that's the instrument that I chose. And again, loved it. Never had to be told to practice, was practicing all the time trying to be the best I could. I did a little jazz, but I was mainly focused on the classical side of things. I remember going, " This is more than you asked, but I'll go with it." I remember going to SMU, which is where I got my undergrad from in saxophone performance, and just walking around because it was in Dallas and just a huge city compared to mine, and just walking around at the central market at 2: 00 AM looking at all the cheese that they had, just being amazed that there was something besides cheddar.
And so this little girl in the big city, but being with these incredible musicians, I was the only saxophone besides another freshman in the school at that time that was a saxophone player, and so I got to play a lot of the big rep my first year with orchestra L'Arlésienne Suite by Bizet, and the big solo in Pictures at an Exhibition, and I remember those first rehearsals in orchestra just being in awe of how wonderful it was and just loving every minute. It probably was that that shaped me a little bit in wanting to be an orchestral musician and being like, " Why don't I get to play with the orchestra more?" And unfortunately saxophone is not a part of the orchestra on a general basis, but I did as much as I could with saxophone, but knew that I loved being in front of the orchestra and making music with everybody.
John Banther: I don't think you get a lot of musicians' origin stories starting with, " While I was trick- or- treating, and then I was at the cheese counter at 2: 00 AM to now I'm working with orchestras." So you are at SMU...
I highly recommend listening to this episode, number 10. She also described the timeline and preparation for a concert as a conductor from being contracted for the engagement and then the long preparation process leading up to the concerts. Let's go to now Dr. Karen Walwyn, who joined me for our episode number 37 on the Life and Music of Florence Price. Dr. Walwyn is a Florence Price scholar and she was on faculty at Howard University when we spoke, but has since joined the piano faculty at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston. I talked for about a minute here as I set up this musical clip, and then Dr. Walwyn discusses very specific and unique characteristics in Price's music.
Let's listen to for a moment some of her last music. She wrote her Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1952. She died the following year, and from what I understand, this work was never even played, but it sounds like a very mature work, and we have a couple of examples from that. Let's listen to now the opening of our second violin concerto.
It's a very peculiar opening to a violin concerto. We have a piano jumping in towards the beginning, which is unusual. The sound is very American and very New England- sounding as well, and I guess that would go back to her studying at NEC. It's dissonant, it's got these combinations of brass and winds already right at the top. It's very, very different, and it's a shame that we never heard that or that she never heard it in her lifetime.
Dr. Karen Walwyn: Yes, and also some things that are particularly characteristic of her writing is the pentatonic scale, which is taken out of the slave tradition harmonically speaking. You hear that impressionistic characteristic and at the same time it feels very Brahmsian to me. I hate to use the word angular, but it's kind of a stern but rhythmic charge, but at the same time, very, very spiritual and warm.
John Banther: Let's listen to an example just a little bit later with a violin coming in.
And what I especially love about her music, Karen, is that it's so multifaceted with the things that you've been describing so far, use of pentatonic scale, not angular, but that kind of idea, and then also with earlier the rhythm from a Juba dance, it's like you're looking at this multifaceted prism and you see all different kinds of things and that we're hearing her own sound, but then it's almost like a glimpse of Debussy and then a glimpse of Eric Corngold, all these composers that preceded her.
Dr. Karen Walwyn: Exactly. And one thing I wanted to mention was that plagal cadence, which I thought about.
John Banther: That plagal cadence. That's what we hear at the end of a hymn with the Amen being sung.
Dr. Karen Walwyn: And she does a lot of that movement, and she also seems to take us to deceptive cadences, which apparently is something also characteristic of her writing. I also like to draw your attention to the falling fourths and sometimes the falling thirds. When I used to go to church with my mom in Cumberland, Virginia, the choir used to sing, and of course, as a kid I'm thinking, I have perfect pitch, and I'm wondering, " Why are they singing off- pitch?" And so I used to ask my mom why, but when I started to finally realize they're not singing off- pitch, they're falling, and so sometimes they go just above the third, almost to the fourth, and then they fall back down to the one.
And so I started to realize, " Well, that's like a sigh." That's a sigh that comes straight out of the Negro spiritual, and when you think about the singing, singing during those times, Negro spirituals was sung for so many different occasions from death to birth and everything in between, and so of course this is their moment to rejoice, it's their moment to let out the frustrations, it's the moment for them to mourn, and so there's a lot of power in that falling interval, and I hear that a lot in her music.
John Banther: And I highly recommend this episode. Of course I recommend all of these, but Dr. Walwyn was able to really explain and give context to Price's life and music that I couldn't find anywhere else. Let's go to another conductor, Joshua Weilerstein, who joined me in episode 64 for an episode on Ravel's Bolero. I'm putting this here next to what we just heard about Price because it shows how much composers can manipulate the sound, combining instruments in ways that make even people who have spent their entire lives in music turn their head.
I mean, Ravel's one of my favorite composers, and I love the colors and timbre he brings. When we've been playing and performing all our lives, when you can hear something that makes you stop and say, " Wait a second. What instrument is that? What's happening here?" It's always magical when you get that experience.
Joshua Weilerstein: Yeah, and he takes what is essentially just the regular old orchestra and creates something that you don't think a theme repeated, I think, 9 times one theme and 9 times the other theme can be that interesting, and again, for some people it's not that interesting. But for me, there's a passage where he puts the piccolos, two piccolos and a horn and a celesta, that sort of tinkly keyboard instrument, together, and it sounds as you just said. It sounds like otherworldly. It sounds like an organ is suddenly on the stage, especially if the balance is exactly right and that just takes you a little bit out of the hall and back in again, and again, it's that inexorable inevitable buildup that makes this piece so exciting.
John Banther: If you want to learn more about this piece and how a conductor has to put it all together, check this one out, episode 64. Next is from one of my favorite episodes, period. Berlin Philharmonic horn player and TV presenter, Sarah Willis, came on in episode 72 to talk about her project and new album at the time, Mozart y Mambo: Cuban Dances, and it's unlike any album you've heard because it includes the first Cuban horn concerto. She also talks about how this is really more than a concerto and the legacies we leave in music.
Going to the next piece on here, what's described as the first Cuban horn concerto, the Cuban dances for solo horn strings and percussion. This is so much fun. I don't think I've ever heard anything really like this.
Sarah Willis: I've never played anything like this.
John Banther: So tell us about this because it's also incredible that it involves six composers.
Sarah Willis: Yes. Oh, gosh. How long have you got? I just love talking about these amazing composers. So I decided for the second album... The first album, we had Pure Mozart and Pure Mambo, and then we mixed the two quite a lot, and a follow- up album is always difficult to do, but we knew we had two more horn concertos to record and I just didn't want to mix again so much. I wanted something original. And when we leave this world, we like to leave something great behind, and I thought, " Wouldn't it be amazing if the next generation of horn players after me could get to know Cuban music like I do and get to love it?" The problem is there is no repertoire written for the horn in Cuba, or not a lot, and there was never a horn concerto.
So I put out a call to young composers saying, " I needed one composer to write me a horn concerto and I would like it to be a collection of dances," and I made a little competition and I got so many great entries that I ended up with six dances by six composers, because I just couldn't decide, and they all brought something completely unique to the table. It's a little bit like a young Buena Vista Social Club because these six young composers, they are trying to keep rhythms alive that are disappearing in Cuba. They are folk dances, they're the national dance of Cuba, the Danzón, a dance that you only do down in Guantanamo called the Changüí. And the young people of today in Cuba are far more interested in reggaton, in rap, in rock music, and these traditional dances are sort of getting a little bit forgotten.
And the other thing that's incredible about it is that they wrote all the rhythms down and this is why Wim Wenders, in his film, this wonderful Buena Vista Social Club, and Ry Cooder, they got these old musicians to capture what they could do on film. But what these young musicians have done, these young Cubans, they've actually written it down now, which is not easy because if you tell a Cuban Mambo or Changüí or Guaguancó, which is a rumba, they just know and they play that rhythm. So what these composers have done, they've written it down for people like me, like this complete foreigners, and so that percussionists and string players and horn players of the future will be able to play Cuban rhythms not having known much about them before. So I'm so lucky to have these pieces, but I must say it's been the challenge of my life to be able to play them properly.
John Banther: Like I said, this might be my favorite episode of them all. She discusses so much about this album and she talks more about music. That's episode 72. The last guest I want to highlight here is Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, music director of the NSO, who sat down with me in episode number 86 from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I wanted to ask him how he approaches music that we've played so many times, like a Beethoven Symphony. How do you approach something so familiar? How do you organize your musical ideas? What do you say with something that has been said so many times before and how does this change as we get older?
Coming back to more present day, I'm wondering about how you prepare some material. Say, there's a concert next month or two months or whatever, and it's Beethoven Symphony No. 5. We've heard this a million times, we've played a million times, we've recorded it. How is your preparation for that? Is that any different than a newer piece, maybe something you haven't played? Are you going back to the score or is it more maybe sitting and just really thinking about certain interpretations or ideas?
Gianandrea Noseda: Both. Both. I think if the piece is familiar, you already conducted several times, of course you start to think about the piece even without the score in front of you, but the score is always revelatory, because especially in the great pieces, you always find something that didn't catch your attention before. At a certain point you see that element and changes partially your vision of that moment. Sometimes you can expand in a movement or in the symphony, and it's always nice to go back to the score, because it's like a Bible, it's like a holy scripture. You have always to refer to that more than your imagination. Of course, if I am on the plane, I don't have the score, I know that I have to conduct Beethoven 5 in one month's time, of course, I think about the relation of tempo, the kind of sound I wish I would like to achieve, what kind of relationships of tempo, how the second movement should follow the first.
Also, because studying with... Myung-Whun Chung has been one of my teachers in masterclass in Sienna, Academy Chigiana. He was really obsessed where to found the climaxes, " What is the climax in the first movement? Okay, what is the climax in the second, the third, the fourth? After that, among these four climaxes, which is the most important." And that focus your energy, how to shape everything, but sometimes the climaxes change when you reapproach the score because you find something different, because you are different, because we are never the same.
John Banther: It almost sounds like a great book or a movie, but you're on both sides of it. You read it again, you watch it again. You're always discovering something new. That's great for yourself, but then you have to turn around and give this interpretation and bring everyone together with that unified vision.
Gianandrea Noseda: Yeah, you made the perfect example. It's the same. When you reread a book, maybe you read a book when you were 20, and now you read a book at 58, of course you recognize, you remember the story, but your attention goes to different elements, different details, and that gives you a different idea. And if you have to make a speech about the same novel, you will speak differently, and getting back to music, how to convey not a new idea because it's not a new idea, but new sensibility about a piece and to have everybody on board. That is the other part of the conducting activity.
John Banther: Maestro Noseda had a lot to say in this interview, like his early experiences in music, his approach, and also his foundation, which has been supplying prestigious Italian instruments to the NSO. Previously he was doing this anonymously, but news broke about it publicly just minutes before we spoke. Also, a big thanks to WETA Classical's Charles Lawson, who engineered and recorded the interview. It was nice not to have that on my mind for once.
I want to showcase now a few great moments or stories from over the years. This first one is from episode 60 on the Life and Music of Clara Schumann, WETA Classical's Linda Carducci joined me for this one, and this moment here describes one of the most heroic acts I've ever heard of a composer taking.
This is pretty incredible. So in 1849, there was an uprising against the government in Dresden where Clara and the family were living, and I want to read an excerpt from this publication from 1998 of David Dennis from Loyola University of Chicago. Here's what happened. Here's what Clara did. In 1849 when fighting actually broke out in Dresden, the Schumanns hid in the house alarmed by the sound of shooting and of bells ringing in all of the towers. When volunteers came to their neighborhood looking for men who could serve in the militia, Schumann ran into the house to hide. Clara convinced that they wanted to take him, made some excuses. After the coast was clear, the two of them with their oldest daughter, Marie, ran to the train station and escaped, and Clara had quickly made arrangements for the housekeeper to stay with the other children. Their flight took them by train to outlying villages. Two days later at 3: 00 AM, Clara, who was nearly seven months pregnant, returned to Dresden accompanied by two other women.
They walked across the fields under continuous cannonading, fire from cannons, encountering side- armed rebels along the way. She made it to their house where, as she wrote, " I found the children still asleep, tore them out of their beds immediately, had them dressed, packed a few important items, and one hour, we were together again outside in the fields." Clara added that, " My poor Robert had also spent some anxiety- filled hours, but was happy to see them. In fact, Schumann had gone right ahead with his creative work and maintained his concealment for the rest of the month." That is unreal. Clara, seven months pregnant, is running back into Dresden amidst this fighting and cannons and rebels, grabs the kids and runs back.
Linda Carducci: And she was a rather little petite woman too. I am so impressed by her courage when I read that story. I'm impressed, but not surprised, John, because I think she has shown courage throughout her lifetime. As I mentioned earlier, going out on public stages at the age of eight and nine, defying her father who had this iron grip on her for many years, defying her in her marriage to Robert Schumann and then keeping up composition for a while while she was married and raising children, and in this particular episode, I really do think that this is indicative of the strength of character that she had.
John Banther: Absolutely. There's so many things we're surely missing from her life that have just gone untold or gone lost, diaries, works or stories or otherwise, and this is just an incredible... There's no words to describe what she must have gone through.
Wouldn't it be amazing to get a biopic on Clara Schumann's life? Someone just needs to write it, create it, direct it or whatever, as long as they cast Saoirse Ronan as Clara. Another great moment I want to share is this bit from episode number 69 on Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, one of his most popular works. The theme is universally loved. I've never heard of someone not liking it, but Rachmaninoff here came up with it by using an almost mathematical formula against the original theme of Paganini. It's almost like this beautiful theme was hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered.
How does this theme relate at all to Paganini's tune? It's very genius what Rachmaninoff is doing here. He's using inversion. Now, we're going to get into some music theory here, but don't worry, there's not a test. It's actually not that hard. I think we're all going to get this, and I'll put some more information and pictures maybe and music on the show notes page as well. But he uses inversion. So to go to a simple idea of inversion, we can think of a simple chord, like a C, major chord, C, E, and G. That's a nice easy chord, but now what if we take that C and we flip it up in octave higher. So now we have E, G, and C. We call that first inversion, for example. You can see how on a chord you can flip things up and inverted.
But what about a melody, which we have here. Here is what is happening, because you can't just flip the music over or upside down or something like that. What Rachmaninoff does is he takes the entire theme of Paganini and inverts it. He does this by looking at Paganini's tune and he looks at the first note and the second note and how they relate to each other. We see that Paganini goes up a minor third for the second note. So Rachmaninoff goes from his first note down a minor third to his second note. Going to the third note, we see that Paganini goes down a half step for that note, so what does Rachmaninoff do? He goes up a half step. Does that make sense so far?
Bill Bukowski: So far I'm with you.
John Banther: Okay, so Bill, when Paganini goes down a whole step for his fourth note, Rachmaninoff would go?
Bill Bukowski: A whole step up.
John Banther: Exactly. That is what inversion is, and he does it for basically the entire tune of Paganini's theme, changes the rhythm a little, although it is quite similar, and you get this gorgeous melody. It's so funny because this is one of the things I love about music in that Paganini had no idea the influence that he would have when he wrote this 24th Caprice and how much people would love it, but he also didn't realize he was also basically writing almost a mathematical formula for how to create one of the most beloved melodies that Rachmaninoff would later, as in this case, come up with.
Bill Bukowski: That's right.
John Banther: And that was also WETA classicals Bill Bukowski. He joined me for this one and he had some really great perspectives on this work as well. So if you love this rhapsody, which of course you do, listen to the episode number 69 to learn more about it. The last clip I want to play isn't all that special really, I guess, but it demonstrates how much more there is to understand about the lives of composers apart from writing grand works and operas. I love learning about the day- to- day lives of composers, how they lived, how they had to exist within their society's framework, how they subverted those expectations, and even the mundane, probably annoying things that composers just had to do because the person signing the checks said so.
There are other things that are in, I think your job description when it comes to being kapellmeister for such a wealthy estate, and here's something, Evan, I had no idea about. Hayden had to write, of course, marches, duos, whatever for the estate, but he also wrote music for clocks, a mechanical clock. I mean, you know how the old clocks, they chime or play a tune when the hour changes. Hayden had to write music for this kind of automechanical organ that would be fit inside of a large ornate clock at the palace, and this organ could be programmed, I guess similar to a piano role in some way, but programmed to play different music. I'll put a video on the show notes page because recently they got it working and I think it's one that Hayden was actually physically in the room and even participating in, and they have it working now. But that's how far his job goes as kapellmeister, he's writing symphonies one day that we still play, and the other, he's making sure there's a pleasing tune for the prince When the clock strikes three.
Evan Keely: Really gives you a sense of his flexibility and his open- mindedness about his circumstances.
John Banther: And what a great thing for us today that we get to hear not just the kind of music or what Hayden wrote for this little clock, but that we actually get to hear the clock itself playing the tune that Hayden would've heard right there in the room when he, well, I guess made that whole thing possible. And I wonder where he even came up with the tune. Did he put any effort into it? Was it just something he wrote down last second, something he had already thought of? Well, I'm just going to have to keep wondering. And if you want to learn more about Hayden and his life in music, check out episode number 88.
And I want to end this with a full recording of a symphony simply because I can. We're going to hear Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1, completed in 1888. It's one of the most remarkable and unique first symphonies from a composer, and we did an entire episode on it, number 85. This recording is from 1962. It's the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with conductor Bernard Haitink. You may have not heard this recording specifically, but it was the beginning of one of the great orchestra and conductor relationships. This was before he was even their chief conductor, and it set in motion a rise in prominence and recording stature for the orchestra. Haitink was also young for a conductor, maybe 33 at this time, and his interpretation of the symphony would evolve, but it all started here. So thank you again for listening. You can send me emails with comments and episode ideas at classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. And with that, let's enjoy Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.