Monday, November 30, 2015

Programming - December 2015


Docstoc is Shutting Down

We were recently advised that the document repository website Docstoc will cease to operate in December, which means that nearly 200 playlists in PDF format that we have been harboring there will soon disappear.

As podcasts get recycled and reused, I will move old playlists to the Internet Archive (as I have been using the IA as the playlist repository for several months now), but do not plan a mass migration (the task is just too much for me to handle at this time).

If listeners need a specific playlist, simply drop me a line and I will post it on the IA for sharing. My apologies for this unplanned inconvenience.

This month’s posts

December is typically our chance to offer more bonbons – festive music of all sorts. Also, December is usually when I muse about the year that was, and the year to come.

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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Blues

No. 211 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

This month’s podcast montage concludes our November homage to artists we have lost – and anniversaries thereof – with a focus on three of them and a common thematic link.

The three honorees this week are guitarist B.B. King, singer-songwriter-artist Gerry Boulet and composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (who was already featured earlier in the month). And the “glue” that binds them together is the Blues.

What is the Blues? Some would say it’s a form of musical expression, others a musical genre, and I think both are right in their own way. It’s about worry, broken hearts, despair and it’s also a musical genre with its own “code” and “patterns”. A key ingredient is the Blue Note – or the worried note - sung or played at a slightly different pitch (typically between a quartertone and a semitone). Like the blues in general, the blue notes can mean many things. One quality that they all have in common, however, is that they are lower than one would expect, classically speaking.  A great example is the Elvis Presley hit Heartbreak Hotel

Ever Since my baby left me… “my” here is sung as a blue note.

We associate the Blues with North America and Afro-American music, but English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "A Negro Love Song", from his The African Suite for Piano composed in 1898, contains blue third and seventh notes.

African American composer W. C. Handy wrote in his autobiography of the experience of sleeping on a train traveling through Tutwiler, Mississippi around 1903, and being awakened by:

... a lean, loose-jointed Negro who had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. ... The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly... The singer repeated the line ("Going' where the Southern cross' the Dog") three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

This account, if you ask me, is the first recorded instance of a tradition we call the Mississippi Delta Blues, epitomized – and recorded for posterity – in an odd recording session held on November 23, 1936, in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. The artist, Delta Blues guitar artist extraordinaire Robert Johnson, set 16 tracks to vinyl that day, including "Come On In My Kitchen", "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom", "Cross Road Blues" and the classic blues anthem "Sweet Home Chicago".

The melody of "Sweet Home Chicago" is found in several blues songs, including "Honey Dripper Blues", "Red Cross Blues", and the immediate model for the song, "Kokomo Blues". In his rendition, Johnson succeeded in evoking an exotic modern place, far from the South, which is an amalgam of famous migration goals for African Americans leaving the South:

But I'm cryin' hey baby, Honey don't you want to go / Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago

Last time I checked, Chicago is nowhere near California… To later singers this contradictory location held more appeal than obscure Kokomo, which is probably why this stuck. And it is also fitting that Chicago is, to many, the home of the Blues, and of the Blues Brothers. It also is where conductor Seiji Ozawa was introduced to the Blues, while music director of the Chicago Symphony’s summer festival in Ravinia.

In 1966, after hearing a local group - the Siegel–Schwall Band - perform live at Big John's in Chicago, Ozawa conceived the idea of combining blues and classical music. The following year, Ozawa conducted a performance of William Russo's Symphony No. 2, Titans, at the Ravinia Festival. Shortly after that, Russo was commissioned to write and orchestrate the composition that became Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra.

Each “part” (or movement) of the work introduces one of the handful of easily recognizable “riffs” (or patterns) we all associate with Blues performance. While the orchestral parts are fully delineated, the blues band parts are more broadly outlined, leaving significant room for musical improvisation.

Ozawa famously apprenticed under Leonard Bernstein in the early 1960’s, and so it is a fitting segue to continue our exploration of Symphonic Blues under Lenny’s able penmanship. We all remember the film On The Town which starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors enjoying leave in the Big Apple. The film, and musical, was set to music by Bernstein and was based on Jerome Robbins' idea for his 1944 ballet Fancy Free, which was also composed by Bernstein.

The scene is a bar and the outside sidewalk in New York City, in wartime. Three sailors on leave boisterously arrive, have a drink and head outside looking for female companionship. A beautiful girl passes by and the three sailors vie for her attention. She demurs and escapes, pursued by two of the sailors. The Third, having been left in the dust, encounters another beautiful passer-by, and invites her to have a drink with him. He impresses her with a pantomime of his military exploits, and they dance a passionate pas de deux. This musical number – and indeed many of the numbers – uses the theme of a blues song that Bernstein composed especially for the ballet, “Big Stuff”. 

So you cry, “What’s it about, Baby?”
You ask why the blues had to go and pick you.

“Big Stuff” was conceived with the African American jazz singer Billie Holiday in mind, even though it ended up being recorded for the production by Bernstein’s sister Shirley. At that early point in Bernstein’s career, he lacked the cultural and fiscal capital to hire anyone as famous as Holiday. A few years later, she did record the song, and it is that rendition that I included in the montage, followed by significant highlights from the ballet.

In May 2015, American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist B. B. King passed away. An undisputed icon of the Blues -the King of the Blues to many - Rolling Stone magazine ranked King No. 6 on its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Where Robert Johnson is recognized as a master of the “acoustic Delta blues guitar”, King on his “Lucille” Gibson guitar eintroduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that influenced many later electric blues guitarists. King was known for performing tirelessly throughout his musical career, appearing at more than 200 concerts per year on average into his 70s. Today’s montage includes a few tracks recorded by King, including his great standard “The Thrill is Gone”.

Gerry Boulet, who died 25 years ago this year, is the iconic voice of French Canadian Rock and Blues. Most famous as vocalist for the Quebec rock band Offenbach, he is considered one of the innovators of rock music in joual, the plain talk French Quebec dialect. His musical style and raspy voice are both unique and unforgettable.

Offenbach’s original members had long debated what language they should sing in. Boulet held strongly to the custom of singing in English, but Pierre Harel felt that French would be more natural. While the band members sat around waiting on Harel’s arrival, they started playing around a good “walking boogie” lead by bassist Michel Lamothe. When Harel arrived, Gerry was singing “That’s why, that’s why I’m singing the blues”. Harel then composed French lyrics on a paper place-mat that became the chorus

L’aut’soir, l’aut’soir, j’ai chanté du blues / L’aut’soir, l’aut’soir ça l’a rendu jalouse

Thus was born Câline de blues, a song now revered as a classic in the Quebec blues-rock repertoire.
Set to vinyl several times by the band, Offenbach’s first gold album, “Offenbach en fusion” (a jazz-rock hit), contains another edition of the song, and it is that version that concludes our montage.

I think you will love this music too.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Jon Vickers sings Otello

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

OTF returns with a full-length opera this month, but first a few words on the life and career of the late great Canadian Heldentenor Jon Vickers, who passed away this past July.

Jonathan Vickers was born in the prairie hamlet of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the suxth if eight children if a devoutly religious family. Jon's father was a teacher - a school principal no less - and the children were involved in their community, singing and performing music at church and in the local jail!

Coming of age in World War II, Jon chose to defer his studies and contribute to the labour workforce, which took him as far Easr as Winnipeg. He worked in Grocery stores and in Department stores, whilst still performing and singing as an amateur.

Finally, in 1950, he earned a scholarship to attend the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and, soon after, made his professional debut with the local opera company and, later, on the airwaves of the CBC. It must have been through performances at the Toronto Opera Festival that he was dispatched to London with a plane ticket - after a short audition - to be featured at Covent Garden productions of Un Ballo in Maschera and Carmen in the 1956-57 season.

When one compares Vickers to his peers of that era, one should not look at other opera singers, but rather at the great "method actors" of the time, folks like Marlon Brando, who not only take on a role, they inhabit it. And the range of characters is impressive - Tristan, Otello and Aeneas (Les Troyens); sining all of these (including five Otellos), in a six-week period at the Met in 1974.

As stated in a recent obituary, a Vickers performance in the opera house was a grand, sweeping, overriding affair, often a performance of extremes, 

Vickers' voice was recorded in dozens of performances. Many critics praised his interpretation of Verdi's Otello, which he recorded twice: in 1960 with Tullio Serafin and 1973 with Herbert von Karajan. As we remember the great tenor, I am sharing today a complete recording of the former (1960) recording.

Happy Listening!

Libretto -

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

In Memoriam - Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

This week’s Once Upon the Internet highlights the 100th anniversary of the passing of mystic, visionary, virtuoso, and composer Alexander Scriabin with a modest sampling of some of his compositions.

According to the 
AMG, Scriabin dedicated his life to creating musical works which would, as he believed, open the portals of the spiritual world. Scriabin took piano lessons as a child, joining, in 1884, Nikolay Zverov's class, where Rachmaninov was a fellow student. From 1888 to 1892, Scriabin studied piano and started composing at the Moscow Conservatory, where his teachers included Arensky,Taneyev, and Safonov

Mostly inspired by Chopin, his early works include nocturnes, mazurkas, preludes, and etudes for piano. Typical examples of Romantic music for the piano, these works nevertheless reveal the composer's strong individuality. Today’s playlist includes a few of those works, from his op. 8 etudes and a pair of works for the left hand.

Toward the end of the century, Scriabin started writing orchestral works, the first such work being his only piano concerto. At only 24 and needing a piano concerto to show off his abilities in concert, Scriabin was still using the idiom set forth by Chopin for his piano writing, and here he took on Chopin's orchestral mannerisms, as well, although Scriabin's orchestra takes a much more active and partner-like role than Chopin's does in his concertos. Scriabin completed the concerto in only a few days in the fall of 1896, but didn't finish the orchestration until the following May and did not premiere the work until October 23, 1897. Also a favorite of Rachmaninov's, he conducted the composer in a 1911 performance and later performed the work himself at a memorial for Scriabin in 1915.

As we said, it is not surprising that in Scriabin's early compositions the influence of Chopin and Lisztseems more powerful than the composer's own voice. In 1903, Scriabin abandoned his wife and their four children and embarked on a European journey with a young admirer, Tatyana Schloezer. During his sojourn in Western Europe, which lasted six years, Scriabin started developing an original, highly personal musical idiom, experimenting with new harmonic structures and searching for new sonorities. While Scriabin never quite crossed the threshold to atonality, his music nevertheless replaced the traditional concept of tonality by an intricate system of chords, some of which (e.g., the "mystic chord": C-F sharp-B flat-E-A-D) had an esoteric meaning. Scriabin's gradual move into realms beyond traditional tonality can be clearly heard in his ten piano sonatas; the last five, composed during 1912-1913, are without key signatures and certainly contain atonal moments. 
The Fourth Sonata from 1903, demonstrates how Scriabin’s musical approaches embrace the eventual atonal revolution that he would, completely independently from Arnold Schoenberg or any other composer, carry out on his music in the years before World War I. Four years later, the Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53, by eschewing any traditional constraints of a central tonal area.

In 1915, Scriabin died in of septicemia caused by a carbuncle on his lip. Among his unfinished project was Mysterium, a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world.

Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Piano Concerto in F-Sharp Minor, op 20 
Margarita Fyodorova, piano
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra
Fuat Mansurov, conducting

Sonata no. 4 in F-Sharp Minor, op. 30
Evgeni Mikhailov, piano 

Sonata no. 5 in F-Sharp Major, op. 53 
Jan Gottlieb Jiracek, piano

Etude in B Flat minor, op. 8, no. 11
Shoshana Rudiakov, piano

Pièces pour la main gauche seulement, op. 9 
Brent D. Hugh, piano 

MP3.COM - 18 February 2002

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

In Memoriam - Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

This "encore" of no. 18 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

November is a month I usually reserve on this and my other platforms for remembering those we have lost. This is the first of two posts on the Tuesday Blog underscoring the passing of great musicians.

On October 14 1990 - a little more than 25 years ago - and a mere five days after announcing his retirement from conducting, Bernstein died at home, in the Dakota, reportedly while trying to frolic with his grandchildren. Few of us would mind going that way...

Bernstein's decision to retire is easily explained by reviewing the accounts of his last concert - held at Tanglewood a few weeks earlier. He was sucking on oxygen off stage and was hardly able to complete a program that included Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and the Four Sea Interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes, which he had introduced from that very stage in the Berkshires in 1945. Carl St. Clair, then a conducting assistant, was called upon for the premiere of an "orchestrated" version of Bernstein's Arias and Barcarolles.

Bernstein's physical deterioration had been evident for a few years. The bloated belly, the shortness of breath, his awesome vitality now having to be summoned by sheer will power. Years of heavy smoking, the scotch and the rough lifestyle had caught up with him. 

What of the concert, then? Well, this farewell performance is recreated in our montage from the Podcast Vault, which features the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the event, completed with a recording of selections from Arias taken from my personal collection. In spite of Bernstein's physical challenges, the two works he conducted are still full of charm and insight..

Happy Listening!

·         Original Bilingual Commentary: