Happy Birthday, Lenny!

Today—August 25, 2018—would have marked the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. One of the most (if not the most) distinguished American-born classical musicians, Bernstein succeeded in almost every aspect of musical life. He composed both “serious” classical pieces and lively theatrical works, sometimes even bridging the gap between the two. He conducted orchestras worldwide and served as music director of the illustrious New York Philharmonic for eleven years. He made hundreds of recordings, which encompass everything from canonic works to his own compositions. To top it all off, he was a fine pianist and a charismatic music educator, introducing both children and adults to the wonders of classical music.

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Lenny in his element!

Bernstein’s life was not without its flaws, though. His personal life was often complicated and marred with controversy. (Some aspects would undoubtedly raise more than a few eyebrows in the climate of the current MeToo movement.) He smoked almost constantly. He could occasionally be short-tempered and confrontational in rehearsal—one of my favorite clips, albeit a cringe-worthy one, involves Bernstein dealing with a miscast José Carreras during a recording session for West Side Story. It’s clear that Bernstein’s larger-than-life personality could sometimes get the better of him.

However, there’s no question that Bernstein succeeded in bringing classical music to millions of people, and his wide-ranging achievements are being celebrated this year by orchestras around the world.

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Favorite Albums of 2017

It’s absolutely no question that 2017 was a heck of a year. Political tensions, violence, scandals – no year in recent memory has seemed as fraught with discord and turmoil as this one. Yet, despite all of the bleakness, there were many good things that occurred. In the realm of music for instance, a wonderfully copious amount of it was created, recorded, and released for all to enjoy, reminding us of both the goodness of humanity and the vitality of the art form.

Below, I have compiled ten of my favorite albums of this past year, which includes classical as well as non-classical releases. Along with a short blurb on each album, I have included one sample track (when available) and links to both iTunes and Amazon. If a particular album piques your interest, I encourage you to support the artists by purchasing their work.

So, in no particular order, here are my ten favorite albums of 2017:

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Awesome Mix Vol. 2 (Hollywood Records)

Although not quite as satisfying as its predecessor (both the original Guardians of the Galaxy film and its accompanying Awesome Mix Vol. 1), this compilation of 60s and 70s pop tunes added a delightful variety of sounds to the quirky summer blockbuster. From well-known songs (George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”) to lesser known gems (Sweet’s “Fox on the Run”), this nostalgia-fulled mix was the perfect soundtrack to those long summer road trips.

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Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)

Here are four more neglected classical Christmas works from the twentieth century, which is the second of my two part series. (You can read the first part here.) Without further ado, let’s continue…

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May you be as excited as Will Ferrell this holiday season!

1. Daniel Pinkham: Christmas Cantata (1957)

An American composer and organist who excelled at composing pieces for choir, Daniel Pinkham’s musical language embraced the gamut of twentieth century composition, including both tonal and atonal idioms. His Christmas Cantata, written for choir, organ, and two brass choirs, is perhaps his best-known work.

The piece is divided into three movements – the first opens dramatically, as the choir (singing in Latin) implores the shepherds to tell them what they witnessed at the manger. The music then becomes upbeat and dancelike as the shepherds speak of the marvel of seeing the newborn baby Jesus. (The score here is reminiscent of Stravinsky, full of tricky rhythmic devices and unusual harmonies.)

The second movement is a transcendent setting of the famous Latin text “O Magnum Mysterium,” which recalls the long, flowing melodic lines of Gregorian chant. The third and final movement sets the words of the angels – “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”). It begins with soft excitement but gradually grows in volume before ending on a splendorous “Alleluia.” Surprisingly, Pinkham manages to pack a ton of musical material into a tight, economic package – all three movements combined are only about ten minutes total.

Continue reading “Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)”