The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s Mother’s Day 2018. The Ear remembers his mom with a Rachmaninoff prelude

May 13, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Mother’s Day 2018.

To celebrate The Ear’s late mom, here is a piece of music with a story to tell with it.

The Ear remembers it well.

He was 13, maybe 14, and living on Long Island, New York.

It was in the afternoon, after school.

His mom was talking to a stranger long-distance on the phone. The conversation, something about preparing wild rice, was with a person in Minnesota.

The Ear was at the piano practicing and playing the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor by the young Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) – the “Bells of Moscow” – which you can hear Evgeny Kissin play in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It was music that The Ear first heard live when a babysitter played it for him. And he immediately fell in love with it.

It was hard to play, a Romantic piece with big loud chords (below is part of the score) and fast passage work. Perfect for a teenager.

Rachmaninoff's Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapi...

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3 No. 2, The Recapitulation of the theme, in four staves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was The Ear’s first big piece, the right vehicle for an ambitious young piano student who was anxious to use the piano to make an impression.

Anyway, the person on the other end of the phone heard the piano playing and asked if they could listen a while longer.

Mom said, Sure!

Then she placed the phone near the piano — and beamed with pride at me while gesturing for me to continue playing.

Mom didn’t know a lot of classical music. But she knew her son loved it and she did everything she could to encourage that love.

She also liked this particular Rachmaninoff prelude because it was accessible and dramatic, easy to understand and to appreciate, and most of all because her son liked it and played it.

That’s how moms are.

The other person on the line listened until the end of the prelude, then offered praise and thanks, said good-bye, and hung up.

Mom told that story over many years and always with great pride.

For a long time after, it seemed that particular prelude fell out of fashion – probably because it was too popular and too melodramatic. Even Rachmaninoff grew to despise it and referred to the work disdainfully as “It,” which he often had to play as an encore.

But lately, as often happens to overexposed pieces that fall into neglect, it finally seems to be making something of a comeback.

Several years ago, Garrick Ohlsson played it as an encore after a concerto he performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. These days, The Ear has heard the young up-and-coming, prize-winning young Georgian-British pianist Luka Okros play it on YouTube and Instagram.

Anyway, here it is, offered with fond memories of a proud mom.

Is there a piece of classical music you identify with your mom? Maybe Antonin Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” which you can hear on Wisconsin Public Radio‘s “Sunday Brunch” program at about 12:30p.m. today?

Maybe an opera aria or song?

Leave a comment, with a link to a YouTube performance if possible, and let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Happy Mother’s Day, all!


Classical music: What pieces and performers first hooked you on classical music? Here is what hooked critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times.

July 20, 2013
23 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Every once in a while, it’s good to look back and realize with renewed appreciation what pieces and performers first hooked you at a young age on classical music.

That is exactly what Anthony Tommasini (below), the senior music critic for The New York Times, did this past week.

tommasini-190

You could call it nostalgia, but it really was more of a Proustian act of recovering lost time, without a lot of sentimentality but instead with a lot of clear-eyed adult analysis and appreciation.

He was born into a non-musical family, but the young Tommasini nonetheless found himself inexorably drawn toward classical music.

As a young pianist, he got hooked on some unusual repertoire, short pieces that are often overlooked today. Can you guess which pieces by which composer? They might surprise you.

And he favored certain well-known dramatic works by Beethoven (below) especially one particular piano sonata he attempted to play as well as a couple of other sonatas and one of the piano concertos.

Both sets of works, small and large, were performed by two of the Truly Great Pianists of his youth — Arthur Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin.

Beethoven big

Tommasini also write about his first opera that hooked him for life on opera. Care to guess which one by which composer? And where he heard it?

You may recall that Tommasini, a trained composer, is probably the most respected classical music critic in the U.S. today, along with Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine.

And local readers may recall when Tommasini (below right) came to Madison to do a residency during the UW-Madison’s centennial celebration of the Pro Arte Quartet two seasons ago. He spoke articulately and passionately at the Wisconsin Union Theater, then did a Q&A with composer William Bolcom (below left) and UW piano professor Todd Welbourne (below middle) before the world-premiere performance of a commissioned work, William Bolcom’s Piano Quintet No. 2, with the Pro Arte Quartet and UW pianist Christopher Taylor:

William Bolcom, Todd Welbourne, Anthony Tommasini

Anyway, here is a link to Tommasini’s story, complete with a terrific and an unexpected anecdote at the end as well as recordings of the specific pieces form his youth that you should listen to:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/arts/music/a-critics-ode-to-a-childhood-joy-in-classical-music.html

It wasn’t the first time Tommasini talked about seminal classical works in his past. Here is another that involved Chopin:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/arts/music/anthony-tommasinis-musical-moments.html?pagewanted=all

Like Tommasini, I too was given to romantic drama, or even melodrama, as a young person. That, I suspect, is typical. Young people don’t generally first fall in love with the Baroque. I just adored Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Prelude in C-sharp minor, called “The Bells of Moscow” by its fans and called “It” by Rachmaninoff who grew to detest the popular piece that he was always asked to play as an encore. And I too had to try my hand  or hands at it, to play and perform it. And then it was Rachmanioff’s lush Piano Concerto No. 2 in a great old recording by Arthur Rubinstein and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner.

What pieces and performers first hooked you on classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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