Week 74 (Week of Aug. 30, 2021):
A fond greetings to all SRC participants & friends.
I hope this finds everyone doing well!
Throughout the past few weeks we have studied a handful of various cultural instruments from around the world.
From the uilleann bagpipes of Ireland to the Russian stringed balalaika, the Australian didgeridoo to the Japanese koto, we have ‘travelled’ around the globe together in a sense and gotten a taste of different cultures and traditions.
This week, I would like to once again slip on our traveling shoes as we head off to Africa and take a closer look at the Mbira instrument.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘thumb piano’ or ‘finger harp’, the mbira (pronounced “mm-bee-ra”) is an instrument consisting of a wooden board with strips of metal tines attached in such a way that the player can pluck them with their fingers to produce different notes.
The traditional ‘mbira dzavadzimu’ (“mbira of the ancestral spirits”) has between 22 and 28 metal keys.
The mbira instrument as a ‘family’ of musical instruments of various sizes and tunings are traditional to the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
The instrument is played by holding it in your hands and plucking the metal tines with both thumbs and sometimes also the right and left index fingers.
In the ethnomusicology system of classifying musical instruments, which we studied in a previous week, the mbira would be considered to be an ‘plucked idiophone instrument’, a “musical instrument that creates sound primarily by the vibration of the instrument itself.”
In Eastern and Southern African cultures, the mbira is considered to be an important instrument for religious ceremonies and weddings, along with other social gatherings called ‘mapira’.
During public performances, the mbira is often placed inside a hollowed out gourd called a ‘deze’, which functions like a resonator to amplify the sound of the instrument.
The mbira is an extremely significant part of the Shona religion and culture of Zimbabwe and is considered a very sacred instrument by the people.
The history of the instrument itself is difficult to peg down, as various forms of plucked idiophone instruments have existed throughout the continent of Africa specifically for thousands of years.
Originally the tines of these instruments were most likely made from bamboo, with metal keys eventually being developed throughout the years.
These metal-tined plucked instruments seem to have become the most popularized by the indigenous groups of Mozambique and Zimbabwe in particular.
However, GREAT variety existed in regards to the tuning and note layouts on the instrument itself.
While there is today a particular standard tuning and note layout to the mbira instrument, there existed throughout history a great many different tunings to the instrument.
In the mid 1950s, mbira instruments were the basis for the development of a modern interpretation of the instrument called the ‘kalimba’.
This was commercially produced by an ethnomusicologist named Hugh Tracey, who modeled his version after the Zimbabwe mbira and popularised the instrument outside of Africa.
This Westernized version of the mbira, the kalimba, became popularized in the 1960’s and early 1970’s largely due to the band Earth, Wind and Fire who included this version of a mbira on stage and in their recordings.
In regards to the tuning of the instrument itself, on an African mbira it is common to have the lowest notes in the center of the wooden board and the higher notes to the far left and right.
It is important to note, however, that traditional African tunings of the mbira use notes that do not fall neatly on the grid of the Western scale.
The most common tuning system of the mbira instrument of Zimbabwe is called the ‘nyamaropa tuning system’, which could be considered the closest to the western “Mixolydian mode/scale”. (Pianists: think a C scale with a lowered 7th step- a b flat)
The Hugh Tracey kalimbas however are tuned to a traditional Western G Major scale, again with the lowest notes in the center.
Let’s listen to some videos together:
Mbira Education Videos:
A professor from the University of Missouri explains the mbira: https://youtu.be/7tg8FXW79Tk
A video on how to play a kalimba/mbira: https://youtu.be/Br6Wveirppk
Mbira Performance Videos:
* Traditional Zimbabwe song, “Shange”- https://youtu.be/tKbfUEhjuH4
* The Duramazwi Mbira Group’s “Chamber dzemvura” Music Video: https://youtu.be/sWml5faCCY4 (probably my favorite)
* “If Bach were from Zimbabwe”- Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in C played on mbiras: https://youtu.be/Z6557vsZ1os
As always, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the ever-amazing Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Saturday, August 7th Facebook Live streamed gig, a prerecorded video featuring a friend of Hank’s, Leo LaBarge, on drumset.
Sidenote: Does anyone else love the sound of good brush work on jazz drums?! Such a treat!
Enjoy this special collaboration concert!
Week 73 (Week of August 23, 2021):
I hope this finds everyone having a good week and enjoying these last few days of August!
This week, I would like to highlight a famous classical pianist and view some of their best performances together.
Let’s turn the spotlight to pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, as we take a look at his life and works.
Vladimir Davidovic Ashkenazy is a Russian born pianist and conductor.
He was born in 1937, in what was then Gorky, Soviet Union (currently Nizhny Novgorod, Russia), to a musical home.
His father was Jewish pianist and composer David Ashkenazi and his mother was a Russian Orthodox actress.
Young Vladimir began playing the piano at the age of 6 and was accepted to study at a music school at the age of 8.
He would later go on to attend the Moscow Conservatory and win second prize at an international Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland in 1955.
In 1956, he won the first prize for the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels, as well as a shared first prize in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition.
Like many others during that time, as a student he was harassed by the KGB to become an “informer”, but did not cooperate despite the pressure.
In 1961, Vladimir married an Icelandic woman, Þórunn Jóhannsdóttir, who was forced to give up her Icelandic citizenship in order to marry Vladimir.
After some time, the Soviet authorities allowed the Ashkenazys to visit the West for Vladimir’s musical performances.
In 1962, Vladimir decided to leave the USSR permanently and set up residence in London where his in-laws called home.
The couple would then in 1968 go on to move to Iceland, where Vladimir became an Icelandic citizen in 1972.
Vladimir also during this time helped to found the Reykjavik Arts Festival in Iceland, of which he is still an Honorary President.
In 1978 the couple and their then 4 children moved to Switzerland, where they still live today.
As an internationally acclaimed solo pianist, Vladimir Ashkenazy has collaborated with many well-known soloists and orchestras.
He has recorded a vast number of albums, earning him 5 Grammy awards- notably for his Beethoven Piano Concertos (1973) and his collaboration album with violinist Itzhak Perlman for Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas for Violin and Piano (1978).
His repertoire (performance level pieces of an artist) as a pianist is expansive and varied- truly from Back to Bartók!
Ashkenazy has recorded for the music label Decca exclusively since 1963.
Along with an enormous discography of recordings from DVDs to CDs, Ashkenazy enjoyed touring for many years around the world – including tours throughout Europe and South America as recently as 2014.
For his public piano performances, Vladimir was known for wearing a simple white turtleneck in favor of a tie and button down shirt.
He also had a habit of running on and offstage, not walking.
In January of 2020 his management agency announced Ashkenazy’s retirement from public performances.
As a conductor, Vladimir has been especially active in the past 20 years of his life.
He was the chief conductor for the Czech Philharmonic (1998-2003), Music Director of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo (2004-2007) and from 2009-2013 he has served as the Principal Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Let’s take a listen to the man himself:
First- here are a couple of interesting short interview clips from the man himself.
* (When asked about his favorite song): https://youtu.be/23SfrCsNYAc
* Short interview regarding his musical career : https://youtu.be/QA241QiotmU
Short Performance Videos featuring Vladimir Ashkenazy:
- A live performance recording from 1969 of a Liszt piece “Feux Follets”.: https://youtu.be/5SA7SNJCA2w
- A live video recording of Chopin Prelude No. 24: https://youtu.be/-FoABv3IhDg
Longer Performances of Vladimir Ashkenazy:
- Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 8 Opus 13 “Pathetique”: https://youtu.be/_deujLjHAk0
- Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1968 recording).: https://youtu.be/uozGJOrT2jc
- Vladimir and violinist Itzhak Perlman’s recording of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 Op. 24: https://youtu.be/tERwEDWh-ko
Hope you enjoyed learning more about the life of this prominent Classical pianist!
As always, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the phenomenal Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Saturday, July 31st Facebook Live streamed gig.
Week 72 (Week of August 16, 2021):
A very warm greeting to all SRC participants and friends!
This week, let’s have another mini virtual concert experience as we listen to a larger classical piano work together.
Since we just wrapped up a Listening project over the past couple months featuring composer Robert Schumann, and in Week 63 & Week 67 on our website content studied the life and selected works of both Robert and his wife Clara Schumann, today let’s listen together to the only finished Piano Concerto by Robert Schumann.
In the Classical Music world, a concerto can be defined as an instrumental composition, typically in 3 movements, written for one or more soloists and accompanied by an orchestra.
In the case of a Piano Concerto, the piano is highlighted as the solo instrument; the star of the piece!
While also known as Schumann’s only Piano Concerto, this work in particular is known for its gentle, expressive melody heard first by the woodwinds and horns and then brought to life by the piano.
It is also known as one of the most widely performed and widely recorded piano concertos from the Romantic Era time period within Classical Music.
The Piano Concerto we will listen to is in the key of a minor (no sharps, no flats- similar to C Major) and was completed in the year 1845.
While Robert Schumann had begun movements for 3 other Piano Concertos throughout the years, this remains his only finished Piano Concerto.
The Piano Concerto had its beginnings in 1841 and 1843 first as an unsuccessful “Phantasie in a minor”; unsuccessful in that he could not get the work to sell to publishers.
His wife, Clara, prompted him to expand the piece into a larger piano concerto and after adding the remaining 2 movements, it became a completed Piano Concerto.
The completed first movement of the work premiered in 1841 in Leipzig with Clara Schumann featured as the piano soloist.
The completed, three movement concerto premiered in 1845 in Dresden, again with Clara behind the piano.
The reception was always positive; with critics praising the sensitive and beautiful interplay between piano solo and orchestra.
The three movement Piano Concerto takes approximately 30-35 minutes to perform, depending on the interpretation of the work.
The structure of the work is:
- Allergo affettuoso (fast, in a loving tender manner)- Key: a minor
- Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso (slightly faster than the walking tempo of Andante; gracefully)- Key: F Major
III. Allergro vivace (very fast)- Key: A Major
Beginning with energy and a fierce attack by the strings and timpani (followed by the piano), the first movement’s dreamlike theme is first introduced by the oboe and other wind instruments before the theme is passed along to the piano soloist.
The second movement of this work changes key to F Major (one flat- Bb) and features a short delicate little tune highlighted by the piano and strings.
The third movement comes immediately on the heels of the second movement with no break in between!
Coming at 19:47 on your video, marked as “very fast”, the third movement begins with great energy from both the strings and the piano!
Changing keys yet again to A Major, Schumann shows great composing variety throughout this movement.
The work ends with an extended and lively coda (musical ending), finishing out dramatically with a long drawn out timpani roll and a huge chord from the piano and accompanying orchestra.
A bit about the pianist you will see featured in our video- Khatia Buniatishvili.
Khatia is a Georgian concert pianist, 34 years old currently.
She began studying piano at the age of 3 and gave her first concert with a Chamber Orchestra at the age of 6; making her international debut at 10!
Her older sister, Gvantsa, is also a pianist.
As a highly sought after concert pianist today, Khatia really began her rise to fame around the year 2008 after she was awarded 3rd prize and “Public prize” at a piano competition in Tel-Aviv.
In 2010, Khatia signed a recording deal with Sony Classical and has since then produced 8 albums.
The Guardian newspaper, in a 2012 review article of her Chopin album, described Khatia as one of the most inspiring and musically gifted young artists today.
She is currently on a European tour, performing this week in Germany.
Here is your concert experience- Schumann’s Piano Concerto in a minor (Op. 54) featuring pianist Khatia Buniatishvili.
Performance length is just under a half hour- enjoy!
As always, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the phenomenal Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Saturday, July 24th Facebook Live streamed gig.
Week 71 (Week of Aug. 9, 2021):
Greetings to you all!
I hope that this finds everyone having a good week and staying cool this week for another little August heat wave.
In Week 67 on this webpage, we discussed the life and musical works of female composer Clara Schumann, wife to the famous composer Robert Schumann.
This week, I thought it would be interesting to focus on yet another prominent female composer in Western Music History.
Today, let’s travel back in time over 900+ years ago as we shine the spotlight on Hildegard of Bingen.
Hildegard (often referred to as Hildegard von Bingen) was a German abbess and composer (among her many other accolades and interests)
Born in 1098 (and passing in the year 1179), Hildegard spent most of her years secluded in a hilltop monastery in the Rhineland.
Hildegard, in the Classical Music History world, is thought of as one of the first identifiable composers in the history of Western Music.
Most composers of her time period, referred to as the “High Middle Ages/High Medieval Period” from 1000-1250 approx, were simply known as “anon” (anonymous)
However, before the late 1970s, Hildegard von Bingen barely received any mention in any music history textbooks or scholarly works.
In 1979, the New London Consort put on a performance of four of Hildegard’s songs, which greatly sparked a wide curiosity towards her life and her compositions.
Currently, there are hundreds of recordings of her music, not to mention documentaries and research around her life and life’s work.
Hildegard was born in 1098 as the tenth child of a rich noble family and was sent to live in an isolated hilltop monastery at the age of 8, as it was custom at that time for large families to promise their 10th child to the church.
Around the year 1136, Hildegard was appointed as a prioress (just a step down in rank from an abbess) and began writing music for her nuns to sing.
At the time of the beginning of her journey into musical composition, Hildegard had only received a basic instruction in singing as it related to the duties of a choir nun.
Hildegard began composing her own chants and hymns, although much of her own writing process still remains a mystery.
Her compositions stand out from other liturgical music of the time because of how free and improvisational they sound- wide in range and elaborate.
Hildegard’s music style is known for soaring melodies and is full of decorative vocal runs and melismas (vocal ornamentation and embellishment).
Her lyrics, religious poetry, are lusic and full of vivid imagery.
There are more surviving recorded chants in number by Hildegard von Bingen than by any other composer of the entire Middle Ages time period.
She was also one of the few composers of the time to have written both the music and the words to her pieces.
One of her best known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of Virtues), is a morality play consisting of 82 total songs.
This work is also the earliest known musical drama that is not attached to church liturgy.
Many of Hildegard’s liturgical songs were gathered and collected together to form a song cycle – “Symphonia Ormoniae Celestium revelationum”,
translated as “Celestial Harmonies, Responses and Antiphons.”
All in all, in her lifetime, Hildegard wrote 9 books, 70 poems, 72 songs and a morality play.
She was also an avid botanist and studied the natural sciences and herbs of the time.
In fact, Hildegard wrote 2 treatises on medicine and natural history.
While much more could be said about the life of Hildegard von Bingen, especially of her accomplishments and interests, let’s take a listen together to some of her compositions.
Before we dip into listening to her works however, let’s check out this brief video biography that sums up her life quite well.
* Short biographical sketch on Hildegard von Bingen: https://youtu.be/aSCb0c5ERkk
- For our first listening, let’s listen to a small section of her morality play, “Ordo Virtutum”- the Prelude (1st part) and Part II only which also features the score of the work:
- A live performance of five of Hildegard’s hymns: https://youtu.be/0YTOiJ-zjP0
- Kyrie- by Hildegard von Bingen: https://youtu.be/I4HsiFR3INA
- For a longer work, here is a recording of her song cycle “Symphonia Ormoniae Celestium revelationum” in its entirety (a little over an hour): https://youtu.be/ahqq3dH1Q14
As always, here is your weekly virtual piano concert from the ever-inspiring Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Saturday, July 17th Facebook Live streamed gig.
Week 70 (Week of August 2, 2021):
Hello all! I hope this finds everyone doing well and enjoying the summer days!
This week, as we focused on in Week 62 and Week 68, we will be shining the spotlight on yet another ‘cultural instrument.’
This week, in light of the Olympics this year taking place in Tokyo, Japan, let’s take a look at the Japanese Koto!
The koto, also called ‘kin’, is the national instrument of Japan and is a traditional zither stringed instrument.
Most koto instruments have 13 strings, although there are 17 and 23 stringed bass kotos that function as the bass in koto ensembles.
Koto use ‘movable bridges’ for tuning the instrument and are generally plucked with the thumb, index finger and middle fingers using fingerpicks.
In general, kotos are about 6 feet long and 14 inches wide and are typically made from from paulownia wood cut out lengthwise from the tree.
The top piece of the instrument is hollowed out and is then placed over a flat bottom piece, the bottom piece having two sound holes cut on each end.
The general shape of the instrument is supposed to resemble a dragon with the names of each part of the koto corresponding to parts of a dragon.
For example, the top part is called the “dragon’s shell”, while the bottom part of the instrument, the “dragon’s stomach.”
The movable bridges on the instrument, placed under each string of the koto and moved according to various tunings, traditionally were made of ivory, but today they are generally made of plastic or occasionally wood.
The strings on the instrument, traditionally made from silk, are now replaced with nylon or teflon strings.
The koto is played traditionally with the musician kneeling near the right end of the instrument, with the instrument held off the floor by two legs or placed on a box.
Although today in most modern concerts and settings, the koto is placed on a stand so that the performer can sit in a chair.
The player plucks the strings with the first three fingers of the right hand, while using the left hand to press the strings to the left of the movable bridges to occasionally alter the pitch or sound of the notes.
In order to tune a koto, the player selects a low bass note which the song is based around and sets the bridge under the first string accordingly.
For each koto song, there could be separate instructions on tuning.
The koto was introduced to Japan from China, largely created to resemble the Chinese ‘guzheng’ instrument, which is said to have taken place between 710-785.
The koto as an instrument was for used primarily for Japanese imperial court music and was a popular instrument among the wealthy.
During the 17th Century a blind musician from Kyoto, Yatsuhashi Kengyo, was responsible for highly influencing the development of the instrument with new tunings and a brand new style of koto music.
Yatsuhashi is now known as “the father of modern koto.”
Another influencer in the evolution of the koto as an instrument is Kieko Nosaka, who won the Grand Prize in Music from the Japanese Ministry of Culture in 2002.
She is responsible for creating new versions of the instrument with 20 or more strings, giving koto ensembles more ‘bass instruments’.
Some contemporary Japanese composers have incorporated the koto into orchestral pieces, often using the 17 string bass koto that was invented by Miyagi Michio (1894-1956).
Miyagi was the first ever Japanese composer to combine Western music with the more traditional koto music and wrote over 300 works for the koto, including new playing techniques.
In more modern pop culture settings, the koto has been used by a handful of recognizable pop stars.
David Bowie used a koto in his instrumental piece “Moss Garden.”
The Rolling Stones musician, Brian Jones, also played the koto in the song “Take it or Leave it.”
Rock band Queen used a (toy) koto in the song “The Prophet’s Song” and the keyboardist from the band Genesis sampled a koto on the band’s song “Mama.”
First, let’s watch a couple educational videos together that explain and demonstrate the koto instrument.
- A FANTASTIC educational video (20 min approx) on the koto: https://youtu.be/3K6KpkFXKdM
- A short, brief additional video on the koto: https://youtu.be/U2A9UJBwABQ
And now let’s take a listen to a couple koto performances together:
- “The Last Rose of Summer” – https://youtu.be/P6YV76CnsKM
- “Sakura” (Cherry Blossoms) – a traditional Japanese folk song played on a 25 string koto: https://youtu.be/JDTp_YQizqE
- A piece performed by a koto emsemble: https://youtu.be/HmY1WieykpE
- David Bowie’s “Moss Garden”- which features the koto: https://youtu.be/HaZ0hwd_cCQ
That’s all for today! I hope you enjoyed learning about the national instrument of Japan, the koto.
As always, here is your virtual piano concert from the one and only Henry ‘Hank’ Shapiro.
This week’s video is from his Saturday, July 10th- Facebook live streamed online gig.
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