MY Top Ten Composers

February 24, 2011 at 10:25 AM | Posted in Music | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,

I recently blogged on Anthony Tommasini’s series of articles in the NY Times in which he named and defended his Top Ten Composers. I responded to one of his articles with my Top Ten but with a spin. My list was not who I thought was the best but the ones I listened to the most. We had six names in common: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and Verdi. To these he added Debussy, Wagner, Stravinsky and Bartok. These are great composers but I do not plan to forsake mine for his. Here we go:

  • Chopin: Artur Rubinstein must have turned in his grave when he heard that Tommasini left off Chopin. What of the Ballads, the Nocturnes, the Mazurka’s, the Preludes, the Etudes, the Sonata’s? Nothing else need be said.
  • Liszt: He is undervalued and is often put down as showy. But what a show. I offer Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, Jeux d’Eau á la Villa d’Este, St.  Francis Preaching to the Birds,  the Pèlerinages to Italy and Switzerland. I would not trade all the works of Bartok for just these alone.
  • Mahler: If I could I’d bring Leonard Bernstein to defend my choice of Mahler, I would. I think that Mahler has become too familiar to us and so we devalue him. But what worlds did he create for us! Is the finale to his Symphony #2, the Resurrection, anything less than awe-inspiring, his Songs on the Death of Children less than chilling, the ticking of his cracked heart in the Symphony #9 less than foreboding?
  • Elgar: the above three appeared on many lists but Elgar few. I will not give in for to me, he is mandatory. I love my recordings of his Violin Concerto with Yuhudi Menuhin and the Cello Concerto with Beatrice Harrison, both conducted by the great man himself. Then there is is First and Second Symphony, his Enigma Variations and the great Falstaff.

My Top Ten are the work of a lifetime. However, I am willing to go to Thirteen and will open my mind to Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok. I respect Tommasini. However, I’ve given Wagner a try in the past and I wonder if Mark Twain was right when he remarked that ‘Wagner was better than he sounded.’

Connections in “The Elegance of The Hedgehog”

October 26, 2010 at 5:26 AM | Posted in Books, Movies | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

I was not surprised to learn, after I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog that the author, Muriel Barbery, was a Philosophy Professor and was living in Japan. Her book, tender and funny, is one of connections and  if we can get just a few of them, the book affords even more pleasure.

The first word in the novel is “Marx” and before long his lesser known The German Ideology comes up in conversation. Two pages later, the movie of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice appears just before a mention of Mahler. We are off to the connection races.

There are three connections that deepen throughout the novel:

  1. The Scything scene from Anna Karenina
  2. William of Ockham
  3. Films of Yasujiro Ozu

In the scything scene Levin, a nobleman shares the work of the reapers and begins to understand work and men who have mastery and those, like him, that don’t.

William of Ockham was a 14th Century monk and philosopher, most famous for Occam’s Razor: “the principle recommends selection of the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question.” The simplest explanation is often the best one. This sounds dull as a theme for a novel but when cast as a way to find meaning in life, to decide that you want to live, it’s profound.

The dapper Ozu (from Wikipedia)

Ozu is certainly one of the great director’s of all time and his movies must be seen — I begin with that! Barbery plays a double game with Ozu. His films are mentioned continually and then Renee, one of two major characters, a concierge in an upscale Parisian apartment building, Renee the hedgehog, becomes friends with another Ozu, a Japanese man who has just moved into her building and a distant relation of the director. They watch Ozu movies together and they find, I think, love just before she dies by being hit, not by a train like the suicide Anna Karenina but by a Dry Cleaner’s van, while attempting a good deed.

Paloma, the other major character, a delightful and precocious 12-year-old becomes friends with this modern Ozu and with Renee and decides to live, after planning not to (though we don’t take her threats too seriously.)  Here is her penultimate Profound Thought No. 15

If you want to heal/Heal others/And smile or weep/At this happy reversal of fate

Occam’s razor indeed!

Two Moments

May 23, 2010 at 6:05 AM | Posted in Leadership, Music | Leave a comment
Tags: , , ,

First Trumpet


I have not the powers to describe the Chicago Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony last night. There are two moments though that I must highlight. The work begins with an opening fanfare by the first trumpet, in this case played by the great Chris Martin. Instead of the conductor signalling him to start the work, as is usual, the conductor and the well over a 100 players on stage waited, tension mounting, for the trumpet player to start when he was ready. The beginning of the work is a funeral march and it was as if the orchestra was waiting for the mourners to come round the block, into sight, before they would begin.   

The Maestro


The second moment came at the end when the conductor, the Russian Semyon Bychkov, after leading his players to a frenzied yet perfectly in-synch finish, the audience now on their feet in an explosion of bravoes, after finally turning to face us, we now seeing that  he had sweat through his clothes, stepped off the podium as if shell-shocked, his feet unsteady, shaken by what he and his players had just done.

Thinking about Mahler’s 5th Symphony

May 22, 2010 at 6:29 AM | Posted in Music | 2 Comments
Tags: , ,

A jewel in my collection


I first heard Mahler’s 5th Symphony in a “cut-out” recording with Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, recorded in 1976 at UCLA. A cut-out is a discounted record (in this case two records in a box) that has a notch cut into it to note its fall from full-price grace. The music overwhelmed me to the point where, one night, I couldn’t sleep.    

I was on a Mahler spree then and an appreciation grew in me for his music that has never died and will never die. The Fifth was written while Mahler was wooing his    

Alma in 1899


future wife, Alma, a beauty twenty years younger than him. She would eventually cuckold him but that was in the future. The music is ferocious and touching: at one point we hear screeching ravens of fate and then later we hear the adagietto which slowly, slowly spins out music so redolent of regret and loss that Leonard Bernstein played it at Robert Kennedy’s Funeral and it was played at Bernstein’s funeral as well. Yet, it is a love song.    

Click for a video of Leonard Bernstein playing this adagietto. Let me know what you think.

Create a free website or blog at
Entries and comments feeds.