If at first you don’t succeed …

July 31, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Gazillions of hours of human effort are spent trying to keep us motivated as we slog through life. We like the idea that if we work hard enough, eventually we’ll achieve our goals. We are told that “90%*** of life is just showing up,” that we should not give up, learn from our failures, and press on,

Sergei Rachmaninoff had a successful career as a pianist, conductor, and composer. Because his writing was relatively conservative during a time of great experimentation and fragmentation of styles, he was getting a lot of play time with major orchestras while other composers were causing scandals. His Fourth Piano Concerto was one of his later compositions – and as he was a highly-regarded composer, everyone expected another smash-hit (like his previous three piano concertos, his tone poems, and his symphonies.)

Well … the Fourth Piano Concerto was no hit. In fact, just about everybody hated it. Rachmaninoff was deeply hurt, but didn’t give up. He immediately cut nearly 10% of the work, hoping a shorter piece would be a little easier to swallow.

Nope. Another 10% was cut. The work was revised over and over again, until at last, 15 years after it was premiered, Rachmaninoff gave up, despite being unsatisfied with the final version. 90% of life might be just showing up – but that means there’s another 10% lurking around – and what should we do with that?

*** according to some experts, only 80% of life is just showing up.

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What shall we do with a Drunken Sailor?

May 24, 2017 at 10:13 am

Who says nothing good ever came out of the Soviet Union?

Once you’re through beheading the ex-ruling class and you’ve stripped the bourgeoisie of their property, what’s the next natural step for your revolution? Propaganda. Music, ballets, movies, and of course, amazing artwork:


The early Soviet artistic propaganda is either so bad it’s good, or so good it’s bad. Take this film about the great Russian medieval hero, Alexander Nevsky, who led the Russians in victory over the invading Westerners. At best, the cinematography ranks up there with Plan 9 from Outer Space; but I can’t help totally loving it, thanks to Sergei Prokofiev‘s awesome musical score. In fact, I find myself actually getting excited during this horribly stupid battle scene.

And then there’s The Red Poppy, a ballet with music by Reinhold Glière: the plot is a Soviet ship captain who tries to free Chinese laborers from their oppressive masters, thus earning the love of a fair maiden. If that doesn’t sound absolutely riveting, take heart, because the ballet includes a drunken sailors’ dance (of course).

So the question I leave you with today is, if Trump actually supported the arts, and created propaganda, what would it look like?

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Stravinsky goes to the Circus

January 13, 2017 at 3:48 pm

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons:

Igor Stravinsky is one of the most famous and influential composers of the 20th century. And yet, while nearly every concertgoer will have heard his Rite of Spring, Firebird, or Petrushka, relatively few know his later works. These three big works were written by the time he was 30, and remain his most performed pieces. But the man lived another 60 years, and kept composing the whole time. He managed to write a few more masterpieces, but none of them ever compared to his early triumphs.

So, what do you do when you give up? Er, rather, what do you do once you’ve passed your moment of glory, your 15 minutes of fame?

Easy. You run off and join the circus. Or better yet, compose some music for a circus.

Yes, folks, 30 years after the great Igor Stravinsky composed some of the finest ballets ever written, he wrote another ballet – this time, to be performed by elephants. Fifty elephants, to be exact (and no, this isn’t a sick joke about overweight dancers – I’m talking about the big gray pachyderms here.) I guess after the movie Fantasia featured a troupe of (cartoon) hippopotamus ballerinas, Ringling Brothers thought they’d take the whole idea one step further and do it in real life. And Stravinsky, who was essentially forced to include his music in Fantasia, was ripe for the task, I suppose.

an attentive ear will hear Schubert’s Marche Militaire quoted in this piece …

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