Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Operaplot 2010

So, as mentioned in yesterday's post, I've been drawn back into the world of Operaplot, a Twitter-based contest that debuted last April. It's back again for this week, and once again hundreds of opera summaries are pouring in, 140 characters or less at a time. (Actually, the plots need to be 130 characters or less since they must include the tag #operaplot to be entered into the contest.) There's an interesting pool of prizes for the winners, to be selected by tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann at the end of the week, but the real fun is in seeing all the creative solutions (more than 500 in 3 days) to the challenge.

At first I thought I'd just re-enter my favorite creations from last year (non-winning entries are allowed back in), but then I started tweaking a few and suddenly I was hatching new ones. I find I still can't resist the lure of rhyme, and this year I've also starting using existing song lyrics as templates for some. There's definitely a tendency towards the "just being clever for the sake of being clever," but I guess I am who I am. If you go wandering through the Twitter stream, you'll find all manner of approaches, and you'll certainly be reminded that operas aren't always about pretty things. But that's hardly news.

So, below you'll find my 2010 collection. Go here to see the 2009 batch, which is probably a bit stronger on the whole. [Apologies for details that may make no sense - there are plenty of obscure references to plot/musical features that may just look weird if you don't get the reference. It's all part of the geeky fun.]

...and see Update(s) below...

You can click through on each one to find the operas being referenced. I'm probably proudest of this tidy little couplet: "The first chord puts tonality on notice. The ending lets Isolde Liebestod us." Maybe because it's short (which the opera definitely isn't) and yet manages to capture the two iconic bookends of this groundbreaking work. Maybe it's just satisfying to cut Wagner down to size. In fact, my favorite of all the 2010 submissions may be this one: "Nürnberg's Got Talent."

Most of my plots above are fairly self-explanatory. The "In2 the Woods" one makes a lot more sense if you happen to know this. The "kiss is still a kiss" one is probably too cute for its own good, but it does pick up on the way in which some romantic "kiss music" is twice reprised at the end of that opera. Oh, and maybe it's obvious as is, but the "in a world where..." plot really needs to be read with this guy's voice in mind.

UPDATE (4/29): One more concocted on the drive into work this morning...

Well, lookey here. A couple more...

...and one more, actually a more elegant revision of one from above:

I'm done; there are now more than 800 entries, with the deadline being tonight (Fri, 4/30) at midnight.

[UPDATE: All the plots above explained in excruciating detail here]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

More Piano Hero / More Operaplot

Still a few weeks of school left in a busy Spring, but there's always time for Piano Hero and Operaplot. Both are nice diversions from the occasional tendency to take music and art too seriously. It's been a short Piano Hero season this year, due to some busy classroom commitments, but I'm especially excited about one of the works we're playing tomorrow. To be precise, I'll merely be playing Mozart's famously "Easy" Sonata in C Major, K. 545, but fellow hero Nathan Skinner will be playing one of Grieg's clever 2nd piano accompaniments alongside. What better way for one composer to pay tribute to another than to engage the former's work in such creative fashion?

Probably the best, or at least most well-known, example of such a tribute is Gounod's inspired reimagining of a Bach prelude as accompaniment for his Ave Maria. Grieg's Romanticized Mozart sonatas are much less widely known, but they are really delightful and deserve to be heard. I suppose they're a bit like Schumann's rarely heard piano accompaniments to the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin, but the Schumann piano parts are remarkably deferential. I think he was really just trying to make these then little-known works (now cornerstones of the violin repertoire) more accessible, whereas Grieg is merrily free-associating along with Mozart. One of my favorite things about Grieg's 2nd piano is how it sometimes lays low, just filling out the texture, but then unexpected ideas and countermelodies will pop out. Finally, in the 3rd movement, which is easily the most raucously transformed, the 2nd piano even takes its own little cadenza. Good times. Here's the first movement: (2nd is here/3rd is here)

We'll also be playing Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture, which will open the school orchestra's Saturday night concert, and the final movement of Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony. A little more information (including another gaudy poster) may be found here.

As for operaplot, the addictive online competition that turned me into a Twitterer last Spring - it's back again this year and runs until Friday. I told myself I should just stay away this year,'m back off the wagon. I think I've already posted seven new entries, along with 7-8 old ones from last year. Good thing the limit's 25. More on this in a post yet to come. Stay tuned...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Violin Hero

This fantastic video has been making the rounds for awhile:
Not only does it show a very talented kid, but it's a reminder that Stravinsky's fearsome music has a direct sort of visceral appeal that doesn't have to be an acquired taste. Certainly some people still hear this music as bewildering and difficult to process (I once did!), but that probably has more to do with the kinds of barriers we bring to it.
Anyway, seeing it again today, I was reminded that I've been sitting on a fun video of my now 10-year old daughter trying, as a completely untrained 2-year old violinist, to play along with Anne-Sophie Mutter on the Beethoven "Spring Sonata." She had watched the Mutter video many, many times, which you can tell in such important details as the hair flip at 0:06 and the downward glance at 0:08. Daughter of MMmusing didn't really know how to use a bow then, but as the video goes along, you can tell that she knows the music quite well. She has an especially good handle on the second theme that begins around the 1:20 mark.
In some ways, the most remarkable thing is that she "played" through the entire 10-minute movement, although this video only goes up through the exposition and its repeat. She did get distracted by my camera at times, but the music always pulls her back. I've even come to enjoy the odd little aural haze that her fiddle-scratching adds to the Beethoven. The violin she's playing is just an old 16th size family instrument we happened to have around. I'm happy to report that she now actually knows what to do with a violin and could probably do a pretty credible job playing this sonata, but I might end up missing the scratchy haze. Of course, if I want that, I could always just play it with a violist...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Looking Bach on the Latest Piano Hero

We had our second Piano Hero of 2010 today - I forgot to post here about it ahead of time, but you can still see the high-quality poster:

...because, you know, there's not enough punning of Bach's name. Anyway, although this was a rather hastily assembled program, I'm rather proud of how well it worked. Previous Piano Heroes have focused on symphonic music from the 19th and 20th centuries, but there are some nice advantages to having four hands on deck for the contrapuntal complexities of Bach.

Actually, I was disappointed not to find a true two-piano version of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, which was our opener. We used Max Reger's 4-hand version, but laying the music out on one keyboard doesn't really solve the problem of all those intertwining voices. (The original score has 9 separate string parts.) The Reger version was trickier than I'd expected for sightreading purposes, but it made a great opener. (Definitely my favorite Brandenburg - with #6 as a close second.) My favorite part was the "middle movement." As you may know, this consists of nothing more than two simple chords that outline a Phrygian Half Cadence. I rolled out each chord in fairly simple fashion and then let Nathan "do his thing," improvising a couple of wonderfully anachronistic cadenzas, the second of which sounded like something out of Rhapsody in Blue. Good times.

Our next big piece was the strange and austere 6-part Ricercare from The Musical Offering. This is the kind of piece that would be very difficult to pull off on one keyboard, but this elegant arrangement for two pianos works beautifully. It was a wonderful experience to play this otherworldly music for the first time. In order to set it up, we preceded the Ricercare with the little crab canon from The Musical Offering, which of course is based on the same theme. Some of you may have seen my animation of this canon on YouTube.

I'd thought of just projecting that animation on a big screen for the audience, but then I had the better idea of printing out the entire canon (only 18 measures) in a single line in banner form. This turned out to stretch across 18 sheets of paper in landscape format. We taped it to the wall up over the pianos and then had assistants walk the progression of both the "forward" and "backwards" voices as we played - after having first demonstrated what each voice sounds like alone. (Kind of like in this underrated video.) Not only was this a fun exercise, but it helped get the tune in the listener's ears before setting forth with the very serious business of the six voices.

Next, to provide relief from the tension of all that counterpoint, we took a breather with a nice Victor Babin two-piano arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. Then, for a big finish, we played a four-hand version of the big organ Passacaglia in C Minor. Once again, a true two-piano version would have been more fun (we did use two pianos, even though it would have been playable on one), but it was thrilling to let the two pianos rip in dramatic organ-like fashion.

All of which is to say: Bach is the best. I don't know why I hadn't thought to feature him in the Piano Hero context before, since his music almost always translates well across various media. As an example, listen to that Ricercare a 6, first played by a single pianist and then in Webern's quirky, ultramodern orchestration.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why Twitter exists...

I'm beginning to fear that this will one day be known as the Spring That Ate My Blog - so much insanity, so little time, so many posts that haven't seen the light of day. Anyway, I do still Twitter every now and then, and nothing's more fun on Twitter than a good, ridiculous meme. Today, someone started tweeting "composerfilm" titles in the vein of "Bach to the Future" and "Schindler's Liszt." To say that I am defenseless in the face of such a challenge would be a great understatement. Titles started flying out of my TweetDeck faster than I could think to stop them. Some of my own that I particularly like include:

A Room With a Vieuxtemps

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Rorem

Batman and Scriabin

Amazing Grace and Gluck

The Good, the Bad, and the Lully

Bob and Carol and Ted and Tallis

Barefoot in Duparc

Saturday Night Biber

Crocodile D'Indy

But that's not all. There was: Up in Glière, Honegger to Remember, Sibelius Saint Mary's, Dances with Wolf, The Two Joan Towers - even Hot Tub Time Messiaen. Yes, it's been a productive day in the mind of MMmusing.

Some other favorites that I can't claim credit for:

I think a meme like this may have gone around before, but this one definitely caught fire. You can see hundreds of submissions by going here and then searching "#composerfilms".

I've started a meme or two myself, though none of mine has really caught fire - not even #violaopera. But, you can find some classic #violaopera titles, and even crazier items such as #violapalindrome by visiting this archive of my first 2000 Twitter posts. Just go there and search the page for the terms above - just searching viola can be fun as well. (I'm up over 2200 Twitter posts now, but haven't archived them all yet.)

Blog posts will come...

[UPDATE: Other fun memes to search in the archive include #operaplot, which of course is what got me on Twitter in the first place, and its subsidiaries: #operaplotpalindrome, #operasequel, #operacrostic, and #operagram.]