In this issue: Wolf’s “Auch kleine Dinge” from Italienisches Liederbuch performed by Diana Damrau and Helmut Deutsch;  Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 performed by Lucerne Festival Orchestra; Johnson’s Adagio from Concerto Jazz-A-Mine performed by Aaron Diehl; Copland’s Appalachian Spring choreographed by Martha Graham; Parra: “Gracias a la vida” performed by Violeta Parra

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Now, More Than Ever: Issue 46

We begin today with an expression of gratitude for small things (even olives—see the Wolf song!) and conclude by voicing a full-throated appreciation of life itself. Not a bad way to prepare for Thanksgiving—even if this year’s celebration will be unlike most others in our history and personal experience.

In choosing these videos, I’ve been reminded of how thankful we can be for the work of artists past and present—composers, choreographers, and performers whose creative output reminds us of the entertainment, joy, and consolation the performing arts provide, especially during troubled times. Certainly, 2020 has thrown down more than its share of obstacles in our paths, but as I hope these Now, More Than Ever columns have shown (and as I hope this one in particular will demonstrate), there is still so much to appreciate, including the many little pleasures that remind us of the wonder of being alive.

As we celebrate—in person with our (physically) closest loved ones, or virtually, over platforms like Zoom—I encourage one and all to keep looking to the performing arts for examples of what we, together, can be grateful for.

From all of us at Cal Performances, I wish you a heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving!

Wolf: “Auch kleine Dinge” from Italienisches Liederbuch

Diana Damrau, soprano
Helmut Deutsch, piano

Hugo Wolf’s enchanting Italian Songbook—46 lieder for voice and piano set to the Italian poetry of Paul Heyse and published between 1890 and 1896—is most often performed by alternating a male and a female voice, the former expressing a kind of idealized love, and the latter responding with more practical observations, including some carefully aimed criticism of her romantic partner. “Auch kleine Dinge” is the first song in the set.

This is a stunning performance, both vocally and pianistically, but what an odd contrast there is hearing a song about the beauty of simplicity performed in such a grand setting, by two of the brightest stars in the vocal world, surrounded by adoring fans. I’ve listened to dozens of performances this week—easy to do, given the song’s short duration and the multiple YouTube videos and audio recordings available—and find that it can mean different things in the hands of different artists. But I tend to prefer it with a higher soprano, one with a silvery sound that conveys a kind of childlike innocence. In the end, it’s really a very simple piece, composed of broken chords, with an effortless, almost spoken vocal line that stands in contrast to much of Wolf’s other writing (often so driven and informed by a complex, saturated harmonic language). And it’s a love song that doesn’t say anything about love!

Reacquainting myself with this charming work, I once again appreciated how disarmingly the poet concludes by directly addressing the reader/listener. “As you know!”

Even small things can delight us,
Even small things can be precious.
Think how gladly we deck ourselves with pearls;
They fetch a great price but are only small.
Think how small the olive is,
And yet it is prized for its goodness.
Think only of the rose, how small it is,
And yet smells so lovely, as you know.
translation © Richard Stokes

Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Claudio Abbado, conductor

Here’s another of those fascinating juxtapositions: in the middle of Mahler’s huge and turbulent Fifth Symphony—which begins with a somber funeral march and ends with an almost hysterically joyful rondo—we encounter an oasis of bliss. And even with all those instruments on stage and at his disposal, Mahler chooses the moment to scale back and rely on just strings and harp, proving how much can be done with so little.

Many associate the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony with Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Italian-French film Death in Venice, starring Dirk Bogarde and Björn Andrésen, in which Mahler’s music ran the danger of sounding more than a touch ponderous and heavy-handed. And it’s worth pointing out that, over the century-plus since its composition, this particular movement has been the subject of considerable debate. The question arises; is this an elegy or a love song?

A quick survey of tempos taken by various conductors reinforces the debate, with some (especially early examples like Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, and Mahler himself) completing the movement in under seven-and-a half minutes, and others (including Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink) clocking in at closer to a quarter of an hour. Many worried that there was a growing danger of creating a false tradition, particularly following Bernstein’s death in 1990, when plenty of conductors and orchestras scheduled dirge-like performances held in honor of the great composer/conductor. (Mahler’s own terminology, “adagietto,” suggests a tempo slightly faster than adagio, which would seem to argue in favor of faster performances. But the composer doesn’t help matters by adding “sehr langsam” [“very slow”] to his directions. Go figure!)

The respected Mahler authority Donald Mitchell once described this movement as a song without words. “The successful interpretation of the Adagietto,” he wrote, “will be that which sustains the long melody as if it were written for the voice. No singer could possibly sustain the very slow tempos some conductors have adopted.”

So… love song or funeral elegy? Claudio Abbado seems to have sided with the former, as evidenced by ravishingly beautiful recordings and performances (like this one) that generally fall within the nine-minute range. And perhaps, as we approach Thanksgiving, that’s a fine way of considering this glorious piece of music.

In either case—and after all, slow performances can be quite moving—this is music we can all be thankful for.

Johnson: Adagio from Concerto Jazz-A-Mine

Aaron Diehl, piano

Pianist and composer James P. Johnson (1894–1955) was an important figure in the evolution of ragtime and jazz, a pioneer of the stride piano style, and one of the most influential keyboardists from the early days of the recording industry. The favorite accompanist of Bessie Smith, he was also a major influence on composers like Count Basie and students including Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.

We’ve encountered pianist Aaron Diehl twice before in Now, More than Ever (backing the great Cécile McLorin Salvant in Issue 10 and playing a lovely Duke Ellington song in Issue 18), and here he’s nothing short of brilliant in the second movement from a piano-only arrangement of Johnson’s terrific Concerto Jazz-A-Mine (1934). Diehl’s spoken introduction (in awkward French) is undeniably charming, but there’s also something wonderfully direct in his keyboard work, which is imbued with the pure pleasure of playing fine music. From the first note, he communicates utter joy and gratitude for being a performer.

For my money, Diehl is not simply a great jazz pianist; he’s truly one of the finest keyboard players on the planet. Period.

Appalachian Spring (1944; film version 1959)

Martha Graham, choreographer
Aaron Copland, composer

Let’s travel back to 1959 for a fine archival performance of Martha Graham’s iconic Appalachian Spring. (The entire work is available on YouTube, and I hope you’ll watch it; but here we’ll just concentrate of the final six minutes or so.)

It’s such a treat to see Graham herself (here age 65, if you can believe it!) in total control as “The Wife”; to experience the full majesty of Aaron Copland’s music score (one he originally called “Ballet for Martha”) in its original setting; to marvel again at the evocative use of the classic Shaker song of gratitude, “Simple Gifts.” The work itself is so quintessentially (if also sentimentally) American, so in touch with—to borrow Lincoln’s timeless phrase—our nation’s “mystic chords of memory,” it seems particularly well suited to a celebration of this, our most American of holidays. (In this way Appalachian Spring strikes me as a fitting companion piece to a film like Shane, in which every scene and image resonates with something deep in the DNA of the archetypal “American story.”)

And that flute solo beginning at 4:59. It gets me each and every time!

Parra: “Gracias a la vida”

Violeta Parra, vocals

Violeta del Carmen Parra Sandoval, the revered “Mother of Latin American Folk Music,” was a leading figure in the Nueva Canción Chilena (Chilean New Song) movement, a respected composer, singer-songwriter, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, and visual artist whose work helped lead a revival and reinvention of Chilean folk music both within her own country and internationally.

Parra composed “Gracias a la vida” in 1966, but it truly began to reach a mass audience in 1971, when the great Mercedes Sosa popularized it throughout Latin America. Today, it remains one of the most covered Latin American songs in history, with particularly fine versions recorded in Brazil by Elis Regina and in the United States by Joan Baez. (For a special treat, don’t miss this memorable performance by Sosa and Baez in Germany in 1988.)

Let me sign off today with the lyrics of this beautiful ballad, which celebrate and honor the simple things, from the starry sky to the alphabet. Though some see this song is a kind of suicide note (Parra ended her own life the year after “Gracias a la vida” was written), these sentiments—at once wise and consoling—seem to me perfect for Thanksgiving, especially during such a difficult year.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me two bright beams of light that when opened,
Can perfectly distinguish black from white
And in the sky above, her starry backdrop,
And from within the multitude, the one I love.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me sounds and the alphabet.
With them the words that I think and declare:
“Mother,” “Friend,” “Brother – and the light shining.
The route of the soul from which comes love.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me the ability to walk with my tired feet.
With them I have traversed cities and puddles,
Valleys and deserts, mountains and plains.
And your house, your street, and your patio.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me a heart that causes my frame to shudder
When I see the fruit of the human brain,
When I see good so far from bad,
When I look deep into your clear eyes.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me laughter and it gave me longing.
With them I distinguish happiness and pain,
The two materials from which my songs are formed,
And your song, as well, which is the same song.
And everyone’s song, which is my very song.

Thanks to life!

Please note: “Gracias a la vida” will be performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott in our upcoming Cal Performances at Home concert, which premieres at 7pm on Friday, November 20. (The concert will remain available for online viewing through December 12.)

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