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Archive for April, 2009

Krystian Zimerman (Middlebury College)

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman stunned his Los Angeles audience Sunday evening (26 April 2009) when he announced that he would no longer perform in the US.

According to this piece in the UK newspaper The Guardian, this is the second time Zimerman has renounced performing in our nation. In 2006 he vowed not to play another US recital until then-president George W Bush had left office. This time he expressed his opposition to the current administration’s plan to construct a missile defense station in his native land.

Audience members reacted predictably. Some walked out, some booed, some applauded. That’s interesting but academic: Zimerman is welcome to express his opinion in this way — or any other he chooses. That freedom is one of the great strengths of our nation.

What I find unsettling is some of the history behind Zimerman’s earlier performances in the US, as revealed in this article.

In 2001, security officials at JFK Airport confiscated and destroyed Zimerman’s Steinway piano. The officers reportedly thought the piano’s glue "smelled funny" and might be explosive.

In 2006, airport security again held up his instrument. This time they returned it to him, but five days later — too late for him to adjust it to his satisfaction in time for his concert.

I realize that airport security officials have a job to do. I don’t know whether they may have later issued an apology and financial compensation for the destroyed piano (a new customized Steinway grand can easily run into six figures). Regardless, I can hardly comprehend such an action. Did they not know who Zimerman was? Did they not know the value of his instrument, not just in dollars but in musical terms? What on earth were they thinking?

That Zimerman even returned to our country at all after such a heartbreaking experience is almost unimaginable. Would you? And with such a background it’s not at all difficult to imagine that a point of political disagreement could easily become a reason to never set foot in the US again.

Let’s hope the situation changes. Zimerman is a powerful and compelling musical presence, and his absence from these shores will be both our loss and Zimerman’s.

Further reading:

Polish pianist stops show in The Guardian

Krystian Zimerman’s controversial appearance in the LA Times

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Steven Witser (photo: Cleveland Orchestra)

Steven Witser, principal trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, died unexpectedly Monday night (27 April 2009), of an apparent coronary accident.

If Witser’s name and face seem familiar to you, it’s because until joining the Philharmonic in 2007 he was a member of the Cleveland Orchestra. There he served as assistant principal, acting principal, and assistant personnel manager.

Witser also played in the Center City Brass Quintet.

Steven Witser was born in Oakland and studied at the Eastman School of Music. Christoph von Dohnanyi tapped him for the Cleveland Orchestra in 1989.

Cleveland Orchestra media relations manager Jennifer Schlosser says, "Steve was a pillar of strength and support over his years here in Cleveland and helped people in countless ways. After joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007 he continued to touch people with his selfless sacrifice of personal time and energy and genuine good humor that we all loved."

The Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall on 30 May 2009 will be dedicated to Steven’s memory. The orchestra will perform the opening work in his honor.

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This is from a Soviet film with the young Emil Gilels performing quite literally on the front. I may be mistaken, but it appears to me that the army listening is American.

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Hector Berlioz saw a performance by the famous Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, and fell in love with her. Today, the authorities might watch him, because it was more of an obsession — almost to the point to breaking modern stalking laws.

He remembered the exact date. It was a performance of Ophelia, on September 11th, 1827. He began writing love letters to her while she was still in Paris, one after another. She never answered them. That might have had something to do with the fact that his English was worse than her French. They did not meet while she was in his Paris.

Hurt by her non-response (though he blamed unreliable mail delivery), Berlioz did what any broken-hearted musician would do — he composed the largest symphony since Beethoven’s Ninth. When it premiered in Paris on December 5, 1830, it shocked its audience — but not Harriet Smithson, who wasn’t there. As a matter of fact, it would not be for another two years, when he sent a bunch of the best tickets to a mutual friend, that Smithson would hear the piece, and read the notes that all but mention her by name. Only then did she know of this composer who had been trying to get her attention. They met months later, and eventually married.

The marriage was a pretty happy one at first, despite the serious problem of the aforementioned communication gap. But her career was on the wane while his was on the rise, and she had trouble dealing with that. Her long-term drinking problem worsened, until she was totally debilitated, and deeply in debt.

Though Berlioz never stopped worshiping Smithson for the rest of her life, and never stopped caring for her and trying to pay her many debts, he forced himself to move on. He and Smithson had one son, Louis, who joined the merchant navy, and eventually made it to the rank of commander. When Louis died in 1867 of yellow fever while on duty at Havana, it hit Berlioz so hard that he could not recover. In less than two years, Hector Berlioz too was dead. He was 65.

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This is a post horn (sometimes spelled posthorn, sometimes called a coach horn).

File:Posthorn-echt.jpg

Question: The post horn is usually coiled copper or brass, rarely straight. It has no valves or slide, and was originally used to announce mail coaches. The Post Horn Serenade is the nickname of Mozart’s Serenade #9, simply because he used the instrument in it.

As far as I can tell, the post horn has been used in only a couple of other pieces by composers. One example is the Post Horn Polka that for a long time was attributed to (the obvious choice for a polka at that time) J. Strauss, but may have been composed by Louis Antoine Jullien, a French conductor. The only other composition that is that well known today that uses the post horn is … what?

Answer: Mahler’s Third Symphony has an off-stage post horn solo.

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