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classical music

Sep 10 2012

On Nina Simone

by Jnai W

Of late, I’ve become a bit of an enthusiast for jazz, particularly for jazz vocalists. Not an aficionado yet but someone who appreciates the beauty, the verve and the mastery required of the jazz greats. Lately I’ve been reading fascinating biographies of some of my favorite performers.

One of these singers is jazz great Nina Simone though, in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You, she denounces the designation of “jazz singer”, feeling that such a label didn’t fully describe her music. The late Simone, nee Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was possessed of prodigious piano talent from a very young age and classically trained ever after, aspiring to a career as a concert pianist. Not to disparage the genre of jazz, she viewed herself as a classical musician who, if anything else had more in common with the folk and blues musicians coming up alongside her during the 50s and 60s. In listening to her song choices, as diverse as show tunes like “I Loves You Porgy”, blues such as “Trouble In Mind” and art songs like “Pirate Jenny”, one can see that her repertoire boasts many different musical influences besides jazz.

But still a great case is made for her classification as a jazz musician in the way she describes how she arrived at her distinctive musical style. In I Put A Spell On You she describes the song-craft of her earliest musical performances.

“I knew hundreds of popular songs and dozens of classical pieces, so what I did was combine them: I arrived [at a gig] prepared with classical pieces, hymns and gospel songs and improvised on those, occasionally slipping in a part from a popular tune.”

While Nina Simone bristled a bit at being clumped casually by music critics into the same box as other great though quite different performers as Billie Holliday or Sarah Vaughan, there is no doubt in my mind that her musical style was (is) the epitome of incredible jazz.

I Put A Spell On You offers incredible insight into the life and talents of Nina Simone. Written with Stephen Cleary, Simone describes in plain-spoken detail her advent from concert-hall bound, Julliard-trained prodigy to international music sensation and all the trials and triumphs along the way. I found quite interesting the fact that she fell into pop music stardom almost by accident. She played dive bars and supper clubs by night while teaching piano by day all in an effort to earn money for continued study at Julliard (she even aspired to return to Julliard well into a successful pop career).

She was an incredibly gifted though complex woman, it would seem. Simone was confident in her craft but racked with severe stage fright. She was a woman with a disdain for pop music (and for the pop-listening public at times) but who, through pop music success, found a platform for joining the Civil Rights Movement and addressing social inequality. She loved her family, financially supporting her mother throughout her career, but a devastating falling-out with her beloved father hardened her against visiting him on her death.  Her music was her battle-cry, her comfort and her gift to the world.

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Jan 21 2011

Samuel Barber at 100

by Ken M

If you just read that title and thought, “Who?!,” I’m happy to tell you. Samuel Barber was an American composer, born on March 9, 1910.  I happened to hear about his special 2010 milestone on the radio, tuning in on the very day itself that he would have been 100. He died in 1981, and unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to see a resurgence of interest in music written in his neo-Romantic style.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Platoon and watched the credits, you’ve heard Barber’s most famous piece. Adagio for Strings was premiered by none other than Arturo Toscanini, and it was played at many prominent funerals, including those of FDR, Albert Einstein, and Princess Grace of Monaco.

[read the rest of this post…]


Jun 4 2010

Welcome to ShareReads!

by ShareReads

This is a new weekly book discussion post on DCPLive, in which we’ll talk about the thing library staff and patrons love most—books! It is also one part of our Adult Summer Reading program for 2010, which started this week. You get credit in the program if you participate in ShareReads. For more information, click here.

ShareReads will appear on the DCPLive blog on Fridays. Each week, a different person will share a little about what they’re currently reading, and why they like or don’t like it.  This person might also ask you a question or two about what you are reading, and then…

We now come to the most important part of ShareReads, which is you! The heart of ShareReads will be responses from blog readers, and the window of opportunity here is wide. Feel free to respond and discuss the book or author being mentioned, ask or answer a question, or even take the conversation in a different direction: mention what you are currently reading, and how you feel about it.  The point of ShareReads is to have an ongoing discussion about books and reading. Sound easy? Well, here we go:

This week, I’ve been dipping into a collection of essays by a music critic named Harold C. Schonberg. Anyone remember him? He died a few years ago in 2003, and was best known for his work at the New York Times as chief music critic from 1960 to 1980. He continued to publish books and reviews after his retirement, including Facing the Music, which I’m now reading. This book collects reviews and articles from the 1960’s until 1980 (the book appeared in 1981).

The T.V. character J.R. Ewing used to be known as “the man you love to hate.” If a music critic filled that role for me in my teens and twenties, it was Mr. Schonberg. He earned my extreme disdain for his hypercritical stance against my musical idol, Leonard Bernstein. I also felt he was unprofessional for sometimes attributing his opinions anonymously to others to bolster his case. At times I found his writing pretentious, and he could be misleading. He sometimes made the most irresponsible claims about composers or musicians, some of whom were long dead, and couldn’t respond.

So why would I be revisiting him now? Good question! Well, it’s been a while since I’ve read his work. I’m older now, less fanatical in my devotion to LB, and less easily wound up by Schonberg’s sometimes provocative or highhanded prose. Revisiting the writing, there’s less of that than I remembered.  I’m also interested in some of his opinions about composers who are less appreciated, and many of these I now enjoy myself. I’m curious about his thoughts on older artists who have now faded from the public consciousness. I care less about the faults I used to find in his work (now I just laugh), and while I still may not always agree with him, there’s more room in my world now for opinions which contradict my own :-). Schonberg’s topics covered the gamut of the classical music world, and I wish I could provide you with an online sample. If you like saucy music writing, I recommend his work to you. Facing the Music is a pretty good place to start, as is The Lives of the Great Composers.

Has there ever been an author whose work pushed your buttons, for better or worse? Who and why? Come on, ‘fess up!

P.S. Your posts don’t have to be anywhere close to the length of this one. I’m just so excited about summer reading, and I got a bit carried away!


I love classical music. In fact, words fail me to say just how much, and that’s perfectly ok. As someone said (I think it was the composer and author Ned Rorem), if what music expresses could be said in words, then we wouldn’t need music.

Sdinnerstein Recently, I’ve been listening to a wonderful new recording of the Goldberg Variations, one of my favorite pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. This isn’t Bach’s title for the piece (his is more formal), but it’s come to be known by this name due to a story told by Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolas Forkel. According to this story, a Count asked Bach for keyboard music which would soothe him when he couldn’t sleep. Bach complied with a large set of variations on a tune he had written years earlier. The Count happened to employ a keyboardist whose last name was Goldberg (coincidentally his first name was also Johann – bringing our total to three in this short post), and this is why the piece is known as the “Goldberg” Variations. There’s an interesting article on the web which will tell you much more about this incredible piece, including why the story is probably untrue.

If this intrigues you, try the new recording I’ve been listening to, by Simone Dinnerstein. It’s received praise from such diverse sources as the New Yorker, Fanfare (a classical recording journal), the New York Times, and O Magazine (Oprah). I’m a pianist myself (that was my first career), and I was really struck by the gorgeous sound of the 1903 Hamburg Steinway played by Ms. Dinnerstein in this recording. In fact, this piano has a story all its own (read about it in the Telarc recording press release).

In my view, much of the praise for this lovely sound is due to Dinnerstein. For all the piano’s wonderful qualities, it is just a lovely piece of furniture without a pianist, who makes the music happen (as a wise teacher once reminded me). Dinnerstein does this in a compelling way thoughout the more than 78 minutes she takes on her journey through this music. I heard details in this recording that I had never noticed in the piece before. The music has tremendous variety; it’s elegant, brooding, virtuosic, buoyant, ceremonious, and even heartbreaking. Ms. Dinnerstein is indeed a match for this music.

If you hear this recording and like the piece, try Glenn Gould’s famous interpretation for a real contrast.

Once you’re hooked, then try it on harpsichord (for which it was originally intended), string ensemble, or even jazz ensemble.