Gottschalk Encore: The Banjo on….The Banjo!

Suddenly you have a whole new understanding / appreciation of Gottschalk’s piece when you hear it “reverse engineered,” as it is here by musician / instrument builder Paul Ely Smith.

Marvel at this! And then go the “Press” section of his website to read his article in the journal Current MusicologyC titled  “Gottschalk’s “The Banjo” and the Banjo in the 19th Century.”

Fascinating stuff.


Pickin’ Banjos: Celebrating “Great Galloping Gottschalk”

Today’s birthday to celebrate is that of American original Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Check out the nice web piece my WGBH colleague Cathy Fuller put together a couple of years ago, pairing up Gottschalk’s iconic (and, I would say, groundbreaking) 1855 composition The Banjo with Gloucester, Mass., painter Fitz Henry Lane’s New York Harbor,  “composed” during the same year, and now hanging at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.   As Cathy puts it,

The year is 1855, and the two artists come from very different circumstances. One of them was forced to stay in one place all his life; the other was famous for globetrotting.

The painter Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865) lost the use of his legs before his second birthday. The paralysis was thought to have come from ingesting poisonous jimsonweed. He would never recover.

The musician Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) became America’s first traveling virtuoso – a pianist/composer who did an unbelievable amount of touring. He gave uncountable concerts in Europe, Central America, South America and Cuba. Sometimes called the “Chopin of the Creoles,” he worked into his music the syncopations of Louisiana and the Caribbean, creating pieces that anticipated jazz and ragtime. His music really had little to do with Chopin’s, but his spectacular control of the instrument was caricaturized by images of a wild pianist with hundreds of flying fingers.


Music and Art: Louis Moreau Gottschalk & Fitz Henry Lane

Actually, there IS a pretty significant connection between Chopin and Gottschalk, as we discovered in one of our Radio Chopin episodes called “Chopin Comes to America.”   Sample grab:

When Gottschalk was 13, his father packed the young piano prodigy off to Paris to study at the world-famous Conservatoire which at first REJECTED his application, his examiner declaring, “America is a country of steam engines.”

But Gottschalk chugged through and by 1845, he was making his Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel. On the program: Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor. In the audience: the composer himself.

Chopin met Gottschalk after the concert, and heaped praise on the young American, predicting a brilliant future for the teenaged pianist. Hector Berlioz was there too, and spoke of Gottschalk’s “exquisite grace, brilliant originality, and thundering energy.”

Episode 14: Chopin Comes to America

As for his signature piece, it’s amazing what a wide range of interpretation it gets, and if YouTube is any indication, how much it represents “America” to foreign audiences as much as any work by Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein. I first discovered Gottschalk through the mid-70s by pianist Ivan Davis, a few of which you can find on YouTube.  Later, in DC, I was blown away by the sound and incredibly solid playing by pianist Lambert Orkis, who recorded a lot of Gottschalk on the composer’s instrument of choice: a 9-foot Chickering, made right here in the Hub of the Universe.


As for recordings of more recent vintage…. I usually admire the unusual repertory – and performances by the eccentric Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris.  But he seems to take the “Serenade Grotesque” subtitle a little too much to heart, dropping and adding notes as he pleases while he buzzes through it like he’s on a bullet train to Bejing.  Irish pianist Philip Martin, on the other hand, gives it an almost ponderous opening at this performance in Mexico City.  And then there is this highly nuanced (and nicely shot) performance by Dutch pianist Regina Albrink.  I’d never heard her playing before but i’ll be listening for more after hearing this!





The Klassical Komeback, Pt III: Surge or Free Fall?

A couple of mainstream media outlets have picked up on the Great Classical (crossover) Comeback of 2006 lately: My old employer NPR had a story on All Things Considered The hook in the Tuesday (Mar 20) New York Times story was the just announced Classical Blowout Store from – a response, in the dot-com’s words, to “the disappearance of prominent brick and mortar music stores and the fact that most music retailers are scaling back their selection of classical music.” with led to the Time’s observation that Amazon’s initiative comes at a time when classical music sales are either advancing nicely or in a free fall, depending on whom you believe and what you consider classical music.

And that’s the problem, innit? Who do you believe? The initial trigger for all of this reporting was the Nielsen SoundScan report of classical sales being up 22.5 per cent – something I wrote about last month. And, hmm….as part of their rationale for the new service Amazon notes that their 2006 sales of classical music were up – get this – 22 per cent! Same accounting methods? Does Amazon consider Josh Groban to be as classical at Louis Moreau Gottschalk? They don’t say.

Similarly, after noting that “independent [classical] labels like Koch and Naxos report that their sales are also up”the above-referenced NPR story ends with the throwaway line, “the total number of classical albums purchased online more than doubled last year.” That’s great…but, again, what’s the definition of “classical?”

And, for that matter, what, exactly, constitutes a downloaded “album,” anyway? More on that in a future post. A more sobering assessment of the health of classical-music comes from the market-research firm NPD group, quoted in the Times article: NPD Group’s consumer survey data, which does not include albums like these in its classical music category, shows that classical sales dropped last year by 28 percent, and have dropped by 54 percent in five years.”

Ouch! Whether the numbers are truly up or down, there does seem to be a renewed energy in retailing classical music. After all, classical music fans, traditionally older and wealthier, “actually buy, rather than steal, their music,” to quote the Times. I noticed, too, doing some focus groups in Philadelphia last year that a lot of men of, ahem, a certain age, LOVE those much-maligned “bricks and mortar” stores – us hunter-gatherer music freaks intoxicated by the ambience, being surrounded by fellow members of our tribe, poring through bins, stumbling upon old favorites or making new discoveries. Same reasons why we vinyl junkies can’t let go. For classical music fans, multiply everything I just said by two. Or five. Or ten. Mark Berry’s Naxos Blog has some interesting comments about what retailers in Philadelphia and elsewhere are doing to fill the classical void. Sample grab:

“At the same time, retailers seem to be expending more energy on classical, perhaps due to the SoundScan rise but also to fill the hole left in major market areas by the demise of Tower Records. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month that national chain FYE has made classical music a priority in its new store in the space previously occupied by Tower, moving its 11,000 CD and DVD titles to the main floor and committing to growing the section. Of course, a part of this collection is crossover material but, as writer Peter Dobrin points out, there is still plenty for the core classical “afficianado” and fan of local classical artists.

Snarky aside: If you didn’t know that Koch had a significant classical catalog you’d never know it by their website. Their classical listings are “below the fold” on their home page, category 13 out of 13 music categories, coming on the heels of “Dance, Electronica & New Age,” “Jazz,” “Gospel,” “Country,” “Kinks Reissues,” and “Broadway Productions and Show Recordings.”