Unconventional concerti

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The record which introduced our ears to the balalaika was, as it was for many Americans, the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago. That epic tale of romance amidst the Russian revolution was directed by an Englishman, filmed in Spain and scored by a Frenchman, was a substantial success in the United States. Record collectors are certainly familiar with its soundtrack, which is one of the most ubiquitous of LPs.

The balalaika is an instrument with a long history in Russia, and its varieties run the range of pitches. They all have a three-cornered frame (note that the picture on this LP shows a flute in front of a balailaka, because the other side of the album contains a piece for orchestra and flute).

The composer of today’s music, Sergei Vasilenko, passed away the year before Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, but he may have enjoyed the soundtrack to the film based on that novel. His 1929 Concerto for Balalaika and Orchestra drew from his deep love of his country’s folk music and also his interest in the unique instrumentations of folk music from around the world.

A half century earlier, violinist Vasily Andreyev heard a Russian peasant playing a balalaika and had the instrument copied. His popular performances of traditional folk tunes on the instrument, soon followed by others of varied sizes, established the balalaika as it came to be known. Its tender, lyrical sound was likely still a novelty when Vasilenko’s Concerto debuted.

So far as we can tell the balalaika didn’t become a standard instrument in any musical tradition. Duke Ellington is seen playing one in a photograph inside his memoirs, Music is my Mistress, but if this 1971 jam session in the U.S.S.R. was recorded we’ve never found a copy of the album. Until researching this post, we didn’t know it was a balalaika distinct sonority which always caught our ears in two tracks on Jethro Tull’s second album, Stand Up. But certainly it is “Lara’s Theme,” heard throughout Doctor Zhivago, which is the most famous appearance of this instrument.

We have collected enough unconventional concerti to finally give them their own category. You can click the li’l link underneath this post’s title and scroll down to find works such as William Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s Concerto for Jew’s Harp, Mandora and Orchestra.

Believe it or not, when Mozart composed for the our familiar friend the clarinet, it was in its modern incarnation a fairly novel instrument to be given such serious treatment. Within a hundred years it was a standard part of the orchestra. Albrechtsberger’s concerto for the jew’s harp (actually one of at least a half dozen he composed) may not have had the same uplifting effect on the popularity of its solo instrument, but this is not necessarily so for other stringed instruments. To this end we offer today Johann Hoffmann’s Concerto for Mandolin and Orchestra in D Major, written around the same time the clarinet was earning its seat in the pit.

We do not know as much about Hoffmann, a figure so shadowy in German music that his first name is uncertain. He was a mandolin virtuoso, and he may have taken an Italian name, Giovanni, to expand his audience. We know him today primarily because of his two concerti, which are more than mere vehicles for the mandolin and express the influence of Haydn and Mozart.

The challenge in composing a concerto for an instrument such as the mandolin is that it cannot produce sustained notes. The liner notes to this 1978 Turnabout recording point out that Hoffmann is clever in his approach to this problem, in particular in the second andante con variazioni movement of this concerto where the orchestra is assigned the melody and the solo instrument performs arpeggios, producing the chords in rising and falling succession.

Just as the clarinet has a long history before it found its modern form, the mandolin has been our musical companion for millennia. A painting in France’s Trois-Frères Cave, dating to about 12,000 BC, depicts a single stringed instrument from which the lute evolved. These early lutes could have been contemporaneous with the single-reed instruments of India which gave rise to the clarinet.

Historians trace the mandolin as we know it to the eighteenth century, and a family of luthiers, the Vinaccia of Naples. In this early period it was not marked as a “folk instrument” and found a home in the works of great composers, notably Vivaldi whose concerti were certainly widely heard. Beethoven composed four pieces for the mandolin in his middle period, and it also makes an appearance in two of the great operas: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Otello. Still, today in the United States the mandolin is mostly heard as a folk instrument.

Today’s post is for our friend and occasional employee Craig, who has been reading Haruki Murakami’s Absolutely on Music, a book of conversations with Seiji Ozawa. He came into the shop last weekend looking for recordings of the legendary conductor, and we turned up frustratingly few of them. This week we came across several recordings from Ozawa’s storied career, including this one.

three-pieces-for-blues-band-and-orchestra

Seiji Ozawa conducted the premier of William Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra in 1968, with the Chicago Symphony and the Seigel-Schwall Band collaborating. Five years later he recorded the piece for Deutsche-Grammophon with the San Francisco Orchestra. The album was a hit, by Deutsche-Grammophon standards, which led to the Seigel-Schwall band performing the piece with several orchestras around the country.

Russo’s Symphony No. 2 “Titan” was comissioned by Leonard Bernstein ten years earlier and featured jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson as a soloist for its debut with the New York Philharmonic. Russo, whose early career included writing for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, wrote a number of works which walk a line between ‘high-falutin’ classical and ‘low-brow’ popular music.

We have misgivings about music which could be categorized in our “classical gasp” section, but Russo’s composition is a successful blending of genres. While never as famous as other rock/blues acts like the Butterfield Blues Band or John Mayall, the Siegel-Schwall Band is solidly talented. Corky Siegel plays a mean harmonica on these three pieces. Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra is certainly better than this hybrid concerto we posted recently.

Russo’s work also included rock opera styled productions with the Chicago Free Theater, often on current events such as anti-war protests or the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. He remained involved in theater and music in Chicago until his retirement a year before his death in 2003. Columbia College’s Chicago Jazz Ensemble, founded by Russo, continues to perform today.

concerto-for-bluegrass-group-and-orchestraLikely to be filed in the “Classical Gasp” section of our shop alongside Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s Concerto for Jew’s Harp, Mandora and Orchestra, here is a blending of genres we had never thought to consider.

Phillip Rhodes’ Concerto For Bluegrass Band and Orchestra is performed on this album by the McLain Family Band and the Carleton Orchestra. It is divided into three movements, titled “Breakdown,” “Ballads” and “Variations.”

While not as unusual as the concerto for Jew’s harp, mandora and orchestra we posted a while back, The Virtuoso Harmonica definitely belongs filed under “Classical music you never knew existed.”

Here for your enjoyment is Adalberto Borioli performing Vivaldi’s Sonata in C Major for Harmonica.

virtuoso harmonica

Looney Tunes provided a lot of us with an introduction to classical music, even if we didn’t realize it. This 1943 classic is a perfect example: “A Corny Concerto” parodies scenes from Walt Disney’s Fantasia while animating two of Johannes Strauss’ most famous waltzes.

Our kids just laughed their asses off watching it, too.

…but now you do. And now you’ve heard Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s Concerto for Jew’s Harp, Mandora and Orchestra.

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