Happy Friday! Watch this 6 year old play Boogie Woogie with Count Basie

As a Capitol Records recording artist, circa 1950. (via wikipedia)

Sadly, he is not one of New Orleans’ native sons. But you can’t win ’em all. Quite a talent though!

From Wikipedia:

Frank Isaac Robinson (born December 28, 1938),[1] known in his early career as a musician as Sugar Chile Robinson, is anAmericanblues and boogie-woogie pianist, singer, and later psychologist, whose career began as a child prodigy.

Robinson was born in Detroit, Michigan. At an early age he showed unusual gifts singing the blues and accompanying himself on the piano. According to contemporary newsreels he was self-taught, and he managed to use techniques including slapping the keys with elbows and fists.[2] He won a talent show at the Paradise Theatre in Detroit at the age of three, and in 1945 played guest spots at the theatre with Lionel Hampton, who was prevented by child protection legislation from taking him on tour with him. However, he performed on radio with Hampton and Harry “The Hipster” Gibson, and also appeared as himself in theHollywood film No Leave, No Love, starring Van Johnson and Keenan Wynn.

In 1946, he played for PresidentHarry S. Truman at the White House, shouting out “How’m I Doin’, Mr President?” – which became his catchphrase – during his performance of “Caldonia“. He began touring major theatres, setting box office records in Detroit and California. In 1949 he was given special permission to join the American Federation of Musicians and record, his first releases on Capitol Records, “Numbers Boogie” and “Caldonia”, both reaching the BillboardR&B chart. In 1950, he toured and appeared on television with Count Basie, and appeared in a short film ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet. The following year, he toured the UK, appearing at the London Palladium. He stopped recording in 1952, later explaining:[1]

“I wanted to go to school… I wanted some school background in me and I asked my Dad if I could stop, and I went to school because I honestly wanted my college diploma.”

Until 1956 he continued to make occasional appearances as a jazz musician, billed as Frank Robinson, and performed on one occasion with Gerry Mulligan, but then gave up his musical career entirely. Continuing his academic studies, he earned a degree in history from Olivet College and one in psychology from the Detroit Institute of Technology. In the 1960s, he worked for WGPR-TV, and also helped set up small record labels in Detroit and opened a recording studio.[1]

In recent years he has made a comeback as a musician with the help of the American Music Research Foundation. In 2002, he appeared at a special concert celebrating Detroit music, and in 2007 he traveled to Britain to appear at a rock and roll weekend festival.[1] In the last Dr Boogie show of 2013, Sugar Chile Robinson was the featured artist, with four of his classic hits showcasing amid biographical sketches of his early career.[3]

Here’s a lagniappe video:

It’s Mardi Gras! Check out this awesome free sheet music for a New Orleans piano classic..

I’ve been obsessed with Allen Toussaint’s version of Tipitina and Me off of the post-Katrina compilation Our New Orleans

It’s a really refreshingly different version of the piece.  For reference, I’m going to link to a few famous versions first:

Professor Longhair:

Dr. John

James Booker

(Randomly, Hugh Laurie)

So, here’s the Allen Toussaint version that just blew me away for being such a refreshingly different take on this New Orleans classic:

Tipitina and MeAnd, here’s what you really came for, the sheet music.  This version has been, thankfully, transcribed (for free!) by Steve Castallano on his website.  As far as I know, it’s not available anywhere else.  A word of warning, this is an advanced piano piece that could probably be turned into a real mess by a less-than-discerning performer.

Allen Toussaint
Allen Toussaint

Van Cliburn, RIP

van cliburn

Van Cliburn died this morning of bone cancer.  He is most well known for winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the age of 23 (in 1958) at the height of the Cold War.

Here he is performing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1:

Here is the media coverage of his 1958 win of the competition:

Here is news coverage of Van Cliburn playing at the Reagan whitehouse for Mikhail Gorbachev:

The importance of listening to great pianists

English: The only known photograph of Frédéric...
The only known photograph of Chopin; Image via Wikipedia

Recently, I had a lesson with an adult student who was returning to the piano after a long respite from formal study.  She had kept up her skills by sight reading, so we didn’t have to remake the wheel, so to speak, when she started with me.  She’s strongly drawn to Romantic pieces, so I gave her Chopin’s Posthumous A minor waltz (No. 19 I believe) largely because I had the music onhand already.

She  learned the first section of the waltz and played it for me, and in discussing the work to be done, I mainly focused on hand balance and a sense of phrasing.  Though technically  proficient, the student needed to bring out her right hand much more.  I think that in learning the piece she had probably tended to overemphasis the left hand simply because there is a lot more going on in the lefthand, even if the music itself is meant only to add support to the melody in the right hand.  This is a common problem for many intermediate students but can be remedied by drawing attention to it and inviting the student to do some active listening.  In discussing this hand balance and active listening, I suggested that we listen to a few performances, so she could contrast it against what she thought it should sound like and what she was actually playing.

That’s where YouTube can really come in handy; I was able to find several performances of this piece.  However, to my surprise, the student had not been taught to really listen to the playing of other pianists, and in fact, could not readily tell me when a performance was bad.  I was shocked because I had taken it for granted that a student at her niveau would be familiar with referring to other performances and use them to inform her playing and would also be at least somewhat adept at distinguishing good playing from bad.  To address this, we listened to several different examples and discussed what we liked and didn’t like about each one.  After a few comparisons, she began to be able to hear things, both good and bad, about the playing.  So, as an assignment I gave her some of the following clips to listen to and asked her to take notes on what she liked and didn’t like in detail, on what she found particularly interesting or effective about the performances, and on which performance she liked the best.

Portrait of Fryderyk Chopin.
Image via Wikipedia

I also contrasted it with some of those made-at-home performances that I think are less successful:

To be fair to these musicians, they are not professionals and many are quite young, so the comparison is a bit harsh.  People playing at home on keyboards cannot begin to compete with professionals on Steinway grands recorded by professionals.  Additionally, these young musicians have probably not had enough time to think about music and listen to enough music in order to truly perfect these pieces.  I’m confident that one day, they will be able to attain the level of some of the performances above, and I am not trying to discourage them by including them in the less successful category.

Each of these musicians do things I like, and some of the professionals do things I don’t like, but I do definitely prefer the performances in the first group.

Ashkenazy’s is probably my favorite.  He also happens to be the most well-known of the pianists featured here.  Unfortunately, this waltz is a bit obscure and not easily found on YouTube, so I did not find a lot of greats playing it.  Anyway, Ashkenazy really manages to evoke images and feelings with his playing.  Listening to his performance, I think of a Victorian lady sitting at a window seat looking through lacy curtains and a beautifully landscaped lawn and garden where the sun is shining vibrantly and well-dressed gentleman are strolling arm in arm with ladies with parasols.  In other words, Ashkenazy’s playing evokes something.  Additionally, in my opinion, he chooses the best tempo and strikes a wonderful balance between legato, singing lines and the use of a slightly detached sound.  I find his dynamic choices to be very effective and somewhat unexpected.  His use of rubato is also quite wonderful.  (For a definition of rubato, click here).

So please listen!  And tell me what you think!  Who is your favorite?  Who is your least favorite?  Why?

One of my favorite pieces; Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2

Specifically, I love the first movement.  Unfortunately, my hands are small (can barely reach an octave) and my teacher in high school wouldn’t let me play things that I couldn’t reach, so this was out of the question for me.  I know, I know.   Alicia de la Rocha had small hands and still managed to be a concert pianist. But she mostly played Bach, not Rachmaninoff [ed.  I mean Prokofiev I think but Rachmaninoff also has proved a challenge for my small hands].  Very different things.

Anyway, enough about me and my hands.  About the Concerto:

Prokofiev completed his second piano concerto in 1913, dedicating it to his Conservatory friend Max Shmitgov, who had committed suicide in April, shooting himself in a forest in Finland, after writing a farewell letter to his friend Prokofiev. Learning the solo part was hard work and he spent part of summer in preparation, while accompanying his mother on a tour of Western Europe that took them to Paris, to London and then to a spa in the Auvergne, before a brief holiday near the Black Sea. On 23rd August he played the concerto for the first time in a concert at Pavlovsk, provoking a very divided response of outrage and horror from some and ecstatic approval from the more progressive.

The orchestral score of the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minorOpus 16, was destroyed in a fire, during Prokofiev’s absence from Russia after 1918, and was rewritten in 1923. In Paris in the summer of 1914 Dyagilev showed interest in what seemed the work of another of the fauves and suggested using the music for a ballet, eventually commissioning a work on a primitive pagan libretto, Ala and Lolly, which, when it was rejected, became the Scythian Suite, music that Glazunov found even more distressing. In compensation for rejection of Ala and Lolly, Dyagilev arranged a concert appearance for Prokofiev in Rome in 1915, when he played the concerto to the expected mixed response. Dyagilev now offered a more congenial commission for The Buffoon (Chout), a ballet eventually staged in Paris in 1921.

The concerto is in four movements and opens with a lyrical Andantino and textures, at least, that suggest the chromaticism and piano-writing of Rachmaninov. The second movement is a Scherzo, in the key of D minor, music that offers a technical challenge to the soloist in its busy octaves. The original key of G minor is restored in the third movement> Intermezzo, a march in ironic mood rather than the more lyrical movement suggested by the title. The virtuoso finale recalls in its first subject the first movement, leading to a second subject of obviously Russian character. There is an extended cadenza before the orchestra returns with the principal theme.

The following are a few different renditions of the Concerto to mull over.  I had the Yefim Bronfman recording in high school, so probably I prefer it simply because it is very familiar and comfortable.  As always, I love Evgeny Kissin‘s version because, well, he’s amazing.  Yundi Li‘s performance is also lovely.

It has been said of the work:

It remains one of the most technically formidable piano concertos in the standard repertoire. Prokofiev biographer, David Nice, noted in 2011: “A decade ago I’d have bet you there were only a dozen pianists in the world who could play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto properly.Argerich wouldn’t touch it, Kissin delayed learning it, and even Prokofiev as virtuoso had got into a terrible mess trying to perform it withAnsermet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, when it had gone out of his fingers.”[7]

Furthermore, the cadenza in the first movement, which comprises close to half of the first movement, is among the most difficult in piano repertoire.

Happy listening!

Update: Watch Beatrice Rana perform the concerto during the Finals of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition:

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