Arts & Culture

Arts and culture

Today is the birthday of George Washington, so I thought I’d talk about… Alexander Reinagle. And in case this doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice to you, I’ll explain. Reinagle was a keyboard player and composer who was born in England in 1756 but who came to America in 1786, landing first in New York and then moving to Philadelphia.


Robert Schumann called taking the titles of musical compositions too literally “clumsy.” Schumann’s friend Franz Liszt, on the other hand, coined the term “program music,” and said that when a piece has a program, or story, the musical ideas should clearly reflect the unfolding of the story—although that’s the same Franz Liszt who attached a “program” to his symphonic poem Les Préludes long after he had actually written the music.


Doug Wamble
dougwamble.com

Guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Doug Wamble grew up listening to the Southern gospel, country, and blues traditions of his Tennessee home. Once he developed his love for jazz, Wamble began to soak up the sounds of jazz masters like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ornette Coleman. Along the way he discovered his off-the-cuff singing was a hit with fans and critics alike. In this 2005 Piano Jazz session, Wamble and McPartland span the jazz genre, from “St. Louis Blues” to Charlie Parker’s “Naima.”

Like many 19th-century composers, Robert Schumann often gave his works picturesque titles. Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, for example, a set of pieces for solo piano, includes pieces with titles such as “Pleading Child,” and “Frightening.”  How literally should we take these titles – and perhaps the picturesque titles of other composers’ works? 

Eric Benét
ericbenet.net

Singer and actor Eric Benét charges his old-school soul songwriting with healthy doses of modern funk and hip-hop. His winning formula has been recognized with multiple Grammy and NAACP Image Award nominations. Benét joins host Michael Feinstein on this edition of Song Travels for a set of original tunes, as well as classics by Stevie Wonder, The Carpenters and Earth, Wind & Fire.

News Stations: Sun, Feb 26, 2 pm | Classical Stations: Sun, Feb 26, 6 pm

Debussy the Writer

Feb 17, 2017

Claude Debussy was a great composer, but like many other famous composers, he was also a wonderful writer. He wrote countless articles of music criticism, and his writing was clever, funny, insightful, highly opinionated, and often wickedly caustic. He wrote some of his articles under the pseudonym Monsieur Croche, which in French means “Mr. Eighth Note,” but whether writing as Monsieur Croche or himself, he was never shy about saying what he thought. 


Needless Comparisons

Feb 16, 2017

I heard two remarkably gifted young musicians play the other day. One was a nineteen-year-old pianist and one a sixteen-year-old violinist. And it was pretty humbling, because when I was nineteen I wasn’t nearly as accomplished as either the nineteen-year-old or the sixteen-year-old. But I didn’t quit when I was nineteen, or even when I was in my early twenties and only too well aware that I was still far from a finished product… and eventually I was able to make a career as a professional musician. 


Today is the birthday of the French composer Georges Auric, who was born on February 15, 1899. Auric was one of a group of avant-garde composers in Paris known as “Les Six,” or “The Six,” a group that also included Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc. The image of the romantic artist, tragic and solitary, had absolutely no appeal for Auric, and he wrote a number of works in collaboration with the other members of Les Six.  


U.S. Marine Band

Feb 14, 2017

Some years ago I had the privilege of appearing as viola soloist with the United States Marine Band, “the Presidents Own,” and I can tell you it was a great experience. Like the members of the other premier service bands, the bands of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, the Marine Band players are graduates of some of the nation’s top conservatories, and they’re terrific musicians. And they include great string players, too, not just winds, brass, and percussion. 


Trudy Pitts
lifelinemusiccoalition.com

Organist, arranger, composer, teacher, and singer Trudy Pitts (1932 – 2010) earned a reputation not only for her technical prowess, but also for her ability to convey a wide range of emotions. Her formal training was classical: she studied piano at Juilliard and Temple University, but came to jazz by way of the organ. On this 1992 Piano Jazz, Pitts’ sensitive touch is apparent when she solos on “A Child is Born.” Then she and McPartland create a memorable “Mood Indigo.”

News Stations: Sat, Feb 18, 8 pm | Classical Station: Sun, Feb 19, 7 pm

We’re always fascinated by abilities that are far beyond the realm of our experiences, or even of our imaginations. Some people can hold their breath for 10 minutes, some can jump four feet off the ground, some can memorize the digits of pi out to thousands of places. And some musicians—actually many musicians, although I’m not one of them—can hear any note and tell you what that note is. It’s called having “perfect pitch.” 


Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
Lamonte McLemore

The husband and wife team of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Dr. met as members of the iconic ’60s group The Fifth Dimension. They went on to perform as a successful duo and to host their own television show. More than forty years later, their music and mutual respect and love are still going strong. Performances on this week’s Song Travels include “Mona Lisa” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

News Stations: Sun, Feb 19, 2 pm | Classical Stations: Sun, Feb 19, 6 pm

The mathematician Mark Kac once tried to describe the extraordinary genius of the physicist Richard Feynman “There are two kinds of geniuses,” Kac wrote. “The ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians.’ An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. It is different with the magicians… the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible.”  


Bellini and Melody

Feb 9, 2017

Vincenzo Bellini—the composer of Norma, La Sonnambula, and I Puritani, to name a few of his best-known operas—is famous for the beauty of his melodies, but also for his ability to use melody to define character, express passion, and advance dramatic action. And he had nothing but disdain for what he called the “ridiculous rules” that some people thought composers should be obliged to follow when setting poetry to music.


It occurs to me, when considering the history of music, that the endlessly recurring and often bitter fights over musical styles and trends have actually been quite productive, if only because they’ve acted as spurs for composers in supposedly opposing camps to produce their best work. And then, of course, it turns out that later generations usually have no trouble enjoying all the styles in question, and the old disputes, even though productive, just seem silly to them.


Mozart, they say, could compose music while he was playing billiards. Rossini wrote that he had once composed an overture while standing in the water fishing and listening to his fishing partner discuss Spanish finance. Prokofiev and other composers were known to carry notebooks with them so that they could jot down musical ideas that came to them on long walks, while Aaron Copland, when asked once how he found the inspiration for his music, said that the secret to inspiration was to sit down and work. 


Keith Ingham (left) pictured with bandmate Harry Allen on the cover of a 1994 Progressive Records release.
Progressive Records

British-born pianist Keith Ingham began his jazz career in London after studying Mandarin at Oxford University. In the late ’70s, he moved to New York, which led him to connect with the likes of Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, and Susannah McCorkle, for whom he was pianist and musical director. He was McPartland’s guest on this 1997 Piano Jazz. Ingham opens the program with “A Foggy Day in London Town.” He and McPartland close the show with a duet of “Little Rock Get Away.”

News Stations: Sat, Feb 11, 8 pm | Classical Station: Sun, Feb 12, 7 pm

Rossini on Singers

Feb 6, 2017

In The Barber of Seville and his many other operas, Gioacchino Rossini gave singers plenty of opportunities to show off their talents.  But in a letter he wrote in 1851, Rossini made it clear that he didn’t have much patience for the cult of the great singer, or for singers whose pretensions got the better of them.


Cheyenne Jackson
officialcheyennejackson.com

Actor/vocalist Cheyenne Jackson is equally at home on the stage and in front of the camera. He won a Theatre World Award for this role in All Shook Up, and his one-man show, Back to the Start, was a sold-out hit. Jackson has also appeared on 30 Rock and Glee, and has recorded an album of duets with Song Travels host Michael Feinstein, titled The Power of Two. The pair reunites this week to perform songs from Tom Waits, Elton John, and Katy Perry.

News Stations: Sun, Feb 12, 2 pm | Classical Stations: Sun, Feb 12, 6 pm

I hope you’ll join me today in celebrating the birthday of Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809. By the time he was fourteen he had composed four operas, twelve sparkling string symphonies, and various other pieces, and by the time he was seventeen he had composed masterpieces of chamber music and orchestral music that will be played for as long as music is played anywhere. 


Orchestra Metals

Feb 2, 2017

Today, I thought we’d take a metallurgical tour of the orchestra. The bars, for example, of glockenspiels and celestas are made of steel. So are some of the strings of stringed instruments, and almost all strings are wound with very fine wire made of steel, silver, or aluminum. The bodies of timpani are made of copper, and brass instruments are made of… well, brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc. 


Much of what we know about the great composers we’ve learned from their letters. It’s true that occasionally—and with some composers more than others—the music they’ve written seems somehow to reflect what was going on in their lives at the time. But more often than not the music gives no clue. It’s in their letters, much more than in their music, that we get a window into the composers’ private thoughts, and into the joys and struggles of their personal lives. 


Lefty Violinists

Jan 31, 2017

Have you ever seen a lefty violinist? I’ve heard of a few, but in my whole life I’ve only met one string player who holds the bow in the left hand and the instrument in the right. I don’t  really know how the tradition of playing “righty” got started, but it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. Why can’t lefties just reverse the strings and play the way they like? Well, it’s not that simple. 


Barry Harris
Courtesy of the artist

Barry Harris is a seminal figure in the jazz world. As the “keeper of the bebop flame,” Harris is committed to preserving jazz through education and performance. His workshops play an important part in his life and in the lives of many young musicians. On this 2002 Piano Jazz, Harris demonstrates how he earned the reputation as one of the most inventive and respected pianists today when he solos on “It Could Happen to You.” Host McPartland and Harris show off their bebop chops on Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave.”

Elaine Stritch in 1973.
Allan Warren via Wikimedia Commons

Three-time Emmy winner Elaine Stritch (1925 – 2014) became a star on Broadway before going on to play a string of highly regarded film and television roles. Stritch was Michael Feinstein’s guest in this session, recorded in 2013. In honor of the late Stritch’s birthday on February 2, Song Travels presents this hour of delightful music and candid talk about her life and career.

News Stations: Sun, Feb 05, 2 pm | Classical Stations: Sun, Feb 05, 6 pm

I’m always fascinated by the stories of musicians who were famous and terribly important in their own time but whose reputations at some point dip or dim or even disappear—sometimes for no obvious reason.  Today is the birthday of the Charles Martin Loeffler. Are you familiar with his music? He was born on January 30, 1861, and he had a distinguished career as both a violinist and composer. 


Leftover Cuties
Greg Anderson

The Los Angeles noir-pop band Leftover Cuties has a sound that’s both retro and refreshing. On this episode of Song Travels, host Michael Feinstein talks with Shirli McAllen, Leftover Cuties’ lead singer and ukulele player. On this Song Travels, the band performs a set of originals from The Spark and the Fire, along with its unique interpretation of "You Are My Sunshine."

News Stations: Sun, Mar 05, 2 pm | Classical Stations: Sun, Mar 05, 6 pm

Today is January 27, and it’s Mozart’s birthday. I know I don’t have to tell you how wonderful Mozart’s music is to listen to… but if you’re not a musician yourself you may find it interesting to know that Mozart’s music is also wonderful to play. And it’s not that it’s easy—in fact it’s usually pretty hard, and sometimes very hard. 


The members of the violin family—the violin, viola, cello, and double bass—are made of wood. But on any one instrument you may find four or even five different kinds of wood. The top, also called the “table,” or “belly” of the instrument, will be made of spruce—a strong, light, but soft wood. The back, and the sides—which are also called the ribs—will almost always be made of maple, which is a very hard wood. 


Did I ever tell you that I once won ten dollars from Leonard Bernstein? When I was a student at Juilliard I learned the Viola Concerto by William Walton, and one evening I played through it for my violinist friend Alexis Galpérine. Alexis noticed that the Walton reminded him very much of the Violin Concerto in D Major by Sergei Prokofiev, and on closer examination we saw that there was no question that Walton had indeed patterned his concerto directly after the Prokofiev.  


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