Friday, June 5, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Taking precedence over every other item this week is this story of an extraordinary musical discovery:

A Sale Is Booming: Rare Stradivarius Drums Up For Auction

April 01, 2015 8:03 AM ET
Mark Mobley
Timpani are also called kettledrums. These instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari were, for a time, more kettles than drums.
Timpani are also called kettledrums. These instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari were, for a time, more kettles than drums.

DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images
Museum curators, instrument dealers and some of the world's most esteemed musicians will be clutching paddles today at Cloiduff's auction house in New York. They're gathering for what is expected to be an eight-figure sale of perhaps the rarest instruments ever to appear at auction: a pair of lovingly restored Stradivarius timpani.
The instruments — also known as kettledrums — were lost roughly a century after they were built by Cremonese master luthier Antonio Stradivari, whose violins, cellos and especially violas now sell for millions or even tens of millions of dollars. The drums were rediscovered late last year at the Vatican by Cardinal Johannes Feddersen during a routine inventory of kitchen equipment.
The two copper bowls, 26 inches and 29 inches in diameter, were secreted for decades behind a vast array of pasta-making and cannoli-filling machines. Apparently the vessels had been used to make not music but soups favored by early 19th-century Pope Honorius V, a native of Tuscany affectionately known to the masses as Il Papa Zuppa, The Soup Pope, due to his love of tortellini in broth and pesce d'aprile, a cold dessert soup containing Swedish Fish.
"It's an astonishing discovery," said Metropolitan Philharmonic Principal Timpanist David Sheppard, who supervised the cleaning and restoration of the instruments. "Once we were able to remove the remaining traces of pasta and parmesan, all we needed to do was stretch calfskin for the heads. We actually found cattle grazing in the same forest where Stradivari sourced the wood for his violins."
The Fiemme Valley in the Italian Alps is known to historians as Il Bosco Che Suona, or The Musical Woods.
The mysteries that have perplexed musicologists since the unlikely emergence of these drums include: Why did Stradivarius make timpani? Did he make any more? And why did they fall out of use? Some answers appear to have been hidden in plain sight — in a piece that has intrigued scholars since the beginning of the Baroque revival nearly a century ago.
For decades, musicologists had assumed that one of the most unusual of the more than 500 concertos by Vivaldi, "Il Cammelo" (The Camel) in G major, was for double bass. Its most curious feature is a solo part that consists of only two notes, G and D, played over and over and over. Vivaldi's biographers have long assumed he composed the piece for a Venetian nobleman and amateur bassist of modest gifts named Gianluca Wimpani. It now appears the W on the title page was erroneously substituted for the correct T by a copyist long ago.
"This shows the piece in a whole new light," Sheppard said. He will play the work on the Stradivarius timpani with the Metropolitan Philharmonic during the Governors Island Beach Bach Brunch in June. "And it explains the subtitle. Back in the 1400s, Mongols and Turks had armies with timpanists riding on camels. Those were the days."
The piece also contains the key to its composition and first performance. Thanks to markings etched on the drums, scholars now believe Stradivarius crafted them especially for Giorgio Della Giungla, an adventurer, strongman and musician whom Stradivarius referred to in his diary as "amico per te e me" (friend to you and me).
"Della Giungla played a number of instruments, and quite well, but he was best known for riding elephants," said Yale University symbologist B. Reid Morris. "There is no record of him on camelback." The Stradivarius timpani appear to have fallen into disuse when, after repeated collisions while swinging from tree to tree on vines in the instrument maker's beloved Musical Woods, Della Giungla had a fatal encounter with an heirloom spruce. "People tried to warn him," Morris said, "but as usual it was too late."
How the Vatican came to acquire the Stradivarius drums is unknown. What is certain is that they were put away after the death of Honorius V and the election of Pope Honorius VI, who preferred the more substantial cuisine of his native Milan.
The key questions that remain are: Do the Stradivarius timpani sound as beautiful as the Stradivarius violins? And are they worth the $10 million or $20 million or even $30 million or more that they could fetch at auction?
"You just have to hear them," Sheppard said. "When I play Also sprach Zarathustra with the Philharmonic, I swear I feel like I'm Itzhak Perlman. Only louder. And in the back of the orchestra."
But do please take note of the date on the story...

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Over at NPR they have a glowing review of Hilary Hahn's new concerto album of works by Vieuxtemps and Mozart with the very unflattering headline "Hilary Hahn Marches Through Mozart". You would expect a banner that tone-deaf over at Sinfini Music, maybe. So let me assure you: the reviewer in no way implies that Hilary marches through Mozart. The review is doubleplusgood. So I will probably order the album and so should you.

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Daniel Barenboim is performing all the Schubert sonatas on a new piano that he helped design. The Wall Street Journal has the story here. If that is behind a paywall, just try googling the title and it should come up. There don't seem to be any complete performances on YouTube, but here is Barenboim playing the Andante sostenuto from the Schubert Sonata No. 21 in B flat major:

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I put this link up with absolutely no comment: "Country Music Consultant Advises Station To Play Fewer Songs By Female Artists."

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I know that you are wondering why this fellow was playing "Yesterday" while having brain surgery in Brazil:

But really, the answer is obvious: because playing Bach would have been too difficult.

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Spotify has data that shows how people's tastes change as they get older:

But I don't think that the chart shows what they think it does. Isn't it obvious that the most popular music is largely for and consumed by people who are in their early teens? Frank Zappa was right, the musical world is ruled by the tastes of that mythical 14 year old in Cleveland.

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The original uncropped cover photo of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which came out exactly 48 years ago:

Click to enlarge

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A lot of what you hear on television and possibly even movie soundtracks is actually partly or largely synthesized musical instruments. This, by means of digital sampling, has been going on for quite a while. But the technology keeps getting better and better. While a computer can plausibly fake a string section, the expressivity of an individual violinist has so far been outside the realm of possibility. But now a Dutch company has developed a new kind of sampling that they say will come closer to replacing an actual musician. Here is what they are doing:
The team has recorded tens of thousands of notes and phrases performed by a live violinist in a number of different styles and moods for its Real Violin programme. This allows the computer to perform in a more natural and expressive way and to choose the sounds which best suit the style of the work performed, according to the company.
What occurs to me is that the very best they can achieve, with absolutely perfect sampling and programming, is an approximation of what the violinist they worked with might do. Who is this violinist? Interesting that they don't name him or her. This is not something you want on your resumé: "yes, I was the violinist responsible for putting my colleagues out of work!" But I pretty much guarantee you that it wasn't Hilary Hahn!

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On this day exactly four years ago I got up one Sunday morning and decided that today was the day I was going to finally start my blog. Now, four years later, it is more of a success than I could have imagined. The traffic has grown steadily over the four years and an amazing number of interesting people have left comments including Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, music critic Anne Midgette of the Washington Post and her husband Greg Sandow who teaches at Julliard and had a long career as a music critic. Various professors teaching everything from writing about music to recording technology have also weighed in along with a host of amateurs and professional musicians. In all those thousands of comments I have only had to remove one (1) for insults and obscenity! For the Internet that has to be a record. This blog is read in dozens of countries and six out of the top ten are non-English-speaking:

United States
United Kingdom

So thanks to all you readers and especially commentators: your support keeps this blog going and you have improved it by offering different points of view and corrections to my errors and omissions. Here's to the next four years.

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Let's end, as is traditional, with some music. In honor of the first item in today's miscellanea, here is the Symphony No. 103 in E flat major by Joseph Haydn nicknamed the "Drumroll" Symphony because it, unique among all symphonies, begins with a timpani solo. The conductor is Antal Dorati with the Philarmonia Hungarica:

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