Before Marilyn Manson there was Alice Cooper. But before Alice Cooper there was Franz Liszt (and before him there was Nicolo Paganini but that's another story for another time). Born in Hungary, Liszt (1811-1886) took the art of piano playing on to a new level, finding new ways of playing, creating ethereal and spooky new sounds, leaving a legacy of music in his wake that for years many considered unplayably difficult. If you must know (and you must), Liszt wrote a version of "Transcendental Studies" that is considered unplayable to this day! Of course, it goes without saying that anyone who could play such difficult passages must be in league with the devil. Like those of later years, Liszt recognized that bad publicity was still publicity and played up these rumors by writing piano pieces with titles such as "Dance of the Gnomes", "Mephisto Waltz", and "Dance of Death" (I'm seeing a theme...), even writing a symphony on the Faust legend (a personal favorite even though the shortest movement is twenty-three minutes long). However, the piece that nearly every single reader is familiar with the Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2", a frenzied chase made popular in at least two Warner Brothers cartoons, one with Bugs playing the piano against a mouse and the other concerning the construction of a building.

Liszt, with his long hair, dramatic playing style and larger-than-life persona of composer/conductor/performer was greeted by a bevy of female admirers at each of his concerts where he would amaze the audience with his dramatic, pyrotechnic playing style. Some have called him the first "heavy metal" artist (though certainly not I!) because in both heavy metal music and in the piano music of Liszt, the idea is to knock the audience to the floor with every technical trick at your disposal and to use as many tricks as possible in as short a time as possible. Though the music of Liszt had flash, it was not superficial. There is great depth and soul in his music for those willing to listen. Furthermore, it is to Liszt and his percussive, powerful style of playing that we owe the construction of the modern piano, created to withstand his constant pounding. The effect Liszt had on his contemporaries and those who followed him is immense and he is, in my humble opinion, the most influential composer in the Romantic era.

This weekend the Fort Wayne Philharmonic will be conducting Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major. Those looking for the trademark Liszt flair will not be disappointed. Written in 1839 and revised from 1849 through 1861 (and you thought the movie Titanic took a long time to make!), this concerto takes a twist on the standard concerto format. Instead of the then-familiar format of a concerto, which was a fast movement followed by a slow movement followed by a final fast movement, Liszt decided to chuck the whole lot of it and create a single, flowing piece that changed many times between tempo extremes. In fact, it is very much like a piano-drenched symphonic poem! Full of color, brilliancy and light, this piece is assured to stir the blood. I gey-run-tee!

The second piece this weekend is by Maurice Ravel. Maurice was born in the town of Cibourne, in the Basque region of France (um, yeah, I know exactly where that is!) in the quaint year of 1875. Like many of his peers, Ravel started early in the music biz. It wasn't long before he entered a musical conservatory and started to gain a reputation as an excellent composer. Ravel was a nervous man, an insomniac, and a great socialite, enjoying gourmet French cooking with friends, followed closely by strong French cigarettes. He didn't have to travel far, though, for he spent a lot of time in France. After all, he lived there. During World War I he was rejected for service (would YOU want to give a nervous, sleepy guy a gun?) and instead became an ambulance driver. In 1935 he was involved in a serious car accident which left him mentally paralyzed. He died two years later after some French surgeons attempted brain surgery. Included in the wealth of music he left is a short piece entitled "Bolero", made famous by Bo Derrick and a run on the beach. You "Global Teens" will have to ask your elders for a clarification on that one.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in D Major was written at the request of Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in WWI (this guy was always losing things). For this reason, this piece is nicknamed "Left Hand" because, well, it is all played with the left hand. As a result of Ravel's recent visits to night clubs in New York's Harlem (I'd like to see him just try and get some gourmet French food there!) and Greenwich Village (ditto), this concerto is full of American jazz influences. Because of the many jazz effects and textures used by Ravel and because of the ingenious way he wrote the piece, it is often difficult to tell that only one hand is playing! In a mood to ruffle some feathers, Ravel wrote the piece in four movements (instead of the traditional three) and linked all the movements together so the music never stops. Of special interest to all you percussionist groupies out there, be sure to watch for the tam-tam, triangle, and wood-block in this piece!
A smidge more on Ravel

Last on the hit-list for the evening is a little symphony by a guy named Camille. Camille Saint-SaŽns (pronounced sah-sahns) was also French, was born in 1835 and lived to be a ripe old geezer at the age of 86, upon which time he, like everyone else in this article, promptly died. Like Mozart, Saint-SaŽns had a good ear for melodies, resulting in music that was unforced and almost casual in itís lyricism. He was also a master of orchestration, being able to bring out many new sounds from an orchestra. One of France's most prolific composers, Saint-SaŽns wrote thirteen operas, oodles of vocal and choral music, five symphonies, and scads of chamber music. Somewhere he found the time to write the popular Carnival of the Animals, with the beautiful cello piece "The Swan", and Danse Macabre, my favorite symphonic poem about dancing skeletons.

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic will be performing what is commonly known as the "Organ Symphony". I would suspect that it got this name because Saint-SaŽns uses an organ in the last movement, but I'm just grasping at straws here. In certain circles, this piece is known as Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Opus 78, although it was the fifth symphony Saint-SaŽns wrote. I guess them French music publishers ain't too keen on math. There actually is a good reason for this unique numbering scheme but it is duller than unsalted, overcooked pasta made by a guy named Ed who was too busy watching reruns of "She's the Sheriff" to pay attention to his noodles, and I won't go into it. This piece is very Lisztian (bet my spell-check balks at that one!) in it's form and was even dedicated to the old finger-bender Liszt himself. As is his style, Saint-SaŽns uses many brilliant tone colors and creative orchestration to bring the music to life. The final movement, as mentioned above, is ushered in with grand style by a pipe organ which then is incorporated into the remainder of the piece. With the wonderful organ at the Embassy, I am certain that this will be the highlight of the evening and something not to miss!
Gobs more on Saint-Saens

Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman

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