Category Archives: classical music

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (a book review)

 

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The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto: A Novel
by Mitch Albom (Goodreads Author)

Michael Beyer‘s review

Jul 23, 2017

 

It was amazing!

This book is a miracle. It makes words into music and fills your imagination with some of the most beautiful guitar music ever played. It introduces you not only to a very convincing portrait of a fictional musician and Rock and Roll icon, but a vast array of very real musicians and show people who agreed to be used as a part of the story, approved the sections about them, and even helped Mitch Albom to compose it. These include notable music makers like Lyle Lovett, Darlene Love, Tony Bennett, Paul Stanley, and Burt Bacharach. The story itself transcends its fictional form, giving us a look at a musical history whose scope goes from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s to Woodstock, and on to the present day. It even gives us glimpses into the distant musical past, framing the story with the song Lágrima by the classical guitarist Francisco Tárrega. And all this music the book fills your mind with is actually performed only in your imagination and memory. Albom proves again with this book how his mastery of language makes him an absolute master story-teller.

 

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And now, here is me trying to make sense out of a reading experience that made my figurative heart grow wings and soar into the clouds in ways brought forth only by the strains of a sweet, classical Spanish guitar.

Stories like this one make a unique music in the mind, and though it is all fiction, occurring silently in the theater of your mind, you hear the music in your heart.  This story elicited the music of Rodrigo’s Adagio throughout, a piece I know intimately.  I myself have never written a musical book the way this fiction book was written.  But I know now that I have to try.  Poetry becomes song lyrics, right?  There is a connection between a good archetypal story about life and love and laughter, and the bittersweet strains of music on a Spanish guitar.

I truly and utterly fell in love with this beautiful book.  Mitch Albom is a genius… for a Detroit Tigers baseball fan.  And I would not risk telling you anything that might spoil such a beautiful story.  All I can say is, don’t read it… listen to it as you would a piece of beautiful music.  Listen to it and love it.

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Lessons From Tchaikovsky

I used to be a classroom storyteller.  As an English teacher for middle school kids, I often would give brief biographical insights into famous people we were talking about at the time.  I told them about Crazy Horse of the Sioux tribe, Roger Bacon the alchemist and inventor of chemistry as a science, Mark Twain in Gold Rush California, and many other people I have found fascinating through my life as a reader and writer of English.

One bright boy in my gifted class remarked, “Mr. B, you always tell us these stories about people who did something amazing, and then you end it with they eventually died a horrible death.”

Yep.  That’s about right.  In its simplest form life consists of, “You are born, stuff happens, and then you die.”  And it does often seem to me that true genius and great heroism are punished terribly in the end.  Achilles destroys Hector, but his heel is his undoing.  Socrates taught Plato, and was forced to drink poison for being too good at teaching.  Custer was a vain imbecile and got what he deserved at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Crazy Horse, who made it happen, was pursued for the rest of his short life for it until he was finally captured and murdered.  Roger Bacon contributed immensely to science by experimenting with chemicals, but because he blew up his lab too often, and because one of his students blew himself up in a duel with another student, he ended his days in prison for practicing sorcery.

But if you have listened to any of the music I have added to this post, the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then you recognized it, unless you have lived your whole life under a rock in Nomusikvetchistan.  And why is that?  Because even though it is all classical music written in the 1800’s, it’s basic genius and appeal is immortal.  It will outlive all of us.  Some of it, having been placed on a record on the Voyager space craft may get played and appreciated a million years from now in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.  It will still be a work of pure genius.

And, of course, the horrible life and terrible death thing is a part of it too.  Tchaikovsky’s work took an incredibly difficult path to success.  He was criticized by Russians for being too Western and not Russian enough.  He was criticized in the West for being too exotic and basically “too Russian”.  He railed against critics and suffered horribly at their hands.  Then, too, his private life was far less private than it had any right to be.  He was a bachelor most of his life, except for a two year marriage of pure misery that ended in divorce.  And everybody, with the possibility of Pyotr himself, knew it was because he was a homosexual.  He probably did have that orientation, but in a time and a career where it was deemed an illegal abomination.  So whether he ever practiced the lifestyle at great risk to himself, or he repressed it his entire life, we will never know for sure.

But the music is immortal.  And by being immortal, the music makes Tchaikovsky immortal too.  Despite the fact that he died tragically at the age of 53, possibly by suicide.

So, this is the great lesson of Tchaikovsky.  The higher you fly, the farther you fall, and you will fall… guaranteed, but that will never make the actual flight not worth taking.  Some things in life are more important than life itself.  As I near the end myself, I cling to that truth daily.

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Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

Johann Sebastian Bach may or may not have written his organ masterpiece, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in 1704.  All we know for sure is that the combined efforts of Johannes Ringk, who saved it in manuscript form in the 1830’s, and Felix Mendelssohn who performed it and made it a hit you could dance to during the Bach Revival in 1840 made it possible to still hear its sublime music today.  Okay, maybe not dance to exactly…  But without the two of them, the piece might have been lost to us in obscurity.

The Toccata part is a composition that uses fast fingerings and a sprightly beat to make happy hippie type music that is really quite trippy.   The Fugue part (pronounced Fyoog, not Fuggwee which I learned to my horror in grade school music class) is a part where one part of the tune echoes another part of the tune and one part becomes the other part and then reflects it all back again.  I know that’s needlessly confusing, but at least I know what I mean.  That is not always a given when I am writing quickly like a Toccata.

I have posted two different versions for you to listen to in this musical metaphor nonsensical posticle… err… Popsicle… err… maybe just post.  One is the kinda creepy organ version like you might find in a Hammer Films monster movie in the 1970’s.  The other is the light and fluffy violin version from Disney’s Fantasia.  I don’t really expect you to listen to both, but listening to one or the other would at least give you a tonal hint about what the ever-loving foolishness I am writing in this post is really all about.

You see, I find sober thoughts in this 313-year-old piece of music that I apply to the arc of my life to give it meaning in musical measure.

Toccata and Fugue

This is the Paffooney of this piece, a picture of my wife in her cartoon panda incarnation, along with the panda persona of my number two son.  The background of this Paffooney is the actual Ringk manuscript that allowed Bach’s masterwork not to be lost for all time.

My life was always a musical composition, though I never really learned piano other than to pick out favorite tunes by ear.  But the Bach Toccata and Fugue begins thusly;

The Toccata begins with a single-voice flourish in the upper ranges of the keyboard, doubled at the octave. It then spirals toward the bottom, where a diminished seventh chord appears (which actually implies a dominant chord with a minor 9th against a tonic pedal), built one note at a time. This resolves into a D major chord.

I interpret that in prose thusly;

Life was bright and full of promise when I was a child… men going to the moon, me learning to draw and paint, and being smarter than the average child to the point of being hated for my smart-asserry and tortured accordingly.  I was sexually assaulted by an older boy and spiraled towards the bottom where I was diminished for a time and mired in a seventh chord of depression and despair.  But that resolved into a D major chord when the realization dawned that I could teach and help others to learn the music of life.

And then the Fugue begins in earnest.  I set the melody and led my students to repeat and reflect it back again.  Over and over, rising like a storm and skipping like a happy child through the tulips that blossom as the showers pass.  Winding and unwinding in equal measure, my life progressed to a creaky old age.  But the notes of regret in the conclusion are few.  The reflections of happinesses gained are legion.  I have lived a life I do not regret.  I may not have my music saved in the same way Johann Sebastian did, but I am proud of the whole of it.  And whether by organ or by violin, it will translate to the next life, and will continue to repeat.  What more can a doofus who thinks teaching and drawing and telling stories are a form of music ask for from life?

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Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor

You should listen to the music.  Not only is it beautiful, it is the perfect description of the now.  Yes, I am a touch depressed, and the music is deep blue.  But there are such strains of the bittersweet and angelic light, that Albinoni must be speaking directly from his heart into mine.  This music paints my soul.

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The sky reflects my mood with lurking dark blues and obscuring clouds incapable of completely taking away the sun.  I finally had enough money to visit the doctor today.  I had an infection in throat and sinus.  I got medicine to heal the sores, and the medicine will prevent pneumonia, and probably saved my life.

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My family was whole and together for the holidays, though three of us were sick for a good share of it and unable to spend the time together  as we would’ve liked.  Still, even though we had to take number one son to DFW Airport in the rain and send him back to Marine world, we got to see him and share good times with him, no matter how short.  Deep blue with angelic violins of musical light.  He made it back safely.  I have more days and probably more months to live and write.  And the music of existence continues to quietly play.

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I continue to collect photos of new dawns.  Here is December 27th.

It is possible that Tomaso Albinoni did not write the Adagio in G Minor.  It is believed that it was cobbled together as a sort of hoax by his chief transcriber, Remo Giazotto.  He apparently took old Dresden manuscripts and made this beautiful piece as a reflection of the work of Albinoni.  Albinoni,a prolific composer of the 1700’s, beloved by Johan Sebastian Bach, wrote opera scores that never quite got published, and so,even though he is a composer of many musical works, most of them are lost to history.  Yet, how can such a thing be considered a fake?  The music touches my soul.  From Albinoni’s soul, through Giazotto’s, to mine, and, hopefully, thence to yours.  Listen to it.  Really listen.  You can’t help but understand what I mean.  Even if you can’t stand classical music.  Though, if you truly can’t stand classical music… I weep for thee.

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The Car Radio Keeps Me Alive

Today I had to deliver my daughter, the Princess, to her high school in the rain.  It is hard enough make the circuitous trip to the west in order to go south and then east again through all the construction and roadwork going on with stupid people who are somehow allowed to drive a car and carry a gun in Texas even though they don’t know what a turn signal is for or that a speed limit sign shows the maximum rather than the minimum speed you should go at every red stoplight and corner without there being rain to obscure vision and make the mangled pavement slick.  You have to be able to concentrate and perform like a virtuoso while driving to make it there alive.  I would simply not be able to do it without the car radio.

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Driving the family car in Texas

The radio keeps me calm and gives my brain the power it needs to overcome obstacles.  The jump across the river with the man-eating fish in it alone requires an energized brain and a cool head.  I listen to oldies on the radio with KLUV in the mornings.  It is how my children have come to love Don Henley and the Eagles as much as I do.

For the last seven years of my teaching career, I had to learn the hard way that music is critical to driving well, and driving well is the only way to stay alive on the mean streets of Dallas.  I had a morning commute of 40 minutes, 30 miles, and 45 stoplights one way to my teaching job in Garland.  I drove it starting at six in the morning to avoid traffic.  But after school, I often had to labor for three hours through rush hour traffic on the way back home.  I learned to switch the station to 101.1, the classical music station.  Listening to Mozart and Beethoven not only makes you smarter, it makes you calmer.  Calm enough not to get out of your car at the stop light and beat the guy in the car ahead of you with the detached bumper of your car that he knocked off while cutting in front of you because he was in the wrong lane to make the turn he needed to make and didn’t realize until 15 minutes into the wait for the red light to change enough times that our cars actually had a chance to make it through the intersection.  Yes, that is a run-on sentence about road rage.  And road rage is real.  But in real life I didn’t beat him to death because of Mendelssohn playing on the car radio.  It only played out that way in my head while the radio soothed my brain and prevented my hair from catching fire.

I owe my life and sanity to the car radio many times over.  And I am resigned to the notion that I will probably need it many times more before the curtain closes the last time.

 

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Goodbye Is Bittersweet Played Pianissimo

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I have been a band parent since my eldest son entered sixth grade back in 2007.  That has meant putting up with practicing that can sound like a cat who accidentally got his tail caught in a blender, driving to impossibly hard to locate high school auditoriums in time-stoppered backwaters of the DFW metroplex for obscure and inexplicable tootling contests, working at making popcorn in the concession stand to raise money for marching band, and attending football games solely for the privilege of watching the halftime show.  It was hard work.  It is hare-raising (I did NOT misspell that, it created rabbits, and didn’t add a single hair to my floppy mass of gray head-mold).  And I am going to miss it terribly.

Wednesday night was the last concert as a band parent.  My youngest, the Princess, will enter high school next year and will give up being in band for more tech-related training in Turner High School’s engineering program for high school kids.  She is excited about it.  Focus has already shifted.  And I won’t have to pay for another horn lesson again for the rest of my life.  It was a good concert.  They played a medley from West Side Story, Don’t Stop Believing from Journey, and a classical piece conducted by the student teacher working with the Long band program this year.  It was also the last.  Another part of my life which lasted for most of the last decade has come to an end.

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Music is Life

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Last night, in the middle of the downpour in Dallas, my wife dragged the Princess and I kicking and complaining to a special concert of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.  It was one of those things… a Friday night after a long, hard week… tired bodies and aching arthritis… and she only gave us one day’s notice that she was going to do it.  But we couldn’t waste the tickets once they’d been purchased.  And the star of the show was Ashley Brown whom we’d seen in the Broadway version of Mary Poppins when it came to Dallas at the theater in Fair Park.

I don’t normally associate the DSO with Broadway musical music.  I tend to think Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.  But it couldn’t have been a fairer treat as a compensation for yielding to wifey’s whims.  Ms. Brown was vocal-tastic and utterly spell-binding as she sang “The Bird Woman” from Mary Poppins, and a toe-tingling medley of Disney songs that reached a tear-inducing crescendo with “When You Wish Upon a Star.”  Several songs by themselves would have made the evening totally worthwhile, but she topped the evening off with a rendition of “Defying Gravity” from  Wicked.  And it all helped me realize that I need music practically as much as I need air to breathe.  Music is life.

Part of what made the week so difficult was driving kids to and from school and events with rainy weather soaking the furious flying idiots on the roadways of Dallas as they barrel along in their Warp-10 wasp rockets and SUVs.  I constantly flip on the radio to the local Classical Music Radio Station, 101.1 FM.  The healing effects of classical music make me able to cope with maniac drivers and suicidal killer Texas grandmothers driving.  It calms me down and makes me sharper for dodging all those drivers who are driving the “Texas Friendly” way, which means, “Kill them before they kill you!”

“When You Wish Upon a Star” was the song I sang every night to all three of my babies as I rocked them to sleep.  The essential message of that song was the milk I tried to nourish my children on.  “When you wish upon a star/ Makes no difference who you are/ When you wish upon a star/ As dreamers do./ No request is too extreme/ If your heart is in your dreams/ When you wish upon a star/ Your dreams come true.”  It’s a goopy, sentimental thing, I know.  But I have to believe in the fundamental goodness of being a human being on planet Earth.  We are where we belong and good things find you when keep faith with the wish and the star.

So I am grateful that my family forced me to go to the symphony last night.  It is the “spoonful of sugar” that I need to make my way in a world that is increasingly hard to deal with and ever more painful.  I depend on music to keep me alive in so many ways, physical, emotional, and spiritual.  It makes me wish that I could write music.  But hopefully my writing becomes music in some obscure way.  The truth is beautiful and I love the sweet musical sound of it.

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