Piano Blog

Below are posts from Spring and Summer 2019

For Steven's most recent posts, click HERE.

Nina Simone: Love Me or Leave Me

Nina Simone, one of the great singers of the 20th century, was also an accomplished pianist. In fact, she studied classical piano at the Juilliard School. In her version of "Love Me or Leave Me" (a song written way back in 1928), Simone blends her jazz style with piano playing that is, at times, reminiscent of the music of JS Bach. Listen for the piano solo in the middle and for the transition from this "classical" piano sound back to the "jazz" piano sound!

Rachmaninov: Prelude

This famous Prelude by the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov is filled with energy and momentum! The beginning and end of this piece sound aggressive, while a calmer middle section provides some contrast. Can you find where this middle section begins?

(If you can't find it, here's a hint: listen to this video at about 1' 20")

Chopin: Nocturne

Frédéric Chopin's wrote many pieces for solo piano, including 21 Nocturnes. Take a listen to this recording by the pianist Jan Lisiecki and pay attention to how effortless he makes this performance look!

Philip Glass: "The Hours"

In this video you'll experience the award-winning score that contemporary American composer Philip Glass wrote for the 2002 film "The Hours." The original score for the movie included other instruments, but the music has subsequently been arranged for solo piano.

Philip Glass is generally considered to be among the greatest "minimalist" composers. In these pieces you'll hear how he repeats small gestures, melodies, and harmonic patterns to create a large-scale hypnotic soundscape.

Tchaikovsky: "The Seasons"

Tchaikovsky is one of classical music's best-known composers, but when people think of his music, they generally think of orchestral masterpieces like his symphonies, ballets, or the piano or violin concertos. Tchaikovsky also wrote a lot of beautiful music for the solo piano, including a set of 12 pieces called "The Seasons" (each piece corresponds with one month out of the year). This piece, "June - Barcarolle," is one of my favorites. A barcarolle is a song traditionally sung by gondoliers (imagine the beautiful canals of Venice), but this barcarolle is unique, something that only Tchaikovsky could have created.

Can you hear the rocking of a boat portrayed in this music?

Tabakova: from "Halo"

Dobrinka Tabakova is a contemporary Bulgarian/British composer. Listen to how the music (inspired by lunar halos) builds in intensity and how the rhythm creates forward motion, energy, and drama in this piece! Does the ending of this piece surprise you? Why?

Haydn: Keyboard Sonatas

Franz Joseph Haydn wrote extensively for the keyboard, but his music would not have been played on the piano as we know it today. In Haydn's day, the harpsichord was still an extremely common instrument. This music is now most-frequently performed on modern pianos, but this performance on a harpsichord is in keeping with the spirit of the 18th century when this music was composed.

What differences do you notice between a harpsichord and a piano?

Here are a few hints of what to look for:

-What color are the keys on the instrument?

-How many keyboards there are on the instrument?

-Listen to the sound of the instrument. Does it sound different than a piano? Can you describe how it sounds different?

-When notes on the lower keyboard are played, "coupled" notes on the upper keyboard are also engaged. Notice how the sound is different when notes are played by themselves on the upper keyboard.

Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff Perform Hahn

One of my favorite things to do as a pianist is to work with singers. In classical music, songs written for voice and piano in English are known as Art Songs. (These songs will often be called Mélodies if they are in French or Lieder if they are in German.) This song, by one of the master composers of French mélodies, Reynaldo Hahn, tells the story of someone who fell in love, but wasn't able to stay with the girl he loved. Notice how the singer tells the story, but it's the music played by the piano that makes the drama of the story come to life!

Gershwin: "Rhapsody in Blue"

The American composer George Gershwin wrote the music for "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1924. Lasting almost 20 minutes, this piece for piano and orchestra is a variation on the traditional musical form of the concerto. A traditional concerto is usually a piece for solo instrument and orchestra and is composed in three large movements or sections. This piece mimics this form by framing a lyrical middle section with a more exuberant, lively section on either side.

This performance features a young orchestra of college-aged performers. Can you name the different instruments of the orchestra that are shown in this video?

Yuja Wang (Piano) with Andreas Ottensamer (Clarinet)

The piano is a perfect instrument to work together with other instruments! In this video, you'll see Yuja Wang (one of classical music's biggest stars) performing a piece by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn along with clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer. Listen for the moments when the piano and the clarinet are playing the same melody together, and compare how that sounds to the moments when the piano plays harmonious lines that move independently from the clarinet.

Ludovico Einaudi performing on a raft in the Arctic

In winter 2019, Seattle experienced a series of winter storms with snow and ice covering the city! It's sometimes easy to forget that other parts of the world are covered in ice year-round. In this video, Italian pianist/composer Ludovico Einaudi blends beautiful piano playing with a political message and beautiful cinematography. Do you feel like this combination of music and politics is successful? Can you imagine playing the piano while floating on a raft surrounded by ice?!

Ketil Bjørnstad performing live

Ketil Bjørnstad is one of my favorite pianists and composers. His music straddles the boundary between several genres, including jazz, minimalism, easy-listening, and classical. In this live performance, he is likely improvising ("making up") the music that he is playing right on the spot. You'll notice that not every note sounds "perfect." (For an example of this, listen closely at 1'30", when he plays a wildly ascending scale. The top notes of this pattern sound a bit "off", but he keeps going and incorporates these notes into the continuous momentum of the music.)