Five of the Greatest Pianists of all Time

Who are the greatest pianists who've ever lived? That's a question that no doubt is the cause much heated debate.  Nevertheless, these are a few of my favorites.

I think perhaps you expected this pianist would be at the top of my list.

Martha Argerich (1941-)

The world woke up to the phenomenal talent of the Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich in 1964 when she won the International Chopin Piano Competition at the age of 24. She is now arguably the greatest living pianist and can sell out concerts in minutes.

Lang Lang (1982-)

Lang Lang changed the classical music world forever with his inimitable panache both on and off stage. Thousands of children in China took up the piano in what has become know as ‘the Lang-Lang effect’. So, like his style or not, there’s no denying the impact Lang Lang has had on the classical scene.

Glenn Gould (1932-1982)

If there were ever a pianist who divided classical music fans, Glenn Gould is it. The Canadian pianist is best-known for his performances of the music of J.S. Bach, and particularly The Goldberg Variations. But he's also famous for humming along while he played, performing on a tiny chair which he took to all his concerts and his exacting demands for recording and performing conditions.

Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)

There's a strong case to be made for Vladimir Horowitz to be crowned the greatest pianist of all time. He made his debut in 1920 in a solo recital in Kharkiv. In 1925 his fame had grown substantially and he crossed into the West, saying he wished to study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin – but he'd decided to leave for good and had stuffed American and British money into his shoes. He gave his debut in the US in 1928 at Carnegie Hall and he went on to become an American citizen. He is best known for his performances of Romantic works including music by Chopin, Rachmaninov and Schumann.

Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)

This Polish American pianist is often quoted as the best Chopin performer of all time. He was found to have perfect pitch at the age of two and he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic when he was just 13. He was taught by a pianist called Karl Heinrich Barth, who had been a pupil of Liszt, meaning that Rubinstein was part of a formidable pianistic tradition.

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Can music make you a better athlete?

Can boosting the volume on your favorite songs improve athletic performance.

Photo by Ryan Edy and Getty Images

Can music improve athletic performance?  Can running faster or working out harder be as simple as boosting the volume on your favorite songs?

Music can be a stimulant or a sedative.  It can enhance mood, improve muscle control and help the brain build key muscle memories. Here’s how:

It uses the whole brain

Listening to music activates several major brain areas at once, his research shows: the parietal lobe, which contains the motor cortex;  the occipital, or visual processing lobe, the brain’s center for  rhythm and coordination; the temporal lobe, which regulates pitch, tone and structure; and the frontal lobe and cerebellum, which regulate emotion.

These brain areas are critical to athletic performance. It is in the temporal lobe that cortisol — a stress hormone — is released. Music helps regulate stress by reducing cortisol levels. The motor cortex, which is located in the parietal lobe, regulates our body’s motor function, which helps determine how straight we throw a football or how well we coordinate our limbs when running, and allows us to fall into our own “rhythm” as we work.

Reyna Gordon, a neuroscientist with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says it’s unusual for so many parts of the brain to act in concert.

It helps regulate your emotions

The key is to use music to tap into the brain’s secretion of dopamine and natural opioids — two naturally occurring chemicals that help block our perception of fatigue and pain.

Music can also enhance mood and increase confidence.

Based on research, music can be like a performance-enhancing drug. It’s just that intoxicating.

For example, listening to Beyonce’s “Run the World” might send a positive message to the brain about performance, which might in turn boosts confidence. Conversely, the sad message in Pink’s “Sober” can help curb excess adrenaline and bring our anxiety levels back to neutral, post-workout or competition.

Nathan Keith Schrimsher, a 2016 Olympian competing for team USA in the modern pentathlon competition, listened to “One Day Too Late” during his last competition.

“It just put me into an attitude to not quit and to give everything I have to make my life matter,” he said.

Gordon’s research shows that music can also have a lasting effect on our emotions. When she exposed test subjects to sad music and then showed them a face expressing a certain emotion, the subjects were more likely to assume the face was frowning.

“Our brains want to make sense of the info coming in,” Gordon said. “People are able to recognize emotion in music from very short excerpts.”

It Makes You Want to Move

Rindings show that syncing the tempo of the music to an athlete’s heart rate can have powerful outcomes, such as improved stamina, speed and athletic performance.

Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist at Western University in London, Ontario, said the body responds best to steady rhythms. She found that among patients with Parkinson’s Disease, for example, having a steady beat that matches their movements seemed to improve muscle control.

It Helps with Muscle Memory

Finally, listening to songs with lyrics that mimic physical movement can help an athlete’s brain form muscle memories. The Salt n’ Pepper song “Push it”, she said, is the perfect song for those practicing shot put, or any exercise that requires the athlete to physically push something. The brain forms pathways more effectively when it has a song to back up the physical goal.

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Classical Music Works Inextricably Linked to the Olympics

The Olympic Games haven't only inspired athletes to perform their best but artists as well.

Athletic feats take center stage at the Olympics, but classical music has always been an important element of the games. From the tradition of playing national anthems to larger-than-life performances at the opening and closing ceremonies to accompanying events such as gymnastics and figure skating, Olympic music captures the energy and grandeur of the event.

However, during the first half of the 20th century, arts was not just an accompaniment to the Olympic experience, medals were awarded for works of art in five categories — architecture, literature, painting, sculpture and music — and the panels of judges included esteemed composers, including Stravinsky, Ravel and Fauré.

In recognition of this tradition, here are of some well known pieces of classical music written for the Olympics:

A Greek composer known for his operas, Spyridon Samaras composed the Olympic Hymn, performed for the first time at the opening ceremonies of the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens. The anthem — a choral cantata with lyrics by Greek poet Kostis Palamas — begat a tradition of hosting nations commissioning a special anthem for the event.

Danish composer Rudolph Simonsen won the bronze medal in the music competition during the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam for his Symphony No. 2: Hellas (he was the only composer awarded a medal by the jury that year). He later went on to head the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

Although not originally written for the Olympics, Josef Suk’s Toward a New Life was submitted for consideration at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Suk first began writing this patriotic march in 1919, when the Czech army was called to protect the southern districts of Slovakia. He later extended the march and scored it for a symphony orchestra. It won the top prize in L.A. (silver).

Canadian composer Jean Weinzweig won silver during the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, the highest medal honored that year in the instrumental category, for his Divertimenti for Solo Flute and Strings. Weinzweig later joined the music faculty at the University of Toronto.

In addition to being America’s most iconic film composer, John Williams is also the most prolific Olympics composer, having created themes for four Olympic Games. His Olympic Fanfare and Theme, written for the 1984 Olympic Games in L.A., marked the first time a major American composer had contributed a lasting fanfare for the event.

In 1996, Williams's Olympic Fanfare was fused with Leo Arnaud’s equally recognizable Bugler’s Dream, a piece that was not initially written for the games but came to symbolize them when the Olympic telecasts adopted his stately tune in 1958.

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Verdi Requiem “Behind-the-Scenes”

Since the 1930’s, the Requiem has been a staple of the choral repertory on both sides of the Atlantic. Common wisdom would have us believe that the work requires the world from its performers, but also gives it back in return. When Verdi sat down to write it, he had specific soloists in mind and the score is reflective of their special gifts as technicians as well as interpreters. Because we can compare the earlier source, we know that Verdi re-wrote the music with the talents of a particular singer in mind.

Stolz as Aida, Parma, 1872
Her name was Teresa Stolz. She was born in Bohemia but she spent most of her career in Italy. Stolz was a powerful singer, both passionate and with exceptional technical control, and Verdi was enamored with her in more ways than one. She sang in several of his operas, including Don Carlo and Aida. Verdi wrote for her without concern for technical limitation. He enhanced the soprano part in a variety of ways. He added measures. He made her part higher and more virtuosic.

He also gave her music that was originally given to the choir. These changes tend to happen in prominent places, like the end.

It must have been impossible for Verdi not to have remembered Stolz’s extraordinary voice as he composed. This meant he also prepared for her presence in the score by saving the force of her dramatic impact for later.

In one instance, he examined an older passage featuring soprano and choir alone. He took the melody from the soloist, gave it to the orchestra, shortened it, and then placed this passage at the beginning of his new work. In the Libera me, you will hear something that sounds like the very opening of the Requiem but this time it is led by the soprano in its full poignancy.

The Requiem text also allowed Verdi to explore the voice in ways that he couldn’t in his operas. This may sound kind of surprising because we’re used to thinking of his operatic writing as a complete exploration of the voice. But here I don’t mean expressive range -- I mean “voice” in the poetic sense– in the sense of who is speaking. In opera, characters are delineated. Their relationships with others and with themselves are the tensions that push the drama forward. In this work, these roles aren’t so clear cut. In fact, they are often exchanged. The singers must ask themselves “am I telling a story about someone else?” or “Is this my voice, must I embody these words?” In this way, Verdi complicates the medieval poem and its spiritual meanings.

Sometimes the move from characters to story-telling is blatant, like the return of the Dies Irae music. You don’t need me to tell you when this gripping music returns. You can’t miss it. But why this music at those particular points? Why would Verdi go out of his way to break the flow of the story? The answer, at least in part, is that the Dies Irae music forcibly tears the soloists away from one role to another. At one point the soloists move from their role as narrators to fearful sinners who plead for their own salvation. “What can a wretch like me say?” But these are the obvious shifts in poetic voice. Verdi sometimes clouds the issue for everyone involved. This happens in the Rex tremendae, where the bass temporarily stops being a character and aligns himself with the narrative voice of the choir.

So we come full circle, back to the genesis of the Libera me. We can appreciate again the opening for its drama, but perhaps now we can also see its shifts in character. The soprano begins freely in a kind of monotone chanting. Suddenly, she releases herself and embodies her fearful predicament; her line becomes more articulated, more angular, more urgent. In a few short bars, Verdi has read musically against the grain of the text. He does this throughout the work – asking the singers to morph between worlds and sometimes to live between them.

This blurring of story-telling and embodiment makes this work richer and its paradoxes more immediate. We are about to experience an upbeat fugue for double chorus, and a gentle set of theme and variations in the Agnus Dei, but soon enough we come upon those questions again. The last movement ends with the soprano grounded in the dark regions of her voice, in steady prayer. We could say that all is resolved but the epic questioning that preceded this, makes it    an uneasy promise.

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