Sunday, November 29, 2015

Righteous Classical Music: Francesca da Rimini by Tchaikovsky

This is a lesser-known work of Tchaikovsky's, written while he was on vacation in Beyreuth. He was coming off of a very long time of depression, and was inspired to write this when he read the story of Francesca and her lover Paolo in Dante's Inferno. Despite the distressing subject matter of this tone poem, this piece marks the return of Tchaikovsky's creative spirit after a time of lethargy.
The story goes like this. Dante and his guide, Virgil, have entered the circle of Hell reserved for people guilty of the sin of lust. They are punished by being thrown about in a whirlwind, similar to the 'whirlwind' of their passions, for all eternity. Dante sees two figures in the whirlwind that he feels very sorry for, and asks them to tell their story. It is Francesca, who was married to a cruel man she didn't love, and had an affair with his handsome brother, Paolo. Her husband found out, and murdered them.
It's a sad and somewhat disturbing story, which might explain why it's not a very popular piece of Tchaikovsky's. Oh yes, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture ended tragically for the two lovers, but at least the ending chorale promises peace between the Montagues and Capulets. Francesca da Rimini's story and in turn, Tchaikovsky's tone poem, offers no such light. Except for maybe the light of Dante's compassion and pity for the couple. This might have been what appealed to Tchaikovsky about the story (aside from the themes of tragic love, which he seemed to like).
Musically, too, this isn't quite as engaging of say, Capriccio Italien or R+J, but it is still very good and interesting. The opening goes on a little too long, but it is very evocative of a chaotic, unrelenting whirlwind. It makes you feel kind of helpless, and like good writing, you feel very immersed into the setting and mood.
Then, after this chaotic and infernal opening, things quiet down suddenly as a bass clarinet plays a plaintive solo, representing Dante asking the lovers for their tale. We are suddenly whisked away to a totally different scene in Italy, as Francesca relates the story. The bass clarinet's plaintive song is developed and carried by different instruments, swelling with passion until the discovery of their affair and their subsequent murder. The music ends dismally- with the return of the whirlwind.
The subject of tragic lovers appealed to Tchaikovsky, as we've seen in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet before. This may not be his best work, but it's a poignant and haunting comeback for a composer with many brilliant works still ahead of him.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Final Fantasy VII [1997]

I play video games to retain my sanity after stressful practice sessions, and a really good game is quite a treat after you've been hitting your head against a concerto for an hour.
FF VII is considered the BEST RPG ever made, and while there are a few other games I like a little better than this one (Okay, just the first Kingdom Hearts lol), I still agree that it is very good. I think that this game is actually a little too good for its format, so it's neat that they're making a remake. There are a few extremely emotionally charged scenes that are maybe a little nullified due to the weird, blocky looking character models. XD
The story is a little confusing in places, though overall, I would say that it is very well put together. There are little bits of foreshadowing that you wouldn't notice the first time around, and I love foreshadowing that is so subtle that when you get to the twist, you look back and think "Holy Shnikes! How did I not notice that?!"
The characters are actually pretty well done! Even the weird cat thing (Cait Sith) gets some development! The only one I didn't really care about was Red XIII, but that's just because I'm not nutzo on endless droning on and on about 'the planet' and how 'the planet is blah blah', but you know, he's not unbearable. My favorite characters were Tifa, Cid, Yuffie, and Aerith. Aerith is also a really neat character! A lot of the other entries in the series make her look like some kind of dainty, mystical sweetheart, but she's actually a very vivacious, streetwise lady, who can actually be kind of a shrew at times. XD
I like the gameplay. The Materia system is really cool when you figure out how to combine them to give the characters different abilities. There are also a TON of extras you can get if you're patient enough to work for them. Like the Chocobo racing, Materia Caves, and the Battle Arena.
I really liked the music. Sure, it's kind of cheesy sounding due to the MIDI program used, but it really is amazing music! You can find a lot of it remastered online, and they've arranged a few of the tracks for orchestra that you can also listen to on YouTube. Aerith's theme is always a favorite for good reason, it's a really beautiful, emotional track. I also really liked Tifa's theme. That song features a pretty flute solo, and the repeat of the melody makes good use of what I think is the bassoon (hard to tell with the MIDI instruments and all)! How cool! The World Map song is so pretty that it almost sounds like classical music to me! It goes through a lot of different emotions, and I think that the composer really knocked it out of the park with this one. I'll embed a video of the orchestral version at the bottom of the post. :)

The Verdict: A
Definitely one of my favorite games! While not flawless, this is a deeply engaging game that has a LOT to do besides the main storyline! I like the game mechanics, it's really fun to develop your own unique playing style.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sheherezade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Allright, so who's up for 50 minutes of colorful orchestration, amazing tunes, and righteous solos for nearly every instrument in the orchestra?
I'm talking about Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's masterpiece, Sheherezade; based on the Arabian Nights. In the story that this piece is based on, a piggish sultan has decided that all women are faithless, and decides to marry one woman each night and execute her the next morning. Not really family friendly, but there it is. So one woman, the titular Sheherezade, decides to save her life by telling the sultan a story each night, and timing it well enough that it ends on a cliffhanger and he has to let her live another night to hear the end. After 1001 nights, he finally decides that she can live.
Sheherezade is split into four movements, each one is kind of like a different story. But just four. I think composing 997 more movements was a bit much. ;)
So all the movements feature a delicate, winding violin solo that is meant to represent the storyteller herself. I love how the violin solos kind of 'lead' into the parts of the song meant to be the stories, like she's beginning to tell the story, and it takes flight from there. I really love this piece (a 'Symphonic Suite', as I think it's technically called?) because it combines my two artistic passions- writing and music! Aaaaahhhh!

1. Sinbad and the Storm at Sea
Rimsky's Korsakov's evocation of the sea through music is masterful here. You can almost feel the spray against your face, listening to this! And the brass absolutely punching that low, dark, theme sounds like something monstrous rising from the depths of the sea! I love how the violin (Sheherazade, if you will!) interludes weave in and out of the big orchestral (the story, if you will also!) parts. It really feels like she's telling the story.

2. The Legend of the Kalendar Prince
The first movement was awe-inspiring, and sends shivers down my spine. This movement is rich, exciting, and 'angers up the blood' as we say. The first movement was amazing, this second movement is double that. A Kalendar is a fakir who was gifted in story-telling. He is represented by the lengthy bassoon solos in this movement, so it's almost like Sheherazade is telling a story, and there's another storyteller in THAT story! So cool! This movement is really righteous because it is filled with action, tension, and wildly colorful orchestration!
This also showcases another one of Rimsky-Korsakov's strengths! Taking a melody, and changing the chords and context of it without changing the melody itself. The Kalendar prince theme is taken first by the bassoon, and it's moody and contemplative. Then by the friendlier oboe, then by the strings, who sound determined and like they mean business!

3. The Prince and the Young Princess
Allright, time to settle down. After the crazy-awesomeness of the previous movement, you'd think that this one would be a little overshadowed. Well, it kind of is, but this is still a very nice piece of music! It tells the story of a romantic prince who is in love with this pretty and fun-loving princess. Unfortunately for him, it takes a while for his words of love (represented by the first theme) to be taken seriously by the goofy and light-hearted princess (who is represented by the second theme). Eventually the feeling of love is mutual though, and you'll definitely be able to tell, musically, when that happens! ;)

4. The Festival at Bagdhad
This piece takes us to the end of Sheherazade's story. We open up with the angry and impatient Sultan. The Sheherazade violin solo takes on a totally new color, with tense double stops as she implores him for one more night of stories. This movement calls back melodies from ALL the previous movements, almost as if she's trying to calm down the sultan's temper by recalling previous stories and characters. Sure enough, the sultan theme interrupts a few times, but the story keeps on going. Finally, her story ends and the music takes a quiet and uncertain sound as she prepares to be sentenced to death. But the sultan has had a change of heart, and decides to let her go free. The music ends on a peaceful, major chord as Sheherazade gets to settle in for her first full night of sleep in a LONG time.
So! That was the subtext, now the music. XD
There is some absolutely NUTTY brass section action in this movement. I mean, all of the movements are challenging for the brass, but this one calls for so much skill. The violin solos in this movement are probably the most challenging of all the movements, with close double stops that require perfect placement of the fingers to get in tune.
While themes from all of the previous movements are recalled, this theme still has room to add in it's own themes and flavor. I love the whirling conclusion that ends her story- a crashing, massive return of the Storm at Sea theme.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Swan Lake (Ballet) [1877]

Oh yeah, Tchaikovsky! We've been on kind of a ballet jones for mysterious reasons. ;)
Mostly because we watched Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev, and saw the link to a production of Swan Lake. I liked the music, but I couldn't remember if I'd ever watched it all the way through!
So we watched it. By the way, this mysterious 'we' refers to me and my sister.

One of the things I liked about Romeo and Juliet was that not too much time was spent on dances that did nothing for the plot. There were a few, like at the ball, or in the town square, but most of the time, the plot was very well paced. While I really enjoyed Swan Lake, I have to say that dang. About three quarters of it was just people dancing around and not doing much for the plot.
But hey! This is ballet, and when you go to see a ballet, you want... well, ballet. I'm not a huge dance person myself, so maybe that explains why I got a bit bored during the loooooooooooong stretches that were random dances.

My other issue with this otherwise totally awesome and heartbreaking ballet is pretty minor, but still. So we all know the famous Waltz, right? Well, I was expecting it to play during the ball where Odile is magically disguised as Odette! The Waltz is an amazing piece of music. It's romantic and elegant, but there are moments of great tension and even distress too. So fitting for a scene in which the prince thinks he's confessing his love to his princess, but is actually being tricked! So that's where I thought it was used.
Turns out, it's actually used in Act 1, at Prince Siegfried's birthday party. A scene that isn't really that tense or romantic or any of that juicy stuff. But like I said, that's probably just me. :)

So anyway, the plot is simple. On the night of his birthday, Prince Siegfried is out hunting in the forest and comes across a beautiful swan, who turns into a mournful young woman. This woman is Princess Odette, who was turned into a swan, along with all her friends, by a wicked sorcerer named Rothbart. The only way for the curse to be broken is for her true love to confess their love to her. Of course, she and Siegfried fall in love, and he invites her to a grand ball to celebrate their love. At his ball, he'll ask her to marry him. Rothbart gets wind of this (because he has the lake bugged?) and uses magic to disguise his daughter Odile as Odette. At the ball, Siegfried confesses his love to Odile, and realizes his mistake when it's too late. He rushes to the lake, where he and Odette dance for the last time. Things end with Odette drowning herself in the lake, and Siegfried joining her in death- since I guess sacrificing their lives together is the only way to free the rest of the swans from the curse. Or just because everything must end in suicide with ballet.

So I guess I can see why they had to pad it out with a LOT of dances, but I like it. It's a simple, but heart-wrendingly tragic story.

And the music. Holy Shnikes the music! I mentioned the awesome Waltz, but there's also the lively Coda (to which Odile does her famous spin-ny thing!), the Dance of the Little Swans, and my personal favorite- the music that plays over the finale!

The Verdict: A
Romeo and Juliet is still my favorite ballet, but this one is a very close second! The plot may be simple and stretched out with additional dances, but it packs a hefty emotional punch. The music is amazing, and takes a pretty good story and makes it a magnificent story.

Here are some of my favorite dances and songs. :)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Romeo and Juliet Chibis!

In honor of our concert (in which we performed the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture!), here is the cast of R+J rendered in Chibi form!
I know towards the end some of the color schemes get hideous, I was running out of ideas for how to color the outfits because I wanted them all to look different. But I was running out of them by the time I reached Paris, so that poor guy's got an ugly outfit.
But I'm really happy with how all the others look, so huzzah!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Classial Music Chibis!

I drew up the cast of Romeo and Juliet, but I figured that everyone was tired of the constant R+J stuff that I've been posting, so I thought I'd do this first!

So here are the three pieces that I illustrated, Sheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas, and Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens. These three pieces are Tone Poems, meaning they tell a story through the music. Hence, they are the easiest to draw!

Sheherazade is about a sultan who is convinced all women are faithless, and marries one woman each night and has her executed the next morning. Then one night, his bride is the clever and imaginative Sheherazade, who saves her life by telling him one enthralling story every night, and timing it just right so that it ends on a cliffhanger so that he needs her one more night to hear the rest! This goes on for 1,001 nights, until he finally lets her live. The piece ends tranquilly, with Sheherazade finally getting a good night's sleep!

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
[snort] We all know the story of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, right? A mischievous young apprentice gets ahold of his master's book of spells and wreaks havoc. I had a LOT of fun drawing this one, from his overblown look of awe to the random color swirls that are supposed to represent the magic he's performing. :D

Danse Macabre
Danse Macabre is a song made of awesome. It tells the story of Death, who goes to the graveyard at midnight on Halloween (the stroke of Twelve is represented by a Harp playing twelve D's in a row). He plays his violin (there is a solo violin part, and get this! The soloist actually uses a special tuning to sound really devilish!!) and forces the bones of the dead to dance a mad waltz. It becomes more frenzied and insane until the sun rises (represented by an oboe playing a chipper little riff). It's really cool, and we're playing it in concert this very Sunday! AAAAHHH!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Romeo and Juliet (Ballet) by Sergei Prokofiev [1938]

So we watched this ballet to kind of help us get a good mental image for the pieces we're playing in orchestra, and we ended up getting really attached to it. I mean really, this is a totally awesome ballet.
First off, the music is pretty good. Not all of it is masterpiece-level, but a good much of it is! Stand outs are...
The Dance of Knights; which we just covered in a post! This song is very oppressive, and mainly used as music during a ball at the Capulets, but it also reappears during some very tense fight scenes!
Masks! This song is kinda goofy sounding, and it plays during a fun scene when Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio are sneaking into the Capulet's party! On a darker note, when Mercutio is fatally stabbed fighting Tybalt, a riff from Masks plays, but this time in a somber key.
Before Parting. Omigosh, this piece!! This one has got to be my favorite song in the whole ballet, and plays during Romeo and Juliet's last pas de deux before he has to leave (this is after he kills Tybalt in a duel, and is subsequently banished). The strings sound like a rainfall, and it starts off with a very pretty little flute solo that repeats a few times, each with something slightly different. There is a really pretty viola solo, too! The pas de deux is closely followed by an amazing musical interlude that plays as Juliet makes up her mind to go to Friar Laurence and concoct a plan for her and her husband to stay together. This part is gorgeous, and has some really good brass action. In the suite, Before Parting and this Interlude are in the same track (as well as a later snippet that plays as Juliet contemplates and uses the potion), and it's amazing.
Aaaaanyway, I didn't think that I was a huge ballet fan, but I recently watched this one (obviously) and Swan Lake too, and I've come to really like some things about it. Like how much can be conveyed just through the combination of movement and music. There are is also at least one instance where the staging echoes the Shakespeare dialogue. At least in the staging we saw, I know there are two major choreographies for this ballet, and the one I'm talking about is the newer, more used one. Anyway, the way Mercutio's death was staged was so cool. Romeo and Tybalt end up on separate ends of the stage, with Mercutio in the middle. About to die from his wound, he struggles to keep his balance. He gestures violently towards Romeo, then towards Tybalt- as if to say "A plague 'o both your houses!", and then he collapses, dead. Chills, man. I got chills.
The following fight scene between Romeo and Tybalt was so incredibly tense. Romeo's actor was moving so fast, and swinging his sword with such raw fury and devastation- it was really good.

The Verdict: A
My only complaint with this magnificent adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy is that it ends with the suicide of Juliet, omitting the making of peace between the families. But as my sister pointed out, it would be super hard to do a talky scene like that in ballet pantomime style. So that's not even a huge issue. Prokofiev's score is wonderfully emotional and colorful. Listening to his other music, it seems that his dominant style is kind of wacky, but his quirky, modern style works well with the story and it comes to life. True, not all of the music is the same level of quality (sometimes it gets a bit random and weird), but the score, combined with the amazing choreography make this a really enjoyable ballet.