Tag Archives: Beethoven

Basically Beethoven is a big hit in Dallas…

Ludwig van Beethoven

Well known portrait of Beethoven


I just got back from the final performance of this years Basically Beethoven festival.  The Basically Beethoven festival is an annual event every July.  The principal organization that is behind the event is The Fine Arts Chamber Players.  The first half of the program featured 3 young students from the Suzuki Institute of Dallas.  An 8 year old boy played the first movement of a Haydn Sonata, a 9 year girl played Csardas by Vittorio Monti, and a 14 year old boy played the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52 of Chopin.  It was an amazing display of talent by some very young and very seasoned performers.

Another great thing about this concert was the attendance.  There were probably more than 400 people there and they were from all walks of life and age groups.  It was great to see so many young people at a concert of this type of music.

After the intermission the Aeolus Quartet took the stage.  The Aeolus Quartet is a fairly new group that was formed in 2008 at the Cleveland Institute of Music.  (By the way, before they performed they announced that they were all also Suzuki school graduates.)  They are already making a big name for themselves.  They took their name from the Greek god Aeolus who was god of the wind.  An interesting name for a group of string players.

The first piece they performed was by an American composer named Michael Torke (b.1961)  Torke studied composition at Yale University where he emerged as a major force in the “post-Minimalism” movement.  At the very young age of 23 he launched his professional career.  He has written scores for the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as well as other commissions.   The composition was called “Corner in Manhattan.  It is a descriptive composition of a three way intersection near Tocke’s home in New York. The first movement is called “Sixth Ave. in the Afternoon”, the second is called “Bedford St. at Night”, and the third movement is called “Houston St. in the Morning.”

Usually contemporary compositions send most audiences scurrying for the exits.  This however was a very easy piece to listen to.  In the first movement you could really hear the rushing of traffic and people on the streets.  The second movement was quiet and very melodic.  It featured a haunting melody that was passed from player to player.  The last movement was descriptive of a city slowly waking up.  The starting and stopping of cars, the constant but irregular noise that slowly builds until finally the day begins.

The piece received a spirited and accomplished performance.  The quartet played as one person in perfect symmetry.

The featured work was the great masterpiece of Beethoven:  String Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132.  This quartet was finished in 1825; just two years before Beethoven’s death.  He had been extremely sick and even his Doctor thought Beethoven might not recover.  Although the quartet is not programmatic (like the Torker piece) , it does mirror Beethoven’s feelings of near death, recovery, and renewed hope for the future.  Just like the 5th and 9th symphony the quartet takes a journey from darkness to light.

When the quartet started quietly,with great mystery and foreboding; I thought it sounded more modern than the Toche composition.  I believe I see the seed of every Mahler Symphony in this quartet.  First there is the way Beethoven repeats the exposition differently every time it appears.  He expands and modifies the Sonata Allegro form to the point that it is almost unrecognizable.  Transition sections sound like mini development sections.  The recapitulation occurs in a totally different and distant key.  The linear line of the music is far more important than the vertical structure.  Tonality is beginning to erode.  This movement received a dense and intense performance of high musicality.

The second movement surprisingly is not a Scherzo but more of a minuet.   Here is Mahler’s inspiration for all the Landlers in his symphony’s.  The Aeolus quartet had a great sense of the description Beethoven attached to the movement “Allegro ma non tanto”. (Meaning “Fast but not to much”).   You could easily feel the momentum of the minuet.

The heart of this masterwork is the third movement Adagio.  Again Beethoven blazes the trail for Mahler with this stunning, long, beautiful Adagio.  Beethoven attached a tittle to this movement that translates:  “A Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.”  Lydian mode is just like the scale of F major except the note of B is not flat.  In other words, you would play in the key of F but use only the white keys.  It is an ancient church mode that goes back to the days of Gregorian Chant.  In this movement the Aeolus players cast a spell upon the audience.  I was transfixed and transported into a world of complete and heavenly beauty.  When the movement ended I could tell I was not alone. There was one of those rare moments when a movement ends and total silence was all one could hear.  Not a paper rattled, not a chair squeaked, not a person coughed, etc…  Total silence as the spell of this great performance died away in the performance hall.

The last two movements are joined by a violin recitative that is featured in the first movement.  The fourth movement is a very short march (Again a feature of several Mahler Symphonies.)  The brief march leads directly into the finale.  This movement was originally intended to be the last movement of the 9th symphony, but Beethoven abandoned it for the Choral finale that the 9th now ends with.  In this movement the music takes us through the catharsis that ultimately leads to Triumph.  The Aeolus quartet was more than up for the challenges as they easily scaled the mountaintop of music making.  Overall their playing was laser sharp and musically brilliant.  I expect we will be hearing more and more from this group of wonderful talented musicians.

Congratulations to the festival, the Fine Arts Chamber Players, and to the many people that came out to hear great music wonderfully played on a VERY HOT SUNDAY AFTERNOON!






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The Symphony that changed the world…

So one day I’m talking to my wife about music and I tell her I have this great idea for a book.  She listened with half an ear.  My idea was to write a book about the Beethoven 9th and it’s impact on music and world history.  “Oh great honey.  You should do that…”   Well, I was already too late.  The following Sunday I pick up the Arts section of the Dallas Morning News and what do I see?  A review of Harvey Sachs book “The 9th Beethoven and the World in 1824.”  I have to admit I was furious!  It’s funny how suddenly I felt like I had been wronged.  Like I would have actually written the book myself? 
In any case I’m glad the book has been written and I’m glad it was written by Harvey Sachs.  Harvey wrote a great book I read some time ago about Artur Rubinstein. “Rubinstein: A Life”
The book is divided into four parts.  The first section is the history of the writing and the debut of the Ninth Symphony.  There is fascinating detail here.  Where Beethoven lived at the time, the arrangements for the performance, the debut itself, some debunking of myth surrounding the first performance, and it’s aftermath.
Part Two is called “1824 or how Artist internalize Revolution.”  Sachs discusses how the defeat and disappoint of Napoleon led to the birth of the “Romantic” period in music, art, and literature.  Havey credits Marie-Henri Beyle, a.k.a Stedhal with being the first person to perceive the relationship between “death of the Revoluion and the birth of Romanticism.”  He decusses the impact of Romanticism on the philosphy of G.W.F. Hegel who said “Philosphoy my expect attention and love again; when this science, stricken dumb, can lift up its voice again and hope that a world which had become deaf to it may lend an ear to it once more.”  Sach states that if you change “philosophy” and “science” to “music’ and “art”, Beethoven himself could have said this.
As monarchy’s re-solidified there hold on power after the defeat of Napolean, poets, artists, and musicians looked to bold statements like the ninth to inspire them to rage against empirial rule.  “All Men Are Brothers” the finale of the 9th proclaims.  Lord Byron even stated that he was “fighting freedoms battle.”  Sachs concludes that “the hidden thread” that connects the other important works of 1824 is the quest for freedom proclaimed in the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth.  This is one of the most interesting parts of the book as Mr. Sachs tries to connect Beethoven’s Ninth to the works of Heinrich Henine, Byron, Eugene Delacroix, Nietzsche, and Goethe.
Part three of the book is entittled “Imaging the Ninth.”  I recommend reading along with a score of the ninth and a recording.  If you don’t have a score then at least listen to the ninth as Harvey Sachs gives you a verbal discription in painstaking and engrossing detail.  This is a fantastic section.  I am reminded of the movie about Beethoven “Imortal Beloved” In the movie there is a performance of the finale of the 9th and it turns into a fantasy sequiece of what Beethoven may have been imagining when he wrote it.  I love Mr. Sachs verbal discription of  this amazing work!
Part 4 of the book is about how music and musicians moved forward after the debut of the 9th.  Every great composer after Beethoven talked about how intemidating it was to compose a Symphony after the 9th.  Beethoven had an enormous impact on Hector Berlioz.  By the end of Berlioz life he had become know as “The French Beethoven”.  His shadow towered over Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Malher just to name a few.  His impact on Wagner is also discussed.
This is just a highly readable, very informative book by a highly skilled writer.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves music.  You do not have to be a trained musician to enjoy this book.  It will benefit the novice as well as the highly informed musician.

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Things Happen For A Reason…

Do you believe in fate or destiny? I do. I met an interesting musician on a plane recently and I have to share this with you.

It was very early in the morning. I get on the plane and take my seat. As is my custom when I travel, I plan to read and listen to music. The passenger in the next seat is a young Hispanic man. He also has a book and an iPod ready to go. He looked tired so I was thinking that he wouldn’t have to read very long before he fell asleep.

I was reading a book called “The Ninth, Beethoven and the World in 1824” by Harvey Sachs. (I plan to blog about this book very soon.) The passenger next to me asked me, “Excuse me, but I see from the title of that book that you are interested in music. Are you by chance a musician? Well, this is a question I love and hate to answer. In my core being I am and always will be a highly trained dedicated musician, but my gig that pays the bills is very different. So I said what I usually say: ” Well, yes and no. My educational background is that of a musician, but I don’t make my living that way.”

My fellow passenger introduced himself as Daniel Ochoa Valez. He said he was traveling from Mexico City to Rochester New York. I asked if he was a musician. He said he was studying composition. He was currently studying in Mexico City but he had also studied in Germany, and The Netherlands. “Why are you traveling to Rochester?” I asked.

“A friend of mine has helped me obtain a commission.” said Daniel. Daniel had traveled on a bus from Mexico City to Laredo, Texas, cleared customs, got on a second bus to San Antonio, got on a train to Dallas and was now sitting in the seat next to me. He was extremely tired. But he was on an important journey that would ultimately result in a new piece of music for the planet.

“Wow!” , I said. ” Tell me more about this.”

Daniel has a friend that is the principle Organist for a Church in Rochester. He got Daniel a commission to write a piece for the Church Organ. The Organ is a replica of a Baroque organ in Europe. In preparation for the process of writing the piece, Daniel was flying to Rochester to see the Organ, learn about it’s capabilities, and discuss the composition with the Organist that would perform the debut. He said his friend had figured out ways for the Organ to play quarter tones. Quarter tones are notes between notes. Our western culture does not traditionally contain quarter tones. Other cultures like China, and India regularly use quarter tones in their music. Charles Ives was one of the first American composers to experiment with quarter tones and many modern day composers may employ them.

I found this very fascinating. I asked Daniel what modern day composers he liked. Daniel listed Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Ligeti, Berio , and George Crumb. This made him even more interesting to me. I said, “You must like Prepared Piano.” Daniel said that he not only enjoyed it, he had written prepared piano pieces. (Prepared Piano means inserting things into the piano to change it’s sound or playing the piano with foreign objects.” It turns a piano into a virtual synthesiser.)

He told me about his You-Tube site. I told him about my blog. We exchanged contact information and agreed to stay in touch.

Over the weekend I looked at his videos and really enjoyed his music. I e-mailed him and told him I was going to post him on my blog.

I was reading the other day that Thom Yorke (Lead Singer of Radiohead) had a conversation with a recording studio A & R man. The A & R guy asked where all the talented musicians were. Thom  yelled at him that they were everywhere but record companies are too afraid to take chances on new music! I agree with Thom Yorke, there is talent everywhere. Not only are record companies afraid of new music, so are most listeners. This is a real shame since so much great music is being written but not getting heard.

There is this idea of the “Socially Aware Non-Attenders”. People that understand modern Achitecture and Art but disconnect and can’t seem to support the equivalant when it comes to music.

This music will challenge you. You must listen to this music with an open mind and heart. You should listen to each piece a few times. Absorb it. Drink it in.

My favorite is Nebula. This compostion was inspired by a poem by Hermann Hesse the Nobel Prize winning author. The poem is about how we can be so disconnected from the people around us that we wander like trees in a fog bank. We can not see or move toward another tree; and yet, there isn’t any fog in real life. Enjoy the music of Daniel Orhoa Valdez.

Nebula by Daniel Ochoa Valdez

This string quartet is in three movements. Introduction-Intermezzo- and Finale.

Caribous by Danel Ochoa Valdez

An experimental piece for prepared and amplified piano. Premiere at the University of Siegen, Summer Semester 2009’s Arrangement Concert, organized by Prof. Martin Herchenröder. Music composed and performed by Daniel Ochoa. Winner of the Second Prize at the Carl’s Award composition competition at the Ahtelas New Music Festival 2010
Night Sky by Daniel Ochoa Valdez

If you would like to hear more of his work you can serch You-Tube for D8aV and it will connect to his sight. I hope you enjoyed his music as much as I did. I look forward to hearing the composition for organ.

Daniel and I were not like the trees in the poem by Hesse. We took the time to make a connection. I for one, am glad I did not stay in my fog bank. Good luck Daniel and keep exploring new horizons!

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Plano Symphony Performs Beethoven’s 9th

Last night my wife andI attended our first concert of the Plano Symphony Orchestra.  This is kind of embarrassing because Plano has had a symphony since 1983.  It has grown from a chamber orchestra to a full fledged orchestra. 

The performance of the Beethoven 9th is a test for any orchestra and conductor in the world.  It is a massive composition of over one hour in length and requires a large orchestra, a full chorus, and four solo singers.  It is a piece of music that is wired into my psyche.  I have seen it performed live twice before and I listen to it every December 16th in honor of the birth of Beethoven. (So what if you think its silly:-) The attempt to perform such a masterpiece is a statement by the Plano Symphony that they feel they have arrived.  After last night I would say they largely succeeded.

The evening began with the Mozart Symphony No 40 in G minor K.550.  Mozart wrote this symphony late in his short life and he may never have seen it performed live.  Hector Guzman, the conductor of the the Plano Symphony, set his tempo’s largely on the slower side.  I for one like this approach to Mozart.  Some time the tempo’s of Mozart performances are so fast that it seems like a race to see who finishes first.  This is somber, uneasy music and Mr Guzman brought out the more romantic forward looking side of Mozart that led directly to the symphonies of Beethoven and everyone who followed.  The andante is sometimes played too slow but Guzman and the orchestra nailed the Andante “walking pace” of the movement.  The Menuetto/Allegretto was muscular and dramatic.  Because Mr. Guzman didn’t play the first movement at a break neck pace, it set up the finale “Allegro assai” beautifully and it raced ahead full of angst, anxiety and drama.  This was music making at a very high level.

The first movement of the Beethoven was again taken a little slower than I’ve heard.  This added weight and foreboding to the music.  I noticed that Maestro Guzman chose to skip the repeat in the opening Allegro.  I think because of time concerns.  The performance started at 8:15 and was delayed by a special presentation to the retiring executive director Alice Hobbs, who is responsible for bringing the orchestra to the level of success they have achieved.  Usually when the 9th is performed only a short composition is performed before because the 9th is so long.  In any case the first movement was performed deliberately and workman like.  It never rose to the point of magic but still admirably executed.  The Scherzo is almost as famous as the “Ode to Joy” Choral finale.  It was wonderfully played with crisp and emotional execution by the orchestra although I did notice a few spots where co-ordination between sections was a little off.  Unless you have heard the work as much as I have it was probably not noticed by the general public.  It was in the third movement that had the most problems.  Many people mistakenly feel that playing fast must be much more difficult than playing slow.  It is my feeling that the reverse is true.  First, when you play slow your rythme must be perfect andthe music must not lose it’s forward momentum.  Second, mistakes are more easy to notice and so you are much more exposed during slow compositions.  Both things seemed to affect the orchestra.  There are several moments in the Adagio where various woodwind and horn players have solo moments.  Not all of these were executed flawlessly.  (By the way, these solo’s are also very demanding.) In the end the “molto cantablie” was achieved and set up the orchestral blast that leads to the finally beautifully. 

The four soloist came out to be seated after the 2nd movement so that the orchestra could go straight into the finale with almost no break.  The soloist were as follows:  Alex Bumpas, Tenor; Blake Davidson, Bass; Laura Mercado-Wright, Mezzo Soprano; and(A last minute substitution) Algela Turner Wilson, Soprano.  The finale was very well done with only a few minor faux pas.  It is always so dramatic to me when the chorus stands up to sing.  The chorus was very well prepared and performed admirably.  Of the four soloist I thought that the Tenor, Alex Bumpas and the Soprano Angela Turner Wilson were fantastic.  I predict that Alex Bumpas is going places.  He was just amazing.  Angela Wilson has a huge but beautiful voice.  Even though the 9th taxes every singers range there was not sign of it last night from these two singers.  What a performance!

So in the end I give the performance a B.  Quite an accomplishment for a organization that was a chamber orchestra just a few years ago.  The future is bright and Hector Guzman is quite a talented conduct and music director.  I for one am going to buy season tickets for next year.  This was the final performance of their 8 concert season.  Congratulation to Hector Guzman, the Plano Symphony, it’s staff and to Alice Hobbs who played such an important role in bringing the symphony to this point. ENCORE!!  


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In the Presence of Genius

Stephen Hough performs Paderewski Nocturne

I was lucky enough to be at Bass Hall in Fort Worth Texas Tuesday night March 1, 2011 to witness the performance of a piano recital by Stephen Hough. I feel that Stephen is one of the top pianists performing today. Stephen was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2001, the Northwestern University Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance in 2008, and won the 2010 Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist Award. He is one of the top selling “classical artist” ( I hate the phrase “Classical Music!) working today. The awards his recordings have received are way to numerous to list here. I will strongly recommend his recordings of the complete Saint-Saens Piano Concerto’s and the Complete Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos. These are must have recordings! He has recently recorded the complete works for Piano and Orchestra of Tchaikovsky with the Minnesota Orchestra led by Osmo Vanska. I can’t wait to get my hands on that set of CD’s. Stephen is a resident of London, England and holds the International Chair of Piano Studies at the Royal Northem College in Manchester, England.

The choice of compositions was fascinating. The program was made up of all piano sonatas. (Except for the Encores) Here is the program that Stephen Performed Tuesday night:

Beethoven: Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor Opus 27 No. 2. (Popularly known as the “Moonlight Sonata”)

Janacek: Sonata 1.X.1905 z Ulicy

Scriabin: Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Opus 30


Scriabin: Sonata No. 5, Opus 53

Liszt: Sonata in B minor


Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat Major Opus 9 No. 2

Paderewski: Nocturne in B-flat Major Opus 16 No. 4

Wow, what a night! I’ll just begin at the beginning. What is a Sonata? The piano sonata is a formal Structure that composers used over the years to develop musical ideas. The form grew out of the late Baroque period of music. The Father of the piano sonata was the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti. These short sonatas echoed the form in poetry called the Sonnet. The idea was to give form to longer compositions. So the piece took on a A-B-A-B them followed by a Development Section; and then a recapitulation to the A-B-A-B section and sometimes ending with a Coda section. This form that became known as Sonata Allegro form was very ingrained by the time of Mozart and Hayden. Hayden wrote between 50 and 60 piano sonatas and they almost all follow the formal structure of a sonata. (Some of them have Slow adagio openings before the formal A-B-A-B themes begin.) Mozart wrote about 18 sonatas. It may come as no surprise that Mozart became bored with the strict structural form of the sonata; so, some of his begin to break down the strict rules that are typical of this form of composition. What was so interesting about the sonata’s Mr. Hough chose for this recital is that none of them could be considered typical of the traditional form

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote 32 piano sonatas. These works are the ultimate in all of piano compositions in my humble opinion. By the time of Beethoven’s death he had completely transformed, expanded and exploded what a piano sonata could be. One of his earliest attempts to expand and innovate the sonata is Opus 27 number 1 & 2. These sonatas were subtitled “Sonata quasi una fantasia” (Meaning: Sonata in the manner of a Fantasy”. Instead of the typical A-B-A-B theme the Sonata Opus 27 No. 2 begins as a mournful song. Quiet arpeggio’s rock along as the little finger of the right hand mainly plays out the somber melody. This music is so familiar and so many people can play this movement that that creates the difficulty of performing it. (This was one of the first pieces I ever learned to play). Stephen Hough’s performance was just beautiful. The minuet second movement was great in his emphasis of the syncopation in the rhythm. Beethoven was a real innovator of syncopation and rhythm. The second movement is followed by the wild and difficult third movement. This movement follows the traditional form of the sonata. Mr. Hough’s tempo was electrifying. I’ve heard this movement played fast before but fast and artistically is a different story. I just don’t see how it could have been played any better.

Leos Janacek (1854 – 1928) wrote only one piano sonata. This sonata is in two movements and this sonata is also not in any typical sonata Allegro form. It was composed when Janacek was 51 years old. The title refers to the date October 1, 1905. The composition is a protest piece composed in reaction to the bayoneting of an innocent peasant who had come out to show his support to students peacefully demonstrating the need for a Czech university to the German Authorities. The other part of the tittle “z Ulicy” is translated “from the street”. I am a great student of piano literature but I had never heard of this composition before. Originally the sonata was supposed to have three movements but Janacek did not believe the music was worthy of the subject matter so he destroyed the last movement. The sonata is only 12 minutes long but very concentrated with emotion. Mr. Hough played the first movement with bittersweet and restless momentum. It is entitled “The Presentiment” . The second movement was entitled “Death”. The notes I made during this movement were: “More like a life remembered than a death mourned.” This movement has all the typical open tonality of other masterworks by Janacek. It was simply heartrendingly played by a master performer.

Scriabin (1872-1915) wrote the sonata number 4 in 1903 when he was 31 years old. This was his last sonata that could be said to be in any key (F-sharp major). The difference between the 4th and 5th sonata is dramatic. He left traditional tonality behind for ever. Scriabin wrote 10 sonatas during his life. This sonata has two movements. The first movement was taken at a walking pace and played with sweetness and quietness. It is a tribute to Bass Hall that the softest notes could be so clearly heard. I was in the left orchestra section about 15 rows back but I would bet that no matter where you sat the beautiful quite playing of Mr. Hough could be clearly heard. The second movement is played as fast as possible. Because of the flawless technique of Mr. Hough, this was mind-blowing fast! The theme of the first movement returns with great drama and ecstasy. The concert hall erupted with applause. So much incredible music and it was only intermission.

The Scriabin Sonata number 5 is well known mainly because Vladamir Horowitz played it often in recital. It is a one movement masterpiece and very difficult to play. It is so different than sonata number four it’s hard to believe the same composer wrote. It has stanza from a poem written on the tittle page. “I summon you to life, hidden longings! you, drowned in the dark depths of the creative spirit, you fearful embryos of life, I bring you daring!” In order to play this piece the pianist must totally risk everything. Sviatoslav Richer thought it was one of the two most difficult pieces in all of piano literature to play. Mr. Hough was more than up to the task as he tore his Steinway apart! At the end of the sonata Mr. Hough moved his 9 foot Steinway a foot and a half to the right with the force of the last cord! It was not just virtuosic, it was dazzlingly musical. I thought no one could play this piece like Horowitz, but I was fortunate to see a man be able to recreate with is hands exactly what he heard in his mind. I used to think that only Horowitz could do that. Welcome Stephen Hough to the Pantheon of the Gods.

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) This too, is one of the most difficult compositions for piano that was ever conceived by the mind of man. I love that Mr. Hough closed with this piece. It is the perfect bookend to the Beethoven. Beethoven, the master of the motif (Like the entire 5th symphony of Beethoven built out of the fate motif); inspiring Franz Liszt to attempt to out motif Beethoven. Two basic motives built this entire 20 minute plus single movement work. The first motive is ominous bass notes followed by the almost Wagnerian more melodic second motive. I have heard this piece performed many many times. Sometimes very badly and a few times ingeniously. This performance is up there with the very best ever. To make music so beautifully Mr. Hough had to be completely unconscious of the enormous technical difficulties the composition presents. His performance was simply beautiful.

After a long standing ovation Mr. Hough returned to play two quite and beautiful Nocturne to calm us all down so we could go to sleep. The first was the very famous Chopin Nocturne in E-flat Major Opus 9 no 2. It was exactly what it was supposed to be: a beautiful night song. I love the Bel Canto melodic sense of Chopin. He wrote these pieces as a tribute to Bel Canto style singing. What a song it was. again the quietness of the ending could be heard clearly and was spellbinding.

Last was the Paderewski Nocturne in B-flat major Opus 16 No. 4 by Jan Paderewski. I had never heard this piece before and it was such a nice surprise and a beautiful way to end the concert. I have attached a You-tube video of Stephen Hough performing this very piece. Enjoy.

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