May Phang began piano studies in her native Singapore where she obtained her Associate and Licentiate diplomas from the Trinity College of Music (London) by the age of twelve. A graduate of McGill University in Canada, she obtained her doctorate from Temple University in Philadelphia. Currently Associate Professor of Piano at DePauw University, Indiana, her prior teaching positions include Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. She has given numerous solo recitals and chamber music concerts internationally, performing in venues such as the Goethe Institute in Bangkok, Tianjin Conservatory Concert Hall in China, Victoria Concert Hall in Singapore, Chapelle historique du Bon Pasteur and Place-des-Arts in Montreal, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kennedy Center for the Arts and National Gallery in Washington DC, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Detroit Institute of Art, and at festivals such as the Singapore Festival of Arts, the Montreal International Piano Festival, the Karol Szymanowski Festival in Zakopane, Poland, and the Festival de música de cámara de Aguascalientes, Mexico. A prizewinner of several competitions including the Chopin Young Pianists' Competition in Buffalo NY, Canadian Music Competition, Concours d'orchestre symphonique de Montréal, and Pontoise International Young Artists Competition in France, Dr. Phang has performed with orchestras such as the Banff Chamber Players, Singapore Symphony, Montreal Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Radio and television appearances include profiles on Singapore Broadcasting Corporation's "Life and Times" and "Arts Around" and broadcasts on Radio-Canada, Vermont Public Radio, WFLN, Philadelphia and WFMT, Chicago. An active music educator, she has been a teaching artist with Young Audiences of Indiana, adjudicated various competitions and given masterclasses and presentations at various institutions.
Franz Liszt, virtuoso pianist, composer, conductor, teacher, probably needs no introduction. He was well known for disseminating other composer’s music through his conducting and his piano transcriptions. His connection with Wagner ran both professionally and personally not only were both proponents of the New German School and musical visionaries in their individual ways, Wagner was also Liszt’s son-in-law.
Louis Brassin, Belgian pianist, teacher and composer, was a student of Ignaz Moscheles at the Leipzig Conservatory. His career alternated concertizing with key teaching positions at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, Brussels Conservatoire, and the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where in 1878, he took over the piano class of Theodor Leschetizky.
Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, from which Valhalla and Magic Fire Scene are respectively drawn, are the first two of four operas that comprise Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen. In Norse mythology, Valhalla (“the hall of the fallen”) is a majestic hall ruled by the god Odin (Wotan, in Wagner’s Ring). It may loosely be interpreted as a heaven for the brave, as half of all who are slain in battle are specially chosen by Odin to join other heroes and kings in this great hall to prepare for Ragnarok or Götterdammerüng (“The Twilight of the Gods”). They are led there by Valkyries. Valhalla is said to be golden and shiny, has spears as rafters, shields as roof thatches, and purportedly “rises peacefully” when seen from afar.
Magic Fire Scene concludes Die Walküre. Unhappy that Brünnhilde, his Valkyrie daughter, had disobeyed him in sparing his son Siegmund’s life in battle, yet knowing that she had done what he truly had desired, Wotan is reluctantly still forced to punish his favourite child. He divests her of her immortality, casts her in a deep sleep exposed to all on a mountain, but in contrition and with love, finally encircles her in a magic ring of fire for protection: "Whosoever fears the point of my spear shall not pass through the fire." This piano transcription is arguably Louis Brassin’s most famous work.
Dr. Sy Brandon, professor emeritus of music from Millersville University, was recently commissioned by the Arizona Centennial Commission to compose a band composition to celebrate Arizona’s 100th anniversary of statehood. Other first prize awards include WITF-FM's 25th Anniversary Composition Contest, and Franklin and Marshall College’s Wind Ensemble Composition Contest. The Czech National Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Bulgarica, and the Kiev Philharmonic have recorded his music.
Time Travel Phantasie was commissioned and premiered by May Phang at the 2013 Greencastle Summer Music Festival. It is based on Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” where a 19th century mechanic from Hartford Connecticut travels back to 6th century England. There, his scientific and historical knowledge hoodwink people into thinking him a magician. It has five sections that are all connected; Prologue, The Eclipse, The Holy Fountain, Sir Launcelot and the Knights to the Rescue, and Postlude.
From cycling knights, we move on to a lovelorn knight in Wagner’s 1859 opera, Tristan und Isolde, where a mistakenly administered love potion results in tragic love and subsequent death. In Liebestod (“love-death”), the final aria of the last act, Tristan has just died, and Isolde sings her farewell love song before joining him in death.
Mark Twain himself attended the Bayreuth Festival in the summer of 1891. In his travel letter, often retitled “At the Shrine of St. Wagner”, published in the Chicago Daily Tribune that same year, he recounts how it was “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion. This opera of Tristan and Isolde last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away.”
Twain was even more fascinated and captivated by Thomas Wiggins, nicknamed “Blind Tom”. Born blind to slave parents, Blind Tom exhibited characteristics of what would now be considered an autistic savant. He and his parents were sold before he was two to an anti-abolitionist lawyer Bethune, who on the one hand provided him the life he wanted with music, yet on the other, also exploited him. Twain wrote eloquently and frequently about Blind Tom, calling him an “inspired idiot”. By all accounts, Blind Tom could recreate any sounds he heard, including foreign languages he did not speak. One of his popular acts was simultaneously playing two different tunes in each hand while singing a third, all in different keys. In contrast to his own turbulent life, his Nocturne Rêve-charmant takes us to a quieter place with peaceful dreams.
Russian-born American pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch was first introduced to Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens, a contralto, by their mutual teacher in Vienna, noted pianist and pedagogue Theodor Leschetitzky. They married in October, 1909. Upon his relocation to the United States, Gabrilowitsch was offered the position of conductor of the Boston Symphony, but graciously suggested that the post be given to Sergei Rachmaninov, who had also just arrived in the States. Still maintaining an active career as a concert pianist, he was subsequently hired as the founding director of the Detroit Symphony in 1918, and in negotiating a new concert hall before he would accept the position, was responsible for the construction of Orchestra Hall. His Caprice Burlesque is programmed here as a play on Twain’s
Connecticut Yankee, which is itself a satire, or burlesque.
Mischa Levitzki was a concert pianist born to naturalized American citizens on a visit to their native Ukraine. After initial piano studies in Warsaw, he continued his studies at New York’s Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School), then at Berlin’s Hochschule für Müsik with Ernõ Dohnányi. Besides performing internationally up until his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 42 in 1941, he also recorded extensively for AMPICO Roll Piano Company in the 1920s and 1930s. The Enchanted Nymph was one of Levitzki’s most popular compositions.
No mention of Mark Twain can go without an association with Huckleberry Finn. It thus seemed natural to pair the “father of American Literature” with the “father of American music”, Stephen Foster. Just as Twain’s “Great American Novel” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been criticized for politically inappropriate language, Foster’s minstrel songs, of which Camptown Races is one, have also received similar criticisms for racism not only because of language, but also because of their association with the use of blackface. Proponents, on the other hand, claim that Twain and Foster were simply realists, portraying events of their time as they saw it.
Regardless of original subject matter, Foster’s catchy melodies are timeless, as are the sentiments they express. For example, conflicting accounts exist of who “Jeanie” in Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair is - his dead sister, or his wife. “Jeanie”, a song with a beautiful melody and lush harmonies, could just as easily represent something inanimate - a fond memory, or a cherished moment.
Elinor Remick Warren, born in Los Angeles, was a prolific composer of over two hundred works, mostly for voice, chorus and orchestra. She was also active as a solo pianist and in demand as a vocal accompanist up until the 1940s, when she gave up touring to focus exclusively on composing. She praised Foster’s melodies for “combining the folk song feeling with one of classic beauty”, commenting also that “they are certainly the most beloved of our earlier native music.” She often surprised and delighted her audiences with her 1940 concert transcriptions of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Beautiful Dreamer and De Camptown Races at vocal concerts where she was accompanist. Of special note, Warren visited Bayreuth in 1912 and was ecstatic with the performance of Wagner’s Siegfried. Mysticism is also a recurrent theme in many of her major choral works, such as The Legend of King Arthur.
Be they knights or nymphs, magicians or dreamers, may the allure of the mysterious and mystical always feed our imagination and keep hope alive.