Dr. Mark Birnbaum: COOL PIANO (REVIEW)
Hell's Kitchen Productions January 2007
Maestro Birnbaum presents a potent program displaying his virtuosity as well as his extraordinarily heartfelt interpretive skills. He has mastered the idioms of Joplin, Debussy, and Scriabin—a rare feat, and here he has selected pieces that well complement each other. His Joplin is earthy, detailed and playful, projecting a thoroughly carnal love of life. In the Debussy works, Birnbaum captures his impressionism with a painterly touch, from the majesty of the “Sunken Cathedral” to the piquant vista of “Reverie.” He evokes that surging sense of decadence and diablerie so essential to Scriabin including the dissonant “Sonata #9” (Black Mass) and the mysterious tremolo-infused “Sonata #10” (Insect Sonata).
The recording is excellent, miked close enough to capture plenty of detail yet with enough room reverberation to allow the sonorities evoked to resonate without obscuring the musical lines. Whether you are a longtime listener to masters of pianism or someone new to this form of music, this album will serve you well, seducing you to listen again and again. Click on the album cover above to visit Dr. Birnbaum’s site.
MARK BIRNBAUM BIO (WIKIPEDIA)
Mark Birnbaum (b. 1952) is an American musician.
A classically-trained composer and pianist, and a television personality, Birnbaum earned a Doctorate in Music from Columbia University in 1982. In 1983, he composed and directed the successful off-Broadway show, "A Day Together", which was funded by the Helena Rubenstein Foundation and travelled throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Encouraged by Andy Warhol, Steve Allen and a chance encounter with Richard Nixon, he moved to playing (and singing) ragtime, blues, and jazz, successfully appearing in Birdland, The Angry Squire, and other nightclubs in the New York City metropolitan area. From 1990 to 1993 he appeared nightly (dressed in flashy clothing) as staff pianist on the Joe Franklin television show (WWOR-TV).
At Edith O'Hara's 13th Street Theatre, Birnbaum has had successful one-man shows -'Ragtime 94', 'Ragtime 96' and most recently 'Hot Piano! Ragtime, Blues & Jazz'.
Nicknamed "Mr Ragtime" by Captain Lou Albano, Birnbaum continues to record, perform, and reinvent Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and1920's-1950's music. In 2005, Birnbaum was awarded an honorary degree from the Neupauer Conservatory (the Order of the Shield) by Dr William Schimmel for his work with the accordion.
In December of 2007, Schimmel and Birnbaum recorded together for the first time with the help of Micki Goodman and Godfrey Nelson their recent project "Duality Wrecks", which covers the entire spectrum of rock and roll, rockabilly, swing, ballads and punk in a 50 minute continuum (interludes composed by the performers) www.billschimmel.com
As a pedagogue, Birnbaum has pioneered a radical method to teaching the piano, involving meditation, deep breathing and slow motion transformation ("going faster by going slower"). Birnbaum also suggests healthful ideas(vegetarianism, black-strap molasses, goji berry juice) designed to further one's ability to learn faster and clearer with more energy.
Hurricane Katrina: As a tribute to the birthplace of Jazz(and the greatest jazz man), in 2006 Birnbaum released "Jelly Morton's Missing New Orleans" (piano & vocals)
Although less of a fixture on late night television, Birnbaum, when away from the piano, is still regarded (and photographed quite often) as one of the flashiest dressed men imaginable; ultra-modern eyeglasses, top hat,two-tone shoes, brilliant colored suits...and weather permitting, floor-length (faux) fur coats. Is he part Mr. Monopoly, Liberace, Gangsta-rapper and Pimp? That's what he is asked. Warhol did tell Birnbaum that "America Loves Visual Images"
COOL PIANO (REVIEW)
Scott Joplin Debussy Scriabin
Edward Jablonski, 2003, Official Biographer of George Gershwin
Composer-pianist Mark Birnbaum has no problem with crossovers. With a doctorate in music from Columbia University, he graduated into keeping ragtime alive in nightclubs in the New York City metropolitan area and serving as staff pianist on the popular Joe Franklin television show.
These three composers, while individual, share philosophies, even sounds, but remain themselves. Mark Birnbaum's playing fits the concept of the collection.
While I avoid sneaking opinions into annotations for recordings, I must admit I love this album!
Consider this unique compilation of works by a remarkable group of composers, one French, another Russian, an Englishman and an American. All were creatively active around the same time, the early twentieth century. All composed in the larger forms - symphonies, concertos, and operas. They are celebrated for their piano miniatures; miniatures but in no way small. In this genre they share, besides the time, a common trait: they were all masters.
Scott Joplin (1868-1917) did not create ragtime, he refined the form and was it's most influential and creative composer. He was born in Texarkana, the son of a former slave who played the violin. Recognizing his son's musical gifts, Giles Joplin bought a second-hand piano with his earnings as a railroad worker.
Initially self-taught, Joplin was taken under the wing of a local teacher of German birth. He was given a solid groundwork in the fundamentals of music by this unknown benefactor.
By the age of fourteen Joplin set out on his own, playing piano in bordellos in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. His hopes of becoming a concert pianist were never realized-the time and place being infelicitous.
His travels took him to the town of Seledia, Missouri, where he studied music at the local college, composed and, fortunately, met a white music publisher, John Stark, at the Maple Leaf Club. Joplin had by then published his Original Rags, but it was Stark who published the appropriately titled Maple Leaf Rag.
The success of this composition encouraged Stark to set up shop in St. Louis. Joplin followed, established himself in business (he owned a boarding house), taught music and composed. He wrote his first opera, A Guest of Honor-A Ragtime Opera, in St. Louis (now lost).
Joplin's seriousness is apparent in the form and content of his works; many writers have compared him to Chopin. His original works for piano should not be confused with the Tin Pan Alley products that followed erratically in Joplin's musical path. To assure correct performances of his compositions Joplin prepared his book, School of Ragtime (1908).
Stark's business grew thanks primarily to the creations of Joplin. Ragtime was truly in vogue to the degree that the 1904 St. Louis World¹s Fair featured a National Ragtime Contest.
Encouraged and planning greater things, John Stark & Son opened an office in New York, the music publishing center of the country. Shortly after, Scott Joplin joined him (after six years, when the ragtime vogue began to wane, Stark returned to St. Louis).
Joplin remained in New York City, composed his New Rag, one of his last works in 1912 and devoted virtually the rest of his life to an opera, Treemonisha, which he had completed the year before but was not produced until 1915. Obsession with the opera and frustration (not even Stark would publish Treemonisha) led to a breakdown; in the hospital it was found that Joplin suffered from syphilis. This lead to dementia paralyctica and death at the age of 49.
The age of jazz, beginning around the time of Joplin's death ended the ragtime era, but in the 1970's the music of Joplin was rediscovered, thanks to the use of one of his rags in the film, The Sting. The new vogue not only placed Joplin in his appropriate place as a major American composer it brought ragtime, by him and some of his contemporaries, to a new generation and appreciation. He was even heard in the concert hall he had failed to enter.
In 1976 he was awarded the posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) proved to be a revolutionary and rebellious student at the Paris Conservatory to which he was admitted at the age of ten. He was a fine pianist, but was often in trouble for asking embarrassing questions and deploring the "rules" of harmony and form.
His mature style has been called "Impressionism," a term borrowed from French painting at the time and one he detested. But some of his best friends were impressionist artists (Monet, for example, who started it all). He also ran with the group of young poets specializing in the new poetry, "Symbolism," including Paul Verlaine, whose words he would set to music.
Still, Debussy's compositions feel painterly; his use of the whole-tone Oriental scales, dissonance, his misty harmonies and other innovative devices evoke atmosphere and color. Even the titles of some works suggest pictures. These "different" compositions garnered him invective from critics, hostility in audiences and many imitators.
Critics accused him of abandoning melody, rhythm and form. Debussy, one wrote, employed "unprecise harmonies and fleeting phrases." But Debussy himself hoped to compose music "that should seem not to have been written down." He evidently knew what he was doing for, despite predictions, his music is still here and the writings of the abusive critics makes amusing reading.
Now recognized as a major composer of his time and all time, Debussy lived an often difficult, and short life. He was burdened by debt and an unhappy marriage and, in the last years, the cancer that killed him at the age of fifty-six.
Ironically, the man who freed French music from the Germanic yoke (Wagner) should have heard the sounds of German artillery approaching Paris - the last sounds Debussy heard.
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was, as succinctly put by musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, a "remarkable Russian composer whose solitary genius had no predecessors and left no disciples."
Definitely one of a kind, Scriabin was enrolled in a military school at the age of nine, despite evidence of a musical talent as a piano student. Three years later he deserted the military to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where he proved to be a brilliant pianist, but never graduated in composition because of disagreements with his teacher Anton Arensky.
He had composed a great deal while still at the conservatory. His early piano pieces echoed Chopin, but his mature works, inspired by mysticism (he was a believer in Theosophy" and musical experiments with what he called the "mystic chord," resulted in innovations in harmony. No plain triads for Scriabin, but what came to be called "5-story chords," in his piano compositions as well as his works for orchestra.
His piano pieces are among the most exquisite ever written. Near the end of his life Scriabin spoke of a massive work, The Mysterium, that would be performed in the Himalayas and would take a week to perform (as had the Creation). This did not come off. In his 43rd year, Scriabin suffered from a simple lip pimple which grew toxic and killed him.