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  • Writer's pictureDan Perttu

The Muse in Music: Andrés Franco’s Listening List for Quarantine -- from "Strange Fruit" to Bach

By, Dan Perttu

For this post of my “Muse in Music” blog, I am shifting to a slightly different angle. During the coronavirus pandemic, so many people are isolated and cannot see much in the way of live concerts, so I thought that it would be wonderful to interview leading musicians in the “classical” music industry about what they would recommend for listening at home. For this post, I am interviewing Andrés Franco, the Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. A frequent guest conductor in the U.S., Europe, and South America, Mr. Franco has appeared with the symphonies of Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Eugene, Elgin, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Mississippi, Omaha, Springfield, and St. Louis; the philharmonic orchestras of Boise and Oklahoma City; and the Chicago Sinfonietta. Worldwide, he has conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León/Spain, the Orquesta Sinaloa de las Artes/Mexico, the National Symphony Orchestra of Peru, as well as the Bogotá Philharmonic, Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional, Medellin Philharmonic, and EAFIT Symphony Orchestra in Colombia. I am thrilled to have him as my guest on my blog.

Dan: I appreciate your willingness to talk with me and to contribute to my blog! Let’s get right into it with your recommended listening list. I’m wondering what you would suggest for my readers, especially in these times when everyone is isolated, and we're not able to go to concerts and see live music as easily. What are your recommended recordings?

Andrés: So, my first thought is that it is very hard to come down to five. I may have to do five and bonuses!

Dan: Yeah, that would be great.

Andrés: So, just to preface my list, I grew up listening to many different types of music on a regular basis. My father is an ethnomusicologist, and he played lots of traditional instruments – string instruments from Colombia, like the guitar and some other guitar-like instruments. He had a group of musicians who got together and played folk music from Colombia. He did a lot of research, including research of native tribes and their use of music. He also had conservatory-style music school training where they taught subjects like counterpoint, harmony, history of music, and about different instruments. So, I grew up with a very broad spectrum of music that I would listen to. We would listen to classical music at home. My mom has this collection of vinyl LPs that is an encyclopedia of one hundred LPs that came with books. I grew up listening to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Messiaen, and Stravinsky. And because my uncle is a composer, I listened to quite a lot of new music. I also went through this phase when I was a teenager that I listened to heavy metal most of the time (but these days I don't listen to it anymore).

Then, eventually, I settled on the piano. That was my first instrument, and I started listening more and more to classical music and jazz. Later in college, I loved Pink Floyd, and I listened to Rock and to many different types of music. So that's one of the reasons why coming down to five recommended pieces for listening was very hard and why this is an eclectic list.

I love popular music from the early 20th century. One of my favorite jazz singers is Billie Holiday, and she recorded a song that was very, very important in the Civil Rights Movement. The song was recorded in 1939, and it’s called “Strange Fruit.” It is a song protesting the lynching of African Americans. When Billie Holiday first tried to sing it in public, she was really afraid. It was at an integrated club in New York City, and she said that she was very apprehensive. But then somebody started clapping, and then so did somebody else. It became a very important song. As I was doing the research, so to speak, I was going through all of my library to listen to this music again for today's call, I ran into a version by Nina Simone. It is a live recording in New York City in 1965; Billie Holiday recorded the song multiple times. I have at least three different versions of “Strange Fruit.” Most of them are with saxophones, strings, and piano. This version by Nina Simone is just her, playing the piano and singing. This is something that I had heard before, but in the last couple of days I listened to it again, and because of the way she sings it and the fact that it's just piano and voice, it becomes almost like a meditation. Also, she really underlines the dirge-like quality of the song. Of course, with everything that is going on in the country right now, this is something that is very much front and center in everyone's mind. The song itself is amazing, as is the story of the song, and this version by Nina Simone is really very powerful. So, this is my first recommendation: Nina Simone’s recording of “Strange Fruit.”

Recording No. 1: “Strange Fruit”

Billie Holiday’s Recording:

Andrés: For my second recording, have chosen a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. He is the composer I admire the most, and this has not changed since I became a musician, since I started studying the piano. He was the first composer I learned. I sometimes joke that if anyone asked me to save just one piece of music, I would save the Well-Tempered Clavier. This is kind of cheating because it’s not one piece, but a whole collection. But if I really have to choose just one recording that has been very important to me, it is Pablo Casals playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C-minor, and most specifically the Sarabande.

Dan: What draws you to that piece in particular? Bach wrote over one thousand pieces.

Andrés: It is very difficult to choose just one piece by Bach. What amazes me in this piece is Bach’s ability to create a very clear harmonic structure using an instrument that only plays one line. Of course, you can play double stops with the cello [two notes at once], but in this movement, he's using just one line, and he's able to combine harmonic progressions and melodies in one line, in a way that you could easily harmonize the whole piece. It’s amazing how he can distill and combine harmony and melody in such a masterful way. Some of my favorites by Bach are the slow movements and slow arias from the Passions like “Es ist vollbracht” from the St. John Passion, or some of the slow movements from the Mass in B minor or from the Magnificat. This particular piece, the Cello Suite No. 5, really shows you the mastery of Bach, how he can distill all of the different elements into just one line. I have admired this piece of music for a long time. When I was in graduate school, I had to take a course in Schenkerian Analysis, and this Sarabande was the one piece that I chose for my final project.

Dan: For readers who might now know what Schenkerian Analysis is, it is a way of analyzing tonal music to show how the voices within the music progress over the large-scale form of the piece, and how these progressions can be distilled into a fundamental architectural structure that undergirds the entire composition. Anyway, back to Andrés’s comments!

Andrés: That's the amazing thing about Bach – if you want to approach his work from that analytical side—not only this particular Sarabande, but almost anything that Bach wrote—if you analyze it and if you approach it from a more “cerebral” side—if you will—it stands. Like all the fugues – it’s just amazing how he was able to combine so many voices at the same time, but also it has a very direct emotional impact. That’s why I admire Bach. This particular suite is special to me, but what I was telling you earlier that there's something that I'm articulating as we speak, is that there is this very vocal way of playing by Casals. The phrasing, the little changes in the length of the notes, the emphasis on different notes that he chooses, it all makes it even more personal, so it's not just a great piece but it's also a great performance of that piece.

Recording No. 2: J.S. Bach – Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor / Casals

Dan: That’s wonderful! From “Strange Fruit” to Bach – what an incredible diversity in your tastes. So what is your next recommended piece and recording for listening?

Andrés: So, I’ll continue going down the list. I wrote it, and rewrote it, and rewrote it. I couldn’t come up with a good order for them. It's just difficult. When I was young, after listening to all this music that I told you about with my father, I started studying the piano, so I decided that I needed to include something for piano in this list. One of my favorites—I don’t like the word “favorites,” but for lack of a better word—one of my favorite pianists is Alfred Cortot, a French pianist.

He is a pianist from the first part of the 20th century. I have some of his recordings; he actually collaborated with Casals; they had a trio [Jacques Thibaud was the violinist in that trio]. For some reason I love the way they made music back then. It was much freer in a way than what we do now, and when you listen to Cortot’s performances, there's something very personal about them. It's almost as if he were speaking to you through the music. So, there are some things that people who are familiar with Cortot know, and it’s sort of a joke that he would not be accepted into any conservatory if he were to apply today. He made mistakes; he was not going after a technically perfect performance where no mistakes are made and everything is “by the book.” He really took liberties in the way he played, and something that is really uncanny about Cortot is that he's able to make the piano sing, which is very hard, as you know, as a pianist. One of the hardest things for a pianist is to sustain a line, and to phrase the way that a vocalist would do it (or like a violin or wind instrument). When you play the piano you have to create that impression of continuity when you are literally just losing one note after the other [once you play a note on the piano it starts fading], so it takes a lot of skill in timing. Playing legato on piano is one of the hardest things to do. Cortot is just a master of playing that way and you can hear vocal inflection in everything he does. The recording I actually settled on is the Chopin Preludes with Cortot; it’s just amazing.

Recording No. 3: Chopin – Preludes, Op. 28 / Cortot

To our modern ears it is also amazing the kinds of liberties that he takes with the rubato, the way he uses the pedal, and the way he breaks the chords. He arpeggiates the chords in places that nobody does anymore because they play them exactly as written, and he's actually somebody who takes liberties in terms of rubato, timing, and phrasing; so it's quite beautiful.

Dan: You've really piqued my curiosity in these. I really want to go out and listen to them right now, especially the preludes too. I mean they're so expressive for so very many reasons. Is there a particular one of the preludes that stands out to you?

Andrés: It’s really hard. I listened to some of them, not all of them, this morning to see if I could just narrow it down to one. By the way, if you ask me about my five favorite recordings next week, or in a month, or a year from now, they may change! So, it’s the same with the Preludes. But, the one in E minor, the fourth prelude, conveys this idea of vocal playing particularly well – how he plays some notes and how he arpeggiates some of the accompaniment that is not written that way. The other one is the No. 7 in A major, which is a very simple one. And it is just amazing what he's able to create with these very few notes and very simple and unassuming melody. The elegance, the inflection that he draws out of that prelude, and those two preludes are actually quite easy to play; I played them when I was very young—and most students do that; they don’t have a lot of notes, but they become more difficult to deliver, precisely because you have such few notes that every single one of them is very important.

When you hear a performance like Cortot’s, it just really opens your eyes and ears as to what you can do with very few notes and how important inflection and timing are. Something else special about Cortot is that he places a lot of emphasis on color–which is so difficult to explain. When you listen to a performance by Cortot, you need to understand that these were very early recordings, so the quality of sound is not quite what we're used to these days. But, in many ways, I'd rather listen to something that he recorded with very poor sound quality than some of the high-quality recordings of today.

Dan: Just as a brief follow-up to what you were saying about colors on the piano, how do you think he executed those special colors that you're talking about?

Andrés: He was a master of the pedal use. That is something that he always placed a lot of emphasis on, and he planned very carefully the use of pedal use in all of his performances. He doesn't necessarily follow the standard way of doing it, and he uses it quite a lot. There are a lot of different ways to use the right pedal. Using just half pedal or quarter pedal cause slight changes in color. I think also the color of everything changes depending on the dynamic you're playing in. So I think when you are not going for a super loud sound, a lot of colors, emerge.

This is something that is actually very well suited to Chopin's music and most people agree that he [Chopin] was probably not going for power. He was making music in very intimate salons in Paris. He was going for subtlety in his music.

Dan: How wonderful. I can’t wait to dive into this recording. What’s your next one?

Andrés: When I became a conductor, I decided I needed to have some things that have inspired me as a conductor. If you ask any conductor who their favorite conductor is, many will say Carlos Kleiber. I remember the first time I saw a video of him. I found that Kleiber’s musical resolve is amazing, and that's what sets him apart from anybody else. When you watch him conduct his gestures are so free and so fluid. I want to say his way of conducting is unusual; his technique is definitely not your typical beating four beats per bar or three beats per bar. His technique is very precise and specific, but it is unlike anything you will be taught in school. He basically had a very clear picture of what he wanted from the orchestra. He rehearsed every single detail, a lot. He wanted specific phrasings, note length, and balance, and he went back to it many times. However, when you see the performance, it looks and feels improvised, in the sense that it doesn't feel like it's been rehearsed. It seems like they're just making music in the moment, which I have to tell you is the same that happens with Cortot. It feels like this is a one-time performance that is very special, and sounds improvised and free, but you know that he actually put in a lot of thought and rehearsal time into it.

The nice things that we have about Kleiber are that we have access to some of his rehearsals. More and more tapes have surfaced of his rehearsals, and his rehearsal technique is also very, very different. He uses a lot of metaphors, and he also adds a bit of humor; you also kind of see sometimes he's frustrated when the orchestra is not delivering. He used to write little notes to players. At the end of rehearsal and sometimes at the end of concerts, he would just write things like “in measure such and such,” or sometimes they were jokes. He's a very original, unique artist. Towards the end of his life, he wouldn't even sign contracts, he would just show up, or not show up, and he ended up canceling a lot. Following this, he created this aura of mystery. The thing is that he delivered every single time. I've read a couple of books about him. He was a very genuine conductor, and when he didn't show up, it was because he thought that he wasn't going to be able to perform up to his standards, or the conditions were not right because he didn't have enough rehearsal time, or he didn’t have the artists he wanted. He really had exceedingly high standards.

Towards the end, it was very difficult to see him conduct, because he canceled many of his performances. I never saw him conduct live. But I remember back in Colombia, when I was still a pianist and was not yet interested in becoming a conductor, a friend of mine brought a laser disc of Kleiber conducting Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 4 and 7 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. That was the first time that I ever saw him conduct. I thought that it was something very special, even though I had no understanding of conducting technique at that time. But seeing the results that he got, and seeing how the performance of a Beethoven symphony that has been played many times was so fresh and could be brought to life, that was an eye-opener. Later when I became a conductor I watched every single Kleiber video that I was able to find. Now with YouTube and with all different video websites and platforms, there are more and more recordings available. It is not always the greatest quality in terms of sound or video, but you can see him conducting in the pit, you can see rehearsals. But the first impression that I had of Kleiber was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. The transition into the Allegro of the first movement–just the way the way he gets the orchestra to perform it–is just unbelievable. There's a lot of energy, a lot of strength. Never physical tension, always musical tension and musical ebb and flow. And you can see there is always a sense of joy in everything he does.

Also, he took what back then were extremely fast tempos, so it really opened people's ears and minds as to what Beethoven would sound like with the brisk tempos. Now we're used to very fast performances, but when one with Beethoven 5 was released, especially because it was with the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always been rooted in tradition, it caused an uproar. Everything that he did was amazing.

Dan: You’re highlighting a very unique personality of a conductor, and that's then translated, of course, into rehearsal and gesture and then performance. That's really wonderful.

Recording No. 4: Beethoven – Symphonies No. 4 and 7 / Kleiber

Dan: Wonderful. So, okay, now on to your fifth recommendation.

Andrés: I definitely want to include a recording by the Pittsburgh Symphony, because their discography is just unbelievable, and long before I even thought I was going to become a conductor, or move to the United States, I already was familiar with their recordings. The lineage of music directors in Pittsburgh, having some of the most important figures of the 20th century and now the 21st century, is amazing. And the recent recordings with Manfred Honeck are really at a very high level. All the sections are very strong, and the recordings themselves from a technical point are just incredible because they are able to bring the orchestra sound to life. When you are able to be in Heinz Hall every week—like I am able to— and hear the power, the nuances, and the character that this orchestra brings, you could say that it might not always translate into a recording. But in the case of this particular team, though, working with these engineers and this orchestra, the amazing thing is that when you listen to a recording, it is alive, the sound has life. There are nuances; there's power. There's everything that you hear when you go to Heinz Hall. It was really hard to choose a single recording by Manfred and the PSO because all of them are wonderful! The Shostakovich 5 recording won the Grammy, and the Bruckner 9 recording has been received very well. Some critics say that this is one of the best, if not the best, recording of Bruckner 9. They also recorded Beethoven 5 and 7, which also was quite an amazing recording. They have recorded Beethoven’s Eroica, and I have been part of some of these recordings.

But my very first year here as assistant conductor they did two recordings, back to back. One of them was Tchaikovsky 4, and the other one was an all-Strauss CD; they recorded the suite from Der Rosenkavalier, and a suite from Elektra. The Strauss recording was the very first recording that was released in which I have taken part. So from a personal point of view, it was very important for me. But also, a few months after the recording, I was preparing to conduct the Rosenkavalier. I had studied the score before, and I had prepared it again for the recording, and I was present during the live recording sessions. And as part of my preparation I decided to start listening to all the recordings I could find of the Rosenkavalier Suite. The commercial recording of the Pittsburgh Symphony was not available yet, because it was still in production. I listened to every single commercial recording of this suite that I could. When I compared those recordings with the archival copy I had access to, I still thought the Pittsburgh Symphony was the best, and I still think it's the best recording of the Rosenkavalier Suite.

It is a very special recording because of the power, and the joy and the character they bring. And—with Manfred being from Austria—all the waltzes and all the inflections in the performance are very special, and how the vocal quality of music comes through in this recording is just unbelievable. This is one of my favorite CDs and again, the best Rosenkavalier you can find anywhere. The other thing that is special is that my wife, Victoria, was involved in the recording. One of the most special moments in the Rosenkavalier is the Trio from Act Three, some of the most beautiful music that Strauss ever wrote. That trio (in the suite) is played by the oboe, the Concertmaster, and the third clarinet, which has a very prominent line. And my wife was the person playing that clarinet line, so it's also significant to me from a personal standpoint.

Recording No. 5: R. Strauss – Suites from Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra / Pittsburgh Symphony & Honeck

Dan: Well, of course, having the personal side to this really enriches the perspective here, and I do appreciate that.

Let’s keep going a little longer than since you have other recommendations!

Andrés: When I listened to this next piece of music the first time, I had chills. I was very moved, and I didn't know much about it, but just by listening to the music and the performance, I was very moved. Then I started reading a little more, and the story makes it even more powerful. Jordi Savall is a viola da gamba player and early music conductor, and he created this album called Jerusalem. This was done at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. The book and CD recording are a tribute to the city of Jerusalem, and it is a story of how this city was the cradle of the three major monotheistic religions, and how those different cultures have had a very, very large influence on the city and on its musical landscape. The album starts with Jordi Savall’s recreation of fanfares for the Temple of Jerusalem played on shofars [an ancient musical horn made of a ram’s horn used for Jewish religious purposes]. And then he starts telling the story of the city from different angles, so there are portions in which the city is being guided by Muslims. There's a Jewish version of the city. There's a Christian version of the city. There are all kinds of musical and historical documents. You have pictures; you have texts; you have diagrams; you have everything. And the musicians—in addition to Jordi’s group Hyperion 21—come from Israel, Palestine, Armenia, Greece, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, and Afghanistan, and play different kinds of instruments including traditional instruments, from percussion and stringed instruments, to the viola da gamba that he plays. So, the whole album is just very interesting as a historical document, and to see how different cultures and religions have lived in Jerusalem, and what kind of music has come out of it. The very last fanfare is called “Against the Barriers of the Spirit.” It is a way to bring everyone together through music.

The one track that I would like to highlight is a Jewish prayer called “El Male Rahamim,” which is a prayer that is done for the rest of the souls. It’s usually done during funerals, or in remembrance of people who have died. There was a Jewish cantor, Shlomo Katz, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and was going to be executed. This was in 1941. He asked the guard for permission to sing this particular prayer, “El Male Rahamim,” or “God full of compassion.” And as the story goes, the guard was so moved by the music that he allowed Shlomo Katz to escape and he survived the Holocaust. And then, several years later, in 1950 I think, he recorded the same piece as a tribute to the victims of Auschwitz. So, the track that is used in this album, Jerusalem, is that historic recording from 1950.

Dan: That's very powerful. And, again, I'll be very, very curious to listen to it. I'm familiar with Jordi Savall’s work, but I'm not familiar with this.

Recording No. 6: “El Male Rahamim” / Shlomo Katz

More information on “El Male Rahamim”:

Andrés: And then the last one. This one—which is also connected to what's going on right now like “Strange Fruit”—is a piece of Cuban music. I mentioned that my father is an ethnomusicologist, and my uncle plays multiple instruments. My family is very musical, so in our family gatherings, people would get the guitars out, and start singing songs that everyone knew by ear: folk songs from Colombia, from Cuba, from Mexico, or from Argentina, as well as popular music. That tradition is getting lost more and more, but in the generation before my parents’ everyone knew all of these songs, and everyone would sing them. So, whenever there was a birthday or whenever the family got together, there would be music, and some of the music that they played and sung was Cuban music. You have probably heard about Buena Vista Social Club which was an album produced by American guitarist Ry Cooder. This album was one of the very few CDs that I brought with me to the United States when I moved from Colombia. He went to Cuba and sort of rediscovered for the Western world many Cuban artists that had continued singing on their own, but that were no longer performing because the clubs in which they sung had closed. There is one song in that album that is called “Chan Chan,” and I really love that song.

Then, in April of 2020, I came across a different recording of “Chan Chan”. The song was recorded as a video and features musicians from many different cultures. They have the Cuban tres, which is like a Cuban guitar. They have an oud which is like a Middle Eastern guitar; they have a kora from West Africa; and they have this singer [Teté Caturla García] who must be 75 to 80 years old, from Cuba. She is an old-school singer, very well-known, like a legend. They play this song—all with headphones because they're in different locations—and it’s just an amazing version of the song just because you have so many musicians from different cultures. And again, you see the joy of these musicians as they record this song. It brings me joy every time I see it. Every one of the musicians that is featured in the piece is a very well-known popular or folk musician from their own culture, and to see them “perform” together (not quite because each one is in a different location) is just beautiful.

Recording No. 7: “Chan Chan” / Various Artists

Dan: Of course, there’s an extra poignancy since this is occurring during a pandemic. Well, I’m excited to watch it! I'm not very familiar with Cuban music, so this will be new and interesting to me.

Thanks, Andrés, for sharing your recommended listening list to me and the readers of this blog. I really appreciate it, and I know this list will provide a source of musical inspiration to people, especially now when we need it so much.

Andrés: Thank you!

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