Monday, October 6, 2008

Patricia Zander memorial, and an 8-piano concert

Last night I had the honor of performing in a concert in memory of Patricia Zander, my teacher, who died this summer. (You can read some of my thoughts about her in an earlier post - just scroll down a ways). It was wonderful to see so many people - family, friends, her colleagues and her students - who came to celebrate the contribution she made to our lives while here on Earth.

There were remarks by her daughter, Jessica, as well as her ex-husband (but still friend) the conductor Ben Zander, her friend Alan Fletcher, and Neil Rudenstine (both her friend and her ex-brother-in-law - his wife is Ben's sister). Many others could no doubt have shared treasured experiences, myself included - I managed to speak a few words about what I had learned from PZ before playing a Schubert Impromptu. The most memorable line from the speakers was from Ben, who gave an example of PZ's directness, including when she was being critical: he remembered an occasion after a performance he had conducted of the Dvorak "New World" Symphony when she came backstage afterward and said to him, "Well, THAT was a step backward." This was only tolerable, I'm sure, because with Patricia these withering criticisms were accompanied and balanced out by sincere heartfelt love and affection and caring. She was quite an example to all of us.

I've heard it said that it is more important to attend funerals than weddings, because it makes us think about how we'd like to live our lives, with whatever limited time we've got. Yesterday was certainly not a funeral - PZ wouldn't have wanted any of us crying over her and probably was slightly annoyed, looking down at us seeing us making such a fuss over her. But it was good to think about a life very very well-lived, and in that sense Patricia can continue to live among us and influence us.

My part of the program was to perform a few minutes of Schubert; the other performances were all wonderful: Masuko Ushioda playing a movement of a Bach Partita, Lisa Saffer and Judy Gordon doing Schubert's "Seligkeit," four great NEC Faculty members (Don Weilerstein, Lucy Chapman, Kim Kashkashian, and Paul Katz) playing the Beethoven "Heiliger Dankgesang"). The concert concluded with the piano on the stage of Jordan Hall sitting symbolically unoccupied, while a CD was played of Patricia Zander and Yo-yo Ma playing Kreisler's "Liebesleid" - it was as if the music were being broadcast from heaven.

The nicest compliment paid to me was from my wife (that's not always the case!) - she said that hearing me and then immediately hearing PZ's playing right afterward (on the CD) made it clear that I had learned from her.

I'm not sure what PZ would have thought of the concert I played last Thursday evening in the National Concert Hall in Dublin, Ireland. As previously noted (in the blog post below this one) I participated in a performance of 8 pianos somehow playing at the same time. I am happy to report that the performance was a huge success - we had a lot of fun (a bunch of practice-a-holic competition winners who got to spend time with other pianists!!) and the audience was on their feet as soon as we finished playing (and that was to applaud, not just to leave). I also learned some new typically Irish phrases - well, actually I already knew to say, "that was good craic" (meaning, basically, we had a good time) and now I'm told it's also Irish to say, "that was great gas." Some have told me it's a bit old-fashioned to say that, but if you go to Ireland try it out and see what happens. My friend Ann Fuller has said she expects me to compile a lexicon of Irish usage (of English - I could never begin to sort out Irish Gaelic!). If someone tells you they'll "collect you at half four" that means they'll pick you up at 4:30. If you are really tired, you might tell someone, "I'm only wrecked!". Or "knackered", or "banjaxed." Words like "grand," "cute," and "bold" have slightly different usage in Ireland than in ths US, and as in the UK, the word "math" is plural ("maths") but "sports" becomes "sport."

Well, in case you've actually kept reading through all that trivia - my next musical project is a concert benefiting breast cancer care and research at the end of the month. More on that later.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Der Erlkoenig

It's been a long time since I've blogged. I've been too busy somehow with playing, practicing, teaching, and family to get around to it. At the moment I'm in Dublin, and being away from home means I actually have a few more moments to myself to devote to the blog.

I'm here to play a concert with the six other pianists who have been winners of the Dublin International Piano Competition: Phillippe Cassard, Pavel Nersessian, Davide Franceschetti, Alexei Nabioulin, Antti Siirala, and Romain Descharmes, as well as the founder (and chairman of the jury) the great pianist John O'Conor. There are a few two-piano pieces on the program (Antti and I are doing the Lutoslawski Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which I have long wanted to play) and several pieces involving as many as 8 pianos. I'm not sure how those are going to go - our first rehearsals are tomorrow, and I'll have to report back later. I'm not sure if it's going to be a gigantic mess - the potential distance between Steinway D #1 and Steinway D #8 is huge and we might need binoculars to see each other on stage.

Recently in my Piano Literature course, which I teach at Boston Conservatory, we were discussing Schubert. I only have 50 minutes during the whole semester to devote to Schubert, and I felt it profitable to spend 10 of those minutes discussing and listening to Der Erlkoenig, a song that sets Goethe's poem (the recording we listened to was by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). One of my major points in spending this time in a class presumably about piano (solo) repertoire was that the way to really discover Schubert (and how to play all of his music) is through his Lieder. I can say with some confidence that I learned most of what I know about effectively performing Schubert from listening to recordings of Fischer-Dieskau.

The text for Goethe's poem with an English translation can be found here:
My own additional comments are that, in my view, the "Erl-king" is indeed a figment of the boy's imagination, a sort of stand-in for the Grim Reaper; my assumption (possibly incorrect) is the father is riding very urgently from the outset of the poem (and especially in Schubert's musical setting) because the boy is ill, and needs to get to a doctor, or home perhaps. As the poem says, he doesn't make it.

In any case, reading Goethe's poem is fine, but it is when I hear Schubert's setting of the music it literally makes my pulse race. The music is positively terrifying. It is one of many examples of where Schubert reaches places in the human soul that no one else does. (As a side note, I will be playing a Schubert Impromptu at Patricia Zander's memorial concert in Jordan Hall, Boston, right after I get back from Ireland this weekend).

To me, the Fischer-Dieskau interpretation is the standard by which others are judged, but it is interesting to hear others and compare. I found a few videos on youtube which I'll post here for you to compare.

First, Fischer-Dieskau (with Gerald Moore). He amazes me with his power and with the range of expression he uses for each of the four characters in the song (Narrator, Father, Son, and Erl-king):

Jessye Norman likewise captures so many different characters in the song: I find the boy a bit too "weak" in character but perhaps that is more fitting.

(click on the link to view:

Alexander Kipnis, bass, has a fantastic voice, but what this needs are fantastic voices (plural).

Hilary Hahn makes this transcription seem easy:

I absolutely love this parody by Dudley Moore:

And thanks to Yasuko Sato for sending me this weird Japanese version of the song - I have no idea what the deal is here, but be prepared to scratch your head...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Grateful memories of my teacher

Two days ago my teacher, Patricia Zander, left this world, and no doubt is brightening her new environs with her wit, charm, and insight. Yesterday I wanted to write a bit but didn't know where to begin. This evening I started to have some idea of what I might say about such a remarkable person to whom I am so very grateful.

This was actually thanks to a masterclass I attended given by one of her recently graduated students, Tae Kim (aka Steve Kim). I know he won't be insulted when I say he doesn't quite have her way with words yet - no one seemed to be able to find just the right way to explain a difficult but essential musical concept like she did. Whether consciously or not, Tae did many things that reminded me of her, and I'm sure that I do the same when I teach. (However, I studied with her from 1990-1996, and so things would be fresher on his mind than on mine). He wandered around the stage, singing, exclaiming, grunting, clapping, dancing, inspiring as much with his passion and energy as with his ideas.

PZ, as most everyone called her (but not me, for some reason - somehow I always called her by her first name ... in any case, she liked nothing less than being called "Mrs. Zander" or "Prof. Zander"), was tireless. She was relentless - she never let things slide, but always expected and insisted on the best, at every moment. I realize now how much *confidence* that gave me - I felt as though following her guidance would lead me not just to the top of a hill, musically speaking, but to the heights of Parnassus. When I left a lesson (typically after 2.5-3 hours of non-stop work) I always felt that I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to play a given piece well.

Yet she was the opposite of an autocrat. She asked lots of questions, using the Socratic method to lead me to find answers. Rarely did she completely discard one of my musical ideas, but instead was always working to help me be the best version of myself. She seemed to take this approach with all her students, which meant that she didn't like to take students who were dutiful and respectful but lacking in opinions, and it also meant that each of her students ended up playing quite differently from each other.

I think she ended up focusing on different things with different students, which is a sign of a really great teacher - she didn't do as many lesser teachers do, assigning the same limited number of pieces to students and simply going over the same set ideas. She encouraged everyone to play a unique repertoire, and with me she ended up talking a lot about sound, imagination for character and color, and developing a sense of architecture, the ability to see a piece in its entirety and play with a sense of unfolding drama and story-telling. We didn't talk a lot about piano technique, perhaps because I had the benefit of good technical training before coming to her. There may have been another reason for this: she always said the most important part of the body used in playing the piano are the *ears*, not the hands. As we develop our inner ear, the imagination for specific sounds and ideas, and our outer ear, the one that assesses whether we are actually creating those sounds, we will find, through experimentation, the way to make those sounds with our hands, arms, etc.

Her energy was all the more remarkable because she herself was rarely if ever in perfect physical condition. Her diagnosis with cancer was made about 6 years ago, but before that she had terrible back problems, and had some surgery to try to correct them. (It seems that some of the nerves in her spine were perhaps pinched because her spine was too small or narrow - this probably led to the arm problems that curtailed her career as a performer). She confided in me at one point that she was for years unable to sleep well (sometimes sleeping only 2 hours in a night) because of the discomfort she had in her back. I don't think any of her other students knew this, because she didn't like to "burden" others with her problems. But where other people would no doubt complain or at least take the occassional lesson off, she taught every lesson like a tornado unleashed.

It is surprising to me that she was not better known. Everyone who knew her knew that she had more musical insight than anyone else, but she seemed to dislike the idea of being a "star" teacher. My wife asked her several times - begged, really - to come to the Killington Music Festival and give a master class. She refused quite vehemently, on the grounds that, in her opinion, a master class often ends up being about the teacher more than about the student(s). She was incredibly influential and important "behind the scenes" at the New England Conservatory and in Boston more generally, but she not only didn't seek attention, she seemed to have a distaste for glory.

Her specific musical insights are too numerous to mention here. Perhaps I will share some of them later.

One thing more I'd like to mention: she understood that being a successful pianist meant more than just sitting in a practice room with a copy of the Chopin Etudes. For one thing, you needed to be a person first, and a musician second. She looked after all her students, including me, as people, with our frailties and insecurities, our hopes, dreams, and bouts of despair. She even looked after our stomachs, and was a wonderful cook. For a time I did not have my own piano and she gave me the key to her house so that I could practice there (only when she was *not* there, however - she definitely needed her personal space!). So on days of the week when she was at NEC, I would show up to practice and usually find some cookies on the piano waiting for me.

She had a fantastic music room in her house, with a Steinway C (no longer being made - as the name suggests, it is in between a B and D in size) and loads of scores and books about music. I loved her library, the room next to the music room, with floor to ceiling books about art, literature, philosophy. Her home was a place that made you want to be your best, musically, intellectually. emotionally, and gastronomically. Oh, and you should have seen the garden in the back! And Mr. Bill, the cat who died a few years ago. And the special closet Patricia had just for her shoes. And the fantastic laugh you heard coming around the corner at NEC.

I hope that I can play my part in keeping her spirit alive here on Earth.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Patricia Zander (1942-2008)

Yesterday morning my dear teacher, Patricia Zander, died after several years of fighting cancer. I'm going to have to find a good chunk of time to summarize and share my thoughts and feelings on this blog, but for the moment I'm going to link to some articles and just briefly mention that I am so grateful that I was able to gain from having her in my life. She was an incredible person, musician, and teacher, and the world won't be quite the same without her. I owe her a giant percentage of what I am able to do as a musician.

More on this later. Here is the link to her obituary in the Boston Globe:

And here is a press release from New England Conservatory, where she taught for over 30 years:

Monday, July 7, 2008

Bach and lunatics

It's hard to know exactly why, but it seems that the music of Bach lends itself well to crazy performers. I have always loved Bach but I have definitely found myself bored by many a tasteful performance of his music. But today I stumbled upon two videos on youtube (what a great source of surprises that can be) that were riveting and strange. I'll post them both here. It makes me wonder if the "irrational" is something that a really great performance of Bach needs. Remember that the Classical movement in music (which corresponds basically to the neo-Classic movement in the visual arts) was in part a reaction to the complexity and opacity of the Baroque music that preceded it. Both of these videos had me glued to the screen - I don't think I'd play either piece like this, but then again maybe I should.

First Pogorelich playing the Sarabande from the Gm English Suite:

... and Glenn Gould playing the B-flat minor Fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

teaching and performing

Many musicians I know have seen Bruno Monsaingeon's film "The Enigma," a documentary about Sviatoslav Richter. I haven't seen the film in a few years, but I do remember it being a fascinating glimpse in to the mind of a truly devoted artist, someone who was about as far removed as one could be from the superficial aspects of life and the "entertainment" aspect of music (for better or for worse). As my teacher, Patricia Zander, says, there is Good Richter and Bad Richter, and his insistence on plumbing the depths of the human soul at all times is good for some pieces of music, but not for others.

(Amazon's listing of the video is here:

In any case, there was also a companion book published, which one of my students gave to me. (Thanks, Natasa!). In it are considerably more of Richter's private thoughts, many of which are presented in the context of some journals he kept, chronicling concerts or recordings he heard and his reactions to them. Again it demonstrates a complete devotion to music, and also gives a glimpse in to the musical world of Soviet Russia - what a fascinating and strange time and place that was! So many great, great musicians, who at times seemed to succeed in spite of the idiocracy (is that a word?).

(here's Amazon's listing of the book:

Anyway, the point I am trying to get to is a statement he made that teaching ruins you as a performer. I don't remember the context of the statement, but I do remember he did not elaborate. Perhaps he was explaining his own lack of interest in teaching. I wonder if this is true. It is certaintly true that anything that cuts down on practice time hinders us as performers. Teaching definitely cuts down on practice time, but so does being a parent or going to a movie or sleeping at night. Oh yes, and blogging also cuts down on practice time.

Now I am definitely a better pianist than I was before I started teaching - but would I have been better anyway, just as a result of more experience, more ideas, more practicing, more maturity, etc.?

But I think Richter was not only thinking about the time and energy drain of teaching. Perhaps he saw that teaching a lot *can* sort of "ossify" our ideas as musicians. After teaching, say, the Chopin G minor Ballade for the umpteenth time, one tends to have a certain way of explaining what to do with the piece, how to do it, why to do it, etc. Truly exploring the possibilities of a piece, together with a student, is too time-consuming and inefficient. Piano students in particular need to cover a lot of repertoire and as a teacher it often seems more useful to be right to the point and not experiment with different musical possibilities.

This "efficiency" is bad news for an artist. The worst thing we can do is become formulaic. I've had the opportunity to play some pieces in my repertoire dozens of times, and it is the re-questioning and re-investigation and re-construction of these pieces for each performance that (I hope) makes the performances sound fresh - even if, after re-thinking a certain passage I end up playing it exactly the same way I've always played it.

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

I am a fan of the show "Top Chef," which completed its fourth season recently. (How is food so successful on TV? Wouldn't you expect the lack of taste or smell coming from the TV to doom cooking-related shows? But I *love* watching them!). On the last episode, Eric Ripert, a famous chef, was shown learning about some new cooking techniques from one of the competitors (Richard was using liquid nitrogen to do something I didn't quite catch). Ripert noted that a chef is in trouble when his ego prevents him from learning something new. I have definitely seen this among musicians, and I can imagine that teaching can push us towards this point where we become less "teachable." Unconsciously many teachers probably feel that they cannot show any doubt or self-questioning to their students - it would undermine their authority as teachers.

I certainly hope that will not happen to me.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

thoughts and questions on how music is (and will be) experienced

I have been loving my Ipod, and am approximately half-way through ripping all my CD's and adding them to it. I have also been discovering "podcasts." I have been able to really make use of my time in the car, for example, by listening to something called "Coffee Break Espan~ol" (how do you type a tilde?), improving my Spanish a little bit. I am also able to enjoy "Car Talk," a show I am almost never able to listen to "live."

I downloaded a lecture from Arizona State, the first in a semester-long course on the History of Jazz. I like to listen to Jazz but I certainly do not have a good grasp of how it developed, and in general I am familiar with my favorites (such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis) and have only a passing knowledge of, say, Charlie Parker or Oscar Peterson - though I did briefly meet the latter once after he'd played at the Hollywood Bowl - my friend Edwin Outwater knew him. In any case, the first lecture (I don't know who the Professor of the course is - he has many interesting insights, though he is an awkward public speaker) mentioned that once upon a time in America there were many, many people who played instruments. Thousands of amateurs provided the musical entertainment in the home. Live music was, once upon a time, a more popular form of entertainment than it is now.

This has changed, of course, because of the advent of radio, 78's, LP's, CD's, and now MP3's. People don't need to learn to play for themselves because they can listen to Martha Argerich on a pair of headphones. Live music is great, but one has to get off the couch, get dressed, hire a baby-sitter, and (perhaps worst of all) adhere to someone else's schedule. We can listen to recorded music at midnight if it suits us - and we can even listen to it more than once. Plus, as Glenn Gould might have pointed out, a recording *can* be free of flaws, coughing, etc.

I'm sure many people (including myself) feel that even a very hi-fi recording (nowadays, should I say, "sampled at a high bit-rate"?) listened to on expensive headphones lacks the special qualities of hearing a live performance by a great artist. But is it inevitable that the inconveniences associated with attending live concerts (not to mention the exorbitant cost) will kill concert-going? I mentioned in a previous post that our world today encourages the "on-demand" consumption of music. Will younger people today be unwilling or unable to commit to, say, the Boston Symphony Saturday evening series, where decisions about what and who the audience will hear are made years in advance?

This is problematic for a musician like me, because frankly I don't make much from recordings - my income is from live concerts. I think that is true for most classical musicians. I don't know if it is true for pop musicians. (this article from the NY Times explores this issue from the point of view of the record labels:)

One difference between a concert and a recording is that a concert typically has (and needs) variety - the stereotypical orchestral concert opens with a short overture, followed by a concerto, and a symphony on the second half. A piano recital tends to include music from different eras and by different composers. But when people buy a recording, they often (usually?) buy "the complete Beethoven Symphonies" or "Mozart Overtures" or "Prokofiev Piano Concertos #2 and #3". When listening we make our own "programs" which can be long or short, can include music for different instruments or even have Liszt and Led Zeppelin on the same program.

If I want to continue to have an audience, will I need to start taking requests, like a pianist in the cocktail lounge who can somehow make "Send in the Clowns" sound the same as "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman." (Oh that reminds me of the horrendous video Franco Leon shared with me:)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

the enlightenment that comes from shuffle play

I am the proud owner of a brand new Ipod - I have never before owned or even used a portable MP3 player, and having had this only for a few days now I can already say that I love it. I am at the beginning of what will be a long process of transferring something like 1200 CD's first to my laptop and then to the Ipod (I got the 160 GB model so I think that should hold everything with room to spare). So far I am in the middle of "Beethoven" (most of our CD's are in something like alphabetical order) and I am re-discovering some wonderful recordings like Carlos Kleiber's Beethoven 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic, which is absolutely positively on my desert-island discography - of course, thanks to my Ipod, the list of recordings I could bring to such an isolated place is now outrageously large.

It may surprise people who know me to find that I am enjoying the "shuffle play" feature of my Ipod - yes, I find the sense of the "whole" in, say, the op. 57 Sonata to be important; a great piece of music is definitely more than the sum of its parts. So it is a little odd to hear a movement of the Barber Piano Concerto, followed by one brief Bach "Goldberg" Variation, Maria Callas singing Bellini, and then the first movt of Beethoven op. 14#1 (as you can see, I am basically limited to composers whose name starts with "B" - are any of you familiar with the children's book that my kids like called "the 'B' Book"?)

I actually believe that shuffle play is an important and potentially enlightening part of the world today. Why? So much of the way people experience music and other media nowadays is "on-demand" - we expect to hear what we want, when we want to hear it. In my previous post, for example, I noted the pleasure I had from downloading Rachmaninoff Preludes in a matter of minutes for my immediate consumption. By contrast, there was a time (long before I was born!) when you could only listen to a couple of radio stations - maybe the baseball game and the Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Of course it is great to get what we think we want - but what about the many things we don't already know about, or which we have perhaps forgotten? Rather than do a google news search for the stuff we think we care about, what about learning about something unexpected? It is important sometimes to cede some control of our lives and allow our minds to receive the unplanned. The nation and the world become increasingly fractured, a kind of modern-day Tower of Babel, when we each spend our time listening only to music we already like, or to political commentators with whom we already agree, associating only with people who are in the same profession, or of the same social group or the same religion.

The above link is an article in the Boston Globe about different personality types and where they tend to live. The extent of my knowledge on the subject is what I read in the article, but it does seem like an interesting field of study. One personality "barometer" is "openness to experience," and I think this is something that is definitely endangered by the "on-demand" culture that new technology has made possible.

So my advice to myself is: use that shuffle play once in a while and discover something unexpected.

My wife and I don't really rent movies as much as we used to (the leisure time to watch movies is quite scarce these days) but we used to enforce a strict policy of alternating the choice of movie -and we would not make an effort to accomodate the other person's tastes. As a result I saw some chick flicks that I would never have chosen on my own (e.g. "Steel Magnolias") but ended up really enjoying (I admit it!).

Monday, April 28, 2008

some words of appreciation for Rachmaninoff and technology

Last Thursday I was on a plane from Boston to LA (it has taken me until now to find time to blog about it) and was desperate for a good way to pass the time - it was a six hour flight. Science and technology were on my side (they aren't always) and just prior to my flight I was able download, in a matter of one or two minutes, a recording of all 24 Rachmaninoff Preludes from I-Tunes (the recording was by pianist Eldar Nebolsin), and then was able to listen on the plane while gazing out the window at the clouds below me. Man's scientific or material progress is often portrayed in negative terms, spiritually or artistically speaking, as in this painting of a Paris train station by Claude Monet:

But only thanks to man's technological achievements was I able to enjoy being transported to the heavens, almost literally.

Actually I guess it would be accurate to say that technology (airplanes, internet, computers, noise-cancelling headsets) made it more possible to enjoy some non-scientific wonders (the clouds and the Rachmaninoff Preludes).

In any case, I have been thinking about Rachmaninoff and whether it is more important to be original or to be good. I was reading a fine book about 20th century music (Machlis) which has many concise insights in to music over the last 100 years, but as far as I can tell makes no mention of Rachmaninoff. (There is mention of Scriabin, Richard Strauss, and Puccini, to name a few of his contemporaries). I admit that I was once, regrettably, not a fan of Rachmaninoff. But I think it is more than a mistake to think less of him for being less "adventurous" than Schoenberg or Ravel or Bartok (these four pieces were all written in 1911: Rachmaninoff op. 33; Schoenberg op. 19; Bartok Allegro barbaro; Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales).

The fact that Rachmaninoff's music is not as innovative as, say, Scriabin's (the two were classmates at the Moscow Conservatory) seems less and less relevant as time goes by - it is like saying Bach was more old-fashioned than Handel or Scarlatti (the three were all born in 1685). So what? Bach plumbed the depths of the human soul and fashioned indestructibly profound music that is not exactly representative of his era - it's just great music. Rachmaninoff's music shows wonderfully fertile imagination, sincere passion, and inarguable control of counterpoint, structure, etc.

I can tell you when I started to appreciate Rachmaninoff, which I had formerly found to be too "over the top." I was dating a girl in college who, frankly, was not the best girlfriend. After one of our several break-ups (it took me a few to realize I should get the heck out of the relationship, permanently!) I was on the subway, very upset, and not caring about who knew it. That last part (not caring if anyone knew I was upset) was what gave me an insight in to and appreciation for the music of Rachmaninoff. Sometimes our emotions are, frankly, hard to disguise. Sometimes that's okay.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

My favorite kind of practicing...

... is when I am not practicing for a concert. This is pretty rare - I usually need the motivation of a deadline to get anything done. When I have lots of deadlines I practice a lot. But today I practiced for a short time, working on one of the Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux which I may very well play one day in a concert, but I don't have a specific concert in mind yet. It was wonderful practicing just for the sake of learning something, for the sake of improving my musicianship and piano playing.

Friday, April 18, 2008

How important is honesty?

The other day I heard about a survey concerning income taxes. About 50% of people said they would not cheat on their taxes because it is dishonest to do so. About 30% also said they would not cheat on their taxes because they were afraid of being caught. (the remaining 20% must actually have cheated on their taxes). True integrity means, of course, to do the right thing even if no one will ever know the difference.

Art, however, seems at times to be about appearances - we experience the arts through our senses, so what we can see or hear is what matters - isn't it? For example, in Peter Jackson's "King Kong" we don't object, on a moral basis, to the fact that the animal is not *really* a giant gorilla. In fact, we admire the ability of Jackson and his crew to create an computer-generated character that seems so real. On the other hand, in another Peter Jackson film, The Two Towers, I found out from watching one of the "making of" featurettes that come on the DVD that at least one costume, King Theoden's armor, contained decorative features that were totally invisible to the camera (since they were inside the armor). The costume designers knew they wouldn't be seen, yet they put them in there anyway, for "accuracy's" sake.

A few days ago I looked at the music for Stockhausen's "Klavierstuck V" (anyone know how to type an umlaut?) and it includes a passage of fairly rapid notes, each with a different dynamic - f, pp, mf, pppp, mp, mf, p, f, pp, ppp, etc. In other words, it is incredibly detailed, and I honestly doubt that a listener could possibly discern whether a performance is "accurate" or not. This is, of course, an issue with much of the music of the last 50 years (or even 100 years), where the musical vocabulary seems so foreign to many listeners. There would seem to be only a small percentage of listeners in the world who know Schoenberg's piano music better than me (though there are certainly plenty of people who would fit that description - but as a percentage of all listeners, it's pretty small) but I'm not going to catch every wrong note that a student plays if I don't have the music in front of me.

My question is this: if no one can tell if a performer is playing a passage of Stockhausen or Schoenberg correctly, should he or she be trying to play it accurately? I'm not talking about the fact that some audience members lack the background to know the difference between a Beethoven Sonata played by Emil Gilels and one played by a good conservatory student. Most great musicians would be able to practice a lot less if their only concern were to satisfy their audiences. I mean there are really things in pieces I've played (e.g. a trio I played by Saariaho) where I don't think homo sapiens' physiological abilities can detect the difference between right and wrong rhythms, notes, subtleties of timbre, etc.

My instinct is to say we should always do our best - we owe it to the composer and to God to be honest. But the practical side of me (picture a little red devil with pitchfork on my left shoulder) wonders if it's really worth it sometimes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is the general public deaf, or do they actually prefer mediocrity?

If there's one thing that drives me crazy it's the fact that many (most?) classical radio stations waste time playing Baroque junk like Telemann Oboe Concertos and Purcell Concerti Grossi (an exception is the wonderful WGBH here in Boston ... of course they have the good sense to use my performances on air with some frequency, haha). Or if they manage to escape the Baroque era (a supposedly classical station I've listened to, grudgingly, only in the car, in a state famous for lobsters and blueberries, seems to rarely get as "modern" as Haydn) they will devote large portions of their listeners' time to a forgettable symphony by one of Bach's sons or a cello concerto by Brahms's next-door neighbor. Yet, one rarely hears a Mahler Symphony, or the Mozart C minor Mass. One almost NEVER hears the great works of the last 100 years.

Is this because people don't know the difference between Telemann and Bach? These same people would surely know (and appreciate) the difference between a microwave pizza and a pie from the original "Pizzeria Uno" in Chicago. Who, given a choice, would want the microwave version? Presumably these horrendous classical stations are basing their playlists on some kind of market research that suggest listeners would prefer Purcell to Schumann. But WHY?

Allison and I were talking about this a bit this evening, and she suggested that the public just doesn't want to be engaged, doesn't want to have to actively pay attention to the music (sometimes this is referred to this as being "challenged" by the music, but that term seems unnecessarily belligerent). In other words, maybe people *prefer* a radio station that won't interrupt their washing dishes or doing a sudoku puzzle by actually requiring their attention. A Beethoven Sonata is just too interesting - it distracts from other stuff, like folding laundry.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing while listening to the radio in the car - earlier today I was not paying much attention to the road while listening to a recording of Messiaen's "Vingt Regards." But what about live concerts? Do people want to avoid having to really listen to a concert? But why else are they there? To check out the social scene? To relax? Is mediocrity more relaxing than real beauty?

Life on earth is too precious a time to waste on banalities. I know it's unrealistic to spend every waking moment reading Shakespeare or listening to Bach. But when I turn on the radio at least I'd like to feel like I'm getting something worthwhile in return for my time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

News Flash: Levinson changes lightbulbs

Finally, over a week after they burned out, I changed the ceiling light-bulbs in the master bathroom.

Now I must practice Shostakovich. (I'm playing the Concerto #1 - the one with trumpet in it - tonight, with the Chamber Orchestra of Boston, in Jordan Hall.) Having changed the light-bulbs, I can sit at the piano with a clear mind. If I can forget about the other 75 items on my to-do list.

Should art imitate nature?

OK, I know this is too big a question to settle on a blog at 1:30AM. But today I was coaching students playing the Carnival of the Animals for me, and the question came up of how to play two notes (two notes! We spent a good 10 minutes considering the philosophical implications of those two notes) in the "Cuckoo" movement. Basically the question is whether the two note "cuckoo" call should sound exactly as Saint-Saens notated it in the score or whether the performers should *slightly* alter the rhythm to more accurately imitate the sound of a bird. (Saint-Saens' notation is slightly "square," you could say). I felt in this case (my students agreed with me) that the more "natural" version sounded better than the more "strict" performance of the rhythm.

But is art always supposed to do this? If Saint-saens really wanted to have the sound of a cuckoo, why not have an MP3 recording of a cuckoo to play instead of asking the clarinet to play that figure? OK, it's obvious that that would be no fun (aside from the fact that the technology didn't exist in 1886) - part of the pleasure in hearing the piece is seeing how (and if) a clarinet can sound like a bird. It's exactly what's enjoyable about hearing "Peter and the Wolf" - hearing the oboe pretending to be a duck is much more entertaining than listening to an actual duck. (Is this also the appeal of hearing transcriptions, e.g. a pianist playing the Liszt "Rigoletto" paraphrase or the Kronos Quartet playing "Purple Haze"?)

Art is, well, artificial. In America I know I have inherited certain biases (going back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, maybe?) that what nature produces (the Grand Canyon) is superior to what man produces (the Well-Tempered Clavier). But I don't know that this opinion is universally shared. I try to make my own playing sound natural, as if improvised, "artless" so to speak. But many great performers seem to be unashamed of doing something clearly "unnatural." Is one approach more valid than another?

by the way, here is the Kronos Qt playing Purple Haze...

and here is a video I found of a group doing the Cuckoo movement ... in my opinion, this performance the cuckoo is too "correct" and not "natural" enough

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Thank you, Horowitz

My wife, Allison Eldredge, is the Artistic Director of the Killington Music Festival and she and I were having a discussion about programs they will do there this summer. One program is going to have a Viennese theme and that got me to googling "Soirees de Vienne" - and I found this wonderful video of Horowitz playing. Growing up, he was absolutely my favorite pianist, though as I got older I admitted a few others to my pantheon of pianistic idols. In fact I forgot for a time how indescribably brilliant he was. I wish I'd heard him live - people say the colors he found and the electricity he created in a live performance couldn't quite be captured on recordings. In any case it's hard for me to imagine this piece being played with a better combination of style, ease, and elegance. Hearing Horowitz is liking reading the Lord of the Rings - I can't put it down until it's finished!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Once in a while it's more than just a game (click here for video)

Wow, really touching. For those of you who are baseball history neophytes, Bill Buckner was the 1st baseman for the 1986 Red Sox, who were *this close* to winning the World Series over the New York Mets. A routine grounder went through his legs, costing them the game (it was Game 6) and they ultimately lost the series, failing to end what was then a 68 year championship drought. The "fellowship of the miserable," Red Sox fans pre-2003, cursed his name for over a decade. Honestly, Boston fans should have forgiven him sooner (see: the Parable of the Prodigal Son) but better late than never!.

Monday, April 7, 2008

addendum to the previous post

I should mention that the concert will be at 8PM (one hour from now! I'd better head over there!), in Jordan Hall, Boston, as part of the "First Monday" concert series which generally features NEC Faculty (and guests like myself - I'm an NEC alum so I do get asked to do these once in a while). The piece is actually scored for the "Trout" quintet instruments; the performers are Jamie Buswell, violin; Carol Rodland, viola; Carol Ou, cello; Don Palma, bass; and me.

should we play composers' "discards"?

This evening I'm part of a performance of the Piano Quintet of Ralph Vaughan-Williams. I doubt many of you reading this will have heard it. It is a so-called "early" work (though in fact Vaughan-Williams was 31 years old, which for Schubert would be his last year!) that Vaughan-Williams apparently "withdrew" after a few initial performances. In 2002 the piece was published (presumably because his heirs or publisher stood to make a little bit of money; since V-W died in 1958 he is not able to argue the point), and has since had a few performances, I am told.

My question is: should we play a piece a composer didn't really put his "stamp of approval" on? If we do, should we (as Bernstein famously did at a performance with pianist Glenn Gould) offer a disclaimer to the audience? On the other hand, does a composer have the right to "withdraw" something after it has been heard?

Many years ago I read a book by Milan Kundera called "Testaments Betrayed" where he argued forcefully that we should NOT dig up an author's juvenilia, sketches, etc. and let him or her decide what is fit for the public. However, at the same time I was reading another book, "The First Man," by Albert Camus - the unedited, slightly rough novel he was working on when he died - and it would have been a shame not to have that wonderful book. Likewise, the Mozart Requiem or the Schubert "unfinished" Symphony. I have played some gorgeous early works by Webern and one little sketch (for piano!) by Wagner, and in my opinion the world is better with these pieces than without them.

It makes me think that the composer is not always the best judge of his or her own music. Beethoven assigned opus numbers only to those pieces he deemed worthy of his official imprimatur. There are many others, and truthfully most are awful (in comparison to what we expect from Beethoven). But pieces like the 32 Variations in C minor and the "Andante Favori," neither of which have the Beethoven seal of approval, are better than he seemed to realize. (Maybe this should be another post, but I don't think composers always know the best way to PLAY their own music either - e.g. there are certainly better performances of the Rite of Spring than the one Stravinsky conducts, and at the risk of sounding like an egomaniac I am proud that Leon Kirchner likes my performance of his "Five Pieces for Piano" better than his own, both of which are available on CD).

In the case of this Vaughan-Williams quintet, I'm not sure it should have been resurrected. It has some good ideas, but they are polluted by occasional bad voice leading, counterpoint that loses its way, and the intermittent drought of imagination. (Incidentally, the best moments of the piece remind me of Faure, with its endlessly slippery changes of tonality - this has made the piece very hard to learn!).

If you haven't read Jan Swafford's biography of Brahms, you should - it is my favorite book about music, period. He describes in some detail how Brahms was very careful to destroy anything he didn't want remembered and investigated by posterity (e.g. sketches, letters to Clara Schumann). In some ways this is too bad - it would be interesting to see how Brahms worked (or did everything spring to his mind, Athena-like, without any work?).

I don't know if I've resolved this issue at all. Hmm. What do you think?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Cage's most well-known piece

an example of Gamelan music (compare to the Cage piece below)

John Cage Sonata V (for prepared piano)

Cautionary note(s) to self

So this is a blog. I'm not sure where it will take me; nor am I sure why I should wish to go there. The internet seems to provide for a egalitarianization (no way that's really a word) of ideas, which is definitely a mixed blessing. Anyone is entitled to express his own opinion, whether insightful or banal, enlightening or self-serving, well-informed or ignorant. As I get started blogging I hope I will do my best either to stick to subjects I am qualified to speak about or at least to offer disclaimers when doing otherwise.

Two more notes of caution (to myself): (1) I must try not to waste TOO much time on this (there are many more pressing needs in my life, including learning that very odd Vaughan Williams quintet before Monday's concert and changing the light bulbs in the master bathroom, which have been out for 3 days now). (2) Don't waste other people's time by writing about things like how long it's taking to change the light bulbs in the bathroom. On the other hand, they are here of their own free will. Perhaps they arrived at this blog after googling "housework procrastinators."

Well, caveat lector.