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.