Thursday, December 17, 2009

You're only as good as your last concert

(Note to friends reading this on Facebook: I'd love to have your comments - please visit the original post, at to post a comment, rather than writing it here on Facebook). 

I've got a few extra minutes to blog, from my hotel room in Seoul.  I am excited to be meeting an old friend for lunch, and I plan to insist that we have Korean food.  But before that, I had something on my mind to share on the blog.  We've played three concerts here in the last few days, plus a couple other performances (a radio show and a press conference that including 30 minutes of playing before the Q&A session).  On Tuesday, we playing in a city called Goyang, and we wondered if we had ever been more exhausted for a concert.  Jet lag is a big issue when we are dealing with a 14 hour time difference (my children are getting an education as we communicate by Skype and I show them that while they are getting ready for bed, it is quite sunny here on the other side of the Earth).  Concert time (8pm usually) is 6am back on East Coast time - it's as if we've been up all night and then have to go play a concert first thing in the morning. 

It made me realize that all the preparation in the world doesn't matter if it doesn't result in a good performance on stage, at the moment the audience is listening.  The most often heard line from students at lessons is "It sounded better when I was practicing" but in a concert it doesn't matter how great it was in a rehearsal if it doesn't sound good in the performance.  And while practicing is a major contributor to the success of a performance, it is not the only one - being in the right frame of mind, being physically warmed up, having energy: all these things are needed at that particular moment.

You are only as good as you are at the moment people are listening. 

Of course that's not quite true, and all of us listen to music with certain preconceived ideas, even if we are trying to be objective: we listen attentively and forgivingly to a famous performer even when and if his performance is boring or messy, whereas the same performance by a student auditioning for conservatory might be rejected.  At Boston Conseratory, where I teach, I sometimes see students playing in end-of-semester juries (basically, the final exam for pianists, where they play for the whole faculty) get good grades when they play badly because they played well in #other# juries (the unconscious thinking is "well, they are just having a bad day") and vice versa.  We don't mean to do this - but it is hard not to. 

But I know some musicians (students and even successful professionals) who don't practice in a way that will help them on stage, under the stress of hot lights and critics (or piano professors with pens and comment sheets to fill out).  It is true that a basketball player should should 1000 free throws a week to prepare for the end-of-game moment where that free throw will mean the difference between winning and losing.  But the practicing alone is not enough - he needs to figure out how to be at his best at the right moment. 

I would imagine that the way to be our best at the right moment is not the same for every person.  I'm curious to hear what different people do for themselves.  For me, some of it is psychological self-counseling - if I can convince myself that I am the greatest pianist in history, I can get through the nervous moments without a problem.  Some of it is being intensely analytical - I can play a passage accurately and evenly if I hold my hand a certain way, for example, or I can remember all the notes in a complex phrase if I become consciously aware of what harmonies are being used, etc.  I think this is because on stage I tend to become more self-conscious, aware of every movement in my body, how every note sounds (and also of every flip of the printed program or unwrapping of cough suppressant in the 2nd balcony).  By practicing in a way that I am more "self-conscious" off stage, I am more prepared for that experience on stage 

But the concert last night in Guro (a concert hall in Seoul - the main concert is tonight, at the Seoul Arts Center) was much better than the one in Goyang - not because we were more prepared, but because we had more energy and focus.  One more day of recovering from jet lag, and we were more able to concentrate and play closer to our potential.  You may think that performing is a job that only requires a few hours of time, but in fact we have to spend days and weeks getting our minds and bodies ready to be our best at that one important moment. 

By the way, parents: this process of learning to cope with stress and learning to prepare for pressurized situations is one of the most valuable lessons children (or anyone of any age) can learn from studying music. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How far should we go to "market" great art?

I wish I could blog more often, but I find it difficult to find the time.  It is not unusual to have more time for such non-essential activities when I am away from home, which I am now - I am in Seoul, Korea, in the middle of a week of concerts with my friend and colleague, violinist Stefan Jackiw.  The trip coincides with the recent release of our CD on Sony/Korea of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas (we hope it will be released in the US and other countries soon).  As a side note, it sure can be tricky to use Google (of which Blogspot is a part) when you are in another country, because it knows where you are and asks questions, in this case, in Korean.  I know a few important phrases now in Korean (Do you speak English?  Where is the bathroom?  and a few others) but I certainly cannot read even a single letter.

It is always interesting to notice, as I play in different places, that classical music is marketed in a different way.  Here in Korea we feel very appreciated, more so I would say than in the US or in Europe.  For example, the presenter flew us business class and has put us in one of the very best hotels.  I can assure you that this is not typical in the classical music business (unless you are in a major orchestra, where the players' unions in many case have successfully gotten their employers to give them the best possible accomodations when they go on tour).

Yesterday, a few hours after arriving at the airport after the long flight from New York at 4:30am, we went to give a performance/press conference.  There were a good number of journalists in attendance, some from print, others radio or TV.  This is the kind of reception that might have greeted Vladimir Horowitz in the US many decades ago, but I'm not sure how many of these things even a mega-star like Yo-Yo Ma might do in the US today.  Beforehand Stefan and I each had to spend 20-30 minutes getting "hair and makeup".  Of course, as red-blooded American men this is not exactly normal for us, but I have to say we both did look a lot better than normal.  All of this, plus a closely organized question and answer session with the press, was in order to sell some CD's of Brahms.  In fact, to some degree we are pushed around (in a helpful way) by our people at Credia, the Korean manager, as we are a part - just a part, mind you - of the marketing strategy for selling the CD's and our concerts this week.

(Stefan Jackiw - in normal everyday life, he doesn't always dress quite so well)

It would be nice if people came to concerts just because they want to hear great music played (I hope) with insight and passion.  But the truth is that concert-goers need a little more of a push sometimes, and it seems that the Koreans understand the need for the extras (like hair and makeup) that make the product (us?  Brahms?  Art?) more enticing to the customers.  It is like food - a delicious mess is not going to sell as well as something more beautifully plated.  In fact, it may even seem to taste better.  But does music sound better when we are wearing tuxedos?  Or do the tuxedos just signal to the audience that something special is happening on stage, and they ought to pay attention?

On the plane trip, I watched on one of the 50+ channels available on Korean Airlines entertainment system a video of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Seiji Ozawa, and the Berlin Philharmonic doing the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the Musikverein in Vienna.  (Just the fact that this was one of the options - along with videos of Andras Schiff and Yevgeny Kissin - on a KAL flight should tell you something of the value Koreans place on classical music).  The performance was part of the attraction for the audience (though it seemed VERY slow, and perhaps more about violin playing than about Beethoven), but as I watched I realized that a big part of the experience for the audience in attendance would be the gorgeous and historic concert hall itself, the spectacle of hearing the unofficial greatest orchestra in the world, and of course just looking at Anne-Sophie Mutter, who looked fantastic, and was dressed as glamorously as a Hollywood star at the Oscars.

(yes, this is the great violinist Anne Sophie Mutter, not a fashion model)

If the audience attended for some combination of all these reasons, I'm not bothered by that - the truth is that, in the end, they listened to the monumental Beethoven Violin Concerto, instead of spending their time and dollars on something more superficial.  If people come to our concert in Seoul and/or buy the CD in part because we looked good in our makeup on TV, I won't complain.  At least we are still playing great music.

Where it gets hard for me is when we have to play second-rate music, music that is kind of like candy - immediately appealing, but which does not have lasting interest, in order to sell tickets.  I would say that many if not most concert presenters in America feel pressure to do this: put on programs of orchestras playing video-game music, for example, and avoid great works that are too long for the channel-surfing attention span of today's audiences.  Is this the only way? 

Although people are quick to point to the imminent demise of classical music, as it finds itself needing to "pander" to audiences who want Pops concerts more than "real" classical music, I know that this phenomenon is not at all new.  We may remember Schubert today as the composer of masterpieces like the C-major Cello Quintet, "Die Winterreise" and the B-flat major Piano Sonata, but in order to try to eke out a living he *also* wrote trivial little piano pieces and pieces for piano duet, which were tuneful and easy to play, and hence more marketable.  Brahms had the luxury of writing great, serious music in part because he had a huge financial success early in his career with the Hungarian Dances, which are wonderful, but certainly not the reason Brahms is remembered as a great composer.  Maybe all of us have to find time both to get an audience *now* by doing a *tiny* bit of dumbing-down, but also to do the things that may have a small audience now but will be remembered and still relevant later.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I love Bach even when it's played badly

Lately, I have had the pleasure of working on lots of Bach with my students.  I wish I could take credit for the fact that so many of them are working on major Bach works at the moment, but in fact it just seems to be coincidence - I try to not impose my will too much on students when it comes to choosing repertoire, though I certainly do suggest things and, when given a menu of options, I do express my preferences.  (I do encourage a variety or repertoire each semester, and some students are preparing for auditions where will be required to play Bach.)  As a child, I loved Bach more than any other composer - I'm not even sure who was in 2nd place for me.  At some later point, I came to appreciate that other composers might be equally great, while being different in their aesthetics and their aims. 

What I've noticed over the years is that Bach's music sounds great, even when it is played badly.  Or at least I can say that *I* enjoy it even when it is played badly.  (I wonder if this might limit my ability to teach Bach well, since a bad performance still has its merits).  This is not at all true of, say, Scriabin.  A good performance makes the music sound great, but a bad performance makes it unbearable. 

I would like to offer the following hypothesis (one which I admit is not well thought-out): one measure of how much we like something is whether we can still enjoy a mediocre form of it.  For example, I love great Chinese food, but if I am in an airport and they have one of those "fast food" Chinese places, I won't eat there.  On the other hand, I can eat Mexican food or Pizza no matter how sub-par it is.  I think that is a measure of how much more I like Mexican food than Chinese food.  Likewise with country music - I don't like it at all, except when I hear Patsy Cline or perhaps a few other really great singers.  Now chocolate - I can eat almost any level of chocolate and be thrilled - whether it's truffles from the famous Sprungli in Zurich (where they won't sell it to you unless you promise to eat it within a couple of days) or last year's Halloween handouts. 

What do you think? 

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Follow up on previous blog post, re: recording

We finished the recording sessions a few days ago (that is something quite different from saying "we are finished with the recording" - there is a lot of editing for the producer and engineer to do, and of course there are the various commercial aspects of issuing the actual CD), but it has taken me a few days to recover and get to the blog.  Among other things, I want to respond to the comments made in response to the last blog post. 

First, I can tell you I am very eager and excited to see how it all turns out.  Stefan Jackiw played absolutely great, and I felt good about my end of things.  Producer Steve Epstein and Engineer Todd Whitelock were fabulous - the sound quality is amazing (makes me feel bad now for ever listening to anything on an Ipod or over my car stereo) and Steve was really helpful with directing our efforts towards the best possible final result.  I think it is basically a good thing that neither Stefan nor I have a deep knowledge of the technical aspects of recording and editing.  We just prepared as if we were going to play a concert, and we will let them figure out how to edit things together in to an "ideal" performance.  (I don't want to re-address the issue of whether or not recordings are somehow dishonest - see the previous blog post for a little on that).  The hardest part was probably getting energized for each and every take.  In the end, I think we did four complete takes for all but one of the 10 different movements of Brahms Sonatas we recorded.  The first take tended to be fresh and energetic, but after that first playback we inevitably heard things we wanted to do differently - maybe changing tempos, pacing, balance, color, articulation, etc.  The second take was usually a bit more self-conscious as we worked on improving those aspects of the 1st take we didn't like.  The third take was often the best one - we felt we were "covered" for most of the technically problematic passages and we had clarified our musical ideas, so we were able to "just play," without worrying too much about the end result.  The fourth take was similar, but at this point we were definitely feeling mental fatigue. 

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to be a film actor, who may need to film an intense scene of the movie over and over for a whole day, and somehow be enthusiastic and fresh about it every time. 

Following that last take, we usually did a number of spots that for some reason were not "perfect."  For me, there were two passages in one movement that I literally needed to do over 10 times before I got them right.  For Stefan, there were little things that no one can hear in a concert hall, but the very sensitive microphones (like microscopes) pick up things that no one even in the first row of Symphony Hall would hear. 

That is yet another reason that recording is not exactly like performing (see the previous blog post for more on that).  When we play on the stage of any concert hall, we need to project what we are doing to the very last row.  My teacher, Patricia Zander, reminded me repeatedly of the need to listen to myself from the "back of the hall," so to speak.  In concert, we sometimes need to exaggerate musical ideas to convey them over large distances, and we need to play with at least a certain minimum of sound, even if the music is intended to be quiet, or else we won't be heard at all.  With a microphone, however, we can play *extremely* quietly, and musical ideas can and should be somewhat more subtlely expressed.  There are many passages in the Brahms Violin Sonatas which I have played somewhat clearly articulated (in order to "cut through" a reverberant concert hall acoustic)  but which sounded too dry when I listened to my playback at the recording sessions. 

With those things in mind, I think it would be safe to say some people are better "live performers" than "recording artists," and vice versa.  Of course, a great musician does their best to adapt themselves to whatever circumstance they are in, but nevertheless I am sure all of us have our natural strengths and weaknesses.  (I am in the planning stages of a course that I may teach at Boston Conservatory in the future, on Great Artists and their Recordings - at least one or two classes would be focused on comparing the same performers playing the same pieces in a studio recording and in a performance that was recorded live - for example, I have at least two recordings of Richter playing the Mussorgsky "Pictures at an Exhibition," one live, one in a studio, and they are vastly different!). 

Now, in response to the comment from my Dad: just speaking for myself, I do listen to "live recordings" differently than I do to "studio recordings" ... and also differently than I do to a live performance.  I think I would say that, yes, there is a certain excitement to a live recording, that is akin to the excitement of hearing a person live.  On the other hand, since it has been released as a commercial recording, I also have a certain expectation of technical security - otherwise, why would the performer to consent to the performance being released as a recording?  So I think I agree with exactly what you said. 

I have never had a performance recorded and released as a commercial recording, but I have had dozens of performances recorded that were later broadcast on radio and/or internet (after, of course, I had signed something allowing them to be used for this purpose).  I always hope that people hear it with the understanding that the performance was live (i.e. please forgive me for a few wrong notes!). 

Chris, you know, I think I spoke a bit hyperbolically about never listening to whole CD's at a time.  But it is true that I don't listen as well to a CD as I do to a live performance - something about the performer actually being there in person makes me feel that, as a courtesy, I should pay close attention.  This is true for performances on all levels - if I hear Richard Goode in concert I am totally focused on his wonderful playing, but on CD my brain occasionally wanders, not because of his playing, but because of the (unconscious) awareness that I could always go back and listen to the CD again another time; and it is the same with a student auditioning for me on CD or DVD versus auditioning in person.  Maybe if I had a room in the house which was just for listening to CD's, with perhaps just a comfortable chair and a remote control, no kids running in and out, no birds by the windows, no piles of papers silently asking me to sort them, no nearby Blackberry with blinking red light telling me about the emails and Facebook messages I had just received - then, I could really listen with full concentration to a CD at home. 

Monday, August 31, 2009

Thoughts on making a recording

Today was the first of three days that violinist Stefan Jackiw and I will spend recording the 3 Brahms Sonatas. We are making the recording at SUNY Purchase (about 45 minutes outside New York City). The CD is supposed to be released first in Korea (the label is Sony) before December, and then - we hope - in other countries after that.

It has been quite a while since I've made a recording, and it has given me cause to reflect on the recording process. I think some people have a kind of ethical objection to the fact that recordings can be "spliced" together, unlike the live performances for which the Brahms Sonatas were presumably intended. I don't have this objection to the recording process - in this I am much influenced by Glenn Gould, who famously gave up concertizing entirely and instead focused only on making records. Gould (who wrote quite a lot, in a witty and sometimes obtuse way) expressed his belief that the best service we could pay both to composer and listener was to put forth the "ideal" performance of a piece, a performance which only could be achieved by eliminating "accidents" like wrong notes or other performance flaws, and also eliminating extraneous issues like audience members coughing, etc.

The question arises of how to recreate the sense of spontaneity and excitement that generally (but not always) comes in a live performance. In a way, you can actually play with *more* abandon in a recording session, since any flaws or rough spots can be corrected in later takes. On the other hand, something resembling perfection is expected in a recording, so it is hard not to listen to oneself very critically, under an aural microscope. This can inhibit being expressive, but fortunately our wonderfully helpful producer, Steve Epstein, reminded us on a few occasions just to play the music, and not to worry about the details. (In fact worrying about the details can, in many cases, cause problems - it's like a baseball player who starts "overthinking" his swing).

The other problem in making a recording can be the lack of continuity in a performance. What I mean by that is that when we perform live, we hear the thread of a piece continuing from first note to last, developing, telling a story, etc. At least, that is what we are trying to do. In a CD, all the starting and stopping *can* mean that we lose a sense of the whole. What Steve had us doing today was about four complete takes for each movement (we did the 3rd Sonata today - the plan is to do #1 tomorrow, and #2 the next day). Then we were "covered", so to speak, for 99% of the piece in terms of accidental wrong notes, squeaks, notes that didn't come out, bad voicing, balance problems, etc. Only after that would we spend some time on the remaining short passages that needed to be "fixed" in some way. I believe that what he will do is base the final recording on one complete take, with various splices from other takes - but the basis is one cohesive "performance." That helps, I think, to alleviate the potential choppiness of a recording session.

Naturally one of the complications in making a recording with 2 people (I can only imagine a whole orchestra!) is that we have to both be playing our best at the same time. I can see why in some kinds of music, musicians are recorded in separate rooms, hearing each other on headphones, so that one person's problem does not create problems for everyone else. We are not quite so "artificial" in that sense - that would be a little like those terrible scenes in the Star Wars movie "Phantom Menace" where the live actors had to interact with the CGI "actor" Jar Jar Binks - it seems artificial because it was artificial.

Listening to recordings is also notably different from listening to live performances, and it does affect our approach to making a recording, I think. In a live performance, audience members give full attention to the performer, for 30 minutes or 2 hours or however long the performance is. We naturally forgive certain flaws, up to a certain point at least, in exchange for the thrill of a live performance (a part of which has some resemblance to a tight-rope act). On a recording, we expect perfection, basically, and also I personally almost never sit and listen to a whole CD, say, of the Brahms Violin Sonatas, from beginning to end. I might listen to a movement, or maybe 2. Or else I will listen to it in the car, where I am frankly not able to concentrate on every measure as I would in a live performance (since after all I am trying to drive my car). Many people listen to music while exercising or doing the laundry or as background music. While I certainly wish people would give my recordings their full and undivided attention, I know that the probably won't - at least not all the time.

The one way in which this has affected our musical approach is that we don't worry as much about ending each piece with a "bang" so to speak - we don't need to encourage applause (not an issue with the 3rd Sonata, but the 1st Sonata, for example, doesn't end with a grand gesture that tells the audience to start clapping). We also don't need to try, necessarily, to highlight the differences in each Sonata (which we definitely did in the various live performances we gave over the last year of the 3 Sonatas played in one concert). This is because, as I said, people are not so likely to listen to it as an "album" (and in these days of Itunes, people may not even download all three Sonatas anyway!).

This brings me back to Glenn Gould's assertion that recording was somehow more "pure" than a live performance - we are playing each piece in the way we believe it ought to be played, without regard for any other issues (like "wowing" the audience in a superficial way - I seem to remember that Gould wrote an article entitled "Let's ban applause", but I know I wouldn't want that to happen in live performance!).

Brahms was born in time to see the very beginning stages of the recording business - there is a recording circulating of Brahms playing the piano ( since Edison had just invented the technology to record sound. I doubt that he would have foreseen the technology that would allow the recording process as we know now it, or the remarkable way in which his music can now be disseminated to the listening public. But I do remember a quote attributed to Brahms - he said the best performances he ever heard of his music were the ones he heard sitting in his comfortable chair, with the score in his hand, *imagining* the music in his mind. Perhaps we can do similarly by taking a good recording of his music, sitting in a comfy chair and putting on the headphones.

Monday, June 8, 2009

How does great music engender such bitter people?

I am soliciting opinions on the following: how in the world is it that so many people who are involved in the classical music business are so bitter? It is hard for me to see how either playing the music of Beethoven or Mahler or being a behind-the-scenes person who brings Beethoven and Mahler to the public can make one quite so unhappy. For goodness sakes, it's a privilege - most people have jobs that allow little or no room for emotion or expression or beauty or a glimpse of the eternal. Very few people hear applause at the conclusion of their workday. But if, for example, you have the good fortune to play in a great symphony orchestra (which comes with an income that is solidly upper middle class, every imaginable insurance benefit, etc.) and you play the works of great composers at least *most* of the time, how can you complain? Yet I can tell you that orchestra musicians, on average, are very very very unhappy. Of course I have never had the experience of being in an orchestra, so I am probably missing something - but as a pianist who depends quite a bit on the annual whims of different concert presenters to find out whether I will be able to pay the mortgage or not, I find it hard to understand the bitterness. I know I'd have a more stable income as an attorney, for example, but it is a great joy and privilege to play great music for people.

Likewise the people in the music "business". Recently I have had the good fortune to get a new manager, someone who is relatively new to the business (though experienced in the music world). He is a hugely enthusiastic and energetic guy, who is of course trying to make a living, but genuinely loves music and wants to see people succeed. I have had other good managers in the past, but most recently I had someone helping me at a sort of minimal level. She explained at the outset of our relationship that she would not be making any phone calls on my behalf to help get concerts, but would be willing to negotiate contracts, etc, as offers came in. As it turns out I only worked with her on one concert during two years - it was clear that she had little interest or time to spend in helping me and after all she wasn't getting anything out of the arrangement financially. (It is typical for a manager to take 20% of each concert's fees). All of my exchanges with her consisted of me doing my best to be polite and grateful, to which she would respond curtly and with a tone that suggested I was taking too much of her valuable time. So I thanked her and told her I would from now on be managed by someone else, and that I appreciated and admired her work. Within minutes of sending her this email, she wrote back just to disparage this new manager and to sarcastically wish me luck. What a bitter, bitter, small person! Apparently it makes her feel better to speak ill of others.

I went to an extraordinary high school, Crossroads School in Santa Monica, CA, which recruited young musicians and, in addition to a great liberal arts education, gave us music theory, orchestra, chamber music, and the camaraderie of fellow music "nerds" who spent all our time practicing instead of "hanging out" or whatever normal teenagers do after school. We have had an exceptional group of alumni - that's the subject of another blog post, I suppose - but there was one violinist in particular who, when we were students, was practically a demigod to the rest of us. Nowadays he has an incredibly prestigious and wonderful position but I remember that this exceptional young kid moved to New York at age 16 or 17 to study at Juilliard and that experience seemed to really beat him down to where, for a time, he seemed bitter and confused and cold. His playing, which had always been fiery and brilliant, became dull and removed. (I have not seen him in years, but I know he has recovered from all that!). Somehow music went from being art to being a business - I think that can happen when you are in New York. Of course, the struggle just to pay one's rent and parking in New York probably turns everyone in to desperate animals. But does that have to happen? New York is probably the cultural capital of the world - it certainly seems to have the greatest concentration of great concerts happening, basically within a couple of square miles. Can't you live in New York and be inspired by great art, instead of being turned in to a soulless shell?

But I shouldn't single out New York - a few years ago I was playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I had a number of old friends in the orchestra. It took them till the second rehearsal to remember to be friendly to me - as if they had become so hardened and jaded by the "business" that they had only a dim recollection of fun times playing Brahms Trios and the like.

And conductors... why are so many of them so unpleasant? Does it make them feel that they are somehow more important, more authoritative? Of course I know many conductors who are wonderful people - but how are the rest of them getting hired at all? Are they such great musicians that they don't need to bother to be civil and courteous and human? (Generally this is NOT the case!)

Well, if you have answers to any of these great mysteries, please share them! Meanwhile, don't forget that the Beethoven "Archduke" Trio is one of mankind's greatest accomplishments - and that the "music business" exists to bring that piece together with a world of people whose lives will be better if they spend 30 minutes listening to it.

And oh yeah, as a piece of advice - I don't think you will REALLY feel better about yourself by talking down about others.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

if only I didn't need to earn a living...

Recently I was discussing with some students the fact that the word "amateur" did not always have such a negative connotation. It refers to someone who does something for love, as opposed to a "professional" who does it as, well, a profession - a job to earn a living. Needless to say, it is a great attainment to be a pianist who is so good that he or she would be paid money by the public. But I am, from time to time, reminded that truly great music making is sometimes hampered by the need to make money. We have all been witness to the "dumbing-down" of concert programs, which, in theory, are meant to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by including Celine Dion arrangements alongside the Pachelbel Canon and, if we are lucky, a well-known Beethoven Symphony. It also has influenced what Artur Schnabel long-ago referred to as "the cult of the celebrity", where the public only gets to hear the same old established names - the tired, bored performers of 150 concerts per year, who can sell tickets on the strength of reputation alone. Concert presenters are reluctant to take risks - they may know that a performer is fantastic, but is not well-known to the general public, and hence they are afraid of not being able to sell enough tickets.

A saying I heard once went something like this: when bankers get together they talk about music; when musicians get together they talk about money. I think this is a result of not quite being able to forget about money (of course these days bankers are in more trouble than musicians) - if we were independently wealthy we could focus on "art for art's sake" without a care in the world. On the other hand, a life of ease doesn't seem to *inspire* in the same way that struggle, economic or otherwise, does. Mendelssohn was fortunate to be born in to a well-to-do family and never needed to worry about money. His music, for all its beauty (and I would say that he is somewhat undervalued as a composer) does tend to lack in, well, urgency. Schubert, on the other hand, was more or less destitute despite his genius, and the music from his last few years in particular forms one of the most deeply profound, moving, even overwhelming expressions of emotion I can think of (though this perhaps was motivated not only by poverty, but also by failing health - he died at age 31). I know that one of the most productive 12-month periods in my own life was when I was in graduate school at the New England Conservatory, where I lived in a very very cold apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts and couldn't afford to eat meat. (I ate a lot of rice). My coat had holes in it and things seemed pretty hopeless. I spent between 8 and 11 hours a day practicing on the pianos at New England Conservatory in part because NEC is a very very warm place (temperature-wise) and also because at the piano my ears, heart, and mind inhabited a wonderful world full of beauty and color, unlike the gray, frozen world that I actually lived in. By the end of that difficult year, I was getting quite a lot of recognition for my playing and was being offered many concerts. It is hard to know if I would have worked just as hard if I had not been a starving artist.

Last night I had the opportunity to play in a concert featuring my students at the Boston Conservatory. One of my students was suddenly unable to participate, and I took his place, since the concert was to include all 24 Rachmaninov Preludes, and without this student 2 of the Preludes would have been missing. It was wonderful to play not for money but simply to be part of a wonderful project, a collaboration among 12 pianists to share great music with our community (it was attended mostly by other students, and by a handful of others). I have to say I prefer this - playing a concert for the sake of playing instead of thinking about my fee, whether I will be invited back to the same concert series, if the critic will give me a good review, etc. I was just as concerned with playing my best and doing justice to Rachmaninov, but without any thoughts of my career.

In fact I can say that the most meaningful experiences I have had at the instrument have not been on the stage of great concert halls. About 10 years ago I was at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and some of my dear friends (who were not professional musicians) asked me a favor. One of their friends, someone I never met, was dying of cancer, and they knew she loved music. They arranged to have a piano around the corner of her bedroom, where she was resting (I never even saw the woman) and I played for an hour or so, playing some late Brahms pieces, some Schubert, and I can't remember what else. I think she only lived a few more weeks after this visit. I knew that this performance meant more than my New York or London debuts did, more than the concertos I have played with great orchestras and great conductors. Great music making is not about crowds and standing ovations and quotable reviews - it is about a personal connection, about moving and touching someone, communicating something that cannot be communicated any other way.

If only I didn't need to earn a living playing the piano... Of course, if anyone out there has a few million in extra cash I'd take it and start living my dream...

Friday, February 20, 2009

giving it your all... a few inspirational videos...

one of the least enjoyable feelings I have had on stage is feeling like I am being "careful," in order not to do something wrong. The truth is that the kind of music I play requires quite a lot of concentration and preparation, and of course I always want to do my best, technically and expressively. But I know that the most successful performances, given by me or by anyone, are the ones that leave nothing left in the tank. In classical music, we are perhaps more likely to lose sight of the need for "abandon" because the technical demands (and at times the memorization demands) are so great. We need to be in total command of the notes and other aspects of the music before we can really "let go" of course, and it doesn't take nearly as long to reach this point of "command" in playing most types of popular music. Here is a video of Queen performing "Bohemian Rhapsody" - Freddie Mercury and the rest of the band are playing like their lives depend on it, and that is something all of us in classical music should aspire to in every performance:

It may help when you are the composer of the music you are playing - you can inhabit the music and feel free with it in a way that is harder to achieve when you are playing someone else's music. However, not only is Astor Piazzolla wonderful playing his own "Milonga del Angel", so too is the violinist in his group, Fernando Suarez Paz:

Finally, the one pianist I know who most consistently achieves this ideal of total control making possible the appearance of total abandon, the incomparable Martha Argerich, playing the 1st movement of the Prokofiev 3rd Concerto:

I can say that I remember two times in my life actually bleeding on the keyboard during a concert, once during a performance of the Ravel Left-hand Concerto (after a bunch of glissandi, which do tend to rip up one's skin) and once during another piece by Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit, in a concert somewhere in Northern Ireland. I'm not sure how that one happened. I have also once played the Bartok 2nd Concerto with a fractured finger but I can definitely say I didn't really play with "total abandon" that time.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

classical music for kids?

Lately I have had a bit of a break from professional (i.e. musical) life, and have been gratefully able to spend time with my family. I have two daughters, age 3 and 5, and they recently went crazy (in a good way) because I rented a movie for them called "Barbie and Diamond Castle." I don't know what it was about, but I did notice that the main theme of the Brahms 1st Symphony 4th movement was used at least once. (The girls also have been going around singing a Pop song that seemed written for the film, sung by Katharine McPhee, a one-time student at Boston Conservatory, where I teach). My kids get excited when I cue (queue?) up the Ipod to that spot in the Brahms, since they know it from the movie.

It is much the same with other music they have heard in movies: for example, the Beethoven 6th Symphony and, believe it or not, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", both of which they discovered through the Disney film, "Fantasia." Yes, my three-year-old daughter listens to and sings along with the Rite of Spring.

In general I think this is great - hearing the Overture to "the Barber of Seville" as the accompaniment to a Bugs Bunny cartoon (see is funny and also makes the piece seem more "approachable" in later years by an adult who might listen to classical music without the cartoon attached. I know that many of my peers learned about pieces of music by watching "The Smurfs," which featured excerpts of Beethoven (the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata), Schubert (the Unfinished Symphony), Mussorgsky (a few different movements from Pictures at an Exhibition) and, most memorably, Liszt (the opening theme of the E-flat major Piano Concerto). The music was used purposefully, as it really did convey the appropriate mood for the story told in the cartoon.

My impression is that it is much the same for some other "Barbie" movies - there is a Barbie version of Swan Lake, and the Nutcracker, which seem (from my not very careful observation) to really tell the story and really use Tchaikovsky's music - and STILL be utterly engaging for my kids - and some other movie about 12 princesses that uses Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, if I remember correctly. (You can see that my kids are REALLY into these movies!).

What does irk me, however, are the heavy-handed attempts to cram classical music down the throats of kids when it doesn't really make sense. For example, my kids like the show "Little Einsteins" (on the Disney Channel - it's related to but not the same as the "Baby Einstein" brand of videos), but I find it artificial to sing a song about the Taj Mahal or Claude Monet set to the tune of the Mozart 40th Symphony. Is this really educating kids about great music (and other works of mankind) or just making parents think their kids are learning something and hence making them feel less guilty about planting them in front of the TV? (To its credit, the Little Einsteins show is about friends who have very good manners and there is no violence or anything else like that).

I find Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" a bit like that. My kids have zero interest in hearing that. But they LOVE "Peter and the Wolf", which doesn't seem quite so ambitious and yet ends up teaching kids a lot about music without their knowing it. (My kids have been able to identify oboes, bassoons, and flutes accurately since age 1 or 2).

As a side topic, I have noticed that most everyone has higher standards for their children than they do for themselves. Thousands of parents who never listen to Chopin or Debussy, except by accident, will take their kids to piano lessons in hopes that they will be "cultured." I hope that in some small way at least it rubs off on the parents too! My girls are taking ballet at the Boston Ballet school and as a result I have definitely become much more interested in and knowledgeable about ballet. Perhaps this is one of many reasons it is good for us (adults) to have children, if we have the chance to. It forces us to be better people (or at least to try!).

To reward you for reading through all that, here is a video I think is amazing, of a ballerina named Svetlana Zhakarova, in Swan Lake -