Wednesday, February 29, 2012


In honor of tonight's "Top Chef" finale (my favorite TV show)   I thought I would share my observations about the last two books I read: Jacques Pepin's "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen" and Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly."   Both are chefs made famous by TV, and both offer a lot of insight to someone like me, who loves food and enjoys cooking, but has never seen what REALLY happens in a professional kitchen.  The books are quite different in tone, as you might expect if you have seen them on television: Pepin is warm, easy-going, and avuncular, while Bourdain is biting, sarcastic, and takes no prisoners (including himself - he is not at all self-serving, and subjects himself to the same criticism as everyone else). 

What I gained, as a musician, from reading these books (and that is not the only reason I read the books, mind you) is the realization that we are not the only ones who experience ups and downs.  Both chefs have experienced, in the broad sense, huge progress in their careers, but things did not go in a straight line, without the occasional miscalculation or string of bad luck.  Neither was too proud to work in less-than-glamorous situations, even after being, for example, the official chef to Charles de Gaulle (as in Pepin's case).  I have likewise experienced highs and lows, and just because I have played a recital in the Wigmore Hall doesn't mean I am unwilling to play a concerto with a student orchestra (schedule permitting).  It worked for Pepin and Bourdain, and in the end the thing that shines through is that both of those chefs love to work, almost regardless of the restaurant. 

My own grandfather worked as a chef, though I didn't get to know that part of his life too well before he died.  I remember very vividly how much I love eating Oysters Rockefeller at his restaurant in California as a young kid, and I remember another time when he made escargots at home.  If I ever have the time, I would love to take a serious cooking course at the Cordon Bleu or something like that.  Maybe when the kids are grown up (and aren't only interested in macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets).  But it does seem, based on what Bourdain says that one's hands can get pretty gnarly from repeated use of sharp knives, splattering oil, etc.  So I'm not sure I should risk my career just to be able to make a great meal. 

One of my first conducting performances was at a "Symphonies for Youth" concert organized by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at their former home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  I was conducting my school's orchestra (I was 16 or 17 - the Crossroads Chamber Orchestra was no ordinary school orchestra, having produced the concertmasters and principal players of several major orchestras including the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and many others) in a piece I had written (nothing special, mind you).  The theme of the Saturday morning concert was "Cooking with Strings," an attempt to help kids understand music through an analogy with chefs and cooking.  I was supposed to be a "real live chef" (unlike, say, Beethoven) and had to conduct the orchestra with a chef's hat on.  I had been asked to conduct with a wooden spoon, but even as a teenager I just had to draw the line somewhere, and was allowed to use a baton.  I don't know if the orchestra really respected me with my chef's hat on, but in any case I wasn't quite up to being respected by an orchestra even without a silly costume. 

Life interferes with Art: Beethoven on hold

As it is the last day of February (the 29th!) I am due to report on the progress of my Beethoven Sonata project. I am trying to learn one new Sonata each month, with the goal of having them all in my fingers in about a year-and-a-half. This month I decided to learn op. 31#1, a wonderful piece while not quite the life-altering experience of op. 111 or op. 57. It isn't quite as far a long as I'd like it to be, mostly because my progress was interrupted by some surgery. It wasn't a life-threatening procedure, though I was nervous anyway (first time to have any surgery), and I was not quite at 100% for a while.

But I DID get the notes learned fairly well (I was hoping to have the piece memorized, but no luck) since I worked hard on the piece at the beginning of the month, prior to my surgery. At the time, the little red devil whispering in my ear said "Why hurry - you have the whole month!" while the other part, fortunately, won over and convinced me to practice right away, while I could.

So the moral of the story is: take advantage of time when you have it. I have already admitted to being a terrible procrastinator, one who has succeeded too many times in getting things done at the last minute and so I am not quick to change this. And in the context of non-urgent tasks (see Stephen Covey) like my Beethoven project, it is all too easy to let those things slide when life interferes with realities like surgery or flight delays or any other unexpected events.

So I'm hoping to catch up in March (while also playing a lot of repertoire unrelated to this project) AND to keep forging ahead, maybe with an easier sonata like op. 14#1 or op. 49#2. We'll see how it goes - wish me luck!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chronological Survey of "Eroica" opening

I'm not sure if anyone else will find this interesting, but thought I'd share it: someone has compiled 20-30 different recordings (from 1952 to the present) of the Beethoven 3rd Symphony opening two chords.  Most people would probably be struck by the variety of pitches used as E-flat major - some of them sound a half-step high to my ear, and in the 1980's you hear a few of the "period instrument" groups playing a half-step lower than a "modern" E-flat. 

I think it's interesting to see, in this very brief and not exactly scientifically controlled experiment, how differently people can play the exact same two chords.  And all of them, I'm sure, were doing what they thought best suited Beethoven. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Alexis Weissenberg and overcoming first impressions

I have mentioned before in this blog that I appreciate both the control of being able to hear whatever I want, whenever I want, thanks to my iPod; AND giving up control of my listening to the local classical stations (WGBH 99.5 and sometimes WHRB 95.3), as I often discover pieces or performers I didn't know about.  This happened a few days ago when I was in my car and heard a wonderful performance of the Chopin 2nd Piano Concerto slow movement, but didn't know who it was.  It turned out to be Alexis Weissenberg, somewhat of a surprise to me since I had decided many years ago (decades in fact) that I didn't like his playing.  As a kid I remember owning two LP's, one of some Bach ( I can't remember what it was) and the other a recording of the Brahms Violin Sonatas with Anne-Sophie Mutter.  I didn't like either, and so I hadn't bothered to listen to him ever since.

Now having spent a short time perusing recordings of Weissenberg that people have uploaded to Youtube, I can say that he is great, but perhaps not 100% of the time.  I heard some wonderful Chopin and Rachmaninov, but also a dry Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue that lacked fantasy.  But in any case I am glad for the discovery that, despite my first impression years ago, there is wonderful artistry to be heard from among his many recordings (Weissenberg died quite recently, on my birthday in fact - the New York Times obituary is here).

I know this is hardly news, but first impressions are powerful - maybe too powerful!  I remember that the first time I heard the Mahler Fourth Symphony, I thought the 3rd movement was boring (granted, I was in middle school at the time).  Now I love it so much that I would have it played at my funeral, if possible.  (That probably won't work out since it requires a whole orchestra, but my other top choice for music at my funeral is the slow movement of the Schubert C major Quintet).  I also remember, once upon a time, not liking the Richter's playing, or foods like avocadoes, ikura (salmon roe), or anchovies, all things I love now.  But I wonder if there are other things to which I need to give a second or third chance - am I missing out on something because of a bad first impression?

A piece of practical advice: if you are a student auditioning for a conservatory, always start with your best piece.  Many students seem to think they are somehow obliged to start with Bach (don't know where this idea came from), but if that isn't your best piece, start with something else.  That first impression, even within a 15-20 minute audition can change the way we hear you the rest of the time. 

Here is the Rachmaninov Sonata #2, 1st Movement, played by Alexis Weissenberg (who, as it turns out, bears some resemblance to Rachmaninov, I think!)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A little love music for Valentine's Day

In honor of Valentine's Day, a couple of my favorite love-related pieces of music - what are yours?

Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliet" (here is the Balcony Scene), from the Mariinsky Theatre:

 Schoenberg "Transfigured Night" (Juilliard Quartet, with Walter Trampler and Yo-Yo Ma)

Wagner-Liszt "Liebestod" (played by me)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pianists and public transportation

I have just returned home from a trip to Dublin, Ireland, where I had the great pleasure of playing a concert with many of my fellow winners of the Dublin International Piano Competition: Phillippe Cassard, Pavel Nersessian, Davide Franceschetti, Alexei Nabioulin, and Romain Descharmes, along with the founder of the competition, John O'Conor.  (The two other winners, Antti Siirala and Alexej Gorlatch, couldn't be there).  The first half included each pianist playing a short solo piece, and after intermission we returned as a group to play some pieces (arranged) for seven pianos.  Here is a photo I took while the piano tuner was scrambling to get all of these 9-foot Steinway Model D's tuned:
 It was a great time for us, performers of an often-solitary instrument who had a chance to play together.  

I've been to Ireland about 15 times, I'd say, and the people I know are all very eager to be helpful.  I usually stay in a friend's home (this time my friends Myles and Laurie), and if I ever need to go somewhere, there are people who are quick to offer me a ride in their car.  But a few days ago I ended up taking the train (the "DART") to get from Dublin's Royal Irish Academy of Music (I'd been practicing) to the home where I was staying.  And I realized that I LOVE taking public transportation, especially when I am away from home.  I have very happily ridden the subway in London, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, New York, Chicago.  In fact I vastly prefer taking the train to riding in a taxi.  When I left Dublin I very happily took a bus from the city centre to the airport - in fact I was happier doing that than I had been on the taxi I took from the airport when I arrived.

It made me wonder why.  I think what I like about it is the independence.  I grew up in Los Angeles, where most people I know go everywhere by car.  When I came to Boston for school, the idea that I could hop on the Red Line and go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, was wonderfully liberating.  But I wonder whether being a pianist has helped contribute to this preference for independence.  Pianists, when playing solo piano repertoire, don't need to ask for anyone's opinion when making musical decisions (this of course is different when playing music for 7 pianos!) and when we take public transportation, it feels less like we are depending on someone else.  (Of course this is partly an illusion, as we all depend on the driver of the train, and are subject to limitations of the train's schedule and route).  I have noticed that different musical instruments tend to be correlated to different personalities, and pianists tend to be the loners, the eccentrics, the dreamers, the awkward nerds.  And I bet I'm not the only pianist who prefers the independence of public transportation to the dependence of asking for a ride.