Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Going up in Space and Playing Music

I have never had the desire to travel outside of the Earth's atmosphere. I never really understood why anyone would want to do such a thing until I heard an Inquiring Minds interview with Cady Coleman. She describes life and work in a space station kind of like the way I would describe playing a Mozart String Quintet.

Then again Coleman IS a musician.

I wonder what you would have to do in zero gravity to keep a bow on the string?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Local Culture

Last night I went to an excellent piano recital at a local university. The program was difficult and impressive, and the pianist, who had been an undergraduate student at that university, is on his way towards what I am certain will be a brilliant career (and I "know from good").

When this pianist was a college student his recitals were filled to capacity with members of the university community, students, friends, townspeople, and people from his home town. He was the pride and joy of the music department and the community at large. Last night's concert had an audience of ten or twelve people, and I spied only three members of the music faculty in attendance. I feel (and have always felt) privileged to hear him play. I imagine that everyone who was in the audience last night felt as privileged as I did.

Perhaps more people would have come to the concert if the university (or the music department) had publicized it adequately. Or maybe it is the fault of the local paper. Like many smaller cities in America, the once local newspaper, which runs out of a central corporate office in a distant state, does not understand the value of printing press releases about recitals. The people who make editorial decisions are not involved in the communities they are "serving." One "event" is just as important as another "event," I guess (unless it is a sporting event).

I like to believe that local culture is necessary for the health of a community. We are now, because of technology, closely in touch with one another through email (though fewer and fewer people write email message--or even read their email) and Facebook (where friends who live elsewhere feel as close as if they lived nearby, and friends who live nearby may as well be elsewhere). Perhaps all this access to things "elsewhere" makes keeping culture in a small community more difficult than it should be.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Off the Beaten Path

Back in my flute-playing days I learned an interesting metronome technique that involved off-setting the clicks of the metronome so that the clicks would sound on the off beats. I start my off-beat "machine" kind of like the way you start a game of jumprope (when someone else is doing the turning). In simple meter (divisions of two or four) I set it up so that the clicks happen on 2 and 4, and then feel the emphasis on the silent 1 and the silent 3. It sets up a nice even groove (as it should).

I often use this method to "notch" a passage from a slow tempo to a faster tempo. On the slow end of the tempo spectrum it feels kind of like ironing. You can almost watch groups of sixteenth notes become more even. As you "notch" up the tempo it's easy to see and hear the exact configurations of pitches that need attention. On the slower end of the notching experience it is easy to concentrate on how the bow or the tongue need to behave to insure that the notes are even. The places that rush become immediately apparent as you notch up the off-beats.

It is difficult, at first, to play more than a line or two of constant sixteenth notes without creeping into "downbeat" mode, but with practice, observations, patience, and forgiveness, practicing this way is really rewarding.

Last night I decided to practice a slower lyrical passage that was giving me trouble using off beats. The passage in question actually has off beats in the piano part. My challenge was (and still is) to play the on-the-beat notes with enough oomph and gusto (not to mention vibrato) to allow the music to ebb and flow the way I wanted it to. I found myself having trouble beginning held notes with vibrato because I had gotten so used to depending on the on-beat impulse to propel the vibrato. I also noticed, at the slower tempo, that concentrating on off beats and playing sustained double stops are difficult things to do simultaneously.

So I "notched" the passage down, doing just the opposite of what I would do if I were practicing a passage that I wanted to play fluently at a faster tempo. Doing this proved to be a sort of clean window into the body of the sustained notes, and after about half an hour of frustration I was able to have better control over the whole span of any given note in the passage, not just its beginning and its end.

We so often forget that the duration of a note is where the music happens. And our awareness of that fact is something that we face anew every day.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Viola and Piano Recital November 15

The composers on our program were contemporaries of Johannes Brahms. Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903) was Brahms's preferred arranger (he arranged Brahms's songs for piano solo). Kirchner also courted Clara Schumann during the 1860s (they kept their relationship secret from Brahms). Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) also knew Brahms well. He served as a pallbearer for Brahms's funeral.

We don't know if Friedrich Kiel (1821-1885), one of the founding faculty members of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, knew Brahms personally, but we do know that Brahms knew Kiel's violin music.

It's great fun to practice and rehearse this music, and I'm sure that we will have a great time performing it.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Plastic Trumpet

I was really surprised to see this video of Alison Balsam playing a red plastic trumpet:

Wow. An instrument that really plays for under $200.00! And they are light weight and come in many different colors. What kid could resist?

Now we get to see and hear Alison Balsam teach:

What a treat!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Steven Staryk Plays the Schumann, Walton, and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos

Steven Staryk
A Retrospective: Volume 7
Centaur CRC 3366

I rarely write about CDs in this space, but this recording on Centaur, which will be available this November 13th is really something special and worthy of your attention. I got an advance copy from Mr. Staryk, and I resisted the temptation to listen to it until the month of November was in sight. Now I just have to write about it.

Joseph Joachim's will stated that the Schumann Violin Concerto could not be performed until 100 years after Schumann's death (Joachim and Clara Schumann did not understand the piece and were therefore unable to understand its value). In 1937 Yehudi Menuhin got permission, after Joachim's granddaughter located the manuscript, to violate the will, but the Nazi authorities would not allow Menuhin to premiere the Concerto. It was performed and first recorded by Georg Kulenhampff, but was not given the performance it deserved. Staryk's performance with the Toronto Festival Orchestra (1983 or 1985) with Pierre Hétu conducting IS the performance this piece deserves. (I find the Kulenhampff recording unlistenable now. I just have it here for reference.)

The Concerto had a slight resurgence in the last decade, and there have been some very good recordings of it, but this concert performance is really remarkable. The recorded sound of the orchestra is not pristine (it was probably recorded using a microphone placed in the audience), but it is rich, commanding, and beautifully phrased. Staryk plays the solo part on the Barrere Strad, which has a fantastically complex sound. His eloquent elocution in the opening declamatory passages continues with absolute focused attention throughout the piece.

Because of Staryk's commanding musical "vision," there is no way to listen without becoming completely involved in the music making. Staryk has such integrity as a violinist that every single one of the difficulty arranged notes sounds clear and clean (even through some of the recorded fuzz, and the occasional bump--like the big one at around 8:30 of the first movement).

The crystal clear scale passages in the last movement are certainly impressive:

But what is most impressive to me is the way they operate as fine filagree in the musical texture rather than as pure foreground. I have heard recordings of the piece where the passage work in the last movement feels like pure torture. Here it feels like pure pleasure, albeit the kind of pleasure you get from watching high-wire artists perform death-defying acrobatics.

Then we get the Walton Concerto. This recording comes from a 1981 radio broadcast, and the recorded sound is better than the recorded sound in the Schumann Concerto. It is charming and brilliant, and you really get to hear all the colors Staryk gets from the Barerre Strad and the way the orchestration reflects those colors. I actually prefer this recording (with Mario Bernardi leading the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa) to Menuhin's recording with the composer conducting, but I tend to prefer Staryk's playing to Menuhin's playing in general.

Staryk uses the Muntz Strad for his performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto with the University of Victoria Orchestra conducted by George Corwin. The balance between the solo violin and the orchestra is often a problem in performances of the Mendelssohn Concerto, and one would imagine that it would be a problem during this outdoor public performance in 1973, but the commanding sound of the Muntz Strad can be heard clearly even in pianissimo passages, and even when the occasional breeze causes the sound to waft away from the microphone.

I love the brisk tempos, particularly the tempo of the slow movement (which is not slow).

You'll have to wait for a few weeks before this recording becomes available, so in the meantime, particularly if you are unfamiliar with Staryk's playing and career, you might like to read this interview I did with him in 2009. And I'm sure you would certainly enjoying hearing the recordings on this YouTube channel devoted to films of Staryk playing recitals, concertos, and even donning a red wig and playing the part of Vivaldi in a film.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Pianists Speak and Move

Two film clips from 1953: Yves Nat demonstrates how to play Chopin to a class of students (notice the subtle way everyone begins to move once he starts to play), and Alfred Cortot gives us his "inner text" while he plays Schumann's "The Poet Speaks."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Pachelbel in Prague!

What an honor it is to hear this beautifully played violin-only adaptation of my string orchestra arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon. The performance was part of The Prague Music School's 55th anniversary concert, which took place on October 18th in the Martinů Hall of the Lichtenstein Palace.

The entrance of the youngest performers at the end is just priceless.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Something Musically Wonderful Near Cincinnati

I just read about a school in Winton Woods, Ohio, where the principal, Jeremy Day, who has recently started playing the viola, is a member of the fifth grade orchestra.

Congratulations to everyone involved!

Monday, October 12, 2015

More About Plato and Music

I don't really buy this claim that Plato's works were arranged to correspond with the 12 notes of a musical scale, but I do like the idea of "not revealing doctrines that would threaten the gods of Olympus." This is something worth reading, particularly for musicians who would, like me, have a bone to pick with Jay Kennedy's musical claims.

Here's some food for thought:
Positive concepts are lodged at the harmonious third, fourth, sixth, eight and ninth "notes", which were considered to be most harmonious with the 12th; while negative concepts are found at the more dissonant fifth, seventh, 10th and 11th.
Given a 12-note chromatic scale, which was more than likely NOT generally used for the music of Plato's time, the third degree of the scale would be a whole step from the root, the fourth degree, would be a minor third away from the root, the sixth degree would be a perfect fourth from the root, the eighth degree would be a perfect fifth, and so on. It doesn't make any musical sense to me.

If the degrees of the 12-note chromatic scale have particular qualities when they sound by themselves, then Plato would have to have had absolute pitch mixed with a kind of synesthesia. What respectable synesthete would divide notes simply between pleasant and dissonant. If that were true Plato would probably have written a lot more specifically about music. I believe that when he discussed modes he was commenting on the linear harmonic nature of a set of pitches going from "tonic" to "tonic" on instruments that did not have the ability to alter themselves chromatically (the lyre vs. the pedal harp, for example).

Sunday, October 11, 2015

More on The Visual Physicality of Violin and Viola Playing

I have been jumping back and forth between practicing string, wind, and keyboard instruments a lot lately, and have consequently been thinking about music, movement, and vision.

String playing requires a lot of functional body movement, but, when playing the flute or the recorder, functional body movement is restricted to the breathing mechanism in the horizontal and vertical center of the body, the mouth cavity (also central), and the fingers. In the case of the recorder (or I guess with any wind or brass instrument) the hands, arms, and fingers oppose one another in a relatively still position at the center of the body. Wind players have the luxury of reading music head-on, so the music is always in the center of a wind player's physical field of vision.

The flute is different from other wind instruments because the hands and arms are off to one side, though their function is pretty much the same. The mind's eye of a flutist has to be taught to visualize to the right, because that's where the fingers of both hands contact the keys. The hands and fingers are "over there," and they are impossible to actually see them when you are playing. All wind players must use their inner vision to pay attention to the inside of their mouths and the interior components of their breathing mechanisms. Nobody can really see that stuff without fancy imaging equipment.

Both hands function the same way when a musician plays a wind instrument. The fingers of both hands work like levers, and ideally make the same motions, rising to and dropping from the same height, and landing in various combinations at the same time. Sometimes the little fingers and thumbs work actual levers, but that doesn't change the basic function of the fingers. The hands stay still, and they make sure the fingers function efficiently.

A string player's fingers and hands do different things while being totally interdependent. The fingers of the left hand work like levers, and the left thumb works like a flexible fulcrum. The left hand fingers, powered by the arms, generate some elements of expression, and that expression is generated by constant efficient motion. The right hand fingers are both firm and flexible, and the thumb acts like a stable fulcrum, but the joint still bends when it needs to bend. The fingers sometimes pull and push the bow, and are sometimes pushed and pulled by the arm. They do millions of unseen and impossible-to-articulate unconscious things (not unlike the ideomotor phenomenon) that unlocks the subconscious mind.

Unlike wind playing, there is no actual physical contact between the components that set the musical vibrations into motion. String players have to feel the music through sticks, hair, and wire (or gut). The music we make exists outside of the body, yet we cradle the instrument in the most intimate part of our neck (or lap) and use the bow to make the instrument feel like it vibrates the way a voice vibrates. We sometimes have the mental illusion that we are singing when we are playing.

How the left hand looks has a huge amount to do with playing efficiently, and how the right hand steers the bow in order to keep parallel to the bridge and make efficient string crossings has everything to do with the sound. Violinists and violists have to constantly visualize left, right, and center, paying constant attention to all parts of that semi-circle we occupy. We have to use our inner eyes the way we use our peripheral vision while driving (but, thank goodness, we don't need to know what's happening directly behind us).

My flute-mind "training" has taught me to visualize right when I am looking at music, so I can easily look at music and "see" my bow hand. But there is a whole world of "left" that violinists and violist also have to keep in the mind's eye. The mind's eye has to be taught to visualize a full 180 degrees (and even more, considering the fact that the tip of the bow extends another 20 degrees when playing up-bow on one of the lower strings) in addition to looking at the music. The violinist's or violist's mind's eye has to imagine a wider span than a pianist's mind's eye.

Visualizing the whole half circle (and more) is always a challenge for me. I understand the challenge more acutely when I spend time practicing the recorder, which is like a vacation from peripheral visualization. Even practicing the piano involves less than 180 degrees of vision (even at the extremes of the keyboard, I can see both hands). Practicing with a mirror (or two) is really useful, but once you take the mirror away the mind's eye is on its own.

I always enjoy sitting to the right when I share a music stand because my real vision is "aiming" to the left, and my left hand can be "visually louder" (by physical default) than my right hand. The conductor is also easily in view at the center. This orchestral season I will be sitting on the left side of the stand, so I will have to work harder at left-side awareness because I will be looking at the music towards the right. I'm looking forward (right and left) to the challenge.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Conversation with André Previn

I really enjoyed reading the transcript of Frank Oteri's July 31st conversation with André Previn (which includes Molly Sheridan's film--I'm not sure who did what). I also enjoyed reading No Minor Chords, Previn's 1991 memoir about his days in Hollywood (that you can buy used for 1 cent on Amazon).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Handwriting and the Bow Arm

Isn't it interesting that we all have personal ways of expressing ourselves through handwriting? Some people who grew up in the middle of the 20th century keep the classic models handed (oy--no pun intended) to them by their early training, some evolved through the stylized fads of adolescence, and some have morphed into a scrawl that can only be understood by a select few. Some people have very small handwriting, and some people have very large handwriting. People use their fingers to hold writing instruments in different ways: one grip doesn't work for everybody.

Penmanship often depends on the quality (or type) of pen (or pencil) we use. For some handwriting geniuses the tool doesn't matter. I only write well when I use one of a few specific fountain pens or one of a few specific kinds of pencils. Everyone has a spectrum of neatness. Some people (even the very young) can be both neat, quick, and elegant without appearing to think about it, and some adults simply cannot write in a hand that looks "grown up."

As the title of this post suggests, I think there is a direct correlation to the way a string player uses the bow. With bowing there is a also continuum of neatness. It is possible to bow mindlessly, paying attention only to whether the bow is going up or down, and it is possible to bow with extreme mindfulness, using microscopic differences of speed and pressure to make nuances and generate efficient musical energy. The bow itself also matters a great deal. A great bow can offer worlds of musical motivation simply by the way it moves, the way it contacts the string, the kind of sounds it can produce, and the way it feels in the hand. A pen or pencil can offer a similar kind of motivation for expression: the way it moves, the way it contacts the paper, the way ink flows from it, and the way it feels in the hand.

The best bow arms look and "feel" like they are generating Spencerian script.

Habits of good "bowmanship" can be taught to very young children (but they can still play mindlessly), and extremely mindful use of the bow can still result in playing that is less than elegant if the motions are not yet integrated into a player's musical physiology. It takes time and work to develop the muscles that constitute a good bow arm, and it takes constant attention to keep that developed bow arm behaving properly.

Then there's the question of having something to say!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Pope Who Loves Music

This American visit of Pope Francis seems to bring joy to a great many people, but I think that the Pope must be taking great personal pleasure in the music that he has been hearing during this visit. I loved seeing the look on his face (through my television screen) while he was listening to the very end of the performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony played by the Philadelphia Orchestra (in the finest of Philadelphia form) earlier this evening. I also loved the way he greeted cantor Azi Schwartz after his tremendous singing of El maleh rachamim during the interfaith service yesterday morning. What a great honor it was to be present, if only through electronic media, for these moments of musical affirmation.

Paradigm Shift

I had a little time in the library before meeting with my Medieval/Renaissance ensemble yesterday, so after browsing among the new titles I came across a book by Katelijne Schiltz about riddles in Renaissance music. I did not have my library card with me, so I was only able to read a little bit of it.

Normally, after reading the descriptions and catalog of various riddle canons (you can see some of the catalog here) my mind would have instantly gone in the direction of writing a riddle canon.

Come to think of it, until just a month or two ago nearly everything I read would inspire me (and sometimes even compel me) to express myself musically. But something has changed.

From the time I began writing music seriously about 20 years ago I have always had a composition project going. I don't know where my compulsion to write music came from, and I marvel at the amount of music that I managed to write while doing the other "stuff" of life. I'm very proud of what I have written, and I know I could write something if I were asked to, but I no longer feel compelled to write music.

Now that I have reached a technical level commensurate with the repertoire I want to play, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of playing the viola (and occasionally the violin). After about 25 years to string playing, I finally feel free to really be creative with my playing. When I hear recordings of myself playing I sometimes even like what I hear.

The newest addition to my musical menagerie is the piano. I started practicing the piano for a few reasons, the first being to improve as a composer by studying Bach's Preludes and Fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier. My second reason was to adequately accompany my students in lessons, and be proficient enough to be able to concentrate on their playing while playing with them.

I am nearly through my third "cycle" of the WTC, and this time around I am spending more time with each prelude and fugue. I consider my daily meeting with Bach sacred time. I am also finding myself feeling expressive when playing the piano. I dabble in other music too: Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, in particular. Approaching this great music with the ear of a composer is a treat. Not trying to produce something of similar quality is, frankly, a relief.

Maybe this current state of affairs comes from reading Nabokov. Michael and I just finished Speak Memory, and are now reading Ada. Even though he was a descendant of Carl Heinrich Graun, and his son grew up to become an opera singer, Vladimir Nabokov didn't care much for music. One of his particular dislikes was "kudos, kudos vy udalilis" from Tchaikovsky's Eugen Onegin. [Here's a translation of the aria.] I find it an interesting idiosyncrasy that anyone could dislike this, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but Nabokov certainly was a singular human being, and an extraordinary writer. Perhaps he had so much to his life, literary and otherwise, that he didn't have room for music.

Maybe things will change. I'll let you know when we finish Ada.