Friday, May 22, 2015

Why I (Still) Blog

In the beginning of May, Fresca, a person who often comments on Michael's blog, posed a public question to people who continue to keep blogs on the internet. Michael answered promptly in this post, but it has taken me a while to come up with an appropriate response. I have decided to make my contribution in the form of an interview because I can. I have full editorial control of my blog. I'll even have an old alias (a name I used to use to deflect unwelcome male attention in public places) do the interviewing. Veranda Davenport hasn't been in my life for a long time.

Veranda: I see that even though you are on Facebook you still keep a blog. Why do you need to write long blog posts when you can instantly share pictures, birthday greetings, and observations with hundreds of people you know?

Elaine: There is a "notes" feature on Facebook which works kind of like a blog, but most Facebook users prefer to scroll through pictures clicking "like" when they see something they like, and leave brief comments that are either witty or supportive. Facebook is a good way to stay "in touch" with friends without going too far beneath the surface. It is kind of like "seeing" a lot of friends in a crowded cafeteria (all the cafeterias of life combined, perhaps) and exchanging, smiles, brief greetings, and words of support. The greetings have to be brief and pleasant because the cafeteria is a public space and there are many people to greet. I find the "cafeteria" a bit too noisy for substantial relationships.

Perhaps the blogosphere is more like an array of sit-down restaurants that you go to for interesting well-prepared food and intelligent conversations.

Sometimes I make links to blog posts (posts I write or posts from Michael's blog) on Facebook. A handful of Facebook friends read them, but most of my Facebook friends don't.

People do more and more of their on-line browsing using smartphones. The little box for comments and the clumsiness of the smartphone keyboard makes it more and more difficult to comment. That is a shame. I miss the free exchange of comments that used to be part of the blogging experience.

Veranda: Your blog posts do not seem to have any rhyme or reason. Why don't you give your blog more structure?

Elaine: I like to write what I feel like writing when I feel like writing it. Blog posts are not really bound in time. It's probably a good thing that most of my posts concern subjects that are not connected with current events. My Thematic Catalog blog is very structured, but that's because it's a functional catalog of music that I have written. I don't see any reason to structure my Musical Assumptions blog, so I don't.

Veranda: A lot of people keep blogs in order to promote themselves and the work they do. Why don't you use your blog to promote your work?

Elaine: I love the idea of sharing information, music, and ideas, particularly ideas about playing and teaching. I do what I can to let people know about the music I have written by linking to my Thematic Catalog blog, but I really see no reason to go beyond that. I prefer to have my work evaluated by people who play it and people who hear it. I don't feel any desire to make any claims about the quality of the work I do. People can make their own choices.

Veranda: Thank you, Elaine.

Elaine: Thank you, Veranda.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Richard Kogan on Chopin and Rachmaninoff

Richard Kogan combines the insight and experience of a psychiatrist with the musical sensibilities of a terrific pianist.

Here's his take on Chopin:

Here's his take on Rachmaninoff:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Visit with Marlowe Sigal

A few weeks ago I made a post about a lush 300-page catalog containing photographs of and information about the hundreds of instruments in Marlowe Sigal's personal collection. This past weekend my father, Michael, and I went to Mr. Sigal's house and were able to see (and even try some of) the instruments in his collection.

The house itself was built around a tracker organ. The console sits in front of a grand staircase, and the largest pipes are set into the wooden paneling. Some sets of smaller pipes peep out into rooms on the second floor. The instruments are everywhere: the basement and the first floor are filled with keyboard instruments, and the upstairs houses mainly woodwinds. The relatively few stringed instruments in his collection hang on walls and sit on top of covered keyboard instruments.

I had the great fortune to try a 4-key flute made in 1800 by Heinrich Grenser. Here is a modern copy of an instrument that looks like the sort of instrument I tried.

The sound was beautiful and extremely flexible. I could get dozens of tone colors from the instrument, even though it probably hadn't been played for a very long time (I could tell because the corks that covered some of the keys were dried out). I have played modern copies of 18th-century flutes, but this was the first time I had ever tried an actual 18th-century flute. The feeling was kind of unreal. Think of the lips and fingers that had touched that instrument! Think of the breath that had gone through it! Playing it felt like walking through a door to a secret musical world.

The whole experience of visiting was literally one of walking into secret and rare musical worlds.

Mr. Sigal is a very kind man, and he is a person truly dedicated to understanding and preserving treasures from the musical past. Like our mutual friend (and my elementary school music teacher who grew up in the same town that houses this collection) Patricia Frederick, he is extremely generous with his time and his musical treasures.

All the instruments in the collection are exactly as they appear in the photographs in his book.

The Master Singers of Lexington Celebrates Adam Grossman's 20th Year as Music Director

Adam Grossman has been the conductor and music director of the Master Singers for 20 years, but I can proudly say that I have known Adam for nearly 40 years: we met in Junior High School. I have known violinist Frank Powdermaker, who played the violin solos on the program, for even longer than I have known Adam. When I was in fifth grade and he was in sixth grade, we were stand-partners in the All Newton Elementary School Orchestra.

Adam and Frank were my friends and musical mentors through Junior High School and High School. The last time I heard Frank play or Adam conduct was some time in the later 1970s.

I had high expectations for the May 16th concert. The program had first performances of two pieces written by Adam Grossman, the Bach A minor Violin Concerto, the Bach Motet "Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden," the famous Bach chorale "Jesus bleibet mine Freude" from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, and Bach's Cantata 196 Der Herr denote an us.

Adam Grossman's "Five Choral Songs" set to English texts from the 16th and 17th centuries (one by John Hilton, one by John Fletcher, and two by unknown poets), were written for choir and string quintet (or perhaps string orchestra when performed with a larger choir). They are beautiful and often whimsical pieces that illuminate their texts much the way English Renaissance composers would use what we call "word painting," but the musical treatment is fresh, new, and truly appealing. His Variations on a Theme by Boyce for string orchestra (performed by a string quintet) uses the brief and spare second movement of William Boyce's Third Symphony as a theme. Adam Grossman's program notes describe the piece much better than I can:
My role as a variationist is not to manhandle the tune and make it do my bidding, nor is it to place it in front of the mirror dressed in funny hats. Respecting the theme as a creature of its time and place, the challenge is then to set that aside and see what lies latent within the material, to pull a thread or remove a layer and see what else the theme might become, or in what other direction it might go, while remaining free of gimmickry and making something that is, in the truest sense, entertaining. A more technical concern is ow to work with a tonal theme in contemporary musical language in an honest and meaningful way. Traditional techniques, including canon, fugue and dance forms, all of which Boyce would recognize, help connect with the older music.
Saturday evening was the first time I had heard music written by Adam Grossman since high school counterpoint class with David Levenson. Adam was my musical hero then, and after hearing these two pieces he remains one of my musical heroes.

My first impression of Adam Grossman as a conductor came during a dress rehearsal of a junior high school production of The Marriage of Figaro (at Weeks Junior High we did an opera or operetta during the first semester and a musical during the spring semester). Adam played the part of Dr. Bartolo, and I was one of the flower girls. We had a full orchestra that was enhanced by Adam's high-school-age bassoon-playing brother Jonathan (bassoon is a must for Figaro), and conducted by our music teacher Frank DaDario. I don't know how it happened, but all of a sudden Mr. DaDario's baton was in Adam's hand during an interval when the actors/singers were not at work, and Adam conducted the overture. It was spectacular. It was one of the defining musical moments of my childhood. Up to that point Adam only presented himself as a terrific singer and a really good violinist, but it was clear to everyone that he was a natural conductor. Perhaps he knew it then too. He conducted his way through high school, and has been working with choruses and orchestras ever since.

I have worked with great choral conductors. Some choral conductors handle the demands of working with singers who may or may not be professional singers, but few choral conductors physically understand the needs of string players and singers in combination with organ. Adam Grossman does, and his ability to communicate everything instantly and intuitively made the Bach Motet performance exceptional. Credit should be given to organist Eric Mazonson, who has worked with Adam Grossman and the Master Singers for the past 18 years.

Bach's Cantata 196, an early wedding cantata, features an aria and a duet. The soprano aria is usually done with a solo soprano and more than one violin (the first violin section), but this performance had the soprano section singing the aria in unison, with the violin section obbligato played (beautifully) by Frank Powdermaker. The excellent tenor and bass sections sang the tenor and bass duet to balance the soprano section's singing of the aria.

Frank Powdermaker and I went from being fellow musicians at Newton South High School to being classmates at Juilliard, where he studied with Dorothy DeLay, and played like one of Dorothy DeLay's good students. The adult Frank Powdermaker's playing of the Bach A Minor Violin Concerto Saturday night was extraordinary. His concept of sound, his articulation, and his sense of phrasing reminded me of a cross between David Nadien and Nathan Milstein. Really. And I just saw in the program that he studied with Nadien in New York and worked with Milstein in Switzerland.

Many violinists who play their instruments well, but there are few 21st-century violinists who "walk the walk" with the musical values of the early 20th century. It was one of the most exciting and beautiful performances I have heard of the piece, and the best performance of it I have had the privilege of hearing in real time and in real acoustics. He was accompanied by violinists Adam Grossman and Beth Abbate, violist Dimitar Petrov, cellist Jane Sheena, bass Robb Aistrup, and Mazonson playing harpsichord.

The concert was held in a Unitarian church in Lexington, Massachusetts, located across the street from the famous Minuteman statue. The acoustics in the church were excellent, and the community was extremely comfortable and congenial (our high school principal--now retired--was in the audience).

I always thought that Lexington was far away from Boston, but I was surprised to see how easy it is for people to make their way from Boston to the center of Lexington by way of the commuter train. It doesn't take long at all to drive 13 miles from Newton (or any town with access to Route 128) to Lexington. It's also easy to get there from Cambridge (9.5 miles). My brother, who goes to several concerts a week around the Boston area, took us to the concert.

He enjoys the chance not to have to deal with the frustrations of traffic and parking he encounters when going to concerts in Boston and Cambridge. I found it a great pleasure to hear such excellent music making. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to hear The Master Singers of Lexington again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Really Using Music in the Classroom

Our daughter Rachel put it this way: ”This fifth-grade teacher says he has a superpower. What he reveals next will shock you.” It’s our son Ben at the Boston EdTalks 2015: ”A Different Tune: Rethinking Songs in the Classroom.”

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

How to Fly a Horse

Kevin Ashton, the writer of How to Fly a Horse (that's a link to Ashton's website, not to the book, which is here), makes a great case for the idea that genius doesn't really exist, there is no such thing as writer's block, and that it is as natural for every human being to create and be creative as it is for every human being to breathe.

I found the book to be comforting. I'm happiest when I'm working on something, and the joy of doing anything for me is in the doing, not the "having done." Ashton makes a great case for creating things because you want to, regardless of receiving compensation for making them.

I also found the book to be inspiring. Ashton makes the point that nothing comes from nothing, and that we all contribute to the world by standing on the shoulders of people who came before us, who were in turn standing on the shoulders of people who came before them. Right off the bat he debunks the myth that Mozart didn't need to work on the music he wrote (that it came to him fully composed and he just needed to write it down), and soon thereafter he devotes a whole chapter, and then some, to Rosalind Franklin, one of my heroes.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Most people are better at some things than they are at other things, but everyone has the right to be creative, and everyone has the right to create in his or her own way, regardless of affiliations, styles, rules, and all the artificial barriers that get in the way of indulging in the life-affirming act of making things up.

Thank you Kevin Ashton for writing such a wonderful book.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Emotional and Musical Indulgence Through a Set of Piano Preludes

Mourning the loss of a family member is complicated and constant. It is an experience that doesn't really have "closure," because even when the person is no longer "there," the personal relationship that the living person has to the one who is no longer alive goes on. The retrospect becomes clearer and more in focus, even in the case of a person as complicated and unknowable as my brother Marshall.

Both Marshall and I "work out" our feelings by writing music. (I keep Marshall the composer in the present tense because music exists in the present tense.) I knew that the best way for me to work out the feelings I have about my brother would be to write music, but after his accident writing didn't come easily. During the Jewish High Holy Days, which began in late September, about a month and a half after Marshall's accident, I wrote a short piano prelude. I thought it might be a good idea to write one prelude for each month of the Jewish year and dedicate the set to the memory of Marshall. I imagine that Marshall would approve of this kind of tribute. There are thematic references to different aspects of the months that serve as a kind of skeleton for each prelude. Some are obvious, some are notated, and some are veiled. I know of no other set of calendar pieces dedicated to the months of the Jewish year. Perhaps this is the first.

My intention was to write one prelude per month. At first it was difficult, but it got easier. Then ideas started popping up for the rest of the year, so I abandoned my original plan and wrote the final four preludes before we even reached the month of Sevan (which begins May 20). Now the set is finished, and it is in the IMSLP.

Here's the first page:

And the last page:

I adapted one of Marshall's fugue subjects so it wouldn't modulate, and used it as the opening material of the final prelude. I mingled it with the fugue subject from Marshall's favorite fugue, the E minor one from the second book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (you can see it above as the pickup to measure 26). Then I brought the piece to an end too soon.

Somehow it feels right to share this piece in this way.

Mr. Steinhardt, Mr. Simon, and Don Carlo

In January Arnold Steinhardt wrote a lovely blog post about leaving a party wearing Bob Simon's coat, and the friendship that developed after they met to swap their coats back. The other day Mr. Steinhardt wrote another lovely blog post about the musical aspects of their brief friendship.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano: Last Movement

I love hearing a group I kids I do not know play music I have written!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

It's That Time of Year Again!

Here's a link to my yearly addition to the viola d'amore repertoire, which is now in the IMSLP. You can also just listen to a computer-generated version here. I started this project around my 50th birthday by writing a 50-measure-long piece. Number 7 has 56 measures, because today is my 56th birthday. The tempo indication is "Vivace, but comfortable," which I guess is where I am in the grand arc of life.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

New York Lecture Concert Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Emma Goldman's Death

In the last segment of his 5-part lecture series on Jewish Opera, Leonard J. Lehrman will be including some two-person scenes from my opera EMMA. Helene Williams will be singing the part of Emma Goldman, and Lehrman will be playing the piano and singing the parts of various men in Emma Goldman's life.

The lecture/concert will take place at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13th, and will be held at the Community Church of New York, 40 East 35th Street (between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue). I am very excited that I will be able to hear it in person. It is an honor to have my work included in this tribute.

Here's a post from 2008 about my opera, and a link to the music.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Seymour, an Introduction

If you every find yourself having trouble explaining to someone non-musical why we musicians do what we do, introduce your friend (by taking him or her to the movies, or showing him or her the DVD when it comes out) to Seymour Bernstein. Michael and I saw the film yesterday. I'll let his thoughtful post about the film speak for both of us.

My personal feeling watching the film was one of extreme comfort. I felt musically energized, and ready to play last night's concert with all the musical connection and emotional engagement I wanted. (And it was a GREAT concert. Thanks, Seymour!)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Four Centuries of Musical Instruments: The Marlowe A. Sigal Collection

Four Centuries of Musical Instruments
Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA
320 pages $69.99

When Marlowe A. Sigal was a teenager in Easton, Pennsylvania, he needed a tenor saxophone to join the high school band. His parents, who collected motorcycles, got him an 18-key Buescher Aristocrat tenor saxophone made in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1939. In 1960 Sigal's father gave him an out-of-commission Estey cottage organ (made in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1877) to restore, and in 1964 Marlowe Sigal started collecting harpsichords and pianos.

His collection of keyboard instrument grew. There are 8 harpsichords, 2 virginals, 2 spinets, 2 clavichords, 10 grand pianos, 11 upright pianos, 43 square pianos (!!!), 2 pipe organs, 4 practice keyboards, a desk piano, a lying harp piano, a keyboard carillon (think Die Zauberflöte), an awesome half round piano, a claviharpe (a cross between a piano and a harp), an orphica (a keyboard instrument held like a guitar), a dulictone, a bell piano (hammers strike metal bars), and a keyed monochord.

Sigal added wind instruments to the collection. There are 104 clarinets from various makers, beginning with his first metal Buescher "American Beauty" (1923). In the 1990s he added clarinets from the early 19th century (one of the early clarinets is a Grenser from 1807). Many are made from boxwood, and the instruments have a huge array of fingering systems and key configurations. The bores of the instruments also vary greatly. There is an American-made clarinet from 1865 made from ivory, and a plastic clarinet for children made around 1990 by Graham Lyons. There are bass clarinets, saxophones (14 of them, and even one with a slide), and 19th-century instruments that boggle the mind with their modern design.

The collection has all manner of double reeds: 52 oboes, 40 bassoons (with all their relatives) sarrusophones, a Rothphone, and even an intact rackett from the 18th century. Most interesting are two examples of "cup-mouthpiece" instruments: a bass horn and a Russian bassoon. I am, of course, extremely interested in Sigal's collection of 187 flute and whistle instruments, 132 of which are transverse flutes. The earliest transverse flute is a one-keyed ivory instrument from 1730, and the earliest recorders are from 1710. There is an 1818 glass flute from Paris, a Louis Lot from 1883, and dozens and dozens of instruments that I have never heard about before.

Marlowe's string instrument and percussion instrument collection is relatively small, but he does have a nice array that includes a pocket violin, a rebab, and a zither.

The book weighs close to six pounds, and aside from a few pages of text about the collection, a guide to abbreviations, a bibliography, a maker's index, and an index that organizes instruments by city and country of origin, it is a 300-page catalog filled with remarkable photographs of wonderful instruments. The collection is organized by instrument type, and each entry has a catalog number indicating when the instrument entered the collection. The book is beautifully bound, and the pages open completely, allowing the reader to see everything. There are some detail shots, and there are some instruments that have been photographed in their cases.

The collection is catalogued and organized by Albert R. Rice, who wrote the excellent introduction. I can't imagine any musician, any library, any school, any museum, or any collector who would not want to own this book!

You can visit the website here. There is a "look inside" feature, but the on-screen images are just shadows of the way they look on the page.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ging heut Morgen übers Feld

I just returned from a most glorious morning spring rain walk. It seemed as if every single flower on every single tree was either in blossom, about to blossom, or was in the process of releasing its blossoms to the ground. Everything was quiet except for the sound of rain and the sound of birds.

The trees were simply drinking in the water, and I was protected by my umbrella and my rain boots. Every once in a while I would stop in front of a flowering tree and watch the movement happening in the tree. Though I didn't actually see it happen, I felt that the flowers were opening up before my eyes.

Early spring used to be a horrible time for me. I used to identify with the sentiments of the 24-year-old Gustav Mahler in his "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" when he asks,
Nun fängt auch mein Glück wohl an?
and answers
Nein, nein, das ich mein',
Mir nimmer blühen kann!

[When will my happiness start?
I believe it can never blossom]

Ging heut Morgen übers Feld

This morning my "Feld" was paved, and the things that were (and still are) blooming were planted by people who probably never imagined the amount of happiness their work could give to people who would probably never personally and directly thank them for making their corner of the world a beautiful and inspiring place. It doesn't matter if people thank you for your labors of love, and it is clearly not a thankless task to plant trees or flowers. It's also not a thankless task to write music. It's kind of the same thing for me.

Today I had vivid memories of the rain walks I took during my childhood. Could it have been the rubber boots on my feet (I haven't had rain boots since childhood)? I tried to figure out why this sudden embrace of spring joy has so strongly replaced my usual lousy "April is the cruelest month" feelings. Could it be the recovery from our overly-long winter? Could it be my mature (nearly 56-year-old) hormonal state?

For some reason the hormonal state thing seems to resonate. After I was no longer a child, and before I became a mother I used to have an annual February depression. I could count on it. But in 1987, when I gave birth to our daughter on January 28, my February was filled with joy and wonder. I was expecting some kind of postpartum depression, but there was none. The hormonal changes that happened during pregnancy seemed to change me permanently. All the Februarys since 1987 have been just fine, but my "funk" seemed to switch to the time of year when everything is blooming (and I am not).

So here I am, with my hormonal state almost transported to the way it was before I was a teenager, and I find myself singing. I am thrilled by the flowering trees. Instead of feeling "left out" I feel inspired to create.