Sunday, October 31, 2010

Nathan Gunn's Schubert

It must have been sometime in 1991. I saw a notice up about a unscheduled performance of Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin performed by pianist John Wustman and a student from the University of Illinois. Some far-sighted person had the generosity to offer them a local run-through before taking the cycle on the road as part of Wustman's six-year tour performing all of Schubert's lieder with various singers.

I brought my three-year-old daughter to the concert, and we were part of an audience of just a handful of people--maybe there were between ten and twenty other people there. It was, to date, the most exciting, dramatic, and thrilling performance of Die Schöne Müllerin I have ever heard. My daughter, who I figured would go to sleep after she heard a song or two, was mesmerized through the whole song cycle.

I always wondered who that singer was, and what became of him. Now I know. Luckily he is now living, once again, just an hour's drive from my neck of the woods. I might even get the chance to hear him sing another Schubert song cycle at some point in the future.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Whither liner notes?

I rarely buy anything resembling a pop recording, but, after hearing a radio broadcast of a concert of popular songs that Nathan Gunn and his wife Julie Gunn performed this summer in Urbana, I just had to buy Gunn's recording of this repertoire. I had a pile of listening obligations to run through before being able to crack open this recording, but today I did.

I was very excited to see that my old violinist-friend Joyce Hammann featured on the Amazon listing (I haven't seen Joyce for 30 years), but was terribly disappointed not to see her listed on the printed material that came with the recording. The name of Gene Scheer appears Nathan Gunn's four-paragraph essay about life in New York (written in English and translated into French and German), which could lead someone to believe that Scheer composed all the music on the CD, or that he might be playing piano on the CD. None of the other composers' names appear, none of the arrangers' names appear, and none of the accompanying musicians' names appear.

The poorly-designed booklet is printed on cheap paper, with a centerfold of the Sony Music logo sitting in the middle of two pages of white space. There are five poorly-printed head-shot photos of Nathan Gunn, and a page about Legacy, which prompts me to imagine that this might be a reissue of an older recording (but from when?) I'll never know. Nobody will ever know.

The liner notes are truly designed to be thrown away. Perhaps the CD is too. I loaded it into my ipod (where the composers of the songs are displayed, and I learned that Scheer wrote three of the songs. The other information I want to know (like the recording date(s), the specific arrangers, and the performing musicians) will never be known by anybody except for the musicians themselves, and the people at Sony who are withholding the information.

Couldn't Sony have used the vast amount of white space on that centerfold to provide information for people who might think of the music they listen to as more than just the utterings of a pretty voice? It couldn't have anything to do with money, because it doesn't cost that much to print black text on paper that is already white.

Humph! I hope that I enjoy listening to this recording.

UPDATE: I did enjoy the recording: the arrangements for various combinations of (superbly-played) flute, clarinet, horn, string quintet (with many solos), harp, piano, and a moment of recorder are great, and they really help hold interest in this group of mostly mournful songs about the endings of relationships. There are two more sprightly pieces tacked on from what sound like recordings made at different times (with music arranged by different arrangers and performed by different ensembles). I love Nathan Gunn's voice, but after this I want is to hear him sing Schubert again.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Halloween

There's something terribly creepy about the words "boneless arm roast" under the words "Happy Halloween." In my mind's eye, I see abstract images of boneless human arms being roasted, like marshmallows. (Thanks to Michael, who got out of the car and took the picture.)

More Alice Herz Sommer Interviews

Here are some more YouTube clips of Alice Herz Sommer: a two-part BBC interview, and another video of her talking about music and playing. What a terrific pianist!






Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Film about an almost 107-year-old Pianist Named Alice

UPDATE: It seems that after getting millions of views (literally), the trailer for the film has been removed from YouTube, but the whole film is available on line. Please go to this post to see more interviews with Alice Herz-Sommer on line (where you can also hear her play).

The cellist in the film Dancing Under the Gallows is Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, one of only two cellists who played with the Women's Orchestra at Auschwitz between April, 1943 and October, 1944. Here's a page about Alice's son Raphael Sommer.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crazy Wild Asses!

This is normally played on two pianos!

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Individual Sound"

I can't really understand this violinist's concept of sound. I could dismiss this as a joke, but, if you watch further, beyond the first piece (which, for all I know, could be written call for a sort of vibrato that is hyper-extended in both directions), you will hear (if you can stand it) that it is her "individual sound" (as a conductor describes it at 2:51). I just don't get it. What are these people talking about?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Have Some Lousy Apples? Make Apple Crisp!

There is little as disappointing for me as the sensation of biting into what I think will be a crisp apple, and finding mush in my mouth, so last night I made apple crisp.

This recipe is so good that it must be shared, and I'm going to copy it here (with a few personal modifications--because I want your apple crisp to come out as good as mine did):

Preheat oven to 375 F
Core and peel and slice 5-6 sub-standard apples (mine were sub-standard Jonathan).

Mix

1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup brown sugar

in

1/2 cup water, and set it aside.

Mix

1/4 cup canola oil
1 Tablespoon soy milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

and add it to

1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt

For later: Earth balance (or another kind of margarine or butter)

Place the apples in a covered glass casserole dish and pour in the cornstarch mixture. Sprinkle the oat and flour mixture on top of the apples, cover the casserole, and bake it for 15 minutes. Remove the cover, dot the top with bits of Earth Balance, and bake it uncovered for another 30 minutes.

(The recipe I linked to has baking powder in it, which I managed to unwittingly leave out. The linked-to recipe also has allspice, which I didn't have, so I doubled the nutmeg).

Ever Forward: Micro and Macro

When I was a kid my father used to mock us by saying, "But what have you done for me lately?" I guess he was, in his own way, remarking on the fact that we have short memories of the ways in which people have been nice to us or supportive about what we do or have done. We also have long memories of times we were wronged, times we were ignored, times we have been taken for granted, and times we were not respected. At least I do.

It is kind of the same way with work. Sometimes I feel, with all the different things that I do, that I am on a train, chugging away, and then I switch to another train, and chug away on it. After something is finished, I leave it at the station (the end of the train line, perhaps), and I get on another train. Whatever it is that I have finished seems, whether it be my work or work I am doing for someone else, to remain only as a vanishing point somewhere "back there."

Oh how I admire people who can tout their accomplishments. I can barely remember mine, because there is always the next thing. Because it is my habit, there is always a next thing, even if I have to make it myself.

I see these things subjectively and on a small scale in my life, and I see it objectively and on large scale when I observe way people take the accomplishments of our president and his administration for granted. That makes me think that it might just be part of human nature to dismiss and belittle, and then wait for the next thing to dismiss and belittle.

I see how reticent we are to celebrate the fact that certain choices made by smart people have made it possible for our economy (and the world economy) not to fall apart, for people to have the chance at getting health care who would not have the chance due to preexisting conditions (especially children), and for us to have a chance at having a country that does not discriminate against various portions of its population.

I suppose the only thing to do is to get back on one of the trains, and keep plugging forward. It's a lot better than standing still and doing nothing, and far better than going backwards (which is, thankfully, impossible to do).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beautiful Proof that Classical Music is Not Dying

Hearing young people play Brahms like this gives me hope and courage. The music and the sentiment behind the music (and there is a huge amount there) is not "dated" in any way. As you can plainly see and plainly hear, this music is eternally relevant, eternally meaningful, and eternally beautiful.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Aesthetic Experience Versus the Anesthetic Experience

Sir Ken Robinson hits the nail on the head in his evaluation of our current system of public education:

Thanks, once again, to Carrie for sending it my way. Here's the long version of this talk, and another related short talk.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jackie and William

Such joyous sight-reading! Such wonderful music making! Thanks Emily for pointing me towards this 6-part series about her life.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Perhaps God Works in Mysterious Ways

Not to get all religious on you, but here's something to ponder: The other night, while Michael and I were playing for Shabbat services, the F natural on my D string started buzzing. He was worried that there might be something wrong with my instrument, but I assured him that the problem probably had something to do with my bow arm, since it was a stopped note and not an open string. Oddly, a similar thing happened at the last Shabbat service, but it never seemed to happen in my normal practice (in normal-to dead acoustics).

The first thing Saturday morning I tried to figure out what the problem could be, and then I realized that it had something to do with the position of my upper arm relative to the timing of the string crossing. It took me a few enlightening hours of practicing Kreutzer and Bach to fix the problem, but I fixed the problem, and it made all sorts of improvements in my playing (and in good time too, since I had a concert to play today).

If this problem hadn't occurred in shul, I might not have noticed it, and therefore I wouldn't have fixed it. Hmm.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Britten and the Physicality of String Quartet Writing

I have just now discovered the wonders of Benjamin Britten's string quartet writing, and thought I would share this example as proof in spades that the physical experience of the musicians who are playing a piece can be as important as the musical material itself. In this case, and without the intrusion of any non-functional theatrics, they are pretty much one in the same.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Alexander Bernstein Remembers His Father

My sister has said that his real ambition was to 
connect, in one way or another, with every person on the planet. For 
having lived only 72 years, he didn’t do a bad job of it. My father loved
 people and made love with multitudes. He never stopped learning. His 
appetite for knowledge and life was insatiable. Not only did he read
 constantly, but he would stay up all night with a group of students 
talking about music, love, and religion. He would drink them under the
 table and still be ready to rehearse at 10 a.m.
It's hard to believe that today is the 20th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's death. Here's the rest of Alexander Bernstein's personal tribute to his father.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Banjar Plays Shortnin' Bread and Bonaparte's Retreat


Our son Ben Leddy and his friend Claire Johnson, who perform together under the name of "Banjar," played a concert the other night at the Krannert Center in Urbana (for Krannert Uncorked) and surprised us all with this inventive pairing of tunes. The second tune begins about halfway through.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Guidelines and Subdivisions

I put grey-scale lines on the essay page for the most recent exam I gave to my classes, and, to a student, everyone wrote more neatly and organized their ideas more successfully than they did on the essay portion of their previous exam, where they only had margin-less space on a blank sheet of paper.

Perhaps having margins and guidelines helps to alleviate the feeling of working in an abyss, particularly when there is potential tension involved.

While I was practicing Brahms this evening, I noticed, after recording and playing back a passage or two, that I was not always holding notes out quite as long as they should be held. Sure, I was counting quarter notes, but something was amiss. I decided to practice with the quarter notes on off beats (the beats-per-minute wheel on my old-school metronome doesn't go high enough to subdivide the quarter notes into eighth notes in a fast tempo), and after half an hour of actively and deliberately subdividing every single beat, and then re-recording and playing back the passages that bothered me earlier in the evening, I found that my rhythm was much more satisfactory. I also played with cleaner articulation, and found there there was more "voltage" happening during long notes. I even found that I could use rubato, and snap back into tempo whenever I wanted to.

It's kind of like having margins and guidelines. The margins and guidelines on a piece of paper do not put creativity in any kind of straitjacket, and neither does subdividing beats when playing Brahms. It might even alleviate tension, because exactly "when" to play is no longer a question. It becomes an answer.

Friday, October 08, 2010

A captcha without principles

The random spinning of captcha got a chuckle out of me when it made a nice bit of Yiddish dialogue that reads, "Principles? Gar nichts!" Gornits is pretty close to the Yiddish pronunciation of "Gar nichts," which means pretty much the same as "bupkis."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Hang Tough

My friend Carrie sent this piece of sage advice given to her by Roger Lebow that I'd like to share:
I'm told things are wretched. So we'll hope for music, offered without propriety, without restraint, and straight from the soul. Let it be excessive. Let it make a scene. Hang tough.
This speaks volumes to me. Whether classical music is "dying" as a profession, or not, it is still vital for musicians to be musicians. It doesn't matter if you can't make a living from playing it or writing it (a relative few of us really do), and it really doesn't matter whether playing it on your own terms (like playing a recital of music you love) is "play for pay" or "play for play."

The profession is changing drastically. I have watched it change in front of my eyes. There are far more people in it, the technical level is higher than ever, and the materials necessary to play (including good teachers) are more accessible than ever. Expectations are up, and audiences are smaller now because there is not only competition for the "leisure dollar," but competition for the leisure minute.

Honest and informed concert reviews are hard to find, and it seems that what used to be music criticism is being supplanted with promotional copy. A handful of brand-name soloists have star power, and the rest of the truly excellent musicians around wonder if anyone will ever notice the value of what they do. Everything seems to be disposable--something of the moment that is soon forgotten. As individuals and as institutions we can try to change things, but ultimately we can't make much of a dent, so most of us play for the people who want it (need it), and, if we want to maintain our sanity, we don't worry about having what kind of "impact" it makes on the larger world.

But music itself is still the same. I have never been more excited about playing the violin, because I can finally (in my second decade as a violinist) play the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata. The concert I'm giving with my pianist friend John David next Sunday is not going to be an attempt at the Kreutzer (and the Brahms D minor, and the Bach F-minor, BWV 1018). It's going to be a performance. I can finally play the fiddle well enough to actually play the music. For the past 200 years, millions of violinists and pianists around the world have felt the same sense of honor, awe, and power involved in standing at the threshold of really being able to play this music. That is one thing that doesn't change. Roger's statement bears repeating:
I'm told things are wretched. So we'll hope for music, offered without propriety, without restraint, and straight from the soul. Let it be excessive. Let it make a scene. Hang tough.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Influence and Imitation

Somehow my comment on Ron Davis' post over at Chamber Musician Today got labeled as an anonymous one, so I thought I'd reproduce it here, because it is something I truly believe (and I'm kind of proud of writing):
I think that this is an appropriate place to draw the line between jazz, which is ideally a kind of music that involves spontaneous improvisation, and what we call "classical music," a kind of music that involves an exact series of directions that are written by a composer with the intention that they will be played as written, and enhanced by the tonal and interpretative imagination of the performer.

Jazz also relies on a kind of tradition in order for it to be recognized as Jazz. Influence and types of inflection, having to do with diction, tone color and tone production, articulation, and rhythmic swing are of utmost importance. Therefore imitation is vital. A lot of iconic jazz musicians (the people chosen to be imitated) did not notate their music, so imitation from sound alone is probably the purest way of keeping the music alive.

"Classical" music is kind of the opposite. I know that I carry all kinds of influence in the music that I write, but I am rarely aware of it at the time of writing (and sometimes I cringe when I hear a performance, years after writing a piece, where the performer notices a bit of "homage" and brings it out). In "classical" music it is important to learn techniques. Everybody worth his or her salt as a composer is able to employ techniques used by great composers of the past, including great composers of the past. But what "classical" composers strive for is to find ways of expression and organization that are true to his or her own sense of music. The danger sign for a composer is when one piece that he or she writes does sound too much like another.

People in the visual art world are encouraged to find a medium and a style that they can perfect within that medium. You have sculptors, oil painters, print makers, watercolor painters, people who draw with pencil, people who do their visual art in abstract, people who are realistic painters, people who assemble objects, people who specialize in collage, people who make objects, people who design . . . The list goes on and on. I believe that success for a visual artist would be to make work that can be instantly identified as a work by that person, yet can be unique in its individual expression.

Composers need to be able to work in every medium, but success, to a certain degree is similar to the success experience by a visual artist described in the above paragraph. When I turn on the radio and can be sure that a piece I have never heard before is by Bartok, Barok has been successful. If I turn on the radio and hear a piece that sounds like the composer was influenced by Bartok, and that influence is all I can hear (I know, it is rare to even hear anything post-Bartok on the radio these days), perhaps the composer of the piece has only succeeded in showing his or her influences.
Still, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, the limits of my musical experience define the limits of my musical world.

Related Post: Imitation v. Creation

Friday, October 01, 2010

OMG: It's Dorothy Delay, and we're not in Kansas anymore

When did you say your performance of the Mendelssohn will be, Margaret?"

"Margie," I corrected. "I'll be playing it in a couple of weeks."

"Where dear? I've forgotten."

"In Kansas, with the City Symphony."

"That's right," said Miss DeLay with a smile. "Mention Kansas and I become nostalgic. That's where I grew up—in Medicine Lodge."

"You don't say," I replied with feigned interest.
Here's another must-read installment in Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi's Frantic: the memoir.

Tension and Release: Alpha and Omega

After all these years practicing, listening to, writing about, and teaching music, the most fundamental unifying musical principal finally dawned on me. It happened while I was teaching a class. I heard myself say, while I was explaining the structure of the harpsichord cadenza in the Bach Brandenburg Concerto #5, the words "tension and release," and after class I realized that all music involves the successful or unsuccessful use of these two elements in proportion to one another.

Sonata form, for example, is all about tension and release. The repeat of an exposition is a release from tension (if set up properly by the performing musicians), a development section is all about setting up and building up the tension (harmonic and otherwise) that gives the recapitulation a feeling of release. Rondo form has the same buildup of tension and release, but it happens in different places in the movement. A successful multi-movement work "works" because of the sense of tension and release that happens between movements.

Bach often uses chromaticism to set up tension, and he relieves it in all sorts of ways: sometimes he does it gradually, sometimes he does it abruptly with tempo, sometimes he does it covertly, and sometimes he does it by resolving something cleverly (there are too many examples of this to name).

The observation and transmitting of musical tension is the responsibility of the performing musicians, but the composer is responsible for putting the necessary elements in the best order, and controlling the progression of the tension and release by using harmonic and melodic material, dynamics, orchestration, and tempo.

The ability to work successfully with the balance of tension and release is what divides the great composers from the good ones. An unsuccessful buildup of tension by a performing musician (or group of musicians) can make listening to even the most expertly-written piece unbearable, and an unsuccessful release of tension can make the most successful buildup of tension almost meaningless.

We have the responsibility as composers to be as vigilant as possible to balance the tension and release in our pieces, and as performing musicians we have the responsibility to follow the trajectory of the tension and release written into the music, and give performances that reflect a natural balance. It is much easier to do with "expert" music than it is to do with music that is less-well-written, and it's much easier to do with "common practice" music than with music that does not rely on harmony and melody to build up and release tension.