Thursday, February 28, 2013


I learned a great deal from listening to a recent Radiolab podcast about Beethoven, but I didn't learn anything about Beethoven from it. When the hosts confessed their mutual dislike of Beethoven, and then suggested that the Beethoven "we" know might not be the Beethoven that he wanted us to know because of the metronome markings, I wanted to stop listening, but I continued (it's only an 18-minute podcast). Matthew Guerrieri's voice popped into the discussion, and there were elements of sense that came up concerning the tempo a person might choose when playing music in different acoustic environments, and the fact that Beethoven couldn't actually hear his metronome. I know from experience that composers almost pick tempos that are too fast for fast movements, and I have never taken printed tempo markings (even mine) to be anything aside beyond suggestions. Italian words are nice and vague. They suggest character, and that's what music is all about.

The hosts had a string quartet play some excerpts from Beethoven's 5th and 3rd to demonstrate how exciting it is to hear Beethoven played, with a metronome, at a fast tempo. It would be very difficult for a whole orchestra (including the bass section) to play at such fast tempos without scrambling around, but the hosts didn't touch that subject (it would muddy their argument).

After these 18 minutes I now understand why so many New York musicians tend to favor fast tempos. They think that it makes music more exciting. Perhaps they think it's what people want to hear. I noticed it 30 years ago when I was at Juilliard, and I notice it in many recordings I hear from New York-based ensembles. I noticed it last week when I heard a New York-based woodwind quintet play a concert out here in the "hinterlands."

I think that tempo is subjective and relative, and that there is a whole world of musical excitement that has little to do with speed. I hope that Radiolab keeps its distance from musical subjects in the future.

Monday, February 25, 2013

What A Treat!

. . . from an art room somewhere in America:

Yup! It's the first movement of my Sonata for Euphonium and Piano.

An Eloquent Argument by Timon Wapenaar

Thank you Timon Wapenaar, for describing the state of the American-led, technologically-aided, "market-driven" current musical economy so eloquently:
The whole “pop music” vs. “art music” debate is starting to smell fishy to me. It’s a product of a time when “art music” and “high culture” were approaching the top of a very high ivory tower, while an explosion of new technologies gave extended scope and reach to the world of popular music. George Crumb couldn’t compete with Jimi Hendrix. Theorists started agonising about the state of affairs, and the idea emerged that as composers withdrew into the rarefied air of the harmonic world post Schoenberg and Ives (and particularly post WWII), the public would become more alienated, concert attendance would drop off and eventually classical music would atrophy, and then petrify. Thus was born the idea that somehow, if the public was to be recaptured, it would be necessary to bridge the two seemingly opposed worlds of “Pop” and “Classical”. The success of works which attempted this union were to be judged on how adeptly they’d married the two worlds.

Here’s the problem I see with the situation: it’s rather like looking at the drop in sales of novels and attempting to address that by consciously creating works of literature which borrow from the world of the comic book. Which is, of course, happening, and has produced some great books. However, when one looks at literacy figures from the US, where people read a book a YEAR on average, and functional illiteracy is exploding, it begins to look like we’re fiddling while Rome etc. etc. Style is not the issue. The method is not the issue. The form is not the issue. What is at issue is the way in which music is heard, and the ability of the public to listen, which, as recorded music becomes more pervasive, becomes more diffuse. If you walk into a room with a ticking clock, eventually your brain will screen out the sound of it. Your ears receive the signals but your brain doesn’t process them. The more pervasive music becomes, the more it begins to resemble the ticking clock. Eventually, listening becomes less of a habit and more of an effort.

Who was it that said (roughly), “It is the function of the musician to educate the critic, of the critic to educate the public.”? The musician forms the public taste in music, not the other way round.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Putting Your Money on the Dot

I have been spending the past couple of days trying my best not to cheat dots (something I am wont to do). It is a delicate process because in addition to the conscious act of counting out whatever subdivision works best for the musical moment, there needs to be the right combination of bow speed and vibrato to make sure that what is in my head makes its way through the bow and out the instrument.

Wont! What a great word. Our friends at Merriam-Webster tell us that was first used before the 12th century, and is the "past participle of wonen to dwell, be used to, from Old English wunian; akin to Old High German wonēn to dwell, be used to."

It's also the opposite of won't!

This morning I found this pencil notation in a piece of orchestral music:

What an elegant way of making a point to put a little bit of extra inflection on a particular part of a beat (or phrase, for that matter). Perhaps a heart would do the trick as well, but somehow it seems that money does the most talking, and has the most meaning in these trying times.

I will not give a cash reward to anyone who identifies this piece of music, but I will give you a lot of praise. Hint: It does bear some relationship to something about the word "wont."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Practicing Ramble

I confess that I have been spending more time "doing" than writing about doing these days, but the rambling rumblings inside of my head need to come out, so here they are.

It is hard to believe that it has been nearly a year since I played a viola and piano recital, and the above concert has some more technically difficult viola music on it than viola concerts I have played in the past. Viola recitals are different from violin recitals because the violin is less physically taxing to practice at length than the viola, particularly when you have an arm vibrato (and I like the sound, so I'm not giving that up).

I have been trying to make things easier for myself by practicing carefully, trying to make all my shifts with conscious correctness, trying to avoid tension of any kind in either hand, and trying to make sure that my brain and the fingers of my left hand arrive at their desired locations ever so slightly ahead of my bow, so each note sounds full and complete when it is time for it to be heard. I practice my scales this way first, and then do the same with my music. My aim is to extend my attention span, and then tire it before I feel the aching wrath of the poor nearly 54-year-old abused tendons of my forearms. We must labor to play beautifully.

I actually love practicing this way. It is very efficient, and, if I do not get too impatient and try to play difficult passages at tempo before they are ready to be played at tempo, it is very rewarding. There is a certain joy in performing, but for me there is an even greater joy in the process of working on the music in order to get it "ripe" for sharing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Four Temperaments

I played Nielsen's Second Symphony "The Four Temperaments" for the first time this past week. It took a while for me to take a shine to it, but now I can't seem to get the last movement out of my head. Here it is played by a group of people who really understand the Danish-ness of the piece. The (obviously not Danish) conductor doesn't need to do anything in the way of interpretation, because the musicians all know what to do. And I love the Danish audience's response at the end.

The Temperament for the above movement (the last movement of the Symphony) is "Sanguine," which relates to the idea of ruddiness and the presence of blood. I love the ancient idea that temperament comes from a person's basic constitution, and that certain personality characteristics are a result of an imbalance of one of the body's fluids: yellow bile (associated with the spleen), black bile (associated with the gall bladder), phlegm (associated with the lungs and brain), and blood (associated with, of course, the heart).

You can take a Four Temperaments personality test and find out which temperament fits with your personality. I imagine that Nielsen thought of brass players Sanguine types. Most of us would identify being "Choleric" necessary for having success as a conductor or a section leader, and I think that being "Melancholic" is a necessity for composers. Like many people of a "Melancholic" temperament, I wish I could be a bit more "Phlegmatic."

Here is a website that is a treasure trove of everything related to the Temperaments (with a strongly Catholic slant), including this chart that associates the Four Temperaments to the musical church modes:

Now, I wonder how the Four Temperaments relate to the Seven Deadly Sins?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Michala Petri documentary from 1986

It is so wonderful see this film about one of my ultimate musical heros! This is part 1:

Here are the rest of the segments: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Classical Barbra

I had a copy of the "Classical Barbra" LP in 1976, when it first came out, and just couldn't resist the opportunity to hear it again after many years, and to write about it here.

Barbra Steisand has a very pretty voice. She sings well in tune, and her singular way of approaching matters of diction works well with French, Italian, and German as well as with English. All of Claus Ogerman's excellent orchestral arrangements are played by the finest New York freelance musicians of the 1970s, and it sounds like the concertmaster, who has a solo in Canteloube's "Brezairola" from Songs of the Auvergne, could be the great David Nadien.

The selections with piano (at least those from the original album: Wolf's "Verschwiegene Liebe" and Schumann's "Mondnacht") have a rather grossly amplified piano to go with Streisand's amplified voice, which makes listening difficult. The balance in "In trutina" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is also odd. The two Handel arias "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Rinaldo and "Dank sei Dir, Herr" are kind of square. Steisand's voice is pretty, and she sings nicely in tune with good diction, but the interpretations are dull.

The best pieces here are Debussy's "Beau Soir," Canteloube's "Brezairola," Faure's "Pavane," which Streisand does as a totally unaffected vocalise, and his "Apres un Reve," Claus Ogerman's "I Loved You," a piece set to a Pushkin poem (in his English translation) that he wrote specifically for Streisand's voice, and two Schubert tracks that did not appear on the original LP.

The piano, probably played by Ogerman, in Schubert's "An Sylvia" and "Auf dem Wasser zu singen" does not have the unnatural treatment that the piano is given in the Wolf and Schumann, and Streisand sings these quite well.

Oh yes. Streisand is billed as a soprano, which is something she definitely isn't. All the music here is transposed into keys that are comfortable for her. There is also (thankfully) nothing that demands vocal technique that she doesn't have, which was a very smart move by the folks at Columbia.

Random afterthoughts:

Imagine if Barbra Streisand sang something by Seymour Barab (and I know he has lots of material that would work for her voice as it is today); you could call it "Barbra does Barab."

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Seymour Barab's Blind Date

Seymour Barab is the master of the pocket comic opera!

This comes from the January 27, 2013 performance given by the After Dinner Opera Company.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Hexagonal Pencil Ruler for Music Staves

Need to write something down in a pinch, with nary a ruler in sight? Use a hexagonal pencil to make evenly spaced lines!