Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Some of What I Learned in 2013

I learned how to use my bow.
I learned how to play double stops confidently and comfortably.
I learned that I love to play the piano.
I learned that playing the piano can help my violin playing and my viola playing.
I learned to love Mozart and Haydn in totally new ways.
I learned that Facebook isn't all that bad. It fills a need in a fragmented world.
I learned that blogging no longer has the community feeling it once had.
I learned that in spite of the lack of community feeling, there are people who appreciate what I write here.
I learned that there are also people who enjoy playing the music I write.
I learned that things I do like can change.
I learned that things I don't like can change for the better.
I learned that it really doesn't matter.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Musical Preparation for Retirement

Sherman Walt, the former principal bassoonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra decided to learn to play the viola when he retired. He bought an instrument from my father, and had a lifetime of making reeds and playing solos moving towards his rear-view mirror. I was devastated by his sudden death in 1989 at age 66 when he was struck by a car while walking across the street in the Chestnut Hill section of Brookline. Reflecting on Mr. Walt's desire to play the viola was one of the things that gave me courage to become a string player. I told myself that as soon as I found a steady job I would start playing a string instrument again. I remembered noodling around on the viola that my father would sell to Mr. Walt, and I felt a special connection. Even a responsibility.

I suppose I can say that the job I got at the university radio station was steady. Year after year the powers that "were" suggested that my job was slated to be a full time job, but year after year I ended up being paid for just 15 hours per week. I though that those 15 hours came without benefits, but one important benefit came as a surprise. After twelve years in the job (regardless of the meager number of hours), I became vested in the university retirement plan, which in Illinois is the state retirement plan. I left the job (for reasons too complicated to discuss) after 13 years, and a portion of the small amount of money that I have drawn over the years since leaving the radio station (teaching at a community college) has made its way into this fund. The upshot is that when I officially retire I will probably "make" more money than I have ever made as a working-age person (not that it's enough to live on). The "steady" aspect of the job, and my personal vow made it possible for me to find a very full musical life after a frustrating one as a flutist without prospects, and keeping that promise to myself has become its own great reward.

That's not the point of this post, however. The point of this post is that viola may not be a usual retirement for bassoonists, but is a common retirement instrument for violinists. Some go to the viola because the high register of the violin becomes physically difficult to hear, and some go to the viola because they imagine that viola parts are less demanding than the first violin parts in chamber music and in orchestra (many are).

I know from experience that playing the viola can be physically taxing, and I also know from experience that the strain on shoulders and elbows grows as the body ages. I know that vibrato slows down and that hearing changes. I know that the pleasure of playing both the violin and the viola has a lot to do with having the hands and arms respond quickly to the musical landscape, and I know that eventually the response begins to slow.

I have many older friends who can no longer play. I know that I could not bear to not make music on a daily basis, particularly when I get into my 80s and 90s, and the world as I will know it will be as drastically different for me as it is now for my friends in their 80s and 90s today. It is for that reason that my preparation for retirement is to continue my daily piano practice, and approach the instrument and its music seriously (it isn't hard to do at all).

I imagine that when fiscal retirement comes, I will be one of the few people around to have a pension without ever working steadily for more than 15 hours a week. I imagine that when I reach the age when I will have to put down the fiddle and bow, I will be a pretty good pianist. I will also probably be able to get along fine without ever developing any kind of virtuosic technique. I will have a built-in excuse: I'll be old. But I'll be happy in my musical company.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

30-minute Cinnamon Christmas Crisps

These cookies use the exact same dough as my 30-Minute Hamantaschen recipe. I guess these have become a holiday tradition in our house.

This evening my daughter Rachel and I made them as round crisps topped with cinnamon and sugar, and they taste great.

Here's the recipe for the above cookies:

This dough recipe makes about two-dozen cookies and uses two cookie trays that I line with parchment paper. You might notice that the ingredients in the dough, with the exception of the salt, descend in a ratio of two to one.

In order to make these cookies in 30 minutes, you need to locate a rolling pin and a glass to serve as a cookie cutter (I used an 8-oz juice glass this evening). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, cut the parchment paper and place it on your cookie sheets, and you're ready to go. You can, of course, use any kind of cookie cutter you like.

1 cup flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
2 T soy milk (or a little more, or a little less, depending on the weather)
1 T vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
cinnamon and sugar mixture for topping

Mix all the ingredients with a spoon, adding the soymilk last, a bit at a time, and knead the dough for a minute or two until it is smooth. Roll it out on a floured board so that it is fairly thin, and cut it into circles. Put the circles onto your parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet (you can put them fairly close together because they don't rise), sprinkle the circles with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, and pop them in the oven. Let them cook for 11 minutes, and then use what remains of your 30-minute time period to let them cool so that they become crisp.

N.B. Some people refrigerate their cookie dough before rolling it. I find that when I use oil rather than butter (or a butter substitute) in cookie dough, refrigeration doesn't make any difference at all in the way the dough handles or tastes.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Ash Grove for Strings and Harp

I just put this arrangement into the Petrucci Library.

You can listen to a computer-generated recording here. This setting for strings is actually older than the setting I made for four guitars back in September, but it only made its way into its final form yesterday.

Yes, the little nod near the end to the Jupiter Symphony (which you can't really hear in the guitar version) is intentional.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Chopin: Now I Understand

I have always enjoyed listening to Chopin, and confess that when playing in the orchestra for his piano concertos, I can get a little bit emotionally connected, but I have never felt about Chopin the way I did yesterday.

I have been filling in the pianistic gaps in my life by playing the piano every day (with limited exceptions). First there was Haydn. I went through the Haydn Sonatas with my limited technique, and marveled at the genius of the man as a composer. Then there was Mozart, and I started to understand about how it feels to play particular harmonies, and how they sound different when they are coming from my hands. I admired (and still admire) the harmonic audacity of Mozart, and the way he manipulates form (and coming to know that there will usually be some more development in the recapitulation). Then I noticed how differently Mendelssohn made the piano sound from Mozart and Haydn, and wondered how this was possible. Perhaps it has something to do with Beethoven, a composer I feel I am still unequipped to meet personally through his piano music.

My brother's piano music (that I brought to Illinois with me from my father's basement a few years ago) included a volume of Chopin Mazurkas. I thought I'd try one or two in order to learn to use the pedal.

Now I have Chopin cravings. I wake up in the morning, and I want to play Chopin. The Mazurkas have a lot of repetition, so after the tenth or twentieth time playing a particular figure, my hand begins to learn it. My left hand wants to go to those singular, strange harmonies found in regions of the piano that Chopin bushwhacked, and my right hand wants to pounce, cat-like, on those non-chord tones, and then bring them to their resolutions, no matter where they lead.

I have heard great pianists play Chopin, and I have enjoyed listening immensely. But it is different when you can play it yourself. My Chopin will NEVER sound as good as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Argerich, Richter, Pressler, or even your average high school or college piano student, but that's not the point at all. The point is that playing Chopin is a different experience from listening to it.

Now I understand.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Excellence Impostor Complex Ramble

I grew up in a household of excellence. I took excellence for granted. My parents and brothers were far smarter than I was, and they seemed to be able to do things that I just couldn't do (like math). I remember wishing that I had a different kind of mind than I had (or have), so that I could operate in their intellectual and musical ranks.

I also had friends in high school in Newton who were fantastic musicians, and the Greater Boston high school musical scene was packed with people with extraordinary talent and ability. I had people to admire who were New England Conservatory students, and people to admire in the Boston Symphony. I had my musical heroes very close to home.

I figured out how to fool people pretty early on. I could hold my own in adult conversation when I was a teenager, and I could use my highly developed intuition to give people the illusion that I was smart. I was on a personal search for truth, and I read a lot about music. I also loved music deeply. I did see myself as having certain advantages through what one person on the outside referred to as my "breeding" (though I would never use that word myself), and I fought vigilantly to break down the barriers that got in my way. Some of those barriers might have been imaginary, but a good many of them were real.

It was pretty crazy for me to feel that if I began playing the flute in the seventh grade (a late age in a competitive field), I could, through sheer perseverance and hard work, rise to the top of the "pack," and get into a good school as a performance major. I thought that if I worked harder than anyone else, it would make up for what I lacked in experience and brain power. Ultimately, I confess, what got me into Juilliard was my "breeding." Julius Baker taught my mother, and he admired my father's playing. I also studied with one of his students. I managed to fool him with my amour of charm, and, after being initially rejected because of my less-than-perfect orchestral audition (the first of many), he pulled some strings and got me accepted. I never really felt like I belonged at Juilliard, until I found out that my path there was not all that unusual.

I still think that my audition for Baker was a brilliant "wool-over-the-eyes-pulling" moment. I played the slow movement of a Mozart concerto, and I prepared my interpretation by listening to Julius Baker's recording of it. Every time he changed color, I made a little mark in my music. Those were the places I changed the color of my sound or made some kind of musical inflection, but I intentionally didn't inflect the same way he did. I intuited that those places were moments of sensitivity for him, and I suppose I was correct.

I suppose that getting into Juilliard became a mark of excellence. I was surrounded by people who were excellent players, and made friends with people who were fine musicians. I was a champion practicer.

I have applied my late-starter mentality to everything I have done musically: learning new instruments, writing about music, and writing music. I love having a long road ahead of me, and I love encountering real brilliance and real talent, but now, at the age of 54, I'm starting to understand my limits. I am turning more into a consumer of music than a producer because there is so much to play, particularly on the piano, that is far greater than anything I could imagine writing.

Specializing has never been my strength. I am polyamorous as a musician. I can't commit to a single instrument or a general era. I can't commit to writing in a particular style. My tastes go all over the map. I admire those who do specialize, though. I also admire people who can write about music in a compelling way.

I wonder if Richard Taruskin ever has feelings of inadequacy. I wonder if he ever feels like an impostor. When I read his essays, particularly the ones collected in The Danger of Music, I understand how directly, cleverly, and correctly a person can write about music. I also understand, particularly through Taruskin's eyes (and hand) that composers are all complicated people. I am grateful to him for quoting Debussy:
"The emotional satisfaction one gets from putting the right chord in the right place can't be equaled in any of the arts," he wrote exultantly in 1915, after a year of blocked inactivity. "Forgive me. I sound as if I've just discovered music. But in all humility, that's rather what I feel like."
Taruskin's 1988 response in the New Republic to Harvey Sachs' Music in Fascist Italy called in this volume "The Dark Side of the Moon," discusses details about the prejudices of many early 20th century musical icons that most of us really don't want to acknowledge. (I recall attending weekly lectures give by Harvey Sachs when I was at Juilliard. If I only knew then what I know now, I would have judged him less harshly. Sometimes I think that education is wasted on the young.)

So ends my ramble. Perhaps I should go and do something productive. Or read more Taruskin.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Music and Money

I just read a post on On An Overgrown Path concerning the fact that wealthy people who sit on boards of major music festivals are the people calling the shots about the future of "classical" music.

I can only quote Captain Renault:

Rich people who love music have ALWAYS been the reason that "classical music" institutions survive. When I was young I used to distrust them, but now that I see things in a much broader historical way, I understand that the only reason that music and art continue to be made available to people who don't have large amounts of money is through the generosity (or obsessive love) of those who do.

Some of us who believe in social justice observe that some of the people who love music as much as we musicians want to play it (and write it) are of a very different kind of political mind. Sometimes that different kind of political mind is one that acts exploitatively and manipulates politicians.

The only solace we have is that this kind of thing has gone on since the Renaissance. The music and art survives, though. And it still will, as long as there are people who have both money and taste.

One big problem that we face is that often times people who have extreme wealth lack taste. This happens among people who don't have wealth as well. Money can't buy taste. Unfortunately. It can buy instruments, excellent instruction, and even influential friends, but it can't buy talent.

So the future of classical music is like a volleyball passed between people of serious financial means who love music deeply, and those that have personal preferences that may not have much to do with anything that lies below the surface of the combination of good looks, a flashy (and reliable) technique, and stage presence (in composers as well as in performing musicians).

I know that as a working musician (performing and writing), who is not of the flashy ilk, it is not likely that I will see vast sums of cash and support come my way (miracles can happen, but I'm not holding my breath). But I do know that if a "culture maker" were to ask me for something and reward me with exposure, press, accolades, and money, I would probably do my best to deliver whatever it is they ask of me.

That is the tradition of "classical music." It always has been, and I believe it always will be.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Serendipity: Lucien Capet Saves the Day

This morning I was practicing double stops on the violin. I always seem to have more trouble playing double stops on the violin than on the viola because of the strong presence of difference tones in the upper register. Sometimes I feel like I have to "fight" a great deal of "noise" just to get them to resonate evenly.

Then, out of the blue, I got an email message from David Mendes, a person who reads this blog, with a link to a dissertation about Lucien Capet. Capet's analysis of the way the bow works is fascinating, and also extremely useful. This image, however, proved to be a revelation for me.

[You can click on it for a larger view.]

The gist of the image is that when playing different double stops it is best to put the weight of the bow in different places in order for them to sound properly. It has nothing to do with the musical direction of a phrase, or voice leading, though sometimes a nice coincidence does happen. It has everything to do with the ease of getting both pitches of a double-stop to sound and resonate.

When you play the interval of a second, you put more weight on the lower string (or pitch).

When you play the interval of a third, you also put more weight on the lower pitch, but you don't need quite as much as you do for a second.

A fourth is only slightly weighted to the lower pitch, and a fifth is exactly even.

For sixths, the weight goes toward the higher pitch, and for octaves even more weight goes toward the higher pitch. The most weight goes to the higher pitch for ninths and tenths.

I just tried this with solo Bach, and found the results remarkable. It really makes you think and feel. It's so much easier to make music when the double-stops come out sounding clearly.

There's a German edition of Capet's La technique supérieure de l'archet in the IMSLP.

Thank you, David.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Stravinsky on Film Rehearsing (and Recording) L'Historie du Soldat

Alexander Schneider is the violinist; Julius Levine is the bass player; David Oppenheim is the clarinetist; Loren Glickman is the bassoonist; Robert Nagel is the trumpet player; Erwin Price is the trombonist; and Alfred Howard is the percussionist. The film is from 1954.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Being Irresponsible

I suppose I put in a little more time at the piano today than I have in recent days. I usually limit myself to one or two movements of Mozart and one of Mendelssohn's "Songs Without Words," but today I got a bit carried away because playing the piano has become my latest exercise in irresponsibility. I guess I played two whole Mozart Sonatas, and then, just for fun, I played some Haydn.

The beautiful thing is that it's just about me and the music, and I can play as slowly as I like. When I make mistakes, I go back and correct them simply so that I get to hear the right notes in the right order. I'm not practicing when I play the piano. I'm playing.

But I am getting better at playing, and I find that I don't need to look at my hands as much as I used to. I also don't tense my shoulders anymore, and I find that I can breathe normally while I am playing.

Don't get me wrong: I love practicing the viola and the violin, but I crossed the threshold of responsibility years ago. Now it is always a responsible act, and practicing does often feel like hard work (not that there's anything wrong with hard work).

Now that I have developed my daily piano routine, I look at music differently when I am away from the instrument. I look at piano music much more physically. I imagine myself playing it, and consequently I hear it more clearly in my head as piano music rather than as notes and chords.

Sergio Fiorentino's Bach

My friend Dan Barrett introduced me to this extraordinary recording of Bach's Partita No. 1, and I'm sharing it with you. The pauses between movements are a bit long, but the wait is worth it.

Here's Fiorentono's obituary, and a link to all of his recordings on YouTube.

Here's one where he plays whatever comes to mind, including the beginning of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, "Some Day My Prince Will Come," a bit of Gershwin, and some Paganini, followed by a paraphrase.

Monday, December 02, 2013

A few words from Lorin Maazel to those of us who "march to different tunes."

Lorin Maazel has been around. He has enjoyed celebrity for all of his professional life, which happens to be most of his physical life. He made this post on Facebook, which I think readers here might appreciate. I'm sparing you the photograph.

Kim Kardashian Goes Without Underwear, Takes Bathroom Selfie

Living in the backwaters of the Arts, I have to rely on services that inform the public about things that matter, like Yahoo's "Trending Now".

I thus can keep abreast of significant events such as Kim K. not wearing underwear.

We classical musicians wrestle year after year with the intricacies of orchestration, the philosophical implications of a phrase, the challenge of matching sonorities of orchestral groupings, the agogic of an interpretation, the goal of identifying a basic tempo for each composition performed, plotting rehearsal strategy so that maximum results can be achieved within the confines of a pre-determined time frame and adapting to acoustical properties of each venue for maximum effect. How comforting to know that there are millions out there who tremble at the very thought of KK's skin, her every word, her boyfriend.

How foolish I feel never having heard of the lady until a few weeks ago.

More power to her. May she enjoy the clout given her by worshiping fans.

Tempted as I am to chuck it all in favor of hoping to share a KK Selfie, I seem to be unable to distance myself from the Titans of Classical Music.

This week I'm having a bout with Richard Strauss.
I'll sum up my impressions in a separate posting but I'd like it to be known that as admirable as underwear-less Kim's moving through the ether of the real world may sound, there are still a few of us who march to different tunes.

- Lorin Maazel

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Six Pieces for Violin and Piano by Amanda Maier

Violinists and lovers of violin music will be happy to know that I just put two editions of Amanda Maier's Six Pieces for Violin and Piano on her page in the IMSLP Petrucci Library The first is a scan of the 19th-century original, and the second is a modern "engraving" edited by the violinist Gregory Maytan, who has made excellent recordings of both the Six Pieces and her B minor Violin Sonata.

For readers new to Amanda Maier (1853-1894), here are several posts I made about her over the past few years.

I am happy to report that Maier's Swedische Weisen und Tanze are also in the IMSLP, along with these pieces and her Sonata.

Here's a link where you can buy Gregory Maytan's recording of the Sonata and his recording (the first and only, so far) of the Six Pieces.