Wednesday, February 21, 2024

When it's time to move on, in memory of Eric Larsen

February 19, 2024

I wrote this piece for voice, cello, and piano in memory of the pianist Eric Larsen (1952-2024), who was a dear friend and chamber music partner of my very dear friend Daniel Morganstern. The poem, written by Danny's mother Milly (1913-2000), is one that he shared with me only recently, and a poem that was at the very front of both his mind and my mind during Eric's last days. Danny told me recently that Eric met Danny's mother before he met Danny, and that Milly loved listening to them practice together (in her home) extremely slowly, because that way she could hear every detail in the music.

You can listen to a computer-generated file here, and find the music here. The music is also available on this page of the IMSLP.

We are single threads
intertwined
in the fabric
of each other’s lives

We are words
in each other’s stories

We are notes
in each other’s songs

When it’s time to move on

We step
over the edge
into a new space
where we are transformed
as color
in the thread
as meaning
in the word
as overtone
in the note

We continue
intertwined
through life, death
and transformation

On our journey

--Milly Morganstern

Friday, February 16, 2024

Ozawa

I went to a great many concerts conducted by Seiji Ozawa when I was coming of musical age in Boston. I even got the chance to sing with him once. It was a performance of the Haydn Creation on July 8, 1973. I was so impressed by the music, the soloists, and the experience in general, that all I really remember about Ozawa as a conductor was that he sang everything very quickly in solfege (I was impressed by that). John Oliver, the director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, told us in that Seiji Ozawa was very particular about diction. I was surprised by the fact that Ozawa never mentioned diction in the rehearsals we had with orchestra.

I always enjoyed hearing the Boston Symphony conducted by its guest conductors, paricularly Leonard Bernstein, Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Klaus Tennstedt, and Erich Leinsdorf (I got to sing in Wozzeck under him in 1969) more than I did when Ozawa conducted. And I never understood, during "Beethoven Week," why Ozawa's Beethoven always sounded less meaningful than I hoped it would have sounded.

I do remember enjoying Ozawa's performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, but I still have trouble wrapping my brain around the absolute adoration I read in these internets now that Seiji Ozawa is no longer alive.

I do have something Ozawa-related from 1963 to share that might be new to his younger fans, as well as his older fans.

The Price is Wrong: Excellent article in VAN Magazine

Thank you Sharon Su for this article, (and thank you to Michael for sharing it with me). It is certainly time for me to resubscribe to this magazine!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Songs from Dorothy Parker's Sunset Gun

Sunset Gun is Dorothy Parker’s (1893-1967) second book of poetry. It was published by Boni and Liveright in New York in 1928, and entered the public domain in January of 2024. I am celebrating its liberation by sharing a group of four songs from the book that I set for soprano and piano here, and having the music remain in the public domain (It is now in the IMSLP).
You can find the music and computer-generated audio file on this page of the IMSLP

[“Sunset Gun” refers to a canon shot that is fired when the flag is being lowered in a military cermony at the end of the day.]

Sunday, February 04, 2024

SPEAK, MEMORY . . .

Yesterday I started work on a setting of a poem written in the voice of character in Homer's Odyssey, and last night I had a "working" dream that must have been influenced by Fred Hersch's dream that I wrote a post about yesterday.

In my dream I was attempting to do some kind of dance-related expressive movement, and was taken aback when I saw Augustin Hadelich, wearing maroon Dansko clogs, going up on pointe. And then I noticed a group of small children sitting on the floor. They were all listening with great attention to a six-year-old Augustin reciting (from memory) a part of the Odyssey in English.

I was so inspired by this dream that I got to work immediately after breakfast today, and have been at it all day. I might even finish the song tomorrow.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Fred Hersch's Dream

Last night Michael and I went to a concert that featured the pianist Fred Hersch. It was a marvelous concert. I was particularly impressed by a story that Hersch told about the dream that inspired his "Dream of Monk," which you can hear him play with Esperanza Spalding here.

He told the audience about finding himself in a small cage, too small to fit in comfortably, and then seeing Thelonius Monk in another cage that was too small for him to fit in. A guard came in with some manuscript paper, and told them both that the first person to write a tune would be set free. Hersch scribbled out a tune as quickly as he could, and handed it to the guard. Then he saw that Monk hadn't written anything.

When writing the tune inspired by this dream, Hersch used a kitchen timer to give himself the kind of time constraint that he had while dreaming about writing it.

Interesting.

My armchair psychologist's take on this dream would be that the thing that most composers want most when faced with writing something is a set of constraints. A cage that you write your way out of is such a great visual image of this need. And it is a need. The world of pitches, harmonies, registers, tempo, meter, dynamics, instruments, voices, and timbre is vaster than vast. And finding a path through the possibilities for a creative person with some kind of an abstract feeling to express is really difficult without a good set of guidelines. I imagine that this is the case for any kind of creative person doing any kind of creative thing.

The telling thing for me is that Hersch saw Monk, one of his heroes, as not being productive in a cage.

Perhaps it was because Hersch was looking for perameters in order to begin the song he wanted to write (inspired by the title of Monk's Dream). Perhaps it was because Hersch used Monk as his "cage" in real life (given the musical language of the song), and believed (at least in his unconscious mind) that Monk didn't benefit from any kind of artificial constraint when he wrote.

I wonder what kind of dreams Thelonious Monk had?

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Growing Up Female, 1971

This post is not about music. It's about a forty-nine-minute-long documentary film about being female in the 1970s. The film begins with small children in preschool and their social behavior being described by their teacher along strict gender lines. I never went to preschool, and the household I grew up in was far from typical, so my socialization began in Kindergarten and in the neighborhood. Everything this teacher says sounds like something out of a textbook (maybe to "impress" the film maker), and everything she says about children has since been proven wrong.

But the stuff about eleven-year-old girls (as described by their teacher) really rang true for me and for my experience. As the film progressed a larger truth about growing up female in the 1970s came clearly into focus.

I remember the 1970s as a dark time that was lit up by compelling pop music. I remember the 1970s as a decade when girls couldn't wear pants to school, and then we finally could, but it wasn't until later in the decade that clothing companies made pants that were comfortable to wear for women who were not skinny. I remember the idea of womanhood in the 1970s being a scary series of beauty parlors, pointy bras, magazines that showed us girls how we were supposed to look if we wanted boys to like us. And here it is, unscripted in glorious black and white. Watch only if you dare.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Geoffrey Seitz shows how stringed instruments are made

Geoff Seitz's shop in St. Louis is one of my favorite places on earth. Geoff has never steered me wrong when looking for instruments for students and friends. He is a wonderful violin and viola maker as well as an expert repair person. And he is really kind and honest, characteristics that are of real value to me in the (sometimes not particularly kind or particularly honest) world of instrument business.

I'm so glad that the people of the St. Louis Home of Education and Culture filmed Geoff playing (something I have never seen or heard in the nearly thirty years I have known him), and caught the ambience of his shop (he does know where everything is).

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Fantastic 30-minute post-practice routine

All of Rachel Lawrence’s (The Girl With the Pilates Mat) classes are great, but this one is particularly useful to me after practicing because it strengthens and stretches my violin and viola playing muscles.

Michael and I have been taking part in Rachel's classes (i.e. following her YouTube videos) for a few years now. We do them several times a week (more when the weather is lousy and walking is either less of a pleasure or an unsafe impossibility). Rachel is delightful. Working with her videos really helps me understand the way my arms and legs move and reach in the space around my body. I find this so very important in string playing, because all the important important stuff happens when the arms and their various parts are out of my field of vision. Pilates also helps to establish, strengthen, and challenge the sense of balance, and that helps us both in every way, musical and otherwise.

Rachel has Pilates-based videos of every shape, size, length, and focus on her channel, but this recent video has become a family favorite, which is why I am sharing it here now. There are one or two ads at the beginning of each video, but once they get going the sessions are never interrupted by ads.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Who Could Ask for Anything More?

The other night, while I was in a rehearsal of William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony, I couldn't help but notice that Gershwin's song "I Got Rhythm" was part of the material used in the second movement. I quickly noted that the Still was published in 1935, and found that Girl Crazy, the show that housed "I Got Rhythm," opened on Broadway in 1930. I imagined that Still might have incorporated the Gershwin motive into his piece, so I forgot about it.

This morning I learned that Still wrote his symphony in 1930, and after its premiere by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931, it became wildly popular. Since music takes time to write, and the date of publication or premiere is not necessarily a true timeline of the writing of either Still's work or Gershwin's work, it might have been a case of Gershwin incorporating Still. Zillions of notes and four-note motives were bantered back and forth in the musical and musical theater worlds of the 1920s and 1930s, and all we have to go on are newspaper reviews, the occasional interview, or the occasional family story.

I'm glad that Elliott Forrest noticed the similarity, and am happy to share his article about it with links on the WQXR website.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

In response to the perennial question

In a "contemporary classical music" Facebook forum the question of the value of music written by women comes up often. This time I felt compelled to answer. Facebook doesn't allow paragraph breaks, so I kept the discussion "as is."

Forum person:

"It is often said that classical music has a diversity problem. Which I think is correct in many ways. But my question is: to what extent recording albums or programming symphonies and concertos by, say, Florence Price or Grazina Bacewicz is a worthwhile gesture destined to correct historic injustices and expand audiences (as we are made to believe)? First of all: is the music any good? I'd say yeah, it's not bad, but also not remarkable or original. This is of course a subjective opinion, but let's suppose it is correct, just for the sake of argument. On the one hand, to program music that is admitedly not excellent can be perfectly reasonnable. One has to take chances in order to surprise and delight the audiences, and one can surely make the argument that mediocre music by dead white men is being performed often enough. But if you are used to, say, the level of achievement of Mahler or Shostakovich, I fear this inclusivity trend is going to wear thin pretty quickly. Yet no one will accept this publicly. Now to be fair, you can use the same argument to not program contemporary pieces by white dudes either, indeed any contemporary music whatsoever, in the (rational) fear that it will not hold up to scrutiny when compared to the greats. Yes classical audiences are used to the most wonderful experiences in concert and most music just won´t cut it. There's a lot to critique about that kind of mindset. But also: Are we trying to invent great female composers out of thin air? Is it not enough that there are actually great female composers out there, such as Gubaidulina, Saariaho or Unsuk Chin? Do we have to pretend that excellency is everyone's right and go through the motions of these concerts and clap in the end just out of fear of being elitist and out of touch? Is that healthy?"

My response:

Do we have to have this conversation year after year? Perhaps looking towards the future (a future where living composers who are women are taken as seriously by musicians as male composers who are living) is a healthier way of considering the idea of gender equity. Florence Price, for example, was a terrific composer. As a professional she was treated horribly by the people (men) in power. But her teaching pieces (teaching pieces were acceptable by women) that could make money for publishers were items of value. The story of her life is a sad one: she worked very hard, and got little in the way of recognition. Why is it, for example, that we only have a handful of photos of her? The music of the past written by people no longer alive is finite. The music of the living present and the future is not. And there are more women writing music (that is available) now than in centuries past. Our critical gatekeeping establishment is in sad shape, so musicians need to decide for themselves what is “good” and what is “great.” Publishers often rank work by what will sell, and orchestras and opera companies rank work by what will sell tickets. Ultimately (at least I believe) “greatness” has to do with how a piece of music at hand feels to play, and how musicians can connect to its emotional and intellectual substance. If musicians can project their love for a piece of music (written by any gender, age, nationality, race, etc.) it could be felt as “greatness.” Some composers are able to write accessibility into their music so that it is (relatively) easy to translate its pitches, rhythms, and phrases into something that can become a personal “voice” for a musician or a group of musicians. That kind of thing remains my only way of honestly judging anything having to do with a piece of music. It’s time, in my opinion, for a different kind of discussion when evaluating musical quality.

Friday, January 12, 2024

It's Grieg for Me

On this cold and rainy day I wanted to play something different during my morning practice. So I unearthed my red portfolio of violin music, and found the Grieg Violin Sonatas. I hadn't thought about these pieces for years, and when I last played them my sense of how to play the violin was completely different. When I played them last I was a violist playing the violin, and I was a violist without the kind of bow control and understanding of the left hand that I now have (the result of years and years of careful study).

This morning, accompanied by the sound of rain outside my window, I could really throw myself into the phrases of the F major Sonata, and feel that wonderful mixture of contemplation and release that is so valuable in music in general, and so present in Grieg. And when "Grieg weather" sets in I really need the inner light that allows for psychic cozyness. For me filling the room with Grieg feels like sitting by a warm fire covered with a blanket, and drinking something warm and tasty.

One of the most magical things about music is that the mixture of contemplation and release can be both experienced by the person (or people) playing, and can shared with anyone listening.

Here's a lovely performance of the F major Sonata by violinist Ivan Ženatý and pianist Antonín Kubálek with a score that you can follow. The notes for the video explain the relationship between Grieg and Ole Bull, who was the inspiration for this piece.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Dr. Beethoven, my therapist

Like many musically minded people, I find solace, escape, validation, pleasure, release, and wonder in playing music. For a long time being able to play the violin parts of Beethoven's chamber music was an ambition. And now that I have the ability to navigate through the violin parts with a reasonable amount of fluency, Beethoven and his chamber music have a new place in my musical life.

Beethoven is not unique among people no longer alive who had to contend with life-long and ever-changing emotional difficulties. But he is unique in his particular ability to use time, melody, harmony, dynamics, articulations, touch, and timbre to express his tensions and resolve them musically (sometimes logically, sometimes whimsically, and sometimes poignantly).

I can now put worrying about technique (playing in tune, being able to shift properly, using the bow efficiently) into a more unconscious place when I play, and I can use my conscious mind listen and consider Beethoven's way of developing motives while participating in the experience. The same motive (or phrase) presented in a different kind of musical "light" has a different set of resonances, recalling one feeling or another from earlier in the movement, or in a passage from another movement of the same piece.  I am so happy that I can now physically "ride" through the musical progress of Beethoven's phrases.

I find elements of personality that are so blatantly Beethoven, and oddly think of them as "Beethoven-y" passages, even in the context of one of his pieces. And then there are phrases and passages that defy personality. Sometimes a chromatic passage sends me to another "place" entirely, and when the music returns to a familiar "place," I feel like I have returned from a journey somewhere. Maybe it is a return from the dream that I might have had (maybe last night), but cannot recall anything specific about it.

As much as I love Haydn, I do not rely on him for therapy the way I rely on Beethoven. Haydn is my mentor, my teacher, my entertainment, and my distraction from difficulties that like to take up space in my psyche. Haydn's music always provides me with escape. My concerns in life go on "pause" when Haydn is on my stand. But Beethoven has a way of getting into my head and organizing the shadows that have bothered and scared me for decades. The way he works with motives helps me observe and objectify those feelings. Playing (and listening to) Beethoven's music helps me on my path towards resolving some of them.

I don't think I would be able to appreciate Beethoven the way I appreciate him now without the technique I have spent years and years of careful practice developing. Thank you, Dr. Beethoven.

Monday, January 01, 2024

My Great Grandfather’s Cafe

 How I wish I could have known Israel Blume, my mother’s paternal grandfather, who was the co-owner of the Cafe Royale in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago. I made a post about it in 2010, and thought I'd repost it with an updated photo:

CAFE ROYALE 3854 West Roosevelt Road

[Click here for a larger view]

From John Drury's Dining in Chicago

CAFE ROYALE
3854 West Roosevelt Road

Here is Bohemia in the true sense of the word. The Cafe Royale is an intellectual and artistic rendezvous of the west side Jewish quarter. Full of poets, musicians, actors, artists, radicals, intellectuals, and all night talkers. Founded and operated by Israel Blume, a poet, and Morris Mason, an actor, as a Chicago counterpart of the famed Cafe Royal on the East Side of New York. Saturday nights, beginning at 10, the Jewish cabaret, a sort of neighborhood version of the Russian Chauve Souris, is staged in the concert hall at the rear of the place. Harry Rosen and his orchestra are in Russian costumes; Mme. Maria Masheir sings gypsy ballads; Gregory Venetzsky and Joe and Edith Levinson entertain; playlets are performed; there is dancing after the show; and Jewish, Russian, and Roumanian dishes tempt your palate. The walls are decorated with rustic murals by the artist, De Vries. All is gay, garrulous. Continental, colorful and worth much more than the $1.00 you pay for it.

Always, the main dining room out front, unique with its modernist panels depicting the various arts, is crowded with lively bushy-haired men wearing hornrimmed spe'ctacles and carrying books under their arms; black-eyed actresses from the nearby New Yiddish Lawndale Theatre; visiting Jewish celebrities from New York; and gourmets who have a weakness for substantial Jewish dishes fragrant with garlic. The popular entrees here are rib steak, broiled in the Roumanian style, and gratchitze, or sweetbreads. The foods in general are wholesome and savory and not so expensive. Here, then, dine most of the local Jewish celebrities in the arts and allied interests -- Emil Armin, the painter; S. P. Rudens, the essayist; L. M. Stein, the publisher and patron of the arts; Todros Geller, the wood-block artist; Joseph Kriloff, the singer; Dr. M. S. Malamed and J. Siegel, the well-known newspaper editors; J. Z. Jacobson, author of "Thirty-Five Saints and Emil Armin"; I. Iver Rose, the painter and potato pancake maker; and a great many others of lesser note. Meyer Zolotareff, the newspaperman, edits his Yiddish literary monthly, Chicago, from a table in the corner. Here also have come such famous figures in the Jewish world as Abraham Raisen, the poet; Prof. Enrico Glickenstien, the Italian- Jewish sculptor; Molly Picon, the actress; Maurice Schwartz, theatrical director; Boris Thomashefsky, the actor; Alexander Kipnis, the opera singer and Morris Topchevsky, the painter. Politicians also come here -- Alderman Jacob Arvey, Ward Committeeman Moe Rosenberg, and their followers. We could go on describing this interesting place but the above information ought to be enough to arouse your curiosity. Don't miss it. Saturday nights are the best.
The proprietor, Israel Blume, was my maternal great grandfather. My grandmother told me that Emma Goldman used to go there when she was in town.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

The pears (and white butterflies and moths) of immortality

. . . But somehow they're there, the essence is there. We just don't understand it, our evolution hasn't taken us far enough yet to glimpse what the word that we stupidly use, soul, can mean.

I think you're right.

You know I'm right. I don't talk like this to everybody, but I talk like this to you because you know what I know.

Are you suggesting that death is unreal?

Oh, it's real, but something goes on--not your name, not your nose, but the you-ness goes on. I will swear that Felicia is with me a lot . . . though not in her shape.

I am frequently visited by a white moth or a white butterfly. Quite amazingly frequently. And I know it's Felicia. I remember that when she died, her coffin was in our living room in East Hampton. . . and just a few of us where there--the family and a rabbi and a priest, because she'd been brought up in a convent in Chile. We were playing the Mozart Requiem on the phonograph. Everyone was absolutely silent. And then this white butterfly flew in from God knows where--it just appeared from under the coffin and flew around, alighting on everybody in the room--on each of the children, on the rabbi, on the priest, on her brother-in-law and two of her sisters, on me . . . and then it was gone . . . though there was nothing open. And this has also happened to me here, sitting outside in my garden . . . White.

[After a long silence, L.B. refills our wine glasses, and his assistant returns to bring us dessert, which turns out to be two baked pears.]

Have a pear, Mr. Goldstone!

The pears of immortality. And these I "should" and will eat! They look delicious.

This is one of my favorite passages from Jonathan Cott's Dinner with Lenny, which I can't recommend highly enough for anyone interesting in knowing Leonard Bernstein. And I will certainly think differently about seeing white moths and white butterflies.