Friday, April 30, 2010

Birthday Music

It's that time of year again. This new piece for viola d'amore and piano has 51 measures for the 51 years I have clocked to date. I'm going to play it and its companion from last year this summer at the 15th International Viola d'amore Congress which takes place in (somewhat) nearby Evanston, Illinois.

I found the above photo over at The French Factrice, a blog full of postcard treasures.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Curmudgeonly Rant about Music and Entertainment

I'm donning my curmudgeon hat to write a general response to the many articles I have read claiming that "classical music" (as if it is an institution) has to change in order to remain viable or to have a future. Classical music (or whatever the thing that I spend my life playing, writing, writing about, teaching, and teaching about might be called) appeals to people that like it, once they know what it is. There are also a lot of people who are indifferent to it, even those that have had the opportunity to be exposed to it. There are also people who hate it because of a bad experience they might have had in school chorus or school band, lessons they might have had with a mean piano teacher, or a bad experience at a concert.

Among the cognoscenti there are some that will only listen to certain composers, or music from certain periods. There are also people who will listen to (and will claim to enjoy) anything performed by a certain performer, and there are people who seek out the obscure and/or adventurous in classical music rather than the famous and/or safe. There are also people who listen to classical music on the radio, or watch the Arts Channel on the television, but they don't own any recordings of "classical music" themselves.

There are people who buy subscriptions to concert series that sport well-known performers, or performers who should be well known, and there are people who go to concerts for the repertoire, regardless of the identity of the performer or the performing organization. There are also people who like to play music themselves, and like to get together with friends to play. There are people who practice and study because they love doing it, and there are people who practice and study who don't enjoy it as much as they think they should. There are also people who find that they get more enjoyment out of playing music other than classical music (and there is a lot of worthwhile music besides classical music).

There will always be college students who happen reluctantly upon a music appreciation class, and come out with a bit of knowledge and experience (after having around 50 hours of in class listening during the course of a semester). Some of those students find that they enjoy the music, and they want to continue listening after their obligations to the class are over. There will also always be a large number of students who don't give a hoot about what they (don't) learn in their music appreciation classes. It takes all kinds of people to fill the world, but it only takes a relatively small and self-selecting group of people to fill a concert hall.

Music can be entertaining, but it doesn't have to go out of its way to entertain. A performing musician who aims mainly to entertain might even disappoint the audience members who have come to a concert to listen to the music. Dressing classical music up as another form of entertainment won't do much besides bring money into the hands of the people who are interested in attracting an audience interested in being entertained. Unfortunately money seems to be the current measure of cultural value as well as success, so I guess we will have to put up with this entertainment- and money-based way of evaluating and presenting music until it runs its course.

A Musician on the Supreme Court

What a thrill it would be to have an oboist on the Supreme court in addition to the opera extras.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Skye Boat Fantasie

I thought it would be fun to try recording both the violin and viola parts of my Skye Boat Fantasie along with the computer-generated pianist in my computer. I first played and recorded the viola part with a CD of the piano part, and then I did the same with the violin part. I then put them together with Audacity, and viola! (Perhaps I should say "violin and viola!") If you want to join in the Skye Boat fun, you can get the music here. It is almost live, because I only recorded each part once, with no "do overs." Please forgive the little blemishes. The composer already has. Stuff happens when you play music. (If you're reading this in a reader, you will need to click through to the post to see the player.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Familiarity breeds content"

The whole business of hummability, of course, has to do with familiarity. If you hear a tune enough times, you'll hum it. You know, you can the first time I heard the Berg violin concerto, I thought what is this noise? And the third time I heard it, I thought oh, that's interesting. And the fifth time I heard it, I was humming along with it.

And I remember being at the intermission of "A Little Night Music" when it first came out and hearing somebody say oh, that "Weekend in the Country" is such a catchy tune. Well, you know, very few people accuse me of writing catchy tunes, and of course it was a catchy tune. She just heard 11 choruses of it, and so of course she could hum it.

I've often said familiarity breeds content.
There's a lot to learn from listening this interview with Stephen Sondheim that was on Fresh Air on April 21st. Here's the transcript.

Unprepared Piano

The first time I heard the sound of the piano 1 minute and 30 seconds into this Richter recording of the Saint-Saens Egyptian Concerto, I was sure that there was some kind of "preparation" done to the piano. I later learned that the magic is in the natural overtones that get excited (or dulled) when you use this particular combination of strings and hammers. Click on the picture below for a better view, and try it yourself!

Monday, April 26, 2010


Charles Noble posted this video of the 14-year-old Midori playing the Bernstein Serenade at Tanglewood, and I thought I would share it here. We can all enjoy the fact that video cameras were there to mark the occasion of her debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Slide past the commentary (unless you understand Japanese), and at about a minute in you will notice that when Midori breaks a string, she immediately hands her 3/4 sized violin to the concertmaster and continues playing on his full-sized instrument. We can't see the fiddle being handed down the line to a person in front of the seconds who has a set of strings ready for a quick change (and I assume that he or she had a set of 3/4 sized strings especially for this soloist). Midori breaks a string on the concertmaster's instrument, and gets another fiddle from the assistant concertmaster. Then, like a well-oiled assembly line, the fiddlers hand back the restrung little fiddle, and Midori finishes the piece on her own instrument. She knew what to expect, and they knew how to deliver.

My father looks particularly unimpressed, but he does get to stand up for a solo bow. It's all in a day's work.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I was going to write a post this morning marveling at the indifference people have to music, particularly music that demands attention, when it is played in an outdoor setting, but this article about people in New York (in Queens) being indifferent to seeing a man on the sidewalk who had been stabbed and was lying in a pool of blood, puts things into perspective.

What kind of people have we become? Are we so desensitized by images of violence on television that we cannot take a minute to try to do what we can to help someone--even if it is only to take out a cell phone and call the police? This is inhuman, and I am deeply ashamed to be part of a culture that allows this kind of inhumanity.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Critical Critics

The musical blogosphere is full of whimpy critics, including me. I tend to save my critical criticism for my ARG reviews (stuff I have to write about), and usually don't bother to fill these blog pages with music I don't like.

But today I'm inspired. A set of lively discussions over at Iron Tongue of Midnight (which now truly deserves its name) about aesthetic banality prompted me to remember the music of Richard Nanes.

I first encountered the music of Richard Nanes many years ago when a package of his CDs arrived on my desk during my former life as a radio station programmer. Judging a CD by its cover (and CDs were still a novelty then), I made the quick decision to simply play one of them on the air, right then and there. I was so frazzled by the banality of the music, that after the piece was finished playing I took the CD out of the CD player and rolled my chair over it and its companion CDs, over and over again. I wanted to make sure that nobody would ever play them again. If I threw them away, somebody might have plucked one of them out of the garbage. CDs were expensive to make and buy back in the early 1990s, and there was a sense of "quality" that surround the CD back in its infancy.

I came across this 2006 Jeffrey Quick review today, and have the burning need to share it here. Quick's review is right on the money, which you shouldn't waste on any of Nanes' music, by the way. Just listen to a few clips on line, and you'll get the picture.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Budapest String Quartet on Tour

This is a photo of the Budapest String Quartet that was taken by Gjon Mili for Life Magazine. Sure looks like a happy group of people, eh?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Music and Ego

Perhaps it is an outdated idea, but I have always considered playing a concert much more about sharing the music at hand than about "me" playing the music. When I go to a concert, I go to hear the music. The person playing or the people playing are responsible for allow the music to sound the best that it can sound. When I play a concert, my aim is to play the music as well as I can, and to communicate its emotional content or what I believe is its emotional content to the audience. I try to play in tune, in rhythm, and with a good sound so that the music can be alive for everyone in the room to share. Greatness is not the object, but pleasure is. When I'm playing with a group, I do my best to blend with my ensemble-mates, as well as to play in tune, in time, and with a good sound. It isn't "about" me when I'm playing. It's about the music and about the community that it creates.

It isn't even "about" the composer. I know, from personal experience, that being a composer means that you take responsibility for putting pitches, rhythms, and sometimes words together in ways that make music. Once those elements are in play, the music no longer belongs to the composer (unless there are pitches, articulations, and notation issues that need to be fixed after a performance). At best it becomes a vehicle for expression for the people playing, and is "about" the relationship between the pitches, rhythms, sounds, and the musicians. If I happen to have the good fortune of writing something that people enjoy playing and that people enjoy hearing, I have done something successful. If I can do it more than once, I'm extremely fortunate.

I don't believe that a piece of music is a vehicle for the ego of the person or people playing, but I have observed everything to the contrary during my musical life. Perhaps I first noticed it at Juilliard in the 1970s, but I'm sure that it has been around much longer than that. Musical ego, distasteful as it was to me at the time, was generally accepted as a good thing. Its omnipresence led me into a revolt against Western thought. I believed that musical expression was the major aim of music making, and that technique was what made it possible. I still believe it. I also still believe that the ego gets in the way of musical growth. Worrying about what people think can inhibit creativity and expression, especially when people, for whatever reason, don't communicate truthfully about music.

We all have musical ego to some degree. If I play something badly, I feel ashamed. If I play a concert and nobody shows up (it has happened), I feel hurt and insulted. If people don't acknowledge my existence in my musical community, I feel hurt (it does happen).

Ergo ego.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

It doesn't just happen in nature, and in T.S. Eliot, it happens in music. Musical memory--not the kind that allows you to play without music in front of you, but the other kind. The association of a sound, a combination of sounds, a timbre, or a glimmer of musical color stirs the inner senses in ways that evokes a combination of pleasure and deep sadness.

The happiest moments of my childhood were spent hearing my father practice. He would practice in the basement, early in the morning, and I would listen. There was a quality to his sound that meant everything to me: security, excitement, stability. All the elements of fatherhood where right there for me to hear. He always took care of every note, and every phrase, often practicing slowly while he walked around the room, out of rhythm.

When I was a baby he practiced the violin. When I play the violin, I know I sound nothing like the way he did when he practiced the violin, but when I play the viola I sometimes hear my father's "voice" in my sound. It was what I heard every day of my childhood from the age of five until I left home when I was 17, and it the sound that I carried with me (but could not produce) everywhere I went after that.

My childhood was (like many childhoods and for many reasons) not a happy childhood, so sometimes when I hear tinges of my father's viola sound in my viola sound, particularly when I'm playing Bach, I get overwhelmed with such a great mixture of emotions that I don't know what to do. My sad childhood memories are not event-specific; but they have a great deal to do with the way I felt about myself as a child, which was a rather general condition that only had occasional periods of relief.

This memory thing happened this morning when I decided to go from "can't" to Dont on the viola. The second Dont Caprice is a thrilling challenge on the violin, but playing it down a fifth, and on the viola is an adventure in emotional time travel for me, especially since I can now play it in tune. Hearing it under my own ear is as strong an emotional stimulant as the smell and feel of childhood books like One Morning in Maine, which I never owned, but I took out of the library again and again and again.

I suppose it is a good thing for a musician to have such a deep emotional reaction to a piece of music, but, particularly in April, when the world comes to life once again in shades of light green and lilac, it is difficult to really understand, especially when it is an etude.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Melisande Variations

I finished a new piece for string quartet today.

In case, after listening, you haven't figured out why it's called "Melisande Variations," you can hear the motive that I varied and expanded in the first scene of Act III in Debussy's Opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Here is a 1904 recording of Debussy playing the scene with Mary Garden (pictured above) as Melisande.

Pita Chips

Michael keeps insisting that I put the recipe for pita chips on my blog. I know I didn't invent the recipe, and when Michael makes them, he makes them slightly differently from they way I make them, but I'm still putting them here, just in case someone reading this has run out of crackers and has a old bag of pita bread sitting in the fridge.

All you need is pita bread, olive oil, and a jar of Italian Seasoning (or dashes of marjoram, thyme, oregano, savory, and whatever else you might have around). Michael tears the pita bread, arranges it on a cookie sheet, and sprinkles the seasoning on the top. He doesn't use salt. (The above picture is from Michael's most recent batch, before cooking and after cooking.)

I cut the pita in triangles, and I mix the seasonings with the olive oil in an old spice jar (no not the cologne), and add a clove of crushed garlic. Then I shake the whole mixture over the pita, which I have laid out hypotenuse to hypotenuse.

We both bake the chips in a 400 degree oven for a few minutes. I put salt and pepper on mine. When we eat them, we marvel at our thriftiness: a serving of processed pita chips would cost five times as much to buy, and it is never half as good.

Fun with the Domra and Tamara Volskaya

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Getting from Can't to Dont

There's an old viola joke that is truly viola-specific:
What do you call the viola transcription of the Dont Etudes or Caprices, Opus 35?

My father always practiced Dont Etudes on the viola, so many years ago I got myself a viola transcription of Opus 35. Luckily for me, the Etudes were too difficult for me to understand physically as well as intellectually. I couldn't wrap my brain around what went in which position, and didn't have the strength to keep the required fingers down, so I never got close to the point of injuring myself by trying to practice them. I put them away, and they became "Don't" etudes for me because I simply couldn't.

This morning, on a whim, I picked up my archived copy of the Dont Opus 35 Etudes (in the original violin version), and it seems that after devoting these past four years to building technique on the violin with Sevcik and Dounis, I can now practice them. I also actually enjoy practicing them, because I can now understand them both physically and intellectually. They are challenging, but they feel good in the hands and fingers, and they encourage the constant and conscious use of a good left hand position.

Perhaps, I'll try a few them on the viola one of these days. A long time ago my father gave me a list of the ones to avoid. I'll make sure to write "Don't" on those pages.

Meet the Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Composer for 2010

I imagine that some people reading blog might wonder what Jennifer Higdon's music sounds like (and wonder, by extension, something about the sort of music the Pulitzer Prize committee and the Grammy Award committee consider prizeworthy), so I'm offering an example:

Here is a discussion about technical aspects of writing for orchestra between Higdon and violinist Hilary Hahn:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Viardot, Viardot, and Turgenev

Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev

Louis Viardot

After reading the Turgenev Story The Song of Triumphant Love, I find myself thinking, once again about the very interesting friendship/relationship between Pauline Viardot, Louis Viardot, and Ivan Turgenev.

Here's a cartoon of Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev by an unnamed artist

Isn't there an uncanny resemblance between Pauline Viardot and Maria Ewing?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Notebook:" An Ideal Music Reader

I was seriously disappointed when I found that the ipad is not capable of turning the orientation of PDF files (like the ones available on the Werner Icking Music Archive or the Petrucci Library) from landscape to portrait. I also found that it is not possible to conveniently turn pages or even conveniently scroll through music.

I'm not holding my breath, but I'm secretly hoping that some very smart music-loving technical person will eventually develop a mac- and windows-friendly music-reader (wouldn't it be appropriate to call it a "notebook?") that would really work for musicians. It wouldn't have as large a potential buying "audience" as the ipad, but it would help a lot of musicians. This is what my machine would require:

1. A screen that can be viewed clearly under all lighting conditions, including strong stage lights. It would need to have a viewing area that would be at least 8.5 x 11. 9 x 12 would be better.

2. A button on the lower and/or upper right hand side of the machine that would function as a page-turning button. It would need to go in both directions to account for repeats.

3. A method for annotation (fingerings and bowings) on the downloaded copy (a stylus, perhaps), and the option to save an annotated copy in an easily-accessible format.

4. It would have to have a very smart and flexible filing system that could organize sheet music into categories: period, genre, instrumentation, etc.

5. It would have to be silent, like the ipad.

6. It would have to have the capacity to do e-mail and send attachments, so there would need to be a functional keyboard--either internal or external (I can't stand to type on the ipad touchscreen).

7. It would need to have a long battery life and would need to be easily recharged.

8. It would have to be sturdy, but it would have to be light enough to sit on a music stand.

9. It would have to be affordable for musicians.

10. Here's my pie-in-the-sky dream for such a machine: it would work as a scanner as well as a reader (hence the ideal larger screen size).

1000 "Mambos!"

There is nothing quite like the sound of 1000 kids screaming "mambo" (on cue) during a performance of Bernstein's West Side Story "mambo" at childrens' concert.

Monday, April 12, 2010

William Tell Tell-All

The William Tell Overture is scheduled for a couple of childrens' concerts that I am playing this week with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony. I have only played the piece once before, and that was when I was a teenage flutist. It was probably the most humiliating moment (to date) that I ever had with music.

I believe it was in the spring of 1974, and I had only been playing flute for a year or so. Before my mother stopped playing the flute, due to a hand operation that made it impossible for her to hold the instrument, she had been the principal flutist of the Newton Symphony. It was a first-rate community orchestra that was conducted by Michel Sasson, who was then a violinist in the Boston Symphony. There is a mistake (probably a typo) in Michel Sasson's biography. The Newton Symphony was formed in 1965, and my mother was one of the original members.

They needed a principal flutist at the last minute for a childrens' concert at the Brookline High School, and I got a call to play. There would be a short rehearsal that would be followed immediately by the concert. Someone probably assumed that my mother's daughter would do as good a job as she would have done. That someone was dead wrong. I had never played flute in a real orchestra before, and I had never really heard the piece. The flute part was in my orchestral excerpt book though, so I practiced the (very difficult) solo diligently, and was pretty sure that I could play it accurately.

In the rehearsal my dialogue with the English Horn was fine, and the first variation might have been relatively acceptable, but the second variation, the one that has the three-note vorschlagen, and jumps around using various parts of the beat as its trampoline (it begins at 1:37 in this recording) was all over the place. I didn't know if I was in the right place, and the conductor (who may or may not have been Mr. Sasson) indicated severely that I should indeed be playing.

I was genuinely freaked out (and I imagine the conductor was boiling mad). I was not prepared for this! Why hadn't someone in my (extremely musical) family encouraged me to listen to a recording? Did they just assume that I would know what to expect? They assumed incorrectly. It is indeed a wonder that I continued in music after that. I embarrassed myself and my family with my incompetence. I dug a new bottom for the definition of incompetence, and, perhaps I imagined that the only way to go was up.

The concert went a little better than the rehearsal, partly because I knew what to expect (and possibly because the English Horn player may have advised me simply not to play). Nothing in my ensuing 36 years in music has come close to the humiliation of that moment in rehearsal, and I'm pretty confident, at this point, that nothing ever could.

Reading through my part for this childrens' concert, I notice that those da-da-dums in lower register of the viola are pretty hard to articulate cleanly, but from my seat on the second stand of the viola section, nobody will be able to "tell" if they are less than perfect. Still, I had better practice!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Here's a Bit of Wimsical Bitonality by Germaine Tailleferre from Yesterday's Concert

She wrote this in 1973. (You will need to click on the link if you are using a reader.)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Knoxville Summer of 1915

Last night I played a concert with The Prairie Ensemble that included a performance of Samuel Barber's "Knoxville Summer of 1915." The text of the piece is by James Agee. With Barber and Agee on the brain (though I should be thinking about other things today), I found the above picture of his childhood home in Knoxville in an article in the journal of the American Geographical Society.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Five Postcards Performed by the Arcadia Chamber Players

This is a recording of my Five Postcardsis from a November, 2009 concert by the Arcadia Chamber Players.

(You will need to click on the link if you are using a reader, or you can listen here.)

1. Wish You Were Here
2. Variations on a Midmorning Stroll
3. Night Spot in a Modal Village
4. Cave Walk
5. Epilogue: Bahar Bagai

The Arcadia Chamber players are

Mary Chapman, flute
Marina Antoline, clarinet
Amy Flores, cello
Debra Sutter, piano

You can download the music here.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Right Tune for the Right Place

My cellist son Ben (who is also a banjo player, a fiddle player, and a guitar player) just shared this video with me. He is no relation to "the Ben" that is Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, and he is certainly not one of the cellists playing in this video. Can you imagine carrying a cello up 4,409 feet? I have trouble carrying one up a flight of stairs.

Casual Observation

Isn't it odd that a catalog, in an effort to appeal to the "casual" male, would show pictures of its pants in a wrinkled state:

but they wouldn't think of photographing their models wearing wrinkled pants.

Viardot Vielle Chanson

I have been fooling around with putting audio on this blog. This performance of Pauline Viardot's Vielle Chanson is from a concert that John David and I played last March.

(If you are looking at this through a reader, you need to go to the post to access the player.)

I imagine (actually I'm sure) that we'll all hear some improvement in the violin playing this year! The piece, however, remains a pure gem. The icon is an old portrait of me playing the viola drawn by Michael.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Live and Local Radio

You may not live anywhere near the WILL-FM listening area, but you can still hear the interview that John David and I did on the air today to promote our concert next Saturday!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's Das Jahr

The music for more of Das Jahr is available to download from the Werner Icking Music Archive (all we need is April and May to make the set complete). While we are waiting, there are other terrific Mendelssohn Hensel pieces in the WIMA. Those of use who do not have the pianistic ability to play this music (as well as those who do) can enjoy some awesome new performances of Fanny's piano music on YouTube. Here's just one example. The more I hear of her music, the more I want to hear.

gml prl fls!

Oh No! There seems to be a problem with Gmail! And today, of all days!

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Plots

A post at Strange Maps chronicles the progression in time and space of four classic tales that we know best as Pygmalion, Faust, Leviathan, and Oedipus.