Saturday, November 30, 2013

Skye Boat Fantasie Performances in Charlotte, North Carolina December 6 and 8

I was thrilled when the members of the SkyeProMusica asked me to make a transcription of my Skye Boat Fantasie for their ensemble, and am happy to let you know that they will be performing it on their Winter concert next week.

Here's the concert information:
Classical chamber trio SkyeProMusica will be performing works by Reinecke, Martinu, Rachmaninoff, and a world premiere of a work called Skye Boat Fantasie, transcribed for SkyeProMusica by the composer, Elaine Fine. Performances will be on December 6th at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church on Rea Rd in Union County, and December 8th at 2:00pm at St. John's Episcopal Church on Carmel Rd in Charlotte.
You can get additional information here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Rooftops of Teaneck

A Farewell to A Farewell to Arms

When I lived in Schladming back in 1980, the very small Austrian city had a tiny library. There were only a couple of English books in it, so A Farewell to Arms was a relief to read since I spent so much of my life communicating clumsily in German. As an expatriate I suppose I connected with the protagonist, and as a young person I suppose I connected with the intensity of the love relationship (based, it seems, mostly on an attraction I would now consider kind of superficial).

There are phrases here and there that I find evocative. (Notice that I didn't say "charming.") The short sentences without much in the way of punctuation are also a bit infectious, but as a 54-year-old I just can't stand them. I have this terrible habit of picking up the prose style of fiction writers, so I think it's a good idea to donate my copy of the book to the hospital library, and be done with it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Urban Hospital Music

I love hearing the music in the voices of people speaking languages I do not understand.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Radio Silence

I haven't been posting for a few days (and won't be for a few days to come) because I am spending my days in the hospital keeping Michael's father company while he recovers from an operation. It is very difficult to be away from my instruments, and my good friends Mozart and Bach, not to mention my sometime nemesis Arnold Bax, whose difficult viola part of his Trio in One Movement I was just beginning to get under my fingers. There is work to do, but the work will just have to wait.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Tremendous Expression of Grief: November 22, 1963

Read the article about it here. It was my father's first season in the orchestra (he began as the last stand of the second violins and became the principal violist the next season). I talked with him about it for the first time the other day. He told me that the conductor, Eric Leinsdorf, told the orchestra right before they played.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I'm Not Naming Names

I actually don't have to, because it seems that the bulk e-mail message I got yesterday from a well-known and well-respected conductor (at least a conductor I respected prior to receiving this message) could have come from any one of a thousand people. This message lauded a particular soloist (could be any instrument--I'm not naming names) as "the most exciting __________ alive today."

I was intrigued, so I looked the soloist up on YouTube and found this person (I'm not giving away gender) to be one of the most tasteless musicians I have ever heard. I could even venture to say that s/he is the most tasteless musician alive today, but because I limit my exposure to such players, I am (thankfully) not in a position to make such judgements.

It really bothers me that conductors feel the need to sell concerts the way some people sell cars. It also bothers me that the people new to "classical music" who buy the hype and go to the concert will echo the sentiments of the sales pitch even if the playing has left a bad taste in their collective mouths.

This kind of publicity shows a lack of respect to listeners, and I believe it ultimately thwarts the greater efforts of musicians who devote their lives to trying to play tastefully.

I do know that the city where this conductor conducts has a lively set of musical offerings, and some of them come from tasteful musicians. I hope that fewer and fewer of them buy the used cars hype that this individual is trying to sell, and go spend their leisure dollars elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

More from Charles Villiers Stanford

". . . At the same time music has one advantage of other arts, in that, being itself a subtle and intangible entity, it can create its own forms and vary them more completely than they can. But one rule is common to them all; no matter how free the design, the proportions must be preserved if the work is to make any sensible appeal to human intelligence. A new form in music may require study and frequent hearing to understand it, but if it is logical and founded on a thorough knowledge and control of means, time will endorse it. Such modifications grow (like folk-songs in Hungary) and are not made. To have any value at all they must in their nature be children of their fathers. The laws of evolution apply as rigidly to musical art as they do to nature itself. It is not necessary to go out of the way to seek for novelty of design any more than for novelty of expression. No two faces are exactly alike, although the are, eyes, nose and mouth are in the same relative position. To paint a face with two noses or four ears would not suggest novelty of form, but only the imbecility of the artist. Polyphemus, with his one eye in the centre of his forehead, will always be a grotesque monstrosity. In the treatment of form, as in the control of invention, the only path to originality is through sincerity of expression on the lines of natural beauty. The moment originality is forced, extravagance, exaggeration, and bizarrerie become inevitable."

Charles Villiers Stanford

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Charles Villiers Stanford's Short Treatise on Writing Music

I came upon this bit of treasure on the IMSLP this evening. It is just about the best practical guide for writing tonal (i.e. common practice) music I have read. Stanford is sincere, brilliant, and gets to the heart of the how of writing music.

Here are a few choice excerpts from the 116-page book.
Trust to inspiration for a melody.

Do not necessarily be satisfied with the form in which it first presents itself, but work at the details while preserving its balance.

When your melody satisfies you, get a bass for it which is as melodious as you can make it without allowing it to overshadow the melody proper. The bass will probably be in your mind as you write the melody.

Practice as much as possible in old rhythmical dance-forms, such as minuets, sarabands, allemandes. Vary the number of bars in your phrases, and be careful to balance them satisfactorily to the ear. Remember that sentences to be intelligible must have commas, semicolons, colons, and full stops, and apply this principle to your music. By doing so you will make your phrases as clear to the listener as they are, even in their cruder form, to yourself.

Found your melodies on the diatonic scale, and treat chromatics as reinforcements and decorations only, until your themes move easily in diatonic intervals.

Study counterpoint first, and through counterpoint master harmony.

Study strict counterpoint only.

Study the pure scale and accustom yourself to think in it. [N.B. The pure scale is an I tempered scale, the kind of scales played on a non-keyboard instrument.]

Practice canonic and fugal writing until the results sound quite easy, natural and musical.

Write always some music in any free style, without thinking about rules, alongside your technical work.

Learn the value of using plenty of rests.

When an artist, who has made a design for mosaic, proceeds to put his picture together, he must make his tesserae so even-edged as to fit easily to each other; if the edges are rough and unfinished, he will not improve the effect of his design by hammering them together and chipping them; nor can he excuse such methods by pleading that the mosaic picture is so far off that no one will see the flaws. The flaws will let in the dust and damp, and the laziness of the inferior workmanship will be exposed by the great enemy of all charlatans, Time.
I believe that his advice is still as relevant for composers of the 21st century as it was for composers of the early 20th century. The analogy Stanford makes about the maker of mosaics holds true for every type of artistic endeavor.

Monday, November 18, 2013

You Are What You Eat, Musically Speaking

Perhaps what I love so much about Alma Deutscher is that the music she writes reflects what she knows. She seems to be having the ideal musical childhood, filled with a steady diet of Haydn, Mozart, and Scarlatti. Her father, Guy Deutscher, is an accomplished linguist and an amateur flute and recorder player, and I understand that her mother is also an academic. They are able to give Alma lessons with excellent teachers, provide her with high-quality instruments, and educate her at home, so that she can devote her time to music and childhood. She is a delightful child, filled with real wit and a true musical personality.

She clearly has spent time listening to and studying Haydn's Opus 33 Quartets (make sure to listen to the end).

She had some seriously original musical ideas when she was six (make sure to listen to the development section about 2 1/2 minutes in).

I love the way her interpretation of this Scarlatti Sonata is personal, and appropriately quirky.

Some day I hope to play the piano as well as this eight-year-old.

Viola Organista: A Peek into an Alternative Musical Universe

Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had actually built this instrument 500 years ago (when he designed it)!

Here's how it works. Here's a view from a turning wheel which demonstrates the concept. You can see the person turning the wheel at the end of the instrument in this clip. Here's an animation of the "action" (that's horsehair, not water).

Here's a news broadcast about the first crude example from 2009, and an article about Slawomir Zubrzycki's improved model.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Some Excitement in Laramie, Wyoming on Monday

It's the first performance of a piece I wrote in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Laramie Guitar Ensemble.

How I wish I could be there.

Friday, November 15, 2013

We don't see it, but it's still there

The thing I love about this video of a violin string in motion, as seen from behind the bridge, is the way the vibrations of the note (started at the tip, where instability is always a possibility) gradually achieve properties that remind me of a jump rope at full swing.

With normal vision (in real time) we don't see the parts of a bowstroke that are less stable, but we can hear them. The image of the jump rope and the idea of getting and maintaining full swing as quickly as possible and for as long as possible during any given note helps me focus my attention in a new and exciting way.

I love the fact that the swing of the string, once set into motion, continues after the bow leaves it. We all need to pay attention to the microscopic corners and ends of the notes we play. Since a sound wave is a sound wave, I imagine that this image would be useful for all musicians, not just those of us who play bowed strings (there is no way to slow down the visual image of the physical way sound comes out of a wind instrument or a set of vocal chords). What a rare and useful piece of video!

I wrote a piece about jump rope for two violins a few years ago. Who knew?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lorca's Guitar: Seis docellas bailan

Last summer, after visiting an exhibit at the New York Public Library that displayed, among other things, Federico Garcia Lorca's guitar, I wrote a set of six pieces for the guitar based on lines from some of his guitar-related poems. If you look at the titles here, you will see that each contains a number, and that the third piece of the set is about the three strings of gut and three of silver that are used on Lorca's guitar.

I just put the music for the set in the Petrucci Library, and thought I'd share a computer-generated "reading" (which we can call fauxdio) of the last piece of the set here:

Kevin Hart, the dedicatee of the piece, is planning to record them this winter. Special note to Kevin: the tempo of this is really too fast for a real instrument. Composers always pick tempos that are too fast, so I'm just doing what comes naturally.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Grand Cultural Shift: Watch Fred Rogers talking to the Senate

This was 1969. I was ten, and the world was a confusing and large place. Like most children, I had issues with identity. I was one of a few people who found Mister Rogers' Neighborhood frightening because of the creepy Lady Elaine, who shared my name, and therefore I didn't believe that very calm man who told me that he liked me just the way I was. I only watched the show occasionally. I imagine that the relatively small handful of people named Elaine in my generation understand.

I really fell in love with the show when I watched it with my own children, beginning in 1987 when our daughter was born. It was then that I learned to like Lady Elaine "just the way she was," and I began to understand that Fred Rogers was, in addition to speaking to children, was setting an example for parents to try to look at the world from a child's point of view. I imagine that there are other adults can respond to the show from our inner-child's point of view, because so many of the things that trip adults up are fears and habits of response acquired (for whatever reasons) when we are children.

The 7 minutes above are very meaningful. I can't imagine such a response from a member of the Senate concerning a request 20 million dollars in our current cultural climate. In many ways Fred Rogers accomplished his task, and we have a few decades of proof, because many people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s who had the chance to watch the show as children are trying to make the world a kinder, gentler, and more understanding place.

PBS no longer shows Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (it stopped airing in 2007), and there are too many things in our consumer-driven culture that trip us up. Those things come from the outside, but the do affect everybody on the inside, children and adults alike. It is wonderful that some of the shows are available to watch by way of YouTube, but because of all the din that is the internet, a small still voice speaking reasonably about things that matter is not always the one that we hear.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Paganini Project

Peter Sheppard Skærved demonstrates Paganini's tricks and techniques, shows his travel journal, explores iconography of the time, and demonstrates Paganini's steel bow (and explains why Paganini held his bow so high on the stick). The nifty bow stuff starts about 47 minutes into the film.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Learn Your 50 States with This Song!

Violin Soloist Barbie

One of my students has a violin-playing American Girl doll, and it looks like the folks at Mattel are trying to jump on the, er, bandwagon.

My first impulse when I saw this was to groan loudly. The doll is made for the Chinese market, where lots of young girls play the violin. Many young girls see the attractive array of young women who grace the tubes with their grown-up playing. They also see a wide array of adorable little girls in fancy party dress playing the violin. I have had many a young girl student come for lessons because they were inspired by seeing and hearing a video or two of someone pretty and talented playing the violin. I even had a boy (who is now a young man, and still a violinist) come to me because he loved seeing and hearing Andre Rieu, who is just about as "Barbie" as a male violinist can get.

It doesn't look like Barbie's arms would bend to hold the fiddle or the bow, but there is a certain kind of violin-playing kid who would want such a doll. We grown-ups forget about the value of play and imagination.

Practically Barbie would not be able to play with that necklace, and those shoes would NOT be comfortable for playing, even if it's imaginary playing.

Perhaps the viola version of the doll could be "Viola Soloist Midge." Remember Midge? (Like most viola soloists, and important solo repertoire, she doesn't come to the front of the brain like Barbie.)

How would "Viola Section Player Midge" sell?

Thursday, November 07, 2013

What is your brand?

The question that came up the other day:

What is your brand?

The first thing that popped into my mind was "Henle."

Yes Michael. This is a hint. I'm three Sonatas into volume I, and would really like to own volume II.

What's your brand?

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Beware the Whims of a Music Editor!

I decided it was time to listen to a few recordings of Paul Juon's Opus 15 Sonata since I'm playing it in a week or so. I'm using an edition published in 1946 by International Music that was edited by Milton Katims. The only reason I'm using the Katims is because the edition in the IMSLP prints out rather small. I need all the clarity I can get, so I chose to use the International edition. I figured that an edition from a reputable publisher wouldn't have wrong notes in it.

I was wrong.

For some reason Katims decided to change one of the notes in the main theme from the C-natural (clearly indicated in the part by the composer, in both the first statement and in the recapitulation) to a C-sharp. [For non-alto-clef readers, it's the eighth note that the viola plays, and it gets repeated three times in the measure.]

Here it is in context:

That altered note (as you will hear in the videos below) changes the main theme considerably.

Spencer Martin plays from the Katims edition:

These very fine (and unnamed players, who are probably Russian) use the 1910 German edition:

I put a query to the 1000-plus-member group of violists on Facebook about the problem, and I didn't hear a peep (though my flutist friend Jean Petree, whose mother is a violist, knew the piece). I imagine that nobody gave that C-sharp (or those C-sharps) a second thought. I wouldn't have questioned it myself if I hadn't come across that Russian recording. Thank goodness for the IMSLP!

(For the record, Katims also changed the measure before the 5/4 section in both the exposition and the recapitulation.)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Monday, November 04, 2013

Hall Overton Sonata for Viola and Piano Played by the Zaslav Duo

It is with great pride that I am able to share this fantastic reading of Hall Overton's Sonata for Viola and Piano that was recorded on June 22, 1989 during the 17th International Viola Congress at the University of Redlands in Redlands, California. The Zaslav Duo (Bernard Zaslav, viola, and Naomi Zaslav, piano) had a long and distinguished career, and they spent much of it playing new music.

A big thanks to Bernie and Naomi for allowing me to put this recording on line!

Bernie's head didn't make it into the image on YouTube, so here is the original picture of the Zaslav Duo (from 1962) in all its glory.

Sunday, November 03, 2013


I'm playing a concert in two weeks. You will, no doubt, notice that between the pictures of two composers of works on the program (i.e., Paul Juon and York Bowen), people not known to most of the non-viola-playing world, there is a mystery composer.

I found this group of sonatas by this "mystery" composer in the "Anonymous" section of the IMSLP. It was "discovered" by the violinist Ferdinand David and transcribed for viola by Friedrich Hermann, who was the principal violist of Mendelssohn's orchestra. It exudes the spirit of Leipzig in the second half of the 19th century, a time when musicians were discovering (and devouring) the music of J.S. Bach after its hundred years of relative obscurity.

The burning question I have while I am practicing is whether to incorporate baroque conventions into the 19th-century phrasing (i.e. changing the articuation). This brings up the larger question of authenticity and a composer's intentions (even if s/he didn't attach a name to the work). For the record, I think it's a "he," and I believe his name is Ferdinand David, the first editor of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and the dedicatee of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. David probably knew very little about 17th- and 18th-century instruments and bows. He also knew little, if anything, about the harpsichord, but he was still a pioneer in the field of baroque music. He was also an excellent composer.

This piece for "un-figured bass" is great fun to play. Playing it makes me thumb my nose at claims of authenticity, and it reminds me that the real mandate that this piece of music (or any piece of music) has is to work towards an interpretation that is true to its spirit.

Friday, November 01, 2013

If It's November, It Must Be Mozart

I spent some of August, all of September, and a few weeks of October playing through Haydn's Piano Sonatas in order to learn something about piano playing and something about Haydn. I learned a great deal, and had a wonderful time doing so. I have decided to spend the month of November playing through the Mozart Piano Sonatas. Yesterday I played the first, and today I played the second.

Now, with this little bit of experience, I understand why pianists love Mozart so much. These Sonatas simply feel good under the hands, and it is so easy to play expressively without having to do anything physically unnatural. What a treat this is! And it's a treat that anyone with a keyboard and minimal piano skills (thanks to nearly three months of daily practice I can finally trill with one hand and play an Alberti Bass with the other) can give him or herself. And the music is even available for free in the IMSLP.

Perhaps some readers might like to join me in this adventure! The word "Movember" has already been taken by people who are capable of growing facial hair, so, perhaps those of us who enjoy playing the piano can have our own "Movember" by playing Mozart every day. Of course people who play other instruments are welcome to join, though there would have to be considerable repetition to fill all 30 days of November (not that there's anything wrong with that).

If you're a man, you could do both. Grow a beard and play Mozart. I imagine that at some time in his life Mozart might have had some facial hair.