Friday, March 28, 2014

Heard But Not Seen: A Memoir by Daniel Morganstern

My dear friend Daniel Morganstern, who recently retired as the principal cellist of the Chicago Lyric Opera, wrote a memoir about his 50-year career as experienced in large part from the principal cello "hot seat" of ballet and opera orchestras in New York and Chicago.

I proudly served as Danny's editor, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The 96-page book is honest, optimistic, and a lot of fun to read. You can order a copy here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Some Great Comedy for a Rainy Day

While searching (once again) for the Spike Jones version of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on YouTube, I came across this gem from January 9, 1954. It's live television, and is a half hour packed with a huge amount of comedic variety, musical and otherwise, with special guest Harpo Marx.

If you don't have half an hour, but need a quick laugh, watch this:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Es muss sein

This is from the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Opus 111 (his last piano sonata),

and this is from the last movement of his String Quartet, Opus 135 (his last string quartet).

Isn't it interesting that he incorporates and exploits the same motive?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thoughts About Intonation

I spent some time practicing viola with a tuner this morning. I am playing a piece that spends a lot of time in the rather unpopular key of B major, so I thought it would be appropriate to use my metronome/tuner to gauge whether I was playing my B-major scales and arpeggios in tune or whether I was missing the mark. I usually trust my ears, but in this case (and because of this key) I thought I would give myself a little bit of help.

I found that in order to play absolutely in tune with the tuner (and make the little needle stop moving) in B major (where there are no open strings), I had to play with a sound that was totally devoid of character. It wasn't fun, so I stopped using the tuner.

It occurs to me that much of the string playing I love is filled with both character and expressive intonation. In these days of machines we tend to think that "the tuner" is correct, much like the way we used to think that the piano was always correct (which, with tempering, it isn't, but we adjust). Sometimes, particularly when interpersonal situations become tense and we are under pressure to be another person's version of "correct," we have to narrow ourselves to achieve our "goal." Sometimes we forget about the music.

Because of the way the modern flute is constructed, it is sometimes very difficult to play the instrument in tune. When I played the flute I found it very difficult to accept the intonation that was built into my instrument. After consulting with a bunch of singers (including Eleanor Steber, who taught one of my friends), I devised a way to open up my throat, lower my diaphragm, and play with a wide supported stream of air that would "find" the center of the pitch by itself. With practice I found that I could simply listen and the pitch would go where I wanted it to go, as long as there wasn't any tension in my tone production equipment that would stop the pitch from finding its natural center.

String players can do the same kind of thing (and in tense situations I need to remember this). The bow arm is analogous to the diaphragm, the bow hair moving across the string is analogous to the air itself, the fingers of the right hand work like the flute-players tongue, and the fingers of the left hand, with their various degrees of pressure and place, can adjust themselves in minute ways to allow a pitch to find its center and sound in tune, as long as there isn't anything getting in the way of the tone production.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Happy Bach's Julian Calendar Birthday

According to the Julian Calendar (used in Bach's time), today is Bach's birthday, but according to the Gregorian Calendar the day marking his birthday would be March 31.

The adaptation of the New Style Gregorian Calendar was gradual. I find the whole thing fascinating.

Contemplating Joseph Kerman's Contemplating Music

Back in the beginnings of the musical blogosphere (about ten years ago) a great number of academically-minded musicians (i.e. musicologists) used blogs as places to "publish" some of the papers they wrote in graduate school. Yesterday we lost Joseph Kerman, one of the shining lights in the world of musicology. In honor of him and in honor of the (now vanished) tradition of exposing graduate-school writing to the larger world on blogs, I offer you my graduate-school "take" on the first two chapters of Joseph Kerman's Contemplating Music:

The first two chapters of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music are extremely well organized and packed with information about the origins of musicology and its “founders,” the disciplines related to musicology, and attitudes and concerns about contemporary music. He discusses musicology as a profession and addresses what he considers some conflicting issues concerning musicology at the time of his writing (1985). Kerman defines musicology in both a broad way and a narrow way, and makes a case for the former. He cites Charles Seeger as his model for a comprehensive musicologist. Mainly thought of as an ethnomusicologist, Seeger was a virtual musical omnivore who, because of his many different interests within the field of music, basically created the field of musicology in America.

In the process of talking about the world in musicological terms, Kerman manages to weave in some very interesting information about music of the past, and he cites the trend for musicologists to be conservative. I am very impressed with his discussion of the work of Philipp Spitta. Kerman's discussion of the re-assessment of Bach by the New Bach Scholars illustrates the need for a community of passionate musicologists with different areas of expertise to do the work of authenticating and dating Bach's music correctly. Kerman mentions that, at the time of his writing, musicologists had done comprehensive work on the music of Bach, but they had not begun to critique the broadly accepted evolution of Bach’s style. I’m sure, partially due to Kerman's comment here, there is now a whole library of opinion on the matter, as well as a library of commentary and criticism on the critical writing.

Kerman asserts that the discipline of music criticism is not on par with either musicology or music theory. He mentions that in 1985, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and serious feminism were not present in either the study of musicology or the study of music theory. This statement must have been seen as a feeding ground for topic-hungry scholars. Though post-structuralism has not yet made it into music criticism, we now have dozens of books and essays written in the 1990s that include feminist music criticism and gender studies, as well as a healthy (or maybe an unhealthy) handful about deconstruction and music.

Kerman writes rather scientifically and factually about the disciplines he respects, but he tends to get more emotional when he writes disparagingly about journalistic criticism. Some publications and newspapers from the 1980s employed excellent music critics, but many did not. I think that Kerman, for better or for worse, might have bruised the egos of a few competent journalists by writing about the journalistic criticism the way he did. It is also important to remember that the journalistic record is very valuable for understanding music history, and is vital for people who want to follow musical activities in places where they are unable to attend concerts.

In the course of discussing some of the major figures in musicology, Kerman writes about material, attitudes, and styles that concern 20th century music. He discusses the prescriptive as well as the descriptive nature of modern music theory, mentioning that composers often feel the need to write music using the analytical methods devised by theorists in order to keep in step with the times. To give weight to his argument, Kerman mentions key composers, schools and styles.

Kerman's perception regarding the once-progressive Peter Maxwell Davies and conservative trends in British music is remarkable. Kerman mentions Davies fleetingly in the context of British music as a student in the 1950s in need of a teacher, and then he goes on to discuss the generally “behind-the-times” nature of British music. In the 1980s Davies, with his extraordinary imagination, proved to be an exception to the rule that British composers were more traditional than everyone else, but in the later 1990s his music became almost archetypically conservative.

Kerman mentions that musicologists are respected for what they know about music but not their insights into the aesthetics of music. Nowhere in either chapter does he mention anything about the real stuff of musical performance, the only real way that music is able to live. The performing musician, it seems, is not as important to the musicologist as the non-performing musician.

Music is far more than a historical, theoretical, and social practice; it is an expressive and emotional artistic one. Music offers a vehicle for expression of emotions that can be appreciated on many levels, especially on the non-intellectual level. It seems that the study of musicology, according to Kerman, is intended for musicologists and scholars rather than for practicing musicians. When he talks about the implication of musicologists as failed musicians, Kerman writes about the way musicologists separate musical passion and insight in their scholarly work, but he does not address this issue in any detail. I suppose it is out of the realm of musicology.

These chapters are a terrific introduction to the vast field of musicology. Even though they look at musicology from the musical atmosphere of the 1980s, they still serve as a point of departure for creative thinking about music.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nothing New and Everything New

One of my astrology-minded friends attributes the recent changes in my life to conjunctions happening in the zodiac band. I'm not sure that is the best explanation for two of my long-time local friends independently deciding to nominate me for two different local awards. One is a "Woman of Achievement" award given annually by the Women's Studies Program at the local university, and the other is a Jefferson Award, which is something given for community service to people all over the country.

I feel rather shy about this embarrassment of recognition, but I also feel honored to be recognized in the community where I live for the contributions I make to the larger musical community. It does please me that people in the university community and in the greater local community recognize that musical contributions are indeed something of value.

The musical blogosphere may be slowing down, but even the small towns of Illinois, music (the "classical" kind) is still considered vital, even by people who don't necessarily go to concerts.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Thoughtful Advice from Pamela Frank

I agree that two hours a day of really good practice can be exhausting. The trick is to engineer those two hours so that you get the most possible benefit from them. If I practice a difficult passage for 20-30 minutes, with the goal of actually learning the passage, I can step away from it for a few minutes, do something else (like write a blog post), and more often than not I will be able to play it better when I return to it. Sometimes it takes several sessions to learn particularly difficult passages, but I happen to like learning music slowly. It's the way, when you think about it, that music is usually written.

I also find that I have to devise ways to make my "sessions" (however long I can go without breaking concentration) truly productive. Often taking the time to figure out a fingering that actually works, or re-writing something enharmonically so that it makes more sense on the instrument is worth several days of hitting-the-head-against-the-wall practicing.

I'll get back to work now.


Friday, March 14, 2014

What's in a Name?

I just learned from my mother that she named me after Elaine Skorodin, a classmate of hers at the Chicago Musical College back in the 1950s. Skorodin had an impressive career as a soloist. She studied with Heifetz and was a teacher of Louis Farrakahn. (That link you just passed was to a newspaper article from 1995 about Farrakahn as a violinist.)

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Why I Love Amanda Maier, and Why You Will Too

The third piece of Amanda Maier's Six Pieces for Violin and Piano is short, rich, simple, and complicated. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. You can listen to a recording of it from last night's concert here. (If you would like to hear more from last night's concert, send me an e-mail, and I'll send more links to you.)

Maier studied in Leipzig during the time when Bach's music was first becoming available to musicians. You will certainly hear a Bachian element here, but notice that it also recalls something in Schumann's most lovely song "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" from the Dichterliebe. Maier's mixes her Bachian-Schumanesque gem with some characteristic hemiolas here and there.

Here's the music for the Maier:

Here's the Schumann that seems to lurk in the piece's shadow:

You can listen to a wonderful recording of this song by Yves Saelens and Inge Spinette here.