Saturday, January 30, 2016

Piccolo World

I imagine that I am one of a relative handful of people who had a "windward" musical path of self-taught recorder to violin, and then to piccolo before settling into a decade-long (is that all it was?) monogamy with the modern flute.

I remember a few distinct episodes. One happened in seventh grade. In our English class we were instructed to set a poem to music. Our teacher meant, of course, that we should choose recorded music to play as background for a poem we would read aloud. I suppose I didn't understand the assignment properly, because I chose a poem (from our anthology) that was musical in itself, and immediately set it as a song with instrumental background.

I had stopped playing the violin at the beginning of sixth grade, and recorder playing was horrible at the time (I hadn't practiced since I was five or six). My mother offered her old (and broken) F.O. Adler piccolo to me, and I found that it had exactly the "cool" sound that I wanted as background for my poem. I even remember the poem (by Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.)
Yeah here am I am standing at the crest of a tallest hill with a trumpet in my hand & dark glasses on.
Bearded & bereted I proudly stand! but there are no eyes to see me. I send down cool sounds! but there are no ears to hear me. My lips they quiver in aether-emptiness! there are no hearts to love me.
I also remember the way we changed it (nobody told us that we couldn't change it) in order to make it more musical.
Yeah here am I, standing at the crest of the highest hill, with my trumpet in my hand, and dark glasses on.

Bearded and berated am I, but I have no eyes to see with. I send down cool sounds, but I have no ears to hear with
Of course I remember the melody, but I'm not sharing it here.

We worked in pairs. I worked with my friend Debbie who read the poem while I played the piccolo. While we were working on this project Debbie told me that the two of us should play recorder in the band (she had heard that was a possibility). I had the use of this piccolo, so I joined the band with that. During the summer I taught myself to play my mother's Haynes flute, and then I entered eighth grade with an Armstrong flute of my own (purchased used from the Rayburn Music Company down the street from Symphony Hall in Boston). I practiced and practiced, and by ninth grade I was using my mother's Haynes and taking lessons with a flutist in the Boston Symphony.

The Powell flute company stopped making piccolos some time during the 1960s, and my mother had an order that they were unable to fill. When they started making piccolos again in the 1975 they contacted my mother, who could no longer play because of a botched hand operation, and I became the proud owner of the first of the new Powell piccolos.

That piccolo served me well. I ended up playing much of the standard orchestral repertoire on it at Juilliard, in Hong Kong, and in Boston. I eventually sold the instrument to buy a violin bow.

In 2007 I wrote a sonata for piccolo and piano that I called "Piccolo Sonata," because it is a little piece (11 minutes long) and it is for the piccolo. This Tuesday I am going to hear it performed for the first time. I am very excited.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Youth: A Warning

Michael and I were both enticed by the trailer: a conductor/composer named Fred Ballinger played by Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel in a movie other than Smoke (a movie we both love) and a young boy violinist staying at the Swiss vacation spot, who just happens to be practicing a piece the Michael Caine character wrote.

We were both excited to see the movie yesterday. We had to drive another to another town to see one of the limited showings offered by the art theater there (the name of the theater is actually the "Art Theater"). The place was packed with people our ages and older. It was a good sign.

I gave it the benefit of the doubt for the first 20 minutes (it seemed like there were 20 minutes before the film's title appeared). In those few minutes I developed some sympathy for Fred, but I also had the slight suspicion that the film makers didn't know what they should about music and musicians. The guy was the music director at the "philharmonic" for 29 years, and (like all music directors, I suppose) he was a composer.

The Queen of England sends her emissary to the vacation spot to ask Ballinger to come out of retirement and conduct a performance of his "Simple Songs." She also wants to knight him, but Fred refuses on both counts. There is a piece of red cellophane in his fingers that he moves rhythmically. Absurd dreams spiced with nudity pop up here and there, and it is sometimes hard to tell which sequences are dreams and which sequences are reality.

I started looking at my watch seriously about 50 minutes into the movie. I started thinking about the time (what's left of my youth) I was wasting in the theater. I started thinking about the horrible script and the lines these fine actors were asked to deliver.

Michael and I agreed that it was kind of like Wes Anderson meets Fellini, but the result didn't carry the merits of either.

Shall I go into musical details? Why not. I hope that nobody reading this will waste the time or money to see this movie in a theater. The movie begins with someone singing a pop song. Later there is a music video with a pop star who is the new girlfriend of Harvey Keitel's character Mick Boyle's son (who was in the process of divorcing Fred's daughter). The Swiss vacation hotel has musical entertainment outside on a revolving circular stage that is set in the middle of a pool of water. Various novelty acts appear, all musically uninteresting.

The climax comes after Fred, in a scene that might have been left on the cutting room floor, decides to accept his knighthood and agrees to conduct "the philharmonic" in a concert of his "Simple Songs." The concert hall is a European traditional hall with gold-leaf and balconies. The men in the audience all wear black tuxedos with white shirts. The orchestra (which looks like a bunch of real musicians, and has an impressive-looking viola section) sits on a white stage with a white background and no walls (green-screened in as far as I can tell). The violinist Viktoria Mullova comes onstage (at least they had the decency to hire a real--and good--violinist), followed by a singer and an apathetic-looking (part of his character) Fred Ballinger. It's clear that Caine has no idea how to conduct, but, thankfully, the camera doesn't spend much time on him in this scene. The violin playing is good (particularly the off-camera arpeggios), and the singing is good (after the first few words of the text I was happy not to be able understand her diction). The audience is mesmerized. No one even claps at the end.

I know that I didn't fall asleep. I was paying attention. I somehow managed to miss the most important gesture in the film, and was left wondering why the previously overly-made-up and carefully-pasted-together Jane Fonda character was lying on her back screaming hysterically. Oh well. At least the movie ended.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New Year's Greeting for 2016

Here's a link to a PDF of the music and a recording.

Rimsky-Korsakov writes about Alexander Borodin in 1916

This article from the January 8, 1916 Musical America gives a very personal look into the life of Alexander Borodin and the friendship he had with Rimsky-Korsakov. [A big thanks to Anne Heiles for this.]