Monday, February 28, 2022

I wish I could be in many places on March 5th!

While I am busy rehearsing and playing this concert:
Kara Huber will be giving a performance of "Two Places in Illinois" (a set of two pieces I wrote for her) at the Paris Fine Art Center in Paris, Illinois.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, flutist Faith Wasson and Oboist Mary Robinson will be playing "Four Coliloquies for Flute and Oboe" in an on-line concert.
And on the same day violist Paul Cortese will release his recording of "I am also fond of lonely islands," a piece for solo viola that I wrote for him. You will be able to find it here. And this is the cover:

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Beyond the Pale

Merriam-Webster defines the idiom "beyond the pale" as something offensive or unacceptable, but to people who have Eastern European Jewish ancestry, the Pale was an actual boundary: an area of the Russian Empire where Jewish people were allowed to live legally, though they couldn't own land, and were restricted in the ways that they could earn money.

I have been thinking about the Pale quite a bit these days, since my ancestors on both sides of my family of origin lived in the Pale, which included much of Ukraine and Moldova (which was Basserabia when my maternal great grandfather emigrated to America).

I was pleased to find a Wikipedia article about the history of the Pale. The Jewish Virtual Library has an excellent entry, which attempts to untangle the various "partitions" and explain the rules and laws. The YIVO encyclopedia offers some more information, and this exhibit (called "Beyond the Pale) in the Internet Archive explains more about the restrictions of daily life.

The history of Jewish life in the Pale is not pretty. It is no wonder to me that so many of the people who came to America from the "old country" didn't want to tell stories about where they came from. People of my parents' generation (i.e. people in their 90s) are only learning about this history now, and even the smartest of the lot (like my father) are boggled and confused by the laws and restrictions that their grandparents had to endure.

Kathryn Jo Kibbe and Maria Sier Viola and Piano Recital

My "La Grenouillère" Sonata begins the program.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Folk Music from Ukraine: The Polyphony Project

We are all thinking about our neighbors in Ukraine right now. Some of us never really knew exactly where it is, exactly how big it is, and how rich it is in history and culture. I found a huge anthology of folk music in the IMSLP earlier today and have been playing through the songs this evening. I also came across this fantastic project (The Polyphony Project) organized by group of people who have been collecting songs from (mostly older) people in the villages of Ukraine. They have a YouTube channel. This is where I have started, and where I will be listening. But I wanted to share this channel right away.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Queens for a Day: Viola Day in Queens with Adoration

My six-viola arrangement of Florence Price's "Adoration" comes about three-quarters of the way into this multi-viola program.

Monday, February 21, 2022

I send down cool sounds

When I was in the seventh grade our English teacher (Mrs. Harrison) asked us to take a poem from our textbook and do something with it, like draw a picture or set it to music. I chose to set the poem in our book about music to music. I had my mother's old piccolo, an Adler that didn't really work well, and I wrote a little melody using the low register, the only register I knew, because the fingerings were like the recorder. My friend Deb did the reading of the poem over my piccolo playing, and I believe we made a recording on a cassette player. The poem as we knew it had been seriously shortened.

I woke up this morning with the melody in my head, and eventually found the poem and poet on line.

The poet is Carl Hines, and is still living (in Indianapolis). Here's the full poem, which I found here:

This is the portion that was in our book:
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.
Deb and I had no idea what "bereted" meant, or that it might have been a play on the word "berated," since the reference to a beret comes later in the poem. We were too young to understand, anyway.

The tune? I only remember the first line. I no longer own a piccolo, so a violin will have to do.

Here it is.

If Carl Hines happens by this post, I would like to say a big "thank you" for giving me the courage to respond to a poem (or portion thereof) musically.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The fruit of things unseen

Around the beginning of the pandemic, I planted a dried-up piece of ginger. I was surprised that it grew to be a nice plant, and even more suprised when it gave me a few tiny orchid-like flowers. Then, after more than two years, the leaves and stalks turned brown. Today, nearly three years (!!!) after planting, I dug up a root (which had some new shoots on it that I left in the pot). I ate a slice this morning, and made soup with some for lunch. It tasted incredible!
Today's harvest reminds me that are good things that come from nurturing what you cannot see, trusting that there will be a time that is right to dig them up, and intuitively responding to the feeling that the right time has arrived.

On another note (no pun intended, but I chuckled anyway), all the piano practicing I have been doing has started to give me rewards as well.

And during today's walk Michael and I had the feeling of being outdoors in spring (we were over-dressed).

Perhaps things are looking up.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Who is listening, and why they are there

When I was fourteen I heard the Opus 44 Dvorak Serenade for the first time. The concert was at Jordan Hall in Boston, and was performed by high school students. I remember how beautifully Kip Wilkins (who later became a conductor) played the first oboe part. It was a life-changing experience for me. I had never before heard anything instrumental that was so beautiful, so engaging, and so multi-textured.

Last night I heard a fine performance of the piece given by an ensemble made of university faculty, university students, and a non-university-affiliated freelancer. Just as the performance was about to begin I realized that the last time I had heard the piece in a live concert was when I was a teenager is Boston (when all concerts were live, unless you heard a radio broadcast of a live concert). I have, of course, heard it played on recordings, but for this piece, with all its variety of lower-octave textures (two bassoons, one contrabassoon, one cello, one bass, and a low third horn), recordings rarely do it justice. This one comes pretty close if you follow the score. In a concert a score for this piece isn't necessary because you can see who is playing what.

But I digress . . .

The point of this post is that when you are giving a performance the piece you happen to be playing could be a piece that has special significance in the past, present, or future life of someone in the audience. For me it was a tying together of the musical person I happened to be when I was fourteen with the musical person I happened to be almost half a century later.

This piece is so spectacularly written that as long as the musicians are up to the task at hand (and as long as you have an excellent first oboe and first horn, and first bassoon, and clarinetists who play well together) listening to a performance is a similar experience whether it happens to be in Boston, Downstate Illinois, or Prague, or in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century.

But I digress again . . .

I'm writing this post as a reminder to always remember that a concert is a special occasion for a whole host of reasons, very few of which the people performing know or will ever know.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Autumn Leaves recorded by Emanuel Vardi (viola) and Barbra Streisand in 1966

Michel Legrand was the conductor for the recording session, and Emanuel Vardi improvised the accompaniment at sight from just a chord chart. This was the first (and only) take.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Valentine's Day 2022

My mother died on Valentine's Day of 2016, and these are two of my favorite pieces of her art. They greet me every morning when I get out of bed, and I can see them out of the corner of my eye while I am working. My back is turned to them when I practice, so they look over my shoulder.

As I begin to grow farther away from my childhood and adolescence, with all of the things that could have gone better for me, or might have been made easier for me, I also have grown away from feeling that the struggles my parents faced, individually, as a couple, and as parents of three distinctly different children with different needs, have to be my struggles.

I am proud to have struggles of my own that don't involve my mother at all.

When my mother's name and my grandmother's name were read from the memorial book at services on Friday night, I felt nothing but warmth for both of them. I know that their relationship was fraught with difficulties, most of which I could never really understand, because my mother, as a mother of a daughter, put her parental energy into not replicating the difficult relationship she had with her mother.

And she succeeded.

And she put her love into her work, which is hanging in our house, and allows me to feel her love every day.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Louis Casimir-Ney, brought to you by guest blogger and guest violist Marshall Fine

My brother Marshall Fine (1956-2014) made recordings of the extremely difficult solo viola preludes by Louis Casimir Ney (1801-1877). Marshall, being beyond brilliant in some ways and rather naive in others, thought that by putting these recordings on the iTunes application on his computer, he was sharing them online. I must confess that I was confused about it for a while as well (why was the name used for different purposes?), so I understand his confusion.

Years ago Marshall sent me a CD of his recordings of these Preludes, but it was only the other day that I realized I have the mp4 files he made which I rescued from his computer after his accident. His laptop, which was in the van, was in sleep mode, so I was able to extract all the extractable files from it.

You can listen to the recordings he made through this link:

Louis Casimer-Ney Preludes played by Marshall Fine

Here are Marshall's program notes:


Louis Casimir-Ney (1801-1877) is one of the greatest enigmas in music. To begin, his birth: he claimed illegitimate descent from Napoleon’s fieldmarshal, Michel Ney (renaming himself from his original, Louis-Casimir Escoffier). Next, his career: he was well-known in Paris salons as a quartet violist and friend of the pianist, Charles-Valentin Alkan--he transcribed Alkan’s Sonate de concert op. 47 from cello to viola. Unfortunately the Alkan transcription and the Preludes op. 22 appear to be his only extant music. Other pieces, though mentioned in records (such as the op. 18 Etudes for the G-string only of the violin), have no copy available. The Richault edition of the Preludes (1860) is poor: wrong notes, missing accidentals, even errors in tempos. Several metronome markings are missing the flag from what is evidently an eighth-note beat, most flagrantly in nos. 10 and 13. Worst of all, research on Casimir-Ney is still rudimentary. He has no entry in either Grove’s Dictionary or MGG. The American and International Viola Societies apparently know the most about him, contributing most to the online Wikipedia entry for him which is the best entry of any kind.

That this musical enigma should have left behind a collection of legendary and notorious difficulty--a cycle through the keys in the style of the Well-Tempered Clavier or the Chopin op. 28 Preludes, as well--is therefore nothing short of miraculous. To this is added the sheer size of the cycle. At over 110 minutes it dwarfs every other cycle before or since, except the Bach and the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues op. 87. (Even my own Rock Etudes op. 114, which I completed and recorded directly before the Casimir-Ney cycle, is only twelve movements, and designed at some 45 minutes to fit on the second half of a recital program.)

Analysis of the Preludes shows why they are the stuff of legend. They are no mere bagatelles, but fully worked-out forms. Only one, no. 2 in A minor, is less than 2 1/2 minutes. Several are over 6 minutes (no. 20, over 8:00). To accommodate the extreme range--up to g’’’--Casimir-Ney invents a new clef, a sort of two-sided treble clef, to denote an octave above treble. (A similar system, using “phi” and “sigma” clefs, was invented about 1970 by the Savannah, Georgia savant Ted Bryan-Turner.) Double-stopping and chord problems of all kinds abound, tantamount to a true string polyphony in two voices. Some of these are tenths only soluble by using high positions; and in one conspicuous place, in no. 7, there is an outrageous twelfth in a low position, on the basis of which it is usually surmised that Casimir-Ney used a very small instrument. This and a similar passage in tenths in no. 8 are the only two passages that I have changed in this recording. Casimir-Ney even invents new techniques. In no. 20 he requires pizzicato with all four fingers, one on each string, a device not even Hindemith, in the 1937 solo sonata, could duplicate exactly. And in no. 10, he invents a new bowing technique, best described as a “portato-tremolo” because the notes are bowed in pairs unlike a normal tremolo.

The compendium of established techniques, plus new ones thrown in, is still not enough to interpret Casimir-Ney pro-perly. A too-literal approach results in disaster--this alone has probably given him his reputation of unplayability. One must know his derived forms and style concepts, all of which--absorbed from Paris of his day--reveal him as a consummate musical sophisticate. Nos. 1, 7, 14, 15, 19, and 23 are two-part forms derived from grand opera. Others, such as nos. 6, 11, 13, 17, 20, 21, and 24 are purely symphonic. In no. 17 in A-flat, he develops an alternative tonal scheme avoiding the dominant--modulating instead to E and C. For all these, the solo viola is clearly his orchestra and it is his aim to wring every available sonority from it.

But mostly these preludes derive from Chopin, with whom he was contemporary (from the the list of subscribers, which include Joseph Massart and George Onslow, they can be dated between 1843-1852, pending further research). The melos is astonishingly Chopinesque. Knowledge of Chopin’s slancio and rubato have helped me avoid the overliteral approach and allow time where needed, indeed demanded. The forms are reproduced with astounding effect and authenticity. Nos. 6 and 18 are nocturnes in extended song-forms. Nos. 9 and 17 are polonaise/rondos, the former in addition being written out entirely in three-bar phrases. No. 16 is a somber mazurka that changes in the middle to a giddy, phantasmagoric waltz. Nos. 10 and 12 are highly expressive laments. In no.12 the 4/4 main theme is set off by more flowing episodes in 3/4. The former is a funeral march whose main theme is transfigured dramatically in the recapitulation by the “portato-tremolo” bowing. No. 8 is in places (notably the end) very close to the G minor ballade. And no. 22 is an extended tone-poem, also in ballade style with six sections, capturing the mood of Rossini’s William Tell in a central “storm” section followed by a ranz de vaches coda wholly in harmonics, interrupted briefly by the severely truncated recapitulation.

Indeed, the one form Casimir-Ney eschews is sonata-form, a curiosity in itself since Chopin’s command of the form is sure and dramatic. And one must concede that he knows what he is doing. Only one prelude, no. 24 in D minor, uses sonata-form to any degree; and I believe he intends to mock it. There is no development section, only three chords that make a quick retransition; and after four or five notes of the second theme recapitulation--his sole gesture towards the form--he “pulls his punch” and enters the coda.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Virtuoso Visual Artistry

When I watch these videos of Boubou Dakar, an artist from Senegal, I am astounded. Who wouldn't be?

What he does with paint depends (or seems to depend) on an inborn way of seeing (he often paints upside-down) and replicating what he sees. It is a specific talent that is not, in my mind, that far removed from musicians who can hear a complicated polyphonic piece and replicate it faithfully, either by writing it down or by playing it on the piano (or maybe both). Glazunov, Shostakovich, Mozart, and my brother Marshall come to mind.

I marvel while watching videos of super realist artists like Devon Rodriguez, and wonder if his work comes as a result of a lot of careful study, or if it comes from a way of seeing and a hard-wired connection between his eye and his hand. And what skill set makes it possible for a young person like Youngsung Kim paint photographically in oils the way he does?

My great uncle Aaron Bohrod spent a great deal of time (I believe it was a decade) doing still life paintings, but he also worked in various other styles throughout his life (as you can see here). Uncle Aaron worked as a commercial artist as well as a "fine artist," and was extremely prolific. His work is evocative, expressive, witty, and is often filled with visual puns. I wonder what he would have made of these young artists and of their work. I wonder if these young men, who are already "internet famous" will have the room to grow as artists and explore the emotional nature of artistic creativity that goes beyond faithful representation.

Sunday, February 06, 2022

A Tempest in a Logo

A long time ago I cobbled together this design to use on some quartet business cards by combining curves I found in the Dingbat font in our old Dell computer and some noteheads from Finale. I must have assembled them in Microsoft Paint.

Imagine my surprise the other day when I opened up an e-book (2006) of The Tempest, and found that the designer at Yale University Press had either come up with the same logo herself, or happened upon one of our quartet's business cards, liked what she saw, and took a picture.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Brahms Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano with Marian Anderson, William Primrose, and Franz Rupp

This recording from 1941 is pure pleasure from start to finish. Marian Anderson's voice matches William Primrose's viola voice exactly. I have never heard such a perfectly matched performance.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Questioning Authority

I remember in Junior High School one of my teachers wore a button that said "Question Authority." I took the message seriously, and have been faithfully questioning authority for most of my life.

In the world of music making we are expected to follow directions faithfully, particularly when they are given by a director, a conductor, an employer, or a section leader. Orchestral string players follow a hierarchy when it comes to where we play in the bow, and in which direction we draw it. A good viola section leader will make choices that allow for comfort, but the choices that s/he makes can always be overridden by the leaders of other sections. As violists we know that our place is to keep peace, and as long as nobody notices (and they often don't) we can usually adjust our parts to suit our needs.

Still, the main charge of string players in an orchestra is to play correctly (with the right pitches, rhythms, and dynamics) and express themselves as a group.

The conductor serves in many situations as the person who judges whether we are doing our jobs properly. I have found that conductors are not a singular breed. Some are stern and aloof, and they model themselves on authoritarian conductors of the first part of the twentieth century. Some have excellent ears, and take pride on being able to pinpoint exactly who it was that played something wrong. I sometimes wonder if those remarks are only made in cases when the conductor is absolutely sure, thus cementing a repudation of being able to hear every offense. When playing for such a conductor the main goal is to play accurately, and to follow directions.

Then there are conductors who have the ability to relate shapes of phrases to the people playing with their gestures. Conductors who relate musical shapes effectively make it easier (for me) to connect musically with other people in the ensemble, making rehearsal time very enjoyable. It becomes a chance to learn more about the music I am playing. I know that I am less likely to make mistakes when my mind is focused on participating in the music rather than concentrating on trying not to screw up. After an accurate performance I can only hope that the people listening enjoyed themselves. After a performance when I felt expressively connected with my orchestra mates, I am always sure that the people listening enjoyed themselves as much as I did.

Unfortunately we still have a musical culture that prides itself on accuracy as an end goal. We also have a musical culture where people learn so much from imitation that unique musical thought has a difficult time making its way into a developing musician's priorities. And when personal musical expression from a solo wind player (for example) in an orchestra conducted by an authoritarian conductor is at odds with what that conductor wants to hear, accuracy often wins out over expression. I really appreciate the concerts when it does not.