Wednesday, March 30, 2022

"The fine art of growing roses in concrete" in honor of Florence Price Day

If you are still skeptical about the current Florence Price "boom," give this eight-minute-long piano concerto eight minutes of your time. The New Black Music Repertoire Ensemble, conducted by Leslie B. Dunner made this recording with Karen Walwyn as soloist in 2015, when Florence Price's music was known only to a relative handful of people.

As you can hear, this is deeply attractive music, where the material and the sound and textures of the piano make for an ideal and extraordinarily rich eight minutes. It is undeniably beautiful. The orchestration for this recording was made by Trevor Weston for Karen Walwyn's first performance in 2010, but now that Price's own orchestration has been found, a new recording has been made to celebrate the renaissance of this concerto in its original form (a one-movement work that is divided into three sections).

Karen Walwyn and the Arkansas Symphony, conducted by Geoffrey Robson, have made a new recording of the Concerto. Here's the press release:
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (ASO) has released the world-premiere recording of groundbreaking Little Rock composer Florence Price’s own orchestration of her “Piano Concerto in One Movement.” Concert pianist Karen Walwyn joined ASO musicians and Artistic Director and Conductor Geoffrey Robson for the first commercial recording by ASO to be made available worldwide. This work was recorded at Robinson Center Performance Hall following a free community concert ASO performed in September 2021. The free concert celebrated the Little Rock community’s diverse musical traditions and kicked off a series of performances and events recognizing Florence Price’s musical legacy. The recording was released in advance of Florence Price Day, April 9, marking 135 years since her birth in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“It is our hope that this recording will contribute depth and clarity to the interpretation of Florence Price's unique music. We feel the spirit of Little Rock in her music and believe this is a significant step forward in our efforts to honor and recognize the rich musical heritage of this region,” said Robson. “We hope this recording will serve as inspiration to others who are learning about and performing the music of this very important American composer, Florence Price.”

In 1933, Price made history when her “Symphony in E Minor” had its world premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making her the first African American woman composer to have her music performed by a major orchestra. Despite her success, her music was largely ignored by orchestras during her life and in the decades afterward because of her race and gender. During her time in Arkansas, Price lived in Little Rock’s Dunbar neighborhood. The Dunbar Historic Neighborhood Association partnered with the concert sponsor Stella Boyle Smith Trust to present the free community concert which featured Price’s work. The performance also included an outdoor livestream of the concert for residents of the Dunbar neighborhood.

“While groundbreaking in her time, many musicians and music lovers are just now discovering the catalog of Price’s music almost three generations later. Her work is not only historically important but is also truly inspired music that has the power to move hearts and minds today,” said Michael Mayton, trustee of the Stella Boyle Smith Trust. “It has been an honor to play a role in bringing the music of Florence Price to the forefront, celebrate her contributions and help inspire the next generation of musicians and composers.”

“When I reflect on the life of Florence Price, I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who urged us to live as if we have a future no matter how many challenges and trials we encounter. In spite of spirit killing personal and professional disappointments and betrayals, Florence Price continued to compose exquisite music,” said Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton, former president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, inductee into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and Life Member of the ASO Board of Directors. “The fact that this music was little known and rarely acknowledged during Price's lifetime did not stop the quest for excellence. Florence Price had hope because she believed her work had meaning and purpose. Florence Price has given me the gift of soul satisfying music and an example of the fine art of growing roses in concrete.”
Here's a link to the ASO webpage about the recording, which includes the names of the musicians in the orchestra, and has a huge list of streaming services where the recording will be available.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Learning to Play with a Shoulder Rest

I have had a physically rough time lately. Changes in my body have caused changes in the way I hold the viola and the violin, and the result was, after a few orchestra concerts filled with difficult viola parts (requiring a lot of practice in addition to rehearsals) I found myself having the most intense back and arm pain I have ever experienced.

I thought that by using a shoulder rest I could avoid having this kind of pain in the future, so I consulted (while seated in an arm chair "wearing" a heating pad) the violists in the Facebook viola groups.

I learned that the terrible pain I had in my lower trapezius muscle is indeed a result of lifting my shoulder to meet the instrument a few times too many, and that, after the muscles heal themselves, using a shoulder rest could help prevent the problem in the future.

So I now have shoulder rests for both my violin and my viola, and have been putting bow to string after a week away.

My friend Danny Morganstern quotes his teacher Channing Robbins, who said, "When you change one thing, you change everything." I am finding that to be true, expecially on the viola, where the actual distances and angles are larger than they are on the violin.

A shoulder rest stabilizes the instrument, so that more flexibility is required in the bow arm. I used to bring the viola up to meet the bow when playing on the C string. Now I have to adjust the angle of my bow arm. So now I'm practicing on one string at a time in order to learn my new angles, and try to find something of my old sound.

I have been organizing my closet lately, and am finding shirts with buttons and shirts made of slippery material that I will now be able to wear while playing. I might even invest in a turtleneck (well, maybe for next winter). Maybe I'll find new aspects of sound in this new phase of playing. Every day is an adventure.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Infinite value

This came in one of the two fortune cookies I ate last night. Michael doesn't like fortune cookies, but he likes reading the fortunes, so this could have been his as easily as it could have been mine.

But it particularly resonates with me in light of the way I think about music, and the value that it has to me and might have to others. I know the value that writing music has for me. It fills my time (minutes, hours, weeks, months, and occasionally years) with purpose. While I am writing something I am the CEO and the COO of my musical world. I get to decide what stays in and what goes. I get to make decisions that concern the horizontal fate of a given phrase, or what colors are allowed to resonate in the vertical world of harmony (or the horizontal world). Whether I am writing something that will make money for someone else (i.e. a publisher), or writing something to share without involving money at all, the value to me is still the same.

I feel fortunate to haven known for most of my life that money is not a measure of value. Much of the world doesn't think the way I do, but I have come to accept that. People have tried to change my mind, but it hasn't worked.

How do I measure value for the work I do?

The value of my time if I am asked to play somewhere is always a set amount (usually a per-service fee). If I play extremely well by regular standards (you know, in tune, in time, and with a good sound), if I play a few notes out of rhythm or out of tune, or if I miss a few entirely, I am the only person who really knows. If mistakes happen in a rehearsal, the pay is the same as if mistakes happen in a concert (though I do everything in my power to minimize in-concert mistakes). If I happen to have a transcendental experience while playing, the fee for the "gig" is still the same. If the performance happens to be meaningful for anyone listening, or anyone else playing, the value is infinitely greater than whatever the fee I am played happens to be.

It's the same with lessons. A student (or a student's parents) pays a set amount of money for a lesson, regardless of how much the student learns, how well s/he is prepared, or what s/he retains from whatever might have happened in the lesson. I would say the way I measure success in teaching would be that if a student can have a loving experience with a piece of music, from playing a duet with me, or from playing an ensemble piece with others. If a student can feel a sense of infinity in the course of playing a piece, a phrase, or a note (making every second have infinite value), I feel a sense of accomplishment. I even feel a sense of accomplishment if it happens only once (though I hope that the recognition of it will encourage the student to seek out the experience again).

And I hope that the music I write can help people connect with the expressive parts of themselves and can serve as a conduit for meaningful musical relationships.

Some composers write with an audience in mind. I'm not sure exactly how to do that. Some composers write in order to express an intellectual or emotional point of view, and do everything they can to insure that every performance or reading will be pretty much the same as any other "correct" performance. I know how to do that, but wouldn't. I write to give musicians pieces to play and sing so that they can express themselves. If people listening can connect with the music, that makes me really happy. And if even one second is filled with infinite value, that's enough for me.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Ida Mae Crombie

I just happened upon the manuscript of Ida Mae Crombie's manuscript of "Scale Stories" in the Library of Congress archives. The published book appeared in 1925:

Crombie's "Scale Stories" are student-teacher duets (not scale-based solo pieces like my "Scale Tales). She gives her pieces titles that begin with the letter of each scale, so we get a nocturne called "The Desolate Desert," "Dance of the Dwarfs," and a waltz called "Dance of the Daffodils" for D minor; and "The Bobbing Brooklet," and a Ballad called "The Bonnie Blue Bells."

Navigation is a bit difficult because of the small LOC viewer window, and this manuscript doesn't go into keys that have more than four sharps or four flats (it abruptly ends with reference to the key of D-flat major).

I learned only a little about Ida Mae Crombie from the internets.

She was born in 1882 and lived on 31 Derry Street in Manchester, New Hampshire, where she taught violin and ran a chamber music program at the YMCA. Her father was named True Worthy Crombie, and Ida Mae had an older brother who died in infancy. It looks like she never married. She published four books for A.P. Schmidt, including a calendar piece.

Here's an notice in a 1921 issue of Musical America about a performance of one of her violin and piano pieces:
I would be interested in seeing what from the manuscript made it into the book, and hope that anyone who might have a copy could scan it, save it as a PDF, and share it in the IMSLP (or send it to me, and I will).

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Violin Scale Tales and Advanced Violin Scale Studies

I'm so excited to finally be able to share these collections of scale pieces to my friends in the musical blogosphere!

Here's a description of Scale Tales:
The etudes in this book offer students a musically and intellectually satisfying means of practicing scales in all major and minor keys, even while remaining in first position. Although presented in the traditional order of the circle of fifths, this is where similarities to other violin scale-oriented books end.

Of course, the etudes can be played using a mixture of positions by more advanced students. The studies also resonate very well on the viola if played at pitch. These are instructive etudes and can be played as appealing solo pieces. The stepwise motion in the etudes makes intervals between pitches easy to hear, even in keys with many flats or sharps.

Both the book and etude titles refer to names of animals that have scales, so you will see natural and harmonic minor scales named after various moths, and major scales named for unusual reptiles, birds, and mammals throughout. The author hopes that in addition to experiencing more enjoyable scale practice, students will be inspired to learn more about these amazing animals or even write scale studies of their own.
Here's a description of Advanced Violin Scale Studies:
Although the practice of scales is essential to building and maintaining strength, technique, tone, and agility—it is very easy to slip into the habit of playing them automatically, without paying attention to how they sound or even being aware of what scale we are playing. The 29 single-page studies in this book are designed to combat that tendency as they are musically, intellectually, and rhythmically challenging.

The first 24 studies proceeded through the circle of fifths and address all minor and relative major keys; the last 5 pieces were individually conceived, i.e., apart from the circle of fifths. Occasional fingerings or position guides are suggested but these are largely left to the student or their teachers. No metronome indications are given so that the etudes can be played at individually comfortable tempos—with or without a metronome, or freely as concert etudes. It is the stepwise motion and octave leaps of the etudes that makes the intervals between pitches easy to hear, even in keys with numerous flats or sharps.

Just as in Elaine Fine’s more basic scale etude book, Violin Scale Tales, the names of the etudes herein refer to various animals that have scales, including insects, fish, birds, reptiles, a few species of squirrels with scales on their tails, and the solitary pangolin, the only known mammal whose entire body is covered with scales. Again, the author hopes that in addition to experiencing more enjoyable scale practice, students will be inspired to learn more about these amazing creatures, or even write scale studies of their own.
You can find both books on this page of the Mel Bay website. They are available as e-books and as physical books.

I made video recordings of the first ten pieces in Scale Tales which you can hear on this playlist.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Tintinnalogia or the Art of Ringing

The third chapter of Ronald Blythe's Akenfield is devoted to bell ringing. It is an account by Robert Palgrave, a fifty-five-year-old bellringer in mid-twentieth-century Suffolk County, England. You can read the first half of it here (from the Thing Finder blog). To get the rest I would advise reading it in Akenfield itself, where it lies among many, many gems of oral Suffolk County history. This chapter, called "The Ringing Men . . ." is one of the most stimulating pieces of writing I have ever read. Through reading it I came upon Fabian Stedman's treatise 1617 treatise Tintinnalogia or thee Art of Ringing, which you can read here.

And you can find more about Suffolk church bells here.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

BWV 1030, now for viola and keyboard!

My relationship with the Bach B-minor Flute Sonata is rich. I have a dim memory my mother practicing it, and then an equally dim memory of the last movement being used as end-credit music for a television program narrated by Kukla, Fran, and Ollie that showed kid-oriented movies.

[That link goes to a Kukla, Fran, and Ollie episode that does not contain the Bach. I couldn't find the one that did.]

Anyway, my next memorable encounter with the piece was when I auditioned for "District" when I was in ninth grade. The required passage was from the B-minor Sonata. I suppose that we were "ranked" on either how quickly we could play it, or if we could play the whole passage in one breath. It is a lovely passage when taken at a leisurely tempo, but if taken at a musically-appropriate tempo, it is impossible to play on the modern flute in one breath.
I probably had to take a breath while playing it. I didn't get into "District" that year, and it bothered me a great deal. To be fair, I had only been playing flute for one year, and it was my very first "audition." Hard work (and I worked really hard) could not make up for the years of physical experience that my flute-playing peers in the Greater Boston Area had. Years later I met, by chance, the judge of that audition. She remembered me.

I didn't let the experience really sour me on the piece, but I rarely liked hearing it played because of the frantic tempo that was necessary.

Bach originally wrote the piece for oboe, and set it in the key of G minor. Oboe players can play very long musical lines on a single breath, but flutists can tongue faster. The recorder, which wastes less air than the flute, is a good compromise, and Michala Petri softens the passage with some slurs here and there (this video is set to start at the above passage) and plays it brilliantly in one breath.

In order for baroque flutist Stephen Schultz to play the passage at a leisurely tempo, he has to sneak in a breath in order to remain alive. I think he made a wise choice. Here's a discussion of this piece in the form of a masterclass with William Christie that is worth watching. Unfortunately he doesn't discuss (and the musicians don't play) the first movement.

My pianist friend and I have been on a Bach Sonata "bender," and after playing the six Violin Sonatas, we have moved to the Flute Sonatas (why not?). The B minor is kind of whiney and uncomfortable on the violin, but taken down an octave and played on the viola it is wonderful. So I made a transcription, altering the keyboard part slightly when necessary, and put it onthis page the IMSLP.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Oatmantaschen for Purim

I haven't posted a recipe for a while. This one is more of a sculpture, and also an excuse to make up a word. A bit of levity helps these days. You could use any oatmeal cookie recipe, but here's what I did (my personal alternation of the recipe on the lid of the Quaker Oats container):
Heat oven to 350. Blend half a stick of softened butter with one half cup brown sugar and one half cup of cane sugar. (I actually had to add a tablespoon of molasses because the brown sugar in the cabinet was too light for my taste.)

Add three eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and mix.

Combine 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and half a teaspoon salt with a cup and a half of flour (I used two parts whole Bob's Red Mill whole wheat graham flour and one part King Arthur white), and mix together to form a dough.

Then add a cup of raisins, and three cups of rolled oats.

This is just a normal oatmeal cookie recipe for me (lots of flavor and texture, without being too sweet). I made one sheet of normal ones, and while they were cooking I put about half a cup of raisins in a glass dish with a splash of vanilla and a splash of water. I cooked this mixture (covered) on high for about 30 seconds.

I formed some slightly larger cookies with the remaining dough, made a little thumbprint-sized well in each one, and put a little of the raisin/vanilla mixture in each of them.

I cooked these for ten minutes. I could have taken them out a minute sooner.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

I am also fond of lonely islands

I wrote this piece in December, 2021 after reading Tove Jansson's The Summer Book.

Paul Cortese, who has made his career in Spain, studied with my father in the 1970s. What a treat it is to be able to share this recording with my father now!

The playing and sharing of this piece is a reminder to me that from each of our remote islands in time and in space we can still make meaningful musical relationships with one another, as well as with the mysteries and possibilities of the musical phrase.

You can find the music on this page of the IMSLP, and listen by way of YouTube if you want:

Friday, March 04, 2022

Music by Women Festival Concert 9 at Mississippi University for Women

Rebecca Johnson and Cara Chowning are playing two flute and piano pieces of mine on this program ("In light we see, in light we are seen," and "For Poulenc") which you (and I) can hear through this livestream at 5:00 Central Time today, or at a time that is convenient for you (or me) after the concert is over.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Women's History Month 2022

I remember reading that after Lili Boulanger died on March 15, 1918, Nadia Boulanger used stationery with a black border during every subsequent March to honor the memory of her sister. I wish I remember where I read it (I have scoured all the possible sources on my bookshelves), but when the month of March became a month dedicated to women's history (the process started in 1978, and Congress made it official in 1987), I always believed, in my music-centered way, that it was because of the memory of Lili by Nadia. It could just be coincidence, though.

My interest in learning about and performing music written by women began in the later 1980s (it didn't occur to me that I might try my hand at writing music myself for at least ten years). Every March, from the small university radio station where I worked, I would broadcast as much music written by women as I could find. During the rest of the year I wrote articles about women who wrote music for the Maud Powell Signature (which has since been renamed), and eventually my pianist friend John David and I would play concerts of music written by women presented every March by the Women's Studies Program at the university. We hope to play our next concert for the Women's Studies Program in March of 2023.

I had to work really hard over the decades to convince people (musicians and listeners) that it was indeed possible for a women to write music as well as a man. I had to work especially hard at it while I worked as a reviewer for the American Record Guide (where most readers thought of me as "Mr. Fine" because reviews were signed by last name only, and more than 95% of the reviewers were men).

I know, of course, that some men are better composers than some women are, and I know that some women are better composers than some men are. I also know that most composers (with rare exceptions) write music of varying quality. But contrary to a lot of the listeners and a lot of the critics I have encountered, all men are not better composers than all women.

We now know this to be true. We didn't always.