Tuesday, September 27, 2022

French Chestnut

This is a new transcription for four violas of "Châtaignier," the fifth piece in my 2011 set of autumn-themed violin duets. You can listen here.

You can find the music here.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Audacity Updated for Monterey!

Anyone who has had to sacrifice using Audacity after updating to the Monterey operating system for the Mac can now use it again (as of today). Hooray! There is nothing like Audacity. You can download it through this link (for free). And we can all thank Michael (who just happened to be looking today).

Saturday, September 24, 2022

What Julius Baker didn't know he taught me

How can any teacher know what her or she ends up teaching a student? There is a great deal that goes on in the unconscious relationship between an adult teacher and a not-yet-fully-adult student, and my four-year-long student-teacher relationship with Julius Baker (who was born 107 years ago yesterday) mainly took place on a level far below the surface of flute playing. It was a different kind of relationship from the one (or ones) I observed he had with my peers, but then again he had a very strong psychic presence. 

It was not the crystal-ball-gazing or tarot-card-reading kind of psychic presence, but rather the psychic presence you hear in his musical voice: light and airy, while at the same time filled with earth-bound gravity. A combination of the sentimental and the "no-nonsense," spinning with creativity and bound in discipline.

He was a man who was completely in love with the sound and character of the flute. He was also rather thrilled with the doors that playing the flute opened up for him. He told me once that if he hadn't played the flute, he wouldn't have gone to Curtis, and he wouldn't have gotten an education.

The beginning of my time at Juilliard coincided with Julius Baker's recovery from a life-changing heart attack. I didn't know him before the heart attack, but when I met him he was an avid jogger, and seemed to exist by eating cottage cheese and rotisserie chicken, and drinking coffee. He would send students out to get him a half chicken to have for dinner in his office on concert days. Lunch would be in the Juilliard cafeteria, and he would always ask some of his students to have lunch with him in the faculty part of the cafeteria, which was filled with luminaries. Some were visiting him.

In retrospect it seems that the Juilliard teaching experience for him was entirely social. It gave him a nice place to be on concert days when he had a rehearsal in the morning and a concert in the evening in return for what was probably a very low salary and low expectations from the administration. People would always come to Juilliard to study with him, and he had the knack of "smelling" talent. And those with ambition (everyone seemed to have ambition) would succeed with minimal intervention on his part. 

[When I first met him he called me "a diamond in the rough." I was just sixteen, and had no idea what it meant, so I asked him. Later in our student-teacher relationship he said something about playing something "in your own inimitable way." It was another new word for me.]

He liked to learn about the "extra-flute" interests of his students, and liked to meet our friends. I introduced him to a singer friend of mine, a very smart woman who had gone to Yale and introduced me to "The Waste Land." She said that he WAS the god Pan. And he used to say that his name in Spanish was Julio Panera.
Julius Baker used to tell his students to listen to Heifetz recordings. I'm sure that most of them did, but try as I might (and I tried with all my might) I could not get my flute to sound like a violin or to sound like Heifetz. I listened to the whole of the Heifetz collection that was available during the late 1970s with my friend Danny Morganstern, and became obsessed with the Saint-Saëns D minor Sonata, which I transcribed for flute. None of my flute colleagues were impressed. And I think that Julius Baker knew that I was really a violinist at heart. The only thing I remember him saying about the Saint-Saëns (which I brought to a lesson because I was preparing it to play on a recital) was asking the question, "Why are you always playing Salon music?" 

I don’t remember what my response was. I don’t know if I would have known what salon music was at that point.

Now, in retrospect, I really have to thank him for recognizing that I was not really a flutist, but rather a musician with a flute who tried her very best to make the most of what sometimes felt like a life sentence. I felt that I had failed musically (and intellectually) at everything else: I stopped playing violin as a child for dumb child-like "reasons," I couldn't play piano (maybe lessons might have helped), I couldn't sing (again, maybe lessons might have helped). But flute was easy for me, and easy, for me, doesn't mean much of anything.

There are people, like Julius Baker, and like my successful colleagues and friends who love playing the flute, for whom the flute is everything.

I am a person who likes to work hard at things that are really important to me. Things that come easily stay on the emotional surface for me. They always have, and they always will. And I have my experiences with Julius Baker to thank for eventually learning that playing the flute was indeed not important for me. And I have him to thank for finding my musical "home" in playing violin and viola, and writing music.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Leo Tolstoy, Guest Blogger

Tolstoy takes us to a concert for chapter five of the seventh section of Anna Karenina. The piece Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin hears seems to be a version of this piece by Balakierv: .
At the concert in the afternoon two very interesting works were performed. One was a fantasia, King Lear in the Steppe; the other was a quartet dedicated to the memory of Bach. Both were new and in the modern style, and Levin was eager to form an opinion of them. After escorting his sister-in-law to her stall, he stood against a column and tried to listen as attentively and conscientiously as possible. he tried not to let his attention be distracted, and not to spoil his impression by looking at the conductor in a white tie, waving his arms, which always disturbed his enjoyment of music so much, or the ladies in bonnets, with strings carefully tied over their ears, and all these people either thinking nothing at all or thinking of all sorts of things except the music. He tried to avoid meeting music connoisseurs or talkative acquaintances, and stood looking at the floor straight before him, listening.

But the more he listened to the King Lear fantasia, the further he felt from forming any definite opinion on it. There seemed to be a continual beginning, a preparation for the musical expression of some feeling, but it fell to pieces again immediately, breaking into new expressions of emotions, or simply into nothing but the whims of the composer, exceedingly complex but disconnected sounds. And these fragmentary musical expressions, though sometimes beautiful, were unpleasant, because they were utterly unexpected and not prepared for by anything. Gaiety and grief and despair and tenderness and triumph followed one another without any connection, like the emotions of a madman. And those emotions, like a madman’s, sprang up quite unexpectedly.

During the whole of the performance Levin felt like a deaf man watching people dancing, and was in a state of complete bewilderment when the fantasia was over, and felt a great weariness from the fruitless strain on his attention. Loud applause resounded on all sides. Everyone got up, moved about, and began talking. Anxious to throw some light on his own perplexity from the impressions of others, Levin began to walk about, looking for connoisseurs, and was glad to see a well-known connoisseur in conversation with Pestsov, whom he knew.

“Marvelous!” Pestsov was saying in his mellow bass. “How are you, Konstantin Dmitrievich? Particularly graphic and sculpturesque, so to say, and richly colored is that passage where you feel Cordelia’s approach, where woman, das ewig Weibliche, enters into conflict with fate. Isn’t it?”

”You mean . . . What had Cordelia to do with it?” Levin asked timidly, forgetting that the fantasia was supposed to represent King Lear.

“Cordelia comes in . . . see here!” said Pestsov, tapping his finger on the satiny surface of the program he held in his hand and passing it to Levin.

Only then did Levin recollect the title of the fantasia, and made haste to read in the Russian translation the lines from Shakespeare that were printed on the back of the program.

“You can’t follow it without that,” said Pestsov, addressing Levin, because the person he had been speaking to had gone away, and he had no one to talk to.

In the entr’acte Levin and Pestsov fell into an argument upon the merits and defects of the Wagner school of music. Levin maintained that the mistake of Wagner and all his followers lay in their trying to take music into the sphere of another art, just as poetry goes wrong when it tries to paint a face, which is what should be left to painting, and as an instance of this mistake he cited the sculptor who carved in marble certain shadows of poetical images floating around the figure of the poet on the pedestal. “These shadows were so far from being shadows that they were positively clinging to the ladder,” said Levin. The comparison pleased him, but he could not remember whether or not he had used the same phrase before, and to Pestsov, too, and as he said it he felt embarrassed.

Pestsov maintained that art is one, and that it can attain its highest manifestations only in conjunction with all kinds of art.

The second piece that was performed Levin could not hear. Pestsov, who was standing beside him, was talking to him almost all the time, condemning the music for its excessive affected assumption of simplicity, and comparing it with the simplicity of the Pre-Raphaelites in painting. As he went out, Levin met many more acquaintances, which whom he talked of politics, of music, and of common acquaintances. Among others he met Count Bohl, whom he had utterly forgotten to call upon.

“Well, go at once, then,” Madame Lvova said when he told her; “perhaps they’ll not be at home, and then you can come to the meeting to fetch me. You’ll find me still there.”
We are reading the Modern Library Classics edition translated by Constance Garnett, and revised by Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova. This edition is hard to find in paperback, but I bet your public library has a copy or two. I love reading this novel. I know that it doesn't end well for the title character (perhaps the only things most people know about the book are the opening sentence and the ending), but what lies in between is a fascinating, engaging, maddening, heart-wrenching joy to read. I'm sorry that we are so near the end.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Summer Music for Viola and Piano (Before Summer is Over)

I was planning to play this piece as part of a local concert yesterday (for which I made the last post's baton), but my pianist friend was unable to play, so Summer Music (in its transcription for viola and piano) was left off the program. Today, before the gates of summer are closed (and before the vaccines I got made me woozy), I made a video.

A new operating system on my computer has forced me to learn to use some unfamiliar technology, but I was happy that, with a great deal of trail and error, I was able to get the human-generated viola playing track and the computer-generated piano track lined up. I hope you enjoy the resulting (slightly imperfect) recording.

You can find the music on this page of the IMSLP.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Need a Baton in a Pinch? Here's a DIY Solution

I found myself in sudden need of a baton, and when I found that the local university book store, which used to stock batons, no longer stocked them, I needed to find a way of making one myself. I found a paint brush in the art-supply area that felt like the right weight for a baton. For the handle I chose a cork from our kitchen drawer that provided a nice balance.

I cut the cork in half, and cut out a groove in both halves.

Then I stuck the hair and a bit of the ferrule between the cork halves, applied some glue, and secured the handle parts together with some rubber bands.

I was planning to sand it, but it looks and feels really good as is! Total cost? $4 for the paintbrush. Corks are, of course, priceless.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

What I Have Learned from Practicing the Piano

I am not a piano native. I knew where the notes on the keyboard were when I was a child, but never learned to play without looking at my fingers. I could always instinctively "find" tunes on the piano, but, even though I intellectually understood harmony, could never "feel" the shapes of chords and produce them by instinct on the piano. The pathways between my ears and my hands, arms, eyes, and fingers have been forged in different directions.

When playing flute and recorder the fingers of both hands need to cooperate in order to make pitches with the air (and the mouth, diaphragm, and tongue). Both hands work as equals supporting the instrument, covering the holes with the fingers, or pressing the keys. When I played flute and recorder exclusively my hands felt the same: same weight, same temperature, same sense of feeling in my fingertips.

As soon as I reconnected with my childhood string-player self (when I was thirty-one or so), I noticed that my hands started to feel different from one another. They have always been different sizes (my left is bigger than my right), but now, after thirty-odd years of playing as an adult, my left hand has a broader palm, and a whole lot more veins. The air around each of my hands feels different, and even as I type the sensitivity of my fingertips feels different. My left hand is a whole lot heavier than my right.

I have been practicing the piano with the intention of becoming a better pianist for a few years now. For the past year or two I have been practicing every day, and I am finally beginning to see (and hear) results. For the longest time I felt like I was clearing space in my brain to focus right and left (the way one clears brush). Trusting distances and the size of intervals (which do not change from octave to octave on the piano) always felt random. I felt no real connection to the piano as something to make living musical phrases on, though I certainly wanted to. But these things can't be forced. My adult growth as a string player has taught me that. Basics are everything, and paying attention to basics from the vantage point of physical ability on an instrument is an entirely different experience from paying attention to basics when learning to play a new instrument.

I now am starting to feel that my hands can work in concert with one another. (Not the "concert" that means playing for people--that is not one of my piano-playing goals.) I can play chords as chords, and do not have to think about them as stacks of individual pitches. I'm starting to be able to make physical phrases by allowing the weight of my hands guide the notes, and I am starting to feel that my fingers are more connected to my ears. I have also built up a greater awareness of the piano fourth finger, which I used to avoid using. And I can finally trill with my right hand while playing an Alberti bass with my left hand.

And, most surprising of all, when I sit down at the piano to play a Mozart Sonata and listen in my head for the first note, it is often right. It doesn't work for me when I am sitting elsewhere or doing something else, or trying to produce a pitch out of thin air.

This has happened occasionally when I am holding a violin or a viola, and used to happen with the flute, but never with the piano. Never until now. I wonder if it has something to do with temperament, which makes keys (meaning tonalities) on the piano have colors that are different from other keys (tonalities) on the piano.

It is such a gift to be able to grow as a musician in a new way, and spending quality time with Mozart (my current piano pal), Haydn, Bach, and Beethoven. Schubert is in the far distance, behind the mountains of Chopin, the Schumanns (Clara and Robert), and the Mendelssohns (Fanny and Felix).

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

A Star is Born, Sometimes

Lisa Hirsch (Iron Tongue of Midnight) has a great piece in today's San Francisco Classical Voice that explores what happens when an opera star has to cancel a performance, and another singer, sometimes on very little notice, steps in to fill the role.

Monday, September 05, 2022

Musical Detachment

I saw a video the other day in the musical corridors of Facebook that seems to have been taken down. I'll describe it. Imagine, if you will, a three-year-old child playing the Suzuki Book Two version of "Witches' Dance" remarkably well in tune, with a beautiful left-hand position, an excellent bow arm, and a decent sound. (There's a wrong pitch, but I think that it is probably hard-wired into the teacher as well as the student--it's a common error). The child is wearing a very cute dress, and there is a blue potty in the background. Her playing is absolutely mechanical.

She is crying her eyes out while she is playing. The deep emotions that she is feeling do not make it in any way, shape, or form into what is coming out of her instrument. It is really painful to watch. And it is painful to think that any parent would, first of all, take a video of a child feeling so distressed while playing, and then share it with the larger world. I wonder if this was put into the internets as a form of punishment.

Using music as a way to exploration and express of feelings is the main reason to play (or sing). Actually, it is the only reason for me. I can imagine that there are people who get enjoyment out of doing things right. There are people who like playing because of the praise or attention they get. And there are people who get motivated to play so that they can communicate with others in a way that doesn't involved conversation, kicking or throwing a ball, or dancing.

If this child is already so disconnected from her feelings when she plays, I wonder how difficult a time her future teachers will have teaching her to connect her feelings with her playing. 

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Spohr Nonet, Barber Summer Music, Coker Concertino (BSOCP 1967 and 1968 first releases in 2022)

This ten-disc set of reissues includes three pieces that are issued for the first time. My first experience hearing both the Barber and the Spohr were in concerts played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players. Having a chance to hear the Spohr in the late 1960s configuration, while following the score (which you can find on this page of the IMSLP) is an amazing treat. You can also find the first movement on this YouTube link.

I imagine that you, like me, will be amazed at how beautifully written this piece is for these instruments, and how beautifully this ensemble plays it. I have no idea why this Spohr Nonet recording was never released.

The Barber has some lovely playing (particularly from the bassoon, the horn, and the oboe), but it is not the most satisfying overall recording of the piece. I can understand why it was not released at the time. I'm glad it is here (for historical value), but I can imagine that everyone in the quintet would have had personal objections.

I also think that this might be the first release of the Concertino by Wilson Coker, though it is not mentioned as such in any of the printed or publicity material. It is a piece for bassoon and string trio that I don't remember hearing in performance (I would have heard the viola passages being practiced, though). It was published in 1964, and has a remarkable amount of musical substance in its six minutes and twenty second life.

I was pleased to learn that Coker got his doctorate at the University of Illinois (which I learned about in this entry on the MacDowell Colony website), and taught at Southern Illinois University. The Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players first played the Concertino in New York in 1966. I would like to imagine that Coker wrote it with Sherman Walt in mind, but I'm having a great deal of difficulty learning anything about the history of the piece. Coker had been at Tanglewood in 1959 (if the link takes you to the beginning of the yearbook, scroll to page 95), so he would have had the opportunity to know and perhaps work with Walt during that summer.

This recording is the ninth disc of the set, which is available here.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Mozart Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet Boston Symphony Chamber Players Disc Number Three

The Mozart G minor Piano Quartet, K 478, and the E-flat major Piano Quintet, K 452, are together on this CD. I recall hearing these pieces played in concert by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, but do not remember hearing the LP recordings (someone else in the family must have had this one).

What strikes me about this recording is not just the excellent Mozart playing, but the clarity of all the voices. It is beautifully played and beautifully engineered. My father's arpeggiated figures that serve as accompaniment to melodies in the other instruments act like the left hand of a pianist (the superior left hand of Claude Frank, to be exact), being both extremely even and extremely directional, like calm fingers of a potter working on a wheel, allowing for evenly controlled shapes to appear. It is extremely satisfying Mozart playing.

The Quintet for Piano and Winds is really interesting to hear. After listening to Sherman Walt yesterday, the pedestal I made for him in my mind and heart has gotten still taller. What remarkable bassoon playing! What remarkable musicianship! Every single note and every single phrase seems to be more beautiful and more expressive than the last. And Ralph Gomberg is hand-in-glove with Walt. It is lovely oboe playing that somehow, while always being expressive and oboistic, never seems to dominate.

I'm not so impressed with Gino Cioffi's clarinet playing. It is fine during tutti sections, but when the clarinet has solo passages, his sound is thin and unsatisfying. When Harold Wright joined the Boston Symphony and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players in 1970, the "value" of the ensemble went up exponentially.

I love hearing James Stagliano's colorful and beautiful French Horn playing. He retired from the Boston Symphony in 1973. The recordings in this set might be his last chamber music recordings.

You can order the set, which just came out last week, here.

Friday, September 02, 2022

Boston Symphony Chamber Players Recordings 1964-1968 Disc Five

It just dawned on me today that my father, Burton Fine, is the only member of the original Boston Symphony Chamber Players who is still living. And I also realized today how important the music in this ten-CD set of recordings made between 1964 and 1968 is and always was to me.

Today I listened to CD number five which has the Poulenc Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, the 3 Bagatelles for Oboe and Bassoon by Alexei Haieff, and the Variations for 4 Drums and Viola by Michael Colgrass. I started with the Colgrass, because I remember my father practicing the piece, and I remember how much I loved hearing him practice it.

Now that I am no longer a child, and now that I understand the ins, outs, ups, and downs of the viola, I am completely in awe of how great a violist and a musician my father is. And I also understand what a great chamber music player Everett Firth (better known as Vic Firth) was, and how beautifully, sensitively, and creatively Michael Colgrass wrote for the instruments. There is so very much to learn about music from listening to this recording of this piece.

I didn't have the original LP of this recording, so my last memory of this interpretation of the piece was probably from a concert in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

The first time I heard the Poulenc Trio was with oboist Ralph Gomberg, bassoonist Sherman Walt, and pianist Claude Franck, and that was most certainly in the late 1960s or early 1970s. I have enjoyed the piece played by other people for sure (it is such a lovely piece), but there is something distinctively superior about this recording. Perhaps it is because Sherman Walt might have been the greatest bassoonist that ever lived. At least he was the first great bassoonist I ever heard, and he set my standards really high.

I do recall hearing this recording of Bachianas Brasileras No. 6 with Sherman Walt and Doriot Anthony Dwyer. In my flute-playing days I used to be quite critical of Dwyer's playing, but time and distance reveal to me what an incredibly strong player she was. And her flute sound has as much physical substance as Walt's bassoon playing. It is an unforgiving and relentless piece, filled with physical and musical struggles. And in this recording it is a joy to hear.

I don't remember anyone talking about Alexei Haieff around the dinner table at home, and this is the first hearing for me of his three very short Bagatelles for Oboe and Bassoon. I imagine that either Ralph Gomberg or Sherman Walt must have lobbied to have these included in the BSOCP repertoire, but I'm glad they did. Now we can all look out for more of his music.

Which volume shall I listen to and write about tomorrow . . .

You can order this set here.