Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Face in the Mirror

The other day I glanced in the mirror and, for the first time in my adult life, recognized the third-grade girl in this photo.

The photo record for me is scarce. There might be half a dozen photos taken of me as a child, and most of them were school photos. I was told that my father "didn't believe in" taking photos, and my mother, who was photographed by her shutterbug father a great deal when she was a child, didn't object to my father's lack of interest. I like to imagine that my mother thought that she was sparing us some agony by only having baby portraits taken twice.

It must have been important to me because my earliest memory was being photographed at four in my balloon dress at Clowntown Studios in Lakewood, Ohio. (I don't remember the photo that was taken when I was around one.) I do remember at the age of five being heartbroken when my balloon dress no longer fit.

Individual school photos stopped in sixth grade, and the one or two that appeared in my high school yearbook showed a teenager who did not have the bright eyes of the musical violin-playing child above.

I'm so happy that I have been able to get the essence of this child back.

Life has its crooked paths. I feel tremendously grateful to have somehow found a path that has allowed me to reconnect with the person I was at eight or nine.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Advanced Viola Scale Studies

I'm delighted to announce that the viola transcription of my Advanced Violin Scale Studies is finally available from Mel Bay.

I'm also totally thrilled that they have used a portrait of my 1952 Carl Becker viola for the cover. My father bought the instrument in Chicago while he was a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He told me that when he bought it they "wheeled out the old man," so that my father could meet the maker. It was the instrument that my father used to win the audition for principal viola of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, though the powers that were (then) immediately went searching for a higher-prestige instrument for him.

My father always kept the Becker on hand, though. He brought it to Tanglewood with him and loaned it to students from time to time. The only student I recall connected with it was the composer Paul Chihara. Then around thirty years ago he gave the instrument to my brother Marshall. Out of a sense of fairness, he gave me one of his instruments as well: a pretty-looking Italian viola that never sounded as good as it looked. My brother Richard, who doesn't play, got a bunch of bows that my father never used.

I always thought that the Becker was kind of plain and ugly, and Marshall thought that I had gotten the better instrument. We were both wrong. The Becker is quite beautiful, and because of the way it plays and responds, it is far superior to the pretty Italian viola I had been using.

My brother didn't like playing the Becker, so he had an instrument made that satisfied his needs. The Becker sat abandoned in his closet, unplayed.

After my brother died the official ownership of the instrument went back to my parents, but the physical instrument moved to my closet. After my mother's death the instrument became mine. I had a luthier fix some open seams and straighten the bridge. After playing the Becker for a minute or so, I put away the Italian instrument and haven't touched it since. The sound of the Becker was the viola sound that I had in my ear since I was a tiny baby. It brings me joy every day.

And now its face is on the cover of this book of scale pieces.

You can find the music (both for a print edition and an electronic edition) on this page of the Mel Bay website.

Nathan Groot is making video recordings of all the pieces in the book. You can watch and listen here.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Verdi Three Pieces for Two Cellos

I spent a great deal of time collaborating with Daniel Morganstern, the former principal cellist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the American Ballet Theatre, on these two-cello transcriptions of music from three of Verdi's operas.

The first piece in this new publication from International Music Company is a wordless aria that serves as the prelude to the opera I masandieri. It is bel canto cello writing at its finest.

In the second act of Rigoletto, the first  cello "sings" the part of the court jester, the title character of Verdi's opera, while the second cello accompanies him with extensive arpeggios. This aria, which incorporates the original solo cello part from the opera, works perfectly as a cello duet.

In her third-act aria from Un ballo in maschera, Amelia pleads with her husband (who is preparing to kill her because he believes she has cheated on him) to let her hold her son for the last time. This highly emotional aria is extremely satisfying to hear played by two cellos.

The music is available now from IMC and from Theodore Front, and it will be available from other music retailers in the near future.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Lili Boulanger's Nocturne and Cortege transcribed for viola and piano

Published by International Music Company and available through this link.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Mela Tenenbaum update

I noticed that people have been visiting a post that I made about the violinist/violist Mela Tenenbaum in February of 2021, and a quick google search found that she died very, very recently. She was buried this morning at the Beth Moses Cemetary in West Babylon, New York.
Mela was a great musician and a great and generous human being. I feel so honored to have been phone friends with her during my days at the radio station. We suddenly lost touch in the early 2000s, and I was unable to find anything about her again until February of 2021. And now today I find out that she is no longer alive.

Her memory will always be a blessing for me.

Here she is playing the Drigo Serenade:

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Thoughts about acting and music inspired by a Patrick Stewart interview

I saw a great interview with Patrick Stewart last week. I believe it was part of a news broadcast, perhaps PBS, but I distinctly remember that he talked about feeling comfortable when he acted because he didn't have to be himself. He could be somebody else.

As much as I love watching acting on stage and in movies, acting has never been something I was good enough at to feel truly comfortable doing.

Standing on a stage wearing a costume has never shielded me from feeling like a person (me) standing on a stage wearing a costume, and trying to remember where on that stage I was supposed to be at any given time.

I spent two years as a drama major at a fine arts camp, and, as such, had roles in a few plays. But all my roles had songs, and I never felt like I was "acting" when I was singing. In Junior High School I was part of a circle of friends who were really good at acting, but despite my great love for all things having to do with the musical stage and my two summers of experience, I never managed to get an acting part in anything. I loved being a policeman in Pirates of Penzance and loved being part of the chorus of flower girls in Marriage of Figaro, and I knew every single word of every song in Anything Goes from my perch in the offstage chorus, but by the time I entered High School, I knew that my future in the theatre would be in the orchestra pit.

I am perfectly comfortable being heard but not seen. One of the best parts about playing in the viola section in orchestra is that nobody sees me, and when I am being heard it is always in combination with other violists (making up a “super viola”).

But I am also oddly comfortable playing violin, viola, or recorder on a stage alone or with other musicians. One reason is because I don't care if I am seen or not, and the bigger reason is that I become the music I am playing, and in the music I feel safe. It really doesn't matter what my personal personality is. All that matters is making the music come alive, do what it needs to do with the most integrity possible, and safely come to a close. If all goes well I have taken my colleagues and the people listening on my journey through the piece at hand. I can, for a brief time, leave the personality-laden part of myself on the ground, and use my physical body (including my brain and heart) to move the music I am playing through the air, to be experienced by anyone in the room.

I think about the act of writing music in this Stewart-inspired context, and realize that I want nothing than to more to write music that will free people like me from themselves. I want the physical part of playing the music to be as pleasing to the musician at hand as the aural part.

Sometimes hearing a midi rendering of something I have written reminds me of looking at a mirror and seeing a familiar face (oh you again), but when I hear a human being play something I have written (either live or in a recording) the same piece of music can sound completely new to me. That lets me know that I have done my job as a composer.

The very idea that someone (or some group of people) could "use" a piece of music that I wrote as a vehicle for expression of something that goes beyond "personality" (individual or collective, theirs or mine) is very exciting to me.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Salomé Dance Scene

I wrote a new piece for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano that is part of a UK-based film and dance project where composers write new music for old films, and then live dancers perform the sequences accompanied by live musicians. This five-minute-long sequence is set to a section of the 1918 Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton film The Cook. It is a parody of a dance scene from the (now lost) Theda Bara film Salomé.

You can watch the film clip from The Cook with this music here, and you can find the score and parts on this on this page of the IMSLP.

Elbow under reminder for violin and viola students

I always use a golden colored pencil in addition to a graphite pencil when I teach. When I find something I need to highlight, like a finger number or a dynamic, I draw a circle around it with the graphite pencil, and color the circle in with the golden one.

A few weeks ago I came up with the idea of drawing a piece of elbow macaroni to remind a student to keep her elbow under the instrument, and coloring it in with the golden pencil gave us both the impression of macaroni and cheese. Needless to say, my student responded really well.

So I thought I'd share this idea here.

NB I made the above demonstration picture with an ink pen, and, because I could, I added some yellow to the gold to give the piece of elbow macaroni more of a "cheesy" sheen.

Monday, October 09, 2023

Deception in Deception

If you haven't seen the 1946 Warner Brother's movie Deception staring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains, you might find a way to see it before reading this post. You will certainly want to see it after reading this post. (It is unfortunately not on YouTube, but there are several trailers and teasers there.) I will try to avoid saying anything that gives away too much of the plot.

Deception is a movie primarily about music, but it is also about the fragility of love and ego. 

Because of the gentle and unreliable mixture of insecurity, need for connection, ego, the blurring of passionate personal love and passionate musical love, musicians (in real life and in movies) sometimes make choices that might not make sense to "lay people." 

In this case we have a successful and rich composer named Alexander Hollenius, his student (and kept mistress) Christine Radcliffe, and her refugee-from-Europe cellist boyfriend (from Christine's days in Vienna before the War) Karel Novak. Hollenius, being rich and influential, helped Karel leave Europe for New York without knowing that Christine had been in love with him. Christine doesn't want to let Karel know, because she believes that he is too emotionally fragile to take it.

(That's only one of the deceptions in the plot)

Another grand deception is the one where Paul Henreid, who plays the role of the cellist, appears to play the cello. This feat was accomplished by Henreid taking six months of lessons with Eleanor Aller's cello-teaching father, having a piece written by Eric Wolfgang Korngold for the movie with some passages where a non-cellist could be posed to play and look good (even if the sound wasn't good), and employing one right arm and one left arm of two hidden cellists occupying the sleeves of Paul Henreid's (probably over-sized) jacket to play the difficult close-up passagework.

Eleanor Aller played the concertos by "Hollenius" (really Korngold) and the uncredited Haydn for the movie's soundtrack. The cellists playing the cello held between Paul Henreid's legs didn't need to play in tune or make a decent sound because Aller was working her magic through the power of great musicianship and exquisite cello playing.  According to Aller's son (and my recently deceased friend) Fred Zlotkin, Gregor Piatagorsky was considered for the soundtrack, and when that proved not possible, Aller stepped in and did a remarkable job. Fred was also present during the recordings, albeit in utero.

Christine, identified in the movie's first exchanges of dialogue as a pianist and a composer, doesn't seem to have a means of support aside from what Hollenius has given her. As a leading woman in a 1946 film noir, she doesn't have many choices; the only actual power she has at her command (besides playing the piano very well in one scene) is the power to love, withhold love, deceive, or destroy.

My (no longer living) friend Seymour Barab once told me, while we were talking about the role of a composer, "First of all, they should be dead."

The ultimate bit of magic that dead composers can achieve is the way their personalities appear to be somehow present while their music is being played no matter who (or whom) it is doing the playing. They can also appear to be present when a recording is played by human beings that are no longer living. 

The composer's desire to connect with a person or people while writing a piece of music is generally fulfilled in the process of writing (with the object or subject usually not in the room). After the piece is written it then becomes a vehicle for a particular performing musician's self expression, and then a vehicle for any performing musician's self expression. In Deception Hollenius uses his concerto as an instrument of revenge against Christine and her husband.

The cellist Karel Novak declares that after the first performance of the Hollenius Concerto has been played the piece will be his ticket to a great career. Musicians need music to play, for whatever reason. As long as composers are willing and able to provide new music, and audiences have interest in hearing something they haven't heard before, musical culture moves forward, and occasionally careers are made. 

When all is said and done, we have to accept that the emotional substance that fuels a composition (friendship, love, jollity, seasonal zeal, revenge, religious devotion, experimentation, money, response to a text, or a response to a moving or still image) may never really be understood.

And ultimately it doesn't matter.

You can watch a remarkable BBC documentary about Korngold and the Slatkin family hosted by Aller's sons Leonard and Fred that includes a demonstration of the visual cello playing deception right here.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Hiking poles and bow arms

Michael and I went on a hike the other day using our brand-new hiking poles. They are nifty light-weight contraptions that collapse, so you can put them in your backpack when you don't need them. We each used only only one.

I held mine in my right hand when there was a steep drop to the right, and in my left hand when there was a steep drop to the left. Because of the nifty wrist strap that I could rest my hand on, I didn't need to "hold" much at all in order to feel secure.

It was as if I were gently resting my arm on a portable banister.

Later while practicing I noticed that I could use the same kind of weight that I used on my "portable banister" to securely feel the bow through the string throughout the bow stroke.

And when playing long passages of repeating sets of sixteenth notes or long tremolo passages (like the ones you find in music by Sibelius), an awareness of only the lightest touch on the "banister" can allow the arm to relax so that it doesn't get too tired too soon.