Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Geoffrey Seitz shows how stringed instruments are made

Geoff Seitz's shop in St. Louis is one of my favorite places on earth. Geoff has never steered me wrong when looking for instruments for students and friends. He is a wonderful violin and viola maker as well as an expert repair person. And he is really kind and honest, characteristics that are of real value to me in the (sometimes not particularly kind or particularly honest) world of instrument business.

I'm so glad that the people of the St. Louis Home of Education and Culture filmed Geoff playing (something I have never seen or heard in the nearly thirty years I have known him), and caught the ambience of his shop (he does know where everything is).

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Fantastic 30-minute post-practice routine

All of Rachel Lawrence’s (The Girl With the Pilates Mat) classes are great, but this one is particularly useful to me after practicing because it strengthens and stretches my violin and viola playing muscles.

Michael and I have been taking part in Rachel's classes (i.e. following her YouTube videos) for a few years now. We do them several times a week (more when the weather is lousy and walking is either less of a pleasure or an unsafe impossibility). Rachel is delightful. Working with her videos really helps me understand the way my arms and legs move and reach in the space around my body. I find this so very important in string playing, because all the important important stuff happens when the arms and their various parts are out of my field of vision. Pilates also helps to establish, strengthen, and challenge the sense of balance, and that helps us both in every way, musical and otherwise.

Rachel has Pilates-based videos of every shape, size, length, and focus on her channel, but this recent video has become a family favorite, which is why I am sharing it here now. There are one or two ads at the beginning of each video, but once they get going the sessions are never interrupted by ads.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Who Could Ask for Anything More?

The other night, while I was in a rehearsal of William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony, I couldn't help but notice that Gershwin's song "I Got Rhythm" was part of the material used in the second movement. I quickly noted that the Still was published in 1935, and found that Girl Crazy, the show that housed "I Got Rhythm," opened on Broadway in 1930. I imagined that Still might have incorporated the Gershwin motive into his piece, so I forgot about it.

This morning I learned that Still wrote his symphony in 1930, and after its premiere by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931, it became wildly popular. Since music takes time to write, and the date of publication or premiere is not necessarily a true timeline of the writing of either Still's work or Gershwin's work, it might have been a case of Gershwin incorporating Still. Zillions of notes and four-note motives were bantered back and forth in the musical and musical theater worlds of the 1920s and 1930s, and all we have to go on are newspaper reviews, the occasional interview, or the occasional family story.

I'm glad that Elliott Forrest noticed the similarity, and am happy to share his article about it with links on the WQXR website.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

In response to the perennial question

In a "contemporary classical music" Facebook forum the question of the value of music written by women comes up often. This time I felt compelled to answer. Facebook doesn't allow paragraph breaks, so I kept the discussion "as is."

Forum person:

"It is often said that classical music has a diversity problem. Which I think is correct in many ways. But my question is: to what extent recording albums or programming symphonies and concertos by, say, Florence Price or Grazina Bacewicz is a worthwhile gesture destined to correct historic injustices and expand audiences (as we are made to believe)? First of all: is the music any good? I'd say yeah, it's not bad, but also not remarkable or original. This is of course a subjective opinion, but let's suppose it is correct, just for the sake of argument. On the one hand, to program music that is admitedly not excellent can be perfectly reasonnable. One has to take chances in order to surprise and delight the audiences, and one can surely make the argument that mediocre music by dead white men is being performed often enough. But if you are used to, say, the level of achievement of Mahler or Shostakovich, I fear this inclusivity trend is going to wear thin pretty quickly. Yet no one will accept this publicly. Now to be fair, you can use the same argument to not program contemporary pieces by white dudes either, indeed any contemporary music whatsoever, in the (rational) fear that it will not hold up to scrutiny when compared to the greats. Yes classical audiences are used to the most wonderful experiences in concert and most music just won´t cut it. There's a lot to critique about that kind of mindset. But also: Are we trying to invent great female composers out of thin air? Is it not enough that there are actually great female composers out there, such as Gubaidulina, Saariaho or Unsuk Chin? Do we have to pretend that excellency is everyone's right and go through the motions of these concerts and clap in the end just out of fear of being elitist and out of touch? Is that healthy?"

My response:

Do we have to have this conversation year after year? Perhaps looking towards the future (a future where living composers who are women are taken as seriously by musicians as male composers who are living) is a healthier way of considering the idea of gender equity. Florence Price, for example, was a terrific composer. As a professional she was treated horribly by the people (men) in power. But her teaching pieces (teaching pieces were acceptable by women) that could make money for publishers were items of value. The story of her life is a sad one: she worked very hard, and got little in the way of recognition. Why is it, for example, that we only have a handful of photos of her? The music of the past written by people no longer alive is finite. The music of the living present and the future is not. And there are more women writing music (that is available) now than in centuries past. Our critical gatekeeping establishment is in sad shape, so musicians need to decide for themselves what is “good” and what is “great.” Publishers often rank work by what will sell, and orchestras and opera companies rank work by what will sell tickets. Ultimately (at least I believe) “greatness” has to do with how a piece of music at hand feels to play, and how musicians can connect to its emotional and intellectual substance. If musicians can project their love for a piece of music (written by any gender, age, nationality, race, etc.) it could be felt as “greatness.” Some composers are able to write accessibility into their music so that it is (relatively) easy to translate its pitches, rhythms, and phrases into something that can become a personal “voice” for a musician or a group of musicians. That kind of thing remains my only way of honestly judging anything having to do with a piece of music. It’s time, in my opinion, for a different kind of discussion when evaluating musical quality.

Friday, January 12, 2024

It's Grieg for Me

On this cold and rainy day I wanted to play something different during my morning practice. So I unearthed my red portfolio of violin music, and found the Grieg Violin Sonatas. I hadn't thought about these pieces for years, and when I last played them my sense of how to play the violin was completely different. When I played them last I was a violist playing the violin, and I was a violist without the kind of bow control and understanding of the left hand that I now have (the result of years and years of careful study).

This morning, accompanied by the sound of rain outside my window, I could really throw myself into the phrases of the F major Sonata, and feel that wonderful mixture of contemplation and release that is so valuable in music in general, and so present in Grieg. And when "Grieg weather" sets in I really need the inner light that allows for psychic cozyness. For me filling the room with Grieg feels like sitting by a warm fire covered with a blanket, and drinking something warm and tasty.

One of the most magical things about music is that the mixture of contemplation and release can be both experienced by the person (or people) playing, and can shared with anyone listening.

Here's a lovely performance of the F major Sonata by violinist Ivan Ženatý and pianist Antonín Kubálek with a score that you can follow. The notes for the video explain the relationship between Grieg and Ole Bull, who was the inspiration for this piece.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Dr. Beethoven, my therapist

Like many musically minded people, I find solace, escape, validation, pleasure, release, and wonder in playing music. For a long time being able to play the violin parts of Beethoven's chamber music was an ambition. And now that I have the ability to navigate through the violin parts with a reasonable amount of fluency, Beethoven and his chamber music have a new place in my musical life.

Beethoven is not unique among people no longer alive who had to contend with life-long and ever-changing emotional difficulties. But he is unique in his particular ability to use time, melody, harmony, dynamics, articulations, touch, and timbre to express his tensions and resolve them musically (sometimes logically, sometimes whimsically, and sometimes poignantly).

I can now put worrying about technique (playing in tune, being able to shift properly, using the bow efficiently) into a more unconscious place when I play, and I can use my conscious mind listen and consider Beethoven's way of developing motives while participating in the experience. The same motive (or phrase) presented in a different kind of musical "light" has a different set of resonances, recalling one feeling or another from earlier in the movement, or in a passage from another movement of the same piece.  I am so happy that I can now physically "ride" through the musical progress of Beethoven's phrases.

I find elements of personality that are so blatantly Beethoven, and oddly think of them as "Beethoven-y" passages, even in the context of one of his pieces. And then there are phrases and passages that defy personality. Sometimes a chromatic passage sends me to another "place" entirely, and when the music returns to a familiar "place," I feel like I have returned from a journey somewhere. Maybe it is a return from the dream that I might have had (maybe last night), but cannot recall anything specific about it.

As much as I love Haydn, I do not rely on him for therapy the way I rely on Beethoven. Haydn is my mentor, my teacher, my entertainment, and my distraction from difficulties that like to take up space in my psyche. Haydn's music always provides me with escape. My concerns in life go on "pause" when Haydn is on my stand. But Beethoven has a way of getting into my head and organizing the shadows that have bothered and scared me for decades. The way he works with motives helps me observe and objectify those feelings. Playing (and listening to) Beethoven's music helps me on my path towards resolving some of them.

I don't think I would be able to appreciate Beethoven the way I appreciate him now without the technique I have spent years and years of careful practice developing. Thank you, Dr. Beethoven.

Monday, January 01, 2024

My Great Grandfather’s Cafe

 How I wish I could have known Israel Blume, my mother’s paternal grandfather, who was the co-owner of the Cafe Royale in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago. I made a post about it in 2010, and thought I'd repost it with an updated photo:

CAFE ROYALE 3854 West Roosevelt Road

[Click here for a larger view]

From John Drury's Dining in Chicago

3854 West Roosevelt Road

Here is Bohemia in the true sense of the word. The Cafe Royale is an intellectual and artistic rendezvous of the west side Jewish quarter. Full of poets, musicians, actors, artists, radicals, intellectuals, and all night talkers. Founded and operated by Israel Blume, a poet, and Morris Mason, an actor, as a Chicago counterpart of the famed Cafe Royal on the East Side of New York. Saturday nights, beginning at 10, the Jewish cabaret, a sort of neighborhood version of the Russian Chauve Souris, is staged in the concert hall at the rear of the place. Harry Rosen and his orchestra are in Russian costumes; Mme. Maria Masheir sings gypsy ballads; Gregory Venetzsky and Joe and Edith Levinson entertain; playlets are performed; there is dancing after the show; and Jewish, Russian, and Roumanian dishes tempt your palate. The walls are decorated with rustic murals by the artist, De Vries. All is gay, garrulous. Continental, colorful and worth much more than the $1.00 you pay for it.

Always, the main dining room out front, unique with its modernist panels depicting the various arts, is crowded with lively bushy-haired men wearing hornrimmed spe'ctacles and carrying books under their arms; black-eyed actresses from the nearby New Yiddish Lawndale Theatre; visiting Jewish celebrities from New York; and gourmets who have a weakness for substantial Jewish dishes fragrant with garlic. The popular entrees here are rib steak, broiled in the Roumanian style, and gratchitze, or sweetbreads. The foods in general are wholesome and savory and not so expensive. Here, then, dine most of the local Jewish celebrities in the arts and allied interests -- Emil Armin, the painter; S. P. Rudens, the essayist; L. M. Stein, the publisher and patron of the arts; Todros Geller, the wood-block artist; Joseph Kriloff, the singer; Dr. M. S. Malamed and J. Siegel, the well-known newspaper editors; J. Z. Jacobson, author of "Thirty-Five Saints and Emil Armin"; I. Iver Rose, the painter and potato pancake maker; and a great many others of lesser note. Meyer Zolotareff, the newspaperman, edits his Yiddish literary monthly, Chicago, from a table in the corner. Here also have come such famous figures in the Jewish world as Abraham Raisen, the poet; Prof. Enrico Glickenstien, the Italian- Jewish sculptor; Molly Picon, the actress; Maurice Schwartz, theatrical director; Boris Thomashefsky, the actor; Alexander Kipnis, the opera singer and Morris Topchevsky, the painter. Politicians also come here -- Alderman Jacob Arvey, Ward Committeeman Moe Rosenberg, and their followers. We could go on describing this interesting place but the above information ought to be enough to arouse your curiosity. Don't miss it. Saturday nights are the best.
The proprietor, Israel Blume, was my maternal great grandfather. My grandmother told me that Emma Goldman used to go there when she was in town.