Thursday, October 30, 2014

Refining the Bach G major cello suite

About a week ago, I was offered the opportunity to play a solo piece on a concert that is taking place next weekend. It's a series featuring chamber music, basically just for fun -- no one is paid, and there's no admission charge. Since this is something that doesn't happen to me that often, I said yes, and my suggestion of the first Bach suite as my repertoire was met with enthusiasm.

I've performed it before, in its entirety and in bits and pieces here and there (I remember playing the prelude for a fashion show once!) and didn't think it would be such a big deal to put it together. But naturally, the more I have delved into the piece the pickier I have gotten about how well I want to play it.

The bowings especially have made me think hard. There are slurs marked in the original copies of the piece (there is no manuscript in Bach's hand), but they are not consistent and often seem erroneous -- grouping notes or adding articulations in odd places. This invites experimentation, and with every cellist doing it differently, there's no one right way.

So I've been going through each movement trying to decide exactly how I want to play it. In recent years, in contrast to the rather gluey Romantic interpretations of the past, many cellists have "gone for Baroque" with it (sorry) -- using lighter bowing, faster tempos, and crisper articulation. My explorations are a little more in this direction.

It's a bit daunting, in the sense that I realize how slapdashedly I've been playing it all this time. But at the same time, it's fun because I do have the time to work on this now, and I much more master of the tools required (mostly patience, awareness, and trust in my abilities).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Concert nerves

About a year ago (shortly after I became more at liberty after I left my full-time job), I was asked to play in a trio -- flute, cello, and piano. The flutist is principal in my orchestra and is an excellent player, as is the pianist, so I agreed. Earlier this year we began rehearsing a short program with the plan to play it once in October and once in November.

The October performance is upon us, and I do not feel 100% ready. I wonder if anyone ever does, really? There's so much that's unpredictable. But aside from that, I'm now wishing I'd practiced the music more -- a lot more. We did a run-through of the concert this past weekend at my house in front of about a dozen friends and family, and though it was a nice social occasion and we generally played well together, I had too many wobbly moments (at least based on my listen to the recording), and gee, my sound wasn't all that good! I just got back from a string-buying expedition; fresh strings should help quite a bit with response and tone. I hope.

Ah, well. It's all a learning experience. I doubt anyone is going to listen to me more critically than I do. But there's that not-so-hidden desire to play not just adequately but superbly.

Here's a taste of the program: a trio by George Alexander Macfarren (1813–1887). I do think I improved somewhat as I warmed up (which I didn't have a chance to do in the couple of hours before we played). I felt sorry for the pianist having to play this on my Baldwin upright (the living room piano; I keep the grand in a more climate- and sound-controlled space in the house).

(Note that there is a bit of silence at the beginning. The piece is about 9-1/2 minutes long.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cello Tales

I have a video recommendation -- this documentary:

Cello Tales

The blurb at the above link:
Four strings, a wooden box that has lived for 300 years.
The cello is the most human-like of all musical instruments in shape, size and sound.
A daughter searches for her father's stolen instrument for a decade. An artisan looks for the best way to craft the perfect piece of wood. A soloist travels the world playing. A copyist recreates the sound of the great masters.
The cello. More than just a musical instrument.
It's about an hour and a quarter, mostly in German, with English subtitles. I didn't try to download it and just watched online.

It's both educational and nicely done, with some good music. It approaches the "cello mystique" in a non-mystical way, which I liked very much.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bad, bad blogger: Updates

I apologize for the radio silence these past two months.

I've been doing a number of musical things, but every time I have started to write about them it all seemed too complicated to explain and not terribly interesting to anyone but me.

So herewith some brief updates:

The first week in August, I attended the Bennington Chamber Music Conference (linky here) as an auditor for five days -- basically, I read through a lot of chamber music with random pickup groups, but I wasn't assigned to a set group and didn't get coaching (except for one session when I filled in for a bassoonist in the Schubert octet). I am seriously considering going back for a full week next year. When I first heard about it, it didn't sound appealing (haven't I had enough chamber music coaching in my life already?), but there was something very pleasant about the experience as a whole.

I had a whole month of no piano lessons because my teacher went on vacation (one reason I decided to go to Bennington) -- the longest since I started with him in January 2012! But I kept practicing as usual (maybe a little less diligently on the scales :)). I've been working on Bach (B flat partita), Chopin (Op. 25 No. 1), Brahms (Op. 79, Nos. 1 and 2, and Op. 119, No. 1). Everything still seems like a struggle, but I have noticed that when I do play easier music, I play it much better than I used to. I'm much more aware of the sound that's coming out of the piano. At my first lesson after the break, my teacher suggested we start a new piece, and he chose the Mozart Fantasia and Sonata in C minor. Holy whatever! It's 30 or so pages of finger twisters thinly disguised as sedate classicism. But I'm game.

On the cello, I've been reading string quartets with one of my teachers from college and his wife (a violinist and violist). We've been getting together about once a week for some months now for approximately 2-hour sessions of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and so on. He retired some years ago, but he's played and taught just about everything, so what he lacks in finesse at this point he more than makes up for with intimate knowledge of what these pieces are all about.

I'm in a trio (flute/piano/cello) that is playing a couple of concerts this fall, and we've been rehearsing about twice a month since the spring. The other players are both excellent, which makes it a bit challenging.

I've also been attempting to give my cello practice some structure with two newish things. A while back, I heard an interview with Marta Casals Istomin in which she talked about Casals's late-life daily routine. She said that every day, he worked on a different Bach suite: Monday was G major, Tuesday D minor, and so on; the D major Sixth Suite he would do on both Saturday and Sunday because it's the most difficult. So I decided to try this myself. I had forgotten how hard those last two suites are! I have to confess that I haven't been able to do this every day, and I don't have a set routine, like, if it's Wednesday it must be Suite No. 3, but it's been a good refresher course.

The other is that I decided to work my way through the Popper High School of Cello Playing -- 40 etudes that are the closest thing cellists have to Paganini. I learned a few of them when I was in college, but I never treated them as music, and they really are. Inspired by this guy, I'm also attempting to memorize them. I realize that as a somewhat old lady I will never have the sex appeal of a Gen Y-er videoing himself playing Popper while sitting on the edge of his bed, so I don't know if I'll ever record these at all, but I do like working on them.

Then there's orchestra, which is gearing up for the season's first concert this month.

I'm still teaching a few students. I haven't tried to find more yet. I do enjoy teaching, but not the competition with other teachers, plus I'm not willing to take on just anyone. I don't think my forte is very young students, or hooking kids' interest by being an entertainer.

There are a few other odds and ends, but that should do it for now. I hope to be more inspired to write in the months ahead.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Old -- eight eyes?

I've worn glasses since I was 8 years old. At first I would sometimes forget to put them on when I went to school; as time passed and I became more nearsighted, they progressed from optional to necessary.

When I was about 20, I started wearing contact lenses, which worked for me until sometime in my 40s, which was when I became deeply embedded in my job that involved staring at a computer all day in a dry office. The contact lenses were more trouble than they were worth.

About 10 years ago, I noticed I was having trouble reading at close distances -- enter progressive lenses. These have served me pretty well. I eventually acquired prescription sunglasses, also with progressive lenses (after an ophthalmologist told me that if I didn't protect my eyes better I'd end up with cataracts sooner rather than later).

Sometime in the past month or two, I noticed I was having increasing difficulty reading music at the piano. I could see the music, but I couldn't focus my eyes well enough to take in its meaning. This really evidenced itself when I was playing piano duo music -- I was straining my eyes so hard that I felt dizzy. So back to the eye doctor, who, after some testing, wrote me out a prescription for "piano glasses." Within a day, I had my new glasses in hand.

They do indeed enable me to read music on the piano, and it's beautifully clear. But it's disconcerting to look across the room (to see what time it is, for example) and see -- a blur. At first when I tried them out for reading music while playing the cello, they they didn't work, but as my eyes have become accustomed to them, they help with that as well. I doubt if they would work in an orchestra situation because it would be hard to see the conductor. So I may not be done with adding eyeglasses to my life.

I have noticed, even in this short time, that in a strange way they help me focus on what I'm doing at the piano because I can't look away. I can look either at the music or the keyboard, but nowhere else. It made me aware how much I look around the room or away from the piano when I'm playing. With the glasses on, I become more tunnel-visioned on either the music or my hands -- and I think this is a good thing.

Friday, July 4, 2014

What happened to June?

I woke up yesterday and realized that it's now July and that I didn't write a single blog post in the month of June. But things have been going on -- in fact, this past weekend ended the month in a veritable whirl of musical activity.

On Friday, I drove out to the far reaches of Virginia for not one but two rehearsals. The first was with a pianist I've been working with on chamber music. For her benefit, we are doing some cello-piano duos, and for mine, some piano-four-hand duos. On this particular day, we were preparing three movements of the "Dolly Suite" by Fauré for a recital on Sunday. It's not terribly difficult, but playing four-hand piano is new to me and gives me a new perspective on the piano.

After an hour or so of that, I had to rush over to a rehearsal for a concert of Piazzolla tangos with a small string ensemble. This was the same group I played the absurd concert with in May. For this gig, we were playing about 20 different pieces with a bandoneon player, which was logistically challenging, and they were not all that easy, either. We rehearsed for 5 hours and didn't exactly polish everything, although I was again impressed by the level of playing.

Saturday, after teaching a cello lesson in between some frantic practicing, I put on some dressy black clothes and set out for the tango concert. This time we were in a beautiful performance space (a converted movie theater that now features semi-pop groups) with a great sound system. The gig itself was at 8:30 p.m., but we were supposed to be there at 5:00 for a sound check -- which meant a couple hours of cooling our heels until performance time. The one-hour sound check ended with some warm words (well, actually, yelling) between the conductor and the soloist. I never found out what it was all about, but by the time of the concert, everything was fine again. There were a few wobbly moments here and there, but overall it didn't sound too bad.

Sunday I participated in the final AMSF public recital of the season. My adult cello student played a Vivaldi sonata, and I accompanied her on the cello. Vivaldi wrote nine sonatas for cello and continuo, with the latter part being simply a bass line. The player of the chordal instrument (e.g., harpsichord, lute) was expected to improvise an accompaniment. So we were in fact playing the piece exactly as written, though maybe not as intended!

My piano duo partner and I played our three movements of Fauré also. In this genre of music, the "primo" is the person who sits at the high end of the piano, and the "secondo" sits at the low end and works the pedal, so the latter part is usually more difficult though perhaps less obviously so. I was playing the primo part.

My piano teacher attended the recital and made the interesting observation that I did great things with my very easy primo part, which consists mainly of the melody in octaves, so he was wondering how to get me to do the same thing with all of my music! We spent a good chunk of my lesson a few days later working on this with the Brahms Intermezzo I'm learning (Op. 119 No. 1) -- not just bringing out the melody line, but also shaping and adjusting it in context, and learning how to treat it as the vital element that it is. For some reason, this gave me a lot of insight into things we've been talking about for the past 2+ years. It's one thing to say "bring out the melody," but you have to experience what that means to be able to do it.

Speaking of doing, it's now been exactly a year since I gave notice at my job. It has gone by awfully quickly. I keep worrying that I'm wasting this beautiful time that I have now; I never feel like I'm accomplishing enough. But I have no regrets.

Friday, May 30, 2014

And what of the piano?

I haven't mentioned piano in a while, but rest assured that I am still taking my weekly lessons and practicing diligently every day.  My current program:
  • Scales, arpeggios, broken arpeggios, chord progressions (one key per week)
  • Three-finger exercise (where you play 1-2-3, then 2-3-4, then 3-4-5 for an octave, up with the right hand, down with the left hand; first white keys, then chromatic, then whole tones)
  • Trill exercises
  • Bach (we've moved on to Partita No. 1 after my teacher decided I was bored/frustrated with No. 2 after working on it for a year)
  • Chopin étude Op. 25, No. 1 (the "Harp" -- or as my teacher calls it, "Harpy")
  • Brahms Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119, No. 1 (though I haven't entirely put aside the B minor Rhapsody -- in fact, I find it interesting to go from Op. 119 directly to Op. 79 since they are in the same key)
  • A prelude by Ruth Crawford [Seeger] (I put "Seeger" in brackets here because she published these pieces between 1924 and 1928, before her 1932 marriage to Charles Seeger, father of the later famous folk singer Pete)
  • Piano duo (currently, some movements from Fauré's "Dolly" suite -- not exactly a favorite of mine musically, but pleasant enough, and a good introduction to playing four-hands piano)
Also, I try to play/practice the Beethoven sonata about once a week so I don't lose it entirely.

My teacher and I have had some discussions about how to improve my technique, especially how to achieve greater clarity, after I complained about how unevenly I was playing in the Bach (though probably in everything else, too; it's just more obvious in Bach). A lot of it lies in knowing when to lift my fingers higher and when to use more wrist. Scales are good for working on this, though it takes a lot of patience. I am so in the mindset of wanting to get to the music -- and if I have limited time, that's what tends to take precedence. But I do notice that I play better when I've been doing scales and exercises every day.

I have to persist in the face of the feeling I'm not "getting anywhere" with all of this -- though where exactly I'm expecting to get, I don't know.

From time to time, I do a little practicing of the WTC I/2 (the prelude and fugue in C minor that I set aside more than a year ago) to see if I feel like I can record it. It's still not quite there, believe it or not. My standards have definitely changed since I started that project!