Sunday, February 28, 2010

Chopin Op. 55 No. 1 -- take two!

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I recorded this piece three years ago. I decided to record it again for the Chopin E-cital organized by Chopin enthusiasts from the Adult Beginner's forum on Piano World. The idea behind this series of recitals is to collect one recording of each piece made by a Piano World amateur volunteer -- so no duplicates, and of course, no professional recordings.

Here is what one of the organizers has said about this project. He has a take on it that I've not seen elsewhere:

The focus with e-cital is on offering a tasteful showcase platform of for the amateur performer. There is love in these performances that most pros would be hard-pressed to match - the fruit of many hours of dedications and often frustration. They are humanized, and serve, I believe, to humanize the composers while honoring them.

The inspiration found its genesis in my childhood in the 1980s: no one except professionals would play Chopin for me because they felt it was "too hard", or they were embarrassed, or... I wanted to hear what was tough about his work, since anyone with formal training and able to devote their entire career to musical study would effectively hide it and make it all sound easy. Thus, all I ever heard were professional performances, which say little about a work's difficulty and even become, no matter how sublime the interpretation, rather vanilla like some mass-produced shrinkwrapped product - if that's all one ever hears! I wanted to offer a platform for amateur performers to showcase their work since - let's face it! - performance opportunities are rare. Most of all, I wanted people to believe in themselves and accomplish the impossible!

This particular recital is in honor of Chopin's 200th birthday, celebrated on March 1, and it includes the pieces that don't fall into particular categories as well as any pieces that were missed on any of the previous recitals. Most of the nocturnes were represented last year, but the person who had intended to record Op. 55 No. 1 had some health problems and wasn't able to do it. I noticed the hole and offered to fill it.

The recital will go live tomorrow here:

Chopin E-cital site

I was interested in trying to play this piece better than I did three years ago. One thing that surprised me was how much easier it felt. Everything that was stretching my technique when I learned it the first time felt well within its capabilities this time. Memory was much more secure, and little details were much more polished. It still isn't Horowitz, but it's a more advanced me.

Chopin Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1, new and improved

I'm most dissatisfied with the fact that it sounds a bit too sturdy and straightforward. A quick survey of YouTube piece reveals that most pianists play it much slower and more dreamily than I just did. My recording clocks in at around 4 minutes; theirs are more than 5 minutes. Ah well. I guess I just don't feel it that way. I keep imagining this nocturne as more of a stately dance than as a dream sequence. FWIW, my husband thought my recording was very good.

Here's Horowitz:

Horowitz playing 55/1 at Carnegie Hall

This one by Tzvi Erez is a bit more robust. There are also some interesting background tidbits about the piece in footnotes below the video.

Erez playing 55/1 on a vintage Boesendorfer

Anyway, I have to remember that I'm an amateur. There's always something new to learn. Onward and upward . . .

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Action shot

Playing at my sister-in-law's birthday party on Sunday:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What I'm playing this week

On the piano

These past couple of weeks, I have been practicing the Bach prelude and fugue (WTCII/2), Brahms Op. 118 Nos. 1 and 2, and Chopin Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1.

The reason I am reworking the Chopin is because I offered to record it for the Chopin anniversary online recital at Piano World. I will need to get that done before March 1. I've been dragging my feet (fingers?) on this, though. Ever since someone insulted me over there a few weeks ago and no one defended me or apologized, Piano World has lost its charm for me. I know, it was just one thread that probably only a few people even read. However, the bigger picture for me is that when I put in some of my valuable time reading and writing but few people respond, and no one seems to notice when I drop out for a while, it all starts to feel like a waste of time -- and I don't have a lot of that to waste.

On the other hand, relearning this nocturne is not at all a waste of time. It's definitely interesting to notice that my playing has improved since I learned it the first time three years ago.

I've also started to dip into the Beethoven sonata Op. 2 No. 3.

On the cello

I am planning to practice at least a bit every day -- scales, the tunes for the English dance on March 6, and some Bach. My fingertips were pretty sore after all the playing I did on Sunday, so I need to get back in shape.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A few random musical experiences

This past week fed my musical brain a bit.


On Thursday, my husband called me at work and asked if I'd like to see a Jean Arthur movie at the AFI that evening. It sounded like fun, so I said okay. But then I left work a few minutes later than I'd planned to, and the train was a little slower than usual, so I didn't get there until a few minutes after the movie started. I hate missing the beginnings of movies. My husband was all for seeing it anyway. While we were standing in the lobby arguing about discussing it, a woman came up to us and said, "Come and see this movie a friend of mine made!" It was a free screening of a documentary called "The Music Lesson," about a group of high school students from the Boston Youth Orchestra who went to Africa to meet and play music with children there. So we decided to go to that instead.

My impression was that the subject was certainly interesting, but the compare-and-contrast exercise didn't quite hold together. The Boston students were the typical highly schooled classical musicians who had never tried to improvise and probably had never played any folk music. Their playing, even at its best, was a bit stilted and wobbly. The African students were trained in music only to the extent of learning songs in school, in church, and in group ceremonial experiences. The music they performed in the film was vibrant, rhythmic, spontaneous, and primitive.

There was a Q&A afterward with the director, producer, and a few others involved with the film. The cinematographer had an amusing story about something that had happened early on. One day, an elephant appeared near the place where they were all staying (accommodations were basically like camping, though in a spacious wooden structure open to the air), and the cinematographer asked one of the kids, a particularly gregarious flute player, to play something while he filmed. The kid said, "Oh, I can't; I don't have anything prepared." The guy urged him quite a bit, but the boy refused to play. By the end of their time there, this boy was jamming along with everyone else. One of the violinists commented that they were all getting much better at improvising because they were doing it every day.

One important point about all this was made by an African musician who had appeared in the film. Someone in the audience commented that the Boston kids got this vivid musical experience, but what did the African kids get? The musician said that the gift to them was recognition that they indeed had something to offer these sophisticated, rich Americans.


On Saturday, we had a gathering at our house in honor of my mother-in-law. Because there isn't going to be a funeral, my husband wanted to do something and decided to arrange this. It was a busy day for me, cleaning, shopping, and baking (though my husband did order in some food). I got in a little piano practice before everyone arrived, but didn't touch the cello.

After everyone had had something to eat, and we had all conversed for a while, my husband came up to me and asked if I would mind playing something on the cello. I think the film we saw was in the back of both of our minds, because normally he wouldn't have even asked me, and normally I probably would have demurred. But this time, he did ask, and I said sure.

So I brought my cello upstairs. My husband read a poem by Wendell Berry, who is a native of Kentucky, where my mother-in-law was born.

The Silence
Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

"It is golden," while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men's silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there. *

Then I played the prelude from the first Bach suite. I played from memory, and I just walked myself through it. Those notes are so familiar to me; I've been playing that piece for 40 years. It would have been so silly to be nervous that I barely had to tell myself not to be nervous.


This afternoon, I had a rehearsal with a fiddle player and a recorder player for an English country dance ball in a couple of weeks. They both are much more experienced at playing this kind of music than I am, and I felt a little intimidated, but they were very nice and the rehearsal went well. We played through a list of about 20 songs. It was actually fun, and though I felt very creaky at first, started to warm up as we went along.

This evening, we went to my brother- and sister-in-law's house to celebrate her 50th birthday. She called me last night and asked me to bring my cello and play a little bit, so after dinner, I set up and played some Bach and some Scottish folk tunes, and then we all had cake. After the cake, my brother-in-law cranked up his Hammond organ to jam some blues with his brother-in-law, who plays harmonica. I got the cello out again and totally surprised everyone by jamming along with them.

*From Wendell Berry, Collected Poems 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Anniversary and life event

It's been a year today since the problem with my ear started. It seems to be fine now, though today I'm having a problem with my eye (it's great being over 50, isn't it?). Every once in a while, something happens with one of my eyes -- not always the same one. It's some sort of infection, and I don't know what causes it, but it's painful. Rest and warm compresses are the only treatments that help. So I'm nursing myself through this and considering whether I should go to the ophthalmologist.

The tears on my face feel appropriate. We are in a sad, contemplative mode here this week. My mother-in-law died on Sunday morning. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the mid-1990s. The effects were mild for almost a decade, but in 1999 her husband died rather suddenly, and with the inevitable contraction of her life (widowhood + worsening of her own illness), she was never really happy again. For the past five years, she had been in a nursing home. I've read that most people who end their lives in nursing homes stay for only about a year. Five years is a very long time to live in such a place, even when it is well run and caring.

This past week, she slipped into a deep sleep. I don't know if it was technically a coma, but no one could wake her up, and she couldn't eat or drink. It was in this deep sleep that she died, peacefully and quietly. Everyone in the family is sad because of her suffering over the past ten years, but we are glad for her that that is over. It's sobering to think that no matter how vigorously someone lives her life, it can dwindle to this. It's yet another reminder not to put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What I'm playing this week

This has been a strange week. I've been off of work since noon on Friday because of our huge snow storm (about 30 inches of snow in our area), but have I been practicing a lot? Why, no. But I have been doing a bit.

On piano:

Bach WTC II No. 2 in C minor: I have both prelude and fugue memorized but can't play them through flawlessly, and I also am not sure about my interpretation. I had the idea that I would record them for posterity and move on to another set, but it bothers me to leave them in this half-done condition. I'd also like to at least be able to play them through for myself, if for no one else.

Chopin Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1: Memory is mostly back, and it does seem a lot easier than it did the first time I learned it (three years ago), but it's clunky and uneven and not polished at all. Sigh.

Brahms Op. 118: I'm continuing to practice Nos. 1 and 2. No. 2 is actually almost memorized and is getting a bit easier.

Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3: I started practicing this very slowly. Not sure why I picked one of the longest sonatas he wrote . . . but perhaps this will be a good endurance exercise. This is always an issue with me, though; when I choose pieces that are longer than about five minutes I tend to give up on them because I get frustrated. However, I did once learn an entire Mozart sonata (K. 310). I wish I had recorded all of it at the time instead of just the first movement. This was also about three years ago (seems to have been a productive piano year for me):

A classical-form sonata movement does have a great deal of repetition, even though it's in different keys, so it does tend to be easier terms of memorization than some other forms that are through-compose. So I'm not entirely without hope that I can do this project.

On the cello:

Not doing much, though I do have a couple of things coming up. One is an English country dance ball the first weekend in March. I was hired for this by one of the callers for the dance at Glen Echo. It will be a trio, fiddle, recorder, and cello. The event is part of a cultural enrichment program for high school students; they're going to have a workshop during the day and a ball in the evening. We're planning to have a rehearsal in two weeks (assuming we get a playlist by then), so I really need to practice just some general stuff (scales, etc.) so I don't sound like a fool.

Another event is that our little neighborhood group -- violin, recorder, guitar, cello -- is going to be playing for tips (for three hours!) at a café in May. We need to work out what we're going to play and any arrangements, so that will take some getting together and rehearsing. The last time we played anywhere was last August. Here's a sample from that event:

There are also two more orchestra concerts for the season, one in April, one in June.

In the meantime, more snow is expected tonight. I may have another day off tomorrow as well.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

This is terrible, but . . .

. . . the master class I was supposed to play in this Sunday was canceled because it's supposed to snow buckets tomorrow.

That's not the terrible part; the terrible part is that I'm immensely relieved. I was supposed to play Brahms Op. 118 No. 1, and some part of me was looking forward to it, but another part was dreading it. If it was just playing, it wouldn't be so bad, but the whole social thing always makes me nervous, too. I mentioned in an earlier post that I met the teacher many years ago, and he is a very nice person, warm and friendly, so that's not what was worrying me. (Some of the "masters" I've played for have been the nastiest-behaving people I've ever encountered. There is one very famous cellist who was so jerky to me in a master class some 20 years ago that I now refuse to even listen to him or his recordings.) I just kept thinking how weird it would be, attempting to play the piano when he knew me and accompanied me as a cellist.

One of my escapades when I was attempting to learn to play the viola was attending a "Viola Fest" weekend at a university music school. The viola teacher at the school happened to be someone I knew from college who had married one of our composition professors. He had been pretty friendly to me and even asked me to perform his cello and piano sonata with him. He was at this viola thing, too, and he said something about how it was sad seeing me struggle with the viola in comparison with my ease and naturalness on the cello. I was wondering if this pianist would think the same thing (though he probably would not say it!).

Another anxiety-producing element is the piece -- I mean, Brahms, after all. Brahms comes as a shock after learning Chopin. Many of Chopin's piano pieces are difficult, yes, but they lie naturally under the fingers, and they don't fight with the piano. Brahms's piano pieces all seem like they are trying to be something else, something orchestral, or trying to create a sound possible only in the imagination. One reason I chose to play Brahms for this master class was because I thought I could get some help with the larger issue of how to create the sound I imagine -- or at least how to try. But the fact that I'm not taking lessons makes me feel a little -- um, would the word be "cheap"? -- trying to get this kind of help in front of an audience.

I wouldn't say the main reason I'm not taking lessons is because of the expense, though that enters into it. It's more that I don't know how to find the right teacher. I'm pretty sure I will need someone different from the run-of-the-mill neighborhood piano teacher who mainly guides little kids through John Thompson, or even the more advanced level teacher who knows how to steer little geniuses through competitions. I'm not a beginner, but I'm no pro, either. It's not that easy finding someone who will teach adults at all, whatever their level. We're a tougher audience than children, and we have pesky things like full-time jobs and spouses, and we tend to get busy and cancel lessons or show up not having practiced (though the kids do that, too, as I know from teaching). For whatever reason, I have found it hard to pick up the phone and arrange to talk to some teachers, but I should do it.

Anyway, the master class will be rescheduled, probably for some more temperate time of the season, so I will get a chance to go through all of this again. And perhaps I will be better prepared than I would have been this Sunday.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What nurtures creativity?

People are always moaning that they don't have enough time to engage in their chosen creative activity. It so often happens, though, that if one does have lots of time, one does not do anything particularly meaningful with it.

I often think about my mother when I think about this. She was always interested in drawing, and when she was a young married woman, she took a painting class at the Y. She spent many happy hours in the following years making oil paintings that ranged from portraits of people in the family to still lifes to quasi-abstracts, and she used them to decorate our house. I remember standing at her elbow, watching her work with delicate dabs of pigment on an artist's palette. I grew up familiar with the scent of turpentine.

When she was in her late 40s, she went back to college to get a degree in fine arts. She dutifully completed the various projects required for her classes. These included a lot of nudes, including a cast plaster sculpture and many large canvases painted with swirls of ugly colors. The instruction seemed to revolve around abstract expressionism and all its offshoots, far removed from my mother's cheerful, ladylike portraits and still lifes.

The college experience seemed to deflect her original enthusiasm. By the time she graduated, she seemed to have lost her creative spark. She had all day, every day, to paint and draw -- my younger sister and I were both in junior high school, and my older sisters were all married -- but she did very little. When finances required more income, she went out and got a job as a secretary. In subsequent years, she actually found more inspiration to paint than she had when she was not working. My sisters asked her to paint pictures for them -- of their kids, or a big canvas to decorate a wall. It was the kind of thing she enjoyed, even though her art teachers may not have approved.

After she retired and after my father died, she took up some other artistic interests, including abstract wood sculpture and Chinese calligraphy. She pursued these regularly, but it never seemed to me that she had the same absorption she did when she was younger and more in her own world. She had become too conscious of outside standards and measurements beyond her own eyes.

This has become a cautionary tale for me, though I'm not exactly sure what the moral is. Don't go to college? Well, too late for that! Maybe it's more: don't lose sight of what is original in yourself. And then the other part: don't forget what made you want to do the thing in the first place.

My mother's daylilies