Saturday, November 27, 2010

From the archives: Bach on the cello

I was browsing through our iTunes files this evening and came across a recording of me playing Bach on the cello in 1985. That was the year I gave a recital for what was a soon to be aborted attempt to earn a doctorate from a well-known conservatory. I won't go into the gory details here; suffice it to say that a number of unpleasant things happened that year, and the upshot was that I left and did some other things for a year or two before trying school again. The second time was the charm -- or at least, I got through the graduate program at another school without embarrassing myself too much.

The original recording is on a cassette tape. My husband and I were experimenting once with transferring tape to digital format, and this is the result. It has a kind of fuzzy, distant sound quality.

Bach, Prelude, Suite No. 5 in C minor for solo cello (beginning cut off)

I remember those little slips feeling like the most godawful messes at the time, but they are not so bad. Listening to this now, I wish it had been more graceful and a bit less on the scratchy side, though there's a lot of strength to it.

(For visuals, just imagine me with a perm. It was the '80s, after all.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, a day late . . .

. . . and a dollar short . . . like Virgil Starkwell . . .

(Speaking of dollars, I wish I had one for every time someone has mentioned this movie to me when they found out I play the cello.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cello section!

The chamber orchestra I'm in played its second concert of the season this afternoon. The program was a bit more substantial than some we've done. It opened with "Tales From the Vienna Woods" (with two violins substituting for the zither part Strauss scored originally); next was Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, which never fails to remind me of youth orchestra concerts, though I think our version was a little more mature; then after intermission, we played Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on Greensleeves"; and we closed with Borodin's Symphony No. 2.

There was the usual quota of missed notes and missed connections and the familiar frustrations of playing in the poor acoustics of the church. But it felt good to play a concert nonetheless.

One of the other cellists just sent me a picture of the section, taken by my husband at intermission, with a request to post it on my blog, so here it is:

Tom, Liz, Karen, Liana, Frank, and Harriet
One little side note: for this concert, the orchestra hired a harp player (such are the ways of community orchestras that one reason for the choice of repertoire was to make sure each piece had a harp part). I was surprised to find that the harpist was someone I played with maybe 15 years ago with a chamber group. At the time, she was a star high school student, heading off to Curtis (which, in case you didn't know, is a crème-de-la-crème music school in Philadelphia that is full scholarship for all students, all four years). One would think that such a student would graduate and have offers pouring in for orchestra jobs (unless one knew that offers never pour in for orchestra jobs). But this harpist now plays with a local regional orchestra, does weddings and other gigs, and gives lessons. I suppose if she's happy that's fine, but it seems a little sad, somehow. She's still a very good player.*

*Someone pointed out to me that this could be interpreted as harsh. By "sad," I'm not talking about this person's life, which of course is not sad, but about the state of music education -- that even someone with the most stellar credentials has no particularly stellar place to go careerwise when they get out of school but must make his or her way just like the rest of us not so stellar ones. Biographies of famous musicians rarely describe providing background music for weddings but instead make artistic success sound inevitable. Maybe things are different now than when I was in school, but I never had a teacher who mentioned the cold realities one would face once one graduated.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review of Emanuel Ax recital (Washington Post)

FWIW, here is reviewer Anne Midgette's reaction to the recital I mentioned in my last post:

Music review: Emanuel Ax at Strathmore

"Though Emanuel Ax captured a singing artlessness in the Schubert selections, the Chopin pieces were at times muddy." 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Small rant about recital programs these days

When I was in school, I enjoyed choosing recital programs. It was like coming up with good double features. I would think about key connections (pairing a major key with its parallel or relative minor), forms (e.g., playing two pieces with fugues), and contrasting styles (something detailed and classical paired with something lush and romantic; something lush and romantic paired with something angular and modern). The trend these days, though, seems tending toward programming entire recitals of one or two composers, with no composers who lived after 1900, and nothing too challenging or "out there."

Over the past year or so, my husband and I have been treating ourselves to piano recitals by some big names in the piano world. We've heard, among others, András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Angela Hewitt, Alfred Brendel (his last concert in the United States), and last night, Emanuel Ax. These are people with the stature to play anything they want, yet many of them are presenting the same thing over and over again. This year, we've been treated to multiple concerts featuring the same pieces by Schumann and Chopin (in honor of their 250th birthdays). In a previous season, no less than three pianists played the same Beethoven sonata.

Some of this probably is because the presenters don't want to take chances with programming. I believe (and someone correct me if I'm wrong) that the performers offer lists of works that they are playing in a particular season, and the presenters choose one from column A, one from column B, and so on. They end up choosing what they think are the safe crowd pleasers. I do understand that they need to think about ticket sales, and let's face it, most of the people who shell out money to go to concerts are not edgy hipsters and musicologists but older people with disposable income and conservative tastes. At every one of the concerts we've attended in these piano series, most of the audience looked to be retirement age and up. But here's something to think about about: maybe they would get BIGGER audiences with more interesting programs. They sure weren't sold out last night. A sure sign of a small audience: they didn't open the coffee bar in the Grand Tier at intermission.

It's not that there's anything wrong with any of the music we've heard; it's just that I have always felt a recital should be more than the sum of its parts. Pieces played in proximity to each other can highlight qualities that are not apparent when they are played in isolation. Where is the creativity when a program is simply a selection of works from one composer? You might as well go out and buy a CD by that performer of the complete works (which in fact is usually for sale at intermission). And when a number of concerts are presented as a series, that is another opportunity for imagination in programming, with each concert being part of a whole.

As for last night's concert, my impression was that it was professional and workmanlike but rote and somewhat boring, and the programming was a big part of the problem. The first half was Schubert: the four impromptus from Op. 142 and the sonata in A major, Op. 120. The second half was Chopin: the Barcarolle, the four Op. 59 mazurkas, the two nocturnes from Op. 27, and the B flat scherzo.

The Schubert especially didn't work well in that big hall; the sonata is a simple one and seemed more suited to a student recital than to a concert like this one, and the impromptus, though certainly not easy, are for the most part also simple in form and content. All that simplicity and repetitiveness in one 40-minute-or-so block of time, however cleanly performed, was too much. The Chopin pieces worked much better as a group; Chopin was a more inventive composer altogether, in my opinion (particularly in terms of pianism), and his music is just easier to bring off in a performance. However, by the time the second half rolled around, the performer seemed fatigued and the audience restless.

For encores, Ax played Schumann (I think it was a movement from Waldszenen, not sure -- I know Schiff played it last month) and Chopin (the "grand waltz" No. 1, I believe). Overall, it was interesting to finally see and hear him in a live performance, but it wasn't enlightening in any other respects.

There really is a benefit to hearing live music, but I wish the people who design these concert series would be more imaginative. Creative programming doesn't have to be ugly.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Addition to the practice routine

If what I do can even be described as a "routine"!

I am right-handed. I work on a computer all day, and to try to balance out overuse, I keep the mouse on the left side of the keyboard and in general try to do things ambidextrously as much as I can. But my right hand still bears an extra burden in terms of fine motor tasks. Then I go home and practice the piano, and it's a fact that most piano music exercises the right hand far more than the left.

So I've been noticing over the past few months that my left hand feels slighted in terms of how much exercise it's been getting. I've noticed it especially since I started working on the Bach D minor prelude from WTC I, in which the right hand gets a significant workout while the left hand just plays a walking bass in eighth notes. After an hour of practicing this piece, my right hand and arm feel pretty buffed, whereas my left hand feels like it's been taking a nap. So I decided to add some left-hand-alone work to make up for this deficiency.

My first piano teacher did this. Part of her standard assignment would be an exercise out of Hermann Berens's "Training of the Left Hand: Forty-Six Exercises and Twenty-Five Studies for the Left Hand Alone."

Here's a sample page (courtesy of SheetMusicPlus):

Naturally, with the callowness of youth, I didn't appreciate this much at the time, though I did like some of the studies -- they are musical. I may even get old Berens out of the music stockpile. But last night, I turned to Brahms's arrangement for left hand alone of the Bach Chaconne in D minor. I read through the entire piece (the first time I've ever been able to do that!), and sorry, Herr Berens, but this piece is in a different universe.

Brahms said of it (in a letter to Clara Schumann),

The Chaconne is in my opinion one of the most wonderful and incomprehensible pieces of music. Using the technique adapted to a small instrument the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad. If one has no supremely great violinist at hand, the most exquisite of joys is probably simply to let the Chaconne ring in one's mind. But the piece certainly inspires one to occupy oneself with it somehow . . . There is only one way in which I can secure undiluted joy from the piece, though on a small and only approximate scale, and that is when I play it with the left hand alone . . . The same difficulty, the nature of the technique, the rendering of the arpeggios, everything conspires to make me-feel like a violinist!*

I'm not sure I want to feel like a violinist, but I think that tackling the technical challenges involved in bringing this very familiar piece (I've not only heard it performed but have lived through various friends learning it, on both violin and guitar) to life will be very helpful, beyond simply exercising my left hand.

So I will add this into my mix and will see how it develops.

*From La Jolla Music Society, Copyright 2010