Monday, November 28, 2011

Interesting experience

"All right, Mr. DeMille . . ."

Almost two months ago, I was asked if I'd be interested in playing the piano for a two- to four-minute video to be posted online. My first thought was, "What's wrong with good old audio? Got plenty of those already." My next was, "Hmmm. A challenge. Why not? What's the worst that could happen?" So I agreed.

Next I had to decide what to play. First thought: "Better do something easy." Second thought: "This is a great opportunity to display my obsession with Bach -- and find out if I can do it under pressure." After some more consideration, I decided to stick with my most recently learned prelude and fugue set -- WTC I/18, in G sharp minor.

I thought I knew these pretty well, and of course I had already recorded and posted them here, but continuing to practice them for another six+ weeks was, as usual, enlightening. Every time I sat down at the piano, I would play them first, cold, from memory. I could play through both pieces with assurance as long as no one else was in the room. But I knew I did not know them as well as I should. For one thing, though I could look at a measure, put the book away, and play to the end of the piece, I could not do this from any place in the piece without taking that look first. But I kept chipping away, trying to get better at this. I also kept trying to play as slowly as possible, which is harder than one might think. Every place I stumbled or hesitated, I went over: Am I using the best fingering? What exactly is going on there?

The date for the taping grew closer; my performance jitters increased. The video aspect stepped this up many notches. I had to think about how I looked, raising all kinds of personal demons. I also didn't know what the piano would be like, or even what the people involved would be like.

The night before, my normally resilient stomach went into overdrive, and I sat up until 3 a.m. feeling like I was going to hurl. I finally crawled to bed and was able to go to sleep with my intestinal dignity intact.

After that low point, the experience itself turned out not to be so bad. The people were very nice and easy going, the piano was a lovely older Steinway in a calm setting, and I was able to play with some semblance of mastery. We did more than one take so we could get several angles, and by the fourth one I was even enjoying it. I think I did okay. But even if it turns out I didn't (the proof is in the playback), this was really an excellent thing for me to have done. It was a great lesson in how to put aside thoughts of inadequacy and just work with what I had at the moment to try to make music.

But it was so tiring!!!

So it's in the can (unless the camera wasn't actually on or something). I will post a link when it's available.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Blog cross-post: Reaching Beyond

My fellow blogger, Shirley Kirsten (see her link in my blogroll: Arioso7's Blog), posted a link to this documentary about an inspirational piano teacher, Irina Orlov.

If you have about an hour and a half to kill, it's well worth spending the time on it. I may even watch it again sometime.

Reaching Beyond

Note: the site linked here is in Russian (I believe), but the video itself is in English.

(I was interested to note that she is in my locale, and several people I know are interviewed.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

From the archives: Stravinsky

This past weekend, I played in the second season concert with my chamber orchestra. The program was the most interesting one we've done, I believe: Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite, Mahler songs (Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Das Himmlischer Leben), Debussy First Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra, and Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker.

Playing the Stravinsky brought on some cringey memories of my attempt at the solo cello version of the piece, titled "Suite Italienne." The cello part of the orchestral version is pretty easy (even the separate "solo cello" part). Stravinsky later arranged the solo version for Piatigorsky (or rather, Piatigorsky arranged it and he and Stravinsky collaborated on the royalties), and it, on the other hand, is extremely difficult. I learned it for one of my master's degree recitals, but really, my skills at the time (both virtuosic and organizational) were not completely up to the task. I struggled with it for months and never felt satisfied. I have carried around for almost 30 years the idea that the performance was a disaster.

However, when I got home from the concert last night, I pulled out the recording of that recital, fired up the tape player, and burned a digital copy of it and was (somewhat) pleasantly surprised. It's a prim and slightly timid version, a bit light on interpretive genius, but not necessarily untrue to the composer's original conception. Stravinsky apparently wasn't terribly interested in the cello (this is his only solo work for it), so a cool, non-schmaltzy interpretation actually seems about right.

So here are a few movements. If any of you out in blogland want to hear the rest, let me know and I'll post the others. This performance took place on March 9, 1983.



Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"The numbers all go to eleven"

Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...

Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty DiBergi: I don't know.

Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.*

I have always been a Nerd (that's with a capital "N," thanks). When other kids were going to rock concerts and smoking pot, I was at home baking bread and listening to NPR. So I can count on one hand the number of rock'n'roll events I've attended. Oh, I do like a lot of the music and listen to it happily on a home stereo, but there are many things I dislike about the live shows. Among them:

  • Expensive!
  • The audience more often than not has to stand up the entire time. It's like being herded to the slaughter house except they don't hit you over the head, they just take your money. It's presented as being more fun -- hey, guys, you can dance! and jump up and down! -- but in reality, after an hour your feet start to hurt.
  • There is usually a long, boring opening act by a band you have no interest in hearing.
  • They are TOO LOUD!!!
 My husband noticed that the rock great Ray Davies, of Kinks fame, was going to be doing a show in our neighborhood, at the brand-new venue The Fillmore. He excitedly bought tickets. Davies is now in his late 60s, still with a great, strong voice. I really enjoyed the album he did a year or so ago with a choir:

The Kinks Choral Collection

So I was somewhat looking forward to it, with my usual trepidation (see list above). As we were leaving the house last night to go to the show, I grabbed a pair of earplugs --*just in case*.

The drill when we got there: We waited in line outside for about a half  hour. They came along and checked IDs and gave us plastic wristbands color-coded to drinking age (from the looks of it, the vast majority had not been seriously carded in about 30 years -- IOW, we were among our age cohort). Then they let us in in batches. People at the door checked our bags (for weapons? I dunno) and scanned our tickets, after which we were admitted to the actual concert space and found out yep, no chairs. We decided to stand on the main floor rather than in the balcony. Then we waited some more. Then Davies's backup band came out and played for about 45 minutes. They were both boring and LOUD. I put in my earplugs. Somewhere around 9:00, Davies finally showed up. He sounded just as good as he did on his recordings, and he had a fabulous guitarist with him; when it was just the two of them on stage, the music was enjoyable. However, when the backup band came back out and they started rockin' out, it was TOO LOUD. The balance was awful.

For most of the people there, this was a trip down memory lane, and they were ready to sing along and were probably already deaf anyway (if they go to a lot of these things), so what it sounded like didn't matter. I was basically worrying about my ears the whole time. After my hearing loss episode two years ago, even though it didn't have anything to do with being exposed to loud noises, I've been sensitive to how fragile and valuable one's hearing really is.

So, for me, never again (if I can avoid it). Back to Nerd-dom.

 *From "This Is Spinal Tap" (in case you have been living in a cave all your life). We happen to have seen this last week, in a special showing in honor of 11/11/11. I have to say, it was much more enjoyable overall than this concert.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Time, time, time

In planning what I want to do versus, or in conjunction with, what I need to do, I dream of finding a perfect balance.

I have a job in an office where I work all day, every day, Monday through Friday, except for holidays, snow days, and the occasional odd situation (earthquake, electrical outage, World Bank protest, etc.). My free time is my own. I never have to work overtime or bring work home. When I leave the office, I'm done until I return. I've had stretches when I dreamed about work -- dreary dreams involving typing on a computer -- but I think that happens to everyone. (Doesn't it??)

There have been periods since I started working full time when my glorious free hours yawned before me, but the deeper I have gotten into the piano, the more spoken-for my time has seemed. At first, merely playing the piano was exciting to me because I had spent so many years thinking I was too over the hill to even try. As practicing has become more a part of my routine, playing time has changed from "play time" to work. It's tiring. I wonder often if it's worth it.

But as necessary and even inherently gratifying as my office job is, it is not the core of my life. If I didn't have this job, little would be missing from my intellectual and emotional sense of well-being, but if I couldn't play music, life would seem empty indeed. On the other hand, if I don't work really hard at the piano, my ability to pay the bills isn't affected.

I don't know what the answer is. All I know is it's a challenge. The challenge is not so much making time for the things I want to do but arranging the best frame of mind for doing them. One simply can't learn or be deeply creative when feeling rushed, with niggling thoughts about other priorities. The mind must be clear, calm, alert, and fully focused on the task at hand.

I do know one thing, though: I don't want to wake up one day 20 years from now and realize that I didn't even try to do what I wanted to do.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Speaking of Carnegie Hall . . .

Though they weren't terribly interested in music per se, my parents tried to instill interest in and respect for the world of classical music in me and my sisters. It's actually a rather interesting case study of nature versus nurture: Out of five girls raised in the same family and environment, only one (me) developed an interest in it. None of the others even listens to the stuff, let alone plays an instrument. One of my sisters went a bit farther with the piano than the others, and even bought a spinet and gave a few lessons to some neighbors' children when she was a newlywed, but that was many years ago, with the piano long gone. I don't believe she listens to much in the way of music, though she does attend some of my concerts in a show of family solidarity. (She doesn't read this blog, though!)

So when I was growing up, we had a small and tattered collection of records in the house, including some albums of Broadway show tunes, a few random classical recordings, and a set of Great Classics purchased one per month at the A&P. We also had some aimed at children, including a set of Singing Science records and one that had a James Thurber story on one side and this on the other:

I do remember that this was the flip side of the other recording, and I do not remember this album cover. In fact, I don't remember that this was the name of the story, so perhaps what we had some sort of reissue of the original 1948 version you see here. In any case, it was played to death in our house and was finally discarded at some point.

This story has it all: unctious, cheerful male narrator; slightly wry and ironic tone; culture and humor; pathos and a happy ending; and piano music! It's a life in music told from the piano's point of view.

For years, I have been wondering if I could find a copy of it, and now I have, thanks to the folks who set up this site:
 Kiddie Records Weekly began in 2005 as a one year project dedicated to celebrating the golden age of children's records. This period roughly spanned from the mid forties through the early fifties and produced a wealth of all-time classics. Many of these recordings were extravagant Hollywood productions and featured big time celebrities and composers. Over time these forgotten treasures slipped off the radar and it has become our mission to give them a new lease on life by sharing them with today's generation of online listeners.

And here it is, in all its crackly glory (but without the big scratch that made it skip near the end on our family's copy):
If you click on the link, you can listen to the mp3 and/or download the file and images. The pianist on the record, Frank Glazer, is still alive, btw, now 96 years old, still playing and teaching.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fiasco (lite)

This past weekend, my husband and I went to New York. We love going there, doing the cultural stuff, eating good meals, and just walking around watching people and enjoying the city. One reason we went at this time was because there was a Golandsky Institute workshop that I decided would be interesting to attend.

So on Friday, everything went smoothly -- we got there, had lunch, checked into our hotel, and walked down to the Cornelia Street Cafe in the Village to listen to a short concert by a young pianist named Lara Downes who has just released a CD called "13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg." It's a collection of 13 one-movement pieces by contemporary composers based on the Aria movement (i.e., the theme) of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The performance space there is a dimly lit, long, narrow room in the basement with the stage at one end, bar at the other; they've decorated it by hanging mirrors along each long wall, providing interesting exercises in perspective:

Photo credit: Mr. Harriet
The audience was small, a big proportion friends of the performer, including a couple of the composers (one of them William Bolcom!). As for the piece, it has a lot of depth to it but the piano there was kind of lacking so it was hard to get the full effect. We bought the CD and I'm looking forward to listening to it at leisure. One interesting tidbit: The pianist was using her iPad with a foot pedal instead of sheet music. This worked reasonably well, but she did run into technical difficulties when she tried to play things out of order and couldn't find the correct pages.

After the show, we walked over to Little Italy and had a huge dinner at a vegan restaurant and then a brisk walk back to the hotel.

The next day: A different story altogether! It was raining in the morning, a bit soggy but not too bad. I made it up to the workshop location near Piano Row/Carnegie Hall a little damp around the edges but intact. First problem: I pulled out my checkbook, and it turned out my husband had used the last check without telling me, so I had no blank checks. They said I could get some money from an ATM and pay them later.

So I settled down for the presentations. My teacher had said this would be a good event for me to attend, but (you knew there would be a "but," right?) it turned out to be aimed solely at Taubman teachers or potential Taubman teachers and assumed a great deal of advance knowledge, which I obviously don't have. I won't go into a blow by blow, but the gist was that there seems to be a certain amount of disdain for students who won't go for the full remodel (the "retraining"). So I felt uncomfortable both because of my sort of outside status and because I guess I fall into this latter category.

The ideas are pretty interesting, but so abstract. I would like to hear how this all translates into actual playing; it sounds good in theory, but how is the music when all is said and done?

Noon came, and there was an hour break for lunch. This is where things got extremely soggy. I ventured out into the street and into a blinding wet blizzard, with big globs of slushy snow coming from all angles. My umbrella was no match for this stuff, and my thin shoes and jacket got soaked in short order, not to mention my jeans. I wandered around looking for an ATM without success. I finally ducked into a cafe and had some soup, and had a mental reconnoiter, resulting in the decision that I did not want to go back and sit for three hours with wet clothes unless it was to hear Glenn Gould arisen from the dead. (He'd make a good zombie, wouldn't he?)

So I gave up and went to the hotel and spent the afternoon trying to get dry. My shoes were such a lost cause that I stopped on the way and bought a pair of boots.

The snow and rain continued well into the night, but we forged on and went out to dinner (pretty good Greek food) and then to hear Steve Kuhn's trio at the Jazz Standard. What a great pianist! From where we were sitting, we could see his hands on the keys AND reflected in the fallboard of the piano, and I noticed he did all the things that are the aim of Taubman technique (at least as I understand it): He keeps his hand and arm aligned behind his fingers, he does not stretch or lift his fingers, and he does not twist his body around; he just sits there and plays with great tone.

By the following morning, the storm was over, the sky was clear, the sun was out. We had a glitch-free trip home.

So to sum up: Am I justified in calling this a fiasco, or was it actually valuable in some way? I suppose any information is useful. I can't help feeling that there are many valid paths to achieving beautiful playing, and something in me rebels at orthodoxy. I have been the victim of so many other people's misguided notions of how things "should" be when they have tried to impose them on me, or judged me lacking because of them, that I am skeptical.