Monday, October 29, 2012

András Schiff and the Bach Project

The pianist András Schiff is presenting a series of concerts in which he is playing all of Bach's major keyboard works, including the Well-Tempered Clavier. He has also released a new recording of the entire WTC. This past weekend, my husband and I traveled up to New York City to hear him play Book 1. 

Some people to whom I have mentioned this have dismissed it as being tedious and boring to listen to, but I found it anything but. Each of the 48 little pieces in each book is fresh and inventive no matter how many times one hears them, and hearing them played as a group in a packed concert hall was especially interesting. Schiff performed them with only short pauses between pieces; maybe because I have listened to them so many times, the progression between each sounds inevitable to me. There was an intermission after No. 12 -- as the New York Times reviewer suggested, maybe more for the audience's benefit than for the performer's:

I didn't totally like all of his choices of tempi, but the thing about Bach's music is that it can be played just about any way, and it survives. And there's no way one can't respect a performer who can play through all 48 preludes and fugues from memory with subtle musicality and technical mastery.

My husband was wondering if performers at that level are ever overwhelmed by having to perform a huge work like this. I suspect that if you are at the stage where you can realistically contemplate doing so, you are beyond more than minor nerve issues. We stopped by the hall to pick up our tickets about an hour before the concert, and as we were leaving, Schiff was just arriving -- and he looked calm enough to me.

We have tickets to hear him play Book 2 tomorrow night here in Maryland; I hope the weather we're having doesn't cause the concert to be canceled.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


My in-laws just got back from Paris, where they took this photo:

Monday, October 15, 2012

What Makes It Great? (Could it be the pianist?)

Yesterday, my husband and I went to a performance by the music appreciation guru Rob Kapilow. I've heard him on the radio (and if you're a public radio listener, you probably have, too) and have found his comments solid and insightful, but the main reason I wanted to attend this particular show was because the topic was Chopin's piano music and the performer was my friend Brian Ganz.

Here's the blurb from the Washington Performing Arts Society website:
In his acclaimed What Makes It Great? series, former NPR music commentator Rob Kapilow "gets audiences in tune with classical music at a deeper level than many of them thought possible"(Los Angeles Times). In a three-part format, Kapilow unravels and explores a great musical masterpiece with the audience. Next, the piece is performed in its entirety followed by a Q & A with the audience and performers.

"Not since Leonard Bernstein has classical music had a combination salesman-teacher as irresistible as Kapilow." ~ Kansas City Star

The performance at Baird Auditorium, in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, was sold out, and the place was packed, so we ended up sitting in the front row. I normally do not like doing this, but in this case, I enjoyed the more visceral experience of the piano's sonorities.

The pieces discussed and performed were two Mazurkas (Op. 7, No. 1, in B flat major, and Op. 17, No. 4, in A minor), a Nocturne (Op. 62, No. 1, in B major), and a Polonaise (Op. 53, in A flat major). A Steinway concert grand and a Yamaha digital piano were set up on the stage. Brian sat at the Steinway and Kapilow sat at the Yamaha, and as Kapilow discussed the pieces, he demonstrated a bit and Brian demonstrated a bit. After each discussion, Kapilow left the stage and Brian performed the work in full.

As to what makes this music great, I'm probably too close to the material to get a sense of whether this was conveyed in such a presentation. My husband, as a nonmusician, said he appreciated the way Kapilow took each piece apart, discussing first each form (what a mazurka is, etc.) and then how Chopin used harmony and melodic structure to create his effects. Kapilow certainly touched on all the important points: Chopin's ability to take small salon forms and embue them with color, interest, and imagination; his individualism (eschewing the large forms, like symphonies and operas, to focus on his strengths as a composer); and the technical challenges of playing this music. But Brian's wonderful performances were additionally persuasive.

As I mentioned earlier this year, Brian is engaged in a multiyear series of concerts, the Chopin Project, in which he is performing all of Chopin's music, so he has been immersed in this music, and it shows. I can't remember hearing such beautifully clean, yet relaxed and powerful, versions of these pieces.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Schumann concerto -- things to think about

I'm mostly writing this post as a note to myself, but I thought any cellists out there might be interested in this essay by the cellist Anssi Karttunen (no, I never heard of him before I found this, but he seems like an intelligent person!) on traditions versus what is actually in the score. The gist of it is that Schumann marked tempi that are very different from what most cellists use when they perform the piece, and it also mentions the difference between Schumann's chamber-sized orchestra and the usual full symphony orchestra.

I have seen similar discussions elsewhere, so it's not just this person's observations.

As I begin to delve into this piece, it seems less difficult than I remember it. This worries me! I must be kidding myself! But we will see ...

Thoughts about the unusual history of Schumann's Cello Concerto

Monday, October 8, 2012

What I'm playing this week

We had our first orchestra concert of the season last weekend, and it went well -- I think in many respects better than usual, mostly because we had an improved first violin section. It didn't require much practicing on my part; most of it went into the Strauss horn concerto, which has a few tricky spots.

So I was and am able to devote most of my practice time to the piano:

I'm continuing with the program of scales and arpeggios (E flat major this week). Last week's D minor was easy, and I was able to play the fast iterations without a lot of effort. Any scale with a lot of black keys suddenly becomes more difficult because those black keys are simply harder to hit accurately. There is also a trill exercise that I diligently run through every day, as directed (like taking a multivitamin). I hope it's helping.

I'm still working on the same pieces: Bach D minor prelude and fugue from WTC I, Brahms Op. 116 No. 1 and Op. 118 No. 1, Chopin selected preludes, and Schumann Kinderszenen (I'm continuing on with the set, learning Nos. 8 to the end). 

We've added another Chopin prelude, No. 22 in G minor. This is another piece that I learned on my own about 4 years ago. On my first go-round with it, I took great satisfaction in thundering those bass octaves in a way that would make my teacher shudder (so it's a good thing he never heard me do it). Someone on Piano World once described this piece (after trying to learn it and giving up in frustration) as "a thug in an evening jacket." I have more fondness for it. It's a dramatic Romantic piece with Brahmsian qualities (in a compact half minute or so).

On the cello, my rash resolution to perform the Schumann concerto next year is prodding enough for me start practicing it NOW. It feels daunting but possible, so I will keep at it.

The next orchestra concert features parts of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite, including the beautiful violin and cello solos from the White Swan pas de deux number (in G flat major!), so I have to practice for that as well.

Cello solo begins around 5:45 in this video: