Monday, November 26, 2012

What I'm playing this week: Change of course

At my piano lesson a few days after I wrote my previous "what I'm playing this week" post, I broached to my teacher the idea that perhaps I was working on music that was too hard for me. I've sensed from him that he hasn't been entirely convinced that I should be working on all of this stuff but that he didn't want to discourage me, either. I felt this particularly with regard to Kinderszenen; that is, I know he had some specific reasons for starting me on "Of Strange Lands and People" and a few of the others, but he wasn't enthusiastic about my continuing with the whole set though he didn't say so specifically.

And then he told me to work on the Brahms Op. 118 No. 1, and the shit hit the fan. This piece has highlighted my weaknesses as a pianist, as only Brahms can do: the big chords, wide jumps, and wall-of-sound washes of arpeggios, against which the pianist has to bring out the melody and make it expressive. I attempted this piece on my own a few years ago without much success, and this time around it has again been a struggle. It's hard to say whether I even like it or not; maybe I do in the sense that a gymnast likes her routine on the parallel bars -- not necessarily something you'd do for fun, but something that advances your technique and lets you show it to the world.

Anyway, the upshot of our conversation was that I have dropped the Schumann and Chopin for a while and am working only on Bach and Brahms (this piece plus Op. 116 No. 6 and 117 No. 2), plus a new piece: the Preludio from Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. I could see instantly why he chose it: It has the same big leaps and balance issues as the Brahms but is much, much simpler musically. (He also told me to stay away from YouTube and use my own imagination to come up with an interpretation.)

So that has been my task for the past couple of weeks. The big technical challenge for me is to learn how to let go of notes once I play them. My instinct (and I suspect this is probably common for a lot of people) is to hold onto everything even after it has sounded, even though this is often counterproductive. Once a note sounds on the piano, the only thing that affects its continued sound is the pedal; your hands have nothing to do with it after the hammer hits the strings. If you play a big chord, for example, and continue to press down the keys with the same force, your hand is in a position of tension, and it's also more difficult to move to the next note. But at the same time, one's instinct after grabbing something with effort is to hold onto it. Thus, quite a bit of retraining is involved here. We'll see if I can do it.

I also started another Bach prelude and fugue, the C minor from WTC I. I learned this set five years ago and never recorded it, so it's good to relearn it. I don't exactly feel "finished" with the D minor set, but when would you ever? I was able to play through both the prelude and fugue very cleanly and from memory at my last lesson and even got a couple of  "good"s from my teacher, so not so bad, right? Maybe I will try to record it again so I can compare it with my previous version.

On the cello: I am contemplating how best to proceed. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Another orchestra concert

Yesterday, my chamber orchestra played its second concert of the season. The program was all short audience pleasers. Well, of course we always hope that our programs are audience pleasers, but this one was especially so: Humperdinck's overture to Hansel and Gretel; Smetana's "The Moldau," Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours," Mahler's Adagietto from the fifth symphony, and selections from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite.

"The Moldau" is special favorite of everyone, including me. One of my earliest memories of listening to classical music as a child was the set of "great classics" purchased one at a time from the A&P, stored in a fat binder covered in red leatherette, with heavy marbled paper sleeves for the LP records. I don't know what orchestra was playing the stuff, but I loved this piece. My resident critic (aka my husband), opined that this one went especially well at our concert. (We were kind of stretching the definition of "chamber orchestra" with the full brass section, including tuba.)

The Ponchielli has a rather challenging cello part, with a full page or so of the cellos carrying the melody. And it's a cool piece, too, despite the collective consciousness of dancing hippos and nerdy Jewish folk singers it evokes.

The Tchaikovsky, as I mentioned in an earlier post, includes a big cello solo, a duet with the first violinist, and I was a little nervous about this. Six flats, lots of big shifts, very emotional. Imagine my horror when on the first measure of my solo, my endpin slipped!* But I yanked the cello back into place without missing a note, and everyone said they saw it happen but didn't hear it (maybe they were being kind).

(I think our cello section actually sounded better than the one in this video, which I think was the Philadelphia Orchestra. I guess standards were lower in 1939.)

*For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the endpin is that sharpened metal spear that holds the cello in place on the floor. If the end gets too dull, it sometimes doesn't stay in place even on carpet, and this can really mess you up. I usually use a little device I made myself out of a piece of wood, some cup hooks, and some plastic rope that hooks around the chair legs, but I didn't use it yesterday, unfortunately (thinking the carpet was enough of a holding surface).

Monday, November 5, 2012

What I'm playing this week

It's been a crazy week. After our trip to New York, because of the hurricane we had two days off of work, one of them without electricity. And yes, the András Schiff recital on Tuesday was canceled. :( So you'd think I would have gotten a lot of practicing done, and I did spend quite a few hours, but it seems the more time I have, the more the practicing spreads out to fill it.

On the piano:

Continuing with one scale per week (though I was told to spend two weeks on E flat minor, which I dutifully did). We're working through them chromatically, so I'm up to E minor now. I also practice the corresponding chord progression (modulating up a fifth and back, then down a fifth and back).

Bach Prelude and Fugue in D minor from WTC I, working on playing the right-hand triplets with complete relaxation and a light touch.

Chopin, Preludes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 22.

Brahms, Intermezzi Op. 116 No. 6, Op. 118 No. 1, and now Op. 117 No. 2. My teacher asked me to record Op. 118 but I'm still struggling with it, and I'm too dissatisfied with my attempts to share them with anyone. Those "two innocent-looking pages" (as he described them) are a [fill in whatever NSFW word you prefer]. I can't figure out why this piece is so difficult, but there it is. As for Op. 116, the main problems I'm having are keeping it from sounding muddy and keeping it flowing; it's easy to get bogged down and oversentimental. And then Op. 117: really beautiful, really intricate. But maybe in a way more straightforward than the other two in terms of voicing.

Schumann Kinderszenen: I'm starting to think this is going to be another one of those lifetime endeavors. We've worked up through No. 7 (Traumerei) in my lessons, and I'm slowly picking my way through the rest to get them to a point where I can play them at all. But that's as far as it goes, for now.

I'm getting very frustrated with myself over the issue of memorizing. I'm falling into that trap of playing most of these from memory when I'm practicing but then chickening out at my lessons  and using the music without even testing myself, when the lessons would be the perfect opportunity to do so. I guess I'm not totally committed to the idea that I should play from memory, even though that's one of my goals for my piano playing. I know I can do it, but it takes a certain fortitude to carry on with it.

On the cello:

We have an orchestra concert in a couple of weeks. It's really sort of an old-fashioned pops concert -- no show tunes (thank goodness) but a raft of chestnuts: the overture to Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake suite, Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" from La Gioconda, Smetana's The Moldau, the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. These are kind of hard chestnuts, so I must practice to avoid embarrassing myself. We had another one of those dispiriting rehearsals yesterday with a full wind and brass section pitted against a meager measure of strings (four first violins and no concertmaster, six seconds, four violas, four cellos, one bass). Oh, well; I can only try to do my best.

I'm also working a little on the Schumann concerto.

And here it is election day eve -- and it's supposed to freeze tonight, so I went out in the yard after dinner and picked these. Don't know what I'll do with them, but there they are.