Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A curious phenomenon

I've performed for quite a lot of people in quite a lot of venues (aside from school recital halls and churches, I've played solo and chamber music in places like the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall). Admittedly most of my performing experience has been with the cello, but even on the piano, I have been brave enough to play in front of a number of audiences with a certain amount of musicality. But what has proven to be a high hurdle is playing my brother-in-law's Yamaha upright in his music room while the family listens. Somehow, when I sit down at that piano, bungling is the name of the game.

We were over there yesterday for Christmas dinner. I brought my carbon fiber cello along to show it to them because they had been curious about it:

I played a little Bach and a holiday-themed request ("O Holy Night," by ear, in C major), and then put the cello away and repaired to the piano. I pulled out the Villa-Lobos piece I've been working on (the Preludio from Bachianas Brasilieras No. 4). At home I can play it from memory, and even at my lessons I can play it pretty fluently by now, but here, even with the music in front of me, most of it was a disaster (my husband very helpfully asked "what happened?" as we were driving home later). My sister-in-law's innocent comment was that it was "scary" -- coincidentally, the same thing she said about the Brahms I played for them at Thanksgiving -- not exactly the vibe I'm going for! I followed up with some Bach, and that went better, but I was still stumbling over myself in a way I don't elsewhere.

What is it about this situation that causes me to regress to an almost nonperformer level? Part of it is the piano, which is serviceable but not inspiring (it has such a light touch that there's almost no resistence -- it booms if you breathe on it), and the bench, which is too low for me. Part of it is the negative feedback loop of hearing bad sounds that causes my playing to deteriorate as I go along. But another part, the more interesting one, is my awareness that I'm playing for people who listen mostly for the melody and who understand nuances subliminally at best. When you play the piano, the supporting material is usually what is difficult and also so very tempting -- all of those countermelodies, inner voices, bass lines, and special effects -- but listeners generally don't care about all that. They don't appreciate all of your struggles; they just want to hear the tune.

When I play for fellow piano students, or even for my teacher, I know they empathize with the difficulty of what I'm trying to do. Or when I play on a better piano in a bigger room with the audience farther away, the physical situation is more forgiving. But I feel it's a real weakness that lack of these things has such a powerful effect. I keep imagining that a true artist at the piano can compensate enough to have a musical experience no matter what. So if I can ever figure out how to play well at the in-laws', I will feel confident that I can play well anywhere!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

New love

I recently stumbled across the cello concerto by Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000) and have been fascinated by it ever since. It was written for cello, wind band, and classical guitar.

I saw it described here as "a pioneering work of jazz-rock-classical-marching band fusion," which is about right. I love the way Gulda created a melting pot of styles, plus the audacity of his sticking a solo cello in front of a wind band and drum kit, and making it all somehow hang together. He also wrote some beautiful music for the cello.

The first movement (Overture) starts out very rock 'n' roll; here's a great performance by Gautier Capuçon. Note that I'm having trouble getting these videos to play today, and this first link may actually go automatically to the rest of the concerto:

Gulda Concerto First Movement (Overture)

Here's Capuçon playing the second movement (Idyll), which has whiffs of Dvořák (to my ear) and maybe even Mahler (I believe this link does go on to the next movement):

Gulda Concerto Second Movement (Idyll)

And here's Heinrich Schiff, for whom this piece was originally written, tearing up the last three movements (Cadenza, Menuet, Finale) with the composer conducting; unfortunately, the very end is cut off in this video:

After hearing this playing in my head for about a week, I broke down and ordered the music and a recording. It will be fun to play around with it.