Friday, August 17, 2018

Getting Through

Whenever I give a concert for regular folks I get the same pieces of advice: play a variety, keep it short, play stuff they know and like. Also, play Phantom of the Opera.

This can be a little disconcerting if you are a classical pianist, but over the years I've developed several ways to make even some pretty heavy repertoire go down favorably. I've found you don't have to pander in order to be successful. Which is a good thing, since I'd like to do more than scratch the same limited musical itches all the time. But I do understand people's fears that I might tie people to chairs and make them listen to the complete works of Beethoven and that it might be long and boring. I get it.

A couple of months ago I signed up with a group called Musicians with a Mission which goes into area Assisted Living communities and plays concerts. I was told by its founder what types of programs they like, and of course, it was light, short, and for every heavy piece on the program, I should play at least three that were short, happy, and hummable. The all-Bach program someone had present recently hadn't gone down very well.

I took that advice and prepared a program which consisted mostly of short pieces, some classical, a couple of my own vintage and some ragtime. I tied it together with a theme, talked to them about each piece before I played it, and they told me they loved it and wanted me to come back soon.

I blithely assumed that I would be playing the same program at several other facilities over the summer and into the fall, but for some reason after only two iterations of the same program I got scheduled in the same place, for which I needed a new program. Being immersed in several other projects at the time I had to hurriedly assemble the new program, and for various reasons, it ended up being entirely classical, with two complete piano sonatas, and generally heavier than I would have wanted. I called it "Storms" (that last had been "A Concert about the Weather" by way of introduction, the weather being something you talk about when you are first getting to know someone)--it was called "Storms" and included some emotionally darker music than the last program.

Although I worried that this would not go down very well, I did the usual things to seem approachable. Talking between pieces, explaining the program idea and some things to listen for in each piece, often with some humor. And they loved it.

In fact, I think it was a bigger hit than the first time. One lady said something to the effect that she had been moved in ways she wasn't used to. The way they expressed their gratitude generally said that they had been emotionally touched by what I played. It was more substantive than they were probably used to, and it was quite welcome.

I'm sure it helped that I didn't just sit down and play, although several comments focused on the quality of my playing as well, suggesting that good art doesn't bother folks as much as is generally believed. But the artist's job is to communicate what it is to be human, and to share the heights and depths of our shared experience. It is a lofty goal, and it is not to be ignored except at our peril. We may think we'd all rather have musical cake and cookies, but if you don't mix in some vegetables from time to time, the soul starves or gets diabetes!

I'll probably go a bit lighter next time, but the risk and the reward of really saying something important will always be with me, thanks to my friends Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. And to the human experience.
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don't forget to check out this week's edition of pianonoise.com. It starts off with a lighthearted recording of Debussy which makes fun of overly serious composers, like in the cartoon above of Wagner trying to stuff notes into the poor concert goer's ear with a hammer!


Friday, August 10, 2018

On a deadline

I don't usually put off writing the blog until the last minute. It's an uncomfortable feeling when I do. Some people need the shot of adrenaline this gives them, but I'm not such a fan. I'd rather plan ahead.

Somebody asked me the other day if I just played the piano for fun. Having found out that I am a professional musician it occurred to her to wonder whether I ever approached the instrument the way an amateur would, simply to derive enjoyment from the playing and not care if and when the piece was ready for prime time--perhaps not even to get that worked up over mistakes that would not be cited in the paper.

My answer? sort of. Then I elaborated.

I tend to enjoy what I do generally. Practicing, in various situations and at particular stages of preparation, can be fun. Other times it is difficult (especially when a piece is new). Chiseling away at a piece that is nearly ready to go to make it better is actually fun for me; it might not be for amateurs. But nearly always, the deadline looms.

I rarely play something just because I feel like it. There is usually a reason, and that reason is a public performance, and that means I've got a schedule, and a deadline, and pressure to get it right. That would seem to cut back on the fun quotient. But it doesn't entirely. It does ration it a little.

And even then, many of my selections are voluntary. Tomorrow I have a piano recital. I chose the program. Next day, there is a church service. I got to select the prelude and offertory. Next weekend I have a wedding. They aren't being very particular, so I'm playing stuff I already know and enjoy. In the fall so far are three organ performances. One is a joint recital (a single piece will suffice), one is an open house (so virtual background music), and one is a full recital. All of them with selections determined by me. I'm also teaching a class at the same time (on a subject I pitched to the administration), and will be getting ready for Christmas (whatever that means, TBD!). Those are the deadlines. As I mentioned, deadlines take some of the joy away. So I try to prepare as much as I can as soon as I can so that when the performances draw near it isn't any big deal.

Over the years I've experimented with pressure, and with the lengths of projects. I've attempted to set ridiculous deadlines for myself to see if I could meet them. I've tried to balance several projects at once, some long term and some medium and short term. And I've tried to make friends with the deadlines. They do, after all, give an outline to our efforts. If left completely to playing whatever whenever, I might not develop anything. Perhaps I would sit down and play something different each day, not caring if anything ever got good. And then you'd never hear any of it. Which doesn't work for me.

Sharing music with others presupposes two things: nerves, and a deadlines. That's the way it is. Maybe for some people that wrecks the fun. For me it disciplines it, and serves a higher purpose. And, to mangle Nietzsche, whatever deadline doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

For what it's worth, I banged this entry out in 20 minutes. That's probably a new record.

Back to practicing for tomorrow.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Rosie's not riveted

Our new feline, Rosamunda, has graced our domecile for nearly two-and-a-half months. She's very entertaining, friendly, quiet, and has a wonderful purr. The trouble is her musical taste is suspect.

You may find this a trifle, but since one of her humans is a musician this is at least bound to cause some friction. It could be worse, though.

A teacher of mine in college had two dogs that would howl whenever they heard the sound of a piano. I dog sat for him one week and if you wanted to practice you had to lock the dogs in an upstairs bedroom and turn the radio on loudly to a country music station (no pianos). When you returned a couple hours later the dogs were hanging out listening to country. It was surrealistically amusing.

Rosie doesn't whine when I play the piano. In fact, she seems to tolerate it rather well. But she's no fan of the organ. I can tell because, whenever I play a recording of the instrument she leaves the room immediately.  There are at least modifications that can be tried. For a start, I don't have an organ at home, so, being recordings, I could spare her suspect ears by using headphones. Also, the organ is a variable instrument, with a wide sound palette. As a result of experimentation I've determined that it is only the rich, full organ sound that she dislikes. That means it is likely the sharp, high-pitched mixture stops that are bothering her. Some humans have trouble with these stops also, particularly if they are older and losing their hearing. The year I was recovering from chemotherapy I was having trouble with them myself.

My former feline, Erasmus, used to find the organ fascinating. Whenever I played a recording he would press his ear to the speakers, and whenever I played a particular piece, he would mew whenever I got to a particular note. Only that one evoked a response. I'm not quite sure if he was saying "bravo!" or "turn that off!"

The only thing he didn't care for was repetition. If he came in to the room while I was practicing he might stay for a while, but the instant I got back around to something he'd heard before, namely the passage I was on when he walked in, he left immediately. He was not into encores. Otherwise, save the time he was under the piano and got caught off guard by a bass entrance during a fugue, he and instrument were at least functional acquaintances. It's the same way with Rosie and the piano.

Some of my human listeners must feel the same way, which is unfortunate for the organ. Usually when someone doesn't like something they don't stick around long enough to risk their mind being changed, either. Oh well. At least I'm diversified.

Since this week's headline recording at pianonoise.com features the organ (without those offensive mixtures) I thought I'd try it out on Rosie, who was sitting on my lap. She stuck around for the whole thing. Maybe you will too.

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this week on the homepage of pianonoise.com, we settle the superiority of the piano versus the organ once and for all. And achieve world peace.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Words....words...words

Cleveland columnist Dick Feagler passed away a few weeks ago. I grew up in the Cleveland area and enjoyed reading his columns. Feagler had a gift for painting in words a picture of the town he loved back in the "good old days" that could leave you nostalgic for a place you had never known, which is a hallmark of true artists.

Under Feagler's spell you could feel a warmth for people you hadn't met, come to understand what was in the minds of all the people around their dinner tables nodding their heads in agreement with his 'unsolicited opinions' and generally feel like people were decent, or at least tried to be, and that life was good, out there in the parts you'd never seen. The down side to all of this romanticizing was that Feagler himself later said that while he could make sense of the world of the past, he didn't understand the one he was living in now. Too much change. He had succumbed to one of the most popular myths of humanity, that things are always getting worse, and that the things you knew growing up were always the best. It's the life you were living while young, and that confidence of youth apparently is what makes up for pollution and the imminent threat of thermonuclear war in making the landscape of the past seem so much better than what we have now. I can remember going to bed wondering whether I'd wake up in the morning or if we'd all be incinerated and yet it still seems like a simpler time largely because I didn't have to pay my own bills.

Some of Feagler's columns were collected in books late in his career. I have them. The prefaces are interesting. In one of them he writes about how he got started. These origin stories usually involve a lot of happenstance, and this is no exception. A reporter who often let go of his opinions in print, he was given a column to dispense them regularly on page two. It was, he wrote, not a glamorous bit of real estate, being the part folks usually "skipped on their brisk journey from page one to the interior of the paper." Just to the left of Feagler's own preface is an introduction by his editors which is more laudatory. They frame page two as "the place given to the star." I'll bet most readers are much more inclined to this version of events, even though they may both be right--the cache of page two probably went up as their columnist's reputation slowly rose.

If there is any false modesty in Feagler's remarks it is probably a defense mechanism. Uncritical praise can be just as dangerous to a creator as ignorant criticism. In the strange contract a writer has with the public it is safe to display this armor of modesty without fear of damaging your reputation because nobody is going to buy it for a second no matter how true it is. But in Feagler's world he'd probably gotten used to plugging away without thinking of Pulitzers because that was how you deal with the constant stream of irate readers who don't share your opinion, editors who think of you as a fungible commodity that helps sell papers, and constant deadlines.

It was those deadlines that got to him first. "Armed with one firm opinion a month," he says, "we [columnists] grind out three columns a week." Given leave to write about anything, he soon realized he had nothing to write about. And then he wrote about it anyway. "And that, dear reader, is why you are holding this book. I forced myself to write columns whether I had anything to write about or not."

Inspiration is a strange thing. It tends to visit those most often who keep working whether they've gotten her visions or not. It tends to reward those who learn to master their medium with hammer and chisel in the mines of constancy so that by way of the magic rhythm of words and sentences, something is worth reading even when its substance is at best gossamer. It teaches you to write about the weather so that someone will want to read it.

And then, when inspiration strikes, you have something to say, and you know how to say it. Otherwise, if you wait for the muse before you've prepared her welcome on a steady current of words, she may not come at all.

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don't forget to check out the articles and recordings this week on the website proper, pianonoise.com.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Salieri Syndrome

Poor Antonio. He gets to be the poster child for also-rans everywhere. And blamed for a crime he did not commit, to boot.

We save a special scorn for the losers of the championship games. The ones who never got there in the first place, or who can't manage to win as many games as they lose, we don't concern ourselves with. But we want to make sure the ones who challenge for the title feel our wrath, even if we have to torch Icaraus' wings ourselves.

And we have to have winners. My favorite example in this regard is the uproar over baseball's All-Star game several years ago in which a meaningless mid-season exhibition game ended in an extra-innings tie because both sides ran out of pitchers. How dare we not have a winner and a loser! Just because there are 162 games a year in which ties are not permitted and an expanded playoff so that mediocre teams can topple the ones who really earned it is no reason to think Americans can get to sleep after a game that denied half of them their bragging rights!

Knowing who won the game is an important shorthand. It allows an athletic contest to be summed up succinctly around the office in the morning. It permits causal conversation between those who know something about the game and those who know next to nothing.  It allows you not to pay much attention to the details, have the game on in the background, note that some people are throwing a ball around, and move on . Or you can get very passionate about all the statistics and argue about a player's worth. Either way, the winning settles everything nicely. It isn't debatable. Somebody won the game and it is easy to know who. The smaller group who pays close attention knows who and so can the much larger group that doesn't care about the game nearly as much. If you want something to catch on you have to appeal to both groups.

The arts have never solved this problem. If you don't know much about the arts you probably aren't interested in going to a concert or a museum. For the more adventurous there are plethoras of program notes and books and plaques on the museum wall. They can be very interesting--or not. There are certainly plenty or people trying to communicate what they know and love about what is itself a fascinating form or communication. But they can't tell you who won. They can tell you who the important figures are, and they are, after all, history's winners. But in, say, classical music, we don't have head to head contests.

Well, except for one. Thanks to a movie, everybody knows Mozart beat Salieri by a mile, and Salieri got really sore about it and bumped Mozart off. It doesn't have to be history. It fills a need to know who won.

It is quite possible that most folks wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Mozart's music and Salieri's. The internet right now is filled with defenses of the man's music, saying he got a bad rap from the movie, that he is really a genius. This overstates the case a little. Having heard some Salieri myself, I think it is fair to say the man knew how to compose and it should be recognized that he was highly regarded in his day, and with good reason. But there is an obvious qualitative difference when it comes to Mozart.

The people of Mozart's time and place complained that his music was too complicated, just as they did about every other composer history remembers. It took some getting used to, and it doesn't have the kind of predictable repetition that allows you to hum along on first hearing, nor does a single melody reign supreme without dialogue from the supporting cast. In the end, though, somebody figured out that Mozart's music had something in it that humankind would want to keep around. That small group of devotees, the ones whose ears could tell them something the rest couldn't hear, somehow got their way. Now he is everywhere, and the bulk of humanity, most of whom really don't care that much, know at least this--Mozart is champion. He won the title. Suck it, you losers.

The reason they know it is partially by that same mysterious process through which they knew Bach, and Beethoven. Those passionate scholars spread the word, and over the decades, stars were born. But Mozart got an extra bonus. He got a playoff game in the public imagination in which he beat Antonio Salieri. Think that isn't important? Nearly everybody I've talked to knows that the movie isn't really history, and that Salieri probably didn't poison Mozart. And then in the next words out of their mouths they demonstrate that what they think they know is precisely what was in the movie. Why wouldn't it be? What else does the public know about Mozart? Are Mozart biographies flying off the shelves?

Salieri, I thank you. You are helping to keep the Mozart industry alive and flourishing. Not by producing highly dedicated, informed, passionate Mozart lovers, but by keeping the name on everybody's lips. Those ordinary, semi-informed people have an important role to play. Just ask the NFL. I hope you will absolve us, not for being mediocrities, but for abusing you so. Most of us, if remembered at all, get used for something very different after our death than we stood for in life. History is written by the winners, after all. Anyway, you didn't have a bad run. And you were head opera composer for a while, and those Viennese had to blame somebody. So now your are a household word. It is a good thing the emperor liked your operas so much.


Otherwise we would all be fingering somebody like Leopold Kozeluch, whose name I can barely spell or pronounce. Or Padre Martini, whose name lacks that wonderful S that Murray Abraham used to such effect. Or Guiseppi Bonno, who sounds too affable to be guilty of murder. Or some other composer in Mozart's Vienna that had reason to dislike the little man with the brash temper. How about Domenico Cimerosa?

No, you were perfect. And what wasn't perfect got a makeover. And now some of us are actually listening to your music. I listened to your Requiem the other day, in fact.

Not a bad piece. And just the right number of notes, too.

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This week on pianonoise.com, Bach's little organ fugue, Haydn's a few measures short of a minuet, and the piano in disguise. You'll see what I mean on the homepage, updated every Friday.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Running

One morning my wife was doing something at her computer and said across the room, "they're having a 5k here in town. Why don't you sign up?"

Five kilometers? Are you crazy? I've jogged to the mailbox and back on a rainy day, but...

How far is that in miles, anyhow?

You might get the impression from the foregoing that I was not a world class runner. Heck, why did I just use the past tense?

I decided to give it a try, and spent the last week of March and the month of April trying to get into shape. This was my killer regimen the first week: I would go to the park, which was about a mile. Since I couldn't keep up a run for more than 45 seconds without running out of breath, I would slow to a walk until I thought I could handle another short spurt of running. Run a little, walk a lot, run a little...

Later I found out that can be an actual technique for getting through long races. I don't use it. I run the whole time. But this is now. Back then I had a limited capacity and I also didn't want to have a heart attack.

I was in my late thirties and hadn't done any running as an adult. I didn't do a lot as a child either, because I was asthmatic. I was a fast little kid in short spurts, but those 600 yard dashes they had in elementary field day games--I bombed out on the first turn, wheezing like mad.

The typical thing for a person resolving to hit the gym in the new year is to work out really hard the first time and be really sore for a few days. I  didn't want to be that guy. I didn't push it very hard. It felt a little pathetic only going a short distance and breaking it into tiny little runs, but I reminded myself of an important lesson I'd learned in piano. You work a little every day, and eventually your capacity increases. You improve with time and continual effort. That's the secret: consistent work. It happened with the piano. Once I couldn't play chopsticks and several years later I was on stage with an orchestra playing a huge solo piece from memory. It didn't happen overnight.

By the third week I went to a different course. I had figured out that 5 kilometers was actually three miles, not two, which my vague concept of the metric system had led me to assume the first time (it's about half as many miles as kilometers, and go one direction or the other!). It was exactly one and a half miles from my house to the church where I worked. If I could run all the way there, touch the wall and come back in one straight run I'd have it.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That was me thinking how ridiculous it was to imagine running all that way in one fell swoop. They'd have to come along with a spatula and scoop me off the sidewalk!

Nevertheless, I tried running to church. I ran and walked, and once I got there I stopped to practice for a couple of hours. I was the organist, so it made sense. Then I'd run back home. One day I actually managed, for the first time, to leave the church running, and not slow to a walk all the way home.

That was a pretty good day. And the start of something bigger.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Ives Festival

Last week our local classical station online feed didn't week for a couple of days. That meant I had to go elsewhere to listen to the radio before bed. I have a radio, but it makes an annoying buzzing sound with the headphones in and the connection is very sensitive and anyway---it just works better that way.

For some reason I thought I'd catch up with some Ives Symphonies. Charles Ives. It was practically the 4th of July anyhow, and what better way to be patriotic than to listen to an insurance salesman who wrote music on nights and weekends that people thought sounded awful. And he kept on writing it anyhow because, you know, individualism. Of a most rugged kind!

Actually, three of Ives' four numbered symphonies are pretty tame, tonally. They are plenty quirky, and two of them quote from a lot of hymn tunes and fiddle tunes and marches and things, but the man on the street wouldn't get TOO offended if I played him a few bars. Once in college a roommate heard me listening to the Ives Fourth and thought the guy was a nutcase. If you've never heard it imagine a sonic representation of a Jackson Pollack. The kind of art people think their six-year could create. I played him something from Ives' First, which is fairly conventional sounding and my roommate decided maybe the guy knew what he was doing after all. This is the way it is with abstract artists. They have to convince Joe Public they really could draw a straight line if they wanted to, and also a nice landscape.

Anyway, I spent four nights listening to the four numbered symphonies--a miniature Ives Festival. The first night I listened to Ives's Second. Bernstein was doing it. It was a vibrant interpretation, even if it featured a few kitchy bits. Bernstein couldn't quite get what Ives was up to even if he did have more insight into him than most of his contemporaries. This was particularly apparent the fourth night when I listened to the Third. This rendering was extremely metronomic. There was something about it that didn't breathe at all. The tempos all felt wrong: the first movement was too slow, the second was too fast, the third also too fast--but the real problem was that it didn't sound like nostalgia, it sounded like virtuosity and precision. I generally like Lenny, but he ruined my favorite Ives symphony.

Hunting around Youtube, though, you can find some interesting things. For a performance of Ives's First Symphony, I came across an orchestra in Russia. There wasn't any English translation so I don't know who exactly. But they managed to make Ives sound like Tchaikovsky.  The angst was palpable. The tempos were slow, and the aching melodies, which Ives wrote in college for an assignment, were quite profound. I don't know how they found a hugely depressed Russian in the writing of a teenaged American at Yale trying to pull his conservative teacher's leg, but they did--admirably. And they really sold it, too. I was impressed. I found myself ruminating on how Ives really had stolen bits of the Russian symphonist, along with Brahms, Dvorak, and the New England School. And how a translation of a translation doesn't always get you back to where you started, and how people can really misunderstand each other, culturally, but...this was really marvelous. And really wrong. But, hey, why not?

Maybe the most useful thing was when I found the premiere broadcast of the Fourth, conducted by Stokowsky and the American Symphony, complete with twenty minutes of interviews and shmoozing about the piece and how interesting and difficult it was to put everything together in rehearsal. Then I got to see them trying to deal with the gargantuan score, and watch three conductor simultaneously conduct parts of the orchestra at different tempi. Like Ives's music, there were several layers involved here: one was appreciating the way in which the people who put the program together were trying to reach a presumably wary, and uninitiate public.

Ives will probably never be loved as a composer, which is too bad. He did write some good tunes, besides all of the fascinating ways in which he put pre-existing tunes together. I still can't get the Second symphony out of my head, and that was several days ago. Ives was an interesting man, and his music makes me nostalgic for a part of America I never really knew--at least, not entirely. We have some of it in common, though. I grew up singing some of the tunes, in a small town, and watching the marching bands, organists, and other civic music makers. I probably have an inside track.--At least an appreciation for rurality that cosmopolitan orchestral conductors don't always seem to be able to get their heads around. And maybe a sense of humor that doesn't come naturally to them either.

But a "gifted primitive?" Please, Lenny!

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as usual, there is more to enjoy this week at pianonoise.com, including a recording of Gottschalk's "Union."