Friday, October 18, 2019

The Gloves Come Off

Louis Moreau Gottschalk didn't just take off his gloves. He TOOK OFF....HIS GLOVES. Let's let a pianist who traveled with him explain:


“It was the fashion of the time to always wear white gloves with evening dress, and his manner of taking them off, after seating himself at the piano, was often a very amusing spectacle. His deliberation, his perfect indifference to the waiting audience was thoroughly manifest, as he slowly drew them off one finger at a time, bowing and smiling meanwhile to the familiar faces in the front rows. Finally disposing of them, he would manipulate his hands until they were quite limber, then preludize until his mood prompted him to begin his selection on the programme.”


I left my white gloves home yesterday, which is just as well, as we were running behind on time and I needn't have wasted five minutes with those silly gloves. It might have been amusing, though...

Yesterday was the first of five lecture recitals in the series I'm giving for OLLI/UPITT. The subject is composers of various times and places making music in difficult conditions. Chopin was on the first half, and Gottschalk on the second. Chopin left his native Poland at 20, not realizing he would never return. A political uprising which was crushed by Russia, resulting in the basic non-existence of an independent Poland for yet another episode in their sad history, made it difficult for him to return, so he made a life in Paris among the Polish community there, living in exile, and writing music in a pianistic style all his own. He redefined national Polish dances, recreated old genres, and fostered some new ones, such as the Ballade, of which he wrote four.

There really were no rules for the Ballade: even the world, which suggests both "ballata" (a dance) and the Medieval Ballad (or narrative romance) hadn't been used as the title of a piano composition before, to say nothing of the rules of the form. In Chopin's hands, each is an adventure, the end a mystery until it unfolds before us. Four fascinating musical journeys, which pianists treat as the gold standard of their repertoire. These I played on the first half of our session.

After the intermission it was time to meet Mr. Gottschalk, of whom I have written several blogs, and recorded some of his music. Gottschalk had an interesting life, which I wanted to explore at least as much as the music. Touring on three continents before the age of air travel, assembling mass concerts with up to a thousand performers, a Southerner touring the northern United States during the Civil War, a pioneer in so many respects, introducing America to its own music and to the relatively newfangled idea of the piano recital, all while entertaining the troops, wearing out the rail lines, and trying not to get him and his pianos shot, or captured (by his own people). What a life! And he only lived to be 40.

Next week we'll be in 20th century Russia, meeting Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

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There's more about Chopin and Gottschalk on the homepage this week at pianonoise.com. Also, the final days to listen to music for the concert at Trinity Cathedral before I post some Scary Organ Music for Halloween!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Composers in Exile

This is one of those weeks when I really could have used a secretary.

I am neck deep in piano music at the moment, and am taking a short break for the weekly blog. Other bits of my life are getting attention if they rise to the level of emergency squared, otherwise they can wait while I practice.

Next week begins a series of lecture concerts for the UPITT/Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. This year's ambitious theme is "Composers in Exile: Music in Adversity" and it covers a wide range of styles and periods, playing the music and telling the story of composers who for one reason or another found themselves in difficult situations and continued making their music. I feel like I'm about two months behind in preparation (having also had half-a-dozen other concerts to prepare for this summer and fall, including several I learned about as the year unfolded), yet it does feel like there is a chance this will come off after all.

This Thursday features the music of Chopin, a Pole who spent most of his life in France. He voluntarily left his country for travel, study, and international exposure as a young man, but revolution soon after made it difficult for him to return. He kept his connection to his native country alive by writing national dances: mazurkas and polonaises, which he elevated to the status of high art. However, I'll be playing his four Ballades. Instructor's prerogative!

After the intermission, we'll sample the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, an American, born in the south, who toured the northern United States during the Civil War. Gottschalk kept a diary and is a very entertaining correspondent, particularly in his entries from late June 1863 when his agent put him in central Pennsylvania and he nearly got himself mixed up in the Battle of Gettysburg.

That's just the first week! On the second, we'll look at the music of Rachmaninoff, Shostakovitch, and Prokofiev, three 20th century Russian composers who had to composer in the ambit of Joseph Stalin, the cruel dictator who could have you arrested and killed for anything (including art) which displeased him. Rachmaninoff left Russia shortly after the revolution began, never to return, Prokofiev left around the same time and actually went back to Russia in 1936, Shostakovitch never left, and despite two very public censures for his music, somehow avoided getting killed, even as many of his friends were.

From there, we'll visit music of the Baroque and Classical periods, and the music of Haydn and Scarlatti, two composers whose employment circumstances caused them to spend most of their lives in artistic isolation, and then listen to music by several women composers whose work was either ignored or sidelined because they were required to marry and put away those foolish artistic ideas. Exile from self will also for a motif as we examine the music of Robert Schumann and discuss the mental illness that drove him to attempt suicide.

In the final week, there will be a composer who spent time as a prisoner of war, another who avoided death in the French Revolution somehow, another who felt alienated from his time and place. And others, as time permits. There are so many stories. In some respects, composition has always been a challenge. It never pays the rent; most of history's successful composers earned their livings as performers or teachers, never through creative endeavors directly. But these composers faced additional hurdles which could make life a burden, and even the loss of it a distinct possibility.

It may sound a bit depressing, though there is plenty of room to consider it all a triumph of the human spirit if you like. The music will do most of the speaking, and it is diverse, giving many answers to what comes from struggles which are just as varied. Sometimes bold and dramatic, sometimes beautiful, innovative or reactionary, classical or romantic or modern; the problems, and the solutions, of human creativity are amazing to behold. For the next five weeks we'll do just that. Come along, will you?

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the weekly edition of Pianonoise includes a recording of a Chopin waltz and on PianonoiseRadio music for my most recent organ recital at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh. It's all at www.pianonoise.com

Friday, October 4, 2019

Somebody else's refrigerator

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, the second of two children to survive infancy. His musical talent was recognized early; soon he was touring Europe with his parents and sister. His first compositions came when he...

Are you snoring yet?

Let's try this again.

Salieri stared dully at the dagger in his right hand; then, with a cry, he thrust it into his chest and slumped forward...

I don't have this blog hooked up to any medical equipment, but if you are like most of us, your pulse quickened a bit as you read the second example. You probably wanted to keep reading it, even if I couldn't be bothered to make it sound a little less like a dime store novel.

It's not as if the first example doesn't get some readers. It's full of important information. Kind of. But the problem that remains goes to relevance. What does it matter to me (selfish being that I am) what year somebody else was born, even if he was Mozart? I see examples of this principle in action all of the time.

For instance, I learned a long time ago that most of my listeners never set foot on this website. Sites that offer searches for various composers or pieces of music will find stuff from all over the web. Then they "hotlink" to the recordings and play them from their own platform. In some cases they don't acknowledge where they got the recordings, but in others they offer a chance to visit the source. Most people don't take them up on it. They don't care where it came from, they just want the pretty sounds. A recording of Mozart is a recording of Mozart no matter where it comes from. Sometimes even the Mozart part doesn't matter, so long as it is pretty.

That explains why branding is so difficult. But there is another force at work. Information is not very exciting to most of us. It doesn't elevate the blood pressure, sharpen the senses, threaten our survival or promise quick reward. Besides, there is information and there is information.

As I type this, my wife is relating a story to a third party about something we learned yesterday while vacationing in Portland. Most of the narrative details involve the emotional reactions of the persons involved in a conflict that led to the creation of an Oregonian landmark. There are plain facts, but most of these are not a part of my wife's narrative. The story is woven out of human behavior. It is still factually correct, it is still history, but it is the kind of history that eschews names and dates in favor of feelings and desires. These are the things that swirl below the surface of each of us, and are common to everyone. Things we can relate to. Writing an opera by age 9 or a symphony at 4 or whatever is just like reading the accomplishments of somebody else's child on somebody else's refrigerator. The only thing we can remember afterward is being jealous.

When I taught a class on the movie Amadeus last year I observed that the dramatist had made a brilliant decision to see the play and then the movie through the eyes of Salieri, and his dark, brooding feelings. Had Schaffer done what most movies about composers do, which is to record the accomplishments of the composer, in chronological order, desperately trying to make up for the biographical nature of the film by making the love life as crashing as possible, Amadeus wouldn't have been half so interesting. Instead, he chooses for his protagonist someone to whom we can relate. Not because we've ever thought seriously about murdering someone (necessarily), but because Salieri's beef with God is that he doesn't think he got a fair deal. He was going to be chaste, industrious, and faithful, and God was supposed to make him the greatest composer ever. God cheated on the deal by making a loutish childish buffoon a better composer than Salieri. If you work hard you are supposed to succeed. This plainly isn't fair. Is there anybody who doesn't feel like life didn't deliver on everything they thought they had coming?

1756 is just a year. But feeling aggrieved is a basic drive. It dominates the entire inner world of huge portions of our citizenry. Even the relatively well-adjusted can't quite wriggle from its grasp.  Watching in rapt horror to see what Salieri will do next is what moves the film forward, not Mozart's next concert. It is a brilliant conceit. It is so good that Peter Schaffer can't help making it a part of the movie itself.

Mozart is trying to sell the concept of his next opera to the Emperor. Tired of operas with high-flown themes of gods and nobles, he sticks up for the common person. He says, "Who wouldn't rather hear from his hair dresser than Hercules?"

It's not just the alliteration that lands the line. It's the pitch itself. Salieri will never be Hercules.

But he makes a hell of a hair dresser.
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go to www.pianonoise.com to read/hear more this and every Friday.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Do go on! Or perhaps not....

Quick! What do you do when you are in the middle of a concert and a note on the organ ciphers?

If you are lucky, you happen to be playing a passage for one hand, and you can use the other one to try to tease out the cipher by rapidly playing the affected note again and again until, miraculously, the slider closes, and the cipher goes away.

For those of you quite lost at the moment (which includes everyone except organ nerds), a cipher is a pipe that will not stop sounding when you take your finger off the key because the mechanism that blows the air through the pipe has gotten stuck in the open position. Sometimes the only thing you can do about it is to turn the organ completely off, and then, if the problem is still there when you reboot, try to find the ciphering pipe and stick a piece of paper in between the toe of the pipe (at the bottom) and the wind supply, which will disable the pipe, meaning it will not be able to play, but it will at least stop droning on and on. In the middle of a concert those last options aren't really available--not the last one, at least--but I did spend part of a sermon once crawling around a pipe room trying to fix a cipher. I got it, eventually.

That's part of the fun when you play the organ. Not that the piano can't have its challenges. I was once in the middle of a performance of Scriabin's Fifth Sonata, which is a tricky piece, and the F# above middle C just did not want to go down. I kept trying to unstick it whenever I had a hand free, which was only fleetingly, and required some serious acrobatics. Eventually I got it to cooperate. It must have taken the entire exposition and about half of the development to get there.

With the organ, though, there are all manner of intricate details in the way it is operated, and these vary from instrument to instrument, which is why it is such a useful opportunity to be asked to play concerts in different locations.

Yesterday, when I was at the cathedral, I noted with dismay that the trumpet I was going to use toward the end of the opening piece wouldn't sound at all. Given that an unfortunately large percentage of the organ is in disrepair at the moment, I assumed the stop had somehow given up just in time for the concert. I told the organist, and he was also dismayed, and assumed it was not working. Fortunately there was another trumpet on the same division that I employed instead. After the concert he realized that the rear gallery of the cathedral, generally known as "west" (whether a church faces east or not the altar is still considered to be on the east end of the church in liturgical parlance) had not been turned on. On this organ, each division (or at least three of them) have their own keys and must be turned on separately. It is something to file away for the next time something doesn't go according to plan. I've also come across three different locations for manual transfer switches recently.

I have written that the organ is a great instrument for problem solvers. And the more often I go "on location" the better I get. I can now register an entire concert pretty fast. If one stop isn't working, or the reed just doesn't sound right, or is too soft or too loud, I can find a synonym (alternate reigstration) quickly and move on.

Of course, one shouldn't discount the importance of dumb luck. This summer, at a large cathedral with lots of reverberation, I joked to some people who had missed my concert that if they went to the cathedral in the next few days, they might still be able to hear some of the previous week's concert before the sounds completely died away. Yesterday's cathedral was smaller and drier, and the long held soft reed was not at all intentional. But after a few desperate attempts to get it to stop, it did. Things could have been worse.

Of course, that wouldn't have been the end of the world, either. Maybe next time I'll take along some piano literature, just in case. Or improvise on a drone note for a while!

Now that could be interesting.
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It is the last week of September at www.pianonoise.com where you will soon be able to hear the music for the concert I gave at Trinity Cathedral on Wednesday. In the meantime, you can hear the Mel Bonis Toccata, the featured recording of the week, and....I forget what else.






Friday, September 20, 2019

Another week, another concert (or two, or three)

Life ebbs and flows. For me, this year feels like high tide.

So far this year I've played an estimated 11 different concert programs, with about 6 more to go. No, 7. Anyhow, I'm busy. I don't mean there will be 19 times I have hit the stage in 2019, I mean there will have been at least 19 different programs to prepare, which is kind of a lot of music. I don't know what the total total is, although there haven't been many chances to repeat concerts, so it can't be much higher (25, maybe?). And of course, for a musician, that kind of activity is glorious, and also frightening, because those are a lot of close deadlines. I hadn't planned it that way when the year began, it's just that it all came together at once.

One of the highlights of the year is the fact that I've been invited to perform on every available organ-only concert series in the area. There are only three of them, though two take place in cathedrals, and one in a very nice large church with a terrific organ. In the midst of that, I was asked by a colleague to play the beautiful Heinz Chapel again, which is a series for organists and lots of other instruments (and singers). This, I think, makes it qualify for the Grand Slam, as it is four concerts. All four being in the same metropolitan area, I felt obligated to prepare different programs, which helped me solidify my hold on some of the repertoire I learned hurriedly and one several years ago. Actually, I'm not sure if anybody did go to more than one of those concerts. And I did allow myself to repeat one piece on two concerts.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to gain a toehold as a pianist, and between two series of lecture recitals I've designed myself, and 3 piano recitals in Ohio earlier this year, I will have managed to play more piano recitals than organ recitals.

All of this probably does not add up to very exciting blogging, but it does promise that when I get more time to release some of the recording, the sound catalogue is going to get very interesting. This year I've played several fine organs by fine organ builders including Austin, Beckerath, Casavant, Rueter, and whatever they have at Trinity Cathedral (I'll know next week). And when I get the time, I now have four microphones and a recently tuned Steinway, so there should be some fine classical repertoire coming your way relatively soon.

Meanwhile, forgive me if I owe you an email or have forgotten to do something. I'll get to it. After next Wednesday's concert, things get a little more focused (just piano, just one series of concerts, no organ).

When that happens, we'll all take a breath, remember the fascinating year that was, and I can get back to some hopefully helpful observations for musicians, as well as sharing more music and ways to listen to it. In the meantime, I've learned a lot about multi-tasking.

The other day I practiced for three recitals in the same day--all without wearing out my mind or beating up my fingers, or losing my head with stress. That is something I couldn't possibly done a few short years ago.

As to what's in it for you--surely I'll figure out what we can all learn from this, besides trying not to get into a situation like this in the first place! Besides, between all of the fear (which is, after all, a great motivator) I'm also having a blast.

See you again next week, after the concert.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Hobbit strikes again

You don't mind if I take another week away from musical matters to write about re-reading The Hobbit, do you? I tried to resist making this blog series into a trilogy, but I seem to need a little more time to escape the deadlines and the stress, at least on this blog. In real life, I'm practicing for multiple concerts again. The other day I practiced the bulk of three in one day. I just got invited to play at another cathedral--on two week's notice. It's a great opportunity, and I'm enjoying dusting off some old music that I enjoy playing, but I don't really have the time. But I'm doing it anyway. It's exciting, but it's also a very tight schedule, and after another day full of practice, I'm tired.  Let's talk about Bilbo instead.

The first thing that is obvious to me about reading The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings is the vast difference in style. The Hobbit sounds as if it were written for children--at least the first part. Eventually, the author gets more serious in tone and indulges in fewer silly asides. But there is ever the sense that the book is meant to be read aloud, narrated, and that the author is conscious of the reader being in the room with him.

I don't have Peter Jackson to holler at personally, but this book IS NOT AN EPIC! It is not on the scale of the Lord of the Rings, and it should not have been made into three movies. It does not take a hundred pages to just make it out of the Shire, or 25 pages to visit Rivendell; these things occur much more quickly, sometimes just in a few paragraphs. Absent are entire page weather reports, or vast descriptions of fauna. The sense of evil is still there, but it is not so overpowering, nor does the author spend so much ink building up to it and holding us paralyzed by an all-encompassing malevolent uber-force, however much the movies insisted all the bad guys knew each other and were working to fulfill some epic, single-minded vision, as they all prepared for the final showdown that was Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, for one, had no idea where this story was headed when he wrote The Hobbit. Take it down a notch, guys.This one is a lot more relaxed in tone.

Tolkien's world was not so ready-made when he wrote the Hobbit. There are places where the "omniscient" author tells us that he does not know things: this would never do in the world of The Lord of the Rings.

Where the author is already wise is in the conclusion; the dragon has been vanquished, but all does not go well, and indeed, we are assured that it will be some time before everything is put back to rights. Bilbo returns from his journey to find his things being auctioned off, and it takes a long time to get most of it back (but never all), and, having been on the kind of adventure that most hobbits would not countenance, much less dream of, he has lost the respect of most of his neighbors. Like many artists, Tolkien seems to have a keen sense of being alone among his fellow creatures, even despised, for not adhering to the routines of ordinary life, and his protagonist lives not only the drama of wishing for adventure and then wishing he could have stayed home once it was given to him, but the fracturing of normalcy that results from his exploits. Things can never be the same, and they are certainly not going to be happy ever after. That, at least, is some nonsense Tolkien avoids, even in this book, to say nothing of the ones that came next.

The poetry is no better this time, and doesn't try to be, though for some reason, it was more memorable. Somehow, The Hobbit must be ingrained in an even younger part of me, and its less grand and dangerous narrative is more comforting and entertaining, and familiar, and delicious. I enjoyed reading it again. That is why I did it in the first place.
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I'm playing at Heinz Chapel in Pittsburgh this weekend (Sun at 3p.m. if you're interested); one of the pieces on the concert is this week's featured recording on the homepage at www.pianonoise.com. Check it out. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

On Re-reading The Lord of the Rings part 2

Last week I mentioned that Tolkien's tale had seemed changed in the thirty years since I last read it. But I didn't want to tax your patience, so here is part two.

Although the writing is uneven, and sometimes no more than passable, I don't know whether this is really a fault. I've read all kinds of literature in the last 3 decades, some of which dazzles by the author's use of language. But Tolkien wants us to concentrate on the story, which he tells artfully enough for his purposes.

By the way, I still get irritated by much of the poetry, even if I did find the odd rhyme scheme of one of the poems admirable. There also seemed to be a multiplicity of forms. I am an experimenter, and can appreciate when someone else isn't content to stick to the same template again and again. Nonetheless, he isn't Keats.

As a fashioner of words and notes myself, I now read with the constant voice in my head asking whether or not a particular passage ought to be improved, or if a word choice was adequate, or if the pacing is correct. I can't help that. That's who I am, now. Maybe it distracts from the tale, but it also enriches the experience.

Interestingly, my emotional reaction to Theoden's initial suspicion of Gandalf and the circumstances in which he refused to accept the truth of the situation when I was much younger seems to have gotten in the way of realizing that the king is finally persuaded and the situation ends happily. And only after a few tense pages. They must have seemed a lot longer, then. There are still times, I will admit, when no amount of happy resolution seems to make up for the destructive nature of the first part of things. Real events often seem to adhere to this depressing pattern.

One thing that was disturbing this time was how the author used the words "black" "foul" and "evil" in close connection. He did this many, many, many times throughout the books. Similarly, "white" "purity" and "good" were inseparable. Tolkien's associate, C. S. Lewis, was more sophisticated on this matter: he permits his evil witch to be white (and before my fragile white readers complain about how it is ok to pile on to white people alone, let's remember that all of the good characters in the book were also white; there are no black characters to be found anywhere). George Lucas, in Star Wars, bests both of them. While still color-coding evil, he makes earthy colors good and represents evil by black and white; that is, lack of bright color, and the presence of very artificial (non-natural) environments. While I don't know that Tolkien was being more than insensitive, and likely no more prejudiced than his society, it is still worth imagining that a modern editor would have at least raised the question with him. Tolkien doesn't usually specify that the evil characters have black skin; there is only one occasion that I can remember in which he specifically does say so, and then all of the dark skinned men he mentions are in fact fighting for the bad guys. I would imagine this to be uncomfortably uninviting for any of his non-white readers, but then I think this also shows a very naive approach to the question of good and evil, as if you can label all members of a group as being uniformly one or the other.

There aren't many female characters in his books, and they are mostly there to be pretty and keep house. Again we could argue that this tale basically takes place in an ancient society and reflects its values, though that doesn't have to be the case. An author is not bound by what is; they can show us what can be if they choose. In any case, one of the women does refuse her role of sitting quietly while the men fight and rides off to war. She does a brave deed and suffers a grievous wound. The men around her do not support her restlessness, but maybe Tolkien does in a subtle way. In another case, both Tom Bombadil and his wife set the table (even if she cooks the meal).

Such reflections on the author's worldview--even noting that he has one--suggest I'm no longer simply swallowing wholesale the images and ideas put before me. If there is anything about a society that needs changing it won't come about unless we are willing to examine our ideas rather than simply ingest them. It will, of course, ruin the story for some, and make me the worst kind of nerd for not only peeking behind the curtain but examining the readership (all of us) in the process.

One thing I seem to remember accurately from the last reading is the pacing of the approach to Mt. Doom. It was slow and quiet. There were no more fights with evil creatures, just a long slow wearisome, numbing, grinding trudge to the mountain. I think it works, even if it is exhausting reading.

Generally I agree with Tolkien's pacing. When the films came out, people complained about how much more movie was left after the climax, wrapping up all the loose ends. I defended that, and found, in the books, while there was slow going at first, there was much of interest in the "life goes on" department. Tolkien permits the Shire to be ravaged, and have to be retaken. The movies wrap everything up nice and neat. That bugs me.

It turns out that the books don't get off completely free, either. As soon as Frodo casts the ring into Mount Doom, he is rescued from certain death by an eagle which flies him far away from Mordor. I remember finding that annoyingly simple when I saw the movie, and was disheartened to see that that actually goes back to the book. Stories, particularly in movies, tend to vanquish all evil completely and at once, as if the problem were simple: kill the leader, or cast his ring into a volcano, and with one dramatic act, everyone can live happily every after. At least in Tolkien's estimate, there are mentions of foul creatures that must still be dealt with, and a sense that there will be more effort required.

Gollum's death is also a useful trope; proven to be irredeemably evil (unlike other such characters in recent mythic sagas, like Severus Snape, or Darth Vader) his last selfish act nevertheless saves the world, and he conveniently dies. Similarly, the evil wizard Saruman (previously know as "the white" before his traitorous deeds were censured and his place taken by a new white wizard, Gandalf) is killed by his own servant, so that he does not stick around to do more mischief. The well-known problem in such stories is how to dispatch with the evil character once and for all without allowing the good characters to bloody their own hands; given a chance to repent, these characters at last refuse and are killed by assistants. It is a trope that has lost its charm in the intervening years; the world is not so accommodating. But then, that is supposed to be why we wish to escape to such places, and perhaps why I, in the midst of so many demands, felt to the need to do likewise.

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 check out the homepage this week at pianonoise.com. It's September and the site has gotten a very slight facelift!