Friday, September 28, 2018

Cereal Pianist

Remember the good old days?

When were they, exactly?

I was watching something called the Victor Borge show, on DVDs I borrowed from the library. Mr. Borge was a concert pianist turned comedian, whose musical comedy reliably turned up around PBS pledge drives for years. I saw him once on tour. Born in the 1909, he died in 2000. Long before I knew of him, or had even been born, he had a short-lived show on NBC, in the first part of 1951.

Borge's show was interesting for the occasional glimpse into the beginnings of material he would later use on stage as he toured. But it was not on the same level. For one thing, Borge, who had arrived in the US not ten years before without being about to speak a word of English, had to come up with a half hour show every week, and had only one other writer to help him. These days, a show that airs a few times a week will have about 20 writers. Borge had two including himself, and they didn't always come up with great material. It was more of a variety show, anyway, so sometimes you'd get dancers, or singers, or acrobats, or--well, you never knew what you were going to get. And it was only occasionally about the piano, or music at all.

Actually, it was really about cereal. You just knew the show's sponsors were constantly telling the host to plug their cereal more, and after a couple of months, the two 90-second commercials had grown to three. The host had to mention them on the air a couple of times a show, they incorporated it into sketches, and so on. And they were the only sponsor. I'm not going to mention the cereal's name because I am kind of annoyed at how often they plugged the cereal. I get it, I get it, you are paying money to get your name put on the show but could you just lay off just a little? Anybody with an IQ above 4 has got it already by the second commercial and probably won't be able to think about anything else all day as it is!

But what do I know. Maybe people in 1951 had goldfish memories and couldn't remember brand names for more than 30 seconds. On the other hand, they may have been people just like us.

Anyhow, there was a sketch where Mr. Borge asked us what had happened to the good old days. I had been under the misapprehension that 1951 WAS the good old days, but of course the problem with that is that this was said in 1951 and the good old days are never now. They were always then.

But to be honest, I'm not sure they were ever then, either. I mean, Borge suggested they might have been "20 years ago" which would have put them in the 1930s, which seems like strange times to be good, considering there was a major depression and was soon to be a major war. If anything could make a person wonder whether the idea of a "good old" anything was just a trick of the nostalgic imagination, that might be it. I've mentioned before my own good old era, the halcyon childhood when, in return for not having to pay bills, there was the threat of immanent nuclear war; and terrorism, and starvation, and genocide abroad. Other than that, perfectly lovely time to be alive. Not a care in the world.

I know I'll never get anywhere with this, but I do sometimes try to get people to examine their myths. And there are good reasons for that.

As a musician, I am supposed to hold with the idea that there was a time, in the middle of the last century, when people were much more educated about classical music then they are now, that they were friendlier to it, knew more about it, and valued it more highly. But I've seen a glimpse of the 1950s and, if they weren't there, I don't knew where they'd be. Certainly not in the 60s.

Borge wasn't Leonard Bernstein, of course, and didn't try to be. All the same, he didn't ask very much from his audience. He'd occasionally play a very shortened version of a famous piano concerto movement, or a solo piece. But sometimes several shows would go by without much musical content at all. And many of his jokes were more attitude than music. A few times he would imitate Shostakovich (still alive at the time) by smashing piano clusters like a four year old and declaring he'd come back when the composer got sober. He wanted us to know that this Russian didn't know how to write melodies, either. This was the height of the cold war, so it was easier to have fun by completely misrepresenting a living composer (anybody who has actually heard Shostakovich knows he could be very melodic; also that he was pretty much on our side when it came to Stalin, too, and was even being used for anti-Soviet propaganda by us. Would that have been too complicated? Why not at least pick another Soviet composer to make drunk jokes about?).

The self-congratulatory comedy didn't stop there; it had me wondering if this is what people thought was so educational. Instead of really teaching a little bit about music here and there (which you can still do in a comedy show and get away with it) you got a few of the famous pieces everybody knew, a few reinforced stereotypes about music and musicians;  in short, the kind of thing designed to make the audience feel good about what they thought they already knew rather than curious to know more.

All of this could be depressing, finding out that the good old days weren't so musically extraordinary as people have been making out. On the other hand, many of us go through the latter part of our lives disappointed and angry at a world that never seems to measure up to the way we thought things were.

Finding out that they never were that way can change our perspective a little.  I could unburden us.

I will say that Borge was still his affable self, and that was a pleasure to watch. I would argue that, while you could certainly point out that today there wouldn't even be a show that featured a classical pianist, I don't know that having one who has to dance around the opportunity to play real music and really talk about it, except very tangentially for a very limited amount of time is much of an advance on today. Also, Borge's show only lasted six months, so apparently the public patience for even that smattering of musical "culture" was limited.

Friday, September 21, 2018


It is said that people who can play Steinways can't afford Steinways. And vice versa.

I got my Yamaha from a woman who was making room for her new 160 thousand dollar Bosendorfer so people could play it at her parties. She did not want to be soiled with a 20 thousand dollar piano for the background music her hired pianists would play for her guests to talk over. She didn't play herself, of course. Perish the thought!

Persons who play other instruments occasionally have this problem as well. The great violinists of the world never own their instrument. Even though they make a good living, it is not enough to lay out several million dollars for a Stradivarius. So they get it loaned to them by a foundation.

The rest of us bozos get by on loaned instruments as well. I have a piano at home which is not concert worthy, but it helps me practice. I can't make good recordings on it, though. Most of the things you hear on pianonoise were made on Steinways that I had regular access to for some reason, such as having a position at a church, or for a recital.

Which is why, after some bit of exile, I should be in the driver's seat again. I am teaching a course about Mozart next month and wanted to finally get around to recording some of the sonatas, only to bump up against the latest hurdle: the piano is out of tune.

I don't mean just a little bit, either. I'm talking "church basement" out of tune.

Most churches in Pittsburgh have a piano, but only as an afterthought. Nobody plays it. We are an organ only town. And while Third Presbyterian has a nice Steinway model A which dates to 1929 (good year!) it is not particularly good at holding its tune.

We've been working on that in the year since I arrived. The massive fluctuations of temperature and humidity in a very large, non-airconditioned sanctuary in the middle of a humid, river-bounded town have to be contained. We've added a cover for the piano. We are set to install a damp chaser under the piano to keep the sound board at a consistent humidity--when the technician gets to it. Then, in a few weeks, he'll tune the piano, once the instrument has made the adjustment.

I got tired of waiting. One day, seated at the organ, I committed sacrilege by playing one of the Mozart sonatas on the organ. Then another. Then another. After a quarter century I can still remember large chunks of them without the score. I decided I liked the sound. After all, it may be an Allen, but it has a very large sound library of famous organ builder-generated sounds, and the charm of some of the registrations I was coming up with seemed to justify the experiment. So I recorded a few. I haven't had a chance to post any yet because I am in the middle of a busy week, so you'll get to hear them later.

They're not historically authentic, of course. Mozart didn't have a large, English cathedral style organ, or a French Cavaille Coll with hundreds of stops. And he did specify piano for these pieces.

But I think this may be sweet revenge for the organ. After all, Mozart was a great publicity man: he said that, to his "eyes and ears, the organ is the king of instruments." We organists like to trot out that quote every so often. But he didn't actually write anything for solo organ. Not a thing.

So maybe this is justice. It is a bit odd for a pianist to play an organ transcription of something he could just as well play on a piano, though. It is one thing when a beleaguered bassoonist steals something written for the violin in order to have some good literature to play on his neglected instrument.

The organ versions of these pieces do provide an interesting way to listen, however. Any great piece of music has many layers. Sometimes the best way to uncover some of them is to alter the medium. It causes us to hear differently. This doesn't mean I'm playing them the right way. There isn't a right way.

Arthur Schnabel said he wanted to play pieces that were impossible to play as well as they were written.

Anyhow, I've had to deal with some lemons in my career as a pianist and this week I found an unusual way to make some lemonade. I didn't squeeze all the juice out of the sonatas: you never can. But It yielded some intriguing results.

Apparently somebody else complained about the piano this week from an outside group, so we are having it tuned today. Maybe I acted impatiently. Good thing.

As always, is up with new recordings an articles if you want to explore the world of music.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Too many cooks

I end up playing father-confessor after concerts a lot.

"You know, I used to play the piano, but I quit. I wish I were still playing."

I don't happen to think this is actually true; much of this is just a polite attempt to have something to say, to forge a connection. Which, I suppose, is revealing.

It isn't that the speaker doesn't occasionally wish they could play the piano; probably they don't think about it that often, except in moments like these, but there is probably some genuine regret in not being able to play.  The idea of just being able to sit down and toss something off after a long day probably holds a grass-is-greener romanticism, but if a magic diva descended from Altissimus and instantly granted the ability to play like Horowitz, many of these folks would probably still only touch the piano once a year. Or so. I know because I've heard stories like that (without the magic diva).

Being able to play the piano is different from actually playing the piano. Being able to play is basically to display your credentials. This is what drives human beings. Showing your stuff.

The other week after a wedding when that young man came up to us and mentioned that he played the piano (self-taught) and the pastor said he could use the piano, I knew exactly what he was going to play, because it is the same as 11-year old self-taught boys everywhere. The first nine notes of Beethoven's Fur Elise and the first four measures of the Moonlight Sonata. Somehow it has become known in the pipeline that being able to play those pieces shows a high level of accomplishment. And they are conveniently possible to learn without reading music. And short. You leave off before the piece gets hard. Nobody wants to hear the rest anyway. You've made your point. You can play. That's the logic as I understand it.

The point being that you are important because look what you can do! Because everybody goes gaga over the pianist with the fast fingers and the playing from memory and don't we all want to be the center of attention?

This harsh analysis of human motives would explain why few people are likely to take up my challenge.

When people express regret at not being able to play I tell them that musicians like myself need people like them to come to concerts because otherwise we'd all be playing to empty rooms. Listeners are important. They support us. And music is about more than executing it anyhow. It needs to be understood, and enjoyed, and encouraged. It is a skill to be cultivated by listening and supporting. And it is important. It is vital.

This is an uphill battle. You can't sit down and prove to everybody in the room in a few seconds that you know how to listen to sonata form. Or that you can appreciate national dance forms in the music of Bach. Those things will make you a better listener, which will make your own experiences more enjoyable, and cause you to patronize artists who are setting the bar higher. But they don't, apparently, give you the power to command attention. Not the obvious kind.

Power is a strange thing. I recently came across my essay on Mendelssohn, which I'm going to post on next month. Mendelssohn's dilemma, according to one biographer, was that he needed to please his father by overtaxing himself as a conductor and neglecting his own needs as a composer. His father didn't think much of composing, but waving a stick around and getting people to do what you say every moment, now, that is impressive! It is true that, in the main, people regard performers much more highly than composers. When persons like Mozart did both, they got much more respect for their performances than for their compositions.

But if you think about it, you realize that an entire symphony orchestra may be watching one person's stick change direction, but everybody, including the conductor, is following the marks on the page, and doing what the composer said to do. The composer may not be visible or in the room at all. They may have been dead for centuries. But they are the one causing everybody to do what they are doing. Even the conductor. The one front and center getting all the attention. Odd, isn't it?

Everybody has a role to play. Some of those roles are quite visible. But they shouldn't be confused with being the most significant roles, necessarily, and certainly not the only ones. Patrons of the arts come to mind. People who fund the symphony and the arts organizations. People who will not only tolerate Schubert, they will be moved by him. In a small audience after a lot of preparation and a great performance by a hard working pianist, that person who is able to ask an eager question, show appreciation for the music itself and not just the flying digits, let the performer know that they did more than impress the audience with pretty sounds for a few minutes and then overstay their welcome, but forged a real connection through art.

So if you used to play the piano and quit, you can feel like a failure if you want to. I can't control that. But not everybody was made to play the piano. I played T-ball one year and stopped after that, and I don't go up to major league ballplayers and tell them that I used to play and I quit and I'm really sorry I did. I don't feel it necessary. It takes all kinds. And the folks who don't play the piano any more can still do something that many people who do play aren't able to do. Really get into the music. Really understand the music. Realize it isn't just about showing off your fingers or your resume, or playing fast and loud in order to impress. Go to concerts. Support musicians. Love what you are hearing. Probe, be curious. Learn.

Be alive!

Friday, September 7, 2018

No Pressure

The interwebs is a fun place. Some people last week were excitedly proclaiming it was now officially AUTUMN and therefore time for SPICED LATTES! Others, more dour, and thus, better informed, were trying SUBTLY to remind the first group that it was currently 90 degrees in the shade and that maybe they were being a tad premature. Which is what Americans do best anyway. We're first in everything. Especially when it comes to being six weeks early.

In the real world, the coming of the great September is not always a cause for celebration. Many new things have begun with a bang. A friend of mine who teaches both high school and college said he felt like he'd been drinking out of a fire hose all week. Deadlines start to come faster and more furiouser. I'd clean that last sentence up but there is no time.

I have a piano recital to give this afternoon, at the end of a week when I was preparing for two Sundays: our grand return to the sanctuary, and thus the large organ, or, if it is too hot, and the pastor decides we'd better adjourn to the social hall. Preparing for both possibilities meant having two preludes ready and figuring out who to get some of those anthems and whatnot to work on the piano.

Meanwhile, there is another concert in two weeks, with a different piece to relearn, and another full recital on the organ which isn't for a couple of months but needs to be prepared now. Also I'm teaching a class in a month, but the deadline for pitching the one that comes next semester is this week so that proposal will have to come first. And I'm trying to finish up a composing project while I still can which is pretty much not anymore. I'm out of time. Now!

There seem to be only two speeds in American life: busy and ridiculous. Busy is the one where we aren't all that busy but we don't want people to think we're communists or something so when people ask how we are we grin our best weary grin and say "busy" and they commiserate with us. The other form occurs typically near the beginnings of semesters, and at the end of them. Although in grad school I noticed that once things took off with a lurch they stayed at that level of intensity except they kept escalating through the end of the year.  It usually took about a month of summer to remember what it felt like to be human.

I'm not ready for that spiced latte yet, but I am looking forward to it. Metaphorically, of course (I'm not that into pumpkins). Despite all the hubbub, somehow autumn is still my favorite season of the year. Must be the weather. It's never in a hurry. This week they finally rolled out the weather we were supposed to get the last half of July.