Friday, November 30, 2018

The Second Heinz Chapel Recital

Heinz Memorial Chapel in Pittsburgh is a really nice place to play an organ recital. It is, as you will see, quite visually spectacular. Frank Kurtik, one of the docents there (and a super nice guy) takes spectacular pictures, and in this case the subject matter doesn't make that too difficult. Strangely enough, although I gave a recital there in May, none of the pictures Frank took this time around matched any of the angles from the last time.

Here are a few from the last concert to round out the perspective:

If you'd like to catch the music, for the next week (until Dec 7) it will be up at PianonoiseRadio. In addition to offsite recordings there is a link to  live concert video from my Facebook page. If you weren't quick enough to catch this program on Pianonoise Radio, I'm sure you can find something else nice to listen to on the same page (like the holiday program). It will come around again, eventually.

In the meantime, it still isn't quite Christmas at pianonoise--not for another week, but I'm getting pretty excited. It's nice not to be tired of Jingle Bells by the middle of October, don't you think?

ok, some of you clearly don't think so. That's your right. But in a week we'll both be chilling on the musical eggnog, and I've got a few new pieces for you again this year, so -- see you back here in a few days, and Merry nothing-just-yet!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Fast Fingers

I am frequently asked how to achieve speed. I presume people would like to be able to do this as quickly as possible. Which is understandable. We've all got places to go.

I can't recall now just how many hours I spent trying to get my fingers to be a disciplined blur at the keyboard. I do remember my teacher playing on my wrist numberless times, illustrating the little flick of the finger--that instant, mosquitolike tap that immediately engendered complete rest for the finger that did the flicking. It was a tiny, purposeful impulse, that I've since compared to a static charge passing from the finger to the exact point in the key's descent where the hammer is released unto the string. It is much more matter-of-fact than an electric shock, though. It happens suddenly, and in a manner that in no way disrupts the complete equipoise of the finger in charge.

What is really in charge, though, is the mind. And that mind is like a conductor, cue-ing in the oboe player, and then leaving the player to play the passage on her own, because no amount of micromanaging is necessary in a well-trained orchestra, nor would it yield reasonable results. It is time for the cue, the cue happens, and then it is time for something else. Well ordered, perfectly efficient little motions, with no excess, no feeling of pressure left in the finger afterward, everything transferred exactly from the arm to the piano. And the brain that ordered it a complete picture of Apollonian calm.

Mind you, I spent years and dollars in the pursuit of this. I can tell you this for free, but if you want to have any actual chance of achieving it, you'll have to send multiple installments of $69.95.

In other words, you'll need lessons. And lots of hours of practice.

It would obviously be more kind if there was another way. But I don't know of one. If it helps any, being on the receiving end of mass adulation regarding such dexterous digits is not everything it seems to be. It can actually be kind of...well, unfulfilling.

But I don't mind exercising my skill sometimes. And while, on the one hand, I am at pains to downplay the value of the fast and/or loud as a substitute for all things substantial, it still is nice sometimes to just let 'er rip and enjoy the scintillating sounds.

Recently, the piano in our social hall at the church was refurbished; the action, redone. I made a recording of a sonata movement by Clementi which I'll share with you now. It isn't high on the substance meter, but he does have a lot of scales that shoot up and down the keyboard and it is nice to be able to make them sizzle. So here it is, on the new action:

Clement: Sonata in Bb, 0p. 47 n.2, I. Allegro con brio

Monday, November 26, 2018

Who wants to know?

“There will, indeed, be some incredible passages, but, when you write a comedy and want applause, you must exaggerate somewhat and not adhere with too much fidelity to the reality of things.”
                                                     –Mozart, letter to his father, 1781

It's not exactly my favorite part of Amadeus. In fact, it makes me a little queasy.

It isn't part of the movie itself. It's the trailer. I played it for the class I taught about the movie, mostly to show how material from the opening of the play had been re purposed in the theatrical trailer. Said trailer focuses on all of the rumors and innuendos, all the outrageous bits, all of the scandals and the things that would absolutely shock you, good little theater goer with your high-end morals. But of course, you are there because of the rumors, and the gossip, and the naughty bits, because, as the narrator slimily breathes "that's what you reallllly like."

That doesn't exactly stick the landing for me. It's not quite up there with "we were just following orders" but it does have the ring of every person who has ever shown violence on the screen or in other forms, or peddled any product that kills, telling anyone who has a problem with this that, hey, they are just giving people what they want.*

Which has the advantage of being largely true.

It also has the air of anxiety. This is a film that will seem to be about the life of a classical composer. And he's dead. And he's got a wig on. Why on earth should we care? Oh, right. Revenge. Betrayal. Intrigue. Lust. All the good stuff.

This is presumably why they tried so hard to market the movie this way. To get people to see it.

It does not suggest that historical truth is going to be their first priority. Unless it just happens to be really "dizgusting."

Add to this the natural mechanism whereby human beings tend to remember fiction much more readily than they do history. Why, you ask? Another time. But they do. Ask a certain generation about George Washington and out come stories about cherry trees and silver dollars. Ask people about Mozart and...

There is much about this movie that is either historically accurate or at least might be. And a great deal that isn't. And the way to get a handle on it is this: if it's the stuff you remember, the stuff that sticks with you when you leave the theater, it is probably false. The historically accurate stuff is the part you don't really notice. It's in the details.

Those details are fascinating, based on copious research, and played with endlessly to produce new combinations. They are, in the end, not what the movie is about. But if you want the truth, and you are able to go out and find it independently of the movie, it is a very interesting thing to see.

It's the plot that doesn't ring true, and all of the dramatist's decisions to move it forward and make a gripping tale out of a mass of circumstances.

And it's not that the author lies to you, exactly. Most of the time he just presents the material in such a way that you do that yourself.

* This is also why our mothers fed us cookies and cake for every meal as children. Because that is what we really wanted. Really? Yours made you eat vegetables? Sucker.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Music in the Crevices

Last Saturday I had a concert in a cave. Lincoln caverns is about two-and-a-half hours east of Pittsburgh. It is well-lit, and the formations are quite stunning. The acoustics aren't bad, either, though there turned out to be more reverberation at the organ recital I gave the next day. I am parked with a keyboard in one of the pictures below to accompany the soprano, Jett Downey of East End Song Studios, who arranged this fascinating trip. Our location is on the same spot that the cave was entered by the young man who discovered it in the 1940s. Our devoted audience stood up for the short recital and participated in some of the numbers.

Here we are in the command control room, getting instruction and having lunch. Then we toured the cave (after visiting the gift shop, of course) and had our concert. I am a cave-concert virgin no longer.
(I had a blast! no, don't say blast. That's not something you want to say when you are in a cave.)

It was fun.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Music in the Cracks

Life is starting to return to normal. There was a great interruption a couple of years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer at the same time as we needed to move to continue Dear Wife's medical education. I wound up getting my first impressions of my new environment attached to an IV bag. Then I was unemployed, friendless, and not-quite-right in body or mind for a while. But slowly I began to make contacts and break into the musical scene around here.

Two years later it's still not a done deal, but I've had three concerts this weekend in addition to two church services, a rehearsal and a class. The calendar is as full as it's been so far. People who know other people are starting to hire me to do various things and are even beginning to find out some of the various things I am able to do.

Some of those things are what enabled me to survive the last several days. I improvised a prelude at church this week so I could work on the pieces I needed for the additional service last night, as well as the pieces I played in class, in rehearsal, and in the three concerts. I also sight-read a number of things, or at least learned them very quickly, because there is not enough time to deal with a high volume of music on short notice.

That's the life of a professional musician. You don't get all semester to work on your recital piece. You have to work fast. And if, as it happens, you want to do things on top of what pays the bills, pieces of music you want to engage with in order to learn, understand, be challenged, be satisfied, share them with others, record them for your website...well, that has to be done in your spare time. And it turns out, if you work at it long enough, hard enough, and are determined enough to use every spare minute in creative ways for creative can get a lot done over time. Thirty hours and counting of recordings made in the cracks between rehearsals and concerts, lessons, meetings, compositions, and whatever else.

It adds up, eventually. But it can be exhausting. And there is a science to using your time effectively, a skill that improves with time.

It seems odd that a person who makes music for a living and a person who does not has this in common, but making the music you want to make is often just as extra-curricular for the musician as it is for the amateur. People will not often pay you for the exalted flights to Parnassus. All the little Johnnies of the world aren't there yet. And little Janie doesn't want to sit through the final sonatas of Schubert. Unless you are one of the few globe-trotting pianists who makes a career of playing nothing but concerts--and there are perilously few of them; even they generally teach at top-ranked music schools for a living--you too will experience substantive music making as a hobby, as a thing that often gets visited upon the unsuspecting public who isn't exactly clamoring for it.

But then, once in a while, they find themselves not minding it so much after all. A crack opens in the cave and light pours through. Between soccer practice and that meeting and the kids' travel t-ball teams and the conference and scouts and everything else. As if the world stopped for a split second and we could all hear the music of eternity.

It doesn't happen a lot. But when it does, it is amazing.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Nothing but the truth?

People who have seen "Amadeus," and even people who haven't, when asked if they think the movie is presenting actual history usually hedge their bets a little. Being sophisticated, worldly types, we all know Hollywood tends to stretch the truth, play with it, or bury it completely if the result is at least supposed to provide a more entertaining alternative. But of course, when asked about the life of Mozart, what comes out is from the movie. And why not? That's all most people know. They didn't read books about him, program notes, pamphlets: most people spend no time at all thinking about Mozart, or even being particularly curious. So, naturally, the movie, even if we know it probably is not exactly true, still represents Mozart in our minds, if only because it has no competition.

This can be frustrating for people who know that history and would really prefer people didn't get their history from entertainment, and consequently get the two of them mixed up.

If you happen to be particularly scrupulous in this regard, there are plenty of resources out there to try and help you sort out the truth from the not-so-truthful.

But if that's all you're after, you're kind of missing the point of Amadeus. It isn't a documentary, that's for sure. It isn't really meant to be used to teach people about Mozart (this means you, music teachers!). Its relationship to history is actually quite complicated. Some things are carefully researched; some things are made up, but with a pedigree. And there is value in knowing the history itself, because when you do, you can start to appreciate the genius of the dramatist and how bits of what really happened provide the jumping off point for something completely new and important. But you're still missing the point.

"Amadeus" is a work of art. It isn't meant to tell us what happened, or how it happened. In order to "get it" we need to be looking in a different direction completely. And that, in the end, is where this blog series will be leading us.

Bring your preconceived notions. And a lighter.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Blogging Amadeus

One of the greatest movies ever made about a composer--which is not really about the life of a composer at all--is the movie "Amadeus." Based on a play by Peter Shaffer, directed by Milos Forman, it was released in theaters in 1984, and is now available on DVD in a "director's cut" in which some scenes that were cut for time in the theatrical release were restored in what is now a three-hour run time. Since you don't have to watch it all at once this is more than justified, although if you have a young audience, some of the deleted scenes might better be passed over. In one of them we see a little more of Mrs. Mozart than the film review board might be comfortable with.

I've recently taught a course on this movie, and thought it would be worth trying to translate some of it into a blog series, partly to help teachers who want to use the movie in their classrooms, as well as general film buffs who wondered about the historical authenticity of the film and other matters. And if any of my students would like to use this blog to continue the conversation--or if anyone else wants to jump in--you are welcome.

This blog series will take place on Mondays. (Mondays=Mozart). I plan to follow the general outline of the class, which began with a lengthy prologue in which we discussed the film as history or not, and if not, what it actually is and how we might appreciate it even if we find fault with it, then got into the actual history of the people involved, found out where Peter Shaffer got his ideas for the film by tracing a Viennese rumor through a poem by Pushkin and an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, and then dove into the film itself, not entirely in score order, taking on various big topics as the occasion warranted.

See you back here on Monday!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Fake Blog

This isn't a political blog, and on Monday I plan to go back to writing about Mozart. But in the wake of the Synagogue shooting here in Pittsburgh, when I felt it necessary to both show support for the victims and try to imagine what drives people to go shoot their fellow human beings, I thought I would add my voice to the concern over a really basic problem we have in this country right now. That would be the refusal to agree on basic reality.

I have two examples, the first of which is much less destructive than the second. It concerns several people on Facebook who were ridiculing a tweet that supposedly came from Nancy Pelosi. Now before we go on let me make clear that this has nothing to do with whether or not you like Nancy Pelosi. I can think of several reasons not to. Having an opinion that ranges from extreme admiration to total disgust is still an opinion, and we are all entitled to ours. Nonetheless, the proxy object of scorn was the tweet itself, which read in part "I am angry at Donald Trump for allowing Americans to keep more of what they earn."

Obviously, this was an attempt to describe the tax cut. And obviously, there is a problem with it. Nancy Pelosi did not write it.

How do we know? Three ways. The first is that this does not pass the smell test. No Democrat is going to use the phrase "allowing Americans to keep more of what they earn" to describe a tax bill that was passed by Republicans. "Asking wealthy Americans to pay their fair share" would make more sense. You can agree with the first formulation or the second depending on how you interpret this bill. But if you know anything at all about political spin and the language used by different politicians to describe the same event, you know that that first version is a Republican talking point, and makes no sense coming out of the mouth of a Democrat.

Nonetheless, people were lined up around the virtual water cooler to insist that, even for Nancy Pelosi, this was the dumbest thing she ever said.

Sigh. We really should have done a better job teaching reading comprehension in schools.

Somebody else pointed out that the website snopes, com, which makes it its business to investigate the truth of various claims, has declared this tweet to be fake.

Then another individual noticed a watermark in the corner of the tweet showing that it was from a website that allows anyone to create their own tweets that look like they came from anyone's account.

Despite and still, people kept ridiculing Ms. Pelosi on the basis of that tweet. If they'd said the tweet was fake but they still thought she was awful, that would be one thing. That they kept insisting on the tweet's authenticity shows a reckless disregard for reality. They weren't going to let a few facts get in the way of their hatefest, apparently.


For the second example I'm going to reach back all the way to the Middle Ages. It is far more sinister, and while it is ancient history, and could lead us to feel good about how we aren't doing things like that anymore, I think the recent shooting should keep us from getting too comfortable about the notion of human progress.

The Jewish people, and anybody who hasn't spent their entire life in a cave, is aware that there has been and continues to be mindless hate toward Jews, often leading to horrific actions.

One of the myths that refused to die during this time was the notion that Jews would kidnap Christian babies and sacrifice them during their strange rituals. Now, anybody who knows the slightest thing about Judaism knows this to be a steaming pile of utter ridiculousness.

In one bizarre example, a man was accused of just such a crime. He was executed for it, too, despite not only the complete lack of evidence, but the fact the nobody in the village or anywhere in the area had even reported a child missing!

The impossibility that he could have committed the crime did not get in the way of the people's need to exercise their hate on a people they believed to be a threat. They did so often. They continue to do it. The man who shot the people at Tree of Life insisted that his own people (Aryans?) were being "slaughtered." This is apparently, what in his mind justified the killing of all those people.

Most of us, from all over the political spectrum, agree that that mind is diseased. Unfortunately, there are ways, large and small, in which people are no longer able to agree over basic reality. This is clearly not something new in human history; it is, unfortunately, fairly common. But when we insist that something or someone who is basically peaceful is an existential threat to our existence despite a complete lack of evidence we go from reasonable caution to a justification for the most horrific acts of violence.

Ask the graves at Auschwitz.

Friday, November 2, 2018

In Harm's Way

I've never understood why people don't think it can happen here. Sooner or later, it is going to happen here.

If here is my neighborhood, then last Saturday, it very much did. Evil made a stop in Pittsburgh on its never-ending tour. It was brought to us by the same combination of psychotic episodes and violent rhetoric as the rest. A man who thought the world was out to get him, egged on by others with a similar mindset and a President who derives power from convincing America to be scared silly by everybody that doesn't look like them.

If that seems unnecessarily political and unfair to you, you should look into their respective twitter accounts. The language of the President and the language used by the shooter are almost identical. Both warn of "invasions" by "those people" and are not in the least subtle that they have to be "stopped." The only difference is in which group is being targeted. But you can't pick and choose when you are unleashing the forces of fear and death. Those don't respect boundaries around the people you think will vote for you. You might recall that those Nazis in Charlotte were chanting that "Jews will not replace us." The "good people," you know.

The shooter did go the President one better, however. He said, in his last tweet that he was "tired of watching my people get slaughtered. I'm going in," he said.

Slaughtered? What in the ever living hell does he mean? Who is slaughtering whom here?

This is the language of violence. It is always convincing itself that it is actually the target of those other people, and that it is just trying to protect itself. And then somehow six million Jews wind up dead because they were supposedly the aggressors. Those Nazis were just trying to defend themselves from a vast world conspiracy.


The problem is, you can't argue with fear. If you try to tell it is hasn't got a freaking clue it just assumes you are the enemy. Part of the problem. You don't get it, it says venomously. But you the end--when we shoot all of you.

After an incident of mass killing people are understandably worried. But then the fear farmers fan the flames: It wasn't Jews that guy was after (even though he said it was) any more than that fellow who shot up a church full of Black people was after African Americans (even though he said exactly that). No, you and me, Joe and Jill White Anglo-Saxon Protestant better be really worried. Worried enough to let our civil rights vanish as fast as they can. Also, buy all the assault rifles you can, before some Democrat takes them all away.

Tree of Life Synagogue is about two blocks from the church where I play. Folks here are talking about locking doors, getting more's already a challenge for a new person to find their way in to the building (most churches have about a dozen, and only one of them is unlocked), and to be welcomed. Now it's going to require a degree in it.

There is, of course, no guarantee that some Sunday morning we won't all be mowed down during a service--even Joe Protestant, though that is a lot less likely if you are not a minority or black or a non-Christian group, much as fear-mongers like to blur the lines so they can spread fear everywhere. About the only thing that is guaranteed is that some people will use that as an excuse to stoke more fear and tell us the solution is to arm ourselves all the more and trust each other all the less. It will seem reasonable to some, and an absolute necessity to others. After all, those folks who stockpiled all the weapons out of fear the government was going to get them did end up dead in the end, didn't they? It would never occur to them that the only reason the government was even concerned about them in the first place was because of their arsenal. People of Fear never consider the possibility that they might themselves seem a threat to others, so full are they of their own fear that other people are out to get them. What is really bizarre is the size of that threat. It can be people carrying signs, or kneeling, or being Jewish (or black, or gay, or left-handed, or liberal). And somehow, the way to deal with that threat is with lead bullets. The white male thinks he is under assault in America, so he goes and buys an assault rifle.

There doesn't seem to be anything one can do about that. You can't laugh at fear--it thinks everybody is doing that already (they're all laughing at us!) and it just furthers their sense of persecution. You can't argue with it. It just thinks you are too stupid to know what's really going on. And you can't acknowledge it: it just gets bigger and bolder. The least you can do is not encourage it. But in any case,  it does its thing in our midst, and some of us, living with the ever-present possibility of getting shot, live our lives anyway, trying to do what is right and good, not turning to the right or to the left,  not giving in. And if we die, we die. I've been seeing this attitude everywhere lately, this goodness and mercy that some people feel doesn't exist because it doesn't fit their fear. Feeling persecuted all the time does shrink your perspective. It doesn't help your reasoning powers, either. I still recall an online comment from one guy to the effect that soon it was going to be illegal to be a white male in this country. I wonder which mostly white, male legislature he thought was going to pass such a law.

There were vigils in Squirrel Hill last weekend, and a protest. At the protest there were signs from every community that has been abused by our current leader. And there were words in support of all of them. The Jewish community doesn't stand alone here. This weekend everyone is invited to Synagogue. Everybody, united.

It is strange how many people think of division: just as the people with the signs are often seen as a bigger threat than the people with the guns, the ones using words like "invasion" and "infestation" to describe people are supposed to be the uniters and the people who don't find this bullying acceptable are the dividers.

Meanwhile, in our neighborhood, people who are "supposed to" be enemies are coming together. The Muslim community was first in line to donate to the relief fund for the Jewish community. (They know that this week it was your people; next week it may be ours). Every day, usually in small ways, people are not only polite to each other, they are looking out for each other. It seems like an alternate reality. Something you'd never believe unless you were a part of it. It is as if there are two kingdoms, filled with very different citizens, defined by who they love and who they hate, occupying the same space, but living two very different realities. They bump into each other on the street, but they are going in opposite directions.