Friday, November 22, 2019

Return to the Old Stomping Grounds


The following article first appeared in the November "Spire," the monthly newsletter of Third Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA:


You don’t often get a chance to go back and revisit another time of your life, see old friends, and enjoy making music with them as if stepping through a window into the past. But this past week, I was in Illinois, playing a concert with the community choir known as The Chorale, with chorus and orchestra and our guest conductor Dr. Craig Jessop.

The group formed almost accidentally in 1982 in order to sing Christmas carols at the local mall. Then they began to meet regularly and grew in size until their 70 voice ensemble was practicing every Sunday night from September through May and singing at least three concerts a year. I became their accompanist in 2009 and played for them until we left Illinois in 2016. At that time the group’s schedule included a “Celebration of Life” concert the first weekend of November, and a New Year’s Eve concert at the restored vaudeville theater. I would warm up the crowd by playing the Mighty Wurlitzer and then spend the next two hours bobbing up and down from the stage to the pit. It was a fun and exhausting evening. In the spring the final concert would feature winners of the Chorale’s college scholarships.

Every 18 months a guest would come and we would have a festival concert, usually adding around 30 singers and an orchestra. My first time at one of these I wondered how I was going to be able to get through that throng of singers to the piano! Another time I remember being able to feel the folders of the altos against the back of my head.

Dr. Jessop became our favorite clinician, and has returned to lead us about 7 times (this was number 8). He is a former conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and leads huge choir festivals around the country. The Chorale sang with him in Utah and Washington D. C. as well as going on our own international tours. I joked that with our mere 100 singers and 20 piece orchestra we were his chamber group. What is it about our group that had him coming back each time?

After 37 years, founding director Julie Beyler prepared the group for its final concert. Some of its members have already passed on, including the lady who organized the parties at the end of every semester full of food and song parodies. The group enjoyed getting together to have fun when the maestro wasn’t working them so hard that every so often a group of regular folks from small town Illinois could sound like a top-tier professional choir. It hardly seems possible, but it did come at the price of long rehearsals.

That phase of my life ended three years ago. Usually it is just in literature that a character is able to go back and visit the past, but in a couple of weeks it will be as if a switch had been thrown and a wish was granted, to see the people doing their thing one more time, a last hurrah, a fitting coda to a special time with some special people.

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on the mother ship, www.pianonoise.com, we're celebrating Scott Joplin's birthday and trying to be thankful for everything.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Diversity in Adversity

Life happens, to composers as it does to everyone else. Sometimes it isn't that pretty.

I didn't set out to depress everyone when I decided to teach "Composers in Exile: Music in Adversity," a five week OSHER course that included the music and life stories of a number of persons making music in difficult circumstances. Those circumstances included voluntary and involuntary exile, imprisonment, isolation, societal shunning, war, the threat of execution, mental illness, racism, sexism, and depression.

On the other hand, it would be facile to see in all of those stories of composers who went on creating their art in the midst of trying circumstances a triumph of the human spirit. Not just because some of those spirits broke down in the end but because it is easy for those not in the midst of those trials to use the suffering of others as feel-good entertainment. We like movies in which the heroes struggle as long as they win in the end. Well, some of us do. There are also those who don't even like to confront life's ugliness long enough to make it a plot point.

Given my usual propensity to inject wit into the proceedings, as well as the music's frequently cheerful tone, the class was not the funeral procession you might think if you were not in attendance. Before last week's litany of woman barred from public performance, composition, and even teaching by the attitudes of the men who controlled their decisions, I strode to the piano holding my three-ring binder filled with music aloft and proclaimed "this is my binder full of women." Several people laughed, which was a good release since the next half-hour was more likely to make them angry or depressed.

The music, though, was frequently beautiful. It has been one of the sub-themes running through the course that you cannot tell the composer's circumstances from the music they write. Sometimes the most bubbly, exuberant music will emanate from a composer in the most trying circumstances. Sometimes I have played music from before the composer ran into the difficulties described, and the music sounds if anything like a prophet of doom in the face of later events. But those who think that the composer is always keeping a sonic diary will, I hope, have had their minds changed on this. Even though no less than John Kirkpatrick suggested that very thing about the music of Scarlatti, and it certainly sounds plausible. Schumann's Carnaval also lent itself to a good deal of biographical connection. But who really knows to what degree? In any case the relation between the music and the life is individually determined, complicated, and frequently unknown.

One thing that amazed me was how many commonalities emerged from such a disparate wealth of material. I mentioned to the students in week three that they were getting a healthy musical diet, since the first week's program featured the Romantic Era (19th century), the second week the 20th century, and the third week the Baroque and Classical Eras. We heard music from France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain, and America. The composers were often under pressure from without, either from societal attitudes (the women) or political regimes (Stalinist Russia). But they were often under pressure from within, as well. On the question of censorship, some composers had music condemned because it did not suit the regime (like Shostakovich). Others might censor themselves because they feared their employers wouldn't like it (Haydn, for example). Still others became dissatisfied with their own style and forged a new artistic style. Whether the composer was Prokofiev, repenting after official denunciation and declaring that from now on he would pursue a simpler style, or Arvo Part deciding the complex, atonal music of his early years no longer had any meaning and pursuing so-called "Holy Minimalism," in each case, the question is about simplicity, or directness of musical expression. But complexity has its rewards, too. That same Prokofiev won a Stalin prize for his complex Seventh Piano Sonata, and I note the student's approval of much music that was loud, fast, and filled with notes.

Whether it was a composer forced to make his living by performing (and grumbling about it all the way) or a composer who really wanted to be a performer but her husband wouldn't permit it, or someone segregated to the teaching studio, or making major contributions there, the variety of ways in which these people dealt with life and earned a living is vast. It can show us, if we like to be inspired, that there is no single right way to do music. But in each case, it was the composer's failure to control a situation which was larger than themselves that led to the different solutions. They were all partial solutions; nobody quite got what they wanted. Yet they left music for us, the lucky listeners, echoes from times and spaces distant from our own experiences, full of the richness of human experience.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Don't bother your pretty little head about it

The first woman who ran the Boston Marathon was told that just wasn't possible. Women were just not capable of that kind of athletic feet. Their bodies wouldn't hold up. You know, nothing personal. We don't have a problem with it really, it's just a scientific fact.

It hadn't been proven, of course. When she actually ran the Boston Marathon a man charged onto the course and tried to physically take her out! That, she told us before a different marathon a few years back, made her "a radical."

That's the first thing to note about prejudice. First it argues what it claims are just facts, and then, not content to stand back and watch them in action, like watching women try and fail to run marathons and then say "I told you it wouldn't work" it intervenes and resorts to sabotage instead, which sounds very much like we aren't nearly so certain of what we claimed to be certain of. Also, prejudice is very polite until it is challenged, and then not so much.

Prejudice is able to think fast on its feet. At base it is an irrational gut fear. But on the surface it is full of reasoning skills. Typically, when people have been told that a particular right or something involving equal treatment is not going to be allowed, it is said to be for their own good, not detriment. You wouldn't want those rights anyway, they say. Voting is a nasty business, you should be glad you aren't a man so you don't have to be part of the dirty world of politics (and power), or You are much happier being a slave, lucky you!

Yesterday I played music written by a half dozen women from the 19th and 20th centuries. Their stories were pretty much the same. They started as child prodigies, then were married off to men they didn't love but their fathers loved the men's finances. Usually they were decades older. Then they were forced to stop that nonsense with the public music making because it was unseemly for a woman, and composing was often viewed the same way. One was even forbidden teaching because it would look like she needed to money, and of course that would make her husband look like he couldn't provide.

Before playing a piece by Fanny Mendelssohn I explained that some of her piano pieces had gotten published, but under her brother's name. Naturally Felix had a good explanation for this:


From my knowledge of Fanny I should say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.

Isn't that nice of him? My students didn't seem to be impressed, though. The idea that she didn't want to be recognized as the author of her own music does seem pretty high on the bullshit meter, does it not? And then to have it explained that she was much to busy being a housewife to even think about publishing, or even musical contacts.

These days there are plenty of women raising families and having careers. But you might trip over the argument that a woman in the 19th century might not have time for music and her wifely duties.

After all, she only managed to write about 460 pieces of music. But don't worry, that was never the point anyway.

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if you were wondering, Felix's output consists of around 150 publications and 40 which were not published, several of which contain multiple pieces and a few of which are very large works, so without taking the time to count everything up (and being unable to find a number online) let's just say that she seems to have been just about as prolific as he was. Or if not (let's say he wrote enough opus numbers with 5 or more items to easily surpass her total) that having found time to write nearly 500 pieces of music still exposes his argument that she is too busy to soil herself with musical things to be the pile of crap that it is.
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Don't forget, www.pianonoise.com is new every Friday. This week there is a new article on Robert Schumann, a new recording from a concert at Trinity Cathedral, and the pianonoise radio program is all about sets of three.


Friday, November 1, 2019

Undisturbed development

In the age of clickbait, questions are posed online that run something like this:

If I offered you a million dollars but you had to swear off chocolate for the rest of your life, would you take it?

Seems like a silly question. I've never heard of anyone offering a million dollars to someone randomly if they will forswear chocolate or coffee or whatever makes it difficult.

But suppose you are a great composer and I tell you I have a really nice gig for you. It involves steady employment for life, living in a castle, employed by a prince, with your own orchestra, and you get to give a hundred concerts a year of your own music for the entertainment of a cultured monarch. Those are your only duties, beside occasional travel between castles when the prince wants to go fox hunting.

Or suppose I said you could spend your days writing harpsichord sonatas and your only duty would be to give lessons to the queen of Spain. Same living accommodations as before, and only the best harpsichords at your disposal. Would you be interested? But you can't leave. And it's not on the beaten path. Might get a bit lonely.

These are the sorts of deals that Joseph Haydn and Domenico Scarlatti seem to have made with life. They were on yesterday's program for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute course I'm offering on Composers In Exile. Only Scarlatti was in truly foreign territory: born in Italy, he worked for the Spanish court, part of that great influx of Italian musicians to nearly every court in Europe. Both of them seemed to lead isolated lives. Haydn, in particular, spent his days in a castle pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the summer home of the prince was even more nowhere than that. He built it on a swamp, no less.

Haydn appears to have been rather lonely. He poured out his feelings in several letters, this one from February of 1790:

Well, here I sit in my wilderness; forsaken, like some poor orphan, almost without human society, melancholy, dwelling on the memory of past glorious days. Yes, past, alas! And who can tell when those happy hours may return.

Sounds rather unhappy about it, doesn't he? And the music I chose to play, although plenty jovial much of the time, does take some rather dark turns, and is just as introspective and melancholy is it is ebullient. In fact, both composers inhabit much deeper emotional worlds than they are often given credit for.

This touches on the issue of a composer's development. While most composers live in large cities, hearing and being influenced by the work of their colleagues, studying the work of their illustrious predecessors, and so on, these gentlemen seem to have been largely unable to do that. Occasionally a gifted instrumentalist might visit Eszterhaza castle, and no doubt Scarlatti got to work with some fresh blood too once in a while, but physical isolation can lead to stunted growth in other areas, too. Haydn spun this turn of events positively, however, and said that he was "forced to become original."

Scarlatti, too, was a restless experimenter who wrote 555 keyboard sonatas which follow largely the same architectural plan, and yet explore new territory each time.

Which brings to mind a quotation from the poet Maria Rainer Rilke which a teacher of mine had posted on her door at Peabody. It is from a collection called "letters to a young poet" in which the man answered a letter from an admirer asking for criticism of his poetry.

"Allow your judgments their own quiet, undisturbed development, which like all progress must come from deep within you and cannot be forced or hastened by anything. The whole thing is to carry the full time and then give birth; to let every impression and every germ of a feeling consummate itself entirely within itself, in that which is dark, inexpressible, unconscious and unattainable by your own intelligence, and to await the hour of the delivery of a new clearness of vision. That alone is to live an artistic life, in understanding, as in creating.


In that there is no measuring with time; no year is of any value and ten years are as nothing. To be an artist is this: not to count or to reckon: to ripen like a tree which does not force its sap, but in the storms of spring stands confident without being afraid that afterwards no summer may come. The summer comes all right. But it only comes to the patient, to those who are there as carefree and quiet and immense, as if eternity lay before them. Daily I learn, learn it through my sufferings [to which I am grateful] that patience is everything."

Had Haydn died at 35 as Mozart did, we probably wouldn't remember him. Scarlatti also had a long life, living to be nearly 72 (Haydn was 77). For the time those were pretty long lives. And with Scarlatti it is hard to know just how he developed because the chronology of his works is in doubt. But with Haydn you can see the music becoming richer with age, even with melancholy.

It may be difficult to imagine pain and suffering and patience being major ingredients in the furnace of art, but for these two that seems to have been of vital importance. Out of the isolation, out of the daily application and service to their art, something wonderful happened.

And we are the beneficiaries.


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Scary organ music is up for a few more days at www.pianonoise.com, as are more articles about Scarlatti and Haydn, and of course it's All Saints Day.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Enemy of the People

Dmitri Shostakovich has to be one of the most endangered composers in history, and certainly the most famous of them. While other well-known composers were getting out of Russia in 1917, like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev (who inexplicably returned later), Igor Stravinsky, and a host of others less famous, Shostakovitch stayed. He doesn't seem to have considered leaving.

Shostakovich managed to have a decorated career. He wrote a lot of music, achieved an international reputation, and was praised for some of it in his own country. But always there was the extreme difficulty of trying to function artistically in Joseph Stalin's Russia.

This wasn't just a matter of artistic patronage. Stalin was an absolute dictator, and if he didn't like something he could have you exiled or killed. Between the Second World War and his own "purges" it is estimated that he is responsible for the deaths of about 20 million human beings.

Dmitri Shostakovich got off to a brilliant start. His First Symphony was a huge success and got him noticed internationally. His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was  wildly popular for two years.

Then he had his first real taste of Joseph Stalin.

The dictator attended his opera, decided he didn't like it, and shortly afterward there appeared an article in the official state newspaper, "The Truth" called 'Muddle Instead of Music' which attacked the opera in no uncertain terms. This was in January 1936. Only 10 days later another article appeared attacking a ballet of his. The composer thought he was finished. He had become, in one of Stalin's favorite phrases, an "enemy of the people."

"I was called an enemy of the people quietly and out loud and from podiums. One paper made the following announcement of my concert: 'Today there is a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich....I was swamped with anonymous letters saying in effect that I, enemy of the people, did not have long to tread on Soviet soils, that my ass's ears would be chopped off--along with my head."

The composer believed that Stalin had written the article himself, particularly because of some of the phrases which echoed the ones that seemed forever stuck inside the dictator's head that he would repeat ad naseum and that didn't really mean anything. After all, Stalin could make up his own language, couldn't he? In any case, the article was anonymous, which meant The Party had directed it. Which meant there was no arguing. Shostakovich's friends wouldn't have anything to do with him for a while.

Yet somehow Shostakovich survived that nightmare, even though many of his friends and associates did not. One of them was his friend Meyerhold. "It's impossible to imagine now how popular Meyerhold was. Everyone knew him....And then the man disappeared, he just disappeared and that was it. As though he never existed."

Many musicians and artists disappeared in those traumatic times. Near the end of his life, the composer sat for secret interviews with a man who took notes on what Shostakovitch said, got the pages approved, and smuggled them into the west, only publishing them after the composer's death. the result was "Testimony," from which these quotations are taken. In it, the man recalls many incidents from his life and talks mostly about the people around him. And he chronicles the disappearances of so many of them.

Survival was never certain in Stalin's Russia. Holding Western ideas or being in any way critical of the party or of Stalin was sure to get you executed of course, but sometimes trying too hard to be doctrinally pure could get you in trouble as well. And sometimes what the party favored changed rapidly, and you could get caught being associated with something or someone that was no longer in favor. Some people referred to it as a lottery. One thing was sure: the moment someone disappeared you had to make sure you were in no way connected with them, and had better obliterate any traces of their friendship; correspondence, artifacts, everything. Help the state make sure they never existed.

In 1948 there was another shake-up, and Shostakovitch was again reprimanded along with several other Soviet artists. The usual accusation was that they were promoting Western ideas. They would be called "formalists" which was a deliberately meaningless word for "not Soviet enough." Stalin's whim set the tone for that.

And his whim could also lift a composer up as well as bring him down. There was a special prize for excellence in Soviet art in that period, known as the Stalin prize (naturally). Shostakovich won a few of those. His music was still periodically praised. Official denunciations and recognition could follow one another in a dizzying whirl. Once Stalin needed Shostakovich to go to America for propaganda purposes. He telephoned the composer who mentioned that he was currently officially banned so he couldn't go. Stalin acted surprised, and countermanded his censure, forcing Shostakovitch to go and help spread the fiction so many  American leftists were more than willing to swallow about how wonderful things were in the USSR.

Stalin needed artists as part of his program to mold the minds of the Soviets, just as rulers have long done. Shostakovitch was clearly one of his country's most gifted composers. But Stalin was not one to forgive errors. How did Shostakovich live through two periods of official condemnation?

A Shostakovich biography calls him a yuródivyy, a Holy Fool, one who tells the truth to the king and isn't killed, usually because his guise as a fool protects him as others are not.  Shostakovich was clearly no idiot. He did write quite a lot of movie music; this was Stalin's favorite entertainment, and it probably bought him a lot of good will, even while the composer considered it largely a waste of time. And he was known in the West, particularly during WWII, when the Soviets and the Americans fought against Hitler. The composer's Seventh Symphony became a powerful political statement against fascism--at least, that's how Stalin saw it. During the war, Soviet composers could compose music that was more morose, and get away with it, because it was assumed to represent the struggle against Germany, rather than a complaint against the system at home. These things may have helped Shostakovitch to stay alive, although we don't know just how close he may have come to a premature end.

In "Testimony" the composer displays little patience with those who think his music wasn't a protest of the Soviet system. Writing of his famous Fifth Symphony, the one written just after his first period of official denunciation, which helped rehabilitate him with the state, he writes "I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing [at the piece's conclusion] is forced, created under threat....It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.' and you rise, shakily, and go marching off, muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.' What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear it." Many in the Soviet Union chose to hear triumph in those closing bars. They may have been idiots, but their misapprehension may have helped save the composer's life several times. In instrumental music, just what is going on, anyhow? Whose ears make that determination?

People have heard all sorts of things in the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, and have argued violently about what they have heard. If "Testimony" is both accurate in terms of the word of the writer, who did not record Shostakovich except on paper, and in terms of the memory of an old man about a past he may or may not have remembered accurately, then the picture that emerges is one of an artist who meant his music to serve as a protest, and somehow, perhaps because it was in music, and the authorities often heard acquiescence instead of anger, or felt if they kept him alive they could yet mold them to their ends, he continued to use his symphonic voice to the end.

"I know that many will not agree with me and will point out other, more noble aims of art. They'll talk about beauty, grace, and other high qualities. But you won't catch me with that bait....I've always protested harshly against this point of view and I strove for the reverse. I always wanted music to be an active force. That is the Russian tradition."

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!

Friday, August 30, 2019

On Re-reading Lord of the Rings

I recently I re-read J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." From time to time I'll glance at my bookshelf and something I've previously read will ask to be read again. Why the Tolkien this time is curious.

I am in the middle of preparing a series of lecture-recitals with not nearly enough time to do it, a circumstance that was made possible by having multiple concert programs earlier this summer and a few others that have popped up since. So, like Sam and Frodo, who keep groaning that their quest is completely impossible and doomed to failure, but do what they can anyway, perhaps my sub-conscious is trying to get through! When I'm finished with this blog I'll get back to practicing. I've learned on dozens of occasions that it is ultimately possible to accomplish things that seemed impossible if you just put your head down and plow on. No time to worry about it, just do it.

The last time I read this epic tale must have been at least 30 years ago when I was a young teenager. Works of art conveniently stand still, but we do not--this is an observation I made first as a survival skill in college when I noted that Rachmaninoff could not make his concerto any harder than it already was but that I had the ability to keep gaining skill until I could overcome it. The fact that a work of art does not change and yet its observer cannot stand still can lead to all sorts of interesting observations, particularly if the last time you engaged with such a work you were a completely different person. Since my last exposure to the tale, as written, college, graduate skill, and miles of other books, movies, conversation, thoughts, and experiences have intervened. I have noticed any number of things about the books this time on any number of different levels that would not have made it into my system on the first pass. Here are a few:

As a teenager, I much preferred reading about Sam and Frodo to the portions of the book dealing with the kings of Gondor and Rohan and their battles and so on. I became rather impatient when Tolkien split the fellowship up into "books" and would write some 200 pages in each of the last two volumes about the adventures of Merry and Pippen before finally getting around to Frodo and Sam. This time, that didn't bother me as much. I have a much better attention span, and, while it is still a property of my brain to want to gloss over the names of this king and that soldier and these guys doing these glorious deeds (I don't think I'll ever be able to sit through the Silmarillian) I am a lot better at concentrating and can appreciate those intricate plot details much more. Not to mention being more comfortable with a story that fragments into multiple portions and has to follow the action in several directions. My world has expanded, why shouldn't my literature?

I've always enjoyed the idea of the epic tale, but this time, even though I spent most of a month leisurely reading my way through at intervals, it didn't seem so large. I think the first time it may have taken me all summer. I also remember reading it aloud to my brother on a car trips. That must have taken ages. And I have no idea how I would have pronounced some of the words I didn't know yet or what I would have made of some of the English expressions that don't make sense to Americans. The language seems to have changed on both sides of the Atlantic since then. I was struck by some of the expressions Tolkien used, including how a character was "in amaze." Not amazement, just amaze. If Tolkien were a Millenial he might have written "in amaze-balls!"

When Tolkien writes of the battles and the doings of the various kings, lords, and noble people, he shifts into a kind of epic style. Mostly this is characterized by beginning multiple sentence with the word "and." Although he never uses the phrase "and it came to pass" this seems to be the effect he is driving for. It can be a little off-putting, and it is either cheap or subtle depending on your predilection, but it is a conscious stylistic shift that is not present during the wanderings of Sam and Frodo, or the chronicling of day to day events, but only when the writer is concerned with the kinds of things that would, in a world such as ours, later make it into epic poetry to memorialize the event; in other words, policy decisions and the recording of battles and other mighty deeds.

In order to not turn this into an epic post I'll save my remaining observations for next time.



Friday, August 16, 2019

Playing with fire

It's the eerie music that runs through the subconscious of every conservatory musician.The fear of injury.

Fingers are muscles. Muscles can be pulled. Strained. Stressed. And if not attended to, bad things can happen. Career ending things.

The problem being that the "attending to" part usually involves not using said muscles. Not practicing. This is a no-go for a lot of young folks trying to cram for an important performance. And when you are young they are all important performances. So they just go for it.

One very talented individual went for it. He was scheduled to play Bach's Goldberg Variations at a Conservatory Convocation. It was his last performance. For several years, anyway. Possibly for good. (don't know for sure)

I've seen the t-word happen to a few musicians who were my colleagues at the conservatory. It was usually very talented, very industrious ones. It didn't necessarily end their careers, but it may have sidelined them for a while.

See, the t-word is cumulative. Once you've got a full-blown case of it, even taking a break for months, or years, doesn't really work very well. Only an hour of practice can bring it roaring back. This is what makes it so frightening. So much that I call it the t-word.

If you're curious, it ends in -itis, and beings with "tendon." Shh! Don't say it out loud!

It usually announces its presence less than subtly. You can tell when your wrists are on fire, or your fingers feel stiff. That usually freaks me out, and I stop practicing right away. Once, in college, I was playing a Brahms concerto in which the cadenza involved a lot of accented notes with the pinkie finger of the left hand. I overdid the accents. I could feel it afterward. And I dialed it back for a few days.

Efficient practice, the kind where your fingers release into the keyboard exactly the way they are supposed to, tends to keep this sort of thing from happening. But practice a difficult passage with even a little bit of unnecessary tension in the hands, or try to stretch or pull the hand over a jump instead of rotating the wrist to get there, or fail to relocate the rest of your fingers to support the little fingers on the ends of your hands so that the pinkie just sticks out there like it is hailing a cab one too many times, and you'll be sorry. Not right away. You can usually get away with it for a day or to, but not for very long.

I was working on all four of the Chopin Ballades this week for a program in Pittsburgh next week. On short notice I was trying to cram 50 pages of music I haven't played in a quarter century. That is a good way to get hurt. I was aware of this. I was also aware that we have a vacation coming up and some enforced time away from the piano which would give time for the fingers to heal if I strained anything just a bit. But also fewer days to get the music ready.

Chopin can be really unforgiving on the fingers. Especially if your technical approach isn't spot on. And when you are just learning the notes, or trying to achieve speed perhaps a little too early, that can be dangerous.

It's good to know this, recognize the symptoms, and know when to back off. Being able to learn quickly also helps, and having the maturity not to panic at the thought of another recital without enough preparation time.

It's been a while since I felt any fire in my wrists, but one day last week it happened. The ending of that first ballade is a real challenge at performance speed! I threw a little too much caution to a little too much wind before I really understood how to move quickly among the forest of notes. The will is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a bit like a bull in a china shop. It was probably only a span of about 10 minutes that did the real damage--fortunately, it wasn't anything irreversible. For all its horrors, the t-word does give you time to decided whether to forge ahead and risk real injury, or to get out while all you've got is a minor strain. One day is not going to completely wreck your fingers in perpetuity.

My fingers could be feeling better, but they are doing fine--a little tired from their ordeal, but recovering. There is a time to cram and a time to be careful, and always a time to balance those two ends. I hope the cadre of students entering music schools all over the world this week are able to do that.

There is, of course, also mental practicing, slow practice, listening to recordings, and knowing when staying glued to the piano is getting you diminishing returns and a nice walk would be a good idea.

We live, we learn, and we achieve.  And we try to be able to live another day, with fingers and bodies and minds whole so we can experience the hearts and minds of all of those wonderful composers.

Careful out there, my friends.

Happy practicing.

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The St. Paul Cathedral Pittsburgh concert is up at pianonoise radio this week. And of course, the homepage is new like it is every week. Enjoy!

Friday, August 9, 2019

Great Uncle Fred

Any relatives reading this might be surprised to learn that I have a great uncle Fred.

Actually, his full name is Fred Chopin.

He's not a blood relative, but in matters musical he's probably been more of an influence on me than many of them.

I didn't realize to what extent this was true until I started playing his music again recently. You dedicated readers know that for much of the life of this blog and its accompanying website, the piano has had to vie with, or even take a back seat to, the organ. That's also been true for my activities as a composer, though there is less evidence online for that. And there have been various jobs, gigs, detours, hats--I've basically taken the long way around. While starting off as a classical pianist, the trail has gotten much more complicated than that. But once again, I seem poised to make my way back to the classical piano literature. Fred is there to help me recover that strand of my DNA. He is also there to remind me just how much of it has gotten absorbed into my own music--technique, compositions, improvisations, all of it. Who knew?

When I was at the conservatory the halls were filled with people playing Chopin. A little too often, I though. Not because I didn't like Chopin, but because I believe you can overdo anything. I once wrote that Chopin had died of consumption in 1849 and "is still dying of it." This was my brilliant observation in the margins of a piano literature exam. My just out of school instructor didn't appreciate comments like it. He wrote "STOP IT!!!!!!" I think he may have also been a bit high strung.

It was difficult to want to play Chopin with the place always ringing with the sounds of a few over-popular measures on endless loop from all the practicing, but I managed to eak out a little. I was more interested in Mozart and Brahms in those days. But I did, at some point, look at the four Ballades. I don't remember playing them for very long, and I'm sure I never played one on a recital. But perhaps I gave them more of a run than I thought. At least I am suspicious of just how quickly I (re)learned them these last two weeks. That's usually because somewhere in the back of the brain, some relevant material still lingers in storage from long ago, which in this case is a quarter of a century. Of course I was also young and my brain was a sponge. So who knows? Who remembers?

Anyhow, I'm enjoying my time with Fred this month. I've decided to play some at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh in two weeks. It's a bit daunting to take on 50 pages of Chopin in just a few weeks, but I try not to worry about that and just focus on how nice it is just to get back to the piano, slow practicing and reinforcing music from long ago.

Meanwhile, it is like visiting an old friend. A student recently recalled when I had observed in class that each composer had their own signature, their own musical traits, or obsessions, or methods, or sometimes a favorite constellation of notes. It's an observation that might strike some people as a surprise, but only if you don't have a favorite author or composer or painter or some kind of artist. Then you start to recognize stylistic habits. Something that begins to sound like Chopin, or the 19th century, or Eastern Europe. That recognition also helps you learn faster, and to interpret with some understanding. And sometimes it is just nice to hold on to in a crazy ever-changing world.

My uncle Fred stopped writing us musical letters a long time ago. But the ones he left behind are still fascinating so many years hence. I'll share them with you in the months to come. You'll like them. They make the piano sound like it is fulfilling its destiny. They've even helped me to understand myself a little better. Here's to Great Uncle Fred!

Friday, August 2, 2019

foolishness

Henry David Thoreau said that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Whether he meant foolish to particularly modify the noun (#not-all-consistency) or whether he was being redundant for emphasis, people often incline to the latter interpretation. The same sorts of people who tend to like Thoreau, for example.

It's Friday, which is when I post blogs, which I've done uninterruptedly for nearly two years, and most of three before that, so here I am again, even though I'm not sure I've got anything to say worth saying. But there seems to be value in being consistent nonetheless.

When I go for runs I always sprint at the end no matter how tired I feel. Training myself to do that in all circumstances is probably why, when I ran my first half-marathon some years ago, despite feeling completely out of gas and having no energy whatever as I rounded the last turn, I began to sprint anyhow. I couldn't help myself. Even when I saw the clock over the finish line and realized I was going to make my goal time by enough seconds that I could probably slow to a walk and still make it in time, I sprinted on, wondering how in the heck I was managing to do this in the condition I was in. It's about consistency. A baked-in response.

You can say the same for character. If you tell the truth all of the time when it doesn't matter that much you just might still do it when it does. Manners are the same way. Sometimes please and thank you comes out of me before I've even thought about what the situation calls for and before I get distracted or forget. It's on automatic. Some things need to be.

You could also argue that great things are often built out of continued showing up and doing what you can no matter what. Mozart wrote some compositions that are frankly not all that terrific. But it is entirely likely that he gained something from each and every one of them no matter how mediocre. I mean, it seems hardly coincidental that most great composer's best works fall near the end of their lives, and then they come more often. There must have been learning going on in all of those earlier works. How? By constantly doing it. Even when the immediate yield was no masterpiece. Maybe they were sick or tired or just not feeling inspired.

It's possible that some of these masterpieces wouldn't exist without a conscious decision to write something that wasn't so terrific but ended up teaching a vital lesson for later. I can't absolutely prove that. But I choose to believe it.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Tumbleweed Season

When I lived in Illinois, several years ago, I thought of July as Tumbleweed Season. Meaning it was so quiet the calm was interrupted only by the occasional tumbleweed blowing through.

July was the time when everybody who could get out of town left for vacation, and activities mostly ceased in anticipation of the Great Fall Start-up. The Busy Time (that is, the Academic Year) had of course crept in both directions, running later in the year and swallowing June, and with the university students arriving in August it was no longer safe to take vacation so late in the summer because things were starting again earlier than they used to. That left July. Hot, placid, featureless, lonely July.

This year my July was crowned with a concert at St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh, the last of a series of five performances in a month, consisting of four different programs, on two distinctly different instruments (piano and organ). That hardly made it a month for lounging around.

And when I awoke from my temporary stupor there was a moment of reckoning. Because I like to panic early I realized I had better get started full speed on the programs for the fall. After the organ concert in September there is a series of five lecture recitals within the span of a month and another program on its heels. I have a couple of things in August, too, but they don't really count in the
category "additional preparation needed."

I am not a person who likes to brag-complain about how busy I am in order to sound like I have significance in the universe, however. Instead, I have been focusing on the importance of the quiet spaces in between the fevered activity. They are important, particularly when they are short-lived. A person who is full of tension all of the time is in trouble. And it is not a very useful strategy. Even playing the piano requires an awful lot of relaxation, balance, and poise. Amateurs who don't know how and where to relax remain amateurs. Complicated passages with gallons of notes will forever remain out of the reach of the tense. At every level, micro and macro, rest is important.

I was noticing this yesterday while practicing the piano. It surprised me how easy it felt. This may have been because, although I feel perfectly comfortable at the organ, only having one keyboard and much less for the feet to do suddenly seems really simple, now matter how many notes I shoot out of my fingers. There is also something about the touch of an instrument that lets you feel completely relaxed the moment you have discharged that light pinprick from your finger tips that sends the hammer bouncing up to meet the string. While it is in the air, like a cake in the oven, you don't need to do anything but let that process you've set in motion do its thing. Relaxation in the tiniest of spots, a fraction of a second here, and a fraction of a second there. It adds up.

It's a curious phenomenon. One can be responsible for a great deal of activity and yet feel very calm about it. It's a good way to play the piano, and to live life. Besides, I think stress is over-rated, don't you?

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don't forget to check out www.pianonoise.com when you have a chance. This month the radio program is music for the organ concert I gave in Upper St. Clair last month. The St. Paul concert will be available in a couple of weeks.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Cathedral Week Dairy

I had quite the week, preparing for my organ concert at St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh, on Sunday, July 14th at 3:30 pm. (Bring everybody you've ever met. They've got the seating for sure.) This is my diary:

Sunday afternoon I headed to St. Paul for the first concert of the summer series. I've been attending concerts pretty frequently since moving to Pittsburgh three years ago. This one is different, however. Don Fellows, the cathedral organist, comes over and presents me with a set of keys. One of them unlocks the iron gate at the bottom of the steps, the other the door at the top. I am now able to come practice the organ on the four days which have been provided on the cathedral calendar. I am pretty excited. I am also pretty nervous. I've never played this organ before. I know that it was made by a German builder, that it has many characteristics of an 18th century instrument (including a shorter compass; that is, there aren't quite as many keys near the top of each manual, and 'reversed' black and white keys: the keys on the bottom used to be black, unlike on modern instruments). Tomorrow I'll find out if the French Romantic and 20th century pieces I decided to put on the program will work out, and how well I'm getting along with the instrument generally. For any given organ concert you might have to change the way you play a piece, changing which hand goes where, or which buttons you end up pushing to change stops when. The angles can also be very different. There are hundreds of little things to consider, but for now the best thing I can do is just to know the music really well and be as prepared as possible. This week will mostly be about transferring the program to a specific organ. Some people (and not just the cathedral staff!) have called this organ the "finest instrument in North America" so I'm about to have a major privilege, getting to play it all week. But at the moment I'm pretty anxious. In less than a week I'm playing a concert on an instrument I don't know at all. It's too late even to change much of the program, I'd just better make things work. Tomorrow we find out.

Monday: A huge day. I spent the morning practicing at my own church, then I went over to the radio station, WQED, to plug my concert on the air. I recorded a podcast with Jim Cunningham, the morning host. While I was there he took some pictures of me at the "Mr. Rogers" piano, and I got to play it. I thought I would try a little Mozart, but when I sat down all the stuff from Mr. Roger's neighborhood came gushing forth. It was eerie. Every good piano has its own personality. This one sounded exactly like what I remembered as a kid. Wow. There was a moment I wasn't expecting. When I told my wife's colleague at dinner about it, she was much more excited about the Mr. Roger's piano than about the cathedral organ! It turns out she's a native Pittsburgher.

So what happened at the organ? Several things. At first I couldn't find the light switch, so I spent the first 20 minutes playing in the dark. Eventually I figured out where it was (later, I dimly remembered the associate organist telling me where to find it about six months ago during a conversation. Oh well). Now that I am playing at such a monster console at my church every other one seems small. Technically this is a smaller organ than I play at Third (which is one of many organs here that are larger than some cathedral organs), but it has a huge sound in the great space (it isn't small, either. more than 4000 pipes). But like most cathedrals, the worship space may be enormous, but the organ is hidden in the back balcony. The bench faces the organ, and with the cabinet covering and sides you feel a little like being in a cave. The biggest physical issue is that the bench is not adjustable, so I have just a little over an inch between the tops of my legs and the bottom of the key-bed. No extravagant gestures, please! I'll hurt myself.

I have two hours in a quiet cathedral. Every minute has to count. I manage to register everything--except one piece which I realize I've skipped. Oh well, that's not bad for one day: nine pieces sonically mapped out. I don't like all the registrations, but I can fine tune things over the next three days. The best part is that I can play everything decently. Things are going to work, even the French ones. My heart has been pounding all afternoon; now I can relax, and try to get some food and some rest and come back tomorrow. At dinner I can't stop thinking about all of the things I want to fix or fine tune tomorrow, and what the best strategy is for the next two hour frame.

Tuesday: Inevitably, the next day I'm a little tired after the stress and the excitement. But I get to the cathedral in the afternoon to do my thing. I've already thought and rethought what needs to be done and in which order. I decide to concentrate mainly on the second half of the program which has all of the modern and French music. This is where the most challenge lies. There are a few people in the cathedral this time, praying. Loudly. I hate to interrupt, but lately I've had to become inured to the idea that I am making an enormous, very noticeable racket in a space where people regularly come to pray and that is just going to be how it is.

One of the amazing things about the organ is how you can make a huge sound with a tiny movement. I concentrate on using very little energy, physical or emotional, in playing this day.  And I fix a few registrations, as well as the passages and pieces that didn't feel comfortable yesterday. Like Monday, there is a time when I feel worried that time is going by too fast, and then I realize I'll get it all in and am even unsure if I should use all the time. And then it all works out just right at the end. I snap some more pictures and exit the cathedral.

Wednesday: This has been an amazing week. I've even thought of it like one of those week long summer camps one attends as a child, you know, "Organ Concert giving in a Cathedral" summer camp. It's a privilege I don't get every week, particularly on that instrument in that space. Maybe if I had been an organ major instead of a piano major in school that wouldn't be the case. But as anyone who has been to camp knows, you stay up late with your friends, you are very excited, you don't get enough sleep; a few days into the week you are exhausted. I am starting to feel that weight on me. Every time I practice at St. Paul I feel nervous, as if it is the concert itself and I don't want to make any mistakes. That's probably good, I tell myself. How can Sunday feel any different than it feels now, on Wednesday? If there is any change, it will be because somehow I've lost my anxiety and am feeling totally comfortable, even if for only a little while. I continue to adjust to the tracker organ, trying to figure out where to put my feet when I'm not using them, since there is only one expression pedal (and a fairly useless one at that; very little of the organ seems to be behind slats, and therefore capable of being made louder or softer by use of the expression pedal: at my home console we have four of them! Oh well, not having to worry about them makes some things easier. But the balance has to be achieved by using louder and softer stops since there is no way to massage their volume). I being by playing the entire concert straight down. I'm planning to do that tomorrow also. Today it's fairly quiet. Sometimes I look out and see people lighting candles in the front.

Thursday: My last day at the cathedral before Sunday since there are too many events (mainly weddings) happening the next two days so I wasn't given time to practice. When I enter the loft this time I feel different: the place feels familiar, and I have somehow grown comfortable with the organ. That only took four days! I play the entire program, then figure out what needs to be gone over. I'm almost too relaxed and tired to feel anxious about my time slipping away. But I feel confident that things will--or at least, can--go well on Sunday, which was the point. Everything is ready. Before the practice several extra pages to facilitate my own page turns at appropriate spots had disappeared, but they all fall out of one of the books I've brought to the cathedral. Whew! It's hard to leave at the end, but I think the transition has been accomplished. Here we go!

Friday: It's my day to go distance running so I get up early and go 18 miles from my home to the place where the rivers come together. I visit the Mr. Rogers statue and tell him I got to play his piano. It would be a nice run but the weather is awful. Also I'm still tired from the week, but I think once I've recovered from this run in another day I'll be energized for the concert Sunday. It's nice to be doing something completely different, although I can't quite get the Buxtehude out of my head while I'm running up all those hills. I'm looking forward to a big nap this afternoon.

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www.pianonoise.com is of course, full of interesting things this week. Also, thank you for surviving that abnormally long blog. You deserve a medal.