Wednesday, July 5, 2017

My Favorite Quotes of a Pianist Named Oscar..,.

I have written, at times, about the pianist Oscar Levant; however, his derisive style of humor should be remembered along with his recordings of Gershwin's piano music.
Not only was Levant a gifted performer but he also was noted for his literary abilities - two of his books, "A Smattering of Ignorance" and "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" can still be gotten.
I did a  program on Tufts University radio recently on the life of Levant, which included some of his quotes - thought that I might share some of my favorite little gems with you, in the event that you may not be familiar with his brand of humor:
"What this world needs is more geniuses with humility - there are so few of us left."
"I knew the singer Doris Day before she became a virgin." (Levant first said "I knew the singer Doris Day when she was still a virgin" but decided to 'enhance' his view of the singer).
"Schizophrenia has its merits - you never dine alone."
"I think a lot of Lennie Bernstein, but not as much as he does."
(In conversation with Gershwin) "George, if you had to do this all  over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?"
Gershwin once asked Levant "Do you think that my music will still be heard a hundred years from now?" - Levant's answer was "Yeah, if you're still around."
"A politician is one who will double-cross that bridge when he comes to it."
Just a few examples of Levant's view of his world through humor...


Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Pianist Yuja Wang - Will My Jury Always Be Out?...

Some weeks ago I wrote a blog about this 30 year -old woman , attempting to make a clarifying description of the quandary I had  created for myself by way of a determination about her status among the reigning pianists of our time:
Did she possess greatness?
Have I promulgated a distinction concerning the world of difference between one of the world's truly great players of the piano; and, the rarity called  'great artist'?
I do not back down from my view that Yuja Wang  remains, for me, as great a player of the instrument as I have ever experienced - imagine! With the likes of a Horowitz, or a Richter, or a Rachmaninoff having passed by the portal  of my memory sanctum, my conviction of her prowess as a pianist remains the same. When I hear a late Beethoven sonata take on a different dimension, and yet commands that I seriously assess that difference; or, when I hear her dispatching a Horowitz transcription with such fluidity accompanying a kind of smile that represents a journey of adventure and admiration; or, to bear witness to the level of barbarity carried by magnificent harmonic waves, making Prokofiev a wee bit smaller at the same time without textual compromise -
Am I being seduced by an unparalleled level of mannerism?
Or am I listening to greatness?
I  continue my quandary...
You will be the first to know if I become a subject of sudden coruscation -


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Absolute Music - That Miracle Language Without Need for Words...

I thought that it  would be of value and interest to my senses, if I were to listen to a substantial number of recordings of the Mazurka by Chopin, opus 63, number 3.
For me, this gem in c# minor ranks among a small number of the best that Chopin had written in this form. And, along with my having performed it and having used it in my teaching over many years, I decided to enhance my sense of perspective by invoking a saturating mode through a century of various recordings of this masterpiece; something I had planned on doing but never got around to  pursuing.
What came out of this  hour or so of performances that started with post-Lisztian  pianists through giants of our time resulted in a  brilliantly illuminated reminder of how the word 'semiotics' can apply to music - how Interpretation and  Opinion are truly bedfellows.
As an example, the wild difference of opinion as to how to create the message of this music, say, between Rachmaninoff and Rubinstein; or,  Cortot and  Horowitz will invariably form a wide admixture of argumentation.
That wonderful form of consternation coming out of a reality that some totally unknown pianist would deeply move me, directly after hearing one of the historically acclaimed titans creating a stance that did not do a thing for me -  quite an experience  in my endless pursuit of some form of reason.
I remember recording, back-to-back, a series of about seven or eight different  performances of  the  two cadenzas written by Rachmaninoff for his first concerto;  my reason for doing so being my need to witness the resulting reactions on the part of the pianists  to the manner in which they had dealt with the material leading up to the cadenza, which usually can serve as a  a kind of certification of how to package and 'tie with a bow' the meaning of that first movement. It was a collection of staggeringly different 'opinions' of how to construct the movement leading to that cadenza.
So - which of what we hear is  'right'? Or should that question be wrestled with at all?
For those of us involved in this art form - it seems that argumentation is an automatic need, and serves as one of the core values in the  pursuit of answers which must accompany the tactic of 'what to do with those notes'...
What say you?


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

73 Years Ago This Day...My Second of Two Addenda

A time of remembrance on this 6th day of June is that other 6th day of June in 1944, when some 5000 sea-going vehicles appeared off the coast of Normandy. We call it D - Day.
What followed has been recounted by book, film, and personal memory countless times.
What may be lost due to the immensity of both size and ultimate meaning of Operation Overlord, led by a future American President(Eisenhower), is the process of transition, from the American experience.
May I cite just a tiny handful of numbers , all coming into view within a period of four plus years?
When the Selective Service Act came into being in the United States before this country went to war, and the draft was activated, almost 9 percent of the young men were deferred  from regulation military service because of their dental conditions.
During this period, the standing army of the United States numbered around the same as that of Portugal, or Romania (also spelled Rumania).
When D-Day occurred, among the Allied troops landing on the beaches, were some 73,000 Americans, all of whom were discharged from their boats on that first day.
And within five days, about a third of a million troops had been disgorged onto French soil.
As a musician, I continue to marvel as to what Man can achieve with the powers given.
Ironically; sadly  - what this species can achieve, on its dark side, cannot be pushed away...


Saturday, June 3, 2017

An Addendum Having Nothing To Do With the Arts...

As we approach the 6th day of this month, our thoughts, for many of us, will become directed to Operation Overlord.  The beginning of the liberation of  Western Europe from the evils of Hitler obviously was one of the primary events connected with the shaping of history which continues into  our time.
But this week also heralds the 75th anniversary of another event which, arguably, may be considered as an equal in import to Overlord;  and that is The Battle of Midway- to explain:
Only four months after Pearl Harbor, the spectacular  Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and other cities of Japan so stunned and infuriated the Tojo government that their reflexive decision was to extend their domain further east into the Pacific so as to make it impossible for the Americans  ever again  to attack Japan by air. The island of Midway, an American possession,  was their choice of occupation.
What the Japanese did not know  -  a portion of their naval code had been deciphered  by American naval intelligence.
The result, in a four day operation, was that the invading Japanese fleet was led into a trap that destroyed four of their aircraft carriers.
Gone forever was the offensive naval  arm of the Japanese Empire - there was no way that they could win this war.
And so, even though it required an island-hopping operation that lasted until Okinawa was occupied in the spring of 1945, and the decision to use the Bomb was implemented, the Battle of Midway only 6 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor decided the final outcome.
How stunning the web spun by a look into historiography can be...

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"A Beethoven Journey" - Some Thoughts and Reaction...

During a  golden period of some fifteen years, I was given the opportunity to experience countless conversations by traditional mail, E-mail, and a number of meetings with the esteemed Norwegian pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes.
Of these golden moments, besides the genuine warmth and grace that this man always projected, the most singular aspect that I gleaned from him was the experience of "hearing for the first time" music I had been familiar with for much of my professional life.
After his release of  an album of Liszt piano music, I wrote to him about the unique experience of receiving a message from the composer I had never contemplated (and  be assured that I find this really quite impossible to convey in words); that is, with the traditional reminders of the enormous technique always in attendance in the playing of Liszt, I became aware that Andsnes was able to make the music appear veritably separated from the physicality which one would normally attach to the Liszt experience - it was if the music simply appeared in a mode of purity somehow removed from the technique which is and always has been  the means of carrying the message. It, for me, simply appeared for the sake of its own existence, without any trace of the visceral thrills one associates with Liszt - the music simply was a form suspended in front of my consciousness.
And this occurs every time I listen to this album.
What comes to mind is a moment when I remarked to him that when I hear his playing of music of the Romantic period, I hear a kind of beauty linked, at the same time, with almost no sentiment attached to the idea promulgated - how can this be? I brought this up to him during one of our times together -  I recall that he said nothing - he only smiled, and we went on to another subject.
Was his smile a certification of "yes, that's exactly how I look at this kind of music. I'm so happy that you too experience my particular imagery" - or was his smile simply the only way he could react to my statement, as it was as much a mystery to him as well as to his listener?
In his recent project  "A Beethoven Journey"  the first thing that came to me was a question I had which I never did ask; namely,  why Beethoven was not in attendance in his performances, so far as I can remember, when I first met him when he was about 28.
Well, now the world knows, as he states that he just "wasn't ready" - and now, in his mid-forties, he gives us his stance on the music of the man who once uttered "it is they who should  bow to us" - perhaps as powerful a statement that any Child of the Enlightenment, especially an artist,  could project about a view of the prevailing powers of royalty and wealth/power.
For me, Andsnes might well have been searching for a way to better focus on the core values of Beethoven, usually described in terms of 'victory over travail' which have been written about since  the middle of the 19th century, as it pertains to the composer.
What I perceive from  Andsnes, in his performances we now are given, is an aura, for me, of a kind of positivism that moves one step beyond the personal victory over the travail of total deafness and  a kind of isolation that was so much a part of Beethoven's last quarter century. For me, this is the appearance of  an indescribable form of personal victory that puts a stamp on the kind of 'victory'
that we have understood for almost two centuries.
Andsnes, for me, has found a way of  placing  a positivistic umbrella over that Final Victory.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Violin? Piano? Fits and Starts - The Genesis of a Career in the Arts...

When I was about six or seven, my parents decided upon an introduction to the violin; first, with a presentation of a diminutive form of the instrument  - then, with an introduction to a young lady whose name was Miss Smith.
From that point forward for a period of about a year and a half, I became involved with the unraveling of the mysteries germane to that instrument; then...
a piano, suddenly and without fanfare, appeared in the living room.
And Miss Smith never again appeared.
Enter a middle-aged gentleman, equipped with both a warm smile and very hairy ears(amazing what one remembers!) named Mr. Falkoff, my first piano teacher.
I simply cannot recall one second of my year and a half with Miss Smith, or any of the material for the violin that I must have had to encounter - that memory is simply in another world somewhere.
Her impact upon me, I can only suppose, never emerged into a recognizable form.
And so, for the next five years or so, a really loving and singularly important relationship was formed between Mr.  Falkoff and me. And the piano remains my oldest friend.
Again; for reasons I cannot either fathom or recognize, I returned to the violin; developed a pretty fair level of performance through"self-teaching;" became a member of the orchestra at high school as a first desk violinist, with the apotheosis of my remembrances being the  playing the violin part of the Brahms 2nd Symphony in a concert during my senior year.
All this while joining the Prep Department at Eastman on the piano after a tearful 'goodbye' to Mr. Falkoff and  saying a 'hello' to one of the most important people in this life; namely, Jerome Diamond of the Eastman piano faculty.
I'll never really be able to correctly weigh or appraise the true role of the violin in my development years - for me, it has been and continues to play a rather arcane role  - it simply fits into the whole experience..
And a wonderful example of poesy, in the form of the violinist Ricardo Odriozola, whom I have written music for this past third of a century, finally certifying  the reason as to why the violin was my introduction to the world of music?  And virtually the only instrument I have written for these past years, even though the piano has been my most faithful companion?
Questions that remain unanswered...