Monday, March 20, 2017

The Most "Seasoned" Disc Jockey? Read On...

Some months back, I was invited to do a series of radio programs out of Tufts University; and, unexpectedly, it seems that the reactions to my approach have  been positive.
And so; even though I thought I would do it for a few times and then disappear into the mist, I am continuing with this  little diversion at the rate of approximately one  every four or five weeks.
My approach is simple - it deals with either musicians who may not be quite as familiar to the radio audience; or, events or performances which should be better known about.
Some examples:
Diane Schuur, a superb pop vocalist, in a couple of wonderful duets with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, during which  she becomes the trumpet and he becomes the voice.
The vocal "force" from England, Lady Cleo Laine, doing incredible 'scat' singing with her musician husband, in their incarnation of the Turkish Rondo of Mozart, which they titled "Turkish Delight."
The legendary pop violinist, Stephane Grappelli, paired with one of the world's great classical violinists, Yehudi Menuhin, in their flowing version of Richard Rogers' "My Funny Valentine."
A 1906 recording of one of the great pianists of that period, Josef Lhevinne, totally overwhelming the Octave Study of Carl Czerny.
George Shearing and his vision of Fusion, in a  1980's  delight of the same "My Funny Valentine" in the styles of  composers ranging from Bach through Rachmaninoff and Delius.
Art Tatum doing the version of "Tea for Two" which positively ensnared no less than Vladimir Horowitz, who insisted upon  meeting with and establishing a friendship with the blind titan of pop piano. Horowitz actually attempted to create a transcription, believe it or not, of "Tea for Two," but did not get very far. A few seconds of his attempt can be found on video. Honestly!
Bernie Krause, one of the founding members of the Weavers over a generation ago, earned a PHD in bioacoustics, and has a recording of an orchestra, with no humans in the group - talk about a unique example of music-making...
And so on.
It's been fun, and I plan on going on with this particular pursuit.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

The Return of a Stradivarius - Now, Finally... a Performance On That Instrument -

In a blog some years ago, I recounted the experience of the theft of  a rare Stradivarius  violin in the school I taught in for twenty seven years.
To reminisce:
The place - the Longy School of  Music, Cambridge, Ma.
The year  - 1980.  If I recall correctly, it was a Thursday in late spring or early summer.
I was teaching there on this day, and suddenly catapulted into a time of chaos and confusion, when it quickly became known that the rare Ames Stradivarius violin, owned by the director of the school, Roman Totenberg, had disappeared from his office.
Sadly,  Totenberg passed away  just a few years before this wonderful instrument was recovered and returned to the Totenberg family.
And; finally - on March 13, a private concert will be held somewhere in New York, I believe. The Totenberg Stradivarius will, at long last,  be  the instrument of performance, by a former student of  Totenberg, who had come from China to study with him many years ago.
I am full of happiness about this coming event. I found Roman Totenberg to be not only that wonderful violinist the world had known of for many years, but also the warmest and most  quietly  gracious  man I have ever worked with and for. The youngest little performer in his own private orchestra at the school was precisely as important to him as any professional he ever worked with during his illustrious career.
I can only wish that, somehow, Roman Totenberg knows that his beloved Strad is back...

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"Triumph of the Will" - Pianists and a Mysterious Disorder...

In my two most recent blogs, I had cited examples of the human will that prevailed over physical  or  emotional accidents altering  the lives of great musicians. This entry will, I think, be the final of this particular issue...
Schumann, Scriabin, Horowitz, Wittgenstein have already been discussed. How about more recent examples of  personal travail affecting musicians?
Two American pianists come to mind; namely, Gary Graffman and Leon Fleischer.
Both  were,  in their youth, headed for fame by way of their performances in  live recitals, concerts and recordings. I recall, as a high school student,. having in my possession a recording of Graffman playing the 3rd Beethoven Concerto. I was absolutely riveted to and by his engrossing understanding of the text by one in his early twenties. And the recordings made by Fleischer of Brahms were considered by many experts in the field of criticism to be at the the top of the heap, performed by a young man barely out of his teen years.
Then, while pursuing fruition of their careers, tragedy struck while in their youth; both strangely in similar fashion:
The right hands of both Graffman and Fleischer rather suddenly lost the sense of power and articulation to a point where these two  could no longer pursue their performance careers.
I will not go into detail(you can pursue the minutiae, of course). Fingers curled up in spams;  there was pain involved at times, etc., etc.
Both were deeply involved, to be sure, with the medical profession, through various actions having been  taken. In short, Graffman did not return primarily as a performer, but as a distinguished pedagogue and administrator. Fleischer, after over a generation of struggle, has  returned as a virtuoso with only slight diminution in his playing  - the chemical Botox, seemingly, was a factor in his recovery.
The mysterious neurological disorder Dystonia, has appeared as a possible cause of  these pianists' experiences.
Other theories also exist; however, Dystonia, which has no cure that I am aware of,  keeps popping up whenever  these pianists are discussed . It also seems, just as mysteriously, that an aspect called Focal Dystonia and pianists ARE connected - do not ask me why...
About a dozen years  ago, while at home, I suddenly experienced a stabbing, sharp pain coursing up and down my right arm. Although my family has never had  any major problems dealing with the heart, I was rushed to hospital and went through an exhaustive coronary examination which took two days. No trace of a heart condition appeared, and while being examined, the arm pain disappeared in the flash of a  second .After a period of head-scratching, I was sent off to Neurology, whereupon a neurologist, after scratching HIS head, sent me off to a fellow neurologist, who, after much examination, called it  "a form of  plexitis". She said that the tingling in my right hand, which had appeared, would disappear, but could not tell me when.
After returning home, the articulation in my right hand, along with general strength,  slowly but surely exited my physical factory - I could no longer play anything above middle difficulty with that hand - no one could give me an answer...Was it, after all, Focal Dystonia?
Shall I? (After a week or two of absolute torment - will I be able to play again??) -  Shall I pull out the Philipp exercises I had done in Europe? They are so very stringent! Shall I give it a try?
And so, in a mode of desperation, I chose some of the genius teacher's most logical(I thought) exercises.
About six months later, I was able to perform publicly  once again.
I do not recall, during that period, thinking of the word 'will'.
What else could it have been?
Believe me; this happened...


Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Triumph of the Will," Part Two...

In my preceding blog, I had written about a pianist, a football player, and a documentarian; all involved with the power of the will. My final statement reminded the reader that there were, indeed, others - and so, I  will submit additional  musicians  to that list:
How about Alexander Scriabin? We know about his journey, as a composer, from  the Chopin period to a world of mysticism and unfettered  imagery; a transition unlike any other composer. But one should be reminded of a crisis  which  arose, at age 21, from an injury to fingers on his right hand, resulting, probably,  from too stringent a self-imposed program of technical development after examining the Liszt Don Juan Fantasy and deciding that his technique was simply not up to the task of dealing with the piano music of this titan.
For about two years, Scriabin could not use his right hand; fortunately, his powers as a composer give us a couple of masterpieces written for the left hand during this terrible period of  fear and depression - there were moments   during which  thoughts of suicide pervaded his consciousness.
But, the will to overcome prevailed, and this genius returned as both a powerful composer as well as one of the most gifted of the pianists of his time.
And what of Robert Schumann?  His death in an  asylum for the insane tells us about the quality of life he endured, beginning with a devastating injury to a number of his fingers while preparing  for a concert career. One story is that he had designed a contrivance that he thought would hasten the physical development of some aspects of technique; and the result were the injuries incurred. Another story is that the syphilis that he fell victim to during his youth was the cause; namely, by undergoing a mercury treatment to combat this disease, the mercury poisoning that ensued damaged the neurology in his hand - so much for the vulnerable revisionism we attach to History; in other words, will we EVER truly know what formed the fate of  the great composer? Certainly, his turning to composition as a prime force of pursuit, following his struggle with hopes to become a performer, gives  us his magnificent powers whenever we wish to listen to his language. The attempts at suicide, and the depression which accompanied this genius throughout his life, were simply swept aside as he sought to pursue the need to do what had to be done.
The will, perhaps?
What about Paul Wittgenstein, the legendary pianist  with not ten, but five fingers?
The promise of  a concert career was shattered when he lost his right arm in a battle during the First World War. Suicide seemed the only way out, for a period. Then, some composers of power came to him and offered to  write music for the left hand. Of course, the most notable of this coterie was Maurice Ravel, who created the most important contribution to the renascent return  of the young man's career; namely the Concerto for  the Left Hand . Serge Prokofiev, among the great composers, also wrote a concerto for Wittgenstein; however, he never performed the piece, as he did not intrinsically understand the style of the Russian composer's music.
Again; the will to overcome...
The legendary pianist Dinu Lipatti was struck down with a fatal disease, while in his early thirties.
I have a recording of a recital containing  the waltzes of Chopin; all the waltzes, except the final one.
He nearly fainted while coming out on stage. He managed to get to the final waltz, but did not; COULD not perform any longer  - there simply was no further strength left.
And yet - do listen to this event. Can you tell what was going on? Absolutely not - the will to do the job at the  high level attached to this man was the paramount reality that  HAD to be the Realization   - anything less was simply not part of the picture being painted.
Again; the will -  the messenger   needed to certify the existence of a power given to so few of us...
And; yes indeed, there are others...



Monday, February 6, 2017

A Legendary Pianist, a Reigning Athlete, a Gifted Documentarian - a Commonality?...

Vladimir Horowitz was considered by many to be the most powerful pianist of the twentieth century. Possessing a  magnificent  expressive range and a mammoth technique, he  held  countless audiences breathless in  his famous afternoon recitals, for over half a century.
During his career, there were mysterious departures from the concert stage, during which his admirers would be in wait for the maestro to return; and would be in waiting as much as years at a time. One of these 'retirements' consisted of his not leaving his New York home for two years. Some of  the recordings he made during these periods away from the concert stage were made right in his town house in Manhattan.
The  central reason for these withdrawals from the recitals was Fear - fear that he might fail an audience. He was bedeviled by a fear born of  his need to propel his playing beyond the moment - and fail. Perhaps it was due to  a positioning of self caused by the need to 'take a chance'. Rachmaninoff once stated that "every really fine pianist needs to take a chance." And it seems that the electrifying manner of Horowitz performances was created by a kind of neurotic 'edge' that propelled him constantly forward relentlessly, creating that Fear  attending his concerts for a greater part of his life. He received psychiatric treatment during these periods away from the stage, and underwent treatment for the depression that must have accompanied his consciousness.
But - he prevailed. He did not fail, as we all know.
Tom Brady has been a mainstay for a  decade and a half, having become a household name in New England as one of football's great quarterbacks. He is regarded as one of the great football players with his command of the game, tactically and physically. His brilliant career was certified this year with both a four game suspension overwhelmed by leading his team to yet another of his multiple appearances in the Super Bowl last night. A close game was expected by many.
But - New England was behind  twenty to nothing before the first half was over, and I left the living room and announced to my wife, who was working on a painting, that catastrophe was at hand, and that I might  just  shut  off the T.V. in disappointment and surprise. It appeared that neither Brady nor his team was adjusting to a brand of football being displayed by the competing team(Atlanta), and was being thrashed.
Lo and behold -  Horowitz in a football uniform - Brady, in the second half, became the Artist, the Thinker, about the moment. The team became alive,  transforming itself into the dominant component in  a matter of minutes, and reversed the direction of the game. Imagine - Brady and  his team were never in the lead  in the game until the final play, which  was the touchdown that decided the outcome.
Brady was the performer who achieved and  maintained winning control over HIS instrument; namely, the team  he had known so well for such a long period of time.            
Which brings us to Leni Riefenstahl, one of five women close to the core of the the Hitler hierarchy, who created a documentary dealing with the 1934 Nazi Congress in Nuremberg.
Her theme was the power which a single man; Adolf Hitler, held over some 60 million, and  moved the entire world toward a new Dark Age. Her techniques in this documentary were so imaginative and compelling that future directors such as Hitchcock and Wilder  used some of them in their masterpieces. This documentary is considered one of the greatest of the twentieth century.
The title?
"Triumph Des Willen" - "Triumph of the Will."
 Horowitz? Brady?  Indeed.
There are, of course, others...


Friday, February 3, 2017

Imagery in the Learning and Playing of Music -Collaboration of Teacher and Student - Walter Gieseking and Karl Leimer...

One of the most intriguing examples of the implementation of the process of imagery is, for me, the collaboration of a noted  pedagogue, Karl Leimer, and his most famous student, the celebrated pianist Walter Gieseking.
Teacher and student collaborated in 1932 in the creating of a method of learning music, especially for the piano, by way of a kind of internalized form of absorbing material before actually performing, which Gieseking brought to greater clarity following the passing of Leimer.
Briefly, the method involved  the learning of the music chosen by 'playing' the music through the reading of the material and the allowing of the senses involved to formulate the core character of the composition before actually performing the music at the piano. By 'visualizing' the music through inner sensory reaction to what is read, and allowing the meaning of the thrust of the composition to form into a reality evincing enough for actual playing of the music, such issues as muscle memory and the eventual formation to an interpretive stance, or view, combine to form the product as a precursor to actual playing of the music.
In a piece of considerable duration, I can only assume  that sections of that particular music be gone over by the above process until the entire piece will have been dealt with.
Up to a point, I can perceive the ways of this process, as I have, from time to time, taken a saturating look at a relatively short piece in total before actually touching the keys, and it does indeed help in  the conceptualizing of the music chosen.
However, this method, as utilized, evidently, by Gieseking, probably made sense, as this man was endowed with staggering powers of memorization, let alone, almost illimitable powers, as well, in sight reading. He could go through music just a few times and have it totally memorized. There were times, unbelievably,  that he memorized and then performed the piece IN PUBLIC without having touched the piece beforehand.  Imagine playing music in concert without having actually played that piece. Gieseking  practiced very little - he once said that after learning how to read, his formal education was over.  Back in the late forties and into the fifties, Gieseking was one of very few pianists who learned every piece of music that Mozart ever wrote, and then recorded the entire contents. I think that the recording can still be gotten.
And he learned  and performed all of the music of Mozart in a matter of weeks.
No wonder that this man conjured the sounds of the piano, unequaled, in my opinion, that he did. His legendary memory simply gave him more time than, perhaps, any other pianist we know of, to work on the issue of timbre and dynamics as, arguably, his Signature.
What with his views on Hitler and  Nazism, remaining in Germany throughout World War II, he remains one of the great miracles of the twentieth century.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Events Lurking in the Shrouds 0f History - How Some of Them Form Far Greater Stories...

Some time back, I wrote a blog concerning two of Man's most ubiquitous bedfellows; namely,  war and music - both  of these elemental entities have accompanied us, seemingly, virtually from the Beginning of this  Experience.
Thought I'd play a kind of  'game' germane to the above, and ask you to join in by either agreeing or disagreeing with the impact of  the lesser - known events I bring up:
 On a day in 1829, a  20 year- old must have  scratched his head (metaphorically?) as he pored over some of the manuscripts of one  J.S. Bach(I believe this moment took place in a library in Leipzig), and muttered that  the "B" minor Mass by the  Baroque composer had been performed just once  a century before(1729). This 20 year-old  vowed to have this music performed once again, which did indeed take place. The response was so strong that he arranged for another performance, and the music of Bach became known to the common man - thus, the Cult of Bach began, and has been going on ever since.
 The 20 year-old was Felix Mendelssohn.
I read somewhere that many years later, Mendelssohn was said to have uttered the following statement - "it took a Jew to discover this great Lutheran." I have no idea as to whether the statement is apocryphal; ,however, it does indeed show up in more than one   tome I have encountered.
On a day in April of 1942, the Doolittle Raid over cities in Japan took place. There was less than significant damage wrought by the bombs; however the militarists ruling Imperial Japan were thunderstruck by the event, as no such  event  would be thought  possible after the destruction at Pearl Harbor.
The knee-jerk reaction on the part of the Japanese hierarchy was to plan on extending their empire further eastward so that no such raid could again occur, and so they planned on invading and occupying the American territory called Midway island.
What was not known to the Japanese - their naval code had been  deciphered enough by American Naval intelligence to make the Midway plan known. The results:
The American forces were lying in wait for the Japanese to appear, with  the Japanese suffering what was to become a fatal wound ; that is, the sinking of four aircraft carriers, which made it impossible for the Japanese to conduct an offensive war in the Pacific from that day on,  which resulted in their inevitable defeat in 1945.
On a particular day  a  few  years ago, the eminent pianist Daniel Barenboim announced to the musical world the emergence of a piano designed by him and crafted into existence by a master  piano builder from  Belgium. At the time, there were just two of these pianos in existence; one in Barenboim's studio, the other in the possession of  the piano maker.
The difference in tonal production and pedaling techniques was announced by Barenboim himself, mainly through a different positioning technique of the strings and an altered approach to the makeup of the sounding board. The results, if accepted by performers and others of influence, could alter the very way of dealing tactically(interpretively) with the standard repertoire. I can only assume that 'the jury is still out' about what effect there can or will be in the playing of the likes of a Schubert, or a Beethoven etc.
One day we will know...
On a September day in 1940, on one of the air raids conducted by Hitler's Luftwaffe over England, one of the planes accidentally dropped some bombs in  the London area, this for the first time. Prime Minister Winston Churchill then demanded that the British reciprocate by dropping bombs on the city of Berlin, which was done.
Similar to the Japanese reaction to the Doolittle  Raid, The Germans were thunderstruck  - Hitler was incensed and demanded that London undergo what  was to become the London Blitz.
By diverting his air force from the attacks on the radar stations and airfields, which had brought England to within just a few weeks of defeat (Churchill's own admission), the raids on London made it possible for the British airmen to recover sufficiently to make it impossible for Hitler to invade England by way of Operation Sea Lion.
Thereafter, Hitler turned to the East and invaded  Russia with an undefeated England at his back.
Hitler  himself had more than once cautioned that a two-front war  would be fatal to Germany.
And so it was...
There you have lesser known events which have formed great changes in the direction of the Road Traveled  called History - of the examples listed above, we will have to wait for an answer to the question surrounding  the  Barenboim Piano.