Friday, January 12, 2018

How Two Words Describe the Powers of Two Piano Giants in Their Early Careers...

The words are 'belie,'  and  'idiosyncratic.'
The two giants are Vladimir Horowitz and Leif Ove Andsnes.
The following events are recollections, and, of course, are my reactions to the events; not an imposition of any opinions on my part:
Also; this is not in  any way  a  comparison of these two artists -
The world of serious music has long known of the 3rd Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff. For the better part of a century, this massive and defining  masterpiece has been performed and recorded with the attendant aura of regard and respect that it deserves, by a host of great pianists  having spent many hours dealing with the ways to assemble this legendary knuckle-buster,  and make their vital contributions to the history of one of the most important Concertos  in the literature.
Vladimir Horowitz was not yet thirty when he recorded the Concerto for the first time in England, and of all of the myriad of recordings, his attachment to the text still remains for many, arguably, the most compelling reading among the great recordings available.
Here, the word 'belies' the youth of Horowitz, in that it seems as if he had been living with the music for far longer than his less-than-thirty-year life span at the time of the recording. The word 'idiosyncratic' also applies, in that Horowitz had, for me,  pierced the core of the text as a form of eclectic reaction to an association with the music  for a half century, seemingly,  rather than less than a third.
To place into an even clearer context, I am more impressed with the first recording by Horowitz, than with the ensuing recordings he made of the work  over the remaining 50-odd years of  an unprecedented career.
And now I turn to one of the  true patricians among the great living pianists, the Norwegian virtuoso Leif Ove Andsnes.
About twenty five years ago, my wife was driving her car, listening to a favorite radio station playing, if you please, the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto. Evidently the power of the message by the pianist reached out and forced my wife to pull over to the side of the road in order to better grasp the message she was being given. She was simply  taken over, and, as she recalled, she sat and listened to the remainder of the work. Fortunately, the announcer gave the name of the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, then about 22 or 23 years of age, in a Norwegian recording just having been released.
"You MUST get this recording," were her first words to me upon returning home. Which I did the next day.
I found myself writing to Andsnes, informing him that my senses asserted  that, for me,  his reading was the most  compelling  and important  representation  of the Concerto by a pianist under the age of thirty since the Horowitz recording.
And he replied by stating that no such placement, historically, had entered his thinking, and was interested in knowing my reasons, which began an exchange of letters ending with my  meeting the man several times and exchanging E-mails for about 15 years thereafter. My meeting him was facilitated by the Spanish violinist Ricardo Odriozola, for which I am forever thankful.
Again; and for the same reasons I attached above to the Horowitz event, the words 'belie' and 'idiosyncratic' apply.
And,  once again; for me, the power of message that Andsnes transmits in this early recording,  such as the young Horowitz did and does in his earliest  recording of the Concerto, is indeed a rare and defining event.
Why?
Then again; how is it that Mendelssohn scrawled out his first  Midsummer Night's  Dream -  at age 17?
Or, - just listen to Mozart's K. 1-5, all written, quite possibly,  before he could write his own name; at age 5...
Or - Gershwin, at age 19; writing a song we still hear; namely, Swanee,  at age 19? In about 10 minutes?
All the answers served up to me are, at best, speculative...

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Employing of the Piano as a Tool - One of My Early Experiences as an Educator...

When, in my early days upon returning from my experiences in Europe both in education and performance, I was invited by the superintendent of schools  in a community outside of Boston to do some teaching in the  music department. I hadn't  thought of that aspect at the time; however, this particular superintendent had a brother who was a percussionist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was interested in my joining the faculty(I cannot recall how I met this man, as it was so  long ago).
And so, I began part-time work in the school system, as I was already teaching elsewhere at the time.
I developed a course of study for third  and fourth grade students, who, by this period in their lives, had developed their reading habits sufficiently  to choose the piano as their instrument of the moment, as it were. My plan:
The Issue:  Seeing that the students in the system were allowed to take weekly  classes in the orchestral instrument  of their choice  upon reaching grades 5 and 6, why not introduce them, while in 3rd or 4th grade, to an instrument; specifically  the piano, that would teach them both the treble(G)clef and bass(F) clef?  That way,  a student,  upon choosing, say, violin(a treble clef  instrument), or, say, trombone(a bass clef instrument),  would already have learned  how to read the clef of the orchestral  instrument  chosen. In addition, if the student desired continuation of the piano privately after leaving elementary school, he or she  could easily do so.
The superintendent embraced the idea with, as I recall, a degree or two of  enthusiasm.
The idea appeared  to work , as I ended up, after a few years, teaching full-time in the public schools for twenty nine years, doing mostly 'pioneering', such as developing a four year program in college-level music linguistics, etc. I actually taught at a nearby college  as well during this time, teaching the same material that I was teaching at the high school, even on the same day, at times.
It was great fun - one issue that still resides in my memory was  my trying to explain to authorities from other school systems who visited my classes that I was NOT teaching the kids piano as a performance entity, but using it primarily as a tool for purposes of linguistics.
To this day, I'm still not sure that I was totally  successful in  producing a distinction between the issues of performance, and the art of  language as the end, not necessarily  the means to the end, as a small number of these visitors continued to believe that I was teaching 'how to play the piano' - no, no  - that was most assuredly not my motive...
But; it worked, evidently - I still get an occasional call from one of my  'victims of circumstance' voicing his or her  recall of the experience. That's enough for me!


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Thursday, December 21, 2017

As For the Power of Musical Ubiquity...

Recently I saw a video of elephants swaying as they listened to some classical music being performed  on the other side of the fence separating the two species. Especially fascinating to me was their stopping the swaying when the music ceased.
Which brings to mind that historic event of  the singing of a German aria (was it Mahler, or Strauss?) by the fabled piano virtuoso Glenn Gould, standing there, brandishing the score, not twenty feet from assorted animals, with the general reaction being the reality that many of the animals demonstrated rather demonstrable discomfort  in their role as an audience - Gould muttered something about the lack of taste for one of the lively arts, as he walked away, in a ( mocking, to be sure) morose state.
Some of you may have read a blog I wrote about ten years ago about my being witness to about thirty or forty  ducks grouped around a portable radio situated  next to an elderly man sitting at the edge of the pond I frequented in my daily walks, as they appeared to be listening  to some popular music - there they were, all either sitting or standing in place without moving. I shall never forget that scene as I walked by . How could  such a thing occur??
Finally; what came back to me was an event that repeated itself during my first years  as a teacher of piano:
I would visit the house weekly, giving lessons to two young ladies in their teens. The dog of the house, a Collie named Johnny was, at first, not present during the lessons. However, after several weeks, a remarkable ritual took place, during which each time I sat next to the piano to begin my sessions with the first of the two girls, Johnny would appear, sit quietly at my feet through BOTH lessons, then just as quietly and gently get up and accompany me to the door as  I would bid my adieu for the week. There was no question in my mind that somehow Johnny became one of my first  favorable reactors to what I was about.
Go figure - talk about the ubiquity of music;  let alone  its incalculable  message... 

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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bartok? Levy?? Two Names at the Opposite Ends of Recognition...

Bela Bartok was, of course, one of the creative giants of the 20th century; seated comfortably alongside Stravinsky, Shostakovitch  and  a small number of the other  leading composers of that period.
How about another Bartok - Peter Bartok?  Peter was  one of the sons of the Hungarian composer. This Bartok also left his mark, which I will explain to you later.
And who is this man named Levy? First name Ernst?
Let us move back to the 1950's, and the esteemed college M.I.T., and its wonderful Kresge Auditorium. A musicologist and pianist from Switzerland was on its faculty, and did much important work in this school. He had been known primarily due to his singular book dealing with tonal harmony, out of which emerged a process we call Negative Harmony, which had its base  on a treatise written in Germany in the 19th century.
There was another aspect of this rather frail looking fellow which I bring to you now, as so little is remembered about Ernst Levy; and that is, he was  a pianist of almost indescribable power and message.
Peter Bartok,  a sound engineer living in Florida, was also (logically!) a most astute follower of things musical, and recognized the gifts in the shape of Ernst Levy.
Recognizing the acoustics of Kresge, the school surrounding it, and his friendship with the pianist, he set up a brief series of recordings of Levy performances at Kresge.
Look for a few LP's (they're  becoming quite popular again!)  with a label  titled Unicorn - these are the Bartok/Levy recordings, BEFORE  digital techniques, and become absolutely  enthralled at the quality and presence  of sound emanating.
Then start paying attention to Ernst Levy...
Horowitz took note of this man, and there were others as well  who considered  the playing they  witnessed  as  some of the most powerful and unique readings they had ever heard.  This man was considered by a number of leading pianists every bit their equal in ability and message.
His Liszt Sonata, and late Beethoven - there were some who considered  Levy's approach as; well, "different." Too iconoclastic, etc. -
It IS a different view; no question.
But a view  to be aware of, from  my view.
A man, pretty much unknown today; but with a powerful statement to make through great pianism.
What do you think?

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

How Pearl Harbor and One Man's Imagery Formed the Shape of the 20th Century...

On this  date 76 years ago Pearl Harbor was  attacked  by the Empire of Japan, plunging America into what became  history's greatest conflict. One man, above all, stands out in my mind as one whose sense of personal imagery  rivaled the imagery modality of those involved in the arts. His name was Isoroku Yamamoto.
History knows of him as the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet and the designer and leader of the Pearl Harbor attack. There is, however, a world more of  what should be known about this man.
I will encapsulate  as best I can:
During his formative years, he came to America, and attended Harvard for a number of years. While there, he got to know the ways of our culture and became quite fond of this country. He learned how to play poker and got to know by playing this game how the young Americans were "put together." He actually became  so  infatuated with his own experiences that he played poker, at times, by awakening his student friends in the wee hours to do just that.
In addition, he visited the oil fields in Texas and the factories in Detroit.
The result - when he returned to Japan, where he became known quickly for his attachment to naval affairs, he warned those involved in military matters "never to go to war with America."
During this period, the first signs of  that 'special' imagery emerged by way of his  voicing a   strong conviction  that "the next naval war will be decided in the air."
To be brief, his brilliance in naval matters resulted in a swift and continuous ascension to eventual power among the high officers in an increasingly militant Japan, with his appointment as the Commander of all things naval in the Japanese Empire the result.
Why then - HOW  did a former Harvard student, one who liked the American ways, become the Man who led the attack on Pearl Harbor years later?  The man who warned Japan never to go to war with America?
Quite simply, ironically. He himself was, as he said more than once - "I am a son of the  Emperor."
The same person who once said that " the only hope that Japan has for winning this particular war is to march into Washington before the first year of the war is over."
Imagine such complexities that this man must have held!
A final list of realities:
When the attack on Pearl Harbor was going on, Japanese pilots radioed back that the American aircraft carriers were nowhere to be seen - they were not berthed in the harbor.
It was during this period that Yamamoto voiced  his rather prescient  statement,  known to history - "what we have done is to awaken a  sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."
His prediction, years before,  that  the next naval war would be won in the air  - was he bedeviled by the reality that he could not destroy the naval air power of America on that first day?
Just six months after Pearl Harbor, Japan attacked the island of Midway, and lost four of its aircraft carriers. In just   a matter of  minutes Japan's offensive abilities to win a war in the Pacific were destroyed, and from that time until 1945, Japan, generally, would be waging defensive war.
"The next naval war will be decided in the air" - American dive bombers destroyed the Japanese aircraft carriers in just a matter of minutes.
The personal imagery modality of a young naval attache - one needn't be a Mozart or a Beethoven to harbor the same modality, it seems to me.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ignace Tiegerman - How Many of Us Remember This Pianist?...

If the name Tiegerman does not register in your memory, do not feel alone.
I wrote about him a few years ago, and I do so now  simply because I feel the urgency to have his name re-surfaced once again.
The other day, I pulled out one of his recordings, one of a pitifully small supply of recordings he left us  - he never made a studio recording in Cairo, where he spent much of his adult life as a teacher.
However, a recording he made in Italy , probably in  1965, is the best quality  available to us. His other recordings were made  in locations such as apartments and homes of friends, students and admirers of this man, and an occasional broadcast remnant, in generally poor quality, of performances with the Cairo Philharmonic during  the 1950's.
Listen to this one good recording, a  performance of the wonderful Intermezzo Opus117, no. 2 of Brahms. For me, it is a towering example of what this man was capable of  doing. Personally, it ranks with any performance of this piece that I know of. The man, from the few recordings I have heard, was a great musician; and, sadly,  so few remember or even know his name today.
Imagine a rather frail man, beset by asthma, doing what he loved best, it seems; namely teaching, sharing his musical being with others. His formal performances were quite rare, it appears. The tragedy, for me, is that this man possessed genius, having so very much to say - and not one studio recording that I am aware of...
He taught at a music school in Cairo, which later became the Tiegerman Conservatory of Music -  a number of his students were members of the Egyptian royal family, who adored his entity and befriended him, engendering respect for his entity and gifts as a pedagogue.
When Farouk was overthrown by Nasser, and antisemitism became an issue in Egypt, the dangers to the Jew Tiegerman became a reality.  However, he survived the Nasser regime, miraculously, traveling in and out of Cairo, and died in the city he loved, in 1968.
As for his place in history, do know that Vladimir Horowitz more than once  made mention of Tiegerman as "the one man I feared during my formative years as my one true competitor."
Why not listen to Tiegerman and Brahms?  It may well cause a further  examination of a forgotten giant...


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Monday, November 27, 2017

The Rachmaninoff Second Sonata - A Story Worth Telling...

How often do we hear of a composer giving permission to another musician to alter the music in order to further project the original ideas without destroying those ideas?
That, seemingly, is what Rachmaninoff engendered when he asked the legendary virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz to do just that.
To make it brief: Rachmaninoff wrote the sonata in 1913, then in 1931 revised it, by both shortening it,  then making  some of the passages somewhat less difficult. These two actions seem to verify the composer's assertion that the sonata was, in its original form, both  unnecessarily  difficult at times  and consequently a bit more complicated, textually, than it needed to be. He himself voiced some discomfort with the music from time to time, until he set about enacting his 1931 version. Around 1940, for reasons I cannot conjure,  he approached Horowitz about further revision, which resulted in a yet further journey into the core of the sonata. The recording of the Horowitz version is available, and the results are brilliant and provocative, giving us a view of yet another side of the Horowitz mystique - his view of the sonata, it seems to me, preserves the original intent of the 1913 version. Even more fascinating is the fact that as Horowitz performed this piece, he would alter some areas in a form of extemporization whenever he would present it, creating a kind of improvisation without obscuring the composer's original intentions each time it was performed.
So; how often can we witness the process described above, all during the life of the composer?
I find myself summoning at least one reason why Rachmaninoff may have chosen to revise, then discuss with Horowitz  the issue of yet  another creation of a view of the piece: the second movement, to me, is redolent with harmonic ideas that sound almost as if Rachmaninoff jotted them down, then decided which ones to inculcate. We know that Haydn, centuries before, did precisely the same thing, probably more with melodic, rather than harmonic ideas.  One can, at best,  only speculate...
By the way, I have finally(!) come to the conclusion that there IS greatness in the playing of  Yuja Wang. Her reading of the second movement of this sonata moved me deeply - her  contact with the core values of the composer are, for me, alive with a kind of meaning that I hear so seldom today.
What do you think? Listen to Horowitz and Wang - it's not so much a matter of comparison. For me, it's Apples and Oranges of equal beauty and color.            

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