Sunday, September 28, 2008

Art Tatum - Further Perspectives

I have already written about Art Tatum, as so many others have, of course.
It may be of interest to the reader to gain a further understanding of the illimitable powers the legendary pianist possessed:
Later in his career, it was arranged for Tatum to record some tunes with Lionel Hampton, the great vibes player, and Buddy Rich, who, in my opinion, was as great a drummer as any in the profession.
After the sessions were completed ( and the reader can obtain these recordings, I believe), both Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich, at different points of time, said the same thing; namely, that as these recordings were being made, they both felt that the nature and power of Tatum's playing were goading them on to greater levels of performance they had never contemplated possible, and that neither of them, in their minds, had ever equaled this level in their remaining years of performance, either live or recorded.
The fact that both of these giants in their own domains reflecting the same reactions demonstrates to this writer the unique level and substance of performance attainment that Tatum was able to project.
Another facet of this man of incalculable power was his memory and the repository coming out of it.
In 1953, I believe, Norman Granz, the famous recording executive, saw to it that Tatum be given a top grade piano to record whatever tunes Tatum chose to do. The result was that Tatum recorded 70 tunes in two days.
Granz, shortly after, decided to have Tatum record more tunes at his own pace, whereupon Tatum, for the next few years, recorded 51 additional tunes. All 121 tunes can be purchased, fortunately.
Because of the quality of the piano throughout, all of these recordings give us the wonderful, fluidic sound of Tatum, let alone the presence.
May I ask the reader to consider doing the following?
Choose any recordings of your favorite pop pianist, whether it be Oscar Peterson, or Lenny Tristano, or George Shearing, or Teddy Wilson, or ANY of the greats. Then alternate them with
any of the recordings Tatum made in the Granz project from 1953 on, and I think that you will have the same reaction that Hampton and Rich had after their session with Tatum; that is, Tatum was invariably at a level belonging only to him.
I cannot recall which of the stellar pianists said the following, but it was indeed said:
"listen to Tatum, and he makes us all feel/sound like amateurs".
Do remember that some of the legendary concert pianists, such as Rachmaninoff and Horowitz had unconditional admiration and respect for Tatum's elemental powers as a pianist.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sports in War - the Madness Goes On

Another of my 'diversions" from the arts:
For those who read my blogs, you are, of course, aware that I occasionally move from the arts to discuss items that cross my memory blackboard; usually aspects of the human condition that defy logic; for example:
In the Anzio sector during World War II, which was a killing field for a time, it may be of interest to take note that on several consecutive days, the Germans refrained from firing their artillery at the Americans when they played baseball games - then the killing resumed.
During the so-called "phony war"; that is, during the months after the Germans had occupied Poland in September of 1939, Hitler did not attack Western Europe while there was hope (in his mind) that the British might come to an agreement with the Nazi regime. And so, even though the British had declared war on Germany because of the invasion of Poland, there were no hostilities until May of 1940, when Hitler occupied the Low countries and France.
So between the attack on Poland and the spring of 1940, even though there was a declared war by the French and English on Germany, there were no hostilities.
It was during this period, some weeks before Hitler resumed his war, all was quiet on the French/German border. On a particular day, some high ranking French officers visited the Maginot Line bordering Germany. About a thousand yards away from the French soldiers, some German troops were playing soccer in full view. The French officers were besides themselves. One stormed over to the commander of this portion of the Maginot Line and asked why the French were not attacking these German soldiers; after all, war had been officially declared between the two countries since the preceding September.
The answer was "why should we fire at them? They are not firing on us."
Both of these events are documented and verified; one of them by no less than Noble Frankland, arguably the most knowledgeable military historian in England at the time.
War and Madness - the same word?


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Memoir - A Great Teacher

I started my musical experience on the violin, and continued playing the instrument throughout my educational years; however, my love for and attraction to the piano began around age six or seven, with a kind and gentle man whom I outgrew after a few years.
My father decided to have me enroll at the Eastman School of Music, as we were residents of Rochester, New York at the time.
I was assigned to a teacher whose name was Jerome Diamond, who taught at the college as well.
My first impression was my being intimidated by this elegant, lean, really strikingly intense man, with aquiline features and black hair accompanied by a manner, though pleasant, redolent with authority.
The first few lessons transfigured my sense of what "work" really meant. His demands upon what I did during those early days formed the base upon which a sense of true measurement, as regards the techniques of practice, meant in the clearest possible terms.
As the weeks, then months passed by, I became aware of the elemental power of communication this man possessed, and the degree and nature of my progress that resulted, which began to form a wordless bond between him and me.
His (at times) almost brutal demands upon me were accompanied by the occasional slap on the back when he liked what I was doing, and his wonderfully clear voice would, at times, rise when he encouraged me to go that one extra step. He truly was a great exponent of what "Gradus ad Parnassum" meant. His own training certified his approach to the piano. He studied with two of the great exponents dealing with the piano; one, Isidor (sometimes Isadore) Phillip, one of the last giants of pedagogy who carried over from the 19th to the twentieth century, and also Josef Lhevinne, the legendary pianist. Diamond had studied with both of them in Paris. Fortunately for me, Diamond divulged much of what these two great figures gave to him; therefore, a very important aspect of my thinking came from this great legacy. In other words, both Phillip and Lhevinne were, in a sense, my pedagogical grandfathers. By the way, part of my European training came from Phillip himself, with whom I studied for a short period (he was in his nineties at the time).
As the years moved on, Diamond increasingly became more than the great communicator he was.
His kindness and abiding interest became a combination that formed a loving relationship between him and me. His wonderful act of secretly sending some of my compositions to the great pianist Alexander Brailowsky (see my April blog by scrolling the archive link in my blog to that month), then arranging for me to meet Brailowsky; this during my teen years, was something that will always be in my memory.
After going on with my education, I returned eventually to visit Diamond, and then a social phase of our relationship began; that is, every time we visited Rochester, we spent time with him and his wife and young son. This phase of our relationship went on for a few more years until leukemia struck this talented and loving man down while barely emerging from middle age.
The loss to me was accentuated even more so by way of his interest in my life experiences; for instance, even though he was strongly opposed to my being on the high school baseball team, I noticed that whenever I pitched in a game, he was there watching me. He even followed my activities at the Community Playhouse, appearing in the audience whenever I appeared on stage in a play.
After his passing, I was overcome when I found that, with all of the students he had worked with over the years at Eastman, he left much of his piano music collection to me.
I can never describe my feelings for this man - all there is to know is that he will forever be a large part of who and what I am.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

An Unexpected Evening in Germany

While on tour in Germany, I found some time to stroll through the streets of Frankfurt after practicing at the Palmengarten ( a wonderful Bechstein piano had been made available for me there).
It was early evening, and I found myself on a side street. I halted in front of a small art gallery, which was closed, and was very taken by a collection of small prints and paintings by an artist named Richtl. I then noticed a small placard on the front door announcing a recital the next night. The music to be played was music by Ernst Krenek, the powerful eclectic composer from Austria, and well-known in the world of music, especially for his twelve-tone music, which had come out of his admiration for the giant Schoenberg.
I became excited, as I admired the musical thinking of Krenek, and so planned on the following evening.
At the appointed time I and a man by the name of Everett Helm, who had been assigned me as manager of my tour (brilliant man; a composer and writer well-known in Europe, with many articles published in Etude magazine and various historical anthologies) were ushered into the gallery and led downstairs to a rather large room with about 75 chairs having been set up for the occasion.
I cannot remember the pieces of Krenek that were performed that evening, as it was so long ago, but the performances were quite wonderful, much of which was chamber music played by the Griller Quartet.
During the intermission, I was dumbfounded to see Krenek himself in this room, speaking and mingling casually with various people, almost all of whom I'm quite sure were German, as all conversation I heard was in German.
Shortly before the second part of the recital, the artist Richtl, whose art I had admired the evening before, was introduced to the people. It was then that I realized that this occasion was given in Richtl's honor for his work (he was quite elderly), and planned by Krenek himself, who had been a long-time friend of his.
And so this memorable evening I had stumbled onto is another example of serendipity, an entity which seems to follow me around, happily, from time to time.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Beethoven in a Basketball Court

For those of you who read my little contributions, I am sure that you know that much, if not most of what I write is about subjects from without, rather than material about myself.
However, you will have noticed that this week I wrote about a strange incident concerning ducks that I was a witness to, followed yesterday about my experiences with the great pianist Jose Iturbi.
And so I thought that I should continue relating to you for a short period some other experiences in my life which may be worth reading about. I promise that I will do this for a mercifully brief period:
This incident occurred many years ago, shortly after returning from my German tour and the beginning of my teaching career.
I had two great friends, both old enough to be my parents; both of whom had escaped the annexation of Austria by Hitler. They became successful here in America, and were very active patrons of the arts.
One day Hans came to me and produced two tickets to a recital, inviting my wife and me to accompany him and his wife. I noticed that the tickets did not contain place or artist, and asked Hans if he thought all this would be worthwhile. Well, he twinkled and assured me that I would indeed enjoy myself.
And so, with Hans driving his old Mercedes, the four of us went not into an urban area, but out into the suburbs, ending up at a high school I was familiar with.
As we walked into the building, I thought to myself that this would probably be a concert of music played by a bunch of high-schoolers , with one of the families having given Hans these tickets.
We did not go into the main building, but into the sports complex which housed a basketball court containing about one hundred wooden folding chairs. I could not understand why the seats that came out of the walls forming grandstands were not utilized.
On one end of the court stood a magnificent Steinway grand piano, which perked my ears up. Will we hear a budding young pianist premiering his career, or what??
After all were seated, a tall, lean figure briskly strode through a door and moved toward the piano. I went into instant shock, for that figure was one of the giants of our time; a direct link to the Golden Age of the piano, and one of those three giants known for that historic approach to the keyboard - Vladimir Horowitz, Claudio Arrau, and in front of me-Rudolf Serkin.
He smiled broadly, as he almost always did, bowed deeply, and began his recital.
There was no printed program. Serkin himself announced each piece before playing.
As the sounds filled the room, I found myself gazing out at this bizarre scene, finally looking upward, and discovering that I was sitting almost directly under a basket, probably having been attacked by a high school athlete that very afternoon! It was an experience I shall never forget. We still talk about it from time to time even these days.
He played Schubert and Beethoven, some of this music having been performed by him the night before at Symphony Hall in Boston - I had been there!!
How did this all happen?
I found out from a gloating Hans, after the recital, that Serkin had simply repaid a favor to a friend who happened to live in this particular community, only on condition that each ticket would be given to friends of Serkin's friend, and that there be no charge.
I never did discover what that repaid favor was all about, but it must have been a Brobdingnagian favor, at the very least!
A recital like no other.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

My "Lessons" with Jose Iturbi

I was in early high school, and studying at the Eastman School of Music, with serious intent upon choosing music as my profession (which I obviously did).
For reasons I cannot remember, I was one of a handful of piano students chosen to spend a portion of that summer taking lessons with the renown Spanish pianist Jose Iturbi, who was conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic at that time.
Well, we were told in the spring what pieces to prepare for Iturbi, which we did (there were about six of us chosen, as I recall).
I can tell you ( and I tell you NOW that I loved Iturbi, his sense of humor, and his immense pianism in spite of what ensued that summer).
The lessons consisted pretty much of the same pattern; that is, I would sit down for the great man and begin to play, for as long as about a minute or so, followed by his gentle elbowing me off the bench and saying "no, no! Do it like THIS!"
Most of each lesson consisted of the same routine, no matter which piece I started to perform for him.
In other words, these memorable "lessons" consisted much of the time of my listening to his magic, with very little playing on my part. After about three lessons, I remember saying to myself that had I been able to "do it like THIS", I would be pretty darn good.
To encapsulate, this wonderful, warm man had no concepts of the art of teaching, totally demolishing any attempt on his part to come down to a level other than his own.
I learned absolutely nothing from this experience, other than it probably is a rarity for a great musician to be a really good teacher, such as men like Rubinstein or Casals or Gilels.
I faulted him not, and have always been thankful that at least I was considered proficient enough to be one of the chosen.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Music -Soother of the Savage Beast - and the Ruffled Feather??

On this very day, I was witness to a tableau totally unexpected.
I love walking, and walk somewhere between 7 and 10 miles per week, depending upon weather, time available, etc.
I decided to stroll around a lovely pond not far from home, which takes the better part of an hour.
About thirty or so minutes into the walk, I heard music from a distance. As I got closer to the source, I recognized the music as what many of us call "elevator music"; that is, totally aimless, totally harmless pop music, requiring no thought whatsoever, done by some nameless orchestra, the performers sounding as if they were embarking upon a form of sleep-walking while playing - you know the kind of music I am describing.
Well, as I got into range of the music source, I came across a scene I will not soon forget:
An elderly gentleman, in a plaid shirt, sitting on one of those folding cloth chairs, holding onto a fishing pole, with his eyes closed, and a portable radio at his side, the music floating out of it.
Grouped around the radio, almost totally motionless, was a group of ducks, absolutely silent, numbering around 40 or so.
As I walked by, my eyes glued to this scene, the music continued, and the ducks remained in position, almost as if they were statues.
I continued walking, the music growing more and more distant, then fading completely.
I asked myself "should I have remained to see what would happen when the music stopped?"
It had never occurred to me to do this, and I feel remiss in that I had not done so.
Ah, Serendipity.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sviatoslav Richter - A Study in Dimension

When I think of Sviatoslav (sometimes spelled Sviatoslov) Richter, the word 'dimension' seems to crop up more often than not.
The reason, probably, is due to two aspects of his entity as one of the great pianists known to us.
First, his approach to the instrument:
He was a big man, with hands that could easily reach twelfths, making virtually all piano music of import totally accessible, physically.
His 1957 performance in a Sofia recital of "Pictures At An Exhibition" by Moussorgsky seems 'smaller' under his fingers than any pianist I know of who has performed or recorded it, in my memory. As stupendous as the titanic addenda that Horowitz gives to this gigantic composition is, I nevertheless consider it a mite less impressive than Richter's forging of this music.
Another example is on video; and that is, in the Richter biography, his performance of Chopin's Etude, Opus 10, No. 4. The piano actually appears smaller than it is, primarily due to the indescribable speed he plays this etude at, without losing the textual meaning of the piece. It is like no other performance I know of.
The other facet of this remarkable pianist was the size of his repertoire.
He himself remarked, more than once (and without a trace of ego), that he was at any time capable of producing around fifteen solo recital programs, with no repetitions of any pieces therein. I think that achievement pretty much left the other great pianists in the dust, as regards repertoire. He learned music at an astounding rate, faster than most, if not all of his pianistic contemporaries.
Personally, I get a bit depressed when I hear of such achievements, knowing what little I do; and yet, this man had an almost life-long bout with depression, what with all of his powers and achievements. Another reason to bolster my argument that the greatest mystery in life is the image I see in the mirror when shaving.
Horowitz once said that "the only Russian pianist I like is Richter."
An engrossing statement made by Horowitz, as he was extremely private about his opinions of other pianists.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Two Historic Battles, Three Years Apart, on the Same Day.

Again, my apologies for another digression from music; however, you know by now that certain dates that pass through my memory bank must be discussed, however mundane or just plain boring they may be:
In 1938, the most acclaimed sports event in sports history occurred in New York. Over 100,000,000 people all over the world were grouped around their radios to listen to this event.
It was the second time that these two athletes had met. One was the German boxer Max Schmeling, the other the American boxer Joe Louis.
Schmeling had defeated Louis two years earlier. Since that bout in 1936, Louis had become the World's Heavyweight Champion, and eventually went on to establish a record that may never be equaled; that is, the longest period in history that a heavyweight champion remained just that.
Joe Louis, in his own mind, felt that he could never be REAL champion unless he exacted revenge upon the only man to have defeated him during this period.
Schmeling had become a national hero in Nazi Germany with his 1936 defeat of Joe Louis, and although he never joined the Nazi party, he was feted in Germany, became a friend of Hitler, and mingled with the Nazi elite.
The second bout in 1938, however, was quite different.
In about a two minute period of the first round, Joe Louis overwhelmed Max Schmeling, breaking two ribs, damaging one of his kidneys, and knocking him almost senseless. In Germany, the broadcast was cut off when it was becoming apparent that Schmeling was being destroyed by a man who arguably had the greatest punching power of any boxer in the history of the sport.
The argument that the Master Race was invincible had been proven wrong. Hitler was apoplectic, and Schmeling ended up as a paratrooper in the German army.
It might also be more than possible to suggest that the first consciousness of the civil rights movement took form at this point, followed a few years later by way of Marian Anderson, the great Contralto and the first black to be allowed to join the Metropolitan Opera; followed, finally, by the courage of Martin Luther King, with Jackie Robinson wedged between.
Another example of how the arrogance of the Nazi Superman theory was put to the test and ultimately demolished, was when the Nazi Horde invaded Mother Russia.
The second Louis-Schmeling fight took place on June 22, 1938.
The Nazi invasion of Russia took place on June 22, 1941.
How utterly beguiling Coincidence can be.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

So Much For 'Primary Source' Material (at least, at times!)

Though I have taught certain aspects of history, I am grateful that I am primarily a musician, not a history teacher, what with revisionism, speculation and the like constantly being partners in this pursuance.
To cite (even though this event is not of earth-shattering dimension):
I have heard three different interviews given by the great pianist , Vladimir Horowitz, about the same incident (two of which I have on film); specifically, when he was a child, the first remembrance of his own reaction to music was his incessant tapping of his fingers on surfaces. On one occasion, he was tapping on a window which broke, causing blood to flow from his hand. In one of the interviews, he claims he was around three years of age. On the other interview I have on film, he was four years of age. And in a third interview I saw on television, he had his age centered around two years.
Another example of primary source experience centers around the fabled pianist, Artur Rubinstein, who while reminiscing about musicians he had heard, singled out the composer Claude Debussy. Rubinstein, as a youth, remembers Debussy as "one of the greatest pianists I have ever heard".
The recordings of Debussy I know of, especially from the Vorsetzer period I have written about, demonstrate that at best he was facile and rather indifferent; certainly, in my view, not a great pianist.
And having just seen a documentary centering around the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, and a documentary loaded with contemporaries of the tyrant and the children thereof, it was nothing but an hour of "it's possible that-", or, 'what if", or, "what truly might have been". or, "these are the possible results", etc., etc.
So; at least at times, so much for Primary Source!