Monday, September 26, 2011

The Indefinable, Inexplicable Arcanum - The Powers in Music...

Why did I find myself whistling, then humming one of my own tunes this morning?
Why do tunes pop up in our inner hearing apparatus?
Why is there, at least at times, the "tune of the day?"
I got to thinking about the nature of the kinds of power that music has over us, and it shows up in countless, let alone, rather strange ways, from time to time:
With the overwhelming power that the music of Wagner held over Hitler's consciousness, especially during his formative years, why is it that his favorite tune, according to some in his inner sanctum, was "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?"(remember the tune in one of Disney's earlier classics, the "3 Little Pigs?")? Was it because his nickname WAS Wolf, or was it simply the tune itself?
On Sept.2, 1945, we know that the Japanese Empire formally surrendered to the Allies in a ceremony on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay - what is not generally known is that on the very same day, in the northern section of Vietnam, the relatively new Viet Minh, a communist-based group, had not yet created any music for its forces to march to - and so they marched to and sang the French national anthem, the music representing the country they defeated in a bloody war a decade later in Dien Bien Phu.
The premier of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" resulted in a riot that spilled out of the hall and onto the streets of Paris in 1913, actually creating, for a brief period of time, a degree of danger to the well-being of the composer himself. Why?
The combination of jazz, the clarinet, and the color black created the Ebony Concerto by Stravinsky, who was fascinated by Jazz, the Woody Herman band and Herman himself, a master jazz clarinetist - how does such an incarnation come into being, especially from a giant such as Stravinsky, who was, in his inner world, so distant from the jazz form?
Man thrust into space, many years ago, a time capsule, with attendant hopes that one day another living form may encounter it, and hear, among other human contributions, the music of Bach as played by Glenn Gould.
What, in a language which, in and of itself needs no words, prompts these kinds of motivations and actions to take place?
No answer, for us, is available, it seems...


Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Peter and the Wolf" - My Encounter With the Composer's Piano Reduction...

On March 2nd of 2012, I will be playing Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."
This statement may sound rather strange to those of you who know this composition as it is normally performed; that is, with narrator and orchestra. Of course, the entire world is familiar with this particular incarnation.
Well, Prokofiev gave birth to this wonderful work in 1936, getting it down on paper in four days. By the way, the story line is Prokofiev's own, not a Russian fable of antiquity, as some think it is.
However, he wrote it initially as a piano solo, then transferred it into the orchestral version we all know so well.
Now this pianistic reduction is rarely performed, primarily due, very simply, to the genius of Prokofiev's giving a particular instrument a character assignment, such as Peter's character being represented by the violin, or the duck's image done by the oboe, or the cat given us by the clarinet, etc. - well, therein lies the reason that the composer chose the orchestra, simplifying the singularity of each character.
My problem in doing the piano reduction publicly is lurid - how can the piano be the violins, or the oboe, or the clarinet? How can I separate one character from another, knowing that the piano sound is the only sound I can produce on the piano?
Of course, therein lies the reason that one never hears "Peter and the Wolf" as Prokofiev originally wrote it.
My only recourse is to heighten the nature of the character I play through the interpretive process; for example, to make Peter more of a young boy by inculcating shards of occasional mischief and innocent jocularity as he strides through the forest - or to picture the duck as a bird who cannot fly, resulting in some depression and frustration that needn't be attempted in the orchestral version - or to present the cat as a combination of Machiavelli and downright sneakiness.
And so the only way to create any hope of success in my playing "Peter" on the piano is to give the word Hubris a real opportunity to come forward, seeing that my dimensions of character representation are suppressed by way of the limitations of my instrument.
Wish me luck!


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Encounter With a Famous Composer

During my active years as an educator, I taught at both high school and college level simultaneously . My boss in the music department at the high school began his tenure a year before a certain student graduated from this school. That "certain student" became one of the twentieth century's best known musicians, and one of history's most prolific composers, with well over 500 compositions that we know of, taking into account that there was a period during which he destroyed many of his creations by burning them. His name: Alan Hovhaness.
Our department thought that it would be an interesting venture, if we could get him to visit the high school on the 50th anniversary of his graduation. And so he was contacted in Seattle, where he lived. We were delighted to hear from him soon after, and even more delighted to know that he would be happy to come to our town.
So, a two or three day affair(I cannot recall which) was arranged, and during the months preceding his arrival the music department prepared the orchestra, band and chorus for the occasion by learning some of his music to be played for him. I remember having one or two of my piano students also preparing some of his piano music. It was really quite amazing to witness the acceptance of the music of Hovhaness on the part of teenagers - it was certification of the unique quality of universal appeal that one hears in a great deal of his music.
During the Hovhaness Festival, we were delighted when the composer asked if he could conduct one of the works that had been prepared. It goes without saying that it was a time that these high school children would not forget; namely, having a world renowned composer conducting them in one of his own works.
I remember some of us in the music department taking Hovhaness out to a local restaurant, and that he hoped that the cost of the meal could be taken care of, as he had forgotten to bring any money with him. We assured him that the meal was the department's gift of the night, and that we would not have had it any other way. He seemed rather relieved, which surprised me; after all, this man was the center of one of our town's most historic moments. Did he actually think that we would NOT have paid for his meal??
One of Boston's radio stations came out to broadcast an interview with Hovhaness and members of the music department. I have the cassette somewhere in the house, and I should look for it.
How many small towns could have had such an experience?


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Great Minds of Another Time - How Fortunate I Am!

When I recall, in my formative years, the power of spectacular luck, simply by being with a teacher who passed on to me countless aspects of musical and pianistic thinking from two giants born in the 19th century; well, I consider myself anointed with good fortune.
This teacher, with whom I studied for several years, was himself a student of one of the last teaching icons who straddled two centuries; namely Isidor Phillip. Phillip was a giant, especially in his vaunted development and implementation of particularized finger strength, which my teacher passed along to me. Eminent pianists sought out Phillip in order to add to their ways of dealing with the piano.
My teacher also studied with the legendary pianist Josef Lhevinne. Even the great Vladimir Horowitz, in his earlier career, was an open admirer of Lhevinne, who one may argue was the equal, and something more at times, of any of the great post-Lisztian giants of the keyboard. There are recordings of this titan, and one will quickly recognize the nature of Lhevinne's genius. I have a Vorsetzer recording of Czerny's Octave study, which Lhevinne absolutely overwhelms. I have always, in my mind, challenged any of the great pianists of the past century to perform this challenging etude with more elan and ease than does Lhevinne, which he recorded in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Luckily for me, my teacher imparted countless ways of Lhevinne's thought processes endemic to the playing of the piano, which parted many curtains for me.
All in all, I consider myself most fortunate in having become a spoke, however small, in the Wheel of History.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Art of Conversation in Schumann

I recall one of the leading pianists of our time remarking to me about the power of dialogue in the middle movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto.
Knowing that movement so well, let alone having performed it so many times, I was struck by this pianist's assertion that the seamless nature of "conversation without words" in this music remains unequaled, in his view.
Using the contextual essence of the word "dialogue," I re-visited this brief masterpiece within a masterwork, and these familiar sounds took on a renewed kind of purview from the position of "question/answer," or "statement/retort," or the like, as applied to what "dialogue" means in language, spoken or read. What is most remarkable is that these facets of language, when they appear in a language containing not a word, bring to me the reason that this eminent musician utilized Dialogue as the core of this incarnation.
Schumann is magnificent in the manner of unrelenting conversation between piano and orchestra in one of the most unrelenting pieces in the masterpiece repertoire. The piece is the quintessence of quiet camaraderie and benignity, and yet contains great power in the schematic thrust of ideas. The fluidity of Mozart's K. 488, in its wonderful balance between piano and orchestra, comes to mind, as does the quiet brilliance of Oscar Wilde in many of his examples of conversation in, say, "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
I know that there will be some of you who may have other examples of great dialogue in music in mind; however, this blog is the result of a conversation I had with a great musician, and I thought that I might share this subject with you.