Friday, May 20, 2016

Orchestral Music @ the Piano

Music is an art form that “happens” in the dimension of time. It is horizontal - starting at point A and ending after some time at point B, or perhaps Z. It has high points and low points, climaxes and moments of relaxation, drama, chaos, order, relief, triumph and so much more. When we make music we strive to tell a story and create these infinite array of emotions while keeping throughout a sense of movement, a sense of horizontality.

Piano is a strange instrument. We press keys down in a vertical movement in order to create something that is purely horizontal. We do not blow air into an instrument as with a wind instrument, or have the advantage of using a bow to create movement as with a string instrument. The piano has 88 evenly laid out keys which hit strings with hammers in order to create something which is anything but even or percussive.  Composers dealt with this “ethical” enigma when they wrote for the keyboard. One of the inspirations and aspirations for composers in reconciling this problem is to transform the piano into something else… an orchestra. The piano (after all) does have some advantages - the ability to deliver many notes at the same time, the ability to use different registers all at once, the enormous span, the different colors and so on.  Composers put this idea at the forefront, and in pursuing their goal turned the piano into an orchestra in astonishingly different ways.

J. S. Bach published his Italian Concerto in 1735 as part of what is known as “Clavierübung II” or “Keyboard practice book 2”. At age 50 Bach decided to publish a book consisting of only two works - The Overture in French Style and the Italian Concerto. Both pieces are studies in orchestral writing. While the Overture examines the dance genre, the Italian Concerto looks at the brilliant writing of the concerto style. A presenter once asked me upon seeing that I will be performing this piece, “who are you playing it with? which orchestra?” Not realizing this extraordinary work is played with one instrument. The essence of the concerto genre is the confrontation between the soloist and the orchestra. This creates a lot of the drama. This drama may be severely damaged if a conversation between two becomes a monologue of one! Bach created here the effect of an orchestra against a soloist by experimenting with textures, registers as well styles of writing. The first movement suggests the style of a violin concerto with virtuosic writing for the solo right hand. The second movement is a highly ornamented aria accompanied by a continuo bass. Though sounding quasi improvised, it is very meticulously written out. The third movement is a concerto grosso, or concerto for orchestra having all the voices in high speed participating as soloists as well as orchestra. 

Almost 90 years separate Bach’s work, with one of Franz Schubert’s most monumental “orchestral” works - the Fantasy for solo piano in C major known was “The Wanderer”. Its dramatic power, bold formal structure, emotional range and conciseness, makes it one of the most revolutionary pieces in the Romantic era. The piece was shocking in the way it treated the piano. It influenced generations of composers such as Liszt (who orchestrated the piece) Mendelssohn, Chopin and others. A student played the piece for me once. His playing was extremely aggressive and percussive. When I suggested the idea of looking for an orchestral sound, he instantly agreed exclaiming “here we have the bells. and here are the drums, the gong, cymbals and so on.” I then suggested that this should not be a Stravinsky orchestra, but rather a similar orchestra to the one that performed a Schubert Symphony. The “Wanderer fantasy” is a grand symphonic work - The “modernity” of its use of the piano is truly revolutionary - Its exhaustive use of the sonorities of the instrument, its insistent use of broken octaves - suggesting string tremolo, the cascading full throttle octaves - perhaps a brass section, the broad rich texture - full tutti, the wide range of dynamics, the entire scope of the piece, all suggest the search for a multitude of forces that exist only within the orchestra. The piece was written in C major, the same key that Schubert later wrote his final symphony nicknamed “The Great”. 

Moving forward to the world of Franz Liszt who wrote over 60 transcriptions, paraphrases and arrangements of operas from Mozart to Bellini, Verdi to Wagner. He made these for several reasons: Being a virtuoso pianist, it was a way to show-off his abilities and imagination also as a composer / improvisor. Secondly, it was an opportunity to bring this music to a wider audience at a time when not everyone was able to connect to YouTube… and Lastly and the most important reason in my opinion - these arrangements celebrated the instrument that had become so popular, so central during the first decades of the 19th century. To celebrate the piano as well as to challenge it - above all the sonorities which included dynamic range, articulation possibilities, note repetition and pedals. It is commonly thought that Chopin wrote “everything that was possible for the piano”. Well, in that case Liszt wrote everything that was NOT possible for the piano. This is not to say one is better than the other. It simply suggests that the things Liszt asked for from the piano were beyond what the instrument was “supposed” to do. LIszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s last scene from Tristan and Isolde is a wonderful example. Bringing to life Wagner’s epic orchestra - 100 string players, six harps, 12 horns and more - all captured within one single instrument is “mission impossible” or is it not?   It is fascinating the way Liszt creates the effects of a timpani drum-roll, string tremolo, harp arpeggios, and of course winds solos. The arrangement is full of imagination. At a certain point one forgets about the orchestra altogether and immerses himself in the toxic beauty of sound and color that comes out of the piano. 

At the hight of Romanticism, from 1890 to the beginning of the 20th century, the music of Wagner and Strauss was so overpowering, so dominating that the composers that followed - Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky - had to look anywhere but Germany to find their sources of inspiration. That went a long way in the areas of sound, texture, sonority and rhythm. There was a search for new colors - exoticism was central especially in the works of Claude Debussy. One of Debussy’s most enchanting piano works “Estampes” gets its inspiration from Gamelan music coming from the island of Java of the coast of Indonesia. This is an orchestra made up of almost entirely percussion instruments - clappers, rattles, a variety of gongs and bells producing timbres which were previously unknown to classical music. Debussy revolutionized our perception of the scale of dynamics, silences and articulation markings as means of expression. In this exploration he achieved a whole new range of orchestral colors within the piano. We might compare his revolution in that aspect to what Liszt had achieved a few decades before with his virtuosic demands on the piano . A short piano work called “D’un cahier d’esquisses is particularly interesting as it explores silences and sound in just as much intensity and consistency as it explores the moments of ecstasy and climaxes. One gets a sense of hallucination as if being catered for under a magical spell.

After WWII, the entire world was in a state of complete shock and lost hope. In the music world that manifested itself in the idea that we have to “start anew”. Composers began asking themselves whether a piece needed to have structure, melody, rhythm and so on. Furthermore, can structure be something different, new? The same question applies to melody and rhythm. What is a melody?  What is rhythm? Along these lines, the concept of whether instruments can produce different sounds was tested. Does an orchestra needs to sound like an orchestra?  Georgy Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata which was written between 1951 and 1953 examines the very foundation of such questions. Six movements from this collection were transcribed for a Wind quintet. Humor, wit, sarcasm, pain, songfulness, folklore and paying homage, are all played-with and ultimately given new meanings in what lay the foundation to post-modernism. One of the most important phenomenas that occur when we listen to music in general is “Expectations”. We expect a theme, we expect to feel, we expect to resolve tensions, we expect certain sounds. The idea of “expectations” is being put to the test and shaken to the core in this fascinating piece by Ligeti. 

Throughout the centuries the Keyboard remained central in the creative lives of composers. Some wrote their new symphony first at the keyboard and then orchestrated it. Others wrote their new symphony FOR the keyboard, imagining the range of sound and color that an orchestra can produce within that enigmatic instrument. Some of the most fascinating pieces ever written were for the piano but with the full resources of an orchestra behind as the driving force. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

“Go to sleep Mom, I will call you later”

In memory of Vera Stern 

I cannot remember how many times I heard Michael say these words to his mother, moments before we walked together onto the stage to perform another piano concerto. Whether it was in Memphis, or Kansas City, Newark or Colorado Springs, he was always on the phone with his Mom when the stage manager knocked on the dressing room door asking him to come. “Go to sleep Mom, I will call you later”. When I heard Michael say this for the last time at Ms. Stern’s memorial service last month I broke into tears, as I do now. Can I hear it just one more time? Please?

What can I say about a person who could show me reason in places that others saw chaos, and who gave me the feeling of a warm home at a place that others considered a jungle.  Ms. Stern, as I often addressed her, made New York City feel like the warmest place whenever I came to perform. She also made me focus, in the sometimes confusing life of music on what is important.

The first time I met Ms. Stern was in 1991, when I played with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra after winning a competition. At the reception following the concert she stood on top of a sofa with bare feet addressing the people, the conductor and myself standing on either side. A few months ago I came across pictures from that event and enthusiastically told Ms. Stern about them. She remembered where it was, the sofa she stood on top of, what she said, and the purple dress she wore!

It took eight more years till we met again, and started what was to become an unforgettable friendship. I came to New York to play a recital and was offered to practice at her beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park. My manager told me some time after the concert that Ms. Stern noted that I could come again to practice on her piano because “I did not break any string”. Needless to say that was the end of me practicing any Prokofiev or something above "mezzo-forte" on that piano…

Slowly and with much caution she opened herself to me in ways that made me shiver each time all over again. 

Ms. Stern enjoyed getting to know people. She loved helping people. To help was a life’s mission, an ultimate pursuit worth any sacrifice. Helping, also meant being there. To miss a concert of someone she cared for was inconceivable - if there were 50 stairs to climb she would fly; if there was 3 feet of snow on the ground she would slide with elegance. Not showing up was not an option. One of my vivid memories was playing at the People Symphony Concerts when it was below zero degrees outside following a snow storm, which resulted in dangerous icy conditions. She was not only there, but also brought along others!  I think her presence at the concerts made people play better. It made the audience experience more than usual. She knew that, and therefore it was not an option that she will miss a concert.

But it was not just the concerts. Ms. Stern cared for everything, and wanted to help in all sorts of ways. I remember once she cut a newspaper article for me and kept it for months till we met. It was about the importance of spending time with family. I guess she did not feel I understood that enough. Sharing was her way of caring. I did change after reading the article, and it gave her great pleasure. Over the years I received many more articles...

What always brought tears to her eyes was her family - reading in the newspaper about Michael or David, seeing an old video of Mr. Stern, getting a picture from a grandson or granddaughter - this would immediately bring tears in a most humble and inspiring way. She was so preoccupied with giving to others, her family gave it back to her. It was extraordinary to witness some of that.

And so, I learned over the years that orange was her favorite color, and each time I visited I would bring orange roses, tulips or lilies. That color belongs to her. Even though she had a great sense of authority and will-power, greater than I have ever seen, it was always special to see her child-like reaction when seeing a good chocolate, or getting some blueberries. 

A couple of years ago when she was at the hospital for two weeks I came to visit and saw a piano in the dining hall. Within minutes we gathered around the piano and I played for her a private concert. Ms. Stern was a magnet, and so within seconds people came for this private little soiree. I remember playing a Schubert Impromptu among other things. Two days after she past away I had a recital in New York City and dedicated the encore to her memory - it was a Schubert Impromptu. 

The day before she died I came to practice at her apartment. It had been some time since I have been to New York. She was not conscience, but I was assured that she knew I was coming and had the piano especially tuned the week before. I want to believe that she waited for me to come just one more day to practice. 

Ms. Stern, I miss you!
with lots of love 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Beethoven surprises us / Schubert surprises himself!

Prior to performing Schubert’s towering sonata in c minor D. 958 I addressed the audience with the following remarks -

I recently spoke with a close friend sharing with him the program for my upcoming solo recitals. When he heard that I will be playing a late Schubert sonata he asked whether my intention is to put people to sleep! He then recommended that I ask the audience to turn on their cell-phones, and feel free to send text messages or check e-mails between movements.  Well, He was not completely wrong.  During the second half of the 19 century concerts were a much lighter affair.  A program would normally consist of a movement of a piece, followed by two arias, then perhaps an improvisation on a popular tune and so on.  To play a full Schubert sonata was inconceivable, not to mention that these works were pretty much neglected back then.

We seem to be living in an era in which in order to be taken seriously one has to program four Beethoven sonatas. Programming Liszt transcriptions, or Brahms Hungarian Dances means you won’t be considered as a serious artist. Playing only a movement from a sonata means you will be vetoed altogether. And yet the programs of Horowitz or Rubinstein from the first half of the 20 century show much greater variety and imagination.

The Schubert sonatas remained unappreciated until well into the 20th century. When the great pianist Artur Schnabel was recording the B flat sonata, in the early 1930’s, Sergei Rachmaninov came to visit Abbey Road Studios in London where Schnabel was recording. Apparently each time the Russian virtuoso came to the studios there was a ritual that everyone would line-up to greet the great maestro. Schnabel decided to play along and stood in line. When Rachmaninov saw Schnabel he asked him for the reason he was at the studios that day. After Schnabel told him that he was recording the last Schubert sonata, Rachmaninov asked whether he could listen. Upon hearing this monumental masterpiece Rachmaninov turned to Schnabel saying “…but this is great music!” Schnabel replied “I know!”

What was it then in the sonatas of Franz Schubert that puzzled so many important figures in the 19 century? Robert Schumann in his review of these works in 1838 criticized their "much greater simplicity of invention", claiming the sonatas "ripple along from page to page as if without end." Schumann in his review of the great C major symphony, however, remarked so poignantly about its "heavenly length." This, in my opinion, suits the sonatas just as much.

Music is an art that happens in the dimension of time. Schubert’s perception of time is unlike any other composer. I guess one can say that about almost any composer. But there is a uniqueness to the way Schubert’s works unfold in time.  I like to say that Beethoven surprises us, whereas Schubert surprises himself.  Beethoven has a very clear idea where he is aiming, and how long it is going to take - the goals, the climaxes. With Schubert you get a sense that he is unsure where the piece is going to take him. I played some years ago the big A major sonata to Claude Frank - a wonderful pianist, musician and teacher. I remember him telling me that when he played that piece he always felt that he was a driver of a Trolley somewhere in the Austrian Alps, and just before launching onto the last movement he wanted to call the audience “ALL ABOARD”.  

Listening or playing one of the grande Schubert sonatas indeed you are on a journey - you might discover along the way a hidden brook. Please stop for a moment and try to speak with it. Most likely the brook will answer. You might also encounter severe weather that will throw you out of your way. Confront it, fight it, you might succeed. I also hope that on your journey you will meet a beautiful maiden. Do fall in love with her, though let me warn you, she is most likely already engaged to the hunter. Still you should fall in love, and get hurt, and feel some hope together with despair and anger. Oh, and beware of the evil spirit. He is there somewhere, most likely disguised in the most beautiful seductive music. Perhaps what you are looking for is a place you can call home. You might never find one! These are all important awarenesses on the path to the heart of this music, to the heart of Romanticism - nature, a beautiful maiden, unfulfilled love, a talking brook, a storm, the Erlkönig, being a wonderer and a stranger in any land - all of which come to life in the eternal beauty of the music of Franz Schubert.      

The c minor sonata has four movements which suggest a large symphonic scale. Also the choice of the dramatic key of c minor is obviously a homage to Beethoven (the Pathetique sonata, the variations in c minor, the 5th symphony). But there is also a homage to the divine lyricism of Mozart. It is a piece of vast dimensions written moments before the composer died at the young age of 31. It was published more than ten years after he died.

Ladies and gentlemen before I begin, please allow me to take the driver sit and call “ALL ABOARD!”

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pre-ludes, Middle-ludes, After-ludes Part IV (Final)

This is the forth and final part of the journey to find 24 "musical" thoughts and after-thoughts, middle-thoughts and Pre-thoughts after Chopin's beloved and yet enigmatic Preludes. 

19) With such a pastiche of 24 miniatures, one is compelled to try all sorts of directions for inspiration and imagination. I often find it helpful to orchestrate as my interpretation evolves. For example the surging melody in the left-hand of the b minor prelude (no. 6) might be beautifully conceived on a cello. The texture of the chords in the c minor prelude (no. 20) reminds me of brass. The soaring beauty of the cantilena line in the B flat major prelude (no. 21) could be played on the flute. However, what is extraordinary to me is how idiomatic Chopin's music is. It belongs to the piano! Thinking, imagining, referring to other instruments might add greater nuance to one's playing. But whenever I heard such realizations of Chopin's music on other instruments - whether strings or winds - the music sounded very weak, timid and ultimately unconvincing. Can it be that as great as Chopin's music is, it only sounds good on the piano? 

20) The preludes are at once similar as well as strikingly different. While the differences seem obvious, the similarities are more implicit, hidden. Take for example preludes nos. 2, 3 and 24 - all three exhibit a left-hand obstinate that governs the entire piece. ostinato also sets its tone. In all three preludes the left-hand pattern also begins a few bars before the melody enters. And yet how obviously different these preludes are. Such inner-connections are in abundance throughout the whole set. 

21) While the preludes are so different in character they are also incredibly varied from a technical point of view: the child like simplicity of the A major prelude (no. 7) is at times taught to amateur pianists while the gargantuan b flat minor one (no. 16) is among the most difficult compositions Chopin ever wrote. I once taught the very slow pace chordal c minor prelude (no. 20) to a 9 year old, and yet, I would never attempt to even introduce the same pupil the immensely difficult (especially when the hands are still cold) G major one (no. 3). The reason for such drastic variety lies in the fact that Chopin's technical demands always serve a much greater purpose. Unlike some of his contemporaries (i.e. Liszt) who could enjoy the showmanship aspect of technical difficulties, Chopin did not write technical difficulties for the sake of exhibition. In the preludes the difficulties are part of the music, part of the DNA of the piece, its essence and message. 

22) The composer Robert Schumann was known to have had the gift to sketch in music people that he knew - a portraitist in music. His Carnival op. 9 is the example where several of the movements have names such as Paganini or Chopin.  The Preludes of Chopin, being so many different things, are also influenced by and as a result paint a sketch portrait of a wide range of composers - the elf-like lightness of
Mendelssohn (10); the lied-like with brook-like texture of Schubert (13); the tour-de-force virtuosity of Liszt (16, 24); the coloratura of Bellini (21); A Bach homage and a Bach choral (no. 1 and no. 20); emblematic ambiguity of Schumann (14, 23); and what about Mozart his idol, or Beethoven, even though he did not like him. The subconscious work in mysterious ways.
23) And if we bring up other composers, then what about the ones that came after Chopin’s death and were highly influenced by the Preludes - Faure, Szymanowski, Scriabin, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich among others. Interestingly Chopin had a profound impact on Russian music. The Russian public was introduced to his music as early as 1829 in a concert in St. Petersburg. The genuine clarity and beauty of Chopin’s melodies, the deep sadness, tenderness and melancholy of his music greatly touched his listeners in Russia. The audience as well as the critics saw him not only as a pianist and composer, but also as a genius poet. The way Chopin incorporated national dances into his music also captured the Russian interest.  With the composer Karl Szymanowski the influence obviously is the direct link to the Polish national school of piano. In my humble opinion though, if we were to draw a line from Bach’s WTC to Chopin’s set, then the next line should be to Debussy’s two books of Preludes! In their originality, inventiveness, new ideas, use of dynamics, finger articulation, use of pedal, motivic development, amorphic shape, emotional range and much more, the Debussy Preludes are as revolutionary as the Chopin’s!!
24) The last words have to be given to none other than George Sand - the woman that causes so much inspiration for Chopin, together with anguish. Sand described the preludes as “most beautiful of short pages, which bring to mind visions of deceased monks, the sound of funeral chants, melancholy and fragrant. They came to him in time of sun and health, in the clamor of laughing children under the window, the far away sound of guitars, birdsongs from the moist leaves, in the sights of the small pale roses coming in bloom on the snow… while charming your ear, they break your heart… Chopin’s genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought… The gift of Chopin is the deepest and fullest feelings and emotions that have been existed.”    

An Epilogue…sorry an Epi-lude:
The Preludes of Chopin are a fountain of inspiration, a wealth of ideas that, having an important place in the music literature. For their brevity, ingenuity, originality, wit and poetry, they constantly attract musicians and audience alike. The most Romantic of composers disliked this association altogether. His music wasn’t inspired by literature or paintings as some of his contemporaries such as Liszt or Schumann. Whereas Beethoven turned the piano into an orchestra (or string quartet at times), and Mozart was bringing to life an opera at the piano, Chopin completely and wholeheartedly conceived his music solely for the piano. In no other single piece that he wrote his genius is more conspicuous as in the set of 24 preludes Op. 28. Even-though these are miniatures, they encompass tremendous emotional power. With seemingly inexhaustible variety of moods and ideas and an endless supply of beautiful melodies the set stands along the great achievements of human creation and vision.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pre-ludes, Middle-ludes, After-ludes (Part III)

Continuing my quest to "find" 24 observations, thoughts and after-thoughts on Frederic Chopin's 24 preludes op. 28. This is chapter 3 out of 4.

13) I once had a few lessons on the preludes with the late pianist Marek Jablonsky. One of the things that intrigued me was that he liked calling the short preludes (nos. 5, 7, 10 etc) "Interludes”, referring to them as short breaths, quick pauses, or as connecting links between two prominent statements. So now we have "Preludes", "Middle-ludes", After-ludes" and "Interludes" - all have different psychological implications to the piece as a whole.   

14) Chopin opposed programmatic references to his music. He refuted Schumann when the latter crafted storied around his Op. 2 variations. Chopin saw music as representing abstract feelings and ideas, transcending visual earthly images. Nevertheless two noteworthy musicians - Hans von Bülow and Alfred Cortot - went as far as giving nicknames to each of the 24 preludes. Occasionally the names are somewhat similar, though most of the time they differ remarkably. It is worth glancing at these names. Hans von Bülow, for example, gave the ubiquitous name "Raindrop" to the famous D flat prelude no. 15. He called the succeeding prelude no. 16 "Hades". Alfred Cortot named the beautiful A flat prelude no. 17 "She told me, I love you…", and to the culminating prelude no. 24 he gave the emphatic name “Blood, Passion and Death".

15) As I mentioned in chapter 1 of this endeavor Chopin organized the preludes differently than the way Bach did. Rather than in chromatic order, Chopin organized them according to what we call the "circle of fifths". As such, each prelude (first major then minor) adds one accidental. The result means that the first half of the cycle (nos. 1-13) employs the keys with the sharps while the second half (nos. 14-24) employs the keys with the flats. Since keys to a piece of music is to a large extent like color to a painting, there is a greater sense of spring or sunrise in the first half of the piece while the second half sounds more autumnal, sunset.

16) Ambiguity seems to be a favorite ingredient when analyzing transcendental works. Ambiguity plays an important role in the preludes. Almost every prelude has an ambiguous element to it. No. 1 -
Melodic: The melody is not on the down beat but rather on the upbeats. It is also toying between being played by the thumb and the pinky.  No. 2 - Tonal: Until the very last chord we cannot be sure of the key. No. 4 - Harmonic: The suspensions throughout this prelude with the two note melody hovering above has a great sense of instability. No. 5 - Rhythmic: The constant hemiolas, together with the extreme brevity of this prelude makes the listener feels disoriented and bewildered. Etc etc.

17) The idea ambiguity should lead to further discussion about the enigmatic no. 14 in e flat minor? This prelude is pure anarchy!! It is almost violent - not from anger, but rather from the unknown. It is scary, frightening, and unstable. The pianist Russell Sherman referred to it as music from the under-world. Chopin, the composer that thrived on melodic beauty, sensuality and elegance, the composer that was admired for the suave quality of his sound, his soft touch, wrote here a piece of incredible darkness and menace. The two hands are playing absolutely the exact same pitches an octave apart. Both hands are playing continuous eighth notes, and it is all in the same low "F" clef. A dark shadow. Never has brevity been so brief, and ambiguity been so emblematic. Needless to say, one should compare this prelude to the final movement of another great work by Chopin - the 2nd sonata.    

18) “Chopin’s music is essentially unhealthy. That is its imperfection and also its danger”. 
This comforting statement belongs to Hippolyte Barbedette, a scholar of the mid 19th century who wrote essays on Chopin’s music. While admiring Chopin's individuality and remarking that the Preludes are “a jewel-box of precious stones”, she also wrote that he was a sick man who enjoyed suffering and did not want to be cured. Furthermore she pointed that by playing his music one will inevitably imagine that the sickness is his own. She concluded with the above quote which I find to be absolutely true - Chopin's music is dangerous to play. It is also unhealthy. These might be two of the reasons why we cannot leave without it. It is intoxicating.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I came, I saw, I wanted to stay,,,

Canceling art vs. Creating art:

Not long ago a good friend of mine posted on Facebook a newspaper announcement that: "The board of the Delaware Symphony has decided to cancel the next season of the orchestra." As usual the reason was linked to the financial situation.

The "shock waves" were felt as far as two hours away, which is where I live in Maryland. I immediately wrote to my friend offering to come and play a benefit concert. My main goal (aside from a chance to have lunch with my good friend), was to show that people outside the community also care. I also wanted to raise awareness to my strong belief that canceling a season / cutting concerts… could not be a solution for "helping" sustain art. In other words canceling music could not help make music. There has to be another way, or music will not be heard anymore in this beautiful building shown here. 

Before playing a note, I addressed the appreciative audience, many of which were patrons, sharing with them my feelings and concerns regarding cutting concerts due to financial climate. The second step after that is probably shutting down the museum because that takes a lot of tax money. Next on the list will be turning the park into a parking lot, and soon enough, without music, museum and a park we might as well move to another city, one that offers these essential "luxuries". The recital raised $50,000. I was happy and proud, but later learned that this is like giving a band-aid to stop massive bleeding.

On the contrary, last weekend I gave a concert in a small town in Virginia called Staunton. Nestled in the Shenandoah valley near the foothills of the Blue-ridge mountains, prior to the year 2000 Staunton was just another little town, an exit on interstate 81 going north or south. In 2001 a group of art lovers got together and raised money to build the only re-creation of a Shakespeare indoor theatre in the US - The Blackfriars Play House. The city was transformed after the theatre was built, and the American Shakespeare Center, which was founded in 1988 as a Touring Troupe, moved in as its resident company. 

Since opening its gates more than half a million people visited this theatre. A number of hotels opened up in the downtown area along with new restaurants. The town is now a cultural destination where people from all around come to see one of sixteen different productions each year. The shows run five days a week, a total of 7 performances mostly in the evenings but also at times in the morning (for students) and afternoon (the elderly). I could not help it, and went to see Shakespeare's "As you like it" at 10:30am the morning of my concert. There were many students. It was thrilling - so fresh, so alive. I was inspired.    

In the middle of nowhere, three hours away from the nearest big city, there lies a small town that thanks to its theatre has become a destination to many. I want to believe it has also become a better place to live. Seven performances a week?! Are there so many art lovers in Staunton to fill the sits? Maybe the answer is that when you build something special people will come? Perhaps also the people who helped create this place feel responsible to bring their friends to the shows? Whatever the answer may be, it is an example of how to create not to cancel, how to make something where there was nothing, and how art can change as well as revive a whole town.

I do not know if it is possible to do the same with music let alone an orchestra. To play seven concerts a week in a small village? Wouldn't that be something?! Playing concerts for kids, elderly people, whoever… seven concerts every week! I do not know. I sure though wanna live in such a place! Hopefully it also has a nice little museum, a park and even a small Shakespeare theatre…

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

About a Vision, a Voice and a Visit

Back in 1994, when I was a student at Ravinia's Steans Music Institute, one of my highlights was performing Schubert's E flat major trio.  I cannot remember if it was after the dress rehearsal or the actual performance, that a person came to me and started talking about Schubert's music in correlation with my playing. It's been nearly twenty years and I remember that conversation quite vividly. 
He was chubby looking, open hearted and warm. From his musical insights and inquiries it was obvious that he was no stranger to this music. On the contrary, he knew it intimately. At one point he addressed the challenges a pianist faced when trying to produce a singing tone on the piano, especially in music of the master of song literature Franz Schubert. Getting more specific he spoke about the way I trilled, the singing aspect. He was very complimentary, supportive and loving. A few years later I learned that that person was Edward Gordon (1930-1996), the vision and force behind the whole program known as the Steans Institute of Music… or as he simply introduced himself: "my name is Ed."
Ed served as Executive Director of the Ravinia festival between 1968 and 1990. Back then he articulated to the Board of Trustees his vision to create a comprehensive educational program. "I have long felt that many young artists never attain their potential as performers, not from any lack of fine teaching and necessary skills, but because they have not had certain opportunities at a critical time in their development. The most important opportunity is having prominent performance platform, where listeners include peers, artistic leaders, and the important general public." Quite a VISION!
Jump starting to the summer of 2013, I was invited again to teach at the Steans. My week comprised of coaching Beethoven and Brahms, Chopin and Schumann. At my last day I was asked to give an extra coaching on a piece I could not recall ever coaching before - Schubert's Trio in E flat. It was a Friday night, late after everyone had dinner. A few students still practiced, most already left. Instead of going to a teaching classroom the students and I had the hall to ourselves. I sat in the middle of this wonderful space, while the group played the slow, lyrical second movement.
The playing was beautiful, well meant and heart-felt. I started to ask for something, but could not quite articulate what was it that I wanted. I was searching for the right  quality or sound, looking for that special singing tone - what Ed Gordon and I were discussing back then. I asked the cellist, who had the opening tune to search for the right voice. It was not there yet.
The legendary cellist Bernhard Greenhouse used to say: "you will be judged by your VOICE!" 
But what is your voice? Where and how to find it?  I kept insisting, going back and forth to the beginning, to find that special sound - an internal beauty, a quality, a voice, that exists only within you.  Perhaps a slower vibrato, using less hair on the bow, softer attack on the string… pilling one layer after another - layers of uncertainties, insecurities, self-doubts - slowly a glimmer of light, a miracle surfaced. An inner-voice started to shine, piercing the air. It was shivering and luminous. It had a glare, a hallow.  We could hardly breath. It was meaningful! The pianist was forced to play half as much to support, to caress that shimmering voice, to coarse it.
All of a sudden a door opened and a phantom walked in and sat next to me. It was Ed! I froze in my sit - could not move, could not talk. Ed died in 1996, yet he was sitting there next to me. He came to VISIT his vision. It was a long day, it was a long session. It ended when the building closed close to midnight.
The next day we had a big barbecue. I went and told the story to Paul Biss who coached me that Schubert Trio when I was a student. He shared with me that after that conversation I had with Ed many years ago, they all had lunch and Ed brought it up saying "this was my vision when I thought of this place".
"You will be judged by your voice", said Bernard Greenhouse. For Ed that voice was a vision. On that day his vision turned to be a voice that came to visit me when I listened to Schubert.

Edward Gordon 
Bernard Greenhouse
Franz Schubert