Sunday, December 2, 2007

Reading Late Beethoven to Young kids

Deep in the middle of the state of New Hampshire, about an hour and a half north of Manchester, between colonial home villages, "cross country" paths and dense forests, there lies quietly, unassumingly a very special jewel - it is a school called Sant-Bani, a home for about 175 kids beginning with the "K" grade and all the way through to the 12th grade. I was invited to the school four years ago to give a recital, and visited it annually ever since.

What attracted me to this school was its independence from the stagnancy of the educational system which surrounds us. Each pupil is an entity, a free spirit which is being cultivated and nourished to search for his own individual path - a "cross country" path. A special emphasis in the school seems to be that education and art are inseparable elements in humans growth.

Each of my visits culminates with a solo recital which I give at the school's assembly hall. For me, one of the true climaxes each visit is also the one-on-one interaction with the kids the day before, or the morning of the recital.

This year I had seven different activities at the school in addition to the recital which was at the Old Opera house in Franklin, NH - in itself a historic landmark worth a special visit when touring the area. At the school I was playing separately for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, as well as giving a masterclass to selected kids, and talking to the 12th graders etc. Having said all that, it was the one hour session which I had with the entire school that stood above everything else during this trip. This session opened a secret door, one that was somewhat hidden in the heart of my understanding of music communication and inspiration - A door that when opened, allowed me to experience "reading late Beethoven to young kids".

My recital program included the heavenly, though at times tumultuous, yet ending serenely, late Beethoven sonata no. 30 in E major op. 109. When introducing young people to classical music, this piece is not really on the radar for first (or second) choices. Written more than ten years into Beethoven's deafness (1820), this sonata is much more introspective, introverted and reflective than many of the other sonatas he wrote. I feel, as with other late Beethoven works, it requires a certain state of concentration that unless one is elevated to that state, it becomes totally meaningless to listen to such a work. This kind of concentration touches upon one’s internal dialogue within his own self, searching for possible equilibrium, inner balance, possible answers to eternal questions, raising new ones, and so on and so forth. Expecting such concentration from six, seven year olds or for that matter also from the seventeen year olds, seemed to me a musical suicide. What's the point? What will they get out of it?

I started the session with playing Myra Hess's arrangement of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" from Bach's Cantata no. 147 - to "get in the zone". The rest of the time was then spent on Beethoven's late sonata. This was not only the first time that I played the piece for such a young audience, but altogether this was the first time that I played the piece in public. Well, I thought to myself what could be more challenging than to play the piece in front of an audience that will not hold back when a sense of boredom creeps in. I was prepared to do the "unthinkable" - to make cuts in the long last movement if I hear too much movement coming from the little ones.

Nonsense! How short sighted was I, how pessimistic... to my credit, though, I would say that none of the teachers (or parents) believed that this would work.

I played the Beethoven in its entirety experiencing silence in a way I have only rarely experienced. Alfred Brendel said in an interview that all he expected from his audience is to be "Silent" which when changing the order of the letters becomes "Listen". In this morning session - six year olds, seven year olds, eight year olds and all the way to seventeen year olds, and their teachers, and some parents - they were not only silent, they were not only listening, they were making an internal dialogue. Each individual, in his own way, with his own vocabulary and emotional resources made a conscious and ultimately very successful effort to connect with this divine music, and through it each individual discovered a wealth of new subtleties, new "colors" new "shades", within himself.

One day I will probably have more perspective and knowledge to understand these human connections to music, to silence, and to that miracle that is in-between. I hope to know more how to open peoples' heart to classical music, to get them to be passionate and in need for it more and more. I also want be able to understand the concentration that is needed and that state of mind that makes for a dialogue with such pieces as the Beethoven sonata to be creative and reciprocal. But for now, the ability to present this masterpiece and get such enthusiastic responses was overwhelming and truly meaningful. I will never forget that.

The following week, I went to play another solo recital, this time at the "Bell concert series" in Jackson Mississippi. I came two days earlier, and went to four different schools playing for about 2000 high-school kids (and some younger ones). The center of my 50 minute sessions was, of course, the Beethoven sonata no. 30 in E major op. 109 which I played each time in its entirety.

Alon Goldstein

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Into the "Kitchen"

Seattle Chamber Music Festival, Seattle WA.
July 2007

"piecing together a premiere"

An unusual experience occurred to me along with a few of my close friends preparing for the premiere of a new Clarinet, Cello and Piano Trio by composer Ronn Yedidia. The other parts were played by Alex Fiterstein, Clarinet and Amit Peled, Cello. The piece was commissioned by the Seattle chamber music festival - one of my favourite summer festivals.

The artistic director of the festival, Toby Saks had the brilliant idea to have an open dress-rehearsal the night before the premiere, open to the commissioning club members - about 30-40 people. Needless to say the piece was in its raw stages, new in our ear and fingers.

Our plan (Alex, Amit, Ronn and me) was to play through the piece once, then do a few touch-ups, possibly answer some questions by the audience and time-permitting, play the piece again... altogether about an hour, then have the organized reception.

As it turned out, having an audience raised the level of concentration, involvement and commitment and immediately following the first run-through we delved into the piece for an hour long intense rehearsal, a very thorough one. There was some kind of electricity in the intensity between Ronn, the three of us and the audience - high voltage. After working on the piece we decided to open the rehearsal for questions and answers with the audience - these ranged from questions on the writing for each instrument, the difficulties, the style, the inspirational sources etc.

We were well into the third hour of this "dress-rehearsal", and then we all decided (with the audience) to have the second run-through. This second "performance" was on such a higher level then the first time we played, it was almost embarrassing. The growth that we had all experienced with the piece in the course of this single rehearsal was so overwhelming... it was frightening. We felt quite secure the first run-through, but after the process that we had all been just now, this second run-through opened the door and revealed so many hidden treasures.

All throughout the reception afterwards the main topic discussed was the way we all grew together (musicians and audience) with the new commissioned piece, all in the course of one single (intense) dress rehearsal.

Alon Goldstein

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Beethoven in Rockford

Beethoven Festival
Rockford Symphony May 2007

About a year and a half ago I got an invitation to play the five Beethoven concerti as well as the "Choral Fantasy" all in one week in a city about an hour west of Chicago called Rockford, IL.

I do have admiration for musicians who can perform a whole body of work of one composer (or more for that matter) in a short period of time, however such a thing is not really a goal of mine, so I approached this undertaking with a bit of suspicion, and questioning. What happened, though, in the course of that week I will forever cherish and hope to expand to other places, and with other composers. Owing to the breadth of the repertoire and the sheer size of the forces involved, this Beethoven project resulted in important discoveries for me personally as well as for the orchestra and the community.
The Project
When first discussing this project with Brian Ritter (the orchestra’s Executive Director) and with Steven Larsen (the orchestra’s Music Director), we decided to structure the festival chronologically in order to present a narrative through Beethoven’s life and work. After this week-long festival, we - the orchestra, its staff, its patrons, the audience, and me - discovered that this journey changed us in many different ways: Beethoven took us on an emotional roller-coaster, and at the end of it we were different persons than at the beginning.

The Executive Director of the orchestra came to me after the second concert saying, “They got it (the audience), the journey that we were undertaking.” He felt, as I did, that this second concert, after having the perspective of the first, allowed everyone to begin to experience the process and progress of Beethoven’s life and music AND to be able to relate and create one’s own internal dialogue when listening.

Brian and Steve had the wonderful idea of engaging in a brief discussion before each concerto. After careful preparation, we presented each concerto in its historical, biographical, and creative contexts. This transformed the concert hall into an intimate living room (a very large one at that) in which we were inviting people to experience something that we felt so passionate about. In addition to the concerts and pre-performance talks on stage, the orchestra organized lectures, film screenings, and panel discussions throughout the week.

The Atmosphere

What was so incredibly rewarding was the intensity of rehearsing and playing these masterpieces, all within a week’s time. Each concerto has such emotional depth, inspiration, originality, and imagination. It was completely overwhelming, yet, at the same time, one could sense that one’s relationship with this music was deepening, becoming closer, opening as the week progressed.

Normally when I am invited to play a concerto, I always play the work for the conductor prior to the first rehearsal. But I never had the experience of playing for a conductor one concerto, and then another one, then more, and more, and more…. By the 5th concerto, I was absolutely drained. Maintaining concentration and focus as I played through all five in preparation for the following day’s double rehearsal in which we did all five with the orchestra was a particular challenge and contributed greatly to the general emotional intensity of the project.

The Concerts

Concert 1: Beethoven Revealed

The first concert (Sunday matinee) was titled Beethoven Revealed. We began with a brief discussion about Bonn in 1770, Beethoven’s early education, his admiration of Mozart, the move to Vienna, and his studies with Haydn. Slides of Bonn, Vienna, the meeting with Mozart, the princes’ salons in Vienna, and Beethoven at 25 were projected on stage behind us. Following this short presentation was the performance of the 2nd piano concerto, which, in fact, was the first chronologically speaking that Beethoven composed. On the second half, we discussed the characteristics of Beethoven’s early compositions: virtuosity, improvisation, the influence of Haydn and Mozart, the originality of his ideas, all accompanied by related slides, and then delved into the 1st piano concerto.

As an encore, we decided to do a “teaser” to set the mood for the up-coming concert entitled Beethoven Betrayed, so we played the second movement of the 4th piano concerto. I have to admit that this choice of the encore was somewhat selfishly motivated in that I wanted to have an extra rehearsal!

The Chicago Tribune mentioned the up-coming two concerts and selected them as “Critics Picks”. This mentioning, along with the interviews on TV and radio, breathed even more excitement into the community.

Concert 2: Beethoven Betrayed

The next concert was on Tuesday evening. It included the 3rd piano concerto on the first half and the 4th piano concerto on the second. We discussed Beethoven’s deafness resulting despair that ultimately led him to write the famous Heiligenstadt Testimony, which we read in parts. The slides in the background were of Beethoven at 34, his Ear Trumpet, the city of Heiligenstadt, and a facsimile of the Testament. Playing such a work as Beethoven’s 3rd Concerto usually requires some time afterwards to regain one’s strength. But in this case I only had 5-10 minutes to warm up and play the 4th piano concerto. Before tackling this beautiful and haunting work, we talked about the “Heroic” Beethoven as well as the mystery of the “Immortal Beloved”. The audience was ready for another encore, which was (in the spirit of the previous idea), the Recapitulation of the last movement of the 5th piano concerto.

With three days between the second and third concerts, I offered to do some ‘outreach’ activities for the orchestra and the community, especially since I am strongly committed to sharing this incredible music with everyone. The orchestra organized all sorts of events: at local schools, house concerts, lunches with patrons… These activities were extremely rewarding because they allowed me to go into the community and interact with persons of all ages and interests in music. In other words, this allowed me to get even closer to the community where I was performing.

Concert 3: Beethoven Triumphant

The third and final concert—Beethoven Triumphant—took place that Saturday evening. Before tackling the ‘Emperor’ concerto on the second half, the orchestra performed all of the incidental music for Egmont before the intermission. To put the music in its historical context, we talked about Napoleon and Vienna during the wars of the first half of the 19th century. We also revisited some of the compositional characteristics of the earlier concerti and demonstrated how they were further developed in the 5th concerto (‘Emperor’).

For the encore that evening, my idea was to play the last movement of the 2nd concerto, which was the first work of the festival, in order to close the circular journey. However, just before the concert began, I asked whether the orchestra had the music for the encore. Since that concerto was done the previous Sunday, the music was locked in the orchestra’s offices, which are located in a building that was closed for the weekend. I then talked to the Executive Director asking him to find a way to get the music (“call the mayor if you need… someone has the key….”). The level of commitment from everyone for all of this to succeed was just so thrilling and inspiring. The Executive Director knew we needed to find a way to get the music, and he did. I shared this story with the audience after the performance of the “Emperor”. We then returned to that movement and closed the circle. During the applause, all of us in the hall felt that we did not want this journey to come to an end. It was intense; it was human; it had its ups and downs, ambition and promise, tragedy and despair, triumph and hope. It was indeed a festival devoted to Beethoven’s music and thus really a festival devoted to us as human beings.

During the last discussion with the conductor prior to playing the 5th concerto, I said that with Beethoven one never feels a sense of arrival but rather a sense of departure. After this final encore, I think that we all felt that, rather than arriving at the end, we experienced something new, a new departure into the future, something that I hope continues with a future project. Perhaps, with “The Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck and Johannes Brahms Love Triangle” festival in 2008-2009. I can’t wait.

Alon Goldstein

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


It's been literally years that I have been contemplating the idea of creating some kind of an outlet to share with people some of my most meaningful experiences - the ones that I have to write about. The ones that remind me of the beautiful Greek poem about Ithaca.

I find it important to set goals - Long range goals, but also a few short range goals. After all we all need some "encouragement"... and it feels great to achieve a goal you set for yourself.

I know, it's only been thirty six years that I have been on my journey to find the treasure of Ithaca, but one thing I have experienced again and again is that the journey itself is one treasure after another.

And so I invite you to join me and share with me your thoughts, hoping that together we will be on a journey of discovery, and as my great teacher (Leon Fleisher) used to say a journey of "everlasting increase of awareness".


Alon Goldstein

Ithaca (1911)

by Konstantinos Kavafis (1863-1933)

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygoniansand
the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.