Tuesday, November 9, 2010

It's a bird… It's a plane… It's a…… KID!!!

A concert tour in China, playing Chopin's Preludes Op.28 as well as his Piano trio Op.8 and the Cello sonata Op.65, with Nitai Zori (violin) and Inbal Segev (Cello).
Just landed from my first trip to China. This tour will require days if not weeks to sink in. While most of what I enjoy writing about ends up more like articles, this feels like it is going to grow into a "witness report" from a music scene that took me by total surprise. Here we go:

November 4, 2010 – Concert I - Wenzhou, China. A state of the art concert hall, with a beautiful new 9 foot Fazioli.
I walk onto the stage…
What is this? Where am I? Who are these "little" people? Are these kids? Young kids?! Is this yet another one of my school visits? Community outreach? I am confused!
It is 7:30pm, at a classical concert, and my audience consists of 400 people most of them children with their parents.
What?! Wait! Stop!
Concert halls are for people with gray hair, remember? "Retired people and their parents…"
What is happening here?
Nothing prepared me for this. I am playing for children at a formal evening concert!
They want to clap, they want to ask, they want to listen, they want to absorb, and I feel that I am being sucked into a surreal reality – Utopia! I open up completely. I am totally relaxed. It feels natural.
I have never been to this place, let alone heard of it, and within an instant it becomes an experience never to be forgotten.
I propose to have Questions & Answers with the audience following the concert. When it finishes shortly after 10pm most of the kids go home, while the students are staying as well as some adults. They ask fascinating questions – "how can we make practicing interesting? Does music need to have a story? Why do some of the preludes have descriptive titles? Who gave them? Will a piece benefit if it had a title?"

November 5, 2010 – Concert II – Wuhan, China. A state of the art concert hall, with a beautiful new 9 foot Steinway.
I walk onto the stage…
1200 people in the audience, most of which are very young.
OK, Pause.
These people do have a choice. They can do other things, go some place else, but they choose to come to listen to a concert instead.
At the dinner after the concert I ask for an explanation.
Answer: "the old people don't know much about classical music so they are less likely to come, but for the young ones this is something new and exciting, and they are very hungry for it". Interesting answer, though, there has to be more.

November 6, 2010 – Concert III – Zhengzhou, China. A state of the art concert hall with a beautiful new 9 foot Steinway.
I walk onto the stage…
By now I start to believe audiences here are mostly young people.
Result: indeed. Consequence: I play better. I grow. We all grow. My colleagues feel the same.

November 7, 2010 – Concert IV – Beijing, China. Forbidden City concert Hall. Beautiful Steinway.
I walk onto the stage…
About 1000 people come today.
Children – Yes
Students – Lots of.
Now I am in a "Hope mode". Hope that we (out west) learn how to turn our priority system to include regular attendance of concerts with our kids. I am sure that the parents of these kids here in China work as hard as we do, and still they find the time and strength to take their children to listen to a classical concert. We have to do the same if we care about this music.

Oh, and one more thing…
I also hope… to be back here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A secret note...

My opening remarks (more or less) to recent solo recitals which I gave at Tannery Pond concert series, NY; Baruch College, NY; and the Friends of chamber music in Reading, PA.

"In earth's variegated dream, a quiet sustained note is heard through all other notes, to those who secretly listen".

This poem by Friedrich Schlegel was quoted by Robert Schumann on the first page of his great C major Fantasy.

How ambiguous can one get? A quiet, sustained note, that is heard through all other notes to those who secretly listen?
What note?
Is it a note? a chord? a harmony?
perhaps a theme, a melody?
or maybe it is a character, a person?

Ambiguity is central to unveiling some of the mystery in the music of Robert Schumann, whose 200 anniversary we are celebrating this year. A composer that was as passionate about music as he was about literature. Above all, he was highly inspired and influenced by the literary works of Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffman.

A beautiful yet horrifying short story by E.T.A. Hoffman tells the story of a simple neurotic man who falls desperately in love with a young beautiful girl - the daughter of a famous professor. The poor man expresses his love to her, his wishes to be with her, to dance with her, to touch her. She is indeed special, so special that his friends tell him she is made out of wax! The man, however, sees only heavenly beauty in her eyes, in her silence, in her strange walk.

Is this a dream? Is she for real? Who is right? the poor man or his friends?
The author does not take sides. He allows us, the listeners / the readers to go along with this individual on his emotional journey which will most likely lead to his pitiful end, or to stand with his friends in the realm of reality. Or is it not?

Robert Schumann also falls in love with a beautiful young girl - the daughter of his famous piano teacher. And he goes on an emotional roller-coaster ride which manifested itself in some of the greatest and most important masterpieces of the nineteen century. His love to the young Clara against the strong opposition of her father is an integral part of his early music: the unattainable love - which is such an important characteristic of the Romantic era.

But that is not all. To immerse oneself in the music of Robert Schumann, is to walk within a very fine delicate line were the implicit is explicit, and the explicit is redundant. His Fantasy which you are about to hear was originally conceived as a one movement piece, "a deep lament to you Clara". Shortly after it was transformed into a three movement "Grand Sonata for Ludwig van Beethoven", with added names to the movements - Ruins, Trophies, Palms. And ultimately the names were omitted, and the title was changed to "Fantasy". So.... Beethoven will "visit" us in this grand work, as well as Clara, and her father. We might also find ourselves in the company of Liszt and Chopin, Mendelssohn or Paganini, and definitely his alter-egos the demonic Florestan as well as the introverted Eusebius will be there.

And there is more... much more! But this is where you, the listener, will decide what to believe and what not; who is invited, and who is left alone; what is true and what is imagined... what is real, and what is just... a FANTASY.

thank you!

Alon Goldstein

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rule no. 1 - The composer is always right!

Rule no. 2 - When the composer is wrong, look at rule no. 1...

Wait! Stop! It is slightly more complicated than that.

These past few months I have been juggling between two different piano concerti. Both are new to me, and although at an opposite realm, interestingly they raised similar questions. I am referring to Chopin's concerto no. 2, and Avner Dorman's new piano concerto "Lost Souls". The first of these has already proven itself through the test of time, while the other is barely four months old.

When learning these two wonderful works, a number of times I came across places that made me wonder whether the composer perhaps made a mistake. Maybe a wrong note... should I change it? a wrong choice of register... should I take it up an octave? possibly too many notes... can I drop a few?

The Dorman concerto, in a way, is still a "piece in process and progress"... It is not "finished", and I have the composer "at hand" to ask. A great and unique partnership is created when composer and performer collaborate and nourish each other. With Chopin, though, it is somewhat different. Can I have any doubts about what is in front of me?

What was fascinating was that through working on the Dorman concerto (with the composer), and experiencing the evolution of the piece, I began to challenge the Chopin concerto with questions. These questions Chopin did not need to answer. This was my "job". The questions ranged from choice of dynamics, articulation markings, texture, and even form. A real conversation emerged which at times became a loud argument between me and the piece.

I belong to a "school" that proclaims that the performer is at the service of the music. He needs to convey the message behind the notes. The music is at the center – it is "the star", while the performer, although absolutely indispensable, is the tool that translate those black dots on the page, and inject life into them.

I said "at the service of the music". Does this also mean at the service of the composer? Can the composer be separated from his music?

The late composer Ben Zion Orgad told me once that "if a piece is good, then at a certain point it spreads its wings and fly away from the composer. It becomes independent of its creator." This is a profound statement! It can be liberating for the performer but also dangerous. The composer is the creator. He knows what he wants! The performer, however, is the one that will make the work… work. What happens then when the performer has a different view of the piece than the composer? This is a VERY delicate issue.

I remember years ago when Ben Zion Orgad gave me his newest piano work.It had no dynamics or articulation markings! He asked me to add them. In the process of learning the piece I added my interpretative markings (including articulations and dynamics). He then showed me the same piece, this time though, with all his desired markings and we compared. To a large extent we were identical, and at the places that we differed, it was very difficult for me to accept his requests. By making me part of the creative process, I also became the creator. Taking this a step further, however we look at this, we - performers are also creators! Fortunately, I played Orgad's new work numerous times, and gave it different interpretations - with his markings, and mine – both sounded convincing.

Several times throughout my life I was asked about the opportunities to work with living composers. And my response always came as somewhat of a surprise. To work with composers such as Orgad, or Dorman is a revelation, regardless of whether it is on their pieces or someone else. I learned a lot from them because they are very creative, imaginative and I trust their ears. That applies to whatever piece I play for them. It might actually be theirs...

I believe that everything there is to know about the music is on the page, and the answers are between those little black dots. What is between those "dots" tells the performer the message, the story of the piece. The beauty is that it can and should tell different stories to different performers, which may be indeed different than the composer's story. I guess this is part of what we call interpretation.

At a Gala presentation event in Kansas City before the world premiere of his concerto, Avner Dorman shared with the audience the narrative behind his new piece. This narrative I did not hear until that point. By that time, I already developed my own concept and story of the piece, and it was quite different. Who is right then? No doubt, Avner!! After all he wrote the piece. However, if we want the piece to have a life of its own then new narratives, new stories, new questions about interpretation, articulation etc, are all relevant and are all an integral part of the internal dialogue that is created between the music, the performer, the audience and.... oh, yes, the composer as well.

Alon Goldstein