Monday, October 31, 2011

A Pianistic Paradox

The art of playing the piano involves quite a strange paradox.

In our pursuit of creating a beautiful horizontal singing line we have to make vertical movements!

Pressing keys down seem to me such an unnatural movement in an attempt to create anything horizontal...

The legendary pianist Artur Schnabel in his quest to reconcile this asserted that "vertical is not only going from up to down. It is also going down up."

Indeed we press keys down. However, the overall motion must be upward - the palm, the wrist, the torso, and above all our concept of sound. This must go up!

Would that be enough to achieve the sense of a horizontal line?
Well, perhaps some talent to support this might help.

Alon Goldstein

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Knowing the story - a friend or foe

At a recent concert in Frederick, MD I decided to experiment with the importance of sharing the story of a piece with the audience. We are living in an era where we need to be told what to listen for and what to expect. We cannot decide that for ourselves. Furthermore, this is an age where knowing which coffee Beethoven was drinking while he wrote his late string quartets is of highest importance. It will help us "understand" these pieces. Perhaps the better question here is what was he smoking...

Program notes these days are full of dry trivia points as well as anecdotes and stories about the pieces, most of which are superfluous. What's entirely missing are the tools given to the listener so he can make an internal dialogue with the music - one soul to another.

One of the pieces in my program was from Maurice Ravel's stupendous cycle called "Miroirs" (Reflections). The story, which I told the audience, had one major (or minor) problem, which I was wondering if someone would address, including the present reader of this blog.

This extraordinary tone poem is the impressionistic realization of the famous Goethe song "Erlkönig" - the devastating story of a young boy who is riding with his father on a horse through a dark forest. The boy cries for help when he sees the evil spirit of the Erlkönig. The latter tries to seduce the boy and ultimately steal his soul.

In Ravel's hands this frightening poem turns into a sensuous impressionistic tapestry - a mother is putting her little boy to sleep. She is singing to him the sweetest, most relaxing Lullaby. The boy who is afraid of bad dreams tells the mother of a demon that comes to him in the dream and asks him to follow. The little boy is filled with fear that if he follows he shall never return.

The music caresses the story - it carries it through the boy's emotional upheavals while the mother is sitting by his bedside singing. The sweet dream gradually becomes dark and menacing. The music changes its color. I posed a question to the audience - "Was the boy taken by the demon at the end of this eight minute piece, or would he wake up?"

I played through the piece and received a very warm applause mixed with appreciation. After all, this somewhat modern composition could not have been "understood" had I not mentioned the story. Most of the audience also participated in the questionnaire and said that in their opinion the boy would wake up.

Wonderful! All is working according to my plan! Well, it is more according to the late Leonard Bernstein's plan that did a similar thing in one of his legendary Young People's Concerts.

I then revealed to the audience the major problem (or minor) that my story had: It was definitely NOT Ravel's story! Actually, I can guarantee it had absolutely nothing to do with what Ravel was thinking. Ravel gave this piece a name: "A boat on the Ocean".

Now, was I wrong? Everyone followed the music. They all were so happy. The music certainly supported my made-up story.
Ravel's name is definitely the right one for the piece, but I don't think I was wrong with my story. It worked.

Most pieces do not have names by the composer, simply a number - Sonata number 1, 2, 3 or Symphony no. 4, 5, 6...
In such cases one can really let his imagination soar and come up with what might even seem absurd. In this particular piece by Ravel the given name should not "explain" the piece, but rather open the mind to the infinite possibilities of one's individual dialogue with this beautiful music. Perhaps next time I will follow along with a story about another demon... that of "Loreley" the beautiful water-nymph who sing to the men so they will follow her into the deep ocean.

I will sing to my audience...

Alon Goldstein

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Passion (or) Innovation

Legeti's Musica Ricercata

Not long ago I played a solo recital in Chicago. On the afternoon of the concert as I approached the venue I noticed a big poster announcing the event with my name and picture underneath a big bold title "Passion and Innovation."

The program included as its focal points Beethoven's Appassionata alongside Ligeti's Musica Ricercata. Needless to say the rest of my day up to the concert was spent on trying to "figure out" which is Passion and which is Innovation.

O.K. fine, I know there are better things to do in Chicago even if one plays a concert that day, such as seeing the Chagall windows at the Arts Institute (which I did!) However, the title did throw me into tinkering with the ideas: Are all the pieces in my program Innovative? Or more broadly, does music have to be innovative? I would passionately assert: "YES!" Well, definitely my program is.

With that exclamation mark, how about passionate? Ah, now that is different. Easy with Beethoven… harder with Ligeti.

The Musica Ricercata was written between 1951 and 1953, at a time when Ligeti was searching for his own voice. He was preoccupied with re-examining tone color, rhythmic patterns and rhythmic textures. Many questions were raised: what constitutes a melody? What is structure in its rudimentary form? Does music need structure? How about tempo? Does a piece need to have a heart-beat? And dynamics?

This was obviously a musical search, but was it not also his soul searching?
Could we divide that?
Soul = Passion, right?

When learning Musica Ricercata, it is easy to find great wit, humor, complexity as well as difficulty in the fast movements, which seem to work against our normal reflexes. I would go even further in this spirit and say that these fast movements were not written for the piano. They were written "against" the piano. The constant change of meter, and accents make for very confusing strong beat–weak beat relationships. This is definitely an extension of Stravinsky and Bartok. The frequent register leaps, the abrupt dynamic changes, all are forcing the performer to concentrate on panic rather than passion! But maybe Ligeti's brain is just "wired" differently. For him, this might be the manifestation of passion.

A different thought: could it be that Ligeti was trying to take passion out of music?!

In the course of this interesting discussion with myself I suddenly became mortified. I remembered that during my studies of music history post world-war II there was a very disturbing experiment by composers such as John Cage to "take the responsibility of the performance away from the performer." This piece has SO MANY bizarre oddities, which are partially due to an INFINITE number of markings in the score – from all sorts of dynamics to exact tempo markings, to minute articulation directions and what not... Was Ligeti attempting to take me, the performer out of the equation? If I am really to follow ALL the interpretative markings which are in the score, am I not loosing my own voice, my own self?
Perhaps I need more time. Some fresh air...

Perhaps Ligeti was re-examining how far-reaching passion could go – how diverse could it be.

Looking at the slow movements for a clearer answer, my mind instead was finding new areas to explore.
The first movement basically uses ONE note! Well, no wonder we are asking ourselves about passion. What can you get out of a two minute repetition of one not? I think this is where the core of our discussion lies.


...In the beginning there was silence. And out of the silence the Big Bang - one note, a loud one! Then dynamics were created, surrounding that note with more possibilities, variety. Then different registers of the same note came to be, followed by rhythm. And within the course of two minutes, the creation of sound unfolds before our eyes and ears. Tempo and heart beat naturally evolve.

The only thing still missing is to fulfill our expectations, and resolve the note. This comes at the very last note of this movement – a new note!

Like Adam that finally got Eve as his companion and thereafter came the birth of humanity – this note got its companion and thereafter the birth of music, of melodies, of soaring and diving singing lines, of quirky and meditative rhythmic gestures, different tempi, dynamics, colors and so much more. Slowly but surely we get the evolution in the Musica Ricercata.

If this is not passion than what is?!

It is different. It is not what we expected. But it opens (o)the(r) doors of Passion.

Alon Goldstein

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

With logic you cannot jump... you need fantasy

I just read an interview with the venerable conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and wanted to share this beautiful quote:

When he was asked about one watchword (a word or phrase expressing his core belief), he replied fantasy, and went on to say that if Einstein, who played violin, had not been a musician, he would never have hit on his theory of relativity. ''Illogic is an important part of being human,'' Einstein said. ''With logic you cannot jump, you cannot make hypotheses. You need fantasy for that.''

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

EL SISTEMA (Part II) a day filled with extraordinary highlights, there was still one moment that stood above others.

We had a Q & A session (the young orchestra members and I), and I was asked whether I have a favorite composer or favorite piece. Not an uncommon question for which my answer is that I spend countless number of hours with every piece before it gets to be presented on the stage, and I cannot go through such a process with a piece I would not consider as a favorite. In other words, I have no favorite piece or composer, but rather favorites!

To the principle cellist that answer did not suffice. Standing up, he asked me if I could play "something that I could identify myself with." Now that is different. With some hesitation I sat down and played the closing movement from Schumann's epic Fantasy Op. 17. This thirteen minute slow pace meditation or perhaps a prayer, a farewell, is one of the most heartfelt pieces ever written. It goes straight into our innermost. It is music which expresses such solitude yet is all embracing. It is probably meant for just one person, whomever you want him to be.

After playing it, I turned to my fellow musicians and asked for the reason for choosing this piece. The answers kept pouring.
The two answers that I will never forget came from one orchestra member who thought that this music represented "the way I would like the world to be"; the second came from Bruno, their twenty-eight year old conductor who said that while I was playing, he saw the gates of heaven opening up and beaming light shined upon us all. This reminded me what Schumann said when writing this movement: that he had "a vision of Heaven with its angels in solemn troops and sweet societies, that sing, and singing in their glory move, and wipe the tears forever from our eyes.”
I could not agree more with all that I heard.

Shortly after, a group of about fifty people came in and formed a half-a-circle behind the orchestra. At first I was not sure where they came from or why they were here. All of a sudden they started to sing Handel a-cappella, and continued with all sorts of folk songs.
This afternoon started with one climax and gathered many more along the way: the choir of four-year-old's, the nine-year-old concert mistress, the instrument restoration shop, the ten-year-old conductor, the Schumann Fantasy, the a-cappella choir, and so much more. I saw a miracle in all its glory – a new reality. Can this be real or should I look at today's newspapers to find out what is real? I have no doubt that everyone around felt they were part of something special. Through the power of music they were able to get away each day from their reality if just for a moment, and build a new one, much more hopeful.

Many mornings I wake up and spend time with a composer that through the power of music he was aiming to build a more ideal world – Beethoven. I decided to end the visit with playing the Finale from Beethoven's Sonata "Appassionata".

The orchestra made me their first honorary member. I told them that the real honor would be that next time, rather than play for each other, let us play WITH each other.
After all, they showed me what togetherness is all about.

Thank you!
Alon Goldstein (Nov. 2010)

Saturday, April 30, 2011


O.K. so I am going through my midlife crisis. My priorities shift. What interests me is changing dramatically and what brings tears to my eyes is becoming quite different.

First it was China. Now it is Guatemala.

Following two solo recitals in Guatemala not too long ago, I visited the youth orchestra of Guatemala City, which is modeled after the Simon Bolivar orchestra of Venezuela. The now famous orchestra that has taken kids from poor villages throughout Venezuela and gave them a home, a shelter, through a life in music, has become an inspiration to many. It was my first encounter with "El Sistema" – an encounter that lasted five hours, though feels like it still goes on.

As I walk up the uneven stairway of the old abandoned post office building turned music school in the center of Guatemala City, I help my hostess Alex to carry bags of used clothes. These are for the children I am about to meet.

One thousand five hundred kids, ages four to about twenty gather here daily between 2pm and 7pm to make music (and to give meaning to their life).

My first stop was at a classroom filled with the very young children most of which are four years old, who lined up to form a choir. They began to sing for me. What joy! They were so proud.

I will never forget the little girl who looked up at me. She did not remember all the words. She was shy. She was tiny, and yet she was part of something so big - bigger than her, bigger than me. Being together, singing together gave them a sense of purpose which was extraordinary. I became very emotional, and had to hide my tears. On the left side of the choir I noticed about a dozen older kids who were deaf and sang in sign language.
I was enchanted and did not want it to end but had to leave.

My next stop was the "six to twelve year old orchestra". All sorts of noises were coming from outside the building – cars, sirens, jack-hammers, and other unrelated sounds, however it looked to me that the children heard ONLY the sound of music making. Inquisitive eyes were staring at me – whispering, giggling. All of a sudden the nine-year-old concert-mistress got up and everyone was silent (including me). They tuned. Discipline is very important. In that classroom, it came out of respect for your peer as well as for what was about to happen. They played for me. I could not help but play for them also. They asked me questions. I, on the other hand, was speechless. I did not know what to ask.

We went to the courtyard where I saw a twelve year old coaching a six or seven year old kid.
Alex told me that one of the principles of the system is learning from the older brother – learning from someone who is just a few years older (under some supervision.) Consequently the twelve year old will learn from the eighteen year old and so the pyramid is constructed. This is a very close-knit web, where one nourishes as well as dependent on the other.

From the courtyard I went to hear a rehearsal of the twelve year old orchestra. If I heard correctly, then they have about FORTY-SIX different ensembles!

I was then introduced to a new program of "Instrument renovation and maintenance program". The teenage kids, who receive instruments from all around - instruments, which are usually in bad shape - learn how to fix them and bring them to a descent condition.

In retrospect, all of this was in preparation for my visit to the mature orchestra of children, which are in their late teens. They all sat in a large room that could barely fit them. A piano was waiting in the corner. There was electricity in the air. They started playing a Latin American piece, which was dedicated to me. My response was in the per(form)ance of three dances by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera - the closest to their musical language that I could get to.

At this point it was me who could not help it anymore and started to ask them questions about their upbringing, their goals, hopes, dreams. I heard stories mostly about their concerts all around Guatemala introducing music as well as themselves to the people of their country.

A ten-year-old kid then got up from within the orchestra and came forward to conduct the overture from Verdi's Nabucco.

In a day filled with extraordinary highlights, there was still one moment that stood above others. be continued

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An Unexpected Friend

There are tall friends and there are short friends. There are close friends, or friends that are far away. There are larger than life friends, and others who are just large. There are friends that you take with you when you climb your mountain, and others that you leave to rest by the sideline. But every now and again we discover that we also have an unexpected friend - one which defies any labeling.

Today I will write about one such friend. Alas, he is not a person, nor is he a pet. As a matter of fact this friend is not a living thing, though "he" is very much alive. This friend with whom I have so many memories and have been through so much together with is actually a piece of music - The Mendelssohn first piano concerto.

For one reason or another this delightful piece accompanied me on many happy occasions, and in the process also exposed me to the possibilities where things can go awry and as I like to see it... quite funny.

The first time I performed the Mendelssohn concerto I was an eighteen year old non-protege pianist. The performance took place in Israel in the southern city of Beer Sheba. Not a cultural Mecca so to speak, but definitely an enthusiastic community where music is appreciated and taken seriously... Very seriously, especially by one stage manager.

My rehearsals with the orchestra went well, playing an old scratchy piano (exhibit A: Steinway) which was o.k. When I came to warm up in the evening about 45 minutes before the concert I suddenly saw on the stage a different piano than the one I had during rehearsals. It was a beautiful shiny piano (exhibit B: Yamaha.) Somewhat agitated I went to the stage manager who politely at first, less so thereafter, shoved me to the side. I kept on being persistent and was finally told that in the morning I played on the "ugly looking" whatever piano (see exhibit A) and now in the concert I was lucky to get the shiny looking other instrument (see exhibit B.) Needless to say no explanation on my behalf helped in any way. He was NOT going to change the instruments. After all the audience is not going to tolerate such lack of aesthetic priorities. The situation got even more serious and ultimately I had to call the conductor to mediate. I finally got my wish to the stage manager's enormous anger.

That was not the end though of that experience. As I went upstairs to put on my tux, I discovered that I forgot to bring my black trousers. Looking for a solution, I saw one of the musicians pass by my door. As if taken out of a devilish cartoon, the next minute that musician was naked and his black trousers which were extremely tight were on me. I walked onto the stage. I was very nervous, and very concentrated.... NOT on the piece I was about the perform for the first time... but rather because the trousers were so tight, they could explode any minute.

A few years later came the next performances of the Mendelssohn. It was in January of 1991. The first gulf war was looming and I just won an important competition in Israel with the Prokofiev third piano concerto. At the announcement ceremony of the winner I was asked whether I can play the Mendelssohn piano concerto the next day with the Israeli Philharmonic under Yoel Levi due to cancellation of the supposed to be soloist. I have not touched the piece since that first performance over two years ago.

Good friends always are at your side, and so did this piece. The next morning I went to the rehearsal (the only one I had) playing from the music. After all, I had less than 24 hours to prepare which were spent on praying rather than practicing. That night, on the way to the concert I heard on the radio that "Zubin Mehta has just landed in Israel and he is on the way to the concert of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra". Well, I was way too nervous to remember anything that followed. But the maestro did invite me a few months later to play with him.... the Mendelssohn concerto.

But before the concert with Mehta, I also played the Mendelssohn under my very good friend, the late conductor Mendi Rodan. Again in Beer Sheba, and a couple of months into the first gulf war, at the concert a siren came on. It was the first time that Beer Sheba was attacked. I guessed the Iraqi dictator knew where I was.

Then I went with Mendelssohn and also Mendi on tour to Greece with the Jerusalem symphony in 1992. With that same orchestra I played the Mendelssohn under Yoav Talmi fifteen years later!

Two years ago Mendelssohn came to visit me very close to where I live in Rockville Maryland, when I performed it with Symphony of the Potomac just next door, and then flew to play with with the Shreveport symphony in Louisiana. Last month another happy reunion, this time with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra in a festival in Eilat. And just last weekend a very exciting occasion to celebrate with my friend and with the hope of having two new ones (an orchestra and a conductor) - my debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the extremely intense and insightful Vladimir Jurowski.

This time though I need to thank the stage manager who ran to open for me the stage door that was locked when I came back from warming up in an adjacent hall. I heard the orchestra tune for me and I was outside. Well, all's well that ends well... Especially with such good friends as the Mendelssohn first piano concerto.

Alon Goldstein

Saturday, January 8, 2011

To Being or not to Being Patriotic

Here is something I wanted to write about for quite some time:

I became an American citizen just over two years ago. Shortly after, I was playing concerts in the mid-west and was invited to a luncheon hosted by patrons of the orchestra that I was performing with. Upon learning that I recently became naturalized I was greeted with tumultuous applause, and a pin with an American flag was given to me.

Innocently I slipped it into my pocket, and sat at my assigned table. As it turned out, the hostess of this event was sitting next to me and apparently noticed that the pin was not attached to my jacket. Suddenly she exclaimed, "Look! He is NOT being patriotic!" That took me by total surprise, and I was somewhat hurt.

My former teacher - Leon Fleisher - once remarked about my talking capabilities: "all that Alon needs is a conductors up-beat... and he will start talking" he said. My hostess' observation was the "up-beat" for me to talk. It was an opportunity for me to open up and discuss about some of the things I love most and able to do in this country.

I told my proud hostess that when I am giving concerts throughout the US, I make it a point to visit and play at schools, retirement homes, and rotary clubs, to name just a few, in order to contribute as well as feel more responsible for the community around me. I went even further and shared with her two extraordinary experiences that I had while pursuing these goals.

Back in 2004, I was invited to play in the Quad cities by an organization called Quad City Arts. During a period of two weeks, in addition to performing two recitals, I was sent to nearly THIRTY different places to encourage growth and vitality in the community through the "presentation, development, and celebration" of music. One of these places was a mentally handicapped facility in Davenport, IA. My program included works by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin accompanied by some commentary. At the end of the concert, I wondered whether people might want to ask questions. That happens quite often. With some hesitation I turned to my audience of about 250 people and asked just that.

About fifty people raised their hands and the first question already put me on the alert: "Why did the third song sound Russian to me?" By all accounts this is a terrific question. Right? The third song was Schubert's Moment Musicaux no. 3, which does sound a bit folksy. After a momentary thinking pause, I brought forth the possibilities of cross relationship in music that comes from different regions. Schubert might have heard musicians in the town square in Vienna - some Russians, some gypsies, as well as others from rural areas - and have been influenced by that consciously or subconsciously. All of a sudden, I remembered seeing the title... "A Russian Dance" on one of the preliminary drafts of this piece! I was shocked. What a discovery. I immediately told my enthusiastic crowd about this.

Here was someone who was perceived as mentally challenged; Yet, in something so elusive and so high-spirited as music, he was more capable, more CONNECTED than most other people.

The second story I shared happened just a week before this luncheon, when I gave a solo recital for Beaches Fine Arts Series in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. In the days before the recital, I visited several places in that area to do community outreach activities. One of these places was the Boselli Foundation, an organization striving to help children living in at-risk neighborhoods. There were about twenty kids aged twelve and thirteen. My program revolved around the Beethoven so called "Moonlight" Sonata. I constructed a story around the piece about a composer who went through crisis and cannot even come up with a melody, a tune, for his new piece. As the piece progressed we joined the composer and slowly emerged victorious and rehabilitated. Then I played the entire piece for them. The children were entranced, filled with delight. Was it about discovering something new? Maybe the possibility of understanding classical music? Well, it doesn't really matter. When I finished, a young girl raised her hand before I said a word and said, "Mister, you are WRONG. This music is about LOVE, not about DESPAIR."

Wow! A rebel! But she was absolutely and unequivocally right! Not because she knew what the music was about, but rather because she THOUGHT she knew what it was about. She allowed the music to enter her heart and open various possibilities for different stories emerging as a result of her integrity and imagination. How wonderful, how unique. The idea that music, in its essence, is above all stories, and consequently can live in infinite number of stories – that was a secret I tried to keep from the children until after the performance. I could not, because of a young girl who had chutzpa.

Afterwords, I opened the piano and showed the kids the mechanics, the inside of the instrument. I asked them to come closer. They came, but not to see. They wanted to touch – touch me!

These were just two stories out of many that I have experienced. Going out into the community, sharing the gift of music gives me also a great sense of belonging to this unique and complex society. It also makes me feel patriotic. I turned to my hostess for one last time to witness her reaction, to see the look on her face, the light in her eyes. Maybe a smile? A hug? What would she say? How would she respond?

The whole time she had not even been listening.

Alon Goldstein