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

Monday, September 16, 2013

Pre-ludes...Middle-ludes...After-ludes (Part II)

This is the second of four installments about 24 Pre-thoughts, Middle-thoughts and After-thoughts on Chopin's epic 24 Preludes Op. 28.

7) Bach's Preludes and Fugues were conceived as a "study", an "exercise". One can argue that a few of Chopin preludes also sound as a kind of a "study". Both Bach and Chopin wrote these works as a labour of love for the keyboard, its keys, colors, sensualities, timbre and infinite potential. However, even-though some of Bach's Preludes and Fugues have inner-connections, as a whole, they were not thought of as one gigantic work to be performed as such. Chopin's Preludes on the other hand are inseparable. The more I play them, the more I feel how they are connected. They support each other, they rely on one another. Each prelude complement as well as contradict the previous one or the next one that follows. Put together side by side, they become a journey, a roller-coaster ride, or more poetically a symbol of the infinite diversity of the human spirit.

8) Unlike Schumann who was somewhat bewildered by the Preludes, Franz Liszt
on the other hand found them "admirable for their variety, the labour and learning with which they abound…appreciable only by the aid of a scrupulous examination; everything seems fresh, elastic, created at the impulse of the moment, abounding with that freedom of expression which is characteristic of works of genius."

9) Chopin was a ground breaking pioneer not only with transforming the prelude into an independent entity, but also with the way and to the extent in which he freed the right hand from the left hand - or perhaps better to say the melody from the accompaniment. The art of great Chopin playing involves "a free walk (the melody) on a firm ground (the accompaniment, the pulse)", to quote the words of the great Artur Schnabel.

10) Harmonically speaking, Chopin was among those who lay the foundation for the break-up of tonality! Take for example Prelude no. 2 - the sense of tonal ambiguity is astounding. Not until the very last chord of the piece do we finally arrive at the home key of A minor, which has not been heard even once before.

11) Furthermore, harmonic analysis of the preludes can be tricky at best, useless many times. Prelude no. 4 is one of the most beautiful single pages of music ever written. Analyzing this prelude vertically, knowing the degree of each chord means not knowing much at all in regards to this masterpiece. Chopin tells us that true harmonic understanding dates back a century or two - first and foremost to Bach or even prior, when figured bass and voice leading stood above all.
12) But maybe Chopin is trying to tell us that harmonic examination is not the way to approach this piece (and others as well). "Passing notes", "neighbor notes", "leading notes", all serve a much greater purpose. Chopin decided to write one of his most profound pieces when he reached the key of E minor in the cycle. This key used to symbolize the crucifixion in the Baroque era. Just as Bach's "Crucifixus" from the B minor Mass was written in E minor so was this prelude. And just as Bach's music descends as if picturing the descent of Jesus into the grave, so does the notes in this prelude descend slowly and steadily. Slowly as if trying to cling to life, and steadily inexorably striding towards its ultimate faith and final breath.

...to be continued with Part III which includes yet another reaction to the Preludes: "Chopin's music is essentially unhealthy".

Saturday, July 20, 2013

An Adventure in Anti-Gravity

Dedicated to Leon Fleisher in celebration of his 85th birthday.

It has been fifteen years since I received my last "official" lesson with my sainted teacher Leon Fleisher. I remember telling him not long after I moved on that my best decision in life was to come and study with him, and the second best decision was to leave. He smiled. That was said, obviously, with much love and admiration.

Fleisher's teaching did not involve extensive demonstrations. Not being able to play with his right hand for many years, he spent a lot of time searching for the right word to express what his inner ear was seeking. Musicians tend to say that music cannot be described in words. I believed it until I heard Fleisher speak. It was so clear, so eloquent, so rich, so incredibly precise, even if it took me a while to figure out how to spell surreptitious, periodicity, subtle or menacing. His goal was to teach us to teach ourselves: to know what to ask and when to ask, how to do, where to find, why this and why that.

It was not too long after I began my studies with him that at one of my lessons after playing for him, he said one of the most beguiling yet resolute discoveries I heard him saying. It was during a lesson on a Schubert or Beethoven sonata, while I was trying to find the focal point in the phrase, create a long line, generate momentum and so forth, that Fleisher leaned backward slowly in his chair, closed his eyes gently, raised his eye-brows and said that "music is made out of physical forces."  Every note, every ascending or descending line, circular patterns or huge leaps is surrounded with physical forces. They are the magnet between the notes. This is what the music is made of. Understanding these physical forces, knowing how to utilize them makes for an interpretation that is not only irresistible but inevitable.

The other day I came back to my alma mater, the Peabody Conservatory of Music, to rehearse Mozart's concerto for two pianos with Katherine Jacobson Fleisher in preparation for a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra later this summer. In the midst of rehearsing Fleisher entered the room unexpectedly and we both embraced the opportunity to be transported by his presence.

As we began the first movement these physical forces slowly awakened – Centrifugal force pushed us outwards when an ascending melodic run changed its direction. Centripetal force pulled us inwards when a descending line suddenly turned upwards. Circular patterns, angular ones, leaps, jumps, sustain notes - all generated forces that glued the notes to become a musical phrase. 

There was one force, though that existed from the moment the first note of the piece was pressed and until the last note disappeared. That was the force of gravity. As the melody soared high above, then dived back down almost touching the ground, making loops and leaps, taking us on a roller-coaster journey, it was a journey in anti-gravity. Fleisher, Kathy and myself, were conversing together with Susanna, Dr. Bartolo, the count and Figaro. Oh, and Mozart… he was conducting the whole opera.

Hours passed, Fleisher became more immersed in the music. As we began the second movement he was pointing out the achingly beautiful suspended notes in the melody. "It hurts so good" he said, and then continued: "Listen to the way the long notes make a crescendo after being pressed, followed by a diminuendo before the next note arrives." Every physicist would say this is impossible, but we musicians are not physicists, we are illusionists. This is vocal playing.

When Fleisher was pressing those keys there was a sense of rightness. The notes appeared at exactly the right place in time. He (and Mozart) did not need to use many keys to open the lock into the mystery of such divine beauty.  Elevating our level of awareness to the next sphere, Fleisher described a tune as "rising the way a balloon does, at an ever-decreasing rate of speed, to the point where the pressure outside equals the pressure inside and it stays suspended".

The heavenly beauty of the opening tune gave way to the intense sorrow of the middle section. I was bewildered by Fleisher's reorganization of the phrase structure. "Listen to the way the held notes in the melody change their color when the harmony underneath changes". A simple held note, so painful, became so hopeful under a different harmony, different color. After experiencing this extraordinary moment, the rising line with the force of resistance felt exhausting. The next held note was one of resignation, of acceptance. It gave in to gravity.

The middle section came to a close, and the opening melody returned. At the beginning this melody had a future. Now it had a past. It sounded entirely different as a result. Our resistance to the force of gravity was soon coming to a close as the movement approached its end. Taking off when the movement started, being carried on top of one giant force, hovering above when the pressure outside equaled the pressure inside, experiencing all those ever-changing moods, while being aware of the forces surrounding the notes, and at the end coming back down.

It seemed so natural, so obvious when Fleisher put his hand on the piano. Every key he pressed was part of nature's forces that shape our world in general and this music in particular. For Kathy and me it was a great adventure. After all, music is an adventure in anti-gravity.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Closing Circles

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Ravinia Festival's Steans Institute of Music

It was the summer of 1994 that gave a whole new perspective for me as a musician. A new chapter started less than a year prior to that, when I left Israel to come and study with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody conservatory of music in Baltimore, MD. So much had happened during the course of that year, and yet something very special was left for the summer, when I was accepted to attend the Steans Institute of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL not too far from Chicago.

"I hope your experience here will be an everlasting increase of awareness" asserted Mr. Fleisher to a group of young musicians at a festival, me being one of them. My experience that summer of 1994 at the Steans was not so much to do with awareness. It was to do with awakening!

I was never a big fan of competitions. It gave me neither motivation nor inspiration to go and practice. Yet competitions seem to have been the excuse for countless of hours of practice to so many young pianists, seeking that elusive thing we call "career".  The Steans institute took me on a different path, one which was much healthier in my humble opinion.

Five weeks of intense work on solo repertoire as well as chamber music literature - one nourishes as well as supports the other. It is interconnected, interwoven. The Piano faculty consisted of Leon Fleisher, Menachem Pressler, Christoph Eschenbach, and Claude Frank to name just a few. The String faculty was of equal merit with Miriam Fried, David Geringas, Lynn Harrell, Kim Kashkashian, Paul Biss and many more.

Miriam Fried the leader of the program with her uncompromising musicianship and sense of integrity has created an environment where individualism and creativity flourishes. I will always remember the many hours of extra work that Paul Biss spent with Laura, Inna and me on Schubert's E flat major trio, helping us achieve a performance that opened our eyes (and ears) to the infinite beauty of Schubert and of chamber music. I remember how Lynn Harrell, while coaching Colin, Si-Fei, Inna and me the Brahms c minor quartet joined us in the last movement. His playing with us amounted to a tsunami wave which I had never known existed. For a moment I can also close my eyes and feel the aura in the room when Claude Frank spoke about and played parts of Beethoven's sonata op. 90, or feel the exhaustion after working nearly six hours with Christoph Eschenbach on Beethoven's Les Adieux sonata.

After that summer I decided that at the end of each year I would go to a different summer festival. I went to Aspen, Tanglewood, Verbier, Marlboro and Santa Fe. All have their special virtues. For me though, it was the Steans Institute that turned on the light and showed the way that was best for me.

Sometimes a lightening strikes twice in one place. I was struck for the first time in the summer of 1994. Then again when Miriam Fried called me to join the Piano faculty.  For the past three years now I have been coming to teach / coach at the Steans. To share and pass on what was given to me here in this special place more than a decade ago, together with other experiences each with its own nuances, is what we are meant to do. It is a privilege. To see how the Steans continues to grow and inspire young musicians while still keeping its core values is one of the joys in my professional life.