Sound imagination and tactile, tonal expression at the piano for diverse compositional eras

Often a posted comment about a You Tube video inspires a blog topic that is of interest to pianists and teachers. One such public addition to my Channel quickly streamed into a comparison between two well-known compositions in the piano repertoire.

The commenter was asking about the grade “level” of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair as compared to Schumann’s Traumerei from Kinderszenen. She asserted that it was “easier” to read through the Romantic era character piece based on her supportive reasons.

“Would you recommend this piece for an Intermediate student (grade 4-5)? I had a very hard time even reading through it! (The Debussy) I learned Schumann’s Traumerei pretty quickly to a decent level, so I thought La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin was going to be feasible too, since the difficulties are more musical than technical. But just figuring out the fingering is proving more challenging than I thought.”

Initially, I’d planned to underscore my reluctance to comparatively “level” the pieces, having to spell out too many variables bundled into an assessment of each composition from distinctly different eras. (Romantic and Impressionist) In addition, by enlisting a narrow focus, I would pin myself into a rigid pedagogical corner.

Instead, I set out to explore the separate challenges of each work, fleshing out the expressive vocabulary that best realized each individual period of composition in partnership with its composer. My demonstration would incorporate a desired tonal palette that called for an imbued physical approach at the inception of study. It would encompass sound imaging springing from the imagination, reinforced by physical suppleness and weight transfer. Qualitative differences unique to the cosmos of each piece would be a pivotal dimension of my recorded reply.

While teachers can take a circuitous route in their mentoring, drawing on mental prompts to engage an internal representation of sound or tone, they must naturally be equipped to demonstrate what works choreographically, if you will– not proposing fixed motions in musical space, but engaging the student in what physically advances various forms of musical expression. (Naturally, fingering decisions are part and parcel of the journey.)

Mood sets, internal harmonic shifts, and structural considerations unique to each composition, must be at the fore in the developmental learning process regardless of suggested leveling. (And it’s a given that a mentor should not recommend pieces that he/she deems significantly out of reach for a particular pupil.)

Finally, in the attached video below, I synthesized in physical and musical terms, what words alone could not amply express.

Original Source: Sound imagination and tactile, tonal expression at the piano for diverse compositional eras


National Treasures : Simon Rattle LSO Elgar Birtwistle Knussen Adès

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LSO. photo Tristram Kenton, courtesy LSO

“This is Rattle” the title of a ten-day Barbican festival inaugurating Sir Simon Rattle as new Music Director at the London Symphony Orchestra.  There’s a lot more to being Music Director than conducting.  Rattle is a brilliant communicator whose enthusiasm fires up those around him.  He’s the best possible ambassador for the LSO, the Barbican and for British music all round. This concert could mark an historic occasion.  Will Rattle revitalize the LSO and London, as  he transformed the City of Birmingham and its Symphony Orchestra ?  Will Rattle succeed single handedly in reversing the insular philistinism that’s plaguing this nation?   In our celebrity-obsessed age, you need a celebrity to reach the masses.  If the new concert hall for London is ever built – and it should be  – somehow Rattle’s role should be recognized. This inaugural concert of the new LSO and Barbican season might, in time, prove an historic occasion.

And now, to the music! An all-British programme proving that British music is alive and thriving.  When Sir Edward Elgar was “Britain’s Greatest Living Composer”, his music was often associated with Birmingham.  Rattle’s Elgar credentials go way back  Thus the Enigma Variations, its cheerful geniality matching the occasion.  Once Elgar was “new music”. But good music keeps evolving. Britain’s “Greatest Living Composer” is now Sir Harrison Birtwistle, so original that his contemporaries, alive or not, don’t come close.

Birtwistle’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2010-11) is classic Birtwistle. It operates on several simultaneous layers, moving in well defined patterns, proceeding with the deliberation of ritual magic. It also connects to Birtwistle’s operas and music theatre. The soloist, Christian Tetzlaff, for whom it was commissioned, always hold centre stage, the orchestra acting like a  chorus.  A rumbling introduction, suggesting portent.  Almost immediately the violin spins into life – quirky, angular figures – characteristic Birtwistle zig-zags, lit by sudden explosions in the orchestra – high strings, then low winds, and an underlying pulse which emerges in bursts of ostinato.  Five “dialogues” in which the violin discourses with individual instruments.  Unlike Greek drama where the chorus comments on proceedings, the orchestra follows the soloist, interacting with the inventiveness in the violin part. Frequent exclamation points – a gong,  bell-like marimba like a laugh of recognition,  exotic sounds whose meaning may be unclear but significant, nonetheless.  Wild outbursts and delicate, wayward passages.  The violin sings at the top of its register, tantalizingly beyond and above the orchestra, which responds with groaning blasts. Inventive, richly rewarding and enlivened by Birtwistle’s whimsical wit.  An excellent companion piece to Elgar’s Enigma Variations: the pair should be heard together more often.

Simon Rattle’s associations with Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adès are even closer.  Rattle premiered Adès’s Asyla in 1995 in Birmingham and recorded it with the CBSO and later with the  Berliner Philharmoniker.  Indeed, he included it in his inaugural concert in Berlin in 2002.  The title “Asyla” refers to asylums, places of refuge as well as incarceration.  It’s pertinent, since it’s a piece of incessant variations. Inspired by techno music and the idea of repeated mechanical patterns, it channels obsession into energy. Though the famous third movement allegedly depicts swarming hordes bobbing up and down in a crowded nightclub, probably high on drugs, the same could apply to shamanistic dance, where shamans, often high on peyote, dance themselves into oblivion, thereby releasing their subconscious.  Asylum as escape and refuge, yet also dangerous.  Thus the grand Hollywoodesque climax, an ejaculation in many ways.  Asyla can be read as a series of variations, though, unlike Birtwistle and Elgar, these variations are tinged with insanity and desperation.   Adès’s finest work feeds off this primal energy. Perhaps it needs challenge to keep the sparkplugs firing.  Some of his later work isn’t as good as Asyla, or The Tempest, or America: a Prophecy, but he’s still an important composer. 

Pointedly, Rattle included Oliver Knussen in his pantheon. Knussen has been a regular at the Barbican, so Rattle could hardly fail to acknowledge his role in promoting new music, in London, in Birmingham and at Aldeburgh.   But their relationship is closer than that : Rattle conducted Knussen when Knussen was barely out of his teens.  Knussen’s Symphony no 3 (1973-79) takes its cue from Shakespeare’s Ophelia, distraught with grief, singing “mad songs” in Hamlet For more background, please read the description  on Faber, who are Knussen’s publishers.  The piece has been in Rattle’s repertoire since CBSO days. It’s a pity that the only recording of this work was not by Rattle, who reveals Knussen’s Symphony in its full glory:  (Knussen’s conducted it lots, too). It’s an amazing work, at turns quirky, magical, demented and inspired. 

Knussen’s Third Symphony is wordless, but its sinuous figures suggest curving, swaying movement, like a dancer turning in circles. Knussen has referred to its “cinematic” nature and “the potential relationship in film between a tough and fluid narrative form and detail which can be frozen or ‘blown up’ at any point.” Without words, Knussen creates drama, in the shifting layers and tempi. Each permutation unfolds like a frenzied dance, or perhaps processional, given the size of these orchestral forces. The orchestra is huge – especially for a piece that lasts 15 minutes, but at its heart lie just three players, a sub unit of celeste, harp and guitar (alternating mandolin). Does that suggest Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, and its strange Nachtmusik? Knussen and Mahler don’t sound the least bit similar, but the comparison is fruitful, because both symphonies evoke contradictory responses. That’s part of their enigmatic power.  Knussen’s symphony “dances” with grave dignity, strong tutti chords suggesting fractured intensity. Darkness and blinding bright light. Yet at the heart, quiet, simple sounds suggesting the fragile human soul within.

A wonderful performance – let’s hope Rattle and the LSO do it again, in tribute, for Knussen is very much “more” than a composer, just as Rattle is “more” than a conductor. Knussen’s a towering figure in every way, who has done more than most for music in this country.  Because his energies have found so many outlets, he hasn’t written as much as he might have, but almost everything he does write is top notch, top rank.

Among the many composers Knussen has nurtured is Helen Grime.  Appropriately, Rattle chose her for the the piece with which the concert began – Fanfare – from a much larger work still in progress.  Another excellent choice, linking the past to the future, proof that music in Britain is alive and well and deserves to thrive. 

Original Source: National Treasures : Simon Rattle LSO Elgar Birtwistle Knussen Adès

Time off

So here I am back, after much time off. Not blogging.

Some of that was vacation. Trips, family time. As in this photo of me and Rafa at a British pub:

Or this one of him and Anne on a wild hillside. After a multi-hour steep hike, he said: “This is the greatest day ever!”

Though maybe that was topped by his first ride on a Ferris wheel. He wasn’t just delighted. He just about became delight.

And there’s an extra reason to share these photos, quite beyond “I love my wife and kid!” (He’s going to be six next month. I know I’m not the only parent to ask, “How’d that happen?”)

The other reason

I’m also posting these pictures because they show what makes me happy. Not that other things don’t, but this is a big one.

And what makes me happy matters, because this spring I realized that not much in my work did. Doesn’t mean I got nothing from my work, or that it wasn’t valuable to others. Or that some of it — teaching, composing — couldn’t thrill me.

But the constant rush to keep current online, to promote myself — that strained me. So I thought I’d pull back, take some time off. Clear my mind.

Sweet relief

And it worked. I figured I’d get back to blogging when I felt relaxed about it, when I knew I really wanted to. Figured that should happen in September, but left it loose (relaxed) inside myself about just when that would be.

Which feels like now. I recommend this kind of mental cleansing. Even if you can’t abandon everything that makes you tense, find something you can pull back from. Even if you just delay it for an hour or a day.

Just tell yourself this thing — whatever it might be — doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. Or that a day away from it won’t kill it.

Or that it isn’t worth the tension. Or — and this is so important — that you might have a dozen things that seem crucially important, or that taken by themselves you do enjoy. But that weighing on you as a group they’re burdensome, destructive of a larger goal in life, perhaps the largest, which is to be kind, happily productive, and content.

It worked for me.

Original Source: Time off

Natives and freedom – The Hurricane 1937

“A sense of honour in the South Seas is as about as silly as  a silk hat in a hurricane”  ays Dr Kersaint to M. De Laage, the tyrannical governor of Manikura, a French colony in the South Pacific, who is “under the spell of honour and duty” defines honour as the need to impose control on feckless natives. A ship arrives, bringing Mme De Laage, and Terangi, the First Mate, a born sailor who m”kept hanging from the mast like a bird, with wings stretched for home”.

The natives rush cheerfully aboard the ship to welcome the crew home, to the strains of Aloha E (read more about that song here). The natives, as the Doctor says, “are like birds who need to flock together in the breeze” The village celebrates the wedding of Terangi and Marama. Great shots of native girls in leis and Terangi’s muscular bare chest.  Terangi and Marama set off in a dugout for an island honeymoon.  But Terangi smells a good wind : the ship sets sails again. In Tahiti, Ternagi and his friends are in a bar with loose women who smoke. Terangi plays with a mechanical hula doll with childish delight.  “Get up when a white man tells you!” sneers a drunk. Ternagi fells him with one blow.

But in colonies, fighting back is insurrection. The Hurricane’s subtext was dangerous. Setting the movie in a French colony disguised the fact that the same brutal rules applied elsewhere, including Hawaii.   Or in the mainland US, for that matter.

Terangi is imprisoned. Being a free spirit, he keeps escaping and his sentence gets extended.   “Sixteen years in a cell with rats as companions”.in chains, being whipped, doing hard labour., but Terangi remains unbroken.  He escapes again from maximum security, but inadvertently kills a guard. He steaks a canoe and rows 600 miles back to Manakura, navigating by the winds, braving storms at sea.  The local Priest takes him in secrecy to an island, where he’s reunited with Marama and their child.

Back in Manakura, a hurricane is building up.  “Imagine Paris”, says Mme De Laage, “civilizations don’t do well in a hurricane”   The natives are restless : they know something, they’re smiling.  Terangi’s a legend, a symbol of freedom. De Laage finds out where he’s hidden and sets off to capture him.  “You’ll find a stronger authority than me in that storm!” Cries the Priest. The hurricane hits Manakura.  People take shelter in the church, whose bells won’t stop ringing in the wind. Fabulous cinematography – sheets of rain, flying debris, palm trees crashing, pounding waves. I’ve been in hurricanes. When I first saw this film on TV, it seemed realistic enough (to a kid).  

Terangi appears in a boat and the priest btells him to save those he can, who include Mme De Laage.  Eventually the church bell falls silent. But by then the church has been flattened, the priest and most of his parishioners killed. Terangi and his family was up on a beach and light a fire. M. De Laage comes and rescues his wife. Terangi and his family escape in a war canoe.  De Laage spots it in the distance from his ship. “It’s just debris” says his wife.

Given that The Hurricane was made in 1937, the director John Ford,a nd producer Samuel Goldwyn really couldn’t take risks with the authorities, so they probably needed to play up the pseudo religious moralizing, which is pretty turgid. Overlook that, though, and the movie is daringly radical. It challenges racism outright, an d the idea of rigid, relentless power structures.  Although  Ternagi and Marama are acted by white people in  brownface (Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour) and the characters they play are cardboard, the stereotypes aren’t negative.  Compare The Hurricane to Typhoon, the 1940 Paramount movie shot in (then) glorious Technicolor and maximum special effects. There, the natives are no more than scenery and Dorothy Lamour’s part serves only to offer glimpses of her body. Typhoon is  B movie crime flick set in the tropics. The Hurricane is much more, and would have been even better had Hollywood, and the West in general, been ready for something stronger.

Original Source: Natives and freedom – The Hurricane 1937

Dvořák Festival Prague Stabat Mater – Opolais Kurukova Samek René Pape

Dvořák Stabat Mater, Prague  photo: Petra Hajska

Dvořák Stabat Mater keynote of the 2017 Dvořák Festival at the Rudolfinium, Prague. Emmanuele Villaume conducted the PKF Philharmonia, Prague, with the Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno (concertmaster Petr Fila) and soloists Christine Opolais, Jana Kurucová, Richard Samek and René Pape. Outstanding singing – even better than on the recent recording where Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Choir. (read more hereBělohlávek  founded the PKF Philharmonia Prague in 1992 after he left the Czech Philharmonic The two orchestras thus had parallel lives.  Bělohlávek never really left the Czech Philharmonic, and became Chief Conductor again in 2010, heralding a new golden age for Czech repertoire, both in Czechia and in the UK.  The PKF Philharmonia Prague continues to thrive.Bělohlávek remained Conductor Laureate. The PKF has a slightly different profile and leaner, lighter sound.  But both orchestras honour Antonín Dvořák, whose statue stands facing the Rudolfinium as if he were a guiding spirit.  

The surging, swelling motifs in the first movement set the affirmative tone. Though the term Stabat Mater refers to the Virgin’s Mary’s grief as a mother on the death of her son, in theological terms it’s a contemplation on faith.  Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is sorrowful, but ultimately uplifting: the devout believe in the resurrection of the soul.  Thus the surging thrust that runs through the piece, the choir entering with “Stabat Mater!” in hushed tones.  While Bělohlávek shaped the pulse so profoundly that it resonated like the rhythms of a human body, Vuillame has the edge with far better singers. Richard Samek, the tenor, was superb.  He impressed in   Bělohlávek”s Dvořák Requiem earlier this year (read more here)r   His voice has a Helden ring, yet conveys depth and tragedy : when he sang Dalibor in 2015, he created the complexity in the character.  (read more here). Samek’s voice was well complemented by that of Kristine Opolais.  She’s a brilliant Rusalka, the silvery clarity of her timbre enriched by tenderness and sensitivity.  The women she portrays in her roles end up suffering.  An inspired choice for a cantata about the Virgin Mary, whose son must die for the good of mankind.  .  
Further depth was supplied by the richness of the voices of Jana Kurucová and René Pape.  Kurucová is relatively young, but interesting, while Pape is of course a mega star: luxury casting for a cantata. He’s magnificent, the authority in his singing adding depth to all around him.  This Stabat Mater is worth hearing for him alone, he’s so good.   Excellent balance between the four soloists, and between the soloists and male and female voices.  The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno are very good indeed.  Bělohlávek’s Dvořák Stabat Mater is better orchestrally and the singing was fine, but the singing in this performance is in a different league, making this a Stabat Mater to remember.   “Amen ! Amen !” the choirs and soloists sang in multi-layered filigree, while the textures in the orchestra softened to rapturous wonder. 

Original Source: Dvořák Festival Prague Stabat Mater – Opolais Kurukova Samek René Pape

Vision-free Last Night of the Proms 2017

Nina Stemme at the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2017. She was not the only one left open-mouthed by this year’s Non-Event LNOP, which was as vision-free as most of the this year’s season.  Formula works, to some extent. Stemme is is such a megastar that even those who know zilch about music knoiw who she is and that she does Wagner. So nil imagination  needed to make her do Brünnhilde while singing Rule Britannia. So no-one really goes to the Last Night for music. But Nina Stemme deserves better !  She’s an artist not a cartoon.  A few years back, Roderick Williams did it in street clothes. That was infinitely more sincere and moving and more in the spirit of the anthem.  Dressing up is all very well, but it needs to be done with genuine flair and humour,  the way Juan Diego Florez did last year as Inca Prince and the skit on Paddington Bear as homeless immigrant. (Please read more here).  It’s not Stemme’s fault. It’s the marketing philosophy behind the Proms these days that puts commercialism above music.

Formula is all very well, and thanks to formula, there were many good Proms this year, scattered around the crass detritus  Thanks to good performers who actually like music, not the suits behind formula.   How did the Royal Albert Hall get its name ?   The vision of a Prince who believed in excellence and learning.   Who created the Proms ? A man with vision who loved music and believed that ordinary people could appreciate serious music which wasn’t dumbed down.   Instead, we’re now locked into the “Ten Pieces” mentality, probably the worst case of moronic, musically illiterate goonishness ever. The first year, it was a gimmick but repeated and extended it’s become a joke that gone stale. Yet again, formula without vision.  Alan Davey  claimed “Don’t apologise for classical music’s complexity. That’s its strength”. So if he really believes that, why not act on it? For a start, the BBC should scrap the Ten Pieces groupthink and get rid of those behind it.

What makes the Last Night of the Proms so much fun is that it’s when Prommers party.  Party, as in having fun, not party as in Party. As someone interviewed for the brioadcast said “We Germans can’t do that”. They’ve seen where mass rallies and jingoism can lead.   Flag waving wasn’t a LNOP tradition til fairly recently, and in principle, there’s nothing wrong with it. But there’s flag waving because you love your country, and flag waving as a form of passive aggression qnd intimidation. Again, hidden messages. Parry’s Jerusalem arranged by Elgar, setting a poem by William Blake whose real meaning has been misappropriated.  Read more about that here. What’s more, Parry’s original version is more questioning than truculent. It might not go down well these days.

What also makes the Last Night great is the sense of spontaneity and irreverence. This is why it responds so well to current affairs and social conscience.  The Conductor’s Speech varies, but the best have been the ones which came from the conductor’s heart.  That’s why conductors need freedom. The job usually falls to the Chief of the BBC SO, the BBC’s flagship orchestra, which works so hard all year around.  Sakari Oramo’s a genial, engaging character, with integrity. No firebrand he.   But this year, he was reading a script so banal it sounded like it had been cobbled together by BBC management. All bullet points and mealy mouthed platitudes. Like the bit about women conductors. If the Proms really cared about women, why stick to one token conductor, moulded by Bernstein, whose speeches were self promotion  as opposed to the common cause ? Oramo is a good speaker because he’s real.   Rumour had it that the political powers that be, in whose hands the BBC’s fate lies, wanted to control the LNOP speech. And perhaps they did.

But if such politicians and those who influence them, (to put it gently) were so secure in their beliefs, why would they feel threatened by Barenboim and Igor Levit  ?  We don’t live in truly democratic times but in a world where those who control the media control minds and use their power to bypass parliamentary process and the very right to dissent.   Fact is, most people in the music business, and in the business world in general,  have experience dealing with the complexities  of the situation.  Regular Prommers, the ones who come all season for the music, not just for LNOP, often think on the same lines.  So why the fear ?  In a democracy, you live with alternatives, you don’t suppress them.

Many improvements this year in the physical management of the Proms, like not letting latecomers enter willy nilly, and exceptionally helpful ushers and staff. The people at Door 9 in particular deserve praise, though praise from the public doesn’t often get relayed down to the folks on the ground.  So many thanks to someone getting things as right as possible.,   Hopefully those standards of excellence will apply, in future to artistic policy and (dare I say) the Vision Thing.

Original Source: Vision-free Last Night of the Proms 2017