Friday, August 28, 2015

Music - The Greatest Mystery? Other Than Oneself?...

For years, I have continued to hold the notion that the fellow I see staring back at me, in the mirror while shaving, constitutes the greatest mystery I  know.
There are countless reasons, to me, for the above -  music continues to be the most compelling arcanum arcanorum, and remains at the top of  my list.
I compose very little. I just completed a Suite for two unaccompanied violins, and have sent it off to an accomplished and eminent violinist in Europe, who has played and recorded a handful of works written just for him.  Other than these works for the violin, I compose only for my students.
I do not feel comfortable when I do write - I have never thought of myself as a composer, which in and of itself is a mystery to me. And yet these pieces have been recorded and performed. Upon sitting down and engaging myself in the first moments of the process, I find myself veritably an "outsider" who in reality should not be making an attempt at committing to manuscript.
But, invariably, once I make contact with the paper in front of me, I find that I have entered a kind of "bubble"  containing  a sort  of atmosphere that somehow yields to me answers that only seconds before were simply not in any form of existence. And as long as some force permits me to sit there ( I do not decide the time), this process continues. When the time, somehow, decides to end, I get up from the chair, and become someone else; namely, me. Those notes I look down at on the table are strangely alien.
And these kinds of days continue until the piece being worked upon  is finished.
And, invariably, I undergo the same reaction - "did  I write this? Were these notes written by ME??"
I have no connection with the Occult. I do not and cannot connect myself with ANY aspect of this life I have no interest in or knowledge of.
And yet; months, YEARS after that occasional composition that comes from my hand, I find myself asking "DID I write that piece? I'm simply not the same person sitting inside of that "bubble."
Above all, I find myself, upon going over these works, occasionally,  commenting on the logic and direction that this music contains, WITHOUT commenting that it's good. THAT I cannot know.
And tomorrow I will face my greatest mystery once again - while shaving...

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Friday, August 21, 2015

What IS It About This Fellow Named Brahms?

Wagner  once described Brahms as that "prophylactic composer."
Tchaikovsky called him at one time a "mediocre" composer; at another time a  "scoundrel" - finally, in a state of a  more highly stylized   invective "that artless bastard!"
After their first meeting in 1888 in Germany, the Russian composer remarked that the primary impression that Brahms left upon him was that  "he reminded me of  a benign Russian priest."
The legendary pianist Vladimir  Horowitz remarked more than once about the discomfort experienced whenever he played Brahms, and projected the sense that he was not sure that he  really understood the music of one of the giants of the latter half of the nineteenth century.
And yet Horowitz has left us with several powerful  readings  of the music of Brahms; especially the 2nd Concerto, with his father-in-law Toscanini.
Is it true that, indeed, Brahms burned a number of his works that he felt disappointed in? Some of his contemporaries claimed  just that.
His First Symphony took about fourteen years to complete; actually, about twenty one years if one counts the sketches prior to final writing.
Why is it that whenever I go through the opus 117 Intermezzi, I feel that rather than play the notes, I should rather just gaze at the superbly burnished surface of each note, as if it were some painting? Though brief, these pieces took months to receive final commitment to paper.
Of all the major composers, Brahms, and only Brahms, sometimes glares at me, chiding me to "go ahead; try to figure me out!"
Am I the only one who thinks THIS way about the legendary composer?


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Friday, August 14, 2015

Franz Liszt and Glenn Gould - - Watershed Decisions in Their Youth...

Franz Liszt may well have been the supreme player of the piano in the 19th century. The veritably 'rock star' reactions in his audiences are legend and  much in evidence, historically,  in the reality of what this man could do sitting in front of an instrument  he could transform into a miniature orchestra. All one has to do is peruse the music he wrote for this instrument.
And at age 36, this man retired abruptly from the concert  stage.
Done was the shouting; the screaming. Done were the purported affairs with various lady members of his audiences; done was the carrying of this man  out of a concert hall on the shoulders of audience members.
Liszt needed to plumb the depths of his gifts; the result being his exploits in composition, conducting and teaching, along with continued performances on the piano.
The results are what history has unveiled to us about one of the giants of the Romantic Century.

Glenn Gould - As a youth living in Rochester, New York, I found myself  positively enthralled by the magical piano performances coming out of live radio in Toronto, which lies on the other side of Lake Ontario from where Rochester is. This young fellow named Gould was just starting out on his fateful  journey, and his riveting views of Bach were already evident to me.
We know of the meteoric career of this musician, and the illimitable promise of a career that was so tragically cut short in his 50th year.
As was his concertizing, by his decision to no longer perform before a live audience during his 31st year.
His reasons?
Far greater numbers could hear his playing by way of recording.
And the other reason created palpable controversy; namely, by way of  electronics, Gould could (HIS words!), "get it just right."
Gone would be, through his decision, the beautiful boundlessness in human art which propels the thinking artist about " it could have been better ." Let us just contemplate, for a moment, the actual possibility, of human Perfection by "getting it just right."
I don't think so. Do please know that, outside of his decision, I was and am a Gould Admirer.
Try to find a TV program done by William F. Buckley on his "Firing  Line" series, in 1985, on the subject of Gould's decision, with a panel consisting of Roselyn Tureck, one of America's great musicians; Schuyler Chapin, who was  a well-known impresario and executive officer in the Metropolitan  Opera; Tim Page, the award-winning critic of the New York Times and other major papers. And witness the consternation among these three. Also you will see a miraculous few minutes of Gould playing a snippet of his piano transcription(!) of the Strauss opera "Elektra" with Gould singing the baritone part in German. His talents were boundless!
Two giants, about a century apart -
What if no such decisions were made?  In what form or manner would we know these two, in our time?


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Friday, August 7, 2015

THAT Stradivarius! Enough Excitement For ONE Day! I Was There...

As some of you know, I was an educator at the Longy School of Music for over a quarter century, being involved mostly with piano as the major pursuit, although  I taught theory and composition whenever I was called upon to do so. Some of my most golden memories are connected with one of the most loving and genuine musicians I have ever known. He was my boss, the Director of the school,  Roman Totenberg.
Before he accepted the position of Director at Longy, he had already been recognized  internationally as an eminent violinist and teacher - I continue to include among  my favorite recordings for unaccompanied violin by Bach, a number of works done by Totenberg. His warmth and genuineness  were one- his message as a musician was Totenberg.
On a day (I remember it to be  a Thursday), a concert was given at the school, some 35 years ago. To be brief, Totenberg's precious Stadivarius disappeared  during that period.
Chaos was pandemic. I remember the swirl of all kinds of motion in the school during those minutes. Physical swirls; emotional swirls; swirls of a kind of fear - how could such a thing happen? Were these turbulent eruptions all around me real?
I remember John Henning, one of  Boston television's better known reporters appearing at the school. I recall so many of my contemporaries expressing deep concerns for  Totenberg and  what he must have been experiencing within himself  during all this tumult, let alone the days and months to follow.
Yesterday, I was overjoyed to learn that the violin, a generation later, has been recovered.
I can only wish that in some form, or some manner, that Roman Totenberg, who passed away some three years ago, also knows that his beloved violin is back with him.


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Thursday, August 6, 2015

"The Art of"- On This Date in 1945...

Our world changed in approximately nine seconds seventy years ago today, when Hiroshima was devastated by history's first use of  a nuclear bomb.
The man who led in  the creation of this weapon was  not only one of the brilliant minds of his time, in the field of physics,  but also a lover of the arts, especially poetry. Robert Oppenheimer was an avid reader of Indian poetry, and could  and did quote from scores of verses which he stored in his personal memory bank.Mozart and Schubert's music were a constant part of his childhood memories. As a teacher, he was known for his treatment of the sciences as art forms, placing the creative process as apex of whatever the total endeavor happened to be.
Edward Teller, known to history as the prime supporter  and leader of the team that created the hydrogen bomb,  was at his piano playing Beethoven sonatas, whenever there were moments of leisure during the development of these weapons.
One of the most powerful documentaries I know of is a poignant, rather  poetic portrait of  the spiritual damage dealt  a number of the leading physicists after being witness to  that searing event in New Mexico, when the test of the atomic bomb took place in the desert. Those few seconds  gave birth to a reaction consisting of "My God, we did it!" followed almost immediately by,  "My God, what have we done?"
The title of this documentary is "The Day After Trinity". It was created by Jon Else, and as an art form, one of the great documentaries. Do look for it

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Friday, July 31, 2015

Daniel Barenboim Plays Mozart - In the Event That You Are Not Aware...

A few weeks ago I entered a blog on the creation and design of a new piano by the acclaimed Argentinian pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.
I neglected to add other important information (at least to me!)  at that time, because of the possible import and significance that may come out of this new piano.
And that is, the stunning emergence of Barenboim in his later and latest recordings of Mozart's sonatas.
This virtuoso has always included Mozart in his years as a soloist of importance; however, in the past few years, his stature as a truly definitive addendum to the distinguished  group of  great  Mozart performers  that this past century has preserved should be acknowledged.
I wonder if, by way of his increasingly deepening  perspectives about the ways of Mozart, Barenboim arrived at the need, through his personal dictum, of a new piano design. Was it Mozart? Or Schubert?
At any rate, his readings of Mozart, and wonderfully comprehensive view of the journeys created by the composer's sonatas, have led me, for the first time, to wish for  a publication of  nothing but the second movements of these masterpieces to appear before my eyes, so that I could establish a kind of communion with the inner core of a composer who could create such power in such a brief span.
I extend special thanks to Daniel Barenboim for his  stunning insight.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Salvador Dali - A Pithy Statement Or Two, Along With His Art...

The Famous Spaniard left not only examples of a rather singular art form, but also a number of  views by way of the written word, such as:
"Have no fear of Perfection - you'll never reach it."
Of the collection of terse expressions   Dali  contributed to the Coming Man, the statement  above is the most easily understood by the gifted artist, while at the same time constitutes  the artist's most inscrutable and beckoning  issue.
As I remember, when I first went to the dictionary to read the multi-faceted array of meanings connected to the word Perfection, I became immediately aware as to the  reality that so much of what is written about the word cannot be attached to the world of the artist.
If all the notes played in a recital are 100% accurate, is the performance perfect?
Or, if the interpretive material  is totally embraced by the player; or by  one member of the audience; or twenty;  or both player and audience in simultaneity; is it perfect?
How can Perfection be ascertained as a reaction to what was played, or composed, or painted, or danced to?
Why did Artur Rubinstein record  the 51  Chopin Mazurkas three different times , starting in the 1930's and ending in the 1960's? (Actually, there are at least 57 Mazurkas, but Rubinstein decided, it seems, to exclude some of the juvenilia of the great composer). He then uttered the understatement of the century by saying "I think that I can play them a little better now."
Was he pursuing, innately or otherwise,  that Thing we call Perfection?
How many times did Horowitz record his transcription  called "Carmen Variations?"
1927 (a piano roll)
1928 (first disc recording)
1947
1957
1968
1978 -
Was he pursuing, innately or otherwise, the same goal that Rubinstein, or ANY  gifted artist pursues? Was Horowitz pursuing , as a composition, a constantly improving form of his transcription(there were changes in each recording we hear). Or something in his PERFORMANCES of  this transcription? Or both aspects?
In a master class at Edinburgh University in 1983, the great Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet addressed the six young pianists he had chosen to work on the first movement of the Rachmaninoff  3rd piano concerto.
He addressed these young aspirants after they had performed in this class.
"You know," Bolet said,  "you and I  have chosen a crazy profession." The six young pianists then looked at one another and snickered. Bolet then went on to cite the reason for the word 'crazy.' He continued by dealing with a goal issue that would, or  could,  never be realized - the goal issue, of course, was Perfection.
But Bolet demanded that this Eye on the Prize be relentlessly  pursued, as there is no other recourse of action available to any  thinking  artist.
We in the arts  are, essentially, Quixotic in what we do, or strive to do.  The character that Cervantes gave us will always be alive and well.

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