Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

March 29, 2016

I feel them behind me, beside me: the girl I only dated once and who died young; the cousin I promised to marry when we were still in third grade; the older brother who could play by ear. Like those Homeric shades crowding round the blood sacrifice. So close.

It’s certainly not my skills at the keyboard that draws them. It’s the music, come alive from its long sleep on cold paper. Chopin and Tchaikovsky, Field and Brahms, it lives again through me and though me in these dead.

Is it a portal for them, a way back to this world where music is even more intense life than life itself? I don’t believe in ghosts or shades, and yet here they come gathering round me, gathering into me, memories as real as my own self and the sweet wrenching sounds my fingers call forth: the girl I only knew for a few hours, the brother of seven decades, the cousin I would some day marry after getting the necessary ecclesiastical dispensation.

When I stop playing they leave. I can only bear their presence for a few minutes in any case. Our worlds are too alien to risk encroaching on each other’s very long. But they will be back, insistent, not to be denied. And I must share with them again. I dare not do so, or question their right to be there.

Where are the others? I wonder. So many dead, and only one of these three was to my knowledge a music lover. But that’s none of my business. They have their reasons. I would deny them not only to my peril but to my great shame. If I can ease their pain for just these few moments, I have no choice.

January 7, 2014

Great Mahler, Great Tennstedt

Klaus Tennstedt’s is the best Mahler I’ve heard (and great Brahms too), but this live recording of the first symphony in Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1976 Imageexceeds even his studio work. Listen to that cheer at the end! It sounds like a Red Sock just hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Why aren’t more live performances available on CD? I would prefer a live performance even with all the coughs and re-tunings between movements. Performers do their best work in front of live audiences. I heard an unforgettable performance of the Brahms concerto by Mutter and Karajan (on radio) that has never been available for sale on CD as best I have been able to determine. It was stupendous, the best I’ve ever heard her and a brilliant revelation of that concerto as well.

Some people will say you can’t engineer a live recording the way you can a studio performance, but that’s exactly what seems to make them sound better. Tell me if this Tennstedt performance doesn’t sound more like a real orchestra does in a hall and if the instruments don’t sound more like real horns and tympani than do studio recordings. The engineering is better, not worse!Image

If I were in charge of these things, I’d scour the archives for great live performances, and not just by the world-renowned ones, and issue them on CD or, better, Audio DVD or vinyl. What a waste of great artistry, and all in the name of technical perfection.




November 8, 2013

The Composer Kaija Saariaho on Sexism in Classical Music

saariahoKaija Saariaho’s speech at the McGill University

July 3, 2013

Yes, I/You/We Will, Yes Yes We Will YES!*

Am I the only person who sees a similarity between musical climax and human orgasm?

I doubt it. But why have I never heard anyone speak of it, and why has it not come up in the Science Times and other popular venues devoted to the edification of college graduates?

In any case, I’ve given a good deal of notice to what seems more and more an obvious similarity — with some embarrassment in my younger years, I admit, as if it were prurient to think of such things in the realm of art.  Isn’t music supposed to be the purest of the arts, the least related to the nitty-gritty grubby reality of the flesh and other material matters which are so much with us in baser forms like the novel or film (not to be confused with the even baser “movie”).  Music may be romantic, and certainly is sometimes Romantic. But, orgasmic, clearly sexual — and sexual in the most blatant way?

Tchaikovsky’s was the first music that struck me this way, though it seems now not so much orgasm as eternal foreplay, usually of a very intense kind (how very emblematic of Tchaikovsky’s frustrated love life). But all composers engage in the representation of human emotion in musical form. Bach’s climaxes are different from Mahler’s, but they are climaxes nonetheless (my own favorites being in the third and fifth Brandenburg Concertos). Musical climax, like orgasm, like fear and release, like anger and expression, is all about building up tension and then releasing it. There is nothing inherently sexual about it.

Except when there is. And I more than suspect there’s intent at work in some cases, the quintessential example being of course Wagner’s Liebestod, the “love-death” scene from Tristan und Isolde. No great revelation here for me to claim credit for.

But in more recent years I’ve decided there are as well two kinds of orgasmic climaxes in musical composition: male and female. And the Liebestod is clearly an example of the female, which is to say it is attenuated and multiple, as opposed to the slam-bam, thank-you-ma’am climaxes of most other composers who, from their music, I suspect have never been party to a female orgasm, for whatever the reason, or who chose not to appreciate it for what it is (orgasm was not the sort of thing a “lady” experienced in the 19th century).

There is no mistaking Wagner’s long, drawn-out climax in the Liebestod for anything other than an analogue of female orgasm, even though we are to assume, I presume, it’s a climax built for two. I suspect Richard not only appreciated but envied his wife’s ability to experience sexual release in such a …. dare we say “artistic” way, by comparison with the limitations embedded in his own male physiology. If he couldn’t experience that physical experience personally, he could at least duplicate it musically and thus make it accessible to all the rest of us members of the other sex  — of both sexes, actually.

All good music, even the simplest sonatina has a climax or at least a moment of heightened emotional content to which it builds and recedes from or concludes. But sometimes the climax is very subtle and all-but-invisible, if not inaudible. I’m thinking of the few bars in the first movement of Sibelius’s first symphony which, though located toward the end, are the only statement of the theme in the movement, as I listen to it. I have, purely by chance, five versions of that symphony, and it’s remarkable how much difference there is in the way those bars are interpreted — different but subtly so, and yet with as much effect as if the entire symphony were condensed into those few musical phrases (Okko Kamu’s being the stand-alone for me).

Another variation on the short, all-but-missable climax or summing-up of a musical  composition is the two or three phrases toward the end of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto and a similar “statement” toward the end of the second movement of his second piano concerto. It’s as if all of what precedes those bars are an elaborate preparation for the profound resolution contained in them.

These, I suppose, are of the more-is-less school of musical love-making — the brief, gentle touching of lips that can mean more, resonate more deeply and transform more thoroughly than any amount of more substantial but less intense erotic activity, as anyone who remembers their first kiss can attest.

Human experience is of a piece, of course. Everything is like everything else in some way. That music should mimic love-making should be no surprise, anymore than that love-making should mimic art. Creating an appetite and then satisfying it, in all the different ways that can be done, is what we do when we add salt to our food or when we sit down to soak in a hot tub, or open an interesting book after a long day of denying ourselves that pleasure so as to earn our livings — or when we sneeze. Recognizing that the same phenomenon is at work in music helps this very amateur musician not only appreciate a particular piece of music better but also gives insight into what a composer is about, the depths of his or her particular inner life and, in however limited a way, some clues to how I can attempt to express it.

(*An approximation of Molly Bloom’s final words at the conclusion of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

October 16, 2012

Sexism with strings attached

Interesting article in the Independent.

August 13, 2012

(If you are looking for my general, non-music blog, go to

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July 16, 2012

The Sweetness of Thunder

Plugging away at a Beethoven sonatina, after months of on-again off-again indecision about whether it was worth my time. The other two pieces I’ve learned, a simplified transcription of the Haendel aria “Ombra mai fu” from his opera Serse and Chopin’s posthumous Waltz in A Minor, never lost their initial seductiveness. It was never a question of just putting my mind to the job until I could play them whatever thrill or lack thereof I got after hearing them twenty or two hundred times. They still move me no matter how often I play them, though now I’m more intent on discovering their inner secrets than from recapturing that first, breathtaking rush.

The Sonatina in G Major has been another matter entirely. Like many, many pieces I’ve taken up, then lost enthusiasm for, like a fickle musical Don Juan, the sonatina moved me for a time, then seemed to elude my efforts to get a handle on it–much more so than did the Chopin, though the piece seemed to require less fancy finger work than did the Chopin. I finally gave up on it the way I did so many of those other pieces that tickled my fancy for a time and then lost the sense of urgency I felt first toward them. I felt guilty about not sticking with it, but I told myself, this wasn’t a homework assignment or a paid job. I was playing purely for my own gratification.

But something, maybe that same frustration that caused me to set it aside after so much effort expended on it, drew me back. I might, I thought, at least learn to play it passably well so the time already devoted to it wouldn’t have gone for nought.

But this time I discovered something that made the piece catch fire for me emotionally.

Part of my problem with it was its composer. I have always found Beethoven to be remote–exhalting at times, certainly larger than life, but less relevant to me personally than other composers. Stravinsky is Olympian in the same way. His Sacre has moved me to terror, reaching into deep recesses of my mind I had never experienced before. But I don’t listen to Stravinsky, or much Beethoven. I gravitate toward so-called lesser composers–the Elgars, the Rachmaninoffs.

I associate Beethoven, even a simple piece like this Sonatina in G, with those great symphonies and concertos I no longer listen to (there’s some argument, by the way, whether Beethoven is the real composer of this piece, but we’ll leave that aside for now). And this was the rationale I made to myself why I didn’t finish learning it properly–too remote, too “Beethoven.”

I also made the mistake of listening to how others played it, on YouTube. And that was a mistake not just because it can be discouraging to see how other proficient other amateurs are but because even they play everything fast, if just to show that they can. Besides, I knew there was great sweetness in the piece (it’s even marked “dolce” in some places–Beethoven? dolce?). And that was the cue I needed to rethink it. Maybe it shouldn’t be played “like Beethoven,” at least not by me. All those YouTube performances had thundered away like the composer himself, making spaghetti of the strings on his piano till it was unplayable. Who says genius is its own best interpreter?

The truth was, I hadn’t been playing the sonatina any less authentically that those show-offs in the online videos. Played more slowly and with simple (ha!) attention to detail–the strict value of the notes and the scant dynamic markings–the piece became not less easy to play but infinitely more subtle and thus more interesting. And, once it began to reveal its possibilities, it has become moving again in a way it hadn’t since I first hesitantly sounded its notes.

I don’t think I’ll abandon the sonatina again, no matter how long it takes me to play it to my satisfaction. What’s more, it’s opened up an interest for me in learning other Beethoven. Just as his fifth symphony only truly lived for me once in that performance by a chamber-size Little Orchestra Society I mentioned in my previous blog entry, the “real” Beethoven, or at least “my” Beethoven has been revealed to me in this simple piece, rather like that moment we have when someone we thought we knew well reveals something to us about themselves that makes us see them as if they were a different person.

June 25, 2012


Igor Stravinsky glimpsed through a space between the stage and the wing stage-left, seated on a stool, his bald head hunched over his cane, using it to mark the beat (faster!) as Robert Kraft conducted an early suite of folk pieces. How many of the hard seats in the infield of that stadium (Columbia University’s Lewisohn Stadium), built for track and field, had just the right angle to afford such a candid view of the composer as he waited to conduct his Sacre du Printemps? It was like having a private view of Beethoven, deaf and worn out, waiting to come on stage to conduct his fifth.

More Lewisohn moments:

Van Cliburn, newly minted first American winner of the Soviet Union’s Tchaikovsky competition, playing Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto. That night I sat on the concrete bleachers. I had all but worn out my LP of the Carnegie Hall performance with Kyril Kondrashin. He played seven encores, some of them Chopin. How long and lanky he looked at that piano. How he enjoyed himself, and how that joy communicated itself!

Joseph Kripps conducting the entire Beethoven cycle.

Lily Pons, so beautiful, her voice ravishing despite the ancient sound system and occasional bus roaring past on Convent Avenue.

Richard Rodgers.

Mischa Elman at the end of his career, sadly unable to keep up with the orchestra.

Michael Rabin, memorable because he broke a string and was so upset about it. Still young, he died a few years later of a brain aneurysm.

At the Metropolitan and New York City Opera:

Richard Tucker, also at the end of his career, singing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. What a marvelous voice, and what a powerful actor. His “La Commedia è finita!” is stamped in my memory. I use the line frequently, albeit in less tragic circumstances.

Norman Treigle in Boito’s Mephistopheles. No human being could make a sound like that, and how in God’s name could it reach me with such force all the way in the back of the last balcony?

And…a performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony in the 72nd Street bandshell of Central Park. Just thirty-some instruments.  The Little Orchestra Society conducted by Thomas Scherman. The only time I’ve actually “heard” that symphony.

And, of course, December 2010, when I discovered Yulianna Avdeeva via a link on Through her not only Chopin but all the solo piano music that had till then remained opaque to me was revealed like the gateway to a magic kingdom.

March 24, 2012

“Mirror, Mirror…”

Ever since I first heard Lydia Mordkovitch’s recording of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto a few years back I’ve been thinking about the role of the performer, their function as mediator between me and the music itself (if there is such a thing). I had not previously known that concerto, and my first reaction was that it was lightweight, even frivolous. But a second and then a third hearing convinced me otherwise. Now I place it among the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

But after a couple more hearings I became curious about how another performer, Anne Sophie Mutter, would perform the piece. So, I decided to have a listen.  After just a few minutes, I turned it off. What I was hearing was not the Prokofiev concerto. It sounded so different from the Mordkovitch version, it seemed to be another composition entirely.

What I’ve been wondering since is why. I consider Mutter to be the greatest living violinist. At the time, I was unfamiliar with Mordkovitch beyond that one performance. I had experienced the genius that Mutter brought to Mozart and Brahms, had heard her evolution from wunderkind to mature artist — and beyond. I had thought her performance could only enhance what I had heard in Mordkovitch’s. Instead, it seemed to violate it.

Was I only reacting as I might to any alternative rendering of the performance that had first revealed the music to me? That first hearing of a composition tends to imprint itself on us so strongly that the music and the “interpretation” are virtually indistinguishable. I have nevertheless recognized and appreciated performances that are far superior to my initial experience of a composition, even when that second revelation occurs years or even decades later. A first kiss is a first kiss, but there may well be other passions, perhaps just as or even more memorable.

I can’t speak with any real authority about the work of either Mordkovitch or Mutter, but my experience of their separate performances in this one instance raised a question that has outlived my initial reactions: To what extent is a performer a vehicle, conduit or, as I think of it, a clear pane of glass through which we experience the music, and to what extent are they a kind of second composer whose performance is itself a creation as original as a musical composition?

My thinking on this has evolved. At first I thought I saw a clear distinction: Mordkovitch was that clear pane of glass, an unobtrusive aperture into the essence of Prokofiev’s music; Mutter (and her fellows) a kind of composer in her own right, her performance as much a creation as the composition she’s playing, each new rendering an opus, as it were, just as all of a composer’s compositions can be said to be one single composition in various forms and stages of development.

But nothing is ever so clear-cut, or remains so unless we are so wedded to an idea that we cannot bear to see it overturned or even significantly altered. I have heard recordings that seem to be near-perfect representations of the experience of a concert hall. I know now those recordings are the result of great artistry on the part of sound engineers. Is there an artistry on the part of the performer that corresponds to the skill of those engineers, involving an almost saintlike sublimation of personal ego for the sake of letting the music shine through unimpeded by “interpretation”? Or, does this apparent simplicity involve, as does all art, a great deal of artifice and delusion, the way good prose that seems simple and straightforward is the result of many hours of work on the part of the writer to achieve that “effect.”

There is room certainly for both types of musicians, and I’m not sure we should value one over the other. Ultimately, there may be more of this in the ear and mind of the listener than I have yet explored. But the question, however naïve or tentative, enriches for me music’s, indeed all of art’s, limitless possibilities.

(Read a great piece relevant to these thoughts at Harold Knight’s blog on the occasion of J.S. Bach’s recent birthday and why it is “the most important day of the year.” )

March 19, 2012

Let’s tickle the ivories by David Dubal – The New Criterion

Splendid article about the piano and all it’s meant to so many people, mostly ordinary people. Along with some very sage and reassuring advice for rank amateurs like myself.