Monday, March 29, 2010

Piano Hero Rides Again...


Things are still pretty slow here at Chez MMmusing - just a busy Spring with all sorts of unexpected complications - new class this quad, flooded basements, etc. But, I'm happy to announce that Piano Hero is finally making its 2010 debut this Wednesday. In this "Shakespeare Edition," we'll be tackling two-pianist versions of Mendelssohn's Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. They are not trivial to play, so although Piano Hero is supposed to be about sightreading...I think I may need to practice a bit. Read about Piano Heroes past, see videos, etc. at: pianoheroes.blogspot.com.

I'm also giving a Faculty Forum talk on Wednesday afternoon entitled "Music in Translation." It will be an exploration of some of the philosophical issues raised by the phenomenon of translating symphonic music into piano plunking. Or something like that. Come to think of it, I'd better work on that as well...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Budget Chorus at Full Price?

So, you're looking for a recording of Handel's Messiah and you don't mind spending extra? Well, there's one on eBay for $950,000. [tip to Twitterer @otterhouse.] A hefty price for a box of old 78's from 1947, but...wait, it's only Vol. 1. Hope you're not a big fan of The Trumpet Shall Sound. Still, not only does it apparently have some sort of Antique Roadshow value, it was also a pretty specially made recording, if its promotional materials are to be believed:
“…This recording, designed for home listening, required a great deal of care and preparation. New techniques were employed, and many hours were consumed in experimentation and rehearsal before actual records were made...Large choruses are usually ideal for concert performances of The Messiah; for this recording, which is designed to be played in the home, however, it was found that greater clarity and better balance could be achieved if a chorus of 150 voices were employed…”
Whoa....did you catch that last part? This recording will cost you almost a million dollars and they didn't even spring for the big chorus! But, of course, what's really most interesting here is that, from this 1940's perspective, a chorus of 150 is small for Messiah. Things have obviously changed - last time I heard Boston Baroque's version, I don't think the chorus numbered more than 24 or so, maybe less. I'm not going to get into a whole "historically informed performance" discussion here, but I can't help feeling nostalgic for a time when 150 singers was small for a Messiah chorus. In fact, I felt cheated last year when the Boston Symphony used undersized string sections for Mozart and Mendelssohn symphonies. I'm gonna bet if Mozart, Mendelssohn, or Handel showed up and reduced forces were being used intentionally, they'd be insulted. After all, I think these old-fashioned composers still knew something about "musical badassery."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Impromptu Drawing / Liebestoding

Today I gave a little talk for a group of opera supporters on the subject of piano and opera - kind of a wide-ranging look at opera's influence on the piano, piano repertoire that incorporates opera tunes, and the whole big, wide world of piano reductions for opera. I hadn't even realized until about a week ago that the talk was given the title "The Piano's Voice," but when I was tossing together a little packet of handouts today, I suddenly decided I needed a good "piano's voice" image. Unfortunately, I was at a school computer with no good graphics program, so I whipped out Sketchbook Pro on my Tablet PC and drew this slightly disturbing something:

Oh, I forgot to mention that I can't draw. But, I didn't really have time to worry about such details - and, to be fair, the image was used as a sort of backdrop for a title page, so there were some words floating across it. So, yeah, it's a piano singing. Um...let's just move on.

Even more insane: less than 24 hours before the talk, I was reading through Liszt's arrangement of the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde and decided I should play it. It was love at first sight-read. I couldn't stop playing it and decided it would be fun to end my talk with this amazing bit of piano-as-orchestra-ness. So, play it I did, and it actually went OK. I don't really know what it sounded like, but I was having the time of my life. Although the talk went fine, the experience reminded me that I'd pretty much always rather play the piano than talk - even when I don't really know the music. After all, not knowing the music didn't stop Ervin Nyíregyházi.


That has to be one of the most insane performances ever, but it is thrilling.

This one is just as thrilling - and a bit more coherent.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bach Double

OK, just to prove that my mash-up ideas don't always work out so well (which some of you have, no doubt, thought many times before!), here we have a concept that, if it were a feature film, would go "direct to video." However, since MMmusing is basically a direct-to-video world, this gets pretty much the same exposure as more successful experiments. It's already made it through post-production, and our distribution costs are quite low. Still, I'm burying it as the third video link in this post.

The real news is this extraordinarily odd recording of a Bach gigue by none other than Mr. Wladziu Valentino Liberace. The Omniscient Mussel recently posted a series of videos from a 1955 episode of The Liberace Show in which the piano showman used our national airwaves to present a little history of keyboard instruments. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to fit a candelabra on top of the clavichord he plays for demonstration purposes, but play it he does. (Think of what a rare opportunity this would have been at the time - to hear this exotically private little instrument right in your own living room.)

He announces he's going to play for us a Bach Gigue, but instead of the lively rhythms of an Irish washerwoman, we get sweetly flowing triplets suggesting that perhaps the washerwoman is sunning herself while the clothes air-dry. (The piercing oboe (?) that plays along (!) definitely adds a hot, midday sun quality.)



In other words, this has to be one of the slowest gigues on record, certainly the slowest by a wide margin of this last movement from the B-flat Major Partita; it actually took me awhile to emerge from the trippy haze and recognize that I was listening to this:



One could almost imagine that the former is a 78rpm record played at 33rpm, although the pianist's voice is no lower than usual. It is more than twice as slow as any other recording I've been able to find so far. In fact, I had hoped I might find a recording almost exactly twice as fast because, since Liberace spares us the repeats, a recording with the repeats at twice the speed would clock in at the same 2:43 as Liberace's languid rendering - but, it turns out that even a 5-year-old plays it more than twice as fast. So my dream of a perfect mensuration canon with 1:2 proportions wasn't to be. (Yes, I could digitally manipulate recordings to make them time out, but that misses the point that these are real life interpretations. And just to show the great lengths I'll go to for quality blog content, I paid $0.99 for an Amazon download of Paul Badura-Skoda's 2:46 track - which turned out to have about 20 seconds of applause at the end.)

Aside from the lack of perfect proportions, the recordings paired below just don't sound that great together - maybe if Liberace didn't insist on having his orchestra play along we'd get more clarity, but the bizarre use of the clavichord's little-known "oboe stop" along with the other instrumental additions makes for a pretty thick soup. Still, I did toss poor Ray (all of 7 years old, and just a bit slower than most of the other recordings I sampled) into a Bach Double with Liberace, so you might as well check it out. [Note that the Double refers not just to the two performers, but the doubling of tempo.] If you have a way to adjust the left/right balance of your speakers, you'll find Liberace on the left and Ray on the right - you can create your own perfect mix!



It's not a very successful mashup, but the Liberace recording does provide some interesting food for thought. First, I just happened to be reading Jan Swafford's Slate article in which he laments the accelerating tempi that the Historically Informed Performance Practice movement has brought to Bach. Now, I'm not saying that Swafford is advocating what Liberace is doing, which is frankly just "way-out" beyond what I suspect any 50's Era pianist would have conceived. But I do find myself envying Liberace a time when Bach's music wasn't so well-known and ideas about how to perform it weren't as ingrained. Imagine having the freedom to just sit down and say, "I'll play it this way - on national TV." Of course, maybe he just didn't feel like practicing. By the way, it only just occurred to me that 1955 is also the year of Glenn Gould's paradigm-shattering Goldberg Variations record. Maybe if Liberace had listened to that CD record, he'd have had different ideas.

But how wrongheaded is Liberace's approach? Sure, it's likely not what Bach intended and it doesn't fit in at all with conventional wisdom, but as music-making, it's kind of interesting - even refreshing. We usually hear this as a virtuosic, cross-hand workout, but at this pace, a lot of the darker chromaticism comes out much more clearly. Instead of just hearing these accidentals as leading inevitably through a chain of harmonies towards a cadence, we get a chance to savor them as little independent planets of their own. Having heard this gigue played many times but never having studied it, I can honestly say I'd never noticed how ubiquitously chromatic it is.

So, yes, I'll probably always hear the piece in a more sophisticated way now (as would also likely happen if I were simply to learn it), but I'm more intrigued by the idea that this might well be considered a legitimate way to perform it. This is assuming that performances be judged as legitimate based on their musical value more than on their fidelity to the composer's intentions. It wouldn't work as well as finale to the suite, but then Liberace isn't presenting it that way. It's often said that Bach's music is about as malleable as that of any composer, which is one reason his music lends itself so well to transcriptions - and, perhaps, dramatic tempo alterations.

Back in my days as a church pianist, I would every now and then take a keyboard piece by Bach, Handel, or Pachelbel and play it much more slowly than intended, or even change it from major to minor to create a new insta-piece. I'd never advertise this in the program - it was just, in a sense, a fairly unimaginative kind of improvisation. Greg Sandow advocated this kind of exploratory approach to performance a few weeks back (he proposes a much wider variety of ideas, but among them was to "play everything wrong"), and I think students could learn a lot by working outside the normal interpretive boundaries.

Don't get me wrong, I think interpretive boundaries have their place. If we all just played how we felt all the time and ignored the challenge both of following composers' directions and of considering time-honored ways of following them, we'd miss out on a lot. Still, in small doses, even Liberace liberties can be illuminating.

For a more compelling canon in two tempi, here's Callas and Fleming and Puccini.

P.S. Check out the Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque harpsichord (skip ahead to 3:50 in first video above) on which Liberace plays Mozart's Rondo alla turca, which he claims was written for the harpsichord. In fact, he describes Mozart as a composer who "wrote especially for the harpsichord." I don't doubt that these sonatas were played on harpsichords, but I suspect Wolfgang was thinking more piano by then...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

...in which Winnie the Pooh inspires Twitter-like program notes

I've written a lot recently about how much I love bringing relatively random artistic elements together, but it's not always Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Sometimes, a bunch of stuff tossed together sounds like...a bunch of stuff tossed together. So it is that I've grown restless with our school's regular "General Recital" format in which a bunch of students perform whatever they happen to be working on and we slap it all together into a recital.

This year, I've taken on the job of trying to order the various elements into something balanced and cohesive, but since the recitals inevitably run longish (typically 20+ performances by pianists, strings, winds, singers, whatever), one can still sometimes sense the audience becoming catatonic. This isn't intended as a commentary on our students' performance abilities - it's just an unnatural thing we're trying to do, especially since we're not providing much context for our listeners (often parents who don't necessarily know their way around the repertoire). Context can be especially crucial for vocal pieces in foreign languages, but lots of instrumental pieces make more sense to those in the know as well.

It might be good training for our students to have them give little spoken intros, but that would only lengthen the program and possibly incite riots. Alternatively, who wants to turn back and forth 20+ times to pages of program notes? Not to mention, who wants to write program notes for 20+ separate pieces? Well, it turns out that I decided I wanted to do that, but not in the traditional way. Rather, mainly because I had a few hours to kill before attending a different concert, I decided to write up micro-program notes that could be incorporated right into the program. Finally, something for which my Twitter experience might pay off! Here's a sample of what they came out looking like (with names changed to protect the innocent):

[click to enlarge]

First of all, it was a fun challenge to write these notes. I knew about 75% of the pieces very well, and a little YouTube/iTunes surfing made it easy to get caught up on the essentials of the others, but the task of summarizing even a 3-minute song in one line is a good exercise in thinking about what we want an audience to hear. Especially for a program in which the performers and styles are changing so quickly (the pieces probably average about 5 minutes in length), the goal I had in mind is that the reader be able to, in one glance, see the title, composer, performer(s), AND get a quick sense of what's about to happen. The brevity of the descriptions also makes it much more likely that they will be read, without making the reader feel overly put upon.

The decision to use the "...in which" construction was not consciously made - it just kind of happened, as did the storybook-like references to "Mr. Bach." It was only later that one of my colleagues pointed out to me the "Pooh-bear"-ness of this approach. I think I thought I was borrowing more from E. M. Forster or Henry Fielding. A click through to the Forster link reveals chapter titles in that spirit, but the Fielding link definitively confirms that the Hundred Acre Wood isn't the first or only place in which "in which" plays a big role. (Wow, this is quite a rabbit-hole I didn't expect to explore on this blog. In fact, I'm in over my head in this sort of literary history since I don't read nearly enough, so I'll let you trace the history of "in which" as chapter heading on your own from this point.)

Anyway, the truth is that the Winnie the Pooh spirit was certainly in the air as I spun out these words, and I'm pleased about that because 1) it has a whimsical quality that reminds us we needn't take ourselves too seriously as musicians, and 2) it invites us to view a recital like this as a series of little chapters or stories. By the way, the same colleague who pointed out the Pooh connection also suggested that our next program should use Friends-style titles, as in: "The One with the Inverted Fugue Subject" or "The One where Rodolfo Sings a High C" or "The One where the Pianist's Arm Falls off" or "The One where Hindemith wrote a Sonata for _____ that Pianists Hate but that gets played a lot because there aren't so many Sonatas for _______" - whoops, getting lost down another rabbit-hole here...

So, in summary, I think this was a big success with our audience and it reinforces something I've thought for some time - that programs need to be much more elegantly and efficiently designed. For example, although I understand that the BSO's program booklets exist largely to bring in advertising money from retirement communities, I hate trying to navigate my way through to find the program notes (which are always carelessly sprawled across several pages), bios, and the lists of orchestra members. I'm not saying there's never a place for lengthy, in-depth notes (although I'm not always convinced that place is at a concert), but I really like the idea of programs where the notes are integrated right into the program listing.

Here, for example, is the way I printed our Opera Scenes program for last Spring (blogged here). The operaplot-inspired rhyming synopses aside, this layout allows the audience member to see, in one glance, the entire program; it also means that, whether one is curious about who's singing what role or about what's going on, the important information is always right there - no messy page-turns required. And you should all know that I HATE page-turns.

[Click to enlarge]

More about unwieldy BSO program booklets and unwieldy recital experiences in posts yet to come...