Saturday, April 16, 2011

It Feels So Right (How Can It Be Wrong?)

Jazz musicians supposedly have all sorts of sayings about mistakes. "Do not fear mistakes. There are none." "When you make a mistake, just make it again." "Once a mistake, twice an arrangement." Classical musicians don't get quite that much leeway since we're supposedly all about playing what's on the page. Of course, some mistakes are bigger than others. One of the skills I think I've developed pretty well as an accompanist is avoiding those BIG mistakes that everyone can hear. (And, believe me, I remember the BIG ones that I fail to hide.) It has to do with anticipating when something bad might be about to happen and bailing out before the disaster. If I'm helping a student make an audition CD, no one cares much if I leave out a few notes, but a noticeable clinker can turn a promising take into a missed-take.

But that doesn't mean we classical types can't enjoy a good mistake every now and then. For one thing, I find some mistakes to be hysterically funny. The summer I met my wife, she and I were playing Dvorak's Dumky Trio with a wild Eastern European violinist who could never execute a certain shift correctly. I had a terrible problem trying to keep from laughing every time this passage arrived - even when he somehow hit the shift, it sounded funny. I still can't hear that passage without smiling - and smiling is a good thing, right?

I blogged a few years back about my nostalgic feelings for a Veracini violin chord that I'd heard crunched by countless students. Matthew Guerrieri commented on that post about once being struck by a fascinating harmony in the Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales that turned out, on examination of the score, to be the result of user error (well, it was a brass player). That comment was an amazing coincidence to me since I have my own story about that very same Ravel piece (even the same movement), although mine concerns the original piano version of the waltzes.

I played the set on a 2003 solo recital and, though I generally don't like hearing my own recordings, I've always been pleased with the way that recital came out, so I've listened to the CD many times. There are, of course, lots of mistakes (or, um, arrangements) in the recording, but one of the most obvious is one I quickly grew to love. In the 3rd bar of the passage printed below, my right hand inexplicably landed on an A# instead of a G# on the downbeat. I also then played the next melody note (the F#) a step too high.

Now what fascinates me about the mistake is that Ravel's G#/F# should sound like a nice melodic appoggiatura, meaning the first stressed note (G#) is dissonant against the harmony (basically F# major) and then resolves into the F#. It's one of the most classic melodic devices there is, this tension/release gesture, and I'd messed it up by playing a relatively consonant note (A#) and resolving (?) down to a dissonant G#. But here's the thing. I've heard this music so many times that, in a global sort of way, the dissonant G# sounds right to me, which means that landing on the A# gives it an extra expressive punch - even though the A# is actually more consonant with the harmony. {NOTE: Each of the audio examples below goes a bit further into the piece than the score excerpt above, but the measure in question happens almost right away.]



I know that sounds like tortured, circular logic, but I think it accurately describes the way I've come to hear this mistake of mine; it actually sounds right as a kind of meta-appoggiatura, dissonant in the sense of being a mistake, not in the harmonic sense; and then, for whatever reason, I resolved to the note I should've played first, so it's a similar melodic gesture. Of course,given the fact that Ravel's harmonies are full of added-note sonorities, it's maybe not a surprise that this kind of error can work out. Going back about a century (composer-wise, that is), I have an example of an even more strikingly wrong note which I've also come to like. My favorite-ever recording of the Mendelssohn violin concerto is by a young violinist playing with a youth orchestra, recorded live in a performance at which I was present. I've probably listened to this recording at least 50 times, and though there are many moments (especially in the tricky finale) where the very fine youth orchestra shows its youth, there is one real clinker that actually made me really sad the first time I heard it on the CD. (I can't remember now what impression this moment made on me in the concert, although I'm sure I would have noticed it.) In the second presentation of the lyrical theme from the 1st movement, the woodwinds arrive at the cadence and the first clarinet plays a C-natural instead of C#. In this poor student's defense, there had been a C-natural just four bars earlier.
However, Mendelssohn's original harmony is already pretty pungent (C# against B and F# against E), so over the years, that extra half-step of pungency has grown on me to the point that I enjoy playing it that way myself sometimes when accompanying violinists (not on stage!). It really does sound right to me in a strange sort of way.



Actually, just to give you a sense of how much harmony influences how we hear melody, I sort of casually assumed for years that the oboist (who has the tune when the clarinetist misreads) had played a wrong note there - it gives that oboe B such a different color. Strangely, what brought all of this to mind is another category altogether - the intentionally mischievous misreading. Oh wait, let me first give a quick "printing error" example which delighted me no end. I was rehearsing the Dvorak Sonatina once with a violinist and he'd forgotten his piano part, so I printed out the public domain version from IMSLP. No one is a bigger fan of IMSLP than I, but they're just scanning in what publishers published long ago, so the errors get scanned in too. The beautiful G minor 2nd movement has a lovely middle section in major; when it goes back to the main minor theme, someone forgot to tell the pianist. Oh what a moment that was when we arrived at these bars.



OK, so a couple of nights ago, I'm about to rehearse the Fauré Élégie with a cellist and, while he's tuning, he asks me to play a C Major chord. Ever the quick-witted one, I said, "but this piece is in C Minor." After the fits of hysterical laughter that followed, I thought to myself, "hmm, what would this piece sound like in C Major?" So, I gave it a try and, of course, it sounded pretty goofy if you happen to know the piece. But, there were a few cool little harmonies that emerged at the end of the first phrase that I really liked. Whereas the chromatic bass line adds to the intensely tragic mood in Fauré's version, the major version results in some pretty happenin' jazz-like chords.


Oh, so wrong:

So, we're back to jazz.. And maybe that's where this should end for today, but the Fauré will make a nice transition into another topic that interests me: Rewriting the classics! Stay tuned...

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