Friday, October 9, 2015

Turning the page...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: "I love a good mistake." I have strong memories as a young musician of being fascinated when a clarinetist clonked a passage somewhere in the middle of the Met's broadcast of the Ring Cycle. In the midst of all those hours of fantastic playing, there was something particularly gratifying and life-affirming about hearing such a moment of humanity. (My family taped all four of the operas, and that's the moment I most remember watching and re-watching.) I also remember well a low-budget family VHS of a Russian production of The Nutcracker in which one of the partygoing dancers got caught on the wrong side of the closing stage curtain. (In retrospect, I suppose this could have been an intentional bit of comedy.) I can still hear exactly what the orchestra was playing at that moment, and any time I hear that bit of music again, I instantly see that poor Russian woman fighting her way under the big velvet monster.

I've written many posts about this perverse attraction of mine. Here I discussed indelible memories of Suzuki students crushing a chord in Veracini; here I detailed a wide variety of memorable miscues, with a Mendelssohn misreading, a Dvorak missed shift, a Grieg misprint and a Ravel missed landing all taking a bow and making me smile. One of my worst-ever "can't stop laughing" struggles occurred years ago when I was turning pages for my piano teacher in a performance of the Franck Violin Sonata on a retirement home piano that needed retiring itself. During the performance of the manic second movement, I can still vividly remember the sight of old, broken ivories literally flying off the keyboard; I felt tears stream down my face as I tried to hold back laughter.

Not surprisingly, notable in-concert mistakes make the rounds among musicians every now and then because they're so strangely compelling. There's Maria Pires surprised to hear the orchestra starting the wrong concerto, Christian Zacharias stopping because a cellphone interrupts his Haydn (isn't Haydn supposed to love surprises?), and the resourceful violist who took up a cellphone ring tune for a quick bit of improvisation. But those aren't mistakes made by the performers in the moment.

Today, Jessica Duchen posted a video of a virtual Victor Borge routine breaking out at a violin recital due to a series of page-turning mishaps. In this performance by superstar violinist Christian Tetzlaff of the Brahms "F-A-E" Scherzo, Tetzlaff tries unsuccessfully to execute a quick page turn and comedy ensues.* There's so much to enjoy here that I couldn't resist making my own little annotated version.

Original, unannotated video is here

What to Enjoy (I've now studied this thing like the Zapruder film):
  • 0:18 Tetzlaff has less than two full measures (in a very quick tempo) to turn. He lifts the page with his bow hand, but the page flips back on him. It's on!
  • 0:20 Probably my favorite thing is that his bow has returned to the violin, so he now tries to resume Brahms while fixing the music with his left hand, which is, um, also important in violin playing. The first two notes he's supposed to play are a G-A above middle C. He gamely plays them both on the open A string while trying to restore order.
  • 0:21 He realizes the left hand isn't up to the task (it would have to reach far across his body to grab the page from the right) and that bowing isn't doing much good without the other hand, so he bails for a second and uses both hands to whip the page over...
    • IMPORTANT POINT: The page turner is a very accomplished violinist who hears right away that something is amiss and looks up at Tetzlaff. 
  • 0:22 ...and the music goes crashing to the floor.
  • 0:23 It's almost as if the force of the music falling pulls Tetzlaff towards it, and so, while having immediately resumed playing (with what must be a heightened sense of scherzo energy), he stomp-marches over to the piano to look over the piano score. Pianist Lars Vogt looks amused, though it's hard to tell for sure given the video quality.
    • Meanwhile, our intrepid page-turner, Anna Reszniak, is up in a flash and moves through the space vacated by Tetzlaff to pick up the music and reset it. She checks the pages and turns to what she must think/hope is the right place.
  • 0:30 Tetzlaff glances over at the violin stand and apparently doesn't see the right page, because he resumes playing from the piano score while Reszniak heads back to her position, looking back to see that something probably isn't quite right.
  • 0:33 - 0:53 Music by Brahms.
  • 0:53 The music has reached a low ebb before the final big buildup, and it's about time for Reszniak to turn the last page in the piano score. 
  • 0:56 She turns - and a loose page comes tumbling out. It's the final page, but at least Vogt has the left-side page still in front of him. He grins again. Suspense!
  • 0:58 Reszniak starts back towards Tetzlaff.
  • 0:59 Tetzlaff gracefully counters her, moving back with a little hop in his step to let Reszniak cross in front of him this time to retrieve the loose page. 
  • 1:02 She carefully places it back on the piano, as Tetzlaff crosses around her back towards the piano so he can see the music!
  • 1:04 Reszniak calmly turns the violin part to the right place and circles back to her seat as Tetzlaff counters back to his place at the violin stand. All is well as...
  • 1:10 ...the violin soars to the final big climax. The drama has been perfectly timed, and the unrehearsed footwork of Tetzlaff and Reszniak looks as effortless as the ice routines of Torvill and Dean.
I enjoy all of this in part because I've been in such situations before and know well how strangely thrilling it is to have a sudden extra layer of difficulty putting everyone on red alert (like that time when the lights went out). Seconds feel like minutes and every sense is heightened. Teztlaff, especially, had to make multiple split-second decisions, all while negotiating Brahms's high-wire act. 

Actually, something kind of like this happened to me last Saturday night. I was accompanying a voice recital, reading the music from an iPad and using a pedal to turn pages. In a fairly straightforward song, I somehow turned a page ahead? Or perhaps panicked and turned back to fix what didn't need fixing? I actually don't remember exactly what happened, and I wasn't sure for a second (felt like a minute) if I needed to tap the screen to go back or forward. I sort of half-heartedly kept playing something semi-random with one hand while tapping the screen with the other, and can remember realizing that the soprano was half-glancing back at me. Then suddenly everything was fine again.

Of course, any live performance involves an exciting combination of 1) relying on deeply rooted muscle memory and 2) reacting at a split-second level to what's going on around. In rehearsed performances, there's always the danger of falling too much into routine and losing the exhilaration of being in the moment, and though I'm sure Tetzlaff regrets having to leave out a few measures (and playing an eighth-note G with an open A), I wouldn't be surprised if he and Vogt (and the audience!) found themselves experiencing an extra gear of musical excitement in what is already a hard-driving piece. (We can be sure Reszniak's heart was beating a little faster, though she may have enjoyed the music least of all.) They were living out the desperate emotions that Brahms had encoded so long ago.

As for me, I can't get enough of it, as you can see below. After all, there's humor in repetition.

See also: My end is my beginning

* I also wrote once about a clearly audible page turn I cherish in a Beaux Arts Trio recording of the Ravel trio - but the only "mistake" there was how loudly the turn sounded. Yeah, I made a video then, too:

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