Thursday, February 19, 2009

Piano Hero: Level 1 Complete

First, a few milestones worth noting: This is my 300th post, I recently surpassed the 150,000 word mark, and I'll hit the 2-year mark next Tuesday. We're still stuck on 8 sonnets though...

In other news, I feel pretty safe in saying that the debut of Piano Hero yesterday was a big success. We had a really nice turnout of lunchtime listeners,  especially given that publicity consisted of a couple of emails sent out the day before and a few flyers taped around the music building. What was especially gratifying is that we had quite a few listeners from outside the music department who stopped by. Most important is that I sensed people really had a good time. I know I did.

I referred to the recital as an "experimental performance concept" in the previous post, although a program consisting entirely of Beethoven's first symphony is hardly avant-garde. What was new for me was performing for a good-sized audience in the kind of informal atmosphere where a meticulously rehearsed result isn't expected. In fact, though we'd had two hastily arranged run-thrus of this 4-hand arrangement, there wasn't really any possibility that everything would go perfectly, and if I'd thought there was, the fact that we didn't strike the first chord together put an end to that. Nor did we strike the second chord quite together, but it was gratifying to realize it wasn't a big deal. (Granted, if the entire performance had followed that pattern, it would've been painful, but we did get our cues more organized after that. All in all, I think the playing went remarkably smoothly. Only a few lingering regrets...)

So, I guess my first point is that I really enjoyed just having fun and not worrying so much about every little detail. Mind you, part of the fun was the sense of daring, knowing that things could fall apart if we didn't keep our concentration up, making split-second decisions about whether or not to play certain notes, taking time with a phrase here and there as a spontaneous response to the music. The truth is, I can get pretty tired of meticulously rehearsed performances - I don't really like planning out all the rubatos and dynamics in advance, and, maybe more to the point, I don't like the sense of being held accountable for every little thing that happens. In that respect, this was about as enjoyable a performance experience as I can imagine. That's not to say there's not an immense sort of satisfaction that comes from preparing a fully memorized program for recital (which still always involves a bit of daring after all). Still, I can rarely remember having so much fun on stage. I feel like I may have found my most natural element. I would definitely sit and do this 40 hours a week if someone paid me.

And that's an interesting tension here. Obviously, part of the point of a meticulously rehearsed performance is to sacrifice one's own experience of immediacy and spontaneity (to some degree) for the benefit of an audience. Jeremy Denk wrote about that tension beautifully here. So, while I may be having a thrill ride sightreading on the edge, the question is whether the audience gets anything out of that. The truth is that the packaging of the experience makes a big difference here. I think that because our audience was prepped to think of us as two videogamers trying to beat the score (ha ha), at least some of that excitement transferred to them.

Just as important was the sense that we weren't taking things too seriously. It was just an open-door afternoon of musicmaking, not meant to be a final statement about Beethoven. Beethoven's notes and sounds are wonderful, but as I wrote back in my first-ever blog post, "our reaction to a given musical performance isn't just about the music; it's not just about the notes on the page and it's not just about the sounds that result." It's about a shared experience and an awareness of the human side of producing those sounds, and at its best, this kind of program can help an audience identify more closely with the challenges the performers are facing.

As for the fun part, Beethoven's 1st is one of the most consistently happy pieces I can think of. All the movements are in major keys, and even the 'slow' movement is light and skipping. In fact, to help set the tone and in lieu of a printed program, I just scrawled out the movements on a big, whiteboard with titles like: I - Slow Intro, then Fast & Happy; II - Light, Skipping, and Happy; III - Fast, Humorous, and Happy; IV - Slow Intro, then Fast & Happy. I'm not saying there's nothing profound or no moments of pathos, though they are certainly fleeting, but it's a piece that seems to be all about spontaneity and fun. So, I think the fact that we were having fun was an important part of the event's success.

As for the light-hearted "packaging" of the event, I feel very positive about that, partly because I got so much good feedback about the little e-vite and poster. It could be tempting to bewail the fact that Beethoven should ever need packaging, but there's a reason that all the named piano sonatas get extra airtime. In fact, Kenneth Woods had a great post recently about how Brahms made a bad P.R. move by not calling his two "serenades" symphonies - thus relegating them to a second-class status in the public's eye that means they are rarely heard. I don't think it even reflects that badly on people that they respond to this sort of packaging. Let's face it - we make sense of a very complicated world by organizing things into containers. So, if it helps to package an event in a way that reminds people Beethoven's music can be spontaneous, informal, and appealing as a sort of spectator sport in which the possibility of failure makes it all the more worth watching, then why not? [In other words, we're moving Beethoven from the "very serious and imposing" container to the "X-treme Sports gamer dude" container.] We definitely take music too seriously too often, and the world notices that.

There's something else I really enjoy about this whole experiment - the spontaneity of the planning. Yesterday's event went together very quickly - it's an idea I'd been thinking about for a long time, but I didn't even schedule the hall until Monday after we'd had our first 30-minute read-thru. Looking ahead, it looks like we'll take a shot at Level 2 next Wednesday. Although the original idea had been to go straight to Beethoven 2, the fact that our orchestra is playing Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony next weekend makes that seem like the right choice, even if I'm not a huge fan of the piece. [In spite of the passionately compelling advocacy of Kenneth Woods and others, I still finding myself thinking the Octet, the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Violin Concerto are as perfect as perfect can be - but just about everything else Mendelssohn wrote leaves me not quite convinced. I'll be more than happy to be converted.] But anyway, I love the fact that our piano hero "concert season" didn't have to be set in stone months in advance. I understand why orchestras have to do that, but it's so nice to think we can just change on the fly. It's one of the beauties of musical life in a local setting, and I think the more localized our music-making becomes, the better for all.

A few more topics worth touching on. First of all, Beethoven symphonies sound really fantastic on the piano, in spite of the obvious limitations - this one particularly. The 4-hand repertoire is a strange world, but what's odd is that I've always been more attracted to 4-hand transcriptions of orchestral music than to original 4-hand works, with the notable exception of the Schubert Fantasy. I think it's that the piano functions wonderfully as a solo instrument, and the solo repertoire is so freakishly good that piano duets always strike me as superfluous. But, whereas 2-hand versions of orchestral rep tend to be either incredibly difficult or woefully inadequate, the 4-hand versions are quite playable and they have the great advantage that, assuming one knows the orchestral version, you get to imagine all these sonorities that aren't really happening. I'm not sure it's worth my time to learn the Liszt solo transcriptions, but the 4-hand Philharmonic model is a perfect balance of practicality and satisfacticality. (It's my 300th post - I can inventify words if I want to.) 

A non-music faculty colleague came up and asked me after yesterday's performances if the piano could really recreate, for example, the sound of a cello section playing that wonderful transitional idea in the first movement of Beethoven 1. As it happens, I first got to know this symphony as a cellist - it's the first symphony I ever played - so I know exactly what he means since the cello part means a great deal to me. The answer to his question becomes very complicated, because when we're playing I can't really say where the sounds we're making end and the sounds in my head begin. (One reason mistakes don't bother me - I've got a good little internal editor.) But that's true of all listening to some degree - and, really a subject too big for a post that has already gotten way too long. The bottom line is, there's a special thrill that comes from this half-real, half-imaginary metamorphosis into an orchestra.

[You know what, this is my 300th post, so I'm just going to keep on going, even if it's too long.]

Here's an interesting aesthetic question that arises from this experience, a question I think about a lot. How important are all those little details that professional musicians spend so much time obsessing about, and that students are taught to worry so much about? Details like playing articulations exactly as intended, voicing harmonies just so, playing dynamics just as written (or implied), etc. My point is not that we shouldn't care about such matters, but that spending so much time on them probably makes us care too much about them. I say this because, speaking as a well-trained musician and a seasoned listener, I found that the absence of a well-planned point-of-view on these matters was no obstacle at all to getting the spirit of the music. Nathan and I did not discuss much of anything in our rehearsals. We just sat down and played and stopped when we crashed. Yeah, there were pedaling issues that could have been more coordinated and balances that could have been more balanced. But, if I'm honest, I just didn't really care that much about them. I think we're both naturally good musicians, and I was happy to let the chips fall where they fell.

Lastly, and I regret burying this at the end of the post, an important aspect of the "packaging" was that we played from computer monitors. If you're interested in the tech side, basically I set up a normal 15-inch laptop in front of me and hooked up a 15-inch LCD monitor in "extended desktop" mode for Nathan to my left. We then had Acrobat Reader set in two-page mode, maximized, so that each page fell squarely on its own screen. Of course, I used the Airturn to turn pages for both of us (Nathan handling the damper pedal), and I had pre-edited the score (originally downloaded from here) in PDF Annotator, inserting repeats of pages so that we could take the repeats and yet always be turning forward.

I wanted to use the monitors partly just for the fun of it and to give the audience a unique videogaming visual (actually, the real dream is to project the score for them - give me time), but I think it also made for a more fluid performance. The turns are basically instantaneous, which is nice when you're turning for two, and it's so nice not to have to worry about turning back for repeats. You can view the marked-up score here. (Depending on the version of Acrobat Reader you have, you may need to insert a blank page at the beginning to get the right two pages to show at the same time.) It has some red marks to help navigate the repeats, although you won't find a single interpretive mark or fingering - Nathan didn't have a chance to mark up his part, so I've got my pride. I don't wanna seem like a wimp who's using secret codes to get by.

And that's Post #300.

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