Thursday, August 30, 2012


First of all, I'd better get around to mentioning that I'm giving a faculty recital in just two weeks and two days. This Facebook thing is as far as I've made it with an event page so far, although I hope to update it soon. The program, in case you don't feel like following that link, is:
  • Bach: "Allemande" from Partita No. 4 in D Major
  • Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor
  • Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel
  • ----------
  • Dvorak: "Dumky" Trio (with my cellist wife & violinist daughter)
[The recital is on Saturday, September 15 at 7pm in Phillips Recital Hall, Gordon College, Wenham, MA.]

It's a program both conventional and quirky, conventional in its "standard rep"-iness, quirky in its juxtaposition of pieces. There's no real theme other than "these are some pieces I want to play." I suggested in a March blog post that there is something inherently selfish about devoting oneself to this kind of endeavor, no matter how much energy we musicians invest in saying we're all about giving, giving, giving. One can be selfish and giving at the same time, after all. At an rate, I don't mind admitting that I'm doing this partly for my own satisfaction, and since I don't find the opportunity to do solo recitals that often, I'm going to play what I want to play.

It's funny, because I think my reputation among students is as an advocate of the unconventional (I'm always talking mash-ups, trying to get an In C thing going every year, etc.), but I've never been shy about the fact that I have pretty old-fashioned tastes. See my list of "Favorite Music" to confirm. There's nothing on there later than Shostakovich or Britten. There are voices in my head telling me I should be playing something from own century, or at least the one in which I was born - but, again with the selfish thing. (I'm a little surprised no Scriabin made it on the program; there's a wonderful portrait of Scriabin that a student painted for me a few years ago after I told her he's a personal favorite. Every time I look up and see him staring down at my piano, I feel guilty...)

Still, I was a little surprised at how this program came together. I first assumed I'd be reprising Schumann's Kreisleriana from a recital I gave in 2003; that may be my single favorite piano work. But as I reviewed the CD from that recital, on came the Brahms "Handel" Variations, and I suddenly felt "I have to play this again." It was as simple as that. Sometimes the music just tells you what to do. I even considered repeating the entire 2003 recital, but eventually Kreisleriana drifted away, partly due to fear that I wouldn't have time to re-learn it and Brahms-Handel.

I devoted a Spring Break blog series (sort of) to my decision to re-learn the Chopin ballade in a week; I didn't quite finish getting it memorized in those seven days, and then completely dropped it until mid-summer when I thought the thirty minutes of Kreisleriana were seeming like too much. These eleven minutes of Chopin scare me to death, and it's odd to put them side by side with the Brahms since each piece is kind of a closer, but I think it's Chopin's greatest work and there's really nothing quite like it. I want to play it. Whereas the Brahms is a highly ordered, though expansive, structure, the Chopin evolves tentatively and mysteriously, but in compact fashion, so they make for an interesting contrast.

Still, the Chopin is too intense to begin a recital. For a while, I figured the Chopin and Brahms would fall on different halves. Then, early one summer Sunday, as I was doing my fake-organist thing and getting ready to play the morning service, I was looking for a D Major prelude (to go with the opening hymn) and flipped upon the allemande from Bach's D Major Partita. It's a piece I remember well from Jeremy Denk's remarkable 7-part blog series from 2007. Bach wrote many, many allemandes, of course, but none at all like this extended, meandering meditation. I quickly realized it didn't belong on the organ, but was irresistibly drawn to it, so I ended up playing the prelude from the piano that morning. Quite a few parishioners remarked at how beautiful it was, and after dismissing the thought that this was just relief at hearing me not play the organ, I decided the special-ness of this piece would translate to audiences more easily than I'd have thought.

The initial dilemma: "Do I now learn the whole Partita?" which would mean learning six other pieces. The easy answer came back, "No, this piece stands on its own." It's kind of like the Chaconne from the D Minor Violin Partita in that respect. If both repeats are observed, this "allemande like no other" can easily last ten minutes or more. I fear its beauty might be less appreciated in the broader suite context, and I'm of the opinion that Bach's suites are fairly loose connections of pieces - but, let's be honest: I also didn't feel like learning all that Bach. So here we are.

This allemande is also no conventional curtain-raiser, but it's gotten me to thinking about why we so often begin with "loud and fast." Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I hope there's something about this piece which will serve to consecrate the space, calm me down, and usher in a world in which time seems like less of a concern - to prepare us all for this counter-cultural thing we call a piano recital. In fact, this allemande is probably the closest thing Bach ever wrote to a Chopin nocturne, even if it sounds nothing like Chopin; it does feel like a nice way to set up the ballade, which in a more conventional program might be preceded by a nocturne.

Although I'm basically a "collaborative pianist" these days, it's important to me to get a chance to revisit solo repertoire, memorization, and all that. But, it's also a joy to be playing as a family in the second half. As a matter of fact, the "Dumky" Trio is the piece that introduced me to my wife-to-be (we were assigned to the same trio at a summer festival), so it means a lot to us to be playing it with our oldest daughter. I'm feeling a bit guilty about that decision because I'm realizing the violin part is the hardest to bring off in this trio; the cello gets almost all the good tunes, while Dvorak makes the poor violinist play awkward, accompanimental double-stops again and again. But, Daughter of MMmusing is a trooper and she's got chops, so I think we'll get there.

Each of the last two paragraphs referred to ways in which music interacts with time: the way a Bach allemande can seem to make time stop, and the way the Dumky Trio can connect our family's present with its past. One of my Spring Break "Ballade" posts also touched on this, how re-learning the Chopin ballade brought back vivid memories (or something even more present than memories) of learning the same piece as an undergrad twenty-plus years before.

In the last couple of days, I've had another strange music-time experience. Because memorization is such a scary thing, so vulnerable to changes of mental state, I've been revisiting an old trick: playing through these pieces backwards. OK, not literally note-by-note (or sound wave by sound wave!), but more or less phrase by phrase. The Brahms is a pretty easy piece to chunk since it divides up into a theme and 25 variations, each of which has two repeated halves of four bars each. (The fugue is more complicated and less symmetrical, but still pretty easy to break up into groups.) So, after backmasking through the fugue, it's on to part B of variation 25 (with repeat), part A of Variation 25, part B of Variation 24, part A of Variation 24, etc. In some cases, the repeats are varied repetitions, so I try to play the variants first as well.

It's a great mental exercise and makes it so that I feel quite comfortable starting at more than 60 spots within the 30-minute opus. (It also keeps my mind from wandering while I practice ... sometimes.) Hopefully this will be less about giving me a place to start if I fall off the horse, and more about the constant sense that, "oh, yes, I can visualize precisely what's coming up in four bars." But having now played through the piece backwards twice, I was unexpectedly struck by the weird sensation of moving backwards through time. I know the music quite well, of course, so although time is obviously moving forward, each little chunk feels like something more past than what's just happened. (A good set of variations has a sense of building to a conclusion, and this is as good a set of variations as has ever been written. Yep, as good as Goldberg and Diabelli.) This is especially striking when I "end" with the half cadence that concludes the first four bars of Handel's theme.

Each time, it feels like the last bit of the piece has been sucked up into some time-consuming vacuum cleaner - that's not an analogy I went looking for or a thought I dreamed up because I wanted to blog about something. It was a genuine sensory experience. I'd like to try this with more big variation sets at some point, like the finale of the "Eroica" Symphony. (The Goldberg Variations wouldn't work as well since that piece ends as it begins.) But that sounds like another blog post, post-recital.

Last weekend, we heard a final concert for my daughter's music camp at which the orchestra of 9-13 year-olds finished with Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on "Greensleeves," chosen because the retiring camp director had played that same piece as a camper in the orchestra - in 1948! Talk about a time-travelling experience. Listening to these kids play this piece (which was quite new in '48, though the tune was already old) in an old-fashioned (though fairly new) barn in the foothills of the ancient Berkshires to honor a woman who's invested so much time in music and children - well, it made me realize that Einstein's theory of relativity may not be fully understood with respect to music.


Erica Ann Sipes said...

Sounds like a wonderful program, Michael, and I respect so much your willingness to do some different things, although I can't say that I'm surprised. You tend to think outside the box.

I have to say that I'm relieved to say a few things - that you're nervous about the memorizing thing and that you find the Chopin so challenging. I share those same sentiments but for whatever reason in the piano world it's kind of uncouth to admit as much. Why is that?

And playing the Dumky with your family? What a wonderful experience for all of you!

Enjoy, Michael. I look forward to hearing how it all goes.


PS - Shoot. Now I have to type in a captcha. What do you know?


Wow, you made it past the captcha. Truly, you have proven yourself sufficiently wise and worthy to comment on my blog. (Also, the nice comments are nice!)