mulberryshoots

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Category: Music

‘measured melancholy’ . . .

On another brilliant New England fall day, I thought I’d post a link of Piotr Anderszewski playing a Chopin mazurka . . . to me, it’s a perfect piece to accompany the Fall weather that has graced us for the past weeks.

Someone said the mazurkas, usually characterized as folk tunes, also conveyed a “measured melancholy,” an apt way to describe the gradual waning of the brilliant season now passing us by.

 

 

 

Ronald Smith, English pianist . . .

DSCN8167

Ronald Smith‘s playing of Alkan‘s “Concerto for Piano” is so thoughtfully wrought – majestic, musical and just plain gorgeous. We came upon a snippet recording of it on YouTube David Dubal’s 30 minute interview of RS and were astonished that we had never heard this performance before. Up to two nights ago, my husband and I had thought only Marc-Andre Hamelin’s two recordings of it stood as the gold standard of this piece which, truth be told, was the composition which embraced the early days of our courtship.

Now there’s room for this beautiful recording. I had to track it down in a 2004 EMI remastered compendium of Ronald Smith’s ALKAN PROJECT on Amazon.com and download it as a MP3 recording. (I tried to find it again to link to this post but was unable to locate it.)

My husband was an Alkan “nut” when we first met over twenty years ago and although the Internet was not around then, he had amassed almost all of the Alkan scores and CDs of pianists playing Alkan at the time: John Ogdon, Raymond Lewanthal, Marc Andre Hamelin and Laurent Martin. He also had a copy of Ronald Smith’s two-volume biography of Charles Valentin Alkan.

When we travelled to England to visit my daughter who was a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1994, my husband was able to contact Ronald Smith on the telephone, a gracious encounter – and we also had dinner with the Secretary of the Alkan Society in Salisbury when we first arrived.

Ronald Smith has done the musical world a service worth its weight in gold by promoting the music of Charles Valentin Alkan. There is none other as poignantly beautiful. Thank you, Ronald Smith!

path to winning . . .

1101580519_400

Okay, so this is probably the last post I’ll make (for awhile at least) about the 1958 Van Cliburn Tchaikowsky competition. Not only had Russia just launched Sputnik six months earlier at the height of the Cold War, but this was also the very FIRST Tchaikowsky competition ever.

In an interview, Van Cliburn said that he was greeted at the airport by a very nice Russian woman who mispronounced his name – so in Russia, he was known as “Van CLEE-BURN.”

In addition, he said to the interviewer that it was an incredible jury which included world-famous musicians: Dmitry Kabalevsky, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter and chaired by the composer, Dmitri Shostakovitch! Apparently, there were some shenanigans in the scoring that went on as described in the article below – wherein certain jurors were scoring the American with mediocre marks (15s & 16s out of 25.)

Sviatoslav Richter caught on to this and began giving Van Cliburn all 25s, perfect marks while scoring everybody else with zeroes! “Either they have it or they don’t!” Richter was quoted as saying. The jury approached Khrushchev to get his approval for them to declare their choice of Van Cliburn as the winner. On the way home, the stewardess on the plane showed the pianist a copy of TIme Magazine with a pastel portrait of Van Cliburn on the cover.

Postcript:
Liu Shu Kun was a Chinese pianist who placed second in the 1958 Tchaikowsky competition when Van Cliburn won the gold medal. As a pianist, I was introduced to Liu Shu Kun when I visited Beijing in the 1970’s. AND he visited my home in Lexington, MA. in the 1980’s during a trip to the States. Small world, right?

http://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/33_folder/33_articles/33_vancliburn.html

‘work in progress’ . . .

sweater

I visited a pianist friend of mine yesterday out in Hadley, Massachusetts. We’ve known each other since junior high school. He’s been ill but seems to be recovering better than anyone had hoped after what appeared to be a debilitating round of radiation. I played a piece by Robert Schumann called “Abschied” which he said he had never heard before.

I asked him if he thought he would start playing the piano again and how he would go about it. He said that he would “work up my technique first. then resurrect all the pieces I know I can play and get them up to speed. Then learn something new.” He also said he might get some work done on his Story and Clark baby grand piano.

I thought about that on the drive home. And also had a conversation about Beethoven sonatas last night with another pianist friend. I’ve been practicing some Bach and Chopin along with a piece by Schumann.

After yesterday’s conversations, I think what I’m going to do next is to sightread at a slow tempo all of the Beethoven piano sonatas starting with Book One. There are thirty-two of them in two volumes. I’ll play them slowly to listen to the harmonies and see what they feel like under my fingers. I’ve especially liked the Adagios that are in some of them. I’m pretty sure it will be an interesting experience.

and a work in progress. . .

Postscript:

Now that I’m thinking about it, in parallel, I think I’ll also read through my favorite piano concerto scores: Beethoven’s 3rd, 4th and 5th; Saint Saens 5th (“Egyptian”); Rachmaninoff 2nd & 3rd, Tchaikovsky (Van Cliburn’s triumphant Moscow performance) Brahms 1st and 2nd. That should keep me going for awhile at least.

a suitcase full of ‘wrong notes’ . . .

DSCN4827

We just heard an anecdote about pianists that some of you might enjoy. It appeared during “The Art of Piano,” a YouTube documentary almost 2 hours long which featured a generation of pianists gone by (Paderewski, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofman, Alfred Cortot, Sviatoslav Richter, Claudio Arrau, Artur Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Emil Gilels among others including Edwin Fischer.)

Someone described a conversation between Clara Haskil, (a noted pianist in her own right and accompanist to Arthur Grumiaux, the violinist) and her companion on a train travelling in Europe. During the ride, the two musicians noted and discussed numerous pianists and what they thought of them. When they got to Edwin Fischer, Haskil said, “Oh, but he plays so many wrong notes! more than anyone we listen to.”

As they got up to disembark the train, a gentleman stood up in front of them who turned out to be none other than Edwin Fischer who had been sitting in the next compartment unbeknownst to Haskil and her friend. He turned to them with a smile and asked if they would help him lift his large suitcase from the upper luggage rack, saying it was very heavy because “it contains all of my wrong notes!”

Numerous contemporary pianists such as Daniel Barenboim, Evgeny Kissin and Piotr Anderdrewski commented on the pianists of yore. And even though the documentary was much longer than we had anticipated, there were notable omissions, at least to me: Dinu Lipatti, Jorge Bolet and Rudolf Serkin.

But it was worthwhile watching– and we thought the little tale about the suitcase containing wrong notes was very funny.

Here’s a link to “Art of Piano”

the piano . . .

DSCN4793

This summer, I seem to have found my way back to the piano again.

Being able to listen to pianists on our large-screen TV has also helped to inspire me to practice more. After all, when you can witness someone blind from birth (N. Tsuji, who shared the Gold Medal in 2009 Van Cliburn competition) playing Chopin’s first Etude in C major without missing a note, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself that you can’t even play it at a slow tempo with your eyes open!

The other night, G. and I watched the film taken live of Van Cliburn performing the Tchaikovsky piano concerto in Moscow, conducted by Kiril Kondrashin. His charisma and rather theatrical performance won the hearts of that rapt Russian audience. The jury hesitated before awarding him the gold medal because of the Cold War that was going on between Russia and the United States at the time. And so they asked Khrushchev if he would approve their choice. He asked, “Does he deserve it? Is he the best?” and they said “YES!”

And the rest is history! — including a ticker tape parade celebrating Van Cliburn’s triumph in New York City upon his return to the U.S. Seeing these historic moments are enough to move me to tears every time I watch it. Here’s a link to a Youtube clip of this momentous performance posted In Memoriam when Van Cliburn died in 2013.

I’ve also observed how many really fine pianists there are who are still unknown and who play with so much love for this fabulous instrument! We are so fortunate to have our pianos and it’s wonderful to be playing them again!

a brave new world of music! . . .

Xmas 2005-Spring 2006 579_2_2Well yesterday, with a $6 adapter for my Mac laptop that I ordered from Amazon and from watching YouTube videos on how to connect and program my system preferences, I was able to hook up my computer to our large-screen HDMI TV!!

This may not sound like much, but what it opens up for us is the ability to play YouTube clips of pianists playing the piano: in Van Cliburn competitions, in concert hall recitals as well as viewing videos from individual and other websites. Up to now, I thought that ITunes was the limit, being able to listen to sample clips of various pianists and then being able to download a single selection for a nominal fee, make playlists and send them to friends. Now, there are live performances online that haven’t been recorded on a CD that are FREE and can be viewed on a large screen TV.

Since this new arrangement yesterday, I viewed and listened to these performances:

  • Van Cliburn in 1958 live performance of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto conducted by Kiril Kondrashin (who also conducted recordings with Sviatoslav Richter.) Watching this incredible event nearly brought me to tears.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHbPDDoVXtQ
  • Jack Gibbons, an English pianist that I had not paid much attention to before, playing Charles Valentin Alkan’s “Concerto for Solo Piano” – and I heard inner voices that I had not noticed before in Marc-Andre Hamelin’s two recordings of the same piece. It turns out Gibbons performed it in Carnegie Hall in 2007 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of this composition! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-YXdfKK4J0
  • Marc-Andre Hamelin performing with Leonard Slatkin playing George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” a favorite since my college days wherein I even fiddled around with some of the jazzy parts on the piano myself! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxUHcXUJZgY

Last night, G. and I watched the 1993 Van Cliburn piano competition (2 hours) downloaded from YouTube on our TV screen, enjoying what was, in our minds, the most impressive group of pianists we’ve ever seen on Van Cliburn competition DVDs (the ones where Andre Schub and Olga Kern won the gold medal had a paucity of contestants compared to this group.) Nearly all of the contestants played well. AND, there was more footage of actual piano playing throughout the stages of the competition so that the viewer could gain a sense of individual pianist’s strengths, unlike the fluff piece that just came out on PBS called “Virtuosity,”which was more like a reality show of pianists (how many dresses did you bring with you?) Here’s a link to the 2 hour 1993 Van Cliburn competition video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DevG2ENlTbw

Do you remember the techie in that old James Bond movie played by a very young Alan Cumming who says “I am inVINC-ible” right before the whole place goes up in flames?? Well, (without the flaming out part,) that’s how I feel when I make progress at a snail’s pace in our technology driven world.

I may be a little tardy coming to this technology party, but believe me, I’m staying late!

 

 

 

SO much time . . . so little piano!

Xmas 2005-Spring 2006 583_2

Last night, PBS aired “Virtuosity” an hour and a half documentary of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. G. and I were disappointed by how little footage there was of individual pianists playing. Here’s a review I wrote about it posted on Amazon this a.m.

Title: “SO much time . . . so little piano!”

“My husband and I are both pianists and we looked forward to watching this documentary on PBS which aired on July 31, 2015. We are familiar with other films made of this world-famous Van Cliburn piano competition. The repertory requirements are rigorous: many individual pieces, playing with a chamber group if you advance to the semi-finals; and performing a concerto with an orchestra if you make it to the finals.

Human interest soundbites monopolized the hour and a half film as we waited to hear individuals play long enough to be able to discern differences among them as pianists and as musicians. Way too much footage was given to two particular pianists whose facial grimaces detracted from the music they were playing – and there were FOUR separate instances of the same pianist grimacing through a piece that even a third-grader could manage (Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude that Jack Nicholson played on the back of a truck in the movie, “Five Easy Pieces.”). The redundancy of that Chopin clip illustrates the filmmakers’ naivete while denying us the ability to discern true talent.

So, I guess this was journalism with all the human interest stuff and glitzy film pyrotechnics superimposing images of multiple pianists playing the same piece. Pianists don’t play pieces the same way as suggested by the montage – and we don’t get a chance to hear the differences. There was so little footage of individual playing that it was virtually impossible to glean why the First Prize Gold Medal winner was chosen.

Perhaps this film was what the Van Cliburn foundation wanted as PR. Too bad they forgot the piano playing that everyone wants to experience in the first place. It was produced by people who aren’t pianists – and I was thinking that if Van Cliburn were still alive, it wouldn’t have been allowed to happen for sure. This film was a true disappointment and a missed opportunity.

“farewell” . . .

petit fleur

Okay so today, I take back every complaint I’ve ever made about the music composed by Robert Schumann.

I had discovered “Abschied” (“Farewell”) the last piece in his composition, “Waldszenen” (“In the Forest”) played by Clara Haskil over the weekend.

This morning, I located the score online and printed it out to sightread at the piano. Here it is performed by Sviatoslav Richter.

 

 

 

a “new” normal . . .

Xmas 2005-Spring 2006 583_2

Last night, it rained so hard that it woke me up. I walked around silently closing the windows all around the house. It was an interesting night because I found myself dreaming what felt like a very long saga of a melodrama about changing patterns. As with many dreams, it was vivid at the time and harder to remember the blurry edges now that I am awake. Suffice it to say, it was vividly about changing patterns, sequences and designs of layouts in a fantasy world of characters I did not recognize and at the same time, felt like myself.

When I woke up (a second time,) I felt that the Universe had shifted slightly and that the dream’s gestalt had permeated my consciousness – at least I remembered its energy as being very positive at the same time that it was challenging me, as if to pose an important question. Yes, I said to my inner self. Instead of looking at health issues as the glass half empty, it’s time to look at the broader context of our lives as brimming with all good things that we worked hard for and which we may now enjoy together.

A case in point is an experience G. and I shared last night while watching a documentary of the Polish pianist, Piotr Anderszewski, filmed by Bruno Monsaingeon, a master producer of intimate, poignant films about famous musicians, notably of Sviatislav Richter, near the end of his days. I observed as the film progressed, how intently G. listened to the music he played. In parallel, I also listened intently to a young man (at the time) who was difficult to watch sometimes in his facial expressions, but whose playing was infinitely musical. In a way, it was a paradigm of the kind of intimacy that we share in our married life together: individual reactions, yet shared at the same time – and in the end, compatible in the assessments we make separately when we discuss them later on. It is a rare thing, I think – and each time it happens, I am touched by it.

In any case, I messaged a pianist friend of ours about the documentary to let him know about it and he returned almost immediately with a Youtube clip called “Technique Doesn’t Exist!” featuring one of our favorite pianists, Maria Joao Pires. It turned out to be almost an hour long so we’ll watch it together this evening. The opening of the Pires clip showed her and one of her star pupils playing Schubert’s well known Fantasie in F minor, four hands together on the same piano. This is a piece that I’m familiar with, having played it with others and also listening to Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia go at it in one of my favorite recordings. It gets a little bombastic in the middle but that’s the way it goes.

In an interview online, Anderszkewski related that in Warsaw during Chopin competition years, the local populace’s passion for it was similar to ours with football. In fact, he recalled in 1957, that his Aunts got into such a disagreement about who played Mazurkas the best that they stopped speaking to each other for weeks! His sister, Dorothea, is an accomplished violinist who is a concertmaster of one of the major orchestras in Poland. The pressure to practice at an early age coming from their strict father has obviously been rewarded by two ardent musicians who enjoy each other’s company musically as well as being siblings.

All of this, the changing pattern dream-like message, the music we witnessed separately and together last night and the cool, rainy Sunday morning that we are enjoying with our coffee this morning has made me realize that in fact, it’s time for a change. With an all-day rain predicted for today, I’ve decided that tomorrow would be good timing to transplant a bed of a half-dozen dark red day lily plants from a side plot that has been shadowed by trees to a sunny front garden which has successfully evaded a permanent planting of perennials so far because previous attempts have been unwittingly mowed down by mistake every summer up to now.

With the soaking rain today, it’ll be easy to weed the front plot, add some loam, dig up the daylilies which are robust and healthy and transplant them while the ground is soft and yielding. Maybe this time, after mulch is added, I’ll pick up a little plastic picket fence divider as a boundary to protect it until the transplants get established.

Most interesting is the strong impulse to play the piano again today. To review and enjoy some of the pieces that we played for each other twenty years ago: the second movement of a Mozart sonata, Bach partitas and even perhaps some Chopin ballades and mazurkas!

Life can indeed be seen as a glass half empty or as one that is half full. Ours is the latter and it only takes a little prodding every once in awhile to renew that perspective and enjoy our good fortune. With thanks and gratitude to the Universe which moves in mysterious ways and to a family whose understanding and love is appreciated every day.