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

Category: Music

clara and arthur . . .

Xmas 2005-Spring 2006 583_2_2As some of you know, I’m a pianist and also slightly OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) when I come across a pianist that I haven’t listened to before but love their way of playing. One of the ones I wrote about before was Paul Lewis, an English pianist whose Schubert and Beethoven recordings are beautifully musical and sensitively played. His recording of the Beethoven Rondo from Opus 4 in E-flat major is one of my favorites and I’ve started to study it myself recently.

Another pianist I came across the other day while searching for renditions of Scarlatti on I-tunes is Clara Haskil. Many contemporary pianists play Scarlatti as though they were finger exercises, rushing up and down the keyboard as though the metronome and speed were what they were aiming for rather than making music. They either play too fast or take too much liberty with rubato that drives me crazy when I listen to them.

So, when I happened upon Clara Haskil’s Scarlatti recordings, I stopped and savored listening to them because they are so musical, the tempi reasonable and most of all, the melodies were so beautiful. So I looked her up on Wiki (where else?) and found she lived in the last mid-century, born in Romania and of Swiss origins. She won a Premier first in piano at the age of fifteen and she also won a Premier first in violin at the same time! Beset by physical problems and living in poverty (Wiki says) she nevertheless performed with many of the premier musicians of the time: Pablo Casals, the conductor Ernest Ansermet and most of all, as a pianist playing with the French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux.

At first, I was tempted to purchase a 10 Scarlatti sonata recording by Clara Haskil for $9.99 on I-tunes. But on further exploration, I discovered a compendium of recordings by her for only $11.99 that included the Scarlatti sonatas. Imagine my astonishment when I scrolled down to see that there were 105 (one-hundred-five) tracks on this single recording! A click and a download quickly filled my I-tunes library with concerti recordings, Bach Busoni numbers, Beethoven and the lode of Scarlatti. I listened to it while I made some maple oatmeal scones this morning.

maple oatmeal scones

maple oatmeal scones

So, why is this post also about Arthur Grumiaux? Apparently, even though Clara was about twenty years older than Arthur, they had a very close musical partnership. One of the most touching and humorous observations about their relationship was that Grumiaux, the violinist, was also a fine pianist. So the two of them would sometimes swap instruments and play each other’s parts when they rehearsed together! I thought this was so charming and such a rarity of musicianship at their level that I wanted to write about it in this post.

Sadly, Clara died at the age of sixty-five as a result of a fall that she suffered at the Brussels train station on her way to a concert that she and Arthur Grumiaux were scheduled to play together the next day. Apparently, her death was a huge and personal loss for him when she died. Although he had diabetes, he continued to concertize and died almost twenty years later from a stroke when he was sixty-five.

So, there you have a story about Clara and Arthur. Her recordings are playing in the background while I read and cook. And their story serves as such a tender example of human relationship and music making, at least for me. (Sigh.)

Postscript: If you would like to read a personal essay about Clara Haskill published in the journal, “Clavier,” please click here.


a quiet day . . .

flowers with rice cookerHere it is, almost the official day of Spring this week, and it’s gently sleeting outside. One of the heaters is on the fritz downstairs (we have geothermal heat pumped up from a well underneath the house) and sometimes the compressors of the individual units decide to act up. It’s the vagaries of living in a complex of living units that needs to be tuned up just like pianos, some of the time.

I’ve been experimenting with cooking rice, Japanese style, as introduced to me by my daughter, M., who lives in Minneapolis. She gave me the idea of mixing different kinds of rice and keeping a rice cooker humming so that dollops of rice can be had any time of the day, even for breakfast with a soft-boiled egg on top. After trying different combinations including chicken broth, I think my favorite mix at the moment is half Chinese sweet rice (sticky) and half Lundberg’s short grain brown rice. I heat up some dashi broth and add about four short bursts of Ohsawa soy sauce. Mix it up and add twice the amount of broth as rice. Turn the cooker on, and soon afterwards, I can smell fragrant steam rising from the pot.

Yesterday for lunch, I had a small bowl of rice along with one preserved salted duck egg (from the Asian market) and a few pieces of pickled cucumbers. Satisfying, simple and low in calories. Last night, I cooked a dish I made up combining pieces of raw shrimp, minced green onions, baby spinach, stemmed and sliced beaten into fresh eggs. I heated up a skillet with grapeseed oil and made small pancakes with shrimp, spinach and onions in each patty. Turned them over when crisp and served with a dipping mixture containing oyster sauce, Japanese seasoned vinegar, a little soy and a tiny bit of agave nectar. Bowls of the sticky rice with these crisp shrimp and spinach fritters and some pickled cucumber made up our table. Filling and enough flavor to satisfy our appetite. Sometimes, I also add fresh bean sprouts and fresh cilantro to the shrimp mixture. Good both ways!

Afterwards, I came across the Schubert four-hand Youtube clip that I appended to the last post. G. reminded me of another piano duo, Anderson and Roe, that we have enjoyed listening to in the past. Their arrangement and rendition of Michael Jackson’s song, “Billie Jean” is fun to watch and listen to, as is their playful outdoor medley filmed at a Texas University campus.

“Billie Jean” link:

“Viva la Vida” link:

My life seems to revolve around food and music. I guess that’s not such a bad thing, is it? The other day, I heard about a recipe for making huge black pepper and gruyere popovers from an Austin, TX restaurant clip on the Food Channel. I’ve written about making popovers earlier and can’t wait to try these out, served as a meal with a salad. Maybe I will make them as the main feature for Easter dinner, along with an arugula endive salad with glazed walnuts and pink grapefruit segments. Yum!

meaning. . .

What gives meaning to a life? I have been thinking about this since returning from visiting my 92-year old relative this past weekend who is weak and yet still lucid enough to send me off with an instruction to “take care of my family, take care of myself. . . and be happy.”

Is that all it takes? I take care of my family all the time, probably a little better than I take care of myself. But I think that last part about being happy is both the simplest and the hardest to carry out.

For example, I think one can DO lots of things to make yourself happy–and only we know what those things are that we especially treasure and enjoy. One of my discoveries of late is a “Rondo” movement of a Beethoven sonata played so tenderly and beautifully by a British pianist named Paul Lewis. (It’s the fourth movement of Sonata #4 in E-flat major, Op. 7.) G. and I went to a concert at Jordan Hall in Boston and heard Lewis play Schubert sonatas this January. Listening my way through these Beethoven recordings, I am amazed and taken aback by the freshness of the interpretations, so musical, clean and touching in its beauty of melody and line. Rapture is one way to describe it, I think.

[Here is a link to the piece on Youtube played by Daniel Alvadaras, someone other than Paul Lewis, but you can get a sense of the piece. Lewis’s rendition is available in the collected Beethoven sonatas.)

Actually, it has made me think about my mother and how important music was to her, all the way to the end. When asked why she went to the Unitarian Church that she had belonged to for decades when she said she didn’t believe in the afterlife, she answered simply, “for the music!” She sang in the choir and played recorder too, although she didn’t think that counting beats or measures was that important. I think one of her greatest wishes in life would have been to play an instrument as well as my sister played the violin and viola and I played the piano.

So, listening to Paul Lewis play this Beethoven “Rondo” makes me very happy today. DO-ing something like this makes me feel that BEING happy is a state of grace, whenever it appears. I am also struck by how individual our moments of happiness are. Someone else might not hear or experience what I am when I’m listening to this music. So many of the things around us that we cherish and enjoy are mere objects to other people. A line in a book or poem, flowers in a vase tilted in a certain direction; a meal, simple and warming may have meaning to us and make us happy but might not suit anyone else. But, if we’re happy, that’s a good thing.

Has something made you happy today?

Postscript: Icing on the cake tonight! Finding a YouTube clip of Paul Lewis and Imogen Cooper playing Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor. Luscious! Here it is!


little hearts . . .

So here we are on Valentine’s day eve with a few goodies for enjoyment and fun! I was in Barnes and Noble on Monday afternoon this week, paging through some of the British magazines that I love to look at for ideas but have stopped purchasing in order to save money and space at home. In one of them, (sorry I don’t remember the title to give full credit,) I saw a very charming, yet easy idea to make a Valentine treat. Here it is if you would like to try it out yourself sometime:

Heart tarts with raspberry/cream cheese filling!

The recipe called for mixing some fresh raspberries with whipped cream cheese plus a dab of honey for the filling. Instead, I looked for a jar of raspberry preserves which I thought would have more flavor.

Cream together:
1/2 cup of raspberry preserves
1/4 cup of Philadelphia whipped cream cheese
1 Tablespoon honey

Roll out Pillsbury pie crust and cut out pairs of pastry with heart-shaped cookie cutters.
Take a cookie sheet, line it with aluminum foil and spray with non-stick oil. Place the thickest hearts on the bottom; add a dab of filling in the center of bottom crust. Brush the edges with milk; place second heart pastry on the filling and press the edges together and prick with tines of a fork. Prick the top of the tart with a toothpick for steam to escape.

Bake in preheated 400 degree oven for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. The recipe called for icing the heart shaped tarts but I liked the appearance of a tiny bit of confectioners sugar sprinkled on the top while they were still warm. G. took a pair of them slipped into a cellophane sleeve with white polka dots to his 94-year old mother and brother who live across the street. She thought they were “cute.”
DSC_0260And if that’s not enough to make our day, this little video may. G. and I were watching a documentary last night on TV that we just happened upon of Bobby McFerrin, the jazz improvisationist and conductor of classical orchestras who has won ten Grammy awards over the years. In the film, he coached four young aspiring singers to improvise together on stage with him, to the tune, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” When asked earlier what would make them successful as musicians in search of making their own mark, his answer was sweet and simple: find your own authentic voice and style ~ so that when one heard it, they would know it was you.

Curious, I looked up more information about Bobby McFerrin, because I remembered he had served as the Creative Chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, for which my sister and her partner have played for over thirty years. It turns out McFerrin has also conducted other major orchestras all over the world. He is an impressive gent because he is so modest and true to himself. Then, I came across this video of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performing the “William Tell Overture.” Here is a link to this piece ~ it will bring a smile to your face!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

playing the piano . . . (a review)

Xmas 2005-Spring 2006 583_2_2resizedA pianist’s journey through a composer’s shadows (Boston Globe, 14 January 2013) by David Weininger

“I will be surprised if 2013 brings a musical event more audacious, more edifying, and more fulfilling than British pianist Paul Lewis’s recital on Saturday.

Lewis, who is in the prime of his career, was making his long-overdue Boston debut. Happily, he eschewed the strategy of offering an assortment of pieces chosen to show off his range. He chose instead to make a bold statement about his artistry by playing Schubert’s last three piano sonatas. Like Beethoven’s late sonatas, Schubert’s both sit at the heart of the piano repertoire and exist in their own rarefied world, one not easily infiltrated. Tackling all three on the same program is highly unusual, but Lewis acquitted himself brilliantly.

Schubert was close to his premature death in 1828 when he wrote the three sonatas; they were published after his death and largely neglected in the 19th century. In them a relentless struggle between light and darkness plays out. Rather than shy away from the conflict, Lewis magnified it wherever it appeared. The opening movement of the C-minor Sonata, D. 958, was full of driving forward momentum. Gentler, sunnier stretches of music were played quickly, almost coldly, reinforcing the idea that whatever comfort the music had to offer would, sooner or later, retreat back into gloom. Lewis’s feat was to convey the expressive drama of the music without letting it overtake the virtues of poise and phrasing.

Indeed, Lewis’s approach was equal parts intelligence and daring, a fusion that emerged clearly in the slow movement of the A-major Sonata, D. 959. This is some of the most wrenching music Schubert ever wrote. Lewis consistently pushed back against its rhythm so that it seemed to limp forward irregularly. You got the impression that Schubert had to be pushed, with the utmost reluctance, to commit such sad sounds to paper. The effect is difficult for a performer to achieve without seeming self-conscious, but Lewis nailed it. The crisis that erupts in the middle of this movement was almost too painful to bear.

The final sonata, in B-flat (D. 960), is usually held to be the greatest of the three. Ironically, it is in large part the most placid and least openly conflicted of the three. Yet on Friday there was always a discomfiting sense that shadows lay just around the corner, hidden from sight. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of what had come before; perhaps its lengthy, unfolding melodies were meant to convey resignation rather than serenity.

In any event, Lewis’s playing was fluent, insightful, and sensuously beautiful by turns. It is impossible to call any performance of a piece perfect, but it is hard to imagine this difficult music rendered more convincingly.

A well-filled Jordan Hall gave Lewis a well-deserved ovation. They did him a greater honor by remaining silent throughout almost the whole concert. With any luck, he will return soon.”

playing the piano . . .

~ photo by C., part of a Christmas diorama she made of me at my Steinway "B" grand piano named "Victor" rebuilt by G. 20 years ago ~

~ photo by C., part of a Christmas diorama she made of me at my Steinway “B” grand piano named “Victor” rebuilt by G. 20 years ago ~

As I’m writing this post, I’m listening to Paul Lewis, the British pianist, playing early Beethoven sonatas. Last night, as my Christmas gift to G., we went to hear Lewis play at Jordan Hall in Boston. I had managed to purchase the last two left-center balcony tickets for the recital.

There was a young (around 5) Chinese boy sitting behind me, his older sister (around 11) and his mother. The boy had the sniffles and kept blowing out of one nostril all the way through the concert. I ignored him because at least he didn’t talk while Lewis was playing. Another young boy around 8 years old sat beside G. These young children at this concert (at around $75 a ticket) reminded me of when my middle daughter, M., played the piano and we took her to hear Horowitz because we wanted her to have a chance to hear him play before he died some years later.

Paul Lewis played three Schubert sonatas for the program: the C minor, A major and B-flat major late sonatas that Schubert managed to write immediately before he died at the age of thirty-one. I’m familiar with these pieces and Lewis did everything and more than one might have hoped: wonderful, round tone, clarity, color with gorgeous pianissimo, a confident yet ego-less grasp of the music and just beautiful piano playing. People stood and called out “Bravo!” even before the intermission.

I thought I had heard a ringing of G# in the lower register during the A major sonata. The piano tuner came out, played the notes and adjusted a note in the upper register. Then distracted by someone on the auditorium floor, he left the instrument and didn’t touch it again. I thought that was a little odd. G. tunes and rebuilds pianos so he had some opinions of the piano too.

In any event, when Lewis came out to play the big B-flat sonata, I thought something was off from the way he had carried himself in the first half. Perhaps it’s because the piece itself has a shallower melody bed than the the other two sonatas, but I definitely had the uneasy feeling that Lewis was, well, uneasy too in the 2nd half of the program.

Even though there was much applause, he demurred from playing any encores. I had hoped we would hear some of the shorter Schubert pieces, “Moments Musicaux” but he didn’t play anything else.

I have to confess that hearing him play on the Steinway Concert Grand in Jordan Hall made me feel, once again, how proud I am to be married to G. who has dedicated his life to pianos. I think he felt something too in his own way. DSC_0006_2

During the intermission, I chatted with two couples who sat nearby. I said I had read online that Lewis’s father had been a dock worker, his mother a housewife and there had been no vestiges of music in his heritage. One said they had never heard of Paul Lewis before and had come as part of their Celebrity Series tickets. The other said he and his wife listened to Lewis’s recordings of these Schubert sonatas before they went to bed for the last two years!

He asked me what I thought of the way Lewis played Schubert compared to Alfred Brendel (with whom Lewis had studied for a short time,) and I said I thought Lewis’s was better than Brendel’s. I also volunteered that I thought Lewis’s recording of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was better than that of Sviatislav Richter, whose recording my daughter C. (the photographer) would listen to every night when she went to bed at the age of about eight. (What’s this thing about people listening to Schubert before going to bed?)

Anyhow, it turned out to be a most wonderful experience. It makes me think I’m getting ready to practice again: maybe the Schubert short pieces and definitely some of the early Beethoven sonatas. If you would like to listen to Paul Lewis, here is a link to the recording that got me hooked in the first place, especially the 6 Moments Musicaux:

a turning leaf . . .

How many times have you decided to start your life over? You know, the “this is the first day of the rest of my life?” kind of thing? Turning the page, starting a new volume of your life’s story, whatever phrases we want to use to denote our true readiness (this time!) to make big changes within and outside ourselves.

I smile as I write this because I’m not trying to make a joke about it. In fact, I think it’s one of the greatest benefits of being American and living in a country that believes in second, third and fourth chances. A populace that forgives people who transgress (think Read the rest of this entry »

little piano players . . .

Josie at 15 months old with me, Christmas, 2011

My daughter, M., was telling me yesterday about her experience playing Bach at the piano with her daughter, J. on her lap. J., who is going on two-and-a half plinked around on the keys, and when she finished, M. clapped, to which J. beamed a huge smile and then wanted M. to play the piano some more. This description seems like a good model for how to introduce a young child to play music.

As a pianist myself, I have been commenting for some time now that J. has perfect ‘piano hands’–wide palm, long fingers, born to play the piano. If she relishes the playing AND the applause, that’s a good sign, don’t you think?

That got me searching for and finding some truly adorable and impressive Youtube clips of little asian girls playing amazing piano that are inspiring to watch, whatever our age!

Here are a few that I hope you’ll enjoy watching:
1) an amazing 5 year old playing Bach at a sprightly clip:

2) my favorite 8 year old, because she looks so charming and plays so musically:

3) and last but not least, aimi kobayashi at the age of four and in 2008, playing in Moscow:

I hope that these little piano players fill your day with wonder and the sound of music!

thunderclaps . . .

Last night, lightning flashed and thunderclaps woke us up around four in the morning. I was grateful for the rain that the garden needed so badly. As the lightning continued with the thunder elapsing at longer intervals, I lay on my back in bed and thought about how lucky we were that lightning did not strike the house and that a large tree did not fall on our roof. I noticed headlights from a vehicle which came into our driveway and then drove slowly out again, delivering our morning newspaper. A few minutes later, it came back again, perhaps to deliver a missed paper since we usually take two, the Telegram and Gazette and the New York Times.

By this time, I was awake and ruminating about an idea to consolidate all my piano scores into a cabinet arranged by composer. Preoccupied with other things this year, I could feel myself wanting to practice and play the piano again, more so every day. But boxes of things had been stored underneath it, we removed a chest that went to an antiques shop in New Hampshire and the area around my cherished Steinway grand piano had served as a kind of way station for things on there way to somewhere else. After getting out of bed around five a.m. and looking on Craigslist in four states, I found a couple of candidates for music storage, sent a few emails to inquire about them and went back to bed.

As often happens during these mid-night excursions, I fell asleep again right before the time that I usually get up for the day. Feeling slightly groggy and out of sorts mid-morning, I straightened up the living room, putting away books, periodicals, magazines and decluttered the kitchen counter. I can’t seem to feel free to begin things unless there is a modicum of order in our living space. Maybe I am mildly OCD but it’s more of a help than a hindrance in an endless housekeeping cycle which I don’t mind most of the time.

Following up the idea that came to me while thunder was clapping, I received some responses mid-morning from the Craigslist options but there was nothing that felt right. When G. returned with the car around noon, I took a drive down to an old office furniture warehouse where we had found G.’s rosewood office desk and my three walnut bookcases almost twenty years ago. The third floor of treasures at the warehouse was closed off and now rented out to tenants said the cantankerous owner, telling me he didn’t have anything with glass doors as his eyes never left the I-phone in his hand.

I took my time looking around the meager goods on the floor and saw only one possibility: a light toned bookcase that I knew to be curly maple but thought was laminate because the figured grain looked too good to be true. He said, yes, it was for sale without the two drawer base that it sat on and named a price that was okay if it was laminate. I asked him if he had a dolly because I didn’t think the two of us could carry it all the way to my car. Somehow, that question made him smile for the first time. Long story short, I paid, moved my car to the loading dock meeting him just as he arrived with the bookcase on a dolly. Together we lowered it into the trunk and I returned home, picking up lunch on the way.

I could tell from G.’s tone of voice on my cellphone that he was braced for what I might be coming home with after such a short trip. By the time he and one of his men carried it upstairs, I could tell he was impressed. The last thing the warehouse owner said to me as he closed the trunk of my car was, “it’s wood,” smiling at me for the second time. G. measured the shelves and found some piano pins that would serve as extra supports to add four more shelves to the three that are already filled with dusty blue Henle editions.

While G. was out making the rounds tonight, I sat down and played the Allemande from Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Prelude from the A-minor English Suite listening to the harmonies at half tempo. Sounded good. Felt even better.

before and after . . .

Some of you know that I’ve practiced the piano for a long time. My teacher, Basil Toutorsky, taught me how to practice: read the notes for the right hand, then the left hand. Look at the phrasing lines, the dynamics and then play both hands together. Study only one bar at a time until you can play it accurately three times in a row before you move on to the next bar. Slow and steady. Rigorous. Then, speed it up a little. Practice with the metronome so that your rhythm is accurate. Once this process has been followed for one page, stop there. Go back over that page until the notes and the playing start to make musical sense. Play the entire page three times in a row without mistakes before moving forward to the next page. If you make a mistake on the third try, start over again. This was the drill.

Fast forward to today where my facility for sight-reading sometimes gets in the way of patient study habits. Lately, I’ve been drawn to pieces either transcribed or composed by Franz Liszt. This is a kind of anomaly for me because my favorite composer is Bach. One Liszt piece is called “Liebeslied” when it was written originally by Robert Schumann as a wedding gift for his wife, the concert pianist, Clara Schumann. The melody and the harmonies are simple and very touching. It is also called “Widmung” for reasons I’m not aware of once Liszt took it, added sections and embellished it with his usual fanfare of rolling arpeggios and movie-like thematic blow-ups. When Van Cliburn won his tumultuous victory at the Tchaikovsky competition during the Cold War, he played this piece as an encore. A young Asian pianist, Aimi Kobayashi who looks to be about eleven years old, also played it recently as an encore in Russia. (Click her name for a link to listen to this piece on YouTube.)

Anyhow, back to practicing, there’s usually a point in time, a tipping point if you will, when a piece morphs from a study exercise to a piece of music. This phenomenon happened to me recently, a couple of days ago while playing this piece. It went from a period of time over several months, reading the various sections of the piece and playing all the notes. . . to suddenly playing it with a more intuitive grasp of the piece so that the music flows on its own.

In a way, I was thinking about this as a “before” and “after” — from notes on pieces of paper that are transformed into sounds capable of arousing a listener’s emotions. Even if you’re not a pianist, don’t play a note, or, if you think you’re tone-deaf and can’t listen to music, you’ll get it when you listen to this music and it connects with you.

Nothing better.