Web Rabbit Hole: Igor Levit to Charlotte Selver

The web is often something I lament these days (remember when it was going to bring world peace and all the world’s intellectual riches within reach.) But there are some rabbit holes I find enjoyable to disappear down, to wit:

Inspired by Igor Levit, one of my favorite pianists of the younger generation, I was inspired to look up jazz artist Fred Hersh, as Igor played a piece of his in a great Wigmore Hall recital.

I followed the thread and found lots of great stuff including Fred’s lovely performance of his own composition, “Valentine,” and an interview, where he talks about, among other things, teaching and learning, mentioning in passing his 30 years of study with Sophia Rosoff. This was a name new to me—and a few further clicks revealed a fascinating character. She was a New York City piano teacher, trained classically, but a mentor to many jazz musicians.

Ethan Iverson is one of those musicians, and his wife Sarah Deming wrote a profile of Sophia that turned up additonal paths. She describes an afternoon at Sophia’s in which, among others, the Jazz great Barry Harris shows up. Harris, who just died at 91, was perhaps the last of that pianist of that lineage, and played a wonderful concert during at a residency of a few days when I was in college in the 80s and led weekly music workshops for most of his life.

That connection would have been enough, but it turns out that Sophia was also a student of Abby Whiteside, a piano teacher with an unusual following, in part because of Whiteside’s book Mastering the Chopin Etudes (a straightforward title for a book that tries to convey her ideas about the centrality of rhythm and the body’s expression of same in music making). Her prose, to me at least, is pretty vague, although in fairness writing with any specificity about the physical nature of playing a musical instrument is perhaps an impossible task. Had she been a great writer, she might not have been a great teacher. I first encountered her book around 15 years ago and have been puzzling it out on my own ever since. No sign of mastering the Etudes here, but she is a fascinating character to me because her views seem to go against the current of every piano lesson I’ve ever had, conventionally for piano lessons fingers are where it’s at. In Abby’s view, you don’t play the piano with your fingers, you make music with your whole body, and your fingers merely express what the entire mechanism is doing rhythmically. (Shades of another great piano pedagogue’s advice “Minimum effort, maximum sensitivity”.) Sophia is a direct connection to Abby, serving on her foundation, and kept her teaching philosophy alive—one that Barry Harris endorsed.

With this I though the journey of names and ideas would be over, but there was still one more. Charlotte Selver is a name I knew because the place my spouse and I go to vacation every year is a small island off midcoastal Maine. It has been a destination for painters (Rockwell Kent among others), but also for Charlotte Selver, a NYC educator who created a program called “Sensory Awareness,” an NYC-based human potential movement, which she brought to Maine among other places. After Abby died Sophia began to work with Sensory Awareness and became a follower of Charlotte. Why all these threads, from Igor Levit to Charlotte Selver come together is curious, but it a pleasant pastime to be able to find the links and puzzle them out.

Just enough notes: Piotr Anderszewski

Of great pianists there never seems to be any end. One of my favorite of the current roster is Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, restrained and poetic whether in Chopin or Szymanowski.

He has just released the second in a series of Mozart Concerti recording. Tipped off by a rave in Gramophone, I listened to trailer on YouTube and even these little bits enchant.

And here are two movements from Bach’s French Suite #5, from a 2000 performance in Miami (probably one that wouldn’t meet his current standards, if he doesn’t like his performance he gets the urge to walk out–and sometimes does).


He’s recorded this entire Bach Suite, with magical results, and also is the focus of an interesting documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon. Only the trailer is on YouTube, but if you have a public library card, you may be able to find it on their site.

For pianophiles, really somebody to treasure.

The Great Piano Scam

Discovered a web-documentary about the Joyce Hatto piano hoax from a few years back. For those who don’t remember, or missed it, in the early 2000’s, a pianist named Joyce Hatto emerged and became a critical darling. She was evoked as a neglected master from the old school, and the recordings poured out and got raves from the likes of Gramophone, to the point of cultish adoration among the piano fanciers.

It was a good story, 70-year-old unknown becomes a rediscovered keyboard genius (somehow that she was a dowdy Englishwoman helped).  And as good stories will, it went, as not a word or a note of it held up. Her husband was plagiarizing others’ recordings, passing them off as hers.

I was then–as I am now–a Gramophone subscriber, and I watched it unfold in real time, including the sad denouement, after she had died of cancer and couldn’t comment one way another on motive or on what she did or didn’t know.

Here’s the film:

And here’s the list of those who were stolen from.

The real pianists were pretty fabulous: here’s László Simon in a ferocious & exciting performance of the beginning of the Liszt B minor

And an idea of how the engineering changed the sound just enough to fool people:

Commonplace Book: People and Pianos

piano_shopReading a sweet book about coming back to pianos and piano playing in mid-life (a story I, a perpetual musical ‘advanced beginner’ can relate to). Thad Carhart turned his back on corporate life, and wandered into The Piano Shop on the Left Bank where an enigmatic, brilliant piano technician and dealer (he calls Luc) puts him together with a baby grand, with cinematic results.

This time at the atelier I did bring sheet music, and Luc nodded approvingly when he saw me set it on the music stand. I’ve never been comfortable playing in front of others, but somehow this was different; his presence seemed encouraging as we listened together to the particular voice of this instrument among so many other pianos. I played for perhaps ten minutes, pieces I knew reasonably well and could listen to while I sight-read: some Beethoven bagatelles, a few of Schumann’s pieces for children, an early Mozart fantasy. I was not disappointed The Stingl’s resonance filled the room with tones at once clear and robust, and a sharp sense of pride welled up at the prospect of owning this distinctive piano, of seeing and playing it daily, of living with it. Good God, I thought, this is a kind of love; and, as in love, my senses amplified and enhanced the love object, all with an insouciance and willing enthusiasm.

A magical performance of the Arabeske in C major by Wilhelm Kempff (with less than magical camera work).

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Practicing (and an aside on TNR).

Still have a few more things to vapor on about for my “30 Days” music series, didn’t get to my November quota. Tempted to delay that yet again, given that it’s so hard to resist parsing the sad comedy at The New Republic. Then again I couldn’t possibly be funnier than embattled owner Chris Hughes and CEO Guy Vidra‘s own vouchsafing their steadfast stewardship of the TNR in these parlous times. I doubt they will manage, based on the ineptitude of these self-inflicted injuries and the wobbly ideas they have for advancing the paper. But they’ve become the most talked about and loathed leadership team in journalism, and that’s saying something. It ain’t much, but maybe it’s a strategy?

Anyway, </snark> and on to music.

Over the years, I have mused a good bit about practicing, and herewith put together part I of some thoughts on the topic. In addition to my own puzzle over my piano and voice practice (and more often lack thereof). This also responds to the fact that I get the occasional question from parents or adults who are thinking about taking up or reviving music lessons. These are along the lines of how to help your kids keep at it, how to do it yourself? Any tips and tricks?

To start with, I am hardly any model of a great practicer and have never been. Through luck of the draw, I found I was reasonably fluent at sight-reading music from my earliest lessons (I started piano rather late, 5th grade, and this may have had something to do with it). I don’t recall a time when I couldn’t sight read music of intermediate complexity adequately–we’re not talking about reading a Strauss orchestral score at sight at the piano the way a music brain like Renee Fleming’s can–but poking through Rodgers and Hart selections, or even a Mozart sonata–this I can manage.

Tunnel Vision

keyboard_sizedI bring up sight-reading because it has worked against my first advice about practicing. Namely, that it is all about small scale  focusing in (Nancy O’Neill Breth uses the term “tunnel vision” in her useful pamphlet on practicing techniques). Lots of aspects of music and the pleasures therein are the opposite of this: taking in how a whole piece comes together emotionally, layers of melody and harmony, etc. But to get these watch parts to move, you have to take them apart and put them back again. That means breaking things down to ever smaller units, a section, a measure, or the shift of one hand from one position to the other, until you can find a successful approach.

I truly hate this kind of work, but it seems to me a question of cognitive style as much as anything else. Working at really intense level of detail, and being able to turn down the gain on everything except the matter at hand is a probably as much a native talent as any other aspect of musical ability. Oddly, it’s the complete opposite of what a music critic–something I used to be–needs, namely an intuition for the big picture. Still, that piece work is key to practicing–not its entirety–and finding a functional approach to achieving that focus is good. Interestingly, if, like me, this isn’t how you work, then you probably need to practice that kind focus in itself. It’s exhausting for those of us who don’t think that way.

Divergent Thinking

I’m indebted to a great book called “The Musician’s Way” by Gerald Klickstein, for the next insight. Namely, his observation that musical problems are “divergent” in nature, rather than fixed. By this he means that there will be many responses–theoretically infinitely many–to a particular musical problem, be it technical, rhythmic, expressive, whatever. This has helped me in particular because I always assumed two things about my piano playing until recently. 1) There was a correct fingering–some kind of platonic ideal, and 2) Whatever it was, I wasn’t doing it. This stems from a belief the problems in practicing were kind of like math exercises, 2+2=4, or learning your times tables. Sad to say, a view that my earliest piano teachers certainly seemed to endorse. But musical problems really aren’t fixed like that–even things as seemingly cut and dried as rhythms–and thinking about them that way is unproductive. Instead, trying to figure out what is going on, and going wrong, in the section–to see practicing as problem solving, is really helpful. (Klickstein’s book is loaded with other good advice, some other tidbits of which are related here.)

But It Sounds Terrible!

Accept that you don’t  always (or even often) sound good or interesting when you are learning and practicing. This may be a problem that is unique to me, but I have always hated that when you are practicing it sounds to you–and to anybody who is unfortunate enough to be listening–like you can’t even play the piano while you are doing the work. You may be repeating things over and over, with no changes that are audible. It’s not uncommon for things to sound like they are getting worse rather than better as you pick apart and then resolve problems. Tolerating the emotional frustration that comes with that is hard for me, particularly since I can play a lot of other music fluently, and why not just play that?

No less a keyboard wizard than Shura Cherkassky talked about very slow practice in which he concentrated solely on whether he was putting his fingers exactly in the center of each key and that his hand motion was perfect. This was painstaking (see tunnel vision above) and required a level of ‘zooming in’ that no bystander else would understand. Yet, his results speak for themselves.  (He’s 86 in this video, by the way!)

Oddly enough, I’m guessing this kind of issue comes up in anything that requires breaking down things into these ever tinier pieces. Is watching somebody practice 1000 chip shots interesting? Revising thirty, forty or a hundred drafts of a sonnet? I revise writing to the point of ludicrous obsession, sadly, without literary results equivalent to Shura’s musical ones!, and that is sort of fun. Still not there with the piano.

In part II, such things as dailiness, setting goals, and whether demanding that a kid practice ever helps.

Haydn by two

Haydn Sonata in C

Reading an interesting piece by pianist Alfred Brendel summing up his decades of making recordings, I noticed that he singled out a Haydn disc as one of his favorites. A particular delight for him was  Haydn’s Sonata in C major, Hob. 16/50. Given that I’m on a Haydn Sonata binge myself (but alas no Brendel), I thought I would check it out, quickly found the score on IMSLP and trotted through it. Brendel finds it funny, for me it’s the endless dazzling invention that engrosses, sometimes just a madcap throw away ornament or gesture.

Here is Brendel’s performance of the first movement, wonderful sleight of hand tricks at every turn, and dapper from first note to last. Overall, evinces such clarity of articulation and expression…something he was superb at and his student Paul Lewis is carrying on as a pianistic ideal.

For a contrast, listen to Sviatoslav Richter (the titan of the piano of my youth, and still a god to most classical pianists). Richter’s take on it is less droll, big sections rather than little detail. If Brendel illuminates Haydn the (merry) classical trickster, Richter gives us a Romantic and ardent Haydn, driving the same notes and (mostly the same) ornaments, a little faster and with more 19th century intensity.

Both are fine performances, and if I prefer Brendel’s (by a hair) that’s maybe because I love a good joke. Also Brendel’s playing has always had a human dimension that an amateur pianist (or at least this amateur pianist) can relate to. Richter, and others at his level, seem to be engaged in a completely different activity!

Reasonable Words: Play it Again

TLS has a review of a new entry in the “middle age journalist writes a book about playing the piano” genre. (Well, there are two, so maybe genre is over stating it).

The lead (whole review behind their paywall, sorry:

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 10.29.36 AMThe businessman Gilbert Kaplan decided to master the art of conducting for a single piece: he taught himself Mahler’s Second Symphony, and has become a world expert on the work. That was a quixotic undertaking, for if he could conduct one piece, why not another? Alan Rusbridger undertook a similarly limited task: during the few minutes he could find each day while being Editor of the Guardian, he taught himself to play Chopin’s Ballade No 1, Op 23. Unlike Kaplan as a conductor, Rusbridger was already a good amateur pianist, and was not starting from scratch; perhaps he was deliberately conceiving a literary as well as a musical conceit, so that the process of mastery could be turned into an approachable diary. The result is an absorbing and technically detailed book, in which the daily events of a newspaper during a tempestuous year play only a walk-on role. Rusbridger has to bring in Arnold Bennett to vouch for the importance of his leisure-time activity; he is inspired by regular chamber music playing with a group of upmarket intellectuals, and by the words of the critic Irving Wardle, who coins the delightful aphorism: “I am an excellent pianist. The only snag is that I don’t play very well”.

That Wardle bit describes me to a T! I didn’t know about Kaplan, but certainly do know the Ballads, which I am unequal to as a pianist, and will ever be so.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, mentioned at the end of Nicholas Kenyon’s lively review certain is equal to it and then some.

Beautiful Song: Gluck Transcription

Have been trawling the web for good pianists, in the hope to solve my long running technical annoyances in trying to play (a not very hard!) Chopin Nocturne (C-sharp minor, Op. Post). Not much practical help watching the greats for a duffer like me, I’m afraid, but certainly is enjoyable, as hopping through the wormhole of YouTube took me to a lot of wonderful piano playing.

As a result, here are a couple of treasures from that nosing around: two pianists playing a transcription of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.” First, the great Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes.

Novaes could play a melody in a way that made it a living sinuous thing, winding in and out of the other musical material in a 3-D way.  (I first discovered her ability to put this spin on melody via a really old cassette recording of the Chopin Nocturnes of hers I had. I got it at a drug store in Urbana-Champaign, IL, in 1989. Didn’t recognize her name, and the VOX label looked pretty sketchy. But it was only a quarter, I think.) It floored me–one of those cases where you hear something unexpected and you just have to listen over and over and over again, changed how I thought about what the piano could do. It actually could sing, that wasn’t just a piece of piano teacher rhetoric. I recall making the friend I was staying with drive me around in his Honda to listen to it in the car, as he didn’t have a cassette player at home and I wanted to hear it on something other than my Walkman. (For you kinder, that was an ancient predecessor to the i-thingie).

The next take on this is a young pianist, Yuja Wang.

Wang’s way with the melody is also restrained yet powerful; she’s able to pull back to a whisper (in contrast to a lot of young pianists who don’t actually play the “piano-forte,” but rather the “forte-forte” or maybe the “forte-fortissimo”). And her seemingly stress-free finger technique is just astonishing.

I never heard Novaes in person. But I have heard Wang live twice; once in Boston and once in DC. Worth hearing if you are a piano lover.

A bit about Gluck and that extraordinary melody: Gluck was an  18th century German composer, born in the era of Bach and Handel, but dying when Beethoven was a teenager. His operas (on the mythical subjects typical of his era) aimed to reform the repetitive and artificial formats then used, but, ironically, he was regarded as pretty old-fashioned in the 19th century (except by Berlioz).

That said, his melodies never went out of fashion and many arrangements were made for amateur or professional use. Now fully staged performances of his operas are no longer rare (although not exactly staples either). There was an Orfeo ed Euridice at New England Conservatory I caught last year. Radiant and antique in one moment, with flashes of desperate Verdi-like fire the next. It definitely was not a museum piece.

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Beautiful Song: Serendipty, Carlos, and Martha Argerich

Looking for something else on Naxos Music Library, I happened upon a trove of Carlos Guastavino piano works. Trove, as in treasure, and his elegant, nostalgic piano writing helped turned my mundane home office into a Buenos Aires café, and my template coding task into something like sipping Fernet-Branca and reading Pessoa. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine listening to the incomparable pianist Martha Argerich, playing Tres Romances through a distant window. Of course, that didn’t do much for the coding!

And as a bon-bon, mezzo Teresa Berganza, another musical hero, singing one of Carlos’ songs. (And yes, I know Pessoa is Portuguese, not Argentinian, but he seemed like better company for this day dream than Borges.)

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