March 2006

Happy Birthday, Marian McPartland

March 30, 2006 22:26


Whenever I go out of town to an area with good public radio stations, I listen to some great music that I can’t access at home, near the nation’s capital. One of my favorite shows is Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=2100907). Marian McPartland has a delightful personality and tremendous musical talent. She talks to her guest artists about the music they play, and often she plays with them and improvises. She comes across as completely genuine.

I was excited when I had an opportunity to hear her in concert last week. She sounds great on radio, but she is worlds better in person. From the instant her fingers hit the keys, I was galvanized. It was as if the music came from her fingers, through the piano, across the concert hall, and directly into my heart. I know that the piano and the concert hall acoustics were very good, but there was something more happening here. I sensed without seeing the other people in the audience that they were responding the same way I did. I don’t know enough about jazz to understand how she got the effects she did, and I didn’t know a lot of the songs she played, but I know that she affected me as few musicians have.

Marian McPartland is an interesting lady. When I first heard her on Piano Jazz, I figured that she must be African-American because she sounded so good. I was wrong. She is Caucasian and British by birth. She studied classical piano when she was very young, and, as she told us during the concert, her teacher was always criticizing her for not practicing scales. She loved vaudeville, and when she came of age she was invited to join a piano vaudeville team. Her teacher was strongly opposed to it, and so were her parents. Her mother begged her not to go away and become a starving artist in an attic. Her father offered her 1000 pounds, an extremely large sum of money at the time (just before World War II), if she would stay at home. She went anyway. She traveled around Europe with her piano vaudeville team, entertaining the Allied troops in World War II. While on tour, she met her future husband, Jimmy McPartland. After WWII, she moved to the U.S. and started playing with her own jazz trio. Besides performing, recording, and hosting her radio show, she has been very active in promoting jazz music in the public schools. The concert I heard was a very special one because it occurred in the same week as her 88th birthday. Some of the luminaries of National Public Radio and other jazz musicians spoke birthday greetings and praises to her live or on a recording. As part of the celebration, someone from NPR told us that many more hours of Piano Jazz have been digitally remastered so that people can listen for years to come. I almost raised my hand and asked where I could buy some of these recordings. (Of course, they’re available on Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/stores/series/-/91457/audioCD/ref=pd_serl_music/002-2255628-2165640). In a recording, Wynton Marsalis, the great jazz trumpeter, told her that he had heard her play in New Orleans when he was a teenager and she inspired him to pursue a career in music. He said that he had intense love and respect for her. After listening to the praise, Marian McPartland went to the piano and improvised for quite a while on the theme of Happy Birthday to You, with a few bars of Saints slipped in seamlessly.

Happy birthday, Marian, from one of your many fans!

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Cherry blossoms

March 29, 2006 01:29

One of the joys of spring in the Washington DC area is the sight of the cherry blossoms massed in spectacular display around the Tidal Basin, near the Jefferson Memorial in downtown Washington. The trees, a gift from the government of Japan, were planted there in 1912. The blossoms are a very delicate pink, and the blossoms themselves are delicate, too. A strong wind or rain knocks them down to the ground, and sometimes they are only on the trees for a week. The time of bloom is very variable, and they sometimes appear with little advance notice after a few days of warm, sunny weather. The Cherry Blossom Festival is planned months in advance and sometimes occurs several weeks before or after the blossoms show up. Japanese cherry trees are found in public gardens and private residences around the DC metropolitan area. I am fortunate to have one just outside my living room window.

Loveliest of Trees
A.E. Hausman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.


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The Time Machine: Great Violinists of the Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1964)

March 22, 2006 01:58

I’ve been watching a DVD of great violinists from the past, and it is like stepping into a time machine. It gives me new perspectives on the past, present, and future and reveals to me the sweet power of music.

The DVD is “Great Violinists of the Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1964).” I was alive at that time. In fact, I had started taking violin lessons, and I had listened to my parents’ recordings of violin music. Why, then, don’t I have any memory of watching this TV show? The only TV music shows I remember watching featured jitterbug (swing) music, folk music, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles’ first appearance on TV in the US.

Classical music, performed by some of the stars of that era, was shown on commercial TV. Can you imagine that happening now?

Here is the playlist of the DVD.

Isaac Stern: Introduction and rondo Capriccioso (Saint-Saens)

Zino Francescatti: La fille aux cheveux de lin (Debussy) and Zigeunerweisen (Sarasate)

Michael Rabin: Violin concerto, third movement (Tchaikovsky); Caprice viennois and Tambourin chinois (Kreisler)

Mischa Elman: Violin concerto #2, second movement (Wieniaweski)and Schon Rosmarin (Kreisler)

Erica Morini: Violin Concert #1, third movement (Bruch)

Yehudi Menuhin: Violin concerto #1, second and third movements (Paganini)

David and Igor Oikstrakh: Double Concerto, second and third movements (Bach)

Ruggiero Ricci: Violin Concerto, third movement (Tchaikovsky)

Bonus selections: Gregor Piatigorsky, cellist, playing Elegie (Faure) and Allegro passionata (Saint-Saens)

These violin pieces are still played today, but what about the violinists? I remember hearing adults talk about many of them. My dentist, for example, was a fan of Mischa Elman and Nathan Milstein. He used to talk about them and whistle the Mendelssohn concerto while he worked on my teeth. Can you imagine a dentist doing that now? I remember that we had a recording of Erica Morini playing the Brahms concerto, and it was one of my mother’s favorite records. I also remember my violin teacher speaking disparagingly of Zino Francescatti. I remember him telling me that this violinist had a good sound in spite of some technical failings, which I was not supposed to emulate. I don’t remember what these technical failings were, and I can’t guess by watching the DVD now. Which of these violinists have you heard of? Which of them made recordings that you have heard? They were considered to be the very best at that time. It makes me wonder what will happen 40 years from now. Will Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Midori, Itzhak Perlman, and Gil Shaham be considered great? Will their CDs still be in print?

My own reactions to this recording were interesting. There were three performers who affected me far more strongly than the others: Yehudi Menuhin and David and Igor Oistrakh. When they were playing I could not concentrate on anything else. I had to stop whatever I was doing to listen, watch, and marvel. I have read mixed opinions of Menuhin’s performance on this DVD. To me, it was passionate and compelling. I was not really troubled by his technical flaws. When I heard David and Igor Oistrakh, I felt that I had died and gone to heaven. I had already heard a recording of them playing the Bach Double and felt that it was sublime, but seeing them made it even better. They had their eyes closed during most of the performance. When David Oistrakh opened his eyes, they looked as unfocussed as if he were blind. What he was seeing was within his spirit. Father and son played as if they were both following the same inner spirit. Part of this was probably due to their close relationship with each other, but I sensed something stronger and more far-reaching there, as well. I am not religious in the conventional sense, but this gave me a strong feeling that there is something bigger than us, something which resides in us, too. The soul is released from material constraints and is swept along with the current. I am thankful to Bach and the Oistrakhs for lifting me out of myself and letting me move with the current.


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Seniors and kids

March 20, 2006 02:03


I played two really fun gigs this past week.

Thursday I played for high tea for some of the women of the Red Hat Society at the independent living center of a nearby retirement home. The Red Hat Society is a vast social organization of senior women who do silly things and have fun. These women wore big, broad brimmed, red hats that they had decorated with outrageous ornaments, mostly purple, including feathers, fake flowers, and ribbons. They may have had medical issues, but their minds were perfectly intact, and they were well educated and cultured. I was approached for playing this gig only four days in advance, but that was no problem. I was allowed to play almost anything I wanted almost any way I wanted. The only limitations were that the music had to be classical and I had to play softly, as background music. To prepare, I got out my Classical Fake Book and had fun. (The Classical Fake Book, BTW, is a gem of a collection of themes from 600 or so great pieces of classical music.) Every time I play from that book, I discover more great music. Making choices was fun once I accepted that I must play something by some composers other than Bach. I decided to stick with well known, well loved pieces. My selections included some little pieces from Anna Magdalena Book, parts of some Bach cantatas, three movements of Eine Kleine, parts of The Four Seasons, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, some Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, some themes from some Brahms symphonies, Grieg’s Norwegian Dance, and some of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. I could have gone on for hours and hours. I took a break from playing to have some of the food served for the high tea – Hamantaschen (pastries for the Jewish holiday Purim), fruit, and tea. I think my audience enjoyed listening almost as much as I enjoyed playing.

From seniors to kids…

Friday night I played with my community orchestra in an outreach concert at a local elementary school. The students were not from wealthy families and had few or no opportunities to hear live orchestral music. I remember that in my own childhood, the only live orchestral music I heard was at free concerts held in parking lots of shopping centers on summer nights. The philanthropic organization sponsoring these concerts was a local brewery. I believe that it’s very important to let lots of people, especially young people, hear and appreciate classical music, so this genre doesn’t become extinct. Our conductor is also a very good teacher, and he told the audience a little about the music we played. Members of the audience included students, their families, the school principal, and a janitor or two. The pieces we played were very accessible and reliable crowd-pleasers, including parts of Bizet’s Carmen Suites. Our conductor told the audience that this very Spanish music was written by a Frenchman. As an entr’acte, a couple of us played a few Celtic pieces. After all, it was St. Patrick’s Day. We pulled it off quite well, especially in view of the fact that we had very little time to practice. Our last Celtic number was an Irish polka (John Ryan’s), and our conductor, who doubled as rhythm guitarist, told the audience that he wouldn’t even try to explain an Irish polka. The musical diversity was capped by the mother tongues of the audience: English and Spanish. The Irish polka was rowdy, and the audience clapped and stomped along. Before resuming the classical music, our conductor said, “I may not conduct the National Symphony Orchestra, but Leonard Sladkin doesn’t play rhythm guitar.” As our conductor often reminds us, there are many things that draw people apart, sometimes willfully so, but music is great for bringing people together.

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You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant

March 19, 2006 16:44

Forty years!

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St. Patrick's Day

March 17, 2006 03:05

Dreams and visions are so important. They are often stronger than reality. They can nourish and sustain us. We need only hold them close.

W.B. Yeats, the great Irish poet, wrote eloquently about dreams.

In Fergus and the Druid, a druid with mystical powers asked Fergus, a king, what he wanted.

Fergus:…Be no more a king,

A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another's dream.

Druid: Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

In He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, a suitor entreats a maid

I would spread the cloths [of heaven] under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

In Easter, 1916, he wrote about the Irishmen who died in the Easter Rebellion, one of Ireland’s many abortive risings.

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Hold on to your dreams.

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Spring fever: the sequel

March 15, 2006 10:49

Check out some of my recent spring photos at http://my.opera.com/paulinefiddle/albums/show.dml?id=46162

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Spring fever

March 14, 2006 23:43

The weather around here is very variable. A few weeks ago, we had one or two warm days, and I had spring fever. I saw a bush that looked like it had been blown down in a storm. I tugged gently on one of its twigs to see whether it was alive, and it was. I tugged a little harder, broke off a small piece of the twig, brought it home, put it in an old spice jar with water, and watched it. The buds on the twig opened gradually, and I photographed the tiny green leaves coming out for a few weeks.

At about the same time, I bought some potted tulips on sale at the grocery store. The woman who worked in the plant department told me that the tulips were pot-bound and suggested that I put them in a larger pot. That’s what I did. I love gardening, but I don’t live in a house with a yard any more, so I keep a few potted plants on my balcony. I went out on the balcony and removed the tulips from their pot. The woman at the grocery store was right. The tulips roots were tightly coiled, so I separated them and repotted the plant. As always, I felt so happy when I put my hands in the dirt that I started singing. Someone once told me that when I do this, I’m touching God.

After my experiences with the twig and the tulips, we had more cold weather. Then, a few days ago, the weather got warm and sunny again. In fact, it got unseasonably warm. Today the temperature went up to 83 degrees F, about two months ahead of schedule. I took my new camera with all three lenses and went to a public garden near my home. The sunlight was bright and diffused by clouds, and there was no wind – great conditions for taking close-up photographs of flowers. After a while, the sky became more overcast and a gentle breeze sprung up. The gentle breeze was like a tempest on the small flowers. The conditions were not so good for photography, but I felt happy and kept taking photos anyway. One advantage of my digital SLR camera is that I can take many shots without wasting money. I even took some photos of the little signs on the ground which gave the plants’ names. I saw some wondrous flowers, including some common ones (several kinds of daffodils and pansies) and some that I had never seen before (white forsythia, a very unusual Korean rhododendron, and Chinese winter hazel).

Late in the afternoon, I saw a group of girls and a woman sitting on a blanket. As I watched, the women stood up and used a “magic wand” to blow bubbles. Wondrous bubbles they were – large and strong. (They reminded me of something I had synthesized in organic chem lab long ago.) The four little girls ran after the bubbles, screaming with delight when they caught one. Some of the bubbles landed on me, and I talked with the girls about them. I photographed the girls chasing the bubbles. The woman called the girls, and they started packing up to go home. I went over to her and started a conversation. The four girls ranged in age from four to nine, and two of them were her daughters. She told me that the weather was so nice that she had brought the kids out for a “homework picnic.” I asked her whether they had really done their homework, and she assured me that they had.

The Japanese cherry tree outside my window is starting to bloom. A red maple nearby is in full bloom. It looks so pretty and causes me so much trouble (allergies and asthma).

Tonight we had a thunderstorm, and cooler weather is on the way. The prediction is for the temperature to dip below freezing later this week. I don’t care. I had fun while I could. I just hope the flowers survive.

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Listening

March 10, 2006 23:48

I’ve been thinking about getting a CD of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It has drama and tension, but everything ends happily. I went to amazon.com, listened to Papageno sung by different people, and made my choice. Before buying it, though, I looked to see what they had by David Oistrakh. I found The Devil’s Trill: Showpieces for Violin and Piano and started listening. I melted. I wasn’t aware of how much tension I had in my body. My hands opened; my arms became soft; my shoulders dropped; and my lower back relaxed and stretched out. OK, I’ve got to buy this CD. I decided to look on ebay for CDs of David Oistrakh. I have occasionally found very low price CDs of David Oistrakh sold by a Russian or someone with a strong connectionto Russia. A lot of Oistrakh’s recordings were made in Russia during the Cold War, and we are finally getting access to digitally remastered recordings of him. Wow! I stumbled on a real bargain – a set of 12 Oistrakh CDs for $32, and I had to buy it. A friend lent me a DVD of Oistrakh, and I’ve been listening to it for hours. I never cared much for the Sibelius Concerto, but this recording was so beautiful that I listened to it over and over. It had such a warm, deep, and, sometimes, dark sound. The DVD also has a lot of other music played by David Oistrakh. When I watch him, I’m absolutely blown away by his technique. He does so many difficult things so well. Even more impressive to me, though, is his sound. How can I describe it? Warm, rich clear, very expressive, almost heavenly. I believe that I could feel happy for a long time if I immerse myself in his playing.

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Concert Review: Gil Shaham

March 7, 2006 21:26

I recently heard a concert given by Gil Shaham in which he wore no clothes. I took a photograph of him but the Nileses won't let me post it. Not really. I just want to find out whether anyone is reading this.

I recently heard a great concert by Gil Shaham and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is named in the manner of various concert-giving societies, including the Academy of Ancient Music and the Royal Academy of Music, in London in the eighteenth century. St. Martin in the Fields is the name of the church which was the first home of the twentieth century chamber orchestra led by Neville Marriner. (I had wondered about that name.) Gil Shaham was solo violinist and guest conductor of the orchestra. I know that chamber orchestras of the past had no conductors, but the sight was still strange to me. Gil Shaham sat where the concert master of a modern orchestra would sit, and he didn’t look like he was leading the other musicians. Seen from the audience, the first violins were on the left and the second violins on the right.

Mr. Shaham looks just like his photos which show him with a big smile. He smiled a lot during the performance, giving the impression that something delightful was happening inside his head as he played the music. The concert began with Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky by Anton Arensky and ended with an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir of Florence. Tchaikovsky wrote the latter for string sextet after he visited Florence. The piece sounds sunny and bright, like Florence, and is very different from many of his other works laden with angst and pathos. The centerpiece of the concert was Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5. I love everything I’ve heard by Mozart, including this. It lacks the flamboyance and pyrotechnics of most of the concertos written later. In a sense it is more challenging to perform, since strong emotions must be communicated without bombast. Gil Shaham and the chamber orchestra did it beautifully. I especially liked the last movement of the concerto. It has a sense of tension which is resolved in a way that reminds me of “they lived happily ever after.” I enjoy the “Turkish” part of the last movement. It seems happy and spicy at the same time.

I left the concert feeling bright and serene.

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Gil Shaham at the Music Center at Strathmore

March 3, 2006 23:50

The Music Center at Strathmore, now one year old, is a delight to the ears and the eyes. To enter the Music Center from the enclosed parking garage, you walk through a light-filled skywalk into a light and airy building with a spacious feeling. Huge picture windows give views of the well kept grounds with tall, old trees. This is where I went one day recently to hear Gil Shaham and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is named in the manner of various concert-giving societies, including the Academy of Ancient Music and the Royal Academy of Music, in London in the eighteenth century. St. Martin in the Fields is the name of the church which was the first home of the twentieth century chamber orchestra led by Neville Marriner. (I had wondered about that name.) Gil Shaham was solo violinist and guest conductor of the orchestra. I know that chamber orchestras of the past had no conductors, but the sight was still strange to me. Gil Shaham sat where the concert master of a modern orchestra would sit, and he didn’t look like he was leading the other musicians. Seen from the audience, the first violins were on the left and the second violins on the right.

Mr. Shaham looks just like his photos which show him with a big smile. He smiled a lot during the performance, giving the impression that something delightful was happening inside his head as he played the music. The concert began with Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky by Anton Arensky and ended with an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir of Florence. Tchaikovsky wrote the latter for string sextet after he visited Florence. The piece sounds sunny and bright, like Florence, and is very different from many of his other works laden with angst and pathos. The centerpiece of the concert was Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5. I love everything I’ve heard by Mozart, including this. It lacks the flamboyance and pyrotechnics of most of the concertos written later. In a sense it is more challenging to perform, since strong emotions must be communicated without bombast. Gil Shaham and the chamber orchestra did it beautifully. I especially liked the last movement of the concerto. It has a sense of tension which is resolved in a way that reminds me of “they lived happily ever after.” I enjoy the “Turkish” part of the last movement. It seems happy and spicy at the same time.

I left the concert feeling bright and serene.

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Gil Shaham

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Kids at the Mountain Music Festival

March 1, 2006 00:57

The Mountain Music Festival I went to last week was a great event for kids. It started with a special event called “Take a Bow.” See how it feels to ascend the stage and take a bow to applause read the description in the program. Children took turns walking onto the stage, often accompanied by a parent. They stood in the spotlight while the announcer introduced them with remarks like Here we have Carolyn Smith, a percussionist. She bangs on pots and pans. Her mother tells me that she dances around the house, too. Later, there was a drum circle led by Baile McKnight, a drum maker, drum player, and teacher. People took turns playing the drums, following the rhythms played by the leader. The leader would not let the children run, push, and shove their way into the circle, often prodded by their parents. Instead, he had people who wanted to play raise their hands until he called on them. He taught several groups this way, and nobody was left out. Next, some of the musicians who had performed onstage played for an impromptu dance. The dances were simple so that anyone who wanted to could participate. One of the musicians doubled as a caller and guided the dancers through a Virginia reel and a snake/line dance. This was another event for children of all ages. Lots of parents danced with their kids, and everyone had fun.

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