September 2006

Joshua Bell at the Kennedy Center

September 26, 2006 23:58


I remember very well the first time I heard Joshua Bell. It was years ago, in a previous life, when I had a job and a car, and my hometown, Washington DC, had public radio stations that carried classical music. I was driving my car and listening to the radio, and I heard a stunning performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto 5. As the piece neared its end, I pulled off the side of the road so that I could hear what the recording was, write down the information, and buy it. It was Joshua Bell.

Later I became disenchanted with Joshua Bell. I bought several of his recordings and didn’t like them nearly as well. He sounded too sweet and superficial. I didn’t go to any of his concerts. I reconsidered when I read so many v.commies raving about him. In particular, Karin Lin made a big impression on me. After hearing him play, she returned to playing the violin and nurtured her daughter’s interest in the violin. She even bought a plane ticket and concert ticket so that she could travel hundreds of miles to hear him perform again. She is not alone. Sydney Menees and others are going to travel hundreds of miles to hear him, too. I decided to buy a ticket to hear him perform locally and see for myself.

Now I agree with everything my fellow v.commies have written about JB, except that everything they said were understatements.

JB played the Tchaikovsky Concerto at the opening night of the 2006-2007 concert season at the Kennedy Center. His performance was more than a show-stopper. It was a heart-stopper. If I had been driving a car, I probably would have driven off the edge of the planet. I remember Itzhak Perlman saying on The Art of Violin that the first time he heard Heifetz, he walked around with his mouth hanging open for a week. When Joshua Bell finished the first movement of the Tchaik and paused, I realized that my mouth was hanging wide open and that I was leaning forward from the edge of my seat as if hypnotized. Others in the audience looked the same, but only briefly. People rose to their feet and applauded wildly at the end of the first movement. His cadenza was stunning. It was like a show within a show or a concerto within a concerto. It had that much range of emotion and power of expression. That cadenza alone would have been worth the trip. Joshua Bell worked hard. Several times when the orchestra was playing and he was not, he reached over to the conductor’s podium, grabbed a handkerchief, and mopped his face. His playing sounded completely effortless. He seemed to sail through the music like a boat cutting across deep blue water on a sunny day. The Tchaik has so much show-off pyrotechniques that it lends itself to flashing and banging. It often sounds rather boringly brilliant. It is very different from the solo violin music of Bach, which covers such an incredible range, depth, and intensity of emotion and technique. Joshua Bell did not turn the Tchaik Concerto into a Bach sonata, but he came as close as anyone could. He found an unimagined variety and richness of emotion in the Tchaik and showed it to us. He is truly a genius and an artist, and he gave us a very special gift that night.

If you have been thinking about buying plane and concert tickets to hear Joshua Bell play in Chicago, do it now!

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Culture in Cleveland

September 18, 2006 21:09


I got a phone call from a headhunter for a job I’m totally unqualified for. After describing the job, he asked whether I’d be willing to relocate to Cleveland. I thought first of the dreadful winters, second, the Cleveland Symphony and CIM, and third, my desperation for a job, so I said, “Sure.” He seemed surprised and asked whether I’d ever been to Cleveland. I said, “No, but I have friends there, and there is some good music there.” He brightened and replied, “Yeah, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is there, and they’ve got great football, too.”

Is that the best Cleveland has to offer?

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Nathan Milstein, The 1946 Library of Congress Recording

September 14, 2006 02:36


After reading lots of rave reviews of the recording Nathan Milstein, The 1946 Library of Congress Recital, I just had to buy it. Now that I’ve listened to it a few times, I’m raving about it.

Nathan Milstein was one star in an awesome constellation of twentieth century musicians from Russia. He began his violin studies with Pyotr Stolyarsky, who also taught David Oistrakh, and, at the age of 11, he became a student of Leopold Auer, whose pupils include Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman. Later he played and toured with Vladimir Horowitz, first in Russia and then in the United States and elsewhere.

One of the pieces on the CD is the Bach Sonata in G minor. I can never get enough of this piece, especially when Milstein plays it. For years, I listened to Milstein’s 1975 recording of the Bach S and P, which I still have on vinyl. When I got tired of using a phonograph, I stopped listening to it for several years. Then I bought it again on CD. As soon as I heard it, I remembered it as Milstein. His playing of this piece is strictly his own. I’d recognize it any where, and I love it. I get a sense of firmness and solidity at the core of the music, no matter how sweet, light, and soaring it is. The Library of Congress recording, made decades before 1975, sounds just like Milstein. He has his own musical voice, and I love it.

The recording has two of Milstein’s transcriptions/arrangements, the famous Paganiniana and the Chopin Nocturne in C# minor. Writing transcriptions is an art in itself, as Heifetz showed. To write a really good transcription, the artist has to understand the spirit of the piece and transfer it to the unique personality of the violin. Milstein did it beautifully. I’m especially impressed with his Chopin transcription since Chopin’s music is so very pianistic. In Milstein’s hands, however, it sounds equally violinistic. It expresses the spirit of the piece as only a violin can.

Although Milstein sometimes performed as a soloist with an orchestra, he played recitals much more often, and he frequently played concertos with a pianist taking the place of an orchestra. This practice was common at times in the past but very uncommon now. As in transcriptions, the heart and soul of the music has to be expressed in a different musical voice. On this recording, Milstein plays the Mendelssohn Concerto with a piano instead of an orchestra. The arrangement is artful, and Milstein has that very characteristic Milstein sound. It is so sweet that it melts me down as soon as it starts, but it carries the same sense of firmness that his playing of Bach does.

This recording is very Milstein and very beautiful. The music wraps around me and stays with me wherever I go, even when I’m not listening to it.

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I won't have to work hard, will I?

September 4, 2006 02:35


I got a phone call from an adult who is considering taking fiddle lessons.

She: I studied violin when I was in school, but I haven’t played for the last ten years. I must not be a natural talent because I had to work so hard to learn.

Me: I’m not surprised that you had to work hard to learn to play the violin. Everyone has to work hard. Violin is very technical.

She: I eventually learned to play string quartets and stuff, but it was too hard. Now I think I like bluegrass music. I won’t have to work hard to learn it, will I?

Me: Thinks: I just got Mel Bay’s Fiddling Handbook by Craig Duncan. It has warm up and finger strengthening exercises; scales with bowing variations for all major, melodic minor, harmonic minor, and chromatic scales; chord studies (double stops, three note chords, four note chords) for all major, minor, seventh, minor seventh, sixth, diminished, and augmented chords; bowing exercises; vibrato exercises; licks; common patterns of notes; and etudes in blues, swing, bluegrass, contest, oldtime, Cajun, jig, slip jig, hornpipe, and ragtime styles. Says: Every genre of fiddle playing has its own techniques, joys, and challenges.

She: I’m very busy with my job and other things. I just don’t have time to practice much. What do you think?

Me: I think you should get a guitar and a video or book that shows you how to play chords. In a few weeks, maybe less, you’ll be able to strum along and accompany yourself when you sing. That will be more satisfying for you.

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