A few days before a concert, The Kennedy Center often sends out emails announcing unsold seats at low prices. Earlier this week I got an email about Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting an all Sibelius concert. With my newfound love for Sibelius’s music (see my blog of Feb. 1), I saw this as a great opportunity. I spent $25 for a crummy seat (great acoustics but poor visibility in the nosebleed section). The program is Symphony #1, Oceanides, and Symphony #7. I read about them and about Sibelius on the Internet. Now I have some context for the Symphony #1, the only work on the program I’ve heard, and a sense of preparedness and eagerness for the other two works.
A friend of mine (“D”) died about two weeks ago. We were not close friends, and I didn’t expect his passing to trigger a strong emotional response in me, but it did.
We knew each other through a local folk music group, which was founded in the 60s and substantially rebuilt in the 70s. The people who worked on getting the group going are now like the Old Guard of the group. They form a closely knit group which functions as an extended family, perhaps because they jointly participated in the birthing of the group. They sing at each other’s weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals, and they help each other out whenever necessary. D was a member of the Old Guard, and they took good care of him. D seldom missed a music event sponsored by this group, and he worked hard on organizing them, too. His love and knowledge of folk songs were immense. He could tell you a lot about the history and meaning of any song, sometimes more that you wanted to hear.
D was certainly a character. People who didn’t know him could easily write him off as weird. He was hard of hearing, so he shouted everything in a raucous tone. He often enjoyed some humor in what he was saying, so his speaking was interrupted by his own loud, raucous, guffaws of laughter. Often his listeners did not catch the joke and were put off by his laughter. He did not know when it was time for him to stop talking and let the rest of the group continue their music or conversation, so someone would call out, “Somebody start a song and make him shut up.” He sang in a loud, raucous tone and was always off key. He played a fiddle given to him on long term loan by someone else in the Old Guard, and his playing was loud, scratchy, and always out of tune. Once when someone was singing a song I liked and D’s fiddle was right next to me, I picked it up and played along. Afterwards, someone said to me, “I never knew that D’s fiddle could sound so good.” D also played a wooden hurdy gurdy that he had made, and its tone was similar to that of his speaking, laughing, singing, and fiddling. In spite of his outward idiosyncrasies, he was quite a nice guy. I never heard him speak an unkind word about anyone and, as far as I know, he showed no malicious intent towards anyone.
For most of his adult life, D was unemployed. In spite of his intelligence and willingness to work hard, potential employers could not see past his idiosyncrasies and lack of people skills. His Old Guard friends gave him some money, probably not enough for him to live on, and he lived on less money than anyone could understand. He went to all the group events and planning sessions by public transportation, frequently long and inconvenient, or by rides from his friends in the Old Guard.
About 2 ½ weeks ago, D went into the hospital for some surgery. The surgery itself was successful, but two days later, he had a heart attack and died. We were all stunned. No one had expected this. When people started looking into things, they found that one of the forms he had filled out upon entering the hospital asked for the name and number of a person to call in case of emergency, and D had written his own name and number. He had no family except for one sister, and the two of them had not spoken to each other for 12 or 13 years. He had only a few possessions, most of them probably very old and in very bad condition. What to do? Fortunately, there were some lawyers in the Old Guard, and they started doing whatever needed to be done. There was no memorial service, but the Old Guard decided to have a memorial concert for him and secured a hall for some time in June.
In retrospect, I can see that D had a hard life. If not for his love for folk music and the support of his friends, I think he could not have survived.
Who will Sing for Me?
from the Virgil O. Stamps hymn book Precious Memories
Oft I sing for my friends,
As death’s cold form I see
When I reach my journey’s end
Tell me who will sing for me
I wonder who will sing for me
When I come to cross the silent sea
Who will sing one song for me?
When friends gather round
And look down on me
Will they turn and walk away
Or will they sing one song for me?
I bought a copy of Hilary Hahn’s CD of Violin Concertos by Schoenberg and Sibelius as soon as it came out and listened to it over and over and over. I’d like to share my personal, emotional reactions to it. This is not intended to be the kind of critical review that a music critic might write for a newspaper. It’s strictly my own feelings.
Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto is seldom played or recorded, and there’s got to be a reason why. It is technically extremely difficult to play. Heifetz once looked at the score and said that it would be impossible to play unless the violinist’s left hand had six fingers. Hilary Hahn managed it with only five fingers on her left hand. She said that she worked a long time on figuring out the fingering. In many places, there was only one fingering that would work. She played everything so well that none of it sounded like hard work. She maintained her characteristic sweetness of tone as an element of the many, varied emotions she portrayed.
Like many people, I was prejudiced against Schoenberg and his twelve tone system. I expected to hear cacophony, but I was surprised. My reaction to the first movement was that it sounded -- boring. There was nothing in the music that hung onto me. The second movement was a little more interesting. In some parts, it sounded like playful scampering. There were also some interesting, short, rhythm motifs. I was disappointed that they were not repeated or embellished. The third movement was quite different, and I liked it better than the other two. It was interesting and lively. I heard it as a conversation between the violin and the orchestra. Sometimes it sounded quite polished and civilized. At other times, the orchestra sounded as if it were yelling or growling. Hilary Hahn’s solos sounded clean and clear. They provided a welcome respite from the sometimes chaotic sound of the orchestra.
I love the Sibelius Concerto, especially the first movement. I discussed some of my reactions to this concerto in an earlier blog entry (Feb. 21, 2008). I liked Joshua Bell’s performance better than all the others I could find on amazon.com. In contrast to the other violinists, who sounded overly sweet, Josh started with a taut note with narrow vibrato, which set the tone for the whole piece. Hilary Hahn’s recording, like Joshua Bell’s, starts with a taut feeling, but her tautness had just a bit of her characteristic sweetness in it. Even when she plays dark, gloomy music, I can detect her very own kind of sweetness, like the silver lining to a storm cloud. I sensed a vulnerable quality to the sweetness here. This movement is full of rapid mood changes, executed beautifully by Hilary Hahn and the orchestra. The emotional rollercoaster effect kept me hanging on, feeling the mood of the movement and wondering what would come next. The last movement had a lot of mood changes, but they seemed quicker and more complex than the earlier ones. There was a taut quality reminiscent of the beginning of the first movement, but it was more complex emotionally. It was full of tension, restraint, and power. I had a strong sense of progress towards a goal. The progress had some switchbacks and sidetracks, but that only made the attainment of the goal sweeter.
This blog is based on an article in the TimesOnline , “http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article3931299.ece
Japanese made robots are entering the field of live music performance. Toyota has created a robot which plays the violin, as I described in my blog entry of Dec. 9, 2007. Now Honda has made a robot named Asimo who conducted the Detroit Symphony in The Impossible Dream. Asimo “learned” how to conduct this music from Charles Burke, the Detroit Symphony’s education director, who videotaped himself conducting this piece several months ago. Humans used the tape to program Asimo to make the same movements as Burke.
When the performance was over, Asimo said, “It is absolutely thrilling to perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.”
The musicians generally enjoyed playing with the robot. Leonard Slatkin, Music Director of the Detroit Symphony, remarked, “Its battery runs out after 20 minutes, so he’s not going to get through a Beethoven symphony.”