May 2010

Healing Powers

May 31, 2010 18:32

Migraines are truly pains from h_ll.  When I have a full blown migraine, an event which happens all too often, no medication helps me.  I fall asleep, often for a day or two, and that is the only way I get any relief from the pain.

While the migraine is building, I try to talk myself out of it.  At this time, I become very sound sensitive, as many people with severe headaches do.  Teaching a violin lesson can be very difficult.  The sound can be physically painful.  However, I have found that the reverse is often true.  Very gentle, calming music, but not the kind that is mental pablum, can help for a while.  Listening to Andras Schiff play Bach relaxes me just enough to take the edge off of the pain in the early stages of a migraine.  I have a lot of recordings of Schiff playing Bach, and they have given me many hours of pain relief over the years.  When I can no longer tolerate Schiff playing Bach, I just give up and go to bed.

I was in my prodromal (before the event) stage of a migraine last week, and I was fooling around at my computer.  One of my favorite ways of wasting time is to go to Youtube, listen to something I'm interested in, and then follow links, and that's just what I did.  A small miracle happened because of the music.  I put my arms and my head down on my desk, and just let go.  I could feel the muscle tension draining out of my whole body.  I had been experiencing  pain bracing, unknowingly, as many people do when they're in pain.  All or most of the body's skeletal muscles get tense in anticipation of the pain.  Of course this is counterproductive, but it happens anyway.  If I can let go of my muscle tension, I feel better.  My yoga teacher has advised me to relax into the pain, but I haven't been able to do it, probably because it requires an act of will.  The music had disarmed my muscle tension and given me some relief from the pain.  I was so grateful, and I wanted to be able to listen to that music again.  I was not capable of complex thinking, but I wrote down a few names of the music I had been listening to:  Kempff, Barenboim, and Beethoven sonatas.

A few days later, when my migraine was almost gone and I could think again, I tracked down the music which had helped me so much.  It was Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas.  Even a well known sonata sounds so different and so exquisite when he plays it.  Here he plays the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.


Barenboim performed the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas in Berlin in 1998, and they were all recorded and released on both CD and DVD.  The DVD collection features a bonus of six masterclasses taught by Barenboim.  The CDs are currently sold as a collector's set of 9 CDs, and after searching the Web and comparing prices, I bought the complete collection from a seller associated with for $37.  What an amazing bargain!  I listen to them frequently now, with or without a headache.  I copied them all to my computer, and I often listen to the entire collection for hours.  When I hear something I especially like, I check to see what it is.  I've found that most of my favorites have verbal names, not just the best known ones, such as the Moonlight, the Apassionata, the Pathetique, and Les Adieux, but also the Waldstein, the Tempest, the Hammerklavier, the Quasi Una Fantasia, the A Therese, and others.

The twists and turns of fate are often strange.  My life has been enriched forever with music that gave me solace when I had a migraine. 

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Lang Lang at the Intersection of Art and Money

May 20, 2010 21:59

I love Lang Lang, the young wunder-pianist from China.  I go to hear him in person whenever possible, and I've bought several of his CDs.  I think he is incredibly talented.  He plays standards of the repertoire that I've heard many times, and he makes them new in his own way.  I especially love the way he plays Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4, the second movement, based on the Orpheus and Euridyce story.  I think he interprets it in a very Chinese  way, and one of my Chinese friends agrees.  Here, he plays and talks about it.

He is especially well liked by people like me who love to hear him talk.  He has such a mesmerizing effect on his audiences.  He sounds so humble and so personal at the same time, in a way similar to Yo Yo Ma.  I've heard him give Q and A sessions after concerts, and he appears quite open and honest with the audience.

His life story is an interesting one.  He was brought up in poverty by parents who strongly wanted him to succeed and gave up the little creature comforts they had to pay for him to live and study in Beijing when he was only a small child.  Lang Lang has told his story repeatedly and lovingly in ads for his music when he worked for Deutsche Grammophone and in two "as told by" books. His CDs and DVDs sell like hotcakes.  He endeared himself to a worldwide audience when he played at the Beijing Olympics in 1908.

Lang Lang recorded for a long time on the DG label.  DG has a history of hiring the very best artists, making the very best recordings of them, and educating people about them on their website.  Here Lang Lang talks about the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio on the album "Tchaikovsky / Rachmaninof Piano Trios," another of my favorite recordings by Lang Lang.

Recently, in a move that shook up the classical music community, Sony "bought" Lang Lang from DG for a mere $3 million (3,000,000 USD).  Lang Lang has caught on to the entrepreneurial spirit in a big way, as noted by the magazine  Success

He is promoting three products on his website , which I am presenting in order from the sublime to the ridiculous.    

First is a series of Lang Lang Youth Pianos made by Steinway.


Lang Lang said that as a child, he dreamed of playing the Steinway, and he wants other children to have the chance to do so.  The Lang Lang series pianos bear the star's signature in Chinese and English (simplified to LL) and gold stars on the vertical piano cover and sometimes inside the piano.




Next, as described in his website, is a silk scarf in "regal blue and black with a vibrant illustration of a classical piano in fuchsia" priced at a mere $150.









The third item blew me away.  I thought. "At least Lang Lang is endorsing goods related to the arts, not athletic shoes, a la Michael Jordan."  Enter the Adidas Originals for Lang Lang, a limited edition pair of shoes worn by Lang Lang himself, but presumably not at performances in the concert hall.  As quoted on the Adidas website, Lang Lang says "As an international pianist I combine both artistry and enthusiasm for sports – especially football...Therefore the linking of sports and culture is a very natural combination.”  These black shoes bear Lang Lang's Chinese signature in gold on the heel, a golden silhouette of a pianist playing a concert piano on the side, and golden piano pedals printed on the sock liners.

Here he is, just looking cute in his Adidas shoes.

Lang Lang sounds just as humble and sincere in his commercials as he does in his talks about music.  I don't know what to make of his brash money making, but I still believe that he is an incredibly good musician.

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Falling in love with Bach's Cello Suites Again

May 4, 2010 14:24

I grew up listening to old vinyl recordings of Casals playing all six of Bach's Cello Suites.  To this day, I seem to recognize every note and every nuance of Casals' performances. 

As with many pieces of music I love, this one has some rich personal memories.  While I was battling my way through my divorce, I dated a fellow who was an outstanding amateur cellist.  In fact, I decided that I wanted to date him largely because I liked the way he played Bach on his cello.  He owned the Casals recordings on a 2 CD set, and I remember thinking that owning those CDs must be the ultimate luxury.  (My divorce lawyer was taking a large chunk of my salary at that time.)  I remember sitting with my friend in a sun filled breakfast nook in his home, eating, drinking coffee, listening to Casals' recordings, and not talking because we didn't need to.  I remember just once watching him shake his head and mutter, "...his phrasing."  He was right, of course.  I remembered my childhood violin teacher playing so many pieces with a phrasing similar to that of Casals playing Bach.  Casals influenced a couple of generations of string players in their overall phrasing.

When my divorce was finished and I had some expendable income, I bought the Casals CDs and later the CDs of Yo Yo Ma playing the same pieces.  The Casals recordings are the ones I've listened to the most since then.  I know that it's good to listen to different performances of a piece so that you don't get stuck in a rut, but, after all, these are Bach and this is Casals.

Lately I've been listening to my CDs over and over, sometimes with the score in the Suzuki book in front of me, scribbling down notes while I listen.  It's challenging and fun to try to figure out the cellists' bowings by listening to them and not watching them play.  Other things are easier to discern by ear.  For example, Ma plays the piece more quickly and playfully than Casals.  Ma also likes to add ornaments every time he repeats a passage.  He strongly favors double stops and chords.  Casals does something very interesting in the passage with a run of eighth notes in which every other note is an open string below the fingered notes.  This pattern is very common in fiddle tunes.  It's so much fun to play as a finger game that it's enjoyable even if you don't listen to how it sounds.  I kept listening and relistening to Casals play this passage and always had the feeling that he was playing drones instead of just alternating strings.  Suddenly I recognized what he was doing because I've heard it so often in fiddle tunes of different ethnicities.  Casals played the fingered notes with the open string beneath them, and he played the open string with the next lower open string as a drone.  Both Casals and Ma showed me the sense of some of the dynamics which seemed counterintuitive to me.  There are places where a brief decrescendo is followed immediately by a forte.  In Gavotte #2, there are several places where a grace note and double stop are played up bow, fp.  The next note is played down bow and piano, and that is followed by five staccato quarter notes, all played upbow.  The markings on the score did not make much sense to me, but the recordings showed me just how the music should sound and how small deviations from the expected can be quite beautiful.  

In the framework of those two pages in Suzuki, I've played around with all of the things I've described here.  They're all fun to play and to hear myself play.  I consider myself lucky that I can have so much fun with such small bits of music. 

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