October 2006

Happy Halloween

October 31, 2006 00:46


Happy Halloween, everybody!

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Less Is More: Part II. Andras Schiff Plays Mozart

October 29, 2006 00:43

(Continued from 10/23/06)

Last weekend I heard two great concerts, Emmylou Harris singing all kinds of things and Andras Schiff playing and conducting Mozart. These two very different musicians had something in common in their styles: less is more.

Andras Schiff is one of my favorite pianists. I have several CDs of him playing Bach, and some of them never get put away with my other CDs. I leave them out by my stereo in case I need a quick fix. I don’t have to stop and think about what I want to listen to. They’re always just right for the moment. I’ve heard him live in concert several times, most recently, last weekend.

Schiff played and conducted an all-Mozart program with the Capella Andrea Barca, a group he formed to play the complete catalog of Mozart’s piano concertos. He played Piano Concertos #9 and #27, and I especially liked #9. It was a groundbreaking composition for its day because the sound of the piano (keyboard) was not enmeshed in the orchestra’s sound. Piano and orchestra were equals. It is still striking in this way today. At the very start, the orchestra played a one measure figure and the piano jumped in to finish the phrase. The piano sounded like it was asserting itself there, and it continued in the same way throughout the orchestra-soloist dialog. The effect was bracing and dramatic. The orchestra was small by today’s standard, and the music seemed less cluttered than more modern music. Yet there was so much going on! It was quite intense, compact, and essential. It held me enthralled from beginning to end.

Schiff also conducted Mozart’s Symphony #40 in g minor, one of my favorite pieces of music since childhood. This symphony has given me strong connections with other people – my mother, my ex-boyfriend, and my community symphony orchestra. (From the sublime to the ridiculous: I once had one of the themes from this piece as a ringtone on my cell phone.) After hearing this performance, I have a better understanding of why I’ve always loved this music so much. It is unusual for Mozart, in part because it is “Big Mozart,” with a larger orchestra and larger sound than most of his other symphonies. It is never “big” in the sense of “heavy” or “ponderous.” Everything that’s there really needs to be there. There is nothing superfluous, nothing that can be cut. It is unusual for Mozart in another way. It was written towards the end of his tragically short life and foreshadows the Romantic era. Mozart never wrote with the angst of Beethoven, but this symphony has its dark moments, anxious feelings, and marked tension, as well as sweet and bright feelings. The mood changes often and keeps the listener hanging on. Somehow, though, there is the certainty that everything will turn out well in the end. After all, this is Mozart.

Mozart’s music often has a child-like quality, a reassuring feeling that things are as they ought to be. This is true in spite of all the atrocities and hatred that were going on in Mozart’s time, just as in our own time. Mozart’s music brings us to a place deep within us where there is calmness, release, and strength. I feel blessed every time I listen to Mozart.

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Less Is More: Part 1. Emmylou Harris

October 23, 2006 01:39

This weekend I heard two great concerts, Emmylou Harris singing all kinds of things and Andras Schiff playing and conducting Mozart. These two very different musicians had something in common in their styles: less is more.

I started listening to Emmylou Harris about 10 years ago when a friend lent me some tapes and CDs. I copied my favorite songs onto two 90 minute tapes and listened to them often. The tapes were in my car at the time of my near-fatal accident five years ago, and I haven’t listened to much of Emmylou’s music since then. I was excited when I had the opportunity to hear her perform live, near my home, at a reasonable price. By chance, at the concert hall I met the friend who had lent me the recordings long ago, and I thought, Will the circle be unbroken? After the concert, I went to amazon.com and read what critics and others had to say about Emmylou’s recordings. I found that her music can not be categorized easily. It is “alternative rock, folk, country, and bluegrass.” Many people noted that she went her own way instead of following popular trends and blessed her for it. They praised her music with words like “pure” and “pristine.” I would say “no fol de rol, no musical clutter, just get to the heart of the matter.”

Emmylou is now 59 years old and has some trouble hitting the high notes, but her musicianship was fantastic. She was even better than her recordings. She came across as a completely “real” person with total conviction in everything she sang and played. Her backup band consisted of only three musicians, and there was never a lot of fuss in her music. They sang a few songs a capella in three-part harmony. It went straight from her heart to mine. She sang all kinds of songs, including gospel and traditional songs and songs by the Beatles, Ian and Sylvia, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, and, of course, Emmylou herself. She sang corny teenage love songs and transformed them into beautiful love songs for teenagers of all ages. Some of my favorites among the songs she sang were Save the Last Dance for Me, To Know Him Is To Love Him, Bright Morning Star, Spanish Is a Loving Tongue, Just One Miracle, and To Daddy. To Daddy, written by Dolly Parton and recorded by the trio of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt, is about a problem common to many married women. It is quiet, understated, and very strong, and that’s just how Emmylou sang and played it. I’ve heard it before, but never with such impact. Emmylou had was just one embellishment in Spanish Is A Loving Tongue, a brief mandolin solo near the end, and it sounded so Spanish. She spoke of Johnny and June Cash before she played Just One Miracle (Strong Hand), a very moving song and very well suited to that couple. Emmylou Harris, like her music, is very strong, deceptively simple, and utterly true.

To be continued

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Brains of violinists

October 17, 2006 00:30

Does playing the violin affect the brain? Most violinists would probably say “yes” in a subjective way, but there is striking objective evidence, too. Perhaps most interesting are the findings that the brain is actually modified physically by studying the violin in ways that make it easier to learn more. The cerebral cortex, the site of higher thinking in the brain, is not a static structure. Its organization changes over time, giving the brain an astonishing ability to adapt to new needs.

Music and spoken language

Broca’s area is a small part of the cortex which handles many tasks of spoken language and musical abilities. The amount of gray matter (neurons) in Broca’s area is larger in musicians than in nonmusicians. In fact, the volume of gray matter in this brain region increases as the number of years of playing increases. In most people, the amount of gray matter in Broca’s area decreases with age, but in musicians, this does not happen.

Pure tones and other tones

Tone perception is localized in some very small, specialized areas of the cortex -- perception of pure tones in one area and tones of various timbre (violin, piano, and trumpet timbre, for example) in other areas. In the brains of trained musicians, the cortical areas corresponding to tones of various timbres are larger than the areas corresponding to pure tones. Violinists have more of their brains devoted to the perception of violin tones. Likewise, trumpeters have more of their brains devoted to the perception of trumpet tones. The enlargement of appropriate areas of the cortex is greater in people who started their music studies at younger ages.

Suzuki kids

If early training in music modifies the structure and organization of the brain, these changes should be seen in the brains of young children. A series of studies was designed to look for these effects in four to five year olds in Suzuki training and nonmusician children of the same age. The investigators measured AEPs (auditory evoked potentials, electrical signals from the brain), which can be measured noninvasively and safely, in response to pure tones, violin tones, and piano tones. The AEPs for all tones were greater in Suzuki kids than in other kids of the same age. The effects were specifically enhanced for the instrument of practice, so that children studying violin had greatest AEPs for violin tones, and piano students had greatest AEPs for piano tones.

Mozart Concerto

What happens inside the brain of a violinist when he plays a piece of music? The brain mobilizes its resources for guiding muscle movements and for thinking/emoting about the music, activities localized in different parts of the cortex. A group of scientists studied the activity of various parts of the cortex in amateur and professional violinists playing the first 16 bars of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G major. The brains of the professional musicians were more efficient in guiding their muscle movements than the brains of amateur musicians. The professionals’ fingers worked with less mental effort than those of the amateurs. As a result, more of the resources of the professionals’ brains were free to work on the audio effects of their performance.

Why practice?

Suzuki told an interesting anecdote about the mother of a young Suzuki student and her baby. She was listening to some recorded music and holding her baby in her arms, and the baby seemed content. That changed when some music from one of the early Suzuki books came on. The baby became ecstatic, smiling and wriggling his whole body. He obviously recognized the music and liked it. I thought of this story when I read one of Karin Lin’s blogs earlier this year. She said that she was clapping and saying, “Mississippi Hot Dog” with her three year old, a Suzuki student, and her 10 month old baby tried to clap in time and said something like “Huh duh.” I thought that this could be a serious responsibility for a Suzuki parent. What would happen if she played or sang out of tune? Would her child’s sense of pitch be destroyed forever? William Starr, a disciple of Suzuki and a great educator in his own right, recounted a story that addressed this very issue. As a joke, Starr once played The Star Spangled Banner for Suzuki with every second or third note out of tune. Starr’s 18 month old son ran in from another room yelling, “Bad! Bad!” and tried to pull his father’s bow arm down. Suzuki laughed and said, “See! He knows this is bad because he’s heard so much good music at home.” Suzuki loved telling this story to other music teachers and parents. For those who are disinclined to believe such anecdotal evidence, there is now scientific evidence which documents the dramatic effects of music training in the very young.

People who are unfamiliar with Suzuki’s work – and even those who are familiar with it – are often astounded by how much children can learn at a very young age. Children’s acquisition of manual skills and their learning of mental concepts such as pitch are both very imprssive. In my experience, most parents of young students find it hard to believe that their children will be able to learn to tune by ear. Of course, their children do learn, and now scientific studies have given us some understanding of how this happens.

Our teachers tell us (and we tell ourselves) that we play difficult music better when we practice it more. Practicing gives even more benefits. It enables us to learn new things better and faster. Practicing physically alters the brain and strengthens it for all kinds of music skills -- hearing, perceiving, and recognizing audio signals; developing specialized motor skills; and using the multitude of mental functions which contribute to music making.

One of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of musicianship is the interplay between technique and artistry. In Art of Violin, Perlman notes that learning to play the violin is much more difficult than learning to play the piano. It’s easy for the musically uninitiated (some people, anyway) to pick out Twinkle on the piano, but it takes some training to be able to do that on the violin. Pianists have an advantage over violinists, Perlman points out, because they can focus on artistry fairly quickly, while beginning violinists struggle with the mechanics of music making for quite a while. We all know the feeling of struggling to play something until our hands just seem to do it automatically. After a certain amount of drilling, we can concentrate less on where to put our fingers and more on how to make our sound appealing. These subjective observations have objective neurological correlates, too. The brains of highly trained violinists direct less of their resources to playing the notes and more of their resources to playing the music.

The brain is an amazingly complex instrument with greater capacity for learning and developing than most people realize. With all its physical and metaphysical capabilities, it is our primary instrument for playing music.

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Happy birthday, Paul Simon

October 14, 2006 01:40

We’re all getting older. Bob Dylan is 65; Paul McCartney is 64 (“When I’m Sixty-Four”); and this week, Paul Simon celebrated his 65th birthday.

Yesterday it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
I should be depressed; my life's a mess,
But I'm having a good time.
Oo I've been loving and loving and loving;
I'm exhausted from loving so well.
I should go to bed, but a voice in my head says
Have a good time.

Have a good time. Have a good time. Have a good time.

Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland,
But I think it's all overdone.
Exaggeratinmg this, exaggerating that;
They don't have no fun.
I don't believe what I read in the papers;
They're just out to capture my dime.
I ain't worrying and I ain't scurrying;
I'm having a good time.

Have a good time. Have a good time. Have a good time.

Maybe I'm laughing my way to disaster;
Maybe my race has been run.
Maybe I'm blind to the fate of Mankind,
But what can be done?
So God bless the goods we was given,
And God bless the U.S. of A.
And God bless out standard of living;
Let's keep it that way.

Have a good time. Have a good time. Have a good time.

--- Have a Good Time by Paul Simon

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The view from Harpers Ferry

October 12, 2006 22:07

I took a day trip to Harper’s Ferry W Va, a beautiful small town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. A quiet place now, it was a bustling city of commercial and military strategic importance in the past. The C&O Canal and, later, the B&O Railroad made things happen there. The abolitionist John Brown, whose body now “lies a mould’ring in the grave,” led an unsuccessful slave uprising at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Today the historic area of the city, which includes the Armory and Arsenal, some small museums, and a historic church, remains unspoiled. Even the tourist traps, including crafts stores, restaurants, and a used book store, are small, tasteful, and inexpensive by Washington DC standards.

I spent most of my time enjoying the scenery, but I visited the used bookstore just long enough to find and buy “Go East Young Man,” the autobiography of the early years of one of my heroes, former Supreme Court Justice and environmentalist William O. Douglas. I thumbed through the book and found two passages which seemed to address my experiences at Harpers Ferry, one political and one spiritual.

Douglas told of his experience as a poll watcher shortly after he was graduated from law school. His assignment was to watch for suspicious activity. He saw a busload of men come in together and head for the ballot box. They looked suspicious to him, so he approached them to ask questions, and they responded by showing him the butt end of a rifle. He watched them cast their ballots en masse and then seize and open the ballot box. Again he was suspicious, tried to ask questions, and, again, was shown the rifle butt. I know that these things really happened, but the incident seemed like an episode from a Woody Allen movie to me. Sad but true.

In his discussion of various religions and nature, Douglas wrote, “[Christian] religious books taught that man should not enjoy the scenery of valleys and mountains but should look inward and concentrate on his own salvation. That is why Petrarch on a fourteenth-century alpine ascent became ashamed when he found himself admiring the view from the top of the peak instead of thinking of his own soul.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the view.

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Flash: Ilya Gringolts gets a Grammy!

October 10, 2006 21:23

I just read the news about the 2006 Classic FM Gramophone Awards and learned that the winner in the chamber music category is Taneyev Chamber Music featuring Mikhail Pletnev, Vadim Repin, Ilya Gringolts, Nobuko Imai, and Lynn Harrell. Here is some information from Deutsche Grammophon’s microsite for the CD.

This is "a recording with rarely-performed chamber music by the Russian composer Taneyev, who was a student of Tchaikovsky. The CD is an excellent recording by an all-star quintet, created by Mikhail Pletnev, [consisting of] Vadim Repin and Ilya Gringolts, two of the most exciting violinists of the younger generation from Russia, paired with Nobuko Imai (viola) and Lynn Harrell (cello), are distinguished established stars on their instruments – and the incomparable Mikhail Pletnev."

You can hear audio clips at DG’s microsite and learn more about Ilya here.

(No, I’m not Ilya’s paid publicist and I’m not trying to embarrass him.)

Congratulations, Ilya!

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Selling classical music

October 8, 2006 22:29

I’ve had some unusual experiences with affordable classical music recently. I’ve bought tickets for some world class performers at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC for only $20. I arrived late at one of these concerts and was prepared, unhappily, to wait until intermission to be seated. After waiting for about 10 minutes, an usher told me that I could take my seat immediately in a box seat and stay there for the whole concert. What’s happening?

I just read an article in the NY Times called “Operas for $20? New Audiences Hear Siren Song.” The article says, in part,

Jaws no longer drop at the thought of paying $375 for a prime seat at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s the $20 orchestra seats that have people gaping. Last week, the opera house announced that it would sell 200 seats for every weeknight performance for just $20 each. Tickets for these seats, which would normally sell for $100, go on sale two hours before curtain time. On Tuesday, the day of the announcement, 160 tickets were sold in 20 minutes. The remaining 40 were sold out by 7:10 p.m…

Next door at Lincoln Center, the New York City Opera is in its second season of “Opera-for-All,” selling every seat in the house for $25 on eight evenings over the course of the season.
The discounts, underwritten for the most part by corporate donors, are an effort to compete for leisure time with an increasing array of multimedia offerings and, in an era when patrons of the theater, opera and classical music are aging rapidly, to reach a younger, more diverse population…

The Met’s $20 ticket program is part of a larger effort by the new general manager, Peter Gelb, to throw wide the doors of the opera house. A free open dress rehearsal with brown-bag lunch last month was followed by a populist opening night — with the gala performance of “Madama Butterfly” simulcast free on large screens on the Lincoln Center Plaza and in Times Square. “The goal is to broaden our audience and to fill the house,” Mr. Gelb said. “The average age was 65 when I arrived.”…

The Met’s $20 ticket program is part of a larger effort by the new general manager, Peter Gelb, to throw wide the doors of the opera house. A free open dress rehearsal with brown-bag lunch last month was followed by a populist opening night — with the gala performance of “Madama Butterfly” simulcast free on large screens on the Lincoln Center Plaza and in Times Square…

In the first year of City Opera’s Opera-for-All — which includes introductory videos before the performance — 71 percent of the audience had never been to City Opera before, and the two performances sold out. Of those who attended, 11 percent came back to the series this year…”

There is hope for the future of classical music.

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Photos phrom Pholklife Phestival

October 7, 2006 00:19

Here are a few more musician photos I took last summer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

You can see my whole album here.

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Opening Night at the Kennedy Center

October 4, 2006 10:40

I went to a gala concert at the opening night at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in late September. Of course, the jewel in the crown was Joshua Bell’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto (see my blog of 9/27/06), but the rest of the evening was interesting, too. The program was all Tchaikovsky and included Marche Slav, vocal duets from Romeo and Juliet, excerpts from Eugene Onegin, the Violin Concerto, and the 1812 Overture.

The concert was billed as the Season Opening Ball Concert, so I expected to see elegantly costumed couples dancing to music by the NSO (National Symphony Orchestra), like the pictures I’ve seen of New Year’s Ball with Karajan conducting and couples waltzing to music by Strauss. I didn’t see any dancing, but I did see a lot of women dressed in evening gowns and men dressed in tuxedos. Other people were dressed less formally, so I didn’t feel too out of place in my most elegant second hand clothes, donated to me by a friend just two days before the concert. Before the concert, there were free, small size samples of some Starbucks concoction, and during the intermission, there were free glasses of champagne for everyone, even those of us in the cheapest seats in the house (peasants’ heaven).

Before the concert started, I looked at some video displays about John F. Kennedy. He made such a strong impression on me and, probably, every American alive during his Presidency, 1960-1963. He embodied many dreams and ideals for millions of people. One of the striking things about him was that he was only 43 when he became President. At that time, I was 12 years old, and 43 did not seem young to me. Now when I look at his photos, I marvel at his youth. He spoke with such strong moral conviction about the issues of the day, and what he said rang true for many of us, in sharp contrast to today’s politicians. Those were the days of the Cold War, when people were terrified of annihilation by nuclear bombs in a war between Democracy and Communism. One of the video displays showed Kennedy talking with Khruschchev, the leader of Communist Russia, who looked terribly threatening, in Berlin. In the next scene, Kennedy told Americans that, “nothing has changed, not in substance, not in spirit.” The scenes of Kennedy fighting for racial equality, citing moral imperatives, were very moving. When I saw the video of Martin Luther King at the massive Civil Rights rally in 1963 saying, “I have a dream…,” I cried. Now I know that Kennedy did some things I don’t like – getting us deeper into Cuba and Vietnam – but the dream survives.

I was bidden into the concert hall by some live music by a brass ensemble, including works by Purcell and other baroque composers. The musicians were standing to the right and left of the NSO’s conductor, Leonard Slatkin, on the balcony just outside the first tier seats of the Concert Hall. I went up to look and listen to them. They sounded wonderful, but I also remembered the advice I’ve heard recently about using ear plugs when listening to performances or playing in rehearsals.

I took my seat in peasants’ heaven (second tier seat) and watched the orchestra before they started to play. In honor of Opening Night, the women in the orchestra were dressed in long formal gowns instead of their usual concert attire. The configuration of the orchestra was like that of Mozart’s time, with the first and second violins on the left and right of the conductor, respectively. I like that arrangement as both a member of the audience and a second violinist. I was glad to see that both the concertmistress and the principal second violinist were women. Before the concert began, Slatkin spoke briefly to the audience. He said that we were going to have an unusual experience – listening to a performance of the 1812 Overture indoors. He told us not to worry because the orchestra had consulted extensively with the fire department. His words were prophetic.

When I learned that some vocal arrangements of music from Romeo and Juliet were on the program, I was skeptical. I generally don’t like people tinkering too much with beautiful music. Then I read that Tchaikovsky himself had started to write vocal arrangements of his Romeo and Juliet, and the work was continued by others after his death. The vocal duets were beautiful. They were very much in keeping with the instrumental version and even more romantic. The excerpts from Eugene Onegin were from two of the most beloved, lyrical, and emotionally dramatic parts of the opera: the letter aria and Lensky’s aria, and the performances were both very moving.

I must admit that I had a bad attitude towards the 1812 Overture. I figured that it was flashy, showy music incorporated into the program to attract an audience of wealthy people who knew nothing about classical music. That may be true, but Sladkin’s arrangement, although very showy, was very, very good musically. Some aspects of the performance were unusual. There were singers – a small ensemble of male singers dressed in full military attire in box seats to the right and left of the stage. They were rousing good. The orchestra itself was augmented with extra bass viol players, as well as extra brass and percussionists, and I thought more seriously about earplugs. The cannons went off just behind and above the orchestra, and I watched somewhat nervously as the smoke hung in the air in front of the organ pipes from the time the cannons were fired until the end of the performance. I looked more closely, using my opera glasses, at the box seats with the singers, and noticed, on one side, a sound crew and, on the other side, some firemen. The performance was unusually moving, and the vocalists contributed substantially to the effects. I felt the stirrings of patriotic pride to the fatherland – Russia – and wondered what Kennedy would have thought of this. Perhaps it was a tribute to the power and universality of music. The performance ended with a cascade of brilliantly colored streamers from more box seats onto the audience in the orchestra seats. The performance was showmanship, but it was also very good music.

Joshua Bells’s performance of the Tchaikovsky was radical artistry. For details, see my blog of 9/27/06.

The opening night gala concert was exciting and beautiful in many ways. We must be in for a good season.

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Bowing Variations

October 1, 2006 00:31

I love working out. I’m one of those crazy people who are addicted to pain and sweat. On days when I can’t go to the gym, I do some exercises at home. One thing I don’t do a lot of by myself is sit-ups. They are s-o-o-o boring, especially if you do enough of them to make a difference. Sometimes I take an abs class at the gym. I don’t stay for the entire 30 minutes, and I don’t do some of the fiendishly clever and difficult variations, but I do work hard. I decided to think of some variations of my own to break the boredom, and I had a flash of inspiration. I thought of the bowing variations I assign to my students for practicing scales. One of my students told me that they’re fun. (Does that mean that I’m a good teacher or that she has a twisted mind?) Now I do the bowing variations with sit-ups. Up down (20x). Up up down (20x). Up down down (20x). Up hold down (20x). Frog-to-tip tip tip tip tip (20x). Frog-to-middle hold middle-to-tip hold tip-to-frog (20x). I must be crazy

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