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Karen Allendoerfer

Acquiring Tastes

January 16, 2010 at 5:01 PM

When I start a new program of orchestra music, there are always some pieces in the batch that I like better than others on first hearing.  I know this shouldn't translate into "some pieces that I practice more than others because I like them better," but, my being human, it invariably does.  This can result a kind of feedback loop where practicing the pieces I like makes me enjoy them all the more, and play them even better . . . and the pieces I didn't like?  Um . . . well . . . ahem.

A new concert program gives me a chance to approach this feedback loop differently.  There have been times when a piece I disliked or was bored with upon first hearing turned out to be the most rewarding of all.  When that happened, what made it happen?

1.  The piece was a concerto or other solo piece, and the soloist was great.  Last year we played a flute concerto.  My first reaction to the piece, without the soloist present at rehearsal, was "metallic yet fluffy."  But when the soloist rehearsed with us, it changed everything.  She was dynamic, and inspiring, and made the whole thing fun.  

2.  I found a good recording and listened to the piece a lot.  This has happened to me with the 4th movement of the Franck sonata, which I'm learning to play.  It took about a week of listening to Sarah Chang before the piece grabbed me.  But when it did, it got me good.

3.  I became accustomed to the visual appearance of the sheet music itself, and then became familiar enough with it that I could disregard it or overcome it.  It is always remarkable to me how influential this factor is, for an activity that is, or should be, primarily auditory and kinesthetic.  Rental parts with every last little printed dynamic or phrasing marking circled again and annotated by someone else = ANNOYING.  Rental parts with inconsistent bowings for the section = BAD.  Manuscript music with uneven ledger lines so that an F looks like an A and vice-versa = VERY BAD.  Music written in German = fun for me, and a chance to practice my German--except when words get left out and the music just says "Die."

4.  The music was French.  If the music is French, the word "impressionistic" will invariably come up, and I will think of Monet.  This usually helps, unless I end up thinking of Cezanne or Cassatt, whom I don't like as much as Monet.  

For this concert, we're playing the Chausson  Poème (which meets all of the above criteria) with a young soloist.  I have erased many of the offending stray random markings in my part and started listening to a recording of the piece by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg that came along on the album with the recording of the Sibelius violin concerto I bought last year. 

Strangely, my adventures in listening thus far have put me in mind of a seemingly unrelated topic:  scientific grants and seminars.  In the past week I have attended a practice seminar given by a member of the lab where I work who is going on a job interview next week, and I have attended a lecture on how to prepare grants that will be funded by the NIH.  In both situations, there has been a lot of talk about preparing your audience, holding your audience, leading your audience through by the hand, so you don't LOSE THEM.  In particular, the grants administrator said "don't make them work!"  The structure of these presentations, whether it is written or spoken, is supposed to be predictable and well-organized.  And, the presenter is supposed to be in control at every step of the process.

Right now, the  Poème is, for me, still quite a bit of work.  Chausson clearly didn't go to any of those seminars.  Unlike with the Light Cavalry Overture that carries me right along on the back of a fast-moving horse, with the  Poème I feel a bit like the person in the seminar audience who spaces out looking at a slide of excimer fluorescence and comes back to find that, oops, now the speaker is talking about amyloid nucleation, and how did he get there??  Or the grant reviewer who reads through the proposal and says, "why is he doing those experiments?  what was specific aim 1 again?"  It's not yet clear to me what's coming next or why.  

One thing that sometimes helps me through this stage is to listen, follow along, and to jot down times, in minutes and seconds, in the xerox copy of the music where I'm following along with the recording. While one can't be that quantitative while actually playing, and one wouldn't want to be, somehow doing that helps to set up the piece as a journey with signposts and landmarks.   I know then that even if I've spaced out here or there, one of my favorite parts, where the soloist descends and the orchestra comes in with a swell, will be coming in a minute or two.  In the worst case I'll know how long I have before I can turn the whole thing off and do something else.  I also noticed, after keeping track of the timing, that a particular section that seemed interminably dull and meandering while I was listening (and especially when I was sitting in rehearsal, counting measures rest), was in reality only a couple of minutes long.  Knowing that that section had a defined length and end--and a therefore a purpose, even if I can't fathom it yet--somehow made it easier to endure and even to listen with fresher and more open ears.  

In any case, I'm looking forward to the soloist coming in a few weeks!

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on January 16, 2010 at 6:43 PM

I agree strongly with #3, the condition of the parts.  Getting one where some git has marked the bowing, fingering, or both over every single solitary note is maddening.  Or where each note has been marked each way and incompletely erased about four times over the years.  Reprints off old (usually French) plates where the staff lines come and go . . .  Paper so discolored there's no contrast between it and the printing . . .  Then, as an often-time violist, there are the editors who seem to have a contest going to see who can throw in more clef changes in unnecessary places.  We played Petruchka last spring.  Identical passages were in treble one time, alto the next, treble again the third time. One section featured two clef changes per bar.

You're right, also, that a wonderful soloist can completely redeem a piece.  Isn't it often the most accomplished ones who have the least attitude?

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 17, 2010 at 5:40 PM

Karen - concerning #4, you definitely want to avoid thinking of Cézanne since he was not an Impressionist.  But, Monet is an excellent choice.  I am very fond of Pissarro, myself.

From Nicole Stacy
Posted on January 17, 2010 at 8:50 PM

I loved the part about German pieces.  With a little punctuation, it becomes "Die, Fledermaus!"  Which I'm sure is how many of us felt.  A stand partner's take on Mahler's Kindertotenlieder was "Nun will die, hell!"

From benny atkinson
Posted on January 18, 2010 at 2:23 PM

Karen, you might be interested in reading Ivan S. Turgenev's story  'The Song of Triumphant Love ' which served as background to the 'Poème' by Chausson.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 18, 2010 at 2:27 PM

But Cezanne was French, wasn't he?  I think that the word "impressionistic" gets thrown around a bit too much with French arts, especially by people who don't know what they're talking about (such as myself).  

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 18, 2010 at 2:33 PM

 Benny, thanks for the suggestion for the story.  That definitely might help.  

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 19, 2010 at 12:36 AM


it`s funny,  but Poeme is one piece I have never quite got into either (except you are working on it). It remind sme of a story Hugh Bean told me about when Karajan wa srehearisng atop London orchestra (don`t know what happened ot the Berlin Phil- probably working with Pink Floyd) in La Mer and couldn`t get the right sound until he asked for @a perfume` and it turned the whole thing around.

Maybe my problem with Chausson is a lack of perfume cause by too much prune gas discharge?

Nonetheless,  the Chausson work and performance which has the power to move me to tears is his cocnerto for quartet and orchestra perfomred by Thibaud (among others).  The way Thibaud played that opening violin melody wa ssuch utter perfection it has become a defining moment of violin art for me.



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