Tag Archive | piano

The movies in my mind

I and most of the people I know who are my age, or almost, forget the most familiar names with a frequency that would be more alarming if there weren’t so many of us doing it. I’ve been told, and therefore I’ve known to expect that early and childhood memories will come back with greater pungency as I age. I like to think it will make up for all those lost nouns!  I hadn’t expected it to start happening quite this soon, but I do find, especially while I should be concentrating on practicing the piano, that memories of all sorts from decades ago cascade across my mind willy nilly. I may not get better at the piano, but I am enjoying the movies.

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When I’m 97 ….

 

Every so often, when I’m driving through Vermont in the afternoon, I find myself listening to the NPR program, “The Story.” Recently, host Dick Gordon interviewed Frank Glazer, someone I knew nothing about except that I remember his name on an LP somewhere in my collection. Glazer is a pianist, and one who’s had quite an illustrious career, making his debut at New York’s Town Hall and  playing with the Boston Symphony, with an extended professional career at Eastman School of Music. For the last thirty plus years he’s been “artist in residence” at Bates College in Maine.  But that’s not why Gordon was talking to him. It seems that Mr. Glazer is 97 and still teaching and performing.

Most wonderfully, from my point of view, he’s still getting better. Last year he played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in performance. That’s an extraordinary feat for any musician, much less one of 97.

Asked why he hasn’t retired, he responds,

“The reason I’m still doing it—all my life I wanted to be able to like what I heard when I play. Now I like it. Why should I quit now when I’m hearing what I always wanted to hear, but didn’t always hear?

My technique is as good as it’s ever been. I’m still getting better. I know better how to learn a piece, how to let it speak so that I finally get it. And the audience gets it—the essence and spirit of the music.”

What about arthritis? Nearly everyone is at least a little arthritic in their old age. He says his was never so bad that he couldn’t play through it, and now it’s gone altogether. Even the wear and tear that once affected his playing has diminished.

Glazer hopes to perform all 51 of Chopin’s Mazurkas and all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in eight programs in his 100th year.

And I hope to be able to enjoy hearing myself play when I reach 97.

 

I’m back….

It’s been a few months now since I stopped blogging. I don’t know that I’m refreshed or afire with ideas for new posts, but I still seem to have things to say. I keep thinking that I should have something new and exciting to contribute in light of what’s been happening in the world while I’ve not been here. But, look around! Really. The confusion, the eeriness, the world gone mad!

Every day I find my e-mail full of political and economic description and analysis, so much of it important, even vital, and still I don’t really understand what’s happening to the world. Surely, somewhere in all those words there must be an answer to my bewilderment. Where did these so-called Tea Party people come from? These odd people who are so certain government is the enemy that they’ll do anything to bring it down? Why didn’t I know they were out there in these numbers?

Anyway, more on that another time.

While I’ve been away, summer has come and gone, and given way to brilliant color and beautiful light. Late summer brought flooding to Vermont and I felt proud of this little state. No doubt about it, it’s a gutsy place. Summer droughts hurt millions of other people. The floods and drought may have to do with global warming. Probably. Still, the people who want less government won’t agree to try to do something about it. They’d rather let corporations make it worse. Hard to take in.

Despite all, things are looking up with “Occupy” which, for me, is all about hope.

I finished writing a book, a light entertainment that I’ll push on this blog in a few weeks time. Don’t worry. I’ll try not to be obnoxious about it.

I played my rather tenuous piano with Tom and Genna, he on the viola da gamba, she on the recorder. If Handel could have heard us, if  Telemann had tuned in—oh, the pity of it!  Oh, well. Maybe later.

I spent some time in California which meant hikes to the sea and Picasso.

Pablo Picasso. Two Women Running on the Beach.

The Picasso show at San Francisco’s De Young Museum was an exhibit of work that the artist never sold. On his death, it was placed in the Picasso Museum in Paris. The Museum is being renovated this year, hence the traveling exhibit. It was an exuberant and passionate look at the twentieth century and its art.

In the meantime, Doris, in New York City, sent back a book she borrowed from me thirty-something years ago. I had no idea where it had got to. The pages of the little gray paperback are yellowing, the binding is coming apart. Entitled “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” it’s full of powerful words from the young Rainier Maria Rilke.

Over the years, on occasional rambles through used book stores, I’ve looked for another copy, but to no avail. Now I can look again at what moved me so deeply when I was young. And see if it still does.

Surprise!!!

It had been seven years, and a little more, since I’d been in New York City and oh how I’d missed it. It’s a city that’s festooned with surprises. Living there, you sometimes grow tired and forget to look for them. Visiting, especially when so many streets are covered with memories, is something else again. In a way it’s the way it was before I moved to Manhattan in the late sixties—exciting because something is always about to happen. Because it frequently does.

I walked into a Washington Square blossoming with cherry trees and tulips, past the perpetual chess players. Nannies pushed prams with adorable charges; a pigeon-feeding gentleman murmured to the cooing birds perched on his shoulders and arms and taking turns to perch atop his head; NYU students consulted their cellphones and poured over their Cliff’s Notes; tourists posed for each other by the arch. There’s always been music in Washington Square—drummers, guitars, horns, dancers, choirs and choruses. On this day—it was hard to believe—there was a piano and a fellow playing it. Because it was New York, no one but me seemed surprised.

The piano player was busy, pounding out melodies with a flourish on a small beat-up looking instrument with most of its innards showing. A dolly was near the donation bucket. It was a perfect place for a piano—Washington Square between the fountain and the snack cart. But how did it get there? Even small pianos weigh at least 250 pounds.

I had time to listen before I met an old friend for lunch, and so I did and then I talked to him, not something I would usually do, but he was playing a piano after all, and doing it well. The piano needed improvement, I suggested to pianist Colin Huggins. He gave me his business card and advised me to look at his website: he only needed a thousand dollars more to buy a baby grand for the Square.

Colin Huggins, by his own admission, is “the crazy piano guy” and the “World’s Happiest Man.” A look at the Internet reveals that he has pianos at Manhattan Mini Storage in storage units around the city. He wanted an audience so he left his day job playing for the Joffrey Ballet, and began rolling out pianos to several subway stations, Times Square,Washington Square…. He’s on YouTube. Look him up, but if you’re able, go to Washington Square. He may already have that baby grand.

Crazy Piano Guy at Times Square. Photo by aatflicker (Ashkay). Creative Commons.

The surprises didn’t end with the crazy piano guy. I found a Mexican vanilla beer and a splendid Sauvignon Blanc from Australia. I ate Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian, Italian, Turkish, and the best of American; I even wandered around Zabar’s. I discovered the largest, grandest white tulip I’ve ever seen in the Riverside Park garden. Found a bookstore on Broadway that should have disappeared in a digital age, but hadn’t. Went to concerts and museums and galleries. Remembered whole lifetimes of people and events with old friends.

Then there was Maira Kalman’s show: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World). I’d never heard of her, much less seen any of her books or art. I wish I knew her. I wish we had drunk tea together, and known the same gardens and dogs. I think I would have learned a lot about life from her. She knows how to ask questions.

From the brochure for the exhibit at The Jewish Museum. Self Portrait (with Pete) by Maira Kalman.

As I went from picture to picture, place to place, I was accompanied by a woman I’d only just met. A talker, a story-teller. And somehow, amazingly, her stories, which started one place and ended at another that was utterly other, were the perfect accompaniment to the exhibit. Like music.

Two days later I bought a book by Kalman, one with a title that promised all sorts of surprises: The Principles of Uncertainty. A two-page sample:

 

 

The other day I happened to hear an interview with Betty White. “Are you afraid of dying?” asked the interviewer. “Oh, no,” she responded, and explained that her mother told her when she was a child that death was a surprise, in fact, the greatest surprise of all. Death was like the most remarkable of birthday gifts.

A Few Notes on the Piano

The other day my post was about the piano and pianists Arrau, Horowitz, Tureck and Kraus. Lili Kraus had more to say in her 1981 interview, and I’ve been waiting to post it.

“The piano is really a marvelous instrument. In a way it is not only the most sophisticated, but also the most transcendental of all instruments, because it forces you to rely not on technique only, as many would have it today, but on your creative imagination almost to the point of sorcery. The paradox lies in the fact that the voice of the piano dies in the moment of birth. Once you have struck the key, the sound can only diminish; there is no way of actually prolonging it. It is up to your imagination and vision to pretend and make believe that there is a continuity of sound equivalent to the sound of a flute, a voice, a cello, a horn, in fact, a whole orchestra….”

Photo by zen Sutherland from flickr. Creative Commons license.

It’s interesting to note that it’s not just the voice of the piano that “dies in the moment of birth.” In a way, what is true of the piano is true of every instrument, though you may be able to extend a half note or a chord with the pedal or the breath. What’s even more interesting is that the motion picture functions in a similar way. The scene is set and changes in a moment’s time. You can freeze the sound of the piano; you can freeze a scene on film. But the art is in the ongoingness of both. The temporality of the medium is of the essence.

Mozart in an unfinished portrait by Joseph Lange, 1782.

Kraus went on to speak about one of her favorite composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, about his “sweetness” in the face of the tragedy and suffering in his life.

“In his diary, Leonardo da Vinci said that the true experience of the artist at times is so terrifying that, if the artistic vision were presented in full truth to the layman, he would be so shocked that he would flee in terror. Therefore, according to Leonardo, it is the duty and sacred privilege of the creative artist to cloak his experience in the garb of love and perfection. Now this is precisely what Mozart has done, and his music has become so much a part of me that I agonize when the music turns to the minor, and I’m redeemed when it reverts to the major….”

When the piano is your “very self, your mother tongue, your life”

 
 

 

You see my piano is for me what his frigate is to a sailor, or his horse to an Arab — more indeed; it is my very self, my mother tongue, my life. Within its seven octaves it encloses the whole range of an orchestra, and a man’s ten fingers have the power to reproduce the harmonies which are created by hundreds of performers. 

- Franz Liszt, in an open letter to Adolphe Pictet, writen in Chambery, September 1837, and published in the Gazette musicale of February 11, 1838. 

  

Liszt was given to hyperbole, but his feelings for the piano weren’t unique to him. Pianist Lili Kraus (1903-1986) was imprisoned in Djakarta, Indonesia by the Japanese during World War II. She worried about her hands but she didn’t want special treatment, and so she accepted the job of pulling up buckets from a well — 40 in the morning, 40 at noon and 40 in the evening. 

At the end of my first day of doing this, my finger joints were so swollen and so painful that I couldn’t open the fingers. I was as frightened as I was shocked. But only for a moment, because the thought came again that, if I’m going to play the piano again, I will; and if it isn’t meant to be, I won’t. So I worked on, and as a consequence my hands became wonderfully strong….

  However, it wasn’t the manual work or possible damage to my hands that bothered me so much. What really ate me up was the longing for my music and my family. I could never decide which anguish was more tormenting; however, I was consumed by the desire to sit down at the piano and play and play. This longing almost drove me mad…. 

Lili Kraus. From the book, Great Pianists Speak for Themselves. No credit is given.

 

My mother played the piano and assumed the role of a piano teacher when I was about the right age to learn to play. Because she was my mother, I resisted mightily, quit in my early teens and only recently picked it up again. Unlike Lizt, I don’t have “the power to reproduce harmonies created by hundreds of performers,” nor do I consider the piano “my very self, my mother tongue, my life.” But I feel a kinship, however remote, with those who do. I love it when my fingers scamper across the cool, smooth ivory of the keys, doing things I can’t imagine my fingers doing in my more rational moments. I love the way they articulate sounds, small ones and big. I love it despite the many mistakes I make. And I won’t give up my dream of playing with some amateur (very!) ensemble or other some day. 

In the last half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, nearly every middle class home had a piano and a woman or girl who played it. Movies set in those years often find their heroines seated at the piano playing error-free Mozart or, in later years, perfect Irving Berlin. I find them terribly irritating. I was relieved when Jane Austin’s Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice played a truly sloppy piano in the book and the movie, all the time apologizing helplessly for it. It would be interesting to know if the women piano-players of those years helped us really hear the truly talented, the truly marvellous musicians of their day and ours. 

I found the Liszt quote and excerpts of interviews from various classical pianists in a 1987 book I gave to my mother, the pianist. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a reader, and I think she was too envious of those who could play so powerfully to enjoy their conversation about it. But now I’ve inherited Great Pianists Speak for Themselves by Elyse Mach and I find it a revealing read. Several of the pianists the author interviewed were already elderly at the time she talked with them, and have things to say about their era, aging and the piano. Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), for example, speaks about the artist’s vision becoming deeper as he grows older. 

Claudio Arrau. Print in India ink. Photo by Andrezor ByN. Creative Commons.

 

You are always moving toward new revelations of the meaning of certain passages. And this brings you closer and closer to the core of the music. That’s why it’s inadvisable, for example, for a very young artist to want to play late Beethoven. He should occupy himself all his life with the study of the late Beethoven sonatas, but he should not want to play them too soon because that is an impossible pretension on his part.

 

 Arrau goes on to discuss “the proximity of death, death as a part of life” in the later work of Schubert. 

Lili Kraus finds the younng pianists of the 1980s are technically amazing, but frequently there is no emotional content, no personal statement, no passionate involvement and no taking of risks. 

Sometimes, when I listen to them, I fail to detect any joy or sadness. It all sounds the same: slow, fast, soft, loud. But I want to hear concepts, not just notes…. Many young pianists today are completely separated from the tradition of ‘classic’ or even ‘romantic’ feeling, and I don’t see any road back for them because they are ceaselesssly bombarded with noise that takes them further away. Consider for a moment the noise of the city, the road, the air, not to speak of jazz and rock music. Certainly jazz and rock have wonderful rhythms which are almost primitive in origin. Such rhythms hypnotize the mind, actually dull it, so that the listener is dazed. But the great masters do just the opposite: they stimulate and refresh the awareness of the spirit. 

Roslyn Tureck. Photo from Great Pianists Speak for Themselves. Uncredited.

 

Rosalyn Tureck (1914-2003), one of our era’s great interpreters of Bach, has some other thoughts on the subject of contemporary culture. 

I think it’s very clear to most people that we’re at the end of the Judeo-Christian civilization, which indeed was a very great civilization and reached a great many peaks in art, in thought, and in science. The twentieth century itself has beeen a fabulous century, filled with what might be called “miracles;” what man has achieved in this century is almost beyond belief. In that sense, I’m very excited about living in our time. But there are many aspects of this century also which are heartbreaking and full of agony, and this I cannot bear. There has been ugliness, physical, visual, aural — all kinds of ugliness. The decadence is on the increase, which forebodes a very dark, black period lasting a long time, perhaps many centuries. …. I should be most interested to live, if I had my choice for another life in the future, about 850 years from now. I think the human society by that time will have fully recovered and created a new and more advanced way of life, thought, and art. 

Claudio Arrau would have disagreed, but not entirely.  

You often hear musicians say that they would like to have lived in the age of Chopin, or Bach, or some other artist. Not I. Even if I had a choice of time in which to live, I would pick now. The questioning, the doubting, the nonacceptance of all the institutions and values that people have believed in for years are to me the marvel of our times. We are being forced to reexamine all of the traditions of the past, not only in music but in our general way of life. This is a fascinating experience. It may never come again, and I am glad to be a part of it….