Monday, November 15, 2010

concern trolls

There is a peculiar thing about atheists as a group. When I dare to publicly point out the obvious - that religion is cruel, barbaric, harmful to society, and most importantly, false - I am told that I should not say such things, because some believers might get upset, and I am told this by other atheists. What a curiosity! When certain feminists speak out against gender inequality, pointing out how harmful sexism is to society, and opining that there is no rational basis for these dehumanizing attitudes, I wonder whether there are other feminists who try to hush them up, warning: "Careful! You might offend some misogynists."

Friday, May 7, 2010

Jessica Bang is always right

Last semester, at Fullerton College, I met and developed what I suspect will be a lasting friendship with a fellow pianist, who we will call "Jessica", because that is her name. While she always demurs, I insist that she has a talent for piano coaching. Sometimes I just listen to a performance and I think it's so hopeless that all I can think is that I hate it, and I tune out. She on the other hand, always seems to be able to come up with something both constructive and appropriate (good comments are neither too trivial nor focused on musical elements currently beyond the student's grasp - the latter direction is the way I tend to err, I think).

I have not always listened to her diligently, that is, some comments of hers I may have heard and remembered but been skeptical enough not to give them great consideration. Among these was an observation that my tone suffers when I lean forward. I thought "interesting... maybe" or something along those lines, until my new teacher this semester (at Pasadena City College) made the same observation. That can't be ignored!

Okay, so maybe a person can get lucky once. But on other occasions, when I would make a serious performance of a piece, Jessica would yell at me "Breathe! Breathe! You're not BREATHING!" I'm not passing out, what's the problem? But last week, when I was not expecting any problems in the Bach Prelude I would be playing in my Applied Music class, what followed could only be described as a debacle. The students were kind in their comments. But key was that one of the most frequently recurring observations was that I was not breathing.


So later when I practiced the piece in tempo, I realized that indeed I was holding my breath. So now I am making some effort to gain control of this supposedly involuntary function when I perform. I noticed then when I exhaled, things immediately became much easier. This no doubt was greatly helpful when I played in a little scholarship competition at the end of the week; $500 was up for grabs and the judges elected to split it between me and the resident wunderkind. No disasters this time!

So, Jessica, anything else I never listened to you about?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The consensus of the studio class was that my Bach was too loud too often, and that when I wanted to bring something out, particularly in the left hand, I did not quiet the other hand enough. Also, entrances of the theme were not as strikingly articulated as the opening. I hesitated twice. I was focused more on staying alive than more fine considerations. I don't recall any general criticism of the Chopin that was as concrete. Specifically, Petitto mentioned that my ritard in the retransition was too sudden; it must be more gradual. Ritardando not ritenuto.

I didn't practice after the class at all yesterday. I have a killer new toothache and the accompanying headache I get with it, but I have to say that excuse is inadequate: I could still find time when the pain is not as severe to sit at the keyboard, and I can alternate that with periods of rest. I did wake up at 3 AM thinking of the Bach, so that does show that I am practicing a bit more lately, but that needs to be a regular habit, not just a flurry of activity before a deadline. I am not going to practice right now because it is 3 AM, but my current promise to myself is to get working at 9 AM. Hopefully I will not be asleep again at that time.

My cat, Evie, has an appointment with a groom at 12:30 PM, so I need to plan today's practice around that. I know cats - especially indoor cats - don't really need a regular bath, but Carol, my fiancee, likes the fluffiness of her fur after a visit to the salon.

I can hear the dryer of one of the other building's residents buzzing literally once a minute. That person seriously needs to be slapped upside the head.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

studio class tomorrow

I am playing Chopin's "B-flat minor" scherzo and the Prelude from Bach's English Suite in A minor in a scholarship competition a week from Friday. Petitto has scheduled a studio class for tomorrow, sort of a dry run for her students who are competing, I think. I am not ready, but it's *possible* I will not fall apart when I run through these pieces tomorrow. I am putting them together bit by bit.

Last night I worked for two hours on the first sixty-four bars of the scherzo; today I spent a lot of time on just bars 117-132, which is the difficult flourish which closes the A section. I used practice rhythms and gradually worked the tempo up from dotted half = 27 to dotted half = 80. I think I have found the key to tackling this figure, which is to use, in the descending arpeggio which finishes the phrase, a flat pinky to strike the A-flats, and a flat third finger to strike the D-flats. I am determined to master this without using the left hand to help.

Then I spent a bit of time on bars 516-551 (the bravura passage which uses chromatic modulation to return to B-flat minor), simply playing it with the metronome, working from dotted half = 50 up to 80. I don't really have time to use rhythms at this point, since at this point I'm just trying to see if I can make it through the whole piece. After the class tomorrow I will be working on various sections more intensely until Wednesday. This practice was a little awkward because I do not think the grandiose sequence from 544-551 is meant to be played without pausing dramatically after each downbeat (more so on the first, third, fifth, and seventh measures of the sequence, less so on the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth). I am trying to use the metronome anyway, to make it as technically accurate as possible, but I will play it more naturally in performance. I have a lot still to work on throughout the piece; I have to guess which section is weakest and work on that. It's not like triage, since I must refuse to reject any "patient" as beyond help (*and* every section must eventually receive very focused attention).

Music geek moment: The Wikipedia page for this scherzo incorrectly refers to the passage from bars 716-731 as having some sort of "key change". It's just a major chord on flat six and then a chromatic progression to a one six-four chord. Change of key signature is not the same as a key change.

I just played through the English Suite, going from quarter = 60 to 69, trying to find which passages are most treacherous. Bach is all about memory. Solid wrong or split notes are not really a problem, as long as there are very few. Any hesitation, however, is a disaster and ruins the performance. There is a lot of work to be done here as well, but I found the passages which tripped me up more than once were bars 59-61 and 82-83. So, stuff in E minor. I know my fingerings in 59-61, they just need to be more secure - I will write more detail into the music to help reinforce it. In 82, it's navigating the direct modulation and then remembering which measure I am in, since the notes are identical to measure 60. I will practice both sections with practice rhythms tonight.

About three hours of practice so far today; I'm hoping to get in another three. One's brain makes progress best by taking breaks, though, so I am off to do some errands before returning to Bach and Chopin.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

LA Phil: "Casual Friday"

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Friday concert was a shortened version of the one on offer this Saturday and Sunday. Those two programs include the overture “Cyrano de Bergerac” by the obscure late Romantic Dutch composer Johan Wagenaar (one senses guest conductor Jaap van Zweden is out to do his bit to promote his country’s musical legacy), Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto, and Brahms’ fourth and final symphony. The Friday concert omitted the (probably unfamiliar to the vast majority of concertgoers) overture, and had no intermission. This seems to be in keeping with the night’s theme of “casual Friday”; the other charming and welcome aspects of this experiment are that the musicians were in casual/dress attire (no stiff tuxedo uniforms were on display), and a member of the orchestra, in this case contrabassoonist Patty Kindel, gave a candid and disarming brief talk about her personal history as a musician. This included an amusing anecdote about how she once made a dog’s breakfast of a contrabassoon solo in Strauss’ Don Quixote in a live concert led by Simon Rattle – “his eyes were like saucers”.

As both a musician and a concertgoer I am strongly in favor of less formal attire being employed, by both audience and performer. On this evening, I wore jeans as I always do. When I perform, I dress as close to that as I can get away with. I know of no reasonable explanation for the convention that we must all strive to make ourselves as uncomfortable and awkward as possible in order to produce or appreciate beautiful art. As it turns out, neither the players’ virtuosity nor their expression were dimmed by their choice to don skirts and slacks. And my sweatshirt seemed to inconvenience van Zweden not at all. I don’t know what was the cause of one horn player apparently having an off night, contributing more than his share of farps, but I’d be interested to hear anyone attempting to describe the mechanism by which his attire contributed to that difficulty.

The Rachmaninoff concerto, in F-sharp minor, was first on the program. The soloist was Macedonian virtuoso Simon Trpceski. I have seen video of him playing before, but this is my first time seeing him in person. He was in command from the opening octave flourish. I would characterize his technique as exceptionally fluid and facile. The bright passages of sixteenths had wonderful sparkle. As dense as much of this piano writing is, Trpceski’s Rachmaninoff never came off as labored or busy. He has the great gift, so often neglected in the modern Russian school, of retaining all the notes while still reducing it to the transparent textures which Rachmaninoff conveyed in his own playing. Only in one long thick passage of chords and octaves was there any impression that the soloist encountered any challenge, but that was apparent only to the eye, not to the ear, and it is a stunningly virtuosic work. Trpceski is also a competent ensemble player, sometimes looking out at the audience, but with an attentive eye for the conductor, and looking directly at soloists at key “ensemble” moments. Particularly thrilling was his immedate change of touch from the heavy cadenza of the first movement to the light descending arpeggios of the following coda.

I must say I liked this piece a lot more after this performance than I did before. It is a youthful work, completed while the composer was still a conservatory student, and polished in his 1926 revision. It is unjustifiably neglected, but one can only blame Rachmaninoff for writing three seminal concerto works which overshadow it: the second and the third along with the Paganini Rhapsody. This first concerto has much characteristic Rachmaninoff: melodies that move mostly by step and take long climbs to reach a high note and then subside. The final movement has clear and exuberant references to Russian folk music, with figures that are recognizeable to anyone familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture”. Rachmaninoff would later quote the finale’s coda in the corresponding passage of his Third Symphony.

I know the acoustics of this hall are much-lauded, but I found the piano a little muffled. That may have been partly because of my seat, as I was close and my head was lower than the performers’, and the structure of the piano and the hall directs the sound out and up. Also, it appeared to me that there is some unevenness to the keys of Steinway and Sons instrument used in this concert (my eyes were on level with the keys). This is mere speculation, but perhaps it is Trpceski’s pet instrument he travels with; I’d be puzzled that this would be the piano trotted out by the LA Phil for the star guest artist.

It seems to be that usually a second or third “curtain call” is required before an audience gets granted an encore, if one is prepared. Simon only got one, so if he was prepared for that contingency, we most regrettably did not find out.

Brahms, of course, like Rachmaninoff, was a stubborn Romantic in a changing musical landscape. But certainly, neither were merely rehashing old ideas. They had their distinctive styles and made their own voices. I surmise that the form of this grand symphony must be quite a challenge for a conductor to bring across in concert. True, Brahms has no shortage of opportunity for pure sentimental expression, but one must remember that among his many gifts as a composer, he was a master at form, and one must convey the arc of the individual movements and the symphony as a whole. Jaap van Zweden did so admirably. His own orchestra is the Holland Radio Symphony, which is second in stature among Dutch orchestras after the Royal Concertgebouw, and has a tradition of first rate musicians at the helm, including Bernard Haitink, Hans Vonk, Sergiu Comissiona, and most recently Edo de Waart. (I must confess I do not recall hearing of van Zweden before this evening.)

Music critic and KUSC announcer Jim Svejda is fond of characterizing many conductors of yesteryear as having great economy of motion at the podium, while producing an uproar from the orchestra, while he says the reverse is frequently true of modern conductors. I didn’t know quite what he was really talking about until I got to witness Carl St. Clair’s silly posturing leading the Pacific Symphony in concert, with over-the-top flailing of his entire body while producing a fairly straightforward reading of the music from the orchestra. Watching van Zweden, I had the inspiration to classify conductors according to what I’ll call a Svejda ratio. A mundane sound gives a low numerator, and an absurd visual spectacle from the conductor gives a high denominator, so St. Clair has a poor Svejda ratio. Van Zweden has a better-than-average Svejda ratio. His motions were fairly economical, and there was clear originality (but not idiosyncrasy), particularly in the formidable Brahms. He likes to form a circle with his thumb and forefinger and conduct with the connected fingertips. When he wants a particularly expressive vibrato from the strings, he sometimes gives a visual demonstration of vibrato (I only caught him doing this twice, so it did not get irritating). His indications of when to attack seem very clear, he makes very pointed motions at the right times. I noticed that the strings were incredibly precise in the fiendish pizzicatos in the slow movement, which one of course must also attribute to the greatness of these players as an ensemble. Van Zweden sometimes bounces with his whole body in time, but it is not an extravagant gesture and seems reserved for rhythmically appropriate passages.

The acoustics of the hall were kinder to the orchestra than to the piano. They would magnify a lesser group’s inaccuracies; one who is not spoiled by regularly attending LA Phil concerts is startled by the synchronization and tone these players achieve. Of note to me this evening were: in the first movement, the scary and mysterious passages of bare octaves in the winds, the poignancy of the cellos taking up the melody in the tenor register; in the second movement, the aforementioned pizzicato, a thrilling detaché from the strings in the B section, and a haunting string tremolo and piercing oboe solo before the retransition. In the march, the third movement, I was a little disappointed that the players were not more visibly joyful. Come on, it’s Casual Friday! Van Zweden provided some of his own smile, though. I found that the ominous slow leaps at the opening of the passacaglia finale were not ominous enough. They should be terrifying. The horn farps I previously alluded to were distracting. The final variations and very brief coda on an E minor chord, which I can only describe as “resigned rage”, moved me to tears; it was a little while before I could stand up and give the musicians their due. The audience kept bringing van Zweden back out until it was clear there would be no more. Maybe encores are proscribed on Casual Friday.

There was a brief Q&A following the concert, with Kindel, van Zweden, and Trpceski. Your intrepid amateur blogger got to hold the mic for one of the three questions they took. I told Trpceski he has my favorite recording of the Saint-Saëns concerto number 2, and he was a little startled. I guess maybe it is not commercially released; he inquired “Where did you hear that?” and I nervously said “I don’t know how you feel about the fact that somebody posted it on youtube…” as everyone chuckled, but I would like to think that he was glad for the exposure. My question was to ask if he is interested in championing any of the other concertos of Saint-Saëns, which are undeservedly underappreciated, as he has done for the Rach 1, and to ask him what other projects he’s working on. He said he’s a little tentative, since most of the others are very unfamiliar to audiences, with the fifth being somewhat known, but he thinks the third and the fourth are wonderful (I agree on all counts) and he would consider the possibility of doing one of them. For the second question, he said he’s playing a number of other warhorse concertos, but he has also recently recorded a new work by a Macedonian composer, whose name I did not catch; but I would like to hear that.

Another questioner asked about how he prepares for the youthful, naïve, brash opening of the Rach 1. Trpceski said that mainly one must not focus on the difficulty and be overcome by fear; instead, to focus on musical expression is paramount. As I am sure traveling virtuosos have demanding schedules and need their rest, the moderator then brought the evening to a close.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

unjustifiably puzzled

Today I've been on the business end of a few startling reminders that I can be oblivious - until it's too late - of the cumulative impact my irritating behavior can have on people, from mere casual acquaintances to my closest companion. To be sure, I don't consciously choose to be a nuisance, but that doesn't absolve me of responsibility for the consequences of the way I interact.

When it seems that I have pissed *everyone* off, then it probably isn't the case that everyone else is wrong and I am right. Now as for how to go about gingerly untangling this puzzle piece by piece...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

lesson & repertoire

A quick post before dashing off to my reserved 7:30 AM practice time. I'll probably be late, but no one else is insane enough to show up at this hour to practice, so I'm never in danger of losing my room.

I have a lesson today. I'm playing Les Adieux for Petitto. Not only am I underprepared, she's expecting me to play a different Beethoven sonata. *gulp* But I think it will be okay. This is the toughest work I am playing for her. The A minor English suite and Chopin's B-flat minor scherzo are the other two. They come much more naturally under my fingers.

I have never seriously tackled such a large volume of repertoire at once before (when you include the pieces I am playing for other classes), but I've finally worked out a reasonable approach to my practice time so I can be better prepared. And I've been compelled to acknowledge to myself that I simply can never afford to skip out on practice time itself. So, no more chess club when reserved practice time is scheduled.

I have a scholarship competition at the end of the month, and I'm planning to play the scherzo and the first movement of the suite. Finding more time to focus on those two is going to be imperative, so I am not delving into further movements of the Beethoven or Bach beyond the first of each until after the competition.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On hearing Rautavaara's "Cantus Arcticus"

Cantus Arcticus is a three movement symphonic work which makes extensive use of birdsong recorded in the Arctic. This piece is not merely a charming experiment. It illustrates that while we think of nature as containing music, the sounds of nature are either not truly music in and of themselves, or calling them music requires a redefinition of the word "music" itself. Unlike the oeuvre of John Cage, who seems tickled to make a significant percentage of his output more a commentary on how far it is possible or not possible to stretch the definition of what we call music, while producing mostly sounds that no one wishes to hear while in the mood for something recognizeable as music, Cantus Arcticus is indeed wonderful music in its own right. But what it also does is illustrate that while we frequently refer to birdsong as being musical, anyone can quickly recognize that without the orchestra, we would not call this music. The sounds of nature are beautiful, but wild. Music is primarily a human concept, and symphonies are highly ordered, being designed rather than emergent.

When the birdsong is sparse, the harmonies of the orchestra are not apparently strongly tonal. Rautavaara thus expresses the wild beauty of nature. When the birdsong is thick and sonorous, the orchestra reduces to simple, tonal harmonies, since it is no longer needed to express nature's wildness; the birds do it themselves. Indeed, some of the tweets towards the end of the piece would probably be interpreted as electronic noise if one were to hear them in some other piece on the radio, a CD or MP3.

Rautavaara went beyond Messaien's use of human-designed instruments to evoke the sounds of birds, instead going directly to the source itself, and produced what he calls a concerto for birdsong and orchestra. And it seems much less pretentious, with his technique for incorporating the two letting birdsong be nature's beautiful noise, and human music be human music.

A side note, the conductor was Finnish composer and conductor Leif Segerstam, who I had the privilege of hearing when he visited Chicago in 1997. He loves making a big deal of Sibelius' dynamic techniques for brass (e.g.: sforzando, subito piano, then a big crescendo), and incorporated them strikingly in Sibelius' youthful and patriotic opus, Finlandia.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

First post

This is a blog. While I do not expect millions of people to read it, my fiancee probably will, and I'll be thrilled. All readers and commenters are welcome, although I have unfortunately already attracted one insane religious troll (pardon the layers of redundancy). I'm going to write about my adventures studying the piano, playing chess, and playing poker, and probably occasionally write about atheism and related topics, views on current events, and a little of my personal life. The prose may frequently be quite dry: I can write well, but that is a time-consuming process for me, and I am a *very* busy person, so to save time this may sometimes read like a list of facts. Fortunately, those sentences will describe events which I find interesting, so it's not a total waste.

I am a classical piano student at Pasadena City College with an eye on USC or the Colburn Conservatory, I am a USCF expert, and I supported myself successfully for three years playing poker, mostly massively multi-tabling low stakes SNG's on PokerStars. I've been an atheist since age 16, but it took me a while before I realized that was the proper word to describe my lack of superstition.

Woke up this morning and worked on three songs from Winterreise, on which I am collaborating with a baritone, Nate. We have a rehearsal Tuesday. We meet every other week. This is our second rehearsal, and the last one was very short (15 minutes ish?), and I was not very prepared, so this is like our first real rehearsal. I worked out fingerings for Erstarrung (Numbness) and Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree), and worked on touch, articulation, dynamics, and voicing in Tränen (Tears). I worked with the metronome on some parts of Erstarrung, but some things still need to get clarified. I am doing a little redistribution in a couple measures to avoid the quick arpeggio B-flat, B-flat, D in the bass; I'm adding the D to the right-hand figuration instead. I worked the first two pages of Der Lindenbaum with the metronome. So I must do the same with the longer dramatic D minor section in sixths in Der Lindenbaum, and I still need to slowly work out some of the tricky rhythmic interaction in a couple measures in Erstarrung. I have been studying the texts since Thursday. Erstarrung is deeply moving for me, enough to cause tears. My favorite of the songs we're working on.

I am rehearsing with a violinist, Rebekah, for the first time, at 8:00 this Monday morning, then we are meeting together with the coach (Stivers) for the first time on Tuesday as well. We also meet every other week. The first movement of Saint-Saëns' violin sonata no. 1 is on the menu for our Monday get-together. The first two movements have no break, so eventually we will work on the Adagio together as well. This is a virtuosic piece and I am glad we both like the tempo on the Sarah Chang recording, because I doubt I could credibly play it much faster. I need to work some of those sixteenth groups with practice rhythms to get them cleaner. I have trouble with synchronization when I get them up to a quick tempo. I think we should shoot for around dotted quarter = 108.

My private lessons are on Wednesdays, but in California, this Wednesday is Cesar Chavez day, so I have two weeks to prepare to play some Beethoven for the first time for Dr. Petitto. She is expecting the Sonata in E-flat opus 7, but I have decided to work on "Les Adieux" Sonata in E-flat instead. I think she will be okay with that. I like it a lot more. I believe Brendel thinks the opus 7 first movement is the most difficult Beethoven sonata movement. While I'm not sure I agree with that, there are certainly some parts in it that are quite awkward. And I love the music of Les Adieux, all three movements. It's more romantic, less classical. More my style. And it has a properly rousing last movement, so a good recital work.