Thursday, December 15, 2011

Vladimir Horowitz

Otherwise known as the "last romantic", Horowitz's pianistic virtuoso has long been considered one of the deepest and most brilliant, and his interpretations remain legendary in the music world. One of the greatest things Horowitz has been associated with is his deep interpretations of romantic composers, mostly notably Chopin, some of which he himself brought to the public's attention, such as Scriabin's etude in D-sharp minor. A certain factor of his playing, which ironically was his greatest source of admiration as well as criticism, was his unique ability to add so much tone color to the piano and at times play extremely loudly, but never too harshly. A big music critique in Horowitz's day, Virgil Thompson, once reported of Horowitz that he was a "master of distortion and exaggeration", to which Horowitz replied that many great artists such as Michelangelo were also great masters of distortion. Granted, he was daring, but he never was without soul. When he played he never made exaggerated facial expressions and he never swayed as many pianists do, but the heart he played with is very noticeable when listening to his works. 
Another thing Horowitz did - at times somewhat controversial, but yet always admirable - was sometimes edit pieces to better fit the piano. For instance, he changed some phrases in Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" because he felt that Mussorgsky wasn't a pianist and he did not know how to use the piano to its fullest. He would sometimes substitute octaves for chromatic scales because he felt it added to the flavor of the piece. Understandably to change music which has been standard repertoire for decades would be subject to great debate, but nonetheless he felt that sometimes pieces needed to be modified to extract their full color. Horowitz was also famous for playing octaves extremely fast. When asked how he was able to play them so fast one reporter said that "he practiced them exactly as we were all taught to do". When playing, he almost always kept his palms beneath the keys, much lower than pianists are typically taught, and his fingers were straight when he played, as opposed to the semi-curled position that most pianists keep them. In addition, his pinky would remain curled when not playing with it, and when he would need to use it it would spring out "like a cobra". These techniques, which are not typical ways of playing, became almost a trademark of his. Horowitz once remarked that a pianist must play Chopin like Mozart and Mozart like Chopin. In other words, what he was trying to say is that a person cannot be completely overtaken by the technical details of a piece so that he removes all feeling and emotion from the piece, but he must also not let all the emotion blur the technicalities of the piece. Horowitz himself definitely lived up to this standard.

Menahem Pressler

       I have had the privilege of hearing Menahem Pressler perform twice - once at the Tanglewood Music Festival and once at Carnegie Hall.  For someone that's never heard Pressler perform before, the first immediately evident and striking impression given off is that his age and body do not seem to match the exuberant youthfulness with which he plays.  The person sitting in front of that piano in Tanglewood could just as well have been an energetic twenty five year who had just begun his professional career, basking in the emotion and power of the performance.  Yet somehow the furrows on the brow and wrinkles on the arm that so obviously evince supreme wisdom and grandfatherly experience, add a certain dimension to the music that a young adult would not be able to produce.  Pressler was born in Magdeburg, Germany in 1923 and was able to escape the Nazis in 1939, on the eve of the Holocaust.  His childhood history expressed in the music that was so brutally taken from him is nearly palpable, and is something that one does not experience often in a lifetime.  

One particular incident comes to mind when I think of someone like Pressler.  When I was a child my piano teacher invited me to visit her piano instructor when she younger, and she was certainly right when she said that it would be a good experience.  To my regret I forgot this woman's name, but like Pressler she was an adolescent in Europe during the Nazi regime.  Unfortunately she did not escape like Pressler did, and her entire family (if I recall correctly) was murdered by Hitler.  At the end of the war, after she lived through traumatic experiences in the concentration camps, she came to America.  I believe that no more than a year later she was performing publicly.  When I visited her in her apartment in lower Manhattan, the only thing that really seemed alive and real to her was the Chopin that she played with such earnestness.  I got a similar impression when I heard Pressler play.

Pressler was won many awards, such as the Chamber Music America's Distinguished Service Award, the Gold Medal of Merit from the National Society of Arts and Letters, and the German Critics "Ehrenurkunde" Award, to name a few.  He has performed in multiple competitions which include the Queen Elizabeth,  Busoni, Rubenstein, Leeds, and Van Cliburn competitions.  Perhaps he is most noted for being a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio for nearly fifty five years, which for its last stretch included violinist Daniel Hope and Cellist Antonio Meneses.  2008 marked the last year of the Trio's performances, but its legacy has proven to be an exemplar of truly supreme chamber music, and music in general.  Pressler currently teaches at the  Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, one of the leading music conservatories in the country.  A journalist in the Los Angeles Times once wrote:

"Menahem Pressler's joyous pianism- technically faultless, stylistically impeccable, emotionally irrepressible- is from another age and is a virtually forgotten sensibility.  He is a national treasure."  
I believe it each man's personal duty to treasure and cherish the Menahem Pressler's of the world, and particular in music.  The Pressler's who carry with them the treasure of the past and the torch to the future.  The men who carry with them the emotions that cannot be understood by most, but can only be viewed with awe and deference as one views a majestic masterpiece of art at a gallery.  Those are the people that we must choose as our guides.

Here are a few Pressler CDs with the Beaux Arts Trio: the complete Dvorak trios, the complete Brahms trios, the complete Mozart trios, the complete Schubert trios, and the complete Beethoven duets for piano and cello.  I hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is it possible to have a career as a musician?

Growing up I have constantly been bombarded with the ultimate optimist heuristic as to how to live life: "you've gotta do what you love".  You know, when you're a child nice cliches and motivational maxims always make life seem like a cherry blossoms in mid-spring as long as you do it right.  But the reality is that life is far more complicated than a cliche, and life doesn't always go as planned.  Walk into Julliard one time and take a look at the thousands of young ambitious adults whose life dream it is to be on the stage of Carnegie Hall, and then consider for a moment that only a small percentage of those people will ever make a real career with music.  I am not saying that if you have the passion and unfettered yearning to be profession that you shouldn't make the effort.  And I am not even saying that if you simply have the ambition to be great without any guaranteed plans of career in mind that you shouldn't indulge.  What I am saying is that if you think that it shouldn't be an issue to make a career in music - think again.  Only a small fraction of musicians "make it big" and I have met plenty of extremely talented individuals who just didn't "make it" because the competition is just way too large.  There are more than a handful of Isaac Sterns out there and more than a few Emanuel Ax's too, and they just happened to get really lucky.  You can say that they just have something special that no one else has, but that's really just an excuse.  The reality of the matter is that it is extremely difficult to make a living as a musician these days.  Obviously that shouldn't deter a person from practicing for hours a day and spending much of his time with music, because music is definitely not about the money.  In fact, anything important in life is not about money.  We need money for some things, but a person can be a musician without making money.  Plus, there are many ways to share music with people without making a big living off of it.  For one, you can give music lessons to people even if the pay is minimal and that can be a very rewarding thing.  You can volunteer to play at nursing homes and orphanages, teach a class in a school, or simply put on small recitals for your family and friends.  The main idea is to spread the gift of music to the world (see Importance of Music Education).  Truth be told, I can't really say it any better than Harry Chapin in his great song "Mr. Tanner"(yea, I know this is a classical music blog - but hey, a little diversity is healthy).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

5 Steps to Learning an Instrument

It is hardly possible to develop as strong of an appreciation for music without playing an instrument, than with playing.  Contrary to popular belief, learning an instrument can be done at any age and at any level.  Granted, it is certainly easier to learn an instrument when the paper and ink is still fresh, but anyone can learn if they really want to, which brings me to the first step in learning an instrument - "want to".

Step 1) Desire to learn
Many are probably thinking to themselves "well, duh, if I am looking to play an instrument I obviously want to", but the truth of the matter is is that there are multiple levels in desire to learn.  The "desire to learn" that says "I just want something to do as a hobby here and there and so playing an instrument would be a good use of time", is the type of desire that is good for learning many hobbies - but not music.  Music is something that must be done whole-heartedly, without the approach that "I will do it when I feel like it". The desire of learning an instrument must come from the innermost part of a person that truly feels a pull to music.  The person who succeeds in learning an instrument is the one that spends hours and hours of his "free time" practicing, listening to music, reading about music, etc.  If there is no passion your chances of succeeding are few to none.  

Step 2) Practice, practice, practice
Do not fool yourself into thinking that if you have the fire it automatically means you will have the discipline.  Practicing in general is not something that is necessarily always enjoyable (although it should never be burdensome), and it is as never exciting when you are halfway through a piece as when you first begin a piece.  But bear one thing in mind - you will not get anywhere if you do not have thorough and disciplined practicing sessions.  For a beginner you can pass with no less than 30 minutes a day, but if you really want to be good and make it a real part of your life, you should be practicing for anywhere between an hour and a half to five hours.  The more you practice, the better you become.  

Step 3) Find a good teacher
While all your achievements and progressions in music will come 100% from you, a good teacher is often essential in maximizing your potential.  There are oftentimes misconceptions about teachers, so let's get some things straight:  A teacher will not practice for you, make you practice, practice for you, and make you practice.  Once again, a teacher will not practice for you or make you practice.  But a teacher can often give you tips and guides, encouragement when needed, proper criticism, and direction.  Obviously a teacher is much more important during the beginning phases of playing than when you are already competent on your own, but even professional musicians still take lessons.  Make sure to find yourself a teacher that you can relate to well, and is good for your level.  Some teachers are great at teaching beginners but are not skilled enough to teach more advanced students or do not have the personality to do so, and some people are great at teaching already advanced students but do not have the patience to teach beginners.  

Step 4) Live music
This step is sort of a reiteration of Step 1, but it is really crucial in learning music.  You need to really love music.  Your "music time" should not just be spent in front of the piano or cello, but should also be spent listening to music.  There is no limit to the repertoire of music you can become familiar with - Symphonies, operas, piano solos, concertos, romantic, contemporary, etc.  Go to concerts, reading biographies of composers and musicians, and become familiar with the rich culture music has to offer.  The more you learn to love music the more you will find yourself immersed in it.  

Step 5) Don't give up
At some point you will inevitably try to convince yourself that "this just isn't for me".  Do not listen.  Instead of brooding about it, start practicing more or improving the quality of your practicing sessions.  There is no great musician that I know of that never had a phase in his life that he threatened himself to quit.  This is another great reason to have a teacher.  A good teacher will give you the strength to continue playing when you feel that you're just not good enough.  You will never succeed if you do not push through those hard moments in which you just need to go through the actions even if you don't want to.  

With these five steps, anyone can become a great musician and find true happiness in music.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Importance of Music Education

Music is my friend 
when I am lonely
music is the one and only 
thing that never ends

Music lives everywhere
can't escape it
can't replace it

Music is my life to me
music is what it is and will always be
Music is your strength
when you are weak
Music is your hope
when you are bleak

Music is made to be played
to fade
to serenade

Music is the gift everyone should give
music alone shall live 
("Music alone shall live", by U. ashley ogonor)

The idea I would like to convey, as expressed in the title of this post, can be no better expressed in the limited confines of language than if I was to shout at the top of my lungs like a madman.  This poem does a fantastic job of expressing that what is wanted be expressed cannot be expressed.  Can I even begin to name each individual person who's life was altered because of the gift of music he received as a child?  Is it possible to measure the quality of what music brings to a person?  Just one child's life can be changed forever because one person decided that he should learn an instrument.  This does not just apply for children in less affluent cities, but also for children in wealthier communities, for music affects everybody.  Children who suffer from inner anger, anxiety, and depression; children who cannot find a haven of peace and solitude for their souls, can easily find their inner happiness in the cradles of Mozart and Brahms.  Why is it that all the government budget cuts go straight to music and the arts?  Do people not appreciate the value of human life, that for some crazy reasons the soul comes second to the body?  Do the people running society even know what a soul is?  If you are a parent, all you have to do is sign your child up for music lessons; if you are an educator all you have to do is convince your school create a real music department; if you are a citizen of a city all you have to do is convince town leaders to create more budget funding for music and the arts; but most importantly if you are a person all you have to do is teach yourself the value of music.  A video which I have been inestimably influenced by is  Music of the Heart, a 1999 drama featuring Meryl Streep, in which a woman who has been going through very stressful times brings the gift of music to a school in East Harlem, New York which transforms the life of the children as well as her own.  It is an extremely inspiring movie and one that has made a big impression on me.  Just a few generations ago before the big technological wave of televisions and all the little gadgets that suck all the goodness out of life, music was a way of life for the masses.  People didn't need a course on proper conduct when listening to a piece of music, not did they need someone to "teach them how to appreciate music" - music was part of life.  As citizens who care about the future of our community, as parents who care about the future of our children, and as people who care for the future of humanity, it is crucial that we do not allow the music to go unheard.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chopin's Preludes - Op.28

A number of years ago I attended a piano recital with my father at the Mannes School of Music in New York during their annual summer keyboard festival. To my regret I do not remember the name of the pianist, but she was particular fabulous and enjoyable to listen to. One of the pieces she played was Chopin's Opus 28, the preludes, a composition which I feel is generally under appreciated, so I was quite happy when it was on the program. Walking out of the concert my father asked me a question, which I later realized could be the reason why Opus 28 is so undervalued. He asked, "A prelude to what?". Now, that's a pretty darn good question. Bach wrote preludes to his fugues, Shostakovitch wrote preludes to fugues, but where are Chopin's fugues? And the truth of the matter is that the preludes sound exactly like that - preludes. The listener expects something to follow. The pieces are not so melodic, and their lengths themselves would not pass for more than a prelude. For anyone that's played Opus 28, he will know that most of the preludes are not difficult to play at all, and almost all of them are intermediate level. So taking these facts into consideration, while keeping in mind that Chopin wrote scores of piano work almost all of which is extremely popular and often played at concerts and recitals, it is no wonder that the preludes suffer the blow.
          But in truth, the preludes are no less ingenious than the scherzos and ballades, something their seeming simplicity obfuscates. Franz List once said of the Opus: "Chopin’s preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams, and elevates it to the regions of the ideal." Indeed, if a poet could cradle the soul half as well as that I would be impressed. Such is the power of words; such is the power of music. The preludes are not meant to be played as individual pieces, but as a collective unit, a compilation of the different aspects of the soul. Each prelude flows well and appropriately into the next as if painting a whole picture with many small ones. There are 24 preludes, one in each key, beginning on C major and working upward in the circle of fifths. There has definitely been criticism regarding the work, but that should not deter anybody from approaching the music clear minded. One musicologist has been quoted as saying that if all the music in the world should be destroyed with the exception of one piece, it should be Chopin's Opus 28. Prelude No. 20, the funeral march, captures with such stunning accuracy the mortality of life, and one renowned pianist once told me that in this prelude Chopin is writing about his own death, his own funeral. In Prelude No. 4 in E minor Chopin expresses the indifference of the world to an individual's sorrow and pain. The prelude begins with basic chords which even climax into a chilling forte, but the indifference of the world continues like nothing happened. The different expression of the soul are enunciated beautifully in the opus, which is truly an epic work. So no, there are no fugues, but the language of the soul is in preludes, which make up a beautiful picture. 

Rubinstein plays prelude no.20

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Suite for Toy Piano?

Ya.  You heard right.  If you have never heard of such a concept as a real composition for a toy piano, or something called a "prepared piano", or of a "musical" composition that contains no notes, or a man named John Cage you are definitely not alone, and in such an instance many would apply the maxim "ignorance is bliss".  Now, I have to be frank.  Just a short while ago in my life I would have used this post as an opportunity to rant on the utter destructiveness of post-modern artistic and musical styles, and I would have eulogized the impending deaths of Mozart and Schubert while this "noise" (or silence) grabs control of the concert halls.  I apologize to those who would have enjoyed reading that post, but over the past few years I've mellowed down a bit, or rather, matured a bit.  Look, when I was reared as a child it was ingrained in me that that music is synonymous with Bach and Beethoven.  Of course I've always appreciated classical rock, jazz, and other musical styles, but abstract music was a big no no.  At one point one of my music teachers told me "you know, one day you're gonna be sick and tired of listening to the predictable music of Mozart and Haydn and you'll need something else to satisfy your ear".  At the time I thought the idea was laughable.  Sick of Mozart?  But as the years have gone by, while I do not think I will ever become "sick" of Mozart, I have learned to appreciate newer styles of music.  Now, John Cage certainly is not your typical abstract composer.  But his ideas are definitely thought provoking and even beautiful.  The other night I asked a friend if I could sing 4"33 for him, and even though he really did not want to hear it I sang it anyway.  And let me tell you - my voice has never sounded more perfect.  The idea John Cage tries to promote is the beauty of the music around us.  When was the last time you thought of the car honking as music.  Or the air conditioner.  Noise is music.  The classical definition of music is generally understood to be "organized sound", but who said that "unorganized sound" is not music either.  Don't get me wrong - I would rather listen to Brahms than a "prepared piano" any day of the week,  but there is certainly beauty in the "non-music" music.  So, yea, while I think the idea of a suite for a toy piano is a bit absurd, I think the absurdity is what makes it beautiful.  
Here is a clip of John Cage talking about his idea of music:
Here is a clip of 4"33.  Vote on the poll what you think.