Category Archives: Music

A Symphony is Born

Why are performers of great music - soloists or conductors mainly - called "interpreters"? Why aren't they simply "performers" or "players"?

The conductor is obviously not a player or performer, so he might as well be called "interpreter", although he might also be called "time-keeper", or "leader"; the French do call him leader, or "chief" - chef - "chef d'orchestre." In English he is more collegially known as 'conductor', the one who conducts the players to a successful presentation of a piece of music.

But why is the soloist also an "interpreter"? Isn't he simply playing what has been written? Music is different from all the other arts in that you can't see what the composer has created.

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Don’t cry for me, Beethoven

Once upon a time there was a bushy-haired teenager who travelled the world performing all the sonatas of Beethoven. This feat was much admired, as it was generally supposed that young people couldn’t play Beethoven, as it needed lots of worldly "maturity"--especially the slow movements, and most especially the last sonatas, which were out of the realms of possibility for established pianists under the age of 80. “You will understand them when you’re older” was the mantra universally applied to young pianists, the way young people are told they will understand love when they get older.

So we all trooped off to hear this prodigious youth when he came to a concert hall near us. He did indeed play all the sonatas, including the well-nigh impossible "Hammerklavier" very well. Not with any finesse, but solidly and dependably. This was Beethoven in the tradition of Schnabel--another "complete" Beethoven pianist, and similarly a pianist who made up for what he lacked in pianistic skill with an apparently quasi-religious dedication to the complete works of the master.

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Western civilization

An interesting article appeared in the Melbourne Age recently: a review of Civilization--The West and the Rest (now a major TV series) by Niall Ferguson, best-selling author of The Ascent of Money. The review was by John Keane, director of the Sydney Democracy Initiative and professor of politics at the University of Sydney.

The Ascent of Money is excellent and informative. It doesn't teach you how to make money, but it explains how many ways there are to cheat with it once you have it, or are able to pretend to have it, and how history repeats itself constantly. So one looks forward to The West and the Rest.

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First blog post for 2011: What’s so good about Umi?

Recently two forwards of young children doing extraordinary things landed in my inbox. One was of a little boy waving his arms in tempo to a recording of a Beethoven Symphony, and for all those who are not entirely sure what a conductor really does (i.e. everyone) it might seem as if this little boy propped up on a podium in front of a symphony orchestra might actually make them all play together and in tempo.

The other was of Umi Garrett, an eight-year-old going about the business of playing seriously difficult virtuoso piano pieces by Liszt and Chopin in the same way a builder goes about constructing a piece of furniture or a house - objectively, unaffectedly and unselfconsciously; simply doing the job at hand with as little self-concern as possible.

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What could this exciting piece be?

When I was about 14 I heard the most amazingly passionate and exciting piece of piano music on the little transistor radio I carried to my ear, while waiting for a bus outside the two apartment blocks. They were entitled "Marlo" and "Oberon." As they were both of 1930s vintage, I have always thought that "Marlo" was really meant to be "Merle" for the block on the left.

What could this exciting piece be? I didn't have to wait very long, as it was only five minutes long--nothing could have maintained that level of passion and excitement any longer. It was a piece by classical pianist Franz Liszt, one of his Transcendental Etudes, entitled Wilde Jagd. No wonder it wasn't better known--who could be expected to get their tongue around that heavy Middle-Ages-sounding Germanic moniker? (Much later I discovered that Wilde Jagd, which means wild hunt, or chase, was indeed a Middle Ages tale, and had a much more svelte-sounding title in French: Le Chasseur Maudit or "The Accursed Hunter," used, among other incarnations, as the subject of a symphonic poem by Cesar Franck.)

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How does the brain work?

It's not a mystery, as is often said, but it's very complicated. And it's physical as well as mental. The two are totally intertwined and can't be separated.

Just saw "Big Mind." Truly weird video. I don't think you can expect this to happen in more than one in 100 million cases. But it does bring out several relevant points: this guy memorizes and calculates the same way we memorize and make calculations about a piece of music: via signposts--tangible, kinesthetic signposts. I'm not comparing myself to this guy in any way (what he does is totally miraculous), but I can say that my brain works the same way when dealing with music. Keys have definite colors for me.

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In the fingers

My young friend in Canada, Alexander Lang, writes to me that he is starting to work on Bach's Italian Concerto. His repertoire up to now, "but not warmed up" (sounds like eggs for breakfast; in my terminology, it's "in the fingers"), is mostly Chopin; Scherzos 2 and 3; Ballade 1 and 4; Etudes 2, 5, op 10; 12, op 12; Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise; Nocturne op 48 #1. Also Liszt's Wilde Jagd, Hungarian Rhapsody 2--"can barely manage it" (me too); a few Beethoven sonatas; some Debussy.

He has been reading my book on piano technique (Mastering the Chopin Etudes) and "trying your relaxed-hand technique and it makes a huge difference to especially my octave passages--they hardly take effort anymore. I also really like the single-note approach to technical passages, not going for sequences but individual notes and chords. I bet I could straighten out the Rhapsody with a little work."

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We have a book

I had a wonderful friend, a great lady who grew up in Edwardian England. She loved to recall anecdotes from her childhood, many of which went into the folklore of her family, and turned up over the following 80 years as suitable quotes for many occasions.

One such was the following: A parliamentary candidate came to her family's town and made a speech in the local hall. When asked a curly question, he responded: "We have a booklet." Since then, "We have a booklet" became the oft-repeated response to difficult questions.

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On Richter

It's funny how the impressions we receive when we are young are so indelible. They make everything that comes in life later on seem lackluster and one long anti-climax. We desperately try to recreate the excitement of discovery and revelation that we experience when we were 12, 13, 14. But no matter how hard we try, it never comes up to what we experienced then. For most people, having children and establishing their own families is an attempt to recreate that time. Well, they are recreating themselves; but it's...

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