Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Notes on a Recital

Yeah, I haven't written much here on the blog this year (so far), but I did just finish writing 1400 words or so about a chamber music recital I happen to be playing in on Sunday. More regular blogging will resume soon, assuming I come out on the other side of this encounter with Brahms and Ravel and their rather absurd demands. For now, here are many words.

My goal in writing such notes is to help provide a scaffold for listening. I try to avoid technical terms like "sonata form," "pentatonic," and "this passage makes me want to set my hair on fire," and focus more on providing just a couple of main things to listen for in each movement, although for some reason I thought I'd also provide a sort of apologia for why piano trios are called "piano trios." (I just chose to sidestep the whole confusing notion of the "trio" section in a scherzo, which of course doesn't literally mean there are three parts, although in piano trios there usually are three parts, though not three pianos...)

But I still end up with a lot of words, so I'll stop writing about the words and just let them speak for themselves. And...if you live in the Boston area and want to come here some of the best music ever written (plus some Beethoven variations), come see me flail.



Consider the social life of the curious species “pianist.” A keyboard player has the advantage of being able to create a fully satisfying texture with just one instrument, but this can also leave pianists making music all by themselves, for better and for worse. When called upon to support singers or instrumental soloists in duo situations, the pianist is often regarded as the servile “accompanist,” sometimes more fairly than others. There is an enormous body of music written for two pianists at one keyboard (which creates an immediate kind of physical intimacy), and there’s also plenty of music written for the less practical pairing of two pianos. But, good luck finding two good ones in one room, and good luck hearing which is which when two pianos are making a racket together.

So it is that the richest repertoire for the socially-minded pianist is found in the strangely named “piano trio” format, which actually involves only one piano. The genre gets its name from the 18th century context in which a leading piano part is enhanced by the “accompaniment” of violin and cello. Although there are also some fantastic piano quartets (just add viola) and piano quintets (throw in a second violin, and prepare to move a lot of living room furniture), there’s something quite practical and satisfying about pitting two string players against one big keyboard. The grouping certainly has intrigued a wide range of composers to write works that transcend the casual living room scene to musical heights as ambitious as that found in full-scale symphonies.

Beethoven: Fourteen Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 44 (1792)

Beethoven was a leader in elevating the piano trio in this way, but the variations opening today’s program are closer to the 18th century spirit of lighthearted musical banter among friends. The simplicity of the perfectly stupid theme is emphasized by having all three performers present it in stubborn unison, as if they’ve been handed a topic for discussion. The conversation that ensues gives everyone a chance to lead and accompany as the theme takes on various characters, mostly of a jovial sort. Beethoven is famous for his masterful control of dramatic pacing, but here we find him more interested in entertaining his guests in a kind of variety show. Hear here.

If Beethoven is playing the role of appetizer today, the trios by Ravel and Brahms are each full course meals on their own; this is a demanding program for performers and audience alike, though it’s hard to imagine two more rewarding works. The French Ravel and the German Brahms summon very different sound worlds from this instrumental combo, but the two trios have much in common as well. Each is a four-movement structure 1) anchored by a relatively lengthy and lyrical first movement with an unforgettable opening theme; 2) followed by a mischievously animated scherzo; 3) countered by a very serious slow movement; and 4) concluded by a fairly manic finale that ends with a bang. Though Brahms’ work is the embodiment of 19th Century Romanticism and Ravel’s has a more 20th Century Modernist style, both composers have a classicist’s devotion to detail that paradoxically enables them to create music that soars passionately and pushes the performers to their limits.

Ravel: Piano Trio in A Minor (1914)

One hears the early 20th century in the occasional wild outbursts of color and sonority in Ravel’s 1914 trio, but in many respects his approach is more old-fashioned, refined and efficient than Brahms’. Each movement is generated by one primary idea that Ravel then explores with his uncannily imaginative ear, coaxing all sorts of otherworldly sounds from these old-world instruments. The music is unfailingly expressive though, and each movement has a fairly clear architecture articulated by vivid climaxes.

The trio begins hypnotically with a melodic/rhythmic idea that immediately conjures up a “long ago and far away” kind of mystery. There are a couple of frenetic climaxes on this theme, each time countered by a more tender melody, but each time the hypnotic idea creeps back in down in the depths of the piano, which is where things finally fade away. Hear here.

The second movement scherzo skitters around with an unceasing kinetic energy. Ideas are fragmented, strange sounds and register leaps abound, and finding the theme can seem like chasing a firefly at times. Even the contrasting middle section features a kind of mashup in which a smoothly flowing new theme (first in piano, later in strings) is played with the dizzying scherzo motives darting around in the background. Again, two enormous climaxes anchor the proceedings, the second leading to a wild crash of an ending. (The unusual title “Pantoum” refers to a kind of poetry in which lines from one stanza are repositioned in succeeding stanzas, an effect re-imagined here in musical terms.) Hear here.

The third movement returns to the somber mood of the first, here dressed in the centuries-old form of a passacaglia, a kind of theme-and-variations structure in which a bass line is the recurring idea. In this case, the beautiful melody indeed begins in (and returns to) the piano’s bass register, but it’s treated more as main tune than bass line for most of the movement’s progression to an impassioned apex and heartrending follow-up. Hear here.

The compact finale begins with glassy, whirring motions in the strings, against which the piano introduces a circular melody with an exotic, East Asian flair. The second part of the tune has a rising trajectory that dominates much of the movement. There are three ecstatic climaxes, the first and last featuring brilliant string trills above massive piano chords. Ravel clearly enjoys pushing the ensemble to its limits, flying close enough to the sun to achieve incandescent results. Hopefully, no one gets singed. Hear here.

Brahms: Piano Trio in B Major, Op. 8 (1854/1889)

Brahms’ writing for these instruments has fewer sharp edges than Ravel’s, though he still loves to indulge in richly layered sonorities. His Trio in B Major is an early work which he revised significantly late in his career, so it draws both on youthful exuberance and years of experience crafting large-scale musical narratives. It’s likely a youthful indulgence in letting many ideas develop at length that results in such an expansive canvas (it’s long!), but you can tell the composer loves these ideas, and the music is inspired from end to end.

The opening of the first movement is a perfect example of how Brahms is willing to take his time letting things unfold. A sublimely perfect melody is introduced by piano and then taken up for an extended period by the cello (no cellist can resist this piece) before the violin finally joins in to continue a long exploration of the main tune. The rest of the movement alternates between this kind of lyrical outpouring and more dramatic interchanges. The return of the opening material is beautifully handled, subtle enough that one hardly knows when the return started, and though tensions remain, the movement is finally brought to a close by a lullaby-like reminiscence of the main theme, alternating between cello and violin. Hear here.

The second movement is both playful and neurotic, with a simple elfin theme passed around nervously, occasionally exploding violently. A contrasting middle section is more relaxed, with a switch from minor to major and a lovely, lilting melody that builds triumphantly. Hear here.

In the next to last movement of our afternoon, time might seem to come to a stop as Brahms dares to experiment with stillness. In some ways, this music is the most challenging for performers and audience, but if one is willing to surrender to a dream state and suspend the desire for suspense, the effect is magical and celestial. A gentle rocking motion introduces a more troubled midsection, but the glacially spaced piano chords of the opening return to usher us back to rest. Hear here.

As with the first and second movements, the cello (often given the least interesting role in early piano trio repertoire) takes the lead in starting the finale, which begins restlessly, as if in midstream. It’s quite rare for a work with a big major key first movement to end in a minor key, but Brahms is not interested in recapturing the big-hearted lyricism of the opening. There is a rollicking second theme that seems to suggest something more optimistic, but a series of violent eruptions are always around the corner, culminating in a stormy final flourish. Hear here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

MMmusing's 10th (base 8) Anniversary!

If we lived in a base-8 world, today would be the 10th anniversary of MMmusing! As it is, since most of us include our thumbs when counting, today will be more properly be understood as the blog's 8th anniversary, but that's still something. January and February have traditionally been hibernating months here (check the archives to the right), but I'm back just in time with a strange little video that maybe should've stayed underground.

Some quick background: in the run-up to the Oscars last week, we ended up watching "The Theory of Everything", the Stephen Hawking bio-pic that was up for Best Picture. It's an enjoyable movie, though a bit too smooth and elegantly packaged for my tastes, but I did find one little scene particularly enjoyable - enough so, that I made my own iPhone bootleg of the scene as it streamed on my laptop:



Poor Emily Watson didn't have much else to do in the movie, but she nailed this scene, which seemed to me the perfect thing one might e-mail out to that potential church choir recruit. In fact, I made my own looping page for anyone who wants to try that out. (It leaves out Felicity Jone's clever, though possibly too perfect, reply.)

Because that resulted in me hearing the bit repeated over and over, I started wondering if it could be subject to the "speech-to-song effect" described quite memorably in this fun Radiolab "sometimes behave so strangely" segment. The idea is that a phrase repeated over and over can start to sound more like music than speech, partly because such repetition is a common musical device, but also because pitch and rhythm are important (if often taken for granted) parts of speech. It turns out that, at least for me, because Watson's speech is so whispered and relatively unmodulated, it didn't convert to a tune quite as easily as I'd hoped, though the rhythmic cadences are quite musical, and the tea-cup percussion adds a lovely counterpoint.

Anyway, I did come up with this, for better or for worse. There's an old saying, worth repeating: "there's humor in repetition." Perhaps there's music in repetition as well.



So: Happy MMmusing Day! If you don't want to join the choir, perhaps you'll enjoy something found on this interactive, annotated bibliblography.


P.S. For an example of spoken phrases used really effectively as musical phrases, there is Steve Reich's wonderfully inventive Different Trains. "From Chicago to New York..." starts at about 35 seconds in.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Der Schaufelmann

Spending 3-5 hours a day shoveling snow gives one lots of time to reflect. Inevitably, for me over the past week, those reflections turned to ways in which winter has been expressed through music, and though the likes of Vivaldi, Liszt, and Debussy have tried their hand at depicting the harshness of the season in sound, it occurred to me that no one really understood the loneliness of standing out in the freezing cold like Schubert. He wrote a whole song cycle about it. The poignant final song is supposedly about a pitiful hurdy-gurdy player standing out in the freezing cold and providing a nice metaphor for the poet's hopeless love life, but I felt a one-ness with the futility of the hurdy-gurdiest while tackling the white stuff these past fews days - and my time spent moving snow around (as the snow kept falling, and knowing the snowplows would come and push more back into my driveway) provided the mental time and framework for me to re-translate Wilhelm Müller's grim words for the common man. Here you go, winter.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Perfect Blackout

My love for mashups and indeterminate pieces has a lot to do with the satisfaction of finding unexpectedly meaningful connections that arise from unplanned intersections. Yesterday, I had a new kind of experience in which multimedia elements came together in remarkably logical fashion. I was accompanying several young cellists at my son's teacher's studio recital, held in the living room of an elegant Harvard Sq. home. One of the pieces I accompanied was the Squire Tarantella, which I hadn't thought much about since I learned (and loved!) it back in my cello days. As part of the Suzuki repertoire, it's a widely played piece, although I have to admit I don't know anything else by Mr. Squire, an important English performer and pedagogue. I was surprised to be handed, for accompanying purposes, an entire book of Squire's pieces for cello, but for now I only know this highly entertaining little solo.

It begins with a dramatic 8-bar intro featuring varieties of octaves: 5 ff sets of A's, followed by a twisting harmonic minor figure and a menacing rising bass line that leads into the cello tune. Just as I started in with those accented A's, the lights went off. (I'd like to think my stunning sense of style startled someone into a switch, but in retrospect, it looks like the lights started off just before I did.) Fortunately, it's a pretty easy bit of music to remember since it's all in octaves, but I can recall wondering if I should stop. I was vaguely aware of people springing into quiet action, but I knew the cellist was using music and it didn't seem fair to have him start in the dark. Honestly, it felt like 10 seconds or so of processing all of this, but the lights did come on in time for the cello to make a particularly dramatic entrance.


As it happened, Son of MMmusing had been the previous performer, so I still had the camcorder running on a tripod, which means I have a document of this whole thing. It was quite a surprise to watch it today and realize how beautifully the "lighting design" synced up with the music. The lights fade to nothing during those octave A's, it stays dark during the twisting, searching 8th notes, and the lights come back up as the bass line ascends, just in time to light the way for the star. (The switch was turned on less than 5 seconds after it had been turned off.) It really does look like it could've been planned this way - especially with that one lonely outdoor light framed through the window. I wish I could've enjoyed it more in the moment!


[I've anonymized the cellist here and faded out at the end, but I promise no other FX were applied. Technically, if I'd been the lighting designer, I would've brought the lights up a bit more slowly. This looks like a rush job.]