Thursday, 28 October 2010

About time

Last night we played piano quartets with Jonathan, who is visiting from the United States.  Jonathan got in touch with me through the ACMP 11 years ago when he visited Israel the first time. He is a neurologist in the US Army whose specialty is the charming subject of nerve gas. He claims his work is in civil defense - developing antidotes and vaccines against all the ghastly stuff the bad guys are planning to dump on us. But I don't know. He signs his emails "Nrv Gas R Us", wears a military crewcut, and writes that he can play on Monday evening because his conference here (on nerve gas, with the Israelis - enough to make you nervous by itself) "concludes by 1830 hours". An odd combination - talented musician (pianist, violist, composer), extroverted and charming, yet military careerist and passionate student of weapons of mass destruction. A cross between captain Nemo and Dr. Strangelove.

Anyway, we played the Schumann quartet as you might expect from such a person: at a tempo just over the edge of comfortable. Fast so that you have to scramble to get in all the notes. The sixteenths bunch up in little piles, instead of standing out sharply like pearly shark's teeth; the subito pianos come by the second note after the forte, instead of the first, and the cadences never line up absolutely exactly. But it is thrilling. It is like skydiving, all the thrill and adrenaline of extreme sport without the risk.

I have played the Schumann quartet many times, at a speed just a hair slower. The difference in tempo is objectively almost imperceptible - probably less than a single click on the metronome - but the sense of the piece is completely different. I am not saying better or worse. At this faster tempo, we lose much of the attention to detail (even when reading) that lifts a performance out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.  On the other hand, there can never be anything about the reading that is pedestrian or plodding. You are forced into a kind of vital, life-or-death attention that leaves you weak at the end.

All of which takes me back to thoughts about detail. It is always amazing to me how acutely minute changes in details make huge differences in performance. The physically measurable differences between a performance of a Beethoven sonata by a second year conservatory student and one by Yehudi Menuhin might be miniscule - a few milliseconds difference here, a single cycle difference in intonation there, a note stressed more or less by an almost negligible difference in amplitude - yet the sense of the perfomances are completely different. It is almost as though the difference is not in the physical dimensions of sound, but in a completely different, perhaps mystical dimension.

Much, if not almost all, of these differences are in time. Music, says Stravinsky, is what defines the relation between man and time. It is in the infinitesimal elasticity of time over a note or a measure that creates the difference between performances. These differences are often so minute that they don't even jiggle the metronome. On the other hand, I often find that my tempo has deviated wildly, without having any sense of its having changed. If I didn't check with a metronome, I would never know.

I have now reached the point in this blog entry where I should write a neat concluding paragraph, with something snappy to say at the end. But I don't have such a paragraph. Well this is a blog, I can do what I want, right? so we'll leave that discussion as it is. I'll think of a conclusion later.

I will only add that those of you who didn't come to hear us play at the Dancing Camel missed a gay old time. People got up and waltzed to the Blue Danube (which forced us to play it more or less straight, instead making the huge rubatos we like), and my arrangements of Israeli and Hassidic songs was (it's my blog, right?) a smash hit. Also, and most important, the beer was simply wonderful.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Breaking the silence

Haven't posted in a while. To all my (four) faithful readers, my apologies. But I have been busy with something else, which I will now tell you about: Last week, Dave, the owner of the Dancing Camel bar and brewery, called me and invited our quartet to play on Monday, which is Johann Strauss Jr's birthday. Dave is a graduate of Yeshiva University, who decided after graduation that his future was in beer rather than accounting. He studied brewing in New Jersey, then came to Israel and opened the Dancing Camel. He makes the best beer in Israel, so if you are ever in Israel, be sure to make this a stop.

Last year around Christmas time, I suggested that Dave invite us to play Christmas carols. We are an amateur quartet, so the only compensation we asked for was unlimited beer. Dave was delighted. He is still orthodox - he doesn't wear a traditional skullcap, but his head is always covered with a hat or bandanna - so he refused to advertise the evening as a Christmas event. Nonetheless, the place was packed, with everyone singing along with Jingle Bells, including Dave. You have to understand that in Israel, Christmas is almost universally ignored, and many former Americans miss the holiday spirit.

Anyway, since then, we have played a few times at the bar, always in exchange for excellent brew. We often play arrangements of Israeli folksongs, which I arrange for string quartet. Doing these arrangements has been what has kept me busy for the past week, which is my excuse for not posting.  I have now packaged these arrangements, and am offering them for sale over the net. So if any of you (four) readers out there are interested, send me an email (yoelepst@gmail.com) or post a comment here, and I will send you the particulars. I'm afraid I don't have a recording of these, but you download a midi version of one of the songs here. And here is a page of the score:

More interesting posts brewing. See you all later.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Haydn: no joking matter

This summer I attended the Raphael Trio chamber music workshop in New Hampshire. There was a coach there, Regina, from Austria. I was smitten with her, and was considering falling in love with her. But then, at one of the afternoon sessions, where the coaches sit together and read chamber music, she played Haydn's "Joke" quartet, opus 33 number 2. My burgeoning passion for her was destroyed at that moment. Because, Regina, you didn't get the joke.

Regina is not alone in this. Most people think the joke in Haydn's Joke quartet is all in the last few bars of the last movement, where he plays this clever trick, making you think the quartet is finished, and then going on.



But that is only the punchline of the last smidgeon of joke. The truth is that the entire quartet is a huge joke, from the opening bars to the end. So, at the risk of ruining a good joke, I am going to explain this quartet. Regina, pay attention!

Here are the opening bars of the quartet:



Right from the getgo, we know where we are: This is a drinking song, and we are in a bar. Banging our mugs on the table, stomping our feet, and singing. Don't believe me? Here, listen again:



Now, when you're sitting in a bar drinking, things are pretty mercurial. Ideas, moods, snatches of tunes pop up and disappear just as fast as they come. Charles Rosen, in The Classical Style, notes that Haydn's movements, as opposed to the emotionally uniform movements of the Baroque, are characterized by changing moods - "a series of articulated [dramatic] events". But in this movement, this idea is taken beyond the extreme. Moods change two or three times within a single phrase, and sometimes within a single bar. Consider:

After the drinking theme, questioning:



Then, shyness, sudden bravura, evaporating into bashful flirtation:



and a sudden burst of brilliance!



In the development, romantic ...



But then, confused, then understanding, then confused again, suddenly angry!



and so on throughout the movement. This, says Haydn, is the way people act in a bar, after the second, the third, and the tenth pint - quixotic, flirtatious, inconsistent.

In the end, they get drunk. And once drunk, they try to dance. Here is the minuet (second movement) that they try to dance to:



A perfectly formed, eight-bar minuet.  But, drunk as they are, our dancers stumble in the middle of the phrase, and kind of wallow around, looking for their balance.



By the second strain of the minuet, our boys seem to have found their centers, and manage a rather delicate dance - for a couple of measures. But then, at the allemande, they lose their balance, nearly thunk to the floor, and wallow for another couple of measures before getting back in step.



By the trio, they have figured out how to keep standing up, by not stepping but kind of slithering across the floor.



This trio, incidentally, is, to my knowledge, the first use of glissando in published music. Since there was in those days no agreed symbol for glissando, Haydn fingered every note, thus indicating that the player is to slide with one finger from note to note. For heaven's sake, Regina, don't try to make this section pretty and dainty. It is drunken dancing. Here, listen to this brilliant reading of the first and second movements by the Casals quartet, in their entirety. Thank you, Casals quartet, for a wonderful performance.



What comes after drinking and drunken dancing? Sleep of course. Our carousers weave their ways to bed.



Note the wobbles in the cello. Sleep though he may, he is still unsteady.

Haydn's drunken sleep is not an ordinary, peaceful repose. It is interrupted by sudden snorts and growls...



Of course, Haydn is the consummate artist, and everything he writes is beautiful. But don't be seduced into playing this movement straight; it is as full of sly quirks as the preceding ones.

Which brings us to the last movement, the movement that everyone agrees (finally) contains a joke. But the surprise ending - or non-ending - is not the only joke in this movement. The main subject of the rondo is the real joke. This subject is so trivial, so superficial, as to be comical.



If it weren't for the masterful way that Haydn handles it, we would guess that this was a subject written by Vanhal, Richter, Holzbauer, or some other justly forgotten composer. This totally silly subject gets dressed up in mock seriousness.



And more mock seriousness.



And then deathly earnest.



And then the punchline. Here is the Casals quartet playing the entirety of the last two movements. Enjoy.

More on the Honolulu Symphony

Following my post on Hawaii and the Honolulu Symphony, I received the following response from Jonathan Parrish of the musicians union:

"Thank you for your email and for mentioning us in your blog. It's unfortunate that you chose to quote a former and disgruntled musicians who was terminated several years ago and who has mounted a smear campaign against the organization and particular musicians. The fact is that there are a number of members of the HSO who were born and raised, and even educated, in Hawaii. Of course the current hostility of our board and management do jeopardize the chances of Hawaii talent finding a professional job here. In the past, however, all of our auditions have been held anonymously and behind a screen, giving everyone the same opportunity to win a position without personal connections of any kind.

"I'm glad you had a nice time in Hawaii and playing with Louise Ripple.

"Aloha,

"Jonathan Parrish
"Vice-Chair
"Honolulu Symphony Musicians"

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Who on earth is Reinecke?

That was what our replacement cellist asked when we played the string quartet number 4 by Carl Reinecke. Rafi, our regular cellist, is in India, where his daughter and her Indian husband are having a grand opening of their new kayaking and trekking resort on the upper Ganges. So we enlisted Ofer, a social historian and a fine cellist, to fill in. Ofer had never heard of Reinecke, who was conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra and a friend of Brahms.

The quartet is very good, certainly worthy of several readings and maybe even of a performance. It has a lot of Hollywood moments, and at times sounds like the score to a TV western. Of course, he wrote this 100 years before there were Hollywood or TV westerns, so we can't accuse him of being hackneyed. The scherzo is delightful, with a clever mixing of pizzicato with arco that gives it a sly, mischievous character - satyrs playing nasty but funny tricks.



Music is from Merton Music, whose catalogue is published at Ourtext chamber music for strings. Their prices are ridiculously low, cheaper for sure than it would cost you to print on your home printer and bind yourself. I bought it back in the days when Theo Wyatt, the founder, ran the organization. I suggested to him that he publish the catalogue on-line, and he flatly refused. "If I publish the catalogue on the internet, there will be more demand than I can fill, and I will have to raise my prices." That's mom-and-pop marketing strategy with a vengeance! Anyway, Theo has since retired, and his successor John Harding is a bit less conservative. So you can now see the catalogue and order via the Ourtext website.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Portraits of music

In 2004 I presented an exhibit called "Portraits of Music". These were seven works of art (mostly multimedia sculptures) which portrayed seven movements of chamber music works. The exhibit was at the Rimon Gallery in Tel Aviv. Visitors to the exhibit were given tape recorders, and could listen to the music as they looked at the art pieces.

Here they are, along with the text explanations of each:


J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue, Bwv 1080

A work that is at once intimate and symphonic: a simple melody, played with itself and against itself, from top to bottom, forward, backward, and inside out.  A simple melody that builds into an architectural monument of brilliance, that is, actually, only a reflection of the melody itself.




(Emerson Quartet)


Johannes Brahms, Piano Quartet no 2, Opus 26, first movement, “Allegro Non Troppo”

First, movement that is precisely balanced like a dancer on a tightrope; then music that flows like water from a spring. Two states of motion that are in essence one, that speaks of renewal, youth and the burst of spring.




(SpringLightMusic, September 20, 2010. Ralf Gothóni - piano, Ana Chumachenco - violin, Ara Gregorian - viola, Robert Cohen - cello, www.springlightmusic.com, Helsinki Spring Light Chamber Music 2010)


L.V. Beethoven, String Quartet Opus 132, Movement IV, “Heileger Danksgesang”

Beethoven’s prayer of thanksgiving after recovery from a terrible ailment: Choirs of angels sing songs of praise in celestial harmony.  Then, an awkward and clumsy dance, the dance of a man first rising from his bed after a long illness, moving at first gracelessly, then gradually more secure and firm, and finally with a flow that leads back to the celestial choir.






Bela Bartok, String Quartet no 6, Sz 114, Movement IV: “Mesto – Burletta”

A work written by Bartok on the eve of the rise of Nazism in Hungary and his forced exile to America.  A work that is tragic, black and depressing; and, in the middle this movement, a burlesque, a burst of hysterical and forced mirth.  Some moments are truly funny, but always the laughter is uncomfortable, and the signs of catastrophe are always in the background.



(Avalon string quartet)


Robert Schumann, Piano Quartet Opus 47, Movement III, “Scherzo Allegro Vivace”

A melody that rolls on and on, rising, falling, changing colors and textures, but always rolling and rolling; a melody with a wry smile, sometimes mock serious, the music of elves hiding under the bushes.  Now a rest; and then, again, the endless melody that unravels like a loose thread from an old sweater.








Arnold Schoenberg, Verklarte Nacht, Opus 4

Magic of night, scent of jasmine, light of a moon that illumines illusions.  Sounds of night that echo and rebound, arising from everywhere at once in an endless counterpoint of voices.





W.A. Mozart, String Quintet K. 515, movement III, “Andante”

A song of love, a sensuous dance of man (violin) and woman (viola) that are two but in essence one.  The dance turns and rolls and leads to an outburst of ecstasy.  It is a dance that does not hide the sexuality and the desire of love.  And in the end, who is the man and who is the woman?  For they are woven together into a fabric that cannot be unraveled.





(John Harding, 1st violin, Jan Paul Tavenier, 2nd violin, Andrew Sparrow, 1st viola, Teresa Jansen, 2nd viola, Gregor Horsch, violoncello. Recorded live in Den Haag (NL), Dr. Anton Philipszaal, May 1995)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Music in the land of the Lotus Eaters

Let me tell you about my recent trip to Hawaii. My daughter Dafna lives on the north shore of Oahu, the island where Honolulu is located. My wife and I spent a couple of weeks last month there, and I had a chance to play some chamber music with friends.

Hawaii is the land of the lotus eaters: it destroys all ambition. I think I could happily have stayed there another two or three or ten years, lying around on the beach, kayaking, biking, reading. Each morning is a struggle: should we do something productive - sightseeing, shopping, practicing - or just spend another day lolling about in the perfect sunshine, under the perfect rainbows, looking out over a perfect ocean? The rainbows, incidentally, are almost always around and always spectacular. As the trade winds dump their moisture over the inland mountains, the light prisms through in spectacular technicolor. There are full rainbows, and rainbows within rainbows; sometimes there is just a cloud over the ocean that dissolves into a fan of red, yellow, indigo and violet.


Here is a picture of our private beach - not actually private, but since there was rarely anyone else there, it was pretty much ours. A three-minute walk from Dafna's house. Here is a view from high into the mountains of Oahu.


Here is me on a hike.



You get the idea.

I called some friends I had met on my visit to Hawaii the previous year, and we played string quartets. I found these players through the ACMP directory. ACMP (Associated Chamber Music Players) is a boon to the travelling amateur musician; if you are not a member you should join immediately.  Among its other services, ACMP publishes an online directory of musicians around the world. Fly to New Delhi or Shanghai with your fiddle, and you will find eager partners to play with. It is the best way to get to know a new place.

The violist of our quartet was Louise Ripple. Louise, well into her 80's, was a friend of Helen Rice, the founder of ACMP, and was one of the first board members of the organization. I had heard many stories about Helen Rice, and Louise confirmed them. "She was an inspiration," said Louise. "I played with her when I was a student at Hunter, and afterwards. She was tremendously enthusiastic about chamber music. When she came to me with the idea of an organization for traveling musicians, and asked me to join the board, I couldn't refuse." Helen Rice died in 1980, but her spirit is still felt among the older ACMP members.

I also tried to hook up with some friends from the Honolulu Symphony, but none of them seemed to be around or answering the phone. No surprise - the symphony filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August, and since it has mounted an increasingly ugly campaign against the musicians. In their latest ploy, symphony management announced that it had accepted the resignation of all 63 orchestra members, even though none of the members had ever tendered their resignations. This was after the management had offered the union an "increase" in base pay, which, after taking into account the drastically cutback season, would have meant an average pay cut of 90 percent.

It is, like all bankruptcies, a rancorous process. In my conversations with symphony members last year, they accused everyone, from the board, the management, the contributors and the city, of mismanagement and conniving. They have also accused each other of nepotism in hiring, sexual harassment, and bias against Hawaiian-trained musicians. "I hope the symphony musicians explained during their in school demonstrations to our Hawaiian Keiki that no matter how good they get they have little chance to none of getting a job in the Honolulu Symphony unless they somehow convince their teacher to marry or date them to the expense of their current mainland friend or relative," wrote one.
But, venom and mismanagement aside, the implosion of the Honolulu Symphony - "The oldest symphony orchestra west of the Rockies" according to its website - is a sign of the times. The symphony is really a holdover from the days when the Doles and the Whipples and the Hales held sway over the social, cultural and economic life of the islands. The symphony back then was a pillar of western civilization in a remote backwater. In the days of hiphop and slackstring guitar, it has become something of a dinosaur.

And I am definitely part of the problem. Because, as the huge budgets swallowed up by these institutions ($8 million for the HSO) become unrealistic, more and more audiences are turning to chamber music as a cultural alternative. For me, anyway, it is somehow more in tune with the times, and it is a lot cheaper as well.