Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Lull in Menlo

My wife and I are on spring break this week, enjoying the hospitality of my aunt Miriam in Menlo Park. Appropriately, I spent the plane trip reading Joel Sachs' excellent biography of Henry Cowell, A Man Made of Music. Much of Cowell's childhood was spent in Menlo Park not far from here. Yesterday was a hiking day covering Angel Island and John Muir Woods, and on the drive we passed the San Quentin State Prison where Cowell was imprisoned for four years on a morals charge.

I've been catching up on much-needed practice for my recital at CCM in three weeks, playing on Miriam's 100 year old Henry F Miller piano. It's a real workhorse—heavy action, and a boomy sound that the aging dampers struggle to contain that leaks out and fills her living room with glorious resonance. We've been to a couple musical events—last Sunday we were at George Lopez's recital at CNMAT. He played four piano pieces written in the last ten years, including powerful performances of Sylvan Pieces by Cindy Cox and "at the cusp of dawn, a breath" by Vineet Shende. Sylvan Pieces were inspired walking through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Each of the five pieces begins simply, in the middle of the piano, before rapidly spiraling outward. My wife called it "inspired minimalism" because of how clear the development process seems to the listener. Lopez was at his best in Shende's piece, with exotic Indian-inspired sounds that produced hypnotic sound world on the piano. Unfortunately the Young Chang piano and the acoustics in the small hall made an uncomfortable fit for this piece.

My brother plays violin in the orchestra at UC Berkeley where he's a PhD student in statistics, and we headed over to the orchestra lunchtime concert on Wednesday. I've found that university orchestras are particularly responsive to a good conductor. David Milnes is not a demonstrative conductor on stage, but he gets a great result from the orchestra. They began with a relatively new work, Wide sea, changeful heaven by Reynold Tharp, with thick orchestra textures and scalar melodies that explored the outer registers. It reminded me of Ligeti, although Tharp's voice is indisputably original. The bulk of the program was the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, which was despatched with flair and not a little dollop of humor.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Szymanowski's Bolero

I think of Szymanowski as a "neglected" composer. Probably there are too many recordings and performances nowadays for that label to really be valid, and I'm not sure that they really need more exposure. His music is probably best in the penumbra of not-quite-so-well known.

I first discovered the Mythes for violin and piano about 12 years ago in the unmatchable recording on Deutsche Grammophon by Krystian Zimerman and Kaja Danczowska. The textures in that piece, the sensuality, the achingly languid melodies, show straight away what a genius the composer was. What a masterwork! I performed it with a violinist only once, and despite our preparation the concert was curiously unsatisfying, not helped by a unsympathetic piano. While I'd love to do it again, the sensation of reaching for the unattainable performance without quite making it seems in keeping with the wistful of Szymanowski.

I'm playing another violin and piano piece, the Nocturne and Tarantella, next week. While the Nocturne is truly beautiful, I didn't appreciate the Tarantella at first. It's grown on me. While it shows an early Szymanowski still finding his voice, I like to compare it with a late work by Ravel, the Bolero. Both works are by the greatest orchestrators and musical sensualists of all time, and are rhythmic and repetitive to an uncharacteristic degree. If anyone else had written these pieces, no one would be playing them. But the subtle shifts in color and dynamic in the Tarantella, if done right, change the piece from a bland virtuosic romp into something with a quiet internal glow despite all the outward ruckus.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Half a Stravinsky

My first experience with Stravinsky's Violin Concerto of 1931 was at Juilliard a few years ago, when I was enlisted by Francesca Anderegg to accompany her on a few days' notice. Stravinsky's twisted harmonies and his middle-period polyphony was causing me enough grief at the time that I don't think I appreciated the music fully. It's almost a Bach concerto, deconstructed and rebuilt in a cubist form. Listening to Fran playing the piece again last weekend with the St. Olaf College orchestra (the live recording is archived here), I almost didn't recognize parts of the piece because the solo part was so heavily boosted in the audio mix! Fran has a beautiful, rich tone on her instrument and a steely intellect that brought real clarity and direction to the solo part. With scarcely any backing from the orchestra, it sounded almost like a Romantic aria. It was a wonderful new perspective on the piece for me, and Fran's playing was so engaging I didn't really miss the orchestra that much. Interestingly, the live acoustics in the hall apparently made it hard to hear her, so I might have had the better deal through internet streaming.