Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nine years of piano: History really does matter!

To the best of my recollection, I started piano lessons in February 1952, when I was 8 and in third grade. I was actually having trouble getting along with a teacher who was pushing me into “sports” and male behaviors. I remember the suddenness of it, but I don’t remember what made me want a piano.

My parents bought a Kimball console and put it along the interior wall of the living room. We had gotten television in 1950, and the unreliable BW TV was near the fireplace, also interior, about fifteen feet away.

I started taking piano lessons after school with an older married woman about a mile away in Arlington. Lessons took place at around 4 PM Mondays and Thursdays. Practicing was about 45 minutes or so a day. I started with John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” and the very first piece was the “Tom Thumb March” with nothing but repeated middle C’s. Each piece introduced a new note. There were first, second, third grade books that gradually introduced simplified pieces from classical music. Somehow I recall the Bach Musette occurred fairly early. The teacher would grade progress as A-, A, or with a gold star. On Wednesday afternoons, we had “class” – about ten kids, about half boys. The teacher had a record player that first played 78s, and LPs in 1952 were considered a novelty. She taught music memory. The end result of all of that is that by age 12 or 13, I could identify all the major works from the radio on hearing just a few measures.

Around 1954, I started with the Sherwood Music course, from a music publisher in Chicago. A salesman came to the house and presented the course, and he worked pretty much the way encyclopedia salesmen did in those days. (In fact, my parents bought the World Book in 1950 from such a salesman). How things have changed: door-to-door and house call selling was much more socially “in” than it is now. Sherwood lessons were packaged as leaflets in brown enveloped divided into topics like Notation, Rhythm and Meter, Key Signatures and Scales, Harmony, Theory, Form, and History, and concluded with self-test written exercises, that the student mailed in for grading.

I also played in “festivals” every spring, where we got ratings from judges, with Superior the best grade. There was always a required and an elective composition, and the elective composition had to be by an American composer or a composer who had spent significant time in the United States (Sergei Rachmaninoff was acceptable).

In the spring of 1958, when I was in Ninth Grade, my music teacher was diagnosed with colon cancer and died quickly. This was traumatic for me. We found another teacher in the Yorktown section of Arlington, who herself would eventually go deaf. During that time, I became more interested in composition, and entered the D Minor Sonata into a competition when I was 16 (a junior).

I had slowly started collecting records. We did not understand high fidelity well then. We had an RCA Victor Mono record player and changer that tracked at 10 grams. We didn’t start using diamond styluses until I was a senior in high school. So many records were damaged. I got a Voice of Music stereo in 1962. The first piece that I heard on a home stereo system was a mono recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on Westminster, but the effect of multiple speakers was startling. At Christmas that year, I got Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Fourth, both an Angel, both performed by Otto Klemperer. The first stereo record that I played at home was the Mahler, and the opening “sleigh bell” passage was quite startling at the time in full stereo. (Because of Leonard Bernstein, among all conductors, Mahler and later Carl Nielsen moved to mainstream repertoire in the 60s.) Of course, since then, we went through an evolution: low tracking forces, elliptical styli, then CD’s, the music on the Internet (with all the legal issues around downloading). We got used to Dolby Digital as the standard for movies in new theaters.

My first piano teacher used to lecture me on “being a normal boy” (with all of the “implications”) but hoped that I would make music my “life’s work.” I once, around 1959, had a consulting session with a 70 year old professional piano teacher, Dr. Hughes, who prepared students for conservatories like Peabody and Julliard, or perhaps Indiana University. By the time I was a senior in high school, I could play some of the Rachmaninoff Preludes, such as the E Major, B minor, and D-flat Major from Op 32 (which prepares for his Third Concerto). The grandiose D-flat Prelude was my favorite. I remember banging it out on the piano one spring morning shortly before my high school graduation, when I would leave for a Science Honor Society Field Trip later that week. Some of the other preludes require greater virtuosity (G# minor, A minor) and were beyond my skill. I learned the second of the Liszt Legends (“St. Francis Walking on the Water,” a triumphant romp in E Major), but the first Legend (“Talks to the Birds”) was still unplayable (as was “The March of the Gnomes”).

The show “Everwood” on TheWB had prodigy Ephram Brown (played by Gregory Smith) learning the Beethoven Appasionata in one day (not possible – I could not have played the Finale adequately at age 17). Much of the plot has to do with his striving to get into Julliard, and his losing it because of a family problem mishandled by his headstrong surgeon father (Treat Williams). Instead, at age 18 he earns money as a piano teacher himself, and one of his students, Kyle Hunter (Steven R. McQueen), around 15, is the next prodigy, and the program suggests that he will make it when the series concludes. If there was ever an indie movie needing to be made, it would follow Kyle’s career in conservatory. (Warner Brothers, where are you? You own the trademark on the character, but I can write a script for you. Just call me!)

So why didn’t I make music my life’s work. I wish I had. I would have had a very different and likely more productive life. But I was a product of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was going up and Khrushchev was promising to bury us. I was good enough in school to graduate as one of 14 valedictorians (just barely) and chose to major in chemistry, and later switched to mathematics. Visitors to my blogs know what happened. (The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 would actually intersect my life in a bizarre way (as would “don’t ask don’t tell” starting three decades later.) There were real questions about how much freedom I had and could claim.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Newseum Visit: I "perform" as a TV Reporter

Although this blog is mainly about the performing arts, I sometimes consider museum openings and visits as closely related to the “arts”. And the News and journalism can turn into art, as the news builds up into narratives and stories spanning decades – we call it history – but when witnessed and recorded it becomes personal drama, a story, the genesis of plays and film.

I bypassed the free opening of the Newseum last Friday but visited today, after buying a year’s pass. (Too bad I’m not 65 yet). And I got to be the performer, with a two minute “Be a TV Reporter”. I selected the Supreme Court, and read a prompt about Justice Scalia’s new book and the suasion of other justices, before adding my own addlib comments about COPA and the CDA. It's harder to read prompts smoothly than one would think; there is a natural tendency to speak too fast. No place for stage fright.

I’m going to need the pass to see everything, which occupies six floors. I walked past the remnant of the Berlin Wall. I headed for the 9/11 exhibit on the 4th floor, where some wreckage from the WTC and Flight 93 is present, as well as the 9/11 headlines from all of the world’s newspapers framed on a wall, as if in a Front Page restaurant.

I then headed for the First Amendment exhibit on the same floor, and found the five specific rights in the First Amendment (high school history and civics teachers should make students be able to name them). There was a most interesting wall on student (and teacher, implicitly) free speech, with notes on several cases, such as “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”. There was coverage of LGBT student speech, and one placard even brings up the question of school systems interpreting “fiction” written by students (or teachers) and distributed in print or posted on the Internet (even outside of school). The specific cases look important, and I will be following up on them with some research in comparison to my own problems in 2005 as a sub (documented in July 2007 on my main blog).

I saw three of the short films: “Running Toward Danger” (about 9/11); “45 Minutes: The Story of the First Amendment”, and “The Power of the Image”. There are many more to see in subsequent visits.

See also (on the “4 Jesus” case) this blog link.

There is a wide screen on the top floor with changing images, one of which was the surface of Mars. Photography was allowed in most areas, but not in the wide screen area (probably because commercial films cannot be videotaped under copyright law).

Here is my "Be a TV Reporter" video:

Update: May 5, 2008

I visited the Ethics room, and tried the exercise of generating a news story. There is a video game-like or XBOX-like terminal which today demonstrated an animated situation where animals have escaped from a circus. The "reporter" is given characters to interview and questions to choose from. The monitor tells the reporter when a question is inappropriate, and shows opinion or spin. At the end, it shows the news report that the reported would have generated, which in my case, was too opinionated and biased.

The Ethics room offers some other attractions, including two First Amendment quizzes, one for adults and one for students. The students' quiz points out that a principal cannot censor a student's home Myspace page unless there is disruption at school.

Update: August 13, 2008

Theodore Kaczynsk wrote a letter, from supermax prison in Colorado, to a federal appeals court objecting to a display of his Montana log cabin in the law enforcement exhibit. He made the bizarre claim that the "rights" of the victims' families were compromised. The AP story by Judy Lin is here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

NOVA-CC and WMP perform Vaughn Williams Sea Symphony, Rota Bassoon Concerto

“O thou transcendent.” With that line from Walt Whitman’s Passage to India Book XXVI, the most thrilling part of Ralph Vaughn Williams ‘s “Sea Symphony” begins the denouement of a 65-minute work that, on the surface, could be compared to Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” (#8), Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, or even Claude Debussy’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, although stylistically and emotionally it is different from all of these (as these are from each other). In fact, is usually numbered as Vaughn Williams ‘s “Symphony #1” because the choral symphony (the full mixed chorus dominates every movement, and soloists appear in all but one). The key is not listed, but it is D Major (after an opening brass call in B-flat minor) and the work as a whole ends quietly, dying away on a solo cello, playing an F-sharp with the underlying D very audible. Vaughn Williams was almost forty when he completed the work, in parallel with Brahms, who also did not take on the symphony until well into adulthood. Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) did a lot of his symphonic composition very late in life.

Some portions of the work (composed about the same time as the late Mahler symphonies) recall the Brahms “German Requiem,” but the writing is more modal and pentatonic. It is, in fact, very “English,” before English music became more continental. The quieter, leaner passages, such as the beginning of the triple-time slow movement, sometimes foreshadow Britten (as in Peter Grimes).

Those not satisfied with the quiet ending can spin the earlier choral-orchestral song “Toward the Unknown Region,” about the same subject matter – and very loud and very joyful. (Despite his reputation as a pastoralist, Vaughn Williams can be loud and virile.) Britain regards exploring the sea the way America now looks at space exploration.

All of this was performed on Sunday April 13 2008 at the Schlesinger Concert Hall at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, VA, by the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra, and the NOVA Chorus conducted by Ulysses S. James, with Mark Whitmire as Choral Director, and Aurelius Gori as baritone, Jennifer Hughes-Lopez as soprano.

Before the intermission (the host, herself a violinist, warned that the Vaughn Williams is “not short”), there was a performance of Italian film composer Nino Rota ‘s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, in C. (There aren’t many of these besides Mozart’s in B-flat). There are three movements: Toccata, Recitative, and Theme and Variations, total about 20 minutes. Rota (1911-1979) wrote a lot of movie music (including “The Godfather”). but, like John Williams, wrote plenty of concert music. The rhythmic themes in the first and last movement sounded very familiar, and even though the composer himself is obscure. The witty style is a bit like Prokofiev (a bit in the Classical Symphony neoclassical style) with a shade of Arensky and Tchaikovsky in the Variations, set to various dances.

The program repeats at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington on April 6 and 20.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Visit to Nationals Park tonight: Remembering RFK and Griffith Stadium (and Nats lose to Marlins, 4-3)

I was lucky enough to get a $45 “gift” box seat on the third base side tonight at Nationals Park, for my first visit to the completed Nationals Park on the Anacostia River in Washington.

The Nats lost their seventh straight, 4-3, to the Florida Marlins, who swept them. They are 1-3 in their new home. They started 3-0 and are now 3-7. Remember the 1962 “new Senators,” who started at 2-0? I didn’t expect them to get swept at home by the Marlins. They are now 1-3 at home and, except for opening night, haven't proved "home field advantage." They have yet to complete a game at home with an 'x' in the box score for the bottom half of the ninth inning. (They finally did this April 13.)

The Nats (ex Montreal Expos) returned to Washington in 2005 and played three seasons at RFK. The “new Senators” (an expansion team) played ten seasons at RFK 1962-1971, but the first season at old Griffith Stadium, with the fences moved back to their original dimensions. The original left field line at Griffith was over 400 feet; it was reduced to 350 in the 1950s for the “Old Senators” (Roy Sievers, etc) with the beer garden in the bleachers. Comparing baseball fields would make a good problem set in a high school geometry or trigonometry class. And there were a couple of physics lessons, especially in the ninth inning when Nick Johnson's double didn't quite get over the bullpen wall.

The new stadium is mildly asymmetric, with the outfield wall in six sections. Curiously, the highest wall is in straightaway right field, with the Nats’s bullpen near the right field foul pole (with about 2 feet of wall inside the pole). The new stadium has about the same foul lines as RFK, with the power alleys shorter, and dead center at 402 instead of 410.

The “showmanship” came with the right field scoreboard, which showed the detailed stats and biographical information of each player. (Marlins’s pitcher Mark Hendrickson was 6’ 9’’). The replays were in great detail, including infield execution, and the path of home runs (Belliard’s “rope” around the left field foul pole at 336 feet in the third inning). Much of the time the commercials and score board decorations emphasized red, white and blue. The Bobbleheads had a race along the warning track.

Here's another account of Nationals Park at an ad agency blog, link, April 9, "not a bad seat in the house".

Outside, there is a walkway from the Navy Yard Station on the Metro Green Line, with ads for HalfStreet.com. I wondered where the old disco site for Velvet Nation could be; it is probably a condo now.

I've always wondered: when a game is made up in another city at the end of the season, does the scheduled visiting team still bat first? Does anyone know?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Dumbarton closes season with Vogler Quartet (Haydn, Arensky, Schubert)

The Dumbarton Concerts in Washington DC concluded the 2007-2008 season with “Simply the Best” with the Vogler Quartet tonight. Inbal Sergev substituted for the second cellist, who was to be Daniel Mueller-Schott.

The ensemble demonstrated a tendency toward relaxed tempos throughout the concert.

The first work was the Quartet in E-flat, Op 64 #6, by Franz Joseph Haydn. The work was straightforward, and did not demonstrate the “pre-Beethoven” flavor of the last quartets. (Although when you start Beethoven’s Op. 1, you’re in a new world.) The tempo in the first movement was a bit laid back, and the triple time in the “slow movement” sounded almost like another minuet. The finale did have a couple of playful tempo-stops.

The second work was Anton Arensky’s Quartet #2 in A minor. The theme and variations is well known and taken from Tchaikovsky, and themes from the other two, variable-tempo movements come from the Russian Requiem. The first movement is leisurely paced and ambiguous, and the finale starts with a slow introduction. The Quartet uses two cellos and the work has a darker texture. Somehow it makes me imagine Smallville’s Lex Luthor (“The Villain of the Story”) sitting and plotting his green kryptonite attacks on Clark in is lavish, stain-glass office with the music playing. That whole show sounds like a ballet.

The climax of the concert was Schubert’s massive C Major Quintet, D. 956. This work has always struck me as “pre-Bruckner,” with the slow movement a true, expansive Adagio, and with delicious modulations and harmonies that seem to come from the late Mozart chamber works (like the F Major Quartet). I’ve always thought that Haydn led to Beethoven who then led to Brahms and Schumann; Mozart I link with Schubert, as leading to Bruckner and Mahler (the latter combining song with symphonic form in a similar way) and eventually expressionism, as well as modern composers like Shostakovich and Britten.

Update May 12, 2008: NIH Philharmonia

I won't be able to make it, but the NIH Orchestra, an "amateur" orchestra of scientists from the National Institutes of Health, will perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony tonight. The Washington Post news story is by Philip Rucker, "High-Achieving MDs and PhDs Find Harmony in Orchestra: Science, Music Intersect in NIH Philharmonia," The Washington Post, p A01, link here. A video link is available there.

Today the organist at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA played on the big pipe organ the "Variation uber den Pfingsthymnus "Veni Creator Spiritus," by German organist and composer Hans Hielscher. This is intricate work with toccata-like variations that mix German chromaticism with French whole-tone harmonies, before resolving to a quiet close. But the same hymn forms the text for the first movement of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, which I have heard live once, performed by the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003.