Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Humor in Music

 Last night, I had the privilege to attend Carole Blankenship's faculty recital at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.  I came to know Carole during my graduate work and have always respected her musicality and thorough attention to detail.  This performance certainly met my expectations and provided an exhilerating evening of music.

I was intrigued by the program from the outset due to the inclusion of a work by Libby Larson that I was not familiar with.  The cycle Me was conceived for soprano and piano based on the writings of Brenda Ueland.  The cycle traces one woman's development from childhood, through her awkward teen years and the devastation of a failed marriage and the death of her parent.  With lots of humor provided for both the soprano and pianist, the song cycle takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride until its final "goodbye".  

Perhaps it is due to my personal mindset at the moment, but while I find the cycle as a whole to be quite successful, I think it is the humorous settings that hold the entire work together.  As concert goers, we anticipate hearing music that is serious in nature at classical performances.  However, when we attend, we are not always hoping to find deep answers to life's questions; we are hoping to be entertained.  For me, humor is a key element to personal entertainment.

One of my most pleasing experiences as a soloist involved my discovery of music's humor.  At Pepperdine University, I was assigned Haydn's Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50.  I vividly remember my struggles with the opening single-note staccato theme in my desperate attempt to "say" something with my music.  I was especially perplexed when I began to work through the open pedal passages that occur later in the work.  

After confirming that notes and rhythms were solidly under control, my professor wisely told me to simply have fun with the piece and to allow "Haydn to help me laugh."  As I began to see the sonata's humor, I experienced success with the piece and learned a valuable lesson:  in order to have merit, music does not have to be "serious" and "mature."  Now I find myself returning over and over again to explore works filled with bubbling laughter and those that poke fun at the musical establishment.

What pieces do you go to when you need a good laugh? I'm ready to have my funny bone tickled again by the strains of beautiful music.

Monday, January 23, 2012

It's a Question of Interpretation

Today was one of my favorite days to lecture in my music appreciation class.  It's still very early in the semester and everyone is getting to know each other.  As we continued our preliminary examination of music, we found ourselves face to face with melody.

The reason I love this lecture is because I finally get to let my sense of humor come through momentarily. You see, a few years ago some singers introduced me to Florence Foster Jenkins' recording of the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute.  If you're not familiar with this historic recording, allow me to introduce it to you.

After playing this "wonderful" recording, I point out to the students that anyone can make a recording if they have enough money.  It's important as audience members that we separate an individual performance from the composer's intentions.  I am certain that Mozart rolls in his grave each time this recording is played!  I'm always happy to see the proverbial light bulb above most of the students' heads while I must simply shake my head at the few who simply do not get it!  Since I can't leave that sound in your ear, here's a much better recording of the aria by the amazing Rita Streich.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Techno Jeep!

A new semester began yesterday with 21 students (mostly concurrent high school students) and everyone seems to be engaged and looking forward to a fun class together.  That's definitely a change from the past few semesters I've taught!

As we discussed what constitutes music, I showed them an example of musique concrete.  This morning this video was sitting in my inbox from one of my high school students.  Isn't it amazing what these percussionists were able to accomplish with a jeep?  Great video!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sick of Cycles?

Since I'm still enjoying a little down time before the new semester takes off next week, I've gotten to spend some quality time on various social media sites.  I've been struck by the number of orchestras who are doing Mahler projects right now.  The two most notable -- it seems -- are San Francisco's with Thomas and Los Angeles' with Dudamel.  A company working through the symphonic cycles of a composer is nothing new and not surprising.  Numerous orchestras have done the Beethoven cycle;  not to be left out of the cycle frenzy, it seems that opera companies around the world are mounting Ring Cycles.  This apparent trend raises a couple of questions in my mind.

While I was an undergraduate student in southern California, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played a lot of Stravinsky.  For a while, it felt as though the orchestra was unable to perform a concert that DIDN'T include something by the composer.  Early on, I was fascinated.  I looked forward to being exposed to a wider gamut of Stravinsky works and went to the concerts expecting to learn more about the composer's harmonic language and style.  As the seasons went on, I found myself treating the seemingly endless Stravinsky as something that had to be endured rather than treasured.  My ears were under assault and my mind longed for something more -- something different.  

This is the catch-22 of cyclical performances.  It is inspiring to the academic mind to delve into the depths of a composer's work list and discover unknown treasures.  On the flip side, it can be a death blow to attracting young audiences, many of whom know little about music and want to experience a wide gamut of styles as they discover what they like and don't like.  For all music lovers, it is true that "variety is the spice of life."  

Since it appears that these cyclical performances are here to stay (and I don't necessarily think that's an entirely bad thing), I find myself wondering which composer will have his moment in the limelight next?  Amidst all the possibilities, my money is on Shostokovich.  I have no basis for that guess tonight, just a gut feeling.  

What do you think about the cycle frenzy?  Who will be the next symphonic composer featured?  Have you ever considered a piano recital series based on the same premise?  Do you think it would work?  I look forward to hearing from you all. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Single or Double?

I am convinced that pianists are a breed all their own.  As I have been preparing to play for a few lessons in Union's abbreviated winter term, I have begun to think about requests I want to make from my student singers.  The biggest issue that I'm considering:  single-sided or double-sided copies of their music.  Feel free to laugh at me now, but it really makes a difference.....and I see many collaborative pianists in cyberspace nodding their heads in agreement.

I can't come to a personal preference and have been playing with it most of the day.  Double-sided copies are easier to turn and more closely resemble the feeling of original scores, but inevitably, the light hits the page just right and the notes on the back are visible.  Now THAT can cause some confusion.

Single-sided copies are easier to get from the student, but require hours of taping music together that could be spent practicing.  The upside to this process, however, is that I have control over the location of page turns.  Once the pages are taped together, everything becomes noticeably thick;  I'm always fearful of turning two pages mistakenly in these situations.

The reality of the situation is that I'm generally happy if the copies I get include all the notes that are on the original page.  Of course, if the singer isn't worried about missing notes on the page, I don't suppose I should worry about the missing notes from their performance!

Do you have a preference?  Do you play from photocopies or do you demand original scores for performances?  Your input will definitely make this post a real page turner!