Piano Diary 2.

Beth Levin

[January 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

November 13, 2000. I write to come back to life.

The week before my New York recital was a rich time. I seemed to have heroic energy for practicing, meeting radio interviewers, trying out pianos and traveling all over the city. As luck would have it, my trio partners were here from Iceland touring with the Icelandic Symphony and I was able to play through the program for them at the hall. Only after that did I feel truly ready to give a recital.

After the run-through we strode over to O’Neil’s on 67th and took the quiet little room in the back for our sweet reunion. Simply strolling the long Manhattan streets together felt so right and made me nostalgic for the many streets we had walked down in foreign places over the years. We drank a little, laughed, told stories and pledged our desire to work seriously again. It was a perfect day which had begun that morning in the studios of WNYE in Brooklyn.

James Jacobs, the host of The Golden Lyre, questioned me about my musical childhood and aired performances of my former teachers and early influences including Leonard Shure and Myra Hess. My own performance of the Wanderer Fantasy of Schubert fit in somewhere that morning amid the giants.

During that same week I learned there would be no critic at my recital. The news devastated me and left me temporarily depressed. I heard it from a friend at the Times and my publicist in a kind of double punch. I felt so flattened because I knew I was going to give one of the best performances of my life. I don’t understand how you know these things but you do. A few weeks before on WGBH in Boston the recording engineer had cried after my performance. I think it is the mix of the huge emotional power of Schumann, etc., and my fulfillment of the music (on a good day) that has moved people over the past year in nine cities and I knew it would be an even heightened experience at Merkin Hall on November 2nd. at 8 PM. Alas, life doesn’t always play along with the dreamer.

The Steinway at the hall was all mine to play and get to know during the days leading up to the recital. At first I felt uncomfortable with the nine-foot giant. It felt like a new, souped up Lexus and I was hoping for more of a gently used Bentley. The piano had color, a beautiful bass and even a treble that spoke. But farther up the keyboard the sound became brittle and I knew I would have to contend with that quality. I left a note for the tuner asking him to try to mellow out the top, a feat he did indeed accomplish by the eve of the concert.

It is almost two weeks now since I played. I still feel a bit numb and can’t quite bring myself to critique or describe the concert and the lovely reception that followed to myself or to you, dear reader. I know it was one of my best, one of the times I have made music fearlessly, moved an audience and felt it go out into the atmosphere without any qualms.

December 5, 2000

As I ride the train to my dentist in Long Island I consider the pain that awaits me at the end of the line. But I know the trip itself will afford me the pleasure of daydreaming, summing up and musing a bit.

As I settle in and look back on two special musical encounters of the last week I can smell the aroma of a hot, salted pretzel with mustard drifting from the seat behind me. I wonder to myself if future generations will know the pleasure of a cigarette and coffee, a hot dog smothered in sauerkraut from a street vendor or a hot salty pretzel. Or whether they will be fined for their guilty pleasures.

On Wednesday afternoon the cellist, JDJ, walked in the front door and seemed to take up the whole room with his height and broad shoulders. He seemed at ease but perhaps a bit warm because he started to peel off layers of sweaters he had worn outside. I had baked a banana bread so that the aroma would be inviting and perhaps allay any nervousness. The fact that the banana bread sank to the bottom of the pan I took as a bad omen. But I needn’t have worried.

J took a seat facing me at the piano, tuned and launched into the opening of the Beethoven fifth cello sonata, Op. 102 in D Major. The first movement is so exuberant, joyful and full of energy that it requires the players to simply jump in without any trepidation. The more intimate, inner expression comes later in the piece.

J approaches music from the vantage point of composer, conductor, teacher and radio show host. His musicality is fine, his instincts good and his rhythm first rate. He only lacks the kind of technique someone attains who has worked single-mindedly at perfecting his instrument over many years. This may be his one serious flaw.

Looking at J for cues was very distracting and I relied mostly on my ear to keep our ensemble together. His face reminded me of other players from other places and times in my life. It seemed to say “I’m expressing something from my core — faking this is not possible.” Looking at his face moved me because of the mix of honesty and abandon it held that afternoon.

We spent much of the rehearsal admiring Beethoven for his cleverness which somehow never sacrificed sincerity or depth of emotion. The sonata is a masterpiece and we kept finding more and more in it to appreciate. I asked J to play through the fugue much under tempo simply to gain more control of it. In contrast we played the Adagio movement faster to see what the line was doing before bringing it back to the slowness required of us by Herr Beethoven.

After an hour or so I realized that I still needed part of the afternoon to work on another sonata for a rehearsal on Sunday, a rehearsal where much was at stake. J and I agreed to work again in two weeks and he left.

N.W. had seen my name in the Times and called me. Thirty years ago we shared a stage in Philadelphia in the Schubert E flat Piano Trio and the Brahms G Major Violin Sonata. He was calling to catch up on three decades and talk about doing some playing together.

If we meshed and played as well as he remembered he would ask me to perform in a trio concert with the cellist, N.R., and after that perhaps start our own piano trio. Sometimes it seems like the universe sends you a gift, one that you have done nothing in particular to deserve and certainly haven’t planned for and all you can do is to be grateful. This felt like such a gift.

I guess I have loved N.R.’s cello playing forever. He’s one of those musicians for whom I would play in a Siberian Gulag next Wednesday if he asked me to. And here was a chance to be playing with him in concert in NY in works of Beethoven, Brahms and Shostokovitch. But only if I impressed N.W. sufficiently on Sunday.

As I walked from the subway stop to Manhattan School of Music for our reading my nervousness manifested in a kind of sadness. I often feel this way before a concert and can never seem to lick it. Perhaps it is necessary to plunge to the bottom in order to attain musical heights in performance. My face must have looked ashen as I traveled the last few blocks.

N and I embraced and I noticed the white in his beard where once there had been the fair hair of youth. He had gotten us the Recital Hall to work in and we were quickly unpacked, on stage and ready to tackle the Brahms A Major violin sonata which I had learned only that week. From the first note I could tell that N knew it cold and this was no rehearsal. This was a performance!

Luckily N loved what I did and what we did together. Our styles matched although I felt he was a bit more conservative rhythmically. The few things we disagreed on were minor details. He immediately asked me to do the concert with N. R. next Fall and spoke to me about other possibilities for playing together.

I think that the quality JDJ, NW and I share is an openess to try anything in the music, to follow an idea to see if it might lead to an interesting interpretation, an uncovering or an insight. We’re game!

December 18, 2000. Gratitude for the past and the present.

I now find myself hurled back into the preparation phase of my work with no deadline in sight for many months. I realize that I am forced to rely on my own reservoir of discipline which at times is meager and can easily collapse into unadulterated laziness.

Don’t misunderstand me. One summer at a music festival in Blue Hill, Maine I practiced for eighteen hours straight and earned an immediate reputation as a fanatical worker. I’m just as capable of Herculean bouts of practicing as I am of lazing like some contented tortoise on the shore. Moderation may be what I never achieve. This may also be why I go into a teacher, D.T,. who pushes and prods me and seems to have a vision for what I might achieve as a musician even when my own vision is snoozing.

Last Friday I walked into her Eighth Avenue Brooklyn apartment with the A minor., Op. 143 Schubert Sonate meagerly prepared. I say meagerly because what I was prepared to do was sight read through the work, instincts on alert and myself ready to seize on whatever the sense of the moment and my talent could muster. In my own defense I don’t like to come to a lesson in the early stages overly prepared with an interpretation set, decided and in place. I do like to come open minded and still wondering what the interesting questions might be. It is a rare teacher who allows for that indulgence and for that alone I am grateful to D.T.

Often when I first look at a score — the myriad notes, markings, phrasing, dynamic and tempo indications — I see in black and white. In a single hour D.T. can transform the same score into vibrant color for me the way Dorothy first sees the yellow brick road. She helps bring into focus the important ideas which can give a work shape and meaning. Dear Reader, you may begin to sense that D.T. is one of those rare creatures: a born teacher.

On Sunday I had a call from my first piano teacher, M.F. in Philadelphia. We share the same birthday and ourselves with Beethoven. He was phoning to mark the day, tell me news of his recent move to a new apartment and to discuss the progress of his book. He decided to write the story of his life in Poland before the war, his horrific experience in the Holocaust and his post war studies with Gieseking and subsequent career in America. Two publishers were reading it and deciding its fate- perhaps deciding his fate- again.

The time I spent studying with M.F. beginning as a girl of thirteen was life shaping and momentous for me. Looking back now I can remember him dancing around the room, telling stories, putting on the old recordings and playing for me at the next piano-whatever it took in the lessons to bring alive the music, mostly the music of Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Schubert and Bartok. I remember him holding my pony tail tightly to keep me from moving about too madly at the piano when I played, and before auditions rubbing my hands for half an hour if that was how long it took to warm them up.

M.F. had the most refined sensibility, exquisite tone, sense of dynamics and a deep understanding of the piano and music. He is the reason I perform music. Today I walk into a studio to re light the fire he began, with my present teacher, D.T. continuing to inspire and coax with her peerless imagination and verve. I suppose it will always be more exciting to learn something than to know it. And I may outgrow this process. Just not yet.