Piano Diary 3.

Beth Levin

[April 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

Letter to Reykjavik
January 20, 2001

Dear Richard,

I hope the dark cold days aren’t proving too much of a burden. Brooklyn looks a bit dreary this morning promising the onset of a snowstorm — serious looking weather befitting the Inaugural address in Washington at noon.

My piano, with all the opened scores strewn about, looks as if a hurricane hit it. The layers consist of vocal music, chamber music and solo music but not in any particular order. The large ecru-colored Durand edition of the Ravel Piano Trio seems to lord it over the others by its mere size and difficulty. T.T. warned me that it’s the hardest thing in the repertoire but added that he tends to have a tragic view of life and that he’s therefore not to be taken too seriously.

I foresee some mighty ensemble rehearsing simply to mesh timing, tempo and a sense of flexibility. The rhythm seems to be in constant flux and one must have the courage to take off from a given tempo in a flash or to recede from it just as quickly.

I hope you are serious about my coming over to play the Ravel in March because I so want another run at it before we perform it here in October. I love the opening chords and how they seem to call to the listener to enter the piece. I play with them endlessly to get a certain smoky-iced color, just the right sound to invite and to break that first important silence. The dot over the first chord results in its sounding like an upbeat but I don’t mind the ambivalence and may not try to force a downbeat feeling.

C.M. came over yesterday and we worked on songs of Wolf, Schubert and Poulenc. Her voice is so powerful that I can barely hear my accompaniments. I often work hard not to drown out my musical partners but with Christine I can only hope to match her richness of tone. She always has a reserve of ever more beautiful sound.

Wolf’s Das Magdlein is so stark in its beauty. I barely touched the keys and Christine sang in a way that produced a sad, hollow sound perfectly matching the poetry. She always translates the text of the song for me (in this case from the German, describing lost love) but even without knowing the words, the music expresses it completely. Would that G.W.B.’s words later today speak to us so directly.

So, Richard, stay warm and let’s play Ravel together in the light of spring!

Love,

Beth

After Attending A Great Day in New York
February 11, 2001

There was a definite buzz around the final concert of A Great Day in New York on Friday night — people stirring outside Alice Tully Hall, those buying tickets in the lobby or finding their seats, all seemed glad to be part of a true 21st-century event.

Pianist Anne Marie McDermott strode onto the stage and gave a fresh reading of Richard Danielpour’s Selections from The Enchanted Garden (1992). Her rhythmic vitality and sense of keyboard color enhanced the music, never letting it seem ordinary. Her attire of a metallic coat over pants and her head of dark curls could have placed her squarely on the runway of Seventh on Sixth, and this combination of beauty and artistry made her quite an appealing stage presence.

Next violinist Greg Fulkerson accompanied by Ms McDermott performed Aaron Jay Kernis’s Air (1995). Mr Fulkerson happened to be pinch hitting for Fred Sherry, the festival’s dynamic director, who that day had broken a small bone in his left hand and could not go on. Greg’s performance was poignant and sounded extremely seasoned for one asked to play at the last minute. He had obviously thought deeply about the piece and gave one of the sweetest performances of the evening. Even his rumpled gray suit added an air of relaxed understatement. Kernis’s music was simple in the way Copland or Mozart is simple. It is exquisite music that hides its art.

Coming as it did after the language of Kernis, Tania Leon’s Parajota Delate (1988) seemed very well placed. A brilliant and colorful work performed by a spirited quintet on flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano created a true contrast to the previous fare. Leon’s outgoing musical voice was rhythmically sharper, less lyrical, and succeeded inside a wild dance mode. The piece, a miniature, left the audience genuinely wanting more.

I now skip ahead past the first of three intermissions to the world premiere of Heavy Light by Steven Mackey. A lanky fellow, he walked out, plugged his guitar into an amp and proceeded to play what sounded like a work in progress, something being worked out. I thought it a bit like the salad course clearing our palettes for something more substantial. Comic relief may be a less generous description of his rôle that night.

As I suspected, the meat and potatoes did indeed appear next in the work of Louis Karchin. His Sonata da Camera (1994) was beautifully performed by Curtis Macomber, violin and Stephen Gosling, piano. It’s a lovingly crafted piece that draws an architectural arc. I enjoyed his juxtaposition of quirky, disjointed figures with longer lyrical sections. The performance (as in the McDermott / Danielpour collaboration) came up to the level of the written score and took off from there to suggest even more than Karchin wrote. A great performance is often one in which the voice of the performer and the voice of the composer commingle, thereby creating a new musical entity.

The high point of the evening for me came next. David Del Tredici walked out clad in black leather, sat down at the Steinway and opened the score to his three wrenching songs performed by John Kelly. Kelly was all camp, a kind of Pee Wee Herman look-alike who could barely sing. His voice warbled and traveled from basso to falsetto without an inkling of ease. At one point he crouched on the floor in the fetal position, but it was the audience that experienced pain. I heard a few tsks and clucking of tongues around me, but for me this was at last a truly provocative moment, a surprising turn of events. I mean what’s a 21st Century music festival without a shocking moment or two?

Del Tredici’s music is heartbreaking and brilliant and difficult. His piano playing was heroic, and he added an odd mix of kitsch and humanity to the evening. Even in advanced middle age his leather pants, bleached hair and “go for it” demeanor were poignant and endearing. His boyish smile remains impish and undiminished.

After two intermissions during which I drank too much, shook a few too many hands and schmoozed to excess, I now withdraw from further musical opinion. I don’t trust my judgement much beyond Del Tredici’s songs. Let me simply praise a brilliant performance by Stephen Gosling of Ezequiel Vinao’s Etudes (1993). The devilish pieces were like pie for Mr Gosling. He managed to scale some virtuoso heights without sacrificing sensitivity or control. It was a performance that I felt kept in reserve even greater ability in the future.

February 28, 2001

My first day of teaching at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music was not an auspicious event. I had imagined how the day might go many times since being hired the week before and planned to arrive early in order to be fully prepared in mind and spirit to greet my first student. As it turned out, the office misinformed me and my first pupil arrived a full half hour before I did. And in the company of his parents.

Even when something is not your fault, offering up an excuse sounds lame. In grade school I remember preferring to accept false blame rather than having to defend myself to the teacher. It seemed the nobler route. I merely apologized for being late, whipped off my coat, fumbled for a pencil and began the lesson. The force of my coat brushing against my necklace unleashed the clasp. One pearl necklace lay at my feet as I greeted my student. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Hart. I’m your teacher, Ms Levin.”

Hart couldn’t have been more than eight years old. A blonde-haired cherub with quite a piercing gaze, he probably was rendered speechless by my nervous arrival. At any rate, he didn’t utter a word. I asked him to play something for me, a little tune, a melody, or a piece he had prepared. Hart thought for nearly a full minute and finally sat down and played a lilting folk tune with his right hand only. I realized I had a true beginner in Hart, but one with intelligence and with the makings of a good ear.

I recall my own teachers having an aversion to parents. My first serious teacher, M.F., would shoo my mother away after a terse greeting, close the door and only then begin to smile and talk music. I was polite to Hart’s mother and father and even took a liking to them. But the one-on-one teacher / pupil relationship in musical study may be what makes it unique and powerful. Parents have no to little rôle in the lesson itself.

I showed Hart a good hand position and had him play a small five note exercise with the weight of the hand helping his tiny fingers to depress the keys. I gave him his own book of staff paper and asked him to copy several G clefs and F clefs, notes and musical symbols. We progressed to intervals and the identification in sound of 3rds, 6ths, 4ths, 5ths and octaves. This wasn’t a snap for Hart, but he seemed like a child who could learn anything. I can’t wait to have him write me a melody next week, start to learn a piece or two from an elementary book and continue ear training. Listening is 90% of music.

My next student, Theo, came an hour later. In the interval I simply enjoyed being in Studio 31 with its old Steinway grand and a sweeping view of Seventh Avenue and Lincoln Place. Except for the piano, the room is bare, and I made a mental note to consider adding a bookcase, a few inspiring pictures, perhaps a large poster from my recent recital…

Theo at thirteen is a sweet-natured, relaxed boy who struck me as a natural. He had taken lessons in the past and came laden with old music books from which we could make a start. Theo sings in a choir and takes theory class at the conservatory and therefore comes to music from a rich context. Nestled in the pages of Theo’s music books were family photos, school notices, homework and miscellanies that fell to the floor at various intervals during the half hour. I enjoyed these mishaps — they gave me the chance to glimpse a bit of Theo’s life, especially through the snapshots of his family. There seemed something sweet about a boy who enjoyed stuffing random gear into his music.

I assigned him three pieces which offered different musical challenges and asked him to practice a scale for the purpose of developing musical touch at the keyboard: legato, staccato and portamento for a start. A scale should be given a musical purpose and never thought of as mere notes.

My third student never showed that day and I found myself in early afternoon walking down Seventh Avenue back to my home at the other end of Park Slope. I was truly exhausted, with a tiredness behind my eyes as if I had stayed up all night. In assessing my performance as a teacher that day, I realized that I had probably said too much and my fatal flaw may have been to bombard Theo and Hart with too much information. On the other hand, I know that what I taught them will be repeated over and over in the weeks ahead until they are ready to receive more words and act on them. In my own musical life I still have great moments of Aha! from things teachers told me twenty years ago.

Next week will be my second full day of teaching at BCM with perhaps a few new students added to my roster. After a week of intense practicing and rehearsing and a necessary foray into the business end of things it will be nice to revisit the elements of music and to share them with some budding spirits at the piano.

After the All-Bach Festival of March 18th

The All-Bach Festival last Sunday at the Brooklyn Conservatory marking his 316th year was not a much-heralded event. If you happened to pass the corner of Lincoln Place and Seventh Avenue you might have taken notice of the small announcement. And so, as a result, the hall was but politely filled. A program honoring the great master should have been packed to the rafters.

Tony Leonardo Cimino, flutist, pianist and BC of M’s hard working Director of the Classical Division put the event together, rallying faculty and one blossoming student to celebrate the master, the composer whom other composers have honored and adored across the ages and will probably do into the next eon.

In the rôle of accompanist, I performed with the soprano Christine Moore in Bach’s aria “Wiewohl mein Herz in Tranen schwimmt…ich will Dir mein Herze schenken” from St Matthew’s Passion. I reappeared as a soloist at the end the program in Bach’s English Keyboard Suite in A minor.

Let me state up-front that I spent much of my time holed up in a practice room running through passages here and there in the English suite, talking to myself or refreshing my make-up. But my curiosity to hear the other performances was strong, even if I was on the stairs. Actually, I could hear every note, and it is from that curious position that I will offer my impressions.

To open the program, Tony invited Francesca Teora, a student, to perform on the recorder Bach’s Rondeau from Suite No. 2 in B minor. At eight, she already had poise and control of her instrument. Perhaps it takes a child to truly understand the purity of Bach and to bring his spirit across to us. If you have ever heard the young Yehudi Menhuin unlock the secrets of Bach you know what I mean. She did just that, and the audience was grateful.

I failed to hear the ensuing Flute Sonata in E flat Major. An attack of jitters propelled back into the practice room for some futile rehearsing. My sincere apologies go to Lucy Galligher.

When I emerged, I was immediately intrigued by the Chaconne arranged for left hand by Brahms. The pianist, Zinovy Vaynshteyn, managed to relay the simplicity of the theme as well as the intricate richness of Bach’s development of it. The day before I had been listening to a CD of the Chaconne performed by Jascha Heifetz on violin. The piano version is less satisfying in intensity, but hearing the famous work in any form is a treat. One of the qualities of Bach’s music seems to be its chameleon-like ability to translate to any and all instruments from the human voice to percussion.

After intermission, Christine and I ventured onstage to perform the beautiful recitative and aria. (This was our first performance together, and as such, I honored an old Philadelphia tradition of giving a trinket to a musician with whom you share the stage for the first time.) We had rehearsed extensively, gone over the text, listened to various versions of the Passion as a whole and arrived early that afternoon for one last run-through. There was left to us only the high experience of the moment, including a few inevitable unexpected nuances of performance. I felt free enough to play with the tiny mordents and turns that pepper the music and dared to add a trill to one held note hoping it wouldn’t throw Christine. Of course she didn’t flinch. The famous portrait of Bach by Hausseman sat atop a music stand on stage and I imagined the old man’s countenance alternately blushing, scolding or winking as the music unfolded that afternoon.

A Trio Sonata in G major was next on the program as performed by Tony Cimino on flute, Michael Rose on piano and Alena Hatch on violin. This was a fluid reading wherein the players achieved a fine balance of sound. They were at once light-hearted and quick in response to the writing and soulful when the character shifted. The sharp contrast of the movements mirrored the contrast among the many works offered that day as a whole.

I had been living with the English Suite in A minor for several weeks, basically from the moment I knew I had to present it. I developed a strong conception of the work and how I wanted to portray it at the piano. On that Sunday I also felt uninhibited and warmed up by having already been out on stage.

I bowed and abandoned myself to the situation. No use fighting a performance. The opening notes of the Prelude (the first of seven movements) outline an A-minor chord and herald its driving, unrelenting character. Once you begin the movement, you are plunged into an exciting ride of sixteenth notes that only halt for a cadence or two.

The Allemande breathes more, is more lyrical, and sets up a pattern of repeating sections A and B in each dance. These repetitions are food for the imagination and present a large part of the performer’s challenge. A high point of the first time through may become a mere whimper the second. A thick sound may become thinner, a legato transform to a portamento, on and on. The choices are rich and even the decision to repeat a movement verbatim and not change a hair becomes an interesting choice.

The slow Sarabande could be construed as overtly romantic and the various mordents, trills and turns inside of the slow tempo become a path of expression more than mere embellishment. The same turn that was sharply snapped in the fast Courante now becomes sadder and takes on a different meaning.

After a set of ebullient Bourrées I knew I had to pull out all the stops for the finale, the Gigue. I feared that it might sound anti climactic and ruin the overall arc of the piece. I played the Gigue lighter, allowing for extreme speed. The fast tempo felt a bit like going from Chop to Puree on the blender. The running triplets truly ran and the turns had to occur in less than a wink.

It is now a few days later. I relive the festival in my mind and salute our efforts to sing Bach’s praises in the way we as musicians do best. I only hope next year’s event is heralded in big letters. He deserves it.