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Still electrifying, Mr. Wild


American virtuoso Earl Wild

Today I had the great pleasure of playing some of Earl Wild’s stellar performances on the air, during my Saturday morning radio shift on WRTI-FM in Philadelphia. He was born in Pittsburgh 101 years ago this day.

He died in 2010, teaching until the very end. I was one of the lucky recipients of an almost “secret knowledge” handed down by a virtuoso of the old Romantic tradition, who had heard Rachmaninoff in person many times, and who had studied with a student of Ravel’s, and of Busoni’s.  Earl could explain every aspect of piano playing — from fingering, to nuances of phrasing, to chord balancing, to pedaling, to power in brilliant passages, all the while demonstrating, at the second piano. He knew, by heart, nearly every passage from the piano repertoire. He could talk and do.

Some other things about him, impossible to convey on the air — his charisma and rapier wit. His elegant way of dressing, which never looked foppish, because he was tall and broad-shouldered, with a shock of white hair, and blue eyes that widened or which he rolled to punctuate every story he told. The most colorful ones I can’t repeat, but here’s a milder one. When a new student at Juilliard approached him in distress, saying she’d been turned down by another teacher because her hands were so small she could barely reach an octave, he said, “How big is your brain?” She became his student and went on to have a successful debut at Carnegie Hall, critically praised in the Times for her fresh interpretation of an unusual program that alternated between Schumann and Bach.

Earl was not afraid to tell us students that he practiced — a lot. His income went up with the number of hours he practiced, he said, quite deadpan. Out to dinner, he preferred a Tanqueray martini, up, with a twist. A favorite pre-concert snack was a bowl of chocolate ice cream, which he ate in his bathrobe (why I was at his house while he was getting ready for a concert, I’m not sure, but the memory sticks.) He wrote his marvelous compositions and transcriptions for piano, in part, he said, to ward off the “boredom of practicing.” Earl was a sweet man, but he was not one to sugarcoat the life of a concert pianist.

For one of his recording sessions, I served as page turner. He was recording all the Rachmaninoff Preludes and the 2nd Sonata, on his white 9-foot Baldwin grand piano in his spacious living room in Columbus, Ohio, with its acoustically advantageous cathedral ceiling. He had to record at night, to minimize extraneous outdoor noises, but there were train tracks about a mile away, and a train rolled through just as the recording engineer was doing sound checks. Earl placed his hands on the keys and perfectly replicated the diminished/augmented/whatever chord that the train horn made, mournfully blowing across the flat Ohio plain.

Earl suffered no fools. Any pompous sort unlucky enough to try to cross him would wither and burn under that caustic wit. Consequently, managerial types would not necessarily feel fondly toward him. He was not cliquish or popular with the musical in-crowd. Ever independent, he was the opposite of a “yes” man.

Oh, but how his audience adored him, from music lovers, to great arts patrons, to opera stars, and of course his students. Listen to his recording of the four Rachmaninoff Concerti and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, recorded when he was 50, with Jascha Horenstein and the Royal Philharmonic. Recorded in just five days, Earl told Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, that he had an instant rapport with the orchestra, and making that recording was “a joy.”

Listeners today definitely heard that joy. I received an unusual slew of phone calls and e-mails after playing his recording of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto on the air. Everyone could feel the special brilliance of Earl Wild’s playing; its precision, power, pacing, gorgeous sound, and utter sensitivity, to this day, are something rare. Happy birthday, Mr. Wild — you are still electrifying.


The Breath of Life, Through Lynn Harrell’s Cello

Cellist extraordinaire Lynn Harrell teaching Samuel Walter in a memorable masterclass at Haverford College

Cellist Lynn Harrell plays with such ease, it’s as if the bow he holds in his right hand is a natural extension of his body.  I’ve seen only two or three other artists play with this same degree of relaxed command. In a concert and masterclass he gave last fall at Haverford College, he revealed his secrets to that physical ease, and to his approach to music.

One of the keys to his playing stems from a sense of timing tied to breath. In his playing of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C, he achieved a mixture of sonic plushness and suspense, in phrasing that was completely unpredictable, yet utterly inevitable. Listening to him play Bach is like being in conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with, and they’re about to tell you something fascinating and brand-new. After hearing Lynn Harrell’s Bach, I’ve decided that Bach should always be played with that kind of freedom. In the Debussy Cello Sonata that followed, in which he was admirably joined by the impressive and sensitive pianist Pauline Yang, he achieved a huge array of color and a sense of un-boxed-in release that left his audience enchanted.

Over dinner after the concert, he attributed his sense of breath and timing to his father, the great baritone Mack Harrell, who died when Lynn was only 15, but from whom he still draws inspiration. During a masterclass Lynn gave immediately afterward, he reiterated the importance of breathing, of singing, when playing an instrument, so:

“I knew that man once,” he sang, to demonstrate a phrase from the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, for a student group. “I KNEW that man once,” he said, emphasizing a different part of the sentence — and then, with a sense of resolution: “He was a lovely man.”

Equally important to timing is knowing how to handle sound production.

Forte does not mean loud,” he said. “It means strong. It has nothing to do with volume, but more with a feeling of effort. In fact, piano and forte dynamics are quite close together in volume, but different in texture.

Piano is soft in texture, like the fur muff that Mimi’s friend Musetta brings to her in the final act of La Bohème. ‘O, piano, piano,’ Mimi sings.

Mezzo-piano is a little more muscular. Forte-piano, fp, means a normal volume of communication. Poco forte is Brahms’ invention, and the abbreviation, pf, means full-bodied and singing. When you see pp, pianissimo, don’t play less loud necessarily, play more voluptuously and use more bow.”

“Because of the thickness of the parts in Brahms’ early writing, you have to bring out some voices and back off in others. For instance, when the second viola plays off-beats in the first movement, compact the rosin granules in the bow, play a little more detached and accentuated. It should sound like a burr or a thorn in your side, against the sweet and charming melody.

“And where there is an important melody to be heard, even if it’s marked ‘p‘, the listener needs to hear it — go to it, be a bull in a China shop.

Lynn complimented student Samuel Walter in his performance of the first movement of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, but had plenty to offer; first, “sculpt out the strings” to give the opening statement more bite and definition, but in the lyrical second theme, “release the pressure, as if you are cuddling or petting a kitten. In virtuoso passages, be pointed rhythmically, and use an intense and faster vibrato, with feeling.

“The climax of the concerto comes on the big diminished chord — but then, be like Alfred Hitchock — don’t let ‘em go, don’t let ‘em go — then wait for a BIG silence, which makes the orchestra respond more ferociously.”

In considering Samuel’s precise nature, Lynn suggested, “Don’t be cool, calm and collected. Don’t ritardando too evenly. Have a huge variety of vibrato speeds. Be a bass singer. Then be a soprano. A singer has to manipulate his or her vocal cords for ever single note.”

In the Kodály Duo that Samuel and fellow student Dora von Trentini (violin) played, Lynn suggested, “Make it more ferocious. Feel the rhythm like a dancer, and draw back for your punch.”

Lynn gave general practice suggestions: to achieve stamina for extended big passages, “Be in that ff realm when you practice. Practice again and again and again. Change your bow grip to accommodate different tones you want. Think about thumb placement, and how far your forearm is from the hair of the bow. Sometimes more relaxed fingers on the bow is not the way to go — for instance, when you want precision in Bach.”

The secret to his playing with utter physical ease? He relaxes the upper arm, forearm, and uses the muscles of his back as if he’s playing tug-of-war. “It’s tricky sometimes because there are not as many nerve endings in the large muscle groups. It makes a difference where the energy is coming from. Have the ideal of strength, with freedom from any constriction.”

The secret to his freedom of expression? His understanding that “music represents every emotion in life, even when we’re murderously angry.”

The secret to making everything sound unpredictable and new, as if you’re having a conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with? “In repeated performances of a piece, if I do a passage successfully, I have to let it go. I have to make it fresh each time, and original.”

Lynn Harrell, American original, does just that. And we listeners can’t help but fall in love.









J.S. Bach: What happened to his DNA?

Johann Sebastian Bach, the father of many offspring, biological and musical

As social animals, we human beings can’t help our intense curiosity about other people.  Faced with a member of the species who behaves outside the norm, we wonder, “How did so-and-so get that way?” This is especially true in the case of remarkable talent, and has led me to the subject for my next lecture-recital. Why does musical giftedness awaken in some people, and not in others who have, purportedly, the same DNA?

Famous, curious example: the Bach family. For five generations, the descendants of bread baker Veit Bach dominated their musical corner of Germany, producing an astonishing line of professional musicians, many of whom achieved creative greatness. The zenith of this familial dominance culminated in Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750,) whom many consider the greatest composer of all time. Yet after the generation of J.S. Bach’s sons, it all seemed to fizzle out.

What happened? Why did the genetic code that found such marvelous expression for so many generations suddenly go dormant?

The relatively new science of epigenetics studies what factors affecting a cell can change the shape of its underlying DNA, allowing certain genes to be expressed, or to be kept under wraps. It’s not only at the level of the genome, the double-helix, that causes certain traits to be expressed and even inherited, it’s what happens on the surface of the genome, or the epigenome, that can affect genetic expression. Quantifiable, scientific work is being done at the micro-cellular level. But it’s tempting to extrapolate to a larger platform and consider what factors in an organism’s (or person’s) environment affect the expression of certain genes, behaviors, and even talents.

Musicologists offer clues, through their exhaustive study of biographical data, primary sources, and historical records. Mining these musicological resources has proved fascinating. It turns out that of J.S. Bach’s twenty children, only half survived past childhood. Of these, only one grandchild chose a musical career. Only three of Johann Sebastian’s grandchildren had children of their own. And curiously, the line, without professional musicians of note, ended up in Oklahoma.

In an essay for the American Bach Society, Christoph Wolff tracks down a great-grandson of J.S. Bach who eventually settled in Stillwater, Oklahoma, amongst a large German-Ukrainian community, and whose own granddaughter possessed personal items belonging to her forebear, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, J.S. Bach’s eldest son. This American descendant of J.S. apologized to Wolff for the family not being more forthcoming about their connection to the great musician. Devout Lutherans, they were for years embarrassed that they had sprung from a somewhat wild branch of the family, and had originated from an illegitimate birth.

Fortunately for us, not all secrets remain hidden — a persistent scholar will dig up evidence, and a persistent offspring with a modern sensibility will want to claim the truth.

Which brings me to the conclusion that all this curiosity, and all this pursuit, musical, genealogical, or scholarly, is just a quest to know the truth about ourselves. Who are we? Gifted or not, that is the question worth digging for.


The essay by Christoph Wolff, called “Descendants of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in the United States,” appears in Volume 5 of Bach Perspectives, edited by Stephen Crist, and published by University of Illinois Press, 2003, produced by the American Bach Society.



Original Vistas, A Conversation with Ingrid Arauco

Composer Ingrid Arauco

In celebration of her new CD of original compositions, I sat down to talk with my colleague Ingrid Arauco, who is a professor of music theory and composition at Haverford College, and whose work I often perform. Vistas is one of those albums that invites repeated listenings: the mix of styles and moods played by multihued, and sometimes unusual combinations of instruments, compels the ear. The CD is beautifully recorded, and the performances (by clarinetists Ricardo Morales and Paul Demers, cellists John Koen and Yumi Kendall, pianist Charles Abramovic, flutist Jeffrey Khaner, violist Burchard Tang, trumpeter Frank Ferraro, and violinists Barbara Govatos and Hirono Oka) are stellar.

I asked Ingrid about her concept for the album, her background, and about being a woman composer in today’s world. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

 DLH: The textures and sonic quality, particularly in your writing for ensembles that include winds, is quite startlingly beautiful. I especially love the poetic quality of the eponymous “Vistas” for flute and piano, in which three of the four movements are inspired by a work of art. Tell me a little about the interplay between visual arts and music in this piece.

IA: PCMS (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society) asked me to write a suite for flute and piano, and in thinking about the ways I might characterize the different movements of the suite, I found myself looking at a little card on my desk that a colleague of mine sent me years ago.  I had always loved the picture reproduced on this card:  Kawase Hasui’s woodblock print Snow at Shiba Park.  Perhaps because I had spent so long in the company of this image, I found that a musical complement came very quickly to me.  As I mention in my program notes, there is a quality to this picture, a wonderful balance between energy and tranquility, that I found captivating.  The second movement was inspired by another familiar image, that of Monet’s Landscape: The Parc Monceau, which is such a joyful work.  The choice of Josef Albers’s Park was also an easy one to make– I had just finished reading a book about his glass pictures; this image was on the book cover, and I was fascinated by the pink rectangle in the midst of all the blue and green, how it centered the work and imbued it with spirit.  In each case, I had strong feelings about the style I would use to render each image musically, and these musical styles are as different as the styles of the images themselves.  The most interesting decision compositionally, however, was including the “Bagatelle” movement; it does not refer to any visual image, but I simply felt I needed a quick, tonally more spiky movement after the tonal warmth of the Monet movement, as a refreshment of sorts, and to set up the particular tonal mix of the Albers (fourth and final) movement.  I would love to write another piece which directly relates to visual art or architecture.

DLH: Another piece on the album, your String Quartet Nr. 2, written in 1998, was performed just a few weeks ago at Haverford College by the Amernet Quartet. How did that live performance differ, in your ear, from the ensemble that performs it on the CD?  Is hearing a live performance of your work, in which a performer brings his or her own interpretation to the piece, and which might be affected by many factors “in the moment,” a satisfying or disconcerting experience? Or both?

IA: I’ve been fortunate to hear this piece performed live a number of times by different quartets. In each performance, there are fascinating differences in detail– it’s always interesting to me, for instance, to hear how the musicians interpret a few passages which I mark “gruffly” in the score — I’ve discovered there is quite a range of “gruff” in terms of bow stroke and tone quality!  But what matters is that the detail works within the larger interpretive concept of the piece.  I also think that if the overall structure of a piece is strong, it not only withstands, but embraces variation in performance detail– by which I mean the sort of personal voice and creative response that I’d hope a performer would bring to music in any case, and which makes live performance endlessly interesting.  The only time a performance of my work is “disconcerting,” as you put it, is if there is a major disruption, such as might happen if someone totally loses their place in the music.  But even then, there is something for me to learn– I always have to ask, could I have notated something more clearly, or simply?  You learn what is difficult to put together, and why, and maybe keep that in mind for next time.

DLH: We’ve spoken a little about the phenomenon of giftedness in music, and how surprising it is that certain individuals can contribute so much to the world of music while coming from a “non-musical” family background (at least professionally non-musical.) Chopin, Tschaikowsky, and Artur Rubinstein spring to mind. Were there professional musicians in your family? When did you start learning to play the violin, and at what point did you know you wanted to become a composer?

IA: There were no professional musicians in my family, though my parents were avid listeners of classical music.  I began piano at around six, and violin about a year later, in school.  I was so incredibly fortunate to have a piano teacher who included the Bartok Mikrokosmos and selections from contemporary piano literature in my early musical “diet”– I was so captivated by the Bartok in particular; it opened up a whole new world for me.  I spent way too much of my practice time sight-reading those pieces rather than practicing my other assigned pieces!  My teacher also had me write a short piece each week; sometimes style studies, usually whatever I wished.  Every week I began my lesson by showing her this piece.  I was surprised to learn, many years later, that other piano students had not had a similar experience at their lessons! So just to say that writing music came as a natural form of self-expression. Through my teens I had many wonderful opportunities as a violinist, playing in chamber ensembles and in orchestras, where I was able to experience being inside the music in a powerful way.  During college I encountered the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, more Bartok– which together made a profound, life-changing impression.  Nevertheless, I did not make the move to composition until after graduation.  I asked my theory professor, composer Robert Hall Lewis, if he would teach me, with a view to continuing my studies in composition.  Thankfully, he accepted and after working with him for an intense two years, I had prepared a portfolio and was accepted into the composition program at Penn.  So, I think I was preparing to be a composer from an early age, even though I did not consciously make the decision until years later.

DLH: When you studied for your doctorate in composition, at the University of Pennsylvania, you mentioned that your training under George Rochberg, Richard Wernick, and George Crumb was very rigorous. Tell me a little about each composer’s teaching style, and how their teaching might now affect your own teaching style today.

IA: The composition program at Penn was indeed rigorous, but I’m so grateful for that, and for the opportunity to have worked with these great composers and mentors!  As for teaching style, perhaps a story will convey something of the quality of Rochberg’s teaching:  I played for him on the violin one of a set of variations I was writing, which was very free and cadenza-like in nature.  Afterwards he was silent a while, and then simply made a few cuts in my music, sometimes from mid-phrase straight into another phrase further on.  As I played this new version, I felt the structure tighten…it was a great feeling, and a marvelous lesson.  Dick Wernick worked in the trenches with me, so to speak, on things like harmonic progression, rhythmic shaping, and structure too.  He had, and has, a critical stance which is unflinchingly honest, which I admire and respect so much.  I worked with George Crumb on orchestration, and on a piece for orchestra.  What can I say about that ear for timbre and texture?  I remember once he suggested adding a harp harmonic to a particular chord so that the sound would not be “leaden.”  What a difference– with the addition of that touch the sound rose and bloomed!  But I’d be amiss if I did not also mention an inspirational teacher, wonderful composer, and friend, Jane Wilkinson, who helped me out tremendously and gave me much invaluable practical advice, not only about composing but about teaching, that I continue to benefit from to this day.

From these teachers I learned to set high standards and to teach with integrity.  And particularly from Jane, to do this with some measure of compassion for the student; just plain kindness, really.

DLH:  Historically, women have been severely underrepresented in the world of classical music, in both composition and performance. Do you feel that’s improving? Are there any roadblocks you’ve encountered in your career as a result of your gender, and how did you overcome them? Do you have any advice for any young female composers who might be following your path?

IA: I think the situation is vastly different and better for women composers than it was in the mid-80′s, when I was a graduate student.  As for roadblocks, well, I prefer to think of these as opportunities in disguise, or opportunities to grow stronger and more confident.  As for advice, I would simply say, be the artist you are, and be that absolutely as well as you can.  And keep challenging yourself– that’s the only way to move forward artistically, and probably in other aspects of life as well.


To hear Vistas and other works by Ingrid Arauco, please visit her Albany Records webpage.



Where Music Shines Bright

Daniel with his working Braille copy of the Chopin Etudes from the Lighthouse Music School

I’ve taught many wonderful students over the years, but one in particular stands out — Daniel Gillen, who is a physics major at Haverford College, and a lyrical pianist with a strong artistic voice. That Daniel has been blind since infancy doesn’t seem to hinder him much. Part of his confidence stems from the remarkable education he’s received from a place he often speaks about, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School at the Lighthouse Guild in New York City.

Mignon Gillen, Daniel’s mom, a dancer and choreographer, invited me to visit the school when I was in Manhattan recently. We met in the sunny lobby of the Lighthouse Guild Headquarters on East 59th Street, where people were hurrying in from the wind and cold. Designed by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, the building has an open feel that seems to draw people in and up, with purpose. Here a person who is visually impaired can receive eye care, vision rehabilitation, academic and practical training. At first glance, the only clue that patrons here might have special needs are the elevator buttons, which are large and colorful. Mignon and I rode up to the fourth floor music school. There we were welcomed by Executive Director Dr. Leslie Jones; Dr. Lisa Johnson, the director of administration, and Daniel’s longtime piano teacher and Director of Musical Studies, Dr. Dalia Sakas.

For the next hour or so, I had a chance to absorb a world of music within this small space, where every square inch is needed; besides desks for staff and Leslie’s office, there are teaching studios for individual music instruction, and a library that houses an extensive collection of large-print and Braille music scores. Because the school accommodates many types of vision loss, it makes available many types of scores. Dalia showed me a music score in which a single measure of very large noteheads took up an entire 8.5 X 11 page. “That’s for an 80-year-old woman with macular degeneration who wanted to play the piano again.”

When a student needs a piece of music that doesn’t exist in the library, there are a few options: a request to the Library of Congress, a commission to Dancing Dots, a company in Pennyslvania that specializes in creating scores for the visually impaired. Or, as Dalia told me, “I make it.”

If needed, Dalia can generate print-on-demand large-print or Braille music scores with computer software on-site. (Keep in mind that Braille music must be learned at a relatively young age, when the fingertips are sensitive enough to feel the tiny raised dots that comprise the system of notation.) Now Lighthouse students are creating their own scores. One room of the school is devoted to music technology, with a MIDI keyboard/computer lab, and the capacity to teach MIDI sequencing, recording, as well as notation programs such as Finale, Sibelius, Lime Light (to produce large-print scores) and Goodfeel (to produce Braille scores).

Specialization for vision loss aside, what the Music School at the Lighthouse Guild offers its students, who range in age from pre-school to ninety, is a multi-faceted music education. They can study theory, ear-training, and solfege, receive private instrumental lessons, and participate in vocal ensemble, jazz improv, pop/rock ensemble, choir (directed by Dalia) and dance. Students perform in recitals, performathons, and in an annual concert co-produced with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collaboration that has successfully run for eighteen years. Not long ago, in an extraordinary effort, the school put on a professionally staged version of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” which received high praise from Anthony Tomassini in the New York Times, who only lamented that there hadn’t been enough funding for a longer run.

The staff and teachers at the Lighthouse Guild Music School work with the kind of devotion and creativity that can’t be measured in hours or dollars. They’ve built a model that is both unique and dynamic, and believe the community music school is where the future of music will thrive. To get the message out, they’ve invited music education majors from local universities to serve as interns at the school. They also give talks to share their vision. Anyone who meets Dalia and Leslie will realize that the future of music is bright. Their enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit reflect their joy in music-making, and their determination to give their students a rich, undimmed future.

An inspiring day with extraordinary women Leslie Jones (left) and Dalia Sakas (right)

First Lady of Soul

Bettye LaVette and her band at World Cafe Live in the city that finally loves her, Philadelphia

On a frigid January day in 2009,  my siblings and their kids traveled from around the country to meet in Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama’s historic first Inaugural Celebration. The only hotel we could find was several miles away from the furthest D.C. Metro stop, way out in Virginia, but part of the magic of the day was boarding the empty train and being joined by an accumulating mass of bundled-up, happy people at each station, until finally we were part of a peace-able, joyous throng of 400,000 strong at the Washington Mall, waiting to hear a concert.

As a musician, I was skeptical that sound could be transmitted in any sort of acceptable way from Jumbotrons placed around the grounds. But the concert was great. Among the star-studded line-up (Herbie, Stevie, Beyoncé, Renée Fleming) the one performer who embodied power, intensity, and burn-in-your-brain “remember this” was the one performer I had never heard of. Bettye LaVette was that unique.

So when I heard she was coming to our genre-busting Philadelphia venue World Café Live, Tom and I got tickets right away for her show last week. We waited in anticipation while her band of young guys (Darryl Pierce, drums, James Simonson, bass, Brett Lucas, guitar) vamped for her entrance. Her keyboard player and music director Alan Hill intoned, “Please welcome the First Lady of Soul — Ms. Bettye Lavette,” and Ms. LaVette, almost 70, wisp-thin and petite, strode onstage in 3-inch heels and a sleeveless black jumpsuit.

She’s been singing, for long periods unnoticed, since the early 1960′s, when she came out with her first hit single, “My Man –He’s a Lovin’ Man.” She explained that the suggestive song wasn’t what the mainstream expected from a 16-year-old, especially not Dick Clark, who didn’t book her. “Oh, I wanted to be on American Bandstand in the worst way. All my friends were going on, but they were doing things like –” and she demonstrated a teenybopper, cutesy kick.

Ms. LaVette is anti-cutesy, anti-sweet, anti-fake. There is no sugar-coating or lying to herself or anyone else in song or word. For the show, she sang all the tracks from her new CD “Worthy.” “This is what I do — I go on the road when a new CD comes out — not that there have been that many,” she added with customary candor and a smile.

Her smart, bitter take on tunes by Bob Dylan (“Unbelievable”) and the Stones (“Complicated”) rendered their provenance unrecognizable by the audience, when she quizzed us on who we thought had written them. “C’mon, white people!” she chastised us.

Yet, she was gracious too, thanking her musicians and the sound engineers at World Cafe Live for their excellent, perfectly mic’ed acoustic.

For over an hour, Bettye LaVette stabbed us with raw, unfiltered emotion — what she delivers is not just singing, but cajoling, growling, pleading, moaning, crying. Her show culminated in a heart-wrenching rendition of her hit “Let Me Down Easy.” Rarely have I witnessed such bare vulnerability — onstage or off.  I’ll remember it forever, and tell my students today and in the future — that’s the kind of caring you aim for. For now, Bettye LaVette is certainly “worthy” of her title “First Lady of Soul.”


A Happy Revelation, A Prejudice Overcome

Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg, a once-in-a-lifetime production from the Metropolitan Opera


As someone who’s transfixed by great live singing, I’m moved by the magic that occurs when one is in the physical presence of a wonderful singer, whether in a concert hall, opera house, church, or home. I like to be in the same room as the singer; I like to have my eardrums vibrate in close proximity as they hit their high notes. As such, I’ve never gotten excited by the prospect of seeing opera broadcast in HD in a movie theater. But sometimes logistics prevail. If I wanted to hear James Levine conduct his favorite opera, one that is infrequently performed, without trekking to New York during a hectic season, I would have to trek instead to the movie theater near the mall, and settle for what I thought would be a somewhat second-rate experience.

And so it came to pass that two Saturdays before Christmas, I made my way to our nearest multiplex to see the simulcast of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg from the Metropolitan Opera House. At the ticket booth of the King of Prussia Regal Movie Theaters (a much less glamorous venue than the Met,) there was a lone attendant working at a very relaxed tempo, waiting on a growing line of patrons who were anxious to see “Interstellar.” By the time I paid for my $20 ticket and hurried into “the opera,” Wagner’s majestic overture had begun. Onscreen, the orchestra musicians played intently while I groped in the dark for an empty seat. (Later, when the houselights came up at the first intermission, I realized that I and another gentleman and his large picnic lunch, which included fragrant oranges and some kind of sausage, were occupying the short row that was meant to accommodate a patron with a wheelchair.)

One striking fact about every production of Die Meistersinger is its running time: six hours. I reasoned, it being such a hectic season, that I ought to leave at one of the intermissions; I had music of my own to learn, and a holiday to-do list as long as Denali. But the opera riveted me. James Levine’s conducting was perfectly paced and alive, drawing performances from his singers and instrumentalists that were both rich and transparent. The singers were blessed with magnificent voices, yes, but they also inhabited their roles in a way that made you believe these were real people up there, ones you would like to get to know. Annette Dasch was not only an honest and intelligent Eva, but a mischievous one. Johannes Martin Kraenzle played Beckmesser not only with despicable pomposity, but with lovesick vulnerability.

What made six hours fly by was not the superb music-making, the comic acting, the sonic and visual feast — it was all these things in the service of the human story, in revealing these multifaceted characters’ lives and desires through art.  During the surprise ending of the last act, the brilliant Michael Volle, as the hero cobbler/poet Hans Sachs, sang his final aria, “Verachtet mir die Meister nicht.” Sachs makes an impassioned argument, in song, about fighting to uphold the standards of art, music and literature to keep the dark forces of the world at bay. On hearing this, I cried like a baby, just as if I were there, at the opera, in person.

I realize now that the act of broadcasting this incredible production to a truly wide audience is an art form in its own right. I stand humbly corrected. So I say — if you have a chance to see a great opera production live —  of course, that’s the best of all worlds — go. But if the movie theater better fits your time frame and budget — go! You may cry like a baby, just as if you were there in person.

Happy New Year!

From the Annals of The Practical Musician

Kizmit checks out my new compositional aid

Back in graduate school, I used to admire the impeccably finished manuscripts of a composer friend, whose orchestral scores were marvels of precision, each notehead and tiny stem aligned like miniature Japanese calligraphy.

“How do you make your scores look so perfect?” I asked. My own music notation more resembled Beethoven’s scrawl. I like to erase musical thoughts and re-do them, constantly.

“I have a secret,” Ruzh said.

He showed me how his penned manuscripts were actually written with a fine-point mechanical pencil on archival paper. Once it was mistake-free, he spritzed the paper with hairspray to fix the final version.

Nowadays, of course, anyone who arranges or composes must learn to use notation software. I have been learning to use Finale, which, I must say, is a tedious process. In order to produce a complex piano score, there are a lot of un-intuitive hoops a musician must jump through; in my opinion, the elegant efficiency of the human brain and hand has not been so easily translated into computer language. Until one masters the quirks of the program, one must spend countless hours in front of a computer with multiple keyboards and mouse attached.

The muskulo-skeletal system protests.

“You need an ergonomic task chair,” my friend in the corporate world insisted. She mentioned a few brands, whose price tags also had me wincing.

After some searching, I came across a brilliant idea: someone in our area had decided to start a business recycling task chairs and other office furniture. They refurbish the pieces and re-sell them at one-fifth the original price. Even more brilliant — they had recently opened a “showroom” not far from my house.

I found the small showroom near an industrial park complex off a busy road. I was shown a number of different chairs. “And if you don’t like any of these,” the office manager said, “you can choose anything in the warehouse.” She opened the door to an un-air-conditioned, dimly lit space several acres huge, and jam-packed with desks, cubicles, and conference tables around which ergonomic task chairs sat, as if ready for a meeting. Besides a man unloading a pallet of office furniture in the distance, it was just me alone with thousands of chairs.

In the end, I settled for the Criterion made by Steelcase. It is sturdy, padded, compact, and adjustable in nearly every conceivable way. The manager helped me muscle it into my car, as the chair is heavy. (It takes the “steel” in its name seriously.) After getting it home, I noticed, because the chair was upside down, that I had some cleaning to do, which involved tweezers, disinfectant, and lots of paper towels. I also noticed that the “ship date” said “2000.”

But the chair works great. I can sit tethered to my computer for long periods, and stand up again as if I’d just gone for a nice walk. There’s no excuse for me not to produce a decent quantity of work.

Just think, J.S. Bach produced over a thousand compositions with a quill pen, flickering candles to illuminate his desk, no central heating. I’ll bet you anything he did not have an ergonomic chair.

But I’ll bet he would have loved one.

 For more information about recycled task chairs, check out Ethosource.



Heard in the Open Air — in Beautiful Mexico

The church of San Miguel, Archangel, looks out over the biggest musical party in town

For me, one of the tremendous pleasures of a walking town is that, freed of a car, I become part of a throng of people who mingle, talk, and congregate. What follows is fascinating — where people congregate, some folks naturally want to entertain and others listen. I love New York City for that thrilling chance of stumbling across great street talent, while doing nothing more than hurrying from Point A to Point B. On my first trip to the heart of Mexico, at the invitation of my friend Ariadna, I encountered equally enchanting musical surprises.

In Mexico City, remarkable voices boom out across Chapultepec Park. Mexico City is an urban giant of the most congested kind, with a constant rumble of old taxis, busses, trucks and cars, but in Chapultepec Park, one can walk among trees and breathe. Street vendors line the pedestrian zone, selling everything from snacks to caps. Without an ounce of shyness, they advertise their wares by singing at the tops of their lungs.

“Is that music?” my new friend Helene asked me, when I said I just had to capture this street symphony on video.

“Well, they’re singing in tune, in sequence, and they end their phrases in a consistent descending minor third. Yes, I believe it’s music.”

Especially noteworthy was the ice cream vendor who continued to sing without break as he scooped helado for his customers — his remarkable breath control produced a volume that could have projected to the last row of the Metropolitan Opera House, were he onstage.

More obvious perhaps was the talent we encountered in the beautiful colonial town of San Miguel de Allende. In the open-air courtyard of a restaurant improbably named Mamma Mia, we heard a guitarist, Severo Barrera, whose virtuoso fingerwork punctuated a folksy sense of line and phrasing. Another evening, in the Hacienda de Guadalupe, a dancer of outsize ability taught fluid, acrobatic salsa moves to a group of eager learners. His baseball cap on backwards, a bemused smile on his face, his encouraging “Uno, dos, tres — Quatro, cinco, seis, siETe” was like music above the lilting recorded track.

The real “battle of the bands” came out at night, in El Jardin, the town square, with its rows of clipped laurel trees, in front of the many-spired, neo-gothic Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel. There, on a Wednesday night no less, people of all ages milled about; couples held hands, children scampered, teens laughed, until all hours. Three different mariachi bands played with zest in different corners of the park, punctuated by a boombox accompaniment for some hiphop dancers. No boombox could compete, however, with these large mariachi ensembles, each composed of multiple violins, trumpets, and guitars, led by an enthusiastic singer or two. Fresh players, young guys in their embroidered black bolero jackets and trousers, red silk cravats tied at their necks, sat on benches with their violins or trumpets in hand, waiting their turn.

Above it all, the bells of the churches in town began to peal, even at midnight. It was not just a feast for the ears  — it was a true fiesta.


How To Succeed in Classical Music: Part II: Sharon Isbin

Guitarist Sharon Isbin in the 2014 Festival Opening Concert for Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society

Even though I’d heard of guitarist Sharon Isbin for years, mainly because of my guitar aficionado husband’s CD collection, I did not hear her live until a few weeks ago. No doubt because of those album covers, I assumed that she was flashy, but maybe not so deep. I was surprised, therefore, when attending the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society’s festival opening concert, to see a diminutive, serious woman with ramrod straight posture take the stage. She was wearing a plain outfit and flat shoes. Her hair was definitely not salon blow-dried. She held her guitar horizontally when acknowledging the audience, in the European manner. Regal, yes, flashy, no.

There are many parallels between solo guitar playing and solo piano playing. Both instruments can go it alone without need for an accompanist, as both instruments are able to supply the essential elements of music on their own: melody, harmony, rhythm. And although many performers are getting away from the practice, solo guitarists and pianists traditionally perform from memory, which ramps up concert preparation time ten-fold. Sharon Isbin played her entire lengthy program from memory.

Her phrasing, tone color and structural interpretation were interesting from start to finish, in repertoire that ranged from Albeniz and Britten to contemporary work written for her. At the end of her program, the audience immediately rose as one, understanding that we had heard a masterful concert from a performer in total control of her instrument.

At the next morning’s masterclass, she sat onstage beside each student, intently observing. Often, the masterclass format can be a platform for a famous teacher to hold court, to enjoy the limelight, to draw attention and entertain. This was not the case with Ms.Isbin. Her comments were practical and serious. She explained the details of her approach to right hand and left hand fingering as it applied to each piece. She gave advice on how to memorize (away from the instrument, mentally, sitting in a chiar, at slow speed, then up to tempo.) How to avoid injury by using correct grip and hand position.

She said, “A lot of this is explained in my Classical Guitar Answer Book. I still have 4 copies with me. They are twenty dollars each. Raise your hand if you want one, and you can pay me after class.”

Many more than 4 hands shot up around the room.

This little interlude spoke volumes. Besides talent, hard work, and sharp intelligence, this is what created Isbin’s international career. This is what caused the Juilliard School many years ago to create a guitar department with her at the helm. This is what convinces famous rock musicians to collaborate with her, and what inspires composers to write new work for her. Whatever else is in play, Isbin is always looking for new ways to express herself, to teach, to perform, to be noticed in a major arena. She takes herself seriously and she does not apologize for it.

What a message this is for women, for aspiring artists, for any musician who wants to make his or her mark in this world.