Posts filed under:  Great Artists

Music in the Berkshires

Esperanza Spalding, singer, bassist, composer, bandleader, performer extraordinaire

My husband and I arrived in the Berkshires a few Sunday afternoons ago, too late to hear the Boston Symphony with soloist Yo-Yo Ma, which attracted many thousands of music-lovers to Tanglewood Music Festival. No matter, that same evening the young bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding was scheduled to perform.

By the time we entered the festival gates around 6 p.m., with our picnic basket, stadium chairs,and blanket in hand, the lush green grounds had been swept clean of any possible debris and looked as pristine as they must have on opening day. At Tanglewood, there are no gauche waste receptacles for soiled napkins or paper plates — instead, a tidy concertgoer will find gigantic wood handcarts, painted black, which seem to function as much as sculpture (Hommage a Shakers) as trash bins. The pin oaks and pines are shapely and perfectly pruned. The sun sets in spectacular orange behind the Berkshire Hills. Nature seems in perfect harmony.

Seiji Ozawa Hall, the smaller and and newer of the large concert venues at Tanglewood, resembles the interior of a somewhat severe Congregational Church.  By all reports, the acoustics inside this structure are marvelous, but the sound was quite fine out on the lawn, where concertgoers  happily nibbled on their baguette and cheese and sipped wine. It hardly matters in a way what is going on onstage, because sitting under the stars and hearing live music is such an acute pleasure.

But it’s even better when the artist is one of such outsize talent and charm as Esperanza Spalding. This slender young woman in the tangerine-colored silk gown and signature buoyant Afro did all this:

1. Sang like an


-scat singer

-Gospel belter

-Latin diva


2. Playing complex original jazz lines on her

-upright bass

-electric bass


3. Leading her nine-piece big band (her Radio Music Society) comprised of talented jazz musicians, many of whom did double-duty as back-up vocalists and instrumentalists, and whose horn section blended in symphonic, velvet sound


4. Chatting with the audience, with the ease of a talk-show hostess

One would be tempted to be envious of such talent, but there is a term that banishes such thoughts: “no competition.”

Ms. Spalding’s topics ranged from:

-romance; “I spent all this time looking for a prince, until the day I decided what I wanted was a king. A king is someone who, when you realize you won’t be able to get out of work until late, will drop everything and go pick up the kids at 3:10 p.m. That’s a king.”


-the extinction of species


-Trayvon Martin


-the beauties of friendship.

And she did it all with disarming openness and incredible energy, for nearly two non-stop hours.

The audience insisted on an encore, which she finally gave, along with pianist Leo Genovese. In an unembarrassed way she related this story:
“Last night we were at Newport”…. the audience whooped and cheered….” and afterward there was this gala, and Herbie (Hancock) was there and Wayne (Shorter) was there, and everyone wanted Leo and me to do something, so we did this piece of Leo’s. And we were so nervous we kept messing up. It was horrible. So tonight we’re going to make up for yesterday and do it right.”

What followed was a propulsive, Latin-driven piano line with Spalding’s voice sweeping over top in operatic style and astonishing range.

And with that, the final song of the final live show of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society came to an end. I’m sure it’s just the beginning of something even more fantastic.

For videos of Radio Music Society, see:





How Can I Keep From Singing? A Glorious (and Fun!) Tribute

Willliam Appling, positive and powerful teacher, mentor, musician

Last weekend, I played and sang in a second celebration for my late teacher, pianist and choral conductor William Appling. It was one of the most joyful musical afternoons of my grown-up life, just as being at his summer music camp as a teenager meant absolute happiness.

Bill, whom I met when I was fourteen, and whom I called “Mr.Appling” for decades (he was the rare type of teacher who kept up with you, and whom you were always excited to hear from) — was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known. No matter whether you were young or old, girl or boy, rich or poor, nice or mean, he immediately “got” you, and appreciated your strengths. He cared about the loveable and the un-loveable. He was a great musician whose seriousness of purpose never got in the way of kindness and fun. For those who were lucky enough to come under the influence of his presence and his smile, one memorial service, held four years ago, wasn’t enough.

There was a practical need for the second one, held last Saturday in the light-filled, beautiful Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan. A group of us have been raising money to finish his last project, the complete recordings of Scott Joplin’s piano music. Before prostate cancer took him five years ago, Bill was able to record all of Joplin’s oeuvre, but the recordings are still in incomplete takes, and will require extensive editing to stitch them together in commercially viable form.

So, we decided to hold a party, a musical one — the best kind, I think. I participated like when I was a teen, by performing a wide range of things: chamber music (Brahms and Britten, with my dear friend, violist Sarah Adams) as well as solo pieces (Joplin.) Really harking back to old days, I also sang in the choir. The 25 voices were culled from the major stages of Bill’s teaching career: the great elder (though not elderly) statesmen came from the Men’s Glee Club of Case Western Reserve University; the middle-agers came from his choirs at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio and his summer music camp there; the talented younger group came from his days at Vassar College. The youngest singers were children of his students, including my daughter Lexi.

We were directed by the charismatic Matt Oltman (director emeritus of Chanticleer — I’d expected anyone “emeritus” to be grizzled and gray, but Matt was quite the opposite.) It was a blast. The array of speakers and soloists included a famous author, some professional musicians, as well as gifted amateurs who’d continued to devote themselves to music. Just as inspiring were the conversations I had afterward, catching up with people. One old friend said he was now running a company that helps businesses solve their problems using — I think this is right — custom-designed computer technology. That seemed a far way from graphic design and women’s studies, which is what he studied in college.

My friend laughed. “I used to complain to Mr. Appling that I was interested in too many things. He said, ‘But Art, you could be good at all of them. Just do it!”

When someone extraordinary has such belief in you, one needs no better affirmation. It makes one think, as in the words of the old Quaker hymn, “How can I keep from singing?”

For more information on the William Appling/Scott Joplin project, visit:




Sacred Gifts


Marian Anderson, whose classic recording of Spirituals sends shivers up my spine

James McBride, jazz musician and acclaimed author of The Color of Water, once gave a reading in Philadelphia that I’ll never forget. He talked about visiting a cancer ward and realizing that “cancer doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t discriminate.”

On a more hopeful note, the same thing can be said of creativity.

Think about it: most of the great composers came from modest backgrounds. Many were downright poor. In our own country, some of our most eloquent voices were beyond poor — they didn’t even own the right to their own lives.

I’m talking about the African-Americans who, while enduring the inhumane conditions of slavery, composed the great body of work known as the Spiritual.  In researching American music history for a concert and talk I just gave at Haverford College, I was humbled to learn how these anonymous composers, whose music was passed aurally from generation to generation, were able to create, out of such unendurable conditions, music that encompasses the entire range of human emotion. These works rank, in my opinion, with the finest art songs ever composed.

What led to the creation of the Spiritual? In the 18th and 19th centuries, in rural areas in the South, whites and blacks often attended the same Sunday morning church service. Hearing the Biblical text and Christian hymns with their traditionally European harmonic settings, African-Americans would take that material and, through their belief and genius, transform both lyrics and harmony into something utterly unique. Spirituals like “Deep River,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley,” and so on — hundreds on record — express every relationship between God and man, from praise to suffering.

We can’t know how the earliest Spirituals sounded. But written accounts describe a compelling use of ensemble singing, fresh harmony, and syncopated rhythm that were clearly African-influenced.

Eventually, spirituals gave way to gospel music. The infectious blending of African rhythm and harmony with European harmonies and instrumentation gave rise to ragtime, jazz, blues, rock and roll, and are still continually evolving into an American music that has come to influence the world.

Which reminds me once again that money does not provide the breeding ground for the production of great art. Great art comes from creative intuition and freedom of expression, and the powerful exchange of cultural ideas. Nothing could be more divine.


Charles Rosen, why didn’t I think of saying it like that?


Charles Rosen, pianist, author, keen observer

While hunting for the answer to a thorny question of Beethoven interpretation (still hunting, I hope to discuss the answer in a future post) I came across a book given to me as a gift, which I’d not yet read. This was Charles Rosen’s (1927-2012) Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist. I opened it to a random page and immediately met a sympathetic new friend.

Rosen has a style that is spare without being dry, and warm without trying too hard to win you over. In witty, dispassionate prose, he observes things about the music world that make one think: “That’s how I feel, exactly! How come I never put it like that?”

It’s a slim volume that doesn’t waste words. Here are just two potent observations, with which I heartily agree: 1. music conservatories train for contests, and contests tend to create artificial situations which don’t reward individuality; and 2. “Pianists should, in the best of all possible worlds, play only the music they love and — this should carry equal weight — to which they think they can bring an interpretation that is deeply personal.”

Mr. Rosen also addresses the practical concerns that we pianists are almost afraid to bring up, for fear of being considered nutty. One such problem: pianos that look fine from the outside but whose innards are in bad shape. I have often arrived at a venue to rehearse for a performance, to find the piano in poor regulation (meaning that the action of each key responds differently to the same touch) or with uneven voicing of the piano hammers (meaning that one key or set of keys blast out too loud, or whisper too dully, in comparison to its neighbors.)

In one instance, I was so upset by the piano’s condition — a prestige-name instrument in a well-known hall — that I insisted to the management that they call the piano technician in right away. I had a long list of things that needed to be fixed. Later, I heard through the grapevine that the management, who were not themselves musicians, decided I must be crazy because some other well-regarded pianist had just played there and didn’t complain a bit!

Here is Charles Rosen, in Piano Notes, describing my situation:

“Busoni once said that there are no bad pianos, only bad pianists. That may be true enough, but a defective piano takes away much of the delight of the performer, and for the proper functioning of the world of music, the musicians should derive as much pleasure as the public. What is more troubling for pianists to face is the fact that many of the irregularities that bother us are largely impreceptible to an audience, which does not consciously realize that one note lacks brilliance and another is too harsh. Moreover, a note in which one of the strings is slightly out of tune makes a less agreeable sound, and the audience is more apt to think that the pianist is insensible to tone quality than to understand that one of the unisons is flat.”

Next time I encounter a bad piano problem, I’ll make sure to have these comments from Piano Notes ready. No one could argue with such logic, presented in such a disarming way.


Chopin’s Budget, Our Gain

Fryderyk Chopin at 25, painted by 16-year-old Maria Wodzinska

Whenever money matters weigh you down, it might help to remember that financial constraints sometimes produce unexpected treasures. Consider Chopin. Because of his chronic pulmonary disease and lack of stamina, Chopin didn’t have the lucrative concert career that his friend Franz Liszt enjoyed. Even though the musical world of the 1830′s and 40′s acknowledged Chopin’s genius, and even though his every new composition was eagerly awaited and successfully published, their sale did not support his elegant lifestyle. But being a sought-after teacher of the talented aristocracy did.

Chopin came from a pedagogical lineage — his own father was a French teacher in Warsaw. When he wasn’t composing, Chopin devoted much of his time, especially during the winter months, to teaching private piano lessons. He was a teacher of great influence, although many of his pupils were women of the nobility and thus never allowed to appear on the concert stage; only about 20 of his students went on to have professional careers. He saw teaching as a calling, which his student Mikuli described in this way: “Chopin daily devoted his entire energies to teaching for several hours and with genuine delight…Was not the severity, not so easy to satisfy, the feverish vehemence with which he sought to raise his pupils to his own standpoint, the ceaseless repetition of a passage till it was understood, a guarantee that he had the progress of the pupil at heart? A holy artistic zeal burnt in him the, every word from his lips was stimulating and inspiring.”

And this, from his pupil Maria von Harder (no relation): “Chopin was a born teacher, expression and conception, position of the hand, touch, pedalling, nothing escaped the sharpness of his hearing and his vision; he gave every detail the keenest attention. Entirely absorbed in his task, during the lesson he would be solely a teacher, and nothing but a teacher.”

How fortunate for us Chopin devotees that Chopin had so many devoted disciples. As a true artist, he never got around to committing his teaching method to paper in some dry and dusty text (despite all good intentions, he preferred to compose the Fantasie-Impromptu instead.) It is mainly through his pupils’ and contemporaries’ letters, remembrances, writings, diaries and even the scores annotated by Chopin himself, that we know important facts about the way he played his own compositions and how he preferred them to be played.

An absolutely indispensable reference for Chopin interpretation can be found in a single book, which I’ve used as a pianistic Bible for many years. This is Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils, published by Cambridge University Press. In one streamlined volume, Eigeldinger painstakingly compiles these primary sources and presents them in a clear and readable form. He shows, through the pupils’ words and their annotated scores of specific compositions, how Chopin approached fingering (of paramount importance to him,) pedalling, phrasing, other aspects of technique, timing, and overall musical style. Originally published in 1970 in French, no other book has come along to supplant Eigeldinger’s work, and probably never will. This volume is one that should never go out of print.

Had Chopin not been sickly, had he made a fortune giving concerts like Liszt or any of his other virtuoso contemporaries, he likely would not have taught so much during his short life. His students would not have passed on his pedagogical pearls of wisdom to future generations. But he did teach, and we are enriched immeasurably by these pearls. That, to me, is a silver-lining playbook of the most priceless kind.



Playing well with others — a morning with the Ying Quartet

The secret to their success...


These past few weeks I’ve had the pure pleasure of collaborating with other musicians, young and older, in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Phillip Glass. As exhilarating as solo work can be, accompanying and playing with other musicians is for me the absolute best. Of course, whenever two or more minds are working out the same piece of music, there are bound to be disagreements, and how you handle them is something I’d like to talk about in this post.

One group that’s successfully finessed the fine art of rehearsing with care and diplomacy is the renowned Ying Quartet, which came to Bryn Mawr College last month for a sold-out Friday night concert, followed by a masterclass Saturday morning. Plenty of technical issues were covered in the masterclass. Violinist Ayano Ninomiya suggested that students practice “hands alone,” (something one hears more often with piano practice.) For violinists, that means working on difficult technical passages with:1. Either the right hand or bow arm practicing on open strings or 2. Just the left hand on the fingerboard without the bow. Both methods reveal holes in the technique.

Another technical pearl came from violinist Janet Ying, who demanded consistency of tone throughout an arpeggio and absolute steadiness in tempo.

In terms of rehearsal technique, all the members of the quartet, including violist Phillip Ying and cellist David Ying, had some important advice.

“The way you say something during a rehearsal makes all the difference. For instance, let’s say you think somebody in the group is playing too slowly and bogging down the tempo. Instead of saying, ‘you’re dragging,’ say ‘maybe we could flow more at measure so-and-so.’”

Another important idea: “Stay flexible. Don’t become ‘wedded’ to a single way of how to play something. Suppress your ego for the good of the group.

Be open to trying different things. Play it one person’s preferred way at one concert, and do it the other person’s way at the next.”

This advice helped me during my own rehearsals when I caught myself feeling testy over a colleague’s demands for a certain tempo, sound or phrasing idea that differed from my own. I’ll admit, the soloist in me has the tendency to bristle when being told what to do. But this time, remembering the Yings, I relaxed and went with the flow.

After all, as David Ying said, “that’s the beauty of live performance. It’s never the same way twice.”

Like life itself.


Charming Young Beethoven

This week I’ll be giving a recital that’s a departure from my usual kind of program: I’ll be playing the work of a single composer (Beethoven,) from only one opus (an early one, Nr. 10,) and I’ll be talking a great deal about the music. The talking portion has involved quite a bit of research, and I want to share some of it with you, because it’s fascinating.

It’s hard not to view everything Beethoven did and wrote from the context of the monumental Ninth Symphony, the middle and late Sonatas and String Quartets, and from the viewpoint of his tragic deafness. But before Beethoven became “Beethoven,” he was just a young buck amid a horde of other talented young musicians competing for attention in Vienna. He’d moved there from his hometown of Bonn at the age of 22, ostensibly to study with Haydn and others, and with the intention of returning to Bonn where he had a close circle of friends and a good job waiting for him. But the opportunity, freedom, and creative stimulation he found in Vienna proved to be the right environment for him, and he never went home again.

One of the most important things Beethoven could find in Vienna that he couldn’t find at home was an abundance of wealthy people who were crazy about music, and for whom patronizing important young artists was a way of increasing their social status. Within a short time of his arrival, Beethoven became inundated with gifts of money, horses, clothes, and offers to live and dine, indefinitely, for free, in the mansions of the wealthy.

Later, he would chafe at the sense of obligation this patronage would impose on him, but the support of the nobility was significant, because it allowed Beethoven the freedom to compose, and it created lots of buzz around his name. His father had died of alcoholism and his mother of tuberculosis, and he had to provide for his younger siblings at the time. Accepting the patronage of the nobility allowed him not to have to take a fulltime teaching job, as Bach and Chopin had to do — a good thing too, because by all accounts, Beethoven abhorred teaching.

What endeared him to these patrons? At first, it was not black notes printed on white paper – that is, not his compositions. It was his playing, and especially his improvising. Here is a quote by Czerny about Beethoven’s playing:

“In rapidity of scale passages, trills, leaps, etc., no one equaled him. But Beethoven’s playing in adagios and legato, in the sustained style, made an almost magical impression on every hearer, and, so far as I know, has never been surpassed.”

That he used his own ingenious piano compositions to showcase his playing, and that he could improvise with an abundance of astonishing musical ideas which seemed to just pour from him, only increased his “wow” factor. By 1800, about five different publishing houses were bidding on the rights to publish his work.

A portrait of Beethoven by Christian Horneman, painted when the composer was 33, shows an intelligent young man with a stylish haircut, sideburns, and a rather open, engaging expression.

Of course, they had their own version of Photoshop at the time. It’s known that Beethoven had had smallpox, but no pocks appear on his face. And paintings and photos don’t tell all – already Beethoven was beginning to experience a loss of hearing in the higher frequencies and an abnormal ringing, rushing sound in his ears. Already he’d written his heartbreaking Heiligenstadt Testament. But I like to think that the portrait shows the kind of man Beethoven always strove to be – an optimist and a humanist. His guiding light was art, in the service of mankind.

As he wrote in 1817:

“Continue to translate yourself to the heaven of art; there is no more undisturbed, unmixed, purer happiness than may thus be attained.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Wondrous Sounds and Pictures from a Concert

If a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s do away with words this time and instead let photos speak. These images were taken by Jonathan Yu, Haverford College class of 2012, whose artistic talents encompass both music and photography. Jon was at Marshall Auditorium on Haverford’s campus last February to capture my chamber music concert with my wonderful colleagues David Kim, violin; Sarah Adams, viola; and Efe Baltacigil, cello.

While you’re at it, click on the highlighted link below and let your ears be cajoled by the exquisite cello playing of Efe Baltacigil in the opening moments of Brahms’ Quartet in C minor, third movement.

11 Brahms 4tet Op 60-Andante trim

February 27, 2011 - Concert with David Kim, violin; Sarah Adams, viola; and Efe Baltacigil, cello. Photos courtesy Jonathan Yu

Let Me Down Easy

Playwright/actress/barrier-breaker Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable one-woman show “Let Me Down Easy” could be re-named “Lift Me Up Intensely.” Over a year ago, I’d read an article in the New York Times magazine about the play, so I knew it was about America’s health care crisis. The health care crisis is an important social issue, but not, I thought, the stuff of art. I bought my tickets to a recent performance of the show at the Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia, expecting to be provoked, outraged, and educated. I did not expect to be enthralled and moved.

I knew that Ms. Smith had done a huge amount of research for this play, interviewing over three-hundred people from around the world, then distilling these interviews to just twenty to portray onstage. Accompanied by music, stylish lighting, occasional props (mostly food and drink,) moving from table to comfy couch, she conveys the essence of each real-life character, from theologian to writer, to celebrity athlete, politician, physician, and patient — even a bullrider, and a Buddhist monk.

Ms. Smith hilariously embodies former Texas governor Ann Richards, as she was fighting esophageal cancer, and explaining why she couldn’t keep as many apppointments and do as many meet-and-greets as she used to: “I’ve got to protect my chi.” Lance Armstrong’s fierce description of his triumph against testicular cancer is followed by the sportswriter Sally Jenkins’ astute observations of the behavior of top-level athletes – that they don’t conserve anything, they want to go all out, want to be all used up -– they are going to compete to win, whether it’s a bicycle race or a boxing match, or death. Ms. Smith’s depiction of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, the physician stranded with her impoverished patients at the doomed Charity Hospital of New Orleans, made me cry, as did her portrayal of Trudy Howell, who cares for AIDS orphans in South Africa.

But most moving to me was the scene with Susan Youens, a musicologist from Notre Dame. To the strains of the Adagio from Schubert’s string quintet, Ms. Youens explains that Franz Schubert contracted syphilis at the age of 25, and knew he was going to die. All his compositions from that point forward are tinged, Ms. Youens says, with poignancy, with brief rages against death, with acceptance, and occasionally the sounding of funerary “passing bells.” By the time he died, before his 32nd birthday, Schubert had left the world with a thousand incredible songs, sonatas, and symphonies.

“If I met Schubert, would I like him?” Ms. Youens says. “No, I would not like Schubert.
I would love Schubert.”

“Let Me Down Easy” is not about the health care system. “Let Me Down Easy” is about mortality, and its counterpart, living life. “Let Me Down Easy” expresses one philosophy as memorably as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town:” that each moment we have on earth is precious, and we should therefore live each moment as if it were a treasured gift.

Legendary Variations

Simone Dinnerstein playing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations

Legends surround J.S. Bach’s legendary Aria with Thirty Variations, BWV 988. One well-known tale has Bach composing it at the request of Count von Keyserlingk in Dresden, who suffered from chronic insomnia. The idea was for Johann Goldberg, the count’s young harpsichordist (and a student of Bach’s) to play it at night, to help lull Kayerserlingk to sleep.

Although no firm historical evidence backs this story up, I can see why it became popular. The first time I heard the Goldberg Variations, I was a teenager, invited to hear a performance given by a harpsichordist at a museum. Sitting in the cavernous auditorium, I heard mainly an endless jangle of G major. I was too young to form an educated opinion at the time, but the piece did seem long and monotonous enough to put one to sleep.

A more modern legend comes in the form of a man, one of the most famous proponents of the Goldberg Variations, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Gould’s 1959 recording of the piece is revolutionary, brilliantly fast, and possesses the precision of a gorgeous machine. Gould possessed one of the most eccentric personalities in music, too -– painfully reclusive, he eventually gave up playing in public except through the medium of the L.P. recording. He became so unkempt that Leonard Bernstein’s wife had to wash his hair under the bathtub spigot when he came to visit. The eccentricities only added to the legend.

I wonder if the pianist who removes himself to the isolation of the recording studio is as deserving of ongoing legendary status as the pianist whose platform is the unadorned stage, with breathing, wide-awake human beings sitting in the audience, expecting magic.

A month ago, I heard a pianist who stepped into this most challenging arena with nothing but herself, a new Steinway concert grand, and a glass of water. No score, no do-overs, no editing help. Simone Dinnerstein, whose career ascended after her debut recording of the Goldberg Variations climbed to the top of Billboard’s Classical chart, gave a performance of the Goldberg Variations at the Church of the Holy Trinity at Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, for the benefit of Astral Artists, the non-profit organization which did much to nurture her career.

I sat in the keyboard-side balcony with Tom, girding patience –- I had found the deliberate slowness of much of Dinnerstein’s recording to require an almost meditative state of concentration.

Maybe her tempi were faster in live performance, but one thing was for sure –- she commanded my ear from first note to last. Yes, she did take every repeat of every variation, but the effect, while remaining largely introspective, was compelling. I might have wished for a bit more tonal variation in the brilliant, fast variations, and I would have welcomed a greater invention of ornamentation, but overall, I found her performance mesmerizing and masterful. She demonstrated the power of a quiet personality who persuades through the strength of her unsparing inquiry and understanding.

It is said that Anna Magdalena, Bach’s cherished second wife, a soprano, loved the Aria of the Goldberg Variations so much that she hand-copied it into her music notebook. This Notebook, started by Johann Sebastian so that Anna Magadelena could become proficient at keyboard instruments, remains, some 300 years later, a necessary part of every young pianist’s repertoire. This legend surrounding Anna Magdalena and her Aria is, like Ms. Dinnerstein’s performance, one I’m happy to believe.