Posts filed under:  Reviewer at Large

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 earsĀ  — 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.

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.