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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.

A Life Worth Living

Mr. and Mrs. Ma in their concertizing days

Early in med school, I put myself on a tight schedule so I wouldn’t have to give up playing the piano. I would attend my lectures on biochemistry and physiology until 5, eat a quick dinner with my roommates, run to a campus practice room, practice until 9, dash back to my apartment, and study until midnight. This might sound admirably self-disciplined, but I didn’t do it on my own. I had a mentor to guide me.

Her name was Tung Kwong-Kwong, and she taught piano at the Kent State University School of Music, along with her husband Ma Si-Hon, who was professor of violin. Even before I started studying with her, I knew — from the way she carried herself and from the brief compliment she gave me about one of my performances — there was nothing frivolous about Mrs. Ma. For teaching and performing, she always wore an elegant Westernized cheong-sam, a style one cannot pull off if one possesses an extra ounce of body fat. She always carried a Coach bag, because, she told me, one could send a Coach bag back to the store for refurbishing and repair.

She was exacting at lessons, and a little mysterious. Interspersed with exhortations on phrasing correctly, she told me about growing up in Shanghai, of bicycling through the streets with a gold bar in the basket to buy her first Steinway piano, of leaving China in 1947 before Mao’s takeover, of her father’s long imprisonment by the Communist party. Though she wasn’t a name-dropper, she knew a lot of fascinating people. She and Mr. Ma had been like godparents to Yo-Yo Ma (though no relation,) and they took me backstage to meet him when he performed with the nearby Canton (Ohio) Symphony.

“Debra’s in medical school,” Mrs. Ma said when she introduced me to him.

Yo-Yo told me that his own sister had finished med school and was rotating through Bellevue Hospital for her residency. Even though he was well on his way to world celebrity, I remember his respect toward the Mas; I got the feeling that with them, he felt he could be himself.

Mrs. Ma’s favorite topic ( besides Mr. Ma,) was her own teacher, the great Beethoven interpreter Artur Schnabel. When she was in her twenties, Schnabel accepted her into his class. Summer sessions were held in Italy, at Lake Como. While other students were out boating, sight-seeing or eating out, she would chain herself to a practice room, determined not to play “woodenly,” determined to make sense of Schnabel’s principles of melodic articulation.

“You’ll get it,” she told me, when I expressed frustration at my inability to phrase something in a compelling way. “You see, if you want it badly enough, you’ll be able to. I had to struggle too.”

She and Mr. Ma divided their time between Ohio and Manhattan, where they had a large teaching studio near Chinatown and a concert series called the Si-Yo Society, on which they performed chamber music with well-known musicians in New York. When they asked me to take part in the young artist division of Si-Yo, I was thrilled to work with other serious young musicians. Their nephew Yong-Zi, a sensitive cellist, and another nephew, exuberant violinist Wing Ho, who’d both survived the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, were core members of the ensemble, as was the powerfully expressive violist Sarah Adams. Under the scrutiny of Mr. and Mrs. Ma’s exacting ears, we rehearsed the Brahms F-minor Piano Quintet, as well as the Dvorak, Mozart and Faure Piano Quartets, over and over again. It was not an experience for the faint-hearted, but the resulting performances remain some of the most satisfying of my life.

Eventually I graduated from med school and moved away. Eventually, Mr. Ma retired from his professorship, and the Mas moved back permanently to New York. We stayed in touch by phone and I sent them a yearly Christmas card. I was puzzled when at some point I stopped hearing back from them, but I assumed they were just busy with their lives.

It was only when Sarah Adams phoned to tell me that Mr. Ma had passed away did I learn that both Mr. and Mrs. Ma had been ill for quite some time. Living alone and childless, their health worsened without their extended family realizing the extent of their decline. They were moved to an upscale retirement community close to their niece Zhen-Mei, and coincidentally, only twenty minutes away from where I now live with my family in suburban Philadelphia.

I phoned Zhen-Mei, whom I remembered from long ago as warm and generous. “She doesn’t remember much,” said Zhen Mei, who oversees Mrs. Ma’s care. “Her Alzheimer’s is pretty bad.”

When I saw Mrs. Ma at the memorial service for her husband, I was astonished by her chic looks, her shorter hairstyle, her figure trim as a teenage girl’s. Whether she could remember me, I didn’t know, though she smiled and spoke to me as if she did. Now that I knew that she lives nearby, I drove over to visit her a few weeks later.

“What took you so long?” she asked, and hugged me.

A black-and-white photo of Artur Schnabel hangs in a prominent place in the small apartment she now occupies at the Hill at Whitemarsh, where a nurses’ aide watches her 24 hours a day. Her concert Steinway grand takes up most of the living room, the front part of the fallboard protected by a length of plastic to prevent scratches on the ebony finish, just as it was covered in Kent. On the lid sit handsome photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Ma in their concertizing days.

Although she can’t remember the past week’s or morning’s events, or my name, she listens attentively when I sit down to to play for her. She takes a seat close to the keyboard as if she is about to teach. And she does teach. She sings the phrases of these famous masterworks by Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, as she would play them.

“Not so short on the second beat,” she tells me, “but more like this —“
“Vary the phrasing, for instance, like this —“

When it comes to music, her mind still doesn’t miss a beat.

I e-mailed Zhen-Mei a few weeks ago to let her know that I wanted to schedule another visit to Mrs. Ma, and learned that she had to be hospitalized because of a bad fall, from which she’d sustained a broken ankle and what might have been a subdural bleed. Her pacemaker had to be re-inserted, and she doesn’t want to eat. I remember Mrs. Ma telling me that Schnabel, at the end, refused to eat. She’s since made a small recovery, and I hope that under the right care, she will continue to improve.

In September I had the honor of performing for Mr. Ma’s memorial concert at Merkin Hall in New York, along with Yong-Zi, Wing (now a full professor of viola at China’s prestigious Central Conservatory Beijing, and a highly influential teacher,) and Sarah (now a sought-after freelance violist in New York and member of the Cassatt Quartet.) Joining us was the marvelous young concert violinist Chen Xi, who was raised in China and educated later at Curtis and is studying now at Yale. Yong-Zi chose the demanding program. Performing the late Beethoven trio and the Brahms C minor Quartet under the Si-Yo banner was a wonderful re-union and brought me the same happiness I’d experienced playing for Si-Yo so many years ago.

After the concert, there was a boisterous party in the reception hall upstairs, where Mrs. Ma, with a pink lily pinned to her chic black suit, was the honored guest. Friends, former piano students, and many family members surrounded her. I’d had no idea, from the vantage point of her milieu in Ohio, what an impact she’d had on so may people, and what a large family cherished her.

To bring music to so many, through teaching and playing, and to have the love one’s family -– that is a life worth living. Bravo, Mrs. Ma.

Read the late Alan Rich’s wonderful commentary on the Si-Yo Society and Mr. and Mrs. Ma.

The Si-Yo Memorial Concert at Merkin Hall, with Chen Xi, violin, Yong-Zi Ma, cello, Sarah Adams, viola (and Isaac Harlan, turning pages)

The Music of Baseball

Cliff Lee, pitching for the Phillies in the 2009 World Series

As a kid, my husband Tom played shortstop and slugged home runs in the Little League. He never grew tall enough to become a professional baseball player, but he retained a great love of the game, and during our early married life in Columbus, Ohio, he always had the radio tuned to the “Cincinnati Reds Radio Network.” As the mother of two little girls who were into ballet and Laura Ingalls Wilder, I tuned out the play-by-play commentary, although the sausage jingle for Kahn’s “Big Red Smokies” still sticks in my head.

It wasn’t until we moved to Philadelphia that I started noticing baseball. It couldn’t be helped; I succumbed to the constant barrage –- jerseys, stickers, car antenna pennants, caps, shirts, and talk, talk, talk -– of Phillies this, Phillies that, especially during the ‘08 and ‘09 World Series, when Phillies fandom reached fever pitch. I tuned in, and fell in love with the grace of baseball when then-Philly pitcher Cliff Lee fielded a ground ball behind his back and shrugged as if to say, “hey, that was as easy to play as a C-major scale.”

I began to understand the suspense of baseball, began to see that watching a pitcher is like hearing a great concert pianist perform. The audience expectation is high and the anticipation palpable right before the wind-up/the first chord. The delivery is quick and immediately telling – one must be absolutely accurate in the strike zone/in playing the right notes. Predictability is fatal for both. A pitcher must vary his rhythm and the kinds of pitches he throws so the batter can’t get a hit off of him. A pianist must vary her phrasing and tempos, or her audience will fall asleep and not be moved. A pitcher collaborates with his catcher; a pianist with an orchestra or a singer or an instrumentalist. Both pitcher and solo pianist must possess the mental toughness of a general.

And when they blunder?

Three days ago, Cliff Lee, starting in Game One of the 2010 World Series, but this time in a Texas Rangers jersey, pitched a game that did not go his way at all. He gave up seven runs and was pulled out of the game after only four innings. Camera shots of him sitting in the dugout showed him stoically watching his team disintegrate. The “machine,” his catcher Benjie Molina reminded the press, was “just a human being, like all of us.”

And here the parallel continues. All performers are human, and some concerts will be duds. But when everything lines up, when practice, talent and hard work conjoin with inspiration, a good instrument, fine acoustics, and right timing, the thrill of that performance is like the thrill of an exciting post-season game –- unique in the moment and to be savored forever.

The Instrument Makers

Oboe maker Mary Kirkpatrick makes her instruments by hand -- and foot.

Last month, my husband Tom and I traveled to the quiet hills outside Ithaca, New York, curious to see the guitar our friend Gerhard has been making. He’d been working all summer under the tutelage of luthier Dick Cogger, and we were invited to view Cogger’s remarkable home workshop, which sits in an ordinary-looking suburban subdivision about twenty minutes north of Cornell University.

Stepping into the house’s lower level, we came upon jigs, table saws, lathes, forms, pieces of drying spruce, cedar, rosewood, snakewood, and ebony. There were sanders, gigantic hoses to suction up wood shavings, shelves of varnishes and glues, and a computer or two. All this looked impressive enough, but Cogger informed us, “There’s an even more interesting operation just down the hall.” He was referring to the workshop run by his wife Mary Kirkpatrick, who is renowned for her Baroque and Classical-era oboes. Astonishingly, Kirkpatrick makes her instruments without the use of electricity.

She had some time that afternoon to show us around. “Let’s start with the raw material,” she said, turning to a stack of logs in a corner of the room. The logs were the color of bisque, and about the length and thickness of my forearm.

“This is boxwood from England,” she said. “Boxwood in America does not grow this large.”

A log of boxwood and future oboe

She grabbed a log and demonstrated how she makes the first rough cuts with quick chops of a hand axe. Then she moved to the treadle lathe, an antique machine nearly five feet tall and seven feet long, also from England. The powerful, large machinery moved into action, driven not by electrical current, but by Kirkpatrick’s pumping the treadle with her foot.

Without breaking the smooth rhythm of her leg and footwork, Mary brought the log of boxwood against the whirring blade of the lathe.

“Yes, theoretically I should be wearing safety goggles,” she said. “But they’re cumbersome. I’d rather just shut my eyes and do it all by feel.”

Once she turns the wood into an acceptable shape, she bores, or hollows out the instrument, and further refines it with saws, drills, and files. For the instrument’s keys, which must move up and down rapidly with only a few millimeters’ play, she cuts and hammers tiny pieces from a solid sheet of brass. The joints of the instrument are made of Corian, which she believes mimics the density and malleability of ivory. The finished oboes are a gleaming dark brown, and beautiful.

Nearly finished

Kirkpatrick has been selling her oboes to period-instrument performers and orchestras around the world. She met Cogger over two decades ago at an instrument-maker’s conference. She discussed with him the need to find an extra piece of metal for one of her antique lathes — a part that she simply couldn’t pick up at the local True Value.

“I might be able to make you something that would do the job,” Cogger offered, and that was how their life together started.

Along one wall in the living room of the Cogger/Kirkpatrick home sits a Steinway grand, which belonged to Kirkpatrick’s father, who was a keyboard professor at Cornell and Charles Ives scholar. Opposite the piano sits a full-sized Martin harpsichord, made in Pennyslvania in the 1980′s, and hand-painted with decorative flowers. I sat down at the harpsichord to play Bach’s B-flat Partita; the clarity and purity of the sound moved me, as this must have been the sound that Bach had heard and intended for this music.

After the final B-flat sounded, Cogger told me, “We used to have a pipe organ, too, up there on the second floor landing. One of our friends would perform all three instruments in one evening – an hour of harpsichord music with wine and hors d’oeuvres, a piano recital after dinner, and an organ concert with dessert.”

Now, fall is upon us, the school year has begun, and after 240 hours of summer labor, Gerhard’s guitar, having received its final varnishing and polishing, is finished. His reward is an instrument that is lovely to look at, and lovely to hear, with its rich, clear, bell-like tone.

Reflecting on all these different instruments, I wonder what first compelled human beings to cut, bore, file, and shape pieces of wood, then fasten them together and fit them with keys, strings, felt, quills, and metal. What compels us, even now, to painstakingly create objects whose sole function is to make sounds in a meaningful way? It’s proof to me that music must fulfill a deep-seated need in us to communicate our feelings and our wordless ideas into sound — that music is essential to being human.

Gardening and Piano: A Perilous Duo

The offending pile of mulch

Until last month, I’ve been lucky enough to lead a normal life and play the piano injury-free. I don’t take any special precautions with my hands: I will wash heavy pots and pans, cut up raw chicken with sharp knives, and pull weeds. I vacuum with a heavy European model, and lug home outlandishly gigantic packages of paper products from B.J.’s Wholesale Club. Despite this cavalier attitude, I had never suffered from an arm or hand injury that kept me from playing –- until a recent bout with a wheelbarrow brought me low.

Blame it on my seasonal obsession with gardening. This past Pennsylvania winter was particularly brutal (think Washington crossing the Delaware for months on end.) So when the crocuses first poked their blossoms up through the soil in March, something inside me also sprang up –- the desire to plant. Off I traipsed to Amish country on several occasions with similarly obsessed friends, and stocked the back of my car with annuals, perennials, vegetables, seed packets, shrubs and even a couple of trees.

As any gardener knows, nature abhors a procrastinator. If you don’t get those babies in the ground and water them, they will die. Also, you have to prepare nice beds for them, so I dug up leaf compost from our back woods and, to supplement, ordered a dozen cubic yards of soil and mulch. The truck dumped the soil at the end of the driveway and I busily carted it by the wheelbarrow-full to numerous planting beds.

I guess it should not have been a surprise when I sat down to practice one day and felt an odd tingling sensation spread down my left arm and into my thumb, like a slow burn. The tingling came at random times, for instance, when I was walking, but more often when I played heavy repetitive left hand octaves at the keyboard.

I was scared. I envisioned a permanent injury, some tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. I thought of the over-use hand paralysis that had ruined the concert careers of pianists like Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman.

“Please send me to physical therapy,” I begged my doctor.

I am a firm believer in physical therapy –- it is scientific and safe. My therapist, Bob Campbell at Rasansky Physical Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, put me through a number of neck mobility tests and diagnosed a nerve root irritation at the C5-C6 vertebral space. I’d probably herniated a disc in my neck when lifting those over-filled wheelbarrows, and though that sounds dire, he told me, “It’s pretty common. Let’s see what we can do to help.”

For a month I underwent cervical traction, electrical stimulation of the trapezius, ultrasound. More important, I began a series of stretching and strengthening exercises of the shoulders and neck that I need to do for the rest of my life. I am happy to report that my arm and thumb are now nearly 100% tingle-free.

As for the pile of mulch, it still sits at the end of the driveway. I try not to look at it and feel obsessed. It’s a good exercise in letting go.

Passion flower -- summer's reward

Diva Power-A Recital by Denyce Graves

Denyce Graves, John Conahan, and Laura Ward

If the devil knocked on my door and said, “I’ll turn you into a great singer, Deb, but you have to give me your little finger – on both hands,” I’d say “yes!” Nothing moves me more than great singing, maybe because my father has a beautiful tenor voice. Growing up, I often accompanied him at church. Despite the fact that his sense of rhythm is quite, shall we say, creative, accompanying singers remains one of my favorite things to do.

Two weeks ago, I had the unbelievable good fortune to fall under the spell of one of the truly great voices of this century, when I was invited by a friend to hear a private dress rehearsal given by the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Ms. Graves was preparing for a lieder recital at the Strathmore Festival near Washington, D.C., and her Philadelphia-based pianist, Laura Ward, arranged a run-through at her church in center city Philadelphia.

It was a cool and drizzly day for June, and the massive doors of the church were locked. Laura herself answered the buzzer and let me into the building through a side entrance. I was uncharacteristically early, and took a front pew seat in the silent church. With all the exits shut, the air inside the sanctuary felt close and dusty. The light filtering through the stained glass windows was dim.

All dusty dimness vanished, however, when Denyce Graves stepped to the front of the church to sing. Though wearing a knee-length dress, she looked every bit the glamorous diva, and I was touched that even for this tiny, impromptu audience, she cared enough to create an imposing stage presence.

That care translated beautifully into her stunning recital, which began with songs by Purcell and Handel and continued with a remarkable interpretation of the Robert Schumann masterpiece, Frauenliebe und Leben. The burnished yet pure timbre of Ms. Graves’ voice soaring above Schumann’s singular, lush harmonies, transported me, and I couldn’t help but weep.

As mezzo-soprano Suzanne duPlantis, who was in the audience, told me later, “That was probably the best interpretation of that song cycle I’ve ever heard.”

On the second half of the program, Ms. Graves again created magic in her set of four standards from the American songbook, which were arranged in anything but a standard way by young Philadelphia-based singer, composer, and arranger John Conahan. Ms. Graves delivered Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Grand and Boyd’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” with piercing intelligence, perfect narrative timing, and devastating emotion. Again my tears flowed.

Of course, her great liberty to express was made possible by Laura Ward’s superb intuitive accompaniment. The women generously gave two encores, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” from Samson et Delila by St. Saens, and a spiritual that Ms. Graves grew up hearing her mother sing, “Give Me Jesus.”

Gracious in person, Ms. Graves told me afterward she had been a little nervous because all these pieces were “new material.”

“Don’t change a thing,” I said.

Denyce Graves, through the hard work of honing an incredible gift of voice, embodies the power of woman. I’d wish for any group of oppressed women, anywhere in the world, to be able to hear her sing. They would understand immediately that within them, too, lies power.

Conversations with Paul, Part One

In the words of the late Karl Haas:
“Hello Everyone!”
To celebrate the re-instatement of my website, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite people, pianist and composer Paul Romero. Enjoy, and let’s hope that the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico will also soon be fixed.
* * * * * * *

Paul Romero

Last month, my talented student Susan (a rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College) said she wanted to learn the rest of the Grieg Concerto, but she was going home to L.A. for the summer, and she didn’t know whom to study with.

“I know just the right person,” I said.

That person is a marvelous pianist who befriended me when my husband and I moved from Ohio to Los Angeles over a decade ago. I didn’t know a musical soul when we arrived. One afternoon, as I pushed my little girl in a stroller along the dusty road of my sister’s mountainous, bohemian neighborhood, I heard the thunderous sounds of a Fledermaus transcription shake the walls of a ranch house we were passing.

“A concert pianist lives in that house,” I told my sister, and I went to investigate.

That’s how I met Paul Romero and his partner, psychiatrist and saxophonist Brock Summers. Paul was immediately impressed that I had studied with Earl Wild for many years and made me sit down to play. Shortly thereafter, he invited me to perform at one of his and Brock’s extravagant musicales. Imagine a hundred or so people crowded into a small but elegant living room with a Steinway grand, and people precariously packed onto a balcony that looks out onto the San Gabriel mountains. Imagine a wide array of performers, from cellists to pianists to singers, performing classical to jazz to Tom Lehrer witticisms, with Paul enthusiastically em-ceeing from the microphone. A happier scene could not be produced by Hollywood.

Paul’s own playing impressed me as well, because of his warmth of tone and expressive lyricism. His singing lines linger in the ear long after the last note dies away.

I knew he would be a perfect teacher for Susan, and I am happy to report that they have hit it off marvelously.

Catching up with Paul over the phone, I’ve learned that he is performing concerts in venues that interest him, and that he’s devoting much of his time to his composing career. He is completing the scoring for the 130th soundtrack of his “Heroes of Might and Magic” series, and has been commissioned to write a symphony based on the motifs he’s composed for this wildly successful video game.

Paul has no doubt carved out one of the more interesting careers of a Curtis Institute of Music alumnus.

Writing this now, I remember his reassurances when I was about to move from L.A. to the Main Line of Philadelphia.

“When I was at Curtis, I had a part-time job working for a florist,” he said. “We used to deliver to the Main Line. It was unbelievably green there with a canopy of thick, old trees. You’ll like it.”

He was right; it turned out to be a good move for us. But I’m glad to re-connect with a great talent from my California past, and I promise more “Conversations with Paul” in weeks to come.

To Produce or to Play?

Wading Girl by Marybeth Hughes

Wading Girl by Marybeth Hughes

Would you rather be Chopin or Artur Rubinstein? Stravinsky or Maria Callas? Sofia Coppola or Scarlett Johansson?

Would you rather create art or re-create (perform and interpret) it?

My friend, the acclaimed short story writer and essayist Robin Black, believes that interpreting works of art is just as challenging and important as creating new work. (She’s well-acquainted with interpretive art — her brother is a harpsichordist.) As Robin eloquently puts it, “I think interpretive art is the equal of generative.” It’s a question I pondered the other day as I palled around with two friends who are visual artists and whose lives are consumed by creating something out of nothing but paint, canvas, and found objects.

The day was planned because my friend Ginny Fry, a thirty-year-old octogenarian, drove up from Annapolis at the invitation of my husband and me to hear a recital given by phenomenal young guitarist Lukasz Kuropazsewski at the Settlement School. Ginny has recently published her first book, BASKING SHARKS, a volume of original poetry. Facing each poem is a reproduction of one of her vivid abstract expressionist paintings –- the book is a brilliant generative double-whammy, if you will.

The day after the concert we met up with our friend Marybeth Hughes, who had just hung a show of her newest work at the Rosemont School of the Holy Child. The thirty or so paintings, small to moderately-large-sized oils, show Marybeth’s mastery of color, traditional landscape and human subjects, and plein-air painting. One oil, Divine Marta, indicates her movement toward more abstract and allegorical work.

Vortex by Marybeth Hughes

Vortex by Marybeth Hughes

From there, we stopped at the Haverford School, where Marybeth also has an outdoor ceramic installation as part of Mexican-American artist and teacher Antonio Fink’s tile exhibition. Her piece depicts the Pacific Vortex, a trash pile the size of Texas, composed of plastic debris that has gathered, whirlpool fashion, in the North Central portion of the Pacific Ocean. The installation is made up of hundreds of blue ceramic fish which Marybeth fired and then attached to three metal-work panels, at the top of which are threaded lengths of brown video tape that shimmer in the wind and represent the plastic debris of the vortex.

“Where did you get these great metal panels?” I asked her.
“Oh, in a pile of old stuff that I found in the basement when we moved into our house,” she said.
Something out of nothing.

Finally, we headed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is hosting an exhibition of the master Generator of the twentieth-century, Picasso. This large-scale show demonstrates how Picasso moved into and out of cubism, how he influenced and was influenced by his colleagues Georges Braque and Juan Gris, Brancusi, and many others. Viewing the juxtaposed pieces, one can immediately see that these artists were all trying to solve the problem of how to express point-of-view in a new way. It’s clear they had a lot of fun solving the puzzle while they were at it.

So is generative art greater than interpretive art? Perhaps the ideal answer can be found in those rare artists like Mozart or Rachmaninoff, who were touched by the creative spirit in the utmost way. These beings, more than human, wrote as divinely as they played.

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso

For the Love of Music

The guys and their contented fan

The guys and their contented fan

At age 18, when I first started dating my husband Tom, he wanted to major in classical guitar. This, along with his shoulder-length red curls and his subvervise-looking military jacket, sent my parents into fits of hysterical worry from which they still haven’t quite recovered. Within one semester, however, Tom decided that performing onstage in front of an audience was not for him. He put his guitar away and switched to pre-med.

A couple of years ago, with two cross-country moves, two children nearly both grown, and a busy medical practice under his belt, he took out his guitar again for the first time in decades. He gave it some new strings, and began to strum.

What sparked the change, you might ask? Well, the environment is conducive. Here in Philly we have a classical guitar society which presents inspiring concerts. There’s quality guidance, too. Tom has found two fantastic teachers, one for classical and one for his new passion, electric guitar.

But perhaps the biggest impulse for re-igniting Tom’s interest in playing has been his friendship with our neighbor Gerhard. Gerhard is near Tom’s age. He speaks four languages, turns wood, has built a cottage in the woods for his wife Cookie, teaches middle-school boys full time, is an expert in sailing and horticulture, and – oh, yes, took up the classical guitar again after decades away.

Every Wednesday or Thursday night the guys get together to practice their duets. My daughter and I putter around doing our thing while deliberate strains of renaissance duos, an arrangement of Bach’s Invention Nr. 1, and Albeniz’s Tango float from the T.V. room. Often the metronome will tick, keeping them on track. There is much stopping, discussion and occasional laughter. I bring them cups of tea. The pooch lies on the sofa and listens.

It’s a scene of happiness.

Gerhard’s birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Gerhard. Thank you for bringing your love of music to our home.

The Price of a Star

Natalie Dessay

Natalie Dessay

Back in September, my husband called with the breaking news that Dr. V. B. was selling her Metropolitan Opera tickets and we had to let her know by tomorrow what we wanted. “I’ll get right on it,” I said, knowing the tickets would be snapped up if we dawdled. We were lucky enough to make Dr. V.B.’s call list last year. She has prime seats to a Saturday matinee subscription to the Met. It doesn’t matter that she lives in Philly: she will hold onto these prized tickets and perhaps one day bequeath them to her heirs. In the meantime, she attends the shows she wants and finds eager buyers for the rest.

Tom and I chose the March 27, 2010 production, even though we’d never heard of the opera nor its composer. (Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Was it a modern opera?) We were confident of a fantastic musical experience, however, because we trusted the power of the leading soprano, Natalie Dessay.

We’d lucked into seeing/hearing Dessay and her equally compelling co-star, Juan Diego Flores, last year, in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a considerably more famous opera, of interest especially to me because Bellini was a great influence on Chopin. Hands down, it was one of the most unbelievable and memorable performances we had ever seen. How was it humanly possible for two people to sing, move, and act with the fireworks, precision, and emotional intensity of these two stars? Dessay especially had us on the edge of our seats – we wept for this lovely sleepwalker. Her enormous grief was our grief, her great joy our joy.

So when we heard a few weeks ago that Dessay had cancelled due to an unspecified injury, we almost thought about canceling ourselves. But we decided to give the stand-in Ophélie, who’d given an impressive profile on NPR, a fair shake, and hiked up to New York for the production.


There was nothing wrong with the production. The singing was professional and pleasing in tone, the acting (except for Jennifer Larmore’s fiery Gertrude) correct but restrained. Not taken away by the action on stage, we had a chance to appreciate the orchestra’s perfect intonation, the virtuosity of the wind solos, the sweet sound of the string section, under conductor Louis Langrée. I enjoyed sitting next to my husband for three hours, even when he dozed a bit.

Oh, but what we missed.

Walking toward the exit after the last curtain call, we chatted with a young woman and her attractive grandmother. The grandmother told us, “I’m a Dessay groupie. We fly everywhere to see her. We heard her in Santa Fe, we’ve been to Europe to hear her. The granddaughter said, “She’s neursasthenic. There’s something that gets into your own nervous system and soul when she sings.”

That’s what we, as audience members are hoping for at the Met. Natalie Dessay, who risks all, perhaps even her own health, has set the bar. Without singers who “get into your nervous system and soul,” people like Dr. V.B. won’t be holding onto her subscription like gold, people like my husband and me won’t be turning ourselves inside out to get there when offered the chance. The hawkers on the plaza at Lincoln Center shouting, “Only $25 for today’s show,” will, lamentably, do a brisker business.

I think a true star is worth any price.