Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Today I was listening to Schumann's piano concerto and once again I was awed at the pure glory of it. The first movement is really unusual because it was conceived as a Fantasie for piano and orchestra; Robert Schumann transformed it into a concerto at the instigation of his concert-pianist wife Clara, who premiered his works after his career as a pianist was spoilt by an injured hand. He added an "Intermezzo" and concluding Rondo, and the result was one of the most gorgeous concertos ever, if not the most.

Here is the beginning of the first movement, played by Amir Katz; as it is a very long piece, this version is split into six sections. Go to Youtube for the rest of them. It's well worth the half-hour it takes to listen to the piece.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

One Week in the Life of a Camp Counselor - Thursday and Friday

THURSDAY - Today, unfortunately, Mrs. Eastman was out with a sore throat, but we hoped to have her back the next day. For a change, the morning didn't begin with a recital, but rather with a class by Ruth in which we discussed interpretation - what image does this section of a piece give you, why, and how do you bring that across? She chose a good one for it, too - Debussy's Claire de lune - and we talked about what kind of moonlight each part might represent. It was very interesting how different kids saw different sections. They also discussed a sonata by Schubert, which was a lot of fun, though not so easy to think up images for, because, not being Impressionist, it wasn't meant to only convey an image. Then, of course, there were lessons; and at noon, as usual, we split up and walked to lunch. The kids voted for pizza unanimously this time so I was introduced to Raccanelli's while Matt took his bunch to Imo's.

We got back in time for a little practice, but then it was time for Mr. Schene's recital. To me this was the highlight of the whole week, if not of the whole summer, musically speaking. He started it with the Beethoven sonata I happen to be working on now, Op. 2 No.1 in F minor. There's really not much to say about it, it's Beethoven! He did it beautifully, as always (this is the second time I've had the good fortune to hear him play it.) The first movement sparkled, despite the piano marking which he followed perfectly; the second was wonderfully gentle; the minuet-and-trio danced, as all good minuets should; and the final movement had me watching his flying fingers breathlessly till the last arpeggio came whirling down the keyboard. Beethoven doesn't need huge chords for an effective ending - that arpeggio ends in a single note that is a perfect period to a swiftly-but-well-spoken sentence! He followed it with Reflets dans l'eau, from Debussy's Images. It sounded exactly like reflections on water look - softly shimmering. I haven't had a really good look at the score yet but it's definitely a piece I want to play someday. And then, he finished it off with Chopin's Scherzo in B-flat Minor. Every note rang like a bell; after the martial introduction, the second theme, rather like a dance, was delightful! I couldn't take my eyes off his hands - I love watching him play, because it's so obvious that every finger knows exactly where it's going next, and in this piece, which I am familiar with and fond of, it was awesome to watch.

After a well-deserved thunder of applause, he had time for a couple of questions, ("No, I am not going to tell you how old I am," he joked, and I laughed "I know!" which made him give me a mock-glare as he said, "Well, thanks!"). We discovered that he had begun to teach himself piano at the age of seven and started lessons at nine. "That was a long time ago," he added, which made us all laugh. (And he made his concert debut at the age of fifteen! I wanted to ask what that first concerto was, but never got the chance; I'll ask him sometime.) Someone asked him how long it took him to learn the Scherzo; and he left us all stunned by saying, "Well, considering I learned it when I was fifteen, (wow! that's quite a piece for any fifteen-year-old!) I couldn't tell you exactly. But if I tried to learn it now, let's say, with some hard work, it could be done in... ten days." The children were amazed. I wouldn't be surprised, knowing Mr. Schene, but - phew!

We had to run over to Winifred Moore Auditorium then (Winnie Moore, as we all call it for short), for the first run-through of the recital. We didn't have time for everybody, but almost all of them got to play before we walked back over to the Music Building at four.

FRIDAY was lots of fun too! They started off with lessons and "practice till you fall off the bench," as Donna instructed on the daily schedule I typed that morning (I made that phrase bold, italicized, underlined and extra big!) Even Matt and I taught a lesson each, because Mrs. Eastman's sore throat had become a violent case of flu and so there was, of course, no way she could come. At ten-thirty we had dress rehearsal, clad in our olive-green Piano Camp t-shirts, and the children collapsed laughing at the end of Matt's and my rendition of Randall Compton's C.S. Theme and Variations -- it begins like Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, but turns into Chopsticks, thence the "C.S." And at one point, the secondo, or lower part, comes flying up the keyboard and the primo has to jump out of the way and come round behind the bench to take the lower half of the piano -- so maybe "C.S" stands for "change seats" too, haha! As we came back to the building to leave our things, Connor had a light bulb and said, "Why don't you run around the piano instead of the bench?" I thought it was a brilliant idea and so did Matt, so we determined to do it! And when we came back and had a bit of time to practice, we tried it with the lovely Steinway grand in the Recital Hall (a.k.a. the Precious!) and it worked splendidly.

The recital that afternoon was wonderful. Only a few small slips occurred, but in general it was perfect and the children really did us credit, from Matt's perfect Bach to Miriam's delightful "Golliwogg's Cakewalk", the grace of the trio and the sparkling duets, and Matt and I ended it with the hilarious Chopsticks duet. There was as much laughter as applause at the end, which was a good thing! Actually, it became even funnier along the way because I nearly miscalculated my dash around the piano, since I hadn't considered one thing: the Steinway in the recital hall is a model B, about seven feet long, while the concert hall's piano is a full ten-foot concert grand, adding about six feet to the distance I had to run! As it was, I managed to collapse breathlessly onto the bench exactly in time to hit the next chord, and we kept going without a pause! Even Mr. Schene said afterward that we'd performed it very well, which was a relief, because we two had wondered what he would think of two of his serious (haha) piano majors playing such a nonsensical piece, (though it takes a lot more technique than it sounds like it does!)

After Ted Drewes' ice cream (a signature St. Louis delicacy) and a lot of chatter and farewells, Matt and I helped the ladies close up the concert hall and headed off home. It was a lovely week and they said they wanted us next year if we wanted to come, so I'm already looking forward to it!

One Week in the Life of a Counselor - Monday to Wednesday

This past week, I served as counselor at Webster University's annual Classical Piano Camp, a sort of workshop for young pianists between grades 7 and 12, who need to have studied for at least three years before entering. It was loads of fun! Here's the breakdown of the whole week -- I'll divide it in two parts, as I know it will be long!

MONDAY I arrived at the Music Building bright and early, about half-past eight, and the first thing I saw was a quiet-looking, dark-haired boy and a small blond girl in two of the red armchairs in the lobby. The girl, Katie, greeted me with the most exuberant "Good morning!" it has ever been my lot to hear.

Some people find it hard to break the ice. Katie shattered it with a sledge-hammer. She greeted everyone with the same lively "Good morning" as they entered, introduced herself, and chattered non-stop until none of us could help but join in the chatter, laughing; and from there, the group knit together without a bit of trouble, and we were soon good friends.

When all thirteen students had arrived, we joined them and the three teachers, Donna Vince, Pat Eastman (who has taught me these past two years), and Ruth Price, in the recital hall. The teachers introduced themselves, as well as myself and my "partner in crime," Matt Pankratz, fellow piano-major; and then they called out names and the kids raised their hands to be identified. There were seven boys and six girls, all between thirteen and seventeen. The boys were Matt (the first I'd met), Ethan and his brother Elliot, Zev, Connor, Morgan and Sam; the girls were Morgan's cousin Miriam, Alexandra, Katie, Natalie, and Sarah (an old friend of Rocio's, whom I was quite surprised but delighted to see!)

No sooner were we all introduced than we sat back and listened to a delightful recital given by a girl named Jennie, a "piano-camp alumna" who just finished her freshman year at Oberlin Conservatory, who played a Haydn sonata and... I forget what else, perhaps Debussy... ack, my mind's a blank! But she did it very well and we enjoyed it greatly! After the recital we sent all the kids downstairs to the practice rooms, having handed out copies of a piece they had to look at for that afternoon, and Matt and I pulled them out by twos to play their pieces for the teachers and be sorted, on that evaluation, into pairs for duets (and one trio, as of course thirteen can't be divided into pairs without leaving one out!) I listened outside the recital hall in admiration; the most impressive performances at that point were probably Alexandra's amazing rendition of Chopin's beautiful Fantaisie-Impromptu, and Sam's wonderful Introduction and Rondo-Cappriccioso, by Mendelssohn. Then they had an hour's Musicianship class with Colleen, another fellow-piano major, and then it was time for lunch and Matt and I divided them into two groups - those who elected for Raccanelli's Pizza went with Matt, and the Subway-eaters with me.

After lunch, back at the music building, they started having lessons - four with Pat, four with Donna, three with Ruth and a lucky two with Mr. Schene. Matt and I made sure they were where they had to be and practiced when we found time, or chatted in the lobby while listening to Sam's fiery playing - I couldn't get tired of the Introduction and Rondo, which he played over and over. At three we all gathered in the recital hall for discussion of the charming little waltz they'd been given to sight-read, and we talked interpretation. It was a lot of fun and we got some really interesting imagery from the children. All too soon it was four and time to go home, but before I did that I took Donna's handwritten schedule for the practice rooms in the Community Music School building (CMS for short) -- which all have grands, as opposed to the uprights downstairs, and she wanted to make sure everyone got their fair share -- and typed it neatly into a table, much easier to read, and posted it on the recital hall door.

TUESDAY the morning recital was given by a sophomore at University of Missouri, also a graduate of the piano camp, who gave a wonderful performance of a piece by Villa-Lobos, Beethoven's amazing thirty-first Sonata, and finally a lovely arrangement he had made of "The Farewell" from Disney's Pocahontas score. The morning once again was taken up by rehearsal, lessons and Musicianship, and they were given their duets - Morgan with Zev, Elliot with Tara, Matt with Ethan, Alexandra with Miriam, Sam with Connor, and Sarah, Katie and Natalie had the trio. After lunch they had a session on technique in the keyboard lab with all three ladies. At three we convened once again to discuss the day's sight-reading exercise, another waltz, but one that was very different from the first in style. We talked about how they were alike, and how they were different; and the final consensus was that the simple, traditional harmony of the first was more pleasant to the group, compared to the dissonance and ambiguity of the second. When Ruth said the first seemed more "honest", an as yet unsuggested comparison sprang to my mind and I exclaimed, "Why, it's as if the first were... the true lover's waltz, and the second, the seducer's -- the Don Juan waltz, if you like." They all laughed and agreed it was a good way to put it!

WEDNESDAY the recital was given by a dear friend, Michael McElvain, recent graduate of Webster; and as I had the good fortune of being asked to turn pages for him, I could see as well as hear, and marvel at the perfection in his music. He began with the introductory ricercare from Bach's Musical Offering, a beautiful fugue; followed it (laughing with us at his own boldness in so doing) with three Nocturnes of his own composition, of unusual harmony but no little beauty; and finished off the concert with Mozart's tenth Sonata. After it, as the others had done, he answered questions - in this case, he was asked about the compositional process, and how he ties together his three arts: composition, performance, and conducting. After the recital, as the children had their lessons, he and Colleen, his wonderful girlfriend, talked with me for a while in the lobby. It was weird thinking I won't be seeing him for a long time, as he was leaving for Chicago on Friday to continue his studies at DePaul University.

When Colleen went to teach musicianship, I went to take advantage of Mr. Schene's room being empty and practice on the magnificent grand (or rather, one of them - he has two taking up most of the space in his office! Wouldn't I love to be the head of a piano department, if you can do that...) Michael came in to listen to my Beethoven and make himself a cup of coffee, and from then on he was in and out of the room, at one point helping me in a desperate hunt for the poem I'd written for Colleen's birthday last Friday, which he had forgotten in the office. As we discovered that it had utterly vanished in the chaos of his music and Mr. Schene's, I dashed downstairs, typed it out clean and printed it just in time to give her as she came out of musicianship class at noon.

We were back from lunch at one o'clock, and at one-thirty was Mr. Schene's master class. He was surprisingly free with praise and no less generous with corrections as needed; the fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate, haha!) four who played, Tara, Connor, Morgan and Sam, acquitted themselves well, and seemed to blossom under his hand, their improvement evident even in the short half-hour each one of them had to work with him. At one point, Mr. Schene had Sam playing a difficult passage which included a rapid scale of octaves alternating right and left hands, and finally had Sam do the right hand while he did the left. They were so perfectly together that it sounded like one player, and they did it so fast and accurately that when they stopped we broke into a spontaneous burst of mingled applause and laughter! They received the first with delight and heartily joined in the second.

Later, as I waited for Mom, I went out to the picnic table in the wide front yard of the music building, where Michael and Mr. Schene were having one more good talk before Michael's departure, and joined them to listen for a bit to Mr. Schene talk enthusiastically about hearing Claudio Arrau play, and other wonderful musical experiences. All too soon I had to go meet Mom at the library, so I gave Michael a warm embrace of farewell, as he wasn't sure he'd be back the next day, bade goodbye to Mr. Schene, and flew away.

That day was also the day that Matt and I were handed Randall Compton's hilarious C.S. Theme and Variations to play at the final recital. I had the advantage of having played it before, but Matt said he would look at it and we'd try it the next day...