Big piano playing, incorporated

Big piano playing defines most dead pianists, or, more specifically, the great Romantics like Alfred Cortot, Josef Hofmann, Josef Lhevinne, Sergei Rachmaninov and Benno Moiseiwitsch. Even Egon Petri, who was more of a modernist, but a big pianist, just the same.

Big piano playing means a kind of artistry that takes chances, projects across the footlights, and is not afraid of its own vitality.

Happily, we have a good number of big pianists today.

Two events of big piano playing are just about upon us in New York. One is the third installment of Carlo Grante’s Masters of High Romanticism series at Alice Tully Hall. On Tuesday February 10th at 7:30 PM he plays no less than four big Brahms variation sets, including the (really big) Handel Variations and the (really hard) Paganini Variations. After the extraordinary concentration, mindful virtuosity and effortless stamina that Carlo displayed in his December 15th concert devoted to all three Schumann sonatas, I have no doubt that his Brahms will be a special event.

The following evening at Spectrum (121 Ludlow Street) at 7:00 PM, Marilyn Nonken’s Voluptuous Virtuosity series devoted to virtuoso performers and provocative programs presents Thomas Rosenkranz in Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 (“Concord”). This is dense, complex, craggy, funny, simple and often moving music that demands as much from audiences as performers, and, in the end, leaves you uplifted and fulfilled. I haven’t heard Thomas in some time, which is why I’m especially excited about this concert. His debut solo disc comes out this spring, called Toward the Curve, and promises to be a formidable musical and audiophile experience.

As I’ve been slaving away at my latest ComposersCollaborative, inc. grant deadline, I’ve been playing some big piano performances on record to keep sane, no matter how insane some of the interpretations might be. For example, the fascinating and often controversial Russian pianist Maria Yudina’s Schubert Impromptus from 1964. Her almost aggressive, power tool version of the D. 899 No. 1 C Minor will catch you off guard and hold your attention. (check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8V964wP1Pw). I’m connecting anew to the nervous energy and gaunt textures of Alexis Weissenberg’s Rachmaninov’s Sonatas; he clarifies the often thick writing like lye cutting through grease, to quote my late colleague Harris Goldsmith. You can buy his amazing DG recording here:http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=151025. And Egon Petri’s brilliant Busoni Fantasia Contrappuntistica is included in a box set that I was fortunate to annotate several years ago; you can buy it here: http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=593827.

Looking forward to seeing you at the concerts, and watch this space about my upcoming performances and a new radio adventure…..

Piano Dreams: Liberace teaches me to play Boulez!

I don’t remember my dreams unless I write them down immediately after I wake up. Whenever I have a musical dream, I try to remember to write it down, but often forget to do so.

Fortunately, I did write down the most memorable piano related dream I’ve ever had, or at least remembered. It happened back in 1987, not long after Liberace died. Perhaps his demise triggered the dream, as well as the fact that during that period of time I often got hired to play the piano part for the Pierre Boulez Sonatine for Flute and Piano.

The dream went like this. I was backstage somewhere in Las Vegas, sitting at an upright piano. Liberace was going to coach me on the Boulez Piano Sonata No. 1. First he asked me to warm up with Satie, because that’s what he always did before making his entrance on stage in a Rolls-Royce, or flying, or whatever. Then Liberace started to point out certain measures in the Boulez:

(imagine Liberace’s voice)

“Now Jeddy, here, you really have to jump off that note quickly so that you can make the leap from bass to treble in one hand without losing the rhythm. Now, I gotta tell you, with my rings, I can’t really get this passage up to the written tempo, but, you know, Pierre always lets me do what I want!”.

It was a long and focused session. I didn’t want it to end, but then I woke up, and it was over. Boy, was I angry that I couldn’t fall back to sleep and continue with the dream, maybe have another lesson with Liberace, this time on Milton Babbitt’s Post-Partitions!

Please share your piano dreams with me here!

Sarah Cahill celebrates Terry Riley

I first met Sarah Cahill back in 1995, when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. I was sitting in the lobby of the music building, and she came out from one of the practice rooms. Somehow we got to talking, and it turned out that she was involved in a concert at the college that evening featuring women composers and performers. I hadn’t known about the concert before, but I decided to stay and hear it. While I don’t remember the program’s full contents, three things stuck out. One was Ilana Vered playing the bejeezuz out of a work by Laura Kaminsky. The second was Myra Melford digging into an Otis Spann blues. And the third was Sarah’s amazing performance of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Study in Mixed Accents. I was supposed to play the Crawford in concert a few months later, but after hearing Sarah’s interpretation I quickly dropped it from my repertoire.

Later on I realized that Sarah and I had many mutual friends and colleagues, and if I mention them all I’ll sound like a shameless name dropper. My new music organization ComposersCollaborative, Inc. presented Sarah several times in concert. In turn, she brought me out to Berkeley to perform, and has graciously invited me as a guest on her various radio shows over the years.

Happily Sarah’s New York appearances have become more frequent. She’ll be at Le Poisson Rouge Thursday January 29th for a special event celebrating one of America’s most significant and uplifting composers. A Piano Party for Terry Riley at 80 pays tribute to Terry’s influence with the New York premieres of new solo piano pieces written in honor of his eightieth birthday by Samuel Carl Adams, Evan Ziporyn, Pauline Oliveros, Gyan Riley, Christine Southworth, Dylan Mattingly, and Danny Clay, together works by the grand master himself.
 
The concert is a co-production between LPR and Q2 Music Presents. It will be recorded by Q2 music and archived at q2music.org.

To get the full scope of Sarah’s remarkable musical life and her contributions to new music, visit http://www.sarahcahill.com. And also check out her recent CD releases, including the hauntingly beautiful two disc set devoted to Mamoru Fujieda’s piano cycle Patterns of Plants: read David Hurwitz’s review here:
http://www.classicstoday.com/review/fujiedas-patters-plants-commune-inner-fern/

Hope to see you at LPR on January 29th!

Marathon man: my obsession with long piano pieces Part I

I don’t know how I first got into marathon programs. It probably happened during childhood, when I became fascinated by Wagner’s Ring Cycle, not so much for the music, and not so much for the idea of a four opera cycle as for the fact that a local radio station used to broadcast all four operas together in an annual Ring Marathon. Naturally I tuned in for this fourteen hour event every year.

At eleven, I tried talking my junior high school rock band into doing the world’s longest version of the Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. A few years later I conceived of a Sing-a-Long event in Central Park, where everyone would gather to sing “One Million Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” That never happened. But I did manage to pull off a marathon listening “happening” at my summer camp, which we called “The Thing.”

“The Thing” took place in the camp’s performing arts center. I manned the turntables, put play lists together, and campers either listened, danced or slept. Had I known then about Erik Satie’s “Vexations,” the piano piece that’s supposed to be played 840 times, I would have organized an Appel Farm Arts and Music Camp “Vexations Thing.”

My fascination with long piano pieces or marathon programs hasn’t diminished, although I have to admit that sometimes the idea proves more interesting than the execution. For example, I’m glad to know that one can stretch Simeon ten Holt’s minimalist manifesto Canto Ostinato out to indefinite lengths, but smart enough to keep my own performances between 45 to 75 minutes these days.

If I’m in the mood for Morton Feldman’s slow-motion sound world, I know that his 20-something minute long Palais de mari is a viable alternative to 90 minutes worth of Triadic Memories. Generally I save my piano marathon activity for air travel. I must have been the only passenger on a recent London to New York flight listening on an Ipod to Michael Finnissy’s five and a half hour The History of Photography in Sound in Ian Pace’s extraordinary premier recording.

Still, I’m thrilled that Stewart Goodyear can play all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in a single concert, and that Nicholas Horvat has the nerve and the stamina to bring off marathon concerts devoted to, say, Philip Glass’ complete piano music or all 840 Vexations repetitions in a single sitting. And I have plans in the works for a New York revival of Serious Immobilities, the late Arthur Jarvinen’s 24-hour long set of variations on Vexations.

Piano marathons abound on YouTube. If you want ten hours of the same “sad” new age piano piece over and over again, go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBk6228JekI. Want to watch the late spiritual teacher and musician Sri Chinmoy celebrate his 74th birthday by playing 74 different pianos in one afternoon? Visit here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwD5z_zpw8A. Or Nicholas Horvath in one of his “shorter” Vexation marathons, clocking in at a mere nine hours and forty one minutes? Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gImDzmNuEDA, and hope that his record-breaking 35-hour-long version will surface.

Any thoughts about long piano pieces, piano marathons, and other related topics?

100 years of the Debussy Études with Jerome Kuderna

Jerome Kuderna (Jerry to his friends) is a pianist who knows how to make music in the present, to be in the moment, to make a score come alive with mindfulness rather than calculation, to reveal clear structures that nevertheless allow for spontaneous flights of fancy, and to impart a genuine sense of discovery even with works that he’s played many times.

This Sunday January 18th 2015 Jerry gives an all-Debussy recital to mark this year’s 100th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s Études for piano. One does not often hear all twelve Études in concert, and I only wish that I could be in the Bay Area for this event. “I can’t think of a better way to begin the new year, musically, than with this music which is among his most abstract but also his most deeply felt,” Jerry says. He’ll also play some of Debussy’s earlier music, including the Suite Bergamasque.

The concert takes place at the Berkeley Arts Festival Space 2133 University Ave (between Oxford and Shattuck), in Berkeley CA at 8:00 PM.

Please spread the word; this promises to be quite special!

The “Other” Jorge Bolet

Two Jorge Bolets existed for piano mavens in the 1970s and 1980s One was the aristocratic yet rather reserved and diffident pianist of his Decca studio recordings. The other Bolet gave unforgettable recitals, mesmerizing audiences with his poetic, imaginative and vividly communicative virtuosity. I was lucky enough to hear the “other” Bolet on peak form in concert several times, and, believe me, his studio recordings rarely showed what he really could do.

Fortunately many live Bolet performances exist in the form of airchecks, archival recordings and stealth audience tapes (in fact, I taped several Bolet broadcasts during the 1980s and occasionally came up with gold). In 2004 the Marston label released a fantastic live Bolet Chopin compilation in 2004, and now brings out a six CD live anthology called Ambassador from the Golden Age: A Connoisseur’s Selection for the Bolet Centennial (Marston 56003-2). The selections span the pianist’s entire career, and features significant repertoire new to his discography, such as Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, Haydn’s last sonata, Brahms’ Op. 117 Intermezzi, plus one of the most colorful and unified interpretations of Grieg’s Ballade I’ve ever heard.

However, alternative live readings of works that Bolet recorded in the studio prove this set’s biggest revelations. His live versions of Chopin/Godowsky Etudes, for example, sing forth with far more freedom and flexibility. Chopin’s F Minor Fantasy and a generous group of Liszt pieces come alive more drama and dynamism than the studio takes suggest. The Liszt/Donizetti Lucia de Lammermoor and Liszt/Verdi Rigoletto paraphrases from the October 3rd 1970 International Piano Library Benefit at Hunter College once available on limited edition LPs are superbly restored, and are superior to Bolet’s studio counterparts. Two large-scale Godowsky paraphrases new to Bolet’s discography (Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Die Fledermaus) also reveal the pianist at his unfettered peak. Although a 1989 Liszt/Wagner Tannhäuser Overture is slower and less incisive than Bolet’s celebrated live 1974 RCA Carnegie Hall commercial recording, the sense of projection and textural control remains that of an “old school” master. Francis Crociata’s extensive and warmly sympathetic notes provide an insightful and informative context for these recordings, as does an essay by the conductor/pianist and former Bolet student Ira Levin.

Marston releases often are pressed in limited editions of 1000 copies, meaning that when they’re gone, they’re gone. So I strongly suggest that you order ASAP from Marston’s website: http://marstonrecords.com/html/futureorder.htm.

Happy listening!

Here comes The White Album, solo piano!

First coffee not enough this morning, need second cup. I’ll probably need a third. And a fourth. Today I go and check out Steinway & Sons’ new midtown digs, where I’m scheduled to do more recordings for their amazing new SPIRIO technology. It allows for recording and playback, and easily is the most accurate digital “player piano” technology I’ve experienced. Then I plunge into a new project that just spontaneously combusted a few days ago. On Monday January 19th at 6:00 PM I’m going to play the entire Beatles White Album solo piano at the Cornelia Street Café.

Yes, you heard right. The White Album. All 30 songs. I’m rearranging, revisiting, deranging, (please don’t use that clichéd word) deconstructing each song. I plan to play them in album order, but maybe not. I have no idea. So between now and January 19th I’m working to get these babies on paper and in my hands. Kind of crazy, but three years ago I did something similar with Thelonious Monk’s complete songs in one concert, and the rest is history. In any case, today I subject Back in the USSR, Dear Prudence and Don’t Pass Me By to scrutiny. The latter is really fast: imagine Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata First Movement meeting “Bringing In The Sheaves.”

Meanwhile, I’m on cup number two and typing at the same time, as I continue to go through Sony’s new 21 CD set featuring Charles Rosen’s complete Columbia and Epic albums, all packaged in original jacket facsimiles. Much of this material is new to CD, including a fabulously clear Ravel Gaspard de la nuit that’s capped by a rocking and rolling and technically smoldering Scarbo. Obviously Rosen had VERY strong coffee before recording that one!