Friday, May 14, 2010

Abbey Simon on the Yamaha CFX

Some notes as I listened to my former teacher, Abbey Simon, play a rare concert in an intimate setting, on an incredibly beautiful CFX Yamaha concert grand:

Despite having broken multiple fingers in a car accident about 10 years ago, which reduced his handspan and his flexibility, he doesn't shy away from the difficult repertoire - the complexity of Kreisleriana, some of the most technically challenging works of Chopin in his Preludes. He misses notes, but he never misses a line or a gesture.

Never does he play a chord with all the notes together, never does he play two notes at the same time. He uses the effects of timing to the same degree and for the same effect as with dynamics - to differentiate, constantly differentiate. I see images of a weaver, dealing with multiple strands, effortlessly braiding and tying, occasionally tangling, but always in the end producing something that seems so organic and solid, something unimaginable when looking at the original pile of threads.
He also seems to spin the threads from thin air, so it is all unimaginable - where did that line come from? I'll go look at the music once again, to see if i can find it myself.

The power of the piano is incredible, especially in this small space. Simon doses and paces with his 80+ years of experience. He is able to play a melody line pianissimo, and the accompaniment mezzo-forte, and yet still make the melody sit on top. Part of it is the instrument, that can sustain at all dynamic levels, but most of it is his ability to listen for those lines, to execute, and to trust that the listener can and will also follow him. I hope all of these people can - I am on the edge of my seat. I think they are following him.

His pulse is impeccable, but that does not mean his tempi are strict. In fact, they are all over the place! He pushes and pulls constantly, with the effortlessness of a jiujitsu master who needs only suggest a motion in order for it to take place. I think of the Matrix film, which innovated with the three-dimensional suspension shot. It seems like time stops for a second and we circle around the scene to another vantage point, all the while holding our breath as if we were also suspended in time and space, then suddenly we fall back exactly into the motion and action that had been interrupted. Simon can do that with a note in a phrase.

When he takes a quick line in the left hand suddenly into the bass, we are thrown against a wall of sound. Again the image of the jiujitsu master comes to mind. It is a shattering feeling, even though, objectively, I can tell that the dynamic level is not high. It is the abruptness of the line, the clarity of the attack and release.

Encore: Mompou Song & Dance - Never knew that he played Mompou.

My turn next to play the CFX, tonight!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Quick reflections on Richter

Writing the following to a friend who is reading a new, soon to be released biography on Richter, I thought that perhaps it was worth putting it on the blog:

When I first went to Paris, I was shocked to find out that he was still playing. I knew that he hated playing in the US, and his fear of flying just reinforced his decision in the 70’s to not play in the US anymore. His concerts in Europe and Japan were so much under the radar, being mostly recitals, that I thought he had retired or was dead!
It was very exciting, during my time in Paris, to have had the Yamaha connection in common with Richter. I would very often arrive in the studios while he was there, but never saw him because they would block off the ground floor studios just for him, and we would all go to the first floor rooms. But then, when he left, we could go into those same studios and work on the pianos that he had just been practicing on! I often played in concert the pianos that he himself had just played.
I also saw the first prototype of the GranTouch, which was a boxy case with a keyboard in it, which was developed for Richter so that he could practice even more hours in his hotel room. He was very happy with it, and Yamaha eventually developed that into the GranTouch, and now the next iteration of that technology is the AvantGrand.

Only a couple of times did I cross paths with him at the studios, and I did do the silly “fan” thing and have him sign my copy of the Prokofiev Sonatas – he picked a passage from the ninth Sonata, which he said was one of his favorites.

Us Americans didn’t know what we were missing!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Junior Academy 2010

The Icelandic volcano was cooperative enough to allow me to spend 5 days in Utrecht, Holland to work with the Junior Academy of the Utrecht Liszt International Piano Competition. Six very talented teenagers were gathered by the Competition, all recent winners of other competitions and recommended by industry professionals. Two were from China, currently living in Holland and New York City respectively. Another came from Japan. One came from Budapest, Hungary, and two others from former East Bloc countries, Georgia and Uzbekistan, the latter currently living in England.
These young rising stars were offered the opportunity to work with three very different pianists - Paul Badura-Skoda, Emile Naumoff and myself - and the program was designed to emphasize the differences in our approaches, hopefully not in a confusing way but in a complementary way. Badura-Skoda's experience with the Classical repertoire as a performer, teacher and scholar is probably unmatched today, except perhaps for Alfred Brendel. Emile Naumoff embodies the once-common role of pianist/composer, and brings a piercing analysis from the perspective of someone who boths creates and recreates. I approached the week-long workshop with the idea of opening their minds a little and sowing the seeds of their future transition from student to independent, autonomous thinking musicians. I had time to introduce two exercises from my Deeper Piano Studies workshops: Learning a piece with the keyboard, and Cooking.

Two public sessions were devoted to the general idea of Practicing, and in particular, practicing with using a keyboard, and Mistakes and how to prepare for them and deal with them in concert. Specifically, we looked at the Toccata by Liszt R. 197a, an obscure work of 4 pages from an undetermined period of his career. It was pretty doubtful that any of these young pianists, in their few shorts years of studies, would have come across this work, so the experiment would successfully allow them to learn a piece without ever having heard it or played it. Unfortunately, one of the participants revealed himself to be a connoisseur of obscure repertoire, and had heard the piece once before. There is a youtube recording of it available, so I'll have to search even harder next time to come up with something completely new!
The gist of the exercise is to create a feeling of anticipation and desire so great that it would be impossible to mistake it for anything else. The act of daily practicing can be a tedious one, and the focus necessary to sustain it over a long period of time must be energized by some sort of desire. It can be a positive desire, or it can even be a negative desire (to avoid a future humiliation, for example), but the motivation must come from somewhere. The act of performing, on the other hand, is a highly emotional one, and that energy must be recognized and channeled in the most productive way in order for a performance to be successful.
By holding off on the first act of playing, something that all six participants admitted would be their first step in learning this piece if left to their own methods, a true desire was being cultivated that even the most emotionally illiterate could not fail to recognize.
This is an exclusively mental exercise, so the challenge for myself was to couch the work in the most kinetic manner possible. Both the language barrier (all non-native English speakers of varying degrees of sophistication, from little to passable) and the age-appropriateness demanded a more physical, active approach rather than an intellectual, analytic approach. It was difficult, but in the end I was happy with how things went.
We focused on meditation and imagery, and of course the actual performance of the piece itself, which was an extremely intense emotional adventure for them, particularly because it was in front of an actual audience!
As for the cooking, these kids (age 14-17) threw themselves into the exercise. We arrived at the home of our hosts to discover the absolutely perfect locale - a typically compact Dutch home, but with two kitchens! Now that's my kind of home!
We invaded the place and took stock of the equipment and work surfaces. The ingredients were late to arrive, stuck in traffic from Amsterdam. We scoped out the area for utensils, pots, pans, cutting boards. The young pianists started off with a little trepidation - aside from one of them, none of them had ever cooked before, and I was asking them to make a full menu of hand-made linguini, a bolognese sauce, a salad and a fruit crumble. The pace was slow at first, as they took care following my guidance, attentively and precisely cutting the fruits and vegetables, delicately pushing the flour and eggs around. Finally, the tipping point of messiness was breached, and their gestures started to resemble something more like what we see on cooking videos.
Our 7:30pm dinner time came and went, but we eventually sat down at 8:30, with 6 guests in addition to the 6 pianist/chefs. The general consensus was that it was certainly edible, and that it was actually quite good, especially for first time chefs!
The second night, after another intense day of work, the six arrived at the house for another try at the meal, this time with different teams attacking different parts of the menu. We had one person call in sick, so only 5 people were going to do the job of 6. And we had a hard deadline this time for dinner.
The wonderful aspect to this exercise is that we can start seeing the results of our previous night's experience immediately - no need to wait to taste the food to know that things were improving. There was a quiet concentration in the kitchen, with occasional calls out from one person to another with a request for advice, a measurement, or a tool. The kitchen got less messy this time, and pots and pans were located and put to use with hardly a question. The efficiency of the kitchen was very satisfying to watch.
As we sat down to dinner, on time and much more serene, we all agreed that there were elements of it that were improved, but other elements were actually less good than the previous night. A great lesson in the real goal of practicing - not with a focus on improving, but with a focus on sensing, remembering and learning. If we had come in without having the previous night's experiment, without going through each element of the menu with a fine-tooth comb to tease out techniques and strategies, without making a plan for the next evening, we would probably have made the same thing, but less well, with less mastery, and certainly with less enjoyment and satisfaction. Lesson learned!

I was forced to leave early due to the volcano, and so missed hearing the young pianists perform their "real" repertoire. Instead, I only heard them play a piece they had learned without practicing (Liszt's Toccata) and a Chopin Mazurka that they had learned in a day without much training in the style of mazurkas (Emile Naumoff's exercise). I'm sure there will be ample opportunities to hear them in the near future, in competitions or concert halls. They are all exceedingly talented. I can tell you that even though I did not hear them play, but because I could see that they had the inner talents necessary to succeed at this difficult activity they have devoted their young lives to, playing the piano.