Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas, 2011

Today I had some things that most people have and don't appreciate: family and friends. My cousin, with whom I recently reconnected, wrote me a warm, cheery email. I had Christmas dinner, as I have for several years, with some friends I care for very much. Today life was good.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Octave violins

Another octave violin (OV4) made by Bruce Gewirz.  

It differs from his previous ones in that he started with a small (14") viola rather than a full size violin.  The sound is deeper and fuller because the viola body is made to sound that way.  I'm having fun playing it and breaking it in.

Here is a family portrait of 3 octave violins made by Bruce Gewirz from 14" violas.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oxygen and the Sibelius Concerto

I was looking forward to this concert for a long time: Gil Shaham playing Sibelius's Violin Concerto. I had never heard Shaham in person, and I love the Sibelius.

I had been sick with a migraine and dizzy spells for a few days before the concert. By the day of the concert, I was feeling better, although not quite fully recovered. I had no doubt that I would go to the concert. Many times in my life, I've had to choose between feeding the body and feeding the spirit. I have always chosen to feed the spirit, even if my body feels worse temporarily, and I've always found that this works for me. What good is a healthy body with a weak spirit?

When I went to the Kennedy Center, I was still feeling somewhat dizzy. I moved slowly and carefully, and I was fine until I started up the stairs toward the entrance of the concert hall. I fainted, but I regained consciousness as soon as I hit the ground. I have had similar experiences over the last few years. I am under the care of two good doctors, so I wasn't worried. Several people, including a nurse and a doctor, stopped to help me. However, an emergency medical technician employed by the Kennedy Center came over and took charge. He kept trying to talk me into going to the emergency room of a nearby hospital, and I kept say, "I want to hear this concert. I really want to hear this concert." He gave me some oxygen to breathe, and it made me feel much better. He admitted that I looked better, but he still tried to talk me into going to the hospital. I can be very stubborn, and I was. He had me sign a release form, and I stayed for the concert.

The Sibelius Concerto was quite a thrill. It pulls the listener into it with a fine, taut line. The first few measures say so much with so little. The orchestra starts playing very softly, and after a few measures, the violin enters very, very softly. You almost have to strain to hear the violin at first. It plays a gradual crescendo, lean and tense. The vibrato on the first few notes communicates wonders. "In no violin concerto is the soloist’s first note—delicately dissonant and off the beat—so beautiful," says Michael Steinberg in the program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I have recordings of this concerto played by several great violinists (Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Jascha Heifetz, and David Oistrakh). I've listened to the first few notes of each recording by each violinist over and over. Most of these violinists start with a very narrow vibrato which heightens the tension as it pulls you in. The sound swells and the emotions become more intense.

At the concert, I was prepared for the first note on the violin. I leaned forward in my seat and watched Shaham's left hand. His initial vibrato was larger than the ones I've heard in recordings of other violinists, and his first note sounded richer. He maintained a rich, warm sound throughout most of the concerto.

Like many well known violin concertos, the Sibelius presents formidable technical challenges to the violinist. For example, the violinist must play a trill with the first and second fingers while playing a second moving line with the third and fourth fingers on the next lower string. Other challenges include double stopped sixths which must be played precisely in tune for correct effect, double stopped glissandi, up bow staccato double stops, runs with rapid string crossings, and passages of harmonics. I watched Shaham's left hand playing all these challenging maneuvers with speed and grace, as if they were easy. His left hand gymnastics were awe-inspiring. In addition, his tone was beautiful throughout the concerto.

I don't have a clip of Shaham playing the third movement of the concerto, but this video of David Oistrakh playing it shows the astounding pyrotechnics of his left hand.

I always understand music better when I can see, as well as hear, it. I love to watch themes being tossed from one group of instruments to another, musical conversations between groups of instruments, power plays (one section grabbing attention with a sudden fortissimo), unexpected assertions by the percussion instruments, and other tours de force. In the Sibelius Concerto, the soloist sometimes joins in the action just like a section of the orchestra.

The Sibelius concerto encompasses a variety of intense emotions, sometimes changing in rapid succession. At times, the soloist plays striking changes in tone from loud and forceful to soft and tender. The contrast focusses the listener's attention on the soft, tender notes and makes them even more endearing. Both Shaham and the the National Symphony Orchestra conveyed the emotions with stunning effects. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, entranced, through the whole performance.

Although I've never been to Scandinavia, the Sibelius Concerto sounds to me like a Scandinavian winter with its stinging cold, biting wind, dancing aurora, and brilliant sunshine.

During the intermission after the concerto, one of the Kennedy Center staff came to me in my seat and said, "I've been standing at the rear of the concert hall and watching you to be sure that you're OK. I saw you in animated conversation with the woman sitting next to you, and I knew that you were feeling fine." He was right. The combined effects of the oxygen and the Sibelius Concerto had completely restored me.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Has Hilary Hahn gotten too fishy?

Hilary Hahn recently posted a clip of herself interviewing a fish, but not a real fish. She got many positive comments from her fans.

This is what betta fish are really like.

Now Hahn's fish video has been reviewed by a music critic, David Stearns, at  He talks about the musician/reviewer relationship and tells some interesting stories about his own experiences. Then he writes, "Until now, she has had a relatively sweet relationship with the news media….[but in her fish interview] she seems to mock the news media with surprisingly cheap shots."

I'm a great fan of Hilary Hahn. I love her artistry as a violinist. I also love her communication with the public via Q&A sessions and autograph sessions after concerts, her blog, her Twitter posts, and her TV interviews. I know that she started interacting with kids in the early part of her career, probably because she was a child prodigy and likes interacting with kids. However, I do not like her fish interview. I feel that she is getting too cute-sy. I generally enjoy her posts on her Youtube channel, but now I wonder whether she has gone from being amiable and joyful to being just a little too cute.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On hearing Leonard Bernstein's Symphony 3, "Kaddish"

Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, is a massive work for orchestra, two choruses (one adult and one children), and a narrator.  The emotional impact is also massive. 

Leonard Bernstein once said that he loved both music and words, and that is why many of his musical compositions have singing or narration as integral parts.  His third symphony is built around the traditional Jewish prayer, the Mourner's Kaddish.  From the time the Kaddish Symphony was first performed, it received harsh criticism for its narrative.  Even Bernstein was unhappy with the narrative, and he found the right person to rewrite it when he read a book by Simon Pisar.

Pisar had unusual qualifications for the task.  His resume included Auschwitz and Harvard. Today he is one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors.  He was captured and taken to a Nazi death camp when he was only 10 years old, and he saw his family members taken to their deaths.  His perspective as a child, underscored by the children's chorus in Kaddish, gives a special meaning to the symphony.  When the American army came and liberated his death camp, Pisar ran joyfully to the white stars on their tanks.  After his release, he needed considerable caring and rehabilitation.  Fortunately, he had relatives in France and Australia who took care of him.  He finished college in Australia, earned doctoral degrees at Harvard and the Sorbonne, and became an international lawyer.  The came another miracle:  He decided to spend his life working for reconciliation between nations and ethnic groups who saw each other as enemies.  From his high ranking positions in the U.N., UNESCO, and the State Department, as well as his role as adviser to President Kennedy, he worked proactively to reconcile traditional enemies, including Communist and democratic countries, Jews and Arabs, and the U.S. and Muslim terrorists.

Bernstein tried in vain for many years to convince Pisar to write a new narrative for his Kaddish symphony, but Pisar believed that his writing skills were not good enough to accompany Bernstein's music.  Only after 911 and the surrounding hatred did he agree to write the narrative.  He also felt compelled to write because the memory of the Holocaust was fading.  It was very difficult for him because he had to immerse himself in his own personal memories of the Holocaust.

Since Pisar's narrative is far better than anything I could say about it, I will quote some of his words and insert a video of part of the performance.

In the invocation, the first part of the narrative, Pisar tells God that his Kaddish is dedicated to

...Your tormented children:
Jews, Christians Muslims and all others

Yearning for Freedom, justice, and peace
In our genocidal, fratricidal and suicidal world.

Then he describes some of his own emotions.

I utter this lament with grief and anger
Welling up from my own traumatic past

My first tears are for my family and my people,
Perpetual victims of religious and racial persecution
That reached its climax in my childhood
Destroying everything and everyone around me.

Then Pisar expresses, for the first of many times in this work, his anger against God.
While You, supreme ruler of the Universe,

Stood idly by.

Pisar speaks of his own personal losses in the Nazi death camps and rails against God for letting him down.  He speaks vividly of the cries of the victims before they died in the
gas chambers and honors their fighting spirit just moments before death.

In this part of the narrative, Pisar has a brief but dramatic utterance that is one of the most hard hitting parts of the entire symphony for me.

Can you pardon my sins, Lord?
Can I pardon Yours?

The climax of the narrative occurs when Pisar recalls endearing memories of his grandmother singing lullabies to him.  Even this sweet memory engenders conflicting feelings in him.

I can still hear my grandmother's sweet voice,
Singing me lullabies about how good, how loving,
How merciful a God You are
The memories of my grandmother's lullabies
Has always soothed me to sleep,
Even when I became an adult.
But in my nightmares all I could see
Were her eyes and hand
Raised in fervent prayers to You
As the killers took her away.

This part of the symphony features a solo soprano singing as Pisar remembers his grandmother singing.  In the performance I heard, the soprano sang absolutely beautifully.  The applause told me that the rest of the audience felt the same way I did.

For the remainder of the symphony, Pisar speaks of his love and devotion to God, but some anger and disappointment remain.

Yet I have never deserted Your fold
Nothing could ever shake my ancestral vow to worship You
It is high time that You reaffirm
Our everlasting covenant.

Even his current blessings are mixed with past sorrows every single day.

Above all, Father
You blessed me with a new and happy family --
A wife, children, and grandchildren
Whose sparkling faces
And sterling characters,
Resurrect every day
The memory of those I have lost.

Pisar's written narrative and, particularly, his reading of it, are what make the symphony truly great for me.  He is a gifted speaker who increases the emotional impact of his already forceful narrative.  I am glad that his performance is recorded on video so that many more people can appreciate it now and in the future.

The performance by the orchestra and the choirs was nowhere near as strong as Pisar's narration.  Music critics have blamed the conductor.  Pisar's fear that he could not write words strong enough for Bernstein's symphony were proven false.

Although the memory of the Holocaust is already fading, it remains fairly strong with some of us.  I come from a Jewish family, and I was brought up on memories of the Holocaust which gave me nightmares and triggered my childish fear of persecution.  When I grew up, these memories receded from center stage in my mind.  However, I could never bring myself to read accounts of the Holocaust or to see Margaret Bourke-White's photos of the death camp Buchenwald.  I almost did not go to hear the Kaddish Symphony, but I'm certainly glad that I did.  I needed to be reminded.  Many other people, including Jews younger than I and Gentiles, did not have the horrors of the Holocaust instilled into their minds during childhood, and they needed to be taught or re-taught.  I believe, as Pisar does, that the memories must be kept alive to honor the dead and to work hard to prevent another Holocaust.

And what is my message if not that man
Remains capable of the worst, as of the best
That unless we curb our predatory instincts
Heed the lessons of the horror-filled past,
Cherish the sanctity and dignity of human life,
And uphold the universal values shared by all our noble creeds
The forces of darkness
Will return with a vengeance
To doom our dreams of a radiant future.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The jam must go on

Saturday I took a 2 1/2 hour trip by public transportation to go to a sing/jam session, as I've been doing for several months. It is always well worth the trip. Even on a hot, humid day with bad air pollution and huge crowds of holiday tourists, it was well worth the trip. Some of the members are very good singers or instrumentalists who know lots of great songs, and everyone is high spirited.

Friday night I had played my viola and loved it, and I packed it in its case and carried it with me on the long trek on Saturday. When I arrived, I eagerly took it out and tried to tune it, but I met with disaster. Every single tuning peg was stuck. I couldn't move a single one of them one little bit. I knew why, too. During that long, hot, humid trip, the wooden pegs had swelled so much that they got stuck in their holes. I asked a guitarist to help me, knowing that his hands would be stronger than mine. Turning a wooden peg, as on the viola, is quite different from turning a geared, metal peg, as on the guitar, so I gave him detailed directions. He had some success but wisely stopped before he might do any harm. Desperate to play along with the others, I chose one string and played moving my hand up and down that string, playing melody whenever I could and improvising harmony the rest of the time -- quite a challenge. When the group played another song in another key, I was stymied. Desperate to cool my viola down, I put it on the AC vent. (In general, cool air is less harmful for wooden instruments than warm air.) I hoped this would help, but it didn't.

During our break, one of the fellows, who had seen my troubles across the room, came over to help me. Of course, I thought. Why didn't I think of him? He plays guitar at our jams, but he also plays violin and viola. He understood the problem completely and knew just how to solve it. Within a few minutes, he loosened all the pegs and tuned all the strings. I was so happy and so grateful.

When the jam restarted, I played along happily. Shortly before my turn to lead, I thought of a song that I really love that is rather complex and that I hadn't played in a while. I played the song anyway, and it went really well. I played it with spirit and love. I could see the others transfixed by the music. When I finished, a few told me that I sounded really good. However, the magic didn't end there. One woman who knew all the lyrics sang the song solo, beautifully, and the whole group hung on to the song again. When she was finished, the two of us quickly agreed that this was one of our very favorite songs.

I was really high. I felt the great excitement of playing music for an audience when things go very well. It was as if I had lit a spark and thrown it into a fireplace, and in response, I got a roaring blaze.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The greatest gift: In appreciation on Father's Day

Does this violin have a gorgeous varnish or what? It was made some time around the year 1900 in Germany. It belonged to my violin teacher, who lent it to me when I was in high school. It had and still has a beautiful, warm sound. My family didn’t have enough money to buy a good violin like this. After I had played it for a few years, I told my father that I would be very unhappy when I had to give it back to my teacher. “You don’t have to give it back,” my father told me. “It’s yours now.” He had been paying my teacher a small amount of money every week for years. This violin is, in more ways than one, the greatest gift I’ve ever received.

Happy Father’s Day.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Placido Domingo is a superstar in Iphygenie en Tauride

I rarely go to see operas because they are so expensive.  Recently, however, there was one I just had to see:  Iphygenie en Tauride with Placido Domingo as the star male character in his last performance with the Washington National Opera.

Someone forewarned me that now, at age 70, Domingo's voice isn't nearly what it used to be.  After the opera, I listened to some of his old recordings on Youtube and found that his voice has changed very little over the past few decades.  His voice is magnificent, strong, and very expressive.

Iphygenie en Tauride
is a very good vehicle for showing off Domingo's voice.  This production is stark and austere, and the staging is almost completely static.  The real drama in this opera is psychological and sensational.  Oreste and his friend Pylade have been taken as slaves, and one of them, to be chosen by Iphygenie, must be killed.  Oreste has killed his mother (before the current opera begins) and wants to die.  Pylade also wants to die.  The two sing a very beautiful duet, each saying that the other is a better man and each wanting to die.

Just as Iphygenie is about to kill Oreste with her dagger, the two recognize each other as sister and brother.  They embrace each other and life itself. 

The musical score by Gluck conveys the drama very effectively.  It is direct and forceful.  The instrumental and vocal music hang tightly together and accentuate the sense of drama. 

In this production of Iphygenie en Tauride, with its minimalist staging, Placido Domingo conveys enormous drama with his singing and his acting.  Unlike most opera singers, Domingo considers himself  a performer first and a singer by virtue of a lot of hard work.  In a recent interview with CBC news* he said, "It was never easy for me to start singing...I was just building my voice little by little.  I never had the idea that I would be able to sing opera."  When he began singing leading roles in the early 60s, critics said that he would only continue for two years.  Critics have seldom been so wrong.  At age 70, he is still going strong.  In his role as Oreste, he sings a high baritone role.  He is, indeed, a performer.  He uses his singing, body movements, and facial expression to play his role with great emotion.

In his last vocal performance with the Washington National Opera, Placido Domingo shows that he is still a superstar of opera.  I wish that he would stay in Washington longer.

*CBC News, Arts and Entertainment, June 3, 2011 

Friday, April 15, 2011

More spring photos

Peeling bark on London plane tree, 4/6/11

 Yellow pansy, 4/6/11

 I've never seen a pansy quite like this, with no dark coloration around the center.  Photo 4/6/11

Daffodils, 4/6/11

 Unknown, 4/6/11

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Think spring

Spring comes to this area intermittently, with episodes of winter alternating with episodes of spring.  I do a lot of nature photography in spring to help keep the mood of spring singing within me.

Green returns

Red maple, 3/27/11

 Think pink (pink hyacinths)

Plane tree and Japanese cherry tree 

These violets are tiny (less than 1 inch long) and are scattered about in lawns.

Hosta sprouts, 3/27/11

Hostas, 4/6/11

Daffodils, 4/04

Daffodils, 4/04

...more later

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin passed away on March 12, 1999 after a long and fruitful career as a musician.  He is known primarily as a great violinist and conductor, but he also wrote some very good books on music and used music to transcend cultural boundaries.

He studied and practiced yoga to help him achieve a state of deep relaxation, and he believed that the relaxation made him a better violinist.

He said, "I can only think of music as something inherent in every human being - a birthright. Music coordinates mind, body and spirit.”

We are fortunate that we are heirs to his legacies.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Gaddafi's last stand?

9:00 AM (Eastern USA time)

There is fierce battle in Tripoli.  Gaddafi's last stand, I hope.

Although foreign journalists are not allowed into Tripoli, the people there are communicating with the rest of the world via Twitter.

Béhéeddine HAJRI
ya rabb RT @ Ya rab please protect the people of Tripoli and let today be gaddafi's last day.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Libya, Feb. 22, 2011

#Cartoon - The Courageous People of #Libya #Feb17 #Jan25 #Gad... on Twitpic

The Times They Are A Changin'
Bob Dylan

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Joshua Bell in Recital, Take 2

I bought a ticket to hear Joshua Bell on January 26, but I didn't go because of the snow.  Only about 300 people showed up for the concert, and a complete power outage stopped the performance.  The crowd milled around in the dark lobby, where Josh played "Variations on Yankee Doodle Dandy" and gave out autographs.

The concert was rescheduled for the following week, and this time I went. I am so glad that I did, because it was a truly fantastic concert. 

The first piece on the program was Brahms Sonata 2 for violin and piano.  Even with two master performers, the piece did not move me. 

The second piece, Schubert's Fantasy in C Major, was the high point of the scheduled performances for me.  I had prepared for the concert by listening to a podcast in which Josh  talked about the music he would play, and I was intrigued by what he said about the Schubert.  He surprised me by saying that the Schubert piece was more in the Romantic period style than the Brahms.  He described Schubert as a great melodist whose works are very tuneful, and I hadn't thought of Schubert in these terms.  Josh went on to say that the piano part of the Schubert Fantasy is very difficult to play.  The first few notes of the Fantasy swept me away.  The piano played shimmering ripples of sound. with a warm, light feeling.  I felt as if there was a warm breeze under me, lifting me up and carrying me along.  I felt my breathing become slow and deep, in synch with the music.  The violin entered so softly that it was barely perceptible, but when the violin played a little louder, its sound was just like that of the piano -- warm and soft.  Soon, the sound of the violin was more prominent, and it took off in a true flight of fantasy.  There was some technically difficult work in the violin part, which Josh did not mention in his podcast.  He played it beautifully and without showing off.  He even played a very narrow vibrato.  His style was subtle, not shouting, but he still conveyed emotions very strongly.  I believe that this accomplishment is is a sign of a great master.  I loved this piece so much that I looked for recordings of it on Youtube and, but none of them was very good.  Most of the pianists played with a clunk-a-clunk-a sound, and none of the violinists could play with the subtle beauty that Josh did.  I am so very glad that I heard that performance live.

The last piece on the program was Grieg's Sonata.  In the podcast, Josh said that this was the first time he has performed this work in public.  He said that he likes to add at least one new piece to his performing repertoire each year to study and improve his musicianship.   The music sounded a lot like Norwegian folk music and folk dance music.  It was definitely Romantic and even showy at times.  Josh let go and showed off with his fiddle.  Of course, he played beautifully.

Then came the encores.  To everyone's delight, Josh played Wienawski's Polonaise Brilliante.  I could see people in the audience move up to the edge of their seats and sit bolt upright to listen. The Wienawski is technically very difficult to play and wonderful to listen to.  It has lots of fireworks and great melodies.  It was fun to hear Josh play it with superb technical and musical showmanship.
For the last encore, Josh and the pianist played one of Chopin's Nocturnes.  I don't know who arranged the piece for violin and piano, but the two instruments complemented each other beautifully.  Its mood was gentle but sparkling.  It was a happy piece to end the program with.

This concert had a coda.  Josh was giving out autographs, and while standing in line I talked  to some interesting people.  One was a teenage boy carrying a violin case.  He was a wunderkind who had started taking Suzuki lessons at age 4 and is now quite accomplished.   He told me that he wanted Josh to sign one of the two satin ribbons placed in his case as a bow holder.  I asked him about his bow.  He is now trying out some of them and favoring a Hill bow.  These are in the $4-10K range, so I'm not familiar with them.  He is also trying out some violins at a lutherie which carries instruments at $10K and up.  He knew a lot about everything related to the violin, and he shared a lot of his knowledge with people standing in line.  When we got close to Josh at the autograph table, we saw someone open her violin case and give Josh the instrument to sign with his Sharpie pen.  We really wondered about that.  When he got near Josh, the virtuoso obviously recognized him.  He jumped up and shook hands with great warmth.  The two chatted for a little while, and after Josh had autographed his bow holder, he went around to the other side of the table so that his mother could photograph him with Josh, who gave him a big hug.  The student's mother asked Josh to autograph her son's practice folder.  Josh paused briefly to think and then wrote "May you be happy playing your violin always."  I thought that was beautiful.  When I got to speak to Josh, I asked him about signing the violin.  He shook his head and said "I really didn't want to do it."  He signed my program, which I will give to my luthier.  I really liked Josh's style.  He was very laid back, unpretentious, and warm, especially with fans he knew.  He gave us a great ending to a great concert.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A new look at old photos

I have been going over some of my old digital photos and reworking them with my photoediting software, Photoshop Elements and Aperture.  In many cases, I get surprisingly good improvements.

One of the most powerful abilities of photoediting software is bringing a photo out of what looks like darkness.  I took a series of pictures at a gathering of folk artists from Bolivia at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2004.  My camera's batteries were running low and I had neglected to bring spares, a mistake I have not made again.  Here is a dramatic before-and-after pair.


I also used photoeditors to bring out the true colors of a Painted American Lady butterfly I photographed in 2006.