Thursday, November 8, 2012

Through the Windows of My Mind

When I look at my photo of light and open spaces at Strathmore Music Center, I sometimes see an intriguing world beckoning for me to come there, outside the window.  I think about Alice, who stepped “Through the Looking Glass” and explored a world related to, but in some ways very different from, our own.  In another story, Peter had a wonderful trick of flying in through the window and later flying away through the same window to a very different world.  Wendy loved to listen to his stories about his other world.

The child is father to the man.  Robert Louis Stevenson was an invalid child who spent most of his childhood in bed.  His nurse would carry him to the window so he could look out.  Back in bed, he would play with his toys, sometimes pretending that he was exploring outdoors.  Some of his childhood impressions were expressed years later in his poems in “A Child's Garden of Verses,” which I learned to read on.

Robert Frost wrote a poem about a tree outside his bedroom window.  He said

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather. 

Many of Georia O’Keefe’s paintings are about light and open space.  When she was a little girl,  someone told her to build a doll house.  She went outside, found two sticks of about the same size, and put them down on the ground in a plus (+) shape.  Her dollhouse had lots of open space connected to the outdoors.

Wordsworth was impressed with daffodils that he had seen outside dancing in the wind.  Later, in a pensive mood, he saw them with his “inward eye” and found that

...then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. 

I thought of all these things and will likely think of more just from looking at my photo.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Alleged Death of Classical Music

Please comment on the decline of Classical music listeners in our society and what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend.”  No, this is not the subject of an essay required for admission to a school of music.  It is a question posed on LinkedIn recently and discussed con spiritu online.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reported death of classical music has been greatly exaggerated.  

I got revved up on the subject and wrote the following.

Will people be playing and listening to Lady Gaga in 20 - 40 years from now? Many people love and listen to music by dead European musicians such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Chopin, and many, many more today, and people will continue listening to their music and loving it long after Lady Gaga and her ilk pass from the public eye and ear.

I agree with the music teachers who emphasized the importance of getting classical music to kids when they are young and impressionable. My parents listened to classical music around the house all the time when I was a kid. We didn't have much money, so the only live performances of classical music I heard during my childhood were sponsored by a local brewery. I think that live outreach concerts of classical music for people who would not hear it otherwise are very important.

Classical music does not need to be dumbed down for kids to understand it. I'm old enough to remember listening to and loving Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. I was excited when they were re-released on video and DVD, although I could not afford to buy them until just a few years ago. I still listen to them over and over, love them, and keep learning from them.

BTW, I love listening to and playing, when I can, music by the Beatles, Bill Monroe, the Tannahill Weavers, Ravi Shankar, and more. I play and teach classical and other styles of music, and I can attest that there is a surplus of prejudice on all sides.

Let's not forget that Lang Lang -- the great, young, Asian born and raised, master of classical music by dead European composers -- was first turned on to classical music by a Tom and Jerry cartoon with music by Liszt.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ride, Sally, Ride

I feel saddened by the passing of Dr. Sally Ride and impressed by her legacy. She was the first American woman astronaut and forged ahead despite public putdowns regarding the innate inabilities of a woman in a male-dominated field. Equally impressive to me was her stance as a panel member investigating the tragic blowup of the Challenger space shuttle shortly after takeoff and the resulting deaths of all of the crew. Dr. Ride asked tough questions and was morally outraged at the refusal of NASA administrators to take seriously earlier warnings about the O-rings instability that caused the blowup. I'm glad that I came of age when she did. I have respected her and benefitted from her role as a professional.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Loving a Fiddle

I took these photos of a friend playing his fiddle at a jam session.  I can tell by his hands that he loves playing his fiddle just as I love playing mine.  I see a lot of love in these photos.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

My humble impressions of "French Impressions" by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk

The whole classical music world -- or, at least, the violin classical music world -- has been abuzz for months about "French Impressions," a stunning new recording by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk.  The CD was heralded by tremendous publicity before its release in January of this year and highly praised by reviewers since then.  The recording artists have given interviews about the music and their interactions with each other as performers.  Now I add my humble impressions of "French Impressions."

"French Impressions" contains three pieces for piano and violin written by Saint-Saens, Franck, and Ravel, composers of the French Impressionist style and contemporaries of the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters.  French Impressionist paintings are all about color, nuance, and light.  Likewise, French Impressionist music emphasizes the color of each note.  It is about sound for sound's sake.

Shimmering light and nuances of color by Monet 

Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk have toured and concertized together for seven years.  How have they developed and maintained a productive relationship?  When the two musicians first played together, they just clicked, according to Bell.  They shared some basic musical values.  Their differences are important, too.  Bell says that Denk is a scholar, and Denk says that Bell is a great communicator.  The two musicians argue through their different perceptions of the music and how it should be played, a process which Bell describes as "fun."  They approach and play music as equals, not as a violin soloist with a piano accompanist.

My very first reaction to "French Impressions," after hearing only a few notes, was that the quality of the sound was wonderful in a way that I had not experienced before.  It was rich, coherent, and very close to me.  There was no sense of directionality.  The sound completely surrounded and engulfed me.  I read later that Bell wanted just this quality of sound.  He said that he didn't want the person listening to his CD to feel as though he were sitting in the audience of a concert hall with two musicians onstage.  Instead, he wanted the listener to hear the music as if he were right on stage with the musicians.  The producer of this recording, Steve Epstein, worked hard to get this effect, running around and between the musicians with extra microphones as necessary.  Bell certainly got the results he wanted.

The first piece on the recording, the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Saint-Saens, is by far the most calm and tranquil.  In the first movement, this sonata shows its good credentials as French Impressionist music.  It is about color, not melody.  Most of the piece is tender, gentle, and playful. 

The Franck sonata is the centerpiece of the recording, and it is interesting from many perspectives.     

I have known and loved a 1989 recording of the Franck sonata played  by Joshua Bell and Jean-Yves Thibaud.  The performance on the current CD is infinitely better.  When an interviewer recently asked Bell about the earlier recording, Bell answered uncomfortably that he hasn't listened to it in 20 years.      

The varieties of color, note by note, are especially dramatic in the violin part.  Each note can stand by itself as a work of art.  Bell uses subtle variations in such techniques as vibrato to convey dramatic differences in the color of each note.  The listener can appreciate these variations in different ways.  One can listen carefully to catch the individual beauty of every note, or one can relax and let the stream of colors sparkle, shimmer, and drift by.  I am reminded of John Lennon's advice to lean back, relax, and float downstream, although he was actually describing a very happy LSD trip. 

Many pieces of music evoke images for me, but the Franck sonata gives me a mixed perception of sound and light.  There really aren’t any words to describe this perception.  People who have had good trips on LSD or other hallucinogens have spoken of the mixing of senses.  They say that they can hear colors, taste sounds, etc.  If you want a mini-psychodelic experience, listen to the Franck sonata in the way John Lennon described.

The Franck sonata is captivating from the very start. The first movement conveys to me a sense of the  many colors of sweetness.  In spite of the emphasis on sound for sound’s sake, it has a very lovable melody.  You can walk away humming it.  The part of the sonata that comes closest to the sound of color is, for me, the second movement.  Here the music sounds like shimmering, glowing light.  I especially like the third movement.  One short theme is repeated over and over with every imaginable nuance of color in the violin, the piano, and the combination of the two instruments.  The fourth movement has a distinct, pleasing, and very sing-able melody.

As a violinist, I have benefitted greatly from Laurie Niles's interview with Jeremy Denk on  He discusses the considerable technical demands and virtuosic potential of the piano part of the Franck sonata.  He also advises violinists to pay particular attention to the bass line of the piano because the violin must fit well with it. 

Another very impressive piece on this recording is Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. I was fortunate enough to hear this piece performed live by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk (See my blog on, and I found it very moving.  It is so dramatic that it lifts me up every time I hear it.  It is an unusual jazz piece.  Jazz was born in the U.S., but it has always been popular in France.  Ravel put his own spin on it.  He used jazz rhythms most dramatically in the first movement.  Bell noted that part of the second movement sounds like “Summertime,” which was written much later (1933-1935) by George Gershwin.  The resemblance is striking.  “Summertime” has become a jazz standard and has been recorded over 25,000 times.  It was arranged for violin, performed, and recorded by Heifetz and has become a staple of the violin repertoire.  When Bell played this jazz fragment, he followed in the footsteps of the great Heifetz. In another part of the sonata, Bell plays some flashy pizzicato that sounds like a jazz guitar.                                                                                          

Another interesting aspect of Ravel’s sonata is its dance-like quality.  Ravel wrote a great deal of dance music including La Valse, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Pavane for a Dead Princess, and several ballet scores.    Various parts of his sonata sound like swirling dances, gypsy dances, or high energy foot stomping dances.  I love this recording because Ravel, Bell, and Denk give their listeners so  many varieties of beauty in just one piece. 

"French Impressions"is now among my best loved CDs.  I listen to it over and over, and I love it more each time.


Here are some resources I used for writing this article.  You may find them interesting, too.

Sound samples (with option to buy) and press release on Joshua Bell's website.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Joys of My Childhood, Lost and Found

Ever since childhood, I have loved to read.

Looking back, I can see that reading was my way of escaping the unhappy reality of a dysfunctional family.  I did pay a price for it, though.  My mother used to give me hell for reading.  "You've always got your nose stuck in a book" she'd say.  "You're going to grow up to be an egghead, utterly worthless, just like that no good father of yours."  However, my joy was well worth the price I paid for it.

I suppose that I did grow up to be an egghead, although not entirely worthless, and I married an egghead who loved to read just as much as I did.  During the 18 years of our  marriage, we accumulated many books -- about 3,000, as I estimated during our divorce.  When I left my ex, I just didn't know what to do about all these books.  I didn't know how to figure out which were his and which were mine.  Besides, I felt giving for leaving him.  I took just a very few of the books for myself.  My office mate and unofficial counselor told me, "You should have taken them all."  He was absolutely right.  I should have taken them all.  

One of the hardest experiences of my divorce was finding out that my ex had moved 1,000 miles away and taken our books with him.  I learned that one day at work, and I went out of my office, got into my car, and screamed and cried for an hour.

My ex mailed me just one book out of those 3,000, and that was very painful, too.  The book was a gift from one of my students, who had inscribed it "To my teacher and friend,  Love, Michael."  At first I didn't know why my ex had sent me that one, very special book.  Later, I decided that he did it because he was jealous of all my male friends.  That book means a lot to me, and I still have it.  

After our divorce, when I got myself back together financially, I began to look for and buy some of my favorite books which I had lost.  One of the first things I did when I got my divorce money was to go to a bookstore and come out with my arms full of poetry and Shakespeare and a great big smile on my face.  I wasn't always successful in finding the books I loved, though.  Some were out of print, and others, which I had bought during our travels abroad, were not available in English in this country.

Recently I've started getting books for free or for very low prices through Kindle and other sources online.  The other day I found "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass" with the original illustrations on Internet Archive.  That was one of my lost favorites.  I especially loved the pictures.  I am now reading it and enjoying it immensely.