Here are the ten posts which received the most traffic on this blog in 2011. Enjoy – and Happy New Year!

Describing music – in words and sound

Guest post: FLOW – Transforming Your Practice

Desert Island Discs

Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Should You be Practising Right Now?

Music Apps for iPhone and iPad

Cross-Rhythms Without Fear

Maurizio Pollini plays Beethoven’s Last Sonatas

The Top 10 Classical Music Composers

Review: Mahan Esfahani Plays the Goldberg Variations

I’d love more guests posts in 2012. If you are interested in contributing to this blog, please contact me via the comments box on this post, or Facebook or Twitter (@crosseyedpiano).

Many thanks to all my readers.

In a blog post linked to his book The Musician’s Way, author Gerald Klickstein says that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – that it is very difficult to express in words the essence of music, though it is possible to discuss music in theoretical or academic terms, or to describe the skills and activities involved in making music.

Those of us who have had any formal music training will be familiar with the vocabulary, technical terms and explanatory words used when writing about music in an academic way:

Exposition

Recapitulation

Rondo form

Caesura

Hemiola

Picardy third

Plagal cadence

Dominant seventh

Just a handful, and probably entirely familiar to all of us who studied music at least to A-level (high school) standard. These are all technical terms which tell us about the way music is constructed, and are standard terms when analysing music and describing it in an analytical way. But they don’t tell us much about the essence of the music.

When researching a book some years ago, I became fascinated by the ‘feel’ of piano music under the fingers and hands: what are the physical sensations of playing, say, the opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata or Debussy’s La Cathedrale engloutie? And what emotions are aroused in the performer as he/she plays such pieces? We should never play ‘cold’: even in practice we are – or should be – processing information all the time. How did that passage feel under the fingers? Was it awkward or comfortable? Did I like the sound I made there? What can I do to improve it? Sometimes, you know when you’ve nailed a particularly finger-twisting section when it suddenly flows with a wondrous synergy.

How do we describe that feeling to non-musicians, to the lay reader who simply wants an idea of a concert experience or performance in a review, or to the student who needs a simplified explanation of how to tackle a certain aspect of technique?

I encourage my students to think of descriptive words for the music they are studying. I was inspired to do this largely by the delightful and ever-expanding Musical Adjectives Project. Many students were quite inventive, proving that they had spent some time actually thinking about their music, and a lot of them felt the exercise had been very worthwhile. I fed the words into wordle.net to create a word cloud – you can see the results here: I now regularly use this exercise in my teaching, and also when learning music myself.

In my music reviews, I’ve learnt to be both concise and descriptive, while avoiding unnecessary analysis or off-putting technical terminology. Most readers want a sense of what it was like to be there, the excitement of a concert experience that will encourage them to book tickets to see a particular performer. As a pianist myself, I know how a professional pianist has achieved a certain effect (ultra-light staccato, pristine passage work, sonorous chords) but I don’t think the average reader wants exhaustive explanations of arm weight! However, one technical term, ‘jeu perlé’, often used in relation to semi-quaver passages in Mozart, is perfect as it is also visual: imagine a pearl necklace, each pearl bead separated by a tiny knot. Well-executed jeu perle playing has a tiny ‘silence’ or ‘knot’ between each note and thus each sound is clearly defined.

I find myself using architectural or artistic words to describe the music I’ve heard in concert: arabesques, curlicues, filigree, arching, soaring, sweeping. Or more physical terms: bouncing, jogging, stamping, limping, dancing, throbbing, breathing, sobbing, hand-filling. Or weather: showering, thunderous, misty, dripping, rumbling, splashing.

We talk about ‘colour’ in music, often in relation to dynamics, from the most delicately nuanced pianissimo to bold fortissimos – and all the subtle shadings in between. Then there is light and dark – ‘chiaroscuro’ – bright, hazy, shimmering, veiled harmonies, tenebrous chords….

Sometimes we might describe a piece of music in relation to another: a passage of Debussy played with “a Mozartian clarity” (back to jeu perlé), Bachian arabesques, Schubertian melodies, Debussyan harmonies. Or we can use the sound of other instruments: brassy, fluting, string or woodwind articulation.

So, taken all together we have a rather fine vocabulary with which to write about music. Of course words can never recreate the exact sounds of a piece, and each listener’s and concert goer’s experience is highly personal and subjective, but if a review or description of a work excites you, moves you or gives the sensation of actually being there, then the writer has done a good job.

More on the Musical Adjectives Project here

Imagery. Emotion and Imagination – blog post by 3-D Piano

 

 

***GUEST POSTS INVITED***

I’d love some more guest articles on this blog – on any aspect of pianism, piano teaching, performing or general musical musings. Please contact me if you would like to contribute.

There was an expectant hubbub of chatter, and some rather nervous laughter, when we arrived at Steinway Hall on Saturday for the first EPTA Piano Day, hosted by Scottish pianist and UK EPTA Chairman, Murray McLachlan. I met my friend Lorraine ahead of the event for strong coffee, and, in Lorraine’s case, a big breakfast, at a nearby Carluccio’s. Thus fortified, we walked the short distance from St Christopher’s Place to the hallowed ground that is Steinway & Sons London showroom on Marylebone Lane.

Like many an aspiring pianist, I have pressed my nose to the windows of the Steinway showroom ever since I can remember, marvelling, as a kid, at the big black shiny beasts squatting in the spotlit window displays. I’ve never, until now, had the chutzpah to go in and actually play one. My friend Michael, a fine amateur pianist with a penchant for Rachmaninov and Debussy, bought his Model B there a few years ago: apparently, the level of service was beyond superb. Well, so it should be if you are spending a cool £67,000 on what is, for some people, a glorified piece of sitting room furniture.

The piano - Steinway Model D

Behind the grand showroom, and the Steinway Hall of Fame, there is a small recital space, complete with a big black shiny Model D, a full-size concert grand. The event, the first, (hopefully of many) organised by EPTA, was open to EPTA members and their adult students, and was run in the form of a workshop, with verbal and written feedback on each individual performance by Murray McLachlan.

Although I have attended several courses at my teacher’s house, and performed in her house concerts, I had never participated in an event like this before, which would involve playing in front of 30 people I’d never met before. However, I regarded it as useful preparation for my performance Diploma – plus an opportunity to play a really fine piano.

The repertoire offered was quite varied, with, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good helping of Liszt, some Chopin Nocturnes, two of Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, the opening movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109 Sonata and his Rondo  ‘Rage Over a Lost penny’ (energetically played by my friend), Messiaen’s Prelude La Colombe (‘the Dove’) and my own piece, his Regard de la Vierge, from the ‘Vingts Regards de l’enfant Jésus’. The standard was generally advanced; thus, we all had great admiration for a woman who played a piece from her Grade 4 repertoire. As she told me afterwards, “I was determined to come, no matter. I just wanted to play this piece in front of other people.”. The atmosphere was supportive and sympathetic, and, as Murray kept saying, there was a strong sense of a real love for the instrument and its literature amongst the participants: we were all there because we love it!

Formerly a very reluctant performer, I have learnt the benefits of playing for other people. Interesting things can emerge from a performance and can offer a wholly new perspective on one’s music. Also, it is very important to put it “out there” and to offer it up for scrutiny before an audience. Performing also endorses all those lonely hours we spend practising, and reminds us that music is for sharing. After a fairly rigorous morning the day before having my playing critiqued by a pianist friend, I was fairly clear about what I wanted to do with the Messiaen. It was therefore very cheering and encouraging to receive such positive feedback after my performance. Murray was extremely understanding, kind to those people whose nerves got the better of them, or those who stumbled. This was not a professional concert, after all, but rather a gathering of committed amateurs. It was a very enjoyable and encouraging day; my only criticism is that is was perhaps too long. The day finished with a performance of Liszt’s Italian Années de Pèlerinage by Angela Brownridge, but I did not stay for this as I had to get home – and Lorraine was playing in a competition.

Just before we left, we nipped into the Steinway Hall of Fame, and, like proper “piano tourists”, photographed each other at a Model D with a price tag of £115,000.

It was an excellent day of piano music, and I do hope EPTA will organise further events like this in the future.

EPTA

Steinway & Sons

Some of the repertoire played (links open in Spotify):

Bach/Busoni – Chaconne in D Minor

Beethoven – Rondo a capriccio in G, Op.129 ‘Rage over a lost penny’

Schubert – Impromptus, D. 899 (Op. 90): Impromptu No. 1 in C minor. Allegro molto moderato

Chopin – Nocturne No.13 in C minor Op.48 No.1

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S.161 – 6. Sonetto del Petrarca no. 123 (Più lento)

Ravel – Sonatine: Modéré

Messiaen – 8 Préludes : I La colombe

The author playing Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge

My reviewing job for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to attend many more concerts than I used to, and I am at the Southbank at least as frequently as I am at the Wigmore Hall these days.

Each venue has its own audience, with its own quirks and foibles. The Wigmore audience is famously high-brow – or at least would like to be regarded as high-brow – elderly and “north London” (the hall is often nicknamed ‘The North London Concert Hall’). Members of the audience are expected to sit in reverential silence, to know when to clap, and to generally behave impeccably. I have twice been asked to remove my watch at the Wigmore because “the tick is too loud”. Sometimes, if a member of the audience coughs too much, or fidgets, or – Heaven forfend! – rustles a programme, they will be met with fierce looks and angry, hissed “shusshings”. It is therefore always interesting to see who has turned out for a more unusual or adventurous concert programme, or a young performer debuting at the Wigmore (“doing a Wigmore” as it is known in the trade). At Di Xiao’s recent debut, the audience were younger, many were fellow Chinese, and my friend and I also spotted quite a few musical “slebs” including cellist Julian Lloyd-Weber. The presence of such “slebs” may suggest that these people know something we don’t, or that the soloist is “one to watch”. Last summer, at a charming and touching Chopin concert with readings, organised by pianist Lucy Parham, one couldn’t move for theatrical lovies: both the Fox’s, Martin Jarvis, Timothy West and Prunella Scales, to drop but a few names. Stephen Hough tends to attract young, mostly gay, acolytes, and if Till Fellner is performing, you can almost guarantee to see his teacher, Alfred Brendel in the front bar. As a member of the ‘press pack’ now, I often arrive at a concert to find the venue has put all the journos together (excellent seats at RFH and QEH, right at the back at the Wigmore), and we all scribble away trying not to read what our neighbour has written, just like being back at school!

The audience at Cadogan Hall is different. Stepping into the champagne bar there’s always a great buzz of chat and shouts of laughter, enough to suggest that this audience is likely to be younger, more awake and maybe more receptive to what they are about to hear. Audiences on the Southbank are generally younger, more trendy, more relaxed, while the Proms audience is different again – a real mixture of music afficionados, groupies, students, curious tourists, old timers who go year after year and people who are just beginning to explore the great annual music festival. The enthusiasm of the Proms audience is really infectious and undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of the Proms this summer.

Sometimes the soloist or musicians themselves can affect the way the audience responds and behaves during a concert. At Maria Joao Pires’s wonderful Schubert series at the Wigmore a few years ago, the musicians (the Brodsky Quartet and singer Rufus Muller) remained on the stage while Pires played her solo pieces (a selection of Schubert’s Impromptus) and the audience was asked not to applaud until the end of the first half. This created a wonderful sense of an intimate, shared event, and we might have been in Schubert’s salon, enjoying an evening of music making amongst friends, for friends.

But if we, the audience, are too much in awe of the soloist, we can put up invisible barriers which can affect the atmosphere in the concert hall. This was very apparent when I heard Daniel Barenboim perform as part of his Beethoven Piano Sonatas series some years ago.

Recently, I’ve attended and performed in informal concerts in other people’s homes. My husband likes these kinds of concerts, with wine and friends and chat between pieces. As he rightly points out, this is a much more natural way of enjoying music that was written before c1850 (when Liszt, almost single-handedly, made the concert into the event as we know it today), and reminds us that music is, above all, for sharing. With the increasing popularity of presenting music in more unusual and intimate venues like The Red Hedgehog or Sutton House (London), or in the beautiful library of the cloisters in Wittem (Belgium), musicians are able to bring music much closer to the audience, literally and metaphorically, while events such as Speed Dating with the OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) offer audiences the chance to meet the musicians after the performance.

Audiences Behaving Badly

Some other small venues:

Woodhouse Copse, near Dorking, Surrey

Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, Walton, Surrey

Guildford Guildhall, Surrey

The Forge, Camden, London

Rook Lane Arts Centre, Frome, Somerset

On Saturday 22nd October, it is Franz (Ferenc) Liszt’s birthday. So here’s a small selection of ‘Liszt links’, pictures, music, film and other ephemera, some serious, some not, to celebrate his bicentenary.

Please feel free to comment and/or contribute more ‘Liszt Links’

Notes from a Pianist – Throughout Liszt’s bicentenary year, pianist Christine Stevenson has been blogging about Liszt in a series of delightful, thoughtful and quirky posts.

From The Musician’s Way Blog – Franz Liszt: Self-Made Musician

Liszt’s favourite pudding, as noted in Alan Walker’s biography The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847

Visit the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, near Guildford, Surrey (UK) and see an 1845 Erard, autographed by Liszt’s great rival Thalberg. And many other wonderful pianos and early keyboard instruments with “composer associations”.

Liszt's Bosendorfer piano at the Franz Liszt Museum in Budapest

Website of the Liszt Museum, Budapest

Stories from a Book of Liszts, a novel by John Spurling (with accompanying CD)

A close-up tour around the Liszt Apartment in the Budapest Museum

Read journalist Jessica Duchen’s intelligent article in Standpoint magazine

Wilhelm Kempff playing ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de Pèlerinage, 2ème année: Italie, the first piece by Liszt I learnt seriously. (Link opens to Spotify). And here’s a YouTube clip of Marc-André Hamelin playing the same Sonetto

 

Cartoon of Liszt in concert, with ladies swooning before him

Martha Argerich plays ‘Funerailles’

And Louis Kentner plays the ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude’

“If nothing else, Fran, you’ll be the best-dressed Diploma candidate this season!”. So declared a good friend of mine who knows well my love of clothes and who has often been an enthusiastic companion on shopping sprees.

Joking apart, the Trinity Guildhall regulations state that one should dress as if for “an afternoon or early evening recital”. So an “evening gown” is not required, but something pretty smart nonetheless. Long before I’d decided on my Diploma programme, I’d already worked out what I was going to wear: a Little Black Dress from LK Bennett with 1950s styling, demure yet faintly sexy, in a fluid jersey fabric which is comfortable and easy to wear, and low-heeled mock-croc shoes. A small heel is essential for pedalling, while a high heel renders the action virtually impossible.

One of my Twitter friends made a slightly tongue-in-cheek comment to me about a blog post on piano teacher’s attire, so this article is, in part, to satisfy his curiosity, as well as my own musings on what pianists wear.

Yuja Wang at Hollywood Bowl (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Recently, Chinese piano Yuja Wang created a bit of a furore amongst critics and concert-goers for appearing in a dress more at home on the fashion catwalk than the concert platform: a thigh-skimming, body-hugging frock and gold stilettos. When I saw the pictures of “that outfit”, my first thought was “how on earth can she pedal in those shoes?”. What occupied the critics publicly was whether such attire was “appropriate” for the classical music scene, while privately many of them were no doubt slavering with delight over the view of a slim young female leg during the 40 minutes or so of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. This hoo-hah says something about the perception of male and female artists in the eyes of both audience and critics.

The days of the traditional virtuoso “uniform” of white tie and tails for male pianists are long past, and it is rare to see anyone but the most senior musicians in this attire now (of all the male pianists I’ve heard this year, only Charles Rosen and Maurizio Pollini wore white tie and tails). Lounge suits, open-necked shirts, Nehru collars, silk shirts with diamonté studs (Robert Levin) – I’ve seen them all this season. Paul Lewis, Steven Osborne and Stephen Hough all favour a sort of black “smock” (presumably for comfort?), and Hough is rarely seen without his shiny metallic shoes on the concert platform. Meanwhile, Turkish pianist Fazil Say cut a rather shabby Oscar Wild-esque figure in a black tee-shirt and long velvet coat not unlike a dressing gown.

Angela Hewitt

But while the men are allowed to “go casual”, women pianists are still expected to turn out in a more traditional evening gown, and any deviation from this can be met with cries of horror, the wringing of hands and general pulling of eyes. Some, like Yuja Wang and Angela Hewitt, have made the fashion statement part of their artistic persona: Hewitt favours designer gowns, bright lipstick and red shoes. When I saw her at the Wigmore Hall in June she wore an extraordinary dress with some interesting zip arrangements, not unlike the “safety pin dress” by Versace, famously worn by Liz Hurley, and I confess the zips interested me more than her Chopin. Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida likes the finely pleated creations of Issey Miyake, and so, when she raises her arms, a lovely image is created of the gossamer wings of a beautiful butterfly. Helene Grimaud, who I saw at the Proms this summer, chose a stylish, somewhat mannish, grey suit for her performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

Fazil Say

At the end of the day, it is of course entirely up to the performer what they wear, but it is also important that their dress reflects the occasion, for the moment the performer walks onto the stage, the audience’s attention is engaged and awakened. Mannerisms, attire, the way one greets the audience, all these things matter, and all contribute to the experience of the performance for the audience, as well as a means of differentiating performer from audience, and defining one’s role for them.

I admit I’m torn between admiring Ms Wang’s chutzpah for wearing such a daring outfit while wondering whether she wanted the audience to focus on her music or her legs.

And as for my Twitter friend’s enquiry about what I wear to teach piano….. I favour easy, comfortable clothes, my Wright & Teague charm bracelets, which chink and tinkle as I play, low-heeled shoes or boots (it gets cold in my piano room in the winter), and some interesting beads, a pendant or a scarf…..

More on Yuja Wang’s dress here