This animation is making the rounds of the classical music world. Pavel Hudec adds gorgeous visuals to a sparkling performance of the spiky 2nd movement of Ravel‘s A minor Piano Trio. “Journey of the Pantoum” evokes some highborn traveler from distant land but, the pantoum is no potentate, panjandrum, or padishah, only a type of poem that informs the piece.
Playing the piano is damnably hard. I have accepted that I will never practice consistently or wisely enough to reach my original wildly unrealistic goals of competence and am contenting myself with slow progress and occasional discoveries. Coaxing a good sound requires talent, coordination, flexibility, and freedom of movement. There’s nothing that can be done about the first item but occasionally something in the joints unsticks enabling a small improvement in the rest. I feel kinship with weekend athletes who get that occasional moment of grace amid hours of futility.
One of the many frustrations is pressing a key in the same place with the same pressure five times in a row and hearing no sound two of those times. The hammer misses the strings by a fraction of a millimeter and flops back with a click and a dull thud. This makes any kind of phrasing next to impossible for the duffer. He either settles for good enough or goes nuts trying to adapt as the instrument itself changes with the time of day and the weather. It never bothers the professionals who figure it out on the fly.
The piano action itself is a bizarre marvel of wood, felt, physics, and prayer. It is surprising that it works at all and there are eighty eight of the bloody things that have to work consistently. It is a lot to ask, perhaps too much. Robert Grijalva of the University of Michigan explains it in painstaking detail using a model of his own invention. For those with less time, a Dutch animator posting as Hoe Ishetmoegelijk (hoe is het moegelijk = how is it possible) has a concise summary.
We now have some sanity in the ship of state and can hope that any honeymoon lasts long enough to get people vaccinated, businesses restarted, and the arts out from under hiding. Even before COVID, anything on the finer side of life was ignored at best and ridiculed at worst under the moron of Mar-a-lago. Many of us who eagerly awaited 20 January and some sign of support to the better things woke up to surprise and not a little disappointment at the overwhelmingly pop-culture besotted inauguration that actually occurred. The shark sandwichplaylist promised much and delivered nothing.
“Whether you are a country soul, a jazz enthusiast, a hip hop head, a classical sort, or just love that old-time rock and roll, music clarifies, inspires, unites, and heals.”
— Inaugural Committee CEO Tony Allen
What galls about the 46-0 shutout is that the United States does not lack for options. Copland and Gershwin are overplayed but we have Ives, Joplin, and Gottschalk. Dvorák was inspired in Iowa, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky lived out their lives here (as did Schoenberg but let’s stay within realistic limits). Hell, John Williams or Peter Schickele could have done something if asked. And, if all of that is still too off-the-radar, there’s good ol’American John Philip Sousa transcribed by good ol’ American Vladimir Horowitz. One pianist, one piano – saves on cost and brings everyone to his or her feet. Regardez from the Hollywood Bowl in 1945.
The story canters on and it doesn’t end well for our redcapped protagonist. There’s a rough (and admittedly forced) parallel in Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ where a King-in-mind-only abdicates to eventual academe, a hapless assassin, and his own hand.
He never would have reached the western coast had not a fad spread among his secret supporters, romantic, heroic daredevils, of impersonating the fleeing king. They rigged themselves out to look like him in red sweaters and red caps, and popped up here and there, completely bewildering the revolutionary police. Some of the pranksters were much younger than the King, but this did not matter since his pictures in the huts of mountain folks and in the myopic shops of hamlets, where you could buy worms, ginger bread and zhiletka blades, had not aged since his coronation. A charming cartoon touch was added on the famous occasion when from the terrace of the Kronblik Hotel, whose chairlift takes tourists to the Kron glacier, one merry mime was seen floating up, like a red moth, with a hapless, and capless, policeman riding two seats behind him in dream-slow pursuit. It gives one pleasure to add that before reaching the staging point, the false king managed to escape by climbing down one of the pylons that supported the traction cable.
Regrettably our national fire is more of the Wolf stripe. The mill burns to the ground with untold consequences to the many where Nabokov’s paler flame is shaded to only take the life of Kinbote/Botkin. We are left to wonder and fear whether a “a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus” is in our futures.
Hear Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore perform it below with evocative added graphics and translation followed by a rehearsal of the same piece with Richter.
But the early universe was very hot, very dense, and gravitationally very different from the comfortable-to-us 1 g we experience today on the surface of the earth. Einstein has convincingly shown that spacetime is accordingly divorced from that human experience. Clocks, for example, are affected by gravity and satnav constellations have to take this into account. Did the first three minutes flow the same way three minutes flow in the here and now? I sent that question to Chris Impey’s online office hour and he kindly answered. It is a tantalizing response and one that will require substantial further study to fully appreciate – perhaps finally diving into the guts of GR. It makes me wonder even more intensely why we anthropomorphize those intervals the way we do.
COVID ravages the world. America bails out Boeing, Wall Street, and if all goes to plan, assorted chunks of 45’s cancerous financial empire. Meanwhile, Germany rolls out support to its artists and musicians, a nod to what that nation holds dear and what it finds worth defending.
In honor of a plague-affected World Piano Day, the German record label Deutsche Grammophon virtually brings together a number of celebrated pianists to help us remember that our mostly corrupt, degraded, and base species nevertheless has had moments of glory.
Move over Igudesman, make way Joo. And roll over Beethoven while we’re at it. He’s hampered by a broken hand at the moment but before he fell to a mechanical bull, Lord Vinheteiro had some fun with a rubber chicken. Maybe more than is strictly legal. Always great to see opera get it in the chops.
Pianist Nahre Sol delightfully explains sixteen levels of pianistic complexity in about ten minutes. That doesn’t mean there are only sixteen but, damn, what a lower bound for the recreational pianist to aspire to!
I’ve studied Schubert’s Op.90 E-flat Major Impromptu off and on for years, long before I was ready for it. In fact, I’m still not. With expert teaching, even novices can use the great repertoire to learn and develop technique as a complement to scales, pedagogical exercises, and short pieces. Up and coming pianist Martin James Bartlett has, at the age of 22, a mantelful of awards and a promising career ahead of him. This Impromptu is no challenge for his considerable technique. Nevertheless, Knight Commander András Schiff gently guides him towards bringing out the orchestral colors hidden in the piece, to bow a percussive instrument like a viol, and frees Bartlett’s voice without imposing his own will on the young musician. Schiff’s legendary dry wit never oversteps into unkindness, except of course to the very late Carl Czerny who often takes it in the shorts in Schiff’s Guardian Lectures on the Beethoven Sonatas. It is gratifying to see that the steps to improvement at ones own level often recapitulates those of experts. This is education at its finest.