Category Archives: Piano

Piece of the Action: The crazy engineering of the piano key

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.

Youtube Channel: Robert Grijalva

Youtube Channel: Hoe Ishetmoegelijk

The America First Playlist: An Inaugural Swing and a Miss

On inauguration day, a large chunk of America unclenched and exhaled for the first time in four wretched, miserable years.  Five if we count the rancid campaign of naked bigotry and full throated lies that preceded and presaged the disaster of 45.

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 sandwich playlist 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

Us “classical sorts” got jack shit, not even the ubiquitous OFFS not-him-again Yo-Yo Ma bowsynching to Copland as in 2009 although the equally overexposed Rénëê Fleming was said to have sung at one of the side events.   The rest, excluding Bob Marley, was as America-centered and nobrow as anything the MAGA movement could scrape together, excepting of course getting the performance rights.  The perpetually inept LA Times arts and culture department, or at least one of its representatives, thinks things are looking up.  This schlemiel, a tv critic no less, views the cultural future as the wasteland of the Discovery Channel, Bravo, History, and TLC which at one time actually had some decent programming but which long ago sold out to the perpetually dropping lowest common denominator.  It might get better for the arts but it is more likely that the arts will just get redefined just as science was for ‘The Science Channel.’

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 GottschalkDvorák 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.

Youtube Channel: Michael Brown

World Piano Day: Deutsche Grammophon’s virtual festival

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.

Artists include Maria João Pires 0:00 Víkingur Ólafsson 21:15 Joep Beving 40:38 Rudolf Buchbinder 01:05:39 Seong-Jin Cho 01:25:24 Jan Lisiecki 01:44:02 Kit Armstrong 02:14:19 Simon Ghraichy 02:46:18 Evgeny Kissin 03:17:43 Daniil Trifonov 03:26:00.

Update 3/31/20: Well, so much for DG’s benevolence.  The video has been marked Private.

 

Chicken in the deadpan pickin’ out dough: Lord Vinheteiro takes on Rossini

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.

Youtube channel: Vinheteiro

 

Theme and Variations: Nahre Sol adapts and explains ‘Happy Birthday’

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!

Youtube Channel: Wired
and the separate Nahre Sol Youtube Channel

Sol is in good company.  Here are Mozart’s Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” which we know as something else.

Youtube Channel: Canacana Family

 

How to Masterclass like a Sir: Schiff teaches Schubert

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.

Youtube Channel: Royal College of Music

 

Triple Point: N’Kaoua on Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner

Pianist Eric Ferrand-N’Kaoua discusses the mutual influences of three renowned composers and Liszt’s dual role as creator and transcriptionist.  Bugs and Elmer sneak around 10 minutes in … “O Bwunnhilda, you’re so wuvwee//Yes I know it I can’t help it…”

This revolutionary and/or romantic music is played  in the baroque Grand Salon of l’Hôtel de préfecture du Rhône in the city of Lyon.  The French know how to do government buildings.  English subtitles available through the Youtube cc icon.

Youtube Channel: EFNKPiano

 

Lyrical Gangsta: Nature on Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire

Andrew Robinson celebrates the high notes in the mathematician’s inimitable musical oeuvre.
Lehrer agrees with mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (one of the builders of the atomic bomb) that rhyming “forces novel associations … and becomes a sort of automatic mechanism of originality”. As he told me in 2008: “If ‘von Braun’ didn’t happen to rhyme with ‘down’ (and a few other words), the most quoted couplet in the song would not exist, and in all probability the song itself would not have been written.”

Closer to home, Nancy Keystone‘s ‘Apollo’ trilogy cast sharp, cynical, brilliant eyes on whitewashing Nazi rocket scientists into America’s space program.

Vimeo Channel: Nancy Keystone

 

A Major good time: ‘The Trout’ at RHUMC

From l to r: Benjamin Lash (cello), So-Mang Jeagal (piano), Kaelan Decman (double bass), Justin Woo (violin), Kevin Hsu (viola)

Amateur musicians are justifiably in awe of their professional counterparts.  We struggle with rhythm, tempo, dynamics, intonation, and sight reading.  They’ve mastered all that and more at an  early age.   It is all maddening especially the sight reading part.  I’d do a deal with Mephisto in a heartbeat if I could do that without actually working for it.  But, on the positive side, we schmoes reap the benefits of the pro’s superior talent and diligence in concert.   The USC Thornton School sent five graduate students to Rolling Hills last Sunday for a rollicking ‘Trout Quintet’ to a packed and savvy house.  Fine ensemble playing by a group that assembled and converged for this event.   It was damned hard not to hum along, especially with the fourth movement.  Video/audio to be posted if made available.