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A Visit to the Frederick’s Historical Piano Collection

October 14, 2011

[Article first published as Concert Review: Pianist Junghwa Lee at the Ashburnham Community Church, 10/2/11, with the Frederick Piano Collection on Blogcritics.]

On October 2, 2011, at 4:00 PM, the Frederick’s Historical Piano Collection hosted a concert at the Ashburnham Community Church. Concert pianist Junghwa Lee, who is currently an active soloist and associate professor of piano at the Southern Illinois University, beautifully performed from memory a program of Fauré, Ravel, and Liszt. Lee, a native of Korea, who has upcoming concerts in Missouri, Illinois, London, Paris, and Amsterdam, has been described by various sources as a pianist of “acute intelligence,” with “flawless technique” and “masterful artistic control.” Lee is also an old friend – she and I actually went to school together at Eastman School of Music. This was her first appearance in the concert series, and it was a superb one as Lee skillfully blended historical authenticity on the centuries old piano she performed on along with dynamic interpretations.

The Frederick’s Historical Piano Collection, which supports this concert series, is a gem for classical music aficionados and the general public alike. Maintained by Patricia and Edmund Michael Frederick, this Center is a wealth of resources, mainly concentrated in their wonderful collection of over twenty early grand pianos. A main feature is their Historical Piano Concerts, a concert series featuring internationally renowned pianists performing works on selected pianos of the collection. The pianos are determined by program choice: if the pianist chooses to focus on Chopin, then the piano of choice is the 1840 Erard. If the pianist chooses to focus on piano literature by Mendelssohn, then the Tröndlin (c. 1839) might be a good choice. Performers, like Junghwa Lee, do painstaking research and practice, adjusting their own techniques to accommodate the often more delicate touches of these pianos. One cannot simply pound away on these pianos, sturdy as they are. Sometimes a more subtle technique is required.

On the website and in conversation with Patricia Frederick, an important issue was brought out. When thinking about these pianos in their particular historical stage of evolution and in context with the composer and the piano literature that was produced, one might ask, “What is the relation to sound and the particular instrument?” It’s an important question to think about, and it’s definitely not something performers may think about as often, especially with the more standardized grand pianos of today. Chopin, Ravel, and Liszt alike are performed on pianos like the Steinway, and we (performers and audience) don’t devote to it as much thought. But when performing these same works on older instruments, one must think about such things. These older instruments were not characterized by their uniformity of sound. Each composer wrote for a certain piano, and for a certain sound. Even more importantly, when performing on the piano the music was originally “meant for,” certain features of touch or pedaling or articulation are revealed. This is why the Fredericks place so much importance on playing Liszt on an 1877 Erard or Mendelssohn on a Tröndlin, rather than Mozart on the 1877 Erard or a Brahms on an 1845 Pleyel. The result is definitely a more historically authentic performance.

Junghwa Lee

Lee’s choice of piano was the 1877 Erard extra-grande modele de concert, a favorite of composers such as Ravel and Fauré, who performed, composed, and practiced mostly on such pianos. Liszt also owned several, or variants, during his time. As stated on the Collection’s website, this particular Erard, made in Paris, has a fantastic dynamic range, with 90 keys extending to a low G in the bass. This great dynamic range was shown off to great advantage in the pieces Lee chose. The piano is also characterized by its superb clarity and its slow decay – features unforgiving of mistakes. Lee’s performance was flawless.

Lee opened the concert with two Nocturnes by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). The first one, No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 1, a delicate and contemplative lovely little gem of a piece. Lee played both sensitively. The second one, No. 6 in D-flat, Op. 63, composed roughly 20 years after the first, is equally lovely in its subtlety, but contains many more exciting dynamic changes and delicately articulated arpeggiations. The differences between the Erard and the Steinway were clearly noticeable in parts: the Erard brought out these dynamic contrasts and created some unexpectedly beautiful sounds with its wonderful clarity. Following this piece was the Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), composed by Maurice Ravel in tribute to friends who died in World War I. Each movement is dedicated to a particular friend, and the structure on the whole is imitative of a Baroque dance suite. Ravel drew from 18th century models in the composition of the piece, and it is as much homage to composers such as François Couperin or Bach as much as it is a moving tribute to his friends.

Facsimile of the Sonata in B: click to enlarge

To close, Lee performed the Sonata in B (1853) by Liszt, a massive single-movement masterpiece that demands great technical skill and endurance from the performer, not to mention provides a challenge in memorizing the entire work! Lee was superbly up to the challenge, performing the piece and its wonderful dynamic contrasts and expressive contours with finesse and power. Even from the outset, the piece, with its wildly virtuosic moments dropping into gentler and more melodic sections, is in sharp contrast with the Fauré and the Ravel, which seem more delicate in comparison. Themes are skillfully interlocked and arranged to form this one cohesive whole, or the entire exposition, development, and recapitulation over around 35 minutes of unbroken music. One faces the successful performance of this piece with something like awe, and fittingly so. The conclusion of the piece earned an instantaneous standing ovation for Lee.

All in all, this was yet another successful Historical Piano Concert, and I look forward to visiting again and attending more concerts.

For more information about the Historical Piano Concerts, please visit this link.

For more information about these pianos, and how to support the Piano Collection, visit here. The Study Center is open for free tours year round. 


A little more friction, please.

August 3, 2011

It seems that talk of innovations in classical music and the production of dynamic new performances is a frequent theme in my blogging. It seems that more often these days, I am writing about interesting things other people are doing that work, interesting things people are doing that don’t work as well but still have plenty of value, or even things that I am trying to do to engage the audience a little bit better.

And these are all questions that are definitely fascinating and useful to think about, especially if you’re a young musician trying to scratch out some sort of impression on the classical music scene. Ultimately, we don’t want to do something that is just the same as everything else — we want our art to stand out in some way, make some statement that the public can understand and appreciate, and forge a lasting emotional connection or impression with the listener.

That’s why I was excited when Bruce Brubaker, chair of the piano department at New England Conservatory and piano faculty for the Atlantic Music Festival’s Piano Institute and Seminar, offered to host a classical music forum here at the festival. Mr. Brubaker is somewhat known for his interpretations of 20th-21st century music, especially music by Philip Glass, and has premiered works by Glass, Nico Muhly, and John Cage. An avid writer and researcher, Mr. Brubaker is also preoccupied with thoughts about classical music’s future, and its relevancy in society, as evidenced by his blog, “Pianomorphosis.”

The classical music forum was held on July 27, 2011. This event, held in a intimate classroom setting, was open to the general public as well as musicians from AMF. Both upcoming as well as established artists would discuss the current state of affairs in the classical music world, as well as talk about the innovative means of expression in artists’ presentation of classical music today.

To open the forum, Mr. Brubaker explained some of his thoughts on the state of classical music today. He brought up some interesting points: what if this traditional repertoire (Mozart, Beethoven, etc) that we pianists struggle to interpret and perform isn’t all that is? To clarify, he explained that in his professional life, his concentration is in music written in the past few years. It’s “artistically useful,” he explained, because it’s something that no one else does.

Mr. Brubaker proposed that concentrating in Beethoven is not bad, but ultimately not “useful,” a statement which is perhaps controversial, and perhaps worrying to the Piano Institute and Seminar students and fellows.

This definition of usefulness did not get clarified very well throughout the course of the discussion, though it came up many times. It seems that one of the main purposes of art is to communicate something, whether it be a solid idea or simply an impression. This act of communication is between the musician and the listener, and perhaps “usefulness” is measured by how well the musician communicates something. Is “usefulness” in art defined by how well we as artists communicate something, rather than on the merits of the piece itself? That’s another debate for another day.

But controversy and all, I can definitely agree with where this is coming from. If usefulness has something to do with communication, what we tend to do a lot is simply immerse ourselves in it and forget about the listeners. This can be seen in our recording of Beethoven of Mozart. In some senses, I do believe that Beethoven’s music or Mozart’s music is music that can never get old. It’s fantastic music. However, I do agree with him that specializing in music of Beethoven or Mozart or Liszt is something that’s already been done. If you do a simple search for Beethoven’s piano sonatas, you’ll find dozens and dozens of records of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Fantastic recordings, of course, performed by fantastic pianists.

Each recording purports to present highly nuanced recordings of the sonatas. We’d like to talk about the subtle nuances of the pedaling that such artist brings to the work, and the gentle and artistic slurring. At the same time, what it really is seen as is just “another” recording of Beethoven. Perhaps classical music critics can really appreciate the nuances, but at the same time, what about the mainstream? They see that the great masters such as Horowitz or Rubinstein have already recorded the sonatas by Beethoven, so why is there another “need” for more recordings of the same things, with nuances barely perceptible from the next recording? It is here that the people receiving the information are not participating.

Mr. Brubaker noted that it’s true that in terms of artistry, what these pianists doing could be better than what’s been done before. But where it falls short is in a failure to communicate.

To fix this failure in communication, Mr. Brubaker proposed that we do something new and interesting and innovative; find something fresh that hasn’t really been done. In an interesting analogy, Mr. Brubaker compared music to a scientific experiment: scientists nowadays don’t recreate the same experiments to see if we get something new out of it. It’s the same about making music. It’s not about hearing music the same way over and over. It’s about trying to make something new out of each experience.

It’s an interesting analogy, and one that may not totally hold true for all cases. However, Mr. Brubaker makes a good point. We do need to find something new. A lot of musicians now, he said, impersonate or regurgitate. It’s like the Glenn Gould impersonators, or the Elvis impersonators, or even cover bands in rock music. As musicians, we have to move beyond regurgitation to finding and making something new.

However, it’s easier said than done to make something “new” out of everything.

And that’s the struggle of the musician today. How to make something that doesn’t merely repeat or regurgitates, but does something that hasn’t happened before? It is in this sense that even though classical music is something that has existed for years and years and years,  we as musicians are just figuring things out right now. How do we present our music so that we form emotional connections with listeners that is so desperately needed?

Bach to Bacewicz: First Piano Concert at AMF

July 22, 2011

For the past few years, I’ve served as the director of the Atlantic Music Festival‘s Piano Institute and Seminar: a wonderful opportunity for budding pianists to take private lessons from renowned teachers and performers, as well as for the chance to attend both inspiring chamber and orchestral performances, free of charge, by famous conductors and other artists. On Tuesday, July 19, we kicked off our 2011 performing season with the first piano institute concert of the season, introducing our piano students and fellows to the general public with an eclectic program of music.

The program featured the “usual” Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Scarlatti; to Gershwin song transcriptions and a piece by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. For this concert, out of ten total students and fellows, six performed. Two of these were from our fellowship program, which allows young musicians to have a four-week residency at AMF while they develop skills they need to enter the world of professional concert artists. The rest were students in undergrad and grad schools from all over the country, many of them international.

Justin Jaramillo

Opening our concert was Justin Jaramillo, the youngest member of our program, with the C# Major Prelude and Fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier, Book I. He’s still in high school, going into his senior year in the fall. I first met him at a master class I held at the Eastman Community Division back in February, and I invited him to the festival. One of his major interests in composition, and since AMF also has an excellent composition program, he is hoping to meet other composers who will help him on his journey as a composer as well as a pianist. He performed his Bach piece sprightly and confidently, with assurance ringing through up until the final chord of the fugue.

Monica Schultz

Monica Schultz was the second performer, hailing from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Music in piano performance. Currently, Monica is a rising senior, which means she will be applying to graduate schools within the next few months. She played Beethoven’s Op. 2 No. 3 piano sonata in C Major, first movement. The movement was extremely well-thought out and very deliberate. Monica had lived with this piece for a while, and it shows in her execution of the piece. She also had done some changes with the fingering not long before the performance, which I and the other faculty were a bit nervous about. However, I am proud to say that she pulled it off quite well.

Anna Starzec

Following this, our piano fellow Anna Starzec performed the lesser-known, Sonata by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz, a contemporary piece that is unfamiliar even to me. Anna actually also hails from Poland, but for the past few years, she has been in the United States, pursuing advanced degrees in musical performance. Currently, she is pursuing her DMA in piano performance at Stony Brook. This was the first time I had heard Anna play, with the exception of some accompanying in performance classes, but I was happy to find that she is a brilliant performer. Her performance was commanding. The first movement was virtuosic and dramatic, catching the listener’s attention from the outset, while the second movement was more contemplative in nature. The third movement, the “Toccata,” in contrast, was playful and fun. The applause, rightly deserved,  after she concluded the sonata was so great that she had to come out a second time.

Carlos Avila

Another of our piano fellows, Carlos Avila, who hails from Juilliard, played the more familiar Scarlatti Sonata in E Major, perhaps an unusual choice to follow the highly virtuosic and dramatic Bacewicz. However, it served as an excellent contrast. The piece itself seems simple, even easy. It’s not what one would call a “virtousic” piece. However, Carlos’s playing showed that an excellent pianist may take a piece that may be perceived as simple and basic and bring out the nuances in the work. The ability to keep such a simple piece from ever seeming dull or boring, to me, shows great maturity in a pianist, and is sometimes the hardest thing to work at. This work was delicately played, and Carlos had his listeners riveted. After this, he played Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau and song transcriptions of Gershwin songs by Earl Wild. I Got Rhythm, in particular, a piece with many surprises, was very much enjoyed by myself as well as the audience. Another audience favorite, Carlos had to come out twice.

William Kelley

William Kelley, who is pursuing his undergraduate degree in piano performance at the University of North Carolina as a rising sophomore, played the first movement of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata. This piano sonata is considered one of Beethoven’s greatest and most mature sonatas, perhaps an ambitious undertaking for many young pianists because of the technical difficulty as well as the emotional punches packed into the piece. However, though this piece is perhaps still a work in progress in some areas, William was able to interpret it quite passionately, and the audience enjoyed it immensely.

Ivan Horvatic

Croatian pianist Ivan Horvatic, who has just finished his second masters’ degree in Switzerland at the age of 23, concluded the program with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, a massive half-hour long set of twelve shorter piano pieces in theme and variation format. This is a piece which obviously demands a lot of stamina from the performer, as well as the audience, which Ivan had. His performance was fantastic, keeping the pieces lively and interesting with plenty of character. Despite the length, I noticed the audience nodding along to the beat throughout the piece, and it seemed as if they certainly enjoyed it a lot. I might also add that Ivan is the winner of this year’s concerto competition, and will be playing Beethoven’s first piano concerto with the AMF orchestra at the end of the festival.

All-in-all, a successful and extremely well-played concert for the third year of our piano program.

The second concert of the Piano Institute and Seminar will be held on August 2nd, Tuesday, at 7 PM. For program information, a list of featured performers, and to reserve your tickets, please click here.



July 5, 2011

Milton Babbit (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

[Note: The Milton Babbit section of this article was first published as An Eulogy to Milton Babbitt on Blogcritics.]

Since December 2010, Juilliard has seen the death of three notable figures in classical music: Milton Babbit, composer and teacher at both Princeton and Juilliard; Jacob Lateiner, pianist known for his interpretations of Beethoven and 20th century music; and Herbert Stessin, a pianist and longtime Juilliard faculty member.

They were all remarkable for many reasons.

Milton Babbitt, who passed on January 29 at the age of 94, is a name notable in the classical music world. His music is not performed that frequently–even within classical circles, Babbit was somewhat renowned for music that was extremely difficult to listen to. In fact, Alex Ross, cultural commentator, music critic and author of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, spoke of Milton Babbitt as an “emblematic Cold War composer” producing music “so Byzantine in construction that one practically needed a security clearance to understand it”. Despite these and other complaints that his music was deliberately inaccessible by mainstream audiences, the innovations he brought to composition and classical music remains.

From Semi-Simple Variations from the Piano

Though the public suspected, perhaps as a reaction to something they could not understand, that he actually wanted to alienate his listeners, the fact remains that he brought a different way of thinking into the musical spheres. Besides being well versed in jazz and American pop music and using these influences in his compositions, Babbit believed that classical music, especially contemporary, shouldn’t always just be easy, obvious listening. Instead, he believed that the listener should be willing to take the time to listen to this kind of music. This type of music should be worked at to be understood, somewhat paralleling the views of intellectuals and writers like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. This kind of music was for trained musicians, not for the mainstream.

According to this tribute published on Princeton University’s web page, Milton Babbit’s views were innovative indeed.

Serious modern music, he argued, was not for the average listener — it could be understood only by those with training, similar to learning how to appreciate works in mathematics, physics or philosophy.

Ultimately, to the musician who was willing to take the time to decipher this music, this would be a rewarding listening experience.

Part of the development of this music stemmed from Babbitt’s own fascinations with math and music theory, leading to the development of a particular use of the 12-tone scale in music. This idea originated from Austrian composer Schoenberg, and Babbitt took it to the next level. The 12 notes of the scale, ordered in a particular way, formed the basis for the piece.

Jacob Lateiner

Among other things, Babbitt also embraced electronic music, which excited him with its possibilities. And even though his own music was probably the most inaccessible, he also embraced music like jazz, pop, Broadway, and more. To him, different kinds of music deserved to be heard, and was ultimately worthy of respect.

He also taught Stephen Sondheim, Broadway composer and lyricist of such hits as West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd.

The Juilliard community is deeply saddened by the death of Jacob Lateiner. A member of the School’s piano department from 1966-2009, Jacob brought enormous intellect, artistry and dedication to all he addressed at Juilliard. His particular emphasis in his courses and performances on the music of Beethoven and his contemporaries enriched his many students in innumerable ways. His presence and quick wit will be missed by us all. Bruce Kovner, Chairman Joseph W. Polisi, President

Jacob Lateiner, pianist and much-beloved professor at the Juilliard school, passed away on December 14, 2010, at the age of 82. He loved Beethoven, but he also had a great interest and saw a lot of value in the music of the present, and contributed to a lot of promotion of this music.

Stephen Smoliar, classical music writer for the San Francisco Examiner, wrote that it seemed remarkable that a pianist would be as equally fascinated with Brahms as with contemporary music. He notes that in the past, there was suspicion with such performers, as “everyone” was “obsessed” with cutting all ties with the past through contemporary music. Lateiner did not forsake the ties with the past, noting that there was much one could learn from Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach. At the same time, one could embrace the music of the present. He did not want to place any time period over another, but instead saw value in both. This was his legacy.

Smoliar goes on to say:

(It was all very well and good to worship at an altar devoted to Arnold Schoenberg;  but giving a serious reading to his “Brahms the Progressive” essay was not part of the equation!)  As was evident from last night’s recital at the Conservatory, those days [referring to the rejection of the works of the past]are long gone;  and I, for one, do not miss them at all. It is clear from the repertoire that he cultivated that Lateiner had a hand in their passing, and that may make for a more significant legacy than any specific performance or recording session in which he participated.

Herbert Stessin (Photo by Peter Schaaf)

Herbert Stessin, pianist and longtime faculty at Juilliard, passed away on January 22 at the age of 88.

As a dedicated and insightful teacher, Herbert guided generations of pianist in preparation for a career as a soloist, chamber musician, teacher, and administrator. His quick wit and generous personality were a source of goodwill for all who knew him. His legacy will continue at Julliard far into the future.

As is apparent, Stessin had an influence on the development of many of his students, including Jeremy Denk, concert pianist and author of Think Denk, a notable blog, as noted by Denk in an interview he had with NPR.

He is a hilarious, wonderful man with a tremendous knowledge of piano-playing tricks and secrets, and an infallible nose for when phrases go awry, or when a sound is not right.

Orli Shaham, who studied with Stessin at the Juilliard Pre-College, wrote a beautiful tribute to his former teacher and mentor. According to him, he was a demanding teacher who also helped work his students through any other problems they had. He was a supportive colleague, with a wonderful sense of humor.

One thing stuck out at me:

He demanded honesty in your playing: no faking notes, of course, but even more importantly no faking the emotions. The phrases had to speak genuinely.

The music world has lost three legends. Their presence will be sorely missed.

Perhaps they are just passing the torch… as evidenced by what they have left behind.

To embrace innovation, learn from the past as well as the present, and to cultivate honesty in music-making, among other things… is this part of what we as musicians are called to do?

Spontaneous Applause

May 20, 2011

Photo from website. Credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher

There’s something intriguing about piano duo and Juilliard graduates Anderson and Roe.

Years ago, I went to Juilliard with both Anderson and Roe, though we had something of a passing acquaintance while we were there. Now, I find not only their music videos fascinating, but also their ideas about classical music.

From a recent article in Clavier Companion:

Greg and Liz take an iconoclastic pleasure in smashing through the stereotype of classical music as a tame and harmless anachronism. They want audiences to have powerful, visceral reactions to their music. After hearing their exuberantly virtuosic take on Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz at a concert in Oregon, one woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted “Now that’s a waltz!”

I find much to admire about this “reimagining” of classical music performance. Case in point: here’s their rendition of the Imperial March from Star Wars, arranged for two pianos.

Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe met each other as freshmen at Juilliard, and became fast friends. Their partnership was formed shortly after this meeting, and since then, they have drawn notice, touring all over North America. In 2008, their debut album, entitled Reimagine, was released. As stated on their website, their mission is to…

To make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.

To connect with others; to engage, provoke, illuminate; to serve as a conduit for the composer’s voice; to express our inner lives; to share the joy and fulfillment that only music can elicit.

…to free the world from the constraints of sleep-inducing concerts.

Photo from website. Credit: Brett Cline

This idea stemmed out of a dissatisfaction with the present concert scene. Anderson found himself falling asleep at concerts. Some aspects of the concert experience seemed even destructive. Why were people responding to fun and exciting classical music with seriousness and solemn silence? Clap at the proper time, don’t dance in the aisles, sit correctly and nod in approval. Even the performers themselves imbibe this classical music with a sense of solemnity, as if this music is for the intellectuals. It’s a bit elitist, you’ve got to admit.

Not to mention the lack of emotional connection to the pieces.

It is these problems that Anderson and Roe want to confront.

[Greg Anderson] knew that if even classical musicians were less than excited about going to classical concerts, then the general public would continue to yawn their way through concerts or just avoid them entirely.

And he’s right. In the past, I’ve complained before about our treatment of classical music. We don’t realize that we are preventing our audience from forming an emotional connection to the music through our treatment of it as something exalted, nor do we realize the importance of one.

Picture from website. Credit: Gregory Brown

But I have to say that I was impressed with their methods: combine a revolutionary way of executing an idea with excellent playing with electrical chemistry and the fact that they’re also young and cute. To be honest, this idea of arranging various works for four hands and two pianos isn’t revolutionary. Composers like Mozart have been doing it for centuries. However, piano duets don’t have the reputation of being exciting and electrifying. Instead, they seem to be a method for teachers to give their little students the experience of how to play nice with each other.

But when one listens to Anderson and Roe’s arrangements, one cannot help but notice the sheer virtuosity of the performance. These pieces are technically difficult, clearly out of the realm of “domestic” piano duets.

Not only that, these works are not just arrangements of classical piano repertoire. They’re arrangements of classical orchestral works, like the Blue Danube Waltz, or arrangements of works from the Star Wars soundtrack by John Williams, or mainstream pop tunes.

These are actually… fun to listen to.

Anderson and Roe supplement the album and concert appearances with music videos.

Their music videos, though they seem at first to be the “typical” shots of them playing at a piano I’ve complained about before, prove to be anything but. The shots focus on the intensity of the performance. Maybe the music video doesn’t a particular story or concrete idea, but watching them is an unique experience in itself, and the music videos bring this out by focusing on the interplay between their hands, the breathing in sync, the exchanged glances, the interactions they have with each other. Throughout, there is a sense of awe at their talent, as well as the work and dedication it took.

The music videos bring out this excitement, focusing on the interplay and chemistry between Anderson and Roe, with shots of their hands moving together and over each other without stumbling, the glances they exchange, and the breathing in sync.

The videos also focus on how amazing this music can be, bringing out certain emotions and feelings and moods from the music by rearranging the notes and the texture, as well as through the expressions on their faces. It is always about the musical experience, not only an exchange between the two of them, but also an exchange with their listeners.

In some senses, it all comes back to this: classical music is not altogether a somber experience. Where are we if we play each concert as if we are playing classical music into its grave?

Click picture for link to buy CD

So is it innovative? Should it be better known than it is? Yes. Instead of a funeral for classical music, they are celebrating what it has to offer. They present classical music as something alive. Something that an audience can most definitely connect with. Something that one can fall in love with. They are proving that classical music is neither tame nor harmless. It is not just music for little children to play at piano recitals. It’s exciting, powerful, and deeply passionate, evoking wild emotions as well as peaceful ones.

It’s music that should make its listener want to break into spontaneous applause.


What is the music about? It’s about the human experience, it’s about racing heartbeats and physical friction, it’s about the passions that undulate beneath the restraint of daily life, about the timelessness of dreams, the manic states of being, the unrest of our current times.

Time’s End

March 10, 2011

“I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clothed in a cloud, having a rainbow on his head.  His face was as the sun, his feet as columns of fire. He placed his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the earth, and, supporting himself on the sea and on the earth, he raised his hand towards Heaven and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, saying: There will be no more Time; but on the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel, the mystery of God will be completed.” (Revelation 10:1-2,5-7; Oxford Annotated Bible)

Craft as an extension of faith is something I see a lot of value in. Perhaps it’s in part because of my religious background, but I’ve always been interested in music born out of religious inspiration. This is probably why I’ve entitled my blog “Music for Time’s Ending.”

I don’t mean the type of music one plays or sings in church nowadays, or sacred choral music or masses, which a lot of composers throughout history composed as a means of an income. The influence of religion in music was not restricted to the walls of churches. In some cases, the composer’s beliefs just naturally bled into the fabric of his or her art in the creation of concert repertoire. Often times, these pieces were inspired by something directly related to their faith, like a passage in the Bible or a life experience; or indirectly, like a religious-themed painting seen in a museum (as in the case of Liszt). Take Franz Liszt’s Deux Legendes: these works obviously weren’t intended to be played in a church during a church service. These were highly virtuosic piano works composed by the composer at the height of his craft that were intended to be played in a concert setting despite their religious background.

Whatever it was, it led the composer to use the medium of sound to capture this inspiration, and then take the music to the concert hall to inspire the listeners. I find it interesting to see how these ideas translated themselves into musical form: perhaps a way of revealing God as a means of reassurance rather than evangelization?

Olivier Messiaen

We can speculate. But some time ago, I was fortunate to listen to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” performed by colleague and violinist Alexey Shabalin at Providence College in conjunction with a variety of other artists.

Olivier Messiaen was a 20th century French composer and devout Roman Catholic who often sought to find ways to present the ideas he had into musical form for his listeners to take in. A lot of his inspiration came from the Word as well as Catholic heritage, such as his ever popular Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, or “20 gazes/looks at the infant Jesus”; or his Visions de l’amen, a set of piano duets inspired by the individual’s response to creation, sacrifice, and judgement.

Messiaen was also a huge fan of birdsong and considered himself an ornithologist, often imitating the sounds of various birds in his music. He also had an interest in various rhythms, and was especially fascinated with the relationship time had with music (precursor to his Quartet).

The sketches for “Quartet for the End of Time” first appeared while Messiaen was held as a prisoner of war after being captured by the German army. After meeting three other professional musicians, one a cellist, one a clarinetist, and the other a violinist, Messiaen used this unusual combination of instruments with himself at the piano to form his quartet and premiered the work in front of an audience of 400 prisoners of war and prison guards. In his preface to the score, the composer noted that the composition was inspired by a passage from the Book of Revelation in KJV, which stated, “And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer” (10:5-7). This passage led Messiaen, especially in the face of probable death and an uncertain future, to contemplate the concept of eternity and time: the sense that time as we knew it would cease to exist, as well as evoking the idea of eternity as something in which time was rendered meaningless to human comprehension.

We are present in Time, and God is ever outside of Time. Time becomes a constraint, a separation, if you will.

Image from ... click to enlarge

The way he seeks to illustrate this vision appears through many of the compositional techniques he employs. For instance, in the first movement of this eight movement work, birdsong is used to illustrate the “harmonious silence of Heaven.” The second movement, dedicated to the angel who announces the end of time, features cascading piano chords accompanied by the plainsong-influenced chanting of the violin and the cello. Messiaen described these as the harmonies of heaven. In the third movement’s clarinet solo, titled “Abyss of the Birds,” Messiaen again uses birdsong to evoke the sense of that which is opposite to Time: with stars, light and joyful music as things that are not associated with Time. Near the end, motives return and are subtly altered, parallel to the return of the angel. Finally, the work ends with the violin and piano addressed to the theme of the Word made Flesh: as the piano and violin ascends toward the high registers of their respective instruments, so man ascends toward God. Jesus, as designated by the title of this movement, is a symbol of immortality, of eternity, of someone outside of time itself. It is because of His love that man can reach God and catch a glimpse of this eternity.

This kind of music is the type that is made in the present (or the past) in contemplation of eternity and a subsequent union with God: a healing of the breach, if you will. It’s not music made for after time simply because we don’t know what’s there beyond the leap of faith. We are musicians and composers and artists doing what we can with what we have, in the present, in anticipation of the future. No matter what happens to our music after time is over, we have this right now.

For myself as a musician, maybe I am making music for time’s ending…

With music such as Messiaen’s, we as listeners are left with an overwhelming awareness not only of faith as manifested in art, but also of a testimony of grace at work: within the composer as the creator of this music, and within the heart of the listener as well.

Messiaen left the prison camp three years later and began work at the Conservatoire, where he taught harmony.


Wikipedia article about the Quartet

The Infinite Space

March 2, 2011

Music is an infinite space without limits and boundaries.

— 21st century classical pianist Lola Astanova

Why don’t we make music videos for classical solo piano repertoire?

I’ve always wondered.

Musicians have long acknowledged that images and music together have a certain power. After all, we have film music as a good example. The mainstream pop/rock industry has utilized this to its full extent: it seems that every day, a new music video is coming out, with innovative themes, filming, and more. These videos range from the rather simple to the artistically symbolic to the really weird.

It’s become unthinkable for a mainstream pop musician NOT to have a music video. With a good music video, one can get a bad product some press. With a good music video, one can give an already excellent product more exposure. Music videos tend to be attention grabbing. Producers go all out to get the desired reaction: shock, peace, amusement, horror, or even confusion. Some of these music videos draw their viewers in through images that the song evokes. Regina Spektor’s music video “Fidelity” translates the concept of falling in love fully to the image of a man with no body. Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” features an unfortunate teal bathing suit with sleeves. Britney Spear’s “Toxic” involves inappropriately sexy stewardesses who peel of men’s faces and drive motorcycles.

shook it up

After watching the video, the viewers are entertained, or inspired, or at least pushed to think about what the musician meant to say, if there was something the musician wanted to say.

However, compared to this innovative-ness in music videos, the classical music industry is far behind the times. I have recently heard of classical pianists who have begun to experience with this medium. However, there’s not much I can say about them. Most of our “music videos” (at least for pianists) consist of shots of musicians playing the piano in huge concert halls. A series of Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman‘s videos (dating from probably the 1980s) involves shots of a huge, sparkling chandelier hanging from the top of the concert hall where he performs Schubert and Chopin, emphasizing the typical lavishness people associate with going to the concert. A quick search on Youtube turns up fan-designed videos where Moonlight Sonata plays as background to a set of Beethoven pictures, or calm slide shows of the moon on water and wolves (yeah, I really don’t know).

Recently, a colleague of mine and I discussed a grant idea we could collaborate on. Greatly interested by these very same concepts that music videos followed, he would take pictures, and then project the visual imagery on a screen to accompany a live piano performance. By having the idea of combining visual imagery with live piano playing, my photographer friend and colleague Eric Sung was on the right track. However, I propose that we go a step further.

By this idea of a music video, I don’t mean shots of musicians playing piano in a concert hall. Or a slideshow of birds and trees and flowers accompanied by a piano track. What about taking an idea, a concept, an interpretation, and running with it?

For example, fellow pianist Lola Astanova recently released a music video of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op.3 No.2. Titled Midnight Dream, the 10 minute video’s frighteningly dramatic images pull the watcher in from the very beginning, ala Hitchock style.

As one can see in the Youtube comments, much speculation went on about what exactly Astanova meant to say.

From the highest ranked comment:

A caveman-grammar version of my interpretation to fit the character limit:

Shoved on the piano = beginning of Lola’s career
Tears off “pretty pink dress” = she rejects traditional clothing
Begins Rachmaninov’s “Moscow Bells” prelude = first performance in trendy/hip clothes in Russia
Rips off tape; powerful octave-chords (does that term exist?) at climax of piece = open rebellion in classical music world
Taken away from piano and thrown out = not taken seriously; cannot perform
Just a guess


Ultimately, Astanova left the video up for interpretation, without commenting much on it except to say on her blog, “This is not a Hollywood project, but rather a deeply personal story with layers of meaning that, I hope, insightful viewers will catch and appreciate.”

But I think it is clear that she did have something to say, and there might be a slight sense of bitterness about the classical music world there somewhere. I think Astanova does kind of thinks of herself as something of a rebel, describing herself as hardly the stereotypical musician. She has something of a “sexy” image (even though she thinks otherwise) though I have to say that I’m not really sure that that is anything new, and that I think it’s easier for girls than guys to pull it off. She likes pop. She hates chiffon gowns (hm… some insight into the music video, perhaps) and refuses to be anything other than what she is.

Here’s the link to an interview she had with Gail Parenteau, where she explains her thoughts about the direction of the musical industry and what she thinks is the solution.

In my opinion, the industry needs to loosen up quite a bit. Traditional classical managers need to take a step back and allow the artists to breathe and take chances. They should also come to terms with the fact that the world today is a very different place than it was 50 and even 10 years ago. That’s first… Classical music is not a museum piece, but a performing art that lives only through the artist and the audience. So each concert must be a love affair, not a funeral.

Toward the end of the article, she says something that I agree with wholeheartedly.

Classical music is about basic human feelings, emotions, concerns and worries that are experienced by all people every day. So to say that classical music can only be enjoyed by the “select few” is complete nonsense.

I do admire the concept behind her video and her interview, and agree with her assessment about the industry. I think she may be right: that much of what we do has become stale, boring. While the pop industry has grown in leaps and bounds, the classical music industry has stagnated. Our slowness to embrace the technology doesn’t help that much, either. Pop musicians tweet daily (both “I had a sandwich for lunch” as well as “profound thoughts about life“) as a way to connect to fans. They’ve got Youtube accounts, blogs, and extremely welcoming and interactive websites. A WSJ article commented on the fact that such these methods of promotion were “new” behavior for classical musicians. Astanova also embraces technology in her promotion of herself and her music: she tweets, blogs (Blog name: “Only Words to Play With…”), and has a Youtube channel she regularly updates. (It’s kind of funny to watch her perform, and I don’t mean about the whole sexy image she presents, but she’s a very flashy performer).

In many ways, we are stuck in the past, with our shots of musicians wearing tails in lavish concert hall settings. People tend to think that classical music is the music of a different generation, that it is the music of the past, which certainly should not be true. There is a certain truth in what she is saying. There might be something overly formal about our treatment of classical music.

No wonder people are not drawn into this.

And though we can look at our “music videos” and appreciate them for what they are, we have to admit that maybe they are a bit stale. Who would want to see yet another film of a pianist sitting in a concert hall playing the piano when they could be watching something more engaging? I’m not saying that musicians should pull a Lady Gaga (that might blur the line between doing things simply for the reaction rather than out of any integrity in art). What about taking an idea from the piece itself? Creativity shouldn’t be limited.

what are you DOING??

Often times, pop songs tell a story, or are meant to spread a certain idea or to evoke a certain emotion through their lyrics. Music videos can be a useful  vehicle–or I would argue even essential–to take this idea even further and drive the point home through the use of images.

Our music can communicate ideas, even without words. And the execution of the video doesn’t have to take away from the intellectual nature of classical. It could make somebody think.

This is why I admire groups like Community MusicWorks. They don’t bring the people to the music, they bring the music to the people. What about their concerts held on the side of the road? Music is no longer restricted to the simple recording, or the live performance video, or the huge concert hall with its well-dressed attendees, good as these are. Classical music is not for the old or the well-educated, it’s timeless. It’s something that everyone can appreciate, be drawn into.

People like these are willing to accept that the performance of classical music is evolving as the world is evolving, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s good to ask “what if,” you know? Sometimes it’s good to challenge conventions.