Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My past catches up with me!

The Pleasant Hill High School Concert Jazz Band
Pleasant Hill, California
under the direction of composer / arranger Robert Soder.

This is the only track on which I played, I think maybe 1969?
It was a brand new Baldwin 7' grand too, by the way.

This performance was pretty much standard by the time it was time to record it, just trying to make a simple two chord faux-samba (?) sound authentic. Jazz improvisation is half instant luck and the rest learned mannerism; there are certain things that sound "jazzy" while others sound too "square," it's learned over a period of acquaintance with some jazz standards and larger band charts by some of the more famous composer / arrangers like Stan Kenton, Don Ellis, Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich, all of whom Bob Soder knew personally. Soder had also studied with the French composer, Darius Milhaud who had studied with Vincent d'Indy. (Is it any wonder that I had and retain a lingering high regard for this obscure French composer?)

I'm not sure who put this up (Jazz Trac Ten), but you can see me as I looked back then on the album cover (right under the blue numeral 1), wearing glasses.  Mr. Soder, also in glasses, whom some said at the time looked like my relative, is just to the left of me.

Soder was a good musical influence on me and I would think on many other members of our band and even after all this time, the various lunchtime jam sessions, other occasions with him including some very important piano and theory lessons, still come to mind.


Friday, May 7, 2010

A Chopin Set

This is to be about my progress in acquiring a romantic repertoire. But first a serious confession: I have always had mixed feelings about Chopin, particularly as his music intersects my technical abilities. I have had no difficulty hearing him or understanding him, but playing him actually assumed, for quite a long time, a daunting prospect. Almost as if we were of opposed temperaments, I have tended to prefer playing the Germans to the French, have had difficulty with the assumptions in much of Chopin's music that the phrase can be as elastic as one pleases and extend and include a veritable conversation in notes. His requirements are quite often physically demanding, though not as much as Liszt, whose music I have hardly dared to play. The other side of it is that Chopin is almost like Mozart in the sense that minimal resources are often used and one is cautioned against making the faintest mistake in not only attack, articulation and phrasing, but in the breathing and very emotion that one is required to carry in order to pull off a successful performance.

To dispense with the notion of Chopin being Polish, he is decidedly ever as much a French composer, in fact one of the important ones who established a distinct style which influenced every composer for the piano that followed him, and specifically of other French composers for the piano including the Impressionists. So, like it or not, one cannot overlook or avoid Chopin; though some professional pianists are not known for playing him in public, you can bet they have played him plenty in private.

Of all his music, Chopin's nocturnes have always delighted me and very few of them I would not hesitate to try and bring up to performance level, but for the time being I have settled on four:

#4 in F Op. 15 #1 (1830-31)
#9 in B Op. 32 #1 (1836-37)
#12 in G Op. 37 #2 (1839)
#18 in F Op. 62 #2 (1846)

Of the four, I have known #9 and #12 the longest, just started reading through #4 and am bringing it along and have also just started #18, all the way through just once. Conceptually, I intend on being intense in a very laid back way with all of these, including the tempestuous middle section of #4, which is why I'm learning it. #9 and #12 each tell little romantic vignettes, #18 is like something revelatory about a so called "heroic" life, something about recalling past glories, hopes for love, etc. All of this is actually emotionally remote from me (as much perhaps as the Brahms intermezzos may be more representative) and absent from my technique, which is to say that I have to learn a bunch of new tricks the likes of which don't occur very often with quite the same importance. In Chopin, every note, every chord counts and in these pieces very often he is asking the pianist to make the piano sing. What I want to do is have Chopin sing his songs but play them as perhaps Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) might.

Meanwhile I have achieved my first objective with the Waltz #2 in A Flat Op 34 #1. This is one very deceptively difficult piece. I have had to repeat and replay several passages until they felt right, nice and easy, natural. Luckily, Chopin, being the master pianist that he was, has usually chosen things which can be played easily enough, once one recognizes the strictness of the fingering required and understands that certain phrases cannot easily be played but by one particular way and they must be learned and memorized or one will always be tormented by the possibility that during a performance one may just as well slip off a bridge. I have only begun to plumb this piece, am still learning it and it may take longer than I thought, but still attainable.

The plan is to have these five pieces make up perhaps a quarter of a program, perhaps as much as half of it. The hours that go into doing this are between 10 and 15 hours a week. During a practice session, which I try to get in when nobody else is home, I like to play a piece very slowly at first so as not to make any mistakes and to best acquaint my hands and fingers with the right way the piece feels to play. For instance, I really want to bring nocturne #12, a difficult piece both technically and interpretively, up to performance level and realized that the only way I was going to achieve this was to play the fast sections at double speed slower and the slow sections at a quicker tempo. When I get the piece down, I shall revert to the tempi as written. I have used this "breaking it down" process repeatedly with these pieces and many others.

By the way another section of possible repertoire consists of the Andante favori of Beethoven and the four Impromptus Op. 90 of Franz Schubert. I have just learned the Beethoven and have known the Schubert for most of my life, but could still learn to play these pieces better, with more precision, etc.