Monday, November 29, 2010

Review of Diane Walsh, pianist

Diane Walsh

Recital Hall, Mannes School of Music

November 19, 2010


Most music teachers start out as performers on the piano, guitar, violin, whatever instruments they’ve majored on. Often though, having settled into academe, they lose their chops. I’ve known teachers who were brilliant at producing excellent students but can’t be persuaded to perform, citing lack of practice time, exams to be graded, or sadly, stage fright.

Diane Walsh is a pianist who joined the faculty of Mannes School of Music in 1982. She has led complementary careers as a concert performer and as a teacher. In a high-end institution like Mannes, you must constantly show your mettle and continuous fluency in your chosen musical instrument. A dictum in institutions of higher learning is: publish or perish. In more crass terms: show me the money.

Ms. Walsh showed the money all right, and then some.

She devoted the first part of her programme to pieces by Liszt – and not just the usual suspects (Liebestraum, Hungarian Rhapsodies etc) but the more meditative pieces: Vallee d’Obermann from Anneés de Pelerinage, Sonetto 104 del Petrarcha, and Valse Oublieé #1. Having attempted some Liszt myself, I could only sit in awe at Madame Walsh’s command of the piano in regard to these pieces. For instance, she played Liszt’s transcription of Paganini’s La Campanella, not the original version, which is technically difficult enough, but the re-arrangement by Feruccio Busoni, one of those fin de siècle piano virtuosos who took a look at a Chopin or Liszt piece and thought:”Wouldn’t it be great if I can re-arrange these lovelies so that nobody can play them except me?” In fact, one such person, Leopold Godowsky, re-arranged Chopin’s etudes to make them even more difficult to play thus to show off his pianistic prowess. Little wonder these versions are rarely played today.

Busoni’s version of La Campanella, though requiring intense technique, is still played today. Ms. Walsh played this version with verve and power. I noticed one or two instances of jumbled passages, but that's live performance for you. I personally would be happy to muddle through that one piece, nuances or no.

Ms. Walsh, who is slim, and dignified attacked the Liszt pieces with a force and technical prowess that belied her seemingly fragile frame. Liszt has often been accused of being not as profound as Chopin or Schumann because he filled his compositions with frilly runs that served only to show off a pianist’s skill. However, Liszt’s frilly runs, showy as they are, require fingers of steel wrapped in velvet. Ms. Walsh had fingers of this kind plus the intelligence and sensitivity to bring out the song in the music, delineating the melodies and countermelodies with clarity and feeling.

The second half of Ms. Walsh already weighty programme was devoted to just one piece, Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C Op 17. It is in three movements, the first being quite emotional and rhapsodic, the second a rondo with a march like quality requiring much finger extensions, and the last one is meditative. This was the first time I heard this piece. It sounded totally Schumannesque to me: lush chords, romantic melodies that didn’t really grab me immediately and sweet in a Germanic way –if that makes sense. Schumann died an insane man but before he died, he left behind a body of music as compelling as Chopin’s, though I must confess Chopin is way ahead of him in hummable lyricism.Still, who hasn't played or listened to his Traumerei without feeling emotional at one time or another?

A big bravo to Diane Walsh for this pleasurable evening of scintillating Liszt and profound Schumann.


To learn more about Diane Walsh, you can go to her website:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Notes about "Il Trovatore"

I watched Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” last night at the New York Metropolitan Opera. It had everything a 19th Italian opera is expected to have: a lurid and wildly improbable plot that features infanticide, people-burning, attempted abduction, metallurgy, gypsies, duels, battles, jealousy, onstage make-outs, suicide and fratricide, all wrapped up in the beautiful music of Verdi that is sung even when people are dying or going to die onstage.

I came to watch it for two things: to find out the context of the “Anvil Chorus” and because cheap seats were available (I didn’t have to stand). The music was as conventional as it gets (it's Verdi after all) and there was only one really big scene, the opening of the second act when gypsies sang the “Anvil Chorus” to the rhythmic pounding of actual anvils onstage. That was a thrill.

I adored the mezzo-soprano who played the role of Azucena, the gypsy mother. She had a rich full-bodied voice that reached out above the sounds of the orchestra up into where I was, on Family Circle, a nice name for the nose-bleed section. Not so impressive was the tenor, a Korean singer replacing an ailing tenor originally slated to perform the role. His voice seemed thin in comparison to the mezzo, although by and large, he did the job in sportsmanlike fashion. The soprano impressed me with her really strong vocal command, sweet in one instance, hysterical the next. I was especially amazed at her high C's while she lay on the floor singing an aria while she was dying of a self-administered poison. Cool! The baritone was profound, like baritones are supposed to be.

The orchestra members scooted out immediately as soon as the opera ended. When the soloists and conductor were bowing to the generally enthusiastic crowd, the pit was already empty. That deprived the conductor and singers a chance to gesture at the orchestra, prompting them to stand and acknowledge the applause. As a musician who has backed up shows endlessly on cruise-ships I know the feeling. Done that, we’re out of here, bravos be damned, crew-bar here I come! Besides, the opera was three hours long. Four young men seated in front of me walked out after intermission and never came back. They could have relocated themselves somewhere else in the house or (and I suspect this), they could have transferred themselves to the Boom-boom Room at the Standard.

I enjoyed this “Il Trovatore” immensely, especially because I was able to accommodate my derriere in a plush seat. I saw “La Boheme” standing up for three hours. I’m not going to do that again.

There were a lot of empty seats in the house, especially in our section. In fact, there was only one other person in my row. She was German. She said she was in New York with her husband. They lived in Basel, Switzerland. They only had five days in the city (it was a business trip): “Too short!” she complained. They were staying at the Sherry-Netherlands, which is a pretty pretty pretty ritzy hotel. She was fulfilling a lifelong dream to watch an opera at the Met. Her husband stayed behind at the hotel. She had already seen “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins” (“I enjoyed that!” she proclaimed.) She was beaming with joy.

It looked like she was ready to sing the Anvil Chorus with her husband back at the Sherry-Netherlands Hotel.

Auf wiedersehen, fraulein!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Brad Mehldau's "The Highway Rider"'

The question that popped into my head as I waited in line to get a cancellation ticket for Brad Mehldau’s sold-out “Highway Rider” jazz concert at Carnegie Hall was: “Why are there so many Chinese here?” There was hardly a white Caucasian in the crowd of concert-goers waiting to enter Carnegie Hall. Does the cult of Mehldau go all the way to Beijing? I saw groups being disgorged by buses, and some of them plainly did not seem to look like jazz fans at all, merely tourists out on a New York thing. And then, it occurred to me: of course, the conductor of the string ensemble backing him up, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was Chinese-American, Scott Yoo . That, and the fact that this concert was available for discounted group sales would partially explain the preponderance of Asians in this gathering. Still I had to believe that it was Brad Mehldau they were really coming to listen to, not the back-up orchestra.

Unfortunately, only six people were able to get cancellation tickets. Fifteen or so of us received the not really devastating message that no further tickets were available (the Carnegie has a no standing room policy).The twentysomethings behind me who hailed all the way from Barcelona decided to buy tickets for next day’s concert by Chris Potter, the saxophone player. Mehldau was coming back in January, so I could catch him then, or in the Blue Note or the Village Vanguard when he was in town again.

Brad Mehldau is the current holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. Not content with playing jazz, he has branched off into composing set pieces for piano and orchestra, a la Wynton Marsalis, with more classical pretensions.

I was sufficiently intrigued by his current musical project that, back in my apartment, I listened to some music files of “Highway Rider” which were available on YouTube.

Almost immediately I thought I heard in some of his pieces something of Erik Satie with strings. It made sense, because Mehldau is a very economical player. Even with rapid runs, he plays only so many notes that were needed for the musical idea that he was expounding, and nothing more. He has also a muscular feel in the way he presses his note. You could feel a strength withheld in his passages, a power that was there, but not banged out. Mehldau has all the qualities of a Zen warrior at the piano, gentle but forceful when necessary. Perhaps the presence of so many Asians in his Carnegie Hall concert was not by chance after all. He reminds me of Keith Jarrett, without the moaning.

As for the compositions themselves, they seemed to me like new age music with sufficiently unusual chord changes that made you listen and think. They bear repeated hearings. Mr. Mehldau wrote a more or less clarifying explanation of “Highway Rider”s program in the concert’s program notes, invoking the names of Beethoven and Strauss. Whatever. Joshua Redman (saxophone), Larry Grenadier (bass), and Jeff Ballard’s and Matt Chamberlain (percussion) rounded out the jazz quintet, backed up by the St.Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Scott Yoo.

Back in the ‘80’s, while working on a cruiseship, a young bandmember fresh from music school started enthusing to me about a jazz pianist who had given a lecture-performance at his class. There was awe in his voice when he described this pianist.

“What’s his name?” I asked

“Brad Mehldau,” he replied. “Man, that cat can play.”

I had heard of him, but I was weaned on Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, as I'm sure, Mr. Mehldau may have been at some point in his I wasn't that interested.

“Good for him,” I said.

The bandmember however always managed to gush about Brad Mehldau every chance he got, so there was a point when I thought: “ If he is going to say that name again, I’m going to scream!’’

Times have changed. Nowadays I can’t listen to Oscar Peterson anymore without muttering: “Blahblahblah!”

Bring on the Brad Mehldau’s of the world.

A Walk Through Ibiza (1994)

Ibiza is one of those islands in the Balearics whose happy conjunction of balmy weather and antiquity conspire to induce a feeling of well-being in the traveller. I hiked up through the old portal of the citadel of Eveissa (that's its Catalan name) into a whitewashed town that hugged the face of a steep hillside. Up I went through winding cobblestoned pathways to the ramparts of the citadel, reputed to be the best preserved in the Mediterranean. Fantastic views of the sea greeted me, as did groups of other tourists, British and German, who looked at me curiously. I even heard one little boy from a window mocking me with a singsonglike chinese nonsense. i've gotten so accustomed to it that I ignored their stares and went on enjoying the place. There is a serenity about the place, the cathedral, the cream-colored ramparts that reminded me of those sleepy baroque churches in the Philippines and the other forts and citadels that the Spaniards left behind. Back at the foot of the hill I hooked up with Peter and Lindy, the ships duo, and we went traipsing about the old city where we settled into the El Faro restaurant. We had a magnificent spanish dinner consisting of mussels (red wine/tarragon/olive oil/garlic and tomato sauce), the freshest, sweetest tasting shrimps, paella a la valenciana (chicken, mussels, shrimps, crabs, salty saffron rice,clams) , two pitchers of sangria, apple schnapps, and a vicious chocolate/cognac drink called lumumba cafe (cuba libre). We went back to the wrong tender boat, but finally made it back to the Costa Romantica to join other intoxicated crewmembers. It was a beautiful, gastronomically satisfying evening in the Balearics.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Playing Jazz

A simple tune, notes strung out like beads

Nothing to it.

You’ve heard it a thousand times, same beads rattled by karaoke singers, mangled by out-of-tuners.

Something like “ The Girl from Ipanema.

Overplayed. Ovebelted. A crowd-pleaser. A convenient song to pick up and muck around with. How many times have you said there oughta be a law prohibiting playing songs like this? You play it anyway.

Tentatively you peck out chords to introduce the tune. F followed by Gb7 flat 5. Once, twice, a few times more until you decide to dip into the water.

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walkin’…

There really was a girl from Ipanema who used to amble by Antonio as he was having his caipirinha. She was a sort of Lolita to the cafe crowd (male, of course). If she was still alive today she’d be a prune.

Tall and tan and old and wrinkly
The crone from Ipanema goes shufflin’…

Then comes that interesting bridge which, despite its familiarity, still manages to charm. Ebmin chord on F. The aural equivalent of a plain duckling suddenly blossoming into a swan. I can think of few other songs that have such a startling and exotic bridge as this (at least on first hearing). Maybe Prelude to a Kiss, Ruby my Dear, Chelsea Bridge… Even though lounge musicians have given it a bad name and snobbish jazzers have put it firmly in the “corny” status, TGFI remains popular. I suspect it’s the only bossanova song the populace at large is really familiar with.

Improv time. Start with the same starting note - G - and then slowly pick up the outline of a completely different tune while still following the chord progression. I don’t have a plan, except to keep it simple at first, and then build up to some kind of a climax down the line. A bit of foreplay in an extended piece of lovemaking.

Some musicians like to barrel into improvisation by executing lines and rapid runs that only serve their egos. Lines that shout out “ME! ME! ME!”

I like to start incognito. I construct a line from little dots, little points. A hint, tentative beginnings, little questions. I am Seurat starting to paint La Grande Jatte. OK, maybe just a little drawing.

I start to flesh out fuller and more defined phrases. I fill in the spaces between notes with appoggiaturas and blues in chromatic seconds. Grace notes arching from fourths. Accents and cadences falling on odd notes in unexpected places. I make a conscious effort to surprise because there is no point in playing the same stale bromides. I am not always successful, but I try.

Sometimes I fall into wild guesswork, hackneyed phrases, learned scales. After all, I am what I hear. There is nothing new under the sun. I have heard and transcribed solos by Oscar, Chick, Jarett, Shearing, Miles and many others. They either come out whole or subtly transformed by my present emotion, which could be joy, pain, sorrow, indifference, annoyance, or exuberance. Sometimes I play them with a hint of envy and despair because I feel so inferior to these giants. Right now, though, I’m into the moment and hear nothing but myself and my fellow peformers weaving their respective melodic woofs.

Maybe I hear a motif from the alto sax and I latch on to it, examining it, scratching at it like a kitten playing with a ball of twine. The twine starts to unravel. I form a sentence from his adverb.

TGFI is a bossanova. I dance to its rhythm. The drummer keeps time, the bassist thumps on his bass, but more than listening to their cadence I listen to an inner syncopation. I leap inside and make out like a carnival dancer in Rio. If I do not, my improvisation will sound like In the Mood in drag. I avoid unnecessary movements, occasionally lifting an eyebrow or closing my eyes in embarrassed rapture. I am no moanin’ Keith Jarett though, and I prefer it this way. I let my fingers do the actual dancin’.

Jazz is a strange form of musicmaking. You’re free to play whatever, however you want. It is on the spot composition, in scope limited only by your imagination and technique. But, as in classical music, you need to conform to certain rules and conventions. And the most important one is your playing must exhibit a “feel” for the blues. A mere juxtaposition of conventional scales however ingenious does not a jazz improvisation make. You have to imbue your soloing with the blues, that stuff of black suffering lodged in the space between notes in the scale that can’t be written out, but simply felt. I try to feel like a black man, with not much success. Still, there is no way around it. Funny, though. Sometimes – oftentimes – I hear pianists play this blue note, yet their playing is as soulless as stone. Many times I’ve caught myself going through playing the “blues” without noticing a whiff of sentiment in my playing. Horrifying, but an ever-present possibility. The secret to getting the “feel”? No answer there. You’ll know, and your audience will know, when you have it. When it’s there, it’s there. When it’s not, it’s not.

I use, as have many others before me, this jazz feel to flavor this bossa song. Because jazz is the nearest thing we have to a universal style, a way that gives a completely new life to other songs, whatever their source or origin. It lends itself superbly to enlivening up a dour Brahms adagio or putting a fresh lilt on a simple folk song.

It is possible to play jazz by yourself, alone. It is way, way better, absolutely preferable, to play jazz with an ensemble, minimum two participants, maximum whatever. Because jazz is extemporaneous, you get your strength reinforced by others. You feed off each other’s energy, scale (or fall from) musical heights together. When the vibes are good, musicians become as one. The audience can feel it in their performance. When the “feel” is there, they become hands in a field, calling out the blues to distant gods, plunking and wailing and fretting till they come down to join you. And who are these gods? Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and a host of others. They become, for a magical moment, part of a greater brotherhood.

Am I done yet jazzifying that Girl from Ipanema?

Not just yet. I play a final loop involving Fmin7 and Bb7 chords, sometimes F7 and Eb7, over and over again, until I resolve the whole thing into a final Fmajor9.

It is then that I would have realized that I have given the Girl from Ipanema a complete makeover, smoothed out her wrinkly skin, taken the blah out of her corniness, revived her libido and created something else: a performance that gives a new persona to an otherwise tired song.

When I’ve done this, I would have played jazz.

Speaking of "Girl from Ipanema"'. here's my favorite version sung and played by Eliane Elias.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Review of "Proof"

Event: Proof- A play by David Auburn (2000)

Performers: 4th level Students, Juilliard Drama Department

Directed by: Harris Yulin

Date: November 11, 2010


What if your father, a brilliant mathematician, cared for by you in his last, insanity-clouded years, died and left behind a notebook full of groundbreaking mathematical theorems that you claim as yours, not his, which leaves you and people about you wondering whether you had inherited either his genius or his insanity?

This is the chief question of “Proof”, the Tony-award winning play by David Auburn later made into a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. It is also a meditation on father-daughter relationships, and the choices we make in the face of a parent who, previously brilliant and vital, has slowly sunk into the ravages of dementia.

‘’Proof” is a four-person play. I had never seen the movie in its entirety, judging it to be boring (it was a flop when it opened), so this production by the 4th level students of the Juilliard Drama department was my chance to judge it on its merits as a play.

The play was directed by Harris Yulin, a professor at Juilliard and an Equity actor familiar from his many supporting roles in TV and films. In the cast was Yulin as Robert, the father, Justine Lope-Schomp as Catherine, Cameron Scoggins as Hal, and Jo Mei, as Claire. In accordance with race-blind casting, Catherine is played by a blonde Caucasian and Claire by a dark-haired Asian. Normally this would strain credulity if this was played on commercial theater, but Juilliard is a multi-ethnic school, so everyone plays a part whether it made visual sense or not. The actors were so good anyway that you concentrated more on the play itself than whether Catherine or Claire could actually be sisters. Maybe there is a backstory there somewhere that Claire was adopted from China. Enough said.

The play opens with Catherine lazily sitting on a swing at the family home in Chicago. She is surprised by his father, Robert, in the garden. They muse about stuff and share a bottle of champagne, until we realize that the conversation is actually a figment of Catherine’s musing, because Robert has just died and his funeral was going to take place tomorrow. As Robert disappears into the shadows, Hal, one of Robert’s mathematics students, arrives to check on the notebooks that Robert had left behind, hoping to find anything –theory, formula, theorems—that the old man may have jotted down. Catherine tells him its no use, his father was insane and wrote nothing but gibberish on his notebooks. Hal insists on looking at the notebooks, so, after a little to and fro-ing, she tells him to go ahead and look inside the house. Claire, Catherine’s sister who lives in New York, arrives for the funeral. They engage in some sisterly arguments, with Claire asking Catherine to move to New York where she could take care of her (i.e., have a psychiatrist look into her). She was also going to sell the house, much to Catherine’s chagrin.

Act one ends with Hal’s discovery of a notebook that contains brilliant mathematical formulas about prime numbers that Catherine claims she, not her father, wrote. However, Hal and Claire doubts this because the formulas were written in Robert’s handwriting.

The second act resolves some questions, such as: why did Catherine abandon her studies at Northwestern University to care for his father, and why where the formulas written in his father’s handwriting. It turned out, as Hal admits, that Catherine inherited her father’s genius and had a handwriting similar to his father, to whom she was very close. She also abandoned her studies because his father was losing a grip on sanity, and pleaded for her to stay. At the end of the play, Hal and Catherine are sitting on the swing, with Catherine explaining to Hal how she came up with the mathematical formulas. The scene fades to black, and what at first looked like shadows cast by trees actually turn out to be mathematical formulas illuminated white on black –a brilliant piece of stagecraft.

The actors acted in a very naturalistic way, without histriony and seemingly without effort. Justine as Catherine was brilliant at evoking a woman who was ground down by having to care for his father, but still triumphant at proving that she was a brilliant mathematician as well. She had also to shift subtly through different characterizations of Catherine, because the play jumped from the present to four years ago to an instant after the first act to three years before the present. The changes were subtle, but you could tell instantly what period of time the scene was in (ok, with a little help from the program notes). Jo as Claire had the I-love-Manhattan spiel down pat. Cameron as Scroggins, was charming as Robert’s persistent student who turns out to be Catherine’s one-night stand and possible future lover. Harris as Roberts portrayed the father with a gentle touch of sadness, as befits a genius in the winter of his life and mental facilities.

Unlike the previously play I saw here, “Golden Boy”, which was performed in the round, like in an actual boxing ring, “Proof” was played in the Stephanie P. Maclelland Theatre, a space with comfortable plush seats on raised tiers and a proscenium stage. So far I’ve been in three theaters in the Juilliard School; I wonder how many more there are!

On a side note, as I was seated in line to gain my free ticket for this play, I struck up a conversation with a sweet-looking mature lady to my left. She was reading a book in French called “Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs de Quran.” Her name was Yvette. She said she and her husband came down from Michigan once every month to spend a week in New York attending free events like this.

After the play, we commented on how great the production was. As we went our respective ways on the subway, I couldn’t help but wonder: one week every month in New York? That kind of dedication speaks to just how attractive the overflowing cultural scene is of New York compared to those of other places in the USA, and indeed, the world.