Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bach to Basics

Anybody who has studied the arts, such as painting, knows that an important part of the training, especially in the past, was to copy old masterworks. For instance Manet spent years in museums, trying to understand the secret of how the Flemish masters handled light, or how and why earlier Italian masters included very detailed landscapes in their portraits. In short, in order to create something new and unique, one had to have an understanding of art’s history. The same is true with music: a composer ought to know why Debussy sounds like Debussy, Hindemith like Hindemith. Part of general music education is to understand counterpoint and harmony, or to analyze a fugue. Unfortunately very few performing artists are interested in the past performance practices, perhaps wanting to stay away from anything “old-fashioned” that could possibly ruin their reputation as instrumentalists. Yes, there have been copycats: Erick Friedman wanted to mimic his one-time teacher Jascha Heifetz and succeeded in doing so rather well. Many spoon-fed students have no voice of their own: one famed violin teacher’s students all make the same glissandi in identical places. Teachers are notoriously inflexible and hard-headed: they teach as they themselves were taught. This is very human. Don’t most parents raise their children in the same manner they were raised? I had four copies of the Tchaikovsky concerto, all with very different fingerings and bowings, and I was expected to execute them properly. Naturally, I later took what I liked from each and added my own to the mix. Gabriel Bouillon had a very simple principle regarding fingerings: in fast passages make them as simple and clear as possible and save the fancy finger work for the more melodic passages. Ricardo Odnoposoff, himself supposedly the favorite student of Carl Flesch, insisted that I use his teacher’s editions, yet changed most of the fingerings.

In my youth it wasn’t easy to learn about performance traditions in music. I has an opportunity to play for a couple old-timers born in the 1800s and learned a lot from them. My first teacher (after being self-taught initially) was a longtime student of Jacques Thibaud (the only male, he used to say, as the maestro had an eye for young pretty females). He had inherited a lot of music with the great Frenchman’s markings, by his own hand. I remember when I was handed a copy of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and the entire slow fourth movement basically read 4-4-4-4-open string. As playing with the pinkie was almost unheard of (that’s why Fritz Kreisler’s fingerings in the printed music almost never use that digit), Thibaud must have had an unusually strong little finger and was able to produce a beautiful sound with it. Kreisler, of course, was famous for never using his own markings, playing even different notes from the printed page in his own compositions. My teacher had a vast collection of old 78s, many in bad shape, but I learned quickly how to filter the sound while transferring them to tape. Most French HMV recordings had been made using copper masters and during the occupation of most of France, the German army melted those down for war materials. I had the fortune of hearing and copying an early Thibaud recording, pre-vacuum tube amplification, the soloist standing right in front of the horn microphone, accompanied by the only source loud enough: a brass band. One side had d’Ambrosio’s Canzonetta, the other Gabriel-Marie’s La Cinquantaine. Thibaud was at his prime and the playing of those works probably among the greatest ever recorded.

Today it is rather easy to find historical recordings which have been transferred onto a compact disc. On them one finds great artists whose names are missing even from books. Not only are early 78s replicated but also the first experiments on wax rolls. One of my personal favorites is The Great Violinists, Recordings from 1900-1913, on Testament label. Of particular interest to me is the way movements are performed from J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. We hear Joseph Joachim in 1903, four years before his death and Pablo de Sarasate from the same year, five years before his passing. Present are also the great French pedagogue and soloist Henri Marteau whose Bach is ten years younger, Thibaud from 1904 and Joseph Szigeti from 1908. Since Joachim was responsible for resurrecting the works and publishing the first truly playable edition of them, with the help of his student, friend and colleague Adreas Moser, one is most interested in him. To my surprise Joachim’s interpretation seems contemporary and it would be hard to believe the recordings age if it weren’t for the scratchy sound. Vibrato is missing or very minimal, intonation and style exquisite. Sarasate plays the E-major Preludio like a virtuoso piece but even that sounds fresh. The Frenchmen and Szigeti sound a bit freer in style but their playing is a far cry from what the “norm” was to become in 15-20 years. The Roaring Twenties and following Great Depression left their imprint. Even baroque music was supposed to sound romantic and the more glissandi, vibrato and other effects were present, the better. No wonder Odnoposoff warned me about the Flesch edition: phrasing and most of the bowings are great, at least thought-provoking as the original is right underneath, but please, pay no attention to the fingerings which made every movement seem like the Air on the G-String. Heifetz, who for an unknown reason never let students use his own mentor’s editions, always played Leopold Auer’s David-influenced Chaconne with the 16th notes on the last page turning into triplets and them to 32nds. Very effective but hardly what Bach’s intention was, although I don’t think the composer would have minded as the performances were so fabulous every time.

Post-war interpretation of Bach changed a lot. Violinists from the Soviet Union started showing up in competitions and their approach with the all-steel strings and a certain hacking style became popular. Other Eastern European fiddlers played very similarly, such as the Polish Wanda Wilkomirska whose otherwise excellent Chaconne has all the trademarks of 1950-60s. In Germany style still remained akademisch and Wolfgang Schneiderhan recorded an absolutely perfect and pristine Chaconne. The only problem with it was that you couldn’t light a match and even smoke a cigarette in the same room as the recording sounds outright flammable, so extremely dry. Arthur Grumiaux played his Bach beautifully as did Nathan Milstein and many others, Henryk Szeryng included. In David Oistrakh’s Soviet Russia there was no real tradition in Bach or other German/Austrian composers. Even Mozart was off-limits unless a violinist was to participate (with the government’s blessings) in an international competition. Oistrakh had a somewhat odd preference to Bach’s violin/keyboard sonatas, not the composer’s most exciting works.

As a teacher, I think it almost criminal not to introduce gifted students to that part of our instrument’s history we nowadays have access to. Yes, the recordings hiss and high pitches are missing, but neither does the Mona Lisa look like it did after Leonardo da Vinci finished painting it. It is up to the individual to decide what is important. In my 20s I was teaching Wieniawski’s second concerto to a student at the Sibelius Academy and lent her a recording of Heifetz playing it. A week later she returned the LP and I asked how she liked it. Her reply said it all: “I don’t know, it wasn’t in stereo.”

First page of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Returning last month with my youngest one from Iceland and looking at the Cascades and sparkling waters of the Puget Sound reminded me of a similar event 42 years earlier, my first landing in the United States. I was just a little bit older than my daughter is now but had been living on my own since the age of fifteen. Back then it was a warm summer Sunday and the sight of what seemed like hundreds of sailboats made quite an impression. I felt like this could be a place I would be happy living in. The SAS flight then took off for Los Angeles after refueling. Once arriving there I was deeply disappointed. There was nothing green to be seen as far as vegetation went and the polluted air made my eyes tear. The taxi driver had no idea where my hotel in Westwood was located and obviously I wasn't of much help, not having even a map of the city. The next morning I decided to leave for a walk, looking for a place to have breakfast. Almost immediately I saw a sign "Coffee Shop" but being European, I assumed that was a place to buy beans or ground coffee. I headed east and after what felt like an eternity arrived in Beverly Hills. During the entire hike I was the only one walking, a strange experience for someone used to getting from place to place with the help of his feet. At least the breakfast at the original Brown Derby was tasty although I thought that the watery coffee was simply awful.

Just a couple days back I was out in Discovery Park during an unusually warm and sunny September day. I remembered my first visit in the park in 1983 when the Army reserves still used the area for training. The tall evergreens made me feel like I was back in Northern Europe and I decided that this city would indeed make a nice place to live. Little did I know that Seattle would represent both Paradise and Hell to us. Professionally locating here was probably a terrible mistake but the nature with its incredible views made a perfect surrounding for raising a second family. Our three Boston Terriers must have thought this was Heaven after the heat and dirty parks of Los Angeles. We bought a house with a big back yard mainly for them. The view of the mountains far in the distance was most pleasing and all the space with the five bedrooms meant that my older children and parents could all come and visit at the same time.

A long time has passed and we have come to accept the combination of Heaven and Hell. Somewhere in the middle there is Purgatory where non-profits and especially certain arts organizations seem to be stuck in these days. Well, that no longer is our concern. If they deserve to survive, let it be so, and if not, no tears will be shed. Times are difficult all over and although groups here are very hush-hush, everyone with a brain is aware of the dangers and even possible meltdowns lurking around the corner. I read today that the Philadelphia Orchestra will need $15 million in the next two years just to survive. This is an orchestra that represented the very best in the field when I was growing up, a far cry from a porkestra in some provincial hick town. Philadelphia used to be a place where the truly well-to-do people of the Northeast lived and it is hard to believe there still wouldn't be plenty of money around. The combination of sky-high salaries and expensive new performing centers has proven a lethal combination in many cities. A great part of the housing market collapse was also caused by people who wanted to live beyond their means. A home is supposed to be a home, not a palace, unless money is no object and one is the ruler of the land. In my childhood we lived in a mansion nine months out of the year but in a humble cottage for the long summer vacation. Although it was fun practicing the violin in a living room the size of a small hall, my fondest memories are from the primitive summer home which at the time didn't even have electricity, not to mention running water.

The Pacific Northwest, at least in its arts, is the place for three R's: our artistic "heroes" are often Retired, Rejected or Retarded. This part of the globe is a nice place to retire but why can't all those alte kackers just enjoy their golden years? Instead they want to be in charge of something a younger and more energetic person with fresh ideas would do much better. Of, course, old age occurs at different times: someone at 50 may be ready to retire and another can go past 60 with ease. True, there may be wisdom in years, but also senility. "Rejected" refers to people who have tried to make it elsewhere but have been kicked out of their other more high profile jobs. That might include an instrumentalist fired for obnoxious behavior, not to mention declined skill level, or even a conductor whose previous many simultaneous contracts have not been renewed. For a reason not clear to me, this part of the country has a tendency to elevate such people, praising their accomplishments. My category of "Retarded" refers to people who have little interest in anything other than their narrow field of classical music and more specifically the instrument they play. I met plenty of these folks in the studios of Los Angeles. I called them MMFW, for Money, Music, Food and Wine. I had very little in common with them. Money doesn't really interest me; I see it more as a necessary evil. Music is but a fraction of my world, although something I am rather good at. Talking about food and wine is like discussing gasoline. Of course there were "misfits" with whom I felt at ease with. The excellent violinist Israel Baker was one of them. All the numerous times we conversed, music was not discussed, everything from technology to recent scientific discoveries was.

One unwritten rule existed in the studios back then: during breaks no playing was allowed. The ears deserved a rest. I was pained to find out that in an orchestra setup there are people who can't put their instruments down and who endlessly, from day to day, play each others' fiddles and try their bows, posing as the greatest experts on the planet. One time an eager beaver had opened my case and was trying my violin without permission. That qualifies them in the last R-rated category, as do "artists" who tote Frank Sinatra's autobiography in their bag, assuming it's worth the Nobel Prize in literature or at least a Pulitzer (assuming they have heard of this prize). The question is does this kind of trash put them ahead of the others whose reading material consists of mail-order catalogs? Help, where is my Kafka or at least an issue of Scientific American?!

illustration by Talvi

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Yesterday was 09.09.09, the last repeating single-number date for a thousand years. As usual, there were many expecting this world to come to an end. In China the digit "9" is a good omen, to the point that an emperor long time ago supposedly had 9,999 rooms built in his palace. In nearby Japan the number means bad luck and is often omitted in hotel rooms and such. Only "4" is worse, symbolizing death and doom. Years ago one of our country's airlines flying to the Far East was advertizing special fares with a toll free number 800-444-4444 and they couldn't figure out why the phone didn't ring off the hook. One should check with local customs and superstition, or just ask a native which GM failed to do when marketing a Chevy Nova car to Latin America. Although the company has tried to deny this, I don't think that "no go" as a name is a good selling point.

We have plenty of different groups deeply involved in the meaning of numbers. The Chabad movement within Judaism often tries to explain matters with numeric help. In Hebrew, the alphabet or alefbet have also numerical values, somewhat similarly as the Romans used I, V, X, L, C, D and M to represent numbers. Especially mystic Judaism finds hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. Likewise, as mentioned before, Asian cultures give a lot of importance to numbers. The Beijing Olympics opened on 08.08.08: "888" means three times the prosperity, "wealthy wealthy wealthy".

Science behind numbers would be useful in our society today. Some financial "geniuses" thought they had it all figured out and computer programs made hedge funds seemingly wealthier by the minute. That might have been the case until the house of cards collapsed a year ago. Global economy took a terrible hit and although there are recent signs of modest recovery, the number of unemployed remains record high and property values record low. We recently received our property tax assessment for next year and it was 25% lower than previously. Other people I've talked to tell of similar stories. In this city and county, property tax income is the main source of funding for schools and many other expenses. Washington doesn't have state income tax so it relies on sales tax. People are buying a lot less than before and actually saving these days instead of spending more than their disposable income as was the case for some years. Property can no longer be used as a personal piggy bank. Many people owe far more on their houses in mortgages and home equity loans than those properties are worth today.

Non-profits are feeling this pinch. Services for the less fortunate are suffering, such as food banks. In a "socialist" system which we seem to fear more than death, the system steps in and people are fed and sheltered, without the need for private donations. Here more and more of the poor have to go hungry, children among them. In this context the cries for help by elitist arts organizations seem ridiculous. Classical music or ballet will not fill an empty stomach. I am not saying that preserving the arts isn't important, but there has to be a proper order of priorities. We could easily live for a year or two without a symphony orchestra or an opera company. Music wouldn't die: everything is readily available on both audio and video recordings. The well-to-do snobs could have different events where the ladies could show off their latest wardrobes. Perhaps these gatherings could serve as functions to collect funds for the needs of the poor and suffering, not to fatten the wallets of conductors and such.

A provincial opera house is advertising discounts which are greater by each additional production one subscribes to. Three shows are 30% off, four 40%. With this logic the Metropolitan in New York would have free subscriptions for ten productions and they would actually pay the subscriber for the eleventh. An orchestra, having already lowered their ticket prices, is giving 20% discounts to American Express cardholders. Other groups have totally free concerts and other performances, in some cases projected onto giant screens outdoors. While this may create interest in the performing arts, it is a lousy business model. Once people get used to the idea of getting something for free, they will be reluctant to pay for it in the future. Arts organizations will become increasingly dependent on wealthy donors and even their ranks are thinning out. A matching grant becomes a reality at the last moment with an involvement of an E.T., extra-terrestrial. That's all fine and a figurehead's face is thus saved, but don't call the organization a product of civic pride. It would be more appropriate to give it a name of the Godfather: so-and-so's orchestra, opera, or ballet. Leave out the city and call the institution by the name of the benefactor. This has been done in the past so why not today? There is no 'Baltimore" in Johns Hopkins University, or "New York" in Carnegie Hall, after all.

If ticket income becomes a non-issue, more money would be saved if no such tickets need be printed and events wouldn't have to be advertised. In the winter time auditoriums could double as shelters from the cold and in the summer from the heat. Offer free ear plugs to those which classical music makes feel ill, or in fairness, play Country or Hip-Hop every so often. During my youth in Philadelphia there were movie theaters in poor areas that featured old Westerns. For a quarter you could sit in an air-conditioned space for two different movies. The theaters got their reels for nothing and provided the impoverished population an important social service at low cost.

I wish I could be a clairvoyant and see what this society will be like in a decade. On the other hand, perhaps it is a blessing I can't.