Monday, September 19, 2016

Beyond the MFA

This update is very much overdue, but I am happy to say that last year, I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts in Classical Piano and Musicology!
Performing Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales

In the process of earning my MFA, I met one of my most important personal goals for the program: presenting a full-length solo recital. If it were not for the late and much missed Mr. LaRatta, my piano teacher, I am not sure I would have accomplished it as smoothly as I did. He believed in me, and eventually, I came to believe in myself.

Performance is fraught with peril - the misgivings and doubts one has of oneself can neatly sabotage any attempt - and the endurance required to play a full hour and a half was something I had to work steadily towards. In the end, the self-doubt was what I wrestled with the most; strength was not an issue.

I recently came across my own reflections on my musical progress, written shortly after I had given my full-length recital. I realized anew just how precious this journey has been. Earning my MFA and reaching the milestone of a solo recital marked the beginning of new effort and more hard work towards the never-ending quest to learn, to understand more - and more deeply - everything I do, be it the art of practice, the art of performing, or the art of listening.

I humbly share with you my reflections from last year, as I neared graduation and considered my progress. In the end (or in the beginning!) my underlying motivation is about creating something new within myself that I can share with others. The reason for all my exertions is so that I may express the joy and deep emotion that blooms when music of the great composers surges through me. I am galvanized anew. It is time to practice!

Semester-End Reflection

My priority this semester, and indeed one of the milestones of my studies, has been to hold a full-length recital. My baseline goal was to have attempted it and to have pulled it off without any major calamities. Happily, my experience demonstrated that I do have the ability to focus, and that with enough preparation I can trust myself enough to let the music happen.   

The sudden, seizing doubt that has plagued me so often when playing in front of others was blissfully absent during my performance. Not once did I warn myself not to botch a challenging section, and not once did I ask myself if I knew my left hand. It was absolutely thrilling to put my hands on the keyboard and simply begin making music.

Alas, simplicity belies the work and dedication required to enable it, but if playing the piano were an easy feat would its pursuit be so rewarding (that is, when it is not utterly frustrating)?

This recital was the culmination of many (and admittedly not enough) hours of focused practice not only at the piano but also away from it as I mentally worked on pieces during a morning run, in the car, or while lying in bed when sleep eluded me. The knowledge that my efforts allowed me to fly free and to focus wholeheartedly on sharing beautiful music with others is gratifying beyond any measure.

As I embark on new repertoire I feel as though I am back to square one. It is a reminder that I am always learning, and that there are countless opportunities to broaden and to nuance my understanding of music, of practice, of reading, of listening, and of many more aspects I hope to discover. Every experience is one from which to build upon. Each experience shapes me and informs my next endeavor.         

As the end of the semester draws near, I head also towards my graduation. I cannot believe that this part of my journey is coming to an end, but I realize that this only means that I am leaving a particular framework. The wonderful community of mentors and classmates I have been privileged to know will always be with me in some form; their support and advice will guide me as I practice and perform throughout life’s many journeys. To them I give my heartfelt gratitude, and I wish them well as we continue sharing our love of music in whatever ways we will.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Mr. LaRatta: In Fond Remembrance

I have been truly remiss in updating here, and it is with great sadness - and happiness - that I reflect on the life of Mr. Tom LaRatta. After sharing his music, his wisdom, and his awfully funny wisecracks with all of us lucky enough to know him, he is resting peacefully. 
Before my full-length recital -
Mr. LaRatta made me believe I could do it!

It was because of Mr. LaRatta that I learned to believe in myself again, as a pianist. It was he who encouraged me to embark on a Master's degree in Fine Arts at Notre Dame de Namur University, to expand my world in analysis, musicology, and performance. Those whom I admire greatly and have learned so much from have also been nurtured by Mr. LaRatta. These individuals include my mentors Dr. Michael Schmitz,  Mr. Thomas Hansen, and Dr. Robert Hartwell; they are academic leaders and wonderful pianists. 

What I find so special about Mr. LaRatta is that he met you where you were at. He did not seem to have preconceived notions about who you were; if you wanted to learn, he would help you, and guide you in a way that worked for your personality and current state of being. 

As his student I was constantly challenged and at the same time, I felt incredibly nurtured. He was a close friend, a dear uncle or grandpapa. My biggest fear was to disappoint him. I wanted to work hard, not only because I wanted to make beautiful music and to become ever stronger, but also because I wanted to make him proud. 

He never said anything for the sake of filling in silence, or simply to make anyone feel better. He might have said certain things to make you feel better - because he cared - but it would absolutely be constructive. I always came away knowing what I needed to work on, or what to think about. 

I often hear Mr. LaRatta's voice - probably daily, now that I think on it - and not only when I'm practicing. After all, he taught me so much about how shifting one's perceptions about the many challenges and interesting situations in life can make all the difference. 

When I'm troubled, I hear him say, "Take a paper bag, put all your troubles in there, and leave it at the door. Do what you need to do, then you can pick up the bag on your way out. It'll still be there!"

When I feel that I lack confidence, I remember what he would say to me when I was nervous before performing. I see his face, looking very serious, as he asks me: "Have you practiced? Do you know what you're doing?" I would nod mutely. His expression would blossom into joyous amusement, and I would hear his raspy voice chide: "Well, then go DO it, you Goony-bird!!" 

So much of what Mr. LaRatta taught us transcends every part of life. I will always be grateful for what I have learned and continue to learn from him. I am honored to have to known him ... even if it was only for a little while. I look forward to continuing to remember and to share his wisdom, generosity, and droll humor with anyone who would understand and benefit from his gifts. 

Thank you, Mr. LaRatta. It was my honor and pleasure to have learned "Ducks On a Pond" from you! =D

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brahms, Real and Raw: Hélène Grimaud and SF Symphony Make Magic

With Ms. Grimaud, after the performance.

Hélène Grimaud. Live. Playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with the San Francisco Symphony. I could hardly wait. I had read so much about her, and the title of D.T. Max’s 2011 New Yorker article about the enigmatic French pianist echoed in my head: “Her Way: a pianist of strong opinions.” How would the Brahms unfold?

Max wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: she is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”

It was true. As I listened and watched, rapt, I had the feeling that she played in her own world. It was almost solipsistic, except that she absorbed the entire orchestra within her even as she unequivocally led the musicians, pushed them, and melded into them.

She seemed to take the orchestra by surprise from time to time. The sensitive and nimble guest conductor Lionel Bringuier - also French - scrambled a few times to meet her at the end of a phrase that ended with just a tinge more delicious urgency than anticipated, or in the middle of a passage contoured so exquisitely that images of abstract arabesque tendrils unfolded and reached out in a colorful cluster in my mind.

Did I mind these occasional occurrences? From one perspective, it’s not inconceivable to say these were moments of unevenness, of pianist and orchestra not in sync. Not once did I feel this was the case. Not once did I mind. I was on the edge of my seat, fully alert, wondering how the next phrase would come alive.

The effect was that of realness, a rawness, of music played with a deep conviction in the here and now. Every sensation was heightened. Pianist, conductor, orchestra, and this audience member existed only in the present moment. Come what may on this roller coaster, I thought to myself, and I knew for sure it was for sure the most exhilarating journey I’d ever taken with Brahms.

Such was the beauty of Ms. Grimaud’s playing with the musicians of the SF Symphony, and of this particular live performance.

In her hands, the melody of the piano soared into the forefront at the right moments, her trills crystalline. There wasn’t so much of an interplay between pianist and orchestra; despite some of the moments mentioned above, I had the sense that they operated together from the core. The orchestra wouldn’t so much as fall away and announce the pianist suddenly in a solo section; it was a shifting of balance, not unlike the natural ebb and flow of a heated, stimulating conversation.

As befits Brahms, the cadenzas (or solo sections, rather) were not so much virtuosic as deeply felt. With Ms. Grimaud, they were impressive in their depth and expressivity.

Ms. Grimaud was forthright and passionate, her approach at once deeply cerebral and emotional. To me, this embodies the constant push-pull dichotomy and visceral complexity that is Brahms.  

As often happens when I hear Brahms performed live, I was struck by the depth of soul and humanity he possessed. In particular, the Piano Concerto No. 1 was an early work of this scale for the young Brahms. I thought of the attempted suicide and death of his mentor, Robert Schumann, and the ensuing crush of emotions Brahms experienced during the period of composition. 

The evening of the performance, this violent, beautiful crashing of the heart and mind were as palpable as if the man were in the room. Now that I think on it, he was very much present.

I cannot overstate the thrill of having one's program signed by an admired artist!

After the performance, I was thrilled to be able to tell Ms. Grimaud myself just how much I’d looked forward to seeing her live. I mentioned that the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 was the most recent work I’d analyzed for my graduate studies in music, to which she bemusedly replied, “That’s a lot of music to analyze!”

She seemed genuinely grateful for all the compliments she received by well-wishers, and she was very gracious. I confessed to her that I was moved by the way she played “so much from the mind, and the heart.” Her countenance softened as she inclined her head and smiled. “Thank you," she said sincerely. "Thank you so much.”

I melted a little. Then the sparkle returned to her eyes, and her countenance took on that slightly impish quality I’d often seen in photographs. This knowing, mischievous look is even more telling in person. I look forward to the next time I can see and hear Ms. Grimaud work her magic, in her own way.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Reunion with "Manny" at the SF Symphony

With Emanuel Ax after the performance at Davies Symphony Hall

After having met a very genial Emanuel Ax a year ago backstage at Davies Symphony Hall, I was excited to have the chance to see and to hear him play again. One reason for the anticipation was that the last time I’d seen Mr. Ax, he'd performed Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra and had “very few notes” to play. He’d told me to come back when he was playing something “a little more substantial” for the piano. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing him play Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 37.

San Francisco Symphony Director Michael Tilson Thomas took the podium and began the evening with Gustav Mahler’s Blumine, which along with the introduction of Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin seems to be a favored program opener for the past couple of years. I believe this was the third time I’d heard it played by the SFS. I was struck by the ethereal beginning with solo trumpet; one felt as if floating atop the clouds of the Alps. Mahler deftly weaved melodies amongst various instrumental groups, leading to a climax not unlike that of the Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5 albeit without the ensuing glissando. The piece ended with an ardent and resigned sigh, a sigh that spoke to the joys of relegating oneself to the sweet vagaries of romantic love.

Emanuel Ax sat himself on a regular chair rather than a piano bench, and was very engaged with the orchestra throughout Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor. I enjoyed his down-to-earth demeanor and the way he cocked his head in tiny, bird-like movements, cheeks quivering to the music. When the piano entered, solo, the clarity of Mr. Ax’s playing was a breath of fresh air despite the forthright, almost terse quality of the music. The comparison may be imprecise, but I was reminded of a crystalline, austere and highly structured German Riesling wine: steely, unadorned, and blindingly beautiful in its clarity and purity.

Beethoven kept his pianist busy in the first movement (Allegro con brio): arpeggios, runs, long trills, and very satisfying cadences when granted. Mr. Ax played the upper register triplets in the right hand with joy and aplomb. Towards the end of the movement we were treated to a furious cadenza that almost became a fugue but dissolved into silky, arpeggiated passages.

The second movement, Largo, opened with the piano alone. The mood was contemplative and hushed, having left behind the overt, sparkling tone of the first movement. Mr. Ax’s touch here made the piano sound warmly muted, and I felt as if I had gone inside myself for a heartfelt introspection. I noticed that Mr. Ax sometimes flapped any fingers not being used in a two-beat flutter, and lifted his hands in a little flourish when alternating them in arpeggiated passages. Otherwise, he never showed any distracting or flamboyant movements. All other physical gestures seemed to be in direct service to creating the sound quality he desired.

Rondo: Allegro began without pause after a surprisingly vehement finish for such a lovely, dreamy Largo. Beethoven seemed to have no qualms about returning to the furious, busy quality he is well known for. Harmonically I was a bit thrown off, since the piano solo starting the final movement sounded like it was in E minor - the Largo was in E Major - but only later did I realize Beethoven had set it all up to return to the "home key" of C minor. This moment of realization was delightful, but I couldn’t help feeling Beethoven had been toying with us all along.

Beethoven makes use of counterpoint in this final movement, with the strings coming in with a fugal section and what seemed like a two-part invention in a short, bubbly piano solo. Finally, we were granted the satisfaction of an emphatic V7 -> I (Dominant to Tonic) as a joyful coda in C major brought the concerto to a close.

The audience would not let Mr. Ax leave the stage, and after three curtain calls he granted us with a beautiful encore. I am ashamed that I do not remember what he played - I'm now thinking it was Johannes Brahms' Intermezzo. Allegretto Grazioso, from Klavierstücke Op. 76, but I'm not sure. [Update: It was "Des Abends" from Fantasiestücke Op. 12 by Brahms' mentor Schumann. Of course I realized this shortly after posting!] Mr. Ax enveloped us in a dreamscape in which time was suspended and we floated on silver clouds.

After the concert I was pleased that Mr. Ax remembered me upon meeting again, and he expressed happiness that I had finally heard him play “just a little more” than at the Feldman concert. The man has a wonderful sense of humor.

Of course I asked "Manny" to sign my program!

The entire second half of the program was Michael Tilson Thomas’ tribute to the style of concert program championed by Jascha Heifetz to bring attention to the “encore piece.” Mr. Tilson Thomas emphasized that the point of such programs was to create the perfect set of pieces to capture exactly the right mood. He referred to this kind of programming as a “bygone world of music-making” and urged us to hear the music “as one piece; don’t feel obliged to clap in between. Just enjoy the silence between them - you’ll know when we’ve reached the end.”

We were indeed treated to a palette of beautiful colors and moods:
  • Copland: Music from the film Our Town
  • Debussy: La Plus que lente
  • Delius: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
  • Sibelius: Valse triste
  • Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Op. 34, no. 14
  • Delibes: Cortege de Bacchus, from Sylvia

Mr. Tilson Thomas was right; everyone knew when the program was over. Delibes’ piece shook us out of our melancholy reverie with trumpets! Percussion! The works! Everything screamed “finale” and the Cortege brought a wonderfully satisfying orchestral sound, full of triumph.

The entire second half was, for me, a nostalgic trip back to the jewel-box musical gems of my youth. Pieces I’d loved as a child but never heard again for years were brought back to me on a warm summer wind. It was magical. Even after I had returned home, I felt a light sheen of fairy dust on my shoulders.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Burn, Baby, Burn! The Piano Workout

Which one burns more calories - dancing this waltz or playing it on the piano?

After playing the opening waltz of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales - a furiously exuberant whirlwind of a piece - I am heaving and sweating like a racehorse after a full sprint. This happens every time I play it, regardless of the weather or my physical state.

This led me to wonder, how many calories am I burning, after having played this 2 minute waltz? What about after the entire cycle of waltzes, which is about 18 minutes long?

I don’t sweat after some pieces, but with others, the physical labor required is undeniable. (Brahms’ Rhapsody No. 2, Op. 79, comes to mind.)

It’s not that I’m mindlessly pounding away at the keyboard, but a good deal of full-body effort is applied in the goal of drawing out the color and depth of the music. I can feel my abs engaging at the buildup to a climax, or in the control required in a sudden quietness. (I wonder if Suzanne Somers ever experienced that!)

After a quick search, I found that people have indeed tried to determine how many calories one burns with any sort of physical activity, including the piano. NutriStrategy has quite a list - it even distinguishes “Farming - feeding horses and cattle” from “Farming - feeding small animals.”

According to this list, playing the piano is wimpier than playing the trombone, but it trumps playing the cello on the calorie-burning scale. Upon seeing this, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that this was total absurdity. The exercise you get depends on your physiology, what you’re playing, for how long, and various other factors I’m sure.

I’m not suggesting that we consider playing the piano as a holistic form of exercise. There’s no substitute for getting out there and doing good cardio like jogging, dance, or other traditional ways of working up a good sweat.

And obviously, playing the piano is not about exercise, but wondering about the energy I’m expending in bringing certain music to life was worth the moment of curiosity! Not because I realized that I don't care how many calories I burn: Every time I play that Ravel waltz and feel my heart racing and my body warm, it is pure bliss on every level - musically and physically. And that’s what counts. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Patience, Grasshopper!

That frustrated person is me, talking to me ... 

Did I mention that I finally applied to, was accepted, and began work towards an MFA? I’m so happy, although it’s been challenging given my workload with a full time job and practicing. However, I am proud that I’ve pledged further commitment to music and the piano.

I’ll be perfectly honest: This path is not easy for me. I began learning four new pieces this year, and it has proven a significant test of resilience and prioritization. It’s not as if I’m learning four concertos, but these pieces aren’t exactly small. I’m learning a French Suite by J.S. Bach comprised of seven dances, a Beethoven sonata, a Brahms Rhapsodie, and a mercifully more compact Liszt waltz. There are of course the technical drills as well, and the upkeep up the complete set of Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales.

It’s valuable practice to play regularly in front of others to get used to the act of performance. With these pieces, it has taken me much longer to have mustered the courage to bring anything to the wonderful performance workshops offered to me and my fellow pianists. Despite knowing that the workshops are a safe environment for students and professionals alike to try out their pieces, 80% of the time I still think, “Ouch, I’m out of my league!”

Feeling unworthy, last semester I attended several workshops to learn from others but didn’t play anything myself. I not only felt guilty about that, I struggled with an overall sense of slowness. I felt weighed down by the nagging feeling that I wasn’t making enough progress.

Case in point: I’d originally hoped to present at least one entire work by the end of the spring semester. Instead, I slogged laboriously through my pieces at home and felt like I was getting nowhere. Still so many mistakes, still so slow! my inner voice harangued. 

In my more delirious moments, I’d sometimes picture a sturdy woman wearing a bandana and apron over her skirts, her beefy arm held aloft as she shook a flour-encrusted rolling pin and shrieked in a vaguely German accent, “You want to plays Brahms?! You must do better! Get to work!!” Ja, gnädige Frau! (Yes, ma’am!)

In other words, I felt inept as a pianist. It took me awhile to realize that it was pointless to focus on the concept of making progress - why not just concentrate on learning all the notes down pat so I could get to the exhilarating part - figuring out how to make music?

On some days when I wasn’t too tired after a full day’s work and (frustrated) practicing, I would play through several pieces that I’d already learned - Chopin, Ravel - and simply let go to feel the music. In the end, exhausted but happier, I would feel that maybe - just maybe - I was a halfway decent piano student!

I’m actually glad it turned out to be tough. My journey back to the study of piano and music is about learning and growth, and I now see how fortuitous it was that I began learning several new pieces at once. It has been a test of my patience, fortitude, and concentration.

I count having muddled through the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 26, No. 12 at the workshop a milestone of sorts. And recently, I played the first three dances from Bach’s French Suite No. 5. Even though my fingers went pell-mell during the Courante, it was a psychological victory, a victory towards the project I like to call “Get Over Yourself!” 

I felt myself glow a little when my piano teacher told me I have the “right feeling” for each of the dances.

Every experience means more learning and accumulated growth over time. The challenges of the last semester have given me new perspective. It is a humbling and welcome journey. I feel I can forgive myself more.

And hey! If playing classical music on the piano were that easy, all this wouldn't be so much fun, now would it?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Happy Birthday, Johannes Brahms!

"I shall never write a symphony! You can't have an idea what it's like to hear such a giant marching behind you."

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7th, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany. In celebration of the 180th anniversary of the birth of one of my favorite composers, I thought I'd share a review I'd written last year about a performance of his First Symphony by the San Francisco Symphony, originally posted on the Symphony's now defunct social site. Brahms' first symphony was long in coming. It took more than a decade to complete (1862 - 1876), and the composer was haunted by the inevitable comparison to the late behemoth of the symphony, Beethoven. He was at once expected to carry on Beethoven's legacy and yet to forge new paths. In this remarkable work, he accomplished both. As New York Philharmonic Program Annotator James M. Keller wrote, "...Brahms has digested and, to a certain extent, purified Beethoven's visionary achievement in the realm of the symphony. In so doing, he earned his own stripes as a symphonist, and with them the right to move forward as Beethoven's truest heir."
The haunting, inexorable dirge of the timpani opens the First Symphony.

Symphony Night Thoughts: Soaring with Brahms
On Friday, September 16th I could hardly contain my excitement. I admire Yo-Yo Ma, who was on the program that night to play Hindemith's Cello Concerto, but what I was truly looking forward to was Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C major, Opus 68. While I eagerly anticipated hearing how MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony's respected leader) would guide the music, I felt no little anxiety: What if I didn't like what I would hear? I grew up absolutely in awe of Herbert von Karajan's recordings of Brahms' Symphonies, and you know how it goes; the first version you hear is usually the one you like best.  

Although the Symphony in its entirety is wonderful, my favorite movements are the first and the second. The plaintive, slow scream of the strings in the first movement ascends ever higher as the timpani almost goads them on in an inexorable march towards the inevitable. It's enthralling. When listening at home, I would wait until I was alone and turn up the volume until the whole house was filled with Brahms. For me, hearing the first movement is at once a guilty indulgence and an atonement. I don't know of what other music has this effect on me. (Wagner may come close, but the effect is wholly different and I hesitate to use the term 'atonement' in his case.)

Speaking of Wagner, this brings me to the second movement. I am usually reminded of Wagner in certain sections, but where Wagner would have continued the surge of emotion and brought it to the forefront quite overtly, Brahms pulls back just when you think your heart will burst its dam and flow over. This, to me, embodies so much of what I've learned about Brahms as a human being - tender and passionate, yet fastidious and careful. (I fully admit to not being a Brahms scholar; I've only read Jan Swafford's biography of the composer, and Avins and Eisinger's anthology of his letters.) The second movement is replete with the banked fire that I so love about Brahms' music; the way he reins himself back to a self-conscious gravity just when the lush melody swells so ardently seems perfectly fitting. The sensation is overwhelmingly bittersweet, noble, and beautiful.

I admit I found the opening of the Symphony a bit rushed; I revel in the slow, tortuous ascent of the beseeching violins underscored by the dirge-like beat of the timpani. But for this, I was in raptures. This was the first time I'd experienced Brahms' Symphony live; the effect was electrifying. I felt my spirit soar and my heart pound with the beautiful phrasings MTT drew from the musicians. By the Symphony's triumphant end, I was on my feet and just a little disappointed that the evening of music had drawn to a close. But in my head and in my heart, the music played on.