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January 2010

Acquiring Tastes

January 16, 2010 10:01

When I start a new program of orchestra music, there are always some pieces in the batch that I like better than others on first hearing.  I know this shouldn't translate into "some pieces that I practice more than others because I like them better," but, my being human, it invariably does.  This can result a kind of feedback loop where practicing the pieces I like makes me enjoy them all the more, and play them even better . . . and the pieces I didn't like?  Um . . . well . . . ahem.

A new concert program gives me a chance to approach this feedback loop differently.  There have been times when a piece I disliked or was bored with upon first hearing turned out to be the most rewarding of all.  When that happened, what made it happen?

1.  The piece was a concerto or other solo piece, and the soloist was great.  Last year we played a flute concerto.  My first reaction to the piece, without the soloist present at rehearsal, was "metallic yet fluffy."  But when the soloist rehearsed with us, it changed everything.  She was dynamic, and inspiring, and made the whole thing fun.  

2.  I found a good recording and listened to the piece a lot.  This has happened to me with the 4th movement of the Franck sonata, which I'm learning to play.  It took about a week of listening to Sarah Chang before the piece grabbed me.  But when it did, it got me good.

3.  I became accustomed to the visual appearance of the sheet music itself, and then became familiar enough with it that I could disregard it or overcome it.  It is always remarkable to me how influential this factor is, for an activity that is, or should be, primarily auditory and kinesthetic.  Rental parts with every last little printed dynamic or phrasing marking circled again and annotated by someone else = ANNOYING.  Rental parts with inconsistent bowings for the section = BAD.  Manuscript music with uneven ledger lines so that an F looks like an A and vice-versa = VERY BAD.  Music written in German = fun for me, and a chance to practice my German--except when words get left out and the music just says "Die."

4.  The music was French.  If the music is French, the word "impressionistic" will invariably come up, and I will think of Monet.  This usually helps, unless I end up thinking of Cezanne or Cassatt, whom I don't like as much as Monet.  

For this concert, we're playing the Chausson  Poème (which meets all of the above criteria) with a young soloist.  I have erased many of the offending stray random markings in my part and started listening to a recording of the piece by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg that came along on the album with the recording of the Sibelius violin concerto I bought last year. 

Strangely, my adventures in listening thus far have put me in mind of a seemingly unrelated topic:  scientific grants and seminars.  In the past week I have attended a practice seminar given by a member of the lab where I work who is going on a job interview next week, and I have attended a lecture on how to prepare grants that will be funded by the NIH.  In both situations, there has been a lot of talk about preparing your audience, holding your audience, leading your audience through by the hand, so you don't LOSE THEM.  In particular, the grants administrator said "don't make them work!"  The structure of these presentations, whether it is written or spoken, is supposed to be predictable and well-organized.  And, the presenter is supposed to be in control at every step of the process.

Right now, the  Poème is, for me, still quite a bit of work.  Chausson clearly didn't go to any of those seminars.  Unlike with the Light Cavalry Overture that carries me right along on the back of a fast-moving horse, with the  Poème I feel a bit like the person in the seminar audience who spaces out looking at a slide of excimer fluorescence and comes back to find that, oops, now the speaker is talking about amyloid nucleation, and how did he get there??  Or the grant reviewer who reads through the proposal and says, "why is he doing those experiments?  what was specific aim 1 again?"  It's not yet clear to me what's coming next or why.  

One thing that sometimes helps me through this stage is to listen, follow along, and to jot down times, in minutes and seconds, in the xerox copy of the music where I'm following along with the recording. While one can't be that quantitative while actually playing, and one wouldn't want to be, somehow doing that helps to set up the piece as a journey with signposts and landmarks.   I know then that even if I've spaced out here or there, one of my favorite parts, where the soloist descends and the orchestra comes in with a swell, will be coming in a minute or two.  In the worst case I'll know how long I have before I can turn the whole thing off and do something else.  I also noticed, after keeping track of the timing, that a particular section that seemed interminably dull and meandering while I was listening (and especially when I was sitting in rehearsal, counting measures rest), was in reality only a couple of minutes long.  Knowing that that section had a defined length and end--and a therefore a purpose, even if I can't fathom it yet--somehow made it easier to endure and even to listen with fresher and more open ears.  

In any case, I'm looking forward to the soloist coming in a few weeks!

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January 9, 2010 05:43

January has historically been my least favorite month, as the warmth of the holidays fades, the sun still wan and attenuated, and the snow settles into icy chunks, immune to the charms of our little snow blower.

But I'm starting to make my peace with it.  Vacation was long enough, and orchestra, lessons, and chamber groups are starting again.  This is the second time we have done a rousing overture in orchestra for the February concert.  Two years ago, waiting for the bus in the morning, I would listen to the William Tell Overture on my ear buds and think, "Hi Ho, Silver!"  This year it's the Light Cavalry Overture, not so different--ricochet bowing, cartoon references and all.

Orchestra concerts are starting to fit into a larger seasonal pattern:  a big choral piece right before the holidays, a suite of short, energetic pieces for the Family Concert in February.  It's what we need this time of year.

We are also playing Smetana's The Moldau, a piece that is probably familiar to many on this site.  The melody is familiar to me, but not the specifics of the 1st violin part.  In particular, there is an 8va section that is getting me down.  It's worse than the Schubert 8th note "forest" from last concert.  And it's a lot worse than those bouncy exposed 16th notes in the William Tell.  Despite some tentative woodshedding in the practice room, I am still not sure where and how to shift, and I don't have the intervals in my ear.  

But I have to remember, I always feel this way at the beginning of a concert cycle.  It's winter, and the landscape is barren and icy.  It takes time for understanding to take root, and grow.

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