July 15, 2011

Grrrr... Grrrreat Pianists....

A theater actor who constantly forgets or mangles his lines because he can't stand the repetitive and boring activity of rehearsing his roles...   A mathematics lecturer who forgets  to present simple but important lemmas, and who routinely messes up his blackboard calculations - all because he can't endure the mind-numbing and time-consuming preparations for his assigned courses...
      I think that a reasonable person would have a healthy doze of contempt for such sorry "professionals" who willfully disregard the basic responsibilities of their profession.  And this contempt would not be diminished by loud assurances that, although such "professionals" screw up the details of Shakespeare and Chekhov (or Gauss and Hilbert), they convey the big picture, the spirit, if you like, of Macbeth or Uncle Vanya (or the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra) better than most.

Yet when it comes to pianists, such unprofessional behavior can be looked upon with tolerance bordering on affection, or even adulation, as witnessed by the axiomatic inclusion of Cortot and Schnabel among the so-called Great Pianists.   This is not about wrong or missed notes per se.  This is about the easily recognizable difference between wrong notes as neurophysiological accidents (which can happen to any musician) and wrong notes as the predictable consequence of willfully keeping one's technical equipment in the state of sad disrepair.

July 14, 2011

PACIFICA QUARTET live: Shostakovich String Quartets Opp.110 & 118

String Quartet No.8, Op.110
String Quartet No.10, Op.118

P a c i f i c a    Q u a r t e t
January 2011
Lincoln Performance Hall
Portland State University

The playing in this live recording by the Pacifica Quartet is surprisingly refined and focused, with absolutely state-of-the art recorded sound.  If you respond to this music of communal apartments, food shortages, endless winters, and the ever-present smell of fear  -  then you are likely to enjoy these immaculate performances a great deal.  I certainly did, but primarily because the music is presented here far more abstractly than in the supposedly "authentic" performances by Soviet (Russian) musicians.  The latter make me feel like I'm stuck in Murmansk for the winter, with nothing but Tarkovsky films playing at the only local movie theater. Which is to say that the music of Shostakovich, not very interesting to begin with, only loses in performances which see relentless gloom as its principal message.
I described the refinement of the present performances as 'surprising' because the two Beethoven quartets performed at the same concerts were pure embarrassment: scrappy and whiny tone, relentlessly poor intonation (e.g., in Op.59 #3), bad ensemble.  Perhaps the Pacifica players were saving all their energy and concentration for the Shostakovich quartets, while treating Beethoven as an insignificant filler...  Incidentally, the audience was dead silent during the Shostakovich quartets, but produced torrents of tubercular coughing during the Beethoven pieces.  Were they reacting to the ugly sounds coming from the stage?

July 11, 2011

One reason for attending piano recitals

Long time ago I went to a few piano recitals for an embarrassingly non-musical reason.  One of my musician friends had the idea that if the pianist is a young and handsome guy, the concert hall will be packed with “hot babes” ready to be picked up during the intermission.  I thought the idea was worth a try, so we went to hear the perpetually sulking (and still young) Ivo Pogorelich at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Downtown Los Angeles.
      If any hot babes had plans to attend that concert, they all must have gotten stuck in traffic somewhere on LA freeways.  We did, however, get  into a conversation with two girls who were pretty but not too bright (and neither were we, for that matter).  Not suprisingly the conversation quickly devolved to the stereotypical Californian subjects of mediation, spirituality, and (finally) reincarnation.  At which point I blurted out that I wanted to come back as Ofra Harnoy’s cello.  I don’t know how far the girls had digested the nature of my spiritual longing, but they just kept staring at me in stony silence as if I were Chester the Molester himself.  And that was the end of my dating prospects for that evening.

July 4, 2011

Elliott Carter, apple pie, and the Fourth of July

On the fourth of July I always recall the resounding FUCK OFF! which in the late 1970s concisely summed up for me the immigration policy of Western European countries.  Not that I wanted to settle in France, Germany, or Holland.  For a youngster who was lucky to make his way to the good side of the Iron Curtain, Western Europe was not distant enough from the monstrous Land of the Victorious Proletariat.   And although I still remember the cold European shoulder, I now also understand that Western European countries had to reserve enough of their living space for all those radical Muslims they would welcome with open arms some years later.

So on this holiday I allow myself to get a bit sentimental about America - the country which took me in and made me feel at home as soon as I cleared the immigration and customs at JFK.  I forget the things I don't like about it and focus on the things I love.  Among the latter nothing makes me feel more patriotic than the music of Elliott Carter.