Coffee Break Understood by J. S. Bach Himself

The all-important coffee break is respected by much of mankind. Even Johann Sebastian Bach had something to say about it.

It is nearly impossible to believe now, but during the several years I worked (read: played) in the very beautiful city of Lisbon, Portugal, I never had the means to make coffee at home nor felt that something was lacking. My habitual café, or café regular, was only several steps from where I was living, and somehow it always seemed perfectly natural to partake of my urgently-required brew at that counter just around the corner. Whoever was serving knew enough to start preparing um duplo (a “double”) as soon as I was spotted heading through the doorway. If I was practicing at home and needed a coffee break, I was off to the Café Colmeia (translates as the “beehive café). At the finish of a dinner party hosted in my apartment, my guests and I would inevitably put in an appearance at the Colmeia.

May there always be a café on the corner

Bach-coffee-break-espresso-cup
Espresso Bach Partita
Espresso Mugs

by missprinteditions

The orchestra to which I belonged in Lisbon was a city-based ensemble and, as such, did not go out of town very often to perform. Of the rare occasions that we did have a small tour or run-out, my fondest memories are related to the necessity of the life-saving coffee break. We would not have been under way more than fifteen or twenty minutes when one of my colleagues would call out, “Café!” The bus would immediately screech to a halt, on the spot, as there was always a café wherever we found ourselves. After a refreshing interval, we were off again, until someone else could no longer survive without coffee and said so. It did take rather a long time to progress with our journey, but of course that was hardly the point. As I wrote in an earlier post, we would get there when we got there.

Bach knew the meaning of a coffee break

In all my years of orchestra playing, I have not been fortunate enough to find the part for J. S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata on my music stand. Though one can hope, I begin to despair of ever experiencing the piece as a violinist and must thrill to its wonderful good humor (and “Bach-ness”) as a listener. When we hear the opening admonishment to “be quiet and not chatter”, it is immediately obvious that, for all his solemn and sacred genius, Bach was completely aware of — and sympathetic to — the mere mortal’s recurring need for a blessed coffee break.

Flute Music by a Master Flautist and Teacher

Katherine Hoover, a composer of flute music and other works, was my flute teacher for a number of years; here is a personal tribute.

Little could I have known when I received a scholarship that would make it possible for me to attend the preparatory division of the Juilliard School that — besides all the unique training in music theory, sight-singing, the history of music, and other invaluable facets of a very focused musical education — my flute teacher would be the incomparable Katherine Hoover. She has become extremely well known for the flute music and other compositions she has written. That her career would take such a path was not in evidence in those days long ago. I merely realized, rather quickly, that I was exceedingly lucky to have been given the chance to study with a first-class flautist (this recording on Amazon.com is, alas, nearly impossible to find) and instructor.

Flute music sweet to the ear and mind

Flute-music-fantasy-poster
Steampunk Flute Fantasy Print
by missprinteditions

I was well aware at the time — relatively young though I was — of what an exceptional musician and instrumentalist had been assigned to be my teacher. I had been delving into my preferred subjects (the other being the violin) for most of my life and had developed some ideas of how I liked things to sound. Far from all the recording and performing artists I heard were satisfying to me, and that includes some of the big names from that era and before. It seemed that often something — something crucial — was absent, whether a sense of line and the grand picture of a composition, small but all-important details not given their due, “special effects” with no musical justification for being incorporated, or a lack of contrasting colors in the sound. Learning flute music under Katherine Hoover’s tutelage treated me to some of the most exquisite flute playing anyone could ever hope to hear. Of course I secretly hoped for more demonstrations from her than I got; every measure was precious to me, as much more than a model of what I might aspire to.

The writing of flute music as manifestation of a great player

Reflecting back on those years, I remember clues that might have indicated what direction Katherine Hoover’s career might take. I recall bringing in some sorry short pieces that had been tortuously wrung from me in one of my composition classes and receiving the benefit of her calm and insightful overview as to how I might improve them. No flute music that I ever studied with her had its form left unanalyzed. No interpretation of any composition was possible without a look at what had gone into its creation. If one of the school accompanists was not present at my lesson, she would often sit down at the piano herself and play the accompaniment — sometimes at sight, always in complete control. At the time I felt thrilled and privileged partaking of all these riches. Now, I see that I should have had an inkling that she would need to broaden her avenues of expression and indeed, do wonderfully well.

httpvh://youtu.be/ECY9IdwZFW0

 

Ceramic Violin and Other Beautiful Objects

Ceramic Violins

What follows is another brief look at such graceful items as a ceramic violin, obviously inspired by the original stringed instrument of wood.

Ceramic-violin-water-bottle
Violin Black Line
Drawing Water Bottles

by missprinteditions

A recent glance at the world of violin bottles demonstrated that objects resembling the violin’s shape, and made of materials other than the expected wood, are particularly admired, sought after, and cherished. Chief among these is the ceramic violin (for purposes of discussion here but not strictly delineated, including such types of clay-based processes and marks as faience, Limoges, porcelain, and so on), with perhaps the most exquisite of those being this one, a blue Delft treasure from ca. 1705-1710 on view in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The extraordinarily high incidence of this item’s being reproduced in recognizable form as a collectible object in addition to possibly most-photographed-exhibit in aforementioned museum attests to its attraction for all who come across it.
Porcelain violin newspaper clipping

The ceramic violin, a never-ending tribute to the beauty of a violin that can be played

The violin in its most common form — the stringed instrument that is a marvel of acoustic ingenuity — is such a wondrous thing that one would think attempts to improve upon it would long ago have been abandoned. In general, that is so, and yet, there have continued to be experiments to come up with something — a ceramic violin, a porcelain one, a glass one — that might offer hitherto unheard qualities. We know better, of course, so it is touching to discover this article from a 1905 New Zealand newspaper:

Nice try, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, and indeed “somewhat hard to believe”, as stated by the writer of the piece just above. Progress in acoustics notwithstanding, the notion of a ceramic violin has remained so intriguing to the art-loving public that at least one author even chose the topic as the title of his novel, which is still available in facsimile edition.

Delft violin Rijksmuseum

A ceramic violin as feast for the eyes

It seems that we will not tire of looking at beautiful objects which remind us of themselves in other iterations; that is, most likely, what holds our interest in them. The ceramic violin on display at the Rijksmuseum can  even make us forget about Vermeer and Rembrandt for a moment.

Bad Manners in Audiences — Age-Old Problem

Audience members who have been annoyed due to the bad manners of others may believe the problem is worsening, but it is nothing new.

It does often seem as if concert etiquette is a quaint notion from earlier times, a musty idea barely recognized by today’s audiences, much less put into practice. Bad manners appear to be rampant, with little sign of subsiding. I can bear witness to this tide, unfortunately, from either side of the concert hall — both onstage and off, as a member of the paying public and as a musician who, with shocking frequency, is disturbed while performing by ongoing conversation, rustling papers, unchecked coughing, ringing cell phones, glowing screens, the red glare of video recording, and camera flashes. While the prevalence of electronic devices has certainly contributed to the seeming trend and might give the impression that the situation is worse than ever, a glance at concert-going history plus a lifetime of annoying memories tell me that this is an illusion.

Bad manners not a recent development

Flute-tie-against-bad-manners
Tied Flute
by missprinteditions

A survey of the books written (and even largely still available, thanks to conscientious publishing houses devoted to printing facsimile editions of historically interesting publications)to address the question of decorum reveals an assortment of innumerable manuals covering every aspect  of life in modern times as well as earlier eras. We can, with minimal effort, discover what was considered proper when dancing a waltz (or any other sort of dance, for that matter), how to drink tea way back when and today as well as the appropriate methods of dining during ancient eras up to the present; guidance is available concerning forays into the worlds of theatre and art, and there are directions pertaining to what was and is to be done in every conceivable situation in which we might find ourselves. This all would seem to indicate that bad manners, whether unwitting and born of ignorance or more deliberately self-centered, are not a modern phenomenon.

Familiar bad manners: it was ever thus

As a child in the audience I can recall being disturbed by noisy adults in nearby seats at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, among other venues, and just this week my colleagues and I were  subjected to several of the nuisances mentioned in the first paragraph while playing an orchestra concert. My patience assuredly has not increased with age and might sway me to claim that the predicament is growing, but honesty compels me to admit that the bad manners of many spectators at cultural events have been in evidence for as long as there have been performances to attend. An article in the Seattle Times, written more than two decades ago, is a curious marker of how little progress has been made on this front. Ten years earlier, the author had published a column featuring “Ten Commandments for Audience Behavior” which went on to be included in program books around the world — yet here he is, some years later, again drawing attention to the unsolved problem and referring to the venerable conductors Ormandy and Stokowski as having made remarks on the subject. There is a wealth of stories, unfortunately, of performers’ being obliged to comment from the stage, as a desperate last resort, to curb audience misbehavior.

I fear there is not much hope for it, human nature being what it is, but I would love to believe — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that we might yet attain a certain level of civilization in our concert-going and discard those distasteful bad manners. The educational efforts continue, from special courses to books for the young to a comprehensive guidebook from Amazon.com to not-so-subtle announcements made in concert halls before performances. All the criticism offered by Judith Martin in her Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Freshly Updated)does not really bode well, but it is quite delightful to read, “The etiquette of symphony concerts is that the only muscles that may be moved are the ones needed for turning to glare at those who dare to breathe too loudly.”

httpvh://youtu.be/zY7UK-6aaNA

Conducting According to the Tao of Jan Stulen

Jan Stulen has written a book titled The Tao of Conducting. It is in Dutch, but let us hope that an English translation is forthcoming soon.

In the meantime, I would like to give an impression of what this noteworthy volume (De Tao van het dirigeren), which appeared in the fall of 2012, has to offer. This is, as its subtitle tells us, ‘a different look at (musical) leadership’, and that is precisely what makes it a stand-out in a sea of conducting manuals, workbooks, and analyses. The author has some 50 years of practical experience in every imaginable genre to inform his opinions about his profession. For more than 25 years he has also been involved in the education of aspiring conductors, which has afforded him the opportunity to formulate his findings so that they might aid others. Rather than discuss technique and propose exercises, Jan Stulen engages his reading public with the supposition that they can find that type of instruction elsewhere; he dives into the heart of the matter: what is conducting? What is its true purpose? What might be the most effective method of communicating with the musicians who are producing the sounds, what are some of the pitfalls encountered by conductors, and how might they best be avoided or overcome?

Ten golden rules of conducting

Conducting-chamber-music-poster
Penguin Chamber Music Poster
by missprinteditions

‘I conduct, therefore I am’, as Jan Stulen names one of his chapters, is a refreshing example of the spiritual grace, combined with a healthy, self-assured modesty, that typifies the tone throughout. There is a wealth of practical tips, wrapped in philosophical references to the Tao. ‘This book offers a “right way” but does not assume that this is the only way to reach the desired goal’, the author tells us in his introduction. Indeed, one of the concepts returned to regularly here is the individuality of each of the musicians hoping to unite in the expression of the composers’ intentions. Not only those interested in conducting, but anyone who loves and cares about music — as a performer or listener — should find inspiring insights here.

[All translations from the Dutch in the above article by MissPrinteditions]

Conductors — Best Friend or Grievous Enemy

The great and true conductors know what their mission is, but it is sad to note how many there are of another sort entirely.

At the moment I am in the midst of reading a wonderful book written by an immensely gifted Dutch conductor, and am planning to present a review of it in the next post on this site. Knowing the author personally as well as having had the occasion to enjoy his work adds to my delight at all the eminently sensible, inspiring things he has to say — yet, oddly, I find myself nearly overwhelmed with sadness and even despair that the contrast is so pronounced between this man’s nature (and that of those relatively few like him) and the hordes of would-be conductors haunting orchestras everywhere. Still stronger is my conviction that the aspiring leaders who need such a book and should take it to heart will either never come across it or will not be capable of understanding it and believing  that its wise words apply to them.

The emperor’s new conductors, expensive at a dime a dozen

Conductors-business-cards
Orchestra Instruments Contact Card
Business Card Template

by missprinteditions

Forgive this longtime orchestra violinist, who, though not in the least affected in her playing by the horrors to which she has been exposed, feels the need to react to some of the musical injustices she — together with her put-upon colleagues — has had to endure. Audiences attending concerts cannot possibly realize what is taking place when an orchestra is doing its best in spite of the circumstances; all self-respecting orchestras ignore and work around conductors who are incompetent, with fairly decent and even remarkable results most of the time, despite the huge obstacle facing them. Well-known (well-rehearsed on other occasions) music plays itself, in a sense, if allowed to, the problem often being someone who insists on getting in the way.

Great conductors are humble, in service to the music and the musicians

One can feel, first of all, the humility of the conductors who recognize the genius of the composers whose works they are privileged to interpret. Secondly, a true maestro is aware of his debt to the players and will give them everything they need, every step of the way through. This post is not intended to be an in-depth analysis of what constitutes greatness in conducting. It is, rather, a short and puzzled lament that there could be so many who long to stand in front of an orchestra for all the wrong reasons — a subject that continues, and will be continued, in the long term all over (alas), and in the short term in this space.

Symphony Orchestra — Survivor or Victim?

It is a subject debated with predictable regularity, for we still do not know the answer: will the symphony orchestra as we know it survive?

With a very human wish for the ability to predict what might happen next, we look at what is going on at the moment and attempt to detect a trend. We tell ourselves that the direction that has been followed up until now will continue, as the evidence appears to point that way — or, we suspect that everything will shortly take an opposite turn, in the time-honored manner of the pendulum that must swing back. In-depth studies of what has gone before are parsed for clues as to what might be; current events are taken as a sign that nothing will be as it was. Who can say if the symphony orchestra is an institution that will survive?

The symphony orchestra has been in existence for the proverbial blink of an eye in the history of mankind

Symphony-orchestra-skyline-pillow
Orchestra Instrument
Nighttime Skyline Throw Pillows

by missprinteditions

This is, of course, a purely personal bit of rumination. One can gather so-called evidence endlessly and still know nothing. It is mainly the wish for some sort of grip on things, I believe, that can convince us so forcefully of our ability to peer into the future, and we use whatever tools we have at hand, however misguidedly or accurately, as the case may be; we will only find out later if our hunches were correct.  A symphony orchestra is most assuredly a phenomenon in a category of its own. Having come onto the scene relatively recently in the course of music history, it has not undergone a great deal of change from its original formation, but that does not really tell us if it is now an anachronism. That conclusion cannot be drawn until we are looking back at the epoch in which we are presently residing.

Cultural wasteland or renewed symphony orchestra cultivation?

We shall see; we shall hear. Symphony orchestra musicians in days of yore were at the mercy of their patrons. In more recent times, some symphonic ensembles began to find greater stability through guarantees of government funding and labor organization, but some degree of dependence has always remained, tied directly to need and the desires of one type of audience or another. Widespread availability of recordings might have been thought to presage the demise of classical concert-going, but it would seem that perhaps the opposite effect has occurred: hearing a recorded performance often fuels the wish to experience the music while it is being played in the concert hall.

As an orchestra musician with far, far fewer upcoming concerts on the roster than I have been privileged to play over the years, I catch myself heaving a sigh of relief now and then in the belief that I will be exiting life in a symphony orchestra while conditions were still favorable. Some days it feels as if I have ridden the most marvelous wave of good fortune and am heading for the shore in the nick of time. Other days I tell myself the little story with which I began this piece, that we cannot truly know what is going to happen even judging by what seems to be taking place. That funds are scarce, that jobs are being cut, that priorities shift (or become more visible) in times of trouble — we have seen it before. That entities, once destroyed, are impossible to rebuild: perhaps, but new, even improved entities can be and have been built in their stead. That a parched landscape can yet bring forth and sustain life-giving forms of cultural refreshment: we have seen that, too, and may see it again soon.

httpvh://youtu.be/JIs2zIGl59o

Concert Violinist as Very Successful Adman

Concert Violinist

The late Arnold Eidus is remarkable for having relinquished his brilliant career as a concert violinist to do something very different.

A quick glance at the headlines in the New York Times late last night yielded a startling lead: Arnold Eidus, 90, Adman With Stradivarius, Dies. I had not heard — or did not remember hearing — this name before, but I had a slight twinge of guilt that perhaps I should have. The dates attached to the events in his life removed that feeling, however; the only two audible traces of his time as a concert violinist that I could locate were captured for posterity when I had hardly begun to dream of learning to play the violin. He recorded the Kodály Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, receiving this glowing comment in ClassicsToday.com (with the second example to be found at the end of this post):

Collectors familiar with the live Starker/Josef Gingold performance of the Op. 7 Duo for Violin and Cello will find the cellist’s 1950 partnership with violinist Arnold Eidus no less rewarding, and arguably more effective by virtue of the Adagio’s greater animation. The winner of the 1946 Jacques Thibaud International Competition, Eidus was a great all-around musician at home in many styles, and was one of the New York studio scene’s key players; it’s good to have a reminder of his distinguished career.

A marvelously accomplished concert violinist leaves reminders and changes course

Vintage-concert-violinist-poster
Jack and his Fiddle Posters
by missprinteditions

A most curious tale it is, that of the life of Arnold Eidus. It is entirely comprehensible to me that a gifted concert violinist would become unhappy with the rigors involved in touring the world to perform as a soloist. What is striking — and admirable — is that he could be talented enough in other ways to lead the existence he truly wished for, with a balance between success in the commercial sense and music-making on its own, unencumbered terms. This, and taking note of the generation to which he belonged, put me strongly in mind of the late, great Charles Libove. When I feel frustrated and even indignant that so little of the latter’s genius remains on classical recordings, I recall his explanations that he was subsidizing his chamber music performances (his true love) with studio work: that is, playing in a pick-up orchestra (of which he was invariably the concertmaster and often the contractor also) to record the accompaniments for recordings by popular artists as well as performing the scores for movies and television shows. The bits and pieces I have on tape from fabulous classical concerts in which Libove participated are all the more precious for their rarity.

It’s a small world for the concert violinist

Reading about one-time concert violinist Arnold Eidus convinced me that he and Charles Libove would have known each other quite well and crossed paths often in the way that studio musicians do. This connection, however much a fleeting stretch, was good for a comforting dose of nostalgia and renewed gratitude for my own luck in being able to play music for my livelihood.

A touching demonstration of the artist Arnold Eidus:

httpvh://youtu.be/pOEwyUfUHOA

Music Reading is Becoming a Cautionary Tale

The overabundant use of courtesy accidentals (also known as cautionary accidentals) is causing terrible discomfort in music reading.

What follows is a somewhat technical argument, but rather than making sense only to musicians, it should also be comprehensible as an analogy for anyone who feels that a language must continue to follow known and universally agreed-upon spelling rules, rather than appearing in a phonetically or otherwise incorrectly written fashion upon the printed page (or screen, as it were).  Admittedly, the latter group of believers is diminishing daily, as is made clear by the evidence in publications on-line and off, and as for the woes of those involved in music reading  — whether for study, profession, or simple pleasure — they seem to be increasing by the day.

Notation progresses and so does printing, making for widespread music reading

The conventions and customs of music notation as they have developed from before the Baroque era up until the present, although idiosyncratic and full of exceptions to the rules like the orthography of most languages, adhere to certain standards which should be upheld by those who are writing and publishing music, and are expected by those involved in music reading. The specialized demands of music printing, with efforts throughout the ages in producing and dispersing printed pages to musicians, led to numerous methods, refinement of techniques, and ingenious inventions all meant to reduce the necessity of music scores’ being arduously handwritten (and later, engraved and hand-set).

Modern convenience not necessarily an improvement for music reading

Medieval-music-reading-manuscript-messenger-bag
Medieval Music Manuscript,
White on Dark Blue Courier Bag

by missprinteditions

Several years ago, I was attempting to help a friend of mine who had transcribed a Bach fugue for a chamber orchestra he was conducting. I volunteered to extrapolate the instrument parts from the score he had written out, and installed a software program for music notation (the sort of magical items one could purchase from Amazon.com) on my computer, cheerfully congratulating myself on what I thought I was about to accomplish. To my great distress, I ended up wrestling continuously with the program, which insisted — try though I did to override, convince, and subvert — on inserting a so-called courtesy or cautionary accidental the next time any note appeared in the score after having been modified earlier from the key signature. This must be one of the most disturbing-looking music notation symbols imaginable, this unwanted visual distraction which gives the impression another change has been made, rather than that the note has reverted to the parameters delineated by the tonality. Most of my energy went into fighting this tendency of the software, as I could not correct it in general, nor could I accept that the parts for music reading would be printed with such glaringly out-of-place accidentals.

During the course of my life as an orchestra musician, my education has been ongoing, always updating through the last measure of the most recent piece played. I have been extremely gratified to see how solid the fundamentals of my early music training. I had the benefit of very demanding teachers of flute, violin, music theory, and sight-singing, among other subjects, who insisted upon proficiency in sight-reading: that is, playing or singing something unknown as accurately as possible the first time read. These regimens have stood me in such good stead while coping with the demands of performing in an orchestra that I cannot overstate my gratitude for what those instructors and my own practicing did to enhance my music reading skills. I did not anticipate that something would come along in the latter part of my career which would cause sometimes dangerous double takes while looking at well-known passages.

If only publishers would make music reading clearer instead of more difficult

Time goes on, section parts wear out and are replaced, and one cannot help but notice that the old music type-setting methods have given way increasingly to computerized methods. The spacing is a bit off here and there, too equal instead of more erratic as befits the visual representation of how the rhythm fits between the bar lines. I try not to be taken in by that, despite expecting something different. However, the convenience for the publishers and printers occasioned by the advent of the computer is resulting increasingly in that horror of horrors for music reading: the undesired and undesirable courtesy accidental, discourteous to the extreme. Little did I realize, when I was struggling with that Bach transcription, that the cautionary accidentals were telling a cautionary tale.

Music Sculpture That Resonates and Fascinates

Music Sculpture

The versatile, thoughtful artist Arman left the world a glittering wealth of, among other marvelous things, resonant music sculpture.

One would be ashamed if not for the convenient excuses of ignorance and youth. I well remember coming across a rather (or so it seemed to me at the time) violent-looking example of a music sculpture by the artist who came to be known as Arman and feeling somewhat ill. The vision of destroyed musical instruments, no matter how ingeniously reconstructed and despite their eloquent resonance, was too much for a tender-aged violinist to absorb and appreciate. Objects capable of producing music — most emphatically those belonging to the stringed-instrument family —were, to my then uninstructed mind, meant to be kept whole, fit as fiddles at all costs, and not used for any other purpose than that for which (I believed) they had been intended. It was obvious to me that the instruments involved had not all been wrecked accidentally and then salvaged to be redirected. They definitely had been smashed to provide the raw materials for the music sculpture in my line of sight.

Violin-sunflower-music-sculpture-in-acrylic
Violin Sunflower in
Cloudy Blue Sky Acrylic Award

by missprinteditions

Discovering the music in music sculpture

Exposure to art in general and sculpture more particularly, an early love of poetry, and becoming more consciously aware of the underlying elements in music opened a narrow young mind to take in the message and melody emanating from  Arman’s work. Nevertheless, I was stuck in a literal phase for quite some time: due to my overriding connection to the “body parts” utilized by the artist, I was unable to progress past emblematic interpretations until I had experienced a revelation or two in my musical development. Looking back, I am intrigued to note the near-parallels in artistic advancement and remark to myself, for the umpteenth time, that progress is uneven. I wonder how I managed before I was madly in love with this music sculpture in the way one does after finding a soul mate and being unable to recall one’s life previously.

From music to music sculpture and back again

Unexpectedly, I came into possession of a pile of cello bridges — part of an inheritance from a dear friend and colleague, one who played the cello magnificently well and who also brought the fine art of building celli to a personal, elevated height. These bridges, together with some other moving remnants from his atelier, were for more than a year impossible for me to look at; his passing was still too recent and painful a loss. When I finally was able to examine my treasures, I could see that some were examples from renowned makers; a few were respectful copies that had been carved as exercises and searching by my friend; and one was the result he had settled upon as his standard, with touching markings in pencil on one side.  It occurred to me that the cello bridges were already a music sculpture without having anything further done to them, and so it remained until one day when I unpacked a newly-purchased electric blender. I lost interest in the machine immediately when I laid eyes on the packaging that had been protecting it: a lost Roman city made of cardboard, full of hills and valleys and just waiting for its bridges. I would not dare to go so far as to call the assemblage that ensued my homage to Arman, but I feel certain that the creation of my own music sculpture had been guided, in part, by all that looking and learning to perceive something of his spirit.

Ponticelli
Ponticelli by missprinteditions