My mom made me take piano lessons. I crept into a strange studio at the Colburn School; started to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on an old, beat-up Steinway; and my teacher, Heewon Kwon, frowned with disappointment. This was last November… and not when I was five.
Okay, so it was the Mozart variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman.” The intention really was not to get coaching until February, but both my mom and Heewon were pretty adamant that I should make my way in – sooner rather than later. (They started talking to me about it in August, so November was really pushing the avoidance limit.)
Like many of us, I was first exposed to “Pictures at an Exhibition” in its grand orchestral version arranged by Maurice Ravel. But it was not until I heard Barry Douglas perform it in its original form, as a piano piece, during the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1986 that I fell in love with it.
Modeste Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures” as a tribute to his close friend, Viktor Hartmann, an artist and architect who died suddenly of an aneurysm at Age 39 in 1873. Both men were devoted to Russian art, and Mussorgsky wrote the piece in six weeks as a tour through a gallery of Hartmann’s work.
Promenade opens the piece – a stroll through a museum. This theme will come back numerous times with varying meters, some irregular – characteristic of walking at different speeds as one would passing from picture to exhibit to the next room.
Mussorgsky then composed pieces to represent Hartmann’s drawings and watercolors…
Gnomus (The Gnome) – a sketch of a gnome-like nutcracker with large teeth and crooked legs, clumsily running.
Il Vecchio Castello (The Old Castle) – based on a watercolor of a medieval Italian castle with a troubadour singing before it to suggest scale.
Tuileries (Quarrels of Children at Play) – a painting of the Jardin de Tuileries near the Louvre. Children arguing and nurses were added for scale. I largely remember this song being used on "The Smurfs".
Bydlo – a picture of an oxen-drawn, Polish cart with giant wheels
Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens – was based on the production design from the ballet, “Trilby”, featuring hatching canaries. My friend Kim wondered why this wasn’t just called ‘Eggs’.
Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle – based on two separate paintings by Hartmann depicting two Jewish men – rich and poor.
The Marketplace at Limoges – where two women violently argue in a city near Central France.
Catacombae & Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua – Viktor Hartmann draws himself with friends descending into the Catacombs and exploring the dead Latin language. The Promenade theme becomes integral in this piece.
The Hut of Baba Yaga – based on Hartmann’s drawing of a clock, Baba-Yaga’s hut on fowl’s legs.
The Great Gate of Kiev – Hartmann’s design for the city gates of Kiev to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from assassination. Hartmann regarded this as his finest work and won a national competition, though it was never built. Mussorgsky’s widely recognized, triumphant composition is the grand finale to the “Exhibition”.
Most pianists, when approaching this virtuosic work, attempt to emulate the Ravel orchestrations. (It’s true… download three or four random versions off iTunes and compare for yourself.) But it was Barry Douglas who tackled it as a genuine piano solo... who made me LOVE it.
So here I was, at my first lesson in a couple (20+) years playing “Pictures at an Exhibition” for Heewon. Let me be real about this. When you drop your piano performance major your first quarter of college – no matter how many musicals you play, how much you tinker, how many film scores you do, how much you practice… you have the equivalent of a high school education.
Too much pedal, hands out of balance, uneven scales, more too much pedal, too many wrong notes, too heavy, too much pedal, too tense… etc., etc., etc... and too much pedal. This lesson was during the middle of the day, and I came back to work too exhausted and too dejected to do anything too productive.
The difference, however, between practicing when you’re 17 and practicing when you’re older than 17 with a recital looming on the horizon is… you practice much more efficiently and with purpose. Yes, I felt set back a couple months... But by the time I walked in for lesson two – in January... almost all in the above paragraph was worked out. But at this lesson, we discovered I had developed a ridiculously bad playing habit that had to be corrected.
While all three of the composers on the program were widely renown concert pianists, Franz Liszt was the best. He had heard Niccolo Paganini perform at a charity concert in 1832 and was determined “to become as great a virtuoso on the piano as Paganini was on the violin.” By 1840, Liszt was considered the greatest pianist of all time.
Liszt had an obsession with all things Medieval and with death. And so it was no surprise that "Totentanz" was based on the Gregorian chant, Dies Irae. (Ironically, this theme would also be used by Rachmaninov in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.) Liszt had attended the premiere of Hector Berlioz’s "Symphonie Fantastique" which also uses the Dies Irae theme, and was inspired by Berlioz's originality.
An innovator himself (Liszt frequently improvised cadenzas and changed music while performing other composer’s works), Liszt, in Totentanz, uses the piano percussively with thunderous, drum-like chords to start the piece… and adds sound effects from the orchestra – like col legno (where the violins strike the strings with the wood of their bow) to create an effect of dancing skeletons. [I guess you won’t hear that at this performance since we are using two pianos.] Liszt creates diabolical runs, which have been rumored to have been composed to showcase himself as a piano virtuoso – glissandi at will -- and a toccata section of repeated notes that is every competitor’s competition nightmare. (As a side note maybe we don’t have to cut out the word “Toccata” from the scarf. This will make sense at the concert.) But there is also refinement and delicacy as well – and thus "Totentanz" has become a performance favorite for many piano greats. Sergei Rachmaninov is actually one of the notable performers of this work. I first saw it while sitting in the second row with my Colburn School Music Theory Class – performed by the legendary Andre Watts… who fastly became my idol pianist... and this was the piece I HAD to play.
So here was my newly discovered problem. Heewon had actually pointed it out when I performed Totentanz back in 2010 in the Unfrozen Music concert. My fingernails were clicking… but my fingernails weren’t long. What we suddenly realized was… I was playing on the tips of my fingers, not the pads. I was lacking proper articulation and portions of the music weren’t even because I was compensating by swinging my elbows or wrists wildly. My fingers were sliding up and down the keys vertically to catch the notes. It HAD to be corrected.
I ended up going back to Colburn that night and working on it. It was a profound change. This is the way I had been playing – not just a habit I developed since quitting the piano performance major…. This is the way I had been playing PERIOD. The change was immense… the playing became lighter and more articulate… more even and more controlled. Not perfect yet, but a HUGE step in the right direction. I also couldn’t sleep that night because of the pain of using new muscle groups… story for another time.
Sergei Rachmaninov’s "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" is based on Paganini’s final Caprice for violin. The Rhapsody is a series of 24 variations for piano and orchestra (again subbed for by the brilliant Michael Sushel on piano)… with the 18th Variation being one of the most famous pieces of all time. In his ingenuity, Rachmaninov simply inverted Paganini’s theme – played upside down from A minor to Db Major to create a lush, unforgettable melody. (I think I first heard it on “Hooked on Classics”.)
Rachmaninov, also one of the greatest pianists at his time, debuted this piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
The Rachmaninov has been moved out of chronological composition order to the middle of the program. The new playing technique – and the most recent lessons on it, have added a whole new interpretation (trying to play it less bad). With the blessing of Heewon and Michael Sushel, it will be performed with sheet music – and is promising to be an adventure.
Please note that there has been a program change, and George Gershwin's RHAPSODY IN BLUE will be performed in the Rachmaninov's place.
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Some people to thank in addition to those listed in the blog entry below... The Mom. (My dad, too…) but it’s history, stress and ultimately incredible support from both of them…. And the fact that they have to listen to me practice all the times I am not at Colburn. My nephew, Kai, who has embraced my playing the piano every time he’s over. He picks up a pair of drum sticks, and beats the rhythm on the carpet all the way through my pieces. (The other nephew, Shea, tells me to “stop it” when he hears me play. He’s 2½.)
Christina Nayve, Kelvin Han Yee and Mark Walsh from “Creative Current” on L.A. Artstream. They were gracious enough to host me in an interview which airs on Thursday, February 2nd, at 7:00 p.m. at www.laartstream.com. (Please view in Mozilla Firefox).
To Bill Fain – and all the people at Johnson Fain – who are tolerating and supporting me during this time of great distraction.
To My Friends – who have stepped up and kept me physically and emotionally afloat during this crazy ride… you know who you are.
To Michael Sushel – who has this knack for calling at just the right time to advise me in the right direction and to calm things down.
To Heewon – for picking up where we left off – for making this difficult and inspiring – for not letting me compromise.
I never thought doing this recital would be this much of ride. It’s like cramming college and a professional career into a short period of time. There are ups, setbacks, moments of “emotional artisticness”, stress, some accomplishment, physical struggles… but most mostly a period of great learning.
To EVERYONE who is coming on March 3rd… Thank you. I cannot properly express how much your support means to me. I know it will at least be fun.