Challenges

What I did not mention about my trip to Louisiana, is that I suffered a concussion while there, which affected me greatly for two months afterwards. I am not a person who can stay in bed and rest without using my eyes, without going slightly nuts. But rest is what the doctors ordered, and so all projects and plans were put on hold for a couple of weeks. Lying on one’s back is an excellent exercise for anyone to confront deep otherwise-evasive thoughts, not to mention dream up new goals, and contemplating the complex role my mother played in my life, both musically and otherwise is fodder for a book some day…

Because just as I thought the concussion was healing, my quite elderly mother started declining and died on May 9th, the morning of the day that my son, Dennis Parker, gave a recital at Weill Hall at Carnegie. Shock and sadness in the morning, and pride and gladness in the evening. The full range of human emotions within twelve hours. My son told his audience that 21 years earlier, he drove up from Louisiana with his wife, Jacquie, and his one-month-old son, Rollie, to give his New York debut recital in this same hall, and his grandmother, Grace Mont, had volunteered to stay backstage in the Green Room to take care of the baby while the concert was in progress; and now 21 exact years later, his grandmother had passed away that morning.
He then dedicated his encores to her memory.
My mother recounted to me, that as a baby, I loved being under a tree! She told me I looked up at the sky through the leaves and sang and babbled happily. Some things just stick! Fast forward to a day ago on the porch, as I was lying down and resting , looking up at the sky through the leaves. She gave me the book Heidi, and Heidi became one of my favorite female characters from children’s literature, especially the episode where her grandfather prepared a bed of straw in the hayloft under the open sky—To this day I have to have my bed near an open window, smelling the fresh air coming in. I can trace that to Heidi as well. SOMEHOW, my mother gave me something that has lasted as one of my deepest loves—nature. She also took us to the library in Brooklyn, so that from a very young age, I got a love for books. She gave me the book The Secret Garden, which I then shared with my daughter, Kim, the theme of which is the restorative joy of Springtime returning and little chutes coming up through the ground, and the character of Dillon, a child of Nature, who talked to birds and woodland creatures,…not unlike myself. And she gave me the Louisa May Alcott books, and I purposely read Under the Lilacs under a big bush in our Brooklyn house. My love of gardening, I believe, may have started during the war, when I helped my mother plant a victory garden, and tended to vegetables in the backyard in Brooklyn. I can remember the plantings around every modest house we ever lived in—

I know my mother got great pleasure from the fact that I became a “serious” piano student, then pianist, and I will always be grateful for the devoted and smart way she went about finding me the best piano teachers she could—ultimately finding Leopold Mittman—when I was only 11! . How did she know that he would be perfect for me? That he would not only teach me the piano, but about Art, and Life, in ways my own parents could not have done? She said “she just knew.”

That was my mother’s greatest gift to me. I have written about Mittman in my books and articles. Ironically, I do not think my mother  entirely understood who I got to be as an adult, what music has meant to me in the deepest sense, except that she gloried in sitting in audiences and reaping the “rewards” of parenting a gifted child, up to and including the little gigs I did for her in her various adult residences in her last 8 or 9 years. And she certainly did not understand the hard work, commitment and joys of my teaching–“You sit there, and someone else plays..” i.e. ‘why are you tired??’

But she was creative in her own ways, bright and curious, an action person, and she had a quite challenging and exotic background, which I plan to write about.

As soon as I can fully concentrate, it will be on to the next Composer’s Landscape episode with Schumann.

 

Bach as Brainbuster

I am right smack in the middle of my Composer’s Landscape recording project, having completed Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart CD sets, working on the Bach set, with Brahms, Schubert and Schumann to come, (and  considerations of a possible future French music set.)

This Bach business is certainly keeping my brain (and my hands) from going rusty on me! Aside from the several suites on Disc Two, on Disc One I will have about 13 or 14 sets of Preludes and Fugues from both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, arranged not by the consecutive keys in which they appear in the volumes, but, rather, juxtaposed in complementary key relationships, and sometimes presented alongside the sets in the same key from the other volume. I believe the listening experience with this format is very different from the conventional sequences in which they are generally heard.

As in all my CD sets, there is a combination of live performances (a kind of harvesting process from past recitals) along with current home-recorded music. I have all the components I need–save one. I have a beautiful Steinway A in perfect tune, I have my own (usually reliable) “personal” equipment, a musical mind and soul, a good recording system, a husband who agrees to stay silent during recording sessions–but sometimes I run up against my own quirky and ornery ear and mind, which are very nearly never satisfied. Many times I get a quite good take, and still the voice in my head says “I can do it better.”

Sometimes, of course, a piece runs smoothly and balanced, and that is sheer happiness. I simply save it and add it to my project. When problems occur, they lie mostly in the challenges of sound (ambience) and balance. The sound at home is very different from the lustre of halls in live performance. But even more tricky, are the placement of the mics, and even trickier than that, is the touch, articulation, dynamics, and all the variables when one plays.

I had planned that the opening two preludes and fugues in C Major and G Major from Book Two, would be followed by the E flat major Prelude and Fugue from Book Two, with several others recorded at home. The key relationship between G major and E flat major did not sit well, and so I decided to insert the C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book One, which would lead neatly to the E flat, then to the A flat, and so on.

Well,– the C minor Prelude is a very difficult prelude to play–the word balance says it all.
Andras Schiff, in his first complete Bach WTC collection (he has since re-recorded all 48, and performed all of them in live concert, a feat that renders mere mortal pianists awestruck), plays that c minor prelude quite deliberately, moderato and forte, with almost no melodic line brought out in the tops of each half-bar. Others play it faster, or lighter.

My own “tempo juste” felt right being rapid, with more tonal accents on the first sixteenths of each half-bar. There is a beautiful melodic line hidden in there, which I feel I want and need to bring out. I have not listened to all the wonderful CDs available from great pianists like Hewitt and Gould, because after I checked in on Schiff’s, and did not agree with it, I realized how fascinating it is–how many choices there are that could be valid in the performance of this piece, and I wanted no further “input” from any other interpretation. I wanted to feel entirely free of influence. (I should add, that in most of Bach, Schiff would be my pianist of choice!) 

So, in the process of finding my own perfect balance between the voices, which means the regulation of my finger-weight, the placement of the mics,–all the myriad considerations, not to mention that factor of how I hear myself, which, in itself, can be very subjective, I think I played that prelude at least 30 or 40 times, in different “takes” before I found one I could love altogether! It seems incredible to me, and yet that was the reality! Oddly, the take I chose one day, was not necessarily my favorite the next day. And many days I discarded all, in favor of starting again from square one, and re-recording it.

 I recently read an article in International Piano quoting Peter Donohoe, a quite successful British pianist, who plays Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and every “big” composer, but is now recording “the 48” , and says “There is no more difficult music than this.” The bottom line is that each composer has his challenges, and each of us have, as my great teacher, Leopold Mittman, once said, a piece of talent with territorial boundaries (if we are lucky.) For me, Bach has always been well within my “territory”, but this is my first in-depth experience with the process of recording and getting it as “right” as I can for “posterity.”  (Posterity is a fancy word for permanence, in this case. In concert, any irregularities that might haunt me in this process, would have floated away into the firmament. ) The recording process intensifies Bach’s enormous contrapuntal challenges and the need to concentrate fully; and listening so intently to oneself and preserving one’s efforts, increase the desire to keep the music alive with contrasting colors  and textures, using the full range of possibilities of a fine piano, well-trained hands, and a fertile imagination.

 

 

 

Cajun Music Rocks!

During a recent trip to visit my son Dennis, his wife Jacquie, and their two children, Rollie and Zoe, we had the good fortune to attend an authentic Plantation Cajun Party, thrown by friends of theirs  at an 8-acre estate, with an 1800’s mansion of Acadian architecture in the process of restoration, with multiple picturesque cabins on the property.
My least favorite event was the crawfish feast, but the gumbo and jumbalaya  were

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

delicious. Vats of 100 pounds of crawfish were boiling with sacks of cayenne pepper, and most of the guests consumed 100’s of these poor critters each! Ernie and I managed a dozen between us! An enormous bonfire showered embers, fireworks went off, and mounds of fire ants populated the lawns, so that we had to do a fancy two-step to avoid being attacked! (Perhaps that two-step was the origin of Zaedeco dancing?)

For me, the best part was listening and foot-stamping to a quartet of Cajun musicians, as happy as any players in any genre—-a violinist sawing away in cheapo

Cajun Band

tonic chords, an accordionist, and two guitarists, playing and singing in Creole French, extremely engaging rhythms, with an infectious spirit that even the snobbiest of classical pianists could not resist responding to!

Recording Bach

Nothing like recording Bach to make a person feel imperfect!

Glenn Gould quit performing Bach so that he could produce perfect recordings, albeit spliced and diced.
I know because he called me once in the middle of the night to tell me all about it!

And Radu Lupu has seemed to quit recording (not since 2007, his last recording –of Schubert), because he dislikes the laborious process.

I am betwixt and between. I have seemed to step away from live performance, and have been enjoying the process of gathering up whatever good work I have done in recent years to put onto CDs—(my Composer’s Landscape Series.) If I wish to add to the live performances, in order to augment the CDs, I am making some recordings at home, with a good little Zoom Wave recording system I bought myself.

It is quite a faithful sound system, and my piano is in perfect tune; so recently on a quiet Saturday afternoon I wanted to seize the moment and get a lot of Bach preludes and fugues and suites together on tape . I heartily dislike and reject the notion of collage-recordings, and yet, when you try to get an honest, continuous, spontaneous account of a piece in one shoot, stuff happens!

I always tell my students they cannot expect perfection, are not computers, and have to love their humanness and accept whatever flaws that may occur. But that is in live performance: an experience so ephemeral, that the tones evaporate, dissipate, into the ether forevermore; whereas these tones I am producing for recording will be etched in vinyl forevermore. No one wants to go on permanent record with less than their own best. And in some ways, I think one live mic is a more demanding receptor than hundreds of pairs of ears attached to live human heads!

And so, for example, in one particularly “slippery” prelude and fugue from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the A flat major, I believe I had about 30 takes until I was pleased enough to acknowledge that I couldn’t do it any better. And those rejected takes are spiced with expletives and pleas (“You are kidding me, God!),when I had a trainwreck after the 25th take, after almost  getting to the final cadence, and then!…

I learned just how much emotional energy, stick-to-it-ive-ness, and resolve I have. I so much want to complete this series with my best efforts, for whatever reasons. But it is so draining to focus to that extent, and the tireder one gets, the less likely a successful take will be. Many times, I was near quitting the project, and then plowed on. It so surprises me that the sets of preludes and fugues that I played in live performance, flowed out with much more ease than at home— it takes me several starts to achieve that perfect balance I want to feel—that dance-like pulse so essential for good Bach…

The other frustration is that I am omitting countless preludes and fugues I have known and loved, in my lifelong pilgrimage through both books of the WTC, many partitas, suites, and so on, and the final collection on my CD will be but a portion of “my” beloved Bach. And so it is with the Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert and Brahms CDs.

I am having a long, lucky life filled with happy music-making, and I have “known” so many great masterpieces… it almost feels unfaithful to those works not included in this series. But it will be enough.

My Venice book featured

I wrote my Venice book (A Pianist’s Journal in Venice) over a year ago because I had a hundred watercolors I had dashed off in my travel journal in a heightened state while we were there, and many scribbled impressions, episodes, and a heckuva tale to tell. I have since given several musical programs based around the book, most notably the one at Steinway Hall in New York City, complete with Venetian masques, Italian pastries and prosecco.
It was a spectacular evening in that great landmark building with its elegant salon, equal to any I saw in Venice.

And then it was over, except for a couple of less elegant events and book signings and sales, and the listing on Amazon. I never expected much more to happen; I never market any of my books, or paintings, or CDs, aggressively; and thus I have gotten used to a certain lack of recognition and distribution for work that I believe is pretty well-done. In fact, as time passes, I realize that the best part of what I do and have done for so many years, is the work itself and I have gotten less “ambitious”, less interested in “fame”, (although “fortune” would be nice!!).

And so it is with sheer delight and surprise, that I have been treated to the spread that the magazine Clavier Companion has given to my book. In their January issue, Susan Geffen wrote a lovely review, and then “interviewed” me on the blog of the online edition of the magazine:
www.claviercompanion.com/connect/blog/51-a-conversation-with-carol-montparker
They also reproduced a few watercolors from the book which are linked onto the interview and review. Having scaled down my expectations, the occasional burst of acknowledgement really feels good.

Mozart times Two

My son, Dennis Parker, is a superb cellist and cello professor. He is having  a banner year with concerts from Denver to Istanbul, ending with one at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in May. Using a grant to support his work on sabbatical this semester, he has transcribed for cello two concerti—(the A major for violin, and the viola part of the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat); he is publishing, performing and recording them with orchestra, thereby widening and heightening the experience of Mozart into new realms for whoever  hears these new versions. Mozart never wrote for the cello, except in his chamber music, and Dennis makes a convincing case for both works, which, in my humble opinion, sound better on the cello, than on their original instruments.

Why write about this on my blog?

 I had just finished the Mozart set of CDs in my own project (The Composer’s Landscape series), and I was thoroughly steeped in Mozart, which is to say, I was dwelling in the elevated state that his celestial music brings us to. I had been reading and writing whatever I could for the commentary segment of the recordings; and trying to attain the rarified technical and musical levels Mozart requires,  (which, in fact, no mere human can,)– and upon completion of this phase of the project, I sort of entered a reflective period, enjoying the sense that I had given my best to the music,, and the consequent feeling of grace and pleasure. It was a period when, as much as I love the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, and so on, I could barely tolerate any music but Mozart.

And then I received Dennis’ new CD in the mail and was struck not only by the synchronicity of our respective projects, and the astonishing beauty of his recording,  but the great good fortune that my son and I could send our work to each other—two Mozart recordings–the results of our love of the music, and honest-to-goodness hard work accomplished with whatever gifts we were each lucky to be endowed with, and then to have the privilege and pleasure of listening to each other’s performances with sensitive educated ears.

I write about this as a kind of psalm of thanks.

THE PERFECT ANTIDOTE
Last Friday all of my students, many storm-battered, came together for a Group Class—as much an exercise in critical listening as performance . When I write “critical” , it implies a kind of deep and sympathetic ear, rather than any negative connotations. Getting us all together is a feat in itself, and this event had been planned a while back. Greta’s Bach Andante from the Italian Concerto, was a wonderful way to get the ball rolling . Brent, who had come in for his annual coaching, from Wyoming, played two sets of Bach preludes and fugues with reverance and clarity; Edward, after two weeks of hell in dealing with the aftermath of the hurricane, still managed to focus and play his Granados “Maiden and the Nightingale” with all the requisite exotic colors and flavors. Melisa played her Schubert Moment Musical with exquisite refinement and restraint., and Melissa’s Pagodes , by Debussy was sheer bliss. Gary got all the stylish salonish flourishes into his Weber “Invitation to the Dance” along with his usual amusing asides, and Chris’s movement from Beethoven’s opus 27, No. 1, was evolved and lovely. My three teen-aged students, Chia-ling, George and Maddy, were no less successful with their Chopin and Bach, and several students sat in, choosing not to play this time.
The thing about this class is that it has become a musical family. The support and mutual respect, not to mention the genuine rooting for each other’s best efforts, is a phenomenon that gives me so much pleasure and fulfillment, not to mention compensation for not having my genetic family nearby. We all look forward to being together, and the feeling of friendship abounds. I would even say there is love in the air. The commentary is offered gently and constructively, with praise, and because of this positive atmosphere, nerves are down to a low rumble, if there are any at all…
For me, it was the most healing antidote for the hardships of the previous weeks, when music could not lift me up and out of the doldrums. Now, with these wonderful people who comprise my class of students, I was buoyed up and in my beautiful life again.

The Superstorm

All my life I have loved and been fascinated by the sounds of nature. Beethoven said, “You ask me where I get my ideas—I pluck them from the air–the trees, the rocks, the brooks, they speak to me, and the sounds swirl and rage above my head until I have set them down on paper.”

Still, there is nothing, even in Beethoven’s greatest oeuvre, not in the storm within the Pastorale Symphony, not in the Tempest Sonata,( though maybe in the intro to the last movement of the Ninth,) that comes close to the forces that swirled above our heads and home in the storm called Sandy, end of October 2012. (Perhaps had Beethoven not become deaf, he might, if anyone might, have come closer.) Those sounds, I could not love.

I had my two beautiful pianos swathed in tarpaulins lest the windows had been blown out, and I felt like crawling underneath the resulting tent-like shelter, like I did when I was a child; the underside of the piano then, yielded beautiful resonating vibrations that  excited me; now it would be to escape the frightful sounds. This seemed to be the work of a wrathful God,– a warning to mankind?

“Why don’t you play the piano?” my husband asked me. I could not. I could not have found solace in music–even in Beethoven, the supreme expressor of Wrath or Hope; or even in Bach–the great creator of Order out of Chaos; or Mozart, straight from Heaven (Heaven? what was that?) and anyone else was rendered trivial.

This pianist’s landscape , once serene and in tune with the natural world, was writhing and ruptured–monumental trees smashed to smithereens, and brambles of branches laced and snarled with hideous snapping wires.

If I had no wish to play, I had every wish to resume my teaching, which has, more and more, become an indispensable and vital part of my life. Income entirely aside, (if not entirely irrelevant), the warmth of sharing life, as it is interwoven and reflected in music, was, however, echoed in the two books that gave me comfort in the hours of light…

“Beethoven Remembered”, is a compilation of the composer’s own jottings and letters, as gathered by his best friend, Franz Wegeler, and his student, Ferdnand Ries, has been available in English only relatively recently (1987), and given to me by a wonderful former student when he moved away.

The other book is Leon Fleisher’s memoir, “My Nine Lives”–amusing, inspiring, and entirely HUMAN…so much so, that I ended in writing him a letter, and mailing it , unlike the one I once wrote to Beethoven! Those of us who are blessed (or cursed) with artistic natures, are stuck with our more reactive, neurotic, spontaneous responses, and our heightened despair and impotence to make our lives whole again.

Instead of recounting some of the heartbreaking stories and miseries that were all around us on Long Island and in the Northeast, I will say that in particular, one of my favorite people and students, and a wonderful pianist, Edward, and his wife Ellen, lost most of the interior of their house near the water, and have subsequently moved their grand piano into storage. When he told me he “had lost so much music with your markings and fingerings”, and the lengths he went to to rescue the notebooks into which I have scribbled whatever insights and suggestions about the music we work on, it touched me more than anything…I will help him to replace lost music with whatever extra copies I have in my library, and gladly teach him senza ricompensa for however long it takes for him to regain his equilibrium.

Welcome to Pianogarden

PRESERVING the PAST–

I have said “This is my last performance” to friends and family, dozens of times in the past, when it seemed as though the stress outweighed the pleasures. And always, the lure of sharing the great works I have learned, has canceled out whatever tensions are attached to it. Nothing could ever beat the pleasures of studying  these masterpieces and bringing them to performance level. The sense of privilege of being someone who is blessed with this ability never goes away. The problem arises when the urge to share what you have learned, seduces you into  planning another concert, and yet another. And I have suffered the snickers and chortles of those who, with an “I told you so” tone of voice, (I told you you could never stop playing) , see me coming back for more—for more commitments, –and more stress.

But of course there are other ways to share—the most creative and deeply fulfilling of which is teaching. At almost every lesson I give, I have the overwhelming urge to share every single thing I know about the work at hand, and the whole sense of continuity, from my teachers, through me, to my students is elating.That I already knew.

But lately, with this new Composer’s Landscape Project taking up my time and energies between lessons, I begin to understand why Glenn Gould stopped performing at a relatively early age, preferring to record what he had accomplished. To be sure a live mic imposes its own potent presence in that process. But I have been in a constant state of excitement since I began this endeavor. I am on fire with it, actually. And the nicest element is the sense of cheating that live-performance, ephemeral, disappearing act, that vaporisation  of all your beautiful work, and instead, getting something exactly as you wish it to be—and having it be there forever!

I have set up a nice little recording apparatus called a ZOOM which gets quite good fidelity; I have learned how to record, and re-record, plug the apparatus into my computer, listen to the takes, and download my favorites onto a disc which I then hand over to Jeff, my audio engineer. In this way, I am augmenting and filling in the gaps in the literature I wish to include on these CDs.

Looking back and gathering up already-recorded performance from the past is a rather melancholy process. I remembered a certain special performance of the Chopin b minor sonata, opus 54, but could not find a trace of it, although I was certain it had been recorded. In fact I knew that my late friend, Norman Greenspan, had recorded it, and so it seemed all but impossible that I would ever retrieve that performance. One evening out of nowhere, I dialed Norman’s old telephone reason, quite a strange impulse, as he had lived alone. The phone was answered by a man with a voice almost identical to Norman’s. It was Norman’s son, Alex, whom I had heard Norman speak about, and who had moved into his father’s house. One of his huge tasks was getting the hundreds of DATs (digital audio tapes) sorted out, as Norm’s studio was anything but organized.

I beseached Alex to look for any of my concert DATs, and within a few weeks, a package arrived containing about five or six unlabelled DATs, which I brought to my friend, Jeff, to scan…praying that the Chopin sonata would be among them. Which it mercifully and miraculously was! Jeff made me a CD from it, and then I had to decide whether the somewhat degraded sound after 15 years of lying in a drawer somewhere, was good enough to include in the Chopin set for my new Composer’s Landscape Project. My hope was that listeners could and would be willing to bypass the sound quality and listen to the music, because I knew I could never play it that well again. I decided to append the sonata to the end of the Commentary disc, as I had already crammed as many Chopin works as I could onto the music CD.

My friend, Melisa, called the process I am going through, “harvesting”. It is as good a word as I could have found for the culling of my best live performances, and ending up with something I can feel pleased with.

CM

NEW SERIES of RECORDINGS

Hello. This is my very first blog ever, and I instituted it because of the racing thoughts that occur day and night in my head, with nowhere to put them. So I hereby invite you to visit whenever you choose and to respond, and I will do my best to reply. The biggest news is a new series of recordings  that are in the works!—[2-CD] sets: one disc of concert performances, and the other a disc of commentary and program notes, each set focusing on one composer at a time. Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert. (The Beethoven set will be ready next week.)

The Composer’s Landscape Project emerged from a series of programs I gave at Steinway over the course of two years. Each event was a deep exploration of a single composer’s piano works, (with a focus on the particular challenges of that composer for the pianist), followed by my performances of selected works.

A few words and metaphors will explain why I call the series The Composer’s Landscape. Given, that Music is a language, it also has a broad spectrum encompassing many styles, genres and dialects. In fact, each composer has a language of his or her own, and a page from any score has its own terrain and contours, directly related to, and one might say, a pictorial depiction of the language of that composer. An experienced musician can behold a page from a score and discern whether it is a page of Schumann or Mozart, just from the look of it: the landscape, even though the same system of notation, lines and spaces notes, phrase-marks, dynamic markings, are common to all.

What gets more complex is the “topography”: the peaks and valleys, patches of bramble or thicket to plow through, open plains to traverse, gullies to leap over, winding circuitous melodic lines to follow, clotted harmonies to grasp, busy thoroughfares where all the voices converge, and most importantly, the strata,–layers as deep as the Grand Canyon, which we must plumb and peel away in order to find meaning at the CORE. (The metaphors are endless!)

I have drawn mostly from past live, unedited performances, filling in with recent home-self-produced recorded tracks. Jeff Baker, a crack audio-engineer, miraculously eliminated some coughing fits and slamming doors, and equalized recording levels. There will be variations between some of the tracks according to the pianos and hall, but I love the differences each piano’s voice can bring to the music.

CM