Search This Blog

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Sorry this has been  so long coming - you'll see why as you read on.

I was so pleased and surprised, and yet not so surprised either, that my two besties (as I like to think of them) James Ehnes and Tom Allen, both wrote me back courteous letters in answer to my questions! Two things are in play, I guess: I often think that they are both wonderful examples of Canadian nice-ness; and the public personalities that you FEEL might be sympatico ARE sympatico. James Ehnes, especially, who kindly wrote twice, gave me some real food for thought. I have provided a link to Ehnes's home page under Music Links and Allen's twitter feed under...uh...Twitter Feeds. You can check them out for yourself.

Also surprisingly, or not, as I was engaged in this correspondence and thinking, I realized I had arbitrarily chosen a couple of books to read lately that involve violin history, which was quite fun:

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, is a new book, for young adults, with a little time travel back to the French revolution as a way of approaching homework. The main character is a high school senior with issues and talent and family wealth, yet the story is surprisingly un-clichéd.

Fabrizio's Return, a remarkably adept book by Ottawa writer Mark Frutkin. His Italian is good and the setting feels very natural to me, and in accordance with my experience of a medium-sized Italian city. One of his characters is Niccoló (by implication Stradivarius), a violin-maker in Cremona, historic home of the violin.

Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.
 And credit where credit is due - I could not resist this book, which I leaf through...well you know where...and it had a nice couple of pages on the mystery and history of Stradivarius, along with entries like: Bagpiper's Fungus and Twelve Recordings that Changed Music and Odd Homemade Instruments and 16 Random Lists About Frank Sinatra get the picture.

Once I start thinking about similarities, I think about whether there exists a category, so I thought up some other works in the category of violin-history:

like the silly film The Red Violin,

and the remarkably beautiful book  Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa, currently only available in Italian, winner of the Strega prize for literature in Italy. (The word means witch, and it is the name of a absinthe-style liqueur and the prize seems to be awarded to witchy, absinthe-style books - dark and tragic). Stabat Mater is the heart-rending story of an orphan girl under the tutelage of Vivaldi.

Of course that sounds like Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery, from the Beethoven Lives Upstairs CD Series, also about an orphan, who rather happily turns out to be the daughter of the duke of Cremona, who also plays a violin for Vivaldi. I had to make a new tag for my catalog on LibraryThing.

So anyway, I was kind of bogged down, with too much to think about and no way to pull it together into a post. As you all know by now: I think everything is connected and long to uncover and understand all the connections. Then I agonized, but AGONIZED, about how to edit a long interview to be more punchy, until my friends said to me "If it's all interesting, and it needs to be complete, just post it all. We'll get through it. Duh!" And then, I must tell you that since Jimmy E (as I like to think of him) had mentioned the old saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture I thought, well, why don't I just finish up and post that video of myself dancing about architecture that I've been working on, as there seems to be some demand for it, but then I thought, no...I'll just finish up writing about music, so here it all is.

Really, the comments made by both Ehnes and Allen pushed me to think about what I thought - hmmmm - does that work? - and learn from them what I did not understand previously, and defend my ideas more robustly where I was too casual in my assumptions.

I decided that what you would find interesting is some of the back and forth. This first post is about playing an old instrument in the current style, which I was finding puzzling as a choice, and about playing Mozart. In a future post I'll cover some ideas on what defines the Baroque period.

Here is the note sent to me by Tom Allen:

If I understand your question, I think you're asking when violin playing progressed past what we now call baroque playing - is that right?
The question is more one of when did people start considering that the old way of doing things might have some merit.  Violin playing went through a huge surge in development around 1700, and then again in the early 1800s. Bows and bowing changed to produce a louder, harsher sound and techniques with it, but it wasn't until Mendelssohn began looking into JS Bach's music in 1829 that anyone really thought there would be any benefit in looking back.  Music was about progress, and the only music worth hearing was new music. Without recording, people simply didn't hear pieces more than one or two times and didn't think that unusual.(My emphasis, NM) Interest in older music, beginning with Bach, slowly increased through the 1800s, but even as late as 1949 it wouldn't have occurred to people to investigate how Bach's music would have sounded in Bach's time.  That only started in the early sixties, gaining major popularity through the 70's.

Allen has made a couple great points. I knew that playing period style on period instruments was a relatively modern idea, but I was overlooking the fact that in all the arts there is a strong drive toward the "NEW" which keeps things going forward, especially among the premiere practitioners or virtuosi. I should have been able to think of that.  Also - the very idea of recording the performance for multiple listenings! That is a terrific example of technology actually driving art, one of my special sub-interests in the category of all artistic achievement, and I completely overlooked the impact of recording on playing style and choices.

Ehnes gave his own reason for his playing style:  


When I perform a piece of music, my goal is to be completely, 100% convinced of my interpretation. Only then do I feel there is any chance of convincing my listeners. Naturally, I am influenced by the playing I hear around me, and my experiences as a listener inform my sense of taste and style. The playing I enjoy as a listener is playing that I consider to be musically committed.

So I wrote back to him:
I was thinking about what you said, and although I did not get it immediately, overnight I had a kind of epiphany: the sound and expression you consider meaningful you create when you address music of any period, with your current technique, played on a piece of technology in which an old box, with some re-engineering and modern parts (like strings), makes a beautiful sound, loud enough to fill a large modern concert hall, work with a modern-size orchestra, and reach an audience which responds emotionally or even passionately to the performance. I get it, now, I think.

I am always interested in how technology both drives and constrains art, and I just couldn't fit the pieces together quite right for the violin. The technology can be used in any way to support the art in any way. Not everyone will agree with or find pleasure in every choice, but who cares? I too believe commitment makes art. (Can't seem to get this the right size - sorry. NM)

I scored this response:
I think you get exactly what I mean!

Phew! I could do a dance-video about this, too, perhaps. Maybe I'll get to work on that, later. 

I can't say what a thrill it is to get information like this directly from the artist. It makes sitting in an audience of thousands feel so personal. 


I will even feel that we are having a personal exchange on the subject when I watch my friend's copy of the Ehnes DVD Homage with her, on which he plays: "...on 12 of the greatest instruments ever made. The Fulton Collection is perhaps the most important private collection in the world and contains many examples of the legendary names Stradivari, Guarneri, da Salo and Guadagnini. 

Ehnes performs 21 selections in a carefully planned recital programme specially chosen to suit each instrument and to work on its own terms. It finishes with a section comparing each instrument in an excerpt of the same piece, a unique opportunity to contrast the sound qualities of these spectacular instruments."

Yeah, baby!

Then, to begin the second part of our "interview", here is picture of the opening of the score of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 In A Major K.219 in Mozart's own hand, just for the beauty and awe of it.

I love to see the "hand of the artist", so much less common for the composer than the performer. But in order to also see a special part of the hand of the performer-artist at work, I asked Ehnes about his approach to the pieces I saw him play, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K.218 and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K.219 "Turkish".

When we were listening to your cadenzas, they sounded very similar to each other and with enough fast fingering (like Paganini, which I have also seen you play) and discord to sound very modern. I understand that it is the tradition that the soloist improvises or composes the cadenza. On the other hand, the program notes for the concert indicated that Mozart was one of the first composers to score the cadenzas in his concerti. As you have gathered, I am no expert on music or the violin, (although I am an ardent learner) so I am of course wondering whether you or Mozart or some combination is responsible for those musical moments which were the most interesting of the performance.

And got this very personal answer:

Cadenzas – while Mozart did notate some cadenzas for some (though not all) of his piano concertos, there are no surviving cadenzas for his violin concertos, and it is doubtful that he ever wrote any down. The cadenzas you heard were all mine; when coming up with them I took into account the form and length of the surviving cadenzas for his piano concertos of the similar, early period (there are a few from the 8th piano concerto, I think? Maybe 9th – can’t remember), and tried to take into account the types of figuration he wrote in his piano works as well as the kind of virtuoso violin playing that would have been popular around that time. Not Paganini, it is a bit early for that, but some of his predecessors, like Viotti, Locatelli, etc. Even late-Vivaldi. I’m glad you found them interesting! 

Says me, "Some listening homework to do, here."

As a further exercise in comparing modern and period playing of a Baroque composition, I dug out my Nigel Kennedy version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and added it to my iPod. Kennedy is a punky-looking and -playing genius who specifically wrote in the notes for his all-time best-selling Four Seasons CD (1989) that he did not want to be beholden to tradition or period in his performance.
I already had Il Giardino Armonico's Four Seasons CD (1994) in there. They were about the first period chamber orchestra in Italy. I think I can safely say that the period performance movement started in Great Britain, and remains strongest there, and Il Giardino was radical for Italy at the time. I first heard this performance on my beloved CBC Radio 2 (or CBC FM as it was those many years ago.) I have loved this recording and memorized it with so many listenings, relegating Nige to the shelf. It's great to have him out again, and I have been playing them side-by-side as I walk, and drive, and listening carefully. They are actually both just awesome, and I keep coming up with new questions. 

Sadly, IT APPEARS THAT THERE ARE NO EHNES RECORDINGS OF VIVALDI AVAILABLE! I checked for music on iTunes, CDs and even had a look at the DVD. Oh man! How is this possible? I would really have loved to put an Ehnes version beside the other two icons, too.

Right now the marigold is wondering, not-so-nervously, about why Vivaldi chose the keys he did for each season. It is a delightful little chromatic grouping, and each of the three sections of the seasons is written in the same key:
Spring - E major
Summer - G minor
Fall - F major
Winter - F minor
Why? Answers or suspicions welcomed.