Saturday, November 18, 2006

Memories of a recorder teacher...

The experiences that most powerfully formed my musical taste and opinions were beyond my control. They came to me early and are as much a part of me as the memory of the floors, ceilings, and wainscoting of my childhood home.

My mother was an enthusiastic recorder player and student of early music. Early music was my first music, and it has stayed with me to this day. To firmly cement this repertoire into my consciousness my mother did more. Every Tuesday morning she pulled me along to her recorder lesson with Miss Augusta Bleys, an austere Dutch woman who lived in a dark multi-arched Richardson Romanesque in East Denver. The building itself was dark, but inside, in the room where Miss Bleys taught, I remember light, blonde wood, and piles of music. For me , it was a remarkable place, for I was convinced that the room itself was constructed out of the innumerable music scores that lay around the room. To my young eyes, the walls were made out of Schott editions; a gentle beige color that had the look of plaster. The ceiling was supported (how could it be?) by stacks of consort music, obscure and erudite collections from Budapest, Oxford and Amsterdam. A child's perspective is at once both skewed and insightful. To me, these columns of music were so immense that they touched the far away ceiling of that old Denver home. This could not be, but in another way, my vision touched on the truth. The collections of might not have supported the ceiling, but they certainly came to the aid to Miss Bleys herself. She was a frail creature, too weak , it seemed, to stand on her own. As delicate as a boxwood recorder, she crossed the room by leaning on her handy collections of Frescabaldi, Gervaise and Dr. Bull. With the help of these piles of music, her motions, like her fingers on the recorder, were deft and sure. Without them, I knew with a child's certainty, that Miss Bleys would collapse and her room, with her music, would turn to dust.

What brought Augusta Bleys to the provincial western city of my 1950’s childhood? A failed love affair, perhaps and she decided to stay on. But not only stay on, but to teach as well. For if If Miss Bleys didn't teach Van Eck divisions and Dowland in that provincial place, who would? Far away from the Van Gogh Museum and the charming canals of her native city, Miss Bleys became a missionary for St. Cecilia to the unconverted. She swept my mother into the fold, I, both helpless and fortunate, had no choice but to follow.

It was in that room held together with scores of consort music, that I first heard and took to my heart the sounds of the Renaissance. And now, almost half a century later, when I play or hear those clear sounds, I not only hear, but I also see. I see beyond the strettos and the points of imitations, I see all the way back to my early times, to Miss Bley's room.. And there she is: angular, with a wooden flute in one hand, drawing back the drapes of her studio to let in the morning light. And then, so clear is the music and the vision, that I can see the dust of that music-laden room, swirling from the quickness of her motions. I see it settle on the selves and columns of music., on the Frescabaldi and Cooperario. Miss Bleys is always there. She never leaves. She will never leave that place. Now she grows tall., so tall that she can reach the highest shelves that I thought were beyond reach. A place where I thought there was no music. But there is music there. It rests on the shelf saved for the Praetorious editions. In that room, how could there not be Praetorious? Miss Bleys touches the music and begins to bring it down. But now she stops.

She remains there for me; one hand holding the boxwood flute, the other with the music, bringing it down from the highest place.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A cellist's smile...

Lately it is not an entire quartet that I remember after an evening of chamber music. It is a few measures here and there that are memorable and give reason to keep going. There is much to praise in the music of the great 18th and 19th century string quartets. The integrity of their structure. The richness and diversity of their harmonic language. But I have reached a point where musical incidents and details are what, for me, count the most. A simple approach perhaps...but it works for me. I will leave the structure and harmonic issues to musicologists and theorists. I'm just a simple viola player.

Last night the "incident" was about eight seconds of music towards the end of the first movement of Haydn's Opus 76 no. 1. The second subject of this movement is particularly tuneful. When it returns after the recapitulation is is accompanied in the cello by a drone. Charming enough. But when that second subject repeats itself and that rustic drone happens again, the drone itself is ornamented by the addition of a grace note at the begining of each measure. For me it is a completely inimitable moment; an ormamental touch delightful beyond measure. The cellist, who has played this music with me before must have remembered how fond I am of this grace-note ornamented drone. Because as she played this music, she briefly took her eyes off the page and gave me a smile.

A fine moment... Haydn, a drone, a scattering of grace note, and a cellist's smile.


Sunday, October 10, 2004

The rich life of a free-lance viola player...

The life of a free-lance violist in this city is unpredictable and occasionally exciting. Certainly the money or security of the work is nowhere close to that enjoyed by a full-time violist in a major symphony orchestra. The major Orchestra in this town (which is considered to be "second tier") , for example, pays its section string players around sixty thousand dollars a year. And that is the starting salary. When I play a free-lance job , I am lucky to come away with 200 dollars. That is on a good day. And this only happens once or twice a month. But the lack of financial reward suffered by the free-lance musician is more than made up for by the quirky experiences that often often come about in our insecure and ill-paid occupation.

The past two weeks offer three good examples of this. I played three jobs. And
all three were, for different reasons, a bit quirky.

Job #1: played in a "pick-up" orchestra that backed up a group of prominant pop musicians from Mexico. The concert was devoted to the music of Augistin Lara.

Job #2: played in the viola section of a suburban Symphony orchestra. The concert was devoted to 19th century Russian music.

Job #3 : played fiddle tunes during the cocktail hour that preceded a square dance sponsered by a local Episcopalian Church with my friend "Joe Fingers"...a splendid guitarist. We played a set of English Country Dances in a "country and western style" (to more fit in with the "square dance theme" of the evening.) I'm glad the English County Dance Society wasn't there to hear the performance. They would have taken care of us in short order; charging us with high crimes against musical style and, after the execution, lodging our sorry bones under the back porch of the venerable church in which we had lately commited our musical and stylistic crimes.

I'll reflect on these three jobs in the next few blogs.


Saturday, October 02, 2004

Mr. Perlman's half-sized violin...

Recently a friend sent me an interesting article about Chicago's Fine Arts Building. I have visited this venerable pile on Michigan Avenue many times; on the 11th floor is a music store that specializes in early music editions. Many happy hours have been spent in that shop browsing through shelf upon shelf of music from obscure Dutch, German and English publishers of 16th and 17th century music (always followed by a wonderful Thai meal at a place just around the corner.)

One anecdote from the article recounted the remarkable story of George Perlman, a noted (and long-lived) violin teacher who had, for seventy -four years, rented studio space in the Fine Arts Building. When he was 99, he applied to the building's owner for another five-year lease. The owner, perhaps as optimistic as Mr. Perlman, agreed to the request. And the violin teacher almost made it. He died four years later at the age of 103...teaching his last lesson two months before his death.

A wonderful story. But that is not the end of it.

Yesterday I talked to the mother of one of my public school students. I suggested to her that her daughter not bring her violin to school for lessons because it was an unusually fine instrument. It would be much safer for me to provide a school instrument. The mother told me that it was indeed a fine instrument. She herself had used it as a child in Chicago. The violin she told me, had been given to her "by her uncle George...a well-known Chicago Violin teacher.

"Uncle George" and "Chicago" jostled my grey cells a little:

"That wouldn't be George Perlman by any chance?" I asked.

"Yes. Uncle George. He died just a few years ago. He was 103."

So in my class this year is George Perlman's grand-niece. And, serendipitously, she is almost ready to start the Vivaldi A minor concerto. Why serendipitous? Because there is a well-known student concerto that teachers often assign to violin students before they start working on the Vivaldi to help them prepare for that famous concerto. Next week we will start working on this piece together.

The name of this music: Concertino In The Style Of Vivaldi

The composer: George Perlman.


Saturday, September 25, 2004

Delmore Schwartz and Sewing Machines...

I am an occasional seller of books. Mostly I buy and rarely sell. When I do part with a book , it is usually by means of the internet. And curiously enough, most of my selling is to people far away. Of the one hundred - fifty books offered for sale, I have sold about a third ...most to such exotic places as Malta, Sydney, Hong Kong and Hoboken. It's nice to know that my books rate in foriegn capitals, but the frustration is that I never get to meet my customers face to face.

So it was a pleasent surprise last weekend when a fellow a few miles away ordered one of my books . I immediately offered to hand deliver it. Here, at last, was a chance to meet one of my customers.

The book itself was an unusual one...Summer Knowledge... by the gifted and sad American poet, Delmore Schwartz. The customer mentioned that he is a Schwartz collecter. All the more reason to meet him. How many people in this world collect Delmore? I thought this highly unusal and even a bit peculiar...but who am I, an obsessive collector of S. J. Perelman , to criticize?

I showed up to the customer's apartment, a dingy place in the shadow of huge power lines and fifty feet away from the north- south highway. But inside his neat apartment the highway and power lines became as distant as Afganistan. His Schwart-iana was carefully arranged on the top shelp of a beautiful oak bookcase, and wonder of wonders, artfully scattered about the rooms of his small apartment were a bevy of antique sewing machines. Singers to be precise.

I never knew that old Singers from the Twnties, Thirties, and Forties could be so graceful. But grace was only part of it. According to my host, perfectly calibrated as well. "Look at this honey" he said reverently as he genly flicked a bit of dust of of a Model 128 Serial No. EA630687 model from 1937. "To this day, nothing straight-stiches better..." His voice lowered with emotion.

(To give you an idea of the beauty of these machines... )

All because I hand delivered Summer Knowledge, I had the chance to help a Delmore Schwartz man complete his collection. And I was able to admire some beautiful and graceful Singers.


Thursday, August 05, 2004

Lytton Strachey is a real card...

So why Strachey? To put it simply and perhaps crudely: he's a hoot. He is more than that, of course; he is a historian, a biographer, a literary observer, but beyond all that, he is damned funny. Go to the bookshelf and pull down Eminent Victorians, Portraits In Miniature, Books and Characters...and (how can we forget?) Elizabeth And Essex or Queen Victoria. Have yourself a good chuckle. Writing humor that lasts more than half a generation is difficult. The funny guys at the local comedy cafe just doesn't make the cut. Their material is too much dependent on the topical. I need someone who can make me laugh by describing absurdity that is dependent not on current politics, movies, or grocery strore frustrations , but humor dependent upon the absurdity of the human condition.

Certain writers can do that. S. J. Perelman is one. And Strachey is another. In The Life, Illness, And Death Of Dr. North Strachey comments upon the memoirs of Roger North, brother to John North who was Master Of Trinity College in the early 17th Century. A portion of Roger North's memoirs include a description of his brother's troubled life. As we read Strachey's brief summary of these troubles , we soon discover something reassuring. No matter how impressive were John North's intellectual and academic achievements, it is immediately evident that the Master of Trinity and Professor of Greek in The University of Cambridge was a kook.

This is happy news to those of us who will never be Masters of Trinity or Professor of Greek in The University Of Cambridge. At least we have our marbles. John North clearly did not.

Strachey sums up the whole absurd story:

In 1677, when he was thirty-two, his career reached its climax, and he was made Master of Trinity. The magnificent appointment proved to be his ruin. Faced with the governance of the great college over which the omniscient Barrow had lately ruled and which the presence of Newton still made illustrious, the Doctor's sense of responsibility, of duty, and of inadequacy became almost pathological. His days and his nights passed in one ceaseless round of devotion, instruction and administration, reading, writing, and abstemiousness. He had no longer any time for the young and the fair; no time for a single particle of enjoyment; no time even for breakfast. His rule was strict beyond all measure and precedent. With relentless severity he pursued the undergraduates through their exercises and punished them for their peccadilloes......And death was always before his eyes; for now a settled hypochondria was added to his other miseries. He had little doubt that he would perish of the stone...he displayed before his embarrassed friends the obvious symptoms of fatal disorder. "Gravel ! Red gravel !" he gasped. In reality his actual weakness lay in quite another direction. One day he caught cold, it grew worse, his throat was affected, his uvula swelled. The inflammation continued, and before long the unhappy doctor became convinced that his uvula would have to be cut off. All the physicians of the University were summoned, and they confessed that the case was grave....Their prescriptions were terrific and bizarre...But it was too late to intervene; the treatment was continued, while the Doctor struggled on with the duties of his office. Two scholars were to be publicly admonished for scandalous conduct; the fellows assembled; the youths stood trembling; the master appeared. Emaciated, ghastly, in his black gown, the extraordinary creature began a tirade of bitter and virulent reproof; when suddenly his left leg swerved beneath him, and he fell in a fit upon the ground. It was apoplexy.

Poor Dr. North. All the diplomas in the world couldn't save him from becoming a nutcase.

The title of Strachey's essay has a message. North's life, his illness, and his death, are all given equal footing. Dr. North struggled to reach to reach Parnassus, and the end result is that three centuries later, those remarkable achievements are obscured by the curious facts, both pitiful and somehow amusing, of his illness and death. So much for studying hard. Where does it get you?

Strachey again:

The past is almost entirely a blank. The indescribable complexities, the incalculable extravagances of a myriad consciousnesses have vanished forever. Only by sheer accident, when some particular drop from an ocean of empty water is slipped under the microscope -- only when some Roger North happens to write a foolish memoir, which happens to survive, and which we happen to open -- do we perceive for an amazed moment or two the universe of serried and violent sensations that lie concealed so perfectly in the transparency of oblivion.

So next time you think you are going to have a nervous breakdown or a stroke, take down Portraits In Miniature from the shelf and read The Life, Illness and Death of Dr. North. You will be reassured that you are not the only one to suffer from nerves or imminent apoplexy. And even if you are about to pop off, in a century or so, no one will remember or care about it anyway.

If that's not reassuring, I don't know what is.

Thanks Lytton.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Good-bye George...Hello Lytton...

Thank God I'm off my George Bernard Shaw kick.  It was fun, but after a while his music criticism, witty and insightful as it was, began to grate on me.  Music criticism is, I believe, a mean profession.  You are judging someone far braver than yourself from the safety of the plush velvet audience seat of the concert hall.   A music critic can pan a performance and perhaps be describing accurately.  But the performer can always say back to the critic in the manner of Winston Churchill  "Yes, I performed badly.  Tomorrow I will perform better and you will still be a music critic."

So -- Good-bye George...Hello Lytton...

Lytton Strachey that is.  Last night I picked up Portraits in Miniature.  Why this affection  (literary affection that is !) for Lytton.  I'll try to figure that out soon ...but now the rain has stopped...its time to put 16 miles on the bike.  The Sad Story Of Dr. Colbatch and  Muggleton will have to wait.  The open road calls!