Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving/Black Friday!

It seems appropriate that on this Black Friday, on this day after the day of thanks and such, I should spell out my things for which I am thankful–in other words, the Christmas Wish List of things I hope I never lose.

In no particular order, here's what I'm thankful for:

  1. The ability to walk
  2. The ability to talk
  3. To think for myself
  4. Enough physical strength to manage my activities of daily living
  5. Not being submerged in suffocating debt
  6. Having a job that enables me to do work I enjoy and gives me the flexibility to pursue new things to amuse and improve myself
  7. An identity that isn't under constant threat of tearing itself apart 
  8. My wonderful girlfriend
  9. Having varied interests
  10. My freedom

Please comment on what you're thankful for.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Proposed Revision to the Online Dating Platform

A long while ago, an acquaintance and I, when we were both single and using a popular free online dating site, often discussed ways to improve the efficacy of the platform. (Disclaimer: This post has most to do with straight, male-female couplings, so forgive me if the language seems one sided.)

One of the topics we came across was a terrifically fun article simply titled, "Why You Should Never Pay For Online Dating." Well, as far as it concerned us, as single men, it accurately reflected our experiences and we didn't find any surprises.

As we saw it, the main issue of the article had to do with what they called a feedback loop. My understanding of the loop based on my experience with the site is thus:

1. Men are usually expected to make the first move when initiating contact with a woman, and we do.
2. The women get a lot of messages, more attractive women getting more messages, the more attractive they are. This is coupled with the fact that most women don't initiate messages. (We were pleasant, attractive guys, but we only got maybe–lifetime total–a handful of messages from women who contacted us first.)
3. Because the most attractive women are usually both busy and in high demand, and because there are only a finite number of available hours per day, many women can't or won't respond to every message they receive, even the pleasant, well thought out ones.
4. Men get discouraged after their pleasant, well thought out messages go ignored, and no one writes them first.
5. Seeing that they have to do all the work, and that hard work isn't paying off, men send messages that are less well thought out and start to look more like form letters.
6. Women see worse messages and respond even less often.
7. The cycle continues.

Well, I have a few ideas to help minimize these issues in the form of rules that sites might consider instituting to ensure a more pleasant experience to all users (not just men).

To both men and women but mostly men:
  • All initial messages have to be at least 150 words and spell checked
  • 10 message per day limit
  • Users get to flag messages that look like form letters, and if a user is accused too many times of sending form letters (on first contact or not), they get suspended.
To men and women, but mostly women:
  • The first time you communicate with someone, your message has to be at least 150 words and spell checked.
  • Respond to at least 50% of your unread initial messages first, every time you sign in with at least a 150 word response (as above), or you can't search, look at new profiles, or receive messages and your profile is made invisible.
  • For each qualified message you initiate (>150 words, non form letter) to a new person, for that sign in session, you're excused for one inbox message you have to respond to. And if you have no unreplied-to messages, it gets saved for when you do. 
This way, the super attractive women who get too many messages a day, but who only have time to respond to a few, are rendered invisible, and can't continue to receive messages until they've put a dent in their inboxes. This will free up the site to give more "air time" to the women who don't receive AS many messages, so they'll be more likely to respond (because they have fewer messages to respond to). This also encourages men because they'll know that the women who are being shown to them in searches are AVAILABLE and not so inundated with mail that they can't or won't respond. I like this platform because men who send messages will know that there is a stronger incentive to reply than just politeness since if a woman ignores too many messages, she'll lose privileges. It shows she's actively interested in finding someone. (By the way, this paragraph is 156 words.)

What happens if a person receives messages from someone they KNOW before responding they don't want to hear from? (Say they know the person already, and aren't interested, or the message was simple hate mail.) A few options: They can ignore the person for a little while, but probably not indefinitely, or, respond to the first message with a polite refusal, and if the person continues to message them unpleasantly, they can be blocked. Or, they can flag it as hate mail.

Note: Improper flagging, i.e. using it as a cheap means of avoiding politely declining good messages written by people they're not into, will result in reduced privileges.

In action: Say a person gets 10 messages on Monday, A-J, they can't do anything until they've responded to at least half of them. Suppose A-E are messages from people they're not interested in, the next time they log in, they have to reply to 5 of them, F-J for example. Let's say they do, and continue to use the site. Tuesday, they sign in and there are 10 new messages again: Still, A-E, but this time, K-O. They have 10 messages again, but suppose K-O aren't all winners either. To continue to use the site, they'll have to reply to at least 5. Most likely, they'll reply to a couple from A-E and a couple from K-O. Suppose message "E" was just abysmal, and he/she wants nothing to do with that person. As time goes on, it will be more and more difficult to ignore Writer E and other unpleasant writers to continue using the site, because they'll always have to have their inbox at least half responded to. In this model, due to the second restriction in the girl's category above, the more messages she gets, the less likely she is to remain visible. And when a person maintains an exchange with another user (or several users), that person will have to write an ever increasing amount of mail to remain visible.

This really forces a person to choose who they write to and respond to carefully based on their initial impressions from their profile. This is win-win for everyone.

NOTE: These restrictions on initial messages (length, etc.) don't apply to messages to people you've already contacted who have written you back, but since you have to reply to new messages from "new" writers before you can reply to new messages from "familiar" writers, if you've got a good thing going with someone familiar, and you keep receiving "new" messages, it gets harder and harder to keep your options open while maintaining that contact. This should help take out a lot of the BS that permeates online dating.

This is a system that I believe would make life quite a bit easier for people who receive a lot of messages. It would give more exposure to those who don't already receive a lot of mail. It also is a system that requires all messages have some thought and personality put into them, and incentivizes people to write better messages. It also makes it difficult (for a person who doesn't get many messages) to nearly impossible (for a person who gets a lot of messages) to ignore a person's message indefinitely.

What do you think of my plan?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Wael Farouk Review

Wael Farouk
Roosevelt University, Ganz Hall
October 26, 2013, 7:30pm

All Rachmaninoff program
  • Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42
  • 10 Preludes, Op. 23
  • 13 Preludes, Op. 32
Two Encores:

  • Vivaldi-Bach-Volodos: "Siciliano"
  • Verdi-Liszt: Rigoletto Paraphrase

What's the most important instrument in classical music?

The room.

I have to preface this review with that because I think the room played a big part in the performance I heard last Saturday. Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall is a small recital hall with very resonant acoustics and a 9 foot Steinway. Those elements combine to give a listening experience of nearly seismic power. If you ever want rich, dark, romantic music to sound rich and dark and romantic, this is the room and piano combination you want to play it on. That is, if you are interested in playing delicate, or highly ornamented music, and you want everyone in the hall to hear you, though you could do it, this is probably not your first choice. (You'd probably want something a little less resonant, like the hall at Sherwood Conservatory, the old PianoForte Chicago recital hall, or if you can manage it, Pick-Staiger.)

That said, I first heard Wael Farouk during a doctorate recital (?) a few years ago where he played the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. His playing was rich and powerful and he had great speed. Wow. When I had a chance to hear him again, I went, and this time, three (?) years later, I can say that he didn't lose anything.

His program (the first of five recitals including the complete piano works of Rachmaninoff good man!) was exclusively the kind of dark romantic music for which this hall is perfect, and all evening (the concert started at 7:30 and blasted almost until 10) he let pour a torrent of highly colored passagework, lightning crisp octaves, thunderous chord playing and bravura–oh, the bravura.

A lot of musicians like their power. Pianists and organists in particular because they have some of the loudest instruments. (Brass players are also in this category, but they don't get to solo as much.) And I'll admit, playing big can be fun, so much so, that it can often be pretty hard for a musician to switch from extremely powerful playing to that which requires delicacy, and the poor or merely mediocre soloists just don't do it. They just don't play delicately. Now, some musicians play with delicacy, but when they do it's palpable that they're just biding their time until they can get back to playing loudly. Farouk was better than that fellow, but in my notes, here's how I put it:

"[The C minor prelude] had all the right colors and a huge amount of energy and momentum at the outset. Toward the end he demonstrates that he CAN do light, but that he wasn't really interested in showcasing that skill."

[A flat major prelude] "Following that thought, his volume 'swells' were very extreme and very often:  p<ff>p every five measures. (For example)"

[E flat minor prelude] "Good god, the speed! I can hardly tell what's happening! 90% speed and power, 10% delicacy. (At some point, someone will produce a ratio. It's probably 62/38.)"

[E minor prelude] "Great speed and power, but the clarity and articulation are lost on this room that only permits big strokes. Beautiful in the dark moments, but the climax might have benefited from a little less haste, more speed."

[G major prelude] "In his balance in the climax, I could hear his nurturing the multiple parts. Thank you."

[G sharp minor prelude] "A little rushy-thrusty, but the balance of tone makes up for it."

Interpretively, the preludes (in general) don't require a huge amount of intense analysis to bring them to life. If you've got a bright musical imagination like Mr. Farouk, all the better, but in general, besides strong technique and basic musicality, they don't take much to get off the ground. He sounded great here. That fire and oomph was well placed with the majority of the program. Unfortunately, during the first, biggest piece, the Corelli Variations, the overall architecture got a little lost. The inexorable drive toward the climaxes leading up to the climax, I didn't feel.

Shaky architecture in the first piece aside, he's an astonishing player with terrific power, imagination and occasional flights of delicacy. Are my musical values reflected in his playing? No. Would I see Mr. Farouk again? Absolutely. Sometimes you don't want to go to a concert and hear yourself. If I wanted to do that, I'd probably just stay at home. I have a piano. (But it ain't no 9 foot Steinway, though.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review of "The Pianist of Willesden Lane"

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane"
An adaptation of the story The Children of Willesden Lane co-written by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
Royal George Theater, Chicago
August 31, 2013

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a one-woman show where Mona Golabek tells her mother's story of being forced out of her homeland as a child at the hand of the Nazis (because they didn't want Jews taking piano lessons) and her personal struggle in fulfilling her dream of playing the Grieg piano concerto in her debut as a concert pianist.

A few things came to mind during this 90 minute piece.

  • No matter how much I learn, there's no limit to the depths of depression of the holocaust. It's like a bottomless chasm of miserable, depressing stories of wretched. We could probably go back in time and pick any person from any country in the world at that time and they could tell a sad and powerful story. The world in that time must have been full of sad stories, and this is one more.
  • I hope it doesn't make me a terrible person for saying that I don't know how many more holocaust stories made into dramatic art I can handle. 
  • Some people are better writers than actors, and some people are better musicians than performers. Mona Golabek is probably best as a pianist. 
  • A live performance of Debussy's Claire de Lune as musical accompaniment to film of Jews being marched through the streets of Nazi-occupied Austria is offensive to me. Ethereal french impressionism tends to make me think I'm supposed to be watching genocide through rose colored glasses. That kind of juxtaposition strikes me as sarcastic, implying there's something I shouldn't take seriously, Debussy, or the Holocaust. I rail at that choice. 
  • Also, the closing piece for a similar reason. I don't want to spoil it for you, but a loud, bombastic close cheapens the overall emotional effect of this piece.
Mrs. Golabek's acting was well rehearsed, and the story was soundly told, but she always gave the impression that she was telling us a story, rather than reliving a tale. Granted, her mediocre acting (stilted gestures, occasionally awkward body language, unnatural sounding vocal transitions and sophomoric use of focal points when differentiating characters) was very good for a classical pianist, but it was not good enough to stay out of the way of the subject matter, and I often found myself being pulled out of the action of the show because of it. 

I think the story would have benefited from being told by someone trained as a pianist and actor. Granted, having written the book on which this was adapted, I am absolutely certain that the whole show was crafted specifically for her, but I think the it would have been tenfold more convincing in the hands of a skilled actor. Granted, this story is about her mother's life, and no actor could have the authenticity, that she has–after all, as I said, Mrs. Golabek literally wrote the book–but if it had been done by a better actor, as far as the storytelling goes, we wouldn't have known the difference. And isn't the reason this is being performed in the first place is to tell her mother's story? Not as a personal vehicle for Mona Golabek's performance career? If the positions were reversed, I hope I wouldn't be so much of an opportunist to use my mother's holocaust story just to sell tickets.

This work proved that a good story doesn't have to be well written.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Gabriela Montero at Ravinia

Gabriela Montero
Ravinia, Bennett-Gordon Hall
August 20, 2013. 6:00pm.

  • 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117
  • Fantasy in C, Op. 17

Improvisations on themes selected by the audience.

I first heard of Gabriela Montero in an interview on WFMT in 2007(?). I was on the road when I heard her improvise something absolutely astounding that I remember pulling off to the side of the road to pay closer attention. I don't remember what she was improvising off of, but it was glorious. After a magnificent dramatic pause, the interviewer (Kerry Frumkin?) resumed the questions and I remember her saying that she couldn't repeat what she just played, and had no idea what, exactly she just did. I was so stunned that I immediately went out and bought her most recent CD "Bach and Beyond" DESPITE: being, at that point in time, incredibly cheap, and having a working internet connection (...) and this was back in the day when the purchase of physical CDs was on its way out.

On Tuesday night, I saw her for the first time. (And paid full price)

This concert had two clearly divided halves. The first half felt a little long to me. Granted, I love the pieces, but I had this feeling that her whole heart wasn't in them. The Brahms was played admirably, but she didn't really plumb the depths with them. The Schumann is a masterful epistle of love, loss and life, but it's treatment wasn't rhetorical enough to really pull me into the story. That was all fine and forgiven however, because that's not what I came for.

I came for the second half.

She pulled out a microphone and, in a heartbreakingly earnest and sincere delivery, told us that she wanted to play several pieces based on melodies that everyone knew, and then one piece based on an abstract concept. The audience was to just shout out their ideas. A huge smile came to my face and stayed.

Here are my notes and clips for some of the unfamiliar pieces:

1. Bach's Passacaglia in C minor

2. "I'll be Seeing You (In All the Old Familiar Places)" She used neighbor tones like Rachmaninoff and figuration like Chopin.

3. "Do-Re-Mi" (Doe a Deer, a Fe-Male deer) from the Sound of Music
At some point, she had to admonish, in Spanish, a Spanish speaking fellow who wanted her to improvise on a theme that was highly popular in an hispanic nation, but not here. She has my respect for controlling the audience gracefully.

4. After she hears the theme from the audience, she repeats it on the piano fast and arhythmically. When she did this with "Mack the Knife" I was compelled to yell out "Don't forget the swing!"

She was kind enough to share that she is moving from Boston to L.A. very soon, and she's not regal, she just has a stiff neck from packing for 14 hours a day for 9 days. (Apparently she has a lot of stuff.)

5. On an abstract concept. "Moving from Boston to LA"
a. Boston
b. Boston winters (you can tell she finds Boston winters oppressive) b flat minor
c. L.A. (d flat major). Sunny.
6. "Over the Rainbow" Huge, huge close. A little vapid, but huge. The audience ate that up like chocolates. 

Gabriela Montero has a gift for improvisation, and is a splendid pianist, but that doesn't interest me. Since the first, what I've found most compelling was her sense of timing, and the freedom that she brings to her musical speech. In her improvisations especially, she is unequalled for emotional depth and expressiveness. She's a good pianist, but her improvisations belong to the class of Arthur Schnabel playing a Beethoven slow movement or Michelangeli playing Debussy. In the world of concert pianists alive today, for the sheer emotionality of her music making, she's peerless.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

How can we evaluate poetry?

Recently I had the fortune to read a few poems written by a friend of a friend, and I'd like to share part of my response to them.

Dear A––––––, 
After I read a few of your poems, I asked Kate what she thought about poetry in general. She never reads it, and I was curious. She said she has a hard time "evaluating" poetry–deciding on whether it's good or naught.  
More or less, I told her, "I think there are two kinds of poetry: Poetry with an apparent structure and intent, and poetry whose structure eludes us. 
"When we see a poem that has an evident form–quatrain, villanelle or what have you–we can evaluate it on its adherence to the form, it's capacity to achieve an effect within the confines of that form, it's originality, etc.
"However, when the poem doesn't have a clear, visible form or structure, we can still evaluate its ability to achieve an effect, but that's where the evaluation has to stop. 
"If we can't make sense of what the poem's intent is, we can't evaluate it's effectiveness. And since it takes no effort to compose gibberish or empty, meaningless language, and therefore no originality, we can't judge the poem on it's originality if there is no apparent structure to the words. Thereby, the only thing I can think of on which to evaluate such a poem is it's ability to make an effect upon us. And that is highly subjective. Arguably, a quality so highly subjective as to be not worth pursuing.
"I don't want you to take away the impression that only structured poems are worth reading. Not at all. Nor do agree with the idea that poems which don't have an apparent intent are de facto void of value.  I won't say that, but I will say that for the purposes of evaluating a poem, the concept of evaluation is only meaningful when there are clear criteria, or standards, against which the poem can be evaluated. Sans any reference point, the quality or "value" of a poem without apparent structure or form is dependent upon the reader. 
"Question: What is it worth? "Answer: What is it worth to you?"

 What do you think? Comment below.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the Relevance of Music Reviews et cetera

(I could be speaking about any review of any type of art: music, visual art, dance, whatever, but since I specialize in music reviews, in the body of this posting, I'll refer to music reviews specifically.)

I'll cut to the quick. I think music reviews are relevant to the people who read them.

For whom are they intended? Well, I can't speak for any other music critics, but I write my reviews for two different people:

  1. The performer. As a pianist, I know that despite my presence and participation in the process, I am still not in a position to give anything resembling an accurate appraisal of how the performance went; I'm too busy and self critical while I'm playing to focus on that. Plus, I want you to buy tickets, so despite whatever I might be feeling, I'd probably still tell you that the concert was excellent and you should see me at my next performance.
  2. A prospective concertgoer. I am a child of the late 20th century, and, like most people like me, I want things to be easy. I don't like surprises. I like to know what I'm getting before I buy it. Shy of watching a video recording of a performance, reading a detailed, fair review by someone I trust is the best thing I can do to decide if I want to see X performer.
I try to include information in my reviews that would help the performer ascertain the quality of a performance in absence of a recording. In this case, I argue that a review is relevant because most recordings still fail to capture and re-communicate the sense of the mood in the hall, or the effect of a performer on the audience.1 Some moment of spontaneity that intrigued or excited the audience or performer, though still captured by the recording, might not adequately render the impact, or the context the way an intelligent reviewer could using descriptive language. I try to include that same information–the attempt to convey part of a sense of the overall effect of a performance–for the sake of the prospective viewer as well.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a famous "summer home" in Ravinia Park, Illinois, and they play a lot of summer concerts there, they have a guest conductor, and there are many solo concerts performed as well, often on the same night as the orchestral concerts in a different on-site venue. This year there were many young new performers I wanted to see in those smaller concerts. I haven't gone to a single one so far. I really wanted to, but the motivation to get out and try something new and unfamiliar wasn't strong enough to make me pack up my stuff, fight traffic all the way out to Ravinia, and fork over $10-20 to sit and watch a performance that might not be rewarding to me. Like I said, I'm a child of the late 20th century–I, and everyone like me is "busy". There's "hardly any time for my own stuff," let alone time to be trying anything new. 

Granted, the way I found out about these performers was from looking at music competition sites, or YouTube, or Spotify. I've seen recordings of some of them play, and that's helpful, but if I'd had access to informative reviews, from trusted sources, which captivated my imagination or excited me, I might have had the motivation to fight the uphill battle and go and see some of these people, but they weren't always available.

1For a recording that does convey the effect of a performance, you're really talking documentary material. For example, the 1986 Horowitz in Moscow recording.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Marc-André Hamelin
Chicago Symphony Center
May 19 2013. 3:00pm

•Piano Sonata, Op. 1

•Impromptu No. 2 in F minor, Op. 31
•Barcarolle No. 3 in G flat major, Op. 42

•Gaspard de la Nuit


•Variations on a theme by Paganini

•Prelude from Book 1: Reflets dans l'eau

•Jeux d'eau

•Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36

Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to meet and hear one of the most technically stunning pianists of our time. Often called a "supervirtuouso"because of his transcendent technical ability, Marc-Andre Hamelin, if you haven't heard of him, has been creating a name for himself by making short work of the arcane and recondite works by the forgotten composers of history.

In 2000 he released a recording of Leopold Godowsky's thrilling and perilous "Studies on the Chopin Études", 53 of the most staggeringly difficult piano pieces ever put to paper, and in the recording, Mr. Hamelin made them all seem like the sort of child's play that anyone with some spare time on a Sunday afternoon could pull off. Based on what I heard in the recordings (I've heard that record so many times, I could sing them all complete with Hamelin's individual nuances.) in the last 13 interim years, I suspect that Hamelin has gotten perhaps 100% better. I can't know for certain because his music making exists on a plane I don't have the tools to measure.

I'd never heard the Berg sonata before, and I was spell bound by the piece's bewildering beauty and the way it almost casually walked in and out of the world of tonal harmony. Hamelin was masterful in the way he kept us captivated with his emotional generation of tone all the way up to the very last note. He made me wish that there wasn't the convention of clapping after pieces, because after the sonata was over, a hundred years of silence would have been like permission to bask in a century of bliss.

After the conclusion of the Berg, about one-quarter of the audience came in to be seated late, and Mr. Hamelin was left sitting alone on stage, almost ignominiously, while the ushers loudly ushered. It was such a painful reawakening that a quotation by George Benard Shaw forcefully jumped to mind: "Without art, the crudeness of the world would make reality unbearable." Hamelin took us out of reality for 12 and a half minutes, but the world didn't waste a second to pull us back into the room.

After a pregnant silence (without a departure from the stage between the pieces), the first Fauré piece came like…a spray of wondrous colors and sounds that rippled into the air in a way that's probably best left to the visual arts to depict. I was dumbstruck by the quality and number of his touches. Subtleties like these are how I know that this man's limits lie solely in the bounds of his imagination. The second Faure piece was lovely I believe, but it didn't stick with me like the first one, because at that point, Hamelin was already up to two outstanding moments, and my unprepared nervous system couldn't handle much more.

Gaspard was Gaspard. 500,000 notes, 256 colors, and Hamelin covered them all. This is how we know he deserves the title of supervirtuoso: In a world where the virtuosos look at that piece and rank the quality of a performance in terms of percentages (of 500k and 256), Hamelin was beyond all that, and could be heard experimenting with the larger structures of the work as a whole. Men build cities and bridges to cope with the limitations of gravity. Supermen bend the seas and move the continents to suit their vision. I've seen vitruosi. Hamelin is a Supervirtuoso.

After the intermission (where I barely had time to eat a sandwich and catch my breath), he played his own variations, and made the audience laugh with his musical antics. I've heard the piece before when he played it at Chicago Piano Day, so the jokes weren't fresh, but it was still great fun.

I don't need to talk about the rest of the program. What you should do is thank your parents for allowing you to be alive at the present moment, and go out and see Hamelin while he still is. He's 52, but he's in excellent shape, so you're in luck. Buy all his recordings and watch him when you can. End of review.

p.s. He played two encores, Rachmaninoff's g sharp minor prelude, Op. 32/12 and Chopin's Waltz in D flat,  Op. 64/1 with a "modified" ending. The audience went wild.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Jorge Federico Osorio Review

Jorge Federico Osorio
Chicago Symphony Center
May 5, 2013. 3:00pm

•Sonata in G minor
•Sonata in D major
•Sonata in D flat major

Manuel Ponce
•Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Handel

•Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel


Mallorca, Barcarolle in F sharp Major, Op. 202

•Barcarolle No. 2, Op. 30, No. 2

Barcarolle, June from "The Seasons", Op. 37a

•Pictures from an Exhibition

I almost didn't attend this concert because the program had too many unfamiliar hispanic sounding names on it, but I decided at the last minute that's the perfect reason to go.

Looking at the roster of pianists for this season and the 2013-2014 season, and their repertoire, without getting too pessimistic, one might get the impression that, in the entire history of western art music, no Hispanic composers ever wrote anything for the piano worth hearing. For much of recorded piano performance history, German, French and Russian repertoire constituted the heavy bulk of what people learned and performed in the world of the piano. I love a lot of that repertoire, but somewhere when I was in college I stopped, stepped back and looked at a map and wondered, where's the music from everywhere else?

Bach: German
Brahms: German
Beethoven: German
Chopin: Polish/French
Fauré: French
Grieg: Norwegian
Haydn: Austrian
Liszt: Hungarian/French
Mendelssohn: German
Mozart: Austrian
Schubert: Austrian
Rachmaninoff: Russian
Scarlatti: Italian
Scriabin: Russian
Schumann: German
Tchaikovsky: Russian

It's easy to make the erroneous supposition that Hispanic music (or Nordic for that matter) isn't as well represented in the piano canon as, say, French, German or Russian, because it simply wasn't as good. I think an investigation into why this music isn't heard as often is beyond the scope of this review, but the issue of under-representation wasn't ignored by Mr. Osorio, and in the 2012-2013 lineup, I think he stands alone as the pianist most willing to take the bold stance of choosing and performing compelling works from parts of the world less heard, by names unfamiliar.

Before the house lights went down, I scanned the crowd and saw that Mr. Osorio was not playing to a sold out room. Far, far from it. He had about 1/3 of the seats filled, and I suspect that his daring program choice may have had something to do with it. There were huge, classic numbers on the program–in western piano repertoire, the Brahms and the Mussorgsky are as white bread as they come–but the inclusion of four (4!) unfamiliar names on the program might have been too much for some people. Granted, Albéniz is not a second tier name among minor western composers, but still, he's not a name that people might find easy to pronounce. I think that might be the secret. Americans want to see names on a program that are foreign-ish (The last half of the twentieth century taught us to be wary of american composers since American composers were often trained to be avant-garde) but that they can pronounce. So, I suspect a composer with a last name like Jackson or Walker wouldn't go over too well with an audience, but a tamer foreign name like Mottishaw, Avaulée, or Simokat might have more success. Gupta and Guzik are too "ethnic sounding", but Slavova might pass because we've been conditioned to know what to expect out of slavic sounding named composers. (I have no idea what might be the expected reaction from a program rife with Eastern names like Ho, Shan or Tsui, or Ng. Who knows, this might fly in the face of my theory because those names are all one syllable–easy to pronounce!)

Anyway, the program was perfectly balanced in terms of length and order. I think he wanted the Albeniz, Castro and Tchaikovsky to be played as a group, without interruption, as an exploration of the barcarolle. That was an excellent idea, but the person writing the program wouldn't let him get away with it. They were separated by line breaks in the program when I think they should have been grouped, because while Osorio acknowledged applause between those pieces, he didn't get up, and clearly wasn't expecting it.

One of the standard practices in classical performances is that groupings of pieces [without breaks for applause] are usually only done within the same composer. This process works, because the German and French masters that so heavily make up the canon wrote extended pieces as well as pieces which fit together as suites. As concertgoers, we're conditioned to expect that, and that when there's a single piece by a single composer, we expect it to be a stand-alone work with no connection to the surroundings. Mr. Osorio's choices didn't play to that expectation, and I think the audience, sadly, wasn't receptive to what he was trying to achieve. I was disappointed, but not surprised.

His playing? Unmannered to say the least. I'd call him a pianist's pianist; He's the guy I'd trust to interpret pieces I've never heard of sight unseen. In all the pieces he played he found an emotional hook to play upon and made the piece work.

Some works have what might be called elusive emotional qualities (Some Chopin mazurkas, Fauré character pieces, the late Beethoven sonatas are a few examples that immediately jump to mind) and have the potential to go dead in a person's hands if they don't know how to handle them. I would trust Osorio with tricky pieces like that. I believe Osorio makes good choices and plays pieces that he can make work. And judging by his adroitness with the major works on the program as well as with his compelling interpretations of the shorter works, he's the complete pianist. You should see him.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Van Cliburn is Dead.

I wanted to publish something the day that I heard the news, but I decided to wait. I am sure you've heard lots of people talking about Van Cliburn the american hero from a forgotten time (the events that gave cause for his lionization occurred nearly sixty years ago), or Van Cliburn the frustrated tragedy–a good-natured young man who fell prey to his own popularity–but I want to speak about one thing. I just want to take a moment to say what Van Cliburn meant to me.

Foremost, I love the way he played. There are a few performers who really impressed me and whose playing I admire: Rachmaninoff, Richter, Lupu, Shai Wosner (a young Israeli fellow who made a terrific impression on me when I was in school) but Cliburn stands out to me because–now let me say this in the best way I can–for lack of a better term, he turned everything he played into a love song. That's the way I first described his playing when I heard it at the age of sixteen, and that's the best way I can describe it now. If you've heard him in, say, Liszt's third Liebesträume, or in Rachmaninoff's third concerto, any Brahms and any Chopin Nocturne, you know what I mean. It struck me that the music of these disparate composers could all sound so beautiful when played by this one man. To me, every note he would play sounded like it was a warm, golden droplet fallen from the air around us and blossoming after gracing the earth like a gentle footfall.

Beyond just being in love with his sound, no aspiring concert pianist could remain unmoved after hearing about his controversial competition win in 1958 and coming back to the states to the greeting of a ticker tape parade. Granted, I don't think any of us pianists are delusional enough to think that they are likely to win such acclaim from a music competition again, but for better or for worse, the idea of competition winner-as-hero started with Van Cliburn, and has stayed with us ever since.

And you know, I think that's it. He was one of the few musicians that I always wanted to meet. Beyond his playing, he always gave the impression that he'd be a good person to get to know. And that's what makes me saddest. I'll never get to meet him.

(Well, maybe never.)

If you're curious about Van Cliburn here are a few places to begin:

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don't Need a Coke"


I had some for the first time in about 5 years the other day. I was compelled to read this article by Michael Moss the day before at the suggestion of a friend.

The article is a report on findings related to the internal affairs and consumer research within the [processed] food industry. There's terrible information contained within, but I wouldn't call it appalling, because, in my opinion, there would have to be some sort of surprise regarding the contents. Like everything in this country the food industry is a business driven by profit motive, steered by market regulations, but otherwise, a machine whose main focus is on the acquisition of capital, i.e., money. (And thereby, greed.)

The preface is a history lesson outlining an unlikely 1999 meeting of the heads of all the biggest food corporations in the country. They were gathered with the intent of collaborating to put a stop to the growing epidemic of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease in America and her children. The article has limited information because there was no transcript of the meeting, but I'll let you read the article. Suffice it to say, amoral profit motive won against consumer health at that meeting.

§ 1. The first section of the article is a report on a mathematical sweet spot, relentlessly pursued in formulating foods called the "bliss point". It's the perfect intersection of the basic elements (like earth, air, fire and water) in a product that leaves a consumer incapable of being satisfied. I probably don't have to list them here, but, in addition to the active ingredients (the ones that give the food its fundamental flavor), there is an "optimum" fat, salt and sugar content in a given food that will result in a taste experience humans crave, but that will not be strong enough to create a sense of satiety–something you can eat it in quantity but will never leave you feeling like you've had enough. Cases in point: Prego, Dr. Pepper, Doritos, Coca-Cola,

§ 2. The second section contains an amusing and very matter-of-fact stream of consciousness explanation on how the Lunchable was created. Moss's article article goes into the step by step process of repackaging a company's products and optimizing them in terms of storability, profit margin, and psychological appeal. It covers the investigation into the psychological sense of agency the product affords to the children, the fundamental motives driving the parents who buy them, and the pinpointing of that information into a marketing campaign that brought a problem solving bull session into a 10 figure product in a few short years.

§ 3. The third section, "It's Called Vanishing Caloric Density" has to do with the intricate, detailed work that goes into crafting the perfect salty, crunchy food–enter my Cheeto. One of the tools Frito lay has is a $40,000 device  simulating a chewing mouth which measures the exact amount of pressure required to crunch a chip. "Vanishing caloric density" is when the food you eat crunches and then "melts" away, your brain doesn't think it had any calories. "Cheetos [are] one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure," Says Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote the guide, "Why Humans Like Junk Food."

§ 4. "These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don't Need a Coke." This section outlines some of the tactics Coca-Cola used to sell product to impoverished nations. The key distinction in the article is that Coca-Cola discovered that it could make more money convincing people it calls "heavy users" to drink more rather than finding new markets. Sadly, those heavy users tend to be in poor, vulnerable and impoverished areas: post Katrina New Orleans and poor Brazilian slums (favelas, they're called) are cited.

So, what about my Cheeto? Well, I'm only guessing that the last time I ate a Cheeto was 5 years ago, because that was when I was working in a place so far from my house that I kept some junk food in my car to keep me from starving on the way home on my long commutes. (Just like they say, it's designed for a long shelf life, so it's perfect for this purpose.) Since then, I've had potato chips from time to time when my friend Ric has them, and the two or three times they're offered as a side when I order a sandwich, but that's exceedingly rare. The truth is, I don't remember the last time I had a Cheeto, and as far as junk food goes, I don't eat anything that's processed–sodas when they're offered free with a meal (and I only take it because I'm cheap) and I cook almost everything I eat. Now, now, there's the occasional fast food sandwich I'll have, but that's a once-in-a-while thing.

Anyhow, where do I stand with my first Cheeto in ages? I had to eat a couple before I could get into the groove of it, and it was amusing. Not satisfying, but fun, just like they said it should be. And I ate them as I wrote this blog entry. About 2 minutes after I got into the groove (about §2), my stomach told me "I'm not full, but I've had enough" and responded by making me feel terrible. I closed the bag.

Clearly, I'm not a person that's at high personal risk because of the junk food epidemic, but I know people who are. There's one friend in particular I have who eats almost exclusively processed foods. I think he's what the companies might call a "heavy user". In the article, they drew the parallel between processed foods and cigarettes in regard to the health consequences of heavy usage and the aggressive marketing to find and hook new users, and keeping with that parallel, he doesn't smoke, but there are metaphorical empty "cartons" stacked high in my friend's trash.

The good news in the article is that the addictive effects of these sorts of foods drop off after a few weeks of not using them. One loses one's acclimation to high salt, the sugar cravings go away, and you start to notice the fat you're consuming, so there's a chance to break the cycle. But if the companies have their way, you'll probably buy into the illusion of "convenience" they're selling and never "find the time" to make a healthy lunch–hell, until we can get some government regulation underway limiting what food companies can say about their products, you'll could try and still fail to choose healthy foods on your own. I'm not a nutritionist, and you probably aren't either, so when your box of Froot Loops has "Good Source of Fiber" written on it, or your Cheetos tout being "Made with Whole Grains", you could be reading the nutritional information on the back of the box and still get duped into making bad decisions.

As far as prepared foods go (Lunchables, Hot Pockets, etc.) the best advice is to remember this truism about picking a restaurant:

You can have food one of three ways:

  1. Fast
  2. Cheap
  3. Good or good for you

But you can only have two at a time.

As far as junk foods go (Coke, Cheetos, Doritos, etc.) I say this:

Close the bag.

What does Michael Moss Eat?
Another link to the article.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Angela Hewitt Review

Angela Hewitt
Chicago Symphony Center
February 10, 2013. 3:00pm

•French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817
•Toccata in D Major, BWV 912

•Pour le piano


•French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816

•Le tombeau de Couperin

•Debussy: Claire de Lune

This evening was the third time I saw Angela Hewitt. I saw her once at the 2002 Gilmore Keyboard festival where she played the Bach Goldberg Variations. I saw her play them again in 2009 in Chicago and tonight I saw her play Bach, Debussy and Ravel. I was pleased.

She revealed and reveled in the same enchanting things I enjoy in her recordings and in her live performance: delicate care of phrases, outstanding clarity, tight and well chosen coloring and definitive climaxes. It was there. It was all there. Several times during the performance I thought to myself, "Screw editing, this could be recorded live and sent straight to disk, she sounds so polished!". About the only thing that detracted from her performance was her extravagant keyboard gestures.

The short of my observation is that I think she has gradually become more extravagant over the last 10 years. Now, while I excoriated another pianist for outlandish gesturing in another review, I don't denigrate Ms. Hewitt because to me, at that time, on that day, from where I was sitting, her antics didn't bother me. Perhaps it's because the character of her movements seemed to fit with her concert manner; Her entire demeanor coming to and from the piano was one of tremendous confidence, daresay regality, and there was something about her composure which, even though I found it amusing, afforded me the ability to forgive her the distraction.

About the only chink in her armor came at about the middle of the last movement on the program, during the Ravel Toccata; the tautness waned, and there was a subtle but undeniable weakening of her her playing. The change was so sudden and slight that I can only imagine that something which had nothing to do with her playing was at work–like a carbohydrate crash, or something.  When she finished the piece and I looked at her face, I could see that I wasn't the only person who was unpleasantly surprised. Alas, to err is human, and I'm glad I went.

Perhaps one day I'll figure out how to approach and comfort a performer after an unsatisfying (to them) performance. Maybe I'll figure it out while I'm waiting for a fourth opportunity to hear her.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thoughts on the Pope's Resignation

Hello Reader,

In case you haven't heard, on Monday, February 11 2013, Pope Benedictus XVI announced that he will be resigning his position effective at the end of the month. Basically he says he doesn't have the physical and mental faculties necessary to carry out his responsibilities anymore. More info can be found here:

In 2010, for the first time in history, the catholic church made a statement about the sex scandals running amok internally. For the first (and only) statement ever made to address the problem, I was left feeling very unsatisfied. Even as a non-catholic, I found the response (in the form of this letter) conspicuously lacking in terms of punishment of known offenders or definitive calls to action. In honor of the resignation of the pope, I am reposting my 2010 response to the pope's address of the sex scandal(s) plaguing the church. Please, feel free to comment.

Pierre Miller


This is my response to a friend asking what I meant when I said that the pope played politics in his letter to Irish Catholics abuse victims.

Here's how I see it: The pope had an opportunity to speak out to the world and promise stern punishment for those involved in the sex abuse problem running rampant all over the world. What did he do?

He targeted it to Irish Catholics. Dumb question: Why did he only address it to Ireland? This has been happening worldwide!

Secondly, what is worse (in my opinion): Was there any "This will not be tolerated, the guilty parties will be  rooted out and punished to the fullest extent of the laws in the countries where the crimes were committed?" No.

Mr. Ratzinger said everything in his power in that letter EXCEPT words to that effect. That is what I meant by "playing politics". I read that letter. I saw [the] pope walking onto the world stage carrying a palm full of empathy when every one of those families needed him to be carrying an iron fist. If I were catholic, I would definitely say that I don't feel safe with the way things are handled, and he DID NOT do anything that makes me feel any safer.

He took an opportunity to address to the entire world his position on a plague running rampant through his church, and what did he do? He protected his own. He gave a big fat "I'm sorry" to all the families that have suffered at the hands of "church leadership". To me, coming from potentially the most powerful man in the world, that's just plain not good enough.

The Pierre Miller Breakdown:

"For my part, considering the gravity of these offences, and the often inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in your country…"

(Which I could totally have stopped if I decided to put my foot in it and use my position as the [human] HEAD OF THE WHOLE CHURCH to put an end to this. Make no mistake, I knew about it before I came into office. The problem was raging on for nigh 40 years or so.)

"…I have decided to write this Pastoral Letter to express my closeness to you and to propose a path of healing, renewal and reparation."

Read: I still love you, but not enough to laicize the sick priests that work for me and send them to jail.

"Real progress has been made, yet much more remains to be done."

That is to say, I COULD make some [progress], but I'm not going to right now.

Section 6: "To the victims of abuse and their families"

This whole bit doesn't even need to be there. This is the section where everyone involved wanted to hear that these sick priests were to be thrown in jail and locked up forever. What does he do? He COMPARES US TO CHRIST, then preached a little sermon about Christ's experience. That is called passing the buck. He tried to pass our outrage into the shared experience of all Christians.

"Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope."

So, XYZ boy being raped or molested at the hands of a pervert, told to lie about it, and then ignored when he confesses is like REDEMPTIVE SUFFERING? Wow, I had no idea.

"I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church…"

Oh, you mean the church you mentioned above that I am now terrified to enter? Okay.

" – a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity – "

Uh-huh. Purified? Really?

"you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace."

Allow me to translate:

Rather than taking punitive action against the evil men who work for me, I offer you this advice: If you look hard enough into the deep well of love that is Jesus our Christ, you will be filled with beautiful feelings of hope and peace that will override all your pain, fear, mistrust and outrage IF AND ONLY IF:

You can summon the courage to  get your ass back through the door after being terrified out of it by those overzealous pederasts we mentioned earlier.

I don't know about you, but that sure feels like a slap in the face.
Section 7. "To priests and religious who have abused children."

I looked really hard through those ten sentences for some mention of punishment or excommunication, or something, but all I got was a "You should be very sorry. Now, pray and go apologize please."

If I assaulted a 12 year old boy or girl, would I get that same sort of lenience and protection?

How might the parent of that 12 year old child feel, If all that happened to me was that I gave a (heartfelt) prayer and an "I'm sorry?" Relieved, huh? Thought so.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Louis Lortie Review

Louis Lortie
Chicago Symphony Center
January 20, 2013. 3:00pm

•Isolde's Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde

•Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre

•Réminiscences de Don Juan from Don Giovanni


Wagner-Josef Rubinstein
•Siegfried Idyll

•Overture to Tannhäuser

Louis Lortie played a concert program that was almost exclusively transcriptions of works by Wagner. I went to the concert because I had never heard of Mr. Lortie, and I was curious about his playing, and I was also very intrigued by the choice of program. I don't listen to much Wagner, although I liked what of his I've heard. I figured that with Liszt transcriptions and mostly Wagner, the concert couldn't go wrong.
Fortunately, the concert was very much worth what I paid for the ticket ($15), but there's no way I'd go to hear that program again. Here's why:

The program was an interesting experiment, but I don't think the pieces which were collected were the best choices for this particular idea. I got the strong impression that Mr. Lortie wanted to do a Wagner-transcribed program, but he couldn't make it work somehow. I don't know the complete works of Wagner, so maybe this program was the best among the choices, but the famous Mozart-Liszt paraphrase was a one-off (the sole non-Wagner work) and felt too grand for the end of the first section. I say this because I looked at the program while he played and thought, "he's been playing for 40 minutes, and he's ending with this? There's no way he's playing a finishing piece that can top what he just did without the impression like he's trying too hard.” Perhaps I'm searching for too deep a meaning about work selection in concert programming, but I am at a loss as to why that piece was on the program at all and why it was in that particular location.
Mr. Lortie's skill at handling the piano was fine: he had very nice chromatic thirds, but I feel that he didn't project very much in the softer parts. He's not a pianist wanting in power, so I was conused. Wagner wants a muted sound sometimes, but I didn't get the impression in this performance that it was always intentional.

In that vein, many of the brilliant passages from the transcriptions came off as clear, but not dazzling. They were bright but not shiny, if that makes any sense. Oh, and his playing was accompanied with plenty of hand tosses where his left arm fully extended into the air in the widest arc one could make while seated, and his eyebrows got a little out of control in the Tannheuser.

Another possible explanation why the concert failed to make a strong impression (besides his choice if pieces) lies in the idea itself of doing an all Wagner-transcribed program. Wagner's music is highly orchestral, and very heavily rooted in the different timbres of the orchestra. Wagner, a true visionary in this regard, thought of the sound for the instruments, checked his ideas on the piano and then wrote it for the instruments. He did not, however, write his musical thoughts out on piano first and then orchestrate it like many other composers of the time. On piano, where we're painting in black and white, so to speak, one can suggest at colors, but it's very difficult to play music like this convincingly.

This brings up another point which contributed to the overall impression of the concert. Wagner heavily relies upon the use of temporal space in time to achieve his effects. I think a significant part of the Wagner experience is having the surround the listener and carrying him to distant lands over great temporal expanses. Wagner gives you the impression that you're immersed in a part of an epic dram. He called his operas “music dramas”, and they take place on the broad time scale (almost in real time), and he calls upon all the instruments he writes for to yearn and to draw out long, sinuous lines and statements in tireless rhapsody. Wagner never did "brief". This is the problem.

The best piano in the world can't sustain tones the way Wagner demands, and throughout about 90% of the program, Mr. Lortie's attempts at elucidating the concept of spaciousness or breadth in his music came off making the piano sound insufficient. Fundamentally, the piano is taxed pasts its limits in this kind of music, and in Lortie's hands the effect was of the music falling flat. Sadly, this was nowhere more true than in the first five minutes of the first piece. For me, it was the first and biggest letdown of the entire concert. He took a chance and it fell flat.

In the Wagner-Wolf, in extended left hand melodic moments, what his playing lacked in nuance he made up in gesticulation, forced smiles and effete shimmy shakes. I don't mind a bit of movement in performances, but I did not like his non-playing movements in that piece or either of the closing works in the program's two halves. In addition to giving the impression that he ejaculated a little at the close of the Wagner-Wolf, he frequently used the hold-the-keys-down-in-the-chord-and-bob-your-wrists-up-and-down-move. We keyboard players refer to this move as "bebung". It's when you hold key(s) down and wiggle them to cause the hammer to rub against the string giving an additional vibrato. It exists only on clavichord (where it is a fine effect), but it can not be done on any well regulated piano. It simply is not possible, and as such, is patent affectation. When I see moves like this done, I have two thoughts: It's insulting to watch for people who do know what it is you're doing, and it's confusing and absurd for the people who don't.