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.