Monday, April 18, 2016

Accompanying a Violinist and the Macau Classical Music Society

After a few years of settling in Macau, I finally took the time to found the Macau Classical Music Society (facebook page here) with some friends.  We are having our very first recital!

The violinist Wang Hao plays first violin for the Macau Orchestra.  The concert opens with Brahms' 1st Violin Sonata Op. 78, followed by several violin showpieces: Carmen, Paganiniana and La Campenella, Souvenir d'un lieu cher: Scherzo.  Closing out are a few more relaxing pieces: Souvenir d'un lieu cher: Melodie, Humoresque, movie music Ladies in Lavender, and the elegant Graceful Ghost by William Bolcom.

It's an interesting program, to be sure.  For the pianist, the Brahms is obviously the meat and potatoes, but Tchakovsky's Souvenir d'un lier cher: Scherzo has some passages that when played at the violinist's desired speed is next to impossible.

It's been a while since I last seriously played with a violinist outside of an ensemble.  Believe that was back in 2002 with Isaac See back when I was at Caltech.  Before that was with Daniel Kim back at Cornell.  I might have underestimated the difficulty of this program for the pianist, because in comparison to violinist's enormously difficult pieces, it's nothing.

It's a good learning experience.  I thought I was good at accompanying because I like to think of myself as a considerate pianist, but not when you don't know the pieces too well.  And since Wang Hao is a professional, plus many of these are canons in the violinist's repertoire, he knows these pieces much better than I do, which leads to some rather, let's just say, incompetent moments on my part during rehearsals.

The more important lesson outside of "know your piece" here is that the pianist cannot also try to anticipate or wait for the violinist.  He does need to set the tone from time to time, or trust that the violinist will not fall behind or race ahead. Partnership is key. But for me, it's surprising difficult to break out of my prior habit.  Knowing the pieces would certainly help, as well as regaining some swagger and assertiveness as a soloist.

I more or less wrote commentaries for all the pieces in the programme, with help from various sources.  They'll be uploaded to the society's website in a few days.

Wish me luck!  For those who happens to be in Macau (long odds) do drop by and say hi!  Even better, for those who live in Macau, let's get in touch and grow the Macau Classical Music Society together.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rondo Alla Turca

Revisiting Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca, a piece that I've played since a kid, and one of the few pieces I I can actually play from memory without any preparation.

For completeness' sake, some background: Rondo Alla Turca is the 3rd movement from Mozart's famed sonata K. 331, the 1st movement of which might just be one of the most famous variations ever written. Musicians might point to Diabelli to be the most famous, but I feel that many more casuals would recognise the 1st movement theme. In fact, even I can't say I've earnestly listened to Diabelli in its entirety.

Alla Turca is not the most technically demanding piece if you are aiming just to get all the notes right. But just like all other Mozarts, there are few places to hide even your slightest of uneven attacks or notes. The good news is, if you're playing the Alla Turca by itself, chances are you're not playing in front of serious music critics. The bad news is, even for the casuals, this piece is so famous that any wrong note would alarm them much more than the joy they might get from your, say, otherwise otherworldly interpretation.

That out of the way, I do want to point out one passage in the middle section that's trickier than I first thought. This is the passage I'm talking about:

Passage from Alla Turca

To play this passage smoothly without any hint of unevenness requires a lot of attention to the fingering. The entire passage requires a lot of thought:

1st try on Revisit

Blue Arrow: For years I just used my pinky on the B, i.e.: 1-5-4-3 etc on that measure. 1-5 is hard to pull off completely even, and even loses the legato between 1 and the 5. So on my revisit, I first switched to 1-4-3-2, and then 1 on the F#! I.e.: 1-4-3-2-1-4-3-2. Thumb on black key? That's fine. I can pull it off.

Red Arrow: In this measure, I used to go 1-3-4-1-2-3-4-2. The 2 on the C# isn't terrible, but on this revisit, but I changed the fingering to using the thumb on F# in the previous, I decided to try: 1-3-4-2-1-2-3-1. I.e. another 1 on a black key, this time the C#! It's kind of fun actually, and it's not too bad. I liked it for a while.

2nd try on Revisit

Blue Arrow: The Thumbs on Black Keys® is fine, but even 1-4-3-2 isn't good enough for smoothness. So I decided to go with 1-2-1-3-2-4-3-2. Now the "1-2-" part is very smooth, but the "3" on G# when you pass over the 3rd finger isn't as even as 1-4-3-2. So I'm still a bit undecided here.

Red Arrow: Well, my original 1-3-4-1-2-3-4-2 isn't really all the bad. The only difficulty is the F# that comes in the next measure: I've been using 4. It's still ok. So Thumb on C# or 2 on C#? Still undecided.

All these 8 measures just requires a lot of fingering consideration, I just pointed out two fingering problems. Not only do you want smooth and even, you also need to make it sound interesting. So for instance, in Measure 39, if you went with 2-3-4-2 in the last 4 sixteenths in the previous measure, you'll probably be playing 3-4-5-3 here. This is a fingering that works, but harder to phrase because you need exquisite control on your 4th and 5th finger. Not an easy task. So I'm now experimenting Measure 38 with 1-3-4-2-1-2-3-1 so that Measure 39 is 2-3-4-2-1-2-3-1, which is much easier to phrase.

Anyway, just fingering on those 8 measures have taken up an entire post. It goes to show just how much extra thoughts you need to put into fingerings on a Mozart piece since you're completely and utterly exposed.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Long Hiatus

Been a while.  Still lots of piano playing in the long hiatus of posting here, but just got a lot busier.  Smarter thing to do is to simply keep my blogs more to the point.

So, a review of what's happened since a long time ago!

- Learned Beethoven's Emperor concerto
    Remark: the piece isn't that hard to learn per se, but there are a few difficult technical passages that require in-depth practicing.  Again though, didn't bother to memorize.

- A bunch of chamber music parties.
    Remark: that's right!  Had lots of string players over to play chamber music.  Piano trios, quartets, quintets, plus string only chamber music when I need a break.  Invited some pianists over too.  Good times.

- Decided to take those music diploma exams one day.
    Remark: A nice goal to set.  After vacillating, my decision is to learn Beethoven's Appassionata and Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy.  Mostly because they're easier to memorize.

- Le Tic Toc Choc.
    Remark: Fell in love with it, learned it.  Fun piece.

- Joplin.
    Remark: The Entertainer and The Maple Leaf Rag.  Reasonably easy for memorize.

- Mario Music
    Remark: We spot a trend!  Lots of casual music.

Well, I'll go back to posting whenever I have interesting things to say.  Most likely won't be as detailed as before but hopefully more to-the-point.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Beethoven Piano Concerto #5, Emperor Part I--Technical Difficulties [more edits coming]

For some reason, before replaying solo piano in ernest last year, I didn't really regard Beethoven's piano music as difficult.  Obviously, I was very naive in that assessment.  It's true that on sheer note difficulty the Liszts, the Ravels and the Rachmaninoffs are on another level, but to execute Beethoven the level of difficulty is just as high.  Kind of like the deceptive easiness of Mozart.  Only, in Beethoven, you do actually have very difficult passages.  Like the following.

Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, 1st mvt, difficult LH [look up measure #]

Having talked to a few people, it sounds like the above really is a hard passage, exceeding the difficulty of Chopin's Revolutionary etude.  So often, in Beethoven's piano music, he just sticks in a passage where the notes are just so awkward to play, at least by my standards.  The most notable example is probably the descending octaves in the final movement of the Waldstein sonata.  Just how do you play them?

But mostly, since Beethoven is a great pianist himself, they're not anything he didn't think pianists couldn't manage.  They're just things that require some time to work out.  Like these couple of other spots:

[1st mvt coda passage]

[3rd movement passage 6 against 2 in RH passage]

There are still plenty of difficult passages in this concerto, but the ones above are the ones I have the most trouble with.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9, K271, 3rd Mvt.

I'm performing this piece in public tomorrow night, after 3 weeks of learning it.  Actually, after the first week, I was already sick of it beyond description, so I more or less took a week off, but the last week I just really haven't been practicing that much.

I'm bad at memorizing, partly because I rarely sink any real effort in it, partly because I'm good at reading music (reading and memorizing tend to be anti-correlated, from my small sample size).  It's a public concert, but it's pretty informal, so I don't really have much pressure performing the piece from memory.  I will be playing with an 8-piece "orchestra"--2 oboes, 2 horns, 4 strings--and in fact it's precisely because of this constraint I picked a movement from an early Mozart concerto.

Still, it appears that I have overestimated my ability to learn a 10-minute piece in 3 weeks.  At the time, I thought, it's Mozart, I learn fast, I have nimble fingers, I'll be fine.  Well, yes and no, as it turns out.  The Yes'es:

- Mozart isn't too difficult technically
- it's a concerto, so 10 minutes is more like 7 minutes or so.
- no need to memorize means far less pressure.

The No's:

- to pull off a good Mozart still takes lots of refinement technically.
- not enough time for me to come up with more interpretation ideas.
- a practical matter: I get sick of practicing the same piece.  So 3 weeks is more like 2 weeks because I did end up basically taking a week off.  And the last few days I can't make real adjustments anyway.  So it's more like 10 days of practicing.

Anyway, this post is more about specific interpretation issues, ideas, and technical issues.  Let's jump right in.

(1) Tempo.
  It's marked Presto, an uncommon marking for Mozart.  Though apparently, it's marked Molto Allegro in the Salzberg performance material.  Anyway, it's fast, if not very fast.  But just how fast?  Listening to recordings, Uchida plays at a breakneck speed, Haskil a little slower, Brendel the slowest.  The average is probably around MM=152.  I find 152 a tad too fast for some passages, but 144 to be a tad too slow.  If my metronome gives me 148 I'll probably be happy.

(2) Main Theme
  This comes up multiple times, I wonder if I should play it differently each time.  But there are more specific issues:
Measures 1-7.
  I don't really like the fingering I use here, in the cyan box.  The D played by the thumb tend to be a bit heavy, the F by the picky a tad light and short.  I need to correct for these issues by playing them lighter or heavier.
  I also don't really like how I shape the theme: Eb, Eb-F-Eb, Eb-F-etc.  The left hand plays a big role, I believe, but I don't know just how much weight to put there.  It's just I-V-I etc, yet it's still quite engaging and interesting.  And should I accent the LH pickup, or on the 1st beat?  They're decisions I can't seem to settle on.
  This theme comes up many times, so I wish I have a solution by now.
(3) Descending Broken Thirds
  So, my scales aren't bad.  They also reasonably even.  So it's not like I can't pull off descending broken thirds... but for performance, I wish I had more time to do a better job:
Measures 401-408.  Ignore the long phrasing mark--it's not urtext.
  The problem is that, I can't guarantee I won't miss a note here and there playing this passage.  Probably just 75% of the time--and that's when practicing at home.  Another issue is the control and phrasing.  As I'm descending, should I place a little more emphasize on the thumb, something for the audience to listen to?  Or should I treat it more like broken thirds, which sounds mechanical?  My evenness and steady phrasing also requires more refinement here, since a couple notes will jump out if it's not completely under control.  This is what I mean when I say technically it's not hard, to pull it off with at a high level requires a lot more work than meets the eye.

There are loads of other things I haven't decided on.  Maybe I'll expand on this in a later post.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Search for a Sonata

The past year or so I've played/learned/revisited/picked up the following pieces:

- Chopin Piano Trio
- Chopin Polonaise Op. 53
- Beethoven WoO 32 Variations
- Mozart Sonata K 330
- Bach Toccata in D minor (BWV 911)
- a Scarlatti sonata
- Shostakovich 2nd concerto
- Rachmaninoff Etude 39/6
- Paganini Liszt Etude #3, #4

So I'm missing a sonata that qualifies as a relatively big work.  I'm planning on at some time down the road taking one of those ABRSM exams, and I'm thinking I might as well use this sonata to fulfill one of those requirements.  So technically, it has to be a piece that is relatively advanced.

I've had my mind se ton Prokofiev #7 for a while now, but tonight I wavered a little; and listened to a few other sonatas:

- Shostakovich #1 and #2.
    I like #2 better, and I'm sure I'll grow to love both of these sonatas, at this moment I can't say I love them.  There also don't have a clear melody or motif that an audience can readily identify.
- Barber Sonata
   I thought I liked this, but I guess I didn't like the 1st movement.  The 2nd movement is awesome.  Anyway, since learning any one of these big sonatas takes a lot of effort, I don't want to play something that has an entire movement that I might struggle to fall in love with.
- Alkan Sonata, Solo Piano Concerto
  Great works--but too difficult.  I really like them, just that they're take too long to learn.  Especially the solo piano concerto--outstanding.  Also, I'll probably injure myself before I learn these pieces.

So Prokofiev #7 it is!  I like #6 quite a bit too, especially the last movement.  But while I love "bangy" music, #6 is a little too bangy for me at the moment--I want to develop my musicianship some more, and I feel #7 has more room for me to shape and phrase musical ideas and lines in the context of atonal and slightly bangy music, whereas #6 has more of a bangy element (at least the 1st movement).

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Left Hand 4th Finger

Most of us don't have strong 4th fingers.  That's natural.  Hanon exercises purport to train strength in all fingers.  But since most repertoire don't require a particularly strong 4th finger, your 4th finger simply isn't gonna be as strong as the others, weaker than perhaps even your 5th finger, which you can leverage for more strength by lifting your arm or twisting your wrist a little.

So, many pianist train to strengthen their 4th finger.  Schumann is reputed to have done this--and end up injuring himself in the process.  At the end of the day, the 4th finger does get involved a lot in the right hand, but not so in the left hand.  And I have realized in the last little while that my LH 4th finger is almost unacceptably weak.  I haven't practiced scales in a long time, and I noticed that I frequently miss notes when my LH 4th finger is involved.  So lately I've been playing B major scale to get it back to shape a little.

I'm not worry about 4th finger playing scales--I used to able to do it well, so after some practice I'm sure it'll be back.  But playing double 3rds isn't something I've ever been very good at, and the 4th finger prominently figures in that.  I don't think I practiced many double 3rd scales--mostly chromatic 3rds for some reason.  So that's probably another reason why my 4th finger in both hands aren't as adroit as they can be.

So maybe I should practice some double 3rd scales.  To drive this point home, Chopin's 25/6 is an etude I have such trouble with.

If I have trouble in my RH, it goes without saying my LH double 3rds are pretty much hopeless.  The good news is that they truly rarely come up, and when they do, it's only usually for a stretch of 3 double thirds, which I can deal with.

The bad news is... I'm learning Stravinsky's own transcription of Petrushka, and in the third movement (Shrovetide), there is the horror of measures upon measure of double thirds, the LH:

Petrushka, Shrovetide Fair, Measures 43-44
Oh, that is not something my LH can do.

Lots and lots of practicing will be required to get this up to speed.  Both in my right hand and my left hand.

A Note on my Viola practicing:

Not as much progress as I would have liked.  But since this is a post about my LH 4th finger, I'll just say that I am also having trouble with playing a full tone apart on the viola, when it's a 2-3 fingering (i.e. 3-4 finger).  It's an almost analogous situation on the piano--weak 4th finger.  So in a way, it's good that I'm doing these 4th finger exercises in different ways, because it's useful both on the piano and the viola.