"Piano Fever" in China

Here’s an interesting article about the passion for piano that has gripped China. It’s fueled by a growing urban middle class who have the disposal income for a piano and lessons, and parents who want something better for their child than they had:

When they were growing up themselves during the Cultural Revolution, learning the piano was inconceivable. Jiang Qing’s Gang of Four saw it as the most dangerous of all Western instruments. The instrument was once compared with a coffin, “a black box in which the notes rattled around like the bones of the bourgeoisie”.

"It felt much better in my hands than a gun."

Think what you will about Venezuela’s current government, the country does have a remarkable music education system (that’s survived the last several governments there). It’s called El Sistema, and it has given hundreds of thousands of poor children something to do, something to take pride in.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the next music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the current poster child for El Sistema. There’s a description of it on his website, including this anecdote:

Lennar Acosta, now a clarinettist in the Caracas Youth Orchestra and a tutor at the Simón Bolívar Conservatory, had been arrested nine times for armed robbery and drug offences before the sistema offered him a clarinet.

“At first, I thought they were joking,” he recalls. “I thought nobody would trust a kid like me not to steal an instrument like that. But then I realized that they were not lending it to me. They were giving it to me. And it felt much better in my hands than a gun.”

As the foster mother of an “at-risk” teen myself, I wish we had something like that here.

A new development is that now Venezuela has introduced El Sistema to adults in prison. Read more about that here.

How good do some of these kids get? Check out this video of El Sistema’s flagship ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, taking a romp through some Bernstein at the BBC Proms last summer. That’s Dudamel conducting.

Where Have I Heard That?

Happy first full day of summer.

You hear a piece of music and it takes you some place, but you can’t remember exactly where?

Happened to me this morning – Franz Liszt’s third tone poem, Les Preludes. I knew that music was part of my past, way back there….but where?

A little research provided the answer.

Turns out several sections of Les Preludes were used every week in “The Lone Ranger” television series of the 1950s as background music for various sections of the drama (no doubt about the time the masked man was racing through the canyons on Silver looking to snuff out the thugs in black hats).

In the ’70s I grew up watching those old Lone Ranger episodes on Sunday mornings. I couldn’t tell you much about any individual show, but the music stuck with me all these years.

So there must be a few more examples of this marriage between classical music and old-school television. Feel free to share – the more obscure the better!

Après le deluge…

One of the casualties of the flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was the Paramount Theater, home of the Cedar Rapids Symphony. Executive Director Robert Massey had this to say about the condition of the performance space:

“From stage level, the stage is very buckled. The orchestra pit is completely filled with water. The [Mighty Wurlitzer] organ’s obviously been tossed around and is laying on its back on the stage.”

The Symphony will go on, though, in alternate spaces. Read more about it here and here.

If the shoe fits, sell it!

Opera Chic recently weighed in on the new limited edition Adidas sneaker being hawked by the Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang.

Wouldn’t be the first time a great classical pianist helped to hawk high-zoot footwear.

In 1991, the Czech virtuoso Rudolf Firkusny became the first – and probably the last – classical pianist to be featured in a TV commercial for basketball shoes.

An advertising exec for Nike was an admirer of Firkusny’s playing, so he teamed Firkusny up with David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs. In their television commercial, Firkusny played Chopin, and even shot a basket. Firkusny told the NYTimes: “I think it was good that for once serious music was put together with sports. Music needs all kinds of encouragement.”

Too bad this commercial hasn’t found its way to YouTube…

A Cure for "Earworms"

I find brain science absolutely fascinating. You know when you get a song stuck in your head, and it won’t go away? Well, actually, it’s getting stuck in your auditory cortex.

According to Wired.com, a solution exists. Find that and a couple of other tidbits about the brain on music here. (Though frankly, I’m skeptical about tidbit #1–even European music hasn’t always used this tuning system, and other cultures around the world have very different tuning systems.)

Lynn Harrell Commencement Address

For graduation season, a rerun of some thoughts about making a meaningful life in music.

Or just a meaningful life, period.

Good stuff from Mr. Harrell. Smart guy.

(a great George Szell story too)


Commencement Address

by Lynn Harrell

May 21, 1994

The Cleveland Institute of Music

When I came to Cleveland and joined The Orchestra, I was eighteen years old, and I thought I was a finished product. Now I had arrived. All the hard work was behind me.

You know how it is at ten when you think you’ll never get beyond the first position… at thirteen when you can’t cope with ten minutes practicing before school and two hours after it… at sixteen when you’re working 25 hours a day for the big competition… and then, for me, at eighteen. It was all over. Finished. I had A Job.

And how little I know! It was only the bare beginning. It is so easy in music to forget that we are doing something we love. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we even love it as deeply as we do. It’s so difficult when you’re young that, with as much passion as you have, it seems impossible to imagine ever playing well enough. It’s so difficult as you get older to realize that this feeling will never go away.

I am fifty now. The young students I played with at summer string camp are fathers and grandfathers. And I am still touched and amazed when playing with distinguished colleagues of my own age to realize that — as well as they may cover it up — they shake with stage fright before walking out, and sometimes even in performance. The doubts, the insecurities, the anger at the space between the dream and the achievement — these never go away.

There is never a moment in music when you can say, “This is it. Now I have arrived.” It is a journey with many stops. There are frustrating pauses, whirlwind acceleration — and sometimes, just a sense of having got seriously lost.

I see now how ironic it was for me that only a year after I got to Cleveland with the feeling that I could now sit back and enjoy things… that I had the worst time of my whole musical career. It seemed to my old colleagues — many of whom were still in music school then — that I had it made. I had a regular salary — enough to keep a man and family, after all — and I with only myself to take care of. I had concerts all over the world with one of the greatest orchestras of all time… who, from the outside, could possibly have guessed the desolation and emptiness that I felt. Was it all for this? Was this the magic? Here I was on the third stand, never heard and never noticed. I felt invisible — it began to feel like a boring, terrible, slow death. Forty years of this — how was I to endure it?

The problem was, of course, the total lack of a good, true education. In those early days, I never listened to my colleagues. I just stared at the page and played along with everyone else. One of the herd. Then one day, George Szell — clearly frustrated beyond belief at my donkey-like sleepwalking — told me to stay back during the intermission of a rehearsal. He grabbed my right arm and started to play as I should play out. It was a terrible, terrible noise — but the passion was there again, the commitment. He was furious with me. He barked at me: “You don’t contribute. You don’t know anything. You’re not prepared. You just float along down the stream. You never know how the music goes.” It was a tirade — and it amazed me. It had simply never entered my self-pitying state that this could all be my fault. That if I was bored, it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. Music isn’t boring; people are.

So he told me about studying the score, about practicing music not just technique; about learning to hear the rest of the music — to study beforehand the architecture of a piece, the lines weaving through it in all the individual instruments. Above all, he dared me to have pride again in my playing. It wasn’t to be the old pride — narcissistically and aimlessly self-delighting in the trivia of instrumental playing. But to get immersed into the whole psyche and personality of a composer. He taught me respect for the creative force behind a great piece of music. He taught me respect for my fellow musicians: bullied and scorned by him, I was forced to open up and listen to the great musicians who surrounded me. I was over-awed by a horn sound that my wretched cello could never match; a clarinet legato that defined the word for me at last; the silvery shimmer of beautiful flute playing. George Szell opened my ears to the musical inventiveness of fine oboe playing. He taught me humility and — through it — he brought me joy.

It’s so interesting for me to look back. When I was made principal cello of The Cleveland Orchestra, I was probably the same age as most of you. Many of my friends then, I still see and play with. Or, actually, not too many. That’s the rub.

When I went into the orchestra, most of my old Juilliard and Curtis classmates wrote me off as solo material. That was me out of the fray — out of the running — for a lifetime. There were big talents, big stars-to-be… and I was no longer counted among them. Or, perhaps, never was. And I would have put my money on other cellists than I for a solo career, quite frankly. There are people I can still see in my mind’s eye who seemed incandescent: tall, good looks’ flashing fingers; the right mentors; competition winners; stunning self-confidence. And most of them — if not all of them, actually — you wouldn’t have even heard of. I had no idea at twenty-one what a long, long journey it is.

The key is simple: You just have to keep going. It isn’t a competition — it’s only about yourself, about one practice day after another, about keeping going, and above all, forcing yourself to understand that you never understand it all. The English have a term which I have just discovered. It’s called DINTISM. “How did he get that job?” I asked about a colleague. “Oh, dintism,” came the answer. Dintism? It is — it was explained to me — by sheer dint of doing it. Of doing it, with all good will and effort day after day, year after year. Of not giving up.

I’m often asked whether or not I get bored of carrying the Dvorak Concerto around the world. Bored? They must be joking. I, who thought I knew everything I needed to know about the Dvorak Concerto when I was twenty, am still discovering new things every single time I play it. I hear someone else play it and that goes for my students too — and in their interpretation, I’ll hear a phrase, a note, an unfamiliar turn of musical gesture, and there will be a new discovery for me.

I’ll never forget my encounters with Marcel Moyse, the legendary French flutist, at the Marlboro Festival. In his eighties, he kept tripping over his words in his passion, his eagerness to tell you of a piece of music. As much toil and work as music demands — it is also our brush with immortality. I heard Pablo Casals play when he was so old that his fingers and technique could hardly be recognized as good cello playing — and yet, it was the most moving and dynamically powerful music-making you can imagine, so alive was the soul, so strong the belief in the music.

What, you may ask, has all this to do with you who are just about to go into the world? Well, I am here as a scout. I am here to report back on what it looks like down the road. And I can tell you that the journey at the beginning, and the journey to the end are no different — music is one and the same journey, and it always continues.

I meet young musicians in their early twenties who are already turned off; they’re bored; they’re cynical. “It’s all politics,” they’ll say. But I met them thirty years ago, too, like that — and those are the talents who disappeared. Only the music remained — and those who in delighting in the music; in never failing to find refreshment in it; who rejoice in their gift… those are the musicians who have lasted, whose way has been lit by this special lantern of our art.

It’s hard to remember that now, perhaps. Most students I know graduate with the full weight of student loans on their shoulders, cars in need of new transmissions and gearboxes, rent that’s due, freelance jobs far and few between…

But I came here today to say, “Keep going.” Magical things have happened to me. Magical things have happened to many of us — and we’re all surprised. I have colleagues who are much older than I who teach at The Royal Academy of Music in London, and I feel the bond of being in this amazing and magical circle together. They don’t have the international chances that I do — but the music, and the delight in it, is the same.

Franz Schubert is dead, but his music is alive. It almost breaks my heart that I never knew him. But what truly breaks my heart are the musicians I meet on my path who are alive — but somehow dead.

Go out and join the living.

Joy and good fortune to you all.

Classical Happy Hour

Gabriel Prokofiev is following in his Grampa Sergei’s footsteps by shaking up expectations of classical music, but in a very 21st-century way. He’s hosting classical music “club nights” called Nonclassical:

“Nonclassical . . . is a monthly classical club night that mixes live performances from instrumentalists and singers with sets from electronica DJs. Talking during the performances is not frowned upon – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – and drinks are served at the bar throughout the night.”

Read more about it and other similar events in England here.