Saturday, October 5, 2013

Memories of a recorder teacher...

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

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

What brought Augusta Bleys to the provincial western city of my 1960’s childhood? A failed love affair, perhaps and she decided to stay on. But not only stay on, but to teach as well. For if If Miss Bleys didn't teach Van Eck divisions and Dowland in that provincial place, who would? Far away from the Van Gogh Museum and the charming canals of her native city, Miss Bleys became a missionary for St. Cecilia to the unconverted. She swept my mother into the fold, I, both helpless and fortunate, had no choice but to follow.

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

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


Blogger kathy a. graff said...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What a pleasure (and an unusal one at that) to hear six viola da gambists playing together "in tune." With six (and sometimes seven) gut strings, the adjustable frets that occasionally move when they shouldn't, viols are notoriously difficult to play with pleasing intonation. To produce notes "in tune" is difficult enough. To have six of them playing 16th century English fantasies together with beautiful intonation is more than six times harder; it is nearly impossible. But a fortunate Milwaukee audience learned at UWM's spacious Zelazo Center last night that it is not impossible because they heard the English Viol Consort, FRETWORK , do it with aplomb.

Individually, the members of the ensemble are wonderful and expressive players. But even better, when they gather together, their collective work is wonderful and expressive as well.
I came to last night's concert expecting to hear what 6 part viol ensembles usually do to pass the time; play 15th and 16th century English consort music: the works of Thomas Lupo, John Jenkins, and the sublime John Cooper. I did hear that (actually the old music was a bit more obscure, dwelling mainly on some pieces by John Parsons), but there was much more music to the evening. Orlando Gough (b. 1953) used these old pieces to punctuate his own large work THE WORLD ENCOMPASSED.

The structure of Gough's music was simple, ingenious, and ultimately moving. The hour-long work, written speciffically for FRETWORK, alternated back and forth between first Gough's music and then 16th century music. The programatic intent of this chronological flip-flopping was to portray Sir Francis Drake's 1577 voyage around the world.

Inserting quotes of pre-existing music into a contemporary piece is not a new idea; in general, I am not a fan. Usually the results sound affected or clumsy, or both. One comes away from such experiences unhappy -- especially if the quoted music is better than the new music it finds itself in. The listener wishes, under such circumstances, that composers of the new pieces would be better off not reminding us of their short-comings by quoting music superior their own in their music. Usually one wishes this, but not always. Charles Ives, for example, was an exception; he could do it beautifully (listen to to "GENERAL WILLIAM BOOTH ENTERS HEAVEN). The good news is that Orlando Gough, judging by last night's piece, is on Ives' side of the aisle. He does it beautifully as well.

There are several reasons for this. The main reason (again using THE WORLD ENCOMPASSED as a measure) is that Gough is a fine composer. He has a flamboyant musical imagination and he clearly knows how to write for viola da gambas. (I suspect that he must play one himself). Most important, one comes away from his music convinced that he has musical gravitas. In short; he has something important to say.

And it certainly helped that FRETWORK was the performing ensemble of this technically demanding and intricate work. They have the chops for it; not many groups do. They played the piece with understanding and affection. "Affection" is not strong enough a word. "Passion" is more apt.

This is the second musically significant musical occasion I have attended in Milwaukee this month. A few weeks ago, the spectacular French-Tunisian guitarist, Roland Dyens was here, and now comes Fretwork; playing new and challenging music that left us in the audience entranced and musically wiser. If this keeps up, I might well forget that I am living in the place that not only gave birth to the Harley motorcycle, but is also, so I have heard, the third largest producer of sewer 'manhole covers" in the world.

For a few moments last night, when I closed my eyes, I imagined that I was not located on the east side of Milwaukee River, amongst the roar of the Harleys, but rather, on the east side of the River Thames.

That is what fine music, and a great performance of that fine music, can do. It might not be able to move rivers, but it can do something even more miraculous.

It can move people.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

When my friend Alan invites me to a concert or recital, I never say no. His musical tastes are varied and his standards high. Because of him, I have heard, among other fine and diverse musicians, the TRIO MEDIEVAL, John Prine and Iris Dement, as well as our local finger style guitar phenom, Matthew Schroeder. His latest invitation was to hear the French-Tunisian guitarist, Roland Dyens. As usual, Alan's choice did not disappoint. Dyens is a great musician. This by itself is nothing too remarkable. . Great musicians these days are as numerous as floor tile samples at the local "Handy Andy." Dyens is a great musician who is also a rare musician. That is more unusual.

Dyens is difficult to label. Is he a classical, a jazz, or a folk/world guitarist? The most accurate answer is that he is all three. And he is more. He composes. He arranges. He shows that he as a musicologist and an ethnomusicologist as well. He is, in short, the whole package; a musician of remarkable breadth and wisdom. Even better, he brings to this broad palate a virtuosic technique tempered by restraint and taste. He is, in fact, not a "jack of all trades and a master of none"; rather, he is a "jack of all trades, and a master of them all." Not many musicians can lay claim to such an accomplishment.

Dyens brought all this to Milwaukee last night in the UWM Recital Hall. Not only was his concert memorable because of its overwhelming musicality; it was memorable because of something else. It was something that by itself is not important, but added to everything, was able to tip his performance upward into a higher sphere. To put it crudely: Dyens knows how to play an audience; he has great stage presence. It is a calculated stage presence. But "calculated" is not quite a just term. We may call his stage manner "calculated", but in the end, we must, to be fair, also call it eloquent. It is not only Dyens' music that is artful; his presentation of that music is artful as well. There is a touch of the vaudeville about what he does. That, combined with a transcendent musicality, makes for a great show. His purple suede shoes, for a shirt a Tunisian flowered affair, the tussled hair that made him look like he was roused out of bed fifteen minutes ago before curtain time; taken, altogether, he communicated the idea that he is a delightful eccentric and an artist. The audio backs up the video. He is both.

At his concerts, the programs handed to the audience do not list the specific pieces that he will play. Dyens says that he chooses what he will play on the spot, basing his choices on his mood and his understanding of the nature of his audience. He also traditionally begins his recitals with an extended improvisation. Dyens' improvisatory skills are so masterful that I found it difficult to accept the fact that I was hearing an improvisation. When an improvisation sounds like a finished piece, you know that you have heard something special. I found myself asking: am I really hearing an improvised piece? But the doubts and questions that Dyens inspires are part of who he is. He seems to be vague on purpose. He challenges you with his vagueness. He wants to be a man of mystery. It makes the whole experience more exciting.

So what did Dyens perform ? All told, he played about 18 different piece of music; I can't be more detailed than that since what he performed was not listed in the program, I need now to relay on my memory which these days isn't what it used to be. But I also know that this lack of information is part of Dyens' subtle strategy. He doesn't want you to remember specifics. He want you to come away inspired not by facts , but by impressions. I remember that, after his improvisation, he played a set of three peices composed by himself. He then played three transcriptions of famous piano pieces; one by Albeniz, one by Tchaikovsky, and one by Chopin. I remember that he played a set of variations by Fernando Sor. After intermission, there were a few Choro pieces from Brazil, an arrangement of a Django Reinhardt tune, and an exquisite encore written in honor of his daughter's 18th birthday. I noted that he spoke with wit and insight about all of these pieces. But more than anything, Dyens' gift to his audience was the gift of a mood.

I came away from hearing Roland Dyens thinking that this is what music recitals must have been like in the 19th century. An artist arrives in town from a distant place. He is mysterious in his music and in his affect. He plays beautifully. When it is all over, over a cup of tea, you don't quite remember the program, but you know that it was very, very, good.

You go home with a sense of how beautiful music can be.

You go home wondering: where in the world, or out of it, did he find those purple suede shoes?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Milwaukee's first annual Uke-Fest....

A review of a recent ukulele

Like kitchen gadgets, musical
instruments come and go; in the 60’s and 70’s it was the Vegamatic and the saxophone. Now it is the Cuisenart “Quickprep” and the Ukulele. Thirty years ago, the uke was hardly considered to be a musical instrument at all, or at least a musical instrument that any self-respecting person would want to be caught playing. Despite the fact that it had strings and an exotic tuning, it was also something that was thought to be strummed by peculiar fellows who wore white shoes and lived in places like Sheboygan. Ukulelists, moreover, were people, who, when they weren’t improving their uke technique, were assumed to be staying buff by watching Jack LaLane on Tuesday mornings,broadcast from WKC-TV in Des Moines. But those (and I sadly admit that I was one of them) who laughed at Ukulelists were wrong to do so on many counts. Jack LaLane is alive and vigorous in his 95th year, Sheboygan really is a pleasant town, and the Ukulele is perceived by anyone with a decent set of ears to be indisputably a beautiful musical instrument. A uke player can be as virtuosic and eloquent as any violin or bassoon soloist. And it’s tiny body can hold as many musical genres as there are rug and tile samples at Drexel’s or Republicans in Waukesha County. Rags, Tin Pan Ally, Klezmer, the Third Contrapunctus to the “Art Of The Fugue”….the ukulele can do it all with room to spare.

I knew all this before I attended the recent historic concert that ended Milwaukee’s first annual Ukulele Festival. After all, the last forty years of my life has been devoted to, more or less successfully, shedding the musical snobbery of my youth. If anything, this concert made me downright appalled that there was a time in my life when I didn’t take the Ukulele seriously. I left this concert not only in love with the instrument, but also feeling remorse that there was a time when I believed a third-rate performance of a Beethoven String Quartet was more worthwhile than a stunning rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Victoria Vox opened with a brief but emotive set of traditional and self-composed tunes that showed her to be, not only a fine songwriter, but also a master of turning American parlor songs into works of art. I never thought of “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” as compelling as Das Lied Der Erde”…but Miss Vox pulled it off.

"The Amazing Heftones” were able to do the same thing. . They specialize in a different genre, Tin Pan Ally”. But they were able to make jaded viola players like me realize what we had been missing all our lives. While we were being abused by conductors of dubious abilities for not coordinating with the trombones in Ferde Grofe’s abominable “Grand Canyon Suite”, we could have been somewhere else, far away, having fun with a homemade bass fiddle and the tunes that our grandparents sang to each other when they were courting each other at the YMHA Summer youth camp in the Catskills.

Gerald Ross finished the set by showing off his refined chops on both the ukulele and the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. I was so moved by all this musical richness that I had to go home at intermission to regain my equilibrium. This was a pity, because the second half of the concert featured one of Milwaukee’s musical treasures: Frogwater and “Little Rev.” Had I stayed, I might have ended up buying a 150 dollar uke from one of the vendors who lined the sides of the hall. As it was, on the way out the door, I bought Victoria Vox’s latest C.D, which I am enjoying as I type these words.

There is a charming Autumn religious ritual that calls for penitents to cast off last year’s improprieties and bad intonation by throwing bread into a convenient body of water. If you can throw in bread, into the water, why not a viola? Unfortunately, I’m too late for this year. But next year, on that sacred day, I I know where I’m going: to Sheboygan to throw my viola into Lake Michigan and start over with a real musical instrument; the ukulele. But why wait? A year is too long. Ritual burnings can happen at anytime of year.

Where is my viola? Where is the kerosene?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

This blog is named after Haydn's Symphony # 60 ("Il Distratto")

Give it a's a great piece of music.