Monday, April 11, 2005

She Turns a Page

At the eleventh hour I was asked to turn pages for pianist Eric Stumacher at the Apple Hill Chamber Players' annual Playing for Peace concert at the Capp Street Community Music Center. The requirements for this duty are straightforward enough: make yourself invisible, make sure you never turn too early or too late, make sure you never turn two pages at once, make sure to turn back pages when repeats are taken, and make sure to turn ahead to codas. Considering how long I've been reading music, page turning ought to allow me the lucky opportunity to study the pianist's technique, from fingering to pedaling to words muttered under the breath, but really, my levels of attention and perception rise near to performance level when I take that seat. And damn but I forgot how fast the second and fourth movements of Faure's c minor piano quartet move! Stand up. Reach across. Flip. Sit down. Stand up. Reach across. Whew!

I dramatize (but only a bit). During the musically calm moments I did indeed observe Eric's playing (and I've turned pages for him before, so I knew what I was looking for) and quickly realized that my forming assessments derived not from watching but from hearing. That we should all appreciate music through our ears and not our eyes is perhaps an obvious enough statement, but my experience Saturday night was of something else: only aurally could I sense the best aspect of Eric's playing--his impeccable and artistic sense of timing--where the push and pull of time and tempo, both naturally and stylistically conceived, seemed completely unrelated to the physical means of sound production. Eric is not a clean player, but he shapes and paces the musical idea in such a way that you're never thinking about notes (missed or otherwise). He admits that this sensibility comes from years of experience, and I believe him. It takes years to let go of what you know so well, the notes, and direct your focus to something entirely non-notey.

The Players now form a piano quartet, which means they perform The Great Romantic Chamber Music Masterpieces, a rather beastly niche of repertoire. The best pianists always want to take their turn at these trios, quartets, and quintets, even though the writing is so unlike the best solo piano writing. The Faure is a perfect example: the piano part provides harmonic movement, bar by bar, in numerous embellished variations--arpeggios, rapid tremolos or trills, and undulating broken triads (triplets in the right hand and sixteenths in the left, of course)--and is thus the groundwork over which the other musicians dance in the spotlight. While string-piano chamber music demands a high level of pianism, there is a certain strangeness in playing some of these pieces; the piano suggests itself as the focus, and is in fact indispensible in that it binds the whole piece together harmonically, but that "star" quality is countered by odd moments of waiting out or commentatively punctuating the other instrumental lines. In the chamber pieces of Brahms, Schumann, and Dvorak, too, the music "flows" because of the synthesis of parts, even if the parts themselves are uncomfortably segmented and disjunct. Eric's style of playing reflects a thorough understanding of this paradox, of a chamber musician's ability to hear outside an often massive and challenging individual part.

With the move away from harmonic writing, contemporary ensemble music operates on completely different principles. I attend concerts and sense a great linearity of notes and fancy, soloistic nods to melody, of individuals' dramatic gestures and a specific player's precise technical playing. I don't tolerate "messy." Eric's playing reminded me that being the foundation (the harmony) and being a little messy (that it works to skim through a measure of rapid major arpeggios in order to bring out a more lumbering harmonic rhythm) allows you the freedom to hear the whole (not just your own part). Perhaps playing the Great Romantic chamber repertoire, with its almost attention deficit mannerisms, is the closest a steadfastly classical pianist comes to "being in a band." Contemporary classical chamber music, though seemingly built of oh-so-hip fits and starts and individual parts attempting to assert themselves into some larger picture, does not acheive the same synthesis--a satisfying, performed synthesis--as what I heard in Faure, Brahms, and even Turina Saturday night. So much modern music makes me (gasp!) want to hear with my eyes--with the page turner's magnifying glass--and not with my ears. Thanks, Apple Hill, for calling my ears to the task.

2 Comments:

Hi there Heather,

I'm the marketing assistant with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and we're considering offering Bay Area bloggers a free ticket to the June 10th concert with Rachel Barton-Pine at Herbst theatre. I'm trying to find contact emails, but your blog didn't seem to list one. Only a physical address. If you're interested in getting a ticket, just send me an email at maiken@ncco.org at your convenience. Thanks again,

Monica

By Blogger jmmva, at 4:58 PM  

Hi Heather,

May I have permission to quote your apt, funny, concise description of P-turning from 4-11-05 on my site? I'll credit you, link to your blog and even send you some piano music gratis if you like.

--David Evan Thomas / Mpls, MN

By Blogger Heather, at 8:40 AM  

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