J.S. Bach’s ethereal Prelude in F minor, BWV 881 (contour and voices)

A kindred musician friend and Baroque scholar residing on the East Coast tipped me off that my “first love” reading of Bach’s Prelude in F minor a few months back, was just the very top layer of a more in depth relationship to come.

And as time bore out, she was right because my earliest infatuation eluded recognition of voices that now have the dignity they deserve. (Gentle words of advice. Give a piece time to ripen)

Ironically, a perfect opportunity arose to delve more deeply into the music in the company of a Prelude smitten piano student. Awakenings ensued that enriched our understanding of a gorgeous masterpiece from the composer’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2.

Bach f minor p 1 my markings

Bach f minor p 2 my markings

Bach f minor p 3 my markings

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A Piano Technician who’s worth his “weight” in gold

For those who’ve been following my nightmarish journey (at times) in pursuit of a well-regulated, singing-tone instrument, I’m happy to report that Steinway M, 1917, has been restored to optimum performance level. And it took one particular discovery to reverse a relentless tide of misfortune.

Would you believe?

A plate of lead weights found on my window sill proved to be the clincher in bringing Steinway M back from the dead.

lead weights

In 1992, Dale Erwin RPT (Registered Piano Technician) performed a miracle, resuscitating the piano after a parade of Fresno technicians nearly buried my piano under a pile of misdeeds.

He completely rebuilt the instrument and perfectly “weighted” the keys. What did I know about the lead cylinders that he inserted in strategic places along the key woods. It worked, that’s all I can say, and I enjoyed years of pleasurable playing.

If I fast forward the clock to my arrival in Berkeley CA, the piano expressed a need to be voiced and regulated so it was time for a good check-up and maintenance.

Unfortunately, that’s when lady luck ran out on my lifelong musical partner. (serial number 185152)

Put it this way, an out-of-town imported technician, highly recommended, plundered the piano, and unbeknownst to me, took out a set of life-saving gray cylinders as part of his “secret,” undisclosed plan. At the time, I had no idea what he did, but months after his TIMELY (for me) departure, I found a plate of lead on my window sill that was concealed by my cellular shade. Lucky for me, on a day I chose to air out the piano room and raise the shade, out popped 20 cylinders!

Savvy enough to put 10 and 10 together, I realized these leads were once part of my beloved, though I was unsure of their precise role in the whole music-making process as I activated myriads of keys.

Soon enough I was set straight when an angel descended from the HILLS to perform a MIRACLE!
halo better

Call it LOVE in the afternoon.
David Love

David Love, Master Technician applied his immaculate skills–voicing, regulating, and adjusting the key dip, but there was ONE variable that needed attention.

I couldn’t easily navigate the keys because they were heavy to the touch.

That’s when I had a brain storm!!! What about the plate of lead cylinders that were part of an earlier restoration, if not RESURRECTION, in 1992?

Love ROSE to the occasion. He shuffled the leads and figured out where they belonged along the chain of keys. One, orphaned and “un”-fit didn’t join his cylindrical sibs but that posed no problem.

For me, after all was done, the piano never sounded or “felt” better!

About the whole “weighty” situation:

“Weighting keys is fairly straightforward. You use either gram weights or a special tool. You set the desired downweight on the gram weights or the tool positioned on the end of the key where it’s played. Then you put the leads on top of the key and move them around until the key drops down slowly by itself under the combined weight of the tool/gram weights and the leads. Then check how much weight the key can lift on the return to rest position – should be 20 to 30 grams less than the weight it takes to “play” the key. If it is outside those parameters, there are other issues to be fixed. Mark the position of the leads once the upweight/downweight are correct. Do that with all the keys. Drill the holes and install the leads.”


LINK:

David Love’s website
http://www.davidlovepianos.com

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Studying J.S. Bach: What many piano students overlook

In the course of learning keyboard works by J.S. Bach, many students are riveted to the top most line, often ignoring alto, tenor and bass voices.

The Prelude in F minor, BWV 881, is a case in point. While sobbing thirds in the treble are attention grabbers, there’s more to the composition than meets the eye or ear. From a visual perspective, students become glued to the melody line in TREBLE clef range, and relegate the bass and tenor to alien status.

In this regard, one of my adult students who wholly (HOLY) embraces JSB’s music, had recently been awakened to what he had “overlooked.

Formerly, he’d practiced Bach’s compositions hands together without a second thought. Yet when he was asked to play only tenor and bass lines, he admitted to being “disoriented.” In truth, one can only be “oriented” by studying each voice and determining its context.

During a brief lesson segment, I prodded my pupil to sift through tenor and bass lines, (measures 20-28) while being aware of alto movement.

Not surprisingly, he gained a new perspective as he delved beneath the surface.

Bach f minor p 1 my markings

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Early stage learning, and ways of knowing a new piano piece

One of my adult students has embarked upon studying Tchaikovsky’s “German Song,” Op. 39, and in her initial baby-step exposure to the composition, she has already explored multiple ways of “knowing” the work.

German Song, Tchaikovsky

1) Setting a fingering for each hand, and counting beats through each measure in a sub-divided way (within a slow tempo frame) is a good start. (KNOWING THE SCALE of the piece and practicing it, is a vital part of its framing)

Noticing the articulation, slurs, groupings of notes is part of the exploration. Once security or connection into notes is established, dynamic shifts and how to make them are part and parcel of the early learning stage that grows by increments over time. (Patience is a desirable mantra to frame all practicing.)

In any approach to the keyboard, the arms and wrists should be relaxed. Elasticity, flexibility, pliancy are all important physical framings. A singing line supported by supple wrist, spongy chords in the bass are part of the hands-on knowledge pursuit.

2) Defining harmonic structure and flow (Harmonic “rhythm”) of the composition enrich an understanding of how to phrase and “shape” the treble line. In “German Song,” the Tonic and Dominant chords alternate. There are NO modulations, but resolutions from Dominant to Tonic are pivotal to phrasing.

For a student who needs more theory exposure to navigate a piece like this, practicing Tonic and Dominant chords and their inversions is a good route. First it’s essential to build chords on the first and fifth degree of a scale (in this instance G Major) before inverting them.

Demonstrating elements of voice leading between chords is of course, equally valuable.
Block practice helps map out chord relationships and voice movement between them.

3) An awareness of the fundamental bass line in “German Song” is invaluable. Practicing the singular bass line without the after beat chords is recommended. Or practicing the after beat chords without the fundamental notes (downbeats) is another way of “knowing.” Understanding the relationship between fundamental bass notes and after beat chords is invaluable. Will the chords be played louder than the first beat notes?

Eventually the distance between the downbeat notes and after beat chords shrink because the floating arm has a good perception of voice leading between chords. The jumps, or fear of them, therefore will not be an impediment to smooth playing.

4) Playing hands together evolves and develops from first “knowing” treble and bass parts separately. Coordination of hands together is another dimension of knowing the piece.

The PERIOD of Composition is worth KNOWING–What is its STRUCTURE? Do sections REPEAT–Are there SYMMETRIES between phrases? or differences that should be noted? What was the practice in regard to rubato? (flexibility of time) For tempo choice, that’s an allied consideration as the piece develops along to fluency. Same for pedaling choices, etc.

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Andras Schiff in recital at S.F. Davies Hall (Feb. 15, 2015)

Schiff program Feb. 15

Pianist, Andras Schiff delivered an uneven performance at San Francisco’s Davies Hall yesterday afternoon.

Those who expected the pianist to play his signature Bach program were pleasantly surprised by Schiff’s insertions of self-imposed Baroque style ornaments in Mozart’s “Drawing Room” Sonata, K. 545.(in particular) As whimsical as it might have seemed, the “improvisation” was out of character with the era and the composer.

(Perhaps audiences might have liked something “different” as Glenn Gould often chanted.)

While I hadn’t managed to snatch the Allegro which was by far the movement most subjected to shifty Schiff’s impish escapades, he still gave his audience a tweaked version of the finale, Rondo: Allegretto, inserting an elaborate cadenza in the space of a modest rest.

In the middle Andante movement, Schiff chose a rather brisk tempo that didn’t encompass a mournful shift to the pathos-filled g minor section.

Yet, Schiff’s offerings that included the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were satisfying, despite his waffling approach.

Tonally, he lightened up to the point of losing a visceral connection to the piano. It was often powderpuff, skimming-the-surface playing, alternated with a sudden intensity that never quite took hold for the length needed.

The Beethoven Sonata in E Major, Op. 109 was a case in point. While it had an appealing, expressively played opening, Schiff failed to communicate the composer’s extremes in temperament/dynamics. Instead, he took a reserved and risk-free route. To my surprise, a sudden, well-sought character transformation occurred in Schubert’s powerful C minor Sonata that brought the period and composer into clearer focus.

Schiff’s Schubert’s Impromptu in Eb, Op. 90, (an encore) was spun out gracefully, though with an inner voice emphasis that at times, was more contrapuntal than Romantic. In one set of measures, the pianist created a syncopated accent that I found jarring, wondering why he had chosen that particular bass note nuance. Yet in the fabric of the whole performance, he mesmerized an audience that cheered him from opening measure to final cadence.

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A tribute to the late, Robert DeGaetano, classmate, NYC High School of Performing Arts

Bob DeGaetano screen shot

“Bobby” as I remember him at “P.A.” (nickname for the FAME school that hadn’t yet acquired Broadway, TV, or movie status) was a shining light among stage-struck students, some of whom swished down the hallway in first position, ballet style, while others in the drama department audibly cajoled each other, wise-cracking their way through academics. One of them would sneak drop a thumbtack on a sub teacher’s chair, inciting a chorus of laughter, while the elderly mentor was in obvious pain.

The music kids seemed more sedate, less involved with displays of attention-getting antics, and more likely to be found practicing in musty rooms with less than perfectly maintained pianos. A few stayed after school for extra coaching. Among them, “Bobby” was one of many gifted P.A. pianists who was constantly honing and refining his skills. He had a sunny personality and an engaging disposition. I remember Joanne Salamone and Carol Lian tagging along with him, part of an inseparable trio.

One afternoon as I was packing up after 6th period, prepping to take the IRT North bound subway home, I was distracted by the strains of Schubert’s Eb Impromptu emanating from one of the practice rooms. It was Bob DeGaetano playing in the presence of Murray Perahia, (PA ’63) who was coaching him to finite detail–a peak level music-mentoring experience worth a memory treasure.

That same year Bob had won an audition to play Beethoven’s Bb Piano Concerto at the School’s Winter Concert and soon after, he made a Town Hall appearance, broadcast on WQXR F.M., which was a feather in his cap. (PA sent its finest to this event, after grueling auditions with Nadia Reisenberg, Abram Chasins and other music notables) Leonard Bernstein was on PA’s Board of Directors and may have snuck in a back door visit here and there.

***
After graduation everyone dispersed, marrying, having kids, teaching, some performing, yet somehow we managed to keep up with each other through e-mailed newsletters and reunion announcements.

I blogged about P.A. recalling my personal journey with added alum updates.

Note Bob’s photo in the H.S. Grad Yearbook:

Robert DeGaetano PA grad yearbook pic

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/my-new-york-city-high-school-of-performing-arts-fame-yearbook-and-what-i-found/

What I should have included, (a glaring omission) was Robert DeGaetano’s moving tribute to the Challenger astronauts that captured the hearts of a nation in mourning. In this memorable interview DeGaetano spoke about his composition and played an excerpt from the score. (a section devoted to Christa McAuliffe)

Bobby’s own creations and his many performances of masterworks will always be cherished.

“May his music continue to nourish the world and live on forever.”

R.I.P. Maestro DeGaetano….

Robert De Gaetano

BIO: (WIKI)
“DeGaetano was born in New York City. He graduated from The Juilliard School, where he studied with Adele Marcus and Rosina Lhevinne. He received a Rotary International scholarship, which enabled him to live in Paris and continue his studies with Alexis Weissenberg. Recommended by David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter, DeGaetano became a concert pianist under the auspices of Sol Hurok.

Career
“In the mid 1970’s DeGaetano made his performing debut in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In 1975 DeGaetano met Samuel Barber as DeGaetano was preparing to perform Barber’s piano sonata at Carnegie Hall and they became close friends for the five years that he lived. He has credited Barber for inspiring him to compose, when he visited him in his Santa Cristina chateau in the Dolomites.

“DeGaetano made his New York recital debut at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Alice Tully Hall. His orchestra debut was with the San Antonio Symphony. He toured all fifty states and the major music capitals of Europe. DeGaetano was a frequent guest soloist with US orchestras, including those of Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, San Diego and the Boston Pops. In 1986, DeGaetano premiered his first Piano Sonata in New York City, followed by a domestic and international tour. He then was commissioned by Michigan’s Jackson Symphony Orchestra to compose his first Piano Concerto, which he premiered in March 1989.

“In November, 1987 The Challenger, a suite for solo piano which Alice Tully had commissioned DeGaetano to create in tribute to the astronauts killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, premiered in the presence of the astronauts’ families at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The performance was filmed live for television, featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kurault, broadcast over WQXR in New York City and radio stations nationwide. It played on concert tours across three continents.

“In 1999 DeGaetano made his Carnegie Hall recital debut. The same year on Memorial Day he played Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s ‘L’Union’ and ‘The Banjo’ at the Green-Wood Cemetery gravesite of the composer with the Goldman Memorial Band.

“DeGaetano created nine albums, playing Chopin, Beethoven, Gottschalk, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, 20th century composers and his own compositions on the Crystonyx label. His latest album was the premiere recording of his Piano Concerto No.1 and the Chopin Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor with the Moravian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra on Navona distributed by Naxos Records.”

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A favorite Piano Prelude to play and teach

Randall and Nancy Faber came through with flying colors by including J.C. Bach’s Prelude in A minor in their Developing Artist Series Album, Early Intermediate Level. It’s definitely a winner with ear-catching appeal!

***

In a heart-melting opener to a more cognitive analysis of the composition, I play a series of sonorities that provide a lovely framing of “broken” chord sequences that characterize the Prelude’s melodic thread enriched by lush harmonies and modulations.

This particular composition, sounding Baroque but written in the Classical era, gives a student the opportunity to shape a musical line through a series of broken chords. As a preliminary, the player can block the sonorities to follow its harmonic scheme and rhythm. The Harmonic minor, for example, shimmers in the opening measures with a progression from E to F to G# to A. (the fifth degree of this scale meanders through to the tonic)

Beyond an analytic understanding of chord progressions, necessary phrase-shaping requires attentive listening, a supple wrist, relaxed arms, and consciousness about harmonic rhythm and resolutions.

**

In part B, the music blossoms into a series of secondary Dominants against sobbing, sighing pairs of descending seconds, before it returns to a familiar partial revisit of the opening A section. (Modulations are a more complex dimension of this piece that can be woven into a study of chords, progressions, and in this instance, Dominant/Tonic relationships.)

Sustaining a melodic line through recurring broken pattern chords is paramount to playing the Prelude poetically and musically. Varying dynamics and tapering phrases are an important interpretive dimension.

***

One of my adult students who’s preparing to learn J.C. Bach’s hauntingly beautiful Prelude is studying the A Harmonic Scale and building chords on each degree. In an early tutorial I explored this underlying “chordal” dimension.”

To Back up—

In a Piano Lesson by Skype, I introduced the rudiments of A minor (Harmonic), building chords on each scale degree. In this early baby step approach, the student has also been assigned A minor chord INVERSIONS, which will be extended to inversions of the Sub-dominant (D minor) and Dominant (E Major). She was also made aware of the VII chord (diminished) and its unique tonal character.

Inversions of chords are part and parcel of the first section (A) of J.C. Bach’s Prelude–they afford smooth voice leading, while in part B, the broken chord thread contains leaps that would be best understood in the context of MODULATIONS and their meaning.

An A minor arpeggio playing was added to the prep mix, so the student would understand how a chord could unravel into a “broken chord” sequence though J.C. Bach’s composition does not require thumb under fingers shifts in its progressions.

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