Live Streaming a National Chopin Piano Competition–Final Round, Sunday, March 1

The brave new universe of Internet technology allows a global-wide audience to gaze at, and listen to accomplished young pianists vying for top prizes. With a mouse click, the latest competitive milieu in Florida minus swaying palm trees and ocean breezes, is beamed at high frequency into our living rooms. A feast of Chopin’s music reverberates though iMacs, iPads, and PCs of infinite varieties.

Its the Ninth National Chopin Piano Competition!

Chopin Competition

Nine foot grands move onto a stage shared with a full size orchestra for the weekend concerto phase wrap-up. Each pianist has been given three to choose from, offering a landscape of playing possibilities: from a pronounced angular/bright sound dimension (Fazioli) to what transmits as a more balanced voicing in Steinway and Yamaha pianos. Still it’s all quite subjective, and one can argue about tone, touch, phrasing as each surviving entrant puts a unique musical signature on the Chopin E Minor or F minor Concertos. (The E minor, has triumphed in popularity thus far, and will be a program exclusive, today Sunday starting at 3 p.m. Eastern time)

A $75,000 first prize awaits the WINNER, I dare say, in what perhaps can’t always be MEASURED in the artistic/interpretive arena. Yet, the competition ethos is alive and well, bolstered by Internet exposure and a niche audience of piano enthusiasts. (Bedazzling virtuoso technique is a given)

Eric Lu (Curtis Institute) opened Saturday’s program with a Fazioli delivered performance of Chopin’s E minor, while Josh Wright, the sole Utah resident, amidst bi-coastal colleagues settled into a Steinway. Eric Zuber, a Peabody student in Baltimore was perched at a Yamaha. (the age range of finalists is 19 to 30)

Today, Alex Beyer, George Li, and Rachel Naomi Kudo will cap the competition before prizes are rolled out, including specific honors for Mazurka and Ballade playing.

(Top tier “winners” will also have guaranteed entrance into the INTERNATIONAL Chopin Competition in Poland)

Watch and listen to George Li who’s on today’s roster. (He’s my personal favorite.)

Eric Lu

Expect a riveting musical finale!

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First Love Bach Fugue in F minor, BWV 881

What a divine pairing from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2! The ethereal, “sighing” Prelude is joined by a somber, though monumental Fugue in three voices.

The Subject with its characteristic three-8th note repetitions followed by two-16ths, meanders in stepwise movement with small skip deviations while its borrowed melodic and rhythmic components weave through the composition as spin-offs. (That’s why a student should carefully analyze the Subject’s character and chemistry at the very outset of learning)

In the counter-subject realm, this FUGUE does not adhere to strict rules of FORM, but instead it reveals a host of ideas that should be recognized and mapped out as to occurrence and recurrence.

In this early learning experience, which is admittedly my falling in love PHASE, I still make sure to keep an analytical eye and ear open to what this masterpiece is about as I play through it in a slow, deliberate tempo discovering its architectural features.

Page ONE:
Fugue in F minor p. 1 revised

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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.”


David Love’s website

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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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