Archive for May, 2011

Acoustic Delight – St Martins-in-the-Field

When listening to a live concert, it doesn’t usually occur to us that the room is having an immense impact on what we hear.  The reality is that the resonances and cancellation that occur due to the physics of the room have a huge impact on what we hear.  In fact, what is heard is different in every seat in the hall.  Some places, however, have extraordinarily good acoustics, and then top it off by looking fantastic as well.  St. Martins-in-the-Field, right on Trafalgar Square is one of these places.

Tired after putting in a solid day at work, I debated whether to stay in the hotel or go out.  Figuring that I could relax on the plane tomorrow, I elected to make the most of my last night in London on this trip.  I didn’t want a big over-the-top concert with a price tag to match at one of the major halls.  I was interested in something more intimate and accessible.  I found what I was looking for at St. Martins-in-the-Field with the Belmont Orchestra.  They were putting on a 2hr program of Mozart and Handel – all standard works, and quite nicely matched as a program.

The orchestra comprised:

(4) First Violins

(3) Second Violins

(2) Violas

(2) Cellos

(1) Bass

(2) Horns

(2) Oboes

The sound was magnificent in this old church and it’s high, domed ceiling.  The room itself added to the music, and it was delightful to hear the orchestra fill the room, exciting dozens of harmonic nodes, and then backing off them.  The room added a lot to the performance.  Here’s a view facing forward:

I sat in the upper gallery on the right side, immediately above the bass player.  It was fun to observe the string techniques at close distance, not being a string player.  I enjoyed a chamber orchestra sized performance in a great space, and it was quite relaxing.  The orchestra played well and quite expressively.  It is nice to hear smaller ensembles in more intimate spaces.  It doesn’t take 100 musicians to make great classical music!  This is not “demanding music” in the sense of Rachmaninoff, etc, but music to delight, lift the spirits and satisfy in an orderly fashion.  It was perfect for me to cap off two weeks in London.

It wasn’t played tonight, but at the rear of the church is this beauty:

I am sure the organ sounds tremendous in this space, but that will have to wait another trip.  I did not want to disturb the concert-goers in the rows leading up to the organ, but it is a three-manual instrument.  According to specification on their website, it is a 48 rank instrument, including three 16′ ranks, so it must be able to fill the space quite nicely!

London Symphony Orchestra!

When I was semi-adjusted to the timezone last week, I had the presence of mind to check the LSO schedule to see if they were playing.  As it turns out, they had a strong program of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.  The LSO plays in Barbican Centre, not Royal Albert Hall.  This is a concrete building from the 60’s that really isn’t that special to look at compared to the rest of London.  I think they played in the smaller performance space at the venue, and pretty much every seat in the lower levels was taken.  I couldn’t see much of the upper balconies from where I was sitting.  Here’s what the orchestra looked like from where I was sitting:

I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, as the musicanship was impeccable throughout.  The London audience was also noticeably better behaved than any in the States I’ve been a part of.  People sat still during the music, and didn’t move around in their chairs the way that so many people seem to want to do, making noise throughout.  No one clapped in between movements, but gave great applause to Bronfman and the orchestra (five times they called back the conductor after the Tchaikovsky).  I was particularly impressed with how tight the orchestra was – their rhythmic accuracy never wavered.  They played with commendable precision, and each of the string sections played as one player.  It was amazing how well they tracked the micro-dynamics and phrasing of each line.  I’m sure there are a lot of very nice (and expensive) Strads, Amatis, etc in that orchestra, and the sound was fantastic.  I could forever give up synthesized strings.  The woodwinds, particularly the bassoon player and the oboe player played very expressively and really made a strong effort.   Interestingly, the strings were laid out from left to right:  1st violins, cellos (with basses behind), then on the right side of the stage: violas and the 2nd violins.  It was different hearing the bass on the left.

Bronfman played very well, and the crowd was quite enthusiastic about Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  He plays the No. 1 over the weekend after I leave.  There are lots of flashy pyrotechnics throughout the 1st and 3rd movements (the scored tempos are 160 and 176 respectively), but I particularly enjoy the beautiful Andante placed between the fireworks.  Bronfman played a Steinway.  As an encore, he played a showy Liszt piece.

A quick subway ride and I was  back at the hotel, thoroughly satisfied, and with snatches of orchestral music running through my head.  The level of musicianship was astonishing, and quite inspirational.  This is certainly a world-class orchestra, and it was a pleasure to experience it first-hand.


More London practicing – Bluthner visit

I was tired today from a very long day of running around the greater London area yesterday.  Nevertheless, I had made an appointment to visit the Bluthner shop here in London to practice.  Bluthner is a manufacturer of Tier One pianos, and they compete with Bosendorfer, Fazioli, Bechstein, etc.

I arrived for my appointment and was shown to a small room with a sub 6′ Irmler grand in it.  Irmler is one of the two less expensive brands made by the Bluthner house.  The instrument was decently in tune, and the action was in fine shape, so I set to practicing, and soon finished my two hours work.  This was not an aspirational instrument, but quite functional for what I needed to do.

I then wandered downstairs to the main showroom and glanced at the various instruments.  A 6’11” instrument was sold, but they also had a “Model 1″ (280cm – 9’2”) concert grand.  As it turns out, this particular instrument is in their rental pool, and is used regularly at various concert venues. The patient sales manager explained to me how they keep several actions on hand, each individually tuned to the preferences of concert artists who regularly request the instrument.  It is more cost-effective to store customized actions per signature artist, than to re-regulate the entire instrument every time someone wants to rent it.  He also showed me some diagrams of a historic Bluthner patented action that works on a very different principle that they typical action.  It uses springs instead of the knuckle and repetition system in a modern grand.  Apparently it works fantastically well, but is very fussy to adjust.  Very few technicians know how to work on it outside of Bluther themselves so they replace these actions with standard ones.

The piano was excellent, and shared that “special” touch that concert grands seem to universally possess.  I asked why 9′ pianos feel so different than 7′ pianos – both with a lighter touch, and yet have more control.  I learned that it is because the keys are longer on the bigger pianos.  This improves the leverage of the action.  I had been wondering if perhaps the angle of the action was different between different piano lengths, but I learned that is constant and doesn’t change.  I was assured that what I experience on the longer grands is due to the length of the keys.   This difference is quite noticeable, and quite welcome as a player.  Even if the sound was the same as a 7′ piano, the better feel and control of the action would be notable.

Like other 9′ pianos I have played, the bass was rich and full.  It had power, but didn’t growl as much as a Steinway would.  This particular piano was in good, but not perfect tune, and my favorite 10ths played low were not as magical as I’ve experienced on the Fazioli.  Bluthner uses four strings instead of the usual three in the high treble to improve tone.  The very highest octave was quite nice, and not at all “plinky” the way some pianos are – very nice singing tone.  Whether it was nicer than Fazioli, Bosendorfer, or Bechstein is hard to say.  I would have to play them closer together in time.  Certainly there was nothing that was disagreeable.  At this level pianos are different from each other, but not really “better or worse”.  This one was £97,000 (about $165,00) USD before tax.

I was tired, and so would definitely revisit this piano before making up my mind, but it did not grab me as viscerally as the Fazioli always has, and make me say, “This has to be the BEST piano EVER!”.  This piano was also under a low ceiling and pushed up against a wall, so it really wasn’t well situated for best acoustics.  It would be important to hear it in another setting before making any meaningful judgements.

Spirituality and Music

There is a reason that all cultures use music in their worship and that often top musicians honed their craft in either churches, bars, or both.  At first this might seem contradictory:  what could be more opposite than a church/temple/synagogue and a seedy bar?  But, humans go to church or to bars when they wish to alter the condition of their inner self.   Whether the goal is to relax, forget, remember, celebrate, or reflect, seeking the Divine or seeking chemical remedy scratch the same itch.  Music is typically present at both, and both venues try to have high quality musical performers since there is a link directly to the financial health of these orgnizations. Why is this?

In his excellent book, Thou Shall Prosper, Rabbi Daniel Lapin explores the difference between spiritual and physical characteristics of our task performance.  Applied to the pursuit of musical excellence, there is much for us to understand and implement, for the act of making music involves both the spirit and the body.  But before exploring this interconnection too deeply, it is significant to understand his use of terms.

The Rabbi begins by explaining that he does not use the word “spiritual” to convey any religious connotation – it merely conveys reality outside the physical tangible world.  That such a world exists is easy to demonstrate.  Our feelings may have an outward visibility at times, but they exist for us apart from any external reality.  Similarly, we can destroy a book, but we have not in any way invalidated any truth it contains.  The ideas are still available for others – the truth is transcendent and can be re-discovered, or rewritten by another.  Hence “truth” is a spiritual reality.  The physical is similarly easy to understand – it is that which is externally observable.  We can measure, quantify, or observe it.  For the musician, our instruments are physical, and the movement of our limbs and digits to produce music are all physical in nature.  A “C-scale” is a spiritual concept; we can physically express it, but the number and arrangement of pitches are not material substance.

The Rabbi Lapin expounds three rules governing the interplay between the spiritual and physical:

  1. Physical things can be destroyed, whereas spiritual things cannot.
  2. Physical things can tolerate imperfection; spiritual things need to be precise
  3. The spiritual element of an event must precede its physical actualization

We will consider each of these in turn and also consider their applicability for the musician and add a few observations of our own.

First, physical things can be destroyed, whereas spiritual things cannot.  Spiritual things operate on a higher plane.  For example, if I am playing music on my guitar, destroying my guitar would remove its usefulness as an instrument.  Destroying the guitar would not have any impact on the existence of the music itself.  I could hum the tune, perform it on a different guitar, or even transpose it to the piano or a harmonica.  Even if I am not present, another musician can play it, or it could be on the radio.  The music itself is of a spiritual essence, not a physical essence.  Whether I live or die, music I compose can continue to exist without me.  The music  of Bach, Mozart, John Coltrane and thousands of other musicians still exists today, unchanged by the passage of time.  Classical musicians often perform, study and are emotionally (spiritually) touched by music that is hundreds of years old.  As an aside, this is why all totalitarian regimes fail – they mistake killing the bodies of dissenters with eliminating the ideas of freedom.  The ideas live on and the truth of human freedom and power of spirit ultimately prevails in the physical realm as well.  It is also why it is so hard to keep anything a secret – the spiritual facts related to the event cannot be destroyed.

Practically speaking, this is why artistic judgment is so important.  What ideas and concepts are so worthy that they should be permanently exposed?  By giving birth to a spiritual product of music, art, dance, etc what are we giving life to?  Do the concepts improve the human condition, elevate the understanding of the mind or spirit?  Does our art hold hope or hopelessness?  Truth or lies?  Just as there are positive spiritual elements (joy, gratitude, and dozens of others), there are negative spiritual elements (hate, greed, anger, and so on).  When we create our art, what are we setting eternally in motion?  What vibrations do we pick up and amplify to a wider audience?  To the extent that our music represents a spiritual truth, it will contribute forever, for good or evil.  The issue of artistic intent and execution are not merely something for critics to write about after we are dead, but an important extension of this rule.  We are responsible as artists not just to artistically document what the prevailing culture gives us, but to rise above it and breathe life into spiritual concepts that improve the world around us.

Second, the Rabbi states that physical things can tolerate imperfection; spiritual things need to be precise.  This can be understood from looking around your home.  Consider the most used pot in your kitchen.  How many scratches does it have inside and out?  Do the scratches seriously affect your ability to use the pot?  Not at all.  In fact, for cast iron pots and pans, years of use “season” the pot and help it deliver better results.  Now consider how often a technical or performance glitch ruins a movie or a recorded piece of music you are enjoying.  Not very often.  The standard for recorded performance is very high.  Conversely, how much do people pay to watch first band concerts?  Not much, if anything.  No one wants to hear missed notes, botched lines, or see poorly filmed movies.  If we want to listen to something repeatedly on an iPod, any imperfections become highly annoying.  Why?  The content is spiritual.  Our spirits (i.e. – that non-physical part of us) are sensitive to even the slightest spiritual imperfections.  If imperfections cloud a perfect spiritual concept, they compromise the whole experience to an extent that renders the art unappreciated.

This explains why it takes so long to perform confidently and competently in public, and why we place so much value on exceptional musical performances. The content of the musical performance is spiritual in nature, but must be expressed and apprehended physically.  This means that before anything spiritual can occur, all the physical must be in alignment.  This includes the performance space, the amplification or lack there of, the tuning of the instruments, etc.  It extends to all the physical training the musician has performed to be able to move freely and naturally around the instrument.  Technical facility takes years of effort.  But even with the physical concerns adequately addressed, there is still the matter that the content is spiritual.  As spiritual beings (i.e. there is a non-material component to our existence), we are capable of understanding and expressing spiritual concepts.  In practice, the condition, sensitivity, and training we have performed spiritually influences to what extent we will be able to express the concepts in the physical.  Lining up the physical and spiritual together is what brings power and credibility to an artistic performance.  When they are disjointed, the impact of the work is lost or muted.  Knowing how to manipulate an instrument, the music, and our physical and spiritual selves to produce the desired effect is what mastery means for the musician.

This leads directly to his third postulate:  The spiritual element of an event must precede its physical actualization.  For the musician and artist, this is almost self-evident.  Before any muscles move, the brain must know what sound or effect it is after.  It then calls the muscles into motion.  Whether this is by reading from sheet music, or free improvisation, we translate some spiritual understanding of music into physical reality.  Even flailing randomly about one’s instrument is still first an expression of an inner condition or decision to flail about.  The physical follows the immaterial and spiritual.

It turns out that this has massive implications for the artist.  If spiritual things require higher precision and must precede physical things, then should not a great emphasis be placed on development of spiritual characteristics?  Could we actually expect that the spiritual content of our art might predict its success or failure?  It is perhaps unsurprising that whether in India or in Germany, the most enduring music of each culture comes from religious roots.  Both cultures have music that is hundreds of years old still being actively performed, even if it is now divorced from its religious roots.

It makes sense that people engaged in the pursuit of spiritual development through religious activities could expect to become more spiritually sensitive and refined.  Translating this understanding into music should result in a stronger, more accurate spiritual expression.  It ultimately will not work to try and express great spiritual ideals of love, truth, healing, hope, etc. while fuming with anger, impatience, laziness, etc.  They are incompatible ideals.  So, the greater spiritual development that occurs through religious studies translates into more durable and resonant art.  Finding a place of artistic power is actually linked to understanding the role of spiritual development upon one’s art and synthesizing both spiritual and physical excellence into a consistent communication.

Spiritual things can be graded both in intrinsic excellence and execution.  It is a mistake to think that because spiritual truths transcend physical reality that they are all equally valuable and useful.  Just as we can observe the difference in physical execution between the finger-painting of a child and the mature work of the  “Old Masters”, some spiritual truths are so powerfully expressed that they resonate for hundreds or thousands of years.  Why is Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Bmin Mass performed hundreds to thousands of times each year when other music from the period lies virtually unknown?   Some works contain more spiritual content, of higher quality, and of greater development, and therefore offer a more precise illumination of spiritual truth.  For these reasons, we as a human race are drawn to some spiritual expressions more than others.   This is exactly why some works still have emotional and spiritual impact hundreds of years later.
Practically speaking, this is why there is so much music dealing with faith, hope and love.  Listen to the radio.   How many songs espouse a hope for a better future or for redemption of past mistakes?  How many love songs are there in recorded history?  Love is the greatest spiritual concept in the Christian Bible (I Cor 13:13), and so it is not surprising to find the most songs about it.  This explains why the introspective, navel-gazing kind of whining that immature songwriters sometimes produce never achieves any great impact.  The spiritual content is weak, even if the playing meets expectations.  My own spiritual angst is not interesting compared to contemplating the greatest spiritual virtues and exploits of mankind.   If we wish to improve the impact of our art, we need to improve the quality of the ideas it rests on, as well as our ability to convey those ideas.

Consider Handel’s Messiah, a great masterwork of western civilization – it is faith-based music about redemption from human failure, hope for the future, and the love God has for humans.  It is drenched in the three most powerful spiritual concepts, and then executed with precision, propriety, and complete artistic mastery.  The music perfectly matches the mood, grandeur, and themes of the chosen content.  Its performance requires dozens of skilled musicians to even get the Overture expressed let alone the whole piece.  The soloists are most often professional musicians with years of vocal experience in this style of music.  The choirs rehearse for months.  So it is natural that it powerfully resonates its spiritual content across cultural differences and time.  High spiritual content meets extensive physical preparation and a masterwork unfolds.  It is little wonder that it is has been continuously popular since its debut performance!

For the musician, the potential consequences of these ideas loom large.   When the spiritual content increases in value, purity, and weight, we must correspondingly increase our spiritual capacity, sensitivity, and physical preparation in order to attempt to convey our experience.  The more transcendent the revelation, the more transcendent our own spiritual capacity and physical technique must be to translate the revelation into musical art.  Making music is, therefore, first an inside job – overall spiritual development is equally as important as musical training.

Ironically,  anyone could point out that highly effective musicians are not always instrumental virtuosos.  Their effectiveness comes instead from spiritual power, channeled through merely adequate musical channels.  The depth of their spiritual understanding can be conveyed outside of the music itself through non-verbal (or audible) signals.  All musicians that aspire to greatness must posses spiritual sensitivity in the non-religious sense.  Spiritual truths resonate wherever they find agreement.    If you wish to amplify the spirit present in a work, you will have to resonate with it, and express it from the core of your being – spirit-to-spirit.  This demands great internal consistency between music and musician so that the message is pure and delivered with maximum potency. If the music and the musician not aligned, the spiritual impact of the music will be degraded to the degree this is true.  This resonance effect can be so strong that it can elevate our perception of musical skillfulness.

But if we are truthful, this requirement for internal spiritual consistency and the transcendent nature of the content demands a transcendent delivery.  The more exquisite the truth, the more care and attention we ought to pay to its delivery.  In some sense, an offering of the performance arts are an exquisitely lavish gift.  The effort of a lifetime, or some significant portion of it is poured out in a few minutes.  We can record the experience to capture some of the magic, but nothing matches the one performance.  It is a unique and precious thing.  For some, it may be the only experience they ever have with you or with that particular experience.  Performance art is often a “once-a-lifetime” event.  For these reasons, our handling of the matter deserves our best in physical preparation.   A few botched notes, or a poorly timed entrance can snap someone out of spiritual revery to focus on the merely mechanical aspects of the service.  Long hours of practice, and dedication to craft are a correct response to understanding this need for transcendent delivery.

Ultimately, this interplay between physical preparation and spiritual discernment becomes the primary work of the musical artist.  Both must meet together in disciplined harmony.  When the two are fused, the power of music to directly influence the soul combines with the innate spiritual capability of all humans to engage in spiritual activity, and transcendent spiritual experiences become normal.  When this becomes the normal response to our art, we can be confident that we have reached a significant level of mastery.

Why Art Matters

At the beginning of this trip to the UK, you may recall that I was a bit provoked internally when someone implied that I had “fun” practicing for an hour, when that was the furthest thing from my mind. I mentioned at that time that I might write about my beliefs on art, particularly music. A pianist acquaintance shared a fantastic article with me today that bears directly on this subject, and it is worth sharing.  You will want to read it carefully as in a short space, Mr. Paulnack makes several key points.  The piece is so well-written that really it doesn’t need help in making his points.

Here are a few key points that resonated and were particularly well-said:

Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.

Later he says:

Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

I especially agree with his conclusion on why it is so important to master the issues surrounding craft:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

The whole piece resonates deeply for me because I share his belief that art matters deeply and is inherently worthwhile.  It needs no functional purpose beyond its own existence.  A Beethoven piano sonata is not important because it paid Beethoven’s rent for a month or two.  It is important because it speaks to the human spirit directly about matters that don’t fit into words.  It speaks and directly impacts our emotions and the beauty and pathos speak directly to the core of our being.

But content this strong deserves more than a mere restatement, so the next post will extend the conversation with some of the reasons why I believe his thesis is correct.


Beautiful Day in rural England

After being in the city for the last few days, I moved locations this afternoon to a town called Lingfield, which is near Gatwick Airport south of London. We have an early AM flight to the Isle of Jersey, so it makes sense to be close. Here’s the view from my window – much better than the side of an office building that I had all weekend.

I have been told that the weather here is entirely uncharacteristic, but we’ve enjoyed lovely weather – really quite close to the North Bay.  I bought a cheap umbrella as insurance, and haven’t had to use it at all.

It is very quiet and restful here compared to the bustle of the city. I had dinner tonight in a 500 yr old pub! It used to be the town jail. Very interesting being in buildings that were built when Shakespeare was writing! For one, I have to walk around hunched over – the ceilings are maybe 5’8″ tall in the short sections!

Before leaving the city, I was able to grab a quick hour of practice on a Steinway D (9′ concert grand model).  It was a delightful instrument.  There is something about the longer key length, increased sound board area, and relaxed string windings in the bass that just make magic happen on grand pianos.

Steinway D

The combination produces an instrument that is superior in every way to shorter pianos.  Even 7′ to 9′ is quite noticeable, though less so on instruments as nice as the Fazioli.  As with the F278 Fazioli, repetition was effortless, the dynamics supremely easy to control, and the tone lovely.  The action felt heavier or stiffer than the Fazioli, but again, we are talking small differences, that likely could be taken care of with a first rate regulation effort.  I quite enjoyed the instrument, and am certain that moving to a 9′ instrument at some point is right move.  Everything is easier, better, faster, and more sonorous.  I can’t find anything not to like except too little time playing it!  I only took 5 minutes to improvise, but throughly enjoyed it in that capacity – the clarity in the lower octaves is wonderful.

Wouldn't you be happy playing a Steinway D? I was!

Two Perfect Days in London – pt2

Well, today was a new day, and there was lots to do.  London is an amazing city.  Even after a week of all-day sightseeing, you’d still be chasing down major landmarks.  There are well over a thousand years of continuous national history here, so the depth is astonishing.  I was up quite early and had a quick Skype back home to catch up before everyone there went to bed.  After a typical Continental breakfast (Euro style, not American), I came back up to the room and spent some time with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Here’s a strong performance if you care to listen.  Quite beautiful:

At 10am, the National Gallery opened across the street from my hotel in Trafalgar square, so I went over and started through the permanent collection.  I’ve not been to the Louvre, but the depth here is astonishing.  They keep a list of their “Top-30” most popular works.  One of my favorites was this one, by an artist that was new to me.  After going through 60 galleries of world-class art from the 1200’s on, it is complete overload on visual excellence.  I actually caught myself strolling by a painting and thinking, “Oh, another Rubens”, and then carrying on because it was surrounded by more of his work and others of equal quality.  Insane!  Vermeer is one of my favorite painters and they actually have two of the 36 paintings in existence, yet I actually preferred other pieces in the Flemish Master’s room – that’s how strong the display is.  While my young visual artists could probably spend a week here, I finally got hungry, and moved on to lunch.

After grabbing a bite to eat, I had a bit of miscellaneous stuff to attend to before arriving at Westminster Abbey for Evensong service at 3PM.  I had never noticed that my outlet adapter kit doesn’t have three prong American outlets!  Out at the airport, they had a US outlet in the wall – convenient.  Here in the city they don’t, and I had been surviving on my extended battery (which only uses two prongs to charge).  So, I stopped at a local hardware store and picked up the right adapter.  Then, I walked through this gate:

down the mall to Buckingham Palace, about a mile further down.  I guess this would qualify as a fairly imposing entrance way to one’s home.  The thing about London is that this kind of architecture is all over the place.  It really makes the city quite interesting to walk through when the buildings are more than glass skyscrapers and concrete.

Pretty nice front entrance fountain too.  My driveway isn’t big enough for that one…. Plus, I think it’s taller than my house.  Still a nice conversation piece….Plus they have guards in goofy fur hats marching around.  That would keep the neighbors wondering (as if they don’t already)….

Next, I walked about a mile back the other direction towards Westminster Abbey. It was a beautiful afternoon, and St. James park was beautifully green.  All the rain here makes everything look fantastic – not the muted browns and greens of California.

Westminster Abbey is stunning as you walk up to it, despite being smack in the middle of a bunch of government buildings.

The scale is quite hard to depict without a picture from a helicopter – the place is massive.  Worship services have been held here every day for over one thousand years.  I think that I’ve been to a lot of church services, but around here, it must be hard to get a gold star for attendance in Sunday School!

On Sunday’s, there are no tourist entrances open.  You can only go to attend services.  As a closet Episcopalian, this was not a hard sell, as I’d get to hear the organ AND the choir.  Evensong was nice, the sermon brief, and the architecture was over the top.  I enjoyed the organ a lot, and having a boys choir supplement the main choir is over the top.  I would have preferred to hear a different repertoire than the Elgar that was used for the postlude.  Functioning as the “national cathedral” in many ways, it is understandable that the services feature British composers.  Their concert series encompass the whole repetoire, I’m certain.

I was a bit tired, so I went back to the hotel to regroup.  After checking mail, I did some searches to find out what was going on, and found out that a choral society here in London called, The Really Big Chorus.  They aren’t kidding.  When they rent out Royal Albert Hall for a Messiah sing-along, 3,000 singers show up and fill the hall!  Tonight they were singing Haydn’s Creation, which I’ve sung before, in New Jersey.  The tickets were pretty cheap, so I was out the door in a flash. After eating at the restaurant at Royal Albert Hall, I found my seat on the left side as you look to the front.  Click here for a 360 tour of the place – very nice.

The chorus was amazing – there were 600-800 singers, and that DOESN’t count the orchestra.  Because they had an open rehearsal for an hour before hand, and I got to hear parts of the choruses twice.  It was so fun to engage these massive works through a massive choir – the sound was amazing, and about 3 times more people than anything I’ve seen to date.  The orchestra was decent, but undersized for this number of singers.  Given the expense of the hall and orchestra, I do understand not being able to super-size the orchestra, so they get a pass on that.  It was fun listening to rehearsal and thinking, that’s not right – the entrance was late, or the tempo is dragging and then have the conductor stop everything and say exactly that.  Some people enjoy being armchair quarterbacks, but I guess I’m an armchair conductor.  Each of these sections had around 200 people in them, and there was overflow of another 100-200 in the balcony above this picture!

The performance was over the top.  Now I know how to get an orchestra and concert hall – you just get 600-800 singers to show up and pay for admission, and there you have it.  Hire a conductor, orchestra and instant oratorio.  Very, very cool.  Makes me want to join whatever the Sonoma chorus is and sing bass again!

A mile walk, a subway ride, and I was back at the hotel, to Skype with the family and conclude two very full and satisfying days of artistic exploration in London.  As much as I saw and did, I barely scratched the surface of the art and music available in this town.

For those asking, here was my base of operations for the weekend:



Two Perfect Days – London Edition

If you are a frequent flier, you know that United’s in-flight magazine always has a feature called “Three Perfect Days”.  Usually with the help of a celebrity of some sort, the author lays out three full days of activities in one of the cities serviced by United Airlines.  Food, shopping, entertainment, and sight-seeing tips are included in enough detail that you could retrace their steps and have three very full (and expensive) days in the city of their choosing.

I have a weekend in London, not three days, but with with a nod to United, here’s the first day of what is a perfect day for me!  I woke up fully rested around 7:30AM, which was wonderful – I am finally on UK time!  After breakfast at the hotel and getting my laundry sent off, I jumped on the subway and went from Trafalgar Square to Marble Arch.  Just a few blocks north, I went to Jacques Samuel Pianos to practice.  They have eleven practice rooms, most of them equipped with Kawai grands.  I didn’t have an appointment, but was there when they opened and booked myself for two hours.  It was glorious to practice again, especially on a grand that was correctly tuned!

The piano was around 6′ long, but I didn’t take time to look at the plate and sort it out – I wanted to practice!  It was a lot of piano for the room, and the bass/midrange was quite boomy due to being in too small a room for the sound to fully develop.  They had hung a curtain, no doubt to provide some acoustic dampening, but proper bass traps would be needed to optimize the piano in the room.  The piano was fairly new, and in excellent condition.  The two hours went by very quickly.

Before leaving the store, I slid aside the glass door separating the lobby from the Fazioli showroom.  Jacques Samuel is the Fazioli dealer for London, a delightful convenience.  Having just sampled both a 228 and a 278 last month,  I was delighted that they had a black F228 sitting next to a smaller Fazioli resplendent in Pyramid Mahogany.  Here’s what this expensive finish looks like on a much larger concert grand:

This is the third F228 that I have played, and like the others, it was delightful in every way.  The action, tone, responsiveness, were impeccable, and I was again impressed with how the Fazioli action is lightning fast, but still fully controllable at ppp volumes – amazing.  Any day that I can play a Fazioli F228 is a great day – I really must get one of these!  I improvised for about 5 minutes to top off a very satisfying morning, thanked the staff, and went to find some lunch.

The area just north of Marble Arch is a predominantly middle-eastern neighborhood.  Restaurants seemed to be predominantly Lebanese, with one Moroccan restaurant.  While women in burquas pushed strollers with small children in them, men of all ages sat outside at cafe tables, smoking hookahs together.  Every restaurant had rows of them in the window, clearly part of their advertising.  The strangest thing I saw was a young woman – probably 16-18 – with her head covered, but face exposed sitting on the sidewalk begging coins.  It was particularly conspicuous since there was no one else begging anywhere that I walked in about 10 blocks.   She was clean and neat, and seemed very out of place.  Wanting to have a quick, rather than a long lunch, I found a sandwich shop and sat outside to enjoy my lunch.

After eating, I went back to Jacques Samuel and rented a practice room for another hour, so that I could get in my full three hours.  I still had more Bach to practice!  I did some scale velocity work, and then settled into Bach’s Invention #2, a piece I find deeply satisfying to play.  The theme is somewhat angular, and not at all predictable, but I find it compelling.  The practice room I got this time had a smaller grand than the first room, but actually sounded better due to better matching the room acoustics.

After finishing my practice, I returned to the Marble Arch subway station, and realized that I’d misplaced my day pass for the “tube” as they call it here.  My next destination was only about a mile away, so I elected to just walk.  It was a gorgeous day in London – the sun was out, about 65 degrees, and the sidewalks were packed with people.  I have long legs, and generally walk quickly, but not today.  The British are not a tall people, and I suspect I stuck out rather conspicuously as I weaved my way through the foot traffic.  Anyone who thinks America has a lock on personal consuption hasn’t walked a mile on Oxford Street – wall to wall stores of every variety, brand, and description.  But I was after something much more focused than expensive t-shirts and ripped jeans.

My next stop was at the largest music store in London, Chappell of Bond Street.  They have been selling sheet music and pianos since 1811.  Beethoven sent them some of his scores to publish.  Ironically, they are no longer on Bond Street, but their three story facility is a must stop for the serious musician in London.  The ground floor has a whole range of digital pianos, band instruments, etc.  Chappell is wholly owned  by Yamaha now, and this is their flagship store in the UK, so you can guess who manufacturers these instruments.  The third floor houses their acoustic pianos.  Because Yamaha also owns Bosendorfer, I went upstairs to see what they had.  They had two small Bosendorfer instruments, both under 6′, though one was the “Chopin” edition in a fancy case.  They clearly didn’t want anyone to touch them (big signs saying so) and there were no benches.  I wasn’t interested in any of the numerous Yamaha pianos crowding the floors (it is not a tone I desire, though they are well-made instruments), so I went down to the basement.

The basement is a massive sheet music store, and a veritable treasure trove of Western civilization.  One wall is piano scores from the Rennaissance through modern day.  Every top publisher, urtext edition, and composer is fully represented, often their entire catalog!  For an example of the level of selection they offer, I spotted a hardcover edition of all of Shostakovich’s work by a Russian publisher (50 volumes), plus facsimile editions of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven works (fascimile editions are full-sized copies of the actual autograph score – you see every mark the composer put on the page in his own hand).  These fascimile scores are quite expensive, ~ 350 pounds ($560 US), but what an amazing study tool.  Another wall was dedicated to opera music, and huge cases of chamber music, instrumental concertos, etc. abounded.  Many of the publishers that first published Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and other greats are still printing music, and were well-represented in the bins.  There were several large racks of clearance Henle urtexts at half off!  (An urtext is a scholarly edition that is believed to be as accurate as possible to the autograph score, typically printed with a very high-quality process – they are vastly preferred to cheap anthologies and reprints).  It took me the better part of two hours to survey the store.  Like a kid in a candy store, I could have spent thousands of pounds without blinking.  The place is like a library of western art music, but you can take EVERYTHING home!  Amazing.

ABRSM is one of the neat things about the UK.  It is an educational institution that has graded instructional materials for all the instruments.  Their materials are vastly superior to the typical Hal Leonard and Mel Bay books that flood American music stores.  But ABRSM also produces top-quality urtext editions of many significant works in their “Signature Series”.  Because they have to be imported to the US, these are not cheap and you have to wait for them to be shipped.  For some time, I have had my eye on their recent boxed-set edition of Beethoven’s 32 Piano sonatas.  It is exceptionally well printed and has outstanding performance notes from the pre-eminent Beethoven scholar of the modern age, Barry Cooper.  I just finished reading his excellent biography of Beethoven on the plane ride over here.   There are certainly other significant Beethoven editions, but this may be the best one available.  As you might guess, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get it at substantial savings.  I also added their edition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, vol 2.  I have a Henle Urtext of vol. 1, but prefer this ABRSM edition for its excellent performance notes which combine several leading voices.  While there are many, many worthy works for the piano, Bach’s Well-Temered Clavier, and Beethoven’s piano sonatas are going to form the backbone of my piano studies over the next several years.

Fun at Chappell's

On the walk back to the hotel, I realized that I should have bought scores for the Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky works that I will be attending at the London Symphony Orchestra next Thursday.  So after relieving myself of an entirely too-heavy backpack of camera equipment, and pausing to work out some counterpoint exercises from Fux’s Gradus und Parnassum, I walked back to Chappell’s and bought some miniature study scores.  For the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 3, I really didn’t want the Dover edition with symphonies #1-3 in one volume, so I asked if they had any with No.3 only.  They had all the other Tchaikovsky symphonies in miniature study scores on the shelf, but not No. 3.  Happily, they had a Eulenbug miniature study score in the back!  These smaller scores would be awful to play from, but are perfect for overviewing the work and following along in the concert hall.   When I am trapped in hotel rooms this week, unable to practice, I will use these scores to identify the major themes and structure of the pieces so that I can be familiar with them at the concert and better enjoy the performance.  I also picked up a sale Henle edition of eight Mozart minuets, so that will be fun to sample when I get home.

On the way back to the hotel, I capped off my first perfect day with some tasty Vietnamese food for dinner.  Of all the Asian cuisines, I think Vietnamese is my favorite because it always tastes so fresh.  Stopping at a magazine store to peruse the European music magazines, I picked out the latest issue of Sound on Sound for their review of the new Korg Kronos synthesizer and some German chocolate with hazelnuts.  I have been a fan of Rittersport since first having it in Germany 15 years ago!

Having just received my laundry back, I am now going to settle into some score reading!

Tune in tomorrow for the next installment.


Pianos are Expensive?

Very Rare Violin for Sale


How’s your self-image today?  Can you honestly aspire to a $10M dollar instrument?  Why or why not?  Could you bring yourself to buy it if you had the money?  Would you play it, or be too afraid and stick it in a glass case?  (I suppose it helps to be a violinist), but it is a useful jumping off point if you insert your instrument/activity of choice.

Practice on the Road – SF edition

This installment is being written from a hotel near London’s Heathrow airport.  I’ll be here in the UK for almost two weeks on business.  Needless to say, this is a significant complication for my practice schedule.

On Monday, I had to visit the Passport Agency in SF to get my passport renewed.  Service there was prompt and professional.  It is cheaper to send through the mail for passports, but if you need one in a hurry, they can help.  I applied at 9am, and had my passport at 3:15PM.  In between, I worked, but had opportunity on my lunch break to rent a practice room for an hour.

The piano was an upright with a thin tone and uneven tuning.  The action was light, of course, as nothing quite gets the grand piano action correct (it’s a gravity thing).    Trills were much harder to execute, and the lack of a proper repetition came into play, for sure.  But it was a piano, and for $10, I was grateful to have an instrument to practice on and to redeem the day with some practice.  I opened the lid and that helped the tone considerably.  Bass was still pretty non-existent (the plate indicated it was 48″ high), so a mid-sized upright.


The hour passed quickly, and I worked on scales, Bach Invention #1, and a Beethoven piece from memory.

On the way out, the clerk (or proprietor) asked, “Did you have fun?”.  My immediate thought was, “What does that have to do with it?  I didn’t come here for “fun”, and I only got in 1/3rd of my desired practice time.” But,  I muttered, “Sure!”, gave him a smile, and left, not wanting to offend a well-meaning stranger.  My first reaction was disgust –  I don’t play or practice for “fun” – I have never approached music seeking entertainment.  I derive great satisfaction from music, but it isn’t a hobby, or a pastime (what a terrible word – who wants to just “pass” the time?).  I can write on my thoughts about music at some other point, but I respect it to the highest degree, and consider personal privation as little concern to increase my ability to understand, create, and interact with Art.

In thinking about his comment, however, I understand his perspective.  Most people only conceive of music as “entertainment”, and most adult students would say they play for fun.   The music store was filled with sheet music – most of it simple songs, arrangements of pop tunes, etc.  Music that is fun to play.  There is nothing wrong with this, but has little to do with my motivations and aspirations.

On the plane ride, I finished Cooper’s excellent book on Beethoven’s life and music. It wasn’t any different in his day.  He sought the highest ideals of art, morality, spirituality, and expression with his whole being, but he wrote and arranged dozens of folk songs to pay the bills.  Music stores then were full of the same stuff.  Only the best pianists and musicians in Vienna and across Europe could access his masterworks, even as today.  Not everyone understood or even liked his work.  Popular opera composers made fortunes, while Beethoven mostly just kept out of poverty, despite having a few massive successes (political instability and inflation decimated his earnings repeatedly).

In the end, it was a successful practice session, and solidified the practical realization that when in major cities, there are often rooms available that allow for proper practice.  Here in London, I have many options for the weekend in particular.  It was also a good chance to reflect on why I practice, and to renew the commitments I have to myself, my art, and my music.


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