Wednesday, November 3, 2010

From the Concertmaster

I never know quite how to answer when people ask which Dvorak symphony I'm about to play. I usually try to mumble the number and look at my feet. I might have just left another town where I played Mozart 39, listened to Beethoven 3 in the car, and by the time I get to Erie, the remembering-numbers thing isn't working anymore. To make things better, Dvorak thought that his first symphony was lost, so there is for example what he called his "fifth symphony", which was the first to be published, thus making it his "first symphony", according to his publisher. This same piece, however, happens to be the  sixth that he had written, so obviously we have the Dvorak symphony #5/1/6, and this is what we will be performing in November. (We're calling it Dvorak's sixth.) If they can remember which number to reference, musicians would simply call it Dvorak 6, in the same way we would speak about Tchaik 5 or Schumann 2, since somehow "Dvorak's sixth" feels a little formal.

Speaking of that particular concert, we have the Beethoven Violin Concerto on the way, and therefore, of course, some Beethoven stories. There are QUITE a few, by the way. Dvorak and his publisher could never agree on numbers, but Beethoven outright stole from his publishers. (He wasn't good with numbers either.) There were times when Beethoven published the same piece with multiple publishing houses. In one instance, the story goes, he had offered the same manuscript to several publishers in London. One of the publishers didn't offer him the correct postage to send the finished product, so he sent the piece only to some others. When the first finally sent money, received the music, and then discovered that the piece had already been printed by their rival down the street, they were a They sent Beethoven an angry letter, and in typical Beethoven style, he sent an even scarier taunt right back. (He was probably in the middle of throwing a frying pan at one of his maids. He tended to do that...and no, he didn't even drink.)

I mentioned that he wasn't good at numbers. People like to speak about the math/music connection in the brain. I've never quite believed this, and if you saw my elementary school math grades, you'd be skeptical as well. There is, somewhere, a blank page inside one of Beethoven's manuscripts, and on it is a lot of scribble obviously meant by him to calculate how much rent he owed. He didn't know how to multiply, so instead, he has added all of these figures together, and still ends up wrong. To more important issues though...the violin concerto. I've never played it, since this is one of the big scary ones that very few can play in tune. If I'm playing Brahms or Tchaikovsky, nobody would know how out of tune I might be, (I'm a little sarcastic, but there's some truth here), but in the Beethoven, you'll hear everything! When I was in music school, we each had a playing test at the end of the year, called a jury, which meant that we were to perform for the faculty. To add to the terror, we had to play all the simple patterns: scales, arpeggios, etc... Very few sound good on these, and in the words of my friend, it always felt like we were standing naked under bright lights onstage. The Beethoven concerto feels a little like this, so please believe me when I say that a soloist sounding decent on this piece is REALLY good! Besides, it's a great thing to hear. Beethoven wrote it at a time when he was making lines as long as possible with as little harmony as he could get away with. That's a story for another time, but on YouTube is a video of Anne-Sophie Mutter playing one of the cadenzas. It's insanely good playing, (and in tune), and she's still as beautiful as she is here, so while it might take a little while to get to know the piece, you can at least look at her while you do.

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