Alone in the recital hall

The stage of Mixon Recital Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music is a beautiful place to be on a sunny Sunday morning in early June. An impossibly high glass wall rises behind you and wraps around to your left before giving way to beautiful square panels consisting of small thin strips of wood that are no doubt a function of acoustic design but exaggerate the height of the hall. You are surrounded by light and sky and trees. In front of you, fourteen rows of seats rise steeply to the back of the auditorium. In a few hours those seats will be occupied by the twenty or so listeners there to observe Jason Vieaux’s master class in which I and others will perform. And not long after that, a much larger audience will fill those seats for what will turn out to be the brilliant closing concert of this year’s Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival, given by Petra Poláčková.

But the seats are all empty now.

On the stage is a single black piano bench. It’s not the flat hard wooden kind, but the smaller cushioned version with a knob on the side that adjusts the height.

I give the knob a turn, getting the height just so. One last tweak to the tuning of my lowest string, and I begin to play.

The first note of the prelude to Bach’s first suite for solo cello—in the guitar version I play—is a low D. Its rich sonority comes back to me from the hall and I linger longer than I should before proceeding with the arpeggio figure that carries the music forward. I haven’t played the piece in some time, but Jason played it on this very spot last evening and somehow it is the first music that comes out of me. It flows, my fingers sure and my sound rich. Mixon Hall is as gratifying to the performer as it is to the audience; not every hall provides the player with such sonic feedback. I can hear my playing, and I can hear that it is good. Hearing such good playing, I’m inspired to try and make it even a little better. And I do. I push harder into the strings, coaxing the most sound I can from them without letting the tone become too brittle or rough.

The last high treble notes ring for a moment before fading to silence, and then I launch into a set of pieces from the Italian Renaissance. My time in the hall will be short, so I don’t play each piece all the way through but skip between favorite bits that I want to hear in this space. Still with my lowest string tuned to D, I play a Catalonian song that has been in my repertoire since I was in college. Today I am doing a particularly nice job of singing the melody on the high E string, and when the harmonics come in at the conclusion they ring out like the tiny little bells they are meant to suggest.

Now I tune my low string up to the standard E, adjust my position on the bench, and begin the piece I had planned to play on today’s master class: Nocturno by Federico Moreno-Torroba. It starts well, and I don’t fumble in the usual spots. Perhaps I should play it after all instead of making the change I’ve been contemplating? It has some nice fiery passages, and the ending is really fun to play. I enjoy imagining the effect it must have on someone hearing it for the very first time. I consider the idea as I listen to the final notes fade.

No, I am going to stick to my plan. Who knows if or when I will ever have another chance to play on this stage for an audience? Nocturno is a wonderful piece and I am pretty well prepared to play it, but I know that nerves will take hold, my sound will become thin, and I will begin to concentrate on playing it correctly rather than playing it musically. Today I want to make music and share it with people.

So I begin to play what I have decided only this morning to play, a little piece called “If You Were Here” by a Norwegian guitarist-composer named Per-Olov Kindgren. It’s a wisp of a thing in the character of a pop song, but lovely over the whole two-and-a-half minutes it takes to play. I get to the last repetition of the recurring phrase—in my head, I can almost hear a singer lingering over “if you were here”—play the last slow ascending arpeggio and just touch the flesh of my thumb to the sixth string to sound the final low E.

Suddenly, a small sob rises up from my gut. Then another. My eyes fill. For a moment I can only sit there. I just recover my composure before Colin Davin walks out on the stage from the side door, guitar case over his shoulder and a quizzical look on his face. I am sure he is wondering how I come to be there.

How do I come to be there? And why those tears?

Over the weeks since that sunny June morning I have been asking myself those questions. The answer to the first can probably be teased out of what I have already written over the course of the last few months, or what is still to be written. But the answer to the second continues to elude me. Somehow, I think it might be what this Chaconne project is ultimately all about.

Smoothing out some rough edges

The topics of my two previous posts about my master class with Petra Poláčková—the interpretation of dotted notes and the use of arpeggio—are both about performance choices and interpretation. She made two other observations that were more about choices I made in my edition of the piece, but ultimately they are about performance as well. Both relate to fingerings, a topic I discussed back in February (See The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 and Part 2), and both concern potential obstacles to smooth legato playing.

Her first observation was that I am not taking enough advantage of open strings in my fingerings. As an example, here are my fingerings for measures 4-5:

Petra suggested using the open 3rd string instead:

And, indeed, after playing it a couple of times it is clear that using her suggestion makes it easier to play smoothly. That single open string gives my hand a little extra time to move, and the g rings into the next pitch.

Sometimes open strings and stopped strings can be combined in clever ways to allow several pitches in a scale passage to ring out, as they would on a piano if one held down the sostenuto pedal while playing several keys in succession. The guitarist Douglas Niedt gives an excellent explanation of it (with examples) on his website.

Petra pointed out some small examples in the part of the piece that I played for her, but the idea provides  the fingering solution to a passage that has been vexing me for some time. It happens in measure 88, just before the start of the long arpeggio section. My original version was clunky, with the shifting first finger a particular problem. Try as I might, this passage always stuttered and ruined the transition to the next measure.

But using the campanella idea makes it much easier to play. Note in the revised version that no two consecutive pitches are played on the same string (shown with the red underline), and I use three open strings (marked by arrows). Playing this little scale like an arpeggio helps me get to the actual arpeggio much more fluidly!

Petra’s final observation was that I am not using enough slurs; that is, using a right hand finger to play the first note of a pair (or trio) and sounding the subsequent pitch(es) with the left hand alone, either by pulling a finger off the string to pluck a lower pitch or hammering a fingertip down to sound a higher pitch. I have been very sparing with the use of slurs in my edition of the piece in a desire for consistency in articulation, but Petra helped me to hear that this consistency can easily become monotony. There is not one particular place I can point to as an example, but I’ll be looking for opportunities to employ slurs more liberally.

I’ll conclude this series of posts on my master class with Petra by saying that a week ago she emailed me a scan of her playing edition of the Chaconne with all of her fingerings and performance notes. It was a very generous gesture that says a great deal about her, and about the wider community of guitarists. I feel fortunate to be in such company and to have such support for my project.

Rolling your own

Another topic that came up in my master class with Petra Poláčková at the Cleveland festival was the question of how to play chords. The Chaconne, like any piece of music, demands that the performer make a lot of interpretive decisions; indeed, it is the making and executing of those decisions that is the core of performing. Some of these decisions are broad and affect large stretches of the piece. What will the tempo be? What about the basic dynamic level? Other decisions are smaller in scale, like the shaping of a phrase.  And some decisions have to be made about how to play individual notes or chords.

With chords, a basic decision has to be made about each and every one: do I play all the notes at the same time or do I “roll” the chord, playing each note in rapid succession? The latter technique is called arpeggio—literally, in the manner of the harp. Classical guitarists in general (and this one in particular) tend to overuse arpeggio and employ it in a seemingly haphazard way. Segovia, famously, never seemed to find a chord he couldn’t roll and it became one of the signatures of his style. But to change it from a stylistic tic into an expressive device requires conscious decision.

To begin with, let’s look at what exactly is involved in rolling a chord. Here is the very first thing in the Chaconne:

The opening chord of the Chaconne

It’s the most basic chord, a three-note triad in root position. Play it exactly as written, with all three notes sounded at the same time on the second beat, and you get this:

 

Easy enough to do on the guitar. The violin, though, is another story. A modern violin with a modern bow cannot play these three notes at the exact same time. So the violinist has to decide not whether to roll the chord, but how. Some performers, like Hilary Hahn, play the d and then hold the f and a together:

Hilary Hahn’s opening chord

 

while others, like Rachel Podger, play the three pitches in succession, holding only the top pitch:

Rachel Podger’s opening chord. (Notice the lower tuning favored by some early music specialists.)

 

If you were to notate these two different versions they might look like this:

Note that both performers aim to arrive at the top note or notes right on the second beat; in effect, they start early. It’s possible, of course, to start the arpeggio on the beat—and there are cases in music where that might be the right approach—but in general, an arpeggio tends to anticipate the beat so that the metrical integrity of the melody (assuming it is uppermost note) is preserved. Where to begin and end the arpeggio is something the performer must decide.

Another decision that has to be made is how quickly to roll the chord. In the examples above, Hahn makes it a fairly assertive gesture, moving through the d quickly and emphasizing the second pair of notes. Podger takes a more languid approach.

So, in playing the very first sonority in the Chaconne I have a number of options. I can play it like this:

Or like this:

Or even like this:

Okay, I cheated on the last one and added an additional pitch–the lower D.

Of course, I could play this first chord without thinking it through, and simply do what feels right in the moment. But then, what to do when the same chord comes up four measures later? Shouldn’t the two chords relate to each other in some way? How can I convey that if I haven’t thought about it beforehand and decided? In addition, the arpeggio can be a very important expressive device when used thoughtfully. It adds emphasis, subtly changes the rhythmic flow, and can isolate and emphasize a particular voice in the chord to help make a melody emerge more clearly.

Over the last few years, thanks to my studies with Jason Vieaux, classes and encounters at the Cleveland festival, and an expanding circle of guitar friends in the New York area, I have had the chance to talk with and learn from a number of professional guitarists of the highest artistic calibre. One thing has become clear: they all think about, and decide, everything in their interpretation of a piece. Certainly emotions and feelings play a role, particularly in the moment of performance, but the preparation for that moment is extremely detailed and deliberate. That is how guitarists at that level are able to sound the way that they do.

I’m not at that level and never have been; my playing—for better or worse—was always guided almost entirely by the combination of what my ears could hear, what my fingers could do, and how the music made me feel. But my respect for the Chaconne, and for the project, demands a more thoughtful approach.

Petra’s advice was to use arpeggios if it serves an expressive purpose or helps to highlight one pitch in the chord. At the same time, she cautioned me to be careful in two voice textures to keep both notes together. Otherwise the metrical feeling can get completely lost.

Chaconne à son goût

The first question Petra Poláčková asked after I played through the first part of the Chaconne in her master class at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival was “Do you think it should be a little more French?” It might seem an odd question, Bach being German and all. And the real title of the piece is the Italian ciaconna, not the French chaconne. But I knew exactly what she was asking, and why.

The history of written music is a topic that has occupied many musicologists. Thomas Forrest Kelly lays out the fascinating early roots in Capturing Music, tracing the origins of our system of notes, rests, and staves through the earliest manuscript sources. The development of movable type and the printing press fueled the same explosion of music publishing as it did for the written word. Thanks to music notation we can hear music from hundreds of years ago.

However, the performance of older music is not without its problems. Technical difficulties aside, we don’t know—and probably can’t know—exactly how older music was played at the time. Starting in the 19th century composers began including very specific performance directions in their scores: indications for dynamics, tempo, and even emotional character. We also have some recorded legacy for understanding how such music is to be played, since musicians recorded in the very early days of the new technology learned from teachers who were passing on performing traditions and styles they had witnessed and absorbed. But printed and handwritten music of earlier times is almost entirely free of such performance cues, and the living memory of those who taught that first generation of recorded musicians doesn’t extend back so far as Mozart, to say nothing of Bach and those who came before him.

This uncertainty about how earlier music should sound has nagged at musicians for a long time, and it gave rise to the historically-informed performance movement. The idea was (is) that by studying the available evidence outside of the scores themselves, like treatises, method books, descriptive accounts, and even historical instruments from the time, we can arrive at an understanding of how early music was performed at the time it was written. Some 50 years on, the idea remains surprisingly controversial, along the lines of a great religious schism. Adherents claim that “authentic performance practice” is the only way to really understand early music, while detractors claim that authenticity is a meaningless and unattainable standard.

Petra’s question about the “Frenchness” of my reading of the Chaconne arises out of the HIP movement, and it has to do with the interpretation of dotted rhythms. In much French music of time leading up to Bach the use of “double dotting” is common. In notation, placing a dot after a note indicates that the duration of the dotted note is half again as long as the original note—a dotted quarter note has the duration of 3 eighth notes rather than 2.

If you place a second dot after a dotted note, the duration is extended by half the value of the first dot. So a double-dotted quarter note has the duration of 2 eighth notes (for the quarter note) + 1 eighth note (for the first dot) + 1 sixteenth note (for the second dot).

To apply this idea to the Chaconne, the score as written looks like this:

And, as written, sounds like this:

But in the “French-ified interpretation” it is played as if it looks like this:

And it sounds like this:

There is evidence to suggest that the practice of double-dotting was used in performance even when the music was not so notated; that such a stylistic practice was taken for granted by the composers and performers. The analogy might be to the notation of jazz, where a melody would be written in regular eighth notes but played with swing style.

We have for, example, this advice from composer Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773):

“The quavers [eighth notes] that follow the dotted crochets [quarter notes] in the loure, sarabande, courante, and chaconne must not be played with their literal value, but must be executed in a very short and sharp manner.”  He also wrote that stringed instruments must “detach the bow during the dot” of a dotted quarter note. This would leave a little space and, coupled with the shortening of the eighth, greatly intensify the rhythmic pattern. 

Quoted in Dance in the Music of J. S. Bach by Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne (Indiana University Press)

There are contrary arguments, including the fact that Bach in some cases wrote double dots; it’s not as if he didn’t understand notation. 

In the end it is not a question that can be resolved on evidence alone; we simply cannot know how Bach would have played it, or wanted us to play it. It may just come down to a matter of personal taste.

As I said to Petra during the class, the decision to play the dotted values as written was a deliberate but not necessarily final one on my part. I felt it best to follow the literal score in the beginning, leaving open the possibility of changing my mind and my playing as I get farther along with the piece. I do like the way the double-dotted approach lends a dance-like feel to the piece even at a slower tempo, and I will experiment with this “French” idea going forward.

Chaconne à son goût!

Making sausage

Having survived my small crisis of confidence the rest of the Cleveland festival was great and I return to my project with renewed energy and enthusiasm. In addition to all of the wonderful musical stimulation of the weekend, I got encouragement from many people about this project and, I hope, a few new readers.

I had set a goal of playing a part of the Chaconne for a master class at this festival, and specifically to play it for Petra Poláčková. Of course I would benefit from the teaching of any of the artists who were on this year’s line-up: Colin Davin (who played it so wonderfully), Elizabeth Kenny, Xuefei Yang, or Jason Vieaux. But I had specific reasons for wanting to work with Petra on the piece.

To begin with, I admire her 2011 video of the Chaconne for its musicianship and the depth of her intensity. Moreover, I have played for her on three previous occasions in Cleveland—three different works by Johann Kaspar Mertz—and each time I have come away with new ideas and fresh ears for the piece. My performance of each of those works is better than it would have been without her coaching. That’s what I wanted for the Chaconne.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at last year’s festival I watched her coach a very young girl on a very simple piece. She treated that student with the same seriousness and care that she would have given to an advanced player, with no hint of condescension. I may be an experienced player, but still feel a child before the Chaconne. I knew that Petra would show me the same care.

We’ve gotten to know each other across several meetings in Cleveland, so I felt comfortable speaking to her the evening before the class. I told her that while I was prepared to play the entire first section of the piece, she should feel free to stop me at any point when she felt we had sufficient material for the amount of actual working time that we would have.

I also asked her if I might say a few words to the audience about this project before we began. Normally—unlike my very first master class experience—one would only bring a piece to a class that might be considered “performance ready.” That’s what the audience would be expecting, but my Chaconne is a long way from that. Petra thought it would be fine for me to say a few words.

And so, on Saturday at 9AM, we started. I kept my remarks to the audience brief, telling them the basic story of what I am doing. “They say you never want to see the sausage being made,” I said, “but I am still making sausage.” Their chuckles put me at ease.

And then—after six months of thinking, editing, practicing—I played Bach’s majestic opening bars in front of listeners for the first time. I honestly can’t tell you how it went. Mostly fine, I think, although I remember feeling like I wasn’t keeping the different voices in the chords in quiet the right balance. At about three pages in I had a bit of a breakdown after tangling my fingers around a chord and Petra stopped me there.

For the next twenty or so minutes we worked on four broad things; I’ll list them here, but each will be the subject of a follow-up post in the coming days.

  • The interpretation of dotted note rhythms. 
  • Arpeggios—when to roll the chord, when to play it straight.
  • The use of slurs. The guitar kind, not the other kind.
  • Open strings and campanella scales.

She was, as I expected, incredibly helpful and supportive. I was happy to have reached an important milestone, and encouraged about the next steps.

The next afternoon Petra played her recital to close the festival. The entire performance was excellent, but the first half was something magical. She opened up the program with the Tombeau sur la mort de M. le Comte de Logy by Sylvius Leopold Weiss. The ending of this piece, with its simple ascending scale as the Comte’s soul ascends into heaven, was heartrending. Silence followed, with Petra looking down and maintaining her focus. Then, a suite by Weiss. Not the tragedy of the Tombeau, but the same intensity. More silence. Then, a passacaglia by Weiss. Again, silence. The attention of the listeners was palpable. Then, finally, Bach’s Chaconne. At the end, silence.

And then, as one, the audience was on its feet.

Why Bother?

I’m writing this post at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival, an event I have now attended for 7 years. It has become an important part of my guitar life and I will write about it at a later date in an interlude. But it has become relevant to my “Chaconne Project” in an unexpected way.

When I started out on this project I decided I would not listen to any guitar performances of the piece. I told myself that this was because I wanted to avoid any influences in the interpretive choices I would make. There are a couple of interpretations that I know well from repeated listening, like Parkening’s and Segovia’s, and I can’t exactly excise them from my mind. But, I thought, at least I should avoid other voices in my head.

When the schedule for this year’s festival reached me earlier this spring I was dismayed to see that not one but two recitals would feature the piece. Last night, Colin Davin played the entire D minor partita from which the Chaconne comes, and the brilliant young Czech guitarist Petra Poláčková is playing it on the closing program Sunday afternoon. So there was no avoiding it.

After hearing Colin’s brilliant performance last evening I realized how right I was to avoid hearing a great guitarist play the piece. Not because I might be influenced—that was pure hubris. Instead, what I should have worried about was the question I asked myself afterwards:

Why bother?

I could work on the piece for the next five years and not come close to the kind of performance that Colin would give on a bad day, much less the rendition he gave us last night. Putting the issue of talent aside, I’m a part-time guitarist at best, and I don’t possess the full range of technical abilities needed to play the piece at anything like a professional level. So why bother?

I was, to say the least, deflated after the performance. The post-concert dinner wasn’t quite as much fun as usual, and my sleep was troubled.

This morning I went for a run, and while I was running I turned the question over in my head. Why bother? For myself, at least, I found an answer.

I can read a great novel and appreciate, but I can’t write even a bad one. I can watch a great film and enjoy it, but I will never make one. I can walk through a gallery and be awestruck by a painting, but I can’t paint.  But I can make my way through the score of a great piece of music and bring it to some kind of life, even if only for myself, and be in communion with the composer. In my own way, I am having a conversation with Bach in learning his piece. Listening to a performance, no matter how great, can never give me that experience. And it is not an experience I can have with any other great art; I can only do this with music.

There’s another thing. We don’t know all the details about the creation of Bach’s solo violin works, but it doesn’t appear that they were written at the behest of a patron or as the result of a commission. In fact, there were no traveling violin virtuosi giving concert tours and commissioning works to play in Bach’s time—that was a 19th century development. Like most music before the advent of public recitals, concert series, and recordings, Bach’s music was for his own use or to be copied and shared with students and other musicians, just as Bach copied out works of Vivaldi for his own study. Music was written out and shared to be played for pleasure, or in amateur gatherings, or to be studied. It wasn’t written to be played in recital for a paying public, or to be recorded.

So, in fact, what I am doing with the Chaconne is very much in keeping with the spirit of Bach’s time. I’m learning the score, just as I would read a novel, to be challenged, to be moved, for intellectual stimulation, and to appreciate the author’s ideas. I am learning the score because it is the only way I can really hear the piece.

Rationalization? Probably. But for me, it is reason enough to keep bothering with the Chaconne. Tomorrow morning I am playing it for Petra Poláčková in her master class. When I return to New York I’ll have new ideas, new enthusiasm, and I’ll start on the D major section.