Interlude 13: Cleveland

I enjoyed my 2013 trip to the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival so much that I resolved to go back in 2014. By then I had been taking online lessons with Jason Vieaux for almost a year—although, to be honest, I had only managed to upload a couple of videos for him to comment on—and I thought it would be nice to do an in-person lesson with him while I was there. He agreed to meet with me and we had a nice lesson together on Thursday. At the end of it he said “Why don’t you play on my Saturday master class?”

Now the thing you have to understand is that all of the master class students at the festival that I had seen were college students…music majors pursuing their degrees. All very good. All very, very young. It hardly seemed that I would fit in.

So, of course, I said yes!

And that is how I ended up on the stage of Mixon Hall on a bright Saturday morning. I played the third prelude by Villa-Lobos, and I played it well. Jason commented on my intensity and my absorption in the music. And of course he gave me some good pointers. At the remaining festival recitals, people who had been in the audience for his class stopped me to complement me on my playing. One woman who sat near me in the audience the next afternoon asked if I was a professional. I was hooked.

The next year I played in three master classes, and have played in classes each year since. I’m no longer the only adult doing so; a couple of other “later in life” learners have joined me. It is one of the things that has made the festival so special to me. I particularly value the classes I have had with Petra Poláčková and Ricardo Gallén.

And the concerts! Duo Melis playing in a thunderstorm. Jason Vieaux and Julien Labro. Elizabeth Kenny playing 21st Century music…on the theorbo! Colin Davin’s Nocturnal. SoloDuo’s Beethoven. So many wonderful recitals.

Another aspect of it that I enjoy is the chance to mingle with and get to know some really wonderful musicians.  Armin Kelly, proprietor of Guitars International and the artistic director of the festival, assembles amazing talent every year and creates a wonderful atmosphere. The festival is small enough to foster a nice sense of intimacy and I have gradually become a part of the scenery. I’ve made new friends and connections that have allowed me to feel a part of the guitar world in a way I never would have expected.

Then, too, there is the friendship I have formed with Jason Vieaux that only could have happened because of the festival. Mind you, it’s not hard to make friends with him; along with being a wonderful musician and guitarist he is a genuinely nice guy, impossible not to like, and very easy to be around. In addition to seeing him at the festival and at other concert appearances, I’ve had some lessons, some meals, and a memorable trip driving him to Newark airport from Beacon NY. And on top of all that, at the 2017 festival he gave me one of the best moments of my life so far.

I’ll let Jason tell the story…

Jason Vieaux at the 2017 Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival

I never had any thought that he would play my piece in public. It was just a little something that I thought perhaps he might play for his little daughter. But to be in that hall, to hear him play music that I had written—however slight—was amazing. And what made it magical was Evangelene’s reaction from the back of the auditorium! It’s something I will never forget, and one more reason why the Cleveland festival will always be special to me.

The French Connection, reconsidered

In a previous post I discussed the idea of making the Chaconne more French in style by changing the manner in which I play the characteristic dotted-quarter/eighth-note pattern. This emerged out of the master class I had with Petra Poláčková along with the consideration of various sources. I also listened to a lot of violin performances and found that some players—particularly those who identify as Baroque specialists—embraced the French manner as well.

In the wake of Petra’s class and the reading and the listening, I began to experiment with playing the piece in this way and got to like it. Even at my relatively slow tempo it makes the piece feel a bit more dance-like. But there are sections where it doesn’t seem to fit, and I don’t care for the idea of changing back and forth; it seems important to keep that basic rhythmic pattern consistent each time it appears. And as I have continued to read about the Chaconne and its interpretation I have come across some fairly persuasive arguments for playing the rhythms as written. So I decided to revisit the question

One of the strongest advocates of the “play what Bach wrote” position is Frederick Neumann, who wrote extensively about performance practices in early music. Over the course of several essays and books he looks carefully at the sources of the overdotting idea like Quantz and C. P. E. Bach, as well as looking at J. S. Bach’s own notational practices. In his book Essays in Performance Practice (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982) he deals with the question in three of the essays.

Since one of the essays is in response to criticism by another scholar it has a somewhat polemical tone:

When we play the overtures, sarabandes, chaconne, etc., of Lully, Rameau, Handel, and Bach, it is a mistake to deprive them of their majestic dignity in favor of the frantic style of jerks and jolts.

Neumann, Essays in Performance Practice, p. 98

But elsewhere he argues in a more convincing and dispassionate vein. One thread of his argument is that Bach was perfectly capable of notating music in a very specific way, and Neumann shows a number of examples where the “French effect” is actually notated by Bach.

He also raises the problem of polyphonic music when a dotted note appears in some voices but not in others. Specifically in the Chaconne, he points out that there are often places where the main rhythmic pattern (quarter note, dotted quarter, eighth note) appears in one voice against, in the other voice, a pattern of straight eighth notes, like this spot in measure 141:

In this example, the bottom voice with stems pointing down is the characteristic chaconne pattern, while the top voice is all straight eighth notes.

Neumann suggests that the final eighth note of this measure needs to be given its full value in both voices; so, no double-dotting of the dotted quarter note in the lower voice. This sort of thing happens quite a bit in this part of the Chaconne and I find his reasoning compelling.

He writes elsewhere that what may indeed be needed in the style is a certain lightening of the final eighth note of the Chaconne pattern to keep the whole thing from becoming ponderous. That’s something that seems well within the purview of the performer…in this case, me.

Finally, there is this passage from elsewhere in the book:

The baroque performer enjoyed vast latitude in interpretation of the score; one of the many ways in which he used this freedom was an elastic treatment of rhythmic notation. Guided by the “Affect” of a passage, he applied agogic accents, used rubato techniques of all kinds, varied the tempo, sharpened a rhythm here, softened it there. No rules governed this performance style; its only law was musical instinct and arbitrary judgment.

Neumann, Essays in Performance Practice, p. 55

As a governing principle for playing Bach’s music it works for me! In other words, there is probably not a definitive answer to the question of over-dotting, and a performer who choses to do it is not wrong. But I have abandoned my French ways and will rely instead on “softening” or “sharpening” a rhythm here and there to get the effect that seems right to me.

Sei solo

There are at least a couple of myths that attach to the Chaconne, or more generally to the set of pieces to which it belongs.

The first myth concerns Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara. She died, unexpectedly, in 1720 while Bach was away from home on a trip with his employer at the time, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. He returned home to the tragic news and a fresh grave. The musicologist Helga Thoene proposed that the D minor partita—and in particular its Chaconne—were composed as a lament for his late wife. Certainly the somber quality of parts of the piece might seem appropriate, and it is the kind of story that can fire the popular imagination. In fact, there is an entire recording dedicated to this premise. But I don’t find the story very convincing. For one thing, it seems far more likely that Bach would have written a sacred work for such an event, as we know quite a bit about his deep religious beliefs. For another, the sheer inventiveness of the Chaconne seems out of character with a piece for mourning.

The second myth concerns Bach’s title for these pieces. The first page of the autograph manuscript reads Sei solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato. This is generally translated as “Six solos for unaccompanied violin.” There is nothing so unusual about Bach using Italian for the title; although German, he was well-acquainted with the music of Italy and France and the musical terms of those languages.

Title page of the 1720 autograph manuscript

The notable thing, and the basis of the myth, is that the Italian title is not quite correct. It really should read Sei soli—six solos—since soli is the plural form of solo. But sei, in addition to being the Italian word for six, is also the second-person singular form of the verb essere (to be); tu sei (you are). And in Italian it’s not unusual to drop the pronoun subject and let the verb alone carry the meaning, as in Sono americano (I am American). That results in a second possible meaning for Sei solo:

You are alone.

This too is the kind of thing that can fire the imagination. How appropriate it would be to give this collection of six pieces—pieces of unmatched musical depth and technical demands—a title that emphasizes the alone-ness of the performer? 

And Bach was not above a little wordplay. The last of the Goldberg Variations is a quodlibet—a mash-up, if you will— of two folk songs. The words of one are “I’ve been away from you so long” and the other is “Cabbage and turnips drove me away, if you’d cooked me meat I’d have opted to stay.” Since this is the last of 30 variations before the theme finally returns, the choice of tunes does not seem accidental!

Still…I think Bach just made a mistake with his Italian.

Moreover, I think it’s wrongheaded to think that the performer of these works is alone. I certainly don’t feel alone when I sit down to play the Chaconne. Segovia is there with me. So is Hahn, and Podger, and Parkening, and Petra, and Shirley Bertsch, and all my teachers.

But mostly, Bach is there. I think about all the performances that this piece has had in the 299 years since Bach wrote it down. How many times has it been played? Thousands, surely. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? In homes and practice rooms and recital halls and churches. In Carnegie Hall, and a living room in Short Hills, New Jersey. Bach has been at each and every one.

Non sei solo.

You are not alone.

Interlude 12: Lose a job, get a life

In December of 2012 I arrived at work one morning, turned on my computer, and saw an email summoning me to a conference room for a 10AM meeting. An HR representative was copied on the email. I hadn’t pilfered supplies, cheated on my expenses, or made inappropriate (or even appropriate) advances on any coworkers. I called my wife Ellen and told her about the email. After a pause she said “Well…I don’t think they are going to promote you.”

That made me laugh hard, a laugh that carried me through the next few hours and days as I dealt with losing my job in a restructuring. After nearly 20 years at McGraw-Hill I was offered a very healthy severance package: fourteen months of full salary and benefits starting in February 2013. Nobody arrived to bundle me and my belongings out of the office, so I spent a couple of weeks putting things into order, writing notes for my boss about projects in progress, and saying goodbyes. I was gone before Christmas but collected my salary for the next two months.

In those weeks there were occasional moments of panic (“What am I going to do??”) and anger (“How could they do this to me after all I did for the company??”), but mostly I felt relief. A new management regime had made work life unpleasant and it didn’t seem likely to improve. A combination of inertia and investment kept me from leaving on my own. Getting the axe turned out to be a thinly disguised blessing.

After the start of the new year I had a few conversations and applied for a couple of jobs, but nothing came of it. Then, in March, a phone call, a lunch, and the offer of the job in publishing that I had always wanted: music editor at W.W. Norton.

Reader, I said no.

Well…not exactly “no”–it was more “not yet.” Having been assured of future employment I resolved to maximize the benefits of my severance package. I agreed to do some work under contract for the balance of the year and Norton agreed to a full time start in January 2014.

And that is how I came to have a sabbatical. We did a little traveling. I worked on my golf game. And I played guitar. A lot of guitar. For I now had an abundance of the thing I had been lacking: time. 

By this time Jason Vieaux had become one of my favorite performers. I loved the sound of his guitar on his debut CD so much that I bought an instrument from the same maker, German Vasquez-Rubio. When I discovered that Jason was teaching online lessons through a new company called ArtistWorks I signed up and prepared a video to upload for his comments. Suddenly I was taking lessons with my favorite guitarist. How cool is that!?

In the spring of 2013 I attended the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival sponsored by Armin Kelly at Guitars International. Jason was one of several wonderful performers, and there were recitals and master classes galore. I even got to hear a talk given by the maker of my guitar and pose for a picture with him.

With German Vasquez Rubio at the Cleveland Institute of Music

And I marveled at the wonderful Mixon Hall, perhaps the best guitar recital space I have ever seen. 

I didn’t know at the time that this festival would become an annual event for me and an important part of my life, and I’ll write more about that in a future post. But this first experience seriously boosted my return to the guitar.

But it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t lost my job. Life opened up the door, and I walked through. 

A Milestone

In January I set out to create a guitar edition of Bach’s Chaconne, to learn it, and to perform it in public. The edition is complete, although I continue to tinker with fingerings as I try to achieve different musical effects. And, depending on how you want to define the word learn, I have learned to play the entire piece from beginning to end.

And yesterday, for the first time, I performed it in front of an audience at the monthly meeting of the North New Jersey Classical Guitar Society.

But let’s not hang up the “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet.

There were parts of the performance that were good, and parts that were not; I’d say it was about half and half. It opened well, and much of the middle section went quite well…there were definitely nice moments. The transition back into minor—my favorite moment in the piece—was quite nice, as was the section starting in measure 229 that is the long pause before the end.

But there were lots of small stumbles. And, much to my surprise, the long arpeggio section that is normally so comfortable and fun to play didn’t go well. My right hand suddenly turned into the Beast with Five Fingers and took on a life of its own, disconnected from my will for a dozen measures.

The setting was challenging, of course. We all sat together in a room and before my turn to play I listened to several players struggling with nerves on comparatively easy pieces. And there was no opportunity to warm up; when it was my turn I sat down, tuned, and launched into the Chaconne.

Honestly, though, the main issue was my own incredible nervousness, even before such a small and friendly audience. Many of the people in the room knew about my project and that I had been working on the piece for a year. But the real source of pressure was internal, the result of all of the work and expectation and anticipation.

Performing the Chaconne for the first time

Even though this was not the performance I envisioned in my head, I am not discouraged. There has to be a first time, and this was an important opportunity to see exactly where I am with the Chaconne. I know the spots that need more polishing. I know where I will tend to rush and, more important, I know how and where to slow things down if I do. I can now begin to practice performing the piece and not just playing it.

And the nerves? Well, it’s part of the deal. Every performer deals with them. I certainly have. But I know that they can be managed, and I’ll think back on one instance in particular.

When I played my recital in Vermillion at the University of South Dakota in 2014 I was very well prepared and confident. And yet, on the morning of the performance I went to practice room to do a little warming up and found that, suddenly, I couldn’t play. Nothing seemed to be working and pieces had fled from my memory. It was so bad I thought I might have to cancel the recital. But I had a few hours and decided I needed to get out of my own head. 

I packed up my guitar, got in the car, and drove west out of town to a county park by the Missouri River. It was a clear, crisp, September morning. I found a nice place to sit  with a good view of the river. I felt the warmth of the sun and listened to the susurration of the water as it flowed inexorably by. I just let myself be there, in the moment, and I found calm.

When I returned to the Fine Arts Center the calm stayed with me. I tuned backstage. And then the stage door opened and I stepped out into the light.