February 10, 2011

Wherein I increase my musical literacy

Yesterday was fascinating. I’ve signed up for a one-credit seminar at my college, which aims to expose non-music majors students to music. The first meeting, which was yesterday, took place on the stage of a large concert hall, along with my three other classmates and a Steinway piano.

We heard our Professor play segments of pieces by famous composers; she covered eight, from Bach to Liszt. She told us that it was like a game: we were to listen to the eight, and then see if we could identify which was which when she played them again. I learned to hear some differences, to listen for the shape of the sound. For example, Baroque composers (like Bach) stayed within a smaller portion of the keys since their pianos were smaller, and composed very symmetrically, geometrically. The pattern of the notes are like squares placed up and down the length of the keyboard.

I loved listening, and I felt that I grew. Especially with the Romantic-era pieces I could understand the feelings. It interests me that some pieces seem more intellectual and some more emotional.

And then this evening, my class (privileged to be so small) went to the city for a piano concert, to hear some of our professor’s graduate students perform. I’ve been assigned to write a report on the concert, though perhaps giving you all my impressions of the music will be hard to follow. I think art is best discussed in person, with others who have experienced it. Then you can glance at your friend with shining eyes, or ask them about the questions the art raised, or confide the thoughts it inspired. Without having the common experience of the art or music, the close perceptions I record hold far less meaning.

Still, since it might interest you, (and since I would anyway for my class) I’m going to tell you in detail what I thought of each piece. After my description of the ones I particularly liked, I've embedded sound files so you can listen.

First we heard Alexander Beridze play Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 80. Before I looked at the program I guessed it was Beethoven – it was dark, dramatic, stormy. It felt like a great exertion, or a journey. At times it seemed very formal and hard to enter into. But the pianist felt it very strongly; there was grief in his countenance. I understand pianists who show everything on their face: I am like them when I read or worship in the subway, or when I view a painting.

The next pianist was Rebecca Choi, with three pieces by Rameau, from Nouvelles Suites de Pieces de Clavecin. In the beginning, it was sunny and hopeful, like the weather in May. Then seemed affirming like a quiet nodding of the head, and relaxed, like taking a dog for a walk. She then played Ile de feu 1, from Etudes de rythme by Messiaen. It sounded like a great disruption. I imagined a clock tower shaking and mice scurrying away. When she took her bow, I was still unsettled. She’d made me think.


But the next musician came up quickly, Stella Chia-Shan Cheng playing Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum and Etudes no. 9 and 11. It was peculiar to have such a clear sense of growing, life surging through all. Then it was comforting, the way sun dries up rain. And the last piece was harp-like, with a strumming that seemed to beckon to another world. By the end I had the feeling that I had emerged from a fantasy realm but there was still wonder in my own world.

I found the fourth piece, Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 330, and played by Min Jung Song, harder to be of one mind with. I noticed that the hands played similar roles (instead of one carrying a clear line of melody) and the piece conveyed stateliness, like being a fine lady walking down a mansion’s curving staircase.

Next Michelle Rofrano played selections from Bartok’s Suite for Piano, Op. 14. The Scherzo was at first a little impetuous, then it became more insistent, or clanging like church bells. There were some slower parts that rocked back and forth. The Sostenuto gave me the sense of returning to a town that was once my home and finding the streets deserted, not knowing why. And the Allegro molto part seemed to bear down on me with a firm hand.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major Op. 10, no. 3, performed by JooHee Lee, showed me that Beethoven wasn’t always frustrated. I felt a rising up, and the piece was very open like a county fair, full like daytime.

I particularly enjoyed the next piece, played by Patrick Wong: Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90, no.3 in G flat major. It seemed to be guiding me, reassuring me. I could anticipate which notes would come next, and in that sense it reminded me that all would come out right in the end. It was realistic while remaining hopeful:


It was hard to resonate with the piece Sojung Lee played, Chopin’s Sonata no. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47. Overall, it was quite loud, like someone walking with a lot of energy. At one point near the beginning I felt like I saw something coming out a shadow in the corner of a room.

Soyeon Park’s performance of Chopin’s Sonata no. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 was one of my favorites. It seemed to show the passage of time, a character growing older. It began boldly and intensified, then came down into longing, even sadness. The music seemed to be sighing, settling with life as it was. Then I felt that the character took on responsibility and matured. Looking back, there was joy (not as spontaneous as happiness but more deeply felt) coming through. There was a great sense of resolution as it ended.



Barber’s Sonata Op. 23, played by Sang Tae Park, was quite the contrast to the last piece. It was stern, like an authority figure confronting you with the reality of punishment. Not all of it was unpleasant: at times it sounded kind of hollow, like a cavern or desert.

Then the last, Ravel’s La Valse, performed by Jahye Kim, carried such a range of emotion. It began very low, and then the feelings flowed out, picking up speed. The pianist’s fingers zoomed up and down the keyboard, but one note came out clearly and caught my heart. The music became stunning in its beauty. Then it was more bouncy, like raindrops on my head. If it was like rain, the clouds got darker and the rain poured down more furiously. Or maybe I was the one moving, running through a crowd. The piece ended before I’d found home.

[part 1]
[part 2]

So this was what the evening was like for me: music that taught me about the world, music that made me feel. As the concert came to a close, my professor thanked the musicians for their dedication, “We know how hard it is to love the things we love.” But I am so glad they do.

3 comments:

Micah E. said...

[appreciative smile]

Michael said...

Oh, this is fascinating, makes me wish I more often captured how listening to classical music makes me feel.

Classical music is something I've understood little, but enjoyed very much. Thank you for sharing your thoughts (feelings) about these pieces. I really enjoyed "Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90, no.3 in G flat major.", it's soothing, and comforting.

And I think you are exactly right about Ile de feu 1, it feels very disturbing, unnerving, even. Your descriptor is perfect, "I imagined a clock tower shaking and mice scurrying away." *nod*

“We know how hard it is to love the things we love.”
Humm . . . I do not think I quite catch her meaning, unless she's referring to practicing hard at music. Though it reminds me of making strong effort to appreciate beautiful things, like looking at art for a long time, even when you don't "get it", and realizing that you sometimes have to try to love something because you know you don't have a perfect perception of loveliness, and that working hard at loving art is really worth it.

Your descriptions are wonderful. :)

When I was about nine or ten years old, I listened to classical music all the time. My sisters used to put in one of my (several) classical CD's into the CD player and I would try to guess which composer it was. For quite awhile I was quite good at it :) It's been a long while since I have consistently listened to any of it. Pity.

Serfy said...

I so enjoy the way you think and write about classical music. It makes me appreciate what I do so much more. :)

It's fascinating that even within the classical realm, there's so much variety, despite popular opinion. Some of it seems almost pedantic, while other pieces overflow with a terrifying rush of sensuality. Perhaps the Greeks were right when they talked of the ethos of music and how certain melodies would incite people to certain emotions and passions, while others served to calm the mind.

Also, I am glad you don't call them "songs." :D