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Inspiration & Influence: Rhapsody in Blue

Rhapsody in Blue

The end of high school was my Gershwin phase.

It all started with his three Preludes for Piano. Since the jazziest piece I’d studied up to that point was probably Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cake Walk, getting assigned these pieces was like discovering chocolate.

The preludes incited interest in the rest of Gershwin’s repertoire — the Concerto in F, Porgy and Bess, An American in Paris, Summertime. And of course, Rhapsody in Blue.

Undoubtedly I’d heard Rhapsody dozens of times throughout childhood; but at that particular time, the piece attacked me from all sides. First, Fantasia 2000. Then one of my brothers bought Leonard Bernstein’s recording and started playing it constantly. Then a kid in one of my youth symphonies soloed with it; and I’d often catch bits of the rehearsals. Even in its early stages, the piece infected everyone — the soloist, conductor, and orchestra — with joyful energy.

Toward the end of senior year, with auditions over and graduation in sight, I told my teacher I wanted to learn Rhapsody in Blue. This was audacious for me; I’m fairly shy, and at that age was more than a little afraid of asserting myself with authorities. But loving a piece will drive you to do strange things.

We worked on it for the remainder of my time in his studio. I never got the chance to perform it; but by the end I could play the whole thing decently; and that was enough.

Part of the reason I’m fond of this piece is that it’s like a musical representation of how my mind works. Rhapsody in Blue is basically a bunch of melodies strung together. Some say the piece lacks form; but I disagree. It’s a rhapsody. It’s supposed to be free-flowing and improvisatory. But it has a highly distinct beginning and ending; and it communicates its point even if it rambles in places. I completely understand this mode. I’m a daydreamer. My thoughts resemble spirals more than lines. There are usually a bunch going on at once. Half of my writing process involves cutting out words; and I often rearrange my sentences. But hopefully, the points get across — even if some are rough around the edges.

And the other reason I love this piece? Listening to it just makes me smile. Kind of like chocolate.


February 7, 2011   No Comments

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January 28, 2011   No Comments

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January 21, 2011   No Comments

Inspiration & Influence: Brahms Op. 116, No. 4

My longtime piano teacher loved the German Romantics. Though everyone studied Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin, one had to earn the right to play Schumann and Brahms.

My first excursion into that privileged world came in mid-high school, when I was assigned one of the Brahms Rhapsodies. I guess I did a passable job with it, because the next year brought two works — one being Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 116, No. 4.

“This is a special one,” he remarked as he passed over the music for the first time. Translation: you will work harder than you can imagine on these three pages of music.

We spent significant chunks of lesson time on getting the right sound for a single chord: “No, that’s not it. No, no, not quite, try again…” Transitions and the turn of nearly every phrase received similar painstaking treatment.

Only the profound beauty of the piece kept me from giving up out of frustration. (I still think it’s some of the most gorgeous music ever written.) I remember sitting at home listening to Richard Goode’s rendition, then sitting at the piano and trying to produce something even remotely similar. This created a whole new level of despair, but something else was happening.

I began learning how to listen.

I started hearing what I wanted even if I couldn’t produce it. I was grasping for the sounds in my ear, not just my teacher’s ear.

In retrospect, this was a huge turning point in my musical development. No, scratch that.

This was the new beginning.

January 10, 2011   1 Comment

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January 7, 2011   No Comments

Inspiration & Influence: Victor Borge

I was not one of those kids who happily sat down at the piano every day. Until I reached my early teens, my parents made me practice more often than I’d like to admit. My youthful opinion of classical music, broadly speaking, was that it was fine for car rides or background study noise — but not fun.

That was before I discovered Victor Borge.

Somehow, our family ended up with the VHS version of this concert featuring the Danish comedian/pianist.

Watching this video was the first time I remember laughing at something related to classical music; and the first time the concepts of “classical music” and “fun” connected in my mind. I don’t remember how many times my brothers and I watched the Clown Prince of Denmark over the next several years, but I’m pretty sure we wore out the tape.

I don’t think that all classical concerts need a humor element or that the majority of us should attempt comedy routines in our recitals (please, no). But I do think the ability to have and appreciate fun and, occasionally, to laugh at ourselves in this profession is necessary for survival.

Oh, and happy birthday, Victor Borge. (He would be 102 today.)


January 3, 2011   No Comments