I’m back! I know, it’s been a while. I was inspired to get back to my blog when my sister sent me this wonderful YouTube video. Enjoy!
Here’s an interesting article from The Atlantic on people whose work, when done right, usually goes unheralded. The main examples cited are magazine fact-checkers and anaesthesiologists…. but there is also a paragraph about Peter Stumpf, the piano technician for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Enjoy!
On the afternoon of February 16, heading out to a tuning, I turned on the car radio to hear the CBC’s Tom Allen introduce Grieg’s “Gangar,” also known as Norwegian March, from the Lyric Pieces, Opus 54, No. 2.
I let out a great whoop of joy and turned the volume up full blast, because this is one of my favourite pieces, and it is seldom heard. (Thank you so much, Tom–you made my day.)
This piece has great significance for me. In 1972 my parents and I moved to Oslo, where my father took up the post of Canadian Forces Attache at the Canadian embassy for four years. I was eleven.
We moved into a fabulous 5-bedroom chalet-style house on the side of Holmenkollen mountain. I’d been taking piano lessons for a few years, and started studying with Hilde Ringlund, a student at the University of Oslo, and a most excellent teacher.
I did play a couple of the lyric pieces for Hilde, but not this one; it was a little too advanced for me at the time. However, there was a family on our street named the Evensens (I believe the father was of Norwegian descent, though they were from Denver), with two teenagers, Nancy and Erik, who were both pianists. I got to know Nancy well, since she often babysat me when my parents went to diplomatic functions in the evenings. I also hung out with her and Erik at their house, where they had a grand piano which was painted antique green! (It was the seventies.)
Gangar is the only piece I remember them playing, which is curious to me now. I had never heard it before, and I loved it immediately. As in so much of Grieg’s work, the influence of Norwegian folk music is very evident. I did once visit Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen (now a museum) on a holiday trip to Bergen with my parents, but my memory of it is dim.
I continued my piano studies at boarding school in England, and later in Ottawa, though I wasn’t much for Conservatory exams, and like so many people, I always struggled with practising. By age 15 I had packed it in. Twenty-five years later I bought my Heintzman and started playing again. I had never played Gangar, but I had never forgotten it… and so I searched it out, found it in the Schirmer edition of the Lyric Pieces, and started learning to play it. I never really mastered it, but I still derive great pleasure from trying! And it remains my all-time favourite Grieg piece. I realize its power for me is entirely connected to my memories of Norway. My mother and I often went to concerts at the Munch and Vigelands museums in Oslo.
I found two recordings of Gangar on YouTube. The first one is pretty good; I like the tempo, and the performer’s notes about his interpretation. The second is by the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter from a concert he gave in Greece in 1993. (He died in 1997.) I find Richter’s tempo a bit lugubrious; but I do prefer his way of playing the ornaments. The other fellow starts them right on the downbeat, which to me is too early, and takes away from the charm of the syncopation. (If you listen to them one after the other, you’ll see what I mean.)
Thanks to the Bergen Public Library for the use of this lovely photo of Grieg and his wife Nina playing a duet. (According to Wikipedia, the piano is a Steinway, and was a silver wedding anniversary gift to the Griegs. I wonder what he played and composed on previously?)
I’m filing this one under Inventive Uses for Dead Pianos. (And Guitars.) It needs no further commentary. Enjoy!
It’s mind-boggling how technology now permeates our lives (especially if there are young people in your life)–and sometimes in delightful ways.
The other night I was watching TV with my family, which used to be an increasingly rare event in this internet-addled age, until we got a PVR (we’ll call this exhibit 1), which lets us “tape” and watch our favourite shows whenever we want.
Anyway, whoever was in charge of the clicker must have been dozing, because we usually fast-forward through the commercials (exhibit 2)… and we find ourselves watching a commercial (later I discovered it was for Enterprise Car Rental) when this really great song starts playing.
Our ears perk up, because we love this song and we’ve heard it before; but none of us can remember where.
So my eldest, who is 17, says, “I can Shazam it!” She pulls out her Blackberry, with this app called Shazam, which will identify a song from a snippet of a recording, such as on a commercial (exhibit 3).
She rewinds the commercial (exhibit 4) and holds her phone up to the TV for a few bars. Shazam tells her the song is Send Me On My Way, by a band called Rusted Root. (They’re from Pittsburgh, in case you didn’t know.)
“Oh, darn,” she says. “I just realized, I don’t care what the song is, I want to know where I’ve heard it before!”
So she looks up the song on YouTube (exhibit 5), and finds out it played during one of the final scenes in the animated movie Ice Age.
“Oh yeah!” says her brother. “Now I remember.” I, too, vaguely remembered grooving to it while watching the movie in the theatre.
“But wait, that’s not it,” said the eldest. “I’m sure I heard it before that.” And I had a vague sense, myself, that I had thought the song was familiar even when I heard it in Ice Age. (Or I could be making that up. But I don’t think so.)
So she hunts further. (Online, of course.) Then she gets it–the Eureka moment.
“Matilda!” she cries. “It was in Matilda!”
“Oh yeah!” we said.
Great movies. And a GREAT song. Maybe you’ll recognize it.
This week I attended the announcement of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 2012-2013 season. After music director Peter Oundjian’s spirited presentation in the lobby of Roy Thomson Hall, we were invited into the auditorium for a rehearsal of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, with Gunther Herbig conducting.
This is the first time I’ve been to this event (I’m a subscriber, but in the most minimal way possible, due to lack of funds), and I was curious to see not only what is coming, but how it’s communicated to folks like me. The TSO has a lot of exciting stuff lined up, including a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story score accompanying a “live” screening of the digitally remastered movie, among other more esoteric fare…
What struck me, while Oundjian waxed rhapsodic about the coming season, was a) how skilfully a big-city orchestra must market itself, merely to survive, b) how creatively it must appeal both to its aging stalwart patrons and to a new generation of music-lovers, and c) how incredibly well the TSO does this, and how fortunate they are to have a guy like Peter Oundjian at the helm. He’s presentable, accomplished, genuine, comfortable in his skin, and infectiously enthusiastic about the whole enterprise.
And it was really nice of them to let us watch the rehearsal. (And fun to see the orchestra in civvies.) Really, I wouldn’t blame Gunther Herbig if he were mildly pissed off about having the public in the hall during his rehearsal. He didn’t say a word to us, despite Oundjian’s warm introduction, and since he was (obviously) facing the players and he was not miked, we couldn’t hear a word of his instructions to them (though there was much helpful pointing with bows to relevant bits of score by the string players to their colleagues, which makes me wonder if perhaps they had just as much trouble hearing him as we did). And given that the Shostakovich is not a particularly well-known piece, it was a bit like watching paint dry. I realize Herbig was not there to entertain us, that it was a rehearsal and that the orchestra was working. But I think the intent behind letting us in was that it be something like attending a master class, and with all these things conspiring against that, the effect was lost.
I’ll certainly be at that West Side Story screening (I’d go just for the music, but seeing the movie with the live score will be a swell treat). And no doubt the TSO’s very effective telemarketer will manage to sell me some other concerts when he calls, even if I can’t afford it. He always does.
The other day on CBC Radio 2 Shift, Tom Allen played a song I hadn’t heard before:
It’s a nice song, eh?
Now listen to it again, and notice how the piano accompaniment sounds. Really listen to it.
This is the sound of a purposely detuned piano!
I’m listening to the song, driving up Jarvis street, thinking, my god, that piano sounds terrible! But I realized two things: one, of course they purposely made it sound like that, to give a sort of honkytonk feel to the piece. And two, only a piano technician would think it sounded bad! I was tickled when it was over and Tom, the host, commented on the sound of the piano. (Being a fine musician himself, he notices stuff like this.)
If you’ve ever looked inside a piano, you’ll know that most of the notes in the midrange and treble sections of the keyboard have three strings, and a big part of the tuner’s job is to make sure that each of those strings is tuned in perfect unison with its mates. In fact, unison tuning is considered the most important aspect of tuning–because it’s the most noticeable when it’s not right. (It may also be the easiest aspect of tuning to learn, and the hardest to master.) So when we tune a piano we are (almost) always aiming for perfect, or “clean” unisons.
Except in extremely rare cases, like this one, where a honkytonk effect may be what we’re after. (There may be other ways to accomplish this, such as the “mandolin” attachment on old player pianos, or pushing thumbtacks into the felt of each hammer!) Usually we first tune one string of a unison relative to the other notes in the octave (this is called interval tuning), and then the other two strings are tuned to match it. I figure in this case the piano was given a regular tuning in the studio, so that one string per note was tuned correctly, and then the unisons were either left as they were (i.e. out of tune), or altered just a hair, to give that jangly sound.
(I tried to find out who tuned the piano for this song, but so far I have not been successful.)
I thought this was an interesting example of knowing the rules well enough to break them, to interesting effect.
OK, the photo is extreme. But stay with me for a minute.
When trolling Kijiji for good used pianos for a customer, as I occasionally do, I often see something like this: “Beautiful antique piano in great shape, just needs tuning. Only $500.”
Sometimes I get calls from people who have just bought one of these pianos, and now they need someone to come and tune it.
So they paid $500 for that piano, and maybe $300 to have it moved… And then, for another $100 or so (they figure), they can get it tuned, and they’ll be set. Total outlay: under $1000. Seems reasonable, right?
Wrong. It often doesn’t work out that way.
The piano they bought may not look like the one above. But a piano action contains hundreds of moving parts, which, after 80 or 100 years (or even less, in the case of a lesser-quality piano) just don’t work very well.
A piano that is very old AND sounds badly out of tune is almost guaranteed to have multiple age-related problems that are expensive to repair. If the pitch has dropped a semitone or more, you’re looking at several tunings to get it back up to pitch and stable, and depending on the condition of the strings, broken strings are a distinct possibility, which means further repairs. (And that’s assuming the tuning pins are tight enough to hold the increased string tension.)
These repairs often add up to much more than the piano is worth. And sometimes the piano can’t be brought back to life.
So do yourself a favour. Hire the piano technician BEFORE you take that old beater you found online; don’t wait til after you’ve moved it in.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Peter, my friend and former teacher, suggested I start with variation no. 19… so I did. (You can listen and watch Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of variations 15-19 here. Like the aria, variation 19 is played at a much slower tempo in the later recording than in the earlier one.) I am also trying to learn variations 1 and 4.
When I go to piano technicians’ conventions, I like to take some music with me, in case I can find time to play on one of the very nice grand pianos they tend to have at these things… So I’m at the PTG national convention in Kansas City this past July, and someone sees me walking around with the Goldberg Variations under my arm. He says, “Wow, that’s pretty ambitious, isn’t it?”
I don’t even know this guy, but immediately I react with embarrassment, because:
a) I only play for my own enjoyment,
b) I am learning ONE of the variations, and
c) let’s face it–yes, it is!!
But I wish I’d had the presence of mind to come back with:
“How do you know I’m not that good?”
Yesterday I went with my 9-year-old daughter (a promising pianist) to sit in the audience at Lang Lang’s 101 Pianists Workshop here in Toronto. I heard about this through the Beaches Conservatory of Music, where my son studies guitar. The school was invited to select four students to play Schubert’s Marche Militaire with 96 other kids ages 6-16 (that’s right, the youngest kids were SIX) on stage at Roy Thomson Hall in a master class format–with Lang Lang!
The kids played on Roland digital pianos (2 kids per, playing the piece as a duet). Lang played one of two Steinway D’s on stage. The other was played by two of the senior students in the workshop. The audience was comprised of many young pianists and their parents–including Lang Lang’s mom!
Lang and the kids performed the piece all the way through in unison, then he had them play it section by section, pointing out pitfalls and suggesting tips for more musical playing in his trademark goofy, friendly, and highly musical way. The afternoon was hosted by the TSO’s Peter Oundjian, and the two men, obviously great friends, traded quips about Lang’s prodigious talent and Oundjian’s silver hair. We even watched an old Tom and Jerry cartoon, one of Lang’s earliest influences. I know my daughter will always recognize the Marche Militaire now, and I really think she was quite inspired by the whole thing. What a fantastic opportunity for all these kids to learn from, and perform with, one of the greatest pianists in the world!