Sunday, January 13, 2008

DPO Plays Albert's Cello Concerto

Guest soloist Julie Albers brought Stephen Albert's masterful Cello Concerto to Dayton this past weekend. The epic piece (it's more than a half-hour long) was written in 1990 for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and is cast in four movements. It is a stunningly gorgeous work that combines big Romantic gestures with modern harmonic language and orchestration. The piano part is sizable and difficult, with plenty of good exposure for the instrument throughout the entire work. It is one of those orchestral parts that provides great satisfaction for the pianist at the end of the day. Tragically, this was one of the last works the accomplished American composer would write; Albert perished in an auto accident in 1992 at the age of 51.

Preparing a convincing and emotionally engaging performance of this work was a great challenge for our orchestra (I believe it would be a challenge for any orchestra). Julie Albers brought lots of intensity and energy to the cello solo, and I think we sold the piece: the audience on both nights responded with great enthusiasm.

It was really great to see large audiences open up to a sophisticated recent work that deserves to be heard more often. It is especially pertinent that this reception occurred within a community many would not associate with great love for newer and more challenging concert music. The time has certainly come for contemporary works that are accessible but don't necessarily pander to the lowest listening abilities of audiences just to get more performances. Younger soloists like Albers are aiding the cause through an exuberance for fresh repertoire and commitment to high-standard performances of that repertoire. Being involved in a performance like this gives me hope that good new music is connecting with broader audiences on deeper emotional levels; perhaps the experience is finally going beyond mere sonic impressions. For goodness sake it's about time.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Pieces I Enjoyed Teaching in 2007

Below are some pieces and/or collections that brought me great piano-teaching joy this past year. (I've also added a little random commentary.) One of the immense pleasures of teaching younger students is taking them on new journeys into exciting repertoire. It is especially gratifying if you get to be the one to expose them to music that is unfamiliar yet attractive to them. I hope I can inspire at least a few teachers to take a leap into some of the less well-known (and often underplayed) late-intermediate to early-advanced repertoire. There’s a lot more out there than just the obligatory canonic standards, and kids often respond eagerly to a teacher with some sense of adventure in choosing the next “big project”.

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Bagatelles - Opus 5 - sheet music at
Bagatelles - Opus 5 By Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977). Op. 5. Collection for solo piano. Series: Alfred Masterworks Editions. 31 pages. Published by Alfred Publishing. (AP.551)
SMP Level 8 (Early Advanced); NFMC Level: Difficult Class 2
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Every piano teacher worth her salt knows this set of works but many of us don't get past teaching the first one. It's a great little number but, folks, there are nine more beautiful pieces in the book! If you find a student who likes the aggressively playful style of Tcherepnin's piano writing, turn the pages and keep exploring. I have been teaching the seventh bagatelle ("Prestissimo") which requires soft but very fast staccato techniques and chromatic scales in major sevenths. You need a quite musically sophisticated student to tackle the intricacies of the slower bagatelles (Nos. 4 and 5) - I'm hoping to get to one of those next year.

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Complete Lyric Pieces For Piano - sheet music at
Complete Lyric Pieces For Piano By Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). Collection for solo piano. 211 pages. Published by Dover Publications. (AP.6-26176X)
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Selecting suitable Romantic works for those students just getting into the advanced repertoire can be very tricky. Oftentimes Chopin is a little too difficult and you can pretty much forget Brahms and Liszt. If you're looking to get a little bit beyond Schumann's well-worn Album for the Young but see your student merely struggling with the waltzes, preludes, and small polonaises of Chopin, one of the composers to look to is Grieg. These 66 character pieces range from fairly simple to incredibly complex, not just in technical terms but also in emotional content. Many young pianists only play the charming "Arietta" (the first piece of the set in Op. 12) and the ultra-silly "Elves Dance" (also from Op. 12) before they move on to the, ahem, higher-quality music of Chopin and Liszt. Nonsense! Try looking at the music in Op. 38, which already steps into more advanced musical territory. I taught an absolutely luscious piece from this set, "Melodie", which demands subtle phrasing, a good sense of rubato, and rhythmic independence between the hands. Be careful - this piece requires the student to pull off an effective three-against-four rhythm in several places!

If you are truly daring, you'll venture into the later works from Op. 57 onwards. There are some rather strange evocations in quite a few of these works, and some of the pieces even suggest a little of the harmonic perfume found in Scriabin. They won't appeal to every student, but the occasional one who does gravitate towards this literature will offer some really neat opportunities for the teaching of creative and fun interpretation. I'm looking forward to teaching a delicate piece from Op. 62 called "Sylph" ("Sylph" refers to a mythological spirit or elemental of the air), which I assigned to a student a few weeks ago. Yes, the music is a little strange, but it's such fine strangeness.

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Lyric Pieces for the Young - sheet music at
Lyric Pieces for the Young Piano Solo. By Norman Dello Joio. Piano. 16 pages. Published by Marks. (9283)
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This is another set of lyric pieces, this time by the great American composer Norman Dello Joio. Now here's a composer whose music deserves to be played more often. These pieces (published in 1971) are cast in the tradition of Grieg's lyric pieces: they are brief, evocative character pieces that provide many opportunities for coloristic shading and expressive playing. I have shared three of these with a student this past year. No. 2 ("The Prayer of the Matador") is a study in playing an exquisitely intense Spanish-style melody over a relentless, but very slow, habanera accompinament. It requires a student with a wide emotional imagination - one can sense the private terror of the matador's heart through the heat in the melody's expressive gestures. No. 3 ("Street Cries") is all exuberance and fanfare demanding fine rhythmic incisiveness and control; the last piece of the set, No. 6 ("Russian Dancer"), offers some bitonal moments along with a generous amount of foot-stomping fun in the principal theme. The entire set of six pieces would make a wonderful performance segment in recital.

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Jazz, Rags & Blues - Book 4 - sheet music at
Jazz, Rags & Blues - Book 4 (9 original pieces for the late intermediate pianist) Music by Martha Mier. Collection for solo piano. 24 pages. Published by Alfred Publishing. (AP.18770)
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Most young piano students hanker for a good romp in jazz and ragtime music, so I will end this little list with something from that side of the piano music world. Kids are naturally attracted to jazz and swing idioms, so it's only in the teacher's best interest to encourage some material outside of the "eat-your-vegetables" classical pieces and method books. Teachers now really have no excuse, especially since the last decade has seen a virtual explosion of high-quality original repertoire for the late-intermediate to early-advanced pianist. Martha Mier will be no stranger to the piano teacher who has paid attention to the new supplemental books by the ever-growing community of composer-pedagogues such as E.L. Lancaster, Eugenie Rocherolle, and Phillip Keveren. The great thing about a series such as this one by Martha Mier is the fact that it is offered in distinct levels, which can help the teacher match pieces to abilities fairly easily. I've only taught one piece from the book so far; it's called "Katy's Dance". It's an effective tap-dance number, and my student who played it loved the cool solo lines with "blue" notes and other swaggering figuration. It may be too easy for more advanced students, but it's perfect for those just "graduating" from a method series.

So there we have it - just a small sample of neat repertoire that I got to teach last year. For those who teach - just remember that you can make life more fun for your students through repertoire might even have some more fun yourself.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Period Performances from ArsAntiguaPresents

Here is more proof that even groups associated with the most traditional music are making use of web-based technology to promote their message and performances. Jerry Fuller, director of the Ars Antigua period instrument ensemble in Chicago, has started a new (and free) music webcast site: Its purpose is to promote early music performances on period instruments:, directed by Jerry Fuller, is a series of monthly, free audio web cast programs of music from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras performed on period instruments with engaging and enlightening commentary by Peter Van De Graaff. Programs focus on one composition or a few short works. (Source)

The inaugural program from December 15 is available for playback and features a performance by the Ars Antigua ensemble. The site also offers concert archives, information about period instruments, and free subscription services through iTunes, RSS feeds, or email.

It's great that Mr. Fuller (who is an accomplished professional bass player) is building a valuable online resource for early music practitioners and listeners. I look forward to seeing how the site develops and listening to the web casts, since I often engage in continuo playing myself. Best wishes on the new project, Jerry.

Image reproduced from

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