I'm going to start sharing my thoughts and experiences as a musician...
...And I absolutely won't be offended if you don't want to read them!
What is this?
I’ve thought deeply about those of you whom I’ve invited to read what I write here, and I’ve included you within the first group of possibly interested readers. I want you to know that I will absolutely not be offended in the slightest if you don’t want to be included here. If you’re included now at first, it means that I respect you as a musician and/or avid supporter of music and the people who make it happen in the world.
I’ve started something like this before, but it turned out that I was not in a place in my life where I could be consistent with it, nor did I want to be so. Now, I’m older and at a different crossroads in my life. Doing this has revealed itself to me as not only being necessary for my own work and my health but also an ethical obligation due to the nature of my work and my position as a leader within the choral music sphere.
I sincerely hope that what I write is helpful. These will sometimes be longer and sometimes shorter. They will sometimes be heady and academic. Other times, they will be very practical. I will rant and revel. I will analyze. I will, above all, empathize with those who know what it’s like to devote your lives entirely and wholeheartedly to musicking.
Why am I doing this?
When I talk to people about my life as a musician, it always elicits reactions of surprise, joy, bewilderment, thoughtfulness, sorrow, ambition, and more. Importantly, though, it brings up questions.
These reactions, in my view, are not because my specific life is so interesting. They are because music itself is interesting. The choice to be a musician throughout one’s life is interesting. The way that I commune with music and the way that music permeates almost every aspect of my life is interesting. The things that happen in the context of running my organizations are never boring - whether that be a good or a bad thing.
The main lesson I’ve learned in my training as a conductor (and, to an extent, as a composer) is that I’m in this position, first and foremost, to be helpful to others. This aligns as well with my general belief and values system and my upbringing.
I want what I write and share here to be helpful to you as a reader. If it’s not helpful to you, that’s alright with me!
Finally, I’m having more and more moments in my daily life in which the thought crosses my mind that what I’m thinking about, what I’m observing or experiencing, or what I’m concluding could be helpful to others. The exercise and discipline of writing these things down and sharing them with willing people who will expect to hear from me seem to be a win-win situation.
So here goes…
Play the Ravel Piano Concerto for me while I’m dying.
I’m currently writing an academic program note on the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major. Like me with this newsletter, Ravel started writing this concerto (1906, then 1913-14) many years before he returned to it and actually completed the task (1931). He was quite sick by the time he hunkered down and finished it. Perhaps he felt the pressure of his impending demise. Ironically, he didn’t actually die until 1937, six years after the completion of the concerto. Although Ravel wrote one other piano concerto (for only the left hand), this work is the only complete traditional piano concerto in his output.
It follows a very traditional format for a piano concerto.
Three movements: Fast, Slow, and Faster.
Requires virtuosic playing and precision to stay in sync with the orchestra
It uses a rather small size orchestra (typical of concerti in the classical period) and is smaller still compared with Ravel’s usual forces.
The first movement is in classical sonata form - 2 themes at the outset with a bridge connecting them, a diversion to a B (development) section where the themes are explored in other key areas and tempi, and a recap of all the material with a flashy ending.
I’ve had two chances in my life to visit Ravel’s home in Monfort L’Amaury, France. The room in which this piece was completed is still exactly as Ravel left it in 1937 when he left his house for the last time to go to the hospital and die. The room is a dark room with light entering only from one narrow set of doors that look out on the Japanese-style garden behind the house. Not a single knick-knack or book or piece of furniture in this smallish room is out of place. I say “knick-knack” because the top of his Pleyel piano is covered with knick-knacks, wind-up toys, music boxes, large and small terrariums, and other small whimsies.
You can hear them going off - rattling, ratcheting, ringing, and ruminating - throughout the first and third movements of the concerto. It’s absolutely clear as day that these kinds of sounds were front of mind for him as he sat at the Pleyel’s keyboard and worked. Many people attribute the bulk of the material in this concerto to Ravel’s fascination with and affinity for American music styles to which he was exposed on a trip only a year or two before this to North America. They say that his harmonic aim in this concerto was one deeply influenced by blues and jazz. I don’t disagree. Still, I think that it is often the case that people want to force Ravel’s music into certain boxes, and yet he remains in a world entirely of his own creation. Though influences may come into the house, they never usurp his creative autonomy.
Like so many monumental composers, Ravel lived in his own world - a world that he continuously built and guarded for himself. I mean this in the most literal sense. He was a short man no taller than 5ft 3in. He had a propensity for carpentry, and so the entire inside of the house was tailor-made by him to accommodate his size. Stairways and doorways are small and narrow. His bed is shorter than the average size. To drag even the most eccentric composer out of their own world would be psychological warfare. Still, he seems to have come out often enough to pay attention to the business of musicking and to ensure that his work would be lucrative enough for him to survive in the most practical sense. Boléro is a perfect example of this. In Ravel’s mind, the work had nothing to do with Spain. In fact, it was all about the experience of traveling in and out of the city of Paris during the height of the industrial revolution. It is the sound of getting closer and closer, hearing the clanging of steel and anvils, having it get louder and louder as you approach the city and then softer and softer as you move further away from it. He knew, though, that it would sell more if he allowed people to make of it what it sounded like to them - a trip to Spain. So he acquiesced.
This piece is much more to me than just its history or the circumstances of when and where it was written, though. It feels to me like a conversation between Ravel and his own vitality. The moments when the percussion pops in and mimics the knick-knacks on his piano are the moments of lucidity when he realizes exactly where he is in time and space. The slow and deliberate second movement is a progression in Ravel’s mind from defying his limits of the moment to accepting his mortality with a coy smile and a chuckle. The work as a whole is concentrated Ravel without any compromise. It morphs fluidly between his inner and outer lives. Perhaps it even helps us understand him on a much deeper level. He shows empathy through this piece for the process that creative people have to go through in order to confront their own earthly mortality.
I’ve sometimes thought about what music I want to play in the room where I will die. This, of course, assumes I’ll die in a room. The first thing people often think about for a situation like this is music that is slow, calming, and peaceful.
I want to go out with a wink and an assurance of joy: a joy to have been alive long enough to find myself and to celebrate the experiences of the world around me. I don’t want to go out listening to my own music, either. I want to go out with the arm of a friend like Ravel around my shoulder - not saying, “it’s all going to be alright” or “well done, good and faithful servant,” but cajoling me into whatever is next while saying “wasn’t that fun?” about the last thing.
Some mornings when I wake up, I don’t feel motivated at all. I just want to sit on the couch all day and be a lazy ass. Of course, I don’t often have the option of indulging in this. My secret recipe for motivation lies within this concerto. I watch one or two of my favorite performances of the work, and then I say to myself, “if these people, my musical icons, can do this, I can surely get off my ass and get to work.”
For all-around greatness and for a view of someone who has not let her age get the better of her or her ferocious hands, Martha Argerich is always best. Here she is in a video from just four years ago performing the Ravel Concerto with her friend Charles Dutoit conducting the orchestra. She’s 81 now, by the way.
The most motivating for me, though, is watching Leonard Bernstein play the entire concerto from memory at the piano while conducting the orchestra in front of him at the same time. None of them miss a single beat. This was in 1971 with the National Orchestra of France. It’s absolutely unbelievable. If that doesn’t get you off your ass and jumping back into the swirling music pool, no matter how tumultuous it is, I don’t know what will.
Have a great week, friends!