Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Practice Sessions

A couple of months ago Ann and I saw a remarkable piano concert at the Norton Museum of Art , Alexander Wu performing a program of Fascinating Rhythm: Music of the Americas, 20th century pieces by composers from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and as the title implies, works of Gershwin, including his Three Preludes.

The highlight after the intermission was his virtuoso performance of Fantasy on Porgy and Bess, an arrangement by Earl Wild of Gershwin’s classic opera, as a solo concert piano composition. It is an extraordinary piece: delicate and powerful at the same time, and extremely difficult to play, befitting the talents of Gershwin himself who was a gifted pianist in addition to his genius as a composer. Rare is the composer who can transcend both the popular and classical worlds and one can only wonder where his gifts would have taken him had he not died at only 38 of a brain tumor.

After the concert I met Mr. Wu and asked him about the difficulty of the piece, something he acknowledged. Unfortunately, he had not yet recorded Fantasy on Porgy and Bess (he said he will in the future), but I found one by Graham Scott, Wild Fantasy, which includes other Gershwin pieces as well. So I bought it as a downloadable MP3 and now have the pleasure of listening to Wild’s magnificent arrangements.

It is hard to explain what it is like to passionately love something you think you are on the cusp of being able to do yourself, but the remaining distance between where you are and your goal is only an illusion of closeness. You are looking through the ocular lens of the binoculars, whereas, in reality, your age and ability renders the real view through the objective lens, your dream much, much more distant in reality.

We’ve all been asked the question of what ideally you would have done with your life if you could wave that proverbial magic wand. I’ve always answered the question unhesitatingly: a jazz pianist and not too close behind a baseball pitcher. Luckily, what I actually did do professionally, publishing, would have been third choice.

Well, my pitching days are long over and the Yankees will have to go it alone without me. On the other hand the piano is something one can play for life, and since retiring I have devoted more time to it, even having recorded two CDs in a studio, just so I have something for friends and family.

After hearing the Wild arrangements I focused more effort on playing some of the music from Porgy and Bess, but my interpretations are marred by my limitations as a pianist, and while I can practice from here to kingdom come, there is just so far I can go without the requisite skills to even remotely go to the place where Wild, Wu, and Scott can bring Gershwin, not to mention the composer himself who was a highly accomplished performer. In fact Gershwin said in a preface to his own arrangements in the Spring of 1932: “Playing my songs as frequently as I do at private parties, I have naturally been led to compose numerous variations upon them, and to indulge the desire for complication and variety that every composer feels when he manipulates the same material over and over again. It was this habit of mine that led to the original suggestion to publish a group of songs not only in their simplified arrangements that the public knew [from traditional sheet music], but also in the variations that I had devised.” Just one look at those “variations” reveals the technical difficulty of his arrangements, the confluence of his jazz roots and his classical training.

The hands of the master, himself, George Gershwin

Nonetheless, I wanted to record my own practice attempts. The CDs I’ve recorded were in a studio, all relatively short pieces in a controlled environment, so they don’t sound half bad. But for my “practice sessions,” I wanted an inexpensive digital recorder for home recording, a means to establish a baseline, something I can try to improve upon over time. Therefore, I bought a Sony Digital Voice Recorder with 1GB Flash Memory that handles MP3 recording and playback and plugs directly into a USB port (and is not much larger than a USB storage device). Talk about “practice sessions” – just getting up to speed with this technology was daunting in itself.

And listening to these home recordings, so far removed from the idyllic conditions of a studio, with all the “warts” of background noise, the turning of pages of sheet music, and the mistakes, none of which can be airbrushed out with editing software, is painful for me. And as I can no longer sight-read music other than the melody line, I have to sort of make up arrangements as I go along. But Wild’s arrangement of Porgy and Bess obsessed me, so I continued to practice six songs from Porgy, playing them without pausing with little transitional phrasing, recording them on the Sony. Because of upload limitations I had to divide one such practice session (although played continuously) into two digital files, and here they are, “warts and all,” the first including Summertime, My Man’s Gone Now, I Got Plenty O’Nuttin’, and the second including Bess You is My Woman Now, It Ain’t Necessarily So, and I Loves You Porgy.

As we live on a boat over the summer, I will be without my piano and any means of making improvements, other than studying some theory, until next fall. In fact, this blog will be brief or go silent for a while, as we will be in transit. Perhaps next season I will take the lessons I should have had decades before, become less reliant on the sustain pedal (something Gershwin criticized amateurs for when playing his compositions), and take time to practice scales, something I haven’t done since I was a kid. But it will be difficult breaking bad habits, so I will be looking to make small improvements and have no illusions about making major leaps.

I’ll conclude this entry with my studio recording of Gershwin’s Love is Here to Stay, the last song Gershwin ever wrote. He and Ira were working on Samuel Goldwyn’s film, The Goldwyn Follies in Hollywood even as his headaches were increasing to the point of his having to be admitted to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on June 23, 1937. He died only a few weeks later. The range and volume of Gershwin’s work are staggering for such a short life; his brother’s lyrics say it all…

Love is Here to Stay

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay;
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies,
And in time may go!

But, oh my dear,
Our love is here to stay.
Together we're
Going a long, long way

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
They’re only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.