Sunday, March 1, 2009

Soundscape with Maria Bachmann & Jon Klibonoff

Last night was a special night in the musical life of Harrisburg with the world premiere of a new work by a world-renowned composer. I’ll get to Philip Glass’s Violin Sonata - and the rest of the performance by Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff – in the next post. This one is about one of the educational outreach programs Market Square Concerts calls “Soundscapes,” made possible with support from the Foundation for Enhancing Communities.

On Friday afternoon, I dropped in on the Soundscape event at Whitaker Center with Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff talking and playing for about a hundred students from the Capital Area School for the Arts, the Nativity School and the Harrisburg Academy.

When I got there a few minutes late, having underestimated the time it would take finding a parkable place in the garage, Maria had just begun talking about some of the “special effects” available on the violin – pizzicato, plucking the strings in different ways, and strumming chords on it kind of like a guitar or ukelele. Then she and Jon played the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata, the famous “Blues” which must’ve sounded pretty funky in 1927 when French composers were just becoming fascinated by American jazz.

They each talked about how they “discovered” music. For Maria, growing up in Philadelphia, she started playing at the family piano (her father was a pianist) and so they started her on lessons when she was about four years old. Not long after that, she discovered her grandfather’s violin in the basement and thought it must be like a guitar, so she started strumming at it like that (cool, after hearing her play the ukelele-like blues movement by Ravel) - then her father showed her the right way to hold it and suggested if she liked it, she could take lessons on the violin, too. Eventually she found she liked the violin better than the piano and dropped the piano lessons.

Jon had a similar story, with musician parents who had a piano in the house, also. His kindergarten teacher played the piano and accompanied the class when they’d sing little songs. Jon would go home and try plunking the songs out on the family piano. When he started adding harmony to the tunes, they decided perhaps the kid should start taking lessons. Later, he went on to the Manhattan School of Music where he now teaches. He’s a busy pianist and teacher, loves to play chamber music and is part of the piano trio, Trio Solisti, along with Maria and cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach who’d be familiar to Harrisburg audiences as a member of Concertante, by the way.

Maria wouldn’t admit to how many years ago she and Jon met and started playing together (“it’d be too embarrassing”) but she told the story how Jon was accompanying her boyfriend who was also a violinist. So they started playing together regularly. When she and the boyfriend broke up, she kept the pianist ;-) and they’ve been making music together ever since.

After they played the last two movements of the Brahms sonata on their program – a light, lyrical intermezzo and then the dramatic, driven finale – she mentioned that sometimes people ask her why she moves around so much. It’s almost impossible for her not to move when playing music like this – she mentioned how rock-stars move on stage when they’re playing and she feels “this is my rock music – ‘cause we think it ROCKS!” And the kids applauded in agreement.

(Incidentally, it was cool to hear a friend in the audience say after the recital that this was a great concert to watch as well as listen to. She’s an engaging performer to see - very expressive, often smiling and clearly enjoying what she’s playing and who she’s playing it for.)

And then they talked about the work that was commissioned for them to perform for Market Square Concerts, a world premiere right here in Harrisburg PA. You can read more about Philip Glass’s Violin Sonata in my previous post here.

It’s hardly an exaggeration when Jon said he went to Glass’ website and saw that on almost every day of the year, a work by Philip Glass is being performed somewhere in the world. True, there were eight days in February that nothing’s listed on the calendar (March, by comparison, looks like a slow month, only half-full), but then consider that on February 27th, his Violin Concerto was being performed in Novosibirsk, Russia, his 2nd String Quartet was being performed in Worcestershire, England, that Glass himself was performing his Songs Based on Poems of Leonard Cohen in southern California, and that his music “The Light” was being danced to in New York City as part of a six-day run. He was playing opposite himself on Saturday: his performance at Claremont CA meant he couldn’t be in Harrisburg for his latest world premiere. But he did send an e-mail to be read to the audience before the concert, and I’ll post that later, as well.

They talked about the whole process of working with a composer who’d been asked to write a piece for them to play, how they familiarized themselves with other works of his – Jon was working on the piano pieces adapted from the Oscar-nominated film score for “The Hours” – how they played different things for Glass so he could familiarize himself with how they played. Then they went back and played the piece for him as he was working on it to get each other’s reactions and suggestions. After all, there were no other performances to rely on or recordings to listen to. But they did have a living, breathing composer to talk to, something they couldn’t do with Ravel or Brahms.

Maria said there was a lot of give-and-take in the process. Many of the technical suggestions she made about the solo violin part ended up in the final score. But she was kind of reluctant to make one suggestion to the composer: after all, he is Philip Glass.

The whole first movement is in G Minor but the final chord of the movement is a G Major chord and she felt it didn’t sound... well, quite right. He asked to hear it played with a G Minor chord instead and then had them play the whole movement both ways. In the end, he decided to change the last chord to a G Minor chord.

Not a big deal, you think? I was sitting there wondering what Brahms would have told her if she’d said “You know, Dr. Brahms, that D Major chord at the end of the first movement of your D Minor Violin Sonata...” Hmmm... But of course, Brahms is dead, so we’ll never know.

(After hearing both of these sonatas played back-to-back, I have to admit they’re two very different situations: the voicing in the Brahms didn’t make for the sharp unexpected contrast she felt from Glass’s final chord and couldn’t be changed. I felt the change in the Glass didn’t ruffle the mood which the major chord might have done.)

Then they played the third movement. After the final wisp evaporated at the end, the audience applauded and then applauded again when Jon mentioned, by the way, “you were the very first people to hear this music” – they’d never played it for anyone else except the composer. I was sitting behind Lucy Miller Murray – the piece was commissioned by her husband Martin Murray as a 70th birthday present for her – and they hadn’t even heard this movement yet, only the 1st movement!

Then the kids had a chance to ask a number of questions, ranging from practicing to her 1782 Gagliano violin. Then they played an encore – Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” – before being whisked off to WITF for a live broadcast that afternoon.

On the drive out, they both told Ellen Hughes what a wonderful audience the kids were – attentive all the way through the hour (plus a few more minutes) and asking really intelligent, insightful questions. It was a very positive experience for both of them and, apparently, judging from the students’ response as they were leaving (see very dark photo, left), positive for them, too.

Earlier in the week, Truman Bullard did another part of this “Soundscape” presentation, talking on Monday to the students at Capital Area School for the Arts and on Thursday to students at the Nativity School. He gave them some background on the violin, had a violinist with him who demonstrated different playing techniques on the instrument, using Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice as an example. In addition to the changing role of the pianist in sonata collaborations – going from simple supportive accompanying to the true equal-partnership that you’ll hear in the Brahms sonatas – Truman talked about the different types of music which we normally describe as “Classical” or “Romantic” – how the first is more technical and abstract, the second more emotional and freer than the other – even showing them two different paintings of Paganini, the one by Ingres more classical, objective and realistic and the other, by Delacroix, with its darkness and more vague, subjective depiction of the violinist, more Romantic, though they’re both of the same man: you could play his music either way and still be playing the same piece though it might sound different.

It is easy for people to complain how little good arts education there is in the public schools today, given the economy and the budgets or, even before that, of the “either/or attitude” that prefers science/math and sports over the arts rather than finding a way to include them all in the curriculum. This doesn’t mean it’s absent from the schools today, but considerably lessened from what it was when I was a student and quite possibly from when you were a student.

So when an arts organization like Market Square Concerts sends someone out to the schools to talk about an up-coming concert or brings the students in to hear the artists who’ll be performing those concerts in a day or two, it’s not about selling tickets. It is, in a very real sense of the word, “long-range planning” and “investing in the future,” not to mention “improving the community.” Market Square Concerts is committed to continuing their Soundscapes next season. You can support it, too, by contacting them to make a contribution.

-- Dr. Dick

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