Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Guest Blogger: Cellist Kirill Timofeev, the Rastrelli Cello Quartet

From left: Sergio Drabkin, Kira Kraftzoff, Kirill Timofeev and Mischa Degtjareff 

The members of the well-loved Rastrelli Cello Quartet have been traveling all over Europe and America this Spring with their "From Brahms to the Beatles" tour. Award-winning cellist Kirill Timofeev, born in St. Petersburg in 1978, has worked with a range of gifted artists, including Yuri Temirkanov.

 When we do recordings, our sound engineer Christopher Tarnow is like the fifth member of the group. In a session we play each piece all the way through, then we start working on it, trying to sound good together. It's all about playing together and expressing the same mood. Christopher's ears are very good, and he always understands when to stop us, and when to just let us play.

The sessions last a long time. It's hard not to fall asleep after five hours! It's even harder, maybe, to do the recording sessions than to do the performances! We usually have to do more than one take. A live recording is much better, because of the concert feeling and the drive. Our live recordings on YouTube are not as good as if we were recording the same pieces in the studio. It's another kind of job. We should think about the YouTube recordings and prepare them specially.

On this tour we're doing two programs: Brahms and Beatles, and James Bond 007, featuring a 12-minute medley of themes from the Bond movies. Tonight we'll play selections from Karl Davidoff's Beatles Songbook. I agree with Kira Kraftzoff that the Beatles were the first band to bring the whole world together. Without understanding a single word of the lyrics, you could hear their songs in Russia, in New Guinea, everywhere! My father had the Beatles' records and he played them a lot, so it became the music of my childhood as well. And I didn't understand a word! But that was not important, actually. I cared more about the music.

I really love the Beatles' songs. Each piece has a very special moment, if you're hearing it for the first time, when you're not sure where the music will lead you. They always choose another direction. They make a very simple thing very special. It's ingenious. Our arranger Sergio can touch this moment and exaggerate it sometimes. It would be better for you to hear it than for me to talk about it. It's something that distinguishes good music from pop music.

Funny enough, this is also true in the Brahms Hungarian Dances which we play tonight. Every piece is a simple dance, but they all have a special moment of genius. Therefore these pieces are still played, and they'll never become old. We've forgotten the bad music of Brahms' time. Nobody cares about it anymore! But really good stuff always stays alive. The similarities between Brahms and the Beatles occurred to me just this morning, and I think I should talk to my colleagues about it. Maybe we unconsciously chose to program them together.

In some of the Beatles' recordings that include strings, like Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, the studio musicians didn't take what they were doing very seriously. I think those pieces have the potential to be done in many different and interesting ways. Very often Beatles' covers are quite boring, except for the one by The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic. They did that recording in the 1970s, and it was revolutionary. No classical musicians had ever touched pop music before that. Now it's more common. The goal for us is to take each song and treat it like a jewel, like a classical piece.

Some people in our audience tonight will recognize their favorite Beatles' songs of course, and that's nice for them. But we're not necessarily trying to excite nostalgia or dreams of youth. We're playing this music for now, for the present. Tonight we're playing at Holy Names University, so we'll probably attract some younger people. It's one of our goals to show them that our music can be--I don't want to call it cool, but show that it's relevant to modern life, and that it's serious. Brahms' music is still modern, even though it was written 150 years ago. Maybe we'll attract some younger fans tonight! Four cellos are seldom heard together.

Funny enough, our youngest audiences are always in Russia. I don't really understand why. Maybe it's because the concerts start earlier, at seven. You invite your girlfriend to the classical concert and make a good impression, and later you can go to the disco! The whole situation is changing. It used to be classical musicians were thought of as snobby geniuses who didn't give interviews or talk to the audience. We don't feel that we're big stars, with our heads in the clouds. We love meeting the audience after the show! Staying at a hotel or eating in some restaurant, you don't have time to get in touch with people. After the concert it's really easy to start a conversation, and in America people are always ready to talk with us. It's great, I love it!

When I'm not on tour I live part of the time in Germany, and part of the time in St. Petersburg, where my wife lives. She's a doctor. It makes no sense for her to stay with me in Germany because I'm not at home much, I'm usually traveling. The quartet has a lot of gigs in Europe. But in Europe you can drive to them in a car!

I've been more or less on the road for the last six years. It's a great experience and a great chance to play for a lot of people and meet them. It's interesting to compare different countries. People who love culture are everywhere. They're the same, they understand each other, whether they're in Poland or Russia or Israel. They are much closer to one another than the politicians. I think things would be better if all the politicians would get together and sing some songs!

The world is very connected now. You can't just look at one country. We only know what we read, but politicians at the highest levels are discussing other things. They're global chess players. They can tell us about human rights, but they have their own agenda. To understand this situation I should at least study economics. I have no idea about economics! Nothing! I have no idea how it works! I can read various articles in German and in Russian, but why should I trust these people? Before giving an opinion about world events, the author should know their subject better than me.

I'm not here to give my opinion of things I know nothing about. My goal is to build bridges.

I want to thank our sound partner Christopher Tarnow, Jean Schreiber of Classics Alive Artists, and every presenter who invited us on this tour. These people really love the music. And thanks to the Meadowlark Music Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska. We have a lot of good friends there. And there are so many others.

2018-04-20Chicago, IL USANortheastern Illinois University
2018-04-22Abingdon, VA USAAbingdon Church
2018-04-24Willow Valley, PA USAWillow Valley Community Center
2018-04-26Memphis, TN USAConcerts International
2018-04-27Augusta, GA USAHarry Jacobs Chamber Music Society
2018-04-28 7:30 PMSarasota FL USAArtist Series Concerts of Sarasota
2018-04-29 3 PMSarasota FL USAArtist Series Concerts of Sarasota
2018-05-04Lauffen DEAlte KelterFrom Brahms to Beatles
2018-05-13 17:00Darmstadt DECentralstationVon Brahms bis Beatles

Monday, September 25, 2017

My Portrait of Pianist Ivan Ilić

I had promised my friend, Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilić, to do a portrait of him. Months became years. I was working on it -- I wanted it to be just right. I tried many versions, and nothing seemed good enough.

I chatted about it with Ivan around the time he was recording the piano music of Morton Feldman. While listening to those incredible sounds I was infused with a sense of the spare, chaste, penetrating and profound quality of Feldman's vision as interpreted by Ivan. I realized I had to take the same approach in this portrait, to strip away all the busyness, and just let Ivan's personality emerge. Easy, right? Not so much, but now I was on the right path.

He said he liked it. (Phew!)

Ivan's new CD is Reicha Rediscovered, from Chandos.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Riots, and Booing as a Permissible Response

Guest Blogger: Adam Stern, Conductor of the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 3 / Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
Benaroya Hall, Seattle on June 3, 2017 at 2pm

Igor Stravinsky would have been thirty or thirty-one from the time that he conceived The Rite of Spring to the time he finished writing it.  It was the third of three ballets that he wrote for the Ballet Russe company under the artistic direction of Sergei Diaghilev. The first was The Firebird, which catapulted him from obscurity to instant fame, and this was followed by the very successful Petrouchka, which was in turn followed by The Rite of Spring, which caused the most famous opening night riot of any piece in classical music history.

The piece broke what people considered all of the extant rules--especially of what rhythm was, and of what a symphony orchestra could do. As some people observed, The Rite of Spring sometimes turns the entire orchestra into a vast percussion instrument. There's this one measure that the orchestra loves to play, where virtually everybody is just repeating the same note eleven times, but it's this massive discord: Wham, wham, wham, wham, wham! It's like the whole orchestra's a big drum, and it's tremendous fun!

But this constant rhythmic asymmetry, and what were perceived as these yawping dissonances, and the unique ways that he deployed the orchestra, coupled of course with the fact that the choreography was considered quite revolutionary--apparently, within a few minutes there were hisses and boos and laughter and catcalls, and it just continued to erupt. There were people in the audience who genuinely liked it. Maurice Ravel was there, trying to get people around him to shut the heck up because he really wanted to listen. He thought Stravinsky was a genius. So there certainly were points of view on both sides.

Stravinsky was enraged, of course, by the riot that accompanied The Rite of Spring. He said, "This was my musical child. I loved it. It had come so naturally to me. I didn't understand why everybody else didn't get it." He just got up out of his seat and said, "Go to hell!" to all the people around him, and stomped out of the the theatre.

I don't know that that kind of reaction is necessarily going to happen very often anymore, if at all. The whole face of classical music has changed. And now, if you'll forgive me for ascending my soapbox: over the last several decades, with the withdrawal of so many music programs from schools--I don't want to say that we've become an unmusical culture, but music does not come as naturally to us as it used to. And I may be be making a blanket statement here, but I think that today a lot of audiences for symphony concerts have this mindset of: Well, if the orchestra is playing it, it's got to be good, so if I don't like or get it, it's my fault.

When Gerard Schwarz was conductor of the Seattle Symphony, I went to every concert that he did. He did a very healthy amount of new music, of world and local premieres. And in all those years, I can remember only one concert where the piece got booed. One! Now, I don't think people should disrupt performances. I don't think it's proper to interrupt the concentration of those who might be enjoying it. But to not applaud or to boo, I think if you're not ostentatious about it, is a perfectly admissible reaction!

I myself once ferociously booed a concert in Los Angeles. The woman I was with, who had never seen that side of me before, was incredibly embarrassed! I shouldn't name names, but it was the Los Angeles Philharmonic under a very famous guest conductor whose work I didn't know, so I went in hoping that I would love it, expecting to love it. He ended the concert with one of my favorite pieces in the literature, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, a piece I've known since I was a child. I know it fairly intimately; I know all of its ins and outs. This is one of those conductors--he's still with us--who essentially said, I don't care if Rachmaninov said, stay in tempo. I want to slow down here! I want to lean on this note! This performance is about me, and how I feel about the piece! And he just took that piece and stretched it, and mauled it, and did all sorts of what I thought were incredibly offensive things in the putative name of expression. I held on until the last bar, and then I let forth this "BOO!" My poor date said she wanted to move several rows away!

After I'd calmed down a little bit she said, "Look, I'm a novice. What was it that got you so upset? Because it sounded fine to me." I said, "Okay. Imagine, if you will, that Shakespeare is sacred to you. That every word he wrote is like a religion to you. It is understood that when an actor undertakes a part, of course he or she is going to bring to it their sensibility, their rhythm, their natural conception of speech based on how they interpret these lines. The director of course will have his or her input. But it's assumed that one person may go:

To be, or not to be. That is the question...

Or another may be more tense:

To be or not to be, that is the question!

Or another may be more languid:

To be...or not to the question.

But these are all legitimate takes on these words. So I said to this woman, "Now imagine that you've come to a performance of this play that you love, and somebody goes:


That is what he just did to that piece."

And she said, "Okay, now I understand."

Regarding Stravinsky's initial efforts as a composer--and I felt a little guilty because I don't like dissing my hero--but when I wrote the program notes for this concert, I mentioned his Opus 1, the Symphony in E-flat Major.  I've played it for people who were very musically knowledgeable who were shocked to discover that it was Stravinsky! It sounds like Glazunov on a particularly boring day. It's this very dutiful, four-movement Russian romantic symphony that goes through all the right motions, and really doesn't do very much. I mean it's pretty. it's listenable. It wouldn't offend anybody.  But it's certainly not the striking Stravinsky that we know from when he hit his stride in The Firebird.