Again I mourn an empty vessel. Sitting in Modica, a gelateria in Charleston, I am staring at the brown incrustations left on the sides of a tiny white cup, clinging traces of a consumed doppio espresso (hearing the racing of my heart and forbearing another) … contemplating that absence, I call up the following lines from Eugenio Montale:

With a howl of loyalty
the spring storm shakes my ark,
oh my lost ones.

(tr. Edith Farnsworth)

You are introduced, the crowd is applauding, the theatre is dark, and you walk onstage, weaving towards the piano; you bow and before you know it you are seated and you are staring at this:

How can you thank a composer sufficiently for giving you something like this to play? It is not one of those delicate, evasive beginnings whose success depends on the pinpoint execution of a number of small details, in the heat of the initial moments. You begin with a few strums, as if trying out the keyboard, and before you know it you are mid-inspiration: in the throes without even trying. It is so generous, it seems to express love but in every possible direction, plurally, democratically, towards the piano, towards the listener, and even towards lowly me the performer. And you just let it fly. There is only one puzzling moment, at the end of the provided example: I have “gotten stuck” here so many times, wondering how to play this descending fourth, G to D; a pothole in the too-perfect road; at this moment, Mozart, instead of spinning out perfect, inevitable melody, seems to be “treading water,” merely filling in the harmony with an unexpressive interval… Do I play the low D as if Mozart is reaching into the underlying harmony, into another voice? Or is it part of the main melody? Luckily, just at this odd, flagging moment, the left hand interjects another strum and this seems to wake up the right hand, which leaps into another (perhaps even more unbelievable) phrase: we are back on top, baby.

I believe this “odd flagging moment” to be an intentional flaw, the one thing to make the magic melody not work. Why would Mozart choose to fail, even for a moment? Because when the violin enters, playing the same melody, and it comes to the same juncture, it “corrects the problem”:

Between the piano’s G-D, and the violin’s A-G, an enormous abyss. The piano’s resolution was non-committal, structural, neutral, a girder at the end of the phrase, holding it (classically, at a distance) in place; while the violin’s resolution is made of flesh, sound, sensuality; the sweetness of the violin’s suspension somehow finally encapsulates, expresses, condenses the generous loving idea which the piano has set forth. In that one aha! moment, the violin shows the piano how it should have been done, and brings the ecstasies of the opening down to earth. But if the piano had played the violin’s resolution earlier, at measure 4, the piece would have been prematurely complete; so the piano “had” to fail. The piano had to look for a second phrase to answer the questions of its first, but the violin makes it clear that the answer was already innate in the opening statement: that we need look no further. Rather than two paired question-answer phrases (the paradigm of classical rhetoric) we have a beautiful symmetrical setup where the initial question becomes the answer.

This resolution (over which I realize I am obsessing), in one of those beautiful paradoxes native to music, brings one motion to an end, and sets the piano on another motion: the aha! moment is the elision of the end of one endless arc, and the beginning of another: the intersection of paradises. Speaking of intersections, yesterday I was playing the “Kegelstatt” Trio, and the page turner and I were having a delightful time, like conspirators back there, because I was excessively drawing her attention to some delicious things that happen in the left hand of the piano in the last movement. You have your thematic moments, you know, when the bass has a kind of purposeful, defining motion (“boring” as such), and then you have these great moments where Mozart slips into a kind of vamp, where the bass just oscillates tonic-dominant or vice versa, and there are these simple little bassline ideas, snippets, making their smiling statements down there…. Mozart draws us into vamp hypnosis, letting us enjoy the wandering, and then–and then–just when are going under, just when the vamp nears vapidity, the theme reappears out of a twist of events, and the bass becomes happily disciplined again, does lovingly its dutiful thing, and those moments at the intersection–in which the theme, a mere thing, appears like revelation–are so wonderful you just want to kiss somebody or something. Unfortunately this is usually not appropriate onstage, and a musical moment is very hard to kiss, except by playing it just so. So it floats on by, the kissed or unkissed moment; you play it the best you can; oh my lost ones.

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  1. Noah Rogoff
    Posted June 8, 2006 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy–Glad to have looked up your very entertaining blog. I was quite disappointed that Hampden-Sydney didn’t figure in your most recent post. No matter since we could discourse endlessly about the inimitable “station cooking,” needled hammers, and nachos cooked on aluminum foil at one in the morning. The second week of the festival couldn’t approach the first due to the absence of Messrs. Denk and Eskin and the Shanghai Quartet–not to mention the closing of the Farmville Wendy’s (just kidding lest this unfortunate development condemn you to pre-performance hunger and Frosty withdrawal in future seasons). The precis of the post is merely to say hello and say how good it was to get to know you a bit down in the old dominion.

  2. Carol
    Posted June 9, 2006 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Jeremy: I loved that the elephant in your last post was pink.Apparently I am known as the person in pink when they don’t know my name.I won’t bore you with my dreams, but I’ve had some really interesting unscheduled strolls around the house and even hotel rooms – fortunately I have always woken up before venturing outside somewhere!
    As I play the string bass I appreciate your comments on the bass line of your piece. It is so exciting for me to ever have a bass part that is beautiful or fun to play. My favourite so far is in “The Planets” – “Jupiter” – at the Andante Maestoso. I am always the only bass, and this part is so beautiful (except when my fellow trombonist joined in off-key – ahem!). I rarely get to play in groups, or in concert, so I amuse myself playing along with recordings. When I do play, it’s with a youth orchestra I help run with my daughters violin teacher who is the founder and the conductor. I have no formal training – so I envy thosewho have had the privalege to have done so!
    Your observation about the performers and the audience being separate entities, and the stage as a sacred place are true. I realised this at the end of our last concert. The two ladies that are my “supervisors” at the college called me over to talk – and I was standing on the stage and they were on the theatre floor level. All of a sudden it felt weird that they were asking me questions and my opinion about things – when it was the other way around in their office. (We have a fantastic 15yr old that had composed a piece with three movements for the piano and full orchestra ( and scored it entirely on his own). He played the piano part ( and the second movement was only piano) – he also plays the trumpet and sings. It is an amazing piece, and everyone loved playing it, and the audience was overwhelmed. He has also composed many other works and intends to pursue composing in college. I have no idea how you would feel about it, or what level it is on, but he has such a level of maturity, andtalks to one so easily – I’m sure he will be someone of note in the future. Unfortunately, this was our first (and maybe last) year as an orchestra – so we weren’t exactly the best showcase for recording the debut of his concerto “The Omnipresent Piano Concerto” (Impressive name anyways!). How does someone like him find a mentor-without being able to afford the precollege programs at Juilliard or The Manhattan School of Music? My daughter and I always come to Joshuas concerts if we can (so we have seen you too – but not met you. Coming out to say hi like Joshua does helps to break down those barriers – and instead of leaving us to make inane comments – why not do what Josh Groban does so well? He asks people about themselves – like do they play an instrument(s), what groups do they play in, who are their favourite composers etc. He was the one who mentioned Joshua playing the Strad on his CD when he found out Sarah played the violin – and told her all about the expereience. (which is why I now spend a lot of money buying tickets to Josh And Joshuas’ concerts. Those type of conversations are far better than us going: “that was a great concert” and then the response to that can only be “Thanks”. We are at the concerts because we love the music, and enjoy particular performers and orchestras. In the end, we are all just people! (why DO you gravitate to bartenders anyways? There are few people in the world with your knowledge , intellect, and musical talent (? doesn’t seem like the right word – but it will do for 1 a.m.!). but there are a lot of interesting, musically inclined ladies who may be professionals in other fields at the concerts and in your travels! (Amongst the old gentlemen that actually fall asleep and SNORE LOUDLY through the concerts! (WHY DO THEY COME?)
    Anyways, one more thing. My daughter “auditions” (I don’t know why they call it that) for the Piano Guild every year – held at StonyBrook University – and ajudicated by a professor that is brought in from another state. So Sarah spend 9 mths diligently practicing Debussy’s “La Clair de Lune”. Picture the judge as a very classy southern gentleman from Louisiana in his 70’s – with that beautiful accent. After she finished playing for him _ he came out about 10 min later after writing his comments on the form and marking it. So we are anxiously waiting his brilliant critque – and instead he says m” did you know in the south we have supermarkets called the “Piggley-Wiggley”? Would you be any relation to them?”. (last name Wigley – which I need to change as soon as I’m able to – for my daughter it’s cute – she’s called “Wiggles” by her friends). So much for comments on a brilliant piano performance! I guess your worst was the one about “are you a professional pianist?” Sorry – I thought that WAS funny (since you are).
    We have one more concert on the 17th – which will be really exciting for e because I will actually get to play with adults. The Southampton Cultural Center is having a “grand re-opening” – since it was redesigned to add a stage to the main room. This is where we used to play with another youth orchestra the PYO – also run by Sarah’s teacher Dr.Perea. we played (and drove out there weekly for 5 years) – but stoped this yr when we started the SCCCYO. (my other daughter also played the flute. So Dr. Perea and his wife now play in the Hampton Chamber Orchestra and he has decided to arrange 2 numbers for all the present and past PYO members, plus the Hampton Chamber Orchestra to play together. So it should be fun, and they actually have a bassist – so I can see how bad I am! FYI – this is also where they hold a series of professional piano recitals during the year. (not a large auditorium – but it’s full!
    Lastly, as I drove Sarah back to school after the Guild – I had picked up my mail – and there was a brochure for the Lincoln Center (with the violin on the front cover). Within less than a minute Sarah said: “hey, there’s Jeremy’s name!”. So there. Even in small print you’re still famous to a 16 yr old – I guess all those concerts paid off!” p.s. I take no responsibility for content or spelling -it’s too late to care! GUTEN NACHT!

  3. hari
    Posted June 9, 2006 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    this sounds like a beautiful coordination of music; all the parts coming together resulting in harmonius unity. this is true of so much in life, when nothing makes sense at the time and when it finally does, it feels so right.

    do you know the music by heart, and if you do, is it still a good idea to use sheet music when you play?

  4. The Page Turner
    Posted July 12, 2006 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    It was quite pleasurable to share in a figurative kiss between you and Mozart. I’m glad that he was keeping your left hand occupied…

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