October 6, 2014

Flute Flamingo and Gretna Semiotics

You have heard stories about patients in hard times paying doctors with a chicken or a head of cabbage. In my view that's a better system than the Byzantine one in the US under which we spend part of our fee to justify it to the insurance company and the insurer tries to find reasons not to pay.

In Gretna, however, we bring humor and sophistication to the exchange, not just farm produce, and cut the insurers out of the transaction. Here, for example, is payment for a comprehensive neurologic "Evaluation and Management Service," E & M 99206.xxxxx. (Don't bother with 12 pages detailing what the service entails. If any of its required parts, say "one fact each about past, family and social history," are not properly documented, the hapless doctor can go to jail.)

Flute (piccolo) Flamingo, parts contributed by other instruments

The artist is my neighbor, Max Hunsicker, a drummer and musician who has has introduced generations of school children to the joys of music and Broadway plays and shows. One of Max's many talents is fashioning a flamingo for any occasion: to advertise the annual homeowners meeting, the beginning of the school year, or to mock the "Shitauqua," a sewage pumping station that sprouted last Spring to greet drivers as they emerge in our Shangri-La out of the long tunnel of trees on route 117. 

Any resident may awaken to find a pink flamingo nailed to a tree in his yard. Ours is a pair, one playing a piano, the other a flute. When I broke my leg, a flamingo appeared on a pair of crutches. The practice has gone on for over 20 years, but the flamingos have only recently achieved three-dimensional form.

We presented another member of the musical flamingo family to Susan, another neighbor, to reward her for her fine service as our board president.

September 9, 2014

Bassoons, again

The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.
. . . from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner
"Coleridge didn’t know much about the bassoon . . . or he wouldn’t have said it was loud. The bassoon’s liability as an orchestral instrument is that it is quite soft, much softer in volume than its size would suggest. . . . But bassoonists the world over are grateful to Coleridge for including them in his stanza."

I have known many bassoonists, This one, the fictitious Paul Chowder in Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, is a hoot:

"My bassoon was a Heckel bassoon, made of maplewood, stained very dark, almost black, with a nickel-plated ring on top. I loved it because it looked like a strange undersea plant, something that would live in the darkness of the Marianas Trench, near a toxic fumarole. My wonderful grandparents bought it for me, and I performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on it, and Ravel’s Bolero, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and Vivaldi’s A minor bassoon concerto.

People often confuse the words “bassoon” and “oboe….” I think it’s because the word “oboe” sounds sort of like a sound emanating from a bassoon: oboe. But the two instruments look very different. The oboe is small and black and your eyes pop out staringly when you play it, and it’s used all the time in movie soundtracks during plaintive moments, whereas the bassoon is a brown snorkel that pokes up at an angle above the orchestra. You almost feel you could play it underwater while the violists and oboists gasp and splutter.

Hindemith, a composer, outraged me when he wrote that the bassoon, “with its clattering long levers and other obsolete features left in a somewhat fossil condition,” was due for a major overhaul. I had to admit, though, that the keys did make a lot of noise. There’s no way to play a fast passage without some extraneous clacking. Listen to Scheherazade—you’ll hear all kinds of precise metallic noises coming from the bassoonist.

I put in thousands of hours of practice, shredding my lips, permanently pushing my two front teeth apart. And then I decided I wasn’t going to be a musician, because I wasn’t that good, and my jaw was hurting badly and I had headaches from too much blowing. I was going to be a poet instead. I sold my beloved Heckel to Bill, my bassoon teacher, for ten thousand dollars. Suddenly I felt free and very rich. I quit music school and flew to Berkeley, California, and took a poetry class with Robert Hass, who was a good teacher.

Selling my bassoon was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. I’ve regretted it a thousand times since. And here’s the strange thing. I’ve written three books of poems, and I’ve never once written a bassoon poem. I have never used the word “bassoon” in a single poem. Not once. I guess I was saving it up, which is not always a good idea.

August 28, 2014

Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil (Vespers)

There may be a reason you never heard--or heard of--Rachmaninov's Vespers, and for the unusual difficulty I had finding out about it to prepare for my pre-concert talk on Sept 7, when Choral Arts Philadelphia will sing Vespers in the Playhouse by candlelight. Inna Lobanova-Heasley, a native Russian and singer with Choral Arts explains:
During my first 24 years of life in the Soviet Russia, having studied classical music and its history at a full-time music school for eight years, I had no idea about the existence of the Vespers or any other sacred music by any other composer whatsoever! This is how well this information was locked away from public eye in the Soviet Union.  
(Link to blog post with musical clip below)
We talked about how Christianity was brought to Russia almost two millennia ago, its liturgy, primarily by St. John Chrysostom, entirely in song (June 29). Though Rachmaninov avoided affiliation with the established church, he was not an irreligious man and church music and ritual were powerful influences on his life. "Vespers" is an English translation of the original Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye, literally "All-Night Vigil," music for a night-long service celebrated in Russian monasteries and, on the eves of holy days, in Russian Orthodox churches.

The text contains Russian Orthodox versions of Latin hymns familiar to Westerners, including the Gloria in excelsis, Ave Maria, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. As in the Latin Vespers service, the source of most of the text is the Book of Psalms and the Gospels. Several sections come from age-old Znamenny chants, traditional monophonic songs known from the first consistently identifiable znamenniy (signs) by which Russian sacred music was notated, the chants dating back at least to the fifteenth century and probably earlier. Others are based on what the Russian church calls Greek chant, a seventeenth-century refinement involving the use of one-note recitatives and simple melismas. Two are traditional Kiev chants, with music alternating, in the style of Ukrainian folk music, between recitative and melodic parts. Finally, two songs are designated as troparia, examples of an ancient type of poetic invocation used in Eastern and Russian Orthodox services. (Nick Jones)

Rachmaninov wrote the Vespers in 1915 when at the height of his powers at age 42 according to the church tradition of unaccompanied voices. After his escape from the revolution in 1917 with his family on an open sled to Helsinki, he felt that he had lost some of his creativity. He became a touring virtuoso pianist playing is own compositions (like "Rach 1, 2, and 3" concertos), and living in Hollywood, probably experiencing new kinds of All-Night Vigils.

Notes: This concert will NOT last all night! Inna Lobanova-Heasley's lovely blog post is here.

August 11, 2014

"My Music"

One time I started listing what Leonard Bernstein meant by "hardening of the categories": rock, classical, pop, country-western, jazz…. A long list, maybe an artifact of recording-era catalogs. 

Some of our patrons come for only one concert each summer, the one in their category.

One determinant of your category is when you grew up. We can predict the age of the audience at Gretna Theater's "retrospectives: music of the '40's, '50's," etc. (disregard the roaring '20's background at intermissions), and maybe those attending our August 30 Tierney Sutton sings Joni Mitchell (music of the '70's, '80's; category: "pop/rock/jazz"). That's because, according to psychologist Dan Levitin, 
Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes. You’re in the ninth grade, confronting the tyrannies of sex and adulthood, struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool — the capital of young life. Musical tastes become a badge of identity in social contexts framed by pop culture.
I don't know the science of that assertion but it held true for me. As a child I raced through categories. Home sick from first grade I called in a request to local AM radio for a gospel song, Up Above My Head. Next I marched to the Cities Service Band of America every Monday night after we finally got FM. I liked broadcasts of Marian McPartland and the Oklahoma City Symphony and the Boston Pops and Leroy Anderson. I wish my parents had listened to the Met Opera on Saturday afternoons.

At about age thirteen, after hearing my father play them since I learned to walk, I invaded his collection of "78's." Schubert, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Sibelius were his badges of identity, and thus became mine. An identity like his was my goal.

Millennials speak of "my music." If it fits into a category ("genre" on iTunes), they may not know which, but they can easily find the most popular songs, the sources of cool. Many avoid the classical genre ("your music," they say), as some parents, schools, and even churches have. What will they will listen to when they mature?

Like arteries, categories start hardening early in life. I try to keep mine open. 

"Music, Mr. Gershwin," said Alban Berg, "is music."

July 27, 2014

Music vs. Alzheimer

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

"I hope (with no evidence) that playing the flute (actually practicing hard and thoughtfully) every day improves my physical and mental health and may delay (for how long?) Alzheimer's or vascular disasters." (CAN MUSIC HEAL? July 6)

That hope made sense to me in several ways partly because music is a language and multilingualism has been found in studies to delay Alzheimer's Disease.

My hope is also supported by a study I just stumbled upon by psychologists at the University of Toronto. After testing middle to older-age adults, they concluded:
Musicians outperformed non-musicians on [several transfer tasks] and on a composite measure of cognitive control. The results suggest that sustained music training or involvement is associated with improved . . . cognitive functioning in older adults.
("Transfer" means the transfer of skills learned in one task, like playing the flute, to others like, say, building a birdhouse, though they didn't test those particular tasks.)  

The article is understandable by anyone without specialized training. It reviews evidence supporting other benefits of playing music at all ages. It is a good example of what I said (July 6) about the difference between hopes, aims, claims, programs, unequivocal beliefs, ultimate goals, and evidence-based science--when you talk about the reasons for playing and listening to music. 

It isn't, however, the 'final answer' to any question, just one small piece that needs to be confirmed in the mosaic of understanding music in the brain, which is one only aspect of brain function. It points in the direction of more experiments.

Even more accessible to the general reader is Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasen in The Atlantic (July/August). In a wonderful article she mentions a 2007 study that found that orchestral musicians have a more active Broca's area of neocortex, one of the areas associated with language. Creative people more likely have mood disorders and families with schizophrenia.

July 14, 2014

Welcome to our 2014 Festival of Russian Music, Pt. II

(to Follow Pt. I, June 29)

The first great Russian composer to import native Russian music traditions into the realm of secular classical music was Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), who composed the early Russian language operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila (listen to Anna Netrebko’s 1995 recording of that opera.) They were neither the first operas in the Russian language nor the first by a Russian, but they gained fame for relying on distinctively Russian tunes and themes and the vernacular.

Russian folk music became the primary source for the next generation composers. A group that was inadvertently named by a journalist and called itself "The Mighty Little Band" (moguchaya kuchka) of talented musical mavericks and autodidacts, headed by Balakirev and including Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky (July 6), Borodin and César Cui, proclaimed its purpose to compose and popularize Russian national traditions in classical music. Glinka and the kuchka (A.K.A. "Mighty Five") based their works on Russian history, folk tales and literature and they are now regarded as masterpieces of romantic nationalism in music. Tchaikovsky (July 6 and 20 Aug 9,) was the first Russian composer to rise beyond nationalism and gain international fame, benefitting from the French ballet industry seeking patronage in Russia as its support dwindled in France. He participated in the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891.

The lives and works of twentieth-century Russian composers, in particular Stravinsky (Aug 9 and 31), Rachmaninov (Aug 3, Sept 7), Prokofiev (July 6 and 20), and Shostakovich (Aug 9), all intersected the World Wars, the 1917 Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. They and others were strongly influenced by these collisions.

Stravinsky found refuge in Paris early enough escape persecution and to benefit from collaboration with the celebrated (Russian émigré) dance impresario Serge Diaghilev. He burst onto the world stage at age 28 with three ballets between 1910 in 1913 including Le Sacre du Printemps that caused a riot. He later emigrated to New York.

Emigrating on an open sled with his family to Helsinki in 1917 at age 44 Rachmaninoff also escaped persecution and wars and embarked on a busy career in the US managed by a concert agent as pianist and conductor. His burden was the feeling, shared by others, that he left his inspiration behind, in Russia and also in the 19th century. He wrote Vespers (All-night Vigil) in Petrograd in 1915 (to be performed Sept 7).

Prokofiev and Shostakovich became literally prisoners of Joseph Stalin. Lured back from the US to Russia in 1936 (the year he wrote Peter and the Wolf) hoping to rescue a faltering career, Prokofiev was largely disappointed—and then the exit doors closed. Unhappy, he left his wife Lina for a student, and shortly afterwards Lina was imprisoned for 8 years in the gulag. Prokofiev died in 1953, literally unnoticed because Stalin also died that day and Russians flocked into the streets for days of ceremonies and parades. After her release Lina spent the rest of her life, 33 years, as her former husband’s cultural ambassador.

In 1936 after walking out of a command performance Stalin threatened Shostakovich’s life in a ‘review’ in Pravda. The opera, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District, like the musical plays of the skomorokhi, threatened the dictator (a “formalistic” work that justifies murder of a tyrant: “a muddle instead of music”). The threat could not escape notice of all Soviet composers and some sided with the regime. Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony--a musical prediction of the horrors to come -- and offered the (apparently) less ‘formalistic’ Fifth Symphony, “a composer’s response to justified criticism.” Oblivious to the irony in the subtitle and the ‘forced rejoicing’ in the music, a cheering audience gave a 30-minute standing ovation at the premiere. The Fifth may have saved the composer’s life (but not the lives of some of his family and friends). Thereafter arose the tendency to look for hidden messages in Soviet art and especially in Shostakovich’s music.

After WW II The Soviet Ministry of Culture convened in 1946-8 an extraordinary series of conferences at which charges were brought against deviant artists in literature, film and music. All were charged with “formalism,” writing works that were “against the people,” a code for elite modernism, something that the doctrine of socialist realism expressly forbade (as Aaron Copland was persuaded to tone down the end of his ‘modernistic’ Third Symphony on the US side of the cold war). Shostakovich’s works were banned, he was fired from the Moscow Conservatory, and that is when he wrote the “antiformalistic rayok,” to the tune of Stalin’s favorite song, Suliko, satirizing the regime and echoing the medieval skomorkhi. Conscripted to write music for Stalin’s self-congratulatory films Shostakovich felt that assignment may have actually prolonged his life, at least until Stalin died. After the dictator’s death the Fourth Symphony premiered in 1961.

On a rare visit to the West in 1958, according to Isaiah Berlin, “Shostakovich looked like a man who had passed most of his life in some dark forbidding place under supervision of jailers…his face would assume a haunted, even persecuted expression and he would fall into a terrified silence.” The humor of the student concerto we will hear on August 9 eventually turned more dark and sarcastic. He was clearly affected by the horror of repression during the war and the Soviet era and most compositions reflect that. Shortly after he was diagnosed with ALS he dedicated his String Quartet No 8 in 1960 "to the victims of fascism and war." His son, Maxim, interprets this as a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism, while his daughter Galina says that he dedicated it to himself and that the published dedication was imposed by the Russian authorities. Shostakovich's friend, Lev Lebedinsky, said that Shostakovich thought of the work as his epitaph and that he planned to commit suicide around this time. We remember the bird in the rafters of the Playhouse that, contrary to the score, continued singing after the final quiet cello solo ended.

The death of Stalin brought a liberalizing trend--freedom from the “accessibility,” “transparency,” and affirmative public statements demanded by the Soviets. Students were no longer expelled from the Moscow Conservatory for possessing scores of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and Soviet musicians came into previously risky and forbidden contact with the music of the European avant-garde, Pierre Boulez, for example. Twelve-tone music began to flourish.

But in the 1970’s Alfred Schnittke abandoned serial technique in favor of eclecticism that he called “polystylistics.” His works, clearly those of a resentful marginalized artist, were still prohibited by the regime until the glasnost’ of Mikhail Gorbachev. Then all hell broke loose with 22 concertos, many for an outstanding generation of late-Soviet soloists, abandoning any limits. (Schnittke “undressd in public,” one critic said). His music contains “plush romantic lyricism, chants and chorales and hymns (real or made up), actual or invented ‘historical’ flotsam (neoclassic, neobaroque, even neomedieval), and every make and model of jazz and pop” and “tackled life-against-death, love-against-hate, good-against-evil, freedom-against-tyranny, and I-against-the-world” (Taruskin) much as Shostakovich had tackled evil-against-good.

Schnittke began to command Shostakovich’s immense following. By the time the cold war ended in Europe (with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991) not only Schnittke, but practically his whole generation of Soviet composers--including Sofia Gubaidulina (Aug 31)-- were living abroad...the result of a mass migration or “brain drain” that paralleled the one that attended the beginning of Soviet power in 1917. Of actual “Tatar” or Mongolian descent Gubaidulina’s predilection for religious subject matter has been considered a mark of political dissidence in the waning years of Soviet authority that deemed her music “irresponsible.” Shostakovich encouraged her to continue down her “mistaken path.”

It is always fascinating for me to ponder how the lives of artists affected their work. That is an easier, but frequently a very sad task, when it is about Russians. 

Our Russian Festival continues next Sunday, July 20, at Ware Center in Lancaster at 7:30. Pianist Claire Huangci will play ballet scenes from Prokofiev's Cinderella and Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. You can use all the same tickets there you usually bring to the Playhouse. Buy more here.
Спасибо за прибытие,
Карл Элленберджер

July 6, 2014


Byron Janis is a magnificent pianist. I admire his recordings and treasure my old vinyl disk of his Strauss Burleske with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. So I was intrigued when a board member asked me as Gretna Music's "resident" (not "renowned") neurologist to comment on Janis' "A Healing Art" in the WSJ (May 8). 

Almost immediately popping into the cloud above my head was an image of a pot of chicken soup, still considered ‘therapeutic’ for just about any ailment. Indeed, sometimes it is -- when you need hydration, nutrients, electrolytes, warmth, loving care from friends and relatives. 

Janis’ pot contains a variety of good stuff: broad generalizations, aims, and assertions like, “the ancients’ drums, rattles and digeridoos--had huge diagnostic and healing properties,” or music “enhances the brain’s ability to facilitate healing,” or “music is believed to recruit uninjured parts of the brain to compensate for parts that have been injured, and help those parts that are injured recover.” 

And Janis throws into his pot anecdotes like “music brought back all the joys the house had known,” or “slowly brought back her ability to speak,” and “many told me how much music had helped their recovery,” or “patients went from being catatonic to fully functional.”

Janis describes a program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where, according to the hospital, "working with actual instruments, patients learn, play, compose and record music." The program "aims to enhance the healing process . . . enrich the lives of patients, visitors and staff and help relieve the stress often associated with a hospital setting." Novel idea. Good aims. Maybe we could (hoho) try it in schools?

'All of the above' are good intentions and maybe some will take off. I have no doubt that music can help some people sometimes feel better. Music can soothe or boost emotions. For many people it provides instant comforting familiarity. It can trigger memories and bring to mind forgotten words or verses. Like William Styron (Darkness Visible) I turn to music sometimes when I feel sad. And I hope (with no evidence) that playing (actually practicing hard and thoughtfully) my flute every day improves my physical and mental health and may delay (for how long?) Alzheimer's or vascular disasters. 

Some Parkinson patients can move or walk better to music. And we think that teaching music in early education is more effective for developing young brains than trying to teach statistics or philosophy to pre-kindergartners. And it seems self-evident that teaching children to play the violin in a small group is better education in the long term for some of them than busing the class to a symphony concert. I am all for having a piano, Yamaha or Steinway, in every home, all children learning music, and hope that we can eventually prove that music heals in many ways.

As he disclosed in the WSJ, Janis serves as Presidential Advisor for the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute (YMWI). Associated, I presume, with Yamaha Corp, manufacturer of musical instruments, YMWI states its "ultimate goal is to enable individuals of all ages, regardless of prior experience, to discover the joy and personal benefits of playing a musical instrument" (for sale by Yamaha). YMWI president, the actual "renowned" neurologist referenced by Janis, Dr. Barry Bittman, has been among a group of authors who published a small amount of "peer-reviewed scientific research focusing on stress reduction from psychosocial to genomic levels utilizing novel creative music expression strategies."

But whether, and how, music may be therapeutic is a huge, complex, daunting challenge. What modes of therapy in what conditions? There are far more hopes, aims, claims, programs, "unequivocal" beliefs, "ultimate goals," articles like this--and apparently conflicting interests--than science bearing on the issue. 

Most medical and "alternative" therapies are used for decades before anyone thinks to test their effectiveness, many enriching the therapists more than the patients, at least after their hope wears off. In previous centuries people fervently believed in the efficacy of leeches, phlebotomy, tonsillectomy. These therapies are still used--but only in specific circumstances, not as universal cures, of everything for everyone. We need to learn the specifics of music therapy too. That's the "challenge" Julene Johnson refers to in a recent PBS Special Report. 

The field or Discipline of "Music Therapy," taught in universities, is "the evidence-based use of music in clinical situations that help people reach desired health outcomes." What actually happens too often is application of the term "music therapy" to any attempts, rarely "evidence-based" to improve lives using music. (Warning: What qualifies me with an ancient board certification in Neurology to pronounce judgment on the entire new discipline of Music Therapy that I know little about? Answer: Not much! But I know what "evidence-based" means.)

The questions must be specific, far more so than "Can Music Heal?" Scientists are working, each with a very narrow piece of the puzzle. Among dozens or hundreds of variables, you must isolate one (say starting piano lessons at age 5 vs. age 8), level all other variables, study large enough groups for valid statistics, and carefully measure the outcome. (Doing so they have found that the earlier age group developed larger corpus callosums in their brains. Note that is not evidence that proves a larger corpus callosum is a good thing or therapeutic, just that early experience can influence the structure of a developing brain.) 

Despite the fact we all think music is good -- err, what kind of music?  Schubert? Phil Dirt and the Dozers? Pit Bull? digeridoos?  -- its therapeutic potential is not self-evident and must be studied and proved in each instance. 

We don’t even know the relative contributions, to musicianship or appreciation, of nature vs. nurture. Are three generations of the Preucil family outstanding musicians because it is in their genes or because all were expected to start practicing at the age of 3 years? (Ans: It's likely that both are necessary, neither alone is sufficient. See * below.)

Yes, we need cheerleaders, like PBS reports, to engage more people and stimulate more research, programs, efforts, etc. All that should come---if the planet survives. 

I do think an easier armchair argument can be made that music (of most kinds) and early music education promote a better (and healthier) humanity than do some sports, especially American football, or the gratuitous violence in films.

* Wonderful example of good brain science anyone can understand.