Wednesday, October 7, 2009


As I mentioned in my Asbury Park Press column two weeks ago, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" was one of the pieces that served as an entry for me into the world of classical music. I had heard Emerson, Lake and Palmer's version and liked it a lot. As a teenager, I saw the group perform at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena--in the style of concerts at the time, those were more or less spectaculars, almost like Broadway productions in scope. A professor of mine, referring to a Genesis concert he attended, said it confirmed his notion that they should be called "shows" and not "concerts." He was absolutely right. The ELP performances in particular involved a lot of lighting and visual special effects, a lot of theatrical antics, particularly by keyboardist Keith Emerson.

But as much as I liked the band's shows, the real experience for me came from its recordings. I liked the luxury that records provided of getting to know music in detail, to the point where a few seconds of a simple timbre could tell me exactly what part of what recording I was hearing. ELP's music in particular offered a lot of opportunity for discovery, not the least because their music was often drawn directly from classical sources.

Sometimes that connection was overt, as in the band's performance of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures." And sometimes it was hidden, as in the band's arrangement of "The Barbarian" by Bela Bartok (not credited on the album) or in their original compositions like "Take a Pebble" that drew on classical models.

After finding the Mussorgsky score for piano solo in a practice room bench, I worked hard, very hard, and ultimately taught myself to slog through the three opening movements "Promenade"," The Gnomes" and a reprise of the "Promenade." It would have been no great thing to master a few of the other movements, but my teacher didn't insist and, being a kind of lazy teenager, I never did.

Building on my interest in "Pictures", my teacher handed me some Beethoven Country Dances and a couple easier sonata movements, Bartok's "The Barbarian," Debussy's "The Golliwog's Cakewalk," Chopin's preludes and Bach's two-part inventions. I was astonished that the Bartok was the same piece that appeared on the ELP album and I dove into it with all my heart. The "Golliwog" I came to love, with its ragtime references and comic timing. The Chopin and Bach I've never stopped exploring--a copy of both sets has been on or near my piano ever since, and led me directly to the Chopin Etudes and the Bach "Well-Tempered Clavier." Before I knew it I was in a deep world with wild-haired composers and glorious and strange musical styles sprouting up all around me.

Mind you, if my teacher's goal was to keep me excited, she made some serious missteps. I never did master a Clementi Sonatina--I considered it too much like boring beginner's music and just wasn't interested. I was wrong about that, as it turns out. The Clementi Sonatinas are interesting, even if they're not very rockin'. But the style was too reserved for me as a teenager. It's interesting, in that respect, that she didn't give me some of the more characteristic Beethoven sonatas with their drama and passion, or push me to learn the Rachmaninoff Prelude in G-sharp minor that she knew I loved so much.

Those are the mistakes teachers make. In my case, I can't really call them mistakes, in fact. I was a difficult student and by and large, she did well, more or less single-handedly turning me into a pianist. So these are just questions that continue to inform my own teaching and the exploration of music.

It is kind of nicely symbolic that I never learned "Pictures" completely. That piece opened a door--I walked through and found myself on a long journey. And I am not even close to being done.


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