Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pianistic dabbling

It was a real pleasure to move to the piano keyboard yesterday to accompany a (mostly) flute recital: Prokofiev's wonderful Sonata (link is to a complete performance by Boston flautist Fenwick Smith), Bach's B-minor sonata (a masterpiece of counterpoint that should be much better known), the Sicilienne et Burlesque by Italian neoclassicist Alfredo Casella, and Karg-Elert's Jugend-Musik for flute, clarinet, French horn and piano. (The unusual instrumentation of this last is explained by the fact that all the musicians were members of my family - it took us literally years to find an original piece that we could play together.)

Organists usually abandon piano playing except in cases of dire necessity; once you've begun studying the organ, the appeal of the piano tends to disappear. Even if you wanted to play the piano, other organists would discourage you; the techniques of the two instruments are felt to be incompatible. Which is certainly true as far as it goes; it's too late for me to ever become a truly great pianist. But somehow I'd miss the piano if I had to give it up entirely; it's been a part of my life for too long to completely cut myself off from it. Most of all, however, I'd miss the wide repertoire of the instrument, particularly its chamber music. Much as I love the Brahms organ works, there's nothing he wrote for us that gives me the same satisfaction as the piano trios and quartets. (This is true of many composers: I'd give up Variations on America in an instant for an Ives organ work of the statue of the Concord Sonata, or Shostakovich's Passacaglia for a piece of the caliber of the piano Preludes and Fugues.) And playing the piano is the only way to encounter many wonderful composers; my life would be a lot sadder without Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Haydn, or Prokofiev. So while I played that recital yesterday I was reminded of how different that chamber music experience was from any repertoire I have access to as an organist.

The other advantage pianists have is the highly developed heritage of systematic technical exercises and studies. Organists have studies to address specifically organistic problems (trios and pedal studies, in other words), but I've never seen a book of studies that address manual technique for the organ. And when, in a moment of boredom, I picked up Hanon's The Virtuoso Pianist and played through a few pages, I was once again astonished at how systematically it addressed every combination of finger movements, and at how much my piano technique has slipped since I studied that book one summer. (Readers who worked through Hanon under duress as small children have my sympathy, but I came to it after I stopped formally studying piano, and so am able to look at it with fresh eyes.) I think I could do with another run through the book; the finger independence it develops is crucial, and works like these are our only standby until someone develops a book tailored to the organ keyboard.

I really tried not to use this post to complain about my train trip back home, but my self-control is at a low ebb. My train was expected to arrive at 2:20; instead, it stopped at a station in Brantford at around 1:30, where the train staff announced that the entire staff of engineers had left the train and that a replacement crew was expected in 20 minutes. The same announcement was made at twenty-minute intervals until no-one believed it anymore. To placate the passengers, VIA staff offered us free cans of pop. By the time the new engineers arrived (they were "stuck in traffic"), we had been waiting for over two hours; it was almost 5:00 by the time I got off the train.

Now, late VIA trains are not exactly news; train commuters learn to expect delays of between ten minutes and half an hour as a matter of course even on trips of two hours or less. But this sort of thing is maddening, especially as the circumstances were so bizarre (why did the train's crew decide to get off at Brantford? were they on strike?). I ride on trains because I'm a true believer; I cling to the romantic mystique of train travel even though my actual train trips tend to be full of irritating hassles. But if I were a normal person, I could see myself being frustrated and making the commute on the highway or by air instead. Which, from an environmental standpoint, is bad news.

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