The Sounds and Music of Open Space
Monday, February 15, 2010
Blog posting written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany
The Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989.
Twenty years later 31 heads of state (current and past) gathered in Berlin to celebrate this historical occasion. Everybody from Hillary Clinton, Russian President Medvedev and French President Sarkozy to historical titans Mikhail Gorbatchov and Lech Walesa showed up.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancelor, met in the morning with Gorbatchov at the Bornholmer Strasse Bruecke. It was the first bridge between West and East Berlin to be opened in 1989. It is also famous as the place where many spies were exchanged during the Cold War years.
Attended by ten thousand people soaked by rain, the evening celebrations started with a concert on the Pariser Platz, the area immediately on the east side of the Brandenburger Gate. The Staatskapelle Orchestra conducted by Daniel Baremboim--he had been in Berlin in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell-- played excerpts from Beethoven and Wagner.
Herbert von Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic from 1955 until April 1989. He catapulted it to international prominence and made an impressive number of recordings. His successor was the Italian Claudio Abbado.
But it was the Jewish-American Leonard Bernstein that staged, on Christmas Day 1989, a massive musical celebration by leading an international orchestra on the east side of the Brandenburger Gate. In a typically grand gesture, he changed the words of Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom." (http://www.notablebiographies.com/Be-Br/Bernstein-Leonard.html#ixzz0XJUTN3Mo).
The 2009 Pariser Platz concert also featured a new reunification song by Paul van Dyk (http://www.paulvandyk.com/) called “We are One”. The title is in English, not in German. Paul van Dyk grew up in the old East Berlin and feared the Stasi (the secret police in East Germany) because he constantly broke the law by listening to ‘decadent’ radio from West Berlin.
Radio waves and its music travel easily through walls, whether concrete or ideological. Paul van Dyk and a handful of friends had parties on basements for trusted friends who they knew would keep them out of prison by not reporting their underground musical activities. Later Paul became a DJ. He is now is internationally renowned in the techno world. If you have ventured out to dance at a club anywhere in the world, you probably have danced to his music.
After the concert, Angela Merkel led dignitaries through the Branderburger gate, holding hands with Lech Walesa, the man responsible for the Solidarity movement in Poland and Gorbatchov, the most influential person in the opening of the east. Fireworks exploded as they crossed the gate, which was partly destroyed by Napoleon. The gate was rebuilt on the border between east and west Berlin, and is now a symbol of Germany.
Angela and friends walked towards what was for me the highlight of the evening.
1,000 domino pieces had been lined up from the Potsdamer Platz to the iconic Reichstag, passing by the striking Jewish Memorial. They tumbled as a representation of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
At seven feet tall, these domino pieces, had been painted by children. Two hundred came from abroad. Each had a special message of friendship and faith in the future. On one of pieces, the two Berlin towers, one in the former east, one in the former west, hugged each other. In another, there were pictures and names of grade school students-- most of the names were not German names. All the dominos spoke of hope, equality and inclusion.
The political and social symbolism of falling dominos is obvious. We strive for a world devoid of walls. But is it possible for us really to be one with the world, without losing our identity?
Many former east Germans still miss aspects of their former lifestyle under state communism.
So can music unite us, transforming differences into unity? The walls in music seem to be older than the Berlin wall -- and apparently stronger.
Maybe the answer to all these questions lies in diversity and respect for each other’s tastes and values.
I would contend that there is space for Beethoven and Paul van Dyk (I certainly do not want to dance in a club to Beethoven’s music…) as well as life in New York or North Korea. But it is critically important that we always work to keep the physical and musical channels open.
Whether constructed out of concrete or quarter notes, it is okay by me to have walls-- as long as there is also, always, a gate.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany
Large cities often struggle with a contingent of people living on the fringe. In Europe, they often migrate from other countries; only the next generation will function within the society like natives. These foreigners to these new environments their music, their customs and their cuisine. Delicious foreign food easily crosses boundaries--and always sells.
Growing up in Brazil, I heard the accordion on old French recordings and at the winter Folk Festivals, generally accompanying dances that vaguely resembles square dance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RetlvTcLj8). For me the accordion was an instrument of character but certainly not cool. I never considered playing or owning one until two years ago, when my garage sale buddy bought one for me, amidst a fierce price escalation. Garage sale etiquette is highly regulated and treasured by the ‘regulars’.
My accordion is fake white ‘mother-of pearl’. I intend to buy a white polyester suit to be properly dressed when I first perform on it publicly. Maybe not. I play it at home a couple of times a year. Its haunting sounds urge me to learn how to play it properly. Its sound evokes foreign lands and laments something lost. Melancholic foreign music always sells.
Two subway stations in Berlin attract accordion players of the highest caliber. Alexanderplatz, in the heart of the old East Berlin and Stadmitte; the ‘middle of the city’ station left on the fringe during the “Berlin Wall” years and now back to its deserved central place (http://www.berlinverkehr.com/netze/051212sumetro.jpg).
Often I hear a duo of violin-accordion at Alexanderplatz that leaves nothing to desire in terms of ensemble, intonation, and certainly passion. All passersby do not seem to notice the quality of this duo, like when Joshua Bell played Bach on the Washington subway (http://amnesiablog.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/he-played-the-violin-in-the-subway/).
The connection between the subway lines U2 and U6, in Stadmitte, is through two long wide corridors, connected at a ninety degrees angle stairway with a plateau. Virtuoso street musicians have noticed this acoustical gem.
The first time that I heard the richly reverberating sounds of Bach’s “Wedge” Fugue in E minor (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idhHq1mn1XA&feature=PlayList&p=7BA785A65B04C10F&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=3) I was struck. Was that a famous organ in a north German cathedral disguised as an accordion in a subway station thirty feet bellow the street level?
Since this experience, I have heard many polkas but also Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies, the Planets by Gustav Holst, Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakhov, the Four Seasons of Vivaldi and, of course, Carmina Burana! These highly trained musicians do not carry themselves according to the level of their craft. I imagine that they came from the former eastern block, where education was affordable for the talented. Later, they drifted over to the commercial side of the world. Here, they do not seem to be able to package their craft into a sellable product.
This brings me to Lady Gaga. I like her a lot because she personifies the unconventional and yes, I always want to dance with her music. Like Madonna, she comes from a Catholic background, exploits unusual sexual themes, and has been able to reinvent herself at every turn. She rules the video clip world and young consumers buy her wares. I watched an interview with her at “Wetten, dass…?”, the most popular variety show on German TV, and she was so ‘cool’ that she sounded a bit ‘slow’.
Lady Gaga is a savvy businesswoman careful of her brand, so I am sure that this too was staged. It did not matter; her outfit astonished everybody. Fashion has always been an integral part of her persona. She knows how to market herself.
I have written before about music merging into a multimedia art. The tendency is for opera singers also to ‘look’ good; for violinists to pose in Chanel dresses on their album covers, for programming to incorporate themes. I have no problem with that.
However, from a purely musical point of view, Lady Gaga does not have the training of some of these street musicians that I mentioned. There is no question that she has been able to package her musical product into something consumers will buy. I would certainly pay 10 Euros to enter a club where her music will be played. Should those accordionists learn something from Lady Gaga? Do they have a chance if they do not play a fashionable instrument and look attractive? Do they need to invest in reinventing themselves? Yes. No. Maybe.
I do not resent the power of advertizing and marketing: it is all a question of choices. However, the training of an artist is a long and arduous process. I wish every aspiring musician would first embrace and excel in the history, technique and language of their art, then branch out into multimedia. Hopefully, they would still look great after all this time shuttling between the library and the practice room.
“Life is change, growth is optional”. We all know this adage. Some musicians choose to be different—they decide to follow the not so economically successful path of musicians of the past. There is space for all out there.
So go out and dance to Lady Gaga’s music. Life is short. But do not forget to drop a coin when music touches you, especially when an unassuming, over-educated musician performs it, thirty feet below a busy street intersection.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Blog posting written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany
I recently learned that Sao Luis do Maranhao, a large, beautiful city in the northern coast of Brazil, founded by the French, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sao_Luis,_Maranhao) has become a mecca for child prostitution.
Brazil’s image as a paradise of bossa nova, samba and small swimsuits propels the growing international market of sexual tourism to take advantage of Brazil’s extremely poor population. Corrupt authorities silently support the system in order to pocket some dollars and euros. The children remain in misery, robbed of their childhood and dignity
I admire intelligent marketing. The tobacco industry impresses me with their ad campaigns. Hip, comic book advertising indoctrinates teens, while sexy, healthy and smart smoking people emulate the ideals of an adult market. I imagine that the most questionable companies offer the highest salaries to the geniuses of marketing. These marketers hire the top musicians for their commercials. We all need to earn our daily bread—as many loaves as possible.
Old LP covers--now cult items—show images of a bygone era. I love those sultry women with their powerful contralto voices, supposedly victimized in their voluptuous poses, showing that most powerful part of their bodies: their curves. Women in cigarette commercials do not have curves anymore.
Sex-based marketing has also infiltrated classical music. Lately, ‘classical’ CD covers also portray pictures of sultry performers to equate musical performance with the erotic. A sexy violinist in a flimsy dresses holds her Stradivarius against the evening wind. A muscular conductor drinks milk from gallon-sized chalices.
Horowitz’ nose and Rubinstein’s baggy eyes would have no chance in today’s classical music marketing schemes. Gone is the time when Montserrat Caballe opened her mouth onstage, in all her rotund glory, and everybody sighed. I love Montserrat, Eva Marton, Jessye Norman and the many other sturdy women who seduced us with their voices.
So what are all these people selling? What are the real consequences?
Corrupt officials shielding child prostitution traffickers from persecution in Brazil are selling their values to earn more money. Musicians working in tobacco advertisements are selling their integrity to earn more money. Established and aspiring divas are now connecting their curves to their virtuosity to sell more CDs. Nearly all classical CDs now on the market have been touched up with some element of sexuality for sale.
While I was a college student, I was the organist for the First Christ Scientist Church in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was one of the best-paid church jobs in Sao Paulo. I did not believe in the ideas of that religion. I often I played services for less than ten people. The money helped underwrite my college costs. I was a musical prostitute because I sold my music to an institution and a religious practice I did not believe in. Does it matter that I sold my musical skills in order to learn more music?
At one time or another, I would guess that we have all sold something that we do to some entity or institution that perhaps is not in total alignment with our own values and ideals. These actions edge us all closer us into prostitution. Of course, people should have the right to do whatever they want as long as nobody is hurt. Ethics is, in the end, all about consequences.
Child prostitution damages innocent children for the rest of their lives. Encouraging teenagers to smoke will shorten their lives.
So I urge you to think about the consequences of our daily choices. If you buy a CD because the singer is sexy, that’s OK; there will always be musicophiles who will buy Jessye Norman’s CDs. Nobody is hurt.
However, if your choices hurt other people, physically or emotionally, I hope that your punishment will be much worse than listening to the Spice Girls for the rest of your life.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Blog posting written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany
On November 8th, I will play a program entitled Three Trios, Three Players, Three Lands with two of my colleagues.
The program at the Rathaus Schoneberg, the City Hall of West Berlin and now a cultural center, will include Johaness Brahms’ Trio opus 8 (Germany), Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music (USA) and Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Argentina). I have played the four-hands version of the same piece by Piazzolla with Diane Birr as part of a previous FLEFF production . Sexy music plus tango plus historical footage spells great project!
Piazzolla had a colorful life, living in Argentina, US and Europe . His main instrument, the bandoneon, is the perfect medium for expressive music with a nationalistic character. Folk music of countries as France, Germany and the USA also utilized the accordion in its many forms and shapes.
Today, in my first trio rehearsal, we breezed through Brahms, without any stylistic controversy. And then… the old question about Piazzolla’s music as it is played outside Argentina poked through. The music is so passionate that the performers become afraid: they don’t want the textures, dynamics and timbres to sound like a Latin American caricature. So I ask: How much is too passionate?
We want to transmit the passion in the music. But a hard question lurks: where is the line between passionate and caricature? We certainly do not want to sound like a Mexican soap opera!
There is a market for Mexican soap opera--and that’s why they do well. So what’s wrong with them? Is passionate expression of what others might hear as mundane condemnable? People in different cultures express themselves quite differently in the world of emotions. Are these cultural differences playing a role in covert racism? Is cool and reserved the model to be followed? Should we all get musical Botox injections and perform in a wrinkle-free, expressionless style? Is there a place in the musical world for both the reserved and the extravagant?
Performance practice today is a minefield. Many performers do not play Bach in concert anymore. They fear being labeled purists or extreme romantics-- sometimes in the same concert. Recordings have created an educated and opinionated audience. We musicians silently agree on standards of performance practice. Then we criticize someone who strays from these standards. These attitudes do not help to expand diversity in the field of classical music.
Are only German performers entitled to play Brahms?Are only Argentine performers entitled to play Piazzolla? Are only American performers entitled to play Schoenfield? No. I suggest that we expand our horizons: we should not accept any dogmas in the art world.
Let music and our performance of it be free!
I leave you with Piazzolla playing ‘Adios Nonino’ with a German orchestra:
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Blog posting written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany
I do not drink alcohol but I am a member of the Martini Mafia.
The president of the Martini Mafia, Charles*, a retired piano professor and the owner of the largest collection of portraits of Queen Elizabeth II outside England, has introduced me to Sarah. Sarah studied piano with Charles and recently gave me her first book, filled with watercolor portraits. People, pianos, blues, greens, browns.
Charles, Sarah and Jeremy, a piano professor always happy to talk about his promising piano students met regularly to go to concerts, talk about music and discuss our dear piano students.
Sarah is a founding member of the Martini Mafia, even though she also does not drink alcohol! Charles introduced me to Robert, an active New York singer and actor that shares his time between NYC and his second home in Montgomery, NY where he tends his garden, hosts parties for friends and rents his house for film productions. Charles and Robert met in the 1960’s in San Francisco, in a New Age Monastery before that sort of retreat became fashionable.
Once I moved to Ithaca, Robert introduced me to Sherman, a soldier at the Second World War, a former executive who had worked all over the world, with long stints in the Middle East in the forties.
I met Sherman shortly before his eightieth birthday. I attended three of his birthdays at his mountaintop home in Lockwood, NY, thirty miles south of Ithaca. His birthdays were celebrated with wonderful food and much singing. I sight-read songs on the piano while many of the guests sang joyfully. They were always amazed that I didn’t know the different songs. I was a baby when these guys were already performing those songs onstage! Sherman lost a singing competition to the teenager Barbra Streisand. I will save that story for later.
I just received Sherman’s second CD in the mail. He recorded both his CDs after he turned eighty. The inside cover portrays him through four images from different periods of his life: as a teenager, as a soldier in the Second World War, atop a camel in the desert, and today. In this CD, “Songs from The Greatest Generation” he sings hits from Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Bennett and others. I will reserve my compliments for when I talk to Sherman on the phone. His singing inspires me.
So why did I tell you about all these colorful characters? What do they all have in common?
They all have come together as friends through music. It is interesting that something as ethereal and volatile as music can keep friends united for decades. I baptized the group known as the ‘Martini Mafia’. They are actually music makers, one way or another. They met to go to concerts, talk about music, piano students. Life.
So I raise my Martini glass filled with orange juice to all these women and men that have loved and made music throughout their lives. Their music has enriched the lives of so many others--and that’s what this is all about.
*All the characters portrayed in this blog are not fictional. All names were changed. Sherman’s CD is not available commercially. I never had an ‘alcohol problem’. No animals were harmed during the writing of this blog.