The Avid Listener: Performance Practice

23 posts categorized "Performance Practice"

November 1, 2017

Where There’s a Waltz There’s a Way: Exploring the Secrets of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations

Robin Wallace (School of Music, Baylor University)

Ludwig van Beethoven receives a waltz by Anton Diabelli in early 1819, about a year after getting his new Broadwood piano and well into the final decline of his hearing. The piece initially seems unpromising to him, but it feels amazing on this new instrument, whose keys have unprecedented tactile depth and whose frame is uncommonly reactive to vibration across its width. In the first eight measures the melody plunges three and a half octaves into the bass, and the pattern of sequences that follows culminates in a stretch covering three quarters of the keyboard. He realizes that this is material that will allow his sense of touch to lead him in novel directions.

 

The theme from Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” Op. 120, played by Thomas Beghin on a reproduction of Beethoven’s Broadwood piano.

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April 4, 2016

Opera in America after the Civil War: Many Languages and a Splintered Audience

Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University)

In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie Pretty Woman (1990), Richard Gere’s character takes Julia Roberts to the San Francisco Opera. She wears a stunning dress but is clearly uncomfortable in their box seats at the lavish opera house. Gere, who plays a sophisticated businessman eager to introduce Roberts to the finer things in life, warns her that people have strong reactions to opera. The scene tells us much about how Americans today view this musical form. In Pretty Woman, it’s exotic, best enjoyed in luxury by older, wealthy people in expensive, formal clothes, and presented in an atmosphere completely different from the fun, relaxed concerts most people attend. The humor of the scene is the fish-out-of-water prostitute (played by Roberts) who does not know how to behave. She interacts with the other operagoers with wide-eyed ignorance and naiveté, out of place among the cultured (and uptight) sophisticates around her. Yet, without preconceived notions about opera, she is drawn to the beautiful music and the story of La traviata, which bears some resemblance to her own life.

This view of opera as the forbidding preserve of the wealthy, so embedded in our culture now, was just beginning to take shape one hundred years before Pretty Woman was released. For much of the nineteenth century, opera in the United States was a popular form of entertainment attended by men and women from all walks of life. Excerpts from operas also turned up in minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, sheet music destined for the parlor, and on the bandstand. However, the audience for operas performed in full began to fragment in the 1870s, and this fragmentation is one of the reasons that opera is on the periphery of America’s cultural life today.

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March 28, 2016

Temperamental Differences

Blake Howe (Louisiana State University)

In their lessons, violinists must train very hard to play “in tune.” Singers face the same challenge; some, fearful of sounding “pitchy,” might even use Auto-Tune to prevent mistakes in live performance. The slightest change in temperature and humidity can knock a piano “out of tune,” so concert halls usually hire a professional tuner to “retune” the instrument before each concert—a grueling process that can take hours.

To play or sing in tune is to match the pitch frequencies prescribed by a tuning system. Despite an infinite number of possible systems, for the past 200 years most Western musicians have used just one, called “equal temperament. Listeners have become so accustomed to the sound of equal temperament that its organization of pitch frequencies sounds normal, and a performer’s failure to match those frequencies produces music that sounds wrong. But equal temperament, much like the very concept of normality, is a product of its time and place. It reflects the politics of a culture that values consistency over variety, uniformity over difference—and, as we will learn, a prototypical nondisabled body over the extraordinary diversity of human morphology.

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March 21, 2016

America Goes to the Opera

Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University)

To many people, opera means expensive productions of long, melodramatic works composed more than a century ago and sung in a language other than English. The genre conjures up images of formally dressed, older audiences who have spent a small fortune on tickets to attend a performance in a regally appointed opera house in Manhattan or Paris. But opera is not always like this. A quick perusal of YouTube reveals smaller, sometimes student productions, which lack the elaborate scenery, large orchestral accompaniments, and beautiful costumes often associated with opera.

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March 7, 2016

From Ziggy to Blackstar: David Bowie’s Musical Masks

Katherine Reed (Utah Valley University)

 

In a segment from D.A. Pennebaker’s concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie shows the experimental fashion and performance style with which he would be linked for the rest of his career.

 

Perhaps the most memorable images of David Bowie feature the flaming red mullet and custom Kansai Yamamoto wardrobe of this final Ziggy Stardust concert. In a 2002 interview with Terry Gross, though, Bowie bristles at the suggestion that his career consisted of a parade of dresses and makeup: “That was for eighteen months, actually . . . which out of a career of nearly forty years is not very long.” He isn’t wrong about that, but the image of Bowie as a glammed-up chameleon persists in the days after his death. As the man himself said in March 2004, “I’ve always felt bemused at being called the chameleon of rock. Doesn't a chameleon exert tremendous energy to become indistinguishable from its environment?” Bowie, of course, rarely fit into his environment. Countless memorials and think pieces since his death on January 10, 2016 pay homage to the performer’s groundbreaking gender bending and sartorial reinvention. What many forget, though, is that these masks weren’t just physical—Bowie reinvented himself musically, picking up new styles and idioms as it suited him.

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