December 27, 2019

Organs versus Pianos

The first keyboard instrument Tomoko played was the organ, not the piano. Therefore, she had to learn two different ways to use those keyboards. 

The most obvious difference between the two instruments is the way that the sound is produced; the piano is technically a percussion instrument while an organ is technically a woodwind instrument. Instead of piano hammers striking a set of strings as a pressed piano key releases the action mechanism level, organ pipes project the pitches based on the level of pressure that each key signals to its linked pipe. Organs also have stop knobs to adjust sounds by controlling the amount of pressurized air flowing to the pipes. 

For the piano, three pedals on the bottom can change the sound; one pedal shifts the action so that the hammer strikes just one of the three strings for the same note.  The other pedals lift the damper so that the string can vibrate longer.  On the organ’s bottom, a pedalboard produces pitches out of the pipes. 

In terms of the keyboard itself, the five-octave organ has 61 keys while the piano has 17 more; an organ with fewer octaves have fewer keys. Furthermore, organs have two levels of keys, called manuals. The organ’s controls enable the instrument to produce a greater variety of sounds than the piano.  Organ keys are also shorter and narrower than piano keys, and the player uses a lighter touch on the organ – and may need to develop a specific touch for some pieces.  

Knowing the techniques of both piano and organ has helped Tomoko broaden her performance options – and listeners’ enjoyment.

December 9, 2019

The Nationalistic Influence of Albéniz

Several of Tomoko’s favorite piano composers draw largely from their cultural background: Liszt, Chopin, Bartok, to name a few. Another culturally-informed composer of piano music is the lesser known Isaac Albéniz. Tomoko performs “Granada” from his Suite Española in her album "Baroque - 2oth Century."

Isaac Albéniz was born in Catalonia in 1860, and began performing on the piano publicly at age ten. He toured worldwide, facilitated by his customs agent father who traveled frequently. Although he studied in Brussels and later gave concert tours throughout Europe, Albéniz was encouraged to draw from his Spanish heritage. 

Albéniz wrote mainly for the piano. One of his main piano compositions was Suite Española, written during his middle period. It lightly paints a music picture of various Spanish regions and their musical styles. The suite is known for its delicate intricate melodies and dramatic transitions. The piece that Tomoko performed, “Granada,” reflects a Romantic sensibility. It has been transcribed for guitar, and considered a staple in that form ever since its original composition was launched in 1887. 

Albéniz is known for his rebirth of Spanish nationalism, which evoked Spanish melodic elements but did not slavishly replicate Spanish folk music. 

Tomoko considers folk music as the soul of a culture, and a musical inspiration for composers.

November 27, 2019

Stravinsky as Modern Classic

What is classical music? Even some 20th century music and composers are already considered classics, such as Stravinsky. As Tomoko says, “I like to keep up with new music.” She and her students performed the first of half of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, for instance, which was a far cry from Tomoko’s typical repertoire of romantics and earlier composers. 
So what makes Stravinsky a modern classic? His revolutionary musical design, which might reflect his Russian background. 

Stravinsky was born in 1882 near Saint Petersburg to a musical family. However, his parents wanted him to study law. Because of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the law school shut down, and Stravinsky focused on music, studying with composer Rimsky-Korsakov. 

Rite of Spring was one of his early compositions, written for the Ballet Russes. Its premier in 1913 was greeted demonstrations, largely because of Nijinsky’s shocking dance moves. Nevertheless, the ballet style did reflect the primitive Russian tone and clashing rhythms of the piece.

Stravinsky then moved to France, which marked his neoclassical period, both in terms of compositional style and mythological themes. 

At the start of World War II, Stravinsky settled in the U.S.  He especially enjoyed the cultural life in Los Angeles, and even has a story on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. During this time he began incorporating twelve-tone and other serial techniques in his compositions. Stravinsky was also a successful pianist and conductor. 

Stravinsky, who died in 1971, was known for his stylistic diversity; he kept exploring different ways to create music. One can be both classic and modern. In that respect, he echoes Tomoko’s philosophy: “All performers have responsibility to keep up.”

November 16, 2019

Impressive Rudolf Serkin

The first time that Tomoko was completely impressed with a performance was due to Rudolf Serkin.

Serkin was born on March 28, 1903, in Eger, Bohemia. He read music before he could read words, thanks to his singer father. Rudolf started his professional study at the age of nine, in Vienna, and debuted publicly there just three years later. Rudolf studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg starting in 1918, and began his professional concert career with violinist Adolf Busch’s ensemble in 1920.

In 1936 Serkin performed to great aplomb with the New York Philharmonic and Arturo Toscanini, and three years later Serkin and Busch’s family immigrated permanently to the United States. Serkin taught piano at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, and became the institute’s director. Adolf and Serkin also started the Marlboro (Vermont) Music School and Festival to promote chamber music in the U.S. Serkin was also known for his interpretation of Beethoven. Because of his work, including memorable recordings, Serkin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.

Serkin impressed Tomoko too. He came to Japan in the 1950s. Tomoko attended one of his concerts, able to pay for one of the cheapest seats. Tomoko listen to Schubert’s Opus 15 Wanderer Fantasy, and tears came to her eyes.  “It was the most gorgeous feeling in the whole world,” Tomoko remembers.  “Tears are the most valuable and authentic emotion.” Tomoko thought, “This is what an artist is supposed to do,” Tomoko shares her experience with her students. “His performance was perfect; beyond works, beyond the technical.” That’s what Tomoko wants for her students and herself.

Serkin’s inspiration continues.