Late Night Rehearsal

Pianist Alexander Melnikov practices last Saturday night. Photo: Margaret Rajic

Pianist Alexander Melnikov practices last Saturday night. Photo: Margaret Rajic

Saturday evening I had the pleasure of photographing Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov practicing in the beautiful home of Aaron and Barbara Levine. They graciously offered their home as a practice location to Mr. Melnikov, who requested to rehearse late into the evening. His sense of humor and wit after a day of traveling from Kansas City to Washington, D.C., on top of jetlag, was a delight. Mr. Melnikov told me how charmed he was by Washington, after spending only a number of hours in the city—the majority of which were spent rehearsing. On Sunday he gave a concert at the Phillips with a program including Schumann, Scriabin, and Prokofiev.

Margaret Rajic, Music Intern

The Confluence of Sound and Technology

Finish composer Kaija Saariaho appears at The Phillips Collection tonight, Thursday, February 21, as part of the Leading European Composers series. She presents a selection of her chamber music with members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio.  For more information and to make a reservation please visit www.phillipscollection.org/music

Kaija Saariaho Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Kaija Saariaho Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

In today’s world we are surrounded by artificial sounds–from the blips and beeps of computers to amplified and synthesized sounds in music. When almost any sound is possible, how do you choose the right ones to create something expressive, beautiful, and within reach? Kaija Saariaho is one composer whose experiments in electronic sound have rendered something unique.

For Saariaho, her discovery of computers in music unlocked the potential to explore the sounds that she heard in her head as a child. She uses electronics as both an enabler and a tool of inspiration, but her music is never subservient to technology. Saariaho employs it as a form or orchestration, building colors, tones, and timbres just as Brahms or Mahler might employ brass, woodwind, and strings.

In the works to be presented in tonight’s program, all but one take inspiration from poetry and literature. Her work Lonh for soprano and electronics uses a poem attributed to medieval French troubadour Jaufré Rudel. Extracts of the poem are recorded in three languages in male and female voices and channeled through electronic process. The soprano triggers these recorded samples at moments in the score, and thus Saariaho creates a dialogue between live and recorded sounds that blends the worlds of real and artifice, past and present. Within this fragmented aural world, Saariaho maintains a feeling of deep human connection–the soprano’s almost plainchant singing conveys a profound sense of spirituality.

Another work on tonight’s program, From the Grammar of Dreams, explores the contrasts of the conscious and subconscious. Saariaho generates a musical collage from two extracts of Sylvia Plath, the poem Paralytic and quotations from The Bell Jar. The piece is scored for soprano and mezzo soprano, and the two voices weave in and out of each text in such a way as they become one single voice inhabiting different interior, psychological states.

What makes Saariaho unique in the field of contemporary music is her ability to convey the intensely personal. Her musical colors, whether rich and complex or simple and clear, are always luminescent in their beauty. Whether or not you engage with the metaphorical, spiritual, or even theatrical elements of her music, it speaks to us first and foremost through its sound.  However just as with contemporary art or literature, the deeper one chooses to participate, examine, and question, the more the music will reveal of itself.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant

Facing the Music

Rachel Barton Pine with her violin in the Music Room

Rachel Barton Pine with her violin in the Music Room, Paganini over her shoulder. Photo: Margaret Rajic

For her performance here in January, violinist Rachel Barton Pine set herself a formidable challenge: performing the 24 Caprices for solo Violin, Op. 1, by Nicolò Paganini, one of history’s most sensational virtuosos. For her performance of the first 12 Caprices at the Phillips (the concluding set played later that evening at the National Gallery of Art) Barton Pine shared the stage with Eugène Delacroix’s haunting portrait of Paganini, looming over her shoulder and casting a frightening eye on proceedings.

There is an enduring mystique in the man and his music that still fascinates today. Paganini’s astonishing and revolutionary developments in violin playing were in his day only equaled by his notoriety-–he cancelled concerts on a whim, frequented brothels, brushed up against the law, and despite his gaunt and ghostly appearance, was surrounded by groupies. Truly he was the musical enfant terrible of the 19th century. However, stories of his life emerge with more than a shade of byronesque fascination, and the wild-man persona was all part of an image, as Barton Pine explained: “When people saw him doing all these seemingly impossible feats they said: ‘Well to be able to play like that he must have had to sell his soul.’ Well Paganini being a great showman as well as a great artist realized that a devilish reputation might help to sell tickets, so he didn’t always protest these accusations.”

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix,  Paganini, 1831

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, Paganini, 1831. Oil on cardboard on wood panel, 17 5/8 x 11 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1922.

Delacroix captures Paganini’s enigma well; shades of light are clawing their way out of predominant darkness, and those we can see–his pale haunted visage, unkempt shirt, and long spidery fingers–are peculiar and unsettling. The portrait also reveals some illuminating technical aspects of Paganini’s playing style. Barton Pine explained that the physical feats he was able to achieve, indicated in the painting by his posture and position of his left arm, were most likely a symptom of Marfan syndrome, a disorder that affects the body’s ligaments and makes the joints more flexible. This condition likely helped Paganini to reach the interval of a 13th, at the very upper limit of what is possible for violinists today. It’s easy to see why superstitious audiences of the 19th century thought Paganini was in league with the devil, “But not to worry” Barton Pine explained, “I didn’t sell my soul, I just practiced a lot.”

For all the wizardry and pyrotechnics of the Caprices, what shines through in these captivating pieces is a wonderful sense of melody and musical line. Paganini was an underestimated composer with a unique affinity with the Italian Bel canto style. Barton Pine, whose commentary between pieces shed revealing light on the intricacies of the music, continued: “By expanding the technical capabilities of the instrument he really expanded the range of colors and expression that are possible from the instrument.” Throughout the myriad difficulties of triple stops, awkward octaves, and fiendish upward staccato, this expanded expressiveness is what stood out in her immaculate performance. Her sheer joy in the music was self-evident, and in the hands of such a fine and dedicated musician the seemingly impossible technical feats dissolved away, revealing the beauties and melodies beneath.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant