Michael Peter Smith, R.I.P. (August 2020)
I first encountered the American folk bard Michael Smith (1941-2020) in a sweltering little church on the south side of Chicago, one summer in the 1990s. There were not many of us in the audience. Over the course of 90 minutes, he changed my life. I had never experienced a poet-songwriter of such literary depth and humanity. Nor a folksinger so understated yet musically sophisticated. It might be akin to encountering an unknown Jacques Brel or Leonard Cohen performing in someone’s living room. Or maybe, in earlier times, Franz Schubert or Hugo Wolf.
I heard Michael Smith perform whenever I could after that, in both Chicago and Toronto. Maybe a dozen more times over the years. He was never especially famous, but he was a connoisseur’s cabaret singer-songwriter, and he enriched many lives. Read his obituary here.
Internet Piano Teaching (April 2020)
I never dreamed I would consider online piano teaching, but Mother Nature has urged me to give it a try during this odd and ominous virus shutdown. To my surprise, it can work. The teaching is more focussed, less informal, but I suppose some focus and formality never hurt anyone – reminds me of my own long-ago piano studies.
RIP, 2 musical fathers (September 2019)
I’m startled and sad to note the deaths of two of my musical father figures within a week.
Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda’s career was much larger in Europe than in North America. He was best known for the repertoire of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. I heard him in recital several times, and he brought me closer to the grace and wit of these composers than I ever hoped to get. His artistic ethos was one of gentility and quiet playfulness, not ego or bluster.
American critic Martin Bernheimer was a fierce classical music traditionalist, a dazzling arts journalist, and one summer long ago a music critic seminar mentor to me. He was a captivating blend of machismo, ribaldry, and high cultivation, another of the many Hitler refugees who brought distinction to the arts and ideas of their adopted nations after fleeing German horrors. Los Angeles, California was a lucky metropolis for many years when he was at the Los Angeles Times. Read his obituary here.
Alan Gasser Salon Evening (June 2019)
I presented a salon evening recently featuring the colorful, stimulating, and wide-ranging musician Alan Gasser. Alan is a classical tenor, longtime Toronto social justice choir director (Echo Women’s Choir), folk musician, teacher, and noted exponent of music from the Caucasus republic of Georgia through his vocal trio Kavkasia. He is both whimsical and serious, and remains deeply in love with many branches of music.
Alan seemed quite comfortable with my leading him in a public conversation about his lengthy career, though this may have been a first for him. A fascinated audience packed my living room, and couldn’t get enough. He even got us all to sing a sacred song in Georgian raw, unaccompanied three-part harmony!
My Musical Mother (October 2017)
On October 8, 2017 my wonderful mother died peacefully in her sleep at 92 in Chicago. She got me into music, always supported my music, and was herself a trained contralto who sang much of the art song repertoire. My earliest musical memories include accompanying her at the piano in Danish folk songs. A native of Chicago of immigrant parents, my mom was as Danish as she was American. I can’t think of a better tribute to her here than to offer a recording of the famed Danish tenor Aksel Schiøtz singing the moving song “Mother Denmark,” composed by Knudaage Riisager to a poem by Mogens Lorentzen.
Opening line: “There is a country which hardly could be smaller, yet it seems to us to stretch quite far and wide.”
From the third verse: “There is a people…well, better not say anything about what we are….let others be the judge.”
Closing lines: “When we always long for home it is because we recall that you were good to us…Mother Denmark.”
New England Summer Piano Retreat (July 2017)
In July of 2017 Debi Adams, Alison Barr, and I celebrated our 12th year of the Williams Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat. It remains small, well run, and very successful, attracting many loyal participants. In 2018 I am ceding my faculty position to an admired music education colleague, John Ferguson. More info about the retreat
Piano Crawl (November 2016)
I gathered a group of 20 piano buffs at Robert Lowrey’s splendid piano showroom in Toronto for an evening in November. We divided ourselves into 5 small groups, and each group headed off to commune with a different piano I had preselected: a Bösendorfer grand, a Schimmel grand, an Estonia grand, an old Steinway grand (c. 1900), a Schimmel upright, and a Roland LX digital piano.
Each group rotated among the six instruments every 15 minutes, and afterwards we all congregated to compare notes – a lively adventure in listening, learning, and salivating over fine keyboard instruments! (About $350,000 of pianos!)
Piano Teaching Website (Sept 2016)
My new piano teaching website is now complete and launched. Web designer Jane Kidd worked patiently with me to craft something that would represent me persuasively and with élan. I could not be more pleased!
New England Summer Piano Retreat (2016)
Our 11th annual Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat in the mountains of NW Massachusetts has come and gone (July 9-16). We had a full class of 25 participants from all over, and their accolades are a tonic: “Such a magical week.” “Such a variety of musical, intelligent, cosmopolitan, and kind people.” “I had a ball.” Alison Barr, Debi Adams, and I continue to craft something bonding and distinctive.
“Such a variety of musical, intelligent, cosmopolitan, and kind people.”
“Getting Inside Classical Music” at Ryerson University’s Life Institute in February/March, 2015
I’m teaching a “Getting Inside Classical Music” six-week course in February/March of 2015 for Ryerson University’s Life Institute, for adult learners. We will focus on the basics of concert listening, using a grab-bag of musical snippets and hopefully plenty of conversation. The Life Institute is where I got my start in the classroom a decade ago: I am considered one of their expert lecturers, even though my goal is to awaken people’s own knowledge and not lecture.
To my astonishment, the registration for this course (capped at 60 participants) was filled after a week!
Music Critics’ Conference in Chicago
I was in Chicago mid-June for the annual meeting of MCANA, the Music Critics Association of N. America. There were 35 of us taking part, which is a great turnout for our little organization of under 100 members.
We had a question/answer session with general manager Anthony Freud and dramaturg Roger Pines of the Lyric Opera, and a panel discussion on the current state of the Chicago Symphony. Our private audience with famed CSO maestro Riccardo Muti – now in his 70s – found him voluble, jovial, and an old-fashioned, proud European. He led a stunning performance of Mahler’s First Symphony.
“Getting Inside Classical Music” at
Texas Music Teachers Association Convention in June
I’ve been invited to present a “Getting Inside Classical Music” listening workshop this June at the annual convention of the Texas Music Teachers Association, in Houston. It is the organization’s 100th anniversary, and they have over 2,000 members. Two thousand independent Texas music teachers! Learn more
Oral History – Verne Edquist, Canadian Piano Tuner-Technician
Verne Edquist was one of Toronto’s top piano tuner-technicians of the 1960s – 1980s. Tuning for the likes of Gina Bachauer, Arthur Rubinstein, and Victor Borge, he is most famous for his 20 years as Glenn Gould’s piano tuner. I interviewed him in his Toronto home about the arc of his life; my former student Kougar Singh handled the camera and editing work.
Each video lasts about 40 minutes. For highlights, you could listen to Part 1 starting at 4:10, about Glenn Gould. Or Part 2 starting at 8:10, about working in a 1940s piano factory. Or Part 2 from 29:10 to the close, about Verne’s ability to hear or see musical sounds as colors (synesthesia), and about his signature concert tunings.
Sound Engineering/Home Audio Discussion
At the end of November veteran sound engineer William Van Ree spoke to a salon group in my home about various issues related to recorded acoustic music and home audio. William and I first worked together for fine arts station CJRT-FM in Toronto, when I was doing music commentary and he was in the control booth, while in more recent years we have produced more than a dozen CDs of customized educational materials for my listening workshops.
William grew up in Holland, playing and recording historic pipe organs for fun, and working for the Dutch audio/electronics giant Philips. Over his professional years in Toronto he has done on-site concert recording of such prominent musicians as pianist George Shearing, the Canadian Brass, and period orchestra Tafelmusik. Some of the topics we explored: perception of sound from loudspeakers; LPs, CDs, and other music storage media; compression and distortion; dynamic range; etc.