Thursday, September 17, 2009

A One-Note Day

Have you ever noticed that there is a single theme running through your day? I had a day like that recently and the theme was my first instrument, the piano.

Early in the morning, a pianist approached me as I was busking at the Evanston Farmers’ Market. He asked if I had ever heard any Janáček piano music played on the accordion. I could imagine his Lachian Dances on the accordion, but no, I had never heard them played that way. Then we got into a conversation about Lachian vs. Valachian vs. Bohemian music and I guess he was sufficiently convinced that I was knowledgeable about the subject because he bought one of my Czech/Slovak CDs, even after I warned him that the music on it was nothing like Janáček’s.

After I was done playing at the market, I drove to Chicago's north side Lakewood-Balmoral neighborhood to cruise their yard sales. There is a program on our local classical station called Introductions, which I rarely listen to. I don't like it. But on this particular day I turned it on and left it on. I was rewarded with a workmanship-like student's rendition of Chopin's Ballade in A-flat, op. 47. For a Chopin junkie, this was like finding a wallet stuffed with bills sans ID on the sidewalk. Chopin wrote four Ballades: G-minor, op. 23; F-major, op. 38; the A-flat, op. 47 and F-minor, op. 52. Of the four, the A-flat is least often played, but it is my favorite (although one could argue that the F-minor is a more masterful composition).

Later on at a yard sale, I spied a 1959 program book from one of Artur Rubinstein’s concerts. He was my childhood hero, a Polish pianist who played Chopin with grace, sensitivity and technical prowess, but without mawkish sentimentality. It was only $1 so I grabbed it.

I mentioned that I was a Chopin junkie, which was true when I was a kid. In high school I discovered Dvořák, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Poulenc, Mozart, Debussy, and in college, the greatest of them all, Johann Sebastian Bach. But for about five years, it was all Chopin, all the time. So I was thrilled to find a recent DVD about Chopin, called Pragnienie miłości (Desire for Love) at another yard sale. I considered it overpriced at $3, but I bought it anyway. For those not familiar with classical music, Chopin composed almost exclusively for the piano.

When I got home, I watched the movie. It was maudlin, and, if I were to give it a musical designation, it would be Andantino sappioso con molto saccharino. I detest cheap sentiment and the movie had it, in spades. But there was one scene that made me sit up, pump my fist and yell, “Yessssss!” During this scene, Chopin hears his valet Jan playing an *oberek on his fiddle. He immediately asks Jan to play it over, and he notates it as Jan plays. I’ve done that! I’ve been there! The most frustrating thing is hearing a great tune but not having either staff paper or a recording device handy. I can remember hurriedly scribbling five lines on a piece of scrap paper so I could take dictation on a song someone was singing. During the scene Chopin expands the little oberek on the piano and it morphs into his Mazurka in D major, op. 33 no. 1.

My accordion replaced the piano long ago but this day with its piano theme reminded me that if I hadn’t started playing the piano when I was five, I probably wouldn’t have developed the skills to learn to play the accordion in six months. Have any of you ever had a day like that?

*An oberek is a lively Polish dance in 3/8 time.

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