RIP Richard Rephann. 

February 6, 2015

Richard Rephann with a student. Photo by Harold Shapiro

Richard Rephann with a student. Photo by Harold Shapiro

Just last night I made a mental note to check on my old teacher and his health, and now I stumble on this sad news. His lessons were marked by plain-speaking (I remember that I once said that I had a technical issue that I wanted to work out in a piece, and his comment was: “At your age [I was 21], any technical issue is a matter of geriatrics”); but he was also remarkably generous to me in ways that mattered, and when I received my degree I was stunned at the voluntary offers of professional help and unexpected recommendations that he gave me.

In memoriam: Richard Rephann, 82 — Yale School of Music


If you’re a musician (or an exponent of any other art or craft), you may have long since reconciled yourself to the idea that nobody expects you to have anything worth saying about politics, current events, or other subjects of general interest. If you want to change that, you might consider moving to Catalonia. Today I was on Barcelona television for the fifth time in three years (the first two times being while I still lived in New York but was known to be involved with Catalan culture). I’ve also been interviewed on the whole of two radio programs and had a full-page interview in my (small-town) paper. Smaller societies are different from the vast United States expanse and gargantuan media culture that I grew up in. Small countries have great advantages for exchanging ideas.

Here’s today’s program:


Just when the eternal rotation of a half-dozen Christmasish songs in the shops is definitively fading into the distance for what soon will have seemed a brief few months, when I no longer have to preserve my sanity by mentally composing myriad descants over “Jingle Bells” and “Feliz Navidad,” and no longer find myself pursued everywhere by “Home For the Holidays” (which is not, one would have thought, the most tactful thing to keep playing in a town that is twelve per-cent immigrants), I’ve evidently reached the final degradation that piped-in music can effect on me.

After enduring the annoyance of an offensive-but-catchy tune in one store, I walked into another store and was momentarily annoyed that their music was interrupting the repetition of the other tune in my head.

It’s a wonder that the population has any musical sensibility remaining at all.


A radio interview (in Catalan).


December 1, 2014


A language fact that I learned today: in English, where we usually have so many words for the same thing (which is why our dictionaries are so much thicker than those of any other European language), we use the same word, leg, for that department of a person, animal, table, chair, piano, etc. In Catalan, a person’s leg is a cama (which, confusingly enough around here, is the Spanish word for bed, whereas Catalans call a bed a llit). But an animal or piece of furniture doesn’t have a cama, but a pota. Unless it’s a chicken, in which case it trots around on a cuixa.

But that’s a minor problem for a learner like me (who came upon all this today only because I wanted to know how to refer to a dog’s hind leg, or pota posterior). I am constantly reminded of the barriers that English puts up for non-native speakers. I’m just taking at random a word like joke. Jest, jibe, crack, drollery, funny, gag, jape, josh, pleasantry, wisecrack, witticism. Oh, my. How lucky I am to have absorbed such things in infancy without effort!


The Delphic advice to “know thyself” should have a modern footnote saying that one way of doing that is to see oneself on television. I was on a talk show on Thursday and had the modified rapture of seeing myself as others see me. It’s always a surprise. For example, I had no idea that I ever would start a sentence with “Mind you . . .”

Bach the Show-Off

November 23, 2014


Lest we forget: during his lifetime, J.S. Bach was mostly known as a great organist. Since the solo keyboard performances were normally improvised, we may have only the faintest idea of what his virtuosity was like. That it dazzled, we know. How it dazzled, we can only guess from contemporary descriptions and from the written-down compositions that survive. The Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, for example, are said to have been first improvised and then written down. This hardly seems possible to mere mortals, but then Bach regularly seems to transcend that category, doesn’t he? Most often, naturally, to us he does so via his compositions that manage to be models/marvels of erudition and expressivity at the same time. Relatively few of them give evidence of the crowd-pleasing virtuoso.

So it is that, on a beautiful Sunday morning, I find myself spending some highly enjoyable time with one of the surviving compositions that I imagine give us a glimpse of the composer as dazzling virtuoso, “showing off,” if that’s not too one-dimensional a judgment for a work that also stands up on every level as a profound exercise in compositional structure and originality.

I followed three performances on YouTube, separated only by trips to the kitchen to fill the coffee cup. It has been a rewarding experience, and I recommend something like it.

The first is a fine performance by the venerable French virtuoso Michel Chapuis. He evidences complete understanding of the improvisatory nature of the piece (helped in his perceptions, no doubt, by the fact that he is himself a renowned improviser), though not going as far in that direction as he might:

The second performance I listened to (and viewed, since in this instance we get to see the very soignée performer) is by the young Maria-Magdalena Kaczor, playing a modern French instrument. This is a comparatively self-effacing affair—which in itself is not, I’d contend, a good idea for this work—but the virtuosity still shines through, and I particularly like the transparent registration for the dancing fugue:

The biggest surprise for me, however, came from the sometimes tiresomely, self-consciously iconoclastic Virgil Fox. The late virtuoso, for whom no technical limitations ever seemed to exist, was well-known for sometimes sacrificing the composition in favor of the performer. (I say this as one who, contrary to many, insistently maintains that the performance takes priority always. The pious idea that the performer is only the servant of the composer would have made performer-composers from Bach to Chopin to Saint-Saëns stare in incomprehension.) But, in my view, he achieves in this performance, through somewhat different means, the most important effects that historically informed performances aim at, or at least should aim at. The rthymic vitality, the unambiguous accentuation (always the most tricky thing on an instrument in which every note is exactly the same volume as its neighbor but, by auditory illusion can seem otherwise) are masterly. Even though the plentiful registration changes would probably have been unlikely (and a few impossible) on Bach’s instruments, he was himself renowned for the unconventional effects that he confected. So I surprise myself a little by saying: if you’re going to listen to only one of these three interpretations, I recommend that of the old Fox. I am very far from being one of those people who like to say of certain performers—Wanda Landowska, for frequent example—”He/she may do things wrong, but he/she captures the right spirit.” It happens that I’d be hard put to call anything Virgil Fox does here as “wrong.” The spirit of the piece does take over:

Note: All three of these videos were recommended to me this morning in a post by Kenneth Sybesma on the e-mail list “Pipe Organs and Related Topics” ( His cited them in his enlightening discussion of the performers’ registrational choices in this piece, which is often considered problematic in that regard—a fact that may also be evidence of its provision for somewhat unconventional virtuosic display by its original performer, the great Bach. This led to my own thoughts, in which other aspects predominate.)


I have always had to be very careful about spelling because it never came easily to me. I therefore probably don’t commit as many spelling errors as I would if I were more confident. When I started to learn foreign languages, Latin helped with much of English by making it clearer why we had certain spellings. French wasn’t much of a problem, because, in the places where the words were cognate with English, the differences from English tended to follow a predictable pattern. But one of my biggest problems has always been double consonants and where to use them and where not to. So comes along Spanish, which is one of the two languages dominant in my current environment, where instances of double consonants in English (and Latin and French) are mostly replaced by singles. Take a word like assembly, for example (not an English word that I have trouble with, but an example that comes to mind). It follows the easy pattern in the assemblée of the French but becomes a different-looking animal in the Castilian asamblea. This of course does nothing to make me confident of the double-S in Catalan assemblea, which nevertheless follows nicely from the French but does nothing to help with the Spanish, which also throws in a rogue vowel in asamblea — which now looks funnier to me the more I contemplate it.

Another vexed issue for me is when to use -cion and when -tion in English. The slightest exposure to either Catalan and Castilian makes this malady terminal.

This short orthographical effusion comes about because, a few minutes ago, I tried to type the work pharmacy in an English-language e-mail, but spell-check kept coughing it up. Why? Because I was beginning it with an F — which meant that I wouldn’t even have been able to find it in a dictionary. It took a few seconds for me to remember our old Greek-immigrant friend PH. I had been completely brainwashed by Catalan farmàcia and Castilian farmacia (and don’t get me started on the difference that accent/lack-of-accent makes in those two neighboring tongues); and a couple of years of studying German in college (in which PH is replaced by F) didn’t help there, either.

Also, don’t think, when typing the previous paragraph in this context, that the spelling of the word coughing, with its GH for the F-sound, came to mind with ideal speed!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 817 other followers