Tag Archives: chamber music

Chamber music at last !

Last night I played chamber music with two friends for the first time in over a year. It was glorious. The string players wanted the Dvorak Dumky trio. It is a very deep, beautiful and rather dark work. I wanted something joyous, and convinced them to play Beethoven Op. 1 #2, which is one of the happiest pieces he ever wrote.  It’s great fun, particularly the last movement.  

If you’re a string player, imagine being unable to tune your instrument for a year, while you played it daily.  Such was my lot, until my piano tuner got vaccinated last month.  

So, if you’re able, get out there and play some music with friends.

The solo piano literature is enormous yet, given a choice I’d rather play chamber music.   The interaction with another musical mind, particularly in the hands of a great composer, just has to be experienced.   Leonard Bernstein said something to the effect that if you could capture music in words, you’d never need to listen to it. 

God only knows how many professional musicians were lost or gave up in the past year.  Even so, I’m not ready to go to concerts.

The death of amateur chamber music playing

Compared to the death, bereavement and economic pain of the pandemic the end of music making by amateur chamber musicians is a small thing.

Why do I say this?  You can hardly do better than the following link —


Here is a quote from it — “Indoor spaces, with limited air exchange or recycled air and lots of people, are concerning from a transmission standpoint. We know that 60 people in a volleyball court-sized room (choir) results in massive infections. Same situation with the restaurant and the call center. Social distancing guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces where you spend a lot of time, as people on the opposite side of the room were infected.

The principle is viral exposure over an extended period of time. In all these cases, people were exposed to the virus in the air for a prolonged period (hours). Even if they were 50 feet away (choir or call center), even a low dose of the virus in the air reaching them, over a sustained period, was enough to cause infection and in some cases, death.”

Does this sound like amateur chamber music to you?  Particularly at summer festivals where hordes of the most vulnerable age  groups get together, eat together, play together, socialize together.

Is there hope that this will be transient?  Yes.  Here’s why.

First some background.

I’m sorry to keep putting this in, but I don’t want to leave anyone behind. Finding the actual genome (RNA in this case) of a virus in an individual  is like seeing a real bear up close and personal.  This can do you some damage.  In contrast, antibodies to the virus are made by an individual who has been infected by the virus in the past.  Antibodies (proteins) and genomes (RNA) are completely different chemically.      Antibodies are like seeing the tracks of the bear without the bear itself. You can’t see tracks without the bear having been present at some point in the past.

Well we’re in that situation in the USA.  Based on many studies now (California, New York State, Prison systems) the number of people who’ve been exposed to the virus enough to develop their own antibodies to it, is anywhere from 10 – 100 times greater than the number of people in whom the viral genome has been found.  This means that the vast majority of infections with the new coronavirus are asymptomatic.

So that’s the good news (but only if 3 things are true)

l. The antibody tests are accurate

2. Having the antibody means you won’t get sick if exposed to the virus

3. Having the antibody means you are free of the virus and can’t possibly transmit it to other people.

As of 10 May none of these are known with any degree of certainty, but if antibodies to the pandemic flu are like all the antibodies we’ve studied in the past they very likely are true.   It will take several months before this is all sorted out.

Things to watch out for in press accounts.

The number of known infections is certain to rise.  Officially we have currently tested around 500,000 people for the virus — way less than 1% of the population.  As more people are tested more cases will be found.

The important figure to watch is how many people have been made sick by the virus, not the number of people in whom the virus has been found– the technical term for the disease (not the virus) is COVID19.

Fortunately, I’m an amateur pianist with a huge literature for solo piano to explore (48 Bach Preludes and Fugues, 32 Beethoven sonatas, 60+ Haydn sonatas, 500+ Scarlatti sonatas, 16 Mozart sonatas).  My string  and wind instrument  playing friends aren’t so lucky.  But I miss them.


Off to band camp for adults 2018

No posts for a while, as I’ll be at a chamber music camp for adult amateurs (or what a friend’s granddaughter calls — band camp for adults).  In a week or two if you see a beat up old Honda Pilot heading west on the north shore of Lake Superior, honk and wave.

I expect the usual denizens to be there — mathematicians, physicists, computer programmers, MDs, touchy-feely types who are afraid of chemicals etc. etc. We all get along but occasionally the two cultures do clash, and a polymer chemist friend is driven to distraction by a gentle soul who is quite certain that “chemicals” are a very bad thing. For the most part, everyone gets along. Despite the very different mindsets, all of us became very interested in music early on, long before any academic or life choices were made.

So, are the analytic types soulless automatons producing mechanically perfect music which is emotionally dead? Are the touchy-feely types sloppy technically and histrionic musically? A double-blind study would be possible, but I think both groups play pretty much the same (less well than we’d all like, but with the same spirit and love of music).

A few years ago I had the pleasure of playing Beethoven with Heisenberg —   along with an excellent violinist I’ve played with for years, the three of us read Beethoven’s second piano trio (Opus 1, #2) with Heisenberg’s son Jochem (who, interestingly enough, is a retired physics professor).  He is an excellent cellist who knows the literature cold.  The violinist and I later agreed that we have rarely played worse.  Oh well. Heisenberg, of course, was a gentleman throughout.

Later that evening, several of us had the pleasure of discussing quantum mechanics with him. He didn’t disagree with my idea that the node in the 2S orbital (where no electron is ever found) despite finding the electron on either side of the node, forces us to give up the idea of electron trajectory (aromatic ring currents be damned).   He pretty much seemed to agree with the Copenhagen interpretation — macroscopic concepts just don’t apply to the quantum world, and language trips us up.

One rather dark point about the Heisenberg came up in an excellent book about the various interpretations of what Quantum Mechanics actually means: “What Is Real?” by Adam Becker.  I have no idea if the following summary is actually true, but here it is.   Heisenberg was head of the German nuclear program to develop an atomic bomb.  Nuclear fission was well known in Germany, having been discovered there.  An old girl friend wrote a book about Lise Meitner, one of the discoverers and how she didn’t get the credit she was due.

At the end of the war there was an entire operation to capture German physicists who had worked on nuclear development (operation Alsos).  Those captured (Heisenberg, Hahn, von Laue and others) were taken to Farm Hall, an English manor house which had been converted into a military intelligence center.  It was supplied with chalkboards, sporting equipment, a radio, good food and secretly bugged to high heaven.  The physicists were told that they were being held “at His Majesty’s pleasure.”.  Later they told the American’s had dropped the atomic bomb.  They didn’t believe it as their own work during the war led them to think it was impossible.

All their discussions were recorded, unknown to Heisenberg.  It was clear that the Germans had no idea how to build a bomb even though they tried.  However  Heisenberg  and von Weizsacker constructed a totally false narrative, that they had never tried to build a bomb, but rather a nuclear reactor.  According to Becker, Heisenberg was never caught out on this because the Farm Hall transcripts were classified.  It isn’t clear to me from reading Becker’s book, when they were UNclassified, but apparently Heisenberg got away with it until his death in 1978.

Amazing stuff if true