Our Stuart, some worries, a piano lesson, and a fine young violinist

by Rob Tiller

14 03 08_7551The weather was dicey this week – wet and icy. With rain freezing on the street, I decided it was safer to walk to work than drive. This may have been true, but walking was also dicey – I had some bobbles and barely avoided falling. One day the temperature was 19 when I set out, and the wind blowing in my face was going about 20 mph, like little needles.

Stuart, our basset/beagle, trotted out to greet me at the door each day when I got home. He’s now twelve, and while still, in my opinion, the world’s greatest dog, he’s not as spry as in days gone by. But he remains a warm, sensitive, supportive little soul. He came around for a pet more than usual this week, nuzzling his snout against my leg, as though he sensed I needed a little extra support.
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Which I did. Along with the usual daily stresses and strains, I was dealing with an extra load of physical pain from the ski trip to Colorado. My sunburned lip really hurt, which sounds minor, but actually seemed major – my face felt like a giant stinging throbbing lower lip. My left should was tender and bruised from a crash in the trees. So was my right leg, which had the mother of all bruises – a huge area of purple, brown, and yellow, shading to black. The leg bruise worried me a little, because I couldn’t remember a fall that could have caused it. It just appeared. Then came the lump.

On Wednesday morning in the shower I felt a lump the size of a golf ball in the inside part of my leg behind the knee. I immediately thought of my friend who’d recently survived a deep vein thrombosis – that is, a blood clot in a leg vein, which if untreated could have been fatal. He had a battery of tests and emergency surgery, followed by months of blood thinning medication – all complicated, time-consuming, and unpleasant, but he got through OK. I gave him a call and confirmed that my symptoms sounded similar, and quickly called my GP, only to learn he’d recently closed his practice. His answering machine suggested trying an urgent care facility.

At this point I felt sure I was going to have a very bad day involving multiple imaging tests, surgery, and possibly death. The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that this was the end. I’d miss the spring blossoms and butterflies in Raulston Arboretum, the migrating warblers, the Carolina Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, diving in Dominica, and the new season of Railhawks soccer. I would never taste another one of Sally’s delicious margaritas. Oh woe.

Of course, it turned out to be nothing. An experienced nurse practitioner took a careful look and diagnosed it as either hematoma or lipoma, which would become clearer in a week or two. She was familiar with deep vein thrombosis, which she said would be in a different place on the leg. I felt resurrected! Before me was a good long stretch of the road of life (assuming no freak accidents, major diseases, or other catastrophes).
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I had another piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina on Saturday, and as usual, she was inspiring and challenging. I played a famous Brahms waltz (A flat major), a tender and touching thing which I heard on the radio recently and decided to work up. There are no serious technical challenges; the challenge is to make it musical and fresh. Olga’s approach was to work for different tonal colors for each hand. This takes a combination of extremely close listening and subtle muscle control (not just the hands, but even more the arms and back).

I also played Rachmaninoff’s Elegy, a lyrical and tragic piece which I thought sounded good — until she began to disassemble it. It seems I was playing it too much like Debussy, without enough firmness and depth. She was not persuaded that I really understood the structure of the piece, and encouraged me to practice the broken chords as block chords to get it under better control. The journey continues.
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I’ve been reading Play It Again, by Alan Rusburger, editor of the Guardian newspaper and an enthusiastic amateur pianist. His book is organized around his quest to learn Chopin’s first ballade (g minor) while at the same time publishing the Wikileaks leaks and performing other journalistic feats. It’s touching that he loves the Chopin piece so much, and I can relate, having also spent a good deal of effort working on it some years back. I was struck by the odd combination of musical sophistication with a certain naiveté. It was clear to me from the first few pages that he taking on a piece that was just too far beyond his capabilities, and was likely to spin his wheels for quite a while. But I admired his pluck, and was glad to learn of others like me who with no hope of gain or worldly honor pour a big part of themselves into this music and tradition.

On Sunday afternoon I went to a concert by the young American violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who was accompanied by Matthew Hagle on the piano. The concert included works by Schubert, Prokofiev, and Franck, and a selection of lullabies that Ms. Pine had collected after having a baby. She was an excellent musician, both poised and passionate, with lovely tone and interesting variety of tone. She also seemed like a friendly, down-to-earth person, to judge from her spoken introductions. She plays a famous violin made by Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu in 1742, which Brahms himself singled out for its beauty. For an encore, she played a funny but fiendishly difficult showpiece which I think she said was by Bezzeti. She tossed off with vigor and charm, earning a standing ovation. Kudos also to Mr. Hagle, who was also an excellent musician, and a sensitive collaborator.