Bach: Flute Sonata in E minor - Adagio ma non tanto
Hunter O’Brien (flute), Amanda Chi (cello), Tracy Tang (piano)
‘We all are in the learning process. Nobody knows what we should do, but we’re having fun finding out.’
— Benjamin Zander
Ben Zander: Let’s stop. That’s… How fascinating, okay, because she got lost. That can happen. She’s sight-reading, and so on. But you’re doing a beautiful job, and the sound is gorgeous. Play the other flute so we hear the difference, just out of interest.
Hunter: I don’t know if it’s… how the pitch is going to be.
Ben Zander: This is 1842?
Hunter: Yeah, approximately.
Ben Zander: I’ve got a desk at home, 1695. That’s it.
Ben Zander: Oh, gorgeous. Wow. It’s gorgeous. That is a gorgeous, gorgeous sound. That’s the piece that… You should play it on that. But go back to the original, just so we get to know the piece, and we might come back to this. Wow. Beautiful.
Hunter: Completely different fingering system.
Ben Zander: It’s different fingers and everything.
Hunter: Yeah. So I’m still in the learning process, but…
Ben Zander: We all are in the learning process. Do you get that? We’re all in the learning. Nobody knows what we should do, but we’re having fun finding out. Okay. Here we go.
Ben Zander: Very, very beautiful. Bravo. I want to apologize to Amanda because it’s actually a little more difficult than I remembered, but you did beautifully, and we’re getting to know it. But that’s not the issue. You missed some notes, but that’s fine. But there’s a problem with this. It’s beautiful, and the sound of the flute is so touching, so uplifting, so life-giving, that we don’t actually think very much when we’re listening to a flute; we just say, “How lovely. How lovely. How lovely. How lovely. How lovely.” And then after about the 10th “How lovely,” we say, “How boring.”
Ben Zander: And I’m not suggesting you’re boring. Far from it. You couldn’t be less boring. You’re a wonderful musician. But you feel kind of constricted. You feel as though you’re in a cage. (singing) And I watched a couple of the feet. His feet were going (singing). And after you’ve heard 10 of those, you say, “Oh, okay, I’ll think about something else.” I don’t believe Bach intended it to be boring. Nor do I believe that he intended that you should rely just on the sound of an instrument to move and touch and uplift people. I think it’s got to be something in the music that does that.
Ben Zander: So see if you can do something, and I’m going to help you, but do something to make it less boring. Can you just try it? It’s a silly thing to ask, but I’m going to ask it anyway.
Ben Zander: You know, it was very interesting; it was much less boring. It was very good, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, you had some color changes, and you did a lot with your face and your head, and it was, “Ooh!” (sings) But it actually was still pretty square, wasn’t it? It was as if you were stuck. But beautifully stuck. Charmingly in your cage. How can we get out of this cage?
Ben Zander: The problem where the cage is; it’s in the pace, isn’t it? (sings) Is there anything we can do about that? This is where musicians… You know, we have to solve a problem here. The problem is called “boring.” And boring is a technical term, like adagio and molte perpetuo and so on. Boring. It’s boring. That doesn’t mean you’re boring; it’s boring. Do you get that? It’s boring when it’s like that; when it’s predictable when the beats are constant. And the cello and the piano. There’s nothing she can do, really. Is there? What could she do?
Ben Zander: I know, it’s no good looking at it because it goes (singing)… Just play the cello part.
Ben Zander: Yeah, pretty… I mean, she could move her head a little more, but… This is one of those fascinating things, and we could go on for a long time, and I have to share with you: I did this once in my class at the conservatory, and I had a whole class of graduate students, and I treated them like doctors. I said, “Okay, Dr. So on, come up here,” and they came up with their various prescriptions. And each one made no difference at all, and we went through doctors, and it was a very expensive class because every doctor kept… and finally, and I’m going to tell you what I came up with, and that is this: not all those notes are equal.
Ben Zander: This is very important to realize: that not everything in music, every note is equal. And we’ve been looking at that with the other two pieces. Some notes are structural, and some are not. And if you think of it, the first E is an end; it’s an end. (singing) … to B, then it goes again to A… (singing) Finish. (singing)
Ben Zander: Once you’ve discovered that the first note is an end, the cage door opens, and you can play freely. Should we do that? So your first E is an end, and then you move. And remember, it’s an adagio ma non tanto; this is one of those rare cases when Bach gave us a tempo. He didn’t give us a metronome; it wasn’t invented then, but “adagio” is easy; not slow, easy. And “not too much,” so keep it moving. Three, four, and one. (singing)
Ben Zander: Now, is that a different piece of music? Now we’ve got something totally different. I would suggest in the piano, Tracy, that you play very lightly because it’s a harpsichordist at best. Just tinkling in the background. The main thing is here. We’ll do it one more time, and I would suggest thinking of it in four, not in eight. (singing) Three, four, and… (singing)
Ben Zander: Oh! (vocalizing) That’s a big moment, isn’t it? (vocalizing) Do from (singing) Where are we… (singing) Is that 13? (singing) Ah. Ooh! Let’s start from there. Three, and one… Yeah. Can you avoid (singing) And one… (singing)
Ben Zander: Oh, oh! Oh oh oh! That’s the highest note in the piece. (exclaiming and singing) Oh my God. But you… Isn’t it fun now? You’re finding the hums, you’re finding the directions, this is just great! Would you mind doing it again? Because we can do it more. (singing) 14. One… No, don’t do one; always start after the one. So, one… (singing)
Ben Zander: How fascinating. It’s all right. No, it’s great. You’re doing great. Once again, the same thing. One, two… (singing) And then… For some reason, we got on that… Let’s do it one more time. We got it. I may have confused you by jumping out, so sorry. From here. And one… (singing) Can I suggest if you think (singing) so that this gentleman here knows what’s happening, and Raoul realizes why he got up at 4:00 in the morning. He might have stayed in bed. I joke. (singing) Ooh, that G. I love that G. Don’t you love that G? From there. And, one. (singing)
Ben Zander: Finish… Listen, Tracy… yes… (singing) Here he comes… (singing) Last time… (singing)
Ben Zander: The bird leaves the cage. If you find yourself in a cage, get out! Don’t spend your life in a cage. Really. Seriously. You know that from playing… He’s played in the past in the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra for a whole year now. Right, one year? And we don’t do cages. We do freedom. We do exuberance. We do heaven. Because there’s nothing worse than being in a cage, and that’s what most music is: (vocalizing) If you go to a concert and somebody’s playing (vocalizing)… Get back to the box office before it closes to get your money back because it’s going to be like that forever.
So this is freedom. This is freedom, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Hunter, you’re a great, great, great musician and a wonderful flutist. But you’re not yet a great ensemble player, because you should be in love with this cello player and be with her… Would you mind one more time… You know it from memory, don’t you, really?
Ben Zander: You don’t. Almost. Almost, almost. Bring it close. Bring it close. Come close. Come, come, come. And Tracy, be very much in the background and be right inside the cello’s hand. And you could be a terrific leader. What… Oh, this is upside down here.
Ben Zander: Let me show you what I mean. I can’t play the cello anymore; it’s 50 years, but… I don’t know, I really probably can’t play at all. Shall we try it from the beginning? (singing) Yeah. And… (singing)
Ben Zander: Right, and I’m sorry I can’t play anymore. I haven’t… but you get the idea of… Try it. Light and fluid. Yes! (singing)
Ben Zander: Here it comes… (singing)
Ben Zander: Beautiful. Very beautiful. Well done. Now look. Now look. I apologize to Amanda that I didn’t warn her and she had to play something at sight, and she made a few mistakes, but you know it doesn’t matter. What she did was, she made this performance possible. Our gratitude to you is enormous because without that freedom it doesn’t work. And isn’t it beautiful to be free? A wrong note, it doesn’t matter. Even you played a wrong note, one. Doesn’t matter. I mean, look, clean up the wrong notes… It’s like, when you get married, please find a clean shirt, but find the right person; that’s the most important thing. I don’t know, I just made that up. But it’s so beautiful when Bach is allowed to be free.
Ben Zander: But the freedom must always be from the music. It must never be your freedom; it’s his freedom. It’s the freedom of harmony. It’s the same with the viola; it’s the same with the cello. He tells us how the music is to be. He doesn’t need to write a lot of dynamics and all that stuff. He doesn’t need it because it’s written. It’s beautiful. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Beautiful.