Thursday, May 26, 2005

technology and tragedy

Even assuming that reincarnation occurs fairly regularly, it is highly unlikely that we will ever meet someone we knew in a former life. What with the constant turnover in cell phone numbers, however, it's fairly commonplace to find someone who knew your phone number in one of its previous incarnations, or at least thought they did. This happens to me about once a week, usually in the form of a call from a confused Spanish-speaking person, since I have a Miami area code.

This Tuesday it was a man calling from Honduras, trying to reach his father. Usually people just hang up after "No hablo espanol," but in this case he called me back twice, asked who I was. Things were getting emotional, even though the entire conversation was conducted in my dreadful attempts at Spanish and his equally limited English. There was definitely an aspect of "who are you, and where have you taken my padre?" I couldn't seem to answer this question in either language, yet I couldn't help feeling a human sympathy that kept me from hanging up the phone (I was also on night minutes, so it wasn't costing me anything). This man had something critically important to tell his father, and I had no way of helping him. Finally I did just have to say "lo siento, buena suerte, adios."

It made me realize how modern technology seems to shield us from human tragedy - armed with Google, it's much harder to lose track of your friends and family members. We haven't invented the search engine yet, though, which can permanently eradicate loss, disconnection, alienation. Sometimes it is even more painful to know that the ones you've lost are so readily findable - we have so many tools to reach each other by cell phone or e-mail, but we still struggle to reach eachother's hearts.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Best wishes to Scotty D.

The New World season ended a couple of weeks ago in a whirlwind of minimalist music, massive loads of laundry, and inflatable boat races. I wanted to post something about one member of this year's orchestra who is leaving, Scott Dixon.

Scotty D. is from my part of the country, the Pacific Northwest, but I didn't meet him until I came to Florida last year. He's a pretty quiet, mellow person, but after you spend any time around him you're impressed by what a friendly personality and a great sense of humor he has.

Scott with Katie, onboard the R&R sailing ship Posted by Hello

Scott did a lot of cool things this year - he played a solo piece by Arvo Part on a tsunami benefit concert in February, for which he got a nice mention in a newspaper review, and he piloted a sailboat around Biscayne Bay, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago, and helped to hold together the bass section with his strong playing and conscientious musicianship. One thing for which I'll always be grateful to Scott, though it never earned him any applause, was how he made me feel welcome as a member of the orchestra.

Like Scott, I can be pretty shy sometimes, and would rather wait for someone to ask for my company than risk making a nuisance of myself. Early in the year, though I was having a great time playing, I would pretty much keep to myself and hide in my room after concerts. We played a concert of Beethoven 7th symphony in December, with MTT conducting, and it was a very exciting, cathartic performance, and as usual, I was sitting in my room afterwards, thinking vague lonely thoughts. It was Scott who called me up, told me some people were going over to the bar for a drink and to hang out, and asked me to join them.

It probably wasn't a big deal to him, but for me that made all the difference, I finally felt free to leave my room and be a more social member of the orchestra. I didn't go out and drink or hang by the pool every night after that or anything, but it was great to feel like any time I wanted to, I could. So I will always be thankful to Scott for making that gesture, and try to find ways that I can do the same for other people.

Good luck and best wishes, Scotty D.!

Friday, May 06, 2005

bassists, part II: they just keep on coming

This week our orchestra is playing a piece by John Adams, Harmonielehre, along with a more recent piece by another American composer, Kevin Puts. The program is balanced out by an older, less American piece, Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto, featuring a young American pianist named Jonathan Biss.

Matching familiar pieces like the Beethoven with modern, unfamiliar works tends to turn up interesting connections. John Adams is obviously aware of the German symphonic tradition - his piece's title is a German word, meaning a book of harmonies, with connotations of winds. The middle movement, "The Anfortas Wound" alludes to Wagner's opera Parsifal - it begins with a little reference to Wagner and builds from there. The first movement was inspired by a dream of a huge tanker ship lifting out of the sea and flying through the air - this was according to our conductor this week, Alisdaire Neale - and the third movement is also inspired by an improbable flight. Its title, "Meister Eckhart and Quackie", refers to another German, a Christian mystic of the 14th century, and Quackie is Adams' young daughter's nickname. Adams had envisioned the two of them flying together in a hot air balloon, or maybe that's just what I envision when I listen to this music.

Music can't really be "about" flying or tanker ships or 14th century Christian mystics, of course - the closest it can get is to make clear allusions to other music that we associate with those things, as in the Parsifal movement. Still, Harmonielehre is remarkable for its exhilarating, airy quality, and the way that soaring, expressive melodies are combined with hypnotic minimalist figurations - a lot of it reminds me of an Indonesian gamelan orchestra, actually. The New Grove dictionary says about Adams' style in this piece:
He fused repetitive motifs with a lush, highly expressive 19th-century symphonic language. Informed by dreams, Jungian analysis, mystical poetry and transcendentalist writings, compositions such as these established his reputation as a composer of 'accessible' scores that provided relief to audiences wary of contemporary music.

The other American piece on the program, Kevin Puts' Vespertine Symphony, is similarly accessible to wary audiences, and may even sound eerily familiar to listeners of the Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork. Puts (pronounced as in "she puts down the gun", not "what a putz") uses melodies from Bjork's album Vespertine, creating a soaring, lush, and highly expressive language of his own. Mr. Puts has been around this week to help guide our rehearsals of his piece; the New World Symphony was originally going to play the piece in an earlier version last fall, before those concerts were preempted by Hurricane Ivan.

Mike, Doug, and Jeff try some unfamiliar stools Posted by Hello

Our section is joined this week by three guest bass players, Mike Fuller, Jeff Lehnberg, and Doug Nestler. I already knew Mike from a music festival in Verbier, Switzerland; he is now playing in Chicago's Civic Orchestra. This week was my first time meeting both Jeff and Doug, though Doug and I both studied with Don Palma in Boston. It's been fun playing with all three of these guys, and sharing ideas and comments with them in preparation for the upcoming Met audition.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

bassists come, and go

This past week was an eventful one in the New World Symphony bass section. For the alumni reunion concert last Thursday, we had two guest bass players: Tony Manzo (1994-96), a current member of the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.; and Mike Valerio (1997-1999), who is a studio and freelance musician in Los Angeles.

Tony and Mike were both very generous with their time, from coaching our audition excerpts to hanging out at local bars. Apparently South Beach's bar scene has greatly diminished since they were residents here, and they shared sad reminiscences about all the fun places which have since been boarded up or knocked down to build new condos. The tone of the week was rarely somber, though, as we all had a great time getting to know Tony and Mike and playing Mahler Symphony no. 1 with them.

Tony Manzo and me Posted by Hello

Our section is normally 7 bassists, a bit on the small side, so it was particularly nice to have 9 for Mahler. Everyone was inspired to play their best, not only by Tony and Mike but all the fantastic alumni joining the orchestra, and the sound was noticeably more powerful than normal. We got nice reviews for the Mahler from two local music reviewers, the Larry's Johnson and Budmen.

Mahler 1 was a famous bass solo, and Mike Valerio was justly praised in one of the reviews for creating an incredible opening to the 3rd movement. He did it using my second bass, which of course wasn't mentioned in the review but was doubly impressive as far as I was concerned. Michael Tilson Thomas asked for the solo incredibly soft, leaving the audience wondering what strange instrument could be playing and from what far off place - I had never heard it so quiet, yet with such firm intonation and expressive substance in the sound.

Mike Valerio and Sean O'Hara, post-Mahler Posted by Hello

In addition to Mahler's 1st, we had a chance to play through some other big repertory pieces like Symphonie Fantastique and Don Juan. MTT was in great spirits all week, enjoying seeing old friends and conducting the enhanced NWS orchestra. It was touching to see the kind of rapport and communication taking place between all of the past and current orchestra members. It's no secret that some very talented people have passed through New World, but it was a testament to the quality of the institution that so many engaged, exciting, and expressive musicians chose to return, and told us directly what a beneficial experience NWS was for them.

three little bassists, all in a row... Posted by Hello

Yesterday was the bass audition for the St. Louis Symphony, and two NWS bass players won the two openings there - Sarah Hogan, who has been playing in St. Louis on a one-year contract, and Dave DeRiso, who has been in our section this year. Dave played in the mock audition on Saturday, and played with such precision and power that I was not at all surprised to hear he won the job. It's been an inspiration to hear him play all year, and I'm sure he and Sarah will both have a great time in their new bass section.