Thursday, June 30, 2005

more Spoleto photos

Here are some more people I met at this year's Spoleto festival, beginning with some friends I made who share a connection to USC (the one in Southern California, not South Carolina):

Lydia, Ke, and Mike at Spoleto USA Posted by Hello

My brother Dan also went to USC, so I consider myself the genetic equivalent of a USC alum, though unfortunately I cannot present my DNA for student discounts. Lydia is a violinist who I first met at Tanglewood in 2002, and an enthusiast of James Joyce and Chinese opera. Ke is a bassoonist who recently won a position in the Detroit Symphony and is very adept at coining catch phrases. Mike is a clarinetist and a native Oregonian, as well as a lover of alphorn concertos (or at least Leopold Mozart's Sinfonia pastorella, the pinnacle of the genre.)

I also met Mary, a flutist who left the New World Symphony the year before I got there:

Mary with a painting of a church in CharlestonPosted by Hello

Mary introduced me to a great jazz singer named Rachel Farrell, and was kind enough to listen to me blather about Anita O'Day.

Many of my photos, like the one below, ended up with bizarre distorted blobs on people's faces:

please excuse the thing on Jason's chin Posted by Hello

Still, Jason is definitely a person worth noting, a violinist currently living in Texas but originally from Idaho. Like all the people mentioned here, neither the picture nor my pithy summary do him any justice. Best wishes to everyone anyway!

Steve, the airplane maven

One of my favorite non-fiction books is Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which like his more recent book blink is a wide-ranging exploration of all kinds of interesting and often counterintuitive ideas, from the broken-windows theory of urban crime prevention to the ways we use our friends and family members as external storage for memories. The main topic of the book is how ideas and trends arise, and he identifies several important personality types in this process, one of which is the maven: the person who is constantly gathering knowledge, on anything from grocery prices to car repair to movie releases, in order to share with anyone (sometimes everyone) that maven meets.

I always thought of myself as a bit of a maven - hella frisch alone is evidence of my continuous need to tell other people about what I am doing and listening to. Today, however, I was humbled and astounded, while on a flight from Los Angeles to Phoenix, to meet a true maven by the name of Steve.

I came onboard with a newspaper editorial about Alexander Hamilton and the economic philosophies of the founding fathers, confident that it would either educate me or lull me to sleep. I had not completed more than two sentences, however, before Steve struck up a conversation about recent presidential biographies; this discussion then segued effortlessly into computer software recommendations, Steve's family, the LA Dodgers' recent woes, people Steve knew in college, movie recommendations, the situation in Iraq, Steve's health problems, ways to win at blackjack, and it went on. It was only a one hour flight, but by the end of it I had a sheet of paper crammed with notes - Steve had insisted I jot a few things down, so that I would remember.

Having met the Platonic ideal of maven-dom, I'm not sure I really want to be one - it's alright to suggest a book every once in a while, but being a friend of Steve would be a full-time job. Then again, I would know exactly which software to download, what movies to see, and how to make money at blackjack. (Not that I'm going to use all of that knowledge.) I asked Steve if he had a website himself, and he said that he didn't; for better or worse, this particular maven can only be appreciated in person.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

my Anita O'Day obsession

A few of months ago my yoga teacher Garth put on a recording of the jazz singer Anita O'Day, and ever since then I've been addicted. Whatever it is about her voice, her phrasing, her style, I just find her singing irresistible. Full disclosure on how much of a nerd I am: when I recently purchased a laptop computer, I decided to name it "Anita O'Dell" in her honor.

One curious thing about Anita O'Day is that her album covers tend to feature terrible photographs. She wasn't an unattractive person, yet I may have never picked up a CD of hers had I not already fallen in love with the voice. In an industry in which female recording artists' success too often seems to depend on sexy album covers, though, it's refreshing to be reminded that appearance needn't take precedence over substance.

My obsession with Anita was largely based on the first CD Garth played me (Jazz 'Round Midnight) and a couple of others I've been able to find, all representing her work from the '50s and early '60s. Then last week my brother took me to Amoeba Music, a fantastic record store in Los Angeles, and I found an album of hers called My Ship, recorded in the late '70s. Listening to this album was incredibly moving - it is the same voice, but the decades in between have deepened her, and added a new poignance to her performance.

It is probably more common to discover a jazz singer in later years and then to work backwards to the earlier recordings, but reversing the process can be just as fascinating. Had I never heard her more recent work I would have still found her delightful, but I would have missed a whole dimension of her career, the effect of time and maturity. In music, an art form so concerned with stretching, suspending, and shaping time, it is a wonder to hear how time can shape a great artist.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


I had a great surprise last month when I received an e-mail from my high school friend Aaron Olson, otherwise known as Urn. I am not quite sure how the nickname was derived, though it did always seem like a touchingly polite gesture, rendering his name just that much quicker to type or to pronounce. (I suppose I was not so polite, because for a long time I went by the nickname "maccheww", based on a noise that our family dog, a siberian husky, made one day - Bandit may have just been clearing his throat, but his howl sounded distinctly like "Halloooooooooooooo! maccheww".)

Anyway, Urn was always one of my favorite people and closest friends in high school. We used to walk together to and from almost every day, and since he lived at a convenient point midway between school and home I would often linger there at Urn's house for several hours each afternoon.

Here's something I wrote in an e-mail to Urn, thinking back on that time:
I remember how we had our own huge collection of inside jokes, when we would walk to school and back together every day, and how we could totally crack eachother up while saying nothing that would be remotely meaningful to any other person on the planet. I've always admired people who could collect jokes like that - they just seem to evaporate out of my head, leaving only vague nostalgic memories of something pleasant and funny!
When Urn e-mailed me last month, wondering if he had stumbled on the right Matt Heller and hoping to renew our acquaintance, his message awakened all kinds of vague nostalgic memories. Especially since, as it happened, I received his e-mail just after returning to Charleston, SC, a place that has all kinds of nostalgic associations for me as well - I felt like I was nibbling the tea-soaked madeleine at both ends. I also wrote:
...getting back in touch with you makes me realize how so many of the people I've known and liked since then were basically replicas of people I knew in high school. Or rather, I tried to replicate the relationships I had in high school with those people - and when they failed to behave in quite the same ways that their high school prototypes would have, I never quite knew what to make of them. I don't think I ever quite found a substitute Aaron Olson, which I suppose makes you a highly valuable commodity!
Urn's value as a commodity seems only to have risen, judging from the charm and humor of his e-mails! Here is an excerpt from Urn's e-mail to me, which I think gives a taste of his unique sense of humor:
Man, I'm glad I found you. Not as though I've been on some lifelong quest to find a long lost sibling holding onto the other half of a pendant that will eventually usher in the new world order or anything, but now and then I get a bug, and I start looking up people to see if I can find them. My internet stalking abilities only stay fresh if I use them, you see.
He also has a blog, alternate 3rd thursdays, which I've been snooping on to catch up on his current obsessions. Urn's blog may get a bit technical on occasion, but it still makes me laugh, even when I have no idea what he's talking about!

Sunday, June 19, 2005

a few new bass acquaintances

Jory, Dave, Gabe, and Adam at Middleton Place, near Charleston Posted by Hello

I got this photo just before the Spoleto Finale Concert at Middleton Place, which included a beautiful Lt. Kije solo by Jory Herman (first on left, above). Due to the various opera orchestra detachments, we only played one concert as a full bass section, but it was a pleasure meeting all of these guys, and I hope to run into them again in the future.

Jory was the only one pictured here whom I had met previously, at the Milwaukee audition a couple of months back, where we shared a taxi from the airport. I couldn't have asked for a better or more reliable stand partner for The Rite of Spring, and I already mentioned his impressive solo playing. Dave is heading to Germany later this summer, where he'll be in an the Essen Philharmonic orchestral academy, a really exciting opportunity to get a foothold in one of that region's orchestras. Gabe is also heading abroad this summer, for a trial in Singapore, and I should see a lot more of Adam down in Miami in the fall.

More and more I seem to be at least acquainted with the people winning the big orchestra jobs, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see any of these four soon do likewise. Of course, I'm beginning to get tired of vicariously enjoying my bass colleagues' successes, and impatient to follow their examples!

Saturday, June 18, 2005

This afternoon, I went for a walk with my brother Dan and sister Zoe, as well as Zoe's two dogs, Daisy and Django. Both dogs are labradoodles, a mix of labrador and poodle, and they are still just puppies.

Having both my siblings together in the same place is a nice treat, allowing us to recall lots of childhood memories and stories. None of us like much to talk on the telephone, but I am always surprised by how funny and amiable my brother and sister can be when I get to see them in person!

Zoe, Django, Daisy, Dan, and Isaac (in stroller) Posted by Hello

Friday, June 17, 2005

Four Seasons with the SLSQ

One of the highlights of the Spoleto Festival for me was getting to rehearse and perform with flutist Paula Robison, lutenist Frederic Hand, pianist Jeremy Denk, and the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. They were all guest artists in Spoleto's Dock St. chamber music series, and Paula brought an arrangement of Vivaldi's 4 Seasons with herself playing the solo violin part on the flute.

It was an interesting substitution - great for those bird calls in Spring, somewhat less successful at summoning up the fury of a Summer storm, though Paula plays with more character and imagination than just about any instrumentalist I am aware of. In rehearsal she loved to tell long and extravagantly acted stories about fox hunting or lonely shepherds, and would often get carried away by a narrative and start singing and dancing around.

The other members of the group were just as lively and interesting. The first violinist of the St. Lawrence, Geoff, always seemed to have a thoughtful observation to make about the way the music worked, and an extra nuance to add to the interpretation. Chris, the cellist, always had a funny aside and impressed me with his characterful ways of phrasing a bass line. The violist, Lesley, often would bring things back to the topic when the discussion got a little flighty or tangential, and the second violinist Barry had some great suggestions for articulations.

trying to look like I belong: Barry, Chris, Jeremy Denk, me, Geoff Posted by Hello

I was impressed by how light and amusing they kept rehearsals, never getting bogged down in problematic passages. I imagine that being a chamber musician demands so much interpersonal skill, managing everyone's egos while trying to contribute everything possible to the musical product, that a healthy sense of humor is an absolute requirement of the job.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons wasn't a favorite piece of mine - after hearing it so often in elevators and department stores, it's hard to get really excited about performing it live. Playing it with these musicians, though, brought everything to life and made all the gestures seem spontaneous and thrilling again, from the thunderstorms of Spring to the cracking ice in Winter. It inspired me to try to bring a chamber musician's engagement, conviction, and energy to all of my playing.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

the Isaac experience

Since I last wrote about my baby nephew Isaac, back in March, he has grown quite a bit. This evening I joined him, his father Elliot, and his other uncle Dan at Isaac's first baseball game. He spent most of the game sleeping and drinking, which was probably a wise choice, since baseball can get pretty boring. Still, as you can see from the picture I took as we entered the stadium, it was an exciting occasion for him.

Isaac gets ready to watch baseball Posted by Hello

It's very difficult to photograph and document a baby's first weeks - even though he does little except sleep, drink, cry, and wiggle around in someone's arms, he seems constantly to be changing and developing. I suppose it's not enough to just see or hear about a baby, you need to experience him, and I had never experienced a baby like this before meeting Isaac. It's been an amazing and joyful few days, and I'm very impressed at what great parents my sister and brother-in-law have become!

I last wrote about Isaac back in March, just after he was born, in a posting called "Isaac's first day".

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Spoleto USA and a great stand partner

Over the past several weeks, while hella frisch has been on a hiatus, I have been in Charleston, South Carolina at the Spoleto Festival USA. Since it would be a shame for this chunk of my life to disappear into the unblogged past, especially with all the digital photos I took there, I thought I would revive hella frisch with some belated reports from Spoleto.

One of the first people I met at Spoleto, and certainly the one I spent the most time sitting next to, was my stand partner, Jessica G., pictured below:

Jessica and me at the Dock St. Theatre, pre-Respighi Posted by Hello

Jessica is from Ann Arbor, Michigan and just graduated from NEC, where she studied with the same teacher I did, Donald Palma. Maybe because we both studied with the same guy, or maybe just because she's a very sensitive and talented bass player, it was very easy playing with Jessica. We played two operas together, Respighi's La bella dormente nel bosco and Mozart's Don Giovanni, and the last week of the festival we also played Mozart Symphony no. 40.

Both productions were pretty unusual and very successful, judging from audience reaction. We couldn't see much of the Respighi from our corner of the pit, but every time we performed it we got to hear all kinds of gasps and delighted squeals from the audience, which probably had more to do with the elegant manipulations of Basil Twist's puppeteers than with the artistry of the bass playing. Still, we held it together pretty well, I thought.

Don Giovanni was another thing entirely this year, and it was exciting to be part of such an innovative production. I imagine this must have been a racy and ground-breaking work for its first audiences in 1780's Prague, a whole new mixture of tragedy and comedy, light and dark music, nobility and common folk. The stage director in Spoleto, Gunter Kramer, created a new performance space in an old auditorium in Charleston, the Memminger Auditorium, that brought the audience into the action of the opera, allowing Don Giovanni and Leporello to weave through the seats, interact, even make a pass at a couple women in the audience at one point.

The orchestra got more than our usual share of the spotlight as well, seated right in the middle of the set. It's hard to describe all of the funny and fascinating features of this production, and all of the ingenious methods that our conductor Emmanuel Villaume used to keep it running smoothly. For anyone who will be in Charleston next summer, though, you'll be able to see it in person, since they will be mounting the whole production again for next year's Spoleto Festival.

To read more about Spoleto on the official website, click here. There were several interesting reviews of Spoleto productions, including in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Those papers published their reviews on Tuesday, June 7th, and they are no longer available free online. You can still read the reviews published by the City Paper, Charleston's free weekly, of the Respighi or Don Giovanni.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

visiting Norfolk

Yesterday evening I arrived at the home of my sister, brother-in-law, and baby nephew, along with their two dogs - it's really becoming too much to say, I've already started just shortening it to "my sister's family." Saying that always makes me pause and ponder, though, since until pretty recently I always considered myself part of my sister's family! Maybe the easiest and least existentially challenging way is just to say, "I'm now in Norfolk, staying with the Zarets."

Elliot and Zoe's enormous house Posted by Hello

The Zarets have been fabulous hosts, except for the two puppies, who tend to leap and slobber on you a bit more than you might like, but this is excusable, since they are still just puppies. They do have quite a large house with plenty of spare rooms for guests. It's funny, though, how they pretty much fill their enormous, beautiful house in Norfolk the same way they did their also lovely but somewhat cramped apartment in Washington, D.C., where I visited last spring. Gadgets, toys, literature, ridiculous collectibles, vitally essential items I haven't yet quite identified, all piled up or scattered about - I'm not trying to say that my sister and brother-in-law are slobs, or anything, just that their dwellings tend to be squeezed full of all their joy and enthusiasm and life, to such an extent that some forms of life might choose to dwell there of their own accord. Right now, though, they've kept those life forms to a minimum: just a few fruit flies, and me.

I guess it shows that you can change your city, your house, your tax bracket - but you can't change your self that much, so your lifestyle never changes that much either. Which is fine, because Zoe and Elliot seem to have found a nice domestic routine, busy with all the tasks of being parents and dog owners and home owners and hosts to siblings. It's a little scary, though, to observe their routine and realize how closely it resembles that of our parents. Come home from work, make dinner, watch television - these are the inescapable pillars of middle-class life in America, it seems though somehow I always thought we would escape them. I guess that's why I'm now a freelance musician, single, without cable.

Thank you for putting me up, and putting up with me, Zoe and Elliot, if you read this! I don't think they often read hella frisch, though, which means I can write a lot of stuff about them I otherwise might not.

to read more about my nephew Isaac and see a picture in this blog's archives, click here!