Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"an orchestra made happy"

That's how Alex Ross, classical music writer for The New Yorker magazine (as well as his own blog), describes the St. Louis Symphony in an article appearing this week, "The Evangelist." Ross reviewed two recent concerts at Carnegie Hall, and also followed music director David Robertson around St. Louis.

The St. Louis Symphony has a strong connection to the New World Symphony - two NWS bassists won positions in St. Louis last year, and another, Dacy Gillespie, has played several weeks as a substitute this year. Dacy was with the orchestra last week when they toured to Carnegie, while at the same time David Robertson's wife, pianist Orli Shaham, was in Miami performing Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto with our orchestra.

I won't make any jokes here about Maestro Robertson trading his wife for a good bass player - I share Alex Ross' opinion of Robertson's charismatic brilliance, though:
A singular thing about that he actively enjoys his evangelical duties; not many maestros at his level condescend to lead Young People’s Concerts on a Tuesday morning. He’s also a brilliant musician and a master programmer. The St. Louis Symphony, which has gone through various financial crises and labor blowups in recent years, has seldom sounded so wide awake.
This week at the New World Symphony we are also playing a series of Young People's Concerts, performing Wagner, Bizet, and Copland for several hundred elementary school students. It's sometimes easy to overlook these kinds of programs, for the musicians as well as the music director: the pieces (and the audience members) are rather short, the program is lighter and the dress is more casual, and the concert takes place in the morning instead of our usual 8 pm start time. These kinds of concerts really can serve vital, positive purposes, though, both for the art form in general and for the individual listeners:
One thing that the orchestra can do is help fill in the gaps in arts education; many St. Louis Symphony musicians double as part-time teachers in public schools. Whether or not they succeed in building an audience for classical music, they are putting instruments into the hands of children, teasing their minds with themes and variations, and showing them unsuspected possibilities.
Luckily, we also have a great conductor this week, Benjamin Schwartz, who returns for the first time since becoming Assistant Conductor for the San Francisco Symphony. I'm sure Beni will keep our orchestra wide awake, and tease some young minds as well.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

critical props

Thanks to Critical Miami for including hella frisch in a recent round-up of South Florida bloggers, and for a frank assessment of my "hideous" template design. It was humbling to find myself listed next to the Miami Herald's Elisabeth "Infomaniac" Donovan and other great writers (with non-hideous templates).

My efforts to find a suitable template alternative were frustratingly unsuccessful, though I did manage to tack on this bizarre bass picture. Please let me know if this is even more hideous than before. One of the great things about the Blogger service is that it's completely free to use. I realized, though, that there is a reason why people spend a lot of money on website design - it's no easy task to find a design that is attractive, original, and easy to use, and trying to write html code myself seems like a recipe for disaster. I should have realized that good design is a valuable commodity, since my twin brother Dan designs websites for a living, as an employee of the University of Southern California. He's very good at what he does, as you can see if you visit their site - though I'm not sure he'd be willing to help me with my hideous little hobby here.

I'll write a post here soon about a very South Beach topic: my ongoing search for a good yoga instructor. Please visit again!

Monday, November 28, 2005

limiting greenhouse gases in the evergreen state

NPR's Morning Edition reports today on efforts in Seattle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's a topic that has gotten a lot of attention lately, but I thought this story did a particularly good job of laying out the challenges of moving a sprawling American city towards energy efficiency. Part of the solution has been adopting the California standards for greenhouse gases - despite the fact that the Bush administration is currently challenging those regulations in court! What a bizarre position to take, for a Republican administration that claims to support states' rights as well as good stewardship of the environment. If the feds won't even let Californians clean up their own air, how can my fellow Washingtonians hope to solve the problem? (That's a rhetorical question, but if you have any good answers, send them along anyway.)

Sunday, November 27, 2005

a small sample of what's new and notable

The New York Times published its list of "100 New and Notable Books of the Year" this past week. Most of the books will still be new and notable to me next year, and maybe the year after that - it's hard to keep up with all the interesting books being written. Still, I was excited to recognize a few books I'd read and enjoyed:

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee - Coetzee often writes stories which feel like a horrible accident you can't look away from. In this novel, such an accident occurs in the first sentence, and it launches an entrancing meditation on age, dependence, longing, and forgiveness. Definitely a worthwhile read, though you might want to start with Coetzee's earlier novel Elizabeth Costello - whose title character invades this novel and its protagonist's life.

Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed by Jared Diamond - By minutely examining such things as soil erosion, tree growth rates, rodent middens, and trade patterns, Diamond illuminates the process of ecological disaster - and some potential solutions. This book is also a companion to Diamond's previous study, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I haven't read yet - I still enjoyed Collapse and felt inspired to a greater awareness.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner - Like Diamond, "rogue economist" Steven Levitt looks for profound lessons from the most familiar elements of life - such as, where do our first names come from, and can they influence the people we become? The book incited controversy for its correlation of legalized abortion in the early 1970's and falling crime in the 1990's - demonstrating that economic findings can be unpleasant as well as dismal. This book is delightful, though, and full of brilliantly counterintuitive discoveries.

A couple of the books were on the list which I started but didn't manage to get into. They may have been good books, I just didn't connect for some reason:

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis - Narrated by a character whose name is also Bret Easton Ellis, and begins his novel with a long account of his rise to celebrity while still in college, writing a series of notoriously violent and sex-filled novels. I wanted to appreciate Ellis' ironic self-loathing, and how much he had grown since his wanton youth, but I couldn't quite care.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith - Cast as a modern retelling of Forster's Howards End, with a multi-racial family and a university based on Harvard. I love Forster, and some of her transformations seemed nifty, but the characters seemed to grow tiresome. Still, it got great reviews, maybe I'll try it again some day.

There are obviously a lot of other great books on the list, including some I'm hoping to read soon by Dave Eggers, Ian McEwan, and Haruki Murakami. A couple others would have certainly made my personal top-whatever list: A History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

Still, I suppose these lists are always incomplete, arguable, and subjective. And no one publishes a list of the "100 Old and Obscure Books of the Year," as far as I am aware, even though those are often the most enjoyable of all. I guess every book is new if you haven't read it, and it's probably notable as well, at least to someone.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

a view of Miami from the Rickenbacker Causeway Posted by Picasa


  • Spoleto Festival USA (where I'm at)

  • Blognoggle's classical music page

  • a recent survey of meat lit

  • Larry Johnson reviews our Carnival

  • Jeremy Denk on SoBe's pleasures

  • Annie Proulx discusses "Brokeback", the story and the film

  • Chip Kidd gets a book of his own

  • Hear Music c/o Starbucks

  • Murakami's latest in The New Yorker

  • the geography of love (an excerpt)

  • San Bei Ji rocks a twelve-tone trio

  • Ashtanga Awareness by Kino

  • the ING Miami Marathon

  • Didion's Magical Thinking reviewed by Robert Pinsky, magically

  • "In Search of Mozart" on film

  • soprano Birgit Nilsson remembered

  • Public radio's Marketplace in China

  • Shunryu Suzuki's life and teachings at "Crooked Cucumber"

  • Made in Washington

  • Author Ian McEwan's website...

  • and an excerpt from his novel Saturday

  • interview with bassist Homer Mensch

  • Elizabeth Kolbert to world: Consider yourself warned (and warmed)

  • Michael Lewis on a football iconoclast

  • Jeremy Denk earns his climaxes

  • Matt Haimovitz's cellistic melting pot

  • prepare for your Google-ified future

  • "Agnes of Iowa," a story by Lorrie Moore

  • artist/yoga teacher/mom Bianca Pratorius

  • Synergy, a great place to attain enlightenment or meet chicks

  • Alex Ross on the symphonic scene in St. Louis

  • Critical Miami points out the hideous truth

  • a feast of music blogs by Brian Sacawa

  • MiamiBeach411 - they kick ass too

  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (an excerpt)

  • Oliver Sacks' website

  • Alan Alda on acting and taxidermy

  • Murakami at the Steppenwolf...

  • ...and in The New Yorker, cooking pasta

  • Olly Knussen's "fantastical world"

  • NewMusicBox, tracking new sounds

  • The Rainer Maria Rilke archive

  • Tasty koans from Jeremy Denk

  • MTT's bio, c/o the SF Symphony

  • Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament

  • NPR's Performance Today and ATC on Adams' Doctor Atomic

  • Retratos: 2,000 years of Latin American portraits
  • Thursday, November 24, 2005

    are you having enough picnics?

    While we were growing up, one of my mom's constant worries was that my brother, my sister, and I were not sufficiently enjoying childhood. "Do you feel like you're having enough picnics?" she would ask us, and we would try to reassure her. It was really very sweet, now that I think about it - probably more parents today worry that their kids aren't getting enough practice tests. I'm not sure that we ever had an actual picnic, but that was my mother's vision of an idyllic childhood.

    I was never particularly partial to picnics anyway, but I have always liked climbing trees. I decided I haven't been climbing enough trees lately, so I decided to climb this one today. It's amazing how climbing up a crazy tangled tree can change your perspective on the world.

    Happy Thanksgiving! Posted by Picasa

    Posted by Picasa

    Wednesday, November 23, 2005

    speechless vocabularies

    The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people's hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely.

    During the Age of Silence, people communicated more, not less. Basic survival demanded that the hands were almost never still, and so it was only during sleep (and sometimes not even then) that people were not saying something or other. No distinction was made between the gestures of language and the gestures of life. The labor of building a house, say, or preparing a meal was no less an expression than making the sign for I love you or I feel serious. When a hand was used to shield one's face when frightened by a loud noise something was being said, and when fingers were used to pick up what someone had dropped something was being said; and even when the hands were at rest, that, too, was saying something. Naturally, there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one's lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for Now I realize I was wrong to love you. These mistakes were heartbreaking. And yet, because people knew how easily they could happen, because they didn't go around with the illusion that they understood perfectly the things other people said, they were used to interrupting each other to ask if they'd understood correctly. Sometimes these misunderstandings were even desirable, since they gave people a reason to say, Forgive me, I was only scratching my nose. Of course I know I've always been right to love you. Because of the frequency of these mistakes, over time the gesture for asking forgiveness evolved into the simplest form. Just to open your palm was to say: Forgive me. [...]

    If at large gatherings or parties, or around people with whom you feel distant, your hands sometimes hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms -- if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them, overcome with sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body -- it's because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what's inside and what's outside, was so much less. It's not that we've forgotten the language of gestures entirely. The habit of moving our hands while we speak is left over from it. Clapping, pointing, giving the thumbs-up: all artifacts of ancient gestures. Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together. And at night, when it's too dark to see, we find it necessary to gesture on each other's bodies to make ourselves understood.

    - from The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss, p. 72-74
    I love Nicole Krauss' idea of an "Age of Silence," perhaps because I so frequently find myself struggling to make myself understood, to put a gesture into words. I was reminded of this passage recently while reading a wonderful article by Oliver Sacks on aphasia, nicely summarized in a recent post on Lydia's blog Veritas. I'll quote a bit of Sacks' article here as well:
    Mimesis, the deliberate and conscious representation of scenes, thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc., by mime and action, seems to be a specifically human achievement, like language (and perhaps music). Apes, which are able to "ape," or imitate, have little power to create conscious and deliberate mimetic representations.

    In "Origins of the Modern Mind," the psychologist Merlin Donald suggests that a "mimetic culture" may have been a crucial intermediate stage in human evolution between the "episodic" culture of apes and the "theoretic" culture of modern man. Mimesis has a much larger and more robust cerebral representation than language, and this may explain why it is so often preserved in patients who have lost language. It is this preservation which can make remarkably rich communication possible for people with aphasia, especially if it can be elaborated and heightened and combined...with a lexicon.

    - Oliver Sacks, "Recalled to Life," The New Yorker of Oct. 31, 2005, p. 52
    So perhaps there was an Age of Silence after all. Certainly our pre-linguistic faculties are still very much a part of human life and communication, and not just at those awkward parties Krauss describes. One of my most fascinating experiences was working with the Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov, who speaks almost no English, and yet can tell an orchestra exactly what he wants. He will simply wave his hands to cut off the orchestra, then show us the phrase with his gestures - more eloquent than any words - and then start again, perfectly understood.

    Apparently even with Russian orchestras, Maestro Temirkanov prefers to rehearse mimetically rather than verbally, and his style does seem to bring a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the group. Rather than saying mid-rehearsal, "Okay, time for a break," he will pick up an imaginary cigarette and mime bringing it to his lips, then walk off stage. I like to imagine the orchestra continuing in that eloquent silence during the break, carrying on intense discussions about today's rehearsal or last night's drinking entirely through complex, subtle gestures.

    Yesterday evening I had the chance to watch a very talented actor, Alan Alda, make an appearance to promote his recently published memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. I was expecting something a little bit drab and dull, listening to some guy read from his book, but it turned out to be a very fun evening, thanks to Mr. Alda's lively and charismatic stage presence. For one thing, he didn't read from his book, but from himself, telling several stories about his recent near-death experience in Chile, his childhood with a touring burlesque troop, and the lessons and surprises of an actor's life. I don't know his work that well, but the audience seemed to adore him, and watching his engaging and amusing way of answering their questions, I could easily see why.

    I think part of what makes an author's words leap off the page is the ability to communicate a gesture, an expression beyond words - a skilled actor can capture that gesture, transcend the words' specific meanings, and bring the expression to life. Mr. Alda talked about developing his ability to observe and read people, growing up with a mentally ill parent. He learned to rely on the subtler signals of his mother's behavior, beyond the words she spoke - not unlike Sacks' aphasic patient whose gestures elucidate the meanings of her gibberish speech. When we find someone fluent in those subtle gestures we can become entranced; it is like hearing someone recite poetry in a language we faintly remember knowing. Though we may have forgotten the grammar and syntax, we still understand and long to express ourselves in those silent motions.

    Sunday, November 20, 2005

    Murakami on stage and online

    I'm trying to find some excuse to visit Chicago between now and February 19th, which is when the stage adaptation of Haruki Murakami's short story collection after the quake closes at the Steppenwolf Theatre. While passing through Chicago's airport last week I picked up a flier which asks the intriguing question, 'Will Super-Frog Save Tokyo?'

    after the quake is a fantastic book, full of the emotional insights and imaginative twists that I adore in Murakami. I will probably have to rely on my own imagination to tell me how it comes across on stage, but the Steppenwolf site includes a fascinating article by the play's director, Frank Galati, who also wrote the adaptation. Mr. Galati is obviously highly attuned to the dramatic possibilities of the stories, as well as their musical undercurrents. He writes that he decided to use a cello and a Japanese koto to create "a kind of narrating musical personality... [so that] their living presence, the spontaneity of their participation, their witnessing of the unfolding of the stories would really contribute, in a simple, but a very rich way to the Murakami-esque nature of the whole production."

    On a related note, another Murakami short story appears in this week's New Yorker magazine: "The Year of Spaghetti." Few writers could make the everyday rituals of pasta preparation seem so mysterious and meaningful. Or convince us that a city's survival may depend on an enormous frog superhero and his unconscious accomplice.

    Saturday, November 19, 2005

    exploring Elgar's enigmatic side

    At its most characteristic his music does not aspire to pure expression, but to a complex of emotions – rich, ambivalent, often conflicting – that is truly Romantic. If the symphonies are to some extent autobiographical, admitting frailties and doubts as well as strengths and visions, then their occasional overworkings, rhythmic monotony and inferior ideas can be accepted as part of a comprehensive and adult perception of his world.

    - Diana McVeagh: "Sir Edward Elgar," Grove Music Online
    To me Elgar's Second Symphony feels a bit like a Tchaikovsky symphony turned upside down. It starts out with all the pompous, blustery self-assuredness that ends Tchaik's 5th, and you wonder where he can possibly go from here. As it turns out, he goes exactly in the opposite direction, towards doubt, frailty, and deep melancholy, as well as some lovely strengths and visions, and finishes in a strangely elegiac mood. It is as if the story began with "happily ever after," but then the storyteller starts filling in the details and we're not quite so sure anymore.

    For a great composer of proud, unironic marches, Elgar seems to have been quite a complex guy, and his ambiguities find their way into his music and its criticism. Here's Alex Ross on the First Symphony:
    Elgar's themes have catchy mid-sections, full of dreamy suspensions and dying falls, but they have no real beginning or end. They slouch eternally down, like a great general seated on a too comfortable sofa... The symphony catches my interest when it seems to grow infuriated with its insistently ambulatory material: every time the theme returns, the orchestration around it gets more bizarre, until the brass let out syncopated shrieks and the woodwinds try to whistle something else. The music exhibits self-loathing for its imperial sloth. This is an astonishing feat of psychological complexity, but not an entertaining one.

    - Alex Ross, "Classical Kitsch," The New Yorker, Feb. 15, 1999, p. 90-91
    That seems a little harsh, but Elgar's symphonies can get awfully heavy at times. We often have to restrain the urge to overplay, as loud passages transition into even louder ones. Thankfully Elgar's orchestration rarely becomes truly overbearing - he seems to have been a master of the orchestral climax, always leaving something extra for the end, and not just shrieks and whistles.

    Maybe that explains why Elgar has become the stereotypical composer of imperial marches and graduation processions. His music is filled with so much grandeur and promise, striving towards some pinnacle of accomplishment, which in the end is just as elusive as that mysterious theme in the Enigma Variations. That score ends with a line from Tasso that seems to have been one of Elgar's favorites: : ‘Bramo assai, poco spero, nulla chieggio’ (‘I long for much, I hope for little, I ask for nothing’). That diminuendo of resignation seems to run through much of Elgar's music.

    Thursday, November 17, 2005

    airport insanity without end

    There are certain expressions which bear frequent repetition - "bless you"; "shalom"; "I love you"; "forgive me." Others badly need to be put to rest. Among the latter category is this one, familiar to anyone who has visited Chicago's Midway Airport:

    Caution. The moving walkway is ending.

    I do not want to dispute that constant vigilance is necessary while riding the moving walkway, having tripped on several myself. However, this warning is repeated approximately every 15 seconds throughout Midway's terminals, in the same recorded voice, whether or not you happen to be standing anywhere near a moving walkway. After a two-hour layover there, I feared more for my sanity than for any mishaps on the moving walkway.

    As the phrase continued to reverberate through my head in the hours and days after I left Midway, I tried to decide what was so maddening about it. I don't think it was the quality of the voice itself, a crisply enunciated but otherwise normal woman's voice. However, the cadence does sound a little bizarre - there are those odd little pauses before and after 'is' - and after 3 or 4 dozen repetitions this slight mannerism began to do funny things to my brain. It is like a small quirk in a musical phrasing - an extra accent, a swell or a hitch - which not only transforms the sense, but becomes increasingly annoying with each repetition.

    Of course, most annoying was the lack of variation through all those repetitions. Anyone who actually wanted to prevent me from tripping and falling on my face would say the line with more urgency as I got closer to the end - "Caution, the moving walkway is ENDING right NOW!" By remaining absolutely the same, the phrase loses its meaning, or even conveys a lack of concern for my well-being as I step off. I'm not sure I really want to be in a state of constant dread over that last crucial step - can't I just enjoy the moving walkway, live in the moving walkway moment, without always worrying and planning ahead? - but the effect of that unvarying voice, like so many things in air travel, felt like a soul-deadening, dehumanizing despair that just wouldn't end.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2005

    new lenses

    I just got my camera back from the wonderful people at the Canon Factory Service Center in Elk Grove Village, IL. I've never before had anything fixed, for free, under warranty, and so it seems like some kind of magical good fortune to have my camera back and restored to full functioning.

    The camera broke just after taking these pictures on South Beach on October 25th. Hurricane Wilma left the beach transfigured, even the light and cool temperatures seemed fresh and new. The most obvious effects, though, were on the lifeguard stands.
    sun rising on a transfigured beach Posted by Picasa

    knocked sideways on 17th St. Posted by Picasa

    going topless at 15th street Posted by Picasa

    toppled at 13th St. Posted by Picasa

    Note the temperature, shown in the background of the photo above: an unseasonably cool 57 degrees. It's warmed up considerably since then, leaving me longing for autumn, though not for any more hurricanes.

    Saturday, November 12, 2005

    "acts of compositional exuberance"

    All three composers featured on tonight's program are here in Miami Beach, guiding us through rehearsals of their pieces and generally being cheeky and British. Except for Gunther Schuller, who is American and not particularly cheeky. Even Mr. Schuller has been in a rare good humor this week though, thanks probably to Oliver Knussen's amiable style in rehearsals.

    Mr. Knussen, who prefers to be called "Olly," is an enormous man who at first made me think of Fafner from Wagner's Rheingold, before he turns himself into a dragon. Once you get past the imposing appearance, though, Olly is more like Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide: a sweet and funny man with a healthy appreciation for the absurd. He is constantly making funny quips and asides during rehearsals, about anything from the brass section's mutes to the politically incorrect rehearsal letters ('SS', 'KKK'). Things can get silly at times, but the effect is to set everyone at ease. Working with Olly helps me to appreciate the levity and humor at play in his music, and the music of other supposedly severe serial composers.

    Any composer of an opera entitled Higglety Pigglety Pop! would need a great sense of humor. Knussen wrote that opera in 1985, based on a Maurice Sendak story, then adapted it into an orchestral suite called The Way to Castle Yonder, the first piece on tonight's program. It's a curious combination of the whimsical and sophisticated - the New Grove Dictionary has this to say about it:
    Here the predominant use of all-interval tetrachords linked into octatonic chains gives rise to a harmonic palette which allows Knussen to incorporate brief allusions to similarly construed passages from Musorgsky or Debussy without any sense of stylistic incongruity.
    Yikes. That article was written by composer Julian Anderson, whose piece The Book of Hours will represent the youngest generation on tonight's program. Thankfully Anderson's music is rarely as thorny as that sentence. His piece is for a small orchestra with lots of electronic sounds - the second part begins with a scratchily rendered recording of the first part; later an "electronic interlude" several minutes long takes over from the live performers, but we get to finish the piece with a jaunty viola jig.

    The younger composers' pieces bracket two longer works by Gunther Schuller. Actually a generation separates those two Schuller pieces, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee and Of Reminiscences and Reflections, written respectively in 1959 and 1994. The continuity I hear is mainly in their borrowings from eclectic sources - renaissance polyphony, bebop and free jazz, traditional Arabic music... I like what the New Grove says about the later piece:
    In every dimension, [Schuller] has insisted that music be meaningful and engage humanity’s full range of experiences and aspirations. This objective is strikingly exemplified in Of Reminiscences and Reflections, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. An angry and elegiac work, which broke a year of compositional silence following the death of his wife, it conceals within its textures references to music he and his wife experienced together; it is music about the meaning of music.
    Both Schuller and Knussen were eager to proclaim their love of double basses - apropos of Knussen's request for a more emphatic low E-flat during an early rehearsal, Schuller told us, "I love the bass - you must know the Quartet for Double Basses I wrote!" Knussen said: "I love the bass too, my father was a bass player!" My stand partner, James, added, "I play the bass!" It was just that kind of corny week I guess.

    Anyone interested in reading more about Olly Knussen should check out an online interview, "The fantastical world of Oliver Knussen." I also just discovered a website about the fantastical world of new music in general, NewMusicBox. It features a profusion of news and longer articles - last time I was there I found some thoughtful comments by John Adams, written during rehearsals for Doctor Atomic.

    Friendster testimonials

    I've lately taken up the literary form of the Friendster testimonial. There are a great many styles of testimonial - poem, encomium, chatty story-telling, shout-out... I try to be somewhat more formal in my tributes, ideally brief and with a bit of truth as well as wit.

    Here in reverse chronological order are the testimonials I've written for people so far - I'll update this page and link it on the sidebar under "friends" as I write more:

    Jason Calloway, February 26th, 2006:

    Almost everyone on friendster seems eclectic to the point of being a little nuts, but Jason is the real deal. Last summer at Spoleto we played a Bernd Franke septet with all kinds of extended techniques - we string players got to use our Harris Teeter VIC cards as plectrums. Jason had actually worked with Franke, so he had all his cellistic growls and sighs down pat. Ya woll Jason, and I hope to see you next summer!
    Benjamin "harry lipsquid" Schwartz, December 2, 2005:

    Schoolkids swarm in by the busload to hear Harry extemporize on gypsies, drunken Irishmen, and the parallels between classical concerto form and hip-hop clubbing. He incites them to such passionate musical appreciation that they volunteer joyfully to be impaled and mutilated as part of a bull-fighting demonstration introducing Bizet's Carmen Suite. Bravo, Harry - you deserve the juiciest watermelon in South Beach.
    Naomi Gray, November 11th, 2005:

    There are plenty of clever, talented, beautiful cellists in this world; however, there are very few who will warn you when your car is about to be pelted by massive tropical fruit. Thanks, Naomi!
    Lydia Lui, November 3rd, 2005:

    I once played an all-Mozart concert with Lydia in Charleston. It was at this gorgeous, stately, historic church, and at one point I was sitting around being bored, wondering what I'd have for dinner, when I saw Lydia copying this line from a bulletin board:

    "Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece." - Nadia Boulanger

    How many people would bother reading that, much less copying it out? I was so impressed that I decided to copy it down myself. Unfortunately, I was not inspired to clean any windows, or to write a masterpiece.
    DeAunn Davis, October 29th, 2005:

    I became acquainted with DeAunn years ago in Evanston, thanks to a close mutual friend and a ceramic bust named Mr. Sailor Pimp. One chilly November evening we invented a whole dictionary of fabulous new words together; sadly, they were all forgotten the next day and a minidisc glitch ended all hope of recovery. Still I can't shake the fear that a situation may arise in which I'll need those words again - or maybe it already has, and I just didn't have the vocabulary necessary to realize it....
    Sara Clerk, October 23, 2005:

    What an amazing, lovely, soulful person Sara is - happy to hypothesize on physics, philosophy and, um, phrisbee, or just to commune with some frogs on a rainy Sunday evening. She proves that poetry and wisdom and silliness can coexist in peace, and can also elegantly solve tricky microphone placement dilemmas.
    Nelly Kim, October 23, 2005:

    Nelly has a really stunning array of friends, but I think I am the only one who can say I sat next to her in Mr. Fouts' 8th grade American History class. We've both come so far, and yet we're still trying to fulfill the demands of scary old men. Mostly now they've been dead a century or two, though, and don't give any pop quizzes.
    Robert Woolfrey, October 15th, 2005:

    Rob is one of those people whose personality seems to defy description, as well as gravity - or was that his hair? Anyway, it would take a great poet to capture all of Rob's virtues in 1000 characters or less (leaving aside his vices for the moment...) I'm not that poet, but if I were, I would probably try and include some of the following: ^ * $ ~ !!! ? Rock on Rob!
    Piotr Szewczyk, October 15th, 2005:

    Ever since I moved into the apartment below Piotr's, my life has been a whole lot funkier. A talented composer, Piotr also knows more about jazz bass playing than any violinist I have ever met. And who could refuse a recording session with Piotr followed by a round of Polish vodka? Just as long as it's not served with hot beer and eggs - that scares me.

    Wednesday, November 09, 2005

    our communications lunch, our selves

    "Are you telling me you'd like me to turn you into South Beach celebrities?"

    I forget what inspired that question, but the person asking it was Marc Fest, the New World Symphony's vice president of communications, without any hint of sarcasm. The occasion was a lunch meeting for the communications department, but Marc and his colleagues used it as an opportunity to listen to what the orchestra's musicians had to say. Marc seemed open to even the most outlandish suggestions, yet I was surprised by how thoughtful and media-savvy everyone's comments were.

    Of course it should come as no great surprise that there are a lot of innovative, creative personalities among 70+ orchestral musicians. The NWS marketing strategy has increasingly emphasized the individual musicians of the orchestra, singling out fellows in programs, on the website, even on the walls of the Lincoln Theatre (Adam and Ebonee, pictured above). People actually seemed quite open to this kind of packaging of our selves, even offering ideas for working more of our personal lives into the orchestra's publicity. Some even suggested embedding a journalist or filming a reality show at the hotel where we live, to give a feel for what life in the orchestra is really like. I think they were good friend Piotr suggested the format could be something like "Blind Date."

    Whether or not Piotr gets his wish, it seems inevitable that orchestras will have to grow with the changing media landscape, and that musicians will need to find new ways to engage with audience members. I guess that hella frisch is my humble attempt at a public media outlet, without actually appearing in public. Speaking of which, I have to thank Marc Fest for his ringing endorsement of this blog, which may have caused my face to blush an unusual shade. Whenever someone tells me they've read this, I'm not sure whether to be more delighted or mortified. In the end, I think I'll pass on being a South Beach celebrity, at least for now - it's always nice to be asked, though. Posted by Picasa

    Tuesday, November 08, 2005

    "making of the moment something permanent"

    What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together saying, Life stand still here”; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)—this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” she repeated. She owed it all to her.

    -To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, p. 161

    At one point during Michael Tilson Thomas' audition masterclasses he began talking about manipulating the quality of time's passing. Thinking about suspended time sent me searching for this passage in To the Lighthouse, a novel which to me is all about beautifully captured moments. As musicians, we also have a magical ability to make "life stand still here," to give shape and stability in the midst of chaos.

    One violinist played a Mozart concerto, and while her performance was hardly chaotic, it may have been a bit tense. MTT talked about the experience of 'now,' and how it differs between the performer and the audience. The performer's experience might be a merciless procession of anxiety-inducing events - "now change the stroke, now make the shift, now emote!" Whereas the audience member's sense of now is more "wobbly" - therefore more yielding and relaxed. So we can engage with that audience member more successfully if we can find our way to a more breathing, "springier" sense of time. This can give us more space to execute all those merciless events , and perhaps ease some of the anxiety. Probably every performer has been told countless times to "relax!" - but I thought MTT managed to convey this advice in an unusually helpful way.

    Of course, each musical idea has its own quality of pulse, and not everything should sound like a sunny, relaxed Mozart violin concerto. MTT expressed this by saying that every pulse has a 'what' and a 'how' as well as a 'where.' We create the what and how with articulation, resonance, energy, direction - all the nuances that can make two works in the same tempo sound infinitely different.

    During one New World Symphony rehearsal, MTT was describing Toscanini's rehearsals with the NBC Symphony, and how Toscanini would cajole and plead with the orchestra, "legato, espressivo, con amore..." Then they would play it, full of all that juicy expression, and he would scream "MA IN TEMPO!" For Maestro Toscanini, apparently, those wobbly 'now's were a little too wobbly. Our challenge is to fit nuance, style, shape and life into the eternal passing and flowing of time. It may not be the great revelation to that simple question from To the Lighthouse, but it's a pretty interesting problem to work on nevertheless.

    For more on MTT's musical ideas, read this post about Strauss' Don Juan.

    Sunday, November 06, 2005

    letters to a young blogger?

    A couple of weeks ago a teenager new to blogging wrote me the following comment:

    i was just reading ure blog. its actually the first ive ever read!!
    just wondering what sorta stuff u can put on blogs.

    I guess I could have said something cheeky like "capital letters and correct spelling wouldn't hurt" - but I tried my best to be sincere and supportive, and you can read what I came up with here. I've just been reading Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, though, and if anyone were to ask me again, I don't think I could do better than simply to quote him:
    ...write about what your daily life offers you: describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty -- describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sounds -- wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twililght, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance...
    Okay, I guess that would be a little much to aspire to. Still, it would be nice to think that this age of e-mail and blogging will call forth a few great poets, and cause the rest of us to expand our own solitudes a little bit as well! I think that even our most humble attempts to express our experience in language and sound can elevate its meaning - as Rilke says earlier in that first letter:
    Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
    It amazes me that Rilke was only 27 when he wrote this, to a 19-year-old student named Franz Xaver Kappus. I suppose you take wisdom where you can find it, and Rilke had a great deal to offer in these letters.

    marathons, auditions, and Scrabble

    An AP News article on today's New York City Marathon nicely captured the excitement of an incredibly close race in a highly peculiar sport:

    [South African Hendrick] Ramaala wasn't sure whether he tried to dive across the finish line, or simply collapsed from exhaustion.

    ''I don't remember,'' he said. ''You know, coming in second is not nice.

    ''The last hundred meters, who wants to go the last hundred meters with Paul? I gave it everything,'' Ramaala said. ''Paul didn't want to lose, I didn't want to lose.''

    Paul is Kenyan Paul Tergat, #3 in the photo; Ramaala is the outstretched figure right behind him. I sympathize with Ramaala's last-ditch effort/collapse, having staggered or crawled across a couple finish lines myself. No other sport demands such a degree of mental fortitude, I think, in the face of physical exhaustion and break-down. The women's champion, Latvian Jelena Prokupcuka, summed up with pride her own psychological battles:
    ''I thought it was over. (But) I saw Susan get sick, then I thought I could win,'' she said. ''I was famous already in Latvia, after this even more famous. This is a big victory for such a small country.''
    Luckily bass auditions are rarely quite so cathartic and physically stressful, though they've been known to trigger vomiting and other flu-like symptoms on occasion. I would compare them more to those professional Scrabble competitions, as shown in the recent documentary Word Wars. All the same people show up in some city, having spent many weeks or months studying a tiny slice of the bass repertoire in minute detail. There is always some element of luck and chance involved - who draws which number, whose instrument is cooperating that day, etc. Still, the balance will inevitably tilt towards whoever is the best prepared, most solid and consistent, with the most mental fortitude.

    That's my experience anyway, having just played an audition in Tampa which was won by the same guy who won my last audition in Louisville. He's a good friend, Aaron White, so I'm happy for him - still, the conclusion I reach (returning to the Scrabble analogy) is that this guy knows how to use the letters he's dealt better than I do. So should I try and learn more three-letter words, or work on recalling and assembling them better? Or do I just keep on doing what I've been doing, since at least I got to the finals this time, which is an improvement.

    It's nice to experience vicariously the thrill of Tergat's victory, having no hope of running a 2:09 marathon myself. Reading that story my heart is more with Ramaala, though. Maybe that's part of what sports and games provide, a place to work out the competitive urges which can often drive us to destructive extremes. Like Ramaala, one never likes to lose, no matter how worthy the opponent; still, we pick ourselves up and find the strength to go for it again.

    Thursday, November 03, 2005

    Curtis in New Haven?

    The New York Times reports today on the Yale School of Music decision to end tuition charges following a single enormous financial gift. Acting dean Thomas Duffy, quoted in the article, seems rather stunned: "These alums generally don't go out and become captains of industry, nor do they become rock stars." No, we sure don't. For anyone hoping to get a piece of Yale's good fortune, though, applications are due December 15th.

    Wednesday, November 02, 2005

    keep on truckin'

    I've been trying to think of a good caption for The New Yorker magazine's cartoon contest this week, shown at right. (Click on the picture to see it larger.) Here are my ideas so far:

    • "Thus concludes the crowning achievement of Haydn's youthful Trucks und Babes Period."
    • "I've just been informed there is a Steinway grand in the parking lot with its lights on."
    • "Our concert will continue with the Opus 17 for String Quartet in Mud Pit."
    • "We'd next like to demonstrate some Weapons of Piano Trio Destruction."
    • "We hope you've enjoyed this premiere performance of The Quartet for the End of The Quartet for the End of Time."
    • "Please hold your applause until the conclusion of the Rip-Roarin' Freestyle Action."
    • "If classical music must die, it will be with a bang rather than a whimper!"

    And my suggestion for some guy's anti-contest:

    • "Was that a hummer of a piece or what?"
    Please help me improve and add to these ideas - the contest closes at midnight on Sunday, November 6th. Thanks!