Tuesday, January 31, 2006

the state of my personal union

My fellow Americans, though this evening I stand before you in troubled times, I can say with ambivalent certainty that the state of my personal union is strong. (pause for applause)

I know that my critics will point to my lack of a full-time job, a girlfriend, or anything much in savings, and my falling approval ratings since I dressed up as a broken levee this past Halloween. I intended the costume as a thoughtful and timely tribute to the suffering of New Orleanians, but apparently many people felt I just taped a bunch of sticks, tiles and dirt to my clothing, in a typically lame and half-assed gesture.

However, beneath these dark clouds, I believe, there is a bright new day blooming out into the rose-tinted sunset, to coin a phrase. For example, I was able to pay off my entire credit card balance this month, thanks to my decision not to give holiday gifts to any of you, my treasured friends and family. I know you all appreciate this fiscal discipline, and also my judicious restraint in not calling any of you on the phone unless I need to ask for money or large personal favors.

I also can report that, contrary to rumors of my decline in popularity, I now have an all-time high of 454 messages in my e-mail spam folder, offering everything from discount software and pharmaceuticals to a picture of something called an 'islamic leafy cowslip'. I barely have time to even read the subject lines, there are so many of them. This, certainly, is not the spam folder of any reclusively friendless loser.

In short, the state of my personal union is strong and forthright and only growing in forthrightitude. I thank you for your attention, good night and God bless.

(If anyone would like to contribute an opposition rebuttal to the state of my union, please put it in a comment or e-mail and I'll post it up.)

Sunday, January 29, 2006

what's next, what's hip, what's blingy

I had a great time this morning at the ING Miami Marathon, even if I didn't run a great time. I ran 3:19:30, which is a lot slower than my time last year. Oh well, I wasn't really expecting a PR, after such a sketchy training cycle. Maybe next time I'll prepare better.

The race was very smoothly operated, with great volunteers and a fabulous course, and perfect weather conditions. My only suggestion to the race organizers is that they improve the name: perhaps the "Miami BLING Marathon". This would subtly integrate the lead sponsor's name, while it references one of the event's singular features, the elaborate finisher medal (shown above). The sight of thousands of runners wearing these gaudy necklaces brought to mind a crowd of really athletic pimps and rap artists. Well, not really, we're mostly a bit too white and dorky-looking. Still though, this might be an angle for an advertising slogan: "Run the Bling Marathon with P. Diddy!" Just a thought.

Here's the actual race program's blurb on the "Evolution of the Medal":
Miami is a trend setting locale. A place where people look to see what's next, what's hip and what's got style and flair. The 2006 ING Miami Marathon & Half Marathon medal is best defined as... So Miami! Its double-spinning details would blend well in a music video. The Art Deco shape and colors will provide a point of reference for your lasting memories of the only marathon which runs through an Art Deco District. The ING Miami Marathon will once again create the paradigm shift in the world of marathon finisher medals. Miami was the first to have a spinning medal and now is the first to have a two part spinning medal with stained glass! We know this medal will be one you will proudly display and will certainly wear with style.
I'm not quite so certain, but I could just be that rare person whose wardrobe does not easily complement chunky orange and gold accessories. I hope this does not signal that I am lacking in style and flair, or disqualify me from appearing in a music video. I also like define myself as... So Miami!, though I realize that might not be the very best definition of me.

On a related note, one of the reasons I've been running so inconsistently is that I've been getting instead into ashtanga yoga practice. This is a very challenging and fulfilling practice, great for mind and body fitness, though it may not help that much in training to run ridiculous distances. Even with all the neat poses, you never move far off a 2.5 x 6 ft. mat. I wrote here recently about my search for yoga instruction; soon after that I discovered a great teacher named Kino MacGregor, who appears on the front cover of this month's Yoga Journal, and teaches right here in South Beach.

Kino is an amazing teacher and practitioner of ashtanga, and she'll be traveling to Mysore, India this week to study with her own teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. You can read more about her at her website Ashtanga Awareness, and she will be back teaching at Synergy Yoga in Miami Beach in March or April. Her classes fill up quickly, and latecomers end up doing their sun salutations in the bathroom hallway just so they can be nearby and take part. This maybe is also So Miami! - though if you've taken one of Kino's classes you know she's much hipper and more stylish than any clunky spinning medal.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

running the ING

I'll be running the Miami Marathon tomorrow morning, my third time running the race. This year, rather than "The Toyota Prius Miami Tropical Marathon" it's being called the "ING Miami Marathon". ING is a big Dutch bank and insurance corporation, which doesn't sound quite as fast or cool as the Toyota Prius. I'm not sure I'll be as fast or cool as I was last year either, though. My training has been hindered by an audition, a cold, and a broken toe last week.

Still, if you're in Miami and up early tomorrow, I'll be number 104; and I'll be grateful to anyone cheering or spraying me with water. Here are my stats from 2005:

Gun / Chip: 3:05:22 / 3:05:18

Overall: 44 /5934

Sex: 38/1184

Div.: 6/84

10K: 0:41:42

Half: 1:30:30

30K: 2:08:31

Final: 3:05:18

Pace: 7:04 / mile

Thursday, January 26, 2006

magical thinking and The Magic Flute

Even as we celebrate his 250th birthday, I think we tend to fixate on Mozart's youthfulness. Certainly he wrote brilliantly in his teens and early twenties, but the Mozart of the late symphonies and operas was no longer a young man. He had suffered through hard times in his career and in his personal life, struggled to support his family, mourned both his parents and a beloved son. The precocious wunderkind had become a precociously wise old man, only to reach a precocious end at 35.

We struggle to conceive of someone so wise at such a young age. Lately I have been reading Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, written after a year in which Didion lost her husband and very nearly lost her daughter. She writes about our society's changing approach to death:
One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage. In the earlier tradition from which Mrs. [Emily] Post wrote, the act of dying had not yet been professionalized. It did not typically involve hospitals. Women died in childbirth. Children died of fevers. Cancer was untreatable. At the time she undertook her book of etiquette, there would have been few American households untouched by the influenza pandemic of 1918. Death was up close, at home. The average adult was expected to deal competently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath.

- p. 60-61
I'm probably more a product of today's denial-ridden culture, always turning away from death. I picked up Joan Didion's book curious about that 'magical thinking' of the title, not for any advice on grieving. As I read deeper, though, the book seemed more and more relevant. It was a weekend when death seemed to overtake our media culture's frantic attempts to elude it - both a coal miner in West Virginia and the Israeli prime minister had been medically induced into comas, and the news reports shuttled from one emergency room briefing to the other.
Next to those news reports, Joan Didion seemed a voice of clarity and reason, even as she described the state of crazed unreason which grief brought her to. It is a voice that seems to come from the eye of a hurricane, still and calm and surrounded by the most devastating violence.

It may be a stretch, but I think some of Mozart's music comes from a similar place. This weekend's concerts at the New World Symphony begin with the overture to The Magic Flute, and an introduction conductor Bernard Labadie described as "organized chaos". All Mozart's command of technique, his famous grace and surface prettiness, is used here to depict disordered confusion. The other pieces on the program, the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, the Masonic Funeral Music, and the "Jupiter" Symphony No. 41, also offer glimpses into a Mozart darker and more human than typically expected.

As in Mozart's music, Didion's style and clarity are never separate from content, and the true beauty of her work is in the shared memories of a loving marriage, never neglecting the pain of its loss:
This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for the discovery that (a point typically introduced in such accounts by the precocious child of the bereaved) "you can love more than one person." Of course you can, but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time. "She didn't know the songs," I recall being told that a friend of a friend had said after an attempt to repeat the experience. Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I saw myself through the eyes of others. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I realized that my image of myself was of someone significantly younger...

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

- p. 197-198
Reading this passage again, I wonder if casting Mozart as the eternally young artist is a way of preserving our own illusions of immortality, by imagining ourselves as we first heard this music. It's a kind of "magical thinking" we probably do more than we realize, tethering ourselves to our most precious memories by every possible means. Mozart would probably be pleased to serve as the tether, 250 years after his birth; those kinds of magical associations make his music immortal as well, with all its mortal wisdom.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

In Cold Blood, and a neighborhood near you

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is a riveting crime story told as a 'nonfiction novel'. It is also a sort of fugitive's travelogue, following murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith as they lie, cheat, steal, and hitchhike their way to Mexico and then across the United States. They reach Miami Beach in late December 1959, unaware that their days as free men are numbered:

In Miami Beach, 335 Ocean Drive is the address of the Somerset Hotel, a small, square building painted more or less white, with many lavender touches, among them a lavender sign that reads, “VACANCY – LOWEST RATES – BEACH FACILITIES – ALWAYS A SEABREEZE.” It is one of a row of little stucco-and-cement hotels lining a white, melancholy street. In December, 1959, the Somerset's “beach facilities” consisted of two beach umbrellas stuck in a strip of sand at the rear of the hotel. One umbrella, pink, had written upon it, “We Serve Valentine Ice-Cream.” At noon on Christmas Day, a quartet of women lay under and around it, a transistor radio serenading them. The second umbrella, blue and bearing the command “Tan with Coppertone,” sheltered Dick and Perry, who for five days had been living at the Somerset, in a double room renting for eighteen dollars weekly.

Perry said, “You never wished me a Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, honey. And a Happy New Year.”

- In Cold Blood, p. 199

A Google search for the Somerset Hotel Miami Beach yielded only the blurry postcard shown above. When I visited 335 Ocean Drive, though, I found a building recognizable from that postcard, only with pink and teal rather than lavender touches. It is now called "Ocean Walk Condominium".

the Somerset Hotel's current incarnation Posted by Picasa

Clearly the neighborhood has changed some, but it still attracts a fair amount of transient and temporary visitors. I lived just a couple blocks away, at 260 Collins, when I first moved to Miami Beach. Both addresses are just steps from the beach and those "facilities" Capote mentioned.

Dick and Perry's stretch of beach today Posted by Picasa

When I walked around to the rear of the building, I found a scene not unlike that Christmas Day in 1959, though these umbrellas were all slogan-free. There was a nice seabreeze, just as advertised. I was tempted to go inside the building, to ask some of the current residents if they knew about their infamous predecessors, and maybe find out what the weekly rate is today. I decided to limit my literary voyeurism to the exterior, though.

Here's one last view of that "white, melancholy street":

Ocean Drive, 46 years after Dick and Perry visited Posted by Picasa

Sunday, January 22, 2006

a short order composer

Again and again in the new documentary "In Search of Mozart", commentators emphasize the choices Mozart didn't make. The forms, ensembles, texts, even the character of his music were dictated by his patrons and their commissions. The Romantic artist constrained only by the limits of imagination and personal expression didn't exist in Mozart's time - he worked under strict guidelines, with pressing deadlines. One of the documentary's historians noted that Mozart was not a particularly good employee, that he would much rather serve his own artistic ideals than some tone-deaf aristocrat. Still, that sort of independence did not exist for Mozart, or any other composer of his time. It would take a later generation of composers, such as Beethoven, to rebel against the patronage system and stake out a new role for the musical artist.

Mozart's "Posthorn" Serenade was typical in its utilitarian purpose. It was written for a graduation ceremony in 1779, on orders from the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. Even the use of the posthorn, the quirky instrument that gives the piece its nickname, was a function of the occasion. And yet the music transcends that occasion, and surpasses the forgettable circumstances that inspired it. It is not subversive music in any ordinary sense, but in its extraordinary beauty and timelessness it seems to defy its subservient origins.

To me Mozart's work is even more impressive for its mercenary origins. Even when writing for silly and banal occasions, for unappreciative or even stupid patrons, he wrote glorious, uplifting, beautiful and moving music. He poured his life into this music, his joys, his disappointments and suffering, his wisdom and insights into human nature, and even if those original patrons didn't always appreciate it much, we certainly do.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mozart goes postal

Mozart's Serenade in D Major K. 320 is nicknamed the "Posthorn" Serenade, but most of its length comes pre-posthorn. When the posthorn finally does make its appearance, in the second trio of the second minuet, the piece has already been carrying on delightfully for 35 minutes or so. Still, it is a striking arrival, like passing over a mountain peak and looking down on a spacious valley below. The posthorn may have more of a cameo than a starring role, but it was certainly more than an afterthought; as in the Trout Quintet or the Choral Symphony, the late arrival of the title character seems only to emphasize how its spirit infuses the entire work. The "Posthorn" carries a mood of good humor and well-being, with a certain lightness and buoyancy even in the piece's darker moments.

We'll play the "Posthorn" Serenade on an all-Mozart chamber music concert next Sunday afternoon at 3 pm. I may have more to write about it as the concert approaches.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

profiles in embarrassment

I have to extend an apology to subscribers to the newspaper International Musician, as well as to recipients of the most recent New World Symphony application brochure. (I cringe and apologize doubly if anyone has received both.) Both publications feature a photograph of my somewhat oddly-shaped head in profile; the same image is also on a poster now displayed on Lincoln Road (shown here).

The picture was taken by photographer Simon Hare as part of an exhibit of New World Symphony members' portraits. In most cases, these photos cry out, "Wow, look how gorgeous / charming / fun / orally fixated these orchestra members are with their instruments!" Mine alone seems to carry the subtext: "Wow, what a weirdly molded skull - its freakish curvature seems almost to mimic the proportions of his bass scroll!"

This was precisely what the photographers had in mind, actually. They also took several photos emphasizing how my ears seem to stick out prominently, like the sides of a bass scroll (below). "You must have been made for the instrument," one of the assistants solemnly told me - I might have replied, "Yeah, all I need are some sloping shoulders, jutting ribs, and a big fat ass."

Posted by Picasa
Anyway, I'm not upset so much as slightly mortified. As a child I always scornfully marvelled at what a strangely shaped cranium my brother had, never quite accepting the fact that we are identical twins and therefore I have the exact same head! I don't know if my childish ego could have handled the shock - I'm only now starting to learn the art of self-mockery. Now that I have to see the photo every day as I go in to practice, though, I may be reaching a point of acceptance. In fact, just a couple of days after these photos were published I came across the following passage in a novel:
Ault had been my idea. I'd researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I'd pretended it was about academics, but it never had been. Marvin Thompson High School, the school I would have attended in South Bend, had hallways of pale green linoleum and grimy lockers and stringy-haired boys who wrote the names of heavy metal bands across the backs of their denim jackets in black marker. But boarding school boys, at least the ones in the catalogs who held lacrosse sticks and grinned over their mouth guards, were so handsome. And they had to be smart, too, by virtue of the fact that they attended boarding school. I imagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.

- from Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, p. 15

It may be too much to hope that my picture will inspire any such romantic fantasies, but I think perhaps I can serve as a beacon of hope to other musicians with unusual head shapes. They will see the New World Symphony as an orchestra where their bizarrely protuberant profiles and slightly imperfect haircuts will not only be welcomed, but even celebrated. Or else, maybe someone somewhere will put the picture to good use on a dart board. Then all of my embarrassment will not have been in vain.

(photos courtesy Simon Hare Photography)

LA Phil: an institution gets up to date

There's a great article in the NY Times today about the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which in writer Allan Kozinn's words "tops the list of America's premier orchestras and serves as a lesson in how to update an august cultural institution without cheapening its work." A couple of years ago I spent a summer with my brother Dan in LA, studying with LA Phil bassist David Moore and hearing a lot of concerts. I should write something about that soon, since it was a great summer and a very musically enlightening experience.

You can read Allan Kozinn's article, "Continental Shift" online with a free NY Times registration. The LA Phil also now has a podcast with concert preview stuff, through the K-Mozart radio station. That's also free of course - hopefully all this free publicity also won't cheapen the orchestra's work!

Friday, January 13, 2006

an audition scenario

Listening to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week, I've been wondering how it might sound if orchestra auditions were run in a similar fashion:

Scene: A nondescript rehearsal room, a large screen placed in the center. Behind the screen sit several committee members, out of view. Enter audition candidate and proctor; audition candidate holds a double bass, proctor places a stool on the floor and announces -

Proctor: This is audition candidate number 73, who will play the Bourrees from Bach's 3rd Suite.

Committee member #1: Fine, please feel free to tune and play a few notes, and proceed when you are ready.

...sounds of Bach being played for the next couple of minutes...

CM #1: Thank you, now please continue to the excerpt from Beethoven's 5th Symphony.

Audition candidate whispers to proctor. They confer for a few moments.

P: Audition candidate #73 prefers not to play that excerpt, sir, since should you choose to hire the candidate, this piece may very likely come before the bass section during the candidate's tenure there.

CM #1: Excuse me, you're saying that #73 won't play Beethoven 5, because we might play the piece in the orchestra?

P: That's correct - the candidate feels that playing the Scherzo and Trio for you now may prejudice the candidate's future performances of Beethoven 5.

CM #1: That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. If we can't hear a piece the orchestra is going to play, what can we hear? A C major scale maybe?

P: The candidate would prefer to not play that scale either, since C major scales might arise in the bass section fairly frequently.

CM #1: But #73 just played us the 3rd Suite Bourrees - there must have been some scales there?

P: Actually, that was just a recording of Edgar Meyer playing the Bach. The candidate does admire Edgar Meyer's performance greatly, though.

Committee member #2: I would just like to say that I share candidate #73's admiration for Edgar, and I fully support the decision not to play any of those excerpts. The purpose of this audition is to find out just what kind of orchestra member you'll be, not to create some kind of litmus test for how you play a particular excerpt. I for one feel you'll make a great addition to our bass section, and I support your nomination wholeheartedly. May I ask the candidate to please share an amusing story about growing up in my native state of New Jersey, affirming the importance of hard work and fair play?

P: The candidate would prefer not to.

CM #1: I have a tape recording I have just discovered and would like to play for the committee. This is candidate #73's seating audition at Grover Cleveland Middle School -

...sounds of a raucously awful performance of Capuzzi Concerto...

CM #2: This is clearly uncalled for - we can't base our decision on a scratchy cassette made 15 years ago! I have brought in the piano accompanist from #73's undergraduate senior recital - maybe she can give us some testimony on the candidate's qualities?

Piano accompanist: Yes, sir. Audition candidate #73 was always well-prepared, highly capable, and all the checks cleared. I recommend #73 highly.

Committee member #3: That's all very well, but the bass player we would be replacing is Bob Ratkiss, our only German bow player and a key voice in deciding where the section would go out for drinks after concerts. I've brought in a former stand partner of #73 - is this candidate really up to the job?

Former stand partner: Not only does #73 not play German bow, often #73 would forget to bring a bow entirely, and then have to borrow mine. #73 also frequently forgot to bring a pencil, rosin, the music, an instrument, or any cash, forcing me to pay for all of #73's drinks. I strongly oppose the hiring of this candidate.

Committee member #4
: Thanks for that, former stand partner. By the way, weren't you candidate #69?

FSP: No comment.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Birgit Nilsson, a life in performance

An obituary of Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson by Bernard Holland appears today in the New York Times. Nilsson was 87, and her performances of the Wagnerian roles are legendary, preserved on many recordings still in wide circulation. Here is a little excerpt from a profile on Nilsson by Winthrop Sargeant which appeared in The New Yorker magazine, Oct. 29, 1966:
Miss Nilsson, being a great self-improver, can be counted on to sing each role better every season. She restudies constantly, and people who have worked with her say that, given a couple of months between performances of a particular role, she will always return to it with improvements, both vocal and dramatic. Her voice has grown in warmth over the past five years or so, and she explains this phenomenon by noting that when she was younger she had to push her voice in order to make it adequate to the big Wagnerian roles. "When you push," she says, "the voice becomes white." But Miss Nilsson, for all her experience and fame, is still not without her attacks of nerves. Before her first double appearance as Elisabeth and Venus in "Tannhäuser," she spent a completely sleepless night, and her description of it will be familiar to many insomniacs: "First I couldn't sleep. Then I got worried that I wouldn't get any sleep. Then I got mad at myself for not sleeping. So I didn't get any sleep. Sometimes I am so stupid I hate myself." She has also had some experiences on stage that would unhinge the average actor. She described one of these in a letter to her New York friend. Dated London, April 14, 1962, it began, "Friday 13th, yesterday, was the premiere of "Tristan & Isolde," and it was really the 13th. Between the general rehearsal and the premiere, they spreaded my costume in a green color. It was a nice color indeed. I jumped in my costume in the last minute and found that the nice new color made me green all over. The overture began and I went on the stage in tears! My hands were after 5 minutes so dark green that I could not see the difference between them and my clothes. Brangäne became green, Tristan almost all-over green, and I was at the end of the act green as a tree from tip to bottom. Ah boy! I have still no idea what I did on the stage.... The second act was better, because I changed dress, but then I got the green color back from Tristan during the long love duet, because there had been no costume change for him. That was Friday 13th! P.S. The man who spreaded my costume cried also. He had used water color instead of - I do not know what. But it was quite a mistake."
That profile contains several more funny stories from Nilsson's life on stage, and is available on The Complete New Yorker set of DVDs. There is also an excellent profile of Nilsson published in David Blum's book Quintet: five journeys toward musical fulfillment.

Here's the paragraph which closes that Winthrop Sargeant article:
Recently, an interviewer asked Miss Nilsson, "If you had six months of complete freedom, with no singing schedule whatever, what would you do?" Miss Nilsson seemed taken aback for a moment. Obviously, the idea had never occurred to her before. She thought over the question earnestly and then replied, "I would like to travel. There are so many things to see." In response to a look of incredulity, she quickly added, "You do not understand. There are many cities in the world where I have seen only the airport, the inside of my hotel room, the inside of a taxi, and the inside of the opera house. Sometime I am going to go sightseeing, like other people."
This past weekend I visited Minneapolis for an orchestra audition, and I may have seen a few things besides those Ms. Nilsson listed, but not many - I didn't even turn on my camera. It seemed like a nice city, though, and I have only good things to say about the orchestra and its audition process. Maybe one day they will have auditions again, and I'll have a more fortunate result, or at least leave myself an extra day for sightseeing.

Marketplace with a Mandarin accent

The NPR program Marketplace has been reporting live from Shanghai on the changes and challenges of the fast-growing Chinese economy. This morning's report focused on piracy - an interesting topic for anyone in the entertainment and software industries. All of the reports I've heard so far have been fascinating, though. Hearing the Marketplace theme rendered on Chinese instruments, and Kai Ryssdal introducing the show in Mandarin, is also a treat.

You can read much more and find out where to listen at the Marketplace website.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

talk (or dance) amongst yourselves

I'll be away from Miami and this blog for a few days - in the meantime, here's a bit from a poem by Billy Collins, wondering why philosophers are so narrow-minded in their questions about angels:
No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

arbitrary beginnings

The whole new year celebration seems somewhat arbitrary - we randomly choose a moment in the middle of the night, on a day in the middle of winter, and assign to this new year a number we've also chosen. No matter, though, it seems to work for a lot of people, and if we need a ritual or a big party to help us start things anew, then so be it. Nature seems to find ways constantly to start things anew with or without our help, and so Sunday was an excuse for me to bike up to Miami's Haulover Beach and watch the sun rise on a new day, and a new year.

6:50 am - colorful skies at 74th St. Posted by Picasa

7:05 - arriving at Haulover Beach Posted by Picasa

7:11 am - the first sliver of sun Posted by Picasa

7:14 am - climbing through the clouds Posted by Picasa

7:19 - setting sail (or wings?) on the new year Posted by Picasa

7:22 am - fishing at dawn Posted by Picasa

7:22 am - some birds also watch the sunrise Posted by Picasa

7:25 am - another photographer shoots some newlyweds Posted by Picasa

7:32 am - leaving the beach Posted by Picasa

Sunday, January 01, 2006

James Levine on NPR

I criticized an NPR article last week; so in the interest of fair and balanced blogging, I have to applaud another NPR piece, an extended profile of conductor James Levine. Scott Simon interviewed Levine, and their conversation ranged over several of Levine's favorite topics - the power of minimal gestures in conducting, new music and new ideas in programming, the need to devote one's whole life and energy to music, etc.

Here's some of the piece that I transcribed:

Scott Simon: James Levine says that he's always looking for new compositions.

James Levine: I find them every way. I find them by sitting, having a meeting or a lunch or a drink or something with any one of a number of colleagues, composers, conductors, instrumentalists and I say to them, “What have you played lately that was new that you liked or that was interesting?” and I'm always working on new scores just as a matter of course, just to reduce the number of things that I have no knowledge of.

Scott Simon: I've been told that, what was it, your parents put a record player near your crib?

James Levine: Yeah, sometimes when they needed peace and quiet in the house after I was born they put a small record player, that I could handle, with a stack of records next to it. It was one of many things that they tell me – that I sang melody coherently before I could really talk coherently. I had a speech impediment and my mother was speaking to the pediatrician and the pediatrician said, “Well what's he interested in?” and my mother said, “Well he drives us crazy banging on the piano all the time, reaching up when he's nearby,” and the doctor said, “Well, try piano lessons.” Perceptive doctor!

Scott Simon: Without putting you on the spot, I've been told you don't have a lot of hobbies - that music is your life.

James Levine: Oh, the way I think of it, I guess, is that everything I do goes into, ultimately, the big main river of my life, which is music. I guess there's also learning new music, I mean I've always gone on vacation with a handful of scores that are not what I have to do right then, because for me vacation from music means not having to rehearse or perform. But I wouldn't know what to do with myself all day, day after day, if there weren't some part of the day where I can explore the scores that I have with me.

It is hard to imagine James Levine not crouched above a musical score, a large towel slung over one shoulder, and a large mug of some warm beverage at his side. I worked with him at the Verbier Festival for two summers, and also got to rehearse and perform Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet with him as pianist.

Preparing chamber music with Levine was a dizzying experience - he would offer not so much suggestions, but musicological footnotes about the piece, the vocal traditions Schubert was steeped in, the large and small-scale structure of the musical discourse. Then we would all try a section again, a bit more enlightened and also more than a little awed to be playing with someone so wise!

His orchestral rehearsals were similar - a great deal of thoughtful, profound commentary, very little gesture. But when he wants to, his gestures can add an explosive fire to a performance, and raise it to another level. I remember a particularly exciting performance of Schubert's 9th Symphony there; also we did Mahler's 3rd. James Sommerville speaks in the radio story about how a strategically placed widening of the eyes, or a raise of an eyebrow, can bring an element of magic to the finale of Brahms' 1st. When a musician has such an eloquent and focused technique as Levine, magical things just seem to happen naturally.