Friday, March 31, 2006

Stepanich: 'overtaken by delight'

Our concert last Monday in Ft. Lauderdale's Broward Center for the Performing Arts elicited several positive reviews, including this one by Greg Stepanich of the Palm Beach Post. Here's a nice section praising Schubert's 'Great' C Major Symphony:

I think the thing that made this Schubert so wonderful was the orchestra's sense of this music's kinship to folk and dance styles, and not incidentally to the sheer joy of creating indelible melodies. A typical reading of the processional-like opening theme, for instance, is usually a call for sobriety and purity of line, but here, while the lines were clear as they could be, there was a sense of playfulness and high spirits that made the theme sound newly composed, and newly composed by a writer who was very proud of his creation and wanted to show it off.

That spirit prevailed throughout the performance, from the jauntiness of the oboe theme in the slow movement to [conductor Michael Tilson] Thomas' refusal to hold back on big climaxes (perhaps not very 1828, but certainly Schubert wouldn't care). It was, in sum, a big-hearted reading of this symphony in every way; it benefited immeasurably from being performed by young people to whom this piece is brand-new, and being conducted by a man whose musicianship remains in a perpetual state of willingness to be overtaken by delight.

Greg Stepanich himself seems like a big-hearted critic, if that is not an oxymoron, and I don't mean to be at all facetious. Too often I think reviewers take pains to insert some pointed insult or wry aside, if only to assert their own critical distance. Excessive compliments can seem just as false as contrived fault-finding; but sometimes it's nice to just get swept up in the generous spirit of a piece of music - I know that was my experience of the Schubert symphony, and I was happy to see it reflected in this review.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

you are what you eat?

I've probably bought this same type of bread dozens of times, but not until this evening did I realize the ridiculousness of its name. I guess not all health nuts have sworn off carbs forever. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"the little miracle of precision"

"For a long time I had in mind to tell the story of an orchestra rehearsal, because whenever I attended one [...] I always had these mixed feelings of emotion, disbelief, skepticism and joyful amazement. In other words, to witness how disorder, confusion, such diverse moods [...] indifference and the argumentative spirit of such disparate individuals can be merged into a single, harmonious yet abstract design as is music [...], to be present at the little miracle of precision that punctually renews itself and enables this little community to reach out towards a common purpose, all together yet individually [...] always fills me with a sense of touching surprise, like the vague perception that this situation harbors, emblematically, the ideal archetype of a society that can live and express itself in harmony."

- Federico Fellini, on the genesis of his film Prova d'orchestra (Orchestra Rehearsal, 1978), featuring music by Nino Rota (listen here)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

critics, and villainous dwarves

The blog ionarts provides links to several reviews of the Washington National Opera's new production of Das Rheingold, mentioned here in the last post. The Americanization of Wagner seems to have attracted a lot of interest, but as usual it's the music that makes or breaks the performance - and most of the critics agree that the WNO's musicians are making it.

I won't be playing any Wagner operas anytime soon, but an upcoming New World Symphony concert features an interesting percussion concerto by Christopher Rouse, titled Der gerettete Alberich. Rouse translates the title as "Alberich Saved," and his piece brings Wagner's villainous dwarf into the contemporary, godless world - at one point Alberich "serves a stint as a rock drummer." You can read Christopher Rouse's program note here, and I'll have more to say when we start rehearsing the piece in a couple of weeks.

note: the picture above (courtesy DCist) shows the giants Fafner (Jeffrey Wells) and Fasolt (John Marcus Bindel)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

an American gesamtkunstwerk

Last weekend I was in Washington, D.C. for an audition. Unfortunately I was dismissed earlier than I had hoped, and had nothing to do on Saturday evening. I took the Metro to Dupont Circle, and wandered into the fantastic bookstore Kramerbooks. I saw a notice about an event down at George Washington University - maybe a bit of a walk, from P Street to G Street, but it sounded worthwhile. The local Wagnerian Society was presenting Francesca Zambello, an acclaimed operatic director currently undertaking a completely new Ring Cycle production at the Washington National Opera.

I reached the university lecture hall just in time to hear a man greeting the crowd, noting the presence of many new and young faces in the audience. This seemed a little strange, since as far as I could tell I was the only person in the room under 30. Drawing new, young listeners is an obsession of opera and classical music presenters; I worry that any young person who does show up will be made to feel like a rare and exotic butterfly, about to be crushed between plates of glass and proudly displayed. Robert Siegel interviewed Ms. Zambello on All Things Considered last Friday, and their conversation quickly abandoned Wagner to tackle those elusive Gen-Xers.

Fortunately Ms. Zambello got to speak more about her work than demographics that night in D.C. I don't pretend to know a lot about opera productions, but I love Wagner's music and I'm fascinated by his mythic and dramatic content. Ms. Zambello was quick to admit that many might not agree with her new production, but she hoped to provoke fresh thinking and dialogue. She intends to make Wagner relevant to an American audience, and a politically charged Washington audience in particular, by incorporating American images, myths, and characters. The Rhinemaidens are depicted as pioneer women, weaving their gold into a quilt; the dwarf Alberich is a miner greedily despoiling the pristine West. The Nibelungen are portrayed as slaves, a dark underclass forced to toil in hellish conditions, while the Gods are presented as Gilded Age aristocrats. Ms. Zambello coyly did not tell what Valhalla would become, but the giants Fafner and Fasolt, she said, would be familiar as pushy contractors.

The Ring is so replete with symbolism to begin with, creating an elaborate new version almost seems like overkill. I was intrigued by the ambition and imagination of her ideas, though. Wagner's stories pose a lot of challenging questions about fate, power, love, and morality - as citizens of a powerful nation with jarringly unsettled society and values, we struggle with these issues now more than ever. So I'm glad to have heard what Ms. Zambello had to say, and I hope to read more reactions to her work, which opened just this weekend. Lately many people have been wondering where America went wrong, and to what tragic end we can look forward; while a century-old tetralogy of German musical dramas might be the first place to look for answers, it still might be one of the more interesting.

update: An excellent preview can be found at the blog ionarts. Anthony Tommasini's review of the production for the NY Times appeared on March 28th.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Hippocratic Oath for string players

'First, do no harm' - it's a simple principle, yet it has guided many a physician towards a humble and respectful practice of the healing art. Well, we string players need simple guiding principles too, and Vienna Philharmonic violist Hans Peter Ochsenhofer offered one in a master class this afternoon: "First, change no bowings," we might say.

Or at the very least, think very carefully before changing those bowings. We would never rewrite a great composer's notes, and yet we frequently disregard their phrasing and articulation instructions, adding bow changes at will. Brahms would often tie together long phrases beneath a single slur - taken at a slow tempo or a loud dynamic, such markings might seem nearly impossible. However, Herr Ochsenhofer pointed out, Brahms was actually a very smart guy, and "pretty musical" too. Those phrase and bowing markings can guide our tempo and dynamic choices, providing a fuller understanding of the composer's intentions.

The problems arise when we treat bowing decisions independently from other factors, taking them out of musical context. Herr Ochsenhofer mimicked a wild-west gunslinger, making fun of the 'shoot first, ask questions later' approach to bowings. We bass players are probably more guilty of this than most, choosing based on technical convenience and comfort rather than musical context. The result is to obscure that context, garble the phrasing, and homogenize the effect - basically to make everything boring. Where a bowing doesn't seem to work in the composer's marking, Ochsenhofer suggested to "work your butt off" to figure out that original intention first, before changing anything. Only with that kind of understanding can we change the bowings and still keep the essential character.

I was very impressed by Hans Peter Ochsenhofer, and not just his fealty to the musical text - he seemed to exemplify the kind of spirited, committed, and joyful orchestral musician that we all hope to become. And he still talks about learning and developing musically as his highest priorities. As much as an orchestral string player must learn how to compromise - like in a marriage, there will always be tensions, disagreements, differences, he said - we need to work hard to maintain our own unique musical identity. We need to be able to wake up in the morning, look ourselves in the mirror, and recognize, "Aha, there is that little musician I know." If we can keep that in focus, hopefully we will not only do no harm, but perhaps do a bit of good.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

"Clooneygate": has blogging leaped the shark?

Today's New York Times online prominently features an article called "A Guest Blogger, and an Unwritten Law." This was the first I'd heard of it (sorry if I'm repeating old news), but apparently Arianna Huffington took it upon herself to usher George Clooney into blogging. She presented the result, a defense of liberalism, on her The problem was that George Clooney hadn't written it at all - Huffington had compiled some answers from previously published interviews, spliced together with material "ghost-written" by Arianna herself.

Huffington's piece has generated a great deal of backlash, and it's easy to see why - both the purpose and the appeal of blogging derive from personal and authentic communication. If there is any value in this form of communication, it is in the writer's intention to express something, direct and unfiltered. Perhaps the most thoughtful and pointed summary of the issues involved is by media watcher Jeff Jarvis, writing at his blog
I believe this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the medium: Blogs are people and the blogosphere is a conversation. If you’re not really writing your blog, if you’re having or allowing someone to do it for you, then you’re gaming me, lying to me, insulting me. In this little drama, we are Roxannes, Clooney is the dashing Christian de Neuvileette, and Arianna is Cyrano de Bergerac … or perhaps Pinocchio. The highest virtue of citizens’ media and the open age is transparency and this was not an act of transparency. I urge you, Arianna, to recant and set a new policy: Tell me who wrote what I read.
This might be a trivial case, but I think it's an important point to make - and hopefully others won't repeat Arianna's mistakes. As Jeff Jarvis joked in a follow-up post, it's a slippery slope to "What Would Jesus Blog?" Probably someone has already written that, though.

Monday, March 20, 2006

LA Phil's iTunes debut

It seems strangely fitting that the Los Angeles Philharmonic will debut on iTunes with two programs entitled "Minimalist Jukebox". The more I think about it, though, the less strange it seems. Online downloads are the medium of choice for millions of listeners, and this music is perfectly suited to that medium, and those listeners.

I'll probably be one of them myself, when the concerts become available later this month. An LA Times article by Scott Timberg, "Making it easier to get your Phil", nicely summarizes these and other recent developments in classical music distribution. Check out this website for information on the "Minimalist Jukebox" concerts, featuring music by Reich, Andriessen, Pärt, and many others.

Timberg's article quotes one of my former teachers, LA Phil bassist David Moore, on taking part in meetings between orchestra members and management:
In planning its entrée into this world, the Philharmonic defused [union vs. management] tensions by forming a committee of musicians and management jointly interested in having an Internet presence.

"The meetings were just ironing out the business end of what everyone in the orchestra thinks is a great idea," says David Moore, a Philharmonic bassist and a member of the group's Local Internet Oversight Committee.
As his comment makes clear, orchestra musicians needn't be an impediment to the bright new digital future; in fact, many of the most technologically savvy and innovative thinkers I know are orchestral musicians. There does need to be a dialogue, though, so that musicians' interests and concerns can be addressed. As orchestras fine-tune their online business models, I'm sure committees like David Moore's will play an essential role.

The computer-illiterate musician is just as mythical as the classical music fan who won't go near the Web. Many orchestral musicians not only depend on the web for news and information, but use it to deliver their own content, sound files, and ideas. As more people turn to iTunes for orchestral music, this kind of content can play a vital part in drawing and engaging curious listeners.

Monday, March 13, 2006

hidden sounds, in plain sight

This past weekend Mark Kevin Hall's blog hidden city encouraged readers to turn off the visual noise, take a break from multi-tasking, and listen deeply to some unfamiliar symphonic sounds: Messiaen's tone poem From the Canyons to the Stars. I happened to attend the performance, as a listener rather than a performer - and while I am lucky enough to get to share a stage with the other musicians of the New World Symphony regularly, it was such a pleasure to just sit back and listen to this concert from the audience.

This piece truly has some wondrous sonic surprises, even for the most jaded orchestral veteran - pianistic avian recreations, shimmering glockenspiel riffs, sumptuous string textures, and a spellbinding horn solo which uses to full effect all of that instrument's resonances, along with the piano's innards. Ninety minutes is a long time to sit through a piece of 'modern' classical music, but this particular piece contains enough surprises to merit repeated listenings. I frequently found myself scanning the stage, trying to figure out where a mysterious new sonority had emerged, only to be baffled again in the next moment. I guess sometimes even just listening to a piece of music can feel like multi-tasking.

I didn't catch up with Mr. Hall after the performance, so I will be awaiting his reaction along with his other readers. Hidden City is well worth checking out, for Kevin's amusing, thoughtful, and original takes on all of Miami's curious happenings.

Friday, March 10, 2006

perfecting the practice break

This weekend the New World Symphony is playing a fascinating concert featuring a rarely heard piece. However, I probably won't be writing anything about it, since I'm not playing on it - Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars will be performed by a reduced orchestra with just one or two stands for each string section.

Instead, I want to consider the practice break. We all take them, and we all have our own habits and rituals surrounding them - some grasp for espresso, others swear by sudoku. Of course, it's a thin line (or maybe a slippery slope?) between practice break and procrastination. Lately I've been avoiding the internet completely - it's just too easy for that 5-minute e-mail check to turn into an hour-long messaging orgy.

Properly executed, however, I think the practice break can increase and not impair productivity. It provides a release of tension, both physical and mental; a chance to regroup and gain focus; an opportunity to rethink your practice strategies; and, perhaps, a bit of contact with the outside world. Here are my guiding principles for a successful practice break:

  • stay focused - while it is a 'break', I'd rather not completely veg out - better to do something that keeps you feeling energized and alert, so that you'll...
  • stay conscious - if you can't stay awake, you probably shouldn't be practicing
  • stretch out your tense spots - this might go without saying, but if something feels stiff and uncomfortable, a little bit of movement and blood flow often helps
  • stretch or use neglected muscle groups - often the best way to release tension in the your playing muscles is to activate those muscles which don't get a lot of use - parts of your back, hips, legs, etc. Stretching these may help you feel more centered, and hopefully more relaxed.
  • activate your other senses - since practicing requires highly focused listening, I often find I need to give my ears a rest. Better to do something visually, or even better...
  • use your senses differently - practicing also requires intense visual focus on a page right in front of you. Therefore, you might want to find something that allows your eyes to focus at a different level, or in a different way. I think throwing darts could make for a perfect practice break: a visual task over a longer range, using different muscle groups but still demanding focus, and also a release for frustration and aggression. Unfortunately, playing darts usually involves going to a bar, which may have negative consequences for the remaining practice session.
  • use your mind differently - a break from music needn't be a break from creativity and art - often, I think, the perfect break would be to read great poetry or look at visual art. Of course these require visual focus, but they provide inspiration which more than compensates for the effort.
  • stay relaxed - any practice break is a failure if it leaves you more uptight than you were to begin with. Therefore it might be best to avoid tasks (and people) you know might upset you. And not get too worried about practice break perfection!
for some great suggestions about practice breaks, please visit San Bei Ji!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Oscars: "a deluge of words and pictures"

Following up on the Best Original Score award, I was pleasantly surprised to see Gustavo Santaolalla win for his work on Brokeback Mountain. As in other categories, there were several worthy nominees, but it was especially gratifying to see the recognition for this film which I enjoyed so much. Less happily, the score's climactic moment was repeated mercilessly during the awards ceremony, until it began to sound a bit mawkish and contrived - that acoustic guitar soaring over an orchestra seemed to stretch the limits of belief, as well as patience.

Santaolalla's score had many notable qualities, though, beyond its catchy main theme. Ironically, NPR commentator Andy Trudeau praised the score largely for its subtle, spare textures and its lack of big, rousing themes. In a film about plain-spoken men with unspeakable longings, the score seemed to capture the perfect mixture of honest simplicity and subtle complexity. That swelling chorus comes only after over two hours of unfulfilled tensions, when the film grants Ennis a moment of nostalgic release.

Contests like these seem to invite disagreements and differing opinions, and even a film like Brokeback Mountain has its critics. What make the Academy Awards an interesting exercise, rather than just a promotional tool or popularity contest, are the conversations it prompts about art, aesthetics, and our national values. In a broad, diverse culture, film is the one art form which almost everyone can follow passionately and express their opinions forcefully. Those opinions often say as much about us as the films we discuss - this year seems to have been an exceptional one for serious films which engage and provoke, but maybe that just reflects a nation and culture engaged by serious, provocative issues.

If art imitates life, we seem to be struggling towards a new kind of heroic figure. It seems strange that the lead awards have recently gone to actors impersonating other real-life celebrity performers - Truman Capote, Ray Charles, June Carter Cash, etc. These roles clearly demand a great deal, and show off the actor's craft in fascinating ways - we are still stunned by portly, deep-voiced Phillip Seymour Hoffman's transformation into pixie-ish, effeminate Capote. They also require an added dimension, since we already know these characters so well, in both their charms and their faults. Foxx's Ray Charles and Hoffman's Capote each made a familiar figure newly ambiguous and complex, recreating a magical rise to stardom and the human failings of a lifetime in a contracted span of two hours or so.

I take it as a positive sign that we seem to be drawn to these complex, conflicted portrayals, rather than white-washed panegyrics. Perhaps it means that our popular film culture is moving towards a more complex, subtle, and fully-realized view of the world, closer to the literary cultures that preceded it.

In accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Larry McMurtry reminded Oscar watchers how much the cinematic art owes to its roots in literature. Several of this year's leading films grappled with those roots directly, examining the lives of journalists and authors. It might seem like ages since a serious, adult book could capture the public's imagination so completely as a film, or influence the culture so compellingly. It wasn't really so long ago though, and the author's name isn't so unfamiliar, even to our movie-obsessed era -
When the book itself was published in January, 1966, the modern media machine - magazines, newspapers, television and radio - became a giant band that played only one tune: Truman Capote. He was the subject of twelve articles in national magazines, two half-hour television programs, and an unparalleled number of radio shows and newspaper stories. His face looked out from the covers of Newsweek, Saturday Review, Book Week, and The New York Times Book Review, which gave him the longest interview in its history. Life ran eighteen pages, the most space it had ever given a professional writer, and advertised its huge spread by continuously flashing the words In Cold Blood on the electronic billboard in Times Square. "Such a deluge of words and pictures has never before been poured out over a book," observed a somewhat dazed-sounding reporter for The New York Times. The downpour would have been even greater if he had not refused many interviews, including an offer to become the first writer to appear on television's Meet the Press, which usually favored politicians and statesmen.

- Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography, p. 362

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Trudeau tunes up for the Oscars

Of all the Oscars to be distributed tonight, the one I'm most eagerly awaiting is the prize for Best Original Musical Score. That's because I've been listening to NPR commentator Andy Trudeau's reviews and analyses of the nominees: Alberto Iglesias for The Constant Gardener, Gustavo Santaolalla for Brokeback Mountain, Dario Marianelli for Pride and Prejudice, and John Williams for Memoirs of a Geisha and Munich. John Williams has to be the odds-on favorite, if only because he has two of the five nominated scores. Still, there's always the possibility Williams will split his votes, giving one of the lesser-known composers a chance for a first Oscar.

I'm split myself in deciding which score to favor. I know Santaolalla's the best, since Brokeback Mountain was the only one of the nominees I heard in a theater. That music is very stirring, and deeply integrated into the themes and emotional content of the movie - as Trudeau noted, there are only 13 minutes of original music in this score, so it might lose points for brevity. The Iglesias score seems more about atmospherics, establishing an African setting with world-music flourishes. The Marianelli score similarly didn't impress me as particularly original, though it does conjure a mood and a period. The Williams scores both seem to have more dimensions - Geisha has its world-music aspects, but it seems to have a particular character of its own. Munich has some Middle-Eastern touches, and sets a tragic tone without being cloying.

I'll pick that Williams score to Munich, going against Trudeau's call for Geisha - if for no other reason, Munich has more buzz, and its themes feel very timely. Whichever wins, I hope he finds a chance to thank Andy Trudeau, since he's done such a great job introducing the public to some new scores and talented composers. Trudeau's reviews are in three segments: Geisha and Gardener, Brokeback and Munich, and Pride and Prejudice.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

mr. blink's new blog

I've written here previously about one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. In his articles in The New Yorker, and his bestselling books Blink and The Tipping Point, Gladwell has explored all kinds of topics, from health care and homelessness to dog bites, college admissions, screened orchestral auditions, etc.... Every topic he covers seems to open up insights into all sorts of tangentially related questions - and frequently provide intriguing, contrarian answers. His pieces also make perfect conversation-starters at parties and water-cooler gatherings, where a story about ketchup can spiral into a philosophical discussion about taste and aesthetics.

Gladwell started his own blog recently at The only problem is that his posts have already prompted endlessly fascinating comment chains - let the procrastinator beware! If your computer is audio-equipped, you might also want to check out a lecture Gladwell gave at Columbia's Miller Theatre, "Age Before Beauty." I would tell you more, but my own procrastination meter seems to be running low.