Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Al Gore on staying dry

We'll all see plenty of satellite photographs showing storm projections over the coming months. Hurricane season begins tomorrow, June 1st, and amid all the frantic warnings, it might be worthwhile to think longer term as well: to the flooding that might overwhelm South Florida's coasts if current glacial melting trends continue. That's what this map represents, according to Al Gore's new documentary film An Inconvenient Truth.

The movie opens in Miami on June 9th, and Al Gore is making the promotional circuit, appearing on NPR's Fresh Air (that's where I found the photo, courtesy Rodale Press.) Gore might come across a little dry, but he's worth listening to - especially if we'd like to remain dry ourselves.

For some good hurricane advice, check out this recent post from MK Hall at Hidden City.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Patty's perfect pitch

Thanks to all who commented on my post last week concerning rising pitches. I responded to Chuck's beef jerky concerns on another blog, but I wanted to call attention to Patty's comment here.

She asks, "Hasn't pitch, though, gone up AND down ... and then back up again?" I'm no pitch historian, but when I consulted the New Grove Dictionary, I found out that she's right. Western pitch standards have not followed any steady line, but more like a drunken stagger, leaving a chaotic mess of useless joints behind:
The Classical period was characterized by minor pitch differences of about a comma (a ninth of a whole-tone or about 21 cents) that could be accommodated on woodwinds by using alternate joints or tuning slides. Each theatre in Vienna and Paris, for instance, had its own slightly different pitch until the 1820s. Multiple joints were usually numbered from lowest to highest, and today often only one joint with a higher number remains; this is an indication that pitch was generally on the rise, since the lower-pitched joints were probably laid aside and eventually separated from the instruments.
'Generally on the rise,' but still not at its highest point. The existence of transposing instruments today is the result of the wildly inconsistent pitch standards in the churches of 17th century Europe, where an A might vary from 384 (in Italy) to 473 (in England). That is the difference of several whole steps - luckily those church organs never had to be moved, or played in tune with one another. That might have caused some kind of religious war.

Orchestral instruments do have to be portable and play in tune though, so the development of the modern orchestra (I would guess) was a major cause for the establishment of international pitch standards. Here's how the Grove sums things:
Since the early 19th century orchestral instruments have evolved through small adaptations rather than revolutionary new designs. As a result, fluctuations in pitch standards have been relatively minor. The mean pitch in Europe in 1858, when the diapason normal (a' = 435) was promulgated in France, was about a' = 446, just as it is today. The universal standard a' = 440 established in 1939 was no less artificial and unrealistic.

Historically, as we have seen, pitch has fluctuated both up and down. Present-day pitch is noticeably lower than Victorian England's ‘sharp pitch’ of a' = 452. Pitch at La Scala was at that same level in 1867, up from a' = 450 in 1856. In Vienna a generation after Mozart's death pitch seems to have been somewhat lower, at a' = 440–445. Thus almost from the beginning singers have been obliged to perform the music of Mozart and Verdi at a level several Hertz higher than the composers intended. At present pitch appears once again to be on the rise from a theoretical (and rarely used in orchestras) a' = 440 to as high as a' = 450. From a broader perspective these vacillations can be seen as temporary departures from a remarkably stable norm.

So Patty is right that pitch has fallen from all that Victorian English craziness, while it has risen from Haydn's (also English) tuning fork. As Joe notes, modern gadgetry has improved on the tuning fork, and should keep things much more consistent - and make a single international standard seem commonsensical, and not at all remarkable. We still use every possible excuse to explain when things aren't in tune. Though to all those multi-jointed Parisian woodwind players, we might seem to be living in pitch paradise.

Monday, May 29, 2006

practicing complexity

Polyface Farm is built on the efficiencies that come from mimicking relationships found in nature, and layering one farm enterprise over another on the same base of land. In effect, Joel [Salatin, Polyface Farm's owner] is farming in time as well as in space - in four dimensions rather than three. He calls this intricate layering "stacking" and points out that "it is exactly the model God used in building nature." The idea is not to slavishly imitate nature, but to model a natural ecosystem in all its diversity and interdependence, one where all the species "fully express their physiological distinctiveness." He takes advantage of each species' natural proclivities in a way that not only benefits that animal but other species as well. So instead of treating the chicken as a simple egg or protein machine, Polyface honors - and exploits - "the innate distinctive desires of a chicken," which include pecking in the grass and cleaning up after herbivores. The chickens get to do, and eat, what they evolved to do and eat, and in the process the farmer and his cattle both profit. What is the opposite of zero-sum? I'm not sure, but this is it.

- The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, p. 215
Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma has been a life-changing experience for me, and not only in terms of rethinking my eating habits. The passage I've quoted above is from a chapter called "The Animals: Practicing Complexity", concerning an incredible and sustainable farm in Virginia, Polyface Farm. Simply calling Polyface "sustainable" actually doesn't do it justice - farmer Joel Salatin (who recently began his own blog) has improved his land markedly through his innovative farming methods.

"Innovative" might also be misleading here, since the real innovator here is nature itself. It's gotten me thinking about how to better practice complexity in my own life. Natural systems always tend towards complexity, diversity, layering - as Pollan frequently writes, you can't change one thing without affecting every thing. While I'm not quite sure what the "innate distinctive desires" of a bass player would be, I'm pretty sure what they would not include - endless repetition, lack of stimulation, boredom. It would mean treating oneself as a thoughtful, artistic entity, not a sound-producing machine.

Of course, in the course of orchestral rehearsals we're not always so lucky. It is no small task to treat 80-100 musicians as complex and distinctive individuals, and so many conductors run their rehearsals as the equivalent of the CAFO, the confined animal feeding operations which Salatin rightly deplores. Other more sophisticated rehearsal technicians are able to draw out musicians' minds as well as their sounds, with predictably superior results.

On our own practice time, we owe it to ourselves and our art to not behave like an animal in a CAFO, forcibly ingesting excerpts and etudes. The challenge is to create variety and indulge some of our 'natural proclivities,' while still operating a structured, productive practice session. I think this can be done, and can be much more efficient than the repeat-ad-nauseam approach to practice - it just takes a good deal more thought and experimentation.

I'm sure these issues come up in any field, and that the "innate distinctive desires" of a web designer or flight attendant demand equal consideration and respect. I recall reading about the new models of car manufacturing created by Toyota and other Japanese companies in the 1980's, and how they increased workers' productivity and job satisfaction by shifting through multiple tasks, rather than the assembly-line mentality of Ford and GM. We have to realize that in life and work, as in farming, simpler does not always mean better, or more efficient.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Geisha and the darkened room

I think every film is a political film. They don't call "The Nutty Professor" a political film, but when you look at that, what does it have you do? You sit and you start rooting for the girl to get that fat guy. You start to understand what it must be like to be ridiculed. You start to be in that person's shoes... Every film should challenge an audience's perspective. It doesn't mean it has to be a polemic - it should be entertaining. But the films that are not called political are usually films that reinforce the status quo: whether it's sexism, age-ism, racism, whatever.

In fact, you go into a dark room, and you dream and you watch what's on that screen. And it tells you what women want, it tells you what it means to be a man, it tells you what you can laugh at, it tells you a system of justice, it tells you to dream, it challenges your imagination. I think you have to be really responsible about what you put out there... You see something over and over again and it reinforces what you think it's okay to be and what you think people want of you...

- Susan Sarandon, talking on the NY Times'
TimesTalks podcast
With the opening of the Spoleto Festival and a recent wave of new, expressly 'political' films (here's a review of the Cannes festival), I've been thinking about what goes on in all those darkened rooms. What's true of film is even more true of live performance, I think: we might go to be entertained or merely to be seen, but we take on a whole set of ideas, values, and roles.

Last evening I saw the world premiere of Geisha, an experimental theater production from Singapore. The predominating theme is Japanese of course, but the show challenges the audience to examine our own cultural assumptions. The lead actress, Karen Kandel, asks us directly, what do you see? Why do you watch? These questions might be difficult to answer in other experimental theater productions, but Kandel's performance is enthralling, and even in moments of confusion and uncertainty I couldn't take my eyes off of her. Later in the show, she affirms the transaction taking place in the darkened room - "it's a deal we all make, we agree to buy and sell our dreams and illusions."

As the show moves through a series of stories, performances, and vignettes, the geisha takes on a multi-dimensional role as the creator, broker, and inpiration for fantasies. The texts are drawn from many sources, from geishas and their clients, as well as outsiders, films, poetry, etc. We don't get a single clear narrative or perspective on geisha-ness, but maybe that's the point: something so complex can only be seen from many different perspectives, through many different times and places and people.

The most captivating sequences for me were those featuring the shamisen player Kineya Katsumatsu, who sings in an unearthly, plaintive voice. The other performers are Gojo Masanosuke, a kabuki dancer who became the geisha, and Toru Yamanaka, a DJ whose computer-aided music interspersed and complemented the traditional songs and ballads of the shamisen. The director, Ong Keng Sen, uses a very spare set, carefully chosen props and elaborate costumes, as well as an extremely intricate lighting design (by Scott Zielinski) in which the shadows on the back wall often tell more than the figures on stage.

I'm hoping to see more experimental theater and dance while here at Spoleto, and maybe write a little bit about the political undercurrents of some more traditional fare I'll be performing here (Mozart's Don Giovanni, Mahler and Beethoven's 5th Symphonies, etc.) Even in the standard repertoire, a festival like Spoleto tries to open up new connections, to help people recognize and reevaluate what they are watching, and to illuminate the familiar with the unexpected. After all, the need for illumination is a big reason why we keep returning to those darkened rooms.

Here's a Charleston City Paper review from the SpoletoBuzz blog.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

beauty ache

I've been listening to a CD of Schubert lieder by Barbara Bonney, the disc shown here. "Achingly beautiful" is one of those phrases you hear from time to time, but rarely does it apply so fittingly. Listening to these songs really does make me ache inside, in an altogether wonderful way.

I was listening on my headphones while walking to a rehearsal this morning. What with the lovely Charleston architecture
and Bonney's gorgeous "Ave Maria", I wasn't sure whether to smile or cry. Maybe it's something about Schubert's music too - it always seems to balance delicately between joy and despair, and dance along the boundary. When I reached the rehearsal space, it was still locked up, and a violinist already waiting there began venting her frustration. Having to wait an extra five minutes to warm up can be a tedious inconvenience, but I must have still been smiling, giving away a strange lack of impatience. She asked me why I seemed so unperturbed, and I could only offer her my headphones.

Monday, May 22, 2006

the search for sharp?

This is from an article on artificial sweeteners, published in The New Yorker issue of May 22. The article is "The Search for Sweet" by Burkhard Bilger:
The closest analogy may be what has happened to our sense of pitch. In 1740, when Handel rang his tuning fork, an A above middle C had a frequency of four hundred and twenty-two hertz. Throughout the nineteenth century, orchestras were tuning it higher, straining to fill larger and larger halls and make their sound just a little more brilliant. These days, when Lorin Maazel rings his tuning fork, that same A gives a steady pitch of four hundred and forty hertz, but some conductors in Germany and Austria have gone up another five hertz. In music, if you go too high, strings snap and voices crack. In the matter of sweets, the only real limit is exhaustion: when [molecular biologist Charles] Zuker offers sugar water to his mice, they keep on drinking until their tongues can hardly move.

- p. 46
The analogy might not work quite perfectly - we all get sugar cravings, but rarely wish our favorite songs were a quarter-tone sharper. Still that steady rise in our collective pitch center is worth considering. The sounding of the A is a permanent fixture of classical music concerts, the moment we all cease our own frenzied warm-up rituals and agree to play together - at least for one note - perfectly in tune. Tuning in fact is a ritual itself, with a prescribed order and etiquette, as much about connecting with tradition as getting all our C-strings to match. If Bilger's analogy holds, though, our traditional pitch ritual may be inevitably creeping up towards dog-whistle territory.

Even for bass players, brighter often is better - why else would our solo strings tune up a whole step higher? I've never snapped any strings personally - they're pretty elastic, especially on the bass - but I know that pitch fluctuations are a constant source of frustration for singers and wind players. They have to make all kinds of awkward adjustments to play at a higher pitch. And just because a concert begins at A=440, doesn't mean it ends there. Orchestras consistently drift quite a bit sharper, sort of like a symphonic sugar spike.

Perhaps in response to irrational pitch exuberance, some orchestras have tried to set limits on the inflation of the A. The first line of our contract at the Spoleto Festival USA reads:
That's right, bold case capitals and underlined. It's also a larger font than the rest of the contract. I haven't heard of anyone getting fired for playing A=441 yet. But I wouldn't chance it.

In fact both pitch and sweetness are highly refined, complex and sophisticated tastes. Good musicians and cooks use them in subtle ways to heighten a color or flavor, establish a tonality, bring an expression into relief, etc. I'm always trying to hone my sense of pitch, to become more conscious of how I'm tempering the scale and what impact this is having.

If you read the rest of Burkhard's article, you might be quite horrified to learn how chemicals are being manipulated and quietly snuck into our food supply to satisfy (and increase) our sweetness cravings. Fortunately I don't have access to a laboratory full of genetically altered mice on which to hold intonation experiments, though I have subjected myself and unfortunate listeners to plenty of too-sharp (and flat) performances. No lasting damage so far - hopefully no creatures will have to die for me to find a secure sense of pitch.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

rethinking the social interview

The past week I've been in Charleston, South Carolina taking part in rehearsals for the Spoleto Festival USA, which opens next weekend. Spoleto is a two-week orgy of varied cultural offerings, from Indian dance to Brazilian jazz to a Mahler symphony. For those of us in the orchestra though, it's basically band camp.

As at any band camp, the first few days are largely spent asking the same few questions of countless people. It's the standard interview that strangers everywhere rely on, to start a conversation and attain some minimal level of familiarity with one another. In the music world it sounds something like this:
  • What's your name?
  • What do you play? (You might already know the answer to this, but still you don't want to get too far into the conversation before finding this violinist is really a violist.)
  • Is this your first time at Spoleto? What do you think of it?
  • Are you in school? If yes, where?
  • Where have you gone to school before?
  • Did you know x, y, z, etc.? (These being other people from those schools whom the questioner has met.)
And so the conversation proceeds, probably with anecdotes about those common acquaintances or some other trivialities. I guess it's obvious that I take a rather dim view of the whole process, being generally bored with asking and answering the same questions ad nauseum. For one thing, I don't think my answers really give any sense of who I am as a person. For another, I can't seem to remember anyone else's answers, leading to the embarrassing situation of repeating the social interview with the same person, days or even hours later - only realizing after the third or fourth question that we've been down this same track before. Obviously I didn't get much of a sense of those people either, or at least not a memorable one.

So I'm proposing a new set of social interview questions, some things that I would be happy if someone asked me, and possibly even have to pause and think before answering. Some of these questions might seem ridiculous, stupid or inappropriate, depending on the person and situation, but still they might carry a conversation in an interesting direction.
  • Does your instrument have a name, and what is it?
  • Do you have any siblings? How close are you to them?
  • Do you share your apartment with any pets / plants / large insects?
  • Do you ever carry on argumentative conversations with yourself? If so, what are some recent subjects, and did you settle on any solution?
  • What's the last movie / book / album you saw / read / heard that changed your life?
  • What's the most interesting thing about you I'll never think to ask about?
  • Do you have any other suggestions for new social interview questions?
And if anyone reading this has some more ideas, please contribute in the comments! I'm not the most socially adept person, so I'm sure most people could think up many better questions. And if you're so inclined, please feel free to answer any of these questions yourself. I won't trouble you with my answers, unless you're really curious.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

this is a music blog, really

I hope I haven't alienated any readers with my recent forays into non-musical subjects. I tend to take the view that the best subject for a blog is whatever the author happens to be thinking about on any given day. I realize that some might prefer thematic continuity, however, rather than random, wildly uneven free association. Sort of like the difference between a Mozart symphony and a 'Best of the 70's Rock' sampler, to use a musical analogy.

My only defense, unfortunately, is the way my mind works. Quite often my most interesting musical thoughts start with some completely unrelated subject. Whereas my thoughts on music might veer into wildly tangential directions. Please feel free to comment if you find anything objectionable, pointless, or just kind of weird.

I might have to keep myself more in line, since I've just been informed of my presence among the "Blognoggle Top 100 Classical Music Blogs." I'm not at all sure how I've earned such an honor, but the site is well worth checking out. The creator, Jerry Bowles, tracks all these blogs on one easy-to-read page. He also operates his own blog, the excellent Sequenza21, a clearinghouse for contemporary classical music news and reviews. This is what hella frisch might look like if I could actually keep my head on a single topic for a few minutes at a time. And come up with an attractive, intuitive design.

I'm not complimenting Jerry's work just because he listed me. It really is a fantastic site; I do love unsolicited recognition, though.

reading up on what's for dinner

I realize I'm about 5 years behind the trendy reading public, having just finished Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation this week. Schlosser is on to new muckraking and movie projects, as you can read in an interview from the New York Times. I'm trying to catch up though, and to that end I just discovered a great article from last October's The Believer magazine, "Carnivores, Capitalists, and the Meat We Read" by Jon Mooallem. I assumed that "Mooallem "was a pen name, meant to defy the powerful meat industry, but apparently he is a real person, currently a Berkeley grad student.

Mooallem parses the current craze in Popular Meat Writing, and its sources in what he calls "digestive dissonance." He can obviously turn a mean phrase, but this particular case is something we all struggle with, I think. Our economy has produced an unprecedented supply of affordable, appealing food, which should be a blessing to the world's famished multitudes. Instead, it seems only to crush those multitudes into even more poverty, suffering, and oppression. And those of us who are comparatively fortunate are morally implicated with every bite.

In addition to Fast Food Nation, Mooallem reviews Modern Meat by Oliver Schell; Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf by Peter Lovenheim; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; and "Power Steer" by Michael Pollan. That article appeared in 2002 in the Times, and Pollan has more recently published his own tome devoted to the subject, The Omnivore's Dilemma. I just got a copy to take along to Charleston and read while playing at the Spoleto Festival USA.

As an eager (and proselytizing) consumer of Popular Meat Writing, I'm ashamed to admit I remain an omnivore. As Mooallem notes, "[w]hen it comes to reconciling digestive dissonance, it seems there is simply no overestimating the moral authority of the stomach." I'm determined to convert to a more ethically defensible way of eating though, even if it means missing out on a lot of delicious Southern cooking.

Here's how Mooallem closes his piece in The Believer:
Popular Meat Writing is about making connections, tying the ubiquitous to the sensational, restoring a place and face to the rootless and indistinct. It puts our Christmas ham back in a cramped pen at Smithfield and plops the Iraq War squarely on our plates. Horrifying as these connections may be, they’re also reassuring. For the details may foster in us, as they did in Whitman, self-awareness—a greater sensitivity to our responsibilities, whether we can ultimately live up to them or not. After all, Meat Writing ties us to something, and no one likes to dine alone.

Thanks to The Believer, a fantastic literary magazine, for making the full text available online - you can read it here!

Friday, May 12, 2006

popcorn and politics

With another blockbuster film season under way, Hollywood has never been more political - and every big film lately seems to come with a side of controversy. Already the news is full of advance reports on "The Da Vinci Code" - not the acting or the cinematography, but the protests, boycotts, and angry rebuttals. Maybe those are the new special effects, now that almost anyone can throw together a movie with a digital camera and some basic editing software. Who cares about the same old computer-generated graphics, when you can have real live people picketing in the parking lot?

I'm all for a lively culture, and getting people talking about complex, controversial issues. Still, I think I'll skip "Da Vinci" in favor of some more substantive films this summer. Two of these are being produced by the same film company, Participant Productions. This is the company that produced Good Night and Good Luck and North Country, among others. This summer they have a documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, featuring Al Gore. All right, he may be no Tom Cruise, but Gore has studied this subject deeply and found a passionate voice as an advocate for progressive environmental causes. David Remnick wrote an excellent review in The New Yorker, noting this:
The catch, of course, is that the audience-of-one that most urgently needs to see the film and take it to heart—namely, the man who beat Gore in the courts six years ago—does not much believe in science or, for that matter, in any information that disturbs his prejudices, his fantasies, or his sleep. Inconvenient truths are precisely what this White House is structured to avoid and deny.

Just as intriguing is Richard Linklater's adaption of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. We've already seen McDonald's pilloried by Supersize Me, but this should be different - both more dramatic and more comprehensive in chronicling fast food's impact on society. Schlosser's book is classic, well-researched muckraking, and it invites and practically compels the reader to activism (or at least to a personal fast food boycott!) The movie should accomplish this as well - in fact, Participant Productions has created a website which invites film viewers to take the next step into activism. It's at

Can movies change the world? I'm not sure, but it's nice to think that my $9.50 admission and two hours might accomplish something.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

some grand ole digital photos

Earlier this week I visited Nashville, in hopes of winning a job in that city's orchestra. I didn't get the job, but I did bring back a bunch of digital photos.

When it comes to photography, I think I'm still looking for a personal style. I don't want to take the same photo every other tourist takes, but then again I don't want my images to seem so obscure that only a skilled psychoanalyst could interpret them. I apologize if the selections that follow might veer wildly between those extremes!

Here's the standard touristy shot of a high-rise over an attractive block of honty-tonk bars and barbeque joints.

This building first caused me to recoil in horror, before realizing that the senator and likely presidential candidate had lent his name to an elegant art museum. It was closed that day, though.

I liked the irony of the tiny dead-end "Bass Street," with the vacuum cleaner store in the background.

The Country Music Hall of Fame was a bit too pricey for me at $20 a ticket, but it was neat to see Ray Charles getting some more due recognition.

I saw way too many striking churches to photograph them all. Church towers always look best with from a steep upward angle, I think.

An image of racial harmony in a Southern diner's mural.

A small club called "The Basement", located below a nice independent record store called Grimey's. I heard two singer-songwriters named Kristen Cothron and Andy Davis, both excellent, and then a band called Bang Bang Bang. They were good too, but a little too loud for me.

Probably the nicest part of town is along West End Avenue, lined with green parks and the stately campus of Vanderbilt University.

One of the dingiest neighborhoods was just south of downtown. Still there were interesting sights, like this horse-drawn carriage available for rent.

There's something uplifting about a freshly painted fire hydrant, at least for me. This is a perception I share with many dogs.

Another view of that first intersection, taken while trying to avoid being run over.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

doleful countenances

'. . . . Think of the people who go to the market for food: during the day they eat; at night they sleep, talk nonsense, marry, grow old, piously follow their dead to the cemetery; one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation. . . . And such a state of things is obviously what we want; apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis. Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him -- illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer, and the happy go on living, just a little fluttered with the petty cares of every day, like an aspen-tree in the wind -- and everything is all right.'

- from "Gooseberries", a story by Anton Chekhov

Today I want to write a bit in praise of misery, but I'm sure I can't improve on Chekhov. If you don't know the story excerpted above, it's one of the most powerful appeals to the human conscience I know - and one of the saddest. Writers like Chekhov may be the closest thing most of us have to that 'man with a little hammer' at the door, our literary consciences there to invoke all the suffering which surrounds and awaits us.

For all the timelessness of great literature, though, music provides perhaps the most direct expression of human despair - and few composers wrote despair as expressively as Sibelius. His Fourth Symphony is, in a word, dark. It cries out with a sense of terror and oppression, of inconsolable longing and vast empty spaces. Playing this symphony feels a bit like wielding that little hammer, constantly pounding out a refrain of endless misery. It's a perverse paradox that doing this should be so enjoyable - I find dark music terrifically uplifting, and pieces like this one leave me with a strange sort of hope. If someone can set these emotions in sound, form them in time and share them with thousands of people, perhaps we're not condemned to lonely unhappiness after all!

Sorry to cut this post so short - our concerts are tomorrow and Saturday night, featuring Strauss' Don Quixote as well as Sibelius' Fourth. We're counting on the Strauss to lift everyone out of their Sibelius-induced suicidal depression; and if not, there may be an encore to do the trick. Please visit for more information!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

tilting at windmills, and construction sites

I have my own theory of where ideas come from. Messages come through me like garbled signals through a shaky television antenna. They come from the environment and are picked up on my clothing like miniscule hair fibers that later will tie me to the scene of a crime. For example, the way my window faces the street and not the back of the house affects my actions. I am in touch with the world: the late cries, the sounds of people wandering drunkenly to cars they should not drive, men harassing women, weird howls I don't know the origin of. The sounds sneak into my dreams with angry vulnerability.

- from "The Pamphleteer" by Jenny Bitner, included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 20o2

I was thinking the other day about why I've been so preoccupied with buildings, with all their shapes and sizes and noises, the presences they fill and the absences they leave. Then I looked out the window at the construction site across the street, which for the past several weeks has provided my daily wake-up jackhammer. Fellow NWS musician and blogger Jenifer has written extensively on the subject.

We truly don't always get to choose our own ideas, preoccupations and obsessions - sometimes they creep silently into our brains, other times they noisily invade our lives. The theme of this weekend's season finale New World Symphony concerts might be precarious mental states, and our strange vulnerability to outside influences.

Most famously we have Don Quixote, the famous story by Cervantes rendered by Richard Strauss as a sort of double concerto for cello and viola, with plenty other solo turns as well. Don Quixote's deranged and wandering mind turns out to be a fantastic subject for innovative orchestration, with all kinds of colorful wind effects, bleating sheep, and chanting priests. The mad knight errant himself will be portrayed here by New York Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey; Roberto Diaz, the principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, depicts Sancho Panza.

The Sibelius 4th Symphony might leave listeners curious if this composer wasn't a bit mad as well. It's a strange, spellbinding piece that obeys its own inner logic, and very little else. It certainly doesn't include many of the conventional symphonic gestures, such as a loud emphatic ending. I'm curious to see how our audience reacts, and whether they'll be lost in Scandinavian reveries or have the presence of mind to clap.

More to come soon on this program, and other windmills I've been tilting at lately. If you pass by 21st St., please ignore any weird howls emanating from our building.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Itzhak and the edifice complex

Yesterday evening I was lucky enough to hear Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and pianist Rohan de Silva in a recital of violin duets at the Jackie Gleason Theater, shown here. My good fortune was thanks to my friend Hillary, a violist who is a counselor at Perlman's summer music camp for young string players.

Though I'd heard Pinchas Zukerman play before, I was pretty excited to hear Perlman live for the first time, and prepared to be astonished by both. They didn't disappoint, beginning with a warmly expressive reading of a Bach Sonata for two violins. Next came a set of Bartok Duos which Itzhak announced from the stage, lightening the mood with a few jokes at his own expense - he proclaimed the "Limping Song" his personal favorite. The first half ended with the Mozart Duo for Violin and Viola no. 1. Program note writers love to tell how Mozart wrote the two Violin/Viola Duos to help out Michael Haydn, Joseph's younger brother, who was ill and under financial pressure to complete a commission for a set of six duos. If the story is true, it proves Mozart an admirably generous and humble person; though his two duos are so sublime, they seem to have overwhelmed Haydn's own four pieces, which hardly get played at all. I wonder if Haydn wished his savior might have been a little less talented!

The second half was devoted to sonatas two lesser-known composers, Jean Marie Leclair and Moritz Moszkowski, representing the French late baroque and high romanticism. Both pieces were given brilliant, virtuosic performances, making me wonder why I'd never heard them before. The encores were equally virtuosic - the Handel-Halvorsen variations for violin and viola, then a Shostakovich polka.

Even before the performance began someone announced that this was "the concert of the year", and it definitely left me searching for some more original superlatives. It seems it was also a bit of a farewell show, since the Concert Association of Florida will no longer be using the Jackie Gleason Theater as one of its main venues - next season it will use the new Miami Performing Arts Center. This left me wondering what will become of the Gleason, and whether we've created a glut of concert halls. Last week the Gleason was occupied for several days by a hair salon show, the "Aveda Beauty Expo", and these sorts of things seem to pass through pretty frequently. Still, it does seem a shame to let a big concert hall with decent acoustics feature recorded music or even go dark for much of the year.

Somehow the South Florida performing arts community seems to have a predicament opposite to that of our baseball team: lots of support for new buildings, but not always enough for the arts organizations themselves - at least in cases like the collapsed Florida Philharmonic. On this evening at least, we got to witness why a big performing arts center is built, to showcase brilliant performers before a large, rapt audience. Now that we have plenty of edifices though, I hope we won't take such performances for granted.

The same program was performed last week at Avery Fisher Hall and reviewed in the Times.Posted by Picasa