Tuesday, November 28, 2006

symphonic slapstick with H.K. Gruber

Most of the time a classical new music concert is a pretty serious affair - we all dress in black and our most solemn facial expressions. That might be a challenge at our New World Symphony new music concert this Saturday though, in which composer/conductor H.K. Gruber will conduct his own piece Frankenstein!!, and he'll also sing, dance, and play various kazoos.

At today's first rehearsal, H.K. Gruber had to tell us several times to keep a poker face - "be like Buster Keaton!" he said. (Who's that?) We might not have understood half of what he said, but the orchestra couldn't stop laughing. His piece seems to treat the orchestra as a big collection of toys, and then add some real toys into the mix just for more fun. There are slide whistles in the low brass, toy pianos in the bassoon and percussion, a car horn for the harp player.... All the winds stand up at one point and twirl noisemakers. In the bass section, we mostly just play the bass, but at one point we join the rest of the orchestra to harmonize on some nonsense poetry.

I guess we do sometimes treat ourselves too seriously as classical musicians. I'm pretty sure we're not humorless people though - we just don't want to compromise the composer's intentions. Most of the composers I've met, though, seem to have fantastic senses of humor, and I'm sure that Mozart, Haydn, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky did as well. Probably Beethoven never played a kazoo, but he definitely liked to surprise and shock his audience - and he was known to burst out laughing maniacallly during his own improvisations, from what I've heard.

So please come to the Lincoln Theater this weekend, but don't come expecting a lot of dour, sour new music posturing. At least for Saturday, you're more likely to find a whoopee cushion on your seat.

Monday, November 27, 2006

New Times' "An Uncertain Overture"

I've been thinking a lot about music journalism lately, having just told my own story at great length to New York Times reporter Daniel Wakin. This evening I came across the kind of story which I hope Wakin won't write: it's called An Uncertain Overture by Rob Jordan, and it appears in last week's Miami New Times.

Rob Jordan writes about an 18-year-old classical pianist named Xavier Spencer, clearly an incredibly talented kid who is struggling through a transition in his education and life. Jordan does a great job showing the frustratingly long odds a poor young musician faces, and the impressive achievements Spencer has already made. It seems to me that a profile like this also walks a difficult line: the reporter must get into the subject's head, to voice his thoughts and emotions. At the same time, he needs to be an objective critic of his playing and abilities. This is especially problematic with a young musician like Spencer - he hasn't had enough time yet to develop as a musician (he began at age 13); and he also seems to express himself much more eloquently in his playing than in his words.

So Rob Jordan relies for quotes and commentary on Spencer's mom, his main teacher Felix Spengler, and other teachers who have heard and encouraged him. We get a very warm view of his playing, as when Jordan writes "He had 'all the ingredients' to become a professional, according to one of his instructors. 'When you hear him play, you say, "Oh my God, he's a musician."'" (Sorry for the triple-quotes!) At the same time, Jordan keeps a kind of ominous drumbeat going in the background: "he wasn't sure he'd ever perform again", "in the months since Spencer's high school graduation, little had gone right..." The gloomy vibe fully emerges at the end of Jordan's story, when Spencer and his prospects seem literally to fade away: "'Maybe it's the thought that this might not actually work,' he said, his voice trailing off, little more than a whisper."

Spencer's story deserves to be told and read, but this strikes me as too much melodrama. Teacher Spengler has already given his verdict on Spencer's doubts, saying "He's just being a teenager." Jordan clearly sees it as much more than that, and makes sure we follow his tragic conclusions. Maybe Spengler is right though - maybe Spencer is just being a teenager, trying to put words to a lot of conflicted emotions. Not many 18-year-olds are 100% sure of their direction, and being a talented pianist doesn't exempt a kid from feelings of confusion and doubt. I'd argue that it's healthy to be dealing with those insecurities at Spencer's age. Success in the arts is rarely quick or easy, no matter how great the talent, and all the struggling and questioning can give us a better perspective on what we're trying to accomplish.

Reading the article definitely left me pulling for Spencer, and I hope he keeps working and developing as a musician. Really though, there's reason to be hopeful for this kid whether or not he succeeds in music - he's already accomplished so much, seen so many places, and created a great sense of pride in his family and in the people in his community. Maybe it's easier to see that hope in another person's life than in one's own. In any case, I'm much more inclined to Spengler's optimism than Jordan's pessimism.

By tracing the arc of Spencer's story, an article like this can provide further inspiration to an even wider community; I think it can also serve a function for Spencer himself, seeing his life formed into a narrative shape. But by ending the story with a pessimistic shrug, I think the writer hits a sour note himself. Hopefully others who read this article, and Spencer himself, will recognize that note as false, and will see that his success story is by no means finished.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


I have only good things to say about the Apple iPod. This past summer mine got wet and broke, but it was still under warranty so I got a new replacement, absolutely free. And all my music was on my computer, so nothing was lost. My old iPod was named "Mrkgnaaaooo!", but I named this new one "Terpsichore", after one of the Greek muses.

When I got my iPod replaced, I resolved to treat the new one better. I decided Terpsichore would not be coming along on any jogs or walks in rain storms, and I bought a nice leather cover so I wouldn't scratch up the screen. (It's made by Covertec, in case you're interested.) This past week or so I've been shopping iPod accessories again, because I managed to lose my headphones and also my USB cable and charger. The cable and charger seem to have gone missing from my checked suitcase after flying home yesterday; the headphones were stolen while I was in Buffalo, though that's a much longer story.

Anyway, this post is not about my recent penchant for losing stuff. Maybe I'll get around to that topic in another post. This one is about the astonishing variety of iPod accessories being sold. Covers, cords, headphones, there are so many of these, but they are only the beginning. I have no good explanation, though, for the AFT iCarta. This thing, as self-explanatory as it may seem, just leaves me asking rhetorical questions....

Do we really need an iPod toilet paper holder? Does this really enrich the bathroom experience, or can the toilet enrich the iPod experience? Can such an object have any real benefit, besides gag gift? And who spends over $100 for a gag gift?

One of my favorite things about the iPod is the simplicity of its design, the elegance of that single button right in the center. There's something wonderful about a gizmo that you can use without reading any instructions, that makes you forget that you're even operating a sophisticated gizmo. That simplicity not only makes it useful, it seems to encourage people to superimpose their personalities on it, to clothe and feed and accessorize their iPods. I'm just wondering if we've reached a point of ridiculousness, if the iPod has jumped the shark. I guess until I meet someone with an iCarta, and try it myself, I won't know for sure. For now, though, Terpsichore is staying out of the bathroom.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

LA in brief

Thanks for the welcomes, and I'll be back to writing more soon!

I've been in LA this week, visiting my brother and his dog. My brother works at USC, designing their website, and he also instructs yoga part time. He took me along to a couple of classes and I was thoroughly humiliated - I have to work on my headstands.

I also had a lesson with David Moore while I was out here. I've been meaning to write more about Mr. Moore, who is one of the most intelligent and perceptive musicians I've ever met. In fact, he's so intelligent and perceptive that my lessons with him tend to focus on minute and very fundamental concepts, stuff I maybe should have mastered many years ago. Like playing open strings, and holding the bass. I leave every lesson feeling very inspired though, and ready to apply these concepts to everything I do.

This evening we're driving to Las Vegas, to visit my mom and stepdad. Most people are shocked or amused when I tell them my parents live in Las Vegas - I didn't grow up there, they relocated when I was in college. My Thanksgiving itinerary is organized around the principle of avoiding traffic at all costs - and so we're planning on leaving LA at 10 pm tonight, when some of the I-15 chaos may have subsided. Realistically though, this is LA, traffic is unavoidable.

Best wishes to everyone and enjoy the holiday!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

more from Buffalo

For the past few weeks a New York Times reporter, Daniel Wakin, has been working on a piece about the New World Symphony. We've been told it will be prominently featured in The New York Times Magazine. NWS takes this kind of media exposure very seriously, as I suppose we should. Before he came, the orchestra brought in a media-savvy expert to brief the orchestra on how to handle reporters, lead the interview, stay on message, etc.

Her basic advice was, "Don't say anything stupid" - or anything you wouldn't be happy to share with millions of NY Times readers. It seemed improbable that a big-city reporter would even be interested in my humble life, but I definitely made it a point to come up with some talking points, some clever quotable blurbs, just in case I was one of those lucky interviewees. Then he left town, and I forgot all about it.

(all photos were taken today during my walk around Buffalo)

What I didn't realize, though, was that he was going to come back again. Dan Wakin's return was on the first day that we were playing mock auditions for Jeff Turner, principal bassist of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The other bass players told him that I was preparing for this Buffalo audition, and so why not cover my little audition saga? So when I went in to play that first mock, there he was, right beside Jeff Turner and Chris Adkins, principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony. Playing for those three guys was easily one of the most mortifying experiences of my life.

Strangely enough, Dan Wakin wanted to hear more, and he asked me all about my preparation for this audition. I quickly forgot the coaching about media handling and pretty much put my whole life out there for him to listen and take blindingly fast shorthand notes. I'm not sure I had anything very insightful to say, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from yakking away. Maybe what got me talking so freely was the way he was jotting it all down so quickly. Once in a while he would even ask me to repeat some phrase I had said. I don't think he really had to ask many questions, though. I just seemed to start spewing out every hope, fear, and dumb audition story I could think of.

Two days later I played another mock audition - it went better, but still not great. Dan Wakin was there again, and again he got an earful of all my audition neuroses. I travelled to Buffalo on Saturday, and he called me yesterday, after my successful preliminary audition. We talked on the phone for 45 minutes yesterday afternoon, and then again today, after my unsuccessful semifinal. Or rather, I talked profusely and heard him jotting down notes in the background. I'm not usually this talkative - by way of comparison, I had a phone conversation with my Mom on Sunday which lasted one minute, 35 seconds. All told I've probably spoken with Dan Wakin for almost 3 hours in the past week.

The thing is, I really have no idea what he might write, and I'm somewhat concerned that I'm going to sound like a self-absorbed putz. Actually, I'm almost sure of it. I don't think it's solely his interview skills - somehow the orchestral audition process itself seems to open up my emotions and disable my communicative inhibitions. Other people I've talked with shared this experience as well - though mostly they've found themselves opening up to a sympathetic friend or family member, not a New York Times reporter. Even though I honestly meant to stay on message, by the end of our conversation I was ready to tell him all about my traumatic experiences, career questioning, failed relationships - stuff I ordinarily wouldn't even share with you, my loyal blog reader(s)!

Which brings me to the point of this, my return to blogging: I realize I am rather badly in need of another expressive outlet. Music is surely the most glorious, expressive, and moving of art forms. However, there is a relatively narrow range of experience that you can convey in the bass part of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, just to choose a random piece. And I love that piece - I love listening to it and I love playing it. But I can't use it to express my frustrated hopes about auditions, my fears of abandonment, my concerns that my life may have shriveled to quixotic single-minded quest... Probably there's another piece that would work better, but sometimes it's easier to just get it down in words.

So I'm not going to shy away from the self-revealing blog entry, in this new incarnation of hella frisch. And though I'll try not to overwhelm you with embarrassingly personal stuff, I think there are certain occasions when it's better not to keep things to yourself. Unless you happen to be talking with a reporter from the New York Times. In which case, probably a little more self-reflection would have been helpful. Blogs are perfect for self-reflection, though, right? And you can even edit out the embarrassing stuff later, hopefully before too many people read it.

report from Buffalo

Few words can say much,
But sometimes more are needed.
So screw the haikus.

I'm in Buffalo this week for an audition; here's a picture I took of my hotel here:
It's somewhat cold and gray here, as is to be expected. Then again, I think I'm kind of better suited to a cold, gray environment than to hot, colorful Miami. There's something nice about shivers and drizzle, now and then.

I did advance to the semi-finals on Sunday, when that newspaper photo below was taken. But I didn't make the cut this morning. A lot of bass players I know also played in the semis, and I'm optimistic that one or two of them will win jobs here - they're auditioning for principal and associate principal bass. As for me, I think it's time to take a break from audition excerpts. I've been preparing for auditions pretty steadily since August, or even a little before that. It's great to have the opportunities, but I also feel like a need to get out of this track-meet mentality and get back to playing music for the love of it.

I'm planning to write lots more about music, auditions, traveling, and lots of other stuff soon. I should also take some more photos while I'm here, since this one of the hotel is pretty depressing. I might try and toss in a poem now and again, but I'll have to find some new forms. It's embarrassing to be out-haiku-ed on my own blog by one poetically gifted commenter. Or maybe that's just the track-meet mentality talking.

Monday, November 13, 2006

overexposed haiku no. 3

Woke up to find that
My picture made the front page
Of Buffalo News.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

pro-democratic haiku no. 2

"Miami Beach residents that vote early are eligible to receive 15% discounts at participating Miami Beach businesses and receive a free admission to the Scott Rakow Ice Rink during the early voting period."
Last week we voted,
Hoping to save our country.
Then go ice skating.

resumptive haiku no. 1

Three months with no posts...
The world has stopped visiting.
Why not write haikus?