Monday, January 29, 2007

let me rephrase that

Yesterday while running in the Miami Half Marathon, I noticed a handwritten sign:
the pain is weakness
leaving the body
This sign seemed exceptional to me, and not just for its philosophical bent (most of the signs were more to the effect of "Run Fred Run!"). It also illustrated the importance of phrasing - separated, those two lines could be interpreted as meaning "You are in pain, therefore you are weak... and you are about to die." Of course, read as a single thought, as intended, it means the exact opposite.

What's true of homemade marathon signs is even more true for music: the ways you connect phrases can drastically change the character and meaning. Last week my former teacher Don Palma was in town to give lessons, and I played the Bach 3rd Suite Bourrees for him. The 3rd Suite was one of the pieces I played on my undergraduate senior recital at New England Conservatory, so he'd obviously heard me play the piece before. Still, I've been living and auditioning on it for several years since then, and gone through lots of frustrations, successes and uncertainties with it. I could seriously write a book all about the evolution of my attitudes and relationship to the Bach Bourrees, not that anyone would want to read it!

Returning to the lesson though, Don had one simple, obvious comment: it was too slow. Like a lot of bass players, I strive to play Bach as cleanly and gracefully as a cellist, but often don't play them quite as fast. Not that any cellist would play these pieces absolutely metronomically, but here are my approximations of the tempos on some recordings I own:
Pieter Wispelwey: 70-76
Yo-Yo Ma: 74-76
Anner Bylsma: 78-82
The point isn't to copy anyone's tempo, but this does give a range of tempos that can work. Anything much faster or slower tends to distort the character, leaving phrases broken into incoherent fragments - and transforming the whole message of the piece - the difference between "I'm stronger than ever!" or "I'm about to die!" I'm not sure if running faster would have made my half marathon less painful, since I'm still recovering from a hamstring injury. Don Palma's faster tempo definitely made my Bach less painful though, both to play and to listen.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Kirchner and Borromeo

Before conducting his Concerto for Violin, Cello, Ten Winds and Percussion, Leon Kirchner swivelled around grudgingly on his stool and addressed the audience. "I've been told to say a few words about the next piece," he said, as though talking about himself was some great burden. Kirchner (shown right, photo courtesy the website of publisher G. Schirmer, Inc.) is 87, and sometimes appears his age, behaving as though every extraneous word or gesture were depleting a fast-diminishing supply.

Then again, once he began to speak, he couldn't have been more charming, insightful, and engaging - if a little mysterious. Because he didn't really talk about the piece to be performed, but just recited a few short poems, by Blake, Yeats, and this one by Goethe:
He who has Art and Science, has also religion;
He who has neither Art nor Science, needs religion.
All his comments were a bit enigmatic, alluding to his philosophical ideas about mathematics, music, and life, without getting into any long philosophical discussions. He did a very good job of introducing himself to the audience - if not the piece he was about to lead. Maybe that's the best way to introduce a complex, unfamiliar 20th-century piece, though. I think most of the audience sat up a little higher in our seats, as I did, intrigued by this slightly curmudgeonly but very eloquent old man, and we listened with great interest to a piece of 'difficult' chamber music which turned out to be fascinating, elegant, and wise - just like its creator.

Also on the program was a Schumann piano trio, and the Brahms Sextet with the Borromeo Quartet (shown in a photo from their website). I used to hear the Borromeo regularly when I went to NEC, and they were the quartet in residence there (as they still are, I believe). The group has changed a bit - a new violist, Mai Motobuchi, and a violinist who I played with in the Verbier Orchestra several years ago, Kristopher Tong. Together with founding members Yeesun Kim, cellist, and Nicholas Kitchen, first violinist, they've kept the same brilliant and thoughtful style of chamber music making though, and hearing them brought back pleasant memories of First Monday concerts in Jordan Hall.

It's funny how a group can replace half its members, and yet still maintain its unique qualities and traditions - the New World Symphony is probably the rare orchestra that turns over a third or more of its members each year, but every ensemble deals with personnel changes to some extent. The Borromeo played Brahms with two New World members, violist Chris Fischer and cellist Soo Jee Yang, and it really did seem like one fantastically augmented string quartet - the same impression I often get when hearing the Cleveland Orchestra's string section play. I suppose it's a sign that music is not only one of the noblest of arts, as Leon Kirchner said, but also a especially communicable one!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cleveland and the hazards of safe playing

Our second rehearsal alongside the Cleveland Orchestra was this morning, playing Schumann's 4th Symphony under assistant conductor Andrew Grams. Both the past two days we've rehearsed in the Lincoln Theater, where the New World Symphony regularly performs. Playing with a huge combined orchestra, Andrew Grams had to ask us repeatedly to back off - sort of like driving a Hummer on a golf course, the size of the sound was threatening to overwhelm the space. Next week we'll read Beethoven 7 and Debussy's Iberia in the Carnival Center, which should be an interesting acoustic comparison. It's a much larger room, and also potentially much, much louder.

It was slightly strange playing alongside the Cleveland Orchestra, just a week after unsuccessfully auditioning for them in Cleveland. While I wouldn't have given up the opportunity for anything, I was quietly dreading having to make excuses for my inept audition. Thankfully, all the committee members I talked to were very kind and even complimentary, and there was no awkwardness at all. Some of them even made excuses to me, explaining that the level of the playing that day was so high, they had to finish by 5 pm, so the first round had to be especially picky. I don't totally buy that - I know when I bombed an audition, and I pretty much bombed this one. Still, it was nice to hear some encouraging words.

The overriding comment was that I just didn't really go for it: too careful, too safe, not enough risks. It's a comment I've heard before, and even given to other players. I think this carefulness is something we latch onto when we feel a loss of control, since I didn't feel particularly safe when I was on stage. Terrified and panic-stricken would have been my description of my mood. That fear didn't translate into energetic or expressive playing though, it just caused me to play it safe.

This is a favorite subject of Don Greene, the performance coach who works regularly with New World Symphony members. He teaches a system to channel nervous energy and use it to bring out one's best. As much as I've learned from Don Greene though, I forgot most of it under the stress of preparing a challenging list, and I left myself unprepared for that spike of nervous adrenaline.

Lately I've been reading Don Greene's book Fight Your Fear and Win, on a recommendation from another former New World Symphony member. She told me she carries it with her to every audition she goes to, and can open it to any page and find great ideas and inspiration. So far I agree with her, it's gotten me thinking more about long term goals and strategies. I'm not a great fan of self-help books, but when you find one that works and makes sense to you, that's nothing to be ashamed about. Right?

You can learn more about Don Greene (and maybe about yourself) at his website,

Friday, January 19, 2007

lameness revealed

Reading a recent post called "Some Lame Notes" on the Chicago Bass Blog, it occurs to me that there aren't too many places where you can have a nuanced discussion of double bass fingering choices, outside of lessons and workshops. In orchestra rehearsals we often discuss bowings, since it's imperative that we agree and match, but fingerings are pretty much left to individual discretion. And if you bring up fingering issues over drinks (the other main social setting for bass players) you are likely to be accused of intense geekiness and shunned.

Many readers may not see why any such discussion is really needed. Maybe it is a little like hearing about how the sausage is made, more than you ever want or need to know. Then again, any technical limitation (and we bass players have plenty) forces us to organize and prioritize the material - just as a poet when writing a sonnet has to form his thoughts into 10-syllable lines. And those choices can reveal a lot about the material, as well as the art and craft. Anyone whose eyes have not glazed over yet should check out Michael Hovnanian's blog, as few people besides Michael could make these subjects so thought-provoking.

I have my own slightly geeky subject today, concerning the notation of double bass parts. In the last few years a great many editions of orchestral pieces have come out in beautiful new urtext editions, like the Mendelssohn 3rd Symphony part shown above. I wonder if we've lost something, though, by segregating the bass and cello parts which were formerly joined together, as shown below.

This morning we had a reading of Mendelssohn 3rd, with members of the New World Symphony and The Cleveland Orchestra sharing stands. I shared a stand with Max Dimoff, the principal of Cleveland, which was a somewhat humbling experience; very few people make playing the bass seem as easy and natural as Max. I was doing my best to keep up, and also asking Max a few questions about note length, articulations, etc. - basically taking advantage of the opportunity to be a nerd and maybe learn something. Most of Max's comments and suggestions to me, though, were about other lines to listen for in the orchestra: who has a pick-up or grace note to our downbeat, where to find the pulse and which lines to intercept on our entrances.

It occurs to me that this sort of knowledge is exactly what we mean when we talk about experienced orchestral playing. And it's probably not strictly necessary to bring Max Dimoff down to teach me these things: they can be learned from careful study of the score and recordings. (Then again, studying the example of an experienced, great orchestral player is probably one of the better ways of becoming one.) That's why as well-researched and impeccably correct as these new parts are, I really do miss having the cello part to follow along and fit with our part.

Generations of bass players have learned basic score reading in this way, and often managed to embarrass ourselves playing a line not intended for instrument. Hopefully future generations will be resourceful enough to get the score, learn other parts, and maybe embarrass themselves playing the cello parts as we did. A little educational embarrassment can be a very valuable thing.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

exploratory committees

This morning I listened to a radio program, On Point from WGBH Boston, talking about the prospects for a Barack Obama presidential candidacy. It got me to thinking about the similarities between political and audition candidates. Just like in a political race, perceptions can determine reality: the momentum and confidence of previous victories can often carry a candidate over the top. The last two auditions I've taken, the Buffalo Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, were both won by Scott Dixon, and I don't think it's at all uncommon to see one person clean the slate like Scott has!

In Barack Obama's case, he's just announced the formation of a public exploratory committee, which I gather is the closest thing to an all-out declaration that he'll run - that announcement will probably come on February 10th. I'm not quite sure what a political exploratory committee does; probably it's a lot concerned with bringing in money and positive media coverage. But I wonder if an exploratory committee might be a good idea for a musician getting ready for an audition as well. Get together a group of people you trust and respect, and get their honest assessments of where you stand going into the audition.

Of course, the first person you need to convince is yourself. If there were an analogy to the primary system, I think it would be the daily process of building confidence, gaining small victories like successful mock auditions and recordings, and gathering supportive advice and comments. In this regard, my last audition felt a little like the candidacy of Dennis Kucinich (Cleveland's former mayor, I believe). Not even I believed I could win, or even carry my home state, and so I didn't. In this regard, I think what Don Greene calls "self talk" functions like media coverage - those voices in your head creating a constant swirl of spin and speculation. It can lift you and give you a great positive feeling, as recent coverage of Barack Obama has, or it can spin into negative and self-defeating thoughts. That was my experience in preparing for Cleveland, and before I knew it I had pretty much Swift-Boated myself.

Both politics and orchestra auditions seem to come down to managing perceptions and ideas: first your own, then those of a committee or electorate. They also involve huge investments of time and money, as well as emotional resources, hope and stress. (I can only imagine having to deal with audition attack ads!) I think it's worthwhile to consider an audition as a kind of campaign, with many of the same risks and rewards. Hopefully it won't be quite as expensive, but it's still a good idea to deliberate carefully before deciding to commit oneself.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lost Boys of Sudan

It was probably not their main intention, but the makers of the documentary Lost Boys of Sudan seem to raise the question: which is better, life as a refugee in Kenya, or life in poverty in America?

We meet its two subjects, Peter and Santino, when they are still at the refugee camp in Kakuma, a desolate area in the Kenyan desert. We are told that they have lived there already for ten years, and along the way we get a glimpse of the other horrors they have already faced: villages ransacked, parents killed, rivers crossed at gunpoint. The documentary is mainly concerned with their latest journey though, as immigrants to the United States.

Interestingly, Peter and Santino left Kakuma just weeks before Valentino Achak Deng, the narrator of the recent Dave Eggers novel What is the What? Eggers' book first drew my attention to the Lost Boys, and many scenes are shared by that book and this film: the huts and basketball courts of the refugee camp, the board where names are posted of the boys selected to move to America, the promises and emotional farewells to those staying behind, the plane ride from Kakuma to Nairobi, then on to the United States.

Every immigrant story is a little different, but these Lost Boys' stories all have some common themes. Coming to America is seen as something like a trip to heaven, and the rapturous smiles of the boys as they board the planes and arrive at the airport in Houston are almost heartbreaking. The disappointments come quickly and from all sides: low-paying jobs, difficulties with school, medical and legal problems, struggles to form and maintain relationships. Money is tight, social situations are strange and awkward, relatives back in Africa are demanding, and both Peter and Santino find themselves disillusioned with America.

These Lost Boys are incredibly strong, religious, determined people - they would not have survived otherwise - and it's a testament to their strengths that Peter, Santino, and Valentino all eventually managed to get a foothold. It's interesting to see just how many problems they have had to overcome, though, and how those problems have differed from those they faced in Sudan. Whereas in Africa they faced gunfire, starvation, and lions, here they cope with loneliness, discrimination, and alienation. As filmmaker Megan Mylan notes, in Sudan they had eachother, no matter how harsh the situations they faced. As those social connections fray in America, all of their problems seem to worsen, and the loneliness becomes almost unbearable.

So for all the material advantages, the Lost Boys have some ambivalence about life in the United States. As hard as it is to comprehend all they survived in Sudan, it's easy to understand this American part of the Lost Boys' story, and to sympathize with their plight.

Yo-Yo: speaking softly and carrying a big cello

Yo-Yo Ma was in town yesterday to rehearse the Shostakovich 2nd Cello Concerto, and there were dozens of people there to listen. It's always a little disconcerting to come for an orchestra rehearsal and find you have an audience. Especially when the piece in question is still a little ragged and awkward sounding, since we had just read it that morning. But from the first notes of the concerto, which Yo-Yo starts alone, the piece really started taking shape, and it was thrilling to bring it into focus, and watch it come alive. Yo-Yo's very presence seems to demand an audience - it's not that he acts like a celebrity, but he performs with a kind of focus and poise that draws your attention to every sound and gesture.

I'll never forget hearing Yo-Yo play Don Quixote with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in a live television broadcast a couple of years ago. In that performance, he seemed to completely inhabit the character he was playing - it wasn't just fantastic cello playing, it was phenomenal acting. This piece is similar in its strong characters and moods. Yo-Yo talked to the orchestra at one point, and I think this was what he was explaining: how the piece actually explores different levels of reality, from an inner world of great introspection and melancholy, to a very exuberant march, to music of great passion and anger. He actually talked so softly, it was impossible to understand every word. In this light, whispery voice he talked about this lost, wandering kind of mood he wanted to create.

It was the kind of voice that makes you lean forward in your seat, and strain to hear. I'm pretty sure we would have done this even if he wasn't a world famous soloist. I think being such a celebrity must be a challenge: people come to hear Yo-Yo, not to hear Shostakovich or whatever other piece he might be playing. It seems to me, though, that his way of making music is to really disappear into whatever he is playing. That was the sense I had even when he talked - as long as we got his message and idea, he would be happy to not be noticed at all.

Our concert with Yo-Yo Ma will be February 24th at the Carnival Center. We're also playing the program on February 27th in Carnegie Hall. I'll write more as those concerts approach!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

subway wisdom

Yesterday afternoon I was riding the Cleveland subway, the RTA, taking my bass to the airport. I was heading home to Miami - my audition on Friday had been a disappointment by any standard, though I might have predicted as much. Somehow just the thought of auditioning for the Cleveland Orchestra seemed to plunge me into hopeless fits of anxiety, which I never really confronted or overcame.

So I wasn't in the best of moods, but when you're travelling with a bass, you have to anticipate all kinds of comments, lame jokes and tired questions. I'd been getting them the whole trip, and I've found the best way to handle it is just to smile, act polite, answer the questions, and try to keep walking. That wasn't going to work on this train, though, and there was a black teenage kid who was asking me an endless series of questions. What kind of band did I play with? Did I live in Cleveland? When did I start playing? Did I work under contract, and get a check sent in the mail, or did I get paid right after playing?

These questions were getting rather awkward and personal, and I was wishing they would end - but then he asked me a question that made me pause: "Does playing music help you relieve stress?"

I'd been practicing the last month for this audition, and my stress level seemed to have reached unprecedented heights. My face is broken out in pimples, I never seem to get enough sleep, a disorganized mess seems to follow me everywhere I go - obviously playing music does not help my stress, or it hasn't lately. Why is this though? How has something so joyful and peaceful become so painful, destructive and unpleasant?

Maybe the easy explanation would be that I worked myself too hard - though really, I've practiced much more in the past, and I could have used quite a bit more preparation on Friday. The truth, I believe, is that I'd turned my practicing against myself, made it into such a destructive, worrisome exercise, that I'd started mentally and physically rebelling against it. If practicing creates this much suffering, of course you'll find any excuse to avoid doing it.

The kid got up and left, but I had a whole lot on my mind now. How had I dug myself into this hole, and more importantly, what do I need to do to get out of it? How can I get back to practicing to improve and feel better about myself, rather than practicing to tear myself down?

I was lucky to run into another bass player, Kristen Bruya, at the airport, and she gave me a lot of great ideas and suggestions, which I will definitely try and might share in another post. I think a lot of people do go through these types of struggles, particularly when auditions are the focus of all our practice - it can be a very dispiriting, unrewarding kind of work. In their own ways though, both Kristen and the kid on the subway reminded me that it doesn't have to be. Practicing can be a source of joy, confidence, possibly even inner peace. As I once heard someone say, "If you're not having any fun, it's your own damn fault!"

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


So many of the big political controversies these days seem to come down to linguistic battles - is it a 'surge' or an 'escalation'?; 'Stay the course' or 'cut and run'?; the 'Democratic' or the 'Democrat' Party'? Each ideology has its own lingo, and pretty soon, I imagine, they'll break apart into separate dialects, then entirely different languages, so that we can talk past each other without any danger of understanding what the other side is saying.

Okay, I'm kind of exaggerating the semantic debates. Still, it does all seem silly to me. In classical music we have our own linguistic battles, starting with that thorny 'classical music' phrase itself. It seems needlessly elitist, but then the alternatives like 'serious music' or 'Western art music' are perhaps even worse. It's too bad we can't strip all those pretentious connotations and pick some arbitrary new word.

Then there's the question of 'community engagement' vs. 'community outreach'. Outreach has gone out of style, maybe also owing to elitist connotations - the mighty orchestra reaching out from its ivory tower, bringing culture to the unwashed masses. This is supposed to be the neighborly, friendly and open face of the orchestra, so we don't want the term itself to sound snooty and one-sided. Then again, reaching out can be a gesture of openness and not condescension, as in reaching out to embrace someone. 'Engagement' sounds faintly militaristic to me, as though we need to set up our battle lines and launch raids into the community, hopefully capturing a few stray recruits to our cause.

If anyone has any suggestions for a new, friendlier term for what we do in the community, please leave a comment! I was impressed last week that someone helped me out with a definition for 'Marschartig' - though our orchestra didn't end up playing that song, it was still cool to know I have some brilliant linguists reading my idle thoughts.

Monday, January 08, 2007

affirmations and Thomas Hampson

Baritone Thomas Hampson was the soloist in three performances of songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn this weekend. He also gave a masterclass on Saturday on Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer, with several brave wind players adapting the vocal lines to their instruments. These kind of cross-disciplinary master classes are something I haven't seen done anywhere else, and they have been some of the most interesting I've witnessed. Last season Barbara Bonney gave a class on Schubert lieder, and earlier this fall pianist Robert Levin coached the Mozart wind concertos.

Since instrumentalists don't normally study art songs, Hampson had plenty to teach about the phrasings, articulation, and diction a singer would bring to them. He has researched and written quite a bit about these songs and the German Romantic poets, and collected a lot of his work on his website Each of the four Songs of a Wayfarer paints a scene in the life of a young, apparently rejected lover; he encouraged us, though, to not read them as literal descriptions but as metaphoric realizations of emotions and experiences. Just as a flower or a bird can exist on several levels, romantic love and death can mean much more than the literal acts of loving or dying.

It all left my head spinning somewhat. In the last song, "Die zwei blauen Augen", Hampson talked about these lines of text:

Ich bin ausgegangen in stiller Nacht,
In stiller Nacht wohl uber die dunkle Haide;
Hat mir niemand Ade gesagt,
Ade, Ade!
Mein Gesell war Lieb' und Liede!

I went out in the still of night,
at dead of night across the gloomy heath.
No one said goodbye to me,
goodbye, goodbye;
my companions were love and grief.

One of the levels of meaning Hampson talked about here was the loss of outside affirmation - the poet looks for some token sign of warmth, a farewell gesture of friendship, and there is nothing. This related this to the truth we all discover at some point, that we can't depend on friends or critics for our sense of confidence and meaning. The whole cycle can be read as a kind of death to youthful ways of being, both the joyful innocence and the painful sorrows of being naive and emotionally vulnerable. These are incredibly sad songs, and yet they hint at a way of being that is not so dependent on the outside world for affirmation, and perhaps not so prone to suffering.

As performers we get this lesson every time a review comes out in the newspaper, and we find that we can't believe the praise or the criticism. It's not just that no one ever built a statue of a critic - we can't turn the performance into a statue either, a discrete object to examine and analyze. To the extent that it is successful, it has to remain a subjective, personal experience, both for the performer and the listener.

Still, it was nice to read a complimentary review by Lawrence Johnson in today's Miami Herald. I think Thomas Hampson deserves all the praise we can give him, even if it's all ephemeral!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Yiddish theater revival

I just listened to a radio interview with writer Stefan Kanfer, on NPR's Fresh Air. Kanfer talked about the history of Yiddish theater, which he wrote about in a book called Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America. Among the major figures they discussed were Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, the grandparents of Michael Tilson Thomas. This NY Times review of Kanfer's book describes Boris' popularity and ability to captivate audiences:

The audience demanded Acting above all — large emotions, dramatic gestures. This was a blessing for many in the Yiddish theater who were mainly entertainers. Thomashefsky reveled in mesmerizing the crowds. A matinee idol and ladies’ man, he enthralled a generation of young women, apparently inducing one to begin tearing her clothes off at the sight of his famous calves. This woman was just one of scores of “patriotn,” or fans, who passionately followed their favorite actors, engaging in heated arguments and even fistfights over who was the Yiddish theater’s supreme artist.

Kanfer talks quite a bit about how Yiddish theater has influenced popular culture - from the musical Fiddler on the Roof (based on a Yiddish play called Tevye the Milkman) to a less obvious influence on Cole Porter. Even Pablo Casals asked his students to sound "more Jewish," Kanfer says, asking for a lamenting, plaintive quality that Yiddish theater performers perfected. Even as such sounds entered our popular culture, and spread into vaudville, the Yiddish theater itself has all bit disappeared, along with a great deal of plays, music, and performers.

Next week our orchestra will be revive a bit of Yiddish theater, with a program called The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a life in the Yiddish Theater. Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct a small orchestra and several singers on two concerts, January 12 and 13. I'm not playing, but I'm looking forward to hearing it from the audience, since it seems like a rare chance to hear some fascinating, whimsical songs.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Mahler for dummies

This week our orchestra is performing Gustav Mahler's song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magical Horn). The singer is baritone Thomas Hampson, and the German texts will be translated and projected behind the stage. Playing in the orchestra, though, we have to figure out some translations for ourselves.

This is especially problematic when playing Mahler, since his German instructions tend to be as long and complex as his music. (All the simple stuff is in good old familiar Italian, but if he wants something weird, it's sure to be in German.) I did my homework and looked up these expressions at the online New English-German Dictionary. I'm not so great with German syntax, though, and all these endings and modifiers tend to mess me up. At least one term ("Marschartig") had no translation at all.

  • Marschierend, in einem fort = Marching, on and on
  • Vorschläge so schnell wie möglich = Grace notes as fast as possible
  • Sich merklich mäßigend = markedly held back
  • Etwas gemessener als zu Anfang = somewhat more measured, as at the beginning
  • Marschartig = ? no translation
  • Etwas langsamer = somewhat slower
  • Verträumt. Leise = dreamy, softly
  • Etwas zurückhaltend = somewhat more restrained
  • Sehr gehalten = very calmly
  • Gemessen, dumpf. Nicht schleppen = Measured, stuffy. Don't rush
  • Bedeutend langsamer = considerably slower
  • Leidenshaftlich = passionate