Monday, April 30, 2007

Facebook derails my plans

I'm sorry my plans to post part one of my audition story this weekend went astray! I've gotten quite busy with - embarrassingly enough - Facebook! I know I'm not the first addict to social networking websites, and it does have its positive aspects. It's a great feeling knowing I now have 76 actual, official friends, willing to expose themselves as such! Then again, it makes me realize other people are as desperate as I am for real, meaningful connections, so much so that we're willing to tap our keyboards for hours in the quest.

Please don't give up on me though, I'm going to beat this addiction and write all about Calgary very soon, I promise! In the meantime, if anyone caught the New World webcast yesterday, I would love to hear what you thought. Please send me a comment or e-mail. Thank you!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Letters to a young(ish) bassist

One of the happiest aspects of audition success is sharing the news with friends and teachers, past and current, and all the reconnections and exchanges that can result. Lately I have been in touch with Michael Hovnanian, Chicago Symphony bassist and my teacher at Northwestern. These days, Michael is teaching at Roosevelt and blogging at CSO Bass Blog. His writing really gives a flavor for his thoughtfulness on all subjects, his dry wit, and his delight in unexpected analogies.

Now that I am employed, and Michael is blogging, he suggested we start a dialogue about transitioning to life in a professional orchestra. With his typical self-deprecating humor, he described it as an exchange between "the young and enthusiastic vs... the old and jaded perspectives." I happily agreed and came up with a couple of questions about the qualities that make for a good orchestral colleague - you can read the result at the CSO Bass Blog today: Letter From Matt Heller.
Matt Heller recently emailed me with the good news that he had won the bass audition in Calgary. I had also read about it on his blog. Anyone who hasn’t checked out Matt’s blog should do so. I hope he keeps it up and chronicles the transition into the next phase of his career.

Perhaps in a fit of blog envy – Matt writes well, and with insight – I suggested we might compare notes. His perspective from near the beginning of a career and mine somewhere in the middle might make for an interesting counterpoint. (...)
Now that we've started the conversation, I am excited - even enthusiastic! - to explore this topic and others that come up. I hope readers here and at the CSO Bass Blog will feel free to offer your own questions and thoughts on the subject of joining a new orchestra and bass section.

And I haven't forgotten my promise, I am still going to write a full account of my audition experience in Calgary. My apologies for taking so long with this! The first part, which I hope to post this weekend, will cover some of the pre-audition stages: how I decided to take this audition, what my preparation was like, etc.

Thanks for reading, and thanks so much to Michael for his entertaining and insightful take on orchestral oarsmanship!

Friday, April 27, 2007


Cutting through the clutter and experiencing the present moment fully is part of our job requirements as performing musicians. In a world equally full of attractions and distractions, I think of this as something we're uniquely able to offer people - two hours of focused, impassioned contemplation. Still, we're not immune from distractions ourselves, including the tendency to multitask. Even as I write this blog entry, I am also eating dinner, listening to a recording, getting dressed for a concert, and teaching a lesson. Use more bow! Oops, not you.

The other day in a rehearsal MTT even caught himself doing it - he was conducting a complex section of Petrouchka, featuring a prominent flute solo, and meanwhile making comments and adjusting balances in the previous section. Once he recognized everyone's confusion, he quickly stopped the orchestra, made the correction, and told us, "I'm sorry, I think I'm multi-tasking when actually I'm just being rude!"

I think this is usually the case when we multitask: we think we're being extra productive and generous with ourselves, when actually we are just short-changing one or all of the activities we're engaged in. And ultimately we are short-changing ourselves, because none of those tasks gets as much attention as it deserves. Conducting might seem to require a certain amount of multi-tasking, with all those parts to listen to, people to cue, adjustments to make - and yet it is amazing how an orchestra responds to someone who is fully and deeply engaged in listening and being part of the music-making. There are musicians who you can just watch in the act of listening - how intent they are, how responsive - and already you're inspired to play your best. MTT is one of those, and our soloist this weekend Christian Tetzlaff is another.

I'm wondering how people will deal with the pressures of multi-tasking during this Sunday's live New World Symphony webcast. It's one thing to ignore distractions in the concert hall, the occasional unsilenced cell phone, noisy wrapper-removing, etc. But listening on your computer I imagine as a blizzard of distractions, e-mail, pop-ups, alerts and dialogues. Hopefully our online audiences won't take it upon themselves to also cook dinner, teach a lesson, and redesign their Facebook profiles at the same time, as I am right now.

Anyway, have a great weekend everyone, and try not to do too much! What's that, I didn't mean to write on your wall - how much garlic was that? - who's poking me? - use less bow! Oops, not you.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Charles Noble, blogging the audition circuit

These past couple of days I have been enjoying "daily observations", the blog of Oregon Symphony violist Charles Noble. My friend and fellow bassist blogger Jason Heath drew my attention to Charles' account of the Seattle Symphony Assistant Principal Viola audition, which he took a couple of weeks ago. I won't give away the outcome here - Charles did a fantastic job of developing all the suspense and intrigue, as well as the humor and mishaps in his audition story. As he notes in his last post,
It was good to be in this position again and realized that every one of those anonymous players behind the screen is a real person with dreams and obligations. They desperately want the job that they’re here for, and as a past and future audition committee member, it is absolutely essential that I keep that in mind the next time I’m listening to a long round of auditions and get impatient or arrogant.
Each of those anonymous candidates has a unique story - and reading Charles' account was an inspiration. My experience of auditioning has been that, even when you don't get past the prelims, you go through lots of rounds: there's the "convincing yourself you can win" round; the "making travel plans round"; the "not getting too freaked out by all the other candidates" round. Any one of these can knock a person out, sabotage our audition hopes before we've played a single note!

I love reading about how another musician has struggled with all these steps in the process - and realizing that maybe there is another round I hadn't considered. Maybe call it the "framing your story" round, and it happens after you leave the hall, get home, unpack your bags. Of course you're going to have to tell a lot of people how it went, what you played, who you saw, what you learned... Most important though is what you tell yourself - how honestly you can appraise your own attitudes and performance, and use those insights to build your hopes and confidence, not destroy them.

It's worth reading Charles' posts as he wrote them - but once you read one, you probably won't be able to stop until you've finished all four! Here they are in order:

1. auditioning for middle-farts
2. auditioning for middle-farts, part deux
3. auditioning for middle-farts, part troix
4. a.f.m.f - climax and dénouement

I have also just added a couple of blogs to my list over at the right - if you haven't visited them yet, please check out Michael Hovnanian's CSO Bass Blog and Gabrielle's Lone Oboe blog!

Monday, April 23, 2007

NWS Petrouchka poster

when puppets attack, and artists ignite

Above is an 'e-flyer' for the webcast this coming Sunday, which will feature Stravinsky's ballet Petrouchka.

I'm really excited to be playing Petrouchka with MTT and the NWS, and in this kind of innovative forum. It's the story of a puppet coming to life, but to me it's all about discovery, bold gestures, new ideas. Stravinsky had already written the ballet The Firebird, but I imagine him writing Petrouchka as a young, still emerging composer with something to prove - Firebird was like his graduation piece, showing off his mastery of all the orchestrational tricks Rimsky-Korsakov had taught him. It showed a lot more as well, of course - but in Petrouchka, he surpasses his models with this incredible new voice, dispelling any doubt that an utterly original talent is at work. The music invites us into all these new places, funny, tragic, sometimes grotesque, always fantastic.

There is an outer world, full of life and spirit and commotion, which is where the piece begins, and there is also a miraculous inner world - where we find the puppet Petrouchka, imprisoned. He has spent his life getting pulled around and and twisted, and as a result he is coiled with rage. He summons up all his strength and will, to escape his captor and live as himself - and in a burst of violence, the inner world rips open and spills into the outer world, provoking gasps and astonishment, before the sorcerer can try and reassure everyone that it was just a fantasy after all.

It often seems like an artist emerges from nowhere and takes the world by storm, provoking a flurry of reactions, criticism, imitation... That was definitely the case of Stravinsky, and I wonder if he used Petrouchka as his proxy in this score. The misformed, mistreated loner, bound by strings and shut off in his cell, but still striving mightily for love, beauty, grace - and finally ripping through the curtain, astounding and horrifying everyone around! For me this is one of the amazing things about the New World Symphony too, being around all of these musicians on the cusps of their careers - and everyone seems like they are one breakthrough away from bursting out and making a grand entrance into the musical world. Maybe we're not about to start a riot at the Champs-Elysees, but the force of artistic revelation is no less intense in each individual case.

That's what excites me about organizing and running New World's mock auditions - which I will be doing again tomorrow evening - this discovery of someone taking the initiative, throwing off those puppet strings, and announcing himself or herself as a performing artist. I imagine this same thrill is what people long for in actual auditions, the performer who no longer asks if he is ready, he proclaims it. We're lucky if we experience this once in an audition, or a lifetime - but I have seen it over and over again at New World. I definitely hear it in Stravinsky's Petrouchka!

The two musicians blogging for this week's webcast, Michael Gordon and Yukiko Senino, both have their first posts up today. Check them out, and please visit here too for even more symphonic blogging!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

coming soon...

This is a big week for the New World Symphony on the web. Next week's concert will be broadcast over the internet in a live video webcast. Check out the webcast site, which includes a countdown, lots of program information, and even a blog by two members of the orchestra (note: I am not one of them!)

The two orchestra members are Yukiko Senino, a pianist, and Michael Gordon, a flautist. Both play prominent parts in the main piece on next weekend's program, Stravinsky's Petrouchka. I am really looking forward to reading all their posts about the piece and the rehearsal process, which will be with Michael Tilson Thomas.

People in New World Symphony administration know that I blog - occasionally I think they get a bit nervous I'm going to expose all the dirty secrets of people or the organization itself - but mostly people have just been very supportive and encouraging. Howard Herring, the New World Symphony's president, asked me about the traffic spike following Dan Wakin's New York Times article, and is always curious about the comments and reactions I get here. (So please, feel free to write your comments!) I am sort of glad that no one has pressured me to be an "official blogger", or linked my blog to the New World website - it would just make me feel a little too circumscribed and careful about what I write. Much better to just jot down my ideas and impressions as they occur, and as time allows.

On the other hand, now that orchestras are starting to acknowledge and tap into the blogosphere, I wonder if some audience members are looking for this kind of connection to the performers. Are they curious about our rehearsals and social interactions, or is it like making sausage - too much knowledge about the process spoils the end result.

I hope that people who visit the New World Symphony blogs this week, and watch the webcast online, will feel free to comment here or on the NWS site, and let us all know what you think!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Gandolfi, Higdon, and inescapable grooves

As I mentioned previously, this evening's New World Symphony concert includes Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra and a world premiere of an expanded version of Michael Gandolfi's Impressions from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. As an added treat, both composers are here in Miami Beach and will be attending the concert, as they have the rehearsals for the past few days.

I don't know if audience members realize what a very cool thing it is to have a living composer involved in preparing his or her own work. We've all applauded for that solitary figure, bounding up to the stage at the end of the concert, and maybe wondered at the incongruousness of it all - how could this little, specific person have created something so big and so universal? The more composers I meet, the more I am impressed and respectful of the challenges they face, this alchemy of transforming personal experiences into artistic creation. It's a miracle, what they are able to do, and in some ways it is the essential purpose for what we all do.

At the beginning of this week everyone in the orchestra was wondering about this Gandolfi piece. Parts of it had been performed and recorded, other parts only existed as scores and synthesized MIDI audio files, and still others apparently had only been sketched. The movement numbers suggest that the piece will be in 11 movements, but last Monday we had only seen five or six of them. Conductor Robert Spano tried to relieve some of our anxieties at the first rehearsal, telling us how fantastic those unseen movements were, and mentioning some awesome grooves and a kick-ass trumpet solo in one of them. This only made some players more nervous, of course.

In the end, we settled on a version of the piece with nine movements - one of which is a 6-movement baroque suite entitled "The Senses". So it qualifies as an expanded version, but perhaps not the complete or final version. In a way that's appropriate to the feel of this piece, which is about a philosopher's garden - since the work both philosophy and gardening are never really finished, but always in a state of growth and revision. Talking to Gandolfi during a rehearsal break, he described how he set out to write a really great groove - a somewhat elusive thing in orchestral music - and in his movement "The Willow Twist" he seems to have succeeded. That's the movement with the big trumpet solo, along with a prominent trombone solo, and both players stand up like in a big band concert. Once you've created a great groove though, he said, the challenge is to get out of it - it sort of has a self-perpetuating momentum. The solution he chose was what he calls a "bow and arrow technique" - just at its most exuberant point, it dissolves into a new, spare texture in the upper strings.

Jennifer Higdon is also around, and has had some helpful suggestions for the prominent string solos which occur in 4 of the 5 movements. The most prominent and exposed bass solo is in the 3rd movement, and Higdon seems to have been inspired by the kind of spontaneous facility you hear in Edgar Meyer's bass playing. Our principal bassist this week, James Goode, does a great job of emulating that, and all week his solos have grown more confident and incisive. The 4th movement is an extended percussion groove, sort of a cadenza for that section of the orchestra. In this case, the groove proceeds directly into the 5th movement, which begins without pause. It's another exuberantly syncopated dance for the whole orchestra, with more prominent solos and lots of Bartok pizzicatos, perhaps a tribute to the original "Concerto for Orchestra."

Both composers are well represented online. Visit Michael Gandolfi's home page and Jennifer Higdon's for lots of news, information, and sounds. Tickets are still available for tonight's concert - visit the New World Symphony website for more information.

Nick Walker's comment on Bach

I just wanted to point out a fascinating comment I received the other day from Nicholas Walker, a bassist and composer currently teaching at Ithaca College in New York. You can read Nick's comment here, and also please visit his own website. The comment concerns articulations in the Prelude to Bach's First Suite - he varies his bowings in each bar, based on an autograph manuscript in Anna Magdalena Bach's handwriting. Nicholas is right, these bowings can really open up the harmony and phrasing of the piece, and relieve all that bar-by-bar monotony.

Paul Ellison also publishes a version incorporating these bowings - I just looked at a copy of his edition today. I am not sure where his edition is available commercially, but if you e-mail or comment I can help put you in touch with Paul.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

jungle rules of orchestral playing

The other day in rehearsal, guest conductor Robert Spano made some interesting comments about the relationship of an orchestra and its conductor, and the need to play firmly with the beat. Great orchestras don't rush - in fact, if you listen closely, they often seem to be deliberately playing at the back of the beat, filling out the rhythms as slowly as possible within the tempo. This gives a conductor something to work with - he can propel and drive the orchestra, when he wants to create added excitement, and trust that we won't all fly off the handle. That inner pulse, which we establish as an orchestra, can accomodate the conductor's excitement without getting swept up and losing its integrity.

He talked about how this dynamic gets screwed up when the orchestra tends to rush. Then the conductor has to take a restraining role, holding us back and doing his best to avoid train wrecks. The message he projects becomes cautionary, rather than motivating - which is why an orchestra that rushes can actually sound less exciting, more boring, than one that plays behind the beat but allows the conductor to propel forward.

Spano put it best when he said that the orchestra's job is to always say, "We're not going to rush." The conductor's role, on the other hand, is to say, "We're not going to be boring." It often puts the two in conflict, but that tension is itself a source of excitement for the audience and the performers. It's the will of the one against the will of the many, and ultimately the conductor's will prevails - assuming we all respect and trust him enough to respond to his ideas - but only as the result of an intensely powerful struggle.

I'll write more tomorrow on this weekend's program, which includes Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra and Michael Gandolfi's Impressions from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. The latter piece is inspired by an actual place, a garden designed by the philosopher Charles Jencks. You can check out some pictures of the real thing at Charles Jencks' website.

In the meantime, here are a few pictures from the Fairchild Tropical Gardens, which our orchestra visited last Sunday. I don't think the gorilla in the top picture is meant to be conducting an orchestra, but that was my first thought. I wonder if gorilla conductors ever have problems with rushing...?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

color-coded Bach

Last week I bought a pack of 12 colored Sharpie pens, thinking I would find some musical purpose to use them. (That would allow me to deduct them on my tax return, right?) I wasn't sure quite what purpose, but lately I hear so many people talk about color - use a different color here, match the viola's color there, etc. - and so I thought maybe I could use some more of it.

After an hour practicing the Prelude from Bach's 1st Cello Suite this evening, I had a big stack of Sharpies massed on the bottom of my stand. I was having a great time picking different colors for each measure's harmonic change, highlighting the 3-note figure that usually arcs up, creating the impetus for the whole piece. I have worked on this Prelude a lot, but somehow just putting colors on the page was making it more fun and exciting to work on than it had been for a long time. Or maybe I was getting high on those marker fumes.

Yesterday afternoon I played the Prelude for Ed Barker in a masterclass, and he had a lot of great comments. He talked about the bowing in this Barenreiter edition, which is the one found in the Anna Magdalena autograph - generally 3 slurred and 5 separate. He described this as a good "representative bowing", indicative of how a performer at the time might have chosen to play the piece - also, a guide to the importance of that three-note gesture. So we can choose to do something different - lately I have been doing 2 slurred, 6 separate, which helps me to not drift out to the tip - but we should always keep the character of that motive in mind.

He showed me how I could lean into that motive, especially on the downbeats but also as an echo in the middle of the bars, bringing out the harmonic rhythm. Just finding a nice, clear way to structure a single bar of the piece seemed to help organize it better in my mind, and all those repeating notes started to form into gestures and directions. We talked about ways to create the resonance of the cello's open strings - even though we don't have them on the bass.

The challenge is to make a piece which is not especially idiomatic for our instrument sound completely idiomatic, as it would be on the cello. It might seem like a lost cause, but when you hear someone like Ed manage it (even on an unfamiliar bass), it gives you hope to keep trying!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

commuting wonder

Last week a friend forwarded me a link to a long Washington Post story, "Pearls Before Breakfast", apparently describing one more sign of cultural malaise. Reporter Gene Weingarten persuaded Joshua Bell to play in a DC Metro, dressed in typical street-performer clothes, but playing his $4 million Strad with the kind of virtuosity that has earned him a brilliant career as an international soloist. It was an experiment to test the average DC commuter's appreciation for classical music - or even his willingness to listen for a moment - and, to cut to the results, the average DC commuter pretty much failed miserably.

Lots of people smarter than me have probably analyzed and commented on the experiment, including Bob Garfield on On The Media, but a few things occur to me. It reminded me of one of the Stanley Milgram experiments, revealing some very unpleasant tendency among people who don't realize they are being experimented on. I find this kind of thing distasteful, maybe because I would rather believe in people's better tendencies, and the whole thing strikes me as kind of unfair. These poor people are bombarded every day by advertising, journalism, pleas for their money and attention from all sides - is it really any wonder that they shut down their senses, stop listening completely? At the same time though, it's hard to argue with Weingarten's conclusions: we're too busy, too stuck in our routines and habits, and we blind ourselves to the beauty that exists in the world around us.

It's an important message, but I don't think we really needed Josh Bell on the subway to prove that point! We take beauty for granted every day, not only in strangers but in our friends, and even in our selves. This past weekend we had two concerts of concerto competition winners from our orchestra - 9 musicians, all of whom played brilliantly. I'll just list them here briefly, since - again! - there's not time to adequately praise each of them:

  • Dustin Budish, viola - Lachrymae, Reflections on a song of Dowland for viola and strings by Benjamin Britten
  • Ebonee Thomas, flute - The World of Montuagretta for Flute and Chamber Orchestra by Christian Lindberg
  • Piotr Szewczyk, violin - Polonaise brillante No. 1, Op. 4 by Wieniawski
  • Jason Koi, tuba - Richard Strauss Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major for Horn - transcribed down an octave!
  • Michael Gordon, flute and Lynn Williams, harp - Mozart Concerto in C for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, K. 297c
  • Robert Johnson, horn - Richard Strauss Concerto No. 2 in E-flat major for Horn
  • Sebastian Gingras, cello - Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto, Op. 22
  • Yuna Lee, violin - Poeme for violin and orchestra by Ernest Chausson
  • Ciro Fodere, piano - Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
So playing with all these people, I found myself in wonder that I am surrounded by all these great artists - I live with these people, even! I share practice rooms and laundry machines, bicycle racks and the occasional keg party with them, and how rarely have I really stopped to listen and appreciate them! In a way, I'm even more jaded and insensitive than those subway riders. They only passed by one spectacular violinist, but every day I walk past several, and I might watch a movie or play ultimate frisbee with some of them as well.

The appropriate response when you hear a great violinist in the Metro station, the article seems to imply, is to stop, listen, and drop some cash in his case. That's probably a fair generalization, but what's appropriate when the great artists are people you live and work with every day? I'm not going to go around handing $5 bills out in rehearsal, and probably people would get pretty uncomfortable if I started staring into their practice rooms in awe. The fact remains though, we owe something to the beauty that exists in our lives, and all around us - some degree of attention, reverence, wonder - and when we ignore that beauty, we deprive ourselves.

So the lesson I take from the article is to not blind myself - to try to open up my ears and eyes and heart, even when I'm going about seemingly mundane tasks. There is more beauty around than we can ever know completely, even if world-class soloists don't perform for us on our way to work. And still more importantly - there is more beauty inside us than we can ever know completely. If we are to draw on that beauty, use it creatively and expressively, we need those same qualities of patience, attention, reverence, and wonder towards ourselves.

In this past week's The New Yorker magazine there was a fascinating article on commuting, "There and Back Again." He describes how the word commute developed from its original meaning "to make less severe", as when a judge commutes a sentence. Originally the rail lines commuted their fares, reducing them for passengers who agreed to commit to ride daily - so as Nick Paumgarten writes, "In time, the commuted became commuters." Despite the etymology, our daily commutes seems to make us more severe -
Commuting is an exercise in repetition. The will to efficiency varies, but it expresses itself in the hardening of commuters' habits, as they seek to alleviate the dissipation of time and sanity.
So maybe this is where we need art the most - to help us to restructure our time and our sanity, even as we're bombarded by the noise and clutter of modern life. Before art can do that, though, we might need to commute our own habits a little bit - to make ourselves a bit less severe, and more open to surprises!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

renouncing renunciation

Asceticism, of course, is no solution: it is sensuality with a negative prefix. For a saint this might become useful, as a kind of scaffolding. At the intersection of his various acts of renunciation he beholds that god of opposition, the god of the invisible who has not yet created anything. But anyone who has committed to using his senses in order to grasp appearances as pure and forms as true on earth: how could such an individual even begin to distance himself from anything! And even if such renunciations proved initially helpful and necessary for him, in his case it would be nothing more than a deception, a ruse, a scheme - and ultimately it would take its revenge somewhere in the contours of his finished work by showing up there as an undue hardness, aridity, barrenness, and cowardice.

- Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, p. 135-136
Even though I draw inspiration from these words, I can't say I've exactly lived up to them. For most of my life, I've been renouncing one thing or another: television, drinking, the beach, relationships, blogging... It sometimes seems like every recreation, every source of pleasure I have discovered in life has had to be weighed against my greatest pleasure and purpose, which is making music. And in most cases I have limited, or even renounced altogether, those non-musical pleasures.

The more I consider this question though, I find myself agreeing with Rilke's perspective. Certainly we need to be discerning and disciplined, in our lives and our art. There are a whole slew of things not worth the brief pleasures they may give us, and we need to avoid these things if we are to respect ourselves and our art. There is an opposite extreme though, and when we limit ourselves too much, avoid everything, it is another sort of disrespect for our art and ourselves. It's as though we don't want to credit ourselves as skillful players, able musicians, and complete human beings. We act as though our technical equipment is so fragile, our musical ideas so feeble, that they need constant maintenance and attention.

I'll always respect my friends who do marathon-practice sessions. Lately though, I'm of the opinion that there are times when it's better not to practice - spend the time with friends, or outdoors in nature, with poetry or literature, or maybe studying the score without your instrument to intervene. Give your imagination the opportunity to develop and keep pace with your technical command of the instrument. After all, speed and agility will never compensate for a lack of imagination. When we let our practice outstrip our lives, and the craft replace art, it only leads to those qualities of aridity, barrenness, hardness, and cowardice.

So lately I'm trying to open myself up to new things, try some courageous acts, and live a fuller life outside the practice room. I'll report on how my humble attempts go, and I hope you'll read those words of Rilke and become inspired as well!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Rosenkavalier with Jarvi

Tonight at the Lincoln Theatre the New World Symphony plays a free "Community Appreciation Concert", conducted by Steven Jarvi. I talked with Steven the other day about Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite, one of the pieces on the program - he described it as one of those "life-changing pieces."

We each could remember clearly the first time we had heard excerpts from the opera; oddly enough, we both heard it on the same recording, Renée Fleming's "Strauss Heroines" (shown here). Jarvi went on to study the opera, conduct it at the Washington National Opera, and even arrange his own version of the concert suite; whereas I just bought the cd, and started listening to it all the time!

Even if my life didn't seem to change quite as dramatically as Jarvi's after I heard Der Rosenkavalier, it definitely changed me internally! Both the opera and the suite begin with some of the most famously risque music ever written - played before a closed curtain in staged versions, the music quickly reaches an ecstatic, thrusting pitch of excitement, and it's easy to imagine the post-coital bliss of Marie-Therese (the Marschallin) and Octavian when the music subsides and the curtain opens. The opera's real climax, though, is the Trio in the final act - for three female voices, since Octavian is a trouser role, all intertwining and upward towards a place more emotional, more moving, more ecstatic even than those first-act orgasms.

The text is talking about the vicissitudes of love - how we need to find a love so pure, it can even accept the loss of the beloved. The scene is a typical operatic love triangle, and yet the music and the sentiments are anything but typical, reaching for a kind of spiritual solace and forgiveness.
I chose to love him in the right way, so that I would love even his love for another! I truly didn't believe that I would have to bear it so soon! (sighing) Most things in this world are unbelievable when you hear about them. But when they happen to you, you believe them and don't know why - there stands the boy and here I stand, and with that strange girl he will be as happy as any man knows how to be.

I feel as if I were in church, holy and awed. And yet unholy too! I do not know how I feel. I would like to kneel there before that lady, and yet I would also do something to her, for I know she gives me him and yet she keeps something of him at the same time. I do not know how I feel! I want to understand, yet not understand. I want to ask, yet not ask - it makes me hot and cold. (looking into Octavian's eyes) I see only you and know only this: I love you!

Something has come, something has happened. I want to ask her: can it be? And I know just that question is forbidden me. I want to ask her: why do I tremble inside? Has anything so wrong occurred? And yet I dare not ask her! - And then I look at you, Sophie, see only you, feel only you, Sophie, and know nothing but that I love you.

So be it.
The words won't be sung tonight, but I think the music brings across all the emotions perfectly - it really does have the feeling of a ritual, unfolding over long phrases and beautiful expanses of time. Let's hope some more life-changing moments happen tonight!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Deja Vu and the Colgrass triangle

Before tonight's performance of Deja Vu, his piece for four percussionists and orchestra, Michael Colgrass had some nice words of introduction. He was speaking via Internet2 from Toronto. He told a story about learning that he had just received a Pulitzer Prize for the work, back in 1977 - a young AP reporter called and, after he replied that no, he hadn't heard anything about it - asked for his spontaneous reaction! He said that he had always thought that prizes were like buckshot in a crowd; anyone can get hit. And that he thought his father would be pleased, since at that point he still didn't really understand what Michael Colgrass did for a living.

My favorite part of Colgrass' comments though, which I'm paraphrasing from my memory, was this:
I have never thought music was about prizes and recognition though. To me, it's about relationships, between a composer and performer, and the performer and audience. Within that triangle is where all the interesting and fulfilling aspects of music take place. And you, the audience, in many ways are the most important part of that triangle. So I thank you and I hope you enjoy this performance of Deja Vu.
As he finished speaking, I looked out on the audience and I could see many of them smiling and reacting positively - I really think it set a wonderful tone for the performance, which was completely engaging for me. I think I'll definitely steal Michael Colgrass' triangle idea, next time I introduce a piece to an audience!

Michael Colgrass has an excellent website with many writings - I especially enjoyed his "Letter to a Young Composer."

warning: geeky shop talk ahead

I just wrote an e-mail to Kolstein's Music (a well-respected bass shop in New York) asking this question, so I thought I would ask my blog readers as well. Does anyone know of a bow case on the market which will fit one German bow and one French bow? (Shown here is Kolstein's case for two German bows.) I am planning to buy a French bow, now that I'll be joining a section of French players. I'm not going to switch, but I would like to have a better understanding of what my colleagues are doing technically - and if I plan to do much teaching, it's especially important to get a handle on both styles of bow.

What I'm finding, in experimenting with the French bow, is that it actually gives me some insights into my own technical approach. So many things I might do without much thought on a German bow - but approximating those things on a French bow takes all my concentration. I have to rethink everything involved, the angles, placement, weight, speed, flexibility... I suddenly have a new appreciation for all the cool things I can do with a German bow, and want to take full advantage of all those colors and articulations which are still a distant possibility with French. And the French bow gives me ideas for new colors and articulations, sounds I might never have thought of finding with a German bow.

Just as important, maybe, practicing on French bow gives me an opportunity to embarrass myself completely. That might not sound like a good thing, but lately I've been seeking out these kinds of opportunities - those risky, unfamiliar situations where I might either fall on my face or discover something completely unexpected - and hopefully those with no danger of any permanent damage. I figure those are the situations where you learn the most.

Which brings me back to the bow case question. I really don't want to carry two bow cases around with me, and it seems like there should be a bow case for people who swing both ways. I wonder what to call these people - Hybrid bow users? Franco-Prussians? Double bow double bassists? Whoever you are, please let me know if you have found a case to hold your equipment!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

where's the story?

I am sure that many people are waiting to hear all about the audition in Calgary, and I wanted to let you know that I haven't forget about all of you, and I am still planning on writing about that day quite a bit! I've told the story to several people now, both in person and via e-mail, and the problem is that every time I tell it, I feel compelled to include every detail I can remember, so that what might have been a simple and pleasing story ("Prelims. Advanced! Semis. Advanced again! Finals. Yay!") telescopes into something interminable and exhausting ("And then I noticed that my left pinkie was trembling, right around the second knuckle, and I remembered that Don Greene passage I had read last Thursday....")

I'm concerned that once I do start to tell the story here, it's going to turn into a massive case of blogorrhea, stretching over several days. Maybe that's okay with some people though, I don't know - or maybe those hella frisch readers not obsessed with bass auditions (I know you are out there, though I sometimes can't imagine why!) will just find it a convenient opportunity to tune out for a bit.

Anyway, I'm putting some thought into the whole question of how best to blog my audition - maybe I should break up the narrative with a series of photographs and illustrations, like Jason Heath! - though unfortunately, my camera ran out of batteries and I'm not sure how entertaining stick figures playing bass excerpts would be.

In the meantime, as I figure out all these quandaries, thanks for putting up with all of my meandering posts! You guys are the best blog readers ever - sometimes the second knuckle on my left pinkie trembles just thinking about you all!

knots, locks, and puzzles

You know when there's a tight knot in a cord or rope, so tight you can barely tell it was ever unknotted? And you pick and pull and poke at the thing, for a long time it seems, without getting it to loosen the slightest bit. In fact, all that prodding just seems to make the knot tighter, smaller, more resistant. Then all of a sudden, something slides, a tiny bit of slack appears, and the whole thing comes undone in an instant.

That's how I feel lately, as though some deep, tight knot in me has just been released - and within this knot were lots of other tight, small knots, all of which I have been struggling with just as much. Now that the big knot has unravelled, though, all those smaller ones start to seem simple, easy, as though they've been anxiously waiting to slip apart as well.

Maybe I'm a bit of a relentless and compulsive personality - I don't know if another person would spend as much time on an unresponsive knot! Back in my undergrad days at New England Conservatory, where I studied with Don Palma, there was a wooden closet in the corner of his studio. It had a combination lock on it, but no one could remember the combination - Don told us there were a couple old bass bridges in there, maybe a coffee cup, and he wasn't sure what else. And he told us anyone who could figure out the combination could keep all the junk in there.

I'm sure I wasn't that desirous of some bridges and a smelly coffee cup, but I started working on the lock. At first I would just flip it around a little bit once in a while, usually to unwind after I had finishing practicing and was ready to go home. Then I began really examining it, trying to feel all the clicks and grooves, the ways it wanted to move and the places it seemed to get stuck. I started trying all the permutations of those places and - eureka - the thing unlatched.

Now, Don was a little bewildered when he saw what I had done. He probably wondered why I couldn't put all that energy and concentration into my Findeisen etudes! I was a bit surprised too - it was one of those moments where you realize your own strengths, a thing you can excel at, even if it's a silly pointless thing! I felt somewhat similar after I ran my first marathon - somehow the thing that made it worthwhile was just the knowledge that I could do it! And all the other impossible challenges, the irresolvable knots in your life, seem miraculously solvable.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Today I was going through all the scraps of paper that followed me home from Calgary, and came across this little thing. Apparently, it's a panelist's judging sheet from the audition - I believe the personnel manager handed it to me when I was searching for a scrap of paper to write someone's e-mail address down. Looking at this form kind of puts things into perspective for me. It's just a silly simple sheet of paper, but one penstroke there can sometimes change someone's fate!

This also reminds me of one of Dan Matsukawa's audition tips, slightly silly but surprisingly useful. He suggested that, before you play any excerpt, even your most difficult and hated one, you inwardly say to yourself, "Yes!" Put a big smile on your face, and act like it's your favorite thing ever.

Here's how he puts it:
Adjust your attitude.

From now on, you will be "excited" to play your nemesis or any excerpt that you may fear. At least try to convince yourself that every excerpt is your absolute favorite one to play.

At the audition, make it as though you are glad they are asking for that excerpt that gives you trouble, rather than cringe when they ask for it. You could even pump your fist discreetly to yourself and say, "I can't wait to play this for them and I am so glad they want to hear it!" instead of, "Uh-oh, here goes my nemesis!" This will have a positive effect on your playing and in turn a positive effect on those listening.

I'm beginning more and more to see how we as musicians also have to be great actors. We not only need to convince an audience, we often need to convince ourselves that we're bold, confident, forthright people, even when we might feel a little bit hamster-ish. MTT often brings up acting - he talks about how an actor would take any idea and take it to extremes, go over the top and then tone it down, whereas we musicians often have to be prodded and cajoled to do enough! Today in a masterclass, Hal Robinson had some similar comments, talking about how we need to play-act, take on a role if we really want to expand our range of characters. Sometimes we need to scream, tear our hair out, and howl at the moon, just to know what those emotions feel like - also, to tap into our own life experiences, and bring them out in our playing.

I'm wondering if I should take some acting lessons - maybe get a book out of the library about "method acting"? Hal would probably say, "Stop being so analytical, and start living!" And Dan Matsukawa would probably just say, "Yes!"

Monday, April 02, 2007

Hal Robinson and the wonders of fruit

Usually in the days after an audition I don't feel much like playing - I'd rather sleep or read, give myself some time to recover from all the psychic trauma perhaps. These past couple of days though, I have felt like playing. Yesterday on the plane I even pulled out my copy of the Bach Suites, trying to come up with some phrasing and motive ideas for a recital I'm dreaming of doing over the summer.

Of course, now that I have some good audition news, it seems like there is endless array of people I need to share it with, and a lot of today was spent just writing e-mails, catching up with friends, and enjoying lots of hugs and congratulations. All pretty nice things, and it's hard to choose practicing the bass over friends and hugs! Still, I found a little bit of time in the middle of the day, and it's nice to still feel that burning need to practice - it really doesn't go out after you win a job, in case you were worried, I can vouch for it. It maybe even grows stronger.

Hal Robinson, the principal bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is in town for a few days giving lessons. Though I didn't find out until 9:55, I got the 10 am time slot this morning by default - everyone else who was in town signed up for the later times. I only got home around 2:30 am this morning, and so at 9:55 am I was sort of staggering down Washington Avenue with my bass and stool, not knowing when my lesson would be but kind of suspecting. It was fine though, because Hal invited me to go sit down somewhere to have breakfast and talk - among the few things I felt capable of doing!

We walked over to a cafe on Collins, La Provence, and talked about stuff we'd discussed in lessons over the past few years. Hal comes down to New World quite a bit, and he always leaves with a few decisive changes that need to be made - a more selectively applied vibrato, a wider dynamic range and better supported sound production, a relaxed, smooth breathing that's not going to interfere with the musical message. Taking a lesson with Hal always kind of feels like you're a package that's been carefully inspected, weighed and considered, and then the most glaring flaws are clearly, calmly listed. It never feels like a rejection, but like those few things
have just been waiting, festering even, and now finally I can make some corrections and get everything in place. So in short, lessons with Hal are always kind of a revelation - a little bit scary, a little bit hard to face, but always instructive if you can deal with that much honesty!

Still, I was happy to use my lesson time to talk with Hal, and actually the conversation was in some ways just as instructive as a lesson. I went over some of my experiences at the audition, and stories I'm still planning on getting into a blog post or two very soon - it's funny how these things arrange themselves into stories, as you tell them over and over again! I definitely feel like sharing audition experiences is a useful exercise though, particularly after the whole Dan Wakin article and everything that's come of that. And of course it was nice, and somewhat unprecedented, to have happy, gratifying stories to tell, and lots of positive hopes and plans to describe.

I mentioned I'd like to start teaching a bit, not anything huge but perhaps a few students, and he agreed that it's something anyone should want to do, to give back and share some of the insights we've all struggled so much to attain, and that he thought I would be especially well suited, having gone through so much and learned from so many great people these last few years. And I told him I had been thinking of putting together a recital this summer, without quite forming any definite plans - after just a few minutes, he got me to describe what kind of program I was going for, come up with some ideas of where and how to present it, and suddenly it seemed like it was taking shape. I was sort of shocked that a short amount of time spent with this man, even without a bass in anyone's hands, could still be so productive. He said he was feeding off a buzz that I was giving off, in all my sleep-deprived and audition-delirious ramblings, but I was definitely getting an energy and resolve from him as well.

Anyway, to come to the point - fruit. Hal ordered a fruit cup at La Provence, passing on all those luscious-looking pastries, and I tried to follow his lead in this as well, getting the granola with fruit and yogurt. At some point in the conversation, we stopped talking about music and auditions and plans, and Hal just started rhapsodizing about fruit. It sounds strange to describe, and it was a very odd moment in a certain sense - odd but at the same time incredible and moving.

"Fruit - it's just so sweet, so wholesome - so natural. It really is a gift." I'm paraphrasing, I can't remember his exact words. But if you know Hal you know that voice, that sense of quiet, firm conviction - that voice I've hung all my hopes and attention on, trying to read in it all the puzzles of my flaws and my musical destiny. And here was that voice, taking quiet, simple pleasure in the simplest of all things - a cup of fruit. I'm not sure he was intending it as a part of my "lesson", or even if he was thinking of our breakfast as a lesson at that point.

But I kind of feel like anything could be a lesson for me at this point - I'm not waiting to hear some pronouncement from some authority being paid by the hour - and here was a reminder, it seemed to me, to not let the big successes or failures shake or change you. Don't get rattled and frazzled by all the loud noises and grand gestures, because the important stuff, the joyful, wonderful, vital stuff, is probably getting lost somewhere underneath. It's the quiet, simple things, things that sometimes need to be pointed out and focused on before we even notice them - those things really make life a pleasure. Things like a cup of fruit on a beautiful morning in South Beach. As Hal said, it's a gift.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

thoughts on solitude

Whether you are surrounded by the singing of a lamp or the sounds of a storm, by the breathing of the evening or the sighing of the sea, there is a vast melody woven of a thousand voices that never leaves you and only occasionally leaves room for your solo. To know when you have to join in, that is the secret of your solitude, just as it is the art of true human interaction: to let yourself take leave of the lofty words to join in with the one shared melody.

- Rilke, The Poet's Guide to Life, p. 84

I've spent a good part of the last 6 years preparing for and taking auditions, and it has always seemed like one of the loneliest processes imaginable - all those long hours alone in the practice room, struggling with the intentions of dead masters, then the solitary trek to an unfamiliar city, the lonely hotel room... all leading up to those brief but delirious few minutes on stage, utterly alone before a big black screen. And then of course there's the deepest, most difficult solitude, during the hours and days that follow, trying to piece together what happened and make some sort of sense of the whole thing. Surely there was a lesson in there somewhere - but if we are to find it, the only way is look inward.

In some ways this Calgary audition has been the polar opposite for me: I sought out a lot of people as I was preparing, to play for, talk to, and seek out guidance. And during the audition itself I definitely took an approach that I was going to perform to an audience, create music in an open and welcoming way, and not plunge into my interior turmoil! After the audition too, as people gathered around to introduce themselves and congratulate me, it was a strange inversion of my usual wandering off into the lonely streets. Suddenly there were all these former acquaintances and friendly strangers, seemingly ready to adopt me into their family.

All this makes me realize how in a sense I was never alone. There have always been people around, encouraging and guiding me, and I hope to thank and write about them all in the coming weeks. From all those anonymous bass players (and others!) who have been commenting here on hella frisch; to Danny Matsukawa, Tommy Freer, and Charles Carleton, all of whom have given me great audition wisdom and advice in the last few weeks; to my awesome New World Symphony bass section, who are constantly inspiring me with their playing and astounding me with their fart jokes; to Johanne, the French-Canadian maid who cleaned my hotel room the other day and served as my last mock audition committee (whether or not she realized it), listening to my Bach and Mozart as she emptied my trash cans.

It seems like there are way too many people to thank them each individually, but I figure I should at least try and make an attempt. Since all of the sounds, words, and ideas that helped me along the way were offered to me by other people, I feel as though I won't really have achieved a success until I can pay all that wisdom forward, and offer those ideas to others. In a certain sense, I think, we are all alone, as Rilke writes, and we all have to confront that solitude - but it's a different sort of solitude than I had maybe always imagined. Even in the loneliest times, we're always surrounded by those other voices, that great big melody of emotions and ideas and insights that, if we're quiet and patient enough, we can all access and listen, and maybe even find a moment to join in.