Friday, October 26, 2007

the cat's meow and the clarinetist's pajamas

One of the coolest and most fun Halloween shows I've heard is playing tonight and Saturday at the Beat Niq, just off Stephens Ave in downtown Calgary. The group is called Land's End, and this weekend they're performing their annual cabaret, entitled "Noche de Brujas". It's mainly Latin and South American-inspired music by Piazzolla, Gardel, Ginastera, Milhaud, Gojilov, Desenne - plus a Calgary composer, George Fenwick, who was there to introduce his piece "Black Jacques (Le chat noir)".

Land's End's cabaret is not your typical classical music concert - it's in a jazz nightclub for one thing, and all the performers are in costumes (a cello-playing cat, a witch pianist, and the clarinetist wore pajamas.) One violinist dressed as Zorro, but had to reveal himself after realizing his bow was colliding with his hat's brim, and his mask was blocking his ears. Costumed or not, all the players gave lively, passionate performances, with plenty of room for silliness and spontaneity.

I'd actually never gone to a chamber music concert in a nightclub - it wasn't the most gorgeous acoustic, but it made up for it with intimacy and ambience, and a nicely stocked bar. I maybe wasn't the only one a little unsure about how much of classical concert protocol transfers to a nightclub, but the music was so great that no one seemed tempted to talk or loudly clink silverware. It had the feeling of a concert among friends, even though the only person I knew was the bass player Trish, who invited me.

Land's End is the kind of group that you wish every town could have - adventurous, fun, exciting, committed to local performers and composers. They give 5 series of concerts throughout the year, and you can read all about them at their website:

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

getting past "eh"

Lately as part of my program of Canadian cultural conditioning, I've been listening to Joni Mitchell albums. Right now I have "Blue" playing in the stereo, and it's fantastic.

Canada seems like kind of an underdog country, at least to this culturally semi-literate American, but the more you look the more amazing artists you find have come from here. I suppose that's the catch - lots of great musicians come from Canada, but many leave it to go somewhere else. And so Americans end up imagining this big, cold, empty country that people are scrambling to escape.

Well, hopefully that will change, and it already has in my mind anyway. I've been reading a lot of Canadian authors, like Alice Munro and Vincent Lam. Lam's debut novel Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is one of those books that keeps reminding me of people and places I've known. My friends Brad and Denise gave me a little book called "So You Want to Be Canadian?" when I moved up here, but the more I look the more vast this country seems to become. And I still don't even understand a thing about hockey. Oh well.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


As a bass student, I've always tried to be like a sponge, absorbing as much of my teacher's knowledge as possible. That's always been my favorite analogy, though I'm sure the goal is not to be all wet and soggy at the end of the lesson. Or to really suck, for that matter.

In any case, being a sponge means a few things to me. It means I'm going to listen to the teacher with an open mind, as much as possible - try to hear what he or she is saying, not what I'm expecting or hoping to hear. And I'll do my best to observe as well as listen - noticing as much as I can from their demonstrations as well as the way they sing, gesture, or discuss. I'll ask questions if I don't understand, or if I feel vague about a concept. And I'll always record lessons and play them back later, since even the best sponge is likely to leak once in a while!

I only mention this because today I co-taught a lesson, along with another bassist who happens not to play German bow. I was brought in as a sort of right-hand consultant for very talented and determined undergraduate bass student. Only as good and willing a sponge as this bass student was, I sort of felt like I was throwing pasta noodles at the wall (to use another damp analogy), hoping they would stick. And I'm afraid I may have overwhelmed this student with too much information, or maybe too scattered and haphazard a presentation.

In many ways it was the perfect opportunity to improve my teaching chops. I had this other bassist, a great musician and experienced teacher, making observations and steering the lesson along. When I would get a little obsessive about some detail, like the motion of the thumb in preparation for the upbow, he would bring me back to the larger topic of legato bow changes. If I started to make vague, general demands ("Play that again, but more consistently!") he would bring up a specific goal to focus on.

I realized that my concept of learning - take in as much as you can! - doesn't necessarily correspond to an effective teaching style. You need to know how to structure a lesson, choose carefully what you want to improve, and be pretty relentlessly on message about those changes. It's a whole lot like practicing - we all want to get things done quickly, and cover a lot of material, but it takes some real patience and focus to change a habit.

I'm sure somewhere along the way I had a teacher explain all of this to me; it just never quite sunk in until I had to teach myself!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

New World webcast this Saturday

This weekend the New World Symphony will be webcasting a concert from the Lincoln Theatre, featuring Richard Strauss' Don Juan and Gil Shaham playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Here's the press release:






MIAMI BEACH, FL – New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy (NWS), will webcast the Opening Night performance of its 20th Anniversary Season, Saturday, October 13 at 7:35 P.M. EST, featuring founding artistic director / conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and violinist Gil Shaham, from the Lincoln Theatre on Miami Beach (541 Lincoln Road).

The webcast will include Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64.

The vision of the New World Symphony is to be known as the nation’s premier educational laboratory for innovations in the teaching and experience of classical music. NWS is intent on exploring ways to use the internet to distribute contextualized performances and preparing for a time when video and audio playback equipment will provide the highest levels of sight and sound, even at the level of the personal computer.

The October 13th performance will include pre-performance comments from Michael Tilson Thomas. Mr. Tilson Thomas is acutely aware of the value of informing audiences in an effort to enhance their experience of the music. The New World Symphony, under the artistic leadership of MTT, has been experimenting with new forms of audience engagement for the past 10 years. Working with architect Frank Gehry, NWS is designing a 21st century rehearsal/performance/ webcast laboratory to further its efforts.

Those wishing to view the webcast should visit prior to 7:35 P.M. (Eastern Standard Time), and click the banner on the bottom of the page promoting the webcast. Webcast patrons will be automatically re-directed to the webcast page. Additional information about the New World Symphony may be found at

This will be the second live webcast by the New World Symphony - last spring we performed Stravinsky's ballet Petrouchka, and I think it's great that they're continuing the project. I've met a lot of people in Calgary who are curious about the orchestra, and alumni like me who are eager to reconnect, and to see and hear our friends play.

Friday, October 05, 2007

things I learned at the 2007 ISB Convention

This past summer, I went to Oklahoma City for the week-long International Society of Bassists Convention. While I genuinely intended to chronicle the whole trip, I never really did - all that came out of it was this one sad little post with a picture of a flight trunk loaded (successfully!) onto a plane.

I always feel a little guilty to promise stuff on this blog - all those concerts I meant to write up, those videos I meant to upload, the Jason Heath blackmail stories, etc. - then never deliver. I decided in this case I would do a little make-up work. Maybe it will all be really exciting, reading my up-to-the-minute thoughts on things that happened 3 months ago? And if no one much cares anymore, that's okay too.

So to get you in the mood, and maybe refresh my memory, here's a little list I'm calling:

Things I Learned at the ISB Convention (So You Don't Have To)

DO check out some masterclasses

They're a great chance to meet some of the foremost bassists, and get a sample of what they're like as teachers. This past summer, I got to see masterclasses by Jeremy McCoy, Paul Ellison, Ed Barker, Diana Gannett, Scott Haigh, and Rob Kassinger - who titled his class "Things I Learned the Hard Way, So You Don't Have To" (and inspired this list's title). Like Rob's, many of the classes had a certain emphasis - bow strokes, audition advice, etc. But they were all happy to answer other questions, and most of the sessions seemed to spill out into the hallways, with a crowd of bassists curious for the secret to a singing vibrato, or a really kick-ass brush stroke.

DO bring a bass (if possible) and have stuff ready to play

Most of the people at the bass convention did not bring their own instruments - understandably, given the difficulties of travel. I was happy I had mine though, since it meant that I could often play on those masterclasses I just listed. I played for Rob Kassinger, Paul Ellison, and Ed Barker. And Gottfried Engels, a bass professor member of the Dusseldorf Symphony, gave me a fascinating lesson about using my 'hara' to play with a richer sound. (I'd never heard of the 'hara' before this - it's sort of related to the chi.) That's partly why I never got around to writing any of this stuff up; there was just so much of it, and I've got pages of notes messily scribbled on programs.

DON'T eat lunch alone

Okay, you've already flown yourself to a bass convention, one of the geekiest things imaginable. You might as well just geek out entirely, spend all your time talking about bass, and surrounded by people doing the same. One day at the breakfast table, another bassist interrupted our chat about the texture of the eggs and asked, "So what do you guys think about rosin?" It was such a bizarre non-sequitur, and so out of place, I started to laugh. Then I realized he seriously wanted to hear our opinions about bass rosin.

DO enter one of the competitions, if you're eligible and interested

Each year there are several solo competitions for various age brackets, as well as orchestral, composition, and bass makers' competitions. I entered the orchestral competition, and while I wasn't the super-duper grand prize winner (that was Tony Parry), I did have a great time, got some helpful comments, and won a pretty good-sized chunk of cash. The orchestral competition was run like a real audition, with several rounds, and a list of standard solos and excerpts. The solo competitors each presented a full recital program for their final round, which was really cool to watch - all of the competitions are open to the public. So it's worth getting there a day early to listen, even if you're not participating.

DON'T try to keep up with Peter Lloyd

Peter Lloyd was actually a major reason I decided to come to this convention. These are my actual notes from a lesson I transcribed:

come to a bass convention! You will be in 7th heaven! You are tailor made, they are unbelievable, incredibly inspiring, 800 bass players, 50-60 dealers, everything that exists related to bass, 1000s of recordings, bows, every kind of strings, 900 kinds of mutes, 2-3 things simultaneously every hour on the hour

intellectual treatises on how Dragonetti wrote his music, 8 bassists playing Spice Girls, everything in between, fantastic jazz side, only thing you'll regret is having not gone to one sooner - after an hour, he sat in a corner and kicked himself

Given that kind of ringing endorsement, I naturally couldn't resist - and what's more he was right (sadly no Spice Girls this year, but still). The only qualification is that not everyone is built like Peter Lloyd, who actually goes to 2 or 3 events every hour. I tried this briefly, and quickly reached acute bass overload. One event an hour was plenty for me, thank you.

DO try out lots of basses and bows

Eventually you're going to need a break from all those recitals, you won't want to hear another word about Viennese tuning, the collected works of Johann Sperger will hold no more mystery for you. That would be a good time to go to the big exhibition room and try out basses. All the biggest shops were represented with dozens of instruments and hundreds of bows. Many of the makers are on hand too, so you're sure to get all your questions answered. Except for, "How in the world can I afford this bass I've suddenly realized I can't live without?"

DON'T miss the evening recitals!

A day at a bass convention can feel like a mad scrambling free-for-all, especially if you're trying to follow Peter Lloyd (see above). But the evening is when everyone comes together for some of the most inspiring performances I've ever heard. I fully expected recitalists Ed Barker, Jeff Bradetich, and Joel Quarrington to be awesome - and they each exceeded my expectations. Even more thrilling to hear Thierry Barbe, Renaud Garcia-Fons, Avishai Cohen, and Jacek Niedziela, all of whom I heard for the first time.

DO bring business cards, if you've got them

You're bound to meet lots of new people, have lots of fascinating conversations, and then forget everyone's name and whereabouts soon afterwards. That's what I did, anyway. Best to hand your cards out liberally, and try and collect everyone else's. Hopefully you'll stay in touch with everyone you meet. After all, it's less than two more years until the ISB Convention 2009 at Penn State University.

Monday, October 01, 2007

following the orchestral beat with Dan Wakin

I've been out of the blogging routine a bit lately, but this NY Times article by Dan Wakin piqued my interest:

Not Just Another Pickup Band

Dan Wakin spent a couple of weeks with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra this past summer, just as he did with New World last fall. The LFO is getting ready to perform their first concerts in New York this week, and Wakin gives some good reasons why this orchestra is such a phenomenon: a world-class group of leading orchestral players, chamber musicians, and soloists, all united to bring to life the works of Mahler, Beethoven, and other master symphonists.

The biggest reason for the orchestra's existence, Claudio Abbado himself, will unfortunately not be part of this tour due to health problems. Dan Wakin recently wrote a long profile of Abbado:

For a Maestro, Energy is the Only Limitation

I'll get back to writing some of my own content soon! In the meantime, you can read Dan Wakin's long article about the New World Symphony (and me!), since they've done away with pay access to 'TimesSelect':

The Face-the-Music Academy