Monday, March 31, 2008

in praise of well-placed squiggles

This past weekend the CPO joined the Alberta Ballet for a series of performances of the Mozart Requiem. This is one of those pieces I've been waiting my whole life to play, and I hadn't envisioned my first time happening in a pit, with lots of dancers cavorting above me. Still, it was a blast to play and we got a mostly gracious review by Bob Clark in the Calgary Herald:

Requiem for the magic of Mozart's music

It might be interesting to note that, while the performance was conducted by Peter Dala, the parts were liberally marked and edited by CPO baroque series conductor Ivars Taurins. Ivars has his own language of squiggles and emphasis marks, which make his orchestral parts very distinctive. (I'll have to post a guide to Ivars' markings some time.) Since the CPO performs with Ivars all the time, we've learned to decipher all these markings, and it can streamline the rehearsal process and help everyone towards a unanimous, Ivars-approved interpretation -- even when Ivars doesn't happen to be conducting!

At one point I was rather squeamish about marking things in parts -- even changing a bowing or writing in a fingering seemed like a minor desecration, like changing the key signature or something. I've gotten way over that though, and at this point I think that well-marked parts are really the well-kept secret of great ensemble playing. Without them, we'll waste tremendous amounts of time in rehearsal, arguing over bowings and trying to correct notes. But when everything is clearly, thoughtfully marked, the orchestra can sound fantastic already at the first rehearsal. We're not hampered by all those dumb reading mistakes that poor parts can create.

Even more vitally, an orchestra's set of parts, and the markings they contain, will perpetuate a certain style and traditions of performing those pieces. Whether or not Mozart marked a rit. (or Sussmayer, or whichever other composer finished the Requiem...) we'll tend to react to a judiciously placed squiggle or backward arrow, and the conductor will have to make a point not to slow down.

In this respect the orchestra librarian is one of the most influential musicians in the orchestra, even more so than the conductor sometimes. You may be able to find his name hidden somewhere in the program, but the audience will never give a dedicated round of applause to the guy who does all that erasing, correcting, photocopying, and re-marking of parts. He'll probably never get praised in a critic's review of a performance either, even though his work can make or break that performance.

In the CPO our librarian's name is Rob Grewcock, and he definitely deserves some praise and applause.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mozart's Requiem

This week the CPO is performing as pit band for a new Alberta Ballet production of Mozart's Requiem. What an amazing piece, and a wickedly hard bass part. At the beginning of the show, individual orchestra members are to play little passages from famous Mozart instrumental works -- the clarinet concerto, violin sonatas, etc. Maybe someone in our section will feel like tossing off some "Per Questa Bella Mano" (and singing along would be bonus points). I'll probably have my hands full learning that devilish "Domine Jesu" movement. Yikes!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

the Bow blows chunks

Just after writing that last post I did get quite sick, ironically, and spent the last few days hacking away at my cough, whimpering at my fever, and (mostly) asleep in bed. I did also play a Good Friday gig, but it wasn't as entertaining as this one posted on Michael Hovnanian's Bass Blog.

While I was mostly sleeping, spring came to Calgary, at least for the time being. I have some photos of huge ice chunks breaking off and floating down the Bow River, along with the photo above, a view of downtown from Scarboro United Church where I played last weekend.

Monday, March 17, 2008

these pretzels are making me...

One of the sweetest and most bizarre people I've met here in Calgary is our principal oboist, JL. Yesterday quite a few Calgary Phil musicians, including me and JL, were playing a marathon Bach Society concert -- 2 and 1/2 hours of choral music by Bach, Handel, Buxtehude, and Grutzmacher's 'Boccherini' cello concerto. By intermission I was already rather worn out; JL only played on the two first-half pieces, so on his way out he must have noticed me slumping in a chair next to my bass.

JL: Hey, you sounded good, I hadn't really heard you play before.

Me: Oh, thanks, you too.

JL: Yeah, um, let me give you these pretzels. They've been in my pocket for a few days, but they don't go bad. They're pretzels, what's to go bad in a pretzel!?

Me: Uh, thanks, that's alright though...

JL: No no, they're fine, really, here take them!

Me: Sure...okay. Um, thanks.

JL: Oh alright, here -- I'll eat one just to show you're they're not poisonous or anything. (he takes a pretzel out of the already half-finished bag and eats it.) Of course, I might pass out and die in an hour, and you'll never know. But still, they're good!

Me: (too dumbfounded to speak, accepting the bag of pulverized pretzel bits)

JL: They don't go bad, they're pretzels!

DS (another oboist): Did you hear about this guy who got salmonella and died just from handling some pork rind dog treats? He didn't eat them, just gave them to his dog -- isn't that awful?

Me: Hey, you haven't been keeping any pork rind dog treats in the pocket with the pretzels, have you?

JL: No, I've never even touched a pork rind dog treat, I'm pretty sure.

Me: Oh good, then I'm probably safe. Pretzel, anyone?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

transit chase scene

Transporting a bass around Calgary without a car has been a whole lot easier than I would have imagined. Partly that's because the weather has been unusually warm these last couple of weeks (today's high was 1 C). And also, Calgary has a quite nifty transit system, if you can figure out all the routes and schedules. (This site helps somewhat.)

This afternoon I had a rehearsal at Knox Presbyterian Church, which is in the southwest, certainly outside of bass-walking distance from my morning rehearsal downtown. I looked it up on, and found that there are a couple of routes (#112 and #108) that go directly from downtown to that neighborhood. I missed the 112, but the 108 showed up just a few minutes later, and I was on my way.

Maybe I'm still traumatized or shell-shocked or whatever, but the truth is I never much liked to drive -- and if I'd known how easy it is to get around by bus, I probably would have left my car home anyway. It's so much nicer to relax and get some reading done, rather than fretting away in traffic.

The only snafu was at the end of my trip back downtown: having just climbed off the bus, I realized my Klean Kanteen water bottle was missing. Normally I would have just snapped my fingers and let it go, but this happens to be a very nice metal water bottle, pictured here. A couple months ago a study came out saying that plastic water bottles leach bad chemical stuff into the water, and all my friends started demanding I replace my trusty Nalgene -- "Please Matt, stop killing yourself!" So I eventually caved, and bought the $16 leach-free metal canister.

I certainly wasn't happy about losing it, so I began frantically waving to stop the bus. No effect. It was heading down 9th Avenue, with only the perpetually red stoplights and rush-hour gridlock to slow it down. Now I was still carrying my bass, and I briefly considered popping on the wheel and chasing it down. You may recall my plan to write an action movie screenplay about an intelligence agent / musician, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to test out a chase sequence. I was just a few steps from the stage door though, so I first set my bass down inside, then went galumphing down the street to desperately try and recover my water bottle.

I first ran down 9th, where I could see the bus making a left in the distance. I remembered that I'd caught the bus on 6th and McLeod -- not realizing it went right past the stage door -- so it was probably looping back there now. So just like an action movie hero, I turned left to cut it off at the pass -- only to see it pass me again, stopped at a crosswalk. Now I was right behind the bus, and two other buses. I was actually running down a bus only lane, in flagrant violation of pedestrian traffic laws, but by now the adrenaline had started to kick in, and I was ready to overturn some fruit carts or whatever they do in action movies.

Luckily there were no fruit carts, or police officers watching, and the traffic was still creeping along. I ran up alongside the bus, stopped at another light which had just turned green, and tried to indicate with hand gestures, "Please, I need to get on board, there's a highly expensive drinking device somewhere in the back row!" The bus driver, a friendly Polish man, made the gesture for, "Forget about it, there's a stop around the corner." So I went running again, and finally caught up, where he let me on and I found the missing canteen. Whew!

For the actual movie script, I'll probably have to think up something better than a water bottle to be chasing down a bus for. But still, I'm thinking my musician / intelligence agent / action hero should also be car-less. I'm sick of all those screeching-tire, wrong way on the highway scenes -- it's so much more exciting to watch someone run down the bus, fish out a bus ticket, and find a decent seat, all in one swift gesture. Especially while carrying a double bass.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

processing speed

What happened when you clicked the little browser icon to open up the internet this morning? If your computer is anything like mine, a little hourglass probably appeared. And then nothing much happened for a while. Bored, you got up to make some tea, then came back and found that Gmail had finally made its appearance.

This isn't a post about how my computer sucks -- rather, I think it's kind of interesting how even these insanely slick, efficient machines still take a little while to get anything operating correctly. And I want to suggest that maybe we should allow our own, far older thinking technology some extra time in between tasks as well.

The particular task I've been thinking about lately -- playing audition excerpts -- demands a lot from that old technology. Within 20 or 30 seconds, they call for extremes of dynamics, articulation, speed, expression -- and then you'll have to play something with completely different demands. A lot of the work of really great excerpt playing, therefore, happens between the excerpts -- in those 30 or 40 or 60 seconds you give yourself to load up the next program.

Often we don't give ourselves that processing time, though. Or if we do, we're not quite sure how to organize our thoughts. We might start out imagining the first few measures, then remember the note we cacked last time, and spend another 30 seconds in panic, anger, or self-flagellation. (Well, maybe no actual self-flagellation, unless you brought a whip on stage.) It's like your computer started to load up Firefox, then crashed instead -- I hate it when that happens!

The point is to get into the right mental space to play well, not to spin around on a carousel with all your excerpt baggage. A horn player who I played for the other day suggested hearing the involved passage coming up later, not just the first few measures -- to hear the tempo where things will actually get a bit tricky, and hear it working well. After I did this for a Bach movement, taking the time to imagine the whole 16-bar phrase that usually fouls me up, it went fantastically better -- even the easier stuff at the beginning sounded more confident and secure.

So I'm just throwing this out, and wondering if anyone else has pre-excerpt mental strategies to share. If the committee gets bored waiting, they can always go start some tea.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bottesini video

I haven't posted any video for a while, so here is the Bottesini concerto exposition. Any comments are appreciated -- hopefully I'll post a better in tune, complete version soon!

marker-board Proust

Proust wrote famously long sentences -- I think one of them sprawls over a full page and a half. He also wrote some great and somewhat short sentences, which I've been writing on my refrigerator marker board and illustrating lately. Here are a couple of them, both from the Lydia Davis translation of Swann's Way:
"For one cannot change, that is to say become another person, while continuing to acquiesce to the feelings of the person one no longer is."

"There are arduous mountainous days which one spends an infinite time climbing, and downward-sloping days which one can descend at full tilt singing."

Monday, March 10, 2008

name that person's tune

I'll sometimes play this game when I meet someone for the first time, of trying to associate them with a piece of music. Usually I won't tell them which piece I've picked for them (unless they ask), but it gives me something to remember and connect with them -- i.e. "Lydia just came on the radio this morning, I should write to her!" I may have gotten this from the character Charles Swann from In Search of Lost Time, who tends to associate people with Renaissance paintings.

It's usually best not to go by the nationality ("she's Finnish, therefore Sibelius") or the eccentricities of the composers ("he's an adulterous megalomaniac vegetarian, therefore Wagner"). Sometimes physical features will throw you in a certain direction (big=Mahler, small=Webern), but that won't give the truest result either. You really have to try to get a sense of the character of the person, their facial expressions, their ways of shifting between moods, the quiet spaces in between their words, etc.

I don't claim to be an expert on this, but I can definitely tell when I've chosen well -- that piece keeps coming back whenever I see or hear from them, and getting to know them better I find even more associations between person and piece -- "She's a bit like the third movement trio after she's had a couple drinks!"

People might get upset if I did reveal my game to them -- though I figure it's better than associating them with a movie star, since a piece of music is much less likely to go into drug rehab or stand up on Oprah's couch and make a fool of itself. Often a piece of music seems like the closest thing to a real, complex, living human being, with its own habits and charms and peculiarities -- but which you can listen, imagine, and reinterpret all you want, and it will never get self-conscious, confused, or offended.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

lessons learned

Thanks to everyone for the kind thoughts and sympathy after my car crash! I'll usually keep my calamities to myself, but this was the rare occasion when I felt physically compelled to tell people all about what happened -- it was like this sick feeling in my stomach, and it wouldn't go away until I could share those harrowing emotions with other people.

A few people expressed concern about whiplash and other late-onset injuries. I haven't seen a doctor yet, but I definitely think that's good advice. My immediate impression was that I was perfectly fine, but there was soreness and bruising that I didn't notice until hours later. The next day my neck was stiff, and that didn't go away for another day or so. Since I was actually in two separate car crashes, in two different cars, apparently both insurance companies would cover any physiotherapy or health care, but I would need to report and make a claim within 10 days of the accident(s).

It's hard to piece together exactly what happened, though I can still hear and feel the crunch of that first collision. It all happened so quickly, I can't quite pinpoint the moment in which I lost control, turned the wrong way, or pressed the wrong pedal. I think my larger mistake was being on that road, in that weather, on not too much sleep. Tracing it back in my mind, the only things I know I could have done differently were to be better rested, take smaller streets, or wait out the snow storm before getting in the car.

So I'm trying to change my habits, to be less hurried, impulsive, and demanding on myself -- to get a full night's sleep whenever possible, and not just whenever I can't haul myself out of bed. To give more thought to the situations I create for myself, not just to rush headlong towards the next thing coming.

I'm not sure if those lessons are at all relevant to anyone else, or to bass playing -- I sometimes have to remind myself that this is supposed to be a bass blog! But I think any experience, no matter how scary or uncontrollable, can help teach you important things about yourself and your habits, and change your ways of being. Hopefully this one will help me to be a safer driver, and a less scattered person.