Wednesday, May 28, 2008

the CPO gets Titanic

This week at the CPO we're playing Mahler 1 with members of the Calgary Youth Symphony -- not the whole CYSO, but still enough to add extra heft to the orchestra. We have 9 basses, 11 horns, 7 oboes (!), and 2 timpanists. The low brass is one of the only non-augmented sections, but telling them that is only going to encourage them to play louder.

So far we haven't rehearsed in the hall, partly because the huge inflatable whale, shown above, was taking up that space. She was part of last week's Kids' Fest, and on Tuesday she got a sponge bath and some other maintenance done indoors. I rushed in to take a photo before they finished, but only had time to catch this dim but suggestive rear-end view.

A couple weeks ago Michael Hovnanian posted on Mahler 1 fatigue, prompting a whole slew of comments and then a follow-up response. I'm not a Mahler 1-hater personally, though that 5-minute C pedal is not one my favorite moments in music. It's certainly one of the most expansive symphonies, in terms of length, the variety of musical ideas, and of course all the Sturm und Drang of the finale.

What I find extraordinary about this symphony, though, are the moments of quirky intimacy -- like that bizarre bass solo, accompanied only by timpani, and answered by tuba, bassoon, and eventually the whole orchestra. It's a bit like crawling up inside a whale (either end) and finding a little old man with a sad story to tell. The other night Chuck played the solo in the final 3 minutes of rehearsal, with the timpani about 50 meters away, and to my ears he got the odd, plaintive expressiveness of the tune just about right. We were rehearsing in an immense Jewish temple in south Calgary, so extra schmaltz seemed appropriate.

Sounding weird is partially the point, I think -- amid all the pageantry and fanfares, it's the weird stuff that keeps me interested in Mahler. Michael praises Haitink's ability to "keep vulgarity from creeping into passages where it has no business," which is very useful for a piece which risks deafening the audience with every huge, ear-splitting climax. Just as important, though, is to get the spiky, contorted, and genuinely vulgar stuff right -- so that all those blistering, euphoric peaks have some gnarled, murky valleys to tower over.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


My iPod, Terpsichore, recently succumbed to a grave illness. It started with fainting, freezing spells, becoming gradually more frequent, and soon the sad iPod icon began to appear as well. Eventually, nothing would revive her.

I'm tempted to blame an Edifier iF200 iPod charger and speaker, shown below, which I bought for $36 at Wal-mart a few weeks before my iPod bit it. Whenever I placed Terpsichore on the stand, the Edifier emitted a violent beeping sound and there was an almost palpable sense of gadget revolt and struggle. Of course, it could also be that Terpsichore, nearing her 2nd birthday, was just getting too old to live. Her predecessor, Mrkgnao!, died just before his 1st birthday, luckily qualifying for the Apple warranty.

To the question of whether to replace Terpsichore, I'm sort of ambivalent. These newfangled 80 GB models with video are attractive -- it would be cool to watch some of those video bits that Jason Heath has been posting on Contrabass Conversations lately -- but then again, maybe I could wait a few months and get the next next generation thingamawhatzit. My Inner Luddite seems to be gaining strength, while my desire to walk around with 1,500 albums and a crappy set of earphones to listen to them slowly subsides.

Life without an iPod has been okay so far, though I do miss some of the recordings I only have in digital formats. It gives me time to listen to lots of other things, though -- lately I've been listening to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, one of the first operas ever written that's still worth hearing.

I realize I'm in a bit of a technological recession lately -- first the car, and now the iPod. What's next to go, you might ask -- cell phone, refrigeration, flushing toilets? I'm not sure, but I'll let you know. Assuming that I'm still blogging, and haven't switched to publishing leaflets.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

goslings in the park

There's a new cohort of goslings on the Bow River waterfront, pecking and preening their way to becoming the big, annoying geese that Calgary's joggers, walkers, and bikers have learned to avoid. They're still pretty cute and lovably awkward-looking at the moment, though. The camera work is by Tina Brunnhofer, though I have only myself to blame for the amateurish editing.

Monday, May 12, 2008

musicological smackdowns

Musicologists and gangster rappers have a lot more in common than you might think -- they both spend a fairly high proportion of their work ripping on the works of their rivals, for one thing. I just started reading Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, which is of course a very scholarly, serious musicological text. But he starts out his preface dissing mercilessly on another musicologist, Peter Conrad, who wrote an article defending Tosca as an effective dramatic work:
Conrad calls the static opening of Act III dramatically cogent because it summarizes "the operatic transvaluing of religious values that has preceded" -- something that can indeed be said to be articulated by music: by stage music, by the Shepherd Boy's song followed by the melange of church bells. What, then, does Puccini's score accomplish that would not be accomplished by literal folksongs and Sunday-morning tape recordings? What does its particular mawkish (and undaring) quality have to do with the opera's "daring profanation of the sacred"? It is on questions like that Conrad's interpretation stands or, as I think, falls.

- Preface to the New Edition, Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, p. xiii

Oh, no he didn't! I almost want to read the Peter Conrad article, just so I can fully enjoy Kerman's musicological smack-down. Not that I share his low opinion of Tosca -- maybe it is mawkish, but it can still make an auditorium full of people whimper and sob. I just get a huge pleasure from watching music critics go at it, mocking one another's clumsily phrased arguments and unfortunate choices of adjectives. It's sort of like watching a gang of pirhanas and a shark mix it up -- you're not sure which you're pulling for, you just want to see some carnage.

Opera as Drama is a fun book to read, even if you're not a big fan of musicological squabbling. I'm still only on Chapter 2 -- Orpheus: The Neoclassic Vision -- but already there's been an intriguing reference to a famous double bass excerpt, in the Prologue:
The scene begins on a celebrated note of menace, muted double-basses interrupting the ethereal close of Desdemona's Ave Maria. What defines it as much as the grotesque color and pitch is the key contrast, E thrust into A-flat. The double-bass line becomes more mellow, and limps, punctuated by an urgent motive, at first bleak, then flaring up as Otello makes to scimitar Desdemona at once.

- p. 7
Hey, watch who you're calling 'grotesque', mister. Though I do like the word 'menace', and the 'thrust' of our first low E entrance. Hearing that transition is always startling, and it seems like a shame to start that excerpt without the high, ethereal A-flat major chord that precedes it. Bass players can argue endlessly about whether there should be an accent on that note, and what kind of accent, or maybe just a swell, or a lean... I'm not really sure what the right answer is. When you experience it in context though, and feel that stomach-lurching change of tonality, the bass section really does play a dramatic role.

A friend once told me about a ghastly visualization exercise he was given for this excerpt. He had played through the Otello soli for a noted bassist and pedagogue, at the very beginning of their first lesson. The teacher asked, "Do you have a wife or girlfriend?" -- yes, he replied, he did have a girlfriend. "I want you to play it again, but imagine that you're so enraged, so furious, at such a psychotic breaking point, that you are prepared to kill the woman you love."

At that point, I think he may have asked, "And should I begin with an accent?"

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

take back the Capuzzi

My colleague Mike Eastep, tuba player at the CPO, just invited me over to hear a lunch-time tuba recital by Keith Hartshorn-Walton, at the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer in Calgary. (The concert was presented by the Pro Arts Society as part of their Wednesday series.)

I was surprised to walk in and hear Keith perform, in its entirety, the Antonio Capuzzi Concerto for Double Bass. It came off quite well, with lots of beautiful, ringing high notes and a gracefully phrased, melodic 2nd movement. Tuba players transcribe it down a fifth to B-flat major, with an adapted cadenza -- suggesting a strange, poetic justice for all the cello music we bassists have come to love, transcribe, and re-write.

You might peg bass and tuba players as bottom-feeders, on some hypothetical musical food chain. In actuality though, we play some of the best solo repertoire ever written -- just not written for our instrument, usually. That puts us on the top of the musical food chain, at least by my biased reckoning. Bach may have never envisioned his 5th Cello Suite rattling the lighting fixtures in tuba range, but that's how I hear it, a lot of the time, and I'm pretty sure there's nothing egregiously wrong with that.

But if bass players are going to stay at the top of the food chain, we'd better watch out for these tuba players, stealing all our obscure, bizarre classical concerti. They've already got Capuzzi - watch out for Vanhal, Dittersdorf, Dragonetti, and Sperger!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

silvery muffs

I just discovered that I had been tagged by Michael Hovnanian on his Bass Blog last Friday. He lists the rules of the tag:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

The nearest book was Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, but I'd sort of rather not be caught out as such a music nerd. Also, page 123 contains a long musical example from a duet between Otello and Desdemona, making the already bizarre and arbitrary rules sort of awkward to follow.

Another relatively nearby book was The Calgary Gardener, published by the Calgary Horticultural Society, which reads as follows:
The leaves are long and tongue shaped, densely covered with white silky hairs and downy to the touch. Quiet and unobtrusive in their silvery muffs, the small purplish flowers are borne in whorls atop long woolly spikes. 'Silver Carpet' is a nonflowering variety.
I hope that is satisfactory for your purposes, Mr. Hip Internet Tagger Guy. I in turn will tag:

Jeff White
Lauren Robinson
Mark Kevin Hall
Jason Heath
Denise Cheung and/or Brad Ottesen

I'll be pretty impressed if any of these people even reads this post, since my blog's been chronically sporadic of late. Still, a tag's a tag. And I already broke the first couple rules.

musical couches

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Chris Wuerscher, the psychologist, choir member, and CPO board member who offered his services to orchestra members in January -- inspiring conductor Bill Eddins to write about "Calgary's Brilliant Move":
It's a widely known fact - musicians are a little "different." Actually most of us are bloody nuts, and that has consequences for both orchestras and musician's families. So what's going to happen when an orchestra actually does something about it?

I've said for years that the best move any orchestra could ever make is to hire a staff psychiatrist...
It was a cold, blustery Friday afternoon when I took the train to Dr. Wuerscher's office. His secretary poured me a cup of tea to warm up, but Chris seemed eager to start right away. His questions sort of poured out in mighty clumps -- I'd start to answer one of them, and realize I'd left all the rest hanging. Still, they were all intriguing questions -- about where music takes us, emotionally and intellectually, and how as professional musicians we experience and sometimes insulate ourselves from music's effects.

It turns out Dr. Chris isn't primarily interested in treating musicians' neuroses -- though he's not opposed to it -- but more in talking about music and how it functions in our lives. We talked about the ephemeral qualities that make for a great performance, the ways music can take us out of ourselves and bring a higher awareness, and the joys and frustrations of working with a large, diverse group of people. Some of those neurotic tendencies may have come up, but that really isn't Chris' focus in these conversations.

He's actually trying to figure out how musicians might be able to help people in other fields to work in more inspired, harmonious ways. His working theory is that the intuitive abilities and non-verbal communication we need to play well in an orchestra aren't unique to musicians, but could have great benefits in a business meeting or negotiation, for example. His approach reminds me a lot of conductor Ben Zander, who has written a very spirited and inspiring book with Rosamund Stone Zander, The Art of Possibility.

It's a rare enough thing to find a musician who can really convey what music-making is all about -- Ben Zander does this very well in his book, but so well as he can in person. It seems like the whole magic of what music does for us, and what we do for music, is that it can't really be described in words. "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture," someone wrote. That's never stopped people from writing and talking exhaustively about music, and I had a great time talking about it with Chris. Even if we didn't reach any major breakthroughs, he still made me want to come back soon and talk some more -- which I guess is what a good psychologist does.

Monday, May 05, 2008

moment of hockey pool glory

It's a little hard to make it out on this photo, but that's my name on the top of the CPO hockey pool standings, unofficially, at the end of the first round. Unfortunately, all but one of my brilliant picks got eliminated in the first round, so now I'm in 8th or 9th.

me and the Alberta Winds

This is a video from a concert last month with the Alberta Winds, conducted by Dr. Jeremy Brown at the University of Calgary's Rozsa Centre. Dr. Brown also introduces the piece, "Mozart New-Look" by Jean Francaix.

Incidentally, I had all kinds of difficulties getting the video and audio synchronized, so my apologies for any annoying audio lag.