Monday, June 30, 2008

BassGeeks simple private sharing
Originally posted at The Seattle Times, this video shows some footage from the Hammond Ashley Double Bass Workshop, where I played on a faculty recital last Tuesday. Speaking on the audio is workshop organizer Todd Gowers, while my friend Miriam Chong makes a brief appearance around 20 seconds through.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

flicks, 'toons and Mario

This afternoon I played a movie-themed concert with the Players Chamber Ensemble -- frequent readers might remember I wasn't going to play this one, but then I ended up playing it after all. Instead of no, I said "Yes I'd love to, but..." which gradually morphed into "yes".

Anyway, it was a fun concert to be involved in. The afternoon began with some Loonie Tunes cartoons on a big screen, with soda and popcorn available in the lobby. Then we came out and played Rossini's Barber of Seville (after a slight delay for me to get my stool untangled from all the power cords.) The most challenging piece came next, music arranged from the 1931 cartoon "The Village Smitty". I've actually always wanted to play cartoon music, but never had before today.

There was the inevitable John Williams (Star Wars and Schindler's List) along with Mascagni's Intermezzo from Cavaleria Rusticana to accompany scenes from The Godfather. The Lily Quartet performed Astor Piazzola's Tango Por una Cabeza as used in Scent of a Woman, which is a really beautiful scene. I suppose playing live music to a pre-recorded film is a bit odd, and has its drawbacks, but it does encourage you to watch with renewed attention.

The concert finished with music to the Super Mario Bros. video game -- the "Overworld" theme described by wikipedia as:
The famous main theme; a Latin jazz score that matches the bright, cheery and fast-paced nature of the majority of the game's levels.
This was also a first-time performance for me, though I played that game enough as a kid that the music was already ingrained in my cortex. Probably much of this afternoon's audience now shares that condition, for better or worse.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

tassel-tossing at Epcor

Like a lot of Calgarians, the CPO can't afford to own a home. Instead, we rent space in the Epcor Centre and perform in the Jack Singer Concert Hall. This can lead to some occasional space crunches, when the hall is booked for other things -- last week, for example, we had a cello audition displaced to a nearby church, since the hall was rented for a Tom Jones concert. (Sort of like getting kicked out of your apartment because your roommate has a hot date.)

I tend to practice at the Epcor Centre too, usually downstairs in one of the dressing rooms. The Epcor crew is pretty nice about letting me do this, and only occasionally tell me I have to leave because Queen Noor or the Kids Fest needs the space. Lately, it's been high school graduation season, and my practice sessions have been accompanied by disembodied voices reading off names, following by whooping and applause. All the names seem to get some degree of acclamation, which is nice to hear, though you can easily distinguish the really popular ones.

Hearing these ceremonies makes me remember finishing high school -- how grown up I felt, and how confident I was that I'd soon be far away. When my jazz band director John DePalatis asked me where I'd be in ten years, I think that was my answer: "Somewhere far away." And the week after graduation, I found myself beginning a sentence, "Back when I was in high school..."

I guess in retrospect, I wish I'd enjoyed that time more, and been in less of a rush to get to the next thing. It's now more than ten years, and I'm somewhat far away, but lots of people I knew in high school still matter a great deal to me. Next week I'm going back to visit Tacoma, and playing in a recital at the Hammond Ashley Memorial Double Bass Workshop with my friend Miriam, who was my mentor and stand partner in the Tacoma Symphony. She's now in Victoria, playing bass, teaching, and coaching music and lots of other subjects.

I suppose my cliche commencement speech sermon, if I were asked to give one, is that we can move far away, but we don't really change that much from the people we were in high school. If we were shy and dorky, we'll probably stay that way, just hopefully get more comfortable with ourselves and find people who like us for those qualities.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

rained out in the Badlands

Yesterday's concert in Drumheller was cancelled due to the weather -- always a huge disappointment, especially since it was to be the last concert of the season, and the last concert of their CPO careers for retiring violinists Alana Gralen and Susan Light, and cellist Yuri Gindin. Also, Jim Scott was going to perform a trombone concerto by Launy Grondahl -- that will hopefully be rescheduled in the fall. I shot some video while waiting to see if the thunderstorms would clear. Finally, management decided it was unsafe to proceed with the concert, so I also have a shot of some audience members heading home. Hopefully we can make it up to them next season.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

correcting Beethoven

Certain composers seem to be more error-prone than others -- lots of missing accidentals, bars with extra beats, etc., whether it's their own fault or the copyist and editors'. Then there are the composers who tend to write notes that look like mistakes but aren't -- I'm thinking of Stravinsky, who made 'wrong notes' part of his style, especially in neo-classical scores like Pulcinella, which he revised from material by Pergolesi and others. If you tried to fix all the wrong notes, you'd be left with nothing nearly as interesting.

Then there's Beethoven, who was famously sloppy (and deaf), but he was such a genius that it seems almost sacrilegious to tamper with his scores. We're playing his 2nd Symphony today, using the new Barenreiter 'Urtext' by Jonathan Del Mar, which still has a lot of problems and questionable stuff. My stand partner Graeme Mudd pointed out a whole slew of inconsistencies in the second movement: repeating figures with different note lengths and articulations, dynamics apparently displaced by a measure, or just missing entirely. Two hundred years after he wrote this symphony, Beethoven may be our most famous and universally admired composer, but we still have to spend a lot of rehearsal time correcting him. Or did he mean to write it like that?

My teacher at NEC, Donald Palma, made a very memorable argument one day that he did mean exactly what he wrote, at least in terms of the cello-bass octave transpositions. Beethoven's cello and bass parts are traditionally printed together -- a tradition broken by that new Barenreiter edition -- and a lot of bass players will jump down an octave when they see the cellos are playing in our register, figuring that Beethoven wrote for instruments that either didn't have the low C or weren't able to use it with much facility. There's a long passage like this in the first movement of the 7th Symphony, and also in the 9th. Don's argument was that deaf or not, Beethoven was an extremely precise orchestrator, who never cared much about the technical limitations of the instruments of his day. When played in a true unison, with the basses and cellos at the same octave, those passages have an eerie, spectral quality that may have been exactly what he was going for.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Rossini in the rain?

"Dress for tomorrow's concert will be white jacket, black bow tie, for men; white blouse for women; rain jackets, and umbrellas. And bring a sweater, and some extra warm clothing,"

orchestra manager Tim Rawlings said at the beginning of the rehearsal this morning. Tomorrow the CPO plays the annual "Beethoven in the Badlands" concert in Drumheller, and the forecast calls for rain, cold, and bluster.

The weather in Alberta rarely seems to cooperate with outdoor concerts -- already this season, we had a "Mozart on the Mountain" concert which was freezing and dismal, with a huddled mass of patrons likely yearning to go home. This past Wednesday the clouds stayed away miraculously, and we had a beautiful evening for Pops in the Park -- too bad I forgot my camera -- reminding me how glorious an outdoor concert can be. (Or semi-outdoor, since this one was under a tent in the middle of the park.)

Outdoor concerts might not be among orchestral musicians' favorite things, generally -- even when it's dry, there's often wind to contend with, or bugs, or seam-busting heat and sunshine. During my summer at the NRO in Breckenridge I learned to be very adept at securing the music to the stand with clothes-pins, since a gust of Colorado wind might easily blow the whole folder off the stand. At Spoleto Festival USA, there's an annual finale concert, loved by audiences and dreaded by musicians -- it's outside Charleston in a swampy plantation site, with enormous mosquitoes swarming and occasionally crawling onto music, clothing, and instruments. That one's coming up soon too -- it's this Sunday, June 8th.

For all their horrors and discomforts, outdoor concerts still can be sensational -- think of the Boston Pops on the Esplanade, the New York Phil playing Central Park, or the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, all of which attract larger and more diverse audiences than any of their indoor concerts. Calgary has a great outdoor performance site too: Prince's Island Park, which is right in the center of the city. But the CPO hasn't played there in a while, mostly due to complications of weather and scheduling. In a town hall meeting this past week, violinist Steve Lubiarz suggested we should give that venue another try, now that "Mozart on the Mountain" has been shelved and "Beethoven" will likely get poured on as well. At least on Prince's Island, no one would have far to go to get away from the rain.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

bread and butter Beethoven

This Saturday's Beethoven in the Badlands concert in being conducted by CPO resident conductor Pierre Simard -- but the parts for the main piece on the program, Beethoven's 2nd Symphony, were heavily edited by our baroque series conductor, Ivars Taurins. I've written about Ivars' markings before -- some might criticize him as overly fussy, but they tend to get him what he wants, right away. The main ones are as follows:

/ -- Ivars calls this one a stress
u -- a 'de-stress', a saucer shape often confused for an up-bow
^^^^ -- a squiggly line meaning 'do something interesting'; I like to call it a schmearando
After reading through the first movement, Pierre quickly realized that he was working with a pre-installed interpretation, and a bit of rehearsal time was spent cleaning up some of the squiggles and dashes. Most of them make sense musically -- a lot of them would probably be done automatically, without being marked. But having them in the part leads to a bit of an exaggerated effect, as though I were to write my BLOG with all the IMPORTANT words marked for EMPHASIS!!

Pierre remarked that he was going for more of a 'bread and butter' Beethoven, which quickly got turned back at him with all sorts of variations -- after he suggested some ornamentation in the opening Adagio, a bassoonist said, "I thought you wanted meat and potatoes," then others suggested rice and beans, beer and pretzels, black and tan, etc. I would have preferred lox and schmear, though that might be the Ivars markings talking.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

cowboys and obscure Indian music

This week the CPO is wrapping up the season with a few run-out concerts -- Pops in the Park at the Heritage Park Historical Village yesterday evening and today, then Beethoven in the Badlands in Drumheller on Saturday. (We kind of have an alliteration addiction at the CPO.) You can find more details at the CPO's website.

One of the pieces on the Pops in the Park program is the third movement from the Edward MacDowell Indian Suite. Looking the piece up on Google, there's not a whole lot -- though there is this review of a New York Philharmonic performance in 1914:

MacDowell's suite was heard with interest and pleasure. It does not, in the course of time, seem quite to justify the unmeasured praises of his indiscriminate admirers; but it is perhaps his best piece of orchestral writing. In nothing else has he written with so sure a touch and with so ample a command of rich, delicate, and varied color. The suite is especially valuable as a demonstration of what can be done with "Indian music" as artistic material. Indian music is mostly not very musical -- hard, rude, and unyielding to treatment. It was not, in truth, very plastic in MacDowell's hands; but nobody else has treated it with so much skill or so much success. He has molded it into something really musical, and has given the several movements something of the character that he sought and expressed in their titles. But it is to be observed that after this suite he did not throw himself heart and soul into making "American music" out of Indian tunes, and seems to have thought this experiment in ethnology sufficiently successful to leave without a successor.

-- from the New York Times archives online: "Philharmonic Concert: MacDowell's Indian Suite Heard", December 7, 1914

I suppose a piece based on the music of an entire race -- or many races, since 'Indian' covers a huge variety of people and cultures -- is bound to be a bit racist. Or at least attract some racist music reviews. Worth noting here, though, is the use of the barbed compliment, that critic's trick of starting out positive then slipping in a nasty little aside. Usually it's some disparaging remark about the horn section, but here an entire civilization gets slammed.

For our Pops concert, the piece fit into a Western, cowboy-themed program. Conductor Pierre Simard tends to sneak in works that are bizarrely obscure, though thematically connected, on pops programs. (For example, there was his infamous sheep program.) Introducing MacDowell's "Indian Suite", Pierre didn't bring up the whole legacy of white oppression and cultural appropriation. Instead, he mentioned that he had never heard the piece before that morning, nor had anyone in the orchestra. It seemed like a slightly embarrassing thing to admit, though I'm not sure if it's more embarrassing for us or for Edward MacDowell, who seems to have fallen somewhat out of fashion since 1914. The audience may have been a little astonished that we'd thrown it together on so little rehearsal. Still, they seemed to enjoy hearing the piece, in a measured, discriminate sort of way.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

when gigging is a crime

The other day, Jason Heath posted a long confessional piece about his addiction to freelancing, and the often ridiculous lengths he goes to keep taking every gig he possibly can. It's fun reading for anyone who's burnt through some miles with the Freeway Philharmonic:

Instrumental Junkies, part I

I definitely can sympathize with Jason's irrational tendency to gig himself to death, and the emotional torpor of not having any gigs coming up. That's my situation right now, since the CPO season is wrapping up next Saturday -- and I'm legally required not to work for any other employers. That's what my Canadian work permit says, but it's still agonizingly hard to turn down a fun, interesting, or well-paying gig -- legal or not.

This last weekend I was offered a gig with the Player's Chamber Ensemble, a local chamber ensemble organized around the Lily String Quartet. They're a cool bunch of people, and it seemed like good times, the weekend after our season ends -- except for that nagging voice:

"Don't take that gig, you'll be depriving some worthy Canadian!"

That's the reason for that work permit restriction, and it makes a lot of sense. No one wants to see a foreigner swoop in and take good jobs, especially when he's just doing it because he's bored and needs to fill up his schedule. It's arguable how good a job this is ($100 for 4 services doesn't sound especially good) -- but the point is, some Canadian should get a fair chance at it, and I'm not a Canadian.

Luckily I found I had a convenient excuse -- a camping trip next week, which would have forced me to miss the first rehearsal -- and they seem to have found someone willing and legal to play instead. The whole episode made me realize how bad I am at turning down gigs, and how I almost need a really compelling reason to do so -- more than just not enough money, I have no way of getting there, or I dislike the repertoire. It usually has to be something pretty serious, if not life-threatening.

I decided to write a little Cosmo-style survey to help readers determine their own tolerance for turning down gigs. Give yourself one point if you would turn down a gig for each of the following reasons:

  1. over 30 miles (50 km) away
  2. over 60 miles (100 km) away
  3. over 90 miles (150 km) away
  4. less than $120 a service
  5. less than $60 a service
  6. less than $30 a service
  7. don't like the repertoire
  8. don't like the conductor
  9. don't like your stand partner / section colleagues
  10. would have to miss best friend's wedding
  11. would have to miss a great party
  12. would have to miss a new episode of "The Office"
  13. your car is in the shop, you'd have to take transit
  14. your instrument is in the shop, you'd have to borrow one
  15. you've been hospitalized, you'd have to break doctor's orders


10-15 points: a picky gigger-- you'll turn an orchestra down if it so much as looks at you funny

6-10 points: somewhat selective -- but you'll still juggle some priorities to do a gig

1-5 points: an instrumental junkie -- time to get help

    Monday, June 02, 2008

    young people today

    Among young-ish orchestral musicians, "youth orchestra" can sometimes sound like an insult. We don't want to be confused with the students, eager but unseasoned, which that phrase suggests. At the New World Symphony especially, people would get quite angry over the idea that we were just another youth orchestra -- "America's Orchestral Training Academy" sounded, to some sensitive ears, like a fancy way of saying exactly that.

    This is all despite the fact that youth orchestras can be quite wonderful things. For most orchestra players, our earliest inspiration to pursue this career came in a youth orchestra. There's an amazing chemistry in a room full of young people, interpreting a piece of music as though it's just been written, even though it's much older than they are. And some of the most exciting orchestras performing today -- like the Verbier Festival Orchestra, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and New World Symphony itself (sorry, guys) -- are essentially youth orchestras.

    This weekend the CPO played Mahler 1 with the Calgary Youth Orchestra, as a side-by-side deal -- the concert received a very positive review in the Herald, and also a human interest story on some parents and children taking the stage together. There was a warm feeling of generational camaraderie; the CYO kids performed with a lot of dignity and professionalism, while the CPO played with more energy and enthusiasm than we might muster on an average night.

    After the Saturday concert, we had a season-ending party honoring several veteran members of the CPO, three retiring this year and another two receiving their 25-year pins. These kinds of milestones tend to make people feel philosophical, pondering all those passages of time, energy, wisdom, and tricky accidental-strewn Mahler we undergo in the course of a career. One after the other, they all said very kind, gracious things about the younger musicians who've joined the CPO in the last few years, and how they'd been motivated to give a little extra themselves, meeting all these new, enthusiastic players.

    I suppose I'm one of those new members -- though already there are a lot of CPO musicians younger than me! -- and it's cool to hear that we've made a positive difference for the more senior membership. Just like there's a stereotype of young players -- raw, brash, rushing, overplaying -- there's one for older players too, and it's no less denigrating. The CPO has a lot of long-time members who are still very active musically, technically proficient and passionate about orchestral playing though. Maybe it's time to toss out the stereotypes.