Friday, October 31, 2008

emotional precision and Fauré's Requiem

Rehearsing Fauré's Requiem for this weekend's CPO program, guest conductor Joseph Flummerfelt repeatedly asked for more emotional precision: "You're just giving me a generic forte sound, folks. That's not enough -- you need to breathe with intention, and sing out the meaning of those words. You need to be crying out to the heavens -- you're begging for rest, begging for peace. That's what this music is about, and it's never been more relevant." (I'm paraphrasing, of course -- I don't actually memorize a whole speech by a conductor!)

It got me thinking about the nature of our profession, and how a large part of our job description is to invest those seemingly generic markings -- forte, allegro, legato, decrescendo -- with a very specific, emotional meaning. We have to do more than just data entry -- reading off those instructions and plunking down our fingers at the right moments -- we have to form a purpose and an intention behind every mark on the page, and re-enact those gestures in space and sound.

Whereas a stock analyst's job is to separate emotion from information, to parse out longing, panic, hope and disappointment and determine the objective value of a holding, ours is perhaps the opposite. We need to imagine the fear, joy, or disillusionment that inspired someone to compose these precise sounds, and then play them as though we felt those same emotions just as strongly.

Then again, perhaps a stock analyst needs some emotional insight as well; and I'm sure that as musicians we often need to step away from our emotions. Especially when those emotions override our ability to listen receptively and adjust appropriately to those around us. It's an incredible challenge to play with passion and sensitivity at the same time. In a piece like Fauré's Requiem, and the songs by Mahler and Strauss which make up the rest of tonight's program, that emotional sophistication is what separates a great performance from an average one.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Joe the Cellist

I've been planning to write a "Joe the Orchestral Musician" post for a while, but last night Yo-Yo Ma beat me to it -- announcing on The Colbert Report that he was "Joe the Cellist":

for Canadians, watch the clip here
Colbert: How does it feel to be the #1 at something in the world?

Ma: Well, for people who watch Arthur, you know Mikey the 8-year old cellist? I'm a superstar, because I'm in his show. And so he probably thinks of me as -- "Joe the Cellist."

Colbert: Are enough candidates addressing the concerns of Joe the Cellist?

Ma: Well, you know, I think it could take a while.
That sounds like a side-step to me. I thought maybe I would pick up the subject and ask, what are some of Joe the Cellist's concerns?
  • arts funding (so he'll keep getting paid to play)
  • music education (so kids will keep wanting to take lessons)
  • safe and lively urban centers (so people will keep coming downtown to see his concerts)
  • affordable health care (in case he gets tendinitis)
  • public transportation and infrastructure (so he can make it to his gigs on time)
  • floors made of penetrable materials (so his endpin doesn't slip)
Those are just off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are others. On all of these issues, though, I prefer the solutions offered by Barack Obama. (Note: Obama hasn't yet proposed to install slip-proof floors everywhere, but perhaps in his second term.) That's why he has my support in this election. If any actual cellist (or Joe) wants to give your take, please feel free to comment!

And please visit Drew McManus' blog Adaptistration to watch more Stephen Colbert interviews and vote for your favorite classical music interviewee -- Yo-Yo, Alex Ross, or Lorin Maazel.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Drew's comment

Drew McManus replied with a very thoughtful comment on my post about orchestra websites offering musician contact info. He also asks for more opinions and discussion on this issue. Please feel free to comment here, or visit Adaptistration and write to Drew directly. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

rating and writing to orchestras

Drew McManus published a ranking of US and Canadian orchestra websites last week at his Adaptistration blog -- here's his post summarizing the Canadian results, and below is a chart showing his scores for the Calgary Philharmonic website. The blue middle column shows this year's scores:

The one category of Drew's with which I take exception is "Orchestra Information". Here's Drew McManus' explanation of this category:

Category 4: Orchestra Information - 15 points maximum

  • Learning about an orchestra and having easy access to contact information and educational program information is crucial to an orchestra’s ability to establish meaningful connections with its community.
  • This category contains five sub-categories covering biographical and contact information for music directors and musicians. Staff and board listings with related individual contact info were also considered essential as well as providing copies of institutional transparency documents.
I personally don't think providing contact info for musicians is a meaningful or desirable feature for an orchestral website. I would like to see better-written, more standardized musician pages. Those who choose to provide links to a personal website or e-mail address could be given that option. However, many musicians simply prefer to keep their e-mail addresses private.

I don't think playing in a professional orchestra should obligate anyone to publish personal information on a website -- some of us may do this by choice, but it does come at a certain sacrifice of privacy, and sometimes sanity! The Calgary Philharmonic website does feature a series of video clips with members of the orchestra, which I think is an appropriate vehicle to showcase musicians. For visitors trying to know an orchestra better, I think this feature is far more useful than giving out e-mail addresses.

Monday, October 27, 2008

teach the blogger

My idea was that I would post a short practice video -- in this case, I'm working on the intro to the Bach 5th Suite Prélude -- and then people could give me comments, suggestions, etc. Then the following week, I could record the piece again and maybe post it for a little before-and-after progress report.

This idea was inspired by an incredibly useful comment from Ira after a video post I wrote back in March. I seem to have never acknowledged all of Ira's great comments -- thank you so much!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

week of Oct. 26 - Nov. 1

Classics # 2: Fauré's Requiem
Gustav Mahler: Rückert Lieder
Richard Strauss: Five Songs; Ständchen, An Die Nacht, Wiegenlied, Cäcilie, Morgen
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem, op. 48

Joseph Flummerfelt, conductor
Erin Wall, soprano
Philip Torre, baritone
Calgary Philharmonic Chorus

Performances: Friday, Oct. 31st and Saturday, Nov. 1st, 8 pm at Jack Singer Concert Hall

Tuesday, 28 October
10-12:30 rehearsal
2-4:30 rehearsal

Wednesday, 29 October
10-12 rehearsal
7-9:30 rehearsal

Thursday, 30 October
10-12 rehearsal
7-9:30 rehearsal

Friday, 31 October
8 pm concert

Saturday, 1 November
8 pm concert

This is one of the programs for which I wrote a blurb in the season brochure. Here's my original copy:
Savour Faure's exquisite Requiem, a transcendent meditation on life, death, and the beyond. Faure envisioned death as "a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above." Grammy Award-winning conductor Joseph Flummerfelt leads the CPO, chorus, and distinguished soloists in this stirring autumnal masterpiece.
When you have a 40-word limit, every word has to be well-chosen. It was probably a mistake to use the word "death" twice, though I may have been going for a Halloween tie-in. Note also my use of the Canadian spelling for "savour", which also did not clear the editing process.

Here's the final, much improved version:
Fauré's exquisite Requiem expresses the feeling of human faith in eternal rest. Grammy Award-winning conductor Joseph Flummerfelt leads this stirring concert of vocal splendour with soprano Erin Wall and baritone Philip Torre.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

the practice room cyborg

Jason Heath wrote a post recently called "Nine Dynamite Practice Room Accessories." He starts with some basics everyone should have: metronome, tuner, a pad of paper -- and then moves on to some more high-tech stuff: iPods, notation and editing software, a laptop computer.

Personally, I don't want a laptop computer anywhere near me when I'm practicing. It's just too much of a distraction visually. I can see how certain functions might be useful, and I know some people who can incorporate computer technology into their practice very effectively; I just don't see the point.

My deeper philosophical argument with all this stuff is that it makes you practice like a robot. If you constantly have a metronome, tuner, or computerized MIDI-file playing along in the practice room, you're training yourself to sound like an electronic device. That might mean more precision and clarity, but I think it's inevitably going to compromise the things a computer can't simulate:

  • a warm, rich, resonant sound, with a varied palette of tonal colors
  • a sensitivity to inner lines, and harmonic voicing
  • a sense of bulding phrases, dynamic contours, and the larger architecture of the piece

You might make a case that these aren't so important, within the specific skill-set demanded to win an audition. I think they matter very much to anyone hoping to have an enjoyable, extended career, because these are some of the main qualities that make orchestra playing enjoyable and fulfilling.

So while I appreciate Jason's suggestions, my own contrarian advice to anyone looking to tech out their practice room is this: give it a try, but don't go crazy. Don't think you can't have a worthwhile practice session without plugging into ever power outlet in the room. And at least one day a week, turn all the gadgets off and just remember the simple joy of drawing sounds out of a big, resonant chunk of wood. No accessories required.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Anne-Sophie's Mozart

Anne-Sophie Mutter's early recordings of the Mozart violin concertos are already legendary, and her recent concert films are just as good. In 2005, Ms. Mutter launched "The Mozart Project Story," in conjunction with the worldwide celebrations of Mozart's 250th birthday; the two-disc DVD set I recently watched, which contains the 5 Mozart concertos with the Camerata Salzburg led by Mutter, is only one element in the project. This music has clearly been a life-long passion for her, and the Camerata Salzburg plays with equal passion and grace. These recordings are a great curative if you've heard (or played) these pieces for too many auditions and grown bored with them -- they sound and feel like much-loved music, made with freshness and spontaneity among friends.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mrs. Sweet's pedagogical method

They had all been instructed by Mrs. Sweet, a soft-bodied woman with a petulant smirk who was very deft at smacking hands without actually interrupting the performance of a scale or an etude. She sat on the bench beside them, reeking of lily-of-the-valley, and turned an injured look at the keyboard. Alert as a toad, Hope said, and quick as a toad, too. Whack! when a note offended, and then the return to sullen watchfulness, then again Whack! ... But Grace actually liked piano. She practiced more than she needed to and learned more than was exacted of her. Once she told her parents, weeping, that the hand smacking distracted her, so their mother went to speak to Mrs. Sweet, who asked, indignant, "How else will she improve?" But from then on she restrained herself, barely, when Grace played and vented her pedagogical method on Glory.

-- from Home by Marilynne Robinson, p. 54-55

We've probably all had a Mrs. Sweet at some point: a teacher whose method of correction was to whack us, whether physically or verbally. Those spoken, emotional "whacks" might actually be the more hurtful, and the more lasting, since we tend to remember and re-enact them long afterwards.

In effect we internalize the punishment, and adopt our own inner "Mrs. Sweet" -- who delivers her whacks much more deftly than any external teacher! Watching a player with this condition, you can sometimes see a sudden grimace -- whether or not the offending note is apparent -- which makes it clear, Mrs. Sweet has just delivered another whack.

Obviously, this is distracting -- for the audience as well as the player. In most cases, it quickly ceases to be helpful, and can become a real impediment to progress. I think it's important for us as teachers, and in our own practice, to check the impulse to punish mistakes with violence and recriminations. It's almost always more productive just to note them, make sure they're understood, and then encourage ourselves to try again. We can progress much faster if we have an intrinsic need to get better -- if we're driven by a hope of improvement, rather than fear of punishment.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

keeping score at the symphony

I have a dream: it's the end of the 2nd period at a Calgary Flames home game in late November. Some people in the crowd start to get up to stretch or use the washroom, but they stop and turn as the scoreboard lights up with a huge logo:

People return to their seats as a voice announces: "We now take you live to the Jack Singer Concert Hall, where the Calgary Philharmonic under Roberto Minczuk are midway through the 3rd movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony..."

The sound of a somber A-flat chord rises on the PA system, as the screen goes to video of a violin section playing a hesitant figure, then the conductor sculpting a questioning phrase. There's a palpable air of suspense, as the screen moves to a close-up shot of the timpanist's hand, playing a repeated low G. Hockey players from both teams are skating onto the ice to get a better view, as the harmony shifts to a dominant chord and with an incredible swell, finally arrives at a big beautiful C Major chord -- the finale has begun! -- the crowd is on their feet, cheering wildly, as all the hockey players exchange high-fives.

Okay, so it's not very likely -- still, it's nice to fantasize. Orchestra concerts inevitable go head-to-head against major sporting events, and so we face a conundrum: should we announce the score from the stage, and risk alienating the people who came to the concert specifically to avoid hearing about sports? Or should we ignore the big game, and let the sports addicts pull out their BlackBerries and portable radios?

I personally don't mind if a conductor wants to give the score after intermission, though I'd rather not hear updates after every piece. Members of the orchestra are often just as interested -- I've heard anecdotes about musicians playing with ear-bud headphones in, or radios attached to tuning pegs, and whispering across the stage after a home run or goal. I hope I never get that obsessive about a sporting event, though I can't begrudge others their addictions.

What I would really like to see, though, is some equity -- why not give hockey or baseball fans a little taste of what they're missing, or a preview of what they could hear tomorrow night? I think Beethoven could hold his own against one of those silly mascot races any day.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jeff Weisner on brand loyalty

We each have a "brand" to our playing - a basic set of sound and style characteristics that hold true through everything we play. That brand is created from our core technique elements, the influence of our most important teachers and mentors, and our most basic musical preferences. I make the type of sound that I do on the bass because at some level I like it - it feels right to me, for reasons that I honestly can't even define exactly. It developed through my early years of study and my student days. Even as I have developed a more diverse palette of tone colors and styles in my playing, I still keep one foot (or at least a toe) in this core sound concept that I bring to my musical work.

-- excerpt from "Know Your Brand" by Jeff Weisner, Peabody Double Bass Blog

Drawing analogies to bass playing is a favorite pastime of mine, so I have to take up this recent post by Jeff Weisner. Jeff shares some very intriguing ideas about schools of playing, which he likens to political branding. He concludes that even the strongest players might benefit from an honest assessment of their own "brand", and might focus on projecting those qualities in auditions.

Jeff draws a careful distinction between monotonous, one-style-fits-all playing -- perhaps you could call the Steve Forbes school, taking one issue and hammering it mercilessly -- and playing with no real sense of integrity or authenticity, which he likens to John "Flip-Flop" Kerry. That's still a bit of a sore spot for me personally, having really believed in John Kerry in 2004. What we Kerry supporters called "nuance", many others labelled spinelessness -- though I guess we now have the satisfaction of saying, "I told you so."

The kind of playing that Jeff advocates is neither Forbes nor Kerry -- it can have sophistication, style, and nuance, but it never strays from an essential core sound. It's about playing to the audience, but not about saying, "I'll do anything to get your vote." It all comes back to integrity -- of sound, belief, and intention -- and integrity that comes from one's own highest standards, not the standards of some committee we know only from rumors and hearsay.

Jeff doesn't offer any political endorsements of his own -- maybe he's keeping his blog non-partisan, since it's the official mouthpiece of the Peabody Double Bass Department. I wonder how he judges the brand-salesmanship of these two presidential tickets, though. We have one candidate, Obama, who has worked to broaden the appeal of his party's brand, refining their historically polarizing positions on taxes, foreign policy, and social issues. The other styles himself as a "maverick" -- originally a term for un-branded cattle, it's become political-speak for someone willing to buck his party -- and yet he's run a rambling, divisive campaign that's alienated many independent voters as well.

In a year when the Democratic party brand has so many advantages -- largely because the Bush administration has tarnished the Republican brand, as well as the brand of the nation as a whole -- perhaps McCain's best strategy is to run with the brand of the maverick. As Jeff makes clear, though, there are certain advantages to a clear, recognizable brand -- you know what you're selling, and people know what they're getting. When it's a question of security, a clear and confident brand is sometimes enough to carry an audition or an election.


Monday, October 20, 2008

pointing out the obvious

Rehearsing the "Flying Music" from E.T. last Friday, conductor Richard Kaufman stopped the orchestra at one point and turned to the bass section. "This is a bass soli," he told us, which was rather surprising since we weren't playing much more than pizzicato downbeats. He went on, "For John Williams, the bass section is the engine of the orchestra!"

This is always nice to hear, though from the bass section's perspective we're pretty much always the engine of the orchestra. If a conductor makes a point of it, we'll play louder and more assertively, and maybe further to the front side of the beat. As in most things a conductor asks for, there's no major transformation -- just a shift in emphasis, a heightened sense of importance. Maybe that will project to the audience, maybe not; in any case, the other sections of the orchestra will probably be more attentive to what we're doing, and so we'll be better able to contribute.

An analogy in last week's New Yorker caught my attention on a similar subject:
In his acceptance speech at the Convention and in the first debate -- his two big-audience occasions on foreign policy -- Obama mentioned cooperation but emphasized aggressive action much more strongly. In that way, the Obama campaign is like a symphony orchestra, with the need for international cooperation as the string section and the necessity for aggressive action as the horns. Both sections are always playing, but usually one or the other is playing louder. During the fall campaign, the horns have dominated the strings.

- "Worlds Apart," by Nicholas Lemann, October 13, 2008 issue of The New Yorker
As an orchestra musician, a lot of things about this analogy bother me -- the strings and horns are always playing? why is it just "louder", what about differences of articulation, tone quality, expression, etc.? and how about the different voices within the strings, not to mention the brass and percussion and woodwinds, what do they represent?

All that is just nit-picking, though, since I think it's a very effective analogy for what the point Lemann is making. We do balance our messages, and we'll change our focus, wording, and content for different settings and audiences. It's one of the most basic elements of human communication, so essential that we might not give it much thought. And it's also a good explanation for what a conductor does in balancing the orchestra -- he or she draws our attention to certain things, or minimizes certain others. Within any musical score, be it John Williams or Beethoven, there are countless details and possibilities for what might happen -- the conductor gets to imagine those possibilities and, with the cooperation of the orchestra, bring out the details that make the imagined real.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

week of Oct. 19-25

Alberta Ballet
A Midsummer Night's Dream / music by Felix Mendelssohn
Peter Dala, conductor

Performances Oct. 23, 24, 25 at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium

Tuesday, 21 Oct
10-12:30 rehearsal
2-4:30 rehearsal

Wednesday, 22 Oct
7:30-10 rehearsal

Thursday, 23 Oct
7:30 performance

Friday, 24 Oct
7:30 performance

Saturday, 25 Oct
7:30 performance

I decided to borrow/steal a feature from Michael Hovnanian's Bass Blog which I really like -- every week he'll post a schedule of what he's currently doing. Beyond the obvious value to stalkers, it's a neat way to show what day-to-day life as an orchestral musician is really like. I'm definitely not going to post any practice schedules here, though.

As it happens, I'm on stand-by for this week of ballet performances -- they'll use only 4 bass players for ballet as well as opera, since the Jubilee has a rather small pit. This means I almost certainly won't play any of these services, unless someone in the section is seriously sick or injured.

That means I probably won't be writing here about Mendelssohn or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Do stay tuned though, and please let me know if there's another subject you'd like me to write about!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

the well-tempered political candidate

We’ve been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.

-- David Brooks, "Thinking about Obama", NY Times Oct. 16, 2008
For some who oppose him, his equanimity even under the ugliest attack seems like hauteur; for some who support him, his reluctance to counterattack in the same vein seems like self-defeating detachment. Yet it is Obama’s temperament—and not McCain’s—that seems appropriate for the office both men seek and for the volatile and dangerous era in which we live. Those who dismiss his centeredness as self-centeredness or his composure as indifference are as wrong as those who mistook Eisenhower’s stolidity for denseness or Lincoln’s humor for lack of seriousness.

-- The New Yorker, Oct. 13, 2008, Comment by the editors
I've been reading a lot of political commentary lately, and the question of temperament seems to be on a lot of people's minds. Even in the testiest exchanges, Barack Obama projects an air of coolness and centeredness, an even temperament that contrasts with John McCain's manic shifts and gestures. Even before the substance of their arguments is assessed, many people find Obama's bearing and composure more "presidential".

It's not just about posture, tone of voice, and gestures -- I also had the impression that Obama focused more on the larger issues, worked towards compromise and understanding rather than petty bickering, and returned the conversation to issues of real importance. When you think back over those debate performances, though, the contrast in temperament serves as a useful shorthand for all the other differences between the candidates.

Variations in temperament can also determine an orchestral audition, I think, and not just in the sense of playing in tune. Audition committees want to hear someone who is collected, confident, and centered, who plays with a sense of inner calm -- without being boring. It's a tricky balance to maintain, especially under conditions of pressure and nervousness.

Among musicians I know who have used enderol (a beta-blocker), most have said that it helps restore this state of equanimity. They're able to sail through excerpts without any wild surprises or reactions -- things affect them less, and so they feel more like themselves. Personally I prefer not to use enderol, and have worked to accustom myself to that nervous hyper-sensitivity. Also, I find tools like focused breathing and meditation can help to restore a natural sense of calm.

Don Greene, the psychologist who has pioneered a technique to maintain performance under pressure, uses the analogy of a race-car driver. At the speeds they're moving, even the slightest twitch can throw their steering out of control; a normal correction back to neutral might instead throw them far in the opposite direction. Like a political or audition candidate, they need to tune their mental responses -- their internal temperament -- to the conditions under which they operate. They need to moderate their reactions and impulses, even while driving with extreme boldness and confidence.

There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious. Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he’s become a homeostasis machine.

-- David Brooks, from the same article quoted above

As spectators, we might not be able to appreciate the internal forces they're having to manage -- we merely see a musician, politician, or race car driver performing well. It's a peaceful sport played with tremendous internal violence, as Don Greene likes to describe golf. Only when we watch a less successful performer -- or try to perform as well ourselves -- can we really appreciate the power on display.

Friday, October 17, 2008

words vs. music in film

A couple of weekends ago, I got to hear a fantastic concert by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, presented by Calgary Pro Musica -- their concert began with the gorgeous string sextet from Richard Strauss' Capriccio, featuring two former members of the quartet on the second cello and viola parts. Violinist Geoff Nuttall introduced the Capriccio sextet with a brief synopsis of the opera, the story of a poet and composer hashing out the classic debate of words vs. music, and trying to court a rich countess in the process.

Geoff wasn't going to give away the ending of the opera -- which plays coy with the countess' decision, in any case -- but the rapturous music of that string sextet already seems to settle the issue, as far as I'm concerned. No one would remember Capriccio except for the music; the libretto tries to mock its own irrelevance, self-importance, and excessive length, but the joke seems to be mainly on the listener. For someone foolish enough to watch the whole thing (as I did last year, on DVD), the only consolation is that at the end there's a bit more of Strauss' gorgeous music, uncluttered by any silly text.

I suppose it's nice when music gets its just recognition, setting the distraction of words aside for a moment. The CPO has been playing a heap of film music these past few weeks: first the Lord of the Rings Symphony by Howard Shore, and this weekend a program of "classic" movie music called Symphony on the Silver Screen.

For most people of my generation, few of the films on this weekend's program make much of an impression. I can recall a line or two from Casablanca, I saw the first Godfather, and of course I remember watching E.T. as a little kid (and eating the breakfast cereal, which had lots of sugary peanut butter flavor.) Even without knowing the films though, each of these scores makes an immediate impression -- it's music engineered to trigger a strong emotional response, and fast.

For my taste, it's sometimes a little too much like that sugary breakfast cereal I ate as a kid: quick to reach one's pleasure centers, but not too much substance. Then again, there are some themes that won't leave your head for hours, maybe days afterwards. I thought Lord of the Rings might never leave my head, until it magically segue-ed into some music from Wagner's Parsifal.

When it comes to movies, it's no longer just words vs. music -- in an updated Capriccio, the poet and composer might be contending against cinematography, special effects, marketing tie-ins, celebrity actors, etc. With so many suitors, our senses tend to get overwhelmed, if not downright cynical -- and yet really great music still manages to cut through all the b.s. At the end of the 2.5 hour Lord of the Rings Symphony, I found myself genuinely moved, as I rarely have been lately when playing concerts -- and more so than I was when watching the films. Perhaps music still has the upper hand, even with all our advances in entertainment technology. Or maybe I'm just terminally biased.