Friday, December 23, 2005

Refugees from the Christmas Wars

My kids and I are in Chattanooga tonight, on the way to Tampa to visit my parents for Christmas.

While we will miss the Christmas eve service at our church, we are not entirely sad to get out of town. Greencastle, where we live in Indiana, has just had its own "Christmas Wars" episode. Last week, the City Council voted to rename two dates on the city calendar: days the city offices are closed on Christmas and Good Friday were given the more neutral designation "Winter Holiday" and "Spring Holiday." Many of the evangelical/fundamentalist Christians in town went, well, beserk. We've never had so many nasty letters to the editor and even nastier anonymous "Speak Out" comments. One letter writer, with horrifying and unintended irony, announced that Christians in Greencastle were now in the same situation as Jews wearing the yellow star in Nazi Germany. The council member who proposed the change received death threats and had to be escorted to Monday's emergency City Council meeting (at which the holidays were changed back to their traditional names) by three police officers. There was actual hissing and booing at the few there who suggested that Jesus probably wouldn't care what the city calls the vacation days it gives to its employees, and that the religious nature of the holidays were not jeopardized by the action. One friend who was in attendance told me that she could now understand what a lynch mob must feel like.

Episodes like this convince so many people that both organized religion and the whole realm of spirituality are nothing but illusions. And to me, making music and helping others to do the same springs from my spirituality. Finding ways to talk about the entire context of making music becomes all the more difficult the more this sort of thing makes discussion of religion off limits.

But there is always humor to be found. While driving, we caught part of Fresh Air on NPR, which featured an interview with the director John Waters, discussing his CD compilation of tacky Christmas music. He was very clear about his genuine love of the holiday while taking delight in poking fun at the kitsch surrounding it. The album seems hilarious and the kids know it is on my wish list. Somehow I doubt we'll find it at a Chattanooga Wal-Mart in the morning, though, or even at a Barnes and Noble, so it may have to wait for next year.

My own musical Christmas war:

There's only one time I ever turned down a gig because it was going to be too tacky. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, a Christian-pop "updating," called "Handel's Young Messiah" became quite popular. I just couldn't bring myself to play when the show came to Indy, and rather than say I wasn't available, I told the contractor I refused to participate because it would violate my artistic conscience. It did not help my free-lancing career in Indianapolis! I'm more open minded now, but I'm not sure I could bring myself to play it were I asked. This time, older and wiser, and more skilled at diplomacy, I would have "another commitment" (even if it was to spend the evening not playing the "update").

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Wed. 12/14: My Last "Waking States" Concert

Sorry I haven't posted for over a week. I came back to Indiana a week ago, and I seem to have had some internal resitance to acknowledging the end of the trip by writing about the final concert I attended.

The penultimate concert in Charles Curtis's "Waking States" series was a fantastic performace of Patterns in a Chromatic Field by Morton Feldman. The Double Knot Rug Gallery in Tribeca was absolutely jammed, and deservedly so. I'll write more about it soon here, and am starting to work on an article about the whole series for the Internet Cello society (

The trip back was something too; I almost lost two valuable cello bows. That, too, is a story to be written soon. Meanwhile, Christmas shopping beckons. My shopping companions are arriving in a minute or two.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Tuesday Dec. 13: Lunch with Charles/Richard Goode and Friends

Tuesday I met Charles Curtis, whose Waking States series of concerts I've been attending, for lunch in a cafe at the Ansonia Hotel. Lots of cello shop talk, beginning with our student experiences and working our way to the present. He's created a very rewarding professional life for himself in which the majority of his playing and teaching (at UC San Diego) is centered in progressive, experimental music.

He loves this music. And who could ask for a better life than doing what one loves? We talked briefly about the advantages of a university position, including the fact that it provides a financial security which enables an artist (whether musical, theatrical, visual, literary, or whatever) to do his or her art without being concerned with how many tickets are sold. Each Waking State concert, for example, is attended by about 50 people. For a mainstream classical recital, that would pretty much be a disaster, if the concert had to pay for itself and provide a significant fee to the performer(s). But that's not a concern for Charles, as it isn't a concern for most concerts I play. So the success of the concert isn't measured by how many people come. What makes it a success is that it's music the performer(s) love(s), heard by an audience which really wants to hear it.

The evening brought dinner with my "quasi-siblings" Kath and Steven (I lived off and on at their house during college and immediately after and became a part of the family) at a wonderful Greek restaurant near Carnegie Hall, followed by a very mainstream concert, "Richard Goode and Friends."

It was a really delightful program. Goode opened by performing Beethoven's Bagatelles, Op. 119, twelve short pieces I had never before heard. This was followed by the Brentano String Quartet and violist Hsin-Yun Huang playing the Mozart D Major String Quintet. After intermission was Beethoven's Elegaic Song Op. 118 for vocal quartet and string quartet, and the Mozart E-flat Major Piano Quartet brought the evening to a close.

Talk about loving what you play! Goode, whom I'd never heard/seen in concert before, radiates both joy in music making and affection for the music. His playing is insightful, musical, and technically impeccable. His main "friends" for the evening, the Brentano players, are also fine, enthusiastic artists, whose playing I very much admired. It was a shut-my-eyes-and-listen event, for I found first violinist Mark Steinberg's swaying distracting. My companions were seated in a different row. When we found each other at intermission, it turned out they had been irritated by the cellist, who had the piano moved after they quintet had sat down, who had to stop one movement when her D string popped and had to be retuned, and whose breathing my friends found to be overly audible and distracting. On their way out to the lobby, they were discussing this and a gentleman near them asked, "Are you talking about the cellist?" Once that was confirmed, he continued, "She looks high maintenance. Probably orders her salad dressing on the side."

OK, OK. But she plays great. If the playing is wonderful, I don't care how much someone moves, snorts, sings other or has the furniture moved.

Another interesting reaction Kath and Steve had was to the body movements of the quartet members. As I mentioned above, I spent most of the concert with my eyes shut, really just opening them when the combination of the pre-dinner martini, the wonderful food, and the glass of wine threatened to induce sleep, so I didn't spend much time watching. Kath wondered if there was some one-upmanship among the players as to whom could look most involved. I have no idea, but it is interesting that she sensed this, for it can happen, whether consciously or not.

It was not just an enjoyable but also a very interesting program, with the inclusion of the rarely performed Bagatelles and Elegaic Song. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Mon. 12/12: Violoncello Society of NY: Expert Advice on How to Audition (But Is It for the Orchestra of the Titanic?)

Monday evening I attended the Violoncello Society of New York's evening program at the elegant Kosciuszko Foundation. Nick Anderson, a vice president of the Society, invited me to attend as his guest. (After the event we had supper and a long talk at an Upper West Side coffee shop where the comedian Jackie Mason was in a near-by booth.) I enjoyed not only the formal program but also meeting a number of New York colleagues.

New York Philharmonic cellists Eric Bartlett and Carter Brey (principal) and Juilliard Quartet cellist and Juilliard cello teacher Joel Krosnick formed a panel who listened to four young cellists play and gave them and the assembled audience advice on preparing for auditions, especially orchestra auditions.

Some key recurring points:

  • Choose pieces you are comfortable with and play really well. Don't be ashamed to play the Saint-Saëns or Lalo concertos for a major symphony audition--there's no such thing as an "easy" concerto, and it's how well you play it that really counts.
  • Be sure you have your entire solo pieces prepared, so that despite the fact you can be 99% sure you'll only play the exposition or so, you won't be worrying about what will happen if you are asked to play a portion you have not prepared well.
  • Don't overplay, especially in a small space. Play for the room you are in, and emphasize beauty of sound over raw energy.
  • Highly idiosyncratic performances even in solo pieces will set off "alarm bells" for audition committee members (especially in orchestra auditions).
  • But don't play blandly or anonymously. Have a definite concept not only of your solos but also of the excerpts. Carter emphasized strongly the benefits of understanding the harmonic context of a melody, and demonstrated a number of times at the piano. Eric emphasized making appropriate changes of style for different composers, especially timbre (i.e., quite different for Debussy than for Brahms).
  • Practice playing dissimilar excerpts in quick succession to get used to quickly changing styles.
  • Solid, accurate rhythm is crucial.
  • Practice auditions are very valuable. Invite a small group of trusted friends to listen to you a number of times, keeping the format as much like an actual audition as possible.
  • Carter emphasized a number of times that he and virtually all committee members have great empathy for those auditioning, having been through the same experiences a number of times themselves. They want to hear each person at her or his best.
  • Being interrupted fairly quickly isn't necessarily a bad sign; it could be that it is immediately clear that the person plays well. Sometimes a committee will have a weak-sounding candidate play longer in order to give them a chance to settle down.
  • Take your time between works/excerpts. Take a deep breath, get settled, and mentally prepareyourselff for the next piece.

I was impressed by the warmth, friendliness, and genuine interest of all three panelists and by the high level of playing of all four students. The panelists were generous with their time, giving each student approximately 30 minutes. This didn't leave any time for questions and comments from the audience, which might have been quite interersting.

The panel worked so hard to put everyone at ease that I found myself wondering if they were pulling punches overly much. There was little direct feedback to any of the students as to how their playing would served them in a real audition, especially on the key issue of whether this would have been a good audition or not. I had expected comments more along the line of, "if this had been a NY Phil audition, I would have (not) voted for you to continue to the next round because of X, Y, and Z," but that wasn't the approach taken.

Team teaching is always a challenge; balancing the roles of three teachers and giving each equal time is pretty much impossible without a moderator. Carter dominated the discussion, doing the majority of the speaking and all the demonstrating. This seemed a function more of his enthusiasm and ability to quickly articulate concepts than any other dynamic. He often tried to pass the torch to one of the other two, to be sure. I would have been interested to hear more from Krosnick in particular, who did the least speaking; perhaps another time.

The elegant surroundings brought to my mind the image of the orchestra playing while the Titanic sank. Many people believe that the ship of traditional classical music, especially full-time orchestras, is sinking. Greg Sandow is writing a lot about this:

Classical music is in trouble. Ticket sales are falling, the audience is getting older, classical music organizations have trouble raising money; media coverage is shrinking, thereÂ’s a lot less classical music on the radio, and the classical record business is collapsing (or at least the largest classical record labels are). Classical music also plays a smaller part in our culture than it used to.

As I commented in my reflection about Sunday's Juilliard Orchestra performance, what are these kids going to do for a living? How are they going to create meaningful adult musical lives for themselves? It's great to help kids learn how to prepare for traditional orchestra and conservatory auditions, but with fewer and fewer jobs available and more and more exceptional players, what are we doing to prepare students for the new realities? To be creative, to build their own audiences, to make serious music relevant and attractive to audiences?

When the ship is sinking as fast as the Titanic, there's really not much else to do if you are in the orchestra than to keep playing and savor every last second of music making.

But the classical music ship is sinking slowly, at least right now. There's time to build a life boat, there's time to switch to a different ship. I'm not arguing that anyone should disavow hecallingng, or deny himself the opportunity to follow the bliss of making music. But we do need to face the fact that there are declining opportunities to make a living playing traditional, standard orchestra music, and that many of the string players who do so find it makes them miserable (click here for PDF document with an interview about the famous 1991 study of job dissatisfaction among professionaorchestrara players).

I was discussing all this today with a cellist my age who commented on the irony of this. "X idesperatete to get out of the Philharmonic. Y now hates playing in the Meorchestrara but can't leave because of the money."

The Titanic is probably not the best metaphor, although it makes strikingng image. Classical music is not going to break into three sections and sink quickly to the ocean floor, never to be seen for a hundred years. It is more like a ship which sinks in fairly shallow water and comes to rest only partially submerged.

Some full-time orchestras will survive and continue to thrive. But full-time orchestras with year-round seasons are, frankly, a historical anomaly; in the U.S., as far as I know, they are essentially a post-WWII phenomena.

The general public fascinationon with and respect for the largely European canon of classical music is dissolving. I'm not aware of anyone who has looked closely at the economics and sociology of classical music who doesn't believe that we will be seeing some significant downsizing of full-year, full-time symphony orchestras and other traditional serious arts organizations working from a European model.

This was a wonderful, informative event, there's no question about that, with a panel who really knew their stuff. It was a loving sharing of career advice from one generation to the next. The question won't leave my mind, though: is this the career advice the kids most need? It's fine that this wasn't an event intended to provide that other, forward-looking, reality-based advice. Are they getting it elsewhere? I didn't get the sense Monday night that they are.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Sunday Dec. 11 II: Waking States continues

Tonic is a club on the lower East Side, not too far from Chinatown. It's kind of a grubby place, in a building unmarked by a sign with the club's name or even with a street address. In my middle-aged, midwestern way, I'm going to guess that it is an "underground" club or something close to it.

This was the first of Charles Curtis's "Waking States" concerts at which one could not only purchase a drink but seemed to be expected to. Charles had very nicely put me on the guest list, so I didn't have to pay admission, so I did spring for a beer (something small-label, I forget what). After the spirtual atmosphere of the first concert at the Mela Foundation Dream House (complete with altar), and the high-toned, serious and medidative atmoshperes of the other concerts, having a somewhat noisy cash bar at the back of the space was a bit of a culture shock.

The venue has exposed pured-conccrete walls, with a fairly raised stage. As we entered about ten minutes before the concert started, Charles was carefully tuning his cello, which he did at great length, often checking it with the prerecorded drones he would be playing against in the concert. Around 8:00, someone arrived with program notes, which gave us something to read as we waited another half-hour or so for the performance to begin. I didn't mind waiting; it gave me time to read the notes, drink my beer, and rest.

I had been wondering until then who would be playing the saxophone in the night's work, terry Jenning's Piece for Cello and Saxophone (1960). Would it be LaMonte Young, who I knew used to play saxaphone a lot? Would it be LaMonte Young singing the sax part, as I've read he has done in the past? Would it be someone else?

But no saxophonist was listed in the program. Aha! Charles was playing the sax part on the cello, I learned from the notes, having prerecorded the drones that were the original cello part. Well, actually it was originally a bass part.

Much like LaMonte Young's work Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord, the Jennings piece is a series of drones over which a solo part is performed. Particular modal pitch sets are designated by the composer, who originally improvised the sax part. What Charles played was LaMonte Young's realization, and I'm not sure how much of an improvised element there was in terms of order of pitches, rhythms, repetitions. In the notes, Young discussed his role in the piece at great length, and presented a rationale for not claiming co-composer credit which seemed to me to more out of respect for his late colleague and friend then a lack of significant creative input into this performance (he carefuly taught Charles the solo part.)

By this point in the process of listening to Charles's concerts, I had become fully open to music based on long drones, music with little overt pulse, and certainly little continuous pulse, and to drones changing pitch levels and including dissonance. Yes, of course, it's about "waking states" of altered consciousness. The idea is to tap into a sense of timelessness. I'm getting into it.

It was a beautiful piece. There's a poignant quality. I just looked at the notes, and see I picked that word up from Charles's comments:

Jennings' music manages to combine a bleakness, an austerity, with a kind of
tendernes, that is indescribably poignant. The word bittersewwt is rarely as
accurately applied as it is to his music. It is a state that very few composers
have ever captured; first and foremost, there is Schubert of the Winterreise;
and then there are moments in bach, in Purcell, in late Chopin, and occasionally
in Debussy; and almost nothing else comes to mind. Perhaps the particular
element that Jennings captures is one that is not familar to the more
forthright, dramatic, spectacular composers. Perhaps his retisence, his
impossible personality, his personal problems, made him privy to a fleeting
moment of beauty that is revealed in such detail to only a very few.

He suffered for his art, no question.

I'm having lunch with Charles tomorrow and I'm interested to ask about his understanding of the Indian influences in the composers I've heard, including the understanding of why they have picked up on and explored drones so much, but at the same time not been interested in including the percussion element and its strong rhythmic cycles of Indian music, nor in the highly ornamented types of melodic improvisation so central to classical Indian music.

Charles continues to deeply impress and amaze me. His concentration, skill, deep involvement in the music, his clear respect and reverence and love for the music are all what one finds in a "great artist." He seems unique to me in his dual involvement in mainstream and experimental music on such a high level, and one of few people who would become familiar with a work such as the Jennings and find resonances with Schubert, Bach, Purcell, Chopin, and Debussy.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sunday Dec. 11 I: Juilliard Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

This afternoon the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon (also conducting An American Tragedy at the Met these days), performed Mahler's Symphony No. 3 at Carnegie Hall (program details here). What a fabulous performance! The sustained cheers and standing ovation at the end were well deserved, and not just the result of probably the majority of the audience being friends, relatives, and teachers of the performers, and some of the rest of us being former Juilliard students.

This is the top orchestra at one of America's top conservatories, and they sound better than some professional orchestras, especially in the depth of quality of the string sections. It's the string sections in second and third tier full-time orchestras that can be problematic, with weaker players remaining from the days in which the orchestra was not full-time. I won't name names, but this is certainly the case in one midwestern orchestra I hear quite often.

Despite being a "student" ensemble, many of the orchestra's members are fine, professional artists. William Harvey, whom I've known since he was in elementary school, I think, is a graduate violinist at Juilliard and was sitting third chair in the first violins. He has a technical command of the violin equal to just about any full-time professional violinist I know.

The orchestra has tremendous technical precision, and all the wind and brass solos where on major-orchestra level. Particularly outstanding was the back-of-the-hall trumpet solo, and the concertmaster solos. Conlon brought lovely nuance to the lyrical passages, and there was tremendous energy and volume when the orchestra thundered as only Mahler can thunder an orchestra. At times, the brass seemed overpowering, at least from my second-tier center box seat (it was great to sit in one of the best and usually most expensive seats in Carnegie Hall for only $25).

It was certainly very stereotypically American orchestra playing at its best: precise, clear, muscular, and loud. Had this been a professional orchestra, I might be kvetching about wanting a warmer and more nuanced performance. But these are kids, incredible kids, and their playing was genuinely moving as well as awe-inspiring. I've reached that age (47) where I get reassured when I see/hear young people do well, especially now that I've gotten over not being a young person myself any more.

Juilliard alum Jane Gilbert was the wonderful mezzo-soprano, and Juilliard Choral Union and Brooklyn Youth Chorus (the latter singing from memory) were superb.

There was just one sad thought as I made my way back out into the cold streets of New York. These young men and women have devoted their lives to their art, and many of their families have made great sacrifices to enable them to study. It takes extraordinary commitment and discipline over many years to accomplish what each of them has accomplished. What are they going to do for a living? Some of them will get the positions in full-time orchestras each of them deserve. Most of them won't, because there just aren't that many jobs, and all the experts say the market for classical musicians is going to contnue to get worse.

Well, being an artist has never been about having good prospects for financial security. It's a calling. More important than financial security to an artist is having artistic outlets. A lot of these players, and those that come after them, are going to discover that they are all dressed up with not many places to go, and that this may be the greatest orchestra they'll ever play in. That's what's sad.

Nicholas Anderson

I should mention that before going down to Zankel for Saturday night's concert, I had a great visit with the cellist Nicholas Anderson. Nick saw my posts in the Internet Cello Society forums, gave me a ring and invited me to come over to talk shop. He is a fascinating guy, and we had a stimulating discussion. He was very interested to try the Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello I'm traveling with, and I was thrilled to have the chance to play his wonderful Gofriller cello. I can tell this is going to be the beginning of a long cello friendship.

Saturday 12/10: Julliard Young Artists and Their Mentors,II

Saturday night was the second Juilliard Young Artists and Their Mentors rogram at Zankel Hall (program information here). This program was the legendary Juilliard Quartet and eight student string players--four an established quartet, the Attaca, which opened the program with the Beethoven "Serioso" quartet, and four others who joined their teachers for the Mendelssohn Octet (for double string quartet). In between, the Juilliard played Ezequiel Viñao's String Quartet No. 2, "The Loss and the Silence," which had been commissioned for the quartet by Juilliard.

The Attaca's Beethoven was wonderful. All four are excellent players, and as a group they play not only with technical command and precision, but also with energy and feeling. I felt they "got" the Beethoven more than Friday night's string players had "gotten" the Brahms, and surely the fact that they are a group wich has beeen working together for some time makes a difference. Their cellist is definitely a "mover" and a face-maker, to a point that even I, who vigorously defended moving here and here, found it a bit much. My moving and face-making, more extreme when I was his age than it is now, used to aggravate some people, too, although then as now, audience members sometimes comment they "love to watch" me play, which makes me increasingly uncomfortable as I grow older.

The Viñao was a fascinating, fairly lengthy, significant piece. The Juilliard Quartet member's don't look like legends, just regular American guys. They play like legends, though, and it was great to hear another committed, excellently-prepared, full-blooded reading of a new work (as was the case with Tuesday night's Higdon Percussion Concerto).

The Mendelssohn Octet was the real treat of the evening. It's one of the great works of the string chamber music literature, and I've never before had the opportunity to hear a live performance (or if I have, it wasn't a memorable one). I had forgotten until I read the program notes that Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he composed it. So as the performance progressed I went from being involved in the music, to admiring the playing to marveling at the genius which gave birth to the piece, and back again. The Octet is virtually a concerto for the first violin, and Joel Smirnoff was fantastic.

The hall was considerably more full than Friday night, about 90%, which was good to see, and all the performances where enthusiastically applauded.

Culinary note: After the concert, I went wandering down towards Times Square, having a difficult time choosing where and how much to eat. I ended up in an Italian place right next to the entrance to the Ed Sullivan Theater, home to Late Night with David Letterman. I was afraid it would just be a tourist trap was mediocre food, but I was by then hungry and the prices looked moderate (of course, everything was a la carte, so it ended up being more expensive that I initially expected). The food turned out to be quite good, especially the pasta, which was the most perfectly al dente spaghetti I've ever had.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Friday 12/9 II: Juilliard Young Artists and Their Mentors

Tonight was the first of two "Juilliard Young Artists and Their Mentors" concerts at Zankel Hall. What a great idea. When I taught briefly at the University of Georgia many years ago, I was delighted that faculty/student chamber music performances were encouraged. Nearly every where else I've been a student or taught, the culture discourages this. Obviously this was a special event, but it is a good idea in principle as well. The students sang and played at a very high level, reminding me of what a great conservatory Juilliard is, and making me proud that I did some of my own study there.

First half of this concert was vocal: Juilliard faculty pianist Brian Zeger was the mentor. There were selections from the Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch with mezzo Isabel Leonard and baritone Matthew Worth, Ravel's Chansons madecasses, with mezzo Michele Losier, and a late Rossini salon piece for vocal quartet and piano. Zeger played piano in all three works.

After intermission, pianist Joseph Kalichstein told the story of Brahms's work with the material that started as a string quintet, became the Sonata in F Minor for two pianos, and then was rewritten as the famous Piano Quintet. For this concert, Kalichstein decided to have his students Gregory Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, an increasingly well-known young piano duo, play the outer two movements, while in between he and a string quartet of students played the slow movement and the scherzo.

It was a real treat to hear this concert. The singers were all fabulous, and I especially enjoyed the semi-staged performance of the Wolf, and the wonderful, somoldering romantic/sexual tension the two singers portrayed. Matthew Worth was commanding both vocally and as a stage presence, and his performance is what remains with me the most strongly. Ms. Losier had the most outstanding gown of the first half (in addition to singing beautifully); it seemed Oscar-worthy. The flutist and cellist in that piece were undeniably good players, but it didn't really click. The cellist seemed a bit uneasy with the many awkward passages (it's one of those pieces that's harder than it looks) and I didn't feel much synergy from the ensemble--it seemed, surprisingly, under-rehearsed. Before tonight, I hadn't known that after his operatic career Rossini held a series of private salon concerts for which wrote many works, including the very Rossinian (and fun) "La passegiata" we heard this evening.

And then there was this most unusual peformance of the Brahms (I imagine it has never been done quite this way before.) Anderson and Row have technique to burn, excellent ensemble, play with great energy and enthusiasm, have excellent musicianship, and had clearly worked out their performance in great detail. But as I listened, the first thing that popped into my head was, "not quite Brahms." There's a weight and gravitas and sense of rubato that a Brahms performance needs and it takes a while to develop--I wonder if anyone in his or her teens or early twenties can really do a convincing, centered yet flexible Brahms interpretation. As soon as Kalichstein started playing, I said to myself, "now that's Brahms." The string players were all excellent, and perhaps because they had their mentor to respond to, it seems they got closer to "it" than did the pianists.

Given the unusual circumstances, Kalichstein had invited applause at the end of each groups performance. All were enthusiastically applauded, and the painists almost got a partial standing ovation from the audience which filled a bit over two thirds of the house.

I'm looking forward very much to tommorow's event in this series, featuring the Juilliard Quartet and a student quartet, each group playing one work, then joing forces for the Mendelssohn Octet.

Friday 12/9 I: Through the Snow to Rehearse!

Thursday’s daytime task was to purchase an appropriate amp to use in my work with dancer Robin Becker. We are developing a solo-cello and dance program, with me doing a lot of improvised and quasi-improvised music. I am going to use, eventually, at least two “looping” devices to create musical textures over which to improvise. A “looper” is a device that allows one to record a section of music and then play it back continuously. To use one with a cello entails using a microphone which takes the cello music into the looper, and then on into an amp/speaker.

While Monday I couldn’t find the amp I thought I wanted, I did finally find something in my price range Thursday afternoon that will work well. It’s also “only” 21 pounds, and comes with a padded carrying case,

Friday morning it was snowing like crazy. And Robin had studio space reserved down in Greenwich Village from 11:00 AM-1:00 PM. Robin lives on the Upper West Side at 107 and Riverside. For some reason we decided to take the subway (saving money, and actually taking a cab when the weather is bad and midtown traffic will be awful is not a good idea if you want to get where you are going in a reasonable amount of time) . This involved walking 5 blocks to the station, then getting on the train, and walking what seemed like 100 blocks once we got down to the Village. And I had not just the cello, but this 21-pound weight on my back. I’m not used to carting that much around!

Well, we got there, without a shoulder or arm giving out. We had a great rehearsal. This was our first time working together with me using the looper, which adds all sorts of musical possibilities and which I find very inspiring and fun. Robin got all sorts of new ideas and we were both on a creative high when we left. Now that the snow had stopped and the sun was shining, we, of course, took a cab home!

Thursday 12/8: "An American Tragedy" at the Met

I don’t think I’d been t the Metropolitan Opera since the spring of 1978 until Thursday night, when I was privileged to attend the third performance of Tobias Picker’s new work, An American Tragedy. It’s based on the Theodore Dreiser novel of the same name.

I bought a mid-priced ticket of “only” $100, and wasn’t sure how good my seat would be. I had relied on the advice of the young man in the box office, and I’m glad I did. It was in the center, of the “Grand Tier,” the second tier of seats. A seat directly below it would have cost over $300 (or maybe $189; there were $300+ seats somewhere, I know). My seat had a full view of the stage, and the sound was great.

It was a theatrical experience like I’ve never had before. Francesca Zambello’s direction was excellent, and Adrianne Lobel’s three-tiered set was amazing. I’d forgotten the enormity, especially the height, of the Met stage. It was the most striking set I’ve ever seen, with sliding panels and mind-blowing visual images, and it was used to full advantage.

The music? Very accessible, usually engaging and entertaining, and occasionally reminiscent of a Bernard Hermann score for a Hitchcock film (except with many more meter changes, and, of course, singing). Very imaginative, and written (to my cellist’s ears) well for the voice. I could almost always understand the singers (and English is often the most difficult language for classical singers to make clear). I did use the “Met Titles,” which show the words on a little screen in front of one’s seat, both for the novelty and because in some ensembles the words did get jumbled up a bit. The music is through-composed for the most part, with the orchestra very busy and not a lot of tunefulness for the singers. Anthony Tomassini in his review in the Times seems to complain that there were too many "set pieces," but to me they didn't seem particularly artificial or the music out of contect. I wasn’t often grabbed by the music, but then again Picker’s work is new to me and perhaps after a few hearings it would begin to affect me more.

The story itself (based on actual events) is deeply powerful and disturbing. Clyde Griffiths grows up the shild of poor Salvation Army-type street missionaries. As a young man he meets, by happenstance, his wealthy uncle, from whom his father was estranged. The uncle gives him a job in his shirt factory, where he quickly rises to a management position. He becomes involved with a worker, Roberta, but they keep their relationship secret, supposedly because violates company policy, but more importantly to Clyde because it allows him to also become involved with Sondra, a socialite friend of his uncle’s family. Roberta becomes pregnant and is sent home by Clyde with promises that he will marry her soon, once he has saved money and his position is more secure. Yet at the same time he becomes deeply involved with and engaged to Sondra. When Roberta returns to confront him, he decides to murder her. On a boat in a lake, he lacks the heart to knock her out with an oar as he had planned, but she accidentally falls in the water and he watches her drown (as those of us with our “Law and Order” legal educations know, this constitutes “depraved indifference” and counts as felony murder). Eventually he is convicted (of actual murder) and sentenced to death. As he awaits execution, his mother visits, he finally confesses all to her, and she assures him of God’s forgiveness. (This somehow reminded me of the Virgin Mary welcoming poor Suor Angelica into heaven at the end of the Puccini opera. Well, not just somehow. It’s a very similar theme of Christian redemption offered by a holy mother-figure to someone who feels ashamed and unworthy.)

Not cheery, and also not the stuff of the usual operatic tragedy in which there is a noble love threatened and defeated by some intervening, evil force (Suor Angelica’s great love for the baby taken from her, for instance). Here the protagonist, Clyde, is a deceitful social climber who seems to have no real self, let alone a moral center. It’s a modern, story, yet Wagnerian in its paradoxes.

While I wasn’t overwhelmed by the music in general, the mother’s scenes with Clyde were genuinely moving. Indeed, what I found most moving about the entire opera was the portrayal of a mother’s unrelenting faith in the ultimate worth of her son, and of God’s love for him, even as she came to realize that he had indeed committed murder “in your heart.” Perhaps the power of those emotions inspired Picker’s best music.

There were two moments I thought were music/theatrical genius.

The first was made possible by the multi-tiered set. Roberta, on the lowest level of the stage, has been singing aloud a letter she is writing to Clyde as she sits in her room at her parents’ house. We then see, on the level above, Clyde and Sondra at the beach. As Roberta, still clinging to the dying hope that she and Clyde will marry, sings of how wonderful life will be once she and Clyde are husband and wife, Sondra sings the same exact words and music to Clyde as he rests his head in her lap. It was striking and chilling, and reinforced both the similarity of genuine feeling each woman felt for Clyde and how he was using them as interchangeable objects to fulfill his own needs.

And then at the end of the opera, as Clyde makes his final prayers, his child self appears and sings the hymn with which he (the child Clyde) opened the opera. That innocent child takes the hand of the condemned man as the adult Clyde finds spiritual redemption and walks to his death.

Dolora Zajick played Clyde’s mother, Elvira, and gave a beautiful, moving performance. She was deservedly cheered at the final bows. Patrica Racette as Roberta and Susan Graham as Sondra were excellent, as was Nathan Gunn (Clyde). These three young stars all looked perfect for the parts as well. I’m not an opera buff, and the last time I was at the Met I believe it was Beverly Sills, approaching retirement, playing Thais. She did not quite look the part. Things are quite different now. Both women were beautiful, and Gunn, handsome and fit, was perfect for the role of the handsome social climber.

James Conlon conducted with energy and passion. (I’ve played under him and like him; he’s a really nice guy, amazingly unpretentious for a major conductor.) When I took my seat and looked down at the orchestra gathering and warming up, I was happy to remember that I was going to hear another of the world’s great orchestras. Well, they didn’t sound so much like a great orchestra as a potentially great orchestra which plays a different show every night, playing a challenging new score which perhaps they weren’t all that much into. Things seemed a bit ragged from time to time. And pit orchestras being pit orchestras, even at the Met, instruments were being put into cases and folks heading out of the pit as soon as the applause began (my seat afforded a great view of all that, which I found amusing for it is such universal behavior). When Conlon came out on stage during the curtain calls, he started to walk towards the pit to acknowledge the orchestra. But he quickly noticed that there wasn’t anyone left to acknowledge, save a few stragglers, so he just smiled and bowed.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Wed. 12/7 III: Waking States Concert 3

Wednesday night it was back to experimental music. I suppose my day might best be described as going from the sublime (NY Philharmonic) to the ridiculous (the Broadway comedy Souvenir) to the weird.

The third concert in Charles Curtis’s “Waking States” series presented three works by the American composer Alvin Lucier (b. 1931). Lucier has done much sound installation work, and this program helped me move closer to understanding the intentions and priorities of this “downtown,” experimental school. The concert was held at Diapason Gallery for Sound on 6th Avenue between 38th and 39th streets, a second-floor walkup space which has clearly been designed for sound installations and concerts. As was the case last Saturday, there were no chairs. I got there early enough to find out from Charles that the concert would be only an hour or so, so I sat in the middle of the floor rather than claiming a place against the wall.

In the first piece, Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas (1973-74), two slowly-beating computer-generated sine waves cause three snare drums, placed about the room, to vibrate sympathetically from time to time. Curtis didn’t play cello in this piece; he was at the laptop controlling the sine waves, I assume.

The second work was Charles Curtis (2002) for solo cello with slow sweep, pure wave oscillators. Here Charles did use his cello, playing various sustained double stop intervals, separated by silences, against two pure wave oscillators. “As the waves rise and fall, a cellist sustains long tones against the sleeping waves, creating audible beats at speeds determined by the closeness of the tunings.”

The final piece, the most visually intriguing as well was the most unlike anything I had imagined before, was Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases. A number of beautiful vases, handcrafted by Curtis’s friend Fred Stoddard, were arranged on the floor with microphones suspended within each one. The microphone cables were arranged so that they rose to the ceiling at an angle, with a slight drape, and then came straight down into each vase. It was quite a beautiful installation I and of itself. In this work, Curtis sat behind the vases and over the course of twenty minutes or so, he slowly worked up from the open C string to (I believe) the A over middle C. As the cello passed through different frequencies, one or more of the vases would begin to vibrate and be amplified to the vibration was quite audible. At times beating caused by the dissonance between the cello and the vases was quite pronounced. Beating was also exploited when the cello notes neared the pitch of an open string; double stops were used to accentuate the close differences of pitch.

It was all interesting to me, and Charles’s concentration and commitment were again impressive. I can't say it was other than interesting; I no longer expect to be moved, for clearly that's not what this sort of music is about. I also wasn't shifted to an altered state by the progression of sounds. I think some of the rest of the audience were, though.

As I said above, I’m gaining a better perspective. These works are purposely outside the mainstream tradition of Western music, so much so that the Lucier and Radigue works in particular seem better described (to me) as “sound experiments” or perhaps “sound experiences” than as “music” (in the way I and most people usually think of music.) It’s quite interesting to watch my own resistance to this work, especially since I usually preach a gospel of inclusion and define music very broadly to my students.

On the way home I stopped by the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble to look for something else, yet ended up purchasing William Duckworth’s book of interviews with important twentieth-century composers (I would give the title but I have misplaced it for the moment), which is giving a much better intellectual context for these performances. As I suspected, many of these experimental composers have been greatly influenced by Eastern thought and the idea of music as something to quiet the mind rather than evoke cathartic or entertaining emotional experience. It is, in a sense, anti-emotional music. And in the interviews I’ve read, each composer speaks about exploring aspects of sound and in some cases rhythm. No one has spoken of expressing, communicating, or evoking emotion.

A final thought on the “is this something?” internal conversations I’ve been writing about. I introduced myself last night to a man I’ve seen at all three concerts. He told me that while he didn’t really get into the Lucier works, he found Monday’s Radigue piece performance to be an extraordinary experience. “After it was over, I realized I had not thought during the entire performance.” He was so grateful, so excited to have had that release from his conscious mind. It was clearly what many people would call a “peak experience” for him, although he didn’t use that phrase. That confirmed for me that this genre is not just intellectual exploration and probing, it also provides experiences which for at least some of its followers are as transformative and magical as great classical music is for those of us who love it so deeply. It may be that it never becomes my thing, or one of my things. Nevertheless, it is obvious that for many it is their thing, it really is something.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wed. 12/7 II: "Souvenir" at the Lyceum Theater

After the Philharmonic rehearsal ended at 12:30 PM, I took the subway down to Times Square and headed over to the Lyceum Theater, where Souvenir, a two-person musical show about the heiress and deluded soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, is playing. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, she put on a series of recitals, first at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom and eventually in Carnegie Hall, which were so bad they became the among the most sought-after tickets in New York. Jenkins didn't understand her singing was bad and ignored any fedback to suggest it was until she realized at the end of her Carnegie Hall concert (from which thousands were turned away) that she was, in fact, being laughed at. About a month after that concert, she died from a heart attack while shopping. Her recordings are still played at music-student parties and have been known to cause laughter-induced baldder control problems.

Judy Kaye plays Jenkins, and Donald Corren her pianist/coach Cosme McMoon, who tells the story in flashbacks. Both gave spectacular performances. Kaye's imitation of Jenkins off-key attempts at singing is dead-on. How she can do this show eight times a week is a mystery to me. There was no amplification (thank God!) and while there wasn't that much genuine singing, it still seems as though it would be a great strain on the voice.

All the obvious and inevitable laughs were there, of course, but the play is also a bittersweet meditation on both the joys of creating one’s own reality (Jenkins) and the struggle to persevere and make a meaningful life when great external rewards and recognition do not come one’s way (McMoon). Jenkins is portrayed not as just a self-indulgent rich woman but a naïve musical Don Quixote, with McMoon her increasingly admiring Sancho Panza. It is a great show, entertaining and touching, and richly deserving of its critical success. I hope it runs a long time. The matinee audience was quite full, and I was grateful that there was a promotional ticket price offered through an ad in the Times: $45 got me a fourth-row seat on the center aisle, which meant I didn’t have to stand for an hour in the windy cold in the TKTS line. (That promotional offer at this busiest time in the Broadway season doesn't bode well for a long run, so see it quick if you have the chance.)

Wed. 12/7 I: NY Philharmonic Rehearsal

This morning the New York Philharmonic had an open (dress) rehearsal of this week’s subscription program: Selections from Die Meistersinger and the Prelude and “Libestod” from Tristan und Isolde of Wagner, then after intermission the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 with André Watts, followed by de Falla’s “Three Cornerned Hat” Suites 1 and 2. Now there’s a crowd-pleasing program! A member of the orchestra had arranged for me to sit in the Philharmonic’s box, where I introduced myself to Xian Zhang, the orchestra’s associate conductor. It turned out we know people in common, and she was very kind to let me watch her scores, in which she was marking details of the conductor’s performance. (Note to students: the Associate Conductor’s job is to be ready to fill in should the scheduled conductor not be able to go on, so she needs to know the details of what he’s doing. And writing in those details is a great learning experience in and of itself.)

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted. I’m not usually that much of a Wagner guy, but the combination of his conducting and the orchestra’s playing the Meistersinger and Tristan excerpts grabbed me the way I had been wishing the Philadelphia’s Beethoven would last night. Frühbeck de Burgos drew a deeply warm and richly expressive sound from the orchestra. It was music making that breathed and sighed, and it’s humanity got me. (Every orchestral musician I know who’s played under this wonderful old-school elder statesman of a conductor has loved it. I heard that from a Boston Symphony friend last summer, and heard the same this morning from Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist.)

Watts was effortlessly virtuosic, as usual, including not only brilliant passagework but also lyricism and, well, pizzazz. The rehearsal started with working through the last two movements, and then a run-through of the whole piece, save for the opening piano solo (darn!). It was during the run through that Watts really caught fire. An incredible electricity seemed to fill the hall.

The Falla was great, showy orchestral fun. The Philharmonic is a phenomenal orchestra, and having headr them twice, Boston three times, and Philadelphia and Cleveland each once in recent months, there’s no doubt in my mind the Philharmonic has the top brass section of these four of the “big five” orchestras. These Philharmonic guys just never make a mistake. How they do it, I have no idea—in the other orchestras there was always a slight mishap of some sort.

The Philharmonic strings played with a richness and expressiveness, especially in the Wagner, that was the best of the orchestras I’ve heard, too. While the Cleveland strings are the most uncannily precise I’ve ever heard, each section so unified it is as if just one instrument is playing (as the Philadelphia woodwinds seemed last night), at this point I’d say the orchestra I've most enjoyed is the Philharmonic. (And I'm not saying that just because at least one Philharmonic member is following this blog!)

It seems as no one has ever been happy with the Avery Fisher Hall acoustics, and I believe there are plans afoot to redo the hall again; the Philharmonic even tried to move back to Carnegie Hall a year or two ago but the deal fell through. Both times I've been to hear them play this fall, I've been in a box seat towards the front of the hall on the stage right (audience left) side, and from there the sound is terrific.

Tues. 12/6: Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Just one concert today, and not even a movie.

Tonight’s event, the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, was definitely something. (Which reminds me, if I haven’t made it perfectly clear in previous entries, even though I’ve been struggling with some of the music Charles Curtis has been performing, there’s no question that he is not just something, he’s a genuinely extraordinary artist.)

Two works on the program: the New York premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s new Percussion Concerto (25 minutes), and the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony (aka No. 3). Colin Currie was the soloist, and the Philly’s music director Christoph Eschenbach conducted.

The Higdon is an energetic, colorful work, which makes so much use of the orchestra’s percussion section that it seemed at times more like a sinfonia concertante or concerto grosso, or one of those in-between-categories works like some movements in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in which there are multiple soloists at times. 38 percussion instruments employed all together, if I counted the list in the program correctly. Currie—a brilliant performer who clearly deserves the major career he’s established at age 29—had a gaggle of instruments spread across the front of the stage, and part of the fun of the piece was watching him scurry from one area to the next while being careful not to bump into Maestro Eschenbach. Higdon’s musical language is very accessible; she has wonderful ideas, which are well developed, and she’s a very imaginative orchestrator.

The Higdon starts with exquisitely soft marimba tremolos. And, of course, that's when several sirens went by. It kind of worked, though, and at first I thought they were perhaps part of the piece. It's one of those New York ironies. Carnegie has arguably the greatest acoustics in the world, but it is still next to Seventh Avenue!

Anyone studying conducting would have done well to watch Eschenbach during the Higdon. Clear, expert, textbook-perfect baton technique. He’s one of the few big-time conductors I’ve seen who actually holds his baton so that extends out directly in front of him, bless him. This guy I could actually follow. (I’ve sometimes commented to friends in major orchestras that watching most conductors I think to myself I wouldn’t be able to follow them, and wonder how the orchestra is doing it; they tell me they just don’t look.) Later in the Beethoven he was more free in his motions; a great orchestra like the Philadelphia doesn't need a traffic cop to play Beethoven.

The Higdon performance was superb, and received with enthusiastic applause as well as many cheers. Yes, I got tears in my eyes a few times, twice provoked by the brilliant playing of all the percussionists, and then again at the cheers for the composer. There’s something about seeing someone have such a success and be so enthusiastically embraced in this most famous of concert halls (in a city where audiences can be so rude) that is deeply moving. It’s probably historic, too, but that didn’t occur to me until just now.

The Eroica, a standard war-horse if ever there was one, was a controversial new work when first premiered. The program pointed this out and suggested the audience “ . . . think about what challenged the expectations of Beethoven’s contemporaries and what strikes us today when we encounter a new piece for the first time.” Not a bad idea, if even the Beethoven’s obvious real purpose on the program was to bring in the audience that the Higdon wouldn’t.

The performance? Clean, precise ensemble playing (save for a few moments in the Scherzo), generally fine balance (seemed a bit bottom heavey much of the time), and great coordination of details—accents and phrasings were so similar in the winds that it was as if one person was playing each one. Eschenbach chose bracing tempos, and did a great job of pacing and building tension. It was a finely crafted, architectural performance which took a big-picture, steadily paced approach, rather than using subtleties of rubato to create emotional nuance.

I was impressed and full of admiration, but not, to my dissapointment, moved.

I remembered of one of my theory teachers back at Juilliard who after analyzing a Beethoven piece for us explained that while he was in awe of Beethoven’s craft, he was just never moved by the music. Unlike my former professor, I do not have a general Beethoven immunity. But I was tired, and listening and observing so much that I realized I was listening to the performance more than surrendering to the piece; perhaps if I had been in a emotional/mental place I would have been more emotionally affected. Yet as I listened, I found myself yearning to have Furtwangler on the podium, or maybe Barenboim. I wanted something more personal. And so perhaps I just wasn't on the Eschenbach wavelength. There was a rousing ovation with many cheers, so much of the audience was more into it than I. And there's no question that I left full of professional admiration for the craftsmanship and inteelignece of the performance.

It was a beautiful night, and even though I was quite tired, I couldn’t help taking advantage of the opportunity to take a long walk--who knows when the weather might turn miserable? Seventh Avenue over to Central Park South, then east to Fifth Avenue, and down Fifth to Rockefeller Center, where I called home to rub it in. The shop windows and the people watching were, of course spectacular. Even when I lived here in NY, I always got a kick out being at Rockefeller Center, especially during the holidays.

Later, walking up the steps from the Subway, there was a mother with a fully loaded (including the largest, Sam's-Club-size bottle of cooking oil I've ever seen) portable shopping cart. She and her son, who looked to be four or five, were trying to get it up the steps. He was struggling, literally, to hold up his end (mom was pulling from the top, and his job was to lift the bottom up so it would clear the stairs). First instinct was to just lift the bottom up for him, but I stopped myself--I didn’t want to deprive him of the satisfaction that would come from helping his mother and accomplishing a difficult task. There was a small landing halfway up, and when they reached it his little arms gave out and he dropped his end and had clearly given up—there’s an expression a kid gets on his face that just says, “that’s it.” So I figured it at this point it would be OK, so I made the offer, and they accepted (no wavering on his part). Mom was appreciative and polite. The kid scampered up the rest of the stairs with joy and relief and looked like he had experienced a minor miracle.

Someone who was there is going to tell someone else about it and they’ll think it is a story of how nice New Yorkers can be. I guess we’ll have to let NY take the credit, but we know it was really Hoosier hospitality temporarily transported.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Mon. 12/5 II: George Pearle, Waking States Concert II; Uptown v. Downtown Music, and "Is It Something?"

After the Antonioni film, my evening project was to begin to answer a question which had started to form in my mind when I first read Charles Curtis’s biography, which refers to his intense involvement in the “New York downtown new music scene.” What makes some music downtown music? Isn’t music just music?

It just happened that at 7:30 PM in Zankel Hall (the fairly new space which is part of the Carnegie Hall complex) there was a George Perle tribute concert, which made it possible to hear the first half of it and then go downtown for the second Waking States concert: a chance to compare "establishment" contemporary music with the downtown vibe back to back.

Perle, 90, has been a highly regarded and influential composer and composition teacher for over 60 years. This concert had a heck of a cast of players, including the hugely famous pianists Leon Fleisher and Jonathan Biss (at 25, having the sort of career that Leon did at that age).

I had been worried that the concert might be sold out, but the house was only a third full, if that, and I’m sure a good number of those were comp tickets—half the audience seemed to know each other and many clearly were friends with Perle and/or one or more of the performers. This lack of audience was incredibly surprising to me. Here we are, in NY, with a concert of works not just by such a significant living composer, but performed by artists including two of the worlds most respected concert pianists!

I heard only the first half of the concert, which included works for flute and piano, cello and piano, solo piano, and a quartet of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello (as the notes pointed out, a Pierrot ensemble without the singer or pianist). I thoroughly enjoyed the pieces. Perle has been a great champion of the twelve-tone composers, especially Schoenberg, Webern, and, most of all, Berg. Though not a twelve-tone or, according to the notes, even atonal composer himself, his music contains the interesting dissonances, conciseness, and expressionism much like those early members of the Second Viennese School. It was also a great pleasure to hear the rising young cellist Priscilla Lee play, and to hear Jonathan Biss live for my first time.

The music and performances were so wonderful (a combination of technical mastery, musicianship, and emotional commitment on the same high level as Sundays NY Philharmonic chamber music concert) that I seriously considered staying for the whole concert and skipping the second program of Charles Curtis’s Waking States series, which was to begin at 9:00 PM down on 13th St. And Leon Fleisher, whom I’ve admired since I was in middle school, and who was an important teacher to me when I was at Peabody, was playing on the second half.

In any other circumstance, I would have stayed, if only to hear Leon. But I came to NY at this time especially to hear this entire Waking States series, and Charles was doing a world premiere, and so when intermission came a little after 8:30 PM I went out to 7th Ave and got a cab to the next event. (It was one of the few times I was glad I didn’t know anyone at the concert, because it would have been embarrassing to have someone I knew see me leave before Fleisher played!)

Well, I thought to myself in the cab, I’ve just heard mainstream, uptown contemporary music. Now I can see if there what distinguishes downtown contemporary music.

Here’s one answer. If you are a mainstream classical musician, even if you don’t like George Perle’s music, there’s no question that, as David Letterman might put it, this is something. Conventional classical instruments, played conventionally, with all the standard musical elements of specific rhythms, meter, harmony, melody, counterpoint, motivic development, dynamic contrasts, discreet movements, and a definite sense of personal emotions being expressed. There’s a definite sense of anger, sadness, humor, etc. The harmonic language may be more dissonant than is appealing to most classical musicians and audiences, but it is clearly written within the context of the Western classical-music paradigm. I happened to love it. (I also like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.) My classical-musician self was very comfortable with the music. I wanted to go buy Perle CDs (and started an internal argument as to whether or not I could fit them in the budget). I wanted to get the music and perform the Lyric Piece for Cello and Piano Lee played. I started thinking about putting together a group to perform the Sonata a Quattro for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello.

Concert two of “Waking States” was the premiere of Ėlaine Radigue’s Naldjorlak for solo cello. This piece is an exploration of unusual resonances created with a slightly altered conventional acoustic cello. The cello has been retuned, the tailpiece set, and the end pin pulled to the appropriate length so that everything, the cello, the tailpiece wire, and the endpin itself, are tuned to the resonance of the air cavity of the cello. Curtis, again playing from memory, played long drones which created multiphonics. At one point, the piece focused on the “wolf” tone, with the cellist slightly altering finger position to speed up or slow down the beats of the tone. One long section explored nothing but the sounds created by bowing the endpin itself, and the final one bowing the tailpiece wire that loops around the endpin.

All this has been carefully, painstakingly worked out by Radigue and Curtis. And there was no question that Curtis was totally in command and totally committed to and immersed in the work.

I came to the concert with as open a mind as I could. Not begrudgingly, half-heartedly open, but intentionally open, not just my mind but my heart. And yet, after a couple minutes of the opening section, in which the cellist plays on the C string intentionally making sounds that most cellists would call noise, and doing so with great reverence, this thought came to mind: Is this something, or is this, well, just bullshit?

First reaction: most of my professional colleagues, the people I play with most often, would dismiss this and say this is bullshit. Because it is missing all those things that so easily defined the Perle works for me as "something." (I remember one of my DePauw colleagues defiantly walking out of a Kronos Quartet concert when they did a section in which they rhythmically whipped their bows in the air.)

Second reaction: everyone here seems to be experiencing this as something. I looked around at the rest of the audience (this night sitting on chairs). These people were into it.

Third reaction: OK, they are into it, but is this an emperor’s new clothes sort of thing? Maybe they’ve all talked themselves into the idea that this is really something, but in reality they’ve fooled themselves into going along with a sort of counter-cultural snobbery in which a bunch of unusual sounds are embraced as art, even though it doesn’t make any real sense. Maybe everyone’s here for a hit of that I-understand-what-others-can't superiority, the kind I jokingly described myself feeling after the Antonioni film.

Fourth reaction: As with the Antonioni film, my intuitive sense is that while as is the case with virtually every public art event there is some pretense going on among some I the audience, there really is something here and I’m just not getting it. So, Eric, shut the heck up and just listen.

Just listening is easier said than done. (Sure, just don’t think. What could be easier?) So I started meditating and doing meditative listening. And for brief periods of time, I got it. I got into it.

And then my classical self would say, figuratively speaking, “Hey, not you, too! This isn’t something, this is bullshit.” Be quiet, I’d answer, just let me listen to this. But there was an internal battle going on, and on the subway home, I wasn't sure whether it was something or finely-crafted noise, more pretense than anything else.

And now it is the next day. It seems clearer now. It's both. We are talking two different paradigms of what music is. Listened to in the “downtown” paradigm, that Radigue piece, it really is something. Listened to from the “uptown,” mainstream, I want a melody-even-if-it-is-atonal paradigm, it’s bullshit.

This trip, for me, then, is about learning to experience the downtown events with downtown ears. I’m new at it, but I’m starting to get it. And that, for me, anyway, is definitely something.

Mon. 12/5 I: In Which Eric Tries to Find an Open Movie Theatre Without Losing His Pants

Yesterday was one of those days that could happen only in New York.

With the day free, I wanted to accomplish two tasks before my evening of concert going. First, check out some portable sound systems for use in my upcoming work with the dancer Robin Becker (I need to be able to amplify the cello, use an effects pedal or two, and play a CD simultaneously), and see a movie.

Sounds simple enough, especially since there’s a Sam Ash superstore just off the north end of the Times Square area on W 48th St., and, I remembered, plenty of multiplexes cinemas in Times Square.

The subway let me off about three blocks from Sam Ash; just perfect. After a good discussion with one of their salesman, we determined that the system (Fender Passport PD-150) that I had narrowed things down to on the web was the right one for my needs. Except they stock every Fender Passport system model except the PD-150.

Well, at least I’d talked to a knowledgeable human being about this, and can buy one elsewhere. So off to the movies.

Right in the heart of Times Square is an enormous marquee for LOWES THEATRES. So I headed there. But nowhere on the street level was there an entrance marked for the Lowes Theatres. I walked around both corners. Nothing. I looked up in the air again. LOWES THEATRES. So I went in the Virgin Megastore (which sells CDs and DVDs and lots of other stuff as well) and asked the security guard. “Oh, the theaters are two flights down,” he explained and pointed me to the escalators. Sure enough, there were some signs by the escalator, along with about a hundred video monitors.

So down I went. The doors to the theatre closed. Lights off at the two box offices. No list of show times. What, are they closed, I asked myself.

So back to the street. I had decided not to ask the helpful security guard for more advice and turned instead to the man with a table set up in front of the store (he was soliciting donations for the homeless). He told me there were a bunch of movie theatres at 42nd St. and 7th Ave. I walked down there, and there weren’t, but I could see a big sign for the AMC 25 at the other end of the block, at 6th Ave. So I made my way down there. The entire theatre was closed for a “private screening.” And so was the big Lowes multiplex across the street.

So back to Times Square, where I noticed a life-size head and shoulders of King Kong set up in the park and lots of cameras and whatnot. So I figure the theatres must have been closed for some sort of promotional stuff—there was an Access Hollywood set at 42nd and 6th.

I walked up to 54th St. to pick up some music in a store there, and then on to Carnegie Hall to buy tickets for upcoming events. By now, my jeans, which were pretty tight when I put them on in the morning and consequently I did not wear a belt, since I had on a sweater and leather jacket. By now, though, they had stretched out and decided it was time to start sliding off. So every block or so, I now had to hitch up my jeans, which was a challenge since one hand was holding the bag with my music.

I bought the tickets at Carnegie and, since my pants kept wanting to fall down, did the only sensible thing (not!) and decided to walk to Lincoln Center to buy a Metropolitan Opera ticket for Thursday, as well as tp see if there was a good movie playing up there. Got the ticket and also ended up seeing the 4:30 show of the recent re-release of Antonioni’s classic “The Passenger” (starring a fairly young Jack Nicholson).

I didn’t really get it, especially at first. It had that art-film vibe which I experience as this-doesn’t-make-sense-on-the-surface-but-it-is-significant. I'm sure there's a lot to it, and there were fascinating, thought-provoking sections. Anyway, just seeing it made me temporarily feel like a Cultured Upper West Sider. Despite the fact that I had to keep hitching my pants up and may have looked to others like a tourist from Indiana without enough sense to wear a belt! I had that I’ve-been-to-an-art-film inner glow and sense of superiority.

I suppose all that could only happen in New York, but for sure only in New York could this have been followed by two great contemporary music concerts, about which I’ll write in the next entry.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

NY Philharmonic Chamber Music

Sunday December 4, NY (day two of this sabbatical excursion).

Today’s musical treat: Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht for String Sextet, Op. 4, and the Brahms String Quartet No. 2 in G Major, performed by musicians of the New York Philharmonic and violinist Leonidas Kavakos. at the 92nd St. YMHA (for many years an important Manhattan concert venue, for those of you who haven't been able to spend time here). Two wonderful works, similar in some ways—Schoenberg’s musical language at this point (he was about 25) was still very influenced by Brahms.

Extraordinary playing. Kavakos, who has established a fine solo career, is an ouststanding musician. But no more than the six Philharmonic players: Sheryl Staples and Michelle Kim (violins), Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young (violas) and Carter Brey and Qiang Tu (cellos). When I was in my early teens, my father told me that many principal players of major orchestras play on the same level as string players with solo careers, but I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized he was right, and it was even later that I came to understand that some people might prefer orchestral life to that of a touring soloist (take away the ecstasy of the music making and even a great artist’s life on the road isn’t all that different of a traveling salesman). Carter Brey, the Philharmonic's principal cellist, has a significant solo career himself, one he cut back on to join the orchestra. And each of the others clearly has a level of artistry that would enable them to do the work of a touring soloist, if they had the inclination and there were more opportunities for full-time soloists in today's classical music culture.

This was everything one could want in a chamber music concert. That everyone was in total technical command of their instruments was a given, but even that in and of itself was an inspiration. There is something deeply moving to me about witnessing tremendous feats of physical discipline and control; sometimes I get tears in my eyes when someone executes perfectly what I know to be a difficult passage. I have such an appreciation for instrumental musicians that I’m affected most powerfully by them. I can find myself awe struck by a great gymnast or figure skater. Not long ago I was watching a Fred Astaire film; closely watching one number I was just blown away. How can any human being, I asked myself, have that kind of control of his body?

This sort of achievement, built on years and years of study and practice, and the efforts and support of parents and teachers (and generations of their teachers) and mentors and the support of friends and other family . . . when someone has really mastered something, it is genuinely awe inspiring.

All seven of today’s performers have done that. But of course the art of classical music performance, especially chamber music, begins once the technical skill is in place. This was genuine music making, alive and vital and imaginative. These players were really there, fully present in the music making. And it was the kind of beautifully blended, finely crafted ensemble playing that one would expect from a group that plays together regularly.

I especially appreciated the wide pallet of sound colors and the variety of vibrato. There was a time when it seemed that most New York-based string players I heard played with a consistently fast, wide, pretty-much uniform vibrato that had not much variety. One of my teachers, Bernard Greenhouse, has been on a mission his entire pedagogical career to get string players to vary the width and speed of their vibrato to achieve a wider and more effective expressive range. In both works, it was clear that the entire group was sensitive to vibrato use. Sometimes these things work themselves out nonverbally in the rehearsal process, but I would be quite surprised if vibrato use in some passages had not been thoroughly discussed.

Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist, and I have had a bit of a debate on the Internet Cello Society web forums about left-hand position in recent days. It was serendipitous to have such a timely opportunity to hear (and see) him play. We had a nice chat after the concert.

"Just Charles & Cello in The Romantic Chord": The Das Rheingold of Solo Cello Works

Just back from experiencing LaMonte Young's "Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord" at the Mela Foundation Dream House down Tribeca. This was the first event in the "Waking States" series of concerts at several NY venues in which the cellist Charles Curtis is performing important solo works he has been involved with in recent years. I'm attending each event (except for the repeated performances) as part of this visit to NY, part of my DePauw sabbatical.

I have a hunch that the creators of the work might not be thrilled that Wagner, especially Das Rheingold, the first of the four music dramas that comprise the Ring cycle, came to my mind a number of times (but I may be wrong). While there were no characters singing, no scenery changes, or extra-musical program, certain parallels are obvious. The performance occurred in a space dedicated to an encompassing, transformative work (Bayreuth). This piece is part of a larger whole and uses material found in other of the composer's works (Young writes in the program notes that it "is possible to conceive of all my music as one vast composition"). The work is as much visual as aural; in addition to the music was a lighting installation and a video projection, Abstract #1 from Quadrilateral Phase Angle Traversals (2003) in Imagic Light by Marian Zazeela, Young's partner (wife?). The sense of smell was important as well; a lovely incense was present when we arrived. So Wagner's concept of the Gesamptkunstwerk (total-concept art work) seems an obvious parallel.

The performance itself was a seamless, uninterrupted span of sound, at least 3 hours and 45 minutes without break. One could argue that it was actually four and half hours, perhaps longer. A recorded open d-string drone was playing as the audience silently entered the space, and the as the Curtis finished the d drone had returned and remained playing. The lighting and video we in place from before I arrived and continued after I left. So it is hard, perhaps impossible, to say when the performance started or ended. I found my seat about7:45 PM. Curtis began playing about 8:35, and finished around 12:20 AM. This sense of no beginning or end left me feeling the music was eternal and is always present.

The only work of similar uninterrupted length I've attended live is Wagner's Das Rheingold, the first of the four music dramas that comprise the Ring cycle. In the opera house, one has a seat, but at the Mela Foundation in Tribeca, we sat on the floor (those of us who arrived on the early side were able to grad a cushion and a spot by wall and had back support, too). Rheingold is about an hour or so shorter, though.

The work explores pitch relationships over drones, inspired in this aspect by North Indiana classical music, especially as taught by Young's guru Pandit Pran Nath. Curtis played solo acoustic cello over a series of drones he had prerecorded, and which he controlled with three footswitches interfaced with a computer program developed for this piece. (Charles explained to me after the concert that one switch moves the computer to the next drone, one moves it back to the previous drone, and the third fades the music in or out.) The drones ranged from a simple open d string to close dissonances and dense chords. This, of course, is a departure from the Indian music I have heard, in which an unchanging drone underlies the entire performance.

The work was not in equal temprement by any means. Although to my ears, used to equal temprement and the slight "expressive intonation" and other variations on it string players often employ, the music seemped to employ microtonally altered pitches, LaMonte Young uses his own, consistent tuning system. His program notes explain:

Along with new works for my Just Alap Raga Ensemble, Just Charles &
Cello in The Romantic Chord
is one of my most recent compositions.
Composed in Just Intonation, which I have defined as "the system of tuning
in which every frequency is related to every other frequency as the
numerator or denominator of some whole number fraction," Just Charles
& Cello in The Romantic Chord
is set in the Dorian mode. . .

While the tunings of the Dorian scale in just intonation are factorable
by the primes 5, 4, and 2, my tunings are unique in that the tuning for Young's Dorian Blues in G is factorable by the primes 7, 5, 3, and 2,
and the tuning for "The Romantic Chord" is factorable by 7, 3, and 2 only.
As the title suggests, Just Charles & Cello in The Romantic
is based on the tuning of "The Romantic Chord" from [Young's] The Well-Tuned Piano. Also in G, the Dorian mode of "The Romantic
Chord" is based on the ascending Pythagorean series C, G, D, A, E, with
B-flat (the third degree) and F (the 7th degree) derived septimally. The C,
G, D, and A are all open strings on the cello, the Pythagorean E exists as a
natural harmonic on both the D and A strings, and the B-flat and F exist as
natural harmonics on the C and G strings respectively. This congruence of
pitches and strings deliniates an inextricably inherent relationship between
the tuning of the mode and instrument.

Much of the work is in the Indiana alap style, with a careful, quasi-improvised exploration of intervals over a drone. Unlike raga performances, no percussion enters after the alap to introduce a sense of rhythmic cycles and percussive energy. The various sections of the work did grow in intensity, complexity, and rhythmic energy.

Because of my work with Sufis, especially at the Abode of the Message in upstate NY, certain aspects felt right at home. We removed our shoes and sat on the floor. Some in the audience lied down for all or part of the event; a few spent part of the concert in an altered state of consciousness, including the one commonly referred to as sleep. With about 50 people in the space, the was a physical closeness and intimacy, and a touch of a slumber-party feel to it.

For me it was a stimulating, fascinating, thought-provoking, imagination-triggering, physically uncomfortable experience. So much of the musical laguage was new to me that I found myself often disconcerted or in analytical mode. I can't say I was moved or was able to surrender myself to the music. Which doesn't mean I didn't like it. As a matter of fact, I am considering revising my schedule to attend another performance. I'd need to absorb the language and aesthetic more fully to really "get" the piece more fully.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Here in NY. Starting With an Evening of Drones

I've arrived in NY for 10 days of concert-going, whioch starts tonight with Charles Curtis's performance of "Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord" by LaMonte Young. First in a series of concerts called "Waking States," described here. A description of tonight's piece:

for solo cello, pre-recorded cello drones and light projection3 hours, 30

An extraordinary solo of more than three hours continuous
length, and
the only solo work composed by La Monte Young for a performer
other than
himself. Combining elements of Young's magnum opus The Well-Tuned
Piano with
raga and Dream Music, and a beautiful, subtly changing light
projection by
Marian Zazeela, this is one of the definitive statements of
these great artists'
work. Charles Curtis is the leading intepreter of
Young's music; in performance
he realizes the highly abstract just
intonation interval ratios with
unprecedented precision. Of Curtis' premiere
performance at the MaerzMusik
festival in Berlin 2004, Wire magazine writes:
"Playing to a hypnotic cello
drone issuing from the loudspeakers beside him,
he built up a shimmering
minimalistic tableau that made for compulsive
listening throughout his three
hour performance."

These performances
represent the American avant-premiere,
following World Premieres and
performances in Paris, Lyon, Berlin, Dijon and
Polling, Germany.
Should be fascinating. I love drones. I think I'm going to love this.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Power of Music

A close family friend passed away Tuesday morning after a short but horrific illness. 54 years old, Mary Field was one of the most wonderful women I've ever known. There's been an extraoridnary outpouring of love, gratitude, and grief. This was a woman who had touched the lives of nearly everyone in our small college town.

I played at this morning's memorial service, along with my colleagues Allison Edberg (violin) and Claude Cymerman. Before the service, we played the slow movement of the Schubert B-flat Trio, then I played some solo Bach. We finished the prelude with the slow movement of the Mendelssohn C minor Trio. During the service we played the slow movement of the Mendelssohn D minor trio, and as a Postlude we played the finale of the Schumann D minor trio.

After the service, in which there were four moving tributes to Mary, many people told me the music was the "best," the most moving part. The part that made things seem a little less awful. One said, "I don't believe in God, except when I listen to music."

It reminded me of how powerful music is. Of how lucky we are to have it. And of how lucky I am to be a musician.

My video sparks a debate . . .

There's a thread on the Internet Cello Society forum at prompted by my video on left-hand technique (which can be seen at While everyone seems to agree that using weight and balance and not squeezing or pressing are "good things," there are some strong defenders of a "square" left hand, including Carter Brey, principal cellist of the NY Phil. I've joined in the discussion myself.

It's nice that the video is being discovered!