Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I can't believe I played the whole thing . . .

(For my younger readers, there used to be a series of Alka-Seltzer tv ads in which someone would be looking at the camera, quite distressed, and say, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing.")

I did play the whole Shostakovitch, and the more closely recorded entire piece is up on my recordings page. Along with the saga of why the entire concert performance isn't there (it's part dress rehearsal, part performance).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Two men in love with the same . . . cello

The Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello I used for the Shostakovich concerto is fabulous: a big, clear, loud sound that carries well in a hall. A student in one of my classes yesterday asked me, "do you like the tone of the carbon fiber cello better than a wood cello?"

Well, no. I love the Luis and Clark for what it is--a different cello, with a different sound. It has a lot of similarities to a wood cello, and is more powerful than any wood cello I've compared it with. But it is not a wood cello and doesn't sound exactly like one and that's fine. It's a great, truly amazing, new instrument.

One of my students has been in the process of buying a new cello. He's finally settled on a brand-new wood cello by the Chicago maker Gary Garavaglia. Both of us fell in love with it. As a matter of fact, I almost used it for the Shostakovich concerto, because I'm just nuts for it. But all my students listened to the two side by side in a hall and the unanimous verdict was that the Luis and Clark projected better.

The Garavaglia has a rich, deep, sound that's somehow both mellow and powerful. I've played a number of Garavaglias over the years. I've always admired them. But this is the first that I've been truly infatuated with. I played it on a chamber music concert last night and everyone loved it.

It's as if the instrument has a soul. I rarely feel that with an instrument. And it brought out new things in my playing.

So I'm delighted my student is getting it. He sounds great on it. When I heard him play it, I had that sense that they belonged together. I didn't feel that with any of the other cellos he tried. Not that some of them weren't just as "good." But it's as much about chemistry as quality.

In Casablanca, Paul Henried points out to Humphrey Bogart that the two of them are in love with the same woman. (Ingrid Bergman--who wouldn't be in love with her?) In the end, Bogie insists that Bergman go off with Henried as he works to save the world. And so I, despite falling in love with this cello, must relinquish it to my student, letting the instrument empower him to be the wonderful cellist he is on the path to becoming.

The Garavaglia and I will always have, if not Paris, Monday's chamber music concert. And it didn't leave me on a train in the rain.

Here's looking at you, kid.

First movement, as heard in the hall . . .

I've now have the CD of the broadcast version of the Shostakovich. I'm working on converting the files. Meanwhile, here's a different recording of the first movement, from the dress rehearsal. This was recorded on a Sony MP3 recorder and a prety good stereo mic out in the middle of the auditorium, about 2/3 of the way back from the stage. I set the mic at about "ear level," because I wanted to hear the actual balance. The broadcast recording used a spot mic on the cello solo.

I'm playing a Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello here. As you can tell from this recording, it packs quite a punch and carries well in the hall.

Click here to listen or download the file. It's also available on my recordings page, where I'll post the entire concerto soon.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Oops--that Shostakovich broadcast?

"The best laid plans o' mice and men gang aft agley." (Robert Burns; the quote also made famous by Stienbeck's book Of Mice and Men.)

I'd announced here that at 3:00 PM ET today (Sunday) the DePauw Symphony concert, including me performing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, would be streamed live over the interent. But it didn't happen. Yesterday's DePauw football game was was rained out (severe thunderstorm down in Tennessee) and finally played today. Which preempted the DePauw Symphony live broadcast.

It turns out not to have been an altogether bad thing, since someone pushed a button too few or too many in the auditorium control booth and nothing was recorded until sometime during the third movement (the cadenza) of the second piece in the program, the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1. Had the broadcast gone out live, there would have been a lot of dead air.

Luckily, a successful recording was made at Friday's dress rehearsal. Orcenith Smith, our indefatigable conductor, spent the rest of the afternoon working with the radio station staff to edit together the the dress rehearsal and the what was recorded of the concert. The whole thing was then broadcast at 8:00 PM ET tonight. As soon as I get a copy of the assembled recording, I'll post MP3 files up of the Shostakovich concerto.

Everyone enjoyed the Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello; it projects like a monster. The orchestra was dressed in traditional concert black.
I wore off-white shirt and slacks, so the black "bat cello" (as my students call it) looked quite striking.

And even I thought the performance went well--and usually I am very self-critical and disappointed in my playing.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Song About Having Two Dads

Here's today's LGBT-friendly Youtube. My kids are lucky that their circle of friends is composed primarily of other kids of enlightened/liberal university professors, so they haven't suffered the sort of harrassment that many kids with a gay parent or parents do.

This video seems a little hokey, in that very commercial teenybop sort of way. But it still touched me. Dutch television must be more interesting in some ways than that in the U.S.

OK, Sunday I'm a Carbon Knight

One of the Luis and Clark carbon-fiber cello enthusiasts has dubbed we who play the instruments "Carbon Knight." I wrote yesterday that I was having a hard time deciding which cello to use for Sunday's Shostakovich 1st Concerto performance. I rehearsed yesterday with the Luis and Clark and decided to stick with it; I didn't even try the Garavaglia with the orchestra.

Why? Well, the L&C sounded great. I'm very comfortable with it, having performed on it many times. It projects well. And it really would be crazy to try and get comfortable with another cello by Sunday. A new decisiveness: this bodes well!

So for Sunday at least, I'll be a Carbon Knight.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Oh, the crazy things we do to ourselves

when an "important" concert is approaching.

Sunday afternoon, I'm performing (for my first time) the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto, with the DePauw Symphony, here where I teach. My "real" cello, a wonderful 1790 Pietro Pallotta, is being restored by Russell Wagner in Chicago, and looks something like this.

I have never had a permanent second cello. DePauw owns a terrific Luis and Clark carbon-fiber cello, which projects well and which I've played in a number of concerts over the last 18 months or so. I'm also in the process of starting a business selling instruments, and have two cellos by Jan Szlachtowski, a good contemporay maker. These instruments sell in the $12,000-14,000 range, and are some of the best, perhaps the best I've heard in that range. I've used one of them in a number of chamber music concerts and recitals, with wonderful feedback.

They don't project as well, though, as the Luis and Clark. Very few if any wood cellos do; a friend brought his Nicolo Gagliano along on a visit last spring, and the L&C carried even better in a hall than that cello. But the tone of the L&C is not as rich or warm a tone.

A student of mine is trying a Gary Garavaglia cello (Gary's a contemporary maker in Chicago) which I love. About twice the price of the Szlachtowskis, it is richer and projects better. But as with the Gagliano, it doesn't project as well as the L&C. And the Shostakovich is the sort of piece in which one needs all the projection one can get, especially playing with a young undergraduate orchestra, not all of whom are music majors. One of my former teachers told me it was easier to be heard when soloing with the entire Berlin Philharmonic or Philadephia orchestra than with a student or amateur chamber orchestra. Professional orchestra players play so well that they aren't focused on just playing their parts, so they truly listen to the soloist, and won't cover her or him up (unless there's some soret of vendetta going on!).

The Garavaglia I find incredibly easy to play; it's as if it had been made for me. And the dealer would be delighted, of course, if I play it Sunday. The Garavaglia could be a good middle ground. And I won't have certain traditionalists fussing at me for using a carbon-fiber
thing." (Actually, that's kind of a reason to use the L&C!) So I'm still going back and forth. Since today is Wednesday, I really need to make up my mind.

This indecisiveness is a bit crazy, I know. It seems clear to me that it's a symptom of anxiety about the concert. It's one local concert . . . who cares which cello I use? But here I am, making an enormous issue about it. (Once I spent the entire day of a recital shopping for a new pair of patent leather shoes, for which I ended up overpaying and only wore a couple of times, since they turned out to be uncomfortable.)

I'll try them both with the orchestra this afternoon, with a friend or two in the hall and also recording the rehearsal with a mic in the middle of the hall. I'll use that feedback to make a final decision TONIGHT (you hear that, Eric? Tonight!).

Well, maybe it's a good sign that I'm obessing over which cello to use. It means I'm comfortable about the piece itself!

Except on American Airlines . .

. . . a kiss is just a kiss, not a cause for a potentially major incident.

From "As Time Goes By" (word and music by Herman Hupfeld), made famous in Casablanca:

And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo
They still say, "I love you."
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.


But on American Airlines, no public displays of affection are allowed--by anyone. At least that was the eventual explanation on the flight described in this New Yorker article. I haven't heard about a captain threatneing to divert a flight if an opposite-sex couple snuggled together and gave each other an occasional kiss, but perhaps an example will be forthcoming.

Either way, it will be a long time before I fly American again!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Read Greg's latest chapter

On Monday, Greg Sandow posted a new chapter in his online book on the future of classical music. The entire project is very worthwhile reading.

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Putnam County Playhouse here in Greencastle, Indiana (a place that can feel like the true middle of nowhere) is an excellent community theatre that does four productions every summer. To Kill a Mockingbird has its last performance tonight, closing the season.

Since Greencastle's a college town, and DePauw has some wonderful theater professors, the PCP productions have a wonderful mix of professional actors (volunteering their services) and enthusiastic amateurs. The Mockingbird production is powerful. (I hate it when I start crying in public.) It was a reminder to me of many things, including the fact that loving your neighbor is most important when it is most difficult.

And that live theatre creates an experience like no other. Way to go, everyone. Here in "the middle of nowhere," you have created something wonderful.

Well, definitely a new audience . . .

. . . but I don't know that this is a central part of the future of classical music! I understand from Alex Ross's blog that this has been transposed down to C minor.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cello, the horror movie

Sometimes just trying to play the cello, whether as an amateur, student, or professional, makes life feel like a horror movie. Well, now there's an actual horror movie (from Korea) available on DVD, bringing those cello-player nightmares to home theatres. It's called, approrpiately, Cello. Here are some stills I found at this review.

Hey, cut those fingernails before coming to your next lesson!

Yes, you'll fit. But be afraid, very afraid.

Sometimes I, too, want to make sure that cello can't get out of the case!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Making classical music a human experience

In his latest blog post, Greg Sandow comments on some promising outreach developments by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. He makes a very salient observation:

One caveat, though. Opening the doors -- getting out into the city -- is only the beginning. The biggest change has to be in what classical music institutions actually present. Performances have to feel like living art, or more generally like real human experience, and not like religious rites or some kind of gushy romance novel, where the content doesn't get much beyond "isn't it beautiful!"
Perfectly put--no wonder Greg's a professional writer. As I discussed in my post reflecting on my experience at a lieder recital, there will always be room for quasi-religious performances, especially for those whom classical music fulfills the role that for others is taken by formal religion.

"Real human experience" means, among other things, being able to respond and express and move; to be a participant and not just an observer. And it is interesting that many forward-thinking religious people--I'm thinking especially of Matthew Fox--are saying the same thing about worship experiences.

Just as some in classical music are saying we need to incorporate elements of other genres (pop, rock, non-Western music, jazz, etc.) and embrace new technologies, so does Fox's "creation spirituality" movement.

Mom was right

I once asked my mother, who recently retired as the piano professor at the University of Tampa, what the most important quality is for a successful musician. At the time, I was surprised by her answer: "the desire to play well."

But I came to see she was right. It is the desire to play well that fuels the commitment necessary to do everything else: all the hours of practicing, the lessons, the expense of instruments, etc. This comes to mind because I am playing the Shostakovich 1st Concerto on September 24, and the amount of hours of patient practice to work out the details are really something. We it not for the desire to play really well, to have as much technical control as I possibly can, I would not be sitting in my office at 10:15 PM on a Saturday night finally winding down.

Hours and hours over the course of weeks on a few particularly difficult passages. And the challenge is not to practice "hard" but to practice with calm and comfort and intelligence. After a while, the motions become automatic, and playing the once-difficult passages can become calming and centering.

Bernard Greenhouse used to tell me when I was his student that "any technical problem can be solved." He was (and is) right. But it takes time and thought and patience. He also pointed out that it just takes many, many hours of practice. Another of my teachers (sorry for all the name dropping), Leonard Rose, was famous for his commitment to regular practice throughout his career. And whatever problem I mentioned to him, his answer was always to practice more!

I started learning the Shostakovich in the late spring and have worked on it on and off since then. Now, of course, it is much more "on" than "off"! Passages that initally seemed impossible are now actually easy. I am feeling more and more confident and calm.

Why am I going on about this? Besides the fact that it is on my mind, it illustrates something important. While I have always been naturally musical and imaginative and expressive. Maybe that sounds egotistical, but those just happen to be my gifts. But cello technique? No gift there. I think I have virtually no natural talent for actually playing the cello. Every bit of technique has been worked out and developed. I have been smart enough to listen to my teachers and observe good players and learn from them.

And most of all, I have had the desire to play well that has brought me back to the cello every time I tried to quit, that drove me to study and practice and learn, and that gives me the patience to sit for hours and hours and hours.

Mom, as is so often the case, is right.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

After Die schöne Müllerin

Last night my DePauw faculty colleagues Keith Tonne (tenor) and Amanda Hopson (piano) did a wonderful performance of the complete Die schöne Müllerin cycle by Schubert. They even had the poems Schubert didn't use in the cycle (as I understand it, programs had run out by the time I arrived) read aloud between several of the songs.

It was a beautiful performance, exceedingly well-prepared. A large audience, much larger than the usual faculty recital audience (hmm, maybe things are picking up?--well, we'll see how things are 40 recitals from now), if a bit smaller than at my alternative concert a week before. The audience was quiet and respectful, and when I looked around the hall everyone seemed quite attentive. It was the a traditional concert environment at its best, and I enjoyed the concert very much.

It's the kind of concert that can be done in academia, where there's no extra fee paid to the faculty performers and where no tickets need to be sold. And academia is one of the places where it's entirely appropriate to do formal recitals with a reverently quiet audience. As I reflected on that, other thoughts came to mind as well:

  • This works in academia and in a few major cities, but I don't think leider recitals are doing well anywhere else.
  • Would applause between some of the songs, especially after the lighter ones, have absolutely ruined the possibility for a deep artisitic experience?
  • It was the end of a very long day and I'd had a large dinner. If I'd been able to clap once in a while, to express myself in some physical way, would I expereinced less occasional sleepiness and mind wandering. In other words, with some breaks in concentration, would my concentration during the music have been more focused?
  • It takes an audience well-versed in classical music to provide the kind of respectful, attentive, quiet envionment which was so enjoyable last night (and that's one of the great things about academia--where outside of a college or university in central Indiana would one find such an audience for lieder?).
  • Even if we accept that this is the ideal format in which to experience a perfromance of something likeDie schöne Müllerin , this is not the format to bring in a new audience, an audience that once involved in classical music through a more participatory experience might then be ready and interested in experiencing a more "serious" concert environment.
And I'm still thinking!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Now you can see a bit of the concert , , ,

Ah, publicity. Ken Owen, the director of media relations at DePauw, read this blog and decided to write a story for the DePauw website about the classical-music-in-jeans concert. (If you are visiting this blog for the first time, following the link from the article, welcome.)

The story even has a video clip. And comments from audience members can be found at the first post-concert post. The clip shows the first episode of dancing at the concert. As some of the comments indicate, the dancing and the laughter perhaps had more to do with the transgressive spirit of the event than just allowing one's self to music. And I've since realized that the concert was also a piece of theatre, an event about smashing rules, and in that it connected deeply with the energy of college students making the transition from feeling constrained and repressed by the rules of the adult world to being part of adult culture themselves.

The news story has already resulted in one comment, on yesterdays' post, from a DePauw alum. When we talk about the "crisis in classical music," there are some who will point to the new concert halls being built (as described in Sunday's New York Times article) as evidence that some of us are wringing hands needlessly. Those new halls, and the big jump in ticket sales for the Nashville Symphony, for example (described in the article), are great news, indeed. Not all the news is bad.

Classical music isn't "dying." There will always be people who love listening to art music and who love playing it so much that they devote their lives to it. But as far as I can tell, there is indeed a genuine crisis when it comes to classical music being a central part of American cultural life. And from within the music education and music-performance worlds, there's a crisis in terms of having audiences for all the extraordinary classical musicians being trained. My reader, a graduate student at another university, wrote this in her comment on yesterday's post:

I saw your article on the DPU website and followed it here. I am at Notre Dame now, and see the same thing you see at DePauw, where people just won't come to concerts [emphasis added]. The orchestra here is pretty good (we played at Carnegie Hall in March), but we can't even get people to come to the concerts when we GIVE away tickets! The Glee Club (singers) have no problem, but the orchestra....we're lucky if the auditorium is 20% full at most.
The current situation is not the end of the world. It's a time of transition. It's a time for creative thinking and diversity in presentation and marketing, and for reexamining our assumptions of what defines a classical performance. There are great opportunities for composers and performers to do something new and different.

So experiment away.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Looking ahead . . . next time plugged

I just came home from a wonderful afternoon and evening outdoor jazz festival, right here in Greencastle.

I found myself thinking about what Cleveland Johnson (the Interim Dean of the DePauw School of Music) mentioned in his comment on the classical-music-in-jeans concert post. He said he found himself wanting to hear the music amplified--something he would never before have imagined himself wanting at a classical concert.

At the jazz festival, there was certainly much more talking and laughing than at my concert. And there was dancing. And there were even kids energetically playing basketball, just a few yards away from the stage. People were walking around, including some selling raffle tickets and desserts. Chairs were constantly being set up or taken down. Blankets were laid out and picked up. People waved to each other, moved to be with each other, embraced. They ate and drank.

But we could still hear every note being played or sung, because it was all amplified. (Quite well, too.) There was much, much more audience-generated sound and movement at the jazz festival than at the no-etiquette-rules recital I did the other night. But with the performers amplified, music was never obscured by the other sounds. The dancing and basketball playing wasn't right in front of the performers, but to the side and a bit behind the stage, so it wasn't visually distracting.

Traditional concert halls are designed for traditional concerts. I'll do my next informal, interactive classical concert in a different sort of setting, and be amplified, too.

But it occurred to me while I was hanging out at the jazz festival that there was powerful symbolism, at least on the personal level, in using an official faculty recital in a university concert hall (where we used to have a list of 10 commandments for audience behavior, all stated as "thou shalt not . . .") to smash the tradition, generate some debate, and start myself on a new adventure. The more I think about it, the more I like it.