Saturday, December 22, 2007

229.5 and falling . . .

No refined sugar, no flour, very few starchy vegetables. Lots of "real food"--eggs, dairy, meat, fish, and fresh vegetables. Lots of walking (although my exercise commitment has not been as steadfast as my dietary one). My goal was to be down to 230 (from 263.5) by Christmas. 229.5 today, with 3 days to go! Final target, derived from the BMI charts, is between 170-180, so there are 50-60 pounds still to go. I'm a third or a bit more of the way there, so here's a pat on my back.

Jimmy Moore's low-carb blog, which if sometimes a bit hysterical in tone nevertheless constantly supplies encouragement and loads of excellent links, and Gary Taubes' increasingly influential book Good Calories, Bad Calories, have been major supports. As has been my (self-diagnosed) OCD streak.

Some folks on low-carb diets eat a lot of "low-carb" ice cream, muffins, sugar-free candy, etc. The sweet-tooth, sugar-high addiction was a big part of the problem for me--stress eating. So I just plain gave up dessert items (with an occasional planned exception, such as Thanksgiving Day and probably Christmas Day). I didn't want to do anything that might reinforce those old cravings, plus there is plenty of debate on the safety and efficacy (in terms of blood sugar reactions) of the sugar substitutes. I will say that the holiday season is a very difficult time in this regard, with so much temptation to resist. "No virtue without temptation," I read somewhere recently. Evidently!

What If You Gave a Non-Traditional Concert and No One Clapped Betwen Movements?

Gavin Borchert argues in a Seattle Weekly review that non-traditional concerts, with applause encouraged between movements, are not the innovation that will save classical music. He contrasts the experiences of two Chiara Quartet (website motto: "chamber music in any chamber!") concerts, two nights in a row: one in the traditional Meany Hall, one at a bar. Despite encouragement to do otherwise, the small audience at the Tractor Bar was quiet and reluctant to clap between movements, even when reminded by the quartet's cellist that they had permission to do so.

So what have we learned? Well, maybe people behave the way they do at concerts not because it's an artificial standard imposed by ironclad tradition but because the music sounds better that way. Maybe listeners feel classical music most deeply when they pay quiet attention to it. Maybe sometimes not clapping is OK, and we don't need to rush in and obliterate every silence. Maybe true innovations in concert presentation—new ways of getting music and music lovers together—will be concerned not with questions of formal vs. informal, loose vs. uptight, but with what setting best allows music to work its magic.
He makes some good points, and the article is well worth reading. Of course, generalizing from one or two experiments doesn't provide much predictive value. Despite having experimented with a concert in which the audience was encouraged to clap and dance whenever they wanted, I like quiet while I listen. Applause between movements? Well, with some works, such as Romantic symphonies, we know it was the standard practice of the time and expected and often encouraged by composers. So it feels extremely artificial to me to keep people from clapping after the rousing, bombastic finish of a first movement. But that doesn't mean I would prefer noise during the music.

One thing Borchert doesn't address is how many of the 40-50 people he says attended the Tractor Bar concert were people who don't otherwise attend classical concerts (which he couldn't know unless there was a poll taken). If most of the audience were Chiara quartet or general classical-music fans who are already part of the traditional audience concert culture, it's no surprise they behaved as we've been trained, regardless of the alternative environment.

The dilemma is this, it seems to me. The current audience of regular concert goers likes things the way they are. The question is what do we do to bring in new audiences who really are put off by the formality of the concert environment. Borchert is right that informality in and of itself is not the answer, and that quiet listening is a good way to experience classical music. "[T]he fidgetless focus of the thoroughly absorbed," he accurately calls it.

My intuition, and that's all it is at this point, since I'm unaware of any data on the subject, is that there nevertheless a very powerful long-term role that informal, interactive concerts can play in building a wider, or additional, audience. That doesn't mean we need to do away with traditional, formal, concerts with silent (especially during the music!) audiences. But neither should we dismiss alternate-format experimentation. "Chamber music in any chamber." I like that.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

An interesting improv discussion

Greg Sandow was one of the great speakers at DePauw's Post-Classical Symposium last weekend, and earlier this week he blogged about his visit, including some very positive comments about the short concert my improvisation students gave. There were a number of interesting comments posted to the thread, including one by me and another by one of the students, Sarah Wachter, who explained the benefits of improvisation for classical musicians about as well as it can be explained. The entire thread is well worth reading.

Jury Duty

My old Tanglewood friend Roger Bourland blogged quite a bit about his jury duty out in LA. There's another kind of jury duty we college music professors do: listening to the end-of-semester juries played by applied music students. (By the way, now that classes have ended I may be blogging quite a bit, at least until January 10 when I leave for a tour in China. And what I'd like to know is how the hell Roger has the energy to keep blogging so frequently while being a new department chair and actively composing.)

If you haven't been a college music major or a conservatory student at some point in your life, let me explain. The applied-music "jury examination" is the equivalent of the final exam. The student plays a program (at DePauw, where I teach, about 15 minutes long) for a committee (or "jury") of faculty. In some smaller schools, the entire music faculty may listen to all the juries; here at DePauw, we do it by department. We had about 35 string juries to listen to yesterday, in a marathon which lasted from 9:00 AM to about 6:00 PM. The students play, and the string faculty write comments on their performance and their progress. At some schools, the faculty also grade the jury. There are both advantages and disadvantages to that. At DePauw, in the string department, we just write comments, which the students can read in the music office the next week or the following semester.

I always approach these jury days with some trepidation. Will I be able to maintain my concentration and write coherent, useful comments once we get to hour five or six? Will I be able to remain positive and supportive in attitude, while also giving honest feedback? Will my right hand hold out after hours of writing, when it dos so little of writing-on-paper anymore?

I used to resent the time this took when my college teaching career began, but now, to my delight, I find I enjoy it. Most of the students play at their best, rising to the occasion, and most of them are making good progress. It's great to hear how well they are doing and to see the good work my colleagues are doing with them. And I found it a pleasant intellectual challenge to write really good comments. I love to write, when I have time and intellectual/emotional energy. So it was like blogging all day long, except in longhand.

There were no disasters. No one fell apart, and no one was unprepared. A few students were underprepared, as happens, but nothing horrible. And many students played just beautifully.

I've been off of sugar, flour, and starchy vegetables for around two months now. My energy is higher, and my moods more stable. I found myself able to sustain my concentration throughout the day, which used to be a struggle back when I was eating a more conventional, unhealthy American diet. Plus I've now lost 30 pounds or so. There are about 50-60 more to go, according to the BMI charts. So far, though, so good.

Friday, November 23, 2007

I never feel more given to than when you take from me

A Music-for-People friend sent an email yestraday including the following poem and quote. The Bebermeyer poem sums up so well why we musicians need audiences, why we teachers need our students, and why we all need friends. The Nin quote ties it all together.

I never feel more given to
than when you take from me-
when you understand the joy I feel
giving to you.
And you know my giving isn't done
to put you in my debt,
but because I want to live the love
I feel for you.
To receive with grace
may be the greatest giving.
There's no way I can separate
the two.
When you give to me,
I give you my receiving.
When you take from me. I feel so
given to.

by Ruth Bebermeyer

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until
they arrive. ~Anäis Nin

Best Thanksgiving Joke Ever

We (my kids, my ex-wile/best friend, her dad, my parents, and a former student visiting town) at a great Thanksgiving, held at our next-door neighbor's house, where there were 5 more adults plus two small children. And at some point after dinner, two more families dropped in. Lots of great food, wonderful company, when the 6-and-under population was highest, plenty of noise. No Thanksgiving is complete, I told my former student (who studied with me in middle school, later in college, and now is just a couple of months shy of 30 and prematurely bald, which reminds me of how middle-aged I really am), with old people, screaming children, and an eccentric gay uncle or two. (My former student had taken temporary refuge with us from his sister's house with the screaming baby.)

I purposely went carb-crazy and allowed myself to overeat. It was wonderful. And I gained 2 pounds, although (I'm quite thankful for this) my blood sugar is the same as it was yesterday morning.

There aren't many Thanksgiving jokes, but this one my friend Claude sent to many of his friends is the best one I've ever heard:

A man in Phoenix calls his son in New York the day before Thanksgiving and says, "I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of misery is enough."

"Pop, what are you talking about?" the son screams.

"We can't stand the sight of each other any longer," the father says.

"We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her."

Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone.

"Like heck they're getting divorced," she shouts, "I'll take care of this,"

She calls Phoenix immediately, and screams at her father,

"You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing until I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?" and hangs up.

The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife.

"Okay sweety," he says, "they're coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own way."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Marcio Mattos

This guy is cool, too. Obviously I've gone off the deep end. (And the water is fine, thank you!)

Zeno Gabaglio

Found this guy on YouTube as I've been exploring the other cello improv videos there. I love the spaciousness of this soundscape piece. And the camerawork is cool as well.

Demanding wounded vets return their signing bonuses?

I've never understood those who say you can't be opposed to the war in Iraq and simultaneously "support the troops." Thanksgiving Day is less than an hour away as I write. I feel profoundly grateful to the men and women who put themselves on the line. Even if this war was a colossal, tragic mistake, those who serve when called by their country do something few of us have the courage to do.

So it is a genuine outrage to see that those who serve, get wounded in action and discharged, are being asked to return their signing bonuses.

I have a 19-year-old son. I am grateful he is not at risk. And at the same time, I'm actually in favor of resuming a draft for military service. It is far too easy for those of us who don't have family members in the service to sit by and shake our heads. Everyone in the country should take responsibility for the mess that has been created and for creating a climate to bring it to a responsible, sane end.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Iowa Concert Parts 2 and 3

U of Iowa Improv Performance, Part I

After a good bit of trial and error, I have finally managed to get video from my camcorder all the way to YouTube. Here's the first part (2 more to come) of the solo improvisation set I did at the University of Iowa School of Music Contemporary Improvisation Weekend two weeks ago (November 3).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Raspberries and Cream

As of today I have lost 20 pounds following an Atkins-style low carb diet. 263.5 at the start, now 243.5. That's a BMI (body mas index) of 32.1, considered "obese" (ick). People tell me I don't look obese, but I definitely have a ginormous belly! My target weight is around 180-185, which would give me a BMI in the upper end of the "normal" category. So there are still 60 or so pounds to go. But, wow, if that means I need to lose about 80 pounds total, I've done 25%.

Before I ran out of testing strips for my blood-sugar meter, my fasting blood sugar levels were running in normal ranges (they had been up in the pre-diabetic range).

It's been about 5 weeks, I think, maybe a touch longer. It's been extremely low-carb so far; meat, fish, eggs, and leafy green vegetables and salad. No potatoes. No bread. (Well, I think I have had half a piece of bread once, maybe twice.) And absolutely no refined sugar.

It hasn't been all that hard. I just have to stay away from the bakery section, and by now I've lost the bread and ice-cream cravings, and am learning other ways to deal with stress than giving myself a sugar high.

I'm now absolutely convinced that I have the sort of metabolism and body chemistry that is not able to deal with refined sugar, white flour, starchy root vegetables, etc., well. So I see this not as a diet to lose weight, but as a life-style change meant primarily to keep my blood sugar under control. The weight loss is actually secondary, although certainly more visible. I do find my mood is more even, that I have more energy, and that I have greater mental clarity.

The weight is coming off fast enough that I am going to add more vegetables and an occasional bit of fruit. So I celebrated tonight with some fresh raspberries and cream.

Improv Concert Video Coming

The concert at the University of Iowa on Sunday night went well. The (smallish) audience was quite enthusiastic, anyway. And my son Pete, bless him, who is a freshmen at Grinnell College, an hour down I-80 from Iowa City, came and videotaped the event for me. The concert had three "sets"--I played solo (with looping pedals) for about 25 minutes, then George Wolfe did a set, and then we finished with some ensemble improvisations including faculty and a student from U of Iowa.

I'm going to post my set on YouTube, as soon as I overcome certain technological challenges. I switched from PC to Mac lat spring, and it turns out I have no idea how to edit in IMovie (it seemed blissfully easy in Window Movie Maker). I thought all these Mac programs were supposed to be child's play, but it isn't intuitive for me, anyway. I did figure out how to import the video from the camcorder this evening (it involved a trip to Wal-Mart to buy a new Firewire cable).

Evidently I have to actually read the book. Or just ask one of my students!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

In the paper and on the road

I was extensively quoted in an article about cellist Truls Mork in the Indianapolis Star. And this weekend I am in Iowa City, as a guest performer clinician at the University of Iowa School of Music 2007 Contemporary Improvisation Weekend. The other main presenter/performer is saxophonist George Wolfe.

For some reason, I was under the impression George was based in Arizona, and he thought I was based in New York. So we were surprised and delighted to realize we both live and teach in Indiana, he at Ball State and I at DePauw. Just a couple of hours from each other, we look forward to some regular musical collaboration.

Last night (Saturday) we each gave a presentation and than had a panel discussion, with more questions from each of us to the other, it turned out, than from the audience.

I started by telling my improvisation story. While I'd been trained by two of my teachers (Denis Brott and Stephen Kates) to take a very expressive, creative, and imaginative approach to performing classical music, especially Romantic cello music, I'd never felt I had what it would take to improvise or compose. I had a roommate, Philp Manwell, for a couple of years, who could improvise a fugue on the organ. While that had shown me that classical musicians could improvise, not being at the fugue level, I gave up before starting.

Some years later, in a time of personal crisis, I started improvising atonal, aleatoric-style, highly dissonant, angry pieces as a form of therapy. It was an extraordinry release of emotion, and my passion for improvisation was born. I moved on to improvising calming, modal, chant-inspired pieces, and eventually to using electronics, including a looping pedal.

I focused much of my presentation on ways in which we can use improvisation to become mor comfortable with not just ourselves, but our instruments, the vocabulary of (in my case, classical) music, and also as a way to explore and practice actual composed pieces.

So often we tend to think of improvisation as an alternative to classical, composed music. To me, it is a wonderful compliment to it, and has done much to heal my relationship with classical music.

George has developed a motivic-based approach to improvisation, including a book,
Motivic Improvisation: A New Approach to Improvising in the Classical Style” with a play-along CD, which can be ordered here. While the style of his music is not Hindustani, his philosophy and approach are very much influenced by his study of Hindustani music. He's an extraordinary player, and it was extremely stimulating to hear his presentation and demonstrations.

Tonight we share a concert, and will (we expect) be joined by our host, Jeff Agrell, the horn teacher hear at the University of Iowa. I can't wait!

Friday, October 26, 2007

When Bad Luck Turns Out to Have Been a Blessing

This is a great example of the glass half-empty-or-half-full phenomenon.

Monday afternoon, driving back to Greencastle from Chatham, New York (where I performed our Rumi music/drama/dance gig on Saturday), I got off at the Greencastle exit. Just as I stopped at the light, there was a horrible noise from the passenger-side front wheel of my car. I thought perhaps I'd blown out a tire, and as I was stopping there was a screeching sound, as if I had slammed on the brakes.

It was disconcerting! When the light turned green, though, the car went ahead just fine. Maybe some gravel or something and kicked into the tire well, I speculated. Then as I started to slow down for the next light, as soon as a put a slight bit of pressure on the brake, there was a horrible noise and the brakes locked as the car screeched to a halt. Luckily there was little traffic. The car wouldn't budge for a while, but finally I was able to get it off on a side road, where eventually it was towed to Greencastle (just 7 miles) to be repaired.

At first I was upset that I had a big car problem, and that I had to reschedule a couple of lessons. About a day later it dawned on me how fortunate I had been. The brakes locked when I was stopping anyway, at the bottom of an exit ramp.

What if this had happened when I was driving almost 80 miles an hour on I-70? (The speed limit is 70 now in Indiana, which makes the de facto limit 80). That could have caused a major accident, perhaps seriously injuring me and others.

As it was, it happened not far from home, no one was hurt, and all's well that ended well. The more I think about it, the more I realize how extraordinarily fortunate I was.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Saturday's performance

. . . went very well. I'll write more about it soon. There was one audience member comment I want to (self-servingly) record while I remember it. "It was the most delicious cello moment I ever experienced," he said. Or maybe it was "most delightful." Whatever it was, he really liked it, and that made my day.

Oops, I did it again . . .

Ate at Cracker Barrel that is, for the low-carb menu. And just to make sure that it's really OK, I searched the Human Rights Campaign website. HRC's March 2003 "Lawbriefs" [pdf] says CB's board unanimously approved the addition of sexual orientation to the company's non-discrimination policy.

Nevertheless, I don't think I'll apply for a job any time soon; my DePauw gig pays better, I'm sure. And what would be the fun of a job without tenure, where you can tell your boss off without getting fired? Even better, we have included "gender identity and gender expression" in our policy for years now (something I'm proud to have had a hand in). DePauw is one of the best employers for LGBT people in Indiana, or the entire country for that matter.

Meanwhile, my blood sugar, which had been bopping up above the "this is diabetes" number of 126 on occasion, has been pretty consistly under 100 since I gave up bread and potatoes and everything with sugar in it and started walking a lot (a resumption of strength training is next on the agenda). Some of my vegetarian friends are, well, horrified by the carnivorous aspects of my Atkins-based approach, but everyone is happy that I'm losing weight and the blood sugar is under control.

I'm reading Gary Taubes's Good Calories, Bad Calories, which is beyond being just the buzz of the (new-to-me) low-carb blogosphere. It's as if the golden tablets had been discovered, or a Youtube video of Jesus walkng out of the tomb materialized. "We are vindicated!" seems to be the general reaction. Taubes first became a low-carb hero with his 2002 New York Times Magazine piece What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?. More on all this in another post.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The birds, the trees, and me

The drive today from Erie, Pennsylvania to Chatham, New York was spectacularly beautiful. That section of I-90 has to be one of the most beautiful roads in the country; the splashes of color were worth the drive.

I listened to an odd assortment of music. The Ipod does that, even when not on shuffle; you find things you forgot were on there. A bit of Rostropovich, most of Zoe Keating's One Cello X 16 Nations: Natoma (which got turned off by mistake), a Joel Osteen podcast (OK, he's intellectually shallow and kind of goofy, but he's also energizing and comforting for someone recovering from years of self-hate; he radiates an optimism that needs no scholarship to be powerful), and a bit of a Nero Wolfe novel borrowed from my parents.

What a contrast Keating and Rostropovich make, especially back to back! Two incredibly different worlds.

I arrived at my friend Robin's house about 5:30 PM. She has a beautiful home, secluded in the woods, with a deck overlooking the forest. As soon as I arrived, I just took the cello out to the deck, and played for over an hour until Robin arrived. After a long drive, which was stressful in addition to beautiful, it was perfect to sit out with this incredible view and improvise. That led into some actual practice and a some Bach. It cleared everything away and brought me back to myself.

I actually ate in a Cracker Barrel

The Cracker Barrel restaurant chain used to have a policy of "firing employees who fail to "demonstrate normal heterosexual values." Many LGBT (including me) and supportive people boycotted the place for years. Eventually they changed their policy, and I believe added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination employment policy, but my ill will lingered.

Now I'm overweight and have "metabolic syndrome," a form of prediabetes. My blood sugars were running way to high and I'm on a low carb diet, which turns out to be an incredibly effective way to get one's blood sugar under control and loose weight. (And yes, I'm exercising quite a bit, which also helps a lot.) In just a couple of weeks, by blood sugar level has come down to a very healthy level. Jimmy Moore has an excellent low-carb blog, where I discovered the Cracker Barrel still has a low-carb menu. So I had dinner there last night: seasoned catfish, turnip greens, and green beans. It was good and my dietary virtue remains intact while on the road.

Diets, like politics, make for strange bedfellows.

OK , OK, I won't steal towels OR iron!

I'm just about to check out of the Microtel (motel) in Erie PA. I'm traveling to Chatham NY where I'm performing on Saturday night, a program of improvised and classical music in "Ruminations on Rumi" featuring dancer/choreographer Robin Becker, actor John
McManus, and flutist Akal Dev Sharonne (and me) at 8:00 PM Saturday October 20 at
St. James Church in Chatham NY. Tickets are $20 with reservations suggested (518-392-4697).

So much for the plug. Meanwhile, the Microtel. Only place with rooms available last night, except for a "whirlpool room" at the Econolodge. I considered it, but didn't want the chlorine smell all night, as nice a prospect as a soak in the whirlpool was. Plus the Microtel was almost $30 less.

It was comfortable, but I find the warning notices off-putting. One in the bathroom warns guests they'll be charged for missing pillows and towels, and one on the desk demands we "PLEASE DO NOT IRON on furnitures or beds", otherwise "an apprprate charge will be made for damages." Geez. Who stays in these places? Crazed iron-everywhere people and towel stealers?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Horowitz and Sandow in the WP

Stephen Brookes has a great article in Sunday's Washington Post on the "post-classical" phenomenon/movement, featuring both Joseph Horowitz and Greg Sandow, both of whom will be participating in the DePauw School of Music symposium, "Preparing Music Students for the Post-Classical World." Joe is giving ther keynote speech at 9:00 AM on Saturday December 1; Greg gives a talk at 1:00 PM the same day, followed by a panel discussion with the two of them and members of eighth blackbird. The symposium schedule is here.

(Thanks to my wonderful colleague Scott Spiegelberg, a much more regular blogger than I, for pointing out the article.)

By the way, if you have any problem opening the links to the symposium site/blog, please email me or post a comment--I can access it from home, but one of my colleagus can't. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Gee, there are people who read this blog, or used to. I didn't realize I hadn't posted for over 2 months. For those who have asked, I'm alive and well. There was a lot of family business in late July and August, then school starting, and I'm managing several class blogs (a great idea, which was a gift from Scott Spiegelberg). I've heard from enough people wondering where I went that here I am agian.

I'm also spending a lot of time organizing the "Post-Classical" Symposium here at DePauw, Nov. 29-Dec. 1. Joesph Horowitz, Greg Sandow, and members of eighth blackbird talking about the classical music crisis and "Preparing Music Students for the Post-Classical World." "Post-classical" is a term Joe coined, and his short explanation of it is on the symposium site, and worth quoting here:

The 19th century Boston critic John Sullivan Dwight, who more than anyone else defined “classical music” for Americans, did so in juxtaposition with “popular music,” with the concomitant notion that classical music was supreme. (Dwight called Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” a “melodic itch.”) Dwight’s
understanding of “classical music” illustrates why this term is poisonous today; it implicitly deprecates popular and indigenous music of every kind, Western and non-Western. We are challenged to find a term to replace it. For some time, I have opted for “post-classical” to designate a new and more variegated musical landscape into which classical music fits. I consider, eg, Philip Glass and Gidon Kremer “post-classical” musicians, and so are many others who matter nowadays. The term has been picked up with some alacrity by others.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Live (still better than Memorex)

The Putnam County Playhouse, here in Greencastle, just finished its two-weekend run of A Midsummer's Night Dream. It was the first time, I understand, that Shakespeare was done by our enthusiastic summer summer theater. It was imaginatively directed by Amy Gaither Hayes, who is passionate about the idea that Shakespeare can be well-presented and well-received by what one might call "everyday" people, including many of our non-academic neighbors in this small farm/college town of ours. In this, she reminds me of the wonderful work done by Albert Cullum, which I learned about in the PBS documentary A Touch of Greatness, not only in her use of children and teenagers in the cast, but also in her Shakespeare-is-for-everyone general approach.

I saw the show three times. As the father of the 15-year-old who played Tatania, Queen of the Faries, I was invited to the dress rehearsal; I also attended opening and closing nights. Each night was different, as live theater always is, and it was wonderful to see the way performances evolved over the run of the show. There were a few over-30 players, and they did well, but it was the chlidren, the teenagers, and some the college students who let loose in a way I haven't seen before in an "amateur" production. By closing night, the spontaneity and collective energy of the actors and the audience made the space crackle with aliveness.

It made me want to read the play and see it again. The thought of renting a DVD of a filmed version crossed my mind, but I immediately realized that anything I watch on a television screen could not come remotely close to the joyful, collective, and so very human experience of which I'd just been part.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bent Objects

I forget how I found this delightful blog; I'm glad I did.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Grocery-Bag Riots

Responding to the mounting environmental danger posed by discarded plastic bags, Whole Foods is now selling cotton bags in which to take home one's groceries. They are, in certain urban areas, the thing to have. The New York Times reports:

"A stampede of would-be purchasers in Taiwan in June sent 30 people to the hospital and required the riot police. A similar outpouring in Hong Kong caused no injuries, but the police closed down the shopping mall."
Here in Greencastle, the Kroger store recently switched to new, slightly thinner plastic bags which split open with little provocation. I mentioned this to a cashier, who said mine was a common complaint.

And guess what? At the same time the new plastic bags were introduced, displays of purchasable, reusable bags appeared. Coincidence? Hah!

We had no stampede here, however. The expensive bags have now disappeared, and we're just double-bagging everything. Worse for the environment, and probably costing Kroger more money.

OK, OK, I'll get my own canvas bags somewhere.

Best casual comment of the day

From a friend who now lives an hour away; we were with a group having drinks after a concert. Discussing our children, I asked about her daughter.

"Oh, she'll be fine, as long as her father stays in jail."

We both laughed, almost hysterically. I think she was as surprised as I by what had come out of her mouth.

UPDATE (7/21): At least one reader was upset by this and didn't find it funny. When I originally wrote it, I knew it would be hard to communicate. I hesitated to post it, and perhaps that would have been the better course. I may make matters worse by trying to explain further, but here goes. The father in this case really is in jail, for possession of child pornography, and through episodes of tremendous financial irresponsibilty and emotional instability he has had more ill effect on his daughter than good. He may have some great qualities, and I'm sure he loves his daughter, but it is genuinely appropriate that he's incarcerated. There's never been any hint that he ever sexually abused his daughter, as far as I'm aware, and we're all grateful for that. The overall situation itself isn't funny, of course. It's tragic. What was funny--to us at the time, anyway-- was the unexpected and ironically light-hearted and matter-of-fact way the comment came out. Who makes casual conversation about something usually considered shameful? My friend has never talked about this situation with me before. There was a wonderful, warm, and open vibe, and it just came out. Humor comes from surprise, and is often a way of releasing tension. Both were the case with this.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Curious Sign of the Day

Perhaps there are better ways to support the troops, but bless them for keeping us safe enough to soften our water. (photo by EE)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Making a Luis and Clark Carbon Fiber Cello

DePauw has a Luis and Clark carbon-fiber cello. It's an amazing thing. I haven't given up on traditional wood cellos by any means, but I have a special fondness for our L&C. Here's a fascinating short documentary showing how they are made.

(I don't know why they show a violin with an overly-tightened bow for the opening shot, and call it a cello, but it's clear this is not a made-by-cellists program!)

Making a L&C Cello, Part II

Monday, July 02, 2007

What orchestra players earn

or at least what they did in 2004-5. And no wonder so many violinists want to be a concertmaster!

(via Elaine Fine).

Evolving, Not Dying

Classical music: is it dying, shrinking, undergoing a metamorphosis, or what? Edward Rothstein, former head music critic and current critic at large at the New York Times, writes today that

[t]he sounds of a dying tradition are painful, particularly if the tradition’s value is still so apparent, at least to the mourners, and still so vibrant to a wide number of sympathizers. . . .

That is how I often think of the Western art-music tradition — the classical tradition — these days, and though I once tended to whine about its problems with cranky optimism, now even a stunning performance seems like a spray of flowers at a funeral.
His meditative piece is prompted by Lawrence Kramer's Why Classical Music Still Matters, which i have yet to read. Rothstein points out that ". . . traditions do come to an end. The reading of ancient Greek and Latin — once the center of an educated person’s life — now seems as rarefied as the cultivation of exotic orchids."

But there are plenty of people (well, some people) who read those ancient languages; not far from where I live there is wonderful orchid grower. Neither Latin nor orchids are dead. All over the world, there are those who take delight in listening to and, most importantly, playing "classical" music. Yes, a certain approach to what we call classical music, or art music, has lost its centrality, but being marginalized is different than being dead.

Things do change. The distinction between art and non-art music, and the notion of "great art" itself, is a largely Romantic concept. As are the conventions, developed in the nineteenth century, of "great music" composed by "great masters," performed by "great artists," in temple-like spaces in which the audience sits in reverential silence while the music is performed on a stage.

As a cultural ideal, this Romantic concept is dying. But how dominant was it ever, at least in the United States? How long a tradition are we talking about?

Let's look at symphony orchestras as an example. The New York Philharmonic didn't become fully professional until 1907, according to an online video interview with Ted Wiprud, the orchestra's education director. Exactly what he means by "fully professional," I'm not sure. Perhaps that everyone got paid? Or that during the season, the work was full-time? For the NYP didn't provide full-year employment until 1964, according to Alan Kozinn of the Times. Back in 1950, according to an interview with Ralph Gomberg, only the Boston Symphony employed its musicians year-round, made possible, I understand, by its Tanglewood season. Searching the web, it's hard to find reliable data on that. For example, Chris Durham of the AFofM writes,
During the 1964-65 season, only three orchestras--Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. Philadelphia had 52-week seasons. New York was the only orchestra whose entire membership was employed for 52 weeks. Chicago and Philadelphia had two tiers with lesser weeks (50 and 47). Today, 20 orchestras have 52- week seasons.
No mention of Boston there. 1930 saw the first year-round orchestra in Britain (the BBC), according to Boris Tschaikov. And this article says it was the late 1960s when the first Canadian orchestra offered a 52-week contract. More research will turn up more detail. My point, though, is that the supposedly-dying "classical music tradition" is a short one. As Rothstein points out, music from roughly 1785-1915 forms the core of the classical canon. The great symphony orchestras, which we think of as the central institutions of the tradition, are relatively young. The NYP formed in 1842, the same year as the Vienna Philharmonic, a self-governed cooperative of opera-orchestra musicians. Boston followed in 1881, Berlin 1887, the Concertgebow 1888, Chicago 1891, Munich 1893, and Philadelphia in 1900 (all according to Grove Online).

Interestingly, these great institutions developed into their present form as the common practice period came to an end, and it was not until about 40 years ago that they really began to function year-round. Employment conditions are not necessarily relevant to a discussion of cultural importance and value, but to those of us who are working musicians, and who teach those with professional ambitions, they are indeed important matters.

In addition to the esoteric "art music" of the 20th century, there was a creative explosion in other forms of music. Jazz, Broadway music, and rock in the U.S., so much of which is central to the consciousness of even art musicians. There is tremendous meaning and nuance of emotion to be found within those genres. Rothstein quotes Kramer as writing about classical music that, “No other music tells us the things that this music does.” But it is deeply true to me that Frank Sinatra at his best singing Cole Porter, and Billy Holliday singing about anything, take me places no classical piece does. The mix of vulnerability, pain, tenderness and strength in Judy Garland is as unique and potent as any classical singer, and more eloquent and moving than most.

And that's why we find composers like Roger Bourland, the new chair of music at UCLA, writing about Rufus Wainright and Edith Piaf and country music, treating it as respectfully as Schoenberg. 20 years ago, I had lunch at the house of a rising young classical pianist in Paris. He was listening to Pink Floyd, and said, "this is the future of music, not serialism."

In Greg Sandow's most recent post, he briefly discusses John Seabrook's book Nobrow, "which argues that the distinction between high and popular culture doesn't have much force for many people any more." Greg is one of those contemporary classical-music composers and critics who take popular culture (especially "semi-popular culture," as he explains) seriously. And he challenges those who dismiss non-classical music to make their case referring to particular albums and songs. "I could be a brat, and say that all I'm asking is for people who reject popular music to show that they actually know something about it."

The "classical music tradition" has always been in flux, and has never been as stable or as truly central in (American) life as many of us imagine it to be or have been. And the distinction between high and popular secular art is an essentially Romantic concept, not an eternal truth.

I see a tradition evolving, as it has always been doing, not dying.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

If you were wondering if there is such a thing as "talent"

According to his website, Alex Prior has taken up the cello, and is "keen to reach the level needed to play Elgar's concerto" (the photo of him with a cello looks like it's a few years old, so he may be on to Shostakovich by now). He already is a much-performed composer, pianist, French horn player, mandolinist, and growing celebrity. He's been written up many times in print, and Alex Ross and Elaine Fine, who brought him to my attention, recently blogged him.

Oh, and he sings a bit. Two years ago, when he was 12:

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A coincidence?

Or something more?

Two pianists I know and admire, combine improvisation and classical music in concerts on the same day, one in Boston, the other in Greencastle. What are the odds?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ah, webcams

"What can I do with a music degree?" we music teachers get asked all the time. "What if I can't get a job as a musician and end up a janitor?" What's wrong with being a janitor, except the pay? I like all the janitors I know at DePauw, and have socialized with a couple of them. My janitor friends are fun to hang out with, and they don't blather on about Foucault or class struggles or the crisis in classical music or grade inflation or any of the other bullshit (maybe that will raise my "R" to a "NC-17") we faculty types, who love nothing more than listening to ourselves overintellectualize, do.

But I digress. It turns out that thanks to hidden webcams, being a janitor can lead to as big a break as winning a major competition. Interestingly, working as a janitor paid better than teaching private lessons, at least back home in Poland. Probably less frustrating, too. I imagine he'll be able to plenty for lessons now, if he wants to teach.

Scads of hits about him on Google.

Eight Days in June

The Detroit Symphony tries something really interesting. Chris O'Reilly playing transcriptions of Radiohead? Plus Beethoven 5 and other genres mixed in? Sounds cool.

Great looking website. Interesting YouTube video right there on the site, and here's a Playbill Arts story about it. I wish I had heard about this earlier, I'd have made a trip up there.

This looks like an important part of the future.

57 years to go?

Well, I hope I'll get hitched before I'm 105. But maybe it's not too late to take up singing. After all, this guy made his Met debut at 84. (via Alex Ross.)

And talk about a cradle robber! His partner is 38 years younger. A 67-year-old must seem like just a kid to a 105-year-old.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Nevada, Maybe; DePauw, I Doubt It . . .

I don't think our administration or trustees would ever let us follow suit. We'd probably shoot each other up in a faculty meeting.

Sandow and His "Inconvenient Truths"

Greg Sandow's been at the ASOL conference and blogging like crazy on a separate blog set up for it. Now he's back, blogging about his blogging, and the frustrations of being a privately thanked "provacateur" yet feeling more lke a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Of course, maybe I'm just too extreme. Maybe I'm out beyond left field, raving about global warming, when all we're seeing is a hot day.

Or maybe he is, as I describe him, the Al Gore of classical music: a prophet pointing out irrefutable signs of a crisis, "inconvenient truths" those in the establishment want to rationalize away.

Of course, it's the present structure of the commercial (if officially nonprofit) classical music establishment that is melting like the polar ice caps. There are many young people who love playing classical music. I'm actually all for a world with more well-trained musicians who are happy to be amateurs and dual-career professionals.

One of Greg's main points, that the mainstream institutions need to learn to understand the young potential audience if they are gong to bring them in, seems to go constantly unheeded. But some of the mainstream institutions are going to be like the mainstream churches who, rather than make substantial change, have adjusted to a life of downsizing.

Much of what so many people dislike about traditional classical concerts (be quiet, don't move freely, don't respond, restrain yourself) is exactly what bores people to tears at religious services. Spiritually, I have a Sufi-like approach which is deeply interfaith. I feel comfortable just about anywhere there is real spiritual energy. And I hardly ever go to church. And it strikes me that the decline in attendance at mainline churches and mainline classical music institutions seem to have paralleled each other.

I'm not attracted to simplistic, pop-music, evangelical megachurches, either, where there often seems to be a shallow, if powerful emotionalism, combined with simplistic and often non-inclusive theology.

Some mainline churches have "traditional" and "contemporary" services, which seem to work for them. Pops concerts seem still to be aimed at an older, more entertainment-minded, audience. Do the old institutions really need to make dramatic changes in their manner of programming to survive? Can they do so and not lose their identities? Does the end of a bigger audience justify the means of compromising the traditional format?

And would the world be a better or worse place with a smaller professional music establishment and more "regular people" playing classical music at home and in small, intimate concerts? If a some symphony orchestras have to downsize or fold, is that the end of the world? For those who work there, of course, but for society as a whole? The symphony orchestra is a nineteenth-century invention, as are the concert halls in which they play. How long can a mammothly-expensive institution born in one culture survive into a hugely different subsequent culture?

With a jaunty hat

from Cello Centered, a cello blog new to me.

The Woes of Chamber Music

. . . are discussed by Anne Midgette in Sunday's New York Times. She writes
MY epiphany came when I told a friend I was going to a chamber music concert, and she — well-educated, well-heeled, operagoing — made a throwing-up gesture into her hand.

For Gil Morgenstern, a violinist and concert presenter, the epiphany came when an acquaintance informed him that the two most boring words in the English language were “chamber music.”

Our reactions? Shock. Denial. Anger.

In short, stages of mourning. Because these moments were startling confrontations with a reality neither of us had realized: that for many people, chamber music is dead.

Many people are worried about the so-called "death of classical music." I'm not worried about it dying; I think that professionally-performed classical music is in the midst of big change, and that large, tradition-bound institutions need to make changes that embrace new cultural realities.

Greg Sandow gets frustrated, sometimes even testy, with those of us who insist that music education, especially hands-on instrumental playing, were key to the past of classical music and will be necessary to its healthy to a healthy future. He thinks most often in terms of the short and mid-term needs of classical-music professionals and institutions.

I'm more interested in the future of classical music-making, including amateur. Well, especially amateur music making. Our culture has turned "music" into something you buy and listen to passively. There's a small class of music producers creating these music-products-for-sale. Less people are buying,

Music as an activity. Music as self-expression. Music as social interraction. Music as celebration of community. I'm much more interested in that. Because having more people,
"everyday" people, engaged in the process of making music and making art is one of the things that can heal a sick society.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Elaine Fine on Alex Ross

Elaine Fine makes some excellent observations in response to Alex Ross's New Yorker piece on his whirlwind trip hearing the Indianapolis, Nashville, and Birmingham Symphonies.

She's quite right, especially about the notion that people get a job in one of these orchestras and then "move up" to another orchestra. Not only are there few positions open, but the audition process itself is enormously expensive and emotionally wrenching. Once a young player wins a permanent seat in a fine orchestra, becomes part of a community, etc., the motivation to go through the horrors of the process diminishes considerably. If you have a strong enough sense of your own worth that you don't need the prestige of being in an ever more prestigious orchestra, or being a principal player, it can turn out that playing in a wonderful orchestra in city like Indianapolis, where the cost of living is low compared to New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, can make for a wonderful life.

A former student of mine is now the Associate Principal cellist in a southern orchestra. I had assumed that once he got that job, he'd be using it as a stepping stone for a more prestigious one. He's not trying for other jobs, though; he's happy where he is. He's probably happier where he is than he would be living in a big, industrial northern city. And he has no desire to put himself through the audition process again.

The exciting news for orchestra lovers is not that terrific young people graduate from conservatories, spend a year or two in a regional orchestra, and then move on. It's that terrific young people, qualified to play in any orchestra in the world, graduate from conservatories, join a regional orchestra, and spend a life there making music.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Case for Classical Music, Old and New

as made by Peter Maxwell Davies (via Elaine Fine).

Rated "R"

Scott Spiegelberg just posted that his blog has been rated "PG" by Mingle2. So I checked my rating. I win!
What's My Blog Rated? From Mingle2 - Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

I used "gay" nine times, "punch" twice, and "death" once on the page the program analyzed. It's clearly a way to get bloggers to go to the Mingle2 site. Clever idea, stupid way to rate sites. But at least I'm not a potty-mouth like Spiegelberg, who used "suck" twice.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A concert I wish I'd been at

included the NY premiere of David Del Tredici's "Gay Life," arranged for piano (rather than orchestra) and two tenors.

The program reminds me of the out-of-print CRI CD Gay American Composers, which a family friend, one of my mother figures, gave me when I came out. It was perhaps the most touching gesture of love during that difficult time. And in an ironic twist, it was stolen along with the rest of the CDs in my car in a "smash and grab" outside a gay club. I had a laugh over the likely reaction of the thief, who found himself with some David Darling, some Sinatra, some Streisand, and a bunch of classical music, including "Gay American Composers." Moral: don't fuck [with] gay people unless you want to listen to our music.

Isserlis on the Bach Suites

Steven Isserlis, the Brit cellist so many American posters in the ICS Cello Chat love to hate (and whose recordings I've long admired), has recorded the Bach Suites. You can read his interesting liner notes (free reg. required) and also this very readable Guardian article by him. (Thanks to Guido and Zedebee, respectively, for the links.)

Lori Presthus's "A Moment in Time"

With the end of the fiscal year looming, I've been in a mad rush to spend as much of DePauw's money as possible. The Faculty Fellowship I've held over the past three years, to work on my book about improvisation, carries an annual budget for expenses, and I have quite a bit left, which I can spend up through the last day of June.

So last week I dove into the Amazon (dot com) and bought as many improvisation-related books, CDs, and DVDs as I could find. Yes, it is great fun spending wildly with someone else's money.

Right now I'm enjoying listening to Lori Presthus's lovely and plaintive CD A Moment in Time (that link takes you to the album's page on CD Baby, where you can listen to excerpts). It's somewhat unique among improvised cello CDs in that most of the pieces are two-track: she recorded an improvisation and then recorded a second track.

There are plenty of multitrack cello CDs out there, by folks like David Darling (original music), Peter Lewy (original music), Maia Beyser (arrangements and commissions of progressive classical music), and Matthew Barley (arrangements of more traditional classical music). Lori's the only one I've run across to limit herself--quite effectively--to just tracks. She creates a wonderful dialogue. The musical snob in me notes that just about the whole thing is in G. But almost all of my tonal or modal improvisations are in G or C, or Aeolian or Dorian, so who am I to complain? I like it.

Strauss and Mahler Re-Enact Your Favorite Movie Moments

Courtesy of Soho the Dog, via Alex Ross. Matthew Guerrieri's two "S & M" strips can be found together here. (In a few years, maybe he'll have a book's worth of them. I hope so)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Accomanying the soloist, not yourself

Conductor Kenneth Woods, who I wish had comments enabled on his blog, writes today about preparing to conduct a concerto one has played as a soloist. I was at a concert once where Rostropovich conducted the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Frans Helmerson as soloist. Cleary Slava was accompanying "the soundtrack that’s going on in my head rather than what the soloist is actually doing," as Kenneth puts it. I could certainly understand Slava not being into following another cellist! Many conductors don't make the effort Kenneth does to be so acommadating.

He also praises this wonderful Pierre Fournier DVD, which includes a marvelous performance of the Schumann concerto. I love it, too.

Music beyond the Hudson

I've been looking forward to Alex Ross's On the Road: Three Orchestras, Three Cities, Two Days New Yorker piece since he blogged about trip. I'm still not sure why the quick had to be so quick, but perhaps two days is all an urban sophisticate was willing to risk in the Bible belt (and he was able to hear the orchestras in very close succession). Alex, come back again and stay long enough for a fried pork tenderloin sandwich. (OK, I see why he didn't tarry.)

First stop was my neighbor the Indianapolis Symphony, which he praises for its

cleanly articulated, richly expressive performances of Berlioz’s “Francs-Juges” Overture and Mahler’s First Symphony. The ensemble showed strengths and weaknesses; occasional smudged notes appeared amid glowing textures. Ju-Fang Liu, the principal double-bass, played the solo in the third movement of the Mahler as elegantly and hauntingly as I’ve heard it.
Ju-Fang, who has given master classes at DePauw, is an extraordinary young bassist and a genuinely nice person. Her presence has energized the Indy double bass community. She's given some wonderful recitals and master classes here.

Then Ross heads down to Nashville and on to Birmingham.
Orchestras at the level of the Nashville used to be described as “regional” or “second tier,” but increasingly they display the virtuoso panache of front-rank ensembles. The conservatories are producing wave after wave of almost excessively skilled players, and, like Ph.D.s in the humanities, hundreds of them fan out across the continent each year in search of jobs. They may stay with a regional orchestra for only a season or two before moving on to a higher salary, but they raise the level of playing as they go.
The level of the younger players I know in string sections is extraordinary (other instruments too, but I know more string players). There is no shortage of extremely well-trained players who look at an orchestral career as a priviege, not a refuge for failed would-be soloists.

After the Alabama Symphony concert in Birmingham, Ross comments that he
understood more deeply that building a major orchestra isn’t a matter simply of gathering the best players from the leading conservatories and paying a celebrity maestro millions to lead them. Great performances can happen anytime skilled players respond with unusual fervor to a conductor whose vision is secure.
That's one of the great things about classical music right now. There are great musicians everywhere, not just in symphony orchestras but also freelancing and on college faculties (and not just at the big music schools). There are first-rate chamber music and recital performances available for a low price, often free, across the country.

And perhaps this all relates to Eric Lin's comments in the fascinating conversation on Greg Sandow's blog to which I linked yesterday, in which he reflects on why he didn't enjoy the Emerson Quartet at Carnegie Hall:
Perhaps it's not so much my discomfort with the age of the audience as with the feeling that for a good portion of the audience, going to hear the Emerson Quartet was something routine rather than special. Nobody seemed excited, or perhaps I missed something and they all felt the Beethoven quartets were such introspective music that it should only be received with drooping heads, yawns or a hand on the face, supporting their head.
Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium is a cavernous place to hear Beethoven quartets. It is chamber music, after all, written well before a concert hall the size of Carnegie was imagined, let alone built. The Emerson Quartet played wonderfully, Eric tells us, but clearly the event itself didn't work for him. Hear a less-known but terrific quartet play in a much smaller venue (like the church and synagogue where Cincinnati's Linton chamber music series is held, or our local Greencastle Summer Classical Music takes place) and the experience can be intimate and electric.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Wendy Warner

Avoiding working on my book, I came across this video of Wendy Warner, one of those absolutely incredible string players who briefly had a major career and now for some reason or other doesn't. In her case she won the Rostropovich Competition in 1990. She seemed headed to stardom, perhaps superstardom, but things worked out differently. Now she's teaching at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and she still performs, just not in the major venues she once did. Cellists know her as one of the finest players around. Here's an example of why:

There are a total of four videos of her on YouTube.

Cello Blogs

I'm adding a list of cello-related blogs, most of which I found through Guanaco's Cellomania blog. He has an enormous list of over 120 blogs by people who play the cello. I'm not stealing/duplicating/mirroring his entire list; I'm looking at them and trying to list the ones which have frequent posts about the cello and/or classical music.

I'm especially enjoying Todd's Beautiful, Funny, Sad and True. How can you not love a blog with posts like this one?

And through Cello Chat I found Emily Wright's recently-established Stark Raving Cello. Emily's a cellist and teacher in California who is trying to decide whether to turn her 60-page book into the 200-page book Oxford University Press is looking to publish. If you buy books on how to play the cello, you might want to give her some feedback.

Erwin Schrott's chest

receives a fine review, evidently well deserved, from Anthony Tomassini, who enjoyed the Royal Opera's production of Don Giovanni, but seems to have been as pleasantly distracted by the pecs as I would have been.

It's Not the Music, It's the Context

There's an interesting conversation going on at Greg Sandow's blog, on whether or not music education leads to later involvement with classical music. It seems self-evident to those of us who are educators that it does, but Greg remains skeptical:

There are studies that show that the best predictor of classical music attendance -- of anything ever measured -- is playing classical music on some instrument.

But I think that's not quite the same thing as saying that there's a causal effect -- that if people only would study classical performance, on whatever level, then later they'll go to concerts.
I commented that I know many classical musicians who don't attend many classical concerts, and music students who actively dislike them. Later in the dialogue, a college music student, Eric Lin, describes his discomfort hearing a brilliantly-played Emerson Quartet concert at Carnegie Hall.
We found ourselves surrounded by an audience whose average age is anywhere from 40 to 50 years older than my friend or myself. I'm not in anyway being age discriminatory, but the discomfort was real. I love the late quartets and I was certainly excited to here Rihm's 'contemporary' quartet, yet when the old lady next to me started dozing off, I found myself getting sleepy too. I never would've imagined that I would start falling asleep during a Beethoven quartet.
The entire thread is well worth reading.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Shafran on Itunes

Danill Shafran was one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. Not nearly as well known outside the USSR as his contemporary Mstislav Rostropovich, many cellists consider him to have been Slava's equal or even superior in terms of cello playing. He wasn't the sort of multifaceted genius as Rostropovich, who was a virtuoso pianist, had a photographic memory, and enthusiastically conducted orchestras.

I met Shafran twice. Where Rostropovich was warm and outgoing, hugging everyone it sight, Shafran was more neurotic, fearful, and careful. I hear (or project) the same difference in their playing. Shafran's recording are amazing in their technical command, but often strike me as hyper-intense and quirky-and-even-bizzzare at times, especialy in the use of vibrato. Rostropovich's sound, especially on recordings is lush and enveloping. Shafran's comes at you like a laser beam.

What prompts these musings is last night's discovery of a recording of Shafran playing the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 125, on Itunes (it's listed as the "Concerto in E minor, Op. 125" the piece is a reworking of that earlier piece). $3.95 to download, and it is extraordinary. Awe-inspiring to this cellist. The live performance is fast-paced and driving, enormously different from Rostropovich's studio recording with Malcom Sargent, which I also purchased. The two recordings, each by someone who worked closely with Prokofiev, are as different as night and day.

If you're a cellist, you've surely heard many Rostropovich recordings. Download this Shafran Prokoviev--you'll be in for a treat.

In the top 50 (well, 53)

Scott Spiegelberg has made a list of the "top" 50 classical music blogs, as determined by numbers of links to each blog. This one made the list, in a three-way tie for 50th.

Now I see my AC Douglas and my old Tanglewood friend Roger Bourland made a different calculation in which this blog doesn't make the list. Humpf! I'll go with Scott. :)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Even Curtis is Looking to Move Ahead

The need to reimagine and update the training of classical musicians is becoming so self-evident that most conservative of conservatories, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (where all the tuition is free, all the faculty are distinguished, and all the students are indeed above average) is moving towards including instruction in historically-informed performance and more emphasis on contemporary music.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Rostropovich the composer's champion

I just wrote a comment on Scott Spiegelberg's Rostropovich post, in which he makes some very interesting comments about Rostropovich's recordings of various Bach Suite movements.

My own favorite recording of "Slava" is that of the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto and the Dutillieux "Tout un monde lointain." As I noted in my comment on Scott's blog, both are pieces that would not have existed without Rostropovich, and the performances are extraordinary.

No one in the entire history of the cello has been a bigger force for expanding the repertoire. Rostropovich's embrace of all musical styles was an important factor. The most important cellist before him, Pablo Casals, hated atonal music and didn't play it. In his early career, Casals promoted the work of some of his romantic contemporaries, including the now forgotten Emanuel Moor, of whom Casals was a true champion. In his post-WW II life, Casals's repertoire as both cellist and conductor extended from Bach to Brahms. And once he settled in Puerto Rico and the Casals Festival was established, his Eurocentric perspective led to a virtually total dismissiveness towards Puerto Rican music, creating wounds in that culture which have yet to fully heal.

Gregor Piatigorsky was not as big a name as Casals, but he was a wealthy man, and he could perhaps have done more to commission new works. Piatigorsky did not sell out halls in the way that Casals and later Rostropovich did, and like Casals he was a Romantic who, while more open to atonal music, was not a great champion of it.

Rostropovich, though, had a universalist taste and had the clout to get the many pieces he commissioned and premiered performed and recorded. He probably quadrupled or qunitupled the cello repertoire. And that, 100 or 200 years from now, will turn out to have been his greatest legacy.

When is it OK to shake your booty?

A minor but interesting controversy in Edmonton. My stance has always been be yourself. If you need to move to make your best music, move. If you are in the audience and don't like to watch, shut your eyes. (Thanks to Bob at Cello Chat for pointing this out.)

Monday, April 30, 2007

Slava and Me, Part I

The first time I met Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist and conductor who died last week, was in March or April of 1985. Studying at SUNY Stony Brook, I had traveled down to Washington, D.C., to audition for the National Symphony; Rostropovich was its music director.

I had taken a number of auditions before, and was getting used to both the cattle-call and lottery aspects of them. There’s nothing quite as unnatural as an orchestra audition. You go out and play snippets of music behind a screen, occasionally hearing an instruction or request from a disembodied voice somewhere out in the auditorium.

The backstage culture every orchestra for which I auditioned to that point had seemed less than happy. Polite, perhaps, but not particularly pleasant, and the way that the low-level members of each orchestra’s personnel staff dealt with those auditioning was impersonal.

At the NSO, it was different. The personnel manager and all the staff seemed, well, friendly. Even with all the nervous cellists around, it struck me as a pleasant atmosphere. I didn’t have a sense that I’d played particularly better in the first round than I had at any other audition, so I was relieved when I was informed that I had been passed on. To my delighted surprise, I was told that I’d received a high enough score that should there be a semi-final round, I was exempt, and would go straight to the finals.

The day of the finals came. I don’t remember how many of us there were—a very small handful, certainly, perhaps just two. There was an excellent pianist to play with, and ample time to rehearse. I was playing the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations for my concerto; the pianist explained that Rostropovich would listen to the theme and first two variations, then have me skip to the last two. (I was quite relieved that I had practiced the whole thing!)

And sure enough, that is what happened. After the second variation I heard that unique voice call out, “thank you . . . variations 7 and 8, please.” They went well, and then I played the various excerpts,. My audition was over. The pianist told me, and the assistant conductor, Andrew Litton, with whom I’d known when we were both students at Juilliard, concurred (either sincerely or politely, I’m not sure) that I had played the “best final variation” of anyone who had ever auditioned for the NSO with the Tchaikovsky.

After the deliberations came the news, delivered gently and kindly: I didn’t get the job. David Hardy, my former Peabody classmate and then the orchestra’s associate principal cellist, came out and shook my hand, and told me it had been a very difficult decision.

I took my cello down to the Kennedy Center parking lot and was getting ready to leave when the thought occurred to me that I had never met Rostropovich, long a hero, and that perhaps this could be my chance. The general vibe had been very nice, and Slava was well known for being a warm fellow. Maybe he’d be willing to at least shake my hand. So I went back up, and told one of the staff that Mr. Rostropovich had long been my hero, and I’d very much appreciate it if I could have the opportunity to meet him, just for a moment. A call was made, and within minutes I was sent to his office.

He came out and gave me a hug. “I congratulate you on being great cellist!” he exclaimed. (No one, except my mother, had ever said anything that unreservedly complimentary about my playing.) “Unfortunately for you, other guy was greater today!” (What a brilliant way to handle the situation, I now realize: he was boosting me up even as he let me know there would be no arguing the result.)

I laughed, and he asked me with whom I studied. I told him Bernard Greenhouse. “Oh, Bernie is wonderful, wonderful! His trio just make great success in Europe. Now, Eric, what piece you play in finals?” I told him the Tchaikovsky. And then he launched in to about a 10-minute, detail discussion of virtually every passage I had played. I kick myself now that I didn’t write it all down. What I remember clearly, though, is about the seventh variation. “Must have more imagination!” was the theme of his remarks.

“More imagination.” That was one of the keys of Rostropovich’s success as a teacher and, I’m sure, colleague and mentor. He didn’t tell me how to play. He didn’t tell me that this particular variation, of a piece he virtually owned in the collective minds of cellists everywhere, should go faster or slower or louder or softer or be more on the a string or on the d string or that I should sink in more with the bow or have a wider or narrower vibrato. No, the greatest-cellist-in-the-world gave me a hug, told me I was great, and exhorted me to make greater use of my imagination. In a sense, he was telling me to more fully be me.

And then he gave me another hug, some kisses, and sent me on my way.

It was more than a nice brush-off; I felt acknowledged, empowered, and inspired. It’s the only time I ever lost a competition or audition and left feeling I’d won.

Driving back, it seemed obvious to me then that it was Rostropovich’s warmth and friendliness that made the his staff so much warmer are positive than that of other orchestras I’d visited. How could one have him for a boss and not end up nicer as a result?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Johnny and Me

Well, I'm having a musical fling with (to my surprise) Johnny Cash. The other afternoon I was relaxing before a concert and HBO or Showtime had the biopic Walk the Line on. I've always found the occasional bits of Cash songs I've heard on the radio to be powerfully eloquent. But the classical-snob in me still had a grip on what allowed myself to listen to.

Steve Jobs and everyone else who designed Itunes really knew what they are doing. DePauw recently gave me a new Mac Powerbook to use for the next four years or so (one of the great things about working for a university with a $500+ million endowment is preks like that). So here I sit, checking my email, and Johnny Cash pops into my head. There's the little Itunes icon at the bottom of the screen--click on it, search for Johnny Cash, and before I know it I've downloaded two albums. I'm listening to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. What amazing connection with an audience. Incredible.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Virginia Tech

The Virgina Tech shooting incident is horrifying. But I find myself strangely numb to it. Images of the thousands of American kids of the same age who've been killed in Iraq float to mind, and how few of us have a similar sense of tragedy about them. And then there are all the Iraqi civilians, including children, who have died in this horrible and horrifying war. The torture our own government has been allowing and encouraging and endorsing is sickening as well.

I do not mean to diminish the Virigina tragedy. The families of those who were killed will never get over the loss. But the fact that there is more outrage over this than thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths in Iraq, and the way in which the evil has gained a foothold as the United States has abandoned long-held principles as it has adopted a "the end justifies the means" approach leaves me puzzled and saddened.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Cleveland Orchestra

I'm taking my son and our Hong Kong exchange student to New York for some spiring break fun. We've stopped for a couple of nights in Cleveland, where one of the guys spent most of the day at a stamp show. Tonight the three of us went to hear the Cleveland Orchestra. The CO allows full-time students to buy two student-priced tickets for each student ID. So we were able to get three main-floor floor tickets for $45 (somewhat less than a rather expansive dinner for three at the Falafel House down the street).

Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, which I'd never heard; the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, with the orchestra's principal clarinetist, Franklin Cohen (masterful); and the Dvorak Sixth Symphony, all conducted by the rising young American conductor Alan Gilbert. Both the Mozart and Dvorak received enthusiastic and deserved standing ovations. The Stravinsky was warmly applauded, and for me was the main event of the evening. What a fabulous piece!

I'd never before experienced the art-deco splendor of Severance Hall. Wow. There's a lot to be said for temples of music.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Delta Zeta, continued

We discussed the Delta Zeta incident a bit today in two of my classes (the Times article and growing publicity was on everyone's mind, except for one freshmen who had somehow remained oblivious to the entire incident) , somewhat more extensively in one than another. In one, we talked about families of choice, including those created at college. One student pointed out that the women who left Delta Zeta, while no longer living together, are closer than ever. The feeling of family, of pulling together, of mutual support, has been strengthened by adversity.

I'm very proud of the two excellently-written letters from DePauw students in today's Times; the other two, one from a parent, made important points as well.

CNN did a report on the situation (without acknowledging the Times piece, I believe) this evening on Paula Zahn's show. The piece itself was OK, especially the moving clips of some of the women discussing their situation. Paula Z was appropriately confrontational with Cindy Menges, the Delta Zeta national executive director, who continued the blame-the-victims spin approach Delta Zeta as taken. When Zahn asked if there are any minority students left at DePauw's Delta Zeta chapter, Menges absurdly claimed not to know (after all this barrage of publicity?).

Neither Zahn nor anyone on the panel (none of whom seemed to have thought through anything about the situation in advance) picked up on the assertion reported in the piece that the national office had encouraged the women in the chapter to do more drinking at fraternity parties, be more sexual in their interactions with fraternity men, and, by implication, sleep around more.

Menges kept claiming that the women ousted from the chapter had refused to agree to the "recruitment plan." Well, if the plan required dressing more suggestively, doing more drinking, and sleeping around more to "improve" the chapter's image, then no wonder these smart, academically-oriented women didn't buy in.

The reporter's piece was pretty good. Zahn and, especially, the panel (Dad called to tell me they all seemed like idiots) were poorly prepared, and no one showed any evidence of having carefully watched the piece or thought intelligently about it. It was a clear example of the low standards of much of the discussion on cable news channels.

The Bright Side of DePauw's Greek Life

The article on the Delta Zeta scandal here at DePauw (which I wrote about yesterday) is number one on the New York Times most-emailed list, as of 11:15 AM today. And, yes, it is a big topic of conversation on campus. DePauw's campus is overwhelmingly "Greek." About 70% or so of our students are members of a fraternity or sorority. (Only a small minority of music majors, though, are Greek; the vast majority are independent.)

The incident does not cast the Greek system, or its pervasiveness at DePauw (evidently the result of a time a hundred years or so ago when the university couldn't afford to build dorms and fraternities and sororities filled in the gap), in a positive light. It's the dark side of Greek life, but there is a very bright side as well.

I live next to a fraternity house. The guys there are among the nicest, smartest, and most responsible I have met at DePauw. They rarely have loud noisy parties, and if they are planning on one, they visit the neighbors and let them know, give us coupons for free pizza from the one really good pizza place in town, and then have a party that is usually rather anemic by fraternity-party standards, at least when it comes to noise. It's a bunch of nice, smart, nerdy (in a good sense) guys trying to misbehave but not having it in them to pull it off. A number of of the brothers have taken classes with me, and I know from them how much this home-away-from-home, and the mutual support means to them. And they readily accept out gay men.

Saturday night the Putnam County Museum had a fundraising roast/tribute for Dorothy Brown, a local resident who had an outstanding career as an educator: school teacher, principal, and education professor at DePauw. She was also the first African American teacher and principal in Greencastle, so her career is historically significant as well. And for since her retirement from DePauw 15 years ago, she's been the house mother for one of the fraternities on campus. At the roast, a number of current and former members of the fraternity spoke of her with great humor and love; they call her "Mom Brown," or just "Mom." Towards the end of the evening, about forty guys knelt around the platform and serenaded her with the same song they sing outside sororities during "flower ins" and similar events. It was a sweetly paradoxical moment; these very low, very masculine, gruff, and very out of tune voices singing with a tender love for someone who has made a great difference in their lives. The bonds of affection and the benefits of brotherhood were clearly evident.

It's rare to find a gay man my age who lived in a fraternity while in college. But many of us have had the experience of creating a second family, a family of choice, when we found ourselves not accepted by our families of origin. For a while after I got divorced I shared a house with three other gay men and the teenage daughter of one of them. It was wonderful in many ways. I used to call it my "gay fraternity." There was much mutual support; we felt like brothers. I came to feel more comfortable and open with them than I did with the men in the support group I was attending.

So I have some sort of sense, I think, of what a family of choice and a sense of brotherhood can mean to guys in a fraternity (and to sisters in a sorority). Unlike my experience, in which we were brought together by financial necessity, members of fraternities and sororities have chosen each other, and made explicit commitments to one another, commitments formalized by ritual and then solidified by the experience of living together and sharing each other's loves.

I was incredibly lonely and often isolated during my college years, and spent much of them living in an apartment. I often feel a pang of envy for the sense of belonging and acceptance that so many of my Greek students clearly experience. I know how much it can mean, I know how important and central those relationships can become on many levels, including the emotional and spiritual.

Reflecting on this makes me more appreciative for the good aspects of Greek life here at DePauw, and of the extraordinary hurt and emotional trauma experienced by the women of Delta Zeta here at DePauw.