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.