Monthly Archives: December 2005

Refugees from the Christmas Wars

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

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

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

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

My own musical Christmas war:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some key recurring points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday Dec. 11 II: Waking States continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He suffered for his art, no question.

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

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

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Sunday Dec. 11 I: Juilliard Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nicholas Anderson

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

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