Monthly Archives: February 2006

Starker

I enjoyed meeting other cellists so much during my recent sabbatical that I’ve made a promise to myself to go down to Bloomington as often as possible this semester to observe Janos Starker’s Saturday afternoon masterclasses at Indiana University. With two kids, whose mother is often out of town on the weekends, and the general weekend exhaustion that comes from being a middle-aged college professor on a Saturday, it’s a bit of a push. And something I haven’t done for quite a while.

I was there this past Saturday. At 81, Starker has retired from public performing and is devoting himself to teaching. He’s yet another example that we don’t have to “get old” just because we’ve live a long time. Mentally sharp, insightful, witty, entertaining, perceptive, and playing great.

It was a wonderful class from which I took away a lot of ideas. Glad I went.

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A comment!

A comment! A comment!

Sorry, I love attention, and someone actually posted a comment in response to my last entry. I’m not the only person (other than my colleague Scott) reading my blog after all!

The writer points out that there were a lot of people other than Sara Sant’Ambrogio who were involved in making the video. Quite likely, most of the creative input came from others. Not to diminish either the credit she’s due or her culpability, depending on one’s point of view. She had to approve the whole thing.

Last night, after having written that post, I had dinner with two adult women classical musicians. Both are, well, disgusted by the trend to market classical instrumentalists as sex objects, and by the Eroica Trio in particular.

I must say that when the Eroica Trio played here at DePauw two or three years ago, I had the impression that the pianist, in particular, was uncomfortable with the whole thing. But that’s the life they’ve chosen, and it has worked for them. It is interesting, how genuinely angry it makes some other musicians. (They gave an excellent master class, and the concert was very well received. The performances were admired by a wide range of professional musicans. I admired their skill, for sure, but found the whole thing to be hyper-vibrated. So I didn’t really like it.)

One thing my dinner companions and I did agree on; the video does make Sara look a lot younger than she does in person. And so what? Models and movie stars get that treatment all the time, as the supermarket tabloids regularly show us by running candid photos. There’s no question that Sara, who must be 40-something, is in great physical shape, of course. She has that in common with the almost-40 Joshua Bell, who I just learned is an avid bowler. I guess you take the boy out of Indiana, but not the Indiana out of the boy. Josh looks much younger than his years.

I just took a look at the websites of Josh Bell, Zuill Bailley (a cellist whom even a 70-something straight man described to me as the most handsome man he’d ever met), Gil Shaham, and Maxim Vengerov. In other words, four young or youngish, good-looking male string players. Only Vengerov has photos on his site that have clear sexual overtones (bedroom eyes in a few, and one in which he’s actually lying–albeit fully clotherd–in bed). Shaham doesn’t even have a website, just a listing on the IMG site.

If anyone knows of a male classical instrumentalist who is being marketed as a sex symbol/object as overtly as the Eroica Trio has been, or who has made a video as sexy as Sara Sant’Ambrogio’s, let me know.

And feel free to write a comment, any comment!

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Sara’s Controversial Video

There is a lot of fussing going on in the Internet Cello Society Cello Chat forum, regarding Sara Sant’Ambrogio’s somewhat erotic “Summertime” video. A lot of classical musicians and music lovers are genuinely offended when a classical artist’s performance becomes focused on the person of the performer.

I have mixed feelings. So much of success, especially in classical music, is happenstance and luck. There are lots and lots of wonderful classical performers. Incredible players living musical lives onscure to public at large. Many of the “successful” performers happen to have come under the wing of the right powerful and/or rich people at the right time. Others have to do whatever they can to get noticed. If a good-looking woman (or man) wants to use her looks as a marketing tool, why not?

Sara, the cellist of the Eroica Trio, has helped pioneer this approach. The Eroica Trio has long marketed itself using photos with its members provacatively dressed in suggestive poses. While they are rather modestly dressed in the current photo on the trio’s entry page, the pose would be appropriate in an ad for “The L Word.” They deny they do this, of course, and as individuals may well resent the need to do it, and they may be trying to get away from it. But it’s how they made their name, and I’ve never met anyone who thought the Eroica would have had anything like the success they’ve had if they had been three fat women.

I admire the Eroica’s playing, and like Sara’s cello playing. They are fine players. And if it took using their looks to get concerts, I say good for them. Classical performers have always used attractive photos; there’s nothing wrong with that. And in today’s classical marketplace, there’s almost nothing a classical group can do to stand out. Emphasizing their looks, using provacative poses–they (and/or their managers and promoters) are playing the system.

In today’s hypersexualized popular culture, they are quite tame.

It does bother me, though, at the same time. The use of entertainment-industry techniques to market classical artists offends and worries some of us. Art is art, not entertainment. Or so we want to think. And so even more worrisome than the use of this sort of marketing is its success. Especially when performers are presented not just as good looking, but quite blatantly as objects for sexual fantasy.

Hey, if I was lean and muscular, I probably would not be above playing that up if it would get me concerts. I’d be happy to be a cello-playing sexual fantasy for millions of women and gay men! But since I’m middle-aged and overweight it’s not an issue that I’m going to have to face.

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Recent concerts

It’s been a busy three weeks since DePauw’s spring semester started.

Claude Cymerman and I gave a recital (Debussy Sonata, Cassadó Solo Suite, and the Franck Sonata) on Feb. 8.

On Thursday the 16th, I played in two voice and chamber ensemble works on a concert of Jake Heggie’s music—part of the Music of the 21st Century Festival here. And yesterday (Sunday the 20th) I played the last two (of three) movements of Heggie’s Holy the Firm: Essay for Cello and Orchestra.

The recital went over very well—standing ovation and many enthusiastic compliments in the days following. But I was disappointed in my playing. Students sometimes think that once one gets to a certain professional level, doubts, disappointments, and frustration goes away. Not so. A former student of Zara Nelsova recently wrote in the ICS Cello Chat forum that Nelsova used to say that if she was happy with two notes in a concert, it was a good night. That remark came a the right and comforting moment for me!

The first Heggie concert was also very well received. It was a bit frightening, to tell the truth, because we weren’t able to have as many rehearsals as we would have liked. It seemed as if one of us was always out of town.

The concerto went very well yesterday, from my point of view. I was actually rather happy with my playing! The orchestra got lost once in the finale, but we found each other. Sometimes when there is a mini or at least a potential disaster and everyone recovers, that’s as impressive, or even more so, than everything going smoothly.

I used a Crakovia Montagnana wood cello (which I have for sale) in the recital, and lots of people really liked its sound. For a relatively inexpensive (by professional-player standars) contemporary workshop instrument ($7000), it is quite remarkable. My own 1790 Pallotta cello, which is being restored by Russell Wagner in Chicago, will be done soon, and I’ll be sorry to part with the Crakovia (but I need to sell it to pay for the restoration).

For the Heggie concerts I used DePauw’s Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello. I wanted to use it for the concerto, because it has a huge, well-projecting sound. Luis Leguia designed for playing concertos, after all. I didn’t want to be going back and forth between two cellos last week, so I used it for the chamber concert as well.

Jake really liked it, which was good! And after the concerto yesterday, there were many enthusiastic compliments about the sound of the instrument, especially from singers. The only person who didn’t seem to like it was our retired cello professor. I really enjoy playing it, and felt very comfortable with it.

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Jake Heggie: Is Tonal Music an Especially Gay Thing?

Some years ago I had a conversation with someone who was quite skeptical of the idea that there was any point in looking into the personal lives of composers, especially their sexual orientation. Can music itself be straight or gay? If Handel or Schubert were gay, is there anything gay about the music itself? At the time, I didn’t think there could be anything gay or straight about a piece of music itself, unless it had a specifically gay text.

But in the last couple of weeks I have found myself thinking about this question again. And while I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that there’s such a thing as a gay musical language, I find myself coming to think that there may well be more of a connection between sexual orientation and a composer’s choice of musical language than I had previous realized.

DePauw is having the openly gay Jake Heggie visit this week for our Music of the 21st Century festival. I’m performing in three works: two song cycles with chamber accompaniment, and the final two movements of Heggie’s cello concerto, Holy the Firm: Essay for Cello and Orchestra.

I’ve just fallen in love with his music.

To me, this is the sort of lyrical, imaginative, energetic, and emotionally meaningful music that can reinvigorate classical music and bring in new audiences. It was only in the 20th century that “new” music became such “box office poison,” and it was the atonal, ugly, and more academic music at that which was the problem. There were, actually, many 20th century composers who wrote emotionally meaningful and essentially tonal music whose music audiences did connect with: Rachmaninoff, Copland, Bernstein, Shostakovich, Bernstein, etc.

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning Herald wrote and interesting article, “Gay Composers Gave America It’s Music,” which can be found here. His thesis is that much of the the accessible American music written in the 20th century was composed by gay men–and he has a good point. He develops an idea–which I’m not sure I entirely buy–that serialism became associated with heterosexual composers and tonal music with gay composers. But Copland, Bernstein, Rorem, Corigliano, and others–he’s got a point.

Like Jake, I am openly gay. Having been born in 1958 and lived through decades in which ours was the love that dared not speak its name, I still take delight in and feel affirmed by discovering other musicians who are “out and proud,” not closeted and ashamed.

I had found myself wondering, even before I found Cantrell’s article today, if gay composers aren’t atracted to tonal music in part because the ability of music to release and transform emotion, especially painful emotions, is so crucial to people who face misunderstanding and rejection, not just from society at large, but often from their own families.

And for men of my generation, who lived through the worst years of the AIDS crisis, there is all the grief and loss of that phenomenon as well. It was actually Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 “Of Rage and Remembrance” which was written in response to the AIDS crisis, that had me thinking along these lines. Rehearsing this morning, one of my colleagues didn’t understand why Heggie had chosen a text “In Praise of Songs that Die,” and set it with dramatic, almost terrifying music. I asked him to read the text to me, and it immediately struck me that Heggie must be using the “songs” as a metaphor for gay men who died of AIDS.

I’ll get the chance to ask Jake about this, and I look forward to doing so. I may be totally off base. Jake is writing a work in remembrance of the one million gay men killed by the Nazis, so it doesn’t seem like a crazy interpretation–and it is how I interpret the song.

But it was interesting that to me as a gay man, this interpretation seemed so obvious, while it hadn’t even occurred to my straight colleague, who’s almost 20 years younger than I am, anyway, and wouldn’t have had the same awareness of the horrifying years of the eighties and early nineties that I do.

How horrifying? Speaking on a personal lebel, as far as I can tell, every guy I had a serious romantic relationship with when I was in college is dead. Every single one. In this country, I think it is only gay men who have had this sort of thing happen to their community. Everyone loses people close to them, of course. But has any other group in post-WW II America had such a huge percentage of a generation killed off? (So how come I’m not dead? I think it is because just as the AIDS crisis was developing I had a renewed attack of internal homophobia and got married to a wonderful and stayed monagamously married through nearly all of the worst years, especially that time in which we didn’t know how the virus was transmitted.)

I go into all this to illustrate in part why music for gay men (and I’m not speaking about lesbians now not to ignore them but because I am trying to speak more from my own experience) can’t be just an intellectual exercise. It’s just too important, too central to our emotional lives.

And to be a gay man, you have to become honest about your own feelings. You can be a repressed homosexual cut off from his emotions, yes. But to be gay is to acknowledge and hopefully accept something about yourself that you may have been taught to believe is sick or perverted. When you open yourself up to those feelings, they have to be expressed. They often need to be escaped.

Music becomes a life saver. Music is there to transform an existence that must be transformed to be survived. When I have been most miserable, that’s when music has been most important to me.

So I can see how middle-class, heterosexual white guys could reject tonal music, write a lot of very cerebral dodecaphonic pieces, and have been quite comfortable with it. African-American culture gave us not serialism but the Blues and jazz and rock and roll. Music that means something. And if Cantrell is right, and it was the gay men who stuck with tonality, it makes sense to me.

OK, this is a lot of generalizations. And yes, John Cage was as gay as you can get and wrote music as untonal as anyone. But I do think think there is something to the idea that for people who suffer as individuals and as a group, the emotional nuances and the ability to exploit and resolve tension that exists in tonal music holds a special meaning.

While I am delighted to be a musician playing this wonderul music of Jake Heggie this week, I am perhaps even more delighted to have the privilege of being a gay man playing this extraordinary music by a composer who is an openly gay man.

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Pam Coburn and the ICO

Heard a wonderful concert today–DePauw alum and Visiting Professor Pamela Coburn, soloing on campus with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. Pam was warm, regal, and elegant all at once. Her voice is not just beautiful, but has a burnished glow to it. She was fabulous.

The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra is quite good. It’s another example of how high the level of instrumental playing is in this country; this is an ensemble of free-lance musicians. The wind and brass players, and most of the strings are of major-symphony caliber. There was some occasional minor intonation difficulty in the violins, but other than that the orchestra played beautifully as well.

The program was Handel and Mozart. OK, I just have to face it. I’ve listened to enough music of this era played fantastically well on period instruments with historically-informed playing styles that hearing lots lots of vibrato in this music just drives me nuts. And I think that often string players use vibrato as a substitute for genuine nuance and variety of actual timbre. So it took me quite a while to get over the culture shock and enjoy the performance on its own terms.

I’m glad that I still can switch listening modes, stop being annoyed by the vibrato, and enjoy this sort of instrumental performance.

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Great Players Most People Have Never Heard About . . .

Now that I’m settled back in at DePauw, where it turns out more of my colleagues have been reading my blog than I had realized, it’s been pointed out to me that it can be, oh, a tad bit difficult to keep up with the thing when I write enormously long entries.

I understand, but what can I say? I’m a college professor!

Some brief notes:

Interesting article by Anne Midgette in the NYT about attempts by classical performers and presenters to reach out to new audiences, in this case the “downtown” NY scene. This subject of audience building, and of non-traditional approaches to audience development, is important to all of us who are doing our bit to carry the classical-music torch.

Anne Reynolds, the flute professor here at DePauw, has obviously been practicing rather than trying to read all my blog entries in detail. Good thing, too–her Monday evening faculty recital was simply stunning.

There are so many fantasic classical performers that are known only regionally or to a very narrow audience. Anne is one of them. She’s an absolutely spectacular performer. And pianist Claude Cymerman, who played with her, along with Anna Mattix on oboe, is an artist who with more connections and strong backing from a manager earlier in life could have had a major career.

And I’ve recently heard a live recording of Jake Heggie’s “Holy the Firm”: Essay for Cello and Orchestra with Emil Miland, of whom I was not previously aware, as soloist. Incredible playing–accurate, passionate, imaginative, musical, colorful, varied. The highest level performance I could imagine. (I’m playing the second two movements of this Heggie work myself at DePauw on Feb. 19). A few days ago, I didn’t know he existed. Now I’m a big fan.

How many other wonderful discoveries await us?

OK. Hope this was readably short!

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