Monthly Archives: February 2011

Classical music is dead! Ha! (SJ X)

The Nouveau Classical Project (check their blog and Facebook page, too) has the ironic, tongue-in-cheek slogan, “Classical Music is Dead.”  You can even buy a t-shirt (I don’t see how to directly link to the t-shrt page; click on “Media” then “Stuff”).

Here’s their self-description:

The Nouveau Classical Project (NCP) is a group that reimagines the classical music concert, creating a place where fashion and music converge. In a time where audiences tastes have grown more diverse, we offer a fresh and exciting way to experience art music that will satisfy cultural omnivores.

We provide a platform for emerging composers, fashion designers, musicians, and artists to showcase their talents to the creative and curious listeners of New York City. We achieve this with our concert series and events, where we create opportunities for contemporary composers to have original work presented. At NCP we also do not take the visual element for granted: fashion, informed by a modern perspective, matches the music. Musicians garments (our ensembles ensemble) are styled by fashion designers, who base their inspiration on the music we program.

Our events take place throughout New York City (until we conquer the universe). Other activities include fashion shows/presentations and events, operas, art exhibitions, and more.

Since most concert dress is so dull, combining classical music with fashion is a fascinating idea, especially to someone embracing the reinvent-classical-music zeitgeist. Men in particular, whether traditionalists or progressives, seem to go with uniforms that require no advance planning. Those of us who’ve put our white ties and tails, or black-tie tuxes, in the back of the closet (or sold them on Craig’s List) usually appear in the new default setting: black shirts and pants (black jeans if we are young and/or slender enough to pull them off).

So with the reimagining-the-classical-concert idea, and the music-and-fashion element,  I was excited to attend their February 13 performance at [le] poisson rouge, and almost got a friend in a very successful new-music group to come along.  He thought it sounded exciting, too, but was too zonked from rehearsing to make it.  It was at LPR, after all, where everything is cool, and where he hadn’t been for quite a while.

The program itself turned out to be a fairly traditional classical-music concert. It was the fashion/costumes–far indeed from the same old boring stuff–and presenting it in a bar (the LPR Gallery Bar [bottom two photos in that link], not the main space), that made it unusual.

The first half (or maybe first third) had at least a touch of the shuffle energy I wrote about in my last post: the first movement of the Górecki Second String Quartet was followed by three unrelated (except by programming concept) songs. “Peneolpe to Odysseus,” by the young composer Tervor Gureckis was followed by Wolf’s “Verborgenheit” and Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade.”  The Gorecki was played with very effective, contemplative and understated energy by violinists Josh Henderson and Patti Kilroy, violist Meena Bhasin, and cellist Mariel Roberts. Amanda Hick, the soprano, is a wonderful singer who was effectively accompanied by pianist Walter Aparicio.

An MC read explanations of how the interpretations of the music had influenced the fashion designs. I’m not into fashion, I don’t know fashion.  My fashion opinions, if I had any, would be uninformed and irrelevant. That said, I really didn’t get the fashion at this show; much seemed like somewhat silly costumes.  And some of the performers seemed uncomfortable in them as they walked past me at the bar (as I explain below, many of us couldn’t see the actual performance), or I projected that. But I’m a middle-aged guy from Indiana who owns way too many clothes bought at Wal-Mart.  Musicians in all black with a small parasol on their head, or melting clocks (cool)  draped on them, or an array of gold bulbs (which looked like a bunch of Christmas tree ornaments to me) fixed about them might be really stimulating to others, and I just have a blind spot. It certainly wasn’t boring.

The great thing is that these people have an idea, are committed to it, and are experimenting.

And Mariel Roberts is an awesome cellist who will have a big career, I’m sure.  She did a stunningly good performance of the Britten Cello Suite No. 3 which was worth the trip and the $20 cover charge.  She then played the notoriously difficult opening artificial-harmonics passage of the Shostakovich Piano Trio as accurately and assuredly as I’ve heard anyone do it. (The rest of the performance could have used another rehearsal or two.)

So kudos to the Nouveau Classical Project for their adventuresome spirit, imagination, and risk-taking.  I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop and if they do indeed take “conquer the universe.”

I’d love to experience another of their performances, especially in a different space.  The LPR Gallery Bar, where this event took place, is spiffy but narrow, with no raised platform for the performers.  I’d taken a seat at the bar, where I thought I’d have a great view, but there were so many people standing that I could only get the tiniest of glimpses as  I craned my head this way and that.  The videographer, ironically, was blocking the view of a number of us.  Posterity may see what many of the live people didn’t.

It’s also a pretty dead space, acoustically.  It would have been a less-than-optimal listening environment even with a silent sonic background.  There was a very loud group in the adjoining main space, so the thump-thump-thumps of the bass and drums seeped in, despite what is supposed to be soundproofing between the rooms.  (Someone–I think Justin Kantor, one of the LPR founders, but I’m not sure–from the club kept checking doors to make sure they were shut.)

Anyway, universe, beware.  The Nouveau Classical Project is out to get you.  Before you know it, they’ll take over the main space at LPR and then nothing will stop them. Classical music is dead! Ha!

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LPR: A Destination Shuffle Venue? (SJ IX)

“Let me ask you something,” said the bartender at [le] poisson rouge to my daughter and I.  The Dueling Fiddlers concert (which I blogged about here) had finished, and I was paying our tab.  “Did you come specifically to hear this show, or did you just come to be at the club?”*

That surprised me.  Not only had we come for that event, we’d each left our respective Super Bowl parties early to get there on time.  (If you’ve ever lived in Wisconsin and the Packers are in the Super Bowl, you’re a big football fan, even if it’s for that night only.)  “The reason I’m asking,” he explained, “is that we’re finding that people are starting to come just to be at the club.  They’ve been here before, or have heard it’s really cool, so they just show up and see whatever is going on. They’ll even pay a $30 cover.” (Many LPR shows are much less than that.)

Fascinating.  The venue itself is becoming the attraction. A place where you know you can show up, have a good drink and/or some food, and know something interesting will be happening.  Hey, what do you want to do tonight?  Let’s just go to LPR.

That hadn’t occurred to me.  If it’s really working out that way, then not only are the LPR staff doing a great job, but the eclectic spirit of the club is meeting an equally (or near-equally) eclectic spirit among it’s patron base.

You can’t say LPR is a classical club or a rock club or a jazz club or a hip-hop club or a whatever club, because it presents all those things.  What I’d assumed up until that conversation was that LPR serves a wide array of mostly separate audiences, with some overlap–a view shaped, I’m sure, by my age and background.  But why shouldn’t the screw-genres, we-like-everything spirit of composer/performers like Missy Mazzoli and Gabriel Kahane (my comments on their Chamber Music America panel discussion are here) be present in their audiences as well?

We live in iPod shuffle times.  For those living life without small music player, filled with all sorts of different music tracks, the “shuffle” feature will, at your request, play individual pieces, movements, songs, etc., in random order.  I found it annoying as hell when I first turned it on by accident, and rarely use it myself.  But millions of (mostly younger) people love it.  What are you going to hear next?  It’s a surprise. That’s the fun of it.

And so why not a club, like LPR, serving as an institutional shuffle device?  Show up and take what you get. Maybe–perhaps even preferably–something you wouldn’t have chosen on your own.

Now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense.

————-

*I wasn’t recording that conversation, so it’s reconstructed from memory.  But I’m quite sure I have the gist of it right.

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In Which Lisa Bielawa and Frances-Marie Uitti Turn Me Into a Tounge-Tied Fan (SJ VIII)

The individual and combined performances of vocalist Lisa Bielawa (best known as a composer) and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti at [le] poisson rouge on Sunday February 13 were extraordinary.  Billed as “In Translation: A Bold New Collaboration,” the program included Bielawa’s performance of the Berio Squenza III for solo voice, Uitti playing the Xenakis Kottos 1977 for solo cello, and then an approximately 30-minute improvisation in which Christian Hawkey read original poems to which Bielawa and Uitti improvised.

The Berio began with Bielawa off-stage, using a hand-held microphone.  Where was she?  Eventually she materialized on stage, and made an impressively seamless transition to a mic on a stand.  This was the second amazing performance of a Berio Sequenza I’ve experienced since I arrived in New York 5 weeks ago.  The pieces are so rich, complex, full of mood changes and nonsense syllables that they have to be “owned,” quite obviously, to be performed at all.  As I’ve heard them, anyway, they are profoundly theatrical.  It takes an enormous commitment to learn one, so they are the sort of thing that gets done brilliantly or not at all.  (I certainly wouldn’t want to hear a careful, tentative performance!)

The Xenakis cello piece is full of special effects, including lots of two-handed (at least in this performance) bow-crunching.  To say that Uitti owns this piece would be an understatement.  (I feel like I’ve been living under a rock in Greencastle for the last 20+ years.  Not only am I not familiar with the Xenakis, which is a major 20th-century cello piece, but I’d never heard of Uitti, who is one of the most important new-music cellists of recent decades.)  Uitti used a very tall seat (something on a piano bench, perhaps, all covered with a black drape), and keeps an assortment of four or five bows at the ready.  For the Xenakis (or most of it, my memory has faded a bit), she used what at first I thought (with disbelief) was a Baroque bow.  I couldn’t imagine using one for something this demanding on the bow.  As I watched more closely (I was at a back table) I realized this was some sort of contemporary bow, lacking the Tourte-model arching.  Turns out it is a bow of her own invention.

After an intermission, Brooklyn-based poet Christian Hawkey joined them on stage for a collaborative performance of sonnets he had written.  Uitti is fond of what we musicians call scordatura, or alternative tunings.  Bielawa told the audience, “It’s never the same,” (or words to that effect) as the cellist experimented, finally finding what I would call “the pitches the strings wanted to be tuned to.”

That’s the thing about improvisation, to which this portion of the evening was dedicated.  It’s not your left brain figuring things out, it’s focusing on the music and discerning what wants to be played.  It’s paradoxical; we create original music, which is probably the most profound manifestation of who we are as human beings, by getting (what we experience as) ourselves out of the way.  (I heard Meridith Monk talk about this point on Tuesday, which I’ll get around to writing about soon.)

Everybody can improvise.  We do it talking all the time, of course.  We can do it musically (or with dancing, moving, painting) as well; most of us just haven’t given ourselves permission.

To speak well, you have to have something so say.  And you need a vocabulary with which to say it.  The larger the better, especially if your vocabulary is put in service of what you have to say, and you’re not saying something in order to show off your vocabulary.  Even with a small vocabulary, you can be profoundly eloquent if you deeply feel what you are communicating.

Great musical improvisers have something to say, a wide and deep musical vocabulary, discipline and skill in their craft, and openess to and trust in their own ideas, the ideas of their musical partner(s), and the process itself. That was the case with this performance.

It looked like this:  Hawkey on the audience-left side of the stage with a sheaf of poems, Bielawa in the center, Uitti and her assortment of bows on the right.  Hawkey started reading; Uitti soon added some harmonics, and Bielawa some long vocal tones.  Then Hawkey finished the sonnet and handed it to Biewala, who sang fragments from it.  The music was continually varied, with Uitti often using two bows (one on each side of the strings).  The process of a poem read, then handed to Biewala who sang from it and dropped the paper to the floor as she and Uitti improvised, continued throughout the set.

I wish I could describe for you the entire performance, because it was not just stunning but entrancing and enlivening and emotionally deep and varied.  It was the most amazing improvisation I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve witnessed a lot), both in the range of the individual performances and the connection between the two musicians.

I was awestruck.  When I spoke to the performers after the show, I was tongue-tied.  My own English vocabulary seemed to have deserted me;  I had become a fan at a loss for words.

Turned out this was Biewala’s first improvised performance, and she and Uitti had experimented just once before.  It would be hard to believe, except I’ve been around so many first-time improvisers that I know miracles can and do happen.

How was it able to happen?  Biewala’s a gifted performer and as an important young composer knows a huge amount of music, is comfortable (or comes alive) on stage, and is in touch with her creative voice.  Uitti, similarly, is not just experienced as an improviser but knows the contemporary/avant-garde cello literature as well or better than anyone else on the planet. And these two really connect.  That’s something that happens or it doesn’t.  When it does, it usually is immediate and powerful;  you feel it from the first time you make music with the other person.

Hawkey’s poems gave them starting points, a focus for their creativity.  They each have rich imaginations.  And they each have huge musical vocabularies.  That’s what reduced me to fan-status for the evening;  I realized how much larger their musical vocabularies are than my own.

And my mind is still, well, boggled.

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Filed under Frances-Marie Uitti, improvisation, Le Poisson Rouge, Lisa Bielawa

Chamber Music, Dancers, and a Blue Moon Valentine’s Day Show (Sabbatical Journal VII)

OK, catching up on my musical adventures.

The last event I wrote about was the Dueling Fiddlers at [le] poisson rouge (LPR) on Sunday Feb. 6. After a flurry of attending something virtually every night since I arrived in NY mid-January, I took a few nights off.  I was moving from one place to another, and perhaps there are only so many events one can attend without a bit of time to mentally relax.

Thursday Feb. 10 made for a difficult choice.  Richard Stolzman was performing at LPR, and there was an Ecstatic Music Festival show at Merkin, both of which I really wanted to experience.  I opted for making music myself, and accepted an invitation to read string quartets with three fine New York freelance musicians.  Each around my age (50s), each getting a lot less work than before.  None seemed bitter, though, and all four of us were happy to sit in a living room, reading Haydn, Schumann, and Beethoven.  The others have played together for years, and there was the kind of old-friends bickering about how the chairs should be arranged, where the lamps should go, which volume of Haydn to start with, etc.  There are so many Haydn quartets that few of us who don’t play string quartets for a living are familiar with all 68 of them.  There was such joy among us, as twists and turns, unexpected modulations and surprising dynamics presented themselves.  “Oh, wow!”  “That’s fantastic!”  Whatever life’s challenges, professional or personal, playing chamber music with friends (old or new) seems to make it all better, at least for a while.

I was playing the cello again on the evening of Friday Feb. 11–improvisation and Bach as part of the music for Robin Becker’s Into Sunlight work-in-progress modern dance showing at the 92nd St. Y.  Playing for dancers, watching and responding to them, is such a stimulating experience, very different than playing a concert.  A blog post about that difference is in the works.

So it was Saturday Feb. 12 when I again heard others perform.  Back at Drom in the East Village, I had dinner while listening to the Blue Moon Ensemble perform what the club billed as a St. Valentine’s Day Special, with music “dedicated to love and lovers.”  “Mashups” (here less the overlap of multiple, formerly discreet pieces, and more the close juxtaposition of music from differnt genres) and “remixes” were the spirit of the evening. Early jazz, progressive jazz, traditional classical music, Byzantine chant (arranged for instruments) . . . a wonderful array, played with enthusiasm.  The Blue Moon combines the forces of a traditional jazz sextet (trumpet, sax, guitar, piano, bass, drums) with violin, cello, and clarinet.  It makes for lots of interesting combinations.

I got there after the show had started, but thankfully there were several empty tables, including one with no “reserved” seat sign on it, so I didn’t have to stand or sit at the bar.  This being New York, though, the empty tables didn’t stop the waiter, once he finally noticed me, from asking if I had a reservation, and, when I said no, saying he would need to move me to another spot.  I pointed out the empty tables with “reserved” signs on them, and he somewhat sheepishly relented.  That was OK, but what really irritated me was that Drom doesn’t serve tap water, and charges $5.00 for a bottle of water.  I was quite thirsty, was going to get a glass or two of wine anyway, and found this annoying and inhospitable.  It’s the only place I’ve been in New York, or anywhere else, where they won’t serve you water along with whatever else you order.  I enjoyed the music but left irritated with the venue, which undoubtedly will influence my decision-making process when there’s a which-of-the-four-things-I’d-like-to-attend night in the future.

There was also another music-in-clubs phenomenon: overly loud people at the next table. As the evening progressed, a group of four very expensively (leather, fur) and fashionably-dressed middle-aged women formed at the table next to me.  They were excited to see one another, and once the fourth arrived, their conversation, in an Eastern-European language (Turkish? Armenian?), got so loud that to hear the music I left my seat and went and stood in another part of the room for a while.  They noticed, I think, and lowered their voices.

The social contract in a club is obviously different than in a concert hall.  A certain level of sound, not from the stage, is inevitable, expected, accepted, and generally not bothersome.  And usually people don’t talk, or keep their voices very low, while the music is being performed.  So this was unusual.  They were so obviously excited to be in one another’s company that they lost awareness of the rest of the room, it seemed.  When I moved so I could hear, they noticed, and became appropriately considerate.  And so I returned to my hard-won seat.

I like Drom. I’ll be back.  I do wonder if the irritation not serving free water triggers doesn’t outweigh the short-term benefits of the markup on bottled water (I did pop for a Pellegrino and at least one glass of wine).  But heck, it’s their business model, not mine.

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YCA Marathon: Everything Right and Everything Wrong

Oy!  I’ve been to so many concerts in the last 9 days and want to write about them all.  Just a quick comment on one before I go off to the 7-hour marathon honoring Gunther Schuller at Symphony Space (which I can see from my NY bedroom window).

I was at Symphony Space on Saturday for part of the 12(!)-hour marathon concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Young Concert Artists.  Through an annual competition, YCA finds exceptional young classical artists whom it then nurtures, providing debut recitals and management for three years.

I heard the last two movements of the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence string sextet, performed by big names Ani (violin) and Ida (viola) Kafavivan, Toby Apel (viola), and Carter Brey (cello)), who were joined by the younger artists Ju-Young Baek (violin) and Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello).  Then came the “Chopin Hour,” with pianists Wendy Chen, Sergei Edelmann, Mona Golabek, and Edward Auer.  Then the Prokofiev D Major Violin Sonata with Dmitri Berlinsky, violin and Sergei Edelmann, piano.  After the first movement of the Schumann Piano Quintet (Chee-Yun and Stefan Milenkovich, violin;s Nokuthula Ngwenyama, viola; Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello; and, I think, Hung-Kuan Chen, piano–there was a different pianist for each movement and I’ve misplaced my program) I had to leave for other commitments.

Great playing by everybody, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Let me be clear, given what I’m about to write.  I loved it.

And as I sat there, I thought to myself this is everything that’s right with classical music and everything that’s wrong with it, right here.

What was right?  Beautiful, great music.  Played with extraordinary technical accomplishment, love, and care by everyone.  Fine, thoughtful musicianship.  Infectious joie de vivre, especially among the Tchaikovsky players. Big-name artists, rising fabulous young performers.  And the whole thing was free.

What was wrong?  Nothing, really.  But it was clear why these sorts of concerts don’t attract a younger audience (most of the audience looked as if they’d attended YCA concerts for the last 50 years and may have started in middle age at that). Here are the things that struck me:

  • Dry acoustics, no amplification.  I just don’t see attracting new audiences to halls with bad acoustics and no amplification
  • Lack of visual interest. You can argue that a concert shouldn’t [need to] be visually interesting, but it’s becoming quite obvious that this doesn’t work for younger generations.  Having been to some great concerts recently that were visually fascinating, the difference was very noticeable to me.
  • A host (a different one was scheduled for each two-hour segment) who made comments to the audience.  Not a bad idea in and of itself. The host while I was there, whom I’m purposely not naming, was very pleasant, but the comments weren’t well-planned, and often were along the lines of, “the next performer is ___.  Is he back there? Ready?”  So it gave a kind of nicely-informal but also amateur-hour feel to the thing.  This is not a standard feature of most classical concerts, in which often no one talks to or with the audience, but it did, to me, symbolize how little attention we often pay to production values and effectiveness when we do speak.  Let me emphasize that it wasn’t really bad, and it was pleasant.  It just wasn’t the sort of thing to make you want to bring  your college-age kid later in the evening. And the informality of the host’s comments was at odds with the stiff formality of some of stage presence of some of the performers, especially the pianists.
  • Short, clearly unplanned interviews with a player or players,which again were not the sort of thing you’d brag about having heard. One resulted in a long, boring, softly-told (cries of “louder!” from the audience until the microphone was held closer to the story-teller’s mouth) anecdote (climaxing in someone’s music getting blown off a piano–wow! hilarious!).  Also confessions of/bragging about lack of rehearsal time.  We learned the Tchaikovsky had one three hour rehearsal (“but we’ve all played it many times before!”).  Isn’t that something?  There were some amazed “oohs” from some of the audience.  And players of this level can read through a piece they know, decide on some bowings, and make great music on one rehearsal.  But is that the best thing to be telling an audience?  When asked how much they’d worked on the Prokofiev, one of the players (for whom English is not his first language) replied, “This is our first time playing together.”  From the not-quite together ending of the second movement, I could imagine that they hadn’t rehearsed (although I don’t think that’s what he meant to say). Fine, fine, fine.  Just don’t tell me about it.

My daughter, a college sophomore, joined me for dinner and we were spending the evening together.  I enjoyed the music I heard in the afternoon, and would have loved to have gone back for a good chunk of the evening.  But I knew she’d be probably be bored, and it would have been a very hard sell.  Come on, honey, let’s go over and to hear people play music on stage with a boring black backdrop curtain, dry acoustics, formal stage presence (much of the time) and then they’ll tell us how much they didn’t rehearse!  What, you don’t want to go out in the 50-mile-an-hour windstorm for that?  You’d rather order in and watch the Law and Order SVU marathon and House?

And see, if it had been just me, I would have been thrilled to go.  But I couldn’t get my daughter–and this was a father-daughter night–excited about that tremendous, traditional concert the way I can about going to see something with cool lighting at a place like [le] poisson rouge.  And that, folks, is the dilemma and challenge before us.

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Filed under Gunther Schuller, Le Poisson Rouge, Symphony Space, Young Concert Artists

DSO: Making Them an Offer They Can’t Accept?

After months of mutual finger-pointing occasionally interrupted by actual negotiations, attempts at a resolution of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike collapsed Saturday. Management made its final offer last week, which the musicians turned down, accusing management of a last-minute bait-and-switch ploy in which the final written proposal  was different from what was agreed to in the negotiations. The rest of the season has been “suspended.”

Check out the DSO management and DSO musicians‘ statements if you haven’t already. They seem to be written from different planets.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was checking Twitter feeds all afternoon Saturday waiting for the vote results to be announced.  (It was the first time I ever really used Twitter.) The DSO drama is riveting; when everything is over, there’s an extensive New Yorker in-depth feature just waiting to be written.  So many conflicting (and complimentary) points of view, so many observers projecting so many interpretations.

Drew McManus has been offering the best reporting and analysis of the situation; his latest post is here. Drew links to a Detroit News report which offers support to the those who’ve suspected that what the DSO management and board have really wanted was to get rid of the current players and hire a new band:

A very different Detroit Symphony Orchestra could emerge in the coming months unless the DSO musicians reverse themselves and agree to terms even more stringent than the offer they rejected over the weekend.

The DSO administration is prepared to move forward with a newly assembled group of players that would include only those members of the current orchestra who agree to unilaterally presented terms, DSO Vice President Paul Hogle said Sunday.

Without setting a date, Hogle said the time has come for a new symphony model to emerge, an ensemble that not only plays traditional concerts but also fully engages the community as ambassadors, educators and performers.

Retired DSO violinist Ann Strubler’s February 16 post imagines a DSO management approach to negotiations which could have built trust and resulted in a contract agreement, and explains, from her point of view, what went wrong.  Then she speculates that things weren’t supposed to work out:
Now all of this is assuming that management has good intentions. Unfortunately, their actions appear to convey that their intentions are to get rid of the current musicians and use inexperienced replacements at a much lower salary.

Is this what’s really going on?  An inversion of Vito Corleone’s “an offer he can’t refuse“? Make them an offer they can’t accept?

I had dinner last night with a violinist friend who is taking orchestra auditions.  The DSO situation came up, and I told him about the sabotage-the-negotiations-to-hire-a-new-orchestra hypothesis. My friend has been around for a while.  Even if that’s their idea, it would never work, my friend said.  “It would be a scab orchestra.  Nobody would join it.”

Why not? Back to today’s Detroit News article:

Professional orchestras are highly unionized; any musician taking a replacement job risks career suicide.

Hogle said any restructured ensemble would be professional and open to young musicians as well as veterans.

Career suicide. Maybe, but only in the unionized orchestra world of the past and present.

Open to young musicians as well as veterans. Who, absent any career to kill off, and perhaps foreseeing a weakened-union or non-union future, may leap at a chance to work for a living.

So it just might be able to work, this hire-a-new-orchestra thing.  Not that I’m in favor of it. But I’m looking at the realities.  And everyone is fully aware that as the DSO goes, so, probably, will a lot of other orchestras.

There’s virtually universal agreement that something has to change for full-time symphony orchestras to survive in the 21-st century.  People who love orchestras the way they are (especially the ones playing in them) think that what needs to happen is better PR and marketing, better fund raising, better outreach, and, especially, more and better classical-music education in the public schools.  In the opposite corner are the classical-music-must-change advocates who have concluded that symphony orchestra must undergo radical transformation to survive and grow.

The DSO situation is a  symbol for the larger struggle.  The musicians, deeply frustrated by what they see as incompetent management, fighting (evidently to the death) to preserve  intact a great symphony orchestra (and by proxy all traditional symphony orchestras).

Then there’s the vision of change.  From Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press:

DSO executive vice president Paul Hogle said the musicians appear out of touch with the realities facing U.S. orchestras and the desires of a younger generation of entrepreneurial musicians.

“This isn’t about financial issues versus work-rule issues,” said Hogle. “It’s about the survival and looking forward, not lingering in the past.”

A “younger generation of entrepreneurial musicians.” What about them?

I’m living in New York this semester, and have met a number of young free-lance players, some of whom are graduate students at big conservatories.  Guess what?  Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players (who have not managed to successfully reframe the conversation and are losing the PR war, even with music students). They love all sorts of music in addition to classical music.  Plenty find traditional symphony (and other) concerts boring.  There are plenty of classical-change advocates, in various stages of self-awareness, among them. Right now, they have little or no work.  Student and, in many cases, instrument loans to pay.  Fantastic players.

Many see the union as the problem (even if they’re not going through one of those college-age Ayn Rand phases).  The players have been successfully characterized to/construed by them as greedy, selfish, and/or out of touch.  A lot of these incredibly-accomplished young players (and I bet there are bunches more in Baltimore, Bloomington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, LA,Miami,  etc.) seem excited at the idea of going to Detroit to work in a “new model” symphony.

They aren’t horrified by the idea of service conversion and the “Memphis Model,” as is, for example, longtime DSO clarinetist Doug Cornelsen. They find it appealing.

So that’s the bad news for my friends colleagues in the DSO. Given the economy and the over-supply of unemployed excellent young (and not-so-young) players, there may well be high-level musicians who would line up to take their places.  And that may well be what the DSO management is not just gambling but counting on.

Are there really enough high-level, out-of-work musicians to constitute a new DSO?  Sure.

Would enough of them cross picket lines and actually go to work for what the DSO will offer?  I don’t know.  Big if.  But probably.

If yes, would the new orchestra have the same depth and sophistication as the current orchestra?  Obviously not.

Could it be technically brilliant and enthusiastic?  Very possibly.  Take a listen to, say, the Juilliard Orchestra. It’s awesome.

Could anyone in the current DSO stay on at whatever management’s next, even-less-lucrative offer turns out to be, joining the “scabs”? Seems like it would mean resigning from the union and giving up many of one’s friendships.

Would the community and the current subscriber base support a “scab orchestra”? Big, big, big question mark. It will depend on who frames the conversation and wins the PR war.  So far, the musicians haven’t been effective at making their case.

So some of us stay glued to the blog and Twitter feeds.  Is what the DSO management and board really want a new set of non-traditionalist players?  Are they using union-busting tactics, making offers they know the players won’t accept, even reneging on terms they verbally agreed to, as the musicians say?

What a mess.  We’ll see.

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Filed under crisis in classical music, Detroit Symphiony Orchestra, future of classical music

Two Very Different Mashups at [le] poisson rouge (Sabbatical Journal VI)

Two very different recent events at [le] poisson rouge had one thing in common: combining separate pieces. “Mashups,” to use the rock/pop vernacular. (God, that makes me sound so middle-aged.) One classical, the other, well, nearly every possible genre.

On Thursday February 3, Bruce Brubaker (chair of piano at the New England Conservatory) joined his former student Francesco Tristano (who needs to get his website back online) in  Simultaneo, parallell concerts on the same stage. The music was by Buxtehude, Gibbons, Schumann, Messiaen, Glass, Cage, Earle Brown, and Tristano himself. Using LPR’s seven-foot Yamaha (amplified) and an electronic keyboard with processing effects, they created an etheral and haunting soundscape as they combined pieces. There was a slow-motion, quasi-hypnotic feel to the evening, the music never stopping, even when the two traded positions (looping and/or delay processing comes in handy).  Brubaker wrote a blog post before the show, saying in part,

Next week, I’m playing an overlapped, simultaneous concert with Francesco Tristano, this time at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. It’s billed as “[ Simultaneo ].” In the advertising it says: “Two concerts at the same time!” A manifestation of remix culture for sure — it’s Girl Talk Classical!

So a definite reference to pop culture, and how classical musicans are being influenced by it.  (I guess I really ought to listen to Girl Talk and start paying more attention to pop culture.) Here’s video of an earlier concert:

For me the sometimes Ivesian juxtaposition of the music worked really well.  For Jake Cohen at consequenceofsound.net, it didn’t.

At one point during the double piano set by whiz kid Francesco Tristano and veteran Bruce Brubaker– two artists steeped in the 20th-century piano tradition– I jotted down in my notes: “I’m just not sure what the point is supposed to be.” Maybe that was the point. Avant-garde artists frequently set out to mystify their audiences, appealing to an elite and eccentric few, while shock and confusion were stalwart aesthetic values of the Fluxus movement and other happenings going on in this city during the 1960s and 70s. Make no mistake– Tristano and Brubaker are consummate musicians, unarguably at the top of their respective fields, and they know their stuff. They had a novel, wild idea: play two concerts with programs of both contemporary and classical piano music, from Cage to Schumann to Buxtehude, at the same time, at one of the hippest venues for classical music in the country. See what kind of freaky concurrences result, how each pianist will engage in a dialogue with both the music and with each other, and how the introduction of electronics will affect a wonderful synchronism of styles, touching on all the notable giants of piano music over the last 400 years. Unfortunately, their idea simply didn’t translate to practice.

I, on the other hand, was drawn into it. Maybe it has something to do with how my brain is wired.  When I improvise, I sometimes find myself playing two pieces at the same time, switching back and forth between them.  And this performance had that interactive quality that good improvisational music has. Brubaker and Tristano were clearly listening to and responding to each other. The music wasn’t only juxtaposed, it was often folded together.  It was, indeed, mashed up.

The audience was pin-drop silent, which meant that the sonic landscape included, even at the tables, clinking ice and cocktails being shaken, not stirred.  The music was so soft so much of the time that I found myself wishing we were in a recital hall rather than a club.

There wasn’t a lot of ice clinking last night, Sunday 2/6, at the 10:00 PM Dueling Fiddlers rock violin show, where extraneous sounds would not have disturbed the loose atmosphere or the amplified and energetic music. There was a small but enthusiastic audience. Not only was it Superbowl Sunday (it was hard to tear myself away from the Superbowl party; as a former Wisconsin resident I was riveted by the Packers), but the only genres it was tagged with on the LPR website were “rock and roll” and “rock violin.” I keep track of the events billed as “classical” and “contemporary classical,” so I hadn’t noticed the listing until that morning.  (There was enough classical music in the mix that both tags I mentioned would have been appropriate.) Glad I did, because it was really fun.

Adam DeGraff and Russell Fallstad have significant classical backgrounds (Adam, Russell told me, is the former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony; Russell was the founding violist of the Fry Street Quartet) and top-level technique.  Playing acoustic violins (Fallstad often using a 5-string instrument including a C string) amplified with wireless mics, often processed with looping and effects pedals (one of which lowers the pitch of Degraff’s violin by a couple of octaves), they play with energy, a wide range of emotion, a sense of adventure and play, and interact with the audience with self-deprecating humor.  It’s much more than rock;  they quote a lot of classical music (Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach), and pop schmaltz (the theme from Love Story) as well country fiddling (they are based in West Virginia–or was it Virginia?) and original music.  They did a mashup of Lady Gaga and, well someone whose name I don’t remember. (OK, it was Ke$ha.) My 19-year-old daughter recognized much more than I.

One piece that struck me, and that I can remember pretty well, was the Prelude of the Bach G Major Cello Suite, played rather freely by Fallsatd, over which Degraff improvised a line, at first very conservative, reminiscent of the Bach-Gunoud Ave Maria. Then a blue note or too, and the thing morphed into a fiddling extravaganza about half way through the prelude.  Things were mixed up for a while, with all sorts of virtuoso double stopping, when Fallstad played the Bach’s descending scale passages so fast that they made a brilliant cadenza.  It built to a rousing finish, and gave me the idea that this Prelude, often played rather gently, could work as a free-tempo, very improvisatory and virtuosic showpiece.  Fallstad commented after that he had initial trepidation about “doing this to Bach,” but got over it, since “Bach is dead” and they can do whatever they want.  The comment seemed to fall flat. I’d say that Bach transformed and rewrote pieces by other composers, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

My daughter and I chatted briefly with Fallstad after the show.  How’d he get into this?  “I would be playing Beethoven quartets, realizing I was having a much better time than anyone in the audience,” he told us.  “I thought, we’ve got to do something about this.”  His old friend Adam called him with the idea of doing rock violin, and the duo, which has been performing together for about a year, was born.  They are getting an increasing number of gigs.  They’ve got a big future;  it will be interesting to see how their career develops.  There are things to work out.  There’s a quasi-apologetic energy to some of their comments that seems to be their classical selves making excuses for their rock selves; that they can move beyond.  Overall, there was so much great music making, interaction, and playfulness that I think I had the best time at their show of anything I’ve attended in NY so far.

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Filed under alternative classical performance, Bruce, Francesco Tristano, improvisation, Le Poisson Rouge, live performance, loop-based improv, looping