Category Archives: Performance Venues

Leon Fleisher and Jaime Laredo at the 92nd St Y; Inbal Segev and Fernando Otero at LPR

It really was a visit to the past, in a way, my trip to New York’s 92nd St Y to hear Leon Fleisher and Jaime Laredo.

Just the night before, I’d been at [le] poisson rouge where I’d been experiencing one part, anyway, of the future of classical music–a terrific recital by the cellist Inbal Segev, joined for part of the program by the amazing pianist Fernando Otero.

Past the bouncers at the front door, hands stamped, my friend “Cello Mike” and I took a right at the suspended fish tank and headed down the red-lit stairs to the main space.  We wandered around a bit, found two black-draped chairs at a table and stared at the “two items minimum per person” sign on the table.

Segev’s beautiful Rugeri cello was amplified, as was the Yamaha piano Otero played.  Colored lights, spot lights, Segev talking to the audience with a microphone, the music accompanied by cocktail shakers shaking. All streamed live on the Internet.

Me spelling “R-O-B R-O-Y” to a  generally inattentive waitress whose first language isn’t English and didn’t believe me that there was such a drink.  “I don’t think we have that.”  “Yes you do, the bartender will know. I’ll spell it for you.”)  And this, all happening sotto voce, during the performance of Otero’s intense, soulful, and not infrequently stunning Songs for Cello and Piano.  (The rest of the program was two solo cello works: the Prelude from the Bach C Minor Suite and the ever-daunting Kodaly Solo Sonata.)  During that Kodaly, kind of wanting another drink, but not wanting to pay for one.  Luckily, the waitress didn’t come to check if we wanted something else until 30 seconds before the piece ended.  No, we didn’t, and we escaped the two-item minimum.

Classical music in clubs–that’s part of the future. There are advantages and disadvantages.  A cellist friend my age was there, for the first time, and found it all distracting.  Mike, who makes a living busking in the subways and playing just about every possible genre of music, including some classical, said he’d much rather hear a classical concert at a place like LPR than a concert hall.    Dressed in cargo shorts and a black wife beater, he looked perfectly at home in a Greenwich Village club, but would have gotten some stares uptown.  So there you go.

The next night, last night, I put on dress pants and shoes, as well as a white polo shirt and a sport coat, to hear Leon Fleisher and Jamie Laredo at the 92nd St. Y.

Security guards, rather than bouncers, greet you, and you have to walk through a metal detector to get in.  (It’s set to a low enough sensitivity that they tell you to hold onto your keys and cell phone, so I wonder how much good it does.) There’s a lounge area off the concert hall, with a bar, so you can get a drink and snacks there, too.  You just can’t take them to your seat, there’s no minimum, and no servers interrupting you during the music.

The audience was mostly over 40, many well over 50.  As is the case at most traditional classical concerts, I got to feel young.  Dark wood paneling, names of great Jewish figures inscribed over the proscenium (David, Moses, Isaiah), great statesmen (Washington, Jefferson), and great composers (Beethoven, et al) around the top of the walls.  The piano and music stand on a plainly-lit stage.  Two legendary performers–who became legendary decades ago.  The audience quiet and attentive, no clapping between movements.

This is the recent past of classical music, and the role of this sort of concert in this sort of venue in the future is yet to be revealed.

It was a visit to my past as well.  I got a bit dressed up because I knew I’d greet Mr. Fleisher after the concert.  As I wrote about yesterday, I had chamber music coachings from him when I was a student at Peabody, and played principal cello for him in the Annapolis Symphony.  I sat in on lessons once in a while, including a couple he gave my mother.  She had a faculty development grant from the University of Tampa, where she was the piano professor, to work with him on left-hand literature.  “If her right hand works,” Fleisher, whose didn’t at the time, asked me, “why on earth would she want to play this left-hand stuff?”  But she always had problems with her right hand, the result of a childhood injury, while having extraordinary facility with her left hand.

One of the pieces she worked on with him, in the spring of 1980, was the Brahms arrangement of the Bach Chaconne, one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever composed, from the D Minor violin partita.  I sat there in Fleisher’s studio as he discussed how he approached breaking the opening chords, two notes and two notes, as would a violin.  (I thought, and still do, that if you’re playing it on a piano, play it on the piano and don’t try to imitate a violin.)  There were details of phrasing and voicing and fingerings, how to bring out the key bass notes that are the basis of the variations that form the work.

And it was that piece that was at the center of last night’s recital.  Fleisher and Laredo had started with two Schubert Sonatinas, in in G and A minor.  And then this piece, the piece he coached my mother, now in her dementia dream world, on. It was the first time I’d heard him perform in person with both hands.  Back when I worked with him, the focal dystonia that would cause the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand to snap shut had yet to be successfully treated.  When there was a brief respite in 1982 and he performed the Franck Symphonic Variations with the Baltimore Symphony, I listened to the sold-out concert on the radio, and cried.  The combination of his celebrity, his musical insight, his personal warmth and accessibility (I sat with him at breakfast in the Peabody cafeteria any number of times during my first year there)–I just loved the guy.  There was a kind of a cult around him.  We had his records, some of us, and compared every other pianist (unfavorably) to his two-handed recordings.  And it seemed that at some point each of his male students (including me for a while) grew a beard and trimmed it, narrowly, just like his. (Not so long ago I heard one of his current successful students, and, no surprise, he was sporting a Fleisher beard.)

Whatever had happened to enable him to use both hands at that concert in 1982 didn’t last.  I left Baltimore in 1984, and hadn’t even seen him until last night.  I’ve heard, and rejoiced in, the two-handed recordings he’s made since more successful treatments have worked their magic, and I’ve read his memoir co-authored with Ann Midgette.  So when I read about last night’s concert, I had to go.  I had to see this man who meant so much to me, who taught me so much, who shared his time with my mother.  And I wanted to see him play with two hands, for myself.

He walked out on the stage, the powerful shoulders (he always seemed very muscular to me, and I always wondered if that had something to do with his hand issues) now a bit stooped, the walk a bit slow. Some gray in his hair, but surprisingly little for a guy who is 82.

It was if I’d just seen him yesterday.  What is it about relationships?  Time passes, and yet it’s as if it hasn’t. There he was, Mr. Fleisher.  I felt 23 again.

You get over the personal stuff, and the miracle of the two hands, and the miracle of being 82 and still performing (I know this is hardly remarkable any more, but by the time my dad was 82, a year he didn’t survive, he was so physically fragile he could barely make it to the supermarket, and my mother, at 78, thinks Bach visited her in person), you’re left with the playing.  And as much as anything else, I went to that concert because I’ve loved what I heard in Fleisher’s recent recordings and I wanted to hear him make music with Jaime Laredo.

It was worth it.  Fleisher’s playing is at once supremely lyrical and profoundly architectural.  Singing and structure, in balance with each other. It’s something that’s not at all easy to do, to get that combination right.  There’s a flow that, as he used to work to help us learn to do ourselves, is rhythmic without being metronomic.  His sound is beautiful–rich and mellow.  There may have been more intensity and high drama in his younger years; there’s still a full range, and the music he makes feels both wise and fully alive.

Jaime Laredo is terrific, too.  When I was growing up, my parents treasured his recording of the Mendelssohn concerto.  Somehow, I’ve never heard him before.  He’s got a sound that ranges from soft and delicate to big and energetic, and played with energy imagination.  They both played wonderfully.  I didn’t feel, though, that they were always “clicking.”  The ensemble playing was good; it just never felt magical to me.  The program was originally going to be all piano, and was changed because Fleisher has been recovering from some more work on his right hand, which was still used quite a bit. So I found myself wondering how rehearsed this program was.

The highlight was that Bach Chaconne, after the two sonatinas, just before intermission.  It was insightful, fluid, colorful, deep, dignified without being pompous, and moving.  There was a big standing ovation after it, and no wonder.  After intermission, Fliesher played a two-handed arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” I’ve played it in so many wedding services that sometimes I think it will make me scream, but in Fleisher’s hands it was magic.  As he walked off the stage, I thought to myself, “I bet he could even make me like the Pachelbel Canon.

I got to see him, shake his hand, remind him who was (he squinted a bit, in that way he has, and seemed to remember me), and told him what I was doing these days.  He thanked me for coming, and it felt quite sincere.  I let him move on to the next person.  But I forgot to say, “thank you for all you did to help me become the musician I am today.”  So I guess I’ll write him a note.  It’s more for me than for him–I think he knows how much of an impact he’s had on the many young musicians he’s guided.

Life is full of irony.  He plays that Chaconne so extraordinarily well, and includes it even in his two-handed programs.  If those problems with his right hand had never happened, would we ever have gotten to hear him play what has become a kind of signature piece for him, with the mastery and insight that comes from years of performance?  Probably not.  He’d probably be happy to have forgone it.  But that performance last night was so, well, perfect, that I’ll always be grateful. Not just for the playing, but for the pain-tinged beauty he created out of his tragedy.

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Filed under 92nd St Y (Upper East Side), Inbal Segev, Jaime Laredo, Le Poisson Rouge, Leon Fleisher

Typo of the Day: NY Phil and Eating Capacity

A piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (which I noticed when the guy next to me at lunch today had that section of the paper open between us) reports that with the New York City Opera leaving the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic is considering a a temporary move in, if and when money is raised to renovate Avery Fisher Hall.

There are other possibilities in town. “The Koch, however, tops the list, say people familiar with the matter, in part because its eating capacity is close to that of Avery Fisher . . .”

Neither place seems to have that much of an eating capacity to me.  Seating capacity, that may be similar.

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Filed under and everything, Avery Fisher Hall, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York Philharmonic

Oregeon Symphony Springs, with Passion, for Music

Wow, I just had a blast at the Oregon Symphony Spring for Music concert.  Lots of Oregonians in the audience, of course, cheering on their standard bearers.

Ives, Adams, Britten, and Vaughn-Williams.  The Britten Sinfonia da Requiem and the Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 4 were especially effective. The playing was not only on an amazingly high technical level, but also was genuinely passionate.  Musicians actually moving in their seats–maybe not as much as I hear the Berlin Philharmonic does, but still quite something.  This was the sort of concert you could drag your college-age kid to and he or she would be glad you did.  (So I wish I’d dragged mine.)

I’d arrived at the concert tired, thinking I might leave at intermission.  By then, I’d been so energized by the Britten performance, which concluded the first half, that there was no way I was going to miss the Vaughn Williams.  This was classical music-making at its best.  And the prolonged standing ovation, which went on seemingly forever, wasn’t fueled just by the home-town fans happy to be in NY.  This was the real thing, a celebration of a genuinely extraordinary shared experience.

Everyone I spoke to after was raving about it.  A publicist friend and I ran met another music writer on 57th Street after the concert.  He was blown away (although he put it in a much more dignified way).  With perhaps a touch of old-school east-coast snobbery, he was in a state of delighted shock.  “If the Monteral Symphony on Saturday measures up to even half of what this group did tonight, I’ll be delighted.”

Many congratulations to music director Carlos Kalmar, the members of the magnificent orchestra (including fellow blogger Charles Noble), and to all who support this fine organization.  People should leave a concert on a more-alive-then-when-they-got-there high.  An overwhelming number of us did.  I’m so glad I went!

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Filed under Carnegie Hall, Oregon Symphony, Spring for Music, Stern Auditorium

Spring for Music: Dallas Does Stucky Does LBJ

“Not every concert we do is a history lesson,” a Dallas Symphony member quasi-apologized to me after the orchestra’s Spring for Music Carnegie Hall concert last night.  “I’m looking forward to getting back to Beethoven and Brahms.”

We talked about that a while.  “But we couldn’t have played here with standard repertoire.”

And that’s the point, of course. Orchestras applied to be part of this 8-day festival at Carnegie Hall, presenting orchestras from around the country performing innovate programs. The Dallas Symphony commissioned  Steven Stucky to compose a work in honor of Lyndon Johnson‘s 100th birthday.  The oratorio August 4, 1964, libretto by Gene Scheer, with its Beethoven-Ninth forces (choir and solo vocal quartet) was the result. Premiered in 2008, it was performed again and recorded last week in Dallas.  It is this substantial and ambitious work that the orchestra and its music director Jaap van Zweden proposed to bring to Carnegie Hall.  Not surprisingly, they were invited to do so.

Imagine being the President of the United States. While America’s favorite pastime seems to be not baseball but finding fault with whomever is in office, the weight of the responsibilities is such that I always feel for–and root for, even when I’m feeling exasperated–the sitting president.

August 4, 1964.  You’re Lyndon Baines Johnson. The morning brings news (later shown to be false) that U.S. ships are under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin.  In the evening, word that the long-recalcitrant FBI has finally discovered the bodies of three young civil rights workers. You insist the announcement of the latter be held until you–the president–have called the families.  And then you go on national television to, in essence, lie to the American people about an attack that never happened, and announce the start of bombing (a process that will eventually lead to your own political downfall).

Stucky and Sheer’s work, using texts from recorded phone conversations, letters, etc., shows LBJ at his best (the compassionate civil rights advocate personally notifying the families) and his worst, seemingly manipulated by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and by a fear of appearing weak, into starting the bombing that led the U.S. into the debacle of the Vietnam War.  As with John Adams’s Nixon in China, a president who is tragic and heroic figure.  A riveting subject for a musical drama.

Soloists Vale Rideout (McNamara) and Rod Gilfry (Johnson) sat to the conductor’s right, as viewed from the audience.  Indira Mahajan (playing the mother of African-American James Chaney, one of the slain activists) and Kristine Jepson (the mother of Andrew Goodman, a white anthropolgy student from New York) were on his left.  (The other murdered student was Michael Schwerner.) Each pair inhabited separate vocal and musical worlds in Stucky’s fascinating musical construction.

This tragic subject matter makes perfect material for an evening-length work.  The music is eclectic and varied, at times lushly neo-romantic, at others driving and agitated.  Wonderfully crafted, of course, with fabulous orchestration. I didn’t respond emotionally to all of it; I’d like to hear it again, and am glad to hear it’s been recorded for release.  The center of the piece is an orchestral Elegy, which captivated me, followed by an exquisite aria, “Letter from Mississippi,” in which Mrs. Goodman reads the last letter from her son before he disappeared.  It devastated me; I wasn’t the only one crying.  For a first hearing of a big new work, that was quite something.

Not as many people from Dallas, when it came time to wave their (yellow) bandanas, as there had been from Toledo and Albany earlier in the series, but still quite a few. That’s not a surprise, given the distance.  The main level (where I sat) was mostly full, as were the boxes.  The balcony levels were essentially empty. That’s a good idea, I think, and good management, because in the rest of the hall there was that special full-house energy.  (I was at a Beethoven 9th performance earlier in the winter where the balcony was full but, for some reason, the main floor half-empty, and it felt like a party no one came to.)

“We’re doing Beethoven Ninth when we get back,” that Dallas Symphony member told me.  “Third time in four years.”  A sigh.  Overdosed on Stucky, but not all that excited about Beethoven Ninth, either.  This person loves being a member of that orchestra.  But as with most jobs, there’s ambivalence. “I tried to get myself excited about this concert.  It’s Carnegie Hall, after all.”

It was clear that other members of the orchestra were excited;  I met some after the concert who told me how enthusiastic they were about the piece. But not all of them.  As beautifully as this major orchestra played, the strongest visual impression was of calm professionalism.  As we wonder about what symphony orchestras can do to attract new and younger audiences, this is an issue.  You love your job, but can’t get all that excited for either yet another Stucky performance or yet another Beethoven Ninth performance.  That’s called being human.

But we spend money to go to concerts to get more in touch with our humanity.  To have an emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually engaging experience.  We don’t want to see and hear calm professionalism (and I don’t mean to imply that this is all there was at last night’s performance).

How do you get 85-100 orchestral musicians to all be passionate at the same time?  I have no idea.

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Filed under Carnegie Hall, Spring for Music, Stern Auditorium, Steven Stucky

Spring for Music: Toledo and Albany

In a little less than two hours, I’ll be at my third Spring for Music, a mini-festival of American orchestras, concert at Carnegie Hall.

Tonight: the Dallas Symphony performing Steven Stucky‘s August 4, 1964, which looks to be a big work with solo vocal quartet and chorus.  (I played the solo part many years ago for Stucky’s Voyages for cello and wind ensemble; it is quite a piece.  I wonder if he’ll remember me if I meet him at the reception.)  I’m especially excited about tonight because a former student of mine is a member of the cello section.

I’ve been to the performances of the Toledo (Saturday May 7) and Albany (Tuesday May 10) symphonies.  Both ensembles are more than impressive; they’re terrific. I wasn’t sure whether or not to be surprised.  Regional orchestras, back in my student days, were often not so hot.  Now there are so many good players in so many places that it should come as no surprise that both these bands are first-rate, certainly more than deserving of being heard in Carnegie Hall.

It was inspiring, in this time of concern over orchestras seeming irrelevant, to see the community support for both groups.  There were 1400 people from Toledo at Saturday’s concert, it was announced from the stage.  And last night when folks from Albany were asked to wave their bandanas (there’s a different colored one handed out for each orchestra, it seems), more than half the audience complied.  I’m wondering how much of tonight’s audience will have come in from Texas.  We’ll see who waves a bandana! A symphony orchestra is part of a community; a concert is a social event, in the best sense.  A shared experience.  And clearly these orchestras are loved and supported and embraced.  Which makes me optimistic about the future of symphonic music.

On the other hand, it makes you wonder how much of an audience there would have been without the orchestras’ traveling fan bases.  In his Times review of the Toledo performance, James Oestreich says there were “more than 2000″ people at the concert, I figure I assume he got from Carnegie Hall or the Spring for Music organizers.  Which means there were only a bit over 600 people not from Toledo there.  Without all the Albany folks last night, there would have been a lot of empty seats.

My big interest here in NY is seeing what people are doing to develop new (especially young) audiences while maintaining artistic integrity.  Spring for Music is extremely affordable–just $25 for any seat in the house, with the upper balcony seats only $15.  The concerts are certainly accessible.

The point of this series isn’t to bring in a new audience, though.  It’s about giving an orchestra the chance to do something artistically innovative without the financial pressure of having to bring in a big audience. From the SfM mission statement:

Spring for Music provides an idealized laboratory, free of the normal marketing and financial constraints, for an orchestra to be truly creative with programs that are interesting, provocative and stimulating, and that reflect its beliefs, its standards, and vision. Spring for Music believes an orchestra’s fundamental obligation is to lead and not follow taste. As such, programming needs to advance, and not just satisfy, expectations.

This is about artistic integrity and performance quality, and yay for that.  So I’d say the festival is aimed at that segment of the existing classical music audience which has an interest in new music (as well as home-town boosters with travel budgets).  Critics like the Times’ Anthony Tomassini are enthusiastic about it.  He wrote a glowing preview predicting great interest by both the music press and audiences.

But whatever the future of generating new audiences for classical music, especially orchestra concerts in big halls, may be, this isn’t it. The festival’s first concert, by Orpheus, drew only a half-full house. That’s not a criticism, really.  I like concerts where people play the music they want to play and don’t worry about selling 200+ tickets. But I do feel frustrated, because the one thing I haven’t seen here, amidst the many innovative smaller-venue offerings, is a model for how a big venue can bring in a younger audience to symphony orchestra concerts.

A few comments on what I’ve heard so far:

The Toledo Symphony, under its music director Stefan Sanderling, performed the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony and a theatre piece with orchestra, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (1977), by Tom Stoppard and André Previn. Terrific performance–including the excellent actors.  In all honesty, though, while the Stoppard/Previn work was interesting and the music was fascinating and enjoyable, it was not exactly a gripping, cathartic experience.  I’m not surprised it doesn’t get done more often.

The enthusiastic David Alan Miller led the Albany Symphony in a program that included a theatrical element as well.  George Tsontakis’s Let the River Be Unbroken begins with a costumed fiddler in the back of the hall who works his way to the stage (and ends the piece by playing his way back to the rear of the auditorium).  The heart of the program was The Spirituals Project, arrangements of spirituals by eight composers, commissioned by the Albany Symphony (according to the program notes, they’ve done thirteen altogether; an ninth was performed as an encore).

I was excited about this.

Wouldn’t Dvořák be delighted, I thought, that finally, all these years after he advocated it, that spirituals (“Negro melodies,” as he put it) are providing the material for concert music?  And in Carnegie Hall.

In his program note, David Alan Miller writes that he began the commissioning project because he was “surprised and frustrated to discover how few artistically compelling orchestral versions of spirituals were available” when he was developing a program featuring Dvořák’s  “New World” symphony.

But I found it strangely unsatisfying.  Synthesizing genres is great, but the more I listened, the more I was struck that this wasn’t doing all that much for the spirtuals. It recontextualized them in a way that, to me, restrained them.

Yes, it is great that a modern symphony orchestra loves this music of African-American heritage so much that it wants to embrace it in its own way.  But drenching these powerful songs in the luxurious trappings of an essentially white, European-derived musical language seems somehow to suck the mojo out of them.  Vocal soloist Nathan De’Shon Myers is a stunningly good baritone with an incredible voice, wonderful sense of line, and tremendous energy.  I just wasn’t moved the way I wanted to be.

So I find myself wondering.  Is there a need for “artistically compelling orchestral versions of spirituals”?  What about spirituals requires orchestration?  Is all music made better by giving it a contemporary classical orchestration?

I found myself wanting to hear a good gospel singer, maybe a choir, and no orchestra.

I talked with a well-connected friend who was at the concert as well.  He knows people in the Albany Symphony, or people who know people, and said that this was supposed to be, among other things, outreach to the African-American community.

If so, I didn’t see where it worked.  (My friend thinks it’s an example of clueless white classical-music people having no idea about an audience they are trying to reach.) Not many non-white faces in the audience–or in the orchestra.

Contemporary African-American culture is vibrant and alive (I should probably say cultures).  I don’t imagine it would be all that exciting, were I an African American who wasn’t a fan of symphonic music, to learn that an orchestra with no African-American players (at least I didn’t spot any from my seat) was doing heavily-orchestrated versions of music of another time.

All that said, Spring for Music is, as they say, a laboratory.  A place where you do experiments, and learn from the results.  Art is paradoxical, for the result of the experiment may be different for each member of the audience.

And now, 1964. 

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Filed under Carnegie Hall, Spring for Music, Stern Auditorium

Pianist Greg Kallor at Weill Recital Hall Tonight: Getting (an Audience) to Carnegie Hall

Late this morning, I spotted pianist-composer Gregg Kallor’s performance tonight in Weill Recital Hall (at Carnegie Hall).  Here’s the blurb from Time Out New York:

The composer-pianist’s recital starts off with Chick Corea’s Children’s Song sandwiched between works by Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, demonstrating Kallor’s fluid ability to move between the jazz and classical realms. Also on the program are works by Bartók, Louise Talma, Thelonius Monk, Brad Mehldau and Annie Clark, plus a world premiere of Kallor’s own A Single Noon.

This sounds (or should I say “looks”?) fascinating. So I’m going. I love composing performers and performing composers and think we need more of that. Performing musicians who create music.  And juxtaposing different musical genres is fascinating as well–doesn’t always “work,” so we’ll see.  I’m wondering how this sort of program will feel in a formal space like Weill.

Getting (Yourself) to Carnegie Hall

There’s old joke.  “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” a tourist asks a man with a violin on a New York street.  “Practice!” he replies.

To elaborate:

The idea is you get good, and Carnegie Hall books you.  That’s rare, unless you have a big name, either as an established artist or as a fast-rising young/unconventional performer or group.  It takes quite a bit for Carnegie Hall itself to hire you to play.

The alternative is you get good and someone else rents the hall and presents you.  Tonight’s concert is an example.  It’s underwritten/presented by the Abby Whiteside Foundation as part of a series of four concerts this spring.  Each recital has, or had, a very interesting mix of music, including a lot of new music. I’ve enjoyed exploring the foundation’s website–obviously Ms. Whiteside was a inspiring teacher.

Getting an Audience to Carnegie Hall?

Well, there’s the publicity and marketing.  What do the presenter and the hall do to let people know about the concert?  When it’s a rental, like tonight, it’s all up to the presenter.  The hall will post information on it’s website and sell the tickets, but the real responsibility is for the people presenting the concert.  The web is so important–as I said, I found tonight’s concert from the Time Out New York site.  What else was done, I don’t know.  Some organizations hire a publicist for their events.  I get a zillion emails from publicists about events here, but I’m evidently off the radar for the publicist for these concerts (if there is one).

Some other thoughts:

I don’t quite understand why the Whiteside Foundation website pages for these concerts, each of which are in Weill Recital Hall, feature the same photograph of the Perelman Stage of Stern Auditorium, cluttered with chairs for an orchestra concert.  Why not use a photo of the actual venue?

Carnegie Hall has recently revamped it’s website, and it looks a lot better than it used to.  Still pretty boring, but no longer mystifyingly ugly, so it’s a big step forward. Ironically, while it has nifty panoramic photos of the interior of the halls, there are no easy-to-find, easy-to-download photos (hence the lack of photos here).

A good, well, let’s say terrific, website for a major performing arts center is a massive, expensive operation.  To be genuinely engaging, especially for people under 40, it needs extensive multimedia integration with audio and video.  Maybe more of that will emerge as time goes by.

But why wait? If [le] poisson rouge, which has at least as many events as Carnegie, can have such an effective multimedia website, why can’t Carnegie, now?  Surely Carnegie Hall could could get plenty of interns to do the work. So maybe there’s something going on over there to prevent much video.  Even the New York Philharmonic, which is often criticized for a supposedly-boring web presence, has extensive video integration.

Meanwhile, the listing in the Time Out New York music pages, run by the amazing Steve Smith (who has superhuman energy and dedication to the musical life of New York) made me much more interested in tonight’s concert than this description on the Carnegie Hall site:

Program

  • Works by Bartók, Chick Corea, Fred Hersch, Gregg Kallor (World Premiere), Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Stravinsky
Steve or one of his colleagues must have taken the Foundation’s press release and written the paragraph I quoted above. I’ve had the experience of seeing a long, unfocused press release and then how beautifully it was transformed into an engaging short paragraph by someone at Time Out.  I wrote earlier about hearing Steve, along with his NY Times colleague Nate Chinen, talk about a sense of mission in his work: it’s about getting people to go experience events. And you can tell it from his writing.  Someone at Time Out took the time to write a paragraph that makes you want to go, that states succinctly what’s fascinating about this concert.  The Carnegie Hall listing simply tells you what’s on the program.
Something seems backwards here. Why should a music writer be working harder at this key element than the people putting on the concert?  In the best of all possible worlds, the concert presenter would supply the hall, in this case Carnegie, with some engaging copy.  Maybe even a photo.  Here, the Foundation doesn’t even have engaging copy on its own website.
I don’t mean to bash anyone here.  As I say, it takes a lot of work.
I organize a dozen free concerts every summer in Greencastle, Indiana.  I’ve been doing it as a volunteer, and I don’t have a huge amount of time to put into publicity–especially audio and video. I look at my own press releases now and realize how much they, well, suck.  But my thoughts are turning to how to draw in more people to our concerts in Indiana, and to concerts everywhere.  It’s obvious that good, short press releases and a genuinely engaging web presence, including a website, blog, and active presence on Facebook and Twitter are essential.
Oy!  Such a lot of work.  And I need to practice.

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Filed under Composer-Performers, Greg Kallor, Publicity and Publicists, Stern Auditorium, Steve Smith, Time Out New York, Weill Recital Hall

Gubaidulina performed by Mutter, Thomas, and the NY Phil

I had never heard the stunningly-good violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in person before the Thursday March 31 New York Philharmonic concert (that link takes you to a page with program notes, audio, video, etc.).  She has a ravishing, intense, into-the-string tone that can make you forget that Avery Fisher Hall is not acclaimed for its acoustics.  Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, wonderfully.  I’d never heard him in person before, either, so the night was a special treat for me.  (Steve Smith’s NY Times review is here.)

The Tchaikovsky Second Symphony (“Little Russian”) made up the concert’s second half.  During it, I was reminded of a music-history professor with whom I had an in-class tiff when he dismissed the Tchiak Fifth Symphony, about which I was passionate, as “a string of sequences.”  “Some composers can take a chain of sequences and make great music,” I snarled at him, “and some people listen to great music and only hear a chain of sequences.”  In this performance, the winds and brass were terrific, and although the violins seemed to have a touch of ensemble difficulties in some fast off-the-string passages, the strings were gorgeous. I, to be honest, was only hearing chains of sequences.

Maybe that was because the first half was so terrific.  Prokfiev’s Overture in B-flat Major, Op. 42 “American” opened the program.  It’s a wind ensemble piece with 2 cellos and a double bass, so no wonder it doesn’t get programmed often. It was commissioned in the 1920s by the Aeolian Duo-Art company for its then-new, small New York concert hall, hence the unusual instrumentation.  While I enjoyed it, a friend in the orchestra called it a “justly neglected masterpiece.”  Of course, I only heard it once. Still, I found it a fascinating, energetic little thing.

What made the concert worth attending was Sofia Gubaidulina‘s powerful and moving In tempus praesens, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.  It’s an intense piece,with extended violin soliloquies. As Mutter explains in the video below, the solo violin represents the composer battling with society.  Another unusual instrumentation–no violins (other than the soloist), which gave the strings an especially dark, rich sound and allowed the violas plenty of opportunities to shine.

Mutter discusses the piece:

The friend who took me to the concert didn’t enjoy the concerto, at least while she listened to it. She’s not familiar with a lot of contemporary music and I think she found it disconcerting. But after the performance she said, “You know, I liked the violin concerto the best.  It seemed strange at first, but now I realize it was really powerful.” Often it takes repeated hearings to get used to new musical language and be affected by it; this was an interesting case of impact after the fact. Or maybe something about those Tchaikovsky sequences made Gubiadulina’s brilliance apparent in retrospect.

Speaking of that compositional brilliance, here’s a fascinating video (which I found on Alex Ross’s blog) in which Gubaidulina discusses her complicated creative process.

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Filed under Avery Fisher Hall, Conductors, Michael Tilson Thomas, New York Philharmonic, Orchestras, Sofia Gubaidulina

Percussive Musicking, in Ecstatic and Juilliard Flavors

“Maybe this is what some guys feel like when they go to a baseball game,” it occurred to me as I settled into my seat at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday evening.  The Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, directed by my long-ago Tanglewood classmate Daniel Druckman, would be starting soon.  I felt relaxed, happy, curious, full of anticipation for what I was sure would be an evening of unexpected pleasures.

Juilliard Percussion Ensemble (from juilliard.edu)

I just love percussion ensemble concerts (including the student and professional ones at DePauw, where I teach). I’ve had a good music education and can follow what’s going on. I’ve played a little hand percussion, but I don’t have a desire to be a percussionist. A really enthusiastic, appreciative audience member, that’s what I am. There’s almost always some instrument or two I haven’t heard about.  The teamwork and non-verbal communication among the players is always something to watch.

And it was the second percussion night in a row for me.  I love New York!

Monday, I’d been to the final concert of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merikin Hall, a very full evening of five concertos, composed by Bobby Previte for soloists plus the four members of So Percussion. It was broadcast live as part of WQXR‘s New Sounds Live series.  You can hear the webcast for yourself.

Here Bobby talks about the piece is a promo video:

 

And the members of So Percussion. [Update: oops--for some reason when I first saw this video I thought it was about their Previte concert.  It's actually about their Jan. 20 show.  But it's cool, anyway, so I'm leaving it here]:

 

The two programs couldn’t have been more different.  The Juilliard concert, “Ceremony and Ritual: Percussion Music of Japan/Part of Carnegie Hall’s JapanNYC Festival,” set in the gorgeous Alice Tully Hall, had a certain dressy-casual elegance to it. Everything was fully composed, the music often elegant and spare. Definitely contemporary concert-hall music. The Ecstatic Music Festival, meanwhile, has focused on a sense of music felt by curator Judd Greenstein, described by its education director Argeo Ascani in a program note.

Born and raised in NYC, the melting pot of all melting pots, Greenstein’s musical upbringing resembled the diversity of the city around him–hip hop “popular” music and the piano-lesson “classical” music of the conservatory.  For him, there was no differentiation–it was all just music. . . . And he’s not alone.

And so you get things like Previte’s wildly eclectic “Terminals, Part I: Departures,” five concerti for percussion ensemble and improvising soloists.  Jen Shyu (voice and er hu), DJ Olive (turntables and computer), Zeena Parkins (harp and electric harp), John Medeski (Hammond organ and piano), and Previte himself were the center-stage protagonists.

Since I go through phases where I improvise a lot (and others when I don’t), I was especially interested by the improvisational aspect (which made this a must-attend event for me). Improvisation, of course, is not an all-or-nothing thing.  Much music throughout the world has a improvisational component while having some sort of fixed framework, composed or passed down through oral/aural traditions. Such is the case with Previte’s Terminals;  the ensemble music was fully composed, while the soloists had much room for extemporizing.

In an on-stage interview with New Sounds Live host John Schaefer at the start of the concert, Previte explained he originally intended to use motives from 35+ years of his own drum solos as the basis for the compositions.  He put out word “on the Internets” and friends and fans sent him recordings, many bootlegged, from throughout his career.  It must have been fascinating to hear all those collected improvisations.

Many times I’m soloing in the context of someone else’s band . . . some [solos] are informed by other people’s music. You write music and then in the music you have someone improvise.  Now whose music is that?  Is it your music, is it their music? You know, you get kind of genius people to play and it becomes your music, interestingly.

Great question.  Is it the composer’s music, the improvising performer’s music, or does it all somehow become the music’s music?

The program started with a (recorded) mash-up of some of those Previte solos, put together by DJ Olive.  And mash-up describes is the perfect description of the evening.  A tremendous amount of fascinating, effective ideas. For me though, they were thrown so closely together that the music often felt aimless or, at other times, chaotic. I often found myself wondering what the musical point was. Where the structure was.  There certainly was an experimental-music feel to the evening, and experimental music by its nature rarely features a Beethoven-like motivic development.

As far as the improvisations go, while it was possible to surmise what sections (especially the unaccompanied ones) were improvised, you couldn’t tell for sure what was composed and what wasn’t.  So in the context of the pieces, the improvisations were really effective, as was the space and context created for them.

But I just didn’t get the music.  I’m listening to the webcast as I write.  On second hearing, the music still feels as it did that night: brilliant yet self-indulgently overly-long.  (Like my blog entries, at least in the self-indulgent, overly-long aspect.)  My overall impression was of an extraordinarily talented composer who, inexperienced with crafting long forms, packed in too many ideas and didn’t have a sense of what to cut out. But that’s me; this may well have been something where I have a blind spot and just didn’t get it.

It was, in any event, a great experiment. The very fact that this concert, and the entire festival, happened, and happened at a mainstream, Lincoln-Center area venue is cause for celebration. It’s something I’m really glad to have experienced (and wish I’d been able to make it to more of the festival’s concerts).  And maybe if I had been stoned I would have loved it this concert.  (Those were the days.)

If Monday night felt like too much of too many things, Tuesday exemplified the “less is more” virtues of Zen-like simplicity.  Not that all of the music was simple by any means.  Allan Kozinn’s Times review gives an excellent summary, which I won’t try to repeat here.  These were beautifully crafted pieces by composers not finding their way in a new medium, but clearly at the top of their games.

Being there had its amusing moments unrelated to the activities on stage.

“It’s all Japanese music!  It was supposed to be half Japanese and half something else,” announced the strong-voiced lady seated to my left, thumbing through her program before the concert started.

“Who told you that?” asked her companion, perhaps wondering, like me, why anyone would have expected a concert that was part of the Carnegie Hall JapanNYC festival to have anything but Japanese music on it.

“I have a paper at home about it,” she replied.  “I’ll have to look it up when I get back.”

If she’d been a sitcom character, she’d have seemed too much of a caricature, a stereotype  of a an elderly New Yorker who talks too much, too loudly.  “I’m all discombobulated,” she announced as she struggled to take off her coat.  “Oh my, I’ve somehow lost my program!”  I had ended up with two, so I offered her one.  “Thank you.  I just don’t know . . . oh, there it is, under the seat!”  Reclaimed item in her hand, she returned mine.  “Here.  You keep it your extra in case I lose mine again.”

“Oh, Takimetsu!  I remember he did something weird over at Philharmonic Hall (the original name for the space now known as Avery Fisher Hall) years ago.  It was very weird.  Oh, my.”

To my right, two children, brother and sister about 11 and 9, I’d guess, with their grandfather between them.  They were quiet and fascinated, and the family softly discussed the music between pieces.  What a special night for them, I imagined, and thought as well that they’ll likely be concert-music patrons in the future.

Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree was ethereal, not “weird,” and the concert-opening Masakazu Natsuda‘s Wooden Music exemplified the virtues of space and silences.  Akira Nishimura‘s rousing Ketiak, with congas, yellow maracas, headsets, and rhythmic chanting, was the most exciting piece and would, I thought, have made a more rousing finish to the program then Jo Kondo’s cowbells and gong Under the Umbrella.  But obviously Daniel Druckman wanted to end not with a bang but a . . . cow bell.

Sorry, I can’t help but write more about being there that night.  “I wonder why they have those things on their heads!” my voluble next-door neighbor for the evening, , spotting the head sets with microphones several of the players were adjusting, wondered out (very) loud before the Nishimura.

“It will be obvious once it starts,” came the forceful, annoyed-but-trying-to-be-polite voice of a man in the row ahead of us, who twisted around to explain, hoping, it seemed, to quiet her.  She obviously believes in offering color commentary right until the music starts (but she was always silent during the music). Druckman raised his hands to begin one piece, the audience quieted, and her voice rang throughout the hall.  “I wonder if we’ll get free wine again after this?” (She’d obviously been to one or more of the Tully Scope concerts, where there was a free glass after the show.)  “Probably not.”  Beat.  Music.

My son loves the UConn men’s basketball team, has watched every game he could this season. Passionate about it. The fabulous Juilliard Percussion Ensemble is like a top college sports team.  Maybe even better.  Because just to get in to a place like Juilliard as a percussion major, you have to play as well as many professionals. The level of skill is a joy to behold. (And some of them look so young that people around me wondered if those players might be in high school.)

Several pieces had no conductor.  So, as in all good chamber music, you could see the leading and following, the attentiveness to each other, the swirling energy. Percussion music, with the players standing and often moving from one instrument to another, has a unique athleticism to it.

And as in a good game on any level, there are errors and saves.  During the second-half opening piece, the premiere of Hiroya Miura‘s Mitate, a drum stick slipped off a music stand, and, while rotating, was caught deftly in mid-air. At the final note of the same piece, the same fellow’s cymbal flew off its stand. With almost superhero speed, he bent over and grabbed it just before it hit the floor, freezing in position.

Who was he?  No numbers or names on the shirts, so I’ll never know.  To me, he’ll forever remain the amazing adroit, if a bit clumsy, young man in the gray shirt.

It’s music.  And, sometimes it’s sport, too.  I love percussion ensembles.  I love the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble.  And I love New York.

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, Bobby Previte, concert ettiquete, DJ Olive, Ecstatic Music Festival, Improvising Performers, Jen Shyu, John Medeski, Judd Greenstein, Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, Percussion Ensembles, WQXR, Zeena Parkins

The Ushers vs. YouTube Culture

Last night, I kept casting my gaze down and around from my second-tier seat in Avery Fisher Hall at the rest of the audience.  Looked just like the crowd at a funeral, except not as well dressed.  Mostly gray and balding heads.  It was if they’d come to say goodbye to an old friend.  Just a sprinkling of younger people.

If we want to get younger audiences into mainstream classical institutions, we need to look at, among other things, the disconnect between the rules and traditions of traditional concert halls and the realities of today’s 40-and-under culture.  When it comes to non-flash photography using small cameras and smart phones, it’s the ushers (and the proprietary mindset of their employers and the classical establishment) vs. our new YouTube culture.  The new culture, where we want to take video and photos and share them with each other, is winning, of course, but the ushers aren’t going down without a fight.

Tuesday (at Alice Tully Hall), Wednesday (at the New York State Theatre) and last night (Thursday, at Avery Fisher Hall), ushers charged with enforcing no-photography rules caused more of a disturbance than whatever the behavior was that they were trying to stop.

Eric to the world: this doesn’t help create attractive experiences for new participants.

There I was on Tuesday, enjoying the really extraordinary Juilliard Percussion Ensemble’s Alice Tully Hall performance, when, during the music, an usher walked right in front us on our side of Row S, so we had to pull in our feet to make room for him.  At first I wondered who this asshole guy was, and why an usher hadn’t stopped him.  Then I saw he was in a tux and obviously part of the staff. An usher supervisor, maybe. Made his way to the empty seats in the middle of the row and made fussing gestures at someone  a row or two back.  Who was the malfeaser?  What crime against the Alice Tully was being committed?  Could it have been, horrors, a parent taking video of his or her child performing on stage?

Then Wednesday, in the midst of the informal rock-concert atmosphere at New York City Opera’s presentation of John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (a more delightfully incongruent contrast between performers and the formality of the space I’ve never seen), lights started flashing in my eyes. Ouch! I was in the first row of the first tier, in an aisle seat.  I looked to my left, and there was an usher, next aisle over, waving a (very bright) flashlight at a woman, I finally saw, in the middle of the front row of the section to my left.  Who was doing something with, I think, an iPhone.  (At first, paranoid guy that I am, I’d been afraid I was doing something wrong–legs crossed, the tip of one foot was slightly touching the top of the wall there to keep us from falling into the orchestra seats.) The waving light came again.  And again.  The message was clear.  Stop that!  (You bad person!) It just felt hostile.  Especially given the joyful, often chaotic explosion on the stage.

Finally the flashlight was turned off.

Ah, back to the music.

My relief came too soon.  Almost immediately the flashlight-armed usher was right next to me, joined by another.  They were pointing and whispering to each other, loud enough for me to hear speculation about seat numbers.  Finally they gave up–I thought it might escalate to a security guard being called–and went back to their watchtower-like posts.

Through through most of this I could look to my right and see an official photographer taking photos.  Talk about irony!

Last night (Thursday), at least at intermission and not during the performance, an usher scolded a New York Philharmonic patron who was, I think, taking a photo of the largely unoccupied stage. The camera or phone was put away, the usher left, the device soon came back out and the photo was taken.  The ushers have been given a losing battle to fight.

My seatmate told me about hearing a concert at the Cleveland Orchestra’s home base, Severance Hall, which she thought was the most beautiful music venue she’d been to.  But an usher stopped her from taking a photo. There are issues, I know.  But if I was running the Cleveland Orchestra, which is not exactly drowning in excess funding, I wouldn’t want my friend complaining about not being able to take a photo of the orchestra’s hall.  I’d want her showing it to me and everyone else, maybe organizing a weekend trip to Cleveland.

God forbid you even think about eating or drinking at your seat.  During intermission at a Zankel Hall concert, a patron started to walk in from the lobby with a drink in his hand.  “SIR!  SIR!” yelled an usher from across the way. He looked at her and she pointed at the drink while shaking her head somewhat, what, dismissively? Angrily?  Maybe “annoyedly assertive disdain” is the best way to put it.

OK, I know there are umpteem copyright issues.  No recording!  No video!  No photography!  And people texting and holding up cameras and smartphones can be distracting.  But this is what younger people do, what they want, how they share with each other.

Big classical-music institutions aren’t helping themselves, or the cause, by continuing this fear-inducing, semi-hostile environment.  We want to get new audiences in. They need to feel, and be, welcomed. We’ve got to find a way to embrace the new technology and user-driven social media, and let people do want people want to do.

(Now on Twitter @ericedberg)

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, alienating audiences, audeince building, Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall, concert ettiquete, future of classical music, Lincoln Center, New York State Theatre, Performance Venues, Traditional Venues, Zankel Hall

Name That Theme: Figuring Out Tully Scope

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times keeps, well, complaining that he can’t figure out the “theme” of the recent Tully Scope festival here in New York. “But the theme of the festival was hard to discern,” he writes, referring back to the opening event in his enthusiastic review of the final concert (which I blogged about here).  “And at its conclusion the theme of Tully Scope still seemed amorphous,” he continues later.  In his review of the opening event he says,

I cannot figure out what the point of this festival is supposed to be. In a program note Jane Moss, the vice president for programming at Lincoln Center, writes that TullyScope is “an international bazaar,” a “discovery of all that is wonderful about New York’s musical life.” It is also, she adds, “about a very special new musical home at Lincoln Center.” Fair enough, but terribly vague.

Sigh.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Somehow I doubt Mr. Tommasini uses the shuffle feature on his iPod (if he has one) to experience a randomly-ordered, surprising-filled juxtaposition of music. If he did, this may have made more sense to him.

There wasn’t a central, organizing musical focus, like the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Manifest Legacy: Beethoven and Brahms series, which ran concurrently with Tully Scope in the same hall.  You might say that it was a festival “about nothing,” as the now-ancient sitcom Seinfeld (set in New York) was often described.  Which means, that like Seinfeld, it was a festival about everything.  A kind of musical buffet in which one could sample all sorts of new things.  The lack of a central musical point was the point.  It was a celebration of musical diversity. New music, old music.  Superstars like Emmanuel Ax and Jordi Savall.  New York-based up-and-comers like Tyondai Braxton and Brooklyn Rider.

Closing his review of the final concert, he does hit on what I think some of we older music-types may miss the significance of:

After the concert, as with all the Tully Scope events, the audience gathered in the lobby and mingled, given glasses of sparkling wine. You were surrounded by animated conversations about the music. Lincoln Center should find a way to keep this welcome innovation of Tully Scope going.

Absolutely.  As Greg Sandow points out in his post on the final concert,

People normally go out at night to have an experience. They want to do something that’ll be fun, or meaningful, something they think they’ll enjoy, that will mean something to them.

Yes, yes, yes.  This added so much to the experience.  I ended up meeting and chatting with someone after every concert I attended, which would not have happened without the space or without the free drink.  In a comment on Greg’s post, Linda writes,

This is what “The Experience Economy” is all about. People (especially in the sought after 25-40 age group) want to buy into a complete experience, preferably one in which they can interact with other people, rather than be passive “receivers.”

The other aspect of the “complete experience,” which the reviews I’ve seen have overlooked, is Tully Scope’s fascinating use of staging and lighting design.  I keep commenting on it in my blog posts because I’m realizing it’s so important and so many of us interested in the future of classical music aren’t thinking (enough) about it.  What I’ve really gotten during my time here in New York is that concerts are much more visual than people my age (50+) tend to realize, or would like to be the case.  For younger audiences, the visual is an important component of the complete experience.

People who just want to hear good music can stay home and listen to the inexhaustible supply of nearly a century’s worth of extraordinary recordings.  Complete, interactive experiences that are humanizing and foster human connection need to engage more than just the ears. If, of course, you want more than a handful of people to attend.

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, future of classical music, Greg Sandow, Lincoln Center, Tully Scope 2011