Category Archives: Violinists

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

Baby Got Bach: My Inner Child Had Fun Along With the Real Kids

I don’t know when I’ve had more fun than I did at pianist Orli Shaham‘s sold-out Baby Got Bach event on Sunday April 3 at [le] poisson rouge.  Talk about serving all audiences!

This was aimed at the 3 to 6 year old set and their parents/grandparents.  The Gallery Bar had various stations where kids could compose a tune, have it played by various musicians, conduct it, etc.  Once everyone was successfully corralled into seats in the main space, Catherine Oberg (hmm, close to “Edberg” . . . could she be of Scandinavian descent, too?) led a wonderful interactive session with the kids.  Gail Wein, the group’s fab publicist, handed me her camera and put me to work.  I love taking photos, especially at parties, and I had a blast.  After a break for bathroom trips and diaper changes, Orli–who has fantastic rapport with the kids–took charge of a terrific musical program that included a diverse set of pieces, various instrumentalists (including violinist Adele Anthony, flutist Elizabeth Janzen, Aya Kato on keyboards, college-age pianist Dominick Cheli) and ballerina Ashley Talluto.  Orli’s brother Gil (yes, that Gil Shaham), joined in the fun, working with kids before the show and performing in several pieces as “violinist Gil.”

Great family atmosphere, so nice to be around.  Seems like yesterday my kids were that age.  They would have loved it.  Almost makes me look forward to being a grandpa (I’m quite happy to wait for my kids to finish college and get married.)

Nice Wall Street Journal feature article about the project here.  I don’t know if Gail arranged that or not–if so, way to go.  And a nicely-done (and smartly short) promo video:

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Filed under Baby Got Bach, Gil Shaham, Le Poisson Rouge, Orli Shaham

Giant Cicada: Chamber Punk at the Thalia Café

“I have a band called Giant Cicada.  We play chamber punk,” bassist Jon Burr told me as he handed me his card.

“Oh, chamber punk. Sure,” I replied. (Or something to that effect.)

Jon was shocked that I took in “chamber punk” as easily as if he’d said “Mozart.”  (Once the son of a friend, about 11 or 12, came to let me know they were there to pick me up.  He was in full clown regalia, makeup and everything.  “OK, I’ll be right out,” I told him, purposely teasing him by ignoring his altered state.)

We had found ourselves eating next to each other in a soup place across from the midtown church where a Chamber Music America First Tuesday seminar had been held.  I don’t know how we got to talking, but we soon realized we’d been to the same event and introduced ourselves. And when I explained I was in New York researching, among other things, groups fusing genres and so “chamber punk” had quickly come to seem pretty, well, normal to me, we had a laugh.

Note to myself and especially my younger readers: remember that nothing is more important than networking.  Whichever of us started the conversation did the right thing. I keep working on getting better at this.  There’s an old saying that “it’s not how good you are, it’s who you know.”  The truth is that it is how good you are at what you do AND who you know that makes the difference.  If your work sucks, it doesn’t matter how well-connected you are.

We’ve kept in touch.  Jon lets me know about upcoming events, which led me to rush up to the Thalia Café last week, after a post-concert dinner with a friend after Thursday’s NY Philharmonic concert, to hear him and his Giant Cicada chamber-punk co-conspirators Lynn Stein (vocals), Carlos “Go-Go” Gomez on the cajon drum, John Hart (acoustic guitar–and he needs to get a website), and 15-year-old jazz-violin wunderkind Jonathan Russell.  (I even sprang for a taxi!)

Another note: inviting people to your concerts/gigs really works.  And yes, I’m rarely good at doing this myself.  That’s why people hire publicists and managers.  But unless/until you can afford that, you (or someone who loves you

It’s an attractive space with good drinks and food at reasonable prices. Giant Cicada (as described on the group’s website) plays a mix of music “from 60’s pop, jazz, the Great American Songbook of Standards, songs from around the world, as well as original tunes.”  Jon does a lot of bowed bass; the guitar lends both jazz and classical touches; Jonathan’s violin playing combines jazz, rock, and fiddling influences; and the cajon drum brings in a distinctively Latin feel.  Lynn is, simply put, a wonderful jazz/pop singer. It’s a wonderful, unique fusion of stylistic elements, performed by fun, inventive, skilled musicians.

They’ve got a great promo video (their next step, by the way, is probably to make a much shorter version):

At the Thalia, there were some, uh, challenges with the sound system, which made it near-impossible to hear Lynn and Jonathan. Not totally impossible, but it was if they weren’t amplified.  Which was too bad, because part of the crowd was quite noisy.  Get a bit of alcohol in some people who then get excited about their conversation, and they talk louder than the music.  To them, it becomes background music (or even a bothersome distraction), rather than being the reason to be there.  (I used to notice this when I played string quartet background music gigs.  If we couldn’t hear ourselves and played louder, the decibel level of the talking would increase in parallel fashion.)  It may be that given the lack of good amplification, these folks had given up on listening, but it still seemed obnoxiously bothersome.  You could look around and see the rest of trying to listen.

Anyway, it was a fascinating, fun,and musically enjoyable, regardless of the acoustic challenges.  The Giant Cicada folks are creative, good, and entrepreneurial. I look forward to hearing them again.

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Filed under Bassists, Carlos "Go-Go" Gomez, Drummers/Percussionists, entrepreneurship, Giant Cicada, Guitarists, John Hart, Jon Burr, Jonathan Russell, Lynn Stein, networking, videos, Violinists