Monthly Archives: December 2005

Saturday 12/10: Julliard Young Artists and Their Mentors,II

Saturday night was the second Juilliard Young Artists and Their Mentors rogram at Zankel Hall (program information here). This program was the legendary Juilliard Quartet and eight student string players–four an established quartet, the Attaca, which opened the program with the Beethoven “Serioso” quartet, and four others who joined their teachers for the Mendelssohn Octet (for double string quartet). In between, the Juilliard played Ezequiel Viñao’s String Quartet No. 2, “The Loss and the Silence,” which had been commissioned for the quartet by Juilliard.

The Attaca’s Beethoven was wonderful. All four are excellent players, and as a group they play not only with technical command and precision, but also with energy and feeling. I felt they “got” the Beethoven more than Friday night’s string players had “gotten” the Brahms, and surely the fact that they are a group wich has beeen working together for some time makes a difference. Their cellist is definitely a “mover” and a face-maker, to a point that even I, who vigorously defended moving here and here, found it a bit much. My moving and face-making, more extreme when I was his age than it is now, used to aggravate some people, too, although then as now, audience members sometimes comment they “love to watch” me play, which makes me increasingly uncomfortable as I grow older.

The Viñao was a fascinating, fairly lengthy, significant piece. The Juilliard Quartet member’s don’t look like legends, just regular American guys. They play like legends, though, and it was great to hear another committed, excellently-prepared, full-blooded reading of a new work (as was the case with Tuesday night’s Higdon Percussion Concerto).

The Mendelssohn Octet was the real treat of the evening. It’s one of the great works of the string chamber music literature, and I’ve never before had the opportunity to hear a live performance (or if I have, it wasn’t a memorable one). I had forgotten until I read the program notes that Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he composed it. So as the performance progressed I went from being involved in the music, to admiring the playing to marveling at the genius which gave birth to the piece, and back again. The Octet is virtually a concerto for the first violin, and Joel Smirnoff was fantastic.

The hall was considerably more full than Friday night, about 90%, which was good to see, and all the performances where enthusiastically applauded.

Culinary note: After the concert, I went wandering down towards Times Square, having a difficult time choosing where and how much to eat. I ended up in an Italian place right next to the entrance to the Ed Sullivan Theater, home to Late Night with David Letterman. I was afraid it would just be a tourist trap was mediocre food, but I was by then hungry and the prices looked moderate (of course, everything was a la carte, so it ended up being more expensive that I initially expected). The food turned out to be quite good, especially the pasta, which was the most perfectly al dente spaghetti I’ve ever had.

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Friday 12/9 II: Juilliard Young Artists and Their Mentors

Tonight was the first of two “Juilliard Young Artists and Their Mentors” concerts at Zankel Hall. What a great idea. When I taught briefly at the University of Georgia many years ago, I was delighted that faculty/student chamber music performances were encouraged. Nearly every where else I’ve been a student or taught, the culture discourages this. Obviously this was a special event, but it is a good idea in principle as well. The students sang and played at a very high level, reminding me of what a great conservatory Juilliard is, and making me proud that I did some of my own study there.

First half of this concert was vocal: Juilliard faculty pianist Brian Zeger was the mentor. There were selections from the Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch with mezzo Isabel Leonard and baritone Matthew Worth, Ravel’s Chansons madecasses, with mezzo Michele Losier, and a late Rossini salon piece for vocal quartet and piano. Zeger played piano in all three works.

After intermission, pianist Joseph Kalichstein told the story of Brahms’s work with the material that started as a string quintet, became the Sonata in F Minor for two pianos, and then was rewritten as the famous Piano Quintet. For this concert, Kalichstein decided to have his students Gregory Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, an increasingly well-known young piano duo, play the outer two movements, while in between he and a string quartet of students played the slow movement and the scherzo.

It was a real treat to hear this concert. The singers were all fabulous, and I especially enjoyed the semi-staged performance of the Wolf, and the wonderful, somoldering romantic/sexual tension the two singers portrayed. Matthew Worth was commanding both vocally and as a stage presence, and his performance is what remains with me the most strongly. Ms. Losier had the most outstanding gown of the first half (in addition to singing beautifully); it seemed Oscar-worthy. The flutist and cellist in that piece were undeniably good players, but it didn’t really click. The cellist seemed a bit uneasy with the many awkward passages (it’s one of those pieces that’s harder than it looks) and I didn’t feel much synergy from the ensemble–it seemed, surprisingly, under-rehearsed. Before tonight, I hadn’t known that after his operatic career Rossini held a series of private salon concerts for which wrote many works, including the very Rossinian (and fun) “La passegiata” we heard this evening.

And then there was this most unusual peformance of the Brahms (I imagine it has never been done quite this way before.) Anderson and Row have technique to burn, excellent ensemble, play with great energy and enthusiasm, have excellent musicianship, and had clearly worked out their performance in great detail. But as I listened, the first thing that popped into my head was, “not quite Brahms.” There’s a weight and gravitas and sense of rubato that a Brahms performance needs and it takes a while to develop–I wonder if anyone in his or her teens or early twenties can really do a convincing, centered yet flexible Brahms interpretation. As soon as Kalichstein started playing, I said to myself, “now that’s Brahms.” The string players were all excellent, and perhaps because they had their mentor to respond to, it seems they got closer to “it” than did the pianists.

Given the unusual circumstances, Kalichstein had invited applause at the end of each groups performance. All were enthusiastically applauded, and the painists almost got a partial standing ovation from the audience which filled a bit over two thirds of the house.

I’m looking forward very much to tommorow’s event in this series, featuring the Juilliard Quartet and a student quartet, each group playing one work, then joing forces for the Mendelssohn Octet.

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Friday 12/9 I: Through the Snow to Rehearse!

Thursday’s daytime task was to purchase an appropriate amp to use in my work with dancer Robin Becker. We are developing a solo-cello and dance program, with me doing a lot of improvised and quasi-improvised music. I am going to use, eventually, at least two “looping” devices to create musical textures over which to improvise. A “looper” is a device that allows one to record a section of music and then play it back continuously. To use one with a cello entails using a microphone which takes the cello music into the looper, and then on into an amp/speaker.

While Monday I couldn’t find the amp I thought I wanted, I did finally find something in my price range Thursday afternoon that will work well. It’s also “only” 21 pounds, and comes with a padded carrying case,

Friday morning it was snowing like crazy. And Robin had studio space reserved down in Greenwich Village from 11:00 AM-1:00 PM. Robin lives on the Upper West Side at 107 and Riverside. For some reason we decided to take the subway (saving money, and actually taking a cab when the weather is bad and midtown traffic will be awful is not a good idea if you want to get where you are going in a reasonable amount of time) . This involved walking 5 blocks to the station, then getting on the train, and walking what seemed like 100 blocks once we got down to the Village. And I had not just the cello, but this 21-pound weight on my back. I’m not used to carting that much around!

Well, we got there, without a shoulder or arm giving out. We had a great rehearsal. This was our first time working together with me using the looper, which adds all sorts of musical possibilities and which I find very inspiring and fun. Robin got all sorts of new ideas and we were both on a creative high when we left. Now that the snow had stopped and the sun was shining, we, of course, took a cab home!

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Thursday 12/8: "An American Tragedy" at the Met

I don’t think I’d been t the Metropolitan Opera since the spring of 1978 until Thursday night, when I was privileged to attend the third performance of Tobias Picker’s new work, An American Tragedy. It’s based on the Theodore Dreiser novel of the same name.

I bought a mid-priced ticket of “only” $100, and wasn’t sure how good my seat would be. I had relied on the advice of the young man in the box office, and I’m glad I did. It was in the center, of the “Grand Tier,” the second tier of seats. A seat directly below it would have cost over $300 (or maybe $189; there were $300+ seats somewhere, I know). My seat had a full view of the stage, and the sound was great.

It was a theatrical experience like I’ve never had before. Francesca Zambello’s direction was excellent, and Adrianne Lobel’s three-tiered set was amazing. I’d forgotten the enormity, especially the height, of the Met stage. It was the most striking set I’ve ever seen, with sliding panels and mind-blowing visual images, and it was used to full advantage.

The music? Very accessible, usually engaging and entertaining, and occasionally reminiscent of a Bernard Hermann score for a Hitchcock film (except with many more meter changes, and, of course, singing). Very imaginative, and written (to my cellist’s ears) well for the voice. I could almost always understand the singers (and English is often the most difficult language for classical singers to make clear). I did use the “Met Titles,” which show the words on a little screen in front of one’s seat, both for the novelty and because in some ensembles the words did get jumbled up a bit. The music is through-composed for the most part, with the orchestra very busy and not a lot of tunefulness for the singers. Anthony Tomassini in his review in the Times seems to complain that there were too many “set pieces,” but to me they didn’t seem particularly artificial or the music out of contect. I wasn’t often grabbed by the music, but then again Picker’s work is new to me and perhaps after a few hearings it would begin to affect me more.

The story itself (based on actual events) is deeply powerful and disturbing. Clyde Griffiths grows up the shild of poor Salvation Army-type street missionaries. As a young man he meets, by happenstance, his wealthy uncle, from whom his father was estranged. The uncle gives him a job in his shirt factory, where he quickly rises to a management position. He becomes involved with a worker, Roberta, but they keep their relationship secret, supposedly because violates company policy, but more importantly to Clyde because it allows him to also become involved with Sondra, a socialite friend of his uncle’s family. Roberta becomes pregnant and is sent home by Clyde with promises that he will marry her soon, once he has saved money and his position is more secure. Yet at the same time he becomes deeply involved with and engaged to Sondra. When Roberta returns to confront him, he decides to murder her. On a boat in a lake, he lacks the heart to knock her out with an oar as he had planned, but she accidentally falls in the water and he watches her drown (as those of us with our “Law and Order” legal educations know, this constitutes “depraved indifference” and counts as felony murder). Eventually he is convicted (of actual murder) and sentenced to death. As he awaits execution, his mother visits, he finally confesses all to her, and she assures him of God’s forgiveness. (This somehow reminded me of the Virgin Mary welcoming poor Suor Angelica into heaven at the end of the Puccini opera. Well, not just somehow. It’s a very similar theme of Christian redemption offered by a holy mother-figure to someone who feels ashamed and unworthy.)

Not cheery, and also not the stuff of the usual operatic tragedy in which there is a noble love threatened and defeated by some intervening, evil force (Suor Angelica’s great love for the baby taken from her, for instance). Here the protagonist, Clyde, is a deceitful social climber who seems to have no real self, let alone a moral center. It’s a modern, story, yet Wagnerian in its paradoxes.

While I wasn’t overwhelmed by the music in general, the mother’s scenes with Clyde were genuinely moving. Indeed, what I found most moving about the entire opera was the portrayal of a mother’s unrelenting faith in the ultimate worth of her son, and of God’s love for him, even as she came to realize that he had indeed committed murder “in your heart.” Perhaps the power of those emotions inspired Picker’s best music.

There were two moments I thought were music/theatrical genius.

The first was made possible by the multi-tiered set. Roberta, on the lowest level of the stage, has been singing aloud a letter she is writing to Clyde as she sits in her room at her parents’ house. We then see, on the level above, Clyde and Sondra at the beach. As Roberta, still clinging to the dying hope that she and Clyde will marry, sings of how wonderful life will be once she and Clyde are husband and wife, Sondra sings the same exact words and music to Clyde as he rests his head in her lap. It was striking and chilling, and reinforced both the similarity of genuine feeling each woman felt for Clyde and how he was using them as interchangeable objects to fulfill his own needs.

And then at the end of the opera, as Clyde makes his final prayers, his child self appears and sings the hymn with which he (the child Clyde) opened the opera. That innocent child takes the hand of the condemned man as the adult Clyde finds spiritual redemption and walks to his death.

Dolora Zajick played Clyde’s mother, Elvira, and gave a beautiful, moving performance. She was deservedly cheered at the final bows. Patrica Racette as Roberta and Susan Graham as Sondra were excellent, as was Nathan Gunn (Clyde). These three young stars all looked perfect for the parts as well. I’m not an opera buff, and the last time I was at the Met I believe it was Beverly Sills, approaching retirement, playing Thais. She did not quite look the part. Things are quite different now. Both women were beautiful, and Gunn, handsome and fit, was perfect for the role of the handsome social climber.

James Conlon conducted with energy and passion. (I’ve played under him and like him; he’s a really nice guy, amazingly unpretentious for a major conductor.) When I took my seat and looked down at the orchestra gathering and warming up, I was happy to remember that I was going to hear another of the world’s great orchestras. Well, they didn’t sound so much like a great orchestra as a potentially great orchestra which plays a different show every night, playing a challenging new score which perhaps they weren’t all that much into. Things seemed a bit ragged from time to time. And pit orchestras being pit orchestras, even at the Met, instruments were being put into cases and folks heading out of the pit as soon as the applause began (my seat afforded a great view of all that, which I found amusing for it is such universal behavior). When Conlon came out on stage during the curtain calls, he started to walk towards the pit to acknowledge the orchestra. But he quickly noticed that there wasn’t anyone left to acknowledge, save a few stragglers, so he just smiled and bowed.

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Wed. 12/7 III: Waking States Concert 3

Wednesday night it was back to experimental music. I suppose my day might best be described as going from the sublime (NY Philharmonic) to the ridiculous (the Broadway comedy Souvenir) to the weird.

The third concert in Charles Curtis’s “Waking States” series presented three works by the American composer Alvin Lucier (b. 1931). Lucier has done much sound installation work, and this program helped me move closer to understanding the intentions and priorities of this “downtown,” experimental school. The concert was held at Diapason Gallery for Sound on 6th Avenue between 38th and 39th streets, a second-floor walkup space which has clearly been designed for sound installations and concerts. As was the case last Saturday, there were no chairs. I got there early enough to find out from Charles that the concert would be only an hour or so, so I sat in the middle of the floor rather than claiming a place against the wall.

In the first piece, Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas (1973-74), two slowly-beating computer-generated sine waves cause three snare drums, placed about the room, to vibrate sympathetically from time to time. Curtis didn’t play cello in this piece; he was at the laptop controlling the sine waves, I assume.

The second work was Charles Curtis (2002) for solo cello with slow sweep, pure wave oscillators. Here Charles did use his cello, playing various sustained double stop intervals, separated by silences, against two pure wave oscillators. “As the waves rise and fall, a cellist sustains long tones against the sleeping waves, creating audible beats at speeds determined by the closeness of the tunings.”

The final piece, the most visually intriguing as well was the most unlike anything I had imagined before, was Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases. A number of beautiful vases, handcrafted by Curtis’s friend Fred Stoddard, were arranged on the floor with microphones suspended within each one. The microphone cables were arranged so that they rose to the ceiling at an angle, with a slight drape, and then came straight down into each vase. It was quite a beautiful installation I and of itself. In this work, Curtis sat behind the vases and over the course of twenty minutes or so, he slowly worked up from the open C string to (I believe) the A over middle C. As the cello passed through different frequencies, one or more of the vases would begin to vibrate and be amplified to the vibration was quite audible. At times beating caused by the dissonance between the cello and the vases was quite pronounced. Beating was also exploited when the cello notes neared the pitch of an open string; double stops were used to accentuate the close differences of pitch.

It was all interesting to me, and Charles’s concentration and commitment were again impressive. I can’t say it was other than interesting; I no longer expect to be moved, for clearly that’s not what this sort of music is about. I also wasn’t shifted to an altered state by the progression of sounds. I think some of the rest of the audience were, though.

As I said above, I’m gaining a better perspective. These works are purposely outside the mainstream tradition of Western music, so much so that the Lucier and Radigue works in particular seem better described (to me) as “sound experiments” or perhaps “sound experiences” than as “music” (in the way I and most people usually think of music.) It’s quite interesting to watch my own resistance to this work, especially since I usually preach a gospel of inclusion and define music very broadly to my students.

On the way home I stopped by the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble to look for something else, yet ended up purchasing William Duckworth’s book of interviews with important twentieth-century composers (I would give the title but I have misplaced it for the moment), which is giving a much better intellectual context for these performances. As I suspected, many of these experimental composers have been greatly influenced by Eastern thought and the idea of music as something to quiet the mind rather than evoke cathartic or entertaining emotional experience. It is, in a sense, anti-emotional music. And in the interviews I’ve read, each composer speaks about exploring aspects of sound and in some cases rhythm. No one has spoken of expressing, communicating, or evoking emotion.

A final thought on the “is this something?” internal conversations I’ve been writing about. I introduced myself last night to a man I’ve seen at all three concerts. He told me that while he didn’t really get into the Lucier works, he found Monday’s Radigue piece performance to be an extraordinary experience. “After it was over, I realized I had not thought during the entire performance.” He was so grateful, so excited to have had that release from his conscious mind. It was clearly what many people would call a “peak experience” for him, although he didn’t use that phrase. That confirmed for me that this genre is not just intellectual exploration and probing, it also provides experiences which for at least some of its followers are as transformative and magical as great classical music is for those of us who love it so deeply. It may be that it never becomes my thing, or one of my things. Nevertheless, it is obvious that for many it is their thing, it really is something.

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Wed. 12/7 II: "Souvenir" at the Lyceum Theater

After the Philharmonic rehearsal ended at 12:30 PM, I took the subway down to Times Square and headed over to the Lyceum Theater, where Souvenir, a two-person musical show about the heiress and deluded soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, is playing. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, she put on a series of recitals, first at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom and eventually in Carnegie Hall, which were so bad they became the among the most sought-after tickets in New York. Jenkins didn’t understand her singing was bad and ignored any fedback to suggest it was until she realized at the end of her Carnegie Hall concert (from which thousands were turned away) that she was, in fact, being laughed at. About a month after that concert, she died from a heart attack while shopping. Her recordings are still played at music-student parties and have been known to cause laughter-induced baldder control problems.

Judy Kaye plays Jenkins, and Donald Corren her pianist/coach Cosme McMoon, who tells the story in flashbacks. Both gave spectacular performances. Kaye’s imitation of Jenkins off-key attempts at singing is dead-on. How she can do this show eight times a week is a mystery to me. There was no amplification (thank God!) and while there wasn’t that much genuine singing, it still seems as though it would be a great strain on the voice.

All the obvious and inevitable laughs were there, of course, but the play is also a bittersweet meditation on both the joys of creating one’s own reality (Jenkins) and the struggle to persevere and make a meaningful life when great external rewards and recognition do not come one’s way (McMoon). Jenkins is portrayed not as just a self-indulgent rich woman but a naïve musical Don Quixote, with McMoon her increasingly admiring Sancho Panza. It is a great show, entertaining and touching, and richly deserving of its critical success. I hope it runs a long time. The matinee audience was quite full, and I was grateful that there was a promotional ticket price offered through an ad in the Times: $45 got me a fourth-row seat on the center aisle, which meant I didn’t have to stand for an hour in the windy cold in the TKTS line. (That promotional offer at this busiest time in the Broadway season doesn’t bode well for a long run, so see it quick if you have the chance.)

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Wed. 12/7 I: NY Philharmonic Rehearsal

This morning the New York Philharmonic had an open (dress) rehearsal of this week’s subscription program: Selections from Die Meistersinger and the Prelude and “Libestod” from Tristan und Isolde of Wagner, then after intermission the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 with André Watts, followed by de Falla’s “Three Cornerned Hat” Suites 1 and 2. Now there’s a crowd-pleasing program! A member of the orchestra had arranged for me to sit in the Philharmonic’s box, where I introduced myself to Xian Zhang, the orchestra’s associate conductor. It turned out we know people in common, and she was very kind to let me watch her scores, in which she was marking details of the conductor’s performance. (Note to students: the Associate Conductor’s job is to be ready to fill in should the scheduled conductor not be able to go on, so she needs to know the details of what he’s doing. And writing in those details is a great learning experience in and of itself.)

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducted. I’m not usually that much of a Wagner guy, but the combination of his conducting and the orchestra’s playing the Meistersinger and Tristan excerpts grabbed me the way I had been wishing the Philadelphia’s Beethoven would last night. Frühbeck de Burgos drew a deeply warm and richly expressive sound from the orchestra. It was music making that breathed and sighed, and it’s humanity got me. (Every orchestral musician I know who’s played under this wonderful old-school elder statesman of a conductor has loved it. I heard that from a Boston Symphony friend last summer, and heard the same this morning from Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist.)

Watts was effortlessly virtuosic, as usual, including not only brilliant passagework but also lyricism and, well, pizzazz. The rehearsal started with working through the last two movements, and then a run-through of the whole piece, save for the opening piano solo (darn!). It was during the run through that Watts really caught fire. An incredible electricity seemed to fill the hall.

The Falla was great, showy orchestral fun. The Philharmonic is a phenomenal orchestra, and having headr them twice, Boston three times, and Philadelphia and Cleveland each once in recent months, there’s no doubt in my mind the Philharmonic has the top brass section of these four of the “big five” orchestras. These Philharmonic guys just never make a mistake. How they do it, I have no idea—in the other orchestras there was always a slight mishap of some sort.

The Philharmonic strings played with a richness and expressiveness, especially in the Wagner, that was the best of the orchestras I’ve heard, too. While the Cleveland strings are the most uncannily precise I’ve ever heard, each section so unified it is as if just one instrument is playing (as the Philadelphia woodwinds seemed last night), at this point I’d say the orchestra I’ve most enjoyed is the Philharmonic. (And I’m not saying that just because at least one Philharmonic member is following this blog!)

It seems as no one has ever been happy with the Avery Fisher Hall acoustics, and I believe there are plans afoot to redo the hall again; the Philharmonic even tried to move back to Carnegie Hall a year or two ago but the deal fell through. Both times I’ve been to hear them play this fall, I’ve been in a box seat towards the front of the hall on the stage right (audience left) side, and from there the sound is terrific.

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