Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Difference a Venue Makes (Sabbatical Journal III)

Here’s a good question popping up in my mind.  Would you rather attend a musical event here:

Merkin Hall


or here?

[le] poisson rouge main space








The first is Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Center on West 67th St. in N.Y.  The second is [le] poisson rouge on Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village.  I’ve now attend equally cool, progressive, moving-beyond-classical traditions at each, and I can tell you the space makes a difference.

Good day yesterday–some writing, a rehearsal with Robin Becker Dance for the Into Sunlight project, and some practicing.  A short nap and then down to the Village for the Metropolis Ensemble performance at [le] poisson rouge (LPR), the club that’s become New York’s prime venue for alternative presentation of classical and alternative classical music. LPR presents music of every possible genre and combination of genres.  It’s quite interesting to look at their calendar and see how one concert will be listed as “classical   contemporary classical   experimental   minimalism” and another “alternative   folk   indie  sad core   singer-songwriter   cabaret.”

Steve Smith in the New York Times described the event quite well in his review of Thursday night’s show (I was there for the repeat on Friday), so I won’t do a a blow-by-blow.

Both nights were standing-room only.  Tickets ranged from $15 for standing room (which is all that was available when I got there) to $35 for a table seat and $75 for the VIP area.  The LPR website says it seats 250, and there must have been at least 30 of us standing on Friday, so my estimate is 550 or more attendees over the two nights.  There’s an official 2-item minimum, so besides paying for a ticket, everyone spent a good bit on food and drinks. “Alochol is our patron” is one of the LPR’s mottoes.

My future-of-classical music brain found me wondering about the difference in attendance between the LPR Metropolis Ensemble events and last Saturday’s Ecstatic Music Festival concert at Merkin Hall, which I estimate was attended by about 250 people in a hall that seats 400. The tickets there were $25 or less, and you didn’t have to buy food or drink.

Of course, a sparse-looking night at Merkin would be a big night at LPR given the different capacities, so that shouldn’t be overlooked (LPR can hold a ton more than 250 without tables, but I’ve never seen it that way).  Few shows get two nights in a row at LPR.  The Metropolis Ensemble has a big following (and will be the subject of a future post).

Merkin, which is a great hall for traditional classical music, feels old-guard with its concert-hall standard regimented fixed seats, drinks and snacks relegated to the somewhat desultory lobby.  LPR feels hip and cool and loose.  Sitting with friends (old or new) at a table enables a shared social experience, quite different than you and your friends sitting in a line where you can’t see each other, between pieces you can only talk to the person on either side of you.  And, even alone, it’s quite nice to sip a glass of wine or a cocktail while enjoying a performance.

There were colored lights on the stage at Merkin, but I don’t see how you can make the place hip.  (Let me add that I love it as a traditional concert hall.)  More importantly, I think that the social element of musical events will prove to be increasingly important, and architecture that enhances personal connections will be increasingly important.

Our traditional halls were designed to enhance the connection between the (silent) individual concertgoer and the performance, or perhaps better put, the work being performed.  The model developed before we could listen in individual isolation to perfectly recorded performances at home, no coughs, rustles, or or noises.  That was then, this is now.  Live performances give us the opportunity for human connection.  Not just performer/audience connection, but people connecting with each other.

There’s a parallel with classroom architecture.  Especially with small classes, the lecture is becoming obsolete.  You can watch a lecture online just fine.  What happens in a good class that can’t happen online is interaction.  Not just the performer, I mean teacher, answering questions, but genuine interaction between the teacher and the students, and the students with each other (i.e., seminars and workshops).  So lots of us take the desks in a conventional classroom, set in their old-fashioned neat rows, and rearrange them into a circle, or semi circles, or conversation pods, etc.

Obviously the future of classical music lies at least in part in embracing the social and interactive nature of performances.  And in the aesthetic appeal of performance spaces.  Really interesting to me?  The audience at the Ecstatic Music Festival Merkin concert, which featured Craig Wedren, a singer-songwriter playing electric guitar, which I had assumed would attract a young crowd, seemed mostly middle-aged and up;  the Metropolis Ensemble LPR show had a much younger crowd.




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Recent musical events here in NY (Sabbatical Journal II)

A quick catch up on my more interesting activities since the Chamber Music America Conference ended on Sunday January 16.

On Tuesday 1/19, I went down to the Parkside Lounge in the East Village, where several members of the International Street Cannibals, including my old North Carolina School of the Arts classmate Dan Barrett, hosted a jam/open mic session.  Wide array of music, including a stunning performance of the Berio Sequenza (from memory, no less), by alto Christina Ascher. When I arrived in the back room  of the bar, Dan was playing the Sarabande from the Bach C Major Cello Suite with wonderful, loving intensity. I ended up doing a solo improv (borrowing Dan’s cello) and joining in on the final jam.  Also there was DePauw alum Kevin James (not the actor!), who did a very cool trombone piece which included audience members slowly playing and-cranked music box mechanisms.  The weather was crappy, the turnout smallish, but some money was still raised for the Clearwater Project.

The next night took me to the Upper East Side, to the elegantly-housed Diller-Quaile School of Music, just off Fifth Avenue.  I went to hear Tomas Ulrich perform his hauntingly beautiful new “Epilogue for Solo Cello” on a faculty recital.  I’ve known Tomas for years.  I also got to meet (and hear) several of his faculty colleagues, including the fine cellist Teresa Kubiak, with whom I had a stimulating conversation at the reception.  I brought up the shrinking amount of work for free-lance classical musicians in New York.  Teresa is feeling its effects, along with every other free-lance classical musician in NY.  Most of her income comes from teaching.  But she’s not bitter or sour.  Just full of joy at being able to perform and teach great music.  It was so refreshing and inspiring to hear.

Saturday 1/22 brought an Ecstatic Music Festival performance at Merkin Hall with Craig Wedren and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble performing music by Meridith Monk (“Stringsongs”), Wedren (a solo set of his songs and film music, including some fascinating use of a lopping and other pedals), and a song cycle, “On in Love,” with lyrics by Wedren and music by Jefferson Friedman.  This was fascinating for me–an “alternative classical” (to use Greg Sandow’s term), post-classical (to use Joe Horowitz’s term), classical-indie rock fusion event.  Merkin Hall is a traditional classical venue.  Rock music (Wedren’s? I’m so illiterate when it comes to non-classical music I don’t know) was playing over a sound system before the show/concert. The stage was lit with colored gels.

I loved the Monk piece, angular, rhythmic, complex and simple all at the same time.  It was the most classical thing on the program.  The rest of the program for me was interesting and engaging, but not as affecting as the Monk.  I’m just not used to, or into, the indie-rock language (I assume that’s what it was!) that infused the rest of the program.  Familiarity with a style is key to appreciating and being affected by it.  There was a smallish turnout. The balcony, which an usher tells me seats about 150 in the 450-0r-so-seat hall, was closed, and there the downstairs was 2/3 to 3/4 full.  A NY friend very in tune with concert promotion thought the problem was not enough publicity;  I don’t know.

The New York Society for Ethical Culture has a magnificent building at 64th St. and Central Park West.  When I was going to Juilliard, I lived just half a block away but never went in.  Sunday 1/23 I went to the morning meeting (they are very secular humanists, so I’m not sure if calling what I attended a “service” is appropriate) to hear John Liechty (whom I met at the CMA conference) perform three original compositions for the prelude music.  Two neo-Baroque works (which worked quite well) and a piece in a more contemporary, minimalist-influenced idiom, all for violin and piano.  John works a day job (as many composers from Mussorgsky to Phillip Glass have done) so he can write the music he wants, and he seems quite happy with the situation.  I love that about him.

On Monday 1/24 I wanted to check out another alternative venue, Caffe Vivaldi, which presents live music, of every genre, 7 days a week.  On Mondays they have an open mic night, which I thought I’d visit to report on and see if it’s somewhere I’d like to play (kid of like lurking in a web forum before joining in).  For some reason I imagined it as a large, spacious place.  But it’s in the West Village, where (doh!) everything is tiny. Ans it is.  Absolutely crammed with performers, performers-in-waiting, and their friends and fans.  I squeezed in and listened for a while.  My daughter met me.  We were going to have dinner there, but with no seats we went to a terrific Indian place around the corner.  Squeezed in for a while after dinner.  I couldn’t see where I’d even put a cello case in there, but we’ll see.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra performed in Avery Fischer Hall on Tuesday 1/25 as part of the Lincoln Center Great Performers Series.  I got a half-price ticket in the David Rubenstein Atrium, part of Lincoln Center, right across the street from the main campus, next door to the Empire Hotel.  Day-of-performance half-price tickets. Fantastic!  Not everyone seemed to know about this, though.  There was a good bit of a line at the main Avery Fischer Hall box office, and no line across the street, where you can get the best-available tickets much less expensively.  Iván Fischer, the orchestra’s founder and music director, conducted a program of Haydn (Symphony No. 102 and the D Major Piano Concerto) and Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring) with piano soloist Alexi Lubimov.  Precise, beautifully shaped, infinitely alive music making which captured the humor and playfulness many Haydn performances miss.  I sat by three Juilliard graduate piano students who were nearly awestruck by Lubimov’s artistry.  I confess, it was the most thoroughly and traditional classical of the events I’ve attended so far, and also my favorite.

Tonight I’m planning to go down to [le] poisson rouge to hear/see the Metropolis Ensemble perform “Hallucinations,” electro-acoustic music by a number of composers including John Corigliano (the only name I recognize).

(Note: I’ll put in some more links later.)


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Yo-Yo Ma Coming to DePauw This Fall

The first thing I noticed when I checked my email this morning was a message from a colleague alerting me to the fact that Yo-Yo Ma will be speaking, performing, and giving a master class at DePauw this fall as part of DePauw Discourse 2011: Empowering Society Through the Arts.  What a great way to start the day!

Judson and Joyce Green, DePauw alumni, are terrific supporters of the arts.  The major donors behind the Judson and Joyce Green Center for the Performing Arts at DePauw, they also fund the Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant for the Chicago Symphony, a position currently held by Yo-Yo.  Many thanks to them for making this possible!

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Classify This. (Dueling Cellos)

Way, way cool.  Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic playing “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson for two cellos solo.

So what do you call this?  Classically-trained guys playing a rock song (or is Michael Jackson pop?).  Is this rock? Pop?  Classical?  “Alt classical”?  “Post-classical”?  What if it was performed on a concert with some more traditional classical music?  Whatever it is, I like it.


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Hey, don’t NOT call me classical!

I mentioned Missy Mazzoli in my previous post.  Via a Jeff Harrington Facebook post, here’s a short piece she wrote for the NPR Deceptive Cadences blog (which I didn’t know about, so thanks, Jeff). When I heard her speak on the 13th, she seemed to be firmly against labels, yet in this piece she doesn’t like a label being withheld:

Some critics have claimed my recent album Cathedral City is not classical music, even though it is fully notated, uses several instruments straight out of the orchestra, harmonies straight out of Stravinsky and was written by a composer straight out of music school. Huh?

I haven’t heard Cathedral City, but I have played a lot of fully-notated non-classical music (including Christian pop arrangements) that used traditional instruments and some funky harmonies, and the arrangers definitely went to music school, so I wouldn’t say fulfilling those criteria is sufficient for deeming a piece “classical.” (But don’t ask me to define what does make something classical.)

Lots of comments, a number critical and/or heated, have been added to her post, including at least one from Jeff, who seems unimpressed with her music.

There’s definitely an irony here.  Composers coming from the classical tradition have always wanted to be taken seriously by the classical music establishment.  Those incorporating elements and idioms from outside the classical tradition get brushed aside by the establishment.  As Joe Horowitz often points out Gershwin’s orchestral works were consigned to the pops-concert bin for years by many orchestras. Certainly jazz was seen as a threat to the white classical music establishment in the U.S.; in Europe there was more interest by composers including Ravel.  Now the indie-rock influences are seen as a threat by some.

Can one be post-classical and classical at the same time? If you don’t want to be labeled, if you embrace pop and rock elements in your compositions, why complain about some traditionalist critics refusing to accept you as a classical composer?  If we’re moving past labels, why cling to them?

Lots of practical reasons, of course.  Marketing, commissions, venues, etc.  We’re not in that label-free world that is the ideal for many, and probably never will be.


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(I Think) I’ve Seen the Future of Classical Music (Sabbatical Journal 1)

And it doesn’t want to be called “classical.”

Or anything else, for that matter.

Back to that in a bit. It is a gorgeous day in New York City.  Bright and sunny, fresh snow (and, yes, the subsequent slush).

Here for a semester plus a bit, I’m developing a new course (or courses) for DePauw on career skills for classical musicians and new trends in classical music presentation.  The latter includes the intermingling of formerly discrete genres (i.e., classical, jazz, indie rock, etc.) and what for 20th-century-mindset classical musicians are non-traditional venues.

Like bars and clubs and coffee houses. It’s fascinating.  There’s a ton of it going on in New York, which is why I am here, as a kind of informal, self-appointed ethnomusicologist doing field research. (And participating a bit, too.)

I arrived last Thursday, January 13, and after dropping my bags off at a friend’s apartment, headed directly to the Times Square Westin for most of the day’s pre-conference sessions at Chamber Music America’s 33rd Annual Conference “The Next Generation: Traditions and trends.”  I was just a bit late for a “The Next-Gen Musician,” a panel discussion moderated by WQXR‘s Terrance McKnight, with composer/performers Gabriel Kahane, Missy Mazzoli, and Tyshawn Sorey.  And, wow, was it ever the perfect start to my research here.

Somehow I had been thinking that my job was to research new ways of presenting classical music.  New settings, less formal.  Side-by-side with other genres. But this group smacked my thinking upside my head, big time.

All three of the panelists were impatient and frustrated with the very idea of genre labels for music.  It’s clear they live in a new, post-genere paradigm and are waiting for the rest of us (or younger generations) to catch on.  Kahane spoke of “creating a space free of genres” (that might be a paraphrase, my notes aren’t clear), a “clean slate” where whatever needs to be expressed can be. Their music draws on and combines elements of music from the multiple-genres paradigm.  What little I’ve heard, though, is really more than an eclectic mix or classcalizing of other musics.  Something new is being born.

He was picking up on McKnight’s comment that today’s composers don’t need to express the emotions that Bach and Beethoven, for example, did so well.  That was a really great point, explaining, among other things, why so many of us go back to Bach and Beethoven.  Which McNight later said he does, along with Ellington and host of others.

Missy Mazzoli praised the Ecstatic Music Festival as a place that is genreless. Sorey spoke with a frustration bordering on resentment about how difficult it is for a drummer/composer to get performances; later he explained with what seemed to be more than a touch of resigned-to-deal-with-other-people’s-realities that he has his music organized into separate “tracks” (solo, chamber, jazz, etc.) for the sake of presenters.

“My music can function anywhere,” he said, and that is a key point.  Kahane (reminding me of Christopher Small’s book Musicking: A Ritual in Social Space and other writings) that the rooms in which we present music are political statements, and emphasized that it is as important to think about “the frame of what we present as well as what we present.”

They talked about a lot more than I can describe in one blog post.  Especially fascinating was Missy Mazzoli’s description of having her self-described “chamber-rock” band Victoire perform a piece she originally wrote for traditional classical instruments and thereby having the music reach a new, indie-rock audience.

Over the following three days, I heard many young musicians perform and speak. They don’t like genre labels.  Genre labels don’t make sense to them.  And neither does the idea that some music is “better” than others.  But what to call it?  And how to promote it outside of areas like New York where this phenomenon, whatever it is, is well-established?  Big questions, the topic of much discussion by musicians, managers, and presenters alike.

More to come.





Filed under CMA 2011 Conference, Gabriel Kahane, genre-free music, Missy Mazzoli, Next-Gen musicians, sabbatical journal, Tyshawn Sorey