Monthly Archives: January 2014

January 10: A Roomful of Teeth and Some Organized Chaos

This trip is going by so fast!

When I last checked in with you,  I’d taken us only as far as last week’s New York Philharmonic concert, and Friday afternoon’s  Midsummer Night’s Dream videotaping (see the previous two posts).

Friday night (January 10), we all headed down to Greenwich Village for the NYC Winter Jazzfest. There were seemingly countless performances at at least six venues that night. We began with Roomful of Teeth at Judson Church on the NYU campus.  A terrific vocal octet, whom I don’t know I would have put a “jazz” label on had I heard their performance in another context. As far as I could tell, everything was fully composed. Check out their website; they are part of the post-genre era, drawing on many western and non-western influences, commissioning works from composers like Caleb Burhans and Judd Greenstein. Composer Caroline Shaw, a member of the group, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work Partita, movements of which were performed at that concert.

Most everyone else went off to explore other events. I was having a lot of (thankfully very temporary) leg pain, and having snared an actual front-row balcony chair–it was a mostly standing event–I decided to stay put. A good friend was with me. Neither one of us liked the Mary Halvorson Septet which followed, and my companion wanted to move on. It seemed much less coherent than Roomful. Oh, heck, it was much less coherent than Roomful. But that made me want to stay and listen. Sometimes I like incoherent music, and my improvisation students and I have found that listening closely to seemingly chaotic recordings, we often discover there is a lot more going on than we first hear. Part of it that night was the very casual and messy visual presentation of the group, and they were following a super-organized group. Once I closed my eyes and listened, I enjoyed the music making. So I stayed, and, humoring me, so did my friend.

Nate Chinen in the Times called the set “lean but expansive” and seemed to have liked it; my friend never did, and by the time it was done, my leg felt fine, and I walked her to the subway. I stopped in briefly at the overcrowded Groove, where Otis Brown III was playing, but I realized my ears needed a rest.

Now the question was whether I should go back to the hotel or wait for the 12:30 AM “Improvised Round Robin Duets” back at Judson Church. “Don’t be old tonight” my colleague texted me, and even though I knew I was already tired and I’d pay for it the next day if I was up really late, I decided to follow his advice. After all, I coach my own improvisation students in duets where one person starts, another joins in, a third person takes over from the first, and so on. When else in my life might I get to hear “legendary New York improvisers” (as the evening’s host said in promoting the show) do this kind of chained improvising?

It was amazing–much of the time. I have no idea who the performers were, because they weren’t listed in a program or announced from the stage. If I’d written this a week ago, I’d have a clearer memory of the details. So you’re spared them. What impressed me is that the 90-minute performance started with an extended piano solo before anyone joined the pianist on the stage. There were lots of tremolos, lots of crashes, lots of special effects and soundscape sorts of things. 90% of the time or more there was no steady pulse, so when there was one it was quite powerful. Lots of fragmentation; very little actual melody or melodic development.

Occasionally it was a mess, but a coordinated mess. As my colleague Chris observed, in situations like this you have the choice of listening to the other player and not playing; or matching what the other player is doing, or contrasting with what the other player is doing. He found it tiring after a while; I pretty much loved the entire thing–which is why I’m the improv guy, I suppose. What was interesting to me is areas the performance avoided: extended consonant harmonies, simple grooves, regular phrases, etc. It was mostly restless, dissonant, and often angular music.

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New York Philharmonic, 1/9/2014

More on our DePauw WT (Winter Term) trip (I’m working backwards from today, Friday.)

My colleague Chris Lynch and I want the students to see a broad array of the arts in NY. Last night, we went to the New. York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. A terrific concert, which I’ll discuss below. First though, the experience.

We gathered near the fountain (since it wasn’t too cold), and asked the students to look at the architecture and get a sense of the Lincoln Center complex, this set of majestic, grand, clean, modernistic temples of high art. To me, Lincoln Center represents one 1960s ideal of a great urban arts center. It is set back and removed from the surrounding area, an effect that must have been much more pronounced when it opened than it is today.

We wanted the students to take it in, and then after the concert look at the new Alice Tully lobby in the redesigned Juilliard building, for a one example of a very contrasting 21st-century ideal. We asked the students to give us one adjective. “Awesome, grand, exciting, overwhelming,” were some of them (I wish I’d made a video!). Then we went in to what I find to be the coldly modern, boringly beige space. These main lobby spaces have always felt dully antiseptic and slightly intimidating to me. When I was a Juilliard student, I had this sense I ought to like this place but I never really did.

We attended Victoria Bond’s enthusiastic pre-concert talk. It’s always wonderful to hear a composer talk with animated appreciation about the brilliant construction of a Beethoven work; she discussed the First Symphony at length. It’s such an ingenious piece, such a fantastic way to announce to the world, “I am Beethoven.” She covered the rest of the program (Fidelio Overture, Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris) as well, but it was the symphony she seemed most excited about.

Chris Lynch is a musicologist, very interested, as am I, in how the spaces in which we experience music shape that experience. He pointed out later how appropriate it seemed to him that we had the students listen to a talk that focused on the formal structure of the music we were about to hear in such a formal and structured place.

We found our third-teer center seats. I didn’t mind the distance from the stage, and I thought the sound was excellent (it is often the case that the best place to listen in a large concert hall is in the highest and least expensive seats). I kept trying to remember the excitement of my first concert in this auditorium, and the excitement of hearing a truly great orchestra for the first time, as I sat with these 13 students having their first NY Phil experience.

Our usher, a genuinely warm and friendly lady, was so happy to learn what we were doing. “What a great concert for their first symphony experience!” She had heard that the dress rehearsal that morning was spectacular.

It was about the most unusual program order, and collection of pieces, I could have imagined. a Beethoven overture, followed by an emotionally wrenching Shostakovich concerto. After intermission, the witty and light Beethoven first symphony followed by George Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris. I’m a champion of shuffle concerts, and pairing Beethoven pieces with 20th-century works on each half had a bit of a shuffle quality to it.

I still haven’t figured it out. I said to Chris and some of the students that I didn’t get what the emotional progression was supposed to be; Chris, who loves to argue (in a delightful way that playfully challenges my middle-aged tendency towards pompous pronouncements), asked, “why does there needto be an emotional progression?” So there.

The Philharmonic, which has long been my favorite American orchestra, was in top form for the entire concert. the precision of the strings was a joy. Fidelio was suitably dramatic, and the Shostakovich, more a symphony for violin and orchestra than a typical concerto, was played with richness and depth,

Somehow. I’d never heard of the extraordinary violinist Lisa Batiashvili before last night. From her first note, I knew that I was hearing a great player, and soon I recognized that she is a great artist as well. She’s in her mid-thirties; from our distant seats she looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. I felt the same excitement I did one night in the hall in, I think, 1978, when I was at a Philharmonic concert in which Yefim Bronfman, Schlomo Mintz, and Yo-Yo Ma made their collective NY Philharmonic debuts performing the Beethoven Triple Concerto.

The lively wittiness of the Beethoven First Symphony was captured delightfully, as well as you can with modern instruments. Some of the violin runs didn’t seem as precise as in the first half; others were dazzling. In the second movement, there was a slight accent on the second beat of the main motive. As string geeks like me know, the upbeat is slurred to the downbeat, two notes in a down bow. Then there’s a single, short note on an up bow, followed again by two slurred notes. I like to hear (and when I have the rare chance to, play) that second beat lighter than the first. The Philharmonic strings played it with a slight accent. To me, it seemed inadvertent–it’s a notoriously tricky thing. After the concert, I mentioned it to Chris, saying I was a touch disappointed. He said he liked it, finding it a Haydnesque misplaced accent. We argued about it all the way down to the Brooklyn Diner on 57th St., where we had an amazingly expensive post-concert snack.

We don’t have to be overly restrained by compositional intent, he insisted. I agree; by the time we got to the restaurant I was imagining it with a fun accent on that second beat. He thought Alan Gilbert was conducting an accent–I hadn’t noticed that. To me the issue was whether it was intentional or not. I’d been in an orchestra in which the conductor insisted that second beat be lighter than the first, and for decades I’ve heard it that way in my imagination. So it didn’t even occur to me in the concert that it might be intentional. Still, it didn’t seem to be enough of an accent to truly work as a playful syncopation.

The students enjoyed our debate for the time we were still in the hall. And. I must say it’s been a long time since I spent 30 minutes arguing over minutiae of a classical music performance, and it was absolutely wonderful.

Finally, if ever there was an orchestra meant to play American in Paris, it’s the Ny Phil. What a thrill to experience.

And then we found our third-teer

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NY Winter Term Trip: We Were Directed by Julie Taymor Today

Back in NY, this time with 13 DePauw students and my DePauw faculty colleague Christopher Lynch for our New York City Arts and Culture Winter Term trip.

Winter Term takes most of January, and is a time when students focus on one subject, often in an experiential learning format. I just love it, because I’ve been able to lead off-campus trips like this one, do “Drum Circle Spirit” in which we explored leadership and community using a community drum circle as our laboratory, and even do discussion courses on LGBT rights and, another time, the US Constitution. Because WT doesn’t currently have academic credit, it’s a time when faculty can teach classes outside their official area of expertise.

We are seeing Broadway shows, concerts, going to museums, etc. This morning, the entire class attended a filming of a scene from Julie Taymor’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s visually dazzling; we were there as children dressed in white carried branches, the tips of which lit up like fireflies, and also for the filming of a fight scene in which the well-built Demitrius and Lysander, for some happy reason, stripped down to their boxer shorts (several times, too; multiple takes). Hermia and Helena were already in their underclothes. The four of them were whacking each other with pillows, thrown down from the balcony by the children, and then an enormous pillow fight burst forth, with all the kids.

Amazing. And fascinating to watch the video director, Taymor, and the cast and crew work so professionally and efficiently.

At one point, Taymor asked us in the audience to loosen up and laugh, as if we had been at the entire show. One of the actors looked at us and announced with a smile, “You’ve now been directed by Julie Taymor! You’ll be able to tell your grandchildren.”

No grandchildren of my own yet, so I thought I’d tell you.

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