Category Archives: Le Poisson Rouge

Sunday in the Bar with Johann and the Preschoolers

One of [le] poisson rouge‘s motto’s may be “serving art and alcohol,” but when Orli Shaham and company take the space over on Sunday, it’s only musical art being served, so bring your own . . . whatever.  Not exotic cocktails but zippered plastic bags of Cheerios, fruit, and other treats will be in plentiful supply at the bring-your-own-snacks event. With the bar closed, might a thermos bottle of something stronger find itself lodged in amongst the juice boxes in the diaper bags?  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

No matter what you’re (not) drinking, Baby Got Bach returns to lpr this Sunday morning at 11:00 AM.  The wonderful carnival of musical exploration in the Gallery Bar space will once again precede an interactive concert in the main performance area. Orli, mother of pre-school twins, knows her audience–kids, parents, and grandparents alike–and puts on a fun, engaging event with top-level music.

I had a great time at BGB last April, even without kids in tow.  (Hey, I just remembered who I know who has kids in the city–I’m going to email them. If I had kids (and we were in New York), I’d definitely be taking them this weekend to hear Orli and a woodwind quintet play music by Bach, Berio, Schumann, Ligeti and others. My youngest child is no longer a child (a college junior), and my oldest is teaching English to first and second graders in China. Were I in New York, I might show up anyway, just to hear that combination of musical voices, and take delight in the delight of the kids.

My friend Greg Sandow has written a series of posts (here, here, here, and here) criticizing aspects of the outreach/education imperative in institutional classical music.  I’m just starting to wade through the discussion.  One thing that’s clear to me, though,is that it’s OK to play music you love for as many types of audiences as possible.  

And that’s one of the things I loved about Baby Got Bach when I attended an event last spring.  It didn’t feel like some contrived let’s-do-an-education-project-to-get-a-grant thing.  It’s a mom, who’s a fabulous musician, putting together concerts for kids, hers other people’s, and their parents. A terrific family event. In, of all places, a trendy Village venue.

Where, usually, “alcohol is our patron.”

But not for Baby Got Bach. Art isn’t free, and they aren’t selling drinks.

So if you’re in New York, take your kid or grandchild or niece or nephew, buy tickets (they aren’t expensive) have a great time, and think about making a donation.  Because this is worth it, not so someone might one grow up and one day subscribe to the symphony (although they might, or help reinvent the symphony); because it’s just a great way to share music, and kids deserve that as much as anyone.


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

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:


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

JACK Quartet at LPR

One of the great pleasures of this stay in New York is that I keep getting introduced to terrific string quartets I didn’t know before.  The St. Lawrence, Brooklyn Rider, Sweet Plantain, and, tonight (Sunday, March 27), the JACK Quartet, in performance at LPR.

JACK Quartet (photo credit: Stephen Poff

First non-amplified event I’ve been to there. Acoustics could be worse;  not much resonance, but I could hear just fine.  Despite the food and drink, people were as silent, maybe even more silent, than at most classical concerts in more traditional venues.

I hadn’t had lunch or dinner.  Before the concert, I ordered a salad and edamame, which, unfortunately, came just as the music started.  I ate in between pieces and movements, especially since, by total chance, my son and I were sitting with the group’s manager.  Really didn’t want to be in a “sorry, your group is great but I need to focus on my food” mode.

Besides, when you’re listening to (mentally) hard-to-chew music by Steve Lehman, György Ligeti, and Horaţiu Rădulescu, you don’t want to be distracted by popping edamame beans into your mouth.  (At least I didn’t.) Music such as Rădulescu’s Fifth Quartet “Before the Universe was Born” (given its New York premiere tonight), by a composer who described his compositional approach like this:

[Sectral technique] comprises variable distribution of the spectral energy, synthesis of the global sound sources, micro- and macro-form as sound-process, four simultaneous layers of perception and of speed, and spectral scordaturae, i.e. rows of unequal intervals corresponding to harmonic scales

is not really music to eat by.  (The quote is from the linked-to Wikipedia article.)

The program definitely was on the non-tonal, special-effects end of the new-music spectrum. No indie-rock/classical easy-accessibility here. As my son (22) and I walked to meet his sister in Little Italy after the performance, he asked if the highly intricate work the JACK players had done could be considered virtuosic.

Absolutely.  Highly virtuosic. Excellent young players who did an amazing job with complex, fascinating music.  They are making quite a career–look at their list of performances.  And it’s a career based in new music.  Just one Beethoven quartet and no Haydn or Mozart (or Brahms or Schubert or Schumann) in their repertoire list.

Who would have though a string quartet could make a living without Haydn and Mozart?  But that’s the interesting thing.  If they were focusing on the core Viennese repertoire, maybe they wouldn’t have as much of a career.  There are countless groups playing that stuff well.

JACK?  68 premieres, if I counted correctly.

They are men on a mission. They are building their own virtually proprietary repertoire.  Their own niche, as marketers say.  They offer something unique.  Excellent role models for young musicians.

LPR was full, with a $20 cover charge.  JACK obviously has a following here. (So does LPR.)

The JACK Quartet plays some Xenakis:

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Filed under JACK Quartet, Le Poisson Rouge, String Quartets

Tully Scope: As Good to Watch as It Was to Listen To

(Been traveling, mostly without Internet access.  How did NY concert life get along without me in attendance?)

Last thing I attended in NY was the final Tully Scope concert, featuring music of Heiner Goebbels.  Fascinating, eclectic music performed by not one but two orchestras, the London Sinfonetta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the latter on (at least mostly) period instruments, both conducted by Anu Tali. [Update: NY Times (Tomasini) review here.]

I ended up, pretty much by chance, sitting with Greg Sandow.  As he wrote about here and here, he was quite excited by the size and mix of the audience, and impressed by the eclecticism of the series. Greg writes that it was the Festival, not the artists themselves, that Lincoln Center marketed.

They didn’t advertise programming or stars, didn’t stress the names of the performers or the composers whose music they were going to play. They marketed the festival. Which for me is crucial. 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.

Greg’s on the money there, although I’d disagree about the advertising.  They marketed the festival and the individual artists.  My own take is that it was a pretty even mix of both.  Certainly many–perhaps all–of the individual performers/groups have their own, significant followings.  Emanuel Ax certainly has his fan base, and Tyondai Braxton, for example, has another. The promo emails I received, especially the ones advertising 50%-off tickets available at the Rubenstein Atrium, and posters I saw featured the performers and composers, as did the Google ads that appear at the top of my email.  What seems to have worked here is that the followings got mashed up.

I picked the more non-traditional events to attend, since that’s my particular interest right now, but by the end of the series I wished I’d been to all the concerts and experienced the entire mix.  As the festival progressed, and perhaps before it began, there may have been many of us who having been to one great event, decided to trust that the others would be worthwhile as well, even if the concert wasn’t one we’d usually pick on its own.  As the followings got intermingled, probably each of us found him or herself a new fan of someone they hadn’t heard (or heard of) before. It was the entire “mash-up” (as Jane Moss, the Vice President for Programming called it in her program note) that was the thing.

I’ve called [le] poisson rouge a “shuffle venue,” where some people go just to be there, because it’s a cool place and they trust that whatever/whoever is playing will be good. (“Shuffle” coming from the iPod function where different, often unrelated, tracks are played in random order in a way that beings often interesting and pleasant surprises and juxtapositions.)

Tully Scope was what you might call a shuffle series:  a seemingly random mix of widely divergent, terrific performances, which you just wanted to hear–and see–all of.

The gorgeous Tully lobby is a great place to hang out–that’s so important in these changing times.  Free glass of sparkling wine after the concerts, creating a party atmosphere.  And tickets just $20, once one was purchased at full price, a great incentive to buy a package.  Didn’t do that?  There were half-price tickets for many of the events available on the day of the performance.  So it was affordable.

The very different staging and lighting designs for each event were engaging and, to me, delightful.  It was like a different hall for each event.  The final Goebbels concert had a two-tiered stage, with strings on the stage and winds, brass, and percussion on connected risers the width of the stage about 3 feet high.  Quite striking.  So were the lighting cues, which made heavy use of different colors, spotlights, fading, etc., even floor lamps.

This was not just people playing and/or singing on a stage.  This was an event where the visual aspect, the theatrical aspect, was embraced in a significant way.

We are increasingly creatures of YouTube, for better or worse. We live in not just a music iPod culture, but a video iPod culture.  Audiences under forty, and especially under thirty–who are so crucial to develop–want, even need, visual stimulation and engagement.  The folks at Tully did a great job, among other things, of providing that.

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, audeince building, Festivals/Series, Greg Sandow, Heiner Goebbels, innovative marketing, Le Poisson Rouge, Lincoln Center, Shuffle Venues/Series, Tully Scope 2011

We Drove Eight Hours to Hear Zoë

Zoë Keating, the ultimate “loopers delight”* cellist, creates multi-layered, consonant, steadily-pulsed, ever changing pieces with a fascinating array of timbres (sound colors) that show just how much the cello is capable of.  Her website bio says she’s sold over 35,000 albums. Her Wikiedia page says that the 2005 album Natoma has topped the iTunes classical chart four times.  She has 1.3 million Twitter followers, including yours truly.

I’ve been a huge fan since I came across that album; her inventiveness is amazing.  I’ve experimented with looping, where you use a foot switch to control a computer, sometimes built into the switch itself, which when you tap the switch starts recording what you are playing and then, with another tap, repeats it continually until you instruct it otherwise.  Zoë uses a laptop computer, probably with Ableton Live software. The results–original compositions which use real-time looping–are entrancing.

Last night (Sunday March 6) she played [le] poisson rouge.  Looping violinist Todd Reynolds, who has his own considerable fan base, was the opening act and joined her for a closing improvised duet.  The original show, at 7:00 PM, sold out quickly, and LPR added a second, at 10:00 PM.  I snapped up tickets for the late one as soon as I heard about it.

Doors were scheduled to open at 9:30 PM. It was a cool, drizzly night and by the time I got there, a line had formed, stretching from LPR’s front door on Bleeker Street, down past and around the CVS on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson, going almost down to Houston.  Hundreds of people, standing in the rain, all there to see and hear Zoë.

My daughter was in that line somewhere, and I had a bit of fun embarrassing her by loudly calling her name until I found her. (Dads do that.) Once we were united, I struck up a conversation with the young man behind us. “Does the fact that she’s playing here at LPR make a difference to you?” I asked.  “Would you have gone to hear her if she was playing somewhere uptown in a regular concert hall?”  One of the things I’m sorting through is what difference the venue makes.  Was he here for this performer, the club, or a combination?  “I’m here for Zoë,” he explained. “I love her music and have used it in shows.” (He’s one of the many underemployed producer/directors in New York.) “I never heard of this place before,” he continued.   “I’d go anywhere to hear her.”

We finally made it in, and secured what may have been the last two adjacent seats at a table.  A male/female couple in their early twenties were our table mates, stylishly dressed in all black, leather jackets, looking very East Village.  “So,” I asked, Mr. Curious that I am, “does the fact this show is here at LPR have anything to do with your coming?”

“We drove eight hours to get here, from Erie, Pennsylvania.  We just came to hear Zoë.  It doesn’t matter where she’s playing.”

Zoë, quite clearly, is doing something right.  “Increasingly considered a role model for DIY artists,” says her website bio.   Absolutely.

I’m not going to review or describe the concert other than to say Todd was great, Zoë was amazing, and it was the best lighting job I’ve seen at LPR.  What I want to write about it what occurred to me as I listened.

If you teach music in higher education and don’t lose sleep some nights about encouraging kids to major in music, especially performance, something’s missing in your conscience circuitry.  It’s always been tough to make a living in music, and it’s getting tougher, especially in traditional classical music.  But college is where you learn and explore and lay groundwork for the rest of your intellectual and creative life.

So look at Zoë, with her million-plus Twitter followers who will drive eight hours to stand in the rain in order to hear her wherever she might play.  She started playing the cello at eight, she told the audience.  Would conduct Beethoven symphony recordings in her room.  Went not to a conservatory but to a great liberal arts college, Sarah Lawrence, and then ended up working as a computer programmer.

A computer programmer, right out of college.  Not a job in an orchestra or touring quartet or a string of graduate-school assistantships and an endless round of competititons.  Most of the traditional classical-music establishment would have written her off.  Didn’t make it.  A disappointment.  Many are called but few are chosen, and all that.  Didn’t have the drive and ambition.

We make up all sorts of explanations.

But she kept playing.  Started doing ambient music at parties “where people were horizontal,” combining her computer knowledge with the cello.  Ended up playing (2002-2006, according to Wikipedia) in the all-cello girl band Rasputina (which she didn’t mention last night and isn’t included in her official bio, so maybe that relationship didn’t end up happily).  Now she’s a star in her own musical world, making recordings in her “cello cave” (a 10 by 10 foot studio with 7-foot ceilings, she said) in a California Redwood forest.

Her music is her own, exisiting in an intersection of classical, rock, minimalist, and ambient/new-age genres.  Definitely beyond-genres music.

She has great technical chops for what she does. At the same time, she probably couldn’t play much of the virtuosic solo classical repertoire.  This is not a criticism, just an fascinated observation.  She rarely plays in what cellists call thumb position, where the thumb is on top of the fingerboard.  When she does, she doesn’t go very far up, rarely venturing beyond what most of us think of as the first thumb position, and gets more careful. When she ventured beyond the D a ninth above middle C, up as far as an F, it was a bit out of tune.  Besides evidently not being really comfortable in thumb position, she does little fast playing, especially with separate bow strokes that takes lots of coordination between the two hands.

What she does, she does extraordinarily well.  She uses about half the fingerboard.  And makes a ton of incredible music with it.  At some point earlier in her life, she may have mastered thumb position and the kind of fast left-right hand coordination needed for a piece like Elfentanz (“Dance of the Elves,” below), and doesn’t need it now for the music she hears.  Or maybe she didn’t.  Maybe some cello teacher tore her or his hair out over it, like I and so many of my colleagues do with our students who avoid conquering certain difficult techniques.

If you can do what Zoë Keating does, do you care if you can play this?  And maybe she can do what she does because she didn’t spend years killing off her creativity, learning to play this sort of thing.

I hope she was one of those who didn’t spend hour after hour practicing thumb position exercises.  I hope she resisted.  Because I’d like to think she’s someone who developed her creativity and followed her own path.  And that the lesson for us is that we cello teachers, and those of other instruments, need to spend more time developing our students’ imaginations and sense of possibility and less time pressuring them to learn concertos they will never perform.


*Looper’s Delight is a website resource center for musicians into looping.  I’m using its name in a generic sense; as far as I know the site has never named anyone it’s ultimate anything.


Filed under Le Poisson Rouge, looping, Rasputina, Todd Reynolds, Zoë Keating

Davidovsky and the ICE at Miller Theatre

Mario Davidovsky, whose work was the subject of last night’s Composer Portrait at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, was a leader in the development of electronic and electro-acoustic music. That genre consists of carefully worked-out sound collages, music which shocked and alienated many early audiences, which many traditional classical musicians (and musicians) still detest, and which I happen to really enjoy.

So why do I like it when so many years later so few others do?  It may well have to do with my mother, who, when I was a child, had me lie down, close my eyes, and listen to a recording of Vares’s Ionisation. Let your imagination go, she told me.  Tell me what you see.  She may have had me draw pictures.  Varese called his music “organized sound” and that early immersion in that one piece made me open to so much.  (It’s funny.  I don’t remember her having any other interest in avant-garde music.)

I’ll admit it, I had never heard of Davidovsky before I read about this concert. I’m not a new-music maniac like my friend, former student, and admired colleague Jon Silpayamanant, who could probably do an hour or two on Davidovsky off the top of his head. And I knew nothing about him and his work before I sat down and started reading the excellent program notes [pdf] by Paul Griffiths.  I loved the concert, including the on-stage conversation between him and Melissa Smey, the Miller Theatre’s director.  Here’s Davidovsky in another interview:


So why did I go? To hear the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).  Who cares what they’re playing? I knew it would be good. Besides the group’s incredible reputation, the flutist Eric Lamb, who attended DePauw for a while, is one of the members, and I really have been wanting to hear him perform.  I’d missed their concert which opened the Tully Scope series, in order to hear Meridith Monk speak at Symphony Space, and when I read about this concert, I made it my top priority.

I’m going to all these concerts and writing them, giving myself a new education, as I prepare a course or courses for DePauw music majors on career issues in the developing classical/post-classical music world.  Look at the schedules of the ICE and Eric.  They are great models for what can be done separate from the slowly dying win-a-competition, win-an-orchestra-job traditional world.  The ICE has a tremendously strong, visionary leader in Claire Chase, and uses musicians of extraordinary accomplishment, like Eric and the trumpeter Gareth Flowers (whom I met when he performed as half of The Batteries Duo at the Chamber Music America conference).

A lesson here is that if you develop extraordinary ability in a niche about which you’re passionate and develop a great reputation, people will come to whatever you do.  You’ll build your own audience.  It’s a point Frances-Marie Uitti made to me after I heard her play at LPR.  She has a huge career performing all over the world with a repertoire of avant-garde cello music that not even many cellists don’t know or care about it.  It’s devoting yourself to something you’re passionate about she told me.  You can knock yourself out for a while seeing who can play the Brahms F Major Sonata better, but that’s not what the world needs or wants.

OK, back to the Davidovsky concert.  Terrific, fascinating, extraordinary music, performed incredibly well.  Davidovsky the first or one of the first to combine recorded, electronically-generated sounds with live performers.  The program began and end with two such works, Synchronisms No. 9 (1988) with violinist David Bowlin, and Synchronisms No. 12 (2007) with clarinetist Joshua Rubin.  The rest of the program consisted of purely acoustic works which the motivic interplay was fascinating. (You can read the details in the program notes linked to above.) One of the musicians told me Davidovsky’s music (with which he was not previously familiar, either), reminded him of Webern’s, with the short motives and the hocketing.  “A lot like Webern,” I replied, “but longer.”  We had a laugh.

Here’s a different performance of the Synchronisms No. 9:

Walking home the 23 blocks to my apartment (I was seduced by the Ben and Jerry’s shop, don’t tell my trainer, but as long as I gave in to temptation I decided to really enjoy it), I was thinking about this sort of well-attended concert, dedicated to the work of a single, obscure-to-the-general-public composer, could only happen in a few places.  A performing arts series at a great university, in a large city, in a neighborhood with a lot of urban intellectuals, also accessed easily by public transportation.  The Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait series is really quite something.  It’s the kind of thing that can happen at a university which can afford to present events that aren’t part of the new populist trends in classical music.  While I have nothing to do with Columbia, I did feel proud to be part of what we call “the academy”–the community of colleges and universities.

(By the way, I forgot to add the “SJ” for “Sabbatical Journal” number in a recent posts, and so I’m not going to number them anymore.  Unless someone demands it!)


Filed under Claire Chase, CMA 2011 Conference, Composers, Ensembles, Eric Lamb (flute), Frances-Marie Uitti, future of college/university music education, Gareth Flowers (trumpet), International Contemporary Ensemble, Le Poisson Rouge, Mario Davidovsky, sabbatical journal, The Batteries Duo, The Batteries Duo, Young Performers

Kahane, Thile, and Mehldau, followed by the Turtle Island Quartet. (And uh-oh, young audiences like small venues.)

What a fantastic night last night.  Met a friend for a quick supper at Quantam Leap (moderately priced vegetarian/fish restaurant, where the salmon chowder is great) on Thompson St., just a block from [le] poisson rouge, our first music destination of the evening (hmm . . . I went from eating a red fish to going to a show in one).  Gabriel Kahane, Chris Thile (Wikipedia link; brings up a “this account has been suspended” notice), and Brad Mehldau, none of whom I had heard before (live, anyway;  I do have a Gabriel Kahane album and sorry wallet, we’ll be buying more music of all three) were the performers. After hearing much of that, we ducked out, grabbed a cab and headed to Symphony Space for the second of two Turtle Island Quartet Hendrix Project concerts.

When we slipped into LPR  at 6:45PM for the sold-out 7:30 show, the place was already packed.  Luckily, a friend of my friend was saving us seats at a table, maybe the last two in the room.  An evening standing held little appeal, so my heart (and my feat) warmed with gratitude for my new acquaintance.  He works at a major traditional classical venue and, after I told him about what I’m doing this spring, commented:

“With this generation, it’s all about the size of the venue.”

Did I emphasize that enough to get your attention?  If correct (and it’s consistent with what I’ve been seeing), it is good news for innovative small groups and entrepreneurial club owners, and horrifying, global-warming, climate-is-changing, the-glaciers-are-melting, holy-shit news for those working to maintain (or salvage) the health of large concert halls and opera houses, symphony orchestras, etc.  If it’s indeed a generational shift, the problems for large venues are only going to get worse as time goes on.  At a marketing seminar, I heard a speaker point out that it doesn’t take much to sell cold water to a thirsty crowd on a scorching day–supply and demand.  Likewise, it’s hard to sell ice cream cones during a blizzard.  There are limits to what you can do with marketing.  Large halls may find themselves more and more to be those ice cream cones in a blizzard. But I digress.

The LPR how was so good, and I’m tired of the usual adjectives, so I’ll just say it was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

I’d already fallen in love with Kahane’s silky/sexy/intelligent/witty singing/songwriting as he’s musically seduced me through my iPod on the subway.  His opening set was mostly his own music, ranging from laid-back, sensitive energy with which I was already familiar to the almost riotously funny (in the concluding number from his Craigslistlieder) and left me an even bigger fan.  When Brad Mehldau–an extraordinary jazz pianst–accompanied him for one song, Kahane, who otherwise accompanied himself on the piano or guitar, gave us what I found to be his most deeply nuanced singing of the evening.  And who wouldn’t be taken to a new level making music with Mehldau?  Somewhere in the middle of all this, he did “two favorite breakup songs”–the least stiff and pompous performance of Schumann’s Ich Grolle Nicht I’ve ever heard, which morphed into [pop song title to be inserted!], complete with a audience singalong.

Kahane’s set transitioned into Thile’s as the pair did a couple of songs together.  Learning that I hadn’t heard Thile perform before, a table companion had said, “I think he’s a genius,” and I think that’s right.  Relaxed, laid-back, with bed-head hair, his virtuosic mandolin playing and inventive musicianship were astounding.  Since the event started late, my friend and I only got to hear four or five of Thile’s numbers before we had to leave. We slipped out just as he finished a brilliant, nuanced, and wonderfully shaped performance of the Prelude from the Bach E Major Violin Partita.

With about 20 minutes or so to go before the 9:30 PM Turtle Island concert on the Upper West Side, we splurged on a cab and made it just in time for the first number.  This group, when it started, was, along with Kronos, but in a very different way, trail-blazing in taking the traditional classical string quartet and doing something different–jazz, pop, and rock arrangements.  They’ve had a hugely successful career, won Grammys, played all over the world, and probably did more than anyone else to start the movement that string educators call “alternative styles.”  Many cellists, including me, are big fans of the group’s cellist Mark Summer, whose solo piece Julie-O has become a virtual standard for young cellists venturing outside the standard classical rep.

I’d never heard them live.  Founding members Summer and David Balakirshnan, who plays violin, baritone violin and does most of the group’s arrangements, are now joined by young guys Mads Tolling (violin) and Jeremy Kittel (viola).  (Given the generational differences on stage, the gay-culture voice in my head realized that if they wanted to tour gay clubs they could promote themselves as “Twinks and Daddies.”)

Amazing–absolutely amazing–technique (or I should say array of traditional and non-traditional techniques) displayed by all four, great arrangements of Hendrix and and John McLaughlin and original music by Balakrishnan, and Summer did a terrific solo version of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”  I was so excited to see them.

Full of appreciation for the group’s historic “genre-bending” (as they say on their website) influence, and all that’s great about what they do, I have to say I found the concert surprisingly unengaging on an emotional level.  Hendrix!  I expected some sort of balls-t0-the wall, hugely emotional (at least at times), free-wheeling performance.  Other than being causally dressed (untucked long-sleeve shirts and jeans), their stage deportment, much to my surprise, was like that of any calmly dull classical quartet and the performance oddly unenergetic.  The dynamic range was (most of the time) narrow, and all four were usually staring intently at the music.  What I thought should have been wild-and-crazy, improvisational-feeling solos looked careful and calculated.  Some people close their eyes when watching classical performers they find overly histrionic;  I closed my eyes quite often last night because they looked so tired and blasé to me (it sounded better than it looked).  At one point Tolling, while not playing, was leaning so far back in his chair, with his legs stretched out, that it looked like he wanted (or was starting) a nap.  I’m all for informality in performance, but it needs to be accompanied by electricity and range–all of which had been abundant in the show I left.

This may have been an off-night and perhaps they were worn out from a busy tour.  It was their second show of the evening (and they may have done other stuff during the day), and the audience was smallish.  I’m harping on this for a reason, to drive home the point to my students, and offer a friendly reminder to myself and other performers, that every concert needs to be special. That’s what we need to aim for. My friend and I spent a lot of money on tickets and a cab, and we tore ourselves, mid-performance, from an incredible event  in order to come to what seemed to be just another gig for them.  Someone I know in the audience, a longtime Turtle Island fan, told me, “I hate to say it, because it was great music, but I was bored.”  The Turtle Island Hendrix CD was for sale in the lobby, along with others.  I just wanted to go home and download some real Hendrix on iTunes.  Well, c’est la vie.

That said, I was thrilled to hear them in person.  I had a nice short chat with Summer, which felt awkward and I purposely kept brief, because I knew I was going to bitch about the concert here this morning and I didn’t want to say, “gee, I admire your skill and historic importance but this show was disappointing.” I saw Balakrishnan in the bar, who asked if I’d been at the show and liked it, and I said, with total honesty, “Your arrangements are fantastic.”  And he shared how wonderful it is to write for this group–“a kid in a candy shop”–which I totally get.  That little taste of his joy was, for me, the emotional highlight of the Turtle Island half of my evening.

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Filed under Chris Thile, Le Poisson Rouge, Symphony Space, Turtle Island Quartet

LPR: A Destination Shuffle Venue? (SJ IX)

“Let me ask you something,” said the bartender at [le] poisson rouge to my daughter and I.  The Dueling Fiddlers concert (which I blogged about here) had finished, and I was paying our tab.  “Did you come specifically to hear this show, or did you just come to be at the club?”*

That surprised me.  Not only had we come for that event, we’d each left our respective Super Bowl parties early to get there on time.  (If you’ve ever lived in Wisconsin and the Packers are in the Super Bowl, you’re a big football fan, even if it’s for that night only.)  “The reason I’m asking,” he explained, “is that we’re finding that people are starting to come just to be at the club.  They’ve been here before, or have heard it’s really cool, so they just show up and see whatever is going on. They’ll even pay a $30 cover.” (Many LPR shows are much less than that.)

Fascinating.  The venue itself is becoming the attraction. A place where you know you can show up, have a good drink and/or some food, and know something interesting will be happening.  Hey, what do you want to do tonight?  Let’s just go to LPR.

That hadn’t occurred to me.  If it’s really working out that way, then not only are the LPR staff doing a great job, but the eclectic spirit of the club is meeting an equally (or near-equally) eclectic spirit among it’s patron base.

You can’t say LPR is a classical club or a rock club or a jazz club or a hip-hop club or a whatever club, because it presents all those things.  What I’d assumed up until that conversation was that LPR serves a wide array of mostly separate audiences, with some overlap–a view shaped, I’m sure, by my age and background.  But why shouldn’t the screw-genres, we-like-everything spirit of composer/performers like Missy Mazzoli and Gabriel Kahane (my comments on their Chamber Music America panel discussion are here) be present in their audiences as well?

We live in iPod shuffle times.  For those living life without small music player, filled with all sorts of different music tracks, the “shuffle” feature will, at your request, play individual pieces, movements, songs, etc., in random order.  I found it annoying as hell when I first turned it on by accident, and rarely use it myself.  But millions of (mostly younger) people love it.  What are you going to hear next?  It’s a surprise. That’s the fun of it.

And so why not a club, like LPR, serving as an institutional shuffle device?  Show up and take what you get. Maybe–perhaps even preferably–something you wouldn’t have chosen on your own.

Now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense.


*I wasn’t recording that conversation, so it’s reconstructed from memory.  But I’m quite sure I have the gist of it right.


Filed under Le Poisson Rouge, sabbatical journal

In Which Lisa Bielawa and Frances-Marie Uitti Turn Me Into a Tounge-Tied Fan (SJ VIII)

The individual and combined performances of vocalist Lisa Bielawa (best known as a composer) and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti at [le] poisson rouge on Sunday February 13 were extraordinary.  Billed as “In Translation: A Bold New Collaboration,” the program included Bielawa’s performance of the Berio Squenza III for solo voice, Uitti playing the Xenakis Kottos 1977 for solo cello, and then an approximately 30-minute improvisation in which Christian Hawkey read original poems to which Bielawa and Uitti improvised.

The Berio began with Bielawa off-stage, using a hand-held microphone.  Where was she?  Eventually she materialized on stage, and made an impressively seamless transition to a mic on a stand.  This was the second amazing performance of a Berio Sequenza I’ve experienced since I arrived in New York 5 weeks ago.  The pieces are so rich, complex, full of mood changes and nonsense syllables that they have to be “owned,” quite obviously, to be performed at all.  As I’ve heard them, anyway, they are profoundly theatrical.  It takes an enormous commitment to learn one, so they are the sort of thing that gets done brilliantly or not at all.  (I certainly wouldn’t want to hear a careful, tentative performance!)

The Xenakis cello piece is full of special effects, including lots of two-handed (at least in this performance) bow-crunching.  To say that Uitti owns this piece would be an understatement.  (I feel like I’ve been living under a rock in Greencastle for the last 20+ years.  Not only am I not familiar with the Xenakis, which is a major 20th-century cello piece, but I’d never heard of Uitti, who is one of the most important new-music cellists of recent decades.)  Uitti used a very tall seat (something on a piano bench, perhaps, all covered with a black drape), and keeps an assortment of four or five bows at the ready.  For the Xenakis (or most of it, my memory has faded a bit), she used what at first I thought (with disbelief) was a Baroque bow.  I couldn’t imagine using one for something this demanding on the bow.  As I watched more closely (I was at a back table) I realized this was some sort of contemporary bow, lacking the Tourte-model arching.  Turns out it is a bow of her own invention.

After an intermission, Brooklyn-based poet Christian Hawkey joined them on stage for a collaborative performance of sonnets he had written.  Uitti is fond of what we musicians call scordatura, or alternative tunings.  Bielawa told the audience, “It’s never the same,” (or words to that effect) as the cellist experimented, finally finding what I would call “the pitches the strings wanted to be tuned to.”

That’s the thing about improvisation, to which this portion of the evening was dedicated.  It’s not your left brain figuring things out, it’s focusing on the music and discerning what wants to be played.  It’s paradoxical; we create original music, which is probably the most profound manifestation of who we are as human beings, by getting (what we experience as) ourselves out of the way.  (I heard Meridith Monk talk about this point on Tuesday, which I’ll get around to writing about soon.)

Everybody can improvise.  We do it talking all the time, of course.  We can do it musically (or with dancing, moving, painting) as well; most of us just haven’t given ourselves permission.

To speak well, you have to have something so say.  And you need a vocabulary with which to say it.  The larger the better, especially if your vocabulary is put in service of what you have to say, and you’re not saying something in order to show off your vocabulary.  Even with a small vocabulary, you can be profoundly eloquent if you deeply feel what you are communicating.

Great musical improvisers have something to say, a wide and deep musical vocabulary, discipline and skill in their craft, and openess to and trust in their own ideas, the ideas of their musical partner(s), and the process itself. That was the case with this performance.

It looked like this:  Hawkey on the audience-left side of the stage with a sheaf of poems, Bielawa in the center, Uitti and her assortment of bows on the right.  Hawkey started reading; Uitti soon added some harmonics, and Bielawa some long vocal tones.  Then Hawkey finished the sonnet and handed it to Biewala, who sang fragments from it.  The music was continually varied, with Uitti often using two bows (one on each side of the strings).  The process of a poem read, then handed to Biewala who sang from it and dropped the paper to the floor as she and Uitti improvised, continued throughout the set.

I wish I could describe for you the entire performance, because it was not just stunning but entrancing and enlivening and emotionally deep and varied.  It was the most amazing improvisation I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve witnessed a lot), both in the range of the individual performances and the connection between the two musicians.

I was awestruck.  When I spoke to the performers after the show, I was tongue-tied.  My own English vocabulary seemed to have deserted me;  I had become a fan at a loss for words.

Turned out this was Biewala’s first improvised performance, and she and Uitti had experimented just once before.  It would be hard to believe, except I’ve been around so many first-time improvisers that I know miracles can and do happen.

How was it able to happen?  Biewala’s a gifted performer and as an important young composer knows a huge amount of music, is comfortable (or comes alive) on stage, and is in touch with her creative voice.  Uitti, similarly, is not just experienced as an improviser but knows the contemporary/avant-garde cello literature as well or better than anyone else on the planet. And these two really connect.  That’s something that happens or it doesn’t.  When it does, it usually is immediate and powerful;  you feel it from the first time you make music with the other person.

Hawkey’s poems gave them starting points, a focus for their creativity.  They each have rich imaginations.  And they each have huge musical vocabularies.  That’s what reduced me to fan-status for the evening;  I realized how much larger their musical vocabularies are than my own.

And my mind is still, well, boggled.

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Filed under Frances-Marie Uitti, improvisation, Le Poisson Rouge, Lisa Bielawa