Category Archives: Robin Becker

Chamber Music, Dancers, and a Blue Moon Valentine’s Day Show (Sabbatical Journal VII)

OK, catching up on my musical adventures.

The last event I wrote about was the Dueling Fiddlers at [le] poisson rouge (LPR) on Sunday Feb. 6. After a flurry of attending something virtually every night since I arrived in NY mid-January, I took a few nights off.  I was moving from one place to another, and perhaps there are only so many events one can attend without a bit of time to mentally relax.

Thursday Feb. 10 made for a difficult choice.  Richard Stolzman was performing at LPR, and there was an Ecstatic Music Festival show at Merkin, both of which I really wanted to experience.  I opted for making music myself, and accepted an invitation to read string quartets with three fine New York freelance musicians.  Each around my age (50s), each getting a lot less work than before.  None seemed bitter, though, and all four of us were happy to sit in a living room, reading Haydn, Schumann, and Beethoven.  The others have played together for years, and there was the kind of old-friends bickering about how the chairs should be arranged, where the lamps should go, which volume of Haydn to start with, etc.  There are so many Haydn quartets that few of us who don’t play string quartets for a living are familiar with all 68 of them.  There was such joy among us, as twists and turns, unexpected modulations and surprising dynamics presented themselves.  “Oh, wow!”  “That’s fantastic!”  Whatever life’s challenges, professional or personal, playing chamber music with friends (old or new) seems to make it all better, at least for a while.

I was playing the cello again on the evening of Friday Feb. 11–improvisation and Bach as part of the music for Robin Becker’s Into Sunlight work-in-progress modern dance showing at the 92nd St. Y.  Playing for dancers, watching and responding to them, is such a stimulating experience, very different than playing a concert.  A blog post about that difference is in the works.

So it was Saturday Feb. 12 when I again heard others perform.  Back at Drom in the East Village, I had dinner while listening to the Blue Moon Ensemble perform what the club billed as a St. Valentine’s Day Special, with music “dedicated to love and lovers.”  “Mashups” (here less the overlap of multiple, formerly discreet pieces, and more the close juxtaposition of music from differnt genres) and “remixes” were the spirit of the evening. Early jazz, progressive jazz, traditional classical music, Byzantine chant (arranged for instruments) . . . a wonderful array, played with enthusiasm.  The Blue Moon combines the forces of a traditional jazz sextet (trumpet, sax, guitar, piano, bass, drums) with violin, cello, and clarinet.  It makes for lots of interesting combinations.

I got there after the show had started, but thankfully there were several empty tables, including one with no “reserved” seat sign on it, so I didn’t have to stand or sit at the bar.  This being New York, though, the empty tables didn’t stop the waiter, once he finally noticed me, from asking if I had a reservation, and, when I said no, saying he would need to move me to another spot.  I pointed out the empty tables with “reserved” signs on them, and he somewhat sheepishly relented.  That was OK, but what really irritated me was that Drom doesn’t serve tap water, and charges $5.00 for a bottle of water.  I was quite thirsty, was going to get a glass or two of wine anyway, and found this annoying and inhospitable.  It’s the only place I’ve been in New York, or anywhere else, where they won’t serve you water along with whatever else you order.  I enjoyed the music but left irritated with the venue, which undoubtedly will influence my decision-making process when there’s a which-of-the-four-things-I’d-like-to-attend night in the future.

There was also another music-in-clubs phenomenon: overly loud people at the next table. As the evening progressed, a group of four very expensively (leather, fur) and fashionably-dressed middle-aged women formed at the table next to me.  They were excited to see one another, and once the fourth arrived, their conversation, in an Eastern-European language (Turkish? Armenian?), got so loud that to hear the music I left my seat and went and stood in another part of the room for a while.  They noticed, I think, and lowered their voices.

The social contract in a club is obviously different than in a concert hall.  A certain level of sound, not from the stage, is inevitable, expected, accepted, and generally not bothersome.  And usually people don’t talk, or keep their voices very low, while the music is being performed.  So this was unusual.  They were so obviously excited to be in one another’s company that they lost awareness of the rest of the room, it seemed.  When I moved so I could hear, they noticed, and became appropriately considerate.  And so I returned to my hard-won seat.

I like Drom. I’ll be back.  I do wonder if the irritation not serving free water triggers doesn’t outweigh the short-term benefits of the markup on bottled water (I did pop for a Pellegrino and at least one glass of wine).  But heck, it’s their business model, not mine.


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Filed under Blue Moon Ensemble, Drom, Robin Becker, sabbatical journal

Composers performing, performers creating, and the virtues of mingling (Sabbatical Journal IV)

“I envy you,” a friend who recently moved out of Manhattan told me the other day, “getting to go to all these things.”  I’ll probably envy me, too, once I get back to Indiana this summer.  Meanwhile, some what I’ve been up to since my last post, and what it has me thinking about:

On Sunday 1/30, I played some Bach and improvisations for a work-in-progress showing of Robin Becker’s developing Into Sunlight project.  We performed, in a studio at the LaGuardia High School for Music, Art, and the Performing Arts, for the cast of a major Broadway show, along with some potential donors.  I’m new enough to New York that I’m still excited by proximity to celebrities; it was fun to look up at see faces I recognize from television.  Robin’s choreography is brilliant and moving.  I’ve seen it evolving since November, and it’s a privilege to be involved in the creative process.And it was fun to mingle a bit, especially with those who were enthusiastic about my playing.

Then a cab ride (I’m trying to avoid them, because they can eat up a lot of money fast) to another emerging East Village alternative venue, Drom. Like [le] poisson rouge, it’s a very appealing space, well designed, beautiful bar, great lighting, etc., described by co-founder Serdar Ilhan on its website as a “home for eclectic and underrepresented genres of music, a place where the destination [is] the journey itself.  That’s where the name Drom comes from; in the Romani (Gypsy) culture, a drom is both a journey and a road.”

What brought me, spending money willy-nilly on a cab, was the Composers Concordance 2nd Annual Composers Play Composers Marathon, which had already started when I finished up on the other side of town. Nineteen composers, nineteen performances, each with the composer performing, either solo or with a small ensemble.  (I got there late; the first of the three sets may have included an additional piece in honor of Milton Babbitt, who had just passed away). A wide array of musical styles–eclecticism at it’s best, I’d say.  I absolutely loved the celebration of composer/performers and performer/composers.

The thing that is so stupid about current classical music training, and one of the cancers that has eaten away of the vitality of classical music, is that we’ve made composers and performers into different species. It’s true that not everyone with a great gift and skill at composing has the gifts to be a great performer, and vice-versa.  Nevertheless, you aren’t a healthy, whole musician without creating and performing.  And serious art music in western culture might have stayed in a more audience-connected culture if new music hadn’t been artificially isolated in the academy. I can go on and on and on about this.

But this event was a dose of the antidote. And as with my LPR Metropolis Ensemble trip a couple of nights before, it was standing room only.  OK, for my 52-year-old feet’s sake, I’ve got to get to these places early so I can sit! (Which I will do tonight at LPR.) There were some great couches in the lobby, though, so I did get a bit of relief at times.

What’s great about these venues is the mingling along with the drinks and food.  I met and chatted with a number of the composers and additional performers.  Wonderful time.  The social aspect of the event made it much preferable to me than sitting in, say, a university recital hall for a similar new-music marathon with two intermissions.  That would take a big commitment, along with steely resolve.

On the other hand, a commenter on my previous post points out that club venues like this can be cliquish.  If alone, a traditional hall’s anonymity is more egalitarian. I met a friend at this event and ran into another, so perhaps my experience would have been different otherwise. It’s a good point; I’m not as enthusiastic about this evening’s solo LPR excursion as I would be if I were going with or meeting a friend.

Tuesday night I went to an actual old-school night club, Club Cache, in the basement of the Edison Hotel near Times Square, to hear Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, a big band playing early jazz on period instruments (enthusiastic New York Times articles here and here).  This was no chance happening; introduced by mutual friends, I’ve gotten to know the extraordinary Andy Stein, who plays violin and saxophone in the group.  I walked in and thought, “I feel like I’m in a club from Boardwalk Empire.”  Surprise! Turns out that these guys recorded much of the music, and appear in (at least) the opening episode.  I loved their gig, and it struck me funny that the period-instrument movement, so important in classical music these days, reaches even into jazz.  Or, rather, has a parallel there in the person of Mr. Giordani, who Andy tells me is as passionate and knowledgeable about the instruments and performance practice of early jazz as any treatise-addicted early-music fanatic.

The music was great, and so was my surprisingly inexpensive ($12) seafood salad ($15 food and drink minimum).  I might have felt lonelier here had I just walked in by myself and not had Andy chatting with me on breaks. But–and this is what I think is brilliant and why I’m writing about it–Vince came over during a break when Andy was not keeping me company, introduced himself,thanked me for coming, asked what had brought me there, and chatted with me. As far as I could tell, he worked every table in the room.  As is the case with any good networker, he seemed genuinely delighted to meet me, and everyone else, and to enjoy hanging out.

And so, otherwise a stranger, I was mingled with. Not ignored. Since I was nuts about the music, I’m wanting to take friends there.  And I know that even if Andy isn’t there, Vince is sure to come by and chat.  Definitely an attracting factor, and definitely something all of us working with small venues would do well to model.



Filed under alternative venues, Andy Stein, Composers Concordance, Drom, jazz, Le Poisson Rouge, performance practice, Robin Becker, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks

The Arvo Pärty

So I’m on sabbatical, as I’ve mentioned before, with various projects. One is what I now realize could be termed “cello pedagogy field research,” which has been taking the form of observing, this fall, many of Janos Starker’s lessons at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.  An amazing experience, which is having a positive impact on the occasional teaching and master classes I do, and which I will write about at length.  My interpretation of what I’m experiencing is being shaped by reading I’m doing.  Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, a study on John Wooden’s coaching techniques which Coyle references (there are some striking similarities between aspects of Wooden’s coaching and Starker’s teaching), and John Cloer’s 2009 dissertation Janos Starker: An Organized Method of Cello Teaching.

The other project is designing a course, for DePauw music majors, on entrepreneurial skills and alternative performance of classical music.  To that end I’ll be relocating to New York (“the city”) next semester for another kind of field research. meanwhile,  I’m here on an advance trip, performing improvised (or quasi-improvised) music tomorrow (Friday) evening in a preview performance of Robin Becker’s evening-length dance work (nice piece about it here) Into Sunlight, inspired by a similarly titled book, dealing with the Vietnam War, by David Maraniss.

Meanwhile, I was able to attend the “Arvo Pärty” (celebrating the 75th birthday of  composers Arvo Pärt and Giya Kanchelli) at [le] poisson rouge (LPR) in Greenwich Village last night.  LPR is a fascinating club, in the space formerly occupied by the Village Gate, which presents classical as well as other genres of music, performing, and visual arts in a cool club atmosphere.  “Serving alcohol and art.”  “Alcohol is our patron.”

A former student met me and a group of mutual friends earlier in the evening.  After dinner he and I headed over to Bleecker Street, where we discovered a line stretching from the LPR front door around the block.  That shows the success of LPR’s model and marketing–at least a hundred people lined up for a 10:00 PM Wednesday night concert of contemporary classical music.  Once my daughter, a student at NYU, joined us, we went in and joined the standing-room only crowd.

The performers were pianist Andrei Zlabys and vibraphonist Andrius Pushkarev. The music was exquisite.  Pieces by Pärt (“Für Alina” for solo piano and “Passacglia” for piano and vibraphone) began and ended the program, which also included two woks by Kancheli, two, well, I guess I’d call them transformations of Bach Inventions by Pshlarev, and, in the center of the program, the Bach E Major Keyboard Partita (BWV 830), which was performed brilliantly, with insight, playfulness, structure, and eloquence, by Zlabys.

So how well does art music work in a club serving food and drink?  Quite well.  The audience, shrouded in darkness (except for table lights or candles) perhaps even darker than that in a concert hall, was silent during the performances.  Wait staff almost silently glide among them taking orders.  We had ended up at the bar, where my daughter found the last bar stool, so our sonic landscape included the sounds of drinks being made.  Which I could have done without, for the musical experience.  It would have been much quieter at the tables.

It was wonderful to be part of the “Pärty.”  The collective experience means a lot–all these people jammed in together, celebrating the work of these composers (I confess, this was the first I’d heard of Kanchelli).  My former student, an active sound producer as well as a tenor, was delighted to be introduced to the venue.  My daughter was delighted to be introduced to Pärt’s music.  And me?  Delighted to share this wonderful place and this special experience with them.

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Filed under improvisation, Janos Starker, Le Poisson Rouge, live performance, Robin Becker

Coming up: August 15 in Chatham NY

August 15 , 2008
8:00 PM
St James Catholic Church
117 Hudson Ave.
Chatham, New York 12037

Columbia Chamber Players
Robin Becker, dance
Eric Edberg, cello
Lincoln Mayorga, piano
Akal Dev Sharonne, flute

Admission: $20
reservations: 518-392-2130

I’m really excited about this gig! I haven’t played with Lincoln before, and from the information on his website, it looks like it will be a wonderful experience. He and I will play the Schubert “Arpeggione” sonata, and I’ll also perform the first Bach Cello Suite, with Robin dancing in some of the movements. Robin will also be dancing to a solo piano improvisation by Lincoln, who will play a Chopin set as well, and a multi-track quasi-improvised piece with me, which we call “Autumn.” Akal Dev–who has one of the most beautiful flute tones I’ve ever heard–will perform Michael Harrison’s “Oh, Beloved,” and she and I will play a Teleman sonata and an arrangement of the Ibert Entr’acte.

I’ll be using the Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello, since it is the instrument I have hooked up with a Realist pickup mic.

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Filed under Akal Dev Sharrone, EE concerts, Lincoln Mayorga, Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello, Robin Becker