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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“A degree in music is the best preparation for anything.”

Everyone in the music world has now sent each other Joanne Lipman’s NN Times article, Is Music the Key to Success? (We seem to agree that yes, it is.) Lipman writes about the many  people who are highly successful in other fields while being active musicians.

Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.

The article reminds me that Harold Best, who was the dean of music at Wheaton College for over twenty-five years, once told us at DePauw that “a degree in music is the best preparation for anything.”  (I’ve written about this before.)

We are very excited  at DePauw about our 21st Century Musician Initiative, supported by a fifteen million dollar gift from Judson and Joyce Green. I spent a good part of a sabbatical three years ago developing courses on music entrepreneurship and audience development and then participating in the process of developing this program.  Music entrepreneurship courses are fast becoming central parts of professional music education. We in the higher education music establishment collectively turn out thousands of graduates with performance degrees each year, while the job market for classical musicians seems to get tougher each year.

It can be hard on us. We know that music is a calling that does not always lead to a career. Some of us struggle over whether or not to encourage young people to study music in college.

My answer? Yes.

Even as we work to do a better job preparing music students to succeed as professional musicians through entrepreneurship and career skills programs, we can take comfort–even rejoice–in the fact that we are also preparing them for a life of making and otherwise engaging in music, regardless of their profession.  Their musical and  liberal arts education has been central to their development in every dimension.

I’m proud of my former students who make a living in music (especially those like Jon Silpayamanant who do it in an entrepreneurial, creative way). I’m equally as proud of those who grew into extraordinary people through the process of being a music major and make their difference–and earn their living–in other ways.
As Harold said, a degree in music is the best preparation for anything.


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Glorious Mistakes

One of my Facebook friends is the double bassist and critic Chantal Incandela, who blogs at Mahler Owes Me Ten Bucks and writes for Nuvo in Indianapolis. It’s an interesting professional double life she leads, as an active freelance musician also reviewing performances in the same market.  I’d be uncomfortable writing reviews of my fellow musicians; on the other hand, the composer Virgil Thompson managed to do it quite well for years.

Friday,  Chantal posted a inspiringly-honest post about an audition gone wrong, and I wouldn’t have noticed it except for it coming up in my Facebook newsfeed.

I don’t think I would have had the courage to be so honest about this sort of experience.  I’ve certainly had those kinds of experiences; at auditions and in competitions, it was often as if boxcar of Eric Kryptonite had been opened, and all my powers and skills, whether inherent or learned, vanished.  Here I am, 55, well established as a musician and teacher, in a secure, named-professorship chair at a terrific university–I don’t think I’d audition for anything ever again, even though I’m playing better than I ever have. So I really have to hand it to Chantal, both for going for it, for putting herself out there, in front of colleagues she knows personally, and for writing such a beautifully authentic post about the experience.

Inspired by her openness, here’s a story about my own mini-disaster this morning.

I’ve been playing very little lately. I injured my right arm last spring lifting weights, and it has been slow to recover.  I finally took about five weeks off from playing, because it seemed to slightly aggravate the situation.  Just over a week ago I started playing again, because I was playing on a concert this past Wednesday.

This morning I played in church.

I chose a Marcello sonata in F major, one I first learned when I was is 14, I think, from the gloriously inspiring Nelson Cooke. It’s great to play when I’m out of shape or don’t have time to practice, and I still use the copy my mother bought for me back then, with Mr. Cooke’s fingerings and bowings still penciled in in his bold writing.  (I now ignore many of the markings, some of which don’t fit with my historically-informed-performance-practice influences.  I found myself wondering, though, if I might be defaulting to fingerings that came to me when I was in the eighth grade.)

I’d invited myself to play at this particular service because the three children of friends of mine, Mac and Anne, were being baptized and I wanted to be part of that in a special way.

Like so many middle-aged guys, I repeat myself a lot.  I’m always reminding my students that Christopher Small asserts in Musicking that there’s no inherent meaning in a musical work, or at least that there isn’t a fixed meaning that’s common to all performances, and that the most valid question we can ask is, “What does it mean when this performance [of this work] takes place at this time, in this place, and with these people present?” He also says that the real meaning is in the human relationships at the performance.

Well, there’s no more clear illustration of that than in a church service.

I got my cello back out so I could sit in the choir loft and make music with my friend John (the organist) and not only participate in the celebration of this rite of passage, but by so doing say to the parents, “I am here for you bringing the best gift I have to give.”

It’s amazing how you can love someone you don’t know all that well.  How is that?  I care about and have affection for and wanted to be sure I was there for a special occasion in the lives of people who I know only from brief conversations after concerts or at coffee hour after church.

They didn’t know I was going to play.  The bulletin didn’t list the prelude music.  John and I began, and I heard Anne give a slight gasp of surprise. From my perch was able to see her turn her head around, and look up to the loft to see that it was me.  I hadn’t realized it was going to be a surprise, but what a lovely moment it was.

(Geez, this is starting to feel a little narcissistic. But I’ll soldier on, telling you my experience.)

I thought I was playing pretty well, time off from the cello or not.  Meanwhile, though, I’d noticed the president of the university sitting in a pew, and for some reason that made me a touch self conscious.  Some part of me still fearing the disapproval of an authority figure, or wanting to impress one. (“The only difference between you and Yo-Yo Ma,” my beloved tells me, “is confidence.” I don’t think Yo-Yo spends much time worrying about being judged.)

This sonata is in the standard sonata da chiesa four-movement form, slow-fast-slow-fast.  The third movement is quite short, and serves more as a prelude to the fourth than as a stand-alone piece.  So I’d chosen to play the third and fourth movements as the prelude to the service, the first movement as the reflective offertory, and the second movement as the energetic postlude.

By the time we got to the offertory, there’d been a whole lot of scripture reading, psalm singing, sermonizing, and baptizing going on. I was no longer warmed up, and my inner nervous eighth grader, wanting to impress, or not screw up in front of, Mr. President, was annoying and distracting my confident wise-almost-old-guy self.  An first-position e slightly out of tune–oh fuck!  (Mr. Cooke, so long ago, told me that once you know all the positions, first is the hardest to play in tune, and he was right).  We channeled some really special energy, BUT IT WASN’T PERFECT, and I felt a bit frustrated.

As the service approached its end, I was a bit distracted by emailing a friend who was going to show up for the end of the service so she could be there for coffee hour to meet someone who she and I had decided would be perfect for her to press into volunteer service.  Then I decided to play along with the final hymn so I’d be warmed up and ready to dazzle with the postlude.

Well, I TOTALLY FORGOT that we were playing the second movement and not the last movement for the postlude.  So I gave a cue and started playing the fourth movement, while John played the assigned second movement, and, oops!, it didn’t work.  He realized what happened and started playing the fourth movement, after a noisy flip of pages, just as I realized the situation and turned back to the second movement.

A bit more cacophony as we got sorted out, and then we remembered differently as to whether we were repeating the first half of the movement. I did, he didn’t and so I played unaccompanied for a measure or two while he found me.  THIS IS SO EMBARRASSING! I WANT TO HIDE! said the eighth grader.  This is a blast! said another part of me. We played with a lot of energy–I felt I was overplaying, a touch mortified and greatly amused all at the same time.

There was great applause at the end of it all.  My friend and colleague sitting on the choir side of the loft gave us a big smile. “Glorious mistakes!” he proclaimed.

So there we were, so totally fallible and human, doing our best while screwing up, making it work even when there was confusion, and embraced and loved while we did it.

That’s why I volunteer to play in church, but I haven’t played an audition in years and years.



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The Festival, Part I

I’m in the midst of the ninth summer of organizing concerts in Greencastle, Indiana, the small town where I live.  For the last few summers, we’ve been calling it the Greencastle Summer Music Festival.  We have a concert every Wednesday night, staring after Memorial Day and running for twelve (this summer thirteen) weeks, until classes at DePauw University start up.

I say “we,” because it’s uncomfortable to say “I,” and, besides, nothing would get done were it not for all the people who perform, who let us use their church, who donate money so we can tune the piano and give small honoraria to the performers, and who come to the concerts.  True, I picked the name.  But the rest of us like it, at least for now, and so it is “our” name.

That may change; I think this is the third name “the series” (as I tend to refer to it) has had, as my understanding of what we do has evolved. We started as the “Greencastle Summer Chamber Music Series.” Then, realizing we were having voice recitals from time to time, I changed it to the “Greencastle Summer Classical Music Festival.” I don’t even remember now why I decided to use the word “festival,” just that it seemed like a good idea. One of my colleagues at DePauw, where I am honored to teach, pointed out somewhat sharply that festivals don’t usually last twelve or thirteen weeks with just one event a week. (Fine.  Go start your own concert series!) “Festival” sounded presumptuous to him.

No one else objected, though, and people seem to like it. It’s kind of nice: we have a festival in our little town!

Two years ago, I had become interested in including non-classical music, and, like many people, realized that “classical” is a term (along with many other genre labels)that may have outlived its usefulness.  So I cut out the “classical,” and now it’s just music.

“Festival” may have been slightly prophetic. This summer, we are having some additional events.  Two weeks ago, the pianist Taka Kigawa came in from New York for several days. He played at Starbucks. He played for the kids at the Summer Enrichment Program (a kind of day camp for at-risk children) at the church that hosts the concerts.  He played at the assisted-living facility where my mother lives, and he played for over two hours at the Indiana Women’s Prison, where I teach a Friday-morning Music Appreciation class.  This week, in addition to our regular Wednesday night concert, the folk-music group I play in is performing at a local restaurant.  Next week, we’ll do an additional event as well.  So maybe it’s turning into a festival after all.

Why am I telling you this? Good question.  I agreed to write an article on starting a concert series, for a print publication, and have been stuck.  I’ve interviewed a number of other performers, some quite well known, who started a series (so far I’m the only one to call his series a “festival”).  I wrote the first half or so of a first draft, and the editor, who I’d been a bit put off by to begin with, didn’t like it, rewrote what I’d written, missing the point I was trying to make, to show me the tone/style they want.  I basically quit–it pays only a token amount and I have no ambitions to be a published writer, at least in the style he’s wanting–but he hasn’t given in and we are still in communication.  The only thing I know to do is to just start writing, about what I’ve learned from starting and running my own series/festival and from talking with others, and this is what came out this afternoon.




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Janos Starker Radio Tribute (Streaming) 7:00 PM ET Tonight

I just confirmed with WIFU FM that their show Artworks will be devoted to Janos Starker (who passed away Sunday morning) this evening. Nothing’s up on the website about it as I write, but should be soon. It’s at 7:00 PM EDT, and can be listened to online at http://indianapublicmedia.org/radio/. Just click on the “Listen Live” link.

Menahem Pressler, Emilio Colon, and Charles Webb will be guests.  Excerpts from Starker interviews and recordings will be included.

It may or may not be available for downloading later, because of copyright issues with recordings used. So listen if you can!

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