Friday, July 27, 2007

The Silent Instrument

Conductors have been much in the news lately. Their job is among the oddest in music; the instrument they play is silent. One cannot learn to conduct alone. Instrumentalists spend large portions of their lives utterly alone in the discipline we call practicing. Conductors must learn their craft standing before an orchestra. Their craft comprises stick technique, interpretive communication, and leadership. At Juilliard, I used to call it "the three T’s": time, taste, and tact.

Today we ended the rehearsal week for the Mostly Mozart Festival. I am very fortunate to be playing in the Festival Orchestra for the whole summer. I have subbed in the orchestra from time to time since 2004 when Zéphyros played the Mozart Symphonie Concertante on the opening concert. I have learned more from the Music Director, Louis Langrée than any other conductor. If this week is any indication, this is going to be an exciting month. To those of you in New York, I highly recommend the stage level seats in the reconfigured Avery Fisher Hall. I can think of no better way to experience orchestral performance than to sit so close that you’re almost in the middle of the ensemble.

This week we concentrated on Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 6. These pieces are played so often, they bring with them the kitsch of pop-culture commonness. The chill of the chilling opening motif in Beethoven 5 is most often relinquished to familiarity. Expectation for the known is perhaps the most common way we hear "classical" music, but the concert we're preparing was the occasion of the premier of both these symphonies. Louis’ desire to reify the mysteries these works held on their first performance drives the rehearsals. Can we imagine Beethoven 5 without knowing its C Major apotheosis? Louis asked us to.

In rehearsals, his primary technical concerns are with articulation, harmonic awareness, balance, shape of the line, and handling of dissonances. In the first movement of Beethoven 5 he addressed a bass line in the celli and bassoons. It is a very quiet (pianissimo) passage and he wanted to refine a juncture between two notes. The movement is marked “Allegro con brio” but in this passage he asked for the kind of articulation used in a dolce (sweet, gentle) adagio (slow) piece. The result added a new layer of richness to the sound. He found ways of matching articulation styles between winds and strings and between different wind instruments that brought cohesion to the orchestral sound. At another point he asked us to emphasize the rest or silent part of the music. How can you emphasize the silence? I’m not sure, but when we all tried, the result was electric. Another quizzical admonition was made to the wind section. We had forte (loud) chords on the downbeats. He asked we play them “faster.” Faster is not sooner or shorter; it’s not louder, what exactly could he mean? When twelve musicians tried to solve this impossible request, the result was a totally different and arresting sound on those chords.

These koans become cairns in performance: reminders along the way to creating an interpretation. It’s going to be a great festival. Try to come. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bellicose company

My friend, the scultptor Ryo Toyonaga, says he's not a verbal person. Alas, I am. Here is my latest poetic attempt.


Making hasty escape, sleep’s
bellicose company slips
through prattling windows
on wafts and whiffs of wintry air.

Why is it so cold this spring?
Bedside, a fire-red alarm clock
ferociously devours seconds.
Its alarm is set, trigger cocked,

but I did not wind the crimson
beast before bed. Sometime,
it will silently stop timing time,
and there will be no sound.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Joan Mitchell
"Arbres" (diptych, uncut), 1991-92

Color Lithograph; 31 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches
Printed by Atelier Bordas, Paris
Published by Editions Jean Fournier, Paris
Edition: 125 + proofs
Provenance: Joan Mitchell Foundation, Susan Sheehan Gallery

Getting ready to bring her home. (Thank you Pablo Bautista for taking these pictures.)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Saratoga Dispatch—or—The Pleasures of Balanchine

“These pleasures, Melancholy, give;
And I with thee will choose to live.”
------------John Milton, from “Il Penseroso” (1633)

“The Four Temperaments,” Balanchine’s 1946 masterpiece, is an essential ballet. Whereas Robbin’s “Dances at a Gathering” creates an “eloquent vernacular,” this work speaks in heightened poetry of breathtaking originality. Feeling both ancient and beyond its (our) time, this plotless ballet is about the nature of meaning itself. The dancers' movements are so beautiful, so innovative, so finely crafted, the viewer feels they must mean something specific. But what? Is this a calligraphic dance limning characters of a language we no longer can read? Though no one could move like that on their own, who wouldn’t wish their human relationships imbued with such meaningful lyricism? Balanchine understands something about space and the way bodies inhabit it that makes movement profound.

We look and look, our eyes ravenous for what Balanchine will next offer, and realize we could look the rest of our lives. The meaning of meaning is the mystery of life, but in the thirty minutes of “The Four Temperaments” we feel it almost within our grasp.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saratoga Dispatch—or—The Church of Jerome Robbins—or—The Various Pleasures of Summer Festivals

Is it possible for a dance, or music for that matter, to be true? If it is, Jerome Robbins’ 1969 “Dances at a Gathering” set to solo piano music of Chopin comes very close. This work finds in the ambivalence of human relationships an eloquent vernacular. Hope and disappointment, misunderstanding and joy, friendship, companionship, courtship, and loss, all add hushed nobility to our daily lives. Chopin’s music defines that bittersweet nexus of the profound and the quotidian, in fact it may have invented it. Robbins’ “Dances” so ideally suits this music—the combination is so inevitable—that were they made first, waltzes and mazurkas would have to have been written to match its subtlety.

In Robert Lowell’s poem, “While Hearing the Archduke Trio,” he creates a balletic image of a couple’s struggle for emotional intimacy. He pictures them in bed:

"two waspheads lying on one pillowslip,
drowning, one toe just skating the sheet for bedrock."

And so goes the partnering in “Dances at a Gathering.” Through lifts and point work, couples reach for air and search for grounding. In an early duet, there is a moment of erotic fulfillment expressed in a striking lift. The woman flies aloft her partner, her leg outstretched dramatically. He walks forward, totally blinded by her dress. Could there be a truer depiction of Eros’ ambivalent impact?

My friend, the sculptor Ryo Toyonaga, doesn’t title any of his works. He says that in the process of naming, we define, but also delimit our understanding. His mysterious creations remain unnamed and unexplained. “Dances at a Gathering” doesn’t so much name as open a way to see the questions that gather in the daily steps of our life, and it proposes eloquence in the face of life’s unanswerable questions.

“Chopin” by Marcel Proust, translated by Richard Howard

Ocean of sighs, and just above the waves
a flight of butterflies pauses . . . no, passes,
circling above the melancholy sea . . .

Dream, love, suffer, sleep it off!
and between each throb of pain produce
the sudden oblivion of your whim—

don’t butterflies proceed from flower to flower?
Thus your joy becomes your grief’s accomplice
(the whirlpool’s thirst is only for more tears).

Prince of despair? A noble lord betrayed?
The moon’s pale companion and the sea’s,
you still exult, the paler the handsomer,

in the sun that floods your sickroom, weeping
at your smile and suffering at the sight . . .
the smile is for Regret, the tears for Hope!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Is Music.

From Part I of "Peter Quince at the Clavier" by Wallace Stevens

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

As a sweet apple turns red on a high branch,
high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot—
well, no they didn't forget—were not able to reach . . .

(LP, fr. 105a)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Through all sounds resounds
In earth's many-colored dream
A soft sound drawn out
For the secret listener.

The last stanza of Friedrich Schlegel's poem "Die Gebüsche" ("The Bushes").

Robert Schumann used this quatrain as the epigraph for his Fantasie for piano in C major, Op. 17 (1936). Since he and his beloved Clara had been forbidden to communicate by her father, she becomes the "secret listener" to the personal musical messages in this work.

Durch alle Töne tönet
Im bunten Erdentaum
Ein leiser Ton gezongen
Für den der heimlich lauschet.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Ryo Toyonaga
"untitled" 1992
11.5" x 7" x 4.5"
Ceramic on wooden stand

Friday, July 13, 2007

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
"Arbres" (Diptych, uncut) 1991-92

Color Lithograph

Sheet: 31 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches
Printed by: Atelier Bordas, Paris
Published by: Editions Jean Fournier, Paris
Unsigned, unnumbered
Edition: 125 + proofs, aproximate
Provenance: Joan Mitchell Foundation
Susan Sheehan Gallery

Marcos Castro

Thursday, July 12, 2007

“Little Rising” 2005
Acrylic on Dura-Lar, Pin, cast shadow
12 x 2 x 2 inches
Neuhoff Gallery, NYC

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

“Coyote Assaulting Sheep” 1996
pen/ink, acrylic wash on paper, 8 1/2 x 11”
KO97 24
Hooks-Epstein Gallery, Houston, Texas

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Saratoga Dispatch—or—The Church of John-Cage-in-the-Fields—or—The Various Pleasures of Summer Festivals

My first noisy week with the New York City Ballet in their summer home, Saratoga Springs, ended in the special silence of a Quaker meeting. Like a period punctuating the end of a long sentence, it was a diminutive dot with the power to stop roiling thoughts and complexly reasoned arguments in a tiny drop of ink on a page.

The Saratoga Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends was established before 1765 and their building in the small country village of Quaker Springs, was erected in 1795. The meeting house is little more than small room with wood floors and wood ceilings. The wall facing the doors is light blue, the others white. The white-painted pews transmit other Friends’ movements down the line. People sit close together and there is little anonymity. If you scratch your head, people will hear.

The meeting was well-attended and proceeded differently than the 15th Street meetings I’ve attended in New York. There, Friends arrive early, the silence well underway by the official start time. The Saratoga Friends sit and talk quietly until 10:00 when the meeting begins. The power of this concentrated gathering of silence caught me off guard. Like the gentlest caress, it felt deeply meaningful.

The components of this silence were familiar, birds, cars, dogs, children, floorboards, and coughs. The light streaming in the windows was from the same source as that streaming into other meetinghouses. The difference was in me. As I grow to know this silence, to find more in it than before, to lean into it, the more grateful I am to the Quakers for offering this point of repose for busy ears, mind, and heart.

Twice this week, I went into the SPAC audience to watch performances of Apollo (there are only strings in Stravinsky’s score). As the work unfolded, I realized that the moment “I had been waiting for” was the one I was in. Surrounded by strangers, confronting the genius of Balanchine and Stravinsky through the virtuosity of the performers, the artistic and intellectual stimulation brought me into a heightened state.

This morning, meeting with Friends I didn’t know, in a humble, quiet room with white walls and no ornamental display, another door opened, promising other rooms.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Saratoga Dispatch—or—The Various Pleasures of Summer Festivals

It was a good week for John Philip Sousa; the first week of July usually is. The music of this true American genius is so finely wrought and of such sincere sentiment, that it withstands every sort of performance, repetition, rearrangement, marketing bastardization, political co-opting, and even assault. It weathers all without diminution of its power to move us in body and spirit. Sousa’s marches are formally perfect without feeling formulaic, easy to appreciate and yet intricate in detail, patriotic, optimistic, blue-skies-all-summer, and impervious to cynicism. In his review of the New York Philharmonic's Summertime Classics concert, New York Times, 5 July 2007, Bernard Holland states, “Sousa is what America wishes it were and only occasionally is.”

Harpsichordist, Albert Fuller, says that each musician has a seminal musical moment when a certain piece gave them the frisson, inaugurating their lives in music. My "frisson moment" came with the Stars and Stripes Forever. My Junior High band director, Lynn Hansen, planned a spring concert with this march played by the combined wind students in the school. 300 is the number I remember. Is that even possible? God bless any adult willing to put themselves in front of hundreds of junior high students armed with dangerous band instruments. To make this inspired idea work, she simplified the difficult technical passages for the younger players and rehearsed us in smaller groups all winter. Our first amassed play through in the gymnasium left me in tears, at 13! (This will come as no surprise to those who know me.) The power of the overlapping counterpoint in the final strain, combining piccolos, low brass, and melody simply overwhelmed me.

In the summer of 1992, I went on a tour of France with the Juilliard Chamber Orchestra. The sponsor, Jeunes musicales de France, set a grueling schedule of something like 21 concerts in 18 days. The repertoire included Beethoven’s first symphony, Pulcinella, a ballet suite by Rameau, Copland’s’ Quiet City (Kelly Peral was the English Horn soloist) and our encore was Stars and Stripes Forever. This was a time before American imperialism turned us into the international pariahs we are today—Albanian pro-Americanism notwithstanding—so our unabashedly patriotic encore was enthusiastically received. In fact playing this most authentic American music abroad was a special thrill. Time after time in the joyously clangorous din of the finale I could hardly play for the upwelling of emotion. As I gamely pantomimed my part, I witnessed the sheer joy this music produced in each concert hall from Salle Gaveau to dozens of small theaters across France. The cheers that greeted us were the loudest I’d ever heard at a classical concert. In a sense it was the most meaningful piece we played, brimming with youthful enthusiasm and American razzmatazz.

When asked why he chose to choreograph a ballet to Sousa's marches, George Balanchine replied: "Because I like his music." In the first week of the Saratoga season, the NYCB gave three performances of Balanchine’s 1958 ballet “Stars and Stripes.” Even in Hershy Kay’s benignly bastardized version used by Balanchine (with its parlous lurches into camp), the piccolos and the low brass still deliver the frisson. While playing the march’s famous final melody, there are joyful moments of uplift entirely devoid of irony, and they still dazzle.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Saratoga Dispatch—or—The Various Pleasures of Summer Festivals

In other pleasures, today I took the long lovely drive from Saratoga Springs to North Adams, MA via Vermont to visit Mass MoCA and then to Williamstown, MA for the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

Little I saw at Mass MoCA has stayed with me. It was mostly big disposable "art" that stabs and stabs at facile points without makng an impact. Process and concept trump technique and accomplishment to very little effect. The building is amazing, however, and the café and gift shop are excellent.

I then took the short drive to Williamstown for my first visit to the Clark, and I am already looking forward to going back in a week. Several Sargents are seared into my minds eye. What a treasure.

Back at Saratoga Springs, I decided to visit the museum at Skidmore College, the Tang Teaching Museum. The current exhibition, "Alumni Invitational 2" was a terrific surprise. The work was memorable, inventive, and in every case, beautiful.

Bing Wright
Rain Window V
, 1989
C-print, 62 x 38 inches,
Courtesy of the artist and
Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
In the Tang "Alumni Invitational 2"

John Singer Sargent
American, 1856-1925
Fumée d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris) 1880
Oil on canvas, 139.1 x 90.6 cm
Acquired by Sterling Clark, 1914, 1955.15

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Saratoga Dispatch — or — The Various Pleasures of Summer Festivals

In back of SPAC there are windows on two large rehearsal rooms where the New York City Ballet company takes class. Before shows, they are crowded with audience members, watching the work that becomes ballet. I want to watch, too. We see almost nothing from the pit. All that beauty is so close yet quite out of view.

This is the essential difference between an opera orchestra and a ballet orchestra. Without being able to see the production, an opera orchestra still hears the essential stage product, the singing. The ballet orchestra is, in the main, separated from the principal part of the performance through bad sight lines. There are moments in certain pieces when sounds from the stage remind us we’re not alone. In the last movement of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, there is a quick gathering of ballerinas that registers in the pit as a burst of tapping. I love that sound and miss it when playing the piece in concert.

How did music and dance—the fraternal twins of the arts—become so separated? How much more intentionality could a musical phrase embody if the musicians knew “at this moment on stage she . . . " did some exquisite something? It puts great onus on the conductor to coordinate the level of engagement between music and movement. The City Ballet’s exciting choice of Fayçal Karoui as music director promises good things for this company. He clearly loves dance and loves to put it to music.

George Balanchine said, “Choreography can only be the result of music.” Harpsichordist, Albert Fuller taught his students that discovering the physicality of dance was key to understanding Baroque music, “even the St. Matthew Passion is full of dances.”

Duo Concertante, Stranvinsky/Balanchine, NYCB

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Saratoga Dispatch—or—The Church of Olivier Messiaen—or—The Various Joys of Summer Festivals

My little cabin on the Adirondack Inn compound hardly constitutes a nature retreat, but oh, the birds this morning! In full cry since dawn, I awoke with their cascading cacophonies. Counterpoint so elaborate, I could listen all day trying to discern the overlapping dialects.

It reminds me of a picture by Joan Mitchell in Cheim & Read’s recent show of her works on paper. The intricate tangle of lines and color seems at first unplanned, gradually suggesting mysterious calligraphies, forgotten yet partially decipherable. Looking into the picture—disentangling its dialects—could take a lifetime.

Independence Day means work for musicians. The NYCB has a rehearsal in 40 minutes and a show tonight. I’m sorry to leave the birds. Tomorrow I’ll get up earlier.

Joan Mitchell (1925 - 1992)
Oil on paper
30 3/4 x 22 7/8 inches
(MITC-1499) CR# MI.10667

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Saratoga Dispatch—or—The Various Joys of Summer Festivals

After this morning’s rehearsal with the New York City Ballet, I went for lunch to the 18th-century farmhouse where principal oboist, Randall Wolfgang stays. Not a right angle in the place, this funky old house stands deep in the woods. It is filled with books and shaded by a 300-year-old sugar maple. On a side table was the anthology, “The Treasury of American Poetry” compiled in 1978 by Nancy Sullivan. I sat on the back porch and read and dosed and felt the breeze, swatted some mosquitoes, and accepted the engulfing of green.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown—
Who ponders this tremendous scene—
This whole Experiment of Green—
As if it were his own!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Artist, Marcos Castro

México D.F., March 29 th 1981

2003-2006 Plastic Arts, Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda”, México D.F.

I purchased this work on paper, "muchos," from Gustavo Arróniz of Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, last summer.
Castro, Marcos (Mexico, born 1981)
“Muchos” 2006 (signed on back)
Watercolor on Paper, 10" x 14"
Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo
, Mexico City, July 2006