Friday, August 31, 2007
The Helicon Foundation's 23 Season
This October, The Helicon Foundation opens its twenty-third season. Three themes unite our Symposiums next year: Music in Culture, The Development of the Keyboard, and The Voice of the Violin.
We explore music’s relationship to the wider culture through its influences in the other arts and technology. Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which Pedja Muzijevic plays in December, is an obvious example. Inspired by the drawings and watercolors of Victor Hartmann, Mussorgsky created a moving tribute to their friendship within a musical portrait of the artist. The natural world and the contemplative inner workings of religious faith influenced the music of Heinrich Biber in his Sonata Representiva, and The Mystery Sonatas, which Colin Jacobsen performs in February. Poetry is the inspiration for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), which closes our season. In this first instance of a tone poem in chamber music, Schoenberg vividly represents the narrative of the two lovers in Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name. Our opening Symposium features one of Europe’s greatest pre-electronic technological triumphs, the fortepiano. In this case, musical needs influenced technology, as musicians and composers pushed builders for increasingly sophisticated instruments and an expanded sonic palette. The music on this program was written around 1800, and ushered in a century of rapid evolution in piano development, leading to its dominant position in Western art music.
This season features five different keyboard instruments. In the music of Biber, we will hear both the harpsichord and organ. Our own amazingly versatile, Pedja Muzijevic will play the fortepiano in the first Symposium and the modern grand piano for “Pictures.” I am excited to announce a Helicon Special Event that takes the theme of keyboard instruments to its grandest heights. Robert McCormick, the young organ virtuoso and Music Director of St. Mary the Virgin here in New York City, has agreed to give Helicon Members a private concert on what is one of the finest organs in America. He will introduce the various registers of this king of instruments, and then play pieces showcasing its remarkable powers.
Finally, we look at the voice of the violin through its expressive evolution over three centuries of music. Each of our four violinists this season, Mark Steinberg, Jennifer Frautschi, Colin Jacobsen, and Vera Beths is an artist possessing a strong, individual personality, and an important voice in the music world today. In works of Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Biber, Brahms, and Schoenberg, we will hear the distinctive voices of the violin in its widely expressive potential.
Helicon Members enjoy proximity to virtuoso performances, insightful programs, vibrant social interaction, and immersion in music’s most intimate world. If you’d like to be a part of this exciting season, please email email@example.com or write to: The Helicon Foundation, Inc., 27 West 67th Street, New York, NY 10023, and we will send you Membership materials.
I started buying art before I became a collector. The first work of art I purchased was at The Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester, VT, over a decade ago. I was there for the Manchester Music Festival, and quite unaware of what I might encounter, I walked into their galleries. Off in a corner was a ceramic sculpture by Marion McChesney, titled “Bird.” It was $175, much more than I had ever spent on a non-useful item, but I was moved by it. Gentle and lyrical, I still love it. Though it was my first art purchase, it wasn't my first purchase as a collector.
In the 2004-2005 season I was invited to play acting-principal oboe of the Houston Grand Opera. I spent ten weeks in Texas, divided into two visits. It felt as though I was at a summer festival, away from home, expenses paid, I had no "real life" responsibilities aside from the opera schedule. Houston boasts America's third largest art market after New York and L.A. The Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston are great museums, and there is a lively gallery scene centered on Colquitt Street and in the Montrose district. I became a member of the MFAH and started going on my afternoons off. Showing at the time was a career retrospective of Kermit Oliver. Entirely unknown to me, I walked in one afternoon and thought, "Oh, this looks like Andrew Wyeth. How nice." Well, it didn't take long before Oliver’s individual voice expressed itself and I was hooked. Virtuosic draftsmanship met imaginative visions, met literary and religious imagery; Oliver's work read like text. Photo-realism exploded into allegorical worlds that were instantly accessible while promising a lifetime of insights. I began attending docent-led tours of the exhibition, and one day a guide pointed to a particularly engaging work and said, " I could imagine living with this the rest of my life." I was startled by the idea, and intrigued.
With a little research, I found the Houston gallery that represented Kermit Oliver, Hooks-Epstein. I took a deep breath and drove to Colquitt Street. Bursting into the gallery, I walked up to the person who looked the most "in charge" (this was my first visit to a major commercial fine art gallery with intent to buy) and said, " I love the work of Kermit Oliver, and I wonder if you have anything in the price range of a new collector." The elegant, poised, Southern woman sitting behind a handsome wooden desk smiled and answered in a mellifluous mezzo-soprano, "I am so glad you've found your way to our gallery. What, may I ask, is the budget of this 'new collector'?" "$1000," I replied, gamely. "Oh, I am so sorry, Mr. Oliver's work demands a price many times higher than that. I do have some hand-colored prints in the $2500 to $3000 range. If you'd like to see those, my assistant will show you." Indeed, all the original works were five figures and up, but I was happy to see more of Oliver's work and the gallery assistant brought me to the back room. She showed me the prints and also brought out a number of paintings for me to see, which was very exciting.
While she sifted through the prints, I noticed a small work, a drawing, and I asked to see it. It was an original study on paper, pen and ink with acrylic wash about 12 x 8 inches. It pictured a coyote fatally subduing a lamb, a crane flying overhead, oblivious, and, there were handwritten notes by Oliver in the bottom margin. Peeking, I saw that the price was within my range. "What's this?" I asked. The assistant didn't know, so it was presented at the front desk, where I learned it was a 1996 study made for a larger work the gallery sold years ago. The collectors hadn’t wanted the study, and it sat, unnoticed and forgotten, in the back room since. "I'll take it."
It displayed some of Oliver's major themes. Its title: LUSUS NATURAE or "game of nature,' expressed nature's ambivalence to one creature's fate in the face of the continuation of life. The sacrificial lamb's plight, agnus dei, is ignored by the crane flying overhead towards its own unknown end. Though depicting an assault, the picture doesn't feel violent. The artist's notes on the page add an additional layer of remove from the mortal scene while increasing the richness to the work itself.
With that purchase I became a collector. The docent’s idea of looking at a work for the rest of ones life became a reality. Oliver’s study, now entirely separate from the larger work it preceded, hangs by my music desk. The oblivious crane, spared the lamb’s violent fate, suggests there can be found peace in the face of life’s tragedies and joys. What more can we ask?
pen/ink, acrylic wash on paper
8 1/2 x 11”
Hooks-Epstein Galleries, Houston, TX, 2005
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Niv is a photographer who lives in my neighborhood and works in fashion as well as fine art photography. Born in Israel, his career took root in Italy. One day I asked if his images were on line. I hadn't seriously collected photographs, though I do have a several beautiful ones by Bell Soto that he gave me. Niv told me the URL of his Italian manager, and I fell in love with one image in particular. When I saw him next, I told him there was one I thought I wanted. "I know which one you like, it's the 'Boys in the Field,'" he said. I didn't know the title, but I knew the one he meant. It's a work of such youthful abandon, hope, and contentment, I couldn't resist. Niv made me a 24 x 36 print. Here it is.
Friday, August 24, 2007
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Tonight was my last concert with the Mostly Mozart Festival this season. (The Mozart Requiem performed this weekend has no oboes, alas.) I am so grateful to Jane Moss and Louis Langrée for creating in this festival a place where artistry, ideas, and accomplishment are nourished in an atmosphere of creative ferment. As a work environment for performers, Mostly Mozart is simply unparalleled. The future of classical music is bright in hands such as theirs. The warmest gratitude and admiration also goes to Lisa Takemoto, Production Manager, for spellbinding efficiency. No possible need could go unanticipated under her watch!
The Beethoven First Symphony Osmo Vänskä led tonight was of incredible clarity and musical commitment. The first movement ends, quizzically enough, with a bar of silence. The printed rest in our parts indicates a duration of no sound sounded for the length of one measure. The instrument best suited to play a rest is the silent instrument, that of the conductor. Tonight, Osmo, played his solo bar privately for the orchestra's enjoyment only. (No small feat in such a public place.) After the last chord, he discreetly made the motion of an additional downbeat, thereby ending the movement with Beethoven's rest.
So ends my month of Mostly Mozart. The work has been utter joy and in finality comes rest.
And, don't forget, the rest is noise, too. (Thank you, Alex Ross, for taking note.)
Last night at Mostly Mozart we opened with Mozart's Serenade, K. 375, for eight winds, pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons. Sitting onstage with seven wonderful colleagues, sublime music to play, in a sold out Avery Fisher Hall, I realized there was no place on earth I'd rather be. The expectancy of 3000 audience members can be a great comfort. Bejun Mehta, who has the most commanding stage presence I've ever witnessed, once told me that more impressive than a virtuosic performance is the display of calm while executing it. Sometimes this calm just greets you with the applause as you walk on stage, washing away the outside world as you enter the performance realm. Focus, freedom, alertness, all shift into a new, heightened mode. Last night was such a time. We answered the applause with Mozart's beautiful E-flat major chord.
“At eleven o’clock at night I was treated to a serenade — and that too of my own composition. These musicians asked that the street door might be opened and, placing themselves in the center of the courtyard, surprised me, just as I was about to undress, in the most pleasant fashion imaginable with the first chord in E-flat.” [W. A. Mozart, Letter to his father, 3 Nov. 1781, describing a spontaneous performance of his Serenade in E-flat Major, K. 375.]
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
I was sitting in Café du Soliel (2723 Broadway at 104th Street) with chef/owner Matthew Tivy after rehearsal today. (He was an oboist in high school, and replaced the great Matt Dine in the school orchestra after Matt graduated.) We were talking about my Prokofiev/Jean-George idea and Matt said, "They both perfectly blend sweet and pungent flavors." This is exactly on the mark. Throughout the concerto, there are moments of such lush beauty that it almost enters the sound world of Rachmaninoff, however Prokofiev won't stay there. The music shifts back into more emotionally ambivalent territory and in so doing becomes somehow more true, if it's even possible for music to be true.
After the concert, as the wind players packed up our instruments and chatted, the wonderful principal flutist, Liz Mann, said that Prokofiev created, "profound tone colors." We were talking about a passage at the end of the first movement where interweaving melodies in the oboes, flute, and piccolo create a mystical cloud of sound through which the solo violin line moves. It's ravishing!
It is difficult to talk about music without metaphor.
Monday, August 20, 2007
This afternoon's rehearsal began with Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, which we perform tomorrow and Wednesday with Joshua Bell, Osmo Vänskä conducting.
The sounds of Prokofiev were so fresh after a month of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. It was like eating daily at Café Sabarsky and suddenly walking into Jean-Georges.
Osmo Vänskä rehearses almost the way a musician practices. (Could this be related to his active life as a clarinet player?) A master of an orchestra's inner workings, he takes things apart where the hinges don't quite fit to address mechanical issues alone. When the other orchestral elements are replaced, the music moves together smoothly where it hadn't before. This way of working raises the level of ensemble listening, and the focus became palpable at times. I expect it to characterize our concerts tomorrow and Wednesday; an electric attention throughout the orchestra.
He's also charming, and can point out deficiencies while making you smile. "The first violins are just slightly ahead of you, and I don't think they are too fast." "If I'm unclear, you must tell me, If I'm not you must play together."
And my favorite admonition throughout the Beethoven First Symphony, "dance!"
Sunday, August 19, 2007
In Jose Saramago’s, 1991 novel, “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” (the novel which most closely rivals his masterpiece, "Blindness”), Jesus is depicted as an everyman both surprised and distressed as the supernatural encroaches on his otherwise ordinary reality. Saramago’s Jesus came strongly to mind Sunday evening as I listened to Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos. The role of “evangelist," the voice responsible for the words of Jesus, is shared by a diverse group of soloists from the inspiring, Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. I live just south of Columbia University on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a neighborhood that due to rapid gentrification, only has a vestigial Latino population. When I moved here after Juilliard in 1993, summer meant loud salsa music and a lively street culture.
Those summer evenings came flooding to mind during Golijov’s Pasión when a woman indistinguishable from any of the neighborhood grandmothers, stepped up to the microphone and, with drums and horns blaring Latin dance rhythms, declaimed the words of Christ in the first person. Revelation! This remarkable singer, pictured to the right was Gioconda Cabrera.
One of the mysterious biblical names for Jesus is Son of Man. Son of God is specific, unique. Son of Man (gender neutrality assumed) describes all of us. Throughout Pasión, as different voices took the evangelist’s role, I saw a deeper truth in the appellation. The grandmother on the stoop is the Son of Man, so is the store clerk, and so might we all be.
The words of Judas are equally shared by soloists from the chorus, and as he plots his money-soaked treachery, the choir asks, “Will I be the one” to betray Christ? Within each of us is the possibility to embody the Son of Man or betray him.
A great man once told me that we each must take pen in hand and write “the script to our own lives.” Golijov’s Pasión asks, when the drums start and the horns blow, who will we be, and what will we say?
Saturday, August 18, 2007
“Imagination is the core of desire.” – Anne Carson
Who could have imagined the experience of playing Mozart’s 11th and 27th piano concertos every day this week with Emanuel Ax, Louis Langrée, and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra? Each night it’s better.
At the beginning of the week, Louis spoke of ambiguity in the final movement of the 27th Concerto. It expresses the desire for summer, not summer itself, he said. Throughout the week, this work has become more abstract to me; passages once simple reveal a subaqueous swirl of motivations. This was brought into great relief yesterday, rehearsing Beethoven’s First Symphony in the morning and performing Mozart’s piano concertos at night. Beethoven’s first symphonic Finale is pure joy. The youthful realization of what pleasures might be possible in life, expressed in the tentative C Major violin scales of the opening seven bars, culminates in flights of joyous celebration.
Of course, it is humbling to find that ones life work is the work of music, surrounded by excellent colleagues endeavoring to bring beauty into being. Knowing it ends in a few days is the bittersweet part of this extraordinary month.
For our performances of "Mozart Dances," Emanuel Ax sits at the piano in the middle of the orchestra rather than in front as is customary for a concerto soloist. This logistical solution for the size of the State Theater pit has brought musical benefits. Manny is a generous chamber musician, and the dialogue and interplay of lines is made finer through his proximity. Last night he suggested this kind of stage arrangement for future concerts.
Future concerts. Desire for joy. As moments, musical and otherwise, move into memory, the remaining hope is for continued alertness to reaction, surprise, and dialogue!
Image: Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 - 1806) The Progress of Love:Love Letters, 1771-1773, oil on canvas, The Frick Collection, NYC
Friday, August 17, 2007
This morning the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra rehearsed Beethoven's First Symphony for next week’s program with the dynamic Finnish conductor, Osmo Vänskä. It was exciting to return to Beethoven, who so dominated the beginning of the festival. Beethoven, more than any other composer, creates a sense of musical narrative through harmony. It’s no wonder that he is unsurpassed as a symphonist. The first movement of his first symphony seems almost wholly a harmonic affair. Melodic motives move throughout the orchestra, rhythmic and timbral elements bolster the movement, but the drama hinges on the harmony. At the end of this morning’s play through, there was such exhilaration as the music drove to its inevitable conclusion. The sense of fulfillment reached at movement’s end is one I only experience in Beethoven. Again, I can’t get away from the metaphor of literature, it is the narrative structure created through harmony that sets Beethoven apart from other composers.
This is the Mostly Mozart Festival, and playing Mozart piano concertos 11 and 27 all week with Emanuel Ax and Louis Langrée has brought distinct pleasures of their own. Mozart’s musical world is much more intimate and interactive than Beethoven’s. There are whole passages in Beethoven where, if an inner voice were to be played alone, it would sound dull, even clunky. This almost never happens in Mozart. Mozartian beauty is one of accretion. Every surface shines, every detail immaculate, the result glows from within. The excellent program annotator for “Mozart Dances,” Kenneth LaFave, notes that in his piano concertos, rather than his symphonies, Mozart made his greatest achievements as an orchestrator. This is especially true in the wind writing, where dialogue and counterpoint make sophisticated interaction with the solo part.
The rehearsal today ended with a treat for the wind section. Next week we’re playing Mozart’s E-flat Serenade, K. 375 for winds, and the conductor puts down his silent instrument, the baton, at takes up a much noisier one, the clarinet. I’ve played with conductors leading from the piano and from the violin, but never from the first clarinet chair. In fact, Osmo is only nominally leading this performance. Graciously, he treated it as chamber music and all voices participated. In fact, I think everyone gave suggestions during the rehearsal. When the alloted rehearsal time came to an end, none of us were ready to stop, the music is such fun. And so was the work. (NB: Zéphyros Winds has a live recording available of this work with Gounod's "Petite Symphonie." Click here to get a copy.)
Try to come Tuesday or Wednesday for the concert. Oh, and Joshua Bell will be playing, too . . .
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Though I rarely recommend TV viewing . . . check your PBS listings. Tonight Mark Morris' "Mozart Dances" is being presented on Live from Lincoln Center.
Mark Morris Dance Group
Mark Morris choreographer
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Louis Langrée conductor
Emanuel Ax piano
Yoko Nozaki piano
Howard Hodgkin set design
Martin Pakledinaz costume design
James F. Ingalls lighting design
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K.413 - Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K.448 - Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K.595
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
One of the special sounds musicians who play for dancers know is the fast tapping of feet on the stage. It’s a remarkable sound, a quick, purposeful thumping that represents great potential energy. At first this “addition” to the score is surprising, but gradually you begin to look forward to it. One of my favorites occurrences is in the third movement of Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" right before the coda. Like a sudden downpour of rain, ballerina toe shoes tap out a message to the musicians: "you are not alone." (We do get lonely down there . . . ) Last season I played the work in concert, and I missed the thumping, terribly.
Tonight was opening night for Mark Morris' "Mozart Dances" and like the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, the music is utterly engaging. Emanuel Ax plays with such poetic lyricism. I was thinking about it tonight on the M104 coming home. What are the qualities that make his playing so remarkable? Wordsworth came to mind. It requires great skill to express something important in simple and eloquent words. This is the genius of Mozart and Manny engages the music on those terms: simple, eloquent, poetic, and profound, with poise and without fuss.
"I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind."
from "lines Written in Early Spring" by Wordsworth
It is easy—either overeagerly or nonchalantly—to mishandle a Mozart phrase. Manny never does. He lets the music exhale and inhale and step out to the audience at its own pace. For me, the highlight of the evening is the slow movement of Mozart’s 11th Piano Concerto, K. 413. (Mozart published a version for fortepiano and string quintet, which I would love Pedja Muzijevic to play at Helicon in 2008-2009.) Manny’s version is so full of honest sentiment and rhetorical refinement, that one easily imagines there are words to this little scena.
Every few years, I end up playing in the pit for a Mark Morris dance. I know a dancer in the company, John Higginbotham, we were at Juilliard together. (I think I was his R.A. in the dorm.) At the dress rehearsal yesterday, I stood on my chair during the bows to see if he was there. Sure enough, John was stage left, tall, handsome, with his easy smile. My bald head rising above the lip of the stage caught his eye. It was great to catch up at the reception tonight. John choreographed a rock opera currently playing at The International New York Fringe Festival. It’s called “Champ: A Space Odyssey.”
He couldn’t say enough nice things about the orchestra. “In fact, tonight on stage, I lost my concentration a couple of times, because the sounds from the pit were so beautiful.” In the pit we worry that an error might cause a dancer to miss a step or worse, trip. We usually don’t think that beauty might be a distraction.
It makes me think of a passage from Horace: “It is not enough that poetry be noble: it should impart delight, and transport the listener as it likes. As people’s faces respond with laughter to those who laugh, so do they cry in response to those who cry. If you want me to cry, you must first cry yourself.” When performing we must keep some distance between the material and our response it. You can’t dance (or play the oboe) if you’re really laughing or really crying. That’s left for the audience. We hope they do both . . .
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
After playing through Mozart's 27th piano concerto this afternoon, Louis said of its rollicking, B-flat Major, 6/8 Finale, "This movement is about the desire for summer, not summer itself. So there is ambivalence in the happiness. It was Mozart's last piano concerto. It is happy, yes, but also a farewell. Think of a Schubert passage in minor, the major passage that follows is somehow even sadder. We must find this balance, this ambivalence." He then recalled Mark Morris discussing this concerto's inherent dichotomy: every work of true beauty contains an inner sadness, "otherwise, it is merely pretty."
Longing for summer . . . Longing, want, desire, and their concomitant pleasures and trials exist only in lacking the object of affection. Desire and possession are polarized magnets, they cannot touch. The word "want" itself gives insight; we can no longer "want" what we possess. Anne Carson makes a study of this condition in her book "Eros, the Bittersweet" (Princeton University Press, 1986). This passage is from the first chapter:
"Eros seemed to Sappho at once an experience of pleasure and pain. Here is contradiction and perhaps paradox. To perceive this eros can split the mind in two. Why? The components of the contradiction may seem, at first glance, obvious. We take for granted, as did Sappho, the sweetness of erotic desire; its pleasurability smiles out at us. But the bitterness is less obvious. There might be several reasons why what is sweet should also be bitter. There may be various relations between the two savors."
If beauty in art is the expression of truth, then the ambivalent pose is the most breathtaking. Not ambivalence without conviction, but the knowledge that ones desires, hopes, and yearnings carry within them both bitter and sweet.
Sitting in one of the finest tempura restaurants in Kyoto, our Japanese host introduced a particularly pungent leafy spring green, " In Japanese cuisine, bitter taste is purposeful. When you eat this, enjoy the bitterness."
A remarkable scene today, Emanuel Ax being coached on a Mozart cadenza by choreographer, Mark Morris. The men clearly enjoy working together. Mark began by asking for "more air" between the notes to add space to the tempo. He then began moving with Manny's playing and it became a duet, chamber music really. The musical interaction was natural and eloquent. A gesture from Mark would reveal new characters in the music. Space opened between notes and in that space new meanings emerged.
When Mark hears music, it is with a theatrical sensibility that would benefit musicians. Especially in Mozart, whose operas seem to seep into his instrumental works, there is always the possibility for surprise: a new person enters the room, a mood suddenly shifts, a memory, a motivation.
When giving notes to his dancers, Mark asked them to "talk to each other." Of course this reminded me of some of Louis' first rehearsals this season: reaction, surprise, and dialogue!
Try to see one of the shows this week. We open tomorrow. Now I'd better run back. The dress rehearsal is at 3:00
Monday, August 13, 2007
Now out-of-print, Judith E. Bernstock's survey of Joan Mitchell's work is the only comprehensive book on her art. Odd, isn't it? Copies—I covet them—are several hundred dollars at alibris.com. Fortunately, the New York Public Library delivered one almost to my door, and I can keep it, at least, until September.
It's wonderful to see so much of Mitchell's work in this book. I think her art is more difficult than many of the better-known "first generation" abstract expressionist artists. Her work does not engage the viewer easily, but as with all hard-won pleasures, hers are rich and multi-layered.
It's curious to me how little she thinks of Monet. "He isn't my favorite painter," she maintains according to Bernstock (pg. 76), "There's a much heavier conscious influence from Cézanne. I never much liked Monet." When I see a late Monet, I look for the most abstract portion of the picture. That section provides a way to see the art of Joan Mitchell, an abstract painter depicting the natural world. " . . . if you want to paint the river, paint the river . . ." (Bernstock, pg. 152)
My own (new) work by Mitchell, "Trees," engages the faintest memory of nature. The remembered, fleeting glance becomes the whole subject. When I look at the lithograph on my wall, I hardly see trees, but when I walk through the park and my eyes shift across the scene, Joan Mitchell images are impressed on my eyes' memory. In that reverse suggestive act, I am transported to the forest while sitting in my living room. Suddenly having such a strong work of art in the house changes things. Physically, it changes how I walk around. I want to look at it. I turn my head on the way to my office or the shower. I stop. In the living room, I concentrate on the lithograph. Actually, I can barely take my gaze away from it. Granted it's only been a few weeks since it arrived, so newness adds its own pleasures, but there is something about living with such beauty. I want its mysteries to inhabit my mind, and, yes, my spirit.
I brought home a white orchid plant last week. The interaction between the Mitchell and the orchid has deepened the way I see them both. Living with this kind of interaction is humbling. It is bigger than I am; bigger than my intellect, bigger than my artistic sensibility, bigger than my imagination. It invites me to enlarge myself, to consider new mysteries, to bring awe more deeply into my life.
The night before last I watched all six hours of Tony Kushner's Angels in America as produced by HBO. Pior Walter, when demanding his blessing from the angels, asks for "more life." Harold Bloom talks about the essential Jewishness of this request, not for heaven, but more earthly life. And it's not a longer life, per se, but a more abundant life he asks for.
"More life!" It's a humble request and a humbling one. Life brings a host of complications including those that are very unpleasant. "More life!" One must wrestle the angels to get it, and still you're left with a gimp leg. Crippled, but more life is the blessing worth the struggle.
How can a big piece of paper with markings on it, or a plant brought indoors jammed into a tiny pot, or, for that matter, organized noises made by 30 people surrounded by 3000, give us more life?
The unknowing is the answer.
Louis Langrée is back and today we rehearsed for Mark Morris’ “Mozart Dances” which opens Wednesday and runs through Saturday. Here are some rehearsal highlights.
• He asked that we all try to see part of the dress rehearsal, “the dance is so musical, so natural, that it becomes mysterious.”
• From the principal oboist (the wonderful Randall Ellis) he asked for “more density in the line.”
• “Transpose and transport the musical richness to the rest of the phrase.”
• “It's hard to know what to say about the dissonances in this passage. Be aware of them, and it will sound different. Play with the dissonance.”
• “Let there always be direction in the phrase, and then when we arrive . . . beauty, elegance.”
• To the woodwinds, “play without vibrato but with vibrancy!”
• “It is sometimes more important, the journey than the arrival there.”
Sunday, August 12, 2007
I opened my eyes at eight. There was plenty of time to get to the 9:30 Quaker meeting on East 15th Street.
A noisy life of noise-making can make making quiet quite difficult. I tried. Strains of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven crowded out silence. I even thought about what I might write, right in the midst of meditation.
Was I where I belonged? I think so, at least for that morning. My friend Rick Faria said of meditation, it's not so much actively quitting thought, but letting the brain's prattling strains pass by and by.
This morning was a parade of brass bands in full cry, the air was crowded.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Friday, August 10, 2007
Turning 40 has taken all summer . . . (& four decades.)
My friend Patrick Rucker, reviewer for Fanfare Magazine, gave me the scores to all the Mozart piano concertos for my birthday. We're playing a number of them this summer at the Mostly Mozart Festival. I missed my stop on the M104 because I was so engrossed in the score to number 27. When I finally looked up, I was at West 116th Street. Whoops!
It reminds me of a day back around 1996 when, in the back of the M7, I found Robert Mann, first violinist of The Juilliard Quartet, a manuscript score unfolded out over several seats. "Hello Mr. Mann, what are you studying today?" I asked. "Milton Babbitt's new Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet. We're premiering it with Charlie Neidich at The Library of Congress. It's a very complicated work." I didn't doubt it for one second!
Only in New York . . .
Thursday, August 09, 2007
Is it just me, or does the new New York Times look and feel like USA Today (or worse)? The NYTs acknowledges fewer words per page while raising their price. I know they are saving $10 million, and that newspapers are in trouble these days, but making an appreciably cheaper product and charging a premium doesn't make sense to me. Those of us who love the Times love more words per page not fewer. People will pay for quality, but you have to offer it.
(Why does this make me think of the tabloids? While I was in Saratoga Springs waiting on the grocery store check-out line, I saw what is now my favorite fake-news head line: "First Photographs from Heaven." Apparently someone had smuggled their camera phone through the Pearly Gates. Who said "you can't take it with you"? I'd bet $499 and a Sprint PCS cancellation fee that it was an iPhone!)
(The New York Times shouldn't have missed this one . . . )
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Thursday, August 02, 2007
On the handling of appogiaturas. Louis requested no vibrato on the non-harmonic tone, but greater expression. He wanted us to know that this was not simply a gesture toward period-instrument polemics, but indicated by the music.
"Senza vibrato is not for the style but for the sigh. When I ask for senza vibrato, it is not that I want to take something away, but I want to add expression from the bow arm. Never make a general sound —the International sound—but always choose the sound you will make. Make it specific to the line."
One year after beginning the oboe I joined the Northwestern Michigan Symphony Orchestra as second oboe to my teacher, Nancy Brammer. I think I was about 15 years old. The first concert I played with them ended with the "Linz" Symphony. My father had a recording of the piece with Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. I could hardly believe I would play a piece that was on a record! I sat down one day after school with the Breitkopf & Härtel part before me, its ornate cover page promised music with a capital M. I put the needle on the record and opened my part. Immediately I was lost and never was sure I found my place . . .
The opening concert of the Mostly Mozart season begins with the Linz Symphony. After a week of working primarily on Beethoven, Mozart's delicately complex pleasures and sophisticated challenges were a delight.
Again, Louis' themes of harmonic structure, articulation, and suppleness of line informed our work. Mozart as opera composer was present as well, with his shifting characterizations musical motivations.
I'm not so sure why, but at one point in the dress rehearsal of the Finale, the inside first desk cellist took out a small bottle of, well, I don't know what it's called, of bubble stuff, and blew bubbles while we played. OK, it was pretty unexpected. After the run-through, Louis brought it up. "When Alvin blew his bubbles, everyone looked around to see what was going to happen. That's what I want from you all the time. 'What's going to happen next?' There must be reaction, surprise, and dialogue. Who is going to do what and how will you join them? We must always be that alert."
I hope all of our music making is filled with reaction, surprise, and dialogue.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
A question came up in rehearsal about how long a particular note should be held in melody. Louis' answer?
"Don't worry about the ending of the note. If the articulation has the right quality for the shape of the line, the length will take care of itself."
It's true. Players can get all fetishy about note lengths, an internal fussiness which adds little to the musical impact of a passage. Louis redirected our attention to the qualities necessary for making music, not for playing our instruments. He uses this approach throughout the rehearsals.
When issues of intonation come up, his first response is to address balance, blend, timbre, and vibrato, putting pitch into a larger musical context. I especially appreciate his interaction with the timpani player. Timpanists are often simply asked to use "harder sticks" by conductors who want a dryer sound, thereby telling the musician how to play and cutting him from the creative process. Louis prefers the interaction and he trusts his musicians. There was a passage in Beethoven 5 that alternated timpani notes with bass pizzicato. Louis asked the timpani player to more closely match the tone and articulation of the string pizz. They tried several things until the best sticks and strokes were found.
Leading always with a musical goal, technical questions are raised to a level of deeper engagement.