Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Some thoughts on musical expression from Johann Joachim Quantz:
"If musicians are not themselves moved by what they play, the cannot hope for any profit from their efforts, and will never move others through their playing, which should be their ultimate aim."
"Musicians cannot move others unless they themselves are moved; it is essential that musicians be able to put themselves in each Affection they wish to rouse in their audience, for it is by showing their own emotion that they awaken sympathy. In languishing, sad passages, they languish and grow sad. That is visible and audible."
"What does not come from the heart will not easily touch the heart."
And from C. P. E. Bach:
"One should play from the soul, and not like a trained bird."
And finally this familiar passage from Horace:
"It is not enough for poems to be 'beautiful'; they must also yield delight and guide the listener's spirit wherever they wish. As human faces laugh with those who are laughing, so they weep with those who are weeping. If you wish me to cry, you must first feel grief yourself."
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
When a composer's music is perfectly fitted to his time, one can wonder what or even if he would have composed where he born a hundred years earlier or later. If Mozart lived in the 20th century, I expect he might have been a film maker rather than composer.
Centenary considerations are much on the mind these days, with Elliot Carter's big day widely celebrated around the city. On the hundredth birthday of Oliver Messiaen (today), I attended an sprawling program of his work at The Church of the Ascension.
Hearing the "Quartet for the End of Time" live is always a powerful experience. The performers tonight, Paul Kim, piano, Curtis Macomber, violin, Jonathan Spitz, cello, Alan Kay, clarinet, revealed the work's intense expression and spiritual questioning, within the framework of its beauty of both sound and form. After intermission, Jon Gillock played an impressive selection of movements drawn from various organ works into his own suite.
Listening, I was struck again by how constructed Messiaen's music sounds. Its madeness is conspicuous to the point of being part of its meaning. Music, by contrast, that sounds "natural" almost defies the idea of its being composed. There are songs by Stephen Foster and melodies by Mozart that seem so inevitable that it is hard to believe there was a time when they didn't exist, as if composers discovered rather than created them. The unnaturalness of Messiaen's music seems related to its task in that so much of what he writes asks us to look directly, unflinchingly, into the greatest mysteries of existence and not avert our gaze. The wrenching knowledge that such knowledge is unknowable is a difficult truth, a question with no answer. Such contemplation is essentially an unnatural act. Quite outside nature, it is supernatural.
Nature does not contemplate, existence is enough. When Messiean introduces bird song into his music, the ambivalent sounds of nature bring the personalness of our spiritual experience into sharp relief. It brings to mind Giovanni Bellini's 1480 masterpiece, St. Francis in the Desert, at The Frick Collection in New York City. The artist baths Saint Francis in one of the most extraordinary streams of light in Western art at the transcendental moment when he receives the stigmata. In the background, a crane, a donkey, and a flock of sheep stand unaffected by the miraculous transformation. The saint's moment in the light is his alone. The knowledge that nature is unconcerned about our struggles draws us to contemplate things beyond nature, beyond what is knowable. Messiaen's music is an indispensable guide. Mozart and Stephen Foster provide the perfect balm.
Musee des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden (1940)
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
I like to think of art as serving two main functions, to transport and to report.
The responsibility of the artist to represent an honest picture of her time can result in unsettling art that confronts its audience with insights into the difficult truths of life. This art reports; and so often, it reports bad news.
Other art, however, offers solace in times of trial. In a day when reportage submerges the mere mortal in a flood—a deluge—of information, poll numbers, and market indices, art that transports offers a deeply reparative function in our lives. Of late, when I come home much too late from a long day, and pour a glass of red wine, I want music that transports, not reports. I've had enough reports for one day.
The internationally acclaimed Dutch violinist, Jaap Schröder, has released a CD of music that perfectly accompanies a quiet evening. "Jaap Schröder The Seventheenth-Century Violin" presents sixty-five minutes of music for unaccompanied violin music by well-known and obscure composers, perfect for contemplation, introspection, and solitude. Listening to Jaap's CD, I am reminded of the marvelous Duccio “Madonna and Child” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The front edge of its frame is charred in two places by candles, because this work of great artistic sophistication—virtuosity, even—was used for personal devotion; two candles illuminating its mysteries in the pre-electric night.
In the current November evenings, dark so very early, solitude is welcome. Jaap's music is a balm to the rampant reports and retorts we must fend off each day.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
Opera has no business making money."
The appointment of Gerard Mortier as general manager and artistic director of the New York City Opera was a visionary move on the part of the company's board of trustees. It distinguished the company from their deluxe neighbor across campus and spiced up the opera world in the process. With the New York Times report today that Mortier will leave—before his first season, before even the renovations to the hall are completed—this is the company's second major self-definition misfire.
First they strongly and convincingly made the case that the New York State Theater was inhospitable for singers, but then had to announce they were unable to move to a new home. Now they've defined themselves as the cutting edge opera company in America, but in the current economic climate, they cannot afford to realize these plans. Unfortunately, they also announced that their old model is "financially broken."
This is a pickle they're in. It's terribly distressing to see this institution with so much history and accumulated talent faltering so. Are there angels enough to get the New York City Opera back on its feet? Is there a leader intrepid enough to give the company direction and vision while working within a budget crisis? I hope so.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Congratulations to Bart Feller, who last night played C. P. E. Bach's D-Minor Flute Concerto with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. He played with a shimmering tone, assured rhythmic poise, and infallible sense of line. The first movement is written in long paragraphs for the flute. Bart suavely led the audience through these, illuminating the music's intricate rhetoric with charm. In the lyrical second movement, he deftly scaled the emotional arch drawing us toward the touching cadenza. The finale is all fire and drama. Bart chewed up the scenery, ripping through the virtuoso passages with brilliant flourish and power.
Music from this period is fascinating and is enjoying something of a revival. Long written off as transitional, it only sounds that way if you listen with Mozart and Haydn in your ear. Knowing what comes next in music history can make music of the mid-18th century sound as if it is searching for something it can't quite find. In last night's performance, surrounded by the music of JS Bach and Handel, CPE sounded like the adventurer he was.
What a thrill to hear your friends do such fine work!
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
When I got on line to vote this morning, I recognized a handsome young man from my building right in front of me.
"Alex?" I poked his shoulder, "Is this your first time voting?" "Yep, just turned 18." He was a toddler when I moved in 15 years ago. I watched him grow up in the hallways and on the front stoop.
Walking home, I wondered what it might mean for him, the son of a black father and a white mother, living in a—still—very diverse neighborhood in New York City, to cast his first presidential vote with Barack Obama on the ballot.
I don't mean to deny hockey moms their moment, but Sarah Palin and her running mate have much to answer for once this campaign is over. Their rallies revealed a shameful side of American culture and legitimized it by handing it a bullhorn. We can only hope that the race-baiting, xenophobia, and culture-war hysterics Palin stirred up will sink back into the mucky bottom after tonight.
It's time to wipe the lipstick off the pit bulls!
It's time to celebrate the dignity of a young man from West 106th Street casting his first presidential vote. When he hopes for the future, I want to know what he sees.
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Listening to the Songs of Charles Ives
Iconoclastic American musician, Charles Ives (1874-1954), was raised in Danbury, CT, son of renowned Civil War bandleader, George Ives. By the age of five, Charles was able to play popular tunes on the piano, but unlike most musical prodigies who used their fingertips to pluck out the melodies, he used his fists. "It's all right to do that, Charles,” his father told him, “if you know what you're doing." For the rest of his life, Ives never quite could keep his fists off the keyboard.
He did develop a standard keyboard technique, and by the age of 14 became the youngest salaried church organist in Connecticut. His father, however, always encouraged the innately idiosyncratic elements of his son's musical mind. Famously, Ives’ father once assembled two municipal marching bands and sent each marching around the town square in opposite directions, playing different marches! The clangorous effect of alternating rhythmic phasing, chance clashes, and surprising counterpoint, left all but the most maverick New England listeners (in other words, everyone but George and Charles Ives) a bit stunned. But, in fact, such commingled music accompanies each of us throughout our daily lives. Songs stuck in our heads mix with elevator music and the mindless, off-key singing of a (mindless?) co-worker lost in his iPod. We hardly are aware of the cacophony; Ives had the audacity and curiosity to try to recreate it.
Charles Ives studied musical composition at Yale with Horatio Parker, but found himself and the conservative music faculty at constant cross-purposes. Upon leaving Yale in 1898, Ives did not follow the usual career path of young aspiring American composers by continuing his studies in Germany. Instead, he took a $15-a-week job as a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company in New York City. He stayed in insurance for the rest of his life, producing his large body of music in the evenings and weekends. Working in almost complete isolation from the musical mainstream, Ives composed without either the experience or even the prospect of hearing his works performed. It brings to mind the self-cloistered Emily Dickenson, who produced over 1700 extraordinary poems while tucked away in her Amherst, Massachusetts redoubt, or, especially, poet Wallace Stevens, who became vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company while producing the most important body of American poetry since Walt Whitman.
Eventually, influential American musicians—including Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland—championed Ives’ music, even so, many of his works had to wait decades for a performance. Toward the end of his life, Ives reputation burgeoned. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1945, and the Symphony no. 3 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. In 1951, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premier of his Second Symphony, some 40 years after its completion. (Ives and his wife listened to the broadcast of that concert on a neighbor’s radio. When the Carnegie Hall audience exploded in a thunderous ovation, Charles’ wife turned to her husband and remarked, "Why, they actually like it!”) His Symphony No. 1 was given its first performance in 1953, half a century after it was finished. He died a year later. Posthumously, Ives is recognized as America’s greatest musical innovator.
Music historian, Jan Swafford, movingly points out that Ives’ father “taught his son to respect the power of vernacular music. As a Civil War bandleader, he understood how sentimental tunes such as Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground, Aura Lee, Stephen Foster songs, and marches and bugle calls were woven into the experience of war and the memories of soldiers. Much as did Gustav Mahler a continent away, Charles Ives came to associate everyday music with profound emotions and spiritual aspirations. One of his father's most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: ‘Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds—for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.’” For both father and son, high and low art were distinctions that hobbled, rather than refined, musical experience. I want to “kick out the softy ears,” Charles would shout, “Stand up and use your ears like a man!” At its most successful, Ives' music achieves a kind of musical imitation of actual thought. In this way his work is similar to his contemporary, James Joyce. By following multi-layered ideas and references in and out of memories, both distant and familiar, Ives gives us a glimpse of the mind’s inner workings.
The seven songs we’ll hear tonight display Ives in a mischievously touching mood. Hymns, popular melodies, Civil War Songs, spirituals, and parlor ditties, all weave in and out of the proceedings. A passing piccolo whistles “Dixie” in He is There! Even the pianist has a few words to say along the way. The results are familiar and quirky, sentimental and outright funny, commonplace and breathtakingly original. They paint an intimate portrait of a true American visionary, as he paints his own portrait of the nation at the dawn of the “American Century.”
Helicon Symposium 87
2 November 2008
Seven songs by Charles Ives
Performed by Nicholas Phan, tenor
Pedja Muzijevic, piano
Alex Sopp, fife
Memories: A - Very Pleasant, B - Rather Sad (1897)
My Native Land (1897)
Luck and Work (1920)
He is There! (1917)
At the River (1916)
The Circus Band (1894)
Saturday, October 18, 2008
While rehearsing Copland's Appalachian Spring with The Knights this afternoon, the strings were trying to find the right sound for a hymnlike passage in the final pages. Eric Jacobsen suggested they hum it. What a great sound these twenty young virtuoso string players made singing together. Hushed, focused, gentle, earnest; it was perfect. I know the recording tomorrow will capture those characteristics, but I'm sure glad I heard it sung.
(By the way, Zéphyros used the technique for a passage in our Gounod recording . . . )
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Tonight at Le Poisson Rouge, The Knights, conducted by Eric Jacobsen, played their second concert of a pair with cellist, Jan Vogler.
Sony Classical is turning these performances into a live CD.
In a life made up of thousands concerts, when one stands out, it is for important reasons. I am so grateful my musical path brought me to The Knights. Tonight, with a capacity crowd surrounding the orchestra on all sides, the musicians played with such joy, energy, and unity of purpose. It reminds me of why I wanted to be a musician in the first place.
This morning, I finally had to leave the reed desk for a snack. I popped over to Silver Moon Bakery on 105th and Broadway. Judith Norrell, baker and harpsichordist (she was a student of Albert Fuller), has created the indispensable spot for baked goods in Morningside Heights. Weekends and holidays, people line up around the block, happily chatting with neighbors, as they wait for their croissants and bagettes. Judith presides over a crew decked out in white, all smiling. Everyone seems happy at Silvermoon, the bakers, the sellers, the buyers, Judith, even the bread seems happy.
And as I bit into my (here I must confess) chocolate brioche, I thought, there is something about bread that just speaks of love. It must be all that kneading that metes out nurishment both for soul and body. Certainly, the carbs in my roll contribute too many calories to the day's intake, but as those carbs turn to sugars, the sugars turn into a smile.
We mustn't forget that happiness is part of health.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I once heard a storied Juilliard violin teacher say he would "run, not walk" to hear Mark Steinberg play the violin. I love this idea, and I would, too. Run, that is, or, more likely, take a cab . . .
My own "Run, not walk" list of violinists also includes Jennifer Frautschi, Vera Beths, and Colin Jacobsen.
And now I am adding one more (I guess I'm going to be running a lot . . . ), Johnny Gandelsman. When I first played with The Knights last May, Johnny was leading Beethoven 6 and I was swept away by his playing. For Johnny, every expressive device available to the violinist was in play at all times, and every musical moment was infused with imagination. I didn't want to miss a beat, a gesture, I even wanted to hear him play the rests! One of the highlights of The Knight's current program is a waltz by Ljova where Colin and Johnny trade off long lilting phrases. Heaven!
When one of these five musicians plays, I certainly would run—not walk—to be there. (And the fun of Helicon is that they all are on the roster!)
Tonight and tomorrow, cellist Jan Vogler and The Knights conducted by Eric Jacobsen perform Shostakovich, Hendrix, and Copland at New York City downtown venue, Le Poisson Rouge.
Wednesday & Thursday
October 15 & 16
Shostakovich — Cello Concert No. 1 and Waltzes arranged by Ljova
Jimi Hendrix — Machine Gun arranged by Kyle Sanna
Copland — Appalachian Spring (October 16 only)
Eric Vogler, cello
Eric Jacobsen, conductor
Le Poisson Rouge
158 Bleecker Street • NYC
(212) 505 FISH or (800) 55 TICKETS
These concerts are part of a live recording project for SONY CLASSICAL.
JAN VOGLER has become one of today’s most sought-after cellists. He is known for his decisive musical concepts and singing playing style. During the last years he won a large following in regular performances, and acclaimed recordings. He started as principal cellist of the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden but left the position in 1997 to fully concentrate on his already successful career as a soloist. Since then he has been playing with major orchestras and conductors worldwide. In November 2005 he gave his debut with the New York Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel as part of the reopening of the historic Frauenkirche in Dresden. In October 2006, he received the European Cultural Award in Dresden from the European Foundation for Culture.
Founded by brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen, THE KNIGHTS, are a fellowship of young musicians of diverse and accomplished backgrounds who come together for the shared joy of musical exploration. "A little orchestra of some of New York's best strings-about-town," (The New Yorker), The Knights have brought audiences varied and and engaging programs consisting of masterworks from all eras, world premiers, collaborations with jazz artists, singer-songwriters, and arrangements of folk music from different world traditions in their quest to bring new light to old works and new work to light.
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
"Summer Reading" by John Ashbery
With these lighter days a concomitant
urge to scrutiny arrives. Signing in,
my motivation palls, pusillanimous.
Are we to take it inside the house?
I have to go.
Tell me another dream. The long events surface
wider, farther apart, like autumn breakers.
Birds are suddenly there. The house of cards
on sand falters, fatally. I'm elated.
You never know how things work out
except through "sleight" of hand, sometimes.
I'm worried about knowing later.
The high-school principal killed his star student,
for instance. Feeling competent,
they quashed him. Until he wins the crisis
we can't promote it. Keep that rodent away.
What have you seemed to do?
Do interesting things well done and may
spring chasten you. We had everything in mind.
Everything softballed, wound up on my back porch.
It's okay, though. Keep us on your docket. Cut through the . . .
Monday, September 22, 2008
7/21/1926 - 9/22/2007
A year goes by. Life converts experience into memory and emotion, substance scatters, seeds sprout, and the cycle of seasons reminds us that "no man ever steps in the same river twice; it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
"We build a house,
but it is the empty space inside
that makes it livable."
----Tao Te Ching
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
"Love or music—which power can uplift man to the sublimest heights? It is a large question; yet it seems to me that one should answer it in this way: Love cannot give an idea of music; music can give an idea of love. But why separate them? They are two wings of the soul."
Monday, September 15, 2008
The chamber music composer is like "the painter who shades and colors a picture destined to be viewed at close range much more delicately than, for example, a ceiling painting, which is far removed from the eye, and in which these details would not only be lost, but might even weaken the effect of the whole."
—Heinrich Christoph Koch (1749-1816) German theorist and violinist.
Chamber music "was not intended for a large public, but actually only for connoisseurs and amateurs. . . . it was more finely worked out, more difficult and more artistic . . . composers who wrote for the chamber could presume more accomplishment and experience in listening among their audience."
—Gustav Schilling (1805-1880) German writer on music, who died in Nebraska.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
A few years ago, I encountered the work of a young artist named Dov Talpaz as part of a show put up by a group of fellow art school colleagues.
His work is representational, often drawing on literary themes. Serious in tone, figural yet abstract, inventive in color and perspective, cohesive in vision, Talpaz is an artistic descendant of El Greco and Edvard Munch. Each picture's narrative is emotional or psychological rather than active, and is expressed through color, form, and perspective. His strongest work reveals characters caught up in the inevitable and personal workings of their fate. They seem to display themselves to us in intimate acceptance of their condition. We empathize and yet understand that their world is not our world. We can only see each other only through the window of the artist's imagination.
Dov currently has a show in New York City, details below. It only runs through September 3rd, so you'll have to hurry to catch it. I highly recommend it.
Paintings by Dov Talpaz
Paintings by Dov Talpaz
August 23 - September 3, 2008
Opening reception Saturday, August 23, 6- 9 pm.
Manhattan World Culture Open Center
Manhattan World Culture Open Center
19W 26th Street, 5th floor (between Broadway & 6th Ave.) New York, NY
19W 26th Street, 5th floor (between Broadway & 6th Ave.) New York, NY
Open on Monday and Friday, 12 – 6 pm.
Saturday, 2.30 - 6 pm. Wednesday and Thursday
by appointment, Please call 212.244.7200.
For more info you can write to email@example.com
or call 718.789.7920
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Et incarnatus est
De Spiritu Sancto
Ex Maria Virgine,
Et homo factus est.
And was incarnate
by the Holy Ghost
of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
When Mozart set these words from the CREDO in his C Minor Mass, K. 427, he created a remarkably human way of understanding this central miracle of Christianity, extrapolating from the text—the way a great preacher does—to reveal deep truths.
Et incarnatus est, these lines of the Mass, rote and dry from weekly incantation, suggest a direct yet mystical congress between Mary and various parts of The Trinity. To become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God is certainly no routine miracle, and Mozart proposes a musical realization of this spiritual - corporeal union, giving voice to Mary's sacred acceptance in this mystical moment.
The work is set for soprano solo, accompanied by strings with an obbligato trinity of flute, oboe, and bassoon. Graciously opening with the trio of winds, the soprano answers their greeting with a simple, chant-like melody. The winds begin to woo, encircling the soprano in a beautiful cloud of contrapuntal caresses. The music of the wind instruments takes the role of the Holy Spirit preparing Mary, represented in the soprano solo, to become a mother. As the movement progresses, the soprano line gradually opens up, becoming more and more elaborate with trills, melismatic ornamentation, and great leaps of tessitura. Finally, a quartet cadenza for the winds and soprano carries the audience through an extended state of exquisite tension, ending in a gentle cadence. Back to earth, rocking rhythms sooth in the afterglow of mystical intertwining.
Et homo factus est.
Mozart's wife Constanze sang the first performance.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Sunday, August 10, 2008
In the right hands, theme and variations can musically approximate thought: one idea held in the mind, turned over, examined from every angle. I think of the middle movement of Mozart's B-flat Major Piano Concerto, K. 456. Its eight bar theme in G Minor expresses such sadness, such quietness in the face of loss, and then in the last four eighth-notes, it gently ends in B-flat Major. A simple cadential figure briefly touches a sunnier world. It's as if the experience of pain brought to mind memories, souvenirs, of when hope was possible. The theme is repeated, variations ensue, and the thought process of working through that initial idea begins. This movement is a true masterpiece, and all the romp and jollity of the last movement cannot mask the memories of what came before.
Albert Fuller used to say, "What's past is prologue." Yet you cannot go backwards. You cannot touch the past. Music is experienced as memory and emotion, which is also how we process the experiences that change our lives.
Friday, August 08, 2008
While rehearsing the first movement of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, the conductor isolated an inner line in the strings. Underneath the melodic exuberance of the violins, the violas and cellos play a descending chromatic line: searching, nostalgic, almost mournful. It reminded me that each of the movements in Ravel's suite is dedicated a friend killed in the First World War. This work is not sombre, but stashed away amidst the sparkling exterior, are clues to other truths.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
"I have nothing to say and I am saying it." --- John Cage
The other evening, my friend, Pedja Muzijevic handed me an advance copy of his wonderful, new CD on Albany Records, "Sonatas & Other Interludes." You can pre-order your copy from Amazon by clicking here.
The ingenious conceit of this recital is its form. The title references Cage's cycle "Sonatas and Interludes," which groups 16 Scarlatti-sized sonatas interspersed with four interludes, all played on "prepared piano." Pedja has chosen eight of Cage's prepared-piano sonatas and places them between works (the "Other Interludes" of the title) by Scarlatti, Liszt, W. F. Bach, Schumann, Strauss, and a Chopin paraphrase by Michalowski. In this context, the Sonatas become the Interludes; those kind of inversions would certainly have delighted John Cage. In a surprising sense, the CD presents two recitals superimposed, which is not unlike the way Cage and Merce Cunningham worked.
As a musical programmer, I have been continually impressed by Pedja's innate sense for contextualizing music of disparate periods in ways that compliment and enhance. Fans of his series, The Movado Hour, will have many memorable examples at the ready. In this recording, the tart, concision of Cage's sonatas—not to mention the altered timbre of the "prepared piano"—acts as citrus palate cleansers between courses of a well-planned and well-executed meal. Pedja and I were both close friends of the late Albert Fuller who often discussed musical programs in terms of fine menus, and indeed Pedja uses this metaphor in the personal note that introduces the program. As for the performance, Pedja plays beautifully throughout, deftly moving through some three centuries of musical styles with ease and dexterity. The distinctness with which he presents each historical period is so natural, one almost forgets the sophistication this kind of musical thinking requires.
Another notable aspect of this CD is its theatricality. Were this a live performance, the performer would require at least two pianos on stage and, of course, the para-musical work of altering the entrails of one of them for the Cage sonatas. The intricate manipulation of the piano required for the Cage works elicits some fine insights in Pedja's program note:
"Sonatas and Interludes includes instructions not found in any volume of Czerny études. The performer is asked to 'prepare' the piano by inserting screws, blots, plastic and rubber into the strings. It is all too easy to note that Cage's instructions are wonderfully explicit and vague at the same time. It IS John Cage after all! However, the same can be said for Beethoven or any other composer. It is exactly that vague, gray area that makes us play the same works over and over; precisely because there is no definite 'truth.'"
In his program note, Pedja disabuses us of the notion that this recording has an "underlining story, title or subtext," and I certainly won't quibble. However, as I listen again and again to this CD, at each work's ends, my ear yearns for the next unexpected sound. The recital is a page-turner, a cliff-hanger. This listening experience is quite outside the classical-music norm, and works like the finest story-telling. Its juxtapositions open unexpected vistas, and you never end up where you thought you would. How often can you say that of a piano recital?
One bit of acknowledgment is due: the recording is made possible through the generosity and vision of Jim and Yukiko Gatheral.
Now, go get yourself a copy. Don't deprive yourself!
(Photo credit: the portrait of Pedja is by fashion photographer, and friend, Bell Soto.)
Monday, August 04, 2008
I have played primarily (mostly?) Mozart for the last two weeks. In that context, rehearsing Beethoven's fourth symphony today brought into relief the rhetorical differences between the two composers.
Mozart is always an opera composer. In symphonies, concerti, and chamber music, the lyrical (without the lyrics, mind you) explicitness of his rhetoric sings forth from the operatic stage. His cast of characters listens, responds, provokes, flirts, dances, and weeps. The lacking libretto is merely a technicality.
Beethoven's is a purely instrumental rhetoric, more abstract, yet in some ways more elemental. In a Beethoven symphony there are not characters, per se, rather the interplay is between emotions summoned through the composer's singular mastery of harmonic narrative and rhythmic persuasion. Whereas it is not easy to imagine words set to Beethoven's melodies, his music is vivid in meaning and formally cohesive.
Mozart's music lives in a world of intricate human relationships. Beethoven reaches for truths beyond the world of words.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
In the seemingly endless process of emptying Albert Fuller's apartment as co-executor of his estate, moments of grace visit from time to time, shining light into dusty corners.
Those close to him have taken the books they wanted from his sprawling, eclectic library, still leaving the better part of 200 books not of interest to Albert's circle of friends, a pretty literate bunch. I loaded a push cart with half the remnant and headed up for Housing Works, but as I turned the corner onto Columbus Avenue (Albert always said, "Columbus's Avenue.") I saw the used book seller who has had a couple tables on the east side of the street between West 67th and 68th, for years.
I asked if he'd like some books. He sure did. He always has such interesting material, and I told him I'd be back with more.
As I left, I quipped, "Maybe you'll find a treasure in there you can retire on."
He took the trademark stogy from his mouth, "More important, your books will go to people who will enjoy and use them," punctuating his points with his cigar, cinders swirling.
Much more important, indeed.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Sunday, June 22, 2008
110° in LA and We See Palm Trees . . .
From “The Lovers of Achilles” by Sophocles
When ice gleams in the open air,
Ice-crystal in the hands is
at first a pleasure quite novel.
But there comes a point—
you can’t put the melting mass down,
you can’t keep holding it.
Desire is like that.
Pulling one to act and not to act,
again and again, pulling•
"The Glass of Water" by Wallace Stevens
That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,
Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles. So,
In the metaphysical, there are these poles.
Here in the centre stands the glass. Light
Is the lion that comes down to drink. There
And in that state, the glass is a pool.
Ruddy are his eyes and ruddy are his claws
When light comes down to wet his frothy jaws
And in the water winding weeds move round.
And there and in another state—the refractions,
The metaphysical, the plastic parts of poems
Crash in the mind—But, fat Jocundus, worrying
About what stands here in the centre, not the glass,
But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day,
It is a state, this spring among the politicians
Playing cards. In a village of the indigenes,
One would have still to discover. Among the dogs and dung,
One would continue to contend with one’s ideas.
. . . at the End of the Mind
Monday, June 09, 2008
This evening, after rehearsing "new music" in Brooklyn (a combination of words that can strike fear into the hearts of old-fuddy-duddy musicians who still live on the increasingly unaffordable and decidedly Starbucks-ridden Upper West Side), my dear friend Marianne Gythfeldt and I had dinner in one of my favorite restaurants, Olea in Fort Greene (171 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-643-7003). My meals there turn out consistently to be among the finest I've eaten anywhere. (Do not miss the halloumi cheese or the dates stuffed with almonds and wrapped in bacon or the roasted eggplant . . . mmm. Or the white mango sangria!)
Eating at Olea means a long trip home to West 106th, but the MTA seemed to be up to the task tonight, and the No. 3 express train sped from Atlantic Avenue through lower Manhattan to West 96th Street in what felt like just a few minutes. There I emerged from the frigid, air-conditioned train onto a hazy, hot platform, strangely crowded for half-past eleven on a Monday night. It was also strange for the mercury to near three digits on an early-June evening. Sometimes New York City is just strange, you accept that.
The No. 3 train didn't budge, and so stalled, it complained, loudly in a constant, monolithic blast of fortissimo white noise, of an ailment I was glad not to share. It was too hot on the platform for the passengers to do anything, too hot to read, move, or even be upset. It was too hot to do anything but sweat. And that we did, profusely.
Suddenly the platform loud speakers erupted in multiple announcements. Utterly indecipherable, overlapping ululations of glossolalia, commanded us, warned us, informed us, of WHAT? Of nothing, because the train noise and the simultaneous blatting from the speakers voided any message. It was too hot to care . . . and then a voice did emerge from the din: "Last stop on this No. 3 express, last stop, last stop, EVERYONE OFF this train."
The train cars hotly coughed out their contents and the platform teamed with people.
We awaited the No. 1 local. We hoped the No. 3 would move on to the train infirmary, making way from its replacement. It was too hot to be rubbing shoulders with dozens of sweat-drenched strap-hangers at a quarter-to-midnight, but it was too hot to walk home.
The No. 3 never moved. It only roared unanswered complaints, doors closed, cars empty, lights ablaze. A No. 1 train finally did roll up, jammed with passengers. When its doors opened, no one got out; not a single person got on. As if having told a joke that falls completely flat, the train sat with doors ajar while hundreds of people stood, motionless, just hoping it will go away. It was a moment of total MTA impotence: an empty train out of service on one side and a full train stalled on the other, with hundreds of people sweltering in between.
I left. It was too hot not to.
Luckily, the M104 bus was right there. Before me on line was a young man with an immense tuba case. Once he got situated in his seat, I stopped in the aisle beside him. I couldn't resist. Referring to my tiny (especially in this context) oboe case, I quipped:
"Don't you wish you played the oboe?"
"No," he replied, "then I'd have to make reeds!"
"My brother played the bassoon, so I know what it's like."
"Oh, so you shared a fraternal clef."
"Yeah, we kept it all in the family."
"So did we. My brother played the flute, but being the smart one, he started a plumbing business."
"Isn't plumbing sorta like making reeds for the tuba . . . ?"
At this point, we arrived at West 106, so I said goodnight. Some strange things you just have to accept.
Sunday, June 08, 2008
Friday, June 06, 2008
Monday, June 02, 2008
Topping off an amazing week of demanding and rewarding work with The Knights, it was gratifying to read Allan Kozinn aglow over Saturday night's concert. He knighted Eric Jacobsen an "interpretive dynamo"!
Click here to read the review in the New York Times.
Click here to read a blog review by my friend, Gemzel Hernandez, M.D.
Sunday, June 01, 2008
Think of Van Gogh, needled by that ringing in his ear,
of Nijinsky in his straitjacket, of Robert Schumann.
Yes, think of Schumann, whose wedded bliss lasted
only four years before his mind betrayed him.
Not even Clara could save him from madness.
Not even she. If my wife were here, she’d say,
“Honey, don’t forget Dianne Arbus or Plath.”
And what about Virginia Woolf, contemplating
each stone she sewed into her sweater
before she waded into the stream.
Think of them all, I nod to myself,
though there must be other etcetera
to distill into palliatives, every plum
of suffering, every genus of indifference.
Even now, when I listen to my music
I catch myself muttering, “Fool.”
Fool who made the sorrows of all souls count
as nothing even as I squeezed the crystal,
everything vanished into the umlauts of Berlin nights.
Even my scores lightened, rose as cloud.
These days, I no longer need to sleep.
I remember, have always remembered too much.
No matter. The Hermitage, that ridiculous little gusli,
the Bolshoi. Computer problems with the Mir.
Bach’s Brandenburgs as played by six dozen balalaikas.
This is what they want to know about in the Provinces,
I tell Vladimir, the mixer at the swim-up bar,
the Four Seasons in Duesseldorf.
Vladimir looks as though he listens closely, I’ll give him that,
those silver wings tucked tight behind him,
angelic concern spread behind his Cossack moustache,
right finger checking and rechecking
the geography of his saber scar for luck.
There’s one conversation we’ve never had,
and Vlad leans into me, refills my Stoli on the house,
adds some ice—Say I loved Ludmila,
say how Ruslan comes to me speaking
one night with a voice made of cellos,
then next night keening like massed bassoons.
Say I even craved those nightly visitations—
that they awoke in me my Spanish dreams,
hummed a Jota Aragonesa, my Memory
of a Summer Night in Madrid,
though I’ve never been.
Oh, Vlad, you should have heard my dreams.
Like an eight-armed goddess retelling
the lives of czars while peeling oranges
and humming Prince Igor as I bowed.
By Jeffrey Levine from "Mortal, Everlasting" (2000)
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Please try to attend the next concert (my first) of The Knights this weekend. Here are the details:
May 31, 2008
8:00 PM The Knights at Washington Irving
On May 31st, the young members of The Knights will come together to perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral". As part of the evening's program, they will also be joined by singer songwriter Christina Courtin with a second set of original music. This special event, a lively combination of the revered and the eclectic, embodies The Knights at their best: an exhilarating, soulful revisiting of the Classical pantheon...but also a fierce performance with their indie cohort Christina Courtin.
WASHINGTON IRVING HIGH SCHOOL
17th Street and Irving Place (one block east of Union Square subway station at 14th Street)
TICKETS: $20 IN ADVANCE OF 5/31; $25 AT THE DOOR
FOR TICKETS, CALL: 917-478-5341
One of the indelible musical experiences of my life was the New York premiere of Stefano Landi's Il Sant'Alessio given by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. That night I was cut to the quick by the ensemble's committed unity of purpose and esprit. So often this unity is not achieved or even expected in orchestra concerts, where paycheck and job-security provide the glue holding together a particular night's performance. But The Knights offer a different path (my closest professional corollary is with The Orchestra of St. Luke's and The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra), it is not and orchestra cobbled (hobbled?) together by blind auditions but one chosen for artistic sensibility. The result, it seems to me, is one of truly shared artistic purpose. The rehearsal process favors interpretive consensus built on persuasive rhetoric, spoken and played. Strikingly brilliant and inspiring comments come from all corners of the ensemble, amplified by deft examples. In the end, what The Knights achieve is really the dream of fusing chamber music ideals with orchestral performance. Other storied ensembles have tread this path, but The Knights seem to have found the way to breath life into their ideals. The musical result speaks for itself, and speaks volumes.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Nicholas Phan tagged me in a meme-inspired game. The details are as follows:
The rules of this game of tag:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
With such fun rules, who couldn't not play along?
Nearest book: "Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box—Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragment" by Elizabeth Bishop
From her unpublished and unfinished poem: "Brasil, 1959"
"Meanwhile, you've never seen
a country that's more beautiful.
—or this part of it, anyway—
The delicacy of the green hills
the new bamboos unfurl the edges
are all so soft against the pink watery skies
below, the purple Lent trees.
Shall we change politicians?"
Shall we, indeed?
Thanks, Nick. I'll post my five tags in a bit.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
I cannot believe that Florent is closing; a restaurant that I've visited at least once during every hour around the clock, the one I've been to more than any other, the first to welcome me as a regular.
I turned 35 there, I turned many corners there, I became me on those stools, sitting in on the banquette surrounded by everyone I loved. Oh, the hours in that room . . . Eating apple pie after buying two Danish-modern lounge chairs at Phoof (long closed, alas) at three in the afternoon with Abbe . . . Steak Frites and Bourgogne at 2:00 a.m. with Matt . . . my first brunch in New York City with Alan & Hassan almost 20 years ago. (I'll never forget that hair-raising taxi ride down Ninth Avenue, I thought we'd die, and some of us did, but not by the hand of a careless cabbie.) . . . or the 11:00 p.m. dinner after a Helicon recording session in SUNY Purchase with Albert and Pedja, the rental car fresh from the West Side Highway, parked nearby, as we gorged on French Fries, wondering at our good fortune . . . Or the Wednesdays and Saturdays between matinée and evening performances, chatting with the staff, chomping something yummy, wishing not to leave.
Oh, the look of the light streaming in those windows. And all of us streaming in and out and in and out, truckers and trannies and scared little boys from Michigan, all being made to feel chic and cared-for and right at home, wishing wishing wishing wishing not to ever leave.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Each spring, the New York City Opera presents a showcase of new operas by living American composers called VOX. This season, I played principal oboe.
On the weekend of May 10 & 11, we performed portions of ten new operas. Project Director, Yuval Sharon ran an impressively smooth ship; no easy task considering the weekend's myriad logistic and personnel demands.
Though in past seasons there have been operatic offerings by luminaries (Mark Adamo, Richard Danielpour, David Del Tredici, David Diamond, John Eaton, Lou Harrison, Lee Hoiby, John Musto, Bernard Rands, Greg Sandow, Bright Sheng, Charles Wuorinen, and John Zorn), this year's composers, Sorrel Hays, Cary Ratcliff, Veronika Krausas*, Steve Potter*, John King, Scott Davenport Richards, Alice Shields, Justine Chen, David T. Little, and Robert Manno, were entirely unknown to me, except for Justine Chen, whose Juilliard years overlapped with those of enough of my younger friends that we crossed paths. She even presented Zéphyros with a wind quintet a number of years ago.
The criteria by which the jury chose the Vox 2008 offerings were not spelled out, however, the eight works I played exhibited, almost to a one (the aleatoric opera by John King being the notable exception), a tonal musical vocabulary, a concern for dramatic vocalism, and engaging story-telling devices.
The pervasive tonal idiom brought into sharp relief the composers' response to the power of popular music in our culture. In the case of Richards' jazz opera and Little's heavy-metal inspired score (I was reminded of playing with Metallica in Madison Square Garden . . . ), popular music was the vernacular musical voice of the composers. I was not convinced that the undeniably campy elements of heavy metal (to everyone except, I suppose, the true fan) ultimately well-served Mr. Little's wrenching storyline, but his opera left many in the crowd deeply moved.
The most tenatious popular musical style this weekend was film music. Can there be—or should there be—a post-atonal music free of the the well-established tropes of film scoring? Of course, the language of film music capitalized on the most vivid techniques of late 19th-century and early 20th-century orchestral music, now the influence moves strongly in the other direction. After Helicon's recent presentation of Verklärte Nacht last month, some audience members remarked that the music reminded them of early 20th-century film scores. These comments refer to how much Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, et al., learned from their pre-film forebears and how pervasive the sound of late 19th-century romantic orchestral music had become. Should we be concerned when the compositional techniques codified in a century of film making enter the concert halls? Perhaps not, but the overt sentimentality of some of this music, combined with its easy surface appeal makes me wonder about its lasting power.
The most successful work of the ten was Justine Chen's Jeanne, a griping version of the Joan of Arc story. Chen also wrote the libretto. Her music inhabits a communicative harmonic world that is inventive, powerful, and distinctly personal, with vocal writing distinguished by its sure-handed maturity and lyrical sweep. The overture consisted of an unaccompanied prayer sung by Joan of Arc. Its ethereal beauty and demanding virtuosity built to a climax of supplicating ululations, and was deeply affecting. Chen is an accomplished violinist and her instrumental command was evident in her handling of the orchestral forces. When the work came to it's fiery conclusion, I noticed two women in the first row so evidently moved, so rapt, I went at the intermission to speak with them.
They were new to opera. One had been brought to Bohème and Satyagraha by her boss and Vox was her third operatic exposure. She had brought her sister along who had never attended an opera before. We talked the whole intermission. There is nothing like fresh enthusiasm to wash away pretense. These two audience members engaged with each new work at face value. Did it move them? Did they like the performances? Did the composer succeed in getting the story across? None of my concern for the influence of popular music clouded their experience. If they were touched, the music was had done its job, and they were open to being touched by this music. Ten new operas they saw over two days, and I am sure that they will be equally curious about seeing their first Carmen as with any of Gérard Mortier's most ambitious plans for the New York City Opera's 2009 season. I hope to see them in the front row many more times.
*I did not perform the operas of Ms. Krausas and Mr. Potter, and their works are not considered in this posting.
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Helicon's dress rehearsal of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht with Vera Beths, Mark Steinberg, Myron Lutzke, Dov Scheindlin, David Cerutti, & Nina Lee just finished, all shimmering D Major on 24 guts strings. It was one of the finest performances I have ever heard. And as it happens, this will be the last music performed in The Studio, 27 West 67th Street. Albert Fuller would have loved it. Seven months; it's hard to believe he's really gone, but tonight as final notes dissipated into radiant silence I felt him slip into his own bright, clear night.
Friday, April 04, 2008
Waking, I always waked you awake
As always I fell from the ledge of your arms
Into the soft sand and silt of sleep
Permitted by you awake, with your arms firm.
Waking, always I waked immediately
To the face you were when I was off sleeping,
Ribboned with sea weed or running with deer
In a valentine country of swans in the door.
Waking, always waked to the tasting of dew
As if my sleep issued tears for its loving
Waking, always waked, swimming from foam
Breathing from mountains clad in a cloud.
As waking, always waked in the health of your eyes,
Curled your leaf hair, uncovered your hands,
Good morning like birds in an innocence
Wild as the Indies we ever first found.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Last night I attended the splendid annual award dinner for The Vilcek Foundation. Supporting the work of foreign-born artists and scientists who make significant contributions to society, the Vilcek awards stand in stark relief to the bellicose immigration debate that so inflames certain sectors of society, especially during this campaign season.
The 2008 winners were Inder Verma for biomedical science and composer, Osvaldo Golijov for the arts. Ellis Rubinstein, President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences and Ara Guzelimian, Provost and Dean of the Juilliard School presented the awards. Dawn Upshaw, a musician closely associated with Golijov's music, gave moving and personal remarks. In his acceptance speech, Osvaldo observed that as an immigrant to America, he was able to come here to follow his own dreams, but that for so many who come here, it is for the dreams of their family and their children's future.
My sister, in fact, is foreign-born. Kelly was born in Korea and joined our family when she was three years old through a Holt adoption. Currently a transplant nurse with the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, her work literally saves lives everyday. I am immensely proud of what she does and the vital contribution she makes to her community.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Last night I completed my part of Issa's new recording project. The songs are moving and spending time around Issa always puts me in a remarkable state of mind.
Watch her web site for the release of the new material.
This picture below is of Issa and me after a performance at Carnegie Hall a couple years ago.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Because there are so few notes to play, the English horn part in Verdi's Falstaff offers plenty of time for sitting and listening. The first entrance is 20 minutes into the opera. It lasts for about two minutes and then there is nothing for an hour and a half (depending on tempi, rubato, etc.), which is not a bad thing in such a fascinating piece. Verdi's score overflows with delightful details. Some of these musical devices propel the story or comment on the action, many, on the other hand, are simply there for pleasure, both for the audience and the performers. Even after dozens of performances, I find new delights and relish familiar ones.
On Friday afternoon, my friend Joan Easton and I went through the Asian art galleries that overtook the Fuller Building for Asiaweek 2008. The 17th-century Indian miniatures in Francesca Galloway's gallery are breathtaking (you can see them until March 27, 2008). A small picture of a nilgai by a Mughal artist (c. 1610-12) captivated us. Joan, pointing out the array of intricate details in the background, imagined the pleasure the artist must have took in adding fanciful touches, a bird here, a branch there.
As I sat in the pit of the State Theater yesterday afternoon, with Falstaff going on all around me, I thought about the picture of the nilgai and Joan's comments. The musical pleasures were so delightfully complex as they danced throughout the orchestra, all I could think about was Verdi's pleasure in creating them. He must have thought about various musicians he knew, and those he never could, enjoying the aural spectacle he created.
Friday, March 21, 2008
I attended the New York Philharmonic's St. Matthew Passion last night with Kurt Masur conducting.
James Taylor was a revelation in the key role of the Evangelist. His performance was a full of clarity, artistic commitment, and virtuosity used for expressive impact.