Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Knights

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.

17th Street and Irving Place (one block east of Union Square subway station at 14th Street)
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

You're It!!!!

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

VOX 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.