Monday, July 22, 2019

POEMS 2005-2017


Again, here.
After midnight
At the bar
And the weight of
All those famous paintings

Cannot equal the
Course of each life.



Spring was cool and summer never shook the chill,
but as September climaxed

in unnatural heat,
You took your quiet leave.
Three weeks is too long to go without speaking.

Somehow now in mid-October, winter’s icy
fingers already grasp at the city streets.
My phone is a dead weight.

Another meal at Café Luxembourg.
There are a few things I would like to tell you.



Last night, we served
quivering plates of oysters.
Each briny draught brought
a death by dinner party.

One large shell caught
the corner of my mouth at
that point where lip meets
lip and is almost cheek.

So thin, that delicate line of lip,
so effortlessly severed by the ancient
creature’s last line of defense.
I dabbed my own blood the rest of the night.

Today, the bright
pang that bites each smile
recalls the beast’s sharp shell,
not its cold, strange meat.



Making a hasty retreat, sleep’s
bellicose company silently slips
through prattling window panes
on wafts and whiffs of wintry air.

Why is it so cold this spring?
Ravenously ticking,
the red bedside clock
devours the seconds in steady gulps.

(A guppy will eat her fry . . . )
The alarm is set, but I
did not wind the beast before bed.

Sometime tonight it will silently stop
timing time and not a soul
will be alarmed.


APRIL FOOL’S EVE 2008 — A 90th Birthday Party Remembered the Next Morning

Aileen, Aileen, you take the cake,
which was, last night, a tart
—ahem—and make

us toast five years hence,
glasses raised, bifocals lowered,
smiles gathered up and gleaming.

In all our sprawling tomorrows,
how we wish to spend
the best of them with you!


IN LEME - Rio de Janeiro, August 2005

Green-shadowed streets,
air thick with salt, unseen
the sea whispers to the shore.

Waves on sand,
familiar caresses coaxing
improbable embraces.

The women in white arrive
with their evening tribute,
champagne and candles

for their forbear
lost to aquatic union.
Is it mourning or seduction

that toss in the tide
while unlit waves arch
to kiss the night horizon?



I wish
I could
remember every
word you said to me
and then dance
among the letters:

Tracing their curves
and corners,
teasing each ounce
of meaning from their



Time expands
and contracts
like an accordion.

from between
its fingerboards.



And here we
uncovered a country
of love, surprised to be stung,
bees strumming, wings on
weeds, flowers in sun.

The field is full of sharp sticks,
and tics, and cold stones:
each a tiny, insurmountable boulder.
Our picnic blanket is thread-bare
in all the wrong places.

But what displaces us
and places us here,
sprawling in gleaming,
green fields?

Our blanket rolls
in checkered folds,
and the cold dew
promises sprawling
tomorrows on

Each weedprick folds
me more into you, as fields
of gleaming green fall faster
and faster from
the vaulting blue sky
and we tumble faster
than meaning itself,
bumping and kissing
and knowing that rolling we, dizzy,
will face each face, and eye each I,
and love-stained by earth and sky,

will bump and roll down
terrible terrains of radiant green,
holding on, holding on,
to the shining country of
our love.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Knights at the Naumburg Band Shell

The Knights at the Naumburg Band Shell
Central Park, New York, NY
July 10, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.

Eric Jacobsen, Conductor
Julia MacLaine, Cello

Wagner Siegfried Idyll
Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor, op. 129
Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Adès Three Studies from Couperin
Jacobsen/Aghaei Ascending Bird: Introduction and Dance for Orchestra

Thoughts on the program by James Roe.

Program Overview

“I must try for something else.”  --- Robert Schumann
“new inspiration on every page”  --- Thomas Adès

The incredible alchemy of an orchestra concert is achieved through its array of collaborative elements.  Composers—whether living or from the past—endeavor to represent the musical sounds they hear in their imaginations with written notation.  Performers, in turn, use the decidedly physical act of playing musical instruments to reach through the printed notation for the composer’s voice.

In each of the works on tonight’s program there is an additional collaborative element, an inspiration outside the composer through which he reaches to us.  For Wagner, it was a private musical gift to his wife.  Schumann’s was the voice of the cello, an instrument he briefly attempted to learn after an injury prevented him from playing the piano.  Debussy created a musical “impression” of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry.  Thomas Adès’ inspiration was the keyboard music of François Couperin.  Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei based “Ascending Bird” on a traditional Persian folk song.

Richard Wagner
(b Leipzig, May 22, 1813; d Venice, February 13, 1883)

Siegfried Idyll

Composed: 1870, Tribschen
Premiere: privately, December 25, 1870, in the home of Cosima and Richard Wagner
Instrumentation: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, strings
Duration: 17 minutes

Siegfried Idyll offers a glimpse into the intimate world of Richard Wagner.  Never intended for public performance, the work was written as a birthday gift for his wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt and former wife of conductor and champion of Wagner’s music, Hans von Bülow.  Cosima bore Wagner three children while still married to Bülow, daughters Isolde (1865) and Eva (1867), and their son Siegfried (1869).  Cosima and Bülow were divorced in July of 1870 and she married Wagner a month later in Lucerne.

On the morning after Cosima’s 33rd birthday, December 25, 1870, Wagner assembled a chamber orchestra on the stairs leading to her bedroom.  She awoke to the premiere of a work written for her alone, based on musical themes important to the couple, now at long last, husband and wife.

She wrote in her diary:

“A sound awoke me which grew ever stronger; I knew I was no longer dreaming, there was music, and what music! When it had died away, R. came into my room with the five children and gave me the score of his ‘Symphonic Birthday Greeting’ - I was in tears, so was everybody in the house. R. had placed his orchestra on the staircase, and thus our Tribschen is consecrated for all time.”

The work opens with a gentle, arching melody that Wagner originally conceived for a string quartet dedicated to Cosima.  In the Idyll, he gives us a sense of how that unrealized work might have sounded, as the strings play alone for a full two minutes before the woodwinds enter.  The appearance of the fresh orchestral color, first the flute, and then oboe and clarinet, is magic.  One can imagine Wagner painting a musical picture of Cosima’s first stirrings on the morning of the premiere.

The work is disarmingly tender and personal.  British music scholar and Wagner specialist, Ernest Newman, referred to it as “a series of domestic confidences.” It can come as no surprise that Cosima cried when it was sold for publication to help raise needed funds.  This, the most private of Wagner’s musical creations, has become his most performed instrumental work.

Robert Schumann
(b Zwickau, Saxony, June 8, 1810; d Endenich, near Bonn, July 29, 1856 )

Cello Concerto in A Minor, op. 129

Composed: October 10-24, 1850, Düsseldorf
Premiere: posthumously, April 23, 1860, Oldenburg, Ludwig Ebert, soloist, Großherzolighen Hofkapelle, Karl Franzen, conductor
Instrumentation: solo cello, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings
Duration: 25 minutes
In 1850, Robert Schumann moved from Dresden to Düsseldorf to become the municipal music director.  Though it would soon become apparent that he was ill-suited for this position, the move initially ushered the composer into a brief but truly happy period.  His Cello Concerto in A Minor was written in a two-week burst of creativity soon after his arrival in the new city.  It is one of the major works to emerge from his final years of mental decline, and the last he saw all the way from composition to publication.

Schumann’s reasons for writing this piece are not known, but once it was completed, he was unable to interest cellists in performing the work.  After being rejected by the publishing houses, Friedrich Hofmeister and Carl Luckhardt, Breitkopf & Härtel finally agreed to publish the work in 1854.  Schumann even made a version for cello and string quartet, which was refused publication and is now unfortunately lost.  With no cellists willing to play the piece, Schumann rewrote it as a violin concerto and presented it to violinist, Joseph Joachim who accepted the score without ever performing it.  The violin version was only discovered in 1987.

Schumann once wrote, "I cannot write a concerto for the virtuosos. I must try for something else.”  With the Cello Concerto, he achieves that elusive “something else” by deftly wedding virtuosity to musical substance.  Originally titled, Concertstück für Violoncell mit Begleitung des Orchesters (“Concertpiece for Violoncello with Orchestral Accompaniment”), the work is three movements played without break.  In character with Schumann’s late style, themes are recalled throughout the work creating a distinctly narrative effect, with the soloist taking the role of storyteller.  In 1850, his wife, Clara wrote, “Robert composed a concerto for the violoncello that pleased me very much. It appears to be written in the true violoncello style. The romantic quality, the flight, the freshness and the humor, and also the highly interesting interweaving of cello and orchestra are, indeed, wholly ravishing — and what euphony and what sentiment are in all those melodic passages!”

When the publication of this work finally came, Schumann was entering the final phase of his mental illness.  Hallucinatory voices haunted him.  Seeking solace, he threw himself into proofreading the final drafts of the work.  Eventually, his mental torment led to a suicide attempt.  He leapt into the Rhine in February of 1854 and was subsequently moved to a sanatorium at Endenich near Bonn, where he lived out his remaining two years.  The Cello Concerto finally received its premiere four years later, just shy of what would have been Schumann’s 50th birthday.  As it happens, this evening’s performance is two days after the 202nd anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Claude Debussy
(b St Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862; d Paris, March 25, 1918 )

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [after the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé]

Composed: 1891-4, Paris
Premiere: Paris, December 22, 1894, at the Société Nationale, Gustave Doret, conductor
Instrumentation: three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two harps, crotales, strings
Duration: 10 minutes
Languid, sensual, exotic, and seemingly improvisatory, Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was his first major masterpiece and introduced the world to a new musical language.  In the 1890s, Debussy became a regular at the Tuesday salons hosted by symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, who invited the young composer to write a musical component to a theater piece based on his poem L’après midi d’un faune.

The work famously opens with an unaccompanied flute, representing the flute of Pan.  The melody begins on a sustained c-sharp, a note played on the flute with all the fingers raised, no keys depressed. Debussy, the musical colorist, knew the gauzy diffuseness the flute could produce on this note and used it to great effect, subtly blending the beginning of the piece with the silence preceding it.  The flute’s melodic arabesque defines no key, only mood.  Winds and harp answer with diaphanous harmonic clouds.  Then, just moments after the music begins, Debussy writes a long measure of six slow beats with no sound; only the music of silence is heard.  (Wagner, whose music was a strong influence on the young Debussy, had used a similar device in his Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.)  In Debussy’s music, the relationship of sound to silence is imbued with new possibilities.  Silence seems to belong to Debussy’s music like that of no other composer until John Cage.  When the music resumes after the six beats of rest, it is a wash of harmonies yearning for resolution but finding only suspension.  The pleasure of this music is in the delay of resolutions, and the pleasure is palpable.

Debussy described the work as “a very free rendering of Stéphane Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. It does not purport to contain everything that is in the poem. It is rather a succession of scenes in which the desires and dreams of the faune pass through in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of chasing the frightened nymphs and naiads, he gives in to intoxicating sleep.”  Should we find any significance in the fact that the Prélude comprises the same number of bars as there are lines in Mallarmé’s poem?

Thomas Adés
(b London, March 1, 1971)

Three Studies from Couperin for Chamber Orchestra
Les Amusemens
Les Tours de Passe-passe
Composed: 2006
Premiere: April 21, 2006, Basel, Switzerland, Kammerorchester Basel, Thomas Adès, conductor
Instrumentation: two flutes (also playing alto and bass flutes), clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, percussion, two string orchestras
Duration: 13 minutes
“My ideal day would be staying at home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin—new inspiration on every page.”  The Couperin to which Adès refers is François (1668-1733), known as “le grand” for his impressive keyboard prowess.  One of the most important French musicians of his day, Couperin assumed the post of organist at St. Gervais in Paris in 1685, and in 1693 was chosen by Louis XIV to be organist at the royal chapel.

Couperin produced four books of solo harpsichord music, comprising over 200 works, most of which carry charmingly descriptive titles, as evidenced by those Adès chose for his three studies.  Couperin’s titles could be enigmatic, even to his sophisticated court audiences.  He took some delight in this as he explained in the preface to his 1713 collection, “In composing these pieces, I have always had an object in view, furnished by various occasions. Thus the titles reflect my ideas; I may be forgiven for not explaining them all.”  The first movement of Adès’ Three Studies translates easily.  The second movement, Tours de Passe-passe, means “sleight of hand” and L’Âme-en-Peine is “the lost soul.”

In his Three Studies, Adès retains all the notes of Couperin’s keyboard works, colorizing them with great inventiveness and unalloyed affection.  That these versions sound so fresh speaks to the creative powers of Couperin himself.  Wanda Landowska said, “What is this elusive anguish that Couperin provokes in us?  He does not speak of love, sensuousness, or sorrow, in the same manner as does Bach or Handel.  Couperin’s music permeates our subconscious, agitating its levels.  It burrows into the depth of our inner life.”

Colin Jacobsen (b 1978, New York City)
Siamak Aghaei (b 1973, Ahwaz, Iran)

Ascending Bird: Introduction and Dance for Orchestra

Composed: 2010
Premiere: September 26, 2010, Caramoor, Katonah, NY, The Knights, Eric Jacobsen, conductor
Instrumentation: flute, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, trombone, bass trombone, percussion, strings
Duration: 7 minutes
The Knights regularly perform works written by its members, and tonight’s program closes with Ascending Bird: Introduction and Dance for Orchestra, written by Knights co-founder and co-artistic director, Colin Jacobsen in collaboration with his friend, Iranian musician, Siamak Aghaei.  The piece is based on a Persian folk song that tells the story of a bird attempting to fly to the sun.  Twice the bird fails, but on the third flight the creature takes leave of its physical body, embracing the sun in state of spiritual transcendence.

Colin first encountered this folk song in 2004 while he and violist Nicholas Cords visited Siamak Aghaei in Tehran.  One afternoon, Siamak played a recording of the folk song that would become Ascending Bird.  Colin and Nick were captivated by the sound of the unusual instrument playing the melody.  When Siamak explained to them that it was constructed of fused bird bones only a few inches in length, it was as if myth took physical form through the act of music making.  The transcendent bird had no use for its skeleton; yet in the hands of the musician, the bones told the bird’s story.  It brings to mind the Latin phrase that Baroque instrument makers often inscribed on the wooden lids of their harpsichords: Dum vixi tacui, mortua dulce cano, “Living, I was silent; in death, I sweetly sing.”

The story has profound resonance for musicians.  In the finest performances, tools become secondary, like the bones of the mythical bird.  Each concert is another opportunity to fly into the sun.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Knights Celebrate New Year's Eve 2011
at The 92nd Street Y

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Fantasia upon One Note (c 1680)

Terry Riley (b 1935)
In C (1964)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 5 in C Minor, op. 67 (1807-8)


by James Roe

“There was a time (time out of mind)”
— James McCourt, opening line of Mawrdew Czgowchwz

“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
— T. S. Eliot from “Buirnt Norton” no. 1 of the Four Quartets

“Make a joyful noise”
— Psalm 100

“The Joy of C”

Happy New Year! Tonight’s Knights concert features three radically different (and radical) pieces that each focus on the note C. Through these works, we will explore the ways in which music enhances, disrupts, and even suspends our perception of time. New Years Eve—a time of heightened consciousness of time past, passing, and yet to come—is ideal for this exploration.

In our concept of tonight’s concert, the note C and its continual presence throughout the music, represents time. The music’s relationship to this note changes throughout the concert just as our experience of time changes across any specific moment, hour, day, year, or lifetime.

Music only exists in the passage of time. At the very moment a musical sound is created, it is instantly consumed by the listener and transformed into emotion and memory. Music cannot be held. The intricacies of its beauty cannot be examined in the present tense. Music is always in the past or in the future. Memory and anticipation dance while music plays.

Why C?

The note C is a fundamental sound in Western music. Middle C divides the piano keyboard between soprano and bass, right hand and left. The music student’s first lessons are always in C. Schumann described C Major as “simple, unadorned.” Schelling wrote that, “concerning the physical expression of this key, it appears to be completely pure.”

Composers have gone to the key of C for major musical statements. Two of Schubert’s last completed works are in C Major, his Ninth Symphony, “The Great,” and the monumental Cello Quintet. Mozart set the complex splendors of his “Jupiter” Symphony in C. The gripping narrative of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is dramatized in the progression from C Minor to of C Major. (More on this later.)

One of the most famous C Major chords in all of music is in Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation.” After the overture, which depicts the chaos before creation, the chorus quietly intones the words of Genesis 1:3, “God said, let there be light, and there was light.” On the final word “light,” the orchestra and chorus burst forth with a fortissimo C Major chord. An eyewitness to the premiere, wrote that the “enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes.”

The note C has pride-of-place in the world of music. It is a starting point and destination, beginning and end, foundation and culmination.

Purcell: Fantasia upon one Note
“Preserving a moment in music”

Henry Purcell was the preeminent English composer of his day. In about 1680, he wrote a group of Fantasias for string ensemble, which demonstrated the 21-year old’s mastery of the current compositional techniques.

The fantasia—or “fancy” as it was called in England—was popular during the 16th and 17th Centuries, and as its name suggests, it showcased a composer’s imagination and wit. These works were intimate entertainments, their principal preoccupation being the harmonious presentation of multiple, equal voices, a compositional technique called counterpoint. The counterpoint of Purcell’s Fantasias achieves an idealization of human interaction in the context of sophisticated musical conversation.

In Purcell's Fantasia upon One Note, a middle C sounds through the entire piece. The other four voices harmonize around this gentle drone, traversing an wide array of sentiments. Listeners may lose track of the sustained C from time to time, but it is there, quietly reminding us that though we may feel time has stopped, it hasn’t. This brief work could make you wish Purcell’s moment lasted forever.

Terry Riley: In C
“Mind altering music”

Terry Riley’s seminal minimalist masterpiece In C erupts with pulsating octave Cs in the piano. The work shimmers and radiates. It can subsume both listener and performer in its trancelike spell.

In his book, "The Rest is Noise," Alex Ross described Terry Riley as, “an easy-going character of the rural-hippie type [who] grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.” Le Monte Young, the maverick pioneer of musical minimalism, introduced Riley to the mind/time altering influences of marijuana and mescaline. According to Riley, Young also introduced him to the “concept of not having to press ahead to create interest.”

In C is written on a single sheet of paper. It has no specified length or instrumentation, rather it consists of the repeating octave Cs and fifty-three short melodic “events” that he called modules. The modules are played consecutively with each performer having the freedom to determine how many times they repeat each one before moving to the next. The work's improvisatory and interactive elements ensure no two performances are alike.

“Terry Riley’s In C is one of the definitive masterpieces of the 20th Century,” wrote music critic Alfred Frankenstein in High Fidelity. His San Francisco Chronicle review of the premiere offers a brilliant description of the piece: “Climaxes of great sonority and high complexity appear and are dissolved in the endlessness. At times you feel you have never done anything all your life long but listen to this music and as if that is all there is or ever will be."

Beethoven: Symphony no. 5 in C Minor
“Joy follows sorrow”

Beethoven's Symphony no. 5 in C Minor does not begin with a C. Its first sound is silence. This, the most famous work of classical music, begins with a rest.

Contained in that diminutive unit of silence is the last moment of calm before fate intervenes, the last second before learning life-changing news. It is the end of innocence before Beethoven’s famous four-note motif launches the obsessive, anxious, fateful first movement.

Beethoven was preoccupied with the idea of Fate. This is not surprising, as early as 1801 (three years before his first sketches for the Fifth Symphony) he began informing his friends that he was going deaf. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, his will in the form of a letter written to his brothers that Beethoven closely guarded throughout his life, he wrote, “But what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing. Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair; but little more and I would have put an end to my life; only my art held me back.” Yet he attained a kind of personal resolve in the face of his condition. “I will seize Fate by the throat," he wrote, "It will not crush me entirely!” It is striking that, in the face of deafness, Beethoven begins this monumental symphony with a silence.

The Fifth shows Beethoven's full mastery of symphonic form, harmonic narrative, and rhythmic propulsion. Variations of the opening four-note motif sound throughout the work, as the music responds to the tension established by the first movement.

The Scherzo leads directly into the Finale through an extended, murky passage in pianissimo. Here, static harmony and melodic fragmentation create an aural haze with quiet echoes of the opening four-note motif in the timpani. From this, the lowest point of the symphony, a dramatic eight-bar crescendo ensues, culminating in the joyful fortissimo C Major of the Finale. Piccolo, trombones, and contra-bassoon expand the ensemble to create a brilliant burst of orchestral color. It is Beethoven’s “Let there be light” moment, and the upsurge of emotional and musical energy can be transcendent.

Just as the transformation of fate to joy is nearly complete, the murky Scherzo music makes a disquieting reappearance in the middle of the Finale. These dark clouds last only a moment before the triumphal music from the opening of the movement returns. The symphony ends with an impressive fifty-five bars of C Major played by the full ensemble.

“Many assert that every minor [tonality] piece must end in the minor,” Beethoven wrote to his student Archduke Rudolf, “Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major [tonality] has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain. It affects me as if I were looking up to the silvery glistening of the evening star.”

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Hugues Cuenod (1902-2010)

It was impossible to feel down around Hughie. Remembering him this quiet, bright morning, I am grateful to have known this musician, whose irrepressible joy in life and art expanded the humanity of everyone he met.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

German Knights

Die Ritter is headed to Germany. Home on 9 October.

See you then, or there!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two Summer Knights

There are two upcoming Knights performances next week in New York City.

Tuesday • 3 Aug • 7:30
Naumberg Bandshell, Central Park at 70th Street

After being rained out in June, The Knights return to the Naumburg Bandshell with a free concert perfect for a New York summer night in August. It's been a distinct pleasure to rehearse this week with Vera Beths who will both lead as concertmaster and play the solo part in Beethoven's eloquent Romance in F Major.

The Knights
Eric Jacobsen,
Vera Beths,

Rossini Barber of Seville Overture
Beethoven Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major, op. 50
Shostakovich Two Waltzes (arr. Ljova Zhurbin for the Knights)
Debussy Children's Corner Suite (arr. Mouton)
Haydn Symphony in D major, No 101, "The Clock"


Wednesday • 4 Aug • 7:00
AppleApple Store, SoHo

The Knights
Lara St. John, violin soloist
Eric Jacobsen, conductor

This concert celebrates the release of a new CD of Mozart Violin Concerti played by Lara and Scott St. John with The Knights conducted by Eric Jacobsen.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Koolhaas & Lohengrin in a Beijing Taxi

Heading to the Beijing airport, our taxi driver spoke no English (and we no Mandarin), nevertheless, he was determined to give us a parting tour of the city. We spoke back and forth in different languages, the conversation moving quickly and incomprehensibly, articulated with brief moments of clarity.

"Rem Koolhaas, CCTV."

Our driver said as we passed the Dutch architect's delirious addition to the Beijing skyline. It was not the most practical vocabulary, but we were glad he knew it.

Then we passed a caravan of cars covered in ribbons. Our driver honked and waved and smiled and told us many things in excited Chinese.

We weren't getting it.

He wrinkled his brow for a moment and then sang, Treulich geführt. Of course! Gamely, we all sang along and waved at the be-ribboned wedding procession passing us on the highway.

As we sang, my mind raced between other instances of this melody in my life, from Beijing to Lima to backstage at The Metropolitan Opera.

Years ago, I played with an opera company in Lima founded by my Juilliard classmate, Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Some members of the opera orchestra were hired to play a wedding. In Peru, Mendelssohn's Hochzeitsmarsch is played as the bride processional, while Wagner's march accompanies the newly-minted couple's first stroll down the aisle on the way out. Richard Wagner and Felix Mendelssohn combined with South American Roman Catholicism in a Peruvian Baroque cathedral; playing "Here comes the bride" at the end of the wedding only enriched the admixture.

Years later, I would play in the stage band for Robert Wilson's contoversial production of Lohengrin at The Metropolitan Opera based in part on Japanese Noh Theater. The stage band musicians wait to play late into the night, there are hours between entrances. (It is actually possible to leave the theater and play a different concert during these breaks.) When the time finally comes, the musicians gather in the dimly-lit wings to play strains of Treulich geführt. Pretty lofty for "wedding gig," I thought, walking up the stairs backstage at The Met, another cathedral in its own right.

How could I have expected to find myself singing Wagner with a Chinese cabbie in Beijing, but I hardly could be surprised.

Would Wagner?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Happy Fourth of July

Surprise parade on the East River.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Seven Four

Waiting on the subway platform at 14th Street for the F train to Brooklyn, I heard a young woman in full-Williamsburg hipster regalia playing the accordion.

Her selection? "Ring of Fire" from Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

I love this song for so many reasons, but leading them is the instrumental refrain in seven-four time. Count it out. Once the entirely unexpected Mariachi trumpet passage starts, the song is in seven. (Da-dut da dah dah dee dah daaa - 5 - 6 - 7, Da-dut da dah dah dee dah daaa - 5 - 6 - 7) I'm not sure which is more surprising the meter or the orchestration.

Maybe fifteen years ago, I heard Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash at Irving Place. Wonderful, amazing concert. They came with the best sidemen in the biz; country-western 2/4 back beat was elevated to poetry.

If you listen to June Carter and the Carter Family, you'll find a flexible metrical music that easily moves through odd-number bars and playfully skips over an eighth-note here and there.

Seven-four on the subway platform. I love New York City.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Zéphyros Winds is headed to Beijing as part of the the National Centre for Performing Arts' 2010 May Festival.

Click here for details . . . and tickets!

photo by Bell Soto

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Questions of Vacation

Questions Of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
--For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
--Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
--A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
--Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
--Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
--And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"

Monday, August 10, 2009


A dear flutist friend stopped by for dinner tonight and wanted me to listen to her play a Bach unaccompanied sonata in preparation for upcoming performances. She played from memory and gave me the score, but I didn't follow along, I wanted to watch her play and enjoy this private performance from my couch.

There regularly is music in my place. I practice, but practicing often is repetitive ruckus, metronome aclacking. I have chamber music rehearsals here, too, but what I heard tonight was a full-fledged performance: poised, eloquent, full of persuasive rhetoric. Even the finest hi-fi could not match the aural pleasures of a live chamber music performance in one's own home.

Let me encourage everyone: treat yourself. (Eschew Netflix for a night.) Invite musicians to play chamber music in your living room. Offer a good meal (they will say yes) and invite just one or two special friends to share with you. Not too many.

You will not forget the experience.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

An Uplifting Proposal

Right before Tuesday's Imani Winds concert at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, the director of the series asked the ensemble whether a young man could propose to his girlfriend on stage during the concert.

Of course!

He and his soon-to-be fiancée live in Atlanta and had met at an Imani Winds concert eighteen months ago. They had travelled to New York City for tonight's concert.

Before the last piece on the first half, flutist Valerie Coleman told the audience that before we proceeded, there would be a special announcement. "Hello New York." the young man said into the microphone, his arm around his girlfriend. He calmly went on to explain that they were on stage to thank the Imani Winds for bringing them together and for their music which had continued to be an important part of the couple's eighteen-month relationship. And then he said good night and turned to leave the stage. We thought he had lost his nerve, but he swung back to the mic and said, "Oh, and one more thing . . . " whereupon he reached into his pocket and knelt. The audience exploded with applause and shouts of encouragement. The young woman, clasped her hands to her head, spun around, and before the question could even be asked, she yelled out: YES!!!

The ring placed on her finger, the couple thanked each of the musicians. Everyone was feeling a bit giddy, the audience was nicely stirred up, and before we continued with the program I stepped up to the mic, and asked, "Is there anyone else?"

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


It will be a beautiful night for a summer concert in the park.

Tuesday August 4th, 2009 at 7:30 PM

Scherzo for woodwind quintet, Op. 48
Marquez Danza de Mediodia
Medaglia Suite Popular Brasileira
Schifrin La Nouvelle Orleans
Ligeti Sechs Bagatellen
Barber Summer Music, Op. 31

The Naumburg Orchestral Concert begins at 7:30pm at the Naumburg Bandshell on the Concert Ground in Central Park located south of the 72nd Street cross-drive.

Admission is free.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Rest is Silence

Two eighth rests, how long are they?

I have had such a good time this summer playing with the Imani Winds while their oboist, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, is on maternity leave. I've enjoyed learning new repertoire for our concerts, but there is something special about working on pieces I've played for decades with Zéphyros Winds now with new colleagues. In these works—Barber's "Summer Music," Ligeti's "Six Bagatelles," Paquito D'Rivera's "Aires Tropicales," and Lalo Schifrin's "La nouvelle Oreleans"—I reengage my ears to another set of musical imaginations.

In these situations, a musician's opportunity to learn is ripe. And if we don't hear other players and play with other players, our various "chops" can atrophy for lack of attention.

In 1998, I was hired to play a single performance of "Annie Get Your Gun." It was a benefit for Lincoln Center Theater featuring Patty Lupone
and Peter Gallagher. The audience was filled with notables, Rosie was there, Barbara Walters seemed unpleasantly shocked by how politically incorrect the show was, Rex Reed was reported to have said, "Well, they didn't have to cut 'I'm an Indian, too.'" (Political correctness? And, yes, it did have to be cut.) And the orchestra, contracted by Red Press, was filled was the finest cats on the scene. I was pretty green (OK, very green). Out of Juilliard for just three years, I didn't know any faces in the band, but over the next decade I would come to. The first rehearsal began, naturally, with the overture. It looked pretty straight forward to me. Often in "tutti" sections (times when the whole orchestra is playing), orchestrators will give the oboe the same line as the first trumpet. The oboe doesn't make its most important contribution during these sections—you can't really hear it—so, we end up playing along with the loudest instrument, and that way we stay out of the way. Though I didn't know him at the time, one of New York's top lead trumpet players, Bob Millikan, was on the job. The overture started and I began to play my part, pretty much exactly how it looked on the page, in other words, totally square. The lead trumpet was playing in such a different style, and with so much style, I had to just stop and listen. "How does he know how to do that?" He knew. I didn't, but wanted to, and here, I realized was my opportunity to learn how it really went.

Each year in his Juilliard class, Albert Fuller would pick up a violin part to a Beethoven sonata and ask the students what he was holding. Always someone fell into the trap, "It's music." "No," Albert replied, "you cannot hold music. You can only hear music." Bob Millikan's trumpet playing brought that point home.

Lalo Schifrin's wind quintet, "La nouvelle Orleans," ends with an elaborate oboe cadenza meant to imitate the sound of a blues harmonica. After several performances with the Imani Winds, their flutist, Valerie Coleman, asked whether she could offer me a suggestion for that solo. It was a small thing, she assured me, but it would really help. The oboe cadenza begins after a loud chord played by the whole ensemble. There are two eighth rests between the chord and the oboe solo. "Could you wait a little bit longer before you start?" Valerie asked. One of the most challenging sounds for a musician to make on stage is silence. Modulating the right amount involves some risk. Concerts are about sound, after all. That night, I held onto those rests, the silence, just a little longer. The tension increased, and the solo landed with much more force.

When I was performing with Issa (Jane Siberry) a few years ago for her Carnegie Hall debut, she was coaching me on passage I was improvising. Again her urging was for less sounds, fewer notes, and more silence.

Listening to Albert Fuller's harpsichord recordings, again and again I am amazed at the role silence plays in his music making; especially as a tool to highlight a particular musical moment. He prepares that moment with a break in the sound, the silence features the next music.

Those two little rests written by Lalo Schifrin, how long are they, then? It depends on knowing what you are about to say next.