About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Critics and Criticism

In June, Dan Gingrich, acting principal horn of the Chicago Symphony, performed Mozart's Horn Concerto #3 with the CSO. We were at the Friday night concert. The Mozart was elegant, tasteful, Mozartian, and flawless, truly a pleasure to hear.

I read two reviews of the concerts, one in a newspaper and the other online. While both were positive reviews of the Thursday night concert. both mentioned that Dan bobbled a note. One note in a three-movement concerto. This the horn we're talking about, the most treacherous of instruments. Why would two critics feel it necessary to include a single chipped note in their reviews?

This got me thinking, again, about the purpose of critics. I, along with many other people, read movie and play reviews to see if I want to spend my time and money on them. It's a public service of sorts, though I also ask my friends what they think because I have enjoyed many movies that were panned by critics. Music reviews are also helpful in learning about works and performers, beyond a single performance. These are benefits to me, a reader of reviews.

Laura Collins-Hughes wrote an interesting review recently in the New York Times of a play that deals with the place and purpose of critics. The reviewed play was "The Kritic" by Brenda Withers, and is, in Collins-Hughes' words, an "exhilaratingly impassioned, many-layered challenge to critics, delivered with unusual sympathy." The lasting wounds of harsh comments, the question of boosterism in reviews, and support for artists versus telling the truth as the critic sees it are some of the ideas explored in the play. What Collins-Hughes concludes is that while telling the truth matters, how critics communicate negative criticism -- problems and failures in a piece -- is important. A character in the play argues that reviews are important for artists to learn and improve, and Collins-Hughes concludes with extending that argument to critics as well, that feedback from readers should help them "learn how they could do better, too."

I like that vision of critics. I would phrase it as telling the important truths about a performance or artwork in ways that will help both the ticket-buying public make informed choices and give constructive feedback to artists, along with the critic's personal take on the performance and works. With that in mind, I believe that pointing out one missed note in an otherwise wonderful concert does not fall into that definition.

Beethoven gets the last word: "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Modern Music Store

When I first moved to Chicago in the 1970s I went to Carl Fisher's on Wabash Avenue to buy music. It was in an old, old building and I would walk upstairs where the instrumental music was. The horn music was in several file cabinets tucked away in a corner alcove and you could look through the files undisturbed for as long as you liked. I would spend hours there looking for music for myself and later for my students.

Carl Fisher closed in 1999, "the last vestige of historic Music Row." Music Row referred to Wabash Avenue from Madison to Congress (for non-Chicagoans that is five city blocks!) where stores including Lyon & Healy, Conn, King Instruments and more filled both sides of the street. Carl Fisher had four floors of music, from current popular music to classical, and many out-of-print editions. [This information is from this Chicago Tribune article of March 6, 1999, "The Last Waltz."]

We know what happened -- fewer people read music and play instruments. With so many choices of entertainment and recordings of all kinds of music readily available, very few people play piano at home anymore. In earlier centuries purchasing a piano score or chamber music arrangement of current pieces and playing them yourself was often the only way of hearing music.

But a new industry has appeared that solves most of the problems of finding the sheet music you want. That is, of course, the internet. There are large companies selling music online and frequently you can download your purchase. There is imslp.org, a free source of downloadable public domain music. And there are zillions of tiny publishers who specialize in narrow markets, like French horn players. Sometimes these small publishers are hard to find even when you know what you're looking for.

Because the music I buy falls into this last category - horn music or chamber music that includes the horn - I now buy music online. I know that several businesses that specialize in horns and horn products carry these elusive horn works that don't appear in a Google search. Pope Instrument Repair in Massachusetts is one such business, Siegfried's Call in New York state is another. Both carry sheet music that is hard to find anywhere else.

I have no reason go to music stores anymore, but a very kind parent of a student gave both my husband and me gift cards to a local music store. It's a lovely store - open, airy space with practice rooms for private lessons. Like basically all music stores in 2016, they sell guitars, accessories, sheet music and books for piano, vocal, guitar, and drums. The first time I went I bought a music stand and case and a bottle of valve oil. They had my brand of valve oil! And who doesn't need another folding music stand.

We still had lots of gift card credit left and the website says they will order anything they don't have. I have gotten somewhat bored with Kopprasch, Kling, and Maxime-Alphonse, so I made a list of etude books that I wanted. I got a well-informed, engaging, patient employee. He diligently looked up all six of the books I was looking for and was able to find only one -- Gallay etudes, which are published by Alphonse Leduc, a major French publisher. He said he'd keep looking for the others, but later that day I got a call explaining that they could not find the other publishers in any of the sites that they can order from. He kindly told me where online I could order the other books directly (though I already knew that, I wanted to use up the gift card!)

I know that I am not a normal music store customer. It was only the gift cards that brought me in and my experience with the store was completely positive, except for not being able to obtain the music I wanted. I'm glad there are still music stores in towns throughout the country. Music buying has changed for musicians looking for mostly classical pieces or more advanced or unusual music. In 1999 when Carl Fisher closed in Chicago, stores in New York City were also closing, stores in both cases that had been in business since the 1800s. In 1999 the future was unsure. There weren't many places online yet to buy music, but in the last 15 years or so online stores have flourished and small publishers have been able to reach their niche audiences (like horn players!). We may miss the old music stores with their old world charm, but we can't complain about not having many choices of where to purchase music of all sorts.

I'm going to order my etudes online. The gift card? Another folding stand, the Gallay etudes, and a lifetime supply of valve oil and slide grease.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream

This past July I was lucky to have an opportunity to play in the orchestra for the Benjamin Britten opera A Midsummer Night's Dream. I would guess that most people immediately think Felix Mendelssohn when they hear Midsummer Night's Dream, and I was lucky to get to play the complete incidental music to the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream, with singers, a few years ago. It is a beautiful, evocative, iconic piece.

The Britten opera is not so well-known, but it is also a beautiful work that evokes the fairy kingdom as an otherworldly realm with definite dangers to both the young human lovers and the rustics, who venture into the forest to plan and rehearse their play. If you are unfamiliar with the plot of Shakespeare's play, you can read a detailed summary here.

Chicago Summer Opera, an organization that provides training to young singers and affordable opera to the public, presented A Midsummer Night's Dream as part of the 2015 program. The venue was Mayne Stage, in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.

This Midsummer Night's Dream begins with eery glissandos in the strong bass, setting the mood for the world of the fairies - beautiful and enchanting, but treacherous as well. Oberon, the king of the fairies, is sung by a countertenor, which again gives an otherworldly tone to the fairy forest. Puck, or Robin, is a speaking role, though it is a rhythmic speaking. This also sets the fairy world apart from the other realms in the play. The costumes and make-up in Chicago Summer Opera's production added to the otherworldly feeling.
Tytania, queen of the fairies, with Puck

Besides the misty world of the fairies, there is also a lot of humor, as seen particularly in the rustics. At one point they are accompanied by a raucous polka and later one of the men has an aria in which he sings off-key. According to one commentator, Britten included both musical homages and satire in the opera. (The Opera 101)

As much as I enjoyed watching and listening to the singers, I was there to play in the orchestra. I have played in opera orchestras before, but this was a unique experience. The orchestra for this opera is quite small, almost a chamber orchestra except for a large percussion section. The brass section consisted of two horns, one trumpet and one trombone, and with the small string and woodwind sections, everything we played was noticeable. I played second horn, which seemed to me to be a more challenging part than first horn, though my colleague on first might disagree. The parts were very independent of each other most of the time. There are also long, long sections when we did not play, during which we had to count measures through changing meters and tempos.

My biggest challenge, though, in the whole opera was a repeated low F, an octave and a half below middle C (on a part in F). This is close to the lowest pitch a horn can play. At this point in the opera, the rustics were presenting their play to the now un-enchanted quartet of young lovers and the duke and duchess, all from Athens. One of the rustics sings a comic recitative punctuated by the second horn's low F. The second horn is the only instrument playing at this point. Though I can usually easily hit that F, this section comes after a fairly long stretch of not playing. In addition, the hall was cold! The note did not want to speak. If it didn't speak, then the singer was all by himself. I decided I would be able to hit it if I could "warm up" close to the time I would need to play it. In the dress rehearsals I realized that right before the recitative, the Athenians had a short section in which they just talked, loudly, as they were settling themselves for the entertainment. I could warm up the note without anyone hearing, under cover of their conversation. I played it, fairly softly over and over while they talked. It worked, and a lovely F came forth.

The Mayne Stage, where A Midsummer Night's Dream was staged, is a restaurant and performance space. It reminds me of Second City here in Chicago, where you can have a drink and something to eat while you watch the show. Most of the audience sat at small tables. It seemed to me to be an ideal space for attracting an audience to opera - an audience that might not go downtown to an opera at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Because it is a smallish space, the orchestra was on the floor, with the brass section on a slightly higher level on one side next to the tables where patrons sat, and the percussion of the other side next to the tables. The action took place both on the stage and on the floor in front of the orchestra. It was a creative and practical use of the space.

I'd also like to mention our conductor, Codrut Birsan. He was knowledgeable, helpful, and clear! It was a pleasure to play under him.

If you have a chance to see this opera, go!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

IHS LA - The Search for a New Horn Case

One of my goals during this year's International Horn Symposium was to choose a new horn case. When I bought my Jerry Lechniuk horn a couple of years ago, the previous owner threw in an old Marcus Bonna case with it. It was a usable case, but the straps were held together with added clips, the handles started wearing out, the backpack straps were uncomfortable, and the lining began ripping in places. It was time to replace it.

Original horn case

One of the pleasures of attending a conference is visiting the exhibitors and, usually, buying stuff. There were many top-notch exhibitors at IHS LA. I planned to begin my search by looking at the very popular Marcus Bonna cases, but his booth was unmanned when I first visited, so I ended up looking at the Wiseman cases.

The Wiseman cases aren't like any other horn case. The opera case looks like a large briefcase. It opens from the top and you slide your bell and corpus into the slots made for them. It is called the opera case because it was made for working in tight performing areas, like the pit at an opera house. All Wiseman cases with zippers come with detachable zippers for easy replacement if the zipper breaks. You can just pull the whole zipper off as it is attached with super strong velcro. So practical.

It's an impressive design, but the newest case is even more impressive. It's made of carbon fiber, so it's almost indestructible, and it very compact, though unusual looking. I was really impressed with the design - The interior is structured to fit everything safely in the least amount of space.

Wiseman carbon fibre horn case

The story behind the company is quite interesting. Howard Wiseman made his first case, a bassoon case, for himself as a teenager who had to walk two miles and then catch a train to school and was concerned about the weight, awkwardness and size of his bassoon case. His teacher then wanted one, too. By the time Mr. Wiseman was 17, bassoonists throughout Europe had ordered cases from him.

I really liked the Wiseman case, however they are the most expensive cases I looked at. They do have a lifetime guarantee and would be ideal for an instrumentalist who travels a lot. I generally put my horn in the backseat  of my car and drive to rehearsals, so I couldn't justify spending that much on a case. At the IHS Symposium the one pictured here was available for $1,800.

I went back to Marcus Bonna, who was very helpful and happy to spend time talking with me. His company is located in Brazil and he makes a wide variety of horn cases, which are very popular. His newest cases include "baby" versions of larger cases and wheeled cases! I learned from him that my horn has unusually large corpus and would not fit in his compact cases. (The corpus is the body of the horn, minus the bell. These cases are all for horns with detachable bells.) Mr. Bonna had not brought his whole line of cases with him, so he suggested I go visit the booth of Siegfried's Call, a horn shop in Beacon, New York.

At the Siegfried's Call booth I met Scott Bacon, owner of the shop. He also had only a few cases with him. (It's expensive to bring  large items and then you have to take them home if you don't sell them.) He offered free shipping on a case from his shop in New York. By now I was somewhat confused by the Marcus Bonna model numbers, and I did not want to accidentally buy a case that my horn wouldn't fit in. Scott sent me back to Marcus to find out exactly which model numbers would work. Back to Marcus Bonna, who suggested that the M5 or M7 were my best options. Back to Scott, who chatted with my daughter and I about why he doesn't stock the MB7, my daughter's case. The design has the bell, in it's soft slip case, sitting atop the leadpipe, because the corpus rest below the bell. Scott said the leadpipe can cause tiny dents in the bell when it presses down on the leadpipe.

Marcus Bonna MB5

Marcus Bonna MB5 interior

Marcus Bonna MB7
Both Marcus and Scott suggested I visit another vendor at the Symposium, so my next stop was a room filled with cases. A friendly young man helped me try both of the models. He did not feel that the MB5 was a good fit for my horn. Again, the large diameter of the corpus was the issue. It fit, but the horn pressed up against the sides of the case, which could mean potential damage. He suggested the MB7 was the best choice.

Back to Scott to see if he would order it. He again expressed and clarified his reservations about the MB7. Then he showed me yet another case! This one was a Cardo case. This had dense foam instead of soft padding. This was a case you could even check when you flew, it was so protective. It was harder to pack up the horn because the foam fit so snugly around it. It was more expensive than the Marcus Bonnas but less than the Wiseman case. I went off to think.

Cardo case

All of the cases I looked at are designed for cut-bell horns, and all come with backpack straps as well as shoulder straps and handles.

Just as I had when I was looking at the Wiseman cases, I came back to the idea that I don't travel much with my horn. In fact, this trip from Chicago to LA was the first flight I had taken with my horn. I don't need the extra protection of the Cardo case. I don't want to inadvertently damage my bell, so the MB7 was out. The MB5, the case that so many of my horn player friends have, was the one. I went back to Scott, ordered the case, and it arrived at our house in Illinois a few days later, before we did! I started my search for a case on Monday of the conference and placed my order on Thursday. It was time well spent and boy, did I learn a lot about horn cases.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

IHS LA, Number 1 Highlight!

The International Horn Symposium in Los Angeles was seven days of highlights, but for me the biggest highlight came on Friday.

Our daughter Jamie had come with us. She and three other DePaul graduates, Renee Vogen, Parker Nelson, and Alex Laskey, competed in the IHS Horn Quartet Competition, non-professional division. They found out on Tuesday of the Symposium that  they tied for first place, which was awesome! The prize was playing a short concert before one of the Symposium programs. On Thursday, they were told that they would open for the Berlin Philharmonic horn quartet the next day! Then if that wasn't exciting enough, the Berliners said they'd like to play a piece with them as part of the recital!

The piece they agreed on was "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," because the DePaul quartet, which goes by the name #Quartet, had that Berlin Phil arrangement in their repertoire. They had a brief run-through with all eight of them at Disney's BP Hall right before the recital. We waited impatiently downstairs in Disney Hall until the ushers let us up the escalator.

BP Hall is in an open area of Disney Hall, tucked in a corner but not walled in. It's a pretty space, but somewhat boomy.

The #Quartet opened with "Chicago." After the applause, an audience member asked, "So who are you?" After a brief chat with the audience, they continued with the Divertimento from Francaix's Nocturno e Divertimento. They finished with the very entertaining "If you were the only girl in the world," by Alan Civil. [Side note: I heard this quartet at the 4th IHS symposium in Bloomington, Indiana, played by Mr. Civil along with Shirley Civil, James Buffington, and, I think, either the 2nd or 4th horn players in Cleveland. Mr. Buffington improvised in the middle and Mr. Civil hammed it up. They had the audience rolling on the floor.)

Then the four of them took their bows and went to sit in the audience while the Berlin quartet performed their recital. The program was taken from their Four Corners collection and included the charming"Sous le Ciel de Paris," and the beautiful "Nessum Dorma." They not only play incredibly well, but they are very entertaining, talking between pieces in a light-hearted way. Before "Sous le Ciel de Paris" each horn player offered his or her favorite part of France:
Sarah: "Fashion!"
Stefan Dohr (patting stomach): "The food!"
Stefan Jezierski: "The wine!"
Andrej Zust: "The ladies."

They finished their program, took their bows and then invited the #Quartet up to play "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" with them. Jamie played first with Stefan Dohr and he graciously told her to take the solos. It was a lively, fun performance. Afterwards, there was much picture taking!

Jamie and Stefan Dohr!

Monday, August 31, 2015

IHS Los Angeles, Memorable Performances

It is said that people who spend money on experiences instead of things are happier. My husband, daughter, and I attended the International Horn Symposium in Los Angeles at the beginning of August. We all agreed it was an amazing musical experience, sometimes overwhelming, but inspiring. There were so many different aspects of the week that I want to write about that I decided to focus on one aspect at a time. Today, performances.

There was an incredible line-up of horn players at IHSLA. The Berlin Philharmonic horn quartet, Dale Clevenger, Andrew Bain (who was also one of the hosts), Tim Jones (principal of the London Symphony), Arkady Shilkloper, Gail Williams, Julie Landsman, Jeff Nelsen, The American Horn Quartet, and on and on ...

Dale Clevenger is, in my opinion, one of the finest musicians alive today and his part in a recital that he shared with two others was a highlight of the week. He performed the Strauss Nocturno and several Mahler songs. These are not showy, virtuoso pieces - not technical, high, or fast. My husband described the performance as "transcendent" and "stunning." It was both. Dale is possibly the most musical musician I know. His son Jesse once said that when Dale plays, he lets the audience see into his soul. That was certainly the case in this recital. I feel very lucky to have been in the audience for this recital.

On Tuesday night we all trekked from the Colburn School to the Hollywood Bowl to hear a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert titled "Hail, the Mighty Horn." The program was the world premiere of Fanfare for 16 Horns by Bruce Broughton, Schumann's Konzertstuck, Der Rosenkavalier Suite, and Til Eulenspiegel. A big horn night! The soloists in Konzertstuck were Stefan Dohr, Andrew Bain, Tim Jones, and Sarah Willis. They were all wonderful. It was an exciting concert, especially sitting amongst scores of horn players. Conductor James Gaffigan announced to the audience that LA had been taken over by horn players and asked all the horn players in the audience to stand, which everyone did with great enthusiasm and loud whoots. I had never been to the Hollywood Bowl before (or to Los Angeles). It's a unique performance venue. We were sitting quite high up, so the sound was distant. I still think that Tanglewood is the ultimate in summer concert venues, but I'm glad to have experienced the Hollywood Bowl and very happy that I was at this concert!

The first night of the Symposium Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band played a concert at Cal Plaza Watercourt. This outdoor site is very attractive, with water fountains and plantings, and the weather was perfect for an outdoor concert. The program featured a number of horn players. The one who made the biggest impression on me was Arkady Shilkloper, a Russian jazz musician who plays horn and alphorn. The alphorn is a very long instrument, made of wood, that can only play the natural overtone series. This would seem to be very limiting, but Arkady does amazing things with it. The band was also excellent - a really fine big band. Here is a short example of Arkady on alphorn:

Friday night of the Symposium was the final concert of the American Horn Quartet. (Sadly, the Quartet is disbanding because of scheduling difficulties.) The concert was in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown LA. It is a huge, modern cathedral and the quartet looked quite small in the big, open space. We were fortunate to find seats near the front, and the sound was very good. The program was a variety of pieces from their repertoire, which includes everything from Bach to contemporary pieces they commissioned to Broadway and Mancini. They are an impressive ensemble - so tight, exciting, musical, and stylish. I feel very fortunate to have heard them. It was a bittersweet evening.

On Wednesday evening, the IHS took us all to the Los Angeles Theatre, an old movie theater from the 1930s. It seats 2,000 people and is a beautiful example of theaters of the time. It's very ornate. The ladies room in the basement features a round mirrored room (where I guess you would comb your hair?) and a nannies room, where parents would leave their children with the nanny while they watched the movie upstairs. The nannies room is decorated with a circus mural. We were at this particular theater to celebrate "The Horn in Hollywood." All the performers in this program were or had been studio players in Hollywood. The concert was a variety of horn ensemble pieces, some with additional musicians, interspersed with clips from Hollywood Horns of the Golden Years, a documentary. Both the concert and the theater itself made this a special evening.

I feel like I have included an awful lot of superlatives, but it was that kind of a week. There were many other memorable concerts and recitals - some I missed and some I heard. These are the ones, with one exception, that stand out the strongest in my memory. I will write about that exception in my next post!

The interior of the Los Angeles Theatre

The Stage for the concert.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mozart vs. Korngold, or Why Mozart should not be the Poster Child for the 10,000 hours crowd

Mozart is frequently used as the example for how having three key elements - 10,000 hours of practice, an excellent teacher or coach, and focused practice - lead to extraordinary performance in any field. I have written before in blogpost and also in a comment  about this idea, which is the topic of several books, including The Talent Code. The basic idea is that talent is not inborn, it can be developed if you have those three elements. If you read The Talent Code it's clear that it's more complicated than just that, but many people reduce it to a sort of formula.

It has always bothered me that Mozart is so often the example of the success of this formula. I kept thinking about why I didn't believe that Mozart's opus and legacy was the product of just these three elements, which he clearly had as a youngster.

Mozart was both an extraordinary composer and a world-class concert pianist of his time. He also played violin and viola well enough to play in professional orchestras of the time. He is revered today as one of the greatest composers of all time and his music is frequently played. He had a profound effect on musical composition, innovating in opera, piano concerti, and symphonies, which changed those genres for all composers who came after him. His works are clearly his lasting legacy.

Erich Korngold was a child prodigy, too. Born in Moravia in 1897, he began playing piano as a small child and composed his first works at age 8. He was often compared to Mozart. He was encouraged and his early compositions were acclaimed by Mahler and Richard Strauss for their originality and bold harmonies. He was asked to come to Hollywood and compose for films, which he did while continuing to write "serious" music. His film scores, such as Robin Hood and Captain Blood, are exceptional. After World War II, however, musical tastes had changed in Austria, and Korngold's work received poor reviews and small audiences. Today his concert music is rarely played and he is remembered mostly for his film scores. [Much of the biographical information here comes from the Korngold Society webpage.]

I heard one of Korngold's concert pieces recently and thought it was a very pleasant piece. When I listen to Mozart, I am drawn into the music because it is so much more than a pretty piece or an interesting work.

Returning to the three elements for becoming an extraordinary performer in any field, I came to two conclusions. There is a difference between being an extraordinary performer and an outstanding composer/creator. The composers whom we consider great - Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, etc. - not only wrote outstanding music, they changed music for everyone who came after them. By changing forms, harmonies, and instrumentation, they pushed music to new places. No amount of coaching or focused practicing leads to this level of creativity.

Second, look at the difference in Mozart's legacy and achievements and Korngold's. Both were child prodigies, both must have put in the 10,000 hours and the focused practice. Mozart may have had a better coach in his father than Korngold had. Alexander von Zemlinsky was his teacher, though for a much shorter period of time than Leopold Mozart taught and mentored Wolfgang. Overall, very similar background and opportunities, but quite different results. It's more complicated than a formula.

I'm not saying that the formula of thousands of hours of focused practice and a great coach won't have results. I think that it will, along with a few other factors, like a strong desire and some helpful genetics. You are less likely to be an exceptional basketball player if you're short, or a top gymnast if you're tall. The same holds true for musical instruments, for example, I am a terrible woodwind player because I have double-jointed fingers. But I don't believe that you can create a creative genius on the level of Mozart with a formula.

Tempting as it is to use Mozart as the poster child for the efficacy of developing extraordinary performance, he doesn't work for this. He went so far beyond extraordinary performance that he is in a category by himself.