Monday, July 28, 2014

Perfection versus Musicality

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."

An article in the Sunday Chicago Tribune of July 20, 2014, titled "A classic case of tryout panic," delved into the audition process that aspiring symphony players must go through to win a job in an American orchestra. The article, written by Donna Perlmutter, focuses on the difficulty of winning an audition in an American orchestra today and the process involved in auditioning. What struck me most were quotes from several orchestra members stating that musicians auditioning today must be perfect. "'Today perfection is a requirement,' says David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 'You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.'"

This theme of needing to play perfectly in an audition and the negative side effects has popped in a number of places recently, one of them being a remark by Glenn Dicterow, the retiring concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, in a New York Times article. "'It's a given that you're supposed to play perfectly, virtuosically,' he said. 'But maybe there's a bit of the generic quality in music making - people don't have as much individual style. I think that's just a product of the age we live in.'" Here in Chicago those great musicians with individual style included Adolph Herseth, Arnold Jacobs, Ray Still, and Dale Clevenger. You would not mistake their playing for someone else's.

A talented young musician of my acquaintance who has been taking auditions commented in frustration that at a time when orchestras are worried about selling tickets and continuing to have an audience for classical music, that the newer musicians joining orchestras are perfect, but boring, players, because that is what orchestras are looking for and hiring.

The Tribune article went on to discuss the audition process and how it has changed from an informal audition with the music director, often in his hotel room, to a structured process with much more involvement of the orchestra's members. Auditions today are behind a screen until the final round. Aspiring orchestral musicians spend endless hours practicing excerpts, the small parts of pieces that include solos and difficult parts for the instrument.

I was taking auditions 30-some years ago, mostly for smaller orchestras. Screens were becoming more standard at that time, which almost immediately increased the number of women in orchestras. Getting a job in an orchestra was becoming more competitive and difficult. I remember my teacher in college telling me "in the old days" orchestras would call up and ask him to send some players to an audition in order to give themselves enough to choose from. Part of the increase in competition when I was auditioning was from women, who dramatically increased the number of professional musicians when orchestras started hiring women more. Another factor was probably more graduates from more music institutions.

One of the auditions I took was for the Portland Symphony; probably 2nd or 4th horn. They were also auditioning for a trumpet position on the same day. The horns went first and took longer than the audition committee had expected, so they announced the finalists (including me!) and that they would hold the trumpet preliminaries next, then have the horn finals. After waiting hours for the trumpets to finish, the committee decided to continue with the trumpet finals, so we continued to wait, into the evening.  Once we had finally all played, the committee talked and then announced that they couldn't decide. They would let us know later and we should all go home. My impression that day was that the orchestra was astonished at level of the musicians who had come to the Portland Symphony audition and this was why they had such a difficult time making a decision. In the end, they chose the local horn player who had been filling in.

The number of outstanding players has only increased in the years since. It appears to me that with all these wonderful players, orchestras have grasped at perfect playing as a way  to pick musicians. What is lost, at least sometimes, is musicality and personality. The quote at the top of this post is attributed to Beethoven. It is undoubtably true. But to young musicians looking for a position today, it may sound like a luxury.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Technique and Interpretation

Last week I had the opportunity to hear a short recital by a former student of mine. He was preparing to appear on the WFMT radio show Introductions, which features pre-college musicians. He is a percussionist and played marimba on this recital program. He chose a varied program that was very enjoyable.

One of the pieces on his program was the Prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1, which I have been working on, off and on, and which I wrote about earlier. He played it technically very well and also did some lovely phrasing with ritards and dynamics. When we talked with him afterwards I complimented him on how musical that piece was, and he said that the interpretation was the challenge for him. He had learned the notes in about a week, he said, but then his teacher had him listen to numerous recordings and work on making it musical.

I know that technique is different on different instruments -- what's easy for me on horn is hard for you on some other instrument, and vice versa, but - a week! Of course, he spent much more time on everything that comes after you learn the notes and rhythm. That got me thinking about why we choose the music we choose to learn.

The Bach Suite is an excellent technical challenge for me - it's so difficult on horn. It's also been an opportunity for me to listen to recordings of the Suites and think about how to play this very notey music expressively. However, until I have more command of the technique, I can't really do much with the musicality. On the other hand, when I played the Symphony #4 by David Maslanka this past year, the notes were simple. But making musical sense was a big challenge. This extremely demanding work for band begins with a solo for horn alone. It is 29 measures of mid-range playing with easy rhythms and lots of long held notes. (The technical difficulties come a little later.) There aren't many expression markings. I was quite nervous about the whole piece, but mostly those 29 bars, so I got some coaching from a teacher. He didn't know the piece at all, but was a huge help in thinking about ways to use dynamics, articulation, and silence to create an effective introduction to the piece. I was happy, the conductor was happy, and hopefully the audience enjoyed it. I worked as hard on this solo as I am on the Bach, but in a different way.

The point of playing a piece is to make music and to communicate with your audience, and both technique and interpretation are important in achieving that. The balance of challenge between those two elements varies from piece to piece and from performer to performer. I knew this already, but sometimes there's a reminder, like my student and the Bach Suite.

If you'd like to hear the Maslanka symphony, there is a very good YouTube recording by the U.S. Navy Concert Band, conducted by Mallory Thompson. There are lots of great recordings of the Bach Suites, including ones by Yo-Yo Ma, Pablo Casals, and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mozart and Salieri

Last week we went to a rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony. We usually get two invitations a year to open rehearsals and since it's now summer and school is out, I was able to go! Ricardo Muti was conducting and the program being rehearsed was Schubert Symphonies number 1 and 6 and the Mozart Bassoon Concerto with David McGill as soloist. Rehearsals are always interesting to watch, even when you can't hear what the conductor is saying to the orchestra, but Muti's are especially fun because he loves to talk to the audience.

In talking about the Schubert and Mozart works on this program, he brought up the fact that Antonio Salieri was Schubert's teacher. He added something along the lines of, "This was not the fictional Salieri, but a different Salieri." This real Salieri had in fact been very helpful to Constanze Mozart after Mozart died as well as being a respected teacher, according to Maestro Muti. Muti blamed the bad reputation that he has today on Pushkin.
Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang A. Mozart

Pushkin! I have seen Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus twice, once when it was fairly new and again more recently. I've also seen the movie a number of times. I've also read the play, but I don't remember ever hearing that Pushkin was the first to have the idea of an evil Salieri driving Mozart to his early death. So I looked it up on the Internet. There are lots of discussions of Pushkin's short play, titled Mozart and Salieri, and you can even find the complete text, in English. It is twelve pages in all. Salieri is depicted as the well-trained, ardent, but uninspired musician, who admires Mozart's work and praises his genius. Mozart is immediately shown to be less serious, laughing at the way an old man mangles an aria from Don Giovanni on his violin. Salieri invites Mozart to dine with him, deciding that he must poison Mozart because Mozart is so superior to every other composer that none can ever match him. Mozart creates exquisite music that affects everyone who hears it and then he flies away, leaving no successor, so the sooner he dies, the better. A confusing argument; I think he is saying that Mozart is going to ruin things for everyone else, who all appear second rate in comparison.

The fictional Mozart and Salieri as drawn by Pushkin are clearly the basis for the characters in the play and movie Amadeus. Both Pushkin and Shaffer are using these fictional characters to explore ideas -- how does mediocrity respond to genius? What does genius look like? Why can't everyone with the desire who works hard also be a genius?

In Amadeus, Salieri hounds Mozart to death (no poison) by being the mysterious figure who commissions the Requiem, causing Mozart to believe that the Requiem is somehow intended for his own funeral. Salieri is driven to do this by the dichotomy between Mozart's incredible music and his silly behavior and scatological humor. Near the end of the play, however, Salieri obliquely tells the audience that he made the whole thing up. Unfortunately, what everyone remembers is that Salieri "killed" Mozart and that this fictional Salieri is, in the character's words, "patron saint of the mediocrities."

As Maestro Muti stated, Salieri has been unfairly maligned over the centuries as the evil nemesis who did Mozart in. Mozart has also been unfairly depicted, reduced to a child-like genius, his music somehow completely divorced from his personality. Amadeus helped with that misrepresentation, but didn't start it.

Incidentally, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a one-act opera using Pushkin's play. The opera is also titled Mozart and Salieri, and it is performed now and then. There are several youtube recordings, including this version by the Chamber Opera Theatre of New York.  The opera is about 45 minutes long. You can also get the complete score and parts as a free download from IMSLP, in case you want to follow along or stage your own production. IMSLP, the International Music Score Library Project, posts thousands of music scores, all in the public domain.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

Catching up on my reading this weekend, I just read the New York Times article "Tested Out Upstate: Classicals's Future," by Zachary Woolfe. The article begins with the demise of the Syracuse Symphony, and a look at what three other upstate New York orchestras, Rochester, Buffalo, and Albany, are doing to remain viable. As the mother of an aspiring orchestra musician, as well as a lifelong classical music lover, the future of classical music is of great interest to me.

The beautiful Eastman Theater, where the Rochester Philharmonic plays
What are these orchestras doing? Much more outreach, more popular music, more themed concerts. The Chicago Symphony is doing all of these things, too, but on a more secure footing financially. The CSO has movie nights, where the orchestra plays the sound track to movies like Casablanca and audiences watch and listen. The Beyond the Score concerts take a multi-media look and one work per concert. There are concerts with receptions after them, aimed at younger concert-goers. The current themed concerts are "Truth to Power," a series on Soviet composers.

Some musicians and music lovers worry that some of the efforts to bring in ticket buyers waters down the mission of classical music. If we're playing and listening to movie music or Disney tunes or a crossover concert, is that destroying the essence of a symphony orchestra? Or is it simply a way to bring in needed ticket revenue? It probably depends on how much time is devoted to these ventures and how the orchestra handles them. Musicians have always had to play some "popular" music, though, along with the standard repertoire.

The Albany Symphony has the most radical solution and now hires its musicians on a per service basis, saving the orchestra money. This is certainly not ideal for the musicians who are now more like freelancers, working a number of jobs without the benefits of full-time employment. This situation is similar to that of "adjunct" teachers at colleges, who make much less than full-time professors and have no job security or benefits, such as health insurance, through work.

European orchestras don't have these problems. Funding for classical music seems to be a priority there. The Vienna Philharmonic has double sections of players because they also play the Vienna Opera, and there is something like a ten year wait for subscriptions to the Philharmonic concert series. I know, there are significant cultural differences between Europe and the U.S.

A comforting thought from Zachary Woolfe is that classical music has pretty much always been in trouble. Every new technology, from the grand piano to the Internet and iTunes, has been seen as a threat. This issue of new technology threatening the valuable aspects of the status quo is not new or limited to music. A wonderful book about about this phenomenon is Hamlet's Blackberry, by William Powers. From the invention of written text, which threatened the oral tradition, to our current struggles with technology, change and the resulting upset are a constant in human existence. The title refers to a new tech tool in the 16th century, called a table in the play. This table was an erasable device, called a table book or writing table. It had coated pages that could be written on and then erased with a sponge quite an innovation in 1590. Hamlet refers to it several times in the play.

What does all this mean for young musicians like my daughter and her friends? They will need to think creatively and be flexible. Musicians are looking for new venues and ways to bring classical music to audiences. Shuffle concert in New York City presents audiences with a list a possible pieces, then randomly calls on audience members to choose the next piece. I recently wrote about 42nd Parallel, the new conductorless orchestra in Chicago. Concerts are being presented in places other than concert halls, including London pubs, and bars and cafes in U.S. cities. Interestingly, in Johann Sebastian Bach's lifetime there were no concerts as we have today, music mostly taking place in the church or the home. But, he did have some secular cantatas performed at coffee shops.

I love going to the symphony and other music performances. I am hopeful that our great symphonies and opera companies will continue and be strong, but I am also hopeful that new ways to connect with audiences will be successful, without "dumbing down" the music.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mozart in Fiction: Mozart's Mother

It seems so appropriate that I should write about Wolfgang Mozart's mother on Mothers' Day, but it is really coincidental. I finished reading the historical novel, Stitiches in Air, a few days ago.  The author is Liane Ellison Norman, who has written several other historical novels. Stitiches in Air is out of print, but can be found used and in some libraries.

Anna Pertl Mozart is a shadowy figure. Not much is known about her. Her father was a part-time musician, as was her maternal grandfather. Her father died when she and her sister were very young, casting the family into poverty. Her sister died as a child. Anna married Leopold Mozart, had seven children of whom only two survived. From a letter that Leopold wrote to her asking her to find and send a piece of music, it's clear that she could read music. Anna died in Paris at age 57 of an unknown illness. Leopold blamed Wolfgang for Anna's death and accused him of neglecting her while he went out each day having fun.

Because of how little is known about Anna, any story written about her life will have be mostly invented, which is what Ms. Norman has done. I found the beginning of the book very interesting - a picture of Anna's childhood before her father's death in the village of St. Gilgen, followed by several years in a nunnery. The nunnery education of Anna and her sister is fictional, but it fits the story well. The "stitches in air" of the title refer to the bit of lace Anna holds in the one portrait of her, which may have been a way of showing that she was a lace maker, though we don't know this for sure.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the novel, though interesting, becomes more and more a statement about how the author views the plight of women in the 18th century, using the Mozart family as a canvas. I have written before about truth versus fiction in historical fiction, and I felt the same annoyance with this book as with several other historical novels about the Mozarts and other historical figures. Ms. Norman depicts Anna as a repressed musical genius, and Leopold as both a tyrannical husband and father and a lesser musician who passes her compositions off as his own. She hints that Wolfgang's early works were either written by Nannerl or Leopold. Later, Nannerl also becomes stifled as a musician, but who accepts her lot in life, giving up composing and performing, and even her desire to marry Franz Armand d'Ippold. In actuality, Nannerl probably did compose and give it up, but she continued to be a performer and teacher.

As the story continues, Leopold becomes increasingly tyrannical, turning against Anna, telling her that women composing is unnatural. There is quite a lot of discussion of witchcraft trials, related to women trying to do "unwomanly" activities. From the author's notes, her research shows that Salzburg had many accusations of witchcraft against women and a number of trials. Interestingly, Ruth Halliwell, in her very thorough investigation of the Mozart family, their correspondence, and the social, economic and political milieus of the time, does not mention witchcraft at all. To me this indicates that it was most likely not a concern to the Mozart family.

The picture of the Mozart family's life I carried away from this novel was very different than the snapshot I got from Halliwell's The Mozart Family: Four Lives in a Social Context. Ms. Norman paints a somewhat deary, isolated existence, with a few friends and social activities few and far between. Halliwell's study of the family documents shows that they entertained several times a week, frequently having friends over to make music, play cards, and shoot air guns at targets. Their circle of friends and acquaintances was huge. The family also regularly attended the theater. In their letters to each other, the Mozarts regularly shared jokes, including quite a bit of off-color humor. These fun-loving parts of life are missing from Stitches in Air.

The author includes an afterword in which she explains what parts of the story are factual and which events she created. In her afterword she refers to Ruth Halliwell's book, incorrectly referring to it as Mozart's Family and calling it "an elaborate defense of Leopold's good name." She does not list this book in her extensive extensive bibliography of references consulted. This leads me to believe that Ms. Norman did not read Hallliwell's book, as it is not a defense of Leopold, but an attempt to accurately depict each member of the family without the layers of myth that have accumulated.

Anna Pertl Mozart has appeared in novels as everything from an uneducated, coarse woman who swears frequently, to the musical genius of Stitches in Air. She was probably courageous, to have undertaken so much traveling in the 18th century. She was surely musical. As part of a fun-loving, sociable family, she must have enjoyed much of her life. But she will remain a mystery.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

42nd Parallel Orchestra

42nd Parallel Orchestra at Unity Lutheran Church, Chicago

We had the pleasure of attending a concert of the new chamber orchestra, the 42nd Parallel, this past Saturday. This was only the second concert of this group, based in Chicago. They are a conductorless orchestra. We found out about the ensemble because our daughter was playing horn in this concert. The members are all young musicians, many of whom are members or former members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. Civic members have been able to work with Yo-Yo Ma the last few years, and one of his techniques with the orchestra is to have rehearsal without a conductor. This sets the musicians up to listen more to each other and to discuss musical issues. We were told by a member of the 42nd Parallel that this was the impetus for starting a conductorless orchestra.

We really enjoyed the concert, which included the Overture to the Magic Flute, Haydn "Bear" Symphony, and Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. The theme of the program was classicism. The playing was energetic and enthusiastic. The players are very good and the group had an audience-friendly format with several members talking about the pieces. Unfortunately, sitting in the balcony we couldn't hear these introductions very well, but the downstairs audience was appreciative.

These musicians deserve credit for creating their own opportunities for music-making. As established orchestras continue to struggle to keep and grow audiences, and orchestra jobs are so difficult to find, new groups like the 42nd Parallel may be part of the future of classical music - musician-run and audience friendly, but still playing the great composers and pieces of our cultural history. I look forward to seeing what this orchestra does in future concerts.

If you are interested in learning more about the 42nd Parallel, the best place seems to be their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/42ndParallelOrchestra?ref=br_tf

Monday, May 5, 2014

Memories and Instruments

An article in a recent New York Times, After Playing, Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow, chronicled the bittersweet decision to give away the musical instrument sitting in one's closet, unplayed for years. The author is music critic Zachary Woolfe, who explains his own decision and feelings about deciding to donate his cello to the WQXR instrument donation drive. (The instruments will be donated to needy public school music programs.) He writes, "Those who have been musicians, even casually, will understand how unimaginable such a life can seem." Each person in the Times story had some regrets and a sense of loss, even while being pleased to help such a worthy cause. Perhaps the instrument is a reminder of good times, or maybe, like Mr. Woolfe, they hope that they'll take it up again someday. In Mr. Woolfe's case, he realized that he is much more involved in music now as a music writer, than he was as a cellist. That realization helped him donate his cello happily.

Of course, professional musicians who play constantly and depend on their instruments feel even more strongly about them. In 1979, Eugenia Zuckerman wrote an article for the New York Times magazine titled, "Rhapsodizing Over Instruments." She interviewed prominent musicians about stolen instruments, near losses, and injuries to their instruments. The quote from Isaac Stern, "It becomes an extension of the total you - body, head, fingers. You don't realize how close it is to you, how much a part of your body, until it is gone," summarizes quite well the feelings of most of the musicians interviewed.

She focused mostly on string players and the rare Strads and Guarneris, dismissing brass instruments with their lower prices. In fact, the article is a reminder of how much prices for all instruments have increased. At the time of the article's publication in 1979, a Stradivari had recently sold for a record $400,000. Today Strads sell in the millions of dollars.

Reading the article brought thoughts about my own unused horn, sitting under the piano in the living room. My situation is not he same as the people in Mr. Woolfe's article. All of them had stopped playing their instruments, usually decades ago. I still play, almost every day, in fact, but after purchasing a "new used" horn, I have stopped playing the old one. My new horn is so much better than the old one. It has made many aspects of playing easier and a lot more fun. However, I'm not giving up the old horn. It's an unusual model, made by the Alexander company of Mainz, Germany. Alexander makes outstanding brass instruments; the Berlin Philharmonic horn section all play Alexanders. My Alex is the model called the Heldenhorn, one of only about 20, designed and exclusively sold by my teacher, Milan Yancich. He modeled it on his Geyer horn and convinced Alexander to make it.

I played that horn for more than 35 years, though I barely took it out of the case for quite a few of those years. It served me well. And, it's a connection to my past and to Milan Yancich, who was a huge influence on my playing. So, though my new horn is a definite step up, I will keep the Heldenhorn for now.