About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

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.

Monday, May 11, 2015

L'enfant et les sortileges, truly enchanting

The Chicago Symphony is currently presenting French Reveries & Passions with Esa-Pekka Salonen. We attended the concert last week that included Ravel's Mother Goose Suite,  Debussy's La damoiselle elue, and a very unusual work, an opera by Ravel titled L'enfant et les sortileges, or "The child and the enchantments."

The entire concert was wonderful. Mother Goose was quietly enchanting, and the Debussy was a very interesting piece, using a poem of Dante Gabriel Rossetti that tells the other side of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven." In "The Raven" a man longs for his lost love who is now in heaven. In La damoiselle elue (The Blessed Damsel) the woman, in heaven, longs for and awaits her lover still on earth. It was an interesting, rarely heard piece, but the piece that really charmed and intrigued me was L'enfant et les sortileges.

This short opera, with a libretto by Colette, tells the story of a young boy, possibly 6 or 7 years old, who doesn't want to do his homework. When his mother finds out, she tells him he must stay in his room until he finishes with only "tea with no sugar and dry toast." After she leaves he has a tantrum in which he smashes the teapot and cup, pokes the pet squirrel in his cage, pulls the cat's tail, knocks over the kettle, swings on the grandfather clock's pendulum and breaks it off, tears up his books and rips the wallpaper with the poker. When he collapses the enchantment begins. The furniture comes alive, singing that it's glad the boy will no longer attack it with his heels. In a series of arias and duets, the various objects express their points of view. Some of these are poignant, while others are quite funny. The CSO not only had supertitles projected onto the stage, but also pictures of which characters were singing at the time. So, for example, when the shepherds and shepherdesses come to life, we saw a silhouette type illustration of them on the screen. Of the eight soloists, only Chloe Briot, who sang the boy, had a single role. The others played several different characters.

The interesting preconcert talk was given by Derek Matson, a dramaturg who works with many Chicago arts groups. Among the insights he shared was that Ravel specified that the teapot must be a black Wedgwood and the cup was a Chinese cup. Mr. Matson explained that a Limoges teapot would be more typical for a French household, but Ravel wanted his teapot to be an American boxer, singing a sort of pidgin English during a foxtrot, while the Chinese cup answers in a French version of Chinese. Manuel Nunez Camelino, the tenor who sang the teapot, was a wonderful actor in all his roles. As the teapot, he used his arm as both the spout and a boxing stance, jabbing now and then.

Another highly unusual duet is the Duo miaule, a duet between the boy's cat and a female cat, sung entirely in miaows. Mr. Matson told his preconcert audience that the first audiences had been outraged by this duet and made so much noise of their own, adding miaows and catcalls, that it was difficult to hear the music. Another of my favorite parts was when the boy discovers that only his mathematics book has survived his rage. "Mathematics" comes to life as an eccentric professor type, singing incorrect equations, and then the children's chorus, representing numbers, streams on stage to join him.

The second part of the opera is more serious, moving into the boy's yard as the moon rises. There the animals confront him with the pain and harm he has done them and finally attack him. He realizes how cruel he has been, and when his squirrel injures his paw, the boy bandages it. This shows the animals that he has learned his lesson and they sing, "he is a good boy."

Until this concert, I didn't know all that much about Ravel. I knew Bolero, of course, and the Mother Goose Suite, Rapsodie Espanole, Daphnis and Chloe, and of course every horn player knows Pavanne for a Dead Princess. I had generally thought of Ravel lumped together with Debussy, both impressionists. With this concert, I realized that Ravel lived further into the 20th century than I had realized. He died in 1937. This charming opera also demonstrated that Ravel was definitely part of 20th century music and is distinctly different than Debussy. At one point he has the chorus speaking their lines in rhythm, like sprechstimme, used by Arnold Schoenberg as well as other 20th century composers. The orchestra includes a lutheal, a hybrid piano invented in the early 20th century. There is whimsy and humor in the musical numbers, as well as experimentation.

Requiring a full orchestra (including the rare lutheal), small chorus, children's chorus, and eight soloists, this an expensive piece for an organization to present. It's too bad because this is a delightful and eye-opening opera.

Here is the cats' duet from the Glyndebourne Opera production:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Slice of Musical Life

This past Sunday was a special day for me musically. The concert band that both my husband and I play in had its last concert of the year and our daughter, who also plays horn, and I were featured on a solo.

The road to this solo performance was winding and full of roadblocks.

Every fall, any band member who is interested can audition for a chance to play a solo with the band. Generally two or three players are chosen. The first couple of years it was all woodwind players and I thought the brass really needed to be represented. However, I didn't want to play a solo by myself. So, I asked one of the other horn players if he wanted to audition with me on a concerto for two horns. I picked this piece because it is one of a small handful of pieces for two solo horns with band. My horn player friend said sure. He also felt that we needed to give the woodwind players some friendly competition. We planned to work on it over the summer. Well, it seemed we were never in town at the same time. Fall came and he said he just didn't have time to learn the part, which was quite challenging. End of story, I thought.

I was telling my daughter Jamie what happened and she said, "I could do it with you." Well, she's not a member of the band. She's a busy graduate student. She doesn't live with us, making rehearsing more difficult. But she already knew one of the parts. So I said I would ask the conductor if we could audition even though she isn't in the band. Much to my surprise he said yes. She had filled in at one concert, so he said that was close enough.

The next challenge for me was that the part Jamie already knew was the part that I had planned to play. So I needed to learn the other part, which is very high. Both of us are really low horn players. Like training for a marathon, learning this part required a lot of practice time to build up the endurance.

The piece in question is a "double concerto" for two horns was written by Antonio Rosetti, a contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rosetti was German, despite his name, which he changed, probably because Italian musicians were paid more than Germans in the 18th century. He was a court musician in one of the many small courts in what is now Germany. He had two outstanding horn players in his orchestra, for whom he wrote at least 17 concertos, plus 6 double concertos. His music is rarely played today.

We auditioned last September and were one of three soloists chosen. Our concert date was in May.

Next roadblock: The Band music is rental only. The school district that sponsors our band ordered the music. Through some miscommunication somewhere, the wrong concerto arrived. It was only 4 weeks before the concert. The conductor told me he thought it was not possible to return the parts and get the correct music in time to prepare it for the concert. End of story, I thought.

But no, my husband was determined that we would play. He called the rental company the next day and explained the problem so persuasively that the correct music arrived at our house two days later! We had two rehearsals with the band and then it was concert time.

People are surprised that I get nervous when performing, but it's true. This time, though, it was such a joy to play this charming little piece with Jamie that my mind was only on the music and the pleasure of playing. A perfect performance? No, but I think we communicated the spirit of the piece. And we had fun!

Seize the moment! So many roadblocks along the way and this may very well be the only time that Jamie and I solo together in public. It's a great memory to have. 
Antonio Rosetti

A version of this post appears on my blog The Game's Afoot! 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Five Things: A Challenge

There was a challenge traveling around the education part of Twitter recently with the hashtag #makeschooldifferent. The challenge, begun by Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant)  was to post a list of five things that all start with the statement "When it comes to education we have to stop pretending..." I was inspired by the many lists I read, and I wrote my own.

Then I began thinking about whether I could do the same for classical music - write a list of five things that we need to stop pretending about. We have all known for several decades that classical music has some serious challenges in today's world. Declining ticket sales, aging audiences, lack of music education in the younger public because of cuts in school music programs, perceived lack of relevance, and a limited repertoire are problems faced by American orchestras today. All these issues are acknowledged by the people who run orchestras. Many different ideas have been tried to bring new audiences in, to go out to the public, and to vary the types of programs that orchestras present. I don't see a lot of pretending going on. Orchestras know what the problem is, but haven't hit upon a surefire solution.

On the other hand, young musicians training for a career in classical music also face problems that previous generations did not have. There are so many music majors graduating every year that there is no possibility that even most of them will be able to get jobs in orchestras or related classical music areas. Robert Freeman, former director of the Eastman School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music has written a book, The Crisis of Classical Music in America sharing his views on this problem. In a recent interview Freeman stated that 30,000 music majors graduate from American colleges each year. Not all of these will be instrumentalists seeking positions in orchestras, but it's still way too many instrumentalists for the number of orchestral openings each year. This means, Freeman says, "When you're in school, you're hoping to be the principal oboe. Then you get out of school and it turns out there are 500 candidates for the job, 100 of whom are perfectly well qualified." When I was an undergraduate, my teacher, Milan Yancich, told me that he used to get calls from NYC asking him to "send down a few boys to audition" (yes, boys). Music organizations actually had to solicit to get players to come audition. It was no longer like that when I was in music school, but it's much, much worse now.

So here is my list of five things. I'm writing as an audience member, music lover, and the parent of a young aspiring musician.

We need to stop pretending:

  • that technical perfect playing equals a musical performance. With so many well-qualified musicians auditioning, orchestras seem to be focusing much more on technical perfection. Quite a few great players of the past would have a difficult time winning an audition today because while the examples I am thinking of were outstanding musicians, they missed some notes.
  • that even a fraction of the music students now in school will be able to support themselves with traditional playing jobs. 
  • that the traditional classical music concert is not intimidating and confusing to newbies. I was struck by a friend's first experience at the symphony. She didn't know how to find information in the program and so had no idea who was performing or what they were playing. And yes, this was an intelligent woman.
  • that the event of recordings, followed now by a tsunami of ways to listen to performances hasn't caused all interpretations to move to the middle. The eccentric, and often interesting, interpretations of the past are now a rarity. It can also be an incentive to stay home and listen rather than dress up and travel to hear a live concert.
  • that change isn't necessary. Change might be just the thing classical music needs. There are already signs that this could be true. Classical musicians are giving concerts in unusual locations, like bars. Musicians are talking to the audience at concerts. 
I go to a lot of concerts. I love classical music and the standard repertoire. I sincerely hope that classical music will continue to be important - it communicates with us in a way that no other art form does, and connects us to the past. It is a lively world with great ideas and wonderful people. May it evolve and thrive! 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dipping a toe into arranging

The school where I teach has an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. assembly every January. It's quite a big production. There's music, skits, excerpts from MLK's speeches, and faculty and students, and often outside experts, are all involved.

I had taken part in 2013 by playing a duet with my husband - horn and tuba. We played Amazing Grace, which he arranged for us. It went well and added to the overall program, we thought. This year, though, the organizer, a fellow teacher, asked if I could put together an instrumental ensemble and "play something." I knew right away that this would mean arranging something. We would never have a standard instrumentation for any known ensemble. So I said yes.

I had not arranged any music since college. First I sent our a call for instrumentalists among the faculty and staff. I got one trumpet, one horn (me), one tuba (my husband), one clarinet/oboe, a mandolin/cello, and a percussionist. The only members of this new ensemble who played regularly were my husband and I. The percussionist told me very honestly that she hadn't played since high school.

Next, I went to IMSLP to search for spirituals in the public domain. I printed off a three-part arrangement of "We Shall Overcome" and an organ arrangement of "Deep River." I decided to set "We Shall Overcome" and wait and see if I had time to do something with "Deep River."

I had ideas about using the instruments to vary the texture and move the melody around. The biggest challenge for me was choosing a key that would be comfortable for everyone and still have a range that was musical. I also had to search online for a mandolin piece so I could see what the written music looked. I most definitely did not have time to learn Finale or Sibelius, so I had to write everything by hand.

Once it was done and I had copied the parts, we had a rehearsal. It sounded quite nice! There was an odd harmony in one measure, but we left it. The brass dominated, which was fine for this occasion. The mandolin could not be heard at all, so my friend the mandolin/cellist first thought he might amplify his mandolin. His second thought was that  he was really more comfortable reading bass clef than treble, so he decided to move his part into bass clef and play it on cello. Since the parts were simple and the rehearsal had gone just fine, and everyone in the group was very busy, we decided against having another rehearsal.

We were scheduled to play first on the program, as people were settling down. Four of us were set and ready to play in the gym. Our cellist was playing with an amplifier in the music room, thinking maybe he would amplify his cello. I think the volume from the brass had him worried. Our percussionist was missing. We waited, but finally the teacher-organizer asked us to begin. So we played as a quartet, and except for one phrase of the melody that was too faint, it was good. I found out later that the percussionist thought we were playing at the end, not the beginning, so she wasn't there at the right time.

And so I learned 1. why band directors are so obsessed with details and making sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do and when, and 2. that arranging is fun! I plan to try it again. I have some ideas for horn quartets that I hope to try this summer. And the third thing I learned, or relearned, is that trying new and challenging things is rewarding.