Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony

Carlo Maria Giulini waited until he was 65 years old to conduct Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  This fact had always amazed me: why would one of the world's greatest musicians wait until the end of his career to lead this masterpiece, one that most of his peers would conduct more than any other work? Was it out of some deep respect for LvB, or did Giulini have some kind of inner fear or trepidation?

Frankly speaking, some of the world's greatest maestri have been vexed by the opening, which remains to this day one of the most difficult passages to conduct.  I cannot think of a single audition I've taken where I did not have to negotiate the first thirty measures or so, before I would be cut off and asked to move on to something else. (For my Pittsburgh Symphony audition, Beethoven's 5th was not on the prepared list of works, but they made me do it anyway.)

More recently, I thought about Giulini's long wait, and nodded to myself knowingly:  now I understand.

Every musician has his or her little blind spot, avoiding a work that everyone else does but you.  For me, it has been Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 3, "Scottish."

I can't explain exactly what it has been about this piece, but will try. It has nothing to do with Mendelssohn: I've done the Italian Symphony on several occasions, love the Hebrides overture, and if I conducted his Violin concerto two or three times every year, it would be sheer pleasure.  The Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream is still a modern miracle, that a seventeen year old could write such perfect, magical music.

But the Scottish has vexed me in ways that are hard to explain.  Is it the opening, which feels more like an inner andante, rather than the introduction to a symphony?  Have I avoided it because, unlike the Italian, it's harder and much less fun to conduct?

And then it came to me: what I have been most afraid of is the violins' first entrance.

There is so much that can go wrong with this passage.  For one, all violins -- 1st and 2nd -- play it together, in unison. It's very revealing, a bit of a high wire act. If just one player gets it wrong, or misses even the most minor detail, it can throw the whole thing off.

Getting out of the first bar is tricky, requiring just the right combination of rhythm, bow speed and breath. But even if the first bar goes without a hitch, there is still more that can go awry, particularly with the syncopated bow changes throughout the run of sixteenth notes, first descending before ascending, then falling gracefully to an appoggiatura, a momentary stopping place.

The unison continues while the rest of the orchestra waits, culminating on a high D that falls by a series of minor thirds, which, like the beginning of this passage, requires very deft playing. And because it is unison throughout, each player is required to play with the most perfect intonation. Whether you have 16, or 24, or 36 violinists, if just one of them is out of tune, you're sunk.

But for me, it has been none of these things -- however important they are collectively in any interpretation. No, for me, it has been something more basic, far more elemental than that:

the sound of that opening E.

One note.
Just that one pitch, played sforzando (accented) and then sustained.
That one note has kept me from Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 3.

It's the same E which happens to be every violinist's highest open string. Even as the E is played on the adjacent A string (playing the E on an open string would be sacrilege), the E string can still be heard sympathetically, which is not the most agreeable sound. Hundreds of years ago, when Guarneri and Stradivarius were creating the most beautiful violins still in use today, they used *catgut for strings; today, metal strings are the norm, and far more practical, for obvious reasons.  But what we have gained in practicality has been lost in the sound.

An orchestra is only as good as the sound it produces.  It's like a signature.  How a large group of human beings comes together in a unifying aural experience is where it all starts.  Everything begins and ends with the sound.  It's the first thing an audience notices, even before the concert starts. Listen to players warming up on stage, and you know.  You can just tell whether you are in for a satisfying sonic experience.

Until now, I have been afraid of that opening E, but no more. With the Hartt Orchestra, we began the season with a symphony by Brahms, and then a work by Schoenberg.  In both works, the string sound was glorious, a thing of beauty.

And so it will be with Mendelssohn, and his Scottish, and that opening E.  We had our first rehearsal last week, and the violin entrance was just as I knew it would be -- singing, radiant, wondrous.



on December 14, 2018, in Lincoln Theater, the Hartt Orchestra will perform works by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Susan Botti.  The concert is free, and you can get tickets here:  https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?show=91795


*Catgut strings were not actually made from the guts of a cat, but rather from the lining of intestines, from sheep or goats.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

A world premiere with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Last Saturday, I went to hear the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra perform at Carnegie Hall.  It was my first time attending an Orpheus concert, having heard many of their fine recordings over the course of their remarkable forty five year history.

What distinguishes Orpheus from other orchestras is that the musicians play without a conductor. So, how does that work, exactly? Who makes the decisions?  Orpheus solves this problem through a more democratic process, where each musician can have input into how a passage is played.  But when it's crunch time, in performance, the concertmaster is the de-facto leader.

At a rehearsal or recording session, just like in the movies, you can take a passage over and over again, until you get it right.  In a theatrical setting -- actors on a stage, instrumentalists behind the proscenium -- there is no such thing as a do-over.  With a conductorless ensemble, there is an added layer of danger. But when you hear Orpheus's gifted musicians, working together in concert, the rewards far outweigh the risks.

I was there for the world premiere of a former student, Shuying Li, who had been commissioned to write a new work for the ensemble. But I also brought with me an intense curiosity, to see how Orpheus would navigate the intricate music of Handel, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, without a leader in front.

Which is only partly true -- Orpheus does have a leader in their concertmaster, which, as is their custom, rotates from piece to piece (as with the other string principals), and so there were four different leaders for this program.  But when you have two to three dozen players on stage, it's difficult for all of them to have regular contact with the first chair violinist. The Orpheus gestalt is to apply "chamber music principles to an orchestral setting." Having different leaders over the course of one program gives them an additional challenge: for each piece, the players must get used to performing under the leadership of a new concertmaster.  Except for the Emerson Quartet and a few other ensembles, most chamber groups do not change leaders midway through a program.  It's a high wire act.

Orpheus is a model for other conductorless ensembles that have formed more recently, such as Les Dissonances in Paris, founded in 2004; A Far Cry (2007), in Boston; and Kaleidoscope (2014), in Los Angeles.  What these groups have in common is a direct relationship with their audiences, who feel more connected to the players and the music they perform.

I have to come clean: a review of an Orpheus concert should never come from a conductor. But I thoroughly enjoyed this performance, from start to finish.  That I was listening to New York's finest freelance instrumentalists was never in doubt. Right from the start, the music was electric, played with radiance and great precision. Throughout the evening, however, there were minor issues that, in all likelihood, only a very few in the audience would have noticed.

In the opening Allegro of Handel's Water Music, the horns played behind the ensemble, and I could tell from their position on stage that they were unaware of it; it's a problem with every orchestra, the distance between the winds and strings, and the resulting lag time, which a conductor can more readily spot and easily correct than a concertmaster can.

But at the onset of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto, with the masterful Truls Mork as soloist, the ensemble problems were in high relief. I could tell that the woodwinds could not hear Mork, and in some spots when he rushed, the lag was even more evident. The concern was etched on the concertmaster's face, as she tried to help the winds, beating out conducting patterns with her violin from her left shoulder.  The first raison d'etre for any orchestra, conductor or no conductor, is to get the four families of instruments -- strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion -- to play together.

Many years ago, the ensemble's distinguished bassoonist, Frank Morelli, and I had a heated conversation about the merits of Orpheus, in which he told me that the orchestra really shines when they are playing music with a soloist, because taking out the middleman (i.e., the conductor) makes it a more intimate, and musically satisfying experience.  A beautiful example of this occurred late in the slow movement of the Shostakovich, where the clarinet and celesta were in clear contact with one another.  It was as visually thrilling as it was aurally.

Over time, Morelli's point has been validated, as more and more baton-led orchestras have invited pianist/conductors to perform with them sans chef, in which the solo work is conducted from the piano. Violinists Joshua Bell and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg have served as music directors of the Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields and New Century Chamber Orchestra, respectively, simultaneously playing and conducting from the front.  But it's one thing for a violinist to lead an ensemble in Vivaldi's Four Seasons, or a pianist to lead a Mozart concerto; it's another thing entirely when a solo cellist plays Shostakovich without someone holding on to the reins.

For Shuying Li's Out Came the Sun, inspired by events surrounding the birth of her first child, the composer had an advantage over Handel and Shostakovich: her piece was written with the knowledge that it would be played by a conductorless ensemble.  (Readers may scoff at this suggestion, pointing out that Water Music would have been played with no conductor, but Handel would have been leading from the harpsichord, just as Haydn did with his symphonies.)

The Orpheus players were clearly in love with Shuying's music, which they played with force, delicacy and passion. The piece begins dramatically, with four quick hammer strokes, on two different augmented triads which, in Shuying's hands, sounded like modern consonance.  She was savvy with her choice of instrumentation -- strings with seven additional players: woodwind quintet, timpani and celesta. The music had an inexorable pull towards the poignant lullaby near the end, played on the celesta, before the music eventually died away.  The piece is ravishing, and was ravishingly played.  The audience -- which had clapped in between movements throughout the evening, and which had produced a coughing chorus at the start of Mork's hauntingly beautiful cadenza -- was rapt and quiet throughout.  For such a young composer, it was astonishing to hear music of such elegance and maturity.

Closing the program was Stravinsky's Pulcinella suite, an Orpheus tour de force. For this work, Liang-Ping How was the concertmaster and leader of a solo string quintet, featured by Stravinsky throughout the suite. Mr. How and the other four soloists played with charm and finesse, and in the penultimate movement, Vivo, the spiccato strings sizzled. (I've never heard it played better.) Throughout the performance, I kept thinking of how much Stravinsky detested conductors (even the ones who were good to him), and how most of his music post-Le Sacre is written in a manner that takes decision making and interpretive skills away from the conductor, rendering the maestro into little more than a traffic cop.  And so it was with this Pulcinella, handled deftly by Orpheus. The winds paused a bit too long between variations in the Gavotta, resulting in more unwanted applause. Earlier in the piece, after passing the melody to the bassoon, the *horn did not know that his time with the tune was temporary, and Mr. Morelli, who played all of his virtuosic bassoon solos with great panache, was drowned out.  But these were bagatelles in an otherwise captivating performance.

Orpheus will never have need of a conductor, but they would do well to have someone out in the hall during rehearsals, with score in hand, acting as a kind of stage director/producer/consultant, when needed.  If Truls Mork had been placed further upstage, between the front stands of violas and second violins, rather than down on the edge of the stage, in a world of his own, then the winds would have had better sound contact with Mork.

Still, the evening with Orpheus was, for me, one of the most enjoyable orchestra concerts I have attended in a long time. I'm just sorry I waited so long to hear them. From an audience point of view, it is thrilling not just to hear Orpheus perform, but to see everyone of its members playing, with undisturbed sight lines -- without the distraction of a conductor.

* at figure 6


Monday, October 3, 2016

Pennsylvania's orchestras, and Tip O'Neill

Friday was a rough day for orchestras in the nation's commonwealth. The Pittsburgh Symphony's musicians hit the streets on Friday morning; later that evening, only moments before the Philadelphia Orchestra was set to perform for a gala audience, the players walked out. The 550 gala attendees did stay for dinner, but only after some of them shamed some of the musicians for ruining their evening.

People will want to conflate the two, but their situations could not be more different.  The two things both orchestras share are a common state and reputation for being world class.  That's it. Beyond that, as Tip O'Neill liked to say, "All politics is local."  The same can be said for orchestras.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's challenges are not unknown to the orchestra world: in 2001, it moved into a new venue, the Kimmel Center, before it was even finished.  Ten years later, the orchestra filed for bankruptcy while, only a few blocks away, the Curtis Institute of Music was raising 65 million dollars for a new building.  (This news must have been deeply distressing to all constituent groups of the Philadelphia Orchestra, particularly its musicians, who once had enjoyed a base pay larger than that of most major orchestras.)  The Philadelphians' strike lasted less than two days, as both sides agreed to a contract, but the ill feelings may linger. 

Pittsburgh's situation could not be more different.  

Last night's Monday Night Football game at Heinz Field, in which the Pittsburgh Steelers clobbered the Kansas City Chiefs, brought back a wonderful memory for me.

Twenty years ago, I made my conducting debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony, in which I conducted the brass and percussion sections in our nation's anthem, right on the 50-yard line of Three Rivers Stadium.  It was a thrilling moment for me, and it made me understand how hard it must be for opposing team's players to hear their quarterback's play calls, because the crowd roar after the final note was positively deafening.  It actually hurt my ears -- that's how loud it was.  (It was also a bittersweet moment, as it was on that very same field that Franco Harris had caught his Immaculate Reception, thus destroying my beloved Oakland Raiders.)

Earlier that evening, on the bus ride from Heinz Hall to the stadium just across the river, one player opined that the Pittsburgh Symphony would never go on strike.  It made sense to me at the time, even as the orchestra's newest employee.   Pittsburgh, as I would come to learn, is all about its community. During my six years as Resident Conductor, the city's Cultural Trust transformed the downtown area, building a new Convention Center while bringing all of the arts organization under one umbrella. And when PNC park was built, many baseball fans had to walk by Heinz Hall to find out what concerts were on the horizon.  During the intermission of Sunday matinees, many musicians would be looking at a tiny television set near the stage door entrance, to keep tabs on the Pirates, Steelers or Penguins.  There is no more sports crazy town than Pittsburgh, and I loved it.  How many cities can say all three of their sports teams wear the same colors? Walking my children to school, every boy and girl was adorned in black and gold.

And this town LOVES its orchestra!  Evidence of that was when over 2,000 musicians from all over western Pennsylvania gathered in the Civic Arena to break the record for the World's Largest Orchestra. When the Pittsburgh Symphony went on a three week summer tour of Europe, every concert was reported in both of its daily newspapers, generating so much civic pride that when the orchestra returned home for opening night, the place was sold out -- for Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder!  

I am hopeful that both sides will come to an agreement soon.  Of all the cities where I have worked as a conductor, Pittsburgh was a highlight for me and my family.  (Well, maybe my ex-wife didn't like it that much, but the kids and I had a blast.)  Every day I drove downtown, I had the biggest grin on my face, as I was about to spend another day, listening to one of the greatest orchestras in the world.  

Philadelphia has Carson Wentz, Jeffrey Lurie, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Allison Vulgamore.
Pittsburgh has Ben Roethlisberger, the beloved Dan Rooney, Manfred Honeck and Melia Tourangeau.

C'mon guys. 
Let's come together.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lionel Bringuier, Riccardo Chailly, and the Conductor timetable

It has just been announced that Lionel Bringuier has not been renewed at the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, Switzerland. He was 26 when he began his tenure there, and will be done after four years, which is short by most standards. His tenure as an assistant to Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic was wildly successful, but the plaudits from one city don't always translate to another.

Riccardo Chailly was 26 when he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps.  Audiences and critics were underwhelmed.

That was 1979. Chailly has since gone on to become one of the finest conductors in the world today. His performance a few years ago with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig (on tour in the U.S.) of Strauss's Don Juan was one of the most thrilling performances I have ever heard, of any work.  I have conducted the work several times, but this performance made me want to rush home and look at my score, to see all of the wonderful details that Chailly had brought into a new light. This was great conducting, with a great orchestra. (The Gewandhaus, the oldest orchestra in the world, whose first conductor was Felix Mendelssohn, is generally not regarded as highly as the great orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam and the United States, but it was hard to tell on this evening.)

Will Bringuier, like Chailly, go on to become a great conductor?   Only time will tell. But with rare exceptions - such as Dudamel, Andris Nelsons, Lahav Shani, and Esa Pekka Salonen and Simon Rattle before them, great conducting takes time. Leonard Bernstein became a great conductor long after his music directorship with the New York Philharmonic. In his forties, Carlo Maria Guilini was a very fine conductor; in his sixties, his conducting became otherworldly.

One more thing about Chailly . . .  I met with him after the concert, and he could not have been more welcoming, more engaging, or more generous with his time.  A real mensch.  The truly great artists, such as Yo Yo Ma and Guilini, share this quality.  We can only hope that Chailly makes more visits to the U.S. in the near future.



Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Managing the adrenaline rush

Of the thirty to forty golf tournaments played each year on the PGA Tour, the four majors -- Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA -- are what the great players set their sights on.  Jordan Spieth, the new world No. 1, was recently asked why he likes golf so much, and what drives him to play so well when he gets to the last stretch of a major tournament.

His response:

"Your blood starts running; you get nervous; you get the adrenaline," Spieth said. "For golf, when that comes up, that exhilarating factor, you have to learn to control that for an extended period of time."

If someone asks me why I am a musician, I would give a different answer. But if someone asked me why I conduct, my response would be much the same.

Note how Spieth took the adrenaline factor a step further, saying "you have to control that for an extended period of time." This is not unlike conducting an epic work by Beethoven, Strauss or Mahler. To make the golf analogy more apt -- since a tournament is played over the course of a long weekend -- it might be more like conducting Wagner's Rheingold, Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung over the course of several days.

One of the hardest things for a golfer to do is to control one's emotions when you're not swinging a club.  This is a time when one must stay true to the task at hand, one shot at a time. As soon as you start thinking about your position on the scoreboard, you're in trouble.  (Not unlike in a concerto, while a soloist is in the middle of an extended solo cadenza, and the conductor may be prone to daydream.)

How often do we hear an athlete say, "We just need to stay aggressive."  Fine for football, soccer, baseball, basketball and other team sports . . . but what about golf? If a tournament contender approaches the 72nd hole needing a birdie to win, the objective is clear.  But if you go to the tee with a clear lead, and a bogey or worse will win it, playing it safe is best. (Jean Van de Velde's play in the 1999 British Open is a cautionary tale.)

But what if a player needs a par to win?  Is it best to be aggressive, or defensive?  In the 2006 U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson needed a par on the final hole to win; a bogey would have put him in an 18-hole playoff the next day.  He played aggressively, making a double bogey to finish in second place. Of his half dozen near misses at the U.S. Open (the only major that still eludes him), this was his greatest disappointment.

At the U.S. Open earlier this year, Dustin Johnson approached the par-5 18th hole needing an eagle to win, a birdie to tie. After two astonishing shots under the greatest pressure imaginable, he was only 12 feet away from the hole.  At worst, a playoff appeared certain. He had left himself a ticklish downhill putt, so the necessary aggression of his shots from tee to green would need to be tempered somewhat . . . or would it?

To win, Johnson had to strike the putt firmly enough to get it to the hole -- not a problem for a downhill putt.  But he also had to make sure that if he missed the putt, he would not want to run the ball past the hole more than two or three feet, at the most. As it turned out, the eagle putt (to win) went six feet past, and the birdie putt (to tie) also went by the hole. This, after two superhuman shots over a distance of more than five football fields, to within 12 feet of the hole.  It would be another major victory for Jordan Spieth, but the golfing world ached for Dustin Johnson.

I can remember a tournament when Peter Jacobson was on the 72nd hole, in the middle of the fairway, in great shape to make a good approach to the green and two putts to win. Just before he struck his six iron over the green into a pond, television commentator Johnny Miller warned the audience that Jacobsen might not be taking his adrenaline into account.

Was adrenaline a factor in Tom Watson's bid for a sixth (6th!) British Open title in 2009?  I don't think so. He had won at the highest level many times before, and thus knows what must be done at every critical juncture. Needing a par at the last hole to win, he had already hit a perfect drive off the tee, leaving hims something between an 8 or 9 iron to the green. What to do?  He went with the longer club, the 8-iron, which landed on the front part of the green, bouncing and rolling over the back edge, from where he would fail to get up and down for par, putting him into a four hole playoff, which he lost to Stewart Cink. He later said that if he'd had one do-over, "I'd probably hit the 8-iron easier."

If adrenaline was not an issue, perhaps his age was.  At 59, Watson would have been the oldest major tournament winner ever, by 11 years.  Six other golfers in their 50s (including Davis Love III, who was victorious at Wyndham only two days ago) have won lesser tournaments, but no one has won a major.  Julius Boros won the 1968 PGA at the age of 48, and many remember Nicklaus's amazing win at Augusta in 1986, at the age of 46.  Kenny Perry nearly won the Masters just months before his 49th birthday.


Golf and conducting have in common the potential to stay in peak form well into the latter stages of one's career. For most athletes and dancers, the mid-30s is a time of significant falloff.  Leopold Stokowski conducted well into his 90s, and there are number of conductors today doing great work well into their 80s, including Christoph von Dohnanyi and Bernard Haitink.

So, how does a conductor manage his/her adrenaline, particular at the end of a long and physically demanding work?

For the final pages of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, much of one's energy is focused on controlling the different tempi.  But this work ends in a blaze of glory: what about works that end quietly, such as Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, or Mahler's 9th, whose final minutes require not just the conductor's control over the ensemble, but that of the entire audience, which must remain quiet and still for several minutes.  For my performance of this masterwork with the Hartford Symphony, I was luckier than Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.


Far more than managing the adrenaline rush, my principal concerns are avoiding fatigue and injury.  I am now in my 50s, but my energy levels are higher and more sustained on the podium than they were ten or twenty years ago, in large part due to playing basketball 3 to 4 times a week.  I used to have problems with my rotator cuff, but no more, thanks to regular strength training.

There is one thing which gives me great delight:  the bigger the stakes are, the more fun it is. Just before a big gala concert with Yo Yo Ma, rightly considered a rock star in our world, many of the orchestral players were walking around backstage on eggshells, asking me questions they would not normally throw at me.

All I could think was . . . . bring it on.




Monday, April 27, 2015

On Louis Krasner, Dmitri Mitropoulos, and preparing for performances of Haydn's "Paukenmesse"


My students are tired.  It's the end of the semester, and they need a break. Final exams are looming, and they are preparing for recitals and chamber music concerts.

They don't want to know why I need yet another rehearsal in between two performances of Haydn's Paukenmesse (Mass in Time of War).  Time is at a premium.


They are right to ask.
Always question authority, yes?



They don't realize that this Friday will be our only rehearsal in Lincoln Theater, where we will perform Haydn's masterpiece that same evening.  And they aren't thinking that, even with all the hard work the orchestra has put into the piece, this Friday afternoon will have been only our second rehearsal with the chorus.


But sometimes a couple of good stories are the best way to explain, and for this, I decided to quote the great Ukrainian violin virtuoso, Louis Krasner.


As a student, I had the great opportunity to meet Krasner, for whom Alban Berg wrote his *Violin Concerto (which was to be conducted by Anton Webern, who bailed at the last minute, probably because of nerves).   Krasner also premiered Schoenberg's Violin Concerto.  


Krasner was a nice man, very engaging, and loved telling stories.  There were two memorable ones he shared of his time with the Minnesota Orchestra (formerly the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra), where he had been concertmaster in the 1940s, when Dmitri Mitropoulos was their music director.


(It is not well known that Mitropoulos was a mentor to Leonard Bernstein, who succeeded Mitropoulos as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958.)


Mitropoulos was legendary for his memory, even memorizing rehearsal figures in the score. He was a perfectionist, and his work ethic could sometimes drive the orchestra musicians nuts. For example, when the orchestra was on the road performing in smaller venues throughout the state (sometimes in high school gymnasiums), Mitropoulos would rehearse the orchestra at every stop, even if the work was well known to the players.


One player summoned the courage to ask him: 


'Maestro, why must we rehearse Beethoven's Seventh Symphony at every stop?  We know this work very well, we have performed it many times under your great leadership, and we know what you want from us.  Is it absolutely necessary to rehearse at every tour stop before a concert?'

to which Mitropoulos replied,


'My dear colleague, for the one person who may be hearing Beethoven's masterpiece for the first time, we must still do everything in our power to get it just right.'


After Mitropoulos had already left for New York, Mr. Krasner returned to Minneapolis for a visit.  He asked the players how things were going.

One player responded:


Orchestra Musician: 
Well, things are a lot easier here now, since Mitropoulos left.

Krasner: Oh, well then things must be better, yes?

Orchestra Musician:  
Not at all, Lewis! Because there is only one thing worse than being overworked - - -   boredom."









Sunday, March 8, 2015

Whiplash: Docudrama, or movie?

When I watched Whiplash yesterday, I was compelled to watch it again.  It was that good.  As I took in J.K. Simmons's blistering performance for a second time, it occurred to me that jazz musicians would probably react negatively to the movie; sure enough, only a few hours had passed before I heard that a local jazz great was unhappy with how his world was depicted in Whiplash.  That's too bad, because it misses the point of the film entirely.

Similar things were said of the movie Amadeus when it first came out, and it's still a part of the discussion now, in the picture's thirty year anniversary. Similarly, when Black Swan came out five years ago, there seemed to be as much discussion about Natalie Portman's failure to acknowledge her ballet double than there was about the critical and public praise for Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller.

For a music appreciation course I taught thirty years ago, I showed Amadeus (which had just come out in VHS) to my class of nearly 200 students.  It did not concern me that Salieri was not as evil as he was portrayed.  More important was what I hoped my students might carry with them to this day -- Mozart's towering genius.  To see F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, visibly moved by just one sustaining note on the oboe, sonorously played in the slow movement of Mozart's Gran Partita, is to put ourselves in his place, and to experience first hand what distinguishes genius from great talent. Make no mistake -- Salieri was a supremely gifted musician and composer.  In the film, he is recognized as such by everyone around him, including the court that employed him. But his curse is to know that he will never write anything even remotely as beautiful as what came from Mozart's pen.  (Salieri might have taken some solace in this story: when asked to write an opera for Prague, the great composer Franz Joseph Haydn suggested they ask Mozart instead, who gave them Don Giovanni.)

The fact that the author, Peter Shaffer, took liberties with Amadeus should concern us less than his achievement for having created it. Some artistic license was also taken for Black Swan, which was roundly dismissed by many who work in the world of ballet. But what gripped me throughout the film (in addition to Tchaikovsky's music for Swan Lake, far less well-known than his score for The Nutcracker) is the discipline and tenacity required of ballet dancers.

I should preface this by noting that I have studied dance, and have conducted for ballet, so my familiarity with the life of a dancer is far greater than your average moviegoer.  But in Black Swan -- Portman's Oscar-winning performance aside -- I found the inner drama of angst-filled dancers and what they routinely endure to be utterly compelling. Professional ballet dancers may have more in common with football players in the NFL (average career of 3.3 years) than with professional musicians or actors.  But the dedication and commitment required are similar.

Which brings me back to Whiplash.

Great filmmakers are not just interested in making a great movie; they also want to leave you thinking.  Think of the Red, Blue and White series by Krzysztof Kieślowski, or any film by Sam Mendes, whose Road to Perdition still haunts me to this day. People will long recount Simmons's performance as a jazz band leader in Whiplash, even though such conduct from a conservatory professor would not be tolerated from more than a day. (The fact that some college football and basketball coaches remain in their positions despite their abusive behavior is another story.) But Damian Chazelle's story of the young drummer, Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller), for whom there are not enough hours in the day to perfect his craft, is what remains with me.

Many summers ago, I was selected by a nationwide audition to play in the Disneyland Band. Having just finished my first year at Cal Berkeley, I was Andrew's age, still highly impressionable, and possessed of the knowledge that a life as a performing musician would be my profession. But I was not prepared for what I would witness during my ten weeks in Anaheim, where the most disciplined guys in our band were two jazz musicians from the University of North Texas. All of us in the band practiced, and we all worked hard, but these two young men, saxophonists both, were legendary in their work ethic.

Our job was to play five sets throughout the amusement park, from noon until nine every day, ending with the Electric Parade. In between sets, we would have a short break to relax, or grab something to eat. But I never saw the jazz guys in the cafeteria. Both of them were friendly, but they never hung out with the rest of us. The first thing they did during a break was to look for a corner fence or back alleyway behind the scenes (unseen by park visitors), where they could work on their scales.  That's all they did, over and over again -- scales!  Up and down, two to three octaves, in all varieties.   Major scales, minor scales (harmonic, melodic and natural, and some I did not recognize), chromatic scales, octatonic scales . . . . you name it, they did it.  I wondered at the time: who in their right mind practices this hard? The biggest gift these two young men gave me that summer was the realization that I would never possess the skill or discipline necessary to be a professional horn player. (Fortunately for me, endless hours of score study was not a problem.)



At The Hartt School of Music, jazz and classical musicians walk the same hallways and stairwells, but they don't hang out together, and I'm not certain if they share any classes.  That's a shame, because there is so much they could learn from one another.

It's great to see composers, dancers and jazz musicians (Charlie Parker, in Clint Eastwood's Bird, is another) up on the silver screen. But we must not forget that the music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington is only a starting point for what makes a great film.  Critics who wag a disapproving finger at the iconic characters so memorably played by F. Murray Abraham, Natalie Portman and J. K. Simmons are missing the point.