Monday, December 17, 2007

Rachel Lee

I was asked about Rachel Lee, a young phenom (not yet 21) who was a guest soloist with the Hartford Symphony in late October.

The first thing I look for in a young soloist is poise, and that's something that doesn't come through completely until you get into the heat of performance. In this regard, Miss Lee was a total professional -- anything new and different on performance night did not throw her off in the slightest...if anything, she would merely smile and run with it.

But there was something else about her that struck me from the first rehearsal, and that was her courage to do what she felt Mendelssohn asked. The first movement of his Violin Concerto has the tempo marking, Allegro appasionato, but most violinists play the piece as if Mendelssohn writes "Allegro vivace." Miss Lee had the gumption to take a tempo that was not fast -- some might even think it was a tad too slow -- but the end result was that her tempo choice allowed her to fully express the 'appasionato' direction, giving her time to do things in between the notes that would not have been possible at a faster pace.

Interestingly, the orchestra was somewhat divided on her interpretation --- some wanted the 'usual,' while others were very taken with her unique musical point of view. (Our concertmaster, Leonid Sigal, was among those who were truly impressed with her.)

I would welcome the opportunity to make music with her again, and look forward to witnessing her continued growth as an artist.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Holiday Pops, and murmurs on Tchaikovsky

Truth be told, I cannot remember having more fun conducting a pops concert. For those of you at the evening performance on Saturday, there was a moment after our trumpet section had just put the finishing touches on their horse whinny in Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," and I started laughing and couldn't stop! Not the kind of thing you expect from a conductor in the middle of a performance. But I think what happened is, for that brief moment, I became a member of the audience, a spectator rather than a participant. And when I acknowledged Jay, Tom and Jerry, they stood up and pumped their chests out as if they had just played the call from Beethoven's Leonore Overture no. 3. Wow.

There were other moments...

Many of you have remarked to me how surprised you are to learn how nervous I get for my pre-concert talks before Masterworks concerts. Well, our Santa Claus was nervous as ever before the Holiday concerts, but you wouldn't have known it to see him in front of the audience. His biggest concern was remembering his lines. (I wrote two dialogues for him to do with me on Act I and Act II.) He only received the second dialogue on Thursday, which made him more nervous, and then, to throw him another curve, he rehearsed his lines with the Connecticut Children's Chorus (for their jaunty take on "Mr. Sandman" to the words, "Mr. Santa") only moments before the matinee concert, which only made him more nervous.

But when Santa told me he also sings the blues and plays guitar, I somehow knew he would be fine, no matter how nervous he was. (There is no substitute for having performed in front of audiences -- either you've done it, or you haven't. Santa had.) And I knew I'd be able to count on him in a pinch.

As it turned out, he was sensational. Our audiences loved him. When he started dancing to the kids' singing, I nearly lost it again. And rather than trip on his lines as he had feared, he ad-libbed new lines on both performances, throwing me curve balls that I had not expected. Well, given our mantra for "Expect the Unexpected," seems only proper that the music director get a taste of his own mediciine from time to time.

My favorite part of the program? Well, though I always love performing with the the Hartford Chorale (and Saturday was no exception), and though soprano Sarah Callinan was a revelation, my biggest thrill was conducting the finale to Act I of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, with orchestra, children's chorus.... and ballet. You see, I have never had the pleasure of conducting this ballet, for some reason. Music from the suite? oh my gosh, I cannot count how many times I have conducted this music...dozens upon dozens of times. But the Snow Pas de deux must be the most gloriously majestic C major music known to man -- it makes me weep and shiver to hear this music. And then the Pas de deux from Act II......oh lord help me, when the harps enter, and then the strings with their pizzicati, all acting as tapestry for the celli, as they play a descending G major scale. That's all it is, folks, a G major scale. But in Tchaikovsky's hands.....pure genius.

Music teachers everywhere tell their students: 'Music in the major mode is happy; music in the minor mode is sad."

Then why does Tchaikovksy's music in the major mode sound so sad, so poignant? His gift for melody has few equals, if any, and there are none who do [or did] it better.

Monday, October 15, 2007

after Yo Yo....

People have often asked me, "Is Yo Yo Ma as nice in person as he appears to be on stage?" To which I respond, "no.....he's even nicer."

We met one hour before the orchestra rehearsal, a custom I always do with guest soloists so that there are no surprises when soloist and conductor work with the orchestra players later. Yo Yo had arrived early. (I have read that Sting and Tom Hanks are much the same way, always early for everything, even the most trivial appointments, and wonder if this is something that the truly great artists have in common?) He was waiting for me, cello in hand, and was ready to play Dvorak for me, asking me what I'd like to hear, to which I responded, "Yo Yo...having already heard you rehearse the Dvorak with Levine and the BSO last month, and then your performance on television with Maazel and the New York Phil a couple of days ago, and of course your two different recordings of Dvorak a million times.....well, if I'm not ready for you now, I have no business being here!" And since I knew he'd be hungry after a long drive from Manhattan, I came prepared with sushi from Ichiban. We ate, and talked -- everything from what it's like to make music with Maazel to his close friendship with the late Fred Rogers, of "Mr. Rogers" fame. The orchestra's stage manager, Ken Trestman, interrupted us.

KT: "May I touch your cello?"
YYM: "Do you play?"
KT: "Well......"
YYM: "You have to try's the cello Jackie duPre played...."

and Yo Yo (while Ken protested) proceeded to give a man he'd just met his magnificent Davidoff cello.

Now, how many artists would let you touch their Stradivarius, let alone play it?

Mary Ellen Guertin (wife of board member, Pierre Guertin) was there with 20 or 30 kids, so the rehearsal felt like a performance of sorts. (It doesn't matter if there are 28 or 2,800 in the audience -- orchestras always play differently when people are listening.) And Yo Yo did many things in rehearsal that I did not expect. But in every instance where he pushed or pulled or stretched or suspended, it was always so natural, so logical, always in a beautiful state of flux. That evening, he was different again; it was an entirely different performance. (I must remember to ask Mary Ellen if the Dvorak was a different experience for her in the evening.)

One moment I won't soon forget.....

...there is a magical duet between the cello and violin late in the finale, and in this passage during the rehearsal, I later realized I had not done as much of an accelerando (Dvorak's direction in the score) as I would have liked. Hours later, in the performance, Yo Yo was playing the duet with our concertmaster, Leonid Sigal, clearly enjoying the moment, and yet he still managed to indicate to me with every bone in his back and the force of his musical will that he wanted to fly at this point. And so I took off, taking the orchestra with me, and now I know what Han Solo feels like when he goes into hyperspace. Wow.

But what is it about the end of this Dvorak cello concerto, in which the finale begins with such vim and verve, and then a dozen minutes later takes on a completely different sound world, filled with such pain and sadness? Ah, yes. food for thought (and a future post).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Yo Yo Ma comes to Hartford

The Hartford Symphony will be performing the Dvorak Cello Concerto on Thursday, September 20 with the fabulously gifted cellist, Yo Yo Ma.

This will be my first time to perform with Yo Yo, although I have worked with him on two previous occasions.

I first met Yo Yo when I was with Assistant Conductor with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra (Orange County, CA) in the early 90s. While he was there -- performing the Dvorak concerto -- Yo Yo did a master class with four cellists from the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra, an ensemble made up of mostly high school students. [A master class is like a 'private lesson in public,' where student and teacher do their thing in front of a live audience.]

I knew these four youngsters would appreciate the opportunity of having a lesson with Yo Yo, but I was not prepared for the connection he would make with each of them..... before the event, Yo Yo asked me for information on each kid -- not just their musical abilities and interests, but also their hobbies, their personalities, their home life (he specifically asked me if each youngster lived in a single or two parent home, and if they had brothers/sisters) and their favorite sports, televisions shows, movies. In short, for Yo Yo, it was not sufficient for him to give each person some pointers on the concerto or sonata he/she would perform --- he wanted to make a connection. And boy did he ever. The audience was rapt. And each young cellist had a life changing experience with a magical man.

Same thing in Pittsburgh several years later: my parents came to that one, and sat next to (the now late) Fred Rogers, of "Mr. Rogers" fame, a good friend of Yo Yo's. (Yes, Mr. Rogers was like that in real life, too; when Yo Yo introduced Mr. Rogers to me, he called me "Mr. Cumming.")

Oh, and one other thing....

Just before Yo Yo was to perform the Bocherini Cello Concerto, he was talking backstage with me, my wife (at the time), Celeste, and my sister Rita, visiting from Brooklyn. Celeste (a cellist) jokingly asked Yo Yo, "can I touch your cello?"

YYM: Do you play?
CC: Yes.
YYM: Come with me.

at which point Yo Yo takes Celeste into his dressing room, sits her down, gives her his cello, leaves the room, shuts the door, and resumes his conversation with Rita and me. This is all happening just a few minutes before the Pittsburgh Symphony is starting the overture. I'm not kidding.

Well, since he once left his cello in the back of a New York cab, I suppose this was not a huge risk for him to take, comparatively speaking. But can you imagine any other major artist, willingly giving up their priceless instrument to someone they had just met, just moments before he/she was about to perform with a world class orchestra? I cannot.

Oh, one other thing.....if you were to meet Yo Yo, either backstage or on the street, and you struck up a conversation with him, you would have to say goodbye to him first. He would have all the time in the world for you. Believe it. The man lives in the moment, and that is a big part of his genius.