Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Learning an instrument.... as an adult!

In a recent comment on this blog, Jennifer ruminated on the idea of learning an orchestral instrument.
My first reaction is the obvious one: It's never too late to start!

But the toughest row to hoe for an adult learning a new instrument is this: You know how good it can sound in the best of hands. Learning an instrument with this knowledge is what makes it so difficult.

As a kid, you don't care, because you don't know! During a recent visit to my parent's home in Oakland, a neighbor, Howard Jackson, recalled listening to me practice my french horn during my formative years. (In my parent's home, the front door opens to an atrium, where I often practiced when the noise of five brothers and sisters was overwhelming.) Mr. Jackson went on to say, "yeah...one day my wife said to me, 'I remember hearing Edward play his horn, and then, after a few years, he started sounding good.'"

Of course, I thought I sounded good all along! But Ms. Jackson's experience was a bit different from mine.

For an adult, the key is to go easy on yourself. If you want to learn the violin, or the oboe, or the horn, you will need tremendous patience.

But the best place to start is with the piano. Here you have a veritable orchestra; every sound, melodic fragment, magical harmony and percussive thrust, right at your fingertips.

And with the piano, you won't ever have to worry about playing in tune.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why are the strings sitting there?

You may wonder why I change the seating of the strings from time to time. It may appear to be random or arbitrary, but hopefully, if you've been paying attention, you already know the answer.

One thing is a given: of the two groups of violins (every string section has five sections: first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses), the first violins always sit on the left side, downstage, in clear view. Most orchestras have the second violins seated just inside the first violins, with violas and cellos to the right, and basses behind them.

Then why do I sometimes place the second violins opposite the first violins, downstage right?

It wasn't my idea. Berlioz did this in the early 1800s, and Mahler did the same in the early 20th century. First and second violins seated next to each other is a relatively new phenomenon, within the past 75 years or so. Why did it happen? I'm not sure, but I can guess..... perhaps during a recording session, back in the days when recording was still a new venture, some wiseguy producer might have asked, "hey, why are the violins separated? Put them together!" Or maybe a second violinist approached a conductor and respectfully asked, "Maestro, can we please sit next to the first violins? We have so much of the same music, and it would be so much easier for us to play together if we were seated together." The idea caught on, and stuck.

But in the last 10-25 years, more and more orchestras began seating the violins like Berlioz, Mahler and Wagner seated them -- on opposite sides of the stage. And the reason is a decidedly musical one, for which the benefit is mainly yours, not ours: because composers such as Vivaldi, Beethoven and even Bruckner wrote for violins stereophonically. When we did Vivaldi's Four Seasons with Sarah Chang last year, did you notice how the violins often talk with each other? In Bruckner symphonies, the violins often trade a musical idea back and forth. And in the finale of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which you will hear later this season, the first and second violins engage in the musical equivalent of a fencing match, parrying back and forth right up to the movement's climax.

For some composers, writing stereophonically for violins is not a feature of their musical style. So if we do a program of Ravel, Debussy and Poulenc, I'll put the violins together. (Whether the violas or the cellos take the downstage right position is a matter of preference.)

You may ask, then, when violins are opposite each other, "how do you decide where to put the violas and cellos? Who sits inside the first violins, and who sits inside the seconds?

Toscanini liked the cellos inside the first violins, and I think Mahler did this as well. (Indeed, for Mahler symphonies, it makes a lot of sense, as the first violins and cellos often play the same melody together.) For this season, you will often see the violas inside the first violins, because we are in a Beethoven year, and B. loves to group the first violins with violas, and second violins with celli. Indeed, in the 3rd movement of his Symphony no. 3, in the Trio, which features the french horns prominently, both pairs strings seem to be involved in a bit of gamesmanship.

So you know -- most second violinists dislike playing from the downstage right position. They would much prefer being inside the first violins, in their comfort zone. I can understand why. When they share the melody (or an intricate accompaniment) with the first violins, it's easier to keep the ensemble tight and taut when playing side by side.  But it's nice for audiences to hear the music the way it was intended to be heard.

Performing in the Belding

During my pre-concert talks before performances last month of works by Beethoven, Sibelius and Dvorak, I asked all four audiences to raise their hands if this was their first experience listening to the Hartford Symphony perform in the Belding. I was astonished at the response -- all four pre-concert audiences (by my unofficial tally from the stage) was clearly over 50%, maybe even closer to 3 out of every 4 people.

So, for most of our audiences last month, hearing the Hartford Symphony perform in the Belding was a first time experience. And, predictably, most were wowed by the sonic difference. Mortensen Hall is a very large space, nearly 3,000 seats, and orchestras generally sound better in smaller venues. (It isn't the only criterion, but it's a good one.) Belding has anywhere from 800-900 seats, depending on what's going on that night.

When I did my first concerts with the orchestra several years ago, I did not like the Belding at all, but that was my impression from the stage. Now when we perform in the Belding, the sound on stage is much better.

Why the difference?

A few days ago, the HSO's Technical Director, Ken Trestman, gave me my first tour of the backstage area of the Belding. (I know, I know: I should have asked for this years ago. Mea culpa.) I was shown areas not privvy to you from your seat -- up high and beyond public view. When I asked Ken about the acoustical variable, I got my answer. Now, when the orchestra performs, these long, electronically-driven flaps (think long 'shades') are completely drawn, allowing for a much more vibrant, reverberant sound from the orchestra. I'm convinced that these 'shades' were only partly drawn in earlier years, which would explain why the sound was so dead to my ears. When the Belding is used for, say, a stand-up comedian, who necessarily needs amplification, the shades would come down, to deaden the space. The more acoustically 'dead' a space is, the better it is for amplified sound.

And all these years, I had thought a major reason for the sound difference was due to the different stages in the Belding and Mortensen halls. This is a factor, to be sure, but only partly.

Performing Dvorak's Seventh Symphony in November, it was evident to me how much the orchestra members were enjoying their collective sound.

What's your instrument? Piano? Flute? or do you sing?

For orchestras, our instrument is the space in which we play. And the better the venue is acoustically, the more musically rewarding the experience is for you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Missa Solemnis: closing remarks on Beethoven's last page

The Missa Solemnis of Beethoven is the most glorious musical work known to me. Yes, I am including all of the magesterial works of Bach, Mozart....you name it. I have said to many colleagues that if I were only given one work to conduct for the rest of my life, it would be Beethoven's great Mass in D major.

And one of the most fascinating aspects of this work is how it concludes. Every conductor grapples with it. Why not a soft ending (as with his only other mass, the Mass in C major? Why not the big ending, as the composer did soon afterwards with his Ninth Symphony?

No, instead it is a "scratch-your-head" conclusion, which doesn’t end in a hush, nor does it end with a rush.

Does the music just stop?
Or does it end with a question mark?

For weeks, I thought to myself:
- - - - - -what am I going to do with those last four bars?
Slow down? crescendo? add more weight to the final two chords?
(The last two chords of his Pastoral Symphony have also caused many conductors to shake their heads as they walk off stage.)

Again and again, the answer that came down to me was the same – let it be. Let it be. Beethoven knows what he’s doing.

In search of an answer, I started at the end of the mass and worked backwards. Yes, backwards. Surely it would appear to me, somewhere. For in every work of Beethoven’s there are always questions, and he never fails to answer them. It’s one of the things that make him great. He never leaves us hanging.

The Agnus Dei is certainly revelatory, daring even, but the answer was not to be found there. So I continued my retrograde until I reached the Osanna. Its concluding bars are so earth-shattering, so final that I wanted to ask the same question Robert Shaw suggested of the Gloria's conclusion: ‘why do we have to go on from here?’

And then it hit me – in many ways, with the end of Osanna, the piece as we know it has come to an end. The chorus sits. The violas and flutes sing. The basses chant ‘benedictus.’ And then there is the violin . . .that violin . . . Beethoven has transported us into a new realm. A new piece has begun. Nothing is as it once was.

And maybe this is why that, at the conclusion of our first performance, then again on the following night, the audience seemed to linger in that last glow of D major. Indeed, they did not seem perplexed at all, nor were they uncomfortable; there was no shifting, no wondering. They seemed to welcome the silence.

For me, the hardest silence was in the week that followed. It has always been difficult for me to sleep after concerts, but after our Missa Solemnis, I couldn’t do anything; even putting one foot in front of the other was a significant challenge. We had climbed Beethoven's Everest together, and now I’d forgotten how to walk. To this day, I still wake up with passages from the great mass running through my head. How lucky we are, how fortunate I am, to have had the opportunity to perform this majestic masterpiece. It was an experience I will never forget.

In the days and months ahead, I may come across a member of the chorus – on the street, in a store, on a bus – and we will share that knowing look. Nothing need be said. And we will smile that knowing smile, a recognition that we served Beethoven well. I can think of no higher calling.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Wagner's Isolde

When orchestras perform music from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, they usually perform the Prelude (which opens the opera) and Liebestod ("Love Death," which closes the opera) in tandem. The Love Death is best done with a soprano (Isolde) singing (as Wagner intended), but Wagner wrote the music in such a way that it can be done successfully with orchestra alone.

The Love Death can be played by itself, but not so the Prelude, since it ends inconclusively. (For my opening concerts with the Hartford Symphony in September 2002, I followed the Tristan Prelude with Thomas Ades's Gefriolsae Mae for men's chorus and low strings.)

Several years ago, a retired music critic from Philadelphia gave me the idea of doing an Isolde program -- in essence, the music from Tristan und Isolde without Tristan. At first, I didn't find it very doable, but the more I thought about it, the more it intrigued me. And since orchestra audiences are accustomed to hearing an Isolde sing the Love Death, why not have Isolde sing other music from the opera as well?

Performing music from a Wagner opera in concert is an enormous challenge. It does not lend itself to excerpting because of the music's 'through-composed' nature; unlike the music in an opera by Mozart or Verdi (with frequent stops and starts), Wagner's music is continuous, and cutting it up in order to present it on an orchestra concert is far from ideal.

But I pressed on with the idea nonetheless, and committed to the idea one year ago, thinking I had plenty of time to figure out exactly what I would do. It turned out to be an enormous challenge, understandably, since no one else had done it, and I'm certain many have tried. A colleague shared two Stokowski recordings, where he took music from the love duet in Act II and elided it with the final Love Death. Another practice is to take one act by itself.

Nine months later, I finally had a plan which encompasses music from all three acts. The first half will be music exclusively from Act I; the second half will begin with Act II and end with the Love Death which concludes the opera. The entire concert will be a typical length for an orchestra concert.

Indeed, this was the hardest part of the exercise -- deciding which music to leave out. The toughest decision of all was not being able to include the opening of Act III, music which has haunted and bewitched me from the moment I first encountered it over twenty years ago.

There were many other decisions to make -- which music would Isolde sing, and could we perform music written for Tristan and Isolde without the singers? (Yes -- a violin/viola duet will perform the Love duet from Act II.) A trumpet will fill in for Brangaene; a trombone will play for King Mark. And when I had to decide which chunks of music to leave out, I have strived to move seamlessly from scene to scene.

Why do it at all? Music lovers in Hartford won't hear the Connecticut Opera performing Wagner anytime soon. It is expensive to produce, and finding singers to sing Wagner are in short supply. And you can drive to New York to hear it and see it on stage, and real Wagner fans travel to Bayreuth to hear his music dramas in the space for which it was intended. But I want the Hartford to play this music, because it makes us a better orchestra, and it allows you to hear the music of Tristan in Hartford and still be home in time for the evening news. (Wagner operas are notoriously long in length.)

Will our presentation work? Honestly, I do not know, because this is a first time, and it needs an orchestra and an audience to make the final determination. This performance then, is a premiere of sorts. No orchestra has ever done Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as we are doing it. I hope you like it.