Monday, December 14, 2009

Toscanini and Tiger

A question I am most often asked: "Who is your favorite composer?"

and then the next after that is:

"Who is your favorite conductor?"

People love to talk about their favorite recordings, and those conducted by Arturo Toscanini, or Herbert von Karajan -- to name two towering figures in 20th century classical music -- are often at the top of their list. But these two conductors, great though they were, often leave me wanting.

And I sometimes wonder if my view of their work has something to do with the fact that I tend to favor the great gentleman conductors, such as Pierre Monteux and Carlo Maria Guilini.

If he didn't get what he wanted, Toscanini could be downright mean towards his players; and Karajan, in one of his most petulant moves during a long tenure as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, began doing more recordings (a lucrative business at the time) with the Vienna Philharmonic instead of his own orchestra, after his players voted him down on his preferred player for the principal clarinet seat.

Pierre Monteux will forever be known for having conducted the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. My first teacher played for Monteux, and he adored the man for his musical intelligence and rehearsal decorum. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic used to say that a rehearsal with Guilini was like going to church, such was the effect he had on players. With his matinee idol looks, he would have had no problem welcoming the advances of adoring fans, but he remained a devoted family man to the end.

Before I appear holier-than-thou, I must go on the record as a conductor who has, on occasion, in rehearsal, lost his temper. And some players may recall an incident at a children's concert at a local city school where, after my repeated requests to a noisy group of youths went to no avail, I finally turned around in a fit of exasperation and yelled, "SHUT-UP."

I know -- horrors. You'd think I'd just tripped the Queen of England, or had forgotten to take off my hat during the Pledge of Allegiance. But what surprised me even more was the reaction of some of the players: one likened the word 'shut-up' to a dangerous expletive; another cried racism. (Fortunately, this player was quickly disabused of such a notion.)

Last night on '60 Minutes,' during an interview with Barack Obama, Steve Croft told the president that his recent speech at West Point was 'analytical.' Since President Obama appeared to have fire in his eyes during his speech, I was surprised by the question. Indeed, Obama's cool under fire -- often criticized -- is a fine trait, given the enormous stress and strain that goes with being Commander-in-Chief. The same could be said of Ronald Reagan, who never, ever, lost his temper in public.

Tiger Woods' recent admission of transgressions and infidelity interests me less than the prevailing perception of his perfection and infallibility, as if his golf prowess would naturally extend into his private life.

Woods is the most gifted golfer to ever grace the planet. His penchant for throwing clubs and profane outbursts on network television has been known to golf afficionados for years. One time, after Woods dropped the F-bomb, the ensuing quiet from the announcers was deafening. They were horrified, as were millions of listeners. Only NBC's Johnny Miller has gone on the record to criticize Woods for his foul mouth. (CBS, which airs most of the golf tournaments throughout the year, probably directs its announcers to stay mum.) With Tiger's most recent decision to take an indefinite break from golf, we are reminded why CBS has remained quiet on the subject, and why Nike and Electronic Arts will forever stand behind their man: Tiger holds all the cards.

Woods is a one man industry. Golf purses have increased four-fold since he joined the PGA tour in 1996. There are people who hate golf and who will never step on a golf course, and yet they still love watching Tiger. The numbers prove it -- during the latter half of 2008, when Woods was recovering from knee surgery, television viewers of golf dropped by 50%. Pair this statistic with the fact that PGA Tour purses have increased dramatically due mostly to advertising revenue, and the picture becomes clear. While his hiatus from golf may truly be a desire to save his marriage, it can also be construed as Woods's reminder that -- no matter what the public may think of his on-course behavior or his off-course infidelity -- Tiger still holds all the cards.

During his heyday, Toscanini could - for the most part - do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Up until the last half of the 20th century, there were no unions to protect an orchestra musician from Toscanini, who had no fear of apprisal when he chewed out a player in front of his colleagues. After Wilhelm Furtwängler died in 1954, Karajan was subsequently asked to succeed him as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. He said yes, with one proviso: that he be appointed 'conductor for life.' They agreed.

What was it that Lord Acton said?
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Richard Cumming

My cousin, Richard Cumming (known to friends and family as Deedee) died on Wednesday, at the age of 81. He was a composer, pianist, teacher, and for 25 years, the composer-in-residence at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island.

Deedee would be known to Hartford audiences for two works the orchestra performed. Passacaglia was presented on the (now defunct) Rush Hour series several years ago. I commissioned the work when I was still a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and needed another short work to fill out a noon concert program that included Brahms's Serenade no. 2 for small orchestra.

Not wanting to be accused of blatant nepotism (of which Deedee loved to say, "it's okay, dear, as long as you keep it in the family. . ."), I was going to leave it at that, but after a number of players and audience members remarked to me how much they liked Deedee's Passacaglia, I kept my ears to the ground for another work from his pen; when he told me that his Aspects of Hippolytus was looking for a first performance, I jumped at the chance, and the HSO presented the work on its Masterworks series.

Richard Cumming's music was always unabashedly tonal, well before it was de rigeur to write that way. In the 1950s and 1960s, most classical composers wrote music that could be terribly forbidding, and many didn't care whether you liked their music or not. Only with the advent of Minimalism from Messrs. Riley, Glass, Reich and Adams did classical music begin to become more accessible -- but Deedee was there long before them. The great American pianist, John Browning (1933-2003), recorded Deedee's 24 piano preludes, then later his Silhouettes. Browning and Cumming were close friends as well as great colleagues; John premiered Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto in 1962. (I had hoped to bring him to Hartford to perform the work.) Deedee told me, "Sam was taking his time on the concerto, even though a number of us kept reminding him that John needed time to learn it before the premiere. Well. . . damned if Sam didn't get the finale [which is excrutiatingly difficult -- ec] done just a week or two before the concert date, but John being John, he did the whole work, and the finale, from memory."

Deedee was scary smart, with a wonderful command of the English language. Books surrounded his apartment in Providence, and when I asked him if he'd read them all, he quickly responded, "yes, most of them 2 or 3 times." If a fine writer were to take up the project of writing a Richard Cumming biography, it would be a great read, if only for the stories. He had a laugh that could easily fill a room. Even when he was cranky or irritated, he seemed to be smiling; any room he entered was quickly filled with his mirth.

He was a fabulous pianist, touring the world in recital with the soprano, Phyllis Curtain (1921 - ). The late bass-baritone, Donald Gramm (1927-83, who was known for his brilliant protrayal of Boris Godonov at the Met), was another singer who worked regularly with Deedee.

He studied with Roger Sessions, and Ernest Bloch was a musical grandfather to him. When Arnold Schoenberg gave composition classes in Los Angeles, Deedee signed up. (It drove the other students crazy with envy that Schoenberg referred to all of them by their sirname -- except for Deedee.)

Time spent with Deedee was invariably a learning experience. One time he recounted a story of his time on tour with Igor Stravinsky. I think Deedee began the stint as his musical assistant, but ended up doubling as his valet, making sure he had plenty of vodka in his room. Like so many Russian men, Igor liked the hard stuff, and Deedee was a good drinking buddy. (I think his daily vodka and milk on the rocks -just before bedtime- was introduced to him by Stravinsky.)

I first met Deedee (technically speaking, my first-cousin-once-removed) 35 years ago, when I was a horn player with little design on becoming a conductor. He was as tall as me, but bigger, somehow, contributing to his larger than life persona. He asked me if I'd like to play something with him; I suggested the Hindemith Horn Sonata, and he played the difficult piano part brilliantly, at sight. I was awestruck. . . this guy is a relative of mine? Where did he come from, and why didn't anyone in my family tell me anything about him before that day?

The fact that he was homosexual (and openly so) might have had something to do with that, long before it was remotely socially acceptable, even in the most liberal cultural circles.

What I will always take with me, though, is the music he introduced to me. Strauss's Elektra. Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Ned Rorem's song cycle, Flight from Heaven. When I got to 'Upon Julia's Clothes,' Deedee began screaming, "Is that not the best song of the 20th century? Damn! I wish I'd written that. . ."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Holiday concerts in December

This year, for the first time during my time thus far with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, the Holiday concerts will be as I've always wanted them to be.

In previous years, there's always been something missing - - lots of singing and playing, but no dance.

This year there will be, as always, plenty of playing, plenty of singing (from the Hartford Chorale and the Connecticut Children's Chorus), but also dance (!), specifically, selections from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet, featuring youngsters from the Hartt School.

And, for the first time, Santa will be here, but with a few surprises of his own . . . let's just say he won't just be showing up for a few "Ho Ho Ho's" before he's on his merry way.

Yes, Santa is a busy man, and has millions upon millions of presents to deliver to children of all ages around the world. But he has a special place in his heart for Hartford, and he tells me (via SSN, the Santa Satelite Network) that he wants to be more integrated into the program.

Who am I to disagree?
Say no to Santa?
The man tells me he wants to sing, he's going to sing.

If I were you, I wouldn't miss it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

on Gilbert and Gustavo

This is a very exciting time for symphonic music in the United States. For the past decade, new offerings seemed to be coming only from the left coast, via Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco Symphony) and Esa-Pekka Salonen (Los Angeles Philharmonic).

Now, with Alan Gilbert taking the reins of the New York Philharmonic, and Gustavo Dudamel's start with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we can once again look to both sides of the continent for excitement.

Nothing need be said here about Dudamel that hasn't already been said. I've met the man. I've seen him conduct (Stravinsky's Firebird, in San Francisco). He's the real deal.

And with this country's love of media hype and the next young thing, Gilbert seems to pale in comparison. Don't believe it. While the LA Times, Washington Post and even the Arizona Republic (!) have weighed in on the comparison between Gilbert and Dudamel (one is 'staid;' the other 'fiery'), I am more in line with Anthony Tommasini (NY TImes) and Alex Ross (The New Yorker), who are among the finest writers on music today. Both agree that the New York Philharmonic is finally on a path worthy of its name. Ross says the orchestra sounds better than it ever has in the last 17 years, that the orchestra sounds more 'mature' than it did under the direction of Gilbert's predecessors, Masur (in his 80s) and Maazel (almost 80)!

And later this season, Gilbert will embark on a bit of real daring, conducting an opera by Ligeti, Le grand macabre. I bet the subscribers will stay away. Wonder what will happen to all of those unused seats? Time will tell . . . .

Bravo, Alan.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Opening Night at Pops

I've never forgotten what Leonard Bernstein said the day after John Lennon died. All the media outlets were looking for quotes from the greatest musicians of the day, and, in Bernstein, a towering renaissance figure of American culture, they knew that a call to him would bring about some meaning to the madness of our world. Why would someone kill John? Why? Why?

So... what did Bernstein say?
He talked about the Beatles's intonation.


Great figures do not just enlighten us, they confound us. Both Lennon and Bernstein left us a legacy that continues to delight and enrich us all. But, as geniuses are wont to do, they can be maddening. Why, on a day when all of us needed to derive some meaning from Lennon's assassination, did Bernstein talk about how well the Beatles sang in tune?

Well, because singing (and playing) in tune is a wonderful thing. You don't think about it when you hear it, but impeccable intonation contributes greatly to a musical performance that is transfixing. And, last night, when the Hartford Symphony hosted the a cappella quintet, Five by Design, we were treated to a performance from Laurie, Sheridan, Kurt, Michael and Terry that held us in awe.

The orchestra charts were great. And the players, as always, came through with panache. And Five by Design's drummer, Matt, and pianist, Taylor (along with the HSO's bassist, Rick Rozie) were stellar.

But the high point of the evening was in the middle of the first half, when Matt, Rick, Taylor and all the orchestra musicians were silent. The quintet launched into a tune, sung a cappella (literally, 'from the chapel,' when singers perform without instrumental accompaniment) which is still ringing in my ears. (I had been waking up every day the past week and a half with Mahler in my head, but no longer.) And why?

Because of impeccable intonation.

What makes a great barbershop quartet? --- spot-on intonation.
Why are some violinists better than others? --- intonation.
(Pianists have no such concerns -- they can blame the piano tuner.)

When I listen to "Good Day, Sunshine,"
I hear immaculate, exquisite intonation.

Last night at the Bushnell, when orchestra players were waiting for their next number to play, something happened -- they became audience. As conductor, I had the unique perspective of being in the middle of it all, watching people seated on both sides of me, transfixed, jaws dropped. Terry, the bass man of the quintet, became a string bass player, riffing away, his entire body resonating with his vocal pizzicato. The other four, vocalizing above his walking bass, sounded like warm honey. Something special was happening, and not one of us could move. We were listening to musical magic.

In large part, due to spectacular intonation.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

after Mahler. . .

What does one take away from four performances of Mahler's Symphony no. 9?

Some initial observations:

The audience on Thursday night was one of the most rapt, attentive audiences that I have encountered in over thirty years of performing. On stage, we could hear a pin drop, from beginning to end. This is rare, for in a large crowd, there is inevitably one poor soul who has brought with him or her a ticklish throat, or a partner who'd rather be home watching the Red Sox lose to the Angels, or taking a nice nap (which comes on anyway, given the ideal conditions for such: a cozy chair in a dark concert hall.)

But on Thursday, October 8, the Hartford Symphony was treated to an audience that held its collective breath for ninety minutes - - - I don't remember anyone coughing, not even in between the movements!

Thursday night was our first complete run through of the symphony. Surprised? Well, there are decisions a conductor must make with the limited time at hand, and by Wednesday night's dress rehearsal, we had accomplished a great deal on the first three movements, but there was still work to be done on the final Adagio. I did this on purpose, knowing that the Adagio was technically the easiest, but emotionally the most taxing. When you run a marathon (as our assistant principal violist, Sharon Dennison did on Saturday morning, and who did not look any worse for wear at that evening's performance), you must pace yourself.

As the Adagio runs nearly thirty minutes, I did not want to run the risk of playing the symphony in order and possibly run out of time at the end, so I began the dress rehearsal with the final movement, then proceeded through the other three movements before we called it a night.

So Thursday night's concert was the first real play-through of the entire work, in movement order. That's why we often call the first of several performances a 'dress rehearsal' for the public. In the opening movement, we were a little tight, a bit on edge. After that we were fine. And the audience, in the closing four and a half minutes of the symphony, was just unbelievable. After the violas uttered the final four notes, I could have held the silence forever, and no one would have minded.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mahler's Ninth (part 3) The Ländler

In my first Mahler post, I wrote at length about the first movement. This will deal mainly with the 2nd movement.

First, a little background. . . .

The third movement (in the case of Mahler's Ninth, the second movement) of a classical (i.e., by Haydn, Mozart, or one of their contemporaries in the late 18th century) string quartet or symphony began traditionally as a minuet, or a dance in 3/4 time, in a moderate dancing tempo. The Minuet is in three parts, with a contrasting 'trio' section (so named, I believe, because the more intimate character of this section often featured up to three solo instruments, as with the clarinet and two horns in the trio of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony) before the return of the minuet.

When Beethoven came along, he transformed the minuet into a scherzo (literally, 'joke'), still in 3/4 time (like "Happy Birthday to You," or "When Irish Eyes are Smiling") but much faster (like Lennon/McCartney's "Norwegian Mood"). The title scherzo is often associated with the faster tempo, but more likely due to the fact that there was so much more humor -- sometimes on the audience, sometimes on the musicians (an inside joke), and on occasion maybe even making fun of the conductor. As with Schubert and Bruckner before him, Mahler had a preference for the Austrian ländler , which is like a minuet, but with a characteristic lilt.

In his Ninth Symphony, Mahler does all of the above (and then some)! But first, a few particulars. . . .

The movement begins harmlessly with violas and bassoons, but soon thereafter, with the entrance of the 2nd violins (who, as you will recall from my first post, were the first to play the melody of the 1st movement) we come to understand the meaning of Mahler's heading: Etwas täppisch und sehr derb, 'somewhat clumsy and very coarse.' Because the 2nd violins do more than upset the apple cart -- they run it over. (Imagine three women who resemble Dick Butkus fighting for the last peach in the produce aisle, and you get the idea.)

The music goes along like this for awhile until the more intimate Trio section. . . but wait a minute! Before going there, Mahler hurls us into an angry waltz, replete with jabs by brasses and kettle drums, followed by a truly uncouth street song played by low brasses, winds and strings.

So. . . after this do we get the Trio section? ? Nope!

Because Mahler throws yet another curve -- the ländler returns, but now in the faster tempo of the angry waltz! (Listen to how hard it is for the horns to keep up!) Finally, after a series of low gas utterances (imagine Paul Bunyan spitting out his food), the more gentle Trio section arrives, bringing appropriate relief to all of the previous shenanigans.

The Mad Waltz returns, and gets wilder and more out of control, more brisk and more hurried (Mahler's words) with each appearance, until the horns finally cry uncle, furiously putting an end to such nonsense, bringing us back to the original tempo. With the last six notes, played by the highest (piccolo) and lowest (contrabassoon) instruments of the orchestra, Mahler leaves us with the musical equivalent of a wink of the eye. That's it for the fun and games in this symphony. Everything you hear from hereon is serious business.

Mahler's Ninth (part 2)

In my first post earlier today, I mentioned how much this symphony has taken out of me. When the Hartford Symphony was still knee deep in Beethoven symphonies this past spring, my head was already well inside the Mahler symphony, and I've barely come up for air since. I will put it to you this way -- when I had heard that Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle (both world-class conductors and wonderful interpreters of Mahler) each took six months off to study this piece, that got my attention. And so May-September (five months, for those of you counting), it's been Mahler, Mahler, Mahler.

But I did something that Abbado and Rattle did not do, something few conductors do anymore, rather old-fashioned, really.

In the early part of the 20th century, many European conductors would conduct from their own materials, meaning the orchestral musicians would play from parts that were corrected, marked and otherwise carefully prepared by the conductor and/or his assistant. (Today, most conductors study their own score and don't know what the players have in front of them until they arrive at the first rehearsal; some will send a few bowings and markings in advance for the staff librarian to put into the individual parts.)

Ron Krentzman is the brilliant and fastidious librarian for the Hartford Symphony; he and his assistant, Joy Glassman, copied bowings from string masters into all of the string parts. Otherwise, every marking in the part was made by me over the summer. Indeed, it took me all summer just to get through all of the woodwind, brass, harp and percussion parts. (30+ parts, each with 85 minutes of music.) Hundreds of hours of fussy work, checking every note of every part against that of the score.

But at last night's rehearsal, our first together, it went largely without incident. Time well spent. And, to be sure, all of my time with the individual parts gave me time to study specific individual music, which goes against the grain of what is so easy to do when one studies a score -- which is more general in character.

And every morning I wake up with Mahler in my head. Who needs an iPod when you're already hard wired?

on Mahler's Ninth Symphony

The orchestra and I had our first rehearsal on Mahler's Ninth last night. One member of the orchestra commented that he thought I looked like an old man as I walked into the hall -- not surprising, as this symphony has taken a lot out of me.

My teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, used to tell his students to be careful studying Mahler, because something can happen to you, and creep into your soul. And when the symphony in question has (what many to believe to be) a preoccupation with death, you begin to get an idea of what it's like to take on this mammoth work.

Bruno Walter, who knew Mahler well and conducted the premiere of the Ninth a year after Mahler's death in 1911, calls this symphony "Mahler's masterpiece." And many believe the first movement to be his finest symphonic movement -- structural and spiritual perfection.

Why so?

Michael Steinberg believes it has a great deal to do with Mahler's mastery of the transition, which, next to variation, is perhaps the most challenging aspect of composition. Think about it for a moment: you write something, and then you have to move on to the next event, seamlessly. No bumps or grinds.

David Letterman makes it look easy every night with his first transition: how does Dave get from the stage to his desk without millions of people looking at his backside? Simple -- introduce Paul Shaffer. Or, in other words, create a diversion.

But Mahler has no such luxory. He must skillfully move from one event to the next without so much as a hiccup. (Mahler frequently litters his score with the directive unmerklich - - imperceptible.)

And so the first movement begins Andante comodo (a comfortable walking tempo), and proceeds from there to go faster (Allegro moderato -- moderately fast), then still faster (Allegro), but then there are other moments when Mahler clearly wants to get your attention, by suddenly (Plotzlich) getting slower. Towards the end of the movement, Mahler gets slower still, then very slow at the end.

How many tempos altogether, just in the first movement? I couldn't begin to count them all -- Mahler is clearly trying to attain some kind of overall rubato (from the italian, rubare, to steal time, but in music, rubato usually means to steal time and then give it back. . . listen to any great pianist playing the music of Chopin and you'll get an idea, as the left and right hands move in different tempi, but always end up together).

That's the ebb and flow -- what about the stuff of this movement? What makes it symphonic? The first thing you hear is an irregular 3-note rhythm (Mahler's heartbeat? a doctor told him to cut back on his vigorous exercise regimen when he detected a valvular dysfunction) played by the cellos and fourth horn. The harp immediately answers with a regular rhythm (is this Mahler's way of saying, 'but I want life! I have more to say!'), then another horn takes it a step further by playing an amalgam of the two -- part regular, part irregular -- this has the makings of a theme. Still only a fragment, with heroic potential, but it gives us some hope for a melody to come.

Then the second violins make their first entrance. . . is this a melody? Or is it the beginnings of one? Two notes, like a sigh, falling. Again two notes. More resignation. They expound a bit, but silence remains a big part of their music, as if they are searching for a way to express themselves, and what they wish to say continually eludes them.

And so, in the first moments of this symphony, you are given an irregular and regular (heart)beat, a (heroic) motif, and a haltering theme of resignation. A lot for you to digest, certainly! But these musical seeds are all you need as you traverse this nearly half hour of music, Mahler's masterpiece of ever-evolving transitional variation.

And we have only just begun.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, a great musicologist and music writer who wrote for the Boston Glove and was Artistic Advisor to the San Francisco and Minnesota Orchestras, died earlier this week. Anyone interested in learning more about The Symphony or The Concerto would do well to read his books on the subject. But more than anything else, he revolutionized the art of program annotation. His program notes were not just informative -- they put you there, at the time. You can smell the coffee Beethoven was drinking.

Long before he began writing program notes, however, he wrote for the Boston Globe. Here is a review (taking no prisoners) of Bernstein's Symphony no. 3, "Kaddish," printed in the Boston Globe 45 years ago:

Bernstein's 'Kaddish'

There is something enviable about the utter lack of inhibition with which Leonard Bernstein carries on. His Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish) is a piece, in part, of such unashamed vulgarity, and it is so strongly derivative, that the hearing of it becomes as much as anything a strain on one's credulity. Can the narrator really have said "Do I have your attention, Majestic Father?" and did she declare to her God, "We are in this thing together now, you and I"?

But yes, there it was, along with, at the end, the familiar figure of the composer himself, fetched from the wings by his wife (who had narrated), and bowing to the cheers and to the applause amid a veritable extravaganza of bear-hugs and kisses.

"Kaddish" was commissioned by the Boston Symphony and the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for the orchestra's 75th anniversary season, 1955-56. The composer responded with an ambitious work, laid out on a large scale. At its center stands the Hebrew Kaddish, the prayer of sanctification, traditionally used as a prayer for the dead, though its text speaks not of death, but of the praise of God and the hope of peace. Bernstein has troped the liturgical words with an English text of his own, one in which the speaker fights her way, Job-like, from despair faith.

The idea is splendidly imaginative, and it is tempting to think of what a poet like Auden might have made of it. But Bernstein as a writer of words has only fluency at his command, and that fluency produces a lava-flow of cliches wherein a few cozy intimacies (speaker to God, "We'll make it a sort of holiday") are contrasted against the tinny rhetoric of Norman Corwin's radio plays from the forties.

As a composer of music, Berstein's bent is principally theatrical. He knows how to make an effect, and "Kaddish" is full of detail that really tells: the dense and anguished cadenza for chorus a cappella is an example, and so is the tremendous orchestral outburst, with trumpets shrilling on high C flat, that starts the finale. The last ten bars of Amen are quite wonderful, not only for the magic of their sonority, but for the precision and skill of their harmonic preparation as well.

At such a moment, Bernstein shows that he can compose, and I just wish he would. Mostly, he seems to prefer the easier way of assembling a series of tricks. These tricks are mutually incompatible, and they are generally irrelevant to the task at hand. The program notes explain how atonal chromaticism is associated with despair and G flat major with faith, but no symbolism can justify the musical illogic of the transition. The idea of such a symbol is perfectly plausible, but Bernstein just has not managed to compose it out properly.

"Kaddish" was in the final stages of scoring last November when circumstances commanded its dedication "to the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy."

Charles Munch, during whose directorship "Kaddish" was commissioned, conducted this, its American premiere, and he led a spirited and exciting approximation. There were many ragged attacks and not quite comprehensible rhythms. I suspect that balances perhaps suffered because crowded conditions on stage necessitated the exile of a number of violinists. The principal chorus was that of the New England Conservatory, impeccably prepared by Lorna Cooke de Varon, and superb in every way. The Columbus Boychoir, Donald Bryant, director, had a substantial part as well: pitch and tone are amazing, rhythm less so, and there is no diction to speak of. The narration was by Felicia Monteleagre (Mrs. Bernstein), who for all of her intensity is not really an interesting performer, and who was made to sound metallically cold by the electronic amplification. Jennie Tourel sang the soprano solos, and she did so with utmost beauty and distinction.

The concert began with Handel's Concerto Grosso, Opus 6, Number 4, in a curious reading that demonstrated that it is possible to achieve a certain charm even with every imaginable feature of sonority, speed, articulation, dynamics quite wrong. There followed Bizet's youthful Symphony in C, so attractive in its evocation of the 17-year-old boy's playing of Schubert duets. Mr. Munch slammed through it rather roughly, and I am afraid both its performance and that of the Handel demonstrated how much rehearsal that the Bernstein Symphony had required. I found it interesting that even Handel's and Bizet's relatively simple patterns of quarters and eights came out pretty much all over the place, and I was the more braced, therefore, against the confusion caused by Bernstein's rather more complex metrical requirements.

Michael Steinberg
February 1, 1964

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rochberg String Quartet no. 3

Earlier today, I went to a friend's house in Lenox, Mass, to hear four students from the Tanglewood Music Center perform Rochberg's String Quartet no. 3. Their coach, Andrew Jennings, was in attendance, as were about twenty other new music afficionados who had come to hear this work, created for the Concord String Quartet (of which Mr. Jennings was a violinist) in 1972.

I know Mr. Rochberg by name only; I knew none of his music before today. A score to the Transcendental Variations for string orchestra, taken from the middle (3rd) movement of this quartet, sits on my shelf, waiting to be perused. Studied. Well, opened.

But today, with the help of Katherine, Stephanie, Pei-Ling and Catherine (I don't know if I got the spelling of their names right, and they didn't tell me their last names, but I do know that they are from North Dakota, Houston, Taiwan and San Francisco, respectively, and that they are 3- to 4-year veterans of Tanglewood, and that they all met at Rice University in Houston, but that this was the first time they had ever played together as a quartet. . . sorry for the run-on), those of us in the living room audience were treated to a concert that I will never forget for as long as I live. It was a seminal event.

Thank you, Jan and Hermine, for inviting me.

and thank you, Fromm Quartet, for introducing us to this masterpiece, and for playing it with such devotion, technical virtuosity, and passion.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

2009 season at Talcott Mountain

There is a serenity prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

The Hartford Symphony was set to perform with David Foster and his band on Friday June 26, but thunderstorms necessitated that we move the concert to the following day. The concert was great fun ("Pass the Peas" was a hit, and for the introduction to Maceo Parker's rendition of 'Georgia,' the audience could even hear the orchestra, however briefly!), but it was clear that we had lost most of our intended audience from the previous night.

Doggone weather!

Then, on Thursday July 2, with lousy weather all day, we held our patriotic "Celebrate America" concert as planned, even though it sprinkled throughout the evening. Ken Trestman, HSO Technical Director, hobbled on to the stage (he tore a ligament earlier that day) in the second half and said to me, ". . . electrical storm on the way . . ." which meant I had to either take quicker tempos or cut something. I'm sure the audience would not have minded if I had cut the Ives piece we were just about to play, but with all the work concertmaster Leonid Sigal had put into his solo part, I wasn't about to do that. The next piece, a new arrangement of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" I had created specifically for this program, I was loathe to cut for selfish reasons, I suppose. . . but also because an HSO staffer, Ashley Malcolm, was so disappointed last year when I had pulled another arrangement of Porter's 'Beguine' from the program. So, we cut an arrangement of the Duke's "It don't mean a thing. . ." In hindsight, we needn't have, because the storm didn't arrive until well after the fireworks were over and the audience -- several hundred folks under their umbrellas -- had left. A highlight of the evening: during the traditional "Armed Forces Salute," I asked veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard to raise and twirl their umbrellas when their song appeared, instead of standing. One woman out on the lawn had quite the twirl during the Navy song; during intermission, when I walked out to thank the patrons for coming to our concert in such inclement weather, I tried to find her, so that I could give her an award for the fastest and finest twirl! All of the umbrellas were quite a beautiful sight, since members of the audience were brandishing the most colorful striped varieties I had ever seen.

Confounded weather!

Needless to say, it was a stressful evening, wondering if the weather would hold out. (It did.) Afterwards, a few of us had a glass of wine on the stage. Poor Nick, the Holder of the Keys -- we had to rouse him out of his pajamas, as he had locked my dressing room and went home before I had a chance to get my things.

On Friday July 3, the HSO was treated to its first sunny evening at Talcott Mountain. Spirits were high (and flowing) for a change, as we prepared to present our first summer concert without the threat of menacing clouds. As it turned out, rain fell like buckets in other parts of Greather Hartford, but it mercifully left us alone for the evening. Still, with such wet stormy weather throughout the day, we couldn't help but think how many folks had elected to stay home. Gosh-darn weather!

My view of Talcott Mountain is that, for the most part -- save for the isolated Motown review, or perhaps ABBAMANIA or the music of Billy Joel -- if the weather is glorious, people come. They bring their wine and cheese and children and blanket and make a nice evening of it. Those people who were at the Thursday July 2 concert were music junkies, plain and simple. Or maybe they were fireworks fans, and they couldn't come the next night -- who knows. But when the weather is nice, I see thousands of people from the stage, smiling, being convivial, enjoying the music.

Gratefully, the weather looks good for July 10 (ABBAMANIA), and even for the Michael Cavanaugh evening the following Wednesday.

Fingers crossed!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony

At the conclusion of the Hartford Symphony's performance of Beethoven's majestic Symphony no. 7, I held up four fingers for the orchestra to see. I had not done this after four consecutive performances of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony earlier in the season, nor had I done it after four performances of the mighty Eroica , which is longer than the Seventh.

When I held up my fingers, I mouthed the words, 'we did it four times. . . FOUR TIMES!' One player within earshot cracked back to me, 'let's do it four more times.'

My reason for such a display? I will give a hint first. . .

During my pre-concert talk earlier that week (joined by the young gifted musician, Joseph Henaris), I mentioned that the 2nd movement had to be encored at the 1813 premiere. The audience would not let Beethoven continue with the third movement until he repeated the 2nd movement! And in some history circles, there is the belief that Beethoven had to play it a third time.

Well, later that evening, after we did the Allegretto, a number of people in the balcony applauded. It sounded a bit forced, not very spontaneous; the brief clapping probably would not have occured had Joseph and I not mentioned the encores demanded at the premiere. But I felt compelled to address the moment, telling the audience "this is really hard work, and we need to keep going . . . if you want to hear it again, please come back tomorrow night!"

And therein lies the answer -- playing/conducting Beethoven's Symphony no. 7 is completely exhausting, like a half-marathon. Most works have a moment here or there where one can physically dial-it-down, if not mentally. (After a concert, my head is totally spent no matter what the physical requirements may be.)

Wagner knew what he was talking about when he called this piece the 'Apotheosis of the Dance.' Once you get on the dance floor, there's no leaving it until the jig is done.

Verdi's Requiem

Performing Verdi's Messa da Requiem recently, I was profoundly aware of Verdi's position as a composer for the theatre, a composer of music for the stage. Even with massive forces, he was unafraid, for example, to focus on only two people -- soprano and mezzo soprano -- to sing the Agnus Dei. During such a moment, there is a heightened tension, I believe, because the orchestra and chorus become audience.

Whether you are in a concert space designed to surround the performers (Amsterdam, Vienna, and San Francisco, to name a few), Verdi's Agnus Dei transforms the performance space into a circular event, where listeners engulf the two singers.

Or, to take another magical phrase from Verdi's masterpiece, there is the a cappella music for solo soprano and chorus, in the Libera Me. Here, solo singer and choristers are separated by a quiet orchestra, frozen by what they are hearing. Why? In part, because they are listening to what the strings had sounded an hour earlier, at the very beginning of the work. But now, in the Libera Me, there is a new hush to the music. . . it's in a different key, slightly higher, with new text, but melody and harmony are familiar. And the soprano solo's leap at the end never fails to astonish.

Yes -- Verdi knows how to make a wonderful racket (bass drum banging in the Dies Irae), and for this Verdi has often been criticized for not being more sensitive to the text, to the religious underpinnings of a mass for the dead. But then you come to such moments as those in the Agnus Dei, and the Libera Me, and you wonder how a non-religious man would have taken the time to write such heavenly music.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Beethoven's Eroica

The first full program I ever conducted was in July 1980. The program began with Stravinsky's Instrumental Miniatures, then Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and, after intermission, Beethoven's Symphony no. 3.

I remember studying my Beethoven score on BART trains, on the bus, taking it everywhere with me. Now, in hindsight, I realize it was pretty nervy of me to conduct this magnum opus on my first concert.


That was nearly thirty years ago.
I've conducted the Eroica several times since then.
But having done it several times does not make it easier to perform.
[This would be, and is, true for most other works.]

But not for the Eroica.

Maybe it's because, after he wrote all nine of his symphonies, Beethoven said the Third Symphony was his favorite.

Maybe it's because, just as the Rite of Spring ushered in a new era in music in the 20th century, the Eroica was a turning point in the 19th.

Or maybe because it's just hard, period.

But what a piece.
What a piece!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

My father

It was a pleasant surprise to read Jeffrey Johnson's commnent in the Hartford Courant that I had programmed Copland's Our Town as a musical birthday card for my dad. Sometimes I do things unwittingly, or in this case, perhaps subconsciously. I have always liked this short work, based on AC's music to the film version of Thornton Wilder's play. But in the many times I have performed it over the years, only my first with the Florida Orchestra (in Tampa of all places, on this Super Bowl Sunday) had really captured the essence of the piece. Don't ask me why.

So, with this in mind, in preparation for an all-Copland concert last weekend, it occurred to me that doing a scene from Our Town might help to set the mood. It was not part of my planning that the performance would occur on my father's birthday, just days after he would die of congestive heart failure. But then Thornton Wilder's nephew contacted the symphony to tell the orchestra that doing a scene from Our Town would not be in accordance with the playwright's estate, which specifically states that excerpting from any of his works is not allowed. (In a very pleasant telephone conversation I had with Tappan Wilder, he told me he'd learned of our plans from a Google search!)

Too bad, because the scene we had rehearsed featured the wonderful young actress, Lauretta Pope, whose considerable acting skills were thus unfortunately not on display for our audiences to witness.

But all was not lost. Forced to punt, I instead spoke to the audience about my father (Edward II; I'm the IIIrd), who had played a scene from Our Town when he was a student at Oakland Technical High School, circa 1941. After telling this story, the Hartford Symphony musicians responded with a very heartfelt rendition of Copland's music.