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.