Monday, December 13, 2010

Beethoven and Handel

My teacher Mr. Mueller often mentioned that Handel was Beethoven's favorite composer. He would say that the trio from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was a Handelian fugato which inextricably leads into a glorious hymn (with trombones, which, up to this point had been mainly used in religious works).

Then, this past Saturday, I conducted Beethoven's 5th in the afternoon, and Handel's Messiah in the evening. While conducting Handel's oratorio, I was as much listener as leader, taking in all of the glories and wonders that would later find its way into the symphonies of Beethoven.

Thank you, Mr. Mueller. Now I get it!

Handel's Messiah

At recent performances of Messiah, the audiences readily stood during the Hallelujah chorus. During my pre-concert talk, I suggested that the tradition may have started when King George II stood thinking that he was hearing his country's national anthem (Rule Brittania). They do start similarly, in identical rhythm. (Maestro Rick Coffey respectfully disagrees with me on this notion.)

At any rate, if today we stand not for The Crown, but rather for Handel and the wonder of his titanic genius, then I'm all for it. Let the tradition live on for another 250 years.

Friday, September 10, 2010

When to Applaud, by Emmanuel Ax

On September 25, Mr. Ax will play Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. If you plan to attend, read below, and think twice about not applauding at the end of the first movement!

All of us love applause, and so we should – it means that the listener LIKES us! So we should welcome applause whenever it comes. And yet, we seem to have set up some very arcane rules as to when it is actually OK to applaud. I have been trying to find out exactly when certain listeners and performers decided that applause between movements would not be “allowed”, or at least would be frowned upon, but nobody seems to have been willing to admit that they were the culprit. Certainly when a composer like Beethoven wrote the symphonies and piano concertos that we hear today in the concert hall, he himself expected that if a movement ended with a flourish, such as the first movement of the 5th piano concerto, the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed. Mozart often wrote to his family that certain variations or sections of pieces were so successful that they had to be encored immediately, even without waiting for the entire piece to end.

I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty.

--I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction.--

On the other hand, sometimes I wish that applause would come just a bit later, when a piece like the Brahms 3rd Symphony comes to an end – it is so beautifully hushed that I feel like holding my breath in the silence of the end. I think that if there were no “rules” about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always. Most composers trust their listeners to respond at the right time, and if we feel like expressing approval, we should be allowed to, ANYTIME! Just one favor – even if you don’t like a concert of mine, please PLEASE applaud at the end anyway.

Emmanuel Ax

There was a time when the Hartford Symphony regularly played host to some of the greatest figures in symphonic music.

Lotte Lehmann sang a Wagner program in 1939.

During Fritz Mahler's time, guests included the iconic pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, and the Chilean actress, Felicia Montealegre (Mrs. Leonard Bernstein).

Without a doubt, Arthur Winograd's reign as music director was the richest for guest artists: violinists Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh; cellists Jacqueline du Pre and Yo Yo Ma; sopranos Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Birgit Nilsson; pianist Van Cliburn, and flutist Jean Pierre Rampal. Benny Goodman played on the pops series, and Arthur Fiedler conducted a pops program, and two notable composers were guest conductors: Aaron Copland and Aram Khachaturian.

Michael Lankester was no slouch, either, having invited violinists Nigel Kennedy and Joshua Bell, contralto Marilyn Horne, composer Michael Tippett (who conducted one of his works), and the pianist/conductor/comedian Victor Borge.
Mr. Ma returned.

Early in his tenure, Maestro Lankester invited Emmanuel Ax to perform a Mozart concerto. Four years later, in 1990, Mr. Ax returned with his wife, Yoko Nozaki, to perform a Bartok work and another piece, Mozart's Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in Eb major, which the duo will return to play on September 25. (Those of us in Hartford can feel fortunate, as the duo is advertised as 'not available' for the 2010-11 season.)

For their return trip, the two of them may note several changes in the past twenty years -- a new piano (purchased several years ago by the Bushnell), a new concert hall (the Belding, which debuted in 2001), and a different music director. . . though I expect Manny and Yoko will recognize many familiar faces still in the orchestra.

My first performancing experience with Yo Yo Ma came after a long association with him that began in Southern California and continued in Pittsburgh. The same is true of Mr. Ax, who came to Tampa to perform Strauss's Burleske when I was Resident Conductor of the Florida Orchestra in the early 1990s. What struck me immediately about this artist was his radiant joy, and his temperament. Even in the flashiest of passages, there is always a soul to Ax's pianism.

He was a guest in Pittsburgh a number of times during my years there, and a favorite memory is sitting with him while the orchestra rehearsed a symphony by Haydn. (For those of you who are not performers, it is extremely rare to find a solo pianist sitting in the audience while the orchestra rehearses other works on the program. "My gosh," he said, bouncing in his chair, "this is such great music. . . Why don't more orchestras perform Haydn?") Oh, and how often does one hear a pianist talk about harmonic adventurism in Bizet's Carmen ? (Don't believe me? go to his blog:

Horatio Gutierrez gave a beautiful rendering of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto in Hartford several years ago, but I will never forget Ax's performance of this work in Pittsburgh. From the very first chord, played so poetically, it became immediately apparent we were all in for a unique experience with this masterwork, the most intimate of Beethoven's five concertos for the piano.

And to give you an example of Ax's daring, he did something with the New York Philharmonic that few pianists would agree to do. While the orchestra played Ive's Unanswered Question, Ax sat at the piano, waiting . . . just as the final strains of Ives died away, he began the Beethoven. It was a heavenly segue. A friend of mine reported on the event as "pure poetry." In effect, Beethoven became the answer to Ives's question.

Emmanuel Ax, a poet among pianists.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

George Steinbrenner (1930-2010)

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

"Kind of young to be doing this, aren't ya'?"

Those were the first words Mr. Steinbrenner said to me, when I met him in 1989, in the lobby of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. As Resident Conductor of The Florida Orchestra, it was my job to conduct all youth, park and community concerts. That December, The Boss wanted to produce a concert for the disadvantaged and indigent kids of the Tampa Bay area, and it fell on me to conduct the concert.

Of course, Mr. Steinbrenner was known to be a man in control, and even with a holiday concert for kids, he didn't want to leave anything to chance. He probably wanted Skitch Henderson - the orchestra's Pops Music Director - to do it, because he knew Skitch and the two of them got on quite well. But Skitch was a busy man, so why not have the new kid do it?

"A conductor's got to start somewhere."
"Hrrumph. . .. I guess you're right."

. . .and he took one last look at me, sizing me up, and walked away.
To this day, this brief encounter still stands as the shortest meeting I have ever had with anyone.

It was your typical Christmas concert, but with a few Steinbrennerian twists. Randy "Macho Man" Savage was brought in to speak the kids. In his distinctively brusque voice, Savage was great at making the audience feel special, that "any one of you can do anything in this world, if you put your mind to it."

And at the end of the concert, when it was time for the sing-along, Santa (yup, Steinbrenner himself) came onstage to sing in front of the orchestra. I don't remember momentarily giving up conducting duties at this point, but there it was on the front page of the Tampa Tribune sports section the next day: a big cover photo of me, Steve Sax, Macho Man and Santa Steinbrenner, all with our mouths wide open, singing in full voice to 2,400 kids. Each kid left the hall beaming, proud owner of a new Yankee duffle bag filled with baseballs, a mitt and other paraphenalia. It had been nearly fifteen years since the Yankees had won a world championship, but not one of these kids cared. They were on cloud nine.

Oh. . . I almost forgot. Mr. Steinbrenner even roped Billy Martin into the act! The challenge left to me then, was. . . what will Billy do? After some hand wringing, it was decided that Mr. Martin would narrate 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.'

He arrived an hour before the concert. (Big time baseball managers don't have time for dress rehearsals.) With the help of a rehearsal pianist, we took a few minutes to determine how I would coordinate the end of his narration with the end of the orchestra's music. (Steinbrenner was hovering, but thankfully, once he figured I knew what I was doing, he stayed out of the way.)

Given his mercurial reputation, I was surprised to find Billy Martin so meek and mild. I mean, here was this baseball legend, just past sixty years of age, with a beautiful young blonde on his arm, and I was understandably nervous. As it turned out, he was far more nervous than I, clearly out of his element, having been pigeon-holed (yet again) by The Boss. But he did well in the concert.

Less than a week later, Martin was dead, having gone off the side of a road in his pick-up truck.

More holiday concerts would follow, and since Steinbrenner was also a supporter of the University of South Florida (where I taught), we became a little more than just acquaintances, if not friends. Someone had told me that Skitch once let Steinbrenner conduct his New York Pops, which gave me an idea: why not ask George to conduct my school orchestra for the annual school Arts gala? I knew he was going to be there to receive some honor; why not have him strike up the band, for good measure? He readily agreed . . . but then came his conditions and requirements! He would conduct the "George M. Cohan Salute." This was a favorite of his, and I think he might have done it before, so I agreed to his terms. (Like I had a choice.)

I am now recalling what the great conductor, Georg Solti, said when asked what he first looks for in a conductor, more than anything else: "Not a good ear, not even good musicianship, or good hands. No -- the most important skill for a conductor, is that he must be able to lead."

Of course, this skill was quite evident in the way Mr. Steinbrenner led my college charges. I had prepared them a few weeks before, but Mr. S. came in and did everything his way. By the end of the rehearsal, everyone knew exactly what he wanted. The performance came off beautifully, without so much as a hitch.

Georg Solti would have been impressed.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Motown Mountain

Most people are unaware of the music I listen to at home, in the car, etc. As I have noted in a previous post, I do not own an iPod. In my apartment, the music is rarely on, unless there are people visiting. In truth, people are maybe a bit surprised when I tell them that most of my listening choices gravitate towards the classical. (Yeah, I like what I do.) Yesterday afternoon, in preparation for a NEA grant, I spent most of the afternoon listening to performances of the past season -- equal parts pleasure and pain.

But my children (and most of my friends) know of my passion for a certain type of music which I could not get enough of growing up in the Bay Area -- R & B. When I got a new train set as a kid, I played Smokey Robinson's Tears of a Clown over and over again, one play for every eleven revolutions of my nifty N-gauge trains.

When my sister received Songs in the Key of Life for Christmas, I 'borrowed' it over and over; I couldn't get enough of it. (Years later, as a mellophonium player in the Disneyland All-American College Band, we played Stevie Wonder tunes that made my heart soar.)

Down the street from where I grew up lived a man who managed Sly and the Family Stone. His son, Junior (guitar), another friend, Brian (bass) and I (drums - my first instrument) played our Stone favorites in my side yard. (Much to our neightbor's chagrin, the garage didn't have enough room.)

Yes, the Taxman and Norwegian Wood figured in there, somewhere along the way. But no one, no group, could compete with Earth Wind & Fire. For me, they were the apogee of anything pop, rock, soul, jazz and R & B. The orchestrations, the harmonic adventure, the soaring vocals, the extended jazz riffs - - these guys had it all.

So, for my last concert at Talcott Mountain as Mus. Dir. of the Hartford Symphony. . . it won't be Beethoven (admittedly, another passion), not Bach, Handel and Vivaldi (to this date, certainly the most memorable of the performances I have done in Simsbury over the years), not even some of the wonderful all-Tchaikovsky programs we did early in my tenure. . . . . no, instead it will be SPECTRUM: rhythm and blues as good as it gets. I must say that I could not have asked for a better way to go.

See you all Friday night!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

after Bogota -- preparing for Talcott Mountain

I was in Bogota last week, conducting Schoenberg's Pelleas und Mellisande -- a piece which you will never hear played by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. That's not a bad thing, just simple fact, because the Schoenberg piece is one of three (along with Transfigured Night and Gurrelieder) that are early, late Romantic works before the composer abandoned this post-Wagnerian style for serial composition.

Schoenberg's Pelleas requires an enormous orchestra: take the usual count of woodwinds and brass you would normally see, and double it. (eight french horns, and FIVE trombones!) When the Hartford Symphony takes on the challenge of an orchestral work requiring enormous forces, it must choose carefully because, unlike the Filarmonica de Bogota, or the New York Philharmonic for that matter, extra players contribute significantly to the expense side of the ledger. (For example, in several major orchestras, they carry upwards to four trumpets on their full time roster, whilst the HSO carries just two: even hiring a third, a frequent necessity, is an added expense which the orchestra must adequately plan for.)

During a rehearsal of Haendel's Royal Fireworks last night, I had to catch myself, for I had just spent dozens of hours speaking in (albeit somewhat fractured) Spanish, and here I was, able to speak in English again! (por favor. . . otra vez ['once more,' please] uh. . .. diez y ocho. . .. no, wait a minute, rehearsal #18!) And with all the fussiness of Haendelian articulation at stake, I truly would have been at a loss with a Spanish-speaking ensemble.

Some Bogota players took me aside (Maestro, you are free to speak English, as most of us understand. . .), but I've always felt it disrespectful to do that. Even with a Czech orchestra twenty years ago, I did as most as I possibly could in Czech and German, their second language. (Of course, their word for the number 'four' gave me fits, but you have to give it a go, no?)

But as the rehearsal continued, I was in a mild state of amazement at the weather, which was positively glorious. (Usually, we only have one dress rehearsal on site.) Would this beautiful weather continue through the weekend? I was told that it would. How many summers have we played at Talcott Mountain where the Rain Gods had their way? Too many that I can recall. So this seemed like a very good omen, and the players responded in like fashion. Even all the extra time spent taking care of Baroque neccessities ("sixteenth, maestro?" "double-dotted or triple-dotted?" "you want fries with that?") did not diminish the overall good humor of our first rehearsal of 2010 in The Great Outdoors.

And the feature work of the program is none other than Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, to be played by the orchestra's concertmaster, Leonid Sigal. In our pre-rehearsal discussion, I was delighted to learn that Lenny wanted to dispense with some of the traditions that have come to be associated with this masterwork, including the traditional (what I like to call) 'hiccup' that comes right before the very end. Kind of like growing up with burnt potatoes, and expecting the rest of the world to like them, just because you do.

Did you know that this Vivaldi work is the only classical (that is to say, any work written by composers of the Baroque, Classic, Romantic and Modern periods) to make it on the Top-40? After Nigel Kennedy (who now goes by just "Kennedy") came out with his thrilling recording of 1989, some enterprising DJ figured out that each of the twelve movements (three for each of the four concerti) is approximately 3 minutes in length -- that is to say, the same length as most of the pop and rock tunes which get air time on radio stations. And just like that, a phenomenon was born: Vivaldi, the new King of Pop. Well, for 15 minutes, anyway. (After all, MJ was still in his hey day.)

On Friday night, when we get to the storm movement of 'L'Estate' (Summer), I surely hope that the Rain Gods will be snoozing.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

on Ives's "Sonata Set for violin and orchestra"

Hello All,

more on Ives later,
but here's a nice article by Phillip Lutz on the topic:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My inner iPod

There was an article in the March 15 New York Times Science section ("Mental Melodies," by C. Claiborne Ray) on why people get a certain tune in their heads, and then have difficulty saying goodbye to them. For me, it's like an ongoing but beautiful sickness, for there is never a time when music is not going through my head.

In fact, while I was a graduate student, I had a tune stuck in my head for 18 months. Believe it.

A month I can deal with. Two to three months, that becomes a problem. For half of 2009, it was Mahler's Ninth Symphony. But a year and a half can be unpleasant, no matter how nice the melody, or how gracious the tune.

And that's all it was - a tune. I kept singing it to my conducting colleagues, and no one could identify it. I don't have perfect pitch, but I knew it was in Eb major, and that it very likely was part of some sonata, string quartet or symphony. Unfortunately, the melody was too obscure to be readily identifiable. I asked the smartest musicians I knew, even the musicologists and computer brains -- all to no avail.

At the time, I was working on my thesis, the birth of the sonata rondo (kind of like a hybrid of the 'rondo' and 'sonata form') in Haydn's music, mainly the 80+ string quartets, 50+ piano sonatas, and 100+ symphonies. If you know anything about Haydn, then you would understand when I tell you that -- save for this innocuous tune that would not leave me -- it was a very happy year, immersed in the music of the world's most underrated great composer.

Studying the natural evolution of the sonata rondo in Haydn's music naturally led me to other composers, and how they handled this particular form. (Two excellent examples are the finales of Beethoven's Second and Eighth symphonies.)

One day, I looked through the symphonies of Schubert. I had often thought of an excellent performance of Schubert's Second Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, long before he succeeded Riccardo Muti in Philadelphia. Looking through the score that day, the memory of the concert came back to me with a glow.

And wouldn't you know -- while thumbing through the pages of the Schubert score as I listened to it in my inner ear -- once I came upon the finale, and the second theme in particular, there it was. . . .

. . . the tune!

Eighteen months, five hundred forty days, nearly thirteen hundred hours later, and I had finally found it. It felt like I'd climbed Mt. Everest.

And the next day, the tune was gone.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Nose

No, this is not a post about Shostakovich's opera about a guy (who cuts hair) who finds a schnozz in his panini. (And who else but Dmitri could write music on such a subject?)

No, this is about the vagaries of performance, and the things that happen beyond the stage. This is about you, our wonderful audience.

Last night, after the orchestra and I completed our performance of Sibelius's Seventh Symphony, the marvelous pianist Andrius Zlabys came on to play Mozart's "Jenomy" concerto, K. 271. (No, it's not the "Jeunehomme;" more on that for another post.)

After the first movement, a few audience members could not help themselves, and began to clap. It was entirely appropriate. It felt right. But when only a few do it, these people can feel (and from reactions around them, made to feel) foolish.

I love it when this happens. It's a spontaneous reaction. Mozart would have loved it. Andrius smiled, acknowledged the happy few, and when I turned around to thank them as well, more people put their hands together. It was a moment of deep and abiding appreciation for a pianist who brings uncommon skill and panache to Mozart.

And Mr. Zlabys had played a different Mozart concerto (no. 24 in C minor) the previous night, dispatched with his customary brilliance and sensitivity. Truly, there are few pianists who can sing on the instrument at a dynamic level just this side of inaudible. With this young man, it's breathtaking to behold.

After intermission, we played Vaughan Williams's Symphony no. 5.

Now, the Hartford Symphony is a fine ensemble. And a professional orchestra always comes through for its audience. But there are moments when, together, we all strive together in lockstep. This whirlwind rarely happens, and when it does, one doesn't want the music to stop. The third movement Romanza, beginning with a glorious solo from English hornist Marilyn Krentzman, was stunning from start to end.

And then, in the closing moments, as lower strings gently expired, it happened. Someone blew his/her nose. It completely destroyed the canvas of silence.

Quietly, I remarked to the string players within earshot of me, "did someone actually just blow his nose?" Affirmative head shakes. Incredible. Was this some guy who'd been dragged to the symphony by his music-loving spouse? Or an aqualine-endowed woman who cane reluctantly with her husband? (Unlike approaching footsteps, or breathing, large noses that honk when blown belong to my sex and the fair sex.)

To add insult to injury, just as celestial strings finished the last page of the symphony, we were all treated to an encore. Yes, The Nose. Again. A passive agressive critic.

You, Ladies and Gentlemen, are on the other side of the proscenium, but you are part of the performance. Just with your attendance, you play an integral role in the action. You, as a group -- and as individuals -- have the power. Every one of you.