Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Steven Spielberg and John Williams

The two are inextricably linked, from Jaws to E.T.and The Adventures of Tin Tin. Spielberg is arguably the finest storyteller in film. My son says there is no one better at portraying the ravages of war, and I'm inclined to agree. With War Horse, Spielberg once again returns to the subject of a world at war. This time, it's The Great War, and the battle scenes are so vivid it's hard to imagine either side emerging victorious.

Say what you want about the film's merits. What occupied my thoughts during much of the film was that John Williams -- one of the greatest film composers of all time -- was at Spielberg's side, once again.

I have always wondered about the working relationship between these two men. Having met and worked with Williams, I know that he is an uncommanly nice man in an uncompromising business. When you hear a chorus in a Spielberg film, you can be sure it was the director's idea. But it has become impossible to think of the first great Spielberg film, Jaws, without also recalling those low tones in the string bass -- one short, the next even shorter, a half-step higher -- that tell us the shark is beneath us, always lurking. One could argue that these two notes are as famous as the four which open Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. No one could have known then what we know now, that no matter how challenging it was to build a viable, realistic-looking shark (and you thought the eponymous character's late appearance in the film was a dramatic tactic!), Williams had it in his hip pocket all along. And that is a testament to his genius.

But the music doesn't quite get it right with War Horse. This is the first Spielberg/Williams collaboration where the music is pervasive. That's not necessarily a bad thing: think of those great anthems from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman, or the bittersweet melodies in Schindler's List, and you welcome it.

Thomas Newman, one of the busiest film composers today, takes a different approach. In any of his film scores (Road to Perdition, American Beauty, and The Shawshank Redemption, to name a few), you are never aware of the music. I've seen Shawshank dozens of times, and am still, to this day, never conscious of the music. Newman is proud of this, having gone on the record to say he prefers "to deepen the action through subtext, as opposed to commenting on the drama." Perhaps this is one reason why Newman is ever malleable to the demands of the director, and is proud of that. You'll never hear his music on a symphony pops concert. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Williams's ability to take an idea and make it his own has always been a trademark. The parabolic trumpets in Star Wars are right out of those in Ravel's Daphnis. Others may recognize Gustav Holst's The Planets in some of the battle scenes. But the end result is never derivative; it always ends up sounding like John Williams.

Which is why, during the opening of War Horse, I was surprised when Ralph Vaughan-Williams immediately came to mind. (Williams has always had a love for English composers.) There are also tips of the hat to Aaron Copland. But what really perplexed me was the direct quote from Star Trek, played by french horns just as Alexander Courage scored it for the 1960s hit television series. James Horner (Titanic) is unabashedly unafraid to steal from his favorite composers: think of how he lifts a phrase directly from Copland's Our Town in Field of Dreams, or from Mahler's Seventh Symphony and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf in the animated film, Land Before Time. But I've never known Williams to do this, until War Horse.

Writing music for film can be tricky. The brilliant composer, John Corigliano, who wrote luminous scores for "The Red Violin" and "Altered States," recently had an experience where his music was not to the director's liking, and was not used. (Corigliano was still paid.) In most cases, music written for a particular movie does not belong to the composer, who later may be surprised to hear his music in other media, without accreditation.

John Williams teamed up with Itzhak Perlman and the Pittsburgh Symphony for a recording ("Cinema Serenade") of movie tunes for solo violin and orchestra. The session began with Perlman in the middle of the orchestra, with a microphone above him, but early takes were not to his liking. Finally, the producer moved him back to the front of the orchestra, and things progressed nicely from that point on. Of course, Williams's music for Schindler's List was included, and Perlman's rendition was as glorious as it was in the film. Returning to the green room (which had been converted into a studio) during each session break, Perlman had much to say, but Williams always deferred to the producer. He was also very kind to other composers represented on the disc. (Of Andre Previn's contribution, he shook his head in admiration, saying "boy, they just don't write music like that anymore.")

You would be hard-pressed to find equal doses of genius and modesty in another human being. When I saw him last summer at Tanglewood, Williams, now just shy of eighty, was his usual jovial self, trading niceties with staff and musicians.

The Adventures of Tin Tin is a movie I would have seen by now had it come out years ago, when my children were younger. But I will see it, if only to hear the Williams score. I am still, and always will be, a devoted fan. I can hardly wait to see (and hear) what he and Spielberg have wrought with Lincoln. (And Jurassic Park IV is on the way . . .)

Monday, December 19, 2011

A good performance can only come from a good start

At the dress rehearsal for a performance of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and then again at the warmup two days later, I had the winds play the opening two bars several times. They were probably scratching their heads: "Why is the conductor having us play these 13 notes over and over again, when there are so many other spots that still need touching up?" Of course, they were right. But, reminded of two past events with another masterwork -- one told, one experienced -- I thought the better of it, and stuck to my guns.

Someone told me a great Leonard Bernstein story that sounded like vintage Lenny. (No, I never met the man, but many of my colleagues and friends were fortunate to study with him, and hearing them recount their stories has given me great vicarious pleasure.) One went like this: after a party that went on all night, Bernstein -- cigarette in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other -- went to his desk in preparation for a rehearsal later that morning of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6, "Pathetique."

He opened his score to the first page.

The music opens with contrabassi, playing an open fifth, E and B. A solo bassoon enters, meandering within that fifth like an inchworm -- up two steps, down a step; then again, up two steps, down one. Again, a third time. It's as if, after months and months of deep sleep, a grizzly bear is slowly waking up. Or maybe it's Tchaikovsky himself, unable to find the key of relief that will unlock him from yet another debilitating depression.

This is hypnotic music, in a world of its own, and it had cast a spell on Bernstein, for he never turned the page. He sat and studied the score for over an hour, but he never strayed from those opening bars. For Bernstein, the whole world of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique was in that solo bassoon and the low strings.

When I was a conducting student at Yale, the six or seven students would share a concert at the end of the year, with four of us dividing up the symphony on the second half. Our teacher, Mr. Mueller, usually gave me the finale -- my first year, it was Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; a couple of years later, we did Symphony no. 3, "Eroica." But when we did Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6, I was given the first movement. (He said the first movement was nicht für Kinder -- a William Steinberg phrase that he oft-quoted -- but somebody had to do it.) After the performance of the Tchaikovsky, speaking of the climax in the development, Mr. Mueller criticized me for being 'too Catholic, not enough Russian Orthodox.' Like many of his pedagogical urgings, it took me years to figure out what he had meant.

But what I won't ever forget was how the symphony began. The opening fifth in the basses was compressed, making it sound more like a tri-tone (sometimes known as L'intervallo del diavolo). It was awful. To make matters worse, a cellist seated near the basses started to giggle. Things soon got out of control. Any hope for the music to dramatically unfold over the next twenty minutes was ruined. It shook me to the core of my being. The way our curriculum was set up, we had one concert a year in which to shine, and this was my moment. Think of an ice skater who, in some national or international event, opens with triple axle and falls to the ice. That's how I felt at the time. Why go on?

I asked Mr. Mueller what he would have done, given the same situation, if he would have started over again. He said yes.
And so I resolved, from that day forward, if something did not begin well, I would stop and take it over again, from the top.

Ten years later with the Pacific Symphny Institute Orchestra, the solo trumpet kicked the first few notes of his solo in Ravel's orchestration to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The trumpeter was a brilliant player, but also ultra-sensitive, and I knew that continuing would likely diminish him, as well as the performance. So I wheeled around, cheerfully said to the audience, "we're going to try that again!" Yes, we. Because I took a measure of the blame. If a player does not play his best, it's possible, maybe even likely, that there was something I could have done to help him play it better. (The late great conductor, Calvin Simmons, who opened his first concert as music director of the Oakland Symphony with Mussorgsky's Pictures, was luckier than I. He bounded on stage, took a bow without the orchestra, and as he came out of his bow, turned around to give a downbeat to the solo trumpet. I knew Simmons had caught the trumpeter off guard, but he played it brilliantly nonetheless.)

And so, we started Pictures once again. And this time, the trumpet solo was perfect. He nailed it. And it set a postive tone for the entire piece.

That's why, years later, I had the Hartt students play the opening bars of Symphonie Fantastique over and over again. In my mind, I was setting them up for success. The first two bars are undeniably difficult, and Berlioz's exacting dynamic directions . . .

begin softly, gradually increase the volume, and then, at the end of the crescendo play the next bar suddenly softer still, attacking it accurately and together, and then hold it, in perfect intonation

. . . are often shortchanged. After they played it correctly once, I had them do it again, and again still, so that their success was habit-forming.

Sure enough, in the performance, the winds played these two bars beautifully, which set the tone for what would be an exhilarating performance. All's well that begins well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique

Two nights ago, the Hartt Symphony Orchestra performed Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and it was an unexpected thrill. Why? Because, a few days earlier, we were anything but ready. One might chalk it up to the hectic lives of students and their busy schedules at the end of a semester. But I can remember some fine performances with other orchestras where things went down to the wire. I am hesitant to praise my students too strongly, because I fear they may carry the belief that waiting until the last minute to properly prepare one's part leads to a more exciting performance.

Meryl Streep once said, "Sometimes under-preparation is very good, because it instills fear, and fear is galvanizing. It makes you break out of yourself. If you're prepared, then you think you're ready, and if you think you're ready, then you're not ready."

A few years ago, a snowstorm forced the Hartford Symphony to move a concert to the following evening. Because the guest artist (the fine cellist, Julie Albers, playing Stephen Albert's Cello concerto) had a previously scheduled engagement in Princeton, the orchestra had to fill her spot with a musical selection that would be performed without rehearsal.

Since it was Valentine's Day (Prokofiev's ballet music to Romeo and Juliet was already slated for the second half), I put Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasy to Romeo and Juliet in place of the Albert concerto. To this day, whenever the subject comes up with my friend, Leonid Sigal (concertmaster of the HSO), he resolutely maintains that it was the best performance of the Tchaikovsky he's ever done. High praise, coming from a Russian artist who has played this work many, many times.

Was it really that good? And if so, was the excellence of our performance in part due to the fact that every player was sitting on the edge of his/her seat, ready for any cue that would come his/her way? Certainly. Meryl Streep would have loved it. [Hmm -- after practicing the violin 6 hours a day for a month (in preparation for her role in "Music from the Heart"), maybe she could have joined us.]

But Tchaikovsky' Romeo and Juliet is not nearly as difficult as Symphonie Fantastique, which always sounds like a wild ride no matter how much rehearsal time has gone into it. As well as my students played it, I will always wonder -- could it have been better? Maybe, maybe not.

Several years ago, the great Polish conductor, Jerzy Semkow, conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony in Rachmaninoff's Symphony no. 2. The first rehearsal was unforgettable, on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the subsequent rehearsals and performances had none of the energy and vigor of the initial playthrough. But the audience did not know what I knew: before that first rehearsal, the orchestra had spent all morning recording short popular melodies with Itzahk Perlman, violinist, and John Williams, conductor ("Cinema Serenade"). When you've spent hours and hours playing (and replaying) little bonbons from Yentl, Out of Africa, and Il Postino, you can hardly wait to sink your teeth into a big piece of meat like Rachmaninoff. And so, later that day, when Semkow -- a favorite of the orchestra who had not been in Pittsburgh for a long time -- ascended the podium, the orchestra took on the persona of an uncaged lion, and the playing was electric. But by the end of the week, the orchestra was more than ready, and the effect was stultifying.

There are other entertainers who would agree with Meryl Streep. Bill Cosby hates to rehearse, but one cannot deny the brilliance of his standup comedy, or his work on television. In preparation for a film, Dame Judi Dench does not like to memorize her script. And yet, on the screen -- whether as 'M' in James Bond or as Hecuba in Hamlet -- she delivers her lines like she owns them, as if she has written them herself.

The late Carlos Kleiber, regarded by many to be the best conductor of the late 20th century, performed in a manner that suggested he was making it up as he went along. During the latter part of his career, his public appearances were few and far between, as he demanded extraordinary amounts of rehearsal time that few orchestras would give him. Perhaps the essence of his disarming spontaneity was supported by the high level of preparation he required from his players.

Who is to know, really, what is best?
I just hope my students don't wait until the last minute to practice.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


My orchestra performed Brahms's Symphony no. 3 Friday night. It will go down as one of the most satisfying concerts of my career.

Also on the program was Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Walton's Portsmouth Point Overture, a rambunctious work that, with all of its rhythmic complexity, is constantly darting this way and that. (In a rehearsal of this work with the Aspen Festival Orchestra back in 1982, Jorge Mester became so frustrated with the strings' inability to negotiate all of the metrical land mines that he exasperatingly placed his baton on his stand, asked concertmaster Ruben Gonzalez to take over the rehearsal, and left!)

The Walton is very tricky, and there were times early on during the rehearsal process when I wondered how much time it would take to get a five minute piece ready for performance. But once the players understood it to be an English hootenanny, we were fine. The Brahms, however, was another matter.

Kurt Masur calls Symphony no. 3 "the most personal" of the four symphonies by Brahms. It's also the hardest. And the first movement alone may be the single most difficult symphonic stretch for any orchestra.

You might say Le Sacre du Printemps is harder. Perhaps it was in 1913, or even 1923, but nowadays the best youth orchestras can handle it with dispatch. Elliott Carter's Symphony of Three Orchestras? Sure, but if you make a mistake, only you will know. Anything by Mozart, or Mendelssohn? Again, yes, but in works by these composers there are instances of great momentum, with plenty of opportunities to let go. This never happens in the first movement of Brahms's Third.

With few exceptions, you won't find youth orchestras playing the symphonies of Brahms. Youngsters do well with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. I've done Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with orchestras at every level, from the Pacific University's town 'n gown orchestra (where some of the ladies would blow the dust off of their violins once a week), on up to the world-class Pittsburgh Symphony. I am as proud of what the former did as I am of the latter. (My brother attended both performances, and preferred that of the town 'n gown bunch.) Not all of Beethoven's symphonies are this way -- the Fourth is very difficult, and that may be part of the reason why it is so infrequently performed. But the Fifth, to quote Edmund Morris, has a universality to it. Everybody gets it.

Not so with Brahms. Many people know the music to be great, but that doesn't mean they want to spend time with it. Rachmaninoff's piano concertos will always be more popular. Brahms wrote beautiful song cycles, but those by Schubert and Schumann are the ones we often hear on vocal recitals. The piano music is astounding, but not as popular as that of Chopin, Liszt or Beethoven. That being said, you will hear the chamber music of Brahms on many programs. Same with the four symphonies.

But the Third Symphony is in a world of its own. In what other symphony from the standard repertory does a composer conclude all four movements in quiet repose? When I thought about how to order the pieces on this program, I had the brief temptation to put the Brahms first, then the Walton and Britten on the second half, so as to bring the program to a rousing close. But then I remembered what the great conductor, Bernhard Klee, told me many years ago when he commented on a program that began with the 3rd Brahms and ended with Schubert's epic Symphony in C major. He said, "This is a travesty, for nothing can come after the Brahms."

One of my first lessons at Yale with Otto-Werner Mueller was on the first movement of Brahms's First Symphony. Mr. Mueller kept stopping me because he didn't feel I was showing the right sound. (Imagine that -- a conductor actually projecting a certain kind of sound.) At the time, I thought he'd gone mad. But then he instructed me to fly to Los Angeles to watch Carlo Maria Guilini conduct the work, and I began to get the idea.

With Brahms, sound is everything. (One conductor told me that, after he lost nearly a hundred pounds, he couldn't get his orchestra to play Brahms the way he wanted. Much to his musical -- if not physical -- satisfaction, he promptly put the weight back on.) In the first movement of the Third Symphony, sound is paramount, but rhythm is king. It's in 6/4, meaning there are 3 subdivisions to every beat (instead of the customary 2), which means that within every beat there is that extra little semi-beat where something can go wrong. Additionally, Brahms is constantly thwarting the natural rise and fall of the rhythm, so that a phrase such as "When are we going to Pillsbury Hill," which has natural stress points on "WHEN are we GO-ing to PILLS-bury HILL," instead with Brahms comes out sounding, "when are WE going TO pillsbu-RY hill." After awhile, you feel like you are continually putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.

And there is that issue of momentum (or lack thereof); in this music, you can never rest! In the middle movements, Brahms does release the tension somewhat, only to return to it once again in the volatile finale.

The late, great Carlos Kleiber was once asked to conduct a Brahms cycle with the Chicago Symphony, and he asked for 6-8 rehearsals. (Four is the standard.) The management wrote back, "Oh Maestro, you won't need that much rehearsal time, as the orchestra has recently performed all the Brahms symphonies." Kleiber's response? "In that case, make it 15." (The invitation was rescinded.)

The story may be partly apocryphal, but you get the idea. After Friday's performance, I'm certain the members of the Hartt Symphony Orchestra get the idea. Their rendering of Brahms's Symphony no. 3, and of the first movement in particular, had a majesty to it. They were rightly thrilled, and the audience (which properly waited several moments at the close of the symphony before clapping) responded with equal parts exhilaration and exhaustion. Brahms does that to you.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Gidon Kremer at the White Light Festival

Alex Ross recently wrote about Gidon Kremer in the New Yorker, where he agreed with Herbert von Karajan that Kremer is the greatest living violinist.

Very strong words indeed. But from Kremer's recent performance at the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center, I'm certain Mr. Ross felt justified in going out on that limb.

Many violinists would take exception to this belief. They complain of Kremer's penchant for performing concertos with the music in front of him, rather than from memory, as most violin soloists do. Some violinists have told me that Kremer doesn't always play in tune.

To their complaints I say so what. Listen to his music. Listen to the poetry that comes from this man.

During my residency with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Kremer was a guest, performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. (Yes, he used music.) This was a piece I thought I knew, a piece I had performed before and several times since. But no performance I have heard or conducted can compare to what Kremer did with this masterwork.

The Sibelius concerto is hard, really hard. Some would say that Beethoven's is the hardest. (Joseph Silverstein told me that if you can get past those opening octaves, you have a fighting chance.) Others might say Brahms's, or Tchaikovsky's. But Sibelius's violin concerto is difficult for the orchestra, too.

On this occasion, Kremer played in a way that separates him from the rest. (Even Nikolaj Znaider -- who gave a brilliant performance of the concerto with Colin Davis and the LSO earlier in the White Nights Festival -- must take a back seat to Mr. Kremer.)

There was nothing technically flashy about Kremer's performance, and there was even the occasional note that was not pitch-perfect. But in the controlled frenzy of his rendering of the finale, the soulful quality to the second movement, and an earth-shattering moment in the first movement, Kremer stands apart.

It happened not in the cadenza, but after it. For those of you who may not know, a cadenza is a place where a soloist can shine on his own, independent of the orchestra. Sometimes a cadenza is brief (Bach, Mozart), sometimes long (in Shostakovich, it can be an entire movement). Sibelius was himself a violinist, a frustrated one at that; given a choice, he would much rather have been a violin virtuoso than a great composer.

This frustration is evident in the cadenza, but I had no idea of it until I heard Kremer play it. And then, when he came to the end of the cadenza, there was something Kremer did (or didn't do . . . I'm not quite sure which) which made me break down.

At the end of a cadenza, a violinist is often asked to exalt, to be heroic, and the close of Sibelius's cadenza confirms this. In any other concerto, the orchestra would re-enter with great excitement and confirmation. In Sibelius, there is none of this, as the bassoons murmur along, stuck in the mud. (They don't even have the courtesy to wait for the violin to finish before they come in.) The rest of the orchestra straggles back in, one by one, and the violin soloist follows suit, almost catatonic. Think of a child, trying to please a parent to no avail, and you get the idea.

In short, the orchestra ignores the soloist, just as late 19th century European orchestral world ignored Sibelius the violinist. In an instant, Gidon Kremer brought all of this to bear, and I soon realized that I had stopped breathing. Backstage afterwards, I fumbled, trying to find the right words to compliment Mr. Kremer. It was useless. But he knew. For him, this kind of tacit praise is probably a regular occurence.

Oh, and one other thing -- thinking that I'd like to communicate with him at some point (when the words would hopefully come to me), I asked for a way to contact him. He not only gave me his home address, he gave me his phone number.

Among the great violinists living today, whom do you know would do such a thing?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra at the White Light Festival

Maestro Colin Davis and the LSO did an all-Sibelius program at the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center last month. The program: Violin Concerto, with Nicolaj Znaider, and Symphony no. 2. The wondrous playing at this concert made me wonder why the London Symphony is not more frequently mentioned in the great orchestra discussion.

Who are they? Certainly the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and depending on your point of view, members of the Big Five, such as the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra. (Philadelphia and Boston, in particular, are truly great, but the former's financial problems and the latter's very public search for a music director have put a temporary chink in their armour.) Others have their favorites, such as the Concergebeow of Amsterdam, or other top orchestras in the U.S., such as those in St. Louis, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. After a recent appearance in Carnegie Hall, the music writer Alex Ross insisted that the Minnesota Orchestra (under the leadership of Osmo Vanska) be a part of that discussion.

Except for a few of these, I have heard all of the above-listed orchestras live in performance, most of them in their home hall. Except for a rehearal I attended ten years ago at the Barbican in London, where Colin Davis rehearsed Berlioz' Beatrice and Benedict in preparation for a concert performance, I had never heard the London Symphony in person. What I heard a few weeks ago made me think that Avery Fisher Hall is one of the great acoustic wonders of the world. (Believe me when I tell you it is most certainly not.) On this night, the LSO sounded like the greatest orchestra I have ever heard in my entire life. The entire concert was a revelation.

Let's start with the Sibelius Violin Concerto. But first, a little background.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is noted for their performing without a conductor. Although it sometimes lacks for a singular interpretation, it is a remarkable ensemble. And there is one thing that this orchestra does as well if not better than any other conductor/orchestra combination: accompany. It pains me as a conductor to write these words, but the Orpheus has a way of tapping directly into the soloist that maestro-driven orchestras cannot do. When things go awry, orchestra players can be divided over whom to follow: the conductor, or the soloist? Because, sad to say, the conductor sometimes just gets in the way. Famously, before a 1962 performance of Brahms's Piano Concerto no. 1, Leonard Bernstein introduced the piece by warning the audience how he and the pianist, Glen Gould, were distinctly at odds in their collaboration. The message was, 'listen at your own peril.'

The Orpheus can accompany any of the concertos by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc. Not so the Brahms, if only because it demands a large orchestra. Same with the Sibelius.

And on this October night, the collaboration between Colin Davis and Nicolaj Znaider was a thing of beauty. Among the great conductors in the world today, Davis is renowned for his lack of ego, which serves him particular well when accompanying. There is a great deal of give-and-take in conducting an orchestra with a soloist. But the Sibelius concerto (which I have led several times in the last year alone) makes unusual demands of the conductor, as the piece puts a high premium on rhythmic elasticity, ensemble control, and balance. The audience wants to be able to hear the soloist at all times. The Sibelius concerto is a challenge in this respect, occasionally requiring an orchestral dynamic level bordering on inaudibility. And with someone like Znaider -- who invites you in, rather than throwing his sound out -- the conductor must go to even greater lengths to make sure the soloist can always be heard.

On this night, Davis went one better -- he had the LSO playing like a chamber ensemble, as if the players were huddled together in a large sitting room, sharing music together, intimately, confidently. From where I sat, it appeared that Davis was hardly moving, inviting the players to listen, rather than follow. I forgot that there were nearly one hundred musicians on the stage.

The Second Symphony was something else. (For the second half, I moved closer to the stage for a better view.) From the beginning, the LSO sounded less like an ensemble firmly in the command of a venerated maestro than a great orchestra unleashed. With his gestures, Davis seemed to be telling the players, "you know how this goes, so go ahead and play it, and I'll be here when you need me." And this could likely only happen when an orchestra and conductor have been working together for more than a generation, something that no longer happens with the major orchestras of the world. Smaller orchestras are prone to having one sitting music director for twenty five years or more, but the legacies of Szell/Cleveland and Ormandy/Philadelphia are a thing of the past.

On this night, however, I was reminded of what can happen between a great conductor and great orchestra when their collective history goes back nearly fifty years. How else can you explain the orchestra knowing everything Davis wanted of them, before he even asked? Don't get me wrong. I know the LSO has recorded the Sibelius symphonies with Davis, and that touring orchestras arrive in one's city as finely chiseled Swiss watches, ready to go. I get all of that. But on this night (which was, to my surprise, not sold out), something else was at play, a collective esprit de corps, a willingness to take a different trail that was not clearly marked. What I am saying is that the orchestra played as one. On a good day, a conductor standing in front of a orchestra hopes to have a simple majority of players in his court. On this evening, the players' trust in Davis was total.

Immediately after the performance of the concerto, Znaider returned to the stage for an encore, which he dedicated to Colin Davis. This gesture was extraordinary, but in context, quite appropriate and fitting.

I have been thinking of Gideon Toeplitz, the great orchestra administrator who died last month. Gideon was also at that rehearsal ten years ago, and he introduced me to Colin Davis. My memory of meeting him is mostly of the man's warmth and humor. When he steps off the podium, he no longer commands a room the way Dudamel and Gergiev do, wherever they go. Davis is, for me, a model of the ideal conductor of our times. My fear is that, given how many orchestras are running scared today, in search of the perfect panacea, or a maestro with a capital M, the grace and manner of Colin Davis may soon become a thing of the past.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Evening with Richard Rodgers

Last Saturday night, the Hartford Symphony presented -- with gifted students from the Hartt School Music Theatre and Ballet program -- an evening dedicated to the music of just one man: Richard Rodgers.

Who gets this kind of treatment? Beethoven. Tchaikovsky. I've seen and attended all-Brahms programs, sometimes on successive nights.

But Richard Rodgers? BELIEVE IT. And even if we were to play someone else's music on the same program, it wouldn't matter, because


More than Bach. More than Mozart. More than Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern. No one else comes close.

Think about it. Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies, and a good 15-20 of them are played regularly, around the world. Schubert wrote over 600 songs. How many of them do you know? Let's see . . . Doppelganger, The Earl King, Sylvia, Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, Ave Maria, and there are many more.

Did you know Rodgers wrote over 900 songs? You might not be able to name them all, or even half of them, but if someone started singing them for you, you would find yourself saying over and over again, "oh yeah! I know that one (too)."

Because Richard Rodgers not only had the gift of melody, he was astoundingly prolific. He started composing at the age of 9. He made it to Broadway by the age of 18. (Gershwin didn't get there until he was in his 20s.) With Lorenz Hart he created 15 musicals between 1925 and 1930. With Pal Joey (1940) and later By Jupiter, Rodgers had turned in two decades of Broadway success, and had not yet reached the age of 40. If he were Rossini, he would have retired, his legacy secure. But no. Instead he moves on to a new association with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, writing musicals for nearly two decades more.

Let me put it you another way: Richard Rodgers made it to Broadway when Babe Ruth was just getting going. And he was still writing hit tunes when Richard Nixon resigned and Reggie Jackson became known as Mr. October.

If Richard Rodgers had somehow been more flamboyant, more of a bon vivant, hounded by media, then he would rightly take his place as the American Mozart in work and play. Instead, he was family man, with two daughters and a wife he loved (and who loved him). Sure he had a reputation for charming the ladies, but have you ever seen a picture of Rodgers when he wasn't wearing a suit and tie? (I haven't.) The first thing that comes to mind is an accountant, or an actuary. On television, he appeared dour and colorless.

But what a titanic genius! As a friend pointed out to me, Richard Rodgers is the only person to have received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony and 2 Pulitzer Prizes. After awhile, R & H, unhappy with what producers were doing with their shows, decided to start producing shows on their own, making them both fabulously wealthy (which also goes against the grain of what people associate with the laboring, starving artistic genius). Rodgers was so good, he got to a point where he could put on shows without stars, without bankable names. Since the music was so good, people were going to come anyway. Before Oklahoma, anything that got 500 performances was considered a Broadway hit. Laurie and Curly, Ado Annie and Will, Aunt Eller and Jud went on for 2,212 performances. After that colossal hit, one bigwig said to him, "Hang it up, now. You will never do anything better than Oklahoma." Oh yeah? How about Carousel?

So you can see my problem in planning last Saturday's show. The question was not, what to play, but rather, what can we leave out? For how many Broadway composers can you do a show like this, leave out so many hits, and still leave the audience happy? We didn't do anything from The King and I. We didn't do the Carousel Waltz. Not even 'My Funny Valentine,' or 'Out of My Dreams' (my favorite waltz, by the way). And no one cared.

Because this was perhaps the best pops show I have ever done with the Hartford Symphony. With Michael Morris's brilliant direction, Denise Leetch-Moore's majestic choreography, and Alan Rust's theatrical expertise, not to mention those fabulous young men and women from Hartt, we put on a show of shows. The buzz was palpable, from start to finish. The roars began early, and continued throughout.

It was my last pops show as Music Director of the Hartford Symphony, and it was a fabulous way to go out.

getting ready for a World Premiere, and Tchaikovsky

This week will feature the Hartford Symphony's concertmaster, Leonid Sigal, in a new work by Stephen Michael Gryc, Harmonia Mundi, for violin and orchestra. It's a beautiful work, and I'm confident audiences will respond very positively to it.

Last week I was really nervous. It was before our first rehearsal on Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4, a work most of the players have done before, probably several times, and thus is one of those pieces (like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) where a conductor must necessarily come with a unified conception and interpretation, if only to counter the many habits, customs and traditions that accompany a well known work from the standard repertory.

Advancing one's strong ideas about Beethoven is one thing. But Tchaikovsky is a different animal -- the orchestra and I last did his Fourth Symphony in 2002, which is the equivalent of never, as most of these players were not playing in the orchestra 9 years ago (and it was a summer concert, making it even less memorable). On top of that, I haven't done much Tchaikovsky with the orchestra since, and thus we haven't developed a way of doing his music over the course of my tenure.

Add to this an added nervousness because of my big experiment, having created a new edition of sorts. Using my own orchestral materials (most conductors bring their own score but leave the individual orchestra parts, bowings and markings, to the host orchestra), I changed several of the meters in the first movement. You might ask, why? The piece has survived as a great classic since 1878 without anyone doing this before, so why now? Can't it stand on its own, as is?

The answer is yes, of course it can. And it has, for over 130 years. And will continue to do so, thank you very much.

Except for my teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, who first put the idea in my head, no one has ever done what I am about to describe. And in my previous outings, I did not have the time to go through with it. But I figured, as Doc Brown says in "Back to the Future:" what the hell? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

If you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, I'll explain.

The first movement is in 9/8 time, which is, for most composers who write in this meter, 123-456-789, and generally conducted in 3 beats to the bar, with a stress on beats 1, 4 and 7. 'Happy Birthday to You' and 'Star Spangled Banner' are also in 3 beats to the bar, but are in simple meter, or 12-34-56 (as opposed to the compound meter in 9/8).

Tchaikovsky divides those 9 small beats in many different ways: sometimes he will have one short beat followed by a 4 bigger beats, so that it comes out sounding like 1 23 45 67 89, and throughout much of the exposition he writes the music in 3 simple beats followed by 1 compound beat, or 12-34-56-789. (One of the most famous compound/simple meter combos is from Bernstein's West Side Story, "America," where it goes back and forth between
123 --- 456 and 12 -- 34 -- 56:

"I like to

live in A--


In the climax of the first movement in Tchaikovsky's Fourth, just before the return, he takes two measures and stretches them into one giant measure, looking (sounding) like this:

12 -- 34 -- 56 -- 78 -- 91 -- 23 -- 45 --67 --89

or, to one's ears, a big giant:

1 --- 2 --- 3 --- 4 --- 5 --- 6 --- 7 --- 8 --- 9

In these two measures, Tchaikovsky expects orchestra players to negotiate all of the cross rhythms, even though they go 'against the grain.' And for most of the music, the players do just that. They're professionals, you expect that of them. But in this place, even for world class orchestras, it can be a crap shoot. In the few times I've conducted Tchaikovsky's 4th, it hasn't always worked to my satisfaction.

And so, for this place, and a few others with complex rhythms, I rewrote the meters (I didn't change a single note) in a manner which projects the actual rhythm of the music. Some would surely object to this, arguing that Tchaikovsky wants the built-in tension left alone, as is. And I can see the merits of that argument. But I was undaunted.

Of course, in the first rehearsal, the players took some time getting used to the changes. But after a few times playing through these spots, these passages came off without a hitch. And the music (i.e., the rhythms) sounded just how I've always heard it in my head, and how I believe the composer wanted it to sound: jagged, off kilter, slightly off balance, creating enormous tension just before the reprise.

Tchaikovsky was highly disturbed when he wrote his Fourth Symphony. He was newly married (even though he was homosexual), attempted suicide, throwing himself into the Moscow River, and was generally resigned to never ever being a happy person (the 'fate' motive at the onset of the symphony reflects this). So it makes sense that, given what he was going through at the time, that Tchaikovsky would put himself out there on the edge of a creative cliff, given the enormous pain he endured while writing this symphony. It's all there in the music.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

June 4 Finale -- be forewarned!

The first piece on my last concert as music director with the Hartford Symphony features a new Requiem by Stephen Montague, who is nothing if not one of the finest dramatists writing music today.

If you don't believe me, check this out. (Stephen is the guy with baton in white tie and tails.) --EC

Friday, May 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Willie

For some reason, I have always remembered May 6 as Willie Mays's birthday. Born in 1931, that marks today as his 80th. And whenever there are new revelations about Barry Bonds having said this or Mark McGuire having (not) said that, it makes me wonder what Willie thinks about all of the commotion that has tainted professional baseball.

Willie Mays started out with the New York Giants, but he didn't come into the full view of this Oakland kid until the team moved west to San Francisco. And for a few years, until the Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland to play in a stadium that I could see from my front yard, the San Francisco Giants, with Mays, Marichal, McCovey et al, were my team.

On my eighth birthday, I got a new skateboard and a trip to Candlestick Park with my Dad and brother, Robert. It was Picture Day, so we got to see the players up close. They were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, with their own young legend-in-the-making, Willie Stargell. We sat in the bleachers behind centerfield, so as to have a perfect view of Mays playing defense. Stargell did not endear himself to me that day, hitting a long fly ball over Mays's head, not quite out of the stadium.

I still have a running video in my head of Mays scrambling frantically for the ball against the cyclone fence, no higher than what you would see in someone's backyard. Mays rifled the ball to second, limiting Stargell to a double. His throw was a dart; you cannot even begin to imagine what power emanated from Mays's arm unless you were to experience from close range.

Over thirty years later, I had the opportunity to share an elevator with Stargell, when he was a guest of the Pittsburgh Symphony, narrating Lincoln's words in Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. I recalled that beautiful August day with him, when he got the better of Mays. Stargell was not well, on dialysis for his kidney ailment. He was an inch or two taller than I, and even though his body was not the tower of strength it once was, he still loomed large in that crowded elevator.

He asked me, "what year?"
"1963," I responded.

Stargell's rookie season. He was the young upstart, having come to San Francisco to proclaim his right to play on the same field (and share the same first name) with my beloved Willie. Stargell lifted his head, shut his eyes a little, trying to recall the events of that day, and then nodded his head in acknowledgement. I guess baseball legends and orchestra conductors have one thing in common -- a prodigious memory.

What I did not have the nerve to tell Mr. Stargell was that Mays could have caught his long fly ball that day. He just ran out of room. As anyone familiar with Mays's unbelievable catch of Vic Wertz's long fly ball in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Mays not only had a great arm and power at the plate, he was fast as they come. And since the playing field of Polo Grounds went on forever, making it nearly impossible to hit a home run to centerfield, Mays simply outran Wertz's deep fly to center, catching it over his left shoulder while still running full speed away from home plate. If you have not seen it, I invite you to do so now:

Happy Birthday, Willie. And thank you for making the childhood of this writer so much brighter with the wonder of your play. Long live the Say Hey Kid!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Women of Villanova

Over this weekend I have been enthralled by women of the Big East, sixteen teams battling it out for the league championship. It started with a close game between University of South Florida and Pittsburgh, in which the latter prevailed by 3 points. Syracuse and West Virginia both won games they were expected to win, leaving only Providence and Villanova to battle it out.

Both teams came in with losing records. During warmups, the Friars appeared quicker than Villanova, even if smaller as a team, which could explain why the Friars had bested the Wildcats in their last four meetings. Even the Battle of the Bands did not bode well; the Wildcats had a meek sound which could not be heard so well over the din. Providence, in contrast, had a big sound, but on closer inspection I noticed an old ringer in the trumpet section. [During one number later in the game when he was missing, the band wasn't nearly as good.]

Sure enough, Villanova spotted Providence 13 points in the opening two minutes. A look at the scoreboard over the course of the first half showed the Wildcats down by 3 to 5 baskets most of the way. Coach Harry Perretta was yelling at the players constantly; on the court, on the bench. As he wildly gesticulated to anyone who cared to listen -- no coat, no tie, arms flailing, right hand contorted -- those of us in the stands could hear every word. He apeared to be a man not in control of his team. By contrast, Providence Coach Seymore was a model of restraint and elegance.

After halftime, the Wildcats continued their pattern of occasional brilliance, bringing them ever closer, followed by turnovers or missed layups. Also hard to watch were the three-point attempts taken from Dreamland, with little chance for success. Clearly much was expected of forward Megan Pearson, who seemed uncomfortable with the dribble. Emily Suhey was more accurate from around the key than beyond it. Center Heather Scanlon was not so effective against the quicker Friars.

But then the young guard Devon Kane took over the game. She frequently looked over to Coach Perretta for guidance, and he grew calmer, deferring to his able assistants. And with just over two minutes to play, the score was tied, and the place rocked. Over and over again, Kane found forward Laura Sweeney under the basket. By overtime, the momentum had clearly shifted, and Villanova took control and kept it. The Big East tournament had its first upset.

On the concourse after the game, I met a petite Villanova fan who looked like she'd just seen a ghost. She was Laura Sweeney's mother, and from the look on her face you'd never know that her daughter had scored a game high 21 points. (It wasn't until I met the father that I could tell where Miss Sweeney got her 6-2 inch slender frame.) They were resigned to staying in Hartford for another evening, as the Wildcats would face a much tougher Louisville team the following night.

Later that evening, as I walked my dogs in downtown Hartford, the streets and bars were abuzz with activity. I congratulated some Villanova players in front of the XL center. As I rounded the corner at Church and Trumbull, there was Coach Perretta: oblivious of the cold night air in his shirtsleeves, arms still flailing this way and that, holding court with anyone who would listen. I yelled my congratulations to him across the street. Without missing a beat, he waved back. He was still talking.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pre-concert adventure

Fresh off of Wednesday's storm, in which Hartford received (according to some reports) more snow in one day than it had in 120 years, there was another storm last Friday, which gives me pause even now, just to think of it.

Early morning January 7, I traveled to Long Island for the funeral of a dear friend's mother. I arrived at St. Agnes Church, Rockville Centre, in a swift two hours, evidently just missing rush hour. I was a nervous wreck because I had agreed to perform for the memorial service, on both piano and french horn. (I was particularly nervous about the horn playing, because I had not played publicly for 10 or 15 years.) Whenever I play the Bach Prelude in C, it usually goes off without a hitch, but my nerves got the better of me, and I made an early gaffe. The horn call (from Britten's Serenade) at the end went much better.

Exiting the church, the snow had started to come down - - not the stuff that sticks, but the swirly stuff. I did not stay for the burial, because I didn't want to chance cutting it close with my concert that evening back in Hartford. So I left around 12:20, confident that any traffic snags caused by the weather would not present too much of a problem.

How wrong I was.

Got off the island okay, over the Throgs Neck Bridge, and then into the state of Connecticut. Then, an hour later, a few miles short of Stamford, traffic came to a crawl, 3-5 mph. After 3 hours of this, I texted my son, Ian, to convey any information he could find. (If he'd been in the car with me, he could use his iPhone to come up with the 'green' routes via the internet, but I was to learn later that there were none; even the Merrit Parkway was closed.) Ian texted back that the problem was construction and traffic between exits 8 and 12. [Construction? On a Friday during rush hour? It proved to be bogus.] One woman who hosts a radio show in Westport came on the air announcing she would spend her entire two hour program talking about weather and traffic updates, helping people on the road, and keeping those at home safely off of it. (Not a good sign.) I called in to her show just as I saw an 18-wheeler facing the wrong way on the other side of the highway (which explained why opposite traffic had been so smooth sailing up to that point). After I hung up, I could hear my own talking, with the ten-second delay (to avoid the unwanted expletives of other guests, I suppose).

After five hours of driving, I began to get some wind (20 mph) approaching the junction from I-95 to I-91, near New Haven (normally 35 minutes from Hartford). Sigh of relief.

Whoops. Spoke too soon.

The junction was backed up for miles and miles, and then, once safely on I-91 north, the traffic continued at a crawl for miles and miles. This was the first moment when I began to realize I might miss my pre-concert talk at 7 p.m., one hour before the concert. I had already been in touch with Ken Trestman, the HSO Technical Director, for advice on routes. (He suggested Hwy 8 to 84 would be better, but I didn't agree.) Now I was asking him to make arrangements at the Bushnell Theatre to do the pre-concert talk via remote, over my cell phone (still thinking that I would, of course, make it to my concert in time). Ken was quite cavalier about my concerns, telling me "not to worry, just keep going, you'll make it here on time." I was not so sanguine.

As instructed, I called in at 7:03 to give my talk over the phone. Luckily, since I don't have blue tooth, my companion Elizabeth Vandeventer was at my side, holding the phone while I continued to -- yes -- drive in the horrible conditions. And, as luck (or not) would have it, the traffic began to break just as I began speaking, when some drivers began to show their true colors, swerving in and out of lanes with reckless abandon. Betsy was breathing so deeply and audibly that I had to momentarily break off from my talk to ask her to stop, because it was making me so nervous! (I thought she was worried about my driving -- I'm not the best driver, as my record shows -- but her reactions were to other drivers, darting in and out.)

I don't remember any of my driving during the next half hour. I tuned out all things visible, and went deep inside of myself, summoning the likes of Bela Bartok, Paul Sacher, Felix Mendelssohn, Ferdinand David, Sirena Huang, Joseph Haydn, the Prince of Esterhazy, Johann Peter Salomon, and the "Surprise" in Symphony no. 94. I was intent on speaking clearly and succinctly, and doing it in the proper time allotted to me. Once I reached the end of my talk, I thanked the audience, telling them I'd been driving for seven hours straight, and, by the looks of the traffic, would make it to the concert in time. Whew! (I would later learn that the players idling backstage would ask Ken where I was, because . . . he and Sound Man Al had been so deft handling the situation, most of the players thought I had been out on stage the whole time!)

When I arrived in Hartford around 7:45, I understood why Ken hadn't believed me. Not one snowflake had hit Hartford; it was clean as a whistle. All of the 'weather' had been in southern Connecticut. Of course, by the time the concert was over, it was coming down pretty hard. I had been in a race with the weather, and won.