Monday, December 31, 2012

Janacek's Sinfonietta

WARNING: If you are a not a conductor, musicologist, editor or a Janacek devotee, you may want to stop here. --- ec

I have long felt it ill-advised for conductors to touch up scores, with the intent of 'improving' them. Great scores are best left alone. This is a tenet of the conducting profession. My studies were with teachers who were adamant about defending the integrity of composer and score, and I am passing on that same tenet to my conducting students at The Hartt School. We steer away from this line at our own peril.

Then I programmed Janacek's Sinfonietta, and that core belief was shaken. Hubris, or some misplaced desire to improve the score, were not the drivers here; rather, it was one of necessity.

In the edition I ordered from Universal, edited by Fuessl, the orchestra parts were unplayable, largely due to a plethora of repeats that are confusing and unreadable. Observing my intelligent players appear blurry-eyed in rehearsal, making (and repeating) uncharacteristic mistakes, I had no choice but to do everything in my power to help them. And so, with the initial intention of simply writing out repeated passages (many of which crossed over natural phrase points), I copied out every note of the score, using only the parts that my newly-generated score would produce. But then there were othere problems, beginning with the trumpets.

Sinfonietta was once titled "Military Sinfonietta," and no small wonder, given the brilliant fanfare that opens the work. For this, Janacek asks for an additional 13 brass players, including 9 trumpets which do not play in the orchestra.

Confusingly, in the Fuessl edition, three of the fanfare trumpets return to the orchestra for the second movement, while three others do not play at all until the third movement.

Ideally, there are 9 trumpets who play the outside fanfares only, while the other 3 trumpets play within the orchestra, beginning with the second movement. Another edition by Eulenberg wisely does this. But then this version asks the tuba to substitute for the fourth trombone. This unfortunate compromise -- understandable, given that most orchestras have just three trombones -- effectively removes the textures that are unique to Janacek's sound world. While the tuba is important, much of the low brass music in Sinfonietta is clearly written for four trombones.

Which begs the question: in a piece that requires an additional 9 trumpets, 2 bass trumpets and 2 tenor tubas, 25 brass in all, why would Eulenberg leave out the 4th trombone? If Fuessl's errors are in the distribution and layout, then Eulenberg's (reminding me of Mahler's famous comment, Tradition ist schlamperei) is one of poor economy.

Musicologists and editors sometimes make decisions with their eyes only; conductors are wont to use their ears without considering important documents to bolster their case. One might suggest that I would fall in the latter category, particularly since this is the first time I have conducted a major work by Janacek. But the act of copying each and every note of Janacek's score, while simultaneously rehearsing it, gave me an amazing window into the world of this composer.

And so, writing out all of the parts for my players, I remembered things that didn't work in rehearsal, among them:

--an inaudible bass clarinet solo
--bassoons sitting around with very little to do
--violas playing in the stratosphere (while violins pitied them)

and I began to wonder: do orchestras not program Sinfonietta for reasons that go beyond the need for 25 brass players?

Skeptics may accuse me of calling Janacek a poor orchestrator. In fact, his sound palette is unique to him, the stuff of genius. To wit:

-Who else but Janacek writes for two tenor and two bass trombones?
-The solo harp writing is exquisite.
-Flutes are galactic one moment, holding up the orchestra with a bass pedal the next.
-In the finale, the celli play a low Alberti bass figure which is ominous beyond belief.
-Before the fanfare returns, there is the all-important Eb clarinet, taking Strauss's Eulenspiegel to a new level of pain and despair.

For these instances and many more, I am deeply in awe of Janacek. Still, there is so much in Sinfonietta which has me scratching my head, leaving me with questions that will remain unanswered until I can see the original score.

So what is my new version, then?

Urtext? No.
Ersatz? Again, no.

Janacek's music is public domain in Canada and Europe, but not yet in the United States; my edition will not be available to conductors and orchestras until I have had a chance to consult the original source. Just from the way I've laid them out, with new, better-placed rehearsal figures, the orchestra parts I have created are preferable simply from the standpoint of playability.

It has been a fascinating musical exercise, ultimately leading to a concert where an audience heard an orchestra, newly unleashed and unbound, performing Janacek's orchestral masterpiece.

Alec Baldwin

Can you imagine the film, It's Complicated, without Alec Baldwin? Even with Meryl Streep and Steve Martin, that movie has no legs without him. And who can forget his hotel room cameo in Notting Hill, where he steals the scene from Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant? Do you remember which company he's hawking on those brilliant advertisements for a credit card company? Such is the immediacy of his character. A feature article in The New Yorker has been trending as one of the magazine's most frequently viewed in the last several years.

Until recently, Baldwin's musical taste was that of a typical baby boomer, predictably leaning towards the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Peter Frampton et al. And then one day, he heard Mahler's Ninth Symphony, and was hooked.

The New York Philharmonic recently installed him as its radio announcer, a job he says is the best he's ever had. (His first love, before film and television, is the stage; I wouldn't doubt it, having seen him perform memorably in Glengarry Glen Ross at Trinity Repertory Theatre thirty years ago.)

Guess what: Alec Baldwin gave a million dollars to the New York Philharmonic this year. I was already a fan; now my praise of him borders on worship.

Might the Vienna Philharmonic ever dare to ask him host their annual New Year's Eve concert? Wouldn't you love to see Alec Baldwin liven up that staid affair?

Muti, Dudamel and Gergiev with Charlie Rose

Over the past few months, Charlie Rose interviewed three of the greatest conductors in the world today, and then made the mistake of putting all three on the same program. Riccardo Muti was followed by Gustavo Dudamel, for whom English is still very much a secondary language, and then Valery Gergiev, who could not organize his thoughts in any cohesive manner.

Charlie Rose has the irritating habit of interrupting his guests while they are speaking, and he did this with Dudamel and Gergiev, in the latter case, perhaps to help him get to the point.

When Rose interviewed Dudamel, I soon lost interest and walked the dogs. During Gergiev's bit, I made myself a snack. But when Muti was speaking, Rose was mum. And rightly so, for Muti's candor was astonishing.

When a sports analogy came up, Rose very adroitly steered Muti to the question: Who are the greatest three orchestras in the world today? Muti offered Vienna, Berlin and . . . Chicago, a self-serving choice, given his current tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony. But who would disagree, really? Even when Rose wondered if the New York Philharmonic should be in the mix, Muti didn't bite. And with that, Muti may have severed his relationship with the venerable ensemble.

It wasn't always this way. The players in New York have made no secret of their love for Muti. While searching for a successor to Lorin Maazel, they pined for the Italian maestro. But after having been a music director most of his life, Muti needed a break, so he passed. New York selected Alan Gilbert, who has proven to be a propitious choice, with his fine conducting and brilliant programming. Still, it must have smarted a bit for Gilbert when, after Chicago selected Muti, several players in New York asked, "why couldn't we get him?" For Muti, it was all about alchemy: the players may have loved him, but he wasn't feeling the love for them. He went on to suggest that great orchestras are only truly great when there is a great conductor standing before them. Muti was not being immodest. He's great, and he knows it.

The Philharmonic leadership did not understand that even the greatest conductors in the world need to be coddled and cajoled. Speaking to Rose, Muti explained how for his concerts in Paris, La Scala, Vienna and Berlin, Deborah Rutter kept showing up. (Rutter is the President of the Chicago Symphony.) Her persistence made a great impression on Muti, who eventually accepted an invitation to conduct in Chicago after a long absence. Muti's preparation for the first rehearsal suggests a bit of the jitters, as he recounted how he would introduce himself. Clearly, he needn't have worried, for the chemistry was perfect from the start. After his appointment, some early cancellations due to illness brought about comparisons to Boston Symphony and James Levine, but things have since settled into a graceful rhythm.

To the claim that he has an authoritarian style, he suggested the accusation might be a cultural difference. When a London Philharmonia player complained about the way he said "no," Muti understood that his Italianate manner -- curt, to the point -- is very different from that of an English conductor ("noooooo," with an upward lilt at the end, suggesting that there could be wiggle room for a compromise, even if the answer still was no).

Gergiev is the greatest conductor in the world today, and those who would disagree with me believe that Dudamel holds that distinction. When I saw him conduct the complete Firebird ballet (without score) with the San Francisco Symphony a few years ago, Deborah Borda, President of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sat next to me, beaming during the entire concert like a proud mother. Bringing Dudamel to Los Angeles was the baseball equivalent of stealing home; she did it while no one else was looking. The announcement came while Dudamel was an overwhelmingly popular guest with the Chicago Symphony, prompting the players to wonder why they hadn't gotten there sooner.

No matter. They got Muti. Even before my lesson with him years ago, I knew how great he was. During a conducting workshop with the Curtis Institute Orchestra in Philadelphia, I was struggling with Verdi's i vespri siciliani (Sicilian Vespers), and after explaining a few things to me, he snatched away my baton and led the orchestra in a manner that was nothing short of astonishing. After he was done, the room broke out in spontaneous applause.

Five Great Ones say goodbye

There were some notable music figures who died in 2012. On the eve of a new year, it seems fitting to share some personal memories.

ELLIOTT CARTER (just shy of 104)

My first reaction to Carter's passing was, "the guy finally died!" My students were horrified. But this was a life that was filled with energy and conviction to his last days. (I feel badly for those who took a chance on commissions to be fulfilled in his 105th year.) When I met him at his brownstone in Manhattan, he was short with me initially when I could not figure out how to open the door to his building. Once I was inside, he often excused himself to care for his ailing wife, Helen, who died a year after my visit in 1998. I sent him a recording of my performance (with Pittsburgh) of his Symphony of Three Orchestras. I don't think he liked it very much. He was a tough cuss who wrote tough music, but in his last years, he lifted the veil a bit, revealing a luminous quality that surprised everyone.

DAVE BRUBECK (a day before his 92nd birthday)

Mr. Brubeck had the temperament of Mr. Rogers -- a kinder man you never met. He wrote a concerto for orchestra for the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1997, from which I programmed individual sections for children's concerts I led there. The percussion movement caused some of the Pittsburgh players to grumble, because of the extra preparation it required.

MARVIN HAMLISCH (68 years young)

During my years in Pittsburgh, I learned as much from this man as I did from any other conductor. If every Beethoven score must first go through the prism of my teacher, Otto-Werner Mueller, every pops concert I do must pass the following test: "Will it meet the Marvin Standard?" Orchestra musicians would shake their heads, because of his frenetic rehearsal style and idiomatic conducting technique. But he understood that if an orchestra sounded fine under his guidance, what else mattered, really? One other thing -- he was a phenomenal performer. Audiences loved him.
(For a good story, please read my post of August 9.)


You won't know this man, but he may have the distinction of being the finest left handed stick-waver who ever lived. And this conductor was a REAL southpaw -- not like Donald Runnicles and Krzysztof Penderecki, who keep their main gauche close and tight. No, Berglund's technique was figuratively and literally out in left field, his baton arm hovering over the concertmaster, making it very difficult for the first violin section to follow him. But it didn't matter, for the sound he got out of an orchestra was unlike anything I had ever heard, then or since. Watching him rehearse Sibelius's Tapiola had me spellbound. At the time, Sibelius's music was rather new to me, so I attributed all of those unworldly sounds to the composer. As the years have passed, I now realize that those Sibelian textures were wrought by Berglund, a man of few words who was both courteous and demanding.

CHARLES ROSEN (85 years)

He is well known for his books on The Classical Style and Sonata Forms, both of which I own and refer to from time to time. But he was also a consummate pianist. I will forever remember him for an incident during my undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, when he was a visiting scholar. One day, walking down a long corridor of practice rooms, I heard someone practicing scales, clearly driven by the hands of a ferociously accomplished musician. Another student beckoned, "get a load of this!" When I peered into the small window of his practice room, there was Mr. Rosen, warming up on the keyboard, simultaneously reading the New York Times.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The Hartt Philharmonia and I performed Sibelius's Symphony no. 2 last week. What is it about this composer that separates him for everyone else?

For one thing, he summons the most extraordinary sounds from an orchestra, made up of instruments not unlike that used by Schumann or Brahms. No fancy percussion. No exotic woodwinds. How does he do this? I look at the page, and I still wonder.

There are some things that do jump out . . . .

Low flutes together with stratospheric violins. Kettle drums that do not support the ensemble as much as they stir things up. Violins by themselves, one voice. An oboe, playing the same note ten times before moving on.

In the first movement, near the end of the exposition, just as he appears to be wrapping things up, Sibelius inserts quiet trumpets: if you're not paying attention, you won't hear them, but it haunts an otherwise spirited passage. In the second movement, there are so many silences filled with angst, some of which leave you feeling something has been left unsaid, so disturbing that no one dares to utter it.

People often talk about how Copland's music reveals an American-like quality, as if you can actually see the plains and prairies when you hear it. In Sibelius, the landscape is barren, haunted. After a timpani roll, pizzicato basses are earth bound until cellos show them another way; thus freed, the basses seem to have new life, until gravity wins out. The cellos return, and now they are going nowhere. Over and over, they try to overcome something, each time to no avail. In this music, there is a circular dread, and the bassoons confirm it. The news is not good.

Throughout the second movement, there are melodic and harmonic (as well as silent) reminders of Wagner. Richard Strauss is said to have spent most of his career wishing he had written Tristan und Isolde. This is Sibelius's Tristan.

The scherzo brings great relief, particularly with the oboe solo in the trio. But before the return, there is a false entrance of brass. Why are they playing here? Why are they so loud and chaotic? Their rhythms don't match up with one another, making it sound like a grand mistake. The strings bring us back to a proper recapitulation, but the sting is still with us. Indeed, it has evidently upset the strings as well, because they play in a different order from which they began. Everything is upside down. Will the tension ever abate?

The release does not come until the finale, but even then, it is still conditional. The melody -- that glorious tune of tunes -- circles around the home note, and we like that. But throughout the movement there is more circular activity, like a wave that keeps crashing up against us. In our performance, when we arrived at the coda, I still had a feeling of dis-ease from what we had just sustained. Besides Tchaikovsky (think of the "Pas de Deux" in Act II of Nutcracker), is there anyone else who writes such profoundly sad music in the major mode? Here, on the last page, the trumpets keep wanting to exalt, to bring us home, and at every turn, the orchestra keeps playing on, not wanting to believe them.

Is there a greater composer from the 20th century? There are a few who are his equal, but no one better.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Violins, in consort

Messiah is a modern miracle, maybe the greatest artwork in all of Western history. Give Handel a full year to write it, then perhaps it becomes merely one of the greatest works of all time. But when one takes into account that the composer took just twenty four days to write it . . . it staggers the imagination. Word has it that the composer didn't even have time to eat, the notes were coming out of him so fast. (Handel was overheard saying that he felt like God's vessel, putting to paper every note that had been handed to him.)

We are approaching that time of year when we get to hear Messiah again. (Richard Coffey will conduct CONCORA and the Hartford Symphony on December 14 and 15.) Most in the audience will wait with great anticipation for the Hallelujah chorus. But near the end, in the final Amen, there is a magical moment that often goes unnoticed.

In the midst of a grand fugue for all forces, the violins are suddenly alone, playing quietly in unison. After what feels like an eternity, more violins join in, ostensibly to start the fugue all over again (!), only to be resoundingly cut off by chorus and orchestra. Blissfully unaware, violins return once more, and again they are thwarted. The réjouissance must go on.

Near the end of Harmonia Mundi, a brilliant concerto for violin and orchestra by Stephen Gryc, violins gradually emerge, speaking as one. If Handel's violins provide blessed relief, Gryc's bring momentary release to the prevailing orchestral quietude. The tension is enormous, and the violins gently urge it to stop. Their cry is to no avail, and the silence returns.

More than Messiah, Gryc's model may have been Sibelius's Second Symphony, in which violins begin in unison on the same pitch. But for Sibelius, the violins are a dorian question, not to be answered until much later by the brass, in full harmony. This is testament to the composer's creative genius, reintroducing the opening theme so that it sounds new. For Sibelius, there is no homecoming, only an unending search.

Handel, Sibelius and Gryc share an essential understanding: as the largest section in the ensemble, violins, singing as one, bring a collective power unequaled by any other instrument of the orchestra.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ambassador Chris Stevens

Growing up in Oakland, the phone rang a lot. First it was "is Loretta there?" and then a few years later, "can I talk to Vicky?" and soon after, the same with Rita. Boys -- mostly nervous, and impolite -- were calling all the time. It was annoying, but it was the price to pay for having beautiful sisters.

My father went to Cal, and it was assumed all of us would go there, too. I followed Loretta there, and Victoria matriculated to Cal a few years later. Like Loretta, she was a member of the Delta Gamma sorority. It was well known on campus that DG girls were brainy babes, hard to get and always in demand, and Loretta and Vicky were no exception. (Rita also went to Cal, but sorority life was not her thing.)

For a winter formal in 1981, Chris Stevens asked Vicky out. In a photo of the two of them taken at this event, they both look very happy, clearly enjoying each other's company, with the whole world still in front of them. Stevens may have just told her a joke, because Vic is in the middle of a deep guffaw, with her mouth wide open in great delight. No one in our family laughs as hard and as loudly as Vicky.

Another thing that strikes me about this photo (which I unfortunately was unable to upload), is that both Stevens and my sister maintained their youthful looks right in to their fifties. Some people change as they age; these two did not.

Vicky lost touch with Stevens after college, but when he died last month, it still hit her hard. She told all of us what a nice guy he was, how he treated her so well during the few times they went out.

For me, there was one degree of separation -- Stevens's mother, Mary, is a cellist, and was still a member of the Marin Symphony Orchestra when I was a guest conductor there several years ago. After divorcing in 1975, Mary Stevens remarried the San Francisco Chronicle's music critic, Robert Commanday, whose well-written features on classical music (and on the San Francisco Symphony, in particular) I read religiously.

It must have been extremely difficult for my sister to watch Obama and Romney in their second debate, arguing like two school boys over whether the Benghazi attack was an act of terror. Obama briefly tried to take the high road on this issue, but it was mostly politics as usual.

For Victoria, who now lives in Australia with her family, Chris Stevens was not just a ambassador and diplomat, a sudden media figure made more famous in death than in life. He was a gentleman who but for a short time, as a boy crossing into adulthood, was in her life.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

VIce Presidential Debate

Martha Raddatz is receiving a great deal of praise for her tough questions at last week's vice presidential debate, and deservedly so. But there was one question I wanted to hear her ask:

"If your running mate is elected/reelected, you would be one breath away from the presidency. Please tell us why you think you are fit to be President of the United States." Instead, we heard Paul Ryan talking about policy, and Joe Biden defending his boss.

Can Paul Ryan or Joe Biden lead this country?

If Romney is elected, Ryan will have far less of an impact as V.P. than he has had as congressman. Say what you want about his domestic plan; what we don't know is his ability to lead. Biden has done some good work on foreign soil, and even though he has occasionally put his foot in his mouth, he is a smart and savvy politician. But in dealing with a partisan Congress -- an area that the president certainly hoped to exploit, given Biden's extensive experience on Capitol Hill -- he has been a disappointment.

At the end of the day, these points are inconsequential.
What I want to know is:

Can Paul Ryan or Joe Biden lead this country?

I would have liked to hear each of them answer that question.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Hartt Philharmonia celebrates Stephen Gryc (and Bartok, too)

With the birth of Sinfonia earlier this month, I suppose that means Philharmonia is off to a grand start as well, if only in name. (The Hartt Symphony Orchestra's acronym was, for me, just too close to another fine orchestra in town.)

On Sunday, we played Stephen Michael Gryc's Evensong with New York Philharmonic's principal trumpet, Phil Smith, and then the Gryc Violin Concerto, written for (and played by) Leonid Sigal, who brought a breadth to the work that we had not reached in our premiere performances in May 2011 with the Hartford Symphony.
On Saturday, we did Steve's Fantasy Variations, formerly for oboe and string quartet; in this version for soprano saxophone and string orchestra, Carrie Koffman was the soloist, and she was amazing, as always. On both nights, Glen Adsit conducted the premiere of Steve's Concerto for Wind Ensemble, a brilliant and welcome addition to the wind ensemble repertoire. (Both of my seatmates, non-musicians, absolutely loved it.)

But I wish to devote most of this post to a piece Mr. Gryc wanted on the program, side-by-side with his music, written by a composer who has meant a great deal to him as a composer, teacher and musician. These concerts were to be Steve's retirement party, and when a celebrated composer asks you to do something, you have to do it. Because of the work's healthy and considerable demands, I wouldn't normally start a school year with it. But for Professor Gryc, nothing else would do. And who was I to object? I love the piece. It's just that it's . . . . well . . . . it's really, really hard. And when you are preparing three other new works on the same program -- each with its own demands --you want to make sure that every piece gets the attention it needs.

We are speaking now of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.

My concern was confirmed when our dress rehearsal did not go as well as one would hope. The only things that really differentiate a dress rehearsal from a performance are (1) we're not dressed for the performance (the phrase is more apt for stage performers), and (2) there's no audience, and thus we are not quite as nervous, or, shall I say, as excited. Otherwise, everything should sound 'performance ready.'

But it didn't, and we weren't. I spent a great deal of rehearsal time just trying to get a good start on the finale. To be honest, my tempo -- on the fast side -- didn't help the violins, and the most minute difference in speed can mean the difference between success and failure. Once we got a handle on the opening, I went back to the first four movements, which were in fine shape, except for the fourth movement Intermezzo, which was somewhat shaky. For this, I had to take my share of the blame as well, because I'd left it alone for a couple of weeks, believing it to be performance ready (gulp). When we revisited it on the dress rehearsal, it felt like a new piece.

So, with five minutes left, I told the members of the orchestra that I would not schedule a warmup on the day of the concert, as had been my practice in previous years when we were not quite ready. Instead, I asked that they take a few seconds to look at their individual parts, and check the spots they might look at again, what passages they might practice a few more times, or that needed more attention. I thanked them for all of their hard work on the music by Steve Gryc, that perhaps our desire to do right by his music might have been at the expense of Mr. Bartok -- a very worthy cause indeed. (The players's pleasure in working on Gryc's music was evident throughout the rehearsal period.) Lastly, I conveyed my trust in their ability to be ready for the performance two nights later.

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There is a moment in sports when the momentum shifts, or when a significant change has taken hold. For a golfer, it might be a long par-saving putt. For a football team, an interception can be a game changer. In our performance of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, there was a game changer.

The low strings began beautifully, with great tone, pushing and pulling, just as Bartok asks. The violas joined ever so quietly, underpinning the solo flute, and the three trumpets -- all fine. Everything was in place.

And then the violins came in.

I had given a lot of thought as to how I would bring them in, with much less preparation as I had done in rehearsals. To be blunt, I wanted to surprise them, without surprising them. (I know, that makes no sense, but if you know the music, then you know what I mean.) Well, I cannot recall ever having seen 36 violinists play as one. It was this big WHOOOOSH, and we were off. The intensity was overwhelming, and the entire orchestra picked up on it. It was, for us, the interception, the game changer. It was a basketball shot from half court that was nothing but net. Just thinking about it now gives me the chills. It was absolute musical magic.

Since Saturday night, audience members have been coming up to me, writing to me, expressing their enormous delight in the performance.

One person wrote, "I was following the score, so I know how extremely difficult the Bartok Concerto is to play. Your student musicians were fully up to the challenge. They are talented, certainly, but . . . . I can't imagine the work coming off better even with a professional orchestra."

Thank you, Steve, for asking us to play Bartok.

And thank you, VIOLINS, for those first four notes, played so passionately, so elegantly, so fervently, so perfectly together. It was an aural and visual delight, setting the table for what would be a riveting performance.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Hartt Sinfonia

Up until this year, Hartt had one orchestra, devoted mainly to repertoire from the 19th century up to the present day. With so many talented young musicians, and so little time with them, it was incumbent upon me to create programs that would make good use of the many instrumentalists studying at Hartt.

It reminded me of a similar problem I had as music director of the Hartford Symphony, but for a different reason: until the orchestra moved to the Belding (a smaller hall at the Bushnell Performing Arts Center) in 2008, doing Haydn symphonies was not feasible. Music from the Classical period was never meant to be played for 2,800 people.

Now, with a second (and smaller) ensemble, Hartt can finally address orchestral music from the classical canon and stretch out in both directions - towards late Baroque/early Classic, as well as that of the early Romantics. We call ourselves Sinfonia.

The Sinfonia debut featured an overture by Haydn, a symphony by Beethoven (no. 8), and two works that each could be called 'sinfonia:' Mozart's Symphony no. 32, and C.P.E. Bach's Symphony in D. Both are symphonies in name only, because they play out more like an Italian Sinfonia - typically an overture with a slow middle section.

While the technical demands of the classical repertoire are not as great as the music of Strauss or Shostakovich, there is an element of transparency that is very exacting of the players. There is no place to hide, no thick textures in which one can disappear. When you play Mozart or Haydn, there is no anonymity, and that can be a bit scary.

Our program featured four conductors - two pros, and two students. Kalena Bovell and Ena Shin distinguished themselves in their respective conducting debuts; both began studying with me just one month ago. Edward Bolkovac brought enormous energy and erudition to the Mozart.

- - - - - - -

There were two elements to this program that were great moments in teaching, and by saying that, I am not intentionally patting myself on the back! Sometimes, good things happen by accident, or divine providence . . . take your pick.

Early in the rehearsal process, the players were clearly more comfortable with the Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but the C.P.E. Bach began as an anomaly. In early rehearsals, the students seemed to be asking, "do we play this like elder Bach? is it baroque, or classical, or a hybrid of the two?"

All good questions - - - - - definitively answered on Friday evening.

One more thing - it has become increasingly clear to me that my students need to perform more. And again, the Hartford Symphony story provides a foreshadow:

The move from the large hall to the more intimate Belding theatre presented another challenge - fewer seats necessitated more concerts. (Previously, we played the program twice.) Presenting the program four times forced the ensemble to become better, and artistically more interesting. On successive nights, I could try different things, and the players were very responsive.

A week ago Friday, Sinfonia performed at the Hartford Club downtown, in the round, surrounded by up to 100 guests. What fun we had! But more importantly, when we repeated the program on campus, the players were looser, and more confident. I was proud of them on both nights, but even more proud of how much they had learned in the interim.

How many times have you said, 'boy, I'd like another shot at that?' On Friday night, we got it, and it showed. Bravo, Sinfonia!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Two young conductors causing a stir

Before I recently took on a position at The Hartt School, I have had several conducting students work with me privately. Two in particular have made the news in very interesting and provocative ways.

John Axelrod worked with me during my time in Southern California with the Pacific Symphony. He had been in the "A & R" business (Artists and Repertoire) and was just then embarking on a career in conducting. This was nearly twenty years ago, and he was a young man in a hurry. Never have I encountered a student with more energy, or more passion, for what he does. Everyone with whom he came into conduct told him to "slow down, take it easy," and he didn't listen to any of them. The proof is in the pudding.

Now he has an orchestra in France and another in Italy, and has just come out with a book in German, Wie großartige Musik entsteht ... oder auch nicht ("How great music is made . . . . or not").

You can read an excerpt of it on Norman Lebrecht's blog at

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Another young conductor of considerable gifts is Colin Britt. While I was music director of the Hartford Symphony, Colin studied with me in the basement of my home in (at that time) West Hartford. One day he brought a composition to a lesson; years later, I would see him conduct the Hartt Chamber Chorus in one of his own works. His conducting was accomplished, and his music was extremely well received. Since that time, I have seen him work as music director for theatrical productions ("Chicago") and cabarets (some featuring my daughter, Carolyn). Presently he is assistant conductor to Rick Coffey and the Hartford Chorale. (Word has it the singers adore him.)

Earlier this year, with Arianne Abela, he created a short film on "what choral conductors say." (For anyone who has sung in a chorus, you will get a big laugh from this video, now up to 90,000 hits: )

More recently, he arranged a popular tune by Carly Rae Jepsen, "Call Me Maybe." On Labor Day Monday, he called upon his friends to play, sing and record his shimmering arrangement, all in about 90 minutes. On the top floor of Hendrie Hall at Yale -- where I have so many fond memories of music and dance classes -- Miss Abela conducted a small chorus and orchestra. Call Me Maybe was already a summertime hit, and Colin's arrangement soon skyrocketed to over 1,000,000 hits. The "Today Show" took notice, and invited Colin and his friends to come down to sing and play it on the morning program. The bus picked them up in New Haven at 4 in the morning, and they were back home before noon. Now it's over 2 million hits. Not bad for a production featuring chorus and orchestra!

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John and Colin are finding their own way in a rapidly changing world. John was presenting Carmen and La Boheme with his Orchestra X in night clubs years before it became de riguer to do so. Colin has taken a pop ditty and given it a classical sheen.

I've very proud of these two young men, and can only wonder what will come next from them. One thing for certain: Even though they are shaking things up, both have an undeniable love for the art of music, and for music making.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Marvin Hamlisch, friend and colleague

"Yes or no. . . . . .? YES OR NO?"

This was my introduction to Marvin Hamlisch, as I observed him in rehearsal with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It didn't matter to Marvin who responded -- he just wanted a quick answer -- no discussion, no maybe-this-or-that, no equivocation. Just yes or no. I do not remember the question -- only that several people within earshot were paralyzed with fear, no one daring to respond. From the back of the hall, I wanted to shout out "YES," but never having worked with him, I didn't dare intrude. I hadn't even met him yet.

As I would later learn, Hamlisch trusted that anyone who responded to him had good reason to, whether he liked the answer or not. Which is why I nodded knowingly reading an obituary in which he was described as the consummate pro. People loved his songs, his music for Broadway and film, his stage persona (and that fabulously quick wit). But I will remember him most for his professionalism. If it worked, he was all for it. If it didn't work, fuhgettaboutit. For Marvin, it was as simple as that.

In the mid 1990s, when the Pittsburgh Symphony's annual Holiday program had been lagging, the orchestra asked Marvin to revive it. He had already been Principal Pops Conductor for several years (Pittsburgh got to him before anyone else), and as the Holiday concerts were part of the pops series, he felt partly responsible. But he had never conducted it, and he wasn't going to start now. ("What? A Jew celebrating Christmas? Give me a break!") But the Pittsburgh Pops was his baby, and he wanted it to work, whether or not he was on the podium. So he came up with a story line, which required a funny man and a foil. Kevin Glavin, the comic bass-baritone, would play Santa Claus, and I would be his straight man. The plot (and for many subsequent years) was simple: Will we we get snow for Christmas? And would Santa be able to deliver it?

A script was created, and every day, Kevin and I rehearsed it for Marvin. The opening set the tone: after I conducted Leroy Anderson's Christmas Festival Overture, Santa would make his first entrance, running on stage, out of breath, stopping dead in his tracks with a frown on his face, facing the audience, saying

"Do you know how hard it is finding a parking place in this town? There was no room on the roof for Rudy and the guys, so we had to find a spot in Three Rivers Stadium . . . and they made me feed the meter!"

It was classic Hamlisch. The penultimate number featured Kevin (still as Santa) singing Silent Night in his rich, beautiful baritone, and then Marvin had us segue into Irving Berlin's White Christmas, performed by chorus and orchestra. Only one problem (gulp): Marvin wanted snow. Maybe not the real, honest-to-goodness kind, but his show business sense demanded it.

The stagehands were not happy. I had come to depend on these guys, and trusted them immensely, but they were incredulous to Marvin's demand. ("What, SNOW? How we gonna do THAT?") There was a lot of back and forth, many naysayers, but Marvin was adamant. The show had to have snow.

This was the part of Marvin that few understood. If he was the only one in the room who believed something, he was unshakeable. This was his genius, his foresight to know what would work with an audience. The musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony were not always pleased with Marvin's rehearsal style, because they felt he made too many decisions at the last minute. It belied the enormous amount of preparation he would put into a program. But once he heard the orchestra play it, he knew. And if a song was thirty seconds too long, he would snip away. Even if a song was ten seconds too long, he'd cut out ten seconds somewhere. Timing and pacing were everything to him. When he took over the Pittsburgh Pops, he transformed what had been merely orchestral concerts into dramatic musical presentations. With Marvin, it was always about the show.

One of his programs was 'Music at the Movies.' After entering the stage in his customary white tie and tails (a tall man, Marvin looked particularly elegant in a penguin suit, and knew it), and began to regale the audience, "Don't you long for the days of old, when you could go to a movie with your true love and it meant something? Remember what it was like to see the newest movie with Cary Grant and Kathryn Hepburn?" He went on: "How many of you remember your first kiss? Was it at the movies? Perhaps, by chance, was it while you were watching this movie?"

After which Marvin would spin around, ascend the podium, give a big downbeat, and out of the orchestra came . . . . shrieking strings from Psycho. Marvin had set them up, and while half of the audience gasped, the other half was doubled over in laughter. It was classic Hamlisch.

During the late 1990s, Marvin would often have to open the Pittsburgh Pops in late October when his beloved Yankees were playing in the World Series. It was agonizing for Marvin to be conducting while Jeter and Rivera were doing their heroics, not knowing what was going on. So he kept some new gizmo close by his music stand -- this was years before the iPhone -- that would give him inning-by-inning results. It drove the orchestra staff crazy, but the audiences never minded. That was just Marvin, being Marvin. Every once in a while, some admirer in the audience would yell something to him, and he would whip around and respond, sometimes carrying on a conversation with the person for the next few minutes. He made everyone feel like he was talking to you.

Small wonder that at the time of his death, six different orchestras had Marvin as their pops guy, and Philadelphia was next to join the club. Everyone wanted a piece of him.

But on this day, the stagehands wanted a different piece of him. Ultimately, someone came up with the idea of placing a faux snow machine high above the stage, so the 'snow' would fall onto the front rows of seats. It was completely hokey, corn pone to the hilt. But it didn't matter. When Marvin saw it, he was ecstatic. "Perfect! They're gonna love it!" After the dress rehearsal, some were still shaking their heads, but when the Mendelssohn Choir sang " . . . and may all your Christmases be white," the snow came down, and the audience oohed and ahhed.

As Marvin knew all along, the audiences loved it.

I last caught up with Marvin when he was a guest during my last season with the Hartford Symphony. A year or two before that, he was here for some other shindig, and my daughter and I took him to lunch at Trumbull Kitchen. The waiter was completely agog, but Marvin soon had the guy feeling like he lived down the street. And with my daughter, Carolyn, a performer who is still just one step away from her big break on the music theatre scene, Marvin could not have been more generous, taking her questions, listening to her intently. He was such a mensch.

It's so hard to imagine him gone. I already miss him so.
I learned so much from him.
He was,
and always will be,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . a singular sensation.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Olympic Tennis: Serena Williams and Andy Murray

Last week, Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova for Olympic Gold. It wasn't even close. Then yesterday, Andy Murray, who had never defeated Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final, annihilated the Swiss star in three straight sets.

How did this happen? How did two reigning stars (Sharapova, no. 2 in the world, and Federer, presently no. 1, and arguably the best ever) lose so emphatically on the grandest stage in tennis, Wimbledon?

You can't blame it on age -- Williams is 30, as is Federer.

Nor can you say it was a Wimbledon letdown -- Williams had just won at the All English Club last month, as had Federer.

Can't say it was entirely the home crowd advantage, either -- Murray did not benefit from it in his final match against Federer at Wimbledon.

Nor can you say that these are two seasoned winners, as this is entirely new territory for Murray.

You could say that Federer was tired from his marathon semi-final match against Juan del Potro, which took 4 1/2 hours and a 19-17 third set. You could say that Wimbledon might have been different it had been played outdoors, Unlike the Olympics final -- where Federer never seemed to adjust to the wind -- the Wimbledon final was mostly played while the roof was closed. (As McEnroe said yesterday, "Federer would love a little rain right now . . . .")

The story lines for both winners could not be more different. Murray, winless in grand slams, had something to prove. On the other hand, Williams is playing as if she wants to dethrone Chris Evert as the best American player ever.

But nothing can explain how completely dominant both Williams and Murray were in their matches. Sharapova and Federer were never in it, and when is the last time you can say that about two grand slam finals in succession?

The Tokyo Quartet plays Beethoven

Over the last several weeks, I have attended several concerts at Yale's Chamber Music Festival in Norfolk. When I walked into the vaunted Shed last Saturday, I knew we were in for something special.

Audiences have long voted with their feet. I'm sure the Norfolk Festival was hoping for good crowds when they announced that all of the string quartets of Beethoven would be played this summer. I certainly was excited.

So it was disappointing to see at early performances that attendance was not what one may have hoped for. Only one line of cars lined the road.

But on Saturday evening, there were four lines, plus a big blue bus that blew exhaust onto our picnic. My friend, Darko Tresnjak, the new Artistic Director of Hartford Stage (and a bigger fan of music than most musicians), was there. Jim Remis, Chair of the Hartford Symphony Board, was there with his wife, Nancy, situated in their customary front row seats. Many festival students -- noticeably missing in earlier concerts -- were there in droves.

This night was different, because it was the first time all summer we would hear Beethoven played by the Tokyo Quartet, which recently announced that they will disband after next summer. Because of this, every concert they play from hereon will be imbued with a certain aura, a quality that bespeaks of an end to an era.

I have long wondered how string quartets thrive and survive, year in and year out. If a relationship between two people is fraught with varying degrees of wonder and peril, how does it work among four strong-willed individuals? How do they get along?

The Tokyo Quartet, established in 1969, is not unlike other quartets who have gone through personnel changes over the course of their history. Only the violist, Kazuhide Isomura (who, in an uncharacteristic solo turn, played affectingly two weeks prior), is a charter member. The two most recent additions, the Canadian violinist Martin Beaver, and the English cellist Clive Greensmith, are brilliant chamber musicians who have blended in with Messrs. Ikeda and Isomura with extraordinary panache. I remember hearing the Tokyo Quartet in residence at Yale in the mid 1980s. They were great then, and they are great now.

Having said that, these four men are not the least bit nostalgic. On a very hot and humid evening, they came to play. And from the first sounds of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, op. 132, it was glorious, each player entering, one at a time. (The trio of the second movement must have been a favorite of Brahms, for his Third Symphony is positively infected with the same rhythmic discombobulation. Brahms might have loved knowing this Beethoven work would share program space with a work of his.) The central slow movement, longest of the five, had the audience rapt. I was not certain how they could go on from there.

The second half, with clarinetist David Schifrin joining the four to perform the Brahms Quintet, was beautifully played. After the last notes, the audience were as one, spellbound, unwilling to break the silence. In years of concert going, it was the longest silence after a performed piece I have ever experienced.

But I will long remember the Beethoven.

Gabby Douglas and the Star Spangled Banner

I am among the millions who were enthralled by gymnast Gabrielle Douglas's recent performances at the Olympics. Most of us were already captivated by her during the team event, when the newly dubbed Fab Five took gold.

During the medal ceremony, all five took the top pedestal, but Miss Douglas frowned throughout the playing of the National Anthem. I wondered at her apparent discontent in part because her expression was in such stark relief to her four teammates, each of whom were clearly moved by the playing of their country's anthem.

But then when Miss Douglas was back on the podium two days later for her individual gold, she was all smiles. Curious.

When I shared this story with a friend, she suggested the possibility that Douglas might be a Jehovah's Witness. It made me recall opening every Hartford Symphony season with the Star Spangled Banner, and how one member of the orchestra always asked to be excused from playing it, for religious reasons. (Every year, I granted the request.)

Which made me wonder -- surely there has been a gold medalist in Olympic history who espouses to the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses, and how would that person have handled such a predicament?

Not unlike that Chariots of Fire star who would not run on sabbath.

Or the San Francisco Symphony during the tenure of Herbert Blomstedt, a Seventh Day Adventist who would not conduct on Friday evenings.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Recently I have been listening to the music of Beyoncé, and everything about her begs the question: what's not to like?

To wit:

-She has an astonishing voice, with superb rhythm, a wide range of color, a great sense of rubato and portamento (and knowing when to use them), and great *range. Nothing is sacrificed when she performs live -- where others lip sync during difficult dance routines, Beyoncé doesn't drop a beat.

-She has a gorgeous figure, and knows it, but never appears to flaunt it. We're looking, from every angle, and that's just fine with her. And one more thing: she has legs to rival Tina Turner.

-She's a wonderful dancer. Watching her perform 'Deja Vu' at the 2006 World Music Awards gave me chills.

-She is a credible actress. Her Foxxy Cleopatra with Mike Myers's Austin Powers was good stuff. My kids and I loved it.

-She is a generous performer, preferring to share the stage with other women, including her all-female band. (Are there fewer women guitarists than women conductors?) On her recordings, she often shares the spotlight with her husband, Jay-Z. In Dreamgirls, she shared top billing with Jennifer Hudson, who got most of the attention.

-She is a beautiful woman.

-She has a commanding presence, and a powerful stage charisma. No matter how many performers are on stage with her, our eyes always go back to Beyoncé.

-She lives an exemplary private life, devoid of drama. The tabloids have nothing on her. After a quiet courtship of a half dozen years, she married a few years ago. When she began to embark on her solo career, there were no cries for Destiny's Child. And from time to time, as is her wont, Beyoncé brings Miss Rowland and Miss Williams back to sing a song.

As I said . . . what's not to like?

* In this acoustically intimate version of "Halo," she goes from a high F down to a low c . . . yes: the low c an octave below middle C. Believe it:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

London musicians playing for free

People are often shocked when I tell them how much the lowest paid players in such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony earn (over $100,000). After they have recovered from their shock, I point out to them that every orchestral musician is worth his/her weight in gold, and more. Which is why it is disturbing to learn that the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games is asking musicians to perform without pay.

Here is yesterday's article in The Telegraph, written by Ivan Hewitt:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bill Maher on Classical Music and the NEA

I have a limited package with a local television company, so a recent week in Pittsburgh allowed me to watch Bill Maher on HBO in my hotel. The Supreme Court had just ruled on the Affordable Care Act, and Maher's guests were, appropriately, a liberal bunch who had a great time pillorying the right wing.

But Maher is not the sort of fellow who always takes a liberal stance. He is among those who would like to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. On his show in early May, he said:

. . . . lots of people give money to symphonies ... and they get tax deductions for that ... but they shouldn’t.... Unlike food and water, access to Mozart is not a basic human necessity.

This reminded me of Justice Scalia's remarks on the ACA ruling, drawing an analogy between forcing people to buy broccoli with the mandate for buying health care. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made note of this in her opinion:

The inevitable yet unpredictable need for medical care and the guarantee that emergency care will be provided when required are conditions nonexistent in the other markets. That is so of the market for cars, and of the market for broccoli.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization (which seeks to provide music education for children of color, several of whom were guest soloists with the Hartford Symphony during my tenure as music director), is often asked, 'if people are hungry and thirsty, why should I give to the arts?' His response:

First, please do feed the hungry and provide clean water to all. But then, is nothing else of value in our society? Do we seek only a well-fed people with access to water?

The arguments between Ginsburg and Scalia/Dworkin and Maher speak less to differences in thinking than it does to what we value in our society. Dworkin is among the very few who understand that our nation's drug epidemic is not removed by simply taking away the drug. You have to remove the need.

Jose Antonio Abreu, in his desire to change the Venezuelan culture, stated

"Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values - solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings."

Over 35 years later, due to Abreu's genius and Herculean determination, Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar watches over Venezuela's 125 youth orchestras, has 31 symphony orchestras, and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country. 70 to 90 percent of the students come from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

Abreu's most outstanding protégé is Gustavo Dudamel, now Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has recently inaugurated its own Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, providing intensive music training and academic support to students from underserved neighborhoods.

Dworkin and Abreu are modern day heroes. Most of us examine a problem and try to come up with an answer. These men saw a problem, looked beyond it, and changed the world. What Bill Maher may not know is that both of these men needed a lot of help to achieve that.

Music Director figures

Last week, on his WQXR blog, Brian Wise wrote a piece on the salaries of music directors and executive directors. While the figures below will raise eyebrows for some, I would say that these men and women are compensated accordingly -- what the market will bear. They are in a class of their own.

Here is the article:

Adaptistration, the blog on the orchestra business, has published its annual charts of salaries for most of the major American orchestras’ music directors and executives. Their numbers cover the 2009-10 season. There are a few surprises, and the range is vast.

The data, which was compiled by editor Drew McManus based on the orchestras' IRS 990 Forms, reveals that the average music director compensation decreased 6.77 percent from 2008-09 to 2009-10. For many nonprofits, this was the first season that began to see the effects of the global recession on arts funding.

At the top of the list is the Philadelphia Orchestra, which paid chief conductor Charles Dutoit with $1.83 million. On its heels is the San Francisco Symphony, which gave Michael Tilson Thomas $1.8 million, and the Boston Symphony, giving James Levine $1.3 million.

Below is the top ten list:

1.Philadelphia Orchestra: $1,827,801
2.San Francisco Symphony: $1,801,627
3.Boston Symphony: $1,321,779
4.Dallas Symphony: $1,113,134
5.New York Philharmonic: $1,082,277
6.Cleveland Orchestra: $1,075,204
7.Minnesota Orchestra: $1,035,622
8.Saint Louis Symphony: $954,392
9.Seattle Symphony: $699,048
10.Baltimore Symphony: $685,812

McManus also looks at the top-paid executives in the business. While the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Gustavo Dudamel was missing from the music director tally (his first season with the orchestra), its president and CEO, Deborah Borda, topped the executive list.

1.Los Angeles Philharmonic: $1,397,746
2.New York Philharmonic: $860,210
3.Boston Symphony: $603,171
4.Atlanta Symphony: $593,294
5.San Francisco Symphony: $495,044
6.Chicago Symphony: $482,560
7.Cleveland Orchestra: $460,958
8.Dallas Symphony: $436,670
9.Saint Louis Symphony: $406,327
10.Minnesota Orchestra: $404,049

-------------------------------------------------------------------- Brian Wise

In 2003, Mr. Wise wrote about the Hartford Symphony in the New York Times:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Leonid Sigal and Shostakovich's Violin Concerto

Recently, I attended the Hartford Symphony's season finale, featuring Carmina Burana with the Hartford Chorale. It was great to hear Rick Coffey's singers in splendid form, and a pleasure to see Carolyn Kuan as well, who is bringing her own brand of excitement to the HSO.

Most people were there to hear Carmina; I was there, principally, to hear my friend play Shostakovich. It's a piece I had always wanted to do with Lenny, and was glad to see him finally get to do it on a big stage.

It's a big gamble to open a program with this concerto, as it immediately asks a lot of the audience. From the start, with low strings, probing, we were all drawn in. After hearing some of the finale during the dress rehearsal, I was back to hear the first performance on Thursday, then came back for more on Sunday. Simply put, I could not get enough of it.

My memories of it are strong. My first time with the piece was when Frank Peter Zimmerman played it with Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony, probably sometime during the 1997-98 season. During the pre-rehearsal -- a time during which conductor and soloist typically go through the piece together so that both are on the same page once they step in front of the orchestra -- they engaged in chit chat, with nary a mention about the concerto. Jansons and Zimmerman were like two old friends who had not seen each other in years. I felt like an intruder, sitting off to the side. Still, I wondered how the rehearsal would go, given how difficult the work is to prepare.

I need not have wondered, for Zimmerman gave a searing performance in the first play-through, and Jansons was with him, lockstep. Still relatively new in his Pittsburgh appointment, Jansons was trying to distance himself from the Russian repertory for which he had become duly well known, electing to do all of the London symphonies of Haydn in his first two seasons, with a healthy dose of Beethoven and Brahms. But somehow this Shostakovich work had slipped into the schedule, and it quickly became evident to the orchestra players why Jansons was so adept at this repertoire. After the play-through, I could see players looking at each other in amazement at what they had just done. This was the kind of playing one expects with a full audience, not for an audience of one.

Several years later, the Pittsburgh Symphony took the work on an Asian tour with Midori, who also played the Bruch G minor. Her playing of the Bruch was quite good, but each time Midori played the Shostakovich, there was a thinly disguised anger that made her performance compelling.

I had always wondered about Midori, whom I had heard for the first time when she was just ten years old. It was a master class at Aspen, circa 1982, with Pinchas Zukerman. Midori was going to play the Bartok concerto. (When I asked Zukerman about this years later, he shouted at me, "You were there!? When her mother told me she was going to play Bartok, I thought, 'yeah, right,' and then she started to play and . . . .") Most girl violinist prodigys (Sarah Chang, Hilary Hahn) grow up to be young women violinists, but Midori, now approaching middle age, still has the aura and appearance of a little girl. With her Shostakovich, I had the sensation that there was a young adult, screaming to get out.

But Leonid Sigal brought an intensity to the work that I found astonishing. With his performance, it was clear he understood the demands on everyone -- not just soloist, conductor and players, but also the audience. And at the onset of the cadenza, a full length movement of its own, just when you thought he could not go any further, Sigal revealed a hyperintensity, unleashed from the orchestra.

Days later, the Shostakovich was still throbbing in my head. Bravo to Carolyn, the Hartford Symphony, and to my dear friend and colleague Leonid Sigal, who continues to amaze me with his musical insight.

Music Camp at The Woodlands

For the past thirteen summers, I have taught music at the Woodlands, an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of children and young adults with disability and chronic illness. The dream began after a Pittsburgh Symphony concert in 1999, in the home of Sydelle Kessler, when Dr. Don Reigle, a retired neurosurgeon, told us of his dream to create a music camp for youngsters with every kind of disability imaginable, and how he thought those of us in the room were just the ones to do it.

And so, in July 2000, Andrew Clark (now Director of Choral Activities at Harvard University), Lucas Richman (Music Director of the Bangor and Knoxville Symphony Orchestras) and I created a curriculum that would include three classes a day -- instruments class, chorus class, and music appreciation. What we did not know at the time was how much these kids would be teaching us.

Each camp has culminated in a concert at the end of the week. A highlight of year one was seeing PSO concertmaster, Andres Cardenes, perform a duet with Anne Marie Suski, a violinist with spina bifida. What the audience did not know was that earlier that day, during a prolonged dress rehearsal in the hot sun, not one camper complained. Instead, the children patiently waited for us to get our act together, while counselors attended to the kids with cold water. As if to proclaim how miraculous these children are, the rainfall at concert time eventually gave way to a rainbow in clear view above the stage. It was a magical conclusion to a magical week.

Except for one year when his daughter was born, Andy Clark has been there every year, leading the camp chorus, with the help of Lily Abreu and Jennifer Klenk. Mary Lou Bushyager took over the instruments class six years ago, and Lucas has taught composition.

Yes, composition. You'd think writing music would be hard enough to teach to students with real talent and no disability. But some of these campers get it into their heads that they can do what Lucas does -- create a song of their own. And so George Casselberry, a youngster whose cerebral palsy forced him to move from the trombone to harmonica, wrote the camp's theme song, performed every year, "Woodlands Music." (By the way, George's aural gifts go beyond perfect pitch -- his ear is so fine that he has helped a local ornithologist find and name a bird heretofore unknown to him!)

Because of the advances in modern day science, we know much more about these campers than we might have one hundred years ago. A Dynavox gives voice to those without any motor skills beyond the movement of their head, allowing one young woman, Sara Pyszka, to co-write a musical with Lucas. (Oh yes, when they last checked, Sara's IQ is somewhere in the territory of 170. She is a beautiful girl, blessed with a smile of enchantment.) Another young man with CP, Mark Steidl, wrote music for the campers promenade last year; this year, celebrating the "America the Beautiful" theme, Mark created a dramatic revolutionary scene where campers played colonial citizens defying the word of George III.

For my daily music appreciation class, I use the first half of the hour to play music mostly unknown to them -- everything from Bach and Beethoven to Copland and Gershwin. For the younger kids, I play Peter and the Wolf. For the older kids, I can discuss everything from variation form to harmonic deception. Then, once they've had their fill of me, I play their music: everything from Lady Gaga and Phil Collins to AC/DC and Taylor Swift. And suddenly, they all stand up (if they can) and rush to the front of class, and . . . . . they dance. Their counselors dance with them, as do I. (You should see some of the kids who do amazing spins in their wheelchairs!)

Some kids have Williams Syndrome, others have Downs, or Fragile X. Some have autism, such as Moscow-born Jane, who played a beautiful rendition of "On a Summer's Day" at the piano. A few take great pains (and pride) in occasionally eschewing their wheelchair for a walker -- not easy to do, given some of the steep walkways on campus. Some campers from past years have since died, such as Tyler (who played a mean tenor sax), or Heather (a sweet girl who loved her clarinet). Bobby had a condition so severe that he laid stomach down on an electric bed. There wasn't ever a time when I saw him without a smile on his face. I miss Bobby.

I love these kids, who teach me so much more about life than I could ever teach them about music. But music is what brings us together, every year, and for that I am so thankful.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Robert Satter

A very good friend of mine, Judge Robert Satter, recently passed away. In addition to being an author and adjudicator of considerable repute, he was, for me, the true definition of a gentleman.

A few years ago, he shared this with me:

Ninety years of age is not just old. It is ancient. The saying attributed to Satchel Paige, “Don’t look back, they may be gaining on you,” doesn’t even apply. They’ve passed me so long ago I can hardly see them ahead in the distance.

I was born when Woodrow Wilson was president. One of my earliest memories is of kids stopping our ball game to watch in wonder as an airplane flew overhead. My generation – the generation that knew the hardships of the Great Depression and fought in World War II – has mostly passed away. It is lonely to outlive one’s generation, to be unable to share remembrances of events with those who had experienced them too.

I’m the beneficiary of the miracles of modern medicine. I’ve had one disc operation on my back, two shoulder rotator cuffs repaired, two knees replaced, five heart arteries bypassed, and one pacemaker inserted. Sometimes I think old age is being punished for crimes I did not commit.

My heart surgery was an epiphany for me. The day after it I felt so badly, I thought, “This is what it must be like to die.” I had no fear, no remorse, no regrets. I had lived a long and full life, and if this was the end, I was accepting of my fate. But I did not die. Rather, I lived to say, as the soldier hero in The Red Badge of Courage said, “I’ve been to touch the Great Death and found, after all, it is only the Great Death.”

That experience left me pondering what my passing means—the passing of, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, “this wonderful and unique ‘I’ that never was before and never will be again.” Externally, I am a person with a recognizable appearance and mannerisms. I have a characteristic way of talking, walking and gesturing, a distinctive tennis stroke and golf swing. Internally, I am a bundle of memories of people I’ve known, events I’ve experienced, books I’ve read, and poems I can still recite. More and more I live in that interior space, recalling the past. When I die, that presence and circuitry will vanish. As John Updike once wrote, “And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market -- . . . . Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;”

My life is constricting about me. Friends die and each of their deaths, as John Donne said, “diminishes me”. My inability to walk long distances has ended my travelling abroad with my wife. The softening of my voice inhibits my entering into group conversations, and my diminished hearing, when I don’t use my hearing aids, isolates me even more.

In gatherings of lawyers and even judges I am one of the oldest present, and don’t know many of them. I feel like a spectator at those events, observing from the sidelines. Even at dinner parties, sometimes I feel removed, as if watching my friends enacting their lives from afar.

Often when I do things like vacation in the Berkshires or go to Fenway Park, I have the overwhelming sense that I may be doing them for the last time. There is nostalgia in that.

The cruelest irony of old age is that now that I have finally learned to drive a golf ball down the middle of the fairway, it doesn’t go very far. On a par four hole, I can rarely reach the green in two.

After my death, I will live on in my judicial opinions quoted, my four books read, but mainly in the memory of family and friends who loved me. In the end though, like the men down at Mory’s, I “will pass and be forgotten like the rest.”

And yet despite this gloomy intimation of my mortality, I am a happy man. I cherish my wife dearly; delight in my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; befriend my friends. I go to the courthouse each day with eager anticipation of undertaking the challenge of trying a case or writing an opinion. I read books and write essays. I see plays and go to concerts. I play tennis with old-timers, and attack the golf course with a fierce determination to shoot my age. I lose regularly in rollicking games of poker to a bunch of scoundrels. I root for the Red Sox.

In the next few years, or who knows when, in the words of Thomas Wolfe again, “Death may take my life, but I have lived it ‘ere he took it.” Really lived it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Carlo Gesualdo

This Sunday, the Hartt Symphony Orchestra will perform Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra and Saint-Saens' Symphony no. 3, "Organ." Late in the rehearsal process, I realized that starting the program with Strauss might be a bit much to ask of an audience. Sure, most people will be thrilled to hear the Introduction, made famous by Stanley Kubrick, Elvis Presley, and countless others over the past forty years or so. But most programs don't begin with a 35 minute work, right out of the box. You have to get your listeners ready . . . whet their appetite, as you would with a fine meal.

Then I thought of a composer whose music I adore, but who never wrote anything for orchestra -- Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). O vos omnes is a hauntingly beautiful work, set for five voices. It's just over three minutes in length, and I can hardly wait to hear what it will sound like in the magnificent Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford. To take advantage of the vast and reverberant acoustic of the Cathedral, I have cast it for three ensembles -- five strings, five woodwinds, and five brass. First rehearsal is tomorrow, and I can hardly wait!

Unfortunately for Gesualdo, he will remain most famous for having murdered his wife and her lover, and having gotten away with it. (A sixteenth century nobleman was not subject to the same laws as his subjects.) The story behind the story is that the Prince of Venosa was a deeply disturbed man who suffered from depression and mental illness. Lucky for us, he was also a composer of great genius.

Of Gesualdo, Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker, “The works of his mature period bend the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner. The lingering question is whether it is the life or the work that perpetuates the phenomenon. If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds.”

O vos omnes is a responsory, originally sung as part of Roman Catholic liturgies for Holy Week, adapted from the Latin Vulgate translation of Lamentations 1:12. Gesualdo’s plangent setting is borne out in the text, which translates: “O all you, who walk by on the road, pay attention and see: if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow.”