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.

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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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DF5gTF0oZ_E )

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.