Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jimi Hendrix and Charles Ives

They may never have been mentioned in the same breath, but I'm thinking now these two men may be cut from the same cloth.

In Pittsburgh, at the Woodlands Music Camp for adults with disabilities, I have been teaching music appreciation.  Last week, after playing Aaron Copland's arrangement to "Shall we Gather by the River," I played Ives's version of the song for violin and piano (from his Fourth Sonata).  Predictably, some members of the class liked it, and a healthy majority did not.  One student mentioned how listening to Ives was like hearing someone go crazy on the electric guitar. Another threw out the name Jimi Hendrix, and we were off and running.

I subsequently showed the class a clip of Hendrix at Woodstock playing the Star Spangled Banner, in which the guitarist riffed, improvised, and otherwise deconstructed the anthem to the point of obscurity. Near the end, Hendrix began wailing on Taps, played at funerals for the U.S. military. I wondered if on that August day in 1969 there were young Vietnam veterans in the audience who might have been offended.  It's one thing to dismantle our national anthem, but unraveling and dissecting Taps is another matter entirely, maybe the musical equivalent of burning the American flag.  Had Hendrix gone too far?

Whether he did or not is a matter of opinion.  But I believe Ives would have defended his right to do so.  As with Hendrix, his music was not written to offend, though it certainly isn't to everyone's taste.  During my years leading the Hartford Symphony, I programmed the music of Ives on numerous occasions, which I thought to be particularly appropriate given that the composer grew up in Connecticut and spent a lot of time in the capitol city.

A few people liked his music, more still simply endured it, waiting patiently for the Beethoven symphony that would come later on the program.  In August 1969, one wonders if more people traveled to Woodstock to hear other groups --- like Blood Sweat & Tears, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young --- rather than Hendrix, who had been scheduled to play at the end of the festival.  By the time he took the stage, the audience had dwindled.

Hendrix probably didn't care. Ives would have understood.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lorin Maazel, 1930-2014

I arrived in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1996, just after Lorin Maazel's final year as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The season went on without a sitting music director; his successor, Mariss Jansons, was due to start the following year.

Maazel had left his stamp on the ensemble, so every guest conductor faced a group that was well-honed and accustomed to an extremely precise technique and a very strong will.  Because many of the visiting maestri were not equipped to pick up those formidable reins, the orchestra could sometimes sound rather indifferent.

This was my first position with a world class orchestra, so I write this from the vantage point of hindsight.  Every rehearsal and concert in Heinz Hall regularly sent me into a kind of seventh heaven.  But only when the new boss arrived in February did the orchestra really snap to, playing with an alertness which I had not encountered thus far. The program itself felt like Jansons was auditioning the orchestra all over again: Roman Carnival by Berlioz, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919), and Mahler's Symphony no. 1.  (Imagine riding on a roller coaster for an entire week, and you get the idea.)

The orchestra was largely divided into Maazel devotees and those who would not miss him, with a few who liked Jansons and Maazel in equal measure.  But in sound and aesthetic, a Maazel orchestra could not be more different from a Jansons orchestra (or for that matter one led by the great Claudio Abbado, who died earlier this year). Jansons asks players to breathe together and listen intently to one another, receiving cues not just from the podium, but also from within. Maazel, however, was always in command, always in control. His imprint on the orchestra was so strong that it took Jansons a good year to make the ensemble his own.

One member of the orchestra shared with me a rather perverse detail, which I found hard to believe: at every opportunity, Maazel cued the player at every single entrance.  Sometimes it was with a flick of the wrist, or with his face, and if he was busy with another section, a kind of backhand glance, as if to make sure the player knew he had not forgotten.  Of course, the player adored Maazel.

This was a big part of his prodigious skills as podium master -- his photographic memory.  Maazel sometimes appeared to be turning pages with his eyes as he conducted.  This is an essential difference between Maazel and most other conductors who lead without score: he saw every single note in his head as the music was playing, each individual page of score flipping before his mind's eye.  On tour for a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at Carnegie Hall, one of the solo singers became ill, requiring a last minute replacement to fill in without the benefit of rehearsal.  This kind of thing was child's play for Maazel, who quietly mouthed the words to the substituting singer before each phrase during the entire performance.

This was just one of three traits which separated Maazel from the rest of his exalted fraternity.

His ears were legendary.  Maazel heard everything.  Having a good ear is a prerequisite to standing in front of players and telling them what to do.  But being able to hear individual players the way he did -- even string players sitting in the back who blend in with the rest of the section -- was a freakish gift very few conductors possess.  (Boulez has this, as did Lukas Foss.)  But because Maazel was also an accomplished violinist, he could hear and watch each player's hands, and thus be able to instantly know if that player was really playing his part accurately.  No wonder Maazel struck fear in the hearts of many.

Then there were those unbelievable hands.  Anything he wanted to do, he could do.  He was given to frequent whims, where he could detour at a moment's notice, and take the entire orchestra with him, without a hitch or hiccup.  This would account for the occasional uneven performance, but the command was always there.  For a rehearsal of his work, The Giving Tree, he stopped to say he would do one bar differently, and proceeded to conduct this one measure in fifteen separate beats.  With most any other conductor, there would be questions about how the bar would be divided, and in what pattern, etc. - - - never with Maazel.

He knew what to rehearse and what to leave alone.  Indeed, another player once recounted how, before a performance of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony (a very demanding and exacting work), Maazel rehearsed only three or four passages from the entire symphony, releasing the players well in advance of the closing time, deeming them ready for the concert that night.  And the performance? "It was the best Sibelius performance I've ever been a part of," the player responded.

He was a guest in Pittsburgh once during my residency, for his 75th birthday. In addition to the aforementioned work, the program included Dvorak's Symphony no. 9, and Ravel's Mother Goose Suite.  After the first play through of the Ravel, he stopped to joke that, if he ". . . were a young conductor, I would talk far too long about what I'd like you to do differently." The players laughed knowingly, but everyone understood that Maazel knew exactly what spots could be left alone, even those that were not played to his satisfaction.

I will never forget how, during a passage of the Ravel, he seemed to forget he was on the podium, looking downward, momentarily losing himself in the music . . . .  and the magic was palpable.  During my half dozen years in Pittsburgh, it may have been the most ravishing playing I ever heard from the orchestra.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Lou Gehrig's farewell speech

Today is July 4th -- a day of celebration throughout America. It also happens to be the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's farewell address at Yankee Stadium.  He died two years later of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now known simply as Lou Gehrig's disease. Few will remember his home run total (493) in this post-steroid era, but his 23 career grand slams and 500+ RBIs during a three year period are indicative of one thing:  the guy was clutch.

An article in today's Hartford Courant refers to Gehrig's speech as "one of the best-remembered of the 20th century," and "one of the most quoted of the 21st."   But this is only so because of the opening lines . . .

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

 . . . and the closing:

I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

It was a short speech, around 300 words, and the middle portion  -- including a reference to his mother-in-law -- consists of language more suited for a chat with friends in your living room.  Among the few names Gehrig mentions are Jacob Ruppert (who bought the Yankees in 1915) and Miller Huggins (Yankees manager 1918-29), important figures in Yankees history whose names have not stood the test of time.  Even the groundskeeper gets his due.  My guess is that Gehrig wrote the first and last lines, and his wife helped him with the rest.

His 2,130 consecutive game streak (broken over fifty years later by Cal Ripken, Jr.) was a big part of who he was, showing up to play every day.  Besides his brilliance on the field, his everyman quality was a big part of his popularity, never asking for the attention demanded by his teammate, Babe Ruth (who was openly critical of Gehrig's streak).

Before the Lou Gehrig story was made into a film, memorably played by Gary Cooper in "Pride of the Yankees" (1942), Eleanor Gehrig sent Samuel Goldwyn the text of the speech, in which she claimed " . . . Lou and I worked on the night before it was delivered, and naturally, my memory would not fail me in this instance."

If you want to listen to a recording of Gehrig's speech today, you will hear just the best parts of it. Gehrig adored his wife, and so he would naturally take her advice before such an awesome occasion.  His hesitancy to take the microphone given to him by the Yankee skipper, Joe McCarthy, speaks volumes. But Gehrig knew this:  when addressing thousands of his fans, he remembered to begin well and end well.