Tag Archives: symphony

on boston

I have quite a few connections to Boston. Some of my closest friends are either from the area or went to school there, or spent a lot of childhood time in the region. I was literally weeping and pounding my steering wheel on the way home from an appointment this afternoon as I heard the reports coming from the live stream of WBUR that was playing on our local NPR affiliate. I was so enraged by the sheer idiotic brutality of this most cowardly of acts. Remember that famous quote of Leonard Bernstein – “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Well, art created in the most cowardly way possible is still orders of magnitude more brave than whoever is responsible for this heinous act.

I have taken part in two endurance events, a gran fondo cycling event of 100 miles, and the 80 mile route of the Portland Century. I spent months actively training for the gran fondo, and several years, really, just getting up to the level to be able to finish such an event. The day came, and I had hardly slept the night before, I was so excited and nervous about what the day would hold for me. I had two friends from the orchestra who were riding with me, along with hundreds of other cyclists from around Oregon and Washington. The route was breathtaking, and featured one (literally breathtaking) climb that was over 3000 feet of elevation gain all on its own. The grind to the finish, on crappy chip seal roads, was a test of my mental endurance as much as my physical. When I finally rounded the last bend before the finish line, it was such an amazing experience, one that I will never forget, no matter how many additional events I do in my life.

So, I cannot even begin to imagine the feelings of those thousands of Boston Marathon racers who’ve spent years training and running qualifying races just in order to be able to take part in the queen of marathons. Many were just a mile or two from the finish when their race was over. Even those who finished now are finishers of the most infamous Boston Marathon in history. Then there are those who were nearby when the bombing happened, and will be traumatized for who knows how long, along with their families who were waiting to greet them at the finish line. My wife has done the Portland Marathon, and the reunion at the end is one of the most satisfying and joyous events one can have around a sporting event. It’s huge. I feel so sad for all the participants and their families. I mourn for those who were killed, one an 8 year old child, and weep for those who have been grievously injured just taking part in something that they love.

I wonder what I can do.

Then I remember that I do it already, every day. I make art. Art that takes us out of the insanity of everyday life, and into a place where magical flutists enchant people into dancing, puppets come to life, and elephants dance the ballet. People take the arts for granted all the time. But where do we turn when we need solace? We might read a story (art), watch a movie (art), listen to music (art), or just play our instrument (art). Art takes the good, the horrific, and the mundane, and turns them into artifacts of enduring worth. Art is transformative. Art is essential to the process of catharsis, wherein we see or experience acts both horrific and extraordinary and are transformed emotionally by their being subsumed into an act of artistic expression. In this way art triumphs over evil, even as it depicts it with unsparing and unflinching realism.

So, please, come to the symphony tonight. You’ll hear some incredible playing, of works that will take you out of the events of today, and will make your rest easier, and your heart lighter. That’s what we’re here for.


I was initially happy to notice this line in a recent New York Times review of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at Carnegie Hall:

To a large extent, the power behind these surges comes from the lower string section and the trombones, who in the Bruckner symphony, in particular, seemed to form the ensemble’s backbone.

Then got sad as I realized how meager our lower string section complements are kept due to monetary concerns.

right war, wrong enemy

These are what the Chinese would call ‘interesting’ times – as in the curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ – for orchestras and their musicians. As if coordinated by an invisible hand – cough, wink, nudge – a series of boards and their managements have made the decision that their problems are solely due to the unnecessarily high cost of their labor force – the musicians. Unlike a company that, say, makes cars, the people in an orchestra are the product. Without them, there is no music. The conductor can show up, but he won’t make much of a sound with his arms unless he flaps them really hard. And, like the NFL referees, experience matters. An orchestra full of just out of conservatory graduates would sound pretty good, but orchestras are artistic organisms that take generations to build and perfect. The experience and grounding of the senior players mixes with the youth and virtuosity (which the veteran players also possess, believe me!) and results in a sort of group-think alchemy that is extremely hard to describe, but is an undeniable part of what makes an ensemble great. Continue reading

don’t mess with a trumpeter

It seems that a member of the San Francisco Symphony was doing some soft practicing in his apartment recently, and received for his troubles a very rude and irate phone message. Here’s what he did next…

going postal on cellphones

You’ve no doubt heard by now about the cellphone stare-down at the New York Philharmonic’s recent performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony between music director Alan Gilbert and a stubborn cellphone user in the front rows of Avery Fisher Hall. I was reading some of the comments to both the original blog posting about the incident and the New York Times blog posting (which now has over 150 comments), and I thought I’d expound a bit on just why an interruption of this sort is such a big deal to those of us who care about classical music in a live setting.

Symphonic performances are an immersive sensory experience. There is something special about the shared experience of listening to great music with hundreds or thousands of fellow music lovers. And in certain pieces of music, there is an almost cathartic, collective, and spiritual sense which overtakes everyone in the room. The final movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony exemplifies this type of musical event. It is 25 minutes of the deepest and most touching music ever composed, and at its close there is an unbelievably soft and exposed section of music that literally dissolves from hearing at the very end. If the performance has been a good one, then the entire audience will literally be transported as one to a place that, through the miracle of music, Mahler was only able to go to in solitude in the depths of his feelings and artistic sensibilities as a master composer. Audience, orchestra, and conductor will literally be almost holding their breath as these long, terrible fragile lines extend into a realm beyond our understanding as rational human beings. The flow of time slows, then almost stops …


It’s all ruined.

There’s no way that you can get that feeling back. You were in that magical realm between waking and dreaming, conscious and subconscious, and now you’re thinking of the Verizon man saying “Can you hear me now?” Everything that you went to the concert hall to escape has suddenly intruded into your innermost thoughts. Some person just shat on your entire evening.

Tell me that’s not a big deal.

Imagine you’re at an NBA game and it comes down to a tie game with a foul shot in the final seconds to determine the winner. Suddenly, a fan runs onto the court and sprays the foul shooter with a fire extinguisher. That would really spoil the moment, wouldn’t it? People would no doubt complain, I’d wager. Or imagine that you’re at an incredible rock concert. It’s the song that the entire crowd has been waiting for, and someone pulls the plug right before the climax of the song. All the instruments go dead. I’d imagine there would be many, many chagrined fans in that situation, too. It’s disheartening that just by virtue of being classical concertgoers, our upset is considered illegitimate, and worthy of ridicule. So it’s gratifying to see more like-minded people speaking up in the comments sections of various online articles in support of the actions of both the conductor and the upset patrons. What do you think?

UPDATE: The New York Times has interviewed Patron X, who was the culprit, who was of course mortified by the whole thing – and explains that the kerfuffle happened because he had a new company-supplied cell phone with an alarm already set. Seems plausible.


from the mouths of bass players

Just read a great paragraph on why having all ages and levels of experience in an orchestra is so important, and why being ignorant of this is simply to be stupid:

Like fibers of a rope, not a single one of which runs the entire length, the overlapping career spans of musicians carry on the traditions of an orchestra. An orchestra without this linkage to the past isn’t really an orchestra in the way we currently think of one, it is merely a group of musicians, a pickup group. The attitudes of managers and boards of directors in some places, where they assume musicians are easily replaceable from the stocks of eager conservatory graduates (who, most importantly, would work for less money) are misguided at best, destructive, and not in the interest of the institutions they serve. Cut too many fibers, and the rope frays and breaks; braid in too many, and it becomes thick and inflexible.

From Bass Blog

violinist: the role deconstructed

Recently, I was forwarded a document from a professional symphony orchestra which describes the demands and duties of the symphonic violinist.  At first, the description seemed ludicrous to me, but as I reflect on it, it in fact turns out to be a pretty accurate dissection (or deconstruction, if you will) of what the day-in and day-out work life of a symphonic violinist entails.  Compare it with your job’s demands.

Symphony musician physical requirements:

1)  Duration of mandatory rehearsals and performances (termed “services”) is predictable for typical work on the job site; however, individual private practice (at home or in a studio) is generally necessary for preparation in advance of and between services. On-site services are typically 2 1/2 hours duration with rest periods of 15 minutes at the approximate midpoint of the service.    Typically, playing is not continuous during the work sessions, hence the 5 minute estimate in item #6. Between periods of playing during work services, the musician is typically in an alert “rest” posture with the instrument in the lap.
2)  Duration of private practice varies considerably and the intensity, frequency, duration, and rest periods of private practice are not regulated except by the discretion of the individual musician as necessary for preparation of material in advance of, and between, services.
3)  Walk on a level (typical) or uneven (occasional) surface. Inability to walk can be accommodated, if necessary.
4)  Ability to climb onto performance platforms (“risers”) of approximately 24 inches in height using stair steps of 8 inch risers; maneuver body physically between and around music stands and instruments without bumping stands or instruments. Inability to climb steps may be accommodated, if necessary.
5) Sit for periods of up to 90 minutes. On very rare occasions (four times annually or fewer), may need to sit for periods of up to 2 hours.

Violinist physical job requirements:

1)  Typically, for repeated periods of time up to approximately 5 minutes each separated by brief (less than a minute) rest:
a.  Use of left hand and arm to hold and support a violin typically weighing approximately 16.2 ounces in a position extending outward from the collarbone and chin while simultaneously using left hand fingers to rapidly move and precisely position fingertips independently or simultaneously (e.g., one or more than one of four fingers pressing downward on strings (made of gut or perlon core wound with silver wire) that are under tension so that the length of the string that is free to vibrate is shortened by the finger pressure on the string as held fast against a firm wooden surface; simultaneous with the finger pressure, the wrist or arm moves in an oscillating motion to create “vibrato” or regular pulsating change of pitch; and
b.  Use of right hand to hold a bow of approximately 29 inches in length and weighing approximately two ounces at the frog (where the bow is gripped by the hand) ranging to about one ounce at the tip while applying downward pressure that ranges from simple gravity of the bow’s weight to about two pounds of pressure from the right arm while simultaneously moving the bow across the strings of the instrument in a controlled and deliberate manner for producing a variety of required and specific effects with variances of speed, pressure and angle. The bow is held and moved at an angle by arm and wrist motion with the elbow away from and to the side of the body in positions that may range from the elbow being at the height of the waist to the height of the shoulder and the movement or path of the bow describing arcs and spirals.
2.  Lift from a resting position (with the instrument on the lap) to a raised position (playing position) holding a violin weighing about 16.2 ounces in a position in front of the body with some of the weight resting on the collarbone or shoulder (with elbows bent and arms extended) so that the hands are approximately 12 – 16 inches in front of the collarbone depending on the required pitch.
3.  Ability to reach forward with hand and arm (primarily left hand and arm) to turn pages of music on a stand approximately 3 1/2 feet in front of the body.
4.  Ability to read music accurately at a distance of approximately 3 1/2 feet in front of the body.
5.  Ability to hear and discern subtle sound differences of pitch, timbre, and volume and adjust pitch, timbre and volume to conform to requirements of individual part performance.
6.  Ability to hear, understand and comply with oral instructions given at a moderate volume.
7.  Ability to discern subtle time-specific cues and adjust vibrato speed, bow pressure and speed, and finger manipulation so that entrances, rhythm and ensemble performance conform to the required timing of performance.
8.  Ability to attend rehearsals and performances on a generally consistent basis for each distinct program as each performer in the violin section is relied upon to perform an essential part.    Accommodations are made for occasional illnesses or injuries by the engagement of substitute musicians.
18.  Typically, all players of the same section may be required to play “in unison” meaning that all will play the same notes at the same time. On occasion, parts are distinct or a single section may be divided into two or more subsections playing different music at the same time (called “divisi”).