new york state of mind

I just got back from a 10 day trip to New York – both the City, and upstate, near Syracuse. The first half of the trip was purely a vacation – it’s been since our honeymoon almost two years ago that my wife and I had taken a serious trip anywhere – the second half was quiet time with my brother.

It was an interesting (and very fun) trip. The first day we were in NYC, we walked, and we walked way too much. I racked up nearly 19,000 steps on my fitbit that day. A search for the nearest Duane Reade pharmacy to our hotel was the next bit of business, as blisters were the lovely morning surprise that awaited us. We went to have the famous ‘cronut’ at Dominique Ansel‘s eponymous bakery. We ate at Gabrielle Hamilton‘s lovely East Village restaurant Prune. In fact, I chose our hotel based upon its proximity to Prune. Yes, I’m one of those people!

It was the very first time either of us had been to the city without being there for some sort of gig or audition. That makes a big difference! If you’re on tour, every moment is usually accounted for with rehearsals, sound checks, receptions, concerts, and getting to and from your hotel. If you’re taking an audition, everything sucks. So, to be there with no real agenda, and having some actual money to spend (not being a starving student), was heaven.

We got some culture, too. We got tickets to the Reich, Richter, Pärt performance at the city’s newest performance venue The Shed, which featured, on the day we went, Ensemble Signal and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The Pärt choral work was paired with Gerhard Richter‘s tapestries and floor to ceiling prints. The choristers were in street dress and seeded amongst the wandering audience in the gallery space. It was cool to suddenly hear the music emanating from all around you, with no apparent center. The audience was then invited to go to the neighboring gallery space, where folding seats were provided (to be placed where each person wanted to sit) between the performers (Ensemble Signal) and a large projection screen, where Richter’s film was projected, accompanied by live music. Reich’s piece was a big one, a bit over 30 minutes in length, and to me, about 10 minutes too long. I don’t know how collaborative the process was between Reich and Richter, but someone didn’t want to edit their portion down a bit, and as a result, things got a bit stale by the end. The work was wonderfully played by the ensemble, and very ably and clearly conducted by ensemble director Brad Lubman.

We walked the High Line from the oligarch’s playground of Hudson Yards (where the Shed is located) to Chelsea, where we were drenched to the bone by a sudden thunderstorm, thanks to a crappy umbrella that wouldn’t stay open. Adventure!

We got a nice respite from the city by visiting friends up in Croton, in Westchester County, above the Hudson River. Sitting outside, lounging in the hot tub, and watching many, many birds as they came to the verdant property was fantastic.

My long-time friend, oboist Erin Gustafson, scored us amazing tickets to her New York City Ballet performance of an all-Balanchine production. The first half: Scotch Symphony, and Valse Fantasie, was not really to my taste. Too much kitsch in the kilts and tam o’shanters in the symphony, and too much meh in the waltz. But the second half was stunning: Sonatine, which is a pas de deux on Ravel’s great work for piano. The piano was stunningly played by Elaine Chelton, and the dancing was spectacular. The closing ballet was Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which is an absolute masterpiece of ballet. This was such a privilege to see danced by Balanchine’s own company. It was spectacularly played (this concerto is not played enough!) by Concertmaster Arturo Delmoni with old-school charm and elan.

On Sunday morning we got up to go see Oregon Symphony principal clarinetist James Shields perform on the Gather NYC series at the Bleeker Street venue SubCulture, a basement venue that most resembles Doug Fir‘s underground venue here in Portland. Concerts are given nearly every Sunday at 11 am, and each is about an hour or so in length.

The program opened with a beautifully meditative performance of Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian Waltz by the Trifecta Trio. Missy Mazzoli’s energetic trio Lies You Can Believe In was played with total conviction, and is a piece that I must perform myself someday! The program concluded with guest artists violinist Lara St. John, and clarinetist James Shields. The five combined to play Osvaldo Golijov’s 1994 magnum opus The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for clarinet and string quartet. I should say four clarinets, as the score calls for four different clarinets to be played during its duration. What an amazing and crazy piece this is! Lara St. John led with total conviction (and with a casualty – during one very strenuous passage her bow caught the corner of her 18th century Italian violin and broke it off – the errant piece was found after the show and can be easily restored), and James was his usual charismatic self, playing with assuredness and personality. As an encore, they performed klezmer arrangements of two of the tunes used by Golijov in his piece. After the performance, we joined the performers for brunch nearby, which was a lot of fun as they’re all fantastic people as well as incredible musicians.

On Monday – Memorial Day – we took the subway downtown – from our new accommodations in Harlem – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’d never been before, and the one time that Stephanie had was for a gig with Cappella Romana. Being a holiday, the early part of our visit was remarkably uncrowded, but by the time we left, around 1pm or so, it was packed to the rafters. It was great to see so many incredible works of art – the Met is one of the great museums of the world, and even at $25 a pop, worth every penny. We walked from the museum through Central Park, found a nice tree to lie down under, and people watched for an hour or so before we went back to the hotel to leave for the airport. The trip was a whirlwind, but so fun and relaxing, too!

Now that vacation is over, the painful task of learning to play my viola starts anew. I’ve got some major projects coming up this month, and as time allows, I’ll write about them as I go along.

the voice of the composer

No, not the speaking voice. But if you want to know what Tchaikovsky’s speaking voice sounded like, you can check that out here.

I’m talking (see what I did there?) about the composer’s musical voice. It’s what alerts your ear – having never heard a particular piece before – that a composition is by Beethoven, Pärt, or Higdon.

I’ve had a fair number of composer friends over the years, and some of them I’ve known since they were in their formative years as composers. Just as performers imprint upon important musical role models in the course of their musical growth and exploration, composers also dig deep into the work of those who have come before them (or are doing important and interesting stuff right now). They listen ferociously, picking apart every musical aspect of a given composer’s music. They are trying to find out what makes the music speak to them, and how the composer accomplished that feat. It’s a bit like reverse engineering. Take apart an existing product to find out how it was made, so that you can in turn make your own version. These composers had their periods of being obsessed by Hindemith, Poulenc, Boulez, Reich, Rorem, Corigliano, etc. But each of them, through a process of exhaustive listening, composition lessons, and relentless self-editing came out the other side with their own distinctive voice.

Knowing this, it’s always incredibly irritating to hear people say that “composer X always sounds the same”. Well, I hope so! Even if this were true (which it’s not), the really good and great composers have an evolution to their voice. Great instrumentalists and singers do, too. In the case of performers, some of it is due to the physical changes that come about through aging. One physically isn’t the same at the age of 60 as at the age of 18 – and those changes in the body’s structure and mechanics affect the way we produce sound. Composers aren’t subject to those restraints (though some would argue that composers like Britten and Shostakovich, whose music became very spare and austere in their final years, were constrained by the physicality of writing music on paper, which affect their writing style), but they do have changing relationships to the sounds that they hear, and thus to the sounds that they then seek to put down on paper.

Of course, all composers have various compositional ‘tells’ that are a common thread throughout their careers. Beethoven uses small, obsessive rhythmic motifs. Brahms uses the violas as the bass voice to the cellos. John Adams sets up a groove, and then yanks the rug out from under the listener by jogging the beat off by a fraction. Shostakovich uses a major chord as a tragic moment – as does Schubert. John Williams uses repeated scrubby patterns in the violas under soaring melodies in the violins, who are doubled by the cellos. Mozart uses divided violas to add richness to his slow movements. Bruckner doubles the cellos with the French horns. I’m sure there are many much more erudite examples that could be supplied – but I’m not a composer. Ask any composer about the way that other composers write, and you’re in for a fascinating conversation that will leave you searching for ways to enhance the way you listen to music.

So, when I hear someone complain about how composer X’s music all sounds ‘the same’, I’m all side eye about it – because that ‘sameness’ amounts to having one’s own individual voice. And that’s a good thing.

Are you a composer? Let me know what your thoughts are about how you developed your unique voice!

lenny @ 100

Today marks what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. The internet has been awash the past few days with articles dedicated to this august event. So here I am to add to the tide. One of the things that struck me this year was just how many professional musicians have been either blasé or outright dismissive of this anniversary. Why is that, I wonder?

Could it be Lenny’s sheer omnipresence in our culture? Perhaps it is the presence of just a few celebrated works which are played over and over again. Maybe it’s also due to the absence of his active conducting presence. Is it the famous familiarity that breeds the facile contempt? I’m not sure, but I do understand it to a degree, perhaps even share it. If I just think about how many times I’ve played the overture to Candide in slapdash performances over the past 25 years or so…

But there is magic there, in the lingering presence of a man whose influence and championing of various composers, old and new, has left a lasting imprint on the cultural fabric of America. He performed large swaths of Haydn symphonies when most orchestras were playing them hardly at all – recording a good selection of them with the New York Philharmonic. He performed and recorded works of his own near-contemporaries and predecessors – Copland, Blitzstein, Harris, and Ives. He almost single-handedly brought the music of Gustav Mahler back into the mainstream repertoire (a la Mendelssohn and the music of J.S. Bach), and recorded the cycle masterfully in two highly-regarded cycles with the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He wrote one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time in West Side Story. And he incubated an entire generation of young musicians (some of whom later became a new collection of American masters) with his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.

Isn’t that enough of a legacy to deserve respect? What’s tiresome about that?

I wish I had a personal Lenny story. I came close, being an alternate to the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1990, which was the occasion of his last concert. But his ghost has hung over Tanglewood ever since, and when I was a Fellow there in 1994 and 1995, his music and legacy was a constant presence in both the programming and the philosophy of the festival.

Mostly, his influence on me came through his recordings. Especially the cycles of the Brahms and Mahler symphonies. I vividly remember the video of him reaching the main theme of the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony and just standing there, and letting the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic do its Vienna Philharmonic thing, with that luminous and rich string sound. And staying up late at night to listen to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – so strikingly slow, with every possible drop of emotion wrung from each aching note. Good stuff. I may have new preferences for my current favorite interpretations, but revisiting these recordings is like going back through the geologic record of layers of sediment, and seeing where my musical formation really began.

Thanks, Lenny.