Wednesday, October 29, 2008

PBS broadcasts Carnegie Hall Gala of Leonard Bernstein's music, with San Francisco Symphony


Tonight some PBS stations rebroadcast the opening night concert for the 2008 season at Carnegie Hall in New York City, given by the visiting San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The program was called “A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein” and consisted entirely of his music. Appearing are opera singers Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Broadway's Christine Ebersole. Also performing is an Ensemble selected from the Vocal Arts Department and the Drama Division of The Juilliard School

The main link for the program is here.

The opening Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" have always struck me as more advanced than their popularity indicates, with its sweet rotating themes, interspersed among the dances, that almost suggest atonality. Thomas says that Bernstein likes to end many of his works quietly and ambiguously with questions (although not with the big “symphonies.” Later the “Officer Krupke” song is performed, with its lyrics referring to the “vices” of the 60s, including some reefer madness.

The most interesting work was probably the suite from the 1983 opera “A Quiet Place,” giving work to both vocalists (“You’re Late”, “Morning, Good Morning”), and a Postlude from Act I than reminds one of late Mahler and a touch of Britten, with some linear iconoclasm. The opera is a sequel to “Trouble in Tahiti”, of which I once had an old budget record and which sounded rather trivial.

The cellist played a Meditation from the "Mass", which I remember taking a girl friend to on a date in the fall of 1971 at the Kennedy Center, in my brief attempt at heterosexual dating. (That’s a strange reason to remember a work. But what I remember more of it is the political rebellion of those great days following the Civil Rights movement and Stonewall, as Vietnam cratered and then so did Nixon.)

The cello soloist also performed “To What You Said” with baritone Hampsonm from the "Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra" (1977), which is an orchestral “symphonic song cycle” in 12 sections, in a lean yet enriching style again akin to late Mahler and Britten (or even Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony”).

Carnegie Hall has apparently continued it’s “Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds” events, with other performances, such as the film “On the Waterfront” at the Walter Reade Theater, link here.

I remember seeing Michael Tilson Thomas conduct a youth concert in 1973, when I was living in New Jersey and visiting the City a lot. At the time, Thomas was one of the youngest of conductors (like Gustavo Dudamel today). Thomas has is own article on Bernstein in the Sept. 19, 2008 New York Times, “Performance of his Life: He Composed Himself,” link here. I would also see Mahler’s Second Symphony performed in Carnegie Hall in 1975, when I was living in the City.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Verdi's "La Traviata": a lesson for today's concerns about "online reputation"?


In September, the Washington National Opera put on Giuseppe Verdi’s "La Traviata" (“One who goes astray”), and made a free broadcast Saturday 13 in the (slightly oversized) Nationals Park outfield. I missed that because of storms, but found a lot on Netflix to make up for it. The WNO link is here.

The most compact performance on DVD seems to be the 1968 Rome Opera performance with Giuseppe Patane conducting. Anna Moffo plays the tragic courtesan heroine Violetta Valery; Franco Bonisolli the overly conscientious lover Alfred, and Gino Bechi is Alfredo’s patriarchal father. The distributor is Video Artists International (VAI) and the production is photographed in rather muted, sepia colors for the lavish internal sets. The director is Mario Lanfranchi.

The opera is based on the novel La Dame aux Camelais, by Alexander Dumas son (his father wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo”). The DVD puts the opera as four acts, with Act II divided into two acts here. It’s more common to present the opera in three acts, with two intermissions (as the Washington opera does).

The story is a moral parable. Violetta sacrifices all she has (in material possessions) out of love for Alfredo but Alfredo’s father manipulates her out of the relationship, claiming that Alfredo’s family reputation will be injured by Violetta’s as a coutersan. There is a libertarianesque gambling episode in a 19th century Parisian Las Vegas (when Alfredo tries to win back her sacrifice), the possibility of a duel to settle honor. But she is dying of tuberculosis, the incurable white plague of her era. The whole story seems oddly relevant to the twists about today’s concerns about online reputation.

The music has its famous choruses and an abundance of triple time and compound (like 6/8) meters. The most thrilling chorus closes Act III on the DVD (or II in most perfomances). When she dies at the end, the music comes to a violent (“Sturm und Drang”) close, apparently in D minor, with the style that is normally appropriate for ending the first movement of a romantic symphony in a minor key. The prelude to the last act, a quiet passage for strings in a minor key, is one of Verdi’s most original, in an opera that abounds in more conventional harmonic progressions.

Netflix offers a one-hour documentary from Kultur and AudioVisual Concept (Germany), “La Traviata: Love & Sacrifice: The Story of the Opera” (dor. Marie Blanc-Hemerline) that traces the plot with excerpts from singers including Kathleen Cassello, Angela Gheorghiu, Marie McLaughlin and Carla Bastro as Violetta. Here is a link for the DVD: The DVD says that the original premier was a failure and that the audience had a hard time with the subject matter. The opera is poignant but not dramatic in the usual sense.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My experience "teaching" music: it's a varied world


Teaching music, at least in ensemble playing and in lower grades, involves very different personal skills from composing, performing, or even building up the ear for the mass of classical music literature.

In my main blog on the July 25, 2007 entry (archive link) I talked about the problems that I ran into with classroom discipline as a substitute teacher back in 2005. But the music assignment raises some particular issues.

It had been called in to me the day before it started, a nine-day assignment in a middle school. It turned out there were five 50-minute classes, with a long break between the first and fourth periods, in the band room. The first period went super, a small class with a student conductor and self-sufficient. The sixth period was a four-person jazz ensemble, again self-sufficient. The seventh period was eighth grade, again with a student conductor and quite motivated. I was supposed to ask every student play a scale exercise individually and mark it, which went fine; it then play Offenbach’s Orpheus overture, with great vigor.

The fourth and fifth period classes, however, presented a challenge, perhaps to my integrity. They were, like period 1, sixth grade. The cryptic lesson plans for all the sixth grade classes had called for rehearsal of the “Prehistoric Suite” by Paul Jennings, a piece that did not inspire a lot of musical interest, but maybe that was because of the circumstances. I asked for the “student conductor” and one precocious girl said something like, “I think you should be the conductor.”

Now, I have an ear for music to where I know the literature cold, and can explain all of its significance. But I have no idea how to conduct, and I did not want to pretend that I did. And furthermore, here the issue is getting children to play their musical instruments together. The knowledge is in a totally different area psychologically.

I felt like the girl probably understood (quite incredibly) that some short-term subs were not really qualified teachers, were looking for easy money (although not much). The whole sense of integrity from my presence was fractured, and order in the class broke down. Because of these two classes, I had to leave after two days of the nine-day assignment. That started the downward spiral in my subbing experience that I describe in the archived reference above. They had to find a “real band teacher” after all. And band or orchestra, not voice, not piano, not composition, etc. But they did. As far as the kids were concerned, I should have been a clerk at the 7-11 across the street.

I could ask this, though: Why does this little band need a conductor to micromanage it at all? What about the libertarian idea of spontaneous order? After all, small orchestras sometimes play without conductors. Eventually, with a lot of grumbling, each of these two classes did stumble through "The Prehistoric Suite" without my wand.

A couple months earlier, at a high school, I had experienced a great two-day assignment with chorus classes. They were all self-sufficient, and included a madrigals class. I went to their Christmas concert in December and met the teacher. During one of the classes, in some free time, there was one eager student who wanted to learn to sight-read piano. I was quite able to help him with that for twenty minutes or so. So, my effectiveness depended on what the required skill would be.

As with the telemarketing job in the previous post, I though that my music background would lead somewhere in this situation. But I was no father-like authority figure, and I was not a band player. I have no idea how large musical ensembles learn to work together. That’s still a different world. So I fell between my own cracks.

For almost anyone who makes music a life's work, however, teaching certainly has to be an important skill. In the WB series "Everwood", the piano prodigy character Ephram (Gregory Smith), after he blows the chance to go to Juilliard because of his conflict with his father (Treat Williams), still sets up private piano lessons and even a class at home back in Colorado at age 18 or so.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Salesmanship in the symphony orchestra and performing arts "business"


In April 2002, having been forced to “retire” by an anticipated, 9/11-related corporate downsizing, and collecting severance in a very poor main job market, I was welcoming the idea of interim jobs. Once night, when I went to the disco, I noticed, in the local Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine “Lavender,” that the Minnesota Orchestra was hiring people to its phone bank to call for donations.

I went ahead and bit. A few days later, I started an evening shift job from 5 PM-9 PM calling for donations for the Minnesota Orchestra Guaranty Fund. (The “development” fund still exists; website now is this: I would actually work there, perhaps 4 evenings (and/or Saturday mornings) a week for 14 months. It actually gave me a sense of stability, a softened landing. Since I had my nine years of piano as a boy, it made sense. And since I wanted to get myself into the media (ultimately, the movies for my book), it made sense. Maybe this could open doors. We had office space and cubicles on the second floor of a luxury highrise apartment building two blocks from the Minnesota Symphony Hall.

We were paid $6.50 an hour plus a commission, which was more for new money than renewals. But renewals were easier to get. Everything was manual. We would get our lead sheets at the start of the shift. The renewals were color coded into different groups (call it “rainbow coded”). We wrote our contributions on a white board. The best money was “blue money on credit” (new money). The job was manual; we did everything with paper and pencil and phone. Only the manager had a computer. I was told by others that donations had gotten harder since 9/11 (the activity closed for a month after 9/11 in 2001). I was actually reasonably successful at this. My best night was in June 2002.

In the same are, a couple doors down, the Orchestra sold subscriptions, and in March 2003 turned over that activity to a Canadian company called Arts Marketing. Their sales activity was automated, with all reps having PC’s.

As a perk, we did get great comp tickets. I heard Mahler’s Third and Eighth Symphonies performed, as well as Rachmaninoff’s Second during that period with complimentary tickets.

Then (after two months at a debt collection company in the summer of 2003), I came back to the DC area for family reasons. I found that Arts Marketing also sold subscriptions for the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center in Washington. I tried working there for six weeks. It was a bit of a sweat shop, and had no automation. We called from 3x5 lead cards. It is much more difficult to sell a subscription for a season that to get donations for an associated charitable activity as in Minnesota. The only way people made money was to work there every season and build up a group of leads that one called every year (a bit the way an agent works).

For a week we had sales coaching from a young man from Toronto who himself had a music degree. I though it was bizarre to get a degree in the arts and then work managing sales in a phone bank.

I sold only five subscriptions in six weeks, but one person I called said that I was a "good salesman." I've never heard that from anyone before.

Telemarketing activities, as we know, have become unwelcome in our culture in the past few years, and have been restricted by federal law, as was changed in 2003 with the “Telemarketing Sales Rule” which is here in the Federal Register. The company was breaking the law by calling people after 9 PM (we worked until 9:30).

The National Symphony's website (which is slow!!) is here, as a subdomain of the Kennedy Center site.

Picture: Kennedy Center view from a nearby construction site on Constitution Ave in Washington; the only "original" picture that I have of it at the moment.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Could I have become a composer or pianist? More retrospect


On January 21 2008 (this year) I recapitulated my own efforts in music composition and my nine years of piano lessons, from the third grade to my senior year in high school. Today, I add to the retrospect. (Remember, there is a minor-key intermezzo in Johannes Brahms's last piano Sonata, just before the Finale, called "Retrospect".)

I still wonder, in view of some rather personal philosophical postings I’ve made recently, about willingness to accept “uncertainty” to have a free and expressive life (see Sept. 29 on my main “Bill” blog), about the historical fact that I did not make music my life’s work.

I remember my first piano teacher, who died in 1958 of colon cancer at 57 when I was in ninth grade, had said that the most important thing besides music was “that I be a normal boy, like other boys.” She also left a dangling phrase, “If you don’t make music your life’s work….”

Why didn’t I? On the surface, I had other interests. I was a member of the Science Honor Society as a senior at Washington-Lee high school, and a Memorial Day, 1961 weekend trip to Mt. Washington, New Hampshire became the psychological equivalent to a senior prom. In April 1961, in fact, I had won a chemistry scholarship at William and Mary. We know from my other postings what happened with that (go to my main blog, Nov. 28, 2006, for the account of 11/21/61 which is my personal 9/11).

I already had a sense that the “brains v. brawn” debate (stirred by the 1920’s story Richard Connell “The Most Dangerous Game”) could give someone like me the opportunity to live a “different” life. Because of the Cold War concerns and unique dangers it posed (almost unprecedented in nature), someone like me was “needed” despite my competitive failures in the normal sense of what was expected of males in that era. During that time, the military draft was a given, but not considered an immediate peril to life (as it had been during Korea) because the Berlin Crisis had not fully evolved yet, let alone Vietnam. Nevertheless, Kennedy was already making a spectacle of it, with suggestions as to what people owed their country and who might be deferred from the draft. For a while there were deferments for fathers or married men, and these expired, but student deferments, for those who stayed in the sciences, would continue well into the Vietnam war, until the lottery of 1969.

As a result, I did go down a different path. I sometimes regret it. I do think I was capable of working hard enough to become competitive in the music field. (I once had a tryout piano lesson in Washington with Dr. Hughes – I think at Catholic University – at about the age of 14). But there was too much social pressure against it. I caved in to the pressures of the times, even my own father.

Relevant to all this is that I finally did "get drafted" in 1968, after graduate school in mathematics, was sheltered somewhat, but lost some hearing my right ear because of its exposure on the rifle range in Basic Training while I was coming down with a barracks influenza. That was a required "sacrifice", for nothing other that "paying my dues."

There is a certain dichotomy or paradox in an artistic temperament. Your art is broadcast (perhaps in a blog today) to everyone. Some people respond, and you select the people you want in your life. Is that moral? Is it fair? That seems to come from the foundations of modern classical liberal thought about individual rights, the capability of choosing one’s significant others, even attracting them in a manner of one’s choosing. But, of course, that whole mechanism assumes a global technological and economic infrastructure to make delivery of your work possible. To some extend, that was true even several centuries ago. Classical music, starting late in the 18th century perhaps, was one of the first art forms that depended on the idea that eventual worldwide performance and audience would transform how people perceived things – even more than literature itself. Romanticism, as it came in with Beethoven and Schubert (a bit with Mozart, actually) was actually a global technological innovation.

I come back to the music teacher’s reinforcement of the idea of being “normal”. (Hello, in Smallville, young Clark Kent yearns to be normal – and then he relishes his powers and becoming “special” (he just says “different”) again. In “Supernatural” the character Sam goes through the same personality evolution.) Perhaps one can’t count on a world technological or economic infrastructure to broadcast oneself. (Isn’t that what the “Bailout” and economic credit crisis today is about? Isn’t that what 9/11 was about?)

Yeah, I was the last picked for the team when I was in grade school. I thought a technological, interconnected world would redeem me, and give me a place. It did, perhaps in urban exile for three decades, but now the world calls me back and expecte me to get real. That’s partly because things are so very public in this broadband, Internet age. So things get fragile.

Your left with the idea that, whatever your faith, your life needs to start on a sound basis. There’s nothing better than, when still a teen or a young adult, being the guy that others came count on to lead them out of any adaptive challenge. If you’re good at everything, there’s nothing to worry about. But the problem is, most of us aren’t.