Sunday, April 30, 2006

More Meetings with Remarkable Men

When I was around 11 I went to a summer camp near Tanglewood. It was a "fine arts" camp, so we sometimes went on trips to see and hear performances. One concert we went to was some kind of new music concert at Tanglewood. I was pretty young at the time and had little frame of reference, so I can't remember what was on the program. I do remember that it was in the Theatre building, and I was sitting with my friend Donna Zeif, who lived in New York and was very worldly.

At intermission Donna got very excited and pointed across the Theater at two men who were standing up. She told me that the two men were Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. We ran through the crowd, and she approached Leonard Bernstein and asked him for his autograph. (I knew it was Leonard Bernstein because she addressed him as "Mr. Bernstein," and I imagine she knew who he was from the Young People's Concerts in New York.) He held out his hand like a policeman stopping traffic and said "No, no, not tonight." I said something to him (I know not what), and he laughed. He might have even patted me on the head.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Concert Reviews

One of the most interesting assignments (for me) connected with the music appreciation classes I teach is for students to go to a concert and write about it. I ask them to write about various elements of the performance, including an evaluation of the audience, the performance space, and their own feelings about going to the concert. Because I live in a relatively small university town, and because most of the students wait until the week before the paper is due to actually go to a concert, I tend to get multiple reviews of the same concerts.

What strikes me as interesting is how different these reviews are. Everybody brings his or her own experience to a performance, and everyone's experience, even those people who have to be there for the same reason, adds something to the concert as a whole. Some people are quite critical, some people are impressed, and everyone is honest. None of these students have ever read a review of a classical concert written by a professional reviewer, so nobody has to worry about following any kind of "literary" or "journalistic" model. All they know when they are writing these papers is that I will read them, and that if they do a good job on the assignment, they will get a good grade.

Most of these students found that writing about a concert was an easy way to write a paper (their "research" takes about an hour, and they only have to write about what they see and hear for themselves). For me these papers act like a window to let me look inside the minds and ears of my students, and by extension look into the minds of what I hope will be part of the musical audience in the future. Reading these papers reminds me that what we are doing as musicians and teachers is life enhancing.

Most of my students (there are 60 of them) had never been to a concert before. I think that half of them might go to another concert at some time in the future. A handful of them might even become actual music lovers. That makes me happy.

Related Post: Being part of an audience for student recitals

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Germanic Orchestral Traditions

Here is a fascinating article by William Osborne about the traditions and history of orchestral music in Europe, particularly in Vienna. His discussion does call upon the darker aspects of the musical world, particularly music in Vienna during the Nazi era and the horrible history of sexism in the Vienna Philharmonic and other orchestras in the German-speaking part of Europe.

Having lived in Vienna myself (it was around 25 years ago), and having known members of the Vienna Philharmonic, and even one of its conductors, what Osborne writes in his article rings all too true.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

And They All Sang

I was very excited to find Studs Terkel's new book And They All Sang. It does not surprise me that he is a serious music lover, but it does surprise me that he has been sitting on a bunch of interviews with musicians for years (some of them are from the 1950s!). The book is an eclectic mix of performing musicians (lots of opera singers), impresarios, folk musicians, jazz musicians, American composers, and musicians who don't really fit in any kind of category.

Here is a choice quotation from guitarist Andres Segovia from an interview done in 1978:

"By traveling so much, I have felt the roundness of the earth under my feet."

Thursday, April 13, 2006

My Own Private Radio

I used to work at a college radio station. I was called the classical music drector, and I was responsible for building a classical record (I started working there in 1986) and CD library, teaching students how to pronounce the names of composers and performers, making programs, and spending a bunch of time on the air myself.

It happened that the university held a special workshop with Karl Haas, back in the days when the university in the town where I live invited classical musicians and people connected with the classical music world to campus.

I was a novice at radio, and I spent most of my time learning on the job. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but I was asked to do a radio interview with Karl Haas. I had been interviewed a few times, but I never actually conducted an interview before. I found Mr. Haas charming, and we got along just fine. When I confessed to him that I had never done an interview before, he told me that it was best not to talk too much before we got on the air or the interview would suffer. Once we were were in the studio and the microphone went on, Karl Haas changed from a medium baritone to a bass baritone. I believe we talked very frankly about music, but he was in total control of the interview. I learned everything I needed to know about classical radio from those thirty minutes.

Now that I am older and maybe a little bit wiser, I would love to be able to interview him again, but he is no longer alive, and my radio days ended when the university radio station abandoned its classical music programming.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Meetings with Remarkable Men

During the summer when I first read The Catcher in the Rye I used to write daily letters to my friend Sarah Wank. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, and I spent much of my summer hanging around with the composition students who were at Tanglewood. I lived around there in the summer, and I used to particularly enjoy the new music concerts that were part of the Fromm Festival. The composers were creative, energetic, social, and interesting, and they were the kind of people I wanted to be when I grew up. That summer Peter Maxwell Davies was the composer in residence, and a lot of the composition fellows were British. They used to hang out by the "cafeteria" area where there were large tables on which they could work on their large scores. The composers seemed to like me because I was always interested in what they were working on.

Well, one day I was holding a letter for my friend Sarah, and Oliver Knussen, who was a student at the time, caught a glimpse of it and started laughing. I asked him what he was laughing about, and he mentioned that my friend's name was Wank. I had known Sarah since I was six years old, and her name never caused anyone to laugh before. When I asked him what "Wank" meant, his answer was that it meant "autoerotic." I was rather innocent, and I still didn't get it. Just to let Sarah, who was equally innocent, know, I did write the "definition" of the word on the outside of the envelope before putting it into the mailbox.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Playing With the Greatest of Ease

Many members of this new generation of prominent young string players (people in their twenties, mostly) seem to have benefited from excellent teachers who have managed to nearly eliminate any sort of tension or difficulty in their playing. They have techniques that are completely flexible and they seem to be in complete control of applying intricate musical nuances at any time. They are well versed in various kinds of "stylistic" playing (baroque style, tango style, bluegrass style, jazz style), and they know the ins and outs of playing chamber music because they have had oodles of opportunities to play at string camps and music festivals. They have had the benefits of reading magazines like "Strings," have had college courses to help alleviate performance anxiety, and have the world at their fingertips via cell phones and the internet. Some of them have even taken courses in the "business of music," and many of them are able to play on reasonably-priced instruments made by contemporary makers.

The road ahead for these players is by all means not rosy because of the demographics of the audience for classical music, but this generation seems to have a "leg up" on my generation of musicians who were in their twenties around twenty years ago.

Much of the repertoire for strings--particularly music from the later classical period and the romantic period, involves music written by composers who infused their music with some sort of personal emotional struggle. Those that didn't (like Mendelssohn) sought to depict the emotional struggle of others, or simply the emotional struggle in the music he respected.

Here is my question: When music that, at its essence, is "about" emotional struggle and ultimate existential questions becomes easy to play because of technical advances in the instrumental approach, does the substance suffer?

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