Friday, July 27, 2018

Mozart in the Jungle Television Series

I spent two 3 1/2 hour airplane trips (Dallas to Los Angeles) watching the first season (2015) of the Mozart in the Jungle television series, which is only available to watch on an airplane or through Amazon Prime. The airplane trip is certainly the more expensive route to watch the series. I would not join Amazon Prime in order to watch any more of this show, but I might "hate watch" future seasons on future flights to California.

Implausibility in this series reigns supreme, as does the spoiler content of this post.

A 26-year-old oboist named Hailey lives in a funky apartment in New York that has a street-level fire escape. She has a wise-ass roommate who is not a musician, but is interested in music and musicians. The mystery oboe player who plays Hailey's oboe "voice" is excellent (none of the musicians who do the actual playing are credited, though the list of people involved in the show in the IMDB is about the longest list I have ever seen). We find that out that Hailey is a great oboe player when her roommate and some friends play a (invented-for-the-series) drinking game where you spin a dial to pick a musical era, drink the requisite number of shots of booze for that era, and then play an orchestral excerpt of your choosing. If you make a mistake you lose.

At the time of the drinking game, Hailey had just returned from a gig where she met the assistant principal cellist of the "New York Symphony." A few days later (I guess--time in this series is very strange), the cellist tells Hailey about an open audition for an oboist in the orchestra that is happening right away. There is a cute scene where Hailey scrapes reeds while she is traveling to the orchestra hall in a sort of rickshaw. She makes it to the hall after the auditions are over. The audience knows that the new conductor of the orchestra hasn't picked anyone (now there's some realism). Hailey decides to sit in the chair behind the screen and play her audition in the empty hall. But the conductor (somehow) hears her, and he decides that he wants her to play the fifth oboe part in the Mahler 8th Symphony (which does indeed call for four oboes and English Horn). Hailey makes it though some of a rehearsal (where, for some reason, she's playing second oboe) and then drops her instrument on the floor and swears loudly. She immediately loses her chance to play with the orchestra, but the conductor eventually hires her as his assistant (not as an assistant conductor, but as an assistant who makes him tea and drives him places).

Lola Kirke, the lovely actress who plays Hailey, looks plausible from the chest up when she plays the oboe, but her fingers don't behave like the fingers of an oboist. She is, however, more convincing than the man who plays the concertmaster, the woman who plays the assistant principal cellist, and the backwards (she holds the fiddle in her right hand and the bow in the left) solo violinist who is the wife of the conductor. They are unwatchable. The actor who plays Rodgrigo (the conductor) seems to have put some time into learning how to hold the violin and the bow, and he seems to have the physical sense of what it is like to stand up in front of an orchestra. The part written for him is demanding: he needs to be impulsive, immature, manipulative, unorthodox, self-absorbed, possessed, haunted, annoying, and endearing.

Bernadette Peters is actually quite good as the president of the orchestra (though CEO is the usual term, if there is one). She seems to have modeled her character on Deborah Borda, and added a host of enticing distortions.

Hailey's roommate (who might have escaped from an episode of "Girls") is, unbeknownst to Hailey, a member of the New York upper crust. Hailey only finds out when she spies her roommate at a party for the "donor class" that she attended because she drove the conductor of the orchestra there.

Hailey's boyfriend, a dancer from Juilliard who happens upon the drinking and excerpt party I mentioned above, is as uninteresting as he is implausible. Like everyone else in the series, he is attractive. Everyone I noticed in the series is straight, aside from the inter-racial gay couple in the orchestra who share a quick kiss before a concert.

The assistant principal cellist, who seems to have emerged from the television series "Sex and the City," develops an addiction to pain killers, which she gets from the orchestra's drug-dealing timpanist. She takes these drugs because she has tendonitis. I have had tendonitis, and I have known countless people with tendonitis. Most of us treat it with Aleve or Ibuprophen, wraps, ice packs, and the occasional cortisone shot. Most musicians would see a doctor.

Perhaps the most ludicrous quarter of an hour comes in an episode called "The Rehearsal." It begins with a note left at the hall stating that the rehearsal location has been changed to a vacant lot. Rodrigo (the conductor) used some wire cutters to cut a hole in a chain-link fence in front of the lot, and beckons the orchestra members to climb in through the opening. How the basses and timpani made it in is anyone's guess. Folding chairs magically appear, but not music stands. No worries: Rodrigo tells them that they will be playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, so they "play" without music. Hailey stands next to the timpani player and holds some cymbals. She looks very happy.

After playing the 1812 Overture the assembled audience (with school-age children in it--must have been a weekend) enjoy some pizza that Rodrigo has had delivered. Some of the musicians jam jazzily, and everyone enjoys the party. Eventually a few police officers show up and take everyone to jail. The president of the orchestra bails everyone out, and she gives the police chief season tickets for the upcoming season.

What started as a book by Blair Tindall that exposed some of the underbelly of the classical music scene in New York during the 70s and 80s has become a fantasy television series that has nothing to do with the reality of the classical music scene anywhere, at any time. It's kind of like looking at a paint-on-velvet rendering of something by Hieronymus Bosch.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Bach Prelude Project in One Volume

I have finally organized all of my Bach Cello Suite transcriptions into a complete set which can be downloaded through this link (which will take you directly to a dropbox folder that contains the score and individual combined parts).

And now I can move on . . .

Thursday, July 12, 2018

2018 Summer Strings Concert

This year's program has music by Bach, Beethoven, Elgar, Bernstein, Gershwin, and Thomas "Fats" Waller, along with music from films and a handful of popular songs (all lovingly arranged by yours truly).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Marshall Fine's Tango in Time of War, Opus 100

A conductor just sent an email message asking to hear a recording of my brother Marshall's "Tango in Time of War," so I loaded the recording that I have of the first performance (2003) into into Dropbox (it is too big a file to load into the IMSLP), and thought it would be nice to share here. The score and parts are on this page of the IMSLP.

UPDATE: Here are Marshall's program notes for "Tango in a Time of War."
With this work Fine accomplished two important goals: he sublimated his anger over America’s war policies, and he completed his reconstruction and elaboration of his early song The End. That this was done in the form of a tango is also significant; Fine admitted in his program notes for its premiere that the style, being one of the most polyphonic of dance forms, “should have commended itself to my attention long ago”. (And Fine’s appreciation of tango polyphony is fulfilled in the fugal recapitulation.)

The Tango in Time of War is actually the first-fruits of Fine’s discovery of tango writing, which Fine would continue in the next two works (Milagro del Amor and Milonga Para Salina) and would also have used for the finale of the mature Viola Concerto had he completed it. Elements of the tango are also present in the dirge-like coda for the slow movement of his sketched-out Fourth Symphony. Fine’s acquaintance with the tango style can be accurately dated to the summer of 2001, when Penn’s Woods’s new Music Director Gerardo Edelstein did an all-tango program was played which included the Piazzolla Bandoneon Concerto. The bandoneon soloist, Raul Jaurena, praised Fine’s ability to play in the style de-spite his lack of acquaintance with it (his fluency in it was only indirectly derived from his youth as a rock musician).

Subsequently one of his friends at the festival, the flutist Diane Gold Toulson, asked Fine to write a tango for her (the result was the Milagro del Amor, his second tango). At first he considered writing for mixed sextet (Gold Toulson, her husband and Penn’s Woods clarinet colleague Smith Toulson, a string trio to include Fine and his friend Melinda Daetsch, and piano), and after a difficult period absorbing the elements of Piazzolla’s nuevo tango (and its intensified anger and passion) completed this version in March 2002. But he retained this version, and started over with the Milagro.

Meanwhile, Fine had submitted the torso of the original in mid-March to Michael Stern, his conductor in IRIS, in hopes of being able to orchestrate it for performance by them. Stern accepted the work even in its incomplete form, whereupon Fine completed the orchestration in three weeks in May. (This also explains why Fine retained the original sextet version, for in doing so Fine revised some of his row-forms to better harmonize with his tango material, and apparently never had a chance to incorporate these revisions into the sextet version.)

Equally as important as the assimilation of tango style is the welter of influences from Fine’s youth and even early childhood, integrated here as a peculiar variety of therapy. The connection of the Tango in Time of War with The End is so intimate that the song’s tone-row incessantly finds its way into the tango, generally in the bridges between themes. The cello and viola solos have a curious derivation, which is explained in Unresolved Dissonance as Fine’s own scream of terror while running from a bee, imitated by his father. In addition Fine includes in the tango (twice) an in-joke among violists: he harmonizes five bars from the Hindemith op. 25 #1, counterpointing it with his tango themes as well.

The premiere took place in Germantown on January 25, 2003, and was a tumultuous success--Fine’s next-to-last before the mysterious catastrophes that befell him thereafter. Yet up to the premiere Fine had misgivings about the work. After completing it he wrote Paul Pellay that “it does not seem like a dance. It is more like a concert movement, somewhat like the Capriccio from the Second Viola Sonata, which depends on tango rhythms for its get up and go, and sounds angry besides under the influence of 9/11.” The premiere resolved all his doubts about the work, which has since been regarded--among those that had so far been performed, to be fair--as Fine’s best. Moreover, it led directly to IRIS’s commissioning of A Flower of the Infinite Garden in 2004.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Oliver Knussen

I read the terribly sad news of Oliver Knussen's death today.

I knew Olly in 1975 when he was a student at Tanglewood. Here's a picture of him I took that summer.

I was in awe of his brilliance, and amazed that he took the time to talk with me. A few years ago he let me know that he read Musical Assumptions from time to time, which made me feel really honored. RIP Olly.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

"Bist du" by Bach?

The answer is no.

In 1725 Johann Sebastian Bach included "Bist du bei mir" in the "Buchlein" he assembled for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, a singer he married in 1721. It is one of the few surviving arias from Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel's opera Diomedes.

"Bist du bei mir" is often played at weddings, though I'm not so sure how appropriate it is as a wedding piece when you look at the text . . .

Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freuden
zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh.
Ach, wie vergnügt wär so mein Ende,
es drückten deine schönen Hände
mir die getreuen Augen zu!

[If you are with me, then I will go with joy
unto [my] death and to my rest.
Ah, how pleasing were my end,
if your dear hands then
shut my faithful eyes!]

The original manuscript of Diomedes is lost, but a small collection of arias by Stözel remains. You can find the whole collection on this page of the IMSLP.

The story of Diomedes is complicated. It's hard to be sure who would have sung this aria to whom if you look at the way stories about Diomedes play out in Greek mythology. But we do know that Bach must have liked the aria.

Here's a lovely recording that puts it in a plausible operatic context:

There's a Christian hymn version of the song that has a much more wedding-appropriate text:

Abide with me
Then will I fear not
The journey to that far-off land
Where sorrows cease and all is peace. (2X)

What sweet content
To have thee near me
Where I may clasp thine hand so gentle
And gaze into thy faithful eyes. (2X)

Abide with me
Then will I fear not
The journey to that far-off land
Where sorrows cease and all is peace.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Have you ever read the whole Declaration of Independence?

It's a good day to actually read the whole Declaration of Independence, which I did for the first time today. There's a perfectly readable transcription of it here. (This link leads you to the entry in the National Archives.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

My Musical Half Lives

My life motto has always been that half of life is learning, and half of life is sharing, but the empty spaces in my cup that runneth over can feel particularly empty if I am not actively engaged in learning or actively engaged in sharing. My family and the friends that are close to me graciously accept my gifts to them, and that helps to defer emphasis away from those empty spaces. With the impersonal and fleeting communication-based relationships that the internet makes possible, my circle of acquaintances has both broadened and become more remote.

Sometimes I think that my contact with the outside world would feel more "conditional" if I were to engage in commerce, but I have a deep aversion to commerce when it comes to my work as a composer and as an arranger. I prefer not to sell my work. I would rather share it. The problem that I face is that in our culture when something is offered for free, it is valued less than something that is assigned monetary value.

I think differently. There are things that I feel are priceless. I can't put a price on love, for example, and I can't put a price on nice weather. I can't honestly give monetary value to a piece of music.

I suppose you can put a price on time: I charge students for lessons because that is time that I spend dedicated to making them into better musicians. If I didn't charge, they probably wouldn't value what I teach them, and they probably wouldn't practice. I am happy to be paid for the time I spend traveling to orchestra rehearsals, and I am happy to be paid for the time I spend rehearsing. I am happy to be paid for playing music for weddings and parties for people I do not know. I also don't mind accepting money when somebody I don't know asks me to write something. I think of it as the price of my time to meet the needs of another person.

But once the music is written the last thing I want to do these days is to hand it over to a publisher. I say this because I have a lot of music that is published. I have no idea where, when, or if my published music gets played. Royalty statements, which reflect sales, come very rarely because the publishers have to wait until there is enough in the way of royalties to justify writing a check. Publishers are also in the unique position, once they "own" your work, to do what they want with it. If that means ignoring it and burying it in their catalog without doing any kind of promotion for it, then I can be sure that the music will not be played. And in the event that someone seeks out a piece and buys it through the publisher or through a distributor, the composer makes 10% of the price of the piece of music. If a piece of music sells for $20.00, the composer makes $2.00 in royalties.

It is worth that $2.00 to me to have a piece of music that I write have the possibility of being played and being readily available for free to someone who seeks it out.

I suppose you could say that I am an outlier. I grew up in a family of brilliant musicians, and though their instruction in the practical aspects of navigating the world might have been lacking, their example of what is important in music was a gift of such magnitude that I feel that it would take another lifetime to "pay it forward." I have never "wanted" for excellent instruments, and though my education at Juilliard was sorely lacking, I always had older friends who, for whatever reason, would teach me for free. Aside from my Juilliard tuition, the money that my parents gave me for violin lessons and flute lessons when I was growing up, the four or five baroque flute lessons I took in Boston, and a year or so of violin lessons that I had in Illinois as an adult, I have not paid a cent for my musical education (tuition was free when I studied recorder at the Vienna Hochschule, and I had an assistantship for graduate school).

I had the opportunity to remake myself into a string player in my 30s, and to devote an enormous amount of time to composing in my 40s and 50s. I live in a comfortable house in a small-yet-musical town where my husband and I raised two children who have become great adults and live respectable lives in their respective major cities (one on either coast).

Life is good. Life is great.

I have books to read, and a great husband to read them with (we have a two-person reading club). I have Bach (and other great composers) to study. I have ample time to practice. I have great students that teach me how to teach. I have time to practice and people to play with. I have this blog to vent both my heart and my spleen, and another one that serves as a nifty way to catalog the music I write. I hear, from time to time, that people play the music that I make available in the IMSLP, and that makes me happy.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Girl Meets Farm

I'm writing a few words of praise for the new Food Network show that features Molly Yeh. About 30 years ago I watched an episode of Julia Child's "French Chef" show on PBS, and I got inspired to cook. I made a terrific lunch that day, that featured the soup that she was teaching her television audience how to prepare. I have been impressed by cooks on television, and I have been entertained by them. I have learned things from them, but I haven't had the kind of creative reaction I had to Julia Child's show until now.

I watched Molly Yeh make hummus yesterday morning (this is not a picture of her making hummus), and I headed straight to the kitchen to soak some chickpeas. I made the hummus today according to her directions, and it was the best hummus I have ever made.

I'm excited to make stuffed challah soon (each of the braid strands is stuffed with garlic and onions).

Molly is my friend John Yeh’s daughter, so I started reading her blog, which was mostly about the food she was eating in New York while she was studying at Juilliard. But I learned from reading articles about her (after she became "famous") that around the time she started her blog (her third year at Juilliard) she had already decided not to pursue the traditional "auditioning for orchestra" route that most musicians see as the path to professional life after graduating from a conservatory. It wasn't because she didn't love music, and it wasn't because she wasn't good enough (she's good enough, I have heard her play). She simply looked at her strengths and saw other possibilities.

She moved to rural North Dakota to live on a sugar beet farm with her now husband, a trombone player/farmer she met at Juilliard.

She became part of the "food blogger" culture, and her blog won well-deserved awards.

She worked in a bakery in her small town and developed recipes for Betty Crocker.

She started writing cookbooks.

Now she is a bright spot in my Sunday morning when I see her on television.

I could be writing about her show here because Molly's father, a clarinetist in the Chicago Symphony, is an old friend of mine (I have known him since I was a teenager). I could also praise her show and her work because she is a musician who found a path outside of music to make a living, while continuing to play. But I'm writing about it because it is excellent.