Scarsdale High School

This past weekend I went back to Scarsdale High School. 12 graduates, myself included, were being honored as distinguished alumni.

It was quite an honor. The list of alumni from SHS is long and distinguished. My co-honorees were amazing and impressive. I couldn't help but feel that my award was premature - I am proud of my accomplishments, but I am a work in progress, and I hope the next 40 years brings greater achievement and accomplishment. This is the third year the Scarsdale High alumni group has been selecting distinguished alums, and the thought that I am in the first 36 blows my mind.

The weekend was lovely. On Friday, I had an opportunity to meet with some students, and observe what they are doing in the classroom. Walking through the school - up and down the stairwell, in the music tower, around the grounds - brought back very distinct memories of being younger. I don't have memories of high school often, so this was pretty cool. The music faculty at the high school is clearly doing a fabulous job. The students speak of them with reverence and admiration, and the creativity of method in teaching kids music is very impressive.

Saturday was the big event. We were each introduced and given a chance to say something to the fairly large gathering of parents, teachers and friends. All but two of us were able to attend (the two absentees were Carolyn Strauss, the President of programming at HBO, and Eve Ensler, who wrote "The Vagina Monologues" - they had good excuses!). Some of the themes were shared by many of us - the support of teachers and parents, the encouragement to pursue our dreams, the high quality of our education (I still feel that I got a better overall education at Scarsdale High than at Harvard College). But the variety of personal stories and journeys, from the STEP student from Mississippi, who now teaches in Arizona, and serves as advisor to the Gates Foundation; to the near high school flunk-out who is now a distinguished playwright and one of the world's preeminent scholars on Shakespeare; to a man who has devoted a lifetime to helping at-risk kids through his own charity, Jimmy's Boys; to one of America's pioneers in forensic medicine; artists, journalists, historians, philanthropists.....what an august group to be a part of!

One of the themes of my short talk was how grateful I am to the teachers who have invested themselves in me - completely, and selflessly. Many of them are well-aware of my gratitude. Some are no longer with us, and I regret never telling them. Shame on me.

So... to Mrs. Brenneman, Ms. Fahey, Mr. Minard, Mrs. Spiegelman, Mrs. Spillman, Charity Bailey, Mrs. Goodman, Mr. Ladensack, Mr. Kaye, Mr. Baron, Mr. Maloney, Ms. Silver, Mr. Haseltine, Mrs. Cantor, Mr. Husted, Mr. Lokietz, Mr. Feig, Ms. Oksner, Dr. Mantz, Msgnr. Reid, Mr. Ehret, Dr. Albright, Ms. Simon;

...Reuven Grodner, Benjamin Yablock, Avi Schwartzmer;

...Tison Street, Lewis Lockwood;

...and of course, Baruch and Drora Arnon, Otto-Werner Mueller, Keiko Sato, Michael Friedman, and Edward Aldwell;

...and to the many others whom I have sorrowfully omitted due to nothing other than my own dotage:

Thank you.
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HSO Masterworks #2

It was a very good weekend for the Harrisburg Symphony.

I came into the weekend with some nervousness. Nielsen's 4th Symphony - "Inextinguishable" - is a very difficult piece, to play and to conduct. It was my first go at it, and I knew that the same would be true for most of the orchestra. Add to that that the piece is a challenging one to listen to, not because it is not a great work (it is undeniably), but because long sections of it are dark and intentionally unpleasant. Of course, the work is ultimately about the triumph of the human spirit over the greatest adversity, so it ends in unbelievably majestic fashion, but the journey is often rough. Furthermore, it takes an excellent performance to get the piece across. How would the orchestra play, and how would our audience respond? And how would I do? (Yes, even conductors face self-doubt at times...)

Well, I will leave assessment of my own performance to others, but I can with all honesty say that the orchestra played gloriously. The rehearsals were especially hard work. The first run-through of the symphony on Thursday was a mess, and even Friday night we were all still at sixes and sevens with one another. But Saturday morning suddenly things began to click, and by Saturday night, the orchestra seemed to really get the piece. And this orchestra played (as they always do) with total commitment and passion. The piece flew by for me, which is usually a good sign. And the audience response was very strong and sustained (although I know that the length of the ovation was perpetrated by less than everyone present). Today's (Sunday's) performance was at least as good, and I feel probably even better than the night before.

I knew the first half of the program would be a big hit. Poulenc's "Suite française" opened, with its quirky yet tender neo-Renaissance flavors. The winds and brass were wonderful both in individual playing and in ensemble. And "The Four Seasons" is money in the bank as far as audience reaction, even with a mediocre performance, and Odin Rathnam and the strings gave a beautiful reading. The Harrisburg audience loves Odin, and the response to the Vivaldi was deservedly thunderous.

The success of the Nielsen, I believe, speaks to the universality of his theme and also the similarity of the world we live in to the world he lived in. Like Nielsen in 1914, we are in a very volatile world capable of great violence and inhumanity. Indeed, there is a constant specter of the possibility of the world annihilating itself. The inextinguishable human spirit is a very powerful image in times like these.

In the end, though, it is the brilliance of the work itself that carried the day. I have truly enjoyed getting to know this work in my studies of it. I'm very glad to have it in my repertoire, and I'm honored to have been able to conduct it.

Especially with an extraordinary group of musicians like the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.

On a side note, we had a group from the Harrisburg Young Professionals at the concert today. I had a chance to socialize with some of them after the concert. I was pleased at their reaction to the program - again, overwhelmingly positive. So much energy is devoted in the professional orchestra world to attracting younger audiences. My interaction with the members of HYP only reaffirmed what I have always believed. The way to build the audience of the future for orchestral music is to get young people in to the performance hall once and give them something to be excited about. And what could be more exciting than beautiful, stirring and thought-provoking music performed passionately. These are intelligent, sophisticated people, some of whom have simply not come to orchestral concerts before. I grant you that some will not like it. But many undoubtedly will, and they will return. And some of those might just get hooked.

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Podcast #7 - Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony

A bit of discussion about this World War 1 masterpiece - the final work of our second Masterworks program.
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Podcast #6 - Vivaldi's Four Seasons

I discuss our featured concerto, and one of the most beloved works in the repertoire.
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Podcast #5 - Poulenc's Suite française

I talk about this delightful neo-Renaissance work which opens our second Masterworks concerts.
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Podcast #4 - America the Beautiful

The HSO Pops opener.

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The Mets - A Post-Mortem

What a disappointment.... and yet, what a great game.

My Dad said yesterday that there is nothing like watching baseball if it's a close game and you care about who wins. I think it's the sheer length of time between pitches that makes games like the last two tantalizingly painful, almost unbearable to watch. Tonight, my pulse was racing the whole game (maybe this should be explored as a substitute for cardiovascular workouts...hmm...). In one particular stretch - when Endy Chavez incredibly caught Scott Rolen's home run ball over the fence - my emotions went from dejection to exultation in about 5 seconds. I experienced this before - most notably in the 10th Inning of game 6 of the '86 World Series (yes, I was at the game - one of the great moments of my life). But we'll save that discussion for happier times.

Anyways... the Mets' great season is over, and I have to hand it to them, they made a good run at it, especially given that two of their starters were injured, and unable to pitch. Having said that, hats off to the Cardinals, who shut down the Mets' powerful lineup. In the end it was the lack of offensive production, not weak pitching, that cost the Mets this last game.

I hope the Tigers sweep. I know it's petty, but I'll allow myself this last base wish before closing the book on the 2006 season.

My heart clings to those immortal words, sung by Robert Merrill in the final moments of the orchestral cult classic, Brooklyn's Baseball Cantata, "Just wait 'till next year comes!"
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Opening Night at the HSO

Well, another opening weekend is over, and I have to say I am very pleased with the outcome.

First of all, I thought the orchestra played beautifully. I cannot remember an opening concert that went as smoothly and pleasantly from first rehearsal to final performance. The orchestra came ready to work, was in a good collective mood, and everyone played their hearts out.

Second, as always, I enjoyed working with Jeffrey Biegel. This was our eighth collaboration and he never disappoints. We gave the Billy Joel "Symphonic Fantasies for Piano and Orchestra" a very good reading. Many in our audience thoroughly enjoyed the piece, some did not at all - this is to be expected with un-tried and true repertoire - but at the very least, they heard an excellent rendition on which to base their judgement.

Third, the crowds were good. There is a certain number of audience members - I would guess about 1100 - at which point the Forum feels full. Below this point, it doesn't feel empty, but certainly un-full. Both performances this past weekend felt nicely full. It makes a big difference to us on the stage. (Of course, I'd be thrilled to see no empty seats....)

I feel we are off to a very good start. It definitely helps that the repertoire was well-known to the players. This adds a certain comfort level to the preparation. I'm interested in seeing how things go from here. Next month, we tackle the magnificent "Inextinguishable" Symphony #4 of Nielsen. I would not be surprised if the majority of the players have never played it before. Our audience is in for a sonic treat, plus I know that everyone will love Vivaldi's Four Seasons with our concertmaster, Odin Rathnam, playing the solo - and yours truly playing the harpsichord.

Anyhow....onward and upward!
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Podcast #3 - Dvorak's Symphony #8

A discussion of Dvorak's masterpiece. This one is about 15 minutes long. Is that too much for you? Please let me know.... In fact, any feedback would be welcome!
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Podcast #2 - Billy Joel's Symphonic Fantasies for Piano and Orchestra

Those of you expecting "Uptown Girl" or "Just the Way You Are" will be very surprised. (Maybe we should have called the piece, "We Didn't Start De Falla"......)
In this podcast, I discuss the Pennsylvania premiere performance of the piano man's latest opus.
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Podcast #1 - Beethoven's Leonora Overture #3

My first attempt at podcasting! Who is Leonora, and why are there three overtures bearing her name? Click on the word "podcast" below, and hear me discuss the opener of our season's opener.
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Greensboro Trip

I've returned from a week-long trip to my old stomping ground, Greensboro, NC. I was their soloist for their season opener, playing "Rhapsody in Blue" under the baton of my successor as music director, Dmitri Sitkovetsky.

I had a great time. I got to see many dear friends. It brought back a lot of happy memories of my time with that orchestra. The reception I got from the players and patrons was overwhelmingly warm. The music making was relaxed and fun. Dmitri is charming and lovely.

One of the highlights of the week was a chamber music program on Friday night with Dmitri and several of the GSO musicians. The subscription series are on Thursdays and Saturdays, and they always perform chamber music with the guest artists in between. I performed the Mozart Kegelstatt Trio (for piano, clarinet and viola), as well as the Dvorak Piano Quintet, which I had performed earlier in the summer with the Fry Street Quartet. The concert was at UNCG's School of Music recital Hall. What a beautiful facility. I was very envious. Again, the concert was a joy, giving me the opportunity to make music in a more intimate environment with some very dear friends, as well as with Dmitri, a world-class violinist. (An interesting note: Dmitri was unable to bring his Stradivarius violin with him from London, due to airline restrictions, so he ended up borrowing a violin from Sam LeBauer, a doctor friend who luckily owns a Galliano fiddle. Dmitri made the most of a less than perfect situation - it's not easy to suddenly work with a different instrument - and played beautifully.)

I must admit that I arrived in Greensboro with some nervousness. How would the orchestra sound? What would working with Dmitri in this role reversal (last time he was soloist under my baton) be like? Would the orchestra be pleased to see me? How would I play (I don't perform as a concerto soloist often)?

I am pleased to say that my apprehensions were unfounded. The orchestra sounded terrific. Dmitri was a gem. It felt just like the good old days with the players. And, yes, I think I played very well.
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Concertante's Opening Concert

I'm back from a lovely family vacation with my parents on Cape Cod, the children are in school, and it's back to blogging!

I had the pleasurable experience of attending the opening concert of Concertante last night at the Rose Lehrman Auditorium at Harrisburg Community College. The program featured a quintet by Boccherini, a world-premiere sextet by Lowell Liebermann, and Elgar's formidable Piano Quintet, with pianist Anton Nell. My wife, Marty, turned pages for Anton (she looked great). I sat with two of my favorite people from Public Radio WITF John Clare and Dick Strawser (Both of them have interesting blogs, the links for which are on my links pages).

The playing was excellent. There is something special about a group of first-rate musicians who have played together regularly for many years. The ensemble is refined. Timing is so crisp and uniform. This is a terrific group.

I particularly liked the Liebermann Sextet. It was haunting and moving, accessible without being banal, and quite lovely. It did end rather abruptly, almost as though the composer ran out of steam. But this didn't detract from what was a superb premiere. The players poured their souls into it, and the audience clearly reacted.

What struck me in the car ride home was something that I've heard from many of my friends about attending my concerts - that their enjoyment of the concerts is greatly enhanced by knowing me personally. Anton Nell (a marvelous pianist who can play anything, and well) and I collaborated a few years back on Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto and made a nice personal connection. One of Concertante's cellists Zvi Plesser and I collaborated on a cello and piano recital last year and have become good friends, and I have met and chatted with Concertante violist Rachel Shapiro on numerous occasions.

Now, I consider myself a fairly discerning and knowledgeable music listener, and I would think that the music itself would be the sole criterion for my enjoyment of the concert. But knowing these performers added tremendously to the concert experience for me. I'll even go further in saying that knowing the other players would have made the concert even better. It's not that I felt nothing from those I didn't know and something only from my friends - that an gross oversimplification. Rather, I was able to get an extra level of enjoyment from the players I knew. I could see their familiar personalities reflected in the music. Most importantly, their performances enhanced my existing understanding of them as people - I got glimpses of new parts of their souls. And I felt pride in knowing them.

This is not news to me, no thunderbolt epiphany. In fact, it is one of the guiding principals of my approach to music making and to music directorship. The more the audience knows me as a person, the better they will enjoy my work as a musician. This is one of the reasons I always talk to an audience onstage before performing, and why I love doing the talk-backs after our HSO concerts. These sorts of concert enhancements chip away at the separation that is always somewhat present in a concert setting. For the same reason, I generally don't mind the interruptions at dinners out and the encounters with patrons at the grocery store. It all goes toward strengthening my relationship with my audience.

One last reflection on the concert. There should have been more people there. I am always baffled and saddened by the lack of audience support that many arts groups get here in Harrisburg (particularly chamber music). The music is easily on a level with what one would here in the great performing venues of the world - in fact, this concert is being repeated at Merkin Hall at Lincoln Center in NYC. The audience size last night was respectable, but should have been much larger, especially given the added attraction of a world premiere by a major composer.

Maybe the players should talk more....
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Chamber Music

One of my greatest joys in music is the ability to sight-read. I don't consider myself a boastful person, but I am an excellent sight-reader at the piano. I can almost read at the level that I can play. This ability opens up for me, among other things, the wonderful world of chamber music reading.

On Wednesday morning, I had Odin Rathnam (concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra) and Daniel Gaisford (world-class solo cellist) over for an ad hoc chamber music party. We read for about two and a half hours, and covered some spectacular repertoire - we played through the Brahms B Major Trio, the Dvorak "Dumky" Trio, and the two Mendelssohn Trios. Whew! It was quite a work-out.

It brought to mind a few observations.

First, playing chamber music is unbelievably rewarding. This tidbit of knowledge is self-evident to musicians, and hard to explain to non-musicians. The repertoire is so rich, but the experience of creating a performance with colleagues makes it all the more rich. It is so important to me to have these experiences, if for no other reason than to remind me of the feeling of interdependency and mutual respect. It guides my approach to conducting as well. I find that the more I foster respect and interdependency in the orchestra the better the musical result. Ideally, orchestral playing is no more than an expanded version of chamber music with a guide.

Second, I am so fortunate to have colleagues like Odin and Daniel. These are musicians of the highest caliber, who not only play fantastically well, but also are a load of fun to be around. They listen and react in their playing (the most important attributes in chamber music), they have boundless energy (I think we could have easily gone another several hours, were it not for other responsibilities), and they revel in the spirit of collegiality. There was never judgement attached to what we did, just fun and love for music.

Third, and I know I say this all the time, I am unbelievably blessed to routinely have experiences like this. I say this not from a place of arrogance, but of gratitude. Playing great music with great musicians who are also great people, whether it's in my living room or at a concert hall, is an extraordinary adventure, and something very few people get to do. I am one lucky son of a gun to get to do it all the time.
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Reading the Torah

On Saturday morning, I read the Torah at my synagogue. This is something I learned how to do in the years before my Bar Mitzvah at age 13, and then did not do again until this past year, 30 years later. Now I try to do it every few months.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, the Torah is the five books of Moses. The Hebrew words are painstakingly written onto parchment and wound onto two scrolls. Each week at Saturday morning services, a section of the Torah is read, so that in the course of each year, you get through the entire thing, only to rewind the scrolls and start again. In addition to the words, there are notations which indicate the melody that goes with the words. This is called the trope. (There are many internet sites about trope. Those of you who are interested in seeing and hearing trope might check out "Ellie's Torah Trope Tutor" at www.ellietorah.com.)

Here's the hitch: while the Torah you read from has the Hebrew letters, it does not have the vowels or the trope. These must be memorized. And without vowels, several different Hebrew words might look the same. And further, mistakes in the text are not allowed, and are corrected on the spot.

Needless to say, a lot of preparation goes into this, and the pressure is really on.

So why would I want to do this?

Well, first of all, I think the music is lovely. The melodies for each notation are remarkably simple, but when strung together, they make a beautifully flowing sing-song.

Second, the process of learning the portion is meditative and soothing. As my knowledge of biblical Hebrew is rather limited to say the least, it almost feels like an ever-expanding mantra. I do one sentence, then add a sentence, then do both together, then add a third, etc. I do not meditate, but this feels what I would imagine meditation would feel like. (Maybe I should try meditating...)

Third, the Torah reading is my favorite part of the service, and I enjoy being an active participant. There is something about the experience that connects me in a palpable way with my father, my grandparents, and their parents and grandparents back through hundreds of years. Whether you believe that the words come from God or not, these exact words have been chanted in a similar way for thousands of years. I find it a very powerful and meaningful experience.

What I find very interesting and a bit confusing is that I get very nervous reading the Torah. Needless to say, I perform for and speak to much larger audiences all the time and don't get nervous at all; and the congregants at my synagogue are supportive, non-judgemental and delighted that I am doing this at all. So what's that about?

I don't know....I guess it just speaks to the fact that we all have comfort zones, outside of which we get nervous. That's all.
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Math, Science and Music

When I exercise at home on the NordicTrack, I generally watch videos from the Teaching Company. The Teaching Company publishes series of university lectures on a variety of subjects, given by eminent professors from around the country. The course I am presently watching is called "Science in the Twentieth Century: A Social-Intellectual Survey." It is given by Lehigh University professor Steven L. Goldman, and it is excellent. Today's lecture was on mathematics and its connection to scientific "truth". I won't get involved in recapping Prof. Goldman's ideas, but one thing early on in the lecture struck me. He said that the rise of mathematics in science was a disturbing development, for whereas before, science was open and democratic, it became esoteric - in order to participate in scientific learning, one needed more and more extensive knowledge of more and more complex mathematics. He then went on to say that many scientists would dispute this.

This naturally got me thinking about "classical" music (just so I can avoid using quotes all the time, I'll use "classical" in its widely accepted meaning, rather than just the music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries). Could the same thing be true? It certainly is what many critics of contemporary music say: that one needs to have knowledge of music to appreciate the music that has been written in, say, the last 100 years or more. I find that thought preposterous, but then again, I have never had the experience of hearing music without an underlying knowledge of musical theory and syntax. Is it possible that a listener needs to understand music to enjoy, say, a piece by Schnittke?

I think not. There are clearly many levels of appreciation, but I think at base level, music is, or at least should be, open and democratic. Interestingly, the same holds true for science. What better proof than my enjoyment of these lectures. I certainly will never understand the complexities of quantum theory, let alone string theory, but I do basically grasp it, and I see the beauty in it. I imagine that for many people the idea of discontinuity, one of the foundations on which quantum physics is based, is extremely uncomfortable, so much so that most will avoid quantum physics entirely. But for those who are willing to take this leap of conceptual thought, a whole new world emerges, and the rewards are well worth it.

Similarly, there is much strangeness and often unpleasantness in the language of contemporary classical music. But for those willing to see past the surface strangeness, great rewards await.

Just a word on the Teaching Company. I endorse their product wholeheartedly. For those interested in learning more about great classical music, I highly recommend the courses taught by Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. they are not only informative, but they are also often riotously funny. I have also very much enjoyed the course on contemporary Jewish philosophy. Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the Teaching Company is their customer service. I ordered at one point a long survey of the Great Thinkers. Over the course of over a year and a half I tried to get absorbed in it, but to no avail. I called the Teaching Company customer service line, and they gave a choice of a full refund of the cost or a credit toward other courses. Quite amazing....
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Reviews

I just added to this site a page devoted to a laundry list of positive reviews of my work. I've left out the bad ones. One of those, from Charleston, SC, said I had no idea how to perform Mozart. Another, from Hartford, said I was "not yet ready for prime time." Interestingly, this one was from a retrospective about the music director search there, in which I had participated, and this same reviewer had given the concert a rave (it is, of course, included in my reviews file...). Hmmm...how fickle reviewers can be. (Side note: that search was won by Edward Cumming, a very good conductor and a very nice guy.) I've been reviewed by some extremely insightful and gifted reviewers, and by some imbeciles; by some very-well-meaning music lovers, and by some mean-spirited arch-enemies of all things good. In the end, the old adage is true: if you are willing to believe the good reviews, you must also believe the bad ones. So it's best not to pay them any heed at all.

I have nonetheless added a page devoted to a laundry list of positive reviews of my work.
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My first blog

This is my first blog, and today is the birthday of my website. I have very high hopes for this website, including video podcasts about upcoming concerts; video of selected performances; forums for questions, answers and suggestions; maybe even discussions of general musical issues, like form and style. For right now, I'm happy to have a basic structure. If you have suggestions, please contact me with the handy link found below the page. I am a computer geek at heart, even if I don't have the knowledge and skill of a professional web designer, and I am anxious to make this site as cool and useful as possible.
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