Epic Film Music

I’m sitting in O’Hare International Airport, on a layover, waiting for my flight to St. Louis. I’m heading out for a couple of days of upkeep rehearsals for the Movin’ Out tour. We have some new band members, and a new piano man (a young, talented guy from Boston, named Jon Abrams). Should be very busy, but a nice change of pace.

This past weekend, the HSO had its opening Pops weekend, An Evening of Epic Film Music. The weekend went extremely well. The audience was a bit smaller than usual on Saturday - probably attributable to the PSU-OSU football game combined with the third game of the World Series. This is the reality of the arts.... To be fair, if the Mets were playing in Game 3, and I had symphony tickets, I’d probably stay home too. The audience on Sunday was huge - almost sold out (many Saturday patrons exchanged tickets). Overall, it was a very good showing.

These pops concerts are particularly exhausting for me. Not only do I have to conduct what tends to be very dramatic, intense music, but also, I serve as host, stand-up comic, and in this weekend’s case, piano soloist. We did a fantasy for piano and orchestra on themes from Exodus, as well as less demanding piano and orchestra music from Forrest Gump and Chariots of Fire. There is also an added stress level, because of the limited rehearsal time combined with the length and variety of the program. I am indeed fortunate that the orchestra is so good. They never let me down. They also have great attitudes, laughing at my jokes, smiling, and allowing themselves to enjoy the performances. Don’t fool yourselves - this is not the case with many orchestras.

Having said all that, I myself had a great weekend. I thought the concerts were paced well, my banter was generally funny and interesting, the music was by and large well-selected, and the audiences seemed to have a rollicking time. The Harrisburg pops series is one of my biggest successes. When I arrived, audiences were dwindling and the board was ready to cancel the series entirely. Now, not only are sales great, but we have extended the series. Much thanks goes to our series sponsor, Capital Blue Cross, for their vote of confidence and continued underwriting. But the bottom line is, we are doing a good job of it, and for that I am justifiably proud.

The other fun part of this weekend’s concerts was the poster, which featured me as Moses, on Mt. Sinai, with the 10 Commandments in tow. I will get a copy, and post it on this blog - it’s one for the ages. (You can see some of the other pops posters, if you missed them, at my blog posts from 10/30/07 and 11/5/07).

Opening Night

It was another excellent opening for the Harrisburg Symphony. Nice houses, warm reception, and really fine playing by the orchestra.
I lost my voice almost completely during the rehearsal period. I was fighting a cold earlier in the week, and the combination of a throat becoming sore with four rehearsals of speaking to the orchestra in a very dry room knocked my vocal chords out of commission. I imagine it was a bit strange for the audience when I addressed them from the stage at the concert’s start. (Of course, this weekend would be the one that the sound system at the Forum went on the fritz...) But even the discomfort in my throat couldn’t dampen my enjoyment of the concerts.
Particularly nice for me was getting to perform Brahms’ Double Concerto with two friends - Daniel Gaisford and Kurt Nikkanen. It is a tricky piece to pull off, and I felt they were terrific.
But, as usual, it was the orchestra that made the weekend. This was an emotional weekend for the orchestra, which was mourning the loss of our orchestra manager, Bill Schmieding. The spirit of mutual support combined with the usual excellence of playing and passion for music-making reinforced my conviction that I’ve found myself a very happy place here in Harrisburg.

Bill Schmieding

Yesterday was a very sad day for me and for the HSO. Our Orchestra Manager, Bill Schmieding died in his sleep on Wednesday night. He was only 55 years old.

Bill had managed the orchestra since before I came to Harrisburg. He had been a violinist in the Tulsa Philharmonic, before turning to management. He had profound knowledge of orchestral repertoire, and brought a lot of great music to my attention.

No one knew the ins and outs of the Harrisburg Symphony like Bill. His job encompassed a wide range of duties, ranging from personnel management to stage management and artistic and technical administration. He made sure that there was a high-quality orchestra on stage every rehearsal and performance, as well as ensuring for everything else that went into a performance. Nobody outside of the orchestra world can understand how important a good manager is to the success of what’s on stage. We in the HSO were very fortunate to have Bill. I don’t really know how we will smoothly operate without him.

On a personal level, Bill was my friend. He was not always the easiest guy to be with. He was an unabashed curmudgeon and cynic, but had a good sense of humor about himself, and about others. He, like all of us, had his demons, but he kept them in check. More than anything (except his wife and daughter), he loved the orchestra. He took great pride in his work, and when the orchestra played well, he never crowed or waxed poetic, but you could see in his quiet contentment, enormous pride in a job well done.

Sadly, his health was his Achilles heel. We all had a sense that it would eventually get the better of him, but nonetheless, his death came as a terrible shock.

My condolences go out to his family. I will miss him very much.

What I've Been Up To

Well.... certainly not blogging.

It was a remarkably fast-moving summer. I always approach the summer with grandiose plans to accomplish great things while the Harrisburg Symphony is off-season, only to find myself at summer’s end having accomplished little. This summer I took the opposite approach, and planned on accomplishing very little. Much to my delight, I was thoroughly successful.

This is not to say that nothing got done. I was actually busily occupied most of the time. Musically, I got through the HSO holiday pops concerts very well. In fact, I thought they were some of our best. I also played three concerts for Market Square Concerts Summermusic, with my good friends in the Fry Street Quartet. I always enjoy this week, but in the past I only played on one concert. The extra load was certainly exhausting, but a great pleasure.

The Market Square week was somewhat bittersweet this year. For many years now, the guest artists and the rehearsals have been hosted by Linda and Jason Litton. They have become very dear friends. Sadly, this past summer was to be our last with Jason. He had been diagnosed several months earlier with a brain tumor, and we knew that he was in his last months. He died this week, and I am very sad to have lost a friend whose company I always enjoyed. He was a gentle man (and a gentleman), smart, curious, and a true music lover - even though he really knew very little about music. He was a great wine lover as well - and he knew a lot about wine, and served me some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted. I feel so fortunate to have had a few opportunities to spend some quality time with him this past summer. He will be sorely missed.

The other musical activity that occupied my time this summer was arranging and orchestrating some tunes for the holiday concerts I will be conducting in Naples, Florida in December. I did some very good work on those.

But most of my summer was spent being a dad. I’m very fortunate to have two great kids, and further fortunate to have had the time to really enjoy their company this summer. They were involved in several different camps, and because my wife, Marty, has been working full time, I did a bunch of shuttling them around, as well as doing lots of dad-like activities.

Back in June, my parents celebrated their 50th Anniversary. To celebrate, we got our whole family together in the Poconos for a wonderful vacation at Skytop resort. We all had a blast. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen my parents happier.

We also got to spend two lovely weeks on Cape Cod with my parents. Their house sits overlooking a wildlife sanctuary marsh, as well as Cape Cod Bay. The view is incredible, and changes, like a series of Monet paintings, as the light of day shifts. We swam a lot, ate great fresh fish, and enjoyed nice family time.

Now, the new season has crashed down upon us. The kids are back at school, Marty’s begun teaching, and I have taken on a new project for the next four months. I am conducting and teaching conducting at Penn State for the first semester. The regular conducting professor, Gerardo Edelstein, is on sabbatical, so I have agreed to fill in for him. I go up Tuesdays and Thursdays, conduct the orchestra, and teach three graduate students. So far, it’s been very tiring, but very enjoyable.

So there you have it - my essay, as it were, on “How I spent my summer vacation.”


Podcast #21 - Hanson's Symphony #2

A discussion of Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony, a masterpiece of Neo-Romanticism which unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve.

Click on “Podcast” below to listen.


China Trip

About a month and a half ago, I spent a week in residence at the Tianjin Conservatory of Music in China. I went there with five musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony - Hong Guang Jia, Associate Concertmaster; Adam Liu, Associate Principal Cello; Nancy Goeres, Principal Bassoon; Michael Rusinek, Principal Clarinet; and Zac Smith, Utility Horn. Michael and I have been friends for twenty years (gasp!) - we were at Tanglewood together in 1988 - and when Hong Guang (who organizes the trip) needed a conductor, Mike suggested me. We were in Tianjin for 8 days, plus two full days of travel to and from China.

Zac in traditional Chinese garb

Tianjin is a large city of somewhere around 15 million people (no one seemed to know for sure), 3 hours outside of Beijing by car. The city sprawls. Enormous complexes of apartment housing are everywhere. Construction is everywhere, from more apartment buildings, to skyscrapers, to a new subway system. Tianjin is abuzz with excitement right now, as the Olympics will hold events there this summer - soccer and ping pong. A new soccer stadium is up, and roads are being repaved, bridges renovated, and landscaping redone.

Tianjin is clearly not a major tourist city. There are a few museums, which have a decidedly pre-opening-up-to-the-West feeling to them. The biggest tourist attraction is the Ancient Culture Street, a vast market of art, clothing, souvenirs, and chachkees (is that how you spell the word? I don't think I've ever written it before). I made several visits there, as I love the whole bargaining thing. I wrote about it last year, when I went to China with Bob Cheung on the Symphony trip. Everything is negotiable. Zac bought a mah jong set for his wife, Helen, at a seemingly high end depatment store near the hotel. It was sold at the sporting goods department. On a whim, Zac made a counter offer to the listed price, expecting to get a laugh out of the salesman. Instead, he got a third off the price. Simply stunning!

The Tianjin Conservatory of Music has about 2500 students. About half study Western music, the rest traditional Chinese music. I had the pleasure of attending a rehearsal of the traditional Chinese orchestra. The music was very cool and beautiful, played by a sea of erhus of various sizes, zhongs, pipas, gongs, etc. My job this week was to play a chamber music concert with my Pittsburgh colleagues and to rehearse and conduct the (Western) orchestra, culminating in a performance on Saturday night. We performed the Mendelssohn Konzertstück for clarinet and bassoon (originally clarinet and basset horn), the second and thrid movements of the Brahms Double Concerto, and Dvorak's New World Symphony (#9).

The young musicians in the orchestra were of a wide range of ability. Some were quite excellent, others very weak. The most interesting thing about the conservatory orchestra is that the students have virtually no experience playing in ensembles. So things that American youth orchestras take for granted, like listening and sub-dividing beats, had to be taught on a daily basis there. The other surprising thing to me was that the students seemed almost completely unaware of how the music goes. Many of the section leaders in the orchestra were junior faculty members. This was certainly a big plus, particularly in the strings, where the faculty members had all studied in Europe or Israel, so they had a good grounding in Western music, tradition and convention. But the students had very little understanding of how one plays in an orchestra. The thrust of their studies was solo repertoire, with orchestra being almost an afterthought. Strange, given that the bulk of those few that will make successful careers will be playing in orchestras....

Me with String Faculty

I did feel a very nice rapport with the students, and the work was very satisfying. But this was clearly a process-driven week. The concert went very well, given where we started, but I would have been just as happy only rehearsing, as that's where the most work got accomplished.

The conservatory faces many challenges. Music is very expensive, and hard to come by. This might explain the lack in chamber music programs. I was amazed to hear, after our chamber music concert, that we were probably the first performance in Tianjin of the Brahms Horn Trio! The other big challenge is that so much of the curriculum is prescribed by the powers that be, so very little discretion is allowed for designing an effective program for the students. We discussed all these things at length with the faculty members who hosted us.

Outside of the musical experience, which was fascinating, the most lasting impression is of the truly unbelievable hospitality shown us by the conservatory and its representatives. The conservatory is not wealthy, to say the least, and this trip was a very expensive one for them to pay for. But on top of all that, we were treated like kings and queens. Every lunch and dinner (breakfast was an outstanding buffet at the hotel) was a multi-course banquet of the most delicious Chinese food I have ever had. The beer and liquor (a very strong Chinese schnapps) was always flowing. Just when you thought you couldn't eat another morsel, five more courses would come out, and then more. I have fallen in love with Sichuan cuisine. The peppers in Sichuan food are indescribable - they are not really hot, but they awaken and highly stimulate every taste bud on your tongue. It's an amazing feeling.

We were driven around town and shown the few sites. We were always greeted with ebullient affection. Despite the fact that most of those we spent time with could not speak any English (Hong Guang and Adam speak Chinese and the Secretary of the Conservatory, Hu, as well as the trumpet professer, Chen spoke some English), the camaraderie and fellowship was powerful and delightful.

With Chen

Zac, Hu, and Wu

At one of our banquets

There was a steady flow of gifts, too. Gifts from our hosts, from the faculty, even from some of the students. And not junky gifts either. Lovely works of art, and tea, and crafts. Again, generosity is the name of the game. They do hospitality like I've never seen before.

Two particular occasions are worth special mention. The day before we left, Michael, Nancy and I were invited to have lunch with the bassoon professor. We called him "Money", because his name, Yuan, is the same as the Chinese currency. He and his wife share a lovely, if a bit small, two-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the conservatory. Neither speaks any English, so we had an excellent translator with us. He and Nancy have known each other for a few years, and she is clearly a very important friend to him - there are photos all over of the two of them together. What made the visit so special was the incredible warmth we felt from the two of them, as well as the delicious meal Money's wife provided. We found out that she had been cooking for two days in preparation. And of course, they had several lovely gifts for us.

Mike, Nancy, and Moneys

The other occasion came directly afterward. We were picked up at the apartment by Hu, the aforementioned Secretary, Liu, the Director of Orchestral Studies (and oboe professor), and Wu, the Communist Party overseer of the Orchestral Studies Department. (We had laughed all week at the collection of names - Hu, Wu, Liu, and Stu (they actually called me a multi-syllabic version, Suh-too). All three had been at every meal we had eaten all week, and were each lovely people. They were very secretive about where we were going. It turned out that we went fishing. I had never been fishing before. What fun. It was in the middle of the city, at a private pond reserved only for esteemed party members. I caught eight fish. Don't be too impressed, as it was pretty clear they stocked the pond with so many fish that they were seemingly dying to get caught. After fishing, we took the fish to a restaurant specializing in cooking fish, and they used them in preparing our meal. Yum.

Wu, Liu, Nancy and Mike
Catch of the Day

It was a very different kind of trip from the one last year. Last year, I was a tourist, and saw some unbelievable things that I will always remember. This time it was a working and living trip, meeting people who care about the same things I care about, making music together, and forging bonds of friendship that, despite the fact that I was there only a bit more than a week, will remain strong even if it's many years before I see them again.

Nancy and Hu

About my lackluster blogging prowess

I have been a non-blogger for a month and a half. It has been a busy stretch, with trips to China, Boston, and the Poconos, as well as extended "Daddy Camp" with the kids. I did actually start a blog entry on my trip to China, but it sits half-finished.

So, here I will go on record promising at least to try harder. Now that the summer camp season has begun, there should be more opportunity.

As always, I welcome (nay, request.... nay, beg for) feedback, so I know that someone, somewhere is reading what I have to say. For those who have written, my eternal gratitude.

So keep tuned...

Should I shave off my beard?

I was with my hair dresser, Elizabeth, and I was discussing the idea of shaving off my beard. She, quite correctly, said I should defer to my wife's opinion. Marty said she didn't care one way or another. Then it occurred to me - I should put a poll on my website to see what the world at large thinks!

After a bit of searching, I found a polling plugin (JS Kit Polls), and I was up and running.

So, what do you think? Should it stay or should it go?

For your polling convenience, I have included pictures of me with and without the beard. Remember, the one sans beard is from a few years ago, so there will probably be a bit of wear and tear...

For your polling convenience, here is a link to the polling page. Of course, you can also click on the word "Poll" in the column to your left.

The season has ended... and a lesson relearned

I know, I know.... I haven't blogged or podcasted in a long time. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Last weekend was the final Masterworks concert of the HSO 2007-2008 season. It's hard to believe that the year has flown by so fast.

The program was an insane one for an orchestra that does not play together regularly: Copland's Appalachian Spring, Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

As usual, the orchestra exceeded my high expectations. They were well-prepared, they worked hard and efficiently in rehearsal, and they performed with incredible abandon and energy. This was my first performance of the Stravinsky, and I was very proud of my efforts on this beast of a piece.

The Sunday performance also taught me a lesson that I have taught many times: mistakes are a part of performance, and generally are unimportant in the large scheme. We had a few big errors in the Stravinsky on Sunday, all simple lapses in concentration, but certainly conspicuous to anyone who knows the piece. One of these errors led to another, much more conspicuous one early on in the piece. No need to mention who the players were. Suffice it to say that they are all some of the most consistent, well-prepared, and talented members of the orchestra, who, other than these few isolated spots, performed magnificently throughout the weekend (and on crazily difficult parts). They simply made mistakes, as we all sometimes do.

I will not lie and say that the mistakes didn't bother me. Of course they did. In the moment, I felt peeved and a bit frantic (there was some in the moment damage control to be done).

What surprised me was that several audience members who attended both performances said that the Sunday performance had even more energy, and more powerful an overall impact, than the Saturday night performance. Fancy that.... all those things I've said a thousand times about mistakes not being important, turned out to be true.

Mistakes are a part of live performance. I have never done a mistake-free performance of any kind. One of the great benefits of conducting is that the mistakes are inaudible and usually rectified by the musicians. In chamber music I mess up all the time. Sometimes the audience just doesn't know it's happened. More frequently, they just don't care that much. Live performance is about so much more than just all the notes being perfectly played.

But we do come pretty close most of the time.....

Anyway, it's been an amazing season, with some very memorable performances. I'm happy to have some time this summer to recover and regroup, but I give myself only a few weeks before I start getting excited about starting up again in the fall.

I'm off to China this weekend - joining a small group of players from the Pittsburgh Symphony to be in residence at the Conservatory in Tianjin. I'll be conducting the student orchestra and playing some chamber music with my esteemed colleagues. It should be fun, and I'll write about the experience soon.

Last weekend

It's several days now since we had our Masterworks performances of Vaughan Williams' Dona nobis pacem and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It was a wrenching, emotionally overwhelming weekend for me. To begin with, the music itself is so powerful, particularly the Vaughan-Williams for me (believe it or not), with its crushing anti-war message. To follow this with the Ninth Symphony was a lot of emotion for one concert.

But so much more was going on. One of the HSO's cellists, John Zurfluh, died a week before the concert weekend. I do not want to go into much detail, but his illness had a profound effect on the orchestra, and his death was very difficult. It is always tough to make memorial dedications before concerts - this one was particularly hard.

There were a few other internal issues going on in the orchestra. Again, I don't want to get into them here. But the sum total of this was a highly charged performance. I have to admit, I don't remember much about Saturday night, other than the intensity of the experience. Sunday was much more lucid, and I was very proud of the performance. The reaction from the audience was tremendous. Admittedly, one expects that from Beethoven's Ninth. But the Vaughan Williams was equally well received.

I would be terribly remiss if I did not take this opportunity to praise the chorus - a combination of four choruses, the Susquehanna Chorale, Messiah College Concert Choir, Messiah College Choral Arts Society, under the direction of my friend and frequent collaborator Linda Tedford; and the Alumni Chorale of Lebanon Valley College, directed by Gregg Mauroni. Gregg has just taken the reins of the Alumni Chorale - Pierce Getz, their long-time conductor, died last year. This combination choir was absolutely superb - and on a most demanding program. I am spoiled to have such singers and directors at my disposal. Bravo to them all.

The orchestra, as always, was magnificent. I love making music with them.

All four soloists were terrific.

But for me the heros of the evening were the composers. To write music of such power, that says so much about the human condition, and has such potential to move an audience, is a miracle.

Vaughan Williams' "Dona nobis pacem"

I'm taking a break from my studies of Ralph Vaughan Williams' masterful choral work, Dona nobis pacem. I've decided, based on my studies, not to do a podcast on the piece.

So what happened to cause this decision?

I started weeping while studying. This doesn't usually happen to me. The process of studying for me is usually fairly cerebral. I do, of course, think a lot about the emotional content of the music, but, again, from an intellectual standpoint. The true emotion generally comes out later, in rehearsal and performance.

But for some reason, this piece got to me today. I don't know if it's Walt Whitman's moving poetry, the heart-wrenching, gorgeous music that Vaughan Williams provides to illumine it, or the sad timeliness of the piece's theme given this week's news (4000 Americans and countless Iraqis dead), but whatever it is, the resulting work of art packs a powerful punch.

Dona nobis pacem was composed in the early 1930's, on the eve of World War II, when Europe would destroy itself. The piece, for chorus, two soloists and orchestra, is on the one hand a prayer for peace, and at the same time, a pondering of the horrors of war.

My guess is that the vast majority of our audience has not heard this work before, and I want them to experience it unencumbered by pre-conception, analysis, or pre-concert musical snippets.

It should be a memorable evening.

The joys of parenthood

Today, my two children performed a piece I wrote for them at their school talent show. Zev, 5, plays the piano and Sara, 8, plays the cello. They were wonderful - playing with poise, concentration, and respect for each other. My favorite part was when the piece ended. I think my daughter was expecting the kids not to like it. When they applauded enthusiastically (and yelled as well), she released this shocked and delighted smile, with her mouth wide open. Cute, cute, cute.

You think I'm a little proud?


Special concert this morning

We did a special concert this morning - special, both in that it was outside our normal offerings, and in the kind of concert it was.

Odin Rathnam (HSO Concertmaster) and I did a small chamber music program for autistic children at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit. There were about 25 kids, ranging from very high to very low functioning autistic, along with some family members and therapists.

The idea for this concert (as well as sponsorship) came from Marilynn Kanenson, who had sponsored the Stuart & Friends concert earlier in the week. At last years S&F young person's concert, there were a handful of autistic children in the audience, who were noisy in their appreciation of the music. This didn't really affect us on stage, but it certainly was a distraction for the other students there. After the concert, Marilynn and I discussed the prospect of doing a designated program for autistic and other challenged children.

Among the many extreme challenges that parents of autistics face is finding activities with comfortable environments for their children. We wanted to create a thoroughly friendly environment for the kids, one in which they would feel comfortable expressing themselves - physically and even audibly - during the performance, without fear of shushing or curious (or even angry) stares.

Interestingly, the group this morning was extremely engaged, and thoroughly polite. There were one or two spontaneous vocal outbursts from a couple of the lower functioning children, but even they listened attentively.

Two vignettes:

1) There was one boy, I'd guess about 11 years old, who started out the concert with his sweatshirt hood up and his fingers in his ears. As the concert progressed, he became quite engaged (yes, the hood came down), and ended up participating in discussion more than any of the others, asking some very good questions as well.

2) Another boy, a couple of years older, and not nearly as highly functioning, listened intently for the whole show. At the end, he made a beeline to Odin and his violin. Odin is great with kids, and spent a good five minutes with this one child, showing him how to rosin his bow, allowing him to play some sounds on the fiddle, and letting him help put the instrument and music away. The boy then came to the piano and his therapist asked him to tell me what they had learned about in music class that week. He told me "ostinato" and proceeded to play a simple ostinato pattern on the piano's black keys, and in perfect rhythm!

We don't know a lot about the workings of these young minds, or how music can benefit young people on the autism spectrum. But it is absolutely clear to me that the children who heard us play can certainly appreciate the concert experience, possibly in an even greater way than more "mainstream" kids. Our mission as musicians should be to bring great music to the widest range of audience possible, and in environments in which they feel able to enjoy the experience. As such, we should be doing more of what we did today.


Stuart & Friends

After a day of almost complete R&R, I am finally recovering from a very tiring week. An exhausting Masterworks weekend, a challenging Stuart & Friends program last night, and for most of last week, my wife Marty was sick with the flu. Thankfully, Marty is feeling a lot better. And the concerts went very well.

Stuart & Friends is a chamber music concert I do each year with members of the orchestra. It gives me a chance to work in a different way with the players and to give our audience members a more intimate and personable concert experience. I strive, as host, to keep the atmosphere relaxed, upbeat, and fun, while playing some beautiful music for them.

One lovely aspect of this concert is that it is sponsored by my friend Marilynn Kanenson in memory of her husband, Bill, who was president of the HSO's Board of Directors for my third and fourth year here. He was my first friend in Harrisburg, and a dear man who I miss very much. Marilynn's support has allowed Stuart & Friends to grow and develop an audience.

We had a very nice crowd at the Whitaker Center last night, and, as usual for me, I programmed a really hard concert for myself. I like to challenge myself in these concerts. This year I played Stravinsky's Suite Italienne with Fiona Thompson, the HSO's Principal Cello, Mozart's fiendish sonata in A Major with HSO concertmaster Odin Rathnam, and the the three of us joined with HSO Principal Viola Julius Wirth for Brahms' 2nd Piano Quartet (also in A). And we basically have a day and a half to put it all together.

I don't know what I was thinking.

It all went very well, but boy are my hands tired today...

Chamber music performances are a bit strange for me. Conducting is essentially a macrocosmic experience. You're concerned with grand gestures, leaving the detail work to the musicians. If your palms get sweaty, or your mind wanders for an instant, generally (not always, but generally) it doesn't affect the performance all that much. When you're playing the piano, on the other hand, it can mean a musical train wreck. Every little detail is evident. This is both terrifying and exhilarating. There was one moment toward the end of the third movement of the Brahms - we'd already navigated (and rather successfully) about 30 minutes of intense wonderful music - when someone started coughing in the audience. Had I been conducting, it would have had absolutely no impact. In this moment of the Brahms, though, I was jumping back and forth from one end of the piano to the other, and that little distraction threw me for an instant. Not disastrous, but I was a bit miffed at myself for that instant of thinking, "Oh... someone's coughing."

The other side of that coin is that actually playing the music is pretty cool. Don't get me wrong. I love conducting, and it's an amazing thrill. But I would not want to ever give up playing. The chamber music repertoire is so rich, and the experience of crafting the music, moment to moment, with colleagues and friends is so indescribably gratifying, that it would feel like an incomplete musical existence without it.



It occurs to me that I should mention the names of the percussion section. They certainly deserve it.

Percussionists: Adrian Stefanescu, Barry Dove, and Glenn Paulson
Timpanist: Peter Wilson



In thinking about this past weekend's performances, "Wow" is what comes to mind.

1) Wow, what a terrific piece Jennifer Higdon's percussion concerto is. Gripping from the start, evocative throughout, and a thorough examination of the wide range of expression percussion is capable of. This is not just a big drum jam session - there is as much tenderness as bombast.

2) Wow, what a tremendously talented musician Chris Rose is. I honestly don't know how I can adequately describe the magnitude of his accomplishment. I knew he was good, but I never could have imagined the polish, the unabashed virtuosity, the musicality, and the utter mastery of this incredibly difficult concerto. He rocked the Forum.

3) Wow, what a great percussion section the HSO has. Jennifer's concerto is a virtuosic display for not not only the soloist, but also for the three percussionists and timpanist in the orchestra. They were all simply amazing - which fills me with great pride.

4) Wow, the audience in "conservative" Harrisburg, PA can respond with not just enthusiasm, but with exultation for a great work of new music performed brilliantly. Virtually the entire audience was on its feet instantly following the final downbeat.

5) Wow, the Harrisburg Symphony can play anything, and well. This was no light-weight program. Every piece on the program is a killer, from the intensely difficult Walton Partita for Orchestra to the concerto (Jennifer does not let the orchestra sail through her concertos), to Ravel's La Valse (not only a technical workout, but stylistically tricky as well), to Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. We rehearsed very hard, and the orchestra, as always, showed up to play. This orchestra is a conductor's dream.

6) Wow, nice guys (or gals) do not always finish last. When I was at the Curtis Institute of Music (too many years ago), Jennifer Higdon was a composition student. She was a charming, down to earth, sweet person. She is now a superstar composer, and every bit as lovely as she was when we were kids at school. It was wonderful having her in town for the weekend, and she was so generous with her time, attending rehearsal, appearing at WITF for a live "Composing Thoughts" with John Clare, and doing pre-concert lectures and post-concert talkbacks with me. In all of this she was a bastion of energy and joy, forthcoming and good-natured. At the same time, Chris Rose is an equally lovely and unassuming guy, as easy-going and sweet as he is talented. What a pleasure!

This is the kind of concert that leaves me exhilarated and exhausted. They should all feel this good.


Podcast #20 - Ravel's La Valse

"Apotheosis of the Viennese waltz" or musical allegory for the fall of European society?


Podcast #19 - Higdon's Percussion Concerto

A sadly brief discussion of percussion instruments and this powerful percussion concerto. For audio files of the various instruments, go to the Sound Exchange, where you can hear the instruments demonstrated by the Philharmonia Orchestra (use the menu on the left to navigate).


Podcast #18 - Walton's Partita for Orchestra

A discussion of this wonderful, cinematic, relatively unknown work by the great British composer of the 20th Century.


Thoughts on this past weekend's concerts

Another succesful masterworks weekend is past - David Diamond Rounds for String Orchestra, Mozart Violin Concerto #5 and Mendelssohn Symphony #3. A few thoughts:

1) I tried using classical seating for the strings this time. I figured that with the slightly smaller string section and the classical/early romantic repertoire (Mozart and Mendelssohn), it would make a good experiment. I for one was very pleased. Particularly in the Mendelssohn Scottish, thre are so many instances where it's absolutely clear that he was writing for this configuration, with frequent stereophonic effects. I also found that the second violins played with more confidence. Interestingly, so did the violas, who are normally on my right. Maybe they needed the comfort of being between the firsts and the cellos. Whatever the reasons, I thought it worked, and I will not hesitate to use this seating when the occasion warrants in the future (probably the next time will be in April for Beethoven's 9th Symphony).

2) Augustin Hadelich, who played the 5th Mozart Violin Concerto, was nothing short of spectacular. One needed only watch the players in the orchestra, and the utter respect they were telegraphing, to know that we were listening to a master. And at the ripe old age of 23! He plays with such unassuming grace, while at the same time with such energy and abandon. It was simply perfect Mozart. I hope Augustin has the kind of brilliant career he deserves. Nice person too.....

3) What a lovely change of pace for the orchestra. We usually perform the big repertoire of the later 19th and 20th centuries - pieces that take you on emotional roller coaster rides. As stormy as the Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony is, it is serene, tuneful, delightful, and relatively light. Not that it is easy - in some ways, the music is even more difficult than the big romantic works because it is so transparent and there is no place to hide. But it is certainly comfort food for our audience's ears. I'm so glad I programmed it, and that we used a smaller ensemble.

4) David Diamond's Rounds for String Orchestra should be played more. It is an exuberant, interesting, and decidedly American piece of music.

5) The orchestra played wonderfully. I know I've said this many times, but what a lucky conductor I am to have such a talented, and nice, group of musicians to work with.

I have a lot on my plate now. Several new pieces for me on the next concert, and then a very quick turn around to Beethoven's 9th, and Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem (also a first for me). Add to that another ambitious Stuart & Friends concert (Stravinsky Suite Italienne, Mozart K. 526 Violin Sonata, and Brahms A Major Piano Quartet) in between and you have yourself a busy conductor/pianist.

Back to work!



Well, I didn't get the score quite right, but I was certainly a lot closer than the zillions of experts who picked the Patriots.

What a great football game. A cliff-hanger to the very finish. They should all be this good.

Congratulations to the Giants. An amazing finish to the season, and denying the Patriots their perfect season at the same time. Great day in sports.


Some things that don't have much to do with music

It's Super Bowl Sunday, and I'm sick with some kind of bug. Low fever and cold symptoms. Add to that, last Tuesday I slipped on the ice going to get the newspaper and landed with the side of my back hitting the edge of the concrete steps, badly bruising my ribs. So when I cough, it feels like someone is pounding into my side. In short, I feel like crap. My wife is working and the kids are out with my neighbor and her daughter. So, it's a perfect time to catch up on my blogging, as I don't feel like doing much else.

First, my pick for the Super Bowl. Giants over the Patriots, 23-21. Now, understand, I know very little about handicapping football. I like watching the games, but I'm not a fan, like I am of baseball and the New York Mets (more on them later). But the Giants are from New York (okay, New Jersey, but close enough), and I have an irrational dislike of the Patriots. I generally root for the underdog, thus my prediction.

It's been a very big week for the Mets. They finally landed Johan Santana, one of baseballs best pitchers. After the ignoble and depressing finish to last season, the Mets' faithful needed good news in the off-season. Interestingly, the Mets have gone from the expert's pick for third place in the Eastern Division to the pick to seriously challenge the American League powerhouses in the World Series. I think this is hogwash. But, it's nice heading into the new season with a great deal of optimism.

While we're on sports, how about Tiger Woods? The man is over the top great. He seems to always find a way to win. I said before that I generally root for the underdog. One exception is golf. I always root for Tiger.

On Tuesday, Our friend Marilynn took me and the kids to an open rehearsal of American Ballet Theater's production of Sleeping Beauty at the Kennedy Center. It was beautiful. Gorgeous costumes and sets and wonderful dancing. Unfortunately, in act three, the dancers were almost entirely marking. Not much happens in the third act - the prince has already kissed Princess Aurora - it's mostly just set dances. My son, who was on my lap, leaned over about halfway through, and said, "Dad, this is kinda boring." He was right. Not much excitement in watching the bluebird walk back in forth on the stage and throw up his hands. Next time, we should probably go to a performance.

Two nights later, more dancing. I went to see Movin' Out in York, PA. This is the latest incarnation of the show - the non-Equity production, produced by Troika Entertainment. Twyla Tharp directed it herself, and I, with the invaluable and expert help of David Rosenthal, put the band together. I went a few weeks back to see it in Reading, at a beautiful but accoustically challenged theater. It was a bit discouraging, as the sound was very muffled. In York, I thought it sounded great. It also gave me a chance to see both of the tour's piano men - Matthew Friedman (who I saw in Reading), who's performance was very familiar, as he did the first national tour as well; and Kyle Martin, who I hadn't seen do it since we opened in Atlantic City last summer. At the time he was a bit green, and just getting used to the in-ear monitering system. Lots of potential, but not quite there yet. On Thurday, I thought he was terrific. Totally comfortable, energetic, charismatic - everything we hoped for when we hired him. And the band sounded great. As for the dancing, I was very impressed. They cast is doing a wonderful job of keeping the energy up. The story telling is clear, and the dancing impressive. I'm really proud of this show.

That's it for now. I'm ready for more Advil.


Rodgers and Hammerstein

It's early Monday morning. Way early. My typical post-concert weekend insomnia. Maybe it's the price I pay for liking my job as much as I do. I can understand having trouble sleeping after the Saturday night show, or even after a late rehearsal, where adrenaline is still pumping through my system. But after a Sunday matinee, where I get several hours to come down from the concert high, and whatever stresses of the weekend are seemingly over, one would figure I'd sleep like a lamb. But no...

Ah well, it is my cross to bear.

This was a most enjoyable weekend's work. We performed our second Pops series concerts, "An Evening with Rodgers and Hammerstein", aided by three wonderful Broadway stars, Melissa Errico, Gary Mauer and William Michals, and the splendid Susquehanna Chorale, with whom I've developed a lovely working relationship. Both concerts were sold out - we have often come close, but rarely has every seat literally been sold. The ambiance was electric. Of course the orchestra came through with flying colors, on what was actually a rather difficult program.

And the music is gorgeous. Some of the most beautiful music ever written. Admittedly, I am a sucker for classic musical theater, but this is as good as it gets. Not a bad song in the bunch, and many wonderful songs were not included.

There's an honesty about Rodgers and Hammerstein that is almost disarming. The poetry and naive optimism of Hammerstein's lyrics combined with the simple yet effusive joy of Richard Rodgers music leaves the listener (and performer) with a smile and often with goosebumps. This is feel good music at its best. Some might say it's corny, but I'll take that brand of corn any day.

To get to perform this music is extremely satisfying. Even worth losing a few nights' sleep.