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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