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Holiday Dispatch

Happy Holidays!  It’s really cold!  I can’t get my car out of the driveway because it’s too icy (I bought the car in San Francisco, not knowing I was destined to move to colder climes, so it’s NOT MY FAULT).

Despite the cold, I’m really in the holiday spirit and listening to a lot of XMAS music.  I’m most excited about Annie Lennox.  I mean, check this out!

Right?  Weirdly intense and freaky … but fun!  Annie L is one of the singers who can, on specific songs, make me cry in 30 seconds.  Also: k.d. lang, Stevie Wonder “Blame It On The Sun” got me all misty on an airplane last week.

That airplane embarked from Miami, I think, where I got to conduct the New World Symphony and hear the orchestra sound check their amazing new hall.  Stay tuned . It really is unlike any concert space I have ever seen.  Yes, it’s Frank Gehry etc., but what excites me is how MODULAR it is!  4 small stages around the audience!  Seats that fold up!  Lots of video cameras and walls/screens for projection!  The future is now!  This may help Classical Music!

Finally, this passage, by James Wood, from the New Yorker, dated November 29, 2010.  It’s about how he wanted to be a rock star but had to learn Classical Music instead.

“Nowadays, I see schoolkids bustling along the sidewalk, their large instrument cases strapped to them like coffins, and I know the weight of their obedience.  Happy obedience too: that cello or French horn brings lasting joy, and a repertoire more demanding and subtle than rock music’s.  But fuck the laudable ideologies, as Roth’s Mickey Sabbath puts it: subtlety is not freedom, and it is rebellious freedom that one wants, and, most of the time, only rock can deliver it.  And sometimes one despises oneself, in near-middle age, for being so good.”

Despite his many thoughtful qualifying statements, I smell a Grinch.  What professor Wood became after his oppressed childhood was neither a Classical nor Rock musician, but a Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard.  That title would be enough to make anyone grumpy, so I’ll forgive him. I think I can say with some authority that one can find rebellious freedom in Classical music.  I’ve conducted Mahler symphonies and performed with Al Jourgensen playing “She’s So Heavy.” (things were smashed).  And as a musician I’ve learned not to denigrate  one type of music in favor of another, because I know how much work it takes to be any kind of musician, especially a good one. It’s something that people who talk about music can’t seem to figure out: it’s all good.  So, prof. Wood, turn on some Andriessen for the holidays, and you’ll feel much better.

New Stuff!

Finally I’ve gotten this season’s SCHEDULE up on the site, so if you want to check out where I’m conducting this season it’s all there.  Come and say hi!

Right now I’m in Las Vegas doing Sgt. Pepper with Cheap Trick again.  I have to say that one of the more eclectic experiences of my life was leaving the run here to do a show with Frederica von Stade in Canada, then getting on a private jet the next day and flying back for Cheap Trick the following night.

First of all, Flicka was sublime and she sang a world premiere by our very own Nathaniel Stookey called Into the Bright Lights.  Flicka wrote the words herself and they are personal to the point of being confessional.  It is such a wonderful thing to sing on her farewell tour and I hope she keeps doing them.

Flicka is such a consummate musician, and standing next to her while she sang “Baïléro” and other gems like that was of course unforgettable.  It’s this incredible combination of beauty and humanity and truth that is unique to her.  I’m glad our paths crossed on stage, if only for a brief moment.

Then back to the Cheap Trick show — we did this at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago, and it’s taken on a life of its own.  This time they’ve put the orchestra directly above the band and me dead center on stage.  Robin Zander gave me this cool jacket to wear, and it occurred to me right away that I’d better do something different.  I’ve seen enough rock-orchestra shows where the orchestra looks disengaged and the conductor is a big ol’ nerd compared to the band.  So I decided to be part of the band and do all of the rock stuff: dance around, look at the audience, smile, sing along, play cowbell, and so on.  I think this works very well!  And it’s fun!  The Vegas orchestra players are very aware they are being watched, and don’t have terribly difficult parts to play, so they want to get involved.  As we were rehearsing to coda to “I am the Walrus” there are these huge downbows in the orchestra parts and the concert master offered me the so-called “LA Flail,” in which the entire string section flails their head on every downbow!  Yes!  One of the reviewers said listening to “I am the Walrus” live made him want to “drop acid and pick up a cello.”  Now that’s a good review, and if you haven’t payed attention to the cello parts on this song, you should.

And finally …

Someone emailed me a little while ago and asked me what I was listening to these days. So here are two things I keep coming back to over and over …

First of all, anything by JORDI SAVALL.  He is an endless well of musical genius and basically I listen to him all the time and wish orchestras played that way.  For instance check this out:

And then on the other side of things I just can’t stop listening to The Bird and the Bee. The songs are so elegant and witty, the voice is so sexy.

Amoeba Run!

So I picked up some CD’s at Amoeba a few days ago:

Bellini: Norma (Callas 1961: Conducting La Traviata is pulling me deeper into bel canto. Can we think up some modern version of this kind of singing?)

Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (yes yes they are amazing and melismaTASTIC)

Sonic Youth: Goo (apparently I’m supposed to like them, and I’m giving it another shot.  I already like this better than Daydream Nation)

Fennesz: Endless Summer (not as good as the movie, but nice nice atmospheric electronica)

Pet Shop Boys: Very and Alternative (only $4.99 each!  and Alternative is a 2-CD set!  Very comes in a rubbery orange case with NUBS.  Sample lyric:  “I’m gonna take off all my clothes / And dance to the Rite of Spring / I don’t normally do that kind of thing” These should be much more expensive.  Clever fun and DANCEABLE!)

In which my hair is mentioned in a national newspaper

OPEN EARS started last night. You should be sad if you’re not here with us, you really should. Buy a ticket to Kitchener-Waterloo now!

We started with an orchestral concert which began with a tribute to David Byrne and Stop Making Sense. I stood alone onstage for about 15 minutes while a powerpoint flashed over my head alternating words about classical music and the natural landscape. “Viola” “Cloud” “Crescendo” “Lake” etc. etc. The concert was about the Romantic Landscape in music and featured Mendelssohn’s HebridesOverture, Frank Bridge’s The Sea, and R. Murray Schafer’s The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveler, a violin concerto played by our amazing concertmaster, Stephen Sitarski. In the lobby before the show, students from Wilfrid Laurier University did a lively performance of In C. We also performed 4’33” which I had never done before. It was amazing to hear people settle into the silence after a while, when their nervousness about the piece faded.

This festival is about sound and environment. Yes I mean THE environment (oceans, trees, and so on), but also the environments in which music can take place (concert hall, jazz club, lobby, forest, factory, bathtub). I think in the world of symphony orchestras, environment is key. We’re taking a good, fun look at this.

There’s still some YouTube symphony press floating around. Particularly amusing is MEASHA BRUEGGERGOSMAN’S ACCOUNT of preparing John Cage’s Aria, which was performed simultaneously with the same composer’s piece Renga. She also mentions my musical integrity and hair in the same sentence. Which is so Measha.

I’m stuck at O’Hare …

…so I think it might be a good time to BLOG a little bit.

Since I’ve been in LA and SF, I’ve taken it a lot of music … The Album Leaf, Devendra Banhart, Gilberto Gil, Stevie Wonder, and Matmos. The best concert was … wait for it … STEVIE WONDER. I was in the presence of a real living music god. I haven’t felt that way since I was around Ella Fitzgerald back in the day or Rostropovich – you get the idea. Please don’t miss seeing him live if you get the chance. He sounds perfect, his band and orchestra is hella tight (the string players DANCE for a good part of the show), and he somehow manages to play three hours of happy songs without being tedious. That is not easy. In fact I don’t know of any other living musician who has explored so many iterations of joy and happiness with such success. The other concerts were great too but … STEVIE … wow, how fortunate I was to have seen that.

I was in KW last week doing some VISIONARY PLANNING for the orchestra, and one thing we discussed is how to be innovative, I mean really innovative. One thing that always comes up is programming. Heck there was even a BIG ARTICLE about this in the New York Times recently. I, for one, didn’t find any of the programs mentioned particularly innovative, but I did find most of them good, artistic, musical experiences. I’m looking for more. It’s not the food that’s bad, it’s the the room, the vibe, the tired, non-inclusive, ritualistic, society-oriented presentation of music that the orchestra biz hangs on to for no good reason and which does them no service. Now there are some hardcore chowhounds like me who will go eat great food in an unappealing setting, ’cause the food’s just so damn good. But if I were a chef (and I am, d’orchestre), I would want my meals served in an attractive, modern place with good lighting and a hot wait-staff. The atmosphere of an orchestral concert is generally similar to the kind of stuffy restaurants Monty Python used to make fun of (with “waffer-thin” mints). I know some of the halls are old, but the vibe could still be spiced up quite a bit. With programming, I think there’s nothing new under the sun. It just has to be good.

I just got back from Chautauqua which is a strikingly unusual place. It’s a retro-utopia for intellectual white people. These folks (and there are thousands of them in this gated community) will go to a foreign policy lecture in the morning, then go water skiing, then see the symphony, opera, or ballet at night. This happens every day. It’s full of Victorian houses shoved really close together which goes against my personal idea of a summer retreat (which is to be in the woods far away from most people). All this being said, it’s an inspiring thing to see so many people willing to give up their personal space to spend the summer with ART and IDEAS … at the same time. I’ve never seen anything like it.

While there I had a long chat with a conductor friend who has a different take on music and programming than I do. He’s fiercely committed to a few pieces he really believes in — at the expense of many others. He was very proud of how small his repertoire was. I was kind of put off by that (Symphonies of Wind Instruments is BAD? Copland only wrote one good piece?), but I also admired how much he loved works he loved. I like lots of music, but sometimes feel I’m being stretched thin as a result of my broad tastes. I guess we all commit sins as artists, either by liking too little music (like him), or too much (like me).

Damn — I’m still stuck at O’Hare, even after all this blogging.

amoebic again

Last week I went to Amoeba Records again and picked up a rather edgy set of CD’s … it’s all pretty dark stuff.

Black Flag – Damaged (an old favorite — recently covered on an amazing record by the Dirty Projectors)

Portishead – Third (creeeeepy and cooooooool)

Justice – Cross (“as seen on MTv,” appparently. Nat Stookey and I got excited about this at the listening station. It’s fun dance music, and Nat is researching such music for his new piece of musical erotica, Zipperz, coming soon to an orchestra near you.)

Sparks – Lil’ Beethoven (a minimalist masterpiece)

Motörhead – Ace of Spades (cause I’ve never heard it)

BONUS: Michael Tilson Thomas gave me a recording of Schubert by Javier Perianes which is beautiful and haunting. I’d never heard of this pianist before but I’d like to hear more … it’s from another world which is how I like my Schubert.

Like Stravinsky?

You might want THIS.

Amoeba Run

Another session of beer & sausages followed by an Amoeba run.

New CD’s:

-Peramanent (a Joy Divison collection)

-Scritti Politti – White Bread Black Beer (forced on me by D. Handler, but it was only $4.99, and he also gave me a free copy of the new McSweeney’s — listening as I type — hmm –very Brian Wilson! — nice!)

-Mahler 6 (Barbirolli / Berlin Phil) didn’t know it existed, but if it’s as good as the Mahler 9 that they did …

Of course I downloaded the new Radiohead album as well … love it so far … esp. the close-up sound of the instruments.

Currently Listening …

Michael Gordon …

Steve Reich (Tehillim) …

Squeeze …

Pinback (new album) …

Xalapa …

Is a city in Mexico, in the state of Veracruz. An orchestra of almost 100 people, all professors at the university. Their musical schedule is similar to any major American orchestra — one big classical program every week. Last week was Sibelius 6, this week Sibelius 1, next week Sibelius 3 (yes, they’re doing the whole cycle). They have a brand new hall on the way. The city is beautiful, nestled up in what seem to be sub-tropical mountains. The amount and variety of trees, plants, and flowers are stunning. I spent a wonderful afternoon two days ago at the house of an old friend, Carlos Villarreal, who plays in the orchestra. He has a great audio set-up and we spent hours listening to great music. I just discovered the Mosaiques Quartet (they know the weight and value of every harmonic move in Haydn) and the symphonies of Rosetti. And since his stereo was serious there was of course some Mahler and Wagner.

I’ll be conducting the orchestra in concert in a few hours, and will be able to tell you more about the audiences, etc. I also have some pictures but I forgot to bring the connecting wire — so that’ll have to wait for a few days.

My airplane reading was The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which is as good as everyone says it is …