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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.

Listen: Eat!

Reader, I am about to leave for a tech rehearsal for our Music & Food concert tonight at the KW Symphony. We’ll be playing the music, and my favorite (or favourite, since I’m in Canada) local restaurant, Nick & Nat’s Uptown 21 will be doing the food! Btw. Nick and Nat, great theme music on your website. Anyway, I’ve never heard of anyone doing a concert like this, so I’m xcited!!!

There might be standing room for tonight; there are a few tickets available for Friday.  Get them at www.kwsymphony.ca.

What’s on the (musical) menu?

Raymond Scott: Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals
Per Nørgard: Pastorale from Babette’s Feast
Shostakovich: Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two)
Vaughan-Williams: “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils” from The Wasps
John Estacio: “The Harversters” from A Farmer’s Symphony


Cole Porter arr. E. Outwater: “The Tale of the Oyster”
Lee Hoiby: Bon Apetit
Strawberry Alarm Clock arr. Nicole Lizée: Incense and Peppermint

What food will be served:  Well that’s a surprise!

By the way — did you know that orchestras basically started as accompaniments to Grand Feasts.  For real! I read this in the scholarly tome The Birth of the Orchestra. You can read about it through the link on page 41!

Check out this feast for the archbishop of Milan in 1529 for instance …

1st course:

Food: Sea bream, boiled sturgeon in garlic sauce, pike entrails fried w/ oranges, cinnamon, and sugar.

Music: 3 trombones & 3 cornets

2nd course:

Food: Cream-filled French Pastries, artichokes, olives, fermented apples, oyster pies

Music :3 flutes, 3 bagpipes, 1 violone.

17th Course:

Food: Candied Orange & Lemon Rinds, Ices, Nougat w/ mounds of cinnamon, pine nuts, pistachios, melon seeds

Music: 6 singers, 6 viols, lira, 3 flutes, kit fiddle (sordina), trombone, lute, zittern, 2 keyboards.

New Season!

Wow! It’s snowy in Canada right now! Which is good for me because I need to stay inside and work work work. The thing I love about cold weather is that it gives me a great excuse to stay in and read & study and look out at the snow falling. I couldn’t be happier doing this, and though I miss California, pondering music while the snow falls is a real bonus.

Today I’m between concerts — doing some serious studying in the next few days — preparing for our Music & Food concert next week and then in a few weeks a rather daunting program of Barber 1st Symphony, Adams Dr. Atomic Symphony, and the Unsuk Chin Piano Concerto w/ BBC Wales followed by a few days in London.

This week is a concert of music I totally love. I can get bored with the overture, concerto, symphony concert format and like to explore different ways of presenting music to the people. It’s Italian music this week, starting with Monteverdi in 1610 and going all the way through Nino Rota, with Verdi, Rossini, and Vivaldi on the way. The KWS is switching on a dime from Baroque, to Classical, to Grand Opera to lush film music, and I’m quite impressed with that. I don’t believe that an orchestra should have a SOUND. I think it should have many, depending on what we’re playing. That doesn’t mean that an orchestra might not become known for a certain sound, because every orchestra (and artist) does some things better than others, so that’s what they become known for.

What strikes me about Italian music conducting this concert with such a huge timeline is the exquisite coloration of melody. Like the florid violin and trumpet duets in Monteverdi, or the simultaneous melodic arco/pizz in the Vivaldi or the cello ensemble that opens the William Tell Overture, or the absolutely perfect and noble combination of solo cello/bassoon/bass clarinet in Verdi’s Ballet Music from Macbeth. And then within these colors, there are other colors as certain notes open up and shine, while others are dark and smoky, all done without calling too much attention to itself. Is there anything more beautiful than music like this?

Ok — now for some ANNOUNCEMENTS! We have a new season coming up at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and we’ve just released all the info!

You can find out about it HERE!

We’ve got some amazing soloists like James Ehenes, Measha Breuggergosman, Alban Gerhardt, and Kirill Gerstein.

Our Intersections series features three people named Dan! Daniel Levitin, who will be creating a show with me called Beethoven & Your Brain, Daniel Handler who is narrating HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!! and curating the concert, and Dan Deacon, who is driving a bus full of Baltimore people up here to create an electronic/orchestra Cage/Ives/etc. influenced extravaganza! Read about it right HERE.

My only regret about next season is that we couldn’t get this guy:

Pagan Child brings hope for the future!

This pretty much says it all. I believe this is the son of my friend and colleague Larry Loh!  Please please please do not miss the end. No conductor has ever dared to end the Rite this way, but it’s so … right!

Bach Jazz Rock

So I just landed in Miami Beach for a concert with the New World Symphony, and my hotel room is crazy dark with blue walls, wood floors, animal skin rugs, egg lamps, and sub woofers. There’s a pool in the courtyard and a free happy hour. There’s a Continental breakfast starting at 8am, but who’s going to be awake for that? It’s rock-and-roll baby!!

It’s fitting in a way because this week’s concert is about Baroque music, Bach in particular. I have my parts in front of me for the Suite No. 3, which I haven’t done in a while, and I’m going through it all and checking all of my markings and such, changing this and that as my mind has changed about certain things over time. While I’m doing this, it occurs to me that this is all so unnatural. No one would have had to mark up the parts back in Bach’s day! Everyone knew the language of the music and knew the grooves. The trick for us is that we have to re-invent it every time!

We’re getting into this issue this week. What this concert at New World is about is WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THIS MUSIC? How did Bach’s melodies and grooves get mutated into Lobby Music, or music for Wedding Planners or Jewelry Commericals? It’s one of those Concerts With Video that New World is working doing, so I get to illustrate this. We’ll be playing a cheezed up version of Bach “Air on a G-string” while images of Hannibal Lecter flash on the screen. (That is one of my all-time favorite uses of Bach — serial killers — the brilliant, seductive, yet cold, impenetrable and dangerous OTHER). Then, we show what happened when Stokowski got his hands on the music, and finally what folks are doing nowadays.

But the problem, even now, is all of these nit-picky markings that drain the life out of the music in the rehearsal process. If the Historically Informed Performance people have re-discovered that this is groove music, the process of learning to groove is not particularly groovy. I’ve seen conductor/professors with great ideas kill the music in rehearsal because they spend so much time explaining it. They players try to go along, but can’t help but loose a little school spirit in the process, because the process is boring. I wonder how helpful all the directions and markings I’ve provided in the parts really are. How do we get the Rock Back Into Bach?

I came up with one solution with the Charleston Symphony last week. We did a Classical-Jazz Hybrid concert with the excellent drummer Quentin Baxter. We sent two violinists to his house to learn play the first movement of the Bach Double jazzily with him drumming along (very softly and elegantly — think Modern Jazz Quartet). When those guys came to the rehearsal the orchestra and I were blown away. They told me about the rehearsals: in the process of learning to do the piece this way, lots of sounds were made, but few words were spoken. It was the way music should be learned, by listening, not explaining. The violinists had trouble going back to the “normal” way of playing after that, because in the jazz version, the notes were speaking. I wonder which version of the Bach Double was the most authentic?

So I hope we can find a way to do the same this week as well!

PS another cool thing we did in Charleston was play Ravel’s Bolero with a jazz quintet improvising on top of the orchestra. I haven’t heard an audience go apeshit like that in a long time. You should try it.

Worth Checking Out

THIS ARTICLE in newmusicbox is the most thoughtful examination of The Composer Is Dead.  Now that I no longer live in SF, it makes me nostalgic for the creative crew who live there.  But I’ll be there in a few weeks so beer, sausages, and amoeba await!

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!)

Verdi, literally

I’m getting to the end of our La Traviata run at San Francisco Opera.  For a conductor who mainly does symphony work, it has been refreshing and revelatory working on this score.  I can see why Stravinsky gushes about him so much in his Poetics of Music.  There’s something pure about his music: perfectly distilled sounds, perfectly distilled emotion and expression.  But more importantly, there is the beauty and sensuality of the sound itself. Human emotions and foibles and mistakes and failures are transfigured into something glorious and profound.

It’s also amazing to actually conduct a seasoned and accomplished opera orchestra. I love the feeling of each and every one of them listening along with me, ready to go any direction at any time.

And singers, well, it’s just sexy to work with a great singer.  

Beyond this, it’s refreshing to see how much is done in opera that’s not written in the score. Of course this is the result of tradition, and some tradition is bad.  But we don’t run into as much musical literalism here.  A 16th note is not necessarily a 16th note; what is written is not exactly what the singer sings.  Everyone knows this.  I’ve never been a fan of musical fundamentalism: the idea the the written text means literally what it signifies.  There are many musicians who are musical fundamentalists, which is infuriating.  They can’t see beyond the written page, like some religious folks can’t see beyond what is written in the Bible, or some legal scholars can’t see beyond what is written in the Constitution.  This can make Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony sound very bad, for example.

One of the greatest challenges in performing classical music now is getting an orchestra to go beyond the notation, because that’s where the expression really is.


Thanks to Daniel Handler for passing this along.