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Response

I got an email, and it was so lovely I wanted to share it. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve been discovering classical music, really for the first time in my life, since I realized last fall how cheap the KWS student all-season passes are. A few concerts during the fall proved to me that classical music can be, for me, more emotionally touching and intellectually tickling than I had realized. This motivated a surge of interest, and I started listening before hand to the pieces that the KWS was to play, to get more out of the concerts. Being a Finn, not really for nationalistic reasons but simply because there was more context for me to grab hold of, the Sibelius concert especially drew my attention.

After a few listen-throughs, the [Sibelius] 7th symphony started to grow on me, and has kept doing so. I constantly feel that I don’t quite know what it is saying to me, not explicitly, but on some level I understand, and it has come to take on an only vaguely describable but in fact quite precise, personal meaning to me. (A meaning that I would guess partially overlaps with how Sibelius felt about it, although I could be wrong.) In other words, it has become the first classical composition that for me holds the kind of power artistic creations can at their best hold.

risk

This week’s concerts were full of adventure and risk. I went in with that intention, sharing one of my favorite Nikolaus Harnoncourt quotes in rehearsal:

“To be beautiful, music must operate on the outer fringes of catastrophe.”

It was fortuitous that Ben Beilman joined us this week with the same agenda. His clear priority, above all, was to express something dark, deep, and transcendent. It’s rare to feel that kind of daring in a concerto performance.

That sense of risk, adventure, is what makes all the difference.

 

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Writers on Music

This week in Kitchener-Waterloo we’re performing a concert that I’ve been thinking about for years. It’s called “Writers on Music,” part of our Intersections series. As many of you know, the premise of Intersections is to combine orchestral music with other disciplines, and that we have done! From food, to neuroscience, to yoga, to quantum physics, the we’ve found a way to broaden the conceptual canvas of orchestral music, and connect it to the world of ideas.

The writers and music idea is an obvious fit, but it’s taken years to actually make it happen. I have no idea why I hadn’t asked Words Worth books (a fantastic bookstore in Uptown Waterloo) about collaborating before. But finally, I did. They helped find the authors (both Canadian), who had written novels with a “musical atmosphere.” They selected Wayne Grady, and his novel Emancipation Day. It’s about racial identity, “passing,” and family dynamics. Its soundtrack is jazz of the dance-club variety. Next was Miriam Toews, and her novel All My Puny Sorrows. Her book is about a concert pianist who is plagued by depression and thoughts of suicide, and her family members who are trying to pull her back into life.

Once the books were chosen, I realized that there was a challenge with creating the program itself. One novel features jazz, but we’re not a jazz orchestra; the other features piano music, and we are not a piano. I thought it was essential to feature this music in the program, because it’s the soundtrack for the novels, but there was more to do. The solution I came up with was to turn the tables halfway through each interview. We’ll have music respond to words, by playing jazz and Rachmaninov piano music; the authors will briefly read from their novels; I’ll interview the authors. But then the the tables will turn, and the authors themselves will have to respond to music they hear. I sent both Wayne and Miriam “unmarked music” by living composers. Knowing nothing about what they are hearing except the sounds themselves, their assignment was to write a response to what they heard. Luckily, both authors were game. I can’t wait to hear their responses.

Why did I do this? Because I like the crosscurrents of music and words, and the way the direction of the concert unexpectedly turns. I like how it feels, at least in my head. I also thought that it would inspire the audience as well. So many audience members are at a loss for words when describing the music they hear (or so they tell me). That’s a good thing of course, because the best music should go beyond words, and hit expressive points that are difficult to describe, but easy to feel. On the other hand, I think having a writer respond to music in public will resonate with an audience that has been listening “passively.” It will encourage discussion – one idea will lead to another – there may even be arguments!

Through this, I want to remind the audience that great music is not meant to be listened to passively. Actually, it requires our greatest attention – an energy similar to, say, reading a novel. My dream audience would be like a giant book club: social, argumentative, committed, engaged with the work and with each other. This week, we’re going to try to make this happen.

Intersections – and how it changed everything

This week at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we celebrate the first 5 years of our Intersections series.  It all started when I got the job there.  I wanted to find a place for artists who didn’t fit into a particular musical category — people like violinist/fiddler Gilles Apap, composer/DJ Mason Bates, Western/Indian musician Suba Sankaran and others.  But it quickly became a home for people who wanted to try something with orchestra: saxophonists, scientists, chefs, yogis, videographers, you name it.  It became a place where an orchestra can do anything, and by my estimation, one of the coolest, riskiest endeavors attempted by any orchestra in North America.

From the beginning, people took notice.  A lot of our shows were played at Koerner Hall in Toronto, thanks to the good faith and adventurous spirit of Mervon Mehta.  I’ll never forget when our music/neuroscience show with Daniel Levitin, Beethoven and Your Brain, sold out there a week in advance.  It made me feel like this itch I had to put orchestra in different “frames” also was there in our audience.  It confirmed my belief that orchestra don’t exist in a vacuum, but in the world of thought, emotion, and ideas.  I’m excited that our collaboration with the Institute for Quantum Computing, Quantum: Music at the Frontier of Science also has legs.  We performed it at the opening of their new Quantum Nano Centre, for the Banff Forum, and will bring it to the Indianapolis Symphony this spring, with more performances to come.

Intersections has also had an effect on my career beyond KW.  It seems like more and more, the programs I’m asked to conduct include living composers and programs that go beyond the normal “safe” boundaries.  This is perfectly fine with me. Like any conductor I spend most of my time studying Beethoven and Brahms, and carrying on the great tradition associated with these composers and work. But being able to put them in a new context is a way to give them new life for new audiences.  It’s great to be gaining the trust of other orchestras and being able to expand the work I started in KW in places like San Francisco, North Carolina, Indianapolis, and elsewhere.

Some of my favorite souvenirs of this process are our commissions.  Invariably, they’re from unusual people or crazy pieces from established composers.  Our first commission was by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and his For Heart, Breath, and Orchestra was on our first CD.  It was weird and touching, with the musicians playing off of Richie’s music but also relying on their own breath and heartbeats (they wore stethoscopes).  We followed with two orchestral commissions by the amazing Dan Deacon, who writes hyperfun-nerdgasm dance music, but also is linked to the American Experimental tradition, from Nancarrow to Cage to Zappa.  It was a huge stretch for him to translate his ideas to orchestra, and included an apology to our librarian in a program note, but it moved him forward as a musician and blew our audience’s mind.  Nicole Lizée is one of Canada’s most exciting composers, and it was fun to give her a space to write something wild.  The result was 2012: Concerto for Power Trio and Orchestra (Fantasia on Themes by Rush). I mean, how Canadian is that?  Nicky describes the music as “Melting Rush,” which about sums it up.  But it also pushed music forward, with the most difficult and stunning drumset notation I have ever seen (played by the remarkable Ben Reimer), and virtuosic combinations of guitar, bass, drums, and orchestra that I had never heard before.

To celebrate this series, we’re playing the Dan Deacon and Lizée/Rush pieces again this week, along with music of Bryce Dessner and Andrew Creegan, Thursday and Friday at the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts in KW, and Saturday at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto.  Come and hear this!  Dan, Nicky, and Andy Creegan will be there! This is an orchestra putting itself out there and trying something new, in a way that so many are afraid to.  So be here. Walk, bike, drive, fly.  Celebrate Intersections with us!

 

Summer UPDATE!

After a mad few weeks, I’m at home again, getting ready for the fall season.

A few things:

Recently: I conducted Prokofiev’s 4th Symphony a few weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It was music that Prokofiev thought was so nice that he wrote it thrice. First as the Ballet The Prodigal Son, then as a Symphony in the 30’s and then again as a Symphony in 1947. In the second version of the symphony he amped it up, adding linking motivic material and expanding almost all parts. I can see why he loved the music so much. The material is optimistic and sunny and witty, and incredibly creative in its orchestration. Every instrument reaches into an extended range to great effect, creating this expanded sound universe, whose extended tentacles caress you, drawing you in. Alien and sexy! The second movement is especially beautiful tracing the Prodigal Son’s return and reconciliation, with a full-on C Major romantic melody. I love this symphony! Check it out.

Summer Reading: Just finished The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson: an epic, harrowing, Dickensian novel set in North Korea (?!). I’m also going to read Anna Karenina and Andrew Sean Greer’s The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and I’m sure some music books. Oh I also read a JACK REACHER book.

Coming Up: I think the biggest, weirdest project coming up is a soon-to-be announced concert with an orchestra about music and DRUGS, basically. More in this space soon. Also very excited about bringing our Nicole Lizée and Dan Deacon commissions from the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony to Koerner Hall. This may become our next recording.

Also conducting Tchaikovky’s 6th Symphony for the first time. That’s a biggie. AND: Cowell’s 4th and Synchrony & Lou Harrison’s Second Symphony with BBC Wales, Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, Ligeti, and Dvorak with the San Francisco Symphony, a very interesting and cool concert with Chicago Symphony MusicNOW, the KWS Quantum Physics Show goes to the Indianapolis Symphony and more. It will all be up soon on the schedule page.

Been there, done that

Hey, it’s 2013! The last few months had more than a few highlights. Lots of music by composers who are currently alive and lots of messing around with concert formats by me and others. Some examples:

KWS Intersections – we played Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snyder, and sung by Shara Worden. What a piece! It’s about mental illness, war, loss, alienation, hope, anger, redemption … you know, the BIG STUFF. It seamlessly combines rock and classical idioms into a piece with real emotional depth. Every orchestra should play this piece right now.

concert:nova Cincinnati – HK Grubers Frankenstein!!, Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony, Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1 in the abandoned Emery Theatre, with a side cabaret performance at a supper club, and freaky slides commissioned especially for the concert. Awesome.

Chicago Symphony MusicNOW – Mason Bates and Anna Clyne have tweaked and finally perfected how they present music in this series. Specific lighting, stage moves, ambient music between pieces, video program notes and interviews (even when the composers are present), all make the music come alive in the frankly too-big Harris Theater. Bravo to the Chicago Symphony for investing in music and stagecraft.

River Oaks Chamber Orchestra – Alecia Lawyer and Co. in Houston start their concerts 6pm, with no intermission, and provide childcare! Yes, uncompromising artistry (my soloist was Paul Jacobs) can be combined with family-friendly accessibility. I’ve never seen anything like this. Maybe the most innovative orchestra in America.

KWS Mahler 5 – we put together spoken introduction to the piece with video and excerpts that made up the entire 20-min first half of the concert. It was all done completely in-house, lowest possible budget using Prezi presentation software. It was good! We didn’t say “we can’t do this, it’s too expensive.” We made it work.

NYC Ballet Nutcracker – Nothing new here. This has been the same since Balanchine created it in the 1950’s. But ritual can be good, and it’s important to remember if you’re going to change something, you’ve got to make it better.

To an audience

The KW Symphony asked me to write a note to our audience for our upcoming Mahler 5 concert. Here’s what I wrote:

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in California, kids riding bikes outside the house, waves breaking on the beach, but there I am again, holed up in my room, listening to the music of Gustav Mahler. I don’t know what this says about me and the kind of teenager I was, but it does say a lot about the power of Mahler’s music. I remember hearing it for the very first time, and how it seemed to encompass a vast psychological space. How time seemed to completely stop, or speed up. How I was carried along by the music as if I were on a raft floating down a wide, turbulent river. The overwhelming emotion of the music captivated me. The tears, suffering and transcendence contained in these symphonies hinted at joy and heartbreak I had yet to experience. In these symphonies, I felt an uncanny power: the sounds themselves made me vibrate like a tuning fork with unexperienced emotion. My own nascent feelings and perceptions were amplified through Mahler, and left me breathless, tearful, elated.

Years later I feel the same power. But now, Mahler seems now to amplify emotions I experienced in the past. Certain passages bring back memories of people who have come and gone in life, delicate memories of childhood, rage which burned out long ago, the dizziness of unrequited love. In his symphonies, Mahler lays out a vast world of sound, memory and emotion, and inevitably we find ourselves somewhere on his map. As public and grand as his works are, they are also shockingly intimate. They speak to our inner life, our hidden feelings and perceptions. By amplifying these feelings Mahler reminds us all how much our lives actually matter, right now.

So here you are, in the audience, about to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. You’ve reached the end of the day, you’re relaxing in your seat. But soon there will be a trumpet call, and then … cataclysm! Mahler’s world is about to crash down on you. You’ll hear sound of an entire orchestra baring their souls and then you’ll begin your journey. First, an epic lament and then the search for meaning, following a winding path of grief, rage, confusion, childhood memories, love, and giddiness, disappointment, and joy, all expressed through pure sound. At times you will feel lost, at other times you will hear things that hit home. You will feel your own life amplified by Mahler’s music, as if this composer has somehow read your mind, and your heart.

So here we go. The concert is about to begin. Thank you for being here. Now, get ready.

Mozart

Think of Mozart as a comedy writer. Yes, he wrote some drama too, but overall, not that much. If you look through his work, you’ll find a G minor symphony or string quintet here and there, or a D minor piano concerto, but the rest is pretty Major key, pretty sunny. Of the operas, a few are serious, like Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, and a bit of Don Giovanni, but mostly it’s a lot of situation comedies, mistaken identities, costumes, goofy bird catchers, right? The strange thing is, we take Mozart very seriously for someone who wrote mostly comedy. Few comedy writers in any genre are so revered. We might think of Haydn in terms of comedy — but Mozart?

There are two reasons for this. One is that beauty and perfection are the things that strike us first in Mozart’s music. This is true especially now, hundreds of years later, that the subversive elements in his music have lost some of their social and sonic impact. In terms of beauty, Mozart’s music is unmatched: the perfect melodies, the flawless structure, the warm, singing timbre of everything he wrote. Music is the most sensual of the arts, and the pure, miraculous beauty of his work casts a spell on us, and that spell can sometimes hide its other qualities.

We also tend to forget Mozart that worked in comedy because he used it for such serious purposes. The power of comedy is that it disarms and equalizes. When we laugh, we are outside of ourselves. Father and child, king and peasant, friend and enemy can be united, even just for a moment, with laughter. Mozart knew this about comedy and used it expertly. Think of his operas: they entertain and play over a period of hours, but we all remember those moments when, out of nowhere, he suddenly lands the sucker punch and we’re knocked out! Our hearts pound, and tears well up when we hear the Count’s pleading apology to the Countess at the end of Le nozze di Figaro, or when we hear the trio at the beginning of Così fan tutte that seems to bid farewell to honesty itself. Mozart uses comedy to get our guard down before he hits us with the real stuff. And when these moments do come, they are moments of truth and humanity, moments so strong that they break social and family conventions. In one instance, a philandering husband apologizes to his wife; in another, a young woman breaks free of her screaming, oppressive mother. In Mozart, maximum truth equals maximum beauty, and these moments of truth can be found throughout his works, whether they have words or not.

Hours of elegant farce, leading to a few big moments. It feels familiar. Mozart’s music is a metaphor for our lives. After all, if we add up the minutes of how we live, how many of them are truly serious? Don’t we spend most of our time making elegant, pleasant, witty maneuvers that allow us to get through the day unscathed, and allow to coexist peacefully with our fellow humans? And when the big moments of truth do arrive in our lives, don’t they seem to come out of nowhere, to knock us out, to change us, in an instant, forever?

Xenakis on Computing

Xenakis kind of describes what’s happening in our concerts this weekend:

“With the aid of electronic computers, the composer becomes a sort of pilot. He presses the buttons, introduces coordinates, and supervises the controls of a cosmic vessel sailing in the space of sound, across sonic constellations and galaxies that he could formerly glimpse only as a distant dream. Now he can explore them at his ease seated in an armchair.”

What Just Happened

It’s been a particularly fun 2012 so far … at the KWS, Prokofiev 5 and Brahms Violin concerto with Vadim Gluzman, who is the best; an all-Zappa concert with concert:nova in Cincinnati; 7 hours on Radio Wales in one day with the BBC NOW; the complete Mother Goose at New World; and back at the KWS, more Mother Goose, Bolero, a Nico Muhly commission and premiere, and Jason Vieaux, who is great, playing Rodrigo.

But can we talk about Ravel for just a minute? There was a lot of discussion this week about Mother Goose. It was nice to know that other people besides me think that the last movement of Mother Goose is the best thing ever. It completely changed my life the first time I heard it. It raised the bar for what music can do. What’s great about it? The sustained, tender and beautiful sound throughout, the Bach-worthy voice leading, the mix of joy, nostalgia and regret, the yearning solos in the violin and viola, the countdown in the 2nd horn and harp leading to the final climax, the extra, transcendent moment at the end when the percusion stops and the strings and winds play on, unwilling to let go. Is there a better three minutes of orchestral music?

After Mother Goose, we played Nico’s piece, which was great. If you didn’t get to hear it in Seattle, Winnipeg, or here in KW, I hope you can hear it soon. It’s called So Far So Good. Nico and I did a bunch of talks together around the concerts and one thing really struck me in particular. Talking about his connection to liturgical music and how it plays out in his own work, Nico described the music really being about a series of small changes alluding to something greater and unspecific. In religious terms, some greater mystery. I think this piece did that very well. It left me with a certain feeling and many players in the orchestra felt the same — it left us with something to contemplate. I also appreciate the opportunites in Nico’s music to be expressive. There’s weight and meaning to each pitch, and that’s what we’ve worked so hard to bring out as musicians — to make the music speak.

Speaking of greater mysteries, this coming week is our collaboration with the Institute for Quantum computing on our Intersections Series. More about that soon, but this project was two years in the making and I’m excited about it. What I can tell you right now is that there is Mozart, Webern, Ives, Cage, Brant, and Xenakis involved.