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Whirling

I think of programming the same way a composer or poet might think of creating something. It’s about setting up expectations and either satisfying or subverting them. This can be done on a single program, or over a season, or over a number of seasons. One must always keep in mind that an audience member is coming to a concert expecting something. My job is to begin at this point of expectation, and take the audience member somewhere else.

In orchestras our great Advantage and also our great Albatross is tradition. It’s twelve hundred years of music, and the rituals that go along with it. We can gnash our teeth at how conservative things are and fight against it, or have fun with tradition and play with it.

What’s fun, and more than fun, is where these subversive moves can take us. For instance, last week at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we premiered a piece by the Canadian composer Brian Current called Whirling Dervish. Some intense music was played while the Canadian Whirling Dervish Raqib Brian Burke performed the ritual in front of the orchestra. If you haven’t seen it, the ritual looks like this.

At the end of the piece (after twenty minutes or so) Raqib suddenly stops whirling, and lies down on the floor. His assistant covers him with a blanket for a long moment, and then the two of them exit the stage walking backward, facing the audience. Then the orchestra and I leave the stage. We asked the audience not to applaud, just to be silent, and go to the lobby for intermission. It was profound, that silence, in all sorts of ways. What was amazing to me was the way one ritual (Whirling) respectfully subverted another (Orchestra Concert Etiquette).

Talking with Raqib after the performances brought the experience to another level altogether. Raqib talked about how the Whirling ceremony opened the door to another liminal reality and “summoned the ancestors.” Isn’t that really what we do in classical music concerts? In a concert that’s really great, don’t we feel Mozart, or Ives, or Mahler in the room? Isn’t this really why we play these great pieces over and over again? Isn’t one definition of a revolution that it begins and ends in the same place? We’re back where we started but things have changed.

New Season

So we did a concert just the way I like it last week. The first half was Beethoven Consecration of the House Overture (yes it IS a good piece) and Symphony No. 1. Then instead of doing the next curtain call, I sent out our guest cabaret performer ISENGART to announce the second half: Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins (with Measha Bruegguergosman who was a-maz-ing). He urged the audience to have a stiff drink at intermission so that they would “come back nice and tight.” Another suggestion: “If you see something you like in the lobby, give it a little pinch …” In the second half, before Seven Deadly Sins, he sang a couple of Kurt Weill songs including Mack The Knife, to kind of set things up. These little cues from Isengart really made this thing work. We didn’t need a four camera crew, just a little creativity and willing artists. It also confirms my suspicion that playing with the “concert format” is the way to go. We need to do more of this. I think we need a new slogan along the lines of Michael Pollan’s “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” Something like … “Play Real Music. Update The Format. Don’t Be Boring.” By the way, Isengart has another persona I would like to share called the FOOD COMMANDER. CLICK THE LINK. REALLY.

Also would you like to know about the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s new season? Watch the video below … We’ve got a concert about quantum physics, a Nico Muhly premiere, two Liszt concertos in one concert, a concerto by Nicky Lizée based on the music of Rush, you know … the usual.

On Dan Deacon

The KW Symphony and I did a concert a few weeks ago with
Dan Deacon. Here’s a little bit about the process:

Working with Dan Deacon was a blast of chaotic, creative, mischievous energy.  He’s interested in new sounds and new experiences, in creating the childlike sense of wonder and joy when you experience something for the first time.  That’s the game underlying a lot of “experimental” or “avant-garde” music: the joy of discovery.  I think when people are put off by new sounds it’s because they’re no longer in touch with their inner child.

During this collaboration Dan was discovering something himself, something very old: the symphony orchestra and all its rules, traditions and rank and regimentation.  It was hilarious and kind of terrifying watching Dan rediscover orchestras (“I haven’t written for humans in years!” he told me).  I can only imagine how feverishly he worked trying to create these scores. The process he went through to notate orchestral sounds was beyond complicated. Despite all of his hard work, the project had to be saved by me, the library and production staff, and our stalwart copyist, Trevor Wagler, in the weeks and days before the first rehearsal. Many protocols were broken!  

But who cares?  I loved that we were teaming up to make something work, instead of getting together and complaining about it!  In the end, the music was all Dan’s.  I wanted to work with Dan because I believe that he’s onto something as a musician.  I think he appreciates orchestras for what they can do. I think he’s got great ears and a strong sense of composition in the long form.  And, most importantly, he really knows how to reach people with his music, how to make them feel the joy of discovery.  The orchestra world could really use him. And now we’ve got him.  Here’s to more new sounds and experiences!  

Nielsen in Texas

Folks I’m in EL PASO, TEJAS this week. I Can See Mexico From My House! Or out my hotel window. I’m having a great time here, partly because I’m getting to conduct a piece I really love that never gets done, and that’s Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the so called “Espansiva.” What a piece! I know people like No. 4 and No. 5, and they are more ambitious and serious perhaps, but I’ve always thought of Nielsen as a humorous composer, at least that’s the part I like the most about him. In this piece, he’s like a Nordic Haydn on Steroids, starting off with an amazing Eroica joke, playing ridiculous games with keys, backwards phrasing, odd orchestration, surprise singers, and folksy dances. In the last movement you can feel this kind of Nordic Step Dancing going on for sure. The orchestra is rising to the challenge and digging the music as far as I can tell. Maybe because it was below zero (F) in El Paso last week and now they can relate to the Idea of North.

I’m also looking forward to some desert hikes, Mexican food, and some Old West. Someone even told me they have great vintage typography(!) here, so I’ll keep an eye out for that (Actually, I’m watching the Helvetica movie on my iPad every night before I go to sleep. It’s really interesting but I can’t actually stay awake for too long watching it. It is, after all, about a font. There’s only so much one can do.)

Also, have you been checking out the latest Twitter conversation about orchestral programming? It’s called “Dead White Guys.” (#DWG), which is what we play a lot.
I chimed in a few times. The thing is, when we play concerts of living white guys, or dead other kinds of people, we get our most passionate audiences I think. They’re just small audiences. The question is, how do orchestras define success? If an orchestra wants to “grow” an audience, doesn’t that naturally imply that one starts small? At the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we’re so lucky to have a space for small audiences (the Conrad Centre), so the small-audience concerts feel great. It’s from there that we can begin to grow.

Beethoven & Your Brain Workshop

Daniel Levitin and I have been meeting in various locations these past few weeks putting our Intersections show together. It’s called “Beethoven & Your Brain.” (See it in October in Kitchener-Waterloo or Koerner Hall in Toronto) It’s basically one of many possible ways to look carefully at this great composer’s music and how it works. What we’re finding is that when you look at the effect Beethoven’s music has on us from a biological/neurological/primal level, music becomes less of a “thing” and more of a “process.” And that really, you don’t need to be an expert to experience this music in a profound way.

One of our first exercises was that we sat across from each other at a table and wrote 10-minute blurbs on what we knew about. I wrote about “Beethoven” and Daniel wrote about “Brain.” It’s interesting to see where our ideas intersect. Here are the blurbs.

BEETHOVEN

What’s great about LvB?

I think it’s extraordinary the way LvB grabs the listener with his music. There’s a sense of profound emotion, human drama — even to the point of violence — in his music. Somehow when you listen to a work like the Fifth Symphony you immediately know that the emotional stakes are very high. He does this by creating a sense of momentum and turbulence in his music that can still shake up audiences hundreds of years later. There are so many kinds of music in life that one might call “polite:” music that soothes us and makes us comfortable and happy. But Beethoven’s music is not polite; it is full of fervent questioning and takes nothing for granted. He stretches form, structure, and even sound to the absolute limit. So if you know a lot about classical music you get the sense that he almost wants to destroy it. If you don’t know about classical music, you still get the sense of drama and urgency through its sheer physicality.

Take the beginning of the Fifth Symphony for instance. Though we all know how it goes, those first few notes retain their ability to shock. That’s because Beethoven writes an indeterminate hold – a fermata – on the fourth note of his famous statement. How long this note should be held is left to the conductor. There are many other such moments in the piece. But underlying it all is a tremendous pulse and groove that counteracts the instability. It is Beethoven’s ability to balance the predictable and the unstable in just the right way that makes him great.

When I conduct Beethoven’s music, more than any other composer’s, it is as if I can feel his spirit reaching out to me. Though we know that he had a difficult, irascible personality, he craves an intimate connection with his listeners through his music. He felt that his deafness prevented him from being him from being intimate with others. Yet for one hundred and fifty years he has made profound connections with countless listeners. It’s uncanny, like this poem by Keats.

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

BRAIN

Expectation

Expectation is everything in music. The brain is a giant prediction device. Whether we realize it or not – whether we’re aware of it or not – it’s working hard to figure out what’s going to happen next. There’s an obvious evolutionary/adaptive advantage to this – if a lion is in the area, you need to be able to accurately predict which direction he’s headed. If a potential mate is looking at you a certain way, you have to know whether this means “come hither” or “get lost” (or “not now – my boyfriend is watching, but come back later”). In music, we hear a few notes and our brains are already trying to figure out what’s going to come next.
A “good” piece of music rewards those expectations by meeting them at least some of the time, but also violates them sometimes in interesting ways. Why? If the music meets all of your expectations, and does exactly what you think it will, it’s boring. We reject as too simple, like “Barney the dinosaur” music.” If it never meets your expectations, never conforms to your predictions, it’s frustrating because you have no frame of reference, no grounding; you’re disoriented. So the job of the composer is to hit that sweet spot, to meet your expectations some of the time, and violate your expectations in interesting ways the rest of the time. When the composer gets that balance just right, you end up liking the piece. And if the composer can complete a musical phrase in a way that sounds better to you than anything you could ever have ever imagined – well, then he’s got you and that’s a piece of music you can enjoy for the rest of your life.
Another aspect to expectation has to do with momentum. Skillful composers set up expectations and momentum, making you want to hear more.

©2010 Daniel J Levitin

Coffee Talk

So I’ve been obsessing about this recently: a cup of coffee has been DESCRIBED as a “cacophony of nuance.” This cup of coffee costs $12. A friend of mine actually tasted it and joked that it tasted like “a Bartók string quartet in his mouth.” Another mentioned a sign he saw for coffee recently that said “Taste the Aroma!”

The point is — it’s really hard to talk about coffee and/or music! And the “cacophony of nuance” pretty much sums that up. There is some music that is a cacophony of nuance I suppose. Would anyone like to try a cup of Unsuk Chin? It’s a Korean made coffee made in Germany and it’s a wonderful blend of Hungarian and French roasts. Hyper-complex with a hint of D Major here and there. It’s a CACOPHONY OF NUANCE!

Anyway it’s hard to talk about music and coffee, and it’s hard to know what you’re buying if you are a music or coffee customer. Recently I walked into Chicago’s famed Intelligentsia Coffee in search of new flavor. I had gone through a pound of Serra do Bonè: Brazil and it wasn’t working for me. But when I tried to describe what I didn’t like about it, I was at a loss for words, because I didn’t know the COFFEE LINGO. I was like, “it was kind of sour.” And the barista guy was all, “??” I should have read the label on my airtight coffee bag (it pushes the air out if you squeeze it, really quite cool). “Creamy and decadent, with a chocolate truffle focus. Dried raspberries add dimension to the otherwise soft acidity.” Very descriptive, no? But it’s Bad English again. The first sentence isn’t even a sentence. Also, I don’t know what dried raspberries taste like! Has anyone ever had one? Anyway, we know this kind of thing from wine lingo. I asked the barista guy for something a “little less fruity” and “more bitter.” He told me that Intlligentsia Coffee is “really trying to steer their customers away from that taste” but nonetheless recommended Black Cat Classic Espresso noting that it “wasn’t really an espresso.” “This syrupy sweet espresso blend has been the staple of our lineup since the very beginning. Supreme balance and a wonderful sweetness make this a classic.” It’s syrupy, sweet (so sweet they say it twice) and balanced (what is the syrupy sweetness balanced with?), and it’s great because we say it’s great! These descriptions don’t help. They’re vague and subjective, but perhaps they’re good marketing tools, I don’t know.

What I wonder about is what happens when a PATRON calls my wonderful orchestra’s PATRON SERVICES (1-888-745-4717 call now!) DEPARTMENT and asks about the music? What do they say? In that coffee shop I bet I felt like lots of our audience members! Orchestra marketing is way more friendly and stays away from the whole “Intelligentsia” angle in general. You’re not gonna hear “We’re really trying to steer our patrons away from Tchaikovsky and more towards R. Murray Schafer.” But maybe we should do that! It might be fun to try. When I look through our current brochure, I see only one description that really gets into “coffee description” territory. And that’s for a concert we’re doing with Dan Deacon.

“Dan Deacon’s music is simultaneously dance party, electronic odyssey, minimalist magnum opus, and childhood gone horribly right.”

I have no idea at all what that means, but I’ll have a cup of that.

I think I’m going to start getting into this! Composer descriptions that read like the ones on my coffee bags! We could do it for performers too! It might be really fun! I’m sure before long it will reach a crescendo, but the only casualty will be the English language! Let’s go!

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

-intermission-

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:

Beethoven

I was asked to write a (really) short essay about Beethoven for our Beethoven Festival program book. Here it is:

Who is Beethoven? It’s a question that haunts me. When I perform Beethoven’s music, I feel close to a presence, a personality, a force of will so strong that it’s unnerving. I start to have strange dreams. Certain passages keep repeating in my head. My blood pressure goes up. You get the picture.

I first felt this presence at age 16 or so. I was watching the Emerson String Quartet play the second movement of his String Quartet Op. 132. It was in a massive church, on an unadorned altar. I had no idea what I was about to hear. The second movement begins with serene chant-like lines interweaving. It is music of deep devotion, serious prayer. Little by little, the music becomes more expressive, more personal and by the time the second subject is introduced, we’ve moved from deep devotion to pure joy. I didn’t know that the music was about something specific at the time, only that it felt shockingly intimate and personal. Later I learned that the movement was called the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” the Holy Song of Thanksgiving. In this music, Beethoven was sharing the joy of recovering from an illness that almost killed him.

Imagine all the conversations you’ve ever had in your life. How many of them were about something truly important, truly profound? How many times have you laid your soul bare to someone else? This is what Beethoven does in his music: often with power and violence, but just as often with mystery and tenderness.

It was emotional intimacy that Beethoven missed when he went deaf, not just musical sound. “My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood,” he wrote in his Heiligenstadt Testament. “… for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live like one alone, like one who has been banished.” Beethoven was no longer able share these intimate moments, these secret whispers, with others.

When Beethoven’s secrets reveal themselves in his music, they are mysterious, uncanny. He brings us messages from his isolated world, messages that are urgent, but hard to completely understand; they both obfuscate and enlighten us. It’s like God’s answer to Job from the whirlwind: more questions. Like all instrumental music of its time, Beethoven’s music speaks, but there are no words to express what he is saying.

Those moments of wordless speech haunt me: the opening of the Fourth Piano Concerto; the lamenting violins at the end of the Eroica’s funeral march; even the Ode to Joy itself. These messages are profound, but what do they really mean? Beethoven leaves this open. He knows what they mean to him, but he wants a “refined conversation” with us, his “fellow men,” his listeners.

Who is Beethoven? What is this force, this presence in his music? He answers us through his music: “Who are you?”

Rhapsodic

When I was studying with Leonard Stein, who was Schoenberg’s student/assistant …

(by the way he had this old house up in the Hollywood Hills to which I would drive every week and he was pretty old and feisty and “had this neighbor, who was quite attractive I must say — I think she’s an actress or model or something her name is Linda … Evangelista I think? Have you heard of her? Anyway I want to show you this letter Boulez wrote me about Le marteau … “)

…. when he really didn’t dig a piece he would call it “rhapsodic.”  He said it with a sneer.  And I’m thinking about him this week because it’s all Chopin, Wagner, and Liszt at the KW Symphony.

I personally have no problem with rhapsodic music, because I don’t think structure is everything.  I do know a lot about structure, in fact that’s the way I was taught to understand music, but these days I’m thinking about how the music “gets you there.”  Structure is all well and good, but music happens in real time, and though the audience might perceive the structure of a piece in some way, they’re much more concerned with the moment to moment. The fun of performing a piece like Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod or Liszt’s Les Préludes is getting there.  And by “there” of course I mean a musical CLIMAX.  We all know where this piece is going to end up, but the options one has as a performer to get there are infinite! Hmm, that last sentence reminds me of something else (SEX). That’s what’s fun about rhapsodic music — there are fewer structural roadblocks for the performer to do his or her thing.  The only problem with rhapsodic music is that without a clear musical form, the listener has to have at least some idea of what’s coming next — so Wagner and Liszt use lots of sequences and you have to deal with those.  But I don’t mind, I’ve always had a soft spot for them.

Last week I heard the Berlin Philharmonic play Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 in the big orchestra version, which is a piece I studied with Leonard and know really well.  There’s a piece that wears its structure on its sleeve, but it goes by so fast and is so complex (for instance, there are several superimposed structures happening in that piece) that I can’t imagine the audience is following this, though I’m sure they’re aware that the music has structure and is complex in that way.  Schoenberg was of course a Structure Queen as was Brahms ,which is why Sir Simon put them on the same program.  (You have to read Schoneberg’s essay Brahms the Progressive).  In both composers, there’s this tremendous tension between structure and Romantic Sentiment.  A kind of self-repression or self-negation going on I think. The structure seems to be the walls holding the wildness back.  This is what makes Brahms so difficult to perform well, I think.  But when it’s great, when all the structure and emotion are in line it’s beautiful and always a little sad because it’s about real life where rhapsodic music is about our inner fantasies.

And yes, Wagner and Liszt do have structure too, in their own way, but as compositions they are by no means obsessed with it.  It’s fun to be in rhapsody / fantasy world this week.  Orchestra concerts could use more music like this and less “structure concerts.”  Opera, you know where it’s at, you’ve got plenty of both!