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'Music Travels' Category

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.

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.

YouTube Symphony

Ok so it happened. I conducted part of it. It was really really really fun. Here is part 1:

The responses were amazing to read …

There was a GOOD REVIEW

A BAD REVIEW

A blogger and “industry professional” WHO TOTALLY LOSES IT… sample quotes: “And really, I think I’ll stop now, because I’m feeling more than a little cruel right now, even though (to be perfectly honest), I’ve pulled a few punches in what I’ve just said, no matter how critical I might have seemed.” and “During intermission, I talked to some orchestra professionals I know, and none of them were happy. Two even left, one out of boredom, the other with a sense (I think it’s right to put it this way) of faint disgust.”

I love the idea of “orchestra professionals” walking out of the building with “faint disgust.” What would they do if they were “deeply disgusted” at a concert? Maybe someday all “orchestral professionals” will unite and save classical music. Oh yeah, they’re already in charge. (just kidding, some of my best friends are “orchestra professionals” haha).

So how was the MUSIC? I think generally what was written was true: not fully refined, but enthusiastic. Some of it was even quite rough at times, like the Harrison piece I conducted. But it all sounded way better than when we started it a day or two earlier. All of my colleagues who were helping to prepare this concert were impressed and moved by the process, even if it didn’t meet the highest technical standards. We all knew it wasn’t going to be perfect, and that was an unusual and liberating feeling. For those of us involved, meeting these intrepid musicians was inspiring — and it was a privilege to help them get their orchestra rolling. There was deep joy in the process.

I think that’s what we all were so excited about. It was a moment in history, a bold experiment, well-funded (for once). The fact that it came together as it did on the musical, technical (meaning stage-changes, lights, video), personal, and audience level was exhilarating. I’ve never seen an undertaking that complex come together so fast, and so well.

Finally, the orchestra itself had a special quality, different than, say, some of the other brilliant young orchestras at conservatories and music festivals around the world. It think what set these musicians apart is that they actually took the time (and had the nerve) to audition on YouTube. To me, that implies a certain sense of adventure, lack of cynicism, and desire to have fun. I wonder if I would have done it? If I hadn’t, it probably would have been for cynical reasons.

So yes I was moved, inspired, energized, and more. I’m so glad I was a part of it, even if it was far from perfect. Looking at the faces of the orchestra and my musician colleagues, I don’t think I was alone. It was fun. And in classical music, believe me, we need more fun.

It seems to me that music-making in the classical world is a struggle between joy and perfection. That’s because those rare peak performances are instances of joyous perfection (maybe that’s because Bach has been such a huge influence on all of us). But what about those moments when we don’t reach the top? They usually fall into one of two sub-categories: “rough and joyful” or “perfect and lifeless.” I’m afraid “perfect and lifeless” is the more common category of the two, because it’s safer, and implies hard work. The YouTube Symphony made a case for more “rough and joyful,” music making I think. And that’s a good thing.

PS check out Jeremy Denk’s YouTube Symphony VLOGS. They capture the vibe really well. Plus I’m in them! making quips. I’ve included part one below.

Discoveries

On my way to NYC for the YouTube Symphony.

As I was packing, I was listening to Radio David Byrne. There’s a lot of new, interesting stuff on, including the new Dirty Projectors album which hasn’t come out yet. (They are my favorites these days along with some others on the playlist: St. Vincent, Final Fantasy, The Bird and The Bee). What’s great is how Byrne-influenced all this music is. The Children of Byrne & Eno have grown up and continued the tradition of artsy, beautiful, witty, world-influenced, electronic music! Yay!

And I discovered a recipe for Chicken Fried Bacon.

And I’m now on twitter (eoutwater), if you’d like to keep track of me that way.

End Transmission.

Beethoven 4

What a strange and mysterious symphony. What captivates me is its use of “negative space.”

It opens in a void. All darkness and quiet, no key, no specific tonality. It’s like wandering in a dark room. How big is the room? We don’t know — we’re lost in the emptiness.

And as the symphony progresses, it always wants to return to the darkness, the negative zone of silence. It’s as if the notes of the symphony are written around a great emptiness, to show its architecture.

It’s about something other, something mysterious.

I conduct it this weekend, in misty, beautiful Victoria, BC.

Memphis

I find every journey to the South really really interesting. This is my first time in Memphis.

First, the orchestra: excellent group, great hall. They love to play music, which is what makes me happy when I conduct. No matter how good an orchestra is, if it feels like just another day at the office what’s the point? Of course I have to do my part to make this happen. So in many ways, when I’m working with a given orchestra in a given week, I’m thinking to myself, “How can the music-making be as vivid, as distinctive as possible?” Kudos also to David Loebel (music director – the real thing), and the excellent staff, who have really built something here.

The visit to the town has been full of feeling and emotion for me as well. Seeing the National Civil Rights Museum was incredibly moving because the facade of the museum is the actual Lorraine Motel, where MLK was assasinated.

MLK

What made it even more moving was seeing it in context. With Barack Obama elected president, MLK’s sacrifice and struggle really hit me more than ever before. But there was another context in which I saw this museum: it sits next to one of the poorest zip codes in America, with an infant mortality rate higher than Nigeria! We still have a long way to go. We can do better than this.

Also of course, this is the birthplace of blues and rock and roll. It’s still an enormously musical place. Shouldn’t cities like Memphis and New Orleans be our Vienna? They’re not of course. In the US we have trouble celebrating our own culture. The more I think about it, the culture we celebrate is just a reflection of having and making a lot of money. That’s why we don’t have Carnegie Hall in Memphis.

Beyond that — I’ve been exploring and eating. The best fried chicken ever (Gus’s), catfish, ho-cakes, and some BBQ to come. I’m going to try and hear some American music as well after rehearsal tonight.

Symphony

Working with the Columbus Symphony this week. They’ve recently recovered from a near-death experience (the orchestra was dark for 6 months) where all sorts of bad things happened. Despite this, the orchestra is playing very well. They are a great group of musicians.

There are challenges ahead here, and everywhere for orchestras “in this economy” (that dreaded and ubiquitous phrase). I tend to look at the situation very objectively. It’s easy to point fingers, and play the blame game, but it’s not particularly productive, I think. The objective problem is this: orchestras are non-profits, they need more donors and more earned income (audiences). We need to get more people excited about orchestral music. How?

Well I always put my self in the shoes of one of these “new people.” Why aren’t they coming? Do they hate music? I don’t know anyone who hates music, actually. We all know why “new people” don’t come to the symphony. “It’s stuffy, elitist, snobby, boring, not fun, and they don’t play the music I like.” That’s what they say, but of course most of them haven’t been to a single concert.

It’s the image.

Why don’t orchestras work on their image more? It’s the key. We’re doing all the right stuff. We play a variety of music in my orchestra, from Bach to Radiohead. No one can say we don’t have at least one concert that offers “music they like.” We add untold depth and riches to our community through our educational programs, and by playing the worlds most beautiful music at the highest level.

But not enough people know that.

Image. Image. Image.

Let’s start with the word “symphony.” If you are not a symphony patron, does that word have a positive, negative, or neutral connotation? I think for many it’s a negative, because of its stuffy, snobby vibe. But there’s another romantic side to the word that I notice in contemporary culture. (Justin Timberlake, for instance, in his song “My Love” — “if I wrote you a syyyymmmphony.”) Can we turn the image of the symphony to the romantic thing Justin croons about in his song? We need to start at the very beginning with the word — symphony — that defines us. With imagination, we can make the word what we want it to be.

Courage Under Fire

I had a great time with the Riverside County Philharmonic this weekend. Probably one of the best kept secrets in the LA area: a young, talented orchestra that loves to play, and plays WELL! I’d go back anytime. The main portion of the concert was Shostakovich 10. Many of the musicians literally had to drive through the LA fires to get to the concert, which of course fit the mood of the symphony. One of the musicians captured it on cellphone and put the video on YouTube with the terrifying 2nd movement of Shostakovich 10 in the background. These guys didn’t just play the symphony, they kind of LIVED it.

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.

Good Morning Good Morning

Back to normal again after the Sgt. Pepper show.  It was fun (see above)!  Here is a short list of things about this concert that I wish happened in classical music more often.

1. Everyone knew every note of the music we were playing 

2. I got to wear a rockin’ outfit (I’m the guy on top with the vest)

3. I got to sing backup