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'Musical Thoughts' Category

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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Sibelius 7 (2)

In twenty minutes, this symphony holds up a mirror to us, shows us how our life will unfold, because we, too, are creatures of nature, and cannot escape its plans for us. The silence after the last moment of music, and what it portends, is as significant as the symphony itself. Sibelius drops us into silence almost without warning, and forces us to look directly into the darkness. It’s a moment of terrifying beauty.

Steve Martland

Overwhelmed after rehearsing the late Steve Martland’s Crossing the Border this afternoon with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This is work of righteous anger by a composer too little known in the United States.

His music is, in his own words, “a weapon against despair.”

To perform Crossing the Border is like going to battle as a member of a spiritual army. It has the fervor and ecstatic quality of William Blake, the artist he reveres. Like Blake, Martland’s music marries Heaven and Hell. It is as work of sublime beatific violence, mercilessly slaying the ugly, the petty, the illiberal, the myopic, the ungenerous.

Have a listen. Learn more about him.

Sibelius 7 (1)

After working on this today I felt like I had to lie down: the same feeling after learning or experiencing something that cuts to the quick. This symphony is a window to how life has gone, is going, will go. It gets sadder. It doesn’t end well at all, yet it feels right.

What’s Up?

 

I’ve spent the week hiking every morning, rehearsing every night. Music in the mountains is an old idea, but a good one. On these hikes, I’ve been thinking about the urge to go up, why we want to keep climbing. I’ve been noticing the water streaming down from somewhere high, how it roars at one moment and is still the next. All these hikes struck me as a metaphor for what we do as artists. Always pushing up, trying to be better, looking for the source of the flowing water, looking for the still moment at the summit, the secret vista waiting at the top.  And then we turn around and go back down. We can’t stay there forever, but we’ll climb there again.

 

EmeraldLake

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.

Moments

I think when we talk about classical music in forums such as these, it’s most often “big picture” stuff: the future of orchestras – is classical music dead – how do we change etc.

But for me it seems that what moves things forward are specific moments, and points of contact with the art itself.  I collected a few I experienced from the past few months. I don’t think it’s business as usual out there, at least where I’m traveling.

 

Here they are:

 

A young clarinetist tries to tell a large audience what it feels like to be an outsider.  Short of breath, he almost gives in to nerves and panic. Then he takes a deep breath, and just plays.

 

A famous orchestra drives into the suburbs in search of new a audience, and finds one.

 

A violinist creates an 80 minute program of Beethoven and Cage, interspersed with narratives about communication, blindness, and deafness.

 

An audience of 4th to 8th graders learns that Stalin killed millions of people.  They listen to Shostakovich differently.

 

A stage director learns to let the music speak for itself. “We need to pull back and give the music space to be what it is,” he says.

 

An audience cheers when the orchestra reaches C Major in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

 

A harp string spontaneously snaps during ppp cluster chords in a Henry Cowell orchestra piece.

 

An orchestra presents a concert about music and quantum physics while the city hosts an NRA convention with 75,000 attendees.

 

A Canadian immigration officer learns that symphony tickets are actually affordable.

 

Two orchestras premiere a piece on the same weekend.  The composer hops on a plane and gets to hear both performances.

 

A young CEO gets excited about supporting an orchestra’s education projects.  He grew up in a steel town and listened to his father’s 78’s of Enrico Caruso. His life changed.

 

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.