Sunday, July 11, 2010

Unsung Heroes: Music@Menlo's Interns

What happens behind the scenes at Music@Menlo, the summer chamber music festival and institute that begins its eighth season on the Peninsula on July 23, is as revealing of the festival’s essence as the musical events themselves. Attendees don’t realize the extent to which the 22 administrative interns contribute to the plethora of concerts and events that make up the festival’s public persona. Their cheerful spirit, youthful zaniness, and willingness to do anything and everything help to make the festival a vibrant, summer musical destination. “Last year, when pianist Menahem Pressler broke a piece of his luggage, I took him to a store to purchase a new one,” said Serena Robbins, an artist liaison intern. Several years ago, a musician drove here overnight from Portland, arriving at 4 a.m. at the Golden Gate Bridge, totally lost. The artist liaison intern drove to meet him and took him to the home where he was staying so he could make a 9 a.m. rehearsal.

“There’s no way we could run the festival without the interns,” explains Operations Director Marianne LaCrosse, who manages the Internship Program. They whisk the visiting artists to and from the airport; set up and tear down the performance and rehearsal venues; create and maintain the complex festival concert schedules (40 performances in 23 days); market the festival CDs, posters, and materials; manage the donor events; coordinate hospitality and food concession sales; and even tape video events for the extensive archives.

The Internship Program is also a mega-learning opportunity for people who want to experience what it takes to run a music festival while expanding their interpersonal skills for three of the busiest and stress-filled weeks of their lives. “I’m exhausted!,” wrote stage management intern Brandy Lee Hatcher in her 2008 blog. “It is the fifth day since rehearsals first began and my days have gone insane. Yesterday I spent 16 hours over at St. Mark’s stage, managing the rehearsal, recording, and performance of Concert Program 1. But I learned that a festival is one big puzzle to decipher, and I love puzzles,” she added.

Putting It Together

Wu Han and David Finckel in performanceArtistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han plan the three weeks as a training ground for musicians and administrators that replicates the busy life of professionals. “Training arts administrators by starting an internship program was a part of the design of the festival from the beginning,” stated Wu Han. “We need leaders in the arts, people who have passion and discipline, and, hopefully, we’ll create leaders for the future at Menlo,” she commented.

Fran Eastman and Edward Goodstein, through their Goodstein Foundation, have funded the program since 2004. “We felt the festival needed a strong internship program to actualize David’s and Wu Han’s visionary plans,” said Goodstein. Part of the training for the interns is a series of seminars given by the year-round Music@Menlo staff, which cover the basics of arts management — marketing and branding, strategic planning, fund-raising, and development. The current enterprise is an organized, sophisticated undertaking that receives calls from other festivals, asking for advice on how to set up their own internship program.

Music@Menlo students rehearsing outdoorsThe groundwork starts late in October when Music@Menlo sends 10 different intern job descriptions to all major colleges and university career centers in the U.S.. Not all have musical requirements. “I found out about the stage manager internship in the summer of 2008 through a Web site,” said Hatcher, “and my experience as stage manager in high school and at Stephens College was a good match.” Asked why she chose stage management, she replied, “I loved theater but don’t like to sing; and my parents said that clearly I had to be a stage manager because I boss everyone around, anyways.” This year, 75 applicants were interviewed over the phone or in person for the 22 intern positions to be filled. Eight of the interns are returning from last year — a tribute to the effectiveness of the program. Some of the positions are matched into teams that vary from two to seven interns (the production team).

All interns arrive five weeks before the festival’s start, except the production staff, who arrive two weeks later. Although they are offered a small stipend of around $1,000, they have to pay their own travel and housing expenses. “What impressed me when I got to Menlo was the size of the program and the organization. We had laptops on the first day, and lots of information,” commented Sophie Walker, a student liaison team intern in 2008. By contrast, Hatchers’ first impression, after motoring through Atherton, was, “Gosh, these people are rich. The post-concert parties were in houses five times the size of what I’m used to in Kansas,” she commented.

Getting Down to Business

After an orientation session and a tour of the facilities, the work begins. The student liaison interns start scheduling travel and arranging home stays for the 40 students who are coming to play at the Institute — 29 in the Young Performer’s Program and 11 in the preprofessional International Program. Interns create and deliver the orientation program for the two groups; plan the table-tennis tournament; meet with “Surfer Mike” to create a yoga class for the students; and handle questions (and complaints) from parents and students. “These are children from 11 to 16, but they also are prodigies beyond whatever I hope to achieve, and you have to admire them,” explained Walker, who played bass clarinet in college.

The interns are chosen to bring their experiences and personalities to Music@Menlo, and their contributions are many and varied. “I was good at calming someone who would be overly anxious — what do you need to be productive without being frenetic as the concert approaches?” commented Ellen Mezzera, a production manager intern in 2009, and an artist liaison intern this summer. “What I brought to Menlo was a real passion for helping people,” said Serena Robbins. “And so, assisting the world’s leading musicians was easy and exciting for me.” Sometimes, unknown skills are created from job necessities. One of the major things Walker learned was “how to interact with donors and patrons, how to balance what is going on behind the scene with the demands of ticket holders, and to communicate with them in a way that’s friendly. I learned how to develop a professional persona that represented the face of the organization,” she commented.

The combination of hard work and fun that the interns bring to Music@Menlo is part of the “family culture” of the festival that is a major reason for its success. “David and Wu Han have created an atmosphere where there are no divisions between the artists, students, audiences, parents, and interns,” commented LaCrosse. Every day the artists, students, and interns eat lunch together. “When you go through eight weeks of very intense activities with the same people, it becomes a bonding experience,” Walker remarked. In the after-dinner welcome to the interns, Wu Han, a noted pianist, tells the story of a woman who served as page turner for her 20 years ago and who eventually became an executive of her concert’s sponsoring organization. She thanked Wu Han for treating her so kindly when she was turning the pages of her score.

As the festival nears its end, evaluation of the activities serves as the first planning step for next year’s concerts. “Each intern team documents their work during the festival in a binder, leaving ‘tips and tricks’ for next year’s interns,” commented LaCrosse. The binder documents their own work, often in creative ways, and allows them a chance to reflect on their overall experience. The week after the festival ends marks the last week of the internship, and each team or individual intern makes a short presentation on stage about their internship. “It’s a way to give them public speaking experience and to share their experience with the staff and the other interns,” LaCrosse stated. For some, the people they met and worked with lead to future professional positions. “I stayed with the friends I met at Menlo in New York until I found a job as an intern and production assistant for Aruba Productions,” Ellen Mezzera said.

Part of Sophie Walker’s binder was a poem that she and her partner, Christina Hu, wrote in 2008. It ends:

As one, we know that the Festival ends And separate paths will follow, But we are grateful for these new friends: The staff and musicians at Music@Menlo.
Robert Moon

This article first appeared on July 6, 2010 at

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Loud and Fast, Loud and Clear

by D. Ch’an-Moriwaki
(dianna cm)

Pianist Yuja Wang played last night, the eve of the Summer Solstice, giving San Francisco the recital that didn’t happen in April, Ms. Wang having been coping then with an arm injury. The evening was thus a triumph, personal as well as musical, as gauged by the audience’s standing response which brought Chopin and Scarlatti encores, wrapping up a program of Schubert-Liszt, Schumann, Scriabin, and Prokofiev.
But, must virtually every performance these days be acknowledged by standing ovations? More to the point, is the current penchant for clapping while standing on one’s feet truly warranted? Is the old-fashioned tradition of clapping while sitting in one’s seat really so passé? Aren’t inspired artistry and insightful interpretation, balanced by well-judged musicality and impeccable musicianship, each aspect present in a unitized, provisionally perfect expression, still the criteria that merit standing ovations?
I say ‘provisional’ in the sense of perfection’s being a dynamic rather than a static state. The bottom-line is this: If excellent though flawed performances can elicit standing ovations, how then do we applaud the truly great performances, those which realize that elusive, provisional perfection? By turning somersaults in the aisles? Such matters have increasingly been put to the fore in recent years. And in my own mind, the question was put yet once more. In dead earnest. For I was among the few in the house who did not stand.
“How come you’re not standing, either?” I playfully remarked with a twinkle, to the gentlemen next to me who also remained seated. This led to a nonplussed response from each, a struggle to quickly but definitively put a finger on something elusively and disturbingly not quite right about Ms. Wang’s otherwise near-perfect performance, something discomfiting and unpleasant, like an ill-fitting garment, something about . . . about the loud parts. Earlier, during intermission, my dear friend Bob Moon (our blogger) had joined me to compare listener experience. With a perplexed, concerned expression, he came over to check: Is he hearing things, or is there actually something ‘off’ about the loud parts? How come (another highly respected and distinguished Asian, female concert pianist) doesn’t sound like that?
Well, that's four of us, 'hearing things.' Right from the beginning of her recital, I had thought for sure it was me, my own problem, and blamed myself for being so hyper-critical as to be unhappy with her loud-fast, the first of which was in the Schubert/Liszt. But it became apparent that what we each were hearing was not imaginary, and we were not being overly critical --- nor was it an assumption attributable to faulty, diminished tracking abilities in 'older people's hearing,' for the two gentlemen next to me were quite younger. "Can't really get what she's saying clearly"... "maybe the loud parts were too loud?"... "she was playing too fast, maybe?"... "sounded flat and harsh"... was the gist that triggered our lively post-performance discussion in the lobby, the two lovely gentlemen David and Neil, Bob our blogger, and I. (Yes, absolutely, a gentleman can be lovely, just as a woman can be handsome, both qualities being expressive of distinctive presence and generosity of spirit.)
Throughout the program, every extended loud-fast passage blazed by in a wall of sound that wanted more sculpted definition, especially the loud-fast pieces. Orchestras, conductors, soloists, are taking speeds faster these days . . . because they can. Their ‘clocks’ tick faster. Their ‘neuros’ transmit with high-speed frequencies. Sometimes it’s virtually impossible and downright painful, almost, for people of contemporary generations to slow down. Racing through her runs, Ms. Wang was wont to crank it up even faster, when she should have instead held her tempo. In each of the Ravel Left Hand Concerto’s glissandi, she finished those phrases ahead of MTT and the orchestra. Throughout last evening’s recital, every run started off speedy and got speedier.
The vibration level, active consciousness, and thus functional dexterity of the more recent generations of artists is such that, steadily, over time, we have been hearing music played at ever-faster tempi. Compare a contemporary performance of, say, a Brahms symphony --- Simon Rattle’s recent concerts here with the Berlin Phil come to mind --- with that of a Walter, for example, or even a Toscanini. And as to loud, the tensile strength of body in today’s generations are marvels of contained power and resilience, where the massive shoulders of an Alicia de Laroccha in the producing of big sound likely will soon become an anachronism. So, the capacity for loud and fast may be here to stay, be it sometimes the incoherent blur. However, it is possible to make even the most fleet fortissisimo sensible, sensical, intelligible, and ultimately, musical.
The performer hopes for, while the audience expects, an instrument of clear and crisp sonority, such that forte massive chords and running passages don’t sound dulled in palette, but retain their transparent sparkle and clear hues even as the sound decays. Remarkably, Ms. Wang’s instrument was not among the finest Steinways I have listened to, in voice, sonority, color, and clarity. After all, her artistic caliber is such that she should have only the very finest piano available. But unless you travel with your own, personal piano/s (Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman each fly with not one, but several, of their own concert grands when on tour), you’ll only get whatever you can, even from among the very best pianos, those which are the artist instruments. This is ever the musical dilemma and handicap for pianists.
Nonetheless, it goes without saying, that innate musicality overrides and redeems any less-than-ideal instrument. Especially critical, musicality in the loud-fast assures that music does not present as merely a flat, undifferentiated wall of massed, unintelligible sound. The faster the speed and the louder the volume, the more exacting the expectation and demands, such as the highly nuanced shaping and unfurling of a line’s contours, the finely controlled dynamics of varying intensities through the sequence of notes, the elastic, fine-gauge adjusting of acceleration/deceleration, to create the illusion of an arc in the unspooling of a phrase.
Musical music is executed as curves within curves, within one grand arch that falls away and rises into another great curve, containing its smaller arcs and contours in the rise and fall of a phrase, a breath, a gesture. Even angular music such as the evening’s Prokofiev sonata is intrinsically built with bends and twists. Shaping and phrasing breathe, provide structure, support meaning, in the loud-fast’s sometimes dangerous headlong, mindless plunge. Ms. Wang’s musicality was exquisitely, wondrously present in the beautiful cadenza so poignant and tender, in last week’s Ravel Left Hand Concerto with MTT and our Orchestra, but it turned up missing in the second movement of that concert’s Stravinsky Capriccio. But while her pianism was otherwise gratifyingly musical in her SF Symphony program, it was strangely missing again, or indiscernible, in all the loud-fast of last evening’s entire program.
But wait! Maybe it was because of her pedaling. How the sustaining pedal is used is an utterly critical factor, and nowhere as crucial as in the loud-fast. Knowing piano players have intricate footwork going on the pedal, variously called “half-pedaling,” “feathering,” “tapping.” Constantly lifting the foot, just a tad at key points, clears the flooding mush and smearing of harmonics, maintains clarity and definition. The faster and louder the music, the more dangerous is lead-footed pedaling, for it destroys the integrity of brilliant, virtuosic, high-speed fortissimo passages.
Fortissimo chords can be played to carry bell-like clarity of the sonic mass, where the chord’s tones and intervals retain pitch differentiation through the decay phase. Though hands might come crashing forcefully down upon the keys, those hands immediately lift off the keybed, like a bounce into and off the keys. This raises the hammers off the strings, allows the strings’ full vibration, defines the pitches, and creates a richly complex, ringing sonority that carries across the hall and resonantly fills the ambient space, glorious sound reflecting off every surface. Conversely, pushing downward into the keybed for the loud, holding down onto the keys, such technix interfere with the mechanical lifting of hammers from the strings, constricts resonant harmonics, dulls color, dampens sonority’s amplitude, and imparts a harsh timbre to the chords.
At the Symphony’s concert last week, a falling passage near the beginning of Ms. Wang’s Ravel Left Hand Concerto was pedaled too deeply toward the floor, and without enough lifting. That may have been merely idiosyncratic. But last night’s recital left no doubt that every loud-fast in the entire program needed more judiciously placed and shallower pedaling. On the other hand, a primarily loud-fast work like last evening’s Prokofiev uses very little pedal, but requires exquisite shading, well-contoured shaping, finely judged phrasing, with almost constantly springy, bouncing lift-off from the keys. In this respect, wanting such refinements and technix, Ms. Wang’s Prokofiev resulted in a clangorous, recognizable though unintelligible performance, unfortunate in that such glittering, skittering music absolutely needs not only to be “loud,” shall we say, but clear.
Interestingly, Ms. Wang plays louds the same way my friend does (another Asian, female concert pianist), that is, pushing down into the keybed, and the holding down of keys. I’d noticed this kind of technic before among pan-Asian pianists, more pronounced with women than men. Could it be a commonality of training that attempts to compensate for the slight physical frame of Asian women? For the massive sonics of Western classical music? For the power, stamina, and endurance required for huge concert halls and orchestras? For media-driven, high-speed jet travel and tightly booked, worldwide performance schedules? Do concert artists suffer from jet lag, yet the show must go on anyway? Et cetera? I don’t know.
I do know, however, that the springy ‘bounce’ in the forte/fortissimo attack on the keys spares the arm and wrist by its reflexive motion, that this is a technique which accords synergistically with the physiology’s natural biophysics of movement, as well as the mechanical and acoustical physics of the piano. And I do know that such an approach bypasses entirely the supposed problems attributed to the small frame, spare upper body, thin shoulders, tiny wrists, and to the need for sustained sonic power, physical endurance, and performance stamina.
Certainly, there must be Asian paradigms of musical training and performance in the Western classical tradition, of which we have only limited or no awareness on these shores at this time --- not to even mention the abstruse cultural differences, exceedingly subtle yet highly distinctive, that contextualize the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese character and temperaments, which I can sometimes discern in the individual performer’s uniquely consummate artistry.
In fairness, however, I should also explain that I am Asian (American-born), a female pianist classically trained, and have lived with concerts and recordings in critically attentive, not passive, listening since early childhood. In matters musical, therefore, and even extra-musical --- I hear many observations regarding Ms. Wang’s stage presence, for example --- there is a certain compassionate appreciation, grounded especially in a particular empathy for the Asian-born and -trained performing musician in Western art music.
So there we were, sitting at the closing of Ms. Wang’s recital when most everyone else was standing. Maybe it was due to our position in the hall, that the four of us experienced a thrilling though less-than-ideal musical offering. Maybe the hall’s acoustic peculiarities did not flatter Ms. Wang’s high-speed forte/fortissisimo, to sensitively attuned, discriminating listeners sitting in the wrong place. The orchestra section, those main floors in many concert and recital halls, is notorious for seemingly irremediable “dead spots,” where music’s complex properties seem to dull, diffuse, and lose differentiation. They’re the concert-hall analogue to the doldrums of the equatorial tropical oceans. Were we four adrift in such a musical dead spot perhaps, sitting in the acoustic doldrums of Herbst Theatre? I don’t think so. For, apart from the loud-fast, Ms. Wang’s musicality and the hall’s sonics seemed beyond reproach.
So, in the final analysis, whether it was the piano, the natural speediness of her generation, her pedaling, her fortissisimo attack, or even the hall, whether every loud-fast exhibited a lapse of her otherwise considerable musical sensibility, notwithstanding, Yuja Wang is quite simply a stupendous talent and exceptional artist. When her loud-fast refines, defines, and clarifies, she will be an extraordinary artist. Though her performance, in the seasoned assessment of the four of us (David and I as pianists, blogger Bob a music-writer/CD-reviewer, Neil a connoisseur of music), was flawed in the loud and fast and thus did not merit a standing ovation, it certainly was near-perfect. As such, therefore, her performance did indeed merit the sitting ovation we gave her, loud and clear. :::


Yuja Wang in Recital
Sunday, 20 June 2010, 7PM
Herbst Theatre

Franz Schubert/ Franz Liszt Schubert Song Transcriptions, S. 558
Robert Schumann Symphonic Etudes, Opus 13
Alexander Scriabin Preludes: B-flat Major, Op 11, No.11
B minor, Op. 13, No. 6
G-sharp minor, Op. 11, No. 12
Etude in G-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 9
Poème in F-sharp Major, Op. 32, No. 1
Serge Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82


Fredric Chopin Waltz in C# minor (encore)
Alessandro Scarlatti Sonata in G Major, K. 455 (encore)


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dudamel Mania

Now that the Los Angeles Philharmonic's U.S. tour is completed and the critic's reaction is engraved in print, it's time for me to react to the two concerts I attended in Davies Symphony Hall on May 10 and 11, 2010. Although I love most of John Adams' work, City Noir, is not one of his masterpieces. It's always exciting to hear a work with this large instrumental presence live, and that sense of frisson and wonder was magnified by sitting behind the orchestra. But the work is flat out noisy with little melody to redeem the urban chaos it reflects. I can get that by visiting L.A., but it's not what I want in a concert. Maybe repeat hearings (it's just released on CD and the DVD is available)would change my mind, but there's too much else in his oeuvre that is worthwhile - Harmonielehre, Naive and Sentimental Music, Violin Concerto for starters). It seemed to be performed magnificently. The Mahler First, however, was truly memorable. By far the most exciting performance I've heard in a long time. Yes, he took many liberties with tempos and there was much rubato, but in doing that he emphasized the different emotional states the work encompasses in a way that was creative and innovative. I listened to the final movement on the edge of my seat, literally, and the excitement was overwhelming. That kind of passion is rare in a concert environment and even rarer in MTT's Mahler. Yes the San Francisco Symphony can play it much more accurately, but that extra ounce of passion is rarely present as it was on that Monday night.

Tuesday's concert was more ordinary, and my seat was in the Second Tier. Bernstein's Age of Anxiety was pleasant to hear live and it was well played. But it didn't move me. The Pathetique was where Dudamel's tendency to milk a work for its emotion did not work for me. The first movement was superb: the right combination of sadness and longing. The scherzo was exciting but over the top. Designed to bring forth applause in its frenzy, which it did. I thought his holding the applause for an extended period of time at the end of the work was gratuitous and unwarranted. So, for me, a mixed bag. The L.A. Philharmonic isn't close to the accomplished orchestra we have in San Francisco. On the other hand, it can play magnificently as witnessed in a performance I heard in L.A.'s incredible Disney Hall of Mahler's 6th Symphony under Eschenbach. I choose to attribute Dudamel's ups and downs to youth, and not to the desire to show off. After all, he's not even 30!
Robert Moon

Monday, April 12, 2010

San Francisco Opera's High Definition Rondine

From the very get-go, my experience of watching San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine on April 7, 2010 in High Definition Digital at the Kabuki Theater was different than my experiences with the Met Live in HD and Emerging Pictures’ opera-movies. When I went on line to make a reservation to watch this 2009production, I saw that I bought reserved specific seat locations, unlike the Met’s Live in HD presentations that were general seating. Just like watching opera live in the opera house, I didn’t have to worry about sold out houses or coming early to get the best seat. The Kabuki, recently renovated as part of Sundance Cinemas, is a ‘luxury’ movie theater with plush, rock-back seats, gourmet food selections and reserved seating. Yet, the price for watching the opera was $14, significantly less than the Met charges. The second surprise was a San Francisco Opera staff member at a table outside the screen entrance, who handed out a synopsis and an evaluation form. Clearly, the San Francisco Opera wanted feedback from their customers to use in future promotions.
The first thing I noticed in the sold-out theater (the audience was aged, largely between 40 and death, including this writer) was that the size of the screen was smaller than the normal movie theater screen. When the film started the big surprise was the incredible clarity of the digital picture: a level of brilliance that made colors more vivid, blacks blacker and details matter. I have never experienced this level of clarity in any movie theater! Whether the reason was the smaller screen (making the images clearer) or the digital recording and/or screening method was unknown. For the first few minutes there was a lack of color in the images; everything was a pale green. Then, the colors came on and the beauty of the art deco sets became obvious in a way that a live performance could never match, no matter how close to the stage one sat. The sound was adequate but it was not surround, as it came from the screen, although there were speakers on each of the sides of the auditorium that could have transmitted surround sound.
When I interviewed Jessica Coplos, Director of Electronic Media for the San Francisco Opera, for an article, “Live Opera-Movies, A Vital New Art Form,” for San Francisco Classical Voice, she told me that Operavision (their name for live digital transmission of the performance) gave balcony audiences a close-up view of the action by placing two small screens in the balcony. They also did not want the cameras to interfere with the performers or the main floor audience. As a result, the cameras filmed the opera from one level above the stage, providing ample close-ups and distance shots, but preventing the more creative shots from ground level (looking up at the performers) and precluding the moving shots that robotic cameras make possible. While the limited camera angles never impeded the view of the action and provided the close-up shots that makes opera-movies a new experience, I missed the added drama that more flexible camera angles and movements provide. After all, it’s the quick editing of multiple camera angles that makes opera at the movies a new art form.
The one intermission of 20 minutes was clearly announced from the screen and allowed patrons to purchase refreshments and stretch their legs. It was at this time that a video camera was positioned outside the screening room door and gave members of the audience a chance to comment on the opera-movie experience. When I had completed my interview, I returned to my seat, and, to my surprise, found some interviews with the performers and artistic personnel showing on the screen. But I couldn’t hear them talk because the volume level was so low that the patron’s chatter drowned out the interviews. It would be much better to do the interviews at the same volume levels as the opera before the intermission, so those wishing to stay could hear them and enjoy the insights that can enhance the opera-movie experience.
My two companions and I enjoyed the opera and found it to be a different experience from the live performance. I did attend the live performance of La Rondine last year, but the ability of the camera to show the singing and acting up close resulted in a more memorable dramatic, musical and emotional experience than the live performance. On the other hand, I appreciated the SFO’s efforts to make the best use of their extensive videos of their performances. Please, show this season’s brilliant performance of Strauss’ Salome, and I’m there in a second!

Sunday, April 4, 2010


I walked out of my Second Tier seat of Davies Symphony Hall into the lobby on Friday February 5, 2010 only to hear a string quartet in the distance – two floors below. Charles Ives would have loved the music wafting up from a source unclear, as if lifted on a sonic cloud to my ears. For this great American composer, hearing all kinds of music in different environments was as natural as eating watermelon on a hot summer afternoon in Danbury, Connecticut, Ives’ birthplace. He incorporated these sounds into his formal compositions, including his Concord (piano) Sonata, the orchestration (by Henry Brant) of which was on the second half of the program that evening.

The American composer Henry Brant had heard Ives’ metaphysical hymn, “The Unanswered Question,” and admired his use of “spatial separation, un-coordinated rhythm and a polyphony of simultaneous, contrasting styles.” He saw the possibilities of “the complete [Concord] Sonata, in a symphonic orchestration, that might well become the ‘Great American Symphony’ that we had been seeking for years.” From 1958 to 1994 he worked on orchestrating the Sonata and A Concord Symphony was premiered in 1995.

The cacophony of the orchestra warming up for the performance of the Concord Symphony served as an un-programmed but appropriate overture. Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, verbally introduced the work to the audience in his inimitable Bernsteinian manner. “This work was Ives personal reaction to his feelings about American Transcendentalism – people whose spiritual state was achieved through individual intuition, not religious beliefs,” he related. “In Hawthorne, the second movement, Ives meant to confuse us with wacky, sensory, overload.”

I listened to the only recording of this amazing work several times at home and was excited to hear it performed live. Nothing could prepare me for the forceful beginning of the famous chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pounded out by the whole orchestra. The way Brant scored the strings as a melodically soft counterpoint to the muscular winds and brass was magical. There were moments of full-orchestral majesty that melted into plangently hushed horns…and the use of the wind machine was mesmerizing. MTT bounced from one foot to the other, his animated arms and body urging the orchestra on.

The end of Emerson (the first movement) brought forth images of a quite New England evening as people dozed off into their reveries. Hawthorne (the second movement) became a phantasmagorical Halloween night with creepy creatures hip-hopping in the dark. Whiffs of honky-tonk jazz merged with the ever-present da-da-da-duh of Beethoven. The quote from Ives’ Three Places in New England raucously marched in…and ‘Columbia the Gem of the Ocean became a quiet interlude rudely interrupted with a karate-chop ending, repeating the finale of the composer’s Second Symphony. Only in America could these two composers (Ives and Brant) get away with that kind of polyphonic eclecticism!

Then came the ‘Alcotts,’ a diametrically opposite vision of American Transcendentalism – a warm, hazy, sentimental and comfortable picture of an American family. It was relaxed and lyrical, the perfect antidote to the chaos of Hawthorne. The fourth movement – ‘Thoreau’ – quiet, impressionistic and thoughtful – ends the work. The passionate performance was given an enthusiastic applause by the less than capacity audience. It was an outpouring of gratitude for those knew how rare it is to hear this great symphony performed live.

Is it one of the candidates for ‘the Great American Symphony?’ Can it stand with Ives’ Second and Fourth Symphonies, Copland’s Third, Schuman’s Third and Eighth, Barber’s First or the Harris Third? In an earlier class, we saw a 1958 Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concert” video whose title was “What is American Music?” In the end, Bernstein named the diversity of the American personality and its musical roots as the criteria for defining music that’s American. He used the syncopated rhythm of jazz in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the young, optimistic sounding music of William Schuman’s American Festival Overture, the loneliness of wide open spaces in Copland’s Billy the Kid, and the sweet homespun melodies from Virgil Thompson’s opera, the Mother of Us All as examples. The finale from Copland’s Third Symphony was his choice as a work that encapsulated a lot of these diverse American personalities, and he brought the composer on stage to conduct it. Bernstein never mentioned Ives, but in 1958 he still was a well kept secret or ignored.

Author Jan Swafford, in his biography, Charles Ives: A Life with Music, identifies the different aspects of Ives musical personalities: ultra modernist, nationalist, amateur, primitive, neurotic and sly fabricator of his own myth. David Schiff, in a 1997 article in the Atlantic, “The Many Faces of Ives,” concludes that “Ives believed music had to be with sublime or ridiculous: it could lead either to spiritual redemption of mankind or to a good laugh.” Each of these sources concur with Bernstein that the singular characteristic of American music is its diversity. Of all the possibilities of the ‘Great American Symphony’ listed above, A Concord Symphony has the most musical diversity.

And yet, there are two other characteristics that are missing for me to choose it as the one. The Ives I heard in Davies Symphony Hall that night never moved me. Ives clothes the popular and diverse roots of his music in a musical language that, especially upon one hearing, would be difficult for most people to ‘understand.’ I remember a Bernstein performance at the University of Michigan in the 1960s of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Ives’ Second Symphony. Mahler, who Bernstein ‘discovered’ in the Sixties, has gone on to become an audience favorite. Ives remains a curiosity in the concert hall today. Mahler’s music may be complex, but it evokes an emotional response in the listener that is missing in A Concord Symphony. Bernstein was right in choosing Copland’s Third Symphony in 1958 as the ultimate example of ‘American Music.’ It has diverse American roots, and evokes emotional responses in listeners. Yes, in terms of music of our times, it may lack the intellectual substance of Ives, but hearing the last movement of Copland’s Third brings tears to my eyes. Maybe the ‘Great American Symphony’ hasn’t been written yet. Oh, I forgot John Adams Harmonielehre! But that’s a topic for another paper and another day.
Robert Moon
March 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Music at Menlo - Summer 2010

Although the official announcement of the complete program for the magnificent summer chamber music festival in the south bay, Music at Menlo, is yet to come, my new BBC Magazine offers a tantalizing preview. The theme will be "Maps and Legends" and will include a diverse range of composers. On August 3, David Finckel and Wu Han will perform the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas. Pianist Alessio Bax will perform a three part program entitled: "Found in Translation," and Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish will perform Schubert's Winterreise. More to be announced soon.

Friday, March 19, 2010

O’s, Lots of O’s

Faces, beautiful with the smooth perfection of youth, in grotesquerie. Grimacing, writhing, wrung-out in over-the-edge extremity. Mouths, lips, pervasively shaped as screaming, moaning O’s, crying out, Oh, Oh, Oh! Endless Oh!!’s. Oh!’s from the sheer agony of pleasure and pain, contorted by Orgasm, the Ominous, Oblivion. Gripping, shrieking Oh! ’s return again and again throughout the video, emblazoned by burnished brass, burning those images into the brain, defining the distorted underbelly of blighted life come of age.

Mesmerizing music, pulsating throughout with rock and jazz elements, pop and rap, R&B and electronica. Music urbanly street-sinister, darkly noir, thrillingly full of men and menace, the saxophones so like the human voice, anguished or exultant. Music sharp and synchronized, on cue with the searing video, the one emphasizing the other, magnifying the riveting, arresting impact of the production. Music composed and performed with the technique and precision, aplomb and mastery that come from conservatory training, classical tradition, and evolved into the myriad breakthrough, modern directions of the twentieth century, its legacy becoming the music of our times, today’s contemporary artistic expression that transcends former, formal musical distinctions. Music as multi-media expression in performance, the new composer’s art.

On a Sunday afternoon, 14th of March, at McKenna Theatre on the campus of San Francisco State University, the New Century Saxophone Quartet presented Heartbreakers (2004, for saxophone quartet) by Dutch composer, Jacob ter Veldhuis, an unforgettably haunting, stunning, highly dramatic work that archetypally encapsulates urban realities in a powerful, in-your-face, yet compassionately consciousness-raising splendor, if such a modifier can be used for so disturbingly tight, tense, and terse a work.

Yet, Heartbreakers is a creative work wholly satisfying. Using snippets of isolated and composite words flashing on the screen, and imagery conveying the general anonymity of the asphalt jungle, of hip city life, booze and after-hours joints, joints and crack, disjointed comments by friends and family, strangers and agencies, a montage self-assembles from the melange. Buttressed and intensified so ineluctably by Veldhuis’ music and its devoted performance by the NCSQ, with special guests David Cutler (piano), Jeff Grubbs (bass), and Tim Adams (drums) on the completing soundtrack, the montage is a virtual template of the tortured soul as independence and free will gone horribly wrong.

Veldhuis, for whom English is a loved yet “foreign” language, being also a composer in language, has taken the alphabetical centrality of “O” to symbolize the centrism of the unreasoned, destroyed life: Oh! the Orgasm, the Ominous, the Oblivion. Snips and snatches of dialogue tell the wearisome, inevitable hard-core reality: She’s 18, she can do what she wants . . . Oh! prostitution. the. big. O. shack-up. joints. crack. abuse. child. Oh! neglect. real. he-man. loser. crying. tears. up. suicide. hell. Oh! There are men, menace, memory. The one and only thing in the world that he feels any connection to, but: She took my kids away from me . . . Oh! his poignant weeping, so heartbreaking . . . or is it his sinuses and tear ducts, wrecked from years of snorting and sniffing . . . .

Concise, terse, a generality of human angst deftly handled, and ultimately more elastically meaningful than a textually and specifically through-written vehicle such as opera or film, Heartbreakers was yet created by Veldhuis with the 360-degree inspired control of the auteur, carried out with the videographics of Jan Boiten As such, composer Jacob ter Velduis (or Jacob TV, his clever and catchy ‘stage name’) and the NCSQ have succeeded magnificently in their collaboration (Heartbreakers had been originally composed for jazz sextet, 1999). Gratefully, Heartbreakers is recorded and the CD is available on the Quartet’s website, where one delightedly sees that on the big baritone sax, it’s not ol’ Gerry Mulligan but the diminutively pert, lovely Connie Frigo, holding up the ‘continuo’ foundation for the group. What we eagerly anticipate with bated breath is Heartbreakers as a DVD, which then would, in addition to the audio, do full justice to the visual.

On the NCSQ website, the same CD also contains John Fitz Rogers' Prodigal Child (2007), which preceded Hearthbreakers on the March 14th program. An absolutely thrilling concert work challenging to perform, Prodigal Child ’s technix incorporate most of the ‘new’ and very sophisticated metrical, rhythmic, and harmonic compositional devices developed in the 20th century, to express an emotional range rich and varied in response to world and national politics, at once subtle yet outspoken. Jointly trio-commissioned (including the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet), Prodigal Child is an important work meriting investigation and CD purchase by sax and brass fans who are lovers of contemporary music. A superb performance, a stunning program. But the splendiferous surprise was that this fabulous concert was FREE! We’re simply full of appreciation and happily whelmed by such gift and grace, indeed!

D. Ch’an-Moriwaki
San Francisco, CA. USA

Note: Robert Moon accompanied Dianna Ch'an-Moriwaki to this amazing concert and asked her to write about it. Many thanks to Dianna for this brilliant review.