Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Perception vs. Reality

I had the privilege of being a performing instrumentalist from the time I started playing in youth groups through the many years I performed professionally in New York City before I fully turned my attention to conducting. Particularly as a percussionist/timpanist, I had plenty of time to observe well over 200 conductors work, witnessing the art form at its highest level and also at levels considerably lower!
Before I started working on the podium I, like many musicians, had a sneaking suspicion that I could do a better job than the vast majority of conductors with whom I collaborated. Partly this was hutzpah, but it also came from the fact that I thought I knew what and what not to do by watching so many conductors work, and particularly with talented artists, seeing rehearsal technique and physical delivery that was economical and connected. How hard could it be if I just applied my own musical knowledge to movement, which is what I did anyway as a percussionist?
As it turns out (as with many things), it’s harder than it looks! I had numerous perceptions of the work conductors do that were just flat wrong, despite so many years of making music with amazing artists. It’s interesting that in conversations with instrumentalists and singers to this day, I still hear some of the same things about the art of conducting that I once thought myself, since the perception of what happens on the podium is hard to understand until you have actually done it for a while.
Here’s a list of some of the preconceptions that I had compared to some of the realities I have experienced:
Perception: Good stick technique is not hard to develop if you watch people who conduct well and just copy their physical delivery.
Reality: We are all different, and it is very hard for one person to copy another because of the physical and emotional differences we bring to our musical endeavors. The same gestures in my hands copied identically will sound different in yours. Beyond, it is so easy to develop habits that are inefficient/unhelpful. As conductors we have to constantly work on being fundamentally sound if we want to be in the good graces of our colleagues, and we truthfully need good will, or the sound will suffer. There are conductors whose musical IQ is that of a genius and who can use this intellectual gift as a tool to get around physical deficiencies, but these people are extremely rare. Usually conductors have worked on either pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais, mentastics, alexander technique, body mapping, or other somatic pedagogies, many times in combinations with ferocious energy in order to allow musical energy to flow more freely, beyond the study of conducting with pedagogues who know how to teach. People who think they can just get up and do it usually have a higher estimation of their abilities than what they can actually deliver.
Perception: It’s not hard to move your hands and hear what is in a score.
Reality: It’s much harder than it looks, because while listening to musicians perform, as a conductor, you are multitasking well beyond right or wrong notes. You are adjusting your physical vocabulary, responding to the sound you hear and what you perceive is needed in the ensemble; you are adjusting your conception of the work in real time compared to what you imagined in study, since you need to empower musicians, taking advantage of their strengths and sensibilities, while at the same time balancing architectural details so there is a thread through a work from beginning to end – it is collaborative and not dictatorial; you are listening with your eyes, looking at players and trying to determine what psychological factors are at play within an ensemble, which necessitates adjustments in your conveyance of criticism/correction; you are determining what will fix itself vs. what needs your attention; you are mindful of the clock (whether working with unions or not), making choices on what to attack given time constraints; you are trying to vary the amount of verbal criticism/correction offered, so as not to be too predictable, sometimes being very quick, and other times taking a moment to explain or sing; in tandem to the prior comment, when stopping, you are determining the fastest way to fix a problem – metaphor or black and white, bowing/fingering change (which can be political/disrespectful), mallet change, articulative recommendations, intonation issues (also political), and a variety of other instrument or singer specific advice that may or may not be appropriate (diction for a soloist), etc…; you are trying to allow yourself to be emotionally connected to the music, yet still listening critically. These are a few of the moving pieces moving through a conductor’s head, and so leading an effective rehearsal while all this information moves in live time is indeed tricky.
Perception: I can do this better than that guy/gal!
Reality: Most of the time you can’t do it better without training and most importantly, podium time. Many conductors have spent very little time on the podium when they are judged initially, and this is so unfair. Can you imagine a few months of training on your instrument and then being asked to take an audition? This is what we face as conductors. Practice can only happen in standing in front of musicians – conducting to a recording does very little in reality to make one a better conductor. I heard Simon Rattle once say that conductors are afraid of being found out. Even after lots of podium time, this nagging feeling is there for those who aren’t arrogant!
Perception: If things don’t work out on my instrument or as a singer, I can always conduct.
Reality: I have heard this so many times, and it amazes me how many people have wanted to pursue conducting without having achieved anything as an instrumental or vocal performer. Otto Werner Mueller once said that if you can make chamber music with world class artists and they are willing to listen to your opinions, then you might have a chance to be a conductor. My sense is without the first hand perspective of actually MAKING the sound, it’s very difficult to connect deeply to the sound and its infinite level of details. How can you feel comfortable leading excellent musicians who have done what you could not do yourself? It does not mean you have to win an orchestral audition, or perform with a major opera company, but somewhere along the line you need to have had the experience of performing on your instrument or singing at a world class level with the highest caliber musicians. Otherwise life on the podium will be about faking it, and at some point this will catch up to you.
Perception: The conductor has tremendous power.
Reality: A conductor does indeed have some power, but not as much as you might think. In today’s world, where unions are still very strong in the orchestral and operatic realms, and boards are also becoming more fiscally conservative, there are many masters to whom you must answer, never mind your audience, who you have to both lead and please. It’s a difficult balancing act on all sides, full of compromise.
Perception: A conductor spends most of his/her time working with musicians, making music.
Reality: A conductor spends a very small amount of time actually making music compared to the number of hours required in study, and these days, doing administrative work and fundraising. I wrote another blog post about the administrative duties a conductor typically performs, particularly if you have the role of a music director, or in a college/high school, a program director. You have to have a tremendously organized mind to get everything in, and the truth is that you will spend more time doing non music work if you are to make a living as a conductor, unless you are super gifted and can just serve as a guest conductor. But even then, there are still lots of details to craft when putting a program together when working with managements.
Perception: once you get a job as a conductor, it becomes easier to work with greater repertoire in your hand and more experience.
Reality: It is extremely difficult to sustain a career. Some can do so because they have other gifts, such as raising money, or programming creatively. But I’ve known many assistant and associate conductors of major orchestras who have had difficulty through their careers maintaining both an income that sustains a decent quality of life, as well as one that is artistically satisfying. Winning one job does not guarantee anything, unless you’ve been conducting as a guest at the major orchestra level, and then you probably will find your way.

When I first told friends I was going to change my career from playing to conducting, most thought I was absolutely out of my mind! Truthfully, if knew then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have made the move the way I did. However, my feeling has always been that if one is able to work hard enough and be completely dedicated to the craft, eventually if you truly love the work (and all the work a conductor must do), it will somehow work out, even if there are misperceptions along the way as I had starting my career on the podium.

The Desire to Author a Conducting Text

The desire to author a conducting text was the culmination of numerous life experiences that were not in any way synchronous; this is of course representative of all of our lives, none of which seems to go on the straight line as we plan! However, the steps that led to the construction of OnMusic Conducting: Connect to the Sound may prove interesting, particularly since the path to its formation was slightly unconventional.
To start, and as background, I had the privilege of performing with a tremendous number of ensembles in New York City professionally for over 10 years before I even gave conducting a serious thought. During that time I usually brought a score to rehearsals and, as a percussionist/timpanist, used the rests to watch what conductors were doing that was both successful and ineffective – and I saw a lot of both!
When I finally began to change my career from an instrumentalist to that of a conductor in my 30’s, most of my friends thought I was crazy! However, my conviction to make the move was facilitated by the kindness of many mentors and musicians who were encouraging despite the odds we all know (a few of these are James Levine, Larry Rachleff, Eric Stern, Brad Keimach, Robert Shaw, and Richard Woitach). After conducting professionally for several years and after winning a few jobs, I decided to calm my life down a bit from the constant travel required and won a full time faculty position at Montclair State University before taking my current job at the Schwob School of Music, Columbus State University.
When I began my academic work, I taught basic conducting virtually every semester for 10 years and through that process, used a variety of texts, from Hunsberger to Labuta to Green. I also reviewed countless books about conducting in all shapes and sizes, from McElheran to Schuller to Wittry to Colson to Miller to Watkins to Battisti to Farberman and others, never mind countless autobiographies and biographies of great conductors.
As I continued to teach and think about how conducting is communicated, I began to see that at the basic level, the main goal I had was getting students to connect their physical movement to the sound in a manner that was responsive to what they were hearing both externally and internally – that tricky combination! It seemed to me that a text would need to have greater flexibility and offer deeper opportunities for dynamic interaction outside of class than what was currently available if I was to achieve the results I thought possible, even though so many I had read and used possessed tremendously valuable information. But they were delivering in a static environment with too much detail that could be accomplished in a semester, and my sense was that there might be a better approach.
Through this process, I also had an opportunity to teach music appreciation to college students. I had used a variety of texts before being introduced by my colleague, Dr. Fred Cohen, to Connect for Education (C4E). Once I had a look, I decided to use a turnkey online text of theirs called OnMusic Appreciation and found it to be terrific, eliciting very positive outcomes from students. It was from that experience that I began to seriously think about writing a conducting text, since the use of a similar platform in conducting would provide options that were interesting. The thought of collaborating with them entered my mind.
From here I began to think about using the C4E interface, but perhaps in a hybrid fashion, since it would give me a chance to:
  • 1.    Offer video components for review both in demonstration and in the upload of student work. Seeing what others do and what you are doing yourself is of immense help as all conductors know. The C4E Acclaim tool provided a specific opportunity for interactive dialog and enhanced learning outside of class. And it’s integrated and easy to use.
  • 2.    Create modules that can be adapted by professors. Any text has material with which individuals may not agree, since conducting is such a highly personalized art form. The ability to remove or add material that complimented sections which were consonant with a teacher’s approach would allow a more personal class-based delivery.
  • 3.    Create the opportunity for implementing changes. Faculty who teach the course will have insight to share along the way, as one person can’t see all angles. We have the ability to update our text at any point without going through another printing, and this was very attractive.
  • 4.    Offer automated testing outside of the conducting assessments, reducing the work load of teaching faculty, thus giving more time for individual assistance as the physical side of conducting is developed, and this needs attention.
  • 5.    Provide relationships with numerous entities, including the NY Philharmonic score archive as an example, which shows students marked scores and parts. My sense is that we could get the rights from many vendors with whom we could collaborate, offering students video and narrative resources.
  • 6.    Create a dynamic learning environment, where prep tests and questions could be presented in an interactive format, all geared toward the manner in which students are learning today.
  • 7.    Create a web based calendar that is easy for professors to follow and manage.
  • 8.    Offer everything under one umbrella at one location, from a grade book that automatically configures weighted percentages to information that is sequenced in weekly, digestible form, to all manner of video information.

These are a few of the elements that I thought would function better in a hybrid format.
The course moved forward after a meeting with Dongsook Kim, the visionary CEO of Connect for Education over dinner at a Houlihan’s, and then was consummated after a meeting with Dr. Carlos Maldonado, C4E’s chief learning architect (and an accomplished musician/conductor). I came to realize that their entire team was creative, accomplished, responsive, honest, and perceptive, fully collaborating in the design and delivery of every element in this text. My former student (and now colleague) Michael Mahadeen created arrangements that fit with my conception for the assessments (including transposed instrumental scores), and finally, I drew on the conversations I had engaged in through 25 years as a professional with countless musicians, educators, administrators, and talented students, all of whom provided remarkable insight into the teaching of conducting.

What I have seen so far is truly wonderful: OnMusic Conducting helps students to develop a somatic sense that is connected to the sound on emotional and technical levels – the hybrid approach combined with thoughtful pedagogy works beautifully. This has made the journey so very gratifying, and I am confident that your experience will be similar using this text. I wish you all the best!!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


It's been a while since I last wrote - well over a year and some change, but recently a good friend asked me to write a short article on the topic of inspiration, and so his request led me to begin blogging once again.

I should quickly mention a book I can recommend regarding musical inspiration by Jonathan Harvey, aptly titled "Music and Inspiration." I have mined many gems over the years from the writings of great composers found in this short tome!

For now, I'll share below my contribution to this project and I hope you enjoy it:

There are so many times when I have felt deeply inspired throughout my life, and most of them have occurred when I am at my most quiet, thinking in my most long terms, and at my most prayerful. It is when I truly make time to be reflective with the greatest amount of humility that I seem to have epiphanies that resonate fully through all I do.

What are some of these inspiring revelations exactly? Nothing that isn’t obvious in many ways; however, I somehow must continually remind myself of what has always been in front of me! Here are a few I will share:

  • I feel most free when completely and compassionately honest with myself and others. This has ramifications in my music making, since I must be emotionally and physically open to receive sound, and any part of me that is closed diminishes the artistic experience as a conductor personally, and even worse, for those working with me! Honesty is the gateway to openness and vulnerability, and when in that place, magical experiences flow miraculously.
  • If I am generous with others even in the face of rudeness, I always walk away with a sense of power in my humility. Not easy to do, but so good when it happens.
  • When listening, I must always be careful to receive through the lens of the person talking. Same in conducting – I always hope to listen to what is really being performed musically, and not what I want to hear solely, because that initial idea found in silence always changes from what I’ve imagined when standing in front of a group of musicians. Relationships transform and evolve my most deep convictions on all levels, and I find this inspiring.
  • I must always try my best to make thoughtful choices – this is a difficult one for me, since I always want to get things done, and the quick path is rarely the one that yields the best results.
  • I don’t look for high end rushes when living daily, less they become a drug; a slow and steady approach truly does win the race! Even then, occasionally moments of bliss can find their way into my life musically and otherwise – it feels good to be amazed without expectation.
  • I need and try to invest fully in the present, whether spending time with my family (the greatest joy of all!), or making music, or doing administrative work, or meeting with students, or spending time with friends. There can only be space for one thing at a time. While planning and organizing with specificity are requirements for survival in all aspects of my life, I never want to allow them to diminish the pleasure of being present.
  • When I make time to pray to God without an agenda, answers to questions seem to fall from the air. I’m repeatedly stunned in a most wonderful way!

These are but a few examples of how inspiration reaches into all aspects of my life.

I hope that your life is blessed this year by many moments that are transcendent in the best ways imaginable!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Arts Funding

It seems like every year, whether in recession as we are now, or in good times, that public based arts funding is attacked as an area where money could be saved. This begs the question: how important is it for the general public to fund the arts when so many difficult decisions must be made?

In NJ, many arts organizations are in trouble making payroll because Governor-elect Christie has frozen arts funds while he balances out the challenges our state faces. As part of the debate that must be occurring with many tough choices ahead, I would like to address why, in my opinion, arts funding is at the core of what is important on both an economic and quality of life basis.

According to our government's own studies, every dollar spent on arts funding brings back more than a dollar in tax revenue, and in many counties, a 100% return. Investing in arts infrastructure stimulates industry and business growth in both public and private sectors, which employ people and bring tax dollars back into the system. These returns are derived from tax revenues paid by artists, managers, venues in ticket sales, restaurant revenues from people who dine out because they are attending performances, gas bought to get to performances and openings, recordings purchased that were funded through government initiatives, tourism, and many other metrics where the arts are involved. Simply put, the arts bring commerce to our municipalities.

If I told you that an investment opportunity awaited that offered you a 100% return over the course of one year, wouldn't this be something you would want to invest in? This is a choice in front of our colleagues in governing positions.

Unfortunately, in the world of sound bite politics, the arts are an easy target because they are sold to many as artistic welfare for a small group of self-important elitists. This is as untrue as 2 + 2 =5! Rather, this public investment is a deep foundational affirmation that our society believes creative thinking is crucially important.
Do you want your kids to watch television rather than take music lessons and play in orchestras, or play video games rather than take painting classes where they capture emotion in what they see, or take only SAT prep courses rather than take acting classes where they can learn how to be compassionate and creative? What about taking pottery classes where they use their imaginations to create objects that are both functional and inspiring, or taking dance classes where motion captures transcendent emotion? Are we more interested in reality tv than in the beauty around us in reality? I hope we would want to add meaning and understanding to the world rather than simply be affected by it. Artists sacrifice financial gain in many cases to unlock the truths around us in sound, on canvas, in motion. What they bring to our lives and those of our children is the capacity to dream.

There are literally hundreds of studies that show the correlation between arts education and critical thinking, math aptitude, and writing skills. Take a look at virtually every major scientist who has done something of value and you will find in each a long standing passion for active participation in the arts - this is not a coincidence. People question why we are falling behind in the sciences and I ask, how can we stay ahead if the creative approaches that the arts teach are not core to our educational philosophy?

There are hundreds of studies that measure the qualitative and quantitative responses of our immune systems (as a health example) when affected by music, dance and visual arts. There are clear demonstrations for instance, that music can have a palliative and healing affect on people with cancer. This is why music therapy is being offered in so many hospitals around the world - it's because it works.

The fact is, from economic, educational, health, and moral perspectives, arts funding brings something to our collective existence that is indispensible. Until our colleagues in both government (and truthfully in local communities) think, evaluate, assess, and realize that their lives and those of their children are being devastated by potential cuts, they will continue to damage our ability to excel in endeavors that have global effect on us all.

Perhaps in NJ at least our new Governor will see that a job loss program with such far reaching effect is not prudent, and that while the upfront expense of arts funding is painful in a recession, the ultimate upside easily outweighs a quick fix decision, when in truth, the arts pays for itself on every level.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Time for the Holidays!

It seems every year the holidays come sooner and sooner - it's a universal comment I hear from friends and family. I was recently at a local mall and Santa was already accepting a variety of Christmas wishes long before Thanksgiving has even come into focus! In some ways I sympathize, because I too am starting to look at scores for the upcoming Colonial Symphony holiday concert on December 6th at the Community Theatre in Morristown. I feel like I'm now surrounded by both decorations and sounds of the holidays everywhere I go as a result!

Truth be told: I don't mind too much, and in fact, actually kind of like it all. Firstly, if taken in a purer sense, this time of the year is always about giving to others. I also love the beauty of lights and the decorations - everything feels festive and as if we are making the best of the circumstances with which we are faced, whether challenging, or sometimes very challenging. I also just am reminded every year of how I love the music of the season.

In an earlier blog from a year ago, I posted about the quality of holiday music and how, while much of it is perhaps not written with the indisputable genius of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony, not all music must be at the highest intellectual level to generate emotional response, especially when dealing with the tremendous amount of color that an orchestra can offer. The sound of harp, strings, brass, winds, and percussion together performing works that we've grown up singing, that we've grown up hearing as a part of our seasonal experience, no matter our religious background, give us a chance to celebrate a time of year that has the opportunity to bring us together in a manner that is respectful and caring. With all the forces driving us apart as friends and neighbors, isn't it wonderful to have a concert that is truly unifying around themes of beauty, kindness, laughter, energy, health, and love? To me, this is cool.

As I look at music by Tchaikovsky - some selections from the Nutcracker and from his 4th symphony, I'm filled with a sense of fun. I look at Johann Strauss's Emporer Waltz, or Vaughan Williams Greensleeves, or an arrangement of Walking in a Winter Wonderland - it makes me feel good. I also am excited to be working again with the students of Morristown High School's Choir along with the gifted Michael Nuzzo, their director. Hearing young artists get their first taste of what it is to make music next to a world class symphony orchestra is truly astonishing, especially when we're doing music by Joseph Haydn from The Creation - one of the most amazing works in in our collective history. Or simply leading a holiday sing-a-long where an entire audience joins in the music making process. Hearing people sing songs they love together along with an incredible orchestra is wonderful - you should check this out!

Beyond, I know that if you listen to live music that you like, your immune system is boosted by up to 20% by a variety of quantifiable metrics. This is something that I think right now given H1N1 is something that makes me feel especially good - we can all use a little help!

I hope you will join me for a wonderful evening of amazing music, of laughter, and of family as we come together for the greatest sounds of the holidays, played by this fantastic orchestra. Just looking at this music makes me feel great - I can't wait to share it with you in live space!

For more information, you can go to

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Conducting from Memory

Conducting from memory has become a requirement for most conductors these days. It's hard to find an orchestral concert on PBS where a conductor is not leading at least one piece without a stand and score front and center. It seems a little odd, because for most of the historical broadcasts I've watched from the 1940's through the 70's, this was not the case. Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn't memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer's intent. In other words, for those of us who study these masterpieces, there is always something new we discover in scores no matter how many times we look at them. They are endlessly fascinating, deep, full of intellectual and emotional touches based in a craft that many times is perhaps divinely inspired. Yet lately it almost has become more respectful to conduct without the music. This has become the manner in which to not only honor the composer (you are showing it is all in your head), but also a virtuosic display in keeping with what audiences want to see. They want to be dazzled.

Certainly there is a wonderfully trite old adage - you should have the score in your head and not your head in the score! But with this changed sensibility, it is certainly a habit that I have formed due to the pressures associated with expectations as well as my own experience of doing it.

So - is conducting a symphony from memory hard to do? What is required? Does it make a difference as a conductor to have no music in front of you?

It's something I've been thinking about lately, since I conducted Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 "Italian" from memory last night with the Colonial Symphony at the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts in Madison, and this week on Friday, October 30th, I'll lead Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 from memory as well with the MSU Symphony.

The truth is conducting from memory is a function of three things: 1) time; 2) a decent memory for sound; and 3) trust in the musicians with whom you are making music. When I'm leading a piece from memory I am both seeing the score in my mind's eye and responding to sound in the present tense. If you sing along to a song that you've heard over and over again, you don't have to think about what lyrics will come next, or what the sound is like in the drums or guitars. It just is something that comes to you having heard one of your favorites perhaps for years. You've listened to it enough that your musical memory is so strong that you just react in the moment to what you KNOW comes next.

For a conductor this is part of that process - you have listened and studied to such a degree that you remember every detail as it occurs. Even when mixed meter is involved, your hands and body lead the mind - they just go where they need to as if they had a mind of their own! However, the difference between conducting and simply singing a song is the fact that you also have the picture of the score in your head with the notes associated. It's like memorizing a giant work for piano, with many lines in front of you. It just takes time.

As to the effect on you as a conductor, I have to be honest - it is liberating to not have to turn pages. In addition, when a stand is not in front of you, it's as if another barrier has been removed. Have you ever tried to give someone a hug with a stand in the middle?! When you remove that hurdle, it exposes your soul a little more fully and there is a visceral and kinetic connection between orchestra and conductor. It is palpable. The bond between music, musicians, and conductor becomes more transparent.

In addition, musicians know how much time it takes to memorize music, and when they see you as a conductor without a score, it means that you've worked very hard to not only know the music well, but somehow that you've respected them in the process. Beyond, it means you trust that they are going to do their jobs.

Audiences are the same - it strikes them as if you are doing something that requires intellect and ability. I've never conducted something from memory where someone from the audience hasn't commented about it afterward, and even in the press, many critics respond similarly with remarks. Read the NY Times reviews of Gustavo Dudamel from his first two concerts and you'll see what I mean.

When conducting a soloist, I usually try to always have a score in front of me no matter how well I know the music. Solo artists are capable of becoming "inspired" in the middle of a performance and doing something unexpected. This risk is managed a little better when the score is right there and I truly feel safer. In last night's performance, I led the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which I could do from memory as I did the Italian Symphony. But I kept the score in front of me and as it turned out, my soloist Jorge Avila took some chances, which were musically beautiful. When slightly surprised, having the map in front of you is like walking on a tight rope with a safety net! Also when conducting a world premiere as I did last night by Harold Meltzer, I like having the music there since the score usually comes on the late side and beyond, a new piece without the history of works that have been with us for years takes a while to fully digest.

In the balance I think that this aesthetic is with us to stay. You can expect to see more conductors conduct without a score over time and it is a practice that, in my opinion, will only continue to grow in importance to audiences and musicians alike.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Art of Programming

One of the pleasurable responsibilities I have as the Music Director of the Colonial Symphony is to put programs together that make sense artistically as individual experiences as well as part of an entire season. I think of this process in a similar manner to fine dining on two levels: one is a single culinary experience of the highest caliber, where every dish has its own place within the meal; the second is about dining over several nights at the same restaurant, where one has the opportunity to experience the truth of a chef’s artistic aesthetic.

In the orchestral world, I want a listener to feel as if they went to a concert that left them uplifted, as if the musical meal gave them energy with which to leave the concert hall. These concerts should work well as individual events and also as performances that connect to each other over the course of a year. I call this fine aural dining!

So how does this all come together?

Let me give you some examples from the Colonial Symphony’s current season of four concerts, which will provide a window into the programmatic philosophy I employ:

The first concert on October 24th at the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts needed to feature a world premiere by Harold Meltzer. This composition would be the culmination of a Music Alive Residency we received from the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer, a prestigious award given to eight orchestras nationally each year (as a composer, Harold was the runner-up for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and has received many honors for his original voice). In terms of my programmatic thought, he is able to write contemporary music that has both high craft and beautifully long melodic lines. It is also music that is delivered with wit and rhythmic humor. When discussing the work, we originally were going to call it Forgiveness, but because the piece was beginning to take shape as more of a fun fantasy, that colored my approach moving forward, even though a final title has yet to be chosen.

I needed to put pieces around it that were of similar concept. I first thought of Mendelssohn as a composer, partly because he has an excellent sense of musical humor, and also because he can spin a melody within a rhythmic voice that feels natural and playful. This is similar to how Harold writes. There’s also lightness in his approach, which would work with Harold’s evolving ideas. The Symphony No. 4 “Italian” is inventive and fresh, melodically centered and vibrant, full of smiles and good natured fun. In other words, it would be a wonderful compliment to our world premiere in terms of its vibe and sound world.

The next task was to come up with a work that would fit in between these two gems. I wanted to do a concerto with our concertmaster Jorge Avila, who projects such strength and affection in his playing. I also needed a piece that was again melodically rich and one that would add some emotional balance to the playful qualities in the Meltzer and Mendelssohn. Robert Schumann came to mind as a composer who is perhaps most famous for his narrative gifts – he wrote music that is completely singable and beautiful. This idea led me to his Violin Concerto, a work that is underperformed in the United States, yet possesses high-level craft and melodic genius. It seemed to be a perfect fit for this program – one whose mood gives contour to a program that already has plenty of bonhomie.

I had my first program – Harold Meltzer’s World Premiere, Schumann’s Violin Concerto with Jorge Avila, and then Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian.” And it all comes in at 60 minutes of music: a good length, especially when you consider the time between each work, the fact that I introduce each piece to the audience, and then of course an intermission of about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Since this program was light, I didn’t want the next on December 6th to be too heavy. It would be like starting a dinner with a light tomato soup and then having a heaping-helping of barbecued ribs! Both are great dishes individually, but make no sense together! This concert occurs at a time when so many people are enjoying the spirit of the holidays, so I wanted to perform pieces that fit the ethos of the season. This thought led me to program works such as Johann Strauss’s Emperor Waltz, Leroy Anderson’s Sleighride and Christmas Festival Overture, John Williams Themes from the Polar Express, Randol Bass’s Gloria and Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate with singers from local high school choirs, John Finnegen’s Christmas Sings and Bill Holcombe’s Festival sounds of Hanukah for audience participation, and famous arrangements of Winter Wonderland and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, all of which are tailor made to make people happy, which sometimes is helpful after a day of heavy shopping! Beyond, each work possesses beautiful melodies and has tremendous orchestrational craft. This fits with my first program both in weight and quality, while at the same time offering a completely different musical experience.

For the February 13th program I wanted a foil to the December concert. I needed to find music that had a connection to what comes before, yet is different in spirit and sound. Since I had used Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate on the previous program, I thought it would be interesting to perform his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as connective tissue. The works are very different, even though the composer has an aural thread in his miraculous voice. Also, to make it fresh beyond my interpretive musical ideas, I thought it would be fun to put some of the musicians in the house so that the music literally surrounds the audience. This is possible because we will be performing in the amazing acoustic of the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts, which allows this sort of theatrical option. Because of that dramatic element, I next came to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which is a piece of quintessential American dance music; although to keep things interesting in the vein of Eine Kleine, I thought of presenting it with a nod to its conception: I approached Nancy Turino and the esteemed NJ Dance Theater Ensemble for a collaboration, which will make for a beautifully realized interpretation of the piece, featuring both orchestra and dancers on stage together. Finally, since other inventive ideas were a part of the emerging program, I thought of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat, a Faustian tale that can be performed with actors. However in our case, I decided to approach bestselling author and voice over specialist Alison Larkin, a phenomenally talented artist, who would have the ability to create voices for all the characters and narrate this tale with dynamic force. I had my third program, different from the first two, but part of the seasonal arch.

Finally, for the last concert on May 8th at the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts again, I wanted something dramatic to keep the flow going from the previous concert; although this time I wanted the audience to focus solely on music while experiencing some sort of narrative. I began to think of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which I conducted on Broadway at the Gershwin Theater in 1997. I went about contacting soloists from the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program and friends from the Broadway production and received enthusiastic responses. I next began to work on a chorus and was able to engage the wonderful Anne Matlack and her amazing choir Harmonium. Finally there are smaller parts for which I will be holding auditions in the Fall. Gifted collegians drawn from our local colleges including Drew University and Montclair State University, where I am also a professor, will make up the balance of the cast. This would cap off an amazing season of music.

Each piece chosen this year is a work I love – I can sincerely conduct every one of them with honest passion. I believe these are also works that the Colonial Symphony’s musicians will love performing. This programmatic approach is something I believe creates a unified artistic experience for the concertgoer whether they go to one concert or all. These folks can partake in events that are delicious for the ears, exciting for the heart, intellectually rich, and just plain fun. The best part is that they will hear music performed with tremendous skill, precision, and youthful enthusiasm.

I hope this insight helps you understand how an orchestral season takes form. For the Colonial Symphony, it’s a joyful journey through some of the greatest sounds human imagination has ever conjured! I hope you’ll join us!

More information about Colonial Symphony events can be found at or by calling 973-984-7400.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beethoven in Practice

Beethoven has been the subject of musical fascination among musicians, scholars, and audiences alike for years because of his out sized personality, internal conflicts, and of course the extraordinary quality of his work. There has been a staggering amount of research done into his life (I love Maynard Solomon's psychological biography and Scott Burnham's Beethoven Hero) as well as analyses of his music (Lewis Lockwood's Inside Beethoven Quartets, etc...)

While there are many ways to approach his music, I believe that the best is perhaps to apply an intuitive aesthetic around the sound I will hear in rehearsal and performance. In other words, the live music paradigm is singular in its ability to impart musical insight and it is in this arena that common sense leads to beauty when applied with affection. This is not to say that preparation doesn't play a role - it absolutely does both in terms of analysis and musicological research. But all of this is a foundation for what will happen in the presence of sound, when decisions are made and when my imagination finally intersects with reality. This is when I see what Beethoven really did, because no matter how acute my imagination is, it never seems to compare with the beauty of sound heard in the present tense, and this is something also that can not be replicated by a recording.

Right now I'm looking at his 4th Piano Concerto, which simply put is a miracle. So far in this foundational period I’m finding the piece to be as multifaceted a statement as Beethoven ever made. It seems like the piano represents the person Beethoven wants to be. The solo part is virtuosic, deeply lyrical, rhythmically driving, rhythmically flexible, romantic, playful, humorous, cajoling, intellectually secure, sad, profound, joyful, free, contained, respectful, rambunctious, angry, loving, etc…It represents someone who tastes life fully. It is human to the core. The orchestra is compassionate, thoughtful, responsive, divisive, insistent, malleable, lush, frugal, egalitarian, hopeful, frustrated, hyper, calm, mysterious, open, rhapsodic, static, evolving, loving, etc… It is a community that cares.

While this is all interesting to me, what I find so compelling in this work is its authentic take on the journey of life. It’s as if Beethoven was touched by the finger of God in an effort to find the essence of our collective humanity - heavy stuff! It touches on so many emotional states with a rare sense of knowledge, but not one that is knowing, but rather feeling. One can dissect the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, textural, and formal construction endlessly, but the piece lives in another world that is perfect and perfectly human on an intuitive level. This is the conundrum of Beethoven: he is an imperfect person by every account with wild insecurity, arrogance, talent, complete empathy for humanity and yet lacking in tolerance for the majority of those around him – a person endowed with tremendous positive and negative qualities and at the same time one who is made perfect in musical sound, the language of angels. He is a composer who can make an audience (and me for that matter) feel our best by showing us both our best and worst. This is what I feel in his music.

It will be fun to see how my initial ideas of the piece take shape with my colleague Ruth Rendleman and the students of the MSU Symphony - I can’t wait to get the music out of my head and into the real world. What I do know is that when music is experienced firsthand at the point of creation, especially through a work as wonderful as this concerto, I find myself in the middle of a magical time in which I am afforded an opportunity to see the truth of genius in a way that study alone does not allow. I think hearing it live will give you a similar experience, especially if you take a little time in advance of a performance to look a little more deeply at this masterpiece.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bartok's Miracle

I've heard from many corners that most great art is borne out of painful experience and it's something with which I completely disagree. Instead, I think art comes from emotional experiences that are wide in range, morality, and perspective. We have all heard music written just for the pleasure principle alone, or from virtually every emotion that our complex psyches can produce. But even those works written for the simple enjoyment of beauty usually draw inspiration at a deeper level from emotions that can come from many sources. Even more interesting to me are works that have many emotional layers drawn from multiple sources.

One such work is Bela Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin and I find myself completely fascinated by the sheer virtuosity of the writing and the emotional impact that these sounds create (I'm preparing the Suite right now). It's perhaps one of his greatest works and certainly in my mind a contender for one of the best of the 20th century. While not influential in the way the Rite of Spring has been, nor Wozzeck, or any number of other 'seminal' compositions, it has certainly been a score both musicologists and musicians have poured over with great interest, and beyond, one that has led listeners on a dark journey, yet one that is ultimately uplifting in a bizarre fashion.

This is what puzzles me: the source material that Bartok used was a 4 page lurid story by Melchior Lengyel, a radical Hungarian journalist and writer. This "pantomine grotesque: draws its inspiration not from pain, but from twisted passion as well. It tells the story of a young woman who is forced by three thugs to prostitute herself in order to lure potential men/victims into a room who they can then rob. She plays a seduction game with three men. The first two have nothing and are thrown out badly beaten. But the third, a Mandarin (a wealthy Chinese man), comes in and is fascinated by the girl. When the thugs rob him of his jewelry and money, they try to get rid of him by suffocation, then repeated stabbing, then by hanging him on a light fixture. When the lamp to which he is tied breaks and falls, he gets up, goes to the girl, and then finally takes delight in an embrace. With his longing satisfied, the Mandarin finally begins to bleed from all the abuse he has withstood and dies.

Pretty horrible stuff…

So I'm confused as to why I find myself absolutely enthralled by music that represents an idea that I abhor. As a result I have tried to figure out the process by which both I and countless others with a moral compass pointing in an opposite direction can embrace this sort of work.

I first have to understand Bartok's creative circumstances. If I think back to the time that he was composing (1918-1924) I find several striking aspects of his life that are salient. One is that he had just lived through World War I where millions of people died. His view of the world was upset by an upended power structure, and for him, the result of all this seemingly indiscriminate carnage led to the world's first fascist dictator, who took power in Hungary. At the same time cities were becoming industrial metropolises that were both creating wealth and an underbelly of crime, prostitution, and poverty. While Bartok was writing this score, there were gunshots he could hear outside his door.

At the same time he was fascinated not just by just folk music, as one of the first true ethnomusicologists, but also by music played in the emerging lower class. He felt there was something pure in expression when music revealed how people existed in poverty, in good and bad ways. It had nothing to do with any sort of posturing in his mind.

He was living in a time when Freud had been exploring repressed sexuality, which by all measure created many types of psychological problems. There were racy plays being written such as Lulu (which Berg later used for an opera) and Spring Awakening that were fascinating audiences. He must have been taken by these new powerful ideas that were coming out into the light, and this certainly could provide a type of inspiration that was much more impulsive and in line with the nature of folk expression - something unfiltered and unadulterated. Even then, sex sold.

Finally when one looks at the portrayal of the Mandarin, there are implicitly racist overtones that are offensive. However, Hungarians found a common thread between the barbaric nature of their history and that of the Chinese, combined with hyper intellectualism, so while the setting seems awful, in another way it represents what Bartok felt was a common base response shared between cultures, ultimately fueled by elemental passion.

So here is Bartok with all of these influences, putting them into amazingly descriptive sound, with a craft level that is astonishing, featuring all sorts of orchestral effects including chromatic scales, tremelos, trills, glissandi, cluster chords, mutes, percussive effects, all manner of string effects including quarter tones at one point, and fluttertonguing in the winds. Its orchestrational brilliance outshines most of the other scores I've looked at from this time period at the beginning of the 20th Century, and purely on a musical level, is breathtaking in effect.

Understanding where Bartok was when he was writing the music is helpful, because his response to much of what was happening in his life can still be contextualized today, with urban sprawl, cruelty, murder, abuse, and poverty around us every day. There's certainly a part of me that is looking to escape some of these terrible things, but another part wants to know and not ignore the difficulties others face. So to understand, sometimes one must dive into the experiences of others to feel their desperation, even it is truly at a distance. It's why we are many times attracted to movies that depict difficult things to see - it takes us out of our own lives and allows us to feel suffering, but without fear. Or why we work at soup kitchens, which if you have done so, will truly show how people exactly like you can end up in difficult circumstances.

While we are not in the mood for suffering every day, having the chance to understand a slice of history more deeply can be ultimately uplifting. How many films have we seen about the holocaust, lost love, grifters and thieves, people facing tough choices? Why is it that folks flock to see these movies, or go to art shows with similar material, but have a such a hard time accepting it in music?

I think the reason is that music can illuminate these challenging subjects in a way that goes to a deeper place of understanding, since it works on such an elementally emotional level. For me, this is what I find so compelling about The Miraculous Mandarin. It's like a film crafted at the absolute highest level, but one that takes me on a journey into darkness in a manner that is more personal and internal. At the end of the work, having traveled down this path, I feel moved by the pity and hatred I feel toward the thugs, the sadness I feel for the girl, and the pure passion that I see in the Mandarin that transcends what other humans can do to each other. The music creates a picture in my head that is at once captivating and repulsive. When I hear something that is purely beautiful, I have a basis on which to see it as such because of my exposure to works such as this.

It is true that I love comedies and laughter. But occasionally I find works of art from the dark side of human experience an extremely important part of my artistic diet. If you are not familiar with this masterpiece, I can recommend it to you enthusiastically, although in the same breath, it will not be a piece you go to every day. But occasionally, it will take you on a journey that is truly miraculous in nature.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Blessing of a New Year

As a New Year begins I tend to become reflective and grateful for simple gifts that surround me and those I love. Music is one of these without doubt - there is hardly a day that goes by where I am not touched by beautiful sounds at one point or another. There are many who feel this way, and you only have to look at the celebrations last night from around the world to see how music helps people start the New Year with renewed hope.

There are many great writers and musicians who have commented eloquently on music's role in our world, and I would like to share 10 of my favorite quotes as 2009 gets underway:

1) Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.
Ludwig van Beethoven

2) I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours. But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places. Music is the only means whereby we feel these emotions in their universality.
H.A. Overstreet

3) Music is love in search of a word.
Sidney Lanier

4) Music can noble hints impart,
Engender fury, kindle love,
With unsuspected eloquence can move,
And manage all the man with secret art.
Joseph Addison

5) Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

6) The earth has music for those who listen.
William Shakespeare

7) Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.
Berthold Auerbach

8) Music is what feelings sound like.

9) Music is the poetry of the air.

10) Were it not for music, we might in these days say, the Beautiful is dead.
Benjamin Disraeli

The Beautiful is alive, isn't it? Even in face of unspeakable tragedy, I am always amazed by the resilence of the human spirit, from stories I read every day and from people who I'm so blessed to know.

I seem to be an optimist and am feeling that a world of wonderful possibilities awaits us all this coming year in spite of the tremendous challenges in every corner. My hope is that music can touch lives and be a healer as it has been for centuries, bringing people together, playing upon the best of our humanity in a time when the worst is too prevalent. From worst to first - it's possible - and music will be there helping us celebrate, commemorate, and remember the good that is within us all at our core.

Here's wishing you every blessing in 2009.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Probably the most wonderful thing to happen for a musician on a professional level is to win a job. It removes the fear so many of us have, questioning if we are going to be able to make a living. When it finally pays off there is a mix of relief and joy, especially if it is a job that one wants!

Musicians tend to put a staggering amount of work into preparing for an audition. But just straight practicing alone does not cover all the bases necessary to be successful, and in my opinion, there are other things one can do to increase the odds of winning. Here are a few recommendations I would make to anyone, whether musician or otherwise, when applying for a job:

1) Always make sure you know everything you can about those who are either listening to you or interviewing you. Never take an interview while blind, since there are always points of connection that you can make with members of a committee – ones that are sincere. Knowledge is power, whether it affects playing style or synergy of interests.
2) Always practice whatever you are going to do for a committee in a mock environment by enlisting the help of friends and by making a video tape of your audition/interview. The video camera is the best tool to help identify how you are communicating, whether musically, physically, or verbally. It’s impossible to be completely aware when engaged in doing a task and many times you will have ticks that can be hurtful when trying to present yourself as authentically as possible under pressure.
3) Make a list of potential questions or requests that might come up at your audition/interview. Surprise is the enemy! If you are playing, then make sure you can play softer, louder, shorter, longer, lighter, heavier, etc… If you are interviewing, make sure that you have responses to tough questions regarding conflict resolution, leading vs. listening, etc…
4) Make sure your style fits the needs of the job you want. You can’t be something that you’re not, and if you win a job in a place that doesn’t let you apply your sensibilities fully, you’ll just be unhappy and frustrated. Research the orchestra, opera company, program carefully and read the job description with ferocious energy – does it truly describe you?
5) Be a good listener in the moment. Many auditions are lost by not following directions carefully or answering questions fully.
6) Be absolutely confident that your references will be completely supportive. As a search committee member I’ve called people in the past who have not been kind to those applying. I’m always stunned when this happens, and it has taught me to be extremely careful. Also, ask people to call on your behalf ahead of an audition. Networking is always helpful, again provided that the person calling is persona grata with a committee and also is honestly supportive of you.
7) Be relentlessly organized in your time management leading to an audition. It’s not the quantity of hours spent preparing in my experience as much as the quality. The other thing organization does is train your mind to be structured in approach, which in an audition is a tremendous asset. If you have practiced enough to have the technique to play what is required consistently in a pristine manner, or you have a vocabulary that allows you to express ideas with specificity and passion, then execution is a matter of mental will.
8) Take time to enjoy the process. Once, one of my teachers made me repeat an exercise over and again until I could do it perfectly. After a series of failures, I asked if we could just move on because I was getting bored. His reply was “don’t be bored.” At first I was a little aggravated to be honest! After calming down, I realized that he was telling me my response to doing this work over and again needed to be a conscious choice. So when doing something that I have to do to achieve a goal, I take time to enjoy it - I choose to do this, even if it is grinding in nature. By allowing myself this luxury, I have found my retention, energy, daily routine, and final results are all much better. A little joy in process goes a long way toward winning.

It is true that you can do everything to the absolute highest level and still lose. But I think that if you take every step to be fully prepared your chances for success are always increased. My hope is that these eight suggestions might be helpful in your journey no matter where you are along the path.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Musical Maestrology

I've been fortunate enough to have a number of people, whether musicians, professors, or audience members refer to me as Maestro over the last couple of years. I must say that this is both flattering and at the same time uncomfortable, despite the intention with which the word is used. I can't help but have an episode of Seinfeld in the back of my mind - the one where a friend of Elaine's wants to be referred to as "Maestro," equating himself to Leonard Bernstein. It's a funny episode, but also one that demonstrates the craziness of the term - ouch!!

Part of the unease the word maestro brings is the implication that somehow you are a master of what you do, when the fact is, most of us who are musicians are striving to get better with some elusive goal of perfection that is unattainable. Mozart was definitely a composer who could combine something resembling perfection with complete humanity, but how many composers or musicians can compare themselves to this maestro? Maybe Bernstein - the 20th century's great composer, player, and conductor?

Simon Rattle had a quote that I love from a documentary chronicling the last days of his role as music director for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: he said that "most conductors are afraid of being found out..." - that we shouldn't be standing in front of such an accomplished group of musicians trying to galvanize a musical idea among tremendous talent. He felt that at some point there is a level of insecurity inherent in what we do that is always lurking, no matter how accomplished we may be. The truth is sometimes a hard thing to admit! Is this great conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, who has released a large number of important recordings, participated in significant premieres, and guest conducted the world's great orchestras a Maestro? By his own words, I don't think he considers himself as such. This is because he is searching to get better as most conductors need to be doing constantly.

When people started calling me Maestro, I would correct them and say this doesn't really apply to me - that maybe when I'm 80 and have learned a lot more than I know now and done considerably more high profile work the term might apply - maybe! After a while I stopped because I realized that this was a kindness from others I should just accept, much like a compliment we perhaps don't believe, but are gracious in receiving out of respect for those who are giving it.

I have also had a number of musicians say they enjoyed playing under me. Even though the thought is so very appreciated, I can't let this go - I tell them that they played with me. Given that I don't make any sound combined with the fact that, as I've said before in earlier blogs, conductors' ideas are so deeply informed by what their colleagues play when putting a piece together, to say that the interpretation of a work is mine is simply a lie. It's collaborative in nature - just listen to the same conductor lead a piece with two different orchestras!

Perhaps I'll change my mind about the use of this term when given in my direction - maybe when I'm 80, but more likely I'll be, with luck, still trying to learn from both the wonderful music I'm privileged to conduct as well as the amazing musicians with whom I get to work.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Simple gifts

When thinking about the gifts one receives on Christmas or Hanukkah, certainly appreciating the gift of family is at the top of my list. There is nothing more precious than someone you love returning that feeling enthusiastically, whether a grandparent, parent, sibling, partner, friend, or probably the most satisfying, a child. No matter what is happening in the crazy economic tsunami that we are all having to endure, there are constants in life that help stabilize our sense of self. I would say that faith certainly factors prominently into this mix as well.

For me, another constant is the gift of music as both listener and practitioner. There is something about organized sound that excites me now more than ever, even after years of working at it ferociously. Part of what musicians do is very grinding in nature, trying to perfect little complications that drift unwelcomed into our musical midst! Some of this deals with awareness, some is just due to the rigors of life. Unfortunately small details can have major consequences when performing under pressure!

But despite the blue collar aesthetic that musicians must use daily to stay in shape much as an athlete, there is something miraculous in the making of and the experience of listening to music in life's diet. It's a journey that is truly full of discovery about yourself and the world around you. Each composer tries to capture a slice of beauty out of a universe of possibility, and even when you play or hear a piece repeatedly, there are both deep and simple pleasures that continue to surround and enter us over and again.

Music remains a constant: life affirming, soul nourishing, humor provoking, emotion tugging, and just fun. It's why I decided early on that music was what I HAD to do. I didn't have a choice even though I had other interests. Along the way we take detours with motives, and in the process of failure in our journey, which happens to most everyone unless you have the lotto gene, it's easy to leave your senses and forget what it's all about.

But somehow this time of the year offers a wonderful opportunity to remember the gifts that keep giving in our lives. Beyond the greatest gift of family and faith, music is at the core of God's gifts in my mind. It's this taste of the divine that keeps me coming back for more, and each year, I seem to more fully appreciate this pleasure.

I wish you a many blessings this year on this Christmas day and hope that your life is full of wonderful, beautiful music.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Music

I recently conducted a holiday program with the Colonial Symphony and the enthusiastically ecstatic response reminded me of the sort of warmth one receives after performing a work like Mahler's 2nd Symphony or Beethoven's 9th Symphony! It's certainly not the depth of the music that provokes people to respond the way they do, but perhaps the emotional experience of simply enjoying something that is readily understandable. This ease of intelligibility can be a facilitator for many in creating room for connection.

I don't know about you, but at the end of the day after running like a madman trying to meet deadlines that seem to be coming from every corner, I'm not in the mood for deep thinking! Most of the time just having a simple conversation with my wife, or if I'm early enough, hopping on the ground and playing with my daughter, or if I'm late, watching a little ESPN with commentators trying to out-hip each other with silly remarks works just fine! It's not that I don't love looking at scores, or doing musicological research, or frankly that I don't at some level enjoy doing administrative work when things are getting done, or thinking about musical aesthetics, or the psychology of music and musicians, or politics, etc..., but the fact is that at some point a lighter touch adds diversity and relief to my life - just listening to Nat King Cole sing holiday music with a glass of wine feels good.

I find that as I get older I have a greater appreciation for music that is considered to be part of the pops canon. When it's done well, the craft level can be quite high, even if the material isn't complicated. This seems like an oxymoron, but in fact it's a fit that has pleased both musicians and audiences for years. Part of it is that we grow up with music in movies, stores, on our cd players, now on our ipods, that is commercial in nature. We're surrounded by stuff we like and don't like, but at least some of this background music has most likely filtered into our listening diet. And this is fine without depreciating art music in any way, which in my mind, is also a complete essential in life.

Many groups have tried to capitalize on this phenomena - the Absolute Ensemble, Ethel, Kronos Quartet, Imani Winds, etc... all seriously gifted groups who have found that by integrating pop genres into their playing they are able to develop both new audiences and at the same time have fun (and this is a good combo platter)! And many have incorporated a wide variety of world music into their performing diets such as Yo-Yo Ma with his Silk Road Ensemble, Bobby McFerrin in both his singing and conducting, Tan-dun in his composing, etc... or pop composers have turned to classical composition such as Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, or Paul McCartney.

Is all of this music at the highest level on every plane of experience? Some of it perhaps is, some definitely not, and this will always be water cooler debate material. However, whether amazing, a little less than amazing, or just bad (or bad for us!), there is music, food, movement, writing, and movies that fit our needs at different moments of a day, week, month, even year. It can be worthy and wonderful in it's own light, whether it is deep or light.

I think what makes all music work are three things: a commitment on the part of performers to play with passion no matter what is on the page; a desire by the composer to consider the audience when writing something true to his or her voice - a bit of a controversial statement (many very modernist composers will admit to this in private, although not all); and an audience that is eager to listen. When this trifecta comes together, the experience can be absolutely life changing, whether the music is of the highest order or just plain good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Virtuosic Listening

I recently conducted a particularly thorny piece by Elliott Carter in celebration of his 100th birthday at the Library of Congress - the Double Concerto, for piano and harpsichord soloists with two orchestras. It is a work that Stravinsky referred to as the first American Masterpiece - a pretty strong statement considering it was finished in 1961 with tremendous American music preceding it!

When I first saw this proclamation I was a bit stunned, especially as a student when I looked at this work, mostly because it made no musical sense to me. I could understand its construction, which was based on musical set theory, because I had a background in advanced mathematics. But on an aural level, there was so much going on that it seemed awfully random as a listener - I couldn't digest the music and beyond, it was so spiky that I didn't find it pleasing in any way. How could Stravinsky say something like this with Copland's Third Symphony or Barber Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, et al...?

I have come over time to appreciate this music, but it has taken time. The reason is that it not only takes virtuosic players to perform it, but also virtuosic listeners of the same order to appreciate it, and for me at least, this has only come in the last few years after over 20 years of performing and teaching. Because there is so much information exploding at times in a performance of a work such as the Double Concerto, I had to study it carefully so I could hear all the lines and how they fit together at times, and competed at others. It's like reading Proust - there is amazing beauty in the detail, and pulling it all together takes tremendous effort. I came to realize that the notes themselves in Carter's complex voice, whether frenetic or calm, required great intellectual effort and ultimately emotional investment in order to enjoy the music purely as a listening experience. But this has been a journey.

Is it worth it?

For me the answer is a resounding yes. I say this because of two reasons: the first is that there is a sports-style satisfaction in being able to appreciate music of this complexity. To understand what is going on as a listener feels like an accomplishment. The second reason is purely an appreciation for both the genius of this man's voice and also the inherent beauty of sound he is able to create - something that relates to the life I've lived, the experiences I have had both positive and negative, the joys and sorrows. I hear this in his music and I find it invigorating, cathartic, ecstatic, angry, sad, hopeful, and ultimately alive. It feels like jazz - improvisatory in nature yet wonderfully organized, with a pulse that can move mountains. In other words, it has much of what I find in Beethoven for instance, or in the music of John Coltrane. I can't imagine my life without the music of both of these composers, and I now feel the same way about Elliott Carter.
I remember as a child not liking spinach for the longest time. I simply could not understand how anyone could possibly like something that slippery and yucky! Now that I'm older I love eating fresh spinach whether cooked or in a salad -my tastes changed and I looked at this food with different eyes and taste buds. In a similar way it has taken me a while to get to the point where I both understand and appreciate Carter's amazing musical voice, and I'm grateful for the gift of years that has allowed me this revelation. My hope is that you as a listener might give thorny sounding music several listenings, especially if people you trust rave about the music itself. It may never turn out to be your taste in the end, but I have a feeling that the way it expands how you listen to music in general might deepen your appreciation for sounds of all sorts and how they can move in many ways.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Ecumenical Musical Thought

I'm amazed by some of the viciousness of musical opinions I've either read or heard recently. 'This recording is abysmally boring - this artist made all the wrong choices - this musician was completely unconnected - this composition just sounds like noise - this conductor has no idea what he/she is doing!' The art of criticism has long been a sore subject among both practitioners in the media and by artists themselves, so much so that even Jean Sibelius at one point quipped how you will never find a statue erected in honor of a critic!

It is obvious that critical thought and writing is absolutely central to music's success and I do see many articles these days written with tremendous clarity, precision, and yes, passion. For instance, Alex Ross's work in the New Yorker is to me, wonderful, and certainly his book on contemporary music (The Rest is Noise) is a terrific read whether you agree with him or not. He is but an example of how criticism can elevate one's understanding and appreciation of art and performance.

That said, I am seeing invective lining the pages of many publications and even in discourse between musicians. It's very easy to be drawn into a drawing and quartering of almost any artist's work at one point or another - let's face it - everyone has a bad day now and then! But I've always had deep respect for compositions, performances, and recordings including those that don't suit my taste, mostly because I have such deep respect for the composers who craft sound with magic in their pens, the musicians who perform in orchestras with amazing skill, and also the conductors who have helped to shape both recordings and performances.

My experience with critics in truth has been mixed. While some actually read and perform music and have a substantive appreciation for the complexity of a score, most rely on an intuitive sense of what makes music beautiful (in truth, this is incredibly important and valid since it is representative of audiences, whose opinions I believe are tremendously important). However, so many composers we know from history have suffered from the opinions of critics - from Beethoven to Strauss to Bartok to virtually any composer and performer at one time or another!

These composers have not just been bitten by prognosticating critics who write, but critics who play as well! A simple case comes from the Vienna Philharmonic's profoundly negative reaction to playing Mahler under Bernstein in the 1960's - and these are some of the world's greatest players! We're they right when they called Mahler's symphonies an expletive? This continues in so many conversations to which I've been a party!

Where I object to what is said and written both by critics and musicians is when folks pretend personal aesthetics make for objective judgements, which, when commenting on compositional value, performance effect, or programmatic sensibilities, can be dangerous. We must realize that our opinions are shaped by prejudices of all stripes. We must know that individual aesthetics may not jive with those around us - and this is OK as long as it is recognized as personal. From my own experience, I know that the thousands of rehearsals and performances that I've participated in as instrumentalist or conductor at this point, no matter how vast in shape, size, and quality, still render my opinions limited in scope (I discover this each time I come back to a score I've conducted and realize how much I have to rethink my previous ideas!). Therefore, I want to offer opinions that are qualified.

There are of course times when I hear that a performance is out of tune, not together, etc.... I've seen musicians yawn on a stage and that has an impact on me as a listener, or I can hear that a composer lacks craft because of very specific organizational problems in orchestration, form, or other pieces of a basic rubric that are intelligible. In these cases there is absolutely objective criteria with which to dissect things with precision if warranted.

However, even if a work is not to my taste, but has has craft, I must respect it. If a performance does not feel organic to me, but is performed with technical competence and emotional commitment, I must respect it, even if I don't feel moved. If I don't like the aural connections within a program no matter its thematic qualities, I must respect it. It doesn't mean I can't have a conversation about these things and offer an opinion, but I always want to frame my own polemics or comments in a framework of respect, because I know first hand the numerous decisions that have to be made in presenting a work of art. They are more deep than words can describe.

In my own case I'm going to conduct Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for the 2nd time in the Library of Congress in another week. When I first heard this work as a student it sounded like nonsense to me - albeit animated nonsense, and in talking to friends, I would castigate its artistic value as a listener. But when I studied the work and began to understand the language, my respect for it became enormous, not just on an intellectual level, but also on one that is purely musical - I enjoy listening to recordings of it now. This is so far from my experience as a student when I had the courage (or stupidity) to dismiss its musical meaning outright!

Even today I find my tastes shifting constantly. One day I don't like spinach, the next day it is the greatest food! One day I don't like John Zorn, the next I find his music and energy fascinating! We are all changing, and so when talking about the work of others, we should remember to treat it with the respect we wish to receive ourselves. Whether in the circles of musicians or of critics, discourse in response to what is happening around us in the classical world needs to be used meted out with care, and above all, it should remain appreciative of the depth of artistry involved, whether it fits our shifting sensibilities or not, while not losing it's critical balance.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The importance of energy

I have been thinking lately of the presence of energy in music - it heals, it moves, it is alive in a very real manner. It is the open sharing between musicians internally and with an audience that creates a memorable performance, and for a conductor, it is of primary importance. What is the music trying to say and how can one capture this physically and psychologically?

I've watched many conductors at this point, and there are some truly great ones that I would have a hard time following as a player. Furtwangler as an older example, and Gergiev as a modern one. But when I've seen them perform, something is happening: the music seems to be so deeply internalized, and their response so present tense, almost as if the music is completely alive in each breath and gesture; something happens in the sound of the orchestra, even if the musicians have a hard time intellectually understanding what that is, many times because they are simply working hard to keep things together! However, these conductors are seemingly inside the music and the sound is vibrating freely in them. Despite a lack of physical clarity, music emerges that is specific and unique, organic and fluid, connected and real, dynamic and soulful, as if something is being created for the first time ever. I admire this greatly and have been working to combine this effect with clarity, although I have to say that sometimes being technically proficient can actually get in the way believe it or not! Being attuned to business always needs to be subserviant to truthful connection.

Creating space to receive energy on the podium allows one to give it in return. It's like the magnetism that exists between two people who are in love, who are open and vulnerable, and who feed off the other's individual expression of deeply felt emotion. I find that even those musicians who are jaded can be reminded of why they started into this crazy profession if a conductor's love for music is sincere and open, and if one is really responding to what is being said. Who doesn't like to be listened to? The resultant energy can be amazing!

I think if one really lives each moment in music, then there is a musical nuclear fission that occurs. In those precious places and times, the music, the performers, the audience, all become one thing, as if the finger of God comes down and touches everyone on the most elemental level. If you have had this experience you know it is simply life altering.

I know Albert Einstein, despite being a patent reader for a number of years, and having received the most devastating rejection in the early part of his career, kept daydreaming in order to find some of the most elemental physical truths in our universe. He was considered a slacker, yet in truth, by wandering in thought and by being open despite the complete lack of recognition of his gifts by others, he uncovered much of what has shaped modern space/time thought. I'm not sure if another Einstein will come along and uncover how musical energy translates into the soulful moments that have moved people for centuries, but I can say energy that is dedicated, specific, open, sensitive, strong, and shared is at the heart of what makes the greatest sounds ever imagined so persuasive and restoring, even in times that are difficult.

We all need to be working every day to find ways to become more physically and mentally open - a tough task in today's blackberry, constant news, pressure to succeed world. However, I think the more we are able to work on simple breathing, the more energy we'll have, if through nothing else, a bit more oxygen! Through this we should have more inspiration, more laughter, and more opportunities to be moved by the music making of others and the generous response of audiences, even if we don't fully understand the Einstein like truths of healing energy in sound quite yet!