Saturday, June 22, 2013

Upcoming Concert - Amazing Soloist

We are up in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula this week, performing with the Pine Mountain Music Festival.  This year, disappointingly, we are not presenting an opera, but I have been enjoying the symphony concert. 

The highlight for me is Sibelius’s Luonatar - it’s the shortest work on the program but a thrillingly dark and intense ride.  Our soprano soloist, Mary Bonhag, is absolutely marvelous.  Her sound is rich and pure and colorful and ashen and huge and intimate and perfect.   The liquid sounds of the Finnish language resonate deeply with the ancient mythical poetry of this work, and Mary brings an otherworldly quality to the performance that just sends chills up my spine, in the best way possible. 

She is fascinating to watch as well.  When I see great instrumental soloists play with us I am often struck by their combination of physical relaxation and perfectly honed muscle control.  This is something which immediately stood out to me about Mary’s singing.

As she stands around chatting with us before and after her piece, she looks like a normal person.  A normal very pretty person with great posture, but not out of the ordinary.  When she begins to sing, though, her body changes.  Everything is loose and taut all at the same time.  The impression she gives is that her very slim torso is an enormous helium balloon.  Filled with open space and lightness, not resting on her hips but loosely tethered to them.  Her arms float lightly away from her body, so nothing remains to inhibit or compress the resonating chamber.

And then this enormous voice flows out from this tiny little body.  The eeriness (to me) of the Finnish vowels only adds to the weird and wonderful quality of seeing someone so relaxed create something so intense.   

Of course this level of calm intensity is a goal of mine.  Has long been, will continue to be.  I’ve just never seen anyone so perfectly demonstrate it.  I don’t think I do it nearly as well as she does but I want to.

We had our first concert on Thursday night, but there’s one more Sunday afternoon.  Details HERE.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Finishing Happy: My Marathon Story

This was not the race I wanted.  I had plans and goals.  I had worked hard.  And what did I do?  I went out too fast - at a fun and comfortable pace rather than the very conservative one recommended by the running magazines- and stayed joyfully ahead of my own goal pace for 10 miles.  Then I sank back into my goal pace for about 5 more.  Then I began to feel some twinges from my IT band, an old injury that had not arisen once during training.  I ignored it and ran a little more.  The twinges started to be pain.  I stopped, stretched, continued.  Stopped, walked, went back to running.  Knew that this could not be happening!  I was prepared!  I had made it uninjured to the start line - this was supposed to be my triumph!  But no. 

By the time I got to mile 18 I couldn’t deny that I was having a real ITB flare-up.  It was really painful, and, more to the point, I remembered how long it would take to heal if I did real damage.  I scrapped my time goal and devoted myself to walking.  I chatted for a mile or so with a fellow sufferer who was also not having the race she wanted, but after a while she recovered a bit and ran on.  I walked, stretched, walked some more.  I texted my husband not to hurry to the finish line to meet me.  I felt very sorry for myself.

I don’t know where I was - mile 21?  22? - when I met a woman who saved my race for me.  She was a Marathon Maniac - look that up - and she was on her 13th marathon of the year, on her way to 30, with another one scheduled the following weekend, and she was a fount of useful information. First, she confirmed that walking was the right move if I wanted to finish the race and also run again, and then she started throwing numbers at me.  I could make it in under five hours if I could walk at such and such a pace for the next 3.8 miles, or if I could jog for a half mile here or there, or if I could run - but she didn’t recommend running.  I could run again tomorrow if I soaked in an ice bath and ate protein all day.  I could avoid this in the future by not trying to run faster than I had in training.  Oh, look, there’s only 3.7 more miles to go!  She walked and talked me all the way in, and I walked faster than I had thought I could.  In the last mile she checked her makeup and hair to prepare for the finishers photos. 

I admit that I was not delightful company.  I was having some trouble enjoying the NOW, between the pain and the disappointment, and I felt guilty that she was walking in when she clearly could have run, and I kept apologizing to her, which even I knew was annoying.  But she stayed right with me, and made me move faster and faster - use your hips! - and we finished in 5:04.  I collected my medal, smiled for the cameras, made relieved faces at my husband in the stands and my friend who had waited over forty minutes in the sun since his own finish.  I turned to thank her and she was gone. 

Now, here’s the thing.  This race was not the race I wanted.  But it still counts!  I worked hard for five hours and I crossed the finish line as well as I could.  I spent a day or so feeling guilty that I had walked so much - but walking is still moving forward and I wasn’t walking because I was lazy or because I wasn’t fit to be out there that day.  My marathon went the way it went and I lived to fight another day and I can’t WAIT to set my sights on a new one and try again. 

Half way through, I had seen the race leaders streaming towards me, and those men and women who ultimately won the race looked fantastic - fit fast, and intense.  I was impressed by their athleticism and can’t really imagine ever achieving what they did in a race like this.   But they did not exactly seem to be enjoying themselves, in stark contrast to my race savior.  She was waving at everyone, gabbing away, cheerfully high-stepping, and offering recovery advice to those around her.  What an inspiration, and not at all in the place I expected.  I had anticipated being inspired by the 2:15 finishers, not the 5:04 ones. 

I have a new goal for my next race.  Yes, I want to finish strong, and of course I will have a time goal because I am like that - but mostly I want to finish happy. 

Thank you Debbie Lazerson, wherever you are!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bach Story

Funny story.  The third movement of the Bach Concerto for Oboe and Violin is four pages long, but in my part there is a lovely 3 bar rest at the page turn so it is never a problem for me.  The unfortunate violinist, though, plays throughout the entire movement and can’t easily get the page over, so there’s always a little issue there.  Some players just rip the page over while playing - somehow - or have someone else turn for them, but most work out some sort of photocopy arrangement, which still requires two stands, or one expanded stand, or at least a perfectly situated part.  AND that third movement comes almost immediately after the second, so everything really has to be in place well in advance. 

I performed the Double Concerto a number of years ago, with an orchestra that I will not name here. The violin soloist was VERY anxious about this page situation, and the performance in general.  She spent quite a bit of time pre-concert setting up her stand, JUST SO, and making sure that it was angled exactly as she wanted, and that the third movement was all spread out so as to be readable.  There may have been stand lights involved as well - she really wanted to make sure that every note on all four pages was clear.  Perhaps I didn’t mention that the part is also significantly difficult. 

Finally the concert started, and she and I came on from backstage.  We bowed to the audience, smiled at each other, and raised our instruments.  We cued.  Did I mention that we were performing without a conductor?  Well, the orchestra and I swept away into the first movement, and the poor violin soloist bounced straight into the THIRD!  She hadn’t turned her pages back to the beginning before the concert started! 

What was I to do?  Should we start again?  We had no conductor and we had never rehearsed the possibility that we might need to STOP playing in the concert.   I didn’t know if I could cut the group off and have them all notice in time to be suave.  I kept going.  Meanwhile, my colleague recognized her mistake instantly, and flipped back one page, two, three, four pages to the beginning of the book,and was able to join in before the end of the first tutti.  Before her first solo passage, in other words.  We carried on, and cruised successfully through the rest of the piece. 

At the end we took our bows.  We smiled.  We retreated backstage.   And I apologized profusely.  “Friend, I’m so sorry- I didn’t know what to do or how to stop - I’m so glad you got back in but we should have done it over…”
And she said, smiling, “Oh, it’s really OK - it’s a good thing the piece begins Tutti.  I don’t even think anyone noticed!”

I love that.  I don’t know if her statement was founded more in optimism or delusion, but it’s something I always keep in mind when I make mistakes in performance.  Probably some people didn’t notice, and at least I started on the right page!

That’s not going to happen this week.  Maybe something else, but certainly not that.  I’ll be performing the Bach Double Concerto (and two other gorgeous Cantatas) with violinist EmmaLee Holmes-Hicks and the Peoria Bach Festival this Friday night.  It will be a beautiful concert.  You should come.

Details HERE.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Working on Sound

I got this question from a student recently, and thought it might be of interest to others.

While I have been practicing, I've been listening to Allan Vogel's recording of the Saint-Saens Oboe Sonata on Spotify and have tried to imitate his sound for the pieces I'm working on.  It's been going ok with the Telemann Fantasy, but the 3rd movement of the Kalliwoda has been a bit of a problem for me.  Since the piece is a bit more exciting and bouncy, it's difficult to maintain a darker and smoother tone.  How would you suggest approaching this piece in order to maintain a good sound?

This is such a good question, and an complicated one.  Making a beautiful and uniform sound over the whole instrument is crucial to a developing oboist, and listening to great players like Allan Vogel is a great way to proceed.  Allan Vogel playing Saint-Saens will certainly take a different approach than (hypothetically) Allan Vogel playing Kalliwoda, yes, but I bet if you froze your recordings in mid note and compared sound to sound you would clearly hear his distinctive voice in both.  The difference, I think, is in the energy of the articulation and the vibrato. 

Tp keep your listening work going, try to find a recording of one of the great oboists we spoke of performing another Kalliwoda work, or one by Pasculli, or by Krommer.  I think you will find that throughout even the most hectic passages, these accomplished players don’t lose the quality of their sound.  They may be using an intentionally livelier approach than they would in a slow Bach aria, but the core of the sound remains smooth and effortless across registers and of course stays beautifully in tune.

Here’s my suggestion.  Practice the piece as if it were a slow one, for a while.  I know you have the fingers and technique to fly through it, but fight that urge.  You want the sound of the oboe to be beautiful and effortless, and you don’t want to sacrifice that quality to the speed of the notes and articulations. 

Choose a note that figures prominently in the section you want to work on (Middle C in the main Rondo theme, for example.)  Play it beautifully.  Play it long and make sure it has the quality you want.  Add vibrato.  The vibrato will want to be fast and exciting, probably, since the piece is so exciting.  Calm it down and make it feel settled. 

Now, play through the section very slowly.  No more than 70% of your performance tempo.  This should feel pretty deadly, and not exciting at all.  Keep coming back to the beautiful C you prepared, and every time you return to that note make sure it is what you practiced.  Now, go through again and check every note within a third of that C.  Make sure they fit with the C you’ve worked on.  Make sure the intonation is appropriate, and that your embouchure isn’t going through contortions trying to make them sound like the C.  Everything should feel calm, and controlled, and you should be confident that those few notes are sounding exactly like you want them to. 

Obviously, from here you should expand your attention to include all of the other notes.  If you are leaping up or down a large interval, spend time analyzing the quality of both notes and finding the simplest way in your mouth to keep them similar in color and dynamic (and perfectly in tune).  When you play through the section - SLOWLY - you should be able to hear a core quality to all of the notes that sounds like YOU.  If you lose track of that quality, play SLOWER.

Once you have the entire section comfortable and effortless with the sound you want, you can bring the tempo back up.  As you do so, use the short bouncy articulations and accents to energize the piece, but NEVER at the expense of the beautiful sound. 

I know this sounds like a drag, but it’s a long project to remake your sound in the way you are trying to do.  It’s not hard to play with your new technique and attention to sound for a few minutes, but it’s hard to keep your attention there as you work on increasingly hard repertoire.  As you get more and more comfortable, try setting a timer to go off as you practice, every 5 to 10 minutes.  When you hear the timer, ask yourself whether you are still paying attention to your beautiful sound and creating the sound you want.  Keep bringing your attention back to your goal.

Thanks for asking the question!  I hope this helps - at least a bit - and please keep me posted on your progress!