Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Upcoming Concert

This weekend I am playing John Adams's Harmonielehre with the Milwaukee Symphony.  As usual, the orchestra sounds magnificent, conductor Edo de Waart is utterly inspiring, and I am pushing myself to play better than my best to keep up with those around me.  I feel so fortunate to be able to sub in this orchestra, because their commitment to excellence, as individuals and as a group, is a rare gift. 

I've said it before, but it is  a tremendous luxury to put the time in on a difficult piece like this - not just the time necessary to get through it, but the time to learn it and play it well.  As budgets shrink throughout the symphonic world, per-service orchestras like mine make do with as little rehearsal as possible.  The norm has become juuust enough rehearsal time so the concert doesn't fall apart.  We come as prepared as possible, and spend all of our time making sure we understand the transitions and the tempi, and then perform.  In Milwaukee there is time to discuss balance, intonation, motivation, and blend.  It is a treat to do this kind of work. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Oboe Update

So I had this oboe.  I bought it because it called to me through the internet.  I liked it, then I liked it a lot, then I liked it less.  I decided to sell it.  Two people tried it, and both seemed to like it but declined to buy it.  It came back and sat on my shelf for a few weeks, until I pulled it out to see what I still had.

And suddenly it's the best oboe in my collection!  I love it for my Chen concerto because it is so easy to double tongue even in the lower register and to pop high notes out and to sustain a note forever.  I love it to play second oboe because it is so easy to sneak in low and quietly.  I love it in my recent Big Band concert because the keys feel so small and neat under my fingers that I can lay down the complicated jazz rhythms without having to fret about my fingers - I know that's a weird statement but if I don't have to worry about the oboe I can focus much better on the music.  I loved it even in a big masterworks concert full of romantic music - that's where my love affair with it had come to an end previously.

When I see a low note, I know what to do on this instrument.  If I set up my embouchure correctly and use enough air, the note comes.  On my Loree, that solution works perhaps 85% of the time.  Hoping really hard is an important element of making entrances on the Loree, but if I just do my job the Yamaha meets me there.  When I reach for an awkward interval, the Yamaha says, Great, Boss, how soft do you want it?   The Loree says, Make me.  On this oboe it is possible for me to be (almost) completely the Unfussy Oboist that I aspire to be.

What does this tell me?  Certainly I was too hasty when I gave up on the oboe before.  Perhaps my summer of reed and intonation work has improved me to the point that I can optimize this instrument.  Perhaps I'm just a different person now, or maybe all the playing I'm doing on the instrument lately is making it more like me.  I know full well that a Loree oboe doesn't come into its own until the second year - I always love my oboes best at that time - and maybe I just wasn't willing to give my Yamaha the benefit of the doubt for long enough.  I need to be more patient.  I LOVE my new oboe!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Upcoming Concert

This weekend in South Bend we finally open our official season with James Beckel's Toccata for Orchestra, the Korngold Violin Concerto, and Brahms Symphony No. 1.  And I feel pretty good about this program.

Brahms 1 remains one of my very favorite orchestral works.  It has everything - fatefully tolling tympani, gorgeous oboe, horn, and violin solos, a deeply joyful major key string chorale melody, and a rock solid ending that leaves no doubt about when the audience should applaud.  I played this piece for the first time in Youth Orchestra in high school, and I never get tired of it. 

It's one of those warhorses that is truly overplayed, though.  I have only been with South Bend for 5 years, and I know I have performed it here at least once before.  There is so much great repertoire out there, and I am hard-pressed to explain why we would repeat a piece this soon.   Do people really want to hear the same pieces over and over again?  Across America, orchestras are struggling to maintain their aging audiences and reach out to younger people, who rightly see the symphony as a museum piece.  Why not perform newer works, contribute to the development of today's composers, and give support to local musicians?

Fortunately, in this case our music director has in fact done this.  The Toccata for Orchestra is a relatively new, relatively local work, composed in 2007 by James Beckel, Jr, a trombonist and composer from Indianapolis. It is lively, fun, and should be an enjoyable treat even for the Brahms lovers.  The Korngold Violin Concerto is beautiful and romantic, but has some edgy moments, and is certainly not nearly so commonly played as many other concerti.  I've never done it before, myself, and am looking forward to it quite a lot. 

Hopefully there is something for everyone on this concert - why not come and check us out if you live in the area?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It Feels Sooo Good.

We moved over the weekend.  And we'd been working on this move - around all of our normal work and teaching and baby-wrangling - for a good month beforehand.  So for weeks there has always been a new busywork project at hand.  Packing boxes, wading through phone trees calling utility companies, buying paint and blinds, changing locks, pricing appliances, scraping bathtub caulk, gutting said bathtub, hanging a new surround, installing curtain rods, lugging boxes around, searching fruitlessly for the one cable that would actually make Sesame Street possible - everything else in my life has been on hold.

At this point it feels like I have always been running around multitasking with projects all around me in various stages of incomplete.  I walk into the kitchen and remember that I was about to hang pantry shelves.  I go in search of the drill and find it in the bathroom with Steve, who immediately recruits me to hold a big piece of plastic up to the tub so he can make arcane marks on it.  When I escape I find that Zoe has pulled all of her books out onto the floor and wants to read them all at once.  We read and I can sense a nap coming on, so I hurry to the kitchen in hopes of getting some lunch into her before she konks out.  There I notice the pantry shelves that I was about to hang. Also a bag of groceries that I dimly remember buying and meaning to refrigerate, a hand sander sitting idly next to the patch of spackle on the wall, and the silence which means that the washing machine has finished its cycle and the clothes need to be transferred. 

Until about a week ago I was at least managing to practice daily, and I had sacrificed running and writing for pleasure a good week prior to that. I know everything will settle down, but it certainly hasn't yet.

That's why it was a wonderful treat to drive over to Valparaiso yesterday for my usual long day of teaching.  Imagine - from 11 until 6 all I had to do was focus on one person at a time.  Figure out how to solve the immediate problem that person was struggling with.  The obligation to uni-task felt as welcome as the cool-down walk at the end of a hard workout.  I could finally calm my scattered mind and relax into a job that I know how to do.  Eight lessons and a coaching have never felt so refreshing. 

Back at my house now, I still feel grounded and capable in a way that I haven't for weeks.  Jarring me out of my normal routine made me realize how much I love it, and even though we still have to finish the unpacking process I am much readier to cope with it after one day of enforcing my normal brain discipline.  I've been reminded how to focus and how to cope and I'm ready to face the chaos once again. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Upcoming Concert

I am playing with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic this week, and we are doing Mahler's 4th Symphony.  I have never played this piece before, and I am having a fantastic time - the orchestra sounds great and it is a pleasure to play such a large-scale piece. 

This music is such an enjoyable challenge to play.  It is sooo romantic, and every bar - every beat, sometimes, has a different character.  The colors change constantly.  Every minute is fascinating, and challenging, and beautiful.  As a player I am engaged all the time. 

It's a treat, too, to discover this great work from the relative safety of the second oboe chair.  I can sit in the middle of the action and listen and enjoy everyone else's musical ideas and gestures while my job is merely to make the oboe work in the low register.  And I can do that without too much stress, so I'm having fun. 

I really hope the audience enjoys this piece.  Although I love playing it, in my preparation I have struggled to pay attention as the recording rolls along.  Somehow for me Mahler never really seems to come to the point.  Every minute is amazing but I don't feel the big arc of the story. 

I like a clear narrative, and I like to say what I came to say and move on along.  I get terribly impatient if a novel goes on too long a tangent from the story line, or gets embroiled in description.  In some ways this Mahler symphony feels that way to me.  Gorgeous and interesting minute by minute but after an hour I'm not sure why I bothered.  But people read Proust, and other wordy novels, and people LOVE Mahler, and Wagner, and Bruckner.  It takes all kinds and I am so glad that it does! Without enthusiastic listeners I would never get to do what I do.   

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Easy is Hard

The memorization I'm working on now is one of the hardest things I have done. 

I am about a month and a half out from performing Qigang Chen's Extase with the South Bend Symphony, and I can play it.  All of the hardest parts are secure in my fingers and memorized - I've been over them enough hundreds of times that I almost can't help but play them all the way through once I start.  A few other notey passages are close enough that I'll easily have those with just a little conscious effort.  And I do have a good grasp of the form and of what comes next most of the time.

It's nice that my playing and teaching work is starting up again, too.  I have a lot of solo hours in the car coming up this week and next.  I'll be listening all the way through the piece every time I leave home, and that will be invaluable in terms of hearing my entrances, memorizing the orchestral cues I need to know, and developing my sense of the energy arc that will be required.  My plan has been to have the big picture of the piece solid enough in my head to start running with it by the 23rd of this month - 30 days out. 

But what worries me is the "easy" stuff.  I have quite a lot of this kind of material, and I can play it without a fuss.  It's not especially melodic.  Nor is it made up of patterns that I can easily determine and remember intellectually.  It's not predictable and I can't hum it.

Also challenging are these long circular breathing/glissandoing passages.  I can do the tricks, but it's very hard to remember in the moment whether I have held the high C# for 4 bars or 5, and whether I wiggle in bar 3, or diminuendo there.  Does the gliss happen on 4?  On 4 of this bar or the next one?  And unfortunately it matters what I do.  The orchestral parts are hard enough, and the piece complex enough, to be an ensemble challenge even without having to worry about missing beats from the soloist. 

I spent my evening session last night playing through and through some of this material.  It's not technically difficult, but I think  at this point I just need tons of repetition to drive it home. 

In 2003 I played Elliot Carter's Inner Song.  I performed it in recital 3 or 4 times, and then took it (with 6 other pieces) to the Tokyo Competition. At that time I did not find it particularly hard to memorize.   Like these sections of the Chen, it was filled with random-seeming intervals spaced irregularly in time.  The oboe playing itself was far more difficult for me, though. There were great extremes of range and dynamic, and I was playing high As for the first time in solo literature. I was 8 years younger than I am now.  I did not have a 2-year-old.  So I did it over and over.  I worked for pitch, for fluidity, for smooth fingers and invisible register breaks.  I found that with that much repetition the "tune" was catchy enough to get badly stuck in my head, and I'd hum motives as I cooked dinner or drove to gigs.  It wound up feeling melodic to me, and I truly enjoyed playing it and presenting it. 

I do not have that kind of time right now.  The practice time I can claim is divided between my solo work and preparation for the orchestra concerts I have weekly between now and then.  I am getting ready for an audition as well.  We are closing on a house next week and moving before the end of the month.  Did I mention the two-year-old? 

Of course I could perform using the music in October.  It is not unusual for a wind soloist to do so, especially in a contemporary work like this.  But that is not my preference.  I love the feeling of stepping out on stage without a net.  I love the music flowing through me and directly out to the audience, without the intervening visual clutter of a music stand.  I love having to keep track of all the details in my head - when they are all in one place like that it is actually easier.  I lose focus when I don't have to focus hard.  And it just plain looks better.

So I will keep at this.  If I am not able to get through it in my head by the end of the month I will probably plan to use the music - here's a different feeling to the preparation, so I will need to commit one way or the other at some point. Stay tuned!