Friday, March 29, 2013

Women of the Wind: Musgrave Impromptu

We got our recording back!  It's less than a month since our Women of the Wind performance, and I am so pleased to be able to share some of it with you.  I would love to just stream the whole thing, but one thing that did not come across was our speaking.  Most of it was cut out, and what you can hear is dim and unclear.  What I’ll do, then, is share one work at a time, and include my introductory material to give it some context. 

We opened our program with this magnificent Impromptu by Scottish composer Thea Musgrave.  It was published in 1968, but I discovered it last summer at the IDRS convention, and was wowed from the first moment I heard it.

The piece uses the timbres of the oboe and flute brilliantly.  It's easy with these two instruments to have the oboe sound too pointy, and the flute too diffuse, and of course we had to make adjustments as we played together - but it felt easy to do.  The work lies well for both players and suits both sounds.

I especially love the middle sections, where we repeatedly come into and emerge from low unisons and minor seconds.  The technical parts of the piece were easy to learn (if tricky to play), but the character of those internal episodes took us a while to find as we worked.  

Impromptu #1 by Thea Musgrave
Martha Councell-Vargas, flute,  Jennet Ingle, oboe

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Women of the Wind: McCormick Passacaglia

We got our recording back!  It's less than a month since our Women of the Wind performance, and I am so pleased to be able to share some of it with you.  I would love to just stream the whole thing, but one thing that did not come across was our speaking.  Most of it was cut out, and what you can hear is dim and unclear.  What I’ll do, then, is share one work at a time, and include my introductory material to give it some context. 

I was at Eastman with Dana McCormick, and this piece was composed for and premiered by one of my good friends, so I feel that I have a very personal connection to it.  It is in the form of a passacaglia, which as all you probably know is a set of melodic variations over an infinitely repeated bass line.  A famous example of a passacaglia is the Pachelbel Canon - it's also a famous canon, of course, but as you know if you have ever played the cello in a wedding, the bass line repeats over and over and over as the upper strings vary and vary the melody.  

In this case, McCormick's form is a little looser, but the basic philosophy is the same.  There is a repeating 12-bar chord progression in the right hand of the piano, and the left  hand introduces a sparse melody which the oboe then takes over and develops with increasing intensity.  In the middle section, the chord progression is still implied, but buried in interior voices amid complicated running notes - I can't hear it anymore myself, but I worked it all out in the score.  As you listen, you may be interested in the challenge of following those chords and fifths and sevenths throughout the work, or you may just want to lose yourself in the gorgeous soundscape she’s created. 

When I asked Dana about her piece, she said: it is sort of a love letter to the oboe and high notes and the piano sustain pedal, three of my favorite things in the world of sound. The form let me just really bask in the timbres.

I invite you all to bask with us.

Passacaglia from Sonata for Oboe and Piano by Dana McCormick.
Jennet Ingle, oboe, Ketevan Badridze, piano.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Formality and Intensity

Let me say, first, that I am all about making classical music accessible.  I consistently break the fourth wall in my solo performances by speaking and interacting with the audience, and I had that whole video thing going on in CHROMA,  and in the orchestra I support the additions of multimedia presentations and conductor speeches and sponsor speeches and interactive intermissions and blue jeans concerts and all of the other innovations that groups come up with to make music friendly, and engaging, and relevant to the new generation of symphony-goers.   I want the audience to recognize us as people, and to collaborate with us in making the experience enjoyable.  This movement in the symphonic world is a good one, I believe.

But I played the B Minor Mass last night at Valparaiso University.  The experience could not have been more different.  The group performed with a level of formality I haven’t seen in years.  The orchestra waited on stage, courteously hushed.  The choir filed in to applause and seated themselves on a silent signal.  We tuned, and the conductor and soloists entered and bowed formally, and then we began.  Not a word had been spoken, not even a reminder about flash photography and fire exits.  No attempt was made to ease the audience in, no remarks about Bach’s place in the historical canon or about the significance of the Latin mass or descriptions of the fugues or admissions of difficulties for the chorus or anything. 

We then played the entire two hour work without intermission.  And Bach’s B Minor Mass is an astounding piece.  The audience was deeply, breathlessly silent throughout - I’ve been getting over a cold and even between movements had to stifle my coughs lest I be the one to break the spell.  At the end of the evening, the piece ends with a rapturous fugue on Dona Nobis Pacem - Give us Peace. The final chord hung in the air for a long time.  The conductor’s arms held the silence, held it, held it… held it… and finally relaxed.  The applause was warm and long.  I had a clear sense that we all - the choir, the orchestra, and the thousand or so audience members - had been on a journey together.  A long one, a meaningful one.  In that enormous chapel, we were all brothers at that moment, had all experienced something real and intense and personal and communal all at once.

Would this experience have been diminished by our customary thanking of sponsors and requesting donations?  If we had tried to make ourselves more approachable, would Bach’s great Mass have been less monumental?  If we had spoken between the big sections instead of taking a small, silent break, would the mood have been shattered?  Is this concert experience, perhaps alienatingly formal to a layperson, actually a more immediate route to the kind of transformative, transcendent performances that might create diehard fans?

I don’t necessarily think so - I still respect the effort to reach out to an audience not well-versed in our field - but a concert like last night’s does make me think.  It was an amazing performance, a special night, a precious one.  The level of concentration from EVERYONE involved was just top-notch, and something we don’t often get from the symphonic stage. 

Was it the format?  Or just the Bach?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Hard Truth

I had a great practice session today.  It’s so much fun to work on new pieces after spending so much time on one recital.  I love this phase of exploring new (to me) repertoire and idly planning future performances.  I love the technical practice involved in getting new music under my fingers before the real nitty-gritty work of interpreting and analyzing and understanding gets really underway.  And I feel terrible for wasting my morning.

This stinks.  Why should the life of a twenty-first century musician be so plagued by non-music-making?  I understand, I know, I believe that the way to a career in this day and age is to be highly entrepreneurial.  I know that I need to be making plans all the time for future performances, because no one else will make them for me.  I know I need to be working on my idea for a chamber music series, and contacting presenters to ask for recital appearances, and looking for grants, and keeping up with what others are doing, and scanning music parts to people who have already agreed to collaborate with me.  In my mind all that was going to happen this week.

It is spring break at Valparaiso University and at Notre Dame.  Several of my private students have conflicts with sports or musicals, and one was sick, and I don’t have an orchestra concert this week at all.  Effectively, all I have to do is keep up with my reed business and teach about 4 students - all week!  This is the perfect time to get ahead with all of the afore-mentioned career stuff. 

But instead I spent my morning delving deep into transcribing a violin concerto.  I spent yesterday working on a Bach Partita.  I love playing the oboe, and I sometimes wish that I hadn’t learned the truth about the rest of it.  I remember being in my early twenties, living in Chicago, and being totally fulfilled by the making of the music.  I could lose myself in a practice room for hours at a time, and eat my lunch in a daze, eager to get back to the instrument.  I would go to bed at night content, knowing that I had done what I needed to do.

Unfortunately, I now realize how much more is involved than simply honing my craft.  It is still possible for me to lose myself in practice, and I still need it - the practice, of course, and also the intensity and focus - but it isn’t enough.  I also have to do stupid computer work and send emails that make me uncomfortable, asking for attention and time and money.  I have to search for venues.  I have to look for partner organizations.  I have to keep thinking forward.  I’m not good at it and it stresses me out and I wish things could just be easy.  I wish I didn’t have to feel guilty about devoting a morning to the oboe. 

I understand that this is the way things are.  I don’t usually complain.  But this week it depresses me.  Someone do it for me, OK?  Call up and offer me a path.  I promise I’ll say yes. I swear I’ll be awesome.  Just let me pretend for a little while that it can be all about the music.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Upcoming Concert - the Cello!

Where did I go wrong that I don’t play the cello?  Such a beautiful instrument.  So resonant, so sweet, so soulful.  In the talented hands of our principal cellist, Lara Turner, it flows like liquid and sings like a human.  I might even love it more than the oboe, a little.   

I tried a friend’s instrument once, though, and was disappointed to find that the cello is not as snuggly as it looks.  Cellists look so comfortable with the instrument in their laps and the scroll nestled in their hair - but in reality it is a big nobbly piece of wood that doesn’t fit me as well as I had imagined.  It's hard to hold the bow properly.  The tuning pegs poked me in the ear.  My fantasy second career went up in smoke before my eyes.

At least this week, though, I can live vicariously.  Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations is a pleasure to play, mostly because it’s not particularly hard work for me.  With our small chamber orchestra in the lovely acoustics of the  DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, I can pay deep attention to Lara’s beautiful and thoughtful playing. I can make music with her and with my other gifted colleagues in an intimate way that was quite impossible during last week’s Symphonie Fantastique extravaganza, fun though that was.   Here in this small space I can use my quiet voice, and make and react to delicate nuances, and be supportive AND heard,  and daydream about the cello. 

Our concert is Sunday afternoon.  Details are HERE.  This will be a sweet one. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Upcoming Concert

I have loved Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique ever since I was a teenager.  It’s one of the few major orchestral works I discovered on my own rather than being assigned it, and I can still remember listening to it over and over on my Sony Discman(!) and being deeply moved by the intensity of the emotion and the feverish, eerie quality of the sound.

I remember feeling this way about certain books, too, but in nearly every case I have renounced my adoration of these.  Or at least, my grownup self knows to cringe when the prose gets too purple and the melodrama too overwrought.  I understand why I read and reread these stories of tragedy and ill-fated love and heroism, but I can’t do it without embarrassment now.

Somehow, though, Symphonie Fantastique has escaped this fate.  I still love it, though I hear the melodrama for what it is: a transparent play for our emotions.  I forgive it in spite of its too-busy orchestrations and difficult ensemble issues.  I enjoy that one overplayed tune even though it sticks in my head terribly. 

In other words, I’ve been looking forward to this week in the Northwest Indiana Symphony.  I love the piece, I'm happy to perform it in the lovely Bethel Church in Merrillville, and I'm eager to present it to a full and enthusiastic house Friday night.  Come out and join us!

Details HERE.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Saying Thanks

I just read this wonderful post from Christa Garvey - The Oboist - and it struck home to me this week especially.  First, because like everyone else I was shocked and saddened by Bill Bennett’s tragedy.  Second, because I adore my colleagues and should tell them so a lot more than I do.  Third, because we have just finished our recital set and I learned something very valuable from lovely Martha which I’ll be putting into place immediately. 

In her studio at Western Michigan University, Martha Councell-Vargas TEACHES backstage behavior.  She makes a point of telling her students how to thank a guest artist, or any artist, and enforces not only their presence at events but their gracious responses.  It had never occurred to me to do this.

When I was at Eastman, the culture of the oboe studio was such that 15 people would ALWAYS meet you as you stepped off stage and tell you what a nice job you did.  Later, in lessons, Mr. Killmer would tell you what to work on and improve, but in the moment all you felt was support and acceptance.  I don’t recall that he ever told us specifically to do this, but he led by example and we were never unclear on how we were supposed to behave. 

My situation as a teacher is different from his.  I live a long way from the schools I teach at, and teach very few oboe majors.  Therefore, I am not at every performance they give - not even at any, some years - and don’t feel that I can require recital attendance, and don’t have a studio class in which to address the group as a whole. 

But I was inspired by our performance at WMU, or at least by its aftermath.  Student after student approached me, thanked me for coming, and referenced something specific in my program - the double-tonguing, the intonation, the lizard in the Three Desert Fables.  It was meaningful to me to hear what they had heard and what they liked - and it just felt great to be noticed, recognized, and thanked. 

In contrast, at Valparaiso, which was my own home turf, I spoke to members of the faculty afterwards and to a former student’s mom, but nearly all of my students fled the instant the last note sounded.  MY students!  They talked about the concert in our lessons the next day, but that is nothing like the same as hearing a simple thank you in the immediate aftermath of the performance.  I love getting reactions from audience members as they are fresh, and hearing about what they enjoyed helps me to continue to improve the presentation for future audiences.

So my resolution is as follows.  I will personally make the effort to speak to the guest artists who perform with my orchestras.  My current tendency is to admire from within the group, and say nice things on my blog, but not actually talk to them.  I can fix that.  I will make sure my colleagues know how much I respect and enjoy their work.  And I will talk to my students about this important skill.  Of course it feels awkward to talk to a stranger, but there is no reason in the world not to share your enjoyment of the performance and pay your enthusiasm forward.  The artist appreciates it, and the world benefits from it, and it's great karma for your own future endeavors.