Friday, December 06, 2013
This past weekend in Kitchener-Waterloo, I had the unusual pleasure of being able to sit out in the audience to enjoy the second half of our concerts, as my performing duties were done as soon the program hit halftime. Led by their music director, Edwin Outwater, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony played Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the 'Pathétique', after intermission - a piece I had not really listened to intently in quite a long time. It actually happens to be one of the last pieces I played in my youth orchestra in Detroit before permanently putting my violin back in its case, so it holds a very special place in my musical heart. I relished the opportunity to enjoy a live performance of it after singing Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, & Strings at the end of the first half of the program. However, as I listened the Symphony unfurl and reminisced about days past in which I let my teenage-angst express itself freely as I played impassioned and tortured melodies high on my violin's G-string in the symphony's final movement (an emo-joy that only other angst-ridden teenage violinists will truly understand), I found myself listening to the piece with slightly different ears than I expected.
Beyond its sheer musical brilliance and heart-wrenching beauty, the Pathétique is legendary also for the fact that Tchaikovsky conducted its premiere just 9 days before dying, perhaps intending his final symphony to be a musical suicide note. As I listened to the beginning of the haunting last movement, it dawned on me just how gay the evening's program was - seminal works by two great gay composers juxtaposed against each other, with some thematic similarities, and yet starkly different. The two composers' biographies have many commonalities on the surface: Both were greatly respected and quite famous composers within their respective lifetimes, both were officially recognized by a great many international institutions as well as their respective homelands' monarchs for their work, both were gay men living in times when homosexual activities were illegal.
While both composers' works on the program explored themes relating to death, Tchaikovsky's struck me as so much more anguished - the rawness, brutality, and depth of his depression so unapologetically apparent and there for all of us to witness and experience with him. It then struck me how different these two composers' lives were, too. Here I was listening to what was quite likely a lonely and tortured gay man's symphonic goodbye to the world, and I had just performed a piece that Britten had written for his life-partner of 35 years. The dichotomy could not have been more striking - one man had lived a life struggling with depression, unable to allow himself to live openly with any real lover or to develop any type of romantic connection fully in any sort of lasting or deeply fulfilling way, while the other spent most of his adult life with a man who was not only his creative muse, but also the love of his life. One man quite likely committed suicide, the other died of natural causes in the arms of his lifelong lover. There is a darkness to both composers' works, certainly, but in Tchaikovsky's symphony, personal anguish and inner conflict pour out because they have no other outlet, while Britten's Serenade is music that is inspired by love - a love that was known, accepted, and largely supported in his own wide-reaching community. In the last song of Britten's Serenade, which is perhaps the darkest moment of the orchestral cycle that explores the various stages of night, the singer welcomes sleep and then begs to never to wake again, asking for the "casket of his soul" to be sealed. Yet, the solo french horn sounds the call of a distant sunrise just after - a musical gesture that I take as a sign that he will wake up again and life will go on - the cycle will begin again anew. Tchaikovsy's Pathétique ends with a heartbeat figure in the basses that gradually slows, and then simply stops.
In a year that has seen so many giant steps forward for the gay community here in the US, and so many setbacks and violence against the gay community abroad, the juxtaposition of the two pieces was particularly moving. How much we have evolved - the evening's concert was conducted by a man who had just happily married his partner in Hawaii in front of their family and friends just weeks before our concerts last weekend. Yet, how much remains the same - gay teen suicide still abounds, making organizations like the Trevor Project still necessary.
While it's such a gift to have such beautiful music in our midst, how tragic it is to think of the abuse and struggles we still endure just to be able to love freely.
Movement 4 - Adagio lamentoso:
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Friday, November 22, 2013
A lot of critics and music-journalists often decry the use of anniversaries as programmatic crutches upon which to wheel out the music of composers and fill out their season performance calendars. Just about all of them have conceded, though, that in the case of Benjamin Britten and this centenary year of his birth, there is good reason to fête this man who was one of the 20th century's greatest composers, as his music is quite underserved outside of his native land.
Since I began my own personal project exploring Britten's music back in 2006, I've been repeatedly told time and time again that "Britten doesn't sell". What has been gratifying about this centennial year has been watching presenters and musicians alike stop thinking to themselves "Britten doesn't sell" and actually get out there and start selling Britten.
The irony, of course, is that what compels me so much about Britten's music is that it does, indeed, sell. He has the power to touch an audience in ways that few other composers are able. I've seen this time and time again as my various colleagues and I have watched audiences laugh, cry, and gasp during our recital programs of his music. I was again reminded of the huge emotional impact his music has last week, during a sold-out performance of his War Requiem with the Baltimore Symphony in Strathmore. Watching people's eyes flood with tears as the piece unfurled, the traditional latin requiem mass angrily/sadly/disbelievingly juxtaposed against the poetry of the killed-in-combat, World War I soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, it was overwhelming to experience the power of his music - just as impactful as any other composer of the "standard" classical music repertoire. Perhaps more-so, in some ways. I hope that the great world-wide efforts to program his music this year extend beyond this centenary, and that we continue to experience and explore his music more regularly. This is timeless music for everyone everywhere - powerful, meaningful and beautiful music that must continue to be played, presented, and heard.
Beyond the simple fact that Britten would have turned 100 today, celebrating Benjamin Britten could not be more timely - as we classical musicians struggle to find our footing in the 21st century, we could all take a cue from his willingness to innovate and engage. We could all stand to model his keen awareness of the power that music and musicians have to knit communities closer together, and to change not only our own lives, but also the lives of those around us for the better.
A very happy 100th birthday to Mr. Britten, wherever he may be celebrating today in the afterlife. Our world is a richer and more beautiful place because of you and your work, and I hope we can all take a cue from your work and life as we forge ahead with our own.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Friday, November 15, 2013
After a Beethoven rehearsal, the violinist and violist of the group, Yvonne Lam, and I were discussing the effect performing new music has had on our work with 'old' music - the music of what we classical musicians consider the 'standard' repertoire. Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc. Yvonne echoed a sentiment that I have often thought of performing new music, something that I briefly discussed in an interview in Toronto recently: "...doing a lot of new music makes you look at the rest of music in general with fresh eyes, because you're so concerned with how to communicate what's written down on the page to an audience that you suspend all sense of expectation. You look for the reason and purpose behind everything, so that every gesture is intentional."
I've been thinking a lot lately about how the classical music world, in general, could benefit from this type of thinking.
For anyone who has been living under a rock lately, it's been a rough go for our industry as of late. Two really sore and greatly discussed situations somehow seem emblematic of the struggles we have been experiencing. Having just celebrated its 110th birthday, the future of the musically head-less Minnesota Orchestra remains extraordinarily unclear and seemingly hopeless after more than a year of a lock-out of the musicians by the orchestra management. Also, the New York City Opera has closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy.
The NYCO situation has been the fodder for much gnashing of teeth in the press, and rightly so. The world have lost one of the most important platforms for the art form of Opera for the past 70 years. Much has been written reminiscing about memories of the past, documenting its final moments, as well as analyses of what went wrong and who exactly is to blame. It makes sense - we are grieving an epically tragic loss, and it is natural for us to go through these stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance.
I've had to go through my own grieving process with the collapse of the NYCO. The most immediate sting is that I was slated to sing the title role in the company's next scheduled production, J.C. Bach's Endimione. This is obviously not happening now, and I feel most of the feelings that I listed above quite acutely. I'm sad that this fascinating project is not to be, and that I have lost this opportunity to perform this beautiful and largely unfamiliar music. I read all of the accounts of what went wrong and think, "if only…". I'm angry that I signed, in good faith, a document that bound me to the company for that period, turning down numerous (and at times lucrative - both artistically and financially) offers for that period, only to be left with a two month hole in my normally (thankfully) over-full calendar. I also have accepted that this is the way that the proverbial cookie has crumbled, and I am now trying to figure out what to do with myself with this unexpected period off, grateful that this is just a blip on the screen of my life and not a complete system-fail requiring a reboot, like it could be and has been for so many others.
My own history with the company is somewhat mixed. While the company gave me my first operatic opportunity in Lincoln Center shortly after I left the Houston Grand Opera studio as Damon in their exquisitely beautiful production of Handel's Acis & Galatea, this NYCO cancellation is actually the second that I've had to grapple with - I was scheduled to perform Nemorino in a production of L'elisir d'amore that the company was planning to tour through Japan back in 2009. The tour was cancelled because of the company's inability to raise or allocate the funds necessary to take the company to Asia. Thankfully, those plans were abandoned in a timely and responsible fashion, long before being announced or production had begun. Regardless, I've always been grateful to the company for offering me the exciting opportunity to make my operatic debut in New York City. I learned valuable lessons during my short time there, and, perhaps most importantly, I had one of the most special and enjoyable operatic experiences of my career during that production. When things were going right there, it was a great place to be.
So why did I start off this whole diatribe with that little vignette about a short, post-rehearsal conversation in Chicago? Like performing new music (as well as the music of Benjamin Britten this past year) has shown me, I think it's time to start looking at our arts organizations in a different way - like new music, with fresh eyes. As our venerated institutions become older and more established, it is easy to begin taking their existence for granted. The demise of the New York City Opera should be a lesson and warning to us all in this regard.
I firmly believe that the sole purpose of any artist and any arts institution is to serve the communities around them. This week, I am in Baltimore to perform Britten's War Requiem with the Baltimore Symphony. The War Requiem, is the ideal example of this idea that our art form exists to serve the communities around us. The piece, composed for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during World War II, was written as a piece of healing. It is a cry for reconciliation, and for peace. Even though its poetry was written to decry World War I, and the music composed to grieve the losses of World War II, the piece remains just as relevant today as it ever has. We still live in a world in which we send our youngest and brightest off to be killed in war - we still have fallen soldiers to mourn and violence to contemplate.
As part of my work with the Symphony, I have been asked to spend time talking with various classes of high school and middle school students about the piece. In speaking about this piece with these young people, I am reminded of how unfamiliar all of the classical music repertoire is becoming to much of the American public. This music is less and less frequently taught as part of a young person's general education. The most exposure many people get to classical music is the occasional snippet of Carmina Burana in a car commercial or the talented young girl singing Puccini's 'O mio babbino caro' on Insert-Name-of-Country-Here's Got Talent. It is shocking to me in my travels how often a city's residents are completely unaware that their home boasts its own Symphony or Opera, let alone a chamber music series. If this is the case - why do we continue to operate with the assumption that everyone is as familiar with our art and its institutions as we are? We've spent lifetimes training to achieve the level of musicianship and administrative expertise we need in order to bring this music to the people around us. We've forgotten that we are specialists. We've lost sight of the the fact that we exist to educate.
We must stop taking for granted that all people know this beautiful, rich repertoire that is 'Classical Music'. We must even stop taking for granted that everyone is familiar with us as performers and institutions - many people don't know who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Our media marketplace is too crowded for us to take that for granted anymore. We must make sure that every gesture we make is intentional and not a motion that we simply take for granted because it's something we've always done or just a desperate act of survival. We must engage the communities around us beyond begging for them to dig us out of our grave. We must look at why and how we are relevant, and how we relate.
It is our responsibility as classical musicians to enable the communities around us to experience and discover this beautiful, potentially life-changing music. In doing this, we will engage these communities in a dialogue - reminding both ourselves and everyone around us why we are relevant, why what we do is important, and perhaps in the process bring our increasingly divided communities together.
This is not just the job of us performing artists (who must examine our programming and artistic vision) but also of the boards and administrations of these organizations, as well. Just as artists exist to serve the communities around them, it is the responsibility of those communities to support and protect them. In this sense, we are all guardians of this music. We are all artists, in this way.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Monday, October 14, 2013
"...'There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.”'
That’s an observation worth remembering at a time when music as a serious pursuit — and music education — is in decline in this country.
Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life..."
Read the whole piece here: http://nyti.ms/1bmgIhl.
Friday, September 27, 2013
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Friday, August 16, 2013
Friday, August 09, 2013
James Conlon has cancelled two August engagements to undergo surgery to remove an inflamed portion of his colon as a result of diverticulitis. The surgery will take place in New York, and Mr. Conlon’s prognosis is for a full recovery following three to four weeks recuperation after surgery.
Affected concerts include his August 17 Ravinia Festival performances of Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace with singers from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Trinity Episcopal Church, and an August 23 engagement presented by the La Jolla Music Society, as part of LA Opera’s Britten100/LA Festival, featuring the SummerFest Chamber Orchestra performing Britten’s Simple Symphony and Prelude and Fugue.
Mr. Conlon is expected to have resumed normal activities by the time of his next scheduled appearance, conducting Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Metropolitan Opera, opening on October 11.
I hope you all will join me in wishing Maestro Conlon all the best for a very speedy and easy recovery. Get well soon!
Monday, August 05, 2013
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
|soundcheck with The Knights in Central Park|
There's a little preview of the concert in the New York Times here:
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Friday, June 28, 2013
A few words that have come to mind for me when thinking about this piece:
- lobster bisque
Here's Leonard Bernstein conducting the Kyrie - one of the best parts of the piece. It's quite an opener.
Friday, June 21, 2013
Friday, June 14, 2013
Thursday, June 13, 2013
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Saturday, June 08, 2013
It occurred to me the other day - why do I get so frustrated with the weakness of my left side, yet take the strength of my right side for granted? That really isn't fair of me to ignore my strengths while I only give focus to my weaknesses. I thought back to that conversation at the recital last week, and the same thought occurred to me about musician's practice and work. We aren't fair to ourselves when we only beat ourselves up for the little things that went awry. It's dangerous and ungrateful to ignore all of the amazing things that we just did surrounding our little mistakes. We should take the good as well as the bad. We should enjoy and savor our strengths, while finding compassion and patience for our weaknesses.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Friday, May 17, 2013
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Monday, May 13, 2013
Friday, May 10, 2013
Thursday, May 09, 2013
|The Hawthorne Bridge at night|
|One of the fire pits at my favorite Portland Happy Hour haunt - Nel Centro|
|Morning hike with Angie|
|Morning coffee at my favorite riverside café haunt - Bean and Tree|
|The coffee at Mother's, my Portland breakfast haunt of choice|
And to the city of Portland - in the words of the Golden Girls: Thank you for being a friend.
|Springtime sunset in Portlandia|