Posts filed under:  Music Scene

A Small Town’s Musical Gem

 

A Heavenly Place for Music Study

Just before the start of the holiday season, I met my sister-in-law Ann, a yoga instructor, in Lenox, Massachusetts for the gift of a brief, restorative yoga retreat at the Kripalu Center. With a little time to spare before check-in, I decided to browse around the tiny town of Lenox, and unexpectedly discovered a musical gem on the top floor of a square brick building on Main Street.

From the outside, the Lenox Library resembles the austere courthouse that was its original incarnation, back in 1815. After the county seat moved to Pittsfield, the building became a meeting place for parties and social assemblies, and the building’s interior reveals this friendlier function. During the Gilded Age, when the Lenox Library Association took over the space, leading residents such as Andrew Carnegie helped out, and no less than Edith Wharton served on the book selection committee.

Inside, the Lenox Library displays that rare combination of grand vistas and cozy vignettes, from the high ceilings to the archways that offer unimpeded views leading from room onto room. Balconies look down from overhead; tall windows let in lots of natural light. The place is filled with books, Oriental rugs, lamps and comfortable nooks for reading.

As attractive as all these features were, what intrigued me most was a sign on a closed white door that read “Music Department.”

Curious, I opened the door onto a deserted wide staircase illuminated by a large window. The walls were lined with portraits of all the library’s presidents beginning with elderly John Hotchkiss, born in 1794, to the present day. A spider plant and a handmade quilt depicting the library’s facade (“given in loving memory of Judith Effron”) softened the landing.

At the top of the stairs stood another closed door. A plaque beside it read,  “Courtroom: Berkshire County Courthouse, built 1815, altered 1893, restored 2003.”

Behind this door I discovered an elegant large room with an unusual, high domed ceiling. The ceiling was not plain — it was painted with morning-glories and hummingbirds in mid-flight. I could easily imagine the kind of balls and gatherings that must have taken place there a century ago, as lavish as those from The Age of Innocence.

Today, the room’s shelves are filled with music recordings and books, as fully stocked as many college music libraries. The volumes cover an extensive list of musician biographies (from Beethoven and Berg to Benny Goodman and Leonard Cohen,) volumes on musical instruments, and on the psychology of music. There is an entire Grove reference series. There are shelves of music scores, from opera to Broadway, to lieder, to chamber music and piano music, and miniature orchestral scores. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion sits near Britten’s War Requiem.

I rifled through the audio CD’s, and pulled one out at random to discover my friend Eric Bazilian’s band “The Hooters,” looking very 1985, right next to a recording by Marilyn Horne.

More rare, the library has a large selection of vinyl LP’s. The first I looked at turned out to be the Rachmaninoff and Kodaly Cello and Piano Sonatas, played by my late teacher Earl Wild, and his good friend cellist Harvey Shapiro, recorded decades ago.

The music librarian, Amy LaFave, a dark-haired, soft-voiced woman with a gentle smile, clearly keeps things perfectly organized. She told me that the original room was deemed unsafe for large parties and balls when the hardwood floor began to warp, and so was closed.  When renovations were done in 2003, workers uncovered and restored the hummingbird painting on the domed ceiling.

How did such a comprehensive and beautiful music library come to exist in a small town in pastoral Western Massachusetts? Amy told me that the music department of the library was founded by Serge Koussevitzky and his wife in the early years of the Tanglewood Music Festival, so that Boston Symphony players could have ready access to materials during the summer season. The Koussevitzky Foundation is no longer directly involved with the library, but students who attend the Tanglewood Institute of Boston University make good use of its resources every summer.

I complimented Amy on the library’s rich collection of vinyl LP rarities.

“I keep the vinyl LP’s of certain recordings if CD’s or digital formats aren’t available,” she said.

As all libraries must do these days, the Lenox Library must adapt to the use of digital media, especially for sound recordings. It’s a challenge, figuring out how to optimally allow patrons to “borrow” these new materials, while explaining and preserving the past.

“We had a group of 4th graders in here not too long ago,” Amy said. “I showed them a vinyl LP, and they had no idea what ‘that black round thing’ was.”

For now, having the physical objects — the LP’s, the books one can hold, the scores one can turn the pages of (including pages where perhaps a famous musician’s fingerprints can be still be detected) — these physical objects are a direct link to a gilded and a golden past. I hope they are protected forever.

Dial V for Visuals

 

River in Hunan Province, where the secret Nu Shu language was born

Early this month I saw two concerts in Philadelphia that demonstrate a new trend — using visual effects inspired by film to highlight that purist of art forms, classical music. One concert was high-budget, one low. They were both effective, and they both invite interesting questions.

First I attended the Philadelphia Orchestra’s U.S. premier of Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Microfilms, Harp, and Orchestra. I’d heard about this piece when it was still in the making. My friend Elizabeth Hainen, principal harpist of the Orchestra, mentioned that she was commissioning Tan Dun to write a harp concerto for her.

“I’m going to be meeting with Tan when the Orchestra is in China,” she told me last May. “He said the work will be about Nu Shu, the secret language of women.”

I’d learned of Nu Shu, “Women’s Writing” through Lisa See’s bestselling novel of 2006, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Nu Shu is a centuries-old spoken and phonetically written language developed by women in a remote part of Hunan Province so they could communicate without the interference of men.

Following the example of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, Tan Dun traveled to the interior of his native Hunan Province to a village where Nu Shu is still spoken. With a film crew, he recorded elderly women singing traditional songs in Nu Shu, passing down the words and melodies to the younger female generation. He then set, as it were, an accompaniment, for full orchestra and brilliant harp solo, to these native songs.

The 40-minute piece and film (which was shown on three separate narrow scrolls hanging above the Kimmel Center stage) does not follow a narrative arc in the typical Western sense. It shows — over and over again — short scenes of women’s lives — simple domestic chores, bridal ceremonies, recountings of pain and sorrow. As might be expected of a film composer, Tan Dun uses the color of the orchestra to great effect, as well as unusual amplified sounds, such as the rhythmic dribbling of handfuls of water into a filled vessel — a device he used in his opera Tea: A MIrror of Soul. The audience responded with enthusiasm.

Equally engaging, “Dial L for Liebeslieder” was the low-budget but impressive staging of Johannes Brahms’ Liesbeslieder Waltzes for four singers and piano duo, cleverly conceived and performed by a new entity, the Artsong Repertory Theater Company. The event was held at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (whose basement hosts many indie-rock concerts popular with GenX’ers.)With a simple stage set and stark lighting, the ARTC used the Liesbeslieder Waltzes as well as other art songs and short jazz-age piano solo works, to tell a story of passion, adultery, and murder.

Complete with film-noir outfits, makeup, and hair (trench coats, pumps, swept-back barrettes) the acting was convincing while still knowing and tongue-in-cheek.

More important, the performance was beautifully sung. Did we need staging to appreciate the music? The richly blended voices of Brian Major, Cara Latham, Cory O’Niell Walker, and Jennifer Beattie, along with the sensitive piano accompaniments of Jillian Zack and Adam Marks were, for me, satisfying in their own right. It doesn’t get any better than great singing of great lieder.

But if clever staging and visuals brings attention to this incredible repertoire, I’m all for it. After all, music lives for its audience. Using the eyes to win over the ears is a W by me.

 

 

Interview with Michal Schmidt, pianist and cellist extraordinaire

 

Michal Schmidt, cellist and pianist

A few years ago, I was astonished by an amazing feat of musicianship. At a piano trio recital program for Tri-County Concerts, I saw and heard the cellist, Michal Schmidt, lay down her cello and move to the piano to perform Ravel’s Violin Sonata with violinist Min-Young Kim, so that Matt Bengston, who had just performed Ravel’s solo piano masterpiece Gaspard de la nuit, could take a much-deserved break.

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m picky when it comes to piano playing. It’s not a small thing and also not an exaggeration when I say that Michal’s tone, phrasing, fluency at the keyboard, and sensitivity to the violinist, were exquisite examples of finesse, artistry, and beauty. So it was an honor and a pleasure when she asked me to collaborate with her on a number of interesting recitals this season — two of which are coming up next month.

Rarely is an instrumentalist so exacting and vocal about the piano part — my part. In rehearsal with Michal, I submerge my ego and keep an open mind, knowing that she can play the piano part perfectly well herself. It’s been ear-opening and a lot of fun.

Today I’d like to interview this superb cellist, pianist, wife, mother, and colleague, and share with you her insights into her unique career and life.

DLH: Tell me a little about your growing-up years, and if anybody in your family was a professional musician.

MS: I grew up in a little town in the northern Galilee in Israel. As a teen we moved to Haifa, the port city more to the south.  I have 5 siblings. Everyone played an instrument at some point in their lives. My mom played piano very well (she still does at age 84) but in her professional life she is a world-renowned sociologist, and was a professor at the Haifa University for over 30 years. My dad was a teacher at a vocational school. He played the cello and the flute as an amateur for many years.

DLH: How old were you when you began music lessons, and which instrument came first?

MS: I started piano lessons with my mom when I was about 5 years old. Piano was my passion from age three or so. My mom says I would cry and ask for my “la” and my “mi” and my “do.”

Cello came later, when I was about 10.

DLH: You came to study at the Curtis Institute as a young woman. Were you admitted to study both instruments? Did any one instrument begin to take precedence?

 I came to Curtis in September of 1978, after a year at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I did get accepted on both instruments, which was rare. Later I found that maybe it was an unspoken “no-no” at the school. They were not too tolerant of the fact that I was playing and practicing both and doing the course load of the two departments.  At the time I felt my cello playing needed a push, so I decided to study piano privately outside the school and I got plenty of push in cello at Curtis. Now both instruments are pretty much on equal footing, and I practice them both, as much as I possibly can.

DLH: You subsequently earned your doctorate at Temple University, in which discipline?

MS: My doctorate at Temple U was in cello performance. I studied there with Jeffrey Solow.

DLH: What appeals to you about playing each instrument, and what does each bring out in you as an artist? You are clearly a “people-person” and both instruments allow you to collaborate with other musicians. Do you feel the cello brings out the soloistic side of you?

MS: I love the richness of repertoire for the piano, the unlimited possibilities of the instrument and the chance to accompany, which is my favorite thing to do as a pianist.

The cello, at times, has been more of a soloistic instrument for me, but also with it, I am thrilled to collaborate with colleagues.

DLH: You’ve raised three healthy, well-adjusted kids, and we all know that juggling work-life balance can be difficult with a family and a demanding music career. Does any one incident as a working musician and mother stand out?

MS: The mix of motherhood and artistic work has been just that, a mix for many years.  I did what I could, and remember being exhausted all the time!  One incident that comes to mind- I organized a big concert in memory of a loved teacher. I was the organizer, producer, accompanist for seven singers and cello soloist for one piece as well. I got home late after the concert, and went right to my baby, Abby, who was then less than a year old (she is now 19).  The abrupt switch from “stage glamour” to changing diapers struck me very strongly – to this day I remember the precise date of that concert in 1995!

DLH: Now that you’ve recently become an empty-nester, do you have new goals for your life or career?

MS: Now with less worry about young kids, I would love to do more of what I have been doing, knowing that I CAN do more, because no one pulls at my arm to go make dinner NOW.

DLH: Do you have any advice for young musicians who are talented in two instruments and who would like to make music their profession?

MS: The advice is to keep practicing, and if you love both, do both. The main point is, that in our time, a music career may be such a difficult path, so diversifying may be important. Think of not only the one passion — maybe you have another passion that can help you with real life’s demands.

With that in mind — this week I learned in French the idiom “violon d’Ingres” — “the violin of Ingres” (the 18th century painter). This is an idiom that describes one’s passion, or a very loved hobby. It sounded so cool, I went searching for the source of this idiom.

So the story goes that when people came to Ingres’ studio to see his paintings, he preferred to play the violin for them, as he was a decent player. So his music passion went beyond and along with his passion for painting, for which he was famous.

 

How Can I Keep From Singing? A Glorious (and Fun!) Tribute

Willliam Appling, positive and powerful teacher, mentor, musician

Last weekend, I played and sang in a second celebration for my late teacher, pianist and choral conductor William Appling. It was one of the most joyful musical afternoons of my grown-up life, just as being at his summer music camp as a teenager meant absolute happiness.

Bill, whom I met when I was fourteen, and whom I called “Mr.Appling” for decades (he was the rare type of teacher who kept up with you, and whom you were always excited to hear from) — was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known. No matter whether you were young or old, girl or boy, rich or poor, nice or mean, he immediately “got” you, and appreciated your strengths. He cared about the loveable and the un-loveable. He was a great musician whose seriousness of purpose never got in the way of kindness and fun. For those who were lucky enough to come under the influence of his presence and his smile, one memorial service, held four years ago, wasn’t enough.

There was a practical need for the second one, held last Saturday in the light-filled, beautiful Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan. A group of us have been raising money to finish his last project, the complete recordings of Scott Joplin’s piano music. Before prostate cancer took him five years ago, Bill was able to record all of Joplin’s oeuvre, but the recordings are still in incomplete takes, and will require extensive editing to stitch them together in commercially viable form.

So, we decided to hold a party, a musical one — the best kind, I think. I participated like when I was a teen, by performing a wide range of things: chamber music (Brahms and Britten, with my dear friend, violist Sarah Adams) as well as solo pieces (Joplin.) Really harking back to old days, I also sang in the choir. The 25 voices were culled from the major stages of Bill’s teaching career: the great elder (though not elderly) statesmen came from the Men’s Glee Club of Case Western Reserve University; the middle-agers came from his choirs at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio and his summer music camp there; the talented younger group came from his days at Vassar College. The youngest singers were children of his students, including my daughter Lexi.

We were directed by the charismatic Matt Oltman (director emeritus of Chanticleer — I’d expected anyone “emeritus” to be grizzled and gray, but Matt was quite the opposite.) It was a blast. The array of speakers and soloists included a famous author, some professional musicians, as well as gifted amateurs who’d continued to devote themselves to music. Just as inspiring were the conversations I had afterward, catching up with people. One old friend said he was now running a company that helps businesses solve their problems using — I think this is right — custom-designed computer technology. That seemed a far way from graphic design and women’s studies, which is what he studied in college.

My friend laughed. “I used to complain to Mr. Appling that I was interested in too many things. He said, ‘But Art, you could be good at all of them. Just do it!”

When someone extraordinary has such belief in you, one needs no better affirmation. It makes one think, as in the words of the old Quaker hymn, “How can I keep from singing?”

For more information on the William Appling/Scott Joplin project, visit:

https://www.facebook.com/WilliamApplingScottJoplinProject

 

 

 

Meeting Christoph Wolff: aka “Mr. Bach”

Lunch with Christoph Wolff, renowned Bach scholar

One of the most endearing things about my father is that, at age 82, he remains a culture hound, just like me. Having retired to Orlando, Florida, he still sniffs out interesting cultural events within driving distance, and sets out to explore. When I visited him and my mom in February, we took in the HD simulcast of Gustavo Dudamel conducting a tremendous performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the L.A. Phil and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela. We also met, quite unexpectedly, one of my heroes of modern musical scholarship, Christoph Wolff.

Wolff’s tome on the life and work of J.S. Bach, Bach: The Learned Musician, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and one of the best books on classical music ever written. Impeccably researched, it reveals a portrait of Bach the teacher, the performer, the father, and husband that complete our understanding of Bach the genius. I have read passages from Wolff’s book aloud to my own husband that I knew would interest him, such as the fact that Bach’s salary often included kegs of beer.

A native of Heidelburg, Christoph Wolff is a professor at Harvard and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, Germany. That I met him while visiting the Land of the Mouse is due entirely to my father’s interest in the Bach Festival held at Winter Park, Florida at Rollins College each year. For the Bach Festival Society’s 75th anniversary, Christoph Wolff was visiting scholar and guest of honor, and it so happened that the opening weekend of the festival coincided with my visit to Central Florida.

My parents and I set off for Rollins College to attend the festival’s Sunday morning service at the campus chapel. I was charmed to see that Professor Wolff, who commented on the Bach Cantata that the college choir sang (“Was Gott tut is wohlgetan” — “What God does is well done”) was unpretentiously dressed, in rumpled khakis and navy blazer.  Later, at the informal Lunch and Learn session, he kindly acceded to sitting with this boisterous fan (me) and talked about his work —  he likes to take care of office matters, e-mails, and correspondence in the morning, and then settles down to write, often late into the night. The book he just finished is about Mozart’s last years, and discusses how the increasing complexity of Mozart’s work was abruptly cut short by his untimely death.

Following lunch, Wolff answered questions off-the-cuff in a panel discussion, joined by John Sinclair, artistic director of the festival, and emceed by the eloquent Terry Teachout, playwright, critic, biographer, and blogger. A more congenial group of three discussing a more fabled musician cannot be imagined. (A full transcript I made of their talk may be posted later on this blog.)

In the meantime, here are a few details from their conversation that taught me new things about Bach:

• Contrary to his reputation nowadays as being somewhat resistant to newer styles, Bach was well-versed in the latest instrument technology of his day — the modern organ, the early pianoforte. His close friend and colleague at the St. Thomas School, Johann Winckler, was involved with electrical experiments. Bach felt that understanding technology and science helped him to understand God.

• He did like to show off at the keyboard. For instance, the harpsichord cadenza of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is way out-of-proportion to the rest of the piece. It’s a 72-measure cadenza! (A normal long cadenza would have been 15 measures.)

• Out of Bach’s 20 chldren, only 9 survived. (Women had 1 child a year back then: Mozart’s wife had 6 children, and only 2 survived.) Child mortality was great, and people experienced the heights of joy juxtaposed with sorrow all the time. Bach knew sorrow early on (he lost his own parents when he was 10.) He was one of the few who could translate this deep feeling into great art.

• Bach’s work contains lots of dark points, but they’re always balanced. Modern listeners may only hear the “burial” at the end of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, forgetting that in Bach’s day they were followed on Easter morning with the sound of trumpets announcing the Resurrection.

Mom and Dad and I left Rollins College that afternoon enlightened and happy. We were reminded of the morning’s message at the college chapel, given by the lovely Dean Powers, who said that great art “should not simply envelop us, but reach inside and transform us.”

Amen.

My dad with Professor Wolff

The Tones of Our Times

Just too tempting to turn off

Remember the good old days when the worst thing interrupting a live performance would be somebody’s digital watch going “peep-peep” at the top of the hour? That seems almost quaint compared to today’s smart phone transgressions, most notably the one occurring at the New York Philharmonic’s recent performance of Mahler’s Ninth, when a patron’s iPhone alarm played a cheerful marimba for agonizing minutes on end.

Hearing about this reminded me of sitting with my husband at the Philadelphia Opera a few months ago, during Don Jose’s and Micaela’s sublime final duet in the last act of Carmen.  As the soprano and tenor lines twined and ascended in lush, sweet harmony, a cell phone’s banal ringtone began tootling somewhere nearby. A few rows ahead of us, a woman began fumbling in her handbag. After awhile, she picked up her cell phone but instead of shutting it off, answered with a loud “hello?” and started to carry on a conversation.

The rest of us gasped. One man angrily leaned forward and tapped her arm. When she finally ended her conversation, I was torn between wanting to do her bodily harm and trying my best to concentrate on the rest of the show.

The woman had exquisite timing. Just as Don Jose was pulling his knife in the last moments of the opera, ready to kill his beloved Carmen, the woman rose from her seat, blocking everyone’s view, and without haste, exited the hall.

I don’t believe cell phones belong at the dinner table, during religious ceremonies, live performances, or any of life’s important daily moments. But everyone is tethered to their mobile phones nowadays as if to a lifeline. Can’t somebody write an app that would automatically sense when a cell phone interruption would be inappropriate, and keep the darn thing silent?

Lest anyone think I am on my high horse about cell phones, I confess my own boo-boo. During one of my own solo performances, I heard a cell phone go off, and realized it was my own, ringing backstage!

Until somebody writes that app, perhaps we ought to have a cell phone anthem before concerts, similar to the National Anthem being sung before a ball game. It could go something like this:

Turn off your cell phone

Ring tone

And alarm.

Take it out,

Turn it off,

Put away,

And LISTEN.

Holiday — behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Opera

Pete Dorwart with Bob Sutherland in the library of the Metropolitan Opera

This holiday season I had the good fortune of peeking behind the scenes of the Metropolitan Opera as the guest of Pete Dorwart — scientist, master woodworker, amateur cellist, professional music editor/publisher, and good friend of the Met.

Here’s the story: About ten years ago, the chief librarian at the Metropolitan Opera heard through his contacts at the Philadelphia Orchestra that Pete, using up-to-date music notation software, had created a new edition of Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow, which the Met was about to put on. The old Kalmus edition in general use at the time was hard to read and full of errors. Pete offered the Met his corrected, visually appealing, intelligently edited score and parts of The Merry Widow at a reasonable price, and a lifelong friendship was born.

“Many people would see that kind of opportunity and only hear ‘cha-ching’ but not Pete,” Bob Sutherland, the chief librarian, told me. “We’re grateful to him and his work.” Pete’s been invited to the Met library’s annual holiday party ever since.

Pete and I began our day at the opera by attending a final dress rehearsal of Hansel and Gretel, along with selected donors and several hundred lucky schoolchildren. Everything about the production, with its full set, costumes, and cast, appeared as it would on opening night, but with the addition of a large bank of cameras in front of the stage manned by press photographers, and several lighted tables scattered around the house for the assistant conductors and directors who were making their final notes for the production.

For me, the highlight of the 2-hour rehearsal was hearing the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in Humperdinck’s lush, Wagnerian score. They are simply one of the world’s warmest, best balanced, and virtuosically precise orchestras, and what a pleasure it was to hear them again.

After the curtain calls, Pete and I made our way to the party. The backstage area of the glamorous opera house is a warren of functional, low-ceilinged hallways, stairways, and cubbyholes, cluttered with electrical equipment, harp cases, and the diverse belongings of an enormous theatrical organization. Staff members wearing headsets hurried here and there. The opera house’s library occupies a lower, windowless floor, and is crowded with orderly shelves and bookcases. High up against a wall sit packages wrapped in brown kraft paper, with the titles of Verdi operas labeled in black marker.

“Those are the original Simrock editions of the operas when the Met premiered them back in the 1800’s,” Robert Willoughby Jones, one of the librarians told me. “We can never get rid of them.”

It made me feel better to know that the Met stores their historical scores in much the same way as I store our family photos.

Four full-time librarians provide the music to all the conductors, directors, orchestral instrumentalists, coaches, rehearsal pianists, soloists, and chorus members of the Met, as well as the subtitle and HD production departments -– a huge undertaking for a huge organization that puts on 28 fully staged operas a season. Even as we were about to enjoy librarian Rosemary Summer’s deliciously prepared appetizers and desserts, a singer rushed in needing a score to practice from.

Guests filtered in — reps from publishing houses and staff members of other libraries, from the New York Philharmonic, the Juilliard School, the New York Public Library.  I found them all to be a genteel, kindly, happy, and learned bunch.

Besides The Merry Widow, Pete has created and published new editions of nearly all the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, Johann Strauss Jr’s Die Fledermaus, Victor Herbert’s operetta Naughty Marietta, and other works. He is currently working on Cyrano de Bergerac for the Victor Herbert foundation. After we left the party and were crossing Broadway to the Subway station, I asked Pete if he’d ever been to the Volksoper in Vienna, which is, after all, the epicenter of operetta.

“I’d like to go to Vienna,” he said, “But I’m six feet ten and a trans-Atlantic flight isn’t appealing to me.”

No matter. To make a positive contribution to an entity as remarkable as the Metropolitan Opera -– well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

For more information about Pete Dorwart’s publishing company, click on

http://members.bellatlantic.net/~dorwart/

 

Press cameras ready for action

 

Mona Lisa’s New Reason to Smile

The captivating art of Micah Chambers-Goldberg

When my daughters were little, we loved reading together. We read all sorts of books — about clueless Papa Bears, and skunks who learned to eat their dinners. Our favorite books were not just entertaining, but powerful works of art which Mom could appreciate, and didn’t mind reading over and over.

The same is true of music. Like a great children’s book, a great children’s concert has the power to move everyone in the audience, whether young or old. One such concert, which I urge you to see the next time it comes around, is called “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?”

Produced by Astral Artists as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, the April 9 show at the Perelman Theater featured several of Astral’s young musicians dressed in their own cheerful caps, T-shirts, and jeans. The stellar musical team included violinist Kristin Lee, cellist Clancy Newman, bassoonist Natalia Rose Vrbsky, trumpeter Stanford Thompson, clarinetist Benito Meza, and pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine.

During Martinu’s deftly played La Revue de Cuisine, a troupe of young actors/dancers, portraying pieces of cutlery and an art thief, cavorted alongside the musicians. For Poulenc’s The Story of Babar, the engaging storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston read aloud Jean deBrunhoff’s classic tale to the sensitive accompaniment of Poulenc’s incidental piano music, played by Alexandre Moutouzkine.

Everyone familiar with the story knows that Babar’s mother is killed by a “wicked hunter” early on in the book. As Ms. Alston intoned, “In the great forest a little elephant is born,” a 3-year-old in the audience, anticipating the worst, called out, “Uh-oh. UH-OH.” Talk about audience participation!

A young audience member, inspired to dance after the performance. (Photo, courtesy Steve Cohen.)


But the stunning fireworks, the part that left kids entranced and adults in awe, came at the end of the program. This was the animated video production, shown on a huge screen above the stage, entitled “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?”

Conceived by Astral’s artistic director Julian Rodescu, and created by the visual artist Micah Chambers-Goldberg, this wordless animated film is set to Alexandre Moutouzkine’s transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The score was played live, with flawless timing and brilliance, by Moutouzkine himself. The film, a stylish fantasy reminiscent of Edward Gorey, contains moments of humor, whimsy, and wonder that are fresh and surprising. (The Cubist depiction of Picasso, with his nose to the left of his eyes, and one eye lower than the other, got plenty of laughs.) The story line loosely follows an actual historical incident, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, but, as in all good stories, returned home again.

I can’t remember an instance when music so enhanced a piece of visual art, and vice versa.

I think Astral Artists is on to something new that is both engaging and meaningful. The kid in me can’t wait to see and hear what they come up with next.

The Instrument Makers

Oboe maker Mary Kirkpatrick makes her instruments by hand -- and foot.

Last month, my husband Tom and I traveled to the quiet hills outside Ithaca, New York, curious to see the guitar our friend Gerhard has been making. He’d been working all summer under the tutelage of luthier Dick Cogger, and we were invited to view Cogger’s remarkable home workshop, which sits in an ordinary-looking suburban subdivision about twenty minutes north of Cornell University.

Stepping into the house’s lower level, we came upon jigs, table saws, lathes, forms, pieces of drying spruce, cedar, rosewood, snakewood, and ebony. There were sanders, gigantic hoses to suction up wood shavings, shelves of varnishes and glues, and a computer or two. All this looked impressive enough, but Cogger informed us, “There’s an even more interesting operation just down the hall.” He was referring to the workshop run by his wife Mary Kirkpatrick, who is renowned for her Baroque and Classical-era oboes. Astonishingly, Kirkpatrick makes her instruments without the use of electricity.

She had some time that afternoon to show us around. “Let’s start with the raw material,” she said, turning to a stack of logs in a corner of the room. The logs were the color of bisque, and about the length and thickness of my forearm.

“This is boxwood from England,” she said. “Boxwood in America does not grow this large.”

A log of boxwood and future oboe

She grabbed a log and demonstrated how she makes the first rough cuts with quick chops of a hand axe. Then she moved to the treadle lathe, an antique machine nearly five feet tall and seven feet long, also from England. The powerful, large machinery moved into action, driven not by electrical current, but by Kirkpatrick’s pumping the treadle with her foot.

Without breaking the smooth rhythm of her leg and footwork, Mary brought the log of boxwood against the whirring blade of the lathe.

“Yes, theoretically I should be wearing safety goggles,” she said. “But they’re cumbersome. I’d rather just shut my eyes and do it all by feel.”

Once she turns the wood into an acceptable shape, she bores, or hollows out the instrument, and further refines it with saws, drills, and files. For the instrument’s keys, which must move up and down rapidly with only a few millimeters’ play, she cuts and hammers tiny pieces from a solid sheet of brass. The joints of the instrument are made of Corian, which she believes mimics the density and malleability of ivory. The finished oboes are a gleaming dark brown, and beautiful.

Nearly finished


Kirkpatrick has been selling her oboes to period-instrument performers and orchestras around the world. She met Cogger over two decades ago at an instrument-maker’s conference. She discussed with him the need to find an extra piece of metal for one of her antique lathes — a part that she simply couldn’t pick up at the local True Value.

“I might be able to make you something that would do the job,” Cogger offered, and that was how their life together started.

Along one wall in the living room of the Cogger/Kirkpatrick home sits a Steinway grand, which belonged to Kirkpatrick’s father, who was a keyboard professor at Cornell and Charles Ives scholar. Opposite the piano sits a full-sized Martin harpsichord, made in Pennyslvania in the 1980′s, and hand-painted with decorative flowers. I sat down at the harpsichord to play Bach’s B-flat Partita; the clarity and purity of the sound moved me, as this must have been the sound that Bach had heard and intended for this music.

After the final B-flat sounded, Cogger told me, “We used to have a pipe organ, too, up there on the second floor landing. One of our friends would perform all three instruments in one evening – an hour of harpsichord music with wine and hors d’oeuvres, a piano recital after dinner, and an organ concert with dessert.”

Now, fall is upon us, the school year has begun, and after 240 hours of summer labor, Gerhard’s guitar, having received its final varnishing and polishing, is finished. His reward is an instrument that is lovely to look at, and lovely to hear, with its rich, clear, bell-like tone.

Reflecting on all these different instruments, I wonder what first compelled human beings to cut, bore, file, and shape pieces of wood, then fasten them together and fit them with keys, strings, felt, quills, and metal. What compels us, even now, to painstakingly create objects whose sole function is to make sounds in a meaningful way? It’s proof to me that music must fulfill a deep-seated need in us to communicate our feelings and our wordless ideas into sound — that music is essential to being human.

Charm o’ the Irish

Irish Pianist John O'Conor

Irish Pianist John O'Conor


On St. Patrick’s Day, I like to wear green and toast the Irish. Who can resist a culture that has produced writers like James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien, as well as such musical icons as the Chieftains, and Danny Boy? Let me now add to that list the pianist John O’Conor, whom I heard the day after St. Paddy’s, at the Philosophical Society near Independence Hall, in another stellar concert presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Let me first say that Mr. O’Conor defied my visual expectations. The recording that I associate most with him, of John Field’s Nocturnes, demonstrates the utmost in delicacy and grace. Thus I expected a rather wispy person to float from the wings up to the piano. But no. Mr. O’Conor is a substantially built man with a jolly smile who looks like he could captain a rugby team or break up a brawl in South Philly.

The sound that he produces at the keyboard can be, not surprisingly, gargantuan. But what made this performance unique was the way it breathed with life. His interpretations of Haydn, of, yes, John Field, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110 and the monumental late C minor Schubert Sonata were intensely personal, while clearly delineating the harmonic surprises and the melodic flourishes of each piece. Occasionally his rubati at the ends of phrases, especially in the Haydn and Beethoven, were a bit too prolonged for cohesion, and sometimes I wished for a more subtle gradation of his fortissimos, but these were minor points in an otherwise exhilarating performance.

A few guys in the audience wore full Irish regalia that evening: kilts, knee socks, and fur sporrans at their waists. Several women could not hold back their enthusiasm, and bobbed back and forth in time to the music. Mr. O’Conor rewarded the audience with two encores, both Nocturnes: the famous Chopin E-Flat, and a rarely-heard jewel of a piece, the Scriabin Nocturne in D-Flat for left hand. The Steinway onstage was lush and warm throughout the program, but especially in this last piece.

They say Koreans are the Irish of Asia. If that means I’m a wee bit like John O’Conor, I’ll raise a glass to that.

A sporran

A sporran