Posts filed under:  The Music Life

Conversations with Paul, Part One

In the words of the late Karl Haas:
“Hello Everyone!”
To celebrate the re-instatement of my website, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite people, pianist and composer Paul Romero. Enjoy, and let’s hope that the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico will also soon be fixed.
* * * * * * *

Paul Romero

Last month, my talented student Susan (a rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College) said she wanted to learn the rest of the Grieg Concerto, but she was going home to L.A. for the summer, and she didn’t know whom to study with.

“I know just the right person,” I said.

That person is a marvelous pianist who befriended me when my husband and I moved from Ohio to Los Angeles over a decade ago. I didn’t know a musical soul when we arrived. One afternoon, as I pushed my little girl in a stroller along the dusty road of my sister’s mountainous, bohemian neighborhood, I heard the thunderous sounds of a Fledermaus transcription shake the walls of a ranch house we were passing.

“A concert pianist lives in that house,” I told my sister, and I went to investigate.

That’s how I met Paul Romero and his partner, psychiatrist and saxophonist Brock Summers. Paul was immediately impressed that I had studied with Earl Wild for many years and made me sit down to play. Shortly thereafter, he invited me to perform at one of his and Brock’s extravagant musicales. Imagine a hundred or so people crowded into a small but elegant living room with a Steinway grand, and people precariously packed onto a balcony that looks out onto the San Gabriel mountains. Imagine a wide array of performers, from cellists to pianists to singers, performing classical to jazz to Tom Lehrer witticisms, with Paul enthusiastically em-ceeing from the microphone. A happier scene could not be produced by Hollywood.

Paul’s own playing impressed me as well, because of his warmth of tone and expressive lyricism. His singing lines linger in the ear long after the last note dies away.

I knew he would be a perfect teacher for Susan, and I am happy to report that they have hit it off marvelously.

Catching up with Paul over the phone, I’ve learned that he is performing concerts in venues that interest him, and that he’s devoting much of his time to his composing career. He is completing the scoring for the 130th soundtrack of his “Heroes of Might and Magic” series, and has been commissioned to write a symphony based on the motifs he’s composed for this wildly successful video game.

Paul has no doubt carved out one of the more interesting careers of a Curtis Institute of Music alumnus.

Writing this now, I remember his reassurances when I was about to move from L.A. to the Main Line of Philadelphia.

“When I was at Curtis, I had a part-time job working for a florist,” he said. “We used to deliver to the Main Line. It was unbelievably green there with a canopy of thick, old trees. You’ll like it.”

He was right; it turned out to be a good move for us. But I’m glad to re-connect with a great talent from my California past, and I promise more “Conversations with Paul” in weeks to come.

To Produce or to Play?

Wading Girl by Marybeth Hughes

Wading Girl by Marybeth Hughes

Would you rather be Chopin or Artur Rubinstein? Stravinsky or Maria Callas? Sofia Coppola or Scarlett Johansson?

Would you rather create art or re-create (perform and interpret) it?

My friend, the acclaimed short story writer and essayist Robin Black, believes that interpreting works of art is just as challenging and important as creating new work. (She’s well-acquainted with interpretive art — her brother is a harpsichordist.) As Robin eloquently puts it, “I think interpretive art is the equal of generative.” It’s a question I pondered the other day as I palled around with two friends who are visual artists and whose lives are consumed by creating something out of nothing but paint, canvas, and found objects.

The day was planned because my friend Ginny Fry, a thirty-year-old octogenarian, drove up from Annapolis at the invitation of my husband and me to hear a recital given by phenomenal young guitarist Lukasz Kuropazsewski at the Settlement School. Ginny has recently published her first book, BASKING SHARKS, a volume of original poetry. Facing each poem is a reproduction of one of her vivid abstract expressionist paintings –- the book is a brilliant generative double-whammy, if you will.

The day after the concert we met up with our friend Marybeth Hughes, who had just hung a show of her newest work at the Rosemont School of the Holy Child. The thirty or so paintings, small to moderately-large-sized oils, show Marybeth’s mastery of color, traditional landscape and human subjects, and plein-air painting. One oil, Divine Marta, indicates her movement toward more abstract and allegorical work.

Vortex by Marybeth Hughes

Vortex by Marybeth Hughes


From there, we stopped at the Haverford School, where Marybeth also has an outdoor ceramic installation as part of Mexican-American artist and teacher Antonio Fink’s tile exhibition. Her piece depicts the Pacific Vortex, a trash pile the size of Texas, composed of plastic debris that has gathered, whirlpool fashion, in the North Central portion of the Pacific Ocean. The installation is made up of hundreds of blue ceramic fish which Marybeth fired and then attached to three metal-work panels, at the top of which are threaded lengths of brown video tape that shimmer in the wind and represent the plastic debris of the vortex.

“Where did you get these great metal panels?” I asked her.
“Oh, in a pile of old stuff that I found in the basement when we moved into our house,” she said.
Something out of nothing.

Finally, we headed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is hosting an exhibition of the master Generator of the twentieth-century, Picasso. This large-scale show demonstrates how Picasso moved into and out of cubism, how he influenced and was influenced by his colleagues Georges Braque and Juan Gris, Brancusi, and many others. Viewing the juxtaposed pieces, one can immediately see that these artists were all trying to solve the problem of how to express point-of-view in a new way. It’s clear they had a lot of fun solving the puzzle while they were at it.

So is generative art greater than interpretive art? Perhaps the ideal answer can be found in those rare artists like Mozart or Rachmaninoff, who were touched by the creative spirit in the utmost way. These beings, more than human, wrote as divinely as they played.

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso

For the Love of Music

The guys and their contented fan

The guys and their contented fan


At age 18, when I first started dating my husband Tom, he wanted to major in classical guitar. This, along with his shoulder-length red curls and his subvervise-looking military jacket, sent my parents into fits of hysterical worry from which they still haven’t quite recovered. Within one semester, however, Tom decided that performing onstage in front of an audience was not for him. He put his guitar away and switched to pre-med.

A couple of years ago, with two cross-country moves, two children nearly both grown, and a busy medical practice under his belt, he took out his guitar again for the first time in decades. He gave it some new strings, and began to strum.

What sparked the change, you might ask? Well, the environment is conducive. Here in Philly we have a classical guitar society which presents inspiring concerts. There’s quality guidance, too. Tom has found two fantastic teachers, one for classical and one for his new passion, electric guitar.

But perhaps the biggest impulse for re-igniting Tom’s interest in playing has been his friendship with our neighbor Gerhard. Gerhard is near Tom’s age. He speaks four languages, turns wood, has built a cottage in the woods for his wife Cookie, teaches middle-school boys full time, is an expert in sailing and horticulture, and – oh, yes, took up the classical guitar again after decades away.

Every Wednesday or Thursday night the guys get together to practice their duets. My daughter and I putter around doing our thing while deliberate strains of renaissance duos, an arrangement of Bach’s Invention Nr. 1, and Albeniz’s Tango float from the T.V. room. Often the metronome will tick, keeping them on track. There is much stopping, discussion and occasional laughter. I bring them cups of tea. The pooch lies on the sofa and listens.

It’s a scene of happiness.

Gerhard’s birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Gerhard. Thank you for bringing your love of music to our home.

The Price of a Star

Natalie Dessay

Natalie Dessay

Back in September, my husband called with the breaking news that Dr. V. B. was selling her Metropolitan Opera tickets and we had to let her know by tomorrow what we wanted. “I’ll get right on it,” I said, knowing the tickets would be snapped up if we dawdled. We were lucky enough to make Dr. V.B.’s call list last year. She has prime seats to a Saturday matinee subscription to the Met. It doesn’t matter that she lives in Philly: she will hold onto these prized tickets and perhaps one day bequeath them to her heirs. In the meantime, she attends the shows she wants and finds eager buyers for the rest.

Tom and I chose the March 27, 2010 production, even though we’d never heard of the opera nor its composer. (Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Was it a modern opera?) We were confident of a fantastic musical experience, however, because we trusted the power of the leading soprano, Natalie Dessay.

We’d lucked into seeing/hearing Dessay and her equally compelling co-star, Juan Diego Flores, last year, in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a considerably more famous opera, of interest especially to me because Bellini was a great influence on Chopin. Hands down, it was one of the most unbelievable and memorable performances we had ever seen. How was it humanly possible for two people to sing, move, and act with the fireworks, precision, and emotional intensity of these two stars? Dessay especially had us on the edge of our seats – we wept for this lovely sleepwalker. Her enormous grief was our grief, her great joy our joy.

So when we heard a few weeks ago that Dessay had cancelled due to an unspecified injury, we almost thought about canceling ourselves. But we decided to give the stand-in Ophélie, who’d given an impressive profile on NPR, a fair shake, and hiked up to New York for the production.

Well…

There was nothing wrong with the production. The singing was professional and pleasing in tone, the acting (except for Jennifer Larmore’s fiery Gertrude) correct but restrained. Not taken away by the action on stage, we had a chance to appreciate the orchestra’s perfect intonation, the virtuosity of the wind solos, the sweet sound of the string section, under conductor Louis Langrée. I enjoyed sitting next to my husband for three hours, even when he dozed a bit.

Oh, but what we missed.

Walking toward the exit after the last curtain call, we chatted with a young woman and her attractive grandmother. The grandmother told us, “I’m a Dessay groupie. We fly everywhere to see her. We heard her in Santa Fe, we’ve been to Europe to hear her. The granddaughter said, “She’s neursasthenic. There’s something that gets into your own nervous system and soul when she sings.”

That’s what we, as audience members are hoping for at the Met. Natalie Dessay, who risks all, perhaps even her own health, has set the bar. Without singers who “get into your nervous system and soul,” people like Dr. V.B. won’t be holding onto her subscription like gold, people like my husband and me won’t be turning ourselves inside out to get there when offered the chance. The hawkers on the plaza at Lincoln Center shouting, “Only $25 for today’s show,” will, lamentably, do a brisker business.

I think a true star is worth any price.

Making the Connection

Vera Wilson

Vera Wilson

Long ago, if you lived in Paris, and loved art, and were lucky in friends, you might be invited to the salon of a wealthy, discerning patroness, and hear Chopin or Liszt perform their latest works. You would drink champagne and discuss what you’d heard with other art lovers. You would make a personal connection with the artist, and the whole experience would be heady, and marvelous. You would be a fan for life.

Salons flourished in Europe up to the early 1900′s, and provided an ideal outlet for contemporary art, for artists, and for connoisseurs. Nowadays, we learn about new artists in concert halls, on television, radio, U-tube and even in movie theaters. But the salon is not dead! One woman who understands this is Vera Wilson, who founded a remarkable organization called Astral Artists eighteen years ago.

I met Vera recently at a salon given by my friends Charlie and Sue Davidson for the rising young pianist Di Wu. Vera is an elegant visionary who served in the past as assistant to Eugene Ormandy. Once her three children were on their way to independence, she decided to start Astral in order to help young artists find an audience. Her devotion and energy have launched many a world-class career.

“It’s not a competition,” she told me. “Young artists apply and audition, but they need more than sheer talent to be accepted. We present them in concerts at various venues in Philadelphia, from concert halls to hospitals, and in private homes too. But the career consultation is the most important thing we do for them. While we help them, it’s important for them to work with us in developing their careers.”

An Astral artist who has been extremely successful in developing her career is Di Wu, who in the past year has performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and given her New York debut recital at Alice Tully Hall. At the Davidson home that evening, evoking a great range of color from their Steinway, she gave a dazzling recital of Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann (Davidsbuendler Taenze) and Ravel (Miroirs.) She ended with a thunderous performance of Franz Liszt’s concert paraphrase of Gounod’s Waltz from Faust.

Just as charming were Di’s comments about the works, describing Robert and Clara’s intense love for each other, her noshing and mingling with the audience in the kitchen at intermission, and her restaurant recommendations for a couple who were traveling to New York City the next day.

We were in a Pennsylvania living room that evening, not a Parisian salon of the 19th century, but we made a personal connection with the artist. And that, in any time or language, is what it’s all about.

Pianist Di Wu with Charlie Davidson

Pianist Di Wu with host Charlie Davidson

Portrait of the Musician as a Young Man

Pianist Isaac Harlan with drummer Cory Daniels

Pianist Isaac Harlan with drummer Cory Daniels

Students often ask me what it takes to enjoy a successful life in music. Well, talent is a must, of course. Beyond that, I think you have to be both 1. single-minded and 2. open-minded.

One young man who possesses all these qualities is Isaac Harlan. Right after graduating from Penn State University with a major in classical piano performance, Isaac won a national search and landed a full-time position as assistant musical director of Penn State’s Musical Theater program, one of the top-ranked such programs in the country.

I caught up with Isaac while he was on tour with the theater program, after a performance at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. With drummer Cory Daniels, Isaac skillfully drove the hour-long show, which ranged from sensitive ballads like “It Might as Well be Spring” to high-powered ensemble dance numbers such as “Michael Jordan’s Ball” from The Full Monty.

A glance at Isaac’s music score revealed sketched-out charts but no detailed notation. “And here’s a 32-bar dance break,” he said, showing me a few bold scribbles on manuscript paper.

Isaac began piano lessons at the age of twelve at home in Mount Lebanon, PA. Twelve is fairly late for a professional artist to begin training, and even then, he was not an enthusiastic practitioner until high school, when he began studying at Duquesne University’s City Music Center, where he learned jazz theory and improvisation from pianist Ron Bickel.

Also crucial at this time was his grandmother’s influence. Grandma gave him a recording of jazz pianist Gene Harris. After one hearing, Isaac said, he became “obsessed.” Suddenly, he was determined to make music his life, and at 18, he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s undergraduate jazz piano program.

When family economics forced Isaac to switch from an out-of-state university to a public one without a jazz major, he immersed himself in classical music, and became grounded in piano technique under the guidance of his Penn State University teacher Stephen Smith. He also worked in the university music library, took organ lessons and harpsichord lessons, and became equally obsessed with the classical record collection of his father Christoph (a business executive and former professional classical guitarist.) Adept and curious about every era of music, Isaac played with the Baroque Ensemble but served as official accompanist of the University Choir and Gospel Choir as well.

When a notice appeared on the music school bulletin board asking for a pianist to play for a production of the PSU Thespians, Isaac showed up. Even though he had never played a show before (this one was Footloose,) his background in jazz improv and his newly solidified classical technique proved indispensable -– especially when the musical director of the show suddenly quit, and Isaac found himself in charge.

Soon he became deluged with requests from vocal students to accompany and coach them. At the end of his senior year, the assistant musical director position at the university became open, and, despite his youth, Isaac decided to apply. I can only imagine the search committee’s five-second conversation: “An application from Isaac Harlan? Chuck the others.”

What’s ahead for Isaac?

Ever open-minded, and not content to drum along in a full-time job with full benefits, Isaac wants to continue to develop as a musician -– either in a top collaborative piano masters degree program, or in the professional music world of the Big Apple. With his talent, single-minded focus and love for music, and his open-minded ability to see and enjoy opportunity, I have no doubt he’ll succeed.

Lebewohl to a Titan of the Piano

Earl Wild

Earl Wild

Earl Wild passed away Saturday, at the age of 94. He was my most brilliant teacher and one of the funniest and most remarkable people I’ve been privileged to know.

I grew up listening to Earl Wild’s recording of Rhapsody in Blue with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops; as a child, I mistakenly thought he was a jazz pianist. Then, as a teen, I heard him play the Chopin F minor Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center. Everything about that performance surprised me -– for one, that Earl Wild the “jazz pianist” played Chopin and also, that a concert artist could look like a debonair English lord, with his height, his white hair, his dove-gray business suit, the small, elegant steps with which he crossed the stage. Most striking of all was the grace of his playing: although I was not an astute listener back then, I recognized at the final note that I’d heard something of immense beauty.

Fast forward a decade or more to Columbus Ohio: at a campus record store, I bought an LP of Earl Wild playing the Tchaikowsky Concert Nr. 1 and the Liszt Mephisto Waltz, released by a small label called Quintessence. Not sure why, as I was steeped in Beethoven and Mozart at the time. But the minute I heard the slow movement of the Tschaikowsky, with its innocent lyricism, and his electrifying rendition of the Mephisto Waltz, I knew I’d never heard piano playing like this. It wasn’t the technique that floored me (though that was amazing) it was the gorgeous phrasing and the perfect motion of all the lyrical sections.

You can imagine my shock, when, a week later, leafing through an issue of Clavier magazine, I saw a full-page ad announcing that Earl Wild would be artist-in-residence at Ohio State University, less than a mile from my house! The solo recital I heard him give there a few weeks later (shortly before I gave birth to my daughter Alysa) is still one of the best I’ve ever heard: his Rachmaninoff Preludes still shimmer in my memory.

Even with an infant at home and working shifts in the E.R., I was determined to audition for and study with him. He heard me play just the beginning and the coda of the Chopin F minor Ballade and accepted me into his class. Thus began a six-year tutelage that shaped me as a musician.

As a teacher, he was both an innovator and a stickler for the minutest detail. He could play any piece in the piano repertoire, so he could demonstrate exactly what he wanted at the second piano. My innumerable scores of the pieces I studied with him (from Haydn to Chopin and yes, Rhapsody in Blue) are marked with countless instructions for fingerings, pedalings, phrasing, voicing, balance, where to slow down and speed up, which inner voice should imitate the French horn, where to “let go” so the piece can fly.

My husband Tom and I were granted the honor of hearing him perform many times at his home, and I sat in on several of his recording sessions as a page-turner. Once, while he was waiting to record a take, a train in the distance sounded, and without a second thought, Earl reproduced the dissonant chord on the piano before beginning to play.

The memories are many, and beyond the scope of this blog post, but here are just a few: hearing a private recording of him accompanying Lily Pons in the song “Estrellita;” his photos with Maria Callas; the Beethoven Sonata marathon he presented of all his students (we played until 1 a.m., to a packed house tempted by free pizzas donated by Pizza Hut, and wore powdered wigs in the publicity photo shoot;) visiting him in Santa Fe where he was good friends with its founder John Crosby; turning pages for the premier of his Stephen Foster “Doo-dah Variations” with the des Moines Symphony, flying back from Des Moines with his entourage on a private jet…

Earl had an irreverent sense of humor that was quick and apt. Once, when a favorite student complained that her “hands were so small,” he asked, “well, how big is your brain?” When someone else asked if it really was “correct” to re-distribute a chord so it was easier to play, he chided them: “Of course! Playing the piano is hard enough.”

About that, he was never less than honest. He practiced many hours a day (“if I don’t practice, my income goes down”) to achieve perfection at the keyboard. But his work was also his love. I know that he loved everything about the piano as well as the efforts of his fellow pianists — even when he was listening to a student performance, he was completely absorbed, focused, and energized.

So I will not say “rest in peace.” I will say, “Earl, may you thrill, trill, and ‘doo-dah’ forever.”

Heidi and Julia, Part One

Heidi Jacob, conductor and composer

Heidi Jacob, conductor and composer

Several years ago, my colleague Heidi Jacob took a sabbatical from conducting and teaching at Haverford College in order to study for her Ph.D. in composition. I was impressed; having earned two terminal degrees myself, I would not want to become a doctoral student again. Heidi was excited by the prospect, though; I could tell she couldn’t wait to plunge in.

She’s been back teaching for a couple of years, but I had yet to hear any of her compositions. So I was delighted to see a poster announcing that four of her songs based on poems of Julia Alvarez would be premiered on the Bryn Mawr College Creative Writing series, with Julia Alvarez herself in attendance.

“Tell me about this!” I said, when we saw each other in the hallway at the beginning of the semester.

With an enthusiasm she usually expresses for a particularly talented student we share, Heidi talked, eyes shining, not about herself, but about the great Dominican- American author’s work. “Gladys,” Heidi said. “Remember Gladys? The first song is about her.” We agreed we both loved How the Garcia Girls Got their Accents. And In the Time of the Butterflies. And Yo!

Accelerando to December 1, the evening of the premiere, which Bryn Mawr appropriately named “Words and Music.” When I arrived, a crowd had already gathered at Thomas Great Hall, on the majestically gothic Bryn Mawr campus.

Stepping into Thomas Hall is like stepping into a minor wing of the Houses of Parliament -– it is an enormous, rectangular space with a soaring ceiling, stone walls, and high mullioned windows. Acoustically it can be tricky, but the sound produced by L’Ensemble (the professional chamber group made up of Ida Faiella, soprano; Barry Finclair, violin, and Charles Abramovic, piano) was clear, focused, and full.

“Gladys sang as she worked

in her high, clear voice”

began Faiella, in her commanding, expressive soprano. Radiant, harplike colors produced by pianist Abramovic, and playful, sweet trills from violinist Finclair, gave Gladys Singing the compelling sound of tropical bird song.

However, nothing remains easy and amiable in this piece. At the end of Gladys Singing, the mother of the singer/narrator roars up the driveway in her powerful car, and in her high heels click-clacks up to the front door to enter the suddenly silent house. The birds stop singing, the music becomes static as a “tomb,” and the listener understands why Gladys, warm-hearted Gladys of the author’s childhood, became a muse and a symbol of life to her.

In the next song, Folding My Clothes, Heidi Jacob has changed the structure of Alvarez’s poem so that the bitter-sounding phrase composed to the final words

“until I put them on, breathing life back

into those abstract shapes of who I was

which she found so much easier to love”

is redeemed, musically, by the re-appearance of the rounded, berceuse-like first line, “Tenderly she would take them down and fold the arms in and fold again…”

Are we all ill with acute loneliness” is the shortest song, yet terrifying in its bleak and deliberate use of pizzicato descending minor seconds (doubled by the piano) and the use of Sprechstimme to harshly speak the question, “and we are all well?”

The most dramatic song in the cycle is the final one, Beginning Again. In this complex piece, the listener is brought face-to-face with the immigrant girl’s sense of anxiety and loss, depicted by restless shifting meter and spiky dissonance. Gradually, the listener travels with the immigrant singer/narrator through reconciliation and hope, depicted by the use of an open-sounding descending modulation by thirds, an oasis of A major, a celestial-sounding B-flat major texture, and at the end, a sprightly and regular rhythmic pattern which brings us –- and are we not all immigrants, in our own way? — to the acceptance, and anticipation, of home.

With this last statement, Heidi Jacob achieves a satisfying symmetry for the cycle: the first and last songs are the longest, and, as the mood of the first song begins with comfort and ends with a sense of desolation, here, in the last song, the composer begins with unease and ends with hope.

Julia Alvarez address the audience in her musical voice

Julia Alvarez address the audience in her musical voice

There was a pause following the enthusiastic applause as Julia Alvarez mounted the stage and took the microphone. With her high cheekbones and petite frame, she bears a resemblance to Bryn Mawr’s most famous alumna, Katherine Hepburn, though the glamour this night was endearingly softened by a green pencil stuck into her upswept bun. Clearly touched by the musical tribute, she looked straight into the audience and said, “Who needs a funeral?”

She then began to read her poems with the poise, timing, and phrasing of a fine musician.

It was ear-opening to hear the author read the same poem that Heidi had set to music with such different results, most notably in Folding my Clothes. The inflections were in different places, the cadence hypnotic. Occasionally I have found myself at poetry readings, brain straining, wishing I were at a concert instead, but not in this case. The pure words, as read in Alvarez’s musical voice, held the audience captive with phrasing as seductively compelling as a Chopin melody.

Her introductions to the poems she read and the pearls of wisdom she bestowed on young writers will be discussed in my next post.

After the reading, I asked Julia Alvarez what it was like to hear her words re-interpreted through music.

“Like I said, who needs a funeral?” she said, glowing. “Heidi was able to bring out the emotion inside the lines.”

I thought about that. Emotion is outlined, heightened and dramatized by music in a way that enhances the words. Music makes us listen in a different way, forces us to experience the words with greater intensity –- that is, when the words are good, and the music’s good. They certainly were that night.

Julia and Heidi, words and music

Julia and Heidi, words and music

Manhattan Diary – Holiday

Manhattan Diary – Holiday

Winter's Eve on Broadway

Winter's Eve on Broadway

Friends and I often muse about how we may have wanted to live in Manhattan when we were younger, but now that we’re older, we know it wouldn’t be worth the noise, the commotion, nor, most of all, the expense. Yet after spending a magical day there, I change my mind again.

Case in point: last Monday, I drove up from Philly to hear the American Composers Orchestra perform my colleague Curt’s new piece at Zankel Hall. It was 2 p.m. when I arrived in New York, and pouring rain. I parked my car, decided not to wait for a cab, took the subway from the Port Authority station and zipped up to Columbus Circle. Fortunately, the rain had eased by the time I walked up Columbus Avenue to meet my friend Deborah Jamini at Alice’s Teacup on 73rd.

Debbie had suggested Alice’s Teacup as a quintessentially New York place to nosh. You descend a small flight of stairs to enter the teacup. The floorboards are worn, the bakery cases simple, there are fairy wings for sale displayed on the wall. There are hundreds of varieties of teas to choose from, buttery scones, and delicate tea sandwiches and salads, which a waitress in the aforementioned fairy wings cheerily brings to your table. The place was packed, not with “ladies who lunch,” but with “ladies (and men) who tea.”

Debbie and I hadn’t spent time with each other since high school and music camp, and it wasn’t until last summer, at a memorial celebration for our teacher William Appling that we met up with each other again. Debbie looks as if she’s in her twenties, and can wear leather pants in the rain with aplomb. (She credits her vegan diet for her eternal youthfulness.) Debbie’s career has evolved far beyond piano performance, which she majored in at the Mannes School. She is also a marvelous alto, a cantor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and composer-in-residence there. She teaches theory and conducts a choir at a branch of the New School and has published a theory textbook. I’ll be profiling Deb’s versatile music career in a future post.

Starry Time-Warner Center

Starry Time-Warner Center

I met another friend for dinner at Bouchon Bakery in the Time-Warner Center, where the Christmas stars floated like swans in the air, a children’s choir sang in the background, and the enormous expanse of front windows looked onto twinkling lights enwrapping the bare-branched trees outside. All along Broadway, nearly every restaurant of note in the Lincoln Center area had set up a tented booth, festooned with lights, from which they served something delicious, as part of the Winter’s Eve at Lincoln Square festival. The line of people waiting to taste treats from such restaurants as Picholine and Bar Masa snaked down the sidewalk.

I was in a festive mood by the time I took my seat in Zankel Hall (the smaller, newer performance space at Carnegie.) Here’s a brief summary of the new pieces I heard.

Curt Cacioppo’s When the Orchard Dances Ceased: lush orchestration, evocative use of Navajo melodies and percussion, pictorial use of army trumpet calls, haunting Navajo chanting by the composer. I admire Curt’s compositional integrity, which is without gimmick and always deeply felt. He hits the right balance between mental rigor and emotion, I think.

Huang Ruo’s Leaving Sao: Here is another composer who can sing; this time, Peking- opera style. There was an arresting duet between the solo vocalist and one of the orchestra’s percussionists, using two “hummers,” tubes that create a high-pitched, fluctuating tone when swung in a circle high up in the air.

Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece xiii: Mathilde of Loci, Part :This composer too vocalized – her work was preceded by a video presentation describing her process of breaking down vocalization into its most elemental parts. The sounds she created reminded me, interestingly enough, of the U of Penn a capella group, Off the Beat.

Donal Fox’s Peace Out for Improvised Piano and Orchestra, with the composer at the piano: This brother can play! As a pianist, I appreciated Mr. Fox’s fearsome technique and power at the keyboard. The three movements of this jazz-inspired concerto are not unified in theme, at least not in any readily apparent way, but they were each appealing, and the audience, which included school kids, went wild for it.

Conductor Stefan Lano deftly held all these disparate pieces together, as well as two Tone Roads by Charles Ives.

There were warm welcomes by the president of the ACO, Robert Beaser, and an executive from Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy, which is sponsoring the orchestra for 2 years. The audience was invited to Twitter in the lobby. After the concert, I attended a reception at an elegant upper floor space on 57th, where guests descended a spiral staircase carpeted in ice blue. Plenty of Moet-Hennessy champagne abounded. I drove home listening to good jazz. At that hour, only about three other cars shared the New Jersey turnpike with me, and I made it home not too long after midnight.

The next morning, I took my dog for a run in the woods near my house. The air was crisp, and we passed not another soul on the pristine trails. I’d gotten very little sleep the night before, but still I felt rejuvenated. Was it the fresh air? Or the ten-hour holiday I’d had in Manhattan? Maybe I do have the best of both worlds.

Angels on the Ohio

Due to a bit of ongoing drama lately, I’m behind in writing about my concert with The Ohio Valley Symphony, but here’s the short version: it was a wonderful homecoming. Beautiful weather along the beautiful Ohio River, and a sensitive and energetic orchestra. The musicians come from six states, and they’re young – a lot of them were probably scratching out their first Suzuki lesson when the orchestra and I played its first season 20 years ago! The OVS is the brainchild of Lora Lynn Snow, an oboist who dared to dream up her own professional orchestra for Gallipolis, the small town in Appalachia that is also my husband Tom’s hometown.

Beautiful Gallipolis

Beautiful Gallipolis

Lora Lynn involved the entire community (which numbers less than 5000 people) to fund a full symphony orchestra that is not only solvent but has a nice healthy endowment. She discovered an abandoned Victorian opera house in town and drummed up enthusiastic helpers — students, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, teachers –- to paint, build, and renovate the old place into a lovely and jewel-like theater. Did I mention she also plays principal oboe? (We had some lovely piano/oboe solos in the slow movement of the Mozart concerto.)

The day before the concert, as she drove me to Huntington, W. Virginia for an interview with Channel 3′s Carrie Cline, I asked her how the orchestra won the attention of its angel, Mrs. Ann Carson-Dater, who once lived in Southern Ohio but now lives in Arizona and who, without ever having heard or seen the orchestra, began her support of the OVS with a gift of 2 Million dollars,

“Well,” Lora said, as she navigated along Route 7, (and I’m paraphrasing a bit,) “about twelve years ago, I was running around taking care of my kids, and I got a long-distance phone call from this lady in California. I didn’t have time to talk just that second, but when I sat down to nurse my son, we finally had the opportunity for a more leisurely conversation. She asked me several questions, and I told her what the orchestra was up to. A few months later, she set up our endowment…”

No doubt Lora’s idealism and her absolute passion for classical music inspired confidence in Mrs. Dater, who loves classical music as well. A few years ago, Mrs. Dater bought the theater building for the orchestra so that it will always have a home. Classical music will never die, despite headlines to the contrary, as long as there are Lora Snows and Mrs. Daters around.

Marquee at the Ariel Theater

Marquee at the Ariel Theater

A few memorable highlights of the Saturday night concert: my dear friend and colleague David Kim, who, in addition to his position as concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, still concertizes as soloist around the world, played a gorgeous rendition of the Sibelius Violin Concerto though about to collapse from the flu. That’s a true artist for you! (David is fine now.) I also enjoyed working closely with Maestro Ray Fowler (he’s co-founder of The OVS,) who is so alive to the music the notes practically leap from his skin. Many old friends came from around Ohio and made my day (Olev, Trish, Bob, Sally, Ken, Bobbie, Waltraut and Richard, Manfred, Marille, RuthAnn, Hank, and many more.) My parents-in-law Sig and Alix took wonderful care of me.

And here’s the icing on the cake -– two music students from Marshall University asked me at the reception, “Did you write your own cadenzas? We loved them!” If you’ve read my last blog post, you’ll know that was a thrill for me indeed.