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Playing well with others — a morning with the Ying Quartet

The secret to their success...

 

These past few weeks I’ve had the pure pleasure of collaborating with other musicians, young and older, in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Phillip Glass. As exhilarating as solo work can be, accompanying and playing with other musicians is for me the absolute best. Of course, whenever two or more minds are working out the same piece of music, there are bound to be disagreements, and how you handle them is something I’d like to talk about in this post.

One group that’s successfully finessed the fine art of rehearsing with care and diplomacy is the renowned Ying Quartet, which came to Bryn Mawr College last month for a sold-out Friday night concert, followed by a masterclass Saturday morning. Plenty of technical issues were covered in the masterclass. Violinist Ayano Ninomiya suggested that students practice “hands alone,” (something one hears more often with piano practice.) For violinists, that means working on difficult technical passages with:1. Either the right hand or bow arm practicing on open strings or 2. Just the left hand on the fingerboard without the bow. Both methods reveal holes in the technique.

Another technical pearl came from violinist Janet Ying, who demanded consistency of tone throughout an arpeggio and absolute steadiness in tempo.

In terms of rehearsal technique, all the members of the quartet, including violist Phillip Ying and cellist David Ying, had some important advice.

“The way you say something during a rehearsal makes all the difference. For instance, let’s say you think somebody in the group is playing too slowly and bogging down the tempo. Instead of saying, ‘you’re dragging,’ say ‘maybe we could flow more at measure so-and-so.’”

Another important idea: “Stay flexible. Don’t become ‘wedded’ to a single way of how to play something. Suppress your ego for the good of the group.

Be open to trying different things. Play it one person’s preferred way at one concert, and do it the other person’s way at the next.”

This advice helped me during my own rehearsals when I caught myself feeling testy over a colleague’s demands for a certain tempo, sound or phrasing idea that differed from my own. I’ll admit, the soloist in me has the tendency to bristle when being told what to do. But this time, remembering the Yings, I relaxed and went with the flow.

After all, as David Ying said, “that’s the beauty of live performance. It’s never the same way twice.”

Like life itself.

 

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

 

A Life of Song

The Doctor with the Hero's Voice

One of the astonishing things about art is how you can discover it in the most unexpected places. This happened to me when I was 18-years-old, and my then-new-boyfriend Tom brought me to visit his home in Appalachia. There, one evening, I accompanied on the piano an excellent baritone who introduced me to the incredible songs of Franz Schubert.

This singer had been nicknamed “Crow” by his medical school classmates in Goettingen, Germany, because he sang “Die Kraehe” (“The Crow”) from Schubert’s great song cycle “Die Winterreise” so often. This singer had once auditioned for a European opera impresario, who declared that he could become a sensation, not only because of the quality of his voice, but because of his personality, which exudes the force and light of a solar system. Sig turned down the opportunity to develop a singing career because he believed his destiny was to “serve” (which, incidentally, was Beethoven’s philosophy about his own life.) To that end, my father-in-law spent over forty years working as a general internist in Appalachia, serving the rural population of Southeastern Ohio, where he and my mother-in-law live to this day.

Be that as it may, sometimes I cannot help but think how he would have benefited from the cultural riches we have here in Philadelphia. Last night I wished he could have heard the program Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchslager and pianist Warren Jones gave for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Rather than offer up familiar, tuneful songs, they chose to perform complex, rarely heard lieder of Brahms, Wolf and Hahn, and selections from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

How Sig would have enjoyed hearing Ms. Kirchschlager’s burnished, nuanced mezzo, and her penetrating interpretations. He would have been enchanted by her dramatic flair and the sometimes mischievous quality that make her appear a down-to-earth diva just inviting the family over to hear her sing.

My father-in-law would have admired, as I did, Mr. Jones’ gorgeous, virtuosic accompaniment that contained not one square edge.

Listening to this evening of lieder was especially poignant knowing that the following morning Sig, a doctor nearly all his adult life, would become a patient on an operating table in Columbus, Ohio, undergoing coronary bypass and replacement of an aortic valve that has been failing for some time.

Somehow the profundity of a great Lied, which deals with life or death as its subject matter, feels even more relevant when a procedure of this magnitude is facing someone you love.

Fortunately, all that singing has provided Sig with tremendous lung capacity, and as I write this, he has survived the operation and is recovering in the I.C.U. As soon as he makes it safely out of the hospital and into rehab, I will make sure he hears one of Angelika’s CD’s. I know he will appreciate it.

 

Charming Young Beethoven

This week I’ll be giving a recital that’s a departure from my usual kind of program: I’ll be playing the work of a single composer (Beethoven,) from only one opus (an early one, Nr. 10,) and I’ll be talking a great deal about the music. The talking portion has involved quite a bit of research, and I want to share some of it with you, because it’s fascinating.

It’s hard not to view everything Beethoven did and wrote from the context of the monumental Ninth Symphony, the middle and late Sonatas and String Quartets, and from the viewpoint of his tragic deafness. But before Beethoven became “Beethoven,” he was just a young buck amid a horde of other talented young musicians competing for attention in Vienna. He’d moved there from his hometown of Bonn at the age of 22, ostensibly to study with Haydn and others, and with the intention of returning to Bonn where he had a close circle of friends and a good job waiting for him. But the opportunity, freedom, and creative stimulation he found in Vienna proved to be the right environment for him, and he never went home again.

One of the most important things Beethoven could find in Vienna that he couldn’t find at home was an abundance of wealthy people who were crazy about music, and for whom patronizing important young artists was a way of increasing their social status. Within a short time of his arrival, Beethoven became inundated with gifts of money, horses, clothes, and offers to live and dine, indefinitely, for free, in the mansions of the wealthy.

Later, he would chafe at the sense of obligation this patronage would impose on him, but the support of the nobility was significant, because it allowed Beethoven the freedom to compose, and it created lots of buzz around his name. His father had died of alcoholism and his mother of tuberculosis, and he had to provide for his younger siblings at the time. Accepting the patronage of the nobility allowed him not to have to take a fulltime teaching job, as Bach and Chopin had to do — a good thing too, because by all accounts, Beethoven abhorred teaching.

What endeared him to these patrons? At first, it was not black notes printed on white paper – that is, not his compositions. It was his playing, and especially his improvising. Here is a quote by Czerny about Beethoven’s playing:

“In rapidity of scale passages, trills, leaps, etc., no one equaled him. But Beethoven’s playing in adagios and legato, in the sustained style, made an almost magical impression on every hearer, and, so far as I know, has never been surpassed.”

That he used his own ingenious piano compositions to showcase his playing, and that he could improvise with an abundance of astonishing musical ideas which seemed to just pour from him, only increased his “wow” factor. By 1800, about five different publishing houses were bidding on the rights to publish his work.

A portrait of Beethoven by Christian Horneman, painted when the composer was 33, shows an intelligent young man with a stylish haircut, sideburns, and a rather open, engaging expression.

Of course, they had their own version of Photoshop at the time. It’s known that Beethoven had had smallpox, but no pocks appear on his face. And paintings and photos don’t tell all – already Beethoven was beginning to experience a loss of hearing in the higher frequencies and an abnormal ringing, rushing sound in his ears. Already he’d written his heartbreaking Heiligenstadt Testament. But I like to think that the portrait shows the kind of man Beethoven always strove to be – an optimist and a humanist. His guiding light was art, in the service of mankind.

As he wrote in 1817:

“Continue to translate yourself to the heaven of art; there is no more undisturbed, unmixed, purer happiness than may thus be attained.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Summer at the Mann

The moon rising above the Mann Music Center, Philadelphia

Growing up, my summer weekends were often spent listening to the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, their outdoor home. My friends and I would join a festive line of cars snaking down a wooded lane, directed by parking attendants with flares and brown vests, to the graveled parking lots. We’d arrive early and wait with the crowds until the cedar gates opened. People would spread out blankets and picnic dinners on the immense sloping lawn to the concert pavilion –- the aroma of pate, cold roast chicken, and Chardonnay would scent the air. Under the stars and in the deepening twilight, the music sounded especially sublime.

Here in Philly, our hometown orchestra is away for most of the summer, but we do have the Mann Center, in Fairmount Park, where they play concerts in June, and where another Pennsylvania orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, made a rare guest appearance this season. I’d been riveted by radio broadcasts of the Pittsburgh Symphony of late, so I got tickets and dragged my husband and friends along.

The Mann Center does not allow civilized noshing of one’s own gourmet items on the lawn – rather, one has to buy food purchased on the premises, like at a ballgame. So my friend Susan found a restaurant nearby which looked promising, though the surrounding neighborhood is rough. The Cochon Noir, we discovered, is a new jazz club which features ribs and Southern accompaniments. The owner, an elegant man in a three-piece suit, personally demonstrated how the properly cooked St. Louis-style barbecued rib should be chewy enough that one must “tug” the meat off the bone.  Susan’s husband Ulf declared with some disappointment that, in his opinion, the ribs were tough. They were also mammoth. We put most of the ribs in a to-go container and made our way to the concert.

Which was sublime. The Pittsburgh Symphony, directed by guest conductor Arild Remmereit, performed an all-Beethoven program, beginning with the Egmont Overture and ending with the Third Symphony. There is an intensity and energy at the core of Pittsburgh’s sound which is electrifying. Aside from some problems in the French horns (perhaps due to outdoor humidity) the winds produced a full, textured choir with gorgeous intonation.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto featured teen pianist Teo Gheorghiu, a Swiss-Canadian of Romanian descent. Gheorghiu is an actor too, and played opposite Bruno Ganz in the movie Vitus, which is about, not surprisingly, a piano prodigy. Listening to him was like hearing a pianist of the old school with creamy tone, flawless phrasing and technique. His encore, Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Kreisler’s Liesbesleid, displayed an approach that was mature, without pretense, and beautiful.

At home the next day, we put the ribs in the slow cooker and let them bubble away for hours. They came out perfectly soft and edible, and at last, the food matched our satisfaction with the music.

 

Wondrous Sounds and Pictures from a Concert

If a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s do away with words this time and instead let photos speak. These images were taken by Jonathan Yu, Haverford College class of 2012, whose artistic talents encompass both music and photography. Jon was at Marshall Auditorium on Haverford’s campus last February to capture my chamber music concert with my wonderful colleagues David Kim, violin; Sarah Adams, viola; and Efe Baltacigil, cello.

While you’re at it, click on the highlighted link below and let your ears be cajoled by the exquisite cello playing of Efe Baltacigil in the opening moments of Brahms’ Quartet in C minor, third movement.

11 Brahms 4tet Op 60-Andante trim

February 27, 2011 - Concert with David Kim, violin; Sarah Adams, viola; and Efe Baltacigil, cello. Photos courtesy Jonathan Yu

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.

Let Me Down Easy

Playwright/actress/barrier-breaker Anna Deavere Smith


Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable one-woman show “Let Me Down Easy” could be re-named “Lift Me Up Intensely.” Over a year ago, I’d read an article in the New York Times magazine about the play, so I knew it was about America’s health care crisis. The health care crisis is an important social issue, but not, I thought, the stuff of art. I bought my tickets to a recent performance of the show at the Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia, expecting to be provoked, outraged, and educated. I did not expect to be enthralled and moved.

I knew that Ms. Smith had done a huge amount of research for this play, interviewing over three-hundred people from around the world, then distilling these interviews to just twenty to portray onstage. Accompanied by music, stylish lighting, occasional props (mostly food and drink,) moving from table to comfy couch, she conveys the essence of each real-life character, from theologian to writer, to celebrity athlete, politician, physician, and patient — even a bullrider, and a Buddhist monk.

Ms. Smith hilariously embodies former Texas governor Ann Richards, as she was fighting esophageal cancer, and explaining why she couldn’t keep as many apppointments and do as many meet-and-greets as she used to: “I’ve got to protect my chi.” Lance Armstrong’s fierce description of his triumph against testicular cancer is followed by the sportswriter Sally Jenkins’ astute observations of the behavior of top-level athletes – that they don’t conserve anything, they want to go all out, want to be all used up -– they are going to compete to win, whether it’s a bicycle race or a boxing match, or death. Ms. Smith’s depiction of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, the physician stranded with her impoverished patients at the doomed Charity Hospital of New Orleans, made me cry, as did her portrayal of Trudy Howell, who cares for AIDS orphans in South Africa.

But most moving to me was the scene with Susan Youens, a musicologist from Notre Dame. To the strains of the Adagio from Schubert’s string quintet, Ms. Youens explains that Franz Schubert contracted syphilis at the age of 25, and knew he was going to die. All his compositions from that point forward are tinged, Ms. Youens says, with poignancy, with brief rages against death, with acceptance, and occasionally the sounding of funerary “passing bells.” By the time he died, before his 32nd birthday, Schubert had left the world with a thousand incredible songs, sonatas, and symphonies.

“If I met Schubert, would I like him?” Ms. Youens says. “No, I would not like Schubert.
I would love Schubert.”

“Let Me Down Easy” is not about the health care system. “Let Me Down Easy” is about mortality, and its counterpart, living life. “Let Me Down Easy” expresses one philosophy as memorably as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town:” that each moment we have on earth is precious, and we should therefore live each moment as if it were a treasured gift.

Tiger Fiddler

With violinist Chen Xi

Last September, I had the good fortune of playing for the first time with a violinist named Chen Xi. I had never heard of him before and didn’t even know how to pronounce his name (Xi sounds like”she” I learned.) When he came over for our first rehearsal, I met an intensely thoughtful, confident young man who looked as if he would have appreciated a few more hours of sleep.

The first thing he asked of my playing, spoken nicely, was “more color.”

Okay. Usually musicians twice his age ask, “Can you stretch that phrase here, or take the tempo a little faster, or rehearse bar 312 very slowly?” “More color” is a more demanding request. But, I had to admit, the color coming out of his violin was unusually expressive and beautiful.

“What kind of violin is that?” I asked.

“A Guarneri del Gesu,” he said, without a hint of boastfulness.

I discovered that the Samsung Foundation thinks so highly of Chen Xi that they have loaned him the permanent use of their Guarneri del Gesu – one of the most treasured instruments in the world.

Before long, I found myself agreeing with the Samsung Foundation as well as Chen Xi’s two-thousand Facebook fans. During our chamber music performance, the freedom and imagination of his playing astonished me. If I played a phrase in our Beethoven trio in a spontaneous, unexpected way, he would reply with a musical answer that was equally spontaneous and amusing. During the Brahms Quartet, his melodies soared, swooped and moved the audience to their core.

Tom and I asked Chen Xi what his plans were once he finishes his graduate studies at Yale this year.

“I play a lot of concerts in Asia and Europe,” he said. “But I would like to make it here.”

To that end, and with the help of some kind, generous friends (Abbie, Patrick, Hayley, Dinny, Melba, Janet, Avo and Bob) we set up a couple of Philly-area dates for him in January. Accompanying him in these duo programs was a joy for me – the Brahms D minor Sonata was powerful and magisterial, the Beiging-Opera inspired Romance and Dance by Chen Yi fresh and striking. And the gypsy soul and speed of his Carmen Fantasy! – the audiences roared in response.

It’s true that every year a new crop of incredible young violinists stands ready to take the world by storm. Why one makes it and another doesn’t has to do with so many factors – the right people believing in you and giving you a chance to be heard, sheer, bull-headed determination, charisma, luck. We hope that all these stars come together so that Chen Xi can join the firmament of his former Curtis classmates Lang Lang and Yuja Wang.

Regardless of superstar career, Chen Xi will be fine. He told me at our last rehearsal what a mentor once said to him: “When you make your life as a musician, you may not become super rich, but you will always be happy, because playing music makes you happy inside.”

That joy of music bursts through Chen Xi’s playing. We’d love all the world to hear it and smile.

For a short video excerpt of the concert, see this film made by my friend Susan Michini (recorded on her small camera and sitting quite far back).