Some musical levity for the holidays!
To tell the truth, Joshua Bell never really saw himself making a holiday album.
"You get so much Christmas music on the radio around Christmas time -- I've never actually gone out and bought a holiday album myself!" Joshua said to me over the phone last week. "And I never thought I'd be making a holiday album."
It came together after a few collaborations, which just happened to be for holiday tunes: "I had done 'White Christmas' with Chris Botti, and 'O Holy Night' with Kristen Chenowith. I really enjoyed those, and I thought: There's a theme there…"
With several tunes already in the bag, why not expand on the idea?
Joshua's new album, Musical Gifts, features familiar holiday music -- classical, sacred and secular. Its wide range reflects Joshua's mixed background -- his late father was a former Episcopal priest and his mother is Jewish.
"The holidays for me was always a mix of Hanukah and Christmas," Joshua said. "I wanted to create a body of work that celebrates both traditions and captures the feeling of the holidays. I associate the holidays with music in my house. Around Christmas time, everyone would come visit, or we'd visit them. We were spread around, from Canada through the U.S., so it wasn't always in the same place. But it was always an occasion for music. Everybody had an instrument -- everyone played something in our family. So Christmas was about playing music together."
Joshua had resisted the holiday-music genre in the past "because sometimes they seem a little churned-out, just to capitalize on the holidays to sell records, and I really never wanted to do something like that," he said, "but this is actually a very musically interesting project for me."
Joshua had seriously interesting musical collaborators: Gloria Estefan, Alison Krauss, Kristin Chenoweth, trumpeter Chris Botti, jazz artists Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis, opera stars Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming; Michael Feinstein, Frankie Moreno, a cappella group Straight No Chaser, cellist Steven Isserlis, and classical comedy duo Igudesman-Joo.
Joshua was inspired by the idea of creating duets with so many artists, in such a mix of genres. And there's a lot of creativity in there: a "Christmas Confusion" parody with comedy team Igudesman and Joo; a Nutcracker medley with the a cappella choir Straight No Chaser; a rather blue-grass-sounding "God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen" with Alison Krauss, and "Silent Night" with the Young People's Chorus of New York.
"I've done things with lots of different kinds of musicians before; I really enjoyed making the album called At Home with Friends, and this is sort of a continuation of that idea," Joshua said. "I just enjoy the challenge of working with great musicians like Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis. They're improvising, and each take is something totally different. I just get inspired by that."
Joshua met Chick Corea at the Verbier Festival, when he was doing a concert with Bobby McFerrin. "They actually dragged me up on stage during their concert and made me try to improvise Summertime with them," he said. "So we've met several times over the years, and I've always wanted to work with him. Same with Branford; Branford and I have done some songs for various galas and charity concerts, but we've never recorded together. When I did this album, it was an opportunity to call on all these people that I've met over the years. (Plácido) Domingo, for instance, is someone I've gotten to meet over the years but never gotten to work with, so it was a fun opportunity to just send out some calls, see who would agree to be on the album. I got a lot of nice responses."
How did he select the songs and do the arrangements? In many cases the ideas came from the artists. In fact, Joshua had never heard "I Want an Old-Fashioned Christmas," the song Renee Fleming did on the album. "It was one of her pet pieces that she wanted to do," Joshua said.
"So we made little duos of all these pieces, and the arranging process was a lot of fun," Joshua said. "There were several arrangers on the album, but one of them was a new discovery for me, Rob Moose. He arranged the first two songs on the album. 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' was a very sweet arrangement, the one with Alison Krause. He also arranged 'Let It Snow,' which I performed with jazz guitarist Julian Lage. Rob actually plays the violin as well, and guitar and other instruments."
Did Joshua help with the arrangements?
"I'm a kind of wanna-be composer, so I love working with them, fixing the parts up and making it more violinistic," Joshu said. "The one that I had the most responsibility for was 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' with Frankie Moreno. I've worked with him before; we did a version of 'Eleanor Rigby.' We just get in the room and we just start fooling around and improvising. It starts to take shape in an arrangement, and that's really a lot of fun for me."
Are any of Josh's three children playing instruments yet? (He has three boys, including toddler twins, with violinist Lisa Matricardi.)
"My six-year-old, Josef, plays the cello, and in fact, he and I played together for the first time last night," Joshua said. "I had a benefit for his school in my apartment, a little concert, and I brought him out and we played a duet together. It was the first time we've ever played together, a Mozart Romance, a little piece that was in his book, so it was very sweet. We're not at the Brahms Double yet!"
Joshua will perform a number of the songs from his new album in a "Musical Gifts" concert at 7 p.m. EST tomorrow (Nov. 26th), and it will be webcast on Medici.TV. Besides Joshua, performers will include Renée Fleming, Michael Feinstein, Frankie Moreno, Rob Moose, and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Plus, you can get a peek inside Josh's cool two-story Manhattan digs. "It's going to be broadcast from my house, because I really enjoy having concerts soirees in my apartment, in fact I designed my apartment around that idea."
And now, for some holiday humor, featuring Joshua with Igudesman and Joo!
"This isn't the New World symphony, is it?" a few ladies were asking each other as they leafed through their programs behind me, before the Los Angeles Philharmonic's all-Dvorák show Friday at Disney Hall, with Manfred Honeck conducting.
On the program was Dvorák's Eighth Symphony ("not from the New World," as the ladies soon concluded), Carnival Orchestra, and Violin Concerto, played by Frank Peter Zimmerman.
I love Dvorák's Eighth, an Old-World Bohemian countryside kind of symphony, to be sure. Old hat, for a symphony musician, too: I've played it many times, starting in high school. It is familiar fare for many. It would be hard to displease me with it, but maybe harder to make me see something new in it.
Yet this performance was full of revelations. Conductor Manfred Honeck appeared to have a distinct plan, and it was all about movement -- holding back, pushing forward and bringing out the drama in this work. At times the beating stopped and he seemed to put things in the hands of the various leaders within the orchestra, who have a great many solos in this work.
For example: the woodwind section. Bravo! If orchestras, like sports teams, gave MVP awards at the end of every concert, I would heartily endorse flutist Julien Beaudiment for the honor. Certainly this symphony features the flutist, but Beaudiment brought great style, pacing, direction and energy to the task, from the bird calls of the first movement to the virtuosic solo in the last. The entire woodwind section showed great teamwork throughout, with other well-played solos by oboist Ariana Ghez and clarinetist Burt Hara.
The second movement had good ebb and flow, with a well-dramatized stillness-before-the-storm, bursting into movement and uproar, then coasting back into friendly sunshine. Nice soli work by the first violins in the third movement, a dance with a touch of those Romantic slides that are okay-to-do-in-Dvorák. But the last movement was my favorite. It begins with a warm-hearted greeting from the celli, which gets a little thicker and thornier as others join in. (This could be said of any orchestra party, aren't the cellists the warm, social ones, until the rest of us arrive?) As this music grows thicker, the pace typically accelerates, but Honeck held it slow until it sounded like a trudging dinosaur, setting up a great contrast when it burst forward with the brisk and triumphant section that follows. When the music hinges again, from the madness back to that original theme, it's such a sentimental return to a thought. The music changes subtly, as memory changes something and makes it sweeter, and Honeck teased out the nostalgia of that spot. Of course, it can't end like that, the music wakes up, picks up and races to the end, and in this case, to many ovations (including enthusiastic applause from the ladies behind me!).
That was the second half. I'm afraid that during the first half, I simply had an impossible angle on the soloist, Frank Peter Zimmermann, playing the Dvorák Violin Concerto. Sitting in Orchestra East, stage right behind the first violins, I could see the back of the soloist's head, but I couldn't see any aspect of his playing: his right hand, left hand, violin, face, etc. (By the way, it was a great seat for watching the conductor, something to think about if you want to see Dudamel).
Also, Zimmermann's sound simply was pointed another direction into the hall, not to the section where I sat. It's just the nature of the fiddle, the sound is projected where you point the f-holes, and you can't really project it behind you! Occasionally he'd swing around for a part where he was synchronizing with the first violins, and I could hear his very lovely violin with clarity for a few moments, but not for long. I imagine people sitting in other parts of the hall had clearer impressions; it seemed all was going well. He is obviously a violinist with a beautiful vibrato, great technique (I did observe some really impressive octaves) and sensitivity. I hope at some point I will be able to see (and hear) Frank Peter Zimmermann in concert again, in a situation that will allow me to absorb all aspects of his playing. By the way, Manfred Honeck also conducted in a recording of this piece just released in October, with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Berlin Philharmonic.
When Deborah Borda took her job as Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in January 2000, she found near-empty halls at concerts; an unhappy board; financial problems aplenty, and a still-unbuilt Disney Hall.
What kind of magic happened, between then and now, that transformed the Los Angeles Philharmonic into the success it is, just 13 years later?
Because it's certainly a success: a leader in the industry, both artistically and business-wise. Gustavo Dudamel, who replaced Esa-Pekka Salonen as Music Director five years ago, routinely garners high praise from musicians and critics the world over. Walt Disney Concert Hall, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, has been a triumph of acoustics, architecture and organization-building. The LA Phil appears to be on solid financial footing, and everyone just got a big raise in September. The organization has become a home for experimentation, new music, and new programming -- the very definition of "culture."
In a time when so many see the sky falling on symphonic music, why is the LA Phil doing so well?
This is what I wanted to know when I went to downtown Los Angeles last month to speak to Deborah Borda in her office next to the gleaming metal edifice that is Disney Hall.
If she has a secret formula, I wanted to find out what it was, and share it with the rest of the symphonic world. We obviously need it.
But like everything that seems like magic, the LA Phil's accomplishments are the result of a lot of well-directed work. They rallied around the future. They put a high premium on accountability and artistic excellence. They tried things that worked; they tried things that didn't work. They kept trying. They keep trying.
Here is my conversation with Deborah Borda, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic:
Laurie: You started as a violinist. What made you decide to play the violin?
Deborah: I started playing violin when I was seven. I actually wanted to play the flute, but I got in line, and all the flutes were gone! There were only violins left, and so I took the violin. It was hard at first, but I liked it, and that was how I became a violinist. And I've always thought, what great fortune, sometimes mishaps turns out so well! I can't imagine being a flutist and I can't imagine why I wanted to play the flute! The violin has so much more repertoire, so much more ability to play in orchestras.
Then when I was about 16, I switched over to the viola and enjoyed that very, very much. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I would have considered myself more of a violist than a violinist.
I played in a wonderful youth orchestra, the Greater Boston Youth Symphony, and they needed violists, and so I was drafted to play the viola because I could transpose into the clef. That was the reason -- it wasn't because I was big, because as you can see, I'm not a large person! But I enjoyed it because I was immediately one of the best violists, where I'd just been a good violinist. That was a great attraction, of course, being ever-competitive!
Then I went to New England Conservatory for a year, as a viola performance major, and I didn't like it at all. I really encourage people not to go to conservatories, but instead to get a liberal arts education. It's the one time in your life you have the opportunity to expand. Frankly, most of the music schools, with very few exceptions, are basically like trade schools. I believe to be successful, not just as a musician but successful in life, successful as a human being, you need to have a much broader palette to work with.
By the end of my first year, I left; I went to Bennington College, where I did major in music and loved it -- wonderful music department. Then I went to graduate school at the Royal College of Music in London. I came back to the states, free-lanced in New York and was doing well for a young person.
But then I was at Tanglewood one summer -- I enjoyed going to the rehearsals for the Boston Symphony very much. I noticed that there was a group of people backstage who seemed to be making decisions and running things, and they were wearing suits. I started to watch them and made inquiries, and I found out that they were managers. It just intrigued me, because I was always the person in my string quartet or on a job who made the arrangements and did the programming. At that point, I became interested. I didn't know yet that I wanted to do it; I was sort of transitioning. I had a wonderful first job at the Marlboro Music Festival, where I was the assistant scheduling director. And from that summer on, I knew that I would go into management. I would always be a musician, but I would be a musician manager. Like citizen musician: manager musician!
Laurie: How do you think those years of playing and working as a performer affected the way you manage?
Deborah: I don't know if they affect how one manages, except that I think of myself as a musician; that is who I am. It gives me the ability to make very strong artistic judgments, to be a key partner for whomever my music director is, in terms of programming. Since my passion is the music, it keeps music at the core. Although I always say: even though it's an art, it's important we run the place as a good business as well.
But first and foremost, I do think of myself as a musician, although I haven't played for years.
Laurie: How do you cultivate an effective board for a symphony orchestra?
Deborah: An effective board is an aligned board. It's a board that is aligned behind a vision of what the organization should be, and it's a board that is aligned behind a strategic plan that will move the institution towards that vision. It is also a board that is connected, informed, empowered and involved. Those are very important things.
How do you accomplish that? I think there are a number of issues.
By the way, as you recruit new board members, they do not necessarily need to be passionate about music. They need to like music, [and] they need to be passionate about their community and the importance of a symphony orchestra to the community. But we've just had, for the past five years, the most wonderful chairman of the board here, a gentleman named David Bohnett. Classical music is not his thing, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic, its position, how it's integrated into the fabric of the community, and specifically our education programs, meant so much to him. Eventually, he got hooked: he started coming to more and more concerts, he even came on tour with us. So here's a person who is not a rabid classical music fan, but he was excited by the organization.
It's also critical to have very active involvement of the board on committees. Our board has 50 people in it, so it's very hard to participate in a full board meeting. But when you do have those meetings, it's critical that those meetings provide real transparency for the institution and how it's working. They should also provide inspiration, talking about the vision for the institution, talking about the exciting programs that are going on. So it's a combination again of art and business. You can't ignore either side.
In recruiting board members, it's important to choose people who will be committed, then to involve them in the right kind of board meetings, and very specifically involve them in smaller committees, where they can work directly with the staff.
I also find that our annual retreat is very helpful. Once a year our entire board goes on a three-day retreat out of town, where we look at where we've been, assess where we're going and dream about the future. It develops not only an understanding of the institution and a camaraderie that supports the institution, but it creates what I call 'institutional alignment,' which is critical in these very difficult times.
Laurie: And what is 'institutional alignment'?
Deborah: 'Institutional alignment' is when every aspect of the organization -- board, staff, orchestra -- all perceive what the vision and mission of the organization is and work toward it in concert.
Laurie: Who decides that vision and mission in the first place?
Deborah: No one person decides it. You need leadership to achieve people uniting around it, but it is decided by a combination of people working together, and that makes it stronger. It's a combination of the executive leadership, the music director, the leadership of the board, sometimes community stakeholders, the musicians -- it's a complex mix.
Laurie: How do you tell if things are going off the path? Are there things to watch for, to tell if you are getting off-mission, or maybe getting an attitude problem?
Deborah: I think one of the critical mistakes of many not-for-profit institutions today is that they're not rigorous in their strategic and financial planning. When you see an imbalance or a dislocation in that area, that is one of the first flags that goes up.
Also, it's important, within planning, to set very specific goals. You need a 'road map' that lays out where you think the institution is going and when it will get there, in measurements that are quantifiable. When those are strayed from, you start to see the warning signs go up.
Laurie: What kinds of quantifiable things?
Deborah: Decline in audience, missing budgets, overestimating how much money you will earn or get donated each year, over-spending, constantly planning projects that don't bring in enough revenue and are very high on the expense side, not investing and thinking about how one needs to attract new audiences and putting programs into place -- any number of those things.
Laurie: How do you create that sense of mission in your organization?
Deborah: I think you create a sense of mission by constantly bringing people together and talking about it. For example, you could speak to any member of the board, staff or orchestra at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and they would tell you the two key core components that drive every decision we make, which inform all of what we do, are the words "innovation" and "excellence." We use those to measure every single decision we make -- "innovation" and "excellence."
So you establish ways that are shorthands that help people to own, live with and be inspired by these kinds of ideas. It sounds like a cliche but I will say it anyway: We talk a lot about how we will take a leadership role in designing what an orchestra of the 21st century is.
For example, we constantly ask: What is the intersection between the artistic imperative and the social imperative -- where do they meet? Gustavo Dudamel has said, 'Music is a fundamental human right.' That is a guiding principle for us. We think about it: In the 21st century, in a large gritty urban area, what is the transaction between a symphony orchestra and its community? As a result, we have developed the leadership program in the United States for the American form of El Sistema: Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, YOLA, which has been so successful. And not only successful here, but we've started a national affinity organization, Take a Stand, which helps other organizations, not just in California, but throughout the world, as they try to form their own nucleos (El Sistema centers).
Another example: We believe in generative art and in innovation, so we commission more work than any major symphony in the world; this year we had 14 world premieres.
Also, we believe in innovation in how we attract new audiences. So if you go to our website, you can see a really remarkable tool we're using called Concertmaster. We find many people have not received music education today, so we have a digital interaction that democratizes and makes it easier for them to come in. It's sort of a game that you play, with a whole series of questions: Which was your favorite Beatle? What was your favorite movie? And it gives you a choice. Then at the end it suggests three concerts that might interest you. So things of that nature.
One other thing: When we brought Gustavo Dudamel here and he had his very first concert as music director, it was not a big gala concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Instead, it was a free concert for 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl, and we called it Bienvenudo Gustavo. The first notes that he conducted as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, were actually for our baby YOLA orchestra -- fledgling at that point, the kids were about three and a half feet high, they were six years old! That was a template that other orchestras now imitate throughout the United States. And I take imitation as a really sincere form of flattery. We're trying to establish those templates on a regular basis, to be helpful to other orchestras.
Laurie: You came here in 2000; how has your sense of what the mission of the organization changed? How much do you allow it to change?
Deborah: In 2000, we were still over at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and we were in an incredibly challenged position. We had a structural deficit that was 15 percent of our annual budget, and an enormous accumulated deficit. If you sat in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on any night, you could have shot a gun off, there were so few people there. The board was not a happy board, the staff needed to be strengthened; there were many, many issues.
But those issues became possibilities because of the enormous opportunity that lay in front of us: the potential around the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall three years later. That gave us a chance to put a process into place, where the Philharmonic could literally re-imagine what the LA Philharmonic could be, in this very nascent, growing 21st century.
That was a process that the board was deeply involved in, the orchestra was deeply involved in, our music director, many, many committees. We worked on this in a multi-pronged way: looking at marketing, analyzing our finances, thinking about what would be the new model we would put into place. It was what we call a 'critical path review process.' What came out of it was that we would re-invent ourselves as a large-scale musical organization.
Frank Gehry always said, 'The Walt Disney Concert Hall should be a living room for the city.' And so he said to us, 'Deborah, Esa-Pekka, make it a living room for the city.' So we introduced a whole series of concerts that we had never done before: a jazz series, the world music series, a big holiday festival, many more educational activities, a songbook series, a Baroque series, an organ series, etc. etc. And these did two things: they enabled us to raise much more money, because there was of course a much broader spectrum of people who would be attracted to come to concerts. And the way people give money to an orchestra, is if they attend a concert, those are the people who will donate. So we had a much broader spectrum of people who were coming. And we also found concerts where we could literally make some profit, so it changed our business model as well.
So we increased our concerts to 92 in our first year in Disney Concert Hall, and this is just our winter season; we gave close to 200 in the summer. We have maintained that ever since. (The LA Phil now gives nearly 300 concerts throughout the year at its two venues, Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.) So, aside from the Metropolitan Opera, we have the single largest performing budget of any performing organization in the United States. People don't know that; it's an interesting factoid, though.
Laurie: How to you deal with failure? If something doesn't work, sometimes people really have a hard time moving on.
Deborah: I think that's a critical part of what we believe in. We do live by innovation, and innovation can be messy. Innovation doesn't always work. You have to be willing first, to try it. Then equally important as trying it is, when it's not working, be ready to say that. We have a number of projects that we tried because we thought they made sense, and when we saw that they didn't, we changed.
I'll give you a very good example: we launched a program called "First Nights," in conjunction with Professor Thomas Kelly at Harvard. It was a series that looked at premieres of programs or important seminal works in music; he wrote a book about it called First Nights, which is a wonderful book. The first concert was great, it was Rite of Spring and we had planted people in the audience to do a riot, etc. It turned out, though, that it was hard to sustain (the series), and a lot of our patrons wanted more of a purely musical experience. Or, a more didactic experience, but not that theatrical experience. So after two years, we rolled it up and called it quits, although we had invested quite a bit in it. On the other hand, the positive sides of it were: it really re-defined how we did all of our youth concerts, as we became much better at dramatic presentations, which are important parts of these concerts. Later on, the Chicago Symphony came and watched a lot of it; they were inspired by it. They took that idea, made it their own, and it's the program that's now called Beyond the Score, which is very successful. So that's a good example.
Our Theatercasts, which were very successful artistically, were simply very difficult to sustain financially through ticket sales. When you're competing against a grade-B movie, they have marketing budgets of $20 or $30 million -- we had $1 million. So we eventually stopped that. We do it now once in a while on a special basis. But again, the organization grew through that, and we'll figure out what the next thing is.
So those are two examples.
Laurie: When you decide something isn't working, how do you get it to be a growing experience, and not an experience where the people involved get bitter and upset…
Deborah: Oh no no no no. I think you create an atmosphere where they're encouraged to take risks. I'm a risk-taker myself. And we don't punish them when they fail. So long as there's an organized path through the process, which we're very careful about doing. We don't just do these things off the tops of our heads. We think: what is the goal of this project? How will we measure what its success is? What' the ROI, the return-on-investment? We think these through very carefully.
For example, the person who did our Theatercasts on staff is one of our great staff members, and it was not seen in any way as a failure on his part. In addition to that, the way we work here is, we have a very engaged team. No single person runs any project; everything is very cross-departmental. So every big project has a team that works on it, and the teams own these things.
Laurie: How big is the LA Phil's administration?
Deborah: 132. Because we also run the Hollywood Bowl, which is a 18,000-seat venue that starts up June 20 and runs until Sept. 20. During the summer, we have about 1,000 additional part-time employees for the Hollywood Bowl, to run the parking lots, the food concessions, ushers, cleaners. It's quite a big undertaking.
Laurie: Who have been your role models in your career?
Deborah: I'll tell you a role model who I never met but I've read a lot about: Eleanor Roosevelt. I became very interested in reading about her, and I've read a number of biographies about her. The reason I'm fascinated by her is, first of all, she was a woman who came from a background where women were not allowed to do anything. They were supposed to be wives and mothers and wear dresses and recede into the background. That was absolutely her upbringing, and yet she came to find herself as the single most powerful woman in the world at the time. We forget, looking back now, how important she was in mid-
1920th century America and throughout the world. She was the single most admired woman in the world, and was also single-handedly so responsible for the breadth of social programs and intellectual depth that actually happened at that time in the country. So I found that personal transition very interesting. I was also attracted to the fact that she was so deeply idealistic; you could almost say it was naive, how idealistic she was. But she pursued her goals anyway, in the real world, but having absolutely the highest form of idealism. So I've been fascinated by that. I like to think that I can retain my idealism and lack of cynicism about music and the symphony orchestra world, but also pursue the furtherance of the symphony in a very practical way.
My two great inspirations of this decade have been Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel. Esa-Pekka was such a great thought partner, and together we were able to really envision, or start to envision, how we wanted to see a 21st century institution. He was just fabulous in driving towards that, and in his intellectual depth and perception. And Gustavo Dudamel. It's been wonderful, working with somebody who indeed is younger than I am, but who has such a strongly-held philosophic point of view. When he said to me, 'Music is a fundamental human right,' a light bulb went on in my head. I suddenly realized a whole different way that we could present symphony orchestras to the public, and a different way of thinking about the transaction between the community and the symphony orchestra.
Laurie: Do you have any words of encouragement for orchestras who find themselves in difficult times?
Deborah: In a time of what seems to be such profound disfunction within the industry -- the closing of the New York City Opera, whatever is going to happen long-term at the Minnesota Orchestra, and all sorts of other issues -- it's important that we retain a sense of belief in music and a sense of optimism that there is a future, and it's up to us to invent it.
What started as several dozen cold-calls to composers has now become a major life focus for Hilary Hahn, whose album, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, is officially released today.
Besides giving life to 27 new, short-length pieces for violin, Hilary's project has done much more: it has provided a sort of tasting menu for both listeners and musicians to sample contemporary classical music by living composers.
And how many flavors might we find? A lot! Other than the fact that these works are all under about five minutes and that they are written for violin and piano, each is strikingly unique. I listened and took notes on all 27 pieces, and my observations varied wildly. Here is a sampling: "hypnotic and minimalist; rhythmically driving and complex; a tonal, beautiful melody; sirens and Psycho; busy and fast; fly buzzing; bluegrass language; mournful and throbbing; fast syncopation; Eastern and slide-y; deranged mental patient; melodic, as in a movie score."
The 26 composers that Hilary commissioned in 2011 to each write an encore piece for violin are: Antón García Abril, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Lera Auerbach, Richard Barrett, Mason Bates, Tina Davidson, David Del Tredici, Avner Dorman, Du Yun, Søren Nils Eichberg, Christos Hatzis, Jennifer Higdon, James Newton Howard, Bun-Ching Lam, David Lang, Paul Moravec, Nico Muhly, Michiru Oshima, Kala Ramnath, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Max Richter, Somei Satoh, Elliott Sharp, Valentin Silvestrov, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and Gillian Whitehead. Jeff Myers was chosen as the 27th composer through an online contest that attracted more than 400 submissions.
I spoke to Hilary a week ago about her partnership with pianist Cory Smythe in this project; about what it was like to work with so many composers and learn so much new music in such a short time; and about how other violinists can move forward with contemporary music, using these new miniatures as a possible entryway.
We started by talking about the CD release party she held at Greenwich House Music School on Nov. 3. She had many of the composers present for the all-day event, in which there were panel discussions, performances of other works by the composers, a screening of a movie that featured a film score by one composer, and ultimately, a four part-performance, in which which she and pianist Cory Smythe played all 27 encore pieces.
Laurie: Tell me all about your release party, it sounded like such a unique event!
Hilary: There were a lot of composers, and also a lot of different things happening in various rooms, where I heard pieces by the composers that I hadn't heard before, played live. I played all the encores myself, and pianist Cory Smythe, who is on the record, played with me. We performed all of them for the first time in one day, and we played them in record order. That was interesting because we had toured this program over two seasons, but the record mixes those seasons together. It's not like one disc is one season and the other disc is the other season. So we hadn't played a lot of them in those sequences before. It really gave us an overview, physically, of the project, that we hadn't had before.
Laurie: How long did it take to play them all, live?
Hilary: I don't know! (She laughs) We did them in four parts.
Laurie: How many of your composers were there?
Hilary: About 10.
Laurie: That's a pretty good turnout.
Hilary: They're international, so it was nice that so many were able to make it. Not everyone who is in New York was able to make it, and people came from outside of New York as well.
Laurie: I've listened to all of the encores, and I've taken notes on every single one. As I listened, I noticed the important role of the pianist. How did you choose Cory for this project, and what was it like to do this together? It's just such an immense amount of new music.
Hilary: Each piece had its own trajectory, and while we worked on them simultaneously (to prepare for touring), it really felt like we were focusing on one at a time. The material doesn't really overlap, and I hadn't played a lot of these composers before.
Cory does a lot of new music; he was recommended to me for a concert for which I needed a pianist, and we really hit it off. It just happened that the Encores project was contemporary music, and I was working towards that at the time. So it was as if it was meant to be!
He really helped me with understanding how to approach things that you have no idea how to begin with. Not that the pieces were unrecognizable to me, but it was just so much new material, and he works on a lot of new material. While I'd worked (in the past) on one piece at a time, he had experience rehearsing lots of different things at once. So he was able to help me come up with different ways of approaching things when I'd hit a wall. It was really helpful.
He's been such a good collaborator; really dedicated, and he's really made this project possible for me in a practical way, performing it day in and day out. He's been such a part of it.
Laurie: How did you approach each piece? I mean I'm sure each was different, but over doing 27 of them, did you come up with sort of a process? Do you start it with the violin part alone, or do you read it together first, how did it work?
Hilary: I had to start with the violin part alone because I was on the road most of the time. With something that you've never played before, especially a composer you've never played before, you have to familiarize yourself with the patterns and the sequences, sort of the mechanism of how they write for the instrument. So I had to figure out things like bowings and fingerings to start with. Also, I needed to check to see if there was anything that needed to be addressed directly with the composer, before the rehearsal process began. So I would work on it, then I would send some comments to the composer, if I had anything. But mostly, I tried to get it to where I could play it, and then get together with Cory to make sure that it was do-able, that I knew that the piece was in shape in the sense that I wouldn't need to make requests from the composer. Then we could just work on it further. Often we were aiming for a tour, so we had a deadline! (She laughs) We'd work on the deadline.
When you're touring, you don't really have as much luxury of time because you have deadlines all the time. Every week you have a performance coming up with repertoire that's pre-set. Not every performance is the repertoire that feels most comfortable at the time. So you never quite know what's going to take more time that particular week, and what's going to take the majority of your time the next week. You just try to work on everything and leave enough room so that if something needs more time, you can give it that time.
Laurie: What role did the composer have, in bringing to life these pieces? Did you play these pieces for each composer before you performed them? Were you playing them for composers on Skype, did you wind up doing any changes or revisions together with the composer?
Hilary: I tried in some way to work with the composer on each piece, while still letting the composer write what he or she wanted to write.
The first part was just the commissioning process, what I requested from the composer: to write something between 1 1/2 and five minutes long, and for it to be for violin and piano. The reason I gave them that time frame was because when you perform something, sometimes you stretch it a little bit, and anything above six or seven minutes is really too long for an encore. I figured, if they wrote for five minutes, it would be fine. And anything under a minute and a half feels too short, but a minute and a half can be a really great length for an encore.
Working with the composers themselves -- I spoke with them if I had a question about the violin part, or if I felt like something didn't fit -- or it fit in my hand really well, but it might be tricky in general. For example, I have a really big stretch, so I can stretch to certain things that may not be the best solution for everyone who might play the piece in the future. Of course, there are things that people would do more naturally than I would, but I wouldn't think to mention! (She laughs) But those things that I noticed, I tried to bring up, then the composer could decide whether to write that as an optional feature, rewrite it or just leave it. I don't like to tell a composer what to do, I just like to point out what I can see being an issue for a large group of people. If I'm having trouble playing something and I'm having to come up with a solution that's very unorthodox, I know that other people will have to go through the same process. Sometimes that can be challenging to the listeners, because it sounds like something isn't quite right in that spot. But that's kind of my criteria for mentioning something to the composer. Otherwise, if it's an interpretive issue, I try to take that into my own court and take responsibility for that.
As we were rehearsing before the performances, I got to meet and talk with a few of them. If I had a question about how something was written, I did get to meet with these particular composers and ask, 'What do you mean, and how to you want me to play it?' before I got too far into playing it a certain way. But that wasn't everyone. Mostly, we prepared for the performances and then started performing the pieces. We got a feel for what we felt the pieces could be, and then sent off rehearsal recordings to the composers -- very unprofessional recordings! -- but good enough that they could tell if we were doing a wrong note. I wanted to make sure that the composers could catch that, and also they could give input on the interpretation. I was in touch with all of them about that, except for one person who was just pretty much impossible to reach via technology.
If I hadn't managed to reach them before the tours, I made sure to reach them before we recorded, so that going into the sessions, we knew what to do. We wanted to be sure that the composers would be happy, as much as possible.
Laurie: I noticed that you have interviews up on your YouTube channel with 17 of the composers. They provide an interesting perspective. Did you do those interviews after you'd already been playing each composer's piece for a while?
Hilary: I interviewed some of the composers before I received their pieces; and I talked some to along the way, while I was working on their piece. We'd be in touch about something, and I'd say, 'Oh, can you hop on Skype for a little bit, and I can record an interview?' Some of them, I still want to interview. It's tricky when you have a lot of different schedules, different time zones and unreliable Internet connections. If it's a bad Internet connection, it's a bad interview! (She laughs) -- at least for the people trying to watch it. If I don't know how good my Internet connection is going to be, it's hard to organize something in advance, if say, I'm going to be somewhere for two days. It's actually more complicated than it seems!
Laurie: It looked pretty complicated to me: you're calling from Berlin, they're in New York…
Hilary: It's fun, I alway enjoy the interviews. I like talking with people when they have a different context to express themselves in. You have your normal collaborative conversations, and you have your chilling-out-after-collaborating kinds of conversations. But then when people are speaking to a different audience, and they don't know who exactly is listening, they explain themselves in a different way. You learn different things about them. That's one reason I really like interviewing people; it helps me understand where they're coming from.
Laurie: One thing I thought was really neat about this project, is that it's almost like a little lens through which you can get to know 27 contemporary composers. I wondered what your perspective was, having really lived with all these pieces. For you, is there any conclusion you can make about the state of music composition here and now, based on this big project you've just done?
Hilary: It's hard to generalize. I never wanted it to be a collection of names -- it's more of an exhibit, it's more of a showcase of each one, but there are multiple ones. One thing that I really saw illustrated very clearly in the course of this project is how each composer is so individual. They all have their own reasons for creating, they all have their own ways of creating, and they have different interests outside of music that are also related to the arts that feed back into how they write. Since I'd worked with a limited number of composers before, I thought that after a while you would start to see some patterns, or types. But I found that there are actually no types. I haven't found any mirroring between any of the composers and how they write and how they create. That's been illuminating for me, and I think that however far you would go in composition, you would find that to be the case.
I don't think the cliques determine the personality. There may be people who are grouped together as a certain school of writing, or people who studied together, but I don't think that means they have similarities in their motivation. I found that really interesting -- because you know, with instrumentalists you can kind of generalize the personality types for different instruments, obviously, it's not quite the most accurate…
Laurie: The highung violinists, the relaxed social cellists...
Hilary: …the bassists who have so many different hobbies -- it seems like I know a lot of bassists who repair cars or bake bread! It's not like every one of the instrumentalists in those groups does stuff like that, but you do see a few patterns. But I found, with the composers, there were none of those.
Working on this project, I wanted each piece to have its own character, and I wanted to make sure that no piece would get lost in the group. Getting a feel for the different personalities of the composers helped me to understand how to differentiate the pieces. But in the end, it was the pieces that really determined that.
Laurie: Was there anything in the pieces that surprised you, or required new techniques or funny ways of using the violin?
Hilary: Each piece taught me something, and it was amazing what difference there was for me, between a piece by a composer I'd played before and a piece by a composer I'd never played. When I received Jennifer (Higdon)'s piece and when I received James Newton Howard's piece, it was like recognizing a language. I just knew what to do with it, immediately.
With all the others, I had to find my way into the piece, using the composer's musical language in the context of the piece, to start with, and then seeing how the piece develops on tour. What I thought each piece was, is not necessarily what it turned out to be. When you're working on something, you first need to take what's presented to you in the score, and then you need to figure out what really makes it innate for you, in order to be able to bring it across to the audience. I was trying to figure out that innate element in every single one -- but with brand-new people, brand-new ways of expressing their thoughts, and perhaps brand-new thoughts, too. So there were definitely things that pushed me in each piece. Sometimes it's hard to specify exactly what. It has very little to do with what you actually see in the music itself, and a lot more to do with how you get to the point where you feel like it's part of you. But there were definitely some techniques that I'd never done before, and it really helped to work on those pieces, to have the performances and to get to where those techniques became familiar to me. They became more ways of expression that I could tap into.
Laurie: Like what kind of techniques?
Hilary: Well, if you look at the score for Richard Barrett's piece ("Shade") or for Elliott Sharp's piece ("Storm of the Eye"), I had to learn how to do a whole bunch of things. In "Storm of the Eye," I had to learn how to relate to the instrument the way Elliott relates to the instrument, because he's a performer, so he improvises, he plays multiple instruments. (At the release event), he was performing one of his guitar works, and you could really see the thread of continuity between what he was playing himself, and what he'd written for me to play. But I had to learn how to get there in his piece, and I also found it helpful to talk with him about what he was aiming for with the different effects that he wrote. I realized, he's kind of self-taught, and he's looking for these sounds; then in the course of finding them, he figures out how to write them.
I'm not big into researching everything about a composer before you learn a piece for the first time, because I think it can give you a very particular idea of what you should be doing with a piece before the piece actually speaks to you. That's why, in these cases, I wanted to start with the piece. But then when I met with the composers, asked them questions, and they gave me feedback about what I was doing, that's when I realized what they were going for and what I needed to do in order to align with what they had in mind. So it was a multi-step process.
Technically, I'd say Richard Barrett's piece or Elliott Sharp's piece had the most unfamiliar techniques in them. But also, in Du Yun's writing ("When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa"), I had to figure out what she meant by some of her markings. And when I worked on Antón García Abril's piece ("Third Sigh"), I entirely got the wrong idea from some of his markings. So I'm glad I had a meeting with him because once he explained to me what he meant, it made perfect sense. But it's hard to guess things.
It also makes you wonder how much you've been guessing wrong about other pieces, where you can't talk to the composer! Everyone thinks they know what they're doing, but is that really what the composer meant by that word? You don't know!
Laurie: It could be that 50 recordings of the Tchaikovsky just all have it wrong!
Hilary: Exactly! And even if the source says something, maybe we don't know what they meant by that expression. We think we know. But it's unbelievable how much variety there can be in the same words. So that was interesting. Then in something like Avner Dorman's piece ("Memory Games"), there's a lot of rhythmic novelty, and it was complicated to put together.
Laurie: That's what I wrote when I heard it, "rhythmically complex"!
Hilary: And it's so fast! So it took a lot of time to put together. And then there's a piece called "Levitation" by Søren Nils Eichberg, and I had to figure out, with those particular forms of phrase he writes, how to relate to that in the longer violin line. Also, it handles differently on violin than it does on piano, but we play overlapping things. So I had to figure out with Cory, what our goals were with those phrases.
Laurie: Listening to that one, I wondered if Eichberg was a pianist, because there was so much in the piano with that piece.
Hilary: Which is nice, I was hoping that people would write things which were substantial for piano. People were all over the place with how they wanted to handle the duo capabilities. By 'all over the place,' I don't mean in a messy way, I mean in an interesting way. David Lang, for example, wrote this piece ("light moving") that has the violin pretty much accompanying, and the piano takes the lead on the phrasing. I really liked that aspect of that piece, and that's something new that I got to do.
Every piece has something, a certain approach, that I had to learn.
Laurie: Did it change you as a musician, to learn all these new pieces?
Hilary: I think every piece does, doesn't it? When you work on something that's new, but also when you work on something after working on something else, it changes your context for that piece. I don't know if it changes you as much as it informs you and develops you, just to have that (new) context to draw from. Every time that you have a different exposure to music, you have one more thing you can refer to in your experience. And you have more options, also, with musical ideas, when you're exposed to other people's musical ideas, whether that's through working with a conductor, or working with someone who's improvising, or working with someone who wants you to do a certain thing with the instrument. You just get all these different options in your mind.
Laurie: You have a LOT of options here!
Hilary: It's great!
Laurie: Will the sheet music be available, if people want to play these?
Hilary: There's going to be a complete printed edition, and most will be available digitally, as well.
Laurie: Great. When!?
Hilary: This project is so huge! We're wrapping up the fingerings, bowings and proofreading part of the publishing. It's coming soon! Very soon.
Laurie: What if I were to want to play one of these pieces? That would be, someone who is not a superstar soloist, just kind of your average trained violinist. Which of them is maybe the most idiomatic, or, I hesitate to say 'easy,' but playable to someone who is just approaching these pieces?
Hilary: I'm going to be kind of annoying with this answer because it's not going to really answer your question! I think that with anything new, you have to want to play it. I don't think it's a matter so much of being able to play it, as it is being interested in it.
So I would suggest that people listen to these pieces, and if they really like a certain piece, then check out the music. Even if it's something that they don't know how to play, or something they think sounds really hard -- just to work at something at quarter tempo is really interesting, just to learn how something is put together. I don't play piano very well, but sometimes I'll sit down with something really simple, or even something hard, if I'm trying to figure out a phrase in a sonata. I'll just play it super slowly. But it helps me understand what's in the piece.
My goal, for players, is to show a lot of different composers' work and to have a range of things that would interest people. I hope that people will find things they like, and even if they don't wind up playing a particular piece, they'll explore that composer further. Every one of these composers has a range of pieces that they've written, a range of technically challenging things. I think you can probably find something from a composer that you really like, that you can play, no matter what level you're at, even if it's a slow movement, or if it's played at a moderate tempo.
So I'm not going to suggest a particular piece; I would suggest that people listen and find something that interests or intrigues them. If you are curious or intrigued by something, there's no better way to figure out what it is that intrigues you about it, than to look at it in the applied way: try to play it.
Laurie: One of the pieces I was immediately curious about was the one by Jennifer Higdon ("Echo Dash"); it's so fast and syncopated. I thought, is she just following the pianist, a half-beat behind? Holy cow!
Hilary: We're playing 8ths and 16ths, but they're syncopated. And we have staggered 8th notes -- we never have staggered 16ths. We have the 16ths together, and we have triplet 16ths. So it could be played at a slower tempo and be fun. You could definitely play the violin part at a slower tempo, even if you're not super virtuosic, you could probably do it. But the most difficult thing about that piece is keeping track of the rhythm.
Laurie: It seemed so!
Hilary: Even something like the Lang -- it's very hard to play, but it's the same thing: it repeats an octave higher in the second half, so you could even treat that as a very slow warm up. Not like an etude, but think about it musically. But you can get it in your fingers. Even if you don't want to play the high one, you can play the low one.
There are ways to work on these pieces, even if they're extremely challenging, so that you learn contemporary music and incorporate it into your daily life, without it being a big deal. Everyone works on pieces that are hard, and it doesn't have to be a piece that you've heard for decades, it can be a newer piece, too. I think sometimes people think of new music as a whole separate category -- but it's really not. It's just part of the continuum, and I think we need to treat it as part of the continuum and include things from all different centuries in our daily musical work or exploration.
Laurie: These pieces are a nice entree for both players and listeners. If you're a listener, it can be the kind of thing where you say, 'Oh, I've never heard of this Lang, maybe I like his music, I'll go listen to other things by him.'
Hilary: Exactly, that was a big hope for me. And also, if you think about it, none of these pieces is extremely long. I think the longest violin part is 10 pages, and the shortest is one page. So you can learn them and work on them over time, and play a whole piece that's contemporary. And with piano, you can have a way to work on it without needing to put together an orchestra or program something for a half an hour. You can chip away at things, work on it with a pianist you know, and get to know it, without it taking up your entire year.
Laurie: I'm looking forward to the book of sheet music coming out for these.
Hilary: It's kind of a trip through possibilities of violin interpretation -- interpreting the technique, as well as the ways you can make music with the instrument.
Laurie: I saw your interview with Jennifer Higdon, where she said, 'I figured people would write slow pieces.' It was interesting she said that, because people wrote pieces all over the map. They aren't all slow pieces, they aren't all fast pieces, there's just everything here, it's crazy.
Hilary: People wrote pieces that were slow pieces, that were fast pieces, that were in between, that were very slow but went fast, that started slow went fast went slow, that started fast went slow went fast, (she laughs) all kinds of combinations! And about half of them were thinking, 'What is everyone else going to write? How can I stand out in a way that's different?' And I don't think they could have known what everyone else was going to write, but I think it's an interesting question.
Laurie: An interesting sociological experiment.
Hilary: But you know, they've all been so supportive of the project and of the idea that there are people gathered together, composing for it. I wasn't sure whether the fact that there are multiple composers involved would be frustrating for some of them, but no one had any issue. Everyone was just glad to have everyone else participating. It's been really nice to see that support in the composer community.
* * *
Below is a great little video about this project. Personally, my favorite part is when pianist Cory Smythe says, "I got off the train one day and saw I had a voice mail from an unknown number. Those are always the most exciting messages, in a way, because you always hope it's going to be, like, Hilary Hahn. And it never is. But in this instance…"
Made in Germany, banned in Germany, burned in Germany. Revived in Germany.
For his most recent recording, Made in Germany, German violinist Herwig Zack has put together a program rich in meaning as well as in virtuosic playing. It's a thoughtful collection of solo violin works that includes Paul Hindemith's complete works for solo violin (three sonatas and an unfinished fourth), as well as Johann Sebastian Bach's G minor Sonata; Max Reger's G minor Chaconne, and a new work by the living German composer Klaus Hinrich Stahmer called Gerettete Blätter, or "Saved Pages," inspired by music and literature suppressed by the Nazis.
One impetus for this recording was the 50th anniversary of composer Paul Hindemith's death, which has been -- well, largely ignored. (Besides Zack's recording, the other major Hindemith recording out this fall features Midori playing Hindemith's violin concerto)
"This year is the 50th anniversary of Hindemith's death, and we've heard very little Hindemith, even this year," Zack said during a phone conversation from Germany last month. Zack has made many recordings, most recently two other programs of solo violin works called Essentials and Four Strings Only. Zack is Professor for Violin and Chamber Music at the "Hochschule für Musik" in Würzburg. He studied in Germany with Karl-Albrecht Herrmann, Edith Peinemann and Max Rostal; then in the U.S. at Indiana University with Josef Gingold.
Zack's relationship with the music of Hindemith began early, and close to home. Hindemith, born in 1895, trained as a violinist and composer at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt -- the same school where Zack began his musical training a half-century later with Herrmann.
"Hindemith was the leading 'Frankfurt' figure," Zack writes in the program notes for the CD. "It went without saying that we would play his works -- it was simply a matter of course. When I was 15, I had in my repertoire the Solo Sonata Op. 31, No. 2; within a year I had added its companion work, Op. 31, No. 1."
But Hindemith's life and music were entangled in the troubles of the early 20th century, and its acceptance has been complicated by many things, among them, the fact that it was banned by the Nazis. "By the beginning of the 1920s, (Hindemith) already enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading avant-garde composers of his generation," Zack wrote. "As an exponent of specific 'modern' trends, he was regarded -- something hard for us to comprehend today -- as a musical enfant terrible…After the Nazis seized power in 1933, his music was vilified in Germany as 'degenerate art.'"
Though Zack described his CD as being bound by Bach; I saw another thread running throughout: the broken trajectory of the early 20th-century, German avant garde movement. From Bach forward in this CD, tonality moves to atonality, a robust kind of new music emerges, then the music fragments. The CD's one modern piece, written especially for Zack, makes new music from fragments of pieces that were banned -- a kind of re-composition, a rebuilding. What a fascinating journey!
It begins with Johann Sebastian Bach, his Sonatas and Partitas -- music that is at the core of our violin repertoire.
"The Sonata in G minor, the shortest work in the cycle, could in several respects also be considered the most self-contained and rigorous, the most perfect of the six," Zack wrote. "It is not surprising that, more than any of the other Sei Solo (except the Chaconne), it has served as a model of form and design for a wide range of later composers, among them Ysäye, Reger and Hindemith."
And beyond that, it is virtuosic. For example, the last movement, the "Presto."
"The main point for me of this movement is the dance-like impulse and the unbelievable driving virtuosity of it," Zack said to me. "We were taught in our times that you can't play Bach 'virtuoso' -- that's nonsense. It's the high point of Baroque virtuosity, absolutely. If that isn't virtuoso, then I don't know what is. It doesn't mean you're supposed to play it like Paganini or Ernst; it is Baroque virtuoso. The virtuosity of these pieces derives from the virtuosity of the composer, because these pieces are composed perfectly."
"Of course the conception has changed drastically during the last 30 years or so," he said. "I very much grew up with Bach interpretations by Henryk Szeryng and Max Rostal, and of course it took a long time to adjust to a more modern picture of Bach. One of the key influences for me was not a violinist, it was (the pianist) Glenn Gould -- his art of articulation. For me, that is one key point in Bach interpretation: it's a much more articulate kind of playing now than one used to do in older times."
We move from Bach to the complete works for solo violin by Hindemith. Zack includes the two sonatas that he has played since childhood, both Op. 31 No. 1 and No. 2. Interestingly, the third full sonata on this disc, Op. 11/6, was discovered, or recovered, only very recently, despite the fact that it was written nearly a century ago.
"Hindemith wrote this piece in 1917 and 1918, during World War I," Zack said. "Later, he included it in his work listing and wanted to give the piece Op. 11 No. 1, but then he gave 'Op. 11 No. 1' to a violin-piano sonata. This piece remained unpublished. The question is, why? I don't know why; it's a wonderful piece. Of course, it is the work of a young, not 100-percent mature, but ingenious, composer. Later, when he died, they found the manuscript of the third movement and the last few bars of the second movement, but the rest was thought to be lost. I don't know where and how, but somehow around the time of the turn of the millennium, a copy of the whole piece surfaced, including the first movement and the beginning of the second. Since that time, the piece has enjoyed increasing popularity."
Personally, listening to the piece, it reminded me of certain harmonies in the solo sonatas by Ysäye.
"What is similar to Ysäye is the reference to Bach," Zack said. "And it's very similar to Reger in some ways, too. It is tonal, but it's tonal in a way that he's straining tonality to a point where tonality reaches its limits. For me, much of it sounds like Reger, but it seems like a Reger who, during the course of the war, seems to have lost somewhat his inner compass. With Reger, you find he goes to the limits of tonality, but you have the feeling that deep inside, he's very convinced there is order somewhere, and everything will be all right. But this piece by Hindemith is does not have that conviction. The last movement is very daring; not only is it extremely virtuoso and very difficult, but there's a certain violence in it -- if you could imagine Bach being put into the trenches of World War I -- that's a daring comparison. But the times were changing, and what was a secure thing yesterday, what was right yesterday, was not right any more, at that moment. You'll find that, in many pieces that are composed around that time."
After the three full Sonatas by Hindemith comes a "Prelude and Fragment."
"It is an unfinished piece," Zack said. "He started to write the first movement of a solo sonata in the early '20s, and he finished the first movement. He started the second movement, a slower movement; and then he dropped the idea." In 1922, during a trip to Norway with his quartet, he re-wrote the Prelude and dedicated it to the violinist Thorwald Nielsen, a quartet-mate in the Amar Quartet, in which Hindemith played viola. (By the way, Hindemith's primary instrument was the viola, and violists might recognize bits in this piece from his Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1).
But the rest of the Sonata was never finished, and the second movement trails off.
"The way I placed it on the CD, it's not incidental," Zack said. "This short, expressive fragment by Hindemith -- it ends in nowhere, like some unfinished piece of music. That's actually precisely where Klaus Stahmer picks up with his piece -- integrating fragments of this and of that, and making something completely new out of it. I very much like this piece, I must confess."
The idea for Stahmer's piece began when he met Zack after a concert, and they struck up a conversation about politically ostracized composers.
"I played a concert with some colleagues, commemorating the ninth of November 1938, the Nazi pogrom, and and Klaus Stahmer was there," Zack said. "Afterwards we got to talking about composers that were dubbed 'degenerate' in Germany during this infamous period. He had wanted to write something for me earlier, but it had never really materialized. I was very surprised when, two weeks later, I met him and he said, 'I have your piece!' (He laughs) Something 'clicked,' as he put it."
The piece draws on the idea of a book burning -- "He's imagining he's passing a pile of burning books, and there's music in it as well. He pulls out pieces of handwritten pages, and tries to figure out what they were."
Stahmer's piece quotes fragments of pieces by composers banned by the Nazis -- Paul Hindemith, Béla Bartók, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Paul Ben-Haim, Abel Ehrlich and Erwin Schulhoff. (If violinists wish to play Gerettete Blätter, the music is published and available from Verlag Neue Musik.)
Did the Nazis actually burn music?
"They didn't burn music, but they forbid it," Zack said. "Hindemith was forbidden, Ben-Haim had to emigrate, of course. Schoenberg was forbidden, and many others -- everything that had to do with real avant-garde, or what they perceived as avant-garde, and music by Jewish composers."
Zack ends his recording with the G minor Chaconne by Max Reger (1873-1916), a seven-bar theme followed by 28 variations. Of course it is inspired by Bach's Chaconne. And Reger's relationship to Hindemith? Hindemith said of the composer, "Reger was the last giant of music. Without him, I would be unimaginable."
"I think Reger, in general, is not played enough nowadays," said Zack, who calls the Chacconne Op. 117 No. 4 a masterpiece that "offers violinists ample scope for displaying all aspects of their skill without ever lapsing into self-indulgent or superficial acrobatics, the virtuosity always embedded in the musical context and growing out of it convincingly."
Zack said he hopes that "Made in Germany" will help violinists find their way to these composers and explore these lesser-played works.
"For me an essential quality of an artist is that he has a certain curiosity, that he digs in the repertoire and is interested in things that lie a little off the main road," Zack said, "because there's a lot to discover."
After walking out onto stage at Disney Hall, taking his seat and placing his crutches at each side, Itzhak Perlman took his violin from Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Nathan Cole and turned it over in his hands, as if to examine it. He gave the audience a conspiratorial look, shrugged, and had everyone laughing as he got ready to play.
Perlman is a living legend. If I begin, I'll have to go on and on and on: at age 68, he's played with every major orchestra on the planet; won four Emmys; won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; studied with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay; played at President Obama's inauguration; founded of the Perlman Music Program with his wife Toby; holds the Dorothy Richard Starling Foundation Chair at The Juilliard School; received the National Medal of Arts; and much more.
Yet in live performance, his generosity of spirit smashes any barriers one might expect from someone so famous, accomplished and revered. His humor as a performer, his ease of manner, and the vibrancy in his sound all make his presence so immediate -- there's no need to feel any stress or intimidation. He's got it under control, and not only that, this is going to be fun. Just enjoy the music.
On Friday morning (at 11 a.m. -- interesting time for a concert, but it was packed!) Perlman performed "Summer" and "Winter" from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," then he conducted Weber's "Oberon Overture" and Berlioz's spooky-dark "Symphonie Fantastique." (He'll perform the same program with the LA Philharmonic on Saturday and Sunday.)
For the Vivaldi, Perlman sat alongside the first violins, and when he wasn't playing, he was conducting with his bow. (Serious multi-tasking!) After the flurry of notes and fast bariolage in the first movement of "Summer," the simple themes of the second movement were where I noticed the character in Perlman's sound. Perlman gives his full focus to every single note, turn of phrase and cadence, and he draws his audience into his unfolding creation, the music. This is one reason why a live performance is so much more moving than a recording. The reduced LA Phil orchestra sounded quite good -- who wouldn't play their heart out for Perlman?
"Winter" began with its sul-ponticello shivering, Perlman switching rapidly between conducting and virtuosic Baroque playing, fingers flying right to their precise locations. The second movement provided more clear-voiced singing from Perlman's violin over the rain-drop pizzicato, and some quiet spots that showed off Disney Hall's great ability to vibrate at the smallest of sounds.
In fact I noticed something else about Disney Hall during this daytime concert -- ambient light! It's indirect, even a little camouflaged, but the natural light is there, high in the front and the back of the hall.
To me, Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique was a perfect selection for the day after Halloween, which in Los Angeles (much influenced by our very large Hispanic population) gets combined with "Dia de Los Muertos" or "Day of the Dead." I've lived in Southern California for 14 years and I'm still astounded by the elaborate way people decorate their yards with skeletons and fake graves for this conflation of holidays at the end of October and beginning of November. Berlioz's big dark fantasy fit the bill perfectly.
In the first movement, one early entrance for the violins involves a passage of fast scampering triplets. When the huge, expanded violin section pulled off this dainty thing with tight-rope precision, I wondered, might the fiddles be especially well-prepared, with Perlman on the podium?
Perlman's conducting has the same certainty and decisiveness as his playing (or so it seems to me from the audience), and he seemed to enjoy his fast ride with the well-oiled LA Phil. During the second movement, the "Ball," with its rollicking dance, Perlman seemed to be letting us in on a series of musical jokes.
The third movement can be notoriously long and -- can I say it? Boring! Perlman never let it flag, even in those spots with gorgeous progressions that seem like maybe they should be pushed and pulled like taffy to get their full goodness out. He kept the music going at a good clip. The lower strings sounded fantastic in a section in which they interrupt, then everyone joins in for a big musical argument that turns out to be a heated agreement. The movement ends with the distant-but-getting-closer roll of thunder.
Then, the March to the Scaffold - who doesn't like this bad-ass movement? It's a musical depiction of sneakiness, scary things hiding in shadows, jumping out, then retreating back. After the movement ended in a blast, I heard one audience member say not particularly loudly but with feeling, "All right!" (You can hear everything at Disney Hall!)
The fifth movement is the "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," a nightmare with bells tolling and musical motifs turning to the Dies Irae (adapted from the traditional mass for the dead). Themes from other movements make an appearance, now cloaked in darkness and evil. My favorite today was a quote from the second movement, returning as an evil oboe dance, played with great energy by Marion Arthur Kuszyk. Things get spookier and spookier; the strings take to the wood of their bows with bone-rattling col legno. As the music grew to a level of controlled freneticism, and I realized that I completely trusted Perlman the whole way.
When it was over, Perlman talked with the musicians, laughed a little before getting down from the podium and turning around to accept the audience's standing ovation.
More entries: October 2013
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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