June 2009

A Concerto Is Born

June 24, 2009 10:11

Recently I heard a fabulous concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop with Hilary Hahn playing a violin concerto written expressly for her by Jennifer Higdon. Also impressive was the question and answer session immediately after the concert. Ms. Hahn, Higdon, and Alsop sat onstage and answered questions from the audience. I learned a lot about the birth and nurturing of a new concerto.

 The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was a good orchestra before Marin Alsop took over as Music Director two years ago, but now they're top notch. The program started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture, a solid, noncontroversial crowd pleaser. Under Ms. Alsop's direction, however, it sounded vibrant and sparkling. The piece started with a dramatic chord which made me lean forward in a state of thrilled and heightened anticipation. I saw other people in the audience react the same way. I've heard this overture many times, even played it a long time ago, but it was never like this. There were so many nuances, shades of dark and light, harmony and disharmony, pauses which made me hold my breath, "conversations" between sections of the orchestra, fast and slow changes in dynamics and tempo, that the piece drew me into very active listening. Somehow, through all this, it was perfectly coherent and satisfying.

The artists discussed the violin concerto after the concert, and they discussed and elaborated on many of my reactions to the music.

The violin concerto was unusual and fun from the very start, when Hilary Hahn played several runs of harmonics, each answered in turn by some tiny cymbals in the percussion section. The harmonics were quite impressive. Ms. Hahn's left hand flew deftly all around the high end of the fingerboard. I never knew that there were so many harmonics there. The effect was quite lovely and unusual and not at all gimmicky. The dialog between the solo violin and parts of the orchestra or the whole orchestra continued through much of the rest of the concert. It was always interesting, and it always kept me alert and listening for more. Another major, impressive aspect of the concerto was the huge range of emotions conveyed by Ms. Hahn. They all sounded good, and they all kept me hanging on for more. In the hands of a lesser violinist, the concerto probably would not have sounded so good. What I heard was a real treat.

During intermission, both the violinist and the composer autographed CDs or anything else you brought them. I used to collect such signatures for myself, but after a while, I thought,"What's the point?" I asked the staff at my luthier's whether they would like me to get such signatures for them, and they said "yes" enthusiastically. They want to hang the autographed signatures up in their store. I got a doubly autographed program for them, and I enjoyed doing that.

The icing on the cake for this concert was the question and answer session following the performance. Hilary Hahn, Jennifer Higdon, and Marin Alsop sat on stage and took questions from the audience.

Someone asked about the interactions between Ms. Hahn and Ms. Higdon in writing the concerto. Ms. Higdon said that Ms. Hahn had only requested that the concerto be written in a major key. Ms. Hahn said that she intentionally gave little guidance to Ms. Higdon because she wanted to let the concerto be Ms. Higdon's own.

Someone asked Ms. Hahn how long it took her to learn the new concerto, and Ms. Hahn replied about four months, although she was doing things during this time. She talked about how she learned a concerto which had never been played before, one which had no precedents to guide her. Ms. Hahn said that she started by reading the scores for all the orchestra musicians so that she could understand the context in which she would be playing. She said that she has to experience the concerto as a whole, from the inside out. She does not memorize her part measure by measure or line by line. Rather, she learns to play it with a constant sense of where the music is going.  She added that she enjoys playing chamber music a lot, and she sometimes approaches a concerto as if it were chamber music with the orchestra and its sections as the other chamber players. 

Another person from the audience asked Ms. Higdon how she felt when she heard her composition played for the first time. The composer replied that while she was writing the concerto, she had a mental concept of what it would sound like. An example of one very small part of this experience was that she wanted the tiny cymbals at the very beginning of the concerto to sound like knitting needles. When she first heard the concerto played, she found parts that she wanted to tweak. She would do some rewriting, and the orchestra and the solo violinist would play it again. They repeated this process several times. In this way, the composer, the orchestra, and the soloist cooperated in the creation of the piece. The composer said that it was sometimes surprising and always very exciting for her to hear her composition brought to life. She was full of excitement and fun when she spoke.

Someone asked Ms. Alsop how she felt about playing a new piece that no one else had ever conducted. Ms. Alsop said that it was challenging because there were no precedents to help her. However, she said, she enjoyed the great opportunity of participating in the development of the concerto. She mentioned that the performance had been recorded for possible release as a download.

Another v.commie, Michael Divino, asked each of the three women how it felt to collaborate with two other women ( http://www.violinist.com/blog/HilaryHahn/20096/10222/ ). Ms. Hahn replied that she found it difficult to work with two people who have short hair (both Ms. Higdon and Ms. Alsop).

I enjoyed the Q & A session as much as I enjoyed the concert. I felt as if I had been present at the birthing of a new work of art. The three women onstage were obviously having fun talking to us. I hope that Ms. Alsop will have more post-performance discussions in the coming season.


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Seats and Sounds

June 11, 2009 09:59

I am fortunate to live near two world class concert halls which host world class performers. Since reading Terez's blog The Nomad Subscription Season, I have been thinking about the prices, locations, viewing and, most important, the quality of sound in the different locations in the concert halls.

The biggest and most imposing concert hall in this area is in the Kennedy Center, a living memorial to President Kennedy, which opened in 1971. Snobs say that Washington DC was just a sleepy Southern town before then. The style of the interior can be described as "twentieth century imperial." When the Kennedy Center opened, the acoustics were as good there as in any concert hall anywhere in the world. It is built almost directly under one of the flight paths to National Airport, which is right nearby, but inside you can neither hear nor feel the vibrations of the planes overhead. The concert hall has been modified many times since it was built to benefit from new advances in acoustics. The other concert hall, the Music Center at Strathmore, opened in 2005 with state-of-the-art acoustics which have been fine tuned ever since. The Music Center at Strathmore is smaller than the Kennedy Center and has a more personal feel to it.

A long time ago, when I was married and moneyed, my ex and I bought season's tickets to the best, or at least most expensive, seats in the house, in the orchestra section of the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center. My ex insisted on this, even though he slept through many of the concerts. My office mate and his wife had season tickets to seats in the second balcony, which he called "Peasants' Heaven." He and I frequently went to hear the same concerts, and we'd share our impressions of the music. He often made remarks on the visual aspects of the concert, i.e., "Did you notice that there's a new principal second violinist?" or "There are more women in the wind and brass sections than there used to be." I felt like I was missing some of the fun.

After my divorce I was on a more limited budget, and now, in my ninth consecutive year of unemployment, I'm on a very, very limited budget. In fact, I'm on a no frills budget, but I don't consider music a frill. I limit the number of concerts I attend, and I always buy the cheapest seats in the house. This generally means the second balcony or the second tier sides. The latter seats give a limited view of the stage, but I can partially compensate for this by twisting my upper body around.

The Kennedy Center Concert Hall has a great virtual system for letting you see the view of the stage that you'd have from any seating section. You can look at a map of the Concert Hall online, move your cursor over any section of seats, and get a virtual view of the stage from that section. It's fun. The Strathmore Music Center has a similar system, but it goes one step farther. You can not only sample the view, but also select your own seat. For some concerts, there is yet another option. If you want a really cheap ticket and an element of surprise, you can pay $20 in advance and get the best available seat in the house, as defined by the management, on the day of the concert. I suppose that you don't get to attend if the concert is sold out. Still, it might be fun to try some time. The $20 price for a ticket is enticing.

In both concert halls the acoustics are excellent no matter where you sit, so the view takes on more importance. I prefer to be above the level of the stage so that I can look down on the performers. I always bring opera glasses, and I can see any soloist as if I were just a few inches away from him. I've seen Itzhak Perlman's big, broad fingers land on precisely the right spot on the fingerboard, and I've seen Yo Yo Ma's long, slender fingers press the heavy strings of the cello down the considerable distance to the fingerboard. If the soloist is a violinist, I can see just exactly how he maneuvers his bow for the desired effect, and I can watch the speed and the width of his vibrato.

You get the best seat selections and the lowest prices if you purchase a subscription series as soon as the calendar for the upcoming year is made public. Most subscription series have a list of concerts which are preselected for you, but I always buy the one that lets you choose whichever concerts you want. For the 2009 to 2010 season, I've bought tickets to hear Janine Jansen playing the Sibelius Concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Maurizio Pollini playing an all Chopin recital, Joshua Bell playing with pianist Jeremy Denk, the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing works by Bernstein and Tchaikovsky, and the WPAS Gospel Choir, all for $171.00 for the cheapest seats in the house. The prices have gone up noticeably since last year, but I still think I'm getting a good deal.

PS. I'm now accepting comments, and I'd like to hear from you.

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Thinking Outside the Box

June 1, 2009 00:49

I just finished a lesson with one of my favorite, most talented, creative, and unpredictable students, "H," who is 11 years old. He thinks outside the box, and so do I. I never do much planning for his lessons. I just follow where he leads, taking every opportunity to teach him principles and techniques of music.

This week he hadn't practiced much because of a big project he has for school. He spent so much time procrastinating on the school project that he didn't have much time to practice his violin. I had to be creative and think quickly to teach him something worthwhile about music in this lesson.

I told him, as usual, to warm up with something easy. He started playing something rather difficult, and I told him, "That's not easy." "I wanna play it" he responded and did. The piece was "Bonaparte's Retreat," highly ornamented in bluegrass style, with every note played as a double stop. He loves double stops. Just can't get enough of them. He played the piece allegro, with perfect, clean intonation; strong rhythm; and a feeling of "bounce."

Next we turned to his current obsession, Irish fiddle music. The book we use, The Irish Fiddle Book by Matt Cranitch, is one I recommend highly. In addition to having a great collection of tunes with a CD containing most of them, this book addresses the question, "What makes Irish fiddle music sound like Irish fiddle music?" The author teaches ornaments characteristic of traditional Irish fiddle music, and he does it very effectively with words, written music, and sound (CD). The CD itself is lots of fun to listen to.

"H" is working his way through the book, and he is now in the section on slow airs. This collection begins with some ever popular tunes by the blind Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan, who lived about 200 years ago. "H", who had just played Napoleon's Retreat with such speed and dramatic flourish, played the slow airs so sweetly and gently that he almost sounded like a different person. He got to some airs which didn't sound like much of anything when he played them, so I tried playing a few. On the first one, he told me, "You played some notes that weren't written down." "I know," I replied. "The pages of the open book wouldn't lie flat, and I couldn't see the last measure of each line, so I improvised." "You didn't play the ending the way it was written," he said. "I know," I told him again. "The piece is written in the key of D, and it ended on C. Songs usually sound better, more finished, when they end on the first note of the key they're written in." Aha, I slipped in some music theory. The he played the next air. He played it well, but I felt that it was crying out for harmony. I had him play it again, and this time I improvised some harmony. When we finished, he said, "I don't like the last note you played." He explained that he had played D on the A string, and I had played B on the A string. "It would have sounded better," he said, "if you had played A on the A string." He was right again. The piece was in the key of D, and it sounded better when it ended on a part of a D chord. "You're right," I told him. "Do you remember the scale and arpeggios in the key of D which I had you practice? D, F#, A? If you play D while I play A, we're playing part of the arpeggio of the key of D. This way, the piece sounds like it has come home -- and it has, home to the key of D." Aha, I added to the music theory which I had explained just a few minutes ago.

Shortly afterwards, the lesson ended. I had had a lot of fun, and I hoped he did, too. I also hoped he would remember some music theory and how well it fit the music we played.

Note: I am now accepting comments on my blogs. I'd love to get some feedback from you.

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