Monday, December 29, 2008

Contagious Good Will

Chestnut, Part I
One bright blue day before Christmas, I turned on the radio in the car and heard Handel's "Messiah," one of those intricate and powerful choruses: "And He Shall Purify" I think it was. Right away, I was filled with pleasure--and regret. I had deliberately chosen not to attend the Richmond Symphony's annual performance of the "Messiah," thinking that I would be bored by this so familiar work.

Possibly the unexpected encounter was half the delight, but I resolved to attend a live performance of the "Messiah" next year--or maybe this Easter, if Richmond is lucky enough to see a good church performance at the work's rightful time of year.

Later in the day, recalling my happiness at hearing at least part of the piece on the radio, I thought that if I were to win the lottery, I would sponsor a RSO "Messiah" performance with free or pay-as-you-wish tickets. (I've never bought a lottery ticket in my life, so don't get your hopes up.) But I did consider calling the symphony to ask how much it would cost to sponsor one. I also wondered how much the symphony would take in if they just ditched the tickets and had an all-donation performance. Would the number of conscientious people of means make up for the number of people attending for free or cheap, who wouldn't have come otherwise?

Chestnut, Part II
On the Saturday after Christmas, my mother took my children and me to an afternoon performance of "A Christmas Carol" by the Theater of the Seventh Sister in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I had deliberately chosen not to attend Richmond Shakespeare's annual performance of the "A Christmas Carol for Two Actors," thinking that I would be bored by this so familiar work.

Guess what? I was re-delighted, of course! And re-regret-filled, since Richmond Shakespeare's (own, much different) version has finished an 11-year run and won't be back, I think.

And: the Seventh Sister production was pay-as-you-wish for its full run.

It was an excellent adaptation for about a dozen actors by TSS Co-artistic Director Gary Smith, using Dickens' original words almost entirely. The costumes were perfect; the set and props neatly, creatively adaptable; the actors enthralling. The house was slightly more than half full.

Smith introduced the performance with an explanation of the relationship between Dickens' message in the story and the pay-as-you-wish approach; that when times are tight, the better response is to open outward rather than curl inward.

There was no mercurial post-play request for donations--not even a discreet but visible donation box in the lobby on the way out. It was as if TSS had complete faith in the power of Dickens' words and their performance to spur people on to longer-term bigness of heart, rather than merely "I'll drop a few more dollars in because I feel good after the play."

I'm very curious about the outcome of TSS's ticket experiment. Did it prove what I wished it would prove, that generosity breeds generosity?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Another solstice come and gone

I got a day of sunshine for my birthday on Monday, just in time to take a picture of the last leaves of the rose.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Classics by Candlelight" concert

Just the other night I went to a chamber music performance and already I've lost the program, but in a word: lovely.

This was the second in a series of 3 concerts put on by the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, two at the 1753 Wilton House and this one at Bon Air Presbyterian. Four musicians played, variously, trios from the span of 19th century.

The program was superbly planned by CMSCVA artistic director and cellist James Wilson-- the pieces increased in complexity of intent, each somehow leading to the next. So even though there were no really big musical ideas in any of them, the sum was more interesting than the total of the parts.

Of course, it helped that the performers were top-notch: besides Wilson, there was Mary Boodell on flute, Erin Keefe on violin, and Catherine Cho on viola/violin. Cho is an assertive viola player; a friend said to me afterwards, "If I were a young person attending this concert, she would make me want to play the viola." Boodell--maybe because she is a Richmonder, unlike the others--was especially good at communicating the music to the audience. There were a few moments when she seemed to be looking up as if to say, "Listen up--Here comes a good part!"

Here's what my memory, with help from Google, can reconstruct:

1. An "Allegro" movement of something by Schubert for violin, viola and cello: playfully charming.

2. Beethoven's Serenade for flute, violin and viola: charmingly playful.

3. Borodin's Trio in g-minor for 2 violins and cello: This was my first time hearing this piece. It's good music for early winter: not quite full of the anguish of the deepest, darkest St. Petersburg nights, but yet cut through with a beautiful chill, brought out by Cho on first violin.

4. A trio for violin, viola and cello by Carl Reinecke: This piece gave each voice more rhythmic independence than the others, and the melodic interplay was a little more complex. According to Wilson, it doesn't get played so often... but I don't know why not. For a trio, it's got substance.

Step right up, it's "Richmond in Ragtime"

The chapter is an underappreciated literary device. At least, I failed to appreciate chapters until I began to read a book without one; then I realized how humbly crucial they are for showing the forward trajectory of a narrative and clarifying the relative importance of events and characters.

I had been floundering through the fascinating, well-written, but chapterless "Richmond in Ragtime: Socialists, Suffragists, Sex and Murder," by Harry Kollatz, Jr., when I went to a reading by Mr. Kollatz-- a performance, to be accurate.

He read several vignettes from the book, at times to the accompaniment of the Happy Lucky Combo.(This is probably the riskiest thing an author can do: have live, unrehearsed musical back-up to his reading. But when it works, it's delightful, as this was. Note: I am related to the accordionist.) And Mr. Kollatz, also an actor, is an excellent reader.

As he described the attractions of the 1909 state fair (first airplane flight in Richmond, pink popcorn, "huchy-kuchy," distilled spirits, etc.) I began to understand that the book "Richmond in Ragtime" is itself a carnival, a lit-up, cacophonous, sweat-steeped scatterment of sideshows and flapping tent doors.

In this one!: a quartet of underage drinkers "offering to put down 15 cents and the promise of a dollar next weekend" to purchase gin rickies!
In that one!: a 3,000-year-old mummified Egyptian princess rescued from a blazing dormitory!
And here!: muckraking ex-Mennonite gadfly Adon Yoder, editor of that weekly scourge of City Hall, "The Idea"!
What have they to do with each other? Who knows?! Who cares?!! Lay your money down and snap the dice across the felt!

I know from peeking into later vignettes that "Richmond in Ragtime" does have recurring characters and a few threads of plot (not that the book claims to have one). I still wish Mr. Kollatz or his editors had formed chapters with his material. But whether or not there's a main attraction around the next dusty corner, it was helpful to think of book-as-carnival; somehow understanding the form of a thing inclines me to like the thing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

What This City Needs is a Ferris Wheel

A few years after we moved to Richmond, we attended a low-key carnival shoehorned into a spot between the flood wall and the canal near the turning basin. (Back then, it was a dingy parking lot and dumping ground for construction and railroad materials; now it's a multi-million-dollar condominium.)

The most memorable feature of the day was the witheringly hot blacktop on which we stood in line with 2-year-old Emily for this little ride or that little ride, only to have her nerve give out when it was finally her turn. Then, at last, we boarded a Ferris wheel, and that's when I fell in love with Ferris wheels.

As small as it was, that wheel lifted us up above the baking asphalt, above the flood wall, high enough to catch a breeze and see the city stumbling away in all directions from the river's banks. At the zenith, we were about the same height as the cars on the Downtown Expressway, rushing past not too far away--yet I felt in a different world: they had somewhere to go, apparently, and quickly; I had only a circle in which to go, and another, and another, none of them taking up any time at all, it seemed.

Ever since then, I've been convinced that Richmond's Canal Walk needs a permanent Ferris wheel. Sedate, tastefully lit, operated by someone's grandpa (who only smokes on official breaks, not while buckling children into their seats, which I've seen happen at the State Fair), accompanied by live big-band music at twilight on summer weekends, powered entirely by the James River....

This is on my mind because I recently learned that Kings Dominion is opening a "new" Ferris wheel this coming season--24 gondolas, each seating 6 people. (It's coming from the former Geauga Lake Amusement Park in Ohio, also the original home of KD's "new" Dominator ride.) We get up to KD once every two or three years; I dread it every time but often end up having a good time in spite of myself.

Next time we go, I'll make it a point to become good and irritated at the heat, the crowds, the cartoons, the plastic and the noise; that'll make the Ferris wheel ride all the better.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Richmond Symphony: Stravinsky's Psalms

Maybe I was tired after a long week, or maybe the unexpected, chilly evening rain tempered my spirits, but Saturday's performance by the Richmond Symphony left me uninspired.

I was most eager to hear Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" (with the Richmond Symphony Chorus) and curious about Barber's "Second Essay for Orchestra"--both of which I did not know--and anticipated being happy enough with Schubert's 9th symphony. And of course, I wanted to form an opinion about Director Candidate #3, Steven Smith.

The performance was the least precise I've heard by the RSO for as long as I can remember--which isn't saying much, as I'm happy to forget failings, and furthermore, they've been doing a lot of bombastic music recently, and it's much easier to hide imperfections when you're playing loud and fast. Both the Barber and the Stravinsky are quite spare, even austere in parts, with simple, exposed lines that have to be both accurate and beautiful. (And if you're singing in the choir, for Dominum's sake, get your "laudate"s together. I felt peppered with "d"s and "t"s.)

Stravinsky set Psalms 38, 39 and 150 (in Latin) to music, scoring for an intriguingly dark orchestra: no violins or violas. There were also 5 flutes, 4 oboes and no clarinets (as opposed to the typical 3,2,3. I didn't take proper notes, but there were bassoons, Fr. horns, trumpets and a trombone, and timpani.)

Dark, but not dismal. The psalms' texts move from plea to relief to praise, and the music is powerful without being sentimental. I especially liked the fugues in the second movement, with the oboe and the flute taking long-legged steps, as up a rocky mountain--enormous intervals between notes, creating a melody unsingable but ethereal: "And he led me out of the lake of misery, and out of the mire. And he set my feet upon a rock, and directed my steps." (Photo: Adrien Siegel)

Never having heard the Barber or the Stravinsky before, I didn't have anything to compare Smith's direction to, but my general impression was one of dryness. No note was sustained any fraction of a second longer than strictly indicated (I imagine) and no extra decibels milked from the crescendos or pilfered from the decrescendos.

Smith didn't seem to be drawing the best out of the musicians, but perhaps I was imposing my own lackluster attitude on the performance.

I did hear rumors earlier in the week, however, that nobody liked rehearsing the Schubert. I'll tell you one thing: it's not nicknamed "Great" because it's an exceptional piece of music; it's "great" because it's so blasted long. Actually, I'll tell you another thing: C Major must have been on sale when Schubert wrote the thing, because he sure does throw around that C Major key like beads on Fat Tuesday.

But it's a fine piece, and even if I haven't figured out yet how it fit on the program with the other two, I'm glad to have heard it again.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Richmond's Pump House: Go When You Get the Chance!

On the most gorgeous of fall afternoons, I visited Richmond's historic Pump House, now part of the James River Park System. It's usually not open to the public, but park educator Lorne Field was giving tours last Saturday as part of the park system's effort to increase interest in restoring the building to serve as an interpretive center for the park.

We arrived barely half an hour before it was scheduled to be closed up again, and judging from the number of cars still there, people certainly are interested in the building.

I had no idea how impressive the Pump House is, nor how interesting its history is, nor even how extensive and beautiful the trails along the two surrounding canals are. (The park grounds are open to the public. Go now!: take the last right before the Nickel Bridge going south.)

You can see photos and get some history at the link above and more here, but briefly: the building was constructed in 1882, with additions in 1905, to pump water from the James River to the Richmond Reservoir, where it would run, mostly by gravity, into homes and businesses. The architecture of the building reflects the importance of a city water system. A dance floor built above the waterwheels and pumps reflects the inherent glamour of Public Works. (Really. Those Victorians were wild.)

Wealthy Richmonders would ride canal boats or carriages to dance parties, although when Richmond got its streetcars running all the way out to nearby Byrd Park, the riffraff started showing up, and the elegant dance pavilion got painted in multiple shades of blue and pink. The band probably started playing "Yes, We Have No Bananas," and in 1924, the Pump House ceased operations. (Okay, it wasn't the riffraff but the demand for city water beyond the pumps' capabilities.)

Turning the Pump House into an environmental and historical education center would be fabulous. It's a huge project and will require public and private funding... and, Lorne Field hopes, many volunteers with a preservationist vision.

As charming and funny as a dance floor above a water system is, it's a history that's almost exclusively white. The more significant history of the Pump House is its coexistence with the canal system and its role in improving public health.

Anyway, if you ever hear that they're giving tours of the Pump House again, Foxtrot on over.

Halloween is the New Christmas

Several years ago, I was complaining to a neighbor about the frivolity of Halloween and its high sugar content. "Nobody needs candy," I said, or something like that.

Marta said, "I love Halloween. I think it's great that one night out of the year, everyone gives something to their neighbors." (I paraphrase, of course, because my memory's not THAT great.)

She changed my life. I love Halloween more every year. I know the holiday has its devotees of the macabre and its lovers of the freedom a costume provides, but I'm charmed simply by the many tiny acts of unselfish generosity that happen all up and down the streets of my neighborhood. Actually, I've been starting to think that Halloween is more Christian than Christmas.

(Please don't talk to me about kids with one lousy bandanna and two bulging pillowcases. I don't want my idyllic vision littered with Chompo Bar wrappers.)

The other reason I've been loving Halloween more and more is that for three years now, we've had an exuberant parade through our neighborhood streets, thanks to Bread & Puppet, All the Saints, and revelers too numerous to mention, or to photograph, though you can see a few here from Tess at Flickr.

Witness to a Century

Last week I watched the pre-release version of "Witness to a Century," a documentary produced by the Virginia Historical Society and WCVE public television which will air Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. It features excerpts of interviews with a dozen or so Virginian centenarians, several of whom attended the screening at the VHS. Additionally, narration and photos lead viewers through the 20th century.

The interviewees' personal stories--which include simple recollections of using a hand-operated washing machine ("better than a washboard!") as well as accounts of housing and job discrimination-- are fascinating, but not particularly unique. The value of the project is in the sound and sight of the actual interviews. So much was said between the words, in the glance downward after a sentence, the pause before a carefully chosen phrase.

I love reading oral histories, but man--hearing and seeing them is so much better. If you, like I, are not much of a TV watcher and miss the documentary the first time around, you might be able to check it out of a library next year, since plans are in the works to sell it as a DVD.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pearls! Pearls! PEARLS!

The other night, I turned on the record player to make it feel wanted, and the disc that happened to be on the turntable was the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Recording of "Fiddler on the Roof," Side 3.
Let me tell you: if you've ever seen the musical performed by your local high school or college ensemble, you may think you know the songs, but you haven't truly heard "Tevye's Dream" until you've heard Fruma-Sarah belted out by Ruth Madoc. (I think--I've lost the original liner notes. And actually, the Fruma-Sarah at my college's production was almost better, but I can't remember who sang it.)

My parents took me along to this movie when I was 3 years old. I still remember the dried leaves swirling as Fruma-Sarah returned from the grave. Then I dove under the seat, but no sticky little fingers in the ears could keep out that mighty shriek. Had nightmares for a long time after that.

For 99 cents, the pleasure can be yours!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Violists and Editors

Yesterday evening, I gave a talk to a class of older adults. I've pasted below the text I prepared, although of course it didn't come out exactly as it is reproduced. (I neither talk like I write nor write like I talk; I couldn't stand myself either way if I did. But I did have to put my lecture into written language so that when it came time to speak, I didn't just blab on.)

How is an Editor Like a Violist?

Last year, Morning Edition, the NPR program, ran a series of essays called “Musicians in Their Own Words.” One gray morning, I happened to catch Cynthia Phelps, the principal violist of the New York Philharmonic.

Now, the viola section rarely gets the melody in orchestral music—and when they do, it’s usually just for short passages. But Phelps talked about how violas shape the sound of the entire orchestra. They play the “notes behind the notes” that provide the backdrop, the context for the melody. They influence how listeners perceive the mood and even the tempo of the music.

Cynthia Phelps didn’t hesitate to say that one of the reasons she likes being a non-melody-getting viola player is that she has control at the very foundation of the music. I don’t think she means that this control is like a dictatorship, though. The power of music is a collective power—musicians working together; it also involves the listener.

Are you starting to see where I’m taking this?

So, of course Phelps didn’t call herself a dictator, or even a leader. She called herself a mediator. The radio feature ended with her saying, "I try and create a balanced middle ground. It really resonates with the way I am as an individual."

An editor, too, is a mediator, a liaison for the readers and the writers and the publisher. If I only printed what writers wanted to write, [one of the publications I edit] would be very different. (They all seem to love to write about cancer survivors, octogenarian athletes and small business owners.) And although I’m lucky to have a publisher who truly values good writing and reporting, in general, a publisher’s concerns are not precisely the same as the readers' or the writers'.

If I only printed what readers wanted to read… well, I don’t know what Readers want, exactly, but I do know (because I’m a reader myself) that they want to be informed, entertained, and above all, respected.

So the editor is the pivot point, the mediator. The editor gets the writers to think of the readers. I hope by choosing topics and assigning articles that cover a wide range of experiences, I get readers to think about our community and our world.

There was more, but I drifted away from the violist/editor analogy. It was hard--and probably not necessary-- for me to express how epiphanic the moment was for me, when I heard Phelps declare that the role of a viola in the orchestra fits her understanding of herself as a mediator. It was deeply pleasing to hear someone else say this, the same thing I feel about my role as an editor. I had never bothered to imagine that a musician might see herself this way.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thomas Mapfumo and Blacks Unlimited at the Modlin Center

Not one minute into this concert, I was crying from the beauty. Something about the sorrow-and-joy sound of the music caught me right in the middle of vulnerability, and it took me three songs to come round and experience the concert from other perspectives than the weepy one.

Thomas Mapfumo started making music when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, a former British colony struggling for independence. He's credited with blending traditional Shona songs and instruments with contemporary electric rock music, and is recognized as a cultural leader in the revolution. He's now stridently anti-Mugabe, living in exile in Oregon and making music with his band, Blacks Unlimited.

As for this music, simple and complex beats are layered to produce a thick foundation of rhythm, on top of which melodic cycles and riffs flow in and out. Mapfumo's voice isn't strong, but intense and perfectly balanced with the instruments: drums, percussion, bass, tenor and alto sax, mbira and guitar. It's music to sit and soak up or to dance to, and a little bit of the latter did, in fact, occur in the sedately carpeted aisles of Camp Concert Hall.

If you're not familiar with Zimbabwean music in particular, or African music at all, this is an excellent show to start with. Good thing they're playing again, Saturday night... get a ticket now!: Thomas Mapfumo and Blacks Unlimited

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Richmond Symphony: Brahms's Butter & Barber's Brilliance

My older daughter says she once saw a cooking show in which Paula Deen mixed butter, mayonnaise and breadcrumbs, rolled something in the mixture, deep fried it (whatever the base food was didn’t seem to be the point), then dipped it into mayonnaise to eat it.
Brahms’s cooking show—I think he had one—was similar. If he didn’t, his music, at least, was created on the principle, “Try more butter.” This is why you should never listens to Brahms on a Sunday afternoon without a pot of coffee and an open window.
But I like Brahms, even in serving sizes as large as a symphony, such as his Number 2 in D major, with which the Richmond Symphony ended its performance last night at St. Michael’s. I could have used even more butter, so to speak. Partly that’s because I think any time the cellos get a gorgeous melody, as in the first and second movements here, everyone, including the conductor, should drop to his knees and weep.
Daniel Meyer, auditioning conductor #2, (who did not drop to his knees) was an expressive but not excessive director for the whole program, which began with a piece from 1994, “Javelin” by Michael Torke.
This sprightly music was full of shapes and gesticulations; the only melody of more than a few repeated notes was inspirational in nature. As a whole, it was a pleasantly invigorating listen. Lest you think this too much faint praise, here are Torke’s words, which I saw in the program notes after the piece was over: “What came out was a sense of valor among short flashes and sweeps… The piece’s fast tempo evokes the generally uplifting, sometimes courageous, yet playful spirit.”
So, in fact, the composition and its performance was a rousing success, as defined by communication of intent.
Second on the program was Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (Op.14); concertmistress Karen Johnson soloed. (I had never heard this piece before, but I like the Barber music that I know.) As at times in the Brahms, it seemed as if the orchestra wasn’t responding the way Meyer wanted. Especially in the first movement of the Barber, a lush Allegro, the big parts could have been bigger, the small parts smaller.
I think, however, this was mostly a factor of the St. Michael’s in-the-round arrangement and compartmentalized ceiling. When the average audience member is only 12 feet away, it’s practically impossible for an orchestra to play a good piano or pianissimo. And—though I don’t know much about acoustics—the forte parts seemed to go straight up and get stuck in the cross-shaped ceiling.
Also, Johnson had her back to my section, and it was sometimes hard to hear her. (This was my first ever and last ever St. Michael’s concert.)
In the second movement, Andante, the music descends from introspection into lethargy. You hear the self trying to rouse; by the end of the movement, resolution is reached, but it seemed like Meyer wanted to get to that point of awakening sooner than the RSO.
"Presto in moto perpetuo” is as brilliante as it sounds on paper. Listening to the third movement is like a riding full-tilt up the Empire State Building in a glass elevator with a fast-talking Manhattanite jacked up on sugar pointing out representative bits of American culture.
Just when you think the elevator and your tour guide couldn’t possibly go any faster, you smash through the roof and everyone jumps to their feet clapping.
In the music, snatches of vernacular whip by, a whirlwind tour of American music up to 1939. It’s truly giddy, and about half a minute before the end I did worry that something was going to fly apart. When Karen Johnson started her last lick, I thought, “My god, I don’t think her fingers are going to make it!” But they did, and so did she!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Eurydice" at the Firehouse

"Eurydice" is nearing the end of its run at the Firehouse Theatre, and if you missed it, that's a shame, because it really is that good. The acting was wonderful, but I suspect they were inspired to greatness by Sarah Ruhl's script, which I thought was flat-out good writing. (Although I wanted the play to be a little longer, with a little more development given to Eurydice's individuality, I figured Ruhl wanted to keep the pace fairly brisk in the middle.)

I took my 11-year-old daughter tonight, and because I was lame and didn't buy tickets ahead of time, we almost didn't get to see the show. We had to sit on opposite ends of the theater and I felt sad that I couldn't see her reactions as the play progressed. Afterwards, she said she was glad we went. Maybe she was just as happy not sitting with me.

P.S. Only in the Underworld do fathers and [absent] brides walk down the aisle to Glenn Gould's meditation on corporeality that is the Goldberg Variations Aria. Thank you, Bryan Harris, for teaching us this. In fact, I think it was the Bach that called Eurydice to her father.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Performance as Gift

Several years ago, my daughters and I attended a dance performance at the Children's Museum of Richmond. Half a dozen or so young Chinese dancers, on tour to the States, performed folk-style dances with great athleticism.

Of the hundreds of thousands of dancers there must be in China, they weren't the best, I'm sure, but as I watched, I was struck by how sincerely they seemed to view the act of dancing as a gift to the audience. It was a gift they felt honored to give, and in turn, I felt honored to receive.

I had never thought so directly about how important this attitude is to performance. When a musician or dancer or actor is so wrapped up in his or her own experience of the work (because she's struggling to do it well; or because she looks down on the audience as being merely bourgeois; or because she loves her own pleasure more than the audience's), the performance may be decent, but it won't be lasting, because it wasn't given. It just disappears in the space between.

This sounds awfully dreamy, I guess. And it's not the final, or the only, word: performances can make permanent impressions on individual, receptive audience members, whether or not the performers have this "spirit of giving." But I think as a generality, it's true.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Richmond Symphony: Tchaikovskyyyyyyy!

Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony is one crazy work--loud, fast and forceful. A pizzicato third movement is less playful than perverse. By the fourth movement, the music is wound up so tightly, one might worry that a single wrong touch could send the whole contraption spinning out of control, springs and cogs aloft. (If you've never heard it... it's impressively nuts, all the strings playing together at breakneck speed.)

One might worry--and one did, last night at the Richmond Symphony's performance of the symphony under directorial candidate #1, Mikhail Agrest. I didn't worry much, though, because I didn't really believe RSO would lose it in a piece everyone's played before. Possibly the very intent of the piece is to incite anxiety.

I was sitting in the balcony and had a clear view of two violists heaving sighs and brushing hair off their brows during a rest in the last movement. A violinist later told me s/he felt the piece was awfully close to falling apart because Agrest wasn't on top of things. My impression of Agrest in general was that he trusted the orchestra to perform well and sensibly; he wasn't autocratic. Maybe he should have been, at least from one violinist's perspective.

The RSO also performed a trombone concerto by Christopher Rouse, a piece that deserves more play than it probably gets. It begins and ends with thoughtful, at times somber movements; the second movement is dramatic, loud and violent. Agrest introduced the piece with an extended chat, guiding listeners' thoughts toward war, but I was more reminded of nature's power, rather than humans' might. The concerto is made up of many little waves of sound--crescendos and decrescendos--and, taken as a whole, is itself wave-like.

Although the trombone solo was capably played by Michael Mulcahy of the Chicago Symphony, I didn't come away feeling a new appreciation for the trombone--that is, it's not a showboat piece. In fact, sometimes I thought the trombone could have played above the orchestra a little more. Mostly, though, the solo and the orchestra were intentionally collaborative.

I don't think Rouse broke any astonishing new ground, but this concerto moved me. Like an ocean that flattens villages or lulls a raft, music's power comes in many forms.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

eighth blackbird + one = strange imaginary remix

As a volunteer usher at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Fast Forward series in 1994, I attended a performance by Philip Glass playing his own solo piano works. After the concert, the two women seated in front of me stood up and one said, “I have been a music teacher for 30 years, and THAT was NOT music!” The conversation continued in that vein, and I chuckled—but not too much. After all, I hadn’t really liked the music myself, especially since I’m not a huge piano fan to begin with. But I wasn’t… backwoods. Was I?

So I was a little nervous tonight as I attended my first-ever concert by eighth blackbird. What if I hated it? What if I couldn’t hear the music?

Eighth blackbird was joined for this concert, titled “strange imaginary remix,” by Dennis DeSantis on laptop. The premise that a musician on a computer belongs in an ensemble is a barrier I’m still tunneling through with a tuning fork. For one thing, the laptop musicians I’ve seen are so absorbed in their computers they can’t interact with the ensemble or the audience.

DeSantis was a little better in this regard, yet his position on the side of the stage, often behind the backs of all the other musicians, symbolically excluded him from the ensemble. (Plus, somebody needs to get that boy a higher table so he doesn’t hurt his back hunching over his keyboard, mad-scientist-style.)

DeSantis added sounds, clips, echoes, beats, notes and memories of notes to the music of the other instruments. I often found myself wondering if the sound I was hearing came from a “real” instrument or from the computer, but by the end of the concert, I was trying to figure out why I thought that mattered. If one sound is real, is another imaginary? Music, I guess, is sound that we imagine into sense.

Likewise, at first I thought it was entertaining to watch the musicians—oh, those antics over in the percussion! the gymnastics at the piano!—but eventually I just looked up at the ceiling. I wanted the music to find me, rather than the other way around.

Did it? Yes. It’s music I’m glad I heard. It’s music I will never listen to on a CD. It’s music I may want to hear again, but I’m not sure yet.

Sometimes I felt as if the music were looking back at its own tracks, only to find that it had been walking on ice, on which the faint impressions of warmth and force quickly disappear. Phrases were rarely sustained or shaped in traditional ways (i.e., good luck finding a melody), and forward momentum often didn’t seem to have a destination.

My favorite pieces were “Indigenous Instruments” (Steven Mackey) and “Friction Systems” (David Gordon), partly because I could recognize the passing of musical elements among the members of the ensemble and partly because both pieces are very tonally and rhythmically interesting.

Thanks to the program notes, I know that both used quarter-tone tuning. I thought this was especially effective in “Friction Systems”: the bass clarinet and cello sounded like one organism, acting on and being acted upon by an outside force.

The program notes also told me that Mackey called his piece “a kind of vernacular music from a culture that doesn’t actually exist.” Are the instruments are indigenous to the imagination? Or maybe the imagination is the instrument itself.

In any case, I’m pretty sure those ladies at the Glass concert couldn’t have imagined this music.

The full program: “Powerless” (DeSantis), “evanescence” (Gordon Fitzell), “Dollars and Cents” (Radiohead/Colnot), “Indigenous Instruments (Mackey), “strange imaginary remix” (DeSantis) and “Friction Systems” (Gordon).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What Would Pandora Play?

I have been educating myself over at the school of Pandora. I am an appreciative student, having had virtually no education in popular culture and its varieties of music for the years spanning 0 to 1989 and 1992 to 2008.

Yet I'm not sure I approve. Really, the Music Genome Project is to music as lepidoptery is to butterflies.

I type in "Cesaria Evora" and get an entire channel of music sung in nothing but Portuguese; I was looking for music that makes me feel wild with longing for something that's slipping from my fingers, a feeling which is not stirred in me by the Portuguese language in particular.

Or say I want a channel called "Music That Makes Me Weep." Pandora doesn't give me that option. I have to settle for songs with "mellow rock instrumentation," "subtle use of vocal harmony," "use of a string ensemble," "prominent organ" ... wait, that's not what I had in mind. (Pandora has not heard of double entendres, apparently.)

In theory, I despise the MGP for sucking the soul out of music, but I still listen to my Pandora channels. "What will they think of next?"

Monday, September 1, 2008

Liner Notes As Ink Blots

This is the last paragraph of the anonymously written notes that accompany a recording of Schubert's Trout Quintet by the Endres Quartet with Rolf Reinhardt:

"It is amusing to note how almost every commentator, severely picking holes in the formal structure of the Trout, abjectly surrenders to its musical charm. In short, Schubert may not have made the greatest intellectual or emotional contribution to music with the Trout Quintet--but he went ahead and composed a work of genius, one that is so spontaneous, so lyric and free-flowing, that criticism remains pedantic and impertinent."

You may guess for yourselves why these are my all-time favorite liner notes, with the italics-added portions standing as your clues.