Antique Mall restraint

January 25th, 2010

Things I wanted to buy, but DID NOT, at the antique mall today:

Suitcase full of slides and movie film from the late 1950’s. $35

Crate full of paper piano rolls. $10

Gorgeous wood cabinet housing Victrola record player, with records, and immaculate condition label of the dog listening to the records. $175

Old radio in wooden cabinet. Tag claimed was still working on AM. Funky dial and buttons. $170

I should stop going there.

Chamber Music America talks

December 21st, 2009

For the past few years I’ve started my year by going to the Chamber Music America conference in New York City. ( This year’s theme was Big Ideas for Small Ensembles. While I personally didn’t have any big new ideas for my trio, Neoteric, I did get to hear two great talks by some important men in classical music.

The first was by Steve Reich, which whether you like his music or not, you have to admit has had a giant impact on the music world, and probably isn’t finished. He started his talk by trying to convince us that music has never been an economically viable art form- which I happen to agree with. JSB (his little moniker for Bach) had the church, Haydn had Esterhazy, and Wagner had King Ludwig. I think sometimes we forget this, and lament that ticket sales won’t support us on their own. They never have! “Haydn never needed the NY State Council for the Arts!”

He also talked at length on his own music and process- including on “Different Trains” and his recent Double Sextet for Eighth Blackbird. He confessed to being incredibly drawn to canons in pairs of instruments. Reich recently turned 70, and clearly is comfortable with himself and confident about what he likes to do, and what he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to compose operas, or teach composition, or write string quartets. His talk was funny, and self-depricating, and interesting.

The second talk I attended was by Leon Botstein.  He began his talk by warning us that he may offend, and then declared that “Recording is Dead!” Controversial at the least! While I don’t completely agree with this statement, I do agree that recording as we have known it for the last 70 years or so is greatly changed. He pointed out that with iPods and downloading, the idea of “definitive recordings” is over, because there are so many available, and that we don’t listen the same way we used to. Walking around with earbuds in is not the same as sitting at home in front of your elaborate hi-fi system. Botstein also reminded us music has never been economically sustainable. (I guess I left feeling a little less of a capitalist and more socialist…) My favorite point of his was that in this new era, people will be able to judge music without fear. Since the age of the definitive recording is dead, there are fewer established opinions to agree or disagree with. We can judge music the way we judge movies- we can appreciate all the “in” jokes and fine points of cinematography, or we can just get sucked into a great story and get swept away.

I performed with my trio (Neoteric) on a session about audience participation. We had commissioned a piece for our trio and audience from John Steinmetz. He skillfully composed moments where the audience sings a drone with us, and claps a specific rhythm with us. John led the session along with Claire Hoffman- who had done some amazing work with the Native American tribe living in the Grand Canyon, and Eli Yamin- who has some great strategies for audience participation while giving jazz concerts on state department tours. I never fail to be impressed by the inventiveness of my musical colleagues- there are a lot of great ideas out there.

Neoteric decided that since we were in NY, we would visit the afterschool program that my mom runs in the Bronx. This was the largest audience of elementary school kids we ever played for, but we think it was a good experience for everyone. John came with us and led the kids in clapping and singing along in his piece. We ended with Bernie Hoffer’s arrangement of “Tale of the Oyster” which the kids really liked (and Jen did some great acting where the oyster, shall we say, re-emerges)

Colin Currie and St. Louis Symphony

November 3rd, 2009

On Saturday I heard the St. Louis Symphony’s concert with British percussionist, Colin Currie. Currie performed two concertos by Chinese-American composers- Tan Dun and Bright Sheng. It was fascinating to hear these two works back-to-back, since the two composers have such different approaches to their music. Both men use a hybrid style of Chinese and Western influences, but it takes them in two contrasting directions.

Tan Dun’s Water Concerto was full of new and unique colors- most notably those created by numerable objects being played in water (or the water itself) and an instrument that I assume is of Chinese origin (unnamed in the program-shame on the program!). But Dun also uses the western instruments of the orchestra in new ways, having wind players play on mouthpieces only, brass players drumming on leadpipes, and high effects in the strings. This made for an extremely colorful work with novel and interesting sounds. (When someone who’s been playing in orchestras for 20 years is looking around frantically, trying to figure out where that sound came from, you know something novel is going on.) However, musically this work was a little less interesting. I felt like certain cliche “Chinese themes” kept popping up, so melodically the work wasn’t as engaging. It felt more like a movie soundtrack than a concert orchestral work in that regard. And to be fair, Tan Dun wrote the great soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He’s good at soundtrack music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The main attraction was watching Currie (an attractive man himself) and the two SLSO percussionists playing in the water, making novel sounds, and seeing what they would do next. (What’s the sieve for? What is he going to do with that long tube and the ping pong paddle?)Overall, I enjoyed the work. It opened my ears, made me consider the musical possibilities of water, and was entertaining to watch.

(I didn’t get the chance to interview Currie, but here’s what I would have asked him– How do you hold on to your drumsticks with wet hands? Do you have to travel with your own water bowls? Or the 5 octave marimba? What is the name of the cool metal instrument with the tines and cool asian sounds? Is it harder to predict when a bowl of water will sound than with a traditional percussion instrument? Does it hurt your feelings to have to be separated from the rest of the orchestra by plexiglass? Did you feel like you were in Star Trek Next Generation when you had to keep tugging the cool red shirt you wore for Colors of Crimson?)

Bright Sheng’s work (Colors of Crimson) was completely different. It was a work for marimba and orchestra, and in more of a western style with some Chinese elements- rather than the other way around as it was with Tan Dun. It was more of what I expected of a “new” piece. It had some nice contrasts of mood, some nice colors (not nearly as exciting as Dun’s), some challenging and athletic playing required for the soloist, but little to stick in my mind the next day or make me want to go back for a second listen. It was well-crafted and pleasant. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams- mostly harmless.

I don’t want to neglect to mention that the two non-percussion works on the program were excellent. Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale and Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite were excellent choices to bookend this Chinese themed program. The orchestra did a great job of playing with fire and passion, and delicacy. There were many excellent principal solos (clarinet, english horn, the trombone gliss), but my absolute favorite of the night was Susan Slaughter’s beautiful trumpet melodies in the Stravinsky. She melted my heart with her warm sound and lyrical playing. I felt sad when she left the stage for the Tan Dun (don’t leave, I want to hear more!).

I thought this program was yet another excellent example of David Robertson’s very thoughtful programming. The juxtaposition of these Chinese-inspired and Chinese composers’ works was ear-opening. It was also smart to put new works with more familiar ones (although not TOO familiar). A minor complaint may be that it was a smidge too long, especially with all the scene changes required for the percussion works. But I definitely felt that I got my money’s worth.

My best wishes to the musicians as they head to Carnegie Hall. Show those New Yorkers that we Midwesterners are a force to be reckoned with!

Here’s a link to the NY Times review of the Carnegie Concert- sounds like they did a great job

Weekend concerts in St. Louis

October 26th, 2009

This weekend was a great one for classical music lovers in St. Louis. On Friday I was a volunteer usher at the St. Louis Cathedral for a concert of the English choir Tenebrae. The program was largely music from the 20th and 21st centuries, with works by Poulenc, Taverner, and Durufle. It also included works on the second half  by the choir’s director, Nigel Short, and by living composer Joby Talbot. In addition to Tenebrae’s beautiful singing, another hallmark of their concert was that they performed by candlelight. While the singers had personal lights to see their music by, the room was largely lit by candles and luminaria placed throughout the cathedral. It was gorgeous to see the lights flickering off the mosaic tiles.

Hearing a cappella vocal music in a candle-lit church, I couldn’t help but think that this was how choral music began. Choirs of monks and choirboys, singing a cappella in churches and cathedrals, lit by candlelight; this was a scene that would have been familiar to any 12th or 13th century churchgoer. While the idea of having women sing the soprano parts instead of boys would shock a 13th century music lover, and our modern printing techniques make it much easier and cheaper for each singer to have her own part (early choirs often sang huddled around one giant choirbook), most of the scene before me on Lindell Avenue would have seemed eerily similar to that of a medieval church service.Giant Music Stand in Florence, Italy

I also couldn’t help but wonder about the strange parallels of the situation. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is a Byzantine style cathedral, modeled after San Marco in Venice and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I’m not sure why in 1907 they decided to build a Byzantine structure, rather than a modern one, but they did- and it cost them plenty! It’s so exhausting to imagine all of those tiny tiles being affixed to every inch of the walls. Humans have been investing this level of time, money, effort, and artistry into our religious buildings for centuries. It’s also interesting to note that most of the first written music was religious music. Early church music is also where we find the first polyphony (different notes being sung together, creating harmony). So we have a 20th century version of medieval buildings housing a concert of 20th (and 21st) century versions of medieval choral music. I guess there isn’t anything new under the sun? Or maybe we humans know a good thing when we see or hear it? Maybe we feel a connection to these very old arts, or maybe we seek out a feeling of connection with our medieval ancestors. I don’t know the answer to this, but I’d love to know what those early architects and composers would say if they saw us all sitting there, in the “new world” cathedral, listening to a choir in the dark.

Another concept that Tenebrae borrowed from the past was that of moving around the church during their performance. It was common for early choirs to “proceed” to their spot up front while singing chant. It also became the fashion at San Marco in Venice to place singers and instrumentalists in the various balconies for an early version of stereo or surround sound. (When Gabrieli did this it was called “cori spezzati” or split choirs.) Especially for those seated in the middle section of the cathedral, this is a very effective way to envelope your audience in some very beautiful sound. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s nothing like being so surrounded by sound that you can literally feel the air vibrating around you. (And for those of you who accomplish this with your home stereo system, it is 10 times better when produced by live performers- spend your money on some concert tickets!)

My only complaint about the program was that the music was all of a similar style, especially on the second half. So while it was very beautiful music, and very well performed, it could have used a bit more contrast of style. However, the music was all suited to the space and the voices, and I’m guessing the second half of the program was music that was mostly new to the audience. I was really impressed with how quiet and respectful the audience was, in a big echoey space like that, even a quiet sound can easily disrupt a performance. I’m looking forward to hearing more choirs in this space.

On Saturday, I decided that since I hold a doctorate in music, it was time I heard the world’s most famous living cellist play in person. So I put up the $50 for a standing room seat to hear Yo-Yo Ma play with the St. Louis Symphony. The program began with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (which for once I was glad was only 2 movements, since my feet were already getting tired…) This work opens with a eerie melody in the cellos and basses, and the SLSO did a great job of this- really quiet and haunting. Kudos to the low strings! I was impressed with the dynamic range of the ensemble throughout the night, they were able to execute some beautiful pianos, and warm and strong fortes throughout the night. They also did a great job of bringing out the emotional contrasts in the music, from scary to triumphant, mellow to energetic. David Robertson did an excellent job of being accommodating (and possibly sarcastic?) when allowing the many late comers take their sweet time coming in between the movements.

Yo-Yo Ma is an artist I truly admire. He is a consummate cellist, with excellent technique and superb musicianship. But what I truly admire about him is that once he conquered the classical world, he branched out and has tried other things. Interesting collaborations with Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, and the choreographer Mark Morris have brought us some great music. He also started the Silk Road project, and recorded some other non-western music. So it was interesting to hear him play the warhorse of the cello repertoire- the Dvorak Concerto. I have to wonder what goes through his mind as he plays a piece I’m sure he’s performed hundreds, if not thousands, of times. That being said, it was not a dry or boring performance. His stage presence is so warm and inviting, I felt like I couldn’t help but go along with him and Dvorak on their journey through the Concerto. And like most great works, Dvorak really does take us on a journey with this work, traveling through several emotions and moods. Mr. Ma did an excellent job- he was relentlessly intense at times, and relaxed and ethereal at others. The orchestra was also in fine form, loud and full when called for, and able to play really soft and warm when accompanying.

The audience seemed to be as enthralled with the performance as I was. It was heartening to see so many young people in the hall, especially considering the ticket prices. (To be fair, this was a gala fundraising evening, and I’m sure the orchestra raised some badly needed funds. And it was worth $50 to stand through it.) David Robertson offered the audience a very sincere thank you, and reminded them that coming to hear an orchestra concert is celebrating what’s best about being human.

Let’s keep celebrating!

My dog Luna, upon listening to me practice my bassoon

October 25th, 2009

Swee-da Rhee-da Wee-da Wah-da

Swee-da RHee-da Wee-da Wad-DAMN

Really? Again? Shouldn’t a human her age know her whole tone scales by now? What has she been doing with her time? This is the fifth night in a row that she’s worked on that passage.

She should stick to the Baroque and Classical stuff anyway, she’s better at it.

Swee-da Rhee-da Wee-da Wah-da

Swee-da RHee-da Wee-da Wad-da

Her F-sharps are out of tune. I’ll go tell her. Plod plod plod. I’ll sit here nicely until she notices me.

“Hi Luna, what’s up?” Pet pet pet, head kiss.

NO you idiot, I didn’t want to get pet, your F-Sharps are out of tune! Don’t you know I have better ears than you do!?!


Oh no, not the metronome. It hurts my brain. She needs the tuner anyway.

Clack clack clack clack, sniff sniff.

“Luna NO, get away from my bassoon.”

But it smells so good. It’s older than the sticks in the yard, reminds me of beer and bratwurst somehow. I really want to lick it, maybe even chew on it. She puts it in her mouth, why can’t I?

Sweeeee-daaaa Rheeeee-daaaa Weeeee-daaaa Waaaah-daaaaa

You know, she is so busy blowing into the big noisy stick, she might not notice if I curled up on her pillow… hmmm. Oh man, it’s so much softer than my bed, and it smells like drool! I’ll add some of my own, so later she’ll know I’ve been here.

Budget European airlines- not so bad!

January 4th, 2009

Voyage in May-June 2008

British Airways- LGW (London Gatwick)-Pisa 43GBP

Vueling- Venice-Madrid 58E, 4.50E for bag

Spanair- Madrid-Palma Mallorca 34E

Air Europa Palma-Paris (via Madrid) 93E

Ryanair Paris-Shannon, Ireland

Aer Lingus Dublin-London 34E, 6E for 1 bag

Seeing how cheap it was to fly these routes, I have to say I had braced myself for the worst. I was expecting to lose my bag, be treated rudely, and stand in long lines and experience delays.

That being said, British Airways was the only one to lose my bag (and I am pretty sure they lost it in Atlanta, which has possibly the most arcane int’l baggage system imaginable). While others charged for a bag, it still seemed like a bargain on most flights. I had contemplated trying to do the whole trip with one carry-on, but over 5 weeks? It might have worked had I not bought any souvenirs or brought any guidebooks. Plus, the whole liquids thing just makes that awfully complicated.

To find these flights, I used which lets you know which carriers fly which routes. For many of these routes there were few options, which made shopping a lot simpler. On a few websites, the airlines seemed to have problems processing my US credit card, so I ended up using my debit card from my credit union. This often resulted in being cheaper than using a credit card, as a few airlines charged for that privledge as well. My credit union charged very low fees for these transactions, usually under $2.

Kurt Masur in airport security

Kurt Masur in airport security



Vueling (pron. “Well-ing”) from Venice– Checking in was very slow, but orderly. (Very cute Italian guy working the counter.) Security line was also slow, but I was amused by the fact that conductor Kurt Masur was also in line- I had seen him conduct 2 nights before. Once in the terminal, food options were few, although things were also under construction. However, I did find a great salad, complete with little packets of oil, vinegar and breadsticks. Another long queue to get on the plane, apparently in Italy and Spain they don’t subscribe to the whole, “Now boarding rows….” system. I got a lot of reading done in airport lines this trip! The Vueling plane was the most cramped of all my flights, and I’m only 5’4″ so if I’m cramped, I can’t imagine a tall person’s discomfort. But it was a short flight. Announcements and in-flight mag were in Spanish and English. Seats seemed really worn, although the plane itself (Airbus 320) looked quite new. They have an agreement with MTV, so some of their planes are giant advertisements for that, painted with crazy rock-n-roll designs. Flight was on-time, and bags arrived with me. I would fly with them again, but not for too long of a flight.

Venice airport salad

Venice airport salad



Spanair from Madrid– Madrid airport is quite nice, especially the new terminal 4 built for the Olympics bid. However, it is a long walk, and a local told me they lose bags a lot from that terminal because the conveyor belts are so long. More food options than Venice, although in terminal 2 I was having trouble finding a newsstand. The plane was brand new, full of people, not too roomy, but again- a very short flight.

Air Europa from Mallorca– I had a good experience with Air Europa. The woman working at the counter told me (this was all in Spanish, which I haven’t studied since high school, but seemed to understand fine) that France doesn’t like e-tickets, so she would have to call someone to get a real ticket issued. She smiled and explained clearly, and was very friendly. She had me step to the side and helped others while I waited (I had seen other clerks in other airports not bother to help others while waiting for a supervisor) and every few minutes she would update me. I only waited about 10 minutes, and was being treated well, so it didn’t seem so bad. Once I got on the plane, I spilled some soda, and a stewardess magically appeared with napkins. While the flight was pretty full, I had a row of 3 seats to myself in the back of the plane. There was some TV entertainment available if you had headphones. The second leg of my flight (Madrid-Paris) was an Air France codeshare, so I was actually served food without paying! Both airlines offered free newspapers as you boarded (no English, but I did glance through a Spanish one)

The Air Europa staff definitely gets my award for friendliest and most helpful staff. They definitely have a more American style of customer service.

Ryanair from Paris Beauvais– Beauvais airport is really cute and in the middle of nowhere- it reminded me of Long Beach airport in Los Angeles. Getting to it was way more complicated than anywhere else. I took the metro to the spot where Ryanair has buses to take you to the airport. It’s one of those metro stops at a giant roundabout, where it’s really hard to cross the street. I ended up following 2 Irish ladies who had been there before and knew where the bus was. Then getting on the bus was hard too- the drivers were very terse, and kept pointing and giving bad directions, and some angry American girl was making it even worse. (BUY YOUR TICKET AT THE OFFICE NEXT TO THE BUSES.) Once on the full bus, it was a comfortable hour drive to the airport though. At the counter, the staff was helpful and spoke good English. They have strict weight limits, and my checked bag was a bit over the limit. He suggested I relocate a few things to my carry on, which was nice of him. They had a clearly posted weight limit for carry-ons too, but he only asked to see it, and didn’t weigh my backpack. Ryanair doesn’t assign seats, so you can pay extra to get on first, but people seemed well behaved, I don’t think it was worth it, unless you were worried about children, or are really picky about your seats.

Aer Lingus from Dublin– Dublin airport was very busy at 11am on a Wednesday! But service was very friendly, and I had a row to myself! Like all the airlines, they made announcements in English, but a thick Dublin accent can make you wonder if you really know your own language! This was another short, easy flight, no bag problems.

Really the worst airline experience was transferring from British Airways to American in Atlanta. You have to retrieve your bags at baggage claim twice, go through security twice– definitely allow a LONG connection time, and volunteer to check-in again with the new airline when you get to Atlanta in either direction. And wear those slip on shoes people!