Monday, March 30, 2009

Chamber Week

With three concerts in the next seven days, my quartet has a busy week ahead. On Thursday we will join Austin East High School's orchestra for their “Taste of Music” concert / fund-raiser. The symphony has an ongoing partnership with AEHS. Since the beginning of the season, five KSO musicians have attended rehearsals with the students. The goal is to mentor the string students on a continuing basis. We help them master technical aspects of the pieces that are being rehearsed as well as give them an idea about what it is like to be a professional musician. My quartet started it's rotation through the side by side program in January. I have enjoyed getting to know the students as well as their teacher, Mr. East. He does an incredible job with them.

Earlier in the day on Thursday the Principal Quartet will be performing live on WDVX's Blue Plate Special. I'm both nervous and excited about this performance. The quartet finalized our repertoire choices this morning: an excerpt from the Barber string quartet we're performing on Sunday, a Dixie tune, Ashokan Farewell, and a tango. The really neat thing about this performance is that you don't need to be in the WDVX listening area to tune in. They stream their broadcast live on their website. If you can't make it to the studio for the performance, tune in on the radio or web at 12 pm ET on Thursday.

Finally, on Sunday the Principal Quartet will be performing the entire Barber String Quartet (which includes the famous Adagio for Strings) on the KSO chamber concert. The concert features American chamber music with a variety of instrumentations. In addition to the Barber quartet there will be a piano trio, a series of songs featuring soprano Jennifer Barnett, a woodwind quintet, and a piece for flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, and string quartet which was written by Timothy Cooper, winner of the Knoxville Symphony's composition competition. Don't let the parking situation deter you from attending this performance: the KSO is providing a free shuttle service from the State Street Garage to the Bijou before and after the concert.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Soloist's Worst Nightmare

Sometimes the most exciting concerts are the ones where something goes wrong. A few seasons back we had a soloist whose e-string snapped while she was playing. As is custom, she grabbed the concertmaster's violin and continued playing while her instrument was passed back to the section to be re-strung. The performance (both hers and that of the section violinists who fixed her violin) brought down the house. Last season our former principal second violinist Eric Kline broke his e-string while soloing with the KSO on our annual runout to Greeneville. The audience was still talking about when we returned a few weeks ago. Recently violist Yuri Bashmet experienced one of those heart-stopping moments. It's okay to laugh: it looks like his million-dollar viola exploded, but it's really a pretty easy fix.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


1 in 8 people in our country do not have enough food to eat. In East Tennessee the numbers are worse: 1 in 6 people will go hungry tonight. In Knox county alone there are over 16,000 children who are at risk for hunger. Many people struggling with hunger are members of the “working poor.” They fall in the crack of being too wealthy to qualify for many social services but too poor to make ends meet.

No one should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. You can help. Tonight and tomorrow the Knoxville Symphony is one of 240 orchestras across the country that are participating in a nation wide food drive. Helping is easy. When you come to our concert, bring a can of non-perishable food with you. Heck, bring as many cans as you can carry! We DO live in the Volunteer state, after all. Wouldn't it be great if we all filled the lobby of the Tennessee Theater with donations? What might seem like a small gesture to you will make an enormous difference to someone in need.

The concert, by the way, will be awesome. Elena Urioste is an amazing and dynamic violinist. Her playing is powerful and she's fun to watch. The rest of the program is equally impressive. There is no piece that demonstrates the sheer force of the orchestra like a live performance of Bolero. I can't describe it, it's something you just have to experience. A recording does not do the piece justice. Come, and bring a canned good. You won't be sorry.

Monday, March 16, 2009


I studied Spanish in high school and French in college, but my current fluency in either language is very limited save a few choice phrases. I'll be sunk if I ever have to really communicate in a French or Spanish speaking country unless the conversation revolves around roller skating, ice cream, or the days of the week. Still, my study of these languages along with my (forced) extensive study of Greek and Latin word roots in junior high has been beneficial. Italian markings are the most common in music, but sometimes composers use French or German. I am usually able to decipher the composer's wishes without much trouble when the terms are written in Italian or French through my slight knowledge of Romance languages. It's also helpful that the same terms show up over and over again.

German is another story. German is my nemesis. Every summer for too many years I have set out to conquer German musical terms and every time I have failed miserably. I've tried many things to learn these terms: flashcards, listening to a recording with the term followed by the meaning, and incorporating them into my everyday language. I tried the latter tactic the summer after my daughter was born saying things like, “Alice is a little bewegt (agitated). I think a bath might make her more ruhig (peaceful).” There are a few problems with this tactic. One is that while I can now narrow down a terms meaning to two definitions I have a really hard time remembering which is the correct one. It's not a good idea to play bewegt when the music calls for ruhig and vice versa.

The other problem is that composers who use German terms tend to be florid in their use of the language. A knowledge of a body of terms is certainly helpful but it is useless when you are confronted with a long description of how things should be played. A good example of this occurs in Hindemith's Sonata for Solo Viola, op. 25 no. 1. The tempo marking for the fourth movement is quarter note equals 600-640 (really, really FAST) and the instruction roughly translates to, “Crazy tempo. Wild. Tone quality is irrelevant.” Another marking translates to “Very fresh and taut.” These are not the usual fast-slow, loud-soft words that I would expect to find in a score. They are also phrases that defy listing in a music dictionary. I'm very lucky that my father-in-law is a German professor because when I stumble on a long thorny phrase my answer is a phone call away.

This week the symphony is rehearsing Till Eulenspiegels Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss. Strauss is one of those composers who uses German terms in addition to the usual Italian. No brow-furrowing phrases, but I will be spending plenty of time with my music dictionary this week.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pop Challenged

There is a note floating around the internet right now titled “The Top 25 Songs that Changed My Life.” I've enjoyed reading about music other people like, but I could never write my own list. I'm a little bit embarrassed to admit it, but I'm pretty sure I couldn't name 25 songs outside the classical music genre, let alone name songs that changed my life. I try to like popular music. Last week I was at the library, determined (after reading someone's “top 25” list) to find SOMETHING outside of classical music. I came away with nothing, overwhelmed by all the choices. I don't even know where to start. (suggestions?) I understand and sympathize with people who find classical music inaccessible and intimidating because I feel the same way about popular music.

I did listen to some popular music as a youth, but my choices were influenced by what my friends liked, or what my love interest of the moment was playing on his walkman. My family also played a role in my popular music diet. My sister was attending high school in the 1980's when MTV first made it's debut. We watched together. Those were the days when MTV actually played music videos. We watched Dire Straits get their money for nothing, Peter Gabriel's dancing poultry, and Michael Jackson's uncut Thriller video. My dad also did his part to expose me to the world of pop. We listened to the oldies station on car trips and I remember being amazed at his ability to identify all the songs from the 50's and 60's within the first few chords. For whatever reason, music from that era really clicked with me. When I do seek out popular music on my own, that is usually what I choose to listen to. Unlike my father, I can't tell you the names of the songs, artists, or the year they came out, but when I hear one of the oldie goldies, I can usually sing along.

This weekend the symphony is playing with The Lettermen. I enjoy playing these kinds of pops shows because I do know many of the songs. (I'll be in trouble when Brittany Spears starts giving symphony shows!) My aunt and uncle are passing through town and plan to attend the concert on Saturday. When I asked my aunt if she thought they would want to attend after a day of being on the road she said something about The Lettermen being from her era. “Mine, too,” I thought.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Dusty Times

Every day I scan a few arts websites for the latest news in the classical music world. In the past the news has been a sort of “who's who” of the music scene, detailing concerts, tours, etc. Lately, though, the news has taken an unfortunate turn with new stories daily about orchestras and opera companies having to cut their season short, or close their doors completely due to financial hardship. Connecticut Opera has cut the remainder of it's season and cannot refund the tickets it has already sold. Florida Grand Opera's music director will step down at the end of this season and will not be replaced in an effort to save money. New York City Opera currently has a 15 million dollar deficit.

It's all horrible news, but so are all the other job losses that are happening in other industries. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about my job and about music in general. Specifically, why music is important and why arts organizations are vital to the community. Concerts are meant to be entertaining, but I would venture to say that there is more to music than just a nice way to spend an evening.

The ability to recognize, appreciate, and create beauty is one of the things that makes us human. In our culture we mark important life-changing occasions, such as weddings and funerals with music. We sing “Happy Birthday” to our friends and lullabies to babies. Music provokes a powerful emotional response. The first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring incited a riot. As I mentioned in a previous post, Brahms Second Symphony is meaningful to me and always makes me happy, not necessarily because of the music itself (although I do like it) but because of my memories surrounding the first time I played it. Similarly, Barber's Adagio for Strings reminds me of a difficult time in my life and makes me incredibly sad. Many people have a particular song that will transport them back to college, or a piece that reminds them of their first love.

So, specifically, what does all this have to do with symphony orchestras and opera companies? Well, I'm going out on a limb to suggest that music is actually more important in difficult times than in profitable times. German poet and author Berthold Auerbach said that, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” These are dusty times.

I am not qualified to comment on the financial status of the Knoxville Symphony or the Knoxville Opera, so I won't. I will venture to say, though, that Newton's first law of motion applies: keeping any arts organization afloat is difficult in this economy, but it is far easier than having to start over once the doors have been closed and the lights darkened.

Monday, March 2, 2009