Thursday, January 28, 2010

Music for Cats

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My quartet has begun rehearsing in preparation for our April 11th chamber concert. It's the most ambitious program we've tackled to date: Bartok 3rd Quartet, Brahms 1st quartet and the Mozart viola quintet. When we rehearse as a quartet we take turns hosting the group in our homes. The first time we rehearsed the Bartok we were at Miro's house. The music is dense and difficult. Rehearsing was slow going. Bartok calls for many extended techniques in this quartet. There are passages played ponticello, or very near the bridge to intentionally create an eerie scratchy sound. There are also many places where we slide between notes. It was while we were rehearsing one such place that we began to hear a strange noise that wasn't coming from our instruments. It was loud and primal. It was one of Miro's cats singing along with the music. Yes, the 3rd Bartok string quartet is a piece that makes cats howl.

I know, this is not a great endorsement of our April concert. After the howling ceased, though, both cats came and sat on the couch right next to the quartet. Usually Miro's cats make a brief appearance to check out the group and then retreat to a quiet corner. They must have been howling in appreciation.

This morning the group will meet at Andy's house to rehearse. We'll see if his cat loves Bartok too.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010

To Clap or Not to Clap

Our Masterworks concert last Friday caused quite a stir amongst us musicians. The audience applauded between each and every movement during the concert. They even made the review in the News Sentinel. This sparked a somewhat heated backstage debate on audience etiquette. Musician's opinions on the subject fell on a wide spectrum from some really enjoying applause between movements to others who couldn't stand it and felt the symphony should post signs instructing audiences to wait. Who knew applause could be so controversial?!

The practice of holding applause until the end of a multi-movement work is relatively young. In fact, up until the late 1800's, it was common practice not only to applaud between movements but also to clap DURING the movement. Composers rejoiced with audience applause and were upset when it was withheld. The seeds of silence seem to have been planted in the late 1800's with the premier of Wagner's Parsifal when the singers agreed not to take a curtain call to avoid disrupting the flow of the opera. Mahler also played a role by policing claques, which essentially were people paid to enthusiastically applaud often to the point of disrupting the performance. (At that time, people were also paid to laugh, cry and boo. Guest artists were often exhorted to pay a fee to the concert house to avoid having the booing audience present at their performance.)

But perhaps the biggest champion of squelching audience applause between movements was Leopold Stokowski in the 1930's. Actually, Stokowski was opposed to applause at any time during the concert. He felt it was as absurd to applaud at a concert as it would be to stand in front of a great work of visual art and applaud. It was such a hot topic that eventually the Philadelphia audience was put to a vote. Applause overwhelmingly won out.

The practice of not applauding between movements was slow to spread and didn't really take hold until the 1950's. I haven't been able to find out why that happened at that time. Perhaps people were becoming accustomed to silence between movements through the recordings they were playing at home. I think another real possibility is that it was a way that classical music could distinguish itself as being more civilized than the emerging popular music of the day.

Personally, applause between movements doesn't really bother me. To me, "inapproprate" applause means that we have new audience members (yay!) who will hopefully come back. Besides, I don't really understand how you can be upset with someone who is paying you a compliment. Audiences applaud out of appreciation. I can't imagine anything much worse than getting to the end of a performance and standing up to stony silence. Likewise, if I were an audience member who was glared at for applauding I would not be likely to return for another performance.

In my view, rules such as this are a major contributor to the decline of classical music. Going to a concert shouldn't be a difficult experience fraught with random unspoken rules. The thing I hear most from people who have never attended a symphony concert is that they are intimidated. Symphonies around the country have tried to combat this by offering blue jeans concerts, rush hour concerts, concerts of lite classics, etc, etc, etc. This is a good start, but I don't think there will be a true mass cross-over of audience until the unspoken rules of concert-going are either clearly defined or abolished.

What do you think about applause between movements? Is it a random rule or does it serve a purpose?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dr. King's Dream

Today is Martin Luther King Day.

It is a day to reflect on how far our society has come and also how very far we still have to go. King was killed 42 years ago. It was one of a series of tragic events that rocked a generation and precipitated a societal revolution in the United States. The danger is that, with the passage of time it is all too easy to become complacent. I can tell you just by reading the paper that inequality still exists. Hatred still reigns. How close are we to realizing Dr. King's dream? As a society? As individuals? What can we do to make things better? These are questions that we must continue to ask ourselves daily, not just on the day we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This evening at 6:00 the Knoxville Symphony will be joined by The Holiday Celebration Choir, members of the Austin East High School Orchestra, a Boy Scout choir, and soloist Michael Rogers in a celebration of Dr. King. This concert will take place at the Civic Auditorium and is free to the public.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Good Beginning, Good Ending

One of the best things about being a musician is the endless variety in the work. In about a 10 day time span, the KSO has performed or will perform a pops concert, a children's concert, a pair of Masterworks concerts, and a concert honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Not to mention the string quartets that have been out and about in the community. Today I started my day with our Family concert performance for a hall full of school children and I will end it with (hopefully!) a hall full of people for our January Masterworks concert. Good beginning, good ending.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

For He's a Jolly Good Fellow!

At this weeks Masterworks performances, the KSO will be honoring concertmaster Mark Zelmanovich, who will be retiring at the end of this season.

This is a difficult post for me to write because I owe a lot to Mark. There is no way that I can repay him for all he has taught me in a single blog post. Nor do I want this to sound like a eulogy. Mark has spent the last 24 years serving as concertmaster of the KSO. The organization owes him a debt that is immeasurable.

Watching Mark for the past 10 years has taught me how to be a good principal. I was 22 years old and fresh out of college when I joined the KSO as principal violist. It was (is) my first major job. Before I came here I had played principal in a few smaller orchestras, but it was nothing like this. Sitting near him, I've also picked up a eensy bit of Russian and learned some great jokes. (None of which I shall repeat here.) Mark has traveled around the world making music. He has played with great artists and conductors as a soloist as well as an orchestral player. His wealth of knowledge of violin repertoire and technique is vast. I always have to laugh, because invariably when we stop playing during rehearsal he will find some way to turn whatever we've been playing into some violin concerto or piece. Mark is an amazing musician and I'm sad to see him retire.

Although the KSO is celebrating Mark this week, he is not retiring until the end of the season. In fact, in May he will be the featured soloist for Ben-Haim's Concerto Grosso on the final Chamber Classics concert of the season.

For now, though, I lift my bottle to you, Mark. (Forget the glass!) I wish you great happiness in retirement.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I'm Bored. What Can I Dooooooooo?

Today is a snow day
My five-year-old is driving me mad
MUST find something to do

It's that time of year again. It's cold and snowy. The snow has kids out of school, bored, and driving their parents to write bad haikus. In East Tennessee, this time of year does not last long, at least. Soon it will be nice enough to play outside again. Right now, though, everyone is suffering from cabin fever, a state that seems to be particularly acute in children.

Next week, the KSO will be offering salvation to the parents of bored, bouncing-off-the-wall children all over the Knoxville area. On Thursday we will perform the latest concert in our Family Series featuring Picardy Penguin. If you've come to one of our Family Concerts in the past, please know that although they all feature Picardy Penguin, every concert is different. Our last concert in November was all about music and dance. This concert features American music with many familiar tunes for children and their parents to sing along. As usual, Picardy's Playground will open before the concert so that kids can have some hands-on experiences with music.

The Family Concert
will take place at 9:30am on Thursday, January 14th at the Tennessee Theater.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Hi Ho, Hi Ho....

This week the KSO is back to work after a two-week vacation. I admit I put the viola down for a few days over the break. Today, eyeing the stack of music waiting on my stand, I see that we've got a lot coming up in the next 10 days or so.

This weekend we're playing our first Pops concert of the season. The Piano Man features music from the 1970's, specifically, the music of Elton John and Billy Joel. Now, I don't remember the 1970's. (Actually, I wasn't around for most of the decade.) I do know many of the tunes we'll be playing, though. Elton John and Billy Joel have so many hits it's impossible not to know their music. Both have penned songs that have stood the test of time and remained popular across generations. I love Pops concerts where I've heard all the charts. This is a good one to come see, even if you aren't particularly versed in pop music. If I know the songs, you will too. Trust me. I am the dunce of pop music.

My position on the stage is a prime spot for people watching. (If you've ever wondered if the orchestra watches the audience, there's your answer.) Pops concerts, in particular, are great for audience-watching. The atmosphere at a pops concert is much different than at a masterworks or chamber concert. Pops concerts encourage more audience participation than traditional concerts. Dancing in the aisles is not uncommon, and the audience is often invited to sing along. That just doesn't happen in the middle of a performance of a Beethoven symphony. Maybe it should....

This weeks pops concert
will take place on Sat, Jan 9 at 8:00. It will be nice and warm inside the Civic, I promise.