Sunday, November 29, 2009

My big date for charity

Last night was the big “date” at the New York Philharmonic that came out of last month's NYRO benefit gala. The winner of the date was Jorge, a member of NYRO's trumpet section. Our evening began with dinner at The City Grill on the Upper West Side. Jorge and I shared some sparkling conversation and at times he took my advertised role as “bon vivant,” with better stories than mine.

The Philharmonic's program consisted of Arthur Honegger's Symphony No. 2 for strings with solo trumpet ad libitum (performed by the Philharmonic's principal trumpet, Philip Smith) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” with Riccardo Muti at the podium. The Honegger symphony was well-played but not really my kind of classical music, though we both enjoyed Mr. Smith's solo near the end of the work. After intermission Muti led the Philharmonic in a spirited reading of the “Eroica.” The audience had barely stopped applauding his return to the stage when the orchestra struck the two opening E-flat chords that begin the symphony. I've seen Muti conduct the Philharmonic before, but I hadn't noticed how he would stop conducting entirely for several measures and let the orchestra play on before his right hand lifted the baton again. At least that's how it appeared to me sitting several hundred feet away in the second tier. For all I know, Muti's face told the orchestra everything they needed to know during those measures. Muti also appeared slightly annoyed by all the coughing and rustling from the audience between movements, twice lifting his baton to start the movement and then lowering it, before raising it a second time and beginning. As much as I love the string section, there were a few spots where they covered up the winds. I wanted to shout at them to get out of the way. The highlight for me was the excellent work of the Philharmonic's French horn section. The horn calls in the third and fourth movements, especially the coda, were lively and rousing. During the curtain calls, Muti recognized the orchestra's solo performers as usual, but when he came back out and asked the orchestra to stand, they refused and applauded him for at least thirty seconds before finally standing. The Philharmonic's ovation reminded me of this concert review in the Washington Post by Anne Midgette, which pointed out that Muti was a candidate for the orchestra's music directorship several years ago (a job that went to Alan Gilbert). It's clear that the orchestra likes working with Muti, and as Midgette pointed out, this concert was an example of what might have been had Muti taken the Philharmonic's position.

After the concert Jorge and I went to the green room, hoping to meet Philip Smith. Mr. Smith is something of an old family friend, as his father and my grandfather were colleagues many years ago and Mr. Smith worked with my grandfather at a band camp a long time ago. After a few minutes' wait, Mr. Smith came out to say hello. I was excited to meet someone from the orchestra whose work I've enjoyed for so many years. But Jorge was thrilled. It was like he met one of his idols. I took a photo of Jorge and Mr. Smith, and Jorge said several times that his wife (also a trumpeter) would be jealous. We also got to meet the Philharmonic's associate principal trumpet, Matthew Muckey. Jorge and I ended the evening with a couple of beers at a local watering hole before going our separate ways. It was as good a date as I've ever put together.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What I'm thankful for today

My family and my friends, who support me through good times and bad, and through good decisions and heartbreaking works of staggering boneheadedness.

My cats, who don't care when I come home as long as I do, and that I feed them as soon as I walk through the door.

My job, because I'd rather have a job I'm not 100% happy about than no job at all.

My iPhone: it's the first thing I check in the morning and the last thing I check at night.

New York: after ten years, it's still the toughest town I've ever known but I can't imagine living anywhere else.

Music, especially NYRO and the NY Philharmonic. The former provides me with a place to play with a great group of talented friends, and the latter gives me some of the best performances I've ever heard and motivates me to work harder for NYRO.

The food I'm about to make (and receive). It's not Thanksgiving without turkey, potatoes, and pie. (I'm making potatoes.)

A four-day weekend.


The virtual mayhem that is Modern Warfare 2. I may not leave my apartment all weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Two posts in one: Bob Dylan and The Road

I don't get to many concerts beyond the New York Philharmonic. I don't keep up with the musicians and bands I like, so often I find out one of my favorite groups has already passed through New York and I missed them. A few weeks ago my friend Creighton asked a group of us if we were interested in seeing Bob Dylan. I'd seen Dylan twice in the 1990s but not since then. Everyone else wanted to go and I thought it would be fun to see him again with my friends. On Tuesday night we went to the United Palace Theatre at Broadway and 175th Street for Dylan and his band, with Dion (of “The Wanderer” fame) as the opening act. We all skipped Dion's set, except for the last song. Creighton and I chatted in the theater lobby while James and Jessica had dinner nearby. We found our seats just as Dion wrapped up with “The Wanderer.” About half an hour later Dylan and his band came out. He played a few old songs like “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,” and “Highway 61 Revisited” but with new arrangements. He drew heavily from his albums from this decade, which I don't know at all, but I enjoyed the new songs nonetheless. His voice is gravelly but his stage presence and musicianship on the keyboard, guitar, and harmonica are still formidable. His rendition of “Ballad of a Thin Man” was riveting. Guitarist Charlie Sexton was another highlight of the show, moving effortlessly between rock, blues, and folk arrangements and wailing on all of them. Dylan didn't say a word to the audience until the encore when he introduced the band. He closed his set with “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Jolene,” and “All Along The Watchtower,” which was as energetic as any of the more recent rock versions I know. (The full setlist is here.)

On Wednesday evening my friend Sam invited me to a preview screening of The Road, the new movie based on the book by Cormac McCarthy. Sam is a friend from Deadspin and a location scout for movie productions and he writes A Scouting Life, one of the most fascinating blogs I've ever read. (Start from the beginning if you haven't read it before; the entry on the Native American bar is spellbinding.) The film itself is every bit as powerful and moving as the book on which it's based. The filmmakers captured the novel's bleak environment without CGI or special effects. And the actors' performances were pitch-perfect. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee seemed like they'd leapt from the pages of the book. Their relationship was so intimate and heartfelt that the room got a little dusty at the end of the film.

After the movie, Mortensen and director John Hillcoat participated in a Q&A session moderated by a writer from Variety. They talked about the entire process, from reading the script and meeting McCarthy to scouting locations to shooting. Mortensen spoke of his relationship with his son and how his experience of being a father helped with his performance. Both he and Hillcoat joked about how the cinematographer would shout and rage when the sun came out, spoiling a cloudy scene. Near the end of the session, Mortensen had a trivia challenge for us, asking us progressively more difficult questions about the movie. The prizes included copies of McCarthy's books, CDs and DVDs, and cookies from a local bakery. One happy cookie winner asked Mortensen to take a bite of the cookie before giving it away, so he and Hillcoat obliged. I should have answered a question about a piece of music in the movie, especially since I'd seen the title in the credits, but I wasn't 100% certain of the answer. And everyone knows I hate to be wrong in a trivia contest. Besides, I didn't want a Noam Chomsky DVD as a prize.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This time, I took notes for this review

I took myself out on another date this past Saturday evening to the New York Philharmonic. What can I say? I know what I like. I had a gift certificate that I had to use before the end of the year. And as I found myself with another under-programmed weekend, I decided at the last possible moment to try and use the gift certificate for Saturday's concert of works by Haydn, Martinu, and Sibelius. I arrived at the box office about a half-hour before they closed for the afternoon and got a box seat in the second tier. I don't love sitting in the boxes, since you can't see part of the stage. But last-minute ticket buyers can't be picky and I was just happy to have a seat in the hall and a plan for the evening. I killed the next three hours by checking out the new Apple store on 67th and Broadway (the upper floor is impressive, but there's too much wasted space and the lower floor is cramped), Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy, then had a delicious sushi dinner and caught a little college football before heading back to Avery Fisher Hall.

I got to my seat a few minutes before the concert started. I was close to the stage and had an excellent view of the guest conductor, Xian Zhang, who I'd seen a few years earlier in her role as associate conductor of the Philharmonic. The first work on the program was Haydn's Symphony No. 95, which I didn't know all that well. The Philharmonic's rendition was good but perhaps a bit too energetic. I may be woefully uninformed but this doesn't seem to be an orchestra designed to play Haydn and Mozart. Either that, or Zhang's conducting was a little too enthusiastic and vigorous for a lighter composer like Haydn. Her gestures were precise but overly expressive and the orchestra reacted by playing louder and with more power than the work required. There were a few sections where the strings overpowered the winds and brass when a more delicate touch would have balanced the volume. Zhang reminded me of Gustavo Dudamel. She didn't share his exultation in every phrase of the music, but she did demonstrate expressive gestures similar to Dudamel's. During the Haydn symphony, I thought about writing down my impressions for this review so I wouldn't have to strain to remember the details later. I found that the back of the “upcoming concerts” insert in the program makes for a suitable notepad for the amateur concert reviewer. However, next time I think I'll bring a real notebook.

Zhang's style was much better suited to Martinu's Piano Concerto No. 4, subtitled Incantation. I'm not that familiar with Martinu's overall catalog but I've enjoyed everything of his that I've heard so far. His music is a mix of Czech themes with atonality and tonality blended in an unusual but pleasing way. I don't remember many details of the piano concerto, though there were times where the brass overwhelmed the strings. Maybe it was where I was sitting, or the normal issues conductors have with Avery Fisher's acoustics. Watching soloist Garrick Ohlsson and Zhang at the podium, I thought that Ohlsson appeared reserved compared to Zhang's overt expression. At the end of the work I noticed that Ohlsson looked extremely tall. Maybe he is, or maybe Zhang is just that short. But he's a really big man. You know what they say about big pianists: they have big hands.

After the intermission came the work I was most interested in hearing: Sibelius's Symphony No. 1. I've become more familiar with Sibelius' symphonies over the past few years and his 1st has become one of my favorites. From the first measures, after Mark Nuccio's excellent clarinet solo, I had the idea that Sibelius is the type of composer whose works the Philharmonic has been built to perform. It was clear that this symphony was the piece on the program with which they were most familiar. (They last played in in 2008, while they hadn't played the other works in many years.) Zhang also seemed most at home with this piece. Here, her expressiveness and energy found a welcome home. It's possible that I was overcome by my own familiarity with the work, but I had chills throughout the final movement. It was just like when I heard the Philharmonic perform Sibelius's 2nd Symphony last June. I knew what was coming, and I reacted as I expected: I was nearly on the edge of my seat waiting to hear how the orchestra played the work. Sibelius's music has such expansive themes combined with brass explosions and delicate wind chorales that I found it difficult to listen with a detached, critical ear. I don't know how professional reviewers do it. I thoroughly enjoyed the Sibelius and I'd consider paying to hear it again. It was that good.

I'm glad I decided to take myself out tonight. Aside from having the Saturday night free for the concert, it was a performance that I would have regretted missing had I passed on it for another concert later in the season. My only regret for the afternoon and evening was that I couldn't find a seat at a Starbucks. I had brought my laptop with the hope of getting some work done on some personal projects, but I couldn't find any open seats at any Starbucks in the Lincoln Square area. So I carried a heavy backpack all over the neighborhood for nothing. I may count that as exercise for the weekend.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Back at the (imaginary) podium

NYRO held its annual benefit gala a few weeks ago. This was the 2nd year for the event and I've been involved in the planning both times. In addition, this year I was also a featured attraction. I was going to donate a pair of New York Philharmonic tickets to the raffle when one of my friends suggested that I include myself in the deal. The idea turned into "win a date with Phil" and I became an auction item. After some heated bidding, one of the trumpeters won. His wife, also a trumpeter, was cool with the idea of her husband and I spending an evening on the town.

We also held a silent auction for other items, both goods and services. Near the end of the night as the silent auction wrapped up, I noticed that no one had bid on our music director's donation of a conducting lesson. Maybe it was the alcohol or the cash burning a hole in my pocket, but I couldn't let that item go without someone bidding on it. I was prepared to fight for it, but no one else made a bid so I won.

I have some experience as a conductor. My parents showed me the basic beat patterns when I was a kid. I spent many hours in my room in front of my stereo conducting an imaginary orchestra from the score and a recording. In college I led the orchestra in a humorous rendition of Rossini's Overture to "The Barber of Seville" with a plastic chicken as a baton, and later became something of a de facto assistant conductor. In my last concert before graduation, I conducted the orchestra in Sibelius' "Finlandia." And I was a music director for two rock musicals where a conductor wasn't really necessary. But that has been the extent of my conducting career. I haven't thought much about conducting since college. The realities of life crept into the space that dream used to occupy. I'm excited about this lesson because it will let me live in that dream's space for just a short time. And it's going to be a challenge: I've been asked to prepare a couple of pieces. This thing is for real. If I actually get to conduct the orchestra, I'm going to be more nervous than I've been in years.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The trouble with Twitter

If you read through the archives of this august publication, you will find an assortment of posts both short and long on a wide variety of topics. Most of them are of the navel-gazing sort, reflecting on events in my life or offering my observations on current events. I've written about politics, sports, the Philharmonic, the subway, and the Upper East Side, just to name a few. Sometimes they are quick thoughts or jokes I couldn't develop into longer pieces.

Over the past year I've allowed myself to be sucked into using Twitter (and by extension, Facebook) for many of my short, one-off jokes or thoughts. So the "more frequent Twitter ruminations" gadget updates all the time, while the "occasional musings" main heading lies fallow. While I have heard no complaints, I don't want this blog to dry up and blow away, superseded by more immediate social networking systems. I would like to continue to offer my readers a longer form of discourse that requires more time than a refresh of the news feed. Also, I want to post more than 100 entries for this year. So there will be more posts here in the closing months of 2009, just as soon as I think of them.

This post was in part an excuse for the headline.