Sunday, May 30, 2010

Meet the new bass... same as the old bass (well, not quite)

After all the excitement of the bass guitar unboxing, when I actually tried to play the thing I had a problem.  The bass didn't work with the amp I bought.  It didn't take me long to figure out that the bass had active pickups and a 9-volt battery in the back.  I changed the battery (using the one from my smoke detector at first, then with a new one) and tried again, but I still didn't get any sound from the bass.  I took it to the guitar store and tried it on their amps.  I still didn't hear anything.  So I showed it to their guitar technician.  He poked and prodded it with a voltmeter and some other tools for 10 minutes, then said he couldn't tell what was wrong without taking it apart and charging me some real money.  He said that the electronics weren't working and he could replace some of the parts.  But the cost for the repairs would be close to, if not more than, the cost of a new bass guitar, and with no guarantees that the bass would work.  In essence, my bass was DOA.

So I went shopping at the guitar store again.  I spent a few hours in the bass guitar room trying out different 4-string basses.  I even tried the upright electric bass just for kicks.  I settled on a Squier Affinity P-Bass with passive pickups.  Between the amp and the bass and the other assorted equipment I needed, I've spent about $700 on this hobby already and I barely know what I'm doing.  But I found some websites with bass tablature and now I spend my evenings listening to songs on my laptop and playing along as best I can.  I can play 12-bar blues fairly well already.   I played through most of the soundtrack to "The Blues Brothers" on Tuesday night.  On Saturday I tried selections by Green Day, Led Zeppelin, and Rush.  I can play Green Day but John Paul Jones' bass lines are beyond my skills right now, and possibly forever.  The good news is that I have a bass that works and I'm a quick study.  Once I get used to the feel of the instrument and where the notes are, I'm certain I'll be able to play well enough to jam with my friends.  Or hide in the back and not mess them up.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

It's the end of the world: Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" at the New York Philharmonic

Gyorgy Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre" is simply the most amazing, bizarre, confusing, debaucherous, and exotic work I've ever heard presented by the New York Philharmonic.  It was a fully-staged operatic production in Avery Fisher Hall, a place where opera usually appears in concert form, if at all.  There are spoilers below, in case you're reading this before Saturday evening's performance.

The costumes were incredible.  The character of Venus, for example, is seven feet tall, so the singer portraying her stood on some sort of stilts.  The videos and other visual and aural effects (house lights, stage lights, brass and choir in the balconies, drums in the back) were exciting flourishes on top of everything else in the production.  But I'm a sucker for things like that.  My favorite part was Nekrotzar's entrance in the second act, as he and members of the chorus and orchestra formed a procession down the aisle of the orchestra level of the hall.  The procession began with almost inaudible music from the back of the hall and built as Nekrotzar approached the stage, surrounded by flag-waving singers and musicians.  By the time he reached the stage, the tension was palpable.

The orchestra shared the stage with the singers and sometimes covered them.  Overall, the female singers were more difficult to hear and understand than the males.  That is my one and only technical complaint.  However, a note in the program indicated that it wasn't Ligeti's intention that the audience understand every word, that the important words would come out when needed.  The Philharmonic included a copy of the opera's libretto in each program, for further reading after the performance.  As for the actors' performances, the Black and White Ministers stole the scenes they were in. They bickered and pranced like so many modern politicians.  Their competition for the ear of their leader, Prince Gogo, was hysterical.  And Prince Gogo himself was fantastic.  He's a tiny, thin baritone in a bulbous costume singing falsetto.  What's not to like?  Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo created a completely comedic yet totally believable character of an ineffective, hereditary leader.  And the audience loved Nekrotzar, the figure of Death.  And in a production like this, why not?  Death is the reason for the show.

The music was really peculiar.  Except for a snippet of the "Dies Irae" at the beginning none of it was recognizable. But it was jarring and jangly and yet tuneful and almost beautiful at times. It was also unmistakeably Ligeti.  I heard sounds that I recognized immediately as coming from the composer of elements of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The musicians of the Philharmonic had never seen this music before but they played it with passion and energy. The percussion were especially notable. They had to play car horns, doorbells, wind machines, and all manner of conventional drums, and they accomplished it all.

And the puppeteers! These performers didn't stop moving for the entire show. They had two puppet theaters on camera and moved effortlessly between them. They showed entire three-dimensional landscapes, an unblinking eye, paper puppets, hilarious text, and even the actors when the scenes called for it. There was a memorable scene where Prince Gogo appears on camera to give a political speech and the chorus sang "Our great leader" over and over, until Gogo ate one of his citizens, one of several paper puppet cutouts that scrolled past him as he talks. The chorus turned against him at that point.  I can't imagine why.

And where would this production be without Alan Gilbert? He held the entire show together from start to finish. The orchestra was right with him, low lighting, crazy noises, distracting actors, and all.  He had to direct musicians onstage and off, in the second tier and in the back of Avery Fisher Hall.  He did it all as if he was born with this piece in his hand. Gilbert never ceases to amaze me with his musical abilities. The audience reserved its loudest and longest ovations for him. If I thought Gilbert could program whatever he wanted before this evening, well, he can really do it now.  He and the Philharmonic pulled off this incredible production and received an audience ovation that I've rarely heard before.  I'm actually going to be a little disappointed to go back in a few weeks for Sibelius and Brahms.  How can this orchestra go back to playing something as simple as a concerto or a symphony after showing this kind of range?


Sunday, May 23, 2010

The New York Philharmonic promotes Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre"

Next weekend, the New York Philharmonic will perform a staged version of Gyorgy Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre."  The orchestra started with the hype about the performances when they announced the 2009-10 season last year.  And their efforts have only intensified in the past few weeks.  Two weeks ago I received an e-mail from the Philharmonic with the subject "It's the end of the world as we know it" and without even opening it I knew it had to do with "Le Grand Macabre."  Last week the Philharmonic's Twitter account icon changed to a black and white eye and they created Twitter accounts for several characters in the opera.  The weekly podcast on the opera piqued my interest in the event even further.  But with all of this promotion, I still hadn't decided whether to attend one of the concerts.  The production wasn't part of my original subscription and I didn't want to switch one of my remaining concerts for it.  I decided to wait and see how desperate the Philharmonic was to sell tickets.

I got my answer last Thursday in the form of an e-mail with offers of discounted tickets for Friday and Saturday.  And in this article in Sunday's New York Times I learned why that e-mail went out.  Subscriber interest in the opera has been disappointing.  But single-ticket sales have been up, with signs that at least the first performance would be a sellout.  In addition to the usual podcast and e-mail promotion and the Twitter account silliness, the Philharmonic posted several videos of music director Alan Gilbert interacting with Nekrotzar, one of the characters in the opera.  My personal favorite is, of course, the video of the two playing Guitar Hero.  The Times noted that "it was hard to say whether [the videos] had translated into any ticket sales." 

In another article in Sunday's Times, the paper explored how the Philharmonic plans to stage "Le Grand Macabre" in conjunction with Giants Are Small, a Brooklyn-based production company:
Giants Are Small is a partnership between Mr. Fitch, who is also a visual artist, and the filmmaker and producer Edouard Getaz. Their approach (pretested in “Peter and the Wolf,” “L’Histoire du Soldat” and “Petrouchka” for institutions including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa) combines low-tech puppetry with high-tech video. In “Le Grand Macabre” elaborate costumes for the soloists, whipped up by the four-time Tony winner and Met alumna Catherine Zuber, will add to the pageantry.
 I attended the Philharmonic's performance of Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" in 2005 and the production design worked well.  There was a small puppet theater at the front of the stage with the puppeteers visible behind the theater.  A camera in front of the theater captured the action and projected it on a screen above and behind the orchestra and the narrators.  You could watch the puppeteers in action and see the results of their manipulations above them.  And you could also see the conductor and the musicians on stage, hidden in shadow but illuminated by music stand lights, something I'm not used to seeing on stage at Avery Fisher Hall.

All of these marketing efforts worked on me.  I bought tickets for Friday evening's performance.  I'm getting more excited about the opera as I read more about the production.  I have no illusions about the music I'm going to hear: it will be atonal and harsh.  Ligeti isn't the most lyrical of composers.  But "Le Grand Macabre" is the kind of performance that I think I would regret missing if I passed on it.  It's going to be a hell of a spectacle.  When something this unusual comes to town, you have to check it out. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My other summer project

I'm going to learn how to play bass guitar.

It only took a few nights at open mic nights with James to see how much fun everyone has at those sorts of gatherings.  I think I want to be a part of that, but I'm not going to join in on guitar.  And as intriguing as it might be, I'm not going to do it on viola either.  I've always been a fan of bassists, especially John Paul Jones and John Entwistle, and I thought that bass guitar would be an easy way to get involved.  You stand at the back next to the drummer, play "thumpa-thumpa-thumpa" and enjoy being a part of a band. 

The first problem was where to get a bass.  I thought about buying one, new or used.  But that's a big expense for a hobby I'm not certain I'm going to like.  I don't know anyone who has a bass they could loan to me.  My brother had a bass that he bought when he was in high school, but he'd lent it to my cousin in Boston many years ago.  After some consideration and consultation, I contacted my cousin about getting the bass from her.  She never responded, so I checked with her sister.  She said it was fine to take it.  My uncle said it was OK with him as well.

I looked into going to Boston to get the bass guitar but we couldn't work out our schedules.  That's when my uncle offered to ship the bass to me.  He said they had a large box and that it would be easier than having me shlep the bass on the train or in a car.  On Thursday he e-mailed me to say that the bass guitar was on its way and to look for a large box at my office.

On Friday the mail room called to say a large box had arrived for me.  A few hours later they dropped it off at my desk.  I knew it would be big, but I wasn't expecting something that looked like it could have a body in it.

It's hard to tell from the photo, but the box is about five feet long.  The box was full of foam packing peanuts and I knew I'd have a massive mess on my hands if I just dragged the case out of the box.  My co-workers came over to see what all the excitement was and we found a way to get the bass out without spilling too many peanuts.  Two of them held a trash bag over the open box while I tipped it upside down.  Everything spilled out into the bag, leaving me with a bass guitar case wrapped in packing foam.

A few snips with a box cutter and I had the case out. 

Finally, I checked the bass guitar itself.  It was in about the same condition as when I'd last seen it, when I came home from college in December 1993 or 1994.  It wasn't even that out of tune.  Another colleague played a few notes and pronounced it in fine shape.

I shlepped the instrument home on the subway and decided right away that the hard case has to go.  I'll keep it for storage and long-distance travel, but if I'm going to carry this thing around the city, I need a lightweight bag with a shoulder strap.  I also need an amp of some kind so I can hear what I'm playing.  I've gotten some tips on where to get one and what to shop for.  And finally, I need to learn how to play it.  I know what the strings are so I have a basic idea of the notes it can play.  But I have no idea where to begin.  I'm tempted to just try playing along with some of my favorite records, starting with easy three-chord rock and blues.  I don't need to be John Entwistle just yet.  Besides, that would involve a cocaine habit that would ultimately kill me.  Maybe I should find a different role model.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Who should I root for?

With the Penguins' loss in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, I'm wondering who I should root for in the Eastern Conference. I debated this issue with my college friends a long time ago. I was upset that the Islanders had upset the Penguins in the second round of the 1993 playoffs and I wanted to see them crushed in the next round. But my friends argued that I should want to see the team that beat my team win the title. That way, they said, I could take comfort in the fact that my team lost to the eventual champion.

So which is better? To see the team that ended your season defeated in the next round, so that their fans may know your pain? Or would you rather see that team hoist the trophy and celebrate, knowing that you lost to a champion?

There's always a third option: don't watch the rest of the playoffs and try to forget the whole thing happened. So far that's the course I've chosen. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

It took 15 years, but I'm finally a regular

Since NYRO moved to our new home at the Church of St. Mary The Virgin on 46th Street, we've enjoyed weekly post-rehearsal libations at St. Andrews, the Scottish bar across the street from the church.  We usually drink at the upstairs bar because it's quieter and there's more room for a dozen or so people with musical instrument cases.  I've developed a taste for Scotch, particularly Laphroaig.  Each week I usually have a glass or two of Laphroaig with a glass of water on the side.

Also, because I'm an Internet geek, I've been on Foursquare since February and the "mayor" of St. Andrew's since early March.  One evening, we shared this information with our bartender, Donald, and he was not impressed by my status.  And my friends in the orchestra have enjoyed ribbing me about this dubious distinction.  To add insult to injury, I've always wanted to walk into a bar and say "I'll have the usual" and have a drink ready for me.  So a few weeks ago I got to the bar and asked Donald "if I ordered 'the usual,' would you know what that was?"  He said no, and my friends laughed.  And I felt shame. 

But everything changed last night.  When I walked up to the bar Donald was waiting for me with a Laphroaig and water.  I don't think that's ever happened to me before, not even back in the day when James was tending bar at Chadwick's in Georgetown and my friends and I drank there nearly every weekend.  I can't recall him pouring me a Sierra Nevada as I walked in the door.  At last, in the waning days of the NYRO season, I've been recognized.

So here's to you, Donald.  Thank you for making me feel like a big shot for one night.  It's too bad next week is our last rehearsal of the season and our Thursday night drinking sessions will take the summer off.  I will have to go back there a few times over the summer and try to maintain my office and its privileges.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Watching hockey games with a group

Last year, every game I saw of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup playoff run I watched at home by myself.  It was great having total control of the food, drink, and TV, but when we scored and won games I had no one with whom to celebrate.

This season I've been watching some of the playoff games at Foley's in Herald Square.  It's the home base for the NY Pittsburgh Penguins meetup group.  I've met some great people, talked hockey, reminisced about Pittsburgh, and watched the Penguins.  I tried watching some Steeler games at a bar near my apartment last fall and while that was fun, somehow it felt like more of an effort.  Maybe it was all the beer drinking on a Sunday afternoon, something I'm not used to doing.  And the group at that bar didn't feel all that welcoming of newcomers.  But the Penguins fans at Foley's have been friendly and engaging.  Tonight is game 7 of the conference semifinals against Montreal, and I wouldn't miss watching it at the bar.  There will be some live-tweeting.  I'd live-blog the entire game, but it's hard enough to avoid spilling beer on my phone.  I'm sure my laptop wouldn't survive the night.

Let's Go Pens!

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

NYRO's season finale: Kodaly, Strauss, and Debussy

The New York Repertory Orchestra's final concert of the year, on Saturday, May 22, 2010, features music that is exuberant, moving, dramatic, soulful, and absolutely gorgeous! Music by Zoltán Kodály, Richard Strauss, and Claude Debussy is on the program for a great finish to our best and biggest season ever!

Also, internationally acclaimed soprano Jennifer Grimaldi joins us, making her NYRO debut!

The program begins in fine style, with the virtuoso musicians of NYRO showing their stuff in Zoltán Kodály's extroverted Concerto for Orchestra. Then, star soprano Jennifer Grimaldi joins us as soloist in Richard Strauss' exquisite Four Last Songs.

The program (and season) ends with the riotous sounds of Claude Debussy's groundbreaking score,La Mer.

  • Date: Saturday, May 22, 2010
  • Time: 8:00 pm
  • Place: Church of St. Mary the Virgin (145 West 46th Street)
  • Admission: FREE

Go to for more information!

Here's the full program:

  • Kodály: Concerto for Orchestra
  • Strauss: Four Last Songs - Jennifer Grimaldi, soprano
  • Debussy: La Mer (The Sea)

David Leibowitz, Conductor

----More about our Guest Artist----Internationally acclaimed soprano Jennifer Grimaldi has been hailed as "a compelling and commanding singing actress with a silvery timbre that sparkles and shines" (Danbury Times News) and is a promising young talent on the opera, concert, and recital stage.

Ms. Grimaldi recently made her European solo debut with the Charlemagne Orchestra (Belgium) as featured soloist in Mendelssohn's Elijah. She has sung leading roles with many opera companies, including the Utah Festival Opera, Sarasota Opera, Brevard Music Festival, Intermezzo Opera Festival, and Raylynmor Opera, among others.

In 2011, Ms. Grimaldi will be a featured soloist in Mahler's Symphony No. 8 with the Mineria Orchestra (Mexico City) under the direction of Maestro Carlos Miguel Prieto. Other recent orchestral solo engagements include performances with the Queens Symphonic Orchestra, New Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and the Third Street Music Settlement Orchestra. 

Monday, May 03, 2010

My summer project for the viola

I needed to buy new rosin for my viola bow (the stuff I had was terrible) and I couldn't spend just $3 on an online order with Shar, so I went looking for something else to buy.  I looked through the accessories but I didn't need anything else.  Then I remembered that I wanted something new to keep my skills in shape this summer, and bought something that I've been meaning to get for a long time.  I've had the viola transcriptions of Bach's Six Suites for solo cello since high school but I'm getting tired of playing those. So I bought Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for violin transcribed for viola.

I love these pieces on the violin and I've had my eye on the viola version for a long time.  But I've always considered these suites far beyond my skill level.  And to be honest, they are.  My formal viola training ended long before I had a chance to learn how to do things like double stops (playing on two or more strings at the same time) the right way.  But the faster movements are not as impossible as I initially thought.  I played through a couple of movements last week and while I'm not going to perform them in public anytime soon, I might actually be able to enjoy learning them on my own.  Sadly, I fear the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 will long remain out of my grasp.  And my favorite, the Prelude to Partita No. 3, is also nearly impossible for me to play until I learn how to cross strings effectively.  My brother asked me last night how many summers this project would last.  I replied "as many as it takes."

Last night his girlfriend sent me a recording of these suites played on the viola, so I have a better idea of what these pieces are supposed to sound like when a professional plays them.  I love the deeper, fuller sound of the viola, though the violist, Scott Slapin, plays them a bit more conservatively than Henryk Szeryng plays them on the violin. However, conservative isn't a bad goal for me.  I've never been a flashy performer so I could do worse than take a more relaxed approach to these pieces.

The new rosin is working out well, in case anyone was wondering.