Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"From Russia With Love:" Summertime Classics with the New York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic's Summertime Classics concert series isn't the type of performance I would normally seek out. They play "greatest hits" like overtures, opera arias, waltzes, and popular concertos that have been over-programmed for years.  But I had an extra ticket from last Saturday's concert that I had to use, so I exchanged it for Tuesday evening's all-Russian program, conducted by Bramwell Tovey and featuring the young Russian violinist Mikhail Simonyan.

At first glance, I didn't recognize anyone in the Philharmonic.  Was I in the right concert hall?  It looked like all of the regular string, wind, and brass principals had the night off.  For a moment I wondered if this was the Philharmonic's "B" squad.  I wouldn't fault the orchestra if it were; the subscription season ended on Saturday, and everyone deserves a vacation.  Then I noticed a few regular string players and a couple of horns I knew and felt more at home.  The audience was a bit more casual than the usual Philharmonic crowd.  While there were a few men and women who appeared overdressed for the occasion (suits and slinky cocktail dresses) there were many other people who were well-underdressed.  I saw more jeans and polo shirts than ever before.  In that way it looked more like a typical Broadway musical audience than a Philharmonic one. 

Mr. Tovey served as conductor and host, and he excelled in both roles.  As a conductor, he led the orchestra with energy and vigor and looked like he was having the time of his life.  As host, he said a few words about each piece on the program and cracked a few jokes about the music and his British heritage.  I expected his banter to be cheesy, tired old jokes but he was light and engaging.  And the audience loved him. 

The program opened with Prokofiev's March and Scherzo from The Love of Three Oranges, followed by Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, superbly played by Simonyan.  He's only 24 and his reading reflected his age.  It was a little rough in a few places and he and the orchestra were not always completely together.  But Simonyan's performance was exciting and he added a few touches that made the piece his own, such as taking a bit of extra time in certain places.  The work is flashy but lyrical, and he found a happy medium between the two extremes.  The audience roared its approval and Simonyan responded with a colorful gypsy melody for an encore.

The second half of the program began with selections from Alexander Glazunov's ballet Raymonda. The Philharmonic hadn't played this music in nearly forty years, and I always enjoy hearing the orchestra play something with which they're not readily familiar.  I've heard some of Glazunov's music before, but the opening to this piece sounded like the music of Richard Strauss before it settled into a more familiar Slavic tonality.  The concert closed with Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave, a rousing ode to Russian soldiers going off to fight in Serbia in 1876.  While it's the lesser-known cousin of the much more famous 1812 Overture, the work is full of its own patriotic melodies, and under Tovey's baton the Philharmonic played it with all the nationalistic fervor it deserves. 

I don't know if I would go to a Summertime Classics concert again, but I'm glad I went to this one.  I understand the appeal.  They're performances for a more casual audience, one that's less familiar with the classical repertoire.  In that respect they're not really my thing.  I'd recommend them for a prospective listener who wants to hear the Philharmonic play "popular" classical music in a fun, friendly atmosphere. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lindberg and Beethoven with the New York Philharmonic

Saturday night was the final concert of the New York Philharmonic's 2009-2010 season. I was there in spirit for opening night and I thought I should be there for the closing night as well. The fact that Beethoven's Missa Solemnis was on the program didn't hurt.

The first work on the program was a new piece by the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg. I have a difficult time judging new music by modern composers. I have no frame of reference and I'm often afraid that it's going to be inaccessible toot-whistle-plunk-boom noise. But I've enjoyed the other Lindberg works that the Philharmonic presented this season and I was pleased with this one as well. Lindberg's music is modern but tonal. He favors energetic, frenetic passages, heavy on percussion. Al Largo reminded me of a film score, with its consonant brass fanfares and melodic lines in the strings. It didn't leave me with anything I could hum later, but it was a work that I'd gladly listen to a second time.

The major work of the concert was Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. The piece is from the same period in Beethoven's career as the Ninth Symphony and his last three piano sonatas. It's what musicians refer to as “late Beethoven.” It's more complex in tonality and harmony than his earlier symphonies, even the Ninth Symphony. The melodies are more elaborate and the interplay among the choir, soloists and orchestra is more intricate than anything in the Ninth. I know the music and I've even heard it in concert before, but I hadn't heard it quite like this. The Philharmonic projected the English translation of the Latin Mass above the orchestra, so we could all follow along with the text. Reading the words gave the piece more of a religious intensity than one would get from just listening to the performance. There were a few times in the performance that I felt almost like I was in church.  I also had to smile as I listened to the multiple false endings in the Gloria and Agnus Dei sections. They reminded me of a conversation I had with my father many years ago as I was listening to Beethoven's Third Symphony for the first time. My father poked his head in my room and said “the Eroica? Wait until you get to the end. Beethoven couldn't figure out how to end it, so he kept writing.”

The audience gave the Philharmonic and the performers a rousing standing ovation, one that I thought was well deserved. And again Alan Gilbert received the loudest applause of all. I've been thoroughly impressed with everything he's done in his first year as music director. I'm already looking forward to next season and how he'll challenge the orchestra. The New York Philharmonic is on the rise.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Yes, I'm taking the morning off to watch USA vs. Algeria

I've been watching the World Cup games at my desk while working, but I learned last Friday that it's much more difficult to pay attention to my job when I have an interest in the game.  I had a staff meeting during the second half of USA vs. Slovenia, and so I was more than a little distracted.  With two games in the USA's group at 9:30 AM today, I thought it best to use a half day and watch the game at home.

If the USMNT advances and we play again while I'm at work, I don't know what I'll do.  Why can't they schedule these games around my job?  Why should I have to change my plans?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Summer School with Steven Van Zandt

On Wednesday night I had the opportunity to hear Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band (and "The Sopranos") give a lecture at City Winery.  eMusic sponsored the event, the first in what I hope is a series of lectures and other gatherings for members of the music download service.  They billed it as a discussion of Van Zandt's ideas of what makes a great rock and roll band.  That concept initially sounded a little weak, content-wise, but I was intrigued enough to respond to the invitation anyway.  Who doesn't like free drinks and the chance to listen to a music legend?

There was a small crowd at the event, under 100 people.  Van Zandt talked for about a half-hour about the value of arrangers in rock music.  The lecture was much more interesting than I expected.  He said that all aspiring rock musicians start out as arrangers, as they learn how to play other people's music, and that being a great arranger makes you a better songwriter.  He illustrated his points with audio clips of Chuck Berry originals and The Rolling Stones' covers of those songs (some of which sounded like bootlegs from Van Zandt's collection), then he moved on to Bob Dylan and covers of his songs, and so on through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  He argued that the period from 1951 to 1971 amounted to a rock and roll renaissance.  And he said that the introduction of CDs was a scam, and that "digital music sounds so fucking bad."  I thought that was an interesting opinion considering who paid for the event.

After his talk, my friend Jessica and I went up to Van Zandt and chatted with him for a few minutes.  We thanked him for the lecture and he said that he thought it went well since he wasn't sure who the audience would be or how the material would be received.  Then we told him we are aspiring rock musicians ourselves, as a bassist and drummer, respectively.  When he heard this Van Zandt looked wary.  His eyes widened.  We thanked him again and moved along to allow others to greet him.  A moment later Jessica turned to me and said "I think he thought we wanted him to listen to our demo tape."  To our credit, we thought we looked really old for people trying to break into the business.

For more coverage of Wednesday's event, check out the Twitter hashtag #emusicsvz.  Several eMusic members, including me, live-tweeted the lecture and caught some of Van Zandt's other points that I may have missed.  I hope eMusic does other events like this one, because it's a fun way to meet other members, learn about music, and enjoy food and swag.  I'm glad I came back to the service after a brief break last year.  I just can't quit you, eMusic.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

USA vs. England in the World Cup, or A blogger divided against himself cannot stand

I'm an American.  While I'm not a “love it or leave it” kind of patriot, I love my country.  It has its problems but it's my home.  My father, on the other hand, was born in England.  He is now as American as any other guy I know, and if you met him you'd have a tough time figuring out that he isn’t originally from here.  (In fact, I'm not sure he's even aware the World Cup is taking place this month.)  I still have family living in England.  And it’s one of my favorite countries to visit.  I’ve always had a special affection for the land of my paternal ancestors.

So I have a dilemma when it comes to the World Cup and the USA vs. England match on June 12.  I want to see Team USA win the game, but I also want to see England do well in the tournament.  They haven't won the Cup since 1966, and I do enjoy seeing long championship droughts come to an end.  I think England has a much better shot at winning the World Cup than most teams, and certainly a better chance that we do.  However, I can't root against my home country and live with myself in the morning.  As Stephen Colbert used to say, “Pick a side!  We're at war!”

I'll cheer for Team USA on Saturday.  But I have to approach the match as if it were an NFL game with my favorite team playing against the quarterback on my fantasy football team.  If Team USA wins, I'll scare the neighbors with my screams of joy.  I'm sure they remember my enthusiasm for Team USA in the Olympic hockey tournament.  But if England takes us down I'm not going to be too disappointed.  Besides, with Algeria and Slovenia in our group, Team USA and England should both advance to the championship round.  Depending on the seeding, I can always hope for a rematch.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Blogs With Balls 3.0

Blogs with Balls was about what I expected as a conference. I met people I'd only known online prior to the weekend. I got to enjoy a bit of Chicago. And I got to hear from some smart, funny writers and media experts.  But there are a few things about the event that could be improved. 

Chicago hotel issues

I'm glad they had the event in Chicago, since it gave me an excuse to get out of New York for the weekend and visit a city I hadn't been to since 2003. But they could have checked to see what else was going on in town before scheduling the event for last weekend. There was a major oncology conference in the city at the same time and that event took up all the hotel rooms. People coming to Blogs With Balls had to stay at O'Hare Airport, in Skokie, and who knows where else. Being in far-flung locations meant that we had to consider our travel options wisely or else spend upwards of $30 on cab fare. My friend and panel moderator Amanda and I had rooms at a mediocre hotel near O'Hare that, as she put it, “isn't even convenient for the airport.”

The pre-conference party

Bleacher Report sponsored the pre-conference party at The Fifty/50 in Wicker Park.  The basement room was a little small for the crowd but the beer was cheap and, if you participated in the Guinness pour contest, free. The basement had wi-fi but no cellular service so we could tweet and e-mail but texting was out of the question. In a room full of people who like to stay connected, I think there were more than a few who felt like they were out of touch. It was especially entertaining to watch Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in a room full of Chicago Blackhawks fans. Unfortunately, the Flyers won.

Blogs With Balls

The Captain Morgan Club was a great choice for the event itself. It's just outside Wrigley Field so now I can say that I was there, though I'll have to go back for a game to see the stadium itself. It's right on West Addison Street and open-air, so we had a cool breeze blowing through the conference area most of the day. There was a screen with a scrolling live feed of tweets with the #bwb3 hashtag all day long, which served a few purposes. It provided instant feedback on the panelists, both from audience members in person and from people watching on It was also a little distracting as people tried to one-up each other's jokes and be the first to tweet about a particular comment. We'd been promised that there would be wi-fi at the event, but we never got the password so no one could use except the organizers. I heard someone say they were afraid that if we all used the wireless network we'd affect the live video stream. That's a good excuse but only a handful of people had laptops. The rest of us had cell phones. What did they think we were going to do: watch the live video stream? Listen to Pandora? I'm sure there would have been enough bandwidth for everyone. As it was, I got by with AT&T's network, having left my laptop back at the hotel.

The panels themselves were not as interesting as I would have liked. The conference had a strong “who do you write for?” quality, as opposed to “what do you write about?” Some of the panelists represented sports blog networks and it seemed like many of the attendees either wrote for one of those networks or aspired to write for one. In other words, they were professional bloggers or wanted to be professionals. I'm not part of that group. I don't begrudge anyone their ambitions, but I write for the sake of writing. I don't have any dreams of being bought out by Fantasy Sports Ventures or going to work for Yahoo Sports. So when some of the panelists talked about “branding” and touted what their network had to offer over another, I tuned them out. And when the question of how to become a better blogger came up, the answer seemed to be “get better at your writing and you'll be a better writer [and get bought out by a bigger network.]” Thanks, but I didn't need to fly 900 miles to hear that. I learned that in high school.

The highlights of the day, for better or worse, were the ethics panel moderated by Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead and Spencer Hall's panel after lunch on how blogs are changing the game. I like Hall personally and professionally but his moderation style seemed more along the lines of “class clown in charge” and at times it distracted from the discussion. He asked each of his panelists a completely random question that, while funny, didn't have anything to do with the subject of the panel. McIntyre's panel on ethics didn't work at all. Rather than discussing the concept of sports blogs from a legal and ethical viewpoint, McIntyre asked his panelists how they would handle (or handled) a variety of controversial topics, like Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger. When the discussion veered into the subject of writing about unsubstantiated rumors, the consensus was “just do it and try not to get in trouble.” I was especially disappointed that McIntyre showed up for his panel just before it started and didn't stick around after lunch. Fantasy Sports Ventures just paid a “low seven figure” amount for his blog. I think a room full of writers eager to get paid for their work might have benefitted from more of his insight had he stuck around and asked questions of the other panels.

Enough talk -- let's drink!

I didn't pay much attention to the last two panels of the day and from the empty seats I wasn't alone. But that's typical of every conference I've ever attended, tech, sports, or otherwise. By the end of the day, people have had enough of panel discussions or Powerpoint slides and they're ready for something else. In this case, it was the after-party at a bar a few blocks away. The after-party led to an after-after-party at another bar and I was out far past my bedtime, even for a Saturday night. At 2 AM we were at a dive bar drinking Old Style, rehashing the day, telling old stories, and in many cases getting to know people that we'd only known online until that day. And that's really why I went to the conference. From that standpoint, it was a smashing success. I'd go back in a heartbeat for the socializing alone.

We're all writers

My biggest problem at the conference was how to introduce myself. I figured out right away that telling people “I have a personal blog” was a good way to lose their attention. I didn't feel inferior per se, but when the first few people I talked to asked me “who do you write for?” I was unprepared. By the third or fourth time I met someone new, I described my blog by talking about what I wrote about the Steelers, the Penguins, the Olympic hockey tournament, and my plans for the World Cup. That seemed to come out much better and led to more fruitful discussions.

But the central problem remained that the conference seemed geared toward “bigger” writers. I got the feeling that there was no room for the little guy. We've all been little guys at one time or another. Have we forgotten what it was like before we moved from our own blogs to or The Sporting Blog or Deadspin? I don't want to write a blog for a living, at least not right now. But I'd like to hear more about what I could do to improve my writing, aside from “just get better.”

I'd like to thank Don, Kyle and Chris for organizing the weekend's events. It's a massive job and they handled it well and with grace and charm.  I think the event itself is really worthwhile and needs to continue, but the format could use some tweaking. For future events, they might want to consider moving beyond the panel discussion format into smaller group discussions or more focused workshops. There are people who want to hear about where ad dollars are going and then there are people like me who want to focus on writing and analysis. There's room for everyone at this kind of event.

Friday, June 04, 2010

No time for a subject -- I have a flight to catch

I'm on my way to Chicago today for Blogs With Balls 3.0, a sports blogging conference.  I wouldn't call myself a sports blogger; I prefer to think of myself as a blogger who writes about sports occasionally.  But I do write about sports, and I think the conference will be a good excuse to get out of New York for the weekend, meet some like-minded writers, learn more about what's involved in blogging about sports, and have fun in another city.  I'm looking forward to meeting some people whose work I've been reading for years and putting faces to Twitter names.  Don't expect any posts over the weekend (unless I am really inspired late on Saturday night) but there may be live-tweeting on Saturday. 

Incidentally, I'm flying JetBlue for this trip so it's my first chance to see the new Terminal 5 at JFK Airport.  They did a great job.  The security setup is well-designed, there are plenty of shopping options if you're so inclined, and who doesn't love free Wi-Fi?  And the trip out here from the LIRR and the AirTrain was faster than I expected.  It worked out well as a trial run for my vacation later this summer.