Wednesday, October 27, 2010


On Thursday night, NYRO begins rehearsals for our December concert.  The program will be Samuel Barber's Music For A Scene from Shelley, Schumann's Cello Concerto with Eric Jacobsen as soloist, and my all-time, top of the list favorite piece of classical music, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.

I fell in love with Scheherazade early in high school.  I'd heard excerpts from it on the radio but it wasn't until I bought a cassette recording of the piece that I was able to listen to the entire work from beginning to end.  I adored the structure of the work, the way Rimsky-Korsakov used music to tell stories from the Arabian Nights.  And the orchestration is amazing.  Scheherazade was the first orchestral score that I bought, and I spent hours looking through it and conducting from it in front of the stereo in my bedroom.

I've been waiting for twenty years to play this piece.  I missed it by one season when I played with the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra.  I graduated from high school in 1992 and went to college at Georgetown, and the JSO performed it in the spring of 1993.  I came home for the concert, and while I enjoyed hearing my colleagues play, I dearly wanted to be on the stage with them.  A few years later, I was out of college and living in Washington, DC when I heard that the Georgetown University Orchestra planned to play Scheherazade.  I contacted the music director and she welcomed me back to the group.  But after a couple of rehearsals we'd only played part of the fourth movement and it was clear we weren't going to pull off the entire work.  So I pulled out.  Thus ended my brief orchestral comeback of 1999.

To say that I'm excited about playing Scheherazade would be a bit of an understatement.  I'm positively giddy.  But I've looked at the music and realized why I never looked at the viola part before.  It's almost all filler.  Rimsky-Korsakov was a master of orchestration, and the viola part fills in the harmony and only occasionally plays something resembling the melody.  It's not going to be a "fun" part to play.  But I'm still looking forward to taking the piece apart and putting it back together again in rehearsals.  I just hope I don't get sick of it by December 18.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

No love for Carl Nielsen?

This weekend, the New York Repertory Orchestra is performing Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable."  Before we started rehearsing the symphony, I didn't know much more about the piece than its two sets of timpani that "duel" in the last movement.  The entire work has grown on me over the past six weeks and I can't wait to play it on Saturday night.  As of yesterday, my mother was still thinking about coming to New York for the concert, in part because Nielsen 4 is one of her favorite pieces and she's never heard it live before. I found that hard to believe, given the popularity and accessibility of the symphony.  In addition to the fireworks of the outer movements, the second movement is a quiet showcase for the winds and the third movement features a sweeping melody that gives the symphony its "inextinguishable" character.  I assumed that she'd heard it in concert at some point during her many years as a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra season-ticket holder.

The PSO doesn't have a database of its performance history, but my other favorite orchestra, The New York Philharmonic, does.  I looked up Carl Nielsen and I was surprised to see that of his six symphonies, only four of them have ever been performed by the orchestra.  Symphonies No. 4 and 5 have been played the most, with four and five subscription performances (sets of concerts), respectively.  Neither one has been on a Philharmonic program since 2003.  Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments," which NYRO played in May 2007, has had only one NY Philharmonic subscription performance, in 1973.  Symphony No. 3 had one subscription performance in 1965.  By way of comparison, Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 3, not one of his most famous works (but one that NYRO has also performed recently), has had eight performances, the last in 2006.

Looking elsewhere in Nielsen's body of work, his Violin Concerto has has two performances, though none since 1989.  That may have more to do with the work's place in the virtuoso repertoire than the Philharmonic's program choices.  And Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto had two performances by the orchestra's now-retired longtime principal, Stanley Drucker, the last in 1982.

The point is that if Carl Nielsen's music is this unpopular with the New York Philharmonic, one of the busiest orchestras in the world, one could assume that his music is equally unpopular with other major orchestras.  I do realize that I'm extrapolating from a small sample size, but I can only work with the data I have.  Maybe someone well-placed at the Philharmonic will hear our concert this weekend and more of Nielsen's music will find its way onto upcoming programs.

The Slater story comes to an end (for now)

As I expected all along, Steven Slater pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal mischief this morning and took a deal that would keep him out of jail.  He'll have to pay JetBlue $10,000 to cover the cost of the emergency slide as well.

I have yet to be contacted by the media for my thoughts on the story, so I'll put them here.  Don't call me:  I couldn't care less what happens to this guy.  Although I fully expect that he has a future in reality TV.  He'll be the host of a show on Bravo or some other two-bit network within a year.  He has to find some way to pay that fine.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A weekend back home

I've traveled a lot in the past few months.  There was a trip to Chicago, my vacation in Europe, and my infamous trip to Pittsburgh in August for Walkoff Walk's HEIST that featured a flight attendant's bizarre behavior on my way home.  And I threw in a quick visit to see my family in Maryland for good measure.  But I hadn't been back to Johnstown in almost two years, so when I saw an opportunity to go home for a weekend, I booked another JetBlue flight to Pittsburgh.

I knew that we'd have trouble with the traffic in Pittsburgh, but I wasn't quite prepared for the 90 minutes it took us to get from the airport to Monroeville.  We became increasingly annoyed with the GPS receiver's (nicknamed "Carol") constant updates on our ETA and reminders that "you are still on the shortest route" so we turned her off and decided to navigate from memory.  Both of us grew up in Johnstown (we went to school together) and we assumed we'd know the way home.  However, in the dark we got a little confused, made a wrong turn, and we wound up going the wrong way for about 15 miles.  We gave up and let Carol guide us back to town.  And we let her direct us back to the airport on Sunday afternoon.

Since the weather was gorgeous, we looked for outdoor activities for Saturday.  Neither of us had been to Ligonier in years so we drove over to walk around and explore Fort Ligonier, an old British outpost from the French & Indian War.  On the way, we realized it was Fort Ligonier Days, an annual festival scheduled around the date of the Battle of Fort Ligonier.  While the festival meant we'd have lots of company in town, it also meant we'd have arts, crafts, and food options.  Nearly every little kid we saw had a hand-carved pop-gun, many of which I assume wound up "lost" in the back of a closet at home once the kids fell asleep.

The highlights of the visit to the fort included a cast of re-enactors dressed as soldiers (British and French), Native Americans, and civilians.  Inside the fort, meat roasted over open pits and the re-enactors looked like they were prepared to camp out all weekend.  They fired off several cannons, each one louder and smokier than the last.  Then they re-enacted the battle, though with a much smaller cast than was present in 1758.  I did appreciate the re-enactors' commitment to the costumes.  Despite the sunny weather and temperatures in the upper 70s, they all wore wool coats and vests and long socks.  But I can't explain why one guy wore what looked like a Civil War-era Union uniform.  Maybe it was "dress in period costume, get in free" day.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

A few overdue NY Philharmonic items

If you read my blog for New York Philharmonic news (and who doesn't?) then you might enjoy Alan Gilbert's new blog over at Musical America.  His first post started out perfectly, with the declaration that he wasn't going to expound on what it means to be the music director of a major American orchestra in 2010.  Instead, his blog focuses on the little things, like the daily life of a modern music director.  He discussed how he doesn't have as much time as he'd like to study the music he's conducting, as his day is occupied with so many other non-musical concerns like meetings and planning.  He also said he's not going to write frequently, but obviously the man has enough to do without "feeding the beast" regularly, as he puts it in his second post.

Speaking of the New York Philharmonic, I attended my first concert of the season last Wednesday (September 29), a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 6.  I'd never heard this symphony live before and to be honest, it's a difficult one for me to get into.  The last movement in particular is long and winding, and every time I've listened to it at home or work I've been distracted.  At Avery Fisher Hall, with no distractions other than patrons coughing, I was able to focus on the music.  And it's terrifying at times.  It's easily Mahler at his most frightening. And just when triumph seems poised to break through the fear, there's a hammer blow that brings the music back to the tragic.  The hammer blows are clear on every recording I've heard, but since I'd never seen the symphony in performance I had no idea how the percussion section would play them.  I expected to see a hardware store sledgehammer and some kind of drum.  Instead, there was a large wooden box at the back of the percussion section.  Three times in the last movement, one of the percussionists walked over and took hold of the handle of a giant, cartoonish wooden sledgehammer and prepare for the blow.  A few measures before the cue, he lifted the sledgehammer over his head and, right on the downbeat, brought it crashing onto the wooden box.  It was a scary and impressive sound.  I was equally impressed with his ability to get the blow exactly on the downbeat.  And I loved the precision of the section as they moved around and changed instruments, on stage and offstage, throughout the symphony.  That's what you get with a world-class percussion section.