Monday, September 9, 2013

A New Beginning

Last week I spent some time with my sisters Karen and Tamie in beach chairs staring idly at the Atlantic Ocean.  It’s late summer and the beautiful beach at Wildwood Crest, New Jersey, isn’t as populated as it is in the peak of the season. I can think of no more perfect way to unblock the mind and unschedule human endeavor (or my little piece of it, anyway).

I am suddenly struck with a memory—a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti titled “Wild Dreams of a New Beginning.” In the poem Mr. Ferlinghetti portrays a huge cleansing wave sweeping across the United States, wiping away all the vestiges of civilization and returning to the wilderness that once existed here.

School will be restarting in a very short time and I am experiencing that moment of hope, faith, and anticipation that precedes each school opening day.  As a student and a teacher, I have experienced 55 years of school openings, and no amount of rational thought and accumulated experience can make that sense of expectation go away. The cycle of school life is driven by the hope of growth and renewal. The subsequent and inevitable deflation comes from the unravelling of our old life.  

The growth that comes from learning doesn’t come comfortably. It shakes us. It tears us apart and rebuilds us as different people. It’s a messy business. We let go of our old ideas reluctantly. When the year is complete, we feel spent, exhausted, and defeated.

We are also changed and, in a cruel twist, we may not even notice the change at the time it happens.  Some time needs to pass before we have a chance to step back and gain the wisdom that perspective provides. Perhaps it is that perspective that allows us to dream again of a new beginning. It gives us the courage to let that wave wash over us once again and the faith to believe it will change us for the better.

                                                                                                                      Lawrence Davis

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Virtue of Rehearsal

Music is both journey and destination—rehearsal and performance.  The perfect rehearsal is equal parts discovery, affirmation, and reinforcement. With musical collaborations there is also a social dimension to rehearsal. The merging of multiple points of view into a single stream of expression takes skill, certainly, but also time and patience. Preparation of a finished performance takes the time it takes, even if that time exceeds the amount allotted to it.  

As a musician, one of the first things you notice when you arrive in New York is that there is a lot less rehearsing, in general, than in some other areas of the country. I don’t have scientific evidence but I do have the evidence of my own eyes and ears. 

It is easy enough to deduce why it may be true.  It’s expensive here.  Rehearsal halls are expensive, hiring musicians is expensive, renting instruments is expensive.  There are also a lot of very talented musicians in this area. Three of America’s best conservatories are located in New York City and they are all turning out very capable and competitive musicians.  In addition, a lot of musicians with big talents and big career aspirations still come to New York with the idea of “making it.”  

The New York music scene is a culture of capability, but something seems a bit out of balance. Financial pressures reduce the amount of paid rehearsal time creating a need for musicians with more facility.  It’s a wild spiral—more and more skilled musicians and less and less rehearsal time. At its worst, It all leads to a music-macho attitude.  Who needs rehearsal?  Only wimps.  

I sometimes need to hire musicians to supplement my orchestra performances.  I am amazed at the number of people who are prepared to step into a concert with no rehearsal at all.  I am astonished at the number of professional concerts I go to which are under rehearsed—even ensembles of highly skilled professional musicians.   

This past June we performed the Liszt Piano Concerto in E Flat Major, as I mentioned in a previous posting.  The soloist was a very talented pianist who is a student at Bloomingdale School of Music, so we had the privilege of having 10 rehearsals with soloist and orchestra together.  The performance was among the best our orchestra ever played.  We had enough rehearsal to get it right, but we also had enough rehearsal to experience the growth of collaboration.  As a performer and music lover, I wish that was always the case. 

                                                                                                                            Lawrence Davis

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Soul Speaks

As anyone who loves music can attest, there are moments when you can be transported to a different level of consciousness by performing or listening to music.  It is an unselfconscious moment when there is heightened awareness and a profound depth of appreciation.  In Japanese painting, the concept is called “ukiyo” which means “floating world” in English.  It is a time where the mind loses touch with mundane daily responsibilities and becomes engaged in something different—something beyond the moment and, at the same time, completely within it.  

Music is an activity in time, unlike a painting which can be experienced in a few seconds or observed over a much longer period.  For the sake of illustration, please consider music as a two-dimensional graph, with time on one axis and experience on the other.  Normally we move along the time axis and experience what is at the intersection of time and experience at any point in time. There are, however, moments when the motion of time seems to stop and we are free to experience a single point in time in a new way, moving up the experience axis.  It is a transcendental moment. The soul speaks.

The late Ross Wetzseon, a longtime editor of the Village Voice, once wrote a review of the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey, whose hypnotic circular movement he called “an emptiness filled with everything.”  He went on to describe the experience this way, “the transfixing serenity of ceaseless motion...the revolutions revealing that the center of a circle is synonymous with the whole. Timelessness has its own rhythms.”  

I vividly remember the first time I heard “Thanksgiving” by Charles Ives.  The piece, which is about 15 minutes long, is full of drama and mystery, building and growing, culminating in a hymn, sung to the tune of Duke Street, “God! Beneath thy guiding hand.”

"God! Beneath thy guiding hand, 
Our exiled fathers crossed the sea, 
And as they trod the wintry strand, 
With prayer and praise they worshipped Thee."

I was literally holding my breath as that tune was sung.

I can’t say I have had many of these experiences in my life as a musician, but when I do they are always unforgettable.  Last Friday at 6:00pm my talented young piano quintet came to my office to warm up before their concert later that evening.  They tuned their instruments and started to play the last movement of the Schumann Piano Quintet in E Flat Major.  As they played, I began to realize they had never played it better.  They were completely focussed.  They were free of self consciousness.  They were making music. I had to remind myself to breathe when they were done.

When we are transported that way by music and human endeavor, it is an evanescent moment. And when we return to everyday life with its multiple headaches and stresses, I can only hope we bring something back—something that is life affirming—something that proves that, even if it is only a moment, life can be perfect.

                                                                                Lawrence Davis

Monday, April 22, 2013

Learning to Love Liszt

I am conducting Liszt for the very first time in my life. One of my early encounters with classical music is when I saw a Tom and Jerry cartoon with the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #2 as the soundtrack. I really liked the piece with its drama and its energetic melodies. I had no idea what a rhapsody was at that time. I didn’t even know what Hungary was. Still, I tracked down the sheet music from one of the two sheet music stores we had in my small Western Pennsylvania home town. When I discovered how technically challenging the piece was, I also invested in a simplified version which was more within the range of my abilities at the time. 

I ran into the Liszt Piano Concerto in E Flat for the first time in Boston in the 1970s when I heard the Boston Pops orchestra play the piece. It didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time, though I did very much enjoy the concert and my first experience with the Boston Pops in Symphony Hall. The rest of my largely negative impressions of Liszt came from a general dislike of Romantic music and of self-absorbed virtuosos specifically. Figures like Paganini and Liszt just seemed a bit over the top for me. During that period of my life, when I was much more opinionated than I am now, I found many musical things more interesting and focused on them instead.

Which brings us to 2012, when I had decided I did not want to program the Mozart G Minor Symphony for our spring concert. My selection to replace it was Beethoven’s First Symphony, but we had just done the third and two Beethoven symphonies in one year just seemed like too much of a good thing. When Stephen Lee, a really gifted young pianist, asked me if I would consider doing the Liszt, I decided to listen to the piece again for the first time in almost 30 years. I was quite surprised by it. We had recently done the Barber Violin Concerto, which is a stunning piece and there were a lot of things about the Liszt that reminded me of the Barber. There were four short movements, but it felt as though it had been conceived in a single vision. The piano and the orchestra felt connected in a unique way, just as the violin and the orchestra felt in the Barber. Melodies pass freely from soloist to individual players in the orchestra and back. The piano part was breathtaking. And in the end I was drawn to it for the very same reasons I was drawn to the Hungarian Rhapsody so many years ago. There is so much drama in the piece and it is real drama—not contrived or manipulated. There are fun little melodies that are full of energy and life. I decided we would do the piece.

When I started preparing the score is when I ran into some of its astonishing limitations—sloppy and inconsistent notation, rhythmic awkwardness, artless orchestration. The orchestra part made no sense on its own the way Beethoven’s concertos do. The lush and perfect orchestration of the Brahms piano concertos make the Liszt seem vacant by comparison. Even the Rachmaninoff piano concertos, which are every bit as virtuosic as the Liszt, seem to have a greater sense of orchestral integrity than the Liszt. Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Liszt were all celebrated pianists of their day, perhaps none more so than Liszt, yet the former three all achieved a greater balance and dialogue between piano and orchestra than did Liszt.

It was a conversation I had with my colleague Monica Verona over lunch that made me think a little differently about the Liszt.  She advised me to think of the piece as having its own kind of integrity.  “It is what it is,” she wisely pointed out. She’s right, of course. It simply makes no sense to judge a piece by what it isn’t. The piece is true to the vision of the composer.  

The way it is composed for orchestra is unique. Ideas about orchestral coloration and timbers are less important to Liszt, because the orchestra is just more piano for him. Like those 3-dimensional chess games Mr. Spock used to play on Star Trek, Mr. Liszt has expanded the piano keyboard horizontally into the high strings and piccolo and vertically into the trombone and double basses. In those maddening moments in the fourth movement where it is devilishly difficult to coordinate the piano and the orchestra, one gets the impression that Liszt wanted the pianist to play all of those notes—both the orchestra’s and his own. Understanding that has helped me conquer my resistance to the piece and actually learn to enjoy it.

I can’t say that the orchestra shares my love and understanding of the piece just yet. There are just too many key changes and chromatic passages to inspire immediate appreciation. I do have faith that they too will come to see what Liszt is all about, just the way Tom and Jerry and I have.

                                                                                                                           Lawrence Davis

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

There is Music in Everyone

Things don’t always turn out as you expect. I know that of course, but there is something willfully forgetful about my 60-is-the-new-40 brain.  Certain events in the yearly calendar evade easy characterization. The annual Album for the Young Concert, which occurred on February 13 this year, is the most prominent among those things which ought to be familiar to me, but which astonish me anew every year.  This year was the eighth year of the concerts and because it took place in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, the venue certainly contributed a new context for A4TY, as it is fondly known around the school community.

The Bloomingdale Student New Music Project was the vision of gifted performer and teacher Katy Luo, who noticed that her young piano students were completely unfamiliar with composers and composing. The music they played was largely from Classical music history.  Beethoven’s Für Elise, a student favorite, was written 203 years ago.  Even Bartok’s Microcosmos, standard student repertoire, was written over 70 years ago.  So Katy decided to ask students to create their own music and she arranged a concert for students to play music other students had written.  She also asked professional composers to write music especially for students.  An important part of the concert process was the interaction of student composers and performers and of professional composers with student performers.

I attended the first concert, which was held at our David Greer Recital Hall, and my very first impression was that it was a mess. Some of the compositions were under a minute long.  Some of the performers had never performed in public before and barely knew how to hold their instrument.  The number of stage set-ups was maddening and time consuming. By the end of the concert, however, I was a believer. Many of the pieces were hauntingly original. Some of the young composers had clearly been influenced by the music they were learning as student players, but some of them went off in completely different directions. The pieces eluded easy description. They represented the fits and starts of the creative process.  Each new composition, regardless of its state of readiness, was afforded the dignity of its own finished performance.  Some of the pieces were even performed by faculty members and that has always been a special part of the evening for me.  Experienced performers find the artistry in these fledgling compositions.  

The seriousness of these students’ first compositional expressions was brought home to me quite powerfully by the integrity everyone brought to the process of the concert from the very beginning.  One of Bloomingdale School of Music’s core values states “There is music in everyone.”  From the beginning of our A4TY concerts, as envisioned by Katy Luo and ably advanced by her successor and wonderful teaching artist Margalit Cantor, the current leader of the A4TY concerts, everyone who writes a piece gets that piece performed.  What better way is there to prove your commitment that core value “there is music in everyone”?

Weill Hall was filled to capacity.  It is a wonderful space and its history and traditions mean a lot to musicians and New Yorkers.  As the most recent concert began and the first young pianist came out to play the first 30 second piece, my first thought was very familiar to me.  “Having this concert here was a mistake.”  The usual parade of unfamiliar pieces and performances followed, each meticulously set up by the professional staff at Weill Hall.  As the concert progressed and I saw some very impressive performances of some very strong pieces, I realized that this was a completely appropriate spot to celebrate the power of human expression, at whatever level. I can’t honestly say that every piece was very good. It was not like Garrison Keillor's mythical hometown of Lake Wobegon, where all of the children are above average. I can say that it was a clear representation of our profound belief that there is music in everyone—and some of it is very good indeed. I have come to understand that there is a much larger continuum of musical expression than many people realize.

                                                                                             Lawrence Davis

Friday, January 11, 2013

Thoughts After the End of the World

I am happy to announce that the world did not end on December 21st. This means that the History Channel now has about a thousand hours of programming with the words “Maya” and “Apocalypse” in the title. They were played on a 7 day/24 hour endless loop on cable tv through the whole month of December. I wonder if the Mayans will lose their reputation, built over centuries, because this prediction just didn’t come true. I also worry about the History Channel, but much much less. I hope they will be turning their attention away from impending doom.  As one of James Thurber’s cartoon characters once said about the evening news.  “Why can’t they be more cheerful about the world?”

Of course, we don’t have to rely on ancient predictions from South America for dire apocalyptic visions.  We have Washington, DC.  I am also happy to announce that we did not fall off the fiscal cliff.  That’s awfully good news. The two lost tribes that inhabit our nation’s capital managed to terrify us with creepy threats to push us off the edge of the abyss, and then, at the precise moment we were dangling, our knuckles white, we found out there was no cliff at all.  Just talk of a cliff. It was all like a bad TV program that just ended. Now it’s on to something else.  As Dr. Neil Postman once observed, there are no priorities on television. Everything is equally important.  Take a typical evening news cast. “Thousands of people died in Syria today, the North Koreans sent a rocket into the atmosphere, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are having a baby, and now this from our sponsor, Pringle’s Potato Chips.”

Where does all of this leave us?  Each and every one of us is left to sort it all out.  We all look for those moorings familiar to us—values we can hold on to, things that we know and believe in.  Like when my student piano quintet plays Shostakovich. It is difficult to describe what it’s like hearing five wonderful young performers discover the majesty in that piece.  It makes all of the endless chatter about Armageddon and fiscal failure go away.  Such is the power of absolute expression.

                                                                                     Lawrence Davis

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Listening to Music at Concerts

I have recently begun thinking about going to the opera again.  I saw three Stravinsky pieces at the Met a couple of years ago. The production strung together Le Sacre du Printemps, Oedipus Rex, and Le Rossignol, the latter being the only one of the three which is an actual opera. The production was designed by David Hockney and it was incredibly beautiful and impeccably performed. When you go to the Met to see an opera, you can be sure you will find an educated and motivated audience. How can I be sure? For one thing, tickets at the Met top out at $495. It’s no place for the unmotivated. Most of the people who go to the opera are there to listen to music.

I attend between 30 and 50 concerts a year and the reason I go is to hear music. I understand that there is a social dimension to concert going. I genuinely like people and love talking with them. It is not why I go to a concert, however. I am a musician. I love music and I go to concerts to hear music. 

The last concert I went to at the New York Philharmonic was a performance that included two pieces—Brahm’s Violin Concerto, with Sarah Chang as soloist, and the rarely-performed Persephone by Igor Stravinsky.  The first piece on the program was the concerto and it was very well performed by the orchestra and by Ms. Chang. I had heard the piece many many times, but it was wonderful hearing it live again. I did notice that the audience wasn’t quite as focused as it might have been. There was whispering and talking during the performance, including the seat holders on my right.  It was manageable though, until the orchestra started playing the Stravinsky. To my astonishment, my neighbors to the right began an extended conversation about the Brahms and about Ms. Chang’s performance. I then noticed that the attention of the audience, in general, had drifted substantially.

I could scarcely believe it.  I had first heard Persephone on a record album I borrowed from the New Castle Pennsylvania Free Public Library in 1968. I loved it immediately.  Now, some forty years later, I was hearing it live for the first time—played by one of America’s premier ensembles in New York City, one of the cutural capitals of the world, and the audience was about as attentive as a movie audience in a Times Square theater.

Have I become a concert snob?  Hardly.  I watched the Met’s production of Turandot at home in a comfortable chair in my pajamas.  The sound from my TV speaker is terrible, but I guarantee there was no talking during “Nessun Dorma.”  I actually don’t care what people do during concerts as long as it is quiet.  Please, text to your heart’s content, just remember to turn your phone to vibrate only.  Read a book, check your email, gesture to your neighbor in sign language, get some sleep—feel free to experience the concert as you like, but please realize that some people go to concerts to hear the music.

There was an exchange of letters in the New York Times recently between people who believed that classical music was dead or dying. One writer lamented that many people don’t know how to behave in concerts any more, because they have received no education about it in school. Another writer blamed parents for not teaching their kids how to behave in concerts.  And who will teach the parents?  Cities started cutting arts programs from schools in the mid-seventies. We are well into the second generation of citizens without any training or experience in music in the schools.

Is classical music dying? I grow impatient with these kinds of discussions quickly.  Who cares if the audience claps between movements? Keep it simple. Start with this. If you are not at a concert to hear the music, don’t go.  Stay home.  Download the Brahms concerto onto your iPod and eat corn chips out of the bag while you listen to Sarah Chang play the piece, but please, oh please, do not talk during the concert.

                                                                                                   Lawrence Davis