Yearly Archives: 2011

Travel diary

Last week was a deusy – I was in Montreal Monday night through Wednesday morning for a Conducting Competition.  A conducting competition is this thing where you fly to a semi-foreign country, walk around said country for 8 hours, show up at a pre-determined location in said country at 5:00 pm, wave your arms in front of 2 pianists for 5 minutes, thankfully run into an old friend, and go out together for a great dinner afterwards.  That’s what a conducting competition is.

Speaking of Montreal though – pardonnez moi, Montréal – that place is a linguistic mess.  Do they speak French?  Do they speak English?  The answer is no.  I began every conversation in French.  The average Joe on the street would immediately switch to English.  Why?  Because even if you speak beautiful Continental French, it is so very different from the French spoken on the streets of Montreal that you immediately identify yourself as an outsider who there’s no point in humoring.  And, truth be told, you can’t understand a word they say anyway.

Par contre, if you go into the classier districts of the town, the people speak a much cleaner, more metropolitan version of the language, and they are glad to speak in their native tongue.  So, good for them.

The bilinguistic situation does cause some unintentional humor (see above).  I mean, if I’m French, do I really need to see the word “Hôtel” underneath the word “Hotel” to know where the hotel is?

The second part of the week I spent in New York – Baldwin, Long Island, to be precise.  I was there conducting a premiere of a piece that I wrote for my friend Scott, who runs, hands-down, one of the best high school music programs in the country.  What’s even cooler is the fratty atmosphere that he cultivates in his department.  The students play well, hang out, and just really get into music.

But no trip to New York would be complete for me without a pilgrimage to the grave of Leonard Bernstein.  He’s buried in  Green-Wood Cemetery (which, should be noted, has a surprisingly hipper-than-I-would-have-thought web site).  It’s a gorgeous location, somewhat deep in the heart of Brooklyn.

This was my fourth such trip, but the third accompanied by my friend Eric Benson.  We usually make a day of our excursion to the cemetery – Sunset Park is a great place to get Vietnamese sandwiches – and revel in taking pictures of ourselves in semi-erotic poses at the grave site:

I always bring a single red rose for Lenny – it savors more of the jilted lover than a bouquet.  I also make it a habit to move one of the rocks on Lenny’s tombstone to Felicia’s, because honestly, it’s the least she deserves.

This was a special trip to Green-Wood though, because Eric and I stumbled upon one of the ponds that dot the cemetery grounds.  Now came the big surprise – there were four 50 lb. snapping turtles swimming in the pond!!

These turtles were sufficiently Mothra-esque to give one pause, living as they were at a cemetery.  But then the fauna just got weirder, because we went to another pond, and met the most Lynchian duck of all time.  This one little duck was all alone by itself, just walking around.  It quacked its beak off to get our attention:

It seemed to be telling us something – like it wanted us to follow it!

It perched itself on the edge of the pond,

and then dove into the water!

Which was where we drew the line (for the obvious reasons – I mean, that has got to be the scummiest pond in Christendom.)  OK, so a duck dives into the water.  But the quacking.  I cannot understate the poignancy and urgency of the quacking.  I have never met a duck that seemed to have such an agenda.  I think there is something going on with the fauna at Green-Wood Cemetery, and this duck wanted us to know about it.

Unfortunately, it was quacking in Canadian French.


Dream Casting

Well here’s a strange one for you:

Two Biopics About Composer Antonio Vivaldi In The Works

What’s interesting about the two projects is that while they are about same man, they focus on different aspects of his life. Damast’s film is about the famed composer organizing “illegitimate daughters of courtesans” and training them to become an orchestra that eventually played for the Pope. Riggen’s take will be of a more personal nature, focusing on Vivaldi’s side career as a Catholic priest and the conflicts that it caused with both his music and the woman he loved.

OK, y’all – dream casting time.  Who should play Antonio Vivaldi, the famous “red-headed priest” of the 18th century?

Tilda Swinton

Bernadette Peters

Cynthia Nixon

I mean, seriously, has anyone ever seen a picture of this composer wherein he did NOT look like a woman?

Cinderella Goes to Music School

The Viola Concerto

or “Cinderella Goes to Music School”

This piece, for narrator, viola soloist, and orchestra ( – – tp+2 – hp – pno – str) is a retelling of the Cinderella fairytale set in a music conservatory.  It’s written for large orchestra and gets around to introducing every one of the instruments, with a special emphasis on the oft-neglected viola.  It lasts just a little over 30 minutes.

The solo viola part really needs to be played by a young woman in order to make the show work dramatically.  Ideally the flute and oboe soloists should also be young women.  All of the featured performers need to be able to poke a little fun at their instruments’ particular foibles.  There are many dramatic possibilities for the performance of this piece, largely dependent upon how game/creative the performers are.

(An option if you don’t have an all female “cast”: use images projected over the orchestra to convey the story element visually.  Have the orchestra, including all the soloists, dress in black and play with stand lights.)

I’m offering this for what I consider to be the very reasonable rental and royalty package $150, with an additional royalty of $50 per performance.

CSO Addenda: Trumpet Treasures

Since the trumpet is the major feature of this week’s concert, which features the brilliant playing of CSO principal trumpeter Christopher Martin, I thought we might take a further look at the history of the instrument and why there are so very few trumpet concertos in the repertoire.

Ancient Trumpets

Trumpet were in use at least 3,500 years ago, and from there earliest days, they had a regal association.  How do we know?  Well, two of the earliest trumpets that we have come from the tomb of King Tut.  They were played on a special broadcast by the BBC in the 1930’s:

Notice that each of those trumpets sounds about three or four notes.  This is an inherent physical property of the trumpet – and of any vibrating body, really – that without recourse to keys or valves, it is limited to the notes of the harmonic series.  So for an awfully long time, trumpets – even of the European variety – were limited to sounding about five notes with any consistency.  Hence the very familiar sound of the trumpet fanfare.

Clarino Playing

Around the time of Bach, however, some very diligent players developed a technique known as “clarino” playing.  This takes advantage of the fact that the higher up you play on the trumpet, the more notes become available.  The ascent in pitch is a perilous one though: the higher the note, the easier it is to crack, slip, or outright miss.  The practice of clarino playing lasted from perhaps the High Renaissance to the High Baroque, and it is a fortuitous fact of history that it coincided with the lifespan of one Johann Sebastian Bach.

Because of this, we are left with such gems as the second Brandenburg Concerto (check out the third movement which starts at about 3:40):

Nota bene, the group playing above is called the Freiberger Barockorchester, a so-called “period instrument” ensemble.  However, there’s a dead give-away that the trumpeter here is playing on a modern recreation of a trumpet from Bach’s time rather than an original instrument.  Do you notice little holes that the trumpeter covers with his fingers while he plays?  Those little finger holes are a modern improvement that allow the trumpeter to play the high notes more in tune, and they are not an original feature of the trumpets of Bach’s time.

Now, make no mistake – the bearded gentleman above is a complete virtuoso, and he is in fact using the very same clarino technique that was used by the players of Bach’s time.  This little enhancement simply makes the notes sound more mellifluous to the ears of the Auto-Tune Generation.

[Full disclosure: There is significant debate about just what sort of instrument Bach composed this part for.  Some people think it was a written for a more horn like instrument.  Toscanini, for some reason, had it played on a piccolo clarinet.]

The Keyed Trumpet

The first step towards the modern valve trumpet was an endeavor called the “keyed trumpet”, invented by (or perhaps, for) the great Anton Weidinger, trumpeter of the court orchestra of Esterházy family, who also happened to employ one Franz Joseph Haydn.  So it’s no surprise that Haydn himself wrote the first major piece for this new instrument, his Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major.  Incidentally, this is also the first major concertate piece for the trumpet that is still played today (excepting Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto).

[Like all esoteric brass instruments, the keyed trumpet has a major following in Britain.  This web site is sort of amazing – whoever wrote the text of the front page did everything in his or her power to make you follow the link to the rest of the site.]

The keyed trumpet never gained traction, despite the concertos written for Weidinger by Haydn and his successor at the Esterházy court, Johann Nepomuk Hummel.  The instrument was said to have sounded like a “demented oboe”.  The English trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins, one of the few contemporary champions of the instrument, does at least as well as that in his recording of the Haydn Concerto:

The Cornet

The modern trumpet is really an amalgamation of the old trumpet and the piston cornet.  The cornet is a slightly obsolete instrument now – most listeners can not distinguish its sound from that of the modern trumpet.  Earlier in the past century though, before trumpets were regularly made with valves, the cornet was a highly prized virtuoso instrument.  Hence the dazzling solo that Igor Stravinsky wrote for it in his 1911 ballet Petrushka:

Is it Schnittke or Sondheim?

This blog hasn’t had a game in a while, so it’s time for everybody’s favorite: Is it Schnittke OR Sondheim?

See, Stephen Sondheim was born in 1930 and became the USA’s greatest composer.  Alfred Schnittke was born in 1934 and became the USSR’s greatest composer.  They both lived and worked in the 1970’s.  It was during that decade that they both rocked the exact same, shoulder-length straight hair cut:


Too easy?  Let’s make it a little harder: