Yearly Archives: 2013

Peau d’Ane

Here’s a little Christmas gift for everybody: Peau d’Âne, the strangest film of Jacques Demy’s career, and, by coincidence, probably the strangest film ever made.

For those among my readers who are unfamiliar with the work of the French auteur, allow me to catch you up: Jacques Demy made four or five films in the late 50’s/early 60’s, but his cult following really began in 1964 when he teamed up with the legendary French jazz pianist/composer Michel Legrand on a little collaboration known as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” might be considered a musical, but if we’re being fussy about our nomenclature, it’s really an opera – the dialogue is entirely sung.  It’s become a cult hit, and it’s absolutely worth your while to see/listen to.  If you ask me nicely, I’ll come over to your house and sing the entire thing from start to finish (I will also do this if you mention it in passing.)

[A side note: my mother was 15 when “The Umbrellas” made its way over to the states, and promptly fell in love with it.  She broke up with her high school boyfriend when he didn’t share her ardor for the movie.  In retrospect, it probably would have been a much worse sign if her teenage boyfriend had fallen in love with a campy French musical.]

[Another side note: Stephen Sondheim’s one flaw as a human being is that he doesn’t like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.  In a sense, he’s right: it’s a ridiculous conceit with a clunky execution (the text setting is particularly disastrous.)  But it’s just like, Steve, you’ve got to get past all of that.  It’s ok though, I still wouldn’t break up with him.]

After “Les Parapluies”, Jacque Demy and Michel Legrand teamed up once again for “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”, which really is a musical.  Like its predecessor, it stars the incomparably ravishing Catherine Deneuve but it also features a cameos by Gene Kelly (who trots out a few mots de français) and George Chakiris.

This brings us to our special subject for today, the third and final Demy-Legrand collaboration, the incomparably strange Peau d’Âne – “Donkeyskin” – based on Charles Perrault’s incestuous fever-dream of a fairy-tale from 1695.

Where to begin?  Let’s start by saying that this has got to be the single campiest film of all time.  View, for example, the chintzy costumes and sets, complete with rainbow headboard:

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 9.09.51 PM

Or this cat bench:

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  Also, it’s basically Eyes Wide Shut

meets The Smurfs

done on the budget of an average episode of Mr. Rodgers  

And a mouth inside an eye inside a rose, because acid flashbacks are so much fun:

I can only imagine that François Ozon came home from school every day and watched this movie from the ages of about 5-12.  Which brings me to the music, because I think Ozon must have forced Phillipe Rombi to listen to the “recipe song” from Peau d’Âne like 20 times before writing the score for Potiche:

I’ve often criticized Michel Legrand for his rather crude job inserting the text of “Les Parapluies” into his pre-existing tunes, but there’s a moment in Peau d’Âne that might just prove me wrong.  Listen to his setting of the word “la situation” in both scores:

I’m still right, but they’re very similar, so maybe he had a particular affinity for that word’s melodic qualities.

Finally, this is basically me as I leave the house before every rehearsal:

10 (Better) Pieces of Advice to Conductors

It’s not that I think Esa-Pekka’s advice to conductors is bad per se, it’s just that I think some of it is rather oblique and the rest of it is perhaps less-than-useful.  Either way, his list inspired me to create my own, and here it is:

1) Show respect to everyone you work with, including but not limited to: musicians, stage crew, librarians, administrators, board members, PR people, press, patrons.  Remember that each one of these human beings is motivated by his or her own personal goals; your job is to unify this divergent array into one unified project. Foster an atmosphere in which people feel connected to the overarching goal and in which they share in the rewards of a positive outcome.  Communicate clearly and get them actively involved.  Hold people to high standards as you would yourself, but be understanding and forgiving if they make mistakes.

2) Do not neglect the importance of conducting technique.  Stand straight.  Hold your baton in such a way that you create a straight line from the tip of the baton to your elbow.  Beat clearly, taking special care to ensure that horizontal beats (beats 2 and 3 in a four-pattern) go clearly out to the sides.  Keep your beat small and always relate it to the size of the music.  Cue mainly with the eyes and the breath.

3) Memorize your scores in as much detail as you possibly can.  I prefer to conduct without scores because it forces me to memorize them – try as I may, unless I set myself the specific goal of conducting without a score, I never memorize them fully.  You should conduct at least two rehearsals without the aid of a score.  If I am conducting a concert where I don’t have two rehearsals, I always use the score.  With my youth orchestra, which begins rehearsals 10-12 weeks before a concert, I schedule my study time so that I have memorized the music one or two weeks out; if I were to memorize the scores before the rehearsal process began, I would have far too much time to forget them before the concert.

4) Know everything but do not act like a know-it-all.

5) Compose.  I agree with EPS that learning to play an instrument very well is a valuable pursuit for a conductor, but if the choice is between learning to play an instrument passably well and also making a few modest attempts at composition, I think the latter is a much wiser course of action.  Your job as a conductor is, essentially, to straddle to the two sides of the composition-performance divide.  Orchestration is a valuable pursuit as well, but I think it’s better to write a simple piano composition from scratch. (This advice applies equally to all musicians.)

6) Learn to play the piano and a string instrument at least passably well.  I always recommend viola, not just because it happens to be my instrument, but because it kills many birds with one stone: you learn how to hold and bow an instrument in the upright manner employed by violins, you learn an instrument that is strung as the celli are, and you are forced into a tactile knowledge of the alto clef (this advice applies equally well to composers.)

7) Expunge coarse language from your everyday speech.  You will frequently be called upon to speak in front of audiences and media.  Those who habitually make recourse to obscenities use them as replacements for more accurate vocabulary; in front of an audience, these words suddenly become unavailable to you, and you will end up searching awkwardly for the appropriate word, interlarding your discourse with an endless barrage of ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ (which are entirely unpleasant to the listener and make you out to be a bumbling fool.)

[The use of these fillers (‘um’, ‘uh’, and the most vile of all, ‘so’) is common among newby public speakers. This is understandable, but you must dedicate yourself to removing them through practice.  You must develop the habit of thinking ahead of what you are speaking about.  If you have done extensive research and you legitimately know what you’re talking about this is much easier.]

7a) When speaking to audiences, do not use slangy musician expressions like “Tchaik 5”.  This is trade speak, and it is alienating.  Assume that your audiences have no knowledge of the technical terms of music, but that they possess a musical intelligence that can be unlocked if you express yourself clearly.  Demonstrate using sound clips and examples at the keyboard.  Audiences will love it if you can help them listen in more active ways.

8) Learn to speak and read French, German and Italian.  Practice the correct pronunciation of their words and learn their grammar so that you understand the inflection of their sentences.  A basic understanding of a Slavic tongue is also desirable, particularly if you can learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet.  The more languages you can acquire, the better, but if you learn those three core European tongues, you will do yourself an enormous favor.

9) Gentlemen conductors will need acquire the following items of apparel:

  • A black dress suit, white formal shirt and an array of neck ties;
  • A dinner jacket (“tuxedo”), formal (satin-striped) trousers, pleated shirt, cummerbund, wing-tip collar, black bow tie, black (onyx) cuff links and studs;
  • A full-length tailcoat, piqué (marcella) shirt, white piqué bow tie, white piqué vest, mother-of-pearl cuff links and studs.

Silk socks or stockings and a good pair of patent leather shoes (which should never see the light of the outside world) are also vital.  Every item on this list should be of the highest quality and custom tailored to the wearer.  This involves a considerable expense, but it is an incredibly important investment.  Keep these clothes clean and in good repair and, most important of all, learn to wear them well.  Know the ins and outs of every button and hook, and be confident: you look great!

[This should go without saying, but do not consider, for even the briefest of moments, the use of pre-tied bow ties.  They are vile and cheap and reveal you as an utmost fraud.  Wearing a real bow tie is not only consistent with the high standards to which you should hold yourself overall, but it sets a good example to the gentlemen of the orchestra, who should also care for their garments and overall appearance with the same exacting attention as you do.]

Bonus points: also acquire and learn how to tie an ascot.

10) Accept that much of what happens to you in your career (or even within a single concert) is completely out of your control, but work as hard as you possibly can to ensure the best outcomes.

Where is this Pirelli?

The Ballad of MTI’s Ass-Hat Arranging Department goes something like this: in January, Anno Domini 2013, I read this very article published by no less venerated an institution than the New York Times, wot made me think, natch, “I should like to program, perform, and conduct one of these Sondheim Suites myself!”

Flash forward to two 1/2 months ago when I opened the box from the publisher and found music proudly bearing the following title:


And that was just the beginning.  Wrong and misspelled notes, nonsense articulations, pointless doublings, shoddy orchestration, useless transitions – and all of that illegibly copied.  At every level, this arrangement, by Don Sebesky, was a Hack Job.

What’s a girl to do?  I scrapped the Sebesky arrangement and wrote my own from scratch.  Mine includes “The Ballad of SweenEy Todd”, “My Friends”, “Green Finch & Linnet Bird”, “Ah Miss”, “Joanna”, “A Little Priest” and closes with a reprise of the “Ballad”.  It is superior to MTI’s house arrangement in every conceivable way.  I conducted it in concert yesterday, so to The Man, I say, good luck getting me to cease and or desist.

Who the hell is this Don Sebesky in the first place?  Well, according to this book, he wrote orchestrations for the 1983 revue Peg, Cy Coleman’s The Life, and his own 1989 Prince of Central Park.

I hate to judge a guy by his resume – there are plenty of people out there doing quality work in obscurity.  But really, is this the person to whom we want to entrust an orchestral arrangement of Sweeney fecking Todd??  It’s quite possible that he’s decent at writing for a Broadway pit band, but writing for a regulation-size symphony orchestra is a different beast altogether.

Otto_NicolaiI feel a little like Otto Nicolai who, legend has it, had to single-handedly found the Vienna Philharmonic just to ensure quality performances of Beethoven’s works in Vienna.  Perhaps that’s a ridiculous comparison, and I should just let Sondheim and his music fend for themselves (or at the very least not insult other arrangers and their publishers in catty blog posts) but it’s just, I feel like I’ve got to do SOMETHING, you know?

How to write a children’s piece

I premiered a new kids’ piece this summer called “How to Become a Composer: The Tale of a Young Musician“.  I’m just now posting it because we weren’t really set up for an audio recording, and I’ve had to do my meager best to clean-up the track.  The narrator is my friend Kyle Ritenauer, NYC percussionist extraordinaire; the orchestra is the house band of the Pierre Monteux School.  They all did a pretty good job on one rehearsal!

This, and it’s sister piece, “Cinderella Goes to Music School” are long pieces, about 35 minutes each, and that’s the point – you’re supposed to be able to perform either piece and have it take up a whole children’s program (at the Monteux School, we follow it with an instrument petting zoo, so the whole morning clocks in at around an hour.)

At 35 minutes, I know that very few people will actually sit down and listen to either of these pieces, but I’d like to tell you a little bit about what I think distinguishes them from the rest of the pack.

OK, so what are the other pieces in the Narrator+Orchestra category?  “Peter & the Wolf” [obvs.], “L’Histoire de Babar”, “La Boîte à Joujoux”.  Then there’s sort of the next generation of pieces, like “Tubby the Tuba” and “Peewee the Piccolo”.  These pieces are all sweet and lovely and educational in their own way, but [hubris alert] here’s why I think mine are better:

My pieces, “Composer” and “Cinderella” are about real people, not animals or anthropomorphic instruments.  The people are adolescents, and if my childhood fascination with “Saved by the Bell” is any indication, adolescents always hold a particular appeal for younger kids.  The clincher is that the characters happen to be musicians, and because of this the music in the story is motivated and integral, and seems more relevant, I would argue, than a set of leitmotifs that illustrate a story just because a composer happened to write them.

The stories are contemporary, though I hope they have a timeless quality to them.  I’ve also tried to do that Disney thing of having enough sophisticated humor in the mix to appeal to adults, and hopefully there are enough musical in-jokes that the stories and music will appeal to orchestra musicians as well.

The music is a mixture of styles – Hollywood, cartoon, Broadway, classical, modern, etc.  The style is familiar from the larger media world, but also introduces the classical sound-world of the orchestra and a number of historic styles (there’s many a pastiche of famous composers.)

Each of these stories starts out with an introduction to the instruments, but I’ve tried to reinforce the particular qualities of the instruments throughout – again, setting these stories in the world of classical music makes that an organic possibility.

Well, that’s my pitch, and I’d love it if you’d listen to these little playlets of mine, because they were a great joy to concoct, and I think kids and orchestras would really like them.  If you happen to be an orchestra programmer and are interested in knowing more, get in touch with me via my contact page.

The last thing I’ll say is this: the opening of “Composer” is my homage to Phillipe Rombi, the ever-inventive collaborator of François Ozon.