My Pretend Music School

1 Oct Featured Image -- 521

Originally posted on Ivan Trevino:

I’m not employed by a university. I perform and compose music. That’s my job. So it’s easier for me to speak out in an unfiltered way about music schools, their curriculum, and why I think it should be different. No one can fire me for speaking my mind, so I’m going to let it fly. Here it goes:
“That’s how we’ve always done it.”
“We can’t lose who we are as an institution.”
“We have expectations that we need to meet.”
These are all answers I’ve heard from real life music school deans and professors when asked why music schools haven’t evolved. They always get a little uncomfortable when I ask questions like, “Why is the curriculum the same today as it was 50 years ago?” “Shouldn’t we evolve with the changing culture around us?” “Why is the orchestral repertoire so highly studied while the popular music genre is completely…

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Eat Your Vegetables: An Argument for Orchestral Music

14 May

A few months back, a colleague and I got into a heated debate about the value of various types of music. He expressed frustration with people who associated orchestral music purely with things like relaxing, studying, or providing a backdrop for a “refined” setting. On this point we couldn’t agree more. To my mind, anyone who calls all orchestral music relaxing or worse, boring, needs to sit in a corner with the second movement of Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 and think about what they’ve done.

Where we disagreed, however, was on the point of the value of popular music. “It serves no purpose, musically,” he said, “It’s just a repetitive beat with boring chord progressions.” That was where a more vehement argument began. The label of “classical snob” was one that he bore proudly, disdaining popular music he had dubbed useless. As a classically-trained musician eager to see the revitalization of my art form among people in my generation, this attitude strikes me as dangerous. The last thing we should be doing is disparaging the audience’s music tastes if we want to become more accessible to the public. The fact is that popular music bears an important sociological function, often representing the zeitgeist of the generation in which it was produced.

Granted, I believe that the bite-sized length, predictable chord structure, and user-friendly lyrics characteristic of pop have led to a shorter attention span and an expectation of transparency for most listeners. The symphony structure, by contrast, is lengthy and complex, and often contains layers that even seasoned listeners may not pick out without several listens or dedicated score study.

Impatience with these more complex forms goes hand in hand with media in general today. Lengthy, dense prose has largely been replace by sound bites, videos, and Buzzfeed-style articles. This is the new speed of the world. We are so driven by the visual that auditory experiences must be as simple, transparent, and attention-grabbing as possible in order to reach a wide audience. If my tone sounds nostalgic or reproachful of this paradigm shift, know that I have checked Facebook, Gmail and texts numerous times while writing this entry, and will probably end up taking a few breaks during the writing process. I know that despite my best efforts, Internet culture has shortened my attention span considerably. (Also, I become terribly concerned if a webpage takes longer than five seconds to load. At twenty seconds I will probably give up.)

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The bane of my existence

All this is to say that a culture of short attention spans is not an environment that is likely to foster an interest in, say, a two-hour Mahler symphony. Popular music is a reflection of this culture. But do I disparage it?

Not in the least.

On long car trips, I often take time to listen to epic symphonic works. After finishing a lengthy, awe-inspiring work that takes me on an emotional journey, I often drive in silence for a few miles. How does one follow a work like Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 or Beethoven Symphony No. 9 or Mahler Symphony No. 3? Usually my go-to is something like Beyoncé. Maybe Justin Timberlake if Dvořák made me feel like bringing sexy back. Why? To me, music is like food.

Putting aside the idea of music as life-giving sustenance (which could be an entire entry in itself), I liken different genres to different types of food. Listening to orchestral music feels like eating a healthy, hearty meal. It engages my imagination and stimulates a variety of emotions that top 40 chart pop music often ignores (yes, there are emotions beyond “sexy time,” “look at all this money I have,” “sad because love is hard,” and “happy because love is great!” There are things like awe, existential despair, melancholy, and “Soviet Russia is oppressing me. Again.”)

Shosti vs. Weezy

Slightly different subject matters here

After such a feast though, I’m ready for coffee and dessert. Cue Nicki Minaj and Maroon 5. There are other genres to consider as well. I often feel the same multi-course meal sensation after listening to a Radiohead or Pink Floyd album. Maybe Delta blues is like satisfying barbecue. Thievery Corporation could be tasty ethnic fast food. Björk is definitely that offbeat, ethereal molecular gastronomy cuisine that uses a lot of liquid nitrogen for the fun of it. At the risk of going entirely off the rails here and making you wonder how hungry I must have been while writing this, (answer: very) I’ll leave the rest up to your palate. I’d love to read your genre-cuisine connections in the comment box!

The point is that to my mind, variety is crucial to a well-rounded love of music. Spending one’s life listening exclusively to whatever is cycling on the pop station is tantamount to eating nothing but junk food. Easy, quick, and satisfying on the surface but often devoid of sustaining nutrition. By the same token, listening to nothing but Wagner is like eating nothing but steak, Oscar style, smothered in some kind of hollandaise. 

So in conclusion, listen to Miley Cyrus all you want. Just know that if “Wrecking Ball” speaks to you, you may find similar (or even more visceral) satisfaction in the second movement of Beethoven Symphony No. 7.

I’m going to go eat dinner now.

The Magic Word

15 Jul

Hello again, dear readers!

It seems I reneged on my promise to upload the Ligeti video. I wont’ bore you with excuses. Suffice it to say this has been a busy and productive summer.

And one thing that has been making this summer so busy and productive is that wonderful, magical word, fiercely sought out and coveted by freelance musicians far and wide: gigs. This has been an incredibly fruitful summer for me in the freelance department. In May I played in college commencement bands, in June for friends’ recitals, weddings, and other outdoor gigs. Of course I played the quintessential 4th of July pops gig. I’ve played outdoor gigs, indoor gigs, gigs with friends, gigs with strangers, gigs with professionals, gigs with amateurs…It’s been quite the summer.

The freelancing world is a strange and mysterious place. Beginning a freelance career or moving to a new city can be extremely challenging for a musician without some kind of connection. Most people know that one outstanding player who doesn’t seem to land many gigs, while the musician with a sound that is just okay seems to be performing everywhere. It begs the age-old question: where to gigs come from? I am still relatively new to the freelance world, but I’ll share a bit of what I’ve learned so far.

1. Sometimes It’s Who You Know

In fact, it’s almost always who you know. In fact, I can’t think of a time when getting gigs isn’t at least partially related to who you know. This was a difficult idea for me to accept at first. I want to believe that my freelancing career is based entirely on my own merits, not someone else’s actions. But the fact is that everyone has to start somewhere, and if no one knows you exist, they can’t book you very easily. I was extremely fortunate to have made a good impression on an older student in my freshman year of college, and she started recommending me for gigs because she wanted to help me get a good start in the Cincinnati area. I hope to play a similar Gigging Guardian Angel role for a young musician in the future. It was incredibly helpful for me! So I recommend getting to know local freelancers and making friends. Which brings me to my next point:

2. You Are Always Networking

…For better or worse. It’s human nature: consciously or unconsciously, we are always judging one another. In college, especially in the conservatory bubble, you spend a lot of personal time with your colleagues – present and future! Even if you are a phenomenal musician, if you are negative, constantly gossiping, or starting unnecessary drama, people remember that. And chances are they will not want to work with you. Be genuine and be yourself (people can also tell when you’re being fake or playing it too safe), but keep in mind that your attitude can have a profound effect on your career based on others’ opinions of you.

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Performing the Böhme Sextet on a recital

3. Flexibility Is Key

When I started getting my first paying gigs, my thought process went something like this:

“This is awesome! I’m actually getting paid to do something I love! How rewarding and fulfilling!

You want me to play what?”

I’m sure I’m in good company. In school and youth orchestra, things are extremely cut-and-dry. You rehearse with the same people for weeks, your schedule is pre-ordained, you have the music for plenty of time, and then, after much detailed preparation, you perform a concert for an attentive audience.

Dear future freelancers,
This will almost never be the norm again.

You will often get music the day before or the day of a gig. I have sight-read concerts before. Brass players, always be ready to transpose – you may end up playing another instrument’s part. Horn players should be experts at C transposition. You never know when someone will drop a C instrument part in front of you. Your boss and colleagues expect you to be able to transpose. Prove them right. Most importantly, make it look easy! Sometimes you may have to fake it, but if you look calm and sound good, it’s likely most people won’t know the difference (sneaky musician secret). Just don’t make a habit of being unprepared, especially if you have a chance to prepare!

Another note on flexibility: you may have every last duck in a row, but life is full of surprises. At some point we’ve all been here on the way to a gig:

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Action shot: God help me this is my warmup for the day.

A few months ago, I had a gig at a local university. I was dressed and ready to go, my instrument and music were in the car, and somehow my car keys ended up right there with them. My spare key was conveniently located in my horn case, which was very inconveniently locked in my car. I had to call parking services for my garage and break into my own vehicle, slowly watching the precious warmup time I had budgeted at the hall ticking away. This was an intense and taxing concert, and I was not looking forward to playing without a good warmup. Luckily, I had budgeted that time and managed not to be late. I did, however, end up buzzing my warmup in the car. It happens. Plan ahead, but if things go wrong, stay calm. Call someone, apologize, and get there as soon as you can.

4. Make Their Life Easy

“They” in this case being the person who booked you, your fellow ensemble members, and anyone else you come in contact with. Take the time to go the extra mile. Answer emails promptly, be thorough, plan ahead. Bring clothespins or clips to outdoor gigs. Practice your music when it’s given to you ahead of time. Be proactive and positive. People will remember you, and you will get called again.

5. Being “Solid”

I’ve talked a lot about networking and personality things, but this is not to disregard the importance of being a “solid” player. Not perfect, just solid. This means competency in sight reading, playing accurately, keeping good time, and communicating well with your fellow performers. These are all crucial to a successful freelancing career. This skill set helps you impress the people you need to impress, which goes back to networking. It’s all connected.

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Performing with the Patriot Brass Ensemble in Cincinnati

6. Have Fun!

Talking about freelancing can cause a lot of stress. The “dos” and “don’ts” pile up, and it feels like you’re constantly in danger of making a mistake. Conversely, to the well-established freelancer, dealing with people who are not as experienced or street smart, come unprepared, or behave inappropriately can be extremely frustrating and lead to a cynical attitude. Money can also cause stress. After playing a number of gigs, I know what the basic “going rate” is, and I know when I’m being taken advantage of. But I am not at a point in my career where I can really turn any jobs away.

All of these things make it easy to forget the joy of freelancing. Every gig is different, so you get a great deal of performance variety. You meet lots of other musicians who are passionate about what they do, and you get to share music with them – a spontaneous, living, breathing art! You bring music into the community and make events more enjoyable and inspiring. Rather than being frustrated and nervous about difficulties that arise, look at them as exciting challenges that grow you as a musician. And never forget how blessed you are to make money doing what you love!

May your opportunities be plentiful and your traffic jam car warmup sessions be few. Go forth and gig!

Oops!

30 Jun

Hello dear readers!

Yesterday I mistakenly posted a link to a video of a performance that I had set to private. I will remedy this situation this evening. Thanks for your patience!

Play On

20 Apr

In December of last year, I played a series of Christmas concerts with the Ohio Metropolitan Pops Orchestra. In the middle of our week of performances, the shocking Newtown shooting occurred. I remember reading the news the afternoon before the concert. When I read the death toll, I got chills. I was torn between turning away from and being glued to the news. How could anyone do such a thing to innocent children? Needless to say, I was not exactly in the mood to play a chipper, jazzy arrangement of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But I had to honor my commitment, as did the other members of the orchestra.

The mood was distinctly somber on stage for the sound check. It was clear that we were all shaken by the news. A light show and Christmas carols hardly seemed appropriate. I wondered how the night would proceed. Would the concert be canceled? Just before sound check our conductor addressed the ensemble. He acknowledged the news and the fact that we were clearly disturbed by the tragedy. 

“I know we’re all probably not in the mood to play pops tonight,” he said, “and we could cancel the show. But the fact is, if we do that, they win. This,” he gestured to the ensemble, “is what keeps us going. Let’s lift people up tonight with our music.”

I will never forget that moment in my career. I was so relieved that the conductor faced the news head on. To do otherwise would have cheapened the show. He said a similar thing to the audience members before the performance, and I could tell they were appreciative as well. That night, amid the sorrow and confusion, we leaned on the comfort of familiar tunes. Suddenly the audience and ensemble were connected by a single uniting, soul-sustaining force: music.

Recent news of the events in Boston has been similarly shocking and tragic. We search for some reason behind the attacks, however flawed it may be. To succumb to fear and disillusionment would be understandable. At first glance it seems that terror and violence get the final say.

It  is in times like this that music gives me hope. I could write about this for a long time, but I’ll just share a few brief examples.

I am fortunate enough to be involved with an incredible program in Price Hill (a suburb of Cincinnati) called Music for Youth in Cincinnati (MYCincinnati). The program provides free musical instruction for children ages 7-13, adhering to the principles of El Sistema. (For more information, visit this page.) Not only do we get to witness the transformative power of music in these children’s lives on a day-to-day basis, but recently we experienced music’s power to unite people over a common cause. This past Friday, the students played a benefit concert to support their own organization as well as the Red Cross Measles and Rubella Initiative. The concert was called “Kids Helping Kids.” As the students performed simplified versions of works by Mahler, Wagner, and Vivaldi, they helped protect children around the world from illness.

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Secondly, my sister recently sent me this video.

It’s comforting to me to know that people are out there battling not with guns and bombs, but with saxophones playing Billie Jean in a subway. The video made me smile and reminded me of humanity’s capacity for creativity and humor.

Terror and violence don’t have the final say. Not if we don’t let them.

The perpetrators of the acts of terror in Boston have been apprehended or killed, and this brings some relief. But what of it? That fact does not reverse the damage done. Revenge won’t heal the victims or assuage the doubts and fears we all face. I certainly don’t think we should ignore the evil that is present in the world, but I would encourage everyone to remember that goodness and beauty are all around us.

Humans are capable of so many wonderful things. Recently the one that has given me hope is music. Few things have such an incredible uniting power. Music lifts us up, brings us together, overcomes barriers. So I say whether you are a world-renowned soloist, a nine year-old with a recorder, a drummer in a rock band, or just singing your favorite song in the car with your friends, play on. Keep singing. Keep dancing. Celebrate art and the creativity of the human spirit in all its forms. In doing so, you bring light to the world.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein

Greetings

19 Apr

This has been a monumental week for Horns Across America! I recently had the honor of being Freshly Pressed, and the blog has gotten a lot of buzz since then. So first of all I’d like to say a big thank you to the WordPress team for taking notice of my blog, and welcome to all of my new followers! It has been such a pleasure reading all of your comments and connecting with you over music. If you have any questions for me about classical music, symphony orchestra culture, horn playing, etc, please don’t hesitate to ask! I love getting new ideas for writing.

I’ve got some new stuff coming your way – stay tuned!

In the meantime, here’s a great recording of a piece I will be performing this weekend: Elgar’s Concert-Overture “In the South: Alassio.” 

I swear this is secretly a lost Strauss tone poem. I don’t know why this piece isn’t performed more often. Enjoy!

Cleveland and the Conn

7 Apr

A while back, I said I would write an entry explaining some basic differences between horns from an equipment standpoint. After visiting Cleveland and talking “shop” with the horn players there, it seems like the right time to deliver on that promise. Bear in mind, this will be a brief synopsis. I will focus mostly on horn wraps, without going into much detail about the merits and disadvantages of various bell throat sizes, bore sizes, types of metal, valve design, bell weight, and all of the other myriad variables that can affect the way a particular horn plays. And forget about mouthpieces and any other gear you might add! Suffice it to say that every horn is unique, the things that make it unique are numerous and complex.

In the horn world, the word “wrap” refers to the shape and direction of tubing in the instrument. Horn builders who make double horns are divided into two predominant camps: the Kruspe wrap and the Geyer wrap.

The Kruspe style wrap was standard in the United States for most of the early to mid twentieth century. This wrap places much of the weight distribution near the top of the instrument, and contains numerous twists and turns in the tubing. The thumb valve that switches the horn from being in F to being in B-flat is placed at the top, toward the player’s face. Kruspe style horns are renowned for their warm, deep sound. The player can reach a loud dynamic with very little brassy “edge” in the sound. Some players find that Kruspe style wraps take a great deal of effort to play and can be inefficient, and find clarity to be an issue. This is all a matter of personal taste.

The Geyer style horn was once a more characteristically European horn, but Geyers have taken root in the United States and are becoming very popular. This wrap moves more of the weight toward the bottom of the instrument, and uses as many straight lines as possible in the tubing.  The key that switches the horn from F to B-flat is still operated by the thumb, but it is connected to its corresponding rotary valve by a long lever so that the valve is on the bottom end of the horn, away from the player’s face. Geyer style horns are renowned for their light sound, clarity, and efficiency. Many players find that it does not take as much effort to play in all ranges and dynamics on a Geyer style horn as it does on a Kruspe. Geyer style horns tend to “edge out” at loud dynamics, however, and some people find them to be too bright and brassy, preferring the warmer, richer sound of the Kruspe.

 

Take a look at the pictures of the Kruspe and Geyer style horns. The visual difference is clear. Look at the Kruspe’s numerous twists and turns compared to the Geyer’s more open design.

There are many other variants on these two types of wraps. Every horn maker puts his/her own stamp on these designs. The Knopf wrap, for example, is very similar to the Geyer wrap, but there is a slight bend in the tubing on either side of the valves that distinguishes it from the perfectly straight Geyer tubing. Some other styles are entirely unique. Alexander horns (very popular in Germany, to the point of exclusivity) and Lawson horns (played in the Minnesota Orchestra) are neither Kruspe nor Geyer style. But for the most part, if you ask a horn player what the two most popular wraps are, Kruspe style and Geyer style are the first two names that come to mind. These wraps are named for the horn makers who designed them, but I’ll save the history lesson for another entry.

The Cleveland Orchestra horn section plays exclusively on Conn 8D horns, a Kruspe style wrap. I knew this going in and was eager to find out why. As I mentioned earlier, Kruspes used to be the standard in the United States. The “New World” sound was one that was  characteristically rich and dark. Within the last few decades, however, many American horn players have gravitated toward Geyer style horns. As concert programs become more demanding, many horn sections have sought out horns that maximize clarity, minimize effort, and produce a sound that can cut through a massive orchestra. Cleveland has stayed the course on Conn 8D’s for the last several decades. After hearing the orchestra’s Mahler 7 dress rehearsal, I interviewed Richard King (principal horn), Jesse McCormick (second horn), and Richard Solis (fourth horn, retired). As expected, a number of factors have contributed to continuing Cleveland’s Conn 8D legacy.

One chief factor in this decision is, of course, personal preference. Solis stressed that he believes the Conn 8D is the best possible orchestral instrument for his taste. He finds it to be very versatile and flexible in its sound, able to play in a number of styles. The player can adapt his/her sound to be appropriate for the repertoire at hand. The other players concurred, praising the singing, deep quality the Conn 8D can produce.

Another factor that I had not considered was that of the hall. King described the hall as an “extension of the instruments.” Severance works beautifully with the Conns, easily projecting their sound without excessive effort on the players’ part. Some halls have more reverberation than Severance, which is on the dryer end of things, acoustically. McCormick explained that after some renovations to the hall in 1999, Severance was slightly more resonant, but not enough to upset the balance. Fun fact – that gorgeous organ at the back of the stage is fake! Behind the pipes is a black screen that leads to a resonating chamber behind the orchestra, which allows the sound to linger a bit longer. The real organ is behind the stage.

Solis pointed out that in other halls, the Conn 8D might not be the best choice for the section. Cleveland has a history of touring the orchestra throughout the country, and the section has found that projecting clearly in halls with more reverberation can be a challenge. As it stands, however, Severance fits the horn section beautifully, and their dark, velvety sound projects easily.

Some of the members of the Cleveland Orchestra horn section entered the orchestra already playing Conn 8Ds. Others, however, changed horns upon their acceptance. As principal horn, King is fairly adamant about this. He finds that playing in a section with unified equipment makes blending much easier between the players. Different horn models have different intonation tendencies (certain notes are reliably sharp or flat), and horns can also vary in tone quality and volume production. Taking these factors into consideration makes playing in a section of dissimilar instruments seem like an uphill battle. With this in mind when auditioning a new horn player, the section listens for musical concept. The player can easily change equipment to preclude the aforementioned challenges while maintaining his/her artistic abilities.

Cleveland’s long history of being a Conn 8D section seems unlikely to change in the near future. Preference for the Kruspe sound, respect for tradition, desire for uniformity, and balance in the hall contribute to this continuing legacy.

Despite all this talk of equipment, King stressed an important point. “Ultimately I really don’t take much interest in equipment,” he said. “As I get older, I become less interested in horn and more interested in music.” Looking past all of the nuts and bolts of choosing instruments, the section values making beautiful music above all else.

The Seventh in Severance

4 Apr

Driving through northern Ohio in any sort of winter weather is never a pleasant experience, particularly when you are surprised to find yourself out of wiper fluid, particularly when you find yourself in such a predicament during rush hour traffic, peering through dirty smears on your windshield to find out if you are, in fact, in a lane. Should you find yourself in this situation, dumping coffee on your windshield as a desperate measure is surprisingly effective. As if I needed another reason to be grateful to coffee.

Needless to say, I breathed a sigh of relief upon parking in the Severance Hall garage.

This was my first time inside Severance Hall in Cleveland, and I have to say it is one of the most beautiful halls I have ever seen. The lobby area is decorated with elegant marble, and a series of hallways winds through gift shops, restaurants, and gathering spaces. The inside of the hall literally took my breath away. It is ornate but tasteful, spacious but warm and inviting. Sound floats through the hall and is perfectly balanced. As with Cincinnati, I was able to sit in on a dress rehearsal and experience the clarity of hearing the orchestra in an empty space.

Watching a world class orchestra rehearse is a fascinating experience. The musicians are constantly alert, making notes in their music and minor adjustments to their instruments. They are constantly communicating with the conductor and one another, moving in unison as a single entity rather than a group of individuals.

The rehearsal opened with a tuning note and the traditional handshake between concertmaster and conductor. The orchestra then dove into the sweeping, haunting harmonies of Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose. The delicate innocence and romance of this ballet score highlighted the orchestra’s versatility, providing contrast with the epic symphony to follow.

 § Mahler Symphony No. 7 §

I have to wonder what concertgoers were expecting to hear when they stepped into the concert hall in Prague to hear the 1908 premiere of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Each of his symphonies had been completely unique, from the quirky, tuneful movements of the First Symphony to the sweeping grandeur of the Second and Third, followed by the surprising lightness and innocence of the Fourth. The Fifth, a battle, the Sixth, a tragedy. I’m simplifying of course. Each symphony contains a stunning range of emotions and characters. But each has its own life, its own universe. If Mahler were alive today to compose an eleventh symphony (or tenth, depending on who you ask), I would have no idea what to expect. Were I one of the lucky people who attended the world premiere, having heard the crushing hammer blows of the Sixth, I might be afraid to hear what comes next.

So we arrive at the Seventh: a five-movement work nicknamed “The Song of the Night,” though not by Mahler, who merely titled the second and fourth movements “Nachtmusik” (though far removed from the Eine Kleine variety).

The first movement immediately grabs the listener’s attention for a number of reasons. The opening music sounds almost transitional, as though we have entered a speech in the middle of an idea, or even mid-sentence. The work begins with a low rhythmic string figure for only a few measures before launching into a tenor horn solo. “A what?” you ask. The sound is slightly shocking at first, as listeners may be taken aback by the “is-that-a-horn-or-a-trombone” sound and the “is-that-a-baby-tuba” appearance. Mahler uses a number of unconventional instruments in this symphony, including said tenor horn (also known as a baritone) as well as mandolin, guitar, and cowbell (cue Christopher Walken jokes). But I digress. The first movement is a riot of sweeping strings, percussive effects, and textural play.

To me, the Cleveland horn sound is like velvet: dense and substantial but with a soft edge.Image It is showcased in the second movement, which opens with a haunting horn solo and often features a rich four-horn texture. The movement is in turns a march, a dance, and a song. That Mahler titled this movement “Nachtmusik” shows that he thought of night not merely as a period of darkness, but as one of restfulness, mystery, and merriment.

The third movement seems almost a continuation of the second in its character. It is a playful waltz tinged with dark humor. It begins as though we are hearing the thought of a waltz slowly occur to Mahler, being built beat by beat in the low strings, horns and clarinets. The dance fluctuates throughout the movement, at times slowing down or halting altogether before being rebuilt.

The fourth movement, another of the “Nachtmusik” movements, shows a more romantic side of night time, opening with singing violin and horn solos. And in case you thought you had this movement figured out, expecting tear-jerking string melodies with song-like wind solos here and there (a fairly standard slow movement), Mahler throws in mandolin and guitar solos, just to keep you on your toes. The movement comes to a soft, calming close, and then…

Wake up! It’s the finale and we are in C Major! The fifth movement is a colorful pageant of brass fanfares, hymns, and playful marches. If the symphony does in fact reflect night, then the last movement is the glory of daylight breaking through the darkness.

The Seventh Symphony was not well received in its day, and though it has gained favor, it remains one of his least popular works. Many listeners feel that the symphony is disjunct, that the movements do not flow one into another. To me, it seems like Mahler used his Seventh Symphony as an outlet for experimentation. It is full of sound effects, unconventional textures, and unique orchestration. Like each Mahler symphony, the Seventh has its own color palette, character, and landscape. Though it may not be as gripping or popular as some of his other symphonies, I believe the Seventh is a gem worth exploring.

 

 

Up next: I interview the Cleveland Orchestra horn section about their sound concept and history. Stay tuned!

Check It Out!

20 Jan

I meant to post this some time ago, but this is still exciting! Horns Across America was named Blog of the Month for November on the UC honors website! Image

Thanks to all my readers for your support. More horn adventures to come very soon! Stay tuned.

 

Exploring a Force of Nature

18 Oct

Two weeks ago I had the incredible privilege of sitting in on a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra rehearsal. On Thursday, October 4th and Saturday, October 6th the orchestra performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (henceforth referred to as Mahler 3). This is an incredible undertaking, as it involves coordinating a massive orchestra along with a women’s chorus, boys’ choir, mezzo soprano soloist, and offstage post horn solo (performed by a trumpet player).

A word about Mahler 3: if you sit down with the intention of hearing this incredible work all the way through, you are in it for the long haul. On average, performances run about an hour and forty minutes. But consider the length of a Peter Jackson movie and this is short by comparison! In fact, I have said many times that Mahler 3 is the Lord of the Rings of symphonies. It is an epic work. (Cincinnati billed it as a “Force of Nature” on their website, with appropriately placed lightning bolts in the background.) It explores every emotion from rapturous joy to utter despair, one extreme often chasing another. It is by turns a glorious battle march and a plaintive lament. Musical characters come and go, and if you take the time to meet these characters you may find yourself loving them as much as Frodo or Aragorn.

Tolkien analogies aside, the fact is that any Mahler symphony is difficult to take in all at once. I will readily admit that Mahler 3 and I are still getting acquainted, and I am much more familiar with some movements than others. So in order to get to know this symphony, I have a few recommendations. 

Break the work into bite-sized pieces. Listen to one movement at a time (if you’re not dying to hear what comes next after just one). Play it in the background of your car trip or your cleaning spree (I find myself scrubbing dishes harder while listening to the more emphatic parts of the first movement). This will help you recognize the overall structure of the piece. Sometimes it’s helpful to know what comes next. 

After all this, settle in sometime and take a few hours to hear how this work unfolds. Each of the six movements is completely unique, but every movement comes together to make an incredible whole. And please enrich your life by hearing a Mahler symphony performed live. The most expensive, state-of-the-art speakers cannot do justice to the dense layers of sound Mahler creates, not to mention the incomparable energy of over a hundred human beings uniting to make music together. Where else can you find that?

A few other horn players and myself arrived at the rehearsal shortly before it began and found seats in the empty hall. We remarked at the unusual sight of these world-class musicians wearing regular street clothes in the hall. This really shouldn’t surprise me by now, (these are normal people) but it still does. World-renowned Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the orchestra, and his incredibly nuanced conducting brought out the full extent of the emotions of the piece. He and the orchestra made a wonderful team.

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Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Image credit: http://www.spac.org/buildingofaseason/rafael.php

It was a unique pleasure to hear Mahler live and in a silent hall. With so few bodies in the audience absorbing the sound, the acoustics were much more live, and it was easier to hear the subtle layers of the music. The orchestra tuned briefly and then dove straight into a run-through of the piece. 

Eight horns open the work in unison, and I defy you not to be stopped dead in your tracks by this introduction. The first movement takes its time. It develops slowly. There are unashamed long pauses. But there is a slow, grinding intensity that gives the piece a heady, driving energy. Several soloists are featured in this movement; there is a famous trombone solo that is, for lack of a better word, delicious. Cristian Ganicenco, of course, played it outstandingly well, with power and consistency of sound throughout the register of the instrument. Timothy Lees, the concertmaster, played with stunning clarity and musicality. The basses played with such ferocity at times that I thought their instruments might catch on fire. No description can do live Mahler justice – I cannot emphasize this enough. To me the dirges and military marches of this movement reflect a struggle, both inward and outward. The first movement is a battle.

The second movement could not be more contrasting. It is light and simple-sounding, remaining in a major key. It reflects tranquility and happiness – the things worth fighting for. If we’re sticking with the Lord of the Rings metaphor, the second movement is about the Shire. It also contains a number of percussion sound effects that only Mahler could create (we’re talking about the man who told a percussionist to hit a giant box with a hammer in his sixth symphony). Most of the low brass gets a break for this delicate movement (No break for the horns, though. Mahler is a notorious face-buster but we love him nonetheless). There is a descending half-step motive from the first movement that makes a subtle return near the end of the second. Perhaps this is a half-remembered dream of the struggle.

The third movement always reminds me of walking through a mysterious, enchanted forest (Dare I say Lothlorien? Sorry, I can’t help myself). This lilting melody eventually becomes more dark and aggressive. This movement also features the famous offstage post horn solo.  It’s played on one of these:

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If you saw this instrument and said to yourself, “Baby French horn!” you are not alone.
http://www.robbstewart.com/Museum/19thCentury/GermanPostHorn.html

This little instrument is a bit of a devil to play and intonation is quite a challenge to say the least, especially from offstage. In the end, it pays off because the solo is incredibly beautiful. Robert Sullivan performed this challenging solo with a sweet, clear sound – really singing through the instrument.

The fourth movement featured mezzo soprano soloist Stephanie Blythe, who sang with arresting emotional depth. The text of the movement is taken from Nietzche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra:

O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!

 

The fifth movement features the soloist, boys’ choir, and women’s chorus. After the dark, mysterious fourth movement, the entire vocal ensemble (seated behind the orchestra) suddenly rises, erupting in a joyous carol. Imitating church bells and a choir of angles, the following text is taken from an old German song:

Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: “Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!”
“And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!”
“If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy.”
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

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A famous caricature of Mahler
Image credit: http://www.8notes.com/biographies/mahler.asp

The last movement begins with the strings playing a heartbreaking melody. I have a hard time discerning what role the last movement fulfills in this story. It is laden with complex emotions. At one moment it seems nostalgic and reflective, the next, hopeful, and the next, resigned to some bitter fate. I encourage you to listen to it and draw your own conclusions. When discussing this movement with Professor Gardner, who subbed with the orchestra for the performances, he noted that this movement is a great litmus test for a conductor’s musical interpretation. If the movement is conducted too quickly, the deep emotional layers cannot be properly portrayed. If it is too slow, the audience is likely to nod off. Maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos achieved an ideal tempo. I know I was on the edge of my seat, sensing the passion of both the performers and the Mahler himself. 

 

The Cincinnati Symphony horn section was augmented for the performance by Randy Gardner, Jeff Nelson, and Bruce Henniss. Like most Mahler symphonies, the work is very taxing, but the musicians were definitely up to the challenge. The entire section demonstrated impressive versatility, shifting seamlessly from producing a powerful wall of sound to delicate lyrical playing.

I hope my description has given you a general idea of how this piece works. If you haven’t heard it yet, I hope this encourages you to go listen to it now! I know writing about it makes me want to hear it again. Each time I listen, I uncover some new facet of the work. Getting to know Mahler is an endless musical discovery. 

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