Archive for February, 2009

You’ve got a long way to go to catch Elliott Carter in years, my friend, but you’ve already far surpassed him in cuteness.

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NAXOS recording engineer Norbert Kraft has posted a video on YouTube of my 1990 piece Bacchus Chaconne, played by violinist Danielle Belén and violist Miguel Hernandez:


And Welz Kaufman teamed with the Lincoln Trio to perform The Better Angels of Our Nature on the opening night of Ravinia’s spring season last week. Chicago Sun-Times review here.

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Last Thursday, President Obama attended a performance by the Lincoln Trio in Springfield, Illinois for the Lincoln Bicentennial. On the program? My piece The Better Angels of Our Nature.
At least that was the way it was supposed to work out. Then the Secret Service made a little switcheroo at the last minute, and the trio was consigned to the lobby area, while the president spoke inside.

Probably all for the best – one can’t be too careful when it comes to exposing the President of the United States to the music of a Sequenza21 blogger. I think we can all breathe a little more easily, knowing that his saturated mind and ears have been spared.

In any case, the trio has thirty-three performances in eleven cities over the next two months on this tour (photos and info here). That’s a lot more Dillon than anyone should be expected to digest.

My three-year-old son’s response: “Daddy goes to concerts and people play his music. Music comes out of Daddy’s head. Music comes out of my head, too, but nobody plays it.”

Been there, buddy.

Things can turn anytime, any direction – I could be there again in the time it takes the Secret Service to clear a band off its stand.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy every near-miss I get.

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Back from NYC, and now I can report on the twelve hours I spent in Los Angeles on February 1st.
The occasion for my visit was a performance by violinist Danielle Belén at the Colburn School of Music. Danielle played six of my pieces – two solo works, three with pianist David Fung, and one with violist Miguel Hernandez. Although I like to attend performances of my music whenever possible, I had an added incentive for making this trip: after the performance, Danielle was off to Toronto to record all of my violin music, and I wanted to get some input into her interpretations up front.I met Danielle (for the first time) in the Colburn lobby; she took me upstairs to a rehearsal. She is, by the way, even more lovely in person than in her photos. In the rehearsal, it quickly became apparent that my music was in very good hands. Joined by violist Miguel Hernandez (of the Harlem Quartet) for Bacchus Chaconne, Danielle easily demonstrated that she had the monster technique to handle all of the piece’s challenges, the intelligence to ask all the right questions, and the artistic sensitivity to find just the right sound for every nuance.

The violin-viola duo was followed by a rehearsal of Façade, with pianist David Fung. Façade has subtle tempo shifts every few measures, all of which have to be “felt” – I wrote it at a time when I had decided that intuitive tempo changes are much more interesting to listen to than metric modulations. Danielle definitely has a very special feeling for how this piece should flow. By now, she and David had played it together dozens of times. When they finished playing for me, I told her — and I repeat it here — their performance was downright scary.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to rehearse all the pieces before the concert, but we got through enough for me to know that I would only have a few minor suggestions afterwards. I’ve been lucky enough to have many excellent performances of my music, but some of them have been more a matter of putting every note in the right place than “getting” the music on every level. Danielle puts all the notes in the right places, AND grasps every layer of meaning.

The concert took place right during the Super Bowl, so it was nice to get a good turnout my first (and hopefully last) time going toe-to-toe with Bruce Springsteen. I was happy to have my niece Raquel and her new husband keeping me company. Danielle played magnificently. Afterwards, the great Robert Lipsett gave me a tour of Jascha Heifitz’s studio, designed by Lloyd Wright in 1946. When Heifitz’s Beverly Hills home was demolished in the 1980s, this studio, which was fifteen steps from the house, was dismantled and stored, later to be installed in a lobbyish area above Zipper Hall. It’s a fantastic monument of mid-century modernism, complete with redwood-panelled, built-in furniture and an imposing fireplace.

Heifitz studio, with RCA dog guarding the entrance 

And, of course, no parallel walls, for a wonderful acoustic.

Interior of Heifitz studio


Later, over dinner, I gave Danielle some notes on interpretation and we talked through plans for the recording. She is chock-full of good ideas. Then it was off to the airport for the red-eye — appropriately named in this case, since I was up all night with a mind reeling from taking in impressions of three different countries (Midland-Odessa, Houston and Los Angeles) in the space of 24 hours.

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I’m in Manhattan for the NY premiere of Still Point tonight – concert info here. Last night I saw Jane Fonda playing a musicologist (ain’t typecasting grand?) at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in the opening preview of Moises Kaufman’s Thirty-three Variations. But now I’m writing about the second leg in my trip last weekend – part one was here.

Part two was Houston, where I spent twelve hours, half of them asleep. I visited an old friend, Bob Yekovich, and he was able to give me a quick, after-hours tour of his baby, the Shepherd School of Music.

Shepherd – need I say it? – has quickly become one of the top music schools in the country in just thirty years of existence. As part of Rice University, it is extremely well-funded. The facilities are second to none — Ida Kavafian had warned me that Curtis could fit in the Shepherd lobby. We ducked our heads into Duncan Recital Hall (below), catching the last movement of a Prokofiev violin sonata, eavesdropped on a few Opera Scenes in the Wortham Opera Theater, and strolled through the empty Stude Concert Hall, the orchestral venue – all without leaving the enormous Alice Pratt Brown building.

Duncan Recital Hall

Bob took over Shepherd in 2003, after a dozen years of running the North Carolina School of the Arts. When he left UNCSA, I became Interim Dean for one year, and quickly learned what a preposterously difficult job it is to dean a school. Every day featured urgent requests from students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, other administrators, legislators, donors and members of the community. Prioritizing them was an impossible task, since all of these people felt like their needs warranted immediate response – as, indeed, they did.

So let’s put it this way: before 2003 I disdained people who were in charge, figuring they were just big egos lording it over the rest of us. Now I really sympathize with them. It’s enough of a challenge to be in charge of the things I have to do, without having to answer to so many other people’s needs.

All of these thoughts came to mind as Bob described some of the blessings and curses of his position. He loves what he does, and I admire him for how much he has accomplished.

So here’s a pitch for the Shepherd School. Anyone out there with $50 million to spend, send them a check – they need to build a new opera house.

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Heads-up: violist Hsin-Yun Huang (pictured) has a recital at Mannes this Tuesday night. She’ll be playing the NY premiere of my Still Point with mezzo Theodora Hanslowe and pianist Thomas Sauer. Also on the program, a trio by somebody named Kurtag. Meanwhile Danielle Belen is up in Toronto recording everything I ever wrote for violin in the Glenn Gould Studios.
* * *But I’m here, with a start on a report on my trip(s) last weekend. I felt like I was visiting three different countries — Midland-Odessa, Houston and Los Angeles — in the space of sixty hours. I know, they are all part of the good old USA, but aside from a common language and the same airport television stations, they couldn’t have been more different.

But one nice thing they had in common was gaggles of young people learning to play very complicated and old instruments – at least old in design, and sometimes old in construction.

Midland-Odessa was my first stop, for the second annual Cassatt in the Basin project. For those of you who haven’t read my blog in the past nine months (or have too many other more important things to keep track of to remember my digital scribbles), the Cassatt Quartet commissioned a triple quartet from me for this residency, to premiere with two local high school quartets. The kids got the music a few months ago; Cassatt arrived a week before the performance. In addition to preparing my Blossom, the quartet also sat next to the principals in the student chamber orchestra, coached chamber music groups, and generally provided musical guidance of the highest caliber.

Midland-Odessa is in the oil-rich western part of Texas, with fabulous wealth disguising serious isolation. The two cities, each with populations in the 100,000 range, struggle with some of the same problems one finds all over, most seriously teen pregnancy. Cassatt has used this residency to establish positive role models. By engaging the kids in chamber music, they are fostering teamwork and discipline, but unlike in sports, the teamwork and discipline of chamber music is in the service of beauty. For my part, it felt great to have my music serve an important social purpose – not something music has to do in order to be significant, but one of the many things it can do to great effect.

I arrived at the Midland-Odessa airport the day before the premiere. My hosts were Dr. and Dr. Topal, an opthamologist and a gynecologist in their 60s. They took nice care of me, serving wonderful vegetarian samosas and tasty Indian tea. I came to admire Kamal Topal in particular: a diminutive, energetic and chatty woman, she runs the Odessa Planned Parenthood branch, which is a bit like running a tax collection agency on Wall Street. I’d say she earned a lot of respect from me, except I don’t think she needed to earn anything from me, seeing as how my house would fit pretty comfortably in her living room.

We rehearsed my triple quartet that evening, making substantial progress in an hour. Rehearsal was followed by two dinners — one Caribbean and one Japanese – these are the kinds of hosts who wouldn’t settle for preparing just one dinner for their guests. The woman who made the Japanese food kept assuring me I wouldn’t like it, as I feasted on sushi, miso soup and more. She should see the globe-hopping that happens every week in my kitchen.

I’m always wary of people who jump to clichéd assumptions when they are away from home, grasping at the slightest clues to support their prejudices. But I must admit, I did a double-take as I arrived at Bonham Jr. High for the performance on the following day and was greeted by a large sign saying “If You Don’t Believe, You Don’t Belong.” It took me a moment to realize the slogan was in reference to the school football team, but it still struck me as a painfully loaded message to send to teenagers.

But I live in my world, and everyone else is welcome to live in theirs.

The music covered a lot of bases, but one piece that stuck in my head was a Beethoven string trio arranged for cello and two double basses. No disrespect to the performers, who acquitted themselves admirably, or to the double bass, which is an instrument I fell in love with early and hard, but it’s easy to imagine this would be a perfect nightmare for a cellist – I’m about to go out onstage to play a Beethoven trio, but instead of violin and viola, I’m playing it with two double basses — and I forgot to put my clothes on this morning.

My piece got a big buildup. It was last on the program, and it was preceded by a speech about how exciting it is to premiere a new work, especially a work of such magnificence, etc., etc. (No, I wasn’t the one doing the talking.) Then the musicians came out on stage. Applause. They take their seats, arrange their music on the stands, adjust themselves in preparation for the performance.

After about 30 seconds of this, a child’s voice calls out from the back of the auditorium: “OKAYYYYYY, We’re REA-DYYYYYY!”

Best intro I’ve ever had.

post-performance line-up for paparazzi 

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I’m back, swamped with work, but Danielle Belen has a report on my LA visit on her new blog.

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