I’m going to bypass the two articles which prompted my headline and send you to a terrific blog, Proper Discord. If you want to read Anne Midgette’s
and Norman Lebrecht’s articles (if you haven’t already), there are links to them on the site. To be clear, I am not making any comment about either writer–I love Anne and read her blog and Washington Post articles regularly. I did not, however, agree with this particular post.
Feb 06 2010
I’m going to bypass the two articles which prompted my headline and send you to a terrific blog, Proper Discord. If you want to read Anne Midgette’s
Alive and Composing: the Wonderful World of innova; where we ask artists on
Innova: Neel Murgai
What’s your pet’s name and why?
We had a dog when I was little, a Lhasa Apso named Ke-chung, which means ”˜small dog’ in a Polynesian language. He was little too so it made sense.
How do you spoil yourself?
When feeling indulgent, I read and watch science fiction and fantasy films and books.
If you weren’t making music as a career what would you be doing?
I actually have a Bachelors degree in Civil Engineering that I abandoned to go study sitar in India. So I guess that I would be an engineer, but I hated it! I discovered my passion for music only while I was pursuing this degree.
Where do you live and how does that affect your music and the way you make
Brooklyn, New York. Need I say more? New York City has all the music of the world. I have always been drawn to diverse sounds and have learned to develop my own style by working and jamming out with talented musicians of many traditions. New York also has a strong Indian classical music community, a vital aspect to learning this difficult art form. My music is rooted firmly in this tradition, but it is inspired by so much more and New York is fertile ground for this inspiration.
What is your first sound memory?
I remember my mother’s voice, singing softly or speaking in that high pitched way that people use to speak to babies.
Name three Desert Island discs (or MP3s), recordings that you feel
Sitarist Nikhil Bannerjee’s “Raga Hemant”, Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s “Passages”, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational performance and why?
A couple years ago I was performing regularly with the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company. We had one show in the Celebrate Brooklyn series in Prospect Park. Bill had asked me to play solo intro and intermission music, so I was on stage playing for well over two hours in front of many thousands of people. The memorable moment though, came towards the end of the performance, when I (more than warmed up) had the greatest experience of the “chills” in my life. The music and dance were climaxing to spectacular heights. I was in ecstasy and it felt as if we were taking the crowd with us. They responded in kind when the last beat of music hit with the last movement of the dancer and the crowd erupted like I have never heard before. It has become my goal to attempt to scale these heights in every performance since.
Describe your most mind-blowing art experience (in any art form), something
One night, when I was in high school, driving around with some friends and up to no good, we changed the radio station and heard the most unique music that any of us had ever heard up to that point. We had to pull over. I have never heard it or found it again since. I think it was called “Symphony of the Cars”. Looking back now, I realize that it was a minimalist piece. Car names were chanted repetitively over car and industrial sounds. For the first time we heard music that did not have melody. It used the sounds of our environment and everyday. I had no idea that music could be like that. It opened me up to another world.
What is your greatest fear?
Not being able to play music anymore.
What has been your career low point?
I subbed once for a sitarist at an Indian restaurant that shall remain nameless. They wanted me to play for some 5 or 6 hours for little money and paired me up with a tabla player who could barely play the instrument. On top of that, they grudgingly gave me any food and no drinks, not even tea. I was so angry that I had to go to the bar next door to have a shot during my breaks in order to get through the night!
What were your first compositions like? How have they changed?
My first compositions using sitar as my main instrument were admittedly naïve. I was treading new ground and there were some necessary growing pains. New breeds of cross-cultural music require “fusion” at the molecular level in order to be successful. I had not yet internalized the Hindustani music or found my own voice. Now after years of intensive study and experience playing in many styles, I am very clear about what I want. I have achieved the molecular fusion as these styles seem to have coalesced within me and I can produce a sound that is whole and yet unique, the ancient future traditional.
What did you learn from your teachers? Any words of wisdom to share?
My two most important teachers have been my sitar guru, Pundit Krishna Bhatt, and my composition instructor, Edgar Grana. Krishna has taught me in the most traditional way, where lessons are not planned. The teacher improvises/composes material based on the mood and talent of the student and the feeling of the moment. In this way each student learns a little differently but remain part of the tradition. Interestingly many of my lessons with Edgar were similar in that they were tailored to my interests and needs.
How are you like your music? Would an outsider see/hear any similarity
My music reflects my own identity as an Indian-American, and as a diasporic, continental drifter with many influences. More substantially there is perhaps a certain melancholy to my being that is reflected in the music: a bitter/sweet dichotomy that never quite resolves.
This is my first release as a band leader. As such, the material is somewhat retrospective, with some reworked ideas from my initial forays as well as several new pieces. Three of the pieces are clearly based on specific ragas but take them to new places through chordal analysis, the creation of textures and other ideas that the musicians use for group improvisation and supporting each others solos. It is the improvisational discourse between performers, listening, reacting and responding to each other in real time, that is at the very heart of this ensemble’s music. Therefore, I compose music indeterminate with respect to its performance, depending upon the musicians to bring the themes to life with their own expression, guided by my road maps. “Panchatantra” utilizes the minimalist technique of offset repetition playfully rendered and elaborated upon. “Coi Umeed” is actually a Eastern European gypsy song that I heard in the movie Latcho Drom. I set the basic melody to chords and 18th century Urdu lyrics from a form of poetry known as Ghazal. Rounding out this CD is one straight ahead Hindustani classical piece, “Raga Khammaj” and finally “Ngong” where I perform overtone singing and frame drumming along with the rest of the band in a freely improvised context.
On Monday, Feburary 1 (from 7: 30 – 9:00 PM), Metropolis Ensemble, led by conductor Andrew Cyr, and featuring mandolinist Avi Avital, will perform Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto at the former Tower Records, 692 Broadway at West 4th Street. After the performance, members will meet and greet, and sign their new Naxos CD. If you want to attend, please go to the Metropolis website to RSVP. Attendees will receive a free CD. Metropolis’ conductor and founder Andrew Cyr shares his thoughts below .
I met composer Avner Dorman in May of 2006, a couple of months after Metropolis Ensemble’s first concert. My cousin emailed me the day of a CD release party/concert that featured his solo piano music “Come hear”. So I went to check it out.
I was deeply struck by how orchestral this music sounded, especially in the hands of pianist Eliran Avni. I left intrigued and hungry to hear more of Avner’s music and I listened to a live recording of his Piccolo Concerto on his website. His approach to color, rhythm, invention, and structure (an often ignored topic) was masterful and inventive: he truly possessed a distinct voice. In addition to all that, I simply loved his music.
About 6 months later, we met again. I was approaching him to explore a potential new commission, but he was wanting to steer me in a different direction. Avner was in the process of writing a new mandolin concerto for a young Israeli/Moroccan virtuoso mandolinist, Avi Avital. Describing how they were Skyping daily about mandolin techniques and relaying ideas back and forth across the Atlantic, I was intrigued and decided to wait to hear the results.
One year after, nearly to the day after I had heard Avner’s piano music for the first time, Metropolis Ensemble gave the U.S. premiere of his Mandolin Concerto, with Avi himself playing. I was so passionate about this piece and Avner’s music, as were our amazing players, we investigated how to find a way to record it in studio.
During that process, we had invited Grammy-winning producer David Frost to attend the premiere and after the concert, he signaled to us that we were ready to record this music. Really, for real? It was our third concert project as a performing group, but that gesture of faith from David was a transformative moment for the ensemble. Five months later, we recorded 4 of his chamber orchestra concerti in 2 short days that were perhaps the longest of my life. I am so thrilled to share this great CD showcasing the fantastic music of Avner Dorman and the extraordinary talent and commitment of our musicians.
Listen here for more of Avner Dorman’s music on KBAQ, Arizona:
Jan 27 2010
For all Sequenza21 readers who live near or in New York City, composer-conductor Pierre Boulez will be signing his new CD on the CSO Resound label — Pulcinella/Symphony in Three Movements/Four Etudes — at the Lincoln Triangle Barnes and Noble (1972 Broadway at West 66th) on Friday, January 29 at 1:30 PM. Before the signing, he will be interviewed by Ara Guzelimian, dean of The Juilliard School.
Maestro Boulez leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two concerts at Carnegie Hall this weekend: Saturday, January 30 at 8 PM and on Sunday, January 31. If there are any tickets left, the programs for both performances are superb.
Jan 26 2010
This week the Naxos blog will include postings by artists from two of our most exciting distributed labels: New Amsterdam Records and Innova.
This posting is by electric guitarist Grey McMurray, part of the ensemble itsnotyouitsme (along with composer/violinist and Caleb Burhans). Their new CD fallen monuments comes out tomorrow (January 26). itsnotyouitsme’s debut album, walled gardens, also is available on New Amsterdam Records (NWAM 006).
At the end of this month, itsnotyouitsme releases fallen monuments. Our second album on New Amsterdam Records, this collection captures a different aspect of our musical identity than its predecessor, walled gardens. The first album contained material that we’d been playing for a year. The tracks therein helped us figure out how to play together and show us what our sound would be. This record represents the improvisational core of our interaction and a more fluent real-time command of our looping devices. The songs are culled from performances and scoring sessions over the past two years.
“Kid Icarus (little jam)” finds us in the holiday spirit. Recorded on the eve of Christmas’s eve, this track was performed in Caleb’s apartment. Our holiday, however, is filled with a falling tragedy; hope burned out of the sky, but not fully extinguished. All of our music tries to convey the bleak muted drama of the everyday, with a healthy dose of an undying hope for tomorrow. A longer version will appear on our next studio album, hence, “little jam.”
“Music for a blue whale documentary” is not music for a blue whale documentary. Recorded in St. Peter’s church in midtown manhattan, this song/improvisation finds us reveling in a vast physical space. The sound quality of the recording gives the song its title, but the vastness of the environment – our first church performance as this band – gave us the musical direction. The only recording device is a mic placed 3 stories above our amps. The hazy actual reverb/room sound is the vastness we felt, as well as the reason for the “lo-fi” character of the recording.
“Dead men make good heroes” also finds us in a church in midtown manhattan. However, this time there are more than two mics overhead. This song/improvisation was taken from a performance opening for the post-rock, ambient music luminaries, Stars Of The Lid. This song moves through a series of sonic snapshots – melodic and textural cells – with limited layers/loops so as to keep the fabric spare and again, utilize the physical space we were playing in. The last minute and a half of this song is a gentle ascent – very literally a scalar ascent – that layers a number of loops, but never gets too dense and never quite arrives. This want of memory – literally, to reinstate loops that had been moving in and out of the fabric into a dense melodic climax – is what defines this song. Seeking and being inspired by what or who is gone. Though their mental or aural stamp remains on our motives, their influence will not be wholly present to world around us.
The next three songs were recorded for a documentary about Artemesia Genteleschi called A Woman Like That. “Vanity stays my hand” is a progression of Caleb’s that we build layers on, arriving at a melodically dense place before returning to the original theme, now sonically in a distant room. The slow neighboring motion of the arpeggiated progression masks the loop’s repetition, and allows the mostly diatonic layers to surprise the listener.
“Lost nation municipal airport” contains recorded distortion at one point in slowly ascending guitar loop. That spare, crunchy repetition gives the title image its aural mirror. This song was actually the end of the improvisation that was, “vanity stays my hand.” Listening back, these two songs felt like two very distinct ideas that might better serve a listener as separate children.
“Season’s greetings” is the shortest track on this set. This song benefits from the most studio produced sound on the album, allowing the simple character of the guitar and violin haze to be clearly defined.
“We are the sons of our fathers” finishes the album. The longest song we’ve recorded, and one of the more uneventful on the surface, is also one of the most meaningful to us. This track was recorded in Caleb’s apartment on a slow bright summer afternoon and has the same character as a hot day in the city, homebound, without electricity; movement occurs with only absolute necessity. This song moves through two melodic areas over its near 20 minute length. Caleb’s casio drones are present throughout, an aspect of our ever-present memory. We fiercely guard this nostalgia – in this case, that of our dead fathers – as if it may disappear; the drones/ambience never really leave. This music happens, these melodies happen, with us or without us. We move through these two melodic areas with such deliberation, as if we’re trying, delicately, to physically hold them. The result is that these melodies become the drone, become the ambience of this music. It is heartening to think that our memory needn’t be so protected, that the memory isn’t so frail, that our nostalgia is here with us or without us. This music is our therapeutic reminder – or hope – that these memories breath in some the way, just as their fallen counterpart did.
Click here to preview a track from fallen monuments:
Sam Sadigursky is a saxophonist, multi-reedist and composer based in Brooklyn, NY. He has received grants and awards from ASCAP, the Puffin Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and Chamber Music America. He performs internationally and appears on over twenty albums as a sideman. Visit his own blog, The One Seat, for more of his writing.
I’m very excited to release Words Project III: Miniatures (New Amsterdam Records) on January 26, with a release concert on the 29th at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, NY. I figured I would take this opportunity to talk about the general process and the evolution of The Words Project, which is comprised of settings of poems to text to song and has thus far been my focus as a leader and composer. You can visit the New Amsterdam website to read more about me as a player and composer and listen to tracks from the previous two albums.
I wish I could say that I’ve been a lifelong reader of poetry and that this venture evolved naturally out of that. This couldn’t be less true, actually. I’ve always loved fiction and language, but never could achieve the quietness of mind that poetry demands. I read and memorized the requisite poetry fed to us in school, but beyond that I wasn’t exposed to much of it. Given how marginalized it is in our culture it’s relatively easy to ignore. I can’t even say that I was ever very interested in song lyrics, even. I’ve always loved listening to music of any style with singers, but generally I tended to ignore lyrical elements in favor of musical ones.
I spent a number of years in New York in search of what my own contributions here would be, dipping my feet into as many waters as I possibly could. I was involved with a few groups with singers and started to feel a shortage of new vocal pieces that involved lyrics (rather than wordless vocals), and many of the newer works I heard didn’t have very challenging lyrics or content. Having long loved the art-song tradition, I set out to find some initial poems to set, and started calling singers over to sing through my work. The directness to the human voice and its mysteries were thrilling for me, and I found myself thinking and working differently than ever before. Fortunately, I also began to discover a deep well of talented young singers eager to take on new material, which furthered my interest in this venture.
The first pieces I set were by Lithuanian-Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, whose work I’ve continued to set to this day. There’s a certain simplicity to his work that makes it highly typical of the kind of work I enjoy setting. The ideas in his work are by no means simple, but the use of language has a direct quality that makes his work conducive to musical setting. When poetry reaches a certain level of abstraction, there’s no longer room for the kind of music that I would like to write. Similarly, there’s a lot of poetry that tells something akin to literate story, which also doesn’t intrigue me as a composer. It’s difficult to define what lies in the middle of these two extremes, but I do tend to know whether I can set a work within the first few lines of it.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether it’s the poetry that I set to music or music I set to poetry. It’s probably a little of both… There have been times when everything has started simply with the words in front of me, a musical gesture or phrase that arises from the first stanza, with nothing else preconceived. Other times, there is a more intentional process, where I’ll employ a musical idea I’ve been toying with or use a certain stylistic notion in crafting a piece.
I don’t tend to dwell too much on the meaning of a poem before I start working with it. Perhaps this is out of impatience or over-eagerness, but I feel strongly that my job is not to filter the meaning of any work for the listener. I try my best not to interpret these poems or put any sort of definitive stamp on them. I simply want to color them and make them come alive in a unique way. Great works of poetry, like great works of music, can mean different things to us at different times. This is one of the beauties of art in genearal. Certain works can fill us with sadness one hour and be completely exhilarating the next. We bring our own experiences to whatever we take in, and it’s not my intention to subjugate this process by governing the experience of a poem. By the time it lands in my hands, the poem is a complete work of art on its own. It doesn’t need my efforts to be read or to thrive. It already exists in its full flowering, and this is a humbling thing that I always try to keep in mind.
One of the greatest challenges of this genre for me continues to be how to fit all this into the jazz continuum, one that is based on improvisation. Many of the longer works I’ve set demand long forms and it’s difficult to know where improvisation should fit in, or whether there’s a place for it at all. Personally, it’s unappealing to simply use words as a launching point for extended improvisation. I’ve always wanted to frame my work primarily around the poems themselves, and always have them be at the center of my work. Thus, I want any solos or improvisation to function somehow within the poems themselves, to make this all feel like one, creating the illusion that the words and the music came out of the same mind. All the principles of tension and release in music really come to the forefront. Sometimes improvised sections function as a release and other times they build tension or intensity from a place where there was not before. Other times they simply function as a breath within the poem, a chance for the listener to take in what has come before.
Melodically, my own voice tends to guide me when I write. I do my best to forget my background as an instrumentalist and try to think like a singer. I also keep the use of melody in everyday speech in mind. We all use varying degrees of pitch inflection and rhythm when we speak, and thus we’re so easily able to accept lyrics that are sung as a natural extension of everyday speech. Perhaps this is what makes so many of us want to be singers, to further the expression that language allows us, and possibly communicate things where speech falls short. To this effect, I tend to use mostly close intervals in my writing that mirror the intervals of everyday speech.
Words Project III: Miniatures comprises material that I’ve written spanning back to 2006, primarily songs that had never fit into the framework of what I’ve done previously both live and in the studio. The project started quite spontaneously…. I called Michael Leonhart to sing through some songs I had written for male voice, and he hit the record button and we started tracking. A few months later, vocalist Sunny Kim was in New York, and I decided to bring her into Michael’s studio to record a few things. Based on how well these two experiences went, not long after I chose material for an entire record of short songs.
Sometimes I had conceived arrangements and instrumentation before going into the studio, and other times these things came together as we worked. Most of the tracking was done individually, which allowed Michael and I plenty of room for editing and experimentation. I wanted to create a unique world of sound for each piece on the record, and used a lot of uncommon instruments and sounds in order to achieve this. Sometimes I had a good idea of what a piece would end up sounding like and other times tracks unfolded themselves from something more unknown.
The miniature aspect to each piece is really what holds this record together through all the changes of texture and instrumentation. These are musical portraits or glimpses, maybe akin to a collection of short poems or stories. I’ve always loved listening to collections of short pieces, whether they be art song or piano preludes. I love the way each one can leave you wanting a little more but eager to hear what’s next. The broad mix of styles reflects the many kinds of music that have shaped me, perhaps never so apparently as on this record. There are very few improvised solos on any of the tracks, but to me the way this record was recorded gives it the feel of a jazz record, and most everybody who appears on it comes from a jazz background, although they all bring much more than that to the table. In any case, I’ll leave this to the listeners to decide…
For more information, please visit newamsterdamrecords.com or samsadigursky.com. The CD will be available on iTunes and Amazon on January 26th. The release party will be January 29 at 8 PM at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn as part of the Archipelago (http://archipelagoseries.com/) series.
Jan 21 2010
Metropolis Ensemble Celebrates Release of New Naxos Recording of Music by Avner Dorman with Performance at No Longer EmptyPosted by Paula in Tidbits
On February 1, 2010, Metropolis Ensemble celebrates the release of their new Naxos CD, Avner Dorman: Concertos for Mandolin, Piccolo, Piano and Concerto Grosso, with a release party and performance at No Longer Empty, a non-profit organization that organizes site-specific public art exhibitions in vacated storefronts and properties in New York City, located in the former Tower Records on Broadway and West 4th Street. The event will feature a performance of Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto, featuring mandolinist Avi Avital.
Naxos’ second recording of works by the award-winning Israeli composer Avner Dorman features the Metropolis Ensemble, led by Music Director Andrew Cyr. In addition to Dorman’s 2006 Concerto for Mandolin, the recording also features three world premiere recordings: the 2001 Piccolo Concerto, with piccolo soloist Mindy Kaufman and pianist Eliran Avni; Concerto Grosso (2003) with Arnaud Sussmann and Lily Francis, violins; Eric Nowlin, viola; Michal Korman, cello; and Aya Hamada, harpsichord; and the composer’s 1995 Piano Concerto, a work he penned when he was only nineteen years old, also featuring pianist Eliran Avni, whose 2006 NAXOS recording of Avner Dorman’s piano works was critically acclaimed.
WHAT: Metropolis Ensemble CD Release Concert and Release Party:
My Naxos colleague Elysha Miracle is a professional violist and I was thrilled to convince her to interview violist Eliesha Nelson for the Naxos blog and Sequenza21. A member of the Cleveland Orchestra since 2000, Eliesha’s debut recording on the Dorian Sono Luminus label features the Complete Works for Viola by American composer Quincy Porter.
When I first learned of Eliesha Nelson’s upcoming release of Quincy Porter’s Complete Viola Works from Dorian Sono Luminus, I was overjoyed to have such a wonderful release from a violist. As a violist myself, I find we tend to band together as a group more so than many other instrumentalists. I can’t be sure why this is the case, but as a result I find myself rooting for violists, and particularly one who brings such excitement to the repertoire and instills respect for her instrument. Eliesha Nelson’s performance of the Quincy Porter works does just that. Since she plays the instrument closest to my heart and we share unique spellings of the same name, I found myself very attached to this recording! With a brand-new album coming out, being a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and motherhood on the way, she is an inspiration to many, including myself. After contacting Eliesha to tell her how much I enjoyed her new recording, her kindness and enthusiasm for the music made me want to learn more about her background and what led her to this point in her career as a musician. So I went straight to the source to learn more about this talented violist and her passion for music.
My parents come from a generation where learning an instrument, usually piano, was commonplace. It was considered part of being a well-educated, well-rounded individual irrespective of one’s economic status. My mother played violin and piano, so I and my sister did too. Viola came later, in my early 20’s.
I began playing the violin when I was 6 years old. I was raised in the interior of Alaska, and when I was first learning violin, the Suzuki Method was being introduced to the area. My first violin teacher was a cellist, but she must have done her job well because I developed a love for playing. I think that’s the most important thing a young child gets with a good beginner’s teacher. No one wants to play an instrument if it’s tedious, boring or too academic.
I began playing viola out of curiosity and a desire to learn something new. I stuck with viola because I got an orchestral job as acting principal viola of the Florida Philharmonic immediately after getting my master’s degree, so I needed to play viola! Now I’m happy it turned out that way. I’m researching and learning a lot of fantastic viola repertoire that has been lost or underplayed, plus I love learning standard repertoire I “should” have learned as a kid.
I view the violin and viola as two separate instruments with different sonorities. I don’t necessarily value one over the other, but I do prefer the sound of the viola. I also find it more physically difficult to play, and sometimes when I’m feeling tired, I wistfully recall how much easier technical feats are on the violin. Paganini Caprices are much easier on the violin than the viola!
Artur Nikish believed that ‘a player’s psyche depended upon the instrument he played,’ and he characterized violists as being ‘calm and good-natured.’ It has also been often said that ‘viola players are the least troublesome’ in orchestra settings. Do you agree?
Hmmm. That’s what I’m told, that all violists are calm and good-natured. However, I have certainly met high-strung, very competitive and supremely self-confident violists! I think it takes all types, even in a viola section.
What are some of your favorite compositions to play? Do you have an era you prefer?
My favorite era is Renaissance music, so that means I listen to a lot of vocal music. There’s something about the purity of the voice and the use of intervals that I find captivating. I have Josquin des Prez, John Dunstable and Orlando de Lassus among others on my iPod. However, I have a wide range of musical interests from Appalachian folk music to Balinese gamelan.
Your first album Quincy Porter’s Complete Viola Works, is coming out at the end of September. What did you enjoy most about the recording process? Least?
Which composer would you most like–or would have liked–to contribute to the instrument’s repertoire?
It would be fascinating to see what a Brahms, Beethoven or Prokofiev viola concerto would sound like.
There are countless viola jokes. Can you share a few of your favorites?
The MIT web site has a fantastic list of viola jokes. One of my favorite shorter ones is about a violist and conductor. You see a violist and a conductor crossing the street. Which one do you hit first? The conductor – business before pleasure!
Jul 24 2009
Next morning: full dress rehearsal at the Palace goes surprisingly well. The final movement is still challenging. A fast 3/8 flourish that begins the movement still sounds sloppy and the ending isn’t quite as emphatic as it needs to be. I spent the rest of the day wandering the canals and streets, and drinking espresso, which is a silly thing to do to calm one’s nerves. The musical sites of St. Pete’s are so abundant as to be laughable. I had coffee in a building where Tchaikovsky lived and died. I visited the famous Mariinsky Theatre and the statues of Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov at the Conservatory. Most important to me of anything I might do in this city was to visit 66 Krukov Canal, which happened to be around the corner from Dima’s, and a rite of pilgrimage I had longed to take for years. This was the home of the Stravinsky’s until Igor’s triumphant Paris premieres with the Ballets Russe. The Revolution would keep him away from his birth country for another 55 years. A Firebird plaque hangs on the entrance to the building. I would return to this spot over and over, as well as to the Shamrock Pub, directly adjacent to it. Old habits die hard.
Arriving in the Palace again was a sobering experience. It was certainly the most glorious setting for my music, and I say this knowing I’ve been blessed with performances at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully, Steinway and a few smart college campuses. We very nearly had a full house and I was surprised to see Anna, a woman I spoke to on the flight over for no more than 10 minutes and to whom I briefly mentioned the concert. She joined us after the day-long wedding of her sister in Pushkin the day before. Charles, Vladimir and the band gave a strong performance of the Aikman piece, with its wonderfully tuneful middle movement. I’m happy to report that the performance of my Cello Concerto – the product of some six months of labor – went off extremely well. Dima played like someone absolutely possessed and Vladimir held the orchestra together nicely, and created a real sense of pacing. The crowd was more silent than any I had ever experienced, especially in my hushed central movement with its cadenza for cello and percussion. Tempos were as I had them indicated, and the applause for the performers was hard-earned. The US embassy and the St. Petersburg Times sent four officials who I never managed to talk to but I was pleased to hear English spoken elsewhere in the crowd a bit. A bunch of us went out to celebrate afterward to a far-too-hip-for-me club and restaurant. I got a little thrill from seeing my name rendered in Cyrillic on the concert posters. We wandered the streets in the only hour of darkness in the city.
A minor mishap on the way to the studio the next morning: Dima’s car breaks down in the middle of the busiest part of the Nevsky Prospekt. Fortunately, Vladimir and I are able to push it around a corner where, lo and behold, a car is vacating a parking spot. I will tell you this: parallel parking a car without a working motor is no easy feat. But since this car weighs slightly more than a watermelon, we managed fine. We quickly hitched a ride, which is surprisingly simple (and cheap) to do. Also no easy feat is cramming three musicians and a cello into the average Russian car. We all had to pile out just to reach our wallets.
The Melodiya Studios – which some consider the Abbey Road of Russia – resides in a small, rather shabby and nondescript church on Vasilievsky Island, across the Neva. We would be spending some ten hours here. I refused to believe that we could record this three-movement work, nearly 30 minutes of music for 51 players, in one day. Melodiya, established in 1964, was the state-sponsored record label of the USSR, making heralded recordings of classical, pop and jazz in a network of studios throughout the Soviet Union. This was where some of the first studio recordings of the last three Shostakovich symphonies were made and where some of the greatest conductors – Kondrashin, Svetlanov, Rozhdestvensky – put their stamp on the classics. The smoke-stained control room didn’t portend well, and I did my best not to judge the small and primitive mixing board. Up three flights of stone stairs and separated from the recording space by seven heavy iron doors, the control room is certainly isolated. Yosha, the engineer/producer (they are generally one and the same here) opened my score just before Vladimir gave the first downbeat. All prejudices were quickly laid aside. It was clear that this man had a valuable set of ears. In a matter of minutes, he know my score better than I. No detail escaped his attention. After a he uttered a gentle “spasiba” into the control mic, he would ask the group to play again. A few seconds later, they’d be playing. No fuss, no preparation. It went on like this for five hours with only two breaks. His understanding of this group, with whom he has made hundreds of recordings, was humbling to say the least. At one point, I left one of the seven doors open on my way from the bathroom to the control room. Once the mics were rolling, he stopped the orchestra and closed the door.
With the exception of two violists who played dominoes on a piano bench, each fifteen-minute break consisted of the band filing outside for profuse smoking. Most players carried with them a flask or thermos of tea, and a small sandwich. Once the personnel manager clapped his hands, the band gathered and the tape was rolling again in five minutes. After five hours, we took a break and Dima, Volodya and I headed to a Georgian restaurant for an epic lunch, washed down by lagidze, a tarragon-flavored soda, followed by a nap.
Back in the studio at night, which of course feels like early afternoon. Four more hours and we have it, including some good takes of the third movement. In all, we’ve recorded more than 300 minutes of music. Dima is unstoppable. At no point was there a need to stop because he had made a mistake. The third movement cadenza, the trickiest part of the whole piece, took only one take. We did a second just for the hell of it and I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. After divvying up the cash in the control room and a discussion on mixing, we’re done. I almost feel ripped off because the whole thing happened so fast, but I’m more amazed at the work ethic of these wonderful musicians. They make a meager existence performing and that explains the especially punishing schedule, especially in summer. They would do four more recording sessions in the next week.
After the sessions, I found some time to see more sites, including visiting Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland. A rival to Versailles, and in my opinion more spectacular with its hundreds of gravity-controlled fountains, it’s a forty-minute hovercraft ride from the Neva Embankment. Dima also took me to the impressive Peter and Paul Fortress and the Aurora Cruiser, which fired the salvos that signaled the start of the Revolution. Dmitry, Vladimir, Natasha, Charles and I ended our trip with a great meal and a final visit to the pub, where pianist Peter Laul joined us. Truly one of the most gifted musicians I happen to know, he helped us tow Dima’s broken car over every bridge in the city to find a shop where the sad thing could be parked. A two-hour nap before boarding the plane home, where I will make copious notes on the recording for purposes of mixing next month. I hope to report more soon. Next up: recording my Clarinet Concerto.
At Naxos, we are fortunate to have a very eclectic group! Our National Business Developer, Sean Hickey is a very talented composer. Here he recounts his experience with his first Russian recording.
In late 2007, I was commissioned to write a concertante work for cello and orchestra by the brilliant cellist Dmitry Kouzov, in collaboration with Vladimir Lande, principal guest conductor of the St. Petersburg Symphony. I completed the three-movement concerto in 2008, working very closely with the soloist in New York, particularly in the cadenzas, and dedicated it to the spectacular artistry of Dmitry. Composing this work in this degree of collaboration was new for me and I think I gained a lot from it.
In May, Maestro Lande led the Chamber Orchestra of Southern Maryland in two performances (in two different towns) of the work with Kouzov as soloist. Though the semi-professional orchestra clearly had difficulties with the score, it allowed all of us – composer, conductor, soloist – to address the hurdles in the work before taking it to St. Petersburg for its official world premiere. That concert took place on June 21st, 2009, in the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, one of the many palatial residences Catherine the Great built for her lovers in St. Petersburg.
Never traveling to Russia before but knowing a good handful of St. Petersburg musicians based in the States meant that this would be an interesting trip in a lot of ways. I would be staying with Dmitry and his parents on the Moika Embankment. Dima and I had organized a series of chamber music concerts in New York over the previous six months to raise money for the recording of my concerto. We were helped along by a couple of generous donations from individuals who have supported my work over the years.
Dima picked me up in a newly-purchased but old-as-dirt Soviet Lada, which required two strong hands on the glass in order to roll up the passenger window. Driving up the broad Moskova Prospekt, we sped through Soviet history: a statue of Lenin high on a pedestal in front of a hammer and sickle bas relief; the spot where the Nazis stopped in their siege of Leningrad, now a memorial dedicated to the defenders of the city; rows of Soviet housing estates, most of them looking like they could be toppled by a light breeze. At Dima’s comfortable flat, his mother served us an array of Russian delicacies and we set out to explore the city at night. St. Pete’s is the world’s northernmost city with more than a million people. In fact, nearly 5 million people call it home and it’s easy to see why in June. During this time of White Nights, the sun sets for about an hour and a half. It’s only truly dark for about an hour, around 2:30 AM. Most Petersburgers don’t seem to go to bed at all and I wouldn’t sleep much either.
Entering Palace Square, with the Alexander Column in the center, the massive Hermitage surrounding, and the Admiralty and St. Isaac’s in the near distance, was an unforgettable experience. Dima and I walked around extensively, along the broad Neva and across the exquisite bridges that bisect the many canals and rivers of the city: Fontanka, Moika, Griboeveda. Summer time usually means dinner around midnight, and most restaurants on the Nevsky Prospekt – Russia’s most famous street – make accommodation for diners at all hours. Amazing to think of this city built on islands and swamps, made to order by Peter the Great in the 18th century and where some 200,000 people perished in its construction, is actually younger than New York.
Next morning Dima and I drove to the pink and graceful Palace of Beloselsky-Belozersky on the banks of the Fontanka. The grand staircase was opulent, the enormous rooms of the palace sumptuous in their rococo detail. We ascended staircase after staircase to reach the smallest room on the whole place: the rehearsal space for the St. Petersburg Symphony. All composers feel anxiety in rehearsal and I’m certainly no exception. As soon as Vladimir gave the downbeat, the strings struggled with intonation, the nicely-dovetailed chorale-like wind passages weren’t so in tune or chorale-like and the overloud percussion sounded as if they were playing instruments manufactured in the Stone Age. My greatest fear, of course, was errors in parts, much of which was ameliorated in the Maryland performances. I was confident everything was proofed and reproofed. Alas, it was not quite. A xylophone part went mysteriously missing and though I had my files on disc, we couldn’t find a copy shop or hotel to read the files. Dima later bought some manuscript paper and I stayed up late the second night rewriting the part from score. Rosemary, a great friend from Ireland, came with me to the first rehearsal and after lunch the two of us headed to the impossibly opulent Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood. With more mosaics than any church in Europe, the place is almost too extreme in its color and detail. Inside, the stones where anarchists assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881 form the centerpiece opposite the altar. The church’s setting on the banks of the Griboedov makes it one of the most photographed places in Russia.
Alas, I’m getting carried away. I used to do a lot of travel writing but this is supposed to be about my musical experience. We had some late-night discussions with Vladimir before the next morning’s rehearsal. Dima played like a demon and the orchestra had improved, though not to any great degree. I was worried and Dima was clearly tense. Alexander Titov, music director of the orchestra and a well-known conductor, gave a few pointers and tried to rally the orchestra to concentrate. We were two days away from our concert, which also happened to feature another concerto premiere, the Violin Concerto of James Aikman, performed by an extraordinary violinist, Charles Wetherbee. Two American premieres in one concert! To the disbelief of the non-Russians present, the orchestra was recording this work the day after mine. In fact, between rehearsals, concerts and recordings, the orchestra worked some ten days straight, in many cases for 8-10 hours at a time. Their calm and quiet determination was astonishing.
The contrast between the opulent, wedding-cake facades and behind-the-scenes areas is shocking throughout St. Petersburg. Dima dragged me to the stage door of the Large Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic where a friend was waiting. She led us through a cavernous catacomb of dripping light bulbs, rusty pipes and exposed wiring. Then up a few flights of crumbling stairs and through a musician’s lounge of cigarette butts and chessboards, through another long hallway where she then parted a heavy velvet curtain. In an instant we were on stage with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic – mid-concert mind you – in the most sumptuous hall, replete with glittering chandeliers. We sat close enough behind the basses to read their parts of Prokofiev’s L’enfant Prodigue.
Dima and I had some serious discussions with Vladimir on this premiere and recording and I was reminded that I carried not an insignificant wad of US dollars in my pockets on the plane, and I wasn’t going to see it go to waste. Volodya assured us that the concert would be good and the recording – scheduled for the next day – would be better than good. Russians like to smoke like Americans like to eat and it was obvious that Dima was worried as he took drag after drag at a cafÃ© on the Nevsky Prospekt. I wandered around on my own, snapping pictures of the Yussupov Palace (where Rasputin was poisoned and dumped, still alive, in the Moika), and climbed the steps to the top of St. Isaac’s, where I could look out over the entire watery city. That night, I got caught up in controlled mayhem and ran into a tank-reinforced line of hundreds of police officers. Hundreds of thousands of graduating 17-year-olds descend on the Neva to watch fireworks and hundred-foot tall fountains spew from barges. As all intersections to Nevsky were closed, I had to backtrack several blocks and canals, going against a tidal wave of traffic, each person with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer or champagne in another. For a few moments, I was genuinely scared as bottles flew, a few pretty close to my head. I met up with Dima in a sudden downpour which turned the million-plus crowd into a writhing, soused, but well-dressed mess.
I commented to Sasha, Dima’s dad, how their television always seemed to be showing scenes from WWII, or the Great Patriotic War, as it’s considered by Russians. As I was reading Antony Beevor’s book on Stalingrad, I should have known that my premiere would take place on the very anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Russia. In my concerto’s second movement, there’s a not so thinly-veiled quote from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony “Leningrad”, first in the flutes, then in the bass clarinet. The musicians picked up on it in the second rehearsal. Talking to Sasha over a couple of scotches, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the very fact that the two of us could talk about growing up in our respective countries; he, born in Leningrad during the siege where family members starved or later disappeared during the Stalin purges; me, growing up safe but with a Cold War suspicion and even hatred of anything Russian, helped by Reagan’s endless rhetoric. The truth was that the two of us could not have had this discussion even fifteen years earlier.