Back To (Really, Really Hard) Basics

September 21, 2009 at 2:32 pm (Composers I Dig, Conducting)

Hurrah for grad school! I’m now starting my fourth week of classes and so far the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. The conducting seminar/lab orchestra here is great; the players are responsive to all gestures, good or bad, and they’re all really good sports about playing the same 5 bars for 20 minutes straight. Lessons are equally awesome. I was a little worried going into the whole enterprise because I hadn’t spent much time at all with my teacher, but we get along great and I feel like I respond really well to his teaching style. Because of that I feel like I’ve already progressed quite a bit in just the past few weeks.

What’s been most interesting though is the selection of things I’ve been working on in my various lessons, be it conducting, piano, or viola. It’s all either J.S. Bach or Mozart. And it is hard.

The two of them are hard for different reasons, though. With Bach you feel humbled before the sheer intellectual ability and ease with which he writes tortuous counterpoint of brilliant rigor and emotional depth. My friend in undergrad and I always joked that Bach teaches you exactly how bad of a musician you are, and I am finding that to be quite true these days. For piano I’m studying the first Two-Part Invention and one of the chorales, and for viola I’m working on the opening of the Fifth Cello Suite, where this crazy man manages to write a fugue for one instrument.

If Bach lets you know exactly how bad a musician you are, Mozart lets you know exactly how perfect what he wrote was, and how you will never come close to doing it justice. I’ve been studying his Symphony No. 39, and my teacher and I talk about how for this sort of thing you need to be more of chamber music coach than a conductor, because they can easily play the music without you (and they usually do it better, too). If you try to direct traffic you only end up getting in their way, so you have to suggest a character here or an affect there. And if there’s one thing that’s hard for conductors, it’s getting out of the way. Then there’s Le Nozze di Figaro, which is one of the most perfect operas ever written, and which I am slated to be assistant conductor for starting next week. That, however, merits a post unto itself, so I won’t get into it.

One fun thing (well, fun for a conducting grad student, which is to say probably not fun for everyone else on this planet) has been thinking up little stories for the various movements of Mozart 39, which I do partially so I have something cogent I can say if I’m asked to defend a choice. I’ve heard more than one conducting teacher say that everything Mozart wrote was an opera, so I feel like I’m also staying true to that sentiment, which I think has a grain of truth in it. My best effort so far has been with the second movement of the symphony. Like most of the rest of the symphony, this movement has some truly bizarre harmonies and unexpected twists. I likened it to Donna Anna’s state of mind in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (maybe Mozart is the only thing that can come close to Mozart). For me the various themes that surface are reflections of the various states of mind of Donna Anna, so that the opening is her prior to Don Giovanni’s attempted rape (must resist musicological digression into D.A.’s motives and character), the sudden shift to F minor is her terror at D.G.’s forced entry, the subsequent busy section that goes through F minor, E flat major, etc is her nobility and determination showing through, etc. It might all be complete bollocks, but it was fun to come up with and I think it works at least a little. The movement in question, and a sample of Donna Anna, after the jump… Read the rest of this entry »

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Wagnerian Disdain For Tenors, AKA Siegfried

August 13, 2009 at 1:24 am (Composers I Dig, Reviews)

Once again the Seattle Opera managed to outdo itself with tonight’s Siegfried. Staging, acting, and music were excellent, with one notable exception, but we’ll get to that.

I don’t know if it’s a tradition when staging this opera that the curtain opens before any music starts, but that’s what happened tonight. Mime stood there sharpening a broken sword and the orchestra began to play the prelude, which immediately suggested to me that the ominous rumblings, interspersed with key motives, were Mime’s thoughts given sonic form. It seemed to me a very effective way to start. Mime was excellent, playing his character with consummate involvement and gorgeously shaping his musical lines. Siegfried… well, the general director appeared before the curtain went up and announced to the audience that Stig Andersen would still be singing the role despite having come down with a virus a few days ago. Apparently he had a fever and was fairly ill but had gotten over it enough to sing his role. Overall, while he made a great effort with both acting and voice, only the former shined. His voice still had phrasing, shape, and tone, but it simply lacked the power to project over the orchestra with a true Heldentenor sound (couldn’t… resist… pretentious Wagnerism). Of course, the role is inhumanly difficult, and he did quite a good job considering the circumstances.

Returning to Act I, the physical staging was the same set as the god scenes in Rheingold, with a few changes (a log here, a lean-to structure there) to make it different enough. However, subtle cues on the part of Mime and the Wanderer suggested that this was the same exact place that bore witness to the events of Rheingold many ages ago. It was very interesting as a staging concept and also a very effective cost-saving measure. Greer Grimsley as the Wanderer was again fantastic – perhaps even better here than he was in Walküre, and that’s saying a lot considering the power he commanded in the final scene of the latter. His scene with Mime was a joy to watch and gave some lift to the otherwise slightly drab act. However, it was very interesting to see a Siegfried who was not just a one dimensional callow youth but instead an actual young human who, despite his misgivings, was emotionally connected to Mime.

Whatever dramatic slowdowns there were in the first act were excused by the energy and seamlessness of Act II. The thread of reusing sets continued, for this entire act took place on the same set as the rocky pass of Act II Scene 2 of Walküre, where Siegmund was struck down, with the addition of the dragon’s cave. One particularly good use of this recycling was a moment Wotan/the Wanderer had. A world was said about this god’s humanity when he placed a few flowers at the site where Siegmund fell in the last opera and moved his hand to a gouge in the rock face caused by Nothung. Alberich returned with a vengeance, rampaging around the stage with vehemence befitting his malicious, megalomaniacal evil. The various scenes of this long act flowed together without losing dramatic tension over the course of seventy-something minutes; a great accomplishment on the part of the director and musicians. The orchestra was particularly good in the Forest Murmurs music, and the comic section where Siegfried tries to play a reed pipe for the woodbird was genuinely hilarious.

The dragon, one of Wagner’s most problematic creations, was pulled off extremely well, in part due to Daniel Sumegi’s stentorian voice. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone; suffice it to say there was a moment where my eye detected movement and as I looked it turned out that part of the wall inside the cave was not not part of the wall at all. It was actually part of the dragon’s body, a huge snakelike coil which was slowly slithering and uncoiling itself. Siegfried’s fight with the dragon was perhaps a little lethargic, but there’s only so much you can expect of a tenor who’s been singing some of the hardest music ever written for two and a half hours and has two more to go. The woodbird was voiced by Woglinde from Rheingold and she sang her chirpy, swooping lines with a delightful brightness.

After another caffeination in the intermission, Act III began. This was the place where Wagner took a 12 year break in order to compose Tristan and Meistersinger, and his improved powers as a composer were immediately on full display by virtue of the outstanding playing of the orchestra. Their burnished, full sound made the quickly shifting, newly developed leitmotivs all the more meaningful. The curtain rose on a very impressive if spartan rock wall, against which the dialogue between Erda and Wotan played out. Both singers were again in fine form, and the director again made this relationship far more interesting than the usual immovable, statuesque goddess who complains and seems sleepy the whole time. In this staging it is clear that the two deities have a history, and Erda actively shows emotion when presented with what Wotan has done with their daughter. Overall this Ring has made a great attempt to humanize all the characters, and I think it has paid off immensely, certainly in terms of audience identification with the characters and general receptiveness.

The confrontation between Wotan and Siegfried was very well done, particularly with its slight emphasis on comedically physical gestures. The scene on the mountaintop was quite good. Brünnhilde (Janice Baird) was absolutely radiant, her voice projecting beautifully over the equally beautiful playing of the orchestra. Siegfried was clearly vocally exhausted by this point, but he gave it his all. The acting out of both characters was superb; they portrayed exactly what they were: a young couple unsure of the ways of love, slightly awkward, but nevertheless on an inevitable path to joyous realization of their feelings.

I came away from this experience with a healthy respect for any tenor who sings the title role and a markedly increased appreciation for this opera overall. While Walküre remains for the moment my favorite, listening to Wagner’s incredible handling of the orchestra and its motives in the last act was mind-blowing, especially having heard his earlier style of the previous operas. Though it in no way diminishes the music of Rheingold and Walküre, I am definitely looking forward to Götterdämmerung on Friday. Tomorrow is another day off, and we’re going to see a lecture on the technical aspects of the production (which should be amazing) and probably go for a ferry ride in Puget Sound. Until next time!

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Die Walküre Makes Me Cry (In A Good Way)

August 11, 2009 at 12:41 am (Composers I Dig, Reviews)

I went into the Seattle opera house tonight expecting great things from this production after last night’s amazing Rheingold, and boy was I not disappointed. I encountered gorgeous sets, beautiful singing, heart-wrenching acting, and real fire!

Act I continued the staging trope of really, really realistic trees, an overgrown forest of which took over the left half of the stage. The house with tree in the middle sat off to the right, and there was indeed a sword embedded 2/3 of the way up it. The lighting made Siegmund’s (Stuart Skelton) failure to notice the sword completely believable, as did his skill in acting. Sieglinde (Margaret Jane Wray) was in fine form vocally and dramatically. Small touches such as a glance here and a hand carefully placed next to Siegmund’s there made it all the better. Hunding (Fasolt from yesterday) brought the same stentorian voice to great effect, though he definitely upped the menacing factor. The best part of this first act, though, was by far the orchestra. Their extremely well blended sound granted a supreme warmth to the numerous psychological interjections that the orchestra, almost a fourth character in this act, supplies. The melting phrases of the various Siegmund/Sieglinde/love themes were particularly well conveyed in the strings. This contributed to the wonderful beauty of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s famous naming scene/love duet, beginning with his “Wintersturme,” which was a pleasure to hear. It managed to make the incestuous pairing seem normal, perhaps even borderline “right.”

Act II brought back Stephanie Blythe (which I was really excited for) and introduced Brünnhilde (Janice Baird), who has been hyped up quite a bit. The latter seemed a little shaky on her first few “Hojo tojo’s,” but otherwise sang quite well. In an interesting twist the first scene, the confrontation between Fricka and Wotan, followed by Wotan’s narrative, took place in the same forest/house setting of the first act. One product of this which I thought worked very well was a moment when Wotan was on the left side of a wall dividing the stage into forest and house and Fricka was on the right of the wall. This associated Wotan with the realm of nature and the forests he so loved to travel with Siegmund, and Fricka was set in the realm she was goddess of, home and hearth, along with the extrapolated concept of marriage. Fricka was again played with a great deal of warmth and compassion, though a certain amount of steel showed through when she challenged Wotan with the weight of truth and moral authority backing her up. The interactions between the two of them were very well acted and sung. Wotan’s subsequent narrative was also very well done, and Brünnhilde’s interest in what he was saying carried over to the audience as well, meaning that we (I) were (was) never bored in the 20 minutes of recap/exposition that Wotan sings.

The second scene of Act II was also very well done. Sieglinde’s vision of Siegmund’s death was suitably hysterical, to the point where Sieglinde briefly picked up Nothung and brandished it at Siegmund as she quietly began with “Wo bist du, Siegmund,” failing to recognize him entirely. The Annunciation of Death scene was equally good, though again I thought it was the orchestra that shined in this section. (Brünnhilde’s helm did have extremely awesome wings on it.) An actual sword fight with pretty good choreography got broken up by Wotan, and Fricka appeared onstage as though to remind the audience of her hand in the development of the plot. She goes over to Wotan and Hunding, and Hunding stands between the two gods before he is struck down by Wotan. Fricka sinks down onto his corpse, conveying perhaps pity, or maybe she senses the inevitability of the downfall of the gods despite her best efforts. All this without singing a word (I ❤ Stephanie Blythe).

After a brief caffeine break at intermission it was on to Act III. The assembled Valkyries (I’m not going to list all their names) sang well together, and had a playful, almost women’s-basketball-team-ish feel to them. The was one morbidly hilarious Salomé reference when one of the Valkyries pulled out some body parts from a bag and kissed a severed head on the mouth. Sieglinde’s big shining moment was carried off quite well, and vocal jitters that Brünnhilde displayed earlier on were gone by this point.  Wotan was in incredible form with his wrathful warnings to the assembled Valkyries. His very powerful voice was on full display, but he subtly varied his angry outbursts in such a way as to keep the audience from getting bored. After he had scared off the rest of the Valkyries Brünnhilde’s great defense started up in earnest, and father and daughter sang incredibly well. The most heart-wrenching moment of the entire opera, and perhaps the entire Ring (the jury will be out on that until Friday evening) was pulled off wordlessly. After Brünnhilde has fruitlessly tried everything she can think of to get Wotan to relent on his punishment, and then suggests a ring of magic fire to keep cowards at bay, Wotan agrees to this final request. All this time, however, the two characters have spent the progress of the duet apart on stage, but when they finally came together and embraced over the beautiful playing of the orchestra I nearly lost it. Literally, tears welled up in my eyes and stayed there until Wotan had put Brünnhilde into her magic sleep. The orchestra continued their night of excellent playing until the very end, and as an added bonus, the production used real fire in the final scene, which spread along serpentine trails in the rocks covering half the stage.

I think what makes this particular opera so moving is the depth of characterization that it supplies, making everyone complex and endlessly debatable. This review is even longer than the Rheingold write-up, but I’ll thrown in my final favorite aspect. Wotan’s character is to me so tragic because the web he’s entangled himself into forces him to give up the daughter he loves so dearly, and he built the web without even meaning to. Is it pride that makes him blind to the path he’s on or does impetuousness born of arrogance make him act before he thinks? Is it some combination thereof, or perhaps something else entirely?

Tomorrow we get a day off from Wagner (though my mom got us tickets to a Ring symposium/lecture, so we’re not totally free of him), and then it’s Siegfried on Wednesday. Until next time!

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Das Rheingold, or, How Stephanie Blythe Rocks My World

August 9, 2009 at 11:32 pm (Composers I Dig, Reviews)

The glorious, vain, pompous, fantastic finale of Das Rheingold is still ringing in my ears as I write this. This production (premiered in 2005 I think) isn’t going to win any awards for most avant-garde North American Ring staging (that honor will likely go to LA Opera next year), but oh my gosh was this a great evening.

My mom, Number One Fan that she is, brought me to this Ring cycle as a graduation present, for which I am eternally grateful. We took our seats around 6:30 and waited for the start. At a few minutes past 7 PM, after the orchestra had tuned, the auditorium went completely pitch black. It was as though we were floating, timeless. An infinitesimally dim light, which I failed to notice at first, shone on the conductor (Robert Spano), and he gave the downbeat to start the Prelude.

The sea of E flat major coalesced beautifully, despite a blip or two in the brass, who were probably a little nervous, this being opening night of all the cycles. The curtain rose, and we beheld the three Rhinedaughters (Julianne Gearhart (Woglinde), Michele Losier (Wellgunde), Jennifer Hines (Flosshilde)) suspended from individual harnesses, cavorting about the stage in midair, doing flips, going upside down and rightside up, singing all the while. It was a really cool bit of stage trickery, with the added bonus that the three ladies sang beautifully. This was particularly evident in the section where, after the sun has lit up the Rhinegold, the three sing its praises together. Each of their voices was individually discernible, yet all three blended together flawlessly to create a wonderful, tripartite sound. Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) was delightfully lecherous, frustrated, and angry.

The second scene opened into a verdant forest setting with incredibly realistic looking trees. Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) was fantastic, her voice effortlessly cutting through the orchestra to convey the immense warmth and love she felt for Wotan (Greer Grimsley), a very welcome character change from the usual whiny, bitter seeming Fricka of other productions. Wotan seemed to take some time getting his voice warmed up, but he too was excellent, and he managed to pull off being both concerned only with himself/Valhalla yet also showing believable affection for Fricka (although it got to be a little much with all the making out they ended up doing).

Freia (Marie Plette) was a fine singer, and I thought the costuming touch of adding a bag she carried containing the golden apples was excellent. The giants (Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt), Daniel Sumegi (Fafner)), though without stilts or other height enhancing equipment, convincingly projected a sense of physical intimidation. Froh (Jason Collins) and Donner (Gordon Hawkins) were also both quite good. Loge (Kobie van Rensburg) was hilarious and an very convincing actor in addition to being a fine singer, though at first he had some issues being heard over the orchestra. This was completely gone by the final scene, however. Another bit of technical wizardry had him shooting fire from his hands at appropriate moments, such as when he had to warn the giants away from Freia. After the giants left with Freia, the gods became listless and weak as called for, but in a marvelous stroke of staging, the director had Loge produce a golden apple which he then gave to Wotan, giving the king of the gods enough energy to go down to Nibelheim and wrest the ring from Alberich.

The scene in Nibelheim was quite dark, though bits of copper colored metal accented an otherwise black background, giving the impression of veins of ore. A two-level set had the main characters walking above the rest of the stage, where the Nibelungs scurried when Alberich summoned them. The production designers and director displayed further acumen with their fantastic lighting, which helped Alberich disappear instantly when called for. Mime (Dennis Petersen) cowered very well. Alberich really shined here; his voice and acting meshed wonderfully as he sang of his dark plans for the world. The anvil clanking that happens between shifts to and from Nibelheim was recorded but moved through the speakers in the house from front to back and back to front respectively, giving the impression of movement, which I thought must have been hard to try and coordinate with the conductor.

The fourth and final scene, again returned to the verdant world above, continued the overall excellence of the opera. Erda’s (Maria Streijffert) entrance on “Weiche, Wotan” was spine-shiveringly awesome. Her tone was suitably dark, but her agility and freedom of phrase belied a mezzo, and her music was very well sung. I wish Fricka had more lines in this opera, because every time Stephanie Blythe started singing I didn’t want her to stop. Her voice carried through the orchestra like a warm knife through butter, really connecting with the listener. Every time she sang I felt it in the depths of my soul; I wish I could describe it in such a way as to do it justice, but prose fails before its sheer beauty. Another wonderful staging touch really exemplified her warmth when she couldn’t seem to take her eyes off the dead Fasolt, which conveyed a deep sense of pity and regret. The final entrance of the gods into Valhalla was excellent, and the orchestra really reveled in the music’s beauty. The setting even had the gods walk up the rainbow bridge in the background thanks again to some stage trickery, which was really cool to see.

I know I’ve missed so many amazing things that happened, but this post is already way too long, so I’m going to wrap it up. This production overall is traditional, but it is not at all static. The singers are wonderful (I’m still swooning a little over Stephanie Blythe) and the staging is fresh and beautiful. Most of all I’m excited to see the rest, particularly Die Walküre tomorrow!

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Dove sono?

August 7, 2009 at 7:29 pm (Composers I Dig)

The answer to the above question (if my Italian is right) is going to be changing quite a bit over the next few weeks. I leave tomorrow for Seattle and the Ring, followed by a brief sojourn home to Miami and then to Washington DC to start grad school. Moving is complicated for all the usual reasons, but in addition to that conductors have to lug around obscene amounts of scores, which like all books weigh more than they should. So if you know a conductor who’s moving soon, please give him/her your sympathy and possibly a place to store some boxes.

Speaking of grad school, I recently learned that I’ll be assisting on a production of Le Nozze di Figaro come November, which is equal parts frightening and exciting. I studied the opera briefly in undergrad as part of a class on Mozart’s comic operas, but realized that I had never actually sat down and watched it through beginning to end. Thanks to a very cool friend of mine I have a login for the Met’s HD opera player, so I booted it up and commenced.

A small bit of backstory before I get to my point: back in sophomore year I was considering options for some paper or other and the topic of musical devices in the crucifixus sections of Credo movements arose. Among the examples I selected was Mozart’s Coronation Mass. I listened to the whole thing, paused briefly at the Agnus Dei section, thinking it familiar, but I ended up writing the paper about something else. Fast forward to the present day; I was watching the 1998 Met production with Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Cecelia Bartoli, et al (this production is to die for) and completely coincidentally paused after the Countess’ Dove sono to poke around on Wikipedia a bit. Lo and behold I should find out that Mozart appears to have lifted the beginning of the melody of the Agnus Dei of the Coronation Mass and used it for Dove sono.

I wonder what there is to be learned, if anything, from such substitutions. I don’t know how deliberate Mozart’s choice to reuse this bit of melody for the opera was, but I feel it unlikely that he did it on a whim. The religious/secular crossover is certainly interesting. Mozart seems to be placing the Countess’ feelings on the same level as a spiritual cry of mercy. Indeed, the Countess’ words are tantamount to such a cry. She hopes to regain the happiness she once had in love and let the pain that she now feels pass away.

There are a few musical devices whose presence in both arias suggests Mozart considered them appropriate for expressing such exalted feelings. The use of oboes is striking as they float above the rest of the orchestra, though they do not interact with the voice at first. The orchestration of strings with muted/reduced woodwinds is standard, though nonetheless powerful. The vocal line is flowing, seemingly restrained but without showing overt tension. I wonder what other pieces Mozart wrote (particularly instrumental ones) displaying such characteristics that might benefit from a comparison. I’ve heard many conductors say that everything Mozart wrote was an opera, a generalization to be sure, but perhaps with examples like this we can approach the music in that light.

I have a tendency to use the royal “we” it seems. In any case, tune in next week, when I’ll be blogging the progress of the Ring from Seattle!

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Post-Workshop High

July 30, 2009 at 7:55 pm (Conducting)

I just recently returned from my second Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop and am still riding the wave of musical inspiration. I love these workshops (and RCICW in particular) because every day you get to work with amazing teachers, music, and fellow conducting students. The sheer density of information thrown at you is overwhelming, and I feel like it takes my brain at least two weeks after the end of the workshop to fully process it in through subroutines clicking over in the background. During this, though, I always feel so amazingly happy to be doing music with my life.

It’s incredibly hard to describe why this feeling arises, so I’ll describe its sources in the hopes that they’ll shed some light on the outcome: delving deeply into just a few works and uncovering things you never knew were there and realizing that even with all that you’ve just barely scratched the surface. Getting up in front of an orchestra, doing your thing, having a teacher suggest something to change, changing it, and hearing the difference in the orchestra or feeling a change in the energy between you and the orchestra. Seeing colleagues do this same thing. Finding people with whom you can completely geek out about the music and have them reciprocate, sometimes for hours.

This last one is one of my absolute favorite parts of a workshop. The music has so much information to be mined, and discussing it with other people who are as excited about it as you are cannot help but open up new ideas and aspects that you never saw before. In this the music gets even better. Also it may eventually lead to drunken sing-a-longs of opera excerpts, which are definitely in my top 5 list of most fun things to do ever.

I really want to go and study my score of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, but my housemates are all hanging out in the living room and I feel like I might be disturbing them if I start ham-fisting melody lines and harmonies on the piano. In any case it’s summer, so I have the whole day to do whatever I want. In lieu of that I will continue to listen to Wieniawski and leave you with this because she’s an amazing soprano and it’s my favorite song of the four:

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Tchaikovsky and Angst

February 18, 2009 at 7:43 am (Composers I Dig, Conducting)

Don’t worry, I’m not about to begin some long-winded Tchaikovsky-fueled bitch session about my life. It won’t be very long, and the Tchaikovsky is not related. There may be some slight bitching, though. 

Grad school related matters continue to occupy the forefront of my mind. I’ve just calculated that I spend on average per week about 9.5-10 hours in the music building per day, which is not actually anything to angst over. It’s just a thing. What is angst-inducing is the waiting. Oh man the waiting. One is suspended in this limbo of anticipation of acceptance or rejection, and if your brain is not otherwise occupied with work it begins to create scenarios. Scenarios of what happens if you’re accepted, scenarios of what happens if you’re rejected, scenarios of what happens tangentially based on those conditions, and everything in between. Occasionally my mind will throw in scenarios of completely unrelated things too, just to screw with me.

But! I have a plan! I’ve decided that should the whole grad school thing fizzle I’ll go somewhere (read: anywhere that is not the Midwest, Deep South, or Miami), get a teaching certification or something, and teach high schoolers for a while. I enjoy teaching, and a forced respite from my current state of mind/activity might be good for some perspective.

Anyways, Tchaikovsky. For Valentine’s Day, for lack of anything better to do (ok, I guess I lied a little in that first sentence), I sat down and listened to a lot of Tchaikovsky and finished reading his biography. One thing in particular that struck me was the last movement of the Pathetique symphony. I was sitting there with the score, following along, and it occurred to me that I simply couldn’t comprehend what I thought to be the true meaning of the music. With other part of his oeuvre I feel that I get the underlying message of the music, but with this last movement, I felt that it was speaking to experiences I simply haven’t had in my lifetime.

It seemed like Tchaikovsky was trying to express a feeling, or feelings, he felt of terrible, profound sadness. Something akin to the feeling of losing a deeply loved one, or realizing a lifelong dream is never going to be fulfilled. It seemed like the sort of feeling that one might feel upon losing one’s mother or a close, lifelong friend (who knows, maybe that’s what Tchaikovsky was thinking about; from his biography I learned that he never got over or came to terms with his mother’s death). As nothing like that has ever happened to me, I felt like I couldn’t quite capture what the music was trying to say. I certainly don’t wish for any of those things to happen immediately just for the sake of understanding, but I know that one day in the future I will go back to that symphony and the sheer power of it will be completely overwhelming.

Well, that was uplifting. Out of that evening, though, I discovered Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest, which is his tone poem based on the Shakespeare play. I’m kind of in love with it, because it’s kind of awesome.

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Reflections on Traveling

February 7, 2009 at 5:50 pm (Conducting)

Keeping in line with my usual update schedule of once every solstice, I decided that I would write a bit in this little excuse for a blog. I’m currently sitting in the Chicago O’Hare airport, waiting for my flight back to San Francisco and Stanford. I’ve always liked waiting in airports because you have nothing to do but sit. If you want to you can eat or work, but it’s not required. (As I type a Tristan analysis paper fails to be written.) It’s much the same when you’re on the plane, and there people bring you drinks. 

There’s something oddly heartening about all this travel. When I travel by myself to faraway places I spend so much time inside my head thinking about life and the future. Especially out here in Illinois, where your mind seems to expand to fill all the empty space. Perhaps this feeling is a certain subconscious sense of accomplishment in making one’s own future forcibly happen. I think that’s where the odd feeling of restricted freedom arises from as well: when I’m flying around, or this summer when I was driving a lot too, something about the open road or seeing the earth from 39,000 feet gives me a satisfied feeling. 

Let me qualify that: it’s not as though I’m jumping around ecstatically thinking “oh man I just auditioned at a place I’m probably not going to get into and had to fly halfway across the country to do so and spent so much money oh man awesome oh man.” Whatever enjoyment I feel about this process is tempered by the more realistic aspects of my worldview. However, it’s important to latch onto that feeling because otherwise I’d probably be a neurotic, emo wreck (or more of one than I already am).

In the end I suppose this betrays a basic optimism (who knew?). I can’t help but think that the future will eventually turn out all right, and all this running around makes me feel like a real adult who is taking some larger measure of responsibility for himself. Granted, I still procrastinate and feel anxious every time I have to book a hotel or airplane ticket, but you know. Baby steps. As for the music itself, it’ll always be there, ready for me to interact with it in whatever way I want to or can. 

Speaking of which, I’d better go interact heavily with Isolde’s Liebestod. Wretched midterm papers won’t write themselves, even if I really like the music. After that I can get back to the much more enjoyable task of analyzing and learning audition rep (though my enthusiasm for any Schumann symphony that is not #4 is far less pronounced).

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Dvorak and Being Awesome

August 22, 2008 at 3:18 am (Composers I Dig)

Dvorak’s music is awesome. I think few people will dispute that claim. Perhaps the semantics of the word awesome are up for debate, but at the very least his music is beautiful and moving; at times profound and sublime, and at others pastoral and reflective. Even something as overplayed as his “New World” symphony still manages to communicate its profundity despite the fact that we’ve heard it 10,000 times.

The real joy, and not just with Dvorak, is finding works that may not be as well known from a famous composers and reveling in their musical depth and expression. I listened to some of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater today, and it was amazing. If you like big choral works with a lot of drama and beauty, you should listen to it. It’s like Carmina Burana, except without the Nazis, less shock value, and everything isn’t repeated three times. I only wish I had the foresight to grab a score today when I grabbed the recording from the library, as the texture is pretty thick and it’s nice to know what’s going on.

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Freedom, of a sort

August 6, 2008 at 5:54 am (Musical Miscellany)

Upon my return to Stanford I resolved to practice frequently in preparation for grad school auditions. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I actually enjoy practicing when I’m not worried about pesky things like class. 

This is a Big Deal. Normally I dislike practicing, as I feel like I don’t spend enough time on it and what little I do I don’t get very much out of. However, with the freedom of summer, spending 4-5 hours a day focusing solely on music becomes not only palatable and feasible, but downright enjoyable. That’s not to say it’s all puppies and dandelions; I do get bored or frustrated at times. However, this passes far more easily than it used to. 

Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not this is helping, but I feel like it is. I’ve certainly gained a new appreciation for how freaking hard learning an instrument is. In the end, however, it is the affirmation of my chosen path, realizing the enjoyment I get out of all this music that is the best part.

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