Saturday, November 5, 2011

When the Audience Impresses the Orchestra

For most orchestral musicians, community concerts and educational performances are generally not embraced with quite the same enthusiasm as a concert featuring a work like Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra”. However, in the last few months, it is during these more intimate concerts that I have been privy to some rather interesting behavior from outside of the orchestra.

he first instance that comes to mind was during a typical community engagement concert. Along with a narrative guide, the orchestra performed a series of typical symphonic works for an attentive audience. Likely a first exposure to classical music for most of the crowd, the orchestra’s speaker for the program encouraged participation during a march by prompting them to clap along. Unintentionally, he set up an 8-bar beat pattern that happened to correspond to the phrase we were just playing (the music naturally dictated an increase of beats at that moment). I was a bit taken aback when the audience didn’t continue the faster beat pattern but in fact returned to the start of pattern and continued it in its entirety. And perfectly together at that! Musicians generally try to tune out group-clapping as the sound falls behind the beat almost instantly.

Perhaps the next instance exemplifies the age we live in more than anything else, but an amusing interaction happened recently between the orchestra and a guest soprano. I could not help but notice that during a rehearsal for a pops concert, the soloist kept glancing down at something, yet she held no score or sheet music. She had no trouble with the words, so it was not a series of memory lapses that was causing her to continually glance downwards; what was she doing? And then I realized, of course! She was using her iphone to check the lyrics as she performed. It was no different to her than a soloist having a score off to the side during the dress rehearsal (it should be noted that she sang all the words beautifully during the performance, without the help of her phone).

The final instance that comes to mind is something one never sees in the United States; people singing a national anthem in tune. In purely musical terms, it is quite a feat to sing the US anthem well and thus makes everyone wait with baited breath for a guest singer's inevitable "really high note" before a baseball game starts. Growing up, I remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance daily but when we did sing something patriotic, it was usually "America the Beautiful".  I think many young kids probably assume that is our national anthem; goodness knows it is sung more than the real thing in schools. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I have always enjoyed the following interpretation of the anthem from a classic "Simpsons" episode:

While the South African National Anthem does not have the vast pitch range that the US anthem requires, it does boast an impressive language requirement; the South African anthem consists of versus sung in five different languages. Our outreach concerts take us to many schools around the KZN province and are always concluded with the students singing the anthem along with the orchestra. Without fail, students and community members alike not only sing this anthem with a noticeable sense of pride, but also a noticeable since of pitch. Frequently the students sing the anthem complete with harmonization and always with a dramatic crescendo at the end which leads to them erupting in applause. For an anthem sung in Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Akrikaans and English, all while modulating to a different key in the middle, it is most enlightening to see students as young as five and six that seem to have no trouble at all with this repertoire. It is an anthem that does its best to represent a country with eleven official languages, as well as a troubled political past, with music that is both compelling and easy to sing. While a midi-version hardly embodies the emotion that one typically hears the anthem sung with, the first Youtube clip gives a clear idea of the languages/lyrics used. See how accurate your African language pronunciation is as you read along; my attempts only make me respect these students all the more. In terms of sheer musicality, I quite like the anthem and that it even features a meter change (be it one measure). Interestingly, the second Youtube clip features the South African anthem from 1957-1994; note that is only in Afrikaans and just a bit different in tone and feel…

Indeed, most orchestral musicians, if given a choice, will prefer to perform concerts that features serious classical literature, but then again, the smaller outreach concerts are certainly not without their valuable points. There are countless musical differences from living in the US vs. South Africa, and one certainly learns more about their audience through these more intimate performances. As always, just like in the US, I feel that both country’s audiences are ready for more contemporary music…

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chills at the National Arts Festival - Grahamstown

The National Arts Festival is an impressive collection of diverse musicians and artists representing the best of South African culture as well as from overseas. These two weeks of non-stop events is a testament to the incredible marketing and management staff of the festival who attract audiences ranging from the conservative to the thoroughly Bohemian. Grahamstown is a charming college town which one would imagine is quite peaceful and tranquil for 50 weeks of the year.  Theatre, classical music, jazz and everything in between finds its niche at Grahamstown and everyone seems eager to be a part of the events, resulting in a few more daring repertoire choices by a few ensembles which was nice to see.
Our own experience at the festival was overwhelmingly positive with one distinct exception; the temperature. Now writing as someone who has spent 22 years living in Chicago and Rochester, NY, I am no stranger to the cold. I am not used to, however, having the cold follow me into the pit. The beautiful Monument Theatre, one of the central venues of the festival, is built of stone and quite massive. The pride in this venue comes from the tragic burning of the last theatre, a result of a faulty heating system. Thus the situation today is that the theatre simply has no heat. When performing "Swan Lake" with the Cape Town City Ballet Company, the frustration would mount as we huddled by the small space heaters that our orchestra managed to fit in the tight space. As an oboist, temperatures dipping below 13C/55F not only affected one's concentration on a rather demanding part, but made for a simply exhausting performance experience. The moment we had a few bars rest, I would begin the ritual of attempting to keep the oboe's head joint from freezing, swabbing out the instrument and re-wetting the reed as to compensate for the exceptionally dry atmosphere that the little space heaters were creating.  As if that wasn't enough, this particular production of "Swan Lake", while beautifully performed by the ballet company, chose to frequently release dry ice "forest mist" which would then cascade down into the pit causing a briefly moist breeze followed by extreme cold when it evaporated. The audience was not spared from these chills as they all came prepared with heavy coats and blankets for the performance. I suppose one amusing element was that the loboe was so cold once that I could actually get the "low A" to sound as a "low A-flat"...
Cold weather aside, it was inspiring to see the enthusiasm and excitement of the festival, especially when it came to advertising. With literally hundreds of performances, lectures, and exhibits to see in such a short time, the marketing prowess of certain artists really came through as they battled for their next audience. There was everything from strategically placed flowers with performance info at restaurants, free demos and excerpts of shows at the restaurants and creative Facebook updates.
The overall impression of the National Arts Festival is that the organizational staff should be commended on their year-long efforts to promote, run and report back on all of the high-quality events. This festival has everything going for it, with the exception of unnecessarily cold venues which is a turn off for both artists and audiences. With that being said, I still greatly look forward to returning next year!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Outreach with Prokofiev 7

Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7 was originally commissioned for a children's radio program yet unlike the iconic "Peter and the Wolf", this symphony has no story, no characters or even as much as a hint as to what the composer intended his young listeners to imagine while hearing this exceptional work. Fortunately, this total lack of guidance was the perfect blank canvass (literally in our case) to help local primary school students connect to classical music. With the help of a fellow orchestra colleague, we were able to connect to students in a multitude of different ways, all of which culminated in the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of the full symphony and the creation of the Prokofiev "Children's Art Gallery" at the Durban City Hall.

Knowing that we wanted to introduce as much of the full work as possible during the hour long presentation, we selected both short themes and full movements in our agenda for the students. Normally educational programs involve our entire orchestra so with just two presenters, we started with the very basics: what is music? We wrote down word associations like colors, shapes and emotions on the board. We attempted to delve deeper than the typical first responses of "happy" and "sad" as our aim was to teach specific classical music listening skills if they were going to make it through an entire symphony concert the next week.

Before we even played a note of the actual symphony, we turned the tables on the students and had them create music for us to play. I was particularly excited about introducing some basic graphic notation and improv concepts to them. While they drew simple lines and shapes on the board, we "played" the music through our own interpretations on oboe and cello. The students connected with the idea of this new sound being our own personal creation and there was no wrong interpretation (though they could visually follow our musical choices which were not held hostage by a set tonality). With the presence of lines and shapes that coincidentally looked like certain extended technique indications, it was fantastic to introduce flutter tongue and other techniques to the students (and of course, a few "low A's"!).

Finally, it was time to get to the Prokofiev. We isolated two main and contrasting themes from the first movement. After listening via a cd player, they broke up into small groups and came up with short story ideas inspired by the theme. There was everything from kids at a playground and ballet to a mouse sneaking into a kitchen and mountain ranges.

Up until this point, the students were working from their desks. For the next part, we got them up out of their seats and into the action of the second movement, a waltz. This humorous music is a great example of excellent orchestration choices and the students learned to identify these musical attempts at humor through our three "characters"; free waltz/dance, interrupting/pounding and mischief/jester.  Each time one of these "characters" appeared, we would all do the body movement we associated with each (so much easier to demonstrate in front of kids than adults...). We could go beyond simply identifying a free waltz feel to the music by adding elements of growth and decline through the height and width of the body gestures.
 As the third movement is quite calm and nostalgic, it was time for the students to tackle their blank sheets of paper in order to create a drawing inspired by the symphony. As we let the third and fourth movements play, we noticed a whole range of methods taking place. Some students immediately began creating very specific nature scenes while others choice to listen and create abstract art. My favorite was a student who literally drew to the phrasing of the music.
 We would see the finished creations only on the day of the concert as they were mounted in make-shift gallery walls in the Durban City Hall. Musicians and audience members alike stood and absorbed the incredible range of creativity.  Interestingly, most students picked up on the slight ominous quality to Prokofiev's symphony.  Most students showed this stark contrast in mood in some way, though I really enjoyed the drawing that included both the sinister "Friday the 13th" half with the contrasting "Thursday the 12th" half.  Our concert days include a dress rehearsal which is open to the public. Both schools, despite one being on a holiday, attended the rehearsal and saw their creations first-hand. They were all eager to tell us which one belonged to who and what their picture meant. A considerable number of students returned that evening to attend the full concert with their parents.
 It was inspiring to see that even young students were able to grasp more than just a movement of Mozart and in fact tackled an entire symphony (and a 20th century one at that, imagine that...). There is something rewarding about being able to engage with a group of people, whatever age, who have not been corrupted yet as to the labels that are so often associated with this "more modern music" by parents and others. Whether it is Beethoven or Boulez, it is all new to these students and without some basic methods of interpreting and grasping this type of music, students and audience members alike too easily gloss over anything they do not already know.  The experience left me with the pleasant image of these primary school students showing their parents how they learned to listen to a symphony.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Schallbecher auf!"

The purpose of the Loboe Project is primarily to serve as a forum for topics relating to the unique instrument. For the first time, I must share a slight drawback that I have discovered about this otherwise exceptional instrument; it’s really difficult to do “bells up” in Mahler 5.
While it is not impossible with the Loboe, and goodness knows it is not a natural position for any oboist, I think I had far more difficulty than the rest of my section when the instructions read “schallbecher auf” simply due to the slight increase in length and weight (which otherwise are never a problem during performances). On the plus side, knowing that there is an additional note on the instrument increases one’s confidence of very delicate entrances in the lowest register, which Mahler 5 is also full of, and thus my overall opinion is that the benefits outweigh the one small drawback.
It seems every wind player can put their two cents in about the purpose and practicality of this motion. Having performed Mahler 5 last week, the perception I am left with is that there is an impact both audibly and visually. One audience member made the comment that the “bells up” sections instantly gave the winds a “band” quality to the sound in addition to just increased dynamics; an overall positive effect.
Personally, I am all for doing these sections even if the instrument is a little heavier (this technique is called for multiple times in every movement that the winds play in). It is also refreshing to know that wind sections everywhere just go with these directions; if Mahler were a contemporary composer today asking for this, one would wager that there would be major backlash from players for the exact same request...thank goodness Mahler has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt the he knows what he is asking for in his music.   

Friday, May 6, 2011

"Winnie: The Opera" - a view from the orchestra pit

Unlike most Americans, my exposure to the life-story of Winnie Mandela this year will not come from the upcoming feature film starring Jennifer Hudson, but instead through the production “Winnie: The Opera” which took place last week in Pretoria, South Africa. I sat directly below the highly controversial political icon in the orchestra pit as she gave live feedback about the premiere performance she had just witnessed. But unlike most of the opera’s reviews, I will focus on the musical experience first; politics will come second.

While new operatic productions do occur in South Africa, it would be incorrect to imply that they happen with the frequency that they do in the US and in Europe.  To the chagrin of new music lovers everywhere, I did overhear a few instances of singers uttering the classic notion that “well, it’s contemporary music, nobody will know if I make a mistake”.  While certainly the score was modern sounding to the audience, at the end of the day the music was completely tonal.  The difficulty for some singers in tackling this work simply reflects the need for more contemporary opera and a resurgence of classic opera of the 20th century in this country.

In general, there was a very noticeable determination on everyone’s part to master the challenges that the opera provided.  The conductor, Jonas Alber, showed an excellent knowledge of the material and ability to work with singers of different levels of experience.  For an opera written in both English and Xhose (mother-tongue of the Eastern Cape), Alber managed to give vocal cues in either language with ease to the singers on stage. 

In terms of language, Xhosa (featured in the opera) and the Zulu language (spoken in the province where I now reside), there is a great deal of potential when it comes to new music. The naturally occurring “clicks” of these languages were of course featured in the opera but simply as part of the natural occurring words. The sound that these “clicks” make when a chorus of 15-20 sing in unison is truly fantastic.

A nice moment in the opera was the theme that occurred whenever “Desmond Tutu” sang. I later learned that this theme was a quote from an African lullaby called “Thula, Thula” and was very recognizable to the more musically-inclined members of the audience. As an outsider to the heated world of South African politics, this idea of needing to be South African to catch certain allusions was prevalent throughout the opera.

There was one scene in particular where my lack of personal knowledge about the specific details of Winnie Mandela’s life resulted in my missing a key allusion.  Winnie sings an aria in which she ponders the impact that her imminent militant actions will have on her own political perception. She sings “for what I am about to do…with our rubber tires and boxes of matches, we will liberate this land” and general chaos/rioting immediately follows. Below is a photo (by Thrishni Subramoney) from earlier this month at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where students were setting tires and debris on fire in acts of protest. This was the general association I gave to Winnie’s aria but learned only later that this scene was representing Winnie’s support of the “necklacing” style of execution; the placing of a rubber tire filled with petrol around a person’s chest and arms and then lighting it on fire. As an audience member, it would have been more intriguing to see how the opera dealt with this barbaric practice directly instead of only referencing it. Of course, to an all-South African audience intimately familiar with the story, this was hardly a problem. 

In the US, some of the most anticipated productions are those based on larger-than life figures.  Whether it is out of musical respect or just sheer curiosity, there is something intriguing about controversial productions like “Grey Gardens”, “Anna Nicole Smith”, David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and even the now tame by comparison, “Nixon in China”. While I do not think that this production of “Winnie” was in any way trying to be outrageous or avant-garde, the perception of Winnie Mandela in this country is sharply divided and like any Michael Moor documentary, one probably will not go to see it unless they already fundamentally agree with his viewpoint. When Winnie took the stage immediately after the performance, she revved up the crowd with some protest chants before she gave her glowing praise for a production that was attempting to not take sides. For a grandmother in her 70s, even an outsider like myself could see how her demeanor still connected with the crowd and incited a new level of energy in the theatre. She said that this production was the greatest accolade her country had ever given her. She followed this with a laugh and said that it was her first time in the State Theatre; her militant group had never been successful in bombing it back in the day. 
(Top photo by Themba Hadebe of The Guardian)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Loboe and New Music in South Africa

This week we presented a concert of contemporary chamber music, including the world premiere of American composer Hannah Lash’s piece for the solo Loboe, Silvers. What made this a unique experience was that the concert almost didn’t happen due to a combination of increasingly violent riots and strikes at the University of KwaZulu-Natal campuses last weekend. Indeed, Durban is not immune to academic budget cuts, though the official reasoning from the student-base was never completely made clear in the papers covering the story. What was made very transparent to us on the day of the concert was that after a weekend of rubber bullets and protesting, about half of the University staff was on strike and the concert hall management could not guarantee that we would even have an audience, should we choose to go ahead with the performance.

Well, the threat of a small audience is hardly a set-back for new music people. We preceded anyway, considering the concert involved three other members of the KZN Philharmonic and rescheduling would have been a nightmare. As long as there was no immediate threat of tear gas at the concert, we were on.

Despite all of the drama over the weekend and that morning, we had a good turnout of University students, orchestra colleagues and other guests. There were several people who later said that they could really hear the distinct timbre of the “low-A”, especially as it is featured in the ending of Hannah Lash’s work. A few words were said about each piece and the program was as follows:

Sylvia by Moerane/Blake
Violeta Osorhean, Violin and David Plylar, Piano

Partita Canonica by Hofmeyr
David Cohen, Clarinet

Phantom Vignettes by Plylar
Violeta Osorhean, Violin and David Plylar, Piano

Skirmish by Plylar
David Cohen, Clarinet, Alison Lowell, oboe and David Snaith, viola

Silvers by Hannah Lash (world premiere)
Alison Lowell, oboe

Fractured Colloquy by Plylar
Alison Lowell, oboe and David Plylar, piano

Solace; A Mexican Serenade by Joplin/Plylar

My colleagues all performed beautifully and it was very enjoyable to work on contemporary music again with such fine players. It was wonderful to see so many curious audience members come back stage and ask questions about the works, how certain effects were notated, etc.
Durban is not exactly over-run with new music yet, but performing at a University is a good place to start. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Loboe Potential in Bach's "Magnificat"

 Not every orchestra has the luxury of owning an extended range of auxiliary instruments, especially when it comes to the double-reed families. When the need for two oboe d'amores arose in our orchestra's performance of Bach's Magnificat last week, we faced the unique dilemma of being unable to find more than one working and available instrument within South Africa. While it is always preferable to perform works with the intended instrumentation, practicality and financial issues seemed to dictate the use of English horns over shipping instruments from Europe. However, it was interesting being able to offer the conductor the alternative of performing Mvt. III, "Quia respexit humilitatem", on oboe as well as English horn.  An oboe transposition of the oboe d'amore solo line is actually provided in the part, but because of the one instance where the music reaches the "A" below the staff, the register has to be shifted up, thus breaking the original flow. English horn of course provides a closer color in terms of sound, but the transposition, while quite doable, sits very high on the instrument and frequently extends to the written "E" above the staff. For the Loboe, the solo line fits very comfortably on the instrument.  It is attaca from Mvt. III to Mvt. IV and there are no register shifts for the English Horn II; this part could also conceivably be performed on a non-extended range oboe.

While this is a very specific instance, it is refreshing to know that should an orchestra find itself faced with a lack of oboe d'amores, the Loboe can offer an additional auditory solution for consideration. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Artistic Strides Across the Pond

Before too much time passes, I wanted to document my experience traveling back to the States for the first time since moving to South Africa. With a five week vacation, we were fortunate to have an ample amount of time to visit friends and family but more significantly, we also had a first-hand look at the speed and momentum at which music organizations and ensembles seem to be moving in the States. With so many talented musicians and so little funding to go around, competition for public attention is fierce. Despite a horrific economy for the arts, many artists seemed to be truly pushing forward and I wanted to share some of these inspiring achievements.

One of the first nights back I was flipping through the channels and low and behold, there was Gustavo Dudamel on Jay Leno along side Queen Latifaht! Having lived in Los Angeles for four years, I was struck by the major marketing campaign that the LA Phil created for their new conductor. Suddenly, Dudamel was not only gracing the newspapers and the Internet in the form of reviews, but his image was plastered on buses and tv commercials. This orchestra truly wants Dudamel to reach celebrity status and not just amongst music lovers. This is a unique approach and in the end, if it results in exposing new people to classical music without resorting to watered-down programming, I am all for it.

I spent a good deal of time surfing the Internet simply because I could (you can see my earlier posts about Internet usage in South Africa...). The level of expertise when it comes to website attributes continues to astound me. Carnegie Hall employs a beautiful, interactive and very user-friendly digital season brochure that truly captures the spirit and style of the organization. Check out the digital brochure here

I'll admit that I discovered this next feature this summer and not while on break. Listening to the classical station in Los Angeles, I discovered that I was really enjoying whomever was leading the broadcast of the New York Philharmonic during their residency at the Aspen Music Festival, though I could not quite put my finger on it. And suddenly it hit me; that charming voice was actor Alec Baldwin.  It turns out that he has been the host for the weekly symphony broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic since 2009. I tend to be one who prefers to hear more music and less commentary by the radio hosts anyway, but this combination just worked perfectly. I do not associate such actors with the classical world but because of that, there was no elitist air or over-the-top personal opinions about the music.  There was something delightful about hearing this familiar voice in a totally unlikely setting.

Over all, it was encouraging to see arts organizations employing new tactics to maintain their place in the world without resorting to endless “pops concerts” or similar approaches. In the latest issue of Opera Magazine, Tim O’Leary, the general director of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, wisely gives this advice to struggling organizations;

The biggest mistake in response to a challenging economy is to play it safe and scale back. You don’t have to be irresponsible, but you have to keep pushing forward. You have to produce work that makes your institution as indispensable in order to attract support from funders and audiences.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A New Alternative in Oboe Cases

There are many ways to house an oboe.  Up until last year, the double backpack case made by the BAM company was my constant companion. Of course, an unexpected issue with the Loboe arose when it dawned on me that it would not fit in my double Oboe/EH BAM case (the oboe is an inch longer than the standard oboe). With airline restrictions as they are, carrying two cases when both instruments are needed is not a viable option. While the BAM case is a sturdy model, it relies on the oboe resting in a fitted molding, hence making an adjustment for the Loboe's additional length virtually impossible due to size constraints. In my search to find an appropriate case, I discovered an incredible new model.

The world of custom-made cases can be overwhelming, not to mention exceedingly expensive.  For as much as I respect Loree instruments, the cases are a far cry from the exceptional craftsmanship of the oboes, a feeling that I believe is widely held in the double-reed community. I scoured the Internet looking for options and granted, I did come upon a few very good makers for both single and double cases based in Chicago and Boston. However, the right balance of quality, functionality and cost for my specific situation still eluded me.

After some investigation, I was put in touch with Sue Bohling, the principal Cor Anglais player for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Though not a Loboe player herself, she also had been on a long quest to create a case that would provide superior protection and fit for her instruments, especially while touring internationally with her orchestra.
The additional inch that I required was easily made possible due to the rather ingenious design of the “Bohling” case. State-of-the-art foam holds the instrument in place only by the end joints.  With no pressure from traditional case molding on the top or bottom, the case perfectly secures any make or model of oboe. The oboe’s top and middle joint stay together and the bell is separate. I personally have found that the design and material of this case better protects the instrument from extreme temperature changes (tropical humidity to air conditioned buildings is the norm in South Africa). It restricts virtually all movement within the case while it is being carried.

I took the Loboe in for its farewell tune-up at RDG in Los Angeles last August. It then endured a 4-day odyssey in a moving truck across the US and then a 2-day flight covering over 10,000 miles; goodness knows how many temperature changes! Fully expecting the worst from such travel brutality in such a short period of time, I was stunned to find the instrument feeling just as it had at RDG. The last two times I traveled with the Loboe (Los Angeles to Colorado and then Los Angeles to Charleston, SC, both times before I received the Bohling case), I discovered a small crack in the instrument in addition to the typical minor adjustments that had to be made. My current situation in South Africa means that I will not have easy access to a repair shop for about a year and having a case that provides the maximum amount of protection and structure is of critical importance. 

I believe that this is due to the case’s superior ability to prevent jostling and slight movements that even the BAM case is unable to prevent. The case is fitted with both a shoulder strap and back-pack straps and most importantly, since the upper lid doesn’t come into contact with the oboe, one can easily place photos like the string players typically do…I chose to fit my case with pictures of Webster, my guinea pig.  Going the extra mile for the right case has paid off, especially since I no longer live within 30 minutes of the nearest repair shop.  The Bohling case is the perfect balance of protection and functionality and a great alternative for oboists looking for that extra degree of protection.