Friday, December 14, 2012

A Case For Music

Tonight was one of countless Nutcracker performances taking place across the country. Considering the magnitude of the Connecticut school tragedy today, one might ponder the appropriateness of going to a lavish ballet production when so many are dealing with unimaginable pain.  

But tonight provided a chance for a theater filled almost completely with parents to escape for a few hours. The unique atmosphere created by having live musicians, as opposed to a recording, is something incredibly special and something only live ballet can provide. I think we were able to help transport parents and their kids to a very different world, one literally as far away from reality as possible. If only for an evening, this ballet that depicts fantasy and frills took on an especially important role.  In the midst of the unthinkable, thank goodness for live music. 


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Three Romances by Schumann

Drei Romanzen by Robert Schumann is one of the finest works that oboists have from this period which so sorely neglects the double reeds. While the simple, elegant lines may sound effortless to the audience, this piece takes an extraordinary toll on the performer’s endurance. As a former teacher instructed me once –

Always program this piece first on your program so late-comers will enter after the first movement and give you a chance to breathe!

It is a work that I frequently find myself returning to but tonight it felt as though I saw part of this music for the first time. I was playing through the work and had reached the final movement when I made an abrupt stop; the written "low-A"! Originally for violin, oboists have adopted this piece and will fiercely defend it as really belonging to our side, thus being able to mentally block out the ossia parts.  After all, the scales are absurdly tipped in the violin’s favor when it comes to quality Romantic music. The third movement is characterized by a unison melody line between the oboe and piano. The free-flowing line is suddenly interrupted by a f pick-up note into an articulated octave motive. It is one of the few moments of outright playfulness that exists in the entire work. Uses of unique articulation and octaves are special moments in this piece as compared to the array of lyrical passages. The unfortunate drawback of the standard oboe is that it prevents this particular moment from being played when the material returns a third lower. Instead of octave “A’s”, one can only extend the first "A" of the bar into a quarter note.

Looking at the version for clarinet that also came with my Breitkpfe edition, the instrument’s naturally fitting range allows the music to be played with the original material.
Below is the passage as viewed from the piano score.

 Of course, I now only want to play this piece “as written”, so much as it is a violin piece. Essentially being able to double the amount of “jaunty” moments in the third movement makes this additional note well worth having. I am intrigued to examine other Schumann works to see what else can be adapted but for the moment, I am satisfied with playing through my very worn copy of the Drei Romanzen for what feels like the first time. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Unyazi Electronic Music Festival - South Africa

Next week is the annual Unyazi Electronic Music Festival at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This is a fantastic event that attracts the musically adventurous of South Africa. The line-up is amazing, featuring incredible talents such as pianist Jill Richards, composer Lukas Ligeti and a wide range of experimental artists from Europe.  The event is a series of concerts and workshops for the greater Durban community. As my penultimate concert in this country, I am thrilled to be performing Cameron Harris’s work Lullabies for Philomel for solo oboe and electronics. It is a beautiful piece and is particularly well written for the oboe, though not surprising since Harris is an oboist himself. It may be a brief moment, but the work does delve into the Loboe range.  I have included the program notes and bio for Cameron Harris:

Lullabies for Philomel
for solo oboe and electronics

1) Prelude: Inside a metal cage, a solitary lovebird laments and dwells on the time when there were two
2) Philomel's cry
3) A serpentine question
4) Metamorphosis: bells and birds

Philomel, for soprano, recorded soprano and synthesized sound was a pioneering electronic work by Milton Babbitt, who died last year. Composed in 1964 using a very early RCA synthesizer, the emotional power and effectiveness of the piece is remarkable. The music tells the tale of one of Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Philomela is the victim of incredible brutality at the hands of her brother-in law, the King of Greece, who cuts out her tongue to prevent her revealing the crimes that have been perpetrated against her. The gods intervene and turn her into a bird so she can be free and sing once more. She then sings her story with great intensity.

Lullabies for Philomel is a homage to Babbitt in this, our first electronic festival since his death. In the piece I mirror elements of the story but also offer Philomela music that I hope provides her with some comfort after the trauma she has suffered. There are certain parallels between the two pieces: both works focus on E, the madrigalists’ symbolic pitch for a cry of anguish.  Also, inPhilomel the interplay between the live voice and its manipulated version is key, whereas in Lullabies I have retained this idea but have metamorphosed solo soprano voice into a solo oboist. All the sounds of the piece are created from oboe samples and therefore the entire texture emanates from the sound of the instrument. In the choice of oboe soloist I pay a further homage, this time to Benjamin Britten, whose haunting and energetic Metamorphosis after Ovid for unaccompanied oboe has become a central piece of repertoire for the instrument and is also a great source of inspiration for me. 

Dr Cameron Harris - Bio
Cameron Harris is a British composer and oboist who has lived in South Africa since 2006. He is the chair of NewMusicSA, the South African section of the International Society for Contemporary Music and from 2007-2009 he coordinated the New Music Indaba festival, which combines workshops for emerging composers with performances of South African and international contemporary music. (
Cameron studied at the Universities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Pennsylvania with composers including Nigel Osborne, John Casken, James Primosch and Jay Reise. In America he was the recipient of a Thouron and a Benjamin Franklin fellowship. He also won the Network for New Music Composition Competition in Philadelphia and the David Halstead Composition Prize. In 2007 he performed at the Ostrava festival (Czech Republic), which included works by Stockhausen and Ustvolskaya and the premiere of Quodlibet by Christian Wolf. His orchestral work, Three Night Pieces , was also read at the festival. Cameron coordinates the first- and second-year Music Literacies and Skills courses, and teaches music theory and a fourth-year module on electro-acoustic composition.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Audience vs. Recitalist

I receive more e-newsletters than I remember signing up for. Most of these e-newsletters are from music ensembles and arts organizations from various cities I have lived in, covering everything from upcoming performances to thoughts on the arts industry. I’ll admit I always give them a quick glance, as living in South Africa does tend to leave one feeling a bit isolated from the rest of the artistic world...

Last week an email caught my attention as I felt it raised several positive points yet at the same time, perpetuated one of the most common myths about programming music. I highly respect the organization that sent this particular e-newsletter and I write about it here only in that it represents a wide-spread misconception about the connection between the performer and the audience.

I was sitting in my husband’s office, killing time before a rehearsal, and I was giving my daily influx of e-newsletters a more thorough reading than usual. There was one that caught my eye as the subject was about how to pick your repertoire for a solo recital. I was intrigued that the advice was essentially that the main focus of your recital should be the audience, not you as a performer, and that one should push themselves as a performer, just so long as they didn’t push the audience too far in doing so.  I will say that the newsletter also stressed that in addition to the above, expanding one’s focus beyond giving a flawless performance will in turn help make a stronger connection with the audience. I agree whole-heartedly here as there are many ways to engage with the audience in addition to repertoire choice.

One of the frequent discussions (well let’s be honest, more like arguments) I have had with different ensembles is about what role the audience plays when programming a work. In my experience, there is no such thing as “the audience” in terms of a single entity; it is in reality a collection of individuals of whom one has little to no knowledge of their capability of perceiving any said work. Now this is not to say that certain concerts result in certain decisions, such as performing an educational concert for second graders or a retirement home at Christmas time. However, even these types of concerts do not necessarily mean the end of interesting programming. If your audience is all under the age of eight, than one probably should avoid performing nothing but lengthy slow movements, for instance.

But the crux of the matter is when the decision is entirely yours, should the audience really be the determining factor? With my own ensembles, I tried to steer away from “safe programming”, meaning that someone like me would be disappointed that the group didn’t take any chances and I would likely not become a repeat customer. I had the luxury of hearing the superb oboist Albrecht Mayer (principal of the Berlin Phliharmonic) perform a solo recital in Lucerne, Switzerland. To make it even better, I attended with a group of oboists and the excitement level was palpable from our back of the church seats. Not surprisingly, he was fantastic and it was a true joy to hear him in person (the only time I have ever been able to hear him live); however, I was a bit let down by the programming. He performed very typical recital works (I remember Saint-Saens and Schumann), which don’t get me wrong, are great works, especially the Schumann. But the house was packed because of his reputation; I felt he missed a chance to perform something even slightly more unusual or daring. Though he addressed the crowd in German, Mayer did speak about the works during the recital and by the little chuckles of laughter, it was clear that he had this Swiss audience eating out of his hand. I think he could have performed anything and they would have adored him.

Between the musician and the audience, I want the recitalist to be the most informed and education about the music being presented; they then should be able to convey this knowledge through a quality performance, as well as taking steps to further engage everyone involved. Recitals and self-programmed concerts are amongst the few ways that we can as artists have any real contribution to the greater artistic world. In an orchestra, we may play fantastic works but at the end of the day, someone else is choosing the music and we will simply whatever is put in front of us. I feel strongly that the musicians needs to make smart musical choices (yes, there are just as many sub-par contemporary works as there are baroque trio sonatas) but the audience needs to be told what is important, not the other way around. It is a unique chance to expose people to works they have never heard and chances are, if one can find ways to engage them, they will actually enjoy it. Not every recital needs to be a soap box for new works or transcriptions, but the audience should never hinder one’s artistic choices.

This newsletter certainly got me thinking about what my dream solo recital might look like and instantly two works came to mind: Steven Jaffe’s “Chamber Concerto” Singing Figures and Penderecki’s Capriccio. Both works are for solo oboe with small ensemble and are incredibly exciting and beautiful pieces. The Jaffe work is recorded by oboist Stephen Taylor and Speculum Musicae and is performed to perfection. It is scored for solo oboe, strings, piano and harpsichord/celesta; despite being a fantastic work that I would play in a heart-beat, the logistical factors of his orchestration might be a reason why it is not a main-stay on recital programs. Divided into three movements, the effort of finding all the keyboards is well worth it as there is some very interesting timbres created by these particular sounds mixing with the solo oboe. The Penderecki is a little more intense and requires some real commitment on the string players’ part. The character of this piece and the visual effect of the soloist set against this collection of string players would make for a very engaging experience for the audience.

Recitals are a requirement while one is studying but they become a sought-after luxury once you have graduated. They are a chance to yes, engage with the audience, but the method in which we do that is entirely our own and the audience plays no part in whether or not the performance was successful or not. How many times in history has a single music critic literally crippled a composer’s ability to write because of their perception of a single performance? A quality work is a quality work and in terms of its reception with an audience, it may run the gambit of loathed to universal appraised. Finding those ways to engage with the audience is critical, so long as we do not allow the audience to run the recital for us. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Many Complexities of One Note

While most audience members view the oboe’s tuning “A” before the concert as they would a preview at the movie theater (and continue to talk through it), most are completely unaware of the long and complicated relationship that most oboists have with this particular note. There are actually many factors to consider and it is never as straight-forward as simply playing one pitch. There is no universal standard when it comes to the tuning “A” but ask an oboist and they will likely convince you that in fact they have discovered the perfect method. Here is a quick look at the many elements of tuning; the cue to tune, tuning pitch, tuning device, crescendo vs.static volume, use of vibrato and general orchestral acceptance.  
The tuning note occurs traditionally only after the ceremonious cue from the concert master and this is true for rehearsals as well. However, there is the tradition of having the concert master simply come take his bow and be seated instead of giving the cue for the “A” first. In this case, the assistant concert master gives the cue beforehand and only for the concert.  I learned from a colleague that in the Netherlands, it is tradition to have the principal oboist stand to give the tuning “A” instead of remaining seated.
The precise tuning pitch of the orchestra is so critical that it is a part of every orchestral musician’s contract along with salary and health benefits. This is vital information as it affects not only traditional orchestra instruments, but those that need advanced tuning such as pitched percussion, piano and harp. In my experience, I have found the majority of orchestras in the United States tune to A=440 and occasionally A=442 (there are of course exceptions). In Europe, the trend seems to be higher starting pitches, even cases of A=444. Of the one South African orchestra of which I am aware of the pitch, it stands at A=441.

I personally always use a tuner, despite the rapidity of this task for one main reason; a machine is perfect, oboists are not. There are many who feel confident enough not to use a tuner, but then again, when needing to convince other musicians, there is little debate when the little light flashes green.

When I have attended concerts, there are typically two approaches to the start of the actual tuning note; gradual crescendo or immediate forte. I personally like the gradual approach seeing that the oboist is the only member of the orchestra who is not allowed to be heard “fixing” or dare we say “tuning” a pitch. The quieter starting volume demands more attention and concentration from the string players and as more join in, I increase the volume. Once the note begins, the question of vibration immediately arises; should one use vibrato or use a straight tone? While oboists rarely will ever play senza-vibrato tone in orchestral works, to me the vibrato interferes with the basic function of tuning. I would personally find it easier to tune to a straight-tone even though the use of vibrato is more in synch with what I would here in the concert.

Then of course there are those situations where an orchestra veers off the traditional path. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has taken this element of tuning one step further and in fact has absolved the oboist of the responsibility all together, well, almost. The principal oboist actually turns on a tuning machine that gives a straight-tone pitch (though not a recorded oboe sound).  I admire this system and would personally have no problem adapting to it. There have been two occasions where “creative tuning” made for an interesting concert experience. I can remember a concert where the conductor felt so strongly about having the oboist play a concert “D” then an “A” every time as part of the tuning process and the result was a most confused audience. It is amazing how audiences zone out of this process but the moment one adds a note, the chattering simply will not die away. The other occasion was attending the performance of Beethoven No. 4 in Bb Major in which the work begins with unison Bb. This presented an interesting challenge as tuning to the 7th of a particular key is not ideal; the strings were tuned first to “A” and the winds and brass followed on a concert “B”. While it made the most sense for the sake of the musicians, deviating from the system even slightly draws a great deal of attention to the tuning process.

While studying at the Eastman School, the art of tuning was a topic discussed thoroughly. Playing the perfect tuning note was given the same weight as an Olympic performance, such as instituting a point system and talking about the success of the classes’ collective tuning “A”s during our weekly master class. With all of the guidelines we were given to think about, we also received different advice when it came to keeping ourselves in tune. The thought was that simply by warming up within the wind section, one could find where the pitch center was and where we fit in. It was even suggested that the second oboist not tune directly on an “A”, but on a low “D” instead as to get the section thinking about intervals instead of tuning one pitch. In recital settings, one needed to hear or play with the pianist beforehand instead of opting to “tune” to a piano pitch once on stage.  Of course, not every work is written in a key that is compatible with the “A” pitch (if it is in a key at all…) which was all the more reason to opt out of the whole process and simply come to the stage in tune.

Looking back, I am most grateful for the intense experience of weekly tuning- judging sessions as it made one examine the many elements that go into this unique responsibility.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Unexpected Fiend...

I took a very highly anticipated trip to RDG Woodwinds in Los Angeles last week in order to have all of my oboes professionally looked at for the first time in a year. While always good news to hear that cracks and major malfunctions were not discovered, an unusual culprit was the cause of much distress this visit; mold.

The eastern coast of South Africa, specifically in the KwaZulu-Natal province and right off the Indian Ocean coast, is an obvious vacation destination for many people within the country, and for good reason; it is a beautiful location and the sub-tropical location is incredibly alluring. Of course, having lived there now for a year and a half, we constantly battle to achieve bio-sphere levels of regularity when it comes to the environment inside our flat. The constant moisture in the air, along with something about the hilly area that we are in, results in a perfect combination for mold. While very easy to brush off, there is no surface that it avoids including fabric, wood, tile, paper, etc.; it's all fair game. The only method that prevents the steady accumulation is regular breezes, as in every single day. Instruments that do not get daily use and remain snug in their cases, be at a BAM case or other, will almost certainly succumb to some level of mold resulting in drier wood. Putting in a humidifier theoretically would prevent this from happening, but the catch is that it is also acting as a magnet for mold. This mostly effected my back-up oboe, (not the Loboe), as I had not actually used it consistently in rehearsals. The Loboe actually had a great check-up and because of its regular use, was not really effected by the fiendish mold.

The advice is this for all of you sub-tropical wind players; regular open-air contact (as in keep that case open!) and play the instrument at least once a week if it is not your primary instrument. My strategy is that I will leave the case open on a chair that faces our terrace door since we try to keep it open as much as possible. Keeping doors and windows open is essential since we do not have air conditioning, however, we also have the unique dilemma of potential monkey invasions and yes, I am serious. In Durban, South Africa, vervet monkeys roam the streets with the same frequency as squirrels in the United States. For some illogical reason, screen windows do not exist there, though I am fairly certain the monkeys could figure out a way to get through them. There are also two house cats on the property, Mango and Max, who also frequent our place but they are more likely to be found sleeping on the couch than puttering around a case. So, as long as I am in the room keeping an eye out for unwanted guests, I think my other oboe stands a much better chance for a great check-up next year.