Friday, August 31, 2007

Music and Medicine

Performing can be taxing on the nerves, even if one is part of a huge group on a stage. As I wrote in a much earlier blog, the use of beta blockers is very common among performers, as is anti-anxiety drugs. Many still stick to the old standby, alcohol, which can do the trick to many and remove anxiety and fears. It, however, has the unfortunate tattle tale odor attached to it. Ivan Galamian, of Juilliard and Curtis fame, fought the boredom of having far too many students by starting with vodka early in the morning. Of alcoholic drinks, that smells the least in one's breath. "Dopamine" is another drug that one thinks would be used by many musicians, conductors, critics and audience members alike.

Boredom is the other aspect that afflicts orchestra musicians. I had a wonderful longtime stand partner in 1980s and 90s, Walter Schwede, now a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. We tried to cope with the monotonous and at the same time often unpleasant work environment by being creative. We would come up with silly comments and other markings to write in our parts, in multiple languages. Computers were still relatively new, but I always had the latest technology available. Windows still had plenty of problems and would crash all the time. I had a different operating system, GEOS, in one computer and its GeoWorks, starting in 1990. It offered a surprisingly stable environment with advanced graphic and words processing capabilities, with good layout control. To my stand partner's delight, I scanned the title page of Elgar's rather awful "The Dream of Gerontius" and, using the same font type and size, changed it to "The Scream of Geraldius". The baton wielder looked at it in a state of shock, not knowing what to do or say, and even tried an eraser to no avail. We laughed at our successful prank and I peeled off the printout which had been attached with removable glue.

My most creative work came with labels for medicine containers, some the kind used for prescriptions, some others for pill boxes. Of course, some were named appropriately, but we got laughs with "Russium hydrochloride", "Egozac" and "Moozine". They were all inspired by personalities of our colleagues, and all came with detailed instructions relating to conditions they were intended to treat, with proper dosages. I don't remember what we put inside; the "pills" might have been Altoids or Tic-Tacs. It felt good to be able to offer a "Moozine" when a particularly offending sound of that nature was heard. Mr. Schwede still has a few of these creations; mine have been lost or look worn after all the years as the picture indicates.

Those were the good old days. My stand partner got smart and left the orchestral scene for teaching. I should have been equally clever and done the same much sooner. His parting advice to me was a warning: "Watch out for certain people. They have their eyes on your chair and will stop at nothing to get there." Well, we all learn from mistakes, and at least now I'm happy working with wonderful youngsters and also equally nice grown-ups. People search for satisfaction and happiness in all the wrong places: often it can be found right under their noses.

A couple nights ago I had a strange but pleasant dream. I was watching happy orchestra musicians with smiles on their faces. And what was the reason for this? They had just been given no less than four young and enthusiastic music directors, all looking similar to and conducting with the inspiration of a Gustavo Dudamel. Look at this amazing video and you'll understand how to excite an audience and musicians, the latter still being youngsters. Even my heart rate goes up watching it. Music can be fun and smiles, after all. What a difference!

Illustration by Talvi 1990

Friday, August 17, 2007

Musical Coups

When the Metropolitan Opera announced their plans of broadcasting some of their best productions live, to be seen in a number of movie theaters around the country, most people in the business were shaking their heads and saying the concept would never fly. How wrong they were! The demand was so high from the beginning that in addition to the live event, a second showing was scheduled a few days later. This coming season’s high definition productions are up to eight from this year’s six, and the number of theaters has increased to 700 worldwide, 300 of which are in the United States. How exciting to the artist involved to be performing for an audience of 100,000! If I were an opera fan I would definitely opt to go to a comfortable movie theater with a first-class sound system, where I could actually see the singers without binoculars and wouldn’t have to crank up my hearing aid (if I needed one). Why settle for a Pocatello production, just because “we can perform opera, too”. Instead of a local pick-up orchestra one can listen to some of the finest players in the country, and of course the singers are of the caliber Pocatello could never attract or afford. As a bonus, one probably could take his popcorn, other snacks and drinks along. The only people complaining would be society’s ‘sour cream’ who couldn’t come and flaunt their riches as in a movie theater setup nobody would notice or care.

Naturally, premier opera houses, such as the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) in London, have taken notice of this fabulous idea and success story, and they plan to show their offerings the same way. The world is large and there probably are more than the hundred thousand opera fans. This venue thus will offer an opportunity for comparison of many of the world’s best companies, something that previously would have meant expensive and time consuming trips to many countries. Technology is cheap these days, so nothing will prevent Pocatello from setting up similar hi-def simulcasts. Of course, then it will be up to the listeners and viewers to decide which one they prefer, Placido Domingo and the Met, or Ernesto Flamingo and the Pocatello Civic.

A different kind of a coup took place recently in Los Angeles. The Philharmonic’s board and management obviously didn’t consult first with the White House when they hired today’s hottest and most exciting young conductor Gustavo Dudamel as their new Music Director, starting in that role in two years. Our leaders would not have supported appointing a Venezuelan to such a high profile position. Other orchestras in search of new leadership must be kicking themselves for not having the courage to act first. Then the New York Philharmonic announced their surprise selection for their Music Director, a ‘home grown’ conductor, 40-year-old Alan Gilbert. Based on everything I have heard, Mr. Gilbert is a first rate musician and will serve the orchestra well. However, he hardly has the kind of charisma Mr. Dudamel and his predecessor Esa-Pekka Salonen possess. But it has been a long time since the N.Y. Phil has had such a person at its helm: one probably has to go back to Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps there is so much happening in that city that excitement is reserved for visiting orchestras and artists. The resident orchestra represents something that is true and tested, a safe place to go hear a favorite piece of music. One argument which the selection of Mr. Gilbert proves wrong is the often heard one (at least in this corner of the country) that the orchestra would never give a conducting opportunity to one of their own. I guess it all depends on the artistic quality and musicianship of an individual.

The Big Apple also seems to continue its love affair with the ‘new’ Mostly Mozart Festival and its Music Director, the Frenchman Louis LangrĂ©e. For a festival that was about to die under previous leadership, this second life is nothing short of astounding. A person with supposedly terminal cancer, who all of a sudden is declared disease-free, must feel like the musicians involved in Mostly Mozart. The festival ought to perhaps change its name to “Anything But Mozart”, as the repertoire performed these days is very varied, including modern pieces by such gifted composers as Osvaldo Golijov.

Now, how about combining the two topics I just wrote about. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could go the nearest Cineplex to see and hear concerts by the world’s best orchestras and soloists? Since these all would be live performances, it would be easy to compare the different styles and come up with one’s favorite ensembles, instrumentalists and conductors. The Pocatello Phil may claim to be as good as the one in Vienna or Berlin, but at least give the music lovers the option to decide. And how about a first-rate recital where you can actually see the artist and his/her accompanist and hear the most delicate details of their interpretation? Even I would leave the house and go, as much as I dislike concerts.

Technology is there for us to use and enjoy. It gives new meaning to “If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the mountain”, often interpreted as If one cannot get one's own way, one must adjust to the inevitable.”