Monday, October 25, 2010

Flórez brings down the house... twice!

There are many reasons that my job rarely ever actually feels like a job, which is one of my favorite things about it. And if there ever is a fleeting moment where I start feeling like I am punching the clock, going through the motions, and 'paying the bills', it is almost always in the opera. I think this is only because the opera has the highest likelihood of monotony. Every now and again, when I've had a really busy week, and I'm really tired, and it's the fifth performance of some boring piece where the trombones have two notes total, I feel like I'm actually earning my paycheck.

I thought it might be one of those nights this past Friday. I had already played a rehearsal during the day, plus I was tired from not sleeping well the night before (more on that in another post), and the piece was Donizetti's Elixir of Love, which is pleasant but has the potential to be a real snoozer. But when I saw that the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez was singing the lead male role, I thought it might be an exciting evening. As it turns out, I was right, and instead of having to prop my eyelids open with toothpicks, I got to experience one of the most rare happenings in the world of opera.

In one of the opera's final scenes, Flórez took the stage and performed the famous aria, Una furtiva lagrima. I. was. floored. In the world of live music, a perfect performance is almost non-existent. There is nearly always a phrase left unfinished, a pitch not exactly in tune, or a word not precisely enunciated. Not so much with Flórez. I have heard the top opera singers in the world in the past three years, and I've never heard anything like this. He sang so beautifully, with the perfect balance of musicality and technical proficiency, that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

The audience went insane. I've heard maybe only one or two ovations that were as loud. But it wasn't the volume but rather the length of the cheering and applause which triggered an event that is the rarest of the rare. One older colleague told me later that he had only seen this happen twice in 30 years in the orchestra; both prior instances were for Pavarotti.

When a singer gets a great ovation after a solo like that, there is a certain standard practice for receiving it. First, they ignore it and stay in their dramatic pose. If the ovation continues for more than a minute or so, the singers usually nod their head in thanks and acknowledgment of the ovation. If the audience still won't stop clapping, the next step is to come to the front of the stage and either nod again or bow in appreciation. I've seen this happen a few times, and Flórez did all these steps on Friday night. But the crowd would not give up. They kept yelling "Bravo!", clapping, and stomping for several minutes without the slightest sign of stopping. So, it came to the final step... repeat the aria!

Flórez nodded to the conductor, the crowd died down, and the harp began the slow introduction again. He has obviously had this happen to him before, because he seemed totally prepared and at ease singing the same aria for a second time. He changed some of the embellishments and also sang from the opposite side of the stage, so as to give the other half of the audience a chance to hear it better. It was another stellar rendition, of course, and afterwards he had to sort of force the issue by simply walking off stage to let the opera continue. It was definitely one of those rare performances I think I'll remember for a long time, and I hope I get to hear more from Juan Diego Flórez in the future.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Well, it's official!

Yesterday, although it felt like any other cloudy mid-October Wednesday, was a major day in my career as a musician. Late in the afternoon I received a call from my colleague Dietmar, and he informed me that during the VPO's monthly business meeting I had been unanimously voted in as an official member of the Vienna Philharmonic Society!

What does this mean, you ask? Well, it's a little complicated, but I'll try to explain it. Basically, when I auditioned back in 2007, I was technically auditioning for a spot in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. By winning that audition, I was then entitled to perform with the Philharmonic, but not to receive the full benefits of orchestra membership. It is the orchestra's policy that new members must wait three years before applying for membership into the Wiener Philharmoniker Verein. A 'verein' could be roughly translated as a group, club, association, or society.

So for the past three seasons I, along with fellow trombonist Mark Gaal, have had little stars or asterisks beside our names on the VPO website and in the programs that meant we were State Opera members, but not yet Philharmonic members. By virtue of the vote yesterday, the asterisk will soon be removed! The only real changes we'll notice will be the ability to vote in VPO meetings and also a nice-sized pay increase. :) It's also the absolute final step in my confirmation process that assures my spot in the orchestra for as long as I want it.

It feels really nice to finally be 100% finished with all the hearings and juries and applications, even though it was more a formality than anything. It's a true honor to have my name join the long and storied list of Philharmoniker musicians dating all the way back to 1842, and even more so considering I'm now one of just a handful of Americans to ever do so. Here in Austria, I'm no longer a member of the Wiener Philharmoniker... they now say I am a Wiener Philharmoniker.

Although they'll probably never read this, I want to thank my colleagues, both trombone and otherwise, for this great privilege and for their friendships. I can't believe I get paid to get up every day and make music with you.

And most importantly, I am truly humbled every day by the blessings God pours out on me and my family, and this one is no exception. I am eternally filled with wonder and gratitude, and I owe everything to Him.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The season's first 'Abo'

Today was the first of our subscription concerts for this season, and it was a pleasant surprise. We do ten "Abo" concert weekends (the German word for subscription = "Abonnement") every season. The concerts are always on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, and the wait time to get tickets is well over a decade. This is the Philharmonic's 152nd subscription season. What a history!

This weekend's concerts are the beginning of a big block that will eventually take us on tour in a couple weeks to Rome and Japan. The whole block was originally supposed to be conducted by Seiji Ozawa, but for health reasons he had to drop out. He was replaced with Essa-Pekka Salonen, but just six days before we started rehearsals he had to drop out as well, citing personal reasons. So...we were left scrambling for a conductor at the last minute, and in stepped the young conductor of the Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra, Columbian native Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

The concert began with a Mendelssohn concert overture called Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, in which I played the part originally written for the serpent. It's basically a bass part, but I did my best to make it as serpent-y as possible. Don't know what a serpent is? Here's an article.

The highlight of today's concert for me was our final piece, Dvořák's Symphony No. 7 in D Minor. I had never played it before, and had only really heard a recording once or twice, but I really fell in love with it today. As with the 9th Symphony that we played throughout last month, the 7th has some really great sweeping melodies and an exhilarating scherzo and finale. Orozco-Estrada really knows the piece and conducted quite well, and both the colleagues and the audience were very appreciative. Dietmar and I both said afterwards that it is a shame the piece isn't played more often.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Sound of Music in the Bluegrass - Part 3 (final)

As I stood backstage and warmed up just minutes before the concert, I began to worry a little bit. Everyone was very tired and still quite jet-lagged (we flew in just 48 hours before the concert), the hall and stage were quite different from what we are used to, everyone (including myself) had spent the past two days partying and having fun, and then add on top of this the pressure inherent in the massive build-up and publicity of the event. From a trombone perspective, our principal player, Ian Bousfield, had a severe cold (which is not good at all when you have to play the Bolero solo), and as I mentioned in my last post, my own chops were not feeling great. The circumstances were perfect for a group meltdown and a disappointing performance.

As we took the stage to thunderous applause from the capacity audience at the Norton Center for the Arts, I found myself hoping that all my guests in attendance would not end up regretting that they came. But thankfully, the orchestra showed it’s true colors the entire evening by rising to the occasion and playing beautifully!

The concert got off to a rousing start when John Roush, president of Centre College, came onstage to present Dudamel with an honorary doctorate from Centre. He also announced that Gustavo had been made a Kentucky Colonel! I guess he needs to open a franchise in Caracas.

We finally got underway with Dvorak’s Symphony 9 “From the New World”. This is one of those pieces that makes the VPO come alive. It’s got great melodies, wonderfully varied characters, and drama. From the very first phrases all the way to the final chord, I felt that the orchestra really dug in and gave a fantastic performance. And of course Dudamel played a huge part. I really like his interpretation because he knows when to inject energy and when to get out of the way, and he let especially the lyrical melodies become a bit “Wiener-ized”. He wasn’t afraid to let the characteristic VPO sound and style influence the final musical product, and in the end it turned out great. It’s great when a conductor trusts the musicians in front of him/her to take ownership of the music and make decisions. Apparently, the audience appreciated it as well, because they applauded heartily for every movement... including after the tender conclusion of the Largo.

As we approached the conclusion of the 4th movement and prepared to “play real loud” to close the symphony, I found myself becoming a bit emotional. It was hard not to, considering I was getting to help bring home a work like that with an orchestra of that caliber in front of so many friends that mean so much to me. Definitely a special moment. Apparently it had a similar effect on some of my guests. I saw a couple of them at intermission that had red and watery eyes (I won’t mention names, ‘cause it could’ve been horse allergies, I guess). :) As soon as the final chord ended, the audience jumped their feet and delivered the first first-half standing ovation I’ve ever seen.

The second half included three works and three standing ovations. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think some of them wanted to jump onstage, and I half expected to be hit in the head with roses or a first-born child or something. Something I’ll never forget (although maybe I should) is glancing at the TV monitor on my way to the stage for the second half and seeing a great close-up of none other than a Colonel Sanders impersonator. Only in Danville, right? I also heard there were 5 present and former governors of Kentucky in attendance. I got to meet current governor Steve Beshear after the concert, who had wanted to meet “the American in the orchestra”. That’s me! He was very nice, but I was upset I never got a chance in our conversation to impress him by calling Kentucky a commonwealth. Oh, well.

So, back to the concert. We had a blast with the Bernstein Divertimento (which I’ll go more in depth about in a later post), then chilled out with Ravel’s Pavane, and finally it was time for Bolero. The thing about Bolero for a principal trombonist is that you have to sit a wait for several minutes before you play anything, and then you play something that does NOT feel good. I was concerned for Ian, only because he was so sick. The whole day he had been coughing, sneezing, and just generally feeling like crud. Plus, he had to know that I wanted him to play well for all my guests. But, wouldn’t you know it, he proved why he’s one of the best in the world when he casually lifted his horn and played one of the most beautiful, well-executed, and musical Bolero solos I’ve ever heard. It’s always a privilege to sit next to Ian. That night it was an honor.

After the concert, most of my guests split and headed back to Knoxville. I hated I didn’t get to say bye to them all, but I totally understood because it was so late. I would’ve done the same thing.

Some folks did hang around, though, and we decided we’d try to find someplace for a quick dessert. I had heard that there was a local restaurant that had agreed to stay open late especially for the VPO, so we all headed over the Reno’s Steakhouse. It was yet another collision of worlds for me when I walked in and saw two dozen Philharmoniker colleagues sitting there in this honky-tonk type steakhouse, with deer heads on the wall, peanut buckets on the tables, and the greatest hits of Travis Tritt blaring on the jukebox.

I had just ordered my delicious peanut butter pie and sweet tea when Maestro Colonel Doctor Dudamel walked in with his ‘entourage’ and sat at the table with us. We spent the next hour just talking to him (what a great guy) about all sorts of things, from his favorite American food (hot dogs) to funny conducting stories. I think my friends got a huge kick out of just chillin’ at Reno’s steakhouse with the conductor of the LA Philharmonic. And after Chris Sharpe finally gave up on trying to finish his giant chocolate cake called the Texas Tornado, we had a nice photo op with “the Dude”.

Notice the Outhouse sign in the background... nice.

Just after that photo was taken, the travel organizer for the orchestra came into the restaurant and loudly announced that Governor Beshear had declared the ENTIRE ORCHESTRA officially Kentucky Colonels!!! That's right... you can call me Colonel Wilson now. After jumping around like giddy little schoolgirls and yelling "We're colonels! We're colonels!", we decided to call it a night. As we were heading out the door, I couldn’t help but do what any normal person does when he sees a saddle on a pole... he straddles it and yells “Yee-Haw!!”.

I swear I only drank sweet tea

It was truly a great day and a great weekend. I still can’t believe that a lot of that stuff even happened. Now I just have to try and get the Philharmonic to go play in McMinnville!!

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Sound of Music in the Bluegrass - Part 2

Monday, September 27th - After my first fun-filled day in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I was ready to finally play some music. Because of a miscommunication with our orchestra manager, I had not had access to my instrument in nearly 3 days, which was a short enough time to be able to regain my chops quickly, but long enough that I definitely felt like I was wearing someone else's lips for a few hours.

I started out the day with a surprisingly good breakfast in the hotel, which included a wonderful sausage & biscuit (something I hadn’t had in many months, maybe years). I got my first big laugh of the day when one of our horn players came down for breakfast, saw the wonderful Southern delicacy on my plate and asked me, “What is that, a mini-hamburger?!” No, Wolfgang, it is not a hamburger. We Americans are not THAT unhealthy. It’s a fried, greasy sausage patty on a breakfast pastry... with mustard. And it is DELICIOUS.

I was picked up from the hotel by Vince DiMartino, a legendary trumpet player who happens to be on the music faculty at Centre College, and he took me over to campus to give a small masterclass for some students and other area brass players. I thought it went well even though I was still a bit jet-lagged. I talked for a while and did a Q&A session, and I heard one of Vince’s fine trumpet students play part of the Hummel trumpet concerto. I think the students got a kick out of it when I told them that the Esterhazy court (under whose patronage the concerto was written) was located in Eisenstadt, just over the hill from my house.

Then it was time for the day’s Philharmonic rehearsal, which was open to Centre College students and faculty. We took the stage to play through a few things, and the place was packed! We had been told for the past several days that the whole town was abuzz about our concert, and this was definite proof of that. Every seat was occupied, most of them by students dressed up in suits, dresses, and even one guy in a tux. They listened intently as we ran through our concert order and rehearsed a few spots, and I couldn’t help but watch their faces light up as we played Dvorak’s 9th symphony, and later Bolero.

We had lunch here at Cambus-Kenneth Farm

Beautiful! This makes three... count 'em, THREE... horse farms for the VPO in a 24 hour period.

That's gotta be a record.

After lunch at the beautiful old manor house you see above, I got a call that Don & Louise had arrived in Danville. Let the party begin! For those who aren’t fortunate enough to know him, Don Hough (pronounced Huff... not Hue, and definitely not Hoe) was my trombone professor at UT-Knoxville, where he taught for over 40 years. He’s one of several people I’ll mention in this blog post without whom I would not have the life I have today. Don pushed me, encouraged me, believed in me, and kicked my butt for 5 years during my undergraduate studies, and in doing so taught me darn near everything I know about music and the trombone. I was so glad to get to spend some time just relaxing and catching up with him and his wife Louise during the afternoon break.

I had a total of about 20 guests that came in for the concert, and I invited all that could make it up a little early to meet up for dinner beforehand. Luckily, many of them were able to make it, and it was absolutely one the highlights of my entire trip. In the photo below, you’ll see Don & Louise, but also several other folks that were very influential on my music career and my life. Most of them had never heard me play with the VPO, and many of them I hadn’t seen in years. Ever since I found out we were doing a concert so close to my home state, I dreamed of sharing it with people just like this.

I want to mention someone in particular. Included on the far right is Tom Lundberg, who was my first real trombone teacher. My band director told me Tom was the best teacher around (an understatement), and so my dear Mom drove me to Nashville once a week from late 7th grade through 10th grade to take lessons from him. He was (and is) a master teacher, and without his early influence and guidance I would not be a professional trombonist today. In my first lesson with him, he told me and my parents “The sky is the limit”. I’ll never forget that. Thanks, Tom.

In the photo, but also not pictured are other former teachers, close friends (Vienna Wilsons readers will recognize Joe & Megan), some new friends, and even a former student of mine. I was so touched that so many came so far to hear me play, and I want to publicly thank you all for making the evening unforgettable.

Up next... the main event!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Sound of Music in the Bluegrass - Part 1

About 18 months ago, as I was perusing the orchestra’s calendar for the upcoming season, I saw the entry “Kzt. Dudamel – Lexington”. My first thought was, “hmmmmm… Naw, it can’t be”. So I went to the Philharmonic office one day and asked about it, and I found out that the orchestra was indeed planning a concert in…are you ready for this… Ken-dadgum-tucky!!!!!! I know what you’re all thinking; it is the exact same thing I was thinking. Why exactly is the Vienna Philharmonic traveling to a town with 15,000 residents to play a concert in the auditorium of a small liberal arts college? Well, the LA Times article about the concert answers that question better than I can:

Last week the time finally came to head towards Danville, Kentucky, and I was so excited and even a bit nervous to see how the colleagues would react to the South and to such a small town. I have told them all about the beauty and hospitality of my neck-of-the-woods, and I hoped that they would enjoy their short time in the Bluegrass. Well, my expectations were met and exceeded during our visit, and I think some of the orchestra members wanted to stay another few days.

As soon as we hit the ground at the Lexington airport, the crew from Centre College whisked us all away for two days of amazing events. The first stop was the site of the 2010 World Equestrian Games. We were welcomed by Pearse Lyons, whose company Alltech is the title sponsor of the Games, and then we were serenaded by a group of kids from Haiti. Ronan Tynan, the famous Irish tenor, had performed the night before at the opening ceremonies of the Games and was somehow coaxed into singing “The Impossible Dream” for us.

These horse statues were all over the horse park

"He's got the whole world in His hands"

Ronan Tynan sings

The busses then wound their way through the Kentucky countryside to Gainesway Farm, a prominent horse farm and arboretum on the outskirts of Lexington. The narrow oak-lined roads, the afternoon sun, and the miles of black wooden fences and stone walls made for a very pleasant ride. So many colleagues said with great astonishment, “It’s really beautiful here!” That’s what I’ve been telling you!!

Gainesway Farm

We were greeted in front of a beautiful red and white stable by the owner of the farm, and then were allowed to just walk around the grounds and taste some South African wines. We were supposed to have been able to watch some of the competitive events at the Equestrian Games, but were unable because of time restrictions. The folks at Gainesway Farm provided us with an impressive alternative when they trotted out one of their prize thoroughbred stallions. He was an amazing animal, and I believe they said he was the father of at least one Kentucky Derby winner.

It was also at Gainesway Farm that I was able to meet an old friend. Ben Polk, a classmate and friend from my time at North Texas, now lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He and his wife Kristin are on the music faculty at Western Kentucky University, and he drove up to Lexington to hang out with the orchestra and me.

Mark, Ben, and I at Taylor Made Farm

The final stop on our “Tour of the Bluegrass” was Taylor Made Farm, where we were treated to a delicious steak dinner complete with cornbread muffins and pecan pie! There was also a fantastic bluegrass band there from Shelbyville, Kentucky; they played all the down-home favorites before and after the meal, and I was very curious to see how the colleagues would react to it all.

To my surprise and delight, the orchestra members were absolutely enthralled by the bluegrass music! I watched and smiled as they all gathered ‘round the band and in many cases spent the entire evening glued to the elbows of the musicians. They were particularly pleased with the lightning-fast banjo picking (it was the first live banjo most of them had ever heard) and the singers’ great three-part harmonies. They were really curious about the oddity of the dobro, which I did my best to describe in German. At one point, one of our violinists borrowed the fiddle and played along to “Oh, Suzanna”. Gustavo Dudamel, our conductor for the Kentucky concert, had to be pulled away from the band at the end of the evening; he just wanted them to keep on playing!

VPO violinist Erich plays some bluegrass

Ben and I with Maestro Dudamel

I did finally succumb to the temptation that every Tennessee native experiences when in the presence of a bluegrass band.


The leader of the group looked over his shoulder and asked, “May I ask why?” I explained to him that I was a member of the orchestra and a UT graduate, and could he please, please, please play it just once? They laughed and obliged me my one redneck impulse (other than devouring cornbread). Here’s a short video clip:

My orchestra pals got a huge kick out of hearing Rocky Top. They couldn’t understand most of it, but every time it got to “Rocky Top, Tennessee” they would look at me with huge smiles. They also got to hear me talk about myself a lot, mostly because all the Centre College folks in attendance wanted to hear how a Tennessean makes it into the VPO. Several people would ask me, “So, are you studying here in the area?” or “What brings you to the dinner?”

“Well, sir, I’m a trombonist with the orchestra.”

“You’re not Austrian! How did that happen?”

And ... commence audition story.

Tuba player Christoph Gigler pets a real Kentucky thoroughbred

As the evening was winding down and we were all sitting around in a pecan pie afterglow, someone yelled out, “Everyone into the barn!” For some reason, we all listened and herded into a very dark and creepy-looking barn. I commented at one point that it felt like we were all in store for a hazing ritual of some kind. When we arrived, we were treated instead to a horse training demonstration. Of course!

There was an Australian cowboy in attendance at the dinner; he had flown in a couple days before specifically to work with a certain horse on Taylor Made Farm. We found out in the demonstration that the horse had been completely fresh the previous day. It had never been ridden and had very little training. In one day, this cowboy was able to lead the horse around, get it to respond to his whip, and even ride bareback. He spent about twenty minutes showing us some of the skills they had worked on, and it was amazing to see him work. His hands were always moving and he was always in control of the situation, even when the horse got freaked out now and again.

Inside the horse training demonstration

It was a day I’ll never forget. We were made to feel so welcome in the Bluegrass, and we hadn’t even played a note yet!

Monday, October 4, 2010

What a week!

Just wanted to give everyone a heads-up that this week I'll be posting about the amazing events of last week. The orchestra was on tour in the US under the batons of Nicolas Harnoncourt and Gustavo Dudamel, and we had a great series of concerts in Kentucky and New York.

I had such a fun time in both places! In Kentucky, I got to share a great Southern experience with the VPO (including bluegrass music and cornbread), and then I got to share our concert in Danville with many wonderful friends who drove up from Knoxville.

I always enjoy New York, but this trip was special because my whole family was there! My parents and my brother & sister-in-law joined Kristi, Eli, and me for several days of tasty meals, Broadway shows, and sightseeing. Not to mention that Jacob & Dani heard the orchestra for the first time ever!

It was also a special week from a musical perspective. We performed a huge variety of works and had great audiences for the whole tour. There were definitely lots of "I love my job" moments.

Anyway, keep your eyes out for posts in the coming days. I would catch up today, but I'm still a bit zombie-fied from jet lag, plus I have to drive to Linz in a few minutes. We're performing Smetana's My Fatherland there tonight, and then in Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday. In the meantime, you can read up on the Kentucky concert by following the links below: