Thursday, November 25, 2010

I've got the Philharmonic blues

It is a major milestone for any orchestral musician when he/she gets the opportunity to stand in front of an orchestra and perform. For those of us that have a passion for solo playing, there is nothing more exciting (and sometimes terrifying) than the idea of leaving the comfort of your ‘back row perspective’ and stepping into the spotlight. It is a chance to express yourself musically, test your mettle under pressure, and hopefully make enjoyable music.

I always assumed that I would get my first chance in front of a lesser-known orchestra, and that it would come in the form of a trombone concerto. For instance, in February I’ll be performing a concerto at my alma mater with the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra. (more on that later)

But as it turned out, my first moment in the spotlight came in front of my own orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and it came in the form of... that’s right, you guessed it... the blues.

Let me explain.

I received a call from the director of our VPO children’s program entitled “passwort:klassik” in August asking me if I would like to participate in two children’s concerts during the Dudamel block in September. The idea was to use Bernstein’s Divertimento to teach the children about different styles of music from all over the world. Bernstein wrote the piece as a sort of love letter to the city of Boston, his childhood home, in commemoration of the Boston Symphony’s 100th anniversary. It’s a very lighthearted work, and it contains several short movements in various styles of music Berstein heard while growing up, including a waltz, a mazurka, a Sousa-style march, a turkey trot, a samba, and a blues.

The concept of the concert involved using Google Earth satellite animations to ‘fly’ from one location to another, each time exploring the music and culture of the new location. The kids were told to ‘fasten seat belts’ as we started in Vienna, playing a Viennese waltz, then the Bernstein waltz. We flew to Dudamel’s home country of Venezuela, where a small ensemble played a samba, then the full orchestra played the Bernstein samba. And then we flew to McMinnville, Tennessee, where it was my time to shine!

When the children’s director Hanne called me about doing the concert, I quickly agreed because from the way she described it, I would stand up, play a blues, and sit down. Easy, right? But then a couple days before the concert she called me to arrange a ‘script meeting’. Huh? Script? Turns out she wanted to play up the whole Tennessee connection with the blues and do an interview and horse-and-pony show up in FRONT of the orchestra... in GERMAN! I didn’t mention to her that Memphis, the city famous for the blues, is 4 hours west of my hometown. :) I reluctantly agreed to the full ‘shebang’, and spent the next 48 hours running through my German-language script in front of Kristi, who didn’t understand a word I was saying! I became incredibly nervous, not about the playing, but about speaking a foreign language in front of 2,500 school children! I imagined the giggles and smiles as I tried in vain to clearly enunciate my lines.

So anyway, back to the concert. As Google Earth slowly flew over the southeastern US and zoomed in on McMinnville, I did as Hanne instructed me and walked briskly towards center stage, all the while enthusiastically describing in English what I was seeing on the screen:

“There’s my school, and the pool where I learned to swim, and the street where I rode my bike, and my parent’s house. That’s where I practiced trombone, Hanne! Look everyone, it’s my hometown! This is crazy!”

You get the idea.

She ‘calmed me down’ and convinced me to speak to the children in German. We talked about the go-cart track visible out behind my house, about my practice habits growing up, and about my favorite types of music to play. I told the children about the various types of music that are prevalent in Tennessee: the Appalachian folk music and bluegrass of the East, the country/western music of Nashville, and of course Memphis’ claim to fame, the blues. I described what makes the blues special, namely the ‘blue notes’, and played “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as an example. I first played it straight and then with blues notes so they could hear the difference. They went crazy for it, and Hanne told me later the kids thought that was my whole spiel.

But we kept on going, discussing the improvisatory and unwritten nature of the blues. “Yes, Hanne, I love to play the blues. Yes, I would love to play a real blues for you right now. But I’ll need some help from my colleagues.” At this point, Christoph played a bass line on the tuba, and was joined by a drum set for some rhythm. And I played five choruses of b-flat blues!

I was so relieved and happy to be finished with the German-speaking portion that I think I released some of my tension in the blues. I started really simply and sparsely and tried to build throughout. By the end, I was playing high and loud, growling and glissing and generally just letting go. The kids in Luzern were really quiet throughout, but in Vienna they began to cheer as I played, and around about the third chorus, they began to clap along on 2 and 4. What a blast!! We finished with the traditional “A Train” ending, and the kids went nuts! Fellow trombonist Mark Gaal said there would definitely be an influx of beginning trombone students next year!

The orchestra was very appreciative of my performance as well. Many of them didn’t know I could speak more than a few words, in German OR in English, and I think they were impressed and surprised that I was able to hold together a whole 10-minute script without messing anything up! Most of them had never heard me play jazz before, and for the day I felt like the hero of the orchestra. It was a great feeling to have had success in a somewhat pressure situation. I mean, it was ‘just’ a kiddie concert, and it was ‘just’ a blues... but I nevertheless feel very proud that I was able to stand in front of the group, perform competently and successfully, and have fun doing so.

The whole experience was a real confidence booster, but in a way very surreal. I still can’t believe we zoomed in on McMinnville at the Vienna Konzerthaus. Another unexpected benefit was that so many colleagues who I hadn’t really gotten to know (and in some cases had never talked to) came up to me and struck up conversations, some about jazz, some about Tennessee, and some just about my performance. I hope I get the opportunity again soon... who knows? Maybe next will be “Rocky Top” with the Berlin Philharmonic!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Look out below!

Sorry I've been away a while. After we returned from Tokyo, there was lots of catching up to do... mostly on playing with Eli, but nevertheless lots to do! I haven't really been that busy at work. I'll be taking a break from the Philharmonic until January, mostly because I did basically all the VPO work from the beginning of the season until now. We'll be heading to the US for Christmas and New Year's, so that takes out three weeks right there. In the meantime, I've got some easy operas and ballets, but nothing spectacular.

Something did happen the other night that caught us all off guard. It was right in the middle of a 'potpourri' ballet called "Jewels from the New World". The ballet directors basically have taken several pieces they wanted to do and smashed them all together with a common visual theme, essentially creating their own ballet. Anyway, after one of the pieces finished (namely, the finale of Schubert's Symphony No. 9) the dancers came to the front of the stage to take their bows. Suddenly I heard ---


and I felt something wet spray the back of my neck. What the WHAT?! As it turned out, some old lady in the front row had tried to throw a bouquet of flowers on stage for one of the dancers but had horribly overestimated her throwing capabilities. Instead of floating gently to the front of the platform, the colorful congratulatory carnations (triple C's) slammed into the side of my poor colleague's tuba. They were apparently quite fresh, because the whole brass section was showered with water. Our tubist just sat there with mouth agape in utter disbelief at this development. After exchanging dirty looks with the old lady, he slowly bent over, picked up the bouquet, and tossed it up and onto the stage. I don't think I was the only one sort of hoping he would 'mistakenly' hit one of the dancers in the face. :)

It's not the first time a foreign object has flown into the opera pit during my time here, although it usually comes from the stage rather than the audience. We're one of the only opera houses in the world where the orchestra pit is completely open, so in a way we're asking for it. The most common thing is when the smoke machine gets turned up a bit high and a nice think fog rolls off the stage and sometimes makes it difficult to see the conductor.

A couple other notable examples:

Once in a production of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth, the male lead took off his jacket as he was supposed to during a particularly heated exchange with another singer. I think he decided to dramatically throw it on the ground to aid the drama, but he had apparently lost his orientation on the stage, because the jacket ended up landing on the back row of cellists!

In the first act of Wagner's Siegfried, the title character has to shatter a sword that was forged by the dwarf Mime. When Stephen Gould broke his prop sword on stage a couple of years ago, a huge piece of it flew out front and nearly hit some orchestra members.

Who knew opera could be so dangerous to one's health? I mean, according to the cartoons, large operatic sopranos can shatter glass and cause buildings to crumble, but never EVER do they say anything about being skewered with swords or bludgeoned with flowers!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A New Feature!

I'm really excited today to introduce a new feature to Back Row Perspectives! About 6 months after I came to Vienna, I had the idea that it might be cool to keep a running tally of how many performances I've done in the Staatsoper and in the Philharmonic. So I went back through my calendar dating back to my very first performance (Verdi's Simone Boccanegra on September 5th, 2007), and established 3 separate spreadsheets that kept track of various things. I have kept up with it ever since then, and now with the advent of Google Docs I have published them all to the web so that anyone interested can view them. It's still a work in progress as I convert all my info into Google's format, but let me explain the 3 documents.

- Opera Performance Tally: This is just what it sounds like... a list of all the operas and ballets I've performed in the Vienna State Opera, and how many times I've done each one. You'll see a column for 1st trombone, 2nd trombone, and then the total number. As you can see, the current performance count is at 380 and my most-performed opera is The Magic Flute (no surprise there).

- Philharmonic Concert Blocks: This sheet has the most info on it. It is a record of my Philharmonic performances by concert block, divided by conductor and arranged in reverse chronological order. With this sheet I keep track of how many concerts I've played in the Philharmonic, what the repertoire was, where I toured, and with which colleagues I played. You'll notice I'm approaching 200 VPO concerts! Won't hit it until January, though.

- Philharmonic Works Performed: This one is just which pieces I've played with the Philharmonic, and how many times on 1st, 2nd, and "other" (i.e. euphonium, bass trumpet). I've got it listed alphabetically by composer. My most-performed work is Beethoven's 6th with 15 performances, most of which are on 1st bone. That's thanks to the big European tour with Maazel back in February. But coming up rapidly is Dvorak's 9th, mainly due to the last month!

The links for all 3 sheets will be permanently on the right side of the blog, in the "Orchestra Repertoire Lists" section. They will be updated regularly, probably about once a month. Check back often to see the tallies climb! And as always, I would love your feedback & suggestions.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tokyo Tour - The Musical Side

We've been in Tokyo now for a week, and I'm having an absolute blast. I'm so glad I was able to bring Kristi along, even though it means we are both away from Eli. Kristi has been doing a great job journaling our sight-seeing adventures on the Vienna Wilsons, so I thought I would just talk a little about the musical side of the trip. After all, this is an orchestra blog, and it is an orchestra tour... though it sure doesn't feel like work!

Because of all the conductor shuffling I mentioned in an earlier post, there were also a lot of program changes. Four of the eight concerts were supposed to be Mahler 6 and Bruckner 6 with Salonen, but after he dropped out, Franz Welser-Möst took on 1 concert of Bruckner 9, and Georges Pretre took the remaining 3 concerts with a program of Beethoven and Schubert. The Pretre program doesn't have any trombones, which is nice because it means I have the weekend off to explore the Japanese countryside with Kristi.

The other 4 Tokyo concerts were done this past week by a young Latvian conductor named Andris Nelsons. He's a student of renowned conductor and fellow Latvian Mariss Jansons, and many of the colleagues can't believe how similar Nelsons and Jansons are in so many ways. I've not worked with Jansons much, but I must say the two speak very similarly, and I have noticed they both sweat more than any other conductors I've ever worked with. :)

The Nelsons program only had trombones in the second half, for Dvorak's "New World" symphony. We just finished a long run of this same symphony under Gustavo Dudamel a few weeks back, and it was the first time I've repeated a work with a different conductor in such a short period of time. It was very interesting to see the work develop a totally new personality under a different baton, even though many of the orchestra personnel were unchanged from the Dudamel block. There were certain things that stayed exactly the same, and I found myself wondering if those things were sort of "Philharmonic constants" that will never change for any conductor. It was mostly melody issues... timing and phrasing... that Nelsons seemingly could not budge. But almost everything else seemed surprisingly flexible, and slowly but surely the famous masterpiece became a new creature specially created for this visit to Tokyo. At first I was somewhat partial to the Dudamel version, but as the orchestra 'bought in' to Nelsons' ideas, some of the changes won me over. I am learning from this orchestra every day that the same music can take on many different but equally beautiful personalities at various times. For most music, there are multiple ways it can sound, each way with its own advantages and disadvantages. A person can certainly prefer one way to another, but I'm finding personally that with certain works (like Dvorak 9) the strictness of my musical preference often fades with time until I can equally enjoy vastly different interpretations. It's like seeing the same painting different ways depending on the lighting. Kinda neat, I think.

I debated for a long time whether or not I should mention this next item. It's a sad piece of news that involves another orchestra member, and I'm still not sure if it is ethical or professional to post something of this nature on a personal blog. However, two factors make me want to go ahead with it. First, the news has been reported by the AP in several mainstream news outlets, so it's no longer a secret. Second, this family needs lots of prayers right now, and I know that many BRP readers can aid in that area.

This past Wednesday, November 3rd, the orchestra had the day off. One of our double-bassists, an experienced mountaineer, was on his way down from the summit of Mt. Fuji along with one of the orchestra's support staff. The bassist had been up Fuji about 15 times before, but on Wednesday slipped and fell a great distance to his death. He was 41 years old and leaves behind a wife and several young daughters. The other climber went down to him and waited for several hours in below-freezing weather until the rescuers could extract them both. I don't want to mention the names, because I don't want my blog to get publicity of any kind from this tragedy, and I'm afraid other folks that might Google the names would get sent here.

This is obviously an enormous tragedy for all the colleagues, and the mood has been understandably quite somber since the accident. The orchestra decided to continue the tour as scheduled, but all non-essential events have been cancelled (i.e. post-concert receptions). The family needs lifting up in prayer at this moment, and probably for a long time to come. I can't imagine the grief they are feeling, and the whole thing has affected me quite strongly even though I didn't know the colleague that well. The morning after it happened, the orchestra met for our scheduled rehearsal and responded in the only way we know how... we played music. Georges Pretre had just arrived, and he led the group through the slow movement of Beethoven's 3rd symphony, fittingly a Trauermarsch, after which we stood for a minute of silence. The funeral is set for tomorrow (Sunday), and since I can't be there, I just wanted to lift up this man's family in my own little way. And I don't want to overlook the suffering of the orchestra's violin maker/repairman, who watched it all happen and undoubtedly needs our thoughts and prayers as well.