Saturday, March 12, 2011

California Tour Journal: Part 4 (final)

Day 9: Palm Desert

Today was a fairly uneventful day, especially compared to the previous few days. We had a three-hour bus ride to the next stop on the tour, Palm Desert, and it turned out to be pretty scenic. We started out following the famed Pacific Coast Highway (aka California State Route 1), and I really enjoyed the views it afforded us.

We made our way through the San Fernando Valley, around the north and east sides of Los Angeles, and finally out east of the city into the desert. The mountains are really beautiful out here. I think many colleagues were surprised to see snowcapped peaks in California (Kalifornia). We also passed a giant (really) wind farm that had the cameras on the buses clicking.

We arrived in Palm Desert around 2PM, but were told the hotel rooms weren’t ready. Luckily, since our hotel is also a casino, we were able to take advantage of the traditional casino-style buffet. For $16 we had all we could eat (which turned out to be a lot). I think the guys I ate with were impressed that they could get so stuffed for so cheap. Ahhh, America.

I ended up not getting my room until around 4 o’clock. I had enough time to sleep for an hour or so before hopping on the bus once more to head out to the theater for this evening’s concert.

So, if last night’s hall was bad, tonight’s was really bad. It’s just really not a good thing when an orchestra that is accustomed to a hall with a golden, velvety sound that carries on forever has to perform in a hall with a sound that I would describe as … cardboard-esque. After each wonderful note played by this, one of the world’s great orchestras, was a reverberation that lasted approximately -.2 seconds. That’s right. The sound actually had negative reverberation. Not sure how that even works, but it was true. It sounded like our instruments were pointed into a bucket of stale mop water, really.

By concert’s end, we were ready to get out of there. I hitched a ride back to the hotel/casino/buffet with Hans, ordered some room service, and went night-night. I miss Kristi and Eli.

Day 10: Costa Mesa

The buses weren’t scheduled to head out for Costa Mesa until noon today, but the trombone section decided to get up early and make a little side trip of our own. Hans rented a car when we were in Santa Barbara so that he could go golfing and do a few other things on his own, and he won’t have to return it until Saturday in San Diego. Mark and Hans had heard there was a good music shop in the LA suburbs, and we thought it might be fun to go check it out and maybe try out some instruments.

We had to spend quite a while squeezing 5 trombones into the surprisingly small trunk space of the Nissan Altima hybrid, and then proceeded to squeeze ourselves into the seats. It was all knees and elbows in the back seat, where I was joined by Dietmar and Christian for the two hour drive to ‘The Horn Guys’ shop.

We had fun conversation on the trip, and were treated (once again) to bright sunshine and scenic views as we drove through the mountainous desert towards Los Angeles. Traffic was lighter than expected, and we made good time. We spent a couple hours in the store, trying out lots of different trombones yet knowing we couldn’t purchase any, mostly because we wouldn’t have been able to fit them in the car!

We asked the storeowner for a lunch recommendation, and luckily just next-door was a Thai place that he gave glowing recommendations. I must say, there’s no way I would have ever gone into this place, but it turned to be very good. We stuffed ourselves with delicious and spicy food (for roughly $7 each) and piled back into the car to head towards Costa Mesa.

I had the evening free, so I took a nap shortly after checking into the hotel in Costa Mesa. I spent my evening walking around, but there wasn’t much to see in what seemed to be a mostly financial district.

Day 11: San Diego

Another day, another bus ride. This one was not bad, only two hours long and in scenic country. Our destination was San Diego, the final stop in California. After arriving at our downtown hotel, I got together with Kyle Covington, principal trombonist of the San Diego Symphony. He took me down to the beach at Coronado, where we took a quick stroll, chatted, and had some coffee at a local café. I found myself constantly using quotes from my favorite San Diego movie, Anchorman.

But seriously, folks, the city is beautiful. As in San Francisco and Santa Barbara, the surrounding countryside, marvelous architecture, and sunny weather combine to create what must be a fantastic place to live. I also echo what I’ve heard my whole life about California… it is very, very relaxed and laid back. Even in these large cities, one gets the impression that everything moves at a much slower pace and that nothing stressful ever happens here.

Kyle came with me to the orchestra’s rehearsal and was eventually able to secure a ticket to the concert itself. The concert went well, although we were yet again battling a sub-par performance space. The acoustics on stage were atrocious, and some colleagues told me that it wasn’t much better in the audience. The audience seemed to disagree, with huge ovations and applause after almost every movement. The trombones also had a good run of Brahms’ 2nd symphony; the final D-major chord was in tune and loud (yet not obnoxious). Hans and Mark were listening off-stage and both said it was very good.

Tomorrow we leave the state of California. I will definitely miss it. The whole visit to the Golden State has been wonderful - even greater that I thought it would be. It leaves me wanting to come back again with Kristi and Eli in tow. In fact, my enjoyment of the trip has been made somewhat bittersweet because I haven’t been able to share it with my family. Well, at least now I have some idea of where we should go and what we should visit.

Days 11 & 12: Toronto

Yesterday was the type of tour day that makes you not want to go on tours. Blechhh… Get up. Check out of hotel. Get on bus. Go through airport. Get on plane. Fly 4 hours. Get off plane. Go through airport. Get on bus. Check in to hotel.

The one silver lining was that Maestro Bychkov invited the whole orchestra to dinner in one of the grand ballrooms of the hotel in Toronto. We had about half an hour after arrival to scrape off and put on our jackets and ties. But the food was totally worth it. The Austrians tend to eat quite sensibly… unless it’s free. Then they become suspiciously American-esque! We all had several plates of wonderful breads, meats, pasta, salads, and of course chocolate desserts. I thought I would burst, as did everyone at my table (mostly low brass players).

I had a restful night’s sleep - or more accurately, a buffet coma – before I rose this morning just in time to shoot an email to Kristi and get downstairs to check out. We had a quick rehearsal before our 2PM concert. I always enjoy the final rehearsal of the tour because everyone is in a great mood (we’re going home soon!) and there are lots of heartfelt thanks to hand out. It’s the time when the orchestra gets to show our appreciation to the stage managers, tour organizers, travel agents, and orchestra leaders that have (usually) made the tour a success.

Bychkov also gave a warm and heartfelt address, where he talked a lot about what a major musical and personal milestone it is in his life to have spent 3 weeks living with our orchestra. It was very moving to hear him talk about how much he has enjoyed conducting us, and how much he will miss us now that the tour is finished.

The concert went well, and it was nice to be in a real symphony hall again… one that was built for the expressed purpose of hearing orchestral music. We were sitting directly behind the horns for some reason (always a mystery to me), so I couldn’t really hear myself think during the climaxes of the Wagner. But the Bartók doesn’t have that much horn stuff in it, or at least not at the times we’re supposed to play. I thought it went well… probably the best we’ve ever played it. It was a good way to end the tour.

We’re now on the bus, headed to the airport. I’m excited because I get a business class seat for the first time in a long time. But I’m even more excited because I’ll see my sugar booger and lil’ buddy soon!

I guess this has probably been my favorite VPO tour overall. Great cities, great concerts, and nice weather… not bad! I had some free time to sightsee and shop and eat good food. And I got to spend time with some friends along the way, both from the orchestra and from the cities we visited. My next major tour will be a full year from now, which is weird to think about. Eli will be 3! We’ll be traveling to various places in Scandinavia, then on to Chicago and finally New York.

Hope you’ve enjoyed my first attempt at a tour journal. I know it was long, but a lot of stuff happened on the tour! Give me feedback, and let me know what changes you’d like to see in the next tour journal. Bis dann!

Friday, March 11, 2011

California Tour Journal: Part 3

Day 6: Berkeley

Today was my rest and relaxation day after the past two days of heavy sightseeing and concerts. I had no responsibilities because the concert this afternoon was Mahler 6 again.

I slept in, took a long shower, and then leisurely packed my bag while my room was again filled with beautiful California sunshine. I talked to Kristi for a while, and even got a few words out of Eli before he ran away from the phone. It’s nice the way the time difference works out, because I get to talk to Kristi and Eli first thing in the morning, which somehow just puts me in a great mood the whole day.

I took my bag downstairs just in time for lunch, and spent about half an hour walking around the Berkeley campus. Being that it was in the middle of a Sunday, there wasn’t much going on.

I happened upon a large grove of eucalyptus trees, all of which were ginormous and smelled incredibly fragrant. In fact, it was the smell that drew me to them in the first place.

After hanging around campus for a while, reading my Kindle and writing emails, I went to Zellerbach Hall and listened to most of Mahler 6 from backstage. What wonderful music! It’s one of the Mahler symphonies I don’t know so well, but after hearing the orchestra’s soulful and skillful rendition, I think I have to get better acquainted with it.

After the concert, we loaded up the buses and set out towards Santa Barbara. I was very sleepy as night fell, and ended up sleeping for the first couple hours of the journey. We had been told that we would stop for food about halfway to Santa Barbara, and sure enough, we pulled off the highway after about three-and-a-half hours. I assumed the driver would drop us off at a shopping center or something with several different fast food restaurants. Nope. We pulled into a parking lot and I was STUNNED to look over and see … a Valero gas station and a Jack in the Box.

So here you have 30 hungry orchestra members all heading towards a very small Jack in the Box at about 9PM on a Sunday. Not ideal. The poor workers had a look of panic as we all crammed in front of the counter and ordered our ‘food’. It was very slow going, especially with the European members having to really think about which of the undesirable and greasy choices they would select. And for some reason the entire restaurant was freezing cold. We nevertheless sat there in the middle of nowhere California in our full winter gear, shivering and silently wolfing down our hastily prepared Jack in the Box meals. We loaded back onto the bus and finally made our way to Santa Barbara around midnight.

Days 7 & 8: Santa Barbara

I got an email today from a friend of mine that said, “The Wiener Philharmoniker in Santa Barbara… someone was smart with their planning!” Boy was he right!! We had the most incredible couple of days here in Santa Barbara, rightfully nicknamed the ‘American Riviera’.

We awoke yesterday morning to temperatures of about 60 degrees and bright sunshine. I met several of the guys in the lobby, and we had no plans whatsoever other than to go find some food. We exited the hotel grounds and immediately gasped at the beautiful view.

We crossed the highway to the beach and spent the next half hour just meandering our way towards the pier we saw in the distance, pausing for a couple impromptu and not at all staged photographs.

The pier we had seen in the distance turned out to be Stearns Wharf. We walked down it in search of breakfast, but it became quickly apparent that breakfast food wasn’t really available. So we all had fish and chips! We found some seats in the sun outside the fish & chips stand and even had some entertainment. A pelican was flying around very close to the pier, and we really enjoyed watching him swoop and suddenly dive at full speed into the ocean after his prey.

Walking onto the wharf, we had seen an advertisement for a ‘land & sea’ tour and decided to check it out. We found out it was an amphibious vehicle tour and all hopped aboard for a 90 minute tour.

We had a fantastic tour guide named Milo, and despite being a bit chilly from driving/boating around in an open vehicle, everyone enjoyed it immensely.

The historic Santa Barbara Courthouse

The view from the tour boat

We spent the afternoon walking around downtown, stopping occasionally for a coffee or to take in the many magnificent Spanish mission-style buildings. I really enjoyed the architecture, and especially the courthouse. It was built in the 1920s and it is truly spectacular. We went to the top of the building’s 7-story tower to revel in a breathtaking 360-degree view of Santa Barbara. We didn’t want to leave. We just stayed up there, chatting and taking photos and soaking up the sun.

Today I slept in and then spent the morning and afternoon just walking around town and taking in more of this amazing city. I walked the beach for an hour at least, then circled back into downtown Santa Barbara, where I did a little bit of shopping and had lunch at Chipotle, my favorite burrito place.

Tonight was our one and only concert in Santa Barbara. I showed up at the appointed hour at the gorgeous Grenada Theater and giggled when I saw all the colleagues. The whole orchestra was pink! Everyone, myself included, had spent so much time outdoors in the past two days (in 60-degree breezy weather) without so much as a drop of sunscreen, and every single colleague I saw was sunburned!

As we rehearsed, we quickly found out that although the Grenada is really pretty and interestingly decorated, it doesn’t so much sound really pretty. It was very dry, and it was often hard for those of us in the back to hear the strings. It was nonetheless an enjoyable and well-received concert.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

California Tour Journal: Part 2

Day 4: Berkeley

Today was the first real working day in California. We had a rehearsal this morning at Zellerbach Hall, the site of our three-concert residency here at UC Berkeley. The rehearsal went fine, though I think everyone was very tired. Everyone has been commenting how much more difficult it is compared to flying to New York. Those extra three hours from east coast to west coast make a real impact on the severity of the jet lag. In the rehearsal break we were treated to homemade cookies, brownies, and cakes from Cal students and faculty. So. Good. There were these chocolate heart shaped cookies that were sandwiched together with peanut butter in the middle. Wow.

During our first rehearsal
The weather forecast didn’t fit with everyone’s vision of California, and we entered the building under cloudy skies and cold drizzle. When rehearsal was finished three hours later, we opened the backstage door and were delighted and surprised to find beautiful sunny skies! More than once I heard a colleague say, “Ahhhh, California!” Between the sunshine and the ever-prevalent scent of eucalyptus on the Berkeley campus, it was enough to re-energize everyone and put us in high spirits.

Christoph, Mark, Hans, me, and Christian
Several of us went walking around looking for some lunch, and the colleagues fell in love with the campus. The idea of an expansive dedicated university campus is almost non-existent in Vienna, and many of the guys said they feel they missed out on what they consider a huge part of the quintessential college experience. It struck me as we wandered through the many academic buildings, athletic facilities, and various blue & yellow bookstores that American students are very lucky in that regard.

We eventually found a nice restaurant, which was actually the former Presbyterian student center on campus, and then I headed back to the hotel to take a nap as the beautiful sunshine streamed through the hotel curtains. I slept for a couple hours, only because I didn’t want sleepiness to be a factor during the evening’s concert.

The concert was a great one. The Zellerbach sounds much better when full of people, and even though I know everyone was exhausted, they didn’t seem to let it affect the music. The Wagner Prelude to Tristan & Isolde was a thing of profound beauty. The string section had the audience eating out of their hands, pouring everything they had into those wonderful melodies. Lars Stransky played the lead horn part beautifully as well, and by the end, when Bychkov wanted to let the final chord fade VERY slowly into silence, the audience just couldn’t wait to interrupt the silence with applause and shouts of “Bravo”.

The Bartók went well, too. I felt there was a curiously aggressive energy throughout the whole suite. Everyone seemed to be attacking the piece just like in the piece’s back-story when the tramps attack the Mandarin. Matthias Schorn played the many extended clarinet features with excitement and dazzling proficiency. I felt we as a trombone group played well. There are several tricky parts that are quite exposed, and they all went well. I was really feeding off the energy from conductor and colleague alike, and got lucky with the many awkward glissandi in the piece. Afterwards, the trombone group got a great ovation from the audience, which always feels nice. I then really enjoyed being able to just sit and bask in the pair of dances the orchestra performed as encores, neither of which had trombone parts.

Mark, Christoph, and I went out in search of some Mexican food to close out the evening, but everything was closed. We finally found a pizzeria close to the hotel that was still open, and I had a wonderful Sicilian sausage calzone.

Day 5: San Francisco/Berkeley

What an awesome day! We had plans today to take a tour of Alcatraz Island, and it did not disappoint. We left quite early, allowing 90 minutes for a trip to San Francisco Pier 33, a trip that was supposed to take only 35 minutes. The BART system had other plans; there was a track out of service in the tunnel that goes under the bay between Oakland and San Francisco. We ended up sitting at one stop for nearly 25 minutes and eventually arrived at our end station only 12 minutes before the ferry was to leave for Alcatraz.

We all hopped in taxis (there were 8 of us) and sped over to Pier 33 just in time to run straight onto the ferry. As I looked around, I realized not everyone had made it. As it turned out, Christian Poitinger had gotten caught in a throng of people at the BART station and had taken a third taxi. He got to the pier just as the boat was pulling out, but was able to grab his ticket from will call and take the next ferry 30 minutes later.

The weather was absolutely perfect for our journey across the bay. We were treated to breathtaking views in bright sunshine all around the bay.

As we sailed closer to the infamous Alcatraz, I couldn’t help but think how oddly beautiful it was. It was a place of horror, sorrow, and darkness for so long, and yet today the island is somehow picturesque. It sits out in the middle of the bay with surprisingly extensive and diverse gardens all around the perimeter of the island. There are also hundreds of species of waterfowl that roost there.

The self-guided audio tour was amazing. It’s endlessly interesting and well produced, and all the colleagues said afterwards the German version was wonderful as well. I almost can’t describe the feelings I had when I entered the cell house. I have seen television programs about the penitentiary, but none of them can do it justice. I felt at once creeped out and fascinated. The history of the place, now almost legendary, seemed to surround me as I took my first leisurely stroll down “Broadway”, the aisle between B-block and C-block.

This place, which held captive such names as Al Capone and Robert “Birdman” Stroud, gives off an eerie vibe to say the least. It was my first time in a prison of any kind.

One of the cruelest parts of being an inmate at Alcatraz had to have been this view:

To be able to see civilization in plain view, just a mile away, had to have been mental torture for many a convicted criminal. We, however, loved the view!

We still had plenty of time to spare before the evening’s concert, so we went over to Pier 39 for a leisurely lunch. After a long BART ride back to Berkeley, we were all pooped. I think most of the guys took naps before heading to the UC campus for the concert.

The concert was again very successful. I played the first half, Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, on first trombone. The trombones only play the first and last movements, but there are nevertheless some tricky spots. The first movement begins cruelly, with pianissimo dotted-rhythm intervals that jump up to a ‘G’… in other words, a cracked note waiting to happen. But it all went fine for me last night, and after the first 20 measures I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Once I cleared that first hurdle, I had the pleasure of just sitting and listening to the rest of the orchestra perform beautifully. The 2nd and 3rd movements are among my favorite in the literature, and I am so glad the trombones have only ‘tacet’ so we can just soak it up. The flashy 4th movement has one last hurdle for the first trombonist. After not playing a single note for about 15 minutes, I had to come in on a high B-flat, also another cracked note waiting to happen. I clipped it in the Vienna performance last week, but it went fine tonight. It’s interesting how things like that can worm their way into your head after you miss it once, and let’s say I was very happy when it worked this time.

The second half of the concert was Brahms’ second symphony, a staple of the orchestral repertoire. I played second trombone with Dietmar on 1st and Christian Poitinger on bass. Again, the trombones play mostly at the beginning and the end of the symphony, and in between get to just enjoy great music. It was a great performance all around, and the trombone section did well on the famous scales and chord in the final minute of the finale. We received an immediate and rousing ovation from the audience, and once again I felt very fulfilled and satisfied with a great concert in the books.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

California Tour Journal: Part 1

I just arrived home from a 12-day Philharmonic tour that took us to Germany, California, and Canada.  Though it was probably the best overall tour I've been on, I am very glad to be back and not traveling abroad for at least a couple months. 

I thought I would share the tour with you in a different way this time.   Each night of the tour, I sat down and wrote a 'journal entry' for the day, and now I will post my tour journal over several posts.    I tried to write it as if I were my own personal journal, recording my feelings at the time along with descriptions of concerts and other activities.  

I will refer often to a few things:
Bychkov= Semyon Bychkov, the conductor for the tour
Wagner= Richard Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde
Schumann= Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 2
Brahms = Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 2
Bartók= Bela Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin Suite

If any other references are unclear, please comment or message me and let me know.  Hope you enjoy this glimpse into my touring life.

Day 1: Köln
The tour got underway this morning with a pleasant and short flight to Cologne. I hated to say goodbye to Eli and Kristi, but I’m looking forward to the tour nonetheless. I am really enjoying the music we’re doing, and especially enjoying playing principal on the Schumann and Bartók. I’m also really looking forward to seeing California, and I feel like I’ll really be able to say that I’ve seen it because once we fly to Oakland tomorrow, we’ll only be using buses to get from city to city. I’m hoping we go down the coast as often as possible.

I’m free today, because the program for this evening’s concert is the Mahler. I hope I get to hear it at some point… probably in California somewhere. We arrived at the hotel around 2 in the afternoon, and I spent some time practicing. Our hotel is much more centrally located this time, so I thought I’d take a bit of a walk around the city. Wow, it’s cold! I made it over to the famous Kölner Dom, which has an amazing, if somewhat intimidating, front façade. The spires seem to go on forever. I read somewhere that it was the tallest building in the world before the completion of the Washington Monument. I walked around inside for a while, but in the fading daylight wasn’t able to see much. 

The view from my hotel window

I also made it down to the banks of the Rhine. 

We fly out pretty early in the morning, and I’m hoping I can get some sleep on the way to the Pacific coast of the US. California, here I come!

Day 2: Flight to Bay Area
We loaded up the buses early this morning and took an hour drive to Dusseldorf, where we caught our charter flight to the Oakland, CA airport. The flight was pleasant and non-eventful. Every member of the orchestra had either 2 or 4 seats to themselves, and most everyone slept a lot. Since it was a charter, the whole plane got business class service. They kept feeding us and feeding us! I don’t think I’ve ever had so much to eat on a flight before.

We had some amazing views on the way. First was the always beautiful view over Greenland, where the snow appears to be a mile deep and the mountaintops just poking out of it.

We made our way over Canada’s Northwest Territories before turning south to fly near Calgary and then Seattle before heading into the Bay Area. As we made our way over Alberta and into northern Washington, we had a spectacular vista over the mountains. The air was crystal clear and the sharp peaks were a sight to behold.

Things got progressively less snowy as we approached northern California, and we looked out over lush, green rolling hills. Faintly in the distance I saw the Pacific Ocean, and before long we were making final approach. Someone yelled, “There it is!” I looked out to see the San Francisco Bay under bright sunlight approaching off our right wing. It was a breathtaking sight, with the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and downtown San Francisco clearly visible. I spent the entire last 20 minutes of the flight with my forehead stuck to the window, as did many other colleagues.

San Francisco Bay
It took me FOR-E-VER to get through the passport check, mostly because there was no separate line for US Citizens. The entire orchestra (except for me) had to submit their customs declaration, visa forms, and all 10 fingers to be scanned. The poor border agent sighed in relief as I walked up, “Oh, good, you’re American. This’ll be quick.”

The bus ride to Berkeley was nice. It was a very sunny afternoon, and the orchestra members seemed to really appreciate the natural beauty of the area. Our hotel in Berkeley is super nice. It’s an old-style hotel, but it’s been recently renovated, and for some reason I was given a suite. I’m not complaining.

We're in California!

We piled all our junk on Christoph.  He likes it!

One half of my hotel suite in Berkeley.  Nice!

I checked my emails and unpacked a bit, and then met the guys downstairs to go into San Francisco. There is a ‘BART’ station just outside out hotel, so it’s über-convenient. We rode the train for about 20 minutes and then found ourselves in downtown SanFran, complete with cable cars, steep streets, and cold wind!

We decided to stick close to the water in the hopes of finding something to eat. It’s funny, because even though we had been perpetually stuffed with food our entire flight and it was the middle of the night to our stomachs, everyone was STILL hungry.

We walked, walked, and walked some more. Our supposed goal was Pier 39, apparently a big tourist site, and we began with Pier 1. When we finally arrived at Pier 39, I realized it was indeed a very touristy place, complete with a billion restaurants, souvenir shops, and photo ops. Another famous trait of Pier 39 is the sea lions that apparently have simply been showing up there since 1989 to hang out on the docks. We didn’t see the see lions when we arrived, but instead picked a wonderful seafood restaurant at which to eat called Neptune’s House. We had a giant platter of seafood as an appetizer, including shrimp, oysters, calamari, crab legs, and crab cakes, and then I had delicious Cajun pasta.

With Dietmar and Mark after our great meal
We were stumbling our way out of the Pier 39 area (stumbling due to full bellies mixed with jetlag) when we heard a mysterious barking sound. We rushed over behind the buildings to see the famed sea lions! We had apparently looked in the wrong place before. We spent a few minutes staring in awe at the hundred or so animals just hanging out on the dock. From the pier we had great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, and it was the perfect ending to a fun evening out.

At Pier 39 - Alcatraz island over my left shoulder

Day 3: Berkeley/San Francisco
I managed to sleep until 7:00 this morning, which is not bad for the first day of western-bound jetlag. I had a nice Skype session with Kristi and Eli for about 30 minutes before I took a long, hot shower and scraped off a bit from the long journey yesterday. After breakfast I returned to the room to relax and do a bit of work. I warmed up in my practice mute, wrote some emails, and finally transcribed the electric guitar solo from the Chick Corea jazz-fusion tune “Hymn of the 7th Galaxy” for our jazz concert in March.

A graduate student from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music named Brandon picked me up from the hotel after lunch and took me across the Bay Bridge to do a masterclass. I was invited by trombone teacher and long-time SFSO principal trombonist Mark Lawrence. I had the privilege of meeting Mark 2 years ago in Los Angeles when we were on tour with Zubin Mehta. He thought it would be beneficial for the students to hear my story and play a bit for me as well.

I thought the class itself went really well. I did a little “blah,blah” and took questions for the first part and then heard several of the students play. Boy, was it fun to work with them! The students were of the high caliber one would expect from the SF Conservatory, but most importantly they were willing to play musically, they were open to new ideas, and they were able to make the changes I wanted. It was just a lot of fun and a great learning experience for me. Hopefully it was the same for them.

As I talked through my audition story, I realized as never before how many San Francisco connections there were during that time. First, it was Mark’s recording of the Malcom Arnold Fantasy that I used as my reference when I recorded it for the ITA audition CD that sparked the whole thing. Then about 2 months before the audition I played in a masterclass at the Eastern Trombone Workshop for Paul Welcomer, 2nd trombonist in… you guessed it… the San Francisco Symphony. And finally, at the audition itself, the other candidate who made it through to the finals with me was Kyle Covington, who had studied at the San Francisco Conservatory. Kyle is now principal trombonist in the San Diego Symphony, and I hope to get together with him when we are there next week.

Brandon offered me a ride back to Berkeley, but after we hit a major traffic jam that would’ve forced him to miss a rehearsal, I convinced him to let me use the BART subway system to get back. It took just a little while, but by the time I got back to the hotel the dreaded jetlag was setting in big time. I decided all I wanted to do was adhere to all the American stereotypes. I grabbed a Papa John’s pizza (hadn’t had one in a long time) and took it back to the room, where I ate half of it while watching TV. And now I will crash.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

UT Trombone Symposium: Part 4 (final)

The final day of the symposium got underway with another lecture and masterclass on the subject of “The Jeremy Wilson Story”.   My parents were especially anxious to hear this one!  “It all began in 1982…” 

I agreed to that title for lack of a better one, but I wanted to emphasize not so much my biography, but rather what auditioning for the Vienna Philharmonic had taught me, and what I thought other students could glean from my experiences.   I spoke for over an hour, and tried to include every relevant detail I could remember.   I started from the day I received the fateful email from Vern Kagarice and went all the way to the day of the audition.   It was easily the most complete telling of the story I’ve ever done.   I then had the chance to work with several talented high school students in a masterclass format.  

After a wonderful and relaxing afternoon with several friends and family members, it was time for the final event of the week: my concerto with the UT Symphony Orchestra.

After a week of non-stop rehearsals, events, meals, and catching up with friends, I was exhausted.   I think there was also a huge sense of relief and accomplishment that I had successfully pulled off my first major event as a professional solo artist.  It had been more than a year in the planning, and after all my preparation I was ready to go out with a bang.

The orchestra began its Vienna-themed concert with Mozart’s Overture to the Magic Flute
, a piece I’ve performed many times in the Staatsoper.   I was warming up backstage when I got a text message from Joe Christian in the audience which read, “Your warm-up sounds great!”   Even though I was playing in a closed green room that is sealed off from the auditorium, I was being heard in the main hall during the overture!  I was mortified and also confused, but I guess the sound was traveling through ductwork or something.   I immediately put in my practice mute and continued warming up.

The time for my concerto came up, and I once again got a tingly sensation as I walked out on stage.   The nerves were gone, though, and I only had a sense of excitement and anticipation in their place.  I think doing the previous nights’ performances really helped boost my confidence and calm my fears, if for no other reason than I knew what was coming.

I did a short on-stage interview with Jim Fellenbaum, the man who started this whole thing.    We talked about what I had been doing during the week, a little bit about what it’s like to play and live in Vienna, and about the importance of certain composers (like Mozart and Brahms) in the legacy of the orchestra.

Then it was time to play.   I was very eager to finally perform Grøndahl’s trombone concerto, a grand and wonderfully melodic piece that I fell in love with many years ago.   It’s perhaps overplayed, but it’s beautiful and not so difficult to work up in a short time.   I felt that if I were going to start a career as a soloist, this should be my starting point.  

Again, the piece was not perfect, but the most difficult sections, the ones I was most worried about, came off really well.   And I once again felt I stayed true to my musical self, unapologetically taking risks, singing tunes, and most importantly, having fun.    When the last note had been played, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy.  The entire week had been nothing but a positive experience, and I had done what I came there to do.

The evening and the symposium concluded in bombastic fashion when Don, Dan, and I took the stage one last time with the UT Symphony Orchestra to perform Berlioz’s Hungarian March
.   Yes, that’s correct.  SIX trombones and tuba played the piece.   It was loud, it was exciting, and it was, dare I say, a TROMBONE-FEST!   

Here’s a video of highlights from the Grøndahl:

I want to publicly send a huge thanks to Jim Fellenbaum and the UT Symphony Orchestra for the opportunity to perform and make music together.  
I want to again thank my new friend Dan Cloutier, who was an enormous help throughout the whole week and did a great job organizing everything. 

To Don Hough, the man to whom I in large part owe my career, thanks for performing with us and for being there at nearly every minute of the whole symposium.   It was a delight to spend so much time with you.  

To my accompanist Judith Bible, another new friend, I owe another gigantic thank you.  I know it was not easy preparing for a massive recital in the midst of your already busy schedule, and you played beautifully.  

To Dr. Sousa, it was a pleasure and honor to come back and perform with someone who taught me so much and whom I so admired as a student.  A huge thanks for everything… maybe someday I’ll have the nerve to call you Gary.   

To the TTP guys – Jon, Joe, Jeff, and Brian - playing with you guys was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.  Thanks for all the time and effort you put in, and for allowing me to be part of your group for a week.  

To all the students (UT and high school alike), you’re the reason all this happened in the first place.   Thanks for your attentiveness, your support, and your open minds.  It was a pleasure getting to know you, and thanks for letting me dig my hands into your playing in the masterclasses.

To the UT School of Music – my heart goes out to you and to the Stephens family.  For those who don’t know, the director of the School of Music, Roger Stephens, passed away on February 20th after a long battle with cancer.   He was a wonderful man.

To all the friends who came to the UTTS events, many from far away, it was truly amazing to see you all.   The circumstances of our lives have dictated in many cases that we don’t stay in touch like we should.   Seeing everyone makes me want to work harder at remedying that.    Joe & Megan, you’re the greatest… thanks for a place to stay, for your wonderful friendship, and most importantly, for Oreo kugeln!

 To my dear family members who came up to Knoxville, thanks for always supporting me and loving me.   I love you right back.  

It was an unforgettable week on Rocky Top.  Can’t wait to do it again!

The end of a LONG week!

Monday, March 7, 2011

UT Trombone Symposium: Part 3

On Friday night of UTTS was my solo recital.   As I’ve stated in previous posts, one of my main personal goals for the week was to see how much stuff I could cram into a week and still perform to a high standard.   Well, on Friday evening I got a taste of just where my limits were.

In my practice regime during the weeks prior to the symposium, I could easily play through my recital program twice and still be OK.   But… that was without a whole week of rehearsals and masterclasses.  It was also not in between two major concerti, and I was also not staying out late every night catching up with old friends.

I knew it was an ambitious program, but I wanted to push myself.  Wish granted. 

The concert started off fine, with probably my best overall run of the Bozza Ballade.   I felt energized and optimistic.   Then came the Ropartz Piéce in E-flat minor, which I had avoided my entire career because it’s so strenuous and concludes with a high E-flat.   I was very happy with my performance overall (I managed all the high and technical stuff, including the high E-flat) but about halfway through I felt my chops tiring faster than I had expected.    Next up was the killer, the Schumann Romances for Oboe.   I’ve always loved these little romances, but never had a chance to perform them.  The only problem is they stay in the middle and high register, and you never stop playing.   In other words, a death sentence for even slightly tired chops.   Even though I only performed the first two movements, these little romances caused trouble for me the rest of the evening.   About halfway through the 2nd romance, I started having random high notes stop working.   Everything would feel fine, and suddenly I would go for something and it just wouldn’t happen.   In all reality, the few chipped notes were not enough to ruin the performance, and most were probably promptly ignored by most of the audience, but it was hugely frustrating for me.   

In the intermission, I considered dropping a piece or two from the program because I knew at the end were the quintet jazz pieces that had lots of high lead playing.   The quartet guys talked me out of it, and I was glad they did.  I had a good performance of the Crespo Improvisation No. 1, followed by three opera arias.  I was very tired during the arias, but was committed to still taking risks and pouring my heart into the performances.  It turned out to be the highlight of the program for me, a sentiment that was echoed by many people afterward.   

This video contains my favorite moments from the solo portion of the recital:

I took a couple minutes after the arias to try to regain some strength in my chops, and then returned to the stage along with the quartet guys: Jon Walton, Joe Christian, Brian Jennings, and Jeff Mize.    I was really looking forward to this part of the program, and it didn’t disappoint.   Though I was tired and fighting my chops the whole time, I thought we put together some good performances of the Thom Ritter George Aria & Dance, Jim Kazik’s Ballade & Fantasia, and an arrangement of the jazz standard Fly Me to the Moon.   We followed up with 2 Johann Strauss polkas as encores, Leichtes Blut and Pizzicato Polka.   These were my Nanny’s favorite.    For the Pizzicato Polka, we had a very special role for Jeff Mize.   As we began to play, he slowly put on some black gloves and then pulled out of his pocket a single bell from a glockenspiel: an A-flat.   He then used his mouthpiece as a beater and played along with us on the bridge of the tune.   Everyone played really well, and I had so much fun I simply forgot about any tired chops.

Here’s a video of the quintet portion of the recital, including the encores:

In the end, I felt like I put together an enjoyable program of music, and the reactions I got were very positive.   It was exactly what I had hoped it would be… a fun night of music-making and a learning experience.   I got to share the evening with many friends and family that came in for the concert, and having the chance to finish out the evening with 4 great friends was the perfect icing on the cake.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

UT Trombone Symposium: Part 2

The first official day of the University of Tennessee Trombone Symposium got of to a great start with another Wind Ensemble rehearsal that included the Ewazen and the Daugherty.   I was much more relaxed than the day before, and I felt I was able to play more naturally and more like a soloist.

Just after lunchtime I gave my first lecture of the week, which centered on the differences in American and European orchestral styles.   All the UT brass students were in attendance, along with several other non-brass faculty and students.   I spoke for well over an hour about the many important stylistic differences in American and European brass playing, including discussions on clarity of articulation, note shape, phrasing, vibrato, and sound concept.   I did just a little bit of playing, attempting to demonstrate some of the differences I was discussing.   I opened up the class for questions at the end, and ended up getting a pretty good discussion going, especially regarding the culture of music and the orchestra’s role in it.

That evening I gave another lecture followed by a master class.   The subject of this one was ‘What it’s like to be a Philharmoniker’.    I talked about the huge significance of the Vienna Philharmonic in the world of classical music, which lies in three traits of the orchestra: its history, its uniqueness, and its sound.     I also covered the most basic items, such as the fact that the ‘Wiener Philharmoniker’ and the ‘Vienna Philharmonic’ are the same thing!  I was able to hook up my laptop to the projection system to show maps of Europe both past and present.   I felt a bit like I was in a war movie, talking and gesturing in front of a giant map of the continent!   I discussed the workings of the orchestra, its traditions, and its unique attributes, and I talked at length about the orchestra’s dual role as the Philharmonic and State Opera orchestra.

After a short break, I worked with several students on solo trombone literature.   It was great to finally be ‘getting my hands dirty’ after all those weeks of planning and preparation.   The students played well, and I felt that I was able to give them some good comments and suggestions.

Before the evening’s lecture, Dan thought it would be good to have some music (imagine that) to open the week’s festivities.   Our solution was to do an informal quartet concert.   Here’s a video of some of the highlights of that performance:

The first major performance of the week was with the University of Tennessee Wind Ensemble.     Even though I had had good rehearsals in the preceding days, I found myself becoming more and more nervous as Thursday wore on.   My chops were in good shape; I had a good warmup that morning and had played little since then.    As I warmed up backstage I kept reassuring myself with the thought that I was in good shape, well prepared, and playing for a friendly audience that wanted to hear me play well.   But there were always those nagging voices in the back of my mind, reminding me of disappointing performances in the past and of the weaknesses in my playing.  I suppose it’s something any professional musician deals with, and in a way it’s exactly the reason I wanted to do the symposium.   I wanted to see if I could face those demons and still perform well.   Could I rely on my preparation and experiences to produce an entertaining, skillful, and musically fulfilling performance?

My friend and colleague Ian Bousfield has done hundreds of solo performances, and he advised me as I prepared for UTTS that there would be a moment when I would profoundly question my ability to successfully carry through with the concerto.  I experienced that moment as I walked out on stage to perform the Ewazen.   It was an eerie sensation taking a bow in the middle of the Cox Auditorium stage where I had performed so many times just a few years earlier.  I guess it was because there was one huge difference: there was a major university ensemble behind me.    At that moment I became keenly aware of two things: 1) a sudden lack of moisture in my mouth, and 2) the pressure of performing as an ‘esteemed’ member of the Vienna Philharmonic.  

I took a deep breath, said a little prayer, nodded to Dr. Sousa, and we were off! 

The first page of the Ewazen is the perfect thing to shake off nerves and get the air moving naturally again.  Yet somehow after I turned the first page I still felt pretty jittery, and I felt it was making the music come off as stilted.   About 2 minutes into the piece there is a big moment; a loud cadence that has the solo part going up to a high C and resolving on a sustained high A.   As we approached that measure, I was determined to nail it and hopefully in doing so finally shake off the nerves and cobwebs.   I probably overdid it, but it was loud and it felt great.   And afterwards I felt much less nervous… until…

(time for a backstory: you may remember from an earlier  blog that I was toying with the idea of doing the concerti from memory.  Well, I decided that with so much going on during the week I shouldn’t press my luck, and I used music for everything.)

I approached the end of the second page, and as I looked up to the top of page 3, I saw that it was actually page 10!!!    My pages had somehow gotten out of order, and I was about to abruptly jump to halfway through the 3rd movement!   My heart sank, but luckily I knew this section well and was able to play the next 20 bars from memory.   My mother says she noticed that when I finally had a few bars rest and reached to correct the page order that my hands were noticeably shaking.   Yeah, no kidding!

I felt that by the 2nd movement I was really getting into my element and feeling comfortable on stage, and then the 3rd movement was in many ways a joyful expression of relief that I had made it through mostly unscathed.   Again I felt encouraged that in spite of my nerves and lack of experience, I was able to pull off the most difficult aspects of the concerto and still stay true to my musical self.   It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was nonetheless a huge victory for me.   I was able to perform as a soloist without any major technical breakdowns, and  I was able to keep my concentration throughout the piece and yet still have fun and enjoy myself.

Up next was the Michael Daugherty piece for three trombone soloists and wind band entitled Rosa Parks Boulevard.   The work pays tribute to Rosa Parks and her famous peaceful protests during the civil rights movement by contrasting wild, percussive tutti passages (symbolizing Rosa Parks’ bus ride and her struggles against racism and civil injustice) with slow, lyrical passages played by the three trombone soloists (which symbolize the voice of the preacher and quote Rosa’s favorite spiritual “Oh, Freedom”).   This was such great fun, and a real release of energy after my concerto.  All during the rehearsals, I kept asking Dr. Sousa, “Are you sure I’m not playing too loudly?”   He always said I was playing it perfectly fine and that it should be huge, just a boisterous African-American preacher might be.   In the actual performance, I sure gave it all I had, and I think Don and Dan followed suit!   We had so much fun playing those bluesy riffs together, and both Don and Dan sounded great.  

l to r: Dr. Sousa, me, Don Hough, & Dan Cloutier

To bring the evening to a rousing conclusion, the three of us joined the rest of the UT Trombone Choir on the front of the stage for a trombone-tastic rendition of Henry Fillmore’s march, Lassus Trombone.    

Here is a video of excerpts from all three pieces that I put together:

After the concert, I was surprised, stunned, and elated to meet one of my absolute favorite musicians of all time, legendary trumpet player Doc Severinsen!!   This was easily one of the highlights of the week for me.   He was in attendance at the concert and was very flattering and complimentary of my performance.   I must’ve seemed like a bumbling idiot as I floundered around trying to figure out how to respond to positive reviews from someone I so admire.  The first jazz CD I ever owned was one of his Greatest Hits albums with the Tonight Show Band.    It was amazing to spend a few minutes ‘talking shop’ with such a legendary musician, who turned out to be an amazingly nice man as well.   It was funny, because all I wanted to talk to him about was jazz, but all he wanted to talk to me about was Mahler!   It was an absolute thrill, and my parents were star struck too!

A HUGE thanks to Dr. Gary Sousa, Dan Cloutier, Don Hough, and all the UT students who made it a wonderful experience and a great night of music-making that I won't soon forget!