Monday, May 30, 2011

Coming to a Town Near You!

As I posted some time ago, I’ve had the great honor of being invited to be a guest artist at this year’s International Trombone Festival. Yes, such a thing does exist. In fact, they’ve had 39 of ‘em, and for this special 40th anniversary festival, the ITA has decided to return to my quasi-hometown of Nashville, Tennessee! I’m super excited to have this major trombone event in my neck of the woods, and I can’t wait to hear all the great things that have been planned.

All the events will be held on the campus of Vanderbilt University, except for a special concert in which Joseph Alessi will premier a new trombone concerto with the Nashville Symphony in the Schermerhorn Center.

In preparation for my appearance at the ITF, which will include a solo recital and a masterclass, I will be giving four other recitals; two in North Texas and two in Middle Tennessee.

I will be visiting the campus of the University of North Texas from June 15th – 18th. There I will be rehearsing with my accompanist for the ITF, Natasha Sukhina, and we will perform a concert on the evening of the 16th. While I’m there, I’ll also have the chance to sit down with some of my professors to continue working towards my goal of finishing my Masters degree from UNT. On the 17th, I’ve been invited to give another solo concert at the University of Texas, Arlington. Thanks in advance to Vern Kagarice and Dennis Bubert for the chance to play and for organizing everything.

Natasha and I will then fly to Tennessee to perform a concert in my hometown of McMinnville, which is something I’ve wanted to do for years. That will be in the afternoon of June 19th. The next day I have the chance to do one last concert and masterclass at the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts, on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University. The trombone instructor there, David Loucky, was my instructor when I attended the GSFTA in 1998! David has been kind enough to organize an evening recital for the entire school, which is hundreds of 11th and 12th-graders. I am very excited and honored to be able to share music with the students and hopefully inspire them. After all, I was sitting right where they sit not that long ago (although 13 years sounds long, now that I think about it…).

Anyway, just wanted to post this announcement so folks in my two favorite regions could save the dates and begin to get the word out! All the concerts will be free admission.

Check the “Upcoming Schedule” page for more details, i.e. locations and times.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Mad Dash to the Opera

I’ve been in a bit of a storytelling mood lately (as reflected in my last post), so I thought I’d share another crazy happening from last month.

It was a Friday, and I was in the middle of a Philharmonic block under Peter Schneider. I was playing principal on Josef Suk’s symphony Asreal, which is actually an interesting piece. We had an evening concert that was to begin at 7:30, and since we were performing in the historic Theater an der Wien rather than in the Musikverein, Schneider called for a 6:30 acoustic rehearsal. Even though most of us groaned at the announcement, it turned out to be a very good thing.

We sat on stage and ran through some of the tricky spots, and by 6:45 I was sitting on my travel case backstage preparing to go get some food. The first piece on the program was Dvorak’s Biblische Lieder, which has no trombones. Then there would be an intermission, so in all reality I wouldn’t have to be dressed and ready to go onstage until probably 8:15.

As I was packing up my trombone, my phone rang. On the other end was Dietmar, and he sounded panicked. He was at the opera, scheduled to play principal trombone on Tosca, and no 2nd trombonist had shown up yet. Hmmm. OK. Let’s talk about this…

Dietmar asks, “Who was scheduled to play tonight?” I told him who was supposed to play, and he said, “Well, I tried calling him and he won’t pick up.”
     “That’s weird. I bet he forgot.”
     “Are you in Vienna?”
     “Yes, just finished the Philharmonic rehearsal at the Theater an der Wien.”
     “Do you play on the first half of the concert?” he asked.
     “Could you come over and play the first act of Tosca in order to give time for a  substitute to show up?”
     “Sure, what time does the performance begin?”
     “In 7 minutes…”

WHAT!!?? Yes, that’s right. The opera was to begin at 7:00. (I would like to take this chance to say that my colleague who was scheduled to play 2nd trombone had a very good excuse for not showing up. Happens to the best of us…)

I immediately leapt from my seat backstage and began running with my trombone strapped to my back. The Theater an der Wien is not that far from the State Opera House, but when you’ve got only 6 minutes to get there it seems A LOT farther! Also, my less-than-adequate physical stamina did not aid matters.

It must’ve been a funny scene, me sprinting down the sidewalk with a big instrument, whipping in and out of pedestrian traffic and trying my best to avoid knocking over any tourists or old ladies in fur coats (both of which are plentiful on the sidewalks of the old city). I also had my iPhone plastered to my ear, breathlessly giving Dietmar updates on my progress:

"I am… HHH, HHH… about 2…HHH,HHH… minutes away…"

I made it into the backstage door with about 2 minutes to spare. Dietmar had pulled my black suit out of my locker and as I changed into it he put together my trombone. We all rushed upstairs and into the pit just as the concertmaster gave the tuning note. I had done it! In the span of 8 minutes, I went from calmly relaxing backstage at one theater to sitting in the pit performing in another one.

I was completely out of breath and very sweaty, but was nevertheless able to play decently… until… the asthma that has been plaguing me since last September decided to rear its ugly head. Apparently my sprint to the opera had angered my bronchial tubes, and about 10 minutes into Tosca they decided to go ahead and swell up. I started wheezing pretty badly, which developed into a cough just in time for a really quiet section of the music. I had to eventually sneak out of the pit to take a couple puffs on my inhaler so I could make it through the rest of the act.

A substitute showed up in time for Act Two, so I headed back over to the Theater an der Wien to play the Philharmonic concert. I got there just as the first half was finishing, so I had some time to catch my breath and cool off before taking the stage for the Suk symphony. I found myself wondering if other professional musicians deal with things like this…

Saturday, May 14, 2011

High Drama (Literally)

This past Easter weekend I played in a run of Wagner's Parsifal in the State Opera.   It's traditionally scheduled around Easter because the storyline of the gargantuan work centers around the quest for Christian relics, plus the final act takes place on Good Friday.   Wagner was very interested in these kinds of things... holy grails, spears, templar knights, etc.    It was one of several things the Nazis found so admirable in him.    And after performing this opera three times in one weekend, I found myself getting quite annoyed at the curious over-the-top blend of German epic poetry and faux religiosity.   

Don't get me wrong, the music is beautiful.    But absorbing hour after hour of magic evil castles, curses, holy grail ceremonies, and perpetual wounds interspersed with references to the healing power of a spear (rather than the One actually pierced by the spear), it was enough to make me a bit nauseous.  

Apparently I wasn't the only one...

The end of the first act of Parsifal is a point of contention for many an opera scholar, but it has nothing to do with the music, the text, or the staging.   It has to do with what happens after the music stops.   The act ends with Parsifal observing a lengthy grail ceremony.   The atmosphere becomes very reserved, pious, and even worshipful.   In fact, in our production the knights all take Communion on stage.   In order to preserve this "holy" feeling, the tradition that arose at Wagner's own Bayreuth Festspielhaus was for there to be no applause following the first act.    The orchestra simply finishes the last note, the lights come up, and the audience heads to the restroom or bar or wherever they go.

I have a couple problems with this.

First, although the folks at Bayreuth would swear on their lederhosen that Wagner wanted it that way, I've always heard that it was a misunderstanding.    I always thought that Wagner wanted there to be no curtain calls after the first act, not a complete ban on applause.    I've even heard a story that Wagner himself once shouted 'Bravo!' during a Parsifal, only to be shushed and hissed at by the audience.   

But even if one assumes Wagner indeed wanted complete silence, the fact that there is some debate on this issue means that at some point someone will applaud after the first act.   Some folks aren't aware of  the tradition; other folks don't agree with the tradition; some folks just forget.   Of the 10 performances of Parsifal I've played, someone has applauded in 8 of them.    

So, what happens when someone applauds?    The other audience members just sit idly by?  To each his own?   We're in Vienna, my dear reader.   Not a chance.

The usual response to even ONE clap from ONE wayward soul:  THREE HUNDRED people very loudly go "SHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!"     Which of course preserves the holiness and reverence of the moment much better than some applause...
My point is that if no one applauds... great.  Fine.  It's quiet and the Wagner fans feel really awesome.  But, if someone does applaud, the shushing and calls of, "Ruhe!" (Quiet!) disturb the mood just as much.   If someone claps, the damage is done!  You can't un-clap a clap!   

So, to the 'high drama' part.    The first performance last month went fine.  No applause after the first act.    But then came the second performance, on Easter Sunday.    As the final chord of the first act faded into silence, a gentleman in one of the boxes high up to the left side of the stage began to applaud very loudly.   Of course the audience reacted as always and began to shush him.   But he just kept going.   He kept on clapping with all his might, and so the other people began to escalate their reprimands.  Instead of shushing, it became hissing, which turned into booing, which turned into... yes... shouting.

Finally, the conductor, Ingo Metzmacher, looked up towards the source of the applause while gesturing with his arm and shaking his head.   The man finally stopped applauding, but then shouted his message to the audience...

"I find this holiness totally misplaced!   It's what led to the rise of National Socialism!"

The orchestra all sat there, mouths agape, myself included.   I've heard boos, hisses, and insults of all kinds hurtled at the stage.   But NEVER have I heard someone yelling at the audience!!   It was truly an unbelievable moment.    The man (who I like to call Screamy McShouterson) had obviously planned an ambush.   He was perfectly positioned to be heard by everyone, and the delivery of his message sounded rehearsed.  

As the conductor left the pit, the audience and orchestra were both murmuring in shocked amazement at what had just happened.   What did he say, again?  Did you hear?   Who was that?   What's he on?

I would like to say at this point that although I sort of agree with Screamy, I don't think what he did was right.    Again, to each his own.  If I think the non-clappers should leave him alone, then it's only fair that Mr. McShouterson leave the non-clappers alone.

Screamy then made me think even less of him when he decided to punish the conductor for his rebuke.   When Metzmacher came into the pit for the second and third acts, Screamy loudly and passionately booed.   And he kept on booing until the rest of the audience drowned him out with supportive applause.

What a crazy night!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Long and the Short Of It

I'm quickly closing in on the end of my longest uninterrupted streak of calls ever, and I've gotta say, it feels nice to see the light at the end of the tunnel.   Of course it's my own fault that I've had so much work to do in the last couple months.  I'm the one taking off three weeks early in June to prepare for my upcoming performance at the International Trombone Festival (more on that later).   But it's still been a feat of some magnitude to play virtually every concert, opera, and rehearsal since March 16th.   That's 8 weeks!   

There's lots of specific operas and concerts to tell you about at some point, but something has really struck me as odd in the 'big picture' of it all.   It seems that in the State Opera (where I've played the vast majority the 8 week streak) a definite pattern has emerged that is somewhat interesting.  Not very interesting... just somewhat.   But it gives me an opportunity to talk about an aspect of having an opera job that I often get asked about: the length of the performances.

It seems that in the first half of my streak, the opera house was staging almost exclusively really LONG works.   We're talking about 6 performances of Anna Bolena ( 3 hours, 30 minutes), Wagner's Ring Cycle (around 18 total hours of opera over 4 evenings), and a run of another Wagner staple, Parsifal (clocking in at a little over 5 hours)!  The month of April was... long......... very................. long.   Again, I brought this on myself.  I'm fully aware.  Just sayin', that's all.

But the last couple weeks in the opera have been a stark contrast and welcome relief.   First of all, there's a run of Don Giovanni, which is easily one of the most coveted services to play because Mozart doesn't write a single note for the trombones until about 10 minutes from the end of the opera.   If the performance begins at 7PM, I don't actually enter the opera house until about 9:30.   I have a warm-up, change into my black suit, and enter the pit around 10 o'clock just in time to play the final scene.   There's a big soprano aria just before our entrance, so we usually stand just outside the pit entrance until we hear applause from the aria and then enter and take our seats.   We do it that way so as not to visually disturb the performance.    The Vienna State Opera has a completely uncovered orchestra pit, so virtually every audience member can see us when we go in.   But once we've made it in, we get to play some of my favorite Mozart music ever.   

Sometimes I get really nervous on Giovanni evenings, because when 8PM rolls around and I'm not even close to leaving the house I start to instinctively get a but twitchy and feel that something's not right.   It's a weird feeling to be at home watching TV with Kristi when the performance downtown has been going on for a couple hours already!

There's also been a ballet running recently called "A Tribute to Jerome Robbins" where the trombones play only the first 30 minutes and the last 30 minutes with an hour break in the middle.   Again, a very pleasant call to play because I usually go over to Starbucks and have a treat and then head down to the trombone room and practice till it's time to re-enter. 

Add to that Nabucco and Jenufa, both at 2-and-a-half hours, and it's been a much less stressful and tiring couple of weeks.  I'm very thankful for it, but I often wonder why they don't schedule the long and short operas more interspersed instead of in runs or streaks like this.   The current way means that the orchestra is dead tired during the long opera months and could honestly probably work a bit more in the short opera months.  Hmmm.  Dunno.