Monday, February 08, 2010

I'm baaaack... after a three year-plus hiatus. Because I'm lazy? Nope: just swamped. Now I'll ty to keep better track of the swamp; it's a very interesting place.

I'll be giving periodic updates on various activities. Some really cool stuff is coming up. For the moment, suffice to say that tomorrow's school concerts in Philadelphia were not canceled after all as a result of last weekend's Snowmageddon, so I will be there, dressed in bright colors, to explain how "Music Can Morph!" Crank up the de Falla and the Glinka, ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra...

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Belfast Beat

Oh, the tyranny, the TYRRANY of the blog. If you don't write in it for awhile, you feel progressively less worthy. You feel like you're finking out on your friends. (Not that friends or acquaintances necessarily even read one's blog.) Week after week, it's the item on the to-do list that doesn't get crossed out, but instead gets schlepped from one to-do list to the next. Months have passed, and now the catch-up feels insurmountable, and all my readers have surely abandoned me. Nevertheless, I begin where I left off.

There was good news from Canada. In a matter of days, I received a bulky little package from the housekeeping department of the Wedgewood Hotel in downtown Vancouver. Sure enough, my i-Pod. All the parts accounted for -- even the cute little Japanese cloth bag I keep it in. BOY was I happy. Now I really am seriously considering moving to Canada. Such nice, honest folks up there! So what if they have a rampant crystal meth epidemic that seemed to consume their entire Sunday newspaper?

But my U.K. adventures had just begun. Just a few weeks later, I was off to Belfast to do "Bernstein Beat" up there in front of a specially invited audience, for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Getting there was torture. By most people's standards I'm a shrimp -- and yet my Virgin Airlines seat felt so cramped that my knees ached from being pressed against the seat in front of me. I don't know how the larger people around me could bear it.

Heathrow was a zoo -- especially Terminal One, which the airport official told me was "just through that tunnel." 20 minutes of schlepping all my bags later, I arrived at Dante's vision of Calcutta. Total chaos and misery, with broken air conditioning and broken "do-it-yourself" boarding pass dispensers, and hordes and hordes of confused, unhappy people. After much milling and a long line at the "Quickbag Check" and another long, long line at security, I walked many corridors and finally arrived at my gate where there was a COSTA COFFEE; I've never been so happy to see a Starbucks ripoff in all my life.

I was in something like a fugue state on that plane to Belfast. But the minute I arrived, I sprang into action. The very nice Belfast BBC guy, Declan McGovern, picked me up at the airport and drove me to the BBC offices for an interview to be broadcast the next day. Then he dropped me at my hotel, where I settled into my likeable room and took the nap of all naps.

That evening, Declan invited me to his house -- a tiny renovated rowhouse, like a little vertical ship -- where some 5 of us ate Declan's homemade Guinness Stew. Delicious! His friends were delightful -- but I was surprised that none of them had ever heard of blogs -- or Hummers.

The next morning at the rehearsal, I was so sleepy as to be nearly useless, but the music sounded OK. The conductor was a cute, up-and-coming Brit, Charles Hazelwood, who kept taking calls on his cell phone all day about some Elton John thing he was to conduct in a month for Live 8, involving ten thousand South African kids singing simultaneously on TV with three other locations around the world -- or something. It all sounded very daunting and important. We had lunch in a quite good restaurant with a pretty fancy menu, yet still somehow pervasively British; I had linguine with smoked cod smothered in cream, cheese AND EGG.

That afternoon, I found a hairdresser near my hotel and got my hair washed, blown dry and straightened with a straightening iron -- the crack cocaine of curly-headed girls. After many drinks in the hotel bar and some pretty bad "Cajun chicken" in a restaurant called Bourbon that sported amusingly bordelloid decor, we got back to the hotel and Charles the conductor deemed it necessary to kick the sculpture in the hotel lobby a few times. I decided I liked him.

The "Bernstein Beat" next day at 1 pm went very well. I'd rewritten the narration to accommodate two narrators -- Charles and me -- and I was very pleased with the way that worked. Unfortunately, the audience of invited schoolkids was pretty small; it was exam period. The 50 or so who did come were mostly schoolboys, around 12 years old, all wearing their tidy school blazers, and they sat there like STONES. It was the quietest, politest "MAM-BO!" I ever elicited from an audience. It sounded more like they were saying "Rah-ther!" Maybe the BBC engineers can beef it up somehow for the radio broadcast...

By the time we'd consumed our fish and chips, it was 4 pm, but still very much the middle of the day up there in early June. So my dear friends Humphrey and Christina Burton and I took a drive in their hired car up the coast. (Humphrey directed my dad's concert videos and also wrote a big Bernstein biography.) How utterly gorgeous it was! How odd for cragginess to be so GREEN. We played hide-and-seek with the sun as we drove around the coast, eating chocolate malt balls and talking our heads off, until we got to the famous Giants' Causeway that I'd never heard of -- some really cool rock formations along the water's edge that look like jagged, fused piles of hexagonal rods. If you could slice the rods like baloney, you could make all the cobblestones along Fifth Avenue.

It was crazy-windy on that walk, and we were tired and thirsty and hungry -- and only a mile from the town of BUSHMILLS!! We drove straight to the distillery, which was closed. But a convoy of lorries was just entering the gates (to pick up the goods, no doubt) -- so fearless Humphrey pulled our car right into the lorry line and we sailed in. The gatekeeper chased after us in a state of apoplexy as Humphrey drove serenely down the driveway to get our photo ops in front of the ancient graystone buildings.

After the gatekeeper finally succeeded in shooing us out of his distillery, we drove down the street to the Bushmills Inn, which turned out to be a rather seriously restored country inn, with a stupendous restaurant. We sat by the little fireplace near the entrance, and warmed ourselves with a wee dram o' Bushmills'. I understand now why they drink so much up there; SOMETHING has to make you feel warm in that relentlessly chill, gray weather. Then we had a bite to eat in the restaurant, which was astoundingly good: very fresh vegetables, and not too heavy on the dairy products. We took the fast route home, along the M road. Christina bleated from the back seat every time Humphrey sneaked the rental car over 80. We got back to the hotel in Belfast at 10:30 -- and it was still twilight.

Next day was quiet and restful. More crack cocaine at the hairdresser. I recorded TV links for the future telecast of tomorrow night's concert of Bernstein music. Watched "Finding Neverland" on the TV in my hotel room and thoroughly enjoyed it. Johnny Depp is a marvel; where'd he learn to do a Scottish burr like that? That night our Fearless Leader from Radio 3, John Evans, took us all out to a terrific restaurant in the converted industrial district called "Nick's Warehouse." The first excellent white wine of the trip, followed by my "dessert" of Irish coffee, led to a hangover that was my inseparable best friend for most of the next day.

The following evening was the other concert conducted by Charles Hazelwood and the Ulster Orchestra: "Waterfront at the Waterfront," it was called -- the idea being that among the Bernstein pieces being performed at Waterfront Hall was the suite from the film "On the Waterfront." The concert was great fun -- and during the intermission, Humphrey and I blabbed about my dad with the radio host, Tommy Pearson, for the live broadcast on Radio 3. (Remember, the day before I'd done the links for the future BBC telecast of that concert. Confused? So was I!)

Afterwards there was yet another populous dinner at a local restaurant. I found myself sitting next to Julian Ovendon, the handsome baritone who had just sung Tony in the "West Side Story" excerpts. His voice was rich and fine, and he was handsome too. His girlfriend in London turned out to be Jane Krakowski, beloved of "Will and Grace," who had just that week opened to rave reviews in the West End production of "Guys & Dolls" -- my favorite musical (I was in it in high school). John Evans and I were going to London the next day, so Julian said he'd TRY to get John Evans and me a coupla tix. Pretty unlikely, on such short notice, but it was sweet of him to offer.

Next day, as John and Tommy and I were picking up our luggage in Heathrow, John's cell phone rang. It was Julian; Jane K. had scored us a pair of tickets for that very night!!! I was so thrilled that I did a little hopping dance around the luggage carousel.

So that evening, I met my brother and his wife for dinner with Marin Alsop (who would conduct my dad's MASS the following night). I excused myself early and dashed over to the Picadilly Theatre to catch that WONDERFUL production of "Guys and Dolls." Such fun. Afterwards, John gave me a ride back to my hotel through balmy, hopped-up, Saurday-night London in his fancy sedan -- with the TOP DOWN.

My hotel was located in Russell Place, where a month later, one of four bombs would go off and mess up the world just a little bit more. I wonder if anybody's riding around London with the top down now.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Martian Spider Seder

Why is the god of gigs so heartless? Last weekend I got a chance to do “Bernstein Beat” in one of the most spectacular cities in the world, and stay in a hotel room so lavish and well-appointed that it made me jump on the bed for joy on arrival – and I had no time to enjoy any of it.

To get to Vancouver, I first had to catch a plane to Dallas. That gargantuan maw of an airport features a rickety little train that spares you a mile or two of walking from one end of the terminal to another. This is not like the sleek, whispering trains of, say, the Detroit airport. It bumps and swerves along something less track than bobsled run, weaving and lurching up and in and around and under the strange, void interstitial spaces of the airport. It feels like being on a very, very tedious amusement park ride.

On the next plane, I began writing the narration for the new family concert that Michael Barrett and I are developing – this one about Aaron Copland. Mike and I are a bit behind schedule, as we’re premiering the concert at Caramoor at the end of June. On all these planes, I was determined to get through a first draft. I got excited as I came up with an idea for our grand finale: while Michael conducts the Orchestra of St Luke’s in “Hoe-down,” I’ll be the square-dance caller for a “sit-down hoe-down!” (Yes, it’s the “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner” music, also known as the last movement from Copland’s ballet “Rodeo.”) I listened to the irresistible music over and over on my new i-Pod, working out different motions for each section. I must have looked pretty strange to the woman across the aisle as I talked to myself and made my bizarre gesticulations. Had she known what I was up to, she could have correctly interpreted my right hand slapping my left fist as “Encourage yer ketchup!” Or she’d have understood that waving my arm vigorously over my head would accompany my instruction to the Caramoor audience to “Hail yer taxi to the left!”

The time (and the plane) flew as I invented my silly sit-down hoe-down, and when I looked out the window a few hours later, we were descending into an astonishing twilit landscape: the continent was crumbling like a cookie, and the crumbs were drifting into the Pacific Ocean. Somewhere down there, between those hundreds of cookie crumbs and the jagged, snowy mountains behind us, was Vancouver.

Quite the snazzy airport they have up there. The glass and steel-cable architecture echoed the traditional Native American (Inuit? Tlingit?) technology that was exhibited everywhere. They had totem poles, and a longboat suspended in the air, and even a waterfall rippling peaceably over pebbles alongside the escalator!

Then Passport Control sent me to the Immigration Office. All ornament disappeared, leaving a grim institutional blankness -- and a 45 minute wait on line. After 12 hours of traveling. In front of me there were a dozen or so even more exhausted Asian immigrants waiting their turns and requiring translators, which made everything even slower.

When my turn finally came, the official who processed me was a parody of the fresh-faced, friendly squareness depicted so perfectly on SCTV sketches. He was young and tidy and outdoorsy in his plaid shirt and bullet-proof vest. The problem was that I’d written on my landing card that I was working in Canada – and I had no work visa. Who knew?? Not ICM.

I think we had an easier time getting into the People’s Republic of China, when we took “Bernstein Beat” there five years ago.

Ken Hsieh, the conductor, was waiting for me on the other side of the door from Customs. To my delight, he was up for taking me someplace for a bite to eat. It was 1 a.m. NYC time, and I sure was tired -- but all those foodless flights had left me ravenous.

Ken took me to his favorite Japanese place, just a little joint in a strip mall, but when I saw all the Japanese people in there, I knew it was going to be great. Fresh salmon sushi!! So wonderful --after a whole day of hunkering down amid the junk culture – to eat something so fresh and clean and sweet. The sake was great too, and just as keenly appreciated.

Ken turned out to be a really sweet guy: a native of Vancouver, and barely 24. So young! He drove me to my hotel in downtown Vancouver, the Wedgewood. I couldn’t get over my room. Round blue velvet headboard! Tassled curtains framing the bed! A triangular bathtub -- in the bedroom! And a balcony with a cool urban view, and a plate of cookies, and a bar with STOOLS. I was enchanted by the deluxe silliness. I stayed up enjoying it as long as I could, but after an hour of the film “Alexander,” I’d had it. Even if I’d been fresh as a daisy and not been traveling around the clock, I think “Alexander” would have done me in after an hour. I gave myself over to the divine, billion-thread sheets.

My radio went off at 7 a.m. with a male voice barking beautiful, fancy broadcast French into my ear. Hey, I was in a foreign country!

At breakfast in the vaguely French Provincial dining room downstairs, I had real coffee and a couple of croissants straight out of the oven -- neither of them brilliant, but miles and miles beyond the Radissons and Holiday Inns of recent acquaintance.

Off to rehearsal at 9:30. Ken Hsieh may have been young, but he ran a good rehearsal, and the music came together quickly. It had to; the concert was at 2 pm. All went well. I hope everyone at the Vancouver Symphony liked the concert enough to invite me back to do another one, so that next time I could spend more than a paltry 20 hours in such a gorgeous place... As soon as the concert was over, Ken had to drive me back to the airport. It was a sparkling sunny spring day; the Cascades were gleaming at the end of the street, and I couldn’t BELIEVE I had to leave.

At least Ken and I managed to wedge in one more fabulous meal before my departure. On the way to the airport, we stopped at a Malaysian place he knew about, where we had an entire Alaskan king crab smothered in spices. What a heavenly, lip-smacking, labor-intensive, unholy mess! I thought so much of my dad, who would have adored every shred of meat he excavated from that large, Martian spider of a creature – and by meal’s end would have been gloriously smeared from ear to ear in Malaysian crustacean goodness.

On the plane to L.A., I prepared to get back to work on the Copland concert. As I rooted around in my bag – and rooted around some more – and pulled down my wheelie bag and rooted around frantically in there – it became evident to me that I had LEFT MY I-POD IN MY HOTEL ROOM. How could this be: I’m so careful, so thorough, nearly O.C.D. in my punctiliousness! How did this happen??!! I was fairly apoplectic with self-recrimination.

And to think that just the week before, I’d excoriated my son for losing his wallet and Game-Boy... but really, I was no better.

Moms just hate when they’re exposed as regular mortals.

I called the hotel from the plane before we’d left the gate. The housekeeping person was gone for the day; they’d let me know tomorrow. What were the odds of getting my i-Pod back? Now I would put Canada to the test.

On the flight to L.A., I forced myself to work on the Copland script, even without my i-Pod – maybe as punishment for not having my i-Pod.

After landing, I had to take not one but TWO buses through the landing strips of LAX, to get to my other gate. Like a June bug among a herd of cattle, we lumbered amid those impossibly huge planes. “Stop for Aircraft,” suggested a little sign.

At the gate, with the rest of the airport shuttered and slumbering around me, I waited under fierce fluorescent lights for the dreaded “red-eye” back to NYC. It was an hour late, and I was awful, awful, awful tired.

The good news was that I’d used my Aadvantage miles to upgrade myself to Biz Class, where the seats are roomier and stretch out better. I actually slept for decent chunks of time, after which I’d wake up in agony, shift my position, and sleep for another decent chunk.

The other cruel trick of the gig god was to schedule my Vancouver trip on Passover weekend. I didn’t think to check the Jewish calendar a year ago, when I was offered the engagement. I was heartbroken to miss my family seder – the only Jewish holiday I actually get excited about. Still, there was something to be said for a seder consisting of magnificent Alaskan king crab treif. Dayenu.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Fayetteville Rhapsody

It's not every day you arrive in an airport and discover that you get to take the back roads for a while before hitting the interstate to the city. But so it was in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Beautiful rolling farms and woods and pickup trucks and cows and the first greens of spring. But I was a little confused; where was Fayettevillle? Why couldn't I see any skyscrapers from the plane, like you usually can?

Where I landed was half an hour north of Fayetteville. The North Arkansas airport serves several small towns that contain a lot of rich people -- most notably the Tyson Foods people (CHICKENZ) and the inconceivably rich Walton family -- as in Wal-Mart. Everybody there talks about the Waltons with the same awe and gossipy fervor that Brits reserve for the Royal Family. The statistic everyone knows there is that if you assembled the twenty BILLION dollars that each Walton family member inherited from old Sam Walton, their collective worth would be twice that of Bill Gates, the richest man in the world. And the Waltons all live right there! They contribute mightily to the community, leaving their name on buildings and civic stuff all over the area, like the bright silver trail of a slug.

In my mind, I'd pictured Fayetteville as a small town transformed by all that local money into a tiny, shiny jewel of a metropolis,with ultra-modern sleek buildings reflecting the sun, state-of-the-art malls and elegantly landscaped public spaces.

So I was perplexed as the airport van approached the city limits, and all I saw was slightly more closely-packed little houses with slightly more organized front yards. And then -- we were there. In the center of "downtown," the Radisson hotel was an oversized cinderblock of a building about 12 stories high -- and THAT was the tallest building in Fayetteville. And the really big thing going on in town was -- the University! Ohh, it's a COLLEGE TOWN; now I was getting it. With a serious football team, the Warthogs or Dust Devils or something. The place looked more than anything like Charlottesville, minus the Jeffersonian architecture. The University was up on a hill; its twin bell towers looked very pretty from my hotel window. It all looked very pretty, very soft, in the early spring sunlight. But it was no metropolis, that was for sure. What was I thinking?!

That afternoon, as I devoured my room service grilled chicken sandwich, I caught an enchanting movie on Turner Classics: "Rhapsody," starring ELizabeth Taylor, who goes to study at some conservatory in Switzerland to prove to her rich father that she should be taken seriously. There she meets the tempestuous, driven Italian violinist (Vittorio Gassman) and the eager, blond American pianist (some actor I didn't recognize), and the triangle begins. Elizabeth Taylor wears one drop-dead outfit after another as she swans around Europe with one musician or the other... it was the silliest movie ever -- and all that Tchaikovsky and Rachmanninoff! I vaguely remembered my father talking about this movie. I'd have given anything to be watching it with him, laughing our heads off.

At the rehearsal that evening, the North Arkansas Symphony sounded a little shaky, but the conductor, Jeanine Wagar, pushed them right along, and I figured it would be OK by the next morning's pair of concerts for bused-in schoolkids. And it was. The kids seemed to like it, although I always worry -- and there was that one boy over on the left who kept yawning expansively... but he sure got shaken out of his torpor by the audience yelling "MAMBO!" I almost cut their second "rehearsal," they were so deafening the first time.

It was a very small orchestra, the North Arkansas Symphony, but so enthusiastic! I never get tired of the musicians' enthusiasm for Bernstein music, and their gratitude for a kids' concert that has a little meat on it.

Later that day, incredibly enough, I came across a SECOND classical music movie on the TV in my hotel room. I didn't catch the title, but it featured Jeanette McDonald, madly in love with (and secretly married to) that great, great maestro, Jose Iturbi. But Jeanette's three daughters don't like him; they're sure that Jose has "hypnotized" their mom, who sings in her preposterous hyper-soprano every chance she gets.

These movies made me think about what classical music represented to the filmgoers of their day. You'd never see a movie like that now. But back then, in the early 1950's, there was obviously such a longing in America to be "classy," and classical music was one guaranteed way to get there. Is that what Leonard Bernstein represented to people back then, too? Maybe that's why he was so enchanted by those movies; he loved to laugh at them, but they must have given him a sense of what people were looking for in him.

After the first pair of concerts on Friday morning, I was to give a "presentation" to music teachers at a workshop at the -- what else? -- Walton Arts Center, in the same building where the concerts were. I'd been very worried about this presentation. Who was I to be lecturing music educators, with their postgraduate degrees and their classroom experience?? I fretted for several weeks about what to do -- and then, four days before coming out there, while making tuna salad, it hit me.

I remembered a story my father used to tell about his friend, the celebrated drama teacher Stella Adler, and what she always did on her first day of class. She'd write the numbers one through ten on the blackboard, then start enumerating the ten prerequisities to being a great actor. She'd leave number ten blank. Finally a student would venture to ask, "What's number ten?" And she'd say, "I don't know what it is, but if you don't have it, you can forget the other nine." I'd always loved that story. But then, over the tuna fish, I had the idea to borrow Stella's model. I wrote feverishly for two days, and came up with my presentation.

The lady who ran the workshop was a tall birdlike woman, Dr. Pat Relph. I would have pegged her for an anthropologist; she had a brainy, rough-hewn, no-time-for-glamor-in-the-field quality. She spoke in a rich, plummy voice. "Teacher, refresh yourself!" she'd say, pointing to a table of snacks, as each music teacher dragged his or her exhausted frame into the black box theatre. It was a school day, after all, and a Friday -- so they were all pretty wiped out. I'm amazed they showed up at all.

So at my presentation, I wrote one through ten on the oversized paper tablet balanced on an easel, and began to enumerate the ten prerequisities to being a gifted music teacher, leaving number ten blank. Bless those weary music teachers' hearts; "What's number ten?" they asked. "Well, as Stella Adler used to say..." I was idiotically pleased with myself.

My point being, of course, that Leonard Bernstein had Number Ten. But I added, in a sort of self-therapy way, that we should all set aside any feelings of inadequacy, and simply learn from the master and get on with our own teaching. Hey, if I could get over it, I told them, so could they!

I must say I loved making my presentation: writing stuff on the easel with a fat marker, and talking my head off. I could really turn into a windbag if I don't watch out.

The next day had two more concerts for school kids, and the day after that, a regular family concert. It all went well, but you really know you've been eating room service in the Fayetteville Radisson for too long when you get to the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, and the southwestern Cobb salad at Chili's Too tastes like the freshest, most sophisticated dish you've ever eaten.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Road Warriors

In Des Moines, a lady came up to me and told the following story:

Leonard Bernstein had always been her hero. When at last she and her son got to meet him after a concert, the son couldn't resist telling Bernstein, "My mom says you're the only guy she'd ever run away with." The maestro spread his cape like gigantic wings and said to her, "Let's go!"

The reason I was in Des Moines was for the premiere of a choral piece I was commissioned to write for a choral festival run out of a sort of New Age church hard by Drake University. The Thresholds festival, invented by the church's choral director Ben Allaway, is based on Unesco's "Six Points Toward a Culture of Peace." The points are all good stuff -- like "respect the environment" and "eschew violence" and "listen to understand." Nothing you could argue with. But taken all together like that, these points have a sort of deadly quality to them. A sort of bludgeoning, dogmatic quality. But maybe it's just me; I have no stomach for dogma of any stripe -- even right-thinking dogma. Even left-thinking dogma.

All the music in the Thresholds festival had to address one or more of these Six Points -- and that went for my piece too. So I wrote an a capella thing called "This World Beats Like a Heart." My inspiration for this piece was ... hip-hop and techno dance loops! So it was with a certain dismay that I beheld my chorus for the first time at the rehearsal, an hour or so before the concert; they were most decidedly midwestern and, um, white. I figured the kids' chorus, at least, would know what I was driving at. As they struggled to grasp a particular rhythm, I told them, "It's hip-hop, guys!" They blinked politely at me.

Considering the underpreparedness and contextual vacuum, the performance went better than I expected. Judith Clurman, director of the Juilliard chorus, flew in that morning and wrestled the piece into shape. The thrill of hearing my own music reverberating in a big room was an incalculable thrill. My songs rarely if ever see the light of day.

The biggest problem became getting out of Des Moines. As my friend James (who came along for fun) and I were en route to Des Moines that Saturday, a fellow passenger told us a big blizzard was expected to plow into the northeast on Monday -- the day we were returning. I could not afford to be delayed; I had to get back to my kids by early Monday evening latest. So pretty much the moment we got to our Holiday Inn Express, we began plotting our escape. It was tough. The early connections to Chicago were already sold out. If we went through St. Louis it would cost 700 bucks. (There are, incidentally, no direct flights between New York City and the capital of Iowa.)

In the end, we realized that we just had to get ourselves to Chicago somehow. And there was no other way to do it than to rent a car and DRIVE after the concert, six hours, through snow and rain, to Chicago. Me and James and Judy Clurman. It could have been awful. In a way it was awful. But we got giddy. Road trip!! We laughed and drove and told stories and drove and laughed. We stopped at the Kum & Go (I kid you not) where Judy bought each of us a Kum & Go teeshirt and an Iowa regfrigerator magnet with a grinning pink pig on it. We pulled into O'Hare at 1:30 in the morning, ditched the car and rented a double room in the airport Hilton. Tired does not begin to describe it. But the beds were delicious, featuring exceptionally fine cotton sheets, of all things.

Four hours later we were in the terminal, haggling our way onto the 8:30 United flight. We all got on it, and we landed in La Guardia a safe hour or two before the snow came in. Mission accomplished.

That evening, while I was washing the dishes, Beethoven 9 was on the radio -- a kick-ass performance by the NY Phil, Maazel conducting. By the final movement I was standing over the boom box, lost in the music. How did Beethoven do it?? How did he (and Schiller) manage to convey everything those Six Points try to say, and more -- without once sounding strident or dogmatic? It's a magic trick! By the end of the Ode to Joy I was still standing over the boom box in my kitchen, dissolved in tears.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

OK, I'm already expanding the definition of my blog. The next concert was neither "Bernstein Beat," nor was it on the road; it was "Extreme Orchestra," right here in NYC, in beautiful, sonorous Carnegie Hall.

In 2001, Mikey Barrett and I came up with "X-treme Ork" for the San Antonio Symphony, which had liked "Beat" so much that they wanted us to come back a year later with another one. Mike and I LOVE "X-treme Ork!" It began as an attempt to collect all the loudest, fastest music in the classical repertoire -- the stuff that made us jump up and down in our seats as kids -- so theoretically it would make a new batch of kids jump up and down too. But talking about loud and fast leads inevitably to talk of soft and slow, and gradually our script morphed into an exploration of tempo and dynamics -- all in the service of showing off the orchestra as a kind of collective super-athlete -- performing the athletics of beauty.

It worked GREAT in San Antonio. Larry Fried, who was running the orchestra down there at the time, was the one who stuck his neck out and commissioned the concert. I hope he was happy with the results. Mikey and I sure were; with Larry's and the San Antonio Symphony's help, we now had a second family concert to offer around. Last summer Mike and I did it at Caramoor with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, who are a crackerjack band and really showed themselves off beautifully in the fortissimi and prestissimi of Tchaik 4; the pianissimi and larghissimi of the Mahler 5 Adagietto; the prestissimi and pianissimi of Bernstein's scherzo from "Serenade;" and the fortissimi but larghissimi of the finale from Stravinsky's "Firebird." Did you get all that?

And on Feb. 19th, we did it with the St. Luke's again, in big, beautiful Carnegie Hall.

But we had an extra layer of complication.

To reel back for a moment... Way back in 2000, Mike and I went to Beijing, China, to do "Bernstein Beat' at the Beijing Music Festival. What an adventure! My sister Nina came along and filmed the whole experience. Then, six months later, we did "Bernstein Beat" in the most exciting place of all: Havana, Cuba. (Gee, we would have taken it to Albania, but they're not Communist any more. Maybe North Korea's interested...? ) Nina came along on that trip, too -- and between Beijing and Havana, she had some truly amazing footage. Ever since then, she's been trying to get the rest of her film made. Finally, four years later, she got the money from a German broadcaster to make the rest of her movie. But the one big thing missing from her film was any footage of "Bernstein Beat" in English, or in the U.S. She'd missed her chance to film us doing "Beat" in Carnegie Hall two years ago; she didn't have the money together yet, and filming in Carnegie Hall is a soberingly expensive undertaking. (Those STAGEHANDS!)

But hey: now she does have the money, and there we were going to Carnegie! True, we were doing a whole other concert, but she could shoot backstage footage at the rehearsal, and we could PRETEND we were rehearsing "Bernstein Beat" like we'd actually done in 2003...

And so that is what we did.

Time was short, and Mike was rehearsing as fast as he could on Saturday morning for our concert a couple of hours later. Meanwhile, every minute that I wasn't needed onstage, I'd run out to a corridor or a box or wherever Nina was setting up the shot -- and she'd hand me my "MAMBO!" sign and I'd follow instructions. It was all very exhausting, but I think she got what she needed.

As we were waiting in the wings to go onstage for the concert, the stage manager came up to me, touched my earrings and murmured, "Ted Muehling?"

A long, and I mean LONG way from my "Hah hah" Hah hah stage manager in Little Rock.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Lefse 'n' Lutefisk

Well, it was exhausting to get there; the blizzard-weary streets delayed my car by 40 minutes, but when I got to the airport I discovered that my plane had left, for once, PUNCTUALLY on time -- and I MISSED IT!! The Northwest folks had to reroute me through Detroit... I don't know about this gigs-in-January business.

But what an amazing week I wound up having. After two student orchestras in a row, I was STUNNED to hear the Minnesota Orchestra. They're one of the great ensembles, no question. The Albany kids had four rehearsals; the Charlottesvile High School musicians rehearsed for six weeks. In less than an hour and a half, the Minnesota Orchestra had rehearsed all the music for the concert, and it sounded great -- even the Jeremiah excerpt, which is so difficult that both student orchestras had cut it from their programs. And Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis is one of the most resonant spaces I've ever heard -- a study in contrast with Avery Fisher Hall, which was designed by the same architect! Not only did this architect favor the Minneapolis hall with good acoustics; he also gave them these cool gigantic boxlikethings emerging from the back wall of the stage -- like sugar cubes on steroids.

The conductor, Mischa Santora, a distractingly good-looking young Swiss guy by way of Hungarian parents, ran an efficient rehearsal and drew a gorgeous sound out of the musicians. Like Helen Cha-Pyo, he's worth keeping an eye on.

We played six concerts over the course of the week. The first four, two on Wednesday morning and two on Thursday morning, were for school groups. They have a fantastic committee there that raises money for buses to bring the school groups to concerts several times a year. They filled that enormous hall to the rafters, four times! The students were lively, attentive, polite and engaged: model citizens. And when I asked them to yell "MAMBO!", I never heard such a roar. Some of the violinists were covering their ears. The hall acoustics helped, I think, to make the sound absolutely enormous.

After one of the concerts, there was a reception for the committee that bused in the students. I told them they were doing the Lord's work. One of the ladies on the committee told me that when she was 12, she was a huge Bernstein fan. She said she'd recently discovered, in her attic, a drawing she'd made at that age, of ladies in fancy outfits -- the sorts of drawings 12-year-old girls love to make. At the top of the drawing she'd written: "Spring Wardrobe for Mrs. Bernstein." I was enchanted!

Toward the end of my script, I talk about how connected all world beats are; all complex rhythms can be broken down into 2- and 3-beat bundles: call them hot dogs and hamburgers -- or sushi and sashimi, or mangos and platanos... and a violinist in the orchestra, David Wright, offered the addition of "lefse and lutefisk," some Minnesota specialities of questionable deliciousness. I got a big laugh every time I said it. I plan to send Mr. Wright a "royalty" check of 5 bucks.

The sound guys supplied me with one of those modern, tiny wireless microphones that fit around the ear and rest against one's cheek just to the side of the mouth. Very Madonna. In order for the earpiece not to slide around, the sound guy has to tape down the wire that leads down to the battery pack. The most secure place for the tape is at the back of the neck, that very vulnerable area where the hairline ends. Inevitably a few hairs get stuck under the tape and it's not fun pulling the tape off after the concert. Before the third concert, the sound guys arrived in my dressing room to attach the microphone. "So, are you ready for your mic?" they asked cheerfully -- and then I noticed they were brandishing a giant roll of gaffer's tape and a staple gun! Funny guys.

The Minnesota Orchestra members were particularly friendly, and highly engaged in the concert. They really loved playing it -- even six times. I was very touched by their involvement. So many of them came up to tell of their Bernstein-related experiences. One violinist told me that she'd been playing in the St. Luke's Orchestra when Michael Barrett and I did "Bernstein Beat" at Carnegie Hall two years ago. She said she'd been terribly distracted during the concert, because all she could think about was her audition the very next day -- for the Minnesota Orchestra.

Ch'ville and Albany


Ten minutes from landing at La Guardia. The engines are noisy on this commuter prop jet, but it was a fine sunset ride. I closed my eyes and thought about the weekend in Charlottesville, and the adventures to come, and a spontaneous little smile came over my face. First really good feeling I've had in weeks. I'm still not all the way better from the holiday-stress flu, and then at the after-party last night, I found myself wheezing uncomfortably and thought to inquire of the hostess whether she had a cat, and she sure did. That did set me back somewhat; I'm definitely fighting bronchitis now.

But my energy is getting better, in painstakingly small increments. I had to summon up massive quantities of inner reserves to do the Charlottesville weekend. Getting down there was a huge pain in the butt because of very nasty weather. After several hours at the airport and a postponed-then-cancelled flight, I wound up flying to D.C. on the shuttle, renting a car and driving to Ch'ville in rush hour traffic for three hours. I left my house at 10 a.m.; I got there at 6.

But such a reward awaitied me: Craig Barton's RIBS. And corn bread, and collards, and grilled asparagus. It was sublime, and the Bartons were all around me, plus Laura Thomas, the vivacious, indomitable conductor of the Charlottesville High School Orchestra, plus the Bartons' hilarious and very endearing friends Bruce and Roberta. We ate ourselves silly, then played 5-way scrabble while telling dirty jokes. Now THAT'S how to welcome an artist to your town.

I could have stayed with the Bartons, I suppose, but I got to have a room at the Omni. That was KEY. I needed down-time whenever I could catch it.

Saturday was intense: 10 a.m. rehearsal, 2 pm concert, 7 p.m. concert. It all went terrifically well. The high school orchestra had rehearsed fror six weeks, and with the help of some ringers in the winds, brass and percussion, they sounded FABULOUS. I couldn't get over those kids, hurling themselves into all that tricky LB music. I had to fight back tears several times: so moving. Daddy would have loved the whole thing. And there was 15-year-old Juliana Barton in the string section!! My little Juliana -- in the same gig with me!! Amazing. Her mom, Marty, had organized the entire thing: galvanized the town, got interviews lined up, filled the 1200-seat auditorium twice. She's a "macher," all right, and a wonderful friend. Best fee I never took.


Stuck in the train station in Albany a week later, waiting for a train, ANY train, to NYC. Everything's still messed up from last night's giant blizzard. Up here it was a mere 8" or so -- peanuts in these parts -- but along the coast, they got hammered, and I'm sorry to have missed the fun in the city with the kids; I LOVE a good snowstorm... and I'm even sorrier to be stuck indefinitely in this train station. I got a coffee and a bran muffin -- the muffin was days-old sawdust, and the coffee was lukewarm dregs. I made a nuisance of myself and asked for a new cup of fresher, hotter coffee -- which I promptly spilled all over the floor. Are we having fun in the Albany Depot yet??

On the bright side, my concert wasn't cancelled, YAY!!

The blizzard chased my train upstate on Saturday morning. The sky was heavily white when I went into the Egg for rehearsal, but it still wasn't snowing. The Empire State Youth Orchestra ( two youth orchestras in a row: gee!) was wonderful. I LOVE when it's kids.The conductor, Helen Cha-Pyo, was a revelation. She was great in the rehearsal. At one point she gave the zenlike instruction, "Play music in the rests!" She was funny and lively and pretty, and drew a terrific performance out of the kids. While rehearsing the Prologue from "West Side Story," I watched as the percussion player put the "Officer Krupke" police whistle in his mouth, took a deep breath prefatory to blowing mightily -- and at the crucial moment, spat the whistle right out of his mouth. There was a yawning hole of silence where an ear-piercing screech was supposed to be! Everyone was convulsed. (At the performance the next day, the percussion player kept his fingers fervently wrapped around his whistle.)

By the end of rehearsal a couple of hours later, the snow was coming down hard. They ended the rehearsal a little early so the kids could get home before the roads got really bad. They cancelled that night's screening of "West Side Story," at which I was to make some opening remarks. Board members were offering to take orchestra members in for the night if they lived too far away to get home safely. Everyone was very nervous; it would be heartbreaking if the concert had to be cancelled because of the snowstorm!

Because of the screening cancellation, I had a LOT of down time in my hotel room. For a little variety, I went down to the hotel restaurant to have dinner, but it was closed (blizzard? wedding?), and the bar & grill in the lobby was an unspeakably grim and desolate sports bar. So back up I went, ordered room service chicken marsala (hey, not too bad), and watched "Garden State" on TV. Good movie, with terrific music. And the snow kept coming down outside.

But by 10 the next morning, the sun was gleaming through the cloud cover, and by 11 the sky was well along toward clearing. By 3 p.m. those plucky Albanians had dug themselves out of their houses and filled the Egg to about 75% capacity, which under the circumstances was pretty fantastic. When we first came onstage and bowed, Helen Cha-Pyo surprised me by suddenly addressing the audience: "You must all wait a moment. I have to go back. Somewhere between the stage entrance and the podium, I seem to have lost my baton!" She'd tucked it under her arm to applaud the orchestra as we entered, and it had slipped out; she found it under the last row of violins. Funny beginning.

The crowd really seemed to enjoy itself. The kids who participated onstage were wonderful, as they always are -- and there was a tiny pipsqueak of a girl who stole the show, as pipsqueaks always do. We had a pipsqueak show-stealer in Ch'ville too, come to think of it.

Afterwards I signed programs in the strange rounded lobby of "The Egg," surely the most interestingly shaped performing arts center in America. It really is like an egg on a stick. You go up the stick in an elevator, and there are two auditoriums contained within the egg. All the walls are curved. It looks like a big 1960's spaceship. I thought it was cool -- in spite of the rather dry acoustics.

When I get back to NYC, I'll have just enough time to greet the kids, put them to bed, get them off to school in the morning, repack and take a car to Newark airport to catch the plane to Minneapolis. OY.