celebrate…with music, of course!

I haven’t seen a wedding band play in years. I’ve attended my share of weddings, but in the last couple of decades, I’ve noticed that the popularity of wedding bands has waned in favor of the lone DJ, who plays the hits just as you remember them. I’ve also been to weddings where the couple compiled an epic playlist beforehand and left an iPod to play their choices while the rest of us danced and ate. But think back to a time when recordings were not an option. Think back to Europe in the eighteenth century, a time when music had to be played live by skilled musicians. If you liked to listen to music back then, your choices were somewhat limited. I came across an interesting tidbit the other day when looking up some information about Antonio Salieri. In the 1700s, Salieri went to Vienna and found work in a chamber orchestra run by Emperor Joseph II. Joseph was such an enthusiastic music lover that he employed a group of musicians to play for him while he ate dinner. And not just once in a while either; these musicians played for him every evening. Such a thing would only be possible if money were no object.

read more →For most people, then, daily music-making fell to individuals. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, piano lessons were very popular. The piano was a focal point of many homes. There were also public concerts to attend, if one had the time, inclination, and resources. (Location was also important.) Although not strictly for entertainment value, churches provided music, and indeed, some of the most talented composers and musicians worked at the churches in Europe. Opera was the most popular musical entertainment of the day, of course, and a composer’s career could be made or broken in the opera house. Another place to hear music was at special events like weddings.

One of the pieces on LACO’s upcoming concert is a Serenade by Mozart that was composed for a wedding celebration. A Serenade is a piece for orchestra, usually in many movements (more than the typical four movements of a symphony), reserved for some light entertainment. The instrumentation for a serenade is chosen with two practical concerns in mind: the music had to be heard wherever the musicians were placed, which was sometimes outside; the musicians were sometimes called upon to stand and play their instruments. (Cellists were always exempt from this for obvious reasons.) The “Haffner” Serenade by Mozart—so named because it was composed for the occasion of the wedding between Elisabeth Haffner and Franz Xavier Spaeth—is scored for instruments that would do well both in the outdoors and with standing instrumentalists. There are strings, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets.

The music for a wedding celebration, or any serenade or divertimento from the Classical period is light and airy, but not without substance. Mozart had a knack for making such carefree music interesting. For those who were socializing and eating while the music was going on, they would have enjoyed pleasing background music, but for those who cared to listen more closely, they would have been treated to some charming and clever pieces. Mozart used dance forms, which was a common practice when writing such light entertainments. Often lively and catchy, dance forms have the advantage of seeming familiar, even if they are quite new. Hearing the “Haffner” Serenade and its accompanying march—which would likely have played while the bride and groom made their entrance, or while guests were arriving—in a concert setting allows one to really appreciate the nuances of Mozart’s composition. And best of all, the orchestra will likely be seated as well. (I’m sure they appreciate that!) The couple for whom this piece was composed married in 1776. That makes this year their 238th anniversary!

If celebrating a two-century-old wedding wasn’t cause enough for jollity, LACO’s upcoming concert also features a piece that was thought lost to history. Haydn’s Cello Concerto was for years misattributed to Anton Kraft, the cellist for whom the piece was written. The work was there, in plain sight, just with the wrong composer’s name on it. Some suspected that Kraft’s Cello Concerto might have been the missing concerto that Haydn included on a list of all of his works. The proof didn’t come until the mid-twentieth century when an autograph score of this piece was finally found, confirming Haydn’s authorship of the Cello Concerto. Better late than never, I suppose.

LACO’s upcoming concert will have the upbeat mood of a celebration, which is a wonderful and fitting thing. Every time we get to support this music and orchestras like LACO, it is a celebration. We have the privilege of experiencing live music played by skilled musicians, which means we have something in common with those music-lovers from the eighteenth century. Sure, we have streaming music, YouTube, radio, television, and recordings, but there is simply no substitute for being there, in the theater, watching and listening to the magic of live music. ↑ less ↑

california adventures

I am very much looking forward to returning to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for my second visit. My first was many years ago – more years ago than I care to admit. I was playing the other Haydn concerto – in C major – with the orchestra under the direction of its then artistic leader, the late, much-missed Iona Brown. I’m afraid that my dominant memory of that evening is one of fear, panic and despair. Iona had very kindly put me on in the second half of the programme, which is always nice; but in this case, I just had not got over the jet-lag, and I felt that my brain was closing down for the night well before I went onstage. I went out into the night as the orchestra played the symphony in the first half, and breathed in copious amounts of smog, hoping that it would wake me up. It didn’t. I walked onstage in a state of frozen dread, sure that I would forget the music and have to walk off-stage midway, to a cacophony of cat-calls and hisses. Thank goodness, that didn’t happen; I got through it, and people even seemed to enjoy it! At the dinner afterwards (no matter how exhausted a musician may be, we still have to eat after concerts – an absolute necessity!) Iona turned to me. ‘That’s amazing, Steven – I’ve never seen anyone look so relaxed coming on stage!’ If she had but known…

read more →However, I’ve now been here in California for some ten days, so hopefully the lag will have past before I tread the boards for these concerts. And I’m definitely succumbing to the magic of LA: having begun my trip at one of my favorite houses in the world, the home of my friends Aaron Mendelssohn and Marcia Adelstein, who run the Maestro Foundation (for whom I gave a recital a few days after I arrived, with Ya-Fei Chuang) and then given a class at the impressive Colburn School of Music, I went to San Francisco (a little-known, rather sun-deprived city on the north of California – you may not have heard of it) for concerts with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nic McGegan. (It seems to be my time for playing with Scottish conductors – both Nic and Douglas Boyd are old friends, as well as being wonderful musicians.) Now, as I write these immortal words, I am preparing to come back to LA, where I hope to do many things, apart from the little matter of playing one of the most challenging of all cello concertos. I plan to see many friends (including the daughter and son-in-law of my grandfather’s favourite piano pupil in Vienna from the 1930s); and my girlfriend Joanna (who is coming over for the week) and I are going to visit Bill Marx, the son of my hero of heroes, Harpo – that will be a thrill. I hope also to examine the Piatigorsky archive at the Colburn School. In fact, if fate hadn’t intervened, I would have been living in LA for a few years in my late teens (ie at least two years ago). I was all set to come to study with Piatigorsky, when, alas, the great man died. At least I got to meet him several times, and fell completely under the spell of his irresistible charisma.

But I shall also be practicing Haydn! Papa Haydn demands a lot of attention – all of which is fully rewarded when we start playing those glorious, life-affirming melodies. What a composer! I’m sure that he and Harpo would have been firm friends – perhaps now they are? ↑ less ↑

9 things you never knew about the cello

The program for LACO’s upcoming Mozart Serenade (October 18 and 19, buy your tickets now!) features a George Benjamin piece and (spoiler alert!) a Mozart Serenade. But since the concert will also feature Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major, featuring guest cellist Steven Isserlis, it’s the perfect time to bone up on cello trivia. Whet your appetite with these 9 Things You Never Knew About the Cello! 

read more →The Cello’s Full Name. Cello is actually an abbreviated word. The full name name for the instrument is violoncello, which translates to “little violone.” The violone, which was larger, is the direct ancestor of the double bass.

A Workout For Your Calves. The wood or metal spike at the base of the cello that allows the cellist to rest their instrument on the floor is called an endpin. Even though the cello dates back to the 16th century, endpins weren’t commonly used until the beginning of the 20th century. The first to attach an endpin to their cello was Belgian composer and cellist Adrien-François Servais, who did so around 1845. He must have been tired of holding his cello between his calves, which was the standard practice for hundreds of years.

Pluralize It! There are two acceptable ways to pluralize the word “cello”: cellos and celli.

You Sound Like a Cello. Many musicians and experts have claimed that, of all the instruments that make up an orchestra, the cello is the one that most closely sounds like the human voice. Tod Machover, a composer and Professor of Music and Media at MIT, explained why: “The cello range is identical to the human voice – that is, the male and female voice combined. The lowest cello note is at the bottom range of a basso profundo, and although the cello can scream higher than any singer, it has a more normal top range that competes with a diva coloratura.” (from Machover’s essay “My Cello,” included in the book “Evocative Objects: Things We Think With”)

Expensive…and Broken! In 2012, a Stradivarius cello thought to be worth $20 million dollars was broken when it fell off a table during a photo shoot at the Spanish Royal Palace in Madrid. It’s part of a set of instruments known as ‘The Quartet’ that were acquired by King Philip V of Spain during the 1700s. 

Spruced Up. The top plate of a cello is commonly made of spruce, a softwood that’s known for having good sound radiating qualities. Spruce is popular among manufacturers of many stringed instruments, including violins and guitars, because of its high stiffness-to-weight ratio.

High Fashion Cello. What’s famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s connection to luxury fashion icon Louis Vuitton? The Louis Vuitton Foundation has loaned Ma the Davidov cello, which was made by Stradivarius in 1712. It’s one of many cellos that Ma uses during performances, and one that he frequently performs Baroque music on. The Louis Vuitton Foundation has at least three other instruments that they loan out to musicians: two violins (the Zahn and the Reynier), and a cello (the Vaslin).

Medical Testing. The oldest surviving cello, called the ‘King’ and made by 16th-century luthier Andrea Amati, recently entered a hospital for testing. In 2013, researchers at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, used a CAT scanner to examine the condition of the ‘King,’ and to try to identify the originality of the materials used during construction.

24 Hours of Cello. There’s one cello-centric Guinness World Record, and it’s for Longest Cello Marathon. The current record was set in 2005 by Shamita Achenbach-König, who played the cello for 24 continuous hours on November 5th and 6th, 2005. Her day-long concert included pieces by many of the biggest names in music, including Bach, Chopin, and Dvorak, as well as folk songs and spirituals. The record was set at the Impossibility Challenger Games in Munich, which celebrates the limits of the human spirit and body. Achenbach-König’s record wasn’t the only one set during the Games: a Swiss bodybuilder tore a 960-page phone book in half in under 3 seconds, a Slovakian man juggled three 20-pound balls for 25.66 seconds, and Jennifer Davies from Canada set two Guinness World Records for whistling the highest and lowest notes ever whistled in history. ↑ less ↑

shaky snakes / THE INTIMIDATOR!

Welcome back to a new season of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and thus a new season of my “Newbie Blog”. Although I’ve been doing this for three years now, I’d still say I’m a classical newbie. Maybe I’ve learned enough to be called “Somewhat Seasoned-ie” but that doesn’t sound great so we’ll just stick with newbie.

read more →Opening night began with a new piece commissioned by LACO called “Lines of the Southern Cross” and conductor Jeffery Kahane explained that the piece was about Australia and would feature a bit of aboriginal influence. He also mentioned that aboriginal Australians are the oldest living culture in the world which I didn’t know. Classic newbie move. Anyways, “Lines of the Southern Cross” like most modern compositions had it’s fair share of dark, foreboding parts. These parts were broken up in cool unexpected ways thanks to the use of a number of unusual instruments some of which I don’t know the names of so I made up some new ones. The first I’m going to call “shaky snakes”. “Shaky snakes” are quite similar to rain sticks (long hollow sticks partially filled with beans that make a rain like sound when you flip it upside down) but more slithery and shifty sounding…like a snake. I could be wrong but I think I heard three distinct types of “shaky snakes” used during the performance. Or perhaps one can adjust a “shaky snake” to three different settings. The other mystery instrument were “wheat sticks”. “Wheat sticks” look like a big old piece of wheat and unsurprisingly make the sound of foliage moving ever so slightly. I have to commend the “shaky snake”/”wheat stick” players Wade Culbreath and Kenneth McGrath who had to also play a ton of other instruments including chimes, a drip sound (I have no idea what they used to make this sound), xylophone, AND my favorite instrument the triangle. These guys have to be the most stressed players in all of LACO. Having to switch between multiple strange instruments at just the right time would probably be the end of me. I could only handle triangle at best.

Next up was Camille Saint Saëns’ Piano Concerto #5 op 103 in F Major aka “The Egyptian”. A bit of a tangent but I must say that I absolutely love it when complicatedly named pieces get a cool nickname like “The Egyptian”. In fact, I’m going to think of a cool one for Beethoven’s 5th by the next paragraph. I had never heard of Saint Saëns before but I absolutely loved “The Egyptian”. The piece was at times light, dreamy, airy and never held the completely serious / somber weight that some classical pieces do. It felt accessible and adventurous. Like something that could be enjoyed at a bar (in the 1890s) or concert hall: a little fancy yet still approachable. According to the program notes Saint Saëns loved to travel and that vibe really came through in the piano performance by soloist Juho Pohjonen. Pohjonen did an excellent job and looked like he was having a lot of fun playing this lovely piece.

After a break, it was time for the big event of the night: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 or as I will now call it “The Intimidator”. “The Intimidator” storms right in with the iconic DUN DUN DUN DUH then slowly subsides only to come back again fiercely hence it’s new nickname ala Saëns. The thing I enjoyed most about hearing “The Intimidator” live was the surround sound feeling. By that I mean one side of the orchestra with the violins would be playing and then suddenly the other side with the cellos would respond making it the feel like the sound was darting back and fourth around the room. Like Audio table tennis. In conclusion, here are two excellent paintings of Beethoven by great friend of the blog Dr. Taghi Tirgari.

Beethoven IMG_2098

photo (1) ↑ less ↑

what i did on my summer vacation

Everyone remembers those “What I did on my summer vacation” assignments teachers would dole out at the beginning of September. Back in the analog days, we might have passed around some pictures or postcards, and perhaps we even had a souvenir or two for show and tell. These days we can post an album of pictures on Facebook instantly, Instagram every vacation meal, and tweet about the wonders of nature. And while the craftiest among us still scrapbook on actual paper, the opportunity to reflect on our travels and adventures seems to be something of a lost art. We take our trip, write and comment on it in real time, and when we return, it’s immediately back to business-as-usual. When I was a child, it was always so fun to relive the vacation a few weeks later when our rolls of film finally got developed. But that feeling of reminiscence, of looking back at those travels, those adventures, is leaving us. Back before cable and Netflix and the Internet, I remember making popcorn and sitting down with the family to look at slides of vacations past. I suppose I can still look back at my own recent travels, but that means me heading back to Facebook or Twitter and scrolling through pictures on my phone. Doesn’t quite have the same romanticism, does it?

read more →Camille Saint-Saëns became a great fan of travel on his first visit to Italy when he was in his early twenties. Because he didn’t have our modern conveniences, he commemorated some of his more fascinating journeys by writing music inspired by the places he visited along the way. We have one such piece on LACO’s opening concert this season. The Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed “Egyptian” because Saint-Saëns composed the work while in Luxor. (He often spent winters in Egypt.) Not only was he inspired by the landscapes and the grand monuments, he wove music that he heard into the new composition. In the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, we hear a song that Saint-Saëns heard while sailing on the Nile. What a wonderful way to reflect on that experience. Much better than flipping through a photo album!

In 1875, more than twenty years before he composed that Fifth Piano Concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns, then almost forty, married nineteen-year-old Marie Truffot. His mother, Clemence, did not approve of the union. The marriage produced two sons, however, both died—one from a childhood illness, one from an accident—within six weeks of each other. Six years after the wedding, Saint-Saëns simply left his wife while they were on holiday, and never saw her again. He did not remarry, but instead found a surrogate family with fellow composer Gabriel Fauré, to whom he was something of a father figure or “benevolent uncle,” as some have described him. Saint-Saëns was deeply devoted to his mother Clemence, who became a widow just three months after the birth of Camille. Clemence and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, raised the young boy by themselves. In fact, it was Masson who gave young Camille his first piano lessons at the age of two and a half. Masson died in 1872, and Clemence in 1888. Once they were gone, Camille perhaps felt that he had no reason to stay in one place anymore. His travel increased, and his writing slowed down a bit. Saint-Saëns became a mostly solitary traveler. Only his manservant Gabriel and his beloved dogs accompanied him on his trips.

In addition to spending time in Egypt, Saint-Saëns was quite fond of Algeria. It was a French colony at the time, and a popular travel spot for Europeans. When Saint-Saëns was devastated over the death of his mother, it was to Algeria that he fled, to help him find the strength to return to his life. He was comfortable there, and indeed, this place filled him with life and ideas. The Suite algerienne (1880) was written on the occasion of Algeria becoming a Department of Metropolitan France. He also composed a fantasy for piano and orchestra called Africa in 1891.

In addition to lengthy stays in North Africa, Saint-Saëns traveled through Europe and South America. He composed a patriotic hymn called Partido Colorado for Uruguay’s national holiday. He undertook many concert tours, playing series of concerts everywhere from the Canary Islands to Scandinavia to Russia. He became friends with Tchaikovsky. He came to the United States after the turn of the century. His popularity in his native France was waning, but the Americans revered him as France’s greatest living composer. He performed in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In 1915, he composed an orchestral piece called “Hail! California.” He was also a favorite in Great Britain, where he studied the works of Handel and played for Queen Victoria. The Philharmonic Society commissioned his Third Symphony, and he was made a Commander of the Victorian Order.

Saint-Saëns’ travels gave him a unique perspective on composition, and allowed him to see the value in music that was familiar and that which was exotic. This does not mean that he liked everything. Far from it. His thorny attitudes towards some of the composers around the turn of the century made him some enemies. He spoke out against Debussy’s Impressionism and, during the First World War, he called for a ban on German music (especially Wagner). His controversial views aside, it is interesting to hear the music of a person so well traveled, and so curious about other cultures. His experience of the world certainly enriched his own art, and helped make him the important historical figure we know today. It almost makes me want to write music to commemorate my summer vacation…or I could just go back and read my tweets. ↑ less ↑

Lines of the Southern Cross (part three)

Hi folks!  Welcome my LACO Blog posting #3, where we’ll finally move inland … at least for a bit … and look at one of the Australian outback’s most famous features … the

NULLARBOR PLAIN

Back in 2002, Darrin and I were fortunate enough to take one of the world’s great train journeys: the trans-continental trip across Australia from Sydney (on the east coast) to Perth (on the west coast) aboard the famous Indian Pacific. Part of that trek (which includes the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track) is across the Nullarbor Plain. A vast, almost treeless semi-arid plain, the Nullarbor has the distinction of being the largest single exposure of limestone bedrock in the world. Covering an area of 77,000 square miles, it stretches from the Great Australian Bight coast in the south to the Great Victoria Desert in the north and straddles the border region of South Australia and Western Australia. The word “Nullarbor” is not of Aboriginal origin, but rather derives from two Latin words: “nullus arbor” … literally meaning “no tree.” The local Mirning people referred to the area as “Oondiri,” which is said to mean “the waterless.”  A place of extreme temperatures (from scorching days to freezing nights), it is extremely flat and what vegetation there is consists of low saltbush and blue bush scrub.

read more →The coastal cliffs where the Nullarbor meets the sea are the magnificent Bunda Cliffs. Ranging from 200 to 400 feet high, these sheer rock faces extend approximately 60 miles along the Great Australian Bight and were formed when Australia separated from Antarctica approximately 65 million years ago.

BUNDA CLIFFS NULLARBOR PLAIN

As we travelled across the wild landscape of the Nullarbor, I was struck by the fact that without any trees or defining geographical features to compare anything to … just low scrub and dusty ground as far as the eye could see … distance and depth perception were completely thrown out the window.  It wasn’t until the train made its one stop on the Plain itself … at the tiny station town of Cook, South Australia (resident human population: 4) … that we were able walk around for a bit and try to comprehend the extraordinary scale of the vast empty space that stretched around us in every direction.  I remember being awed by the enormousness of the sky above our heads and fantasizing that it’s weight could so easily crush us into the ground!

The movement opens with a high unison harmonic in the violins. Representative of the searing heat of the outback sun, this piercing harmonic returns a few times throughout. Other features of this movement include use of a bowed crotale, bowed gong and Japanese binzasara … unusual sounds which help underscore the total alienness of the landscape.  Static layered harmonics in the violins, punctuated by the above-mentioned percussion instruments, lead to the introduction of the theme which forms the basis of the movement. To me, there was an overwhelming sense of melancholy to the Nullarbor and this melody (first played in octaves by the solo violin and solo viola) embodies what I felt as I looked out across the emptiness surrounding us.

Intertwined with this sense of isolation and desolation is the notion of musically-generated waves … which crops up again here as it did in “Lake Cootharaba” and “K’gari Coast.” Suggested by arpeggiated figures in the solo second violin, as well as oscillating tones from the vibraphone, the wavelike motion in this case is not representative of water, but of the distant shimmer of the heat haze … visible on every horizon as you stand on the Plain.

The main theme ebbs and flows in intensity as my mind’s eye travels south across the barren landscape, building to a violent outburst from the timpani as we reach the Bunda Cliffs.  Magnificent remnants of an event that literally tore the continent asunder, they provide my imagination with a platform from which to turn inland and gaze once again into the vast red interior of the country.  Undulating triplets in the solo violins, like a lightly buffeting hot dry wind, caress the final statement of the theme, now played in octaves by the solo viola and solo cello, and provide a transition to the …

EPILOGUE

As with the Prologue, the Epilogue is not based on a single specific landscape. It represents an expression of both the pain inflicted by industry and urban encroachment on the environment; and a celebration of the powerful life force which enables that very same environment to regenerate and repair itself despite the harm visited upon it by human greed and folly. Having spent so much of these past months exploring … both musically and metaphorically … the areas of the Australian landscape that inspired this piece, I wanted to move beyond just my personal reactions to these places and open a window to the notion that as inhabitants of this Earth, we’re all interconnected with the land and responsible for understanding and caring for it.

This finale is built from both the thematic material and the low didgeridoo-like drone motif originally presented in the Prologue. The solo first violin starts the movement with a development of the triplet figures with which it concluded “Nullarbor Plain” … gradually ascending to a cry of anguish which soars above a bed of intense tremolo and a return of the drone motif, played this time by the double bass section. The angst subsides through a short solo violin cadenza to an even more powerful invocation of the drone motif, now played by the entire cello and bass sections.  Using the “is-it-major/is-it-minor?” harmonic motif introduced and developed in “K’gari Coast,” the second violins and violas play a strummed pizzicato figure over which the first violins jubilantly sing a tune derived the from opening material. Evolving into a raucous dance celebrating renewal and the awesome ability of the natural world to regenerate and reassert itself over man, the first violins, second violins and violas toss the tune playfully back and forth.  Both percussionists enter the fray and the piece blossoms into a joyful chant intoned by the cellos and violas.  The low strings and percussion then descend to begin a powerful repeated ostinato as the violins cascade around them. The excitement builds, culminating in a grand rendition of the Prologue’s opening melody, now played by the whole orchestra. The climax melts away and the drone motif is reintroduced, once again played as a duet between the solo cello and solo double bass accompanied by percussion as it was in the Prologue (claves being used to evoke the sound of Aboriginal clapsticks).  The work concludes very softly, with the two string soloists fading to silence … ↑ less ↑

flashback to 1985 before the LACO season premiere

What an exciting time: the new LACO season is almost upon us! On Sept. 20 and 21, LACO will kick off their 46th Orchestral Series with Beethoven 5, a concert that celebrates the classics while ushering a new masterpiece into the world. The program includes the world premiere of Cameron Patrick’s Lines of the Southern Cross, Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5, and Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5, known as his “Egyptian” concerto. It’s no surprise that LACO hasn’t performed Lines of the Southern Cross before, as it is a world premiere. I was surprised, however, to hear that the other two pieces have only been played once before on the LACO stage. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was introduced to LACO audiences in 2009 (as the inaugural piece in their compelling and unique “Discover” format), but Saint Saens’ “Egyptian” Concerto hasn’t been performed since 1985 – 29 years ago! Thinking back to 1985 doesn’t yield many memories from outside my home or school, but then again, I was only six years old. Turns out, though, that 1985 was a notable year in many regards. Are you ready for a flashback? 

read more → Two popular orchestral pieces were heard for the first time in 1985, both thanks to commissions by major American symphonies. The Milwaukee Symphony commissioned American composer John Adams, and the end result was The Chairman Dances, which has since been recorded at least three times. 1,000 miles to the east, the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned English composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who delivered Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a popular work that’s known for being one of the few classical pieces to feature a bagpipe solo.

If you tuned your radio to the top-40 stations, you’d likely hear hits from some of the biggest names in music. Madonna released Like A Virgin in late 1984, and her smashes “Material Girl” and “Into the Groove” were played throughout most of 1985. Bruce Springsteen also had a hit 1984 album, Born in the U.S.A., with hit singles “I’m on Fire” and “Glory Days” hitting airwaves in 1985. Phil Collins’ third solo album, No Jacket Required, hit store shelves in January 1985, and it would go on to be the #1 album in the country for seven weeks, and eventually win three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.

Film audiences craved adventure, with Back to the Future and The Goonies filling theaters coast-to-coast. If you were in an action mood, you could buy a ticket for Commando or your choice of Sylvester Stallone sequels: Rambo: First Blood Part II or Rocky IV. Meanwhile, classical music fans celebrated when Amadeus cleaned up at the 57th Annual Academy Awards (handed out in March 1985) – the Mozart film won 8 statues, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.

Those who opted to stay home had plenty to choose from, with laughter being a likely outcome. Five of the top ten highest-rated television shows were comedies: The Cosby Show, Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Cheers, and Who’s The Boss?. 1985 also saw the debuts of many television staples: David Letterman presented his first Top Ten List on September 18th (topic: “Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas”), Elmo made his first appearance on Sesame Street on November 18th, and CNN introduced a new nightly interview show, Larry King Live, on June 3rd.

A couple new products were introduced into the marketplace, with differing results: Coca-Cola tinkered with its 99-year-old formula and released New Coke, but public backlash and savage reviews forced the company to reintroduce its Classic beverage just months later. At the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft introduced the first version of Windows, called Windows 1.0, and the product is still going strong nearly 3 decades later.

Some final fun facts about 1985: It was the year that Michael Jordan was named NBA Rookie of the Year, the year that the cost of a first-class stamp rose from 20 to 22 cents, and the year that the English version of the immensely popular musical Les Miserables premiered (in London). And if you wanted to fill up your gas tank? The average price, per gallon, was only $1.09.  ↑ less ↑

Lines of the Southern Cross (part two)

Hi folks! Welcome my LACO Blog posting #2, where we’ll move on to exploring the music in much more detail …

I approached the structure of “Lines of the Southern Cross” like a ballet. The Prologue is an exposition, introducing the recurring thematic material and the didgeridoo-like drone in the solo cello and double bass, then after a short Grand Pause, we travel through three distinct landscapes and the Epilogue, each section or movement flowing seamlessly into the next without a break.

read more →LAKE COOTHARABA

LAKE-COOTHARABA-4-CREDIT-austravelphotography

The first of these landscapes is Lake Cootharaba, a saltwater lake on the Noosa River approximately 100 miles north of my home town of Brisbane. Wikipedia describes the lake as being roughly 6 miles long by 3 miles wide. It is close to the Pacific Ocean (separated by a mere mile of sandy scrubland) but does not drain directly into it. Instead the Noosa River enters from the north via the Everglades Wetlands and exits at the south via a navigable channel to meet the sea at Noosa Heads. Amazingly, it only has an average depth of about 5 feet … so it is shallow enough for people and larger animals to wade or walk through in spots. Brimming with wildlife and native vegetation that flourish in the surrounding Cooloolah National Park, Lake Cootharaba is (fortunately) one of the most protected wetlands areas left in my home state of Queensland.

My partner of 22 years (and spouse for 6!), Darrin McCann, and I were lucky enough to spend a few glorious days on Lake Cootharaba on a houseboat in 1994. The 2nd movement of “Lines of the Southern Cross” was inspired by an evening laying out on the roof of the wheelhouse, entranced by the sky full of stars spread out above us. The gentle breeze whipped up small waves which lapped rhythmically against the sides of the boat and being a long way from any city lights, the Milky Way arched magnificently and brightly across the sky. As always, the Southern Cross and the Pointers winked down at us too. The violas open the movement with a wavelike repeated half-step figure, providing a gentle bed for the violins, who enter with a dreamy melody that floats high above. Both violin sections are divided into numerous choirs which exchange harmony and melody back and forth. Solo double bass playing pizzicato and glockenspiel then enter, answering each other and occasional violin interjections in short rhythmic figures, like flashes of light on the surface of the water. Other sounds of the night, like the calls of birds and frogs, interject in the distance. In my mind’s eye, the warm night breeze picks up, the waves become more insistent and the solo viola plays an intense theme which carries the listener east across the dark mysterious waters. Then, as if on the back of a large sea bird, the violins take flight with the tune, high and joyful, and over echoes of the didgeridoo, we cross the small land bridge between Lake Cootharaba and the beautiful beaches of Great Sandy National Park to be presented with the extraordinary vista of the ….

K’GARI COAST

FRASER-ISLAND-75-MILE-BEACH-2-CREDIT-Chris-McLennan

K’gari or Gari (pronounced “gurri”) is the traditional Butchulla (also spelled Badtjala) Aboriginal name for Fraser Island. Fraser Island is about 185 miles north of Brisbane and is situated a little over 9 miles off the Queensland coast just north of Lake Cootharaba. Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island and is an area of remarkable natural beauty. It is about 75 miles long and 15 miles wide, with a diverse array of stunning geographical features ranging from towering sand dunes, giant walls of colored sands, sparkling freshwater dune lakes, and a diversity of vegetation ranging from luxuriant rainforest to eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests and heathlands, all of which grow in only sand with relatively little nutrient.

Wikipedia informs us that archaeological research and evidence show Aboriginal Australians, the Badtjala people, occupied Fraser Island at least 5000 years ago. Tragically though, the arrival of European settlers in the area in the 1840s was an overwhelming disaster for the Indigenous people. Overwhelmed by weapons, disease and lack of food, Aboriginal numbers were reduced to only about 300 people by 1890. Most of the remaining Aboriginals left the island in 1904 and were relocated to missions on the mainland. It is estimated that up to 500 Indigenous archaeological sites are located on the island.

I’ve been fortunate to have visited K’gari a couple of times during my life. One of the things that amazed me each time, was Seventy Five Mile Beach, which runs literally for 75 miles along the east coast of the island up to Indian Head. It is used as a landing strip for small planes and an informal highway for four-wheel-drive vehicles and is truly an awe-inspiring site … pristine sand and magnificent Pacific waves stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions. It is this coastline that inspired the 3rd movement of “Lines of the Southern Cross.” Featuring solo cello with the orchestra, this movement, like the 2nd, also begins with a musical suggestion of waves … but in this case, they are large and powerful, a force of nature to be reckoned with. The motivic harmonic progression of C major7 to E-flat major over a C pedal gives the piece a kind of major/minor uncertainty throughout. The expansive cello tune that enters over this repeated major/minor figure, carries the listener up the broad windswept coastline, dodging breakers as they rush up the beach and fording freshwater creeks that empty out into the surf. Soon a darkness seeps into the music and the mood changes. The cello begins a series of turgid arpeggios and the movement assumes a sense of urgency, reflecting the drama of a sudden squall or the appearance of a dangerous rip current close to shore. The movement climaxes with a full orchestral outburst suggesting the waters being whipped into a frenzy of foam. All quietens down to a reintroduction of the didgeridoo-like drone in the solo cello and double bass … laying a foundation for a rhythmically-augmented version of the waves from the opening of “Lake Cootharaba” in the low violas and celli. A solo viola plaintively sings a reprise of the melody from the Prologue, expressing my profound sadness for the Indigenous people and their loss of this paradise as their home. The rumble of the mighty Pacific diminishes into nothingness and a solo violin holds a high harmonic to introduce our third landscape …

To be continued … ↑ less ↑

Lines of the Southern Cross (part one)

Hi folks! Welcome to my first blog entry on LACO’s website. I can’t tell you how thrilled and honored I am to have the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presenting the premiere of my new work, “Lines of the Southern Cross” this September.

read more →
Lines of a Southern Cross

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane first approached me with the possibility of writing a newly-commissioned work very early in January of this year. He’d been in touch regarding another piece of mine, “Impressions of Erin,” which was commissioned and premiered by the Camerata of St. John’s Chamber Orchestra in Brisbane, Australia in 2012. Initially, our conversations were about the possibility of LACO performing “Erin” in an upcoming concert, but clocking in at around 30 minutes, it was too long to fit anywhere on the new season’s programs. Jeffrey then floated the idea of me writing a piece for September 2014. What can I say? … I was immediately excited at the prospect, even though scheduling the work for the first concert of the 2014-15 season only gave me about 5 months to craft something from scratch. Luckily, Jeffrey also had some very strong ideas about the makeup of the work: it should be 12-15 (and no longer than 17) minutes long, it should be for strings and percussion, and subject wise: explore the spirituality of the Australian landscape.

Now these parameters were incredibly helpful insofar as they focused my thoughts very quickly in a very specific direction. The “spirituality of the Australian landscape” had me a little stumped for a bit … what a broad topic! I started reading and researching … trying to find an approach … and relatively quickly (thankfully!), found a common thread in discussions of stories from across the spectrum of world religions and spiritual paths: for millennia, human beings have spoken and recorded tales of encounters with the divine … of incredibly powerful spiritual experiences … in association with specific geographical locations. Most often, the place, through its combination of physical attributes, gave substance to the faith generated there … intertwining landscape and spirituality forever for the person involved and anchoring the experience in their memory of that place.

This struck a very real chord (please excuse the pun!) for me. I started thinking … when a place makes an impact on you, you don’t just see it with your eyes, but with your whole body. You feel part of that picture emotionally for the rest of your life. I thought … okay, so I was born and spent the first 23 years of my life in Australia and have been fortunate to do a lot of traveling in my homeland … why not cast my mind back over all of those journeys, sift through photos, maps and memories and compile a list of the places that affected me profoundly on both a spiritual and emotional level?

Jeffrey and I had also talked about the music of the Australian Aboriginal people and whether we could somehow incorporate a thread of a reference to Indigenous culture in the piece. I wanted very dearly to celebrate and recognize the inseparable connection between the continent’s Indigenous peoples and the land itself. We discussed iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, whom the world just lost a few weeks ago on August 8, and his evoking of “typical” Australian natural sounds like birds and insects, as well as his use of “Aboriginal melodic shapes, rhythmic patterns and instrumental sounds” … and the possibilities of exploring that avenue further (Deborah Hayes: Visions of the Great South Land in Peter Sculthorpe’s Opera ‘Quiros’). I understand how important it is to be sensitive to the issue of referencing Aboriginal cultural material in other forms of media and also understand that if I were to use direct quotes of specific musical material or sacred property, it would be important to gain permission of Aboriginal elders or spokespersons before embarking on a project. I didn’t want to reference Aboriginal music merely as some sort of badge of legitimacy … to make it “sound” Australian. It was more to honor in some small way the many voices of the people who’ve walked before me on the land I was referencing. Consequently, I decided that rather than directly quote Aboriginal music, I would use strings and percussion to evoke Indigenous sounds.

Another topic we discussed was songlines. A songline is a “musical expression of geographical movement … usually associated with ancestral journeys across vast distances.” It is essentially an oral map in which the singer describes a path’s physical features, such as a bend in the river, the rise of a hill … even a meteorological event or the flora and fauna in a particular area. For eons, songlines or “dreaming tracks” have guided Aboriginal Australians across the continent. The songs generate a sense of place for the listener, usually telling of a locale far away and the singer spends a “great deal of time using his skills to creatively evoke an image of places in the mind’s eye of his audience” (Peter Toner, Sing a Country of the Mind: The Articulation of Place in Dhalwangu Song).

So … short story long … I adapted this concept to compose an original musical “map” … my own version of a songline … to “sing” my own personal experiences through parts of the Australian landscape. These are journeys of my mind’s eye and I’ve drawn on memories of these places to take the listener on not just a physical path, but an emotional one as well. Of course, I’ve had to choose certain places over others (turns out I had a lot of wonderful travel experiences!) … otherwise I would have a piece that was 7 hours long!

The title, “Lines of the Southern Cross,” is drawn from a combination of sources. The Southern Cross, of course, is the constellation in the Southern Hemisphere which appears on the Australian Flag. The “Lines” part of the title refers to the concept of the piece as a series of songlines … and the following celestial factoid that I’ve carried with me since I was a kid (and I paraphrase from Wikipedia here):

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross is frequently used for navigation in much the same way that the Pole Star is used in the Northern Hemisphere. If a line is constructed perpendicularly between nearby Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri (often referred to as the “Southern Pointers” or just “The Pointers”), the point where this line and a line drawn between the top and bottom stars of the Southern Cross (known as Acrux and Gacrux respectively) intersect, marks the Southern Celestial Pole. Tying the title of this piece to the celestial line that points due south seemed also very appropriate!

I’ve always grappled with the role of being an outsider in the Australian outback. As a city-born non-Indigenous Australian, I felt like a visitor, a tiny insignificant speck of dust, in a land which could swallow me up in an instant. I always felt like the rock beneath me, like some incredibly ancient, slightly malevolent intelligence, was watching me … but at the same time, in a nurturing way, that the original inhabitants were always still there watching over me too. These two emotional responses to the Australian bush manifest themselves in the opening Prologue. The piece begins with a duet of solo cello and solo double bass, playing a drone figure that evokes the sound of the didgeridoo. This motif appears often throughout the piece and acts as a reminder that at every turn, one is treading the paths of the original inhabitants. The opening tune played by the 2 solo violins, also returns in various guises throughout the work. The figures in the violins … and the percussion (which includes claves evoking the sound of Aboriginal clapsticks) … build towards a full orchestral statement of this theme. The overall sense of darkness in this initial outburst is a direct reflection of the fear and healthy respect I hold for the Australian outback.

To be continued … ↑ less ↑

farewell, Rosa!

My experience as the marketing intern at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has been very exciting and eye opening. I have learned and gained an incredible amount of valuable information. From learning to write copy for brochures and program books to using excel to create response reports; from scanning the music library of past performances for new podcast audio material and creating music clips to collecting biographies from musicians; from getting the opportunity to photograph antique harpsichords to giving my input during a promotional ideas marketing meeting. At LACO, I got the opportunity to really understand the ins and outs of what it takes to run the marketing department and the significance and importance of it within the organization. I even got to attend the annual board meeting and to help clean during the annual “grubby day;” a day on which instead of working at our desks we clean all day. It was tons of fun and I got to keep a bunch of cool things that were otherwise going to be thrown out (like CDs, posters and a pink stuffed Valentine’s Day elephant!).

read more →I am very grateful that I got the opportunity to be a part of such a great organization. Not only does it strive to bring great classical music to all ears but it also offers it to public elementary schools for free and to college students at the amazing $30 all access price. When I found out I could go to ALL the concerts for that price I almost had a heart attack! I am so glad that they make it affordable to students and I can’t wait for the season to start so that I can take advantage of this deal and see the results of my work in the program book. I feel very privileged to be working alongside very talented people both in the office and on stage. I am definitely going to miss LACO now that the internship is over, but an everlasting experience will remain in me. My appreciation for music (a cellist at heart) and for non-profit art organizations has grown even deeper. ↑ less ↑