Monday, November 1, 2010

Baseball and Brahms, World Series vs. World Music

As I write this our Bay Area team the San Francisco Giants have just this moment won the 2010 World Series. Their road to the playoffs against all odds and all predictions made an interested fan out of me (and thousands of others, no doubt).  I know I am a relative beginner in appreciating all of the finer points of baseball, while lots of musicians have probably been knowledgeable, passionate fans of the game for decades or more. So  I am wondering how many musicians, like me, have noticed the intriguing parallels that can be drawn between baseball and music in terms of psychology, personal highs/lows, practicing, performing, competing, strategy, choices that have to be made.....not to mention muscular coordination and skills required, whether an individual is having an "off day" or not.......

Regarding that last point, for example, the sports announcers would comment on how some pitchers "didn't have" all of their pitches at their disposal on a given night so they had to choose which pitches they could rely on for that game. How many of us performers walk onto a stage to commence a concert sometimes feeling like we wish we could change one of the pieces on the program because for whatever reason in our pre-concert rehearsal we found that our body just wasn't "in the zone" on a particular technique required by that piece, or our mood isn't readily connecting with one of the works we had chosen to program months or years previously. It's kind of reassuring to know that major athletes don't always have their bodies cooperating either, but at least they aren't always forced to include their less-confident pitch all night, regardless!

But that is just one example.....the analogies between a sports team and an orchestra have been drawn up by hundreds before me, so I don't need to go there, and in fact since I am not an orchestral player my thoughts did not tend to go in that direction very often as I struggled to tear myself away from solo piano rehearsals to watch snippets of each World Series game this week. It was the duel between the pitchers that fascinated me the most, and it was the young catcher Buster Posey that impressed me the most. But in general I was most emotionally drawn by the personal conflicts sometimes going on within each of the individual team players when at bat or in the outfield, as they struggled to perform at the top of their potential in every inning and every game. I also loved the humility with which every single one of them, when interviewed after any game, would compliment and thank the other players and never answered the reporter's questions with an "I" response, regardless of how the question was phrased and even when they had truly done some incredible feats individually.

I have always been horrified by the amount of money that is paid to major league players in any sport, and I still am. But what came across in watching this particular team, time and time again, with both the older players and the (many) unbelievable rookies, was the obvious joy with which they played baseball, using all of their gifts to the absolute maximum. I honestly don't think they were thinking about their pay or comparing themselves (negatively or positively) with their teammates or the opposition in terms of talents or in pay scales. They were blest with particular gifts and talents, and they knew how fortunate they were to be able to use those talents to give enjoyment and uplift to many many others who could only watch. When one has done something since childhood, as many music performers no doubt have, it could probably be easy to start taking things for granted sometimes and so whether as performers or teachers of budding artists, we need to think about ways to keep that appreciation of our gifts and our opportunities alive, never taking them for granted. I remember that once we were producing a world music concert and one of the performers was a bit nervous. Before the concert began I happened to notice a person in the audience who was in a wheelchair and had a 'hook" on one arm as an "artificial hand".....I remarked to the musicians that that audience member was not thinking about whether we were nervous or not - he/she was probably thinking that they would give anything to be able to play at all, and that our joyful task was to play in that person's place and to express for them what they could not do in a physical way but might feel very passionately about in their ears, mind and heart.

But I digress......back to the Giants and the World Series: None of the players were absolutely perfect throughout the series, and even if they were individually having an "off night" or an "off week" where nothing went right, they could remind themselves that they were still the ones chosen to be in that place on that ball diamond on that night and not someone else, and the humiliation of being so obviously human (as in, imperfect) in front of millions, would have to be the price that one sometimes has to pay for the gift. At least, I hope they understood that. I know I am a lot harder on myself than that when I am on stage, and I suspect most of us are. So from now on I will just have to remember Baseball and the night that a team of so-called "individualists' and "misfits" that had not played nearly as well (individually or collectively) as other teams had earlier in the season, won the World Championship  - by working, playing, and sharing their gifts -  with perseverance, determination, and Joy.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Catching up - and a frantic reflection on Peace

So....Peace Day 2010 has now come and gone, and after a year of work in the build-up to those events, we thought we would now be taking a short breather  - but things at Listen for Life seem to be even faster-paced (and therefore less peaceful? or maybe not) than before!

My last blog entry was written from Europe, so a little catch-up report and reflection might be necessary:
In mid-September I was honored to give UN Peace Day-related performances in Croatia, Bosnia, and in England, before returning to Oakland California 2 days prior to Listen for Life's inaugural launch of Peace Day events for our home city. None of us knew what to expect from our 1st Annual (we hope) Festival for Peace in Oakland, in terms of audience turn-out, reaction to the scheduled programs and events we'd put together, any press attendance/coverage, or the overall response to our year of work on the part of the city, the participant listeners and performers, or the dedicated volunteers who helped us dramatically in the final 24-hour push after my return.
In the end, the day (and its aftermath) has been an absolute roller-coaster of emotions, reactions, and energy levels, for all of us....a "top ten" list of those emotions might read as follows:

1. Urgency: In the hours prior to Peace Day we had been offered the opportunity to place musicians in yet another additional venue which was in an important downtown location, so on September 21st after 3 hours asleep we awoke at dawn to create last-minute flyers that volunteers then handed out to nearby office workers, city hall employees, and passers-by in an attempt to draw an audience there unannounced.

2. Gratitude: Busy with that urgent task, I couldn't get the chance to visit a city senior center/shelter and soup kitchen where one of our musicians James Brooks (JB) was meanwhile serenading the elderly guests with songs of their era, but I heard later from the staff there that everyone loved his suave voice and outgoing, friendly participation in their Peace Day activities so much that they are begging him to come back on a regular basis  - and he has generously agreed!

3. Excitement: Thanks to the proactive work of one of our enthusiastic senior volunteers, another senior center in town picked up the Peace Day purpose in a big way and had an entire day of activities including a meaningful drum circle where the Alzheimers patients, especially, were a huge success!

4. Surprise (and gratitude): Some press showed up! So did our wonderful ally at the Special Events commission, Jim McIlvaine, who gave us tremendous encouragement and moral support in trying to "put Oakland on the map for a positive reason" over our last 11 months of work. And so did our equally supportive and very active city councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who was kind enough to respond when I spontaneously invited her to come up to the mic and speak to the audience and press with me, in front of City Hall, about the year-round significance of Peace Day for our city. Her words were very moving and exactly on target - I couldn't have hoped for more, if we had planned it!

5. Dismay: despite the hard work of our Listen for Life team and volunteers over many previous weeks/months and the assistance of seasoned PR professionals on our team - contacting newspapers, radio, TV, online Oakland blogs, and printing/distributing over 7,000 color flyers that listed all of the venues for free music concerts throughout the city - we learned the hard way just how challenging it can be to start something new! We had been warned that when looking at all of the really big, successful music festivals or city celebrations in any community, it is easy to forget that in their first one or two years, very few people knew about it or participated. These things apparently take a long while to spread by word of mouth, and some people wait to see the quality of the event and the artists in the first year or two before getting involved. But that didn't alter the feelings of exhausted disappointment while surveying the smaller-than-hoped-for crowds at each of our venues on the day, we have to admit!

6. Joy (and gratitude):  The musicians, at every single one of the venues, were absolutely incredible! And they played with heart regardless of the number of people in their audience. I felt so gratified that these nationally and internationally renowned performers had all agreed so freely to come out for Listen for Life on a weeknight and donate their time - and amazing talents- in an attempt to build something positive and new for the citizens of Oakland through the sharing of cross-cultural music. It was wonderful to watch the joy that they gave to their listeners, and it was even more wonderful to see the musicians stay to listen to each other perform, create new friendships amongst each other, and discuss future jam sessions combining their instruments and cultures. This was an unplanned but very important result from the year of planning!

7. Pride: Listen for Life was proud to have the support of so many fantastic musicians for this cause that we could create non-stop cross-cultural music programs at several different simultaneous venues across Oakland. And without exception, at each of those venues, every audience member asked our volunteers if those particular musicians would be back next year, saying that they had never, ever heard such incredible musicians perform, all under one roof, and all for free. They also thanked us for creating such a nice way to raise awareness of the message and meaning of Peace Day for Oakland.........

8. Relief:    So......the musicians all thought it was fantastic, and I am humbled that so many of these world-class musicians have taken the time to write us thank-you notes (for letting them share their gifts for free?!), saying what a wonderful experience it was and how appreciative the audiences were and to definitely put them down for "next year" .....the venue administrators have all written to say how impressed they were the performances and how gratified they felt to be part of this inaugural Festival for Peace in their city, and to please put them down for "next year" (adding that they promise to help more with publicity-sigh)......the volunteers and press have all told us they thought it was a huge success......

9. Exhaustion:  (compounded with jet lag, and regret about lack of TV or radio coverage, but enough said....)

10. Discovery:  We have learned a tremendous amount. We started this process a year ago at the request of UN-related organizations in Geneva that have asked  Listen for Life to create music festivals or concert performances around the world to raise awareness of the UN Millennium Development Goals and/or of UN Peace Day. We already knew that some of our musicians would be performing in Peace Day-related events in various countries, like my concerts performances in Croatia, Bosnia, and the UK. But we looked around our US headquarters in Oakland and thought about the tremendous positive impact that the celebration of Peace Day - and the use of cross-cultural music to create that celebration - could have on this city. If we had known how much work it would take over an entire year, for our very small Oakland based team of volunteers - in the midst of our many other separate and simultaneous projects like the MusicMessage Campaign and Notes for Nourishment and the Travels with Music production series - I do not know if we would have started. But once we started, our team became "the little engine that could". When one of us got discouraged with the lack of resources or hours in a day, another person would jump in with energy and enthusiasm. We took turns encouraging each other and sharing tips on how to stay awake on long nights of work! But in the end, what we have realized is that OUR mission is to the MUSICIANS. Pure and simple. 

What we have learned is that the Peace Day performances were NOT, as we had thought, the completion of a year-long work process but were actually the celebration, beginning and LAUNCH of a whole 365 day process of planning, working, and thinking about ways to promote peace in our hearts, homes AND community - through music!   We have no intentions to be the event-planners for Oakland Peace Day the next zillion years hence. Our role is as the catalyst - to create the model, let other organizations (hopefully!) run with it, and simply continue to provide the musicians who have heart enough to do this - not only in Oakland, but in cities and towns all across the world, wherever we are invited and wherever we have Listen for Life musicians and volunteers to make it happen! 
So here is what I said to the 120+ musicians who took part in our 2010 Festival for Peace when I wrote to thank each one of them this past week: 
"What we have realized is that OUR mission is to the musicians themselves - to YOU! 
Our mission is to inspire YOU and to help you create the opportunities to continue to share your gifts in ways that will inspire OTHERS. Only then will we have fully succeeded. Only then can we rest a little bit. And between the Listen for Life work and my own global concert tours each month, believe me, I could use a little rest - so please, come be inspired and come join us in inspiring others! 

If you like the idea of giving performances in your own community or countrywide YEAR-ROUND to help raise funds for various causes, then check out our newest global project called Notes for Nourishment ( and tell other musicians you know in ANY location and any country about this concept, as our goal is simply to be the catalyst for more events, ideas and positive musical ACTION worldwide. If meanwhile you have thoughts, venues, volunteers, suggestions or ideas for next Peace Day in your own communities please let us know asap! If we organize things NOW for next Peace Day (September 21, 2011) it will be ......maybe?.....a little less frantic and a little more Peace-filled....."
One activity we will be launching in the next 1-2 weeks is the creation of a short weekly video on YouTube that will outline steps/action items for any musicians in other cities/countries wishing to organize Peace Day music concerts in their own communities for next year. Some of those initial steps need to happen this month and next, so if you do know musicians or groups in other cities/countries who were excited and inspired by what you did for Oakland, get them to watch these videos or let us know who they are and we will be happy to contact them with support and help. 

As for me, I have spent the days since Peace Day trying to play catch-up with some of the other Listen for Life projects, including upcoming Notes for Nourishment concerts in Hawaii November 15-22 and in Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia November 28-December 8. 
But meanwhile, Listen for Life musicians Winnie Wong (China) and Vanessa Vo (Vietnam) are combining forces (and cultures) in a very rare duo concert later this month in San Francisco so our immediate project is to help with the PR and get the word out about that - so please stay tuned! [Please see this post for full concert details!]

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Concert on Sat October 23rd 2011 at 3pm - China and Vietnam in SF!

Saturday October 23rd, 2010 at 3pm

First Christian Church
599 Duboce Ave (at Noe St)
San Francisco, CA 94117

A Musical Journey... China and Vietnam

Winnie Wong (guzheng) and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo (dan Tranh, dan Bao. and Trung)

Full details are available here.
[click on poster for higher-resolution version]

Come join us for an afternoon of music from Guizhou, Yunnan, 
Xinjiang, and a sample of Vietnamese folk music, along with the exciting
premiere of a collaboration between Winnie Wong (guzheng) and 
Van-Anh Vanessa Vo (dan tranh).

Winnie Wong - Guzheng soloist
China's Spirit Music Ensemble

Guest Artist: Van-Anh Vanessa Vo - Vietnamese Folk Instrumentalist

Youth Artist: Reylon Yount - Yangqin soloist

This concert is sponsored by Listen for Life.

General Admission $15 and $25
Tickets: (415) 515-5797 or email

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How (NOT) to meet a European journalist on a plane

OK so I am in the middle seat of a smallish airplane on a late evening flight from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, in Croatia, and we have all been given very welcome glasses of water. I am studying my music for an upcoming performance this week and minding my own business, glass of water in hand, when jetlag suddenly takes over and I fall sound asleep mid-swallow. The next thing I hear is a startled but quite polite shriek from something or someone next to me so I manage to open one eye and groggily begin to notice that the suave young European gentleman next to me seems to be wearing thoroughly soaked jeans. Rather bemused at my gradually awakened state and profound apologies he actually has the courtesy to THANK me for the invigorating bath:

Gentleman: You know, I have to be very awake when we land as I am being met by some people and I was having a hard time keeping myself awake but now I am quite alert in fact - thank you for that unique experience!
Me: (trying not to be too obvious in noticing that the majority of my glass of water had chosen to hit the absolute worst possible location on the front of his jeans): say you are being met by people and have to be working when you land (oh great!)??

Me: (changing subject while hoping the flight were longer so his jeans would try before landing): What do you do?

Gentleman: I am a journalist in Austria and am being sent to Dubrovnik to cover a major charity event there for UNICEF, with Roger Moore and John Malkovich and other stars helping to raise funds to combat violence among youth for peace....

Me (never miss an opportunity, no?): oh, you write up charity events about peace or related to UNICEF.....what about UN and peace day and renowned musicians from many cultures donating their time and talents to do a big event for Peace Day?

Gentleman (strategically placing the myriad of napkins I by now had procured from our airline steward while filling him in on all the details about Oakland and why this event would matter to his magazine readers throughout Europe): You know that sounds really interesting and if you can send me some good pics of the events I will write up an article about it with pleasure though of course I can't promise my editor will include it right away.....but you say you have internationally recognised musicians involved yes?

SO I explained that they are not famous as in hip hop or pop culture celebrities but are much more important for the representation and encouragement of their own cultures, and why we work so hard at Listen for Life to give them opportunities to make that happen, either through concert series like Notes for Nourishment or events like Peace Day or interactive broadcast programs like Travels with Music. He asked more about that one and when he heard that Travels with Music content has now been acquired by the BBC, which they watch in Austria where he is based, he got even more enthusiastic

Maybe he was just extremely polite but he said we should see how we can work together, and while giving me his card he said "one thing is for sure - I will NEVER forget how we met!"

With that we were landed and off to the baggage claim, where - spied him ever so nonchalantly walking with his leather jacket draped down long over his arm which was folded in front of his body "just so"

Thank you, sir.....for letting me live to tell the tale and smile while sharing it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Work in progress - a dispatch from London en route to Zagreb!

Philosophers say we are all a "work in progress" and that is certainly true, not only of individuals but also of global organizations with local teams, like Listen for Life - and most especially of the major new city-wide event that we are in the middle of producing for Oakland, California! Only two weeks to go before Listen for Life produces the 1st annual Festival for Peace on September 21st in Oakland, involving 7 venues/ events and over 100 internationally renowned musicians performing for free throughout the city to raise awareness of UN International Peace Day and its potential meaning for a wonderfully diverse but challenged community like Oakland: []

Listen for Life volunteer staff teams - music listeners, performers, educators and producers alike - are struggling valiantly to accomplish a trillion small tasks in a rapidly diminishing number of days, so anyone reading this is warmly invited to join in, from wherever you are! Our tech and Web guru from the UK has been brushing up on long-forgotten (to him) graphic design programs in order to create publicity flyers, our PR head is acting as driver since our logistics person had his car totalled last weekend, and on it goes.....

This present opportunity is literally creating work around the clock for our small but energetic team in Oakland, but we all believe passionately in the reasons behind Peace Day and in Listen for Life's potential to use cross cultural music to bring the many disparate groups of our community together in a wordless discussion about peace ....

And in the midst of this, while recently returned from doing a series of Listen for Life Notes For Nourishment concerts throughout the Pacific Northwest, I now find myself on a flight to Europe to perform Peace Day-related concerts that were primarily scheduled well over a year ago!
- have just landed in London en route to Zagreb so more on that in my next dispatch...... A work in progress, indeed!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On Tour in Salem, Oregon

Have arrived in Salem on Notes for Nourishment concert tour of Washington, Oregon and California....have met so many incredibly inspiring people who are either giving their lives to make a difference for others, or are soldiering on in great faith and endurance in the midst of huge trials. Either way, they are all very inspiring, memorable, and so appreciative of our donating our concerts as fundraisers to try and help their causes.

They said that they hope other musicians will take up the idea and create their own benefit concerts anywhere in the world they happen to live, so if you are a musician we are encouraging you to do that, and we will help you in any way we can!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Welcome to the new Listen for Life blog!

As part of the ongoing process of consolidating all of our online ventures into a single easy-to-navigate portal, the Pomoja! blog has now been ported over here to the Listen for Life blog.

Although the blog itself is currently still hosted at (owned by Google), the easiest address to remember to get here is

All of the old posts and comments from the Pomoja! blog are now here, and this is where new posts and comments will be added.

Have fun reading posts and writing comments, and please come back frequently!


Sunday, April 11, 2010

600,000 Swedes do WHAT?

Yesterday I was invited to attend a concert given by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus under the direction of their highly renowned Swedish conductor, Ragnar Bohlin.
Because of his background, they presented a very unusual and interesting program with the first half consisting of works by a variety of Swedish choral composers spanning different time periods. The two folksongs that concluded the first half were an especially wonderful glimpse into a part of Swedish culture, harmonies, dark humor and folkloric tales. I would have loved to hear more of them!
But the central point in the first half was a very contemporary account of the ascent out of hell from Dante's Divine Comedy, called "....a riveder le stelle" by Ingvar Lidholm (1973) and I believe that the final 2 minutes of this piece was one of the very few times in my music-listening life that a performance left my jaw "on the floor" - eyes wide and mouth hanging open, you get the picture - this was absolutely astounding in both the music composition itself and the exquisite, incredible performance given by the chorus and the soprano soloist for this piece, Pamela Sebastian. At this point in his piece, the composer was using the portion of Dante' text to portray "We climbed, he first, I following, till to sight Appeared those things of beauty that heaven wears, Glimpsed through a rounded opening, faintly bright; Thence issuing, we beheld again the stars" the time that the choir was singing about "a rounded opening" the composer had created the illusion of this vast cavernous sound space, through the juxtaposition of two different chordal tonalities alternating at different dynamics and timbres in the choir sections, and all of a sudden it just simply "opened up" and the lone voice of the soprano positively soared upwards in ecstatic arching phrases, like a soul released heavenwards in repeated but gentle bursts of energy - and one's ears could honestly "see" the stars twinkling. Even now in remembering that moment the sense of the musical and spiritual power of that composition and performance is renewed within me. The piece was fairly long (14 minutes) and the first 12 minutes or so did not leave any particular impression, other than a lot of polytonal and poly-rhythmic angst, but in retrospect it was necessary to portray the struggle on Dante's "secret road" to get upwards out of hell, and most definitely needed in order to set up the powerfully unmistakable sensation of reaching the light - and most definitely worth listening to, in order to arrive at the experience of those last two most incredible minutes of music making. If you can find an online recording of this piece, do give it a listen although I suspect that the live experience is necessary for the complete 3D effect of the sound caves and the soprano floating upwards through the "hole" they create. It also goes without saying that the choral conductor's technical/musical expertise and confident leadership is absolutely paramount to "pull this off" to such rare effect and Ragnar Bohlin is the leading interpreter of Swedish choral works so we were fortunate to hear it in San Francisco.

The Chorus itself, as a nearby colleague remarked, is very clearly "American" in its bright-edged sound and range of timbres. The singers have amazing technique, particularly for singing contemporary or dissonant works, and entire sections of the chorus came in confidently on obtuse pitches from seemingly "out of nowhere" during difficult unaccompanied works. The blend within sections was usually excellent, particularly amongst the tenor and bass sections - very occasionally individual women's voices would "pop out" of the whole in soprano or alto section solos.

The second half of the program featured two very beloved choral works - segments from Rachmaninov's "Vespers", and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. I personally thought they did a wonderful job with the Bernstein and it was, afterall, written for American choral groups and audiences. I thought the organ solo seemed too unwaveringly metronomic but maybe that is the way Bernstein's markings request it to be played or conducted. The entire work is brilliantly composed and I love the piece, but in listening to the opening two sections I suddenly wondered why the Bernstein estate has not tried to sue Andrew Lloyd Webber for completely "stealing" entire fragments from this piece for use in his Requiem and some of the musicals.....?

The Rachmaninov "Vespers" left a different impression altogether.......absolutely gorgeous sound, radiant non-screechy (as they can often get in this work) sopranos, a tenor solo (Vesper No 4) like velvet, Vesper No2 having the chorus parts floating in heaven with the wonderful alto soloist providing a contrast down in earth, lovely dynamic shading of the phrases and great ensemble singing in Vesper No3, radiant light in No6.......all in all, amazing choral technique and lovely sound that let in much "light" - BUT, as colleagues around me also felt, the entire performance did not feel as if one had heard Rachmaninov nor "Russian" prayer music.....nor experienced any of the culture that Rachmaninov was sharing through this intentionally spiritual piece. While we were admittedly not in a Russian Orthodox cathedral or monastery or even a San Francisco church, for the piece itself to have its true power to reach the souls of its listeners I believe we would have liked it to be slower, more personally expressive and a touch darker/richer in vocal colors - or in effect, more "prayerful" rather than fascile, light and rather faster than we are used to hearing/performing it. One audience member (who said he has sung this work many times in a variety of settings/cultures) commented that it was perhaps the placement of the Vespers in the program that bothered him - with the "brash American" sounds of the Bernstein coming immediately afterwards, the Vespers came across as simply a "Russian choral piece" being demonstrated on the program for a demonstration of choral repertoire because all potential meaning or experience was forgotten once the opening of the Chichester Psalms began. He saw this programming more as a sad commentary on our tendency to always have "loud, fast, or showy" works trump the "soft, slow or spiritual" ones. I would love to know others' thoughts on please, send in your comments!

Personally I wondered if the conductor's pre-performance research on the Vespers had perhaps unfortunately colored his impression/understanding of the piece regarding Rachmaninov's purposes in composing it. I know that some of Rachmaninov's biographers had given information stating his supposed lack of religious activity/beliefs and also his dates of leaving Russia, or reasons for composing specific works, that now clash with current research and information. This matters to me only because I have spent much of my life researching Rachmaninov in preparation for performing some of his known and lesser-known works, such as singing the alto solo in the Vespers many times, or giving the first live public performance of his 1st Piano Sonata in d minor, in many halls around the world, and while presenting television programs about many different composers on international networks. During my research I was intrigued to learn that many of the older "assumptions" about Rachmaninov's religious beliefs/feelings were indeed erroneous. His deeply held spiritual beliefs actually had strong impact on his methods and his reasons for composing many of his works, including the Vespers.

In general it was very interesting to listen to audience members around me during the intermission or while exiting Davies Hall at the conclusion of the concert. The large hall was filled and I suspect, judging from the overheard comments, that many of the listeners were choral singers and/or conductors in other Bay Area vocal ensembles or churches. Which brings up a second topic that I would love to hear other's comments on - according to the Program Notes explaining the profusion of Swedish composers that write choral music, "an estimated 600,000 Swedes- nearly 7% of the county's total population of 9 Million - sing in choirs ranging from amateur to world class"......
Seven percent of the country's population! Does anyone know the statistics of other countries - or even individual cities - that can rival this number of choirs or choral singers? I know I read a few years back that the San Francisco Bay Area has over 500 registered choral groups, not counting the choirs in houses of worship. What can we learn from this and how can we apply it in ways that help music to be a conscious form of unity and peace-building in our cultures, societies and communities?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

on pop stars, Olympic ice skating and piano recitals......

Last week someone remarked to me that for those who are not lifelong concert artists, there can often be a strong fascination with the details, moods, experiences and activities of a performer or musician, and (in that person's estimation), this fascination played a large part in the initial popularity of Twitter because young fans of pop stars could now follow their idols' every move or imagine more closely their daily lifestyle. This person went on to suggest that more of us "classical musicians" should likewise share our experiences from the "onstage view" and I thought that made sense, so here is my first installment on that topic.

Over the past three days, I have performed the same solo piano program to three different audiences, in two different venues, so I thought that this experience might be a good place to start.
First of all, I would say that all three audiences were equally appreciative and excited afterwards when coming up to speak with me, although among the two recitals held in the same venue, those two audiences were actually very different in the way they seemed to listen and the level of "energy" that came back to me onstage while performing. This could have had something to do with the time of day for each concert (as this affects the audiences even more than the performer, in my opinion) as well as the overall age group in each audience.

I was also intrigued by the fact that after each of the three concerts, as people would come up to tell me what piece was their favorite, there was always one piece that got more votes than any other - but, that "audience favorite" piece was different at each of the three performances, even though all three concerts had the same program. And none of the pieces named by audience members as their "favorites" ever matched the ones that I myself most enjoyed performing at each concert! There are many different discussion topics or potential "psychological insights" that could probably arise from these observations, but for now I'll simply move on because today (rather typically of most performers, I am sure) my adrenalin and brain cells are rather drained :)

Two of the three concerts were recorded for potential broadcast. People often ask me if there are any surprises when I hear a recording of my live performances or if the interpretations sound indeed exactly as I hear them "in my head" while rehearsing or playing. Having just today listened to the recording of the first concert, my response would be that pretty much everything sounded exactly as I "heard" it while performing, except for one thing - the very fast pieces always come out sounding much much faster than I "feel" I am going at the time. I am sure this is a reaction akin to that of tennis players viewing tapes of their successful matches or shots when they felt they were "in the zone" - so many players have said that the ball seems to be coming at them in "slow motion" and that they are not aware of how rapidly they are responding or moving.

And perhaps also akin to a tennis match or a golf tournament, I never expect to have an absolutely technically perfect solo-recital performance over a 90-minute program encompassing maybe 300 pages of memorized music from a wide variety of composers. I have no doubt that many of my colleagues do achieve this, and repeatedly - but my hands are some of the smallest in the concert world (they barely reach an octave, even though some of my best reviews have been for Rachmaninov, Brahms, and Chopin) and when under the adrenalin rush of live performance, they can sometimes betray me a bit and hit two notes at once or misjudge a leap - just occasional things like that.

Pianists also have the added technical challenge of not being able to bring their accustomed instrument with them to each venue, so it would be like golfers having to use completely foreign clubs at each competition - or tennis players never having any choice in their racket or competing ice skaters having to wear used skates that were handed to them at the competition day itself. There is a level of technical comfort that is just simply not possible sometimes in these situations, because certain pianos have an action that is unexpectedly heavy or light, or one that works great for Debussy but not Brahms, or have a key that doesn't repeat, or any number of other challenges. Personally I quite enjoy these added challenges (and often joys) that come with discovering new instruments (with their own potential tone colors) at each venue, but that doesn't diminish their existence.

My reason for mentioning all of these factors is simply to share that in assessing a live performance (my own or others') , technical perfection does not rank as the No1 consideration in my overall feelings about that concert, and some non-musicians who greet me after concerts with "Wow that was amazing- I didn't hear a single wrong note the entire concert!" are often surprised when I assure them that yes, there were a few wrong notes, but hitting all "right" ones is not the ultimate goal. They then sometimes ask me, "well then, what is?" . Keep in mind, I am talking about a few tiny glitches or clinkers here and there - obviously if someone has a "bad night" for whatever reason and the piece becomes a complete and total mess technically, that is a different story akin to an unexpected sporting disaster.

But for example, my own personal goal over these three concerts this week was to recover a level of "abandonment", fun, and "emotive freedom" in live performance that I recently concluded I had partially lost, at least in comparison with the first performances of my career as a child, probably due to the increased focus on technical perfection as a professional. Again, I am sure this is totally normal for most lifelong performers and there are as many causes for this phenomenon as there are people in the performing world, each with their own history and experiences. But the dilema became clear to me only a month or so ago, while watching the ice skating championships during the Winter Olympics and listening to the commentary of the ex-Olympians who were comparing the skaters, their practice routines, and their goals. The winners in this instance were those who practiced the hardest in order to be as physically, mentally and technically ready as possible so that they could "let go" in performance and inspire the world with the beauty, freedom and expression of their interpretive artistry and their heartfelt (as opposed to intellectualized) "presence" during their skating. They still had occasional tiny glitches, but it didn't matter - at their peak performances it was as if there was no separation between the skaters, the music they were skating to, nor the feelings they (and that music) were expressing through their physical movements - they seemed to become the music, and their movements on skates became the physical expression of their hearts and souls. Watching them, I realized that this, surely, should be my goal as a concert performer as well. I know that seems obvious, but sometimes we need to be woken up and reminded of such things!

So - with that as my focus during the intense rehearsal sessions leading up to these recitals, was I fortunate enough to meet my personal goal in these particular concerts? I am happy to report the answer is Yes! Does that guarantee I will be able to do so the next concert, and the next? Possibly not.....
But this particular concert program added to my enjoyment as well. Many people do not realize the great amount of planning, rehearsing, deciding, re-rehearsing, changing, and re-deciding that goes into the final creation and deliberation of the concert program that is ultimately handed to the audience members as they enter a venue. In this particular case I decided on the theme of a "round the world" tour, with the composers as the tour guides. This program approach and the "travel commentary" I provided before each piece, proved extremely popular with all three audiences. More on that topic, and my feelings about classical piano music as the World Music of its time, in another blog post.
For now, it's time to do as any good but exhausted post-Olympic athlete eventually does, and get some sleep!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To Be or Not to Be......Hamlet as Opera

Have any of you had a chance to attend the Met Opera's live HD broadcasts at your neighborhood cinema screens? This past Saturday in NYC they performed an operatic version of Hamlet composed by the relatively unknown Ambroise Thomas, beamed live in HD to millions of people around the globe, who were watching (and presumably cheering, as our audience was) in theaters that had to be open during the middle of the night in some timezones. Regardless of the broadcast time, reports show theaters in all locations are absolutely full at each of these live Met Opera HD broadcasts and having to open adjacent theaters in cinema complexes to accommodate the overflow crowds.

And now I can see why! Hamlet, in this case, was an all-around amazing, energizing and unexpectedly fulfilling experience both in terms of the shared media performance in the packed cinema, and in the quality of the opera's music and the singers performing it. I had not had a chance to hear/see either of the two principals in a live performance previous to this, and was astounded at the acting ability (Simon Keenlyside, playing Hamlet, in particular) on top of the glorious vocal techniques. Gone are the days when typically-very -large opera stars stood still in place and sang their arias, then moved stiffly across the stage to their next blocking position to await another vocal cue. In virtually all of the operas I have seen lately, the singers are (almost all) quite trim, stylish and youthful - if you met them on the street you would have no idea what they do for a living - and their staging requires them to do varying feats of near-acrobatics in aerobic levels of movement while portraying the stories and action with the other characters.

Marlis Petersen, playing Ophelie, was beautiful to watch with a lyrical tone to match, singing demanding technical passages with absolute tonal assurance and heart-wrenching emotion in the "mad scene". The back-stage drama involved with her doing this role almost equaled the onstage story - due to illness of the scheduled soprano she was contacted in Europe, agreed to take the part on little more than 48 hours notice, and received coaching from the opera conductor via Skype until she could finish her current performances and fly to the Met in time for opening night! So we have yet another reason to rejoice over the benefits of modern media in its combination with classical music, beyond even the fact that non-wealthy music listeners everywhere can now, thanks to media advances, watch live performances of the Metropolitan Opera in NY with much better seats than the patrons in the opera hall!

The camera crews - placed not only on stage but also in the orchestra pit and backstage - are obviously extremely talented, experienced and well prepared, aimed on specific solo instruments in the orchestra interludes at exactly the moments they begin their particular solos, and catching tiny changes in facial expression or eye contact among the "characters" on stage. There were delightfully enlightening and honest interviews with the stars as they came off stage at intermission - for example, it was quite inspiring to hear Simon Keenlyside admit that he "doesn't read music very well at all" and learns his music/notes pretty much by ear, as he acts out the part - simply singing his feelings rather than expressing them in speech. The fact is, he is a more powerful and intense actor than most that are seen in movies or television - he just happens to have an incredibly expressive singing voice to go with it. It would seem to me that this makes him an ideal opera singer for the "masses" of folks who might never have ventured into exploring that dramatic form of music.

I hear that there is an encore broadcast of this performance being shown again the cinemas, perhaps this coming weekend or next. My recommendation would be to find out where, and "just GO!"

Friday, March 12, 2010

between heaven and earth: Mahler's Resurrection Symphony in San Francisco this evening

This blog is called "Pomoja" precisely because it was intended to discuss some of the ways that music can "unify" people, causes, cultures, or disparate groups in a shared goal or experience. For those of you who have never had the exhilarating and unifying experience of being present amongst a huge audience during a live performance of the Mahler Second ("Resurrection") Symphony, my enthusiastic recommendation would be "just GO!"

And if you ever have the opportunity of hearing Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas conduct this special Mahler work with the San Francisco Symphony (joined by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and guest soloists) then my enthusiasm would turn to urgent pleading: "you HAVE to go!".
Which is exactly what I was fortunate enough to do, just this evening.

The only unfortunate part, in my personal opinion (but also that of the audience members around me whom I talked to), was that the performance took place in Davies Symphony Hall, the home of the San Francisco Symphony for many years now, which has acoustic and ambiance issues that diminished the experience a bit for those of us who happened to be seated in sections that are beneath balcony "overhangs".
When one has been fortunate to hear a beloved work (such as this Mahler Symphony is for me)in many different halls worldwide, it is impossible not to "compare" the overall affect of the experience and ambiance in each location. This evening I tried very hard not to compare some very memorable experiences in much larger halls - with stages that could accommodate choruses 2-3 times the size of tonight's excellent (but less powerful) ensemble, where the sound of the timpani and brass threatened to blow the roof off the building, and the close of the work found the entire chorus, orchestra and audience in visible tears because the ambiance and structure of the hall assisted in creating that unified moving experience.

Because I feel strongly that the San Francisco Symphony's conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (known affectionately as MTT in these parts) is the greatest living conductor/interpreter of Mahler, I went to Davies Hall tonight hopefully expecting an equally memorable and spiritually uplifting experience. The fact that this did not quite happen in spite of MTT's (and the orchestra's) brilliance of execution and affinity for the composer, was most probably due, I suspect, to a couple of things: 1) this Friday evening concert began at 6:30 so that city workers could attend before going home - great idea but I wonder if the orchestra was still a bit emotionally exhausted from the regular 8pm performance of the work the night before, and not quite "warmed up" to this slightly unusual start time? 2) as mentioned earlier, our being seated under the overhang of a balcony, which dampened a lot of the power and "immediacy" of the orchestra's live sound, making their presence on the stage feel more emotively distant and less personally involved (as my seat neighbors also remarked)...and 3)again in comparing experiences (even subconsciously), I could not help but be amazed at the amount of noise and distracting movement going on throughout the audience in general - constant coughing (but some folks seemed to save it up for the most important silences in particular), rustling of programs or throat candy wrappers, shifting in squeaky seats, contrast, as I mentioned, I have heard this piece performed live in halls 2-3 times the size, where one could have literally "heard a pin drop" throughout the entire symphony. Obviously I am not sure if this was due to the hall acoustics actually being excellent in the wrong direction, or to the current cough bugs inhabiting San Francisco, or if Friday evening audiences are restless in particular, or all of the above....
So- having digressed a bit to describe my own slight personal disappointments vs expectations, am I still urging and begging you to go? Absolutely! And if you happen to be in San Francisco area this weekend, March 13 or 14, DO go to Davies Symphony Hall and try anything you can to beg, buy or steal a ticket for the two remaining performances of this symphony (just don't get seats beneath the overhangs!)

Why? Partly the piece.....and partly the conductor.
In my opinion and that of many of my musician colleagues, MTT is rightfully referred to as "Gustav Mahler incarnate". When MTT walks out on stage to conduct Mahler, one almost feels that discussions of his "interpretations" seem perhaps an irrelevant or even inaccurate assumption, because the phrasing, orchestral shading, rhythmic nuance, dynamic contrasts - and above all, the emotion in the perfectly-timed "silent pauses" - all seem to flow naturally from within, as if Mahler were there, composing and conducting it, all at the same time.
And that was certainly true this evening as well. As previously mentioned, I have been fortunate to hear this work in live performances with many recognized Mahler conductors, and of course in countless recorded versions. But I have never, before tonight, been made so effortlessly aware of tiny distinct details that revealed emotive changes and personality characteristics within each phrase, each color, each instrumental section and each thematic change of direction.

The performance of the first movement in particular gave entirely new meaning to the concept of "story telling" in music. The opening phrase was perfectly crafted both technically and emotionally, raising a question and suspense before an entire cast and characters seemed to appear in bold colors or sinister shadows. The care and tenderness that MTT lavished on the lyrical phrases was so heartbreakingly beautiful as to be almost painful, and this seemed to be partly due to the uncanny amount of spaciousness with which he allows the lyrical lines to unfold, while giving much meaning and energy to each pause. Tension built in the contrast between dry cellos and basses in their descending lines and a sweeter, almost "heavenly' instrumentation given to ascending lines - meanwhile this gentle pulse, like a heartbeat, beneath it all. "Beauty" battled with "ugliness" at moments when Mahler intentionally uses piercing woodwind or brass instruments to cut into the proceedings, and even more impressive than the final three notes of the movement were the perfectly judged spaces between them. It brought to mind something a friend of mine often says - if you go to an old cemetery and look at the tombstones, they usually have two dates carved on them - the date of the persons' birth and their passing - and those dates are usually separated by a dash (-) my friend points out that what matters in life is what we do in the "dash". It is so often the same with music - it is most profound, moving and unifying by what we do in the silence between the notes. Both Mahler and Michael Tilson Thomas would seem to be unparalleled in that aspect.

Mahler actually stipulated for an extended period of that silence (or break) to occur after the first movement, so that listeners could "clear their minds" before continuing with the next four movements that complete this massive work. The following movements offer a marvelous juxtaposition of many different musical genres, as if glimpses into different periods of a character's life....the Viennese elegance of waltz and minuet, superbly played by the orchestra this evening, and then immediately a Kletzmer-like episode that was brilliantly shaped by MTT and played with just the right amount amount of "attitude" even at tempi that were a bit faster than this writer has normally heard in that section.

Mahler Second Symphony is often called the "Resurrection" Symphony due primarily to the words that Gustav Mahler chose as the sung text for the choir and vocal soloists that join the orchestral forces in the final movements, and I have been told that this piece also has the interesting distinction of being mentioned the most times (of any classical music work), by people describing a permanent or life-changing "spiritual experience" that occurred unexpectedly when attending a live concert. If these "conversions" are true, I would suspect they most often happen in the shining moments of the final movement or the magical entrance of the Mezzo soprano solo in "Urlicht".
Soloist Katarina Karneus performed that role with great dramatic passion, conviction and warmth of tone, though from our seat location I wished for a more legato line and effortless sense of soaring, particularly in the highest notes of the mezzo part. Soprano Laura Claycomb seemed on this evening (again perhaps due to acoustics in my region of the hall) a bit weak, lacking in radiance or color and at times drowned out by the musical goings on. The Symphony Chorus, as mentioned earlier, was generally excellent despite a couple of slightly ragged entrances and being restricted in numbers (one assumes) by the space availability above the stage. The orchestra, even if they might not have been quite as zealously energetic as in other Mahler symphony performances under MTT that I have attended in Davies Hall, were still phenomenally good, particularly the piccolo and percussionists, but it seems unfair not to then mention the strings and the french horns and the woodwinds and the brass in general....and on and on. (If you want to see each member of the orchestral family in full action, and hear its unique colors and capabilities, go watch a live Mahler symphony performance!)

The real star of the evening was Gustav Mahler, an incredible composer who was, first and foremost, a human being who endeavored to portray every possible human emotion in his music so that generations to come would have the opportunity, in live performances, to experience through his music a unity amongst their humanity. But with Mahler's music as perhaps with no other composer, the humanity, insight and genius of the conductor leading the performance becomes the all-important ingredient that determines the quality of that live experience for the orchestral players and for the participating audience members. Any orchestra and every audience is fortunate indeed if their Mahler has MTT at the helm.

So if you can't make it to Davies Hall in San Francisco for the remaining two performances of Mahler 2nd Symphony this weekend, try to catch another concert date, especially for any of the Mahler symphonies with MTT conducting.
{A little tip: in symphonic programs where no choir is involved, the hall sells the seats behind the orchestra, up at the back of the stage. Personally, as a musician and performer when attending a concert, that is my absolute favorite place to be, where one can watch the orchestra members each contributing their part of the whole, watch the conductor living the piece in union (hopefully!) with the orchestra, and watch the audience beyond them respond to the thoughts, feelings, values and experiences being so timelessly expressed. The sound of the instruments is also the most "immediate" and "live" from this unique vantage point although of course the blend of instruments may not sound the same as from out in the balconies and rows}.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Planning Meeting This Sunday (Feb 28th) in Oakland, California!

Meeting *OPEN TO ALL* to plan Oakland's participation in UN-sponsored International Day of Peace.

St Paschal Baylon church
3700 Dorisa Ave, Oakland, CA 94605
(Golf Links Road exit off hwy 580)
[map & directions here]

For more details, see Listen for Life "Peace Day 2010" page.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Campaign volunteers and musicians sought for life-changing opportunity

There is an exciting new campaign about to be launched worldwide. Starting with our elementary school children, it can definitely make a permanent difference in the lives (and communities!) of the next generation. This program is called the MusicMessage Campaign and it needs the help of every single one of you to make it effective!

Here's the scoop:
During our various LfL outreach projects both nationally and internationally, we have become convinced that the music and lyrics our young people listen to, profoundly affect their cultural attitudes about themselves and others, and consequently impact their behavior and therefore the communities where they grow up. Three powerful reminders of this fact, recently, have been:

1) in media interviews with the youth being tried in the Richmond, CA gang rape, newspaper articles quoted them as saying that their music taught them cultural attitudes that females had no value and were not "human", and that rape was a positive action, etc...
2) at the Oakland International Film Festival a few months back, there was a film called "Through the Walls" - this groundbreaking documentary video was created inside San Quentin Prison by the inmates themselves, and in their own "language" and style of rap music, several inmates acknowledge that the lyrics and music that their gang cultures had adopted, had absolutely been the single largest influence upon the negative thinking and violent actions that landed them in prison.

Our Listen for Life music listeners, volunteers, musicians and educators all concluded that if music can be used as a powerful weapon for inciting violence and negativity, then it has equal, if not greater, power for good – but that power and potential will remain largely untapped (at the conscious level) until we demonstrate the possibilities, and inspire the next generation to deliberately view (and use) music as a positive unifying force.

So, we're inaugurating a new LFL program we've called "Musicmessages" that could help turn this situation around in a positive, concrete, cross-cultural and creative way, starting with the youth - our next generation - who are most vulnerable and easily influenced by the music listening choices of their older siblings and relatives surrounding them.
To make this happen, we need volunteer organizers, admin assistants, teacher training assistants, educators, youth, parents, presenters, and positive, inspiring musicians of all ages, cultures, languages and every single location, large or small, on the planet!
We also need virtual volunteers to help us get the word out via social networks and start a grassroots fundraising campaign so that we can bring the MusicMessage program to more schools.
If each music listener around the world donated $1 (or the equivalent) on the Listen for Life website for the MusicMessage project, we could influence the hearts, minds, and music listening choices of the entire next generation within a much shorter time frame - and that would prevent a LOT of potential violence in our communities!

Since LfL ( is based in Oakland California, which has real challenges with gangs and youth violence, we are starting the campaign there - so if you happen to live in the Bay Area and can help in any way, we need to hear from you NOW because we are bringing the program to the Oakland schools in the most at-risk neighborhoods in a few weeks' time! Contact us -

Do you like more detail?
Then read on.......
and if not, please still read the very bottom bits in BOLD!

There are five segments to the MusicMessage campaign, starting with a simple 45-minute assembly (combining multimedia and live performance)in each participating school, given at no cost to the school through Listen for Life volunteer musicians, presenters and organizers. Sponsored small-group follow-up sessions in the school then help each individual child to create his/her own positive music message (ie a melody or drum beat or lyric) and those messages of peace will be sent via mobile phone technology to individual students in another city or country. This will help each child to know that they do not have to have popular but negative musicians/groups to "speak for them' as they will have discovered the power of their own voice - and their own choice, in what music will influence their lives and their communities in the future.

The goal is to eventually help every child (and adult!) throughout the world to discover his/her own voice and positive message for others. Listen for Life is starting with the elementary schools in Oakland California, where our headquarters are, but we have an exciting, simple and successful template for this program that can be adopted by any group of volunteers, teachers, parents, and musicians in any country or culture.

The program can be carried out during class times or through after-school programs and community centers.
The MusicMessage project is designed to have five principal components:
a) through LFL-led school-wide assemblies that combine media examples (our interactive, cross-cultural Travels with Music series, and age-appropriate segments from a few films) and live interaction with visiting master-musicians of all genres, we raise the students’ awareness of music’s effect on their thoughts/behavior, and its potential for both negative and positive consequences in the community
b) as a LFL “mini-residency”, in follow-up small-group sessions (either during school time or in after-school programs, depending on the wishes of each particular school) we facilitate/encourage EACH of the students to create their own music (with or without lyrics) that they feel will deliver a positive message of peace to their peers; and then
c) we help the students to send their music messages to other students in another school/state/country via mobile phone technology
d) we combine all of the schools' musicmessages into an actual composed piece, and teach the kids to perform this piece that they helped compose, to be shared in their community as a city-wide celebration of UN Peace Day (September 21st each year worldwide).
e) At least one copy of the cross-cultural interactive education resource Travels with Music will be licensed to each school as part of this program, for subsequent use by all teachers (as desired), using multicultural music to integrate their lessons in social studies, geography, history, ESL, literacy, computer skills, and (where provided in the curriculum) music and arts.

Based on previous research, experience and successes, we are convinced that youth can be helped to discover that the music and lyrics they hear repeatedly will have a profound impact on their thoughts, their outlook, and their cultural assumptions. And they can be inspired to believe in the power of their own voice, to deliver messages (through music) that can uplift others and change the world.

Personally I cannot think of any one single campaign that could be more important in our present world, or for future generations......which is why my every waking moment has been rather consumed with developing and launching this newest project, and I haven't exactly kept up my promise to post on this blog on a more regular basis! (But that shouldn't stop all of you from commenting and adding to it, please!)

Also please remember - we need to encourage all of our youth to listen.....for LIFE!
And to do that we need YOU - not just your friends and the musicians you recommend and the music listeners in your social networks and the wonderful donors who could hopefully contribute $1 each to the campaign - yes, we need all of them too, but we ALSO need YOU!

Spread the (music)message..... THANKS!