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!