Safety First

A holiday is a great time to stop and notice things about the world around you that you don’t have time for normally. Today I explored the perimeter of my new abode for the first time and discovered that like many houses in the neighbourhood, mine has a built-in escape ladder, a tremendously useful thing when you life on the third storey.

It’s also a good chance to get an instrument that’s not quite in peak performance condition in for a quick service. In the process of inspecting my bassoon to make a wish list of potential repairs, I discovered something I never expected to see again – a series of cracks in the finish of the wing joint, running parallel to the grain of the wood. The first time I saw this was a little under two years ago with my previous instrument. It indicates that water is seeping into the wood and causing it to swell, eventually leading to a sharp deterioration in performance. The tubes that are meant to protect that very thing from happening turned out to be improperly sealed. It’s a rare condition. I’m a little stunned to have encountered it twice in as many years.

I don’t mean to ramble on. My point is, if you see something weird with your bassoon, like a ton of cracks that are hard to explain, get the darn thing in to a qualified repair person as soon as you can. The problem will only get worse if you leave it.

Format

I’ve played a lot of differently formatted concerts over the last few weeks. Concert formats matter. A good concert format has the potential to radically change an audience member’s perception of the complete concert experience. That subjective perception of concert experience quality in turn influences the audience member’s willingness to buy tickets in the future. (For concrete examples of how concert format can be altered to significantly change the traditional concert experience, see this recent study by the New World Symphony in Miami: http://www.nws.edu/pdfs/FinalAssessmentReport.pdf)

The overture/concerto/symphony concert format has become the traditional “three course meal” of the orchestral world. A short and often energetic piece arouses audience interest and demonstrates the ensemble’s virtuosity. A lengthier piece follows in which a guest soloist’s command of their voice or instrument is thoroughly showcased. After intermission comes a substantial work which is often the intellectual centrepiece of the program – though as with all of theses rules of format, this need not be the case. Overture/concerto/symphony is a total programming cliche in the orchestral world, so it’s strange we only had one such performance this month.

Our first show this month really went off the beaten track of concert formatting by involving a yoga instructor who led the crowd in a series of movements and guided meditations with the intent of involving our audience more deeply in the listening experience. The program ran a little over an hour with no intermission and took place at the Conrad Centre (the downtown venue where the symphony’s offices are located), in a smallish black-box theatre. The musical selections involved in this show were mostly individual movements of larger works, although we did also play the entire Stravinsky Octet and Peter Hatch’s oboe concert, titled Undr. This concert was part of our Intersections series, which is our usual avenue for turning concert format on its head.

We then moved on to our Paris Festival – two totally different Signature series programs in one weekend at Centre in the Square. Each program used a theme to give the music we were presenting context within the intellectual and artistic currents of turn-of-the-century Paris. Sunday’s program was the one “traditional” concert of the month, devoted Parisian salon culture. The Friday/Saturday show dealt with the traditional, conservatoire-trained composers of the period in the first half before exploring the anarchic world of the cabaret beginning at intermission. This exploration was not only musical – one of our administrators spent intermission “sleeping” on stage in a monkey costume, our two conductors battled each other with an inflatable hammer and on one of the evenings our guest soloist came out to join us for our encore in a pig suit.

The next week found us in the same venue but this time backing Latin Grammy winners Tiempo Libre, with a couple orchestral showpieces thrown in for good measure. The week after that had us performing montages from Pixar films synched to video. It was a huge technical challenge to rehearse and pull this all off in concert, as we had to be right in step not just with the visual cues, but also a couple of audio tracks (sound effects and the odd guitar riff).

What interests me about having so many different concert experiences in a compressed period of time is being able to really compare the apparent audience response and energy level with each of them. I can’t speculate on what reached the audience best (there’s inevitably a separation, both psychological and physical, between what happens on stage and how sound and light reach the folks in the seats) but there’s something comforting about the fact that each of these wildly different concert experiences got an enthusiastic response. There’s something fundamental about experiencing live music that speaks to the people’s humanity. The thirst for live music will be what keeps orchestras alive as we continue the eternal struggle to stay financially sound and artistically vibrant.

Listening In

We’re just about at the halfway point of the 13/14 KWS season. There’s a lot of awesome stuff piled into the second half – I’m particularly looking forward to tackling Petrushka, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Stravinsky Octet for the first time. We’ll be looking ahead to the future quite a bit in the coming weeks, officially announcing the 14/15 season in February and holding auditions to select our next assistant conductor in a couple of months. Our administration, meanwhile, continues to push the boundaries of quantum physics by existing in several different times at once, working hard to keep all of the above on track while hammering out details for the 15/16 season and beyond.

Lately I’ve been focussed on preparing for an audition with the Toronto Symphony, which took place on Wednesday. Auditions are peculiar creatures that govern a large part of your life for weeks or months at a stretch and then suddenly end with an hour’s worth of playing (and only that much if you’re a finalist for the job). You know the odds are steep going in, but failing to win still stings. It sounds trite and ridiculous to cheerfully intone that failing to win auditions is still a great learning experience, but seriously, it is. Preparing an audition is a lengthy process that challenges your discipline, organizational ability and imagination. In the hours after an audition ends, there’s a moment of clarity where you know exactly what worked and what didn’t, and you have a great sense of how to approach things differently next time. It’s neat.

Since the audition fell during rehearsals for a Signature series concert in KW, I was off that program and took advantage of the opportunity to hear the orchestra as an audience member on Friday. I’m fascinated by acoustics, a subject I could probably ramble on about for several posts, and this fascination has practical implications for me because the sound we hear playing on stage is quite far removed from what the audience hears in the hall. It’s hard to get an accurate picture of how you sound in the hall when someone else is playing in your place, of course, but you notice how certain registers (across all instruments) tend to blend into the texture while others project quite easily. Hopefully I can apply what I’ve learned to some kind of useful end in the coming weeks.

Silence

After seven weeks of orchestral playing (plus ongoing rehearsals and performances with the Blythwood Winds) things are suddenly much quieter, in a figurative and literal sense. I’m not needed for this weekend’s Messiah with the Grand Philharmonic Choir. My ears are asking me for a rest and I’m obliging them with a week off of music listening. This comes hard to me after so many years of being desperately afraid that there was too much repertoire out there that I did not know well enough. Fear sometimes helps in a pinch, but in general it’s a pretty lame motivator.

Listening has given way to old pursuits that I once loved and gave up to the bassoon in a fear-driven effort to be better. I am reading again, entranced by tales of the evolution of the conducting profession, spy thrillers and horticultural treatises. With the latter I hope to nurse my begonia back to its former glory – it looks sad and defeated right now and the only advice my past experience has taught me is to instruct the plant to do more long tones. My gardening adventures are probably going to end up with me like Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz dragging a peace lilly from gig to gig, rambling on to colleagues about the meditative benefits of plant ownership. But that’s beside the point. My point is that books are wonderful. Having intellectual pursuits outside of music again is wonderful.

Winter

November’s half over. Scary. It’s been a wonderfully eclectic few weeks since I posted last. I used to be afraid that a career in music performance would get overly repetitive and similar, yet since September I have:

  • Played music from the original Conan the Barbarian soundtrack, arranged for wind quintet, in a bar
  • Played our national anthem with the music upside-down and backwards during a photo shoot
  • Played contrabassoon in a concerto for power trio and orchestra composed around themes by Rush
  • Performed in concert with a remote-controlled, helium-filled mechanical shark

Next up are two weeks of orchestral works I’ve long wanted to play, each combined with a new and unfamiliar treat to sink my bassoony teeth into. More on that later. I need to get to bed.

Has it started yet?

I was bracing for the inevitable tsunami of activities and responsibilities to suddenly hit me once the KWS season started on the 15th, but my first week on the job was for the most part remarkably similar to the month of unemployment that preceded it. The orchestra reconvened after its summer hiatus for two days to rehearse and perform a season preview show, but since then there’s been nothing else and there won’t be until later this week. I feel like I’m on day 5 of an extremely long weekend. This feels too easy… it must be a trap!

Honestly, I’m glad for it. There’s a mountain of music to learn in my future and it’s good to have time to catch up. Kitchener is lovely – after a year in Toronto the atmosphere here feels remarkably laid back. I can channel my inner hobo by wandering along the tracks a couple blocks down from my place and I’ve met some awesome cats in the neighbourhood. My colleagues in the orchestra have gotten me hooked on squash (not the vegetable), which it looks like might be a weekly feature in my life. Good times all around.

Next up in the schedule is our fall gala and our first subscription concerts of the season this weekend, featuring Natalie MacMaster. The scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 will be on the program, one of those all too rare pieces that’s actually as fun to play as it is challenging. Maybe the reason I think this is that I’ve always had a fetish-esque love of extended articulated 16th note passages. Other composers gave the bassoons equally extensive opportunities to go nuts with the double tongue, but Mendelssohn had the decency to score it lightly enough that we can sort of be heard amidst the tumult. His metronome marking is also pretty civilized. It’ll be a good warm-up to get ready for Beethoven 4 next week!

Packing? Ha!

I’m moving soon, so in typical fashion I’m spending my last two weeks in my current space worrying about things I can’t change and doing absolutely nothing about the things I desperately need to do, like buy boxes. Actually, progress on the move is rapidly moving backwards, as I keep picking up free furniture. Meanwhile, in Kitchener, I was thrilled about the fact that I was going to be a quick walk away from work every day in my new apartment, and would even have my choice of three different routes to get there. One of those routes as been fenced off by the city, one of them is undergoing major reconstruction for the next couple of years and will close periodically, and the third is a bridge that the city just discovered is so structurally untrustworthy that it could collapse at any time (as far as bridge engineering fails go, this one is pretty impressive: besides the decay you’d expect, city engineers have determined that not only was it planned according to now-inadequate safety standards, but the construction crews who built it didn’t follow the plans they were given). Until the city has a plan in place to fix it (not to mention funding to do so) it’s safe to say that route is out.

I’m trying to get reed blanks made in great quantity before I go. A friend turned me onto the habit of watching TV while making blanks, and I have to say this makes the hours of work that go into cranking out these things by the dozen pass much faster. I’m catching up on The Sopranos while I wait for more episodes of Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy. Maybe there’s something about organized crime dramas that just lends itself to better reed making.

I am not always helpful

I love people, and generally speaking I want people to do well in life, and I want them to overcome obstacles in their path. I admire people who do courageous things like move to foreign countries and learn new languages and do profoundly uncomfortable things in order to grow as people. I want to help these people. I want people who are new to Canada to feel comfortable and at home. Today, an opportunity presented itself for me to do that. Here’s what happened.

A young man came into the Starbucks where I work late in the afternoon. His English was broken and he seemed a little overwhelmed trying to decipher the myriad information on our menu boards. I don’t know if he is an immigrant, or a tourist, or a student, but he was clearly a recent arrival. My coworkers got him set up with a tasty drink. A few minutes later, while I was cleaning the cafe, he approached me and asked:

“Excuse me sir, but why is today a holiday? What do you celebrate on this day?”

I saw that he wanted to understand Canadian culture better. My heart sank as I realized that my answer could only worsen any feelings of culture shock the man was experiencing. My explanation went like this:

I think it’s a holiday today just because otherwise there wouldn’t be any holidays in August. Actually, it’s not even a real, legal holiday, although everyone seems to have the day off except me. The banks are closed. I don’t really know why that is. They don’t have to be.

In Ontario, we used to call today’s holiday Simcoe Day. Toronto still does, or so I hear. Other cities near here call it all sorts of things, name it after all sorts of people. Simcoe Day was named after John Graves Simcoe, who was the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. Hundreds of years ago, when Canada was much smaller, it was split into Upper and Lower Canada. On the map, Lower Canada is above Upper Canada and I do not know the reason for this either. So I don’t know why today is a holiday, honestly, all I know is that I’m not getting holiday pay.

“Oh. Thank you.” was all he said. I hope the rest of his time here makes more sense than our conversation did.

Tagged ,

Ignorance = Out of Tune Bliss

I just wrapped up an action-packed and awesome couple of weeks of music making with the Blythwood Winds. Two things that make you a better player really fast: playing with fantastic musicians, and playing Rossini overtures arranged for small ensembles so that you don’t have a whole orchestra to cover up your mistakes. As I was walking out of the Free Times Cafe after playing a program of movie music, one of the servers grinned at me and said “you guys were awesome!” and I briefly thought I had attained my original career goal, which was to become a respectable rock star.

I got home and realized I have nothing on this month, gig-wise. I have a whole month to practice whatever I want. Usually, when this happens, I treat it as an excuse to practice nothing, but frankly I’ve taken enough time off over the last two summers that the concept of “time off” from music sort of loses meaning if it becomes a full-time state of being, so I’m studying scores for next season instead.

I’m starting from the beginning, the first KWS Signature concert of the 13/14 season – Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, the same work I rehearsed my very first day as a professional musician when I joined the Red Deer Symphony in September 2007.  I know the work, but my thought process has evolved significantly since I last looked at it (which is a good thing, as 90% of my thoughts back in 2007 were “oh my god I have no idea what I’m doing, these people are much better than I am and I’m one more wrong note away from being fired”) so I figure it’s time to revisit it.

It has been a strange voyage of rediscovery. I assumed this would be an easy process, going through and marking arrows to indicate where I ought to be pushing the pitch to create a (in theory, at least) perfectly justified harmony. Then I started running into problems. There are rules for every aspect of being an orchestral musician, but what happens when they clash? What happens when the root of the chord you’re supposed to be solidly holding suddenly becomes the third of the next chord so it has to be flat but you’re in octaves with someone else and what if your moving the pitch clashes with the resolution from the second clarinet and now I’ve gone cross-eyed. Sometimes, by delving deeper into something you love, you find out things you didn’t want to really know.

I’m much better prepared than when I started reading the score, but once I get on a kick trying to perfect things, I want to perfect ALL OF THE THINGS and little details end up keeping me awake at night. (That last point is somewhat exaggerated, my overconsumption of caffeine in the afternoons is actually what keeps me awake at night.)

Do it live

It would be kind of boring to play music for a living if every concert happened under ideal, predictable conditions. Bear in mind that I’m kind of a strange person, but I enjoy the spice that a little something unexpected can add to the job. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

The Niagara Symphony was asked to provide some music for the Tall Ships festival last Saturday at Port Dalhousie in St Catharines. The show came a week after our summer fundraising gala, a wonderful garden party in Niagara-on-the-Lake where ten of us performed an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to Midsummer Night’s Dream for wind ensemble. The same arranger did some similar adaptations of some selections from Carmen and Rossini’s overture to Barber of Seville, so those were added to flesh out the program.

The problem was that the Bizet and Rossini parts needed to be ordered from Germany somewhat short notice. Once all the international shipping logistics and customs clearances had taken a chunk out of the remaining time, the parts were received by the NSO the day before the gig. I tried to practice tricky passages from the orchestral parts in hopes that they’d be similar to the arrangement while the NSO’s operations manager drove from city to city around Lake Ontario to hand out parts to players scattered around the region. I got the parts late in the evening and discovered that the Rossini was similar to the original, except it was in a different key. Oh well!

We did three hour-long sets at the performances with breaks to hide in the shade and rehydrate. The first set was designated as an “open rehearsal” but we ended up just going right through and treating it like a performance. Having more than an hour of music we skipped some numbers the first time through. It was a blast – just reading through new (for me, at least) music and playing for a crowd that, except for a few symphony supporters, might not get out to hear us. Only one person in the crowd yelled “PLAY FREE BIRD!” For the next two sets we pulled out some more selections we hadn’t read yet, which kept things fresh and fun. I go crazy playing the exact same set over. And over. And over.

So to sum up, preparation and ideal conditions are nice, but sometimes it’s just plain exciting to jumble everything up and see what happens. We got to talk to some lovely folks who greatly appreciated the performance (one of whom came up to thank our conductor and shake his hand while we were playing) and got to enjoy a beautiful day down at the port. Things just worked out.

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