Category Archives: Performance

Reimagining opera during the pandemic

In the current issue of The New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross writes about the multiple ways orchestras have found to reimagine their 2020-2021 seasons (“What Does It Mean to ‘Reimagine’ an Orchestra Season?”; online Nov. 30; print issue Dec 7).  Performances have ranged from outdoor chamber concerts, to streamed concerts of live music played by a reduced number of musicians, to the NY Phil Bandwagon, which during warmer weather presented more than eighty concerts in various sites throughout New York’s five boroughs. Ross’s emphasis is on orchestras, although he does mention an intriguing drive-through “Götterdämmerung” which Michigan Opera Theatre presented in Detroit in October.

Orchestras have been able to reimagine some kind of 2020-2021 season, but opera companies have not. The logistics of assembling soloists, chorus, and orchestra in an enclosed space to produce live opera are insurmountable during a pandemic when singing is known to carry an elevated risk of transmitting COVID-19.  Many opera companies have resorted to streaming previous productions. So the launch of Opera San José’s first fully-staged digital opera production in the midst of the pandemic is particularly exciting. Continue reading

At least we still have music

In the midst of the depression and hopelessness that engulf millions of us in America today, I feel compelled to write about something that inspires hope – a program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center called MusiCorps. But allow me a couple of paragraphs to get there.

Cpl. Todd Love

Today the unthinkable has happened and Americans have given the Presidency to a man who has shown disdain for women, minorities, refugees, soldiers, the disabled, the most vulnerable in our society, and even our constitution. Today in America, we awoke to a vastly diminished country in every possible way. We are diminished in any kind of moral standing we may have had in the world, in our collective sense of decency, in our willingness to think rationally and to believe in facts rather than in distortions and outright lies. And as the days and weeks go by, we may also find that we are diminished economically, as the Brits have found following the Brexit vote. Some parts of the world may be laughing at us, but I suspect more are sharing the horror and disbelief felt by millions of Americans.*  But in the words of my friend Ed Kuhn, at least we still have music. And I am not saying that lightly or in any way ironically. Continue reading

Compulsion for music – part II

Throughout her career, Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie has been an intrepid trailblazer.  She is the most well-known percussionist in the world and the first person in musical history to create a career as a full-time percussionist (a field traditionally dominated by men).   At recent count, over 170 percussion works have been written for her, evelyn-glennie1she was the first to perform a percussion concerto at the BBC Proms Concerts, and she led an ensemble of 1000 drummers at the Opening Ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games.  She has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including 3 Grammy Awards, and she was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2007.  But perhaps the most important trailblazing she has done is as a role model for countless numbers of musicians with disabilities because, as you are no doubt aware, Glennie has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12.  (Click on the photo above to hear her in a short percussion montage, and if you are wondering, the first instrument you will see and hear is a waterphone.)   Continue reading

Compulsion for music – part I

I saw the film Florence Foster Jenkins a few days ago and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. I’ve known about Florence since I was a student. She was the stuff of legend, known as the world’s worst singer – with no sense of pitch, no vibrato, frequent register breaks, florence-foster-jenkins-posterglottal stops, and unintelligible diction. Certainly good for a laugh on late nights over a beer when someone had access to an old recording. (Actually, I don’t think her recordings have ever been totally out of print; there have always been reissues of various kinds.)

The film, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, with Simon Helberg as the pianist, is based on the true story of Jenkins, a 1940s New York socialite and generous patron of the arts.  Florence desperately wanted to perform the music that she felt so passionate about. And perform she did – with all her deluded fantasies about her abilities. As I watched the film, I felt tugged in two directions: one part of me wanted to laugh at how terrible she sounds, and yet, her joy in performing, her belief in herself, her charm and her clear love of the music made me admire her and realize just how deep her passion for music was.  Continue reading

Seeing Ives

You are the music while the music lasts.      T.S. Eliot

I once heard a masterclass in which the artist teacher spoke about the necessity of memorizing the choreography of the piece as well as the notes. I confess that, prior to that class, I hadn’t Beethoventhought much about choreography of music – except in relationship to dance. But since then, I have thought about it a great deal.

And recently, in an extraordinary concert by pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw , choreography of the music took on new meaning. It is rare to witness a performance in which you feel as though you are actually “seeing” the music itself – not just hearing it – but experiencing a performance in which the performer actually becomes the music in some indefinable way. Continue reading

Making music together syncs brains

When musicians play together, we always try to be “in sync,” unless, of course, we are playing Steve Reich’s  Piano Phase or Violin Phase.  And then we find how difficult it is, when two musicians are playing the same music, to be purposefully “out of sync” or out of phase.   So are we hardwired to want to play “in sync?”  What is happening in our brains when we are performing together?   First, a necessary “sidebar” to talk about brainwaves.

©iStockphoto.com/ Stefan Schulze

©iStockphoto.com/ Stefan Schulze

100 billion used to be the figure that was always given for the number of brain cells, or neurons, in the human brain. But we seem to have lost about 14 billion. Although you still see the higher figure, more recent research shows that there are actually 86 billion neurons in our brain, which is still an inconceivable number. (You may not want to know that researchers determined this figure by making soup out of brains that had been donated to science. Check out the story here.)

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