Thursday, May 28, 2009


There was a time, during my young years, when I'd drive to Portland and back just to hear James DePreist and the Oregon Symphony. Those concerts must have quickened my pulse, for on the way home, I'd hear the distant siren and get pulled over for speeding. This evening, I didn't have to drive far to hear Maestro DePreist. He's in town as a guest conductor for Seattle Symphony. DePreist's presence provides a stark contrast to the usual. The maestro drives onto the stage in his power chair, greets his audience with a benevolent smile, then whirls the chair around to face his colleagues. To the accompaniment of a soft hum from the machine, the chair lifts to the level of music stand and score. The audience remains noticeably quiet; intrigued. He then proceeds to lead the ensemble with specific gestures and minimal fuss, deflecting the attention away from himself onto the players. It's a pleasure to watch a conductor who doesn't look as if he's about to sprout wings and fly away. DePreist's relaxed and inspiring approach induces the musicians, even the most glum, to play with heartfelt joy.

The program opened with Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride. Despite tempo discrepancies and some scrambled playing between the first and second violins during entrances (most likely caused by the two sections positioned at opposite sides on stage which makes for difficult hearing in that hall) the performance was spirited.

After the overture, the audience waited with eager anticipation for the appearance of Joshua Roman, former Principal Cellist of Seattle Symphony, featuring a world premiere of David Stock's Cello Concerto. The work was composed in 2001 to fulfill a commission from the Pittsburgh Symphony and the famed Norwegian cellist, Truls Mørk, but for some reason, the scheduled performance didn't take place.

The opening bars of the first movement evoke a futuristic Sci-Fi character, with an Outer Limit-like quality. Mr. Stock's composition makes full use of a large wind and percussion section. The movement ends with a lonely exchange between cello and timpani. Roman performed the concerto as if he owned the piece. He displays a full-bodied, pure tone in each register of the cello with crystalline intonation and sophisticated musicality. The second and third movements are bridged by an extensive, awe-inspiring cadenza which makes full use of the palette of colors and virtuoso tricks Roman has up his sleeves. The charming third movement jolts the listener to Eastern Europe by incorporating melodies and chants from Jewish liturgy. I had a flashback of Tevye singing the blessings by candlelight to his children in Fiddler on the Roof.

It's no small loss for Seattle Symphony that Joshua Roman chose to depart from the orchestra as Principal Cellist. I'll bet his letter of resignation was a tragic moment for the local organization, but I'm glad he keeps one foot in Seattle with his Town Hall Series while maintaining residence in New York City. The cello section looked and sounded inspired by Roman's performance; his colleagues listened with obvious delight and respect as he performed the Sarabande from the G Major Suite by J.S.Bach as an encore.

Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances Op. 45 concluded the evening with the musicians appearing engaged and responsive. I could sense a joie-de-vive throughout the orchestra which has been, at least of late, missing. Most notable were the alto-sax solo in the first movement, and a ravishing violin solo performed by Elisa Barston. As if viewing a black and white film, tonight's Seattle Symphony concert was a study in contrasts from the routine; even the Banaroya parking garage was full.
in photo: James DePreist

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Questions for Napoleon Bonaparte

This article motivated me to interview Napoleon I Bonaparte. I'll admit, the emperor appeared woozy about being questioned for my blog, but I assured him that I wasn't seeking musical expertise; just answers regarding leadership. After making my pitch that a professional orchestra is like a battlefield, Napoleon agreed to be interviewed. Perhaps his perspective on power might enlighten us during these chaotic times.

MKT: I know, Emperor Bonaparte, that the orchestral world is foreign to you, but I'll bet if you observed a music director's role, you'd sense a certain kinship as emperor. A search is in progress for a new music director; a successor to a local orchestra. The process is being headed by a committee.
N.B : Well, that's silly.
MKT: What do you mean—silly?
N.B: There can be only ONE leader. Committees are ineffective. They're composed of dullards that slow down a process to the point of stagnation; timing is everything. I believe in swift action.
MKT: Early in your career, you were respected, not only for your successes in the battlefield, but for your diplomacy skills—
N.B (laughing): It was a matter of knowing the right people at the right time.
MKT: Then you became a tyrant.
N.B: You mean, strict. There's a difference. I believed some of my best performers were cut out to make great leaders. Perhaps I miscalculated. In war, everything is perception—perception about the enemy, perception about one's own soldiers. I'd suspect the same for music directors and their musicians, correct?
MKT: I'm asking the questions here. Was your marriage to Josephine a happy union?
N.B: Oh my dear, the betrothal to Josephine was a tactical move; an opportunity knocking at the door. You should know better than to ask. I was never at a loss for, how do you say? Drop-dead gorgeous ladies. I spoiled them with fur coats of many colors, diamonds, and other lavish gifts.
MKT: What's your true feeling about religion?
N.B: Religion? A means to an end. I surprised the English by occupying Egypt. In the meantime, I studied the Qur'an, and learned the laws of the land. I became as one with the Muslims, as I did the Jews. Clever?
MKT: Why did you turn from diplomacy to tyranny?
N.B: My armies grew too large and too fractured. I had to rein in the little guys. They were the loudest complainers and whiners. I should have poisoned them all, as I did with the plague-stricken ones after the battles with the Ottomans.
MKT: Do you still believe in micromanagement?
N.B: Indeed. As the Supreme Leader, it was my duty to make all decisions.
MKT: And what about the effectiveness of espionage?
N.B: A necessity. How else can one know what the opposition is plotting? In your world, the internet is perfect for tracking that sort of thing.
MKT: Tell me about the Russians. I thought they were, at first, your friends.
N.B: Yes, initially I thought so, but they got me in the end. Not only did the Russians carry on a scorched earth campaign, but they poisoned me. You thought I died from stomach cancer? It was— Arse-niks! The Slavs should all be made into slaves!
MKT: I can't help but ask this. What was not to love about your home in the Island of Elba? I mean, you were granted the title emperor for life, right?
N.B: I suppose. Elba was a pretty place but ever-so-boring. What was I supposed to do? Just sit around, admire the view, eat bon-bons and sip champagne? I prefer the taste of blood and battle.
MKT: You were defeated at Waterloo, weren't you?
N.B: I refuse to divulge family matters.
MKT: As I mentioned, a local orchestra is on the look-out for a new music director. Everyone seems to have an opinion as to a successor. And yours?
N.B: Open your history book, my dear. You may learn that I abdicated to my son. Nothing like nepotism, as a rule. Any other questions, Madame?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Magical Healing

My late mother, Frances Kransberg, would have turned 87 today. I'll be visiting her grave later this afternoon. Rather than a bouquet of flowers, I'll bring Mom a note, crumple it up, and place it underneath a stone, as is Jewish custom. I can hardly wait to tell her about my year, and especially this past weekend.

For those of you that never met her, my mother was an amateur violinist; she loved music more than anything in the world. As a child, the violin held her fascination. Although she begged and begged her parents for lessons, my grandparents didn't have money for such frivolities. In the fourth grade, at Saltonstall Elementary in Salem, Massachusetts, ten-year-old Frannie picked up an old, broken down violin from the unwanted instrument heap, wiped off the caked rosin, and planted herself in the first violin section of the school orchestra. No lessons; my mom taught herself to read music. Her violin was put on hold after elementary school, but her love for music grew.

Sometime in her mid thirties, my mother struck up the courage to take private violin lessons. An attractive woman with dark hair, olive skin, and a petite figure, she had no trouble snagging the most accomplished teachers—all men from Boston Symphony, even though she was at beginner level. By the time she was pregnant with her fourth and last child (me), my mother played under Harry Ellis Dickson in Brookline Civic Symphony, and had become a respectable musician. She practiced seven hours daily and took three lessons per week. Brookline Civic ignited her spirit, lifting my mom from an existence of mundane domesticity, to a supernal world of magnificent sound. But her teachers admonished her for having begun lessons too late in life for a professional career. Frances Kransberg was the talent that could have been.

So, I was gifted with a quarter size violin on my fourth birthday, and I let you, patient reader, imagine the rest. My mom would say: Either you'll love me for this or hate me one day.
And there have been times, at least recently, that I've considered the classical music business a nasty, insular bubble. To be a professional artist, one has to be acutely sensitive, yet Teflon-coated, just to survive the cut-throat competition. These days, it's not enough to offer stellar performances; audiences demand eye candy as part of the package. Erica Morini had been my mother's role model, not some sex kitten.

Meanwhile, I have a tendency to walk into a room, and absorb the atmospheric vibes. If there's friction, or negative energy, I'm out. During this recalibrating period of the arts scene, some workplaces are growing ever more hostile, while others are undergoing a resurgence of recognition. At the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra concert yesterday, the First Presbyterian Church was packed to capacity with well-wishers, fans and supporters of the organization. It was heartening to see and hear the dedication of those eager to help usher in a new era for the BPO, as the group has been fraught with daunting challenges. In his gracious, farewell speech to the audience, Maestro Fusao Kajima reminded everyone not to remain passive, especially when faced with the task of rebuilding an institution. The orchestra is the Eastside's cultural jewel.
As my mother used to say: When you have a diamond, just take care and polish it.

One of the highlights of my year so far, were the performances of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony with Rainier Symphony and Maestro David Waltman. Not only did I have my favorite concertmaster at the helm and Anna in the audience, but I had the honor of Andrew Sumitani, my accomplished student, sitting by my side and playing like an angel.
Somehow, I couldn't feel luckier, and yes, healed.
left to right: Andrew Sumitani, me, Ilkka

Monday, May 4, 2009


Jewish tradition tells us that Elijah the Prophet travels incognito from Heaven to Earth revealing secrets of the cosmos to those who are willing to listen and learn. As long as he is explicitly invited by these words: This is the chair of Elijah the prophet, he'll make an appearance at Seders, circumcisions, and other festive gatherings. Elijah is teased for acting like a schnorrer, showing up for a free meal and glass of wine. But Elijah's central role in Judaism is that of a messenger, helping to transform the physical world into the Divine. There are stories from saintly rabbis who studied Elijah; they tell of righteous people who were plucked by Elijah from disaster at the last moment, and not-so-righteous given their chance to make amends through Elijah's intervention.

Which leads me to think: A year ago I was ready to throw in the towel as a violinist. In a frenzy, I tossed black concert dresses and pantsuits from my closet, heaped them into a pile in the back of my messy Eurovan, floored the gas pedal to Ballard Goodwill, and dumped them into the donation bin while holding my nose. End of story?

For classical musicians, the month of May concludes many subscription seasons. A few of my colleagues complain they're exhausted while, to tell the truth, I feel as if I just awakened from a nap. This week, it's off to St. James Cathedral to perform Mendelssohn's Elijah with Seattle Pro Musica. The vibrancy and musical leadership of conductor Karen P. Thomas is remarkable; she's a dynamic force that energizes musicians, singers and audiences alike. This is my first time performing Elijah, and my first experience working with Seattle Pro Musica.

The following week, I'll be performing Mahler's Second Symphony "Resurrection" with Rainier Symphony . The "Resurrection" is a colossal work; a long journey from inner torment to peace, and as with Mahler's music, therapy for the wounded soul. Resurrection of the Dead is a fundamental belief in classic Judaism, and Mahler's Jewishness resonates to the core with me.

But is there life after death for professional regional orchestras during a Great Recession? A few hours after the Rainier Symphony performance on Sunday, May 17th, I'll step in as guest concertmaster for Bellevue Philharmonic's final concert of the season. Besides the fact that I can't find anything to wear, I'm secretly hoping that the spirit of Elijah will be there.