Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Variations on a Theme

As more professional orchestras face unprecedented upheaval and financial peril the symphonic musicians intone the same dire threat during bargaining negotiations: talent will leave and move elsewhere if you lower our salary and benefits. But that leads me to ponder: where, exactly, are all those symphony orchestra musicians intending to go? It's not as if the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony or Los Angeles Philharmonic can absorb hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians. This thought haunts me: how many fiddlers does the world really need anyway?

I'm at the age, fortunately, when I can look back upon decades of performance. When I began my professional career as a violinist there were countless opportunities, everything from Hollywood studio film recording sessions to commercial jingles to countless chamber music engagements. In my early twenties, I lived in Los Angeles. During that time and place, to audition and join the philharmonic was perceived by many as a sell-out, like marriage, a life bound by servitude and loss of artistic individuality. One could embark upon a more lucrative career performing as a freelancer for the film studios, in the company of top talents, while enjoying a diversified professional life in music and beyond.

But nowadays, for the musical artist unaffiliated with any juggernaut organization, for the lone journeyer traveling a path of his or her own, one might feel alienated and at times, dislocated. I know that I sometimes do. And that is one reason why it is ever so important for me to pursue what I believe in, as in rendering the Bach/Schumann version of the "Chaconne" with my gifted  colleague, Alyssa Fridenmaker. We must constantly find new ways to challenge ourselves artistically, first and foremost, regardless of popular trends.

There's a perception of arrogance from those within any professional arts organization, particularly orchestras: we're too big and too great to fail. Yet, I suggest, that while many professional orchestras drift, out of fiscal necessity, into recalibration mode, they might reassess the theme of tenure. We all know, by this time, that orchestra musicians can retain their posts long past their prime. I could pick out a number of musicians hardly able to stay on task, for their skill level, perhaps never on the par of today's talent pool, may have lowered or dropped to an embarrassing degree. The first desk player of any orchestra must prove himself time and time again during exposed solo passages, but the section player? And, perhaps, those section members who are most insecure about their own playing are the first to deny tenure to deserving, qualified, younger musicians. Committees have their ways and means; some music directors fail to lead but just follow.

Forgive me, but I think a regular re-audition, similar to a periodic driver's test, might offer a remedy for Orchestritis. Besides, for any musician to be deemed fit for the substitute or extra list, the player must usually pass an annual audition, at least in most places. Why not the same deal for salaried musicians? 

Finally, not every professional musician warrants the title of artist. This is sometimes a misnomer, for quite a few musicians are fortunate if they just manage to play correct notes in the proper place at the proper time; mere machinery, as in hitting the right buttons. What about the expressive performer with strong communicative powers and temperament? Might philanthropic dollars be wisely spent supporting the smaller, more individual enterprises such as solo recitals, salon concerts, and intimate chamber music gatherings? Sustainable energy, perhaps.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Met Envy

Thank goodness for caller ID. A few months ago, the marketing department of Seattle Opera called here repeatedly requesting to speak with my husband. Reason being, at one point in time we had donated thousands of dollars to Seattle Opera. But lo and behold, an unfortunate and untimely incident resulted in this family's disaffection (to put it mildly) with the local arts organization. The telemarketing calls were persistent nevertheless.
"Why do you need to speak with my husband?" I asked finally.
The calls had begun before 8 A.M.  
"Well, Seattle Opera wants to help you purchase the best available seats for 2013 Ring Cycle!"
"Really? It's a year and a half away."
"True," said The Voice. "Tickets are going fast and, certainly, you don't want to be stuck waiting in a long line for only a few remaining seats."
You don't have to worry, I thought
"We can help you—"
 "Thank you very much," I said, and hung up the phone. Days later, Seattle Opera had succeeded in making it to our personal blocked numbers list.

The recent news of Seattle Opera's budget shortfall and cuts to future seasons might hardly be surprising given the punishing economy, particularly for arts organizations. Opera companies nationwide are enduring similar travails. Opera Boston has been declared dead; New York City Opera teeters on the brink; Los Angeles Philharmonic cannibalizes its neighbor, LA Opera; and sadly, applause has died for San Antonio Opera which filed for liquidation bankruptcy last month.

Which might partially help to explain why the winning streak of Metropolitan Opera's General Manager, Peter Gelb, proves so irksome to many. While other opera organizations currently flail on life support, the Metropolitan Opera, according to the Met's 2010-11 tax returns, ended with a $41 million surplus in 2011. Online debates are rife with vicious comments directed at Gelb, with everything from his initial censoring of the spiteful, mealy-mouthed reviews from Opera News, his monopolizing of movie theaters, to his unflagging support of the ailing and absent Maestro James Levine. Meantime, Gelb snapped up Italian conductor, Fabio Luisi, from European engagements. Recently, Luisi was named the Met's Principal Conductor.

The problem with Gelb is not a question of whether or not he has succeeded in regaining momentum for an aging art form, and helped to turn around and revitalize the artistic purpose of the Metropolitan Opera. The prickly issue is, as I see it, that Peter Gelb, a self-proclaimed risk taker, out-performed the rest; other opera companies are left kicking themselves while, yes, Gelb discovered the gelt. The Met's live transmissions to everywhere in the world are his brain child. He got there first.

I find myself unable to leave my seat at the movie theater even during intermission, for I wouldn't want to miss a moment of back stage camera work and up close interviews with cast and crew. For those wagging their fingers and letting loose their tongues about the sad state of arts education,  Met Opera on the big screen provides one of the most enriching experiences to be had, yet inexpensively priced with the best seats in the house for everyone. At the recent Encore presentation of Michael Grandage's production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" which I attended with delight, I couldn't help but overhear a man whisper to his wife: "Question is, should we come here next time or maybe purchase the Met's DVD and watch at home?"

And the local opera company didn't seem to be missed at all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Day in the Life

Last evening, my husband had been sent the link "A Day in the Life" by David Usui, a young filmmaker from New York City. When I heard strains of J.S. Bach's G Minor Solo Sonata for violin, my curiosity was piqued. Sure enough, I recognized Gregory Singer, a violinist from my childhood years at Meadowmount and Juilliard, now a successful conductor, composer, and owner of Gregory Singer Fine Violins in New York City. Actually, to be more specific, Gregory and his famous movie star actress, cellist twin sister Lori Singer were my first introduction to quartet playing, one hot sticky day at Meadowmount School of Music, Ivan Galamian's prestigious camp. The twins, then aged 12, were coaxed into reading string quartets by their father, Jacques Singer, and a second violinist was needed. Being a newcomer to the camp, and eleven years of age, I was put to task. This was back in 1970. I cannot recollect who the violist might have been, though I believe a veteran camper came to the rescue. But I do recall my sudden panic when faced with sight-reading a Haydn Quartet, my absolute refusal to attempt the first violin part and risk exposure, the easy manner that Gregory and his sister tossed off their parts, and the grimaces, gestures, and utterances by Maestro Jacques Singer, who had pulled up a chair in the corner to "coach". I was informed that the Singer twins were from Portland, Oregon, and that Jacques Singer was the Music Director of Oregon Symphony. When I glanced up from my music to search the maestro's face, his expressions vacillated between rapture and suffering.

"A Day in the Life" offers the viewer a brief but personal glimpse into a normal day for Gregory Singer, founder and director of the Manhattan Symphonie. Jacques Singer, who died from cancer in 1980 about a decade after his contentious dismissal as Music Director from Oregon Symphony (in no small part for seeking to demote the concertmaster, Hugh Ewart, to a position among the first violins) must have held a firm grip on his four children, however supportive a parent he may have been. As Gregory demonstrates a snippet of Bach's Adagio, he confides, "I used to see the violin as something separate. It meant practice. It meant perfection. It meant tension, pressure, and unhappiness. And I see the violin now as a small airplane that transports me to different worlds." Gregory Singer has found his own voice.

It is an ever changing world that we live in. Classical musicians everywhere are seeking audiences in ways different from past. We are encouraged to innovate and re-brand. Yet, the chosen religion for many of us are the great works for all times by the masters, for audiences that have attended concerts with the devotion of congregants. A quote from Jacques Singer in a 1962 interview with the Oregonian: "There is no old music or new. There is only good and the bad music that takes the listener out of himself and gives him something beautiful to think back on when he goes about his own work." These days there is a pervasive, realistic fear that our beautiful art form is vanishing. A mission statement from Manhattan Symphonie states:

This orchestra has the most wonderful spirited musicians, and we are going to show the world that the musicians are the heroes---Watch the music work its magic across the world.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Some Enchanted Evening

For some people, Queen Anne's Bayview Manor might be simply a retirement community. Not for me. The Manor has become my university; there I study and rehearse regularly with the 97-year-young pianist, Randolph Hokanson. Our initial session, a few months back, was more of a coffee date. I felt the inclination to discuss Randy's life-affirming memoir, With Head to the Music Bent: A Musician's Story. The coffee cups were set on a small table, and a plate of cookies lovingly prepared. I cannot recall the exact moment when I was overtaken by an urge to gobble up every crumb of musical knowledge that Randy had to impart; I just knew that to ingest an interpretive phrase of Brahms from Randy's nimble fingers would be like standing in the presence of Brahms himself, for Randy had worked closely with Carl Friedberg, a pupil of Clara Schumann and friend of Johannes Brahms. I also had tucked away in my music bag the complete set of J.S. Bach Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard, knowing that Harold Samuel, the distinguished interpreter of Bach's music, had also been one of Randy's dearest friends and an influential mentor. I left the Bach piano part on his music stand, just hoping. We exchanged so many thoughts and ideas that day, from the grief Dame Myra Hess felt at the loss of her playing powers to the ravaging attack of jitters violinist Emanuel Zetlin endured prior to every concert at the University of Washington.

"Now what about you?" Randy asked, with a glint in his kind, blue eyes. "How are people going to remember your beautiful playing? You'll be forgotten unless you continue to concertize." And he thought for a moment.
"We must do something about that."
I paused. I had received a phone call from a Hungarian violinist friend in Los Angeles just a few days prior. I couldn't keep from recounting the conversation to Randy, as it was still fresh on my mind.
"This Hungarian friend of mine—he's older, been around the block—calls me first thing in the morning. 'Kransberg'!" he shouts.
"Yeah?" I reply, drowsily.
"You practicing?"
Randy nodded, as if wondering the same. "Well? What did you say?"
"I didn't know what to say. There was a pause, then I heard these words—"
 "Kransberg, you want to sound like shit?"
Randy burst out laughing before I realized the language inappropriate. "Hungarians are so warm. You know Marjorie, there's a saying: If you have a Hungarian for a friend you don't need an enemy."

And I suppose that little discussion was a catalyst for the twice weekly rehearsals that Randy and I have enjoyed these past few months. It amazes me to find that whenever we shut the door to study, nothing else seems to matter. It's as if, except for the presence of the great masters and their music, the rest of the world has faded away.

Last evening, we performed a program of J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, Johannes Brahms and Maurice Ravel to an enthusiastic, packed multi-generational audience at Bayview Manor's Albertson Hall. I can assure you my friends, it's only the beginning.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras

If I didn't get much sleep last night, it's because I opened The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges by Stanford Emeritus Professor, Robert J. Flanagan, and couldn't put it down. At a time when symphony orchestras and other arts organizations across the globe are  languishing on life support, Flanagan paints a not-too-rosy prognosis for the survival rate of cost disease. "The diagnosis of a symphony's perilous economic life begins with the limited opportunities for ongoing production growth. With the labor required for performances more or less frozen for all time by the composers of the symphonic repertoire, there are few opportunities for orchestras to take advantage of the technical changes that have raised productivity in many other sectors of the economy."

Flanagan's extensive research is a compilation of data from  the largest 50 orchestras in the United States, as provided by the League of American Orchestras and Opera America. The book provides a detailed, yet highly readable examination between orchestras and arts groups in the United States (where there is little direct government support) and their foreign counterparts (where governments typically provide large subsidies).

It's been of interest to me, especially lately, to observe the various methods arts organizations and their leaders employ when coping with financial fragility and peril. In Copenhagen, Denmark, we find Keith Warner, head of Royal Theatre dropping to his knees begging for help to save his chorus. In Louisville, Kentucky, there seems to be confusion between management and players as to what actually constitutes a lock-out or a strike. Louisville Symphony musicians are being forced to repay unemployment benefits they received since June. Dallas Symphony is awash in red ink, and sadly, New York City Opera may be taking its last breath. I discovered another sobering piece on Greg Sandow's blog as he notes the ravages of cost disease and its effect on San Francisco Opera.

I've found myself wondering how the local Seattle music scene is doing currently. We have three major players: Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. One of the salient points made by Flanagan is that "limitations on the time and money of potential patrons may place performing arts organizations in direct competition with one another." I recall, even from the flush 90's, that these organizations competed against one another for every donated dollar. Local arts curators are maintaining a code of "don't tell" in terms of prognosis here, but I've heard that a lag in fund-raising, coupled with expensive buy-outs for over-valued former principals, is crippling at least one of the three; a collective bargaining agreement is in the process of being re-opened.

Flanagan hits another nail on the head with the maintenance and budgetary balance of pricier venues. For example, Seattle's Benaroya Hall (which is city-owned and opened with great fanfare in 1998 to the tune of 120 million dollars) increased expenditure—many times over—for the local orchestra. That these costs might eventually lead to financial distress should hardly come as a surprise.

Flanagan relays a basic fact that "the number of well-trained musicians seeking positions in symphony orchestras worldwide exceeds the number of positions available." Meanwhile, after a thorough investigation of performance costs and revenue, economic cycles likened to the shifts in climate versus weather changes, the comparison between American private philanthropy and European government subsidies, one recognizes the glaring truth that economic challenges faced by U.S. orchestras are not uniquely American.

"The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras" doesn't claim to discover that "silver bullet"—a single solution that eliminates the inherent economic challenges for today's arts organizations, perhaps because there isn't any. This book is recommended reading for anyone interested in this timely topic, but I warn you; it may keep you up at night, tossing and turning.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Mozart Moment with Ana

Inspired by this video of Ana Chumachenko's engaging masterclass at Verbier Festival Academy of Mozart Violin Concertos Nos 3, 4 and 5, I've had Mozart on my mind.  Fortunately, I have a crop of talented students eager to immerse themselves in the concertos. There was a time when I wasn't so lucky. For a sad period my students felt Mozart beneath them. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, beat an egg in a bowl or throw it against the wall. No matter how much I complained and cajoled, I was left with mainly teenagers hungry to pursue only Romantic repertoire, and with attitude, of course. But this has happily changed. I'm looking forward to a Talvi Studio recital in the spring which will feature many of Mozart's compositions.

I'm of the opinion that learning the style of Mozart is best attained in childhood with excellent training. I was fortunate to have had a most wonderful teacher in Sarah Scriven at the Boston Music School. And my mother nourished me with Mozart's music as a steady diet. In fact, she was so eager to have me study the concertos that in 1964 (mind you, I was only five years of age), my mother purchased "A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing" by Leopold Mozart and gave it to me as a Chanukah present. Although Leopold's treatise didn't impress me then (I preferred Dr. Seuss and Beatrix Potter), to this day I consider the book, first published in 1756, a violinist's Bible. In translator Editha Knocker's introduction, she explains: The great, and I think the most important, difference between Leopold Mozart's teaching and the teaching of our own times is his insistence that each lesson be perfected before the next step is taken. He warns the teacher against letting the pupil play before he knows the rules of playing. He stresses the vital importance of correct bowing, and he gives a sound and logical reason for each rule.

We might easily recognize how it came to be that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, admittedly supra-naturally gifted, developed into such a fine violinist by dint of his father's detailed instruction and thorough knowledge of the instrument. Everyone who understands even a little of the art of singing, knows that an even tone is indispensable, Leopold writes in his treatise. After performances of his Concerto in G Major, K.216 in Munich and Augsburg, Mozart wrote his father, anno 1777: I played as though I were the finest fiddler in Europe. It went like oil and everybody praised my beautiful, pure tone.

And purity of tone and stylistic nuance is what violinist Ana Chumachenko, professor at the Hochschule in Musik in Munich and Gold Medalist of the 1963 Carl Flesch International Competition, illumines through her playing and instruction on this Masterclass Media Foundation DVD. Through skillful demonstration, she emphasizes the necessity of economical gestures, quick shifts in character, the translation of technic into a joyful but not aggressive sound, and conscious vibrato as a means to enhance or open the violin's voice as a singer would do. "Play the dynamic of piano so that it fills every corner of the room," she advises one student. Chumachenko possesses an innate sense of musical line, of direction, and shading. "The gestures are too large," she warns young violinist, Ania Filochowska. "It's as if you're trying to move heavy furniture. You must stand quietly and learn what they call—technique. This way you'll develop more and more freedom." Her own outstanding pupils are proof of this credo. Chumachenko's musical progeny include Lisa Batiashvili, Elina Vähälä, Mark Gothoni, Julia Fischer, and Sarah Chang.

After a duration of two hours, the masterclass with Ana Chumachenko at Verbier Festival Academy draws to a close. "How should I phrase in Mozart?" she asks with a gentle smile, as if thinking aloud. "You just have to listen. It's all there in the music. Easy, yeah? Good."