Thursday, August 19, 2010

Così Reflections

I'm back from my whirlwind trip to NYC where I witnessed the opening night of "Così fan tutte: Some Assembly Required," which I'll refer to as #nycosi from here on. It's quite appropriate that #nycosi has been so closely tied in with Twitter because, like Twitter itself, it's difficult to explain how an event like this works to someone who's not there. The uniqueness of Twitter is in how multiple conversational threads can be followed quite naturally, creating a web of widely varied but interrelated ideas and relationships; I don't think it's possible to grasp it without participating. Likewise, #nycosi developed in part out of musical/personal relationships that were formed on Twitter and Twitter also enables a communal running commentary as the talking, rehearsing, and performing is in progress; so there's a multi-layered interconnectedness that energizes the whole experience.

Of course, Twitter is just a networking interface; it can't perform an opera, so there's much more to #nycosi than just a bunch of typed words. In brief, the event is structured around discussing, rehearsing and performing Mozart's comic opera Così fan tutte over four evenings (Aug 17/18/20/22), with a rotating cast of highly professional singers singing the roles and an even more fluidly shifting group of highly skilled instrumentalists becoming the unrehearsed orchestra for each night. At the center of it all is conductor/coach Jennifer Peterson, who somehow managed to assemble all this talent from both her professional connections (coaches get to know a lot of singers) and her Twitter web. Thus, the sense of community is an integral aspect of the #nycosi experience; there's a palpable sense of how much all of these musicians enjoy collaborating in such an open and collegial environment. Although not everyone knows each other, there are probably rarely more than two degrees of separation among the participants. For me, it was also a very satisfying "tweet-up," as I met quite a few people I've only known in the virtual world before now. (Whew, they're not axe-murderers - or, at least, they're all very nice.)

As far as I could tell, most (all?) of the talent was participating on a volunteer basis, which could be seen as good or bad. It's certainly not a model for how to make money in the music world, but it's just as certainly evidence of how much musicians love to make music together, especially when the environment is supportive and empowering for all involved.* At one point, after there had been a good bit of back-and-forth among singers, orchestra members, and conductor about a tempo question, co-host Cori Ellison noted that one doesn't see that kind of open, democratic debate in a typical professional situation - and for good reason, by the way, but #nycosi is a reminder that the professional context isn't the only way to experience great music, even for professionals. There's a paradox in that we're trained to be focused on putting together finely polished performances for paying audiences, and that can be very satisfying, but the act of putting music together less formally and for its own sake can also be very satisfying. One of the things that #nycosi does is allow an audience to see that side of musicians.

Although it had turned out that my admittedly meager cello skills weren't required, I did get to take on the curious role of official twhistorian for the first night, which meant - well, I didn't really know what it meant, but I had a great seat just off to the left of where the singers stood. I was conveniently shielded from most of the audience by an enormous column (everything takes place in the comfy and very red lobby of the Gershwin Hotel) which made it not feel too strange to sit with laptop at the ready, sending out tweets whenever it seemed appropriate.

All the tweets include the #nycosi tag, which means that anyone interested in the event can follow along and add to the #nycosi stream as well, whether seated in the hotel or across the country. (You can read my archived "live-tweets" here or follow the still-ongoing live stream here.) As the evening progressed, there were contributions from a wide variety of Twitterers, including several members of the orchestra and even one of the hosts. Quite a few (no real idea how many) also seemed to be following from afar; it's fascinating to wonder what they were experiencing, since it wasn't the actual music. I think, as much as anything, it was participating in the sense of occasion. At any rate, I ended up churning out about 80-90 tweets that night, many of the "play-by-play" variety, some including live photos. 

The singing really was fabulous - the singers had rehearsed with Jennifer ahead of time and came knowing their parts quite well, although all held scores in hand. It was fun to watch them interacting, moving fluidly in and out of character, listening attentively and appreciatively (with scores still in hand) while others sang, etc. The orchestra mostly held together fine, although there were inevitably times when barlines didn't quite line up, understandable given the lack of rehearsal for them. Still, as much as I love playing piano reductions, you can't beat the thrill of supporting singers with a live, full orchestra (especially with Mozart's sublime orchestrations - listen to that viola line in the video below!) - when you consider how expensive it would normally be to assemble a band as talented as this (or even one much less talented), it was a remarkable luxury to have them there at all, and there were flashes of brilliant playing.

This idea of experiencing music in fragments (due to stopping, restarting, variable quality of execution, etc.) is fascinating. Sure, Mozart may have written this music to flow along continuously, but having the opportunity to stop and reflect can actually be energizing for an audience, especially since rehearing the same passage a few times can often make it all the more engaging. After all, I often find myself rewinding my iPod 15 or 30 seconds in order to hear something again. Musical analysis inevitably puts high value on experiencing music "in whole," but if we're honest, sometimes we just really look forward to "that part," which might even just be a little turn of phrase. I think there are ways in which an evening like this plays off of that less "big-picture" way of listening.

On the other hand, as much as #nycosi is an inviting way to present music, especially due to breaking down some of the formal barriers audiences often encounter, there is certainly an insider-y quality in an event like this. One of the hosts, director Ned Canty, tweeted at one point Wednesday night:
Singers doing a splendid job of telling this story with no props costumes or lights and a minimum of movement. #nycosi #losingjobsecurity
Now Canty has directed the opera six times and knows it intimately, so it stands to reason that he could easily follow the drama without all those extras, but the truth is that someone new to opera could hardly be expected to make much sense of things. In fact, at one point, after a fast-paced recitative scene had been run, Jennifer turned to the audience and asked optimistically, "you could all follow what was going on there, right?" She seemed a little surprised to see many heads shaking left to right, but this is the way music so often goes for us musicians. Once you're on the inside and know the works intimately, it's hard to imagine how they wouldn't make sense to anyone. 

Still, audiences members could hardly complain since ticket prices were rock-bottom low and they were all very close to the action, hearing glorious music being lovingly produced. No one would suggest that this is a model for how opera should generally be presented or how performers should try to make a living, but there's a lot to be said for seeing musicians in their element, and I suspect that these evenings will provide a real motivational boost to all the participants - it never hurts to be reminded why we love doing what we do, and Jennifer's operamission has accomplished that mission beautifully.

Again, it's really a "you have to be there" kind of thing, but here's one richly rewarding excerpt (shot with my blurry camera from my prime twhistorian location) from the run-thru that ended the first evening. This is the tender farewell quintet as Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend to be heading off to war, to the distress of their girlfriends, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and to the amused delight of Don Alfonso, who's pulling all the strings.  

from left to right:

JAMES BOBICK - Guglielmo

* I mentioned to Jennifer as she was breaking down the set-up for the evening, moving her own harpsichord, etc, that it was notable that she'd found volunteers with the very specialized skills required to play all of the instrumental parts, but she hadn't bothered to find a volunteer stage manager - not only was it telling that she didn't mind doing the dirty work, but I suspect she knew that she was offering her musical volunteers a real privilege to be involved, even if they were giving back very generously. Not that stage-managing isn't a noble pursuit, but I think she figured she could handle that (and the conducting, and the continuo playing, and the coaching, and the assembling of talent), so why burden someone else?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Così Hero

In my last post, I mentioned that the blogosphere seems less energized than it was two to three years ago. As Elaine (a terrific blogger who hasn't slowed down) commented, some of the energy that once went into blogs has been rerouted onto Twitter and Facebook. The fact is, Twitter and Facebook are better when it comes to sharing links and keeping multi-threaded conversations going, while blogs are obviously better for more substantive content; but as blogs are used less and less for day-to-day contact and link-sharing, it stands to reason that the substantive content might get less attention.

Still, there are uniquely substantive experiences that can arise out of the Twitterverse (including operaplot, of course), and I'm particularly excited about one that will take place in the non-virtual world next week. That's right, real people, many of whom I've known exclusively through Twitter up to now, will be gathering in the Big Apple for a unique, multi-night, kind of hard-to-describe exploration/ performance of Mozart's Così fan tutte. The brainchild of NYC pianist/conductor/coach Jennifer Peterson, the event will feature professional singers and a true pick-up orchestra, with players picked up from far and wide at least in part via Peterson's Twitter connections. The two Acts of the opera will be split across four nights, with various singers taking on the roles each night and the orchestra showing up unrehearsed.

Naturally, this unrehearsed, "jam session" approach appeals to my Piano Hero instincts. This is not just because I'm lazy (although let's not completely discount that factor). No, I really like the way this kind of event embraces the joy of putting music together spontaneously. Of course, it's not completely spontaneous - Mozart did write down a lot of specific notes to be played, the singers will likely know their parts well, the musicians will be skilled. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with rehearsing a performance extensively and preparing it to be as good as possible, but I think we too often fool ourselves into thinking that great music can only be properly experienced in the idealized context of a fully prepared performance. This has a lot to do with the way we're trained and judged (we call our exams "juries!") and the way that critics tend to evaluate recitals and concerts.

But, oh yeah, sometimes the most exciting musical experiences occur in the fragmentary rehearsal stage. I know this because it's my experience all the time. Sometimes hearing just a fragment of a piece on the radio can be as moving and important as hearing it in full in a concert. Etc. So I'm really looking forward to seeing and hearing a bunch of talented musicians come together to tackle a great opera in a refreshingly informal, but sure-to-be deeply committed fashion.

I was going to bring my poor cello (poor because it only gets out of its case a few times a year) down to join in the fun, but it looks as if there are going to be plenty of real cellists on hand (though violinists are still needed!), so I think I'm just going to watch. This will also relieve me of the spontaneously improvisational experience of dragging a cello through the streets of New York. I'll only be able to get away for the first night, which will cover the Overture and the first half of Act I, but that's part of the fragmentary fun. The details are as follows:

operamission presents
Così fan tutte: Some Assembly Required

Mozart's Perfect Italian Comedy, Presented in Four Parts

• Full orchestra, unrehearsed, assembled on the spot
• A sublime cast
• Four hosts - dramaturg Cori Ellison, conductor Jennifer Peterson, stage director Ned Canty, and Italian language master Marco Nisticò

• Hosts will examine Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart & Lorenzo da Ponte's handiwork
• Lab, jam session, cabaret...? be determined by audience interaction

Presented by operamission
and Neke Carson at New York's Gershwin Hotel

ACT I, PART 1 - Tuesday, August 17, 7:00 PM
ACT I, PART 2 - Wednesday, August 18, 7:00 PM
ACT II, PART 1 - Friday, August 20, 7:00 PM
ACT II, PART 2 - Sunday, August 22, 4:00 PM

$10 general admission ($5 per session if attending more than one)

CONTACT -, +1 917 520 3163

Monday, August 9, 2010

I'm back!

Perhaps faithful readers of this blog, if such there be, might wonder if my last post heading ("Paranormal Activity") was a subtle signal that I'd been abducted by aliens - that seems as good a reason as any for why I just stopped blogging for a couple of months, but I've never intended to quit blogging. (I won't confirm or deny whether or not I was actually abducted, although there is a pretty cool mashup culture emerging in the blogosphere of Sector 12 on Planet 23 in the...whoops, I've said enough.) Aside from the general resistance of inertia, I've also been struggling with how best to articulate the many thoughts I've had about classical music culture since some exchanges with Greg Sandow back in late May.

So, I've set myself a couple of goals, aside from just resuming normal blogging activity. I'm hoping to start spinning out a series of ideas about "classical music culture," its strengths, weaknesses, etc. I'm also hoping, at long last, to create something more like a website to house the many multimedia creations that have sprung up as part of my blogging. As I've mentioned many times before, a problem with the blog format is that it tends to focus all the attention on recent posts, whereas I think many blogs out there ought to be seen not just as ongoing journals but as archives of interesting material that deserves to be revisited.

I'm not sure what the future of blogs is anyway, given that many of my favorites have virtually ceased activity. The guys at the wonderful Dial M for Musicology have literally stopped blogging; the amazing Soho the Dog (Matthew Guerrieri) has also been virtually silent while working on a book project, and one never is sure when the great Jeremy Denk will materialize in blog form again. Those were probably my three favorite blogs back in the day, but it may be that the blogosphere doesn't sustain its lifeforms as well as was once thought - which is why I'm determined to continue blogging, but in a way that also becomes something like a big, ongoing, easily searchable book. We'll see.

However, today I've come not to promote my own multimedia creation, but to cite some outstanding work by some students from one of my summer classes. The class is called "Analytical Techniques" and it serves as a 3rd year theory class in our 3-summer Masters program for public school music teachers. Coming back to theory can be rather intimidating for some of these students, many of whom are teaching general music at the elementary level, where the subject of Augmented Sixth chords doesn't come up all that often. Thus, teaching the class has been a good exercise for me in thinking about the practical side of theory, and especially in thinking about how developing good listening/analytical skills can make our students better at communicating to their students about how music works, why it's worth paying attention to, etc.

The first project the students do is a fairly standard, comprehensive analytical graph of a long-form piece (hint: Excel spreadsheets are wonderful for creating such graphs), but the second project is designed to focus both on presentation skills (talking intelligibly and winsomely about theory stuff) and creative approaches to analysis. Each of the projects includes some sort of "creative" component that links ideas about how the music is composed with extra-musical accessories (visual, narrative, movement-based, etc.). My ideal is always that the "extra-musical" component serve as a catalyst for deeper listening - in other words, rather than have the music become background to something new that becomes an end in itself, the best project would serve to get us listening more attentively.

The video below is one of the best such projects I've seen. These students had the idea of presenting Charles Ives' famous "America" Variations as a B&W, silent-film style story about a conductor trying to get his charges to behave. Right off the bat, that concept jibes nicely with the idea of Ives tackling this sober and dignified tune with his peculiar brand of adolescent (literally, since he was 17) musical wise-cracking. Because the video has a low-budget vibe as well (using stills in stop-motion, etc.), it does a great job of getting us to think about what's going on in the music, while also being consistently entertaining. After watching it, I believe any student could easily have developed a better sense of how the music is structured and how it develops, which is really the goal.

I should add that the students also presented a more detailed analysis as part of their presentation, but as I've already remarked on Twitter, I like that this video wears that analysis lightly. We're reminded that music is fun, entertaining, diverting, etc. and though there may be all sorts of sophisticated reasons that Ives was successful in putting this music together, those details are not ends in themselves. One of the convictions I have about classical music culture as it now exists is that we tend to take ourselves much too seriously. There are all sorts of reasons for why this might be the case, and some of them are very good reasons. But, in a nutshell, it's important that the academic culture that's built up around music not distance us too much from why music exists in the first place. I think this video sums that up much better than all the words I've just multiplied: