Monday, April 27, 2009

Musing Out Loud

[UPDATE: Now downloadable via iTunes as well.]

Today marks the debut of the MMmusing podcast, known for now as the MMmusecast. I'm quite lucky that my first guest is not only an amazing musician, but also a thoroughly polished and engaging speaker; she is pianist Mia Chung, a colleague of mine on the music faculty at Gordon College. As illustrated in the little Venn diagram that opens the video below, there are pianists and there are pianists. Anyone who's willing to take on Brahms' monumental second piano concerto is worthy of attention in my book, so when I realized Mia was in final prep for an upcoming performance with the Gordon Symphony Orchestra, I thought it would be fun to sit down and chat with her about it. And it was fun. You can listen by downloading this mp3 file. You can also watch a graphically enhanced version via the YouTube videos below or via iTunes.

The interview was completely unrehearsed and proceeded spontaneously through various topics, but it occurred to me that, for all the talking we do about music, it might be nice to hear some of that music as well; so, while the interview itself is virtually unedited (two very tiny trims), I've dubbed in audio samples where appropriate (and sometimes maybe where not appropriate, as I tend to get carried away). To that, in the video versions, I've added various still images, including a wide variety of excerpts from the score of the concerto. If you're new to the piece and planning to come hear it on Saturday, this should provide a nice introduction both to the musical ideas and to the emotional/narrative world of this music.

It's been said that some people have "a face for radio." Well, I have a speaking voice that might be considered best suited for newspaper work, but I've come to enjoy several different podcasts as ways of getting through my daily commutes, so I couldn't resist giving the genre a try. Hopefully if I do more of these, I'll do better at projecting my own voice; fortunately, Mia comes through quite clearly and has lots of interesting and insightful things to say both about the Brahms concerto itself, and about the pianistic challenges involved in playing it. I'll have more to say about this experience in the days ahead, but for now I'll let the speaking speak for itself.


[UPDATE: My submissions decoded here.]

Miss Mussel's Twitter Opera Plot contest is back, this time with an astounding number of opera companies participating as potential prize-givers. Submissions were to be accepted starting at 9am this morning, but I ended up crafting mine late last week. I decided to jump right in and submit all six as a batch right out of the starting gate, even though the contest is open until next Sunday. Perhaps a better strategy would have been to send them in at the last minute, but I'm not a patient person.

So, since the point of doing it this way is to keep me from twittering away my work day, I'll say no more, other than to reprint my submissions here. (NOTE: Two of them are slightly contracted versions of entries from the previous round of the contest, back when I didn't realize the 140-character limit needed to include the 10-character tag, #operaplot.) Of course, you can also view my submissions by my following me on Twitter.

Oh, and the first-ever MMmusing podcast debuts later today! Check back soon...

6 Operas in 130 Characters or Less
Cad kills Commendatore. Conquests cataloged, courts country cutie. Cry creates chaos. Cast Commendatore comeback cues comeuppance.

4 Bohemians: Performer sings for supper. Poet authors romance. Painter brushes with ex. Philosopher thinks coat sale. (Girl dies)

Someone must die. Tenor, denied soprano, steps up. Executioner can't hack it, gives up soprano; skirts death by wooing contralto.

Count wishes he Susanna had; wife=sad, servant=mad, a mezzo plays a lusty lad. Switcheroo exposes cad, finale he admits he's bad.

Susannah bathes, Elders see,
blame her; Blitch says fervently
Repent, but sins against her, so
he's killed by her protective bro.

Lumberjack still beating his wife. She ID's him as doctor who must be beaten to practice. Thus thrashed, he's hailed as a genius.
UPDATE: I'm now up to 10. (10's the limit, by rule.)
Dante writes that Gianni Schicchi robs a clan by being sneaky. He wills himself a big estate; his daughter's song is also great.

Life is happiness, Candide; Cunegonde's all you need. She'll get raped & die a bit, but survive & gaily glit. Enough? Grow stuff.

How's the fishing? Not good 4 Grimes; worse 4 his help. He wants 2 marry Ellen, but ends up with the best character: the Sea.

Marie is a French GI Jane/Mom says the girl is insane/2 fall 4 the tenor/but he's sure 2 win'er /He sings 9 hi C's with no strain!
Whoops, I'm now up to 11. (10's the limit, by rule.) I'm retracting the lumberjack one as an entry. (I just posted that in a lame effort to drum up interest in "my" opera.)
Wedding Day: Boss wants bride. Old bag wants me. Page just wants it. Send letter. Dress up page. Find mom in bag. It works out!
Disaster! Miss Mussel has removed the 10-entry limit. And on top of that, people started submitting limericks. (You can see I'd already caught the bug with entry #10.) So, here's a few more from yours truly. Must stop...soon.
A prince's fiancé is kept w/in a harem so expect 2 see him try 2 re-collect her, posing as an architect. Joseph votes:2many notes [NOTE: must pronounce fiancé with 3 syllables, stress on the final. Also, this one's not a limerick.]

Her HS days done, tender Laurie/is doing a life inventory/when Martin and Top/just happen to stop/and inevitably alter her story.

Ms Todd & Laetitia r silly/as women can b, as they really/think each has a chance/with Bob & his pants/arousing an aria STEAL ME

UPDATE: More operaplots from 2010.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Yes, blogging's been quite slow. Maybe it's Twitter. Maybe it's Facebook. Maybe it's Piano Hero (which went well yesterday with the incomparable Beethoven 7). Maybe it's end-of-semester exhaustion. Anyway, some interesting content is coming soon, including the debut MMmusing podcast (!) and my submissions for the new Opera Plot Twitter contest, which opens on Monday. I've got three new ones I'm quite proud of. [Previously.]

Check back soon... (and, in the meantime, see random things I've posted on Twitter)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


For some time, I've kept informal plus/minus scores in my head as a way of thinking about which composers I like more or less than the norm. Of course, calibrating such a scale is really impossible since there is no establishable norm, but that's part of the fun as well. I can easily imagine that some would object to this sort of rating system - music shouldn't be about ratings, and composers shouldn't be put in boxes. And I shouldn't go to Dunkin' Donuts so often...

Actually, I think charting quirky likes and dislikes is an interesting way to find out about people. I've never been a fan of most kinds of "mixer" games, but we once hosted a church small group meeting at our house when we began informally going around the room to learn everyone's favorite movie/TV show/music. It turned out to be a great way to learn about people and to get all sorts of discussions going. It's always fun to mystify people by declaring that The Purple Rose of Cairo is the best movie of all time.

Anyway, I thought I'd see if I could get some Twitter discussion going by posting some of my plus/minus thoughts there, but they attracted zero interest. So, I might as well recycle this information here. A few explanatory notes. First, I believe this list says more about me than the composers listed. I continue to find Haydn less compelling than many respectable and insightful people, and I'm happy to admit that the failing is mine. I also would gladly admit that he's a very fine composer, and I really enjoy some of his works - the point of this system is to document the disconnect I feel vs. what I perceive to be his overall reputation.

Another way of saying this is that it would be fine if I encountered much less Haydn than I do. On the other hand, I'm not sure I could ever get too much of Poulenc or Scriabin, two admired composers who, nevertheless, don't have thrones as high up on Olympus as I think they should. Thus, they could get my highest + scores, coming in at +3 each. Notice that many of the standard "greats" get zeros; I adore Beethoven and find his music indispensable in my life, but that hardly makes me unique. Same for Mozart; there are times when I'd be tempted to give him a +1, but then I fall asleep listening to one of Sarastro's arias, and I figure his reputation is just about right.

I don't know if it's really possible to be a +1 for Bach either - there are probably some people who are even more fanatical than I am, but still, it's possible that he gets as many as four works on my all-time Top Ten, so +1 feels right. Note that these ratings don't necessarily mean I think a plus composer is better than one with a zero or a minus. I don't know that I'd say Schumann is better than Chopin, but everyone seems to adore Chopin, whereas Schumann always attracts a certain amount of criticism, even if his achievements are considerably more wide-ranging than Chopin's. I'd rate them as about equal on the overall Olympian scale, but Schumann's music probably tears me up more inside. (By the way, that's a blog post of its own. When I was in college, Brahms was definitely the most important composer to me, and Schumann struck me as somewhat bizarre - now, I still love Brahms, but Schumann hits deeper.)

So, here's a starter plus/minus scale. Notice the ever controversial Wagner comes in at a break-even zero, which might be the oddest score here. The truth is, probably most composers would float around the zero mark, so, to some degree, this is just a way to say that I really love Poulenc and Scriabin - and I'm a bit mystified by Haydn and Verdi.

Bach: +1
Bartók : -2
Beethoven: 0
Brahms: +1
Britten: +1
Chopin: 0
Handel: 0
Haydn: -5
Mozart: 0
Poulenc: +3
Schubert: +1
Schumann: +2
Scriabin: +3
Schütz: -2
Verdi: -4
Wagner: 0

Please don't hate me or think of less me. Hey, I've forgiven Terry Teachout for dissing Brahms' Requiem. We are who we are, but maybe, just maybe, Haydn will some day make it up to -4.

UPDATE (4/15): Added Bartók, Brahms, Britten, and Handel. Most of the big names not on the list (Copland, Debussy, Liszt, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Monteverdi, Prokofiev, Ravel, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Strauss, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, etc.) would probably fall right around zero; I think it's particularly difficult to calibrate general opinion for more recent composers, so although I might have strong opinions about some, I don't feel a clear plus/minus tension about them.

UPDATE (5/3): Bumped Brahms up to +1 after hearing Mia Chung play Brahms 2nd concerto last night. Unbelievably gripping, stunning, overpowering, affecting... (and there's the piano quinet, the C minor piano quartet, the F minor sonata, the "Handel" variations, the violin sonatas, the...what was I thinking giving Brahms a 0?)

Friday, April 10, 2009

That and This

There's lots I could/should be blogging about, but it looks like we'll have to settle for another ramble:

1) I'm surprised how much I'm enjoying Twitter, although I harbor some concern that it will sap some life from this blog. Twitter is in such an interesting early stage - if it continues its success, it will inevitably become something very different from what it is now just as the volume of users increases. It's still a pretty quirky minority of people who keep it buzzing. For now, it seems most useful as an aggregator of interesting links - personally, I could do without some of the "I'm making a sandwich now" kinds of tweets, but I suppose such updates are important early on in keeping the information flowing - but, I also find it useful as a quick place to jot down something that doesn't seem blogworthy, or for which I don't have time to blog. (Follow me here.)

2) Piano Hero Level 5 was a big success, which is ironic because it was surely the least musically accurate of the events to date. Please note, that's not a knock on our guest collaborators - it's just that I'd stupidly underestimated how much harder it is to keep an ensemble of 4 pianists together, as opposed to the 2 of past performances. Because we were playing the very familiar Beethoven's 5th, and because I assumed (somewhat correctly) the parts would be a bit easier than the typical 2-pianist arrangement, and because it's not easy to get 4 pianists together to practice, and because of silly old hubris (mine), we didn't rehearse at all until about 20 minutes before the show was to begin. We didn't rehearse the 2nd mvt. at all.

As it turned out, we did have to stop once when things got off track in the 2nd movement. One of the tricky things about this kind of arrangement is that the pair at one piano can't see the parts for the pair at the other piano - it's a little like being in an orchestra with no conductor, except for one dark little secret: pianists aren't good at counting rests. (We rarely have to do it.) All in all, the fact that we only stopped once was remarkable. There were some tremendously exciting moments in the 4th movement when things were off, but we were able to keep banging away until everything got back on track. And let me be clear - I loved those moments. Must be a little like what it feels like when a play breaks down in basketball/football, and you have to keep your wits about you and make something work.

It was a pretty loud, bangy performance, which I (with little or no good reason) think Beethoven might have enjoyed. But the thing is, the audience seemed to have a fantastic time. We had a great crowd, partly because I sent out a campus-wide email and partly because Beethoven's 5th is inevitably a big draw. Especially gratifying is that there were many, many people from outside the music department. I think it was clear to them that we were having a really fun time and this wasn't some sacred ritual to be endured. (Let's face it - classical concerts can feel that way.) There is also something thrilling about that much piano action at once - just the sound itself isn't something you hear every day. So, it was an especially big success in proving that this kind of informal concert can have a unique sort of appeal. I hope to have some video samples up in a day or two.

3) Continuing to love the Airturn pedal. I didn't use it for this Piano Hero, because the double-landscape page format means I need to attach a monitor (like we did in Piano Hero 1 &2) and I didn't have the time/energy to get that set up. Plus, my keyboard partner had never played from a screen before, so I didn't want to confront her with that with virtually no rehearsal.

But, for last weekend's Opera Scenes program, the digital music reading worked like a dream. This is not to disparage the page-turners I've had in the past, but it's always been inevitable that there'd be some miscommunications about when to flip - sometimes I'd nod my head to cue a singer and suddenly find the page had been turned. (In fairness to the turners, I always nod to signal turns and beg for turners to pay attention to my nods, not the music.) There was a Wall Street Journal article recently that mentioned all sorts of ways in which the human page-turner can turn out badly.

A couple of mildly amusing Airturn tales: During one particularly hectic day of rehearsing, I happened to be playing from actual music for awhile because I'd forgotten to scan one scene in. The pedal was still on the floor, however, and at almost every turn, I found myself frantically pedaling until I remembered I'd need to lift the old-school paper to see what came next. Another time, a couple of weeks ago, I set the pedal up hurriedly to accompany a coaching. The first turn went fine, but I got nothing the second time. I stopped, tried a couple of things, and started getting really frustrated that nothing was happening since I knew I'd just recharged the batteries - until I realized I'd never put the batteries back into the Airturn after charging. There must've been enough charge left in the unit to make the first turn happen - or maybe I just imagined it. So, two free tips from MMmusing if you're going to use an Airturn: don't try to use it with paper scores and do use batteries.

By the way, I'm featured in the March Airturn newsletter as a testimonialist, but I really am a happy customer so far, and have even bought a second backup Airturn for that inevitable day when my almost 2-year old son rips the USB transmitter off my laptop (like he once did with another USB device). It's kind of fun to be a testimonialist. Maybe someday I'll live out my real dream and host an infomercial.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

This and that

It's been a ridiculously busy week, filled with approximately 15-hour work days, listening to a bunch of Sports Guy podcasts while commuting back and forth, coming home each night to a sleeping family, not quite ready for sleep myself, and thus watching a bit of Curb Your Enthusiasm until I fall asleep and repeat the cycle the next day. I mention the Sports Guy and Curb because they somehow ended up feeling like integral parts of a hamster-wheel like cycle. (By the way, I love weeks like this, excerpt for the part about not seeing my family.)

For the record, the SG podcasts have become really good, so much better than typical sports radio, late-night TV interviews, NPR, etc. I particularly liked this one where he interviews SNL's Bill Hader. Not only was it entertaining, but there's a lot of good stuff about the insanity of putting on a show under pressure, and the importance of having cast members who are team players (both of which happened to dovetail with my experience getting our Opera Scenes show off the ground). As for Curb, which I only started watching in the past few months when we finally broke down and subscribed to cable, I think it's pretty overrated, and definitely not even close to Seinfeld-level. However, the episode where Larry David ends up wildly conducting the overture to Die Meistersinger on a neighbor's front lawn - that was funny, especially David's conducting. I wish I could find that scene on YouTube.

See how rambling this post is. That's just how it's gonna be - maybe it's the influence of Twitter, which I ended up joining last week after getting into that opera plot contest. It turned out I kind of bent the rules there because, for the Twitterers who submitted their plots, they had to include the tag #operaplot within the 140 characters. Thus, my three 140-on-the-nose synopses didn't quite work once I joined Twitter - I could submit them as "tweets," but without the tag that linked them with the other entries. Still, the judges were kind enough to award me an honorable mention for my Albert Herring, although I thought my Figaro one was better. Surprisingly, I was the only contestant who went the poetry route. Maybe only I'm surprised. I also felt my summaries fit more actual plot into them than most of the entries, but to each his own.

Unfortunately, once infected with the rhyming synopsis idea, I couldn't help but produce the following when it came time to write up some last-minute program notes for our Opera Scenes program (which debuted last night and repeats tomorrow). So maybe I didn't blog this week, but I did multiply words, with questionable results, and that's what blogging's all about.

Miss Todd and Miss Pinkerton talk over tea;
Each is sad to be old and still absent a he.
Laetitia comes in to announce there's a vis'tor.
Miss Todd and Laetitia are thrilled it's a Mister.

Dr. Miracle, The Omelette Quartet

A resourceful young man makes an omelette as part
of an opera-like plan to secure his sweetheart.
Later on in the plot, to her parents' surprise,
it's revealed that this chef thing was just a disguise.

Susannah, Act II: Scenes 1-2 Carlisle Floyd
An innocent bath seen by Elders has meant
that Susannah's been shunned, told she has to repent.
Sam consoles her, but leaves. Later, at the revival,
she's preached at by Blitch when he notes her arrival.


Hansel and Gretel, Act II: Scenes 1-2
Gretel sings to a mushroom while Hansel picks berries,
but the coming of night makes them slowly aware
that they're lost in the woods. Enter Sandman, who ferries
them off to their dreams, though they first say a prayer.

Dido and Aeneas, Act II: Scene 2 – Act III

Aeneas and Dido are all set to marry,
attendants are singing when storm clouds are spied;
as all haste away, an imposterous fairy
gives Aeneas false news that he must leave his bride.

While sailors prepare, witches plot their destruction,
which delights them no end, having also foreseen
that the mistreated Dido will end the production
by lamenting and dying, a heartbroken queen.

The Tender Land, 2nd half of Act I

Two drifters, out looking for work, are quite glad
when they come 'cross a girl, a wide-eyed high school grad.
Though Grandpa and Ma both express some misgiving,
soon they all join in singing "The Promise of Living."
Coming up in future posts. Piano Hero rides again next week.

Oh, and yeah, you can follow me on Twitter. I have no idea what I'll be doing there. It's not really my thing to tell everyone what I'm doing at every second, but I do see the potential for sharing information quickly. I guess I would break the Twitter problem down this way. The basic idea is you're supposed to type in an answer to the question "What are you doing?" Now, it seems to me that the most honest answer to that question would always be, "I am updating on Twitter." Thus, any other answer feels a bit like a pose to me.