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October 26, 2010

A couple of recent concert experiences here in Edmonton have had me thinking/musing on SOUND experiences that have been so unique and memorable that they have stuck, or will stick with me for years.  Sounds that lodge in my memory with a vividness that I at least THINK I can describe in words.  It has me thinking that if I have a half-dozen or so of these sound experiences that have profoundly shaped my musical experience, then others must have their own data-base.  And so, I would like to begin a collection of these SOUNDS, and hope that you will contribute.

These SOUNDS do not need to come from a musical context.  There is in fact no requirement that they appear in any particular context.  Many of mine may.  Yours may not.  The only line that I would like to draw is that the SOUND experience is a moment in time, and not in fact a particularly memorable performance of a particularly memorable piece by a particularly memorable artist.  These performance memories, of course, have their place– they are just not what I am trying to hone in on here.  It is a hard line to draw, and may in fact become fuzzier as this catalogue of sounds grows.

So here are a few of my most memorable sounds:

THE CHORD in the sixth movement of John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus.  It is an extended moment where a hundred or so wind, brass and percussion players scream out a massive explosion of sound.  I have heard John describe it now on two occasions as “the loudest unamplified chord ever played in a concert hall.”  When I hear him describe it this way I think “Oh, come on…”  And then it happens.  The waves of sounds that converge on the listener from 360 degree surround sound are massive.  The dissonance is so thick that it becomes imperceptible.  It is just a barrage of sound waves that engulf the listener.  The first time I heard it, at Northwestern University, it was stunning.  Last week when I heard it in Edmonton, it was thrilling.  My body surged forward in its seat, wanting to drink it in as long as it would last.

THE UNISON D in the final interlude of Wozzeck, played by the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, conducted by James Levine.  I had been Assistant Conductor on Wozzeck at Santa Fe Opera over the summer prior to the Met’s mounting of the opera, and so was very very familiar with the piece, and tremendously impressed by it.  But I had no inkling of how devastating a single unison note in the orchestra could be as the opera nears its end.  At the end of the final orchestral interlude there is a LONG single note that is sustained by the entire orchestra– a D that builds and builds and builds.  As I experienced the opera at the Met, I could just SEE the massive weight of this note pile up upon Wozzeck, already severely weakened by his life in the opera, until the sheer SOUND of the D simply crushed him.  Tears rolled down my cheeks as he crumbled beneath this musical force.

JANINA FIALKOWSKA touching the piano in Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1.  Now, maybe this veers into the realm of a memorable performance, but I think it is more than that.  Her playing, her handling of the piano, her drawing of sound from the instrument had an ease and transparency that was breathtaking.  At one moment I would have sworn that her hands simultaneously produced 3 distinct layers of sound– a foreground, mid-ground, and background– that all shimmered effortlessly.  The serenity that she exuded as she sat at the keyboard is something that I am ABSOLUTELY unfamiliar with!

STEVEN  BLIER at the piano at Wolf Trap this summer.  While Janina Fialkowska seemed to need to touch the piano to make it sing, Steven apparently only needs to breathe on it to bring it to life.  Really, he sat there, looking at the instrument, and it twinkled to life with an ease and gentleness that was magical.  The next moment he would look at it with an arched eyebrow, and it would erupt into the most violent and physical stride piano that I have heard.  I guess this is now a collection of sound moments that have lodged in my brain, but they transcend the individual pieces that Steven was playing, and are some of the most memorable SOUNDS that I have heard.

PLEASE add your comments to this posting.  I am MOST curious to experience (however vicariously) your own sound memories!

Extended Family 3

October 26, 2010

On the first day of orchestra rehearsals for La boheme with the ESO I was chatting quickly with William Dimmer, second chair trumpet with the orchestra.  Bill played in the first two productions I conducted with Edmonton Opera, and was always a very friendly face in the band.  As the start of rehearsal approached, and we were off to different parts of the room, Bill said “La boheme holds a very special meaning for me.  I’ll have to tell you some time.  Over drinks.”

Well, on the afternoon of our final dress rehearsal, during the intermission break, Bill stopped by my dressing room.  He said he would tell me his story, and after my quip that he must have begun drinking already at noon, he smiled and began to share.  Bill told me that some 30 years ago his son, who was 3 years old at the time, came to the final dress rehearsal of a production of La boheme that he was playing.  It was his son’s first opera experience.  Bill’s son had spent much of his first 3 years of life in the hospital, battling severe asthma.  Things had stabilized for him though, and with his ever-present inhaler at the ready, he was able to fend for himself out in the world.  Well, Bill’s son was sitting with his mom through the opera, and along came Act 4, with Mimi nearing her death from tuberculosis.  At one moment deep in the act, Bill’s wife looked up to see their son already in the aisle of the theater, hurrying down towards the stage, extending his inhaler towards Mimi.  She was coughing so desperately, and he knew that he had exactly what she needed.  The opera had thoroughly connected with this 3-year-old, and his personal involvement in the story was simply bursting out.

This was naturally a very touching story, especially as I sat thinking about my own 3-year-old, Ronan, who I have only seen on skype for the last 3 1/2 weeks, and seeing how the final dress rehearsal had a couple of thousand students in the audience.  I asked Bill how old his son is now, and he grew quiet.  His son passed away when he was a teenager and off at camp, victim to his severe nut allergy.  “That was many years ago,” Bill said.  Yes it was, but the memory of his son lives on so vividly in each production of La boheme that Bill plays, and will now for me as well.


Extended Family 2

October 26, 2010

I distinctly remember a day 8 years or so ago in Santa Fe, when I was on the Music Staff and was delighted to be Assistant Conductor on the American Premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin.  Peter Sellars was directing the production, which had originated in Salzburg and required the flooding of the Santa Fe Opera’s stage with thousands of gallons of water.  Robert Spano, whose work with the Brooklyn Philharmonic was of great inspiration to me as a musician and New York resident, was conducting.  The cast was Dawn Upshaw, Gerald Finley, and Monica Groop.

The day in question was the first day of rehearsal on the production, probably late June.  It was my fourth year with the company.  Bob Spano and Dawn Upshaw were there for their first times, and things fell out that after a morning of rehearsal, Bob and Dawn were headed for the Tesuque Village Market for lunch.  For whatever reason, they invited me to join them, and I was of course delighted to tag along.

Bob and Dawn had ever so much to talk about– past productions and concerts, shared friends, events and stories– and for the most part I sat, watched, listened, and thought “I don’t share this….”  It was somewhat disheartening, but also ever so understandable.  It took me a while to understand that those stories that they shared were exactly the stories that I was in the process of accumulating with my colleagues.  Bob and Dawn were already family in a way, and to a certain extent I would join that family by the end of our 6 weeks working together on L’amour de loin.  But more importantly– especially as each new production widens our extended opera family– these productions that we are making today, and these colleagues with whom we are working now, will be the stories and bonds of tomorrow.

Eric Fennell (Edmonton’s Rodolfo) has an older cousin, Alan Fennell, who was the music teacher at the elementary school in Pleasantville, the town where I went to High School, and where my family lived for 14 years.  I played piano in rehearsals and a couple of concerts for Alan when I was a high school student.  And now I am conducting his cousin in La boheme.  I did not know, back in 1985, that I was forming a bond that would cycle back around in Edmonton in 2010.  It is a small world, and a big musical family.


John Corigliano in Edmonton

October 25, 2010

I was delighted to find out that John Corigliano would be spending a week in Edmonton during my rehearsal period for La boheme.  He was in residence at the University of Alberta, giving master classes and lectures, but most importantly supervising a performance of his Circus Maximus, which was played at the Winspear Center last Thursday night.

Circus Maximus is a HUGE piece, requiring a massive contingent of instrumentalists– mostly wind players.  By my count there were 111 players in this performance, mostly arrayed on the stage of the Winspear Center, but with at least two dozen in various surround-sound locations throughout the concert hall’s main floor and balconies.  And this does not even count the firearms guy who fires the rifle which triggers the final blackout and end of the 40-minute piece.  It is clearly a daunting undertaking to mount a performance of Circus Maximus, and it is something that you CANNOT miss if you ever have a chance to hear it.

I count myself in a very fortunate group of people who have managed to hear Circus Maximus on more than one occasion!  The first time was last Spring at Northwestern University, as part of their big Corigliano Festival.  When I heard that U of A was performing it this month I hoped desperately that I would not have a rehearsal that evening.  In fact our final dress rehearsal was that morning at 11 am (not particularly pleasant) with an audience of a couple thousand students (very fun), and I was free to hear John’s piece, and even managed to coerce several of the cast members of La boheme to come along.

The piece itself is extremely hard to describe.  Inspired by the Roman Circus it is full of brutality, and draws on the manic need the Roman government felt to distract the populous from the destruction it would fairly soon experience.  This manic overload of stimuli, and danger of imminent destruction resonates deeply for John to today’s society, in particular New York City, and New York’s modern influence is felt heavily throughout the piece.  The first movement “”(Introitus ) with its rips of brass surrounding the audience, gives way to  “Screen/Siren” which is dominated by a far-off saxophone ensemble.  Waves of sound that are overwhelming and come at the listener from 360 degrees, alternate with passages that are hard to locate, and which the listener’s ears need to strain to hear.  “Channel Surfing” is a montage of stimuli that each of us has experienced from our own sofas, while “Night Music I” and Night Music II” are evocations of nightscapes in prairie and city respectively.  The climax of the piece is a massive chord played by every instrumentalist in the room.  Billed as the “loudest chord ever played in a concert hall” it does not fail to satisfy, and especially on this second hearing, had me just shivering to soak the sound in.  The chord melts away over the course of 2 minutes, eventually leaving a single clarinet sustaining.  Never before has a single note played by a single player felt so meaningful and satisfying.

The concert was an overwhelming experience, and I was so pleased to have several of our cast members along for the ride.  Jon-Paul likened it to the first time he heard Le Sacre du Printemps performed, and how staggering that was, and I know exactly what he is talking about.  It is just amazing that that amount (and kind) of sound is being generated by living breathing individuals, and that we are sitting in the middle of it.  As I walked back to may apartment following the performance, my ears felt as if they had been scrubbed clean.  VIGOROUSLY scrubbed clean.  Refreshing.  It may be a long long time before I hear the piece performed again live, but this will be ringing in my ears for many many days.

La boheme – Performance 1

October 25, 2010

Last night was the opening of La boheme, and I think I am in very good company in how pleased I am with how the performance went.  Everyone in the cast was in very good voice, the chorus sang wonderfully, and the orchestra was terrific.  And most exciting– the KIDS!  The kids were spot on, and after the final dress rehearsal, this was a particular relief.

Our cast of 7 principals represent a wide range of boheme-experience, and that has been fun to watch throughout the production process.  We have one boheme-newbie in the cast– Benjamin Covey (Schaunard).  His debut was a great success, and I am sure he has many boheme’s in his future.  Our Musetta (Miriam Khalil) was making her role debut, but has previously sung the role of Mimi.  Similarly our Colline (Jon-Paul Decosse) has sung Schaunard in this very production, but was singing Colline for the first time on this set (and maybe for the first time?).  Our Mimi (Laura Whalen) sang the role only once before, and it was a number of years ago– so this has been a nice journey of discovery.  Eric Fennell, Etienne Dupuis and Doug MacNaughton (Rodolfo, Marcello, and Benoit/Alcindoro) each have a number of productions under their belts, and so the process has been a re-exploration of the characters as they relate to this particular staging by Brian Deedrick.  It is always a give and take, a sharing of knowledge and experience, and a rediscovery of this FABULOUS score through this unique collection of performers.

Two days off now, and then two more performances.  It is always fun to see how the production grows, and each singer’s performance settles in with opening-night nerves out of the way.

The weather in Edmonton has turned cold.  Good incentive to hole up in the apartment and get as much studying done as possible with the free days!

ESO – Anu Tali & Janina Fialkowska

October 20, 2010

Last Saturday night I went to hear the Edmonton Symphony’s last concert prior to their turning themselves over to “La boheme.”  I love it when I get to do this, as it is a chance to hear the orchestra play other repertoire, as well as a chance to get reacquainted with their sound and faces.  Kind of like visiting old friends, without all the pressures of rehearsal.

The program:

Berlioz – Overture to “Beatrice and Benedict”

Chopin – Piano Concerto #1

Part – Symphony #4 (“Los Angeles”)

Anu Tali was the guest conductor, and Janina Fialkowska was the pianist.


I find the Berlioz Overture a hard way to start a program– challenging to grasp the big architecture, and not extremely rewarding as an opener.  But that’s me.  Others likely feel differently.  Either way, it was very elegantly played, and showed the various sections of the orchestra off to good effect.

The Chopin was beautiful, subtle and elegant.  I had not heard Fialkowska play before, and was drawn in by the gentleness of her touch, and her ability to shade the solo part.  She danced over the keyboard, and cascades of sound rippled out.  It was never crashing, always fluid.

After the intermission (daring) came the Part Symphony, a 36 minute work for Strings, Harp and Percussion.  Terrific, surprising colors and timbres.  Wonderful passages for marimba and pizzicato strings.  The harp was a nice glue between the strings and the percussion.  Lots of sudden pauses where the wonderful acoustics of the Winspear Center kept the sound ringing and present.  One pause that I most liked was broken by a lone crotale strike… time… time… and then another crotale a half-step lower.  A very intriguing piece, and I was more than happy to give myself over to Part’s structure.  I lost track of time, and eventually was not even sure which movement we were in.  A winding eighth-note figure emerged in the low strings, section by section adding the cellos, violas and violins, climbing higher and higher, until only the first violins were left, and even they were out of room on the instruments to play higher.  And then it was over.  The ESO audience was riveted throughout.


Orchestra Time & Return Engagements

October 20, 2010

Tuesday night now, and we are only two rehearsals away from opening night.  But much happens in that very compressed time.  Take for instance what has taken place in the last two days:

Monday was my first time with the orchestra for this particular production– a relatively leisurely double-service day, with reads in the morning and afternoon.  Plenty of time to stop, be sure that the players’ parts clearly showed my beat patterns, and that they all had a general sense of how we are shaping the score.  At the end of the afternoon Laura (Mimi) came in to sing her two big arias, and we enjoyed the luxury of taking time with these challenging bits.  Then after a quick dinner we had our first stage/piano rehearsal.  4 hours to tech through the most challenging scenes (read Act 2 with the chorus and kids).

Today was our sitzprobe, and we managed to get through everything handily, if sometimes a little sloppily, in the 2 1/2 hour rehearsal.  Most important was that the orchestra get to hear the cast singing out, so they can see the moment to moment shading and shaping of the score.  Still lots to fix, but there will be time in the next two rehearsals.  And tonight we had the piano dress– principals marking, having sung the sitz only a few hours earlier.  This went pretty darn well, considering the complexity of the production.  Again, lots to shuffle into place, but nothing extraordinary or too daunting.


Yesterday, as we launched into the orchestra rehearsals, I was very aware of how much I appreciate return engagements!  Virtually all of the orchestra players have now played two productions for me, and we get along quite well.  Any sense of “getting to know you” or “sussing each other out” is completely absent from the rehearsals.  We are able to just get down to work right away, and what a joy that is!   I am able to push harder right from the outset, and the music-making is stronger from the outset, which is rewarding to both them and me.  A real treat.