On leaving Axiom


Man, I sometimes think. It’s been a long time since we rehearsed - isn’t there something… Then I remember that I don’t go to those rehearsals anymore. They could be rehearsing, but I wouldn’t know it.* Other times I go days without even thinking about the group. It’s a common experience, expecting something familiar that is gone, then immediately living life as if it had never existed. What is that? Is it called something? Paging Dr. Freud, am I right?

I was a member of Axiom Brass from its early days of 2007 when we played almost never, and got paid almost never. I saw the group make huge strides both musically and in its career. And now it could be argued that I left in the middle of an upswing.


"It was just time" is what I usually say. Time to follow other interests, time to teach more, time to perform the music I haven't had time to, time to feel more connected to what has to be one of the most wonderful community of musicians in this, one of the best cities in the world, Chicago. 

Since September I've been coaching chamber music at Midwest Young Artists in the north suburbs of Chicago. These are talented middle and high school students dedicated to learning to play their instruments at the highest level, as well as learning to connect with and collaborate their peers. It's so much fun to guide them through the intricacies of group dynamics, and how to turn their combined energies to the task at hand. I'm not gonna lie, I'm having them play music that is definitely too hard for them. But am expecting that by the end of the semester they'll be killing it. I suspect I'm going to win some and lose some, but...

Performance wise, I just got to play Dai Fujikura's amazing piece Poyopoyo. I'll post a clip here soon**, but believe me that this is one of the great solo horn pieces in the rep. I look forward to playing it again! Right now Jonathon Kirk and I are in the beginning stages of a horn & electronics project that will be going up in the fall. I am soooo excited about this! More info on that process soon.

So, changes are happening. New opportunities are coming up. And, hey, I just played a John Williams concert with the man himself conducting, so I must be doing something right, right?


*i would know it - the rehearsal space is two blocks from my apartment
** it's posted


home from BUTI

What was I nervous about? Living in a far-off land (the east coast might as well be a foreign country) for a month, being partially responsible for the education of a bunch of high-schoolers, meeting new people… what could I possibly be nervous about? I shouldn't have been nervous. I was heading to one of the most beautiful and magical places in the world: Tanglewood. It’s so magical it has its own time-zone,Tangletime. Which means when you get there it’s like you never left, and when you leave it’s like you were never there. Or, in the words of Dr. Jen Bill, “long days, short weeks”. And I was going to teach at BUTI (Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and, yes, the acronym’s pronunciation is lost on NO ONE), one of the finest summer programs for high school musicians in this country. But first, I had to move in.

I arrived at Hubbard House to meet the motley crew called my housemates, a group of people I quickly came to love dearly. I learned so much from the cross pollination of living with string players, singers, and a collaborative pianist slash vocal coach.The way a singer knows what rep is the best for their voice (every voice being a unique instrument) is fascinating. What if wind players knew what rep was best for their playing style and personality? Awesome to think of. And the dedication and knowledge of repertoire that comes from being a string player or a vocal coach is a kick in the butt. How cool to live with that for a month!

And then the kids. What amazing kids. That's what it’s all about. I remember these summer programs from my high school years, and remember how formative they were for my early musical career. From my teachers I learned what details to focus on, and how to do so. From my coaches I learned how to interact with my fellow musicians and how to delve into the music as an autonomous ensemble. And mostly I learned from and was inspired by my fellow students. From them I learned how hard I had to work to keep up with the best. I learned the need to be well rounded (as a player and as a person), to be curious, how to stop practicing to play Euchre, how to circular breathe, how to decipher a Macedonian accent (why were there so many Macedonians at Interlochen?). So a huge part of my job is to encourage the students to work with and learn from one another.

I can’t go into details about the students - I wish I could. However, here’s a vague story. A student comes in on day one and doesn't play a particularly good audition. I quickly come up with a couple theories on why. And we get to our first lesson, and it is the student’s first lesson (how is that possible?), and we figure out the problem immediately. By the end of the month, the student is playing brilliantly. It came about by the student's hard work, and the inspiration of the other students, and only a tiny bit from the faculty. And yet, can I tell you how amazing that growth made me feel? I cannot. The right words escape me. Every student came in with a unique tale, and grew in their own unique way. And the same kids who less than a month earlier were struggling to meet the demands and high expectations we placed on them made some amazing music on their final concert. Music that literally brought tears to my eyes. 

Guys, teaching is the best.

because, poulenc

Guys. So, a couple weeks ago I did this instead of practicing. And I decided the world needed to hear it. Even though I am entirely sure that NO ONE WILL LIKE THIS AS MUCH AS I DO. Unrelated blog post coming soon. 

May I recommend a play? Can I do that?

Over this past year, I've been fortunate enough to have attend a decent number of plays in Chicago (thanks, Stephanie!). I've seen big ones, small ones, 'student' ones, staged readings, musicals, and most were mostly good. I saw one this weekend that I will highly recommend to all my musician and non-musician friends: What to Listen For by Kathleen Tolan, at the Side Project Theater.  

I always have a hard time speaking about plays. It's not that I don't feel like I have good things to say, it's just that as a musician I focus on different things than other people. When seeing a musical, I'm judging the songwriting and vocal performances instead of the book; when watching a movie I'm paying attention to whether Adrian Brody is actually trying to play the piano (answer: he did a decent job!). So when a play is billed as featuring Mahler, Schoenberg, Freud, and Glenn Gould, I was prepared either to be spoken to in my native tongue, or to be severely disappointed. I was not severely disappointed.

The play centers on an estranged mother and daughter, the first a music lover, and the later a music student who fled the country to study in Berlin. In various dream-states they meet great historical figures and examine life and relationships through their relationship with Western Art Music past and present. I don't know if Tolan was a serious music student, but if not she's a darn good researcher. An example: Gould's story of the piano and the vaccuum cleaner. Another: the discussion of if Schoenberg's atonality is actually just well disguised tonality. Others may have missed the beauty of these little details, but a formally trained musician doesn't.

While at times the limited budget got in the way (non-equity, bad violin playing, good piano playing on a terrible piano), the outstanding writing was highlighted by Adam Goldstein's solid direction and his imaginative use of resources (shadow puppets ala Manual Cinema!). David Prete played a very convincing Glenn Gould, and has almost certainly watched one of my favorite movies, 32 Short Films. Further applause to Holly Allen (the mother) and to Sally Dolembo (costumes) for nailing Gould's signature look. 

It's only open for another week, so find a time to get there soon. And, let us all give thanks for Chicago's storefront theater tradition!

Beethoven Festival and respect

People have already made the case better than I, and much more eloquent people than I will continue to discuss the topic (you all know who you are), but I want to share a couple of thoughts in regards to International Beethoven Project and its inability to pay the artists who took part in the 2013 iteration of the Beethoven Festival.

As has been said, the catalyst that caused people to speak out publicly was the announcement of the 2014 Beethoven Festival. Lepauw claims that this coming year's festival is “leaner and more efficient”, but the systemic problems which faced last years festival does not lead me to believe that it will run a big enough surplus to pay the dozens and dozens of musicians who are still waiting for those checks, including myself. And that is a slap in the face. It means that Beethoven Festival will go on at the expense of many who believed the project was a good, if ambitious, addition to Chicago life.

Lepauw has written an open letter in response to the uproar on Slippedisc [http://slippedisc.com/2014/06/chicago-cant-pay-for-its-beethoven], and it only lessens his credibility. In the very first paragraph he reports that “ticket sales for the orchestra concerts (the most expensive of the festival) conducted by Matthias Pintscher were dismal.” Does this imply that the orchestra is to blame for the deficit? Did we demand too much money? Did we play at anything but the highest caliber? Is Matthias Pintscher not one of the most dynamic and successful composer/performers alive today? Later he says that the orchestra concerts, “despite their tremendous quality, did not attract much press attention and therefore enough ticket-buyers”. Now the blame is on the press and on the public. (h/t to Seth Brodsky who pointed this out as a great example of 'kettle logic') Most arts organizations know that you cannot expect ticket sales to fund performances – it is irresponsible and unrealistic. Even if that were the biggest issue at hand, the lack of ticket sales is the fault only of the administration of the festival. No one else. And the lack of press? Also on the administration of the festival. 

In that same paragraph, Lepauw blames donors for backing out of their pledges: “of note, certain expected donor pledges did not come in.” Near the end of the article, he says that “loyal donors are giving more than they did last year in order to help us as best they can.” He cannot have it both ways – the same donor base which failed the festival cannot be expected to exceed expectations in the future. [Sidebar to anyone donating money to International Beethoven Project: please use those funds to pay the debts it owes to its most valuable resource, the musicians!!] The failure of donors to follow through with their pledges is, again, the fault only of the administration.

In his response, Lepauw repeated deflects blame from himself and the organization, yet admits to failures which can only be attributed to that organization. If the money has not been raised in the past 9 months while the organization was otherwise idle, how could we possibly expect the money to be raised while planning and executing another expensive, albeit 'much reduced', festival? We musicians have been taken advantage of. Our skills, our time, our efforts, our good will, and our willingness to be patient have all been taken advantage of. And it is not acceptable. Yes, we perform because we love it, and we do it for not enough pay all too often. But we deserve, and demand, respect for what we do, especially from one of our own. Please, George, show us the respect we have shown you. 

on complexity in art

One of the most common criticisms of new music is its alienating complexity. “I don't understand it.” “The composer is being purposefully alienating.” Or, to get it down to one word: “Cacophony.” Do these haters have a point? May I refer these haters to Gyorgy Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, by Richard Steinitz. Regarding the 'Kyrie' from Ligeti's Requiem he writes: 

“Is Ligeti's exacting yet inaudible detail misconceived? If the choral writing is impracticable should it not have been written differently? Judged as craft, the answer might be 'yes'. Judged as art, it could be that means and ends are linked: the effort required intensifies the sense of supplication, the integrity of each anonymous strand authenticates the whole. Judged as history, there is ample evidence for thinking that any accuracy unobtainable in 1965 will consequently be achieved. There are many examples of intellectual fantasy weaving webs that are not easily perceived. Consider Bach's puzzle canons in The Musical Offering and Schumann's cryptic ciphers. Consider how Gothic stonemasons carved sculptures so far aloft that few mortals could see them. The miracles of colour and pattern in the rose windows created by medieval glaziers contain iconography whose detail is overwhelmed by the glory of the whole, although fully to appreciate their pictorial symbolism you need binoculars – invented long after the glass was installed. Whether for the greater glory of God or the inner satisfaction of the artist, unseen craft strengthens the visible achievement.” (pg 149)


"Consider how Gothic stonemasons carved sculptures so far aloft that few mortals could see them." I'm sure there are other ways to discuss the it's too complex argument, and I'd love to hear them. But for me, this strikes a really strong (dodeca)chord.