Friday, April 9, 2010

Aspen Music Festival Music Director Quits. Unexpectedly?

I can certainly pin point my formative years and specific life changing moments. It's hard to forget them. Sometimes they serve as a rite of passage, others are traumatic events that can leave us forever tainted. Some remain engraved in our memories as the happiest days of our lives.

My dad always told me to enjoy my life as a student. And that I did, to a fault. 

I spent my college years obsessing over a cylindrical metal object with holes and keys: the flute. Pierre the slightly arrogant gold flute, Sparky the playful but twisted silver one and Hercules (aka Mariah) the piccolo. And five of those summers were a privilege at the Aspen Music Festival and School. I still have all the programs, an endless myriad of pictures, lifelong friendships, and exponential personal, artistic and professional growth. 

During my summers there I wore a fedora and I was nicknamed Indiana Jew. I hiked, I jumped off of a cliff (paraglide), I pseudo-climbed mountains experiencing epic views of the continental divide, I cooked to make money, ushered, had a few love affairs, drank too much, gorged in the local gourmet cuisine, house sat, became a dog walker, developed a love for 70s tunes (at the Tipler), I organized a rafting trip, I learned that I loved working with kids (thanks to a wonderful Debbie Barnekow whose dog Sadie threw up on me), lost weight, gained weight, was featured on one of those wedding shows, and developed a crush on my roommate and had my heart broken.

Oh yes, and then there was the music. 

I could name drop for days: conductors, musicians, administrators, lecturers, etc. But the first time I was introduced to David Zinman was a day I would not forget. Bonita Boyd, my teacher at Eastman where I did my undergrad had played under his baton for many years at the Rochester Philharmonic. She introduced me to him and his wife as they were walking their enormous but quirky poodle.

There were many influential musical and aesthetic moments. Whether it was playing Prokofiev's Classical Symphony at superhuman speed - I felt as smoke should come out of my keys and the woodwind section should spontaneously combust -  earning the first flute fellowship, and blasting the alto flute part on the Rite of Spring, David Zinman conducting.

David Zinman recently and abruptly quit, although it was brewing slowly like the orgasmic cadence in Tristan's Prelude. The festival was recently shortened for a week, the CEO fired and rehired, faculty cuts and disagreements as fundraising goals were missed and tensions arose out of financial concerns. This is not unique to the Aspen Music Festival (pause) and School, but rather general economic difficulties that plague almost all arts non-profits. What would Michael Kaiser say to this? How would he handle it.

I think we are all watching to see what Alan Fletcher, the president and CEO will do. Or is he perhaps the next in line to go elsewhere. Most non-profits are revolving doors, although I remember Aspen being quite stable during my time from 1997-2001. Whether it was Dean Hal's presence and his dog Copland, I am thrilled that I was given the opportunity to experience Aspen.

So, who will follow David Zinman? Any guesses? 

1. Flute studio with Nadine Asin and Murry Sidlin after a performance of Steve Reich's Vermont Counterpoint for way too many flutes, piccolos and altos.
2. My first catered lunch at Martha Aarons masterclass. 
3. A drive to independence pass with roommates, sushi chef from Takasushi and friends. 
4. Martha Aarons and I after a ridiculous performance of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony
5. Flute section with Mark Sparks after honking the hell out of Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin. 

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Making Contemporary Music Relevant

Have we lost our way? Have the arts become so esoteric in artists' efforts to find a new voice that we no longer have an access point? Has artistic and aesthetic language expanded so much that one needs a deciphering dictionary to have a chance at relating?

The answer is no. A big resounding no. But a a hint, a lending hand, and a tour guide is definitely helpful. Anthony Brandt, a composer with Musiqa, explains that art is progressing, but its direction cannot be foreshadowed. Unlike technology where there may be some directed research, in the arts, if it can be imagined now, there is nothing stopping from realizing it now. It's an interesting comparison. Perhaps in certain circumstances the expectation of new technology can open more tools of expression. But it does seem that foretelling artistic direction seems futile.

In the short time that I have been exposed to Musiqa's concerts, I have appreciated their ability to bridge a formal concert experience with an informal salon setting. With the addition of comfortable and personal introductions, contemporary music changes from the wrongfully given cold, intellectual and incomprehensible reputation to energetic, accessible, and dare I say cool and trendy? Music by dead composers is so yesterday. Add some delicacies by Monica Pope's Plum Catering and I am sold.

"Imaginary Scenes" presented a well balanced program of Music by Musiqa composers Rob Smith, Karim Al-Zand, as well as Stockhausen, Wynton Marsalis, Hamza el Din choreographed by Houston Ballet's own Stanton Welch.

Rob Smith's Hot Seat (1997) balanced a sense of danger from wild and unpredictable syncopations, sexy interrupted burlesque jazz and flowing transparent liquid imagery. Karim Al-Zand's Imaginary Scenes (2005) presented four thematically and compositionally cohesive pieces in somewhat symphonic form. Sonorities are pseudo drunk impressionist. If the love child of Debussy and Ravel married Francaix then developed a drinking problem and Freudian psychosis, it would explain the light smirky and, at times, somewhat twisted affect. 

For those that do not think musical performance is an athletic feat, Stockhausen's The Little Harlequin (1975) left me breathless. The demands placed on clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro near implausibility with the inclusion of rhythmical foot stomps, jumps, twirls, yoga tree poses and constant movement while executing virtuosic passages that reach beyond most people's concept of the clarinet's higher range.

Collaborating with Houston Ballet II, Stanton Welch choreographed the only notated movement of Hamza El Din's Fingerprints (1971). Originally for the oud (arabic lute), El Din transcribed it for the Kronos Quartet and tar,  a single-headed frame drum from North Africa and the Middle East. Satisfying my love for ethnic music and exotic sonorities, the effect was tantalizing and hypnotic. Coupled dancers appeared and disappeared seamlessly with flowing and somewhat stylized movement that echoed the music's strength. The zebra print fluid skirts magnified and intensified the physical movements, adding a natural and almost supernatural element. The costumes by London based designer Kandis Cook allowed dancers to unify creating pseudo mythological imagery.

If you missed this, it's your loss.

Picture: Stanton Welch answering a questions about the costumes (they were NOT skirts). From right to left: Karim Al-Zand, Rob Smith and Anthony Brandt.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Once Upon a time...Our Late Night

Once upon a time, it was the dawn of time, it was a dark and stormy night, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and call me Ishmael are amidst the most well known opening lines. Although most of them are tired clichés that give most middle school teachers heart burn, we can't help be drawn to them. Perhaps Our Late Night can be in a similar category as the start of a series of pseudo implausible stories that we tell in order to sensationalize our evening and elevate our social butterfly insanity status in front of friends and colleagues. Why the need to do that? I am sure that is entrenched and pre-programmed not unlike wanting to kill father and sleep with mother.

It is difficult to categorize and criticize Catastrophic Theatre's productions, but one surely can react to them. I am always up for a program that warns that it is "recommended for brave audiences with strong constitutions." Anything that keeps me thinking, laughing and saying what the fuck the next morning has certainly met the goal of challenging and expanding my aesthetic and cultural experiential vocabulary. 

Wallace Shawn, as an actor, is perhaps better known for awkward dorky roles such as love challenged Mr. Hall in Clueless. But as a playwright, his work is dark, sexually and politically charged with a dash of controversy. From Shawn's perspective, Our Late Night explores the necessity of dreams and the differences between daytime (as influenced by aesthetic objects) and nighttime slumber.

We all have had somewhat surreal evenings where perhaps due to our own idiosyncrasies sprinkled with chemicals have led to bizarre situations, or perhaps, bizarre recollection of the situations. Our Late Night hones in and out of cohesive and broken conversations between seven colorful characters. At times we connect, at times we laugh at the ridiculousness, at times we feel uncomfortable and creepy, like intruding in what should be private moments: Voyeurism. Seems like that is the theme du jour.

Are we all really that dark but afraid to blurt out our inner most fetishes and fantasies? I could almost compare Our Late Night  to the intersection of German expressionism, Magritte-esque sexual surrealism with a hint of freudian psychosis. At any rate, Catastrophic Theater lives up to their reputation, "we will destroy you."

Highly recommended. You may never think of jelly, the tropics, and feathers in the same fashion again. Playing through April 3rd at Diverseworks

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Once upon a time...there was a flute

The flute, in any of its versions, holds a unique place in cultural, folkloric and mythological traditions and history. Yes, the flute is special. May I dare say much more so than any other instrument? Perhaps the drum comes close. The Indians have the bansuri (Krishna apparently was a virtuoso), the Chinese have the "di", Japanese have the shakuhachi, the Armenians have the sring, the Irish fife, the Incan quena, nose flutes, the ney, xiao, kaval, danso, anasazi, zampoña, ocarina, and the biggest of all, yes, the organ.

Meeting a Native American flute maker at the Bayou City Arts Festival opened up my eyes to the cool history and aesthetic associations of the instrument, both in terms of the western concert flute and others. 

I am reminded of the delicious, sensual and smokey opening of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d-un faune, where the flute exposes a sense of eroticism mirroring the Stephane Mallarme poem, its main inspiration. It describes a faun's encounters with water nymphs in a pseudo-dreamlike state after waking up from his afternoon slumber (pictured left is Manet's depiction of the faune). The exotic chromaticism of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé ravishing flute solo awakens the memory of Pan (god of shepherd, flocks, mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music) who made a flute out of reeds to commemorate his love for Syrinx (a nymph known for her chastity) who was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound to avoid him. The name of the pan flute is derived from this story.  The tale is deliciously hot. At any rate, is it time for a cigarette?

And then there's Syrinx, the solo flute piece by Debussy, based on Pan's sadness for losing his love. Death. Tragedy. Passion. Another cigarette. Add a martini. 

Popular in the baroque period and largely ignored in romanticism other than a few Brahms solos in his first and fourth symphony and a Schubert tour the force (yes and some other horribly cheesy theme and variations), my talk with Gillermo Martinze made me think about the special attributes that would allow the flute to make a comeback and become a favorite among impressionist and post-impressionist composers. Guillermo Martinez reminded me about one more trait: spirituality and the supernatural. 

I am not referring to Mozart's Die Zauberflöte or Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice but rather legends of its origins. Native American culture links the flute to the spirit world and has, just as many cultures have their own creation story, many legends that give its birth a supernatural element. To read a few, click here. Whether the impressionists were aware of this at a conscious or unconscious level is of no concern to me, but rather justification for using it to carry this type of symbolism.

Gillermo's flutes themselves bridge the craft of instrument making with spiritual and artful elements. Inspired by dreams and visions, Gillermo incorporates the horse in this gorgeous creation. The horse symbol is widespread through many cultures as the emblem of the life force and is assigned the attributes of the four elements: Earth, Fire, Air and Water. In Native American culture specifically, it combines the grounded power of the Earth with the whispers of wisdom found in the spirit winds. The horse is a honored helper and messenger. It harbors spirit knowledge and is considered an wild emblem of freedom. There is mutual respect, awareness, and responsibility when man enters into a silent contract with the animal.

I love when instrument making goes beyond craft. To learn more about Gillermo and his flutes, visit