Monday, August 27, 2012

The Piazza Concert

The man was a retired symphony orchestra musician that had played with of the major orchestras in America. On this particular Sunday afternoon in May he was with his family attending the annual pig festival in the small village of Impruneta just a short distance outside of Florence. The picturesque piazza was alive with booths selling everything from miniaturized icon replicas from Mueso Del Tesoro di Santa Maria Dell'Impruneta e Basilica, to the excellent terracotta pottery that was Impruneta’s specialty. There were also booths for food and drink including the Impruneta pig festival specialty, panino di porchetta, a fresh pork sandwich made from juicy meat just cut from the pig which roasted on a rotating spit; the booth was easy to find, all one needed to do was to follow the mouth watering aroma. There was wine, beer and grappa and at the very next booth there was the vibrant red Sicilian Spremuta, the freshly pressed rich sweet orange juice as red as the Chianti served at the wine booth. And there was cenci, a greasy thin crisp deep fried wafer dipped in powdered sugar, that was far more detrimental to ones health than any doughnut anywhere; cenci are wonderful and are a part of any village festival anywhere in Italy.  

The whole experience was nothing new to the family, they had lived in Toscana for several years and been to many of the festivals that were frequently celebrated in similar villages throughout Toscana and throughout Italy, rabbit festivals, snail festivals, turkey, chicken, garlic, onion, tomato, zucchini, olive and grape festivals; they were always a very particular kind of fun and the family’s enjoyment was only enhanced by their experience.

There were young girls who were desperately trying to find their place in the rich world of Italian fashion, usually with strikingly grotesque results, but with the occasional exceptional appearance of an angelic, budding Sophia Loren who would make a grown man quietly gasp at the potential. Similarly, there were the boys either reaching for or having reached puberty, testing there manhood potential by flexing the decibels of their motorinos and flaunting their undeveloped street wisdom and worldliness.

The man and his family found seats on the terrazza just behind the band that was about to begin their concert. The family ordered a bottle of prosecco and three dishes of sorbetto al lamponi from the bar that many people thought made the best ice cream in Italy.

For several years the man could not sit through any concerts played by any ensemble, it was just too hard for him after playing several concerts a week for thirty-five years, plus the added dimension that these village band concerts were particularly difficult because they all had the common denominator of being overtly terrible. But time had mellowed the man’s phonophobia and he was able to relax and enjoy the rural naïve sonic event that was about to begin, he was even looking forward to it, to him it seemed like a caricature of an Italian comic opera and he found it amusing.

What always confused the family though, was that this festival in the beautiful piazza on a lovely spring day, had no visible joy, no laughter not even smiles. Many of the Toscana festivals were like that; they were somber and austere. The family didn’t know why but they expected it to be that way and they were not surprised nor affected by it in the same way they were when they first arrived in Toscana six years before. Perhaps it was that same dark nature that might explain the creation of the Mafia.

The concert was ready to begin and the family prepared themselves, but the piazza remained unchanged; the people continued doing whatever they were doing and almost no one gave any attention to what was about to happen on the small bandstand. Most people, young and old, male and female were more concerned about the image they displayed as they showed themselves in their village, as if posing for some imaginary magazine cover. There’s an Italian phrase to describe that, it’s called “Fare un Bella Figura”, making a good figure; it’s as Italian as Spaghetti.

As the retired musician took his first sip of prosecco two men passed their table and headed for the bandstand, one was tall, powerfully built and wore a black leather coat, the other was about 6 inches shorter, walked in a very strange way and had a towel around his neck, their faces were not visible. They walked to the stairs that lead to the platform that was the bandstand, and without stopping proceeded to the conductor’s podium. The tall man helped the shorter one get on the podium; they were now the same height. When they turned around and the family saw their faces for the first time, they were momentarily repulsed.

The tall man, about fifty, muscular and mean looking, was well dressed and well groomed, he wore expensive sun glasses and the fine black leather jacket made him look like the kind of man no one would want to disagree with. He stood next to the podium, looked straight ahead and held a blue towel in his hands.

The younger man as far as they could tell was about thirty and was clearly and severely disadvantaged; put in less politically correct language, the young man was severely retarded, severely retarded and the guest conductor for the afternoon’s concert.

The muscular tough looking man in the expensive leather coat with the bodyguard demeanor would take the towel every couple on minutes, wipe the drool from the retarded maestros face and clothing, then the guest conductor of the day would begin waving his hands. The band members knew what piece they were going to play and within seconds the music became recognizable. Sometimes they could finish the piece without the drool needing to be wiped but most of the time the mean looking man would reach over and wipe the drool while the band played.

In the piazza no one broke character, there were no smiles or whispers of how sweet it was to let the poor disadvantaged boy have this wonderful experience. And certainly there were no hints of laughter at the bazaar scenario. The few listeners in the seats that were placed there for the concert were largely expressionless and the public throughout the piazza maintained their pose of “Fare un Bella Figura.” The mean looking man motioned to someone in the band and a fresh towel was immediately brought.

The American was getting uncomfortable, what was happening on that bandstand touched his memory in a way that was just too painful. He leaned over and said something to his family and when the piece the band was playing finished they quietly got up and left the piazza.  

On another continent in another time zone the executive director of a famous symphony orchestra was preparing a young conductor to go on stage for his début concert. Facing the young man he straightened his white bow tie, pushed a portion of his hair into place, took a small towel that always sat on a table by stage entrance and wiped away something from young conductors face. Putting his hands on the young mans shoulders; the executive director paternally adjusted his tails coat and sent the debutant maestro out on stage to start the concert with a traditional “Toi Toi.”  

December 10, 2006, Tokyo

Revised August 27, 2012, Tokyo  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cimbasso - a comeback that’s here to stay

Actually, there are two historical instruments close the hearts of tubists in the midst of a comeback into this 21st century musical world; the cimbasso and the ophiclide. The ophiclide will have a difficult future. Quite simply, it was the best thing available to fill a certain orchestral need of a bass brass instrument during the time of Mendelssohn, Berlioz and even early Wagner. When the tuba arrived just before the beginning of the 20th century it replaced the ophiclide because of one simple reason; it was a better instrument for its purpose, much better.

For a very different reason, the cimbasso just barely survived through the 20th century. Quite simply, most cimbassos of the passed century were not very good instruments, but the idea of a cylindrical bass instrument to the brass family was a good idea, which survived and grew.

The etymology of ‘cimbasso’ is a little illogical and a little awkward. A bass instrument in the cornetto family (The Italian name to a family of wooden instruments from the 17th played with a mouthpiece) was developed in the 19th century, it was called “Cornetto in Basso”. Composers notated the instrument simply as C. in Basso; the copyists of the time didn’t know what it was and wrote it as cinbasso, finally by mistake the N changed to M and CIMBASSO became the name that survived. 
Through most of the 20th century, tubists would see “Cimbasso” written on the music, mostly Italian music, and simply play the part on tuba; that seemed to work well enough. But it was clear, because of the orchestration, that these cimbasso parts were really more of a 4th trombone part, or a contrabass trombone part than a tuba part.

In the early days of Italian band music the trombones were valve trombones, and even now one can find valve trombones played in some of the many village bands found all over Italy. These valve trombones were the instruments that Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini heard in their mind’s ear when they composed their music, and what they heard was quite different than the orchestrational perceptions of their counterparts in Germany. First of all, because these instruments were valve instead of slide instruments, they were capable of greater velocity. This is evident when we compare the virtuoso trombone parts of Rossini to the linier choral writing of Schumann for example.

But another difference, and one that pertains specifically to cimbasso, is the fact that these Italian valve trombones had a brighter timbre because they were smaller bore and because of the turbulence caused by the irregular tubing passing through the valve section. Not so long ago, eighteen years to be exact, I was fortunate to hear a section of valve trombones with cimbasso in the Teatro Communale in Florence when the Maggio Musicale Orchestra was playing an opera by Verdi. The conductor was a man well into his 80s and he wanted the sound he knew best. The sound was special and unique, evident in rhythmic passages reminiscent of the Italian band era. What was most apparent is that cimbasso was the clearly the correct instrument in that setting.

Wagner, in the 19th century, was in the process of forming essentially two brass sections for a single orchestra, one conical, which included horns, Wagner tubas, basstuba and contrabasstuba and the other a section of cylindrical instruments, which included trumpets, basstrumpet, trombones, basstrombone and contrabasstrombone. Through the same period, Verdi and Puccini simply used the their indigenous instruments.

Through the past twenty years a phenomenon has taken place among many tubists, mine went like this: Because I was deeply curious about the possible advantages of the cimbasso and because I was seeking a cylindrical instrument, I had Larry Minick, the extraordinary Los Angeles based brass instrument designer, build me a cimbasso, and the result was superb. For several years I played a few Verdi and Puccini arias during operatic programs but never anything major. The opportunity came when Italian conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of the Verdi Requiem and I decided to use the cimbasso. Suddenly, it became clear that cimbasso was the correct instrument, it just sounded right. And it was especially apparent in the Tuba Mirum; what had always been a task to make tuba work well in this very high-energy part with trumpets and trombones playing their fanfaristic passages on stage and off stage in all directions, became the exact right thing, suddenly and easily. That was the moment I understood why this was such a valuable and characteristic instrument.

Unfortunately, I was approaching the end of my orchestral career and had very few chances to play cimbasso after that, just a few times in the Maggio Musicale Orchestra in Florence. I could not help thinking, though, of the potential this instrument had, in brass quintet, larger brass ensembles, and as a solo instrument. I can only imagine how appropriate cimbasso would sound on the Galliard sonatas or Tom Stevens’s Variations in Olden Style.

Today we are fortunate to have several instrument makers who build very fine cimbassos and it seems inevitable that cimbasso will become a part of the tubist’s required tool kit. I look forward to watching how this instrument develops in the future and I’m a little envious of the younger players of today who will help guide that development.

Tokyo, Japan, September 29, 2007
Revised August 24, 2012, Tokyo, Japan

Monday, August 20, 2012

Brrt - A Mini Rant

I have been fortunate to work this past month in two North American venues and in both cases with some of the finest and most highly esteemed brass players in the world. Both of these locations put me, my colleagues and students in contact with methods and styles that are different than we experience in our home environments and consequently we all left enriched and a little smarter than before we arrived; these stylistic differences are what makes music interesting. However, there is one of these stylistic differences that needs to be addressed.

45 years ago when I moved to Europe for the first time there was a style of brass playing, particularly on horn and tuba, that was played by a few of the unsophisticated (sometimes referred to as “The Old School”) players of that period. I’m sure, I hope, that that style represented a kind of naiveté rather than a deliberate musical decision.

It’s amazing to me that the habit of allowing short notes to split still exists in our world of ever improving brass playing, yet I have heard major world players of both horn and tuba this summer who play short notes with such distorted and uncentered attacks, that many times the tonality of the intended note was absolutely undistinguishable, and sometimes these notes were so short that all we hear is a pitchless “Brrt”. How is this possible in this day and age? Is it that these players have been playing for so long that they no longer listen to themselves; is it that the embouchure is no longer focused and it’s just easier to ignore the problem than to try and fix it? Or perhaps it is by choice; perhaps it’s an effort to bring back the nostalgia of a time past, to bring back “the good old style”. Personally, I am quite embarrassed when I hear this kind of playing and I am very concerned that if younger players might try and imitate it they will never win a job.

I try and remember that there are many ways to play music and the styles available for our listening today in this world are part of the richness of our musical environment; I try to remember that intolerance is a very dangerous thing in general and especially in music, but isn’t there a point that, which if past, we should not accept? Could this habit possibly be a premium example of a tradition that is in reality is a hundred years of bad habits rather than some wonderful aspect of music that we try to preserve?

Just a small observation.

July 2, 2006, Denver, Colorado, USA