Tuesday, September 28, 2021

 


 Monsters


September 2021

Late last night, while exploring the the long lost dark corners of my  computer, I found this essay I had written in circa 1995. Perhaps it might be interesting or at least entertaining today.


Are we the way we are because of the instrument we chose or did we choose our instrument because of the way we are? 


So frequently the tuba plays the role of the heavy, the villain, that we have to wonder if it’s had any effect on us after a long period of time. Or it could be that just because of our inner character, we were attracted to an instrument that could partially release the latent monster that exists in all of us?


The tuba monsters are many and how we choose to play these monster passages can have a big effect on the beast we represent. My first encounter with a tuba monster was the Peasant with a Bear in the Petrushka Ballet by Stravinsky. I’ve heard that solo played so many ways: as a lovable huggable teddy bear, a pompous quasi-elegant bear and even on a few occasions a sickly wheezy asthmatic bear. Through the 35 years of my orchestral playing I have played that solo hundreds of times and through those seasons the evolution of that bear changed into quite a different beast  then it was when I started. 


Petrushka was the first piece I played on my first concert on my first job with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in September 1956, I was 18, and as luck would have it just five minutes before the concert started part of the mechanism of my 2nd valve broke and the tuba was unplayable. An announcement was made that ‘the tubist’s valve fell off’ and it was being repaired. In fact, the stage crew fixed the valve with one drop of solder that held it together until the concert was over, at which time it promptly fell apart again. That bear that night was a very scared, tuba conscious bear! In the last years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the same bear had evolved into a very menacing, savage, salivating, wild-eyed and Godzillaesque bear! That was big fun! I played that solo several times with Stravinsky himself conducting and one morning, after playing it in a concert the night before, he came up to me during a recording session and told me that last night was the best bear he had heard; on the concert that night it was a very proud and happy bear. 


In 1967 in Ankara, Turkey, while on a world tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. From my hotel room, I heard a commotion from the street. Looking out the window, I saw a man beating a drum making as much noise as possible. On the end of a leash he had a small black bear who he was trying to make dance. Not the image I had in my mind for the Petrushka scene!


One of my symphonic regrets is that I never got the opportunity to play any of the Wagner Ring Opera material that contained the famous Fafner motif. Fafner, the dragon that guarded the Rheingold, and that Siegfried eventually slew, has become rather controversial. Although I’ve never played it, it still has passed through an evolution in my minds ear.


This brings us to a discussion of the ubiquitous BBb vs. CC tuba controversy. In symphonic music the German tradition requires all contrabass tuba parts to be played on the BBb, in most of the rest of the world these parts are usually played on the CC. The Germans claim that Wagner wrote for the BBb tuba because that is what he wanted; without question, the Germans are correct about this. But I’ve always wondered why they don’t play the BBb double slide contrabasstrombone, which is also what Wagner wrote for, instead of the F contrabass trombone that is used in Germany today. 


My favorite tuba topic is: What would the composer have used if the instruments of today were available? Again, we’re back to the conservative vs. the liberal; the traditionalist vs. the visionary; again I point out that tuba, being the youngest instrument to be accepted in the symphony orchestra family and tubists, who have made monumental progress in all aspects of their musical life, have a very definite propensity toward the liberal view: because of their short history there is very little tradition to fall back on. Of course, we really don’t know what Wagner or any other composer would have done if today’s instruments were available but we can certainly make educated guesses.


The trumpet has always been ahead of the tuba in instrumental sophistication. It’s not unusual to see a trumpet player take several instruments on stage for a symphony or brass quintet concert, or to see a soloist use several instruments. Notwithstanding travel logistics and economics, why should tubists settle for anything less? Why not use a Tenor (our piccolo trumpet!), a G, an F, an Eb, a D a CC, and a BBb just like the trumpet players, all that diverse equipment helps trumpet players to be more versatile and ultimately to sound better. 


But let’s go back to monsters and specifically Fafner; what kind of a dragon is Fafner? I’ve seen the opera once and heard the music many times and frankly, most of the time, I got the impression that Fafner was a toothless castrato dragon! Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Hollywood but in my mind’s ear I hear Fafner as a far more visceral and menacing monster than what we usually hear. What would Wagner have done with today’s sonic vocabulary? I think the result would be quite different and a lot scarier. I’m amazed that with a composer like Wagner, whose operas frequently receive high praise for their very modern and contemporary scenic design, that we tubists are required to be such strict traditionalists.


John Williams, perhaps the greatest of all the monster music composers, wrote one of the most powerful tuba passages ever in Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the scene where the extraterrestrial space ship lands on Earth. Hollywood tubist Jim Self brilliantly played this three part contrapuntal passage (all three parts overdubbed by Jim) on F tuba with octave divider. We’ve never heard power, clarity and fluency like that in the low register before, could that have had the same power and energy if it were played in the sounding octave on a BBb tuba?


Another masterpiece of monster music was the John Williams’s sound track of Jaws, the theme we hear when the shark was approaching, also played brilliantly by Tommy Johnson Johnson. That was really scary! Sadly, the Jabba the Hutt music by John Williams was not played in the Star Wars Return of the Jedi film but it’s played frequently in concert and may be the greatest piece of monster music we have.


Personally, I was saddened by the sound track for Jurassic Park; what a natural for the tuba, but sadly, that’s not the way John Williams saw it. I like to imagine what he might have written for a tyrannosaurs rex motif, even more, I like to imagine playing it. 


Elizabeth Raum had a very clear sonic picture of the tuba’s potential monster characterization when she wrote A little Monster Music for STUBA, the now defunct Swiss tuba ensemble from Lausanne, Switzerland. Her monsters in this wonderful suite: Nessie, The Hydra, Fafner and St. George and the Dragon, are four distinctly different beasts.   


I had the occasion once to ask Henry Mancinni why he wrote that cute little tune for Eb clarinet and piccolo for the sound track of Elephant Walk, “What else are you going to write for elephants?” was his answer. I couldn’t think of a response!


Even music for the tuba that is not purposely written as the sonic personification of something monster like often takes on an ominous character. My personal name for such passages, whether they are fragments or extended, is “Doomsday Licks”.  


And yet again we return to the same question: Were we born to play doomsday licks or does playing doomsday licks for an extended period of time effect us? If so, how?!


Discovered September 28, 2021 Oaxaca, Mexico


Friday, August 27, 2021

 Balance


It was 1952, the New York Philharmonic was in Los Angeles for concerts and I was solo driving my fathers 1952 Chevrolet to the Wilshire Hilton Hotel to take my first lesson with my hero William Bell. I remember that lesson, he taught me take short sniffs through my nose so I could play through a long passage of fast notes without distorting the rhythm when I took a breath; it worked. He also suggested that I puff my cheeks a little to avoid the corners of my lips creating a “smile” embouchure; it also worked.  


After the lesson Mr. Bell invited me to go with him to the concert so I could listen from back stage. I was aware what an enormous privilege this was and I was very excited. Programed on the concert that afternoon was Brahms 1st Symphony, the trombone section, Gordon Pulis, Louis Van Haney and Allen Ostrander, had found the quietest place they could find backstage to rehearse the famous trombone choral in the fourth movement. I had never heard anything so beautiful in my life, the intonation was perfect, it was perfectly together, and the balance was perfect, it was beautiful and it left a life long impression on me; that happened 69 years ago.


As with so many retired symphony musicians, since I took my sabbatical in 1989 I had almost stopped listening to any symphonic music. I don’t know the reason for this, but at the same time COVID hit and forced me to cancel an extended USA and Europe tour, I found myself listening to music, particularly symphonic music ….. and particularly Mahler symphonies.


After searching and listening I finally discovered a list of all the Mahler symphonies performed by the Lucern Festival Orchestra with Claudio Abbado conducting. I was amazed by the superb level of playing throughout the whole orchestra particularly symphonies 2, 3, 7, and 9. The strings were great and the basses were the best I had ever heard. The woodwinds were perfection and the brass were awesome as were the percussion.


I’m struck by many great orchestras today where a potentially great section has one player that plays louder than the others or one player plays softer than the others. The Lucern Festival Orchestra seemed to me to be perfect in balance whether in ff or pp. 

I spent a great deal of time going through the online performance and specifying specific passages in the brass that serve as wonderful examples of perfectly balanced section playing. However, it seems much more respectful to just recommend, to my readers, to listen to to that recording of Mahler 3rd Symphony played by Claudio Abbato and the Lucern Festival Orchestra and enjoy the abundant excellence. 


However, I can’t refrain from mentioning the beautiful choral which starts at the coda 1 hour 30 minutes in to the recording; it starts pp with four trumpets and one trombone and crescendos to mf with four trumpets and four trombones all with a felt cover on their bells; it’s absolutely as magical to this old symphonic veteran as that New York Philharmonic trombone section was back stage in Los Angeles to that 15 year old, 69 years ago.


Roger Bobo August 27, 2021, Oaxaca, Mexico

Thursday, April 29, 2021


Tubas in G and D

In 1955, while returning home from 8 weeks in Interlochen, the National Music camp in Michigan, I had made arrangements to stop in Chicago and meet Arnold Jacobs. I had an eight hour layover between the train from Travis City to Chicago and the train from Chicago to Los Angeles; even 66 years ago Arnold Jacobs held the reputation of being the center of knowledge and wisdom of all things regarding tuba. I was absolutely not disappointed. 

He invited me into his house where he immediately guided me into his basement, where he kept all his tubas and a formidable array of medical equipment with which he could measure every aspect of the human body in regard to playing the tuba.

He would talk and every word he said was something incredibly meaningful to my young and hungry mind. He would invite me to play and begin his amazing fountain of knowledge again. Finally, I asked what was that small silver tuba in the corner. He told me that that was a tuba in F; he had it because the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, Fritz Rainer, sometimes wanted him to play a smaller tuba. He picked it up and handed it to me and said,"Play it". I think he told me it was an Alexander tuba. I was involved only that it was silver, shiny and to my mind something exotic and unknown.. It felt like I was test driving a Lamborghini, it would do everything I wanted it to do.

Six years later, as a member of the Rochester Philharmonic I had an F tuba of my own. In a performance of Bruckner 7th symphony I used it on the first and 3rd movements and I understood the difference between a Contrabasstuba and a basstuba; Bruckner understood very well what he was doing when  he specified basstuba in the 1st and 3rd movements and, contrabasstuba in the 2nd and 4th movements. 

As the years passed I had the extraordinary opportunity to experiment in Rochester, Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Florence and I learned how the general ambiance of a symphony orchestra was effected greatly by the equipment the tubist used. I also learned that with the influence of the trombones and the brass at large, plus, of course, the conductor, the decision which instrument worked best was largely the decision of the tubist.

In the 1950s, there was a rumor that the Lockie Music Exchange, the exclusive importer of Miraphone instruments, was in possession of a G tuba; How could this be, where did this rumor come from?

Miraphone -- called Mirafone then -- after the war was a Czech company among companies like Cherveny and Fuchs. In the early 50s Mirafone made the move with many of its workers to Waldkraiberg, Germany where it remained a Czech community for several years, working mostly for the military market.

German and Czech military bands in the post WW2 period built the instruments very high in pitch for brilliance, meaning a tuba in F was really in F#. It's my belief that this G tuba was an F# tuba originally made as a small military band instrument, it probably stayed in storage at the Lockie Music Exchange in Los Angeles for years. Having heard this rumor for several years and imagining the uses that a G tuba could have, I asked Lockie Music Exchange if I could possibly get a G tuba; it was given to me after two days!.

I never used it as a solo instrument although the potential as a solo instrument was great. I did use in   certain works by Berlioz, such as, Romeo and Juliet Overture and Benvenuto Cellini Overture and where the instrument shined most was Prelude to the 3rd act of Lohengrin by Wagner. (The first entrance where the theme is in the high octave).

The ophicleide parts of Berlioz on F tuba are sometimes to massive to blend with the trombones in those Berlioz unisons, when the F tuba is played at the volume to reach the exciting sound suitable for those unison passages, it becomes too dominant to blend with the trombones. With the G tuba I could play at a high volume and still be a part of the trombones.

There is a movement presently to actually use ophicleides on these passages which work wonderfully when the whole orchestra is using period instruments but ophicleides have a difficult time holding up with the sound of a modern symphony brass section.

Many symphony tubists prefer to choose one or two tubas and play beautifully for their whole career with those same instruments. Personally, my tendency to changing instruments was inspired by observing how trumpet players change instruments in dealing with diverse repertoires. Of course, trumpetists change when their repertoire appears as trumpet in A, Bb, C, D Eb, F, G and sometimes more, but the most interesting observation has been when because they believe a passage or a whole symphony sounds best on a specific instrument. That is the modal I used in selecting an appropriate instrument. two things: It makes the music sound as good as possible and it makes the job extraordinary more interesting. 

This brings my blog to a short discussion of why I needed a D tuba! Quite simply, I was just curious. I had an extremely fine Meraphone 184 (small C tuba) and with a small Besson Eb bell, great as it was I rarely used it and I imagined what it might be like if it were cut down to be a D tuba. Upon completion it turned out to be one of the best tubas I ever played; carefully, I began using it in the orchestra, I started with Brahms 2nd in D major, Dvorak 8th and 9th. It fit beautifully.

Both instruments are with old students now; the G in Japan and the D in the USA. I think both instruments might be for sale if anyone might be interested. Something wonderful for the curious minded tubist. Granted, the market for a fine G and a fine D tuba is small but I can tell you they are both superb and special instruments.

Curiosity: The more we explore, the more we learn, the more we learn the better wen sound.

Roger Bobo, April 30, 2021, Oaxaca, Mexico

Thursday, March 25, 2021

 


Specters Reunion

It seems my most successful essays for TubaNews are the ones that have dealt more with specific aspects of our instrumental function rather than broader thoughts regarding the world of music. I hope I can write about both.

For issue 3 of TubaNews (A Tuba Magazine of 20 years ago) I wrote the essay, "Specters", about some of the interesting people, those who would follow the various orchestras that I had played in through the years in our rehearsals and concerts.

Sadly, the stories of an old man who played in the Moscow Youth Orchestra when Tchaikovsky would bring by a new score by to hear the orchestration or another old man in another part of the world had a big part of his life rewriting symphony scores with all the inaudible orchestration deleted, do not hold the same interest as rotary vs. piston valves or "Is Bigger Better?" To me that's sad.

In any case, I saw these specters again a few days ago.

My daughter Melody was visiting for the last two weeks and as a finale for the visit I arranged that we would spend three days in Kyoto at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Ryokans are famous for being havens of rest and tranquility and this one in Kyoto was no exception; entering one could feel ones pulse slowing, a wonderful nights sleep was guaranteed. That first night in the ryokan was one of the best nights sleep I've had in a long time.

Suddenly the fragrance of eucalyptus filled the air and the sunlight was fragmented as it shined through the high branches of the many trees. The old dirt road that was the driveway was just as it always had been. I was surprised not to be surprised being there, it seemed perfectly natural, nor was I surprised to be standing with the specters that I had been seeing at orchestra rehearsals and concerts for the last 48 years.

The two old men were there, the one from the Moscow Youth Orchestra and the deleter of orchestration; they stood next to each other looking similar and yet very different. The beautiful young girl dressed in white holding the red rose stood a little apart from the old men and the elegant old woman dressed in high fashion of Europe in the 1920s stood far apart from the other three at the end of the driveway where it met the road. She was just as always, standing very properly and smiling at the strange group of people standing on the driveway. I had no idea who this old woman was but she had the look of how I imagined Clara Schumann or Alma Mahler might appear. She was truly a specter.

"It's amazing to see you here," addressing the two old men first. "I only got to talk to you once and shortly after that you both disappeared. I wanted to talk again to both of you but never got the chance. I knew you in Rochester and I knew you in Los Angeles, do you know each other?"

The man from the Moscow Youth Orchestra answered first. "We know each other now."

"I remember so well your story about Tchaikovsky conducting his 5th Symphony to hear the orchestration; I wanted to hear more stories but never had the chance. Did other famous composers conduct your orchestra?"

"Oh yes, Rimsky-Korsakov used to come, sometimes we would play some of his works but many times he would come and play some of the works of Mussorgsky, he was always editing and reorchestrating Mussorgsky's works, the last time he came we played Night on Bald Mountain.

Talking to both men, I said, "It's really strange that one of you had such personal experience with the orchestrations of some of the worlds great composers and the other spent a big part of your life deleting orchestration and rewriting scores of great composers without the inaudible orchestration. What ever became of that project?"

He answered, "I put all the work in the attic of my sisters house in Rochester, I took the last stack of work there just a few weeks before I left your world."

"Do you know where the work is now?" I asked.

"It was a long time ago, all I can tell you is that it was the green house on Kansas St. in Rochester."

"How many people knew about the work you were doing?"

"I don't think anybody, my sister knew I was doing something with music but she never understood what it was."

The other man interupted, "when I was a young man in Moscow my big fascination was the orchestration so I think you can understand how very strange it sounds to me that someone would spend a large part of their life simplifying the orchestration of the worlds masterworks. What started you on such an odd project?"

The deleter answered, "I was never a good musician, I played piano as a boy but I have been a concert goer all my life, after hearing many of the great works many times it seemed just a natural thing to ask about the necessity of all this inaudible orchestration. I'm not even sure I believe in it but it was a study that I dedicated my life to."

"As a study I can see a little interest but I believe I can predict almost exactly what my conclusion would be if it were possible to hear your modified scores. When you see someone sleeping how do you know whether he is sleeping or dead?

"You can see and hear them breathing"

"Yes, and that's what orchestration is, it's the life of the music, the breath of the music."

After a short pause, I thought to myself, "I would like to find that green house on Kansas St. in Rochester and spend a day listening to those scores, we would learn a lot."

As the two men continued their conversation on orchestration I turned my attention to the girl in white holding the red rose. "I know you, we knew each other in Los Angeles; I suddenly remember your name, your name is Phyllis, you worked in the administration of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I remember that you were sweet and you were wise."

"I'm not really Phyllis, I only look like Phyllis, you chose that I would look like her."

"But who are you then?"

"You know me, you have seen me many times but I've looked very different every time I came to visit you."

"But who are you?"

"I'm really a teacher, you could call me a guide and you should just think of me as a friend"

"Have you come to teach me?"

"Not this time, this is just a visit to say hello and to talk."

"Somehow you make me feel special, but why have you come here and where are you when you are not here."

She was laughing and clearly enjoying this conversation. "Ha-ha, I have many people I like to visit, they are all different and all interesting. Some are curious like you and some are very frightened, but they all can learn."

"What is it that you teach?"

Still amused, "I never know what I will teach or even if I will teach, a better question would be what do you want to learn."

"There are only two questions I have right now. Who are the old man and woman who live in that house down these stairs. It seems I've known them for a long time and what is that strange language they speak, I've never understood it and I couldn't learn it"

"They were just caretakers, they were the caretakers of that house and they were your caretakers. Many times, but not always, the caretakers speak a strange language and when that's the case those who they are caring for develop extraordinary skills at communication."

"Can you tell me who the old woman is who is standing at the end of the driveway, I've seen her so many times all over the world, always listening and moving with symphony music. Who is she?"

"She is always around symphonic music but most of the time you can't see her, you are very lucky. We're going to go now, enjoy the rest of your vacation. Goodbye."

Before I could say goodbye the eucalyptus aroma blended into the wonderful smell of steam and cedar from the tub in the ryokan and the first sight was the small Japanese garden just out the sliding door. It was a wonderful nights sleep, Kyoto and ryokans are very special.

Kyoto, Japan, January 19, 2006


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Specters




Specters


In In the places and in the ensembles where I’ve lived and played, there seemed to always be a number of followers, people that were just there, day to day and year to year. It didn’t seem to be important where or what the ensemble was; it was almost as though it was the same people, whether it was Rochester in the 50s, Amsterdam in the 60s, Los Angeles in the late 60s, 70s and 80s or Florence in the 90’s. They sat in the hall and listened to the rehearsals, usually in the same seat, and usually they wore the same clothes. There was the elegant old woman who would move to the music, whatever it was she was listening to, as though she had conducted it numerous times. There was the old man with an intense, brooding, Beethovenesque expression on his face, looking always very critical and writing in a notebook and there was the attractive young girl holding a single rose with a look and demeanor from generations passed.

Generally, there was very little communication between these groupie specters and the musicians in the orchestra. When the rehearsal was over these followers and the orchestra musicians found there own exits into their own worlds, and most of the time we never saw these people other than from our seat in the orchestra

In my years with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra between the 56/57 season and the 61/62 seasons, there was such a man. Although totally benign, he had that look of intensity and concentration, like the busts of a brooding Beethoven that I’ve seen in concert halls where I’ve played all over the world. He was present at most of the rehearsals during those 6 years I played in Rochester, and as he listened he was always writing; he had a score and he had manuscript paper.

One morning in rehearsal, when I wasn’t playing the concerto, I went into the hall to listen to the soloist and by chance sat directly behind the old man. Quickly, I lost interest in the rehearsal and found myself completely captivated by what this old man was writing. Basically, he was crossing certain things out of the score, but it wasn’t clear what or why. When the break arrived I introduced myself and asked what he was doing. He was very surprised, it may have been the first time he had ever talked to an orchestra member, and he was quite excited that someone was interested.

I was amazed as he told me of his lifetime project. For the past 20 years this old man had been attending rehearsals, listening and crossing out all the orchestration that was not audible. He would cross out what he couldn’t hear and go home and rewrite the score without all the superfluous and inaudible passages. At this point he reached into his old, worn briefcase and handed me a complete handwritten score to Brahms 2nd Symphony with all the passages he couldn’t hear deleted.

Of course, the easy reaction to this story is to envision it as the crazy ideas of an eccentric old man. But wait! Wouldn’t it be interesting to spend a day with an orchestra reading this man’s modifications and give his 20-year project a moment of consideration? Who knows for sure what we would hear. Surely we would be a little smarter by the end of that day.

It’s sad. Nobody knows this mans name. Nobody knows where he lived, and nobody knows where the material of this 20-year project is. What we would have learned is probably lost forever.

A symphony orchestra tubist is blessed or damned, depending on your point of view on any particular day, with an embarrassment of inactive time; the most difficult part of the job was to remember where you are and where to come in. Symphony orchestra tubists have lots of time to observe, to think and to dream. I used to joke that I was the highest paid symphony orchestra musician in the USA per note! Maybe it was even true. I wonder how many kilometers I walked in my 35 years of full time orchestra playing, while I paced back and forth back stage during tacit tuba parts.

During my years in Los Angeles, after returning from two years with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, an incredibly similar old man to the one that deleted inaudible orchestration was still visible; he was there all the time, year after year, brooding and intensely listening. It was in the Hollywood Bowl, which was the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

I had seen him out in the amphitheater of Hollywood Bowl for a couple of years before the day came when we found ourselves walking from the parking lot together for a morning rehearsal. We greeted each other; I heard that he had a thick Eastern Europe accent and I asked him where he was from. “Russia, I was born in Moscow.”

“What’s your connection with symphonic music? I’ve seen you out in the audience almost every rehearsal for a couple of years.”

“I’m a musician. I used to play percussion. I played in the Moscow Youth Symphony when I was a boy.”

Like the old man in Rochester, it seemed this was the first time he had had contact with anyone in the orchestra; this is not because of rudeness of orchestra musicians but simply because the paths almost never crossed. I listened and as we walked toward the stage. I began wishing it was a lot further away, wishing that walk would last a very long time and wishing the rehearsal wasn’t going to start in five minutes.

“I played in the Moscow Youth Orchestra in my teen age years. We used to rehearse every Saturday. I played timpani. I loved playing, and I still miss it even today. We had great conductors come and work with us. Sometimes Tchaikovsky would come and play something he wrote with us, just to see how it sounded with the orchestration. Once he brought in the Andante Cantabile from the 5th Symphony. "Oh!, you should have heard that boy who played 1st horn, oh!; he was such a wonderful player. I think Tchaikovsky loved him; after the reading of the part with the horn solo, Tchaikovsky stopped the orchestra; he was crying and he walked through the orchestra to the boy who played the solo and gave him a big kiss on the lips… "Well, I’ll go take my seat now, enjoy your rehearsal, Goodbye".

I couldn’t wait to meet him again. I saw him a couple of more times that week from the stage but I was preoccupied with other things, and then I never saw him again. I had never even asked his name.

In the 70,s there were two strange women who became almost a peripheral part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One was young and in her 20’s. She usually dressed in white and held a red rose in her hands. At performances, during the applause, she would stand up and hold the rose to her heart with a haunted look on her face. She reminded me of a young girl who I remember having seen in a film, or perhaps films, who was in love with a young Beethoven or some other classical superstar; she was essentially a nineteenth century groupie following her object of infatuation from concert to concert. I talked to this girl several times and found her very attractive; she was intelligent, multi lingual and the personification of how I would imagine a sophisticated 19th century girl. Even with my proclivity to younger women this girl in fact was about 100 years too old for me and my 20th century 60’s fads and fashions. The last I heard she had fallen in love with a fencing master. Perhaps she had found her compatible time zone.

During the same period there was another misplaced person from another time. This woman was old, surely in her 80’s, and dressed in the high fashion style of Europe in the 1920’s. Who was she and why was she following us on our tours throughout the United States and Europe? She had a chronic smile, as if painted on her face, which was very disconcerting as she moved with the music, every phrase and every note! She was a true specter.

Neither of these chronologically misplaced women were ever seen at the same time and in my science fiction, Star Trek episode imagination I mused that these two women might be the same entity, a time traveler that for some reason was attracted to the symphony orchestras of the 20th century. I wonder if she (they) is (are) ever seen anymore. I hope she has found what she was looking for.

Edinburgh, Scotland. April, 2004.  





Thursday, February 18, 2021

Time and Perception


Once, a long time ago (maybe it was 1946) a new 1st trombone player joined an orchestra far away; he was by far the best brass player in the orchestra. The other players in the orchestra were what we call now "old school," and it clearly stayed "old school" for many years after the new 1st trombonist arrived; the horns were primitive, the trumpets were symphonically ignorant and the trombones and tuba were pretty much the same. They did the thing all untrained brass players do; they played late. The new trombone player was the only one who made an effort to be on time. Of course, in comparison with the other brass he was always early. As time passed and more experienced players began to join the orchestra slowly the brass section started to play on time, all except the 1st trombone player (who wasn't new anymore); he had been ahead of the section for so many years that when things finally got corrected it didn't seem right to him. His perception of what was correct was simply ahead of the rest of the section. Therefore he continued to play ahead all the way to the day he retired.


During these years of adjustment a new and younger 1st trombonist came into the orchestra. He was intelligent, a wonderful musician and a student of the older 1st trombonist. He immediately realized that his teacher was always early and found himself becoming very frustrated. Sharing that common quality that all great brass players seem to have, stubbornness, the new trombonist soon developed the habit of always being behind his teacher because he knew if he was with him he would be early. 25 years after the older trombonist passed away, his replacement was still playing late and thinking he was right. He had been playing late to his teacher for so many years that not being behind felt wrong. Finally, when the new trombonist reached retirement the problem seemed to resolve. It took 50 years to correct the time perception problem in the section!


And in another place long ago and far away there was a remarkable young trombonist and composer, it was in the early 70s. He was so far ahead of the rest of us that he captured our imaginations, our vision and pointed out to us a new direction. He knew that he was in new territory and that he was opening minds; he liked his role in the avant garde as the enfant terrible. He liked blowing minds and creating new sounds. Today he is a brilliant, perhaps genius composer, and he is charismatic. His avant garde school, though, has become an old-fashioned school, and he's still fighting the same old fight. Now frustrated because he is loosing the fight, he finds that most people think his music is ugly and vulgar. While he was stuck being the outrageous enfant terrible, the rest of the world passed him by and left him behind, yet his perception of himself in the musical world has not changed with the times.


Here's the artistic danger sequence: Motivation, Perception, Growth, Dogma, then Stagnation. It didn't happen to Stravinsky, he grew until he died. It hasn't happened to Boulez or Rostroprovitch. I'm afraid of it. If it happens to me, I will know it is time to stop.


When the pensioners sit on a bench and stare at the sea, what do they think about?


Between Tokyo and Hiroshima, Japan. November 15, 2004.






Sunday, January 10, 2021

This blog was actually written twenty years ago in Lausanne, Switzerland at the time when I had just started to learn how to write. I hope now, twenty years later and at a time when democracy is on everyone's mind, it will be an interesting read.

RB

 

Is Music a Democracy?

 

Frequently, while giving masterclasses, I will ask students to play a passage several different ways and then ask the class to vote on which they preferred. The results are always interesting and enlightening, but then I ask the class this question; “Is music a democracy and do their vote results necessarily indicate the best musical option?” With that question, people are usually reluctant to show an opinion; that’s a good thing, I hope it means they’re thinking about it.

 

Symphony orchestras, for example, are probably among the last vestiges of a non-democracy we have and possibly could be called a “good dictatorship”! A successful musical performance needs a strong musical personality and strong musical personalities occur far more frequently in the individual than the collective. The conductor of a symphony orchestra holds a very powerful position, a position that almost requires he be a dictator; musical decisions need to be made singularly. Assuming the conductor is a powerful musical personality, and a wise, kind and sensitive person, everything should be okay! … Well, that’s a huge assumption! We all know that not all conductors are powerful musical personalities, kind, wise and sensitive. Still, music needs that individualism to project to a listener. How to deal with conductor incompetence and power abuse is a delicate matter to be addressed by orchestra committees and administrations, however, this article is about the need for individualism in musical performance.

 

I once played in a brass quintet made up of five men with five very strong and distinct personalities, musical and otherwise, each of who were qualified to make musical decisions and to present memorable performances. Sometimes, during nostalgic moments, when I listen to the old LPs we recorded (now safely stored in my computer), I hear very little of those strong personalities which should have been apparent and extraordinary; quite simply, the powerful musical personalities just weren’t there! Why? Was it that perhaps the personalities were too strong; perhaps it was just easier to compromise the individualism for the sake of peace during rehearsals; or perhaps those five strong personalities were simply incompatible, or the brilliant individual colors just neutralized each other to shades of gray. I may never know an accurate answer.

 

Since I moved to Europe it has been a pleasure to be invited as a judge for many brass ensembles, especially brass quintet competitions. In listening to hundreds of quintets, three things have become evident: 

 

1. There could be no weak link in the ensemble, all the members had to be great players. 

 

2. They had to project some kind of positivity while performing; this could be called “joy” for want of a better word. 

 

3. And all the truly great groups, the winners, had a leader. It was abundantly clear that the winning groups had a musical leader that, with his or her strong personal musicality, influenced the other players. This became very apparent when the same quintet participated over the years and we, the judges, could hear the influence of that musical leader growing among the other players through time.

 

There were groups that played perfectly together and projected no musical personality whatsoever. These groups, absolutely amazed by not being advanced to further rounds, were invariably the ones who would approach the judges, demanding an explanation as to why. Trying to explain was not easy.

 

It’s interesting to vote in a masterclass situation and see what pleases most people, but just like testing mouthpieces for a group of colleagues, the final decision has to come from the individual. 

 

Have the courage to be an individual, have the courage to be unique, it will serve you, it well take you further.

 

Tokyo, September 6, 2005