Summer season finally over

With the exception of a band concert on the beach on Saturday my summer schedule of weekly rehearsals followed by weekly concerts for both of the bands I’m in is finally over. Phew. Add to that my trips to IHS and the Barry Tuckwell Institute (BTI) it’s been quite a summer. Then there’s the weekly lessons with Lynn and the monthly lessons with Scott Bacon. I have not had much time to actually practice.

My drive back in June from IHS took longer than it should have so I didn’t play my horn for about six days. That resulted, strangely enough, in a big improvement in my playing ability. This improvement lasted for a week or two and then I went to the BTI. I had a fabulous time there but since then my chops have been shot. I have not recovered yet from playing for more than three hours each day.

I’ve tried cutting back my playing time to about an hour from my previous, before BTI, two hours of daily practice. I’ve skipped days here and there. I’ve spent a lot of time practicing long, low notes and easy arpeggios. Nothing is really helping. I’m pretty sure that my band schedule isn’t helping the situation because we play fff almost all the time. Rehearsals run from an hour and a half to two hours and the concerts are an hour.

I’ve managed to barely maintain the level of technical capability I reached since IHS but my tone is pretty bad. It’s fuzzy and screechy. This is my typical problem when I’m having a bad day and I know I’ve mentioned it many times before. Then there are days when I just can’t play anything. I’ve always had bad days here and there, even two or three in a row. I think this current spell of bad days sets a record for me. It’s been three and a half weeks of poor to mediocre playing and no endurance. I’m dealing with this pretty well I think. I’m not rushing out to change mouthpieces or trying to find some gadget that will cure all. I haven’t changed my warmup routine. I’m more annoyed than frustrated. Enough already with this.

I am hoping that when I get back into my normal routine of practicing that this bad spell will get go away.  It’s way more fun to practice when I’m playing at the level of my expectations. If another week goes by without any improvement then I’ll have to dive deeper into what’s going on. Right now I’m still calm.

Expectations –>

David Amram

This is a very long post (which I am now making even longer) but I didn’t want to edit what David Amram wrote. I hope you find his composition and program notes as enjoyable as I did.

I had the pleasure of re-connecting with David Amram at IHS. I had met him many years ago when he studied composition with my mother. At IHS David Amram led a jazz improvisation class that was just superb. Before IHS I hadn’t realized that he played the horn. He also spent some time in Scott Bacon’s booth where he and Rick Todd improvised for at least an hour. What a treat that was!  After this I was able to spend some time talking to him both about his time studying with my mom and what he’s been up to for the past thirty years to which all I can say is wow. David’s a brilliant composer and a truly interesting guy.

Recently he emailed me and provided a link to his 32 minute orchestral work, ‘Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie’, which was commissioned by the Guthrie Foundation. The link leads to a Symphony Silicon Valley world premiere of this piece. I really enjoyed it and decided to share it with my blog readers. The following program notes are written by David.

=====PROGRAM NOTES AND REVIEWS FOR Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie

NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER for
Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie

It was forty-nine years ago, on a cloudy afternoon in 1956 on the Lower East Side of New York that I first met Woody Guthrie. Ahmed Bashir, a friend of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Charles Mingus (with whom I was playing at that time), took me over to meet Woody at his friend’s apartment a few blocks from mine.

Woody was lean, wiry, and brilliant, with a farmerly way that reminded me of the neighbors I grew up with on our farm in Feasterville Pennsylvania during the late 1930s. In the late afternoons after long hours of work, they would often congregate to chew the fat in the side room of Wally Freed’s gas station, across the street from our farm. I used to get fifty cents to mow Wally Freed’s lawn and when I was done and stayed around the gas station, I never got caught while eavesdropping on all the conversations of the local farmers and out-of-work men who would commune at Wally’s for their late afternoon bull sessions after their chores were done. They always told it like it was, without wasting a word or a gesture, leaving space for you to think about what they were saying, and in spite of the grinding seemingly endless horrors of the Great Depression, they had better jokes and stories than most professional comedians or politicians. Woody had this same quality, and I felt at home with him the minute we met.

As Woody, Ahmed Bashir, and I sat swapping tales and drinking coffee at the tiny kitchen table from noon until it was dark outside, Ahmed and I spent most of the time listening to Woody’s long descriptions of his experiences, only sharing ours when he would ask, “What do you fellas think about that?”

The rest of the time, we sat transfixed as he took us on his journeys with him through his stories. Woody didn’t need a guitar to put you under his spell, and you could tell that when he was talking to us, it wasn’t an act or a routine. Like his songs and books and artwork, everything came from the heart.

Looking back at these memorable first few hours with Woody, I still remember the excitement in his voice, as if he himself were rediscovering all the events and sharing them for the first time, as he told Ahmed and me his incredible stories of his youth and subsequent travels. Both Ahmed and I marveled at his encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of music, literature, painting, and politics, which he wove into his narratives, all delivered in a poetic country boy style that was all his own. During these descriptions of his travels and adventures around the country, he often included references to events of his early boyhood days in Okemah.

Ever since that day we first met a half a century ago, I have always hoped that someday I would get the chance to go to his hometown of Okemah, but with my crazy schedule I never had the opportunity to do so. Shortly after Nora Guthrie asked me to compose this piece to honor Woody’s classic song, I was invited to perform at WoodyFest, the annual summer festival in Okemah. I have now done it for the past three summers.

In his hometown, I was able to meet his sister Mary Jo, her late husband, and Woody’s remaining old friends from long ago who were still living there. And by playing music and spending time with people who were also natives of Okemah, I felt that I was able to better understand Woody and his work in a deeper way.

I was now able to make a connection, since that first meeting with Woody half a century ago, to the ensuing years during which I have played countless times with his old friend Pete Seeger and his protege Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and times spent with Woody’s late wife, Marjorie, and the numerous concerts I have participated in with his son, Arlo, over the past thirty-five years.

All this helped me when writing Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.

The opening Theme and Fanfare for the Road has the percussion introduce the actual theme played by the marimba, followed by a fanfare, expressing Woody’s desire to go out on that open road.

Variation l Oklahoma Stomp Dance, is my own melody, depicting Woody attending a nearby Pow Wow and hearing an Oklahoma Stomp Dance of the Western Cherokee, on a Saturday night through dawn of Sunday morning. During the dance, slightly altered versions of the Theme appear, as they do in almost every other variation. The variation ends quietly, joined by fragments of the initial fanfare, blending with the Stomp Dance.

Variation ll Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah is a musical portrait of by gone times. The oboe, clarinet and harp introduce a mournful melody, restated by the strings, and the theme is heard, as Woody heard it in church played on the organ, but with extended harmonies. The theme is later stated by the English horn and harp and traces of the fanfare are woven in with the first melody and distant church chimes are heard as the variation ends.

Variation lll Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance is the beginning of Woody’s journeys from Oklahoma through America. The solo violin introduction to the dance is followed by the double reeds, indicated in the score to sound like Celtic Uilleann Pipes. A lively original melody, composed in the style of Irish folkloric music, is later joined by the trombones and tuba, playing the theme as cantus firmus, in an extended version beneath the dance melody itself.

Variation IV Sonando con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico) is a musical portrait of the Mexican workers with whom Woody spent time, and about whom he wrote some of his most memorable songs. The opening trumpet call, marked in the score to be played cuivre ed eroico, al torero (brassy and heroic, like a bullfight ceremony) is followed by a nostalgic melody in the strings, suggesting the workers dreaming of their home and families south of the border. The melody is developed and leads to a tuba solo, reminiscent of the Mexican polkas played by folk ensembles throughout the West. The principal song-melody returns, with the theme reappearing in the horns, weaving through the Mexican song as an obbligato, showing how Woody could not get this melody and the idea for the song out of his mind.

Variation V. Dust Bowl Dirge, for strings alone, honors the brave people who survived the national nightmare of losing everything during this ecological catastrophe and still found a way to survive. One of Woody’s greatest songs, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know ‘Ya” was reportedly written as a farewell note during one of the terrible storms when it was feared that everyone present with him would suffocate. This minor variation of the theme is played by the violas and then restated by the whole string family.

Variation VI Street Sounds of New York’s Neighborhoods is a compilation of many kinds of music that Woody loved to hear when walking through the neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn, during an era when music was played everywhere out of doors during the warm seasons. We hear the lively sounds of a Caribbean Street Festival, with the rhythms of the West Indies,Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and the theme appears in counterpoint in the middle of the march. this is followed by a Klezmer Wedding Celebration and the festive sounds of a middle Eastern Bazaar, where again the theme is used with the exotic sounds of Greek, Turkish and Armenian music superimposed over it. We ten hear the brass family play a hymn-like version of the theme (again using harmonies far from the three chords of the original song) evoking a Salvation Army band, which was a fixture on many corners of New York City’s neighborhoods during the late 1940s.

The same harmonies are used for a short section entitled Block Party Jam, often an occurrence to welcome returning veterans of World War Two to their neighborhoods, where jazz bands played celebratory as well as innovative music.

Finally the theme returns in a stately fashion with the original fanfare of the road playing in counterpoint, followed by a rousing conclusion restating the opening of the piece and a triumphant ending.

Just as in the case of Beethoven’s’ Symphony No. 6 in F major Pastorale, where he titles each movement with a brief description, the program notes for Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie serve as a guide to listener but are not essential to enjoy the piece.

The biographical nature of Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, served as a point of departure to write the best piece that I could, just as Hector  Berlioz did when composed Harold in Italy, inspired by the life and times of Lord Byron.

I receved invaluable  help from the research provided by Nora Guthrie, as well the inspiration when performing the song  in concerts over the years with  her brother Arlo, All this helped me to write the piece. I also thank my children for understanding why I often seemed to disappear for long stretches of time while putting in endless hours day and night to complete this new piece. And I thank Woody Guthrie for sharing his gifts with the world, which enables all  us today to feel welcome in those pastures of plenty which he sang to us about. This piece is a thank you note to him for all the joy his spirit still gives to people all over the world.

Summer season finally over –>

International Horn Symposium Final Thoughts

I’m very glad I went. It was total immersion in everything about horns for 6 days.

What I liked:

Performances all the time. From about 11 am you could attend concerts for the rest of the day and evening.

The opportunity to hear phenomenal hornists play great music. They had an excellent list of great artists.

Good selections of music. From baroque to contemporary to jazz, every type was covered including some world premieres.

A huge amount of lectures to attend covering many different subjects.

Master classes. I learned a lot attending these.

Many horn choir ensembles to choose from if you were a reasonable good hornist.

Tons of horns to test (though for the most part I was too intimidated to try many of them – too many really, really good players in the same room.)

What I didn’t like so much:

The evening performances were in a grand ballroom instead of the auditorium. This made it very difficult to see the performers, especially Annamia Larsson. She is so short that I think only the first row could see her. They had a makeshift stage for some of the performers but if a piano was used the soloist was on the floor.

Too many conflicting events. There were many times when I wanted to go to two different things at the same time. They should have repeated the lectures at a different time slot.

The exhibitors had mostly horns and sheet music and not too many gizmos. I like gizmos a lot but it’s completely understandable why the exhibitors concentrated on horns.

No opportunity to play in small ensembles – e.g. trios, quartets, quintets, etc.

No description about what the horn choirs were going to play and the level of difficulty. If I hadn’t had dinner with the conductor who did the Royal Fireworks I wouldn’t have gone to that ensemble because I would have thought it was too hard for me.

A slight overemphasis of contemporary music which really isn’t my thing.

Oops –>

International Horn Symposium Day 6

Phew. Day 6 seemed endless, but in a good way. My day started with rehearsals for our performances at the final concert. We went over some troublesome spots and then did a run through in both ensembles. The conductor for the Royal Fireworks was very picky, as he should be, and he knew exactly how he wanted the piece played.

The next lecture I went to should have been called, “Name the Horn Player.” It was a wonderful session where we listened to old recordings – around 1925 through 1975 – of some major Strauss works and had to identify the hornist playing the solos. Mason Jones, Alan Civil, and Farkas were a few of them but I don’t remember the others.

Then I went to the luncheon banquet where we heard the usual thank you speeches and then more performances, some of them quite funny. e.g. playing garden hoses and conch shells. The food was good but no dessert. Odd for a banquet. (Not that I should be eating any of that.)

In the afternoon I went to a session featuring an excellent quintet and the topic was how did the principle horn play differently in a quintet compared to an orchestra. He said that he always has to listen carefully to what’s going on in the piece and blend appropriately regardless of the size of the group. He went on to say that he can’t play out as much in the quintet so that he doesn’t drown everyone else out. After the quintet session I went to an interesting session on the natural horn and the style of horns used beginning with the baroque period and moving forward.

The final concert began at 7 pm and didn’t end until 11 pm. Yikes. They really tried to cram too much in and by the time my two ensembles went on stage half the audience had left. The concert started out with the winners from the competitions held the other day. The fellow who one the solo horn competition played Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro very well. Numerous soloists followed, all excellent.

They had alphorns play four pieces that to me were completely indistinguishable from each other. I think two would have been plenty.  Then they did this thing called soundpainting. The players learn gestures which the conductor uses to get the players to make certain types of sound. No written music is used. Not my cup of tea. You know you’re in trouble when someone comes on stage with the horns in a leotard and bare feet.

Finally, after all this, the ensembles (I think 7 ensembles total) got to play. I didn’t hear any of them because we had to wait backstage for our turn. The ones I was in were third from last and last. I played pretty well considering it was well after 10 pm when we got started. I think both of the ensembles I was in played very well and my last ensemble (playing Royal Fireworks) got a standing ovation. Of course, it could be that the audience was just getting up to leave.

International Horn Symposium Final Thoughts –>

International Horn Symposium Day 5

This morning I started the day by going to the adult amateur ensemble where we are rehearsing “Legend of Sleeping Bear” by Eric Ewazen for the final concert on Sunday evening. This work is coming along nicely. We rehearsed it and then played it through once. We have one more short rehearsal tomorrow morning. I think it will be fine.

I also went to another ensemble that will be playing “Music for the Royal Fireworks” by Handel. The horn choir arrangement of this is done so that anyone of any level of playing can manage one of the parts. The 1st horn part is hard and high, the 2nd is not quite so high but has a big range and also is hard. From there they progress so that by the 8th, 9th and 10th parts they are relatively easy. I got the 10th horn part – nice and easy. This will be the final piece played at the Sunday night finale. Everyone knows this work and I think it’s a great one to end the symposium with.

In both pieces there are parts, including the parts I am playing, with bass clef. There were quite a few participants that asked for parts without bass clef. I was surprised but happy that there was something I can actually do that other much more advanced players couldn’t. I can’t transpose worth a darn yet but I can read bass clef from my piano playing days.

One of the things I am really enjoying is getting experience with different conductors. Between the two that conduct the community bands I’m in and the two here I am getting exposure to four different styles. This is not something that I would be able to experience without attending these events. The conductor of the Handel piece spent about 5 minutes discussing tuning and how to do it right. You’d think that tuning would be demanded by every conductor but this ensemble is the only one where we actually tuned up. At my community bands someone plays a tuning note but no one seems to pay any attention to it.

The rest of the day was jam packed with performances as usual. Most of the performances were by winners of various competitions that have been going on during the week. There were new compositions by the winners of the IHS composition contests, solo horn competition winners, jazz solo competition finals and horn ensemble competition finals. It’s just incredible how much music one gets to hear at this symposium. Everyday there seems to be more and more. Almost all of it is truly outstanding.

I haven’t done much practicing this week – playing yes, practicing no – so it will be interesting to see where I am once I get home. I took it easy on the drive out here so I got to hotels well before dinner time and was able to practice in the late afternoon but I’m planning on pushing it to get home so I expect that I will have two full days of no playing. This could be very good or not – I’ll know on Wednesday.

International Horn Symposium Day 6 –>

International Horn Symposium Day 4

I opted against going to the warm-ups this morning and it’s a good thing I did. I heard at the adult amateur ensemble session that the warm-ups were brutal. Full 4 octave range across all keys for starters. Most of the people that attended the warm-ups had some trouble playing in the ensemble. I always thought that the idea of warm-ups was to warm-up, not to kill the day before it even starts.

The amateur ensemble went well. The conductor upped the tempo to performance level and I still kept up and played well. Phew. We will be performing on Sunday evening. 

The rest of the day was loaded with performances, almost all of them fantastic. Jan Boen performed several excellent pieces by Jan Bach. He really played brilliantly. (See the description on this CD about the pieces Jan Boen played.) Jacek Muzyk performed the Suite for Cello in G Major by J. S. Bach.  Mr. Muzyk is technically excellent but I found the musicality a bit lacking. I felt his performance to be quite robotic. 

The evening concert began with The Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse quartet. They were a delight to listen to and they interjected a lot of humor into their performance which kept us laughing. Annamia Larsson (popularly known for her You Tube performance of the Siegfried Long Call) and Jeff Nelson were the featured artists for tonight’s concert. Both were amazing. Between the two of them they played for well over an hour individually and together. My chops hurt just watching them. IMHO, this was the best evening concert so far.

International Horn Symposium Day 5 –>

Naughty Horn

Hans has been misbehaving ever since he first arrived in my home. He just doesn’t play nicely with others. Numerous sessions in his time out corner haven’t helped either. Big Bertha, my mother’s piano, also gets quite upset when Hans misbehaves, especially since she can’t do anything about it. She’s got this nice equal temperament and she just can’t help herself. See, Hans problem is that he plays sharp even though I try to keep pointed objects away from him. 

I spent quite a lot of time with Hans parents, Herr and Frau Hoyer, here at IHS. They were quite surprised to learn about his bad behavior. They said he was behaving nicely when he left Germany though they admitted that they really didn’t spend a lot of time with him before he left home. I responded that whether or not their parenting skills were good or bad, Hans behavior was just unacceptable. 

I dropped Hans off with his parents and told them that they needed to play with him and see his bad behavior first hand. I pointed out that when he plays with his cousins in band that they don’t like him very much though I admitted that they have their own share of problems. One of Hans relatives from Germany on his father’s side saw his behavior first hand and gave Hans a good talking to but that didn’t help much.

Since several of Hans brothers and sisters were there, they decided to pay more attention to their behavior as well. Hans parents were very surprised to see that they also exhibited the same bad behavior. Something seems to have gone wrong during gestation for Hans and all of his siblings. At first they suggested that I just accept his bad behavior and be more accommodating of his flaws. Then they suggested giving him some Ritalen to flatten him down. I said no, that we really needed a cure not a cover up or band-aid and that Ritalen is not the be all and end all for behavior problems. 

I really didn’t have to push much to have Herr and Frau Hoyer agree that they needed to do something permanent to end Hans’ problem. They decided that they needed to modify parts of Hans anatomy but assured me that they would send me the necessary parts to do this. I said they had to do it quickly because Hans relationship with Big Bertha was going sour really fast. 

Poor Hans, all this time I thought he was just misbehaving and it turns out that he really can’t help himself.

International Horn Symposium Day 4 –>