Wednesday, August 31, 2016

REVIEW: "Maestro" a documentary

The task of presenting classical music to a new audience is daunting.  One must be encouraging yet careful in their enthusiasm in order to spread the word….These days, there are still a number of musicians that perform this music like a massive ring of fire. World renowned conductor, Paavo Järvi is arguably at the top of the list and is featured in the appropriately-titled film documentary, “Maestro”.  

As Pierre Bezukhov watches the French invasion of Russia in “War and Peace”, so Paavo Järvi watches the vibrance and struggles of working as a successful classical musician in today’s multi-layered world.  Writer and director, David Donnelly shows us a unique approach to film making.  Rather than making this a documentary only about Järvi, “Maestro” is more a film about the riches of classical music, for which Järvi is the lead character.  

As we look at Paavo Järvi’s life growing up in Estonia and then his studies in Los Angeles with Leonard Bernstein, we see that for him, the music is all that matters.  It is a value instilled in him through his genuine love for it after the horrors of living in Estonia occupied by the Soviets.  Even in his later successful career, this devotion continues as he tries to balance his musical life and the life he has with his two children.  

Amidst all this, Donnelly provides us with pivotal moments, seeing the riches of classical music through clips of rehearsals and performances led by Maestro Järvi, intermixed with interviews of young aspiring musicians and of music’s finest like Hilary Hahn and Joshua Bell, commenting on Järvi’s great influence on the podium. 

Throughout it all, Paavo Järvi is shown to be a genuine leader of his orchestras. He GUIDES them to do the best performance possible, rather than dictating.  Järvi considers himself a servant of the music, stating “I get to work with the greatest geniuses in human history.”

At the climax of the film, the celebrated pianist, Lang Lang, scorches through the last few minutes of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 with an enthusiasm aided by Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris. One could guess that anyone new to this genre, seeing this performance, would be in love with it immediately. 

“Maestro” gives an approach to classical music that is encouraging to new listeners, but with a benevolent attitude.  In a perfect world, the music should speak for itself.  But as Järvi suggests: “Somebody has to open a door for you and say ‘Ok, listen. Come with me. Listen to this. What do you think of this?’” .  “Maestro” accomplishes that.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rodgers/Hart: My Funny Valentine

Yes, the song "My Funny Valentine" composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart is indeed a great pop standard which is well known by all music lovers.  But I just got reacquainted with this song via watching a portion of the show "American Idol" when Harry Connick Jr. coached a young female singer into an awareness of the story behind this classic.  Originally, this girl hadn't a clue what this song was about and Harry Connick Jr. politely, yet firmly, gave her a bit of insight into the insecurities of Lorenz Hart's life.  He pointed out to her that one should know the story behind a song before one sings it.  For me, it was a wonderful addition of depth to an otherwise commercially abject TV show.  This segment also made me want to explore this song and its origins a little more.

"My Funny Valentine"  was originally one of many great songs from the Rodgers and Hart 1937 musical "Babes in Arms".  It tells the story of a young man and woman, Valentine and Billie, who want to put on a new and hopefully successful vaudeville show.  In "My Funny Valentine", Billie pokes fun at some of Valentine's physical imperfections, but she ultimately affirms that he makes her happy and that she doesn't want him to change.   Let alone the song's effectiveness in the musical it comes out of, "My Funny Valentine" seems to speak to those of us who are insecure about our own physical appearance.  Just for a perspective, here are the words for those of you that don't know it:

My Funny Valentine.
Sweet comic Valentine.
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable.
Yet you're my favorite work of art.
Is your Figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little week?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But don't change your hair for me.
Not if you care for me.
Stay little Valentine stay.
Each day is Valentines day.

These beautiful words represent the solace that we all need to hear when we deal with our own crippling fallibilities.  The lyricist, Lorenz Hart perhaps dealt with this issue more than anybody.

Despite his great success in the theatre world, Lorenz Hart was a humble and insecure man who dealt with his problems through his writing and his alcoholism.  In addition to being a repressed homosexual in early 20th century America, Hart was a short and average looking man who was tortured by what he felt he lacked in an assuming world of glamour and physical perfection.  I can only speculate  that his lyrics from "My Funny Valentine"  represent the words that no one ever told him in real life.   He seems to have created a fictional person who adores him despite his receding hairline and his 5 foot physical stature.   Like most artists, Hart spoke through his work because he felt that he couldn't do it as affectively when talking to someone.  So this song is likely the most autobiographical piece of everything he wrote.   And perhaps one of the biggest reasons for its continuing success, in addition to Richard Rodgers seemingly perfect musical setting, is that we are all, Lorenz Hart.   

We all feel a similar pain and insecurity as he did. We all desperately want to bare our soul to people that we are fond of, whether it be on a date or otherwise.  But we're afraid to do this because it could come off as annoying and pathetic, especially since we don't "look" good enough.  So we stay silent.  But Lorenz Hart, in all his genius, bares his soul through these words he created. And we, the repressed and tortured, can feed off and benefit from it.  Through the means of song, we are no longer annoying and pathetic. We are touching and meaningful.  "My Funny Valentine" says the unsaid, and sings to our most vulnerable selves.   Perhaps, the muse that sings this song to us is, in its origin, fictional, but it still helps us to move on and face our uncertain future.  We are given a great hope through this song that we're not alone and that there's ultimately someone out there that will love and adore all of us regardless of all our flaws.   Solace, incarnate!  

There are, of course, many great renditions of this work, but I'm partial to the version below by Ella Fitzgerald.  Another great artist who dealt with her own distinctive hardship growing up. Thank you Rodgers and Hart for giving so much of yourselves in order to create this masterpiece among many others.  And thank you Harry Connick Jr. for reacquainting me with it.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"Klinghoffer" at the Met

In all the years I've been a musician, I haven't been very vocal when it came to controversial issues in the Arts or otherwise.  I'm not a politician and I usually try to speak through the music I write or perform.   But sometimes, one must speak for real when one is concerned for musicians who have been smeared with lousy rhetoric based on rumor and imperfect knowledge.  This came to play with the hoopla surrounding  John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" and its performance at the Metropolitan Opera last Monday.  Yes, it has been noticed by a wider public, but only because of the assumed controversy of anti-semitism behind it.  Not for its more relevant and important feature: THE SCORE.  And every time I think about that, it just makes me a little bit mad.

Nonetheless, on Monday, October 20, 2014, the conductor, David Robertson walked into the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera to conduct this masterpiece which tells the true and horrific story of an innocent wheelchair bound man, Leon Klinghoffer, who was killed and thrown overboard from an Italian cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists.  As Maestro Robertson walked to the podium, the audience reacted with a thunderous applause that I haven't heard in a long time. The audience, responded with the utmost pride and appreciation for these brave and wonderful musicians who were willing to perform this seemingly controversial opera, despite the very vocal crowd protesting outside Lincoln Center.  If he wanted to, Maestro Robertson could have just stood on the podium for a full minute or two and absorbed our tremendous and enthusiastic applause, but instead, the Maestro simply took his appreciative bow and turned around to conduct. A true professional.  

We, the audience, were also very proud of ourselves.  We were not swayed by the loud group of rhetorical protesters that we dealt with outside as we went through the barricade into Lincoln Center with our tickets in hand.  We knew that most of that angry crowd had neither seen or heard "Klinghoffer" and they had only read portions of the libretto out of context without hearing any of the music associated with it.  Therefore, this crowd had no cause for complaint in our eyes. A lot of us audience members knew this opera very well since its premiere in 1991.  And those who didn't know it simply wanted to see a great performance.  Nothing more natural.  The combination of all of these situations was what resulted into the elevated enthusiasm that we, the audience greeted our performers with.  Again, we were very proud of performers as well as ourselves.

I wish I can say that the performance went off unscathed, but sure enough, in the middle of Act 1, a protester who sneaked in with his ticket chanted repeatedly: "The Murder of Leon Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!".  Fortunately, security got to him quickly and removed him.  Even if this man had chanted: "The square root of 9 is 3!", it wouldn't matter that he was right.  There is never a good reason to interrupt hard working performers while they're in performance. When you do things like that, it is only a detriment to your cause and the people you represent.  Not only was it mean, but down right stupid and self damaging.  For better or for worse, often, our tactics speak far more volumes than the causes behind them.  All this man did was reinforce our love for this opera.

Fortunately, the rest of the performance of "Klinghoffer" went more smoothly. And at the end, we applauded even more enthusiastically than before.  Bows for the chorus, dancers, soloists, Maestro Robertson and the orchestra were greeted with our enthusiastic and huge appreciation.  But the best and biggest reaction from us was reserved for the composer.  When John Adams walked onto the stage to take his bow, we couldn't resist letting it all out.  It was deafening!  It was footstomping!  It was beautiful.  Both the audience and the people on stage went through an experience that was akin to riding a canoe down a rapid and uneasy stream.  And not only did we make it to the end, but we were touched by the journey along the way.  It was a true vindication for artists and lovers of the Arts!


Monday, October 14, 2013

Genre issues

So I just had a wonderful time in Cincinnati last week.  Why was it wonderful? Violin Concerto was just World Premiered there!  Beautifully performed in Memorial Hall by the dynamic Violinist Tatiana Berman along with the Constella Festival Chamber Ensemble, all under the baton of the awesome Maestro, Paavo Järvi.  Yep, it was pretty cool.  An enthusiastic audience, great reviews, the works! Did it I have a great time or what?! 

So I get back home to New York, still in euphoria from my premiere.  But now I have to try and figure out how to get this piece noticed by an even bigger audience.  This is a real burden.  Yes, the premiere in Cincinnati was a success, but it was only a local success.  It has yet to be heard by the rest of the world.  And I'm not just talking about the Classical world.  Every time I hear a work I love, I have this unquenchable desire to present this music to people who have no idea of it's existence.  Most notably, the American pop culture.  Yet, for some reason, there's this feeling of impotence in our ability to make that happen. 

Why is this the case?  There are probably many answers to this question, but I have a big one for you:  The classical world is too arrogant and the pop culture is too ignorant!  Yes, when it boils down to it, that's the bottom line.  I don't care what anybody says.

The powers that be in the classical world preach mainly to it's own choir.  The already converted.  It seems that they have no idea that there's a bigger world out there to show this wonderful music to.  They're afraid that it won't be understood by the rest of the world and therefore, not worth the effort to put it out there.  And whenever I meet someone who's not a classical musician (aka pop culture), usually they are amazed that there are people like me who are still alive and doing this sort of thing.  This is followed by comments along the line of: "I really appreciate what you do. ", "You must be really smart.", or the cringing,  "I just don't know enough about it in order to listen to it."

Music is not meant to be understood!!  Only to be heard!! And if, for some reason, you don't "get it", maybe it's not your fault.  Maybe............the composer just sucks!  So, no matter how simple or how complex the music is, we composers have just one purpose, to WOW an audience!  Every single musical genre on Earth has that goal.   Even this one!

As the years go by, more and more, I tend to agree with my good friend and composer Gene Pritsker with regard to his philosophy of the different genres of music.  That all these terms (classical, pop, jazz, etc) should be boiled down to just one:  Music of the Western Tradition.  I've always admired this concept of Gene's, but I never fully agreed.  It seems to imply a kind of musical anarchy.  Without any guidelines or ability to put into words the kind of music some of us are specifically involved with.  And yet, maybe that's not such a bad thing these days.  It is, after all, more about the music itself and not as much about where it comes from.   Maybe it's not that necessary to put it into words.  Maybe, as Duke Ellington famously said: "If it sounds good, it is good.".   I'll just have to get back to you on that one.

In the meantime, for you people who are interested, but not sure about the music I'm talking about, here are a few pieces I recommend that you google:

John Adams: Shaker Loops
James Macmillan: The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Wojciech Kilar: Orawa
Steve Reich: Cello Counterpoint
Jennifer Higdon: Blue Cathedral
Colin Matthews: Forth Sonata
Erkki- Sven Tüür: Exodus
Peter Schickele: Sextet
Carla Bley: Birds of Paradise
Kevin Puts: Silent Night

There are too many more to mention of course, but I think these works are great to start with.  They're all just as great to listen to as any pop song.  Go for it!  You've got nothing to lose.  And.......... OK.....I guess I should promote myself a little.

Charles Coleman: Streetscape

And I think my Violin Concerto is pretty good too.  I can't wait for you to hear it.   :)


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

An artist's vent

Well, it's been a year and a half since my last post here. A lot has happened since then. The death of my beloved mom, Ann Coleman. A major CD/Download came out with two of my orchestral works on it. And I've been having a little battle with my own self confidence, debating whether or not I have what it takes to survive in this uncertain world we now live in. Although I am an optimist in the long term, I am nonetheless marred with some short term self doubt mixed with the seeming indifference of our society.

Every now and then, when someone I meet hears that I'm a composer who writes for the concert hall (not just because I like it, but it's the work I get mostly), I am often asked if I would ever consider writing more "accessible" music, ala pop, commercial, main stream, etc. Usually I get very annoyed when I hear that. Mainly because it's already assumed that I write esoteric music that is liked only by a small intellectual crowd and the person asking hasn't even heard a note of what I've written!

As I've said in previous posts, it's very clear to me that all great music from all walks of life have an innate quality and expression that any listener would be affected by regardless of genre. Music is simply meant to be heard, not understood. Ok, maybe that sounds a little trite, but I think I proved this theory recently.

About a week ago, a CD entitled "American Portraits" arrived in stores all over the world. It contains two of my works "Streetscape" and "Deep Woods" along with the great music of Jennifer Higdon, Carter Pann, Jonathan Bailey Holland and Kevin Puts, performed by the awesome Maestro Paavo Järvi leading the awesome Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Naturally, I wanted it to be noticed. So I brought a personal copy of it to a record store in my neighborhood in NYC that would be played there all day in public. And within two days of it's release, all the copies there were sold!

This is clear proof to me that the subject of genre has absolutely nothing to do with how great a piece of music is. These customers were in the store hearing from the speakers this music of mine as well as that of Higdon, Pann, Holland and Puts. They were clearly affected by what they heard and decided to purchase. Nothing more natural.

Of course I was thrilled with this at the time. But later, I was sad because this happened only in one store and I didn't have the means and ability to get the CD played publicly like this in any of the other stores here and abroad. It's very perplexing to think that a simple gesture of getting a great recording heard in public wouldn't be made because the music is originally assumed to be esoteric and boring without even being heard in the first place.

A lot of us living artists are thought to be moral outcasts. Most of the jobs that I'm able to get are usually brief (commissions, teaching, singing gigs,etc) and these jobs irregularly come and go. It's very hard to find anything more permanent, and god help me, I've searched. Nonetheless, I am still dependent on family and friends to help me out now and then. I know I'm not the only one, but it still hurts and it makes me want to yell out sometimes.

I'm very tempted to assess blame for this current state that we artists are in. I often think of a certain powerful group of composers in the mid 20th century that seemed to write music that sounded more like a research activity than actual music (you composers know who I'm talking about). But this attitude may be more reflective of my own personal state of mind rather than the actual truth. And that's something I can't ignore. The fact is, before we judge anyone that we don't like, we still have to look at ourselves first. And that's very hard to do.

But a nice little thing happened recently. One night I was in a bar in my neighborhood and I had a great conversation with the bartender Pamela, a really cute, jaw dropping red head wearing dark glasses and a stunning tank top that almost made me drool. When she discovered that I was a composer, she then said to me: "Charles, I know this is a stupid question, but what exactly is a symphony?".

When she said that to me, instead of the usual "do you write commercial music" crap, I felt like a million bucks! It was like being in a nasty and humid swamp and finding that one beautiful sun flower. It showed me that we artists are still relevant and we all have a decent shot at getting that earthbound immortality that we're all looking for (whatever that is). Maybe I'm making too much of this little thing, but sometimes it's only the little things in life that matter. My mom certainly taught me that. Anyway, I gave Pamela a more or less concise description of what a symphony is and she didn't seem bored. :)

Overall, I'm still very proud to be an American composer and I'm proud of the works I've written. And lord knows that I truly appreciate the love and support from my family and friends who like what I do. I guess this means I'm not done yet.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

To be relevant

Well....I admit it. I'm kind of an eccentric.

Among my numerous oddities, I tend to conduct in public when I'm listening to my awesome ipod. Often I try to repress this kind of enthusiasm, but it's seems impossible to do that when you're listening to the 4th movement, Adagio from Mahler's 9th Symphony. There's so much orchestral passion and harmonic beauty in that piece, that you desperately want to share it with everyone within walking distance. Something that makes you feel worthy of their presence. Although I might occasionally get stared at in public, I accept it. I need the work to be heard on the street through my conducting gestures. We're it not for me, it would not be heard of. It makes me feel "relevant".

We artists are unusually proud of the work that we do. And when we feel unnoticed, we seem to have an unquenchable desire to spread the word. Some of us even go so far as to make alcohol induced gestures like chiming in on other people's conversations because we feel so "important".

The fact is that most artists from all walks of life have a truly intimate knowledge of numerous different works. We are transfixed by the inner detail within the pieces that we worship. This inner detail that we listen to seems to grab us in the same way that moths obsess at flying to that hot light that will ultimately kill them.

My God! I still can't get over that f---ing Cello line in measures 57-59 of the aforementioned Mahler. It's so exquisite! And it works so beautifully in conjunction with the other strings. WE GOTTA TELL EVERYBODY!!!!!!

Anyway, did I mention that I am an eccentric. Well....I'm proud of it! Stare at me all you like! I am relevant, God Dammit! :)


Friday, July 3, 2009

With regard to singers and new music

Of all the interpreters of new music and for that matter, music in general, singers seem to be the most problematic. Now, this is not meant to be a detriment to singers. At least not for the most part. The fact is, in the general culture, singers have often been judged for being the least reliable in a rehearsal or performance situation. They seem to make the most mistakes and therefore they are considered the least prepared in comparison to the seemingly more schooled instrumentalists. If this is an issue with repertoire music, then this is an even bigger problem with regard to new music. Works that have hardly been heard before, if ever.

I remember hearing the soprano/comedienne Anna Russell in her famous skit regarding: The singer who can't count when she points out to singers: "The reason you have a big voice is because there's resonance for where your brains ought to be!".

Well...(He! He!)...... although I've always found Madame Russell's skits very funny and witty over the years, I don't fully agree with her on this. Yes, I'm aware that she says what she says primarily for humorous reasons. Still, like all comics, part of their art is derived mainly from their own life experiences. So there is clearly a feeling of critical judgement when Russell discusses the issue of singers and their frailties.

So, is any of this true? Are singers the least disciplined of all musicians? Do they lack the hard work ethic in getting the job done when it comes to performing new music? Given that I am myself, both a professional baritone and composer (by that, I mean someone who actually gets paid for it), I will say that the answer is ultimately "No"!

The fact is that all people are capable of making the same number of mistakes whether they be singers or instrumentalists. The issue of how often they mess up is solely dependent on their own personal discipline in getting their music learned before they get to the stage. Naturally, new music is generally more difficult, mainly because it is more recently written. But if a musician cares enough about the piece they've been hired to perform in, then they are morally obligated to do their best in rehearsals so that there's no major accident in performance.

But the thing that makes the singer's mistakes more noticeable than the instrumentalist's is that in an opera or any other vocal work, the singer is the main focus. The singer is the person that the audience looks at. The singer interprets the story that the work is based on and the instrumental ensemble or orchestra is behind influencing the singers performance. So since the singer is in the forefront and therefore the most exposed, naturally, the singer's fallibility is also more exposed. Ergo, the singer is the cause for the most stops in rehearsal. The instumentalist's fallibility is not as noticed because generally, the player is not as much in the forefront as the singer is.

Of course, in the latter part of the 19 century, the instrumental writing in a vocal work started to have a bigger role and more graphic part, courtesy of composers like Wagner and Puccini. But even they knew in the end that the story revolves around the singer playing his or her character on stage. Therefore the singer gets most of the glory, but also, most of the heartache when they screw up.

Two years ago I wrote an opera entitled "Redemption" with the librettist John Darrell Roberts which was commissioned by Golden Fleece Ltd. in New York. When we got to the rehearsal stage, a few singers had problems regarding counting and their singing the right notes. At the time, I was naturally fustrated and I wondered if this was happening because the singers were flat out stupid! But in the end, I realized that there were other factors to consider. The singers had to memorize their music while the players had their music in front of them. Also, the singers were using their whole bodies to get the notes out, whereas the instrumentalist has a specific object in their hands with a particular fingering that automatically brings the right pitches out. Singers do not have such an automatic system. And then, as was mentioned before, singers are in the forefront which makes for an added pressure to their performance being noticed most often. When it boils down to it, singers are as brave as soldiers at the front line in a blood soaked battle.

Singers! Take note! I am not saying all of this to give any of you an excuse to be mean or arrogant in your working with others who are working just as hard as you do. I simply want to show an accurate account of why you singers are the way you are when problems come up. The truth is, for all musicians, the buck stops with true discipline, guts and a genuine love for the music.