Guest blog - A Year at the Symphony

On An Overgrown Path will always be 'work in progress.' I want to try new ideas and approaches. I want to keep it fresh, and I want you, the reader, to come back for more. To keep the format fluid I've decided to invite some guest contributors to post here over the holiday period. The idea is to give a platform to some of my regular readers who don't have blogs of their own.

My first guest blogger is Carol Murchie from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and here is her very interesting post.

I became involved with the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra after meeting their new executive director at a classical music class I offered through an adult learning organization in 2000, and she asked me to consider being on the board. I had attended the symphony on occasion and had to admit that for a city its size, New Bedford had a very good musical organization, so I relished the opportunity to become more involved.

The season from 2000-2001 had a Tchaikovsky theme (last three symphonies) and the Musical Director, F. John Adams, had suggested that we feature soloists who had won the Tchaikovsky Competition. The executive director had some names to contact, and secured Mischa Dichter for the finale and the most recent pianist, Denis Matsuev, to win, but confounded about who the third soloist might be—and would they be within budget. I suggested that because New Bedford had an enormous Portuguese community, we would do well to aim for Portuguese-American violinist Elmar Oliveira, who has been the only American violinist to take gold at the Tchaikovsky. He was duly booked, and the new dilemma for the executive director was to have someone able to spend 2-3 days playing chauffeur and general factotum for Oliveira as he planned to stay from a Thursday night to Sunday morning. Naturally I sacrificed myself to do this task!

My job began with meeting him at the Providence airport, and I got the answer to the question of what do world-class violinists do with their violins when there’s a ‘call of nature’—take the fiddle with them (leaving their dog’s body to stand guard over the carry-on and tux). I suppose I couldn’t have expected to be entrusted with Oliveira’s newest prize, a Strad that had the power of a typical Strad but a more deep voice like I hear in a Guanerius (sort of the difference between a Pavarotti and a Domingo). It was a polite, slightly stiff atmosphere in the car on the way back to New Bedford and his hotel, but I learned his pet peeve is cell phones (he can abide the coughers, sneezers and occasional candy/sweets wrappers, but cell phones are tantamount to justifiable homicide). I think I gushed about seeing him on a prior concert trip to New Bedford when he appeared in a chamber setting with his wife, violist Sandra Robbins. They had played Martinu’s three madrigals for violin and viola, the opening madrigal played with such exquisite intensity that the audience that night erupted with applause, a spontaneous acknowledgement of pleasure even if it was poor concert etiquette. I had asked Elmar if that sort of “wrong applause” was a problem for him, and I gather he hadn’t noticed or remembered it (then launched into the complaint about cell phones).

I persuaded Elmar to have a late dinner at a fantastic little seafood restaurant in my town of Fairhaven (Margaret’s, on Main Street, if you ever find yourself fetched up on our piece of shoreline). With excellent food and some equally fine wine (my local wine-dealer had set me on the right track yet again—at the time, Margaret’s was a ‘bring your own tipple’), he began to relax and ask what I knew about the local Portuguese community, which I had to admit very little but I would try to find out anything he wanted. The agenda in the morning called for a meeting with the Portuguese Consul and I was sure they could help.

The Friday dawned on what would be one of the rainiest days ever seen in this area. Some streets set on fairly significant grades almost featured white-water rapids; I think Fairhaven got the most rain, something like 7” in 24 hours. It was in this Biblical deluge that I got him to the Consul, where the women giggled nervously and peered into the Consul’s office at us—the Portuguese community had risen to the occasion and there were articles in their newspaper and a push to get out the kids to come see a great man. Elmar asked about finding an unusual Portuguese cheese, Quiejo Serra de Estrela or Quiejo da Serra that, to date, he only found when he visited Portugal. The Consul’s office went to work and I ended up driving around the city’s north end with its concentration of small Portuguese markets, and hoping our soloist didn’t drown in the attempt to find this cheese. Find it we did and he proceeded to buy several pounds of the stuff and hummed relentlessly all the way back to the hotel.

The rehearsal with the orchestra had its rocky moments, no one being terribly well-versed with the Saint-Saens and most of that concert’s musicians comprised of New England Conservatory students with something of a bored attitude. It was amazing to hear Elmar work them into shape—they had a problem (as did the conductor, Adams) of playing behind the soloist a slight beat at first but he had them really tightened up by the third run-through (alas, they didn’t hold that shape the following night—here’s the review.

Performance day, Saturday, cleared of the rain and Elmar’s main goals, beside the concert in the evening, were: mail his cheese home and visit the large antiques market housed in an old mill building. He had visited the antiques market before, being a collector of art, and found the place to be “amazing”. (It is with irony that I write about this since in the past few weeks a developer has persuaded the City Council to evict the antiques market and other tenants so the mill can be razed for a Home Depot—a fight continues to save it but at the moment things look very bleak.)

We talked about the fact he had started his own record label, Artek, in order to give himself latitude to do the projects he wanted to do, and give musicians he admired a place to go for their own recording. We discussed how to make a symphony in an economically depressed, working-class city like New Bedford relevant; I had found some people found going out for live musical performance too much of a hassle and there was always the possibility of ‘mistakes’ being made, as opposed to the sterile perfection of digital recordings—Elmar called studio recordings “a cheat”, air-brushed and homogenized, and judging by the thinness of Artek’s catalog and the extensiveness of his touring calendar he prefers his 250-300 per year concerts, even when it is exhausting and takes him away from wife and two cats.

The key thing in his mind for reaching a community with a local orchestra was, no surprise to me here, getting the musicians out among the community, participating in the schools where the arts and music programs have been hacked to bits by bureaucrats. Giving the potential audience someone they could relate to as a person would enhance the musical experience, and indeed, the night of his performance I saw people I never saw at the symphony before because the general population could relate to a Portuguese-American ‘boy’ who had achieved a great deal, and they brought their kids in droves. At the interval, it was announced Elmar would be available to sign autographs, and I encountered a very excited little boy who was completely besides himself at the prospect of meeting Elmar. It was more in line with a kid who was meeting his sports hero (and the boy managed to get his mother to agree to upgrade from an autographed program to an actual Elmar Oliveira CD of the Saint-Saens concerto.)

I got my own autographed CD (right).

The NBSO faltered a bit after the 2000-2001 season ended, I left when the rest of the board seemed aimless and woebegone about finances, they got a new board president, and they unceremoniously discharged F. John Adams in favor of a much younger man who was chummy with the new president but had far less of a pedigree (Adams had studied composition briefly with Nadia Boulanger, I believe, and served as assistant to Leinsdorf and Bernstein—he wasn’t a warm and fuzzy guy but when he had a group of mature, experienced professionals set before him, the results were very fine). This disruption occurred a scant two months before the opening of the 2002-2003 season.

I recently attended two concerts, and find that the playing is adequate but without the forward momentum and springy, pointed rhythms Adams coaxed from his musicians (he could get a little self-indulgent like Bernstein could). The tempos feel wooden, the ensemble playing is a little rough around the edges, and the youthfulness of the musicians (they’re back to mostly Conservatory students instead of seasoned rank-and-file players from other part-time orchestras). The reviews are full of superlative and the PR from the NBSO office is glowing like it might be talking about the Berlin Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw—unfortunately it strikes me as a triumph of marketing over musicianship.

I thought that perhaps I had become jaded like those people who preferred to listen to stellar, perfect recordings rather than be disappointed by live performance that failed to match expectations. On the plus side, I went to see I Musici di Roma perform shortly after hearing the NBSO and was reassured that live musicianship is still a joy under the right circumstances. I hope that I will experience that joy again with the NBSO once it grows up (again).

If you enjoyed this post follow the overgrown path to The Chorus sings Tallis and Tippett
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Anonymous said…
Why hasn't anyone mentioned the missing Bach Aria discovered recently? It is the first new Bach peice discovered in 30 years!! And the first vocal peice since 1935!


Anonymous said…
Interesting thoughts

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