Wednesday, January 14, 2015

National Youth Orchestra of the United States

I was listening to the radio recently when Bernstein conducting Symphonic Dances from West Side Story came on.  I really enjoy listening to Bernstein conduct Bernstein.

The music swelled through the beginning movements of the piece until the "Cha-Cha."  In the story, this is where Tony and Maria meet and do a cute little dance.  I wouldn't normally describe this part as the most emotionally-inspiring moment in the piece, but at that moment I was flooded with memories of playing this piece with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA this summer and I couldn't contain myself.

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States is a summer orchestra of 120 kids between the ages of 16 and 19. It was founded by Carnegie Hall in 2014 and involves an intensive two-week retreat at Purchase College in New York, where the participants work with various conductors and are coached by musicians from major orchestras around the US.  During the second week of the retreat, a world class conductor and soloist joined for rehearsals - last summer it was David Robertson conducting and Gil Shaham soloing.  The NYO-USA debuted at Carnegie Hall, and following that, went on a multi-city tour around the US.

NYO-USA was, to put it frankly, the most inspiring and influential musical and social experience of my life so far.  Before NYO, I had never been in an orchestra where so many of the people cared so much for their art.  In the rehearsal hall, everyone was constantly paying attention to matching everyone else's tone, intonation, rhythm, phrasing, style, articulation, everything!  After most every rehearsal, several people (the ones who weren't scurrying off to get a meal after the long rehearsals) either stayed on the stage rehearsing or went backstage to work on their parts with each other!  I grew used to requests from other musicians to tune this section, or make sure that other section was together.

Although these requests came quite often, they were never critical, the musicians just wanted to illuminate a problem or refine tuning or adjust some little something that was making the music we played together sound less good than it could. One time, Annie Wu, an incredible flutists asked me to stay after a rehearsal and work on the Bernstein.

I was playing Eb clarinet while she was on piccolo, which means we had several sections that we played together.  If you ask anyone who knows anything about the piccolo and the Eb clarinet, they will tell you, that contrary to what composers seem to have thought, these instruments are more unsuited to each other than any other two standard orchestral instruments!  Up to this point, when I had played Eb (or the little devil as I like to call it), I would attempt to match the piccolo and he or she would attempt to match me, and we would be closer than if we hadn't listened to each other at all, but we would still be quite far away in our pitch.  Mostly, I concluded that it was impossible to really be in tune with the piccolo when I played Eb clarinet, so I didn't worry too much about it. Annie, however, had higher standards, and she was relentless.  After a rehearsal, she came up to me and said "I think we're out of tune in some sections in the Bernstein, we should spend some time working on them."  I agreed, and we got to work.  I don't think I have learned more about tuning Eb clarinet than when working with Annie.

As a result of these collaborations, I learned a lot about listening to the other players in an orchestra, and I learned that I didn't have to ever settle for close enough.  We could always make it better.  That's probably the most important thing I learned this summer - that I still have a lot to learn, and that I can always make a passage of music a little bit better, a little bit more in tune, a little bit more colorful, and a little bit more excellent.

I have so many more things to say about the summer of 2014.  It was incredible to work with David Robertson and Gil Shaham.  I made so many friends, and learned so much, and had so much fun.  It has been hard to figure out where to start writing about any of it, and it's already time for Carnegie Hall to choose the young musicians of this summer's orchestra.  I applied again, and I hope very much that I will be selected, but if I learned anything from my NYO summer, it was that the US is filled with incredible young musicians many of whom will also be auditioning.

But I'm crossing my fingers...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

More than 1/2 way there!

When I was in sixth grade, I read Coyle’s The Talent Code and Gladwell’s Outliers.  They argued that being good at most things was more a matter of work than the result of innate talent.  So I decided to conduct an experiment.  I began keeping track of my clarinet practice hours.  My goal was to practice for 10,000 hours.  Then, I would look at how far I’d gotten, to see if Gladwell and Coyle were correct.

This was the start of an amazing journey.  I passed the 5000 hour mark this past summer  on the NYO-USA tour,  and as I look back, I can see how much I’ve grown as a musician, and more importantly, as a human being.

So much has happened!  I’ve soloed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performed at Carnegie Hall with NYO, and played the national anthem at a Chicago Bulls game.  I’ve toured China, France, and Belgium as the principal clarinet of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and Midwest Young Artists.  I’ve worked with amazing conductors like Carlos Miguel Prieto and David Robertson, and I’ve had lessons with incredible clarinetists such as Anthony McGill, Burt Hara, Steve Cohen, John Bruce Yeh, Wenzel Fuchs, and Stephen Williamson.

But what does this list really mean?  Whenever I win an audition or a competition, I feel a surge of pride and self-accomplishment, but the defeats and the failures have probably taught me the most.  I still remember getting third chair in my youth orchestra after spending an eternity practicing for the audition.  I felt terrible, but I realized that losing an audition was an opportunity to focus upon how much I have left to learn.

At this point, I have 4,445 hours of practice left to reach that 10,000 hour goal.  And then, who knows?  Maybe I’ll take up ballroom dancing.  But probably I’ll stick with clarinet because music has come to define who I am.  I don’t know what all of this will amount too, but I know that I will keep on working and consequently keep on failing.  As Stephen Dedalus said in Ulysses, “errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Britten Movements for a Clarinet Concerto

Last year, I won the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Crain-Maling Foundation Youth Concerto Competition, granting me the opportunity to perform with the CSO this year.  I played the Mozart clarinet concerto at the competition and I thought that I would probably be playing the Mozart with the CSO, but a few months ago they emailed me to tell me that they wanted me to play Movements for a Clarinet Concerto by Benjamin Britten.  I had know idea that Britten wrote a clarinet concerto!

I did some research on the piece, and it turns out that Britten didn't ever complete it.  It was originally  commissioned  by Benny Goodman in 1943, and Britten enthusiastically agreed to write it.  He finished a good amount of the first movement before returning to England in the same year.

During his journey back home, his manuscript was seized by U.S. customs because they thought that it could be some sort of code holding military secrets.  Unfortunately, even though Britten quickly retrieved his music, Goodman informed him that he should put the project on hold because Goodman was about to go on a tour with his band and would not be able to prepare the music for a while.  Britten returned to England and sadly never finished the piece.

The Movements for a Clarinet Concerto was finished by recently by Collin Matthews and was first performed in 2008 by Michael Collins.  Collins is a wonderful British clarinet soloist and conductor.  You can find a copy of his performance on the 2009 album Unknown Britten.  Matthews does a wonderful job playing the concerto with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Thomas Zehetmair.

I am really excited to be playing this piece.  I have listened to the recording of Michael Collins playing it many times.  This is the only recording I have been able to find.  My favorite movement is the second because of the gorgeous duet between the solo clarinet and the bass clarinet.  Unfortunately, I was only asked to perform the final movement of the piece.  I really love this piece and wish that I could perform the whole composition.

Perhaps this is best, because the Britten is a difficult concerto!  I am having trouble just learning the last movement, let alone the whole piece.  The hardest parts about the last movement are probably playing the high notes (this piece uses the highest practical notes on the clarinet).  It is not easy to hit these notes and keep the style of the piece cute and exciting.  It is easy to lose the musical line when you are trying to control those high notes.

Still, I shouldn't complain, because it is an incredible honor getting to perform such an amazing piece of music with a world class orchestra.

Monday, February 10, 2014

National Youth Orchestra of the USA

On Friday I found out that I have been honored with a spot in the clarinet section of the 2014 National Youth Orchestra of the USA.  I think I've only been this excited twice in my life.  The other was last year when I won the CSO competition.

The National Youth Orchestra is a recent phenomenom.  Last year, Carnegie Hall's Artistic Director, Clive Gillinson, founded the NYO, which debuted at Carnegie Hall and toured London, Moscow and St. Petersburg.  They played Shostakovich 10 and the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with Joshua Bell, as well as a modern piece composed for the orchestra called Magiya by Sean Shepherd.  The orchestra played under the baton of Maestro Valery Gergiev, and they were pretty amazing.

I have found that I really connect with the people I play with in my youth orchestras, Midwest Young Artists and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.  The same applied when I went to Interlochen when I was in middle school.  With my orchestra friends, I can be really open about my passions and beliefs and ideals, about who I really am, and I can count on their understanding and acceptance.

So I am really excited to have this amazing opportunity to play with some of the best young musicians in the country.  We will be playing under the direction of David Robertson of the Saint Louis and Sydney Symphony Orchestras, and we have the privilege of accompanying world class violinist Gil Shaham in the Britten Violin Concerto.  This year's program will consist of the following repertoire:

Samuel Carl Adams - New Work
Bernstein - Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Britten - Violin Concerto, op. 15
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition (Ravel's orchestration)

And we will be performing in the following venues:

New York, NY - Carnegie Hall in New York City (July 22)
Lenox, MA - Ozawa Hall in the Tanglewood Music Festival (July 24)
Boone, NC - Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts in the Appalachian Summer Festival (July 26)
Chicago, IL - Jay Pritzker Pavilion in the Grant Park Music Festival (July 28)
Teton Village, WY - Festival Hall in the Grand Teton Music Festival (July 30)
Rohnert Park, CA - Weill Hall at Sonoma State University's Green Music Center (August 2)
Los Angeles, CA - Walt Disney Hall (August 4).

I can hardly wait!

Here is a link to the BBC Proms Performance from last year.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra

Last week I had the opportunity to perform the first movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra!  It was a really great experience, especially considering I have never performed the Mozart concerto with an orchestra before.  Philip MacKenzie, the executive director of the orchestra, organized the performance and invited me to join them for their Family Fun Concert on October 26, 2013.  Everyone in the orchestra was so nice and welcoming.

Beverly Everett was conducting the concert.  She is an active conductor, composer and performer as well as the Music Director of the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra.  She was a smooth conductor and easy to follow, and it was a lot of fun to play under her.

The Bott family, a local family involved with the orchestra, hosted us.  They were very kind and accommodating, and they had a very nice home.  They even went so far as to play legos with my five year old brother, Morgan, who drove to North Dakota with us.  The orchestra, as well as being so kind as to ask me to play the Mozart with them, also asked me to play the clarinet part in Peter and the Wolf, which was really cool!  The clarinet plays the cat in Peter in the Wolf, and it is an enjoyable piece to perform.  Terry Dullum, a journalist with WDAZ News, narrated Peter and the Wolf and did a wonderful job.

To add to all their generosity, Beverly Everett, the guest conductor, invited me back to North Dakota in March to play the whole Mozart clarinet concerto with the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra, which she conducts!  I am really excited to play an entire concerto for the first time with an orchestra.

The whole experience was both fun and instructive.  I learned a lot, and I'm really glad and grateful to all the people who spent the time and effort to organize this wonderful weekend.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Clark Brody Memorial

A couple weeks ago, I went to a service in honor of the life of Clark Brody, former principal clarinet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Clark Brody was born on June 9th, 1913 in Lansing, Michigan.  He studied clarinet first at Michigan State University, and then at the Eastman school of music.  Before he played with the CSO, he was in the Air Force Band and concert orchestra during World War II, and he also played with the CBS Symphony Orchestra from 1941-1950.   He was principal clarinet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1951-1978 and played under the baton of  Rafael Kubelik, Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, and Sir George Solti.  He also was a clarinet professor at Northwestern University from 1972-1995.  He died at the age of 98 in 2012.

I take piano lessons from Mr. Brody's niece Barbara Rubenstein, so I have had the opportunity to hear a lot of stories about Clark Brody.  It is very interesting to learn about both the personal and professional sides of an individual.  I attended the memorial with Barbara and sat next to her during the service.

The service was a very elegant celebration of Mr. Brody's career.  Many people spoke about Mr. Brody and the impact he had upon them.  I especially enjoyed his son, Robert Brody's, very graceful words about his father.  The younger Mr. Brody described an incident in their life when they were travelling.  They were walking through a park where there were many lepers who were obviously suffering.  One of the sick men had fallen off a bench, and many people were walking past him ignoring him, even though it was obvious that the man was trying to get back onto the bench.  Mr. Brody picked up the man, and put him on the bench, made sure he was okay and wished him a good day, as if it were the most natural and expected thing to do.  John Bruce Yeh also spoke about Mr. Brody and how he was very supportive of the 19 year old John Yeh when he first took up a position with the orchestra.  Mr. Yeh talked about how Clark Brody showed him how to play in an orchestra and guided him through his first few years.

Several people performed at the service.  There was a clarinet ensemble made up of former colleagues, friends and students of Clark Brody, and Charlene Zimmerman performed the 2nd movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with Toni-Marie Montgomery accompanying.  Charlene Zimmerman is the principal clarinet of the Chicago Lyric Opera.  I have never had the privilege of hearing her play before, and I found her quite wonderful.  She played with a sweet, singing line, and it was one of my favorite interpretations of the 2nd movement.  I think I may have to start saving my money for Lyric tickets...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Walter Grabner's Awesome Mouthpieces

I've been playing on Walter Grabner's amazing mouthpieces for a couple of years now.  They have a really great sound, and I recommend them highly.

Also, Mr. Grabner is a really great guy.  Last spring, I played at the Skokie Valley Concerto Competition.  I was playing on one of his older mouthpieces.  I didn't advance to the finals, but Mr. Grabner heard my performance, and he talked to me after the competition.  He said I had done a great job, but he thought I should try out one of his newer mouthpieces that he had just developed.
The first thing I noticed about them was that they have a realy beautiful, serious tone.  They have a very smooth and resonant sound.

I said sure, I'd love to try a new mouthpiece, because I had the finals of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Youth Auditions coming up in a week, and people often describe my tone as too bright.  So I went to his studio a few days later and tried out some of his new mouthpieces.  They were fantastic!  They had a dark, mellow tone, and I really liked the difference.  I picked the one I sounded best on, and when I asked Mr. Grabner how much it cost, he said that I could have it.

Well, a week later at the CSO Youth Audition finals, I won first prize.  I'm sure that Mr. Grabner's new mouthpiece helped me get there.  It is a seriously fine mouthpiece produced by a seriously fine man, and I recommend it to everyone.