Sunday, June 21, 2015

Who is my favorite composer?

Who is your favorite composer?  This is a question asked by many, but it is often a difficult and perhaps impossible question to answer.  First of all, people change constantly, and so do their opinions.  What was someone's favorite composer at one time may easily be replaced by another within a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Plus, there is another problem.  From Leonin to Stravinsky, from Monteverdi to Glass, from Hummel to Ligeti, how can one select 10 or 20 favorites, let alone one?

I adore Schumann and Mendelssohn, Copland and Shostakovitch, Brahms and Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, Wagner and Verdi, but if I had to chooose, I think my favorite composer would be Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

I love the music of Vaughan Williams (at least for the present) above all other music.  It is not because I think he is the greatest composer who has ever lived.  That distinction would probably have to go to a German, were I to be totally honest.  But I feel an extremely intimate relationship with Vaughan-Williams' music.  Every time I go to listen to one of his pieces, I am deeply struck by its tranquility and serenity.  His pieces never seem to go far, and return unerringly to to their origin, inevitably a place that somehow always seems to remind me of a pasture or a meadow of some kind.  Not a meadow you might find in the American midwestern plains, where I live, but rather a meadow as might be imagined from the poetry of a 19th century British romantic poet, or maybe a J.M.W. Turner landscape, but viewed through the often pessimistic lens of the 20th century.

Maybe because of this pastoralism, many people take a dim view of Vaughan Williams music, describing it as boring.  Did you know that Aaron Copland is supposed to have said of Vaughan Williams' 5th symphony that "it was like staring at a cow for 45 minutes"?

Sometimes when I listen to music, I need the music to strike me to the floor with its weight and its passion, which is why we have Strauss and Mahler.  Music should be strong, powerful, and epic.  Or should it?  Often, when I listen to music like this, it seems almost pornographic in how explicit it is.  It grabs you by the throat, and drags you to where it wants to take you.  It's sometimes hard to be transported somewhere beautiful when your being is assaulted so aggressively.  And, I think maybe that's the beauty of Vaughan Williams.

When I listen to a piece by Vaughan Williams, I feel incredible.  I always start with thinking how the music is pretty and nice, but slowly I am drawn more and more into it, until I feel a kind of revelation, and am transported to another existence.  It's the most spiritual experience I can imagine.  It's not that it moves me in an obviously discernible way, but instead the musicholds me in a kind of aesthetic stasis from which I can look out at the world and look into myself and see no barriers.  And that's why I love his music as much as I do.

I don't know very much about Vaughan Williams the person.  I'm not certain if I want to.  I kind of think music should be a spiritual experience, and although it's so often interesting to understand the composer as a person, I am a little afraid that knowing more about Vaughan Williams might taint my love of his music with the impurity of humanity.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Open Letter to Maestro Robertson; CC: NYO-USA

Dear Maestro Robertson,

As I look forward to playing with National Youth Orchestra again this summer I also look back at the time I spent with them last summer.  I have so many treasured memories of summer, 2014.  I remember wonderful colleagues, helpful staff members, incredible music, and concerts that surpassed anything I have ever been a part of, but one thing I remember most is you.

You are the most inspiring conductor I've ever had the privilege to play under.  You brought such
energy to the orchestra (not that we were lacking before!), incredible musical ideas, and such an invigorating personality.

By the first day, you knew half of us by name, and by the second day you knew all of us.  You hung out with us, and you always had the time to discuss musical ideas before rehearsal and after rehearsal, and you even ate lunch with us!  I hope you know how much it meant for us to be respected and treated as equals and colleagues by such accomplished musicians as you and Gil Shaham.

The incident that was the most touching to me happened after an early rehearsal of Pictures at an Exhibition, where we were first working on "The Great Gate of Kiev."  During this rehearsal, when we got to the bassoon and clarinet chorale, you took it out of tempo and, I must say, you completely shocked me.  I couldn't understand for the life of me why you would approach the chorales as you did, because I don't think I had ever heard the piece played that way.

After the rehearsal, I approached you, and I asked you what your rational was behind taking the chorale out of tempo.  I think I may have been a little brash, and probably a little exasperated too because I was sure you must be wrong, but you seemed to take no notice and answered me happily and respectfully, and I thank you very much for that.  You shared with me that you used to do both that chorale and one one that occurs a little later completely in time until a Russian conductor (I don't quite remember who you said it was) informed you that the chorale was derived from an Eastern Orthodox hymn, and wouldn't be sung in time originally, but would be performed with a lot of rubato and stretching of the tempo.  We spent quite a while talking about this and other things, and you were so enthusiastic and excited about sharing your musical ideas and experiences with me that it was contagious!  At the end of our discussion, you advised me to go listen to Rachmaninov's vespers, which you said would be a good example of what was intended with the chorale and how other, similar hymns, would sound were they sung.  And so I did, and now, when I hear this type of chorale, I can approach it in a much more mature manner than originally I did before our discussion.

The reason I play music is because I love it more than anything else in the world.  I love every part of it. The depth of ideas used in music are fascinating and one can find endless gems of information like this in music, which lead to more perspectives and views of music (and people) in a never-ending positive feedback loop.  There are always new things to discover, hidden in pieces I have heard hundreds of times.  Seeing that someone whom I revere, respect, and look up to can just love music, be so exuberant about it, and share that passion with me really showed me in a first hand way the power of music to connect people.

Thank you again for last summer, it was wonderful.
-Torin Bakke, clarinet NYO-USA 2014NYO-USA 2015.

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...