Refléxion sur Paris

The past week has been one of extremes with respect to Paris, France and myself. A week ago I was basking in the sublime beauty of playing the music of Paris composer, Camille Saint-Saëns’, Organ Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony; and then, yesterday, the world learned the horrific news of a terrorist-led bloodbath in Paris. One city; two extremes. Or to quote Dickens: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Music of Saint-Saëns
In addition to loving, deeply, the piece that Saint-Saëns wrote for orchestra with organ, I feel an affinity with the composer. He, too, had a prominent church organist position (at The Madeleine in Paris) that he left to pursue a concert career. He, too, was outspoken about science, philosophy, and politics. He, too, frequently wrote papers and columns. He, too, was gay. I even noticed that the beard that I’m currently sporting is very similar in appearance to his!

Putting all of the subjective affinity issues aside, when one is on the stage with the orchestra, it simply comes down to the music itself. Something strange happened to me during the performances last week with Maestro Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Having played the piece many times with SFS, I may have gone into the week of performances feeling slightly cocky that the piece would go well. I was taken off guard, therefore, when, in the middle of the piece, just as I was about to start playing, I noticed my heart racing furiously. I typically don’t get nervous in front of audiences. What was this all about?

I came to the conclusion that I had entered a different realm of playing that particular piece. I always perform with printed music in front of me (unless I’m improvising) because my brain doesn’t seem to take well to memorization – at least not to the extent needed to perform a solo recital. In this particular instance, I realized that the music had come off the page for me. It didn’t exist on paper any longer. Instead, it was in the ether.

To a listener, it’s probably often assumed that the artist is generally aware of that ubiquitous connection with the ether, with the cosmos, with things nebulous. But I think, to a certain extent, many artists see the piece of paper, with printed music on it, as a physical anchor to the here and now. Having that anchor removed (even, as in this case, with the sheet music still in front of me) can be unnerving.

I decided to go with the flow and trust that the music would happen without my making it happen. Those evenings, it did, indeed, seem to unfold naturally and effortlessly. And the result? At the final performance, Maestro Tortelier made his way through the orchestra to shake my hand. He exclaimed (first in French, then in English) that it was the most astounding performance of that piece he had ever been known; he was visibly transformed.

Could I replicate that? Most likely not. It either happens, or it doesn’t. The only “lesson” to learn (if it indeed is a lesson at all) is that music is ephemeral.  That seems obvious, I realize. But the older I get, and the more concerts I give, and the more I feel I understand music and performing, the more ephemeral it seems to become. One might think the opposite. But the truth is that the challenge, and the courage, to be a musician becomes ever greater.

Paris, Friday the 13th, 2015
Speaking of challenge and courage, yesterday’s heinous acts of evil in Paris are much on everybody’s minds and tongues. I’m of course reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s famous quip in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963:

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor his spirit, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the triumph of the mind.”

I was in a rehearsal as the news was breaking around the globe – about sixteen brass players and myself making music as intensely as possible. I got to my car, flipped on the Public Radio station, and immediately heard the words “shooting in the concert hall in Paris.”

What? Where music is taking place, and where people are engaged in the great joy of living life to the fullest?

We musicians must face terrorism with courage. Lives depend on us to be channels of joy, comfort, solace, and the triumph of the human spirit.

Playing Onstage in Davies Concert Hall

Last week I had the privilege of working with renowned pianist Andras Schiff in a concert in which he played (as both soloist & accompanist) and conducted.  He conducted the Haydn Lord Nelson Mass which uses a string orchestra, trumpets, choir, and soloists.  This is an interesting piece both musically and historically; it was written in celebration of Admiral Nelson’s defeat of Napolean at Waterloo.  In the latter half of the Mass, the trumpets herald the victory as if military buglars were marching into a jubilant city from afar.

It was amazing to work with Schiff on this piece.  Being one of the last of the great Romantics, his interpretation was gentle, allowing for the sweetness of the music to stand out – something which is often overlooked in Haydn.  To have a pianist as a conductor is a special joy for a keyboard player, and the relationship between Schiff and me was no exception.  When he walked onto the stage in the first rehearsal, he immediately came over and introduced himself to me.  It was almost as if he was saying: “You and I: we speak the same language.”

The organ continuo part for this piece is an obligato part which Haydn himself wrote out.  It contains the writing that would normally be for woodwinds, in addition to the organ continuo itself.  Schiff seemed to revel in these moments when my part was a solo, showing me considerable eye contact and always smiling.  At the conclusion of the final performance, he singled me out, walking through the orchestra to shake my hand.  That was truly an honor I’m not likely to ever forget.

The irony, however, was that, of the several hundred people on stage, I was the only one not listed in the program!  The Symphony has received complaints in the past about their practice of not listing me – from patrons and even from music critic, Joshua Kosman.  I seem to be neither fish nor foul; and there isn’t a consistent solution in how to credit me.  I’m not an orchestral “sub” player (all of whom are listed in the last program booklet of the season).  I’m not a soloist, whereby I would gain a credit immediately under the conductor’s name.  I’m not on the regular symphony player list which is in every program booklet.  Oftentimes I’m listed in the italics which stipulate the instrumentation of a given piece, but even that seems to have gone by the wayside while there are some changes in administrative personnel.  As I stated in an email inquiring about this, anonymity can be a very noble thing, unless one is trying to earn a living at one’s craft!

While onstage, I was playing my own portativ organ.  It’s a 3-stop pipe organ which I purchased nearly fifteen years ago, and it lives at Davies Symphony Hall.  They house it for me in exchange for getting to use it for free whenever I’m performing a continuo part there.  There’s a profound difference in working onstage with my portativ, or working offstage with the big organ.  Onstage I can watch the bow of the concertmistress or the first chair cellist; offstage I can’t.  Orchestral players rarely play on the tactus of the conductor’s beat pattern.  The art of playing slightly after the beat is something that can only be mastered while immersed in the sound of the orchestra itself.  Countless subtleties (such as delayed downbeats in slow movements) need to be absorbed if I’m not to stick out as a continuo player.  In honesty, it’s easily half of the joy of performing with the orchestra – finding the groove with them, and being able to make music together within that groove.  So watching the bow movements of the string players helps me feel the moment when their sound will actually begin.

I’m not certain that it’s ever truly possible to “understand” music.  But with each performance I do onstage, I feel that I get a fresh insight into how music moves the soul.

A High School Reunion

We eagerly anticipate them; and we dread them.  Reunions have the potential of stirring up old feelings of insecurity & resentment of long-forgotten cliques, but also the power to re-activate dormant friendships and stimulate new ideas.  For better and for worse, high school is a crucible, a culmination of the attitudes, behaviors, ethics, and responsibilities we’ve learned at home from our family.  We’re generally so eager to take that bold step out of the familial house once it’s over.  Some have described it as a purgatory of necessary agony and awkwardness we all must endure to reach the bliss of college years and young adulthood.

But that wasn’t really the case for me.

During my high school years, I only had a slight inkling that I was gay.  While all the male classmates I knew were just busy being guys, I was trying to figure out just what it meant to be a guy – how to do it – how to walk, how to laugh, how to socialize, how to talk.  I think that a lot of people look at high school and college as a period of lost innocence – a time to understand the world, one’s self, one’s body (and the pleasures of the opposite sex).  For me, those years weren’t really about the loss of innocence as much as they were about the loss of youth – or perhaps trying to find it.

For many gay men of my generation, life was an imitation game:  Watch the “regular” guys, and see if you can be like them.

It would be another seven and a half years after high school graduation before I could come out to myself and my friends.  By then youth was well past and even young adulthood was well underway.  Emotionally and in terms of body-awareness, I was probably eight to ten years behind many of my high school classmates – at least in terms of ease with myself.  Internalized homophobia, as we now call it, is destructive and rarely leaves one scar-less.

But curiously, the recollection of this does not make me feel sorry for myself.  Something is lost; and something else is gained.  Had I not been driven by an incredible desire for self-understanding, it’s likely that I would not have developed the spiritual life I’ve developed, nor had the concentration necessary to spend many thousands of hours practicing music – which of course would lead to my vocation.  It was precisely the need to retreat that gave me the will and the courage to find my muse in the beauty of sound.

This past week was a week of contrasts.  It was my first time in Provincetown, Massachusetts – a week surrounded mostly by middle-aged gay men; then I flew to Northern Virginia to attend my 40th high school reunion – and while I obviously don’t know this for a fact, I may have been the only gay (or, at least, married gay) man in a room of 175 people.  Did it make me uncomfortable?  Not in the least.  But as I ended my trip, driving around my old high school campus (now undergoing a major expansion), I couldn’t help but feel the pangs of compassion for the hiding kid I was then.

Langley High School is actually a pretty amazing place.  A public school, yet with all the resources one finds just inside the Washington beltway, I would guess that close to 50% of the students there have parents that are involved in the government in some capacity (some in a very significant capacity).  We had access to culture, nature, intellectual stimulation, power and intrigue, and a certain level of opportunity and privilege that seems unique.  The school was and is a magnet for dynamite teachers and students alike.

How refreshing it was, for me on this trip, to find so many of my old classmates/friends at a point in their lives when they are open to yet another beginning!  In spite of the aforementioned privilege (and consequent expectations), I was struck by the complete absence of smugness.  Nobody seemed to broadcast an air that they had their act together more than anyone else.

Humility is rarely a character trait of a kid in high school, and probably even less rarely of a young adult in college.  I had naively frozen my high school classmates in the paradigm in which I last saw them; yet the opposite was true.  Narcissistic self-confidence has yielded to genuineness.  I daresay that much of that has to do with the way life has a way of knocking us around.  Parents raising children are often stressed to their limits.  People gain jobs and lose jobs.  Parents die.  Many successes are coupled with many failures.  And the learning never stops…

I didn’t have the gift of raising children in my life (well, indirectly through the many kids I’ve taught), but the struggles of accepting myself as a gay man were probably similarly all-consuming – not to mention the other knocks and joys which life has set in my path.  Using the “passive voice” in that last sentence is intentional.  I do believe that some of our individual greatness comes from how we choose to play the hand we’re dealt.

A Concert Tour in Europe

I’m now in my late-50s, and the romanticism of playing music in Europe is still yet to wear thin. As a kid, I often fantasized about seeing, hearing, and (mostly) playing the great and glorious organs of Europe. True confessions: American organs have rarely held the same appeal to me – except to the extent that they emulate their European prototypes. As I’ve frequently remarked in other blogs, it’s the connection with the European tradition, both musical and ecclesiastical, that has been my greatest source of interpretive inspiration. Like many musicians, my impressions of concert tours were formed by reading biographies of the great 20th century performers like Rubinstein and Casals. Rubinstein’s first tour of the States was a 75-concert tour (one in which, incidentally, he did not receive very high acclaim)! Casals’ first American tour was similarly grueling (although it was cut midstream by a hiking accident on San Francisco Bay Area’s Mount Tamalpais – which nearly ended his career). Concert touring sounded so easy to me, an impressionable young man eager to perform. But of course, going from Europe to the States in the first half of the 20th century was generally by boat (a long excursion), getting around the country was slow and expensive, and impresarios were eager to get their money’s worth. It made perfect sense to have a long concert tour if an artist was going to take the trouble to get across the Atlantic.

Fast forward 75 years.

I didn’t realize it as I entered this profession, but organists are unique in the musical world of performers. Only organists write letters to other organists in an attempt to garner a concert. (Imagine a pianist writing another pianist for a concert, or an orchestral flute player writing another flute player for a concert. You get the picture.) For me that has had both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I’m only limited by my imagination; especially in our current day of internet use. A bit of research, and connections through my colleagues, can help me connect with most organists around the world. The disadvantage is that the endless email-writing business is very time-consuming (and often disheartening – as only a fraction of my colleagues answer), as are the huge logistical concerns of transportation, accommodation, and arranging concerts in relative proximity to each other.

Having been on several concert tours with the San Francisco Symphony, the difference between solo tours and symphony tours is like night and day; and it comes down to one main thing: On symphony tours, I never meet any musicians other than the ones I am traveling with. But when I travel on solo tours, I make many warm friendships, with my host, with my people at the accommodation site, with other colleagues who attend the concerts, etc. In short, it’s only when doing a solo tour that I find that I get a real sense of what an area of the world is like – a direct interaction with the culture and people.

Of all my solo tours to date, I think this one may have been the longest. When I play my concert Sunday (in Cape Cod) – 7/26/15, I will have been on tour for more than five weeks. But, that being said, I only had eight concerts – which means that there were gaps in the schedule. OK, so there’s nothing wrong with having a bit of vacation in Provence in between concerts (which we did), but from a strictly business point of view, I would have preferred a more steady stream of concerts. The process of booking this tour started more than two years ago. Slowly, over the course of a myriad of emails, the tour took shape, including the route I would take from venue to venue. In Europe, an organist’s fee always includes accommodation, but it never includes travel. That expense is left to the performer. In every venue where I performed this summer, I was the only American performing on the summer series. (Europe and America have opposite concert schedules: because many European churches are not heated in the winter, their organ concert schedules are mostly in the summer.) Travel expenses for Europeans moving between neighboring countries is considerably less than for me, living in San Francisco; so, logistically, it is far easier to live in Europe and have a concert career.

Then there’s the weather. It just so happened that we hit a heat-wave for virtually the entire trip through Europe. George and I had rented a car for three weeks, so we traveled in comfort; but invariably air conditioning was non-existent in our places of accommodation (many of which were AirBnB sites). I felt painfully aware of being a “soft” 21st century Westerner – quite uncomfortable in the omnipresent heat. A couple of the organ lofts were still cool and comfortable, but most were quite warm.

The last of my European concerts on this trip was in Freiberg (Sachsen), Germany – on one of the great instruments of the 18th century. Gottfried Silbermann finished the organ in the Marien Dom in 1714, and today the church is celebrating with a year-long 300th anniversary concert series. What a privilege for me to be a part of this. An instrument quite likely played by Johann Sebastian Bach, himself – we don’t really know, but since it’s so near to where he lived, it’s highly likely – and shimmering with silvery tones sounding forth in a large, resonant space. The pitch of the organ is roughly 3/4 of a step high; and although I don’t have perfect pitch, my relative pitch is accurate enough that it made all the pieces I played there sound as if I was transposing them – rendering them strangely new. Freiberg itself epitomizes what I love about doing organ concerts: small, intimate (and immaculate) town with a huge, historical organ. What’s not to love?

Each organ of my trip was unique with its own set of challenges and rewards. The overall experience of touring like this is undeniably incredible. Making music in various different places around the world feels like stitching thread from one village to the next, from my city to another. The real goal, the ultimate purpose, as I see it, is stitching a bond of compassion from one culture to the next, from one heart to the next. Musicians make the best ambassadors.