More Trouble for America’s Orchestras

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

The recent fervor over NFL replacement referees has come to a boil, and in a similar manner, American orchestras are facing labor disputes of their own. Fortunately, the Louisville and Philadelphia Orchestras have (partially) resolved their issues from last year, but the latest news of trouble with the Minnesota and Chicago Symphony Orchestras is alarming.

Here is an excellent article about the Minnesota Orchestra, featuring Steve Campbell, principal tubist. It tells of the players side of the story from one of the more common trends of major orchestras cutting back during troubled financial times.

Orchestra musicians have a big public relations task in this contract fight; justifying their salaries to the public. The state’s median household income is almost $57,000. The average Minnesota Orchestra musician makes $135,000 a year; the guaranteed minimum for the SPCO is almost $74,000.

Steve explains our side of the story; the years of training, the expense, the stress, the disappointment and the dedication required. I understand that the average players pay may be above the state’s median income, but compared to other professions, such as lawyers, doctors, and politicians, I think that the $135K is reasonable – and appropriate to attract and retain world-class musicians.

Here is a follow-up article from September 25th. It speaks of a possible lock-0ut on September 30th. The players are facing a significant pay cut. The chair of the negotiating committee said: “We are having a difficult time understanding a proposal of a 30 to 50 percent pay cut for musicians, while at the same time, building a $50 million lobby (at Orchestra Hall),” I sincerely hope that the situation resolves itself. The last time I heard that orchestra, it was an amazing experience (read about it on the post “Hammer Time!“)

In a few weeks I will return to Louisville KY for the Klezmerfest. Last year the Louisville Symphony went on strike and have come up with at least a one-year solution. I hope that Minnesota doesn’t get to that point. In related news, I was shocked to learn that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike this past Saturday.

Many things simply boil down to the issue of money, and in the current economic troubles, it is no surprise that organizations are having significant trouble maintaining a bottom line. N0 profession is recession-proof, and musicians have always been told to “have a backup plan”, but to hear that some of the nations top orchestras are having trouble is ominous. I hope the best for these orchestras and their audiences and sincerely wish them luck in resolving their differences. I would hate to see the orchestral version of “replacement refs”.

“Tuba or Not Tuba” Goes to the DUMBO Festival

Next week, I will be traveling to New York city to perform at the DUMBO Arts Festival . (The acronym stands for Down Under the Manhatten Bridge Overpass, a neighborhood in Brooklyn) I will be performing with dancers in “Tuba or Not Tuba (What is the question?”, which was choreographed by my colleague at the University of Iowa, Charlotte Adams. Two years ago, we performed the work in Santa Monica California at Highways Performance Space.

The work involves some improvising by myself and hornist Erin Vang. We “invade” the dancers space, blasting the dancers offstage, but the work has a surprise ending. Our performance is part of the DUMBO Dance Festival organized by White Wave Dance Company.

If you are interested in attending, the performance is at 9pm on September 29th on the Mainstage at the John Ryan Theater, 25 Jay Street (Enter on John Street) in Brooklyn.

Tuba or not Tuba goes to DUMBO

Next week, I will be traveling to New York city to perform at the DUMBO Arts Festival . (The acronym stands for Down Under the Manhatten Bridge Overpass, a neighborhood in Brooklyn) I will be performing with dancers in “Tuba or Not Tuba (What is the question?”, which was choreographed by my colleague at the University of Iowa, Charlotte Adams. Two years ago, we performed the work in Santa Monica California at Highways Performance Space.

The work involves some improvising by myself and hornist Erin Vang. We “invade” the dancers space, blasting the dancers offstage, but the work has a surprise ending. Our performance is part of the DUMBO Dance Festival organized by White Wave Dance Company.

If you are interested in attending, the performance is at 9pm on September 29th on the Mainstage at the John Ryan Theater, 25 Jay Street (Enter on John Street) in Brooklyn.

Random Bits

Here are a bunch of random bits:

Iowa Brass Online
This year, the University of Iowa brass area has created four new online and social media outlets: the Iowa Brass Area Website, a Facebook page, a Google+ page and a Twitter account @UIowaBrass. Check them out!

Droning On
I was recently looking for some kind of tuner app that would play pitches and I discovered these wonderful tuning drones on  Jennifer Cluff ‘s blog. They were originally created by David Valdez for saxophone players. You can download all twelve of them for free and that last for about three minutes and they sound like a combination of a didgeridoo and a sitar. They immediately inspired me to improvise to them, but both Jennifer and David have excellent suggestions on how to utilize them.

Start Making Sense
A student of mine recommended I listen to a new recording by David Byrne and St. Vincent. The recording is called Love This Giant and you can hear the album in its entirety on NPR’s First Listen. In typical Byrne fashion, it’s unique and quirky, but the best part is the horn section. The lines are funky, creative, and minimalistic – but they seem to really drive the entire album, and yes Virginia there is a tuba, and a baritone sax at the bottom of the band.

Clark’s St. Vincent cohort John Congleton, who co-produced 2009’s Actor and 2011’s Strange Mercy, programmed percussion long-distance, emailing files that the pair would pull apart and reconstruct. A few friends came in for overdubs: drummer Anthony LaMarca and percussionist Mauro Refosco, but once the horn parts, arranged mostly by Tony Finno, had been laid down, Byrne and Clark did the rest themselves. Says Byrne, “Often when we could, we didn’t use any bass. The tuba or the baritone sax would do the job of the bass and Annie and I would play guitar. I was more the rhythm guitar guy. And she was the incredible lead guitarist.”

STEW
This summer, two of my students participated in the newly-formed Southeast Tuba Euphonium Workshop (STEW). Held at the University of Georgia, the workshop consists of a week of lessons, master classes and chamber music and the faculty includes Ben Pierce, Demondrae Thurmon and David Zerkel. By all reports, it was a stellar program.

Atlantic Brass Quintet Seminar Turns 20!

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Atlantic Brass Quintet Seminar, and we have just concluded our first of two weeks. We’ve held the seminar at many places; Boston Conservatory, Boston University Tanglewood Institute, University of Massachusetts Amherst, SUNY Buffalo, Boston College, Boston University, and now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This year we have eight quintets with students from across the country. Watch the videos below from our first performance class.

Gene Pokorny Reinvigorates the Vaughan Williams

ImageLast week, Gene Pokorny, principal tubist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performed the Concerto for Bass Tuba by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In fact, he performed it on four separate concerts; Tuesday, May 15th, Wednesday May 16th, Thursday May 17th, and Saturday May 19th.

Due to the disruption of traffic and security for the NATO Summit in Chicago, the CSO’s Saturday performance took place at the Wentz Concert Hall on the campus of North Central College in Naperville, IL. Getting to hear the CSO is a rare treat for me, although it shouldn’t be, as I live four hours from Chicago. But, getting to hear the Vaughan Williams played by Gene Pokorny – on his CC Contrabass Tuba is possibly a once in a lifetime occurrence.

As luck would have it, the only performance of the four that I could have possibly attended was Saturday’s. I was able to get a seat in the front row, just a few feet from the conductor and where Mr. Pokorny would sit for the concerto. Predictably, it was a fantastic performance, but I was not prepared for how overwhelming and jaw-dropping the concert would be. The Chicago Symphony is arguably one of the finest orchestras in the world, and the conductor for the series, Jaap van Zweden gave a brilliant and fiery performance.

The program commenced with Shostakovich’s moving Chamber Symphony for strings, the Vaughan Williams and on the second half, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. To sit that close to such virtuosic ensemble playing is exhillarating, and when Gene Pokorny took his place in front of me, I felt as if I was about to be launched into outer-space.

The Wentz Concert Hall is an acoustical work of art. Designed by the Talaske Group, and built in 2008, this 617-seat hall looks as gorgeous as it sounds. Since the stage is relatively low, and I was seated in Row A, I almost felt as if I were onstage. My eyeline was level with the principal cellists shins. After the concert, I was even able to grab one of the cellists broken bow hairs he discarded onto the stage floor.

There were several remarkable aspects of Mr. Pokorny’s performance, not the least of which was the fact that he played on the CSO’s large, York CC Contrabass Tuba. He remarked in this interview that he only recently decided to use the York. Although it is the instrument he uses 99% of the time in the orchestra, most performers opt to play on a Basstuba in F or E-flat. Unsurprisingly, his tone was dark, controlled, and rich – but it was never overly loud or so soft that it was unclear. For a man capable of such volume in the context of the entire brass section, Pokorny showed incredible sensitivity and tenderness. Beyond all of this, however, his unique and innovative interpretation to the concerto was what really blew my mind.

Even though all of us tuba players have studied and listened to this work our entire lives, Gene was able to inject a fresh and daring approach to the work. He often used rubato, especially at the very beginning of entrances and endings of phrases. He hinted in his interview that he would be making some octave changes, but I only expected that he would take some of the higher passages down an octave to make them more “user-friendly” on the contrabass tuba. Not only did he generally play the higher octave, but, in some cases, played a few measures up a written octave from the original! On his cadenzas, he actually deviated from the written cadenzas – a tradition generally reserved for classical horn and trumpet concertos. They were tasteful, impressive, and appropriate – and above all patient. He took advantage of the silence, allowed the high notes to resonate in the beautiful hall, and made everyone take notice.

What often separates great brass players from good brass players is the ability to control tone, pitch and response in the softest passages. Pokorny, as I mentioned before, never overplayed a note and always kept a perfect balance between his own sound and the orchestra’s, often fading into the texture when releasing for an orchestral passage. Even the brass section – famous for their ability to play louder than any other – tastefully and artistically executed the most turbulent of entrances.

If they are not already planning on doing so in the near future, the Chicago Symphony should plan on recording this amazing interpretation and preserving it for posterity. It was truly an inspirational and miraculous performance.

UPDATE:
This is an excerpt from a review by Lawrence A. Johnson of the Chicago Classical Review:

The evening’s centerpiece was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto. Not played by the orchestra in 34 years, it offered a rare solo opportunity for CSO tubist Gene Pokorny. A member of the orchestra since 1989, Pokorny has long provided yeoman duty in a low-profile role, with an instrument whose presence is felt as often as it is heard.

The 12-minute concerto showcases the tuba’s bumptious and lyrical elements and Pokorny conveyed both delightfully, from his rounded, subterranean low notes to his jazz-like swagger in the cadenza and nimble agility in the finale. The central Romanza is one of VW’s most heart-easing inspirations — a virtual emblem of the English pastoral school— and Pokorny’s playing was as nuanced and expressive as any top-flight violinist or opera singer. The soloist received a hearty, well-deserved ovation from his colleagues as well as the audience. (And any musician who puts in his official bio that he is a card-carrying member of the Three Stooges Fan Club deserves applause.)

 

Byan Carter Quintet

I recently returned from a very busy period of touring and performing, including trips to Wisconsin, California, Missouri and Kansas. After performing at Truman State, I had the great pleasure of hearing the Bryan Carter Quintet. It was a stellar performance, and it’s always a joy to witness great jazz. All chamber musicians should aspire to that level of communication, balance and expression. Bryan’s talent runs in his family, his father is the legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter.

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