Great Moments in Sight Reading, Part 1

Today was the first chorus rehearsal for West Bay Opera’s production of Aida. As with last year’s Turandot, West Bay is tackling a grand opera on a more intimate scale, with a chorus numbering somewhere around 30 people.

We were sight reading through all the choral portions in the opera, and naturally we spent a lot of time in Act II. There are multiple choruses in Aida – in this scene, there are people, priests, and slaves. Up through page 156 we have had no more that two choruses on a page:

Page 156 of the vocal score to Aida

Turn the page, though, and all heck breaks loose with the triple chorus – not to mention going from 2 principals to 5 at the same time:

Page 157 of the vocal score to Aida

So the chorus goes from a 5-way split to a 10-way split over the course of a page turn, divided unequally between 3 choruses. I’m a good sight reader, but this stumped me as well as most of the chorus.

It should all sound glorious soon enough. Performances are May 25, May 27, June 2, and June 3 at Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. The Friday and Saturday shows are at 8:00 pm and the Sunday shows are at 2:00 pm. Yefim Maizel will direct and José Luis Moscovich will conduct. Tickets are available online and at the box office.

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Coming Up: Mason Bates’ Mass Transmission

American Mavericks logoIt has been an exciting three weeks as we have rehearsed Mason Bates’ Mass Transmission for its premiere tomorrow at the American Mavericks Festival with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. In my earlier post I included a YouTube video interview with Mason where he describes the background and emotional content of the piece. Before we launch the piece into the world tomorrow evening, I’d like to reflect on some of the musical aspects that I love about both this piece and other works by Mason Bates.

I started working with electronic and computer music back in my undergraduate days at MIT, where I did my B.S. thesis in computer science at the Experimental Music Studio, directed by Prof. Barry Vercoe. One major goal of the studio was to make electronic resources more accessible and expressive for composers, back in the days before MIDI. My thesis project was one part of that. It was an alphabetic score entry language for the Music 11 system that was more composer-friendly that Music 11’s raw score language, which had lots of lines of numeric parameters.

A lot of us were wondering about what music composers might be able to create, once technology made electronic resources expressive enough. I envisioned new sounds that could be used with more traditional media. A common dream was to make live performance flexible enough to be played together with musicians, without the musicians always having to defer to the tape. That deferral was necessary in most electronic music of the day, save for some amazing pioneers like Ivan Tcherepnin.

The MIDI and electronic music revolution brought electronic music to the masses, of course, but I never heard the type of music I was thinking about in my lab days. Usually the electronics were impersonating or modifying more traditional instruments. And as electronics became more pervasive, musicians were still subjected to the tyranny of the click track. Where were the new sounds? Where was the expressive freedom? Where were the more imaginative approaches to combining electronics and live music?

The first time I heard Radiohead’s Kid A was an astonishing jolt of recognition. That was it – this was by far the closest I’d ever heard to the music of my imaginings some 20+ years earlier. It’s a landmark not just of pop music but of all music in its use of electronics for new expression that is still bound to traditional forms that make music enjoyable for most people.

Mason Bates at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary MusicOver the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to hear several of Mason Bates’ compositions for orchestra and electronics, both at the San Francisco Symphony and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. A few weeks ago I heard the Chicago Symphony perform his latest orchestral work, Alternative Energy. It turned out to be his best orchestral work that I’ve heard yet.

Once again I had that jolt of recognition. The beginning of the second movement, where the orchestra segues from a huge crescendo into a burst of sound based on samples from the FermiLab particle accelerator was literally jaw dropping. I’d never heard anything like this before, and done in such an intensely musical way. Here once again were the new sounds set within traditional forms, but now in a classical context at a live concert, rather than in a pop context on a recording.

It was only in our two full rehearsals with organ and electronics that I realized that Mason Bates has a particularly flexible and expressive way of combining electronics with live performers. Some parts with electronica reflect the freedom of rhythm that MIDI has made possible. These are marked with CONDUCTOR FREE in the score, and often involve radio-inspired sounds. Other parts though need to be locked into the electronica beat, and are marked with CONDUCTOR LOCK TO BEAT. These include the techno and processed gamelan sections of the electronica. Aren’t these sections what I was early calling a “tyranny to the click track”? No, it’s not tyranny when it’s done deliberately and thoughtfully for expressive purposes, and not all the time. It’s like vibrato that way!

Maybe other orchestral composers have been doing this for years – I have a limited knowledge of this portion of the repertoire over the past three decades.  My few recent performances with electronics by other composers have still tended to be either all click track or all free, not such a fascinating combination of the two. Along these lines, it’s been very interesting watching the interaction between Mason Bates and Donato Cabrera. Maestro Cabrera’s instincts are sometimes to free up the vocal singing in places. However, he is letting composer Bates guide him back to following the alternation between free and locked as specified in the score.

There is one other aspect I love about Mass Transmission besides its beautiful melodic, harmonic, and sonic writing. In an age that is so permeated by technology, it is sad that we get so little thoughtful artistic reflection on the impact of science and technology on our lives. John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic was a milestone in that regard – the first act in particular contains an astonishing musical realization of the scientific mind in the throes of creation and problem solving. Mass Transmission shows how radio technology started to bring the world closer together even as people moved further apart. In a world filled with cell phones, Skype, and FaceTime we tend to take this for granted. Mass Transmission takes us back to a time when the technology was new, and people were experiencing the miracle of real-time, long-distance communication for the first time. Here’s hoping that more composers follow the path of these two mavericks, with other insightful and beautiful things to say.

Mass Transmission will be performed by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus with Paul Jacobs on organ and Mason Bates on electronica, all under the baton of Resident Conductor Donato Cabrera. After this opening work comes the premiere of John Adams’ Absolute Jest with the St. Lawrence String Quartet as soloists. After intermission comes Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra with Emmanuel Ax as soloist, and finally Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, the concert’s “golden oldie.” Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct the San Francisco Symphony in these three works. It will be an amazing concert, and tickets are still available.

Photo of Mason Bates at Cabrillo by Ron Jones.

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MusicXML Presentations at NAMM 2012

NAMM: Believe in MusicThe annual NAMM show is set to begin in Anaheim, California on Thursday. If you’re at the show, please stop by the booth sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 pm any day from Thursday to Sunday. Each day I’ll be giving a MusicXML presentation and demonstration, together with Finale product manager Justin Phillips. It starts at 3:10 pm, and I will be staying at the booth until 4:00 pm to answer any MusicXML questions you may have. We’re at booth 6112 in Hall A.

Do you have ideas for new features for a future version of the MusicXML format? Suggestions for improvements for the Dolet plug-ins for Finale and Sibelius? Questions about how the transition from Recordare to MakeMusic will effect MusicXML? Please come by between 3 and 4 so we can talk about them. This will be the first time I’ve done booth duty at a NAMM show in 10 years, and I’m looking forward to it.

MakeMusic will have a lot of presentations going on at the booth all day. See the Finale Blog for more details about the schedule. I hope to see you there!

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Debussy Reviews; On to Bates

The reviews for the San Francisco Symphony production of Le martyre de Saint Sébastien are in:

  • Joshua Kosman at the San Francisco Chronicle thought it was a “loving rendition” and that the chorus “sounded superb”, but had some qualms about the piece itself.
  • Richard Scheinin at the San Jose Mercury News found the piece “quite strange and fabulously beautiful”, and that the chorus “shined throughout.”
  • Lisa Hirsch at San Francisco Classical Voice enjoyed the “highly effective multimedia production” and thought the chorus “turned in another masterly performance.”

This was a tremendously fun gig for me – the music is glorious, I had a great spot to listen to it, and nothing was too terribly difficult to sing. After my previous post from the tech rehearsal, they switched the soloists around so that Sasha Cooke also sang her solo from the platform just 10 feet in front of me. All the soloists were up close now, much more so than in the usual Symphony Chorus gig where we are in the terrace and the soloists are on the floor. What great fun!

I also got to meet Sasha Cooke and tell her how much I admired her singing and energy. She sweetly said the chorus was the star of the show, but that’s not really true. This was the orchestra’s show, with the chorus and soloists in supporting roles.

After a non-stop sequence of Verdi, Brahms, and Debussy (not even counting the Mahler and holiday concerts that I didn’t sing), the Chorus finally gets to take a 6-week breather. Then we start rehearsals for the premiere of Mason Bates’ Mass Transmission during the American Mavericks Festival from March 15 to 17.

Mason Bates has some interesting things to say about the piece in an interview that the Symphony posted on YouTube:

I’m enjoying our break now, but really looking forward to the next gig too!

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Coming Up: Debussy

Projection from Le martyre de Saint SébastienIf you’re in San Francisco this weekend and love Debussy, you really should try to get to see and hear our production of Le martyre de Saint Sébastien at the San Francisco Symphony. We’re doing the full incidental music in a semi-staged production. The work becomes a multi-media pageant complete with narrator, soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

If you’ve seen SFS semi-staged productions before, you know they can make remarkable use of the Davies Symphony Hall space. You can see the projections in the publicity photo above, but there’s more to the staging than that. Anne Patterson is the director and designer; Michael Tilson Thomas is the conductor; Frederica von Stade is the narrator. Our vocal soloists are sopranos Karina Gauvin and Joanna Taber, and mezzo-sopranos Sasha Cooke and Leah Wool. Sasha and Leah sing a duet as twins at the beginning, from opposite sides of the stage, that is simply amazing.

The chorus doesn’t have a lot to sing in this work, but what we do sing is choice. This is Debussy in full impressionistic, romantic, whole tone glory. Because this was written as incidental music – a bit over an hour of music for a big five-act play – the narration and production provide some essential dramatic context to bring the work to life in a concert setting.

Another real treat for the chorus is that the staging brings the soloists up to our level. Usually the soloists for an orchestral work are front and center on stage, while we’re up in the center terrace quite far away. In this staging, though, Flicka is maybe 20 feet to my left, while Karina and Leah are maybe 10 feet in front of me; Sasha is on the other side of the stage. I was having a lot of fun drinking in their presence at tonight’s tech rehearsal.

Le martyre de Saint Sébastien was composed and premiered in 1911, the same year that the San Francisco Symphony started. So these performances really fit into the ongoing SFS Centennial celebration season. It’s rarely done, and MTT is one of its major champions today. The concerts start with Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Don’t miss it!

Performances are Thursday, January 12 through Saturday, January 14 at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets are still available, though getting pretty scarce for Saturday.

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First Day at MakeMusic

Today was closing day for MakeMusic’s acquisition of selected Recordare assets, including the MusicXML format and Dolet plug-ins. This was also my first day in my new role of Director of Digital Sheet Music at MakeMusic. Recordare has posted the press release. MakeMusic has posted a free version of the Dolet for Sibelius plug-ins, with the Dolet for Finale plug-in soon to follow.

There will be so much more that I can do to make digital sheet music work better for people at a larger company like MakeMusic than at a smaller company like Recordare. I’m really looking forward to these new adventures!

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Coming Up: Brahms and Schütz

Tonight begins our four-concert run of Brahms’ A German Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The soloists Jane Archibald and Kyle Ketelsen have sounded fabulous in rehearsal. The program opens with the Chorus singing one of Heinrich Schütz’s a cappella six-part motets, Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. In between is Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. So there’s German music from the 17th, 19th, and 20th centuries all in one concert! Performances are Thursday the 17th through Saturday the 19th at 8:00 pm, and Sunday the 20th at 2:00 pm, all at Davies Symphony Hall.

Tickets are available online or at the box office. The San Francisco Symphony is running an amazing sale until 6:00 pm Pacific Time tonight, where nearly all seats are just $20! Use the SALE20 promotion code to get the special pricing online. The sale includes all our Brahms concerts, plus several other November and December programs.

I’ve sung the Brahms before, but it’s been a whole different experience than the Verdi Requiem. With the Verdi, the music pretty much came back into my voice instantly. When we started the Brahms, my voice was asking “Have you really sung this before?” There is a lot more for the chorus to sing in the Brahms than the Verdi. It’s pretty much continuous, with just a few passages for the soloists or the orchestra alone. It took more time to relearn the Brahms, but now it’s going very well.

The Schütz is a whole new world to me, having never sung any of his music before. Once it was added to the program, I purchased Emmanuel Music’s CD of six-part motets on the Koch International label – now out of print, but available from used stores at Amazon and elsewhere. What a beautiful recording, conducted by the late Craig Smith. It includes several motets composed to texts that Brahms also used in A German Requiem. It’s a fun challenge to combine the very different vocal and choral styles needed by Schütz and Brahms in the same concert.

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Moving to MakeMusic

MakeMusic logo

Yesterday was a big day for me. MakeMusic and Recordare announced that MakeMusic will be purchasing selected assets from Recordare LLC, including the MusicXML format and Dolet plug-ins for Finale and Sibelius. I will be joining MakeMusic as Director of Digital Sheet Music, staying in Silicon Valley. Closing is expected later this quarter.

You can read lots more about this at Recordare’s web site. This page includes my letter about the acquisition to the Recordare and MusicXML communities, plus links to the press release and frequently asked questions:

http://www.recordare.com/company/about-us/more-about-makemusic-acquisition

When I started Recordare 12 years ago, the goal was to create better digital sheet music and Internet music publishing through a standard notation format. MusicXML is now that standard notation format, used by over 150 applications. However, to succeed in digital sheet music applications, Recordare clearly needed to get bigger – either organically or through an acquisition. From day one MakeMusic was the leading candidate, as MusicXML’s leading supporter outside of Recordare. I am thrilled about what we will be able to create working together more directly.

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