Archive for July, 2010

Arriving in New York from Greece on Sunday, and devoting a full day to the Chamber Music Society on Monday, David and Wu Han departed Tuesday for Aspen, Colorado, to begin their customary residency at Aspen Music Festival and School.  The duo looked forward to solo and chamber performances, master classes and to hearing many concerts by friends and colleagues.

in David’s words…

Although my own Aspen residency was to be interrupted by a final frantic week with the Emerson Quartet (see post JULY 7:  Emerson Season Wrap-Up), Wu Han settled in for the duration and busied herself immediately with her class of students, and rehearsals for her first concerts (without me).

Wu Han teaching Music@Menlo alumna Hilda Huang

As she did the previous summer, Wu Han brought to the festival works both new to her repertoire and which she was eager to perform: the delightful “Souvenirs” by Samuel Barber, and Gershwin’s “American in Paris”.  The Barber, which she performed with Rita Sloan, is for one piano, four hands, and the Gershwin, which she performed with Anton Nel, requires two pianos.  The Gershwin is actually the original version of the work, as it was the composer’s method to bring lay out his orchestral works in piano versions.  (Wu Han makes the rounds with these pieces over the summer: she had just performed the Barber with CMS at the Festival of the Bluegrass with Anne-Marie McDermott, and this week Wu Han heads to Music@Menlo where the Gershwin will be performed by her and Ken Noda on the festival’s program of music from Paris in the 1920’s, titled La Ville Lumiere, on August 7th).

Wu Han and pianist Rita Sloan

Although Wu Han only accepted five students at the festival, she is very popular as a teacher and coach and is constantly, and generously, giving her time to eager young musicians who want to play for her.  As a private teacher I am much more inaccessible, not because of interest but because of schedule, and only the most determined young cellists and ensembles manage to make it on to my radar.

Upon my return to Aspen we dove into rehearsals of the two Beethoven piano trios of Op. 70 with our esteemed colleague and close friend of many years, the violinist Cho-Liang Lin.  Jimmy, as he is known to most, is spending more time in Aspen these days, having added a very serious teaching component to his busy concert schedule.  We were delighted to be working with him again, having played together often over the years in many locations.

Most everyone knows these two great trios, especially the first, nicknamed “the Ghost” because of its spooky slow movement.  It is known that Beethoven wanted to compose an opera on Macbeth, and there is speculation that this movement was a prototype for the witches’ scene, which is easily believable.  The “Ghost” trios two outer movements are sunny, happy and even frenetic, so the composer’s famous manic-depressive personality is in full evidence here.

Being Beethoven meant never being predictable, and the second part of this opus is as different from the first as one could imagine.  The stately introduction of the Op. 70 No. 2 trio is a far from the opening salvo of the “Ghost” as it could be, and this trio proceeds to unfold in an almost cerebral way, looking forward to the composer’s late period style.  A Haydn-esqe variation movement is followed by a dreamy, extended minuet which is pure Schubert in every way.  It’s tempting, when listening to this gorgeous movement, to make a snap generalization and say that this is where Schubert comes from.   The finale is, without a doubt, the most technically challenging of all Beethoven’s trio movements.  Rapid-fire sixteenth-note passages must interlock perfectly, and withstand Beethoven’s moment-to-moment, instantaneous changes of dynamics, a frequent characteristic of his music as he matured.

My extended stay in Aspen – the longest I ever stay anywhere besides home and Music@Menlo – allowed us the luxury of daily rehearsals during which we delved into the music’s most minute details.  There’s no other way to achieve decent performances of these works, and it was a terrific experience to share with Jimmy, who is tireless and sets only the highest standards for himself and his performances.  Performing the “Ghost” on Saturday and the E-flat on Monday also afforded us the advantage of being able to concentrate on one of them at a time.

Warm up backstage at Harris Hall

The concerts went very well, and with some luck, you will be able to hear them eventually on NPR’s Performance Today.

Emerging from Harris Concert Hall into the 8pm light in Aspen is always a magical experience.

Tuesday was far from a day of rest: we were in the KJAX radio station at 11:30 for an extended live interview, then at the Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall for an appearance on the Great Artists Master Class series (teaching cello/piano duos), then another radio interview taped backstage for Performance Today, then to the campus of the music school for another 2 hours of chamber music master class.

Finishing after 6pm, neither of us had touched our instruments all day, and we were facing the Beethoven Sonata marathon the next night.

Scheduled to begin at 8:30pm, and predicted by the festival to end at 11:15, we were surprised to learn that the concert had sold out and that stage seats were being added to accommodate more.  The news was both flattering and unnerving at the same time.

Harris stage waiting for the Beethoven cycle

There is no place that we play where we feel more pressure than at the Aspen Music Festival.  The audience is not only filled with listeners who have followed us sometimes for decades, but crammed with phenomenally talented, eager and critical students who have as much to learn from your mistakes as from your strong points.  Add to that the possible presence of any number of distinguished performing and teaching colleagues, and you have a recipe for anxiety.  And oh, I forgot the taping for National Public Radio.

Often, for me, the journey to a very important concert is like a plane flight with lots of turbulence, the kind where no matter which altitude the pilot tries, the aircraft won’t stop lurching, and it makes you feel kind of sick.  The remedies for concert anxiety are often as speculative: should I practice more or not? Sleep? Do something completely different? Sit still and think through the music?  Even when you know you are ready, the stage is still the realm of the unknown, and the clock is ticking.

Thankfully, as is happened for us more often than not, walking on to the stage at Harris Hall and sitting down with our instruments among the crowd on Wednesday had a positive effect on our nerves and concentration.  Going back to the airplane analogy, it’s like when after a very bumpy final approach the airplane steadies itself a few feet above the runway for a smooth landing.  We sailed through the sonatas in record time (2 hours and 15 minutes) and that included Wu Han delivering her signature introductions to the works from the stage.  The performances were well-recorded and you should be hearing them on Performance Today in the near future.

With concert sponsors Martin and Sarah Flug

Before the concert we were interviewed by a new television network called Plum TV, who filmed us talking outside Harris Hall on the lawn, and during our rehearsal.  Plum TV travels to high-end communities to report on their cultural activities, and Aspen, with its Music Festival and many other events such as the Ideas Festival, offers Plum the content of its dreams.  The footage is now running six times per day for the current week.

Our performance commitments fulfilled, we delved back into teaching on Thursday, Wu Han in the studio for eight hours and me hearing one very talented cellist and the three string quartets of Aspen’s Quartet Program.  Every summer, this program, run expertly by former Juilliard Quartet violinist Earl Carlyss, selects three deserving quartets from an international pool who spend the summer in Aspen, learning not only from the resident Aspen faculty but from the visiting quartets such as the Emerson, Takacs, and American.  All three quartets – the Tesla, Nexus and Chimeng – were very well prepared and loads of fun to work with.  I had great afternoon, and hope they did too.

Our end-of week wrap up included a traditional artistic planning lunch with festival artistic administrator Asadour Santourian, a brilliant intellectual and passionate music lover who, especially now in the absence of a festival music director, takes upon his shoulders the details of next season almost entirely.  We wish him well and know that he will do a phenomenal job, as he has for the past eight years.

One of the most wonderful advantages of a summer festival residency is the opportunity to spend precious time with colleagues.  Too often for busy musicians the regular winter season does not allow time for spending evenings together, exchanging ideas, information, stories and simply having the kind of conversations that can only really take place between performers.

A non-concert highlight of our stay in Aspen this summer was the incredible party thrown on Thursday night by cellist Eric Kim, a great cellist and Aspen regular whom we have know for years and who, along with his wife Stacey, graciously invited us to their spectacular residence, which overlooks the town of Aspen, Pitkin County Airport, and Aspen valley looking practically all the way to Glenwood Springs.  At sunset, it was a setting without equal.

Eric, like a true cellist, is a truly wonderful colleague and friend who unleashed his passion and expertise for cooking on all of us.  Over pepper-crusted pork loin, grilled and Fontina-topped polenta, innumerable salads, appetizers and desserts, we enjoyed the enormous pleasure of the company of many esteemed colleagues until late in the evening, among them: clarinetist Joaquin Valdapenas; cellist Michael Mermagen; violinists Jimmy Lin, Connie Heard and Masao Kawasaki; violist Jim Dunham, many of them joined by spouses and children.

It was a wonderful and fitting way to end another challenging and rewarding stay at the Aspen Music Festival and School.  As long as we are able to continue making valuable contributions to this great institution, we will be happy and honored to return.

Eric and Stacey

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Waking early in the morning, this is what I saw from bed. The Corinthian II had pulled into the Santorini harbor so close that we could have easily swam to shore.  Looking vertically up the switch-back walkway and the gondola, we could see the sun peeking over the roofs of the iconic white houses of Fira on the hilltop.

We had docked at a small landing in the middle of the crescent which is Santorini Island.  Originally called Thera, it was given the name Santorini by the Venetians who derived the name from Saint Irene.

Larger ships were not able to dock as close as the Corinthian II

The entire middle of the once circular and conical island exploded and sank into the ocean in the year 1623 B.C.  The explosion not only obliterated everything on the island but was heard as far away as the Straits of Glbralter, and its ill effects were likely cause of the destruction of the aforementioned Palace of Knossos in Crete. So our port, before that time, would have been under many thousands of feet of rock.

Breakfast on board within swimming distance of shore

We were ferried a short distance to another location with switchbacks for buses as opposed to donkeys (where we had docked).  The bus ride up the hill was dramatic, and when we reached the ridge, we found ourselves suddenly in the thriving tourist town of Thira.

After dropping the instruments in town near our concert venue, we continued on the bus to the town of Oia on the northern tip of the island.  The journey was among the most scenic we had ever taken.

Driving at some points on narrow ridges that divide the island’s flat lands from the steep drop to the massive caldera, one  can easily see the many layers of volcanic deposit in the hillsides.   The explosion of Thera has been linked, speculatively, to historical legends such as the disappearance of Atlanta (thought to be at the caldera’s bottom),  and the biblical plagues.

Seen from one of many incredible scenic viewing locations in Oia, the beautiful neighboring islands dot the horizon.  It is  mind-boggling to realize, though, that where you are standing and these islands were once the same land mass before being separated by the gigantic explosion.

The town of Oia is too picturesque for words, a photographer’s paradise.   Please click on the link at the conclusion of  this  post for many more photos.

We have never been jewelry enthusiasts until we came to Greece.  The modern artisans must have the ancient creativity and skill in their blood.

Reluctantly boarding the bus, we were transported to a magical lunch in an open-air restaurant overlooking the island’s east coast, the airport, and the famous black sand beaches.

The food was fantastic.

Deep fried eggplant

Our performance that afternoon took place in the Thera Conference Center of the Petros M. Nomikos Foundation, a marvelous place perched at the very top of the hill in Fira.  The foundation “is dedicated to realizing and promoting social, cultural and scientific events to support the island of Santorini and the excavations of Akrotiri” and hosts conferences with participants staying in charming cottages attached to the center.  The main room, with air conditioning and wonderful acoustics, overlooks the harbor where our ship was docked.

Both Wu Han and I introduced the final program of  our tour, which included Beethoven’s 1st sonata for piano and cello in F,  and the massive Brahms g minor piano quartet.

Our professional obligations completed, the musicians could finally relax completely.

Descending from the foundation towards the top of the cable car (which would take us directly to the harbor) we were amazed by the view of the Corinthian II from almost directly above it.

The descent via cable car was dramatic.   The other way down was either on the back of a donkey, or on foot along the same donkey trail.  One has to watch where one steps.  I believe Arnaud walked down but didn’t have much to say about it.

The donkey trail, the cable car, and the Corinthian II

Returning to the ship via tender…

…everyone relaxed and refreshed in their cabins, and Arnaud joined us on our balcony for a celebratory glass of champagne as the ship pulled away.

The departure from Santorini at sunset afforded stunning views in all directions, looking back towards the sun-drenched cliffs, and forward into the darkening Aegean.

The final evening, filled with mixed emotions, was celebratory.  We thanked and bid our guides, tour directors, and the captain and his crew farewell, but not before they had led us on a magical remembrance of where we had been, and what we seen and learned.

Captain Thomsen (right) greeted every passenger at the final reception

Kathleen Lynch, our resident lecturer from the University of Cincinnati, provided us with one more enlightening talk that summarized the entire experience.   Always available, effervescent and brilliant, Kathleen taught us more in a week than I ever thought possible to learn, and we owe her much gratitude.

As the ship sailed over a moonlit sea towards Piraeus, we enjoyed for a last time the Corinthian II’s luxurious facilities,  such as the well-stocked library, and well-stocked bar.

I would be remiss to close without a couple of acknowledgments, first, to the expert cruise organizers at Travel Dynamics International who put together what seemed a flawless week, in which every detail had been thought out and executed with elegance and grace.  To our partners, Smithsonian Journeys and the Archaeological Institute of  America, we thank you on behalf of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for your participation,  your friendship, and for the inspiring energy, curiousity and attentive listening that your attendees brought to the experience.  To all those who joined us through CMS, what a pleasure it was to spend such quality time together outside the concert hall, all of us learning new things in common amazement.

Wu Han and I would also like to thank our indefatigable musical partners Philip Setzer and Arnaud Sussmann, who missed nothing during  the entire week, not even a couple of  notes.  It was a special pleasure to make music together under such extraordinary circumstances.

As the Corinthian II pulled into the  harbor at Piraeus, the Athenian fisherman were already at work.   We look forward to seeing them soon again.  Stay tuned, through the Chamber Music Society, for news of our next musical adventure on the high seas.

For more photos of  Santorini and the journey’s conclusion on our Flickr page,  click here.

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