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Fitting that my 200th post would be a viola joke

Q. If a cellist plays the cello and a violinist plays the violin, who plays the viola?

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On the evils of overreaching

And now for an unpopular opinion! This one could bring all you music directors down on my head (I almost typed “heads;” who do I think I am, Zaphod Beeblebrox?). Nevertheless, it is a pet peeve of mine, and as I recently bore witness to horrific example I’m getting up on my soap box for a bit.

Okay, here it is: I think some music directors don’t recognize the limitations of their musicians and overreach when selecting concert pieces.

I’ve seen it: a couple weeks ago I attended a school concert. I won’t say what school (since, um, I won’t be complimentary), but I will say it was above high school level. The chamber music ensemble came on and began to play a piece by Haydn, and I’m SORRY but it was so bad I almost burst out laughing. I had to hide behind my program and silently convulse until I had composed myself. I know! I know! Unprofessional and downright mean! But it was a visceral reaction!

Their next selection was almost as terrible, but the last two were palatable. They weren’t great, but they were palatable. And I thought to myself, if the music director had chosen four pieces on that level, things wouldn’t have been nearly as embarrassing.

I’ve lived it: in undergrad I had a string ensemble director so heinous he drove me right out of the program. Was it because he looked almost exactly like Richard Simmons? … Okay, maybe a little. But mostly it was because he turned our little orchestra into the M****l S****s Orchestral Vehicle For Self Promotion.

A violist, he had us play a Hindemith viola concerto so that he could do the solo. The strings program at my college was not robust, and the Hindemith was so far out of our league that we weren’t even playing the same sport. There was one other cellist besides me, and I remember us in rehearsal being on two completely different measures. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: Where are you?

Her: I don’t know. Where are you?

Me: I don’t know!

THAT SHOULD NOT HAPPEN. Honestly, it makes me so mad that we were even playing it in the first place I still want to find the man and strangle him. His solution was to bring in his own string quartet to lead the sections in the concert. Don’t even get me started on that one.

I can see the value of a challenge. Sometimes if you ask your musicians to rise to the occasion they will pleasantly surprise you; sometimes it will inspire them to work harder and bust it out against the odds. Twelfth grade orchestra, one week before Music in the Parks at my one true love Walt Disney World, O’Bryan pulls out an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and says hey, let’s just give this a shot. No pressure. We tried it, we practiced the heck out of it in the next four days, and we played it that weekend for a jury. But, see… we sounded pretty good. If we had sounded crappy, WE WOULD HAVE PLAYED SOMETHING ELSE. (Incidentally, that strings program was also pretty anemic. Small numbers is not an excuse.)

I know what every music director tells you before the concert: “Don’t worry if you make a mistake! Nobody out there knows the difference!” All my conductors certainly have, every time. And I would think to myself: Ha! My mother is in the audience AND SHE KNOWS AND SHE WILL TELL ME. Which didn’t bother me, because if it sucked it sucked and we’re honest about music in my family. But I guess it makes me… maybe a little hypercritical?

But still! How can you go out there on stage and smile and conduct when your ensemble isn’t just a little pitchy but downright bad? Is there something I’m not getting?

(Disclaimer: I recognize that not all music directors are guilty of these sins. Don’t feel like just because you’re a music director I’m automatically lumping you into this group. I’ve just noticed it an awful lot of this sort of thing.)


Events have warranted

Not a half hour after I posted my BSO information, I got more! Only this kind can be shared by everyone all over the world. It’s free music time!

Hi Jenn,

I love your If It Ain’t Baroque, and I just wanted to make sure you knew that the BSO’s assistant principal cellist has just released a solo album today. We had a great CD release show at An Die Musik on Sunday, and people can listen to the whole thing at www.analogarts.org/cello

We’d love it if you mentioned the album on your blog.

Best regards,
Regina Drew

PS – ANALOG arts ensemble is also performing a trio set this Sunday @ 5pm at An Die Musik. The performers are Marcia Kamper (fl), Maggie Seay (va) and Todd Thiel (vc).

Done and done.

(I tried to get a link to An Die Musik (which is in Baltimore), but everything I clicked was broken. I’m linking anyway in the hopes that it’s not an incorrect or out of date URL and is just having some technical difficulties, but I figured I’d mention in case you try it and it doesn’t work.)

Happy BSO Day!

Well, not officially. I don’t know if there even is a BSO Day. But since I have any number of bits of BSO news and info for you, I dub today the unofficial one.

  • This week’s BSO concert is “Underground Railroad: An Evening with Kathleen Battle,” and features – prepare to be shocked – soprano Kathleen Battle. There are no program notes, but Battle seems to be something of a big shot in vocal circles and the musical selections include African-American spirituals, hymns, and “musical majesty” (way to be vague, brochure). The Strathmore concert is on Thursday, May 27 and the Meyerhoff concert is on Saturday, May 29. Both concerts are at 8 pm and I’m told there will be no late entry.
  • The BSA’s Designers’ Show House closes its doors for good on May 30. For those unaware, the Show House features interior decoration from local decorator and landscaping businesses and you are free to purchase everything you see with a portion of the proceeds to benefit the BSO’s education programs. Click here for more information.
  • Speaking of education programs, the new website highlighting the BSO’s OrchKids is now up! Check it out.
  • The BSO summer season has been announced! I’ll likely do a post about this in more detail as the time draws nearer, but in the mean time click here to see what they’re offering. There’s a beatboxer! Really.
  • Win tickets to Brahms and baseball! Take in the BSO’s performance of Brahms’ A German Requiem and follow it with the only logical conclusion: THE NATIONALS VS. THE WHITE SOX! It’s what Brahms would’ve wanted, I’m sure.

Further updates as events warrant!

I know you, INDEED

I wanted to post the Epcot film Impressions de France because it’s like a laundry list of famous French composers, but I have yet to find a quality video. So instead, let me take you back to a time when Disney ganked Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty waltz and ran with it.

Fact: cellists lick themselves clean

And now a cello solo
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Ode to a benevolent dictator

Q. What’s the difference between an oboist and a violist?

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The case against logic and reason

It’s a BSO Pops concert week, which is more than enough excuse for me to break out the musical!

The modern musical is a very different animal from the classics from the golden era of Hollywood. Now, don’t get me wrong – I liked Chicago, I liked Hairspray. I love a good Disney musical. I did not like Moulin Rouge!, but all those songs were stolen so whatever.

But the musicals being produced today are pretty slick and tightly plotted. Sure, the odd WTF? moment pops up, but there are at least attempts made to cling to logic. Indeed, Chicago goes so far as to actually try to explain why people are bursting into song and busting out dances by filtering them through Roxie’s imagination.

And that’s just plain silly, trying to make musicals not so silly. I like the old musical, the kind that is saturated with hyper-bright colors and costumes that may or may not actually reflect the period, old barns are easily converted to fantastic stages, water ballet is the most elaborate thing this side of a DNA spiral, and Gene Kelly can choreograph an entire dance around a creaky floorboard and a piece of paper. To say nothing of any of his dance sequences in Singin’ in the Rain.

Which is why I am delighted to share with you a favorite post series from the boys at Project Rungay, entitled “Musical Mondays” (to find them, scroll down to the bottom of the page; the drop-down menu will be in the far left-hand column).

Some Mondays T and Lo are kind enough to grace us with a somewhat cynical, MST3K-style rundown of a selected musical. Sometimes these critiques are loving, sometimes scathing, and I don’t always agree with them, but they are invariably hilarious. Frequently I wind up gasping a protest even as I giggle (“HEY! I LIKE Brigadoon!”), but who can resist such cuttingly brilliant witticisms as:

  • “Our story starts with Howard Keel as Adam Pontipee, an ignorant backwoodsman who opens up the movie by sauntering through the tiny Oregon town of Backlotsville, loudly singing that he wants hisself a wife and obnoxiously pointing out the physical flaws of every woman he passes on the street. This is meant to endear us to him.” [“HEY! I LIKE Seven Brides for Seven Brothers!”]
  • “Broke and in trouble with the law, they do what any of us would do. Sing and dance inappropriately for little boys in the street. Was this code for something?” [“HEY! I LIKE Gentlemen Prefer Blondes!”]
  • “He spends a little time moodily wandering the streets of Paris, backlit. We keep hoping that bands of thieves will come upon him and beat him to death, but no such luck.” [“HEY! I LIKE Gigi!”]

I should note that T and Lo do not hold back, and their language might be considered ever-so-slightly NSFW, but they’re not being vulgar, just catty. It’s allowed!

Anyway, “Musical Mondays.” Peruse the archives. Whether you love or hate musicals, you’ll get a kick out of it.

Walk up the avenue till you’re there!

This week’s BSO concert a Pops affair: “A Tribute to Irving Berlin.” I’m sure you’re already familiar with Irving Berlin’s music. This is good, because there’s not much I can tell you about it.

Which is weird, because, as Wednesday’s post will reveal, I’m a major fan of old musicals, the kind that require your early acceptance that what follows will make the world’s prettiest nonsense. So by rights and logic I should know all about Berlin’s work, and yet the “favorite hits” the season brochure mentions – “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “How Deep is the Ocean,” “Blue Skies”  to name a few – leave me with naught but a sense of “…?” (Except for “God Bless America.” I know that one.)

This didn’t seem right to me, so I went ahead and looked him up on Imdb. Which initially led to more questions (he was from Russia?!). Then I had to sift through all the recent credits when his songs were used in modern movies and TV.

Finally I skipped to the bottom, which I where I found enlightenment. Of a sort. Is it bad that my source of familiarity with “Puttin’ On the Ritz” is that scene where Gene Wilder dances with a monster Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein?  But I finally hit upon something when it came to Easter Parade, some of Annie Get Your Gun (<3 HOWARD KEEL),  and of course we all know “White Christmas.” I can sing along with you now, Mr. Berlin!

All of this is just to say that Irving Berlin is in fact very much worth your time, and if only the copy writers who put together the brochure had mentioned, oh, I don’t know, “A Couple of Swells,” I would’ve KNOWN this already.

Right, so the concerts are Thursday, May 20 at 8 pm at Strathmore, then Friday, May 21 and Saturday, May 22 at 8 pm at the Meyerhoff, and then also Sunday, May 23 at 3 pm at the Meyerhoff. Jack Everly to conduct, Ashley Brown and Tony DeSare to sing (and in the case of the latter, piano…ify). The Van Der Bilts are waiting at the club – you don’t want to disappoint them, do you?