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A dance with a broom that is not Fantasia

I don’t know if your violin instructor ever told you to sweep your bow arm, but this… isn’t what he meant.

My favorite bit is when the vacuum interrupts the Massanet. I played that piece way too many times not to be sick of it now, let me tell you.


The cracks in the universe where the arts live

A long time ago, while generating ideas for blog posts, it occurred to me that it might be good to write about what makes each art different. And then I thought, no, that’s stupid – what makes each art different is that it’s a completely different art. Obviously. But there was something I was trying to get at there beyond the superficial differences, and last week I figured out what it was.

I was at a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert, the one with the Rachmaninoff. I’m not even a huge Rachmaninoff fan, being raised to look upon him with a suspicious eye, but all the same. Garrick Ohlsson was playing these beautiful chords, and the orchestra was unspooling its notes gently behind him, and I thought to myself – there are places classical music can go that nothing else can. There are things classical music can express that nothing else can. Classical music can do things that nothing else can do.

And then I thought, okay, classical music snob, if that’s the case, why do you listen to so much indie rock? Hmmm? Missy? If classical music is so darn transcendental, what do you need with a bunch of clever lyrics and a bass line?

Good question, good question. And that’s when it hit me about the cracks in the universe.

Let’s say the universe is riddled with crevices, filled with emotions and truths. There are crevices only classical music can ever hope to enter, and facts about life that only classical music could ever hope to dig out. And inside those little holes there are bits that only Rachmaninoff himself can get to, next to the divots solely Beethoven could ever hope to go. The better the composer, the better the music, the more and deeper the cracks, of course, but there it is. That’s why we need classical music, to go the places only it can.

But! There are other cracks, that indie rock can access. The same – dare I say it – for pop music, with its bounce and feel-good fun. And then cracks that a painting can pick at where music could never hope to fit. Cracks just for dance, cracks just for actors. We need them all if we can ever hope to explore as much of the universe as we can. If we let any one of them die we lose our avenue to its portion of life.

So that’s what I think about during a concert, in case you were ever wondering. Cracks in the universe. Maybe I read too much Heinlein.*


* This is impossible.

Concert Roundup: Scarypants Edition

Happy Halloween! You know what’s really scary? Not having your concert attendance for the week all planned out. Here ya go:

  • Oh boy. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra proves that it is positively MAGICAL with a program entitled “Wizards and Wands: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a title which I will look upon dubiously forevermore. Still, aside from the admittedly catchy Williams Potter music, and you can never really go wrong with the Dukas. November 3 at the Meyerhoff. [ See it! ]
  • The National Symphony Orchestra makes up for their lack of a concert a couple weeks ago by offering no less than three different programs this week. The first features Beethoven‘s Missa Solemnis, November 1 – 3. The second, on November 2, is a chamber music performance of all-Beethoven, proving that this Eschenbach fellow has great taste. And finally, on November 4, Lang-Lang plays nothing but Mozart and Chopin. Of course. [ See the Missa! ] [ See the chamber Beethoven! ] [ See Lang-Lang! ]
  • This week at Strathmore: Joshua Bell, delta bluesman Keb’ Mo’, latin dance. [ See the calendar! ]

If you’d like your concert included in next week’s roundup, leave a comment or drop me a line.

You’re kind of awesome

This post starts out about ballet, but bear with me – I promise I have a musical point.

As you may know, I am an amateur ballerina. Key word being amateur; I’ve been doing it enough years that I am pretty good, but I can barely turn out a triple pirouette to save my life, my turnout is average at best, and my feet, while strong, could have higher arches. In short, I am an Okay Dancer.

This is not a story about proving myself wrong about that. This is a story about how a friend of mine came to ballet class with me, a friend who had never danced before in her life, and afterward she was so embarrassed because she couldn’t bend her body like I could. “I thought you were amazing,” she said.

Was I amazing, to the full extent that ballerinas can be amazing? Hell no. But compared to a non-dancer, I could do a thousand things other people could never dream of doing – simply things that felt so easy to me, leaps and jumps and lifts of the leg imperfectly executed but nonetheless executed, that I’d been doing for so long that I took them for granted.

And I think musicians are like that too. I think we forget that there are so many people who look at a piece of sheet music and see a random assortment of dots and lines. They compose a foreign language; they have no meaning.

To those who haven’t studied music, the ability to play a scale is a miraculous thing. Understanding of arpeggios? Genius! Bach’s “Minuet in G”? Astounding! All these tiny little things we’ve learned over the years that mean nothing to us because we’ve known them so long and the fingerings are ingrained in our muscle memory and a D# is a D# is a D# and how could anyone not know that?

But there are a surprising number of people who don’t know that. But you do. And it sounds really dumb, but I think it might be nice if, next time you play an instrument or read a score or parse a complicated symphony in your head, you think, “It’s pretty cool that I can do this. Not everyone can.”

See the music, hear the dance

“See the music, hear the dance,” says Balanchine. This is important.

I took a choreography course as an elective in grad school. It was not a wholly successful venture, as we performed our own works and I am not always entirely at home with being Under Scrutiny, but I do think I improved my skills.

We always talked through our pieces, about what was working and what wasn’t, and the professor gave some insight into her own struggles. One such issue was her sometimes frustration with finding a piece of music she desperately wanted to choreograph but being unable to see her way to any steps. A student had set her final dance to such a score – a piano piece by Debussy – and the professor expressed her admiration at the student’s ability to pick up on layers on the music to fuel her steps. “Those are layers I never would have noticed as right to highlight.”

The best dances are those that do not exist outside their music. The dull ones – you know the ones I mean, I’m sure – have choreography that may impress with tricks and spins but have little or no relation to the music being played in the background. It’s just a beat, or a collection of lyrics meant to do all the work of explaining the purpose of the dance so that the dancer and choreographer don’t have to bother with it (there are rare exceptions to this).

On the flip side, to go back to Balanchine, he didn’t want to choreograph to Beethoven because he felt Beethoven’s music needed no further augmentation. Similarly, there are dances that are created without music at all.

If they want to play, music and dance must do more than play nice with each other. They must complement each other, and find the new layers.


For more on this, you might be interested in my interview with Shannon Schwait of CityDance.

Next thing you’ll tell me it’s a pah de doo

Okay. I’ve already told you about my Rimsky-Korsakow thing. If you haven’t seen it, Mr. Clayton provided an excellent comment shedding a little light on the issue. It’s all about transliteration, he says; it’s how many languages and alphabets the composer has been filtered through before he gets to us that determines the spelling.

Well fine. Then who came up with this one? General Tsao?

Tschaikovsky? Tschaikovsky? PETER? ILYITCH? Did he decide to incorporate a tribute to eczema while filing for British citizenship? It’s PIOTR, dammit! PIOTR! ILYICH! TCHAIKOVSKY! I’m going back to bed.

The pits

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent my Saturday in New York City with some fellow ballerinas. We did the requisite NYC wandering, but our main objective was to see the New York City Ballet perform a series of short works, including The Steadfast Tin Soldier (which I didn’t like because NO ONE MELTED), Le Tombeau de Couperin (which I loved, at least in part because RAVEL!), a Tchaikovsky pas de deux (more on that Friday, kinda), and The Concert (hilarious at the beginning, WTF at the end).

But this is not a post about ballet. This is a post about the pit.

The New York City Ballet performs with a pit orchestra, an increasingly rare luxury in these hard economic times. I’ve never played in a pit, myself, but I can only imagine it’s a very different experience from playing in a regular concert — and not just because no one can see you. Even if your work has been recorded to CD, when someone plays that CD it’s all about you and your music. In the pit, you become secondary, do you not? Important, yes, but not the focus. The conductor doesn’t even get to fully control the nuances of the piece, constantly adjusting to suit the dancers/actors/what have you.

I thought of this particularly because of the Tchaikovsky, the lost pas de deux from Swan Lake. It featured a violin solo, and I wondered — what’s it like soloing in the pit? Of course you still don’t want to make a mistake, but the eyes aren’t on you; hell, most of the audience can’t even see you. Are you still nervous? Do you play it your way, or are you more inclined to play traditionally, to keep things consistent for the dancer? Does it even matter if you snag a solo or not?

And conductors, how do you feel answering to dancers? Does it add an extra layer of difficulty, dividing your attention between the musicians and the performers on stage? Have you ever had a dancer ask for a truly ridiculous adjustment? Have the music and the dancing ever separated, and if so, how did you get it back? Did you get it back?

In short, does playing in the pit take the pressure off, or is it the pit of despair?*

* Don’t even think about trying to escape.

Have you hugged your piano today?

I had an eventful Saturday — I drove up to NYC with some folks from my ballet studio to see the New York City Ballet present a collection of short works, among other things. More on this tomorrow, but for your Monday video I wanted to share a Jerome Robbins piece we saw entitled The Concert. The first scene will be particularly funny for my musically-minded readership, but I would encourage you to watch the whole thing if you have the time (if you can explain the butterflies to me, I would be deeply grateful).

Not Without My Concert Roundup

But first! A personal plea.

The nonprofit arm of my ballet studio, Performing Arts Repertory Company, is in a DC-area fundraising competition. For November 9 only, Give To The Max will track how much money is donated to PARC, as well as how many individuals donate. Depending on our ranking in both categories, we could win additional funds, which would go toward dance scholarships, workshops, and education and outreach programs, among other things. A noble cause — so you want to help, right? Donate now, before you forget — it’s tax-deductible!

I give you this concert recap in thanks for your donation. If you didn’t donate, I hope you feel really guilty right now.

  • The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra likes to be in America — this week’s concert features Copland‘s Appalachian Spring, in addition to Old American Songs. A solid work, one people will come out for, except in this case what I’m sure they’re actually coming for is Gershwin‘s An American in Paris overture. Edward CollinsTragic overture is also in the mix. Marin Alsop to conduct, William Sharp to baritonate; November 10 & 13 at the Meyerhoff.  [See it!]
  • This week at the National Symphony Orchestra it’s The Return of Leonard Slatkin! On the conductor’s docket: Clyne, a Rachmaninoff symphony, and a Saint-Saen cello concerto performed by Gautier Capucon. November 10-12. [See it!]

Updated to add: Got this from Benevolent Dictator Jamie:

Emerson String Quartet
Baird Auditorium
Natural History Museum
November 19 at 6 PM

This concert offers an exclusive opportunity to hear the quartet
perform in an intimate setting with excellent acoustics.

Metro Stop: Federal Triangle
Walk south on 12th Street, and cross Constitution Avenue to the Natural History
Museum on the left. (NOT on the National Mall side.)

Ticket prices for students: $10*
Rush tickets are available for purchase starting at
5:30 p.m. on November 19th at the door
*Valid student ID required when purchasing and redeeming tickets.  Two tickets per student ID, per concert.  No refunds or exchanges available.  Subject to availability.

The dying-est swan

You know how there’s this really famous ballet solo to “The Swan” from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals? Well, this isn’t it.

(By way of explanation: Les Ballets Trockedero.)