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Beethoven, the Dude and Me

Last Wednesday I was in Sunset, eating lunch with Dave at Kingdom of Dumpling when I got an email from the artistic director of Cal Performances. It read "Can you come to rehearsal tonight at 7pm? Will explain later." I had recently been the pianist for a number of chorus rehearsals for Beethoven 9 but since today was the day that the orchestra was taking over I thought I was off the hook. So I wrote back "Ok, I can be there - but what will I be doing?" 

"You'll be on stage with the Maestro and the chorus for the rehearsal."

Upon reading those words I suddenly felt kind of faint and I lost my appetite entirely. No more dumplings for me thanks. (However, I took them home and they were super good for lunch the next day. Yum yum yum. Anyway....)

The Maestro in question that I was going to be working with that night just happened to be Gustavo Dudamel. I had been hired to play for the rehearsals leading up to the concert but the actual show was going down with Dudamel and the Orquesta Sinfònica Simón Bolívar.  I didn't think our paths would ever cross but suddenly it looked like I would be working with him very about six hours to be exact. My lazy-no-work day eating dumplings and walking the dog had suddenly turned into an intense, omg I have to work with some insanely famous conductor so I'd better be in the type of mental space where I'm ready to bring the house down kind of day. As you might guess these days are typically quite different.  

I have a tendency to freak out and worry about things.  Over time and with a lot of experience performing I've become really, really good at keeping myself in check and getting through things with the minimum amount of hassle but that doesn't mean that I'm not aware of the adrenaline shooting through my body or my brain screaming things at me that I don't want to hear. Seriously, if I watch myself on video of any given performance I am always surprised by how calm and composed I look because that's really not what's going on at all in my head.  But that's for another blog post I think.

So it's normal that a gig like this would paralyze me in certain ways and I have to admit that for that first hour after I found out about it - it did.  All of sudden there were so many things that could go wrong. But then I realized, wait a minute! There were so many things that would go right. I had worked on the Beethoven pretty carefully with the time I had. I learned all the voice parts and had properly beat the orchestra part into a very fine ten finger submission. I'd had three rehearsals with the chorus and a conductor already and even though this would be my first time with Dudamel I knew that because he knows the orchestra part inside out he would actually make my job easier rather than harder. Armed with this reality I suddenly I felt relaxed and started looking forward to 7pm.  

When I got to the hall there were people with instruments onstage so I thought, oh, I guess the situation has changed and the orchestra is going to play after all.  I am no longer needed!  I looked around for the director but not finding her I thought that it would be a good idea to join the altos during the rehearsal and in that way still get to work with Dudamel.

I was standing at the back of the risers surrounded by slightly overexcited singer-type people when I thought to look at my phone. I had four missed calls and a number of emails.  Hmmm, that's not normal. At this point, it was about 7:15pm.  I looked at the first email:

"When can we expect you at Zellerbach?" I sent back "I'm here."

Then I looked at who had been calling me and that's when I realized that maybe I shouldn't be standing in the risers with the chorus anymore. Shoving happy singers out of my way I pushed and swore my way down to the stage where I found the director and others heaving out the piano. And here comes Dudamel with a big smile on his face so I guess this is where I sit down and do my thing.

The next hour and half was spent going through all the chorus parts of the symphony. Dudamel did not work from a score. Instead he would say, ok, let's start here where this happens, or let's start four bars before the next entry. Once I realized he wasn't going to use bar numbers it was actually easy to guess how he was going to move through the score. He was great with the choir, making them laugh and putting them at ease but also not letting them get away without first achieving what he wanted to hear. What I liked best was that he commiserated with them about just how difficult it is to sing Beethoven. "One minute of Beethoven is equal to singing three hours of Verdi" he said.  That's how hard it is. In this way, he made you feel that he was on your side and that every effort that you were making was more than worth it and not only that, you should be trying even harder. Inspiring n'est pas? A musician's approach to music can communicate many things about them and what I got from Dudamel was a feeling of complete comfort with what he had in his hands and a desire to share his knowledge and understanding with the people around him. This is the type of conductor, in my humble opinion, that will get the best out of the people he's working with. 

After the rehearsal he came over and shook my hand, smiled and thanked me. We bantered a bit but I can't remember about what. Maybe I was slightly star struck in that moment? Probably, he is rather charming. I stuck around to hear the run through with the orchestra and I've posted a video of the very last few minutes of the symphony. Sorry - it's shaky at the start but only until I find a comfortable place to set the phone. I think posting this might be some shade of illegal so if someone orders me to take it down I certainly will but check it out while you can. Since I recorded it with my phone the sound leaves a lot to be desired but you can still get a sense of what it was like. My favorite moment is the last fifteen seconds of the video where the orchestra gets to finish everything off with a huge exclamation point - I love the horns, the tempo and the absolute energy and power of the orchestra. This was an incredible experience on so many levels for me - enjoy! 

ideal music in ideal settings is just.....ideal

Sometimes, the settings in which I have to perform are not always the best. It could be that I don't like the music I'm playing or the person I'm playing with (yes, that happens and no, if you're reading this, it probably wasn't you). Or maybe it's already been a super long day, I didn't eat or sleep enough and someone wants to rehearse the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (for the record, I haven't played the Mendelssohn in over two years and I hope to never have to revisit it ever again). Whatever the case I'm used to it and I'll get through it, it's just part of the job. 

However, sometimes it just so happens that everything falls into place and you've got it all - good music, great players, you're well fed and rested AND you've had time to practice.  These opportunities are gold and oh-so-cherishable and I will never take for granted that the last month has been this and only this.

I've been rehearsing for a house concert happening this coming Saturday with my new piano quartet (tentatively dubbed the I.O. Piano Quartet - I.O. for the color international orange, the color of, you guessed it - the Golden Gate Bridge, how local of us!).  I also just got back about a week ago from The Iowa Great Lakes Music Festival where I hastily rehearsed and performed two piano trios with two really fantastic guys.  

One of the things I liked about being in Iowa was that I had the opportunity to just focus on the music at hand. I got up in the morning, ate something and we would start rehearsing. Then we'd have lunch, practice or rehearse some more, take a walk by the lake, eat more probably and then I'd go to bed looking forward to the next day full of the same. When you take away the stresses of a normal day, however small or large, it leaves you more creative space to focus on what really matters in your work. I don't have the type of job that I can leave at the office, it's always with me. So when I get to leave the rest of my life at the office and just focus on the work, well, exciting things happen.  Like.......let's add a cadenza to the final movement of the Beethoven! Let's Glenn Gould these dynamics and do the opposite of what's written the second time we play it in the trio!  Or let's play this part slower just because we've already heard it the same way eight times.  Oh the horror!  So we did and left things to chance and spontaneity and it was the most fun I've ever had performing Beethoven. And of course this had everything to do with Thomas and Zach's willingness and I love them all the more for it.  After experiencing this wonderful type of group dynamic I think I can't go back to rules and regulations. Why would I want to?  Just look how happy we were!

And while my piano quartet at the moment may not be as experimental it's just as rewarding.  The string players are fantastic and beautiful musicians that already bring so much to the music at hand that I feel like I just have to step in and we all lead the way together. That's the bonus of working with people more experienced than you are and I certainly don't mind being the baby of the group, it's a welcome change. The work never feels like "work" and I'm often disappointed when our rehearsals end. Although with this group, the end of a rehearsal means wine and food and lots of dissing conductors so I can't complain too much.

So here you find one happy pianist at the moment. More of the same please!

noise and neighboUrs (I'm still Canadian eh?)

I had it really good in Montréal, all the years I lived there I had neighbors that never complained about the piano.  If anything, they complained when I didn't play.  

Enter San Francisco.....

When I got here in August my piano had already been delivered.  Our apartment now is smaller than what we had in Montréal so I don't have my own studio anymore. We had to put the piano in the living room so my studio shares the space with the TV (kind of weird) and neighbors on the other side of the wall as well as underneath me.  But this has been ok, except for lately.  I have a lot of new repertoire on my plate at the moment - on top of the more general (read stuff I don't practice) work I have I'm also learning the Dumky Trio, Beethoven's first piano trio, the Fauré C minor piano quartet and Schumann's piano quartet.  That might seem like a lot of work but actually, compared to what I used to juggle in Montréal it's kind of slim.  But the trios and quartets are all new to me so there are lots of notes to get under my fingers (especially the Fauré wtf was that guy thinking).  Hence more hours of practicing, on top of some other rehearsals in my apartment.  

And so, I get the news a few days ago that my playing "while pleasant, can still be irritating sometimes and my frequency has seemed to increase as of late."  Commence terror.

It is notoriously hard to find an apartment in San Francisco, let alone an apartment that allows pianists AND their awesome pugs.  I don't want to go anywhere near a reason for our landlords to evict us and I'm not sure that piano practicing would be a viable reason but I certainly don't want to test it.  But that's not the only reason for the terror.  Imagine you have concerts coming up quickly that you suddenly can't practice towards. And it's new repertoire. UGH!!!

So yes, I had it good in Montréal.

I did some research and came across this extremely helpful blog post of another pianist living in San Francisco that DIY soundproofed her piano studio.  Lots of good advice.  So I've bought the materials and booked the piano movers and we'll see.  After we move the piano down the hall I'll be sharing one less wall with a neighbor and hopefully the soundproofing under the piano will help with the sound transmission to the apartment below me.  But man, this is so stressful - I had a terrible day yesterday envisioning my playing deteriorating and not being able to feel ready for everything I have coming up.  But today I've taken it in stride.  It could be a lot worse, my neighbours could be completely unreasonable people (which they aren't in the least) and also, Dave and I won't be here forever so we'll deal with it for now and then see.  

However, the piano move is displacing Dave's office/painting studio and that makes me really sad.  I'm hoping we can figure out a solution to that as well that doesn't add too many more dollars on top of the already ridiculous rent we're paying.  Ah San Francisco, gotta love you.

But to all you musicians out there that have a place where you can practice and rehearse unfettered - heed these words: you have a goldmine and don't ever take it for granted.  Not being able to work when or how I want feels like being in some sort of invisible prison.  

And now for a photo (as you can tell I am not a photographer and I have an old iPhone!) I took a couple of days ago - a lovely Victorian with a witch's hat perched on a bush out front for some reason. Why not?