Tuesday, March 18, 2008

When it rains, it pours...and sometimes freezes

Two VSO musicians share their concert emergencies NOT related to the power going out!

I left my car at the Middlebury Inn Saturday morning and joined Hilary in her car to go to the orchestra meeting. Due to the ice on the road we were half an hour late, but had a good meeting and rehearsal that afternoon. When the lights went off before the concert we brought our clothes upstairs, in order not to have to look for them later in total darkness, and joined Soovin on stage, where he entertained the confused audience with his gorgeous Bach Chaconne performance, in the dark.

Our early drive home was uneventful, but when I returned to my car it was draped in inch-thick ice. I couldn't get my hand in the door handle, let alone open any of the doors. Poor Hilary had to bring me all the way home. Thanks Hill!

--Dieuwke Davydov

Saturday Burlington was harder to walk around than I've seen it in 35 years - streams of water over ice and various mixtures of slush, snow and ice. Of course it would have to be the one time in my career I'd forgotten a white shirt. So I'm navigating up to Macy's in a panic at 7:30, by 7:47 standing under an emergency light in the catacombs trying to calm myself as I struggled to remove the endless number of pins from the shirt, especially the two whose heads were hidden so ingeniously I considered ripping the shirt to get them out.

Finally I made it upstairs at 7:55 to catch the last 1/3 of the Chaconne - from panic to mesmerized in 30 seconds.

--David Gusakov
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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

David Ludwig shows his dark side

I arrived at approximately 7:05 PM to see our "Town Meeting" at which the VSO's 2008/2009 season, Music of Our Time, would be unveiled by New Music Advisor David Ludwig, Music Director Jaime Laredo and Executive Director Alan Jordan. One moment Jaime is talking about the October program, the next moment, the lights are out. David Ludwig doesn't miss a beat joking, "We didn't want to leave you in the dark" [about our forthcoming season]. David has promised to become a prolific VSO blogger, with a series of posts detailing his work composing the double concerto to be premiered next season, his work in Vermont schools under the auspices of our SymphonyKids educational outreach program, as well as whatever wacky events happen in between...such as a power outage during a pre-concert talk at the Flynn on Saturday. David reflects...

I am sitting in a little inn in the middle of Vermont. It’s one of these wonderful places laid out like a chalet where they bring you cider and cookies while you sit by the fire and blog about being a composer…

But rather than talk about myself, which I will surely do in upcoming installments here, I thought I would write about my experiences with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra from the past couple of days. These times have been unique.

Last night was supposed to be a sold out concert for the VSO in Burlington. The program at the Flynn center was my oboe and string orchestra piece called Radiance, the Sibelius violin concerto played by my old friend Soovin Kim, and Schumann’s 3rd Symphony (the "Rhenish") for the second half. It looked to be a good program and I was so looking forward to having my piece played. For most composers, having an orchestra play your music is an event—I hope that I never get too used to so many people up there all pouring their hearts into playing my music. It’s an awesome feeling.

Just before concert time, we held a press conference on stage for interested regular audience members (the “we” was myself, as moderator and Composer-in-Residence and New Music Advisor for the symphony, Music Director Jaime Laredo, and Executive Director Alan Jordan.) What we announced was the new season for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary (which will be celebrated over two years). The reason I was involved in this specifically was because there is a vision behind the programming for next season that makes it very special—the season is only to feature music written since the inception of the orchestra. We were pretty strict about that, too. As we were going through possibilities to go on Masterworks concerts, lots of things were struck down because they were written just a few years before 1935.

I think this season is a big deal, and I think it’s going to get national attention for the orchestra. And it’s a funny thing, because people not in the know would wonder why there would be any particular excitement or trepidation about it. Isn’t it strange that classical music institutions might need courage and foresight to program music written during the lifetimes of the majority of the population? What other art is like this, where there is such a perceived disconnect between the music of our time and the audiences of our time?

Really, that disconnect is only a matter of perception, and when we announced dances from “West Side Story,” and music from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” there were collective affirmations from the audiences—a field of “mm’s” in the rows of seats. Like so many things in life, once you realize that the territory is familiar after all, it’s a lot less scary. The orchestra is doing a number of absolutely contemporary pieces, too, including a double concerto I’ll be writing for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson. In the context of all of these wonderful 20th century works, the new pieces take on an interesting place in the programming. Everything becomes fresh and exciting to hear; works like Barber’s Capricorn Concerto become the standard rep and the pieces written in the 21st century become opportunities to hear music that no one has ever heard before. The audience clearly saw it that way too, and they offered assurance and enthusiasm. We can get so worried about what people will think when we try something new, and for sure the Vermont Symphony is showing a certain kind of bravery in this, given what the classical music world has become. But maybe we can give our audiences some credit for having open minds and ears. This season will bring newness to Beethoven in the next season, too.

In Beethoven’s time, the scene was vastly different, and not just because there was no heat in the hall (that wouldn’t fly in Burlington). Concerts in those days would be all new music, with one older piece (maybe forty years old?) put on as a curiosity or something different. How much this has reversed since then! Is the audience dying out? Is this generation of older listeners going to eventually disappear and we’ll be left with nothing? Is classical music—how I don’t love that term “classical”—is classical music dying, too? We know that music education has suffered, and we all know that improving this is the silver bullet to improve the status of the art, but there is an audience now, and it is resolute and devoted. Many have written about the sky falling in the next fifty years, but I am positive about it and excited for what is to come. I think the devotion of this audience and the vision of orchestras like this one will bring in an ever-stronger time of love and appreciation for our music, and ever more music of our time. I believe that contemporary music will bridge this generation of listeners to the next, and I’ll explore how in upcoming writing here.

As for the concert, well…it was cancelled. An ice storm of the kind that only Vermonters (and a select few others) know put the power out all over town and at the Flynn. But before it was cancelled Soovin went out in front of the audience to play the Bach Chaconne. He is from Plattsburgh, and a bunch of his admirers (there are many!) drove the long way around Lake Champlain specially to hear him. In the dark, the audience kept pouring in, directed by the flashlights of volunteers. And the orchestra had taken the stage too, everyone seated with their instruments in hand, ready to take up playing if the lights should come back on. So we all sat or stood there in silence and in the near blackness, listening diligently to Soovin’s heroic fiddling. No one stirred to take off their coat or find their phone. No one talked to their neighbors or unwrapped those (@#$%ing) mints in the extra-loud wrappers. Just silence while Soovin played. And at the end there were tears and the whole audience of a thousand plus leapt to its feet, unable to see the soloist at all, but all ears, nonetheless. It was an incredibly moving experience—a musician giving to the audience an unexpected gift and the audience giving back with their most earnest applause.

Is it any wonder that I’m hopeful about the future of music?
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Muscle Memory: 1, Acts of God: 0

You can tell when people really love what they do. The butcher who suggests a great steak rub that would make you swear off A1 forever. The tow truck driver who cruises town on snowy nights, pulling cars out of snow banks and ditches without giving thought to pay. The young virtuoso violinist that takes the stage in semi-darkness to assuage a sold-out Flynn Center audience. Soovin Kim proved his love for what he does this past Saturday night when he serenaded an audience with Bach's Chaconne as the VSO musicians sat behind him, veiled in shadows. On Monday morning, I expected to see Sunday newspaper clippings detailing our dilemma. I was awfully surprised to learn that the Free Press didn't provide any coverage of the story, despite there being an FP photographer at the Flynn. Instead, we had received three messages from patrons who had come to enjoy the music on Saturday, exalting Soovin for allowing them just that. Below are bits of three messages, passed from us to you.

"Thank you so much for that magical moment Saturday night. Faced with no power and a crowd of people, you all handled that situation with great grace. And gave us a wonderful gift of Soovin Kim. Listening to him in the dark give us that impromptu solo was a night I won't soon forget. Whatever else you can do to replace that evening will only be extra." -- Elise Whittemore-Hill

"You made friends for life Saturday night...people will never forget it!" -- Chris Hadsel

"Last night (Saturday) was one of the most memorable musical experiences I can remember. As I drove through the slushy streets, half flooded from water pouring down the Burlington hill, I wondered how many folks would venture out to hear Soovin Kim and the VSO. As I came down Main Street, I first noticed that the traffic lights at the corner of Church and Main weren't working, and then... the Flynn Marquee was dark!! Oh, no! But I could see people standing out front, so I parked and slogged my way up the half-darkened streets and into the lobby of the Flynn. It was eerie with the emergency lights providing the only illumination. But people were waiting patiently, hoping for that miracle which often happens in these storms: the lights coming back on! Soon the ushers were saying to just go in and take a seat. Never mind about the tickets or what seat you were supposed to have. We moved into the semi-darkened auditorium and found a seat. On stage were the shadowy figures of orchestra members, and in front of them was the lone figure of Soovin Kim, holding his violin. He tried to shout a message to the audience, but it was too noisy in there for him to be heard. So he put his violin under his chin, and started playing that wonderful Bach Partita in D Minor (my favorite unaccompanied Bach violin piece!). The audience who were seated quieted down, and soon even the people coming in were silently finding seats, too (I heard that Troy was outside quieting people down before they entered). And so we sat in that surreal setting - the storm raging outside, the emergency lights faintly illuminating the theatre, the glimpse of Soovin's bow hand moving as his bow flew across the strings - and the sound of Bach reaching out to a faithful and attentive audience. When at last we heard the final chords, we stood up, clapping and cheering. Many of us had tears in our eyes as someone shone a flashlight on Soovin as he accepted the bouquet of roses. I caught a glimpse of him wiping a tear from his face afterwards as he listened to the roar of the audience. Even with the announcement that the concert had to be canceled - a not-unexpected decision by that time - the experience clearly had affected the audience.

"What a tribute to the power of music: the orchestra and staff members who were gamely trying to make the show go on; the audience that was determined to brave the elements to hear their symphony; the soloist playing from his heart in the dark!

"Thanks to all of you. It was a most memorable evening!" -- Anne Brown
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