About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

October 13, 2015

The Bard Comes to Reading

I attended a concert by Friends of Chamber Music in Reading PA. The artists were "The Bard Conservatory Ensemble."

The Conservatory is 10 years old and “guided by the principle that musicians should be broadly educated in the liberal arts and sciences to achieve their greatest potential. All undergraduates complete two degrees over a five-year period, a bachelor of music and a bachelor of arts in a field other than music."  I have always admired the President of Bard, Leon Botstein, the longest-serving college president (since age 28, now he nears 70), a renaissance man who is an inspiring scholar, educator, and esteemed orchestra conductor.

Robert Martin, the cellist in the ensemble (and 11-year veteran of the Sequoia Quartet), is Director of the conservatory, artistic director of the Bard Music Festival1 and Vice President for Academic Affairs of Bard College. He studied at the Curtis Institute with Leonard Rose and Orlando Cole and graduated from Haverford College. I knew Bob during the one year he was principal cellist of the New Haven Symphony while earning a Ph.D. at Yale, when I, a medical student, played in the orchestra. We both remember performing behind Van Cliburn, Perlman (age 17), Rubinstein (age 75), Rostropovich and many other superstars accessible to New Haven from New York. (My memory wants me to think I got perfectly all the flute licks in the Rococo Variations, but...)

The Reading concert was well-played by an ensemble that included two Bard faculty (Martin and Marka Gustavsson, viola) and 3 undergraduates: the pianist and two violinists. What a great opportunity for undergraduates to spend their Fall Break on tour with seasoned professionals! The ensemble could keep up with any of the ones at Curtis and many of those we have programmed over our 40 years.

The hall in Reading—“WCR Center for the Arts”—is a European-style chamber music hall downtown, converted from a decayed old building into what it is by $400,000 and a lot of "loving hands." It is rectangular in pale green pastel with 15 comfortable 9-chair rows on a wooden floor. A small proscenium and elevated stage at one end comfortably accommodated a piano quintet and could hold a Spohr Nonet without piano. A Strauss Serenade for 13 Winds might be a bit tight. The ceiling is flat and about 30 ft high. They have no special audio, video, or lighting—just like it would have been in Brahms' time. Only about 75 of the audience chairs were occupied for the Brahms Piano Quintet, Beethoven String Trio and a group of Bartok Violin Duets. 

I imagine a hall of wood with similar dimensions in the Gretna woods. There are lots of these at other summer festivals, called "sheds," "shells," etc. Climate control, offices, practice rooms, etc could be added in later stages, resources permitting.

My friend Tom Souders, a retired ophthalmologist, 'inherited' the “Friends” from his father who began it 63 years ago. Tom, a violinist, is now “Manager” and there is a board and an Executive Director, Shari Gleason-Mayrhofer2 and a website.3 

The parking situation was odd. When trying to shoe-horn into a short space on the street, I noticed a jolly toothless balded-headed individual leaning on the meter. He greeted me as I emerged from the car and assured me that parking on Sunday is free. (It would have been about $.75 on other days.) He delivered a short discourse on parking in Reading and, as I started away, politely asked if I could please spare $.75. I obliged and told him to take good care of my car as he started toward the next empty space on the block. A member of the audience recalled a similar experience in Senegal when he had to select from a crowd of children who competed to provide parking services.

1. The Bard Festival each summer "was created with the intention of finding ways to present the history of music in innovative ways to contemporary audiences. Each year the festival selects a single composer to be its main focus and presents performances in tandem with presentations on biographical details on the subject and links to the worlds of literature, painting, theater, philosophy, and politics that would have influenced the life and works of the featured composer." Bard Conservatory 

2. email Friends of Chamber Music

October 5, 2015

Mahler in Cleveland

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

The Cleveland Orchestra, Mahler 3, Severance Hall, Franz Welser-Möst: my equivalent to meeting the Pope. We drove 12 turnpike hours round trip through the margins of Hurricane Joaquin, and upon arrival in Cleveland endured 30-mph winds, arctic temperatures, and "Lot Full" parking. I recognized some of the potholes I learned to avoid when I lived there 30 years ago. 

Plunging into the traffic and crowds in University Circle I suspected that very few others were heading to Severance Hall for what I believed could be a concert of a lifetime. Most probably have never set foot in one of the world's greatest temples of music. Those suspicions were confirmed by the empty seats in every section of the hall. We easily obtained prime center seats in the third row of the dress circle for $89. 

The dark lobby spaces and narrow halls seemed old and a little shabby--the lower level a bit like the bowels of Penn Station--but better than Carnegie Hall. We wanted a glass of wine at a small booth before curtain time but the server had no cork screw. At least there were no long queues like there are in Walt Disney Hall. When we asked an elderly usher, still mystified by her bar-code scanner, for directions to the "Concert Preview," she directed us to the room where Renée Fleming was finishing a master class. We finally found the preview upstairs and eventually even a glass of wine.

When we finally entered the hall, it was indeed like walking through the pearly gates. It remains the most perfect concert hall I have ever been in, perfectly-sized, comfortable, with acoustics that seem to defy the laws of physics. In every seat you can hear every note perfectly balanced as if you were sitting on the conductor's podium. Only the sound of oboe players inserting earplugs before trombone eruptions failed to reach the audience. More than 200 performers didn't seem at all crowded.

Trombonist, Massimo La Rosa, was a star of the first movement. "Robust" would be an understatement. When he was acknowledged by conductor Welser-Möst during a long standing ovation, the cheers from the audience could have drowned out a stadium full of Browns fans after a touchdown. That's not to detract from the entirety of the performance, which was a magnificent and memorable experience--maybe "transformative" is the accolade du jour, and it must have been for some of the 50 members of the Children's Chorus. It was for me when I first heard this orchestra in this hall with George Szell as a child in the late 1940's. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)

Kelley O'Connor's rich mellifluous, O Mensch! Gib acht! filled the hall and the orchestra playing would have brought Mahler to tears. I can't imagine even the most rabid tea-party congressman not being humbled--OK, maybe slightly moved--by such a powerful result of human collaboration. Too bad the Pope missed it.

After the concert, the Severance Restaurant provided a comfortable place to unwind and relax with a glass of Sancerre and a lovely charcuterie after 95 intense minutes of music. While some of the players were probably relaxing up the street in a Little Italy trattoria, we conversed at the bar with a close friend and student of John Mack, the orchestra's former principal oboist and Dean of Oboes in America. As I have been, Mack's friend was a neuroscience imager, albeit micro while I was macro. Go figure.