Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sir Paul McCartney at the White House

Paul McCartney, known to the press as Sir Paul, recently garnered yet another award for a lifetime of outstanding music writing and singing -- the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.  He is the third recipient of this Prize.  To celebrate, he and several other well known musicians met the Obamas for an evening of music and praise at the White House on June 2.  The other musicians included Stevie Wonder (the first winner of the Gershwin Prize), Emmylou Harris, Lang Lang, Herbie Hancock, and Elvis Costello.  The entire concert will be broadcast by PBS on June 28, but until then, we can watch this video of Sir Paul leading everyone present in singing "Hey Jude."  

Paul McCartney sang a song that he said he was "itching " to sing, "Michelle," a Beatles song which he sang for Michelle Obama.  I think the fun part of this performance was the sight of President Obama singing along.  At some of the most romantic parts of the song, he leaned over to his wife, who was sitting next to him, and whispered in her ear.  I know that he was being a ham for the camera, but I'm sentimental, and I loved it.

Emmylou Harris said that she just had to sing a sad song, and she certainly did.  It was "For No One" by McCartney and Lennon.  Stevie Wonder sang something by himself, and then he and Sir Paul sang "Ebony and Ivory."  For a complete change of pace, pianist Lang Lang played a Polonaise by Chopin.

I think my favorite part of McCartney's performance was his statement, "After the last eight years, it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is."

I'm looking forward to seeing the whole show on PBS on June 28, but until then, I'll enjoy listening to what's on Youtube now.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Viva Dudamel!

Everything good I've heard about Dudamel is true.  I learned this when I heard him and the Los Angeles Philharmonic play to a sold out audience at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.  Dudamel is known for his energetic conducting style, his youth (29 years old), his inexperience (this is his first job as conductor of a major symphony orchestra), and the fantastic music he makes with his orchestra.

The first piece on the program was Leonard Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety," which I had never heard before.  The performance was interesting even before it began because of the sight of an unusually large orchestra.  I counted four percussionists, each with a complete set of timps, etc., and there may have been more that I couldn't see.  The cellists, likewise, were numerous.  There were not one, but two, harps, which I saw but did not hear.  The first violins were on the conductor's left.  The cello section started behind the first violins and spilled over to face the audience.  The second violinists were on the conductor's right, and the violists were behind them.  There was a grand piano in front of the conductor in a place where the pianist could lead the orchestra.  The composition was a cross between a symphony and a concerto for jazz piano.  Bernstein loved to play jazz piano, and he played the piano at the premier performance of this composition.  I really liked the piece.  It had lyricism, the feel of jazz, and lots of changes in coloring.  The latter is probably due in part to Dudamel.  I liked the piece so much that I felt sad when it ended. 

The other piece on the program was Tchaikovsky's Symphony Pathetique, an old friend to music lovers like me.  It was born again, as all music is each time it is played, with the infusion of the personalities of the music makers.  Here Dudamel shone.  He put so many subtle but very effective changes into the coloring of the piece.  The performance was fun to watch, making it more engaging and endearing than a recorded version.  The string sections were configured the same way as they were for the Bernstein piece.  I loved watching the themes bounce from one section of instruments to another, and I loved watching the conversations or volleys among the instruments.  I especially loved all the little surprises that Dudamel and the orchestra put in to a piece I knew and loved. 

The concert ended with tumultuous applause and something I've never seen before: an encore for the orchestra.  Actually, it was only a small group of the instruments.  They played an excerpt from Massenet's opera "Manon Lescaut." The audience loved it. After the concert, as I was waiting in line for the shuttle bus that took people to the nearest Metro station, I got into a conversation with the woman standing next to me.  She was a member of the second violin section of the L.A. Philharmonic, going to visit a friend rather than staying with the other musicians.  What an opportunity I had to ask her questions and learn from her!  I started with enthusiastic, heartfelt praise for the orchestra.  She said, somewhat apologetically, that the orchestra would sound much better in a year or two because it takes that long for an orchestra and a conductor to get to know each other really well.  (I thought of the reviews by music critics that I've read.  They have a mixture of praise, sharp criticism, and wonder about the future.)  I had read that this was Dudamel's first job as a conductor of a major symphony orchestra, and I asked her about that.  She said that, technically, that's correct, but Dudamel had been associated with the LA Phil for two years, conducting the orchestra from time to time.  I know from personal experience how important it is for the orchestra members to have a good relationship with the conductor, so I asked her how Dudamel was to work with.  She gave me a big smile and said, "He's so nice."  I was especially interested in the Tchaikovsky symphony.  I've played violin parts by Tchaik that were not in violin-friendly keys, notoriously D flat major.  I asked her whether the Tchaik symphony was difficult to play, and she said, "Technically no, but artistically yes.  Dudamel makes so many subtle changes in tempo, for example, that the players really have to be sensitive to the conductor." 

Soon she and I parted ways. On my way home, I kept thinking about the concert and feeling excited.  Even now, whenever I think about the concert, I feel excited.