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On Stephen Hawking, genius and music

September 28, 2010 1 comment

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–Most of us know about Stephen Hawking. He is no less than the greatest mind in physics living today, and has done as much as Albert Einstein in expanding our understanding of the complexities of the universe and theoretical physics. He is 68 years old, and since the age of 21, has suffered from a degenerative motor-neuron disease. 

In spite of his severe handicaps and almost total paralysis, he raised three children in his two marriages, and has written several best selling books on the subjects of time, and the size and nature of the cosmos.

On September 13, Parade Magazine ran an interview with Hawking, asking him interesting questions about space exploration, his abilities to explain deep scientific concepts to the general public, and his personal life.

I have always been intrigued by his genius, and the reading of this article connected me with some of his insights and how they relate to music and the arts. At first, it may appear to be far-fetched, but, read on.

Read more…

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Speaking at concerts

September 23, 2010 Leave a comment

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–Recently, I was again involved in a lively debate on the subject of whether a conductor or a soloist should or should not speak to the audience before starting a performance. Opinions have varied from enthusiastic support, to comments such as “Never, a conductor should conduct and not say a word. It is not his place to verbalize what is obvious, and it detracts from what is to follow, namely, the music itself.”

My opinions on the subject:

I have conducted many a concert where I felt that not a word was necessary. Let the music speak and communicate on its own. At other times, however, even when program notes were available in the printed handout, a few well-placed comments were apparently well received. Many times after the conclusion of a concert I have heard from enthusiastic concertgoers who told me that whatever I said from the podium provided them with additional perspectives on the music which followed.

Let’s admit it: we, the lovers of classical music, are in the minority and have become a sort of cult. Yes, a healthy cult; we love what we hear and we hear what we love, but we also tend to assume that most other people appreciate what we love. Or at the very least, the ones present at the concert surely know the standard repertory, the artists involved, concert procedure and etiquette, etc. Not so. It may surprise you to hear me say this, but there are concertgoers who may attend a program announced as a rendition of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and if the orchestra switched the program and did nothing else but Strauss waltzes, they may not know the difference! I do not mean a few lost souls in the audience with a minimum amount of brain cells in action, but far more people than you may suspect. This is not meant as a reflection of peoples’ I.Q.s, but as an assessment of the information, sounds, and traditions which you and I may have accumulated through the years, which we assume that everyone around us also possess.

The classical music world has alienated many potential listeners with attitudes of indifference, snobbishness, and closed minds. Even performing artists and composers for many years presented their music with the unspoken message which conveyed, “Here is my music. Take it or leave it; I really don’t care!” In recent times, more composers, artists, and presenters are “changing their tune”, welcome the public, and are grateful for their attendance. There is a greater effort to promote public concerts, with the continuing and alarming dwindling of audiences. Fewer and fewer relate to our precious classical music. Read more…

A smattering of ignorance

September 10, 2010 Leave a comment
 

By David Amos 

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–As a writer of this column, I get to go to concerts, hear new recordings, read new books, and share with you insights and personal observations which may shed light on musical subjects. But this time, it is different. For some unexplained brainstorm, I felt the urge to go to my library and pick up an old book that I have owned for decades, but for whatever reason, never got around to reading.

The result was the delightfully witty A Smattering of Ignorance by Oscar Levant. In case you are not familiar with this name, here is a brief summary as to who he was. 

Oscar Levant was born in Pittsburgh in 1906 to Orthodox Jewish Russian immigrants, and became a respected and popular Jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and a relentless promoter of his idol, George Gershwin. What made him such an entertaining personality and a favorite of the press was his outrageous behavior, colorful, witty vocabulary, and hilarious quotes which are in still use today. Levant acted in several films, most notably in An American in Paris, and is recognized as one of the greatest Gershwin interpreters. In the 1950’s he hosted a television talk show from a Los Angeles station (which I remember seeing as a teenager), but his program was discontinued after he made off-color, but clever remarks about other famous stars. He was a frequent guest in NBC’s Tonight Show, which at the time was hosted by Jack Paar.

I have his memorable long-play recording of the Rhapsody in Blue, and the Concerto in F. He was seen in thirteen films, playing the piano and acting, and recorded over 100 albums.

Levant’s first book, A Smattering of Ignorance, was published by Doubleday in 1939, quickly became a national best seller, and was called “brilliant” by Clifton Fadiman of the New York Times. It is a series of essays on Levant’s various life experiences, his early days, his studies (which included years of lessons with none other than Arnold Schoenberg), his encounters with famous musicians and show business personalities, such as Harpo Marx, and above all, his relationship with Gershwin and his family.  

There are a few aspects of this book which I found fascinating. First, were Levant’s explanations on how music was scored for films. He details the relationships between the producers, directors, composers of  film scores, and the roles of the arrangers. In the 1930’s and still today, not all film composers write all the music, all the tunes, and choose which instruments of the orchestra will play the arrangement.  Many times, the latter is the job of the orchestrator, or arranger, who may actually be the person to bring out the greatness of a particular film score. For example, in many of the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit Broadway musicals, the orchestrations were done by a composer who may be remembered as the best ever at what he did, Robert Russell Bennett. Just look at your R&H musicals in albums which you may have at home, and you’ll see Bennett’s name there.

Also Levant details how film composers relied on familiar sounds already created by famous classical composers. You want a “French” sound? Imitate Debussy. You want the open prairie for a Western? What could be better than the familiar sound of Copland? Many other examples are given, together with entertaining and at times amazing anecdotes.  He called these musical scores “generic” or “derivative”, probably differentiating between imitation of other styles, and open-faced stealth of musical material. He also credits truly original material.  

He spoke of the famous producer, Daryll Zanuck, whom he described as “a man who knows, unfortunately, what he wants”. He wrote about the Russian born composer Sam Pokrass who struggled to be understood: “His mother tongue was broken English!”  His detailed descriptions of being a guest  many, many evenings at the home of Harpo Marx are also revealing. During the 1930’s Hollywood and Los Angeles became the home of many great creative minds, in music and other disciplines. This was in part driven by the many refugees from Nazi Germany who sought refuge and work in the U.S., the emergence of Hollywood as the film capital, and the changing opportunities in the New York area. The nicer weather helped too.

Just imagine the cccollection of great musicians which sought refuge and work opportunities in the West Coast: Arnold Schoenberg, Miklós Rósza, Erich W. Korngold, Otto Klemperer, Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubinstein, Gershwin, Bronislaw Kaper, Max Steiner, and many, many others, to say nothing of other artists, authors, scientists, entrepreneurs, and actors. The list is endless. All of the above met socially, played tennis and ping-pong, exchanged ideas and opinions, artistic and political, worked with each other, and enjoyed each others’ company. They also received frequent visits from Easterners, Copland, Morton Gould, publishers, and impresarios. All of this is vividly explained in the book.  

It’s hard for me to visualize an encounter between Fanny Bryce and Schoenberg, possibly the most austere and misunderstood of the great composers. But, at the death of Gershwin, Schoenberg delivered this eulogy in a broadcast: “George Gershwin was one of this rare kind of musicians to whom music is not a matter of more or less ability. Music to him was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel, and music was the feeling he expressed. Directness of this kind is given only to great men, and there is no doubt that he was a great composer. What he achieved was not only to the benefit of a national American music, but also a contribution to the music of the whole world.” These words ring true even more today.  

Oscar Levant was married twice, first in the 1930’s, a marriage that as expected, lasted less than seven months, and then to June Gale, with whom, in spite of their highly publicized spats, he remained married until his death in 1972, . He was notorious for speaking about his prescription drug addictions, neuroses, mental hospital treatments, and hypochondria. They had three daughters.  Levant is credited with so many quotes and quips that are worth recalling. I will share some of them with you in the next issue of San Diego Jewish World. Meanwhile, all the best for the New Year, Shana Tova, and Tizku L’Shanim Rabot. 

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Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra in San Diego and has guest conducted numerous professional orchestras around the world.

 

   

   

   

   

   

When the conductor is, er, mis-conducted

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–I wrote in a recent column about a personal family trip. But, as part of my musical career, I have had the privilege and pleasure to visit interesting places, countries in a state of social transition and major political and economic changes. Some of these places were most pleasant, and provided a reasonable amount of creature comforts. Others made me homesick almost instantly.

But in every instance, it was a revealing, educational experience. I saw places that most tourists will never visit, and had the opportunity to talk to many people whose voices had been suppressed for decades; some, for their entire lives. The stories were fascinating. At times, I witnessed history taking place, as was the case in countries where the Soviets were about to depart, or had recently left.

Just saying the word “Israel”, for my musical visits there, can bring to memory dozens of unusual and memorable encounters.

These travels have been for conducting live concerts and recording sessions, lecturing, attending specific musical happenings, auditioning musicians, visiting music schools, or judging in international music competitions.

These were experiences that were priceless, and in most cases, very positive. This, however, I can not say for the travels to and from my musical destinations. No one is exempt from horror travel stories.

Once in a while, after telling someone of an upcoming trip, I am told (you have heard this line many times yourselves!), “Oh, how glamorous! Can I come along and carry your suitcases?”  Don’t even think about it.

Take, for instance, a trip that took me to Trapani, in Sicily, in 1999 to be part of an international jury for the city’s annual Chamber Music Competition. Trapani is a fishing town in West Sicily, and East of Palermo. The eight days in Trapani were terrific. Nothing but good things. After all, how can you beat hearing lots of chamber music every day, hobnobbing with brilliant and distinguished musical minds, and eating Italian and Sicilian food?

But, let me tell you of my return trip on Sunday, November 28, 1999. Due to short lead times and details given to me a few weeks before, my trajectory to return home included no less than four flights, all in the same day. It later turned out to be five flights. I awakened from the Trapani hotel at 4:00 a.m., after a late night of the closing ceremonies, and was on my way to the Palermo airport by private taxi an hour later. This car ride takes about an hour. On our way there, we ran into a violent thunderstorm. When we reached the Palermo airport, I discovered that there was no power in the building, due to the storm. They were operating with emergency lights, which were illuminating only a little more than eight modest Hannukah candles.

Even though Alitalia had several flights leaving at 7:00 a.m., there was only one window open to register all the passengers, and what seemed like a thousand people, not forming any discernible cues or lines, were pushing to present their tickets and luggage all at the same time, to a single, distraught employee. Chaos personified, and of course, everything in Sicilian, which is not quite Italian.

You can imagine my frustration those forty minutes after my plane was supposed to depart; I was still cueing in line, with no one around for me to plead my case. I ran to the gate to find it totally empty, only to find out that my plane not only had not departed, but had not yet arrived from Rome.

We finally departed from Rome. Upon landing, I had to call on my limited athletic skills to again run to the next gate. No time for breakfast, but I made it.

Landing in Paris’ Orly airport can be real fun. One is led through interminable shuttles, corridors, and security and passport checkpoints, all through connecting terminals, while being pushed and shoved by a million other harassed passengers. I believe that the terminal where I was must have been a quarter of a mile long. While standing by gate # 2, it was indicated that my gate was to be # 33 for my New York flight. But hurry! Your flight has finished boarding, and they are about to close the doors. Again, I desperately ran to gate 33, only to find out that due to gate changes, my plane was parked at gate # 3, where I was a few breathless minutes before. Run again. When boarding, I was advised by an attendant that due to my inexcusable tardiness, there would be no meal for me, since a final count was already taken. I took my seat for the eight hour flight, sweaty, but relieved. Somehow, I did receive a meal.

Upon landing at JFK in New York, I found out that my suitcases did not make the connection, but I was informed of this after waiting for 40 minutes at baggage claim. Fill out a missing luggage report, and board the airport shuttle to the American Airlines terminal for my flight to San Diego. The shuttle took 45 minutes to take me there (after all, this was the Thanksgiving weekend), and as you might have expected it, my connections luck finally ran out, and I totally missed my flight to San Diego.

Hoping not to lose a night and stay in New Your without my suitcases, I insisted in some form of alternate route home. For this, I was put on a “waiting list”, which is only a notch or two above the handling of cattle. I called home to notify my wife of the situation. There was a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth. I was given the last seat available, in the very rear, with practically the engine on my lap.

In Dallas, another marathon walk in a short time, another waiting list, and the tension of uncertainty. I was given a seat for my flight to San Diego, next to a very drunk and troubled woman. After over 24 hours from hotel in Sicily to landing at Lindbergh Field, I arrived late, hungry, exhausted, and happy to be home. My suitcases, after being subjected to a magical mystery tour of their own, arrived three days later. I have given you only the main highlights of that day; there were other incidents and encounters.

Now, we know that this harrowing experience is not typical of every trip; but potentially, any of these mishaps can happen, and many times do. Do you still want to carry my suitcases?

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Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra in San Diego and has guest conducted numerous professional orchestras around the world.

Remembering composer Alan Hovhaness

August 25, 2010 1 comment

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–Alan Hovhaness is not a household name. You may never have heard of him. When he died in the year 2000 at the age of 89, our local paper did not carry his obituary. Nevertheless, Hovhaness was one of the most important and influential composers of the Twentieth Century.

Born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1911 of Armenian and Scottish descent, Alan Hovhaness Chakmakjian was a most prolific composer. He composed well over 40 symphonies, plus many orchestral, solo piano, choral, band, and vocal works. All his music bears the stamp of his very original style, which was a mix of orientalism and mysticism; because of his heritage and training, we see titles with the spirit of Armenia, India, the Near East and the Far East. Due to all these cultural influences, his music is very spiritual, and in no way did he follow the popular or scholarly trends of his contemporary fellow composers.

I was privileged and pleased to work directly with him for a few years, and conducted ten of his compositions in recordings. Invariably, this was music that gave satisfaction to the listener. On the whole, his music was not technically difficult to perform, but it made demands of the interpreters to dig deeply into the spiritual meaning behind the notes. This was always a challenge, as any work demands of its performer, but it was also very gratifying.

Although his early musical training was very traditional (He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music), in the early 1940’s he destroyed all his compositions up to that time and started afresh with the style for which he is so well recognized today. At first, he trained an amateur ensemble to play his music, but soon after that, as his reputation became better known, many major orchestras started to program his compositions. There are two legendary recordings that were made in the 1950’s, conducted by Andre Kostelanetz and Fritz Reiner.

During the years when I was recording his music, I had the opportunity to visit him at his home in the Seattle area. My memories of that visit are twofold: Stacks and stacks of sheet music everywhere, and more important, his calm, spiritual nature, and positive, healthy attitude about music-making. During our conversation, I asked him as to which of his works might I plan for future recordings. He humbly suggested his symphonies number 38, 39, 40, 41, and 42!

I recorded Hovhaness’ music with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Israel Philharmonic in Tel-Aviv, where we did his Horn Concerto with the late Meir Rimon as soloist, and several of his works for strings. I can still hear in my mind the vibrant sounds of the strings of the IPO as we rehearsed and recorded this music. (The concertmaster of that orchestra, Uri Pianka, will be visiting us in San Diego in March of 2011 to perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, together with the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra).

In London, there were two distinct highlights. One, was the recording of “And G-d Created Great Whales”, a work for large orchestra, superimposed with the actual recorded sounds of Humpback, Bowhead, and Killer whales. This was done in a cavernous London cathedral, with wonderfully warm acoustics, and reverberation time ((echo) that seemed to last forever. This piece, along with four others, form part of a compact disc album that is still the no.1 seller in the catalog of the prestigious Crystal Records label.

The other, recorded under more controlled studio conditions, was The Shepherd of Israel, for tenor and orchestra. Hovhaness composed this work in 1952, in honor of the founding of the State of Israel. The vocal lines were in the spirit of cantorial cantillation, and for this, what better than to have a real cantor do it? This came to be, as I was able to fuse to this work my association with our own Cantor Sheldon Merel, who has since retired from his position at San Diego’s Temple Beth Israel. It was a wonderful experience for all of us.

Alan Hovhaness left us a vast legacy of rich harmonies, flowing melodies, and the feeling that time stands still when we hear his music. Look for it and listen to it whenever you can, and be prepared to be transported.

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Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world

Notes from a trip

August 19, 2010 2 comments

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO –From the title of this article, you may surmise that I will be sharing with you some conducting and/or recording adventure in a far-away land. But this time, it is not the case, but rather, a two-week vacation just completed, which my wife and I survived with our two grandchildren, 6 and 9.

There were many elements of interest, some of which seriously related to classical music and its preservation to future generations.

We toured the four Southwestern states, and without a doubt, visited every possible bathroom facility that exists in California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. In between these necessary stops, attitudes, skirmishes, together with hats, sunscreen, sun glasses, delightfully ditsy waitresses, 100-plus degree temperatures, and the obligatory food treats, we were able to sneak in a remarkable number of interesting places.

We visited Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks, Meteor Crater, Petrified Forest and Painted Desert Parks, Sedona, Flagstaff, Walnut Canyon, Montezuma’s Castle, Phoenix, and in the Tucson Area, The Desert Museum, Colossal Caves, Biosphere 2, and an attempt at the Jewish Museum. More on the latter, later.

In Las Vegas, at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, we saw the musical The Lion King. Although the children seemed to enjoy it and the costumes and sets were colorful and spectacular, I found the music to be dreadfully repetitious and lackluster. There was a sameness of style from song to song, and the fine vocal renditions could not save it for me.

The true lifesaver for this trip was the recent acquisition of the XM-Sirius radio. This satellite service offers about 200 channels, which can be heard static-free at the remotest locations. Our favorites were the two classical music channels, the vocal-operatic one, and the one featuring Broadway favorites. For news, the BBC and CNN options were good, but there are many more choices of music, talk, and comedy for practically every taste.

A real disappointment is when we drove past Tuba City. From the highway, we could not hear a sound from this noble instrument, and there was no mention of even sousaphones or trombones in the tour guide. Nothing, nada, shum davar. Maybe its local chamber of commerce can correct this omission sometime in the future.  Here is a good challenge for Professor Harold Hill.

From the highways, we saw synagogue signs in Henderson and Sedona. Always a pleasure.

Also, in our many stops, we delighted in hearing so many foreign languages from other tourists. There were too many to mention, but my wife and I exchange smiles when we hear Hebrew from animated Israeli tourists.

In the train ride from Williams, to visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, we were entertained by Country and Western singers. It was certainly the right place and time for this music, and the performances sounded authentic to us. But, I wonder what all this guitar strumming and songs of the West communicated to the many Asian and European tourists, who would not know from Frankie Lane to Franco Corelli.

We were also aware of the obvious absence of Mexican tourists. Could this be because of Mexico’s latest challenges, and/or the boycott of Arizona locations and attractions?

We did not succeed in visiting the Jewish Museum in Tucson, which is advertised as being one of the most interesting ones of its kind in the U.S. The hours listed in the brochure information failed to mention that during the summer, the museum is open for only the morning hours until 1:00 p.m.

But, one of our greatest pleasures was the opportunity to introduce our grandchildren to great classical music during the long drives between destinations. After all, they were a captive audience, and gratefully, ready to lean, absorb, and enjoy the music we presented to them. We heard and discussed Prokoffiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, Copland’s Billy The Kid, and the complete Broadway musicals, Oklahoma, and Annie Get Your Gun.

As I have said many times, only through a positive exposure to the classics, we will develop the next generations of serious music lovers. Otherwise, we will soon be relegated to being the caretakers of a dead art form, more suited to a museum and dusty archives. It is our duty to reverse the present trends.

A humorous finale to our trip, and as an exclamation point to my previous paragraph, was when we reached our home to conclude this grand journey. Our six year old discovered our Yamaha grand piano, opened the lid, looked at it for a few moments, and asked her brother, “How do you turn this on?”

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Amos is conductor of Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.

Pops concert under the stars drew 1,000

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

By Eileen Wingard

Eileen Wingard

SAN DIEGO — Despite the cool evening, nearly 1000 people gathered at Allied Gardens Park last July 11 to hear the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra (TICO), conducted by David Amos, in its annual “Summer Pops Concert on the Green.”

Sponsored by the Grantville-Allied Gardens Kiwanis Club, the event was enhanced by sophisticated sound equipment, colored light play, and a program designed to satisfy a gamut of tastes.
    
New this year was “Prisoner of Azkaban” from the Harry Potter movies’ musical score. It was undoubtedly recognized by the younger set. Richard Rodgers’ “Victory at Sea” showcased concertmaster Juanita Cummins’ in a well-executed square dance solo. The first trumpet passages were beautifully rendered by Ronald Miller.   Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March #4” catered to classical taste, while “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” with dramatic narration, appealed to the baseball fans.  Familiar marches by Sousa and others  kept feet tapping. 

Jay Wilson, a civic leader whose generosity helped ensured the concert’s taking place, conducted Sousa’s “El Capitan March,” and Don Brennan, a leader in bringing about Mission Trails Visitors’ Center, conducted Sousa’s “Fairest of the Fair.” They were each awarded TICO’s golden baton (gold colored).
    
During the Armed Forces Medley, those who had served were asked to stand when the music for their branch of service was played. It was impressive to see the large number of men, many advanced in age, who fought for our country.
    
The concert concluded with a sprightly “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The brass and the three-member flute section on piccolos, stood for their respective solos. The audience departed marching and humming to the beat.
    
Food, including baked potatoes, was sold during the intermission. There were children on the playground, swinging to the music. Many families brought picnic dinners which they spread out on blankets.
    
I attended with three generations of the Bendelstein Family. Sylvia Bendelstein is the new chair of the JCC’s Jewish Music Series Committee on which David Amos serves. She was there with her husband, a radiologist at Kaiser Hospital, her elder daughter, who is working for her teaching credential, and her mother-in-law, who was visiting from Australia. We all enjoyed the music, the informal atmosphere, and the feeling of community which such events inspire.  

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Wingard is a freelance writer and retired violinist with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra