Archive for January, 2011

Piece-ful, @ C

Friday, January 14th, 2011

[IMAGE] icebergs

…click to listen:

…about the music

Ice work if you can get it.

The cruise continues to go wonderfully, and I sense that both musicians and our audience are a little glum about leaving floating music camp tomorrow. As we gradually head back north up the wintery Atlantic, the temperature gradually heads south, yet passengers defiantly wear shorts and T-shirts hoping to stave off the inevitable for just a while longer.

What is inevitable is the somewhat rockier sea, as waves and wind reflect the month of the year. Things, and people, move and creak and bob and sway, and it’s not too hard to begin to lose one’s balance while walking down a hallway. Last night was another “formal night” in the dining room, and it was a fun spectator sport to watch some women, their center of gravity already challenged by a tad too much time at the buffet, attempt to saunter gracefully in 4 inch heels. If someone actually walked in a straight line, you knew he’d had too much too drink. When I emcee’d the evening’s chamber music concert, I found myself gripping a structural pillar on the stage with the focused glomb of a pole dancer.

[IMAGE] icebergs

Adding to this extra bouncy bonus was a friendly announcement over the ship’s PA informing passengers of a screening of a film about the Titanic showing in the ship’s theater. I’m guessing Celebrity’s programming director has a wicked sense of humor. As does the media director: when I arose this morning and flipped on the in-house TV to check our bearings, there before me blithely chatting away was a man giving a lecture on both the Titanic and that other ill-fated cruise ship, the Lusitania. But perhaps most hilariously twisted is the company’s art director, who has placed large, quite beautiful photographs of icebergs throughout the cafeteria (as seen here), as well as on the walls of some of the stairwells and hallways. Given that this ship also sails in northern Europe, I view this choice of decor to be a potential version of performance art.

This morning after an Archipelago rehearsal, I’ll get an invitation-only tour of the engine control room. Wow! Two days ago, I was excited to be given a tour of the bridge. Always good to see the redundant navigation and safety systems in place, and be reminded that there are actually people upstairs running this bobbing behemoth. This afternoon, the amazing Jimmy Lin performs the Barber Violin Concerto, and Larry Rachleff gives us an absolutely inspired Beethoven 7th. Tonight: Archipelago. Rehearsals of this tricky piece have gone really well and I’m excited to present it to the audience on this final concert of what has been an incredible journey across musical waters and new friendships. But on our way back to the snowy north, I’m on the lookout for icebergs!

[IMAGE] icebergs

Full circle

Monday, January 10th, 2011

[IMAGE] At St. Kitts

…click to listen:

…about the music

What it’s all about.

Well, no one threw me into the drink after last week’s Atlantic Ocean premiere of Current Events, and I certainly enjoyed one after the concert. Ok, maybe even two. The piece was played beautifully by members of the orchestra that’s been contracted for this Symphonic Voyages cruise on the Celebrity Mercury, which after less than a week at sea has begun to feel very much like music camp for happy, well-fed, and newly relaxed geeks like me.

The final night of our 12 day voyage will feature a still-recent piece of mine for strings and woodwinds aptly titled Archipelago. I had no idea when I composed and then named this dectet just how apt it would be a little over a year later.

A particularly charming moment in my life as a worker bee composer occurred in the Chicago area one afternoon during a November 2009 rehearsal of this music with the Fifth House ensemble. After the first run-through, Nick Yasillo, who had joined us to hear how the piece he had generously commissioned for the group was going, pulled out a large bag and began distributing ball caps he’d had custom made for the occasion of the premiere. To say the least, we were all very touched and proudly wore the caps (as modeled by a table, above in St. Kitts) for the rest of the rehearsal. I even popped it on my head during my talk to the audience the next evening before the performance, pointing out just how special the relationship between a patron, a composer and an ensemble can be.

[IMAGE] from the stern

As I type this, I’m on my wonderful deck balcony watching large frigate birds soar against the sunset sky and tease me as they buzz the stern. I’m hopeful that they’ll avoid bombing my laptop, since I don’t think the Applecare protection plan includes a clause for guano. The ship’s engine has rumbled to a start, and we’re backing out of the dock here at St. Kitts and making our way to tomorrow’s port on Antigua, where I’ll spend the day sailing around this amazing archipelago in a chartered excursion boat that’ll allow me and just five others some helm time on a Farr 65 racing boat (see updated pic, below, for proof of a great time and even greater wind). One of the two snorkeling trips I’ve taken in as many days got us all to a reef via a 48 foot catamaran, and it felt terrific to ride the waves and free up some musical notes that had been clinging too tightly to the side of my brain. I knew I needed more sailing time!

[IMAGE] Wind Spirit
This is not the boat I skippered. But at the helm, mine felt almost as large!

[IMAGE]  Cap'n Al
THIS is the boat! Notice the arm holding on for dear life as I get her heeled over for speed! Wheeee!

Assuming I don’t go flying overboard and bonk my head on a poor unsuspecting sea turtle, on Tuesday I celebrate the beginning of my 50th rotation around this fiery orb in the sky that has brought some much needed color to my face this week. I’m overjoyed for such an extraordinary year of bookends. To have composed this piece in one stunning archipelago, and just 13 months later hear it again at sea in another one thousands of miles away, is the very best birthday gift a composer-in-flotation could ever ask for. All the more fittingly ironic is that both Nick Yasillo and Symphonic Voyages’s impresario Eric Stassen each happen to be from the Chicago area, and each happened to stumble upon me out of the blue via the internet. And now, here I am a long way from my studio, using the internet in the middle of an ocean to communicate this joy with anyone who happens to stumble upon this blog. I may be only partway around the world from my home, but the story of this piece has come full circle. Wow!

[IMAGE]  Cap'n Al
“Archipelago,” page 1, Antigua. Who’d have guessed?

17 degrees

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

[IMAGE] off St. Croix

…click to listen:

…about the music

Blues. And, greens.

It’s really nice when 17 degrees is the latitude, not the temperature in Fahrenheit.

And it’s equally nice when the color of the sea water is exactly the neon electric shaved ice blue you sea see hear here, as viewed from a little boat that returned me from a morning of snorkeling off the coast of St. Croix with schools of exotic, colorful, and clearly quite well educated fish. Gliding between the canyons of shallow reefs and tons of [obviously very smart] brain coral, I came upon an impressive herd of barracuda, who gathered in a beautifully intimidating group of six and from whom I kept a respectful distance of a few yards, lest my brain, and body, be unexpectedly schooled in the ways of the territorial wild.

Still afloat

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

[IMAGE] sunset from the Atlantic

…click to listen:

…about the music

Calm seas, and chakras.

Above, last night’s sunset. Or, more accurately, sunsink. Somewhere around 25 degrees latitude; everywhere, balmy. Shortly prior to this, the Symphonic Voyages passengers were treated to a terrific symphony concert of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, plus sea-faring soprano Susan Lorette Dunn’s wonderful performance of a set of fun songs by Canteloube. Thanks to the combination of seasoned pro musicians and conductor Larry Rachleff’s truly magic wand, everything sounds very, very beautiful and cohesive. A man said to me, “I expected this to be good. But I didn’t expect it to be this good!”. Yup.

And I gotta say, there is absolutely nothing to compare to the experience of listening to this level of music, while sitting comfortably in an 800 seat theater on a long, plush velvet banquette with plenty of room to stretch your legs, along with a little glass table that can hold a beverage, should a listener choose to enjoy one during the performance. I wish all concert halls were designed as well as this one was to accommodate something as common as four limbs joined together by a torso. While the acoustics are no match for L.A.’s Disney Hall, the pure enjoyment of sitting in a relaxed, natural position allows the music to infiltrate my heart in a way that Disney’s ultra-cramped seats cannot. I’m not a very large human, yet the mere act of attempting to cross my legs in that venue requires an athletic skill set I’ve yet to master.

[IMAGE] Celebrity theater

The one thing that everyone, whether on stage or in the audience, has had to get used to as an accompaniment to all this great music, is the constant, gentle [usually] swaying of the boat. The trip has been very calm, but this is a big ocean with some swells that you feel more than actually see. The intrepid soloists anchor their feet to the floor with a wider than normal stance to steady themselves, and Larry Rachleff does his best to not look at the curtains hanging behind the orchestra that occasionally move back and forth at, unhelpfully, a different tempo than the band. All I can say is that performing at Carnegie will be dull after this.

Then, shortly after the sunsink above, I emceed a lovely woodwind quintet concert held, like the concert of my string quintet the evening before, in a 300 seat nightclub. The audience sat in comfortable club chairs at small tables, and I got a kick out of the multi-colored LED lights flashing ever-so-gently over the performers’ heads. While I find the 20th century Barber and Ligeti quintets really compelling, a little of the 18th century Reicha goes a long way for me, and by the third of the four movements I was glad to have the disco lights dancing away to the bouncy music.

After all this music and comfort, it was on to join my entertaining table mates (some Symphonic Voyages music people and others our music patrons) at the second seating of dinner, and after an especially good meal and set of conversations, six of us ambled upstairs to a small lounge for a private bourbon tasting. The presentation of a flight of five little snifters of this quintessentially American spirit was given by Olga, a gorgeous Russian woman with an accent so thick it could cut through the heart of the steeliest KGB agent. Yet she turned out to be incredibly knowledgeable about bourbon. Unlike me, Olga turns her nose up at her native WODka.

[IMAGE] Deck signs
There are so many levels of meaning in this photo.

Inspired by all that really excellent bourbon and further hilarity (which was also inspired by all that bourbon), our happy herd of six musical mariners decided to hit the casino. While it’s usually a good rule of thumb to never enter a casino after a private bourbon tasting, and especially after a private bourbon tasting which followed a wine-infused dinner, we ignored that rule. And while everyone knows that the worst odds in the house are at the roulette table, I ignored that tidbit of wisdom, too.

But the Patron Saint of Ignorant Composers-in-Flotation was smiling on me, and I actually tripled my money within the hour. Whoo hoo!

Now, had I put down some big bucks, this would be a great story. But the sad, timid truth is that I only gambled twenty bucks. So I enjoyed the glee of creating neat piles of bright yellow $1 chips that smiled in front of me, and once I completed a row of six stacks of ten, I just stopped. And cashed in.

[IMAGE] bow cam
My deck is dead center, overlooking the stern, as you saw in the video below. But thanks to the magic of TV, I can also see the bow!

As I type this I’m 1571 miles away from Baltimore, and many more than that from my usual daily routine three thousand miles from there. We’ve gotten to 22 degrees latitude, not too far from the Dominican Republic, and we arrive at St. Thomas tomorrow morning. Snorkeling awaits! As does a recital Cho-Liang (Jimmy) Lin and accompanist Jeewon Lee will give this afternoon, and a single malt tasting this evening. If I’m not careful, I’m gonna give “composer in flotation” a new meaning! Watch this space for further developments and more reports from the happy high C’s and F-sharps!

Quite the voyage so fa.. mi sol la…

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Where in the world is Alex?
I’m not quite sure… but I’m heading southeast into the Atlantic with a boat load of really amazing musicians! Today was the opening orchestra concert, and conductor Larry Rachleff and the Symphonic Voyages orchestra totally rocked an all-Mozart program, with the help of a stunningly beautiful performance by Jimmy Lin on the 4th violin concerto. Gorgeous.

This evening I’m up at bat, presenting my aquatically-themed string quintet Current Events, which is in great hands with this crew of players. “Lilting phrase” gets new meaning at sea, when everyone is leaning a couple of degrees to begin with.

This is a little bit like “Survivor: Cruise Edition.” I’m hoping that the audience likes the piece and doesn’t vote me off the vessel. If you hear a moderate sized splash off the stern later tonight, well, you’ll know how it went.