Oskar Espina-Ruiz, Music Mountain Festival
Read the August 2019 Main Street Magazine feature article by CB Wismar here
Advanced clarinetists ages 18-28 are up for a treat this summer: the Music Mountain Academy’s First Session from June 12-21 will focus on chamber music for strings and piano, with clarinet as the only woodwind in the program. Brahms and Mozart Clarinet Quintets are at the core of the program, but also Penderecki Quartet for clarinet and strings, Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, and the great trios for clarinet and piano plus cello, viola or violin. This is a great opportunity for clarinetists.
I’ll be teaching together with the legendary Charles Neidich, in a friendly and beautiful environment focused on chamber music. The prize-winning Verona String Quartet will be the faculty quartet in residence. The four members of the Verona Quartet and Peter Winograd, first violinist of the American String Quartet, will be coaching chamber groups. 5 clarinet students will be selected to play with the Verona Quartet at the Music Mountain Academy!
A typical day at this festival in Falls Village, Connecticut, will include rehearsals, practicing, coachings and informal evening performances or presentation. You will also be able to participate in student concerts and attend faculty concerts free of charge. Charles Neidich will perform Brahms Clarinet Quintet with the Verona Quartet on June 16, and there will be many more thrilling performances.
The application fee is waived if you submit your application by March 26!
Happy Halloween and Feliz Día de todos los santos!
Please tune in to WDAV.org Classical Public Radio and Concierto.org to listen to my performance of Sueño for clarinet and piano by Julián Menéndez on November 1, Sunday, at 10:00 pm. http://1drv.ms/1NGdVDr
This is an evocative work that explores the dual meaning of “Sueño,” which translates as both “dream” and “nightmare.” Noriko Nagasawa plays piano.
“Nadie más muerto que el olvidado” (One is not dead until forgotten) (Gregorio Marañón).
It is not unusual to feel disappointed about your own performance. Part of the reason is that in our daily practice we perform every section of a specific work beautifully at one point or another. All those beautiful sections, put together in our mind, become our ideal performance, and anything less than our ideal performance can feel disappointing.
At a festival I attended recently, a fine young clarinetist told me: “I was not happy with my performance. Even though I knew how difficult it is to put this piece together with piano, I assumed all would be fine with my new pianist. It is also hard to play for a room full of clarinetists…”
There is a lot we can and should do to produce a great performance, as well as to avoid feeling disappointed even when our performance is not perfect. Here are the tips I find most helpful:
Multiple preparatory performances:
Performing in front of others requires a set of skills that we don’t necessarily develop when practicing by ourselves. It is necessary to perform in front of others, as well as to include a number of different settings in our practice, as part of our concert preparation. Most professionals schedule several preparatory performances (such as home concerts or semi-private run-throughs) prior to a public concert. There are aspects of performance that we can work on most effectively while performing, such as flow, fluidity, projection, diction (or the dimension of our musical gestures), big-picture concept, climax-building trajectories, energy level, and so on. The more we perform a piece, the better these aspects get.
Record yourself and keep marking your score to zoom into the areas that need work. That will make each performance better. Be sure to use apps such as the Amazing Slow Downer to listen to your performance at slower speeds without changing the pitch. You’ll be amazed at how much is going on at the micro-level, and how much work there is yet to be done to improve your ensemble, intonation and other basics of performance. Listen to your own recordings with an analytical mind, without getting caught up in the shortfalls of the sound quality. The sound of the clarinet is particularly difficult to capture with a phone, tablet or Zoom. So, don’t worry: your sound is not as bad as it seems in the recording. Be cool and move on to listening to other aspects of the recording. Keep refining both the details and the big-picture.
Practice techniques to increase your performance control and confidence:
The best way to achieve a great performance is a great preparation. There are several specific strategies we can include in our daily practice to increase performance control and overall confidence on stage. Here is a shortlist:
Confidence is built over time. When you see the results of effective practicing in your own performance over and over again, you begin to trust your work. You get to know that as long as you prepare for a performance in certain way, the level will be very high.
Keep mapping ahead and moving from grabbing-note to grabbing-note:
In many ways, performing is like delivering a speech. You can’t let small glitches disrupt the projection of the main message in your performance. You prepare for this by practicing by sections, mainly at slow tempos. Each section comprises a musical gesture that you practice with great intention, with enormous clarity and exaggerated expression. For this, you need to exaggerate the phasing of the specific musical gesture you are repeating. Grab the note at the climax by holding it one bit longer and looping the passage (this way you grab with your hearing); by adding more air support to the note at the climax (to grab with air); and by adding more finger pressure for an instant at the beginning of the note at the climax (to grab with your fingers). Once each musical gesture and its corresponding climax is practiced separately this way, you perform by mapping ahead from musical gesture to musical gesture, and feeling in control when you move from grabbing-note to grabbing-note.
Play always perfect when you practice:
When you practice you need to play perfect (yes, even when you are starting to learn a new piece). That means you need to play slowly for a while, before you start to get a bit faster each time. Otherwise chances are you won’t include everything you are working on.
No, I am not talking about appliances. We too can benefit enormously from performing with great energy efficiency. Every time you play a passage, ask yourself: ok, now can I do it with less effort? An easy example is to hold a high note and to gradually decrease the biting, or vertical tension in your lips, until you go flat. Be sure not to change your embouchure and don’t lower your tongue; simply decrease the biting gradually. Doing this often times brings you to realize that before you go flat your head resonance increases and your sound becomes fuller. That means there is space for you to bite less, or, in other words, you can play with less effort and, at the same time, improve your sound. Make sure your feet are well-grounded and that your body is aligned and relaxed. Only the sides of your mouth remain engaged and holding the embouchure. Everything else is relaxed: your face and head are resonating, your fingers are relaxed until they grab specific notes (and engage for an instant before they go back to relaxation), your larynx is relaxed and low, your shoulders are relaxed, your diaphragm is free and ready to help you inhale a deep breath, with your mouth well-opened and producing a low inhalation pitch. Make sure you feel comfortable and relaxed on stage at all times.
Your performance should engage your audience:
Your performance should engage your audience, but an engaged performance must not be an aggressive performance. Going back to the speech delivery example, you quickly realize there are many different tones and speech styles that can be equally effective. You just have to find your own voice; your own pace. Don’t over-do it or you risk sounding aggressive like an over-the-top salesman. Match your projection to the acoustic you are performing at and always be honest to the music and yourself. While delivering a speech you are most engaging when you are yourself. The same happens in performance.
Peace of mind:
There is no failure in performance: even a disappointing performance is a learning experience that will make you stronger. Did you know that some of the most successful people out there failed a lot of times? If you learn from your mistakes and are able to collect yourself and move on, you will be successful. Trust your good work and go for it. We all have something important and unique to express through our performances.
Less than an hour ago I was running through LaGuardia Airport in New York, delivering polite “excuse me”-s as I zoomed by. I had run into traffic, and a little more, on my way to the airport and was running late. It was 9:15 am by the time I got to Security for a 9:29 am flight. I got a boarding pass for the next flight to Charlotte, but was heading to the gate of my original 9:29 am flight, and I made it.
Just 20 minutes prior to that I was on the M-60 bus from Manhattan to the airport and, on the first stop in Queens a desperate person grabbed my bag and stepped out of the bus. It took me a split second to react. I jumped on to him, pulled my bag off his hand and looked at his face uttering a stern “what are you doing?” I let him go. Then, I let the bus driver know what had just happened and this brought about a very “New York” moment. “That guy is sick,” said the driver referring to the man who tried to rob me, whom we could still see walking away while we continued to drive on. “You should have punched him in the face,” he said. I replied politely to that remark, but then he continued: “you might be right, if you punched him in the face and cracked his head in two, probably some kind of disgusting disease would have come out.” New York is blunt, that’s for sure, and many of its citizens have a very vivid imagination. I lived in Manhattan for 20 years prior to moving to North Carolina and this driver’s reaction to what just happened brought many mixed memories to my mind.
However, this is not at all what compelled me to write this blog. The reason why I am writing is the pure energy shot the 2013 J.C. Arriaga Competition Winners concert gave me last night, which I want to share with all of you. The concert featured the Kenari Saxophone Quartet and the piano-violin Jade Duo. The audience at Treetops CMS is truly knowledgeable and hard to impress, but many “wows” could be heard throughout the evening. One of our regulars said about the Kenari Quartet that “they are like a shot of heroin.”
J.C. Arriaga was schooled in music by playing chamber music. He started to compose seriously when he was 11 years old, to express his love for a young woman, his mentor’s 15-year-old daughter Luisa, whom he met at the philharmonic society gatherings where he played violin. Arriaga went on to further his studies at the Paris Conservatory and composed three wonderful string quartets and many other works before he passed away at age 19. He is the most important classical composer from Spain, born exactly 50 years after Mozart, on the same January 27th date, in 1806. I thought Arriaga was a fitting name for our annual chamber music competition which, I have to admit, came about from my sheer stubbornness, because I was convinced this was an effective way to mentor future generations of artists, while serving an important part of the mission of the Treetops Chamber Music Society. This year’s Arriaga Competition has been our sixth.
Each year it has become harder and harder to judge at the finals of the Arriaga Competition because the level keeps getting higher. I am deeply grateful to David Geber, Charles Neidich and Peter Winograd for their continued support as jurors. Their privileged ears and deep knowledge of music are an inspiring mentoring force for all our finalists and myself. David Geber and Charles Neidich also played a key roll in the founding of the Arriaga Competition in 2008.
This past spring the Kenari Quartet (Bob Eason, soprano sax; Durand Jones, alto sax; Corey Dundee, tenor sax; Steven Banks, baritone sax) came on top as the 1st prize winner and Jade Duo (Zhen Chen, piano; Shuai Shi, violin) was the 2nd prize winner. We felt compelled to acknowledge the excellent work and talent of another two groups and offered honorable mentions to the Orava String Quartet (Daniel Kowalik, violin; David Dalseno, violin; Thomas Chawner, viola; Karol Kowalik, cello) and the Noctua Wind Quintet (Kayla Burggraf, flute; Michelle Pan, oboe; Nicolas Chona, clarinet; John Turman, horn; Thomas Morrison, bassoon).
The winners of the Arriaga Competition receive a cash prize and are invited to play a joined concert at the Treetops CMS regular concert season. That is how the Kenari Quartet and Jade Duo came to play the concert at Treetops yesterday. I should also say that the Kenari Quartet almost didn’t make it to the concert. Late at night the day before the concert they ran into a deer on the highway on their way from Bloomington, Indiana, to Stamford, Connecticut, and were stranded three hours away from Treetops, in a remote town in Pennsylvania, up until the late morning of the day of the concert. As late as 10:30 am on the day of the concert they still had no means to get to the rental car facility at a small airport 54 miles away from where they were. There wasn’t enough time to go pick them up either. The concert at Treetops was at 4:00 pm. However, somehow, the stars lined up and they got a shuttle service company to give them a ride to the rental car facility, not without being ripped off both by the Inn where they crashed at 1:30 am, which charged them $200 for a room, and by the shuttle bus driver, who charged them $250 for a ride in his small SUV. The car they were driving was a total loss.
But there they were, very politely greeting all of us at Treetops as they came in with a nice smile into the Treetops Studio at around 3:00 pm.
The concert was an unforgettable experience. The vitality and polished technique of both groups was a joy to watch and hear. Both winners have a unique talent and I don’t intend to compare them in any way. Both are marvelous in their own way.
Jade Duo played with great elegance and refinement. Their performance of Bartok’s Sonata No. 2 was particularly engaging, displaying a rich palette of colors and effects, which they bring about as a tight duo.
The Kenari Quartet managed to bring the house down. They played an encore too: Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino.” What struck me most was the great degree of maturity they already display as an ensemble, which comes through as a very natural expressive playing, with a good degree of virtuosic technique too, which one relates more commonly to the playing of a soloist. Here however, four instrumentalists manage to produce that effect, which is quite remarkable. As I mentioned at the concert when I introduced the quartet, something unique is happening in the saxophone world these days. Many saxophone quartets are coming to the foreground lately and they are just fantastic. Being four instruments of the same family, just like in the string quartet, is certainly an advantage over the traditional woodwind quintet, which needs to cope with different sound productions, articulations and entirely different tone colors. Saxophone quartets today seem to be in the midst of a creative revolution that is just wonderful to watch.
The arrangement for sax quartet of the Kapustin piano Preludes in Jazz Style by Corey Dundee, the tenor sax player in the group, was great in every sense of the word. They played Preludes Nos. 22, 10, 13 and 24, with No. 13 perhaps being the weaker of the four, but still incredibly effective as a set.
For me, year after year, the Arriaga Competition Winners Concert is a high point in the concert season. I can’t avoid feeling a profound sense of accomplishment and pride. All past struggles and difficulties seem to dissipate like the morning fog and everything clicks all of a sudden: the effort was well worth it (the “effort” being to help create a chamber music society and a chamber music competition from scratch, while still concertizing, recording, researching and teaching). The Arriaga Competition and the Treetops Chamber Music Society as a whole have come a long way in less than a decade, and this has been possible thanks to a great team that is capable of working as one, just like a good chamber music ensemble.