Facing the Music

Are you a musician that should be practicing? Are you in between practice sessions or rehearsals and just need to unwind and let your mind wander? Or do you just need a swift kick in the pants to inspire you? Well, sometimes you need to stop procrastinating, stop dodging and just face the music, literally.

A Year in Review: My first year in Dublin

This year has proven to be one of many revelations, a cementing of truths, the revising of ideas, and reconceptualizing of concepts. It’s been heady, busy, and filled with teachable moments, learning experiences, and awesome, positive light. So much has happened since last I wrote and it’ll be impossible for me to cover it all with the kind of depth and detail it warrants so I won’t try. What I will do is present what I’ve gained, learned, and loved from this past year in Dublin which has been unlike any other year to date.

First, and probably the most epic of successes was my successful completion of lots of chamber music which I can now say lies comfortably under my fingers and will, with each performance, grow and improve. The highlights from this year’s descent into the chamber of music were Beethoven’s Septet and Schubert’s Octet, Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Suite, Libby Larsen’s Slang, Beethoven’s Trio, Rorem’s Ariel, and Bruch’s 8 pieces which I’ll get to in a moment. Each of the pieces challenged me in a way to expand my tonal and musical palette, exercise and strengthen my belief in tone color, phrasing, nuance, and musical language, develop further my sense of ensemble playing and blend, test my inner rhythm and pulse, rise to the occasion when greatness demands.

The first night of my chamber music exam marathon was epic, nevermind that one of the examiners was none other than world renowned pianist, Michael McHale, whom my teacher later informed me is a frequent collaborator with clarinetist, Michael Collins, but it was ending with a back-to-back performance of Beethoven’s Septet and Schubert’s Octet. I don’t know if this is the first time in history, but it was certainly noteworthy to sit and play these two huge pieces in the chamber music repertoire consecutively, maintaining focus, clarity, energy, transitioning in and out of the nuanced styles of the high classical Beethoven to the thickly romantic Schubert. It was amazing communicating with the ensemble, responding in the moment to articulations, style, musical gestures. It was glorious. I’ve always wanted to play these pieces in performance and am so glad that I got to. I can’t wait to do them again, just perhaps not back-to-back.

I have to admit, Stravinsky’s L’Histoire scared me at first. It gave me pause. I hadn’t engaged the part of my mind where mixed meter and asymmetrical rhythm are fluid entities in quite some time, but I have to say that this group really pulled it together and made something magical happen. We practiced so selflessly and rehearsed so intensely and really strove to bring out the best in each other. Mercedes Trinchero, violinist, and Veronika Phung, pianist made the experience so worthwhile. I think as a group we grew immensely and our coaching with Fali Pavri really gave us the extra umph we needed to jump all the way in the deep end and feel capable of doing it. The best part was that after it was all said and done, I really think this piece was the crown jewel of the chamber music exam marathon. It was so full of life and drive, character and personality and that is all because this group really loved the process of music-making, working with one another, respecting each other’s input and output, and felt comfortable and safe to take risks and be vulnerable with a piece where everything is exposed.

Beethoven’s Trio was by far the piece I worried about the least as Beethoven wrote it so transparently and directly that as you play it you can hear exactly what the music wants to do. It’s never been my favorite trio for clarinet, cello, and piano but after so many performances and rehearsals of it I can definitely say that it has grown on me and has found a special place in my heart. The best part was by far the communication and rapport shared by me, Seho Lee, and Anna Marcossi. Our musical sensibilities and personalities really came to the fore when playing this piece and we were able to revel in the musical texture and like peacocks display our most brilliant and opulent of feathers. Audience members commented on the enjoyment they experienced in watching us perform. I think that’s because they could see the joy that the piece brought us when we played it together. Next up, a lil Brahms Trio maybe? *wink wink* *nod nod*

Libby Larsen busted our chops. Oh my gosh! That piece is deceptively tricky. The piece is as complex compositionally as it is simple in its appearance, but do not be fooled, to really pull off this work you’ve got to be fully committed and engaged, EVERY. STEP. OF. THE. WAY. The trio worked so hard together to really put on a great performance of this piece and we walked away after a really great performance of it feeling like we learned a whole lot about it and ourselves. I learned that in chamber music no matter how good you as an individual are or may think you are, you must trust the excellence and artistry of your fellow musicians, any sense of doubt, mistrust, or wavering can spread through the group leading to a self-fulfilled prophecy of disaster. Functional communication is just as important, if not moreso, than artistic communication. That is to say that gestures, breathing, etc. that serve a very specific communicative function for the ensemble are as important as the artistic gestures that happen sympathetically with the music. There can be a kind of quiet poetry to functional gestures. I really wanted to learn this piece and I’m glad I did. It was a doozy and the markings in my music certainly reflects that.

The Bruch trio happened completely by accident but was a really gorgeous musical pairing between me, Anna Marcossi, and pianist Adam Collins, so much so in fact that we won the 2015 KBC Great Music in Irish Houses Festival Support Act-Residency to my complete and utter surprise. I am very familiar with Anna’s playing and trust her musical integrity and commitment to line, but I wasn’t as familiar with Adam’s. I was very pleasantly surprised. Together, the three of us brought the Bruch to a place of sweet, sonic bliss. Having played the Bruch various times in the past, I was prepared for the harmonic language. This was, however, my first time playing it with cello instead of viola, a combination I personally really really love and learning 2 movements I hadn’t ever played before. I should note that there are 8 pieces to the Bruch but seldom are all eight performed together. You tend to piece together a program from the 8, usually 3 to 4 together at a time. This time we did movements 1, 2, 6, and 7 leaving only 4 and 8 for me to learn (I’ve played 3 and 5 before). The rapport of this ensemble was for me something very special. Adam brings a quiet mellowness, and sort of introspective reverence to his work, playing with fleet and sensitive technique and a very uncanny way of catching the very end of a phrase and weaving something supple, sublime, serene. It was very gorgeous playing. Anna really knows how to make a melodic line sing and she took the deep, yearning lines of the now cello part and made them ring out pulling up earthy burgundy and plum colors that dared me to match her tonal richness. Honestly, it was an experience that a chamber musician lives for, to feel like each person brings out the best in the other and then pushes you to be better than you were before. These moments are hard to capture, harder even to articulate, but when they happen there are indeed goose bumps of bliss.

This year really ended up being a masterclass in chamber music preparation and performance which was not what I set out to do but am grateful for. I’m still looking to see how, if at all, I’ve grown and progressed, but unlike my undergraduate days, I no longer clamber about waiting for the breakthroughs or measuring my progress day-to-day. I like to think that this is a sign of my musical maturity. I honestly can’t say that I’ve gotten better or at least I can’t pinpoint definitely where an area of my playing improved though surely there has to have been some improvement, but what I can say is that I don’t care in the sense that it defines my experience or lessens the joy I’ve experienced in doing what I love to do. I think that the experiences and journey are really proving more fulfilling than any destination, especially since I’ve no idea what the “destination” is. Next year I’ve got some ideas for chamber pieces though these things have a way of changing but I really look forward to focusing on working with players that bring out the best in me and for whom I bring out the best. I’m not currently interested in playing or learning rep for the sake of playing and learning it but I really want to invest myself in the business of artistic growth and development. Play music that resonates with me and leads me to thinking about it in new and perhaps novel ways and ultimately challenges me to be better in any way, in every way. I’m so determined to get Bartok’s Contrasts under my belt and, with David Coonan’s premiere of Sonetos del amor oscuro, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time isn’t far off that list. There are also a few other modern gyms I’m thinking about like Liebermann’s Quintet and Francaix’s Quintert and maybe a lil Dohnanyi sextet. We’ll see. Nothing’s written in stone and even if it were, I’d have no problem chucking it and starting over. I’ve also got to focus on my concerto repertoire, yikes! I’m thinking Mozart (of course), Copland, continue with the Francaix, Nielsen, and jump into John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons, of course this is all TBD. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Rautavaara’s Clarinet Concerto so maybe I’ll take a peak… we’ll see.

Second in the line-up of reflective moments, I’m pleased to say that Vivre Musicale successfully completed its 6th season and its Irish debut having made a great showing in its last concert with amazing performances by some incredible singers. Rorem’s Ariel was electric. There were things I would have liked to have done better but overall the product was good and it was well received. We worked our hot cross buns off for that one too. Good job Oran and Michelle! You accepted the challenge and wow, did it pay off!

The third amazing bit of goinz onz is that I was granted Irish residency allowing me to work and live here legally without running back and forth to immigration to deal with immigration, paperwork, long lines, or as they call them, queues, and I can get to the business of building my personal and professional life. This is a huge relief. Living in Madrid was difficult in that each year I needed to renew my student visa, have a certain type of employment that allowed me to do so and face the reality that the job market was low and the struggle was real. I’m grateful for this huge breath of fresh air.  

Fourth, I'm so pleased, humbled, and honored to share that I will be joining the Chineke! Orchestra as part of the Chineke! Foundation, a non-profit organization established to provide career opportunities to young black musicians in the UK and Europe. We will be having our launch concert September 13th at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the Southbank Centre's Africa Utopia Festival. You can read more about Chineke! in The Guardian, The Strad, or The Classical Music Magazine.

Right now I’m looking forward to the summer. Enrolling myself in my own private clarinet bootcamp of scales, thirds, articulation, and such and getting a head start on some pending music. I’m believing that next year will be even better than this one and that I meet even more great people and make even more great music. Here’s to living, laughing, and loving.