May 24, 2018

Carmen: Behind the Score

Currently in Europe, the Romani people are a huge presence in major towns and cities. They can be found absolutely everywhere – from selling things in the town squares to sitting on church steps asking for a coin. Also known colloquially as gypsies, the Romani have been a culture for well over a thousand years according to some sources, originating from a single group that had left northwestern India. These people will often live off the land for free and move around nomadically as a group. The Romani also have their own language which has roots in Sanskrit, though many have lost their knowledge of pure Romani and simply incorporate parts of it into the languages of the countries they live in.

Many Romani have suffered forced assimilation, public persecution and slavery, and were even captured during the Holocaust. Discrimination against the Romani people has continued to this day and, due to many living in poor conditions, their poor behavior toward citizens and tourists, as well as rising crime in the areas they live in, have caused many countries to go to drastic lengths to remove them – including forced repatriation and even sterilization.

In addition to French composer Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, the Romani are depicted in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Othello, and The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Carmen was actually written based off of a novella, or short story, written by French writer Prosper Mérimée, who wrote a letter to the Countess of Montijo, who had previously told Mérimée a story about a gypsy woman on his visit to Spain in 1830.

In his letter, he wrote passionately to her about his inspiration: "It was about that ruffian from Málaga who had killed his mistress. As I have been studying the Gypsies for some time, I have made my heroine a Gypsy." An important source for the material on the Romani people that Mérimée had used was George Borrow's book The Zincali written in 1841. Another source may have been the narrative poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin, written in 1824, which Mérimée would later translate into French prose. Gypsies during the time were seen as very exotic and, though many people still feared for their pocketbooks, many were also still intrigued by their culture and freedom to live how they pleased.

Bizet, along with the writers of Carmen’s libretto, or lyrics, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, were also passionately moved by the storytelling in Mérimée’s novella, which, in short, is about the feisty and, frankly, mega-attractive Romani woman, Carmen, who lived in Seville, Spain. Carmen became engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with the bullfighter, Escamillo, her admirer, Don José, and Don José’s previous love interest, Micaëla. Don José is essentially driven to madness by the plights of Carmen who causes Don José to have bouts of extreme jealousy turning the chase into tragedy. Carmen herself foreshadows the dangers of passion in her now-famous aria, “Habanera”, where she related love itself to “a rebellious bird that none can tame” and also to “a gypsy child that has never, ever known the law”.

Much like many Shakespearean comedies and tragedies, the characters of Carmen take on a few of the same tropes in the European style of theatre known as the commedia dell’arte. For instance, Carmen and Don Jose take on some of the roles of the Inammorati, or the lovers, who are supposed to be very dapper and engaging and just a bit ridiculous in their innocence to love. The bullfighter, Escamillo, takes on the role of Il Capitano, or the Captain, who would generally be a loner of sorts but be widely considered as rather a slayer of hearts. A famous example of Il Capitano would be Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Lastly, Micaëla acts in part as Colombina, usually a maid or young maiden who acts as a confidant to the audience and helps moves the plot along with the lovers or the scheming of dubious characters. Many of these traditional stock roles are broken in Carmen, which of course causes the plotline to become more twisted and surprising as the audience continues watching.

Touching on the music of Carmen: although Bizet himself had never been to Spain at the time, he composed many of the arias heard in the opera based on folk songs including his inspiration for “Habanera”, which was a folk song by the Spanish composer Sebastián Yradier entitled “El Arreglito”. Bizet also sought out appropriate material to research proper rhythm and instrumentation in order to better give the score an element of traditional flamenco style sound.

Carmen will often imitate on stage playing the castanets as the orchestra plays, which were often used by Spanish dancers to add percussion to their movements. The bugle or horn sound is heavily featured throughout the opera, as well, and it can be assumed that the bugle is the pull of responsibility that Don José is fighting with against the wild and free-spiritedness of Carmen’s castanets.

Carmen does an excellent job in showing the presence of the Romani people in Europe as well as tearing down traditional roles of women who, at the time, were expected to cater more to the expectations of society. Carmen simply refuses, throughout the production, to do what is expected of her. While Carmen may end in tragedy, it is important to note her strong force in breaking down those traditional barriers, both in the commedia dell’arte and in the society during Bizet’s time. Initial reactions to the opera’s premiere in 1874 were ones of shock at the drastic realism of the opera to give each of the characters an element of flawed morality. In essence, Carmen was a head-turner simply for giving an accurate screenshot of how humans are constantly swayed by passion and impulse.

May 17, 2018

Schmucks in Tuxedos

Nikolette (Nikki) LaBonte, horn
 by Nikolette LaBonte

At one of our most recent orchestra meetings, a guest made a statement that really made me laugh.  When discussing the relationship between orchestra members and their audience he commented, “You’ve got them totally fooled.  They think you are the ritziest people around and they have no idea that you’re just a bunch of schmucks in evening gowns and tuxedos.”

A classic case of “it’s funny because it’s true”.  That remark is a spot-on assessment of our classical musician paradox.  When we walk onstage in Kodak Hall, we do our best to match both the lavish décor of the hall and our elegant attire.  But, beneath our onstage appearance of grace and charm, we’re busy complaining about our plow guy not showing up on time, the latest parking ticket we got, and coming home to a mess because we forget to let the dog out before we left for rehearsal.  You see, I am not a perfect person.  Please try to contain your complete shock and surprise.  I have never played a perfect concert and, while the French horn may be a bit more prone to error than most instruments, I think every professional musician would tell you the same thing.   If they don’t, they are undoubtedly lying.  However, when I learn of a weakness in my performance or notice an error in intonation or a missed note, I try to avoid long stretches of internally berating myself.  Instead, I make an effort to examine it as a new possibility to gather information and learn.  In that way, I’ve observed that I have tended to grow more from my failures rather than my successes.  Success simply validates what you already are.  

 I’ll stop for a second and say that this is important!  I try to make sure I have enough validation in my life even if I have to provide it myself.  “Way to go, Nikki!  You got a primo parking spot at the East Avenue Wegmans!  You’re unstoppable today!”  However, failure allows us to examine what we could have done better--how could we have turned that situation into a success.  Sometimes, that is as simple as correcting the note we are buzzing or making sure to take in a more expansive breath before the start of a long phrase.  But other times, it involves facing real obstacles and weaknesses in ourselves as musicians and figuring out just how we can overcome or correct them. 

My journey to be a member of the RPO is an example of this.   I joined the orchestra in fall of 2016 after winning a national audition held on April 24th and 25th.  Naturally, I was over the moon.  However, that April audition was the third time I had applied for the job.  The other two preceding times, I was not hired.  

The first audition was in December of 2014.  I was a sophomore at the Eastman School of Music studying under the tutelage of RPO principal horn, Peter Kurau.  I had recently made the substitute list of the RPO and because of that was invited to an interim audition for the Associate/Assistant Principal slot.  The previous horn player had left the orchestra midseason and they needed someone to fill the roll immediately, without having time for a national audition.  Being young and naïve, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring.  What was the worst that could happen?  

Something about my playing caught the attention of the panel and I was selected as a finalist for this position.  Seeing that I had a lack of experience in my resume, they thought it would be best for me and the other finalist to each have a few trial weeks.  I spent all of my winter break practicing and preparing myself for this opportunity and I did my very best onstage to present myself as a confident member of the orchestra.  I knew I could do this job and was desperate for a chance to join the ensemble I’d been faithfully observing for two years now.  The other candidate’s weeks were after mine so my blood pressure skyrocketed every time I received a phone call from a 585 area code number for about a month.  I was on spring break in New York City with my best friend when I got the call.  The other candidate had been selected.  I was absolutely crushed.  I spent that whole evening sobbing while my friend made sure I had an unlimited supply of tissues, white wine, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.   The next day, I emailed my professor, tail between my legs, and asked for feedback from my performance.  He graciously provided constructive comments and said I could work on making my sound darker and richer and I should strive for a greater knowledge of the symphonic repertoire and its nuances.  

I immediately hit the ground running.  I saved up enough money to buy a new horn that would allow me to expand my sound concept and practiced orchestral parts and excerpts every night until the school practice rooms closed at 11 PM.  I knew that there would have to be a national audition for this position in order to give everyone across the country a chance at the spot.  That date was set for October of 2015 and, for those next 9 months, I had my sights completely transfixed on that single moment.  In the meantime, I had auditioned for a position in the Hawaii Symphony and was appointed as their Assistant Principal Horn.  I knew this would give me the opportunity to get some real on-the-job experience so I put my Eastman studies on hold and moved out to Honolulu in September.  Despite this move, never once did I lose sight of that October audition.  

That audition day finally arrived and I put everything I had on the line.  I played my absolute best and made it all the way to the final round.  It was me and the same candidate who had won the interim spot.  After waiting 45 minutes while the audition panel deliberated, they came out with the news.  The RPO would not be hiring anyone at this time.  Neither of us were up to the standard of what they wanted long term, but please try again when the next audition is announced.  Please try again.  Commence round two of sobbing for an entire day.  Sure, I had my job in Hawaii to return to (my flight was the next day) and travelling to a tropical island paradise might not seem like such a bad thing to you, but to me it was the worst.  I knew RPO was a better job and I didn’t want to be in Hawaii.  I wanted to be here.  

Once again, I met with Professor Kurau asking for comments and suggestions for aspects of my playing I could improve.  After a few minutes of me unsuccessfully trying to suppress tears, he lovingly talked me through my audition and provided me with some additional comments.  I needed to gain more “on-the-job” experience and could work on my intonation and tone.  I was over-efforting through the horn and I could get a better sense of ease through a lot of fundamentals practice.  He encouraged me to go to Hawaii, learn from the musicians out there, spend some time practicing the basics, maybe try to enjoy the weather, and to please come back for the next audition.  That would be in April 2016.  

And I tried to do just that.  I learned just how a professional orchestra functions by interacting with my HSO colleagues.  I learned how to translate the practice I was doing at home into successful orchestral performances.  I learned who to listen to, how to lead a section, how to maintain consistency in repeated concerts.  I would listen to famous orchestral recordings on my bus rides to and from work.  And when I got home, I would practice.  I focused less on repertoire and more on fundamental concepts.  If I could make all of these notes have a quality tone, one at a time, I could synthesize them together in any passage in the orchestral repertoire.  I also did find time to go hiking and scuba diving, made new friends, and ate some amazing food.  (I still am searching for the perfect poke bowl back here on the mainland—recommendations appreciated).  I was happy in Hawaii and loved my time there but April was always on my mind.  This time, however, when that audition rolled around, I knew that no matter what, I was going to be a better musician.  Whether or not I was the candidate the RPO would select, I knew that I would be sounding better than the last time they heard me.  I had changed and evolved so much in those 6 months and I was happy with how I was playing.  I felt that I was in control of the instrument and I could fully express myself in ways that I never was able to before.  No matter what happened on April 25th, I knew I had made myself a better artist.

Once again, I made it all the way to the final round.  I walked back to the waiting area and instead of being terrified of the news that might follow, I found myself calm.  I had represented myself accurately in the audition room.  It wasn’t perfect.  Auditions are never perfect.  But it was how I played.  That audition had been a genuine reflection of me.

I’ve already spoiled the ending of this story so you know how it goes.  An hour and a half later, I got the good news.  Over the next few months, I said a bittersweet goodbye to my HSO friends and prepared for the move back to Rochester.  I started with the RPO in 2016, was tenured in May of 2017, and have enjoyed every single moment since.  

While writing this post, I had the opportunity to reflect back on this entire journey and these auditions specifically.  I asked myself what would have happened if I had won the first one and joined the RPO then?  I spent a few moments thinking about it.  I didn’t have the experience I needed and was unprepared from a technique standpoint.  I would have been woefully unqualified for the position and honestly, probably wouldn’t still have it.  I never thought I would admit this, but I am so very thankful that I lost those auditions.  I simply would not be the player I am today, with a job that I love and colleagues that inspire me.  Mistakes and lessons learned are the ways we improve something, be it a chipped note or someone’s overall musicianship.  For these reasons, I am grateful for my failures.   I am truly just a “schmuck in an evening gown” and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

May 2, 2018

Longtime RPO Patron says "Music is Medicine"

If you regularly attend RPO performances, you might begin to recognize the same faces in the crowd from concert to concert. But few in the audience have been RPO supporters for as long as Joe Mancini. An RPO patron for nearly eighty years and a donor for more than sixty, Joe can’t imagine his life without music in it.

Joe was introduced to the RPO through his uncle, who brought him to an RPO Pops concert when he was just 10 years old (he’s now 89). He doesn’t recall what the orchestra played that night, but that first concert whet his appetite for more. As his appreciation for music grew, he says he “graduated” to more complex programming.

As he grew older, Joe discovered music as a source of solace. He remembers several occasions in college when, frustrated with his studying and schoolwork, he would take a break to listen to classical music. Even today, music continues to be a restorative experience for Joe:  “I turn to music when I’m down,” he says. “That’s my medicine.”

Like his uncle before him, Joe delights in introducing family and friends to classical music. Over his many decades as an RPO patron, he has brought his nieces and nephews to Pops and Philharmonics concerts, as well as to musical theatre performances and even to operas at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. “To this day, they are still interested in music,” he says proudly.

Joe has broad musical tastes and says “I can listen to anything.” However, he admits that opera is particularly close to his heart – an affinity he shares with RPO Music Director Ward Stare. Joe is especially looking forward to the Philharmonic Series Finale, when the orchestra will perform Bizet’s Carmen in Concert. Joe himself takes voice lessons at Hochstein School of Music and Dance, focusing mostly on opera. He has already performed in two recitals.

Having been an RPO patron for almost eight decades, Joe has seen the orchestra grow and change. He has fond memories of former music directors David Zinman and Erich Leinsdorf. Today, he is particularly admiring of Ward Stare’s command and control of the orchestra. “They’re giving their all,” he says of the orchestra.

Asked why he supports the RPO, Joe says that music “is an art form that if you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by it, the rewards are fantastic.” After each concert, “I come out on such a high,” he says. He adds that “this is the art form that just keeps giving.”

At RPO concerts, you’ll find Joe sitting near the cross aisle on the orchestra floor. “If you hear someone yelling ‘Bravo!’, it’s me,” he says.