music, technology & life in pasadena, california

From Mahler to Adams

After rereading my remarks on Friday evening’s concert, I could see how excited I was upon returning home, but is it fair for a musician who has participated in a concert to offer his opinions, much as a music critic does? Obviously, sometimes the player’s viewpoint can be too close or too protective of his own orchestra or conductor to offer an unbiased take, but so little has been written from the player’s point of view that I think this type of personal insight can be valuable to other musicians or music fans. So, in a forum such as this informal personal blog, I think the answer is yes.

Regardless, LA Times music critic, Mark Swed, had much the same reaction to Friday evening’s concert, offering these accolades in Monday’s edition:

The performance was unlike any other, not just because it was a striking interpretation or because the Philharmonic played with riveting clarity, expression, color, delicacy and, when wanted, ferocious might but also because Disney Hall was that mountaintop, a place where sounds, whether small or large, had the kind of immediacy and intimacy that a listener could feel as though he were one-to-one with Mahler.

Salonen laid the score out with extreme clarity… he treated the last movement as an exhilarating, slightly mad rush to points unknown… it was a phenomenal concert and a phenomenon of musical nature.

The magic was infectious and couldn’t help spilling off the stage into the audience. This is why I love to play music. Even if it happens just once or twice a year, it’s a powerful drug that makes players continue to search for their next fix.

This week the Philharmonic tackles John Adams’, Naïve and Sentimental Music. A large 70-minute orchestral work, as close to a symphony as Adams has yet written, it presents an ambitious and original musical vocabulary that while being wholly and uniquely Adams, echoes a contemporary nod to Mahler through liquefaction and the twisting through time of almost a century later.

I first met John Adams at the Ojai Festival in 1993, where he conducted Shostakovich’s almost-never-heard Jazz Suite, which includes a ukulele part. When he gave me a bow at the end of the piece, I thought, wow, here’s a guy who’s not afraid of obscure challenging works that others might just toss off as inconsequential or otherwise. And to give a bow in a classical concert to the ukulele player? I was hooked for life! When I said goodbye to him backstage after the concert, I told him that guitarists were waiting for a guitar concerto. He laughed as we parted and later I thought how dumb it had been to say that.

In late 1998, the orchestra phoned to ask me if I’d be interested in playing a new piece by Adams, commissioned by the Philharmonic and dedicated to Esa-Pekka. They told me it required an amplified steel-string guitar and that the second movement was almost entirely devoted to a beautiful and melancholy guitar solo. The rehearsals and premiere concerts of Naïve that followed in early 1999 were an incredible honor to be a part of and the piece was wildly well received in both Los Angeles and on a subsequent tour to New York a few weeks later. The New Yorker magazine, which covered the NY premiere wrote:

"...he has arrived, perhaps by accident, at a startling new sound: Mahler in the desert, a lonesome guitar."

There’ve been two more performances by the orchestra since then, at UCLA’s Royce Hall (where as guest artist, John Adams brought the entire LA Phil with him as his guests) and another trip to NYC’s Avery Fisher Hall as part of a tour that included playing Adams’ El Nino at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I’m looking forward to this week’s performances on Friday January 19 and Saturday January 20 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as a run-out performance to Orange County’s new Segerstrom Hall on the afternoon of Sunday January 21. In a serendipitous twist, my recently-passed mother's birthday is on that Sunday, and Naïve's second movement is titled "Mother of the Man".

Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Adams are a perfect fit, not only in their contemporary conductor-composer relationship, but because Salonen is a formidable composer himself, his ear is attuned to the needs and requirements of this century’s most visible modern composer. It’s a relationship that is exciting to see in person and will no doubt be seen as historic many years into the future.

All this and a steel-string guitar added to the orchestral mix? As John Adams once remarked to me, “Somebody’s got to keep you guys working!”

FYI: I’ll also play banjo, mandolin and guitar on Adams’ Gnarly Buttons on Tuesday January 23 at WDCH with the composer conducting as part of his 60th birthday celebration.

January 16, 2007 | Link to this entry

Michael Brecker

I've just read the sad news that saxophonist Michael Brecker has passed away from leukemia at age 57.

The jazz world has lost its favorite son...

January 14, 2007 | Link to this entry

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s 7th Symphony

The book, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, published in 1983, was written by Lewis Thomas, a physician, and is a collection of essays on humanity, science, life and music. I’ve never read this highly praised and oft-quoted book, but I can imagine Thomas being inspired by Mahler’s Ninth and letting his thoughts pour out as the music washed over him.

Mahler’s 7th is the one that does it for me. It was my introduction to the composer some seventeen years ago when Simon Rattle (in his pre-Sir days) conducted the LA Philharmonic in three memorable concerts. I was fortunate enough to play guitar for those concerts, and Rattle’s version of this incredible work started me on a long journey to learn more about Mahler and his music, and although it’s not programmed nearly as often as his other symphonies, the 7th has become my favorite.

Maybe it’s the beauty and power of the opening movement, or possibly the “dance with the devil” scherzo of the third. The fifth’s quick cuts and juxtapositions have always entranced me, a dialogue which continually shifts perspective as fast as a film editor’s razor and just as cleanly. Or maybe, just maybe it’s the fact that there’s a place in the 4th movement for not only guitar, but for mandolin as well. Written for both a guitarist and a mandolinist, the instruments add a color and intimacy that cuts through the beautifully written strings and woodwinds to present a stirring in the forest’s “night music”.

I’ve just returned from the week’s first performance of this piece at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. I’ve always wanted to play this piece with him. There is no musician on Earth I respect more. Every chance to play with him is a lesson in music, style, knowledge and conducting.

In rehearsal this morning, I was so moved by the sound of the first movement. You could tell that something else was at work here, the sum of the parts doesn’t begin to explain it. This is what music is all about, still sensing that wonder, that incomprehensible grandeur that lifts us out of ourselves and transcends here and now. And at tonight’s concert, Salonen and the orchestra made it climb even higher, if this was at all humanly possible.

There’s a reason why many people, even east coasters, are talking and writing that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is the finest orchestra in the United States.

Listening to tonight’s concert confirms it.

*Mahler’s 7th Symphony and Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra will be performed again on Saturday January 13 at 8pm and Sunday January 14 at 2pm. I'm playing mandolin this time around and Brian Head is the guitarist.

January 13, 2007 | Link to this entry

You want spores with that?

Last week, my wife and I decided to catch a quick bite before seeing a movie at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 on Colorado Boulevard. We stopped next door at the Zeli Coffee Bar, the urban bohemian coffee shop conveniently nestled in the corner of Vroman’s Books, one of Pasadena’s best independent bookstores. We ordered a few muffins and drinks and went outside to eat on one of the park benches in the alley between the movie house and the bookstore.

As I bit into the muffin, a lemon poppy seed, the texture seemed strange and rubbery. And then it hit me…the taste of mold! OK, game over…that shouldn’t happen but I’ll give any business the benefit of the doubt the first time it does. I went inside to let them know about it and this was the how the conversation went:

“Hi. I just bought this muffin and it tastes like mold.”

“It’s supposed to taste like that. It’s non-fat.”

“OK. I understand that it’s non-fat (although it wasn’t labeled as such in the display case), but it tastes totally moldy.”

“Would you like to try one of our other ones?”

“No thanks, I’d just like my money back.”

“No, I can’t do that.”

“Excuse me?”

“I won’t give you your money back. You can try one of our other flavors, but no money back.”


I threw the muffin in the trash and walked out.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen customer service as bad as the Zeli Coffee Bar. The attitude of the worker behind the counter really surprised me and his coworker didn’t offer any help either. He just stood there listening.

I’ve popped into Zeli several times in the past. The coffee has never been any big deal and the prices are high (the muffin was almost four dollars). Although to the best of my knowledge Zeli is independent of Vroman’s Books, having a business like that sharing space with you is eventually bound to reflect negatively.

Save your money and your taste buds, and make the short drive over to Jones Coffee Roasters for one of the best cups in town.

January 4, 2007 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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