Haven't posted in a long time

Surely every blog has an "I haven't posted in a long time" kind of entry... Well, I have definitely been busy, but for the immediate future, I will be updating my Beethoven Reimagined project blog on http://www.yanivsegal.com/beethoven-reimagined-blog and hope to have exciting news to share here in the coming weeks about my next season of activities and concerts as well as other musings. Thanks for reading!

Speed of Improvement

I write from Gdansk, Poland, where I am working this month as the Assistant Conductor of the I, Culture, Orchestra tour – an orchestra made up of young musicians aged 18-29, who get together for a few weeks of intense rehearsal and then go on a tour of Europe. Andrey Boreyko, fantastic musician, is their conductor this year. (More here: http://www.orchestra.culture.pl/en/)

The musicians met for the first time and started working this past Saturday. For the first three days, the orchestra was coached by an incredible team mostly Principals from the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, but also by members of the Berlin Philharmonic and other orchestras. After long days of sectionals, I led evening Tutti rehearsals to consolidate what was learned during the day, and to prepare the orchestra for the arrival of Andrey.

There is so much to teach and so much we can all learn. It is wonderful to work with talented young musicians who strive to be better each time.

The desire to improve: THIS is the key to success.

We can all live life this way: strive each day to be a little bit better than the day before. We can all work to be better at ANYTHING. Maybe I’d like to increase my speed of solfege, or sight-reading at the keyboard. Maybe I need to work on my forehand stroke in tennis. Perhaps I need to be a better husband or father and can certainly always be a better listener to the needs of family and friends (and a better communicator). I may not know enough about the Russian Revolution so I could read a little more about that. It’s endless really.

The first tutti rehearsal was a struggle in many ways. We read through one of the great masterworks of Western Music: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. And it was apparent that even though there were a hundred talented musicians on stage together, they had just met each other musically, and were not functioning as a cohesive unit, aka an orchestra. Things shape up very quickly with proper direction and attitude, and just a few days later there is a fine orchestra on stage!

Watching this quick improvement and seeing young folks from various countries come together to share in the common love and language of music has already been inspiring. I hope that when these musicians go back home, onto careers in music or otherwise, that they have not just improved their technique as musicians, but have also grown as humans.

We share one small planet in a vast universe of unknowns. As a philosophy, perhaps if humans all could just work to improve ourselves a little each day, we can end up leaving the planet better for our children, end up being more personally fulfilled, and we can allow ourselves to revel in the wonders this life has to offer.

Best-kept secret?

I don’t think that the Naples Philharmonic will be such a well-kept secret for much longer. This is my third and final season as assistant conductor with this fine orchestra, and I just want to take a moment to look at the team:

Music Director: Andrey Boreyko – has conducted basically every one of the best orchestras in the world. He is an incredible conductor, musician, and mentor.

President: Kathleen van Bergen – has worked with the top orchestras in the country and has brought in millions of dollars and majorly upped the prestige of Artis–Naples.

Baker Museum Director: Frank Verpoorten – The amazing permanent collection as well as the shows coming through this seemingly modest museum are simply unbelievable!

Just some of the guest artists over the past three seasons: McDuffie, Zilberstein, Kremer, Ax, Watts, Thibaudet, Skride, Koh, Grimaud, Gerstein, Perlman, Lang Lang, Fleming, Ehnes, Kahane, Parker, Grosvenor, Marsalis, Bell. Principal Pops conductor is legendary Jack Everly … The level of artistry among all these people is just CRAZY!

The offerings at Artis–Naples do not stop with classical music and a fine museum. There are broadway shows, lectures, bands, jazz, youth programs, educational concerts, community events, film screenings, opera… you name it. This place is absolutely the epicenter of arts and culture in Southwest Florida.

This has been my first “job” since finishing graduate studies in Conducting and Composition at the University of Michigan. As a young conductor, working here has been a fantastic experience. The musicians are good and receptive towards working with conductors, and supportive of young ones like myself. I conduct nearly 20 different programs per season, and cover 11 more (ten masterworks and new years). And I get to share the love of music with the next generation of musicians by conducting and directing the youth orchestra and youth chamber music program.

Add to that: it is never winter here, and just yesterday (we’re in the beginning of February, mind you) I got to enjoy playing a few hours of tennis outside - with some friends and orchestra colleagues - in the evening without fear of snow, sleet, or hail.

So spread the word, this place is for real.

Pre-concert rituals

Last night I conducted a concert in a new venue. It made me think about pre-concert rituals. It was a program that I really liked: Haydn 44 and Beethoven's Mass in C. The concert took place in the First Presbyterian Church in Naples. I got to the venue pretty early because I knew the parking lot was small, and I generally prefer to be early to concerts and rehearsals rather than stressing at the last minute. What was a nice surprise was that I had a real "dressing" room, which, given that this is not always the case with churches and run-outs, was a real nice treat. (The fact that the dressing room was called the "Robing Room" was not lost upon me) The room was of a nice size, and had a carpeted floor. I did something that I have not ever done pre-concert: I took advantage of the empty space, extra time, and carpeted floor to stretch! I really enjoy stretching, and try to get some good stretching done several times a week. I've noticed much improvement in my back and posture just by regularly stretching. The difference here was that this stretch became part of the pre-concert ritual in a way that it never had before, and I really liked it! It got me thinking about other pre-concert rituals.

- Quiet time on the way to the venue: When I'm driving or traveling to the concert venue, I don't want conversation to be initiated with me. I may be thinking about the rehearsals, or the music to come, or maybe I'm just letting my mind wander (less often). But when I have family or friends in town and we are going to the concert together, these thoughts are interrupted, and I have a hard time focusing. Whether I'm driving, or walking, and whether it is a few minutes or a half hour, it doesn't matter. I want this time for my thoughts.

- Day of concert rest: I need to spend a little time off my feet. I recently got custom orthotics and that has helped my foot pain tremendously. But I still will get tired on my feet, so if I can spend an hour or two on a bed or couch during the day, with my feet elevated, I know it will be worth it later. I also usually use this time to go through the music one more time, either physically or in my head. Maybe I check some tempos. Maybe I think about what I have to say if I will be addressing the audience. Maybe I look up some more background information on the pieces, refresh my memory for some factoids that I may have forgotten.

- Meals: I don't want to eat TOO close to the concert, but I am someone who has a fast metabolism, so I cannot NOT eat anything before the concert, as plenty of my peers do. I like to have a small but balanced dinner (usually protein and vegetables, skipping the carbs) a few hours before the performance. I will probably have some nuts or a granola bar with me in the hall in case I get hungry and need a little bit of extra calories for the second half.

- Coffee: I have always loved drinking coffee but I pretty much have one or two cups a day. On a concert day, I am more likely than not to have an espresso in the mid/late afternoon. Too much caffeine makes me jittery, but a little bit helps keep the focus there. 

None of these are set in stone, and I have had to think hard to think about what I do, simply because every concert day is different in some way or other. I think I am pretty easy going and fortunate that I can adapt to whatever my day looks like. I also know that I have great focus once I'm out on stage, so I don't mind being backstage and talking with musicians and staff almost up until I go out on stage. Once I'm out there, 100% of focus is on music, and hopefully the rest of the day has gone in such a way as to make me physically and mentally ready to devote all my energy to the music at hand.

In the middle of the season

It is high season in Naples. There are lots of cars on the roads, the restaurants are packed, the weather is beautiful.

We are kicking it into high gear at Artis–Naples. There are events nightly (and several during the day) and the audiences are engaged and the houses are packed. This week is a particular treat, with two performances by the Vienna Philharmonic (during their residency, they also coached members of the Naples Philharmonic Youth Orchestra) and two by the Naples Philharmonic. Next week I'm giving a talk on the Lifelong Learning series about concert programming. I am also conducting one of my favorite programs of the year, "Overtures." Then there is another week of covering before I get to go home see my wife and child again.

I've heard three orchestras in the span of a week: The Detroit Symphony (last week I covered for Leonard Slatkin for two programs during their Brahms Festival), The Vienna Philharmonic (with Gergiev), and The Naples Philharmonic (where I am assisting Andrey Boreyko). Each orchestra has a unique sound and defining characteristics. The Naples Philharmonic sounds phenomenal right now, and deserves to be in the upper echelon together with other major orchestras even though this is a much smaller community. Bravo to the musicians, administration, and artistic staff who put it all together! Hopefully this orchestra won't be such a well-kept secret for much longer. All who hear it, experience the amazing hall and atmosphere, are transformed. 

While it is in the seventies and sunny, I also need to get outside a little bit, and tomorrow I plan to hit some tennis balls in between services. For me, sports and physical activity are a form of meditation. When I'm playing tennis, basketball, or snowboarding or going to the gym, my mind clears out as I focus my energy on the physical exertions at hand. In this way exercise for me is not only physically important, but also necessary for my mental state. 

A look into a few weeks as an Assistant Conductor

These three weeks at Artis–Naples epitomize the many hats that must be worn by an Assistant Conductor.

A week and a half ago I was finishing up a run of 26 performances of the Snow Queen, an educational program for young students. The following weekend I had a concert with a string orchestra subset of the Naples Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and rehearsed the full orchestra in a different program. This past week I was busy as a cover and assistant to Maestro Andrey Boreyko and pianist Emanuel Ax, on a very challenging program of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2. Today, I have a youth orchestra rehearsal, followed by something completely different: Baroque Music. The orchestra must completely morph sound worlds tonight in preparation for our Baroque concert on Tuesday night, with music by Purcell, Mozart, and Schnittke, joined by soprano Shannon Mercer and the Naples Philharmonic Chorus. On Thursday we switch gears again to perform a program of favorites by the great Broadway legacy Jerry Herman (on one rehearsal), and then on Halloween we have a wonderful Halloween Spooktacular planned, also on one rehearsal. And of course, on the Halloween concert, I will not only be conducting the program, but also acting as a host, with jokes, costume switches, and I'll even break out into a juggling routine on stage (I hope I don't drop any of the balls!).

So in the span of a few weeks, I conduct four different concert programs, prepare a fifth, and will have covered a sixth. It doesn't get much crazier than this, but it also doesn't slow down by much during this season. 

It is super to be a young conductor and get so many opportunities to conduct a fine orchestra like the Naples Philharmonic. I learn so much from the artists and of course Music Director Andrey Boreyko. Each time he is here, I am so impressed by his musicality, musicianship, ears, and abilities. He brings out the best from the orchestra, and I am grateful to learn from his experience and leadership both on the podium and off. I absorb as much from him as possible, and then in the intervening weeks when I am leading the orchestra, one of my major duties is to continue his work, and to try to "listen with his ears" and continue to shape the orchestra's sound in his mold. 

Welcome to Assisting 101!

Evolving Thoughts #1

I have found myself deep in thought many times over the past year, perhaps more often than normal. Thus begins my effort to put some of these thoughts down in words. I was never good at understanding philosophy or poetry (hence I'm a musician?). I just tried reading Also Sprach Zarathustra (I'm covering it this week with Naples Philharmonic), and I'm pretty sure I got less than half of it. So I will just put down some things that have been going through my mind, and I'll return to them over time, and see if I can refine, redefine, and be clearer in thought than Nietzsche.


Is it fatherhood?


Is it finally having some stability, albeit potentially temporary, in a career that never has stability, and thus finally having some time for thought?


Is it being far from home, and after many years, spending much more time in my own thoughts and in my own head?


Is it the geo-political calamaties, personal strife, and unimaginable horrors going on in the world every day, only some of which I hear on NPR as I drive to work?


Is it the hours of flights, looking out at the Earth from high above?


Or, am I just getting older?


Whatever the impetus, I often find myself deep in thought these days. I wonder about the same questions that have troubled/plagued/inspired humanity for as long as we have been around. I'm sure that's nothing new. I don't pretend to know the answers, and I am amazed at some who think they know better. The more I experience and learn, the more insignificant I become. The more people I meet, music I learn, stories I hear, the more respect I have for every other living creature. I don't understand the yearning for power or control. There is only one certain cause of death, and it is inescapable: birth. What we can do while we live our trivial, brief, snippets of carbon-based life on a rock hurtling around a minor star, on the outskirts of an unfathonably large galaxy, part of a far greater universe out there, is to live our lives with the humble respect to the fact that we do not have all the answers and we likely never will. I feel like a true acceptance of that fact would ease so many tensions in the world. Skin color, religion, sex, socio-economics, personal taste, language ... they don't matter.