Making music with friends…

October 13th, 2011

N.B. I wrote this in mid August just after returning from vacation with my family.  At the time I wasn’t if I should post it or not.  The more I thought about it and the more I thought about and the musical trip we have all been taking since the middle of August the relevant it became.  In a very short time the musicians at Live Arts Maryland have performed the Mozart “Requiem” for 9/11, our opening Pops production of “HMS Pinafore”, members of the Chamber Chorus have sung for High Holy Days services at Temple Beth Shalom, and this Sunday the Chorale will sing a run out concert!  In addition I have been in and out of town conducting the McLean Orchestra.  This level of musical activity needs collaboration and a sense of connection between each performer involved.  In short it is about relationships, on and off stage! –JEG 10/13/11

On making music with friends…

Over the last week or so I have several very rewarding musical experiences.  All of them have been quite different from one another but at the same time there is a common thread.

The first experience was the day before our family left for vacation when I conducted for Marvin Hamlisch as he played the piano with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap.  On this concert Marvin played some of his own music from “They’re Playing Our Song” and “The Sting” followed by a song he wrote called “If You Remember Me” which is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard.  I have conducted this piece with Marvin before, this time it was with Stephanie Block who is an amazing artist and very nice as well (more on this later).  Then came Brian Stokes Mitchell who again is an absolutely amazing artist and also one of the nicest people you will ever meet.  In the afternoon before the rehearsal as we all sat in the Green Room at Wolf Trap I was struck by the fact that it felt more like a group of friends talking about a common passion: music!  We all discussed the details of how each piece should be done.  But Marvin who is incredibly generous with his time was every bit as interested in how each of us were and how our families were as he was with the task at hand.  In the end this personal connection is what makes him so amazing to work with.  You feel when you work with him that you are doing something fun with a friend.  Priceless!

The next set of experiences were in the mountains of southwest Virginia where we vacation for a week or so each year.  Over the years we have made a wonderful set of friends with people, who like us, come to that resort at the same time each year.  We all come from different career backgrounds.  One of the people we see each year is a guy named John Rider who is a rock and roll bass player for the band Max Creek and he also plays with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead among others.  Max Creek is a New England based “jam band” and they are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.  Don’t know what a “jam band” is?  Here is what Wikipedia says:

Jam bands are musical groups whose albums and live performances relate to a fan culture that originated with the 1960s group Grateful Dead and continued inthe 1990s with bands like Phish.[1] The performances of these bands often feature extended musical improvisation (“jams“) over rhythmic grooves and chord patterns and long sets of music that cross genre boundaries.[2]

For those of you I just lost, hang in there with me for a minute.  In the evening John and I get together with our families (Alec playing guitar and Molly and Ella singing).  There is a young student who jumps in and play the gembe.  John is a classically trained musician and is a graduate of the Hartt School of Music.  He is a wonderful musician.  When we all play together nothing is really rehearsed we just sort of talk about the basic feel that we want and then someone starts off and the rest jump in.  It is completely improvisatory.  There is a lot of eye contact as we all try to play off of each other while we trade solos and allow the music to evolve.  No one knows where it will go…

Here is the interesting part.  The first experience I mentioned with the NSO is extremely well planned out from the orchestra parts which are very carefully edited to the way things are rehearsed.  Everyone in this great orchestra has job to do and they do it flawlessly. Yet because it is such a collaborative experience with Marvin it never gets dry or feels like you are just following the road-map.  It is always fresh and exciting.

The second experience while completely improvisatory has a definable sense of direction and structure when you are in the middle of it (even though no one knows where is will end up when we start).

While these two things may seem like opposites they are in fact very similar.  They are what comes of making music with friends.  The trust that is a part of making music this way allows you to go way beyond your comfort zone and maybe find something new in the music that you haven’t seen before.  When this happens it is very exciting and is, I think, the essence of what making music should be.  Collaborative and fresh!

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