Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Holidays 2013!

It's that time of year again! Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays with a little help of Sulkhan Sintsadze. Stay safe and best of wishes for 2014, too!

PS: Lisa Batiashvili includes 5 Sintsadze miniatures on her Beethoven concerto CD. As you can hear, it's pretty enchanting!  Smiley

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Just a taste of Enzo as the rain returns in December

I discovered Enzo (), the mellow-voiced French singer, in the late 90's while in college. I was taking French classes then and found watching French movies and listening to French music very helpful in acquiring the ear for the language. Enzo was especially helpful... I mean, listen to her diction!

Or even if you aren't trying to train your ears to hear French words really well, the lass is still quite transfixing to listen to... even as she pretends to be just a lounge singer.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn & Beethoven's 9th Symphony at San Diego Symphony (7 Dec 2013)

I somehow managed to dodge the intermittent rain on my way to Jacobs Music Center (formerly Copley Symphony Hall) last Saturday evening. The San Diego Symphony was offering an early Romantic program of Brahms' Haydn Variations and Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
Box Office at Jacobs Music Center (still under renovation but is open for business).
The young maestro Ken David Masur was the evening's no-nonsense conductor. I wasn't terribly familiar with Johannes Brahms Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a, so it was quite a pleasant musical discovery. The piece only requires a small orchestra without the bigger brass and anchored by the woodwinds (a happy thing considering the SDSO's first rate winds section!). The lilting pastoral theme is followed by eight fantastically varied variations that allows all the instruments to shine. The end is capped by a virtuosic grand finale. It's an interesting piece... starting like a soft country field dance and ending like a grand symphony. It was a nice prelude to the evening's main attraction; Beethoven's biggest symphony.

Richard Zeller, Robert Breault, Elizabeth DeShong, Measha Brueggergosman, Gary McKercher, Ken David Masur with San Diego Master Chorale and San Diego Symphony Orchestra.
Beethoven's immensely complex Beethoven's 9th Symphony was conducted without a score. Quite a feast for a young conductor! Maestro Masur set a brisk pace and a very clean reading of the much loved epic opus, trading a bit of sentiment for a fresh flair. I suspect the newer and/or younger audience enjoyed it a bit more than the older/more veteran ones. I liked much of it, though there were places where I would have liked a bit more time to process the mood that Schiller & Beethoven tried to describe. The fast pace also was a bit of a chore for the soloists to keep up, though everyone managed.

Baritone Richard Zeller clearly enjoyed his lines and they benefited handsomely from his voice. The star soloist of the evening had to be Robert Breault, though. I was quite amazed at how youthful he sounded and how supple his voice still is. He injected quite a bit of pitch-perfect bel canto and a whole lot of good nature pathos into his solo, and even managed to convince Maestro Masur and the orchestra to temper their tempo to avoid an acoustic train wreck.

I'm afraid I couldn't hear much of Elizabeth DeShong (but then I wasn't in a very acoustically favorable section of the house). Soprano Measha Brueggergosman proved quite eye-drawing (in a good way! She just sat in her seat with this exotic look and a Mona Lisa-ish smile on her face that was hard to look away from) even before she started any singing. When she did stand up and started sounding, though, her voice dominated the hall. The lass was loud... though quite uneven. This was the first time I heard her live and I quite liked the sweet middle part of her voice. Alas, Beethoven, when penning the soprano solo bit for this number, was more interested in the upper notes, and those from Brueggergosman were quite less sweet and at times downright shrieky (it didn't really help that she was much louder than everyone else whenever she was singing).

Another star of the evening was the impeccable San Diego Master Chorale. To be honest, this band is getting on my nerves a bit with their dependability. How are you supposed to criticize a chorus when they are always turning up on their A game??? The tenor section used to be the most vulnerable part of the choir, but they were just as spotlessly fantastic as the rest of the group were Saturday night.

All in all, the concert was a big success, and I think I wasn't the only audience member who was hoping for a Choral Fantasy as an encore when the show was over as we clapped the performers out for three rounds of curtain calls. (That's about as many as you're going to get here in San Diego. It's a strange town... We give easy standing O's, but we are also always in a hurry to get home and won't keep clapping for long).

PS: I didn't get rained on on the ride home either, but man, 5th Avenue can really use some repaving. It's no fun sprinting uphill on such a wavy pavement!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December spirit

Sweetwater River (before & after)
I went riding in the mountains of Jamul the other day and was passing through the Sweetwater Bikeway on my way back to town when it dawned on me that the riverbed was looking cleaner than usual... Most of the shopping carts that had made themselves at home  in the river were gone! A big thank you to whoever got down and dirty (and probably quite wet) to drag them off to a more suitable shopping carts haven!

There always are a lot of things not going 'right', and it's always tempting to get pessimistic about stuff (which is probably why doom-selling is a perpetually profitable business). But there really is no knight in shining armor who is coming to rescue us out of whatever problem we have. The guys and gals that went and cleared up the river didn't just sit at home and pray or hope that someone will rid the riverbed of all those trash. They just went out and did the dirty work themselves.
Local children volunteers picking up trash around Mt Helix Nature Theater.
And it isn't just grown ups who are doing cool things like this that benefits the whole community. The other day I ran into a bunch of kids at the summit of Mt Helix who were going around picking up trashes that some inconsiderate visitors had left behind. Despite of some sentiment that kids today aren't as responsible or proactive as previous generations, the trashes were most likely left by grown ups and were being cleaned up after by kids not old enough to even have a provisional driver's license yet.
The sign... is gone! (And the prevailing local sentiment is markedly more cyling-friendly)
A month or so ago an anti-cyclists sign posted on a private property at Four Corners (the intersection of Lyons Valley Rd and Honey Springs Rd) in Jamul became news and drew a lot of outrage... from both cyclists and drivers who don't like cyclists. But most people aren't murderous maniacs even when behind the wheel of an automobile. Thanks to the many kind, reasonable and good neighborly locals who brought up the issue at their community meeting, the sign has been removed and I can report that just about all the cars and trucks that passed me on the area's narrow roads last Saturday were a pleasure to share the pavement with.
This graffiti on the GWL keeps getting friendlier and friendlier!
Aside from the many obvious signs that things have gotten much BETTER over the years rather than the other way around (people are not only living longer and healthier, they are also freer to voice complaints and discontent without getting shipped off to Siberia or some place worse), there are also more subtle signs of that all around, if only we would focus more on them and not just on the ills of the world. The world will never be free of ills and icky stuff, and we all will still do stupid things once in a while. I just think that life would only continue to be better if every time we start to slide into the find-things-to-get-outraged-and-complain-about mode, we break the cycle early and go out to find good and useful things to do and people who do good and useful things to praise instead. At least try that for a month... It's the holidays season after all.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Around Town: Sunday Pink Encounter with the Susan G Komen San Diego 3-Day

So, a few friends and I went on our usual Sunday morning casual bike ride yesterday to Cabrillo National Monument. It was quite neat! Three of us had our Cabrillo Park Annual Pass with us, and so all 9 riders got in for free (if you plan to visit Cabrillo National Park more than 3 times in the next year, you should consider getting the pass. It's only $15 and allows you to bring 3 other guests with you into the park as many times as you'd like for 12 months. Just ask the ranger at the park entrance kiosk).
Two of my riding buddies at the bottom of Cabrillo tidepool hill.
A few of us gluttons for punishment went down to the tidepool and then back up, while the rest went and hung out at the visitor center. It was quite a gorgeous day to be outside! Of course, Cabrillo Park is gorgeous in just about any sort of weather, but some days are more photography-friendly than others...
Cabrillo National Monument, with Coronado Isl and Mt San Miguel in background.
We were making our way back along Ocean Beach Bike Path to the uptown mesa where we started when we popped up from the W Mission Bay Dr/Midway Dr underpass to find ourselves staring at a pink wall.

It was the generous folks walking the San Diego 3-Day event to help the Susan G Komen Foundation raise fund to find the cure for breast cancer. We were rather trapped! We had taken OBBP on our way out and didn't notice any sign about the event, and there was no surface road nearby to easily detour to (we didn't realize that the group was so big, else I might have suggested turning back to take W Mission Bay Dr bridge to the north side of the river instead). Our group leader decided to try to pass through the crowd, though, so we started tapping our bells and calling to the walkers that we were passing on their left side.

It worked pretty well, and the walkers were very friendly and accommodating. A few even yelled out for the people ahead of them to scoot right to let the 'bikers' pass. Of course, some of us weren't as patient and got a bit snazzy with the 'ON YOUR LEFT!' yelling, but hopefully the rest of the group was gentle and patient enough that we didn't leave too bad an impression.

I'm telling ya. Pink is the new black!!!
Hey, there were even bicycle cops there riding with the crowd and docked up in the coolest shade of pink! I like cops... especially when they're on bicycles! Never mind the 'us vs them' mentality that like to paint cops against cyclists or anybody else. Cops are people just like us... and just as I don't like to get lumped in with the inconsiderate light/stop-sign running idiot bikers, I'm sure good cops also don't like always being lumped in with their worst minority in just about every conversation. I sure would love to see more cops on bike on the road... especially the ones with the 'We♥You' license plate on their bike!

Friday, November 15, 2013


Getting up early in the morning almost always feels sucky to me... especially when it's cold out. And, having been acclimatized here in Southern California for a full decade now, 'cold' is really anything cooler than 68F or so. This is when it's nice that many of my friends are reading what I say on a computer screen rather than hearing it from me face to face since by this time of year they would probably regard 68F as something downright summerly!

But, early rising only really sucks for a few minutes after I've gotten out of my warm bed, pulled on my cycling kit, and ride out into the cold morning. Once I've warmed up a bit and gotten used to the punch of cold wind in my face I get to enjoy the nearly car-free roads, quiet streets without the humming background freeway noise, occasional raccoons running across the road from one drainage grate to another, and some really cool morning vistas... like these:

Sunrise over Downtown San Diego from Shelter Island.
Torrey Pines lagoon in the calm morning before the wind picks up.
Gotch bridge over Rose Inlet.
Sunrise in Chula Vista.
Sunrise in North Park.
Sunrise in Rincon.
Cold weather... It's mountains cycling season again!!!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Guest Posting: SDSU Opera Theater Presents 'A Grand Night!'

SDSU Opera Theatre Presents A Grand Night!, a Celebration of Opera, Operetta and the Golden Age of Musical Theatre
(San Diego, CA)SDSU Opera Theatre presents A Grand Night!, a sparkling celebration of opera, operetta and the golden age of musical theatre on Fri. Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m., Sat. Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m., and Sun. Nov. 17 at 3:00 p.m. in Smith Recital Hall, Music Building, SDSU.  The program will feature selections from Cosi Fan tutte, The Bartered Bride, Die Fledermaus, Candide, Brigadoon and Anything Goes, to name a few. 

Tickets for A Grand Night! are $18 general admission and $12 for students and seniors (60+).  An optional $50 Grand Guest ticket for the Sat. Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. performance includes a pre-performance champagne reception in the rose garden, a tantalizing silent auction, exclusive reserved seating and complimentary parking.  A portion of each Grand Guest ticket goes to support future SDSU Opera Theatre programming.

Tickets can be purchased through the online box office or at the box office window one hour before performance.  More information, a map and downloadable directions and parking options can be found on the SDSU School of Music and Dance website at
Photo: Ken Jacques
A Grand Night! is conceived by SDSU Faculty members Enrique Toral, Stage Director, and Michiko Lohorn, Music Director.

Enrique Toral has won acclaim across North America and Europe for the beauty and incisiveness of his singing and for his dynamic stage portrayals. He has appeared on Broadway and with the New York City Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Cincinnati Opera, San Diego Opera, New Orleans Opera, Opera Carolina, New Jersey State Opera, Connecticut Grand Opera, Opera Tampa, Sarasota Opera, El Paso Opera and with the Music Festivals at Ravinia and Tanglewood. A passionate voice teacher, dramatic coach and stage director, Toral has served on the voice faculty at the SDSU School of Music and Dance since 2006 and served on voice faculty of the MFA program in the SDSU School of Theatre, Television and Film from 2008 to 2012.  As of fall of 2013 he is the new Stage Director for SDSU’s Opera Theatre.

Michiko Lohorn is an active San Diego musician trained as a pianist, vocal coach, choral conductor and musical director.  A graduate of San Diego State University, she works in the School of Music and Dance as musical director of the opera workshop and vocal coach.  Lohorn also serves as organist at First United Methodist Church of Chula Vista.  Her work experiences include elementary school choral instruction, San Diego Opera Education and Outreach, musical theatre productions, and many years of local coaching and performance.

SDSU Opera Theatre is a program of the SDSU School of Music and Dance and appears as part of the School’s 2013-14 season of performing arts offerings.  The SDSU School of Music and Dance presents over 200 concerts, recitals and dance performances each year, many with free or affordable admission. 
Still to come in the season is the brand new SDSU Showcase Concerts on Sat. Dec. 7, 2013 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Patrons will enjoy a music-festival style afternoon, filled with a captivating array of music and dance mini-concerts, interspersed by light bite receptions.  Patrons will self-select the mini concerts of their choice from a menu of delightful offerings including Orchestra, Wind Symphony, Dance, Jazz, Opera, Choir, and Mariachi and Band, then mingle with friends and other music lovers to savor a nibble during short interludes between concerts.  One-price tickets are $25 general admission, and $10 for children 12 and under. 
For up-to-the-minute news and information about all of the recitals and performances SDSU School of Music and Dance, visit the School’s calendar or connect on Facebook or Twitter.

The study of music was an early area of concentration at San Diego State University.  Among the first seven professors hired in 1898 when the university was chartered, was a music professor.  By 1907 the Department of Music at San Diego State University began conferring degrees, and a commitment to excellence in artistic innovation was dedicated.  This commitment fostered a long legacy of educational and musical leadership for the program.  Today it flourishes as the SDSU School of Music and Dance.  For more information visit

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Out of town for 2 more weeks...

I'm afraid I've been neglecting the blog a bit. I've been out of town for work since the first week of October and won't be back until Nov 3rd. So much going on that might get blogged about later. In the meanwhile, though, here is hoping everyone is having a good October!

(PS: Here's another cool recent discovery for me, a gorgeous little back road from Poway to Hwy 67 without having to deal with cars!)

Friday, October 4, 2013

October catch up: catty neighbors, scenic cycling, Lisa Batiashvili

Casey (the black cat) and Theo still ambush me by my front door every morning. I swear I don't feed them (their owner does a good job of that himself, Casey is now so rounded she looks like a black furry basketball with big yellow eyes at night!), but I do find it hard to walk/bike off without first giving them a good petting session. Casey is good about letting me leave... after having dished out some returned petting of her own, that is (she likes to lick... and you know how cat tongues are!).

Theo is a more curious character... She is longer and more slender, and almost surreally elastic! You bend down to tickle her ears and the next thing you know she is completely wrapped around both of your ankles! I don't know how she keeps her sense of direction being nimbly twisted around like that, but she's coordinate enough to give you a good whack with her paw if you try to disentangle and sneak off...

The relatively new feline addition to the neighborhood is Ally the alley cat. Apparently she was a house kitten until a few months ago when her owner moved away to a new pad that doesn't allow cat, so he left a bag of dry cat food with a neighbor and just 'released her to the wild'. Ally isn't more than a year and a bit old, I think... A really street smart calico. It seems everybody feeds her, but she remains as thin as a stick (probably has worms). She usually turns up at the alley carport outside my window late in the afternoon and meows to see if I'm around and have a tin of cat food handy.

Nowadays she has also memorized the sound of my bike! I'd turn into the ally on my way home, and the next thing I know she'd jump out from one of the bushes and then walk all the way home with me to get her supper! Even my 'I don't like cats' 92 yrs old neighbor finds Ally amusing.

Anyhow, I've been riding around town a lot, of course. A lot of people like to pit 'commuter cyclists' against 'recreational cyclists'... Well, I do both! Luckily enough my part-time job is just 45 minutes ride away (well, 55 min on return trip due to hill climbs). And when I'm not working, there is still nothing quite like a good ride into the traffic-free San Diego countryside to sweat off the stress while enjoying fantastic change of scenery!

I'm not telling you where my favorite cycling hang outs are... I'm liking them remote! ;o)

Can you believe the last two photos are just 30 minutes ride apart??? San Diego is a blessed corner of the earth!
Now, if only we can lure one Vesselina Kasarova or Lisa Batiashvili into town for a concert or two, life would really be perfect in America's Finest City!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Ducky Dvorak for a Hot Summer Day


Antonin Dvorak's Moravian Duets: Slavikovsky polecko maly & V dobrym sme se sesli. Edita Gruberova (soprano), Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo), Friedrich Haider (piano). From the two divas' joint concert in Feldkirch in 1999.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

It's so hot out I'm feeling like being stormed by a trio of beautiful(ly talented) virtuoso violinists!

A hot day sucks, but not so much when you turn the heat way up with a pack of musically gleeful women like... these:

Akiko Suwanai, Viviane Hagner and Yuki Manuela Janke putting lavishing feminine touch to Hubert Leonard's Spanish Serenade. That's three Stradivari in such close proximity on the same stage that it's a wonder their bows didn't catch fire!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gears4Growth in San Diego: Giving Wheels Where They're Needed

Hey San Diegans! Do you still remember the rush you got from your first bicycle ride? Want to pass that wonderful feeling along to others who can't afford to buy a bike? Come out to join Gears4Growth Poker Bike Ride at 11AM on Sunday August 25th at Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park (it's the big square in Balboa Park between Museum of Arts, the House of Hospitality and Mingei Museum) and help support this program. It'll be an easy and friendly neighborhood ride for fun and for a good cause!

They are a non-profit organization that collects donated bikes, fixes them up and the gives them to the International Rescue Committee benefiting new refugees from war-torn countries settling in America and in need of transportation to enable their growth and enrich their lives. Visit Gears4Growth for more info on how you can help.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Teach 'em how to fish; or donate to Messy Jessie's Bicycle Academy (and let her do the teaching)

Feel like doing something nice to help San Diego's under-privileged kids? Jessica Stephens of Messy Jessie's is trying to start up a Bicycle Academy to educate youths on how to repair bicycles and to provide bikes to those in need.

Jessica has been working in the bicycle industry for the past fifteen years and currently runs a bicycle stand at the local farmers markets, along with teaching basic maintenance classes at local bike shops and make jewelry out of the worn bike parts. The lass knows her craft and is willing to pass it along to make life better for others. This sure is a cause worth joining.

Please visit her website; , and help if you can!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Go out for a car-free town bike ride at CicloSDias next Sunday (Aug 11th)

Feel like going out for a casual bicycle ride in San Diego but don't want to tango with cars? Come out to the CicloSDias, San Diego's version of the Ciclovia next Sunday in South Park. This is a family-friendly low-speed 5 miles ride on closed-to-cars route from Logan Heights (30th & K) to City Heights (Cherokee Point Elementary School) by way of Golden Hill, South Park & North Park.

CicloSDias 2013 car-free route
You can bike or walk or skate part of or the whole length of the car-free route with friends new and old from 10am - 4pm, at a speed that allows you to see and enjoy the neighborhoods. It's safe and it's a lot of fun!

A lot of people would like to go out riding their bike more, but don't feel safe riding the streets of San Diego without 'proper bicycle structures' like bike lanes or cycle-paths. Well, what better way to convince city officials to put in the necessary structures than to turn up in great number at car-free events like the CicloSDias and show them that better bike-friendly streets is what a whole lot of tax-payers want? The more cyclists there are riding around, the more the city is likely to do something to protect cyclists and the more aware drivers will become of bikes on the streets. You don't even have to donate any money. Just show up and have fun!

Friday, August 2, 2013

August is here already?

Living next door to a singing coach with no star pupil really makes one appreciate the rarity of great singers better! One voice student in particular, a tenor who sings mostly Broadway tunes, has been taking lesson two to three times a week ever since I moved here last September and has not gotten even a little bit better. Is that some sort of an indictment against the teacher?

But then I shouldn't be too hard on the voice coach neighbor... after all, I can often flee from my pad and go ride my bike around the neighborhood (or to one of the libraries nearby) while he is stuck in close quarter with that out-of-tune drone singing for a full hour every visit. What torture we all must endure sometimes to make a living!

On a more cheery note, though, our weather has been unseasonably cool for the last week and a half, and that made for some really good bicycling trips around town.

Alas, summer is warming up again, though, so I'll be stuck riding close to the ocean for a while.

Just a few of my favorite views riding around Mt Soledad.
Luckily, there's Mt Soledad, this little hill a few miles to the north, that has lots of cool little roads to explore and is so close to the shore that the heat isn't a problem there much of the time.

Knitted ramps & trees in Kensington & South Park.
Side note: what's with all this knitting thingy that's being wrapped around structures and trees around town of late? It's rather cute... though a bit wasteful (but then wastefulness in art isn't such a crime, I imagine).

Friday, July 12, 2013

Happy Pride Weekend!

Hello! Hello! I'm out cycling in the mountains, but since this is 'pride weekend' - so to speak - here's to the my dazzling brothers and sisters everywhere out enjoying their well-deserved life outside of the closet. Happy Pride Weekend, girls

... and boys, too!
Have a great celebration, but keep your wit on, too, please. No drinking and driving and other silly things like that!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Currently indulging on... Julia Fischer & Viviane Hagner

To those like me who enjoy classical violin music today's cup of amazing violin talents is flooding over. Two of my many favorite violinists playing these days are Viviane Hagner and Julia Fischer. I'm sure most classical music fans have heard of at least the latter (though I would argue that one should know both). They are both from Munich (well, Hagner was born in Munich but is more of a Berliner), have amazing left hand, and seem quite fond of laughing...

Oh, yeah, and they are both very good at the piano, too. How sick is that?

Fischer actually double-bills as piano and violin virtuoso.

Hagner pretty much concentrates on the violin (her sister, Nicole, is the pianist in the family and they do concerts together a lot), though as you can see from the first video that she is no slouch at the keyboard either. Unlike the more acoustically rounded Fischer (she hardly ever makes odd sound with her bow), Hagner is a sort of 'strange/intriguing voice' on the violin... but the odd sound she makes is always elegantly odd and fitting in sensibly in her own way.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Interview with British Conductor George Jackson

Next to going out to live concerts, Youtube really is a great place to hang around and run into your next favorite artists. 

Do you like this rendition of Beethoven's 1st symphony? If yes, me, too! Aside from listening to the music being played I love watching how it is being conducted (after all, I spent some time playing orchestra clarinet in my high school and early college years). There are some great conductors around whose beat and musical intention I have the hardest time deciphering. This young maestro is probably one of the easiest conductors around to follow, though. You only have to look at him to know exactly what he wants out of what orchestral section. His name is George Jackson, and, lucky me, the young British maestro was kind enough to agree to an interviewed:

You started out as a violinist playing for hometown Ealing Youth Orchestra. What got you interested in classical music in general and the violin in particular?
My story goes back further than the violin, and classical music altogether! As a 15 year old teenager, I was a 'heavy metal' drummer in a band of school friends, which led quite quickly to becoming the guitarist and lead singer of my own 'punk' band – we did quite well, with a highlight being a gig at the London Astoria.

As a child, long before those teenage musical kicks, I had always expressed an interest in playing the violin and, after a failed attempt at the piano (I refused to practice!), I switched and started violin lessons at the age of 10. I played in school orchestras and that sort of thing, until a very close friend (who was concertmaster of the Ealing Youth Orchestra) invited me to hear one of their concerts. I immediately rushed to join. The highlights included summer tours across Europe, and a great chance to get to grips with the core orchestral repertoire – the more social aspects of playing music with other like-minded young colleagues was also a benefit, and I made lifelong friends in the EYO. The conductor of the orchestra (Mark Forkgen) had a fascinating ability to explain the stories behind the music (I think we used to all sit back on our chairs for 'storytime'): I remember working on Symphonie fantastique and being fascinated at the sheer imagination of the sounds that the orchestra could make, made even more special by the meaning that Berlioz had contained within.  

Did you have favorite composers/musicians growing up? If you do, what made them special to you?
I have had an unusually wide variety of musical obsessions, which have included phases of the Rolling Stones, Planxty, Van Morrison, Slipknot, Bob Marley (I am in the middle of a quite heavy Beatles phase right now!). In terms of composers, I think my first musical obsessions always stemmed from contact with individual works – the focus on composers always came as a subsequent result of that. Elgar's Enigma Variations, Mahler's 4th Symphony, Mozart's Requiem stick out the most. They were all pieces that I played, which of course led to interest in their other works, and then an interest in the composers' lives themselves. I went through a serious 'New Viennese School' phase too, and was also interested in programmatic music. My encounters with orchestral story telling (like the Berlioz I just mentioned) were definitely the beginnings of my current interest in opera, encouraged too by my first visit to the opera at around 17 years old (Tosca at the English National Opera). 

Tell us about your journey from being a young orchestral violinist to switching to conducting? Was that a difficult transition?
I would love to say that there was no conscious transition, but now you ask me this question, I do remember an incident during my brief stint as a violinist in Dublin. Early on in my time at Trinity, I remember sitting at the back of the second fiddles and watching the orchestra's conductor plow through Mussorsky's Pictures at an Exhibition –we reached the 'gnome' movement, and something just didn't click. I didn't agree with anything musically, and felt very strongly that it should be performed differently. After the rehearsal, I went home with a passionate determination to conduct the orchestra myself one day, and two years later, I conducted the Pastoral Symphony with them in Dublin's Christ Church Cathedral. 

Aside from this small anecdote, it did feel natural– that event merely opened up my realization that I started to feel very passionately about how music should 'go' – this passion lit the second fire: the desire to share that passion with the musicians and, ultimately, the audience. Relating back to being an orchestral violinist, I maintained (and still maintain) the idea that everybody is a 'cog in the works', especially the conductor – I am fond of the team-playing approach, rather than an autocratic style. I suppose that means that my beginnings as an orchestral violinist helped me to develop collegiate aspect of my conducting.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of conducting? Is it the same when conducting an instrumental concert as when conducting an opera?
The German conductor Christian Thielemann once said to a group of students that learning to conduct is learning to 'develop an opinion', and I think that this is a clever way of summarizing the most challenging aspect. Stage one is having an opinion, and stage two is communicating it, and funnily enough, stage two can only exist when stage one is firmly in place.  

When comparing instrumental concerts or opera, there are different sets of challenges. With the former, rehearsal time is often sparse, so problems need to be solved quickly – there is often only one performance at the end of it all too, so the process runs like lightening. Opera, on the other hand, can be a 'slow burner', with vocal coaching, production rehearsals, orchestral rehearsals, and a longer run of shows that allow the piece to grow through repeated performance. Both provide challenges in time management and pacing, which are important skills to develop through experience, like a tennis player learning how to pace a rally, then a game, then a complete set.   

Another challenging aspect of pursuing conducting is the level of rejection, from master classes, jobs, competitions, universities, etc. At the beginning it is tough, but you have to use that disappointment to 'get back on the horse'. I remember my mentor Peter Shannon (conductor of the Savannah Philharmonic) told me that as he started out, he could have 'papered his living room with rejection letters': hearing that from a successful professional was encouraging, and I am willing to bet that my newly-wallpapered living room is larger than his. 
George Jackson working with Kurt Masur.
It seems many conductors find themselves specializing into concert conductors and opera conductors. Some even sub-specialize into specific musical period. Your repertoire ranges from Haendel to Adams! Do you plan on focusing in on any particular Fach or do you enjoy conducting music from different periods through out the years?
My interest in conducting represents a wider interest in story telling, and the concert, choral and opera repertoire tell stories in different ways - the concert hall and its rituals are also as much a part of theatre as an opera or ballet might be. I think focusing on a particular area of the repertoire is inevitable, and mirrors the film industry, where actors are quickly typecast into their recurring roles (Hugh Grant, for example!). But I also feel that a young conductor's priority is to explore and experiment, which is the reason why my repertoire is so wide-ranging.   

On the other hand, I am a strong believer in the connection between music and language (even in a purely orchestral context), and sometimes being a native Russian speaker (which I am not!) can be a pre-requisite to performing a Tchaikovsky symphony, for example. In that respect, my relationship to Vienna, Austria, Germany and the German language, as well as my British background, puts me in a strong position to specialize in music that represents those areas. Somebody very wise once said 'don't conduct what you like, but like what you conduct', a mantra which I try to place at the centre of my musical activities.

You studied musicology and composition at Trinity College Dublin, so you are well familiar with musicological problems with performance traditions and audience expectations, especially in earlier period opera (where the surviving scores leave a lot of room for interpretation/ornamentation). How difficult is it to pick the right balance and come up with 'what the composer probably wanted' that also satisfies the audience that might be used to hearing certain works/arias done in a certain way (even if that isn't quite what the score indicates)?
This is a very complex question, but it is great that you asked it! This was an area that the recent production of Charpentier's David et Jonathas touched upon. All that survives of this opera is a copy of the full score, copied out by the King's music librarian in 1690. This removes many of the problems that musicology can present to performers: the contradiction of sources. With the Charpentier, performers today are all 'singing from the same hymn sheet', so to speak. What makes this opera further unique is its small performance history – this means that any secondary sources (recordings, for example) complement our own reading. Picking the right balance is therefore dependent on context: aside from Jonathan Del Mar's noteworthy editions, it is impossible to ignore the wealth of recorded sources of the Beethoven symphonies, for example.  

My conducting teacher in Vienna, Mark Stringer, has been influential in encouraging the consideration of notable recordings of pieces of music – a well-informed performance of a symphony may use a critical edition, but should also consider its interpretations on record. This last point deals with the end of your question: presumably, the nature of our interaction with music today means that audiences' expectations are influenced by recordings more than the concert hall, suggesting that music's un-notated elements are preserved in a sonic form of notation (like the oral traditions in ethnomusicology, for example). 

The informed part of 'historically-informed performance' is the most important, and I think that combining musicianship with an informed and insightful context is a fabulous way of using the vast resources available to us today. Lastly, to know what a composer 'wanted' is impossible, particularly with the implication of desire in the term 'want': I prefer to think of what the composer may have 'expected', and our job as conductor is to consider this expectation in modern times.

You were also Yves Abel's assistant conductor at the Bavarian State Opera last year and worked the rehearsals during the I Capuleti e i Montecchi featuring Anna Netrebko and Vesselina Kasarova that was live-streamed all over the globe and got more than 241,000 hit. What was it like working with maestro Abel in such a high profile project with such popular stars?
I was, and Yves has been so kind to me - he took me to London with him as his assistant during his debut there in 2010, and then to the Vienna State Opera for a series of productions in 2011 and 2012. The Munich engagement was a similar situation - Yves was flying backwards and forwards for La Fille performances in London, and the souffleur needed somebody to conduct the Act I duets between Romeo and Giulietta, and suddenly there I was!  

What I found fascinating was how easy it was to follow them both - they breathe so early, and with such character that it is impossible NOT to be with them every step of the way. With regards to working with 'stars', I suppose the glamour of the outside opera world is absent from the rehearsal room in a very positive way: both are there to do the job, and they didn't treat me with any less respect for being the 'new kid' (I even got a high five from Anna at the end of the rehearsal!).

One thing I found particularly interesting  was how much they both question elements of the staging, something which Yves is also interested in too - the conductor can be a major part of the stage direction, and can intervene or express differences of opinion when necessary.  I learnt a lot from him, and that is why I enjoy collaboration with directors.

You recently took part in the London SymphonyOrchestra's Discovery Masterclass with Michael Tilson Thomas. What was that experience like?
The experience with the LSO was super, and it was a real treat to get close to such an orchestra – like driving a Ferrari, which is superior to my rusty Nissan Micra! Part of the Masterclass includes permanent access to the orchestra's rehearsals, providing an incredible learning opportunity in future years. Working with the LSO on repertoire that is close to their hearts (Britten's 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra') was also a privilege, and the experience has shaped the way I will perform that piece in years to come. 

George Jackson with Michael Tilson Thomas during the LSO Discovery Masterclass 2013.
For similar reasons, studying Copland (Short Symphony) and Shostakovich's Fifth with Michael Tilson Thomas was also unique, because both are central works in his repertoire. On a sonic level, the experience of being involved in the cultivated sound of the orchestra was also a highlight. Although young conductors are taught that every tiny movement we make has an effect on the sound, I believe that it is a two-way street – the sound of the orchestra acts physically upon the conductor, and the relationship is reciprocal. Exposure to that sound has changed an aspect of my physicality that will have an effect on all of my forthcoming conducting engagements.  
It is very comforting to know that orchestras and conductors, however prestigious, recognize their place in the cultivation of a next generation of musicians, and I salute the LSO for continuing to prioritize its involvement with the community around it.

You founded the Speculum Musicae Opera Company in 2010 and have conducted Pergolesi's La serva padrona and Charpentier's David et Jonathas. Did you stage them, too? or were they in concert form?
That is correct, although the opera company is perhaps best seen as a project-orientated 'collective' rather than a regular working company. I have always been fascinated in opera for its theatrical qualities, and am interested in theatre that uses weird and wonderful locations ('site-specific theatre', as it is often known). Both of the productions you mention were fully staged collaborations, but taken out of the traditional opera house context. 

The first was a project with the French director, Béatrice Lachaussée – we took Pergolesi's comic intermezzo and performed it amidst a working Viennese coffee-house setting, at the sixth district's famous Café Sperl (brought to fame as one of Franz Lehár's regular hangouts). The waiters and waitresses would continue their daily grind amongst our performance, and the audience could place their orders as normal. The second production was a collaboration with Kai Schuhmacher (currently on staff at the Stadttheater Mainz), and took place at the Vienna Music University's black box theatre.

Like the Pergolesi project, we worked with the notion of challenging the traditional pit-stage relationship. This time, the orchestra occupied a small box-like enclosure under the stage in a Bayreuth-like setup, and was free to rise up as a central part of the set. This formed a series of uneven ledges that became the singers' playground, so to speak. Going back to your earlier question about challenges in conducting, this was a great example of solving technical difficulties: with very little direct sight lines to the singers, everything happened through monitors, which encouraged a different style of conducting: for me, this lies at the heart of my interest in opera, where theatrical concepts can have a direct effect on how musicians adapt their technical skills to contribute to the end goal.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
There are lots of aspects that I enjoy about my work, but the most significant is the privilege of sharing a composers' masterpiece with the world. Score study can be so exhilarating, because it is like getting to know a new person (or being on a date!) – you ask questions, you want to know more, you share your own experiences with that 'person'. But ultimately, it is an isolated act, which brings me to the next great joy – moving from the one-on-one relationship between conductors and scores, to being in a room and sharing that work with 70 people who add to that relationship, and then finally, the audience's eventual involvement at the performance. 

On June 13th you will make your conducting debut with the ORF at the Wiener Musikverein with 5 other conductors. What work will you be conducting? What does the piece speak to you?
I am very excited about conducting at the Musikverein next week, and I am lucky to have the chance to work with the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell. This performance will be the Austrian premiere of his orchestral piece 'Ombres' ('Shadows'), and as I am 'jumping in' for a sick colleague, this has meant a very quick turnaround, with just two weeks to prepare the score. 

My dialogue with the composer has been mostly practical, working out any errata in the parts and solving technical problems that will help the orchestra. This has allowed me to develop my own independent view of the piece, which I feel is important when working in collaboration with a composer. I find that a lot of music finds its place in the world through parallels with other art forms, particularly fine art (the traditional Schoenberg-Kandinsky or Debussy-Monet connections, for example). 

My feeling with 'Ombres' is a relationship to abstract expressionism in art. Paintings by Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still, for example, have helped in my imagination of the piece – the idea of a single dark texture with a contrasting white line across the centre, for example, finds aural equivalence in the piece: the dark texture in Rothko is formed by Jarrell's cantabile backdrops (tremolo strings or woodwind effects), offset by the contrasting 'white lines' in the form of louder pizzicato gestures in the strings, or sforzato 'stabs' in the brass - Jackson Pollock-esque pointillist textures are also prevalent. I feel that the visual-aural relationship that music exhibits is of enormous benefit to conductors, and helps to initiate the flow of imagination between conductor-orchestra and then orchestra-audience.  
The man is so fascinating and refreshing I wish I live in or near Vienna so I can catch Maestro Jackson live in action at the ORF concert next Thursday! Luckily he is quite young yet, so I expect to have many chances to attend his concerts in years to come. In the meanwhile, though, check out George Jackson's official website for more info about the maestro. And if you are in Vienna you can catch him at the Musikverein next week (and come back here to tell us about it afterward!), too!

Photos courtesy of George H Jackson.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May gray, De Luz cycle ride, and a sultry Oblivion

Spring is slowing phrasing out. It's a great time to be outdoor here in San Diego! The boon of having cooling water current just offshore gives us a sort of two shades of May; the days are either cool and cloudy, typical of a 'May Gray'; or they are bright, warm and sunny - portending incoming summer months.
Some May mornings are clouded in ground-hugging fog...
And some May mornings strip the sky free of any vapory clothing!
The purple jacarandas are blooming cloud or shine, though.
Yours truly, naturally, have either been too lazy or too busy to keep the blog properly updated. These are the last few weeks before my beloved mountain routes around town become too hot to pedal up on my not-all-that-light aluminum steed. I even missed the Joshua Bell concerts with the SD Symphony last week in favor of another long ride up in De Luz. That's a transgression worthy of an eternity in the most torturous chamber of Hades to many fellow classical music lovers!

Beautiful oak-lined De Luz Rd
The gorgeous country lanes of De Luz Heights
... with a view to climb for!
Well... have a look and see if my excuse is really that lame. Wouldn't you like to be in views like these every chance you get, especially if you live in the middle of an urban concrete jungle?

At any rate, I had a bit of a consolation music-wise last week when I stumbled on this Youtube clip of one Arabella Steinbacher playing a really sultry violin & orchestra arrangement of a Piazzolla tango, 'Oblivion'. Doesn't she just whisk you off into some intense Argentine daydream with her playing?