Saturday, November 27, 2010

Remembering Ruth Plummer

I wrote this eulogy for the funeral of Ruth Plummer. Ruth was my first manager. She worked hard, gave me a lot of support and launched my career as an organist nation-wide. She was a great and sweet friend.

Eulogy for the funeral service of Ruth Plummer
Burbank, California

Remembering Ruth Plummer

Ruth Plummer suffered from an inoperable brain tumor which appeared in all its horrific, sudden ways this past month. It was very aggressive, growing with immense speed. I spoke to her often during the three weeks that she was in the hospital and in the hospice. She underwent 5 days of radiation which left her very tired. She stopped eating and slipped out of consciousness about 5 days before her death.

All in all, it was only 3 weeks from diagnosis until death. She knew that she had a short time to live and she seemed outwardly to accept it. But who knows for sure what she was really feeling inside? Perhaps she was in that shocked and precarious numb state that often characterizes the beginning of this kind of journey, and just simply hadn't yet arrived to the stage where she would become immensely upset. Maybe she mercifully passed away before reaching the point. Or maybe she kept many of her deepest feelings to herself. Whatever she decided to do in her final few weeks, she did it with dignity, just like everything she did in life.

Even though I may have learned something from her passing, I certainly learned a lot from her life. She was my first agent, gave me my start and believed in me. My gratitude for that, and for the blessing of her friendship, knows no bounds. I told her this before she died, and I also told her how much I loved her. And during those sad last weeks, I also thought about the many ways Ruth had touched my life.

She taught me how to take time to slow down and appreciate the quieter moments in life. In all the many times I stayed with her at her home, there were so many evenings during which we would enjoy a nice dinner and relax with a glass of wine and watch the sun go down. She lived high on a hill near Silver Lake with a commanding view of Hollywood down below, looking miles away toward Century City. Her large living room windows looked due west, and we would see the most spectacular sunsets at dusk. Later on, we would watch her favorite television shows, myself curled up in a large reclining easy chair that belonged to her beloved late husband, Stuart. As evening fell, the lights of the city below would shine and twinkle in that spectacular way that only the lights of Los Angeles can do. These were sweet, relaxed evenings in which there was no pressure to do anything except enjoy the moment, and I can picture them in my mind as if they happened yesterday. And I think of how many times I rejoiced at being able to open her front door and pull a lime right off the tree within grabbing distance, and eat it right away.

We also laughed a lot: I remember when she showed me the music to "Yiddische Mama." She had just played a temple service, was driving the car as I was looking at the music, and was almost doubled over in laughter right there in the middle of Virgil Street as I sang the song to her in my most outrageously over-the-top Brooklyn-Tel Aviv Yiddische Mama accent!

She gave me the great gift of her friendship, and this was also manifested in the friendships I made through her too. I think of all the people who have graced and so deeply touched my life because Ruth brought us all together: Phil Smith, Bill Baumann, Philip and Jean Dodson, Virginia Lingren, Betty Kettleson, Les and Dorothy Remsen, Doug Wilkie, Ladd Thomas and Cherry Rhodes, Robert Tall, Frederick Swann, Robert Turner, Barbara Kalman, and Ruth and Stu's kids: Pamela and Byron,and Phil and Dianne Ramon.

And speaking of her husband, no one can ever forget the fabulous Stuart, who together with Ruth filled the house with laughter, music, enthusiasm and great food. There are many more people who are on this list, of course, but this is an example how a woman who was small in physical stature and possessed a big, kind heart, touched and graced our lives. And we are so much the better for it.

Ruth loved the organ, organ repertoire and sacred music. She gave all of her church and temple jobs her most dedicated service. She worked hard, practiced diligently (I remember her always practicing scales on the piano before she began to practice hymns and organ repertoire in preparation for a service). She felt that the text of a hymn was the absolute guide for the right tempo, registration and harmony--and when she played a hymn, she knew every word by heart. She was blessed to work for clergy and congregations who appreciated and rejoiced in her talents, though in one circumstance, Ruth had to endure the ongoing brutality of one particular member of the clergy, a situation experienced by many church musicians. In this instance, she unwaveringly continued to give her very best every week, providing beautiful, inspiring music for her congregation. She would not allow herself to be broken by a thug. Ruth could be very tough when necessary.

She was a one-woman operation in terms of her management business, worked hard and in a thoroughly disciplined way, and approached herprofession with the highest standards of honesty and integrity.

She was in her office promptly at 9 AM and worked almost nonstop until about 4:30 in the afternoon. There were those of us who had been on her roster for years and with whom Ruth had developed deep friendships full of love, trust and openness. I was sitting next to her one day when the telephone rang: news of her younger brother's death. She hung up the phone and started to cry. I remember how she hard she wept as she said "My poor baby brother." My heart went out to her and I tried to comfort her. I was staying at her house then and she had to go up to Alameda for the funeral. I told her that I would watch everything and take care of her home while she was gone. It was the least I could do for someone who had been so kind to me.

In closing, I will always remember what Ruth would say to guests as she would pour them a glass of wine in her kitchen: "Let's go into the living room and LIVE!" I think this sums up Ruth in a marvelous way. It was her philosophy.

She had known both incredible happiness and incredible tragedy in her life. Yet, she always lived, and in all the right ways too.

So the next time any of us pours a glass of wine, orange juice, martini, water, or whatever one enjoys drinking, let's raise our glasses to Ruth and say, "Let's go into the living room and LIVE!" Of course, Ruth was teaching us to go anywhere and live, really live, each moment to the fullest. That's an absolutely great attitude about life!

Thank you, dear wonderful Ruth. We thank God that you lived among us, and may He bless you in His heavenly kingdom, now and forever.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Leonard Bernstein: a reflection.

Leonard Bernstein and Alexander Frey, 1987

The 2008-2009 season finds celebrations all over the world commemorating the 90th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. It also marks the 65th anniversary when a young conductor stepped onto the podium in front of the venerable New York Philharmonic in a sold-out Carnegie Hall. It was 1943: the United States was at war, patriotism was high and the time was ripe for America to receive her first native musical hero with open arms. With millions of people across the country listening live on the radio, Leonard Bernstein gave the downbeat and blazed into that role. And the rest, as they say, is history.

During this anniversary year, a retrospective re-examination of Bernstein’s innumerable artistic accomplishments is inevitable. And certainly, one of the questions that will be asked is “What was his greatest accomplishment?” Was Bernstein’s highest achievement as composer, conductor or educator? Consider all those television lectures in which he taught music to a whole generation, or those revolutionary, sophisticated Broadway scores that set a high standard still unmet by a large percent of today’s musical theater composers. Think about all the hundreds of young musicians he helped and inspired or the many social causes to which he tirelessly devoted himself. What exactly was Leonard Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment?

I was one of those young musicians who Bernstein inspired. In March of 1985, I was in New York to perform at Alice Tully Hall. Lenny invited me over to his apartment in the Dakota for a drink afterwards. I walked into his studio, he poured us drinks, and the two of us sat talking into the wee hours of the morning about, well, everything.

Over a decade later, as I was preparing to record all of Bernstein's solo piano music for the KOCH International Classics label, I often thought of that beautiful studio in his apartment. It was the perfect setting for a well-known insomniac like Lenny to work long into the night: the rich deep colors of the dark brown carpet and red curtains framing the wooden shutters around the windows, those brass lamps illuminating floor-to-ceiling shelves of music, the magnificent fireplace by the door, that beautiful painting over the sofa and that big oak table which was his desk on which he studied his scores. The studio had a cozy feeling, although the space was quite large. At one point, while we were discussing composing and his own music, he pulled out a large hand-painted Japanese pot from under the piano that was full of pencil stubs. "I throw all my used pencils into this pot. Some of these pencils go all the way back to West Side Story and Kaddish", he told me. I could indeed imagine him composing some of the piano pieces on my CD in that very room.

I love listening to and performing Bernstein’s music. Yes, there is his sophisticated harmonic language, the “melodic concatenation”, the ingenious combining of tonal and atonal elements and the use of jazz. There is a total naturalness to his music, a sheer emotional quality that speaks to the heart; pieces of endearing lightness and mournful heaviness, joyful praise and lonely laments, moving tenderness and hard conflict, the brightest of sunrises and the darkest of nightmares. In short, the entire complicated and thorny range of human emotions. Bernstein traversed them all and took us with him on a most breathtaking kind of journey.

Bernstein’s desire to share every experience and feeling with others was an important aspect of his character that was encountered by anyone who came into contact with him or his music. This desire was also expressed in every note of music he composed. It was not unintentional that he wrote on the first page of his piano work, Touches: “Touches = gestures of love, especially between composer and performer, performer and listener…” For me, this was Lenny’s artistic creed.

I’ve always felt that a great accomplishment is something to which one commits his whole heart and soul for the betterment and benefit of others. Lenny committed his entire being to everything he did, whether conducting a Mahler symphony, teaching at Tanglewood or Schleswig-Holstein (and don’t forget his beloved Harvard), composing Jeremiah, Age of Anxiety, Kaddish, Mass or Candide, raising money for Amnesty International or giving quality time to inspire and talk to a young musician.

In this sense, all of Leonard Bernstein’s achievements were his greatest accomplishment.

© Alexander Frey, 2009

"Dream with Me" from Peter Pan:
"Touches", for solo piano:

Saturday, April 19, 2008

To be an artist, part one.

How to begin? What does it mean to be an artist, whether one is a musician, visual artist, dancer or any other kind of artist?

Any artist is a conduit of continuity. We are the keepers of the flame, the realization of a long chain of traditions passed on to us by our teachers, and their teachers, and their teachers. And the chain goes on. But each generation finds something new in the way they express themselves. Each new generation of artists is born into perhaps a different kind of world than their teachers. History changes, and the world they grow up in is transformed through the element that every artist races against and loathes: Time.

We live in a most highly technological age. But what does that mean for those of us in the arts? Technology is actually a response to the creative desire. Visual artists use computers to generate what they see in their minds. Composers use them to notate their music or generate sounds and patterns previously unheard. And technology brings all the arts together in what we know as multi-media. Technology put a man on the moon, an idea that was for generations considered a fantasy because there was no way to do it 100 years ago. But that fantasy was a very creative thought, and 100 years later it was the marriage between that creative thought and technology that made it possible for man to travel through outer space and actually walk on the moon.

We artists share what we do everyday. We bring beauty to our community, we challenge people to think in different ways and we improve the environment around us.

We sing our songs, tell our stories and paint in bold colors. We also record history. When the cavemen first started recording their lives and the world around them by drawing on cave walls, the traditions of story-telling and art began.

Anyone who solves a problem is an artist. In the business world, successful companies thrive because of creative thinking. And everyone in our world is actually an artist, but they don't know it.

When a person gets dressed in the morning, they choose a favorite tie that looks good with their suit, or a piece of jewelry that enhances their overall image, or a nice looking and comfortable pair of socks. This is creativity, artistic thinking. When we choose what we wear, we are expressing an image to convey during the day. Everyone is an artist, and it is a fundamental part of who we are.

We paint, we dance, we create. It's fundamental. And in that, we carry the history of humanity with us. The creative artist is the one who is involved with "big picture" thinking. We solve problems. But even at the highest levels, we don't arrive with everything done perfectly, but we strive in that never-ending quest for perfection, and that is part of our stimulus.

The most successful business people are creative thinkers. And the most successful artists are the ones who know how to sell their art.

But we fight everyday to be seen and heard. When schools cut budgets, the first thing to go is the arts. That's absolutely absurd, because it is the arts which challenges our thinking. And it is the artist who challenges our thinking because he or she is stimulated to look at the world in new and different ways.

© Alexander Frey, 2008

Monday, July 9, 2007

Brunch with the German Romantics

Casper David Friedrich: Cloister

Gothic monument by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Viktoria Park, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Caspar David Friedrich: The Cross on the Mountain

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

During Sunday brunch at Yorckschloesschen, Robert Morley walks by and joins me at my table. He also has his laptop, and goes to the online site of Bremer Sprachblog, which teaches German. Robert reads some highly complicated sentences aloud, commenting, "Listen to this. This is fabulous!"

Well, Robert, many people think the German language is ugly, guttural. That impression comes from all those World War II movies produced by Hollywood. But German is actually a beautiful language. I had the pleasure one evening of hearing the great German actress, Edith Clever, read portions of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) in the original language. It was extremely expressive and emotional.

I think that lyric German poetry, particularly of the Romantic poets, was in many ways a verbal form of the chiaroscuro found in the influential paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. I saw the Friedrich collection at Schloss Charlottenburg here in Berlin and instantly remembered passages from Goslar, Faust and Der Erlkönig. Poets such as Goethe, Rilke, Schiller, Heine, Brentano, Arnim, Eichendorff and E.T.A. Hoffmann (who, by the way, is buried 4 blocks from my apartment) often echoed Friedrich’s penchant for symbolism and double meanings. Darkness and light, a sense of the Gothic, the depiction of dreams and German mythology permeate their poetry. To me, the sheer descriptiveness, the actual sound of the language, has an innate musicality and tactile feel. No wonder that these qualities inspired great Lieder. I cannot imagine the artistic void that would exist if these poets had never lived.

One of the first German poems I ever learned comes instantly to mind, Ich grolle nicht by Heinrich Heine which inspired Robert Schumann to compose the perfect song. I include it below with an English translation:

Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ewig verlornes Lieb! Ich grolle nicht.
Wie du auch strahlst in Diamantenpracht,
Es fällt kein Strahl in deines Herzens Nacht.

Das weiß ich längst. Ich sah dich ja im Traum, Und sah die Nacht in deines Herzens Raum, Und sah die Schlange, die dir am Herzen frisst, Ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist.

I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking,
Love lost forever! I bear no grudge.
However you may shine in diamonds splendour,
no ray of light falls in the night of your heart.

I have long known this.

I saw you in my dream,
and saw the night in the space of your heart,
and saw the snake that eats at your heart,
I saw, my love, how very miserable you are.

So yes, Robert, it is a fabulous language.

© Alexander Frey, 2007

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Messiaen and Die Berliner Luft

Gorgeous weather this morning, and after a brisk walk, I bury myself in my work.

The scores on the desk to study for next season: Bernstein's Peter Pan and West Side Story, Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) and Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu), Mahler 5th symphony. The piano concertos to play-Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, Grieg A minor, Mozart A major K. 488. And that's only part of the repertoire.
3 CDs to prepare for and record. And some solo recitals.

I look out of my studio windows just above the treetops. The sky has suddenly become dark as rainclouds summon up yet another storm. I do like summer storms. The rain purifies the air, releasing the fragrances of the earth.

Unknown to many, the city of Berlin actually sits on top of a massive water table. The air in this metropolis is unusually clean and fresh for a large city. That is because the earth is constantly being saturated with water from underneath. The air is always being cleansed and purified. That is why there is the old song, "Berliner Luft" (Berlin Air).

Das ist die Berliner Luft Luft Luft,
so mit ihrem holden Duft Duft Duft,
wo nur selten was verpufft pufft pufft......

Whenever I arrive back in Berlin and step out of the airport terminal, I take a deep breath. The air is so different and fresh. Die Berliner Luft.

Craig Urquhart and I go to a concert last night of the Konzerthausorchester performed in Berlin's beautiful Schinkel-designed Konzerthaus, (see photo above). The orchestra is the reconstituted Berlin Symphony Orchestra (Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester). The program, of which some works are unfamiliar to me, was highly interesting. Stravinsky's Greeting Prelude, Berlioz Le Corsaire overture, Messiaen's Réveil des oiseaux, Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu. And those are just the works on the first half which was very long due to the moderator who gave long winded explanations between each piece of music.

I have loved Messiaen's music ever since I was a little boy entranced by the organ. But the Réveil des oiseaux, consisting mostly of the composer's transcriptions of birdsong, struck me the same way as his Canyons aux étoiles which I heard performed with orchestra featuring Messiaen's wife, the great pianist Yvonne Loriod, as soloist in Denver in 1998-superb music and ideas but way too repetitive and overly long. You are completely claimed by the opening 15 minutes only to be wandering for the next 30 or so through an endless chain of dominant seventh chords. Loriod's breathtaking performance and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's ravishing playing were magnificent, but the sheer length and repetition of the work were tiresome. The piece does convey a great musical picture of the work's inspiration, Utah's Brice Canyon, but one can say the same thing in fewer paragraphs to greater effect.

And yet almost the rest of Messiaen's music leaves me completely transfixed. His sound world is a wonderful place to be where the colors and hues are infinite.

The Zimmermann work hits us similarly due its length. Though not as cerebral as the Messiaen, Zimmermann quotes entire portions of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Berlioz' March to the Gallows from the Symphonie Fantastique whenever he can't seem to find a melody on his own. It cheapens what could have stood as a fine work.

We cut out to the new 5-star Hotel Roma for martinis before going down the street for a magnificent Italian dinner.

© Alexander Frey, 2007

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Summer of Goodbyes

This has been a summer of goodbyes-to the Begleys as they move to China, to Brian and Leigh who've gone back to the United States-and each one tears my heart apart. For me, goodbye is the hardest word to say in my entire vocabulary. I can’t bear to say it to anyone I love-to my broken relationships, to friends who move away, and in the most painful moment of my life, to my father as he died in my arms.

But strangely enough, this has also been a summer of hellos-to some of the dear people who were in my life earlier and have now reappeared, to new friends who have just arrived in my circle and to little Nella, Marco and Andrea Permutti’s new baby daughter who will surely inherit and radiate the warmth, kindness and love that so much inhabit her parents’ personalities.

But today I am grieving over the goodbyes. This morning I couldn’t get those Cole Porter lyrics out of my head:

Every time we say goodbye I die a little
Every time we say goodbye I wonder why a little
Why the gods above me who must be in the know
Think so little of me
They allow you to go.

Well, every time I say goodbye, I cry a little and die a little. But in some cases, like this summer, I have cried and died a lot.

© Alexander Frey, 2007


Monday, June 25, 2007

Monday, June 25, 2007

Back in Prague. I close the season conducting a performance at the Karlin where I have been conducting for three seasons now. Prague is a special place in the summer.

Sandra calls and asks what I think about a roundtable discussion in front of the public at the Hollywood in Vienna Festival, and would I participate. The discussion will be on the first day of the festival after my opening concert. I tell her that I think it's a great idea and I'll be glad to be a member of the panel. The festival is turning out to be a very large production, all the better.

Have started relearning some of Korngold's early piano works for the Vienna Festival as well as learning some of Alexander Scriabin Etudes new to my repertoire.

Craig Urquhart gave me the scores to some of his new orchestral works. By the way, the word "score" in a musical context refers to the actual printed music, also known in German and some other languages as "Partitur."

Craig composes in the most personal of voices. Rather than compose sturm und drang to represent the conflicts in the world today, Craig's music represents the peaceful, calm oasis which we all seek and hunger for. His work is a balm for the ills on our planet.

We've known each other for 20 years. Craig the man, who is one of my dear friends, feels things very deeply, thinks in probing, thoughtful and philosophical detail about the world and the artist's mission and place in it, and pursues and realizes his own goals as as composer-pianist to touch and improve the human condition.

Normally residing in New York, Craig is spending a few months living in Berlin. It's nice having him as a neighbor.

S calls and to tell me she liked my blog essay on repentance and redemption (see one of my blog entries below). She asks whether the writing is mine or from another source.

All the blog essays here are completely my own original musings. They represent my thoughts on culture, events, reflections of my experiences and anything else that comes to mind that I may choose to include here. If I quote any material from other sources, those sources will be fully acknowleged and cited.

© Alexander Frey, 2007