Posts Tagged ‘repertoire’

Tooting Your Own Horn

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

by Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

Hi, Edna. My name is Caitlin Mehrtens and I’m a first year harp student at the Oberlin Conservatory. I have a question about being humble and marketing oneself as a musician. I have struggled in part with balancing being humble and writing a bio or practicing my “elevator speech”. I feel like one can completely turn someone off from themselves by being too forward or boisterous in an introduction. What do you recommend in this situation? Where is the balance between sparking someone’s interest and being overpowering in listing impressive accomplishments? Thank you so much for your time.  —Caitlin Mehrtens

Dear Ms. Mehrtens:

Thank you for writing with such an interesting question. It struck a chord with me because I was brought up to be humble and perhaps even self-effacing about my accomplishments. As an artist, you are joining a community in which it is expected that musicians will have a current bio summarizing their accomplishments. Nothing about such a bio would appear boastful unless the writer employed superlatives that could be considered questionable. An artist who is described as “in great demand throughout North America” had better truly have a busy schedule. An artist whose bio states that they “captivated audiences with their compelling performances” should have some concrete critical acclaim that attests to that. The people who will matter in your performance career will generally disregard vague, unsubstantiated verbiage and focus on the actual achievements enumerated in the bio. They will look for signs that the artist is an interesting individual and performer. Musical signs might include choice of repertoire, commissioned works, construction of programs or interesting collaborations with fellow musicians. If you have been entrepreneurial in your activities to date, perhaps having started your own festival, brought concerts to seniors who couldn’t leave their residences or established a harp and poetry series at a local bookstore on weekends, it will tell them more about you than some vague unsubstantiated adjectives. Although bios don’t usually contain quotes in them, it is all right to start a bio with a phrase such as “hailed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a most accomplished and riveting artist” (their words, not yours!). However, bios that are dotted with phrases or sentences in quotes are cumbersome to read and also frustrating, when the reader is simply trying to get at the facts. Such review quotes are better left to a page of review excerpts or the acclaim section of a website. As to your “elevator speech” or chance encounter with anyone who might prove helpful to you some day, the key element is your naturalness and ability to genuinely convey enthusiasm for something that is very important to you. If you say “a year ago, I never thought I would have an opportunity to make a recording but now, thanks to, I was able to raise $8000 and I’m excited that it will be available for sale next week,” no one will find that boastful. They will admire your initiative. If you enter a competition and you triumph over 50 other contestants, you would be justified to feel proud of your accomplishment. If you say “I just returned from Israel where I spent a week participating in a harp competition; I would have been happy to even get into the Finals but I’m so excited that I won,” you share an accomplishment with a touch of humility that almost anyone would find admirable.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

The Unglamorous Life

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

By James Jorden

The Metropolitan Opera debut of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, an amazing 180 years into the work’s history, won mostly respectful reviews last week—in between snipes at Anna Netrebko’s momentary breaking of character during the “Tower Scene.” A common thread in both published and popular opinion, though, was that the piece itself was not very interesting, at least absent a Maria Callas or Edita Gruberova to kick a little life into it. It’s hard to argue with taste, but possible, I think, to propose that the perceived longueurs of the opera are not integral to the work but rather a function of the way it was presented. (more…)

Getting to Know You (writing a good bio)

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

by Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

Please note that in the months of June, July and August, I will be posting new entries to this blog on a bi-weekly basis. I am grateful to all of you for your interest in “Ask Edna” and wish you a very pleasant summer.

Dear Edna:

What do you think makes for a good bio these days (from an artist management point of view)? I’m sick of reading bios that are either A. Boring (laundry lists of accolades, credits, quotes and not conveying something distinctive) OR B. Overly chatty/personal (some non-classical bios are like this, as are musical theatre bios typically). —a management colleague

Dear management colleague:

I think a good bio is one that provides only as much information as is necessary to capture the attention of the reader and keep them engrossed until the end. It should come across as professional, be well written and well organized. It should find a good balance between sharing important factual information and also giving the reader a glimpse of what is special about the person it spotlights. It should whet the appetite of the reader to experience the subject’s artistry and to get to know them better, either by presenting them, hearing them or listening to their music making.

The first sentence and paragraph of a bio should help place the artist among their peers and highlight some recent significant accomplishments. This is not achieved by the all too typical introduction that reads something like this: Joe Smith was born in Buffalo, New York in 1984 and began to study violin at the age of five with his father. The opening of the bio should also avoid any grandiose statement that is out of proportion to the artist’s career. As Ellen Highstein has written in her book Making Music in Looking Glass Land, “ the expression ‘one of the foremost pianists of our day’ is only appropriate for someone who is undeniably one of the foremost pianists of our day.”

Here are some opening sentences that grabbed my attention when I surveyed a sampling of bios of young artists with burgeoning careers:

“Internationally renowned as a brilliant innovator of the classical guitar, Paul Galbraith has been working since the 1980’s towards expanding the technical limits of his instrument, besides augmenting the quantity and quality of its repertoire.”

“Born in Los Angeles in 1981, composer and performer Gabriel Kahane is a peerless musical polymath, invested in the worlds of concert, theater and popular music.”

“Formed in 1984 by four prize-winning graduates of the Conservatoire National Superieur de Paris, the Parisii Quartet won early acclaim with its triumphs at three major international competitions: Banff (1986), Munich (1987) and Evian (1987). Invitations followed from the major concert halls and festivals of Europe, and the Parisii has since toured regularly throughout Europe and the United Kingdom.”

“An accomplished young conductor and pianist, Kelly Kuo has had tremendous success working with both singers and instrumentalists in the United States and abroad in a broad spectrum of repertoire including nearly 60 operas spanning the 17th through 21st centuries. He is the recipient of a 2009 Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistance Award for young conductors.

“Dubbed a ‘Classical Rock Star’ by the press, cellist Joshua Roman has earned a national reputation for performing a wide range of repertoire with an absolute commitment to communicating the essence of the music at its most organic level. For his ongoing creative initiatives on behalf of classical music, he has been selected as a 2011 TED Fellow, joining a select group of Next Generation innovators who have shown unusual accomplishments and the potential to positively affect the world.”

You are totally correct that nothing is more boring than to wade through a laundry list of endless credits until one’s eyes glaze over. Performance credits should be limited to significant debuts and tours, recent and upcoming engagements, recent recordings, commissioned works, and perhaps some mention of associations with other artists, especially conductors, who may have played an important role in an artist’s career. They might also include examples of an artist engaging in outreach or charitable activities. The artist’s achievements should always be summarized in reverse chronological order so that the reader doesn’t have to navigate through several seasons to get to the most recent and significant accomplishments.

It is important to include dates of various performances and milestones in the artist’s career. I read a bio of a soprano which began: “Most recently heard worldwide in the Sirius Satellite Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Puccini’s Tosca…” None of the artist’s numerous accomplishments were associated with dates anywhere in the remainder of the bio. A quick visit to YouTube showed significant clips from 3-4 years ago so I could deduce that the artist was still quite active. This was reinforced by a vist to Ask.Com that indicated that satellite radio was introduced around 2004. However, this is far more research than should be expected from the reader of an artist’s bio.

The bios of all of the artists mentioned above remained compelling and informative to the end. They never became “chatty” but I enjoyed learning that Gabriel Kahane makes his home in Brooklyn, New York, “in close company with a century-old piano and many books” and that conductor/pianist/vocal coach, Kelly Kuo, began his musical studies on the violin at the age of five, made his debut as a pianist five years later, but also later trained as a clarinetist. Today he has become a champion of contemporary music and has edited scores for two of Jake Heggie’s operas. None of the bios mentioned family members, as musical theatre bios so often do. I have no problem with a bio that does include such information, especially if the artist feels that their family is a major source of support to them in their career and that they bring balance and meaning to a life that can often involve long stretches of lonely time on the road.

The bottom line is that interesting artists have interesting bios. They don’t need to create heft in their bio by citing long lists of engagements. Artists who are still pretty young in their careers can prudently include brief quotes or phrases that pay tribute to their gifts and should focus on sharing with the reader their intense dedication to their chosen profession, the efforts they are expending to share their love of performing with new audiences, their joy in helping to expand the repertoire for their instrument (if applicable), and the other aspects of their lives that are important to them and that contribute to the persona they bring with them when they walk out on stage. If their bio conveys both humility and ambition, and reflects a sense of excitement and privilege at being able to pursue life as a performer, the reader will want to embark on the journey with them and support them as they reach new heights and become better known.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

To Thine Own Self Be True

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

by Edna Landau 

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

This column was prepared with the assistance of Neale Perl, President of the Washington Performing Arts Society, and Ruth Felt, President of San Francisco Performances. Both are valued longtime colleagues, to whom I am very grateful.

Dear Edna:

I am a pianist and have just completed my second year at an American conservatory. I am hoping that I will be fortunate enough to pursue a solo career. I read your article [Getting Noticed in the 21st Century] in the 2011 Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts and have taken to heart your message that so much of the challenge of succeeding as a performer lies in getting noticed. I have been thinking about this, specifically in relation to programming. My focus has been on learning major repertoire pieces that every pianist should know. Do you think that is a mistake? Should I also be exploring works that are quite rarely performed so that I will stand out from the crowd? —K.P.

Dear K.P.:

Your question is a good one, which will probably be of interest to many other young musicians, regardless of their instrument.

It is my firm belief that no matter what one’s objective might be, a cardinal principle is to remain true to oneself. Throughout your career,  the repertoire you choose should be repertoire you can’t wait to explore and master. There is no list of pieces that every pianist should know. You are fortunate that you have a huge amount from which to choose. In the case of concerto repertoire, it is advisable to keep in your fingers a certain number of pieces that are considered to be “standard repertoire” because that is what most orchestras will want. However, if you are drawn to less often performed repertoire or a relatively unknown concerto that you feel deserves a wider audience, this could prove to be a useful vehicle for gaining exposure. When Murray Perahia was in the early stages of his career, he decided upon the Mendelssohn concertos for his first recording. As far as I recall, he and his manager felt that he should be introduced in concertos for which he felt a great affinity but which had not been overly recorded. Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin’s earliest concerto recordings featured works by Adolf von Henselt, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Joseph Marx, and Erich Korngold. However, this was no gimmick on Mr. Hamelin’s part. He was introduced to a great deal of unusual repertoire, including Alkan, by his father who was also a pianist.

In these times, when opportunities to play recitals on established series are fewer than they used to be, and when recital reviews for less than superstars are an increasing rarity, considerable attention should be given to one’s chosen program in hopes that it will pique a presenter’s or critic’s interest. There are various ways to do this while still remaining true to one’s repertoire strengths:

  • Round out a familiar program with an unexpected rarity. By way of example, here is a program that cellist Sol Gabetta will perform on the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Kreeger String Series at the Kennedy Center next February: Schumann Fantasiestücke, Shostakovich Sonata in D Minor, Mendelssohn Sonata in D Major, Servais Fantaisie sur deux Airs Russes. The Servais adds a nice symmetry to the program, creating a sort of “fantasy” sandwich with some “meaty” substance in between!
  • Choose a program that includes music from various periods, but not the most obvious composers or works. I like the following program, chosen by pianist Nareh Arghamanyan for her San Francisco Performances recital next April: Clementi Sonata in F# minor; Schubert Four Impromptus, Op. 90; Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme by Corelli; and Balakirev’s Islamey.
  • If you were born in a foreign country, you might want to showcase music of your homeland or native region. Audiences always seem to welcome the introduction to something new, perhaps even exotic. The young Moroccan pianist, Marouan Benabdallah, is offering two pieces by Nabil Benabdeljalil in his Carnegie Hall (Zankel Hall) recital debut this evening.
  • Offer a program of works that have an internal connection. For his Carnegie Hall (Weill Recital Hall) debut this October, pianist Kit Armstrong is offering selections by two composers—Liszt and Bach—including Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor (after J.S. Bach) and his Variations on the Bach cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.”
  • Offer a program that includes a newly commissioned work or unusual transcription. Violinist Giora Schmidt’s recital at the Ravinia Festival this summer will include a transcription for solo violin of Liszt’s B Minor piano sonata. The transcription is the work of Mr. Schmidt’s piano collaborator in the recital, Noam Sivan.

These types of programs lend themselves very well to some spoken words from the stage. Your audience wlll undoubtedly welcome some introductory comments about how you made your choices and perhaps what they might especially want to listen for.

None of the above rules out you playing a program of your favorite sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin if that is what you feel you do best, but in the early years of your career, you might reserve that program for cities where you are returning to an audience that is already enthusiastic about your artistry. I should also mention that if you are planning on selling a recording following the performance, you might want to include one of the works on the recording in your program so as to heighten the possibility that the audience will want to “take you home with them.”

While you are still in your conservatory years, it would be wise to solicit suggestions from your teachers, as well as guest artists who may be offering master classes or conductors working with your school orchestra, regarding unusual repertoire that you might explore. If you have the opportunity to meet people who write about music or audiophiles who may be a treasure trove of information about recordings that are long out of print, they may be a source of wonderful ideas. You may find yourself planning a program that offers your favorite Mozart sonata alongside a piece by his Czech contemporary, Leopold Kozeluch, or pairing a Bach suite with Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach. The possibilities are endless, with YouTube showcasing many gems waiting to be more broadly discovered.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011