Alban's Blog

Last “Artist-in-Residency” in Portland

Holidays in Sardegna with my two sons

Holidays in Sardegna with my two sons

I almost continued the Mahler-blog which would have become a text far too long, stopped myself just in time to give my last appearance in Portland as artist in residence extra space, especially as I had some rather moving experiences…
A small week of holidays in Sardinia gave me back enough strength for a 15-day-trip to the US, playing a trio concert with my wife and Justin Brown in Birmingham Alabama, Haydn C Major in Portland and Rococo in San Diego. Most importantly, after a 17-hour-trip from Alabama to Portland, I finished off my artist-in-residency with the Oregon Symphony, and this third year was maybe the most meaningful of them all, as I not only met friends I had made the past trips but I played for a big variety of audiences during my well-filled week.
First stop after my very late arrival in Portland was again wine country, Newberg – how could I miss that! In the morning an hourphoto 2 with 300 kids and their parents, playing and talking in the beautiful new cultural center of Chehalem, followed by a Wine tasting at Trisaetumdelicious wine-tasting with a harvest lunch (Trisaetum Vineyard, amazing wine!!!) which ended with me playing two Bachsuites, one on a completely new cello modeled after the Feuermann Strad, the other one on my own, while the evening saw me play a full recital with the solo sonatas by Kodaly and Ligeti, Bach’s 4th Suite and some Tangos with Erin, a violinist of the Oregon Symphony. Afterwards I stayed with the Hallidays, lovely couple, my new-found friends, who own the smallest commercial vineyard, so food, wine and conversations were inspiring and beautiful, pity I had to work the next day otherwise this evening would have gotten very late…

thecleaners octet

Cello octet at “Cleaners”

Jim drove me into Portland the next day for an intense rehearsal with the orchestra cellists on some really catchy arrangements for cello octet: Schubert songs, two numbers from Bizet’s Carmen and some Rossini for a concert the next day. Afterwards I got to play for a dance class of a different format: the dancers were men and women of all ages who suffer from Parkinson disease, and after I played the Prelude of the C major Bachsuite a doctor gave a very insightful speech about how dance and music affects the human brain and how this can slow down this horrible disease. photoThe dancers were all sitting in their chairs and moving in a choreography which was shown to them by their instructor behind me very expressively. Watching these wonderful people moving to Bach’s music while I was playing gave me a different perspective on the music – the first suite which I played at the end I have never interpreted like this, rather subdued and introvert, with much more soul (no, not more vibrato, just depth) than I normally would have applied for it. The most moving photomoment came when a young cellist and the in-laws of the doctor, all of them with very strong hearing disabilities, asked me if they could feel my cello while I was playing some more. I chose the Prelude of the d-minor Suite because I thought it contained more vibration, and it brought tears to my eyes watching this young unfortunate cellist closing her eyes and sinking into the music which she was feeling mainly through these vibrations. She used to study cello but by some tragic infection lost her hearing – oh, I could have continued for hours playing for them, as I realized how much it meant to them. But I had to rush off for a radio interview with lovely Christa Wessel at the classical radio station and to practice at least a bit the Haydn Concerto for next day’s rehearsal with the Oregon Symphony and my good friend Carlos Kalmar.

getting ready for AM Northwest breakfast TV

getting ready for AM Northwest breakfast TV

Day three they had me do an appearance at the local breakfast TV show which normally isn’t interested in classical music, but my outreach activities inspired them to invite me to their show, had me play a bit Rostropovich and then answer some silly questions – meaningless certainly, but it made sure that some more people would come to one of the three performances with the symphony. After the orchestra rehearsal in the afternoon in which I stunk rather big-time (somehow I was all over the sudden very, very tired, and for Haydn you really need to have all possible concentration at your disposal) I had to get ready for a so-called pop-photo 3up concert with the cello group at the fashionable Ace Hotel’s venue “Cleaners”. Real cool room, good acoustics, concentrated audience, and we did our arrangements which worked out pretty well. Trevor, one of the cellists, did the research and had organized the group, we all did it for free, just for the fun of it, and fun we had. The second part of the program was just cello solo; Trevor had joked that audience members could just call in for their favorite movements I should be playing, a challenge I happily went for. But experiencing what came of it I am now convinced that it was much more than just a party trick: a new format which has its musical benefits; connecting the first movement of the first Britten Suite with the Sarabande of Bach Suite No.1, the Bourrée II (!) of the 4th Bach Suite and at the end the Prelude of Suite No.1 (those were the first 5 requests) without letting the tension in between movements go and thus not giving the audience time to clap created somehow a new piece, and playing all these movements in different context made me interpret them differently as well. I forgot the other requests, but I think everybody involved enjoyed this kind of experiment.

The fourth day I started very early to get a good practice in before the dress rehearsal, didn’t want to fail in my actual concerto, and luckily, as I am able to work very efficiently, by 9:45 am I played already a pretty good Haydn C Major. In the early afternoon Monica, the director of education, who had thought up all these different wonderful venues for me to play at, drove me to a juvenile detention center, my debut in a facility were people are locked up because of their misbehavior. Not an easy crowd to play, I was a bit nervous indeed (as you can easily see in that video embedded in this article about my appearance: https://multco.us/multnomah-county/news/internationally-acclaimed-cellist-performs-juvenile-services-division), but interesting to hear the questions I was confronted with (“were you scared coming here?” – my answer was, “why would I?” and I told them the story when I was really scared of dying the only time in my life) and feel the energy they brought in listening to me play and talk. The hour went by quickly, Monica dropped me at the famous Portland food carts for a quick superspicy Thai-meal, and a 20-minute power nap later Carlos picked me up for our run-out concert that same night in Salem. Not much gasoline left in the tank when I returned back to the hotel past midnight…

Playing for the boys at St Marys

Playing for the boys at St Marys

Day 5 in comparison was rather slow, working with the cellists of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra on some tricky passages of photoTchaikovsky 4th symphony, meeting with a collector who presented me the ex-Janos-Starker-Guarneri on which I then played in the early afternoon the C major Bachsuite in a concert which featured me as guest-artist with the BRAVO-Youth Orchestra from Rosa-Parks Highschool, an El Sistema inspired program in which the absolutely adorable kids of socially disadvantaged families learn to play an instrument and immediately play in an orchestra together. Very special to see these children, who normally never would have had the chance to learn a classical instrument if it wasn’t for that amazing program, getting totally involved into the music, forgetting everything around them – very inspiring! I played a little solo with them as well as in the cello section next to a talented young man who had just discovered how to vibrate, and he reminded me a lot of myself when I proudly announced after my second cello-lesson (age 8) that I now knew how to vibrate, as if I just had found my own voice. Concert at night was a thrill, as my Haydn went alright, but I also got to participate in a wonderful performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, an absolute joy to have been part of.

Sunday, my sixth day, was calm, only a performance at the German-American society. I wanted to test the new-found format of audience requests, taking the time of request to actually talk to the audience about whatever came to my mind. Very casual and informative, and I remember one nice set of movements I am sure nobody ever has connected to one set: Prelude of c-minor Bachsuite, Ode to the Joy (Beethoven), Sarabande and Gigue of c-minor Suite, finishing off with the Courante of the G major Suite. I was a bit taken aback when I heard the request for Ode to the Joy, but after having played the monumental Prelude of the 5th Suite I just continued playing in this rather dark mood, on the g-string, the probably most introverted rendition of ode to the joy, preparing the ground for the maybe saddest of all pieces, the c-minor Sarabande – I definitely never played it like that before, and since there is no recording to prove me wrong, I think I never played it better 🙂 Dinner on my only free evening, with the concert’s sponsor, a lovely doctors couple, and Carlos with his wife at a fantastically delicious restaurant rounded up this relatively relaxing day – well, it was a Sunday after all.

My last day had the profoundest outreach I have ever done: St. Mary’s, a center of abused boys and young men, who subsequently became abusers themselves. Their reaction to me playing Bach was mind-boggling, as they were the first kids ever (and I have played for quite a few) who didn’t use the Q&A between my playing to just ask questions, but they made rather profound statements of what they have heard and what it had done to them. The first boy actually gave me the best compliment I have received for playing Bach: he claimed that he had heard many different instruments, flute, piano, violin among others – I was speechless as in Bach’s music we obviously try to bring out different voices, but this was the first person who had acknowledged my efforts. One boy said that the music made him very calm within himself, another one asked if I felt connected with the universe while playing, and while I had been a bit nervous before going there, this feeling was swiftly replaced with feeling as rewarded as never before in any kind of outreach. At lunch a seemingly moody boy raised his hand to request my presence next to him; to break the ice I asked him what he liked to do and was touched by his shy smile and passion to sing love-songs; when asked what kind of genre, he replied kindly smiling, just love-songs. He was a strong 16-year old with big, much older hands, and later I found out that he had come from a Liberian orphanage, former child soldier who had only seen murder and rape. I would almost call the impact Bach’s music had on these kids who had been through all different kind of hells a life-changing experience and a strong reminder not only of the necessity of doing outreach but of the reason why we make music.

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