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Most people feel chills and shivers in response to music that thrills them, but some people feel these chills often and others feel them hardly at all. People who are particularly open to new experiences are most likely to have chills in response to music.

Do you get goosebumps from music? Does the hair on the back of your neck stand on end during your favorite pieces? Then congratulations — you are officially someone “open to new experiences,” according to a study
conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

According to psychologists, your personality can be divided into the five dimensions of extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience. For the most part, these categories are self-explanatory: extraversion (friendly), conscientiousness (responsible), agreeableness (compassionate), and neuroticism (Woody Allen). “Openness to experience,” however, is a little more complicated.

A detailed and in-depth study of the five dimensions more explicitly parses out the common characteristics associated with openness to experience. They are, in descending order:
Wide interests, Imaginative, Intelligent, Original, Insightful, Curious, Sophisticated, Artistic, Clever, Inventive, Sharp-witted, Ingenious, Witty, Wise

Pretty great, right? Characteristics that are not part of “openness” include:
Commonplace, Narrow Interests, Simple, Shallow, Unintelligent

Oof. I think the two ends of the spectrum can be defined like so: openness=awesome, non-openness=boring. Is that an oversimplification? A little. But is it true? A little.

The more I read about this openness dimension, the less surprised I am by the results of the study. If you are unimaginative and think of things in very concrete terms, it would be much harder to allow your mind to be swept away by the emotional potentials in music. That’s not to say that logic and practicality work against this openness — Bach is about as structured and controlled as they come, but do people still react emotionally to his music? Absolutely. However, with this desire for logic there must be a suspension of the everyday and an acceptance of the what-might-be. There must be a desire to surrender to the journey the music wants to take you on. And isn’t that why we listen to music?

There are particular moments in pieces I love that always give me that little musical frisson down the back of my neck. The first sound of the timpani in Fanfare for the Common Man. The initial entrance of the electric violin soloist (yes, I said “electric violin”) in Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur. The setting of “though I sang in my chains like the sea” at the end of Corigliano’s Fern Hill. And that’s just classical music. Yes, they’re all 20th century American composers — hey, I know what I like.

In the non-classical realm, I think of the moment the bass kicks in under the solo dulcimer in the intro to Sondre Lerche’s “Stupid Memory.” Or Patti’s LuPone’s version of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, especially when she breaks down with “why did I do it…what did it get me.” Or the modulation in the middle of The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes.” And don’t get me started on “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys. (Just to be clear, I am aware that I have just referenced The Doobie Brothers in an attempt to make a serious point about the complicated nature of the mind/music relationship. But it’s a really good song.)

A different study, conducted at the Institute for Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine in Hanover, Germany, delves further into the nuts & bolts of what in music gives you this sensation. They cite three main musical events that often trigger chills:

  • When a symphony turns from loud to soft
  • Upon entry of a solo voice or instrument
  • When two singers have contrasting voices

I suppose you can loosely group my chill-inducing moments into these categories. The Copland and Gypsy moments have a “change in dynamic,” and the Copland, Adams and Lerche sections are definitely triggered by “entry of instrument.” The Corigliano and Beach Boys both fall under “contrasting voices,” as does the song from Gypsy – her voice and tone change on that line, so I think it counts. And, unsurprisingly, The Doobie Brothers march to the beat of a different drummer and fit in no category. Maybe there should be a “modulation” category, especially for non-classical music. Think of a pop song that doesn’t include a modulation. Where would Barry Manilow be if he couldn’t modulate?

The authors of the UNC study end with this thought: “There are a lot of ways in which people are basically alike, but the experience of chills isn’t one of them. Some people seem to have never experienced chills while listening to music — around 8% of people in our study — but other people experience chills basically every day. Findings like these are what make the study of personality and music interesting — music is a human universal, but some people get a lot more out of it.”

What music gives you the chills?

3 years ago | |
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Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed two programs in December – one on LACO’s Orchestral Series at the Alex Theatre and Royce Hall and the other kicking off 2010-11’s Baroque Conversations at Zipper Concert Hall.

Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times attended the Orchestral Series concert at the Alex featuring Michael Stern on the podium. Here is an excerpt from his review.

‘Born in 1959 and in his sixth season as music director of the Kansas City Symphony, Stern is little known in Los Angeles. As a student, he participated in Leonard Bernstein’s Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute in the early ’80s and more recently conducted the student Colburn Orchestra. For what it’s worth (quite a bit, in fact), he is Isaac Stern’s son. He gets around: He has had chief-conductor and principal and permanent guest-conductor gigs in Germany and France; he founded the IRIS Orchestra in Germantown, Tenn….Stern brings the young Zubin Mehta to mind. He has a dynamic stick technique that commands rather than coaxes. Attacks are sharp and aggressive. Rhythms are clean and propulsive. He knows his way to a climax.

Kellogg’s nine-minute Mozart mix for strings (the violins and violas played standing) is a rapturous — maybe a little too rapturous — stringing of tremulous high-string prettiness, sweet harmonies and gossamer textures like Christmas lights around Mozart’s transcendent “Ave Verum Corpus.” The ending was sentimental. This is music with a pretty face, and that should have been enough.

The concert moved backward in history. “Mozart’s Hymn” dates from 2006. Golijov’s “Last Round,” for two string quartets and bass, was written a decade earlier. There is a tango fight and more rapture but also more pathos and less refined sugar. Stern took a tough, tango-means-business-in-Buenos-Aires-back-alleys approach, and it was gripping.

Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with LACO principal clarinetist Joshua Ranz as the edgy, exciting soloist, was also unusually hard-edged for a work tailored to Benny Goodman. A slow pastoral beginning, strings and harp backing maybe the mellowest clarinet melody since Mozart, leads to swing.
Perhaps Stern merely followed Ranz’s lead, turning the concerto into so sprightly a virtuoso vehicle (Goodman was more casual). But Stern’s father, after recording Copland’s equally restrained Violin Sonata with the composer as pianist, tried unsuccessfully to talk Copland into writing a livelier concerto for violin -– something maybe closer to Saturday’s approach to the Clarinet Concerto.
In the second half, Wolf’s short, insignificant serenade was prelude to Schumann’s long, too significant Cello Concerto with Andrew Shulman as soloist.’

Observer reporter Steven Lieberman attended the concert at Zipper Hall. ‘Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, who stepped in for the ill music director Jeffrey Kahane, opened the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s intimate Baroque Conversations series at acoustically-sound Zipper Concert Hall with Bach’s ‘‘Goldberg’‘ Variations.

In this special series, the performers introduce the music from the stage, share their insights and invite audience questions to conclude the evening. Performed without intermission, the 90-minute concerts begin at 7 pm, including the conversation between the musicians and the audience. Attendees are also treated to a delightful pre-concert reception.

The Goldberg Variations is the work that made Glenn Gould famous (and, to some extent, vice versa). Ms. McDermott gave a good, honorable account of the piece, though some punishingly fast tempos seemed to take a toll in focus and technique in the later variations. The slow numbers were especially lovely, and Ms. McDermott admirably maintained her composure in the most inward and searching variation, No. 25.
She admitted to us before her performance that she hadn’t played the Variations to a public audience in some time and that she mistakenly omitted a few of the variations while in rehearsal.

Mentioning this wasn’t necessary because she is a great piano technician and, obviously, a humble and modest one at that.
Nevertheless, I’m sure that Gould would be proud.’

We look forward to more great music with LACO in the new year. Happy Holidays!

3 years ago | |
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This weekend, Spotlight on LACO is going to be a great concert. I think that this program provides an incredible wealth of musical experiences and a great variety of different styles and sounds. Each piece has a personality of its own, and I know that the LACO musicians will bring it together beautifully and treat us to a wonderful evening.

But, don’t take my word for it! Listen to the soloists themselves speak on the pieces they are performing – and get to know them a little bit more.

LACO principal clarinet Joshua Ranz talks about the Copland Clarinet Concerto, and LACO principal cello Andrew Shulman discusses the Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor.

If you want to learn a little about the Wolf Italian Serenade, read Christine’s blog post, Wild Wolf

I hope to see you at the concert this weekend, to see if you love this versatile program as much as I do!

4 years ago | |
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A composer is a person, not just a collection of music. When we think of composers as actual people who cried, laughed, slept, and ate, our picture of them tends to widen and deepen. A lot of program notes, at least the notes that I write, tie whatever particular piece is on the program with a time in the composer’s life. As in, “While Beethoven was composing this, he was spending time in Heiligenstadt, resting and coming to terms with his worsening deafness.” Or, “It was while Tchaikovsky was writing this work that his sham marriage fell apart.” One can’t rely too strongly on these connections, of course. They are merely for context. We can’t know how Beethoven felt when writing; we can’t calculate how much Tchaikovsky’s suffering affected his work. No matter how emotional a work is, it is simply impossible to know how or why such emotion became infused into it.

We program note writers suggest connections. “Perhaps,” we say, leaving you to draw the conclusion. As a musicologist, I’m always aware of what can be proven and what can only be argued. I would never claim in ink that a composer definitely felt a certain way while writing because I can’t prove that. But in my own heart, I muse that there must be connections. These are human beings, after all.

While writing the program notes for this concert, I was affected by the story of Golijov’s Last Round: A composer writes a tribute of sorts to his dying mentor. I was also struck by the circumstances of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade. Many years ago, as an undergraduate student in vocal performance, I was interested in Wolf’s orchestral Lieder. They were beyond my ability at the time, and certainly hard to program (does anyone have an orchestra lying around?). But to me, the most fascinating thing about Wolf was his wild emotional nature—he was actually known by the nickname “Wild Wolf“—and his wild emotional music. Even as a young man he experienced terrible mood swings and depression, and his musical output depended greatly on his state of mind.

Wolf’s volatile temperament was further exacerbated by late-stage syphilis. Before he was even forty-years old, he was institutionalized. The most heart-breaking aspect of Wolf’s decline into madness was the genius he showed—if only in flashes—in his mature style. He had great potential, but he was tortured by depression and despondency. Before he slipped away from sanity, he tried to finish an opera. He wrote sixty pages of music. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine knowing that your mind is going and wanting desperately to finish one last work? This poor, brilliant human being, Hugo Wolf. He was real. He was flesh and blood, he was passionate emotion. He was difficult to be around, at times. Wild Wolf wrote wild music, chromatic, rhythmically dynamic, and alive. “Perhaps,” I say, it was his mood swings that allowed such passionate music. Perhaps, it was his depression that allowed him to reveal so much raw emotion. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Listen to the music and decide for yourself.

4 years ago | |
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This Wednesday, LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer will be participating in #askaconductor day on Twitter. Ask your questions via Twitter on the @LACOtweets account December 9 from 3-5 pm PST, and Margaret will reply personally! Remember to use the hashtag #askaconductor when posing your questions!

You may be thinking: But, Margaret isn’t a conductor.

That may be technically true, but in a chamber orchestra, the ensemble often plays without a conductor. In these instances, the concertmaster becomes the leader – the conductor. Last May, Margaret led the Bizet Symphony in C at LACO’s closing concert. The LA Times reviewed:

But perhaps the most touching part of the evening, Sunday in UCLA’s Royce Hall , was the Bizet. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer led it from her seat in the orchestra. The leading was less conducting than coordinating. The performance was alert, lively and sparkeld. The playing was beautiful and collegial.
Read more highlights of that review.

It is truly fascinating (and fun!) to watch Margaret lead from the first chair. This Wednesday, you can ask Margaret all about it. Just log into Twitter (free to join, if you aren’t already a member), and pose your question to Margaret by including both @LACOtweets handle and the search tag #askaconductor.

At the opening concert of 2009, Margaret led Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons from the first chair. LACO’s “newbie blogger David Garcia”: reviewed the concert:

I just got home from the LACO Season Premiere, and it was wonderful! The Four Seasons was breathtaking to behold. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer led the Orchestra while playing violin (a sort of multitasking that is remarkable by itself), and she was so energetic and passionate her violin bow kept losing strings!

If you just want to follow the conversation, you can search #askaconductor on Twitter and read other people’s questions as well as the corresponding answeres.

You are also invited to ask questions of other conductors all day by tweeting your questions with the #askaconductor hash tag. That way, conductors participating at that time will see the question and reply right to you! For a list of participating conductors, and available times, visit askthemusicians.com .

4 years ago | |
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Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

I unashamedly and wholeheartedly love Christmas music. Listening to it, singing it, playing it on the piano—all get a big thumbs up from me. The Dylan Thomas quote above is the last paragraph of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which is without a doubt the most poetic, accurate and wistful account of the holidays through a child’s eyes. And I have many happy memories of music on Christmas night as well: every year I play the piano, the family sings carols, and at that minute it feels most like Christmas.

My favorite Christmas song is Angels We Have Heard on High. What’s not to love about a chorus that features the mother of all melismas: “Glo-o-o-o-o, O-o-o-o-o, O-o-o-o-o, O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o!” In terms of recorded renditions, I am either proud or sad (can’t decide which) to say I’m a big fan of Herb Alpert’s burlesque-inflected version of “Jingle Bell Rock.” It’s wrong AND right— listen to it and you’ll see what I mean.

But in the battle royale for the official Most Christmasy Classical Work, the two contenders are, of course, The Nutcracker and Messiah. I guess they can be co-captains of Christmasness, with Nutcracker as the secular winner, and Messiah as the sacred one.

The Nutcracker has some of the best orchestral writing ever. I’ll admit Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe Suite No. 2 gives Tchaikovsky a run for his money in the orchestration department, but Nutcracker has such a range of mood and tone. Think of the “Chocolate,” “Coffee” and “Tea” dances (aka “Spanish,” “Arabian” and “Chinese” dances) from the second act, and how each sounds so different and unique — both musically and instrumentally. The English horn and tambourine in “Coffee” are so mysterious and evocative, and seem worlds away from the icily delicate celesta used in “Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music unkindly writes that “much of the harmonic language is essentially simple, even trite, and some of the melodic material is naïve almost to the point of banality.” OUCH. And I disagree. Tchaikovsky obviously did something right since the ballet is still performed every year all over the world….

This might not make any sense, but for me, the dreamlike atmosphere of The Nutcracker makes me look inwards. I think it’s a work each person reacts to by themselves and in their own way — who doesn’t get swept up in the music and story and put themselves in the shoes of Clara or the Prince and think about what it must feel like to visit the Land of Sweets? You watch the ballet in a theatre with other people, but you experience it alone and in your own way. Each person has their own emotional connection to the piece. It’s childlike, it’s elegant, it’s magical. And your experience with it is yours alone.

Handel’s Messiah, on the other hand, is a collective expression of joy, of togetherness, of thankfulness. There’s a reason the Hallelujah Chorus is for chorus, not soloist. It is an exultation that is shared among all the performers and audience members. Even the solos are stirring: “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” has so much life and energy it makes you sit up a little straighter. Somehow the oratorio is a piece that makes you feel like you are part of something larger. Last year I went to the Messiah Sing-Along at the LA Master Chorale, and that is the best way to experience the piece — as a participant. You become enveloped in the music and intricate counterpoint and get swept away by the sound of many voices and instruments sounding at full volume. Even during slower and more sedate sections of the work, there is some internal force that pushes you forwards. It is a work that cannot help but make you feel uplifted.

I guess the two works are more complimentary than I had thought: the secular yin to the sacred yang, a whisper vs. a proclamation. With The Nutcracker, you are on the outside looking in, and with Messiah you are inside the piece, gazing out.

Are you Team Nutcracker or Team Messiah? Take the poll!

What’s your favorite Christmas song? Let us know in the comments!

4 years ago | |
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Next Thursday, December 9, LACO’s 2010-11 Baroque Conversations series opens with Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Kahane is still recovering from an extended illness and will not be able to perform at this concert. In his stead, the extremely talented pianist Anne-Marie McDermott will perform the challenging Bach program and will facilitate an illuminating discussion.

The following weekend, LACO performs Spotlight on LACO at the Alex Theatre (December 11) and Royce Hall (December 12). The dynamic conductor Michael Stern steps in to replace Jeffrey Kahane in these two performances.

To learn more, read the full press release.

We hope you can join us for one or all of these upcoming concerts!

4 years ago | |
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Received an incredibly warm welcome via phone this morning from Jeffrey Kahane and LACO’s wonderful staff at the office on my first day as Executive Director (flowers, coffee, pastries and smiles). Already eating at my desk as I have hit the ground running with planning for the upcoming slew of exciting December concerts (including a personal favorite, Goldberg Variations) and activities. Fortunately, my toddler allowed me the luxury of sleeping last night and the 110 embraced me as I eased Downtown, avoiding any traffic. Thus, I’m of sound mind and invigorated spirit as I launch my LACO tenure.

4 years ago | |
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Ever wanted to dance in the mall or burst into song at the airport?

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has launched an initiative that might inspire millions around the US to do just that! The program, Random Acts of Culture, has been created to transport the classical arts out of concert halls and opera houses and into our communities to enrich our everyday lives. For instance, the Opera Company of Philadelphia brought together over 650 choristers from 28 participating organizations and on October 30 throngs of singers from the community infiltrated Macy’s as shoppers. At 12 noon, they burst into a pop-up rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah to the delight of surprised shoppers. You can experience that event for yourself here.

To learn more about this program and view more events, visit random acts of culture.

I am thankful every day for the effect of music and the arts in my life and on this Thanksgiving I say thank you to The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for funding this great program. May these surprise performances bring joy to all who experience them. Happy Thanksgiving!

4 years ago | |
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If there was ever a concert specifically designed for a classical music Newbie like me, than tonight’s was it. Discover Beethoven 7 was a lovely, enriching, and beautiful evening, and I ended up contracting a serious case of the ‘If Onlys.’ As I was driving away, I couldn’t help but think things like: ‘If Only LACO did more Discover concerts like this one’ and ‘If Only I was this informed about every piece that LACO performs.’ You see, Discover Beethoven 7 changed the way I listen to classical music, which is no easy feat. Take my hand – I’ll walk you through what the evening was like.

Discover Beethoven 7 was built around a single piece of music – Beethoven’s 7th symphony. The night began with conductor Carl St. Clair giving an introduction to the piece, in which he provided a back story on Beethoven himself, and how he wrote this symphony during a particularly tumultuous time in his life. There was some cultural back story as well – prior to this piece’s premiere in Vienna in 1813, Beethoven hadn’t been performed there in 5 years, ever since a disastrous-sounding concert that involved Beethoven yelling at the musicians and making them start a piece over from the beginning.

What was really informative was when St. Clair brought the audience into the world of the symphony, pointing out themes and melodies, effectively providing a road map on what to listen for in the piece. He highlighted Beethoven’s use of silence in the first movement, and his use of the same meter that Homer used in The Odyssey in the second movement. St. Clair called upon the LACO orchestra many times to preview these moments and motifs, with the musicians playing a few bars here and there to illustrate his points. My favorite demonstration involved the third movement, the scherzo: First, the Orchestra played the main theme in the style of the other composers of the day. Then, they played it as Beethoven had written it, showing exactly how ground-breaking Beethoven was.

When St. Clair finished his introduction, which lasted maybe 35 minutes, he conducted the Orchestra as they played the entire symphony from start to finish. The piece, by itself, is transfixing: it’s rich, layered, buoyant, and complex. What I loved most is that I felt like I understood it. I felt like I ‘got’ it. St. Clair effectively flicked a light switch in my head during the introduction, and now, I was hearing themes and instrumentation that I probably would have missed otherwise. I tell ya, classical music is beautiful on its own – but when you know the context and the details, it opens right up like a flower.

The evening didn’t end after the symphony was over. There was a Q&A session with St. Clair, concertmaster Margaret Batjer, and principal oboist Allan Vogel. They further shed light on Beethoven and this symphony, and were willing to discuss anything the audience was curious about.

Then there was a reception in honor of the new LACO Executive Director, Rachel Fine. I got to meet Rachel, chat with my LACO friends, and spend a little more time in the Ambassador Auditorium – a magnificent, stunning venue that I had never been to before, or even heard of, actually.

I’ll end by imploring LACO to do another Discover concert next season. Do it! I’m already counting down the days.

4 years ago | |
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