Author Archives: rebecca

CELLO CUBA

DANCING & MOJITOS We were a surprisingly boisterous community brought together by classical music, celebrating with mojitos and dancing. I was surrounded by family: blood family, family by marriage, chosen friends family, colleague family and near strangers turned instant friends family. I could barely contain my urge to dance as the five man Cuban band feet from our table pulsed with polyrhythms and melodies. The vibrant, urgency of the Cuban resilience distilled, like sugar cane into rum, a perfected balance of African, Spanish and European elements electrified every cell in my body. This music was at once ancient and incredibly contemporary in our global society. On most street corners, cafes and almost everywhere music was a daily soundtrack. But this group was especially good.

Earlier in the evening Jose and I performed in the cultural center next to the Cathedral, an ancient monastery repurposed, with a garden courtyard, arches and vast white hallways. We played a program as eclectic as Habana with music by Brazilian composers Gnatali and Bandolim, Lezcano’s own sonata infused with tango and Cuban dance rhythms, Spanish songs by Da Falla, Bach, Villa Lobos and others. What was a unique and possibly exotic set of pieces in the states felt perfectly resonant in Cuba with the mixed culture all around. I had moments of insecurity when I recalled the powerful, rhythmic playing of the cellists at the festival from a rehearsal I had attended the day before. These cellists had been raised with these Afro-Cuban rhythms baked into their everyday life. As a white American, I also wondered what was the line between embracing this music and appropriating something that wasn’t mine. Beneath my fears, however, I know this music was exactly where I belonged and that various threads from my life had been pulled together into a beautiful integration at the concert: the trips as a child to Mexico to visit my grandparents; the African dance in diaspora classes at Oberlin; the Spanish pieces my mom played on guitar while I grew in her belly and through my early years; practicing Bach as a teenager, my sanctuary from the noise of a loud family.

In the restaurant, as if she read my mind, Mayte, Alejandro’s wife, offered her husband as a dance partner as proof that I was welcome in their world. We two cellists hit the floor with the one-two-three syncopated step of Cuban dance. There wasn’t much room between the singer and a long table in the small upper floor of a two story restaurant, but we tore up what floor there was and they reassured me that I was a really quick study. Next I pulled Carina up, the adorably sweet Afro Cuban caretaker of our air bnb, and we did some extra hip shaking to whoops and applause from our table.

Carina was dressed to the nines. After sitting and listening to me practice back at the house for most of an hour, the day after my arrival, she had proudly attended Jose and my concert that night fully decked out with her boyfriend Jasmany, and listened rapt with attention and throwing me reassuring glances from the audience. Five days later when I pressed my cd into her hands, we kissed goodbye on each cheek, tears in our eyes. “I will listen every day”, she said. “It is so peaceful”, said her boyfriend, “it is my first concert”.

VEDADO & OLD HAVANA

Our Casa Particular with a large fenced garden courtyard, tile and canopy covered bench, arbor, tables and a trickling fountain, provided an oasis of air conditioning and warm showers after the tragic comedy of the daily confoundingly beautiful and painful paradoxical experience of the Havana streets.

 

 

To say that Havana is gritty is a laughable understatement, yet the profound and colorful vibrancy of humanity also dances and sings on every corner. Having my mom and husband around me, as well as friend and terrific artist Gayle Kabaker, her husband Peter and brother David offered a cultural buffer that was wonderfully soothing amidst wild Havana and helped me take it in within a community setting. I was also pleasantly surprised when my student Charlotte and her partner and partners mom sailed into Cuba to meet up with us! We traveled in our entourage with folks helping with logistics and organization. We shared stories around breakfast from our previous days adventures, and shared a wonderful mutually supportive atmosphere.


Walking down 15th street through our neighborhood, called the Vedado, took an act of courage and care, as we dodged headless chicken carcasses; human sized holes on the sidewalk; garbage; begging, emaciated dogs; wild cats fighting in every alley (these same cats made the most wretched yowling sounds at night and we had to keep our barred windows closed to avoid unintended visitors).
There was a seemingly endless parade of antique cars of every shape and color (pink and turquoise and yellow) belching exhaust with a small taxi sign on their dash boards; horse carriages; a couple wheeling an old couch on a dolly, or a singer machine my grandma might have used; someone selling something starchy and fried. Colorful houses lined the street some pristine and abundant, the next dilapidated with piles of rubble and garbage with architecture here Soviet inspired, next Spanish, with fragrant blossoms in the yard, dog poop at the next. Children laughed and played baseball with a tennis ball, a man, pawning broken guitars, large mural of Castro and Che and other colorful propaganda messages and images covered cement walls, smells of cigars lingered in the damp air and the heart beat of drums pulsed tirelessly. In one of the old Havana squares with a massive, Spanish colonial cathedral towering over cobbled streets, archways and expansive courtyards we sipped our overpriced, bitter
cortaditos, probably made with canned milk, while a man power washed from a balcony in a narrow street while school children squealed in glee trying to get him to spray them from the sky.

 

 

 

 

Days were filled with desperate attempts to cmmunicate. No cell service for Americans meant plans and back up plans and places to me that reminded me of a bygone era before texting. Internet was a magical and mysterious possibility that required a card, and a hot spot and still somehow didn’t work. Cuban, guttural Spanish spoken at a break neck pace with half the consonants missing often defeated the possibility of my weak skills getting me very far. I learned to use hand signals and very simple sentences.

ANTIQUE CABS
With Cuban people I noticed an incredible capacity for warmth and community, with an undercurrent of hopelessness and maybe deeper still, a bubbling feeling of desperation. Most folks showed a resilience and perseverance and this sometimes burst into rage. For example, our experience with a cab driver one of the first nights in Havana. We set our rate at $8 CUCs, roughly $10 to go 10 minute across town. The old black car was a gas chamber of fumes, the windows cracked, the door handle fell off in my hand and the two men in the front seemed sketchy at best. When we arrived and gave the $8 CUCs the man said we owed him $10 CUCs. When we disagreed he flew into a rage with all sorts of threats in a thick dialect that I am grateful I didn’t understand. We gave him the remaining two CUCs and rather than feel swindled I felt such sorrow for him. This was the rage of a man who had spent his entire life fighting to survive. For sure, an entire cash and trade economy has developed in Cuba to avoid the government stealing their meager income. We saw people waiting in lines for rationed potatoes, and menus at restaurants constantly changing to adapt to shortages of various food items, and with tourism picking up, some of the best food is diverted to them rather than the Cuban people. I saw first hand example of what colleagues who grew up in soviet occupied Poland or Ukraine had related to me: stories of waiting in line for hours for rare food items or goods.
Another cab driver chain smoked and deftly avoided pot holes while sipping out of a paper bag. I tried to forget that we had neither seat belts or air bags as we hurled down the highway. His blood shot eyes and slumped back told of a rough life. We had agreed on a set price and he drove to the south side of the island. He sat in the shade and watched as everyone played in the gemstone blue waves of the Caribbean. He was afraid of sharks. Later, around a shared meal of plantains, rice, and beans, fruit and fresh fish that we offered to pay half of, he seemed to soften. When we gave him his cash and said goodbye, he kissed me on both cheeks and urged me to return. His tenderness was sincere, and quite unexpected.


CELLO CUBA
A tremendous line up of talent was presented at the concert of students. I could barely believe the skill and musical passion and yet the instruments were some of the poorest quality and worst cared for I have ever seen. I felt sadness and at the same time such joy to see these students over come these odds and play so beautifully. I was grateful for the privilege to be in a position to offer small support. In the over air conditioned university building right near the main square of Old Havana students from all over Cuba showcased their talent, and I, with my offline google translator app and help from Jose, cobbled together a speech in Spanish. The audience of cellists and family of cellists beamed with gratitude and appreciation as I stumbled through my pronunciation and shared these thoughts: “This cello is a token of gratitude for being welcomed here and a symbol that music knows no borders and we are all human. Cuban musicians have a gift to offer the world of music and I am honored to be able to assist in my small way, thank you to the many sponsors who made this possible”.

Three days later I coached the most talented students from the group. At first it was six but they kept coming and pretty soon I had been going for almost three hours and had worked with ten students ranging ages 15-21. It was pure joy! The thirst for outside input and knowledge was palpable and after an electrifying, humorous, fun and intense set of sessions, photos and kisses and celebration followed. Maestra Hartka had hopefully made a positive impact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The style of cello playing in Cuba reflected the machismo and the tender loyalty of the Cuban spirit. It was gritty, passionate, rhythmically intense, romantic, virtuosic, but could improve on delicacy, nuance, musical pacing and shades of darker colors. I worked with the students to build intensity over a longer line, to explore softer dynamics and not always rush the tempo. With my fellow musicians theirs wasn’t just a poverty financially but one of isolation and frustration with lack of opportunity to be exposed to other musicians, or the global musical conversation.

As someone educated and performing with colleagues in such rich centers as Boston and NY I was aware of a certain privilege and power that I had to carry with care. I had to walk the fine line between acknowledging their talent, but pushing them to grow, supporting them with gifts, but not to the point of being humiliating. I had to consider what conditions I might have attached to my gifts to fellow musicians or what expectations I might set up with these, and work to mitigate any negative effects. I never felt resentment or hatred from any of my a Cuban friends, but instead, a wonderful sense of gratitude and welcoming. Perhaps they sense the possibility of a future as more active members of a global community, and are eager to discover how to get there. My hope is that in the process they hang on to the beautiful spirit of their culture.

I have no idea how my music fell on their ears or what it said about me. Elegance and fluidity were words I heard. Maybe I sounded like royalty. Maybe I sounded washed out, pastel, compared to their vivid playing. While I was technically in the position of maestra, I know that their voices and sounds will impact my playing for years to come.
As I continue to integrate my adventure, my own rainbow of sounds will expand to include the vibrant pinks, reds and fuchsias, the rhythmic intensity of Habana. I have a sense that this is only the beginning of my Cuban adventure. I never brought up politics, but it did find its way into our conversations. Alejandro related to me how he saw American friends weeping after our election. “The people”, he said, “are not the same as their government”.

 

 

THANKS I would like to thank so many people, I hope I don’t forget anyone. Jose Lezcano for opening the door to this beautiful world through his music and musical partnership; Alejandro Martinez and wife Mayte for organizing the festival; my husband Wes for his incredible moral and logistical support on the trip; my mom for helping me process my experience, for being a witness to the beauty and tragedy and speaking better Spanish than I when it was crucial; Gayle, Peter and David for enriching the experience with visual reflection and stories; all the amazing student musicians who shared their playing with me; Jasmany, Carina and Iris for the beautiful air bnb experience; the many sponsors who financially supported this adventure with donations large and small; the institute for the musical arts; UNEAC (the Cuban National Union of Writers, Artists, & Composers; Achello; Boston cello Society and Robert Mayes; Johnson String Instrument; anyone else I have neglected to mention

Artwork: Gayle Kabaker  http://gkabaker.com/cuba/5039twu1j1sr6g3yi2w9xxfb7ddm8n
Photos: Wesley Fleming and Peter Kitchell





 



 





 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacnite: White Flowers in the Zócalo

Sacnite: White Flowers in the Zócalo

zocolo
Even in the vast expanse of the central square, (the Zócalo) of Mexico city, the Metropolitan Cathedral was massive and imposing. I stepped out of the cool sanctuary into a square filled with the complexity that is Mexico; tourists, groups of children in muddied traditional costumes selling tiny packets of Chiclets, colorful booths with piñatas, smells of fresh tortillas. The square was packed, but all the life around me, the colors and vibrancy felt empty and I couldn’t find my place in it, in the world.

At 20 I had temporarily dropped out of Oberlin College/Conservatory. My cello teacher was angry when I announced that maybe I should be a farmer, and that I was leaving school to find out. After discovering how terrible I was at farming, I wandered through the ruins and pubs of Ireland, weeded gardens in rural NY and hitchhiked and backpacked through the Lacandon Jungle during the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico. That is how I found myself in the center of La Cuidad De Mexico. That is also how, from the deepest part of me, I yearned for belonging and the knowledge of self.

My plea was answered swiftly and definitively. Standing 30-40 feet from me was a woman shaman, in her 50s, tall, regal and beautiful. She had been blessing people in the square as they approached her, with a pungent incense. The day was drawing to a close and she picked up a large shell and sounded out a haunting call to the four directions. As she began ceremoniously wrapping up her feathers and other sacred objects, including a vase with three stalks of white flowers a disheveled man, groaning and drooling, began to approach her. A wide swath in the crowd opened up around his chaotic movements. He stumbled and groaned and the woman shaman bent towards him and placed one stalk of the flowers into his hands. After a brief pause, the man returned to his angry and crazed moaning, and slapped the flowers against the stones, until they were shredded. The crowd began to part again, as the shaman walked through the people, stopping to stand in front of me. She placed her hands together with mine, looked me in the eyes and spoke Mayan words. She placed the second stalk of white flowers in my hands. I reflected at that moment my capability, every human beings capability, to be either shaman or madman, and the fine line that can separate these two. I was moved by her poise and compassion in this act of honor to these two lost souls.

I stood frozen and wide-eyed for several moments, transfixed and blessed. The woman quietly returned and wrapped the third stalk in a cloth and left the square. I looked at the flowers in my hand. They had a pure citrus like sweetness.

When I finally moved from my spot and rejoined my friends, I carried the flowers with the greatest care and love, as if they were a candle in the wind that might be extinguished with the slightest breeze. I felt profoundly moved yet also a deep sense of responsibility. I realized at that moment that I needed to stop running from myself, I needed to stop slapping my gift against the stones. I thought about music, about cello and the hard work of practicing. I thought about all the people who had told me with awe, how I had moved them with my playing. How gifted I was. I never believed this. I never felt I really was anybody special. But also, I was overwhelmed by the work required to be a cellist of any skill, the daily practice and devotion. Rejecting my gift felt easier than this work. In that square, I began to recognize that the gift was not my choice. Beauty had found me. It would keep finding me. What I did with it, THIS was my choice.

Six months later I returned to Oberlin and majored in music. I practiced and practiced and got into a masters and then a doctoral program in Boston. I became a professor and I became a performer. I became a cellist. Today, I do my best to care and honor my gift every day of my life, and to pass it on to others. It’s not always easy, but on that one day in the square of Mexico City, one white stalk of flowers, a madman and a shaman showed me the way.

Chasing Rainbows

As I am reflecting on another year coming to an end, and looking ahead to 2016, I’ve been thinking about one of my beloved cello teachers Leslie Parnas and how he used to warn me about chasing rainbows. He never said this within a context, so I didn’t completely know what he meant and I was too shy to ask him. Like any unanswered question from a mentor, this phrase has circled around in my head over the years. Did he think my dreams of being a professional musician were unrealistic? Or were these the regrets of an old man facing his death and coming to peace with his own choices? It seems to me, as a soloist with an international career, he must have chased enough of his own rainbows. In those rare moments when he spoke about his life, he always asked me if I’d heard of such and such a musician. His colleagues, it seems, were better than any pot of gold to him. His words return to me as I wonder: What does it mean to dream big, without losing ones footing with reality? It’s worse, I think, to not dream at all, for fear of failure. What really matters most in ones career? The people we connect with? The quality of the gigs? The music we play? The recognition we receive? Being compensated enough to pay our bills? The ability to keep growing?

Leslie Parnas had large, thick hands and rarely played in lessons. He challenged me to make choices about the way I played each note. The precision and detail of his listening was intimidating, but his words were wise and calming; there’s a certain peace in getting right down to the honest truth. I could feel the depth of his caring in each musical passage he untangled with me. He really left a lot of room for creative freedom with his students and challenged me to find my own voice. It was with him that I first learned and performed the Debussy Sonata. After my recital he came back stage and told me that I played it in a way he had never heard before. I could tell he meant this as a very high compliment. At the time I wished for some other compliment-that I had great skill, or my bowing was excellent. But he was right, I was a gifted performer, who needed to improve her practicing and technique.

Two weeks ago I did a video shoot with the same Debussy sonata at the WGBH Fraser Studio in Boston. A beautiful space and a great team with Antonio Oliart as engineer, Christopher DeSanty on video and my virtuosic polish pianist, Barbara Lysakowski. As we listened back in the control rooms, I approached it with that crystal clear honesty Parnas had taught me. The performance wasn’t perfect. But still, it was beautiful. Very Beautiful. It has come a long way since that first performance. Last week, practicing Bach 5th suite, I had the realization that I am currently the best cellist that I have ever been, both expressively and technically. I practice with much more patience and clarity than in my college years. I have more passion to share from life experience. And I know I haven’t peaked yet. How did this happen?

Video shoot

Among my successes, I also spent the last few years making numerous mistakes. I took the wrong kind of gigs, putting myself in positions that weren’t good for me. I overbooked, I underbooked. I worked with too many colleagues, or too few, or ones with clashing personalities and mismatched goals. I performed in underpaying concerts with too much driving. I aimed too high, I aimed too low. I chased a lot of rainbows that led me nowhere career wise, or even had me falling on my face a few times. And then this year I just said “enough!”. I spent several months musically alone. Three months without performing, without colleagues or audiences. Just me and my cello in the woods. I focused on practicing for the pure sake of being present with music. And I took a careful look at what I really wanted with my career. I began planning forward with this vision.

As a result, 2016 promises to be a year of deeply fulfilling and challenging performances, with incredible colleagues and nice venues. I created my schedule with care. And as more opportunities arise to fill 2016, I know I’ve finally learned the discernment needed to make good choices. But I don’t fear the bad choices either. Maybe they didn’t lead me to Carnegie Hall, yet, but they did bring me to where I stand today- the best cellist yet, with a clear vision for my future, and good gigs coming my way.

So my dear Parnas, while I do intend to move forward in a more thoughtful manner, I can’t promise that I won’t be tempted occassionally into chasing rainbows.  I can, however, promise that I will do my best to fill my practice room and concert halls with a myriad of colors and golden sounds I’ve gathered from the chase. Armed with that crystal clear listening you taught me, and my own courage to keep growing, I know at least these are rainbows I can call my own.

2016 concerts

(extra)Ordinary Concerts, Apple pie and Solitude

apple_pieThe fall colors seem extra brilliant this year. But I don’t think they are. This ordinary annual occurrence is extraordinary to me every year. I walked today down our little dirt road bathed in the slanted warm autumn light glowing through the bright hued canopy of leaves. The awesome beauty embraced me from head to toe. I felt joyous, like a cinnamon scented apple pie out of the oven, exuding sweetness and heat. I also felt a profound sense of solitude. In these woods, I was alone all day with my cello, my metronome, my tea, my potato leek soup, my dreams, my long dirt road, my house that smells of chimney soot when it rains, the dead leaves in the yard, the life everywhere pulling back into its roots. Then suddenly, next week, without much warning, I will be on stage, sparkling under the lights, surrounded by humanity, colleagues on stage, sounds of our hearts pouring out, people coughing, sighing, listening, not listening. There is a certain solitude in performance too. It takes courage to break the silence of the hall with imperfect passion, to be vulnerable and exposed. Surrendering to the exhilaration, the swirl of activity means surrendering to solitude while at the same time belonging 100% to humanity. This terrifies me regularly. This ordinary experience that I have had for over 15 years is still extraordinary. But with the fear also arises the potential for joy. Apple pies only get juicy when they bake in a hot oven. Here we go!

cello_hiding

Editing

image  I wandered out to pick the final raspberries of the summer on a gorgeous fall day. Zeke sent me behind his house to blow off some steam. The editing had been getting intense. The sweetness of the berries consumed my attention. They were plump and almost past ripe, dark red, but just right, at least on that day. I intended to fill the Tupperware in my hand to share with Zeke and Alys, but instead I became intoxicated by their flavor and ended up with only a token handful to share. In a way I regretted this token. I wanted every last berry in this patch for myself. Not because I was being selfish but because I wanted to feel completely uninhibited in the pleasure of the moment. It’s only with great self control that I saved any. The idea of compromise and the brilliant blue of the sky brought me back to the task at hand, as the air filled with the sharp clarity of autumn brought on by the cool of evening descending.

After seven hours we still had more editing to do. We had reached a moment in our decision over a particular section in Rachmaninoff where the age old question of passion or precision emerged, a choice between a performance with sweep and character, or a slower more careful one with every note speaking exactly. This argument offered me the opportunity to discover my core values, but it also stirred up an ocean of passion. Since we were at an impasse we decided to revisit the question after a dinner break.

Mostly the editing had been going well in terms of team work, but the decisions were not always easy. Since so much is possible these days with technology, it’s hard to know when to draw the line. We can splice in single notes or reconstruct whole passages measure by measure. Since it’s easy to lose the character of the initial performance in the process of editing away things you don’t want, we had spent most of the day hunting for the takes that were mostly good and using them as whole as possible. But as we grew tired, one or the other of us started wonderIng about this slightly swooped note, a scratchy tone, a missed piano bass note, ensemble mishaps and the edits began to increase.

It’s humbling to listen to 15 hours several times over of a your playing and natural to start to get bugged by little imperfections. While it’s true we don’t want to distract our listeners with bloopers, how do we know when we are listening with the microscopic ears of editing that inevitably magnify everything, and when a note is truly out of tune enough to justify possibly breaking up the flow of the passage? Could I have the strength to hear my imperfections set in stone, repeated, reproduced and immortalized?

My mom told me when I was a child that when artists in Islamic countries weave rugs they intentionally leave an error so as not too offend Allah. I always loved this idea. When I was younger it gave me permission to be imperfect. As my values have shifted over the years I hear another message in this story- a reminder that when we offer our art in devotion to something larger than ourselves, whatever God we may serve, we walk away from the conversation all together of perfectionism. As a musician I do always strive for excellence, but It is only when fear of vulnerability or embarrassment or pride, narcissism and a lack of humility take charge that a need for perfection trumps my music making. When this happens the joy disappears and I am in a hungry relentless search for positive self reflection. It’s a dead end.

imageAs I stood in the raspberry patch that day, I became aware that I had shifted to a new place of comfort and the resulting courage to embrace my strengths and weaknesses. To step forward owning both my light and shadow. And in my heart I promised that I could indeed bear to hear my imperfections set in stone, repeated, reproduced and immortalized if the result would bring joy to people.

I returned inside with my meager harvest of raspberries. Nobody seemed to want them anyway, so I devoured the rest. We took a long dinner break, then returned to our listening. We found the best compromise possible, and several hours later, at last, we finished with our edits. I carried the marked score to my car like precious cargo to be mailed in the morning to our recording engineer. Alys followed me as we wound in the dark down the long Vermont dirt road.

Recording Light and Shadow

image image imageI woke up on a brisk September morning one day before my recording date to the cry of a Raven. The voice was so clear in my dream that I believed the bird was just over my head. Half asleep, I asked my husband why there was a Raven in the room. I took the morning very slowly and nurtured every part of my being, body, mind and heart which included very light practicing, a trip to the farmers market and for fun, Wes and I wandered down to Mikes Corn Maze. To my amazement, the theme of the maze, the games and quizzes, were all centered around the minds of animals, specifically Ravens and Crows. As I looked at the aerial photo of the giant corn Raven, I knew it would be an interesting few days. Ravens are known to many native tribes as the ‘keeper of secrets’. Their black color is linked to darkness, where unconscious fear resides. Their medicine is of transformation, offering us the strength to illuminate those dark areas of ourselves, release our fears, thus allowing the authentic self to sparkle. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate omen for our Light and Shadow cd.

On Sunday, the first day of recording, I dreamt that I was surrounded by about a dozen bears. In the room with the bears was a very wise friend of mine. She was unafraid and so I too became comfortable with a room full of bears. I got up early and headed over to the beautiful Mechanics Hall, breathing and allowing the intense energy of anticipation to wash over me, staying calm and centered in the face of this bear of a project. This graceful calm followed me all day and we moved with relative ease through a large portion of the Poulenc Sonata, exceeding our goal for the first day. I was elated.

imageBut that night I barely slept. I was way over stimulated, and the music was circling around and around in my head. I deliriously awoke for the second day only to discover my arms were tight and tired and nothing felt predictable, and the adrenaline had worn off. No amount of coffee seemed to make a difference. I spent several hours missing shifts, playing insecurely and feeling the pressure of the wasted precious and expensive minutes bearing down on me. I was forced to look directly at my fear. Every note felt difficult, and the more I tried to “get it right”, the more tight my hands became and the worse it sounded. I twisted and turned to try to find the way out of my maze of insecurity. At last I suggested that we play the third movement of the Rachmaninoff Sonata. In that moment, I moved out of my head and into my heart. I thought of someone I love very dearly, who has gone through a very painful few years, and decided to internally offer this as a gift to him. All of that frustration and energy transformed into pure passion, compassion and I became swept up in emotion, the tears streaming down my face. The rest of the day flowed much better.

imageI nursed my arm with heat, ice, arnica and massage, insisted on sleep with sleepy time tea, and awoke the final recording day with energy and calm again. I found myself enjoying the gorgeous Rachmaninoff melodies, the glorious sound in the hall, and the kind hearted folks who were on the team with me. Joseph, our recording engineer, with his array of buttons. Our quiet page turner Diane. Our humble and patient engineer Zeke and of course, the poised Alys.

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As the final hours drew near, we scrambled a bit to get everything we wanted, including wish list items. As the end of hour fifteen drew near, Alys suggested another take of the second movement of the Poulenc, as a benediction. As the opening chords sounded, time collapsed, and I felt the completion of cycle, from that moment on the plane when I first heard the Poulenc, after a painful family event, to this moment on this beautiful stage pouring my heart into the music, supported and held. I felt myself embrace that moment of pain in my life, my family, as memories of this family tragedy played like pictures in my mind, and poured into my hands. My heart opened wide and I began to sob with profound gratitude, relief, sadness, joy for this beautiful gift of music and life.

A tremendous outpouring of gratitude to all of you who have supported this project.

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Recording project “Light and Shadow” : Avaloch Residency

Recording project Light and Shadow: Avaloch Residency

After releasing a cricket rescued from my studio back into the grass to rejoin the chorus of chirping, I find myself in my favorite Avaloch spot, sipping a sweetened and milky cup of coffee on the large porch overlooking flowers and a field, in a luxurious rocking chair. I soak up those late summer smells of goldenrod, ripening apples and mown grass, admiring the echinacea flowers in several hues in their final bloom, their leaves touched with brown from the chilly mornings. The fall hovers in the near future and so does our recording date. But I linger, like this afternoon August sun, hoping that some still radiance will call forth an effortless ripening and mastery after hours of intensive rehearsal and practice.

imageI reflect on the residency so far. Its been 6 days of 6-8 hours of work on the recording project pieces. With some evenings eating pistachios with new friends on the Avaloch porch inventing sonnets and reciting poetry. Alys and I explored and debated each moment of music, studying the score, singing our parts, determining the pacing, the articulation. Sometimes we were on a fun adventure, and sometimes we found ourselves struggling against technical limitations. We compromised when we disagreed, recording and listening to different options then choosing one, both able to admit it when we were mistaken or misguided. We put on the metronome and slowly increased the speed in certain passage, one notch at a time. Some of the work arose from the particular challenges of the pieces, but the most profound growth arose as the rehearsals slowly revealed the inevitable differences in musical personality.

It takes incredible courage to allow the uncovering of the differences and edges of each others personalities and how they find their way into the music and may limit us. Its easy to want to blame or run and hide. Shining a light in the shadow can be very scary.
As the week unfolded, Alys and I did our best to be gentle, kind and patient navigating these tense places between us, using compromise, space, and compassion. I watched myself grow and change, in that achingly slow pace that real growth happens. I celebrated inside. Ive been asking for this, as a cellist, as a person. Craving that next step yet resisting it a bit too, as the sweetness of apples is brought forth by the frost, a certain letting go is required for ripening, a death of that same summers warmth that gave the fruit its form. Sometimes we wish for that eternal summer, but here in New England a crisp sweet apple, or even a tart one, and the vibrant colors of fall have taught us the value of frost.

After my afternoon coffee, more hard work, we reflect together with other ensembles over delicious plates of food made by Avalochs fabulous chef Will Gamble. The apple crisp sweetens away the hard work. It is also refreshing and a relief to hear others struggling in similar ways. Our conversation lightens and brings insight to our shared yet separate experiences. We plan a workshop after dinner. Alys and I perform several movements for our newly found friends and colleagues, to put our hard work to the test. We share an open discussion of suggestions and feedback, and gave feedback to our friends when the play. Acronym, a baroque ensemble also in residence, returns from a day of recording. The evening transforms into an improvisation jam session consisting of two harps, an electronic instrument, saxophone, myself on cello and Alys on piano. Others weave in and out. I feel all the hard work melting away as I throw myself into pure responsiveness and spontaneity to those around me, making all sorts of sounds and rhythms, being a support for others, then bursting forth with a melodic solo. Across our ensembles, without written notes or worries, we connect in a language we all know, with music that never has been heard before and will never be heard again. I feel completely free, and completely connected in each moment to those around me, to the music to my cello. A beautiful ending to our week at Avaloch.

Rome in a Day

Rome in a Dayimage image image image

The shaded stone steps of the Basilica S. Agostino still radiate heat from the day and a pigeon pecks at the crumbs from my gelato cone. My legs ache from walking miles over cobblestones in winding zigs and zags and sometimes circles. From the river at the Trastevere shopping district I made an almost complete circle of the center city. I meandered to the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps, then over to the Piazza del Popolo, then a quick subway ride to the Coliseum. I walked around the Forum, over through the park of the Domus Aurea, then back to the Trevi fountain, finally resting here in Piazza di S. Agostino not far from the Pantheon.

I notice a tourist with a guide book heading behind me into the Basilica. With curiosity, I poke my head through the doors. I am enticed into the sanctuary by breathtaking beauty and the relief of cool air. The interior is made entirely of rose, blue, cream and black marble, with bright blue vaulted ceiling, white sculpted figures of angels, gold decorations and magnificently painted frescos in soft pastel hues. It’s easy to imagine in the time, before air conditioning and modern living, especially in the heat of the Italian summer, that I might fall to my knees in religious ardor in such a luxurious and soothing architectural embrace. The structure naturally sends me forward to the alter, a point of focus at the intersection of the cross that makes up the floor plan. I muse at the display of wealth, and the blessing of the Church in supporting centuries of great artists and art work, as well as the preservation of numerous ancient structures. But I also think of what was repressed and replaced with the growth of the patriarchal religion.
Even so, in this city that is the seat of the Roman Catholic church, an unconquered architectural homage to pre-Christian religion has rested at the center of the city for over 2,000 years.

The Pantheon is the gem of Rome, with an immense dome that is the largest such structure made of brick, without supports. Modern architects admit they’d be hard pressed to recreate such a thing. The dome suggests the top of a perfect globe which could rest inside the vast expanse of the building, and at the very top of the dome a large oculus, or opening, bathes the large interior with soft light. This opening must have served a practical, as well as symbolic, purpose. Around the parameter of the space, the same width, 142 feet, as the height to the oculus, are alters in numerous directions.

I’ve read about the superimposing of Christian myths and rituals over the old religions as a way to convert, but never have I seen it demonstrated so poignantly as in the Pantheon, renamed the church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs by the Roman Catholic Church. I notice the name didn’t stick. Perhaps I am reading something into this here, but the metaphor of the feminine seems pretty blatantly illustrated by the vast womb like space with a opening. Only, this womb births us into the heaven, out of our earthly womb. In the context of this architectural metaphor, the 2,000 years of superimposed dedication to Christian martyrs, statues, an alter, relics, seem completely superfluous. The feminine principle overpowers, an unwavering truth beneath the surface attempts to mask or reattribute the spiritual symbols. A plaque suggest the structure was a temple dedicated to Venus and Mars, and the emperor, created using Pythagorean principles.

Strangely, superfluous or not, the mixed in Christianity somehow doesn’t clash, the through line of feminine spirituality finds expression in the abundance of paintings and sculptures throughout Italy, dedicated to the biblical Mary. Paintings of her often pictured alone, as well as with the Christ child in her arms. Sometimes she is pictured standing, in blue and red with the glow around her. It’s not difficult to imagine the funneling of the sacred feminine, the goddess devotion, into the image of Mary, and then also, Mary as mother, virgin and mother of the divine, or perhaps goddess religions also, in a way, as mother to Christianity itself.

I wouldn’t mind however, seeing this structure as it originally was, without bleeding statues of Jesus, the creepy relics and images of martyrs. There are thousands of Churches, why not one temple without martyrdom and masculine superiority? We could raise our eyes to the blazing and beautiful light above and imagine the soul of the sun and blue sky radiating into our hearts. We could clasp hands with flanking community members, connecting around a circle of hundreds, maybe thousands. From within the safety of this round, spacious, sunbathed temple, we could stand in a balanced devotion to the principles of inclusivity, enlightenment and community, the balance of separate and together, masculine and feminine. Interestingly, while standing in this way the posture of each body takes the shape of a cross. But I digress.

I’m back on the streets of Rome looking for a stylish present for my husband. Its a good place to be stylish. Romans are beautiful, they dress impeccably and do urbanism with much more artistry than Americans. Even the middle aged man on the park sleeping on the bench is stylish, as he nods off, he cools his sweaty foot by resting it on top of his leather shoe. But it’s gritty here too. At the corner of Dior and Gucci a dark skinned man roasts chestnuts, a line of street vendors with purses race down the street hotly pursued by caribinieri, while tourists lick multi colored cones of gelato with disinterest. The oppressive heat makes us indifferent and sends us flocking into Gelaterias and to cool alleyways with misting, umbrella covered tables. I find myself wandering, half delirious, among the crowds, caught in a wave of walking humanity, looking for a cool place to rest. Gelateria di Roma boasts 150 flavors, and I brave the multilingual crowds, catching snippets of German, French and English, to march proudly out with two scoops, coffee and lemon. It’s not very good Gelato, not silky and smooth, but it is cool and sweet. The open doors of air conditioned shops cool me in intervals as I wander to Piazza Novano, where a large shaded fountain draws admirers.

After hours of walking, I eagerly devour a bag of fresh yellow plums and apricots. As the sun descends I shower and rest my feet, looking forward to my last supper in Italy. Ciao bella.

Dolce Vita

 

We toast with aperitifs overlooking the piazza, my drink with Campari, a thin slice of orange and ice is surprisingly refreshing in the heat of July in Siena. The four of us span many cultures and countries and speak seven languages between us. But at the moment we are keeping an Italian tradition of afternoon rest away from the midday sun. The day is indeed blazing hot with a hazy blue sky setting off the 13th century sandy colored buildings. As I swallow a delicious antipasto I gaze at Torre del Mangia tower in front of me, named after the bell ringer whose laziness “ate the profits”. The tower and the Duomo are equal height, an intentional architectural reflection of the medieval desire for balance between civic and religious life.

The narrow winding streets and ancient buildings are a walking museum of medieval Tuscany. After our drinks we wander into shoe shops that smell of leather, stores brightly colored pottery, curious corner markets with sausages hanging in the window. The mundane and profound mix in a maze of arches and narrow streets. Earlier we found ourselves at the Duomo. The grandeur rendered me speechless. This enormous cathedral is supported by a row of zebra striped black and white marble pillars, filled with gorgeous painted frescos, one by Michelangelo, and bathed in rich blue and red light from stained glass windows. Outside, a flamboyant violinist plays on the street corner accompanied by a recording of the Swan and a street vendor sells T-shirts, hats and other souvenirs.

Surrounded by Russian musicians on the patio back at the hotel, another bottle of wine, fruit and dirty jokes are passed around for hours. I’m surrounded by four pianists who argue about the recent competition winners and the judges and who is the newest, greatest talent. My eyes glaze. The violist, who has performed with many of the greats, immediately saves the party by returning to dirty jokes. The laughter is hearty and unabashed. For once my boisterous laugh doesn’t sound above the crowd, but blends. I seem to be an honorary Russian tonight. After a successful performance of French music, Ravel and Debussy on a poor Italian/Chinese cello with a Russian pianist in a one thousand year old Italian church, we are celebrating. Russians love to laugh, and laugh and laugh. There is never enough of laughter or drinking, and we do so into the morning hours. My brief russian study in high school of Russian Folk songs and the Russian version of “who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” affords me the opportunity to add to the merriment. They are amused at my accent and knowledge. “This is why she plays so well” Yuri shouts, “Russian school!”. But mostly the humor has a darker and dirtier edge, and tragedy descents briefly as the older generations reflect on the soviet era. Then this too becomes a joke and the laughter rings again.

The Italians and Russians both have a great sense of humor. But it is very different. One is light, quick and filled with irony and amusement. The other, dark, complex and large, boisterous, filled with tragedy and comedy all in one. Powerful and resilient, and from the belly. I’ve heard more Chinese and Russian from fellow musicians in this festival than Italian. But our common ground are the Tuscan hills and three hundred years of music from a dozen cultures. I spend my days surrounded by people, at meals, at coachings, in the spa baths, at concerts.

Only once I find myself alone, but I am still surrounded by community. In the Tuscan hill town of Sante Fiore I dine on chestnut filled Tortelli (large tortellini) with local mushrooms. The family at the table next to me offer me a glass of wine. The ristorante is filled with the music of the Italian cultures. Wine bottles line shelves against the wall. Families sit for hours as plate after plate arrives. Even the children sound colorful and musical when they speak. I find beauty around every corner here, not beauty in a precious or overly intense form, but blossoming effortlessly in the full enjoyment of life, effusive and generous. Integrated into the fabric of every day. The stone buildings feel like they have grown out of the land itself, and even flowers bloom between the ancient stones in the streets in splashes of fuchsia. In one moment, briefly, I felt overwhelmed with the fullness of it all. Something in me felt I could lose myself in sensuousness. It is true, time turns in all directions here, the antique with the modern, the hours like minutes filled with the small pleasures like the foam of a cappuccino, or almond biscotti dipped in sweet wine, or the rolling hills covered with vineyards. The Bus schedule is more poetic and hypothetical than precise, they only arrive when they are in the right mood to, after asking for a bill it could be another 20 minutes, and people smoke at will wherever they please. But in a way, it doesn’t matter here. Italians have mastered the art of pleasure to the point of mysticism, and perhaps because the abundant land and history, rather than indulgence, their way seems to be a generous celebration of life in all moments. Instead of losing myself, I find I sink deeper into my body, my humanity, my heart, and the tears well up spontaneously, and oh how very, very Italian of me!

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Brave Women in the Jungle with No Map

I am beginning to realize my life is no longer on the map. Or certainly not on the media map. I scroll through netflix: story about a male hero finding his destiny; a cute Rom Com about an ambitious young woman who finally comes to her senses and settles down to the real work of having a family, now that she’s found the absolute perfect man who has won her over; a cautionary tale about an older woman who is a power hungry and ambitious cold bitch; an action flick with a skillful female sidekick, who nonetheless either defers to her male partners or rebels and ends up suffering.

After fifteen minutes of looking, my husband heaves an annoyed sigh. What was I looking for? I wanted a movie with a female protagonist whose gifts are rewarded and honored by society, who is the center of the story, who has dreams and visions of greatness, who knows she has a destiny, an important role to play in the world that doesn’t have to do with children,or supporting a man in his greatness. Yes, I know! Why should I expect this from Hollywood? On the other hand, is it me, or have the female roles become even more narrow than they were just ten years ago? Or maybe as a younger woman I took for granted the freedom and power afforded me by my beauty and age, and now that I’m closing in on my forties…?

All of my accolades and achievements were fine for a young woman, because we have an acceptable narrative in our culture now for late childbearing, and super educated working moms. But there’s an unspoken assumption that at some point I would get down to the most important work a woman can do, and that this would take a central role in my life. While I don’t wish to dismiss or undermine the value in motherhood, or those who make this central in their path, or ignore those women who bravely try to have it all, I cant help but wonder, children or not, why is it still so taboo that a woman should wish to continue to follow her dreams passed her 30s, 40s and beyond? Do we not wish to have women in positions of leadership in the public sphere?

As the years passed and I have now reached my late 30s, even my family seems a bit confused. They no longer had a narrative to understand me in the context of our society. I cant find myself either. A nun? Nope, married. A whore? Nope, too much integrity. An ambitious cold power hungry business woman who is disconnected from her femininity? The shoe doesn’t fit. A kept woman? No, I work hard and help pay the bills. The virgin queen, the evil step mother, the 13th fairy, the witch. No, no, no and no? Well, maybe, but a good one! Maybe I’m just a diva? But why does that have a negative connotation?

In truth, this is nothing new. I have always been a free spirit who charts her own course. And I have always been ambitious. As with all things, there are many sides to the passion I have for my work. As I have been having conversations with my friends and family, I have found the words to articulate and begin to explain my ambition, my passion. Since I can’t find a story that tells mine, I will tell my own, and share the deepest insights I have so far discovered about my work, for the record, and for those who may resonate with my story.

I knew for sure when I was a teenager. I was lying on my back watching the shafts of sunlight filter through the trees above me. My boyfriend and I were talking about our dreams and hopes. In that moment the sparkling wholeness of my life filled me with vibrant and nonnegotiable unfolding. I was not aware of a wish or a dream for a certain specific future. Instead, I felt myself sip from the vast basin of my own souls destiny. Destiny as both a force of my own willful breathing forth the promise of the full manifestation of my gift, and the surrender to a force beyond my knowing working through me. My boyfriend beside me at the time, witnessed and validated my knowing, he felt the brightness of my future. Yet, despite his presence, I found myself utterly alone, though  rich and complete in that solitude. When the premonition left, I was engulfed in an almost unbearable desire for greatness, overwhelmed by what I must do, and so were sown the hungry seeds of my ambition.

Flash forward twenty some years. A Doctorate, a professorship, a performance career, but I’m not done. I’ve checked for high testosterone. My levels are actually on the slightly low side. These days the daily meditation of practice, and teaching, and refining my craft focuses and soothes the intensity of ambition. In performance, I find moments, even hours of rapture and peace. But when I walk off the stage, maybe a day passes, a few, and I know, I have not done enough. Not for fame or fortune or narcissistic reasons, though sometimes I imagine these might fill me, but because that basin of the human soul is still more vast than what I have shared. I used to imagine that by now my ambition would ease, that success, or a Doctorate, or money might fulfill me, but it has only grown, along with, ironically, my sense of completeness. I feel what was a trickle of ambition has become a river. And the seeds of potential, they are now full grown trees with blossoms, with ripening fruit whose sweetness I can begin to savor. I sensed this ripeness as a teenager, I am now tasting it.

Here lies the paradox of my musical life. The desire to connect to and translate an immense and limitless energy, forms the deepest meaning of my life, yet also means that I will never arrive. The desire for greatness is really one way of experiencing and achieving a sense of oneness. Greatness is not an end point, but a journey with no end, so the desire for greatness is only half the equation. I feel this fullness of harvest when my passion for greatness has driven me to a point of mastery that allows me to surrender to the flow of the music. Without the drive I could not surrender. But without surrendering, there is no arrival. These moments are the place where the masculine and feminine become one, and that is when creation happens, when something from soul manifests in the physical realm. As the vessel for this integration, I am at once utterly alone, and yet one with all of humanity, and the joy is without words. I am both impassioned and in peace. All of that yearning has brought me to a place of surrender where greatness can find me. When parents have told me the utter bliss of looking into the face of their newly born child, the love that is indescribable, I tell them, I know this love, or at least something like it.

Despite all appearances, I’m not obsessed. I love to hike, to cook, I do yoga, I spend lots of time with my husband, I play with my nephews, and I enjoy movies. Well, sort of.  My life is really pretty amazing! I am a living narrative of a woman whose work is the central passion of her life, who is trying to avoid exploitation, and be careful about all those who unconsciously or consciously fear her power. I forge ahead,  despite the false projections I experience from some, and follow my instincts and my heart. I try to embrace my power while also being vulnerable and compassionate.

I want to count my blessings as they are numerous. I have a loving husband, many people who value and recognize my talent, wonderful colleagues and students. And best of all, lately, more women mentors have begun to appear in my life. Women with stories who have gone before me in making their work central to their lives. Some are mothers, some are lesbians, some are single, some married. All are middle aged or elderly and they seem to have appeared to help me create my own map and share their stories, and to support me. And looking back I realize they have always been there. Teachers, musical mentors and most of all, my own mother, whose power and courage in her life and work has always guided me, and whose support and love on my journey is priceless. At last, here is a narrative about women that fits my life! We have always been good at working together and building community around our work. Now, we can support each other to make the choices that are right for us, to find our power, to have unique voices, to chart our own courses, to be independent and leaders in the world.

It’s frightening but also kind of exhilarating, like a wild adventure. I am an explorer in my own life! I can’t find my map on netflix, but I can be guided by the stars, the paths through the jungle, my own heart, and those brave women who have gone before me, whose stories, maybe one day, will be told, not just behind closed doors, or Facebook, but on the big screen!