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View from the Other Side of the Table:
My Experience as a Piano Competition Judge
Jan 28th, 2011 by Andrew Kraus

Although I’ve sat on many piano juries over the years as well as accompanying numerous competitors in competitions ranging from local student to emerging professional national, Sunday, January 23, 2011, was the day when I first got to sit on the other side of the table and be a judge. Katerina Zaitseva, (Russian concert pianist from Moscow now working in Rockville, MD, hailed by Fanfare Magazine “for her imaginative and colorful interpretive approach…”), served with me as the other of two judges for the “Intermediate Level” competitors in the 2011  MSMTA Gertrude S. Brown Memorial Piano Competition.  ”MSMTA” is the abbreviation for [the] Maryland State Music Teachers Association

Over the course of a full day, we heard  fifteen students play the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto in G, K. 453. Fourteen performed the 2nd movement,  and eight the 3rd.  Beverly Babcock, “Resident Accompanist” at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, did the heavy lifting and accompanied all 37 performances.

Not one competitor failed to make it through to the end of their piece. Several had a memory slip, and to their credit, were able to recover and finish.  Several were over powered by adrenalin surges and had fingers that ran away or shook visibly in slow passages.  I was very impressed by the level of commitment, the intensity of purpose, that I saw in these young musicians.

Of course – not everybody was a “winner”, though all won by having the experience of perfecting their performance and playing it for a jury.

Much has been written about competition results being “fixed”, poorly run competitions, the influences of nepotism and politics on judging.

I am happy to report that I saw none of that in evidence for this competition. Hyun Park, pianist and piano teacher from Potomac, is to be congratulated for the success of her efforts as MSMTA Concerto Competition Chair.  Aside from the logistics involved with booking a facility with the right number of rooms and pianos, scheduling all the competitors, finding judges and getting their commitments, I’m pleased to report that she made sure the judges were properly caffeinated and fed.  She was also responsible for the “Adjudication Guidelines” which I cite immediately below.

1)  There are two judges working independently.  Each judge will make an independent decision on the rankings [1 to 6] on the sheet provided.

2)  Do NOT discuss among the judges your rankings.  Each judge will deliver the results to the assigned monitor who in turn will deliver them to the Chair who will compute the final rankings.

3)  If you taught a contestant either as a teacher or in a master class, please complete the critique sheet only.  Then write “Excused” on the student’s ranking sheet without assigning a ranking.  No other actions are necessary such as discussing this issue with the other judge or the monitor”.

I can report that, at least in the case of Katerina Zaitseva and myself, those guidelines were followed exactly.  Whatever the results were, though innately subjective despite the fact that we had certain specifics to consider, e.g., technique, pedaling, memory,  they were obtained fairly.

What was extremely interesting to me was this fact: for all three movements, Katerina and I named the same person as 1st Place Winner, and we did this without, in any way, communicating our preferences to each other. Further, I believe that my 2nd place choices were her 3rd place choices!

In summary, I can say with certainty, that the MSMTA Gertrude S. Brown Memorial Piano Competition is run fairly.   I have every reason to believe that those who did the judging were qualified to do so and were constructive in their written critiques.  The winners will perform with an orchestra on February 12. As Hyun Park says, “This is a special honor and experience for young students”. I agree whole heartedly. I would encourage those teachers who have students ready for the challenge of competition to seriously consider bringing this competition to the attention of those students.  Win, or lose, they will all benefit from the experience.

Tough Times in Detroit
Aug 30th, 2010 by Andrew Kraus

Sigh.

GM may be doing well again, but the good times are definitely not rolling for the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In fact, things are so bad that despite offering to cut their salaries by 22% the first year with additional cuts during the second and third years of their proposed contract, management has rejected the musicians’ counter offer and is playing serious hard ball.

According to the details in an email sent by “the Detroit Symphony Musicians” to interested parties:

The musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra today voted to reject management’s “Final Offers.” The “Final Offers” were actually in the form of two proposals, Proposal “A” and “B.” Management stated that if Proposal “A” was not accepted by midnight August 28, it would be withdrawn and the only offer would then be Proposal “B.” Proposal “B” is more onerous than Proposal “A.”

Proposal “A” would cut the wages of the musicians by 29 percent the first year, 28 percent the second year and 24 percent the third year. In addition, there are major reductions in pension, health insurance and working conditions.

Proposal “B” would cut the wages of the current musicians 33 percent the first year, 31 percent the second year and 30 percent the third year. It would further reduce the starting salary of new hires to 42 percent less than the current minimum.

“Such a salary would make hiring the best musicians to fill vacancies even less likely.” DSO cellist Haden McKay, speaking for the musicians, said.

Wages for extra and substitute musicians would also be slashed, he said.

Both proposals eliminate current procedures which require that only the best guest conductors be engaged.

The musicians have not ignored the current economic crisis in Detroit. Their counterproposal contains cuts in salary of 22 percent the first year, with further cuts the second and third years amounting to $9 million in savings to the DSO over three years. In the third year the musicians would be earning substantially less than they earn today.

As a result of management’s failure to file notices required by the National Labor Relations Act, the DSO will now be required to continue the terms and conditions of the expired contract at least until September 23.

In addition to rejecting management’s offers, the musicians voted to authorize the union and the negotiating committee to call a strike when they deem it appropriate. “This would include any management attempt to unilaterally impose Proposal “B”, said Musicians’ spokesperson Haden McKay.

No further meetings are scheduled.

If there’s any good news in this story, at least for me, it’s that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra still exists, this in contrast to the situation in Charleston, SC, which according to the last thing I read, suspended operations(!) on April 17th this year. See my blog post here for that story.

The glass is certainly looking half, no, make that mostly empty and leaking out the bottom, these days – at least for those of us who are passionate in our love for classical music. Smaller groups like Great Noise, to name just one example of a group of very talented musicians who are surviving on a small fraction of the income paid to members of the DSO and who make very good music, indeed, are springing up even as the older, larger groups are dieing, and that’s a good thing. But you can’t play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with less than a dozen people. It might sound just a wee bit thin.

Sign of the times, I’m sure.

Sure hope things turn for the better for all of us, musicians, non-musicians, music lovers, music haters – ALL of us – soon.

And a challenge to any who read this post: If you’ve got good, or at least better news about the state of Classical Music today, use my contact page here to let me know. I’d be more than happy to share the better news!

Laying down the Music Tracks for Riuka’s “Trash the Dress” Video
Apr 19th, 2010 by Andrew Kraus

Recording the final titles cue at Blue House in Silver Spring
Last week marked the completion of my part in the making of Lithuanian director Tomas Riuka’s Trash the Dress promotional video. Israeli composer Erez Henya is scoring the music; popular Lithuanian singer, Vaida Genyte, is doing the vocals, and yours truly is doing the piano part.

Visuals and dialog for the video were shot on location at various places in Lithuania. Henya composed his score in Israel. The music was recorded in two places: Vaida Genyte’s part was done at a studio in Lithuania; my part at Blue House Productions, a studio in Silver Spring, MD. Final mixing and editing is scheduled to be done by Riuka in Lithuania this week with Henya in attendance virtually through Skype.

Without the internet and related technologies this video could not have happened.

How I Met the Composer
I met Erez Henya online; we became online friends; he invited me to participate in the making of the video. All of this was done without ever seeing each other face to face or even talking together over the telephone, an earlier enabling technology.

How We Prepared the Sheet Music
Erez email me Adobe PDFs of the initial versions of the sheet music. I printed and reviewed the scores, marked suggestions and potential phrasings and slurs on them, scanned and emailed them back to Erez.

The night before we were scheduled to have me go to the recording studio, we found, in reviewing the latest version of the score together, that about four measures of the music for the ending titles cue didn’t work as originally written.  By the end of our session late that night for me and very early in the morning for Erez, the problems had been fixed.

How the problems were fixed involved a fair amount of technology and couldn’t have been done without broadband internet service available to both of us. While Erez and I talked over Skype, I played alternate versions of those measures on my piano while recording them into my digital audio workstation. Those recordings were then uploaded to the other of the two computers in the room (the one with an internet connection)  and posted to a document sharing site on Google Docs. I could even hear Erez playing the clips over his computer through the microphone for Skype.

Dave Gradin at the Digital Audio Workstation at Blue House ProductionsThe Recording Session
The recording session at Blue House went off without a hitch. I listened to the click tracks provided by Erez through the headphones while playing the music from the score. The major difference from a more usual session came from the fact that the composer was “virtually” in attendance over Skype. For me it was a pleasure not to have to hassle any of the technology stuff and focus on the music making. Dave Gradin, one of the Blue House engineers, handled all that with true aplomb. We got about seven minutes of music from two different “cuts” layed down in just about 70 minutes, pretty quick from what I’m told. After I packed up and headed for lunch Dave finished up the mastering and uploaded the finished music files to the Blue House website. Total studio time was 90 minutes.

I’m not sure what the distribution is for the finished video, but I will post a link to a trailer when that becomes available. Stay tuned.

Schools Classical Music Programs: On the Block Again
Feb 2nd, 2010 by Andrew Kraus

Here we go again. According to an article today’s Washington Post, music programs, classical and otherwise, may be trimmed by the budget cutting axe as Fairfax County officials struggle with the impossible task of making ends meet when there just isn’t enough money to go around.

Since this blog is focused on classical music, not politics, per se, I’ll avoid political comment other than to say there’s credit and blame enough to go around – to members of both political parties, and leave it at that.

What concerns me is how often it is that the arts, including the performance arts of music, theater and dance, are considered frills to be cut when times are hard.

Me – I don’t agree.

I believe that when times are hard, aside from those perennial best sellers despite the times, booze and cigarettes, people need the arts more than ever. My Depression Era grandparents spoke fondly of going to the thee-aye-ter to see the glamorous Hollywood movies of the early 30′s. Of all the things they could have talked about with me after long lives, they valued and remembered those movie outings enough to tell me about them. And, I must confess, though far too young to appreciate it, I remember going to Rockefeller Center in NYC with them to see a move at (I think it was), the Roxie and seeing The Rockettes!

But back to classical music.

I think it would be a huge mistake to cut the programs. Surely there are other places in the Fairfax County Public School System where a little nip and tuck could save major money.

“Save the MUSIC!”, that’s what I say.

How about you?

Classical Music: Sorry State of Affairs
Jan 30th, 2010 by Andrew Kraus

In an oddly headlined article in the Style section of today’s Washington Post, music critic, Anne Midgette gave all of us working in the classical music business something to think about.

I kind of knew that it was increasingly tough to “make a living” in the business.

I kind of knew that attendance at classical events (at least in the US of A) is just a tiny fraction of what turns out for performances by pop culture (isn’t that really an oxymoron?) icons like Bruce Springsteen.

I kind of knew that CD sales in general were down, and classical cd sales were a miniscule part of that market.

But until I read Midgette’s article, I didn’t know that it was as bad as it is even for classical music stars.

According to Midgette, “In early October, pianist Murray Perahia’s much-praised album of Bach partitas was in its sixth week on the list, holding strong at No. 10. It sold 189 copies. No. 25, the debut of the young violinist Caroline Goulding, in its third week, sold 75 copies”.

Yikes! Murray Perahia’s Bach Partitas sold less than 200 copies! Murrah Perahia? Puh-leez.

It must be said that Midgette focused on albums aka CDs. She didn’t mention and might not have had stats on mp3 downloads, but she’s absolutely right when she says that “If classical music can’t make money, it can’t stay alive…”, and goes on to say that, “…it’s notable that recordings appear to do worse than concert ticket sales. If everyone who attended the National Symphony Orchestra on a given night bought a copy of the same album, that album would leap to the top of the classical charts every week”.

Got a point, she does.

But I need to ask: was anyone selling CDs in the lobbies before, at intermission of, and after these orchestra concerts? Is anyone actively soliciting email addresses at these events? And what about mp3 downloads? Why not push those? Why not do a lot more “live in concert” performances and sell the resulting recordings thereafter?

This is the 21st Century. If the wonderful, magical tradition of Western Classical Music that I love so much is to survive, we, in the community of those that love it, need to find ways to reach more people more ways, to market and sell in new ways.

I believe if we take on that challenge, we have a chance to succeed.

How about you?

Best Violins in the World: Made in China?
Jan 7th, 2010 by Andrew Kraus

On my way to enjoy an evening of socializing and to play some piano quartets with some musician friends I happened to be listening to a PRI show called The World. The topic being covered was the emergence of China as a place where world class violins are now being built by an old world craftsman trained in Italy after 5 years “in the country side ‘working like a peasant’” and his proteges. That artist craftsman, Zheng Quan, works at the Chinese Conservatory of Music, where, according to the PRI piece, he teaches at the only school in China to offer mandatory training as a string player for those students who want to become (Western) stringed instrument builders.

The transcript, photos and sound file can be found here: http://www.theworld.org/2010/01/06/violins-made-in-china/.

For this writer, a proud-to-be-American citizen and grandchild of immigrant parents, the report was both heartening and sobering.

I was heartened to learn that the fine arts of violin making and the playing of Western Classical violin music are now being appreciated in China, a place with a LOT of people.

I am sobered by the thought that the next generation of great instrument makers as well as players may be one that does not include our children. At the high end (hand built and custom built instruments), I worry that our own skilled instrument builders are being starved out of business for lack of interest and funding. At the middle and lower ends (mass produced instruments), I worry that our we may have already lost our production capacity, infrastructure and work force to the pressures for profit and subsequent “off-shoring” of manufacturing plants and jobs. As for players and singers, the pressure is on them from society in general and concerned for their welfare parents, to keep music as a hobby learned in childhood and adolescence, not to be confused with a way to make a living as an adult.

Those are my thoughts and feelings on the subject topic. I welcome yours as comments to this post and wish you a good day whatever day you happen to read it.

Bye-Bye Awful ‘Aughts
Dec 28th, 2009 by Andrew Kraus

I don’t know anybody, at least I don’t believe I know anybody, who’s doing better now than they were in 1999, the last year of the Twentieth Century – but then, I’m a working musician, and I don’t have an office on the executive floor at Goldman & Sachs or Bank of America or… you take my point.

This post being on a blog primarily concerned with music as art and inevitably with music as business, I want to swing the spotlight around to focus on your experience of the ‘Aughts, particularly if you’re a working musician.

If it’s the case that you’re doing better, how’d you make that happen?

If it’s the case that you’re not doing as well, what happened? Did the funding for your organization dry up (think Baltimore Lyric Opera, for example)? Are people spending less on music lessons for their kids? Are you being paid on time? Is it harder to find students? gigs?

And “how is Andrew Kraus doing?”, you ask.

I’m holding my own, and had some great experiences in 2009 including being a guest soloist with the Mantovani Orchestra on their China Tour in the Spring. I’ve started collaborating regularly with two wonderful musicians: Laurien Laufman – Cellist, and Jennifer Paschal – Soprano. You can see details of upcoming recitals with both of them on my events page.

Enough for now about me and my views on this topic. How about you?

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