2009 December at John Mackey's Blog



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  • How I Spent My Teen Years
  • New stuff for Fall 2014!
  • UTWE Tour : Shenzhen
  • Wine-Dark Sea – the video
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  • December 12, 2009

    Bonecerto premiere, and off to Midwest ’09

    Last Friday night, Joe Alessi gave the premiere of my Trombone Concerto (now officially called “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone”) with the Ridgewood Concert Band in New Jersey. Reaction so far has been good (whew!), with Joe saying that he now plans to play it “all over the place.” (He also said, days after the performance, that he couldn’t get the tunes out of his head, which is probably the nicest compliment I could hear from him.) The piece is in a single 18-minute movement, broken into three connected sections that function essentially as traditional concerto movements (fast-slow-fast). There’s a big arrival point that happens in the first movement, and apparently the audience burst into applause at that moment — even though the piece still had 14 minutes to go, and the band was still playing. I haven’t experienced that since a performance of “Juba” with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, where the audience started clapping about 10 seconds before the end of the piece, and that was because of Robert Battle’s choreography and the incredible Ailey dancers. This time, it was all Alessi, who, by all accounts, played the hell out of the piece. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see and hear it in person, but I’m excited to work with him on the piece (hopefully frequently!) in the future.

    (Another funny thing was that when I talked to Alessi a few days before the premiere, he said the solo part really wasn’t too difficult. I was a little disappointed. I mean, yes, he’s possibly the best trombonist in the world, but I don’t want him to be bored and unchallenged by the concerto. When I talked to him after the premiere, though, he said, “rest assured, the solo part is plenty challenging enough.” Which means, I think, it’s probably unplayable by anybody else. This made me much happier.)

    You can read the program note for the concerto here.

    It’s been a crazy week here at the house, with the switching-over from Time Warner Cable with TiVo to AT&T Uverse (TiVo still has the best interface by far, but it’s become a hardware kludge with external drives, cable cards, a “tuning adapter,” and who knows what else, so when it started crashing, there was no easy way to figure out the culprit — but Uverse is fine so far), then a day soliciting bids to replace our furnace and air conditioner (the blower has been making a crazy shrieking noise since we bought the house, and it’s gotten much worse lately — not to mention the $408 electric bill we had in July), then a full day for the actual replacement of those units (so much money is gone, but you can barely hear the blower now, so I’m no longer woken up every 20 minutes when the thing cycles), then a day spent cooking Beef Burgundy (not Ron Burgundy) for dinner guests last night (it turned out mighty tasty). Today, there are lots of errands to do — fun stuff like picking up dry cleaning and packing up a dozen music orders — as I get ready to head to Chicago on Tuesday.

    Tuesday is the start of the Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic. It’s always a good time, seeing friends and making some new ones. It’s the biggest band music convention in the world — I think something like 18,000 people attend every year — and there are concerts and clinics and most important, the bar at the Chicago Hilton. I’ve gotten a lot of work at that bar — invitations or performances, residencies, and even commissions have been initiated there. Plus, it’s a bar, and since they made Chicago smoke-free, it’s a pretty pleasant place to be.

    I have two performances at Midwest — “Aurora Awakes” with the San Jose Wind Symphony on Friday at 5:30, and “Asphalt Cocktail” with the Central Winds on Saturday at 11:15am. Although I haven’t heard Central Winds yet, I heard a recording of San Jose playing Aurora Awakes, and it was great weeks ago, so I think that’s going to be a fantastic performance. I hope people come!

    And, just because, here’s a picture of one of our new Christmas ornaments: disco nutcracker. (He isn’t actually labeled that way, but come on. Look at him. He’s disco nutcracker.)

    See you in Chicago!


    December 1, 2009

    Peachtree City

    Are you asking, “what the hell is Peachtree City?” Peachtree City is a suburb of Atlanta, and it is a fascinating place.  More on that in a moment…

    I was in Atlanta a few weeks ago, working with the band at Georgia State University and also the Metropolitan Atlanta Youth Wind Ensemble — both conducted by Robert Ambrose. This was for a joint concert of both bands, playing five — FIVE! — of my pieces in a single evening. They called it MackeyFest. It was a fun couple of days, but wow, that’s a lot of Mackey.  The second band at GSU was performing Strange Humors the next day (after I left), but I rehearsed with that group, too, meaning that on a single day, I rehearsed four ensembles on a total of six of my pieces, all back-to-back. That’s too much Me, even for me.

    Upon my arrival to Atlanta, one of the conducting grad students presented a welcome gift to me: homemade carrot cake cupcakes, using Ina Garten’s recipe. Best carrot cake cupcake ever? Yes, yes I think it was.

    The GSU Wind Ensemble performed Asphalt Cocktail and three movements of my Soprano Sax Concerto, and a chamber ensemble from GSU performed “Damn.” I arrived for the first rehearsal to see this on the massive overhead projector.

    It may be time for me to write the “Damn Asphalt Concerto.”

    All of the performances went really well. (MAYWE performed “Aurora Awakes” and “Undertow” — conducted by Laura Moates Stanley — and did a wonderful job.) I had a fun time with the students, and was treated to some excellent food — like this sushi.

    Speaking of food — I saw this in Robert’s kitchen. I assume there’s a note somewhere on the box: “Do not use to cook babies.”

    One morning, we stopped at a Starbuck’s just outside of Atlanta. This was the view from the parking lot. This has the be the prettiest setting for a Starbuck’s ever.

    But what of Peachtree City? That was where I stayed during the residency. Robert Ambrose lives out there, and he and his wife were kind enough to host me. If you like picturesque suburbs with hundreds of miles of golf cart tracks, you’d love it.

    If you like your lakes man-made, you’d love it. (I joke, but really, this is awfully pretty.)

    I’m serious about the golf carts. I took this picture at the local high school. This is the student golf cart parking lot. Seriously.

    On the other side of this bridge? That’s where the not-white people live. (I’m kidding! There aren’t any not-white people.)

    (Before I get angry letters from the Peachtree City mayor’s office, I’m joking. I really am.)

    The golf cart trails are pretty awesome. They’re all tree-covered, over rolling hills, and you pass all kinds of interesting things — like this tiny family cemetery from the 1800’s.

    Peachtree City and its surrounding areas have lots of fun stuff. I love Chik-fil-A (maybe not as much as Jonathan Castillo, but I do love it), and the Atlanta area has this amazing place: the Chik-fil-A Dwarf House! It’s a Chik-fil-A — but with TABLE SERVICE!

    And a tiny front door. (No exaggeration — this door was probably 4-feet high, small even for me.)

    I loved the Chik-fil-A Dwarf House, with its expanded menu, but offering an item called a “Hot Brown” seems like a misstep.  That was really the best name they could come up with?

    How many towns offer both BJs…

    … and a happy ending? (I’m not sure what an “oil change” is, but it’s probably a euphemism, too. Maybe it goes with the “hot brown.”)

    Atlanta is a big, major city, but there’s one big giveaway that you aren’t in, say, New York. You ain’t gettin’ free copies of this in NYC. (More likely: Sodomy Today.)

    A sincere thank you to Robert and Sarah Ambrose for being such wonderful hosts during my visit. And thank you to the students, who I kind of hope do not read this R-rated blog entry.

    I have to run. There’s an oil change with my name on it.  Badda-bing!


    Kentucky and bourbon

    Yeah, I know. I haven’t written a blog entry in a long, long time. I finished the Trombone Concerto several weeks ago, and I have had a lot of trouble getting motivated to do much of anything since then. Well, other than play Uncharted 2 and Fallout 3. I really should be working on the next project, but if I don’t take a few weeks off in between pieces, I end up writing an immediate sequel to the previous piece. So I’ve just been playing video games, traveling for gigs, and cooking.

    I’m writing this entry from the rather nice library at Kansas State University, where I’ve been since Sunday. I have a concert here tomorrow night, where the Wind Ensemble will perform “Kingfishers Catch Fire” and the Symphony Band will perform “Aurora Awakes.” I’ve had a good time here — the students and staff couldn’t be nicer — and I think the performance will be a good one.

    As I mentioned above, I have been traveling a fair amount since the last entry. In late October, I spent several days at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Lexington is horse country.

    It’s also near several of the great bourbon distilleries. More on that in a minute.

    My dad and his wife drove down to Lexington from northern Ohio and they were there for both performances that week. One night, the Symphonic Band performed “Aurora Awakes,” under the baton of George Boulden, and the next night, the UK Wind Ensemble performed “Redline Tango,” under the baton of Cody Birdwell. There was a survey form inserted into the program for each concert, and my dad filled it out. This, in a nutshell, is my dad.

    Yes, my dad really did find out about the concert by Googling me, which he was proud to share on the survey form. He filled it out the same way the next night.

    During intermission one night, a few minutes before I was to go on stage to introduce “Redline Tango” to the audience, my dad made a suggestion of what I should tell the audience. “I think you should start with a punchline. You should say, ‘… and the doctor says, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I know a flute teacher who can show you how to finger it.’ ” Thanks, Dad, but I think I’ll save that for the next time I speak at Baylor.

    Both concerts were really good. Aurora Awakes is a lot harder than it sounds, but George and the band did a really nice job. It was a lot of fun to work with the Wind Ensemble on “Redline Tango,” a piece which I’ve heard more than any other piece of mine (not surprising, since it’s my oldest piece), but a piece that I don’t get to clinic very often with a group of this level. It’s more the norm now that I coach high school ensembles on this piece, which is kind of hard to believe. When it premiered five years ago, Redline Tango seemed pretty difficult, but now that it’s been around for a while and a lot of people have heard a lot of performances of it, it seems much more approachable just due to familiarity. It’s only a matter of time before some Texas middle school band plays it at UIL… (I’m only half-kidding. A middle school band in Japan performed Redline Tango several years ago. I heart Japan.)

    Rehearsing Redline Tango is a very different experience for me than rehearsing Aurora Awakes. With Aurora Awakes, because the piece is so new, I’m extremely particular in rehearsals, trying to get the performance to approximate the platonic version of the piece that lives in my head. In short, I want every articulation to match the MIDI. I want every tempo, every dynamic, all of the part clarity to match… the MIDI. I put so much time into making every tempo, articulation, dynamic, and balance exactly the way I want it in the MIDI that I find myself just trying to recreate that with humans in every rehearsal, at least to this point.

    This is how it always goes with a new piece. The problem, if you can consider it a problem, is that people are not machines. And it’s not that I need a performance to be “perfect” in a mechanical sense, but when a piece is still new to me, I need to hear it just once with everything going the way it goes in my head — and the MIDI is the closest to representing what I’m hearing in my head. Once I’ve heard a piece the way I imagine it sounding, I feel like I can let the piece go, and it’s free to be interpreted however the conductor wishes.

    Redline Tango is a very different thing. I’ve heard the piece played so many times that it no longer feels like I have anything to do with it at all. It’s like an old sweater that I lend to friends. If I see them wearing the sweater, I appreciate that they’re wearing it (hey!  nice sweater!), but I don’t really care what shoes they put with it. Okay, that’s a stupid analogy, but you get the idea. It’s fun for me to listen to Redline Tango, but it’s almost not my piece anymore. Whatever the conductor does with it — short of changing any actual notes — is their call. I’ll give feedback that will hopefully help them play it even better, but I’m not so emotionally invested in every note now that I am personally hurt if it doesn’t go the way I think it should. When a piece is new, and a performance doesn’t go the way I want it to, I’m extremely disappointed if not depressed. When it’s new, my feeling is, “I want to hear it the way I want it to go.” When it’s been around a while, my feeling changes to, “make it your own and have fun.”

    But back to Kentucky! One day was almost totally free, and George Boulden took me, my dad, and my stepmom to one of the local bourbon distilleries — Woodford Reserve.

    I’m not really one for bourbon, but the tour was really interesting. There were, as you might guess, a lot of barrels.

    Like, a lot.

    I learned that bourbon contains grains. Or something. (I was drunk for most of the tour.)

    Ever wonder what 7500 gallons of fermenting grain looks like? Basically, it looks like this. Surprisingly, it smelled pretty good.

    They purify the bourbon in these enormous copper stills. (These three stills were probably 18 feet tall.)

    Did I mention the barrels?

    It was a great tour. At the end, of course, you get to sample the product. It made my throat and chest burn, which is less fun than it sounds.

    The next trip was to Atlanta and Georgia State University. More on that soon… Maybe tomorrow!

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