Vienna Teng, 4th album recording in New York

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong work with Eddie Jackson @ Dubway Studios
As many of you know, I went to New York for a few days last month to record with Vienna Teng in the studio. It was my first time recording in a non-classical setting, and I had a lot of fun (both recording and hanging out). Here are a bunch of photos from the shoot, which took place at Dubway Studios.

Alex Wong at Dubway Studios

Antebellum arrangement laid out during recording session

Alex Wong and Vienna Teng at Dubway Studios

Alex Wong studies arrangements in preparation for recording

Alex Wong at Dubway Studios

Vienna Teng at Dubway Studios

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong hammin' it up

Alex Wong briefs the chamber orchestra

Vienna Teng works with Eddie Jackson at Dubway Studios

Vienna Teng plays piano at Dubway Studios

Vienna Teng plays piano at Dubway Studios

At Dubway Studios in New York, recording for Vienna Teng's fourth album

At Dubway Studios in New York, recording for Vienna Teng's fourth album

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong work with Eddie Jackson at Dubway Studios

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong at Dubway Studios

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong work with Eddie Jackson at Dubway Studios

Vienna Teng and Alex Wong work with Eddie Jackson at Dubway Studios

Also, please enjoy this short video vignette I made during the recording session.

Vienna Teng recording session in New York for album 4 from echeng on Vimeo.

Vienna Teng @ C. Donatiello Winery

me, with Vienna Teng in the cottage
On Sunday, June 29, 2008, I drove up to Healdsburg to see Vienna Teng perform at the C. Donatiello winery. It was the first paid show of their new music series, and the venue was really great. Seating was cafe style (holding about 150 guests), and Vienna performed from a stage just overlooking the seating area.

I was a bit nervous during the show because Vienna had texted me earlier to inform me that she had lost her voice (the "frog" she alluded to while on stage). When we arrived, I wandered into the cottage and hung out with her while she prepared a bowl of lemons for the show and drank honey tea. I also snagged a bottle of C. Donatiello wine and a few glasses for our table. :)

Despite her pal the frog, Vienna was great! I've only seen her like this a few times, but I'm always impressed that she manages to get through shows without her voice in perfect condition.

Ivy Zenobi joined Bill and me for the show. It was great to see her, as well.

Alisa Weilerstein plays Dvorak Cello Concerto

alisa weilerstein, cellist
from her website

Bill and Miki invited me to see Alisa Weilerstein perform Dvorak Cello Concerto tonight with the SF Symphony and David Robertson conducting. Strangely, I was offered tickets to the Thurs and Sat night shows within an hour of Bill and Miki's call; someone wanted me to go to this show. I'm glad that I have friends who call up to see if I want to go concerts; I've been so busy with non-music stuff that I've all but dropped out of the scene in the last few years. Between subscriptions to the SF Symphony and SF Performances, plus last-minute comps to shows that my friends play in, I was probably going to 2-3 concerts a month -- and it was fantastic! These days, I'm lucky if I get to a few concerts a year, and the vast majority of them are SLSQ shows.

Anyway, back to Alisa and Dvorak. I met Alisa three years ago at the Green Music Festival in Sonoma. I had only heard her before in chamber music, and was very excited for the opportunity to see her play a concerto with SF. We sat third row center, which was the perfect place to observe and hear the nuances of every note. Cello concertos can be hard to enjoy live because it is often hard for the cello to project over an entire orchestra. I like to sit close... but it makes me feel like the music is washing over me instead of through me.

In any case, Alisa was AWESOME. As a cellist myself, I can't play well enough to enjoy everything that goes into a well-executed, passionate performance of a concerto (I mean, with me playing), but I was able to at least get a glimpse of it again through her performance. I also really enjoyed David Robertson's conducting. Mi-Parti by Lutoslawski was a good opening piece for its cool textures and funkiness, but it didn't do much for me. The orchestra was really tight in Janácek's Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra, and I really enjoyed their performance despite not being familiar with the piece. I thought Robertson let the orchestra indulge a bit too much in the opening of the Dvorak, which stole a bit from the cello entrance, but Alisa's raw emotion took control immediately, and I was hooked.

Thank you, Alisa, for the wonderful performance!

Vienna Teng in the recording studio

Vienna Teng in the recording studio
... taken on June 19 in New York. I spent a day in the studio recording with Vienna Teng, which was a lot of fun. She managed to assemble a fantastic group of musicians, who learned their parts pretty much in real time. Fun stuff.

Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre, Berkeley

Dawn left me two tickets to see her perform tonight Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, and Cindy Mong and I met up with Stephen Prutsman to see the show. We sat in the comps section with other guests of the band, and Stevie made a big production about seeing me there (even though I had just seen him in the lobby a few minutes prior). "Dr. Cheng! It's been a long time! We haven't seen each other since that thing in, where was it, Stockholm?"

People stared at us.

Anyway, the show started out with a couple of avant-garde pieces that I thought were interesting for their sound, but not so interesting musically. One was George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), and after hearing it, I can only conclude that Crumb had never heard a whale sing when he wrote the piece. I couldn't really deal with all of the yelling and humming through the (amplified) flute... and close to the end of the piece, I felt a visceral sense of relief when the piano started playing something resembling a melodic riff. And, like, what's the deal with the face masks?

Ayre was the big hit of the evening, and Dawn's singing was intense, amazing, and inspiring. I was explaining to Steve before the show that I feel like his music comes completely from within him, and that he channels it from some unknown source of musical energy, and I get a similar feeling from Dawn. She emotes so naturally when she sings, and there is not a clear distinction between her visual performance and the music that comes out of her.

I feel the same thing with Geoff's playing. Geoff sometimes gets mail from Stanford white hairs who complain that he moves around too much when he's playing. They like the sounds, but they don't like the scene in front of them.

I remember Livia getting upset about that. "What, like they're not related?"

That's the thing about the musicians I like. Their music is a delicate balance between unbridled emotion and fine control, and they somehow manage to communicate both to the audience.

Anyway, back to Ayre. One of my favorite moments of the piece is the first time Mchael Ward-Bergeman stands up and unleashes his hyper-accordion, which I like to call the RED DRAGON because when he stands up and starts shaking the house down, I always envision a red dragon rearing up and taking in a huge breath of air in anticipation of blasting the room with fire (the folds of the accordion are a deep red color).

After the show, Dawn, Steve, Cindy and I went to a little fast-food Thai place up the street for bite to eat (where Dawn was asked for her autograph by a nice graduate student in composition) before walking back to her hotel. When we arrived at the hotel, we bumped into a bunch of the players, who had decided that they needed donuts (an obvious craving for post-reception munchies). Cindy and I accompanied them down to the donut place, which apparently is really well known. Michael was so excited that he asked me to reach over and touch his donut, which was still pleasingly warm. He then started talking about exfoliating and nipple chafing. Then, I went home. The end.

michael was really excited to eat donuts

It was really a treat to get out of the house.

(special thanks to Geoff for coordinating with Dawn for tickets)

Serendipitous mashup of Vienna Teng and Barack Obama

I was listening to a bit of Vienna Teng's music tonight while going over to Obama's website to donate, and an amazing thing happened when Obama's video started playing...

[flashvideo filename=videos/obama-viennateng.flv width=320 height=256 floatingcontrols=true /]

It's cool when stuff like that happens (the video above is a recreation -- the first time it happened, the timing and harmony was PERFECT, but I couldn't recreate it that way).

Stephen Prutsman plays Tchaikovsky in Santa Cruz

Geoff and I drove down to Santa Cruz this evening and met up with Warren, Elaine, Ray, and John to see Stephen Prutsman play Tchaik with the Santa Cruz Symphony. Stevie had left tickets for us at will call under his name, which was interesting because the folks behind the window refused to give them to us without photo ID. Uh... they were, like, comps from the performer? Of course my ID isn't going to match. I had to call Steve and then hand the phone through the hole in the window for verification -- and I hate disturbing performers before they go on stage. The first piece (orchestra only) was awful. Someone in our group said, "it was like going to a five star restaurant and having the first course be half of a Big Mac... served cold."

Luckily, Steve was on next. As usual, he was fantastic; whenever he was playing, the orchestra sort of faded out (at least, in my mind). There was no way the Santa Cruz Symphony was going to be able to match Steve's musicianship nor energy, but they put good effort into it. Steve got a standing ovation, and followed the Tchaik with a jazz encore.

I enjoy the audience in Santa Cruz, especially after spending so much time attending musical events at Stanford and in San Francisco. I've experienced a lot of age and image snobbery at performances in San Francisco. It's too bad you can't -- or shouldn't -- be rude to your elders. There was one woman in particular that I felt like pushing down the stairs.

To balance out past age / image snobbery I've been victim to, I'm going to fling some of my own. Here's an example of a typical Stanford audience:

After the final note of the last piece, the audience erupts into applause. The few young folk in the audience (who usually know the performers on stage) start woo-ing loudly (i.e. "WOOOO! WHOOOOO! WOOO!" -- the young, modern version of "BRAVO!"). An elderly woman (we call them the "white hairs") in front of one of the young people turns around and says, nastily, "don't do that."

This has happened to me and my friends a few times, and I'm not even a big woo-er. In Santa Cruz, the loudest woo-ers *were* the white-haired members of the audience! Go, Santa Cruz. Oh, and there was the requisite marijuana cloud outside of the civic center.

After Steve played, we managed to get past the curtain / staff blockade to see him backstage before heading back to our cars for the drive back to the Peninsula (and beyond).

I love going to see Steve perform.

Mozart's String Quartet in Eb K.428

Today is random Eric-vignette day! iTunes has just started playing the second movement of Mozart's String Quartet in E-flat Major, K.428 (Andante con moto ). It always reminds me of Kilimanjaro; the walking bass line is what kept me sane during pretty much the entire climb. During particularly boring moments, I hummed one note under my breath for every step I took. The reason it was so embedded in my head was that we had just played it at a housewarming party a couple weeks prior...

Osvaldo Golijov on PRI's The World

Last March, I went up to Napa with Livia, Corinne, and baby Jack to see Osvaldo Golijov at the Niebaum-Coppola winery. I knew Ozzie was working on a piece for Youth Without Youth, Coppola's upcoming movie, but I didn't find out much about it other than a few descriptive vignettes over dinner. I just found a short feature on Osvaldo on The World's website, where he talks about the challenges in writing a film score after working primarily with classical musicians.

I'm not sure when the movie is coming out, but I'm looking forward to its release!

Vienna Teng @ Bazaar Cafe, SF

Vienna Teng takes a break between sets
Vienna Teng performed this evening with Karmen Buttler at Bazaar Cafe, which was the first place Vienna Teng ever performed in public (back in 2001 or so -- and just 1 song!). The Bazaar Cafe is a fairly small venue (but very cool -- you should go), and it was so packed with people that it was literally impossible to move around. I even had to resort to crawling under the table in order to get from one side to the other.

Me, Calvin, Vienna Teng, Bob, Erik, Michele, and Gordon

The uber-fans (above) got together for a group photo. I suspect that there were many more uber-fans lurking in the audience because when VT asked everyone to sing along to City Hall, the whole place was in on it.

At one point, VT was surrounded by a group of Asian women, and I got her and the group to do the super-Asian, dual-wield peace sign. It was awesome! I only wish I had been in position to get a photo.

Vienna Teng at Bazaar Cafe

I really enjoyed hearing Vienna perform. Although I hang out with her a lot, my time at home only intersects with her performance schedule once every couple of years. I particularly enjoyed Recessional and a cover of Alex Wong's In the Creases, which was absolutely beautiful.

By the way, be sure to show up early when VT plays a local show. Erik and Michele arrived at around 2:30pm for the 7pm show (!). I left my place at 4pm, and avoided getting stuck in traffic after Michele warned me that there was a jumper on the Bay Bridge. And so, I drove around through Sausalito ($9 in tolls wtf), and arrived at 4:40pm to find that tables were already starting to fill up. By 5:30pm or so, there were basically no more seats, and many of the folks who showed up at 7pm had to stand outside!

Here's a funny story. A couple that arrived fairly early took one look at me and asked, "Do we know you?"

After a couple of minutes, realization dawned upon them: "You're the guy who got his cats to shit in the toilet!"

I've always wanted to be know as that guy.

By the way, here are a couple ways to annoy people at a sit-down show like this:

  1. pretend your thighs are drums and play along
  2. bring your coughing, restless kid and leave him at center stage while you drink a beer outside

Special thanks to Warren Wu for buying me a piece of chocolate cake à la mode. :)

Trivia: I also convinced Miss Teng to give a little performance back in 2001. It was at my place, and was only after several years of harassment. :)

[see all photos @ flickr]

Souvenir de Florence, and more

a reading of tchaikovsky's souvenir de florence [photos @ flickr]
It has become tradition to have some sort of music party before my actual birth date, not because we don't want to celebrate on the day itself, but because our schedules never quite work out. Livia has always tried to bake cakes for me, but after a few horribly botched attempts Geoff gently suggested that she should perhaps stick with cooking (at which she *excels*). So this year, they bought me the densest chocolate cake in the history of my known universe. The thing was dense beyond comprehension!

i'm struggling to hold the cake's mighty weight aloft

Birthday aside, the real reason for the gathering was to read Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence. Livia is performing it in Mexico soon, and it will be her first time at 1st violin (it's like a concerto). Souvenir is a special piece for me because it marked the day I met the St. Lawrence String Quartet. On March 2, 1999, I showed up at Stanford to read it with them and was yelled at by Marina for not having practiced it before the reading. But I had a good excuse: Ed Wu had checked out the only copy!

So Livia Sohn, Geoff Nuttall, Sharon Wei, Eric Sung, Warren Wu, Ilya Levtov, and I read Souvenir, 8 1/2 years later (there were too many cellists, so we had to rotate in and out). Later on in the evening, Masha arrived and joined us in reading Schubert's Cello Quintet and a Haydn Quartet (Op. 64 No. 2 in b minor). After each movement, Lara St. John (Scott's sister) whooped and hollered as she packed up for a trip in the the next room.

the 1st violin part, tchaik souvenir de florence

It was nice to re-meet Eric Sung, who along with his brother, Brian, were musician acquaintances from childhood. Eric currently plays in the SF Ballet and Opera. Think of him every time you hear the Nutcracker. He has to play it 30 times this holiday season.

Reading music with professional musicians always leaves me humbled, inspired... and frankly, amazed and grateful that they would include me as a participant. Geoff, Livia, and Barry are always scheming to include me in various musical events. I am extremely grateful because without them, I would have no musical inspiration to speak of.

[see all photos at Flickr]

Fading musicianship

the good ol' days

I've been having vivid dreams for the past couple of nights. The dream I had two nights ago is something I can't post here, but the one last night involved playing the cello. I tell people I play the cello, but the real situation is that I am trying to hang on to my identity as a musician. Sure, some of my closest friends are musicians, which means that I hear the gossip and participate by osmosis, but it isn't quite the same. Last night, I had a dream that I was playing principal cello in some orchestra piece with a big solo. During our first rehearsal, I totally botched the solo, and was lectured by the conductor after the rehearsal was over. It was in a big hall and everything. I guess dreams do parallel things going on in real life, eh?

Pre-order Livia Sohn's Opera Fantasies CD

My good friend Livia Sohn's upcoming CD entitled Opera Fantasies for Violin is now available for pre-order at! You can also pre-order MP3s from Amazon's new(-ish) MP3 store. The CD features Livia's virtuoso playing along with compositions, arrangements and supporting performances by three more friends (and others): Geoff Nuttall, Stephen Prutsman, and Osvaldo Golijov.

As a bonus, you get a beautiful photo of her on the jewel box cover. Do you know how hard it is to get Naxos to put an author shot on the cover of one of its CDs? It's *very* hard. Normally, you get an abstract rose photo, or a drawing of a composer, or weird stone carvings, or a close-up shot of strange spices...

Here's a blurb from Livia's bio:

Livia gave her first public performance at age eight. In 1989, at the age of 12, she won First Prize in the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition.

You know what I was doing when I was 12? I was playing computer games and lighting things on fire. Oh, there was a bit of piano and cello thrown in there as well, but laziness and two parents at work full-time meant that I didn't practice 8 hours a day like Livia did.

Anyway, here are links to the Amazon preorders: [opera fantasies CD] [MP3]

Livia/Jiyeh @ Stanford

Tonight, Livia performed the world premiere of Jonathan Berger's new piece, "Jiyeh", at Stanford University with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. Livia was awesome, and piece is really great, but the SSO sounded the worst I've ever heard it. Livia was a finely cut diamond shining over a pool of mud (or maybe oil, in the vocabulary of Jiyeh). Maybe like a "TAH-KA-TAH-KA-TAH-KA" playing over a "WHAH-WHAH-WHAH-WHAH". And the "WHAH" is lost, and is only using the upper third of the bow. Or something like that. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but there are definitely good players at Stanford. It's just that none of them are in the orchestra. There is definitely a reason for their lack of participation, and it's obvious what it is. I wish Stanford would just fix the problem.

Despite the SSO's poor performance, I enjoyed the show. The piece is great, and Livia kicked ass. We all went out to Peninsula Creamery after the show and had yuppie diner food and milkshakes. Yummm.

I was called "Mr. Sohn" yesterday at Safeway while carrying Jack and walking around. We don't even try to correct people anymore.

Vienna Teng Green Caravan Drive -- now, with new technology!

I went to have lunch with Jim and Dane over at visit VUVOX today, and the beta release of their new multimedia presentation product is really impressive. In just a few minutes online, I whipped up this remix of the Green Caravan Drive videos I made with Vienna Teng. Click on over to the old post, or continue reading here to see the Flash presentation...

This particular style is still a bit buggy. If you end up in a state where the video only plays when it is in the thumbnail view, hit the space bar. The space bar appears to toggle between zoomed and thumbnail mode, but without pausing or playing the video.

Pretty cool, isn't it? Expect a lot more from these guys in the coming months.

Remembering the cello

The new direction my life has taken in recent years is one that is particularly effective in keeping me away from the cello. During my brief stints at home, I spend most of my time frantically catching up on correspondence, checking my (snail) mailbox, processing photographic deliverables, and coordinating projects for Wetpixel. But during all of the rushing around and multi-tasking, I constantly feel an almost tangible pull from within my cello case, which sits on a 90-degree bend halfway up the steps to the stage. Here's the unfortunate thing: it's a race against time. As the pent-up, musical frustration builds, I am slowly becoming less able to respond to its call.

Vienna Teng Green Caravan Tour, Day 5

(Cross-country drive with Vienna Teng) We spent most of the daylight hours today hanging out with VT relatives (eating pizza, frolicking in the park, etc.) and didn't hit the road for Cleveland until nearly 5pm. The roads in Chicago seem to all be under construction, but we made pretty good time and rolled into Independence at 1am. For dinner, Vienna picked a random Chinese restaurant in Toledo from the GPS directory, but once we arrived, we decided that a Lebanese/Greek place a couple doors down looked more interesting and ended up eating there and socializing with Sam, the owner and cook.

Video follows: