Putting Out Fires
July 05, 2015, 02:16 PM posted by Maria Choban

Because a friend emailed me that he was "watering, watering, watering" his little plants today, I stepped outside to water the basil and check my spring planted blueberries and everbearing strawberries. Flames were licking over the top of the ditch in front of my house! Thankfully the hose which we use to water the artichokes was within reach and I ran to the faucet, turned on a jet stream and put out the five foot swath of flame. I soaked the area and watched as cops talked with my neighbors across the street. I heard "fireworks" "kids walking up the street talking loudly." I did my own investigation because I saw no evidence of firecrackers or any other fireworks around the smoldering portion. Instead, when I crawled into the ditch I found a cigarette butt right where the smoke had been swirling after I doused the rest of the flames.

It burns me when kids are automatically blamed. I was in my studio which faces the street the entire time, either reading on the couch or working on this computer but never practicing the piano. I never heard kids or firecrackers. First of all, kids are way too smart to be out in this heat! It occurs to me that it was probably a jack-ass around the same age of these parents who was either a passenger or a driver of the car that flicked the cigarette butt out of the window into my ditch.

And that's what I told the cops.

I showed them the butt I collected and asked if they wanted it. They did not. But they thanked me for putting out the fire, saving a trip by the fire department.

Dirty Downhome Democratic FUN!
July 01, 2015, 10:58 AM posted by Maria Choban

Portland is in an extended heat wave -- temps in the 90s with threats in the 100s. Last Friday, I set into town at 5pm with the temperature in the high 90s, on the air-conditioned MAX. I showed up for a dress rehearsal in the courtyard of the Portland Art Museum along with TEN donated pianos turned into artworks by 10 different artists. Five pianists, one conductor, and Richie Greene, the composer, ran through Askew Reflections - Richie's piece for 5 pianos commissioned for this event. 500+ people showed up for Megan McGeorge's Piano!Push!Play! party!!! prompting the director of the art museum to quip "Thank God temperatures are so high; how would we have managed the crowd otherwise?"

On a high after the show, here's what I emailed to a friend:

It was AMAZING!!! 500+ people! standing, sitting on the stairs, in the park blocks, filled the capacity chairs. I thought Megan was going to cry! the director of the portland art museum and the director of the portland parks and rec were both on hand to speechify on megan's behalf. both likeable guys, dressed down. you missed a lovely performance of an audience member (there were 2 chosen randomly from a hat) performing ravel's jeux d'eau. the richie greene piece went swimmingly. you MUST get down to PAM and see the artwork the pianos have become! my personal fave is a toss-up between the white&black, the doug-fir (with antlers!), the paws.

this was exactly what I had hoped and more. democratizing music. the variety of ages was like nothing you'll see anywhere. little 5 or 4 year old dancing in the aisle through several acts. street folks sitting on the cement wall (park block side) enjoying. it will be hard to top this event this summer. megan should be very very proud.

Megan McGeorge and her pianos at Piano!Push!Play! party Friday night.
Photo: Alicia J. Rose

Saturday was Beaverton Farmers Market day. We got lucky. Temperatures did NOT climb into the mid-100s as predicted. In fact, we sneaked out just barely over 80. Where $8 bags of kettle-carmel-pop-corn compete with $10 bags of hand-braided sweet Greek Easter Bread (just hold that thought in your head), who's buying which bag? You'll be wrong about 50% of the time. It never fails to make me giggle. Democracy blows my profiling mind.

And while my partner spent the weekend in San Francisco covering Terry Riley's 80th birthday party put on by the Kronos Quartet at the same time as 1 million were marching in celebration of equal marriage rights at the same time as The Grateful Dead were giving one of their last five concerts EVER, I finished my weekend in PDX as a soldier in the Timbers Army. On Sunday I was sandwiched between a seasoned Scot soccer fan who popped in, scored a last minute (sold-out) ticket to the Timbers/Sounders rivalry intending to check out the rumors that The Army rivaled Scottish ruffians, and a woman slightly older than me who kept me laughing from her opening line: "Don't worry about the words to the chants. When in doubt, yell a potty-mouthed explicative!" While no fan was maimed during the game, the Scotsman was impressed enough to hug my (very cute) sister every time Portland scored a goal. I, on the other hand, was busy conjugating and declining my substitute explicative - "FUCK!" - through the chants/cheers, complete with hand (finger) gestures and at throat-blowing decibels. I got Kronos/Riley, Gay-Rights, Family-Rights and Grateful Dead tie-dye all in one arena! It was particularly bemusing when at the end the Portland players brought their children onto the field and faced The Army and bowed. I wondered how badassed we would respond. The by-now drunken thugs let out a collective "AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW. . ."

June 21, 2015, 05:58 AM posted by Maria Choban

I look up from the piano I could not keep from playing. Judith, the owner and host at Clementine's Bed & Breakfast is standing still as a deer in the kitchen. A fiercely passionate woman who thought she'd protected her piano from guests by putting a toy violin on the bench and keeping the lid closed, she walks over to me mouthing something, trying to get sound to come out, her eyes are red and puffy. Mozart'll do that to you. Finally out comes a hoarse "Thank you."

Last week a former student of mine blogged about me as her piano teacher when she was a college student. When I was a college student my piano teacher Fred Rothchild did for me what I think I did for Yuka (my college student) and hope I do for all my students: Reamed the constipating academic bullshit out of our systems. Reamed out the fear and intimidation that I wasn't meeting some composer's or esteemed interpreter's or teacher's academic proclivities. Fred went so far as to carry out my answer to his question: "What gets you to ratchet down?? To FEEL?!?"

Me: Scotch . . . and lots of it.

So at my next lesson with Fred, at his house, out came the bottle of scotch and a stubby glass.

Fred: Have at it.

While my playing got looser, the conduit between whatever I was playing and the outside world to which I was giving it got no more elastic, but my love for Fred blossomed and the interpreter I am today is a direct result of Fred's scouting nose and his belief in and love for me. Long after I left college and Fred, only one of the above continued to beautifully haunt me; Fred, seducing me with the plaintive fifth variation in Mozart's A Major Sonata I was playing while Judith sobbed in the background - wondering why I wasn't visiting him, or our first variation duet in that same sonata, me asking the questions, Fred answering laconically with single syllables.

When I play teacher to my students, Fred is my role-model. How can I get a person with whom I'm working to elicit sobs or cheers or sheer stars-in-their-eyes fan-dom-ness from the audience as when a driven father of one of my 5 year old students heard one of my teenage students play the hell out of a great arrangement of Coldplay's Sky Full of Stars?

If hand position meant anything my cat would be Rubinstein, his paws curled just so and Horowitz would be relegated to hack-alley (have you SEEN his hand position????). And if piano method books worked there would be more talent shows like Apollos Unplugged (a long-running student run talent show at a local high school) than earbuds and mp3 players.

While I had no idea Judith was listening, I play for Judith and for the garbage man who used to live next door and the retired carpenter who still does. I play to move THEM, to get the little athletes and average students who walk into my studio to fall in love with music and to play it enraptured because that is their only chance at moving me and by extension the general audience. And because I've worked hard for 30 years to detach as an insider, to regain my naive ears (while still retaining a director's experienced perspective) I am the best example of general audience I know.

May 26, 2015, 06:07 AM posted by Maria Choban

"Do you think my prices are in line?" I ask Ginger, the market manager for Beaverton's Saturday farmers market. I'm trying to figure what a customer is willing to pay for 4 different sizes/shapes of the Tsourekia I've brought to the market to sell.

GINGER: The market will answer that for you better than any single person's guess.


This is what we do NOT have in classical music: A parent who refuses to dictate (the opposite of grants panels), who respects the intelligence and the rights of the general public (the general audience) and believes in our own artistic responsibility to thrive or die according to our own willingness to respond to the market.

May 21, 2015, 09:23 AM posted by Maria Choban

After years of true modesty and feeling intimidated by great writing like Richard Taruskin's, I finally fancy myself a writer . . . although my editor probably considers me a dilettante for all the excuses I give him regarding my unforthcoming drafts of pieces he's been requesting for months.

Following a quick and dirty seduction by theater, thanks mostly to David Mamet, I fancied myself a budding playwright. My first and only Intro-to-Playwriting class did not support that.

And now I fancy myself a baker. After years of baking delectable Greek treats for family and friends around the Winter holidays, I had the opportunity to convince my father to let me have the kitchen in a building he owns. All last winter I cleaned and painted. Last week I passed the inspection and baked my first batch of Greek Sweet Bread (Tsoureki) that I took to the Beaverton Farmers Market. Selling less than half of what I brought, I froze the rest intending to cut it up for free samples the next Saturday.

The following evening I went to my parents to get caught up paying their bills. Walking through their kitchen into the family room where they were watching t.v. I noticed on the kitchen counter 2 bundles of wax paper . . . suspiciously like the bundles I wrapped the left-over tsourekia (plural) from Saturday's market.

I asked mom and dad when I walked into the family room "Did you take tsourekia from the freezer at the commercial kitchen where I was baking?"

Dad (sheepishly): yes.

Me: I wrapped and froze those to slice and use as free samples for next Saturday's market.

Dad (still sheepishly): we ran out of tsoureki here.

Me: Don't touch the tsourekia in the freezer! it's not about the profit because I'm at least $650 in the hole right now NOT counting utilities or labor. It's about the ungodly amount of time/labor producing a batch. I haven't got it down yet and I need to re-purpose every unsold tsoureki.

Dad: How did you know we took tsourekia from the freezer? did you count them?

Me: THEY'RE SITTING ON YOUR KITCHEN COUNTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dad: D'oh!

March 24, 2015, 06:19 AM posted by Maria Choban

I must once and for all accept I am not a Shakespeare fan. Re-reading Sophocles' Oedipus the King (for the 100th time) and pinging on yet another new thought/feeling (Influence - Creon vs. Power - Oedipus), I contrast this with making my way painfully and with plenty of online help through Hamlet. I hate puns and self-absorbed word-play. I get them and wonder why those macro-seconds it took to utter them, amalgamated over the whole of my life, can't just be swapped for the empty space I could use doing something useful like reading real wit (Sophocles). I hate northern European angst-y self-absorption. Where Oedipus is rash, impatient to find out why something is rotten in the State of Thebes, I just want to put away my bullwhip and pull out my gun to help Hamlet find the end of his play before I have to listen to yet another long whiny tirade...fucking pretty-boy, Matrix-imitating wannabe philosopher in his long black leather coat. Someone's gotta tell him "You're not cool and you're wasting my time!" And that someone is me (Alitisa: tearing down cultural icons one at a time).

On the other hand, Stephen Greenblatt's bio on Shakespeare - Will in the World - is one of my favorite books of all time - combining an almost mystic, trance-like state of Perry Mason detective work with Sophoclean efficiency and passion.

On the other hand, I will most likely give Shakespeare yet another try in a few years just like I do Tori Amos.

Back to the Drawing Board
March 14, 2015, 05:49 AM posted by Maria Choban

Writing is hard. Writing good plays is impossible. David Mamet is a fucking genius.

I have a wee gift for writing something fun to read under 100 words if I'm inspired.

I have a great editor who can take any drivel I draft over 100 words and turn it into something fun to read.

I have NO chops for writing plays. In a 3 week series of Saturday workshops with Matt Zbreski, a teacher I adore because he's simultaneously funny, direct, smart as hell, opinionated and nurturing, the most I accomplished was realizing that this play based loosely on my crazy family is not going to write itself. And I'm not going to write the first draft in the 20 weeks I'd assigned myself (one week per scene).

Our assignment after the first Saturday's workshop was to draft our opening scene and bring copies into class to read aloud. I thought my concept was brilliant - weaving scenes from Shakespeare's Lear as I introduced similar characters from my family. Matt squashed it like a grape, flopped back in his chair, legs and arms stretched out, my scene in front of him - dead: "This won't work. You've confused the audience. If you start with excerpts from Lear in your opening scene, present Lear or some adaptation thereof."

Now I know how the mid-century music modernists felt.

So at home I re-wrote the first scene, axed Shakespeare and thought about the audience.

My assignment for the following Saturday was to draft a duet scene. I thought my closing line in the fight scene I chose was brilliant, achieved with great direction and acceleration. Matt thought it was dead in the water: "No one fights like that. Who listens to their opponent reel out 100 words before butting in? In fact, who listens??" So he made me re-write the scene allowing each of my 2 arguers only 3 words per turn.

Trying to finish the scene at home I realized great material (my family) and a quick dark wit which often translate into funny Alitisa pieces do not a David Mamet make. The more I re-wrote, the more I put myself to sleep re-reading, so boring did I make it. So I'm taking the long road; re-reading two excellent playwright primer books AND NOT SKIPPING THE EXERCISES!

My only consolation: Have you ever read any of Mamet's books?

"Such a Lot of Wonderful Terrible Things DID Happen!"
February 15, 2015, 10:23 AM posted by Maria Choban

Two weeks to showtime. We're adding the Barbara Song by Kurt Weill.
Not as straight forward as Mack the Knife but with the arrangement I tracked down on the interwebz and the practice time I've had, I'm expecting us to align - if not at tempo, at least slowly in sync at this first rehearsal.

Oh so wrong!

We do align. And we're almost at tempo. And I'm playing most of the gypsy-spicy chords correctly. One more run through and 9 out of 10 dentists would deem this ready for concert. I look at Anthony Hudson whose avatar, Carla Rossi, Portland's Premier Drag Clown, will be performing this in The Hiding Place: A Queer Story-Telling Cabaret.
With charming quick grace, Anthony appreciatively cheerleads this first run-through:

Pretty Good
If not outright great!"

He did not intone the first or last lines.

To attempt explaining/describing genius or God is to immediately relegate me to the loony-bin file folder. But I'm going to try anyway.

Usually I don't have to think about these things because I have plenty of lead time to live with a piece in solo practice and later with rehearsal. The slow work-up time where a piece goes from well aligned with all the characters/ciphers on the page observed correctly to Magic, I call "Internalization." Stuff happens so slowly and is folded into or edited out so organically that it's easy to pass judgement on groups or performers who do not give an adequate amount of time for internalization to happen, settling only for the correct observation and articulation of the marks on the printed page, perhaps extending this (with careful analysis) to rubato or meta interpretation not included on the page; usually with an eye toward "What would the composer think?"

Even when internalization happens instantly as with me and Winterreise partner Ken Beare - I usually chalk it up to luck, chemistry, experience.

But now I'm thrown into a situation with Anthony where we both know that with everything observed, this piece falls way flat and we have limited time for Magic to happen. Anthony is shooting for Megan Mullally's interpretation which we more or less observed in our initial run through having worked up our parts in solo practice with this in mind. Now the hard work begins. Not the work of parsing the piece analytically and assigning a logical interpretation, but the work of becoming one with The Force, both of us totally open with each other while still retaining the director's ear for audience and context. We will be performing this as part of an Anne Frank exhibit. We both feel this piece is bigger than Mullally's interpretation in this context; bigger than feminism or social morality. We go to the most powerful verse - the last - and open the throttle full. Anthony is bent over in near pain at the climax. We go over a line Anthony targeted near the end of the verse several times with him asking for various different things pianistically and me keeping a wide open ear and eye. He loves the dead silence after he utters the last word in that line. I love the take he did 3 times back where instead of setting up the punch with a slight pause, he accelerates into it while still broadening, tearing his voice apart. We're getting close . . . with just this phrase. One line. 9 short words. We have an entire scene/verse to set. And then we have to work backwards to feel and figure out the ascent to this pinnacle.

Two hours later I'm exhausted. Fuck yeoman's work, this was the work of The Universe, Genius work, God-Smacked. Under alien possession since 7:30pm, I'm unable to string together a coherent adieu as Anthony leaves.

February 11, 2015, 10:44 AM posted by Maria Choban

Mendelssohn is sitting on my lap. I know he understands English but I'm wondering if he's literate as well. He's staring at the screen and I'm about to divulge last night's dalliance with Muffin.

Not sure whether the Laughing Planet on Jefferson was on the north or south side of the street, I missed my last opportunity to park but luckily did not miss my last easy opportunity to circle the block and try again. This time I maneuvered quickly over to the left lane on Jefferson where I serpentined my tonka-toy into an angled parking spot in front of a little doggy on a leash talking to a bigger doggy on a leash. I'd just finished playing a show and I was meeting my partner and a friend.

Lo! the little doggy was a kitty-cat!!!

Jumping out of the car, forgetting about my partner and our friend and the fact that Laughing Planet was closed, staying open only until I showed up for the rendezvous, I dropped half my IQ and my ability to both speak and understand English.

"Can I pet him?"

"Her name is Muffin, and yes. She's very friendly."

"Hi Sweetie!"

"Her name is Muffin."

"Doh, dou are toooo adohble putty-tat!!!"


Playing for more time with Muffin, I kept asking questions. Although he's been Muffin's slave for over 4 years, Muffin only began leash training 2 years ago. Now they frequent the Esplanade with Muffin on his shoulder whether he's walking or biking. You have no idea how hard it is to formulate questions when all you long for is to bury your face in Muffin's fur.

They both live in the building attached to Muffin's sidewalk. I'm pretty sure everyone in the building knows Muffin and I'm pretty sure I can press any button at the entrance, utter "I'm here to see Muffin" and be let in.

I have no idea what Muffin's slave is called.

Mendelssohn emits a bored, slightly disgusted sigh at my puffed up cat-erotic confessions. And I must admit, Muffin was about as interested in me as Mendelssohn diagnoses from reading this slop on my screen.

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