Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Walk on the Classical Side!

Tonight I performed with an orchestra for the first time in ages! I was the pianist with the Oakland Public Conservatory Chamber Orchestra in performance of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland and Dismal Swamp by William Grant Still. Both pieces have substantial, beautiful (and somewhat technically challenging) piano parts and I had a great time performing the works.

First, we performed Appalachia Spring, which starts slowly and gently, evoking a sunrise, gradually building into a raucous folk music inflected “hillbilly ho-down”. The piano part is filled with octave leaps, parallel intervals, and towards the end, exceptionally fast scalular patterns which don’t leave much room for error. Additionally, there are frequent time changes (alternating between 3/8, 4/4 and 5/8 and sometimes 1/2), which require constant focus and counting to ensure keeping one’s place in the music. Despite the challenge, it is such beautiful music! I’ve always been a fan of this particular Copland piece.

Dismal Swamp is a gorgeous piece of music from a composer whose work I’ve been familiar with for many years. My piano teacher from my teen years, Eugene Gash, had exposed me to several African American composers of music, including some of Still’s works. His work “Out of the Silence” is one of my favorite pieces in my repertoire. “Dismal Swamp” piece reads like a mini-concerto, with the piano receiving solo treatment as well as being used for texture within the orchestra. I had a few occasions to be expressive as a soloist within the work, which I truly enjoyed! Despite limited rehearsal time, I think the overall performances went well!

Many thanks to our conductor, Sandra Noriega, and to all of the orchestra players for a great job, and for making me feel a welcome member of the ensemble, and thanks to Owen for coming to the concert! Now, I feel inspired to learn and perform a concerto. I already own the scores for the Grieg, Rach #3 , Liszt #1 and Shostakovish #2 ….hmmm…maybe one day…

Monday, May 25, 2009

Morocco: An Extra Day!

I woke up early, and headed down to the lobby a full 30 minutes before the call time. I’ve taught myself to be particularly early on departure dates to be absolutely certain that I don’t get left behind. Once we all boarded the van, we were driven 90 minutes away to the Casablanca Airport. On the way, we were able to see more of the Moroccan landscape, including Casablanca in the distance. None of us could help but notice the difference in interaction between pedestrians and vehicles here: people walking within inches of swiftly moving vehicles, people lingering in the street as traffic passes by, but most shocking: people walking on the freeway! There was even a couple, both dressed in fine business clothing, standing on the freeway, as if awaiting a ride. I’d never seen anything like it.

Driving to the airport:

Once we arrived at the airport, we each checked in, handing over passports and luggage. Well, then it was my turn. Suddenly, the check-in agent became cold and abrupt: “You have missed your flight and must go to the ticket agent”. Of course, this information struck me as being spurious and inaccurate. I once again checked my cell phone (where I stored the email message outlining my flight information, reference number, etc.), and showed the printed itinerary I’d been given, which confirmed me on the 9:40am flight, to the check-in agent. She was not moved. “This information is incorrect. You must go to the ticket agent.” Ok. Fine.

So, as the other members of our group looked on with curiosity and growing concern, I walked to the ticket agent, explained the situation and received an even more shocking response: “You were booked on the 7am flight, and you missed it. You now have 2 choices: you can fly to Paris today and spend the night in Paris, or stay another day in Morocco and fly tomorrow morning at 7am. What do want to do?” Apparently, the flight had been overbooked, and the agents refused to acknowledge that their airline had made an error. There was no waiting list, no standby possibility, etc. I was officially stuck in Morocco…alone. After trying to get something to happen for an hour or so, with an agent who was even more rude than the first agent, I finally told my lovely band mates to go ahead and catch their flight. They were very kind in waiting with me to resolve the situation. I hugged them all goodbye and considered my two options. I decided it would be best to stay another day in Morocco, as I didn’t have any way to contact my friends in Paris to set up accommodations for myself (my cell phone doesn’t work outside of the USA). Thankfully, the driver who had delivered us to the airport had not left, and he allowed me to use his cell phone to call our hostess and tour guide, Wissal, who contacted the resort and arranged for me to return to my hotel room for another night. The driver, who spoke no English at all, grabbed my luggage and returned me to the hotel, 90 minutes back in the other direction.

Driving back to the hotel:

Upon my return to the hotel, I immediately headed to the breakfast restaurant to eat. I’d be awake since 5am and was desperately hungry. On Saturday, I’d met a couple of ladies who were in Morocco vacationing, and who are the friends of a Wonder staff person. One of the ladies, Daphne, happened to be in the restaurant having breakfast at that very moment, and invited me to join her. Daphne and her friend Tiffany instantly took me in as a friend and I spent much of the day with them, a beautiful example of serendipity. Later in the day, we went to dinner in the resident Moroccan restaurant, enjoying a delicious traditional Moroccan meal. I had a sampling of Moroccan salads, my favorite being the smoked eggplant salad, which I ate with the whole grain bread that was brought to our table. Yummy! After dinner, I went back to my room and occupied myself with various tasks, deciding it would be better not to fall asleep, given my 3am call time.

My new friends, Daphne, Tiffany and Abdallah:

At 3am, I went to the lobby, and as expected, my driver was there, ready to again take me to the airport. This time, he was driving a fancy Mercedes sedan, which allowed him to move much faster. This trip only took an hour’s time. We arrived at the Casablanca Airport 30 minutes before the check-in agents arrived, and as before, the driver (whose name I didn’t get) waited with me. Apparently, whoever this man was, he wasn’t simply a driver. Once I had my ticket, he attached a fancy badge to his jacket and the security people virtually genuflected in his presence, as we sailed through customs and security with ease. He pulled my computer case and carry-on bag to the Gate, confirming that I was in the right place at the right time before departing. He was utterly gracious, and despite my awful French and Arabic, seemed to understand my sincere expressions of gratitude.

On a somber note, this morning, I turned on my computer to check the reviews of the concert and was stunned to learn of the terrible stampede that had taken place. Apparently, Moroccan star, Abdelaziz Stati performed after us, and following his concert, as the crowd was leaving, a fence collapsed and 11 people died in the ensuing haos. I extend my deepest condolences to the families of those who died.

Overall, my first trip to Africa was a rousing success. I did thoroughly enjoy myself, fiasco notwithstanding, and was duly impressed by the hospitality of our tireless hosts, Wissal and Amr, our various servers, including Abdallah and Hanane, and the entire staff of L’Amphitrite Palace Resort & Spa.



Finally, many thanks to King Mohammed VI, for his exceptional generosity towards all of us during our stay, and to his staff for making sure I was taken care of after my flight SNAFU. I am left with a beautiful impression of the Moroccan people, and look forward to returning one day to see more of the country! Shukran and Barak Allah Ufik!

Photos from my last day in Morocco:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Morocco: Shopping!

Again, I woke up late, missed another chance to run on the beach, and missed breakfast. Oh well! At 1pm, we drove back into Rabat to visit the Medina shopping area once again. On the way, we passed the party castle, which is just as stunning in daylight as at night. We stopped by TGI Friday in Rabat for lunch, where our new friends, restaurant managers Noura and Richard, once again enthusiastically greeted us. Life in Morocco runs at a very different pace. Every meal lasted 2 hours or more, rather than the standard cursory 20-30 minutes in the USA. TGI Friday was no different. We sat, talked, waited, talked, waited, talked, and were at the breaking point when food finally arrived!

After lunch, we hit the Medina. I bought a few more trinkets, for friends and family, but for myself as well, and had a great time walking around with the group. I am not an experienced haggler, and felt a bit ambivalent about the prospect of talking down a price that already seemed absurdly low, but apparently, negotiation is not only expected, it’s cultural, so I partook. Some fellow Americans, who now live in Morocco, suggested that I negotiate the initial price down by 2/3, but I felt too guilty of being an “ugly American” to do that. For the most part, I was pleased when I achieved a 30-40% discount.

We returned to the hotel, and went to dinner…another 2 hour experience…and then headed into the cigar lounge. Even I, the anti-smoker, sat in the room with everyone for a little while. Smoking is permitted virtually everywhere in Morocco, so I had to acclimate myself to continual sniffles and irritated eyes while there. In the resort, however, the filtration system was adequate so that I didn’t feel inundated to an intolerable degree by cigarette and cigar smoke. Once I’d had enough of being exposed to the smoke, I headed to my room, packed and slept for about 5 hours.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Morocco: Stevie Wonder Concert

This morning, I had one thing on my mind: PRACTICE! Over the past 2 days of rehearsal, Stevie has randomly called upon the band to rehearse songs that we either had never played before or had rarely played. I spent the entire morning, reviewing as much music as I could in a few hours. I ate a pear and drank some water, but otherwise had nothing to eat. At 3pm, we all loaded into the shuttle busses to head to the venue, this time without hassle, as the crowd had yet to appear and the Royal Family wouldn’t be arriving for several hours. Unfortunately, the weather was taking a turn towards cold, which is not good for an outdoor concert…especially for someone like me, who gets cold easily!

Driving to the venue:

From the stage:

Me & Phil, keyboard tech

Kyle on guitar

After running about half of the show, we all took a break, and I, starving as I was, was first in line for dinner. Dinner included some fantastically delicious examples of Moroccan cuisine, including vegetables cooked in a Tagine (my favorite Moroccan dish), broiled lobster and yummy chicken Pastilla. Shortly after I made my plate, I was told by our stage manager, Tony, that Stevie had arrived and wanted everyone on stage ASAP. Not one to leave a plate of delicious food behind, I grabbed a napkin, a fork and toted my plate along with me onto the stage! While Stevie tweaked the settings on his keyboard, I surreptitiously took little bites of food, swiftly consuming the entire plate of food before the end of sound check. We spent about another hour in sound check, and, well, by then, I was hungry again! So, I put together another plate of food. Hey! A girl’s gotta eat, right? Lol

After my second plate of dinner, I returned to my dressing room. For the first time, I had my own dressing room, which was slightly isolating, but good for intense music study. I listened to more Stevie tunes on my iPod as I donned my stage outfit. 30 minutes later, we hit the stage (on time!!) with great energy. For the most part, everything fell into place, and the audience loved every moment. I was told later that the Queen watched the show from a vantage point directly in front of me in the audience.

After the show, Stevie called the band into his dressing room, fed us more delicious Moroccan cuisine, and praised our efforts in his loving, familial way. Duly stuffed, we then headed to the castle for another after party. This time, as we arrived much later (nearly 2am), there weren’t as many people, the music was far more subdued and there wasn’t much food left … not that any of us needed any more food. A few of us walked around and engaged the Morocco people present in lively conversation. I met a few rather interesting people, including a Moroccan artist named Elam Jay. Stevie had an early flight, so we left the party around 3am, and headed back to the hotel. I was able to get to bed just around 4:30am.

After party photos:

Friday, May 22, 2009

Morocco: Alicia Keys Concert

This morning, I woke up late again. I still haven’t had the chance to go for a run on the beach or have breakfast. Lobby call for rehearsal was 1pm, so having woken up just before noon, I had just enough to get dressed and take off. At rehearsal, we went over a few songs before Stevie arrived, which was good to do considering that we hadn’t performed in concert together since November of last year. The band is as tight as ever and a continual source of joy for me. As a musician, it just doesn’t get better than this! Stevie joined us about an hour into the rehearsal, and at one point, he called me over to the piano to learn 2 of his newly composed songs. He showed me the song on the piano, and then moved over to another bench, allowing me to play his piano while he sang right next to me. Just me and him. Those are my favorite moments. All I can do is just play, soak it all in and grin like a kid in a candy store!

After the rehearsal, we all returned to the hotel to get ready to attend Alicia Keys' performance at the Mawazine Festival.
At 8:30pm, we packed into a duo of shuttle busses and drove to the venue. Apparently, part of the royal family was arriving at the same time as our group, and security was intense. We were led backstage and taken to an area where we could stand and watch a rear projection image of the stage. We arrived just in time for the final few songs of Alicia’s opening act, her background singer Jermaine Paul. Unfortunately, the audio backstage was less than ideal, and it was difficult to hear Jermaine, but the audience out front seemed to enjoy his performance. Once Jermaine left the stage, we were led out into the crowd, however, most of us stopped short of the designated area, preferring to have the option of returning backstage. Alicia came on stage and sang a series of lively songs from her latest release, as well as some inventive arrangements of her hits. Most of us stayed in the crowd watching the show for about 30 minutes before returning backstage to watch the remainder of her performance on the rear projection screens. I, for one, am not a crowd person. I love performing for a crowd, but do not enjoy standing in a crowd. Probably because I’m at a slight disadvantage given my small stature. I can never see anything! Lol

I’d seen Alicia perform once before several years ago. I’ve always been a fan of her music, but more than anything else, I’m grateful for the impact she has made on music education, especially on little girls. She is such a wonderful inspiration for girls to learn to play piano and sing. This time in concert, she was again impressive. She has a great connection with the audience and sings with wonderful expression. I had a great time!

After the concert, we were whisked away to a Roman castle high on a hill for a VIP after party. The lighting, décor, and landscape of the castle was fully romantic and beautiful, and inside the main party area, was filled with all manner of Moroccan delicacies. While at the party, I met the Somalia born artist K’Naan and his band, all lovely fellows, whose show I wasn’t able to attend. Since our show is tomorrow night, we all ate food, and called it a night by 2am, early by Wonder-time standards!

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Ok, I like to consider myself a rather athletic, sure-footed type of person. Well, today in the gym, I had a wee bit of an accident. I finished a brief workout, and, as is my habit, I wanted to end the workout with a handstand. However, there was no clear wall for me to kick up next to. I can do a freestanding handstand, but I have a psychological fear of falling over, so I prefer to kick up next to a wall...just in case! So, there was this marble pillar in the gym, and I thought "hm, I can kick up against that pillar and I'll be fine". So, upside down I went! However, I started feeling a little wobbly, and reached to place my toe on the pillar to support my balance. However, this marble pillar was really slick and my toe just slid right off of it, and over I went...feet first, upside down into a backbend. Bam! I'm used to coming out of head and hand stands gently, so I didn't fall as hard as I could have, but it was certainly more abrupt than I would have preferred, given that it was completely unplanned! I stayed in the backbend for only about 2 seconds, and lowered myself to the ground in a bit of shock. I didn't have any pain at the time, and actually was impressed with the fact that I can perform a handstand and lower into a backbend. However, now, 15 hours later, I'm feeling quite sore. I bruised and scraped my elbow (which is now slightly swollen) and my forearms and trapezius muscles are aching.

Anyway, undaunted, I immediately got up from the floor, found a small sliver of wall to kick up against. Just like fall off of a horse or bicycle, I did another handstand to be sure I don't lose my love of that particular exercise. And I'll do it again tomorrow....just not the fall! I think I'll start training to do a graceful INTENTIONAL backwards walk over. I've always wanted to learn to do one, and now I see that I'm not that far from my goal!

As for music, we had rehearsal today with Stevie. It was fun, the usual musical journey that has virtually nothing to do with what we'll perform on Saturday. Oh well! We're all used to it, and love it and him anyway! ; >

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Morocco: Sight-seeing in Rabat

This morning I woke up at 7am, stressing about not having my luggage. So, as is my tendency, I decided to use this bit of adversity to my advantage, and meditated on being at peace, despite the annoyance of not having my personal items, keyboard, clothes, etc. I dozed in and out of sleep for the following 3 hours, and finally decided to get up at 10am. I had no appetite, but went downstairs and made myself consume a glass of orange juice and a small cookie, as I waited for my band mate, Ryan, whose luggage was also lost, to meet me for a ride to a local grocery store to purchase personal items. I’ve had a great time using my very poor French around town, and occasionally getting up the nerve to use the Classical Arabic that I learned on the flight here, and had an opportunity to impress the storekeeper with my efforts after making my purchase.

Once we returned to the hotel, I decided to sit down for a formal lunch while waiting for the hour to pass before our scheduled tour of Rabat. At 1pm, everyone met in the lobby, and our tour guide, Wisal, showed us to the most famous mosque in Rabat, the beach, and a marketplace called Medina. I found a few trinkets to return home with, beautiful, small items which are sure to bring smiles to my loved ones. We spent the bulk of the day touring around, each of us variably sight-seeing and occasionally napping in the tour bus while driving, stopping for dinner at the local TGIF restaurant, and then heading back to the hotel. I only had a bowl of soup at TGIF, as I was still rather full from my lunch of pasta with tomatoes and basil, and bread with butter, and so back at the hotel, I was famished. But before I could think about food, I was informed that my luggage had been delivered! I was thrilled! What a relief to see my belongings! Fully pleased with the turn of events, my attention returned to the subject of food. Several of us met at one of the hotel restaurants and literally shut the place down with good food, good humor, and good conversation. Fun day!

Driving in Rabat

The oldest and most famous mosque in Rabat, Hassan Mosque, started in the 12th century but never completed

Musée de Oudaïa

Walking through town, passing beautiful doors

The guys can't resist performing

The beach

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Arriving in Morocco!

I'm elated, and disappointed: I have arrived in Morocco! But, alas my luggage is missing. Sigh. I’m working hard to maintain a positive attitude despite the incredible irritation of having nothing to wear, no toiletries, no cute shoes, no pajamas, no portable keyboard, etc. After all, I’m in Africa! I’m going to be performing in front of thousands and thousands of people! Hopefully, my luggage will arrive by the morning so that I can change clothes and get around town.

Here are a few photos of what I saw today:

Approaching the airport

Driving to the hotel

A road sign on the way to the hotel