All people have dreams and aspirations. Some of us actually get to realize them. That is what happened to Christina Kartsonakis recently. Some of you will know Christina as one half of the rock duo The Sugar Dames. What you might not know is that she is also a well-rounded musician / producer who also writes her own symphonic music.
Her father Dino is well known as a concert pianist in the classical and inspirational worlds and has performed her music in the past. When he asked to perform another of her compositions for a special event, this led to an interesting development. The conductor for the orchestra asked her to step in and conduct the piece herself. Now to make this even more interesting, this was not local music theatre or even at a mid-sized city event.
No, for her first time conducting a full orchestra the setting would be on hallowed ground: a sold-out evening at Carnegie Hall. For the two sides of the experience, I spoke with Christina a few days before her performance to get some background on how this piece came to be. Then I spoke to her again, a few days after the event took place to see if reality met or exceeded her expectations. Predictably it did.
Christina – Part One (Before Carnegie Hall)
antiMusic: Your music is going to be part of a program at Carnegie Hall. First of all, can you tell us all about the event and who is involved? I understand there is a humanitarian component to the evening.
Christina: It's honoring Israel. We're raising money for the people of Israel who need homes, food and shelter. All the tickets have been sold. It's completely being underwritten and many funds have come in. Several Israeli dignitaries will be there, politicians. Denzel Washington and his wife Pauletta will be there. She'll be singing. Daniel Rodriguez will be there. He's the firefighter who sang at the 911 memorial. And Sandi Patty will be there who is one of the biggest gospel singers in the world. Of course, my father is performing and he is hosting the evening.
And I just found out that not only am I the youngest to conduct my own composition at Carnegie Hall, no daughter has ever conducted her father before. It's so cool. I just feel so honored and blessed. Because this was my dream since I was a child. I would stand in front of the mirror and conduct hip-hop music or whatever was on. So this is definitely something special. I don't know what to do after this. I could die.
antiMusic: How did you come to be involved with this program?
Christina: Well, it's very interesting. My father is from New York and he's been in the arts all of his life. He's a concert pianist and he started playing when he was three years old. He's done 60 records and played all over the world. He's played for presidents and has just had an amazing career. He did Carnegie Hall in 2006 and sold it out. He actually played one of my pieces at Carnegie Hall as a surprise for me. I was just elated because I wrote that song for him.
And so now, the maestro of the evening David Clydesdale, called me, because my dad wanted to play one of my songs, and asked, "Do you want to conduct?" And I almost passed out. And I said, "Yes. Absolutely." Because if you're not good or you don't know what you're doing, even my own father would say, "It's not going to happen." I'm not saying I'm good. What I'm saying is it didn't come through my dad. It came through the maestro for the evening who I've always admired. I've admired him since I was a child. It's just so cool to be co-conducting. I get to have the stage to myself for six minutes with a hundred piece orchestra and the Philadelphia Boys Choir. So that's how it came about.
I almost passed out on the floor. (laughs) And then I got to it…all the sheet music and practicing and all that stuff. The piece is called "1948 (Triumphant)". It was the year that Israel was liberated. So it's the 55th birthday, really, of being free people. That's who my song is dedicated to.
antiMusic: How long did it take you to write the music?
Christina: It came really fast. It was probably a couple of weeks. I'm always writing something. My dream is to write a full symphony one day. So I took a piece that I was already working on and hurriedly finished it. I always have stuff lying around. I have sheet music for instrumentals, for overtures, preludes, classical…whatever. And I love incorporating them into other music. Whether it be electronica, trip-hop, alternative, whatever it is, I like to keep that little orchestral flair.
But it took a while because you have to write for a hundred-piece orchestra, I mean oboes and violins and a horn section are all in F Sharp so you have to transpose the key. So this is a wonderful learning experience and I just love it! It definitely stretched me as an artist.
antiMusic: But how did you actually learn to do all of this?
Christina: I taught myself. I grew up watching my father. I learned the basics at a young age and I read every book that I could on writing music and notation. And of course Mahler and Debussy are my all-time heroes. And Mahler conducted at Carnegie Hall countless times.
antiMusic: Mahler is very complicated music.
Christina: Very complicated but all of his music meant something to him. While I was a young girl, I promised myself that every song I would write, especially with classical music would mean something. That every note would mean something. That each note would have an emotion behind it. Mahler would actually notate next to his notes, "I want the orchestra to stand-up right here". He was very emotional about his music. With me, I want someone to hear this piece and know me. It's kind of like a journal with no words. It's a music journal. It's dark but it's very big. It's kind of Danny Elfman meets Tchaikovsky.
antiMusic: How long is the composition?
Christina: Six minutes.
antiMusic: That's a long piece.
Christina: Yes it is. (laughs) It's a lot of minutes to be the metronome and all that stuff. I'm so thrilled.
antiMusic: What were the challenges that you experienced while writing it?
Christina: I'm very difficult on myself. I'm very hard on myself. I lose perspective. And I have to come back to it and I think every songwriter can relate to that. I think that I'm a bit of a perfectionist especially when it comes to music. That was my biggest hurdle. There were so many points and counter-points that I could write for the one melody line. Which one do I do? That was a problem (laughs). I have five different ideas. So actually my biggest hurdle was just getting over myself. And just letting whatever come out….no second-guessing….just do it. Straight for your heart. From your brain. And what Mozart said, I'll never forget it. "Put down your instrument and write." So I would have to just sit down and clear my head and write. So that was the hardest part…thinking it has to be perfect!
But then you have to let it go and after I'm finished, I absolutely let it go. And a lot of times I can't even remember how to play some of my pieces two weeks later. I'll write a piano piece and record it and a couple of weeks later can't remember how to play it all.
antiMusic: You've got too much music in your head.
Christina: I think so (laughs). It keeps me up at night and wakes me up in the morning.
antiMusic: I assume you'll be having a trial run with the orchestra in the next few days.
Christina: Yes, I'll have two hours with them tomorrow. They're quick and professional so you don't have a lot of time with them. So I'll probably have two run-throughs with them. But they've had the music ahead of time. And that's kind of the way it goes at Carnegie Hall. But the Manhattan Pops have been conducted by the best conductors in the world so it won't be a problem. I'm not nervous. I'm so excited. I just think, "What's the worst that can happen?" I'm just going to have a great time and it will be fantastic.
antiMusic: But people watch a conductor and they think it's the easiest thing in the world, just standing up there and waving their arms. It's obviously a big job.
Christina: Yes, you're the metronome. You're pulling out a performance from 100 people. It's about the expression on your face. Who you're looking at in the orchestra to really get that performance out of them. And with the Philadelphia Boys Choir…they're kids so they will really depend on me to conduct them. So you've got over a hundred people going, "OK, what do you want? How big do you want it?" And you are the metronome. You are the beat. And there are a few parts of the piece that start and stop so it's all up to you. If you don't go after it with every inch of your life, it's going to be a disaster.
antiMusic: What kind of input, if any, did you receive from your father?
Christina: You know, it's interesting. He just absolutely loved the piece and was just so supportive. No changes. No nothing. And my father is very, very critical when it comes to music. I mean New York City, born and raised. He studied at Julliard. He was born with a gift. I mean he would tell me if there was something wrong or he didn't like it. So everything went so well. But I grew up around the best and I learned from the best, just observing and taking it all in. And that's the same thing I did as an engineer and producer and mixer. Just going into as many studios as I could when I first moved to Nashville and looked at what everybody was doing and then I bought my own studio. That's kind of how I do it. Just jump in and act like you know what you're doing until you know what you're doing.
antiMusic: Well everybody knows the old saying, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" How would you finish that line? (laughs)
Christina: Well certainly practice, practice, practice. But I do believe in purpose in all things. For some reason, I'm supposed to be there that night. It's a combination of both for me. And I also truly believe that if you want something bad enough, you're going to get it if you work hard enough. I would have never thought this in a million years.
Christina – Part Two (After Carnegie Hall)
antiMusic: You're still basking in the fallout of your incredible triumph I would assume?
Christina: Honestly I'm really lost for words. It's weird. It's truly, not to sound contrived, because I wasn't expecting it at all but after, that night, the next day it was a feeling like it changed the landscape of my life forever.
Innately, just that feeling that I know it has. It's just amazing. When you play at Carnegie Hall, something happens (in a reverential hushed tone). I don't know what, but something happens. And it just changes everything.
antiMusic: Well it's obviously a milestone. I mean how many people can say they've done that. So I would assume you would feel like that, absolutely. So how did it go?
Christina: What you feel is so cool. I don't get stage fright. I don't get nervous before I go on stage because both of my parents brought me out on stage when I was a baby, literally a newborn. And my dad would put the mike in the blanket and they'd play a track like I was singing.
Christina: the audience loved all that stuff. So I was on stage since I was a LITTLE kid. As soon as I could walk they had me singing with my dad and mom. So backstage at Carnegie, with Sandi Patti who has done Carnegie Hall God knows how many times, who has been in my life, all of my life because of my father, in the same industry. I grew up with Sandy and she was so great.
From the rehearsals to the actual performance, both were so powerful and spectacular but walking in…well lets start with rehearsals. Walking in and the orchestra's there but everyone's in plain clothes and it's still, you know, it's a crowded stage, 120 voice choir, and then the Manhattan Pops and there was 85 pieces I think. And then that's when you go, "Okay, you've got to really do this now."
So anyway, it was one of those moments, where you're like… okay here we go. You only have a few minutes. You have to come prepared. Manhattan Pops, they're ready. They're being paid scale so you only have a limited amount of time. And so when I walk in, Sandi's rehearsing her number on stage and Pauletta Washington, who is Denzel's wife, is there. She's so awesome. We just became like fast friends. My dressing room was right across hers on the second floor.
My power went out in my dressing room…with wet hair. My hair was completely wet and I started to blow dry my hair and I guess I blew a fuse. So it was 45 minutes before showtime and I'm running down the hall to Pauletta's dressing room and Sandi's dressing room is next to mine as well. Fortunately Pauletta was alone, and she goes, "Girl, get in here."
And I had to get dressed there and it was hilarious. Security had to come up with flashlights, get my stuff out of my dressing room, put it in Pauletta's until they fixed it. And again, it's like 35 minutes, 30 minutes before the show. It's funny NOW. It was funny then actually. I was laughing. Because I'm like, "Whatever happens it's going to be fine. It's going to be alright." So okay, back to rehearsal. (laughs)
Sandi took my hand…. When I went on stage, they called and they said," Christina, come on up." It was my time to rehearse. Sandi took my hands and she was like, "You play this like it's your living room. I'm Mama Sandi. I'll always be your Mama Sandi." And of course I'm getting emotional now as she's talking to me, and she says, "You're going to knock them dead. Don't even think about this is Carnegie Hall." And then gave me some private advice, which is so cool, so sweet.
And I just stood on the podium overlooking the orchestra and the choir and they were all staring at me. My dad sat at the piano. And I thought, "Oh wow. Okay. This is happening right now. Okay." And I think I was more nervous in rehearsal, to be honest because you take the podium and it goes silent. It was kind of, "Okay, let's do this." That's actually what I said, "Let's do this," and started the piece. And it was then that I really, truly realized how important the role of the conductor is.
And I've always known this but to actually be it and have everybody looking at you, who have been conducted by the best conductors in the world, to know what to do….and there was this one moment in the middle of the piece when we were just rehearsing, and something was off in the charts, in my copy of the charts. The horn section. And I could tell something was missing. So I kind of stopped and kind of went off-tempo, slowing down because I knew a whole section was missing.
And the entire orchestra just started to fall apart because I wasn't conducting properly. It was that moment, I was "Wow, a conductor doesn't just stand up there" and you think the orchestra just plays itself. It doesn't. When I started to slow down and lose focus and look around at the charts, and they started to slow down. And I heard the trombones start to go, the horns, everybody start to go, that's when it hit me: this entire performance really does hinge on my upswing, my downswing, everything, my cues.
Gosh, that's quite a moment. You don't really realize how crucial it is. So quickly we got the horn section together. Went through the piece. It was great. And then it was show time. And my dad's introduction was precious. We've never worked together, except on stage at Carnegie Hall. And then he introduced me as the youngest female in rock history, or contemporary music, or whatever he said, to conduct at Carnegie Hall.
So I just went out there like it was any other venue and got up there and I just remember that moment of standing there looking down. It was totally silent. The whole orchestra and everybody. I acknowledged the Holocaust survivors right before I started the piece. There were a few of them that were there that night and I had them stand. And I dedicated it to them. So the response to that was tremendous. It was an honor for me to do that. A huge honor. Because soon there's not going to be any more Holocaust survivors alive.
Then I just took a deep breath in and I smiled. I had this huge smile. And I just began. And it was just like something took over. And I knew innately in that moment that I needed to soak this all in, enjoy this, concentrate, enjoy this. And I did. And I remember trying to catch eyes with like every boy in the choir, there was 120, and everybody in the orchestra. And I was just smiling as I was conducting.
And the piece was sounding soooo beautiful and moving. The orchestra was SO on, so much more then in rehearsal. They really saved it. So professional and so wonderful. And then there's a critical part in the piece where it absolutely stops and it starts again on a really tricky downbeat and man, when it starts again it's the horns, it's the voices, it's everything that comes in at the same time. It was at the end of the piece and it was the biggest high of my life. Ever. I really wanted to nail that ending because it was an abrupt ending. I kind of felt like a gymnast. You just have to nail it and land it. And thank god it went well.
Then it was done. It was over. I just heard thunderous applause. I turned around and everybody was standing. And that's when I started to kind of let go. I had tears in my eyes and took my bow and walked off. And when I walked off to the wing and Sandi and Pauletta and everybody were shouting and jumping up and down for me. It was very, very sweet. It was tremendous.
Then there was a reception afterwards because there were a lot of people, dignitaries and ambassadors, and movie directors and things like that who approached me afterwards. So that was really neat. A lot of people from the Jewish community approached me and were very complementary. And for New York to react like that was big for me because they'll tell ya how they feel about you. (laughs). So that was wonderful. And as a result there was a lot of press from that. I had opportunities…I'm to score a major motion picture next year. It's about World War II and it just fits it perfectly.
It was one of those things, the next day I'm going, I don't know… Of course I have bigger dreams and I always will, create bigger and bigger dreams. But that WAS my dream, that was my life long dream, more than a Grammy, more than any music award. That's where Tchaikovsky was. It was that moment of, oh my goodness. Who has stood here? Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Liszt and …it was just amazing. It's hard for me to put it in words. I find myself bouncing around in this story because it was just one of those surreal, out of body experiences.
antiMusic: I would imagine. That piece was six minutes long. Did it seem like one minute or did it seem like a half hour?
Christina: It seemed like 30 seconds, maybe like 20 seconds. It just went by so quickly. As a matter of fact I was so happy when I was up there, I was smiling and one of the women in the orchestra, a second violin, noticed I was looking at her, and smiling. She looked up at me, and did a double take during the piece, and then looked down. I don't know if she thought I was cuing, or what I was doing.
And then afterwards, she came up to me with a couple other members of the orchestra and said, I just want to say, what a wonderful experience that was to play your piece and to have you up there, so professional doing this for the first time at Carnegie Hall and smiling. What a pleasurable experience." (laughs) I said, "Oh my goodness, thank you so much." It was just so, I was just soaking it in. It was awesome. It was really wonderful. You gotta put up or shut in that moment. (laughs) It's kind of one of those things where you just absolutely jump in, no pressure. (laughs)
antiMusic: What were your thoughts as you entered the hall coming in. was it trepidation or quiet confidence, before you actually saw the orchestra
Christina: Oh, it was like walking into Disneyland when you were a little kid. It was like being in Small World or Pirates of the Caribbean and you're on this boat and you're floating. You don't feel your legs anymore and you're just looking around, like "Wow. Wow. I've never experienced anything like this." It was THAT kind of childlike moment. I think it was the history, because the history was flooding my mind of everything that had happened there.
antiMusic: Was it helpful or distracting to have your father on stage with you or did it not matter at the moment who was there
Christina: You know, that's a really good question. I would say, I don't know if it was helpful because my dad is SO honest, which I appreciate because it makes you better, but he's also extremely honest and if you're not getting it he'll tell you. Honestly, no. I think that was more pressure. It was more pressure because you want to please. You want to do better. You want to be better. So yeah, I think it put the pressure on a little more. He's so professional. He's so good at what he does. But he's also very supportive. He was so sweet. But, no, to answer your question, it was a mindset I put myself in. (laughs). But you know what, honestly, it was very natural. I didn't feel like I had to breathe. No. it was just how I felt. I was just soaking it in, having a ball.
antiMusic: You're no stranger to celebrity but was it unnerving to see Denzel in the audience or government officials that you were aware were there because of the theme of the evening.
Christina: I don't know if it's because of the manner in which I was raised, and where I was raised and who I was raised around, but no it didn't at all. It's interesting especially when you go to rehearsal. A lot of people don't have their makeup on. They don't have their dress on. Everybody is so normal and loving and I grew up around that. And I didn't even think about it to be honest. It didn't even cross my mind.
antiMusic: Did this whet your appetite to do this again or have you satisfied this dream?
Christina: You know it was one of those things. I kept saying it was once in a lifetime so I'm going to enjoy every moment. And who knows? This was my dream since I was a child. I thought I would be in my 70s, I saw myself as an older woman doing this. And never did I think, now. I was already working on a symphony before Carnegie Hall. And my dream was to perform it at Carnegie Hall, an autobiographical piece. So, I don't know. I said it was once in a lifetime. I would have never thought in a million years this would happen now. So I have no idea. Maybe I'll be there again. If not, I'm okay. I'm fine. I'm more than fulfilled.
antiMusic: So you're up there in this hallowed place, but you're also doing your own composition. As you're looking out there are you really hearing each note that came from your mind somewhere? Or were you just taking it all in as one sort of wonderful moment.
Christina: To hear the piece come alive with an orchestra like Manhattan Pops…you know, you hear it when you write it, in your head. And of course you hear it bigger than you could every do it and then to actually hear it was so phenomenal. I was thinking, "Oh my goodness, I can't believe this."
But it didn't feel at that moment like I had written it because the orchestra made it sound too good. So when anything is too good, you think "I couldn't have been a part of this". You know, because you're an artist…that's the burden you bear as an artist. If it's great, you're nah, nah. It can't be good. I was involved. (laughs). But THEY were the ones that made it so great. That's what I was thinking. It was so out of body.
But at the same time I was so in-tune with the piece itself, that standing there I could hear everything. The acoustics are such that you feel you're in a small room on stage, with an orchestra. You don't hear the grandeur of it. From the audience you hear the grandeur. From the stage you really do hear each piece of the orchestra. And you can really hear each note. So it was so fascinating to me.
Now in the audience, as they were rehearsing, the playing sounds so full and lush and big and in just one voice. On stage it's hundreds of voices. It's very interesting acoustically. I think during the performance is when I stood up there and went, "This is my piece".
Right before I started. I turned my head over my left shoulder to my dad and gave him a smile, and then looked at the orchestra and began. I remember thinking right at the first drop of my baton, it was like an Indy Car Race; it was like, "There's no stopping. This is it. Here we go. No stopping. No stopping." That's what it felt like. That was my initial thought, "There's no stopping now. Here we are." (pause) Oh gosh. It's so cool to talk about it. It's great. It gives you that rush all over again.
antiMusic: So overall, I guess you were happy with the experience? (laughs)
Christina: I'm reaching for words and they're so hard to find for something like this. I guess that it was the biggest thrill for me and I see it as such a blessing. Number one, obviously was getting the opportunity. Number two, that feeling walking in there, it felt like home. The hall was empty except for the sound stage and a couple of people watching the rehearsal who just came from in off the street. Sometimes staff let them watch rehearsal going on.
I remember one woman asked me, I think she was from Germany, she asked, "What's going on tonight?" and I told her and she said "Are you part of this?" And I said, ‘I am performing tonight. I'm doing a piece." And she goes, "You're a woman though!" She was smiling. I said, "I AM! Isn't that great?" (laughs) Can you believe it? She was "Well GOOD for you, good for you!" She was shocked that I was a woman and I was doing it on stage and doing something classical. It was pretty funny.
I'm weird like that. Even with doctor's appointments, Morley. I don't even think about them if I know I have to get shots or whatever. For dentist's if I'm going to get drilled on. I don't even think about it until I'm actually in the chair. So my head was so in the piece, and I was practicing of course, landing in New York practicing on the earphones I'm practicing, going over all the sheet music practicing.
So my dad says something to me which was wonderful to hear right before you go out on stage, he said: the night before the show, he knocked on my hotel room door and he said, "You know, if you don't get the down beat right, the whole piece is going to fall apart. " (laughs)
And he said, "Good night. I love you." (laughs) And I said, "Good night. I love you. I shut the door behind me, and I was like, "Oh my god." (laughs) It's true but it was the last thing you want to hear the night before. I didn't sleep a wink. All I could think was "The downbeat, the downbeat." It was so hilarious. It's funny now.
But it was neat because we were backstage and everybody was in the same boat. We were all in it together. Pauletta Washington being one of them. Pauletta is an actress in her own right. You want to talk about down to earth, so cool, so sweet. We bonded. Majorly. And she was so nervous. I mean, she wouldn't mind telling everybody. She was singing just a short song, and it was a spiritual. It was just about a minute long I think, which is fabulous.
And she went on before me and I just grabbed her and I said, "You've got this, you've got this." And she said, "You've gotta pray for me girl. Pray girl. Pray for me!" she was pacing up in down, shaking in her shoes. And we were all going, "You can do this." We were all backstage, behind the door because there are doors. It's not like a venue. It's not like when you're on the side of the stage and you're looking out onto the audience. No, there are these gorgeous doors that open onto the stage and we could see what was going on, on the monitor backstage. And the stage manager was telling us, "Okay, go" But we couldn't really see anything or hear anything.
She was freaking out. And then she came out backstage and she was jumping up and down, she kicked her shoes off, she was cheering, we were all cheering. There was quite a sense of community back stage. And even the staff at Carnegie Hall, said that for that show, we were the first people in there who were not only gracious and kind, but we followed every single rule of Carnegie Hall. They said that nobody's ever done that. Because they are so strict. The stuff in their contract, that you must be off stage 11 pm, because if it's 11:01 or 11:02, it's an extra $30,000 for the crew.
But our stage manager was brilliant. I don't know how he did it but he did it. The show ran a little long. But the reviews were great. The response was amazing. It was such an upbeat experience, a powerful show in its entirety. Bringing Jews and gentiles together, from the beginning of the show. The ambassador took the stage and said, "We are all here tonight; gentile and Jew, for one purpose, regardless of our theology, spirituality, or religion, we are here for one purpose and that's the people of Israel. Immediately, he broke the ice. It was so tasteful.
And then there were gospel songs, Hebrew songs and of course the classical, the beautiful classical pieces that my dad played. And it was just a gorgeous evening. And very uplifting and at the reception afterwards, the response was just so magnificent. The people were so welcoming and in New York that is such a compliment. I'm on cloud 9. I'm still floating a bit. I hope I float a little bit forever. (laughs) And now, it's onto the new record for The Sugar Dames.
Christina: Yeah, back to Nashville and back to work. I'm more energized than ever. It's very exciting.
antiMusic: I was just going to ask, how does that put your other projects into perspective? Does it take some of the veneer off everything else with such a triumph for your Carnegie Hall stuff?
Christina: No, it revs me up. It gave me so much more creative energy and wanting to do more and more and put out more and more music. I have a mindset that doesn't stop. My mind doesn't shut off. Some times I can't listen to music if I'm out or if I'm concentrating on something else that's not music-oriented or related. It's hard for me to listen to music sometimes because it'll spawn an idea and I'll have to go write something. And it can be distracting.
At night, in bed, it's music, I dream about music. A lot of things I've written comes from dreams. It's weird, in some dreams I see notes, with a staff. So my mind never quite stops which has always been kind of a burden as well as the joy of my life. I mean coming out of that, you want to talk about amped and just pumped full of all this creative energy. I'm thrilled. Actually, it heightened. I think it heightened everything for me, personally. Not just career-wise, opportunity-wise and what it is on a resume, personally. It heightened my senses.
I had several friends call me afterwards saying, "Honestly, if I were you, I don't know… just retire. Where do you go from here?" (laughs) I thought about it. I really did think about it. Like I'm just going to do this. Go out on a high note. Of course that could never happen. Ever. I would go crazy. They'd have to lock me up. (laughs)
Morley and antiMusic thank Christina for taking the time to speak with us.
Visit her official webpage here