Category Archives: summer festivals

emperor gets new clothes in seattle

On Saturday morning I’m playing a children’s concert presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society which features Peter Schickele’s (aka PDQ Bach) The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s a fun piece for narrator and mixed ensemble, and is my first chance since 1995 to perform with pianist Paige Roberts Molloy, with whom I last played chamber music at the Tanglewood Music Center (Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, coached by Leon Fleischer). I’m looking forward to this a lot!

deep breath…

I got back from the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival this past Tuesday afternoon. My concerts were done on Saturday night, but we took a side trip to Moses Lake, Wa. to visit some of Steph’s relatives. Tomorrow, I leave for the Sunriver Music Festival, and then get back on the 19th, with the first service of the OSO season arriving on the 31st of August.

It’s been a busy summer, as it has always been since I started seriously studying music in college. My sophomore, junior, and senior summers I went to the National Orchestral Institute in suburban D.C. for three weeks. When I was getting my masters, I spent the summers of 1993 and 1994 at the Tanglewood Music Center for eight weeks. Since then, I’ve played an average of four festivals each summer. This year, it is four. I’m in the process of thinking that I’d like to change the rhythm of my summers a bit, after 20-plus years of shuttling from one festival to another. I really enjoy most of the festivals I do, but some I like more than others, and one I actually love. Taking a leave from one of them and seeing how it feels seems like a very good experiment to perform next summer.

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The Signal Hill Ranch, where the Methow Festival is held. Photo: Charles Noble

The Methow week was hugely fun and challenging, as usual. The Schubert Andante and Rondo Concertante, D. 487, was lightweight Schubert – not even particularly good Schubert – but it was like popping a champagne cork and brought a bit of light classicism to the evening. It was challenging in that the piano part is like a mini concerto (which Craig Sheppard played with his usual virtuosity), and early Schubert is much like early Mozart, where the writing is utterly transparent, and any missteps are very apparent! It was great fun to play this charming music with my fellow string players, violinist Brittany Boulding Breeden, and cellist Matt Zalkind.

Brittany Boulding Breeden, Craig Sheppart, Matthew Zalkind, and Charles Noble play Schubert.

Brittany Boulding Breeden, Craig Sheppard, Matthew Zalkind, and Charles Noble play Schubert.

The second concert had a bit more for me to do. My first piece was the Mozart Horn Quintet, which uses the unusual combination of violin, two violas, cello, and French horn. Brittany again played violin, and we were joined by festival artistic director and cellist, Kevin Krentz, Seattle Symphony violist Mara Gearman, and Jeffrey Fair, principal French hornist of the Seattle Symphony. This piece is always a blast to play, and Mozart’s part writing is ingenious as he has to make the textures and voicing more interesting due to the harmonic constraints initially presented by the natural horn that was available in his day. Jeff played beautifully, and it was beyond a joy to get to perform with my former OSO colleague Mara Gearman after so many years!

Jing and Matthew rehearse Martinu for opening night.

Jing and Matthew rehearse Martinu for opening night. Photo: Charles Noble.

My other piece on the program was the extraordinary string sextet Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schoenberg. Written in 1899, it’s a piece that is renowned for both its difficulty and its beauty. If it was Schoenberg’s intention to demonstrate the lengths to which conventional tonality could be stretched, he did so with this piece. Within just a few short years, he would abandon tonality and invent his serial process of musical organization, also known as 12-tone music. My compatriots for the performance were violinists Jing Wang (concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic) and Mikhail Shmidt (of the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Chamber Players), violist Mara Gearman, and cellists Matt Zalkind and Kevin Krentz. Typically, the schedule of this particular festival is quite hectic – we get one full rehearsal of about three hours, and then a dress rehearsal of about an hour, depending upon the length of the piece. After our first rehearsal (which was at 8:30 in the morning after the first concert!), we decided to add an evening rehearsal beginning at 9:30 p.m. We were able to iron out some stubborn transitions in about 90 minutes, and went home exhausted. The dress rehearsal went well (but not too well, which can be the kiss of death for a concert!), and we ended up having a truly memorable performance that night. It was such an honor to be a part of that illustrious gang of musicians!

It’s been good to have a couple of days away from the instrument, and now it’s time to pick it back up again for the final push of the summer. I’ll give at least a Sunriver Festival update/recap next week. Have a great August!

july into august

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Crater Lake – Photo by Charles Noble

This past week I’ve been on a badly-needed vacation to southern Oregon. My fiancé and I went to the Ashland area, and had a wonderful time visiting Crater Lake, wine tasting, walking around the town, and enjoying our time away from everyday life. The fact that our lodging was in the middle of the forest without television also didn’t hurt. Here are a few places that we loved, that you might want to try on your next visit:

  • Green Springs Inn and Cabins – About a half hour east of Ashland (and up a winding, twisty, and sometimes exposed Hwy 66), but it’s in the forest and there are chickens, a good restaurant, and plenty of peace and quiet (until the roosters fire up). The lodge rooms are simple and spacious, the cabins are the size of small houses, several with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
  • Wooldridge Creek Winery – If you like wine tasting that features delicious wines, great views, and wonderful patio, and house made cheeses and cured meats to go with, this is another place you cannot miss. It’s about 30 minutes past Jacksonville in the Applegate Valley, on the way to Grants Pass from the south.
  • Noble Coffee – Yes, I like the name, but even more I like the quality of the coffee that they put out here at their roastery and cafe. Nice ambiance inside, off the main drag and away from the OSF crowds, it’s an oasis.

This week is going to be spent getting reacquainted with the viola (despite my guilty conscience, I refused to bring the viola with me – that is the way one ruins a vacation!) and getting some final preparation done for my concerts at the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. Last year was pretty intense – I had three works with piano – two piano quartets, and one piano quintet – all of which were major works. This year, it’s a bit less so (although I usually regret making such predictions, especially on the side favoring ease). I’m playing a relatively rare work for piano quartet by Franz Schubert, his Adagio and Rondo Concertante, D. 487; the wonderful Mozart Horn Quintet, K. 407; and Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4.

I’m hoping to have time to do a wrap-up after Methow, then it’s just a very quick turnaround to head out to Sunriver for the Sunriver Music Festival.

oregon bach festival 2016 wrap-up

Wow. What a festival this 2016 edition of the Oregon Bach Festival was! Playing OBF has always had its special moments over the years. Since playing my first OBF in the summer of 1996, I’ve seen so many fantastic singers and instrumentalists come through. Thomas Quasthoff, Yo-Yo Ma, Jeffrey Kahane, Nicholas Phan – the list goes on and on. The constant behind those big names? The truly world-class Berwick Chorus. Every year I go back thinking that last year’s chorus was the best there was and there would be no topping it, and every year I mentally eat crow. They keep getting better and better. It’s truly a testament to Kathy Saltzman Romey and her team (as well as the individual talents of the entire chorus) that the standard creeps higher and higher each year.

There were so many high points to this year’s festival that it’s hard to list them all, but I’ll do my best to recall the moments that struck me the most during my time there.

  • James MacMillan conducts MacMillan – It was a rare honor to play under one of my favorite composers, the Scottsman James MacMillan, with the OBF Chamber Orchestra. In particular, his Sinfonia was a remarkable piece, and playing Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony Op. 110a was a profound experience.
  • MacMillan Requiem – There are times when you have an experience where you know that you’ll be saying decades later “I was there”, and this was one of them. MacMillan’s A European Requiem is a bona fide masterpiece that should become a part of the repertoire immediately. The Berwick Chorus was so stunning in its intricate and difficult choral writing – breathtaking. Giving the world premiere in the presence of the composer was the highest of honors. [Review]
  • Kahane Conducts Kahane – Father and son Jeffrey and Gabriel Kahane took the stage for this concert. Jeffrey led the OBF Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard in a beautifully crystalline performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Then he played a heartbreaking encore improvisation on America the Beautiful that left few eyes dry. It was the perfect commentary on a very difficult and tragic week in America – proof that music can express the inexpressible. Gabriel took center stage for the second half with his 50 minute Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States, which celebrated the former diversity of regional America, warts and all, as written in 1930’s WPA travel guides. [Review]
  • Brahms Requiem – A piece that I’ve done several times – it was nearly a perennial favorite of OBF founder Helmut Rilling – and it never fails to move me deeply. OBF music director Matthew Halls kept the piece moving, and the Berwick Chorus (along with the Stangland Family Youth Academy Choir and UofO Chamber Choir) sang it beautifully. Before intermission, the OBF Orchestra played Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in an account that skipped much of the lugubriousness that can haunt this most beautiful and melancholic symphony. [Review]

So, another year is in the can, and several more festivals await me before my summer is done. This one will be hard to top, however.

the learning continues

After this past week’s rehearsing and performing at the Portland Piano International Festival, I learned, or re-learned several things.

First, I learned what the Dutch expression “mierenneuken” means (nit-picking is the least offensive way I can explain it) from former Concertgebouw Orchestra concertmaster Alex Kerr. (It came up in the context of the American system of orchestral auditions, which is notorious for being incredibly myopic in its focus on an insane level of perfection.)

Photo: Portland Piano International

Justin Bartlett, Sarah Kwak, Nancy Ives, Jason Schooler, Alex Kerr and Charles Noble play Liszt. Photo: Portland Piano International

Second, I re-learned that simple score study with a recording can make my life much, much easier. I forget this from time to time, especially when the music I’m playing doesn’t present much in the way of technical challenges. I discovered this to my chagrin in the dress rehearsal for the Chopin First Piano Concerto. Lesson learned, score studied, performance humiliation averted.

Photo: Portland Piano International

Sarah Kwak, Alex Kerr, Charlie Albright, Nancy Ives, and Charles Noble play Chopin. Photo: Portland Piano International

Third, I learned (and likely re-learned) that a performance is not just the playing of the notes. It’s projecting an involvement in what is happening even when one is not playing. Even when I’m nervous about my counting, or remembering what figuration this pianist is playing in his left hand, or just feeling plain crappy, just the act of acting like I’m involved and enjoying what’s happening always leads to me actually being involved and enjoying what’s happening. That adage “Fake it ’til you make it” isn’t an old saw for no reason. It works.

Photo: Portland Piano International.

Arnaldo Cohen, Alex Kerr, Sarah Kwak, Nancy Ives, Charles Noble after Brahms Quintet. Photo: Portland Piano International.

I took the day off today to head out to Hood River for a day of R&R. Tomorrow, I buckle down again and get ready for my first concert of the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival, which is a chamber orchestra concert under the direction of Sir James MacMillan. It should be fantastic, I’ll send dispatches from the road as I have time. Onward!

it’s the people, stupid

This past week I’ve been rehearsing and performing at the Portland Piano International Festival as part of the Festival String Quartet.

The quartet is quite a collection of people to play with! Violinists Alex Kerr, concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony and professor of violin at Indiana University, Sarah Kwak, concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, and Nancy Ives, principal cellist of the Oregon Symphony. What I love about working with people of that caliber is that they are usually always wonderful people to work with. So professional, true, but also easy going, confident, and pleasant. I often suffer from a major case of imposter syndrome, so having such amazing musicians being such supportive chamber music partners made me feel right at home.

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Sarah Kwak rehearsing Sarasate with Arnaldo Cohen.

The first concert, on Friday, June 17, was with pianist Justin Bartlett, featured JS Bach’s Concerto No. 1, BWV 1052, and Franz Liszt’s Malediction, S. 121. Both were done with the accompaniment of the Festival String Quartet and double bassist Jason Schooler (Liszt).

The second concert, on Saturday, June 18, was a chamber music soirée with festival artistic director and pianist Arnaldo Cohen. Each of the members of the quartet played a piece from the Golden Age of Piano (1870-1930), which is the theme of this year’s festival. I opened the program with Liszt’s only work for viola, Romance oubliée (Forgotten romance), followed by Sarah playing Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantelle, Nancy playing Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brilliante, and Alex with Brahm’s FAE Scherzo. Arnaldo played a Brazilian solo piece that I wasn’t able to get the name of, and then we all joined together for the first movement of Brahms’ great Piano Quintet, Op. 34.

Nancy Ives plays Chopin with Arnaldo Cohen.

Nancy Ives plays Chopin with Arnaldo Cohen.

Tonight, Sunday, June 19, we join pianists Charlie Albright and Alexander Kobrin for an all-Chopin concert. With Charlie, we’ll be doing the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, and with Alexander, the Piano Concerto No. 1. It’s quite tricky work, managing all of the rubato and the thick filigree of ornamentation that Chopin throws at us, but it should be a wonderful show. Tickets are available here.

Mahler time

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Mahler in 1895, just after the premiere of his 2nd Symphony.

If it’s the end of the Oregon Symphony’s season, chances are it’s time to hear one of Mahler’s magnificent symphonies. This season it is his massive Symphony No. 3. It will be my second time playing this wonderful piece, the first having been back in 2003 under Maestro James DePreist. We’ll have a viola section of 12 players (!) instead of our usual 9-10. And 10 cellists, instead of our usual 7-8. There are more violins, too, but that doesn’t concern me so much. It’s a huge orchestra, and along with the instrumental forces, there will be young singers of the Pacific Youth Choir and the women, of the PSU Chamber Choir and Vox Femina. It’s going to be quite the spectacle, you won’t want to miss it!

My musical summer plans are coming along nicely as well.

Late in June and into July, I’m spending a good couple of weeks at the Oregon Bach Festival, playing works by James MacMillan (including the world premiere of his Requiem), Gabriel Kahane, and the great Brahms Requiem.

After a nice respite in Ashland seeing the sights, I’ll be back in the Methow Valley in the North Cascades of Washington to play at the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival, which will include some fantastic pieces: Schubert’s Adagio and Rondo Brilliante, Mozart’s Horn Quintet, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

Then, it’s back to central Oregon for the Sunriver Music Festival, where the focus is on works inspired by nature and natural beauty.