Category Archives: the orchestra world

a mahler for the ages

Quick bulletin: if you don’t have plans for this Monday night (May 22), make a point of coming out to the Oregon Symphony’s closing classical concert of the season: Mahler’s Second Symphony. Judging by how the first two performances have gone, this final one should be epic. Onstage brass, offstage brass, brilliant woodwinds, amazing vocal soloists, teeming masses of roiling strings, a huge chorus – this piece has got it all. And to that guy who let out the “Whoop!” after the end of the first movement today, glad you could make it, and glad you loved it, buddy!

Enjoy some of the ‘big’ moments from various conductors:

does this blog have a future?

This post’s title is definitely not click bait. I’ve been slowing my pace of posting over the past couple years, and if this continues at the present rate, I’ll be posting about once a decade five years from now! So, while this blog isn’t going on a formal hiatus, there most likely will be a distinct lack of updates for the foreseeable future. I welcome your comments and observations!

rest of the season – my picks

It’s mid-February, and that means that there are 103 days left in the 2016-2017 season. The 2017-2018 season was announced just two weeks ago, and it focuses attention on the bright, shiny, and new season ahead. So, in that light, I decided that it would be worth a look at the concerts that I’m most excited about in the current season – and there is much great music to enjoy!

Jeff Kahane, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and John Adams

This concert contains three of my favorite things, musically: pianist Jeffrey Kahane, the Enigma Variations, and music by John Adams. Kahane will play the gorgeous and slightly schizophrenic Schumann Piano Concerto. The Enigma Variations of Edward Elgar follows – with its transcendent Nimrod movement. [An amateur violinist claims to have discovered the secret of the variations – read the article here.] The concert opens with a piece co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony for its centennial season (my first), Slonimsky’s Earbox, a riotous showpiece for large orchestra that happens to have a huge viola solo! Returning guest Christoph König conducts.

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New work by Kenji Bunch, Souvenirs by Samuel Barber, and Dvorak’s Cello Concerto

This program presents three works linked by their being written in America. The big news on this concert is Portlander Kenji Bunch’s new work commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, Aspects of an Elephant. Here is a description of the work (which will be recorded for upcoming CD release) by the composer:

“I drew inspiration from the timeless parable of the so-called Blind Men and the Elephant, of which various versions have appeared throughout Asia and Europe since the 13th century. I especially liked the version in Rumi’s epic collection of sacred Islamic texts, The Masnavi. In this retelling, the men are not blind, but in a dark room with an elephant they can’t see; each man holds a small candle, which casts a faint light. They touch the mysterious beast in order to describe it to each other; naturally, they each come up with a very distinct impression of the elephant. For example, the man touching the tusk declares, ‘The elephant is a spear!’ while the man feeling a leg is convinced the elephant is a large tree. A heated argument ensues; each man believes his concept of the elephant is correct, and can’t imagine any other version being remotely accurate. There are six musical variations representing the different descriptions of the elephant. In each variation I feature small groups of solo instruments.

“This conflict escalates almost to the point of violence until the men realize the combined light of their individual candles has now revealed the true nature of the elephant, and that they were all partially correct in their assessments.

“I find this story engaging for a number of reasons. Without going into detail, its relevance to today’s deeply divided political climate is fairly obvious. Musically, it also seems to lend itself particularly well to the many different colors of the orchestra— which I feel is a compelling metaphor for a collection of diverse elements uniting to achieve a larger beauty. In addition to the different instrument families, I also feature some exotic percussion instruments, including five nested aluminum mixing bowls pitched low to high, of the kind you have in your kitchen. It sounds kind of like an Indonesian gamelan.

Aspects is, if not officially a ‘Concerto for Orchestra,’ certainly a celebration of the orchestra, and particularly the musicians of the Oregon Symphony, to whom this work is dedicated.”

Carlos Kalmar conducts.

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Gil Shaham plays Korngold

I’ve been lobbying for years to get Gil Shaham booked to play here, and though I gave up on that hope long ago, my wish has come true this season! His gorgeous, rich tone is perfectly suited to the fin de siecle decadence of ErichWolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto. The program is rounded out with equally rich works by some other famous composers with strong ties to Vienna, including Johann Strauss, Jr. and Richard Strauss. Carlos Kalmar conducts.

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Mozart’s Requiem

To tell you the truth, though I love Mozart’s Requiem, it’s not a piece that I find that rewarding to play. Be that as it may, it’s a towering masterpiece. It’s accompanied by Benjamin Britten’s transcription of a Chacony by Henry Purcell and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Returning favorite Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts.

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La Mer and Lansma

We don’t do enough French music, in my opinion, so it’s especially exciting to perform on of the greatest of French impressionist works, Debussy’s La Mer. Returning violinist Simone Lansma plays Benjamin Britten’s fantastic (and ever more performed) Violin Concerto. My jury’s out on what to make of Lansma. Her technique is so solid and beyond reproach that it’s almost impossible to take one’s ears off of that aspect of her playing to see what sort of depth she has as a musician. This piece will give us all a chance to find out! One of my favorite guest conductors, Jun Märkl conducts.

SoundSights returns with Stravinsky’s Persephone

Michael Curry, best known for his production design on the Broadway production of The Lion King, has created a production of Stravinsky’s seldom-performed ballet Persephone. The program begins with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 “Little Russian”. This should be a visual feast if the first two productions of SoundSights are any indication! Carlos Kalmar conducts.

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Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony

Not much to say about this one. Perhaps Mahler’s grandest spectacle, and certainly some of his greatest music. It’s hard for me to keep my eyes dry during the huge choruses of the final movement. A fitting end to the Classical season. Carlos Kalmar conducts.

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music to unite, not divide

I’ve been away from work for the past week due to a death in the family, but I’d heard through the grapevine that OSO music director Carlos Kalmar had made some powerful and well-received remarks on immigration and the power of music before each of this past weekend’s subscription concerts. The Oregonian just published the transcribed remarks, and I thought I’d share them with you here.

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening,

I have been thinking a lot about this interesting profession that I am in. I’m not referring to my profession as a conductor, but the profession that we all here on stage share – that of musicians. Musicians express themselves through an art form that does not need any words. What we do is understood by literally everybody on this planet.

I have thought lately that that is actually something wonderful, because we all come here and we play for you. There are these fantastic moments during which we all share the same sentiment, the same emotion.  We can be happy together. We can cry together. Whatever it is, we all agree.

And I have been thinking about this unifying power that music has. Where words fail to bring people together, music can.

You know, this is a very personal concert for me. Aspects of the life of two of tonight’s composers-Tchaikovsky, whose homosexuality made him an outcast, and Prokofiev, who suffered political oppression-are a reflection of the things that I have seen in my own life. The Jewish heritage of my parents made them flee their central European home for South America where my brother and I were born. Many years later I immigrated to the United States of America.

It is my hope that tonight you will all join me in reflecting on the beauty that musicians around the world bring to all our lives regardless of their background.

Amen.

My 2016 in music.

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Arnica Quartet

I enjoy reading the end-of- year performance lists. It reminds me of what I haven’t yet done, what I wish I hadn’t done, and what I really enjoyed having done. So, in that spirit, I present my far from exhaustive list of major musical events in my life from 2016.

Beethoven – String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp major, Op. 131 (Arnica Qt)
Messiaen – Turangalila (Oregon Symphony)
Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle (OSO)
Reich – Triple Quartet, WTC 9/11, Different Trains (Third Angle)
ShostakovichString Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 68 (Arnica Qt)
Adés – Concentric Paths with Augustin Hadelich, violinist (OSO)
Strauss – Don Quixote* (OSO)
Mahler – Symphony No. 3 (OSO)
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht (sextet version) (Methow Chamber Music Fest)
Shostakovich – Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a (James MacMillan, Oregon Bach Festival)
MacMillan – A European Requiem (Oregon Bach Festival)
Brahms – Ein Deutsches Requiem (Oregon Bach Festival)
Janacek – String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” (45th Parallel)
Strauss – Oboe Concerto, with François Leleux, oboe (OSO)

That’s it! My list of my favorite musical experiences of 2016. I’m sure that 2017 will bring as many or more! Happy New Year!

James DePreist conducting in 1966

I just became aware of this video from the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts. It was filmed in 1966. Leonard Bernstein introduces the conductor for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – the young James DePreist (he was 30 years old at the time). It’s amazing to see all the mannerisms that I grew to love (and some not so much) nearly 30 years later when I joined the Oregon Symphony. What a remarkable and beautiful human being he was.

Time-play

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Video projections by Rose Bond for the OSO performances of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie. Photo: Jacobe Wade.

This past weekend I played Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, a piece that I will, in all likelihood, never get to perform again. That’s not something that one says lightly, for the career of an orchestral musician, by necessity (and for better or worse), involves playing a relatively small core of works over and over again. For lovers of this epic, ecstatic, and gargantuan piece, this is the second time to hear this work in this decade, as the Seattle Symphony performed the piece for the first time in its history back in 2013.

For me, it was only on our third performance Monday evening that I felt like I could truly enjoy this piece. Why? Well, it presents many challenges to the performer. First is its sheer length. The viola part is 66 pages long. The piece has 10 movements, of which the fifth, entitled Joie du sang des étoiles (Joy of the blood of the stars), is fully 14 pages long! Second is the harmonic complexity and the complexity of the rhythmic writing. Due to his theory of Modes of Limited Transposition, Messiaen takes his motives and repeats them on several different pitch levels (or modes). Messiaen also enjoys taking his motives and sliding them off of the beat, usually by a small amount (a sixteenth-note or eighth-note, depending upon the meter and tempo), and this keeps one on one’s toes constantly. Combine these two factors, and you’ve got a lot of music to keep track of, and it means you are learning essentially the same material over and over again, and need to remember which is coming up when (and often it is coming at you a breakneck speed).

But once you get through all of this, what an amazing journey it is! As Oregon is one of the states where recreation marijuana is legalized, I’d say this piece is one that might be best enjoyed in an altered state, especially with Rose Bond’s video art that was projected around the hall for these performances. I’d highly recommend against performing the piece in an altered state, however! The sheer orchestral color, texture, and volume (!) is truly unmatched in the orchestral repertoire (except perhaps for Varese’s Amériques). We had the exceptional soloistic talents of pianist Stephen Osborn and ondes martenot player Cynthia Millar, and a crack team of 10 percussionists that made everything sparkle. I may never again hear the tam tam played so loudly in my life! It was a spectacular run of performances, and one I will fondly remember.

If you’d like to learn more about the Turangalîla Symphonie, I’d recommend this article from the LA Philharmonic’s website: http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/turangalila-symphonie-olivier-messiaen