Tag Archives: mahler

post-season thoughts

Oregon Symphony | Photo: © Charles Noble

Oregon Symphony

I was musing over this past weekend’s performances of Mahler’s Third, and there were quite a few remarkable things/moments that came up – so I thought I’d share them here. In no particular order:

  • James Shields (principal clarinet) has the most amazing clarinet sound I’ve ever heard.
  • Martha Long’s (principal flute) subito pianissimo in the final adagio: breathtaking!
  • Mark Dubac (E-flat clarinet) playing as klezmer an un-klezmer solo as you can without going over the line. Well done, my friend!
  • Sarah Kwak’s (concertmaster) solos – the perfect sound for Mahler.
  • The entire double bass section for their frenzied passage in the first movement – it was like a seismic event!
  • Robert Taylor (acting principal trombone) played his huge solos with such grace and power.
  • The entire low brass section played with such power and precision. What an amazing group you are!
  • Chris Whyte for his huge final cymbal crash – you’ve got cahones!
  • Timpanists Sergio Careno and Jon Greeney – epic synchronized swimming at the close of the last Adagio.
  • Michael Roberts on the bass drum – such a beautiful touch!
  • The entire string section for that hushed beginning to the final adagio – what an honor it is to play with you all!

viola jokes, ftw

I’m a big fan of viola jokes. I don’t find them in the least bit offensive. Why? They’re mostly made up by violists, for one. They’re also based in a rather checkered early history of the instrument and its proponents. They have a basic sense of truth to them, and they’re also not at all mean-spirited. What I do find offensive are people who are very offended in a ‘holier-than-thou’ way by viola jokes. Please grow a sense of humor! Or not, you can do as you like.

Anyway, I digress. We just got done with two performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, and whichever wag was on the front stand of the orchestra that used the rental parts before we got them had a healthy sense of violist humor:


It’s a visual joke akin to the famous viola joke when the violist asks the pianist how she learned to trill so quickly. The pianist replies that she didn’t understand what the violist is talking about. The violist sings the opening to Für Elise. *rim shot*

home stretch

It seems almost as though I posted this entry yesterday instead of last August, but here it is, just past the first week of May, and there are just over two weeks left in the Oregon Symphony’s 2015-2016 season. It’s a pretty cool final month, too. We just finished playing two concerts of the film music of John Williams, the soundtrack to Back to the Future (with the film), and we’re about to play our penultimate classical series concert of the season this coming weekend, which features three fantastic pieces: Schumann’s Overture to Genoveva, Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler, and Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (with Garrick Olhsson). The following weekend, we close out our classical season with Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 3.

The end of this season will make 21 years so far with the Oregon Symphony for me. In some ways, things have never been better. In others, they’ve never been worse. We’ll see what the next season brings.


Are you ready for mahler 5?

I love Mahler. Like Strauss, it’s the kind of music that the modern string player (or any instrumentalist in a symphony orchestra, for that matter) has trained for their entire life. The technical and musical demands are many, especially in this – perhaps the most popular – wonderfully complex and exciting symphony, the Fifth. We had our first rehearsals on the piece today, and I’ll fill you in on my thoughts as the week goes on. For now, here’s a nice way to study up on the symphony before the concerts arrive – there is a streaming performance (one of the best available, imho) of Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (essentially an all-star orchestra of the best players in Europe) that is available for free to Amazon Prime members. So, put that $80/year to good use and get yourself some fine culture!

Here’s the link, and below is a trailer from YouTube of the performance video.

what i talk about when i talk about music (apologies to murakami)

It’s a funny think, writing about music. Yes, it’s like dancing about architecture, but it’s also pretty darned appropriate to do so. Some of the best writing I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction, has concerned itself about music or the fine arts in general. Music, in particular, lends itself to abundant discussion due to its ineffable nature. As Rilke put it in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe; most events are unsayable, occur in a space that no word has ever penetrated, and most unsayable of all are works of art, mysterious existences whose life endures alongside ours, which passes away.

There is so much in our human existence which is beyond our comprehension. Hence, the creation of religion and great works of art. Each attempts to describe the indescribable in terms that resonate with our pathetically finite bodies and souls. For me, music is where it’s at. I love the dramatic arts, the visual arts, film, most everything that claims to be art. But music for me hits the sweet spot of profundity – even when it’s not ‘high’ art. Some of the most moving songs for me in my recent life have been popular songs, from such bands and artists as Coldplay, Ben Folds, Brandi Carlile, and Barcelona. I must make a distinction here, before the fine art police come down on me for conflating popular music and ‘art’ music. First of all, the distinction is becoming less and less of an issue with each decade that passes, so it’s largely moot. (And plus, in the days when the ‘western canon’ of classical music was still ink drying on vellum, there was really no such distinction.) Second of all, I think that the issues addressed in each genre are similar, but often take different tacks in that pursuit. Popular music might deal with falling in love and breaking up from the perspective of the individual, in all its banality (which, by extension, makes it approachable to all of us – we can relate to the average dude who gets dumped on his birthday, for example). Art music might take falling in love and place it in the continuum of the universality of love, and what love means in the vast expanses of the world and the universe. Both approaches are equally valid. When Ben Folds sings about a love that spans a lifetime, as he does in The Luckiest, it successfully takes a simple text (though elegant in its simplicity) and creates a story that spans decades in the space of a four minute-plus song. It’s a gorgeous ballad, and one that never fails to tug on my heartstrings for a variety of reasons, all of which I’m not going to bring up here. But here’s a version similar to that which he sang with the Oregon Symphony a few weeks ago:

And then, there’s the art music approach – in this case, let’s use the subject of death, and the anticipation of death. Perhaps the most effective of all the great composers in this particular area might be Franz Schubert (at least in the area of the art song), most particularly in his fantastic song cycle Winterreise. In the twentieth song of the cycle, entitled Der Wegweiser, the protagonist of the cycle is on a deserted road on a dark and snowy evening. He ponders why he takes the road less travelled, and on his uneasy and unceasing quest for these deserted byways. In the end, he knows that he is seeking the road that no one returns from – that which leads to death. Personal, evocative, yet universal and probing in its approach to the greater meaning of life and death as it applies both to the individual and to mankind as a whole (especially in the context of this monumental collection of songs). Here is Dietrich Fischer Dieskau with Murray Perahia, pianist.

Both are great in their own way. Clearly, the Schubert has already stood the test of time. Will the Folds? Only time will tell. But my point is this – music has that special quality of being able to address issues with great subtlety (or not) with or without a text. For example, is there a greater valedictory statement of leave-taking than the finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony? Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor.

More on this in a future posting. And I promise a bit of writing on the opening concert of the Oregon Symphony’s 2014-2015 classical subscription series from last weekend, too.

mahler’s ‘das Lied von der Erde’ – rare Portland performance

I’m gestating a blog entry about community orchestras, but in the meantime, please enjoy this video featuring Principal trumpeter Jeff Work and Acting principal bassist Ted Botsford, as they talk about why this weekend’s concert featuring Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Miracle” Symphony No. 96 and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Without a Number “Das Lied von der Erde” is a must-see event.

In my opinion, aside from the fact that this is one of Mahler’s most heartfelt and intimate compositions, and that the Oregon Symphony is sounding in top form these days, the two vocal soloists that sing through much of this work are simply outstanding, and worth the price of admission all on their own. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is magnificent, and garnered rave reviews for his portrayal of Peter Grimes in the recent Metropolitan Opera production of the eponymous opera. Mezzo soprano Tamara Mumford, who was a last-minute replacement for a double-booked artist, is also impressive, having sung with the Met this season in productions of Wozzeck and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


program notes for this weekend

Here’s a link to my notes for this weekend’s concerts of the Oregon Symphony – Schubert’s Incidental Music to Rosamunde and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Though they are credited to Elizabeth Schwartz (the orchestra’s excellent full-time annotator), I wrote them. Enjoy, and let me know what you think of them – I’m always trying to improve!