A Very Personal Sound

I am mesmerized, watching a pair of hands dip and soar with a melody, like birds dancing their own flight paths. Clinton Smith, music director, is not far behind, floating a bit himself as he leads Orchestra Seattle through their first reading of Edward Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands, which will close their final concert of the season.

The music is beautiful, the rehearsal room absolutely filled with sound, and I am surprised to learn that the 70-member orchestra is seeing their parts for the first time tonight. They are all sight reading, as is Clinton, and yet the music is very much alive. (It turned out the score was late, and had arrived that day from the publisher.)

“You have to dance with me a bit.” ~ Clinton Smith, on tempo
“You have to dance with me a bit.” ~ Clinton Smith, on tempo

It has now been a month since that first rehearsal; on Sunday, the orchestra will perform a program of Elgar, Mozart, and Kai-Young Chan together with their other half, the Seattle Chamber Singers.

Founded in 1969, Orchestra Seattle | Seattle Chamber Singers (OSSCS) pairs chorus and orchestra on equal footing – an unusual undertaking for a community group, and unique in the Pacific Northwest.  The group also works with Cornish College of the Arts and Seattle University to provide ensemble credit for musicians who are pursuing a music degree and wish to play or sing for credit.

I asked Clinton if he would share a few thoughts about Sunday’s concert program, conducting from the piano, and unique character of this ensemble.

 
How did you choose the repertoire for this program?

I came to the idea of the program from reading the texts and the story behind Elgar’s Bavarian Highlands. He and his wife were on vacation in Bavaria, and you can tell they were having a great time together, making happy memories. I wanted to create a program that reflected a happy-go-lucky atmosphere, so I chose the Mozart concerto – which I’ve performed several times, as it represents a happy and successful brief period in Mozart’s life – and the Elgar Serenade. His publisher told Elgar it wasn’t publishable, but he forged ahead and created this well-known gem.

“The beautiful lilting phrases must have just the right amount of emotion, both for the orchestra and the chorus, in order to pull off the simple beauty of the music… Clinton has a strong emotional connection with the piece and the skill to communicate that connection to the musicians, making the performance light, lovely, and carefree for all of us.” ~ Laurie Medill, alto, on ‘From The Bavarian Highlands’

 
What should we listen for?

The Elgar Serenade is a lush, beautiful, strings-only piece written for the fun of it. Listen for Elgar’s very personal sound – the sound of a composer writing from the heart, for fun, instead of for a paycheck.

The Mozart piano concerto is very unique in that he wrote this piece most likely for himself to take on the road and play for high society. It was composed the same year as The Marriage of Figaro, his most famous opera, and one can hear opera characters darting on and off stage even in this, his most famous piano concerto.

The composer competition winner by Kai-Young Chan, Seeking, Searching, is inspired by the poem Sheng Sheng Man by Li Ching-Chao (1084-1155). The audience should listen to the entirely new sound he creates, utilizing new ways of playing the instruments, complex rhythms, and traditional Chinese instrument-inspired sounds with glissandi, grace notes, and tonality.

Finally, Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands, we hear the sounds of Elgar and his wife’s travels together around Bavaria on vacation. His wife wrote the text, and he wrote the music, and together they create a delightful six-movement choral work free of worries.

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“It’s a matter of figuring out the rhythms in your own time. You’ll need to do the math, sitting with the part, figuring out where the rhythms go. You have everything you need.” ~ Clinton Smith

 
You will be playing the Mozart piano concerto while simultaneously conducting it. Is that different from doing just one or the other?

Playing and conducting is all about trust – trusting the musicians to listen to each other, and play together without a conductor. Essentially, we are having a conversation, and when I’m not playing, my conducting is part of the conversation the musicians are having with each other.

It’s tricky to do both, and I have to take care of myself first as a performer. That’s where the trust comes in – I know the orchestra can play without me, and when I need to focus on my playing, they will take charge, and together we will perform the piece as chamber musicians.

Clinton Smith conducts Mozart's piano concerto from behind the piano.
Clinton Smith conducts Mozart’s piano concerto from behind the piano.

 
Seattle has dozens of community orchestras. What drew you to OSSCS?

The draw was the repertoire possible with the pairing of a chorus and an orchestra. Where else can you do a concert with Beethoven 9 and Schwanter’s New Morning for the World? A professional orchestra would be far too expensive for such a concert, and the prohibitive difficulty level of the music would exclude most community orchestras. OSSCS can pull off this type of concert beautifully, then turn around and perform a pair of Messiah performances less than a month later.

 
What are you most looking forward to about this concert?

Bringing new works to life is a great privilege and responsibility of mine, and OSSCS is known for its adventurous programming with regard to new music. I am also thrilled that we are able to present Elgar’s Serenade. This is on the program because the violins last year won a fundraising competition. I studied the piece early on when I was just starting to conduct with my teacher Ken Kiesler, and am happy to revisit an old friend.

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OSSCS will perform “Devil may Care” at First Free Methodist Church at 3pm on Sunday, May 22, 2016. For details and tickets, click here. Watch the concert LIVE on Facebook.

“You really have to open your mind and be willing to accept that there are and should be many ways to express emotion through music.” ~ Kenna Smith-Shangrow, violin

Would your ensemble like to be featured on the Live Music Project? Drop us a note at info@livemusicproject.org. All photos © 2016 by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.