Category Archives: About the artists

LUCO’s Ambitious Russian Repertoire Takes A Delirious Path Through Spectacle, Grim Urgency, and Bleak Hope

As the members of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra (LUCO) took the stage for their season finale performances of Stravinsky and Shostakovich at Meany Hall on Saturday evening, granite clouds rained dramatically over the surrounding University of Washington campus, appropriately evoking the composers’ St. Petersburg roots. The program consisted of Stravinsky’s bright, showy Circus Polka (1942), as well as two works by Shostakovich – the notoriously technically challenging Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major (1959) and the emotionally shattering, rarely performed Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1943) – a set that only orchestras as adventurous and spirited as LUCO would work into one program.

LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

The prolific and buoyant director of LUCO since 2000, Christophe Chagnard, joyfully swept up to the conductor’s platform and led the group through the two-toned tents, popcorn, and enraptured crowds of the Circus Polka. Upon commission, Stravinsky had famously declared that he would only write a polka per the Ringling Brothers’ request if it were intended for “very young elephants.” LUCO succeeded admirably in rallying the energy of several young circus elephants and bringing them to life for the four-minute piece.

In a significant shift in tone, the orchestra then moved away from Stravinsky’s carnival and into Shostakovich’s feverish cello concerto. Virtuosic soloist Michael Center expertly navigated the two worlds of extreme technicality and emotional expression, proving an excellent interpretive match for the solo, 148-bar cadenza. The percussion section and timpanist Rachel Dobrow Stone joined with high-register winds to effectively fill out the mood of grim urgency in the finale.

LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)
LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

Following intermission, Chagnard depicted Leningrad (St. Petersburg) of 1943 for the audience, proclaiming that it would be “difficult to think of a darker year in human history, and for Russia [in particular]”. It had been two years since the initial printing of the Soviet propaganda poster featured on the concert program, showing a square-jawed, hawk-eyed, Red Army soldier determinedly glaring into the future, tank cannons ablaze in the background, above the phrase “Вперед! Победа близка!” (Forward! Victory is near!), and the Nazi siege of Shostakovich’s hometown would continue for yet another year. Supplies were extremely scarce, the Russian winters brutal without fuel, and “every month, [tens of thousands] more people died of starvation.” On top of that, Stalin’s authoritarian government was extremely adept at making people disappear if they spoke one wrong word or made art that was not precisely just so.

Such was the context in which Shostakovich penned his heartrending Symphony No. 8 in C minor.

LUCO captured the gravity and depth of the 8th Symphony with a highly conscientious, present performance. As a unit the winds and strings moved under the radar at speeds of varying levels of caution and anxiety. The brass followed Chagnard’s orders closely, joining the winds and strings for several horrific, hair-raising howls, representing the thousands of people the city lost month after month.

Moving deliriously through the constant fear of a knock at the door, imprisonment, and finally to the faintest shred of hope sans optimism an hour later, LUCO performed the five movements of the symphony with careful attention and stirring aptitude.

Storm clouds at the University of Washington on the eve of the performance. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)
Storm clouds at the University of Washington on the evening of the performance. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.

Seattle Modern Orchestra Challenges Expectations, Musical Limitations in Season Finale

The Seattle Modern Orchestra, directed by the charming and vivacious duo Julia Tai and Jérémy Jolley, rounded out its 2015-2016 season on June 11th at the Good Shepherd Center with pensive, erudite performances of three notable contemporary concept pieces: Gérard Grisey’s Périodes (1974), Claude Vivier’s Samarkand (1981), and the West Coast première of Anthony Cheung’s Discrete Infinity (2011).

Seattle Modern Orchestra (Photo: Huck Hodge)

Several elements came together to make this performance particularly unique and engaging. First, the remarkable, apparent ease with which the musicians performed both as a unit and as individuals at will. Second, the clear relationship between the three pieces, as each exhibited a shuttering of tradition in favor of using the parts for other purposes. And, finally, the surprising parallels between the pieces and the turning points in the history of the Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford in which they were performed.

Grisey notes that his Périodes for seven instruments represents the “soft” periodicity of the respiratory cycle (organic and varied, as opposed to mechanical and precise): inhalation, exhalation, and rest. A noted proponent and composer of liminal music, which emphasizes the perpetually transitory nature of music itself, Grisey wrote Périodes to explore five of these breathing cycles. Each sequence constructs increasingly complex series of harmonics that share a single fundamental note.

In the first derivation, violist Heather Bentley droned on a dark, controlled low D while the other instruments built up a harmonic profile around it, cut through by a sort of tolling-bell rhythm by trombonist Rebecca Good. The sequence resolved into a calm yet apprehensive whole tone melody before coming to a rest and beginning a new sequence, this time focused on rhythmic structures.

The final cycle included a comedic, revelatory sense of perpetuity, reminiscent of the introduction to Mel Brooks’ 1987 film Spaceballs – just when it’s almost certainly over, it continues. Then it continues to continue, similarly to the intended function of the respiratory cycle.

To open Vivier’s Samarkand, clarinetist Angelique Poteat and oboist Ursula Sahagian joined forces with flautist Jessica Polin, bassoonist Steven Morgen, and Josiah Boothby’s French horn to create a dissonant groundswell of sound while Bathsheba Marcus’ heavily-accented piano forged its own path, stoking an unmistakable sense of fretfulness. The effect was similar to that of listening to a rant of a bona fide mad scientist in a basement lab, whose thread could be logically followed to a point before veering off in a completely unpredictable direction – simultaneously unnerving and enthralling. Gradually, the winds and brass echo the piano, adding a new dimension of depth and clarity, and Vivier again surprised with instructions to rap lightly on the piano’s open lid with a rubber ball.

As the piece came to its glacial close, the winds remained unflinchingly discordant, and the structure of their details lost within each other created an atmosphere of blended, inextricable tension. The SMO’s meticulous interpretation of Samarkand challenged the audience to break free of assumption again and again.

The intermission allowed audience members and performers to mingle over wine and cookies, which fostered a welcoming sense of conversation and community. I was fortunate enough to speak with composer Anthony Cheung about his piece, Discrete Infinity.

A well-spoken, thoughtful, engaging man, Cheung revealed that the piece had taken on a life of its own before he perceived its connection with Noam Chomsky’s idea of discrete infinity: that despite the finite nature of certain systems, such as language, infinite meanings are possible.

Cheung recognized that he could apply this idea to his music. He knew that he wanted his as-of-yet-untitled piece to build on harmonics, primarily those of strings, which derive their intricacy from a single tone or series.

He wrote ascending lines for the brass and wind sections, building upon tones with strong harmonic relationships, then introduced a cacophony of sound from all instruments to break them all down again. The sounds reduced into their discrete properties, leading to previously undiscovered combinations. Cheung accomplished his goal of representing the idea of infinite possibilities in music over time in Discrete Infinity, the limitations of resources and equipment notwithstanding.

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.

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.

~

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.

An Algorithmic, Emotional New World

“It’s not enough to slow down. You have to relax your soul, then it becomes organic.”

Sound like a yoga class? That’s music director Julia Tai, guiding the musicians of Philharmonia Northwest through their first rehearsal of this concert cycle as they prepare their season finale: a trio of immersive works spanning 250 years.

For Sunday’s concert, Julia has chosen music that looks into the future: a world premiere by Seattle composer David Schneider, computation[0]: algorithmic thoughts of the electric brain for amplified orchestra, and Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, “From the New World,” signifying the beginning of a new era for the orchestra.

Dipping into the past, the program continues with an unusual pairing of concerto instruments in Michael Haydn’s Duo Concertante for Viola and Organ, with soloists Mara Gearman (viola) and Leslie Martin (organ).

Mara Gearman and Leslie Martin rehearse Haydn's Duo Concertante at North Seattle College.
Mara Gearman and Leslie Martin rehearse Haydn’s Duo Concertante.

Philharmonia Northwest has a 40-year history of producing high-quality concerts and promoting local composers and performers. The musicians have an unmistakable common love and passion for music that is shared by all.

When I ask Julia what she is most looking forward to about this concert, she mentions the beautiful program and wonderful soloists – and the challenges around computation[0], a minimalist piece structured around four sorting algorithms. [Listen here]

“Since I’m not a computer person, David had to explain to me how sorting algorithms work and how the piece was composed to illustrate these processes,” she says. “Working on David’s piece is something new for the orchestra. It requires a different mindset and musical discipline. But we like challenges and learning new things all the time. It expands our horizon and improves our musical skills.”

Julia explains that the piece is difficult because it is very minimalistic – there are repeated musical patterns and slight changes with each repetition. The music then changes and morphs over time (a technique developed mostly by John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). There are also passages that use the Hocket technique, where each group of instruments plays alternating notes that make up a melody. It is extremely difficult to be precise on those fast notes and rests.

Philharmonia Northwest rehearses 'computation[0]' at North Seattle College.
Rehearsing ‘computation[0]’ at North Seattle College.
Algorithms might seem like a strange muse for an orchestral work, but like other sources of creative inspiration – nature, people, history – algorithms are part of daily life. And they are on David’s mind. For the past year and a half, he’s been on the path to becoming a software developer – and has been devoting most of his energies to learning programming and the math and computer science upon which modern software is built.

“In addition to the fact that algorithms help power the technology I – like just about everybody in our society – use every day, I’ve gotten to know some of them much better in the recent past,” he says. “The thinking required for understanding and applying algorithms is quite abstract, and it occurred to me that music might actually be a very good medium for expressing such abstraction. So in part, this piece is an attempt to capture the logical processes that go on in the ‘mind’ of a computer and convey them to an audience in a way that’s understandable on an intuitive level.”

When David joined for the orchestra’s fourth rehearsal, he heard computation[0] live for the first time – toes tapping, score open, his face a mask of mild concentration. I watched, wondering what it’s like to experience your creation coming to life.

Composer David Schneider looks on as he hears computation[0] live for the first time.
Composer David Schneider follows along in the score as he hears ‘computation[0]’ live for the first time.
“The first time hearing a piece in rehearsal is always an interesting experience, and with an orchestral piece, it tends to be a bit of a blur,” David says. “I try to take in as much as I can, but it’s difficult, because there’s so much going on. What I’m mainly concerned with is: Can I hear the musical narrative unfolding the way I intended?”

Micro-negotiations unfold after the orchestra plays through David’s piece. The opening section needs more trombone. The woodwinds can’t be heard. (In fact, this is a feature of the rehearsal space, which absorbs their sound entirely.) And then there is some rethinking of whether to use the shaker or a different type of percussion.

Philharmonia NW

David explains later why this process is necessary.

“Sometimes in writing a piece there are details that I’m not quite sure about,” he says. “I’ll wonder if maybe I actually want the glockenspiel an octave higher. Or I might worry that I have too many instruments playing a particular line, and maybe they’ll overpower the other parts. The truth is, while I think I have a pretty good sense of how things will sound, there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty, particularly in the way a large number of instruments sound when playing together. And there are other variables that add to this uncertainty, since, for instance, every performer is different, and every space is different.”

Occasionally, David will write something one way but also have in mind one or more alternatives in case it doesn’t work quite the way he wanted.

Julia explains that many composers like to make changes to their work on an ongoing basis, from small changes like dynamic marks to bigger ones like cutting out a few bars. Composers throughout history have done this too, making changes or creating different versions during rehearsal cycles or for different concerts or orchestras.

Philharmonia Northwest rehearses at North Seattle College.

With less than a week to go before this concert, I wonder: At what point do you put down the pencil?

Says David: “If there’s enough rehearsal time, I might ask the performers to try an alternative, but typically these changes are quite small, because it would be extremely impractical to make major changes to the piece at that stage.”

Says Julia: “That’s the beauty and fun about working with living composers! We can have a dialogue on the music, exchange ideas, edit some parts of the music or instruments, and be in the exciting process of creating something new that no one has ever played before!”

Any collaboration between composer and musician produces a work of art that is greater than the sum of its parts; in an orchestral work, the composer has a vision, the conductor communicates that vision to the players, and the players bring it to life. All of these moving parts come together to create a conversation between composer, musician, and audience whenever a piece is performed.

“We can’t forget that music is a living art that breathes and changes, and it can sound very different with different players too,” Julia says. “This is why live music is so amazing. You have to be in the moment to experience it!”

julialaughing
Music director Julia Tai.


Philharmonia Northwest will perform Schneider, Haydn, and Dvorak at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church at 2:30pm on Sunday, April 24, 2016. For details and tickets, click here.

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.

Listening as an Ensemble, Playing as a Family

It’s the before of the before: a dark evening in early January, Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra not quite poised for downbeat at their first rehearsal of the quarter. Conductor standing at the podium, brushing up on the score. Musicians wandering in, greeting each other, moving chairs into place, straightening music stands, filling the room with an unmistakably orchestral sound as they warm up and tune their instruments.

From the center of the room comes an arresting thread of melody – sweet and sudden, an achingly beautiful skein of sound – English horn serenading the setting-up of this high school classroom as the orchestra prepares, at last, to begin. A hush falls, eyes turn to the conductor, and off they go.

PSSO rehearsal at Roosevelt High School
PSSO rehearsal at Roosevelt High School.

The PSSO is an all-volunteer ensemble whose members’ formal professions range from computer scientist to radio programmer. Conductor Alan Shen founded the group in 1999 with a vision of sharing fun, musically inspiring concerts at prices affordable to anyone.

Friday’s concert will feature Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (“Organ Symphony”), Marquez Danzon No. 2, and Ravel Piano Concerto in G. This immersive landscape of sound is offered at $5-$8 per ticket, continuing to deliver on the orchestra’s mission more than 15 years later.

Conductor Alan Shen reviews scores on his tablet at First Free Methodist Church
Conductor Alan Shen reviews scores before rehearsal at First Free Methodist Church.

Alan has a fluid, democratic rapport with the members of the orchestra. His commentary is laced with encouragement (“I know it seems like we’re chewing our broccoli, but really good work!”) and chuckles (“Don’t succumb to all the business that’s going on over here. You guys hold your ground!”). Alan’s easy communication style extends to the audience, and he is known for enabling listeners to relate to complicated pieces at a personal level.

I asked Alan if he would share a few thoughts about Friday’s concert program, his conducting style, and the role of PSSO in our community.

How did you build the program for this concert?

Knowing that we were going to try out First Free Methodist Church this season, I was excited to leverage the venue’s organ. That’s why we ended up doing the Saint-Saëns Organ symphony. The Marquez continues our Latin theme for the season, and the Ravel rounds out the mix. I always try to build a program with variety so that everyone who attends identifies with at least a couple of the pieces.

Rehearsing Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony at Salvation Army.
Rehearsing Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony at Salvation Army, with Susanna Valleau at the keyboard.

What is one thing the audience should listen for in each piece?

In the Marquez, it’s about achieving that punchy and rhythmically driven sound vs. playing it too much like a traditionally “classical” work. It is a dance after all!

On the Ravel, the middle movement’s simplicity is also its beauty. The English horn duet with the piano highlights this effect.

Brooks Tran is a blur.
Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Brooks Tran is a blur.

And finally, for the Organ Symphony, Saint-Saëns was very clever in taking a single melodic line and transposing it in many different ways. See how many of those you can point out!

What are you most looking forward to about this concert?

The massive organ chord in the Saint-Saëns is always a fun one!

What are some challenges facing the orchestra for this program?

The Marquez and Saint-Saëns both have several areas where aligning the rhythms across sections is a challenge. We worked on this ensemble aspect quite a bit this quarter.

Cellos strumming away during the Marquez.
Cellos strumming away during the Marquez.

Have you always conducted from a tablet – and has it ever gone very wrong?

I only started in the last couple years. Partly, I want to save on printing paper. But it’s also easier to “turn” pages on a tablet and study scores on the go. So far, I haven’t had any score malfunctions… knock on wood.

I’ve noticed you conduct certain pieces with or without a baton. Why is that?

As an orchestra matures, they rely lesson the conductor to define the beat and more on guiding the musical direction of what’s about to come. Sometimes I stop using a baton so that my gestures focus on musical direction. In doing so, this places more responsibility on the musicians to listen to each other. Sometimes it’s good to just stop conducting altogether.

What is the role of PSSO in our community? What makes it different from other community orchestras?

I’m proud that we’re an all-volunteer orchestra, including the conductor role. From an audience standpoint, this enables our tickets prices to be accessible to a wide range of the community. But there is also a special sense of community that the musicians feel in playing with PSSO. This is what draws many of our musicians back quarter after quarter. We really are a family, and making music as a family is very different than just having another community orchestra to play in.

Cello and friends

 

The Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra will perform Saint-Saëns, Marquez, and Ravel at First Free Methodist Church at 7:30pm on Friday, February 26, 2016. For details and tickets, click here. You can also watch the concert online – look for a broadcast link on the LMP’s Twitter page after 6pm on the night of the concert.

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.

Music to Inspire Dialogue

Composer Angelique Poteat and the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra rehearse at Roosevelt High School. (Photo: Shaya Lyon / LMP)
Composer Angelique Poteat and the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra rehearse at Roosevelt High School. (Photo: Shaya Lyon / LMP)

It is an interesting thing to watch an orchestra rehearse the unheard work of a modern composer. It is even more interesting to watch them rehearse with her in the room, offering suggestions where needed. Nestled among the musicians. Playing the clarinet.

Angelique Poteat – composer, clarinetist, loser of sleep – is doing just that: premiering her new work Listen to the Girls with the inter-generational Seattle Collaborative Orchestra and Northwest Girlchoir, while lending her own voice to the mix with the deep, lusciously vibrating sighs of her bass clarinet.

In Listen to the Girls, Angelique sets the thoughts of teenage girls to an orchestral score. It is a complex, layered work with challenging meter and rhythms that seemed, in early rehearsals, to have a mind of their own. Orchestra and choir are slowly bringing these into focus, wrestling with each until finally weaving a tapestry of sound, rhythm and meaning that is at once elusive and approachable.

Feedback in progress: Anna Edwards (music director), Angelique, and the SCO. (Photo: Shaya Lyon / LMP)
Feedback in progress: Anna Edwards (music director), Angelique, and the SCO. (Photo: Shaya Lyon / LMP)

I asked Angelique how she came to write this piece, and what she hopes it will communicate.

What inspired you to choose the theme of girls for this particular concert?

I wanted to write something for girlchoir with orchestra; partially because of my experience working with the Northwest Girlchoir, who I knew would be fantastic, and because I was disappointed with the lack of repertoire for that particular combined medium. The question was, what to use as source material for a piece?

The more I thought about young women today and the issues that plague them in society and popular culture, it became apparent that I needed to write something that addressed this relevant topic. The rest of the concert was programmed around this piece.

How did you prepare to write Listen to the Girls? What kind of guidelines/constraints were you working with? Was there a research stage before you began composing?

The piece was created in several stages. It took me a little while to come up with the questionnaire that I presented to high school and middle school aged girls to complete anonymously, creating the inspiration for my text.

In addition to reading up on a number of psychological articles on the development of young women today to start, I asked friends, male and female, for suggestions on questions to include in the questionnaire, trying to touch on a broad group of points while leaving the questions open-ended.

When I collected the answers from the anonymous girls, I had another long process of sorting, rewording, adding to, and finalizing text from these responses. I wanted the music itself to reflect the energy of these words and to be somewhat accessible to a younger audience while still fitting within the category of “serious concert music.”

Is composing for an orchestra of widely ranging ages and skill levels different from composing for an orchestra of more consistent skill levels?

I tried not to take the varying “skill levels” of the musicians in the orchestra into too much consideration when I wrote this piece. I wasn’t aware of who would be playing which part, and I had confidence that the very talented student musicians would be up for the challenge, especially because of the way the rehearsal schedule is set up.

Writing for a professional orchestra as a living composer, I have had to be slightly weary of limited rehearsal time, which certainly influences certain organizational aspects of my music. For this group, some of the performers will have had upwards of six rehearsals of my piece, while others only get one or two, so I chose to write what I wanted.

In rehearsal, I’ve had the chance to get to know many layers of Listen to the Girls through repetitive listening and section-by-section focus as I move around the room. The audience will be hearing it just this once (for now). What sounds, rhythms or motifs should they keep an ear out for?

I have various motives that recur throughout the work. Listen for the first four notes of the piece – these come back a lot. I’ve gotten to calling this my “strength” motive.

The fast-paced lines that layer over each other return in the fourth movement, my “real life” motive.

The soprano solo at the end of the third movement is actually the inspiration for almost all melodic material in the entire piece.

The last four notes of that solo, the “doubt” motive, becomes the primary material for the fourth movement, started off by the celesta. As for the rest, just listen to the girls!

A snippet from the score of 'Listen to the Girls' by Angelique Poteat.
A snippet from the score of ‘Listen to the Girls’ by Angelique Poteat.

While I was chatting with a few of the young female musicians during break on Monday, they described the text as “relatable” and said that even the sounds themselves are of their generation. What do you hope the musicians and choir will come away with after performing the piece? What do you hope the audience will come away with after hearing it?

I want this piece to inspire dialogue and conversation: between girls, parents, male peers, anyone, really. This is something that I feel can be related to, which I believe is so incredibly important in concert music today. How great, to go and hear live music that is relevant, exciting, involving of so many people with different and unique things to share.

For the musicians, I hope they welcome the new music and have fun with it, and eventually seek out more opportunities to expand their repertoire to include new works and commissions.

The Seattle Collaborative Orchestra and Northwest Girlchoir will perform Listen to the Girls, as well as works by Michael Daugherty, Leanna Primiani and Richard Strauss, at the University Christian Church on Wednesday, November 18, 2015, at 7:00pm. For details and tickets, click here.

Ravenna Strings: A Magical Community Orchestra

“I think we’ve found some cool new notes to play,” exclaims a voice from the cello section. “They’re mysterious notes, but I think they add something – so we’ll play them.”

The voice is joined by others, and some laughter ensues among the Ravenna String Orchestra, a group of volunteer musicians who meet weekly at a community center to play under the baton of Judy Drake and with help from co-director Lorraine Hughes.

At 7pm each week, a flood of tiny ballerinas exits the rehearsal room, and in come the musicians. They transform the room in moments, and for the next hour and a half, the room is theirs to fill with music.

Common threads

As is typical for a community orchestra, members of Ravenna Strings come from all walks of life, spanning numerous professions and more than 60 years in age. Some took lessons when they were young, playing on and off throughout the years. Others began learning later in life.

“When I think about it, it seems strange that ensemble playing works at all,” says cellist Taylor Weiss. “We’re a small group as orchestras go, but we’ve got a really wide range of technique and experience. And there is quite a bit of individual variation that goes into each person’s performance of a piece. You would think that all the variable bits would cause the music to devolve into something a chaotic blob, but the opposite tends to happen. The common threads of each individual performance reinforce and strengthen the collective performance.”

What binds them together?

“There seems something intrinsically down to earth and honest about everyone playing there. There are no pretensions, just an earnest desire to do the best we can and make music,” says violinist (and nephrologist) Michael Sutters.

And let us not forget the diminutive conductor, whom the musicians must crane their necks to see.

“Judy takes this all-volunteer group, selects music to challenge and delight us, and guides us cheerfully and joyously through a quarter of weekly rehearsals. We learn from her and from each other. Somehow, at the end of the term, we produce ‘music.’ It is a magical process,” says violist Lenell Nussbaum.

Rehearsing the Boccherini cello concerto with Nathan Whittaker.
Rehearsing the Boccherini cello concerto with soloist Nathan Whittaker.

‘It’s kind of magical’

Lenell, a criminal defense lawyer, says playing with the orchestra lets her use part of her brain that would otherwise lie dormant. A longtime musician, Lenell took up viola for this orchestra, learning a new notation and range.

“My day job relies exclusively on words. My brain physically feels different when it gets to perform music. It’s a good feeling,” she says.

Lenell isn’t the only one enjoying this mental spa.

“Most Wednesdays I scramble out of work, bolt down a bite to eat, and then contemplate whether I really have the energy to drag myself off to rehearsal,” says Taylor. “But after a few minutes into the evening, I’ve lost that lethargy, and by the time we’re done I’ve got a head full of music that has driven out all the little stresses of the day. It’s kind of magical what playing with a group does for you.”

Comparing notes.
Comparing notes.

Two pets and a plan

How did this magic come to be? Rewind to 1996. The scene: Green Lake, Seattle. Judy and Lorraine are walking their dogs around the lake, discussing what to do about retirement. “One idea was to lick envelopes; the other was to start a community orchestra,” they write in their bio.

Both women were professional musicians, and also taught music. Lorraine had suggested putting their students together to play chamber music. One day they did, and the orchestra was born. Over time, it grew into a more advanced ensemble.

“Often, someone really skilled would come in, so we’d make the music a little harder… and then someone else would join, and it would keep getting harder and harder,” says Judy. So they divided the orchestra in two, and in 2000 the Ravenna Second String Orchestra was born.

Almost two decades after its creation, the original Ravenna String Orchestra is still going strong. Many of the members have been playing together for more than half that time, and several of their children have grown up in the group, some continuing to play through college.

Members of the orchestra describe the atmosphere as one in which they are both challenged and supported – and no wonder.

“Our mission is to help people love music, and to feel comfortable about playing,” says Judy. “A lot of the tension and nervousness comes from people being treated badly or too competitively as they grew up, so we try and get rid of that – because I think people play better if they can love music.”

They seem to be succeeding.

“Judy and Lorraine are wonderful leaders: warm, welcoming, funny and talented. It’s a gift that they share their expertise and experience with us,” says Susan Fung, violinist and speech-language pathologist.

Avshalomov death chord
“All summer long, I Googled Avshalomov’s ‘death chord,’ and Google giggled at me. So finally, I had to ask the composer about it. And he said to me: ‘I made up the death chord.’ It’s full of all the things you feel if you’ve lost someone you care about. It’s unresolved, left hanging.” – Judy Drake, conductor

Soloist on board

The orchestra had a guest this quarter: Nathan Whittaker, a chamber musician, recitalist, teacher and historical cello specialist. Nathan joined the orchestra as soloist for the Boccherini cello concerto – and then seated himself comfortably in the section for the rest of the program. Throughout the rehearsal cycle, he has been on hand to offer gentle instruction on style and technique.

With Nathan on board, musicians are able to work closely with an accomplished performer and learn to shape the orchestral parts to his needs. And Nathan, in return, gets a bit of variety.

“It’s exciting to work with adult enthusiasts who do it for the love of making music,” says Nathan. “They’re eager to learn everything about what music is and what it can do and how to best express emotions and musical concepts through their instruments. It’s a really fun and somewhat different experience working with a group like that.”

He adds, on a sober note: “When you’re in history class in high school, you learn two things: what the wars were, and what the artistic achievements were, of any age. I know which one I’d rather focus on. Every chance I have to be part of the collective consciousness of music is a real gift.”

The Ravenna String Orchestra and the Ravenna Second String Orchestra perform tonight at 8pm at the Eckstein Middle School auditorium. For details, click here.

Nathan and Judy work on the Boccherini.
Nathan and Judy work on the Boccherini cello concerto.

Would you like to be featured on the Live Music Project? Drop us a note at info@livemusicproject.org. All photos © 2015 by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.

The Unintuitive Symphony: LUCO plays Sibelius’ 1st

Picture a darkened Parks & Rec building in West Seattle. In the single lit room, some 70 members of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra are arranged in arcs, with Maestro Christophe Chagnard at the center. And then there’s the stuff that doesn’t usually adorn an orchestra space: gym equipment, a wall of folded bleachers, a computer lab, ominous air ventilation tubes…

It is in this unlikely setting that a wonderful concert is taking shape – a balancing act in three parts: first, a rousing debut fanfare by Cornish student Lydia Park, followed by Mendelssohn’s gracefully harmonious Violin Concerto, and finally, Sibelius’ deeply moving Symphony No. 1.

Here’s a modest guide to the concert, and notes on what to keep an ear out for.

Park – A Serenade Fanfare

Cellist Michael Schick rehearses A Serenade Fanfare.
Cellist Michael Schick rehearses A Serenade Fanfare.

A Serenade Fanfare is Lydia Park’s first composition for orchestra. It is a short work whose theme gets into your head and stays there. Lydia was inspired by the ability of a fanfare to convey a rich, powerful feeling that the audience connects with immediately, and she kept this connection in mind as she wrote the piece.

I asked Lydia what it was like to compose for so many instruments at once.

“When I write on the piano, the notes usually scream for themselves which instrument they want to be played on,” she says. “For example, when I’m playing a series of chords with both my hands that create a certain smooth, self-defining harmony, I give these roles to the strings, who will be able to bring out the ultimate sensation of the harmony.”

How does she decide when to let a single instrument shine through?

“The idea of ‘giving’ solos to instruments is amusing,” she says. “The melody itself already knows which instrument it would be best suited for.”

Lydia is a winner of LUCO’s 20th anniversary fanfare competition, which aims to help aspiring young composers meet the challenge of getting original music performed.

LISTEN FOR…
> The theme, which is played first by solo trumpet, then magnified in a majestic crescendo as the entire orchestra joins in.

Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto

Soloist Denise Dillenbeck
Violin soloist Denise Dillenbeck.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto – considered one of the finest in the violin repertoire – is all about grace and virtuosity, says Chagnard. “Mendelssohn is an absolute genius, and the ease in which he crafts the most sublime harmonies and melodies is astonishing.”

(Have you ever heard an orchestra hum? LUCO rehearsed Mendelssohn’s violin concerto several times without soloist Denise Dillenbeck before she joined them; in her absence, Maestro and the orchestra hummed her part. It sounded excellent.)

LISTEN FOR…
> In the first movement, look out for the ricochet bowing (bouncing the bow across the strings) at the end of the solo. This is very challenging.
> Also note the concerto’s harmonious nature, which will provide a perfect setup for the troubled Sibelius that follows.

Sibelius – Symphony No. 1

(Photo: Shaya Lyon/The Live Music Project)

“It has to have more angst! It’s a bit banal. Violas – give me something!” Chagnard is enthusiastic about conducting Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, a powerful, angsty, unintuitive piece that unsettles even the musicians playing it.

“It is music that is not self-evident. You really have to immerse yourself in this language to understand it,” he says.

During rehearsal, the musicians express concern that the Sibelius sounds wrong, that perhaps their scores have an incorrect note here or there. Chagnard explains that the dissonance is not a typo but rather an expression of Sibelius’ angst.

The Russian oppression of Finnish independence was a source of tremendous anger for Sibelius, who was putting the finishing touches on this symphony in 1899 as the Emperor of Russia issued the “February Manifesto,” which restricted the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

“His music is fiercely individualistic, and a reflection of his strong Finnish identity (against the oppression of Russia’s iron-fist rule at the time),” says Chagnard. “There is great poetry and nature, as well as rebellion and anger, in his music.”

A century later, LUCO reminds us of Sibelius’ strikingly original genius from the very beginning of his creative output.

“It is a musical language like no other,” says Chagnard. “The Sibelius is very esoteric and most unusual in its structure… He presents themes as fragments and later builds them into a whole, which is the reverse method from most other composers.”

During rehearsal, as more questions arise about timing, he dispels them all. “I tell you,” he says, “– angst!” Someone in the orchestra calls out, “I feel it!” and they press on, angst and longing welling up from the strings.

Chagnard is delighted. “What a great passage, eh? It’s a we’re-going-to-kick-the-Russians-out kind of passage. Took a while, though. Took a while.”

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One of the most captivating moments of the symphony is its opening. A solemn, pensive melody rises up from the clarinet, accompanied by a low rumble from the tympani, while the orchestra waits silently.

This solo seems, to me, like a massive responsibility. I asked the clarinetist, Steven Noffsinger, what it feels like to play those opening notes.

“The best description I’ve found, and which is running through my head while I’m playing, is this: a solitary clarinet solo breathes a sense of desolation, which is from time to time emphasized by the distant rumbling of the timpani​. The wintry Finnish landscape is unmistakable, and a sense of expectation fills the air.” (See www.sibelius.fi and inkpot.com for the sources of this quote and more on Sibelius Symphony No. 1.)

LISTEN FOR…
> A sense of desolation and expectation in the clarinet’s opening notes
> Unexpected notes and timing
> Themes that build in small pieces and later come together as a whole

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The Lake Union Civic Orchestra (LUCO) will perform Park, Mendelssohn and Sibelius at Town Hall on Friday, February 27, 2015, at 7:30pm. For details and tickets, click here.

Would you like to be featured on the Live Music Project? Drop us a note at info@livemusicproject.org. All photos © 2015 by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.

Passion, energy and expertise: SYSO teams up with the Seattle Symphony

SYSO_SSO
SYSO and Seattle Symphony musicians rehearse together with maestro Ludovic Morlot at Benaroya Hall.

The labyrinthine passageways of Benaroya Hall are filled with teenage giggles as young musicians make their way to lunch after an intense rehearsal. These ebullient high schoolers – the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra – are readying to share the stage tomorrow (Jan. 25) with the Seattle Symphony in a side-by-side concert featuring works by Chabrier, Tchaikovsky and Hindemith.

Onstage, they’re all business. In the morning, they rehearse with Seattle Symphony conductor Ludovic Morlot. He offers constant feedback, pausing to explain his rationale. “I’m not slowing this down because the solo is difficult,” he says of the Hindemith. “I really think it’s much sweeter this way.”

In the afternoon, the students meet in sections to work more closely with their Seattle Symphony counterparts. The harps are tucked into a dressing room; woodwinds are in the basement; cellos take to the stage. The feedback continues.

harp_sectional
Harp sectional with the Seattle Symphony’s Valerie Muzzolini Gordon.

“How many of you drive?” SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt asks the young violins. (He’s also a SYSO parent.) “You can’t just drive, right? You have to look at the road. I personally don’t remember how Ludovic is going to conduct everything, so I look at my colleagues, I look at Ludovic. I urge you to look at each other as you play.”

You might wonder, as I did, how the students will incorporate everything they have learned today into the concert tomorrow. Four hours of feedback seems like a lot.

violins
Violin sectional with Seattle Symphony violinist Mikhail Shmidt.

Fear not.

“They came ready, and the concert will be great,” says Maestro Ludo when I ask. “More important than what gets into the concert is what they take home. What they learn about the process will stay with them.”

What of the process?

“We need to listen while we play, stay connected, build beautiful musical phrases,” says Ludo. “We get excited and we speed up and start moving. The more we move, the less we hear. We forget to listen, forget to enjoy a 16th note, the breath between phrases. When we listen, it becomes less about this note and that measure, and more about the whole piece.”

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Brass sectional with the Seattle Symphony’s Mark Robbins.

Please come hear the breaths between phrases, those pregnant silences created by a wonderful group of young musicians. The concert is free. Children age 5 and up are welcome. Tickets are available at the door.

SYSO_grins

 

CONCERT INFORMATION

When: January 25, 2015 @ 2:00 pm
Where: Benaroya Hall
Who: Stephen Radcliffe, conductor; Ludovic Morlot, conductor; Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra; Seattle Symphony

Program:
Chabrier – España
Tchaikovsky – Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Hindemith – Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

Details and RSVP: https://www.facebook.com/events/1552335261650694/

Would you like to be featured in the Live Music Project’s “About the artists” series? Drop us a note at info@livemusicproject.org.

All photos © 2015 Shaya Lyon.

A ride-along with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra

IMG_0306It’s a typical Wednesday evening in Seattle; the only man here without an instrument in his hands is standing with arms raised, face beaming, nearly defying gravity, carried aloft by the notes that fill the room. Ladies and gentlemen, this adventurous ride is the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra, and we invite you to follow along from beginning to end as they prepare to perform their first concert of the season.

The theme is “Danses Macabres” – ghoulish, Halloweeny tunes by American composers. But while the music may be moody, the musicians are convivial. Volunteer performers – many of whom have chosen to pursue careers outside of music – they gather weekly in high school band rooms, practice rooms and concert halls to make the kind of music that can only be made together.

Under the careful eye (and ear) of Music Director Adam Stern, the Seattle Philharmonic brings forth subtleties that – as a listener – are a pleasure to discover. In a room often filled with laughter, Stern speaks about the music using a gentle and humorous language that brings everyone onto the same page. Gould’s Tap Dance Concerto is “Gershwiny,” sort of a “controlled madness.”

Of Copland’s Rodeo, he requests: “Let it smile.” (And yet, “It can be a bit harsher. Not angry, but a little harsher… rattier.”) As if there weren’t already enough mischief in Herrmann’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, Stern asks gently, “Can you give me a little more sting?”

“Edgar Allan Poe took me by the hand and said, ‘Now I’m going to take you to your dark side.’ And I let him.” ~ Adam Stern, music director

Alongside works by Copland, Gould, Kubik and Herrman, the orchestra is preparing one of Stern’s own: Spirits of the Dead, set around a narration of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name. Muted instruments create tomblike, oppressed sounds that evoke the struggle of a man imagining the terrifying fate of life among dead souls after a life among the living.

Well, that’s creepy.

And fun.

The orchestra has rehearsed these works, old and new, for eight weeks – casually at first, playing pieces from start to finish and slowly dissecting them, then intensifying in a crescendo of urgency and precision, the mood becoming determined, focused and efficient. The outcome for listeners is a nuanced, immersive musical adventure that will jump-start your imagination and make you glad to be alive.

Don’t you want to hear it now? You can, if you hurry, or if you have a time machine.

The Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Danses Macabres at Benaroya Hall on October 22, at 7:30pm. Click here to get tickets and read more about the program.

Continue below to follow the orchestra through their rehearsal adventure. All photos by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.