Category Archives: Concert preview

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.

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.”

IMG_5683

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

IMG_6266

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.

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.