We’ve been participating in “musochats” lately – moderated conversations among musicians, composers and enthusiasts that take place on Twitter – and boy, are these chats fast and fascinating. The first chat was a week or so ago (we put together a transcript). They take place on Sunday evenings at 9pm ET. Moderators rotate weekly.
To participate (or observe, that’s fine too): Follow the hashtag #musochat on Twitter, check out the questions coming in, reply by quoting the tweet and adding your answer. Tag each answer with the number of the corresponding question (A1, A2, etc.) and #musochat. Hope to see you there!
Beethoven – Egmont Overture, Op. 84
Anderson – Poem for Violin and Orchestra
Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Benaroya Hall, June 2015
The inspiration for English composer Julian Anderson’s Poem for Violin and Orchestra is In Lovely Blue, by mid-19th-century French poet Friedrich Holderlin. According to the program notes, the poem’s theme is the yearning to transcend worldly existence for a life of purity and beauty. Maestro Ludovic Morlot introduced the piece, explaining that the author (and hero) of the poem turns his back on the world and is eventually proclaimed to be so mentally ill as to be institutionalized. Morlot’s instinct for making art accessible is predictably on target: he provided a narrative from which to interpret the often clamorous and highly variable soundscape the piece would soon produce.
Poem for Violin and Orchestra opened with a pleasant mixture of repeated bells and sudden low pitches, some honking, grating and traditional tympani suggestive perhaps of noisy city sounds. With each new introduction of sound, the novelty and kind of sound was increased, with fewer familiar noises. There were violin phrases to break the intensity of these interjections, but even the violin played hollow-pitched harmonics and thin-voiced sounds with the wooden side of the bow. The composer’s lack of regular rhythm or regularity of pitch and timbre suggested complete disorganization. The auditory episodes persisted longer through time, eventually leading to a climactic phrase.
There was a short pause before the violin melody became more dominant, and I expected to hear some melodic phrasing – a relief of tension – but even the violin “song” was variable, not soothing, and almost continuously novel as the piece proceeded. I could not recognize any distinct melody (though I suspect a second or third thoughtful listening might surface some patterns), but certainly the energy and mood of the violin were that of solitude and pensive loneliness.
I imagined this music as strange, unwanted interjections into the hero’s world. There were a few moments when I felt temporary relief from the tension so effectively conveyed, but they were truly momentary. I experienced the final phrases as a loss of energy – a submission to, rather than resolution and acceptance of. There was no hero’s confidence, no “I willingly accept this” – nothing of the sort. The music could not be described as resolved in any way.
What struck me about what would seem to be such a sad musical expression is that I didn’t feel empathy. The nature of this music left me uninvested: there was wonder and intellectual consternation, but no warmth, almost no feeling at all. In Lovely Blue was grounded in one human’s isolation; so too was Anderson’s Poem.
To leave this music and move to Brahms’ First Symphony is a lesson in contrast. As composers, Anderson and Brahms are more clearly defined when we hear them together.
Brahms’ music is full of intricate chords and melody that express a richness and beauty. As in Anderson’s piece, many instruments play at one time, but now I am comforted as I listen. There is continuity of sound, there is a richness that feels confident and inviting, there are melodies, but they do not dominate. This symphony is like a tapestry, its multiple threads and forms coming together into one beautiful picture.
Brahms’ symphony had minimal solo lines, with pleasant meshing of pitches and instruments – a chorus of music. Anderson chose the concerto, characterized by solitary threads and accompaniment.
Brahms communicated exuberance in all things; he could embrace the world in his music. Anderson showed us isolation in a strident intellectual world full of meaningless activity and noise. Can one imagine a greater human contrast?
This was a concert to remember for its statement of breadth and depth of idea expressed in music. Much credit to Maestro Morlot for his presentation of these two oppositional pieces. He gave us a new perspective from which to experience these works, leaving room to think about what each composer was communicating and why Anderson and Brahms – two composers from very different circumstances – were placed side by side. I look forward to more of this.
Guest contributor Roberta Kanive is a Seattle-based nurse practitioner and violinist.
The Academy Chamber Orchestra played on a recent Saturday night in the rectangular, concert-hall shaped Haller Lake United Methodist Church, under a northwest timbered ceiling. The pews were filled.
Looking at the orchestra before the concert, you knew their sound would be big. There were 45 musicians: bass, violins, percussion, some winds and brass. However, the size still did not prepare me for the rich, full sounds of the opening chords of Schubert’s Quintet. It was a moment akin to hearing your very favorite piece after turning up the volume so you can hear every single note. We were all captivated by the opening sounds.
I was somewhat distracted during this first piece, trying to understand: How did they manage this fullness?
I found some explanation when I looked at the players. Young and very confident, with full and controlled bowing, they were into the music. The conductor, Alan Futterman, was the enhancing, directing element, and with his choices for programming, the performance was all good taste, style and panache – a real treat.
Futterman’s placement of Prokofiev’s “Midnight at the Ball” from Cinderella at the center of the concert was perfect. Paired with this orchestra, the energy and dance rhythms, as well as Prokofiev’s swagger and humor, were more than convincing – they were fun. We were at the ball.
Another notable feature of this concert was Futterman’s rapport with the audience. The maestro introduced each piece with just enough backstory and engaged the audience with questions – sometimes rhetorical, other times expecting an answer – and made us curious about the piece we were about to hear.
The end of the program was dedicated to the music of living composers: Romanze by Werner Kaminsky and Turkish Dervish/Casbah Music by Futterman himself. The Romanze, with its tender melody, allowed the orchestra to perform the beautiful sonorous tone of the strings. The Dervish, with prominent and lively rhythms – slow, slow to as fast as the instruments could be bowed – gave the musicians one last opportunity to demonstrate their mettle.
The concert was over too soon. Entertaining and at times dramatic, this was a program that would captivate even a preteen. It sent a clear message: classical music is alive, fun and doing very well, thank you.
“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.
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.
‘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.”
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.
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.
Trio Andromeda is Allion Salvador (violin), Hye Jung Yang (cello), and Li-Cheng Hung (piano). They performed at Brechemin auditorium, University of Washington School of music, on May 30, 2015.
This very young trio maintains the intensity required for chamber music, clearly coming into their own cohesiveness, and at their recent concert showed us that they are artistically and technically versatile.
The first piece, Kaley Eaton’s Sacred Geometry, was a musical presentation on perspective. At first startling, the piece became intriguing and then enjoyable. Many varying sounds were produced in coordinating ways but with few singing tones of strings, chords and arpeggios, and the composer’s description – given right before the performance – of what she was expressing conceptually through her music gave the audience many “I get it” moments. The music remained abstract, but she made it more accessible: one had an idea, instead of a melody, to carry one through the complete composition. Sacred Geometry is fresh, thoughtful and, importantly in the nova music area, pleasant on first hearing. It prompts one to explore what else Eaton has composed.
The Shostakovich and Beethoven pieces provided their challenging harmonies and rhythms but with more subtle emotional range than we usually hear from these two composers. In these nuanced compositions – a challenge for the most experienced small ensemble – the trio gave voice to both musical identities. For those of us who favor Shostakovich and Beethoven, the applause was a release for the appreciation and happiness the trio and their music generated.
Brechemin is an ideal chamber work venue, which contributed to the overall delight of the concert.
On Monday night, Music of Remembrance presented a screening of The Golem, a film by German director/actor Paul Wegener in 1920. This silent “horror” movie, filmed in the German expressionist tradition, was accompanied by a live klezmer-inspired score for string quartet and clarinet, composed by Betty Olivero in 1997.
The program also included works by Joseph Achron (Hebrew Melody, 1911), Joel Engel (The Dybbuk Suite, 1922) and David Beigelman (Dybbuk Dances, Lodz Ghetto, 1941).
A highlight was 13-year-old violin soloist Takumi Taguchi, who played Hebrew Melody with feeling that seemed far beyond his years (and then took his bows with a delightfully dimpled grin).
The musical ensemble also played three pieces touching on stories of the mythological Dybbuk and other pre-WWII Jewish musical themes. Hebrew Melody (1911) was performed by 13-year-old violin soloist Takumi Taguchi, who played with feeling that seemed far beyond his years (and then took his bows with a delightfully dimpled grin).
After years of hearing the traditional story of the Golem, seeing the Wegener film was refreshing and thought-provoking.
On one level, this was entertainment, pure and simple: a classic Frankenstein story paired with a lively, suspenseful score whose folk styles and courtly themes complemented the on-screen drama exquisitely. And at the same time: the pre-Holocaust context, the visual and cultural messages, the caricature-like portrayals of Jews and Aryans.
What must it have been like to watch the film in that pre-WWII climate? Today’s audience laughed at the Golem’s goofy, leaden antics and the chest-heaving, swoony romance between the rabbi’s daughter (eyelash-batting Miriam) and the emperor’s emissary (elegant, confident, tights-wearing Knight Florian!).
Did the German audiences of the 1920s laugh at the same? Were Wegener’s melodramatic portrayal of Jewish prayer, the Ghetto’s constant state of panic or jubilation, the witchlike dress and cultish behavior a tribute to myth or a tribute to memory?
Check out Music of Remembrance for consistently excellent programming dedicated to ensuring that the voices of musical witness are heard.
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
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.
> The theme, which is played first by solo trumpet, then magnified in a majestic crescendo as the entire orchestra joins in.
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto
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
“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.”
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
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.
Cellist Alice McVeigh wrote a delightful piece on the art of orchestral fakery in The Strad (2006, reprint 2014). After offering tips on how to fake effectively, she compiled a list of the most commonly faked works, as cited by veteran orchestral players.
I checked the calendar to see when these tricky works are being performed in Seattle.
Of the 10 works listed, only one (Barber’s Violin Concerto) is currently scheduled to be played in spring 2015, but orchestras will be playing many other works by their troublesome composers.
The list is below; click a composer to see all upcoming concerts with his works, and click a work to see if it has been scheduled (the links will stay up to date as the the 2015-2016 calendar is published).
For those pieces not being performed live in Seattle, YouTube will have to get us as close to the orchestra as possible!
And now, without further ado, the most commonly faked works:
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
When: January 25, 2015 @ 2:00 pm Where: Benaroya Hall Who: Stephen Radcliffe, conductor; Ludovic Morlot, conductor; Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra; Seattle Symphony
Chabrier – España
Tchaikovsky – Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Hindemith – Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
It’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.
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.