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.