Let’s show our chorus some love!

I hope you can all join the MSO and myself as we feature our own Milwaukee Symphony Chorus this weekend – a talented, dedicated (and fun-loving!) group of individuals who have already hit a couple home runs this season with Schubert’s Mass in Eb in the fall and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony a few months ago. In this program, I have challenged the chorus with three works that feature them in different ways: as an “instrumental wordless chorus” in Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi, a dramatic opera chorus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and as the standard symphonic chorus in Cherubini’s Requiem. One of the most popular works of the 19th century (and a favorite of Beethoven and Brahms), Cherubini’s Requiem is one of the most unfairly overlooked works of our time and I am thrilled to be a part of its performance here in Milwaukee at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. To top off the chorus and the music, our principal viola, Robert Levine makes a solo appearance on the Vaughan Williams.

Oh, and did I mention it is just $5 for tickets to this Friday and Saturday evening performances? http://www.mso.org/tickets/detail?perfid=20112 So please come out and support this wonderful chorus! I just finished writing all the program notes for the concerts so I am keeping this short, but here is a preview of my introductory remarks included in the program this weekend:

I am truly elated and grateful for the opportunity to showcase the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus on this evening’s program. During my time with the MSO, I have worked with several renowned guest conductors and witnessed firsthand their joy and amazement at the talent and work ethic of our chorus. Without them, the symphony would be unable to perform the standards like Beethoven’s Ninth or Handel’s Messiah at a world-class level. Most impressive to me, though, is how the chorus has performed works outside the typical repertoire of a volunteer chorus. Last season alone featured the chorus in John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls and the United States premiere of a contemporary Russian work.

Not only is the chorus integral to the artistic quality of the MSO, it is also the orchestra’s most direct link with the community. The members of the chorus come from every walk of life, including teachers, lawyers, doctors, and students from the greater Milwaukee area. They volunteer their time and energy for rehearsals and concerts, and they also bring in new audiences and support. I am constantly inspired by their devotion to music and this orchestra. Thank you for joining me in celebrating their remarkable work over the past 38 years.

Milwaukee’s Ode to Joy

Any performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has special significance and it is no different this weekend with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Even so, there is something more profound in the air this week. The “Ode to Joy” is a celebration of the humanity that binds everyone on this earth together and this orchestra lived that idea this season. The MSO and its community have supported each other through the wild ups and downs of the past several months and what better way to celebrate than with performances of this immortal work. In fact, we have already been in celebration mode for a while as staff, musicians, and myself have been traveling around Milwaukee for the past two weeks holding “listening parties” at various community centers to discuss this weekend’s concerts. But you don’t have to take my word for it, here’s the video evidence of Milwaukee celebrating with the “Ode to Joy”:

There are lots of resources out there if you want to beef up on your Beethoven’s Ninth trivia including a listening guide you can download from the MSO website. One of the best ways to enjoy this weekend is to show up in the atrium an hour before the concerts for a special preconcert talk by writer and music historian Harvey Sachs. I had the great pleasure of spending time with him while a student at the Curtis Institute of Music and he may be as close as you will get to a walking encyclopedia of music while also being incredibly entertaining and eloquent. I think it is safe to say that you are in for a treat even before the music starts this weekend.

With all this in mind, I am going to take the liberty of not worrying about being eloquent and give you my three random thoughts on the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth for this week:

Well, that took long enough. Beethoven first attempted to set Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”) when he was 23 years old. It would be thirty years later that he would finally complete the project as the finale to his last symphony. In those thirty years, as Beethoven mulled over the poem, something beautiful happened – it became Beethoven’s poem. The final version that Beethoven used rearranged all of the text with more than half the poem omitted. In other words, Schiller’s words were more like the building blocks that Beethoven used to build his towering monument. It also explains why the music and words are so intensely welded together – supporting and commenting on each other. For Beethoven, there is complete unity between text and music.

Beethoven would have loved orchestra flash mobs. Much to the delight of audiences, many orchestras (including the MSO) have designed orchestra flash mobs in public spaces where a few musicians start playing a piece and others join in until there is a full orchestra. At some point this week, it struck me that Beethoven wrote a flash mob into the finale of his symphony. The “Ode to Joy” theme itself is first presented in unison by the cellos and basses – so simple and so soft, that there is a moment of doubt if such a fragile melody can survive. Finally, a few more instruments join in providing some harmony and warmth. With each statement of the theme, instruments pile on until it reaches its triumphant destination. What better way to introduce one of the most famous melodies in Western civilization?

Beethoven left us with words as well as music. The first entrance of text in the finale is sung by the bass soloist: “Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones!” These opening statements were not in Schiller’s poem; these are Beethoven’s own introductory words. I encourage you to imagine this weekend not only Beethoven speaking to us through music, but in this moment, literally compelling us to join him in celebration. I personally find it quite haunting every time I hear these words coming straight from the man himself. This is as close as we will ever be to a composer whose musical genius continues to defy the logic of us mere humans – the very same humans that he champions in his Ninth Symphony.

The Time Has Come for Bruckner

On November 1st and 2nd, the MSO brings Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. For me, it feels like the first step in what has already been a long journey. I never encountered Anton Bruckner until undergraduate school in New York. Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony to be exact. It was intense dislike at first listen. Honestly, I couldn’t understand what was going on with the music and how such simple material could be expanded to such great lengths. It got worse the more I studied it. Simple phrases, little or no development of themes, and jolting shifts of harmony – it seemed so unnecessary. I have to wonder how long it would have taken for me to warm up to Bruckner if I hadn’t landed with the MSO and one of the great Bruckner conductors, Edo de Waart. I wanted desperately to understand and, hopefully, fall in love with Bruckner’s works and this was a golden opportunity. Over the past two seasons, I have been fortunate enough to work on three Bruckner Symphonies with maestro de Waart.

I encourage you to listen to the following video of de Waart discussing Bruckner (start at 2:43 in the video). http://www.nhkso.or.jp/en/library/videolibrary/index.php?v_id=3 You’ll get a general version of what I received from de Waart several times. His face just lights up when he talks about the music and he so clearly connects with every moment in these mammoth symphonies.

One of the things that stuck with me was one day when de Waart mused how great it would be to perform a Bruckner Symphony in a cathedral since that was where Bruckner improvised and composed at the organ. So when I was presented with the opportunity to program this concert in St. John’s, I realized that I could make that idea a reality here in Milwaukee.

Although de Waart has been a major influence in my growing appreciation of Bruckner’s music, a single memory will be most important to me as I approach Bruckner on my own. This summer, I had the opportunity to travel around Europe for the first time. It was an early Sunday morning when my overnight train arrived in Vienna. With nothing being open, I decided to get the full experience and attend a Catholic Mass at the famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral. With a full orchestra and chorus, I had a feeling this would be special. However, it was the organ that took my breath away. Bruckner’s entire musical background was as a church organist – improvising vast preludes and postludes to the services. Perhaps my lack of sleep had me in a trance, but as the thunderous instrument meandered from harmony to harmony, I imagined the great organist/composers like Bruckner, Saint-Saens, and Messiaen producing their great works from just such a experience. Suddenly, Bruckner’s sound world that de Waart had tried to explain to me in words made sense. The simplicity and directness of the music that had so unsettled me became a necessary expression of that experience. For any musician, it is a lifelong relationship with the great works in the repertoire, but sometimes finding that first step is the hardest and it feels great to be taking that step at last with one of the greatest symphonic composers.

What is orchestration?

Have a favorite movie score? Well, chances are you can thank an orchestrator. Behind every great movie theme is its orchestration – the trumpets in the Star Wars theme, the celesta (the music box-like sound) in Harry Potter, or the growling basses in Jaws. And yes, I just named three scores by perhaps the most famous film composer of all time, John Williams. Although these days, Williams has his own team of orchestrators, he began in the trenches as an orchestrator for the greats of his time like Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock movies) and Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard) where he no doubt learned many of the techniques that brought him to greatness.

To kick off the MSO’s opening weekend, I will begin a three part series on orchestration as part of our pre-concert lecture series, Meet the Music. They take place an hour before each performance in the Anello Atrium of the Marcus Center. Before you get scared away from a technical word like “orchestration” (in college, that word is frequently followed by an exhausted sigh), just remember that it’s simply the process of using an orchestra to create music. Although there are some general rules (like don’t make the trumpets play as high as the piccolo), each composer has had their own philosophy based on the time period in which they lived and the instruments available. My hope is that these discussions can enhance your experience of listening to an orchestra and the variety of characters within it.

Week 1 (September 20-22) – We begin our survey of orchestration with Tchaikovsky’s brilliant Fourth Symphony, which everyone remembers for its bold brass themes and cymbal crashes. However, there is a wealth of more subtle orchestration and we will particularly look at the third movement where Tchaikovsky divides the orchestra up into specific groups of instruments. We’ll also look at Kernis’ Musica Celestis which uses only the strings to create a “heavenly” sound and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto where a surprising instrument gets the spotlight alongside the piano.

Week 2 (September 27-28) – Ravel is without question one of the great orchestrators and his ballet score Daphnis and Chloe is the model of orchestration in my mind. Using a massive orchestra plus a wordless chorus for even greater effect, Ravel still can make this elephant of an orchestra tiptoe like a ballerina. It still boggles my mind. Also, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto will give us a chance to discuss the soloist/orchestra relationship in the 20th century.

Week 3 (October 4-5) – What better way to end our series than with a work that celebrates the virtuosity of the orchestra? Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra provides a kaleidoscope of orchestration techniques for us to savor. We’ll also get a chance to hear some Wagner (the guy who created instruments because apparently there weren’t enough in the orchestra already!), and go all the way back to Mozart to look at the origins of the modern orchestra.

Look forward to seeing you all at opening weekend!

The Bad Boys

It is only mid-August, but the summer is nearly over for me as the 13-14 MSO season approaches a month away. Having a few precious free weeks with my family in Boulder, Colorado, is a great time to get a head start on some of the bigger scores for the season. Part of my job with the MSO is not only learning the sizeable amount of repertoire I am conducting over the season, but also learn every single piece being performed throughout the year in case I should have to step in for another conductor. What this leaves me with is a three foot stack of scores (probably around 50 hours of music) that I will need to have prepared.

Now in my third season, it is finally starting to feel manageable. Basically, it is a matter of prioritizing. For instance, several of the works this season are already in my repertoire – i.e. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Brahms’ Second Symphony. Then there is a collection of works that I want to refresh, but won’t take too much time – i.e. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. Most importantly, however, is recognizing “the Bad Boys” – those works that will cause massive amounts of mental pain and stress if not dealt with early on. That’s what I’ll be focusing on the next month. So as part of previewing our next season, I thought I would give you an insight into some of the more challenging works this season.

Category I – “Wish I had another five years to prepare this”

January 17-18, 2014 – Brahms/Schoenberg: Piano Quartet No. 1 arranged for orchestra

I don’t know why Schoenberg decided to arrange one of the most complex pieces of chamber music for a whole orchestra. The two composers are a perfect fit, but there’s a host of other chamber works by Brahms! At any rate, the work that once gave me nightmares as a pianist now returns to haunt me as conductor. It’s an incredibly intricate work, beautifully arranged – and I have no doubt that under Maestro De Waart’s guidance, this will be one of the most spectacular concerts of the season.

May 2-3, 2014 – Mahler Symphony No. 6

If Mahler had written a ten minute orchestral work (he didn’t), conductors would lose sleep over it. How much worse is it to face the Everest-like Sixth Symphony at eighty minutes long? I guess I’ll find out. On the positive side, once you jump in and start working on it, there are few things I would rather do than study such a magnificent work no matter how intimidating.

Category II – “Going through the bee’s nest to get the honey” (aka: shorter works that pack a punch)

January 31 – February 1, 2014 – Lukas Foss: Time Cycle

A short work can sometimes cause the most problems especially when it is as complex as Lucas Foss’ Time Cycle. I chose this work for my subscription week next season to pay homage to the former MSO music director who was known as a composer and close friend of Leonard Bernstein. Winner of the New York Music Critic’s Circle Award in 1961, this work for soprano and orchestra championed by Bernstein is rarely performed these days although well-known among modern music enthusiasts.

March 28-30, 2014 – John Adams: Chamber Symphony

Composers don’t usually realize when they’ve written something very challenging. When they do recognize it, it’s probably virtually unplayable. Here’s what Adams wrote about the Chamber Symphony: “Despite all the good humor, my Chamber Symphony turned out to be shockingly difficult to play… But therein, I suppose, lies the perverse charm of the piece.” Uh oh…

Category III – “Better now, than later”

Sepember 27-28, 2013 – Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe

Most audiences will be familiar with the Second Suite from Ravel’s knock-out-beauty of a ballet. I am very excited that the MSO will present the ballet music in full this fall – but it does mean that I have another 200 pages of music to learn beyond the Suite. As with all Ravel, the orchestration is a study in perfection and deserves the hours that every conductor most devote to it.

I could give some more examples, but all this musing about the Bad Boys is stressing me out. Time to hit the desk. Looking forward to seeing you all in a month at opening weekend!

Season Recap!

With Elgar’s lavish epic, The Dream of Gerontius, the MSO concludes its classical programs for the 12-13 season this weekend. And what better way to finish than with three amazing voices joining Maestro De Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus: tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, mezzo Tamara Mumford, and baritone Luca Pisaroni. Hope to see you this weekend!

But before the season finishes, a look back at some of the more memorable moments of the season:

- The magnificent Chihuly glass sculptures that towered over the orchestra during Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. And who can forget Michelle DeYoung and Sir John Tomlinson embodying all the drama of the opera even when they had only a few feet to move in front of the orchestra?

- Andreas Delf’s pulling confetti out of his pockets on New Year’s Eve. How is he going to top that when he opens next season?

- Bringing Berio’s modernist masterpiece to life, Sinfonia. The Swingle Singers’ version of “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” is definitely the best encore I have ever heard.

- Performing “The Composer Is Dead” for one of our Kinderkonzerts this year. Families were treated to a musical crime-solving adventure – but my favorite moment was when the “inspector” called the musicians crazy… and the kids booed him! That’s showing the MSO some love!

- Experiencing the movie “West Side Story” with the MSO providing the orchestral soundtrack. No fancy sound system in the world is going to beat that.

- Once again, I found it incredibly touching and invigorating to spend a week in December with the MSO bringing festive holiday music to nursing homes, hospitals, and community centers throughout Milwaukee. It was capped off by having our Stage Manager, Kyle Norris conduct Sleigh Ride, while our President, Mark Niehaus provided the “horse-whinny” on the trumpet, and I made my debut on the slap-stick.

- Edo de Waart had another run of amazing performances with the MSO – my favorites this season included Mahler’s 4th Symphony, Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, and Brahms’ 1st and 4th Symphonies. If you were fortunate enough to hear one of those performances, I am sure you will agree that they were as complete and satisfying performances as you could find anywhere in the world!

Well, this is what comes to my mind at first thought – what were your favorite moments this season?

Mozart and Strauss

This weekend, I am thrilled to conduct my second subscription program with the MSO focusing on the music of Mozart and Strauss. Part of the fun in this program is the chance to hear two drastically different “orchestras”. Just look at the breakdown in numbers between the two first half works:

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel – 89 musiciansMozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 – 44 musicians

The second half will have the same contrast with more than twice as many players needed for the Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, than for Mozart’s Idomeneo. By placing these composers together on each half rather than allowing an intermission to separate them, I hope to draw your attention to the remarkable similarities in the spirit of these works despite a completely different look and sound to the orchestra.

Strauss loved to conduct the music of Mozart and in particular was fascinated with the first large-scale opera from Mozart, Idomeneo. In fact, Strauss took the time to arrange Idomeneo and edit it with his own music in an attempt to make the opera more accessible to regular opera audiences. While the full opera can be difficult for stage directors and audiences alike, the music in the opera is some of the most ambitious music Mozart would ever attempt and like Strauss, I have constantly tried to find ways to bring it to the concert hall. I cannot tell you how many times people have heard music from Idomeneo and have told me, “I can’t believe Mozart really wrote that!” This weekend, the MSO will perform the Overture and the rarely heard “Ballet Music” from the opera. The ballet music is almost never performed with the full opera because it comes after the story is over and all the singers have left the stage. While a closing ballet was fashionable in the 18th century, it would seem very unsatisfying to audiences today. However, as a concert work, I think it is a masterpiece and musically ties together the whole opera with its contrasting intimate moments and large storm scenes.

The two Strauss works I have chosen for the program seem to me closest in spirit to Mozart. Elegance, humor, transparency, brilliance are all words I could use for either composer and are found throughout this program. Of course, I cannot finish this post without mentioning my history with Der Rosenkavalier (see my post from last year), but these will be my first performances of the Suite. Put quite simply, I have been having the time of my life this week!

“Contemplation” at the Basilica

It has been several months since the MSO’s last concert at the Basilica, but I am excited for our upcoming concerts there on April 12 and 13. In the second program of our Basilica Series, we approach music that asks questions and by its very nature allows us time to contemplate their meanings. After your enthusiastic feedback on our November concerts, our amazing Creative Services Manager, Terry Lutz, once again created a vibrant program book to accompany your concert experience. What makes it stand out from your standard program notes is that it includes plenty of graphics and quotes from the composers that immediately put the music in context. I have also once again written a narrative called “Conductor’s Insight” that ties the different works on the program together and explains my own personal thoughts on their relation to each other.

Each Basilica program this season includes a work that rarely is heard in the concert hall. Our November program had a world premiere and on our final program on May 17-18, we will present the U.S. Premiere of Weinberg’s Second Symphony. For this program, however, we went all the way back to Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. Nearly an hour-long over the course of nine movements, it is one of the composer’s most ambitious undertakings and a work that he cherished above all others. Today, it is frequently heard in its string quartet version and occasionally as an oratorio with chorus. It is interesting to note that Haydn was minimally involved in the “arranging” of those works. The original, and mostly forgotten version, that the MSO is performing was written for a standard classical orchestra and designed to be performed in a church setting. Therefore, not only are these concerts are a rare opportunity to hear this masterpiece in its original form, but you will also experience it as Haydn intended: in the grandeur of the Basilica. The Haydn will be followed by two more searching works in Ives’ The Unanswered Question and the ever popular Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

I hope you will be able to join the MSO and myself next weekend as we engage in a musical discussion about life, happiness, love, death, and everything that falls in between!

Jennifer Higdon and “blue cathedral”

You might think that the our opening work, Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, is the odd one out this coming weekend. After all, it’s going up against one of the most popular violin concerti, Bruch’s G Minor, and one of the most popular symphonies, Dvorak’s New World Symphony. However, as popular as the Bruch and Dvorak works are today, blue cathedral holds its own as one of the most performed American works from the past twenty years. In fact, in a 2010 League of American Orchestras study, Jennifer Higdon was nearly neck-and-neck with John Adams as the most performed living composer in the states (no other composer came close). It is easy to understand her popularity once you hear one of her works. She has found a unique and refreshing voice in today’s contemporary music scene, but more importantly, her music powerfully communicates landscapes, colors, and emotions to her audience. In listening to blue cathedral, time seems to stop and you feel completely transported – to where? Here is what Higdon gives us:

Blue…like the sky. Where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals…a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression…serving as a symbolic doorway in to and out of this world. Blue represents all potential and the progression of journeys. Cathedrals represent a place of beginnings, endings, solitude, fellowship, contemplation, knowledge and growth. As I was writing this piece, I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky. Because the walls would be transparent, I saw the image of clouds and blueness permeating from the outside of this church. In my mind’s eye the listener would enter from the back of the sanctuary, floating along the corridor amongst giant crystal pillars, moving in a contemplative stance. The stained glass windows’ figures would start moving with song, singing a heavenly music. The listener would float down the aisle, slowly moving upward at first and then progressing at a quicker pace, rising towards an immense ceiling which would open to the sky…as this journey progressed, the speed of the traveler would increase, rushing forward and upward. I wanted to create the sensation of contemplation and quiet peace at the beginning, moving towards the feeling of celebration and ecstatic expansion of the soul, all the while singing along with that heavenly music…

Not everything about the work is heavenly – Higdon was devastated by the sudden death of her brother shortly before she began work on the commission for the Curtis Institute of Music in 1999. In an insightful article, Higdon openly explains how she poured her grief, anger, and search for peace into this work. There is no doubt that the piece packs an emotional punch into its brief 13 minutes and the connection it makes with its listeners is what has kept orchestras returning to this work year after year. I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Higdon while a composer at the Mannes College of Music and later as a conductor at the Curtis Institute of Music. She continues to be an inspiration for me not only with her magnificent music, but her enthusiastic and free approach to music making. You can see her infectious sense of humor in this entertaining video with Hilary Hahn, who premiered Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning violin concerto in 2009. Enjoy!

Behind the Notes Preview

I am always delighted by how many enthusiastic audience members come to the MSO’s Behind the Notes series of preconcert talks. I have a wonderful time introducing our guest speakers and it is also a great chance to catch up with subscribers to talk about the previous week’s concerts. Here’s what you can look forward to coming up at Behind the Notes:

This Weekend:

fay-bioLaurel Fay, author of a comprehensive biography of Shostakovich and a well-known scholar on Russian and Soviet composers, is part of our pre-concert activities this weekend. She will be speaking on a wonderful program featuring Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony. Be sure to catch her talk in the Anello Atrium at an early start time of 6:45 on Friday and Saturday evening. The concert itself has its own perks as MSO President and Executive Director Mark Niehaus picks up his trumpet and joins pianist/conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn for the Shostakovich. I’m convinced that if anyone could, Maestro Solzhenitsyn could probably both play and conduct the work – but he has entrusted me with the conducting which has made for a fun week of rehearsals for all of us.

Next Month:

After this weekend, our next subscriptions start at the beginning of March as Music Director Edo de Waart returns for a fantastic four-week residency. I have not given any preconcert talks myself this year because I requested to speak on all four of these weeks so I could put together a four part series. So during these weeks, I will approach each program through the lens of how a composer communicates. At first thought, it seems rather self explanatory that a composer seeks to communicate through music. But we will be presented with a remarkable variety of works over the four weeks to compare and contrast how composers communicate – Rachmaninoff using the words of Edgar Allan Poe translated into Russian, Jenninfer Higdon using chinese bells scattered through the orchestra, Dvorak using the standard symphonic genre, Mozart using the standard concerto genre. My hope is that in looking at how composers have used music to communicate over 250 years, that we will see a natural trajectory that brings us to the final program where Maestro has programed one of the most fascinating works from the past 50 years: Berio’s Sinfonia – a work that features eight amplified singers and a seemingly random selection of every kind of text – sung, spoken, whispered, and shouted. Sufficient to say, I am having a wonderful time putting these talks together and I hope it will be an entertaining, yet thoughtful, journey for us all. See you at the hall!