The Conductor-Soloist Relationship

Greetings from Chicago! Our own Maestro De Waart is in town filling in for Riccardo Muti who is ill, so I decided to come down for a few days. It works out well for me as I prepare for my own monstrous week ahead. Sometimes, a change of scenery and the removal of daily distractions can give new life to study and preparation. And I have plenty of preparing to do as I make my subscription week debut with the MSO next week. But if that wasn’t enough, I have an entirely different gala program with Itzhak Perlman inserted into the middle of the week.

As you can imagine, it was great to take my mind off things for a while and enjoy watching De Waart rehearse with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and prepare an all-Beethoven program with two incredibly difficult works: Leonore Overture No. 3 and the Eroica Symphony. But I think one of the most exciting things for De Waart is reconnecting with the piano soloist this week: Radu Lupu. It has been many years since the two great musicians worked together. But there was a time when they performed constantly together throughout Europe and you can still buy their fantastic recording of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. All these years later, there is clearly a strong mutual admiration between them and watching them rehearse together is almost like watching children playing. With a standard work like Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, they still seem to wonder and marvel at each little turn, effortlessly phrasing together, and smiling (or laughing out loud) when one of them playfully brings out a countermelody or takes a bit of time at the end of a phrase.

It made me think about the relationship between soloist and conductor – and the many forms it takes. You can have any combination of experience and youth on either side. For instance, this week we have a conductor and a soloist both with a lifetime of experience in music. In this case, it works very well since both men respect each other and have complementary musical tastes. But that isn’t always the case – the most infamous example is the Karajan/Richter/Rostropovich/Oistrakh recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto. The names themselves should put us in heaven, but instead they were quite open about being miserable working together.

In many ways, I love the combination of having youth on one side of the relationship. Youth brings a certain energy and freedom, while the experienced musician can bring more pacing and finesse. An example of this relationship is when De Waart works with Joyce Yang – and much of the success they have had in the Rachmaninoff cycle in Milwaukee is due to their differing personalities, but mutual respect and understanding. And I will experience the flip side next week when I work with Itzhak Perlman.

And last but not least, you can have youth on both sides and that’s usually a recipe for some extra excitement and edge in performance. And I will get to experience that when I connect with a friend of mine, Stephen Beus, for my subscription week. Stephen is an amazing pianist and when we studied together for a summer at the Academy of the West seven years ago, I remember listening to him in awe. And for our first collaboration, we have the perfect piece to pour our energy and passion into – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

One of the best things that you don’t experience when studying conducting is the conductor-soloist relationship. You are so focused on your own technique, your relationship with the orchestra, and the symphonic repertoire you need to learn, you can easily forget that being a professional conductor means you get to enjoy the company and work with some of the greatest musicians in the world… and build lifelong relationships like Edo de Waart and Radu Lupu. It is impossible to describe just how excited I am not only for my concerts next week, but to collaborate with two wonderful artists for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.

Holidays at the MSO

These days, I find it increasingly difficult to remember the joys of the holiday season with all the commercialism that bombards us starting around Thanksgiving. However, it is not only profit-driven America that thrives on this time of year – thankfully, the arts also receive a boost over the holiday season and will continue to do so as long as the Nutcracker and Messiah remain such an integral part of the Christmas experience.

And there will be plenty of Nutcracker and Messiah going around this year – the MSO has no less than eight performances of Messiah throughout the Milwaukee area. (You can see them all on our December calendar.) But coming up this weekend is something that doesn’t happen every year in Milwaukee – Doc Severinsen is back in town with his Christmas program! I have never had the chance to see one of Doc’s shows, but judging from the turnout this weekend (nearly all four shows have sold out even with extra seating), I am guessing we are in for something special. Of course, whatever he does, he will have the support of the great Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and the Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble which were huge hits at last year’s Holiday Pops Concerts. Consider yourself lucky if you have a ticket to this weekend!

Once this weekend is over, I will take a different holiday program with the symphony on tour to places like West Bend, Cedarburg, and Brillion. The MSO will present this program once in the Milwaukee area: http://www.mso.org/tickets/detail?perfid=16686. I always enjoy programming these concerts because the first half consists of classical works that remind us of this time of year and then the second half is all holiday pops favorites, including our yearly carol sing-along (I never thought I would have to go back and make sure I knew the words to “Frosty the Snowman”!)

But for the musicians and myself, the best is saved for last. As a musician, there always comes a point in December at which you think you can’t take another “Nutcracker” without screaming or another “Sleigh Ride” without plugging your ears. Fortunately, our final week before Christmas has us bringing a holiday program to the places that need it the most: nursing homes, hospitals, and centers for those with disabilities. No matter how many times we play these programs and no matter how tightly packed we are in gyms and conference rooms, these are the best concerts of the year. As a child, I remembered volunteering music during the holidays, but I never experienced anything like I did last year when I made these trips with the MSO. The look of surprise, joy, and excitement on the faces of children and adults when we piled in with all our instruments was absolutely priceless, not to mention when we opened the concert with a dazzling rendition of Winter Wonderland. Singing along with the children and giving them a chance to conduct “Sleigh Ride” are all moments I will never forget and the best part is that I get to do it all again this year!

Family, music, laughter, smiles… those are the best Christmas gifts and I wish them to you all this season! Thank you for supporting the MSO and our work in Milwaukee!

Mathis der Maler

This weekend’s concerts feature one of my very favorite works, Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter). This work is actually a full opera by Hindemith based on a historical 15th century figure, Matthias Grünewald – a painter who drops his creative work to fight in a war, but after a series of dramatic events and visions, is convinced that he can best help humankind with his art. It was a subject close to Hindemith as he was struggling with the Nazi government during the writing of the work in 1933-34. In the end, plans to stage this opera were thwarted by the Nazi government (when they realized the political message of the work) and Hindemith’s music was publicly denounced. But the project of Mathis der Maler meant so much to Hindemith that he crafted a symphony from the music and it was premiered by the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who famously ignored the ban on Hindemith’s music in Germany at the time.

It is this three-movement symphony that the MSO will be playing this weekend. The scope of this relatively short work is enormous. Already a technical tour de force for the orchestra, Hindemith places layer upon layer in textures and it is filled with complex fugal passages. My personal favorite moment comes at the end of the third movement and in the middle of what seems like never-ending, diabolical-fiddling in the strings – we suddenly hear a church hymn being played in the upper woodwinds. Only Hindemith is such a genius orchestrator, that it sounds exactly like a pipe organ in the distance. The conflict of textures are so extreme at this moment that everything suddenly comes to a screeching halt as a new hymn in all its glory bursts forth from the brass and drives this work to its conclusion.

Bringing this sprawling masterpiece to life this week is our guest conductor Michael Francis. He will be joined by our principal clarinetist, Todd Levy, for Carl Maria von Weber’s First Clarinet Concerto. The program will be finished off with Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor. Hope to see you there!

Ravel and Debussy in an imaginary land called… Spain?

This weekend, the MSO plays the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. If an all-French program sounds familiar to you, it was the same idea behind our Carnegie Hall performance last May. That concert featured three generations of French composers – Debussy, Messiaen, and Qigang Chen. But I have to say it feels odd to treat this weekend’s program like an all-French program since the two major orchestral works are both inspired by Spain.

The term “impressionism” is often used when speaking about the music of Debussy and Ravel. I try to avoid it knowing that the composers themselves disliked it. However, in the case of our program, I think the term fits quite nicely. Rather than directly approaching a subject, impressionistic music merely suggests a certain place or culture. Ibéria by Debussy and Rapsodie Espagnole by Ravel bring to mind Spanish music, but both are far from being any musicological statement.

Debussy is perhaps the more guilty of the two for giving his work such cultural flair. Debussy never set foot in Spain longer than a day and conjured up his “impression” of a country largely in his imagination. Yet his success at depicting this landscape is remarkable and was praised by the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla of all people! De Falla wrote that listening to the work brought back visions of Spanish villages in the countryside. That’s quite some praise coming the composer of the most famous Spanish orchestral work: The Three-Cornered Hat! As you’ll hear in Ibéria and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy’s music has a way of transporting us to some exotic realm and even if it is not always an accurate picture, we still feel like we’ve been on a journey somewhere. As De Falla wrote, “our imagination is continually kept awake and dazzled by the power of an intensely expressive and richly varied music.”

For Rapsodie Espagnol, Ravel could draw on more than his imagination. His mother was Basque and Spanish was spoken and sung during his childhood, even when his family moved to Paris. Throughout his compositional output, Ravel stayed close to his Spanish background and he admitted to often including Spanish flavored rhythms in many of his other works. But like Debussy, Ravel’s Rapsodie intends to be solely an impression. For instance, don’t expect the movement titled “Habanera” to sound anything like the famous aria from Bizet’s Carmen. Instead we get a murmuring of lilting rhythms and those graceful, seductive melodies tease us as they fade in and out.

This isn’t the kind of concert that will make you feel like you are in Spain – but it might convince you that you left some memories there…

Opening Weekend: Mendelssohn!

Finally, it has arrived…

Being a part of the artistic planning at any orchestra means thinking several seasons ahead. But even once the final details go public, there’s usually another 5 months before the new season begins. Now, at last, our endless planning becomes a reality!

For our opening weekend, we welcome two Milwaukee favorites: our own concertmaster Frank Almond, and Maestro Gilbert Varga. (Music Director Edo de Waart returns next week for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony!)

But the real star of the show will be Felix Mendelssohn and his two most popular works – the Violin Concerto and the “Italian” Symphony. At first glance, this programming might not seem bold, but ask most orchestra musicians about starting a season (after three months off) with Mendelssohn and you will probably get a wince or a laugh. That’s because playing Mendelssohn at the highest level is terrifying. Underneath every beautiful tune that he wrote is an incredibly delicate and transparent texture full of relentless rhythmic energy. Here’s my crazy metaphor for the week: imagine an energetic puppy that is barking and running around in circles. Now you pick up and hold onto this squirming puppy. You can’t hold on too hard because you don’t want to hurt it, but you can’t drop it on the ground either. Flipping back to our task at hand: the charming puppy is Mendelssohn’s beautiful melodies, its wild energy is the accompaniment to that melody, and the hands trying to delicately contain all of this is the poor orchestra and conductor. That is why it takes not only incredible musicianship, but also a cool head to bring life to Mendelssohn’s music. Maestro Varga is truly an inspiration to me in the way that he has navigated the repertoire this week, with a keen eye towards detail and the patience to piece together the textures in these works. And the musicians of the MSO have blown me away with their own attention to detail and throwing themselves at these ferociously difficult pieces.

Let me get back to my puppy metaphor and give you a couple examples. The first is from the opening of the violin concerto – the solo violin enters almost immediately with a beautiful, soaring melody that is the essence of romanticism. When you hear this, pay attention to the violins behind Frank: with rapidly fluctuating figuration, they provide the sense of urgency that gives the opening its unique feel. The second example is from the opening of the symphony. Again, right off the bat, you will hear the violins play together another catchy Mendelssohn tune. In this case, pay attention to the wind players who are frantically trying to fit in a million repeated staccato (short) notes underneath the violins.

The difficulty for the conductor is to hear both elements simultaneously to be able to help the orchestra fit them together. I remember many conducting lessons where first I would get scolded for not listening to the fast notes and then two seconds later for not shaping the melody. But when it all comes together as it has this week, it is thrilling!

As an extra perk this week, we have brought in a special speaker for our pre-concert talks. Larry Todd is one of the great Mendelssohn scholars, author of the definitive Mendelssohn biography, and recipient of music awards from around the world. Because of the occasion, please note that our pre-concert talks will all take place in Uihlein Hall (not in the atrium) and will begin 15 minutes earlier than usual (10am tomorrow, 6:45 on Saturday, 1:15 on Sunday). Hope to see you there!

Free MSO Concert!

It is wonderful to be back in Milwaukee after more than three months on the road and it is even more exciting to be gearing up for the start to my second season with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The great thing about preparing for this second season is the excitement for me stays the same, but the uncertainty and, well… fear… is far less than last year!

I’ll write more soon about our all-Mendelssohn opening weekend – but the unofficial start to our season actually begins this Tuesday, September 11: a free, outdoor concert in the Peck Pavilion at the Marcus Center, 6pm. It is just a simple one-hour, after-work performance to bring the Milwaukee community together to remember and honor all those affected by the tragedy 11 years ago.

I hate to make the whole “music brings us together” argument yet again, but with our lives full of media and technology, it is more important than ever that we find ways to come together as a community. So often, when facing a national tragedy, we become overwhelmed by the news from our computers, TV’s, and phones. I know that I found it incredibly difficult to continue working in the wake of the shootings in my home state of Colorado this summer. But where communication fails to explain such acts, coming together and being together is at least a comfort to be found. I believe that concerts can take away the need to understand incomprehensible events and allow us a space and time to be together – to remember, to honor, and to celebrate. With that in mind, I hope you will join the MSO and me as we remember, honor, and celebrate through an eclectic program of American pops and classical favorites.

5 things to do while waiting for the 2012-13 season to start…

Greetings from beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico!

The music world has a way of swallowing you up for a few months and then spitting you out to look at your surroundings every so often. The end of my first season with the Milwaukee Symphony colliding with the beginning of my first summer at the Santa Fe Opera was such a time for me. This weekend feels like the first time I have had a chance to look around since my last post in March! I have been assisting a terrific production of Szymanovski’s rarely-performed King Roger here in Santa Fe – and with opening night next weekend, I can finally step back to enjoy my surroundings.

Surprisingly, I still feel very connected to Milwaukee while here. Just to show you how small the music world can be – MSO music director Edo de Waart spent 11 summers conducting here and I’m constantly being asked to relay greetings to him; I’m currently assisting Maestro Evan Rogister and some of you will remember him from his guest conducting appearance with the MSO back in January; and best of all, the orchestra here includes several familiar faces from the MSO: former principal cellist Joe Johnson, harpist Danis Kelly, principal clarinet Todd Levy and clarinet Steve Ahearn, principal bassoon Ted Soluri, and percussionist Rob Klieger. It’s quite remarkable how well-represented the MSO is at one of the premiere opera companies in the U.S.

This week, I finally got reconnected with the MSO and put the final touches on some educational and community concerts for next season. So I thought it would be fun to think of some ways you can stay connected with the MSO over the summer as well.

1. America’s Lost Treasures – Milwaukee on the National Geographic Channel

The Milwaukee episode featuring concertmaster Frank Almond, myself, and the MSO premiered this week, but if you check the schedule, it will be showing a couple more times over the next week: http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/11/americas-lost-treasures-milwaukee/

I have no access to the channel so I can’t vouch for our portion, but the orchestra and I had a great time during the 15 minutes of filming at one of our rehearsals. Does someone want to record it for me?

2. Broadcast of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Did you miss our Spring for Music program at Carnegie Hall on May 11? Want to relive some of the excitement? The WQXR broadcast is online for you to enjoy: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/programs/live-broadcasts/2012/may/11/

3. Check out the MSO’s Concerts for Schools

This is bit self-centered on my part. I’m assuming that you’ve seen the 2012-13 season brochures for our Classics Series and Pops Series. But have you seen our education concert series? The MSO has one of the most extensive orchestra-run education programs and I was excited to have the opportunity to work with education director, Karli Larsen, to produce next season’s programs. Along with introducing kids to the great masterworks as we learn about “landscapes in music”, I’ve thrown in a smattering of new works by living composers including a commissioned work! So check out our concerts and be jealous of the thousands of students who will join the MSO in Uihlein Hall next season for listening, singing, and even dancing! http://issuu.com/milwaukeesymphony/docs/0312_yp_brochure_f

4. Putting what we stand for into words…

In January 2013, I will be conducting a subscription week that includes a commissioned work by Jeffrey Mumford, winner of a competition held by the Sphinx Organization that supports diversity in the arts. Recently, the founder of Sphinx, Aaron Dworkin, wrote a very public letter not only defending the arts, but lifting them up as vital to our identity. You can read it here: http://sphinxmusic.org/my-classical-castle.html

5. Get ready for opening week!

Are you ready for our all-Mendelssohn opening week? Three years ago was Mendelssohn’s bicentenary and there were many articles written to commemorate the event. One of my favorite music writers is Alex Ross and you can read his enlightening New Yorker article in full here: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2009/02/23/090223crmu_music_ross

Bonus: Want to be a trombonist? Watch this first.

Think you know Rachmaninoff’s famous Second Piano Concerto? This video is a fresh perspective that had the entire music staff at The Santa Fe Opera wiping tears of laughter from our eyes… If you don’t find it funny, don’t worry: we’re the crazy ones. Joyce Yang returns next season with Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto – I wonder if I can convince our own Megumi Kanda to make a sequel…

Hope you are all having a wonderful summer and I look forward to seeing you again in September!

Verklärte Nacht in the Basilica – Part 2

For those of you who attended our recent subscription concerts with Jun Märkl conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, I thought you might enjoy this youtube video I dug up of him conducting Verklärte Nacht.

I hope to see some of you tomorrow or Saturday for the MSO performances of Verklärte Nacht. It’s accompanied by a variety of works from the 20th century: John Rutter’s Sprig of Thyme featuring the MSO Chorus, Derek Bermel’s Soul Garden featuring principal violist Robert Levine, and Arvo Pärt’s Fratres.

If you want the full experience of Verklärte Nacht, it’s worth checking out the Richard Dehmel poem that is the basis for the work. You can find many translations online from the original German, but as inspiration, I prefer a paraphrase of the poem by Henry E. Krehbiel written for performances in the 1920’s:

“Two mortals walk through a cold, barren grove. The moon sails over the tall oaks, which send their scrawny branches up through the unclouded moonlight. A woman speaks. She confesses a sin to the man at her side: she is with child and he is not its father. She had lost belief in happiness and, longing for life’s fullness, for motherhood and mother’s duty, she had surrendered herself, shuddering, to the embraces of a man she knew not. She had thought herself blessed, but now life has avenged itself upon her, by giving her the love of him she walks with. She staggers onward, gazing with lackluster eye at the moon which follows her.

“A man speaks. Let her not burden her soul with thoughts of guilt. See, the moon’s sheen enwraps the universe. Together they are driving over chill waters, but a flame from each warms the other. It, too, will transfigure the little stranger, and she will bear the child to him and make him, too, a child. They sink into each other’s arms. Their breaths meet in kisses in the air. Two mortals walk through the wondrous moonlight.”

Verklärte Nacht in the Basilica – Part 1

From Arnold Schoenberg’s letter to the poet Richard Dehmel:

“Your poems have had a decisive influence on me as a composer. They were what first made me try to find a new tone in the lyrical mood. Or rather, I found it without even looking, simply by reflecting in music what your poems stirred up in me.”

When it comes to the music of Schoenberg, everybody seems to have an opinion – myself included. The problem is Schoenberg was so influential a figure in the history of music that we often judge him through composers that followed him. Many point to Schoenberg as a great composer because he inspired countless composers to try their hand at “serial” composing like Webern, Stravinsky, and Boulez. And for exactly the same reason, others point to Schoenberg as responsible for driving away audiences from 20th century music. While both sides have a point, neither of these reflect the actual music that Schoenberg wrote. Believe me, despite Schoenberg’s many writings about music and what he thought composers should be doing, he isn’t the first or last composer to have “said” one thing and composed something entirely different.

Here’s my personal opinion: as much as Schoenberg championed in words a very detached, cerebral way of composing (i.e. twelve-tone and serial composition), his own compositions were extremely expressive and personal. There are countless examples of Schoenberg breaking his own “rules” of composition in his works for expressive purposes. Ultimately, every great composer uses their music as a form of communication – not a way to show off “solved puzzles”. In this respect, Schoenberg is indeed one of the great composers of the 20th century.

But even if you hate Schoenberg and everything that he stands for, you still should come to the MSO’s final program in St. Josephat’s Basilica at the end of this month where I’ll be conducting the string orchestra version of Schoenberg’s early epic: Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). I’ve been looking forward to this concert more than any other since last September and finally it is approaching! Verklärte Nacht is one of the few works that transcends the controversy of modern music. It simply is a wildly passionate journey from darkness to light, depression to joy, and death to new life.

Based on Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name, Schoenberg’s letter above hints at his attempt to “soak in” the poem and pour it out in raw musical form. My hope is that in the beautiful setting of the Basilica and the way the sounds fill up the vaulted space, we can all experience the “transfiguration” so beautifully described by poet and composer.

Part II will take a look directly at the poem and its relation to the music…

Last Week, This Week, and Several Weeks Ahead!

There’s been a lot going on at the MSO these days… Here’s a quick update:

Last Week:

I hope you caught one of last weekend’s performances. They were some of the most memorable this season! Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony rarely gets to shine like it did with Maestro De Waart and the orchestra. Frankly, after hearing a given symphony for an entire week in rehearsal and performance, I’m usually ready to move on by the end of the week – but this was an exception and I easily could have enjoyed another couple performances. It was also fun to feel the audience’s anticipation of Joyce Yang’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. There’s a certain enthusiastic applause that greeted her very appearance on stage and with this being her third season of a Rachmaninoff cycle with the MSO, I can see why. If orchestras named “principal guest soloists”, instead of just conductors, I’m sure that would be her title here!

Many thanks to Scott Tisdel for playing some of Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous Cello Sonata with me during my pre-concert talks. I was surprised and delighted by the many emails and even a letter with responses from many of you.

You’ll also notice the orchestra has changed its setup on the stage. Two weeks ago, we had a special rehearsal dedicated to experimenting with the position of the sections of the orchestra, as well as adjusting the reflectors above the orchestra. The purpose was to improve the acoustics for the musicians on stage and also influence the sound in the hall. What we decided on is what you will most likely see for the rest of the season – I believe there has been a vast improvement in the quality of sound and balance that reaches the audience. I’ll be curious to see how the new setup holds up when I take the orchestra on tour in a few weeks.

Now:

Copland Symphony No. 3. This symphony is as American as the Superbowl. It oozes all of that spacious “landscape” writing and the heroic brass fanfares for which we all love Copland. If you love the piece below – “Fanfare for the Common Man” – imagine an entire symphony based on it… Yes, it’s that awesome.

Also this coming weekend is the end of Edo de Waart’s wild three-week residency which began with Schubert’s final symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Now, we end it with Copland and two Tchaikovsky favorites: Romeo and Juliet, and the Nutcracker. (Maestro De Waart’s next residency begins in April.)

Looking Ahead:

I’m eagerly anticipating the announcement of next season so that I can gush about it here! I feel like a little kid once again with a whole season of presents that I can’t wait to tell you all about! It’s the orchestra equivalent of Christmas…

The MSO takes a break from the heavy subscription weeks for a little while. Next week is one of the few “off” weeks here (I’ll be making my debut with the Hong Kong Philharmonic). Then we return with a James Bond-related pops concert.

I’ll stay busy conducting several children’s concerts, a tour concert in Whitewater, and our annual Stars of Tomorrow Concert. The Stars of Tomorrow Concert on March 2nd features the Young Artist Competition winners and a side-by-side performance with more young musicians as we tackle Stravinsky’s brilliant Firebird Suite. Tickets are currently free if reserved ahead of time. (I’m personally excited to finally not be the youngest person on the stage!)

If you’re waiting for the next big symphony – look ahead to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony on March 9-10. I think the brass will be recovered from Copland by then…