Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Composer with a Pulse

Mark Harrell plays horn in the orchestra, but this week he has been sitting in the audience listening to us play a piece that he composed. Lucas is a champion of modern music, so it's not unusual for the KSO to perform pieces by living composers. This week has been different because Mark has attended our rehearsals and given the orchestra instruction on how he wants his piece to be played. Working directly with a living composer can be very rewarding or very frustrating. I always find it somewhat intimidating. Some composers get quite cranky when the live product doesn't exactly match the performance in their head. Mark is pretty easy-going, so it has been a joy to have the opportunity to work with him this week. I enjoy playing his music. He writes pieces that are easy to listen to. They are tonal and he generally follows conventional form. I also appreciate that the parts he writes for strings are idiomatic to the instrument.

The other unusual piece we are playing this week is Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes. This is a group of nine short waltzes with a chamber choir. The waltzes are often performed by choirs, but hardly ever with orchestral accompaniment. In preparation for this concert, many of my colleagues (including Maestro Richman) searched for a recording of the Liebeslieder Waltzes with orchestra and nobody could find one. It's too bad no one has recorded them because they are absolutely charming.

The next four days are packed with concerts for the KSO. Tonight and Friday the larger orchestra will perform at the Tennessee Theater while the chamber orchestra will perform at the Bijou on Sunday afternoon. The programs are different but share some elements. We will be playing Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes at all three concerts. The chamber concert will also feature Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Remembering Brahms

Last night we rehearsed Brahms' Second Symphony in preparation for our Masterworks concerts on Thursday and Friday. I love all of Brahms' symphonies, but the second has a special place in my heart. It was the first CD of orchestral music that I owned (and wore out), and it also represents my first experience playing real symphonic music with a group of my peers. I first played this symphony at a summer camp when I was 14 years old. Prior to attending that camp my orchestral experience had been with my school orchestra where none of my peers were quite as excited about playing the violin as I was, and the local community orchestra, where I was by far the youngest player: my stand partner was a biology professor nearing retirement. I enjoyed both groups, but they were nothing like that week at summer camp. For the first time, I was surrounded with peers who were just as passionate about making music as I. It was an incredible experience, and one that solidified my desire to make music my career.

Kids in Knoxville don't have to wait for summer camp to play in an orchestra with peers who love music. Knoxville has a youth orchestra program that is supported by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra League and the Knoxville Symphony Society. The Knoxville Youth Symphony Orchestra is made up of five ensembles of varying levels with over 250 students participating each year. The orchestras meet once a week to rehearse and give around three concerts a year. These are not the typical student music performances that you may have suffered through as a child (or as a parent of a child in band or orchestra). The kids work hard in rehearsal and on their own to really master the music. The result is a polished, exciting performance. As it happens, the Knoxville Youth Symphony Orchestras are performing tonight at 7:00 in the Tennessee Theater. The concert is free and open to the public. I would advise you to get there early to stake out your seat because these concerts are quite popular and often fill the house. It's a wonderful way to spend an evening.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Before I joined the Knoxville Symphony in 2001, I had lived my entire life in the Chicago area. I had a difficult transition to life in the south. I was incredibly homesick. One thing I did appreciate right away was the weather. It gets cold here, but nothing like the bone-chilling, freeze-your-eyelids-shut cold that I grew up with. I don't miss slogging through several feet of snow or digging my car out daily. I enjoy not owning a snow shovel. The snowstorm we had a few weeks back was just enough for me. It covered the ground, but it was gone a few days later. Perfect. As cold and snowy as winter was up north, I much preferred it to early spring. The end of March is my least favorite time of year in Chicago. It's cold, gray, and muddy. East Tennessee weather is about a month and a half ahead of Chicago weather as far as average highs, so it makes sense that mid-February is my least favorite time of year here. It's cold, gray, and muddy, but we've also had days of beautiful sun and unusual warmth. It's playing with my emotions and I don't like it. I'm ready for spring to be here in full-force. To try to influence the weather, I have put together a play list of classical pieces that have to do with spring. I hope you enjoy, even if it does nothing to speed the warm weather.

Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland
Spring from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi
The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky
Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring) by Johann Strauss
Symphony #6 (Pastoral) by Beethoven
O, Joy at the Dawn of Spring by Alan Hovhaness
Incidental Music from Peer Gynt by Grieg
Kentucky Spring by Roy Harris
Sonata for piano and violin #5 in F major (“Spring”) by Beethoven
Little Symphony, for chamber orchestra No. 1, "Le Printemps", Op. 43 by Darius Milhaud
Symphony #1 in B flat, “Spring” by Schumann
Printemps, symphonic suite for chorus, piano & orchestra by Debussy
Carmina Burana by Carl Orff

Monday, February 16, 2009

YouTube Symphony Orchestra

Symphony orchestras all run auditions in much the same way. We have rounds where we hear candidates, eliminate some, and then hear them again until we decide who the winner is. In early rounds a screen separates the audition committee from the candidates to eliminate any bias. In the final round the screen comes down and we are able to talk to the finalists and see their resumes.

YouTube is doing things differently. They are in the process of choosing musicians for the YouTube Symphony which will perform at Carnegie Hall on April 15th under the direction of San Fransisco Symphony's Michael Tilson Thomas. Over 3000 musicians from around the world have uploaded video auditions to be a part of the YouTube symphony. Judges reviewed the submissions and narrowed the entries. The videos of the finalists in all instrument categories are now up on the YouTube Symphony site and you can vote for your favorites through next Sunday. Thats right. It's a people's choice symphony.

If you'd like to browse the entries and vote for your favorites, here is a link to the YouTube Symphony Orchestra website.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Few Questions With Maestro Salesky

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a big fan of opera. My experience with performing operas was very limited until I joined the Knoxville Symphony which plays for Knoxville Opera Company's productions. There is a lot that I don't know about the inner workings of an opera company. Knoxville Opera Company's General Manager and Conductor, Brian Salesky, was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions.

Katy Gawne: How do you make programing decisions and how far out do you plan the season? Do you program operas around the singers you would like to work with or do you pick the opera, then pick the singers?
Brian Salesky: Operas are chosen based on several factors: popularity, how far back they were last produced by KO, and our ability to budget for particular operas. In these difficult economic times KO is forced to delay its planning decisions due to our projections of funding which are increasingly difficult to do with accuracy. Casting comes after programming is confirmed.

K.G.: The symphony began rehearsals for the opera last week. When do rehearsals start with the Opera Chorus? With the Principals?
B.S.: The KO Chorus begins music rehearsals 2-3 months prior to each production. Principals usually arrive 21 days prior to the final performance.

K.G.: As Music Director, I know you make all the musical decisions, but is someone else responsible for deciding staging / costume / etc or do you do that as well?
B.S.: I make all final production decisions based on conversation with my Production Manager, Stage Director and Artistic Committee.

K.G.: Is there anything you would like a first-time opera goer to know?
B.S.: There are no barriers to enjoying opera for today's audiences. Projected English translations of every word make it possible for all to understand every nuance of the drama. There are no dress codes as there might have been 50-100 years ago. People should come in whatever makes them feel comfortable. The magnificent Tennessee Theatre has fabulous acoustics and every seat is a good seat. Our ticket prices are very affordable, starting at $15 for adults and $10 for students and children. As to the expenses, it costs $250,000 to mount one opera production (and that is low compared to similar budget companies). Therefore we depend on contributions from various sources to support our company. Most importantly, just like foods and cars, each opera is very different in its (musical and dramatic) content. Until one experiences the majesty and overwhelming experience of being at a live performance, one cannot appreciate the thrill of opera!

Knoxville Opera's production of Rigoletto will be performed February 13th at 8:00 and February 15th at 2:30. More information can be found on Knoxville Opera's website.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Musical Mosquito

Like many string musicians, I have a second instrument that I use in extreme conditions. Fluctuations in weather such as heat and humidity can wreak havoc on delicate wooden instruments causing such headaches as open seams, cracks, and changes in sound. The viola that I play for our outdoor performances was actually my sister's viola all through high school. It's sturdy enough to weather the outdoors. The trade-off is the sound quality. It's not great. It has become affectionately known in the viola section as “The Mosquito.” It turns out, though, that being compared to a mosquito is not the musical insult that it once was. Research out of Cornell University shows that mosquitoes are quite the musical insects.

Mosquitoes have an irritating hum that is produced by the beating of their wings. Cornell researchers have found that male and female mosquitoes of a particular breed produce different pitches. The female “sings” a G while the male produces a D. Together they make the interval of a fifth.

Before I go any farther, let me explain what I'm talking about. An interval is the distance between two notes. Examples of fifths are C to G, G to D, D to A, and A to E. Fifths are important. In rock music, fifths often take the form of “power chords” played by the guitar. They also provide the skeleton for chord structure of tonal classical music. In the development of harmony, they were the first interval that was deemed acceptable besides the unison and octave, coming into use at the time of Gregorian Chant. Violinists, violists, and cellists all tune their strings in fifths.

The interesting thing about the mosquitoes is that when the researchers isolated a male and female and brought them close to each other, they adjusted their pitch and tuned to each other, only mating when the interval was so perfectly in tune that it produced an overtone. This fascinates me. The potential applications in the fight against mosquito-transmitted diseases such as malaria and yellow fever are terribly important, for sure, but I also think the research could lead to new discoveries in music, particularly in biomusicology which is the study of music from a biologic perspective. Many elements of music can be traced to nature, it will be interesting to see if any music researchers look further into this discovery.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Pit

Some of my fondest memories are from playing in pit orchestras for various musicals. The atmosphere in the pit is a lot different than when we are on the main stage. People relax. It's not that the music is necessarily easier than our usual symphonic fare. Actually, scores for musicals can be quite challenging. The songs are scored for the comfort of the vocalists, not the musicians, so keys like B major (five sharps) or D-flat major (five flats) are quite common. Really, I think the musicians relax in the pit because the focus is not primarily on us. Our job is to make the people on stage look good. If we are noticed it's not always a good thing.

Just about every musical I have played for has had some near-disaster during production. (I don't think I'm the violist equivalent of Typhoid Mary, but who knows....) Most disasters happen without the audience ever knowing, but a few memorable times things have gone horribly wrong for everyone to see or hear. The worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) disaster that I witnessed happened during a run of Oklahoma when I was freelancing in the Chicago area. We were giving a special presentation for a packed house of school children. It was a doomed venture from the overture. A picnic basket was kicked into the pit (if you come see the Knoxville Opera next week, you will notice that there is a net above part of the pit to catch falling objects), a actor forgot an entire verse of a song, and several people missed entrances or forgot lines.

Clearly, it was not going well, but the show didn't reach full fiasco status until near the end. Curly, the leading male, had a fast costume change. Apparently no one was around backstage to help him get dressed and when he came back out on stage it was clear that he hadn't had time to properly put his pants on. For a few minutes he made it work by keeping one hand on his pants and using the other in his fight scene with the evil Jud Fry. Given that handicap, you would think that Jud would have had a better chance, but Curly still got the best of him. When the actors playing the police came out to arrest Curly they didn't notice he was holding his pants up. Or maybe they just didn't care. They turned him around and forced his hands behind his back. His pants fell down around his ankles to the screaming delight of over 700 elementary school children. Cowboys really shouldn't wear polka dot boxer shorts.

This weekend we are not in the pit, but we are staging a Valentine's pops show full of Richard Rodger's greatest hits. It should be an enchanted evening full of great music. And, hopefully, no fiascos.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Give Opera a Chance

The first time I attended an opera was in college. I wasn't particularly keen to go, but there was a boy involved. He really liked opera and I really liked him, so I thought I would give it a shot. We didn't last, but my fondness for opera has.

Before I attended my first opera, two things came to mind whenever I thought about opera: a sturdy women with fat braids and a Viking hat singing notes that could crack glass, and Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Wabbit” in the Bugs Bunny opera cartoon. I expected to be bored to tears but figured that I could at least close my eyes and enjoy an evening of Strauss. I don't think I'm alone in my misconceptions about opera. It has the ill-deserved reputation of being an excruciatingly boring, snobbish activity that only the upper crust of society pretends to enjoy. I was shocked when I not only enjoyed the production, but laughed so hard that tears streamed down my face.

Since that first experience, I have found attending opera performances to be great fun. Really, opera is just a live soap opera sung in a different language. (The English translation is projected above the stage.) It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the writers for Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns are opera fans because opera plots are just as crazy as anything on daytime TV. Women pretending to be men pretending to be women, characters who are part human / part animal, curses, revenge, love triangles (or octagons in some cases): opera is chock-full of drama and intrigue, not to mention great music.

Knoxville Opera Company will be staging Rigoletto on the 13th and 15th of this month. If you haven't ever attended an opera, you ought to consider going. You will likely recognize many of the tunes even if you are not versed in opera. If you do attend, try to get seats that allow you to see into the orchestra pit. It's interesting to see the inner workings and, more often than not, something exciting happens behind the scenes. Last season a large set of orchestra chimes started to pitch over during a performance of Tosca. A bass player caught them and boosted them back up only to have them pitch the other way. It turns out they were off a caster. Our panicked percussion section was madly trying to right them while still counting rests.