Monday, November 30, 2009


I love December. It is the busiest month of the symphony season for many KSO musicians because there are a lot of opportunities to freelance outside the symphony. In December you can find KSO musicians playing at all sorts of places: in churches, shopping malls, hospitals, and, of course, at the Civic Auditorium with the KSO. Our annual Clayton Holiday Concerts are coming up later in December at the Civic, but this week we start rehearsals for the Nutcracker with the Appalachian Ballet.

This is my 10th year of Nutcrackers and my 9th season playing the viola part with the KSO. (The first year I was playing violin in a different orchestra.) I've never tried it, but I bet I could play my part from memory. Maybe even backwards. Knowing the music so well does not make things boring like one might suspect. Actually, I find playing the Nutcracker year after year quite enjoyable. It's like meeting up with an old friend. The music is difficult but after so many years all the technical kinks have been worked out. The music is in our fingers. It is nice to be able to sit back and completely enjoy making music with my colleagues.

The atmosphere during Nutcracker is different from our regular concerts. Not casual, but things are definitely more relaxed. A big part of it is that we know the music so well. Every season we have one or two Nutcracker newbies but for the most part we've all been playing it together forever. We're in the pit for the Nutcracker and people relax in the pit. Our performance is meant to support what is happening on stage. We are not the main attraction. Also, a sense of humor is essential for playing in the pit. The pit has many elements we don't have to deal with when we're on the big stage. The space can be cramped. Even when we have ample space to sit and play there is never enough room to be able to walk around comfortably. The set-up is different with the viola section on the outside (where our 2nd violins usually sit) and the woodwinds and brass separated. There is also the "zoo" factor. People like to come look at the orchestra during intermission. Nothing wrong with this, it's a great way to show kids a more up-close view of an orchestra, but it can feel a little bit like being in a zoo with so many people peering down at you. For the most part, though, the musicians deal with these minor inconveniences with grace and humor.

The Appalachian Ballet and the KSO will perform the Nutcracker at the Civic Auditorium this Saturday and Sunday, December 5th and 6th. More information can be found here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Getting to Know James Fellenbaum

A week or so ago I had the chance to catch up with KSO's Resident Conductor, James Fellenbaum. Jim humored me and agreed to participate in the blog's "getting to know..." series. (Thanks, Jim!)

KG: You have a Bachelor's in cello performance and a dual Master's in cello performance and conducting. When did you decide that you wanted to pursue conducting full-time? What made you want to start conducting in the first place?

JF: I became very interested in conducting in high school and, if there were such a thing as a bachelor's in conducting, I would have pursued that in college instead of cello. But, I'm glad I began my serious musical training in cello...playing orchestra pieces FIRST in an orchestra was/has been extremely important in my career. And, in high school I would conduct along with John Williams soundtracks...I loved the sound, and the idea of leading people through symphonic music. He was a big influence on me as I began to develop musically.

KG: Why did you choose the cello? When did you start playing?

JF: I chose the cello for the same reason Yo-Yo Ma chose the cello: we both wanted to play the bass (the BIGGEST instrument) but were too short! (Yo-Yo and I don't know each other...I've met him once...I just know that story about him). I started playing in fourth grade, as part of the Virginia public school system that offered orchestra instruments (4th grade) and band instruments (5th grade).

KG: Who has influenced your conducting, either as a mentor or just as a conductor you admire?

JF: Victor Yampolsky was, and still is, my biggest physical influence in my conducting. As a youth, I played in a lot of orchestras with unclear conductors, and one of my mantras was to be a clear, physical communicator on the podium, to which Yampolsky's style was a beautiful example. He's also one of my biggest musical influences. I've always liked Zubin Mehta's presence and ease on the podium, and I've picked up a lot of bits and pieces from other conductors while playing cello in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago...that was a GREAT learning and playing experience for me. Learned a lot from Cliff Colnot while in Chicago, too...excellent teacher for score reading, musicality and rehearsal techniques.

KG: Do you have any disastrous moments in conducting or playing that you'd be willing to share? Have you ever had any conducting injuries: baton through the hand, tripped on the podium, etc?

JF: Well, first: no injuries to report...thank goodness! I've never had any "disastrous" moments in conducting or playing, although there have been a few times where I've come close to "failing" at a project. I remember trying to present the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 1 at a summer camp once. The horn player was superb, but the orchestra consisted of mostly 7th and 8th graders; as simple as Mozart can look sometimes, the young students just couldn't quite get it...both technically and musically. So, we ended up doing just one of the movements...I just remember, at the time, it took ALL of my being to get them to play that one movement, so it felt like I was failing.

KG: Now to the IMPORTANT questions! I know you like sci-fi shows like Star Trek, Stargate, etc. (me too!) Which is your favorite series? And, isn't it terrible that Firefly only ran one season?

JF: Yes! I like science fiction very much, and grew up in a wonderful time for it: the late 70's and 80's with Star Wars, E.T., Indiana Jones, Star Trek, etc. And, most all of them have John Williams in common which, as I said before, was one of the biggest influences on my becoming a musician (all three of my YPCs have ended with John Williams...coincidence?!?). Now, I haven't gotten into Stargate, Farscape or Firefly YET...thanks to Netflix, I'm going to, eventually, catch up on ALL of those series someday. I'm a big Star Trek The Next Generation fan, and do like the other versions of Star Trek that have come out, both in movies and TV. What I find terrible is that Fox canceled the Terminator Sarah Connor Chronicles after just a season and a half. REALLY liked that show. I'm checking out the current remake of "V" on TV right now (2 episodes, not bad so far...saw the original 80's miniseries). I like 24, Scrubs, Grey's, the Sunday night cartoon lineup on Fox (Simpsons, Family Guy, etc.), and am a big ESPN fan (PTI, First Take, Sports Reporters, Sportscenter). My wife, Sarah Chumney Fellenbaum, and I enjoy quite a few shows together, and find it a nice way to wind down in the evening. Why is my answer for this question the longest one so far?

KG: Do you have any hobbies outside of music?

JF: I like websurfing/computer things, exercising, racquetball with Lucas, TV/movies, and caring for animals: I have two kittens (I'm a dog person, but have really grown to love the kittens) and four rabbits: Tigger, Roo, Rabbit, and Mr. Bun. Dog coming soon, probably within a year.

KG: Favorite concert moment, KSO or otherwise?

JF: Boy, that's tough. Recently, with KSO, a couple of things: First - our recent Chamber Classics concert with the String Serenades...I must say there were some really special moments in that concert. Second - each time, during a Young People's Concert or a runout concert where adults and children have had a "Wow" or "I get it" or "I love it" moment. You can tangibly feel that during the concerts, and I just love that. And at UT, when we've taken on a big, challenging project and we arrive at moments where we all realize that we've achieved something higher, greater or special...Pines of Rome, Mozart Requiem, Marvin Stamm Jazz concert, last February's Voice concert...those really come to mind.

KG: What is your favorite piece to conduct? What haven't you conducted that you'd love to conduct?

JF: No favorite piece to conduct...really enjoy a lot of works. Now, works I HAVEN'T conducted that I'd like to: that's too long! Mahler Symphony No. 1, Verdi Requiem, Beethoven 3, 7, and 9, Brahms 2, Rite of Spring, the operas Tosca, La Boheme and Der Rosenkavalier, to name a few.

KG: What music are you currently listening to? Not necessarily right at this very second, but what are your go-to recordings right now, classical or otherwise?

JF: Well, right now, I'm listening to bits and pieces of small works, as I plan the LMU Holiday runout concert. In general, I'm not listening to anything right now, since I've been conducting quite a bit of music. When I do listen to recordings, it's usually something Romantic era or 20th-Century era in classical music.

KG: Anything else you'd like to share?

JF: The younger of our two kittens, Pirate (the newest member of the family) has decided he's tired of me typing, and has come over to start chewing on my foot. Typical.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Picardy is Back!

I think this has been the busiest week of the season for me. We have had rehearsals all week for our Masterworks concerts last night and tonight. Tomorrow we will have more rehearsals, this time for our first Family Concert of the season.

I'm excited. Tired, but excited.

KSO family concerts are delightful. There are all sorts of things to do before the show. The lobby and some of the dressing rooms at the Tennessee Theater are turned into a sort of musical playground for children and their parents. Kids can make crafts, see instruments close-up, pretend to run the box office or be the conductor... It's really a lot of fun. If you're heading to the concert this Sunday you should definitely come early. The concert is at 2 but the activities start at 12:45.

My favorite part of the Family concerts is not the pre-concert activities. (Possibly because the orchestra is having a sound check during that time!) My favorite thing about the Family concerts is Picardy Penguin. Picardy is an animated penguin who is projected on a large screen above the orchestra. He interacts with the orchestra and guests by singing, talking, playing instruments, and even conducting. This family concert is all about dance and dance music, so I expect we'll see Picardy dancing, too!

KSO family concerts are geared toward children between the ages of 3 and 8. The concerts are played without intermission and are just the right length for antsy kids. My daughter has been coming to the concerts since she was three. She is now five and she always enjoys them. The concerts are enjoyable for adults as well.

The first KSO family concert will take place this Sunday at 2:00 at the Tennessee Theater. Picardy's Playground will be open at 12:45.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Five Things about Tonight

* This concert is part of our celebration of Mendelssohn's 200th birthday. Sorry, no cake, just great music.

* Speaking of Mendelssohn, Benjamin Hochman's interpretation of Mendelssohn's first piano concerto is amazing. He is so much fun to watch that I missed an entrance in rehearsal because I was watching him. His playing is incredibly smooth, clear and accurate. Oh, and very exciting. That piece will make you want to get up and dance. If you want to hear a preview, we have excerpts of Hochman's playing on the KSO website.

* We're playing the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde which is one of the most romantic pieces ever written. In my opinion, the melodic theme that is heard toward the end of the piece is just as romantic as the theme from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. I might be biased, though, because this was the piece that was playing on the radio when my husband and I had our first date.....

* When was the last time you heard the KSO play a symphony by Haydn? It's been awhile! Tonight we're playing Haydn's 16th symphony. It's an interesting piece because it sort of straddles the Baroque and Classical periods. There are elements of the Baroque era (a harpsichord, for example) mixed in with distinct elements of the Classical era.

* Anything by Strauss is a massive tour-de-force for the orchestra and Der Rosenkavalier is no exception. It's a huge wash of sound. Rosenkavalier has some of the prettiest melodies that Strauss wrote. There is a waltz that reappears throughout the piece: sometimes soft and slow, sometimes fast and raucous. Of the pieces that we're playing tonight, this is my favorite to play.

Hope to see you at the Tennessee!

Monday, November 16, 2009

KSYO Concert Tonight!

Tonight is the first Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra concert of the year. Actually, five ensembles will perform tonight: the Junior Philharmonia, the Philharmonia, the Sinfonia, the Youth Chamber Orchestra, and the Youth Symphony. The 250+ young musicians who participate in the KSO Youth Orchestra program range in age from early elementary school all the way to seniors in high school. The level of playing also varies from students who have studied just a few years to kids who plan to make music their career. The quality of the playing is high across the board, though. The younger kids always impress me just as much as the kids in the more advanced ensembles. Also at peak levels are the energy on stage and the excitement and passion these kids have for making music. It is truly something to see. The future of classical music is in great hands.

Tonight's concert starts at 7:00 and will be held at the Tennessee Theater. Seating will begin at 6:30. The concert is open to the public and is free.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting to Know Jay Oberfeitinger

This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with KSO musicians. My goal is to move beyond what is published in our biographies to give you a more personal look at the musicians who make up the KSO.

Jay Oberfeitinger has been a percussionist with the KSO since 1995. I'd like to thank him for being willing to be interviewed for this blog!

KG: I feel silly asking you why you chose to pursue percussion because I think it is the coolest thing ever (besides the viola, of course) but, what drew you to percussion? Did you have a teacher who inspired you along the way?

JO: I actually started out on Trumpet. Still play, a little - along with most of the basic brass & woodwind instruments (leftover from my days as a middle- and high school band director...but I digress).....I had been playing trumpet for about 6 months when our family took a trip to the local shopping mall. Back then fully enclosed shopping malls were rare so this place was quite popular. The local regional orchestra - The Westmoreland Symphony - was giving a concert in the "public square" in the mall. We happened to come up behind the percussion section. I do not know what work they were playing, but it used a ton of percussion, and the guys in the section were scrambling around to the different instruments. I was transfixed. Once my parents were able to pry me away I declared that percussion was what I wanted to play.

As for inspiring teachers.....I have had several. My first teacher, Ray Szymarek, introduced me to the playing of the great jazzers - Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, etc. My undergraduate college teachers were huge influences on me as a musician. Both are retired from the Pittsburgh Symphony - Jerry Unger (who was associate Principal) and Stan Leonard (Principal Timpanist).

KG: How did you get the idea to start a band and orchestra program for home-schoolers?

JO: Well, I had recently moved my private lesson business out of the house into a dedicated space in downtown Kingsport. I had also left public school teaching and had begun college / university work - part time. Several home-schoolers began taking private lessons and were looking for a performance outlet. When one commented that the one thing she missed about "normal" school was having the opportunity to be in the band - forming the group was obvious. The group functions just like a school band - except they only meet once a week. They have practice chart requirements; the beginning ensemble uses standard school band method books; I give grades..The orchestra component has not really taken off though, not enough string players!..We put on at least two concerts a year. One near Christmas time and one usually in May. During the Christmas season we also go to the local hospitals and setup in the lobby and play. We also perform at several Assisted Living communities.

KG: In an average concert, how many different instruments do you play? What is the most you've ever played in a concert?

JO: Hmmm....on average, maybe two or three - cymbals, bass drum & triangle - for example. I think the most instruments I have ever played in one concert happened last week with the Symphony of the Mountains. We gave a Family concert as part of our Virginia concert series - I was the soloist in a novelty work titled "The Worried Drummer". This piece was popular back in the 50's and 60's and has been getting more play again recently. It is written for the soloist to race about the stage from instrument to instrument - just "barely making it" to play a note or two before zooming off to the next. In one 10 minute work I played: Timpani, Snare Drum, Triangle, Tambourine, Castanets, Sleigh Bells, Slap stick (whip), Bass Drum and Cymbals, Glockenspiel (bells) and Xylophone! Oh, and add Drum Set to that list for other parts of the concert! I was tired afterward!

KG: How does the percussion section decide who covers which parts? Do you ever run into each other when you're running around back there?

JO: Great questions! The "industry standard" is for the Principal of the section to make part assignments. In the KSO we generally use two methods. Most of the time the Principal (Clark or Bob, depending on the concert) will make the assignments. For Pops, things are a bit different. We usually only have 3 percussionists for pops - regardless of what forces the music actually calls for - so we have to get creative. Over the years Bob, Andy and I have worked out a system we refer to as "playing zone defense". We will group instruments together - mallets (xylophone, vibes, etc); bass drum / cymbals; snare drum plus others; hand percussion (tambourine, triangle, etc.) Each of us will cover one or more "zones" and we play as much of the parts as we can cover. This gets interesting as we really put our skills at playing multiple instruments simultaneously to the test. It is much different than most of the Masterworks repertoire - where you may only play one instrument for an entire work. That is also what makes works such as Petrushka so much fun - we all have to play several instruments in works such as that.

As for running into each other....well, it can happen, especially in pops shows at the first read-through. We sometimes have to plot out - actually choreograph what moves we will make - so everything gets covered without collisions! We have played together for so long now that it doesn't happen much....We all pretty much know how each other thinks!

KG: Do you have any hobbies outside of music that you'd like to share?

JO: I am a collector of U.S coins. I am an Assistant Scoutmaster for BSA Troop 387 here in Kingsport. Mountain and road bicycling are big favorites.....along with hiking, camping, canoeing and sailing (don't get to do that much, though). It is a bit odd, but I am also a big fan of the old, pre-computer, board-based historical simulation games, AKA wargames. These are games that re-create historic battles or even entire campaigns in a board game format. The rules are very complex, with lots of tables to consult for weather effects, combat results, etc. All are based on actual historic events and the game pieces usually represent the actual units that were involved. My two favorite games of the type are "Battle of the Bulge" which simulates the Ardennes campaign during WWII; and "Jutland" which re-creates the famous Naval battle of the first World War.

KG: What is your favorite piece to play? To listen to?

JO: OK, these are tough......I cannot pick just one favorite work to play....but some of my favorites are: Pines of Rome, Petrushka, Rite of Spring, Beethoven Symphonies - love those Timpani parts! - , Percussion music of John Cage.....I could go on.....

As for listening; my tastes are wide-ranging. When listening to music for pleasure - as opposed to listening for "work" - I tend to favor Big Band and Jazz (think Tommy Dorsey or Miles Davis) or Classic Rock (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd). I also enjoy Frank Zappa's music, and music of the Renaissance - especially for Recorder, an instrument I like to play as a musical "hobby".

KG: Favorite KSO moment?

JO: I would have to say the Pops concerts where we did bits of movie soundtracks with the actual film clips playing on a screen over the orchestra. (KG: that was my favorite pops concert, too, and the hardest I can remember playing!) JO: One of my "Walter Middy" fantasies is to have been a member of one of the studio orchestras at MGM,Warner Bros. or the like during the golden age of Hollywood movie making.

KG: Any disasters you'd be willing to share? (the car horn that broke at the first Masterworks concert this year comes to mind!)

JO: Oh, yes...what a way to start the season! Every Percussionist's nightmare is for something to break during a performance. The main culprits are cymbal straps and the thin cord (basically like fishing line) that holds triangles. Two weeks ago during a Young Peoples concert I had a cymbal strap break on the last crash of the National Anthem! I was left with a cymbal in one hand and just the strap in the other - watching the loose cymbal falling to the stage with no way to do anything about it! What a racket! Thankfully, we had another pair of cymbals for a different work so we used them until we got to a point in the program where no percussion was needed for a little while. Zipped backstage to our storage cabinet and the spare straps! I think it was close to a record time for tying a cymbal strap.

The oddest disaster of this sort was one I was in the audience for. During my college days, I was at a Pittsburgh Symphony concert and Don Liuzzi (now Timpanist in Philadelphia) was playing a very intricate tambourine part. Right in the middle of a particularly busy section of the part the shell of the tambourine broke. Now, that may not seem too bad - but tambourines are actually under quite a bit of tension. You might say that the instrument exploded! Bits of wood and loose jingles flying about all over the stage. Don stood there for a moment, then (since we don't usually keep spare tambourines on stage) just set the remains of the tambourine down on the trap table and sat down with a little shrug to the conductor as if to say "sorry, don't know what else to do.." I'm glad it wasn't me.

KG: Anything else you'd like to share?

JO: I will be giving a solo recital on January 10, 2010 at 3:00pm in the Renaissance Center Auditorium in Kingsport, TN as part of the Art Nights, City Lights concert series. Marimba works by C. O. Musser, Solo Percussion Music of John Cage and a duo for Percussion and Trumpet by William Kraft will be featured. I hope some Knoxvillians will make the trek to the Tri-Cities for the show!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Monday Morning Pick-Me-Up

If you're dragging this morning like I am, this will wake you up and get you going in short order. Jazz is much better than coffee. Happy Monday!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Day in the Life

Playing in a symphony orchestra is an unusual job. It certainly does not follow the usual business format. We do not have an office to go to every day and we don't clock in and out of practice rooms. Our hours are unusual: concerts start anywhere from 9:30 AM to 8:00 PM with rehearsals scheduled from 10 AM to 8 PM. Our rehearsals are generally only 2-1/2 hours long which leads some people to wonder what we do with the rest of our day.

Well, I can't give you a schedule for every day, but I will give you a snapshot of what today will be like for me. Today is a fairly typical day. We have a rehearsal this afternoon in the Bijou for this Sunday's Chamber Classics concert.

This morning I got up at 6:45. I am not a morning person by choice. If I didn't have to take my daughter to school I would probably sleep later. On days that we rehearse until 10:30 PM or have evening concerts I try to take a nap because otherwise my focus and energy is gone by 9:30. No naps today, though.

Mondays and Thursdays I sit down and write this blog, or, if I've set something to auto-post, I log in to make sure that it posted.

After I finish this blog it will be time to practice. I have a stack of symphony music sitting by my stand that needs attention: this weeks chamber music, the November Masterworks music, Brahms 1st String Quartet, and the third Bartok String Quartet for the April chamber concert. (Yes, I'm already practicing music for April!) Today I will focus on the string serenades for this weekend's performance. I also have a stack of non-symphony music that I'm practicing. Playing for the symphony is wonderful, but it takes some of the personal creativity out of music. My job is to bring the conductor's vision of a piece to life. Even if I agree with what the conductor is asking for, its not MY interpretation. I don't have full creative reign. Practicing non-symphony music regularly gives me a creative outlet and does a lot to keep my technique up. These days I'm practicing violin quite a bit. I find it's easier on the body since it's smaller, and the technique transfers quite nicely to the viola. I'm working on the Brahms violin concerto, the third unaccompanied violin sonata by Bach, and scales. Always scales. Some days I have a stack of music to mark bowings in for the viola section to follow. Happily, I am caught up with bowings for the moment, so I won't work on any today.

A nice perk about working from home is that, well, you're home. I can take 5 minute breaks in practicing here and there to throw dinner in the crock pot, move the laundry from the washer to the dryer, etc.

When I'm done practicing it will be time for a quick lunch. Then I'll pick up my daughter from school, get her settled with the sitter and head to rehearsal. Today we only have one rehearsal. After rehearsal I'll head home and spend time with my family. I may have another look at the music depending on how rehearsal goes this afternoon just to remind myself what I need to practice tomorrow.

So, there you have a day in the life of a musician.

Monday, November 2, 2009

November in a Nutshell

There is a lot going on with the KSO in November!

Last week the KSO performed educational concerts for thousands of area school children. Beginning this week and continuing through the month, small ensembles of musicians will be touring the Knox County Public Library branches for special musical story time presentations. These are always very entertaining. I have participated in story time concerts both as a musician and as an audience member with my daughter. It's hard to say which was more fun. There are many opportunities for the children to participate, from singing along with familiar tunes to playing small percussion instruments. It is a great (and free!) way to introduce young children to live classical music. The full story time schedule can be found here.

This week is also the KSO's debut Chamber Classics Series performance of the season. Sunday afternoon's concert is a concert of string serenades by Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and Suk. Don't let the parking situation around the Bijou deter you from attending this concert. Once again the KSO will be providing a shuttle service from the State Street Garage (behind the Tennessee Theater) to the Bijou.

On the 16th the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestras will give their first performance of the season. These kids work incredibly hard and their concerts are not to be missed.

Later in the month is the November Masterwork's Concert featuring pianist Benjamin Hochman playing Mendelssohn. We'll also be playing Der Rosenkavalier Suite by Strauss, the gorgeous Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Haydn's 16th Symphony.

Also mid-month is our first Family Concert of the season. Picardy Penguin will be back in a program entitled, "Shall we Dance?" Our family concerts are more like events than concerts. There are plenty of activities for children and their families to participate in before the actual concert. It's a nice way to spend a cold afternoon.

Finally, the end of the month brings two free community performances. On November 27th (aka, "Black Friday") at 6:00 the KSO Brass Quintet will be performing in Krutch Park near Market Square for the City of Knoxville Celebration of Lights. The next day a string quartet will be at West Town Mall playing holiday music.