Thursday, October 27, 2011

Odds and Ends... and Opera!

The KSO just finished a run of Young People’s Concerts at the Civic Auditorium. The theme for these shows was “Got Rhythm?” and the five audiences we played for all decidedly did. Dancers from Go Contemporary Danceworks were featured on a Quadrille from Offenbach’s Gaîté Parisienne and Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. The shows were educational for the musicians also; I learned, through pictures on the Jumbotron, that Leroy Anderson was the splitting image of the Superintendent of Schools of many small towns in the fifties, and that Jacques Offenbach was a strange-looking dude.

The Knox County Schools’ 2011 Honors Orchestra concert will take place TONIGHT at Farragut High School at 7:00. This is a free concert featuring a middle school and a high school orchestra. Come support Knoxville’s talented young orchestra musicians!

Nadine Hur and her husband David Kim are proud parents of baby Alex!!! He was born on the 21st of October in St. Louis and weighed 6 lbs. 13 oz. We miss ya Nadine, and hope to see Alex soon!

Opera is served next at the KSO’s banquet. A gem from Verdi’s "middle period," La Traviata will feature Joyce El-Khoury (who was heard here in Pagliacci in 2009) as Violetta, Zach Borichevsky as Alfredo, Mark Womack as Giorgio Germont, and Kevin Thompson as Dr. Grenvil. Verdi’s amazing party music is perky and quirky, and Ah, fors’è lui, Sempre libera, and Brindisi are vocal tours de force that sound young and fresh under the baton of Brian Salesky. Friday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Tennessee Theatre.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Perpetuating a Memory

Although you will be reading this a day late, I felt the need to note the birthday of a big influence in my musical cultivation.

Tom Nee brought a beautiful blend of dignity, benevolence and accuracy to the podium. He had been on the faculty of U-Cal San Diego's music department since 1967 and shaped that school’s innovative course. He served as music director of the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis (1953-67) and director and co-founder of the Minnesota Opera (1963-67). He was music director of the New Hampshire Music Festival from 1960 until 1992, the last 8 years of which I had the privilege of experiencing. His passing three years ago at age 87 marked the end of a truly genuine musical personality.

The NHMF is a dream festival that in actuality is a hiking jubilee set in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, with music-making filling the weekdays and weekend nights. The venue back then was Plymouth State University, which my father had attended on the G.I. Bill after WWII. Imagine my delight when I learned of an opportunity to play classical music in what I can literally call the Fatherland! (My dad taught public school in the Lakes Region of NH and his Dad lived in Laconia, so as a child my summers were spent nearby). The festival was truly a family affair; one summer in the early 90's, participants traveled to Plymouth with 24 children collectively under age five. All of the musicians were housed year after year in the same dorm, which was famous for its unisex bathrooms and Thursday night kegs. Pemigewasset Dorm was a block away from a house my family lived in before I was born. I would marvel while pushing our son Thomas in a stroller late at night past this house, on the same sidewalks that my siblings had learned to walk on decades before.

I made an impression on Tom, and I joined the Festival in 1985. My first concert under him included 2 world premiers and a work by George Antheil, closing with Brahms Third- an adventure, to be sure. Future summers featured work with Ken Burns, Alexander Bernstein (son of Leonard) and Joanna Feidler (daughter of Arthur). Nee’s rehearsal technique was workman-like and civil, peppered with his own dry sense of humor, which was documented on many a folder. My favorite was while rehearsing a particularly gnarly contemporary work, things were iffy and he said, “if someone has a prayer wheel, you may want to give that thing a spin for us.” Another time, after a violin passage could not be made to sound good with either choice of bowings presented, he suggested that the violins play with the bowing that suited each individual player- and it sounded amazing!

His final concert with the New Hampshire Festival featured marches– including this Swedish gem– and Mahler’s 4th. On the chilly late-August nights in New Hampshire, the final concerts of the festival during my tenure there provided the soundtrack to my drive back to Knoxville, and fond memories of a more formative time in my musical past come swooping down on me during subsequent performances of works I played under Tom Nee.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Wait! The Weekend Is Not Over Yet!

Awesome concerts! So many memories of previous performances flood my head when I play a piece as memorable as the New World Symphony. My high school orchestra played the last movement of it at a competition in Washington when I was a freshman in 1976. Or was it Ottawa in 1977? It’s getting pretty murky back there, my memory of the years of the Ford administration, but I do remember playing through it in my head back in the day, on long car trips when the radio was busted.

Here are Maestro Richman, composer Theodore Wiprud, and guest violin soloist for Katrina, Ittai Shapira at a post-concert gathering at Boyd's Jig and Reel.

Another awesome concert will happen Saturday, October 22 at 8 in UT’s Cox Memorial Auditorium. UT’s professor of viola and KSO violist Hillary Herndon is hosting a Viola Celebration at UT this weekend, and the public is invited to a performance of a rarely heard work, the Viola Concerto of William Walton. Special guest faculty for the festival, James Dunham, will be the soloist with the UT Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Fellenbaum. The finale concert will be held Sunday at 4 in the same venue, featuring an all-viola orchestra! (Both concerts are free). Word has it that there were 93 violists on stage last year, will they make it to 100 this time?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

American Connections: October 20 and 21, Tennessee Theater, 8:00

All this time, I thought the Copland’s Corral Nocturne was really the “Chorale” Nocturne. It certainly is chorale-like. Just a play on words, I guess, by a composer who had made a name for himself by writing “plays on notes.” His humor can be heard via the trombone in the Buckaroo Holiday, in a melody full of more-than-pregnant pauses reminiscent of “I Bought Me a Cat.”And who can discount the charm of that same trombonist portraying the drunk and plum-tuckered-out-from-dancing cowpoke that finally passes out on the floor in the Hoedown. There is a definite lineage here; Copland’s composition teacher, Rubin Goldmark, was a student of Dvorak’s during the Czech composer’s tenure in New York.

Theodore Wiprud’s Violin Concerto, Katrina, evokes the Delta blues without falling into predictable blues constructs. The second movement will feature players of very traditional orchestral instruments playing on something you haven’t heard with the KSO since Robert Bonfiglio was here back in May of 1998- the harmonica. While this work is dedicated to the memory of pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, naming the work after the city’s downfall is a bit like naming the Harry Potter movies after Voldemort, but ultimately the concerto’s cathartic optimism allows us to embrace even the protagonist of this awful tragedy. Our soloist, Ittai Shapira, is playing on a Guadagnini violin that has to be heard to be believed. The lineage continues with this work; one of Copland's students, Jacob Druckman, was a composition teacher of Wiprud.

With all the talk about Dvorak visiting Iowa, it’s easy to forget that the Symphony From the New World was not written there. Dvorak arrived in New York in the fall of 1892 and assumed the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music on 17th St. and Irving Place in Manhattan. This attempt to establish a federally funded music conservatory tanked after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, but in Dvorak’s day, it had sufficient funds to lure him from Europe. His tenure there fostered the composition of such works as the Sonatina for violin and piano, the American String Quartet (duh), and a work that is performed far too infrequently around here, the String Quintet in E♭ Op. 97. To hear the last work that Dvorak composed in the USA, you’ll have to come to next month’s Masterworks concert.

This final symphony by Dvorak, whose earlier works were given later opus numbers by unscrupulous publishers in Europe bent on discrediting him, was premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893 to “instant acclaim.” A pre-Lent Czech Carnival, called Masopust, had to have been celebrated by Dvorak in York City while composing this piece. In playing through the symphony, I am trying to picture where the influence of a Czech Mardi Gras might be heard. My guess is the second theme and trio of the Scherzo. It is some of the most “old country” writing in the work- giving new meaning to the term “Czech swing.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Milestone Approaches...

As we gear up for this week’s Masterworks concerts, featuring Dvorak’s Symphony From the New World, a stage that is already full of new faces will temporarily be missing a familiar one. A person you won’t see on stage is violinist Norris Dryer, who will be off in Elkhart, IN to celebrate his mother’s 100th birthday! Yep. I just typed a three-digit number. To give you some perspective, Dvorak’s New World was composed just 18 years before she was born, October 19th, 1911.

Bernice Dryer is a lifelong resident of Elkhart save for a year in school at Wittenberg College in Ohio, where she studied violin with Anton Bjorkland, a violinist in the Cincinnati Symphony. She played for 38 seasons with the Elkhart Symphony, from 1948-86- the first 38 years of that ensemble. She has a place in the annals of classical music history in the USA, having been the first piano teacher of Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano.

Norris performs in the KSO with the same violin she played in the Elkhart Symphony. Here she and it are pictured in a 1965 photo, sporting the usual attire that the women of the Elkhart Symphony wore at that time.

In this more recent picture she is seen on her 95th birthday. We wish Bernice the happiest of birthdays on this milestone day, and thank her for having such a terrific kid!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bartok Talk

The next Masterworks concert on Oct. 20th and 21st feature Dvorak’s Symphony From the New World, but the music on my stand to be bowed is Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It is just barely not too late to start working on November’s featured work. Practicing Bartok is like playing tennis, doing Sudoku and gardening, all at once. Only Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has comparable sonic breadth and splendor. Why isn’t it called a Symphony? A concerto for orchestra implies that more is demanded of each individual player, and that is certainly the case.

Sometimes you can predict where a passage is going to go, but when you miss an accidental or rhythmic shift, it’s ADVANTAGE, BARTOK! Since the tritone (e.g., C# to G♮) is an important interval in Bartok, and our strings are tuned in 5ths (e.g., C ♮ to G ♮), a lot of the scales- and there are many- can only use every other open string for pitch quality assurance, which on the violin is not too problematic because the intervals are smaller and easy to reach. On the cello, however the musical alphabet, in terms of reachable intervals, can only be written in a very large font which requires much more shifting. Would that we could get our “rackets” restrung!

I studied Bartok’s compositional technique in undergrad. His medium is the octotonic scale, where scale segments of first a whole-step and then a half-step pile up like Jenga blocks, starting over at every octave. This ensures adherence to the Fibonacci Sequence, which governs everything in Bartok from pitch selection to duration of movements. When you get it to all add up, you realize that you didn’t just learn how to play a passage. You became smarter, and your instrument did also.

Getting the Bartok Concerto to bloom and flourish– indeed, all playing we do– requires nurturing, cultivating and protection from the elements- the elements in this case being complacency, disbelief and preconceived notions of how a phrase should sound. Bartok was known to be very pleased when students brought the gift of a pine cone to his desk on which the spiraling arrangement of the scales are arranged in the Fibonacci series. Sunflower blooms also share this seed arrangement.

I learned a lot playing the third String Quartet of Bartok a couple seasons ago. I thought I had learned a lot when I first played it, in 1983 at the Yellow Barn Music Festival in Vermont. To be sure, it was an intense experience then; with only a couple weeks to master it, the somewhat random collection of personnel in the group needed to be quick adjustors, which always teaches. We performed it well and lived to tell about it. And quite frankly, the electronic devices we employ today– pitch generators, metronomes with subwoofers, tuner apps, and YouTube videos– didn’t exist. We had L.P.s. A dial-tone. And a Franz metronome that would scare the pants off of any TSA inspector. But the KSO principal quartet chose the work at least a year in advance, knew how to rehearse and knew each other very well, and there was a genuine thirst for knowledge about how to make sense of all those notes. The challenges of Bartok place the onus on us as individuals more than just about any other composer to make this whole add up to way more than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Coming Up This Weekend

This coming Sunday will see the KSO going to church! (So to speak). The fall family concert this season will take place at 2:30 p.m. at Cokesbury United Methodist Church, 9908 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, 37922. Picardy Penguin will be his usual endearingly perky self, and soprano Katie Wolfe Zahn will bring her entourage of merry-making children, the Sound Company Children’s Choir, to light up the “stage.”

The theme for this concert is “Music, Music Everywhere,” with tunes by Gershwin, Vaughan Williams, Gong Chen, Beethoven and others. Hopefully Picardy, on his voyage from the land of Symphonia, will not have a snafu with his passport or have his shoes set off the alarm, subjecting him to a patdown. “Picardy’s Playground,” a musical petting zoo, will take place at “The Castle,” which is the old Sanctuary of Cokesbury that has been redecorated to look like, well, a castle.

This will also be the debut of our principal flutist for this season, Ebonee Thomas, who will be with us while Nadine Hur is on maternity leave. Ebonee comes to us fresh off of a run of performances of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in Boston (hence the late arrival), and having spent the last three seasons with Florida Grand Opera. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in music from Southern Methodist University and a Master’s in Music from new England Conservatory.

Later that same day, the third annual "Knoxville Opera Goes to Church" will bring together soloists from the upcoming KO production of La Traviata and The Knoxville Opera Gospel Choir, featuring locally-based gospel singers, in an eclectic mix of repertoire. This will take place on Sunday at 4:30 at Greater Warner Tabernacle A.M.E. Zion Church, 3800 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, Knoxville, 37914. This concert is free and a quick drive across town will enable you to attend both shows.

To provide a smooth transition from last weekend’s Sinatra-fest to this coming weekend’s penguin follies, here is “Ol’ Blue-Eyes'” lovely rendition of “The Roses of Picardy.”