Friday, April 30, 2010

KSO on the Road

This weekend the KSO will depart from our usual venues in downtown Knoxville and hit the road. Tonight we're heading to the Greater Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend and on Sunday we will be performing in Richlands, Virginia. Both concerts feature a mixture of pops and light classical music. The program we will play in Virginia is unusual in that it features several pieces of Chinese music, including the first performance of the Yellow River Piano Concerto by a Chinese pianist with an American orchestra.

We rehearsed for both concerts yesterday. The Chinese pieces are in Chinese. Of course, the notes are the same in any language, but the titles and written musical instructions are all in Chinese. Jim asked us to pull out the Yellow River Concerto and the orchestra gave him a collective blank stare. He had to describe the first few measures to make sure that we all pulled out the same piece. German was my old nemesis. I am always schnelling when I ought to be langsaming and vice versa. Compared to Chinese, though, I'm positively fluent in German. Its a good thing that my stand partner Eunsoon can read a bit of Chinese. Or at least pretend to read Chinese to play a good joke on me: "Really? It says to hold the bow in your teeth there?!"

Tonight's concert at the Greater Smoky Mountains Heritage Center features two soloists from the orchestra. Principal Trombonist Sam Chen will play an arrangement of Gershwin's Someone to Watch Over Me. I love Sam's interpretation of this piece. I could listen to him for hours and not get tired of it. Also featured will be principal clarinetist Gary Sperl performing the first movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto on a basset clarinet. The basset clarinet has a wider range than the typical clarinet which allows the player to perform passages in the octave that Mozart intended. It also has a different timbre. As usual, Gary sounds amazing.

Tonight's concert requires tickets. More information can be found here. Sunday's performance in Southwest Virginia is free. More information about that concert can be found here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Be a Composer

There is a piece written by Lucas that the KSO has performed several times entitled "Be a Conductor." The piece begins in common time, moves to three after awhile, and ends in common time. Before we play the piece the Maestro goes over the conducting patterns with the audience who then conducts from their seats as we play. This piece never fails to crack me up. Its not the musical content that tickles me, its the title itself. While there are many jokes to the contrary, being a conductor entails a lot more than simply mastering a few beat patterns.

Recently a friend showed me this super cool composition tool. It is designed in such a way that ANYONE can play with it and come up with a composition. Reading music is not a prerequisite, nor is having any particular musical ability. Like "Be a Conductor," there is a lot more to composition than highlighting boxes in a grid, but this gives a taste of what it is like to create music. Fair warning: once you start playing with this neat application it is very hard to leave it alone!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Barber of Seville

Tuesday and Wednesday nights were our dress rehearsals for the Knoxville Opera Company's production of The Barber of Seville. I was looking forward to the dress rehearsals because, as I said on Monday, it was already funny at the sitz rehearsals in the gym of the Jewish Community Center. The dress rehearsals did not disappoint. I can't see much from the pit, but what I could see was hysterical.

The cast of this production of Barber is phenomenal. I couldn't find their bios on the KOC website, but it seems to be a very young cast. The dynamic on stage is electric. They play off each other extremely well. While I always expect the singing in opera to be good, my expectations for the acting are usually less. That is not the case for this weekends Barber. The acting is on just as high a level as the singing. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if some of the singers on the stage this weekend turn out to be the stars of tomorrow.

Anyone who suffers from the misconception that opera is stuffy and boring owes it to themselves to come see this production of Barber. It could easily make an opera lover out of a skeptic.

Monday, April 19, 2010


This week the KSO is in rehearsal for the Knoxville Opera Company's production of The Barber of Seville. I love opera. More specifically, I love comic opera. The plots are ridiculous and the music sublime.

The Barber of Seville is considered to be one of the greatest comic operas. From my slight experience with the work through our rehearsals so far, I can attest that this is a deserved reputation. There were times in rehearsal on Saturday when everyone dissolved into laughter. Understand that we were rehearsing in a gym, the cast was not in costume, nor were they performing their staging, and everything was being sung in Italian with no translation. I can't wait for the dress rehearsals at the Tennessee Theater later this week.

The cast for this production of Barber is phenomenal. The singing is great. The acting is exceptional. It's very exciting to be a part of this production.

The KOC performances of The Barber of Seville will take place this Friday, April 23 at 8:00 and Sunday, April 25 at 2:30. More information can be found at the Knoxville Opera Company's website.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Subject: Robert Schumann

Born: June 8, 1810

Died: July 29, 1856 in an asylum.

Known for: piano music. Schumann wrote in many genres, but his greatest works are written for the piano. He was a pianist of great potential until he ruined his hand with a homemade invention for strengthening his fingers. His wife, Clara, was one of the great piano virtuosos of the time.

Child prodigy? Not particularly. Schumann was self-taught as a child. He could play the piano and even began composing at age 7, but Schumann did not have his first formal music instruction until age 18.

Contribution to music: Form! Traditional musical form meant little to Schumann. He preferred the music to dictate the form rather than the other way around. This is a complete revolution from the Classical era. When Schumann did compose in traditional forms, such as in his symphonies, he felt constrained and had a hard time particularly with transitions.

Happy or neurotic?: Neurotic doesn't even begin to cover Schumann. He was clinically ill and is now widely thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder. In the last years of his life he began hallucinating. In 1852 he attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Rhine. He was placed in an asylum at his own request.

Strange fact: Schumann was a great music critic. Writing under the alter egos Florestan and Eusebius he introduced many of the finest musicians and composers of the time, including Chopin and Brahms.

Tonight the KSO will present Schumann's 4th Symphony. The Knoxville Choral Society will join us in the second half for Mozart's Requiem. The Requiem was written at the behest of an anonymous patron. While he was composing it, Mozart fell ill and became convinced that he was writing his own requiem. I didn't know the rest of this fascinating story until I read the program notes for tonight's concert.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Showhouse Time!

One of the biggest champions of the Knoxville Symphony is the group of women who make up the Knoxville Symphony League. All year long the League Ladies, as they are fondly known, tirelessly organize events that raise money for the orchestra. Every year they seem to out-do themselves and without their efforts the KSO would not be in as sound financial shape as it is.

One of the most beloved annual events presented by the League is the Symphony Showhouse. Each spring area designers completely decorate a beautiful house somewhere in the Knoxville area. The house is then opened up to the public for viewing. The homes are always stunning. It's a great way to get ideas for design in your own home, or to at least dream up what your ideal home would look like.

This year the Showhouse is actually two condos that are attached. Located in the Rocky Hill area of Knoxville, one condo is decorated in a traditional style and the other is decorated in a contemporary style. Both share a spectacular view of the mountains.

The Symphony Showhouse is currently open and runs through April 25th. Admission is $15 at the door, or you can purchase a season pass for $25. There is no parking near the Showhouse, but a shuttle is available from Rocky Hill Baptist Church.

More information, including hours and directions, is available on the KSO website. Information about the Knoxville Symphony League, including information on becoming a member, is available on their website.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hot to Fox Trot

Congratulations to Maestro Richman who came in second at last weeks Dancing with the Stars benefit for East Tennessee Children's Hospital! Just in case you missed it, here is a video recording of his award-winning performance.

Now if only we can convince him to dance along to Bartok this Sunday.....

Monday, April 5, 2010

Difficult Music

This coming Sunday my quartet will be performing at the Bijou for the KSO's Chamber Classics Series. On the program is Bartok's Third String Quartet, Mozart's c minor viola quintet, and the first Brahms String Quartet. It's a huge program, and an exciting one.

I know that many of you just groaned about the Bartok. Here's the thing: some music is difficult for the listener. I think that Bartok squarely fits in this category. Difficult does not mean bad, by the way. Difficult means that you as a listener need to work harder to make sense of the music. This is not music you can just sit back and take a bath in.

It is worth listening to and playing, though, and there are a couple things you can do in preparation to make your concert experience a pleasant one.

You can listen to the piece. This is a good idea for any music, but is essential for works that are difficult for the listener. Honestly, the first time I listened to this Bartok string quartet I panicked because much of it seemed like random sound. Second time around I started picking out more melodies. Now I could probably sing the whole thing, and I have become quite fond of the piece. The same is true for my daughter who used to hold her ears when I played the CD in the car. Now she asks to hear certain parts and I've caught her humming the main themes while she plays. Attending a concert is not like going to a movie. Knowing how the piece ends won't spoil your enjoyment.

Another way to prepare is to learn a little bit about the composer's style. Did you know that Bartok was one of the fathers of ethnomusicology? He collected and studied folk songs, many of which are quoted in his own compositions. Folk songs don't always use a fixed meter, nor do they always use traditional major or minor tonalities. Knowing this helps you know what to expect.

Music that is difficult for the audience is just as hard for the musicians. Putting the technical aspects aside, although difficult-to-listen-to music tends to be wickedly hard to play, we have to make sense of music that is not always obvious. I'm sure there are people who can listen to a difficult piece of music and "get" it the first time around. Most of us can't and have to do the listening and research work I've outlined above.

Difficult music is like preparing a pineapple: you have to work hard to get past the tough exterior and things can get a bit messy, but in the end the rewards are great.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The King of April Fools

With compositions such as Eine Kleine Nichtmusik, The "Goldbrick" Variations, Oedipus Tex, Notebook for Betty-Sue Bach, and the Unbegun Symphony, PDQ Bach is by far the biggest prankster in the classical music world. This is actually quite an accomplishment because, although we look quite serious in performance, most musicians I know appreciate a good joke. When you spend hours at a time in isolation being self-critical (aka practicing), a sense of humor is essential.

Peter Schickele "discovered" PDQ Bach in the cafeteria of The Julliard School. The "last and least" of J.S. Bach's children, his dates are 1807-1742. Many compositions by PDQ Bach call for instruments to be played in unusual ways such as having players blow through the double reeds off of oboes and bassoons, and the tromboon: a trombone with a bassoon reed instead of a mouthpiece. He also frequently uses things that are not often thought of as instruments: balloons, bicycle horns and bells, plastic tubing, and fog horns are several examples. The music is not the easiest to pull off but the humor is so great that it's worth the work.

Some of my favorite pieces by PDQ Bach are The "Erotica" Variations for piano and Banned Instruments, Iphigenia in Brooklyn, and Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice.


Don't forget: you can still vote for Lucas for Knoxville's Dancing with the Stars! He makes his dancing debut TONIGHT to benefit East Tennessee Children's Hosptial!!!!!