Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday and Tuesday

Having just returned from a whirlwind musical trip to Scandinavia, the time has come for the KSO to ride the bus to Southwest Virginia Community College for their Festival of the Arts. We will play with the Camerata Virtuosi New York and the SWCC Chorus. The program includes quite a few French works; we will need to trade our Finnish/English dictionaries in for Le Petit Larousse. Some of the most beautiful music ever written with a French accent will be presented: Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte, Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, and this gorgeous Faure work I’d never even heard of, Cantique de Jean Racine. Throw in a dose of Prokofiev (first movement of his Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Pavlina Dokovska), and it’s safe to say we’re all over the map. This will be Sunday the 27th at 4:00 at the Southwest Virginia Community College’s King Community Center in Richlands, VA.

Back home we go on Tuesday when we will join with the Hardin Valley Academy Strings at 7:00 for a concert of music that shows off the many facets of the string sound. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Respighi, Michael Daugherty’s funkalicious Strut, and some lush tunes by more recent American composers. This is actually a concert that was postponed from a snow day in February? March? I don’t know, it seems like years ago, now that spring is finally here, but these guys have been waiting to play this concert for a long time and I know they’re psyched! Peggy Jones has again attained great heights with her students, and we KSO core folks get to see what all the cool kids are doing. (Caution to performers: 6:00 sound check!)

I can understand if you can’t make the drive from Knoxville to Southwest Virginia to hear us play, you might say it’s kindly far. But if you’re still willing to travel (or if you get lost on the way to SWCC), (and speaking of spring), be aware that my wife Helen will be performing Beethoven’s Spring Sonata and Brahms’ 1st Violin Sonata with pianist Mark Hussung at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City at 3. And if you can’t make that either, that’s okay, too. I mean, even I can’t go, so who am I to judge....

The final weeks of the season unfold rapidly and there’s a landslide of charts to learn. I may leave a parenthesis unrequited or a sentence fighting for its life, but I will try to keep y’all abreast of our goings on. Ciao!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

All Booked Up

I’m not much of a reader, really. People ask me what I’ve read, or recommend books, and I just nod and smile politely. I mean, I do have some favorite books, but it’s not like I go to the library every month and withdraw a big honkin’ bag of books. A symphony (or quartet, or opera, or sonata...) is to composers as a novel is to authors, and I embroil myself in such “novels” on a regular basis. I really get to know the characters, the pace of the drama, the plot, etc., and it’s plenty to keep up with.

There have been a lot of new “books” for me late this season: Bellini’s Norma and the Schubert Death and the Maiden quartet, (wow, interesting combination!) and coming up in May, Rachmaninov’s Trio éléqiaque and Dvorak’s American quartet. Right now I’m engrossed in a new (to me) “novel,” and it’s by Jean Sibelius, his 5th Symphony. While it’s true that music is a universal language, I am encountering some new words, and some idioms unique to the Finnish. Sibelius’ orchestrating genius is all over this work; oboes and flutes doing things you’ve not heard before, and that trademark phat brass sound that is felt as much as heard.

Our soloist for the April Masterworks concert will be pianist Andrew Staupe. Upon meeting him tomorrow, we shall tarry with our longtime Norwegian friend, Mr. Grieg. It turns out that Mr. Staupe, having grown up in the Twin Cities, studied violin with the same teacher with whom my wife studied, Mark Bjork! One thing is for sure: string players will never freeze their fingers off as long as they are playing music written by cold-weather composers such as Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. Lots of “noodles,” as we call the quiet, fast notes that set the table for melodic fare in other sections of the orchestra.

So that’s the book on the Thursday and Friday night Masterworks concerts at the Tennessee– Overture and Dance of the Cockerels from Nielsen’s opera Maskarade, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and Sibelius’ 5th. Ya sure, ya betcha.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Opera in Bloom

Spring seems to be very shy this year. Its timing seems to be all out of whack; I’ve never seen forsythia bloom so late! Pellissippi Parkway is about to explode with redbud blooms, daffodils, and that other yellow stuff. Years ago there was a sign among the daffodils that said FINE FOR PICKING. It was a creative nuisance, wording the warning that way. A lawyer friend of ours (Bill Mason) challenged us to pick some, stating that our defense would be “It said they were fine for picking!”

Even if spring is late, the Rossini Festival is right on time, and that time is this Saturday! The street fair on Gay Street, the countless performing and visual arts venues, the unsurpassed people-watching, the FOOD– and the operas. The Knoxville Opera Co. and the KSO will be performing Bellini’s Norma on Friday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Tennessee Theatre. UT’s Opera Theatre will be performing Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Carousel Theatre on the UT campus in four performances starting Thursday night.

We’ve just put the finishing touches on Norma. The two very demanding female leads are being sung by J’Nai Bridges and Rochelle Bard, who, to our delight, feel no need to “mark” during rehearsals. This is the “Cadillac” of opera seria duet singing. The aria Casta diva is a storied workout for the soprano and a dramatic challenge for the Stage Director.

My guess is that many opera-goers will go out for drinks after the show, and one or two may order a Bellini, thinking they are being relevant. In actuality, the Bellini is named after the Italian Renaissance artist, Giovanni Bellini. The drink’s concocter, Giuseppe Cipriani, thought the Bellini’s color resembled that of a toga worn by a saint in one of the artist’s paintings. So, know your Bellinis! And call a cab.

The name of the soprano in the premier of Norma was Giuditta Pasta. Pasta diva. Yes, the Rossini Festival is right on time...

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Principal String Quartet Concert Approaching

The Principal String Quartet of the KSO will be performing this coming Sunday at 2:30 at the Bijou. We will open with one of the most well-known of Haydn’s 83 string quartets, his op. 64 no. 5, The Lark. The second movement of this work is the basis for the song I’m in the Mood for Love, which has been recorded by no less than 120 different artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Chaka Khan to the Sex Pistols. I personally am playing this quartet again for the first time in 34 years. I know, it’s scary. Jimmy Carter was president then, and our first violinist, Gordon “Go-go”  Tsai, was just a twinkle in his momma’s eye.

Fast forward a century and a half, cross both the Atlantic and the equator, and you’ll find the roots of the second work on the program, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 1st String quartet. Really more of a six-movement suite, this work was recently performed on our “Q Series” concert nine days ago at the Emporium Center. For a piece with Brazilian origins, it sure uses a lot of impressionistic musical language. It’s no wonder, considering Villa-Lobos spent four years in Paris.

The grand finale of the concert will be Franz Schubert’s magnum opus for the string quartet, the d minor Death and the Maiden quartet. The quartets Schubert composed as a teenager are definitely youthful works compared to this; he himself dismissed them as such. A more mature quartet was composed concurrently with D&TM, his op. 29 Rosamunde quartet.

Schubert’s lot was an unhappy one during the year this was composed (1824); incredibly, at the time of its composition, he was younger than any of the members of the KSO’s Principal Quartet. He was broke and sickly, and his publisher Diabelli was ripping him off royally. Perhaps he had some inkling that he would only live four more years. This work’s mood, especially its tonality, reflects his frame of mind at this time, but it is by no means morose.

The first movement has a hook that is challenged only by the opening phrase of  Beethoven’s 5th symphony for the title of  “Most Dramatic Musical Phrase Ever Written.” The subtitle of the quartet is derived from his 1817 lied of the same name, the theme of which is treated with a set of variations that make up the second movement. After a syncopated, dramatic scherzo (with a mood swing into D Major during the trio section), the tarantella finale brings it all home. Its theme is surely the inspiration for the Civil War era song When Johnny Comes Marching Home (aka The Ants Go Marching), although there is no earthly way that either Johnny or the ants could march as fast as this tarantella’s breakneck tempo.