Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Winds for Lunch, Scotch and Strings For Dinner

Wednesday, January 28th will be a day devoted to the lighter side of chamber music. The Principal Woodwind Quintet will present a lunchtime concert at the Square Room, 4 Market Square at 12 noon. You will then have 4-½ hours to resume heavier pursuits until the Principal String Quartet begins the Scotch and Strings show at Boyd's Jig & Reel in the Old City at 5:30.

The repertoire for the WWQ's Q-Series show is rooted in drama and comedy, with music by Christopher Ball, Gyorgy Ligeti and Greg Danner. The Quintet is Aaron Apaza, bassoon; Jeffery Whaley, horn; Gary Sperl, clarinet; Nick Johnson, flute and Claire Chenette, oboe. People I have known all my life, even though I met some of them only a few months ago. The Ball opus is a five-movement work entitled Scenes from a Comedy, and if I say that one of the movements is called Hilda Broods and Hatches a Plot, you will understand where the composer is coming from. To call Mr. Ball merely a composer is to under-qualify him, since he is actually also an award-winning conductor, recorder soloist and photographer (he won the Zenith Photographer of the Year prize in 1971 for a photo that was apparently even better than the one below). Gyorgy Ligeti's Six Bagatelles are a departure from his more avant-garde norm, bubbly and cartoon-like as they mostly are. (A bagatelle is a light-hearted piece, or in non-musical applications, a trifle). The show will close with Tennessee Tech theory professor Greg Danner's suite of five character sketches, Vaudeville! One of the movements therein is entitled That Was No Lady... Just sayin'. Tickets for this Cafe 4-catered event are $15 in advance, (like TODAY) or $20 at the door, if available at all.

Last year's inaugural Scotch & Strings featured bracing cold and perilous sidewalks, but those did not deter a great crowd from coming out to one of Knoxville's most revered performance spaces for Laphroaig, Dewar's, Villa-Lobos and Schubert. It's a bit warmer this year, in fact the sun may still be shining when I show up. Violinsts Gordon Tsai and Edward Pulgar, violist Katy Gawne and I will bring about some music to keep warm by, whatever the weather. We'll be previewing some upcoming concerts, first with a bit of Mendelssohn- a sparkling work which really ought to have a more honorable identity than just “op. 44, #1.” This is perhaps the only time you will be able to enjoy scotch and champagne simultaneously. We'll be playing the work in its entirety on the March 25th Q Series at the Square Room, but we thought we'd “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” at the J&R. Another preview arrangement we'll play will find us waxing rhapsodic; that's all I'm gonna say about that one... There will also be Efrain Amaya's Angelica, and a brief reminiscence of last week's Tchaikovsky symphony. Tickets for the event are $35 in advance, $40 at the door.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tunes and More Tunes

OK! Where are we now? The Tennessee Theatre, of course. The “Big Orchestra” is hosting a guest conductor, Larry Loh from Pittsburgh. In that city, he is the Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphonies. The January Masterworks concert pair is given over to music of Berlioz (Roman Carnival Overture), Shostakovich (Cello Concerto #1), and Tchaikovsky (4th Symphony). These shows have 7:30 starts at the Tennessee this coming Thursday and Friday nights.

Our soloist is Julie Albers, from New York. She has just been appointed Principal Cellist of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, but is also on the faculty of the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Atlanta. Such is the life of an in-demand player; lots of frequent flyer miles there. As busy as she is, there is no sense of harriedness in her playing. The Shostakovich Concerto on which she is featured requires great concentration and focus, and she brings out the best in the work.

And now a little about that work. The more frequently performed and studied of the two Shostakovich Cello Concerti by far, the First Concerto in E-flat was written in 1959, 3 years before the String Quartet No. 8 that the Principal String Quartet performed this past November. The two works share some material; the main theme of the concerto's first movement appears in the quartet's scherzo. The outer movements of the concerto are boisterous, bordering on wacky, with some fairly simple melodic ideas receiving harmonization from Shostakovich's unique tonal and rhythmic palettes. The second movement Moderato is cast in a serene, meditative (but DEFINITELY not morose) mood, and features a duet between the solo cello (playing artificial harmonics) and the celeste, played by Carol Zinavage Shane. (Carol and I both agree that the Turtles' 1968 hit You Showed Me borrows its melody from this movement). The Moderato yields to an extended stream-of-consciousness cadenza, leading to an upbeat (and offbeat) finale. As a whole, the work definitely bears repeated listening; there is SO MUCH in it.

Speaking of so much, “Tchaik 4” is all of that. Before I knew the work well, I just assumed that the multitude of tunes in it were from different pieces by Tchaikovsky. Then I performed it for the first time, and I couldn't believe that all that stuff I had heard was in just the FIRST MOVEMENT. At least 8 different themes appear, ranging from lilting to soaring to tumultuous. The first movement Andante sostenuto/Moderato con anima is the longest symphony movement Tchaikovsky composed, but it is done so smoothly that one doesn't notice the length as much as Tchaikovsky's gift as a tunesmith. The 3rd movement Scherzo: Pizzicato Ostinato stands alone in all of the symphonic literature with not a single bowed note from the strings. The Finale is fast and furious, and provides a happy ending.

I haven't spoken of the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture which opens the concert, but it is a true classic. It has to be, it is full of Berliozian wit and verve, and besides, it has an English horn solo in it. Don't be late or you'll miss it!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

On With the Show, This Is It

It's always good to say those two little words: SOLD OUT! That's What's Up! The “carrot and schtick” method of entertainment seems to be just what Knoxville needs right now. Saturday night at 8:00 at the Civic Auditorium, there will be a full house as the KSO will host Bugs Bunny at the Symphony, with all of your favorite Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes front and center.

So much classical music is quoted here, it's impossible to list, but there is a strong Wagner presence in the score. Some of the tunes are lifted veboten, er... verbatim from commonly performed editions, but often there are slight altercations –oops!-- I mean alterations in the direction the music goes. It keeps us on our toes, we get to wear headphones, and we finally learn what instrument makes that slide-y sound at the beginning of the  fanfare!

If you are attending the concert, be aware that there is a Knoxville Ice Bears vs. Pensacola Ice Flyers game in the adjacent Coliseum, which has a 7:30 face-off. Parking may take a little extra time, but probably not as much time as it will take that poor hockey player to get his face back on. Say, why not skip the traffic and walk off the dinner you just ate downtown? It's only five blocks from Market Square, three from Gay St. (And you walked HOW FAR the last time you were in New York)?

Just for a little added flavor, I'm going to put this bug in your ear. Don't you think Mel Blanc looks like Django Reinhardt? Just sayin'... Also their styles are similar, going for broke at every turn.

Only the guitar gives it away... 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cinderella's Winter Souvenir

I was amped to play Strauss' Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite last weekend, and I'm amped to play Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence in its original sextet form tonight and tomorrow night at the Knoxville Museum of Art at 7:00 as part of the “Gabe Lefkowitz and Friends” Concertmaster series. This is a high-amp month, with Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony coming right up next week. The one great thing about music is that the music itself doesn't care when we move on to something new-- We can say “we love it,” but it's okay to say that we love another piece just as much. One week's favorite must necessarily give way to the next piece, otherwise, why not just play the same work over and over?

Why Florence? In rehearsals for the sextet, I've been keeping an ear peeled for hints of things which might evoke the way Florence looks, sounds or smells, but having never been to Florence, I'm not really sure what I'm looking for. The commission for this sextet, issued by the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, came in 1886, but in true Tchaikovsky fashion, it took a while for Tchaikovsky's muse to kick in. It wasn't until 1890, when he was in Florence composing his opera The Queen of Spades that the idea for the bel canto second movement theme sprang into his head. And that's it! Nothing else in the piece particularly evokes Italy; it is more about Tchaikovsky telling the world how much he loved to be in Florence.

After a somewhat unsuccessful premiere in December of 1890 (the composers Liadov and Glazunov were in attendance, and agreed that the last two movements “needed some work”) and consequent massive revisions to the third and fourth movements, Tchaikovsky was quite pleased with what he had written, particularly the fugato passage at the end of the finale. Only then did the title of the work come to be given. It is the last multi-movement work by Tchaikovsky save for the 6th (Pathetique) symphony.

The concert will start in Italy, with Vivaldi's Winter concerto from his Four Seasons “concerto cycle.” Gabe will be accompanied by an orchestrina of 10 players. I have learned this is called a “decet.” Following that, Gabe and pianist Kevin Class will perform five movements from Prokofiev's Cinderella ballet, those movements being Waltz, Gavotte, Passepied, Winter Fairy and Mazurka.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Warming Trend Forecast For Bijou This Weekend


It seems like wicked cold weather always attends the January Chamber Orchestra concerts at the Bijou. The edict has been issued from management: “Do Not Use The Stage Door To The Bijou For Any Reason!” Unlike the Tennessee Theatre, where the stage door is a floor down from the performing level, the stage door of the Bijou opens right on to the stage, letting in whatever bus exhaust, Harley-Davidson noise (even with the door closed you get that), and- COLD AIR.

To ensure good instrument and musician health, there are contractual guidelines assuring that the temperature onstage will be at a minimum of 65 degrees. Any colder than that, and players' fingers are at risk of injury. The woodwind and string instruments have a minimum temperature requirement for structural health, but I must add that it is the wide fluctuations in temperature that cause the most problems, not the cold temps themselves. A cello or a bassoon, for instance, can't help but cool off when being toted from a warm car (or bus, or train, etc.) to the hall. For a string player, this means opening the case and mingling the warmer indoor air with the cooled air inside the case, before pulling the instrument out in earnest. Different pieces of the instrument expand and contract with the heat at different rates, so there is a chance that they will come unglued. The friction fit of the pegs is affected by these different expansion rates also, which is why we often open our cases to find that one (or more) of our strings has come unwound. The glue which holds a stringed instrument together is purposely not super strong, in case there is some tectonic shifting due to temperature differential. Any glue that is stronger than the wood itself will cause the instrument to tear itself to shreds when exposed to a drastic temperature change. You want the glue to let go, not the wood itself. Humidifying devices, the most common of which is called the Dampit, are inserted into the f-holes to raise the humidity inside the instrument. The humidity plummets because of the dry forced-air heat that is so prevalent in our modern winter world.

A woodwind player's plight is different here, in that the player's warm breath blown into the instrument is at a way higher temperature than the ambient air, even on a summer's day. For this reason, woodwind instruments also need time to become acclimated to the cold. Another danger for wind instruments makes itself known at the end of a rehearsal or concert, when players leave through a door that allows cold air to enter. (A woodwind instrument takes quite a bit longer to put away; you can always count on the woodwind players to still be on stage at least 10 minutes after work). This cold air always seems to make a beeline for the woodwind instruments, which have become toasty warm from the indoor warm air and from being played. Principal clarinetist Gary Sperl can tell you some horror stories about cracks that his clarinets have sustained this way.

I have always been puzzled by the amazing condition of some string instruments that are 350+ years old. Most modern classical musicians, if not all, have every convenience and amenity to keep us warm in this weather, but what about 300 years ago? How on Earth did musicians in Europe and especially Russia cope with winter weather? Obviously Strads, Guarneris, etc. were owned by the upper class, who had ample means of keeping things warm, but what about the poor grunts that had decent but not world-class instruments?

It will probably get above freezing by Sunday at 2:30, when the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra will present music of Mozart, Stamitz and Strauss. It will definitely be above 65 inside the Bijou Theatre. So come warm up with us!