On June 27, 29 and 30, the Seattle Symphony performs Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony. Who is performing on the organ? Why, Joseph Adam, of course. We sat down with Adam — who, in addition to serving as Resident Organist for the Seattle Symphony, is Cathedral Organist at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral and a faculty member at the University of Puget Sound — and chatted about his role in this impressive classic.
Joseph Adam, Seattle Symphony Resident Organist
What makes this the organ symphony?
To start with, if I’m not mistaken, it really was the first major symphony that used the organ in such a big way as a quasi-solo instrument, and that was pretty much unprecedented when Saint-Saëns wrote it. Until then, for one thing, there simply weren’t that many halls with organs. In 1885 Saint-Saëns received an invitation to write a new symphony for the Royal Philharmonic Society of London — they performed their concerts in Saint James’ Hall in Picadilly, which had an organ — and Saint-Saëns was himself an extraordinary organist. So, the various pieces all came together at the right moment. There certainly have been some other composers that have used the organ prominently in symphonies, but none to this extent and no one quite as successfully. That’s not to take away from, say, Mahler and the 8th Symphony, where the organ has a prominent part, but there’s everything else in that symphony too, so you can’t really call the organ the featured thing. But with Saint-Saëns, it’s absolutely the big featured sound.
Is this why it’s called the “Organ” Symphony and not the “Organ” Concerto?
Well, it’s a symphony partially because Saint-Saëns titled it a symphony. But also, the organ is used in only two of the work’s four movements. It first plays in the slow [2nd] movement — and even there its role is to provide texture and accompaniment to the melodic material that’s either in the horns or the strings. In the fourth movement, it finally has the prominent melodic material pretty much throughout. As a whole, the organ part is not demanding in the sense of a concerto. The part is not particularly virtuosic, and it’s not a showpiece for the performer; it’s more of a showpiece for the instrument itself. So it’s a stretch to call it a concerto in any way, shape or form. The part draws attention to the instrument and not the performer in this case.
The piece is a balancing act between orchestra and organ, but also between fast/loud and soft/fluid. Do you have a preference?
I really like both. I love the whole range of it. As much as I like the last movement — it’s certainly fun to play the big chords — I really do like the second movement as well , which is a much more serene piece.
The piece is a tribute to Liszt, who was one of Saint-Saëns’ idols.
Yes. Saint-Saëns admired Liszt enormously, and Liszt certainly respected Saint-Saëns in return. They visited each other regularly; Saint-Saëns played much of Liszt’s piano music, and Liszt arranged for the premiereperformance of Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila in Weimar. Saint-Saëns was the first French organist to regularly play Liszt’s Fantasy on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.”It’s his magnum opusfor the organ, lasting around 30 minutes, and was written a few years before the B minor Sonata for Piano. Liszt’s organ work and the “Organ” Symphonyhave many features in common. Most importantly, both works are based on a single theme, which is transformed throughout the work. Sometimes the theme is used in minor mode, other times in major modes. The theme is sometimes fragmented, with quite a bit of rhythmic alteration. And both works begin in C minor and end in C major.
What can you tell us that we wouldn’t know or expect about the piece?
One of the things that I’ll do this coming week is think through the registrations for the organ part. One of the questions that I get as an organist: Does the composer tell you what sounds to use? And the answer is sometimes, but usually not. In this piece, the composer, though he was quite an accomplished organist, only indicates in a few places a specific sound or registration; throughout most of the piece all he indicates are dynamic markings. So, I have to go through the score and choose the registrations (the combination of organ stops) and select what I’ll use and set the pre-set combinations. I’ll also meet with Maestro Morlot this week to discuss his interpretation of the piece — what he has in mind for the organ and his overall conception.
This will be the fourth time I’ve played this symphony with the Seattle Symphony in 10 years. Even though it’s possible to save the registrations from the first time I played the work, I know I need to really think it through in a new way based on how the orchestra sounds now than how it did, say, 10 years ago. We have a different orchestra now than we did when I played it for the first time. I’d expect Maestro Morlot to have a different concept of the piece than previous conductors that I’ve played it with. And it’s going to be very interesting, I think, to get to the first rehearsal and hear the difference. The things that Maestro Morlot emphasizes and pulls from the orchestra in rehearsal and really concentrates on — in my mind, an emphasis on the clarity of sound — that of course really affects the how I use the organ. This organ in particular has enough brawn that I can drown the whole orchestra out if I really want to. I need to make sure that I find registrations that have the kind of clarity that the orchestra produces, so that the sound of the organ both fills out the orchestra, but also compliments and supports its sound. I think an orchestra is always evolving. It’s always a work in progress. It’s influenced by the conductors that lead it, and what new members bring to it.
There are places where my role is to provide support, and to a certain extent that’s going to be the easy part. The last movement, that’s the tricky part, because you have to have just the right kind of balance or else the organ can too easily overshadow the brass or the winds. And there are lots of places where, if I’m not careful, the strings could be completely obliterated.
It’s like wielding a powerful weapon.
Absolutely. And to make my task more difficult, I can’t hear what the balance really is. I have the worst seat in the house for that. I sit at the back of the orchestra, facing away. I rely upon the ears of the conductor, and usually an assistant conductor sitting in the auditorium. I have to trust their judgment absolutely, since the only thing that really matters is what it sounds like to the audience.
What is it like to give an entire performance with your back to the audience without looking at them? Do you just feel the crowd’s reaction?
You can feel it in the sense that the acoustics in the Hall are so clear that you can tell if it’s a restless or noisy audience or a very quiet and concentrated audience. That difference really comes across very clearly. One of the marvelous things about the acoustics of Benaroya Hall is the clarity in which sound from the stage can be heard in the audience. But when I do a celeste part or a harpsichord part on the main stage facing the audience, I’m only noticing the audience to a certain degree. My concentration really is on the music, focusing on the conductor, and on everyone’s role in putting together a performance.
Read more about this program and get your tickets here.
Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem saw its world premiere in England in 1962. Just two years later, Seattle Symphony Music Director Milton Katims conducted the massive masterwork in Seattle. Now, nearly 50 years later, Ludovic Morlot leads the Seattle Symphony, 3 chorales and three soloists in two performances of War Requiem.
Three of the orchestra’s musicians who played in those first Seattle performances are still members of the Symphony today: Bruce Bailey, cello; Nancy Page Griffin, bass; and Larey McDaniel, clarinet. We spoke with Mr. Bailey after rehearsal yesterday and asked him about War Requiem then and now.
Some works are considered masterpieces immediately; some take time to earn the title. What were your feelings about War Requiem when you first performed it? Has this changed?
I think it’s an absolute masterwork, and I know that’s never changed. Britten’s one of the most undervalued composers of the last century.
War Requiem’s libretto is a combination of the Latin Requiem Mass and several poems by a World War I soldier (Wilfred Owen), and the piece was commissioned for the reconsecration of an English cathedral that was destroyed in World War II. Given War Requiem’s connection to many different time-periods, how does it resonate with you today?
I don’t think of it as religious at all, despite the Latin text and the overall form of the piece. I think that the war aspects of it are more evident and they speak to me more. [The post-war years] were hard. I was there. And, you know, things hurt — and that hurt is in this music.
The world premiere of War Requiem was in 1962 in England, and Seattle Symphony Music Director Milton Katims saw to it that it was performed in Seattle two years later. This was a big deal — how did he make this happen?
Well I was quite junior at the time, so I didn’t participate in those discussions, but in general terms, I will say that Milton was an absolute genius in terms of programming. This was not the only piece that we were right on top of — and Milton had a genius for promoting it. These were big civic events. Now, your big civic event is some guys kicking a ball around on a field somewhere, but in those days, [a concert like this] was a big civic event. Milton had excellent connections in New York, and it is very much to his credit and that of the Board that they got busy and put this together. It’s a big, big thing with a lot of different pieces.
Do you feel a personal connection with this piece?
Oh, yes. It spoke to and of its time very eloquently. Destruction, all the bombing, all the ruins, Europe torn apart and in agony. On this side of the pond, fallout shelters, the Cold War, “World War III is coming.” This truly is a masterwork.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d just like to give a shout-out to Milton. May he rest in peace — this [War Requiem] was his thing. He made it happen. And it was a big success back then, by the way. The piece speaks for itself, and we played it in little old Seattle.
I’ve been anticipating this moment [playing War Requiem again] for 50 years.
Want to learn more about War Requiem? Read program notes and soloist biographies here.
Ted Louis Levy tap dances at a recent performance of "A Night at the Cotton Club"
Last night through Sunday, Jeff Tyzik, Principal Pops Conductor Designate, leads the Seattle Symphony and talented solo artists in the last Seattle Pops series program of the season: A Night at the Cotton Club. The program is a tribute to the famous Harlem club that hosted talented acts from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald to Cab Calloway in the 1920s and ’30s.
After rehearsal yesterday, we caught up with guest artists Byron Stripling (trumpet and vocals) and Ted Louis Levy (tap dance and vocals). A palpable energy flowed back and forth between the two, who in this program share the stage with Carmen Bradford, vocals, Bob Breithaupt, drums, and the Seattle Symphony, under the direction of Jeff Tyzik.
Byron Stripling, photo by Will Shively
Ted Louis Levy
Read on for highlights of their colorful conversation, which hit on some common themes — history, legacy, inspiration and respect.
Stripling: “For me, one of the Cotton Club stars was Louis Armstrong, and one of the things he was able to do was communicate first through his instrument; but the real cool thing was that he had this non-European voice, a voice that was gravelly, that wouldn’t traditionally be considered a good voice. But that was the joy of Louis Armstrong. If you used to sing like that, you’d sit in the back of the choir. But Louis Armstrong stood front and center. He came out front and said “This is who I am. I’m offering you my love, my voice, with all its faults.” Louis Armstrong could not win The Voice. He could not win American Idol. First of all, he’s not cute enough for them, but he didn’t care. He smoked cigarettes, had all these bad habits, loved to eat red meat. It was just who he was. In this Cotton Club performer, Louis Armstrong, we saw the joy coming through not only his horn but also his singing.”
Levy: “What makes me feel comfortable with not having a voice as powerful as Byron’s, or as clear or tonal — was Louis Armstrong. His intention was sincere, and he was trying to sing something that was greater than the song. I wasn’t initially a singer. I started out tap dancing, watching people like Gregory Hines go to that next place. After they did all this dancing, they’d still come around and sell it. So I’m like, ‘Okay, the best I can do is give it a shot.’ And if I can show up respectable that’s the best I can do.”
[In the below video, tap stars Gregory Hines and brother Maurice play the Williams brothers in the 1984 film The Cotton Club.]
Stripling: “One of the things I’ve got to say about Ted — and something that makes this show really authentic — is that he knows the legacy of tap. He was mentored by all the old tap dancers. So I think what the audience gets from this performance is the legacy of tap dancing, because those guys were all of his buddies. Ted even choreographed for Gregory Hines. Tell them about [the musical] Black and Blue.”
Levy: “It really kind of threw me for a loop, because for Black and Blue, my first show, these guys were 60 and 70 years old, kicking my butt onstage on a nightly basis. I’m 27 years old and these 60- and 70-year-old cats are like, ‘WHAM! How ‘bout that?’ It’s like trigonometry, calculus or something. You’re like, ‘How did they do that?’ And then you realize it’s not just something they do — it’s something that they are. And that’s what I like about even being associated with the very name of the Cotton Club, or even being able to wear a pair of tap shoes and represent myself respectably.
“[In this Seattle Pops show,] we do this thing where Byron will scat a rhythm and I have to try to dance it. Whatever he scats, I’ve got to try to do it. It’s done in real time; we have to try to communicate — there is no set. That’s old school. That’s real old school.”
Stripling: “That’s what the essence of jazz is — it’s the spontaneity of it. We get inspired by the audience. Each audience inspires us in a different way.”
Levy: “Also, you can’t ignore the element of race that was in the Cotton Club. [Though the Cotton Club only allowed white patrons, it featured some of the most famous African American musicians and artists of the 20s and 30s.] It may have catered to a specific clientele because they knew they’d spend money there, but the entertainment was authentically American. And that was the beautiful part of it. It was the beginning of the end of segregation — happening in Harlem. You know what the great thing about this is? It’s that they influenced an audience [prominent white musicians, including the Gershwins, were known to attend the Cotton Club] that was completely foreign to them. You know, a lot of people don’t know about that era, but they come here, and the music, the era and the presentation that Jeff and Byron put together calls for respect.
“This is such a wonderful show. When you’re hanging out with people like this? Top notch. First class. It’s not work.”
Learn more about this week’s program and get your tickets here.
How do all the members of the Seattle Symphony string sections stay together as they bow the notes? Is it some sort of innate magic that transfers from conductor to orchestra with little more than a flick of the baton? If only it were that simple. After the Symphony rehearsed yesterday, we found Associate Principal Librarian Robert Olivia (in the library — surprise!) updating the bowings to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, which the Symphony performs this Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
Robert Olivia updates bowings, score by score, to ensure the strings stay together
Also on the menu for the Symphony this week: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with violinist Alina Ibragimova as soloist.
Scores of scores (okay, not that many, but still -- lots) are prepared and distributed to the many divisions of the Seattle Symphony string section, from bass to first violin
Catch the Seattle Symphony and Ibragimova, conducted by Jakub Hrůša, performing Dvořák, Beethoven and Smetana this week. Get your tickets and read up on the program here.
“My music is going inexorably from being about place to becoming place.”
So shares award-winning American composer John Luther Adams, whose symphonic composition Become Ocean will see its world premiere performance at the Seattle Symphony on June 20, 22 and 23. Read more about the composition and get tickets here.
John Luther Adams, photo by Donald Lee
John Luther Adams (no relation to American composer John Adams) was born in Mississippi, trained in California, and has lived in Alaska since 1978. Influenced by Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Edgard Varèse and Frank Zappa, Adams is also very much influenced by the landscapes and sounds of nature. Click here to see a video in which Adams discusses his past as an environmental activist, his “leap of faith” to becoming a full-time composer, and what it means to be an environmental composer.
When we think of music that evokes nature, we may recall the vivid imagery of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. By contrast, the music of John Luther Adams is not a linear journey or a clear-cut programmatic depiction of place. It is experience-based music, music that even takes on natural processes as part of its structure — music that the composer invites listeners to “get lost in … find your own way through it and have your own experience.”
The distinct sounds of Become Ocean will remain a mystery until its world premiere on June 20. But we can get a hint of Adam’s watery soundscape through his work Dark Waves. Click here to listen to Dark Waves, which is similar to Become Ocean in its recurring accumulation and dissipation of sound waves, small and large.
Read more about Adams’ creative work here, and be sure to explore his unique sound-world at his installation Veils and Vesper, on display at the Seattle Art Museum from June 14–21. Composed of rising and falling sound and light arrangements, the installation is a meditative soundscape that provides viewers with an immersing, contemplative sound experience.
This month, Conductor Laureate Gerard Schwarz brings his expertise and passion for the music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich to Benaroya Hall for “Russian Spectacular.” Read on to learn what these three composers have in common, why the music of Shostakovich resonates so much with Schwarz, and what it’s like to conduct his own son.
Gerard Schwarz, photo by Ben VanHouten
The music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich spans much of 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Is there a particular theme or angle that links these composers together?
They’re all traditionalists and revolutionaries both. Mozart was a traditionalist. Like Haydn before him, Mozart came from a background of great Classical forms. He was Tchaikovsky’s inspiration, and [Tchaikovsky] wrote in those forms as well. Tchaikovsky’s music has a Classical bent — you can see he’s a Classicist; “Mozartiana,” for example, is an homage to Mozart. It’s Tchaikovsky looking at Mozart with admiration but with his own interpretation ofthe great master he loved so much. Shostakovich comes from that same trajectory. He wrote six concertos, 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets. It’s interesting to see which composers were trying to go in new directions, and which weren’t. Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich were not reinventing themselves. There was a sort of beautiful trajectory to their lives. These three men really followed a natural path. Their music on occasion became revolutionary, but not out of intent. It came out of a musical need, but that was never the aim.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The final two programs feature all Shostakovich. What advantages are there to building an entire concert program around the works of one composer?
You’re looking at a man’s life when you’re doing two programs around one composer. Great composers go through periods in their lives, and at different times, different pieces emerge. For an audience, we can see who Shostakovich was when he was 27 [when he wrote his First Piano Concerto] and we can see who he was when he was 60 [when he wrote his Eleventh Symphony]. The language remains the same, but the composer has changed. I think it’s important for all of us — performers and audiences alike — to understand the language of composers. At some concerts, you’ll hear a single Shostakovich piece, which is great, but if it’s your first time, hearing him once is limited. If you get to hear numerous pieces, I believe you get to really go inside the musical language, sensibilities and inspirations of a great composer.
During your 26-year tenure as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, you recorded many, many works by Shostakovich. What is it about this composer that appeals to you so much?
For every conductor, certain music resonates. If you had asked me what my specialty was in 1983, when I was Music Advisor at the Seattle Symphony, I would have said I didn’t have one. Looking back now, the three areas that would be considered my specialties would be the Austro-Germanic late Romantics, the Americans and Russian music — primarily the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Shostakovich’s music has always been incredibly powerful to me — since I was a little boy. I remember going to Carnegie Hall and seeing Leonard Bernstein do Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. And that was it — I was smitten at age 11. And yes, I bought the LP and wore it out. It’s very powerful music, and yet not too complex. We’re not talking about music that is hard to understand. It can be appreciated on the first listening and on the 50th listening. I’m a great lover of all Shostakovich’s concertos, all his string quartets and all of his symphonies. The music of Shostakovich, for me, is really poignant, powerful and deeply felt. Which is to say it’s a Romanticism of the 20th century. It’s the music of a very traditional composer. Shostakovich was looking to compose music in a traditional way. He allowed the music to evolve. He was never in a real hurry. Everything had a language that was so personal to him, and a language that I love. And I guess that’s the answer.
Julian Schwarz, photo by Teigan Walker
You will be conducting your son Julian as he joins the Orchestra in a performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. What is it like not only to see him gain success as a cellist, but to work with him on a professional level?
As a parent, you want to be able to give to your children. If a child picks a profession you know something about, you can give advice and you can help, but you also know how difficult that world is. All four of my children play music, but Julian is the one who does so professionally; he is in my world, the world of classical music. It’s a joy to hear him play — the sound he makes, the intellectual choices he makes, his emotional understanding of the pieces. He’s having a wonderful artistic success. As a father, having any child have success, it’s wonderful. I feel this way about all my kids [one is an artist, one is a surgeon, one is a television producer], but with Julian, it’s more personal, as it’s a world we share. For my son to pick my field, it’s fantastic — I love it.
The annual Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop Concert takes place on Tuesday, April 30, at 7pm in the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. It is free to the public — join us for an inspiring concert of world premieres! Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the workshop, its students and its devoted supporters.
Graduates of the 2012 Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop with generous supporter Pamela Merriman; photo by Robert Wade
WHY do you want minor seconds here?” asks Dr. Samuel Jones, Director of the Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop. He is critiquing the composition of workshop student Cole Holland, which is displayed on a large screen in front of the class. Jones turns to the piano and plays a few measures of Holland’s piece, stopping at the section in question for emphasis. “This is a very interesting sound on the piano, but it might not sound the same on string instruments.”
Jones then directs the class to a much later measure, in which a beautiful line in the lower strings emerges from a series of chords. He leans back in his seat in rapture, conducting an imaginary orchestra as the music plays on the computer software. Students crack smiles. “This is wonderful,” Jones says. “You may even want to start the piece here.”
For the rest of the class, students take turns having their pieces workshopped. Jones, with criticism that is direct, constructive and given with the respect of a peer, also invites other students to join in and offer their input. The resulting discussions include which instruments are best suited to the timbre of bells, the defining traits of the tango, the range of timpani, and finding the appropriate register and spacing of sonorities. Students who have traveled long distances to be here — Craig Walstead, for example, commutes from Gig Harbor every week; Mina Esary, from Duvall; Cole Holland, from Edmonds — feel lucky to have found a unique peer group in the Young Composers Workshop.
Says Clara McMichael, a second-year student in the workshop, “I love meeting everyone in the workshop. You rarely get the chance. There aren’t a lot of composers at my school.”
“There are lots of other musicians in their schools that they can ‘hang out’ with, but usually few to none that are writing music, since serious composition is a relatively rare talent,” explains Jones. “Since we draw from the entire metropolitan area, this program makes it possible for participants to ‘talk shop’ and learn from their contemporaries as well as from us professionals.”
It’s indeed a rare thing. Think about it — how many 17-year-old composers do you know?
Samuel Jones conducts Seattle Symphony musicians at last year's Young Composers Workshop Concert; photo by Robert Wade
EVERY January, 10 high school students (and two auditors) selected through the application process begin meeting with Jones, who has been Director of the workshop since 1998. Some students have several years of the workshop under their belts, some have a year of auditing, and some have never attended anything like this. For 12 weeks, they meet in Soundbridge Seattle Symphony Music Discovery Center, where they are taught how to notate and develop musical ideas, how to make their ideas more communicative, and how to apply professional standards to their work. The workshop culminates with a free, public concert, in which each student will have his or her work premiered by a chamber-sized group of Seattle Symphony musicians. This year, as a new component of the course, Vice President of Education and Community Engagement Kelly Dylla is coaching the students on how to talk about and promote their pieces well in advance of the concert. They are working on elevator pitches and are even discussing social media strategies.
These students are musical. They are bright. Some want to continue studying music specifically in college; others want to combine their studies of music with science or bioengineering. With an already busy high-school schedule, is it challenging to add several more hours a week to their workload? The resounding reply: “It’s not really work. It’s fun.”
Work, fun, or both, the Young Composers Workshop has a strong impact on the lives of its students. Many graduates have gained admittance to some of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country — Juilliard, Eastman, Rice’s Shepherd School of Music (at which Jones was founding dean and longtime professor), Oberlin, Cincinnati College-Conservatory, USC and many more. 2005 workshop graduate Barret Anspach recently earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard, and just last year was commissioned by the Pacific Northwest Ballet (he composed music for a piece that was premiered in fall 2012). Other graduates are finishing up doctorates, playing professionally, and even touring the country with their own musical groups.
The workshop would not be possible without a firm belief in the importance of music education. Pamela Merriman, generous supporter of the Young Composers Workshop since 2010, notes, “I sponsor this workshop because these young composers are the future of symphonic music. This program is visionary and unlike any other in the country, and it is still growing in scope. It’s all about providing the young composers’ creativity as many opportunities as possible to grow, develop and be appreciated by an increasingly large public audience.” This support for the young composers is shared throughout the Symphony, from its administration to its musicians. Executive Director Simon Woods shares, “Supporting creative development and exploration in young people is incredibly important to the Seattle Symphony.” Violist Mara Gearman, who has performed in the Young Composers Workshop concert many times, says that performing students’ pieces is “fun, hopeful and challenging.” She adds, “Having the opportunity to engage young, living composers benefits and enriches both sides.”
The culminating concert — which features a small group of Seattle Symphony musicians performing each student’s work, as well as onstage interviews between Jones and each student — introduces students to another level of composition. Seeing it performed live, in front of family, peers and the general public is indeed a memorable experience.
“It’s exciting to see your works performed by the Symphony,” says McMichael. “You spend 12 weeks working on a piece, and you know what it sounds like when it’s played on a computer, but with a live performance, everything comes to life.”
Samuel Jones interviews young composer Christina Sun at the 2012 Young Composers Workshop Concert; photo by Robert Wade
ONE Wednesday in February, before the day’s workshopping process begins, Jones spends some time talking with the students about why they compose. Who is music for? Is there a “meaning,” a “purpose” of art? Rather than giving them a concrete answer, he encourages them to ask themselves these important questions. It is, after all, a workshop in self-discovery, a celebration of individuality. “What I like about these workshops is that everybody is different,” Jones says to his intently listening students. “My job is to help you find your voice, to help you concentrate on writing something you love that comes from your heart.”
On Friday, May 3, our friends down the road at the Oregon Symphony journey up I-5 for a concert at Benaroya Hall. The four selections they perform are unique, to say the least — the music is beautiful, but it’s a different kind of beauty. In many ways, the program lives up to the brand of quirkiness so often celebrated by Oregon and Oregonians. How so?
There’s Narong Prangcharoen’s Phenomenon, premiered less than a decade ago, which has been described as benefiting from a “post-ideological synthesis.” Translation? Influences old and new cross paths in a composition that paints a picture of a crowd gathering to watch the Naga Fireballs of Thailand. By turns roiling and delicate, it’s a vivid and memorable pictorial setting that celebrates both melody and chaotic discord.
There’s Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, a ballet chanté (“sung ballet”) composed to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht. For a “ballet” with such a bizarre plot — it features main character with a divided psyche, Anna I and Anna II, who ventures through a harsh world of seedy capitalism. The music is often jaunty and romantic, an ironic smile that covers up a dark undercurrent. With Portland’s own Storm Large singing, expect a beautiful rendition of a fascinating — but strange — piece. Storm will sing in English, but for the sake of a little German flavor, here’s part of a version featuring the original libretto:
There’s Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. Left unfinished at the time of Schubert’s death (which, likely caused by syphilis, probably stemmed from a few too many deadly sins …), the “Unfinished” Symphony is mysterious in its incomplete nature and bold in its inclusion of chromatic passages and emotive melodies that are ahead of its time.
And, finally, there’s Ravel’s La valse. This may translate simply enough to “waltz,” but it is far more complex than a cookie-cutter dance. While the piece begins peacefully enough and has shimmering and uplifting sections, it’s marked by a steady increase in intensity and becomes, by the end, a demonic waltz that is electrifying, dizzying and violent.
These pieces are all very different from one another; each one stands out because of its strong personality. Difference, then, is the similarity they all share.
On May 3, revel in the new, the old, the quiet, the loud — and the weird. Read more and get your tickets here.
Seattle Symphony Principal Percussion Michael A. Werner, flanked by scores of mallets and drums in the unofficial percussion "lair"
Tonight and Saturday, in a program also featuring Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, Seattle Symphony Principal Percussion Michael A. Werner plays Rough Music, a percussion concerto written (and conducted) by HK Gruber. After today’s rehearsal, we caught up with Werner and asked him a few questions about his upcoming performance of this dynamic, unique piece.
It’s rare to see a percussion concerto featured on a concert program. What’s it like to have the opportunity to play one with the Symphony?
It’s great for me because I spent most of my career in New York in the opera pit. [Werner was a percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera for 13 years.] I wasn’t even on the stage — I was actually under the stage. To be out front is a great experience. Also, as a percussionist, I know what the instruments are capable of, but I don’t often get the opportunity to show it. It’s nice to be able to have percussion featured and to show people the qualities of sound and the dynamic range that are possible.
What is unique about HK Gruber’s music?
This piece gives a lot to very delicate moments, and really soft, kind of simple playing that shows the beauty of the tone of the instruments. A lot of times some percussion concertos can get very busy. [Gruber] keeps things somewhat simple at times, but he also puts that up against a big drum set part that’s really ferocious and malicious. So you have two extremes happening back to back. His music is also quite playful, which also suits itself well for percussion.
What percussion instruments will we see you play in this concerto? Is it challenging to have such a huge setup?
Well, from stage left going across, you have the vibraphone, and then the marimba, and then the conductor’s podium, and then the drum set. Instead of facing the audience, the drum set is turned straight at the conductor because it’s so imperative that we stay together. Then, there’s an octave and a half of tuned cowbells, Almglocken, and there’s a timpani setup that has a bass drum and some various cowbells and China cymbals. The tricky part is, especially in the third movement, there’s a lot of transition between instruments on the stage. The mistakes I worry about are not coming back to make a page turn — there’s lots of little things that I have to pay attention to. In the second movement I go from incredibly busy, fast, complicated drum set playing and then I come over and play the most delicate notes in the piece on the vibraphone. So you really have to instantly turn a switch to the next item you’re going to play.
Of all the instruments you get to play in Rough Music, which is your favorite?
I really like the vibraphone writing on this piece. I play it in both the first movement and in the second movement. The vibraphone is usually viewed as more of a jazz instrument, but it’s really nice in the context that [Gruber] uses it, and the orchestration is very pretty.
One of the best all-around dance bands in Big Band history, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra left us a legacy of wistful romantic hits, lively swing arrangements and talented crooners.
Formed in the mid-1930s, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra reached immense popularity in the ’40s, the height of the swing era. The career 0f THE crooner himself — a man named Frank Sinatra — blossomed with Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. (In fact, Sinatra acknowledged that he learned much about his phrasing and breathing from Dorsey.) Below, Sinatra croons the popular “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
Sinatra’s voice transports us to another place and time, but the beautiful arrangements in this song and others, leaping from instrument to instrument, gives us crooning of a different kind. Dorsey, dubbed “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” was a master at creating tender, romantic music, whether it was for vocals or instruments. Dorsey himself “croons” on the trombone in “Marie” before the mesmerizing vocals kick in.
And then there’s “Boogie Woogie,” with its jumpin’, jivin’ sound. It’s guaranteed to make your head nod and toes tap. Go on — give it a try.
If you’re hankerin’ for a sentimental love ballad or looking forward to a little toe-tappin’, we’ve got good news for you: The One and Only Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, now under leadership by talented and versatile clarinetist and saxophonist Terry Myers, is still croonin’! Get your tickets to this week’s Seattle Pops series concerts, featuring the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra,here.
Disclaimer: Concert will take place in color, not black and white.