Q&A with Gerard Schwarz
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 of the 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.
Russian Spectacular features four concerts, taking place on May 9, 10, 16 and 17, respectively: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Click the links to see the entire program, read program notes and get tickets.
Works in Progress
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.”
Q&A with Principal Percussion Michael A. Werner
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.
Interrupt that Rehearsal?
Seriously, go ahead and interrupt — if the rehearsal is “Very Open,” that is…
We’ve been very busy in our community, presenting three FREE concerts last month in various neighborhoods! As if this were not enough, five Seattle Symphony musicians recently traveled even farther afield to share their work with students during a recent trip to Palm Desert, part of a new partnership between the Seattle Symphony and Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage, California. In addition to giving a free chamber concert, we also gave back to the community in the form of two “Very Open Rehearsal” workshops for 100 music students from two high schools in the Palm Springs Unified School District — Cathedral City High School and Desert Hot Springs High School.
Concertmaster Alexander Velinzon and violinist Mikhail Shmit; photo by Brandon Patoc
At these Very Open Rehearsals, the students were seated in such a way that they completely surrounded the five Seattle Symphony musicians, and the effect was quite “up close and personal!” We asked the students to actively participate by raising their hands at any time to ask a question, make a suggestion or answer a question from the Orchestra musicians. A very lively and inspiring exchange ensued and we left knowing that this style of interactive rehearsal is going to be repeated again and again in the future. Special thanks to Concertmaster Alexander Velinzon, Principal Viola Susan Gulkis Assadi, Principal Cello Efe Baltacıgil, violinist Mikhail Shmidt and clarinetist Laura DeLuca, and all the students for making this such a fun, open and musically inspiring event.
Students and Seattle Symphony musicians embark together on a Very Open Rehearsal; photo by Brandon Patoc
This is one of the hundreds of activities we do every year in our community — and beyond! In addition to last month’s three free community concerts, this week the Orchestra is giving five performances of Peter and the Wolf to 12,500 area fifth graders as part of the annual Arts in Education tradition with local schools.
To learn more about how you can support Seattle Symphony’s education programs, please call 206.215.4832 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see more images from this Very Open Rehearsal, click here.
Special thanks to photographer Brandon Patoc for capturing this event.
No Driving in the House!
Brandi Carlile, photo by Frank Ockenfels
If you visit Benaroya Hall to see Brandi Carlile perform with the Seattle Symphony this coming weekend, you might be intrigued by the Audi A7 and A8 you see parked in The Boeing Company Gallery. A quick suggestion — don’t get any crazy ideas. Though we pride ourselves on providing an enjoyable concert experience for all, at press time we still don’t allow parking inside the building.
The cars will be shoehorned into the building (delicately, of course, and possibly with the removal of some of the Hall’s doors) on the Friday before the concert.
The Audi A8: Coming to a Hall near you
A big thanks to Audi, a sponsor of the upcoming Brandi Carlile and Seattle Symphony performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (11/22, 23 & 24). Enjoy the show!
Q&A with Michael Feinstein
Multi-platinum selling singer and pianist Michael Feinstein returns to Benaroya Hall tomorrow, July 27, to present The Good Life, the second volume of his immensely popular Sinatra Project. Along with his 17-piece big band, Feinstein will perform the music of legendary crooner Frank Sinatra and his contemporaries, including Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole and Rosemary Clooney.
Michael Feinstein by Gilles Toucas
What’s it like to dedicate such a large-scale project to the canon of Sinatra & Co.? How do you even decide where to begin? Read on to see what Feinstein, the “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook” had to say.
Frank Sinatra wrote SO many songs. How do you choose which ones you’re going to sing?
It really is difficult but I try to choose songs that I personally most resonate with and feel I can bring something new to. Also, I want to do songs that aren’t over exposed but will give a sense of his persona and style.
There are so many great lines in Sinatra’s songs. Any there any particular lyrics you live by?
My favorite quote is not from a song but something he said: “You gotta love livin’ baby, ’cause dying is a pain in the ass.” Typical Sinatra, isn’t it?
What is your favorite part of a performance like this?
It’s the feeling of connection with the audience and sharing the joy of celebrating the music with a remarkable big band. Watching the audience become galvanized when they hear that swing sound of the band is another thrill. It truly is a joyous experience. The audience gets so involved, between the sounds of the music, the anecdotes told in between and the lighthearted interaction that is different with every group. For me, it’s just fun all around.
How do you balance staying true to the music of these great performers, yet making it your own?
It’s important to find a fresh way to present classics and I do that by approaching the songs as if they’re new and being sung for the first time. Trying not to let other interpretations hover over me like a ghost can be an issue, but I’d never sing anything that I can’t add something to. I also think about how there might be people present who could be hearing these songs for the first time.
What attracts you to the “American Songbook” genre? Have or do you perform any other music?
The songbook is malleable and can be interpreted in infinite ways from Broadway to Hollywood to Jazz to Hip Hop. The bones of these songs can be adapted and changed and they never lose their power or essence. They will last forever and people will always love them and desire to hear them. I have performed a little jazz and a few things for piano and orchestra, like Rhapsody in Blue, but I feel there is still so much for me to learn, explore and share with classic songs, that I doubt I’ll ever tire of them. I love what I do and enjoy the interplay with the audience. It doesn’t get better than that!
Don’t miss out on a night of incredible music. Get your tickets here.
Preparing for Prokofiev: Q&A with Elisa Barston
Leonidas Kavakos has regretfully withdrawn from his performances of Korngold’s Violin Concerto on June 7, 9 & 10 due to illness. Replacing him is Seattle Symphony Principal Second Violin Elisa Barston, who will perform Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Orchestra.
Seattle Symphony Principal Second Violin Elisa Barston
What’s it like to find out you’ll be soloing with the Orchestra with a few days’ notice? We chatted with Barston after she met with guest conductor Jesús López-Cobos and got the inside scoop.
You got word that you might be playing this on Monday, and you got the go-ahead call just this morning [Tuesday]. So — surprise! — you’re playing a concerto in two days. But you’ve played this concerto before, correct?
Yes. I played it with the University of Washington Symphony with Jonathan Pasternack conducting, and that was last spring. These phone calls are the things you dream your whole life of getting. I had just finished some big projects and was having some downtime, and suddenly, of course, the call comes then. It’s both exciting and nerve-wracking.
So what does your schedule look like for the next two days?
Well, thanks to Elena [Dubinets, Vice President of Artistic Planning] and Keith [Higgins, Personnel Manager] my schedule has been cleared out — it’s very helpful. I don’t have to come to work to rehearse the whole program with the Symphony because now I’m suddenly the soloist. So, all I’m going to be doing is listening to the recording, studying the score, listening to the recording with the score, practicing as much as I can and getting some sleep. I’ll be absolutely trying to immerse myself in this piece. I will be sleeping with the score — it will be attached to me at all moments.
What is unique about Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1? What draws you to it?
It has always been one of my favorite pieces. It’s got many high, shimmery, truly ethereal moments. The whole opening and the way it ends is just heavenly. Really heavenly. And then it’s got this demonic scherzo movement that’s just a beast. It’s like somebody let the beast out of the cage in that short movement, and the outer movements are slower, but with exciting sections. It’s a short concerto, but it packs a lot of interest and beautiful melodies. I always wanted to learn it.
You met with Guest Conductor Jesús López-Cobos this morning to go over the concerto. What’s it like working with him so far?
He seems like an absolute sweetheart so far, and he’s very smart. He had me come in this morning to work on the piece together. He seems very wise and also extremely laid back. I think he’s going to be very fun to work with, and I’m excited to work with him because I heard his name for many years — he used to be the Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony — but I never actually met him or got to work with him before, so it’s exciting to finally have the opportunity.
Got a penchant for Prokofiev? Looking forward to the Spanish flair of Turina’s Danzas fantásticas and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol? Down with (R. Strauss’) Don Juan? Get your tickets to Thursday’s, Saturday’s or Sunday’s concert here.
Q&A with Marvin Hamlisch, Brian Stokes Mitchell & Ashley Brown
Tonight’s concert marks the first of five performances of Marvin Hamlisch’s American Songbook — a memorable program that features Broadway hits and jazz standards. Today we chatted with Seattle Symphony Principal Pops Conductor Marvin Hamlisch and vocalists Brian Stokes Mitchell and Ashley Brown (and her adorable French bulldog, Eddie) during rehearsal breaks. We talked about in-laws, Copper River salmon and a mummy named Sylvester. Oh, and we talked about the program, too. Don’t miss out on this fabulous concert — get your tickets here!
Seattle Symphony Principal Pops Conductor Marvin Hamlisch
Have you worked together before? How has it been going?
MH: Yes, many times. It’s lovely. He was the star of Ragtime, she was the star of Mary Poppins. They’re wonderful singers and they’re nice people, so it’s easy.
BSM: I’ve worked with Marvin before. Many times, actually. I can’t even count how many times we’ve worked together. We’ve worked in Seattle, we’ve worked all over the place. Ashley, this is the first time I’ve worked with her, but we know each other. We’re acquaintances on Broadway, but this is the first time to work with her so it’s really fun.
AB: Two years ago I did The Music Man with Marvin Hamlisch so it’s so great to be working with him again, and this is my first time working with Stokes so I am so excited to be working with him. I’d met him before in New York, passing him at a party or something, but to be performing with him has been such a great time. It’s gonna be a really great show — so many unexpected numbers, which is really exciting.
Vocalist Brian Stokes Mitchell
What appeals to you about this program? Are there any numbers that are particularly meaningful to you?
MH: This program is all about highlighting songs that have become part of the fabric of the American songbook. There are hundreds or thousands of these kinds of songs, and these [this program’s] songs are songs that are either associated with them, or associated with just great composers. This is the kind of program where obviously everybody in the audience will admire these songs.
BSM: Probably, for here, “This Nearly Was Mine” will be my favorite just beause I do it off-mic and this hall is so spectacular. There aren’t too many halls where I can sing that song off-mic with an orchestra. With the Orchestra playing behind me, there’s a lot of sound coming out of there and you need a really great hall to be able to pull that off. I did that at Carnegie Hall and I think that may be the only place that I’ve sung that song off-mic with an orchestra before.
AB: What appeals to me is that it is your traditional American Songbook songs, but there’s a lot of other songs that people don’t hear a lot. I think people will come and hear their favorites and add some stuff to their favorite list of songs. There are so many great arrangements, and you can’t get better than the Seattle Symphony. I think people are really going to have a great time.
Vocalist Ashley Brown and French Bulldog Eddie
Are you up to anything else while in Seattle?
MH: I’m making my hunt for the perfect Copper River king salmon. It has to be the absolutely perfect one. I’ve had one already yesterday at Aqua and I was told about two other restaurants I have to try. So that’s it, that’s my plight for this week.
BSM: I’ve been performing for 8 years all over the United States and for some reason I haven’t hit Seattle yet so this is my first time to perform here. I’m from here originally and I don’t get here to visit very often — I have lots of friends and family here still. I might even have to make a trip to the Space Needle, which I haven’t been up since when they built it! I’m also meeting a friend and I think we’re going to make a ritual visit to Sylvester [the mummy] at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and maybe even Ivar’s Acres of Clams, just for fun.
AB: All of my husband’s family lives out here, so it’s been great because they’re all coming to the show, all 20-something of them. They’re all coming tomorrow, my mom flew up from Florida and we flew in from New York, so it’s really great to have everybody come together. My mom’s never met this side of my husband’s family — it’s kind of a weekend of uniting.
“Bluebeard’s Castle” Q&A with Gerard Schwarz
Seattle Symphony Conductor Laureate Gerard Schwarz by Ben VanHouten
You worked closely with the Seattle Symphony’s Artist in Association, Dale Chihuly, to create the concert staging for this piece. Why did you ask him, specifically, to design the set?
I find Chihuly to be among the most creative artists that I know. He has extraordinary imagination and he is constantly pushing the envelope as an artist. My first collaboration with him was his remarkable sets for Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande that we did with Seattle Opera. At that time I realized that with the right repertoire this great genius could be a part of our musical world. I’m very proud of our collaboration and I believe the Seattle Symphony is the only orchestra in the world that has an artist associated with it.
This production of Bluebeard’s Castle uses concert staging, in which a pair of singer-actors sing in front of the set, with the Orchestra playing the music behind it. What makes Chihuly’s art and a concert staging of Bluebeard’s Castle such a good fit for each other?
Like Pelléas et Mélisande, Bluebeard’s Castle is a psychological opera. And, while Chihuly could do sets for an opera by any composer, these very psychological works lend themselves to his art. The opera is short — one hour, a single act — with basically a single set with seven doors. If this had been an opera with seven scene changes, it would be extremely difficult to do in a concert presentation with an important artist doing the sets. Since this particular opera is minimal in terms of the set needs, it seemed like a perfect fit for a concert presentation. We do a minimal staging — just enough to ensure the audience’s understanding and hopefully enhance its appreciation of a particular work. In the case of Bluebeard’s Castle, the real issues are the opening of each of the seven doors. Clearly, Chihuly’s artworks are his impression of what is behind those doors, and he and his team came up with a remarkable way to have each of the doors revealed to the audience.
There are two kinds of color in this production: visual and orchestral. How are the dramatic revelations of this story brought out by both music and glass?
In each instance, when Bartók reveals one of the doors, he illuminates those moments in a remarkable way, through orchestration and his use of harmony. The job of the artist is to reflect Bartók’s vision and, of course, the vision of the story. This can be very subjective. Or, it can be quite obvious. Certain colors, like the color red, would have many implications. For example: the color of blood. But again, it is up to the artist to make his or her statement and interpretation of Bartók’s use of the orchestra into what we call orchestral color.
When you began planning this collaboration, did you imagine the set would travel so far?
It was certainly my hope that this production would have resonance around the world. I believe, because of the quality of these sets, there is no better way to experience Bluebeard’s Castle than with the Chihuly Bluebeard doors. And it was always my hope that it would travel — it makes me extremely happy and proud that it has met with such great success.
The Seattle Symphony premiere of "Bluebeard's Castle" in 2007; photo by Teresa Nouri Rishel
“Bluebeard’s Castle” Q&A with Dale Chihuly
Dale Chihuly by Bryan Ohno
Bluebeard’s Castle is a highly symbolic opera. How do the set and the opera complement each other?
The opera becomes increasingly more dramatic through the use of colored light associated with the reveal of each door. The works of art and sets I created to represent each of the doors complement the story because I too used color and light to help set the mood and create a sense of drama as each door is revealed.
Much of the excitement about this production surrounds the revealing of the doors. Can you tell us about each door? What do you call each piece?
The set consists of seven doors, six of which contain different presentations of my artwork.
Door 1: The Torture Chamber — Red Spears
Door 2: The Armory — Tiger Lilies and Paintbrushes
Door 3: The Treasury — Crystal Clubs
Door 4: The Garden — Ferns and Trumpet Flowers
Door 5: The Domains — Herons, Marlins, Neo Reeds
Door 6: The Lake of Tears — Tear Drops and Reichenbach Mirrored Balls
"Bluebeard's Castle" set piece, "The Armory"; photo by Teresa Nouri Rishel
Fragile glass. Shipping logistics. Detailed instructions for assembling, de-assembling and re-assembling the set. What logistical challenges did moving these artworks present?
My team and I have worked over the years to perfect the art of packing and transporting the artworks. The team packs, ships, installs and de-installs all the artwork for various shows, exhibits and installations around the world. Since we are the only ones to touch the glass both on the shipping and receiving end, it really helps us logistically. To date we have a less than one-percent breakage rate.
This set has traveled across the country to Milwaukee and Nashville, and across the ocean to Tel Aviv. What does this mean to you, and how does it feel to present this magnificent production once again in Seattle?
As an artist, you want your work to be seen by as many people as possible. To have the set travel to different cities has been exciting. I’m thrilled to have it back in Seattle for additional performances with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. It is special that the Bluebeard’s Castle performances coincide with the opening of Chihuly Garden and Glass.