Podcast #24 - MW1 - Old and New Worlds

A discussion with Dick Strawser about the first Masterworks concert: Semiramide Overture, Piazzolla’s Four Seasons in Buenos Aires, and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

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Podcast #23 - The upcoming season, with Dick Strawser

A discussion with Dick about the exciting 2009-2010 Masterworks season.
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Podcast #22 - Tosca - A Conversation with Dick Strawser

Something new! An informal discussion of the upcoming performances of Puccini’s masterpiece with none other than my friend and fellow blogger Dick Strawser.


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My Residency at Highland Elementary School

I just finished a three-day Artist-in-Residence stint at Highland Elementary School. My activities ranged from an assembly performance/presentation for the whole school to small workshop classes with each grade level to sessions each day with the chorus, orchestra and band. The culmination of the residency was a performance by each of the groups for the entire student body.

I think it was a big success. I had a great time. The kids were really fun to work with, and we had very good sessions. The final concert went well, and there was certainly great improvement day to day in the ensembles.

A few reflections on the week:

1) Teaching elementary school aged children is exhausting work. One simply cannot let up on energy for a moment, or you lose the kids. Keeping children interested is not just about teaching but also about engaging. I got home at the end of each school day absolutely pooped. This is not because the children were in any way badly behaved. Actually, they were remarkably well-behaved . It’s just hard work.

2) Teaching elementary school aged children is equally thrilling and rewarding. The kids were so willing to listen and try new things. They worked hard with me, and showered me with affection, both spoken and unspoken. At the end of the concert, many came up and hugged me, presented me with gifts, and thanked me for being there. Talk about feeling warm and fuzzy...

3) Teachers are the unsung heroes of our society. The dedication, skill, and plain hard work of the teachers I was exposed to was awe-inspiring. The music teachers, in particular, need such a high degree of patience, caring, and ability to teach this many children music on an elementary level. I am ready to collapse after just three days. These teachers do it every day, year in and year out. As a parent of young children, it is a perspective changing experience. I spent a good deal of the time there reflecting on my wonderful teachers growing up and how much I owe them. I point you to an earlier blog.

4) Music needs to be in our schools, and more of it. The teachers related many stories of troubled students who found self-esteem and discipline through music. Music programs enhance the rest of school work. I will not dwell on this, as there are many studies that show the power of arts programs to improve scholastic performance, but I wish more people understood what seems such a no-brainer to me.

I went in to this not knowing what to expect, and somewhat anxious about it. I’m very glad I did it. I could not do this all the time, but I enjoyed the week.

And I will miss the kids.
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The HSO's past few months - the winter of our content

I’m up in the middle of the night again. What better time to blog?

One of my dear college friends recently sent me an email, with the suggestion that I insert the phrase, “If I may say so myself” throughout my website. For example, “Maestro Stuart Malina is one of America’s most versatile and accomplished conductors.... if I may say so myself”, or “I thought the concerts were paced well, my banter was generally funny and interesting, the music was by and large well-selected, and the audiences seemed to have a rollicking time... if I may say so myself.” I think you get the idea.

His point is well taken, and I will gladly admit that this website is, in some not insubstantial part, self-promotion. Having said that, I do genuinely feel we are doing great things here at the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, and although much of the credit goes to the players, staff and volunteers, it would be false modesty to suggest that I had little to do with it.

Which brings me to this update. It’s been four months since my last blog entry. (I feel like I’ve entered a confessional!) In that period, the HSO has performed three Masterworks weekends and one pops weekend. Each has presented substantial challenges, and in each case the orchestra has performed spectacularly well. In fact, I would say that the already high level of the orchestra has ratcheted up a notch to something quite remarkable. And yes, I think I’ve done a great job too. (If I may say so myself.)

November’s masterworks concert featured our principal oboist, Alicia Chapman, playing Martinu’s charming oboe concerto. I’ve very much enjoyed presenting our players as soloists, as it shows our audience the incredible level of musicianship we have in the orchestra. Alicia sounded great. The concerto is an endurance test for the oboe, and like an athlete who has trained for the big event, Alicia came to town in great shape. Fun.

The second piece was the tricky one - Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. This pre-twelve-tone, ultra-Romantic tone poem for strings, is, simply put, a bear to play. It’s just plain hard. I had never learned the piece before, and it certainly presents some conducting challenges. But those challenges would be meaningless unless the orchestra was up to playing the piece. I always come in to the first rehearsal for pieces like this worried that the players will not have done their preparatory work. This is terribly unfair of me, as the HSO always exceeds my highest expectations. In this case, the strings played lushly and passionately, producing a performance that many a higher-paid orchestra would be thrilled with.

The second half of the program was Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. This is my favorite of Beethoven’s symphonies, and that is saying a lot, as they are all amazing pieces. But there is an underlying vitality and spirit to the seventh that makes one glad to be alive and human. The piece requires of the orchestra great stamina and great ensemble. Coming off the less-familiar Schoenberg, the Beethoven felt very comfortable, and the orchestra allowed me to work it hard, particularly in the final movement, which had an intense drive to the finish. We all left the concert in high spirits.

The next concert was an even greater mountain to climb - Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. I have no difficulty proclaiming that this was the hardest piece I’ve ever studied, and as good as I thought my performance was (if I may say so myself), I also felt sure that there were layers of this piece that I hadn’t begun to discover. Every page presented challenges to both learning the music and conducting the music - pages upon pages of dense writing, and music with such intense profundity. It is a remarkable masterpiece. Mahler’s farewell to the world.

For the HSO, this was a watershed event. I think that this concert changed how the orchestra regards itself. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone who plays here knows that the group is very good, and that the experience of playing here is a most enjoyable one, but after this concert there seemed to be the sense that nothing was beyond our reach - indeed, there is nothing that we can’t play really well.

Everyone played at the highest level, and the performances were wonderful. My friend Dick Strawser sat in on all of the rehearsals, and noted that the orchestra in its first run-throughs sounded better in some cases than several of his recordings of the piece (high praise from a man whose opinion I very much respect. You can see his blogs about Mahler’s Ninth here). Audience members still thank me for this concert. And I am still feeling justifiably proud of myself.

A few weeks later we had a different sort of challenge. For our pops series, we did a concert version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. The challenge here was putting together a rather complicated evening, with many different components, in a remarkable short amount of time. I’ve done several G&S shows over the years (I’ve been a fan my whole life - my parents were in a troupe when I was younger, and I was on the board of the Harvard G&S Society in college), and I have my group of regular performers, who are terrific (including my brother, Joel and my TV star cousin, Josh). This time there were several singers with whom I had never done G&S. The chorus was the ever-wonderful Susquehanna Chorale. To make a long story short, everyone was terrific. My approach to these concerts, and to the pops series in general, is that if we are having a genuinely good time on stage, then the audience cannot help but have a good time as well. The cast, the chorus, the orchestra, and the conductor had a blast.

There was some discussion afterwards about sound. We mike these performances in order that all the words are heard (the lyrics are at least equally as important as the music in G&S). Some audience members related how delighted they were with the sound, and how every word was crystal clear. Others complained that it was way too loud. I wonder if this is a function of the acoustic in the hall (it varies widely area to area, and sometimes seat to seat), or personal taste. Either way, it is of great concern to me, and worth constant revisiting.

The last concert I’ll write about today was last weekend’s masterworks performance. It included two centerpiece of the romantic orchestral repertoire - Smetana’ The Moldau and Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto (beautifully performed by Andrew von Oeyen) - and a piece I imagine noone in the audience had heard or heard of before - Erwin Schulhoff’s 5th Symphony.

Schulhoff was a Czech-Jewish composer during a time it was dangerous to be either Czech or Jewish. The Fifth Symphony was written in 1938, when the Nazis were about to invade Czechoslovakia. It is a work of unrelenting violence and intensity, ranging from the battle music of the first movement, through cries of anguish in the second movement, turbulence and drive in the third, and finally a struggle for humanity and goodness in the final movement. For the audience, it is entry into a profoundly disturbing world. For the orchestra, it is unceasing, relentless intensity.

I was a bit worried having programmed this work. How would the audience respond? Would the orchestra get on board with this exhausting and difficult piece of music?

The answer to the second question is easier. The orchestra, as always, played with remarkable commitment and skill, producing a worthy reading of this symphony.

As to the audience reaction, well, it varied. In my remarks from the stage at the concert’s start, I tried to put the piece into its historical context. I felt that it was necessary to know the circumstances in which it was written to fully appreciate the piece. (One patron wrote on my comments page that he thought great works of art should be able to be appreciated on their own merits without context. I’m not sure whether this is true or not, but I certainly believe that in some cases - particularly where a work of art is directly related to events happening around the creator - context is an enormous enhancement.) Some audience members hated the piece (or as one patron wrote “hated, hated, hated” it). Others loved it. Most, I think, were appreciative of the experience, and were not anxious to undergo it again soon.

Everyone enjoyed the Rachmaninoff.

I was pleased to be able to do pieces like these, with an orchestra like this, for an audience that is willing to listen. The most frequent comment I receive about programming is “Thanks for bringing these pieces to Harrisburg”. War horses are great - no one loves them more than me - but one must also challenge the ear. Not only does it hopefully develop new tastes, but equally important, it keeps the more familiar repertoire sounding fresh.

All in all, during these very uncertain times, it’s been a good winter for the HSO.

If I may say so myself.
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