Podcast #13 - Cinderella Suite

Prokofiev's gorgeous fairy tale ballet in suite form.

Podcast #12 - Tristan and Isolde Love Music

Stokowski's transcription of this operatic classic. Love, torment, sex, passion...what more could we ask for?

Podcast #11 - Siegfried Idyll

I talk about this intimate musical love letter by the great German opera composer.

So Much To Discuss, So Little Time

Dick Strawser, friend, radio personality, and avid blogger (I happily admit, I read "Dr. Dick's Blog" every day) emailed me today. The bulk of the letter was in reference to the passing of our mutual friend Pierce Getz (which I will get to shortly), but he ended by asking if I was ever getting back to blogging. Indeed, it has been two months almost to the day since my last posting, and that was an apology for not having posted the previous three weeks. Ah, the shame of it.

Well, Dick, here I am, back in the saddle. It's 10:30, I just finished a spirited game of Mexican train dominoes with my extended family (all staying at my house this week for Passover), and I'm ready to attempt a condensed version of the last few months of my life.

First, a word about Pierce. Pierce participated in several of the most personally satisfying programs I have conducted in Harrisburg. He was the organist when we performed Saint-Saëns' 3rd Symphony, as well as for every other piece with organ we performed. He also directed the Alumni Chorus of Lebanon Valley College, which participated in every choral work the HSO has presented in its Masterworks series since I have been here, including "Carmina Burana", Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and a most memorable Mahler's 2nd Symphony. He was a musician of profound talents, who made a significant difference in the musical life of Central Pennsylvania. But what I think about when I remember Pierce is his humanity. He was a deeply generous, highly spiritual, and gently dynamic man, who devoted his life to teaching, inspiring, and sharing his passion for music. I attended his memorial service yesterday, and the message from the overflowing crowd was clear: Pierce was as beloved for being a great human being as he was for being a great musician. I will miss his sense of humor and his warmth. I'm very sad to have lost a friend and colleague, and my deepest sympathies go out to his wife Gene and the rest of his family.

So what have I been doing since mid-January? Well, I guess the best strategy is just to go event by event.

The last weekend of January was the HSO's performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore". This was a particularly fun week for me, as it brought together many friends as well as family for the shows. Of the seven leading actors in that performance, I have known three for over 40 years, and two more for over twenty. We put together a two hour operetta from scratch in two days - a testament to the talents of these performers (and the orchestra). What made it especially great for me was sharing the stage with my brother
Joel and my cousin Josh. Joel and I have done over 15 pops shows together since I started as a professional conductor and he has never been anything but extraordinary - he is simply one of the most versatile and charismatic performers I know. Josh (star of television's "West Wing") and I had not performed together since 1987, when he was Moonface Martin in a production of "Anything Goes" that I musically directed at Yale. His family and mine lived 5 minutes from each other when we were growing up, and this was a treat for me to have him here. He is great on stage, and had me laughing out loud several times during the performances. Add to the mix my friend Jeff Gardner, who I have known since kindergarten, and is a veteran of numerous Broadway productions; Jonathan Rabb, who sang with Joel in the Yale Whiffenpoofs, is now a successful novelist, and knows Gilbert and Sullivan as well as anyone I know; Ilana Davidson, who I met at Tanglewood in the late '80s, and sings like an angel; Tracy Bidleman, who had participated in two previous G&S shows here; and Damian Savarino, a Harrisburg resident, with a gorgeous baritone voice; and you get one happy Stuart. What was my plan for throwing the show together? To allow my talented cast free rein to do whatever they could to make the audience enjoy itself. And they did so with great flair. You may see performances of "Pinafore" with fewer rough edges, but I doubt you'll find many that were more fun to watch. The other very satisfying aspect to the weekend was that we had nearly sold-out houses. Maybe it was Josh's star power, but whatever the reason, it makes a big difference, trust me.

HMS_Pinafore-512 (1)
Jonathan Rabb, Josh Malina, Ilana Davidson, Joel Malina, Sonja Bontrager, me, Tracy Bidleman, Damian Savarino, and Jeff Gardner

February 9th was my Carnegie Hall debut with the NY Pops. The program was all-Gershwin: the overture from "Girl Crazy", "An American in Paris", and "Rhapsody in Blue" (with me conducting from the piano) on the first half, and Maureen McGovern singing Gershwin songs on the second half. What can I say? It was an unbelievable weekend for me. The concert went very well, and I enjoyed my time with the orchestra very much, but what will stick in my mind for the rest of my life was the feeling of walking onto this august stage and being greeted by an audience largely comprised of friends and family. 275 people came from Harrisburg alone, 40 college friends came from all over the country, almost my entire family (aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and then some) was there, even a large group from Greensboro made the trek. I could go on. I have always considered myself a lucky man. But being blessed with so many people who love me is something I will never take for granted, and having so many of them there to support me and share in my moment is an indescribable feeling. So I won't even try to describe it.

 6269-Stuart Malina at Carnegie Hall-Photo by James M. Johnson

My favorite Carnegie Hall moment? Walking in the stage door, introducing myself to the house manager, and being sent up to the Maestro's suite, where there are pictures up of many of the great conductors who have used that very room and a bust of Toscanini (it looked like marble, but it was fake....). When I used the rest room, I actually was musing over what other greats had shared the facility over the years.

6347-Stuart Malina, Bust of Toscanini, Photo of Eugene Ormandy-Photo by James M. Johnson

That, and when my parents, wife and kids came back after my performance. My dad has said for a long time that every time he and Mom attend operas and concerts in the great venues of New York City (and he attends quite a few), he pictures me coming out for a bow. That night it was me.

6323-Stuart Malina and Parents-Photo by James M. Johnson

The February Masterworks concerts featured Mozart and Beethoven. The treat of the weekend was working with
Markus Groh, a German pianist of great talent. His performance of the Emperor Concerto, on the old Baldwin at the Forum (he had deemed the Steinway we rented unfit - and I had to agree with him), was really special. Again we had wonderful crowds, and the comments I got in the days following were glowing. One patron said it was the best concert he had ever been to, another said that her one complaint was that the concert ended. Obviously, we cannot perform only Mozart and Beethoven, but equally clear is the undeniable fact that their music still speaks to our audience and sells tickets as well.

At the end of February, I went to NY for auditions for a new production of "Movin' Out". The first national tour had closed in January, and I thought that the marvelous journey had ended. Not so fast, Malina. A second national tour will go out in June, starting in Atlantic City. The show will be pared down a bit, but Twyla Tharp is directing the dancers, the lighting, set and costume designers are the same as the original production, and of course, I will be overseeing the music. So my hunch is it will be pretty darn good. So here we go again! (By the way, the auditions were pretty much a bust.)

The March Masterworks in Harrisburg featured the First Symphony of Sibelius, as well as the Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes" by Britten and Saint-Saëns' 2nd Piano Concerto with the incredible
Pascal Rogé. Two things about this concert. First, the Steinway was completely overhauled before the first rehearsal, only to have the sustain pedal break after the first movement during the first performance. A lot was made of my getting down under the piano in a vain attempt to fix it, but truly, what was I going to do, just stand there helplessly and let our stage crew (wonderful guys, but piano technicians? I don't think so) handle it? Anyway, the Steinway was rolled off, and our old friend the Forum Baldwin was rolled on. Pascal was not just patient, he was absolutely delightful. After the five minute pause, he came back out and played the second and third movements on this fairly out-of-tune piano that he had never played on before. What a testament to this man's character. Although the Sunday performance was certainly more refined, I will forever remember that Saturday night, and Rogé's grace.

The second aspect of the weekend that was noteworthy for me was the reaffirmation of Sibelius' greatness. The First Symphony is a terrific piece, and many of the orchestra players had never performed it. Several of them thanked me for programming it. I have to admit that I was disappointed with the audience size. I thought that surely bringing a pianist of Pascal Rogé's stature to Harrisburg would bring people in. Sadly, it did not seem to be the case. Not empty houses but certainly on the smaller side, especially given the successes of the previous few concerts. What particularly irked me was hearing of a bunch of audience members who left at intermission. Were they afraid of Sibelius? Did they know how passionate and mushy-gushy a piece it is? Ah well, in the end, they purchased the ticket, but in the end it was their loss.

The end of March was our last pops concert of the year -
Bravo Broadway, featuring Doug LaBrecque and Cristianne Noll. They had sung with us two seasons ago, and were a huge sensation, and they certainly did not disappoint in their return (back by popular demand!). Again, the houses were nearly sold out - I think it might have been completely sold out on Sunday. Of all the successes here in Harrisburg, the pops series might be my greatest. A few years back, the board of the symphony was on the brink of canceling this series. I made an impassioned plea, and we turned it around. A lot of thanks needs to go to Capitol Blue Cross (particularly Jim Mead and Anita Smith) for their vote of confidence and financial support. I will certainly accept much of the credit. But I must also mention how amazing this orchestra is. We have little rehearsal time for these concerts, and the music is generally very demanding. They have never let me down - not even one sub-par performance - and they do it with a smile. I've always believed that if the performers are having a good time, the audience cannot help but have a good time as well. This orchestra bears that up.

Well, that brings us pretty much up to date. I know I glossed over quite a lot, but, hey, I'm back.

See you next week with some podcasts on Wagner and Prokofiev!