Vaughan Williams' "Dona nobis pacem"

I'm taking a break from my studies of Ralph Vaughan Williams' masterful choral work, Dona nobis pacem. I've decided, based on my studies, not to do a podcast on the piece.

So what happened to cause this decision?

I started weeping while studying. This doesn't usually happen to me. The process of studying for me is usually fairly cerebral. I do, of course, think a lot about the emotional content of the music, but, again, from an intellectual standpoint. The true emotion generally comes out later, in rehearsal and performance.

But for some reason, this piece got to me today. I don't know if it's Walt Whitman's moving poetry, the heart-wrenching, gorgeous music that Vaughan Williams provides to illumine it, or the sad timeliness of the piece's theme given this week's news (4000 Americans and countless Iraqis dead), but whatever it is, the resulting work of art packs a powerful punch.

Dona nobis pacem was composed in the early 1930's, on the eve of World War II, when Europe would destroy itself. The piece, for chorus, two soloists and orchestra, is on the one hand a prayer for peace, and at the same time, a pondering of the horrors of war.

My guess is that the vast majority of our audience has not heard this work before, and I want them to experience it unencumbered by pre-conception, analysis, or pre-concert musical snippets.

It should be a memorable evening.
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The joys of parenthood

Today, my two children performed a piece I wrote for them at their school talent show. Zev, 5, plays the piano and Sara, 8, plays the cello. They were wonderful - playing with poise, concentration, and respect for each other. My favorite part was when the piece ended. I think my daughter was expecting the kids not to like it. When they applauded enthusiastically (and yelled as well), she released this shocked and delighted smile, with her mouth wide open. Cute, cute, cute.

You think I'm a little proud?

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Special concert this morning

We did a special concert this morning - special, both in that it was outside our normal offerings, and in the kind of concert it was.

Odin Rathnam (HSO Concertmaster) and I did a small chamber music program for autistic children at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit. There were about 25 kids, ranging from very high to very low functioning autistic, along with some family members and therapists.

The idea for this concert (as well as sponsorship) came from Marilynn Kanenson, who had sponsored the Stuart & Friends concert earlier in the week. At last years S&F young person's concert, there were a handful of autistic children in the audience, who were noisy in their appreciation of the music. This didn't really affect us on stage, but it certainly was a distraction for the other students there. After the concert, Marilynn and I discussed the prospect of doing a designated program for autistic and other challenged children.

Among the many extreme challenges that parents of autistics face is finding activities with comfortable environments for their children. We wanted to create a thoroughly friendly environment for the kids, one in which they would feel comfortable expressing themselves - physically and even audibly - during the performance, without fear of shushing or curious (or even angry) stares.

Interestingly, the group this morning was extremely engaged, and thoroughly polite. There were one or two spontaneous vocal outbursts from a couple of the lower functioning children, but even they listened attentively.

Two vignettes:

1) There was one boy, I'd guess about 11 years old, who started out the concert with his sweatshirt hood up and his fingers in his ears. As the concert progressed, he became quite engaged (yes, the hood came down), and ended up participating in discussion more than any of the others, asking some very good questions as well.

2) Another boy, a couple of years older, and not nearly as highly functioning, listened intently for the whole show. At the end, he made a beeline to Odin and his violin. Odin is great with kids, and spent a good five minutes with this one child, showing him how to rosin his bow, allowing him to play some sounds on the fiddle, and letting him help put the instrument and music away. The boy then came to the piano and his therapist asked him to tell me what they had learned about in music class that week. He told me "ostinato" and proceeded to play a simple ostinato pattern on the piano's black keys, and in perfect rhythm!

We don't know a lot about the workings of these young minds, or how music can benefit young people on the autism spectrum. But it is absolutely clear to me that the children who heard us play can certainly appreciate the concert experience, possibly in an even greater way than more "mainstream" kids. Our mission as musicians should be to bring great music to the widest range of audience possible, and in environments in which they feel able to enjoy the experience. As such, we should be doing more of what we did today.

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Stuart & Friends

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After a day of almost complete R&R, I am finally recovering from a very tiring week. An exhausting Masterworks weekend, a challenging Stuart & Friends program last night, and for most of last week, my wife Marty was sick with the flu. Thankfully, Marty is feeling a lot better. And the concerts went very well.

Stuart & Friends is a chamber music concert I do each year with members of the orchestra. It gives me a chance to work in a different way with the players and to give our audience members a more intimate and personable concert experience. I strive, as host, to keep the atmosphere relaxed, upbeat, and fun, while playing some beautiful music for them.

One lovely aspect of this concert is that it is sponsored by my friend Marilynn Kanenson in memory of her husband, Bill, who was president of the HSO's Board of Directors for my third and fourth year here. He was my first friend in Harrisburg, and a dear man who I miss very much. Marilynn's support has allowed Stuart & Friends to grow and develop an audience.

We had a very nice crowd at the Whitaker Center last night, and, as usual for me, I programmed a really hard concert for myself. I like to challenge myself in these concerts. This year I played Stravinsky's Suite Italienne with Fiona Thompson, the HSO's Principal Cello, Mozart's fiendish sonata in A Major with HSO concertmaster Odin Rathnam, and the the three of us joined with HSO Principal Viola Julius Wirth for Brahms' 2nd Piano Quartet (also in A). And we basically have a day and a half to put it all together.

I don't know what I was thinking.

It all went very well, but boy are my hands tired today...

Chamber music performances are a bit strange for me. Conducting is essentially a macrocosmic experience. You're concerned with grand gestures, leaving the detail work to the musicians. If your palms get sweaty, or your mind wanders for an instant, generally (not always, but generally) it doesn't affect the performance all that much. When you're playing the piano, on the other hand, it can mean a musical train wreck. Every little detail is evident. This is both terrifying and exhilarating. There was one moment toward the end of the third movement of the Brahms - we'd already navigated (and rather successfully) about 30 minutes of intense wonderful music - when someone started coughing in the audience. Had I been conducting, it would have had absolutely no impact. In this moment of the Brahms, though, I was jumping back and forth from one end of the piano to the other, and that little distraction threw me for an instant. Not disastrous, but I was a bit miffed at myself for that instant of thinking, "Oh... someone's coughing."

The other side of that coin is that actually playing the music is pretty cool. Don't get me wrong. I love conducting, and it's an amazing thrill. But I would not want to ever give up playing. The chamber music repertoire is so rich, and the experience of crafting the music, moment to moment, with colleagues and friends is so indescribably gratifying, that it would feel like an incomplete musical existence without it.

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Addendum

It occurs to me that I should mention the names of the percussion section. They certainly deserve it.

Percussionists: Adrian Stefanescu, Barry Dove, and Glenn Paulson
Timpanist: Peter Wilson

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Wow

In thinking about this past weekend's performances, "Wow" is what comes to mind.

1) Wow, what a terrific piece Jennifer Higdon's percussion concerto is. Gripping from the start, evocative throughout, and a thorough examination of the wide range of expression percussion is capable of. This is not just a big drum jam session - there is as much tenderness as bombast.

2) Wow, what a tremendously talented musician Chris Rose is. I honestly don't know how I can adequately describe the magnitude of his accomplishment. I knew he was good, but I never could have imagined the polish, the unabashed virtuosity, the musicality, and the utter mastery of this incredibly difficult concerto. He rocked the Forum.

3) Wow, what a great percussion section the HSO has. Jennifer's concerto is a virtuosic display for not not only the soloist, but also for the three percussionists and timpanist in the orchestra. They were all simply amazing - which fills me with great pride.

4) Wow, the audience in "conservative" Harrisburg, PA can respond with not just enthusiasm, but with exultation for a great work of new music performed brilliantly. Virtually the entire audience was on its feet instantly following the final downbeat.

5) Wow, the Harrisburg Symphony can play anything, and well. This was no light-weight program. Every piece on the program is a killer, from the intensely difficult Walton Partita for Orchestra to the concerto (Jennifer does not let the orchestra sail through her concertos), to Ravel's La Valse (not only a technical workout, but stylistically tricky as well), to Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. We rehearsed very hard, and the orchestra, as always, showed up to play. This orchestra is a conductor's dream.

6) Wow, nice guys (or gals) do not always finish last. When I was at the Curtis Institute of Music (too many years ago), Jennifer Higdon was a composition student. She was a charming, down to earth, sweet person. She is now a superstar composer, and every bit as lovely as she was when we were kids at school. It was wonderful having her in town for the weekend, and she was so generous with her time, attending rehearsal, appearing at WITF for a live "Composing Thoughts" with John Clare, and doing pre-concert lectures and post-concert talkbacks with me. In all of this she was a bastion of energy and joy, forthcoming and good-natured. At the same time, Chris Rose is an equally lovely and unassuming guy, as easy-going and sweet as he is talented. What a pleasure!

This is the kind of concert that leaves me exhilarated and exhausted. They should all feel this good.

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