Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Keitaro Harada, Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Golan, Phoenix Youth Symphony, Richard Strauss, Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky
It has been a very long time since I have heard Also Sprach Zarathustra in a live performance, and all the way through, so I was quite interested to hear the Lamont Symphony Orchestra perform this work on Sunday, January 15. In addition, it was to be the yearly performance with the Phoenix Youth Symphony, which means that the orchestra would be absolutely enormous. I haven’t heard the Phoenix Youth Symphony since they performed The Planets by the English composer, Gustav Holtz, and that was in 2010.
The Phoenix Youth Symphony has a new conductor, Maestro Keitaro Harada, and I will briefly quote from his website:
“Keitaro Harada is increasingly recognized as a conducting luminary of the next generation. A student of Lorin Maazel at Castleton Festival and recipient of the Seiji Ozawa Conducting Fellowship at Tanglewood Music Festival, Harada’s credentials are exemplary. At Tanglewood he assisted Christoph von Dohnanyi in the production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and conducted the closing performance garnering this praise from The Boston Musical Intelligencer: ‘perfect timing, dramatic dynamics, and unerring coordination of the musical stagecraft.’ And, this review from Opera News: ‘For the third and final performance of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos … rising young Japanese conductor Keitaro Harada, a student in the TMC program, got his turn to lead the forces prepared by Christoph von Dohnányi. Harada’s command of the score was total, from the uncommonly beautiful legato and sweep of the opening orchestral phrases, hinting at the inspired, ecstatic melodies created by the character known as the Composer, to the carefully controlled climaxes of the final duet, in which Ariadne and Bacchus join in uncomprehending ecstasy.’
“Harada is currently the Principal Guest Conductor for the Sierra Vista Symphony Orchestra, Assistant Conductor for Arizona Opera and Music Director for Phoenix Youth Symphony, an organization internationally recognized as one of the premiere youth orchestras in the United States. He previously served as Conductor of Arizona Symphony, UA Philharmonic Orchestra, and Mercer/Macon Symphony Youth Orchestra, and Assistant Conductor of the Tucson Symphony and Macon Symphony Orchestras.”
The Phoenix Youth Symphony performed first, Sunday, playing the Sleeping Beauty: Suite, Opus 66a, by Tchaikovsky. After the Tchaikovsky, they joined with the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and performed the Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Maestro Harada introduced the orchestra to the audience (which were far too few), then turned to his orchestra and began the Tchaikovsky. It has been a very long time since I have seen such an animated conductor on the podium. In addition, his movements were very angular and very sharp, but nonetheless, he was able to guide the orchestra through the flowing phrases of this ballet suite.
Keep in mind that this orchestra is comprised of high school students, so the Tchaikovsky couldn’t have been all that easy for them, even though they are one of the best youth orchestras in the United States. They’re playing was very impressive, and their woodwind section was outstanding. In addition, there was some fine work from the harp, which I could not see from where I was sitting.
As I listened to this excellent young orchestra, I wondered how many of them will go on to become professional musicians. All of them were working very hard, and were truly concerned with making music. Occasionally, an individual member’s enthusiasm would get the better of him, and there would be an incorrect dynamic or an incorrect entrance. Nonetheless, it was very enjoyable to listen to, and it was also quite enjoyable watching these young people play their hearts out.
Maestro Lawrence Golan then led the combined Lamont Symphony Orchestra and the Phoenix Youth Orchestra in the performance of Richard Strauss’ well-known Also Sprach Zarathustra. Except, is it really well known? Everyone knows the introduction, because it is that which was used in Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But how many of you readers have heard it all the way through? I have spoken to many students who were unaware that this was a tone poem that contains such wonderfully beautiful music. Therefore, I applaud the choice of this piece of music for I think the students learned a great deal from it.
On the chance that some of you readers may be from Phoenix, and therefore a little unfamiliar with Dr. Lawrence Golan, I will quote from his website:
“Lawrence Golan is currently in his second season as the Helen N. Jewett Music Director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra, central Washington’s premier professional orchestra. During his highly successful inaugural season, Golan helped to dramatically raise the artistic level of the orchestra. In addition, he spearheaded efforts to grow the organization financially as well. In just one year, the YSO increased its budget by 27%, its concert season by 33%, its private donations by 23%, its total ticket revenue by 39%, and single ticket sales more than doubled. Golan and the YSO also won an ASCAP Award for the Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music. Golan’s appointment in Yakima comes on the heels of an equally successful four-year term as Resident Conductor of The Phoenix Symphony. That orchestra’s President and CEO Maryellen Gleason stated that Lawrence Golan was ‘unequivocally the best Resident Conductor The Phoenix Symphony ever had.’ Music Director Michael Christie said that Golan ‘is a programmer of virtually unprecedented creativity and scope.’ Several of the concerts that Golan programmed, conducted and narrated with The Phoenix Symphony turned out to be the most financially successful and well-attended performances in the history of the orchestra, completely selling out triple concert sets in a 2200-seat hall. Golan continues to guest conduct professional orchestras, opera, and ballet companies in the United States and around the world. Having conducted in 25 U.S. states and 15 countries, recent engagements include performances in Boulder, Macon, Memphis, and Tucson as well as the Czech Republic, Italy, Korea, and Taiwan.
“Following in the footsteps of his father Joseph Golan, longtime Principal Second Violinist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Golan is also an accomplished violinist. He was Concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra for eleven years, has appeared as soloist with numerous orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, and has made several commercially available recordings as a violinist. His recording entitled Indian Summer: The Music of George Perlman, is treasured by young violin students and their teachers and is regarded as a very helpful and inspiring pedagogical aide.”
Before I continue with this review, you must understand that the Phoenix Youth Symphony arrived in Denver on Saturday, January 14. That means, that since this performance was given on the 15th, there was one day for these two orchestras to merge and have some rehearsal time. Think of that. The Strauss work is very difficult, to say the least, and here, you have a youth orchestra and a university orchestra trying to work out all of the difficulties caused by the merger (the logistics are mind-boggling) in one day. I think that everyone involved, in any way with this concert, deserves a lot of praise.
There is a world of difference (and why shouldn’t there be) between Maestro Harada and Maestro Golan. Golan’s movements, in comparison to Harada’s, are smooth and almost liquid. When I make such a statement, please understand that I’m not criticizing either conductor, I am simply describing the difference between the two. It must be interesting, to say the least, to conduct an orchestra with such mixed abilities and experience. However, Maestro Golan did it, and it is my opinion that he did it extremely well. It was amazing to sit in the audience, in the seventh row, and watch this entire orchestra work so very hard and be so incredibly moved by the music and the fact that they were giving birth to it. You must understand that some of the students in this orchestra, and they were all students, had never played in such a large ensemble, and I am certain, that some of them had never played a piece of music similar to the Strauss. Any musician, who is rewarded by teaching, will tell you that one of those rewards is seeing the students moved by the music itself. Were there mistakes in this performance? Yes, but you must not hold it against any of these performers, especially when you consider their age, and the lack of rehearsal time. Was the performance exciting? Yes, without a doubt, it was. It is very gratifying to see young students so tremendously moved by the power of the music, and there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that these students were. They were also trying as hard as they could to make this a successful performance. In spite of the mistakes, it was a successful performance, because it was clear that the students were having a marvelous learning experience.
Filed under: News | Tags: Breanne Cutler, Catherine Sailer, David Wetherill, Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Golan, Rin-Jong Yang, Steven Mayer, Travis Jürgens
The University of Denver’s Lamont Symphony Orchestra has several interesting programs this season, as well as several interesting performers and conductors. This season we will get to hear the seldom performed work by Vaughn Williams entitled the Sea Symphony, which is written for orchestra and chorus. I encourage all of you to come to this particular performance because this is an absolutely beautiful piece of music. This work will be conducted by Catherine Sailer. We will also get to hear Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s pictures at an exhibition. This is a great piece, but I do wish pianists would not seem to be so fearful of it, and perform the original version on the keyboard. Actually, the original version was done for two pianos, and then Mussorgsky’s rewrote it for one piano. It sounds just as perfect on the keyboard as Ravel’s orchestration.
We will also get to hear program conducted by Rin Jong Yang, Travis Jürgens, and Breanne Cutler. In addition, we will hear David Wetherill perform the Mozart horn Concerto on a Natural Horn, that is to say, a French horn with no valves (or keys).
The season schedule follows:
October 11, 7:30 pm
Opening Night with David Wetherill, former Principal Horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra
Strauss: Overture to Die Fledermaus, Travis Jürgens, Conductor
Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 3, David Wetherill, Natural Horn
R. Strauss: Horn Concerto No. 1, David Wetherill, Horn
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
David Wetherill, long-time first-horn player with the Philadelphia Orchestra, began his professional career as Principal Horn with the renowned opera house, “Teatro alla Scala” in Milan, Italy, playing the greatest operas with the finest singers and conductors in the world. In 1976, Pierre Boulez asked Mr. Wetherill to come to Paris to work with the “Ensemble InterContemporain,” as a founding member of that cutting-edge chamber orchestra. During this period, he performed literally dozens of premieres by the leading contemporary composers of the day, including Berio, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez, and Messiaen. At the invitation of Maestro Eugene Ormandy, Mr. Wetherill returned to Philadelphia, where he played for nearly 30 years. Now retired from full time performing, he is active with teaching and conducting, and occasionally performing on the horn if the stars line up properly. Mr. Wetherill is the Associate Conductor of the Lower Merion Symphony, where he conducts regularly. He also has conducted the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia.
November 3-5, 7:30 pm & November 6, 2:30 pm
November 17, 7:30 pm
Travis Jürgens, Artist Diploma Recital
Mozart: Overture to Le nozze di Figaro
Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite (Original 13 Instrument Version)
Handel: Overture to Solomon
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Steven Mayer, Piano
Travis Jürgens has performed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Musicians who have played under his baton have commented on his exceptional talent, dynamic musicianship, imagination, and strong leadership. He earned his Bachelor’s in Piano Performance with High Distinction from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and his Master’s in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Illinois. Additionally, he studied at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien and the Institut für Europäishe Studien in Vienna, Austria. He also made his Viennese debut as guest conductor of the IES Vienna Chamber Orchestra.
He has served as Graduate Assistant Conductor and General Manager of the University of Illinois Philharmonia Orchestra, and as a cover conductor for the University of Illinois Orchestras. He was also the Assistant Conductor for the University of Illinois Opera Theater production of Hansel and Gretel by Neely Bruce. While in Illinois, he founded the United Orchestra of Urbana.
The soloist, Steven Mayer, is Professor of Piano at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College of Music. He has served as Visiting Lecturer in Piano at UCLA, Professor of Piano at the Manhattan School of Music, and is currently Associate Professor with Tenure at University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music.
January 15, 3:00 pm
Side-by-Side with the Phoenix Youth Symphony
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
February 9, 7:30 pm
Rin Jong Yang, Guest Conductor
Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
Maestro Rin-Jong Yang, one of the most prominent conductors of South Korea, has extensive experience conducting orchestras in various countries and has a vast repertoire ranging from Baroque music to contemporary music.
He was Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia and Professor of Yeungnam University. In Korea he conducted the Suwon Philharmonic Orchestra for seven and half years. Internationally he has been Guest Conductor of Brasov Philharmonic conducting festival programs of Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. In addition, he has been the guest conductor of orchestras throughout Russia, Jerusalem, and South America. As a Professional Violinist and Violist, Dr. Yang has performed at Carnegie Hall with Pianist Raymond Dudley, Suntory Hall in Japan, and Third International Viola D’Amore Congress.
March 8. 7:30 pm
Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Breanne Cutler, Conductor
Concerto TBD (DU Honors Competition Winner)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 “Titan”
The 2011-2012 season will be the beginning of Breanne Cutler’s position as Apprentice Conductor with the Helena Symphony Orchestra and her mentorship from Maestro Allan R. Scott. A Montana native, she has recently graduated from Montana State University- Bozeman where she was the Assistant Conductor of the MSU Symphony. She is now a graduate student studying with Dr. Lawrence Golan at University of Denver’s prestigious Lamont School of Music. There, she is the Assistant Conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra while she pursues a Master of Music in Orchestral Conducting.
Ms. Cutler is also a noted classical and jazz vocalist. As a vocal major at Montana State University, she studied with Dr. Jon Harney. Along with winning the 26th MSU Concerto and Aria Competition she has taken 1st place in both the Lower Division in 2008 and Upper Division in 2010 for the Montana state competition of the National Association for Teachers of Singing.
She received the Lamont School of Music Endowed Scholarship for her pursuit of graduate study. This past spring, she graduated with honors with her Bachelor of Music Education from MSU.
April 19-21, 7:30 pm & April 22, 2:30 pm
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
May 1, 7:30 pm
New Music Concert, Breanne Cutler, Conductor
May 31, 7:30 pm
Season Finale with the Lamont Chorale, Women’s Chorus, and Men’s Choir
Adventures at Sea
Wagner: Overture to The Flying Dutchman, Travis Jürgens, Conductor
Boyer: Titanic 1997, Colorado premiere
Vaughan-Williams: Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony,” Catherine Sailer, Conductor
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Amra Tomsic, Antonio Domenick, Charlie Daniels, Chip Michael, Jeff Ashear, Jonathan Parker, Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Golan, Malcom Lynn Baker, Myranda Whitesides, Traci Nelson, Travis Jürgens
I am constantly amazed at the versatility of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and the Lamont School of Music. Their performance on Tuesday, April 26, in Gates Hall was comprised of new pieces – world premieres – of works produced by the composition students and faculty at the Lamont School. The Lamont Symphony was conducted at this performance by Travis Jürgens who is well on his way to becoming a major conductor in the world of symphony orchestras.
Maestro Jürgens is the Assistant Conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and Opera Theater inDenver. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Piano Performance with High Distinction from the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and his Masters of Orchestral Conducting from the University of Illinois. While there, he was the cover conductor for the University of Illinois orchestras and Assistant Conductor for the University of Illinois Opera Theater. He also founded the United Orchestra of Urbana. One of the reasons that his conducting is so spectacular, aside from its energy and abundant musicianship, is the fact that he knows how to lead rehearsals. An absolutely unimpeachable source told me that this concert was produced with only two rehearsals. That is quite remarkable – almost miraculous – when you consider that every piece on this program was pristine and very difficult. It also says volumes about the quality of the students that the Lamont School produces.
Let me say at the outset that I was very impressed with the maturity of these compositions. There was none of the catchy, experimental, hit-them-with-avant-garde “noisemaking” that many composers still use today. I am referring to playing on washboards, shaking marbles in a tin can, etc., that really were an outgrowth of all of the experimentation that legitimately went on in the late 1950s and through most of the 1960s. In that period of time, composers were truly looking for something absolutely new, and even Igor Stravinsky said (in the mid-1960s) that the compositional techniques being taught to composers were totally inadequate. He was referring to musical notation which went through radical changes in the 1960s, and was even filled with gimmickry by some composers. Stravinsky also said that composers were totally unprepared by their schooling. Keep in mind that Stravinsky made those comments in the 1960s (he died in 1971), and like any art of any era, composers and those who teach composition, are finding their way through all of the complexities that they face.
My point is that the composers whose works were on this program seem to be facing the present in a very artistic way, and a very confident way, without resorting to passé styles of making sounds. This was refreshing indeed, because it not only represents the latest in the art, but there was not one piece on the program that relied on musical “tricks.” (Please note that there is always a use in percussion ensembles for something new or something old.)
The first work on the program was by Antonio Domenick, who is a composer, arranger, singer, and trombonist from Denver. The title of this piece was In Several Keys. The first thing that struck me about this new composition was the excellence of the orchestration. There is no doubt whatsoever that he knows his way around an orchestra. The orchestration and chords that he used reminded me very much of the pre-twelve tone compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, particularly his Gurrelieder. The chords were quite complex, and he seemed to have many added note chords that almost became tone clusters, and that is something that Schoenberg did not use. However, these added note chords were used in a way that had a function similar to tonality, which provided a strong structural sense. It also seemed that there was quite a bit of influence from Bartok. I really look forward to hearing this piece again. Many critics seem to think that it is very unscholarly to say that a new piece of music was “beautiful,” but that’s exactly what this piece was.
The second piece on the program was entitled Mystery Lie, and was exceedingly short, but exceedingly appealing. It was written by Jon Parker of Denver who is active as a pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor. While in the Army, he was the pianist with the NATO Big Band and has performed for government dignitaries throughout Europe. He is still in the adjutant general officer corps of the Army reserves while he works on his Masters Degree in Musicology from the Lamont School. Mystery Lie was really a soundscape, very dulcet and very ethereal, which bordered on the microtonal.
Jeff Ashears’ work, 11:1, was next on the program, and was clearly microtonal. I don’t know exactly what the title – a mathematical ratio – refers to, but my guess would be that the whole step relationship, which is traditional in pre-avant-garde music, contains 11 steps rather than two half steps in this work. There was also a minimalist aspect of this work which reminded me of Arvo Pärt and/or John Tavener. I was a little puzzled by the use of the piano, which, when played, normally was highly effective. But, when the pianist plucked the strings with his fingers, or tapped directly on the strings, the sound generated was almost inaudible. It didn’t really seem to me that the composer wanted that part of the performance so very soft. This was a very effective piece, very well done.
Lamont faculty member Malcolm Lynn Baker’s work, Giving, was performed next. This terrific piece began in the orchestra, but it soon became apparent that this was a short introduction which led to an almost John Cage-like percussion ensemble, which reminded me very much of Imaginary Landscapes One and Two, by Mr. Cage. This was a deceptive piece simply because I fell into the trap of imagining that the work with the title of Giving would be a little more gentle, but this was a hard driving and very impassioned piece of music. After this section, and it seemed to be inABA form with the percussion solos in section B, the orchestra in the A return was clearly microtonal. But its emotional fluency was so great that I wondered if this wonderful piece was some kind of avant-garde tone poem. I would really like to see the score to this composition.
The next work on the program, Pace Plateau, was written by Amra Tomsic. I would have loved to see some kind of bio statement in the program, but according to the web: “Amra Tomsic is a Junior transfer student new to DU this year. He comes from a small town in Colorado called Gunnison where he attended Western State College for three years. He majored in classical voice, piano and Music Education. Now at Lamont he is working on a BM in classical voice, after which he plans to get his Masters, also from the Lamont School. He plans to pursue a career in operatic performance after his completion of school and hopes to someday teach as well. He also loves conducting, theory, and composition.”
Pace Plateau was a very energetic piece quite reminiscent of Yugoslavian or Slovenian folk melodies. There was a great deal of forward drive in this work which was very short indeed, but was possessed of great saga. Though the harmonies were not so terribly new, this was another terrific piece that I am quite sure was very difficult for the orchestra.
Chacon is the title of the composition that was performed next on the program. It was composed by Myranda Whitesides ofDenver. Again, I quote from the website, DU Portfolio: “Myranda Whitesides is a BA in Vocal Performance at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. Her instruments include guitar, piano, and cello. She participates in the Lamont Chorale, and also plays in two bands in addition to performing acoustic shows at DU and various coffee shops inDenver. She recorded an Alternative Rock EP with original material in 2009 at FTM studios. Myranda graduated from the International Baccalaureate Program at Lakewood High School in 2009 with High Honors. She participated in Lakewood’s Encore and Acappella group Eclipse. She also performed in Lakewood’s orchestra for 3 years. Myranda is working on a minor in Art at the University of Denver. She enjoys drawing and painting, and has recently begun exploring woodworking and sculpting.”
Chacon is a beautiful work with some wonderful flowing melodic lines in the violas. This composition also seemed to be in ABA form where, in the B section, the oboe carried much of the melodic work. I must say, that for my ear, the oboe seemed a little harsh after the wonderfully mellifluous viola sections. I guess my question is this: “What? Is she the only female composer on the program?” There is no question that this young lady has a real talent for composition, and it would be my hope that she continue her efforts in this direction. She is gifted.
The next to the last work on this remarkable program was the third movement of a Trumpet Concerto by composer Chip Michael. This Concerto was dedicated to Mr. Joseph Docksey who, as almost everyone knows by now, is retiring from a long and illustrious Directorship at the Lamont School of Music. I will quote from the program notes:
“Clarity of melody with intense rhythms is a key element in the music of Chip Michael. He feels it is important that the listener have something to grasp in terms of melody while providing interesting, intricate rhythms, odd meter and complex counterpoint. The unique blend of rhythms and melody are what make Chip’s music appealing to audiences of all types from around the world.”
“The Boulder Symphony Orchestra announced Chip Michael as Composer in Residence for their 2010- 2011 season. Conductor Devin Hughes created the appointment along with commissioning a new work for the BSO, Exchanging Glances.”
This is truly a fine composition. This is another work where I would like to examine the score, because it seemed to me that intentionally or unintentionally, Mr. Michael made use of what theory students have learned to tag as “white key diatonicism.” This is the style of composition personified by the American composer Aaron Copland, and as I have said before in very oversimplified terms, white key diatonicism is where key signatures and enharmonic equivalence are taken as points of departure for a study of the diatonic-chromatic relationship. In other words, key relationships do not follow established rules of traditional harmony. But I must tell you that as I listened to this composition, I was totally astonished not just by the work itself, but by the amazing trumpet performance by Traci Nelson. Ms. Nelson has her own website which I encourage all of you to visit. I quote from it here:
“Traci received a Bachelor’s Degree in Trumpet Performance from DePaul University of Chicago, IL, in June 2009, graduating Summa Cum Laude. Her primary teachers at DePaul were Chicago Symphony Orchestra members John Hagstrom, Tage Larsen, and Matthew Lee. During her time in Chicago Traci performed with countless ensembles in and outside of the school, including DePaul’s Symphony Orchestra, Opera Orchestras, Wind Ensemble, the Classical Orchestra of Chicago, various brass ensembles including quintets, trios, trumpet ensembles, and more.”
“Traci currently resides in Denver, Colorado where she is trumpeting her way toward a Master’s Degree in Trumpet Performance at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, studying with Al Hood and serving as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Traci also freelances and teaches throughout the Denver metro area.”
This young lady is a remarkable performer, and it is wonderful to see a young woman be such a skilled brass player. She reminded me instantly of Alison Balsom, the remarkable English performer who has taken the trumpet world by such a storm. Does that remark sound prejudiced? Both Alison Balsom and Traci Nelson have the appearance of supermodels. Is that necessary to say? Probably not, but when I was in my high school band as a percussionist, many, many years ago, young ladies simply did not play brass instruments. Those who did smoked and drove pickup trucks. But it is also necessary to understand that in the 1800s it was considered very unladylike to play the cello. However, here, at this concert, was a very sophisticated, young woman who is a fantastic performer. No burbles, incredibly reliable with an orchestra, and capable of wonderful technical feats. What a joy to listen to! All of you who know her must get her autograph now.
Closing the program was, in many ways, the biggest surprise of all. It was an orchestral arrangement – and remember, a world premiere – of a very famous work by Charlie Daniels, who, most of you are aware, is one of the pillars of country music and southern rock. The work’s title is The Devil Went Down to Georgia. This work was arranged, played (violin), and sung (!) by the multifaceted conductor of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Lawrence Golan. And what an accent! Who knew? But, typical of Dr. Golan, this was a very sophisticated work and performance. The Devil Went Down to Georgia could almost be considered a very short version of Stravinsky’s The Soldiers Tale. The hero, rather than the Devil, as in Stravinsky, beats the Devil at a violin competition. Maestro Golan proved that he can play the violin (which everyone has been aware of), that he can make skillful arrangements (maybe some of us have been aware of), and that he is a very good singer/narrator (few of us have been aware of), and that he was capable of an incredible hillbilly accent (who knew that!)!
What a delightful program this was! There was not an inferior piece in the entire concert, and, as I said above, it is very gratifying to hear new works composed with such confidence and artistic skill. In addition, I cannot say enough about the skill and musicianship of Maestro Jürgens. He is a very dynamic conductor who, without a doubt, knows the music before him, and who has no difficulty whatsoever, in communicating that skill and joy to the orchestra. Remember that these were new compositions. The Lamont Symphony Orchestra, under Jürgens direction, performed them as if they were concert standards. It will be a long time before this performance is forgotten.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Avro Pärt, Beethoven, Janis Sakai, Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Golan, Madoka Asari, Richard Strauss, Travis Jürgens
The Lamont Symphony Orchestra consistently presents outstanding programs which bear little resemblance to the concerts given by other university orchestras that I am familiar with. The concerts are so good that they encroach on performances given by professional orchestras. If any of you readers doubt that statement, start attending some of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra concerts. Thursday night’s concert, March 10, was an exception only because it was the best I have heard them do, and that is saying quite a bit. It is easy to dismiss this orchestra by saying, “Well, sure, they should be good because they are all music majors.” Yes, they are all music majors are, and yes, they practice all the time as music majors do. Nonetheless, these are students. They are not consummate concert level professionals, but mark my words, there are some who certainly will become that.
Thursday night, they presented another performance of Silouan’s Song (the work was written in 1991, and this was the Colorado premiere) by the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. I have written about Arvo Pärt in previous articles, but please be reminded that Arvo Pärt is widely known as a minimalist composer, and his work between the years 1977 to 1992 can be described as “holy minimalism” because of his immersion in Gregorian chant and early liturgical music. He further describes this sound as “tintinnabuli” because it often sounds like the ringing of bells. Some critics have gone so far as to describe Pärt as a Western Confucius because of his mysticism and liturgical leanings. In Silouans Song there is not so much tintinnabuli, but there is certainly an influence of religious mysticism. Pärt found much inspiration in the Russian Orthodox Church, and was specifically influenced by his acquaintance with Archimandrite Sophrony, who was a disciple and biographer of St. Silouan. As a matter of fact, it was Father Sophrony who advised Pärt to stay the course and become a composer. Silouan’s Song is really Pärt’s orchestral interpretation based on words of St. Silouan, and some say that Pärt tried to create the mood of the words in the violins and the cellos.
This work certainly is among the most serene that Pärt has composed. It is for string orchestra, and is in long phrases, really sections, that are separated by periods of silence. Most of the sections are subdued and positively shimmered under the hands of Travis Jürgens, who truly is a superior conductor. It seems to me that the difficulty with this piece are the entrances of each section. Almost all of them began at a piano or pianissimo dynamic level, and trying to get an orchestra to enter precisely, and I do mean everyone, takes a lot of attention on the part of all the orchestra members, and I would think much rehearsal time. The entrances were perfect. That confirmed the control that not only Maestro Juergens is able to make use of over the orchestra, but it also confirms the control that the orchestra members have in their own performance ability. As I have said before, this orchestra, and it seems this year alone, just keeps getting better and better. One of the reasons simply has to be that they have a great deal of respect for Travis Jürgens, and it is always easier to do well when you are cooperating with someone that you respect. I am always struck by how hard every single musician in this orchestra works for their conductor. I have seen and heard a lot of university orchestras in my life, and the Lamont Symphony makes many of them appear to be totally unconcerned. I know that this is an old cliché, but my hat is off to Travis Jürgens and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra.
The next work on the program was the Beethoven Piano Concerto Nr. 2 in B flat Major, Opus 19. I would like to point out that somehow it was listed in the program as Opus 10, and that is incorrect. This Concerto is Opus 19, and it had its origins in Bonn before Beethoven moved to Vienna. There are sketches from this concerto that are from the year 1785, and it was first published in 1801. The publication dates of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos long confused the issue of when each one was written, but we have also known for a time now, that what is known as his Concerto Nr.1 in C Major, and carries the opus number 15, was written by 1798. This Concerto was also published and 1801, but one of the aspects of this work which indicates it was later than the B flat Concerto, is that the orchestration is much more advanced, and is for full orchestra. Beethoven was not completely satisfied with either concerto, and both are sometimes mentioned as extensions of Mozart’s piano concertos by several scholars.
All that aside, be rest assured that the young lady who performed this Beethoven Piano Concerto, Madoka Asari, is absolutely breathtaking. She is the winner of the 2011 Lamont Solo Honors Competition, and she studies with Professor Stephen Mayer. Her playing is extremely clean and precise, and she shapes each phrase, making sure that there is a subtle highpoint. When there is a small two note phrase, which is such a cliché of the classical period, particularly in Haydn (Beethoven’s teacher) and Beethoven, she has a perfect wrist drop on the first note of each phrase, and plays the second note as she is coming off the keyboard. This consistency carried through to so many other details. I was a little surprised at how far back she sat from the piano, because her arms were comparatively outstretched. If she sat just a little closer, she might be able to relax her arms just a little more, which in turn will relax her hands. I did notice in a few places that her left hand was a little more tense than her right. I mention this only because she is young, and she has a whole lifetime of performing before her, and she must take care not to damage anything. And I assure you, she really does have a whole lifetime of performing in her future. The minute she began to play the first movement, her artistic concentration seemed to kick in, and she knew the piece so well that she could think about it to the exclusion of everything around her except the orchestra and Maestro Golan. That makes her an incredibly reliable musician: she knew the score, and she knew her entrances, and she clearly allowed the orchestra to help her with these aspects of performing. What do I mean? When you perform with another group of musicians, whether it is a chamber work or a concerto, you have to know every single note mentally. One does not learn a piece by practicing it so much that one’s hands can just “do it.” One has to listen to the other musicians, and be able to say to themselves, “Oh, yes. There’s the bassoon making his entrance, and I come in three measures later.” All of this means that one is reliable as a musician and can be counted on by the conductor. Madoka Asari is that kind of musician, reliable, and consummately musical. The last movement of this concerto has one thing in common with the C Major Concerto, Opus 15. Both are almost playful, and both begin to show Beethoven’s development away from Mozart and his teacher, Haydn. The second movements of both concertos are much deeper musically, and Ms. Asari excelled. And, guess what? She has ten more performances scheduled for the year. Keep in mind that she is only a junior at the Lamont School, and will play her junior recital this coming May. Ladies and gentlemen, that is impressive.
The next performer on the program was equally impressive, and here I speak of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra as a single performer, under the direction of Maestro Lawrence Golan. I truly think this is the first time I have ever heard a student performance of Richard Strauss’symphonic tone poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Of course such a huge work is possible because the Lamont Symphony is itself very large. Nonetheless several instruments were added to fill out the orchestra, for example, four harps. Not only is a large orchestra required for this work, but the members of the orchestra must be skilled: this work, like all Strauss orchestral pieces, is extremely difficult. That is why student orchestras seldom attempt such a piece. But Maestro Golan is so adept at pulling musicianship and skill out of this orchestra, that I am willing to bet that all he had to do was calmly tell them, “You can play this piece, its reputation for difficulty is exaggerated. Here we go!” Now it probably didn’t happen quite that easily, because every measure of this performance reflected intense work and intense joy of performing.
The performance of this difficult piece has to be one of the finest performances I have ever heard the Lamont Symphony Orchestra give.
Ein Heldenleben can often give conductors fits because of its difficulty, but you have to understand that the performance Thursday night again made obvious how much the orchestra members admire and respect Maestro Golan. I can remember when the great Hungarian conductor, Fritz Reiner, fired the entire brass section of the Pittsburgh (Was it the Philadelphia?) Symphony. My mother showed me the newspaper headlines. He was conducting a Strauss tone poem and became dissatisfied with the brass section, so he simply fired all of them: horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba. The next day, the headlines said that he had hired them all back, because the Symphony Society threatened to fire him. But be aware that in those days conductors were often tyrants, and I am quite sure that the members of the Chicago Symphony, which he conducted for 10 years, considered Reiner to resemble Dracula. He led the Chicago Symphony from 1953 until his death in 1963, and many of the orchestra members predicted that he might even fire some of his pallbearers.
I hasten to add that Maestro Golan would never suffer from comments such as these! The performance of Ein Heldenleben was spectacular. The opening is remarkably difficult. There is no time to collect your thoughts, or to even think, Yes, it gets hard in a few measures. It gets hard from the very first note, and the entire orchestra was ready to go and they did it. Maestro Golan took a perfect tempo, which is to say it was the tempo that would have suited the composer very nicely. Golan did not, obviously, think I’d better go slower. These are students. There is extensive violin solo work in this piece that the first chair violin, or concertmaster, performs. I was truly flabbergasted by the mature and artistic performance given by Janis Sakai. Her performance was as professional as any that I have heard, and when I say that, I am including performances done by professional orchestras, not only student orchestras. This young woman possesses remarkable talent (how I hate that word talent, because it does not begin to encompass what gifted individuals do). Janis Sakai is stellar. It was wonderful idiomatic Strauss. Golan conducted this work with the swagger that Strauss requires, especially since “the hero” that Strauss is referring to is himself, even as he takes a poke at his critics in this work. And it was clear that Janis Sakai played this work so brilliantly because she has the maturity to believe in every single measure. Her playing was opulent, and when it needed to be brooding, it was brooding. Those of you who were in the audience not only know what I am talking about, but I am sure that you consider yourselves fortunate for having heard this performance.
Think of this: you audience members got to hear two young musicians who will make their mark on the world, and you got to hear a student orchestra led by Maestro Lawrence Golan support these young artists in a very professional way.
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Dmitri Shostakovich, J. Mark Scearce, Judith Christin, Kim Axline, Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Golan, Toni Morrison, Yumi Hwang-Williams
Thursday evening, February 10, I sat, spellbound, in Gates Hall listening to the Lamont Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Dr. Lawrence Golan. It was A Bridges to the Future Event: the ten-year anniversary of September 11. The orchestra performed two works, both of them absolutely enormous in their own way. The first (which was a Colorado Premier) was a work entitled “This Thread” by J. Mark Scearce, which is enormous because of its emotive power. The second work performed on the program, was one of the great symphonies of the 20th – or any – century: Shostakovich’s Symphony Nr. 7, enormous not only for its emotive power, but for its remarkable length. The glue that held both of these works together for this program is the fact that both were created as a result of human conflict. “This Thread,” with a text by Toni Morrison, was a reaction to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The Shostakovich Symphony was written as a reaction to the German invasion of Russia in World War II.
I have heard of the composer J. Mark Scearce, but I must admit this is the first time that I have heard one of his compositions. But first, before I speak about his work, let me introduce you to him by way of a short bio statement taken from his website:
“J. Mark Scearce is the Director of the Music Department at NC State. Prior appointments were on the music faculties of the Universities of Hawaii, North Texas, and Southern Maine, among others. With sixty active titles in his catalogue, including musical settings of more than a hundred and twenty texts, Scearce’s many works for orchestra, band, chorus, opera, chamber, and ballet have been performed throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. The recipient of five advanced degrees in music, philosophy and religion, including the doctorate in composition from Indiana University, Scearce has won six international music competitions and his music has been honored by the Wellesley Composers’ Conference, the Buffalo Festival, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Ucross, and the American Music Center. Scearce currently has seven works commercially available on compact disc on the Delos, Warner Bros, Capstone, Centaur, Albany, and Equilibrium labels, and on a Sony 4-channel SACD available online at frystreetquartet.com.”
When Dr. Scearce was at Indiana University where he received his DMA in composition, he studied with John Eaton. Eaton is internationally known as an opera composer and for his work in electronic and microtonal music. Eaton’s composition teachers included Milton Babbitt (who, unfortunately and sadly, died just a few weeks ago at the age of 94) and Roger Sessions. After receiving BA and MFA degrees at Princeton University, he joined the Indiana University faculty in 1970. He is currently Professor of Music Composition at the University of Chicago.
Scearce has also expanded our musical vocabulary by using microtonal technique. Instead of using a scale or a 12 tone serial technique where the notes are separated from themselves by the typical half step, the microtonal “scale” has “notes” that are separated by divisions much smaller than a half step. For example, a piano has 88 keys, and all of the notes on the keyboard are separated by a half step. The German piano manufacturer, Ulrich Sauter, has responded to the need of composers by building microtonal pianos. As far as I know, he is the only manufacturer to do so. On his microtonal pianos, instead of having 88 keys, there are 97 keys, and those 97 keys – the entire keyboard – encompass only one octave. From note to note, instead of a half step, there are eight divisions.
In Scearce’s composition, This Thread, his use of microtonal technique gives his work the sound and feel of searing pain, especially when accompanied by the text which was written by Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and only the eighth woman to win the prize. The text was read by Kim Axline, Associate Professor of Theatre, as part of the performance. The work is written for orchestra, violin, and mezzo-soprano who sings the text that was read. Yumi Hwang-Williams performed the violin solo, and Judith Christin was the mezzo in Thursday’s performance. Both of these women were, of course, exceptional. It seems an odd thing to say, but the combination of text, violin, and the mezzo voice quality that Ms. Christin possesses, were integral in the overall sound and timbre of this piece. Christin has sung over 50 opera roles, and has performed with all of the major opera companies in the United States, Europe and in the Orient, and major orchestras in those countries. The quality of her voice matched this work so remarkably, that I wonder if Scearce chose her particularly to sing in this work. And, we all know that Yumi Hwang-Williams is consistent in her excellent ability to match her sound with whatever she is playing. And it is in this work that the timbre and resonance of the sound is so important. There were moments when I was reminded of Krzysztof Penderecki’s monumental work, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, in which Penderecki uses the same compositional technique as Scearce. And Penderecki even commented that he was surprised at this sound’s emotional impact. Scearce is exemplifying his hope that such an event as September 11 will never happen again, just as Penderecki stated that, “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.”
In this work I was absolutely astounded at the very emotional, mellow, but intense tonal quality that the Lamont Symphony generated. I was also struck by how committed the orchestra members were in generating this sound. It was very evident that they were working very hard, and it was also evident that Maestro Golan was working them very hard to get the kind of sound that this composition demands. Christin and Hwang-Williams were in total partnership. I have never heard this orchestra play with such intensity and with such professional devotion to making music. As I said above, this was the Colorado premiere of this work, but it was also a premier of another rung in the ladder that this orchestra has taken. There is no question that many in the orchestra were quite young on September 11, 2001, but it seemed as though they had memories of it happening as if it were yesterday. This was a very somber and compelling performance of a very difficult work, and its beauty is undeniable. Yumi Hwang-Williams, Judith Christin, and the Lamont Symphony performed as if they were one instrument under the benevolent control of Lawrence Golan. What more could one ask for? During the intermission, I could only remain in my seat, and wonder at the emotion and the dignity of the music that I had just heard.
There is no way to under estimate the phenomenal impact that Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony had on the public when it was premiered in 1941. Shostakovich had left Leningrad as a member of the Russian Home Guards, and it seems an odd thing, but his main vocation during the war was writing patriotic songs, much the same way that the French troops during the French Revolution wrote patriotic songs which, to make a long story short, led to the establishment of the Paris Conservatory. Of course, this also says something about the inactivity that Shostakovich faced as a member of the Home Guard. Nonetheless he missed Leningrad, and he swore that if he finished this Symphony, he would dedicate it to the “beloved native city of mine.” After its premiere in Russia, there was a considerable rivalry between the conductors Toscanini, Stokowski, and Koussevitzky, to see who would be the first conductor to perform it outside of Russia. This seems unusual in a way, because after the war it had lost its popularity, largely, because Stalin derided the work as prosaic and banal. But you must remember, that in 1948, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Kabalevsky, were among the composers and other artists, including the great Russian poetess, Anna Akhmatova who were called before the Central Communist Committee where they were told that their art was worthless and not in the true Soviet tradition. Shostakovich truly feared that he and his family might suffer consequences. But this symphony’s popularity began to grow again and it received regular performances. This is a huge composition, taking on the average of 70 minutes to play. But be warned – there are some performances that take fifty minutes and there are some that take almost an hour and twenty minutes. The less time a performance takes, the more one feels one is being rushed through the performance. And, of course, the longer it takes, the more it seems to drag.
Dr. Lawrence Golan took a perfect tempo at Thursday’s performance. And once again, the Lamont Symphony absolutely dazzled in this monumentally difficult work. Again the orchestra produced a very rich sound, and the opening theme after the introduction was well-nigh perfect in the violins. The woodwind section: (flute piccolo bassoon), all of them, performed exceedingly well. The second movement was almost ballet like in its grace and flow, and the pizzicato sections were perfectly together. The wonderful sound that this orchestra produced Thursday night was quite noticeable in the opening of the third movement. If one had their back to the stage so that the orchestra could not be seen, it would have been quite excusable to think that an organ was playing. The fourth movement, which begins without pause, was one of the most exciting live performances of this symphony that I have heard. I promise you that I am not exaggerating. You must understand that there are some performances where everything fits together almost miraculously. However, I hasten to point out that any miracle was made possible by the hard work of everybody in the orchestra, the podium included. The time it took to perform this piece went very quickly, even though I think it was about an hour and ten minutes. But, I assure you I was not counting because I was reveling in the music. As was stated in the program notes: “This symphony is the embodiment of the idea that despite the turmoil of war, the Soviet people would persevere in hope of freedom from oppression. The people of the United States of America certainly exhibited this same sense of unity and perseverance in the wake of September 11, and it is due to this correlation that Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony was chosen for tonight’s performance.”
Was it a perfect concert? Perhaps not, but what performance is ever perfect? It was so amazingly well done, and the students, and the soloists, and Maestro Golan work so hard and produced so much beauty, that a wrong note here or there, or an entrance that was a nano second late or early was superfluous. The minute the concert was over, the audience literally sprang to their feet. Golan recognized every section in the orchestra during the applause. They deserved it. You have to understand that the students got a true lesson in stamina at this concert. Not just physical stamina, but mental stamina as well, and it is my sincere hope that the ovation they received is ample reward for lessons well learned.