Interview with Gwyneth Walker, Composer
January 11, 2017
In preparation for our January 20 and 21 concerts, PSO Assistant Conductor Chad Goodman reached out to composer Gwyneth Walker, whose work “Concert Suite” will open both performances. Gwyneth was kind enough to share some insight into her work, her influences, and her compositional process.
CG: When were you first introduced to music and what led you into composition?
GW: I first became completely enthralled with music at age 2, when I heard my older sister practicing the piano downstairs, in the early evening, when I had already gone to bed. The sound and sensation of music awakened me, and I am still “awake!”
By the next morning, I had crawled over to the piano bench, climbed up, and started playing…emulating what I had heard the night before and then making up my own sounds. Soon enough I had learned how to write down my musical creations on music paper. By first grade, I had organized my friends into my little orchestra to play my compositions once a week.
I am the daughter of an inventor. Perhaps this helps to explain my desire to create.
CG: What is the compositional process like for you? Is there a particular time of day that you like to write music?
GW: I compose music every day starting in the morning, and going into mid-afternoon. Then I take a break (get some exercise) and return to my desk for a few hours in the evening.
While in the process of creating a new work, I do not listen to any other music. But when I travel to concerts (such as out to the Bay Area to work with the Peninsula Symphony), I listen attentively to the repertoire on the entire program. This is one very good way to expanding my musical awareness.
CG: What’s your favorite non-musical activity?
GW: When not composing, I get up from my desk or piano for exercise, which I greatly need for my health and happiness. I play tennis, swim and walk as much as possible.
CG: Have there been any composers or professors that have had a profound influence on your musical voice?
GW: I studied composition at Brown University and the Hartt School of Music. I was fortunate in having excellent teachers. My teacher at the Hartt School was a strong-minded Italian named Arnold Franchetti. All of us who studied with him started experimenting in the language he brought to this country in the 1950s. He liked Bartok’s music a lot. So perhaps we all dabbled in that. But as soon as my studies were over, I returned to composing in my own style.
Friends who have known me and my music since childhood say that my style sounds just the same. “I would recognize that music anywhere” says a friend who went for 30 years without hearing any of my music, and then hearing it again (before being told that it was my music).
This is a long way of answering that I do not believe that there was a composer who had a profound influence on my music.
I have sounded just like Gwyneth Walker from the start.
For more information about Gwyneth Walker please visit her website: http://www.gwynethwalker.com/
Blues, Jazz and Symphony – which of these things is not like the others?
January 4, 2017
There is a steady stream of music being created for orchestras that attempts to fold jazz, blues, and rock and roll, the most organically “American” of musical styles, into music that gets played at symphony concerts. The impulse is natural. Many classical musicians love jazz in its various forms and look for opportunities to expand their horizons – and many jazzers love the rich color palette that an orchestra can provide. Blues, defined by its question/answer format, typical 12-bar phrases, characteristic chord patterns and “bluesy” flatted 3rds and 5ths, intersects more with jazz than classical music. It’s also true that classical music in America is a “niche” product, seeking to broaden its appeal, and, not accidentally, its ticket sales.
So, the result is a proliferation of what’s commonly referred to as “crossover” pieces, often played at symphony pops concerts. It’s a mixed bag, and frequently misses the mark as either good symphonic music or real jazz or blues. The best of these works can be magical, and George Gershwin is the transformative composer of this genre. Porgy and Bess is opera and it is jazz, and it’s one of the most profoundly moving theatrical experiences in anyone’s lifetime (I’ve been lucky enough to see several great productions, including the thrilling one at the San Francisco Opera several years ago). Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris are equally inspired treasures. Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Claude Bolling, Morton Gould, and a (very) few others managed to master this art.
I find the most commercial variety of this type of music pretty bland, though I know that many people love Yanni, Kenny G, and John Tesh, often found on symphony stages and pledge drives on PBS. Many orchestras program one light “jazzy” piece on a program filled with classical chestnuts and call it innovative.
Over the years, the Peninsula Symphony has programmed original works by Taylor Eigsti, Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill, Jeremy Cohen, Chris Brubeck, Paul Dresher and other authentic and superb artists, and always on programs that look at many facets of the idiom in a broad symphonic context, and with the best of intentions. And, honestly, they don’t always work. Like any new music, a batting average of over .500 is pretty darn good.
But the effort has always been worthwhile, IMHO. The symphony musicians (and their conductor) get to stretch their technique and artistic sensibility in a way that’s profoundly different. To really play jazz, you have to listen differently – hear the pulse under the notes in a way that jazzers are better trained to do than classical players. You have to trust yourself to play more than just the printed notes, but also the feeling inside the notes, even, dare I say, improvise. It’s a revelation, and it’s challenging.
It’s also complicated, since one runs out of Gershwin masterpieces pretty fast, and commissioning and arranging new ones is no small undertaking. We’re lucky enough to have our own composer/arranger in residence – the fabulous Ron Miller. Ron has collaborated on dozens of projects, and he gets it. He knows the style, and he fits the jazz into playable and stylish orchestrations.
So, we venture forth yet again into this realm in our January concerts, collaborating with a local ensemble that has become a real cultural institution. The Saint Michael Trio plays classical music and jazz (and blues) with equal aplomb and with equal success. They make their concerts fun and funny, with engaging commentary and brilliant playing. Now in their tenth year, they have established a rabid fan base in concert and on YouTube, and as artists-in-residence at Menlo College, NDNU, Stanford, and Villa Montalvo.
Some newly released videos of theirs:
For this program, the emphasis is on jazz and blues, with a small helping of tango. Sweet Georgia Brown, Jive in Blue Major, Amoureuse, and even Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely will mix with St. Louis Blues, Claude Bolling’s Suite for Trio and Orchestra, Gwyneth Walker’s Concert Suite, and lots more. Numerous selections will be premieres of new Ron Miller arrangements. It’s going to be great fun, and maybe it will suggest that all of these things are more alike than we first thought.
Check it out.
Mitchell Sardou Klein
Notes From the Player With the Fewest Notes
December 21, 2016
For well over a decade now, my name has been listed in each PSO program as a member of the orchestra. Yet, you are far more likely to see me in the audience than on stage. How is this possible, you ask? I’m a member of PSO’s saxophone section, a group as indispensable to the orchestra as a hot dog vendor is to a vegan convention.
What a pity that more composers don’t appreciate the tone colors that the saxophone family can add to the sound of the orchestra. I’m willing to give a break to Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, perhaps. After all, they were long since dead and de-composing when Adolphe Sax invented the instrument in Dinant, Belgium in 1846.
(Side note: To read about a life of misfortune, I suggest checking out this article about Adolphe Sax. He almost died seven times as a kid, including a three-story fall onto a rock. As an adult, he suffered from lip cancer, invented such flops as the saxotromba and the saxtuba, and died in utter poverty.)
But for those who composed orchestral works after that date, what’s their excuse?
To give credit where credit is due, let’s look at those composers who have gotten our section out of the audience and onto the stage.
Thank heavens for George Gershwin, for example. An American in Paris is scored for three saxophones (alto, tenor, and baritone) in the revised edition. The earlier edition called for the first chair to play alto and soprano, the second chair to play tenor, alto, and soprano, and the third chair to play baritone, alto, and soprano. We’d still be putting instruments away after the performance even after the percussion section had packed up and gone home!
Gershwin also found a place for us in Rhapsody in Blue and the Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. Of course, Gershwin lived during the Big Band heyday, so one would expect him to know and love the saxophone. What about others, with perhaps more classical roots?
Maurice Ravel used three saxophones in his most famous work, Boléro: a sopranino, a soprano, and a tenor. I have a feeling though that Maurice was not a sax player himself. The poor tenor player has to sit there, counting measures of rest, listening first to the snare drum introduction, then five complete trips through the melody, and just as his reed has dried out and probably won’t make a sound, it is his turn to play the melody, fully exposed for all to hear. The other two saxes have to wait one extra trip round the melody, for the tenor to finish, then they get their turn.
One of my favorites has to be The Little Train of the Caipira, by the Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. The baritone sax part only has about 30 notes in it. I’m sure it takes me longer to put on my tuxedo’s bowtie than to play the entire part. But, the sounds of that steam locomotive starting up, trying to get some traction on its rails would just not sound the same without the added grunts that the baritone adds, at the bottom of its range.
I would be remiss at this point not to mention Ron Miller, the orchestra’s resident composer and arranger, and a saxophone player himself. He gets tasked from time to time with arranging the works of our guest artists, changing them from small combo arrangements to full orchestral arrangements. Ron usually finds a way to work a few saxes into the arrangements. He’s done that, for instance, for Taylor Eigsti and his groups, and also for the incredible vocal/piano pair, Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill. What a treat to be able to accompany such wonderful talent.
So, at your next PSO concert, take a look at the back of the orchestra. If I’m on stage, I’ll be wedged in the last row, with the bell of a french horn a few inches from my left ear, and the mallets of the timpani a few inches from my right ear. If I’m not there, TAKE ACTION! As the old joke goes, demand less sex and violence on your TV, and demand more sax and violins in your orchestra!
Get to know our Guest Conductor, Craig Jessop – Stanford Concerts
November 16, 2016
We’re so excited for our upcoming performances at Bing Concert Hall, Stanford Campus, this Friday 11/18 at 7:30pm and Sunday 11/20 at 2:30pm. Our distinguished guest conductor, Craig Jessop, will lead us through a powerful rendition of Duruflé’s Requiem with the Stanford Symphonic Chorus in a tradition that has lasted over 25 years. The program also includes Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Pavane for a Dead Princess, Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, and Dukas’ Fanfare from La Peri. Get to know this great conductor in his bio below:
Dr. Craig Jessop is Professor of Music and the founding Dean for the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University. These appointments follow Dr. Jessop’s distinguished tenure as music director of the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Head of the Department of Music at Utah State. He is the founder and Music Director of the American Festival Chorus and Orchestra and has served as the music director of the Carnegie Hall National High School Choral Festival sponsored by the Weill Institute of Music at Carnegie Hall. Prior to his appointment with the Tabernacle Choir, Dr. Jessop was a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force music programs, where he served as director of the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants in Washington, D.C. (1980-1987); as commander and conductor of the Band of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe at Ramstein, Germany (1987-1991); and as commander and conductor of the Air Combat Command Heartland of America Band (1991-1995). He has also been music director of the Maryland Choral Society, the Rhineland-Pfalz International Choir of Germany and the Omaha Symphonic Chorus.
Dr. Jessop has a Bachelor of Science from Utah State University, 1973; Master of Arts from Brigham Young University, 1976; and a Doctor of Musical Arts in Conducting from Stanford University, 1980.
In recognition of his outstanding contribution to the cultural life of Utah, Dr. Jessop received the 2014 Governor’s Mansion Performing Artist Award bestowed by Governor Gary Herbert, Governor of the State of Utah. In 2013 he received the prestigious Madeleine Award for distinguished service to the Arts and Humanities by the Madeleine Arts and Humanities Council and in 2012 he was awarded the Utah National Guard’s Minuteman Award for service to the State of Utah.
Under his direction, the Tabernacle Choir received numerous awards, including the coveted National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House. He has recorded over 15 CDs on the Telarc and MTC labels with the Choir and in 2008 received a Grammy nomination for his work with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.
At the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Dr. Jessop conducted the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony, working with world-renowned artists Sting and Yo-Yo Ma, and composers John Williams and Michael Kamen. Other artists with whom he has collaborated include Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Bryn Terfel, Audra McDonald, The King’s Singers, Angela Lansbury, Claire Bloom, Walter Cronkite, and Charles Osgood. In 2003, Dr. Jessop conducted the choir and prepared the singers for a performance of A German Requiem at the prestigious Tanglewood Festival with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Rafael Frübeck de Burgos. A much sought-after guest conductor, Dr. Jessop has been on the American choral scene for more than three decades. His tenure as Music Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and as director of the United States Air Force Singing Sergeants in Washington D.C. has taken him to the most prestigious concert halls of the nation and around the world including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Royal Albert Hall in London and throughout Europe and Asia. In 2013 Dr. Jessop was selected by the American Choral Directors Association to conduct the monumental Benjamin Britten War Requiem with the Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra at their national convention, the fourth time in his career to conduct at the national ACDA conventions. He is also a frequent guest conductor at the prestigious Berkshire Choral Festival in Massachusetts.
In addition to his work as a conductor, Dr. Jessop has been active as a baritone vocalist, first as a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and later with the choirs of Helmuth Rilling and John Rutter and with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers. He is a previous winner of the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions and San Francisco Opera auditions, and has participated in the Merola Opera training program of the San Francisco Opera.
He lives in the peaceful setting of the northern Utah valley of Cache County with his wife RaNae. They are the parents of four children and have seven wonderful grandsons.
Conrad Tao – My Family’s Personal and Transformative Experiences with this Talented Artist
by Rena Ling, PSO Contributor
October 26, 2016
We first met Conrad Tao & his family in 2010 when, under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society & their dynamic Artistic Director, Leila Getz, our son, cellist Nathan Chan and Canadian violinist Timothy Chooi were brought together for a special concert at the Chan Centre in Canada. It was an exciting collaboration. Leila Getz hand picked the 3 young teens (coincidentally all 16 years old at the time), brought them to Vancouver a week early to rehearse & be coached by James Parker of the acclaimed Gryphon Trio and presented them to great acclaim as soloists & in ensemble in a grand finale performance of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor. To this day, Leila still calls this project “one of the best projects I’ve ever been involved with”. A couple years later, Conrad & Nathan would meet up again in college at the Columbia/Juilliard program in NYC and Timothy Chooi would be nearby at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (Timmy’s big brother is PSO & Klein Competition favorite, Nikki Chooi).
While in Columbia, Nathan & Conrad would continue to collaborate in both formal & informal settings. Informal – as in 3am sight-reading sessions of Piano & Cello Sonatas (probably after a little too much dormitory partying — but as a parent, I don’t need to know all details of that…) and formal, when Nathan was invited to be part of Conrad’s first curated, cutting edge 3-Day New Music Festival “Unplay” which also celebrated his 19th birthday and the release of his first album “Voyages” on EMI Classics.
Nathan shared with me one of the most exciting things about performing with Conrad is that his internal sense of rhythm is so innate that it transmits wordlessly and he knows exactly what is the most important thing you need to hear in the music. My husband & I recently went to hear Conrad play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini with the San Francisco Symphony and I can whole-heartedly agree with Nathan’s statement from an audience viewpoint. There is that primal sense of rhythm and moreover, it is interesting to note that Conrad Tao, the Pianist and Conrad Tao, the Composer are inseparable – Conrad interprets from the profound perspective of a composer, understanding in intent emotionally, harmonically, melodically, & rhythmic propulsion. The intellect in undeniable. You can hear it in the playing.
Watching Conrad’s career has been an honor. I’m so glad the Peninsula Symphony audience will have a chance to catch this rising star.
Getting to Know Conrad Tao
October 19, 2016
Are we farming strawberries on Titan yet? One of our favorite quotes about our upcoming piano soloist, Conrad Tao – “If NASA had a tenth of his talent, they’d be farming strawberries on Titan by now” (SF Classical Voice) – makes me very excited to get to hear this up-and-coming phenom live and in person in less than three weeks.
What were you doing in 1994? If you’re like most of us here at PSO, just being born into this world isn’t the response you’d give either. Well, Conrad Tao may be young, but we put that in the “pros” column. When we were his age, we were most likely just trying to get our start in life, but Conrad has already had numerous awards and honors to his credit. His bio below will serve as a glimpse into the already extremely accomplished life of this extraordinary artist, who will be gracing our concert halls November 4th & 5th. We can’t wait to share this experience with you all!
Conrad Tao’s Bio:
“Conrad Tao has appeared worldwide as a pianist and composer and has been dubbed a musician of “probing intellect and open-hearted vision,” by The New York Times, a “thoughtful and mature composer,” by NPR, and “ferociously talented,” by TimeOut New York. In June 2011, Tao was named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars and the Department of Education. That same month, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts awarded him a YoungArts gold medal in music, and later that year he was also named a Gilmore Young Artist, highlighting him as a promising pianist of the new generation. In May of 2012, he was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.
During the 2015-16 season, Tao performed with the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, Brazilian Symphony, and Calgary Philharmonic, among others. He also performs recitals in Europe and throughout the United States with repertoire including Bach, Frederic Rzewski, Rachmaninoff, and Julia Wolfe. Past notable symphonic engagements have included the San Francisco Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Toronto Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Detroit Symphony, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony, and Nashville Symphony. Tao maintains a close relationship with the Aspen Music Festival, and has appeared at the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, Brevard Music Center, Ravinia Festival, and Mostly Mozart Festival.
In June 2013, Tao kicked off the inaugural UNPLAY Festival at the powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, New York, which he curated and produced. The festival, designated a “critics’ pick,” by TimeOut New York and hailed by The New York Times for its “clever organization” and “endlessly engaging” performances, featured Tao with guest artists performing a variety of new works. Across three nights encompassing electroacoustic music, performance art, youth ensembles, and much more, UNPLAY explored the fleeting ephemera of the Internet, the possibility of a 21st-century canon, and music’s role in social activism and critique. That month, the Warner Classics recording artist also released his first full-length for the label, Voyages, that was declared a “spiky debut” by the New Yorker’s Alex Ross. Of the album, NPR wrote: “Tao proves himself to be a musician of deep intellectual and emotional means – as the thoughtful programming on this album…proclaims.” His sophomore album, Pictures, which slots works by David Lang, Toru Takemitsu, Elliott Carter, and Tao himself alongside Mussorgsky’s familiar and beloved “Pictures at an Exhibition”, was released in October, 2015; the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini called it “a fascinating album [by] a thoughtful artist and dynamic performer…played with enormous imagination, color and command.”
Tao’s career as composer has garnered eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards and the Carlos Surinach Prize from BMI. In the 2013-14 season, while serving as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s artist-in-residence, Tao premiered his orchestral composition, “The world is very different now.” Commissioned in observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the work was described by The New York Times as “shapely and powerful.” In 2016, Tao closes his residency in Dallas with a new work for the orchestra, “Alice“, to be premiered in June. Most recently, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia commissioned a new work for piano, orchestra, and electronics, “An Adjustment”, which premiered in September 2015 with Tao at the piano. The Philadelphia Inquirer declared the piece abundant in “compositional magic,” a “most imaginative [integration of] spiritual post-Romanticism and ‘90s club music.”
Tao was born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1994. He has studied piano with Emilio del Rosario in Chicago and Yoheved Kaplinsky in New York, and composition with Christopher Theofanidis.”
Remembering Marguerite Szekely – A Longtime PSO Supporter & Friend
October 12, 2016
When I began my tenure as Managing Director with PSO a couple years ago, I soon realized that I would be acquainting myself with patrons and donors who were significantly older than myself, and that those folks would quickly define the legacy of Peninsula Symphony. I realized early on that the richness of the organization was founded on years of dedicated passion and hours of service to our wonderful orchestra. Over 15 symphony guilds, groups of hard-working and enthusiastic women passionate about classical music, were established throughout the peninsula. Each guild played a role in making sure our halls were filled with concert-goers, and that fundraising events took place and were successful, ensuring our community mission be carried out.
I have not had the good fortune of meeting some of these significant women who were pillars of our earlier days, but I have been able to hear second-hand about many of those who are not with us today, but gave tirelessly of themselves.
One of these women was Marguerite Szekely, who sadly passed on a few months ago. Marguerite was a major supporter and advisor within the leadership of Peninsula Symphony. Her love of music and the arts, combined with her dedication to youth through her support of the Klein Competition winners at the annual Charles Gundelach Memorial Concerts, was exemplary. Her knowledge and wisdom contributed greatly to developing successful relationships with other community partners. She will be fondly remembered for her elegant and gracious manner, her personal kindness and warmth, and her mentorship of many Symphony leaders and supporters.
We will miss her enthusiastic presence at concerts, and her warm and charming company.
The History of Peninsula Symphony
October 5, 2016
Dedication and love of music are the hallmarks of the Peninsula Symphony that is one of the finest community orchestras in the country.
The start of its influence began in 1949 when two groups of musicians who met independently in Redwood City (about twelve in number) and in San Mateo (about thirty-two in number) joined together under Mr. Aaron Sten, who had recently moved to San Carlos to now find himself conducting a group of sixty musicians under the name the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra. Rehearsals were held three times a week at Sequoia High School as part of an adult education program that gave Aaron Sten a salary as well as auditorium space for rehearsals. For over thirty five years this arrangement continues to be in place. The new orchestra, however, struggled financially and its needs were met by volunteerism, hard work, and persistence.
In the first year it was established, and as it continues today, there were four pairs of concerts on Friday night and Saturday night (October or November; January; March; and May) with programming with a different, professionally excellent guest artist for each pair of concerts. By the end of the second season, the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra had become the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra with donors, and the incorporation of the Peninsula Symphony as a non-profit Association under the leadership of Vincent Guida, a clarinet player in the former Redwood City group who was also the real estate professional who sold Aaron Sten his San Carlos house. T. Kevin Mallen was elected Chairman of the Board with sixteen members. The list of sponsors and donors then expanded quickly and the community was being involved in the orchestra’s success story.
Over the years, Aaron Sten started the California Youth Symphony with some of these musicians moving into the Peninsula Symphony as they grew up.
Venues moved from Sequoia High School to Notre Dame Auditorium in Belmont with the second concert at San Mateo High School Auditorium. Later venues included Spangenberg Auditorium at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School; Foothill College Gymnasium in Los Altos, and, in October of 1971, Flint Center in Cupertino. To date, the Symphony also plays at Capuchino Theatre in San Bruno and at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, with new venues being explored for the coming seasons.
Audience development in the Symphony’s early years was slow and challenging until 1956 when then Board President, Robert L. Clark, developed the Women’s Auxiliary that, for the next thirty years, was the driving force behind the organization.
With no Executive Director and no Symphony office, the work was completed by dedicated volunteers. The Auxiliary filled the halls, raised the funds, sold the advertising, wrote the publicity releases, and even ushered at concerts. Dorothy Norman, a violist with the orchestra, in 1964, took on subscriptions, pre-concert fliers and all mailings. Until her retirement in 1986, she completed almost all of the duties of an Executive Director from her home as a volunteer.
About 1985, it became increasingly clear to the Board that the fast growing Symphony organization needed an office and a paid, professional full time Executive Director with the expanding scope of the organization and its increasing complexity. This was also the year that Aaron Sten, the founder, retired to the Gold County and a new conductor took the podium bringing innovations and new ideas for the orchestra’s very bright future.
Mitchell Sardou Klein, who began his role in 1985, was a sharp contrast to Aaron Sten who founded the Symphony, nurtured it, and left it with a legacy of a fierce love of music, utter devotion to classical performance excellence, and the memory of his fiery temperament.
Maestro Klein has now brought the symphony to statewide prominence with his excellence in conducting and musicianship, expanded offerings of new music and his enhanced community outreach through such programs as Bridges to Music in the local schools. No other community orchestra is as accomplished and plays with internationally recognized soloists before large audiences.
The Peninsula Symphony has evolved fully from an organization where the conductor attended to marking the string music with bowings and fingerings as well as concert productions, where the Board managed the finances, and the Auxiliary performed all the other tasks.
Gone are the home offices, the Beautiful Viennesse balls that were attended each year by 360 patrons, but what remains is an organization where volunteers, from musicians to fund raisers, are the life giving force that empowers and embodies love of music and love of community, with a past and a future looking towards service to others in the joy of making music and creating beauty.
68th Season Kickoff Party
How We Honored Our Longest-Standing Musicians & Welcomed our Fortissima Season
September 28, 2016
This past Saturday, I was able to take part in a tradition at PSO for the first time – the season Kickoff party! What a memorable event filled with long-time friends, colleagues, fellow musicians, board members, staff, and gracious hosts, Ellis & Karen Alden. The afternoon was filled with memory making and memory recollecting. PSO members who have been performing with the orchestra for over 20 years were honored, given a certificate for their dedication and talent, along with a kiss, handshake, or hug and personal introduction from our beloved maestro Mitchell Sardou Klein. It was a sight to behold, and something I know I (and those present) will never forget. I truly felt on that day that PSO is more than just a musical ensemble – it’s a family.
Twenty-eight (!) of our musicians have been with us for over twenty years. In a 90-person orchestra, that’s nearly one-third. These members are committed often professionally-trained musicians that volunteer their time, talent, and support to further the mission of Peninsula Symphony. Along the way, they’ve created lasting bonds and contributed to PSO beyond just notes and rhythms in its 67 year history. This is what PSO is made of. This is what PSO looks like. Family, friends, musicianship, and commitment beyond belief.
Here are just a few pictures from the memorable event (photo credit Michael Frumkin):
PSO and the Schumann Piano Concerto
September 21, 2016
by Julia Adams, PSO Contributor
Have you ever explored the PSO Concert History Page? Just in case you haven’t, or haven’t recently, I thought it might be good to look at it together this week on the blog. I will be particularly looking at a piece from Peninsula Symphony’s upcoming season, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, which will be performed by the extraordinary Conrad Tao.
By visiting www.peninsulasymphony.org/history you have access to almost 70 years of concert history by the Peninsula Symphony, and although it’s always a work in progress, it has tons of fun information at your fingertips!
Check out the image below where I do a search under Schumann and piece title keyword “piano.” You can also see all the other options you have for searching, including conductor, soloist, concertmaster, etc.
After hitting “Search” it will bring up all the instances that Peninsula Symphony has played this piece (see the image below), which happens to be 4, including a partial performance by one of the youth competition winners.
You’ll notice a few things about the results:
- It has been performed by 4 different pianists:
- Sylvia Jenkins graduated “summa cum laude” from the San Francisco Conservatory and studied in Vienna and Siena, Italy (Accademia Chigiana). Her many scholarships and prizes include the San Francisco Critics Circle award, the University of California award, the University of California Alfred Hertz Scholarship for three consecutive years, and the Munich International Competition. “Beautiful performance”, wrote Zoltan Kodaly of her interpretation of his piano music at a special concert (Stanford University) honoring the composer on his single trip to the U.S.
- Wim van Overeem doesn’t seem to have much of a presence on the internet today, but from the newspaper clippings I was able to find from the early 60’s it seems as though he was a frequently performing pianist in the Bay Area at that time.
- Hélène Wickett has regularly appeared as soloist with major orchestras and in solo recital throughout Europe and the Americas as well as being active as a chamber musician. Her London Wigmore Hall debut took place in 1985, Kennedy Center in 1986, Paris Opéra Comique and Rome Villa Medicis in 1993. Ms. Wickett has appeared with the Cleveland Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Göteborg Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and many others!
- Christine Kim (the youngest soloist and winner of our 2009 Mindell Piano Competition) is another who does not have a strong online presence, but seems to have been very busy on the piano competition circuit in the late 2000’s, winning several along the way.
- 3 conductors have led the piece: Twice with founding Music Director, Aaron Sten, once with Mitchell Sardou Klein, and once with Jessica Bejarano, who was the assistant conductor in 2009.
- It’s almost always performed in the fall, as it will be this year on November 4th and 5th.
- The orchestra had an almost 30-year hiatus from the piece between 1961 and 1990, and it’s be 26 years since PSO has performed the entire work. It’s fun to think about why this was! Was it being performed by other orchestras in the area? Did the soloists not have it in their repertoire? Were the conductors just not “feeling it?” We’ll probably never know, but it’s interesting to hypothesize! By contrast, a quick search on the database indicates the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto has been performed 8 times.
- If you search the database for each soloist’s name, you’ll find that the Schumann is the only piece they ever performed with PSO. One and done!
What else can YOU find by searching through the archives? Has Peninsula Symphony ever performed YOUR favorite piece? Have fun!
Wine, Women, and Woodwinds
September 14, 2016
For my first blog post under this theme, I feel I should give you a little background. When I joined PSO on staff slightly over a year ago, I found out about a fun event hosted by one of our French horn players called “Beer, Bacon, and Brass”. He offers this as an item/event in the silent auction portion of our fundraising gala every spring – a cool mix of his own homemade brew, bacon wrapped treats as apps, and his brass quintet for live entertainment in his and his wife’s lovely backyard with many guests. Ever since I heard about this (and being a female clarinetist that doesn’t mind a glass of wine every now and then), I wanted to put together a counterpart – Wine, Women, and Woodwinds. (I know that’s not an exact rendering of his event’s opposite, but “watermelon” didn’t sound as enticing as bacon. Or “walnuts” for that matter. You get the picture…) For now, this theme exists in blog form. I hope to write at least a few over the course of our Fortissima Season. Perhaps the live event WW&W will surface one day!
I know Labor Day was the official end of summer, but I can’t shake the summer wines I’ve sipped over the last few months. When warm winds rustle the leaves of the birch trees outside my patio, there’s nothing more gratifying after a long day than a well balanced and full bodied glass of vino. And with that picturesque scenario in mind, here are my favorite sips of summer 2016:
Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay | Livermore, CA
A step down from its higher-priced and arguably upper-crust cousin Riva Ranch, Morning Fog is my go-to chardonnay of the summer months not only for its affordability but for the slightly buttery, mouth-filling heftiness belied by its price. Having moved from Livermore to the Silicon Valley just over a year ago, this wine gives me a slight nostalgia that’s perfect for an evening on the front porch with light classical music (preferably woodwinds, but hey, I’m a bit biased!) wafting through the open window screens. Find it at your local Safeway for $11.99.
More technical wine-speak can be found here: https://www.wentevineyards.com/wines/2013-morning-fog-chardonnay
-I think I’ll represent this just as much on “paper” as I choose it during the summer months – which is to say, not very much. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to choose my desert island varietal, it would for sure be a hearty cab. It’s just that I – like I’m sure most of you – drink more red during the cooler months…to be continued in subsequent posts.
NV Broadbent – Vinho Verde | Portugal
Have you ever craved a juicy, crisp green apple in 90 degree plus weather? A glass of this will make your lips purse, the corners of your mouth tighten like you’re working on a good clarinet embouchure, and your eyebrows raise toward your hairline — in a good way. Sound appealing yet? (Note only partial sarcasm.) Actually, all silliness aside, this tart sipper is REALLY reminiscent of a Granny Smith. I reserve it for only the hottest of days, when your wine glass sweats as much as you do. My first time trying this, I was feeling adventurous on an outdoor patio of a Livermore wine bar called Double Barrel. I asked the waiter for a creative recommendation as I had been in quite the wine rut. Boy, was I immediately (and pleasantly) surprised! Indulge as I did with live saxophone-led jazz on a long Sunday with no other plans. I sat on the patio enjoying this wild card as my husband (yep!) entertained the crowd on the sax. It was a perfect day. Find this Vinho Verde here for $8.99!
For my first WW&W post, I would be remiss if I didn’t keep it PSO centric. And how could I not, when I am around some fabulous women each day for my work at the symphony? We’re a small office of 3 women – Sheri, Joanna, and I. Sheri is our Managing Director, Joanna is our newest add as Admin Assistant and Education & Outreach Coordinator, and I’m Business Manager. It’s just a slight coincidence that our season theme is “Fortissima!”, which celebrates living female composers – one piece on each subscription concert – and highlights a few female soloists to boot. We’ll have Mary Elizabeth Bowden, trumpet, on our March slot performing Arutunian’s Trumpet Concerto and Enesco’s Légende along with another symphonic masterwork on the program, Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, which will put our concertmaster Debra Fong in the limelight as well. All this during March, which is Women’s History Month. But returning to our office personnel – three women working together with our fabulous orchestra, board of directors, music director/conductor Mitch Klein, and on such a cool (and frankly underdone) theme of bringing female musicians to the forefront – it doesn’t get much better than this. I am extremely humbled and privileged to work with these ladies and PSO.
-To find out more about our March concert, visit our event page: http://peninsulasymphony.org/2017march/
-To discover more about our Fortissima season, visit http://peninsulasymphony.org/2016-2017season/
There’s much to explore about the woodwind world – recordings, fabulous artists/ensembles, the intricate and ominous world of reed making, the perplexities of spit bubbles under keys, or trade secret tips to gain the most accurate duck call on just a mouthpiece, reed, and ligature setup. Just kidding – I’m sure not all of those topics would be interesting to you, the dedicated reader. I’ll stick to my favorite CDs right now. You can enjoy these along with a nice glass of chardonnay or vinho verde during a sunset…
1. French Portraits | Ricardo Morales, clarinet • Michael Chertock, piano (Boston Records)
What? You knew I was going to start off with an all clarinet album, being the clari-nerd I am, right? Well, you won’t be disappointed. Ricardo Morales is principal clarinet with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I’ve shared a beer with him. (Sounds almost like blasphemy after blogging about wine!) What I love about his sound is his amber warm tone and complete ease and liquid facility with technique. On this album, there is quite the display of raucousness when needed (Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata most particularly), which is a fresh counterpart to the absolute seamless and flowing finger work on something much more tonal and sweet, as in Cantilène by Louis Cahuzac. You’ll get the fanfaristic competition piece as in Andre Messager’s Solo de Concours, which is a work in the lineup of Paris Conservatory competition pieces for the conclusion of one’s degree, a longstanding tradition of commissions that includes the other famous clarinet works, including Première Rhapsodie by Claude Debussy. Did I mention French music is HARD? Morales makes every non-scalar run and showy finger-breaking lick seem effortless, a skill I very much admire about him and made only slightly jealous by.
2. Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart: Trios for Piano, Clarinet, & Cello | Emmanuel Ax, piano • Richard Stoltzman, clarinet • Yo-Yo Ma, cello (Sony Classical)
Did I miss something? The reason why piano is listed first, before clarinet, is beyond me. Just kidding (mostly)! This CD is my favorite of all time. I am partial to the combination of clarinet, piano, and a stringed instrument (see what I did there?) – there’s just something about the balance of the three seemingly different timbres that hits the metaphorical spot musically-speaking. Perhaps it’s the way the clarinet and cello can play in their lower registers simultaneously on distinct melodic lines and you lose, for just a second, which instrument is playing which. Or, it’s the way the vocal quality of the cello when it’s higher up the fingerboard pulls at my heartstrings the way the clarinet did for me so long ago. Either way, when these three sounds hit your eardrums, you’ll be hitting repeat. I have performed all three of these masterworks over the years. Brahms has to be my all-time favorite composer for chamber music for clarinet, and I adore his symphonies as well. The emotion runs high, and that whole universal language thing that music is for people – well, that’s obvious when you hear the painfully beautiful second movement of his Clarinet Trio. The Mozart trio heard on this CD was originally written for viola, not cello, but works seamlessly here. I’ll take Yo-Yo on any transcription, any day, but particularly in this combination, it works. The Kegelstatt Trio, as it was monikered by publishers, is so named because it was rumored that Mozart wrote this piece while playing a type of early bowling game (Kegelstatt means a place where ‘skittles’ was played). Historians learned that this title was a misnomer and was more accurately attributed to his 12 Duos for French horns, when manuscripts were discovered with a note from Mozart that they had been written while playing skittles. But, the name stuck over the years and was never redacted. Published in 1788, Kegelstatt Trio consists of three movements that will delight, entertain, and move you. The Beethoven Clarinet Trio is cheeky in its start, full of lively and captivating contrasts, and just fun to listen to throughout. You can’t go wrong with this CD in your car on a drive down the coast on a beautiful summer day. Heck, I’ll listen to this CD any time and any place. Preferably with one, or maybe two, glass of that chardonnay I told you about…
Throwback Thursday – Maestro’s Listening Club, March 2015
September 8, 2016
For this week’s blog post, we thought we’d take a look back at our Maestro’s listening suggestions from March 2015:
A CHANGE OF PLAN!
We began last month by looking at Beethoven, who created the modern concept of the fully developed Symphony. This time we’ll take a look at the first era of symphonic music, the full flower of which led directly to Beethoven’s revolutionary moment. This will build a better foundation as we move to later works.
As before, we include Amazon.com links, but this does not constitute an endorsement of Amazon, some of whose practices have been under scrutiny – this is just a common identifier of the CDs.
The Classical Era
The foundation of everything that that we now know as symphonic music starts with (Franz) Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), in my opinion the most underappreciated composer of all time. Beginning his musical life as a celebrated choirboy, Haydn gained prominence at a young age, even coming to the attention of Empress Maria Theresa. But his voice changed, and with it, musical history. Having enjoyed great public success, the young Haydn determined to gain a thorough musical education and, as his compositional powers grew, he was able to exploit his imperial connections to gain important and wealthy aristocratic patronage. His long tenure in the employ of the fabulously wealthy Count Esterhazy, a knowledgeable and socially prominent music lover, led to Haydn having the opportunity to fully develop and expand his musical ideas and also the resources to fund them. From this partnership came the incredibly rich legacy of both the Classical symphony (Haydn wrote 104 great ones) and the string quartet (he wrote at least 69), not to mention all the sonatas, trios, operas, choral works, and other works crucial to the development of music in the Classical Era. It is reliably reported that Haydn never repeated a single melody in any of the symphonies or quartets, an astounding feat.
Haydn created the symphony, as a concept, as a formal entity, as a sound, as an ensemble. Yes, he had precedents in the Mannheim school and elsewhere, but it was Haydn and Haydn alone who firmly established the symphony’s instrumentation (two groups of violins, plus violas, cellos and contrabasses; woodwinds in pairs; horns, later trumpets; timpani and other percussion), the form (usually four movements: a long sonata-allegro movement; a slow movement; a minuet and trio movement morphing later on to a scherzo; and finally, a last movement, often a rondo), and the full-throated timbre of a symphony orchestra. This general template persists even today, two and a half centuries later. What also persists is the ineffable joy in making music that lives in Haydn’s soul. Unlike the usual image of the pained, suffering artist (actively promoted in the Romantic Era), Haydn gives us pleasure, humor (sometimes of the laugh-out-loud variety), and whimsy, balanced exquisitely (since the Classical Era is all about balance and proportion in all things) with tenderness, occasional melancholy and majesty.
Haydn’s successor in the symphonic realm was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). His life is so well known, I won’t dwell on it much here, except to say that he was the most gifted musician ever born – a wunderkind of unimaginable talent, the most facile composer ever (he composed at a frantic pace when inspired), and the inventor of some of the most fabulously complex and intricate musical equations ever conceived. Although he was a snarky and difficult personality to live with, he left us with many of the most telling musical statements about the mix of ups and downs that define the human condition.
There are two schools of performance of these works: (1) using modern instruments and an approach that reflects the expectations of modern audiences, and (2) reverting to scholarly insights about how original instruments and performing practices were used in the 1700s. Here are some recommended CDs of the symphonic music of Haydn and Mozart in both styles:
1. Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 88, 101, 104
The Bay Area’s own very fine Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, led by Nicholas McGegan, using original instruments and practices. $18.09
2. George Szell Conducts Haydn Symphonies
Szell’s immaculate, incisive, witty 1950s, ’60s modern-style recordings of many of the great late Haydn Symphonies. $11.84 – what a buy!
3. Haydn: Complete Symphonies
Complete Haydn sets are very expensive, but this one, recorded by the marvelous Adam Fischer (who we heard at Davies Hall in SF with the Budapest Festival Orchestra recently) and the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra at the Esterhazy Palace at Eisenstadt, where these so many of these works were written, is excellent. Modern instruments – original practices. $91.71.
4. Mozart: Complete Symphonies
The English Concert, conducted by Trevor Pinnock, using period instruments and performance practices. $49.10.
5. Mozart: The Complete Symphonies
Prague Chamber Orch. Conducted by Charles Mackerras – an amazing bargain at $28.62 – a more modern approach, but informed by period practices.
6. Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 19, 20, 21, 23, 24
Alfred Brendel, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra, conducted by Neville Marriner. $14.97
7. Mozart: Requiem
Mozart’s last (uncompleted), perhaps greatest work (thought to have been written for himself on his deathbed), in a marvelous performance by the great Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic. $13.14.
Why Go To Concerts?
August 31, 2016
I am honored to have been invited to contribute a blog post for the Peninsula Symphony. I am doubly honored to be the first in a series of women composers featured in this season’s concerts.
I thought about some subjects for this post and realized that rather than to make it about me and my experiences, I’d rather focus on the “us.” So let’s look at the question: Why go to live concerts?
There is a special quality to live music that you feel in your body, touch with your feet on the floor, see in the faces of the performers as well as in their body language and their technique, and hear through your inner and outer ears. It is a moment shared with other audience members who have a love for the art form, or perhaps a familial connection with a performer, conductor, or composer: a moment shared with those on stage by extending gratitude for the dedication and work that goes into each musical performance.
This is the moment music comes alive in the human realm.
There is much to be learned from recordings, videos, books, and scores, but that is all part of the process that leads to the experience of the performance. There is the unknown: will there be imperfections? Will there be moments of sublime connection with your soul? Performance is in the present moment. That is precisely where life happens.
When you are fortunate enough to know one or more performers, perhaps even to be their friend, student, teacher, mentor, confidant, classmate, roommate, or philosophical sparring partner, the entire experience is magnified. It isn’t just a human body performing; there is a tangible relationship between you, an extra conduit of connection with the possibility of utterly electric gratification. You are a part of the music because you are a part of the performer’s life.
In today’s world, time is a precious and rare commodity. Do you have the time to go to concerts? Take a breath. Why are you here on this planet? What does life mean to you? At some point you may have had an awareness that music meant more to you than you could possibly verbalize. Music is made through relationships: relationships with pitches, gestures, phrases, sections, and with other pieces, but also through relationships among people. To be in a relationship means you both give and receive, and that you benefit tremendously from that generosity.
When you are in the room with people who have dedicated so much of their lives to becoming great musicians, you share their history, their journey, their labors of love and frustration. What an audience member may not be aware of, however, is that this is a two-way connection. You gift the performers with your attention which includes sharing your history, your journey, and your stories. Music performing and music listening can be visualized as separate, demarcated by the proscenium at the edge of the stage. It isn’t. Your presence is felt, and indeed required to make the musical experience whole. Without you, without the audience, the performers live in a silo. You bring music into the world.
To hear Carolyn Bremer’s work Early Light [wind band arrangement], which Peninsula Symphony will be performing on November 4th & 5th, 2016, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1ebtJXVsZE
It’s not about the instrument, it’s about the message: A Tuba Story
August 24, 2016
If all there was to each concert was what each individual musician contributed to the performance, I don’t think anyone would play the tuba. I mean, who wants to get into music performance only to play the melody once every blue moon, lug around 30+ pounds of brass bigger than the average child, be the butt of neanderthal jokes, and compete with the Triangle player for fewest notes played per piece? Safe to say most people would not sign up for that. However at 5 years old, upon seeing those polished beacons of bass march down the avenues of New York City, I became enamored with the tuba (thank you shiny object syndrome and the televised production of the Macy’s Day Parade).
Fast forward to band placement exams in elementary school and you can imagine what was placed in the lap of this chubby, bowl-cut-emblazoned boy. From my first band concert, to my first international performance with an orchestra to my first degree in music, the tuba never got a lot of notes to play but when it did play, it always spoke volumes. That is what I love about the tuba and its role with the most powerful vehicle of musical expression to date, the symphony orchestra. While often an auxiliary role in orchestras, the color it provides in the expansion and punctuation of musical statements gives an unrivaled depth to each of the messages it contributes to. The catch is, without the other 50+ proficient and passionate orchestral members on stage playing their part, the tuba alone struggles to sound greater than a tanker ship incoming to port or a disillusioned elephant. In order to deliver the most powerful and moving messages, we need each other.
That became all the more prominent for me when I had the great opportunity to perform with the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra this last summer in their outdoor Pops Concert Series. After three years of losing touch of my musical expression to my challenges and fascinations with the tech industry, I received a great reminder in what language delivers the greatest messages to its patrons (no it wasn’t Java, Python, or C++).
So, what is it like to play tuba with the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra? It’s a lot of fun being one of the most awkward ‘soloists’ on the planet. Okay…there are a few pieces that call for TWO tuba parts but that is an especially rare exhibition itself. You rarely play a phrase without other instruments in the orchestra. That makes your main job to blend with another instrument or section to make a more compelling sound than if either were separate. Getting used to this concept takes experience as a performer but when you get the blend right, it is a moment of transcendence for those musicians. Thankfully, the tuba gets paired with a variety of instruments so the focus on blending that takes place is diverse and exciting. Warmth with String Basses, thundering with Timpani, blasting with Trombones, bouncing with Bassoons, whimsically following Clarinets, and the matches go on. You have the opportunity with every entrance to shape your sound and articulation to assist in connecting larger pieces of the score together. A few quintessential tuba player moments I got to enjoy with this Pops Concert were:
-Getting used to the entire left side of my vision obscured by the reflection of the world the tuba creates.
-Seeing stage lights turn green and fade from hyperventilating…there were a few long phrases in Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia.
-Looking out on a sea of strings sawing away and soaking up the ambiance before drawing a final deep breath before the entrance to support the mass of music into its final point of arrival.
How do you make all this happen? Practice, focus, and collaboration! I’d get to rehearsals early to warm up, feeling the responsiveness of the room and discover what shape my chops were in that day. With focused study of the music through listening, rehearsals are able to turn into concerts, helping you push how far you can master every drop of ink. In a room full of folks like the PSO musicians, with a good set of ears and artistic flexibility, you are then able to take the repertoire to the levels of quality the music deserves in all its complex scoring. The greatest part about the music we play is it doesn’t say the same thing to each person.
Showing up and experiencing an orchestra concert for yourself is a special time. During the concert you are receiving the fruits of labor from a group of passionate, talented, and devoted people which can be consumed and digested by people of ANY walk of life. That is why I love listening to orchestral music and adding to the power of its musical messages with the contribution of my playing. Participating in the collective output of a universally understood expression of life and the human experience for others to embrace is amazing. After enjoying a few concerts of our 2016/2017 season, I challenge you to find rivaling forms of expressive messages which last only as long as the collective ensemble’s breath.
My Favorite Moment from Elgar’s Enigma Variations
August 18, 2016
This is a tough question, like choosing your favorite friend or family member. Well, actually, it IS a question of choosing my favorite family member or friend (of Elgar’s, in this case), since Enigma Variations is a collection of musical personality sketches of the people he loved the most. This totally amazing piece of music brilliantly gives us gorgeous and telling portraits of the 14 dearest people in the composer’s life (including, coyly, himself). So, my quest today is to rethink which one of them tugs at my emotions the most and is the most persistent earworm. There are quite a few from which to choose, because so many of them grab the listener and reward investigation.
And investigation is precisely what Elgar had in mind, which is why he created this masterpiece in the form of a complex, multi-layered puzzle. Enigma no. 1: What is the source of the theme which he states at the beginning of the piece, and forms the basis for each portrait?
Enigma No. 2: Who are the people who fit the initials at the top of each variation, and what are the traits that he finds most compelling for each?
Answers to Enigma No 2 are not too hard to find, and surfaced shortly after Elgar wrote the piece in 1899. Each set of initials is a person special to Elgar: for example, Variation I: “C.A.E.” printed at the top of the page, is his wife, Caroline Alice Elgar; Variation II: “H.D.S.P.” is Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist friend and chamber music co-conspirator; Variation III: “R.B.T.” is Richard Baxter Townshend, author and amateur thespian; Variation IX: “Nimrod” is A. J. Jaeger, music editor [Nimrod is the hunter in the Book of Genesis – “Jaeger” is German for hunter – see what he did there?]; etc. etc. up to Variation XIV: ”E.D.U” is Elgar himself, nicknamed “Edu” by his wife.
Enigma No. 1 has been a harder puzzle to solve. Scholarly articles have advanced various candidates for the origin of Elgar’s Theme, from “Rule Brittania,” to “Auld Lang Syne,” and many others. Elgar took his secret to the grave, despite a few promising hints. 92 years, yes ninety-two years later, the most likely answer surfaced in a New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/07/arts/new-answer-to-a-riddle-wrapped-in-elgar-s-enigma-variations.html). The second theme in the second movement of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony (No. 38) just looks and sounds right. And, indeed, that symphony was the final work on the program that premiered Enigma Variations, and Elgar considered Mozart his primary inspiration, and Elgar had heard a powerful performance of that symphony shortly before this, and, and… Makes sense to me, so Enigma No. 1 is probably solved.
“Prague” Symphony excerpt:
So, now on to my favorites, and then, if anyone is still reading, my very favorite moment. Some candidates:
Variation IX “Nimrod.” Well, this seems obvious – it’s the most celebrated passage in Elgar’s musical output, and it is music of incredible power and depth. Elgar and Jaeger loved to take long walks, punctuated with discussions of the greatest slow movements by Beethoven, and here Elgar writes a lingering, deeply affecting variation that transports the listener to a timeless, breathless place. A true religious experience. My favorite moment: as the music builds to its grandest climax with gigantic orchestral force, it suddenly disappears into a whisper in the last three measures. It is chilling and impossible to forget.
Variation XI “G.R.S.” George Robertson Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral. But it’s not actually about Sinclair – it’s about his bulldog, “Dan,” a local celebrity. This favorite moment happens right at the beginning of the variation. Dan rolls down an embankment into the River Wye (measure #1), paddles up the river (measures 2 and 3), jumps out onto the riverbank and barks loudly (measure 5)! GRS said to Elgar: “Set that to music!” Elgar did.
Variation III “R.B.T.” Townshend (see above) spoke onstage with a low, grumpy voice, punctuated occasionally with falsetto squeaks. We hear the grumpy side in the first note (at the bottom of the contrabassoon range), followed later by little falsetto jumps (in flute and oboe). Utterly charming, and so BRITISH.
Variation I “C.A.E” Elgar’s ardent love for Caroline is all over this sumptuous variation. It manages to be delicate, and romantic at the same time, as we suppose was Caroline in Edward’s heart. Favorite moment: about half-way into the variation, Elgar pulls back from the ravishingly rich orchestral sound to just a whisper of second violins playing a pianissimo harmonic “A” – unbelievably intimate and fragile for an instant, followed by a thrilling crescendo to a lavish outburst of lyricism to finish the phrase. Wow – love was never expressed in a more heartfelt and passionate way than this. And it is, indeed, my favorite moment.
Look! It’s A Blog!
October 8, 2015
Well, here we go, kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. It’s the PSO Blog, where you’ll find concert previews and listening recommendations from our Maestro, news and notes about PSO and its people, and musings from those of us behind the scenes. Updates weekly, or more often if we’re feeling particularly inspired.