No matter what instrument we play, as individual members of the orchestra we have our own parts to practice, our own passages to learn and get under our fingers, but outside of the rehearsal room our parts sound lonely and just empty enough to tell us that there's something much bigger at work than ourselves (yes, even playing music can have its own share of metaphors for life). We have to come together and work together to turn a single clarinet part into a supported melodic line in a symphony.
And that's what happens for us nine months out of the year: we receive our parts, we read through it as best as we can in the first rehearsals and we get a very rough and imperfect idea of what the final piece sounds like, and where we'll have to do some work on our own in the coming weeks. Some of the music might be familiar to us in melody but unfamiliar to us in such a way that when we see the music we might say to ourselves, "oh, so that's how the notes go," or we discover that the part that sounded like a high 'cello part was actually a viola part (and the viola players begin to panic invisibly...joke, joke).
The beauty of all of this is that we come together from all parts of the community to form the Seattle Philharmonic, a community orchestra. Some of us are musicians by profession, teaching locally, some studying music at the local colleges, but the rest of us are also lawyers, bankers, and engineers, too. Some of us work for the local airline, or behind the scenes for the opera, but we all come together on Wednesdays to put together a few pieces to share with you four times each year. Our repertoire has featured works from familiar composers but maybe the particular works we feature are some of their lesser-known. Sometimes we'll feature something completely new--so new that it hadn't been heard in the U.S. before, and sometimes even the whole world. We explore new music together with each rehearsal series and then share our discoveries with you on concert day--which is perhaps the essence of us being a community orchestra. We come from all walks of life to see where our collective love for music takes us.
On most any given day you'll find us everywhere, not just enjoying orchestra concerts, because if you keep an eye out, you might see some of the Seattle Philharmonic members playing in bands, hiking on the trails, maybe even in the airplane towing those banners you'll see over the skies of the city. One evening out of the week, though, you'll find us all in one spot making music.
At home, when we practice, it's just us and our individual parts; we gather on Wednesdays to explore these works of art as a community.
Also at home, we can also listen to a recording as individuals as well, but in a concert hall with a live orchestra, we are all a part of a community.
In fact, no matter what side of the lights we sit, we're all part of the same community and we're all sharing in the music at that concert. Together. Shared as a community. Having said that, we truly hope you've enjoyed our 2012-2013 season and thank you for joining us this year. We hope you're joining us as we close it out this Sunday (19 May) with two wonderful pieces that are so contagious and moving that it might be a bit difficult to sit completely still, and we definitely hope to see you at the beginning of our 2013-2014 season.
In the meantime, feel free to check out our podcast to learn more about the upcoming concert. We're excited about the Brahms, and we're really, really excited about the de Falla!
"'Tradition' is the last bad performance." -- Arturo Toscanini
Over the years, I have been asked many questions regarding the profession of conductor -- everything from the practical ("How do you decide what music to play?") to the metaphysical ("Have you ever had an out-of-body experience and seen yourself conducting the orchestra from somewhere above them?" -- yes, I did get that one once). Sometimes a question is of a more personal nature, and one that I've fielded quite a few times is, "Is it difficult to tell a group of good musicians how to play something?" The answer is both yes and no: the former, because I genuinely respect the collective musicianship of my colleagues and do not wish to alienate or offend because of my views on the scores at hand; the latter, because I come to the podium having done my homework, determined above all to adhere as closely as possible to the spirit and letter of the music. I am therefore prepared to say, in whatever manner appropriate, "This is how we shall play this work." If this be egotism, then I'm guilty; in my defense, I really do make the composer's wishes my primary goal, and don't think of a score as a forum for my personal take on it. If one really loves a piece of music, I think the best tribute is to take the composer at her/his word and not seek out ways to express oneself. In so doing, there is far more honor than mucking around with dynamics, phrasing and tempo in a desperate attempt to be original. (So why is Leopold Stokowski my favorite conductor? That's a topic for another day...)
Another question frequently encountered -- asked in a variety of ways, but essentially the same thing -- is, "Is it lonely at the top?" It certainly can be, and there have been cases in which I have felt like a minority of one amidst dozens of other musicians. (I am not speaking of any experiences with my beloved Seattle Philharmonic, an orchestra with which I have a lovely artistic marriage.) There are many instances -- more than I'd care to list -- of mannerisms which have crept into performances of the great classics, which seem to have no justification except that, somewhere along the line, someone had a boneheaded "inspiration" that was followed, lemming-like, from that day forward. By way of example: I've conducted Bizet's "Carmen" Suite several times with professional orchestras, and in the Aragonaise, shortly before the recapitulation, the musicians automatically started making a ritard, even though (1) none is indicated and (2) Bizet does request one roughly thirty measures later. This brings forth three important questions:
And yet...so used are performers to this impedance of the music's flow that I have invariably been greeted with a sea of raised eyebrows when I maintain a steady pace at this point. At moments like this, I usually stop and try to make an off- (but not high-) handed comment to the effect of, "I'm going to stay in tempo here," but the resistance is still palpable, even though Bizet's desires are there in black and white for all to see.
I could cite many other passages in the standard repertoire that are more often than not pulled about in this fashion -- poor Tchaikovsky, whose music as written is fresh and bracing, has had so many of his transitions stretched into taffy that one would be tempted to believe his critics' charges of emotional self-indulgence and mawkishness (not true!) -- but perhaps the most egregious occurs in the finale of Brahms' Symphony No. 1. At the moment when the glorious chorale tune, which first appeared in the movement's slow introduction in the low brass and winds, makes a blazing reappearance before the coda, a huge ritard is usually taken and the chorale played at a much slower clip than the rest of the passage that immediately precedes it. Brahms, whose tempo indications for the rest of the symphony -- especially the finale's introduction -- are meticulous beyond belief, gives no indication of a change of tempo here; as written, the chorale caps this passage in an impetuous and victorious way, and doesn't make the finale come to such a virtual full stop before setting off on the even-faster coda. A likely-true story has it that the ritard originated with conductor Hans Richter, who performed the symphony before an audience that included the composer. Afterwards, Richter met Brahms backstage and asked him, "How did you like my ritard in the finale?" "Oh, very nice," replied Brahms, "but what a shame it wasn't mine!"
To date, my sole experience conducting Brahms' Symphony No. 1 has been with the Seattle Philharmonic, and we proudly performed it per Brahms' instructions, without Herr Richter's interpolation. Should I ever have the pleasure of leading this masterpiece with a professional orchestra (and I mean this solely in the paid-for-a-living sense; the Philharmonic is entirely professional in its aesthetics and its outlook), I'm fully prepared to be adrift once again in that sea of raised eyebrows. Lonely at the top I may well be, but I'll at least feel as if Brahms is sharing that particular precipice.
When we attend a symphony orchestra concert, the "shape" of the music we hear is often sculpted by the hands of not just the musicians but also the conductor, too. Sometimes we find ourselves mimicking the conductor's gestures in our own inspired enjoyment but it's also rather fascinating to think about just how much influence these gestures have.
And it's not just in the hands--it's communication that involves the whole body. At the end of our concerts, I'll occasionally hear people commenting that it seemed like Adam was dancing on the podium and if you saw the view from our side, you'd see a giant smile on his face, too--but if you felt a sense of dancing, well, didn't the music feel like a dance at the time? We hope so :) So what goes into shaping a piece for performance?
In rehearsal, we'll occasionally stop and take some time to understand the shape of a given passage by using some form of description, often through verbal descriptions of visual elements and sometimes through abstract concepts. Or, we could also find an understanding by evoking sentiments from our common personal experiences, too. From there we can usually fine-tune the sound that we eventually hope to communicate by watching Maestro Stern's movements. It's much easier and more natural than saying "play this at this volume and taper it at this rate until you end at this volume."
Sometimes, though, this is also the most efficient way: during the rehearsals of our last concert, for the Sibelius we thought about swiming in gravy to help turn a visually frantic passage of sixteenth notes on paper into what we hoped to be a thick and hearty sound and for this concert we're imagining the heave of a hammer as we play Aaron Copland's "John Henry." On the other end, a few rehearsals ago we spent extensive time with more technical instructions to properly convey the style of Haydn's Symphony No. 96. "These quarter notes should be played as eighth notes," and so we were pencilling tails onto certain quarter notes in our parts, and later on we would pencil-in the word "bell" to describe their distinct taper of sound during a passage of half notes.
It's all in the character of the piece, maybe even the moment, but if you watch the conductor closely, you'll see these expressed in motion, motion translating into sound, and all of these forms of communication happen without uttering a word. We invite you to do this at our next concert, to not only hear the difference between "heavy" and "light" playing, or even long and short notes, but to see it.
To go along with that, here's an in-depth article by The New York Times on the various styles of conducting: The Maestro's Mojo.
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You can get tickets for our upcoming concert, where you'll hear Haydn's Symphony No. 96 and Aaron Copland's "John Henry" (among others), by clicking here!
In reviewing the music for tomorrow's concert, it's very easy to remember the day in October when we opened our folders to see the next concert's music, because many of the parts in the Sibelius were dark--dark with ink from all of the notes, rests, accidentals, you name it I'm sure it was in there. It was a bit intimidating for the first read-through, but as the rehearsals progressed, even by the third rehearsal, I think it was easy to sense a bit of excitement forming, which happens quite frequently as we learn and shape each piece. Images of gravy and Finnish bassists (to name a few) were tossed around to help refine the sound and at last week's rehearsal, we finally put all of the pieces together.
We rehearsed the Arutunian Trumpet Concerto with Don Bushell Concerto Competition winner Raymond DeLeon and during the rests we could only smile as we enjoyed superb playing. I'm sure the smiles were appreciative of his talent, but it would probably also be safe to say there was an element of "oh have we got something fun for you!" in there as well.
Also worth noting: you'll be hearing a piece being played for the first time by composer Karl Nord. Yes, this concert will have a world premiere! I could describe it but that would spoil the surprise, yes?
Flowing gravy. A warm, hearty yet moving fluid is probably one way to imagine what originally appeared to be a flurry of sixteenth notes that we saw during that first rehearsal. It was a chaotic mix of ingredients that steadily mixed itself into a warmed and wonderful sound that we hope you'll hear tomorrow. It's one of those pieces that is hard to describe without a few abstract concepts (the gravy is starting to make me hungry), but throw in a few images of Finland, close your eyes for a bit and see if you can summon a bit of synaesthesia and visualize the blue or maybe even purple in the sound and perhaps everything will come together just nicely. It was an experience for us to learn and we hope that it'll be an experience for you as well, no matter which route of enjoyment you wish to take (which is just one of the beautiful things about the arts!).
As with all of our concerts:
And now, a few things particular to this concert:
From the initial chaos has come a really wonderful sound during the rehearsals and we hope you'll join us tomorrow to get swept away in the music! Here's a little bit more about the upcoming concert:
We are 8 days into the new year, 7 days until our next concert where we play Beethoven's 6th Symphony as well as works by Malloy Miller, Richard Strauss, and George Frederic Handel--appropriately his "Music for the Royal Fireworks." The first half of the program will feature our wonderful percussion, brass, and woodwind sections, in very exciting pieces. Perhaps the best way to learn about the interesting nuts and bolts behind these pieces would be to take a look at maestro Adam Stern discussing them in the video podcast. Just navigate to the "video" link at the menu bar at the top of this page.
Something we're also very excited about this year is that we've once again offered tickets at a deal-of-the-day website, this time through LivingSocial. It ran for a few days, and we can only say thank you to all that responded. It was overwhelmingly positive and we can't wait to see everyone on the 15th. We're hoping to apply the lessons we learned from last year's enthusiastic response and try to smooth things out at the front end. Look for people handling the LivingSocial parts, other people will be handling will call, and yet others that will be handling regular ticket sales for those that decide to join us at the time (and there's still time!), and above all of this we'll have people ready to greet and help direct you to the appropriate area as well. While we're hoping the increased number of people at the front will help things flow more smoothly, we still encourage getting to Meany Hall slightly earlier in anticipation of what we hope to be a larger audience.
We've made a few changes at the beginning of this calendar year, but there are a few things that haven't changed:
There's one rehearsal to go for us and only details are left and by the time we see you we hope to have another program that mixes the familiar with the not-so-familiar. With the fireworks to start the year, we hope to end the concert with a piece that, well, could very well be a piece points us forward toward spring (and our next concert).
From all of us at the Seattle Philharmonic, we'd like to wish you a happy start to your 2012 and we can't wait to see you!
Benaroya Hall houses two performance halls in a complex that is thoroughly integrated into downtown Seattle. Occupying an entire city block at the very core of the city, the development celebrates the vital role of performance events while maintaining the continuity of commercial life along one avenue and providing a much-needed public space, in the form of a terraced garden, along another.
One Thousand and One Nights
Natalie Lerch, soprano