Heroism is not only in the man, but in the occasion.
– Calvin Coolidge
The spirit of heroism has been on my mind of late, as the Philharmonic and I enter into the final rehearsals for our March 28 concert, "Tragic Heroes". Nearly everyone has some notion – however personal – of what heroism is, whether exemplified by battlefield exploits, the taking of a moral stance in spite of opposition or ridicule, or simply making an effort to make the world a better place for even a few others by virtue of some good hard work or honest and earnest behavior.
I admit to having a few heroes myself, principally in the world of music – some known to me, others that I know solely through their music and biographical information. Alas, the creator of beautiful and lasting art, or the re-creator of that art in performance, is not necessarily an exemplary human being. For that reason, I admire Haydn, Dvořák, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Copland the more because they were, by all accounts, honorable, kind and decent men in a profession replete with jealousy, pettiness and back-stabbing (don't get me started). There are many composers and musicians who, while neither dishonorable nor cruel per se, were difficult characters that I'd just as soon not book a trip on a time machine to visit. Elgar and Verdi, both of whose music I love, could be pretty prickly if they had a mind to be. And then there's Beethoven's notorious body odor...
Nearer our own time, I certainly admire musicians who take a stand against the demeaning of music and concomitant condescension towards audiences. David Zinman, one of the finest American conductors, was the longtime Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony. I recently read this hitherto-unknown-to-me account on his Wikipedia page: "At the end of his Baltimore tenure in 1998, Zinman was named the orchestra's Conductor Laureate. However, in protest at what he saw as the Baltimore orchestra's overly conservative programming in the years since his departure, he renounced that title in 2001." More power to him, and to anyone who decries the reducing of classical concerts to hum-along, "safe" status. (Incidentally, the first time I ever heard Mr. Zinman conduct was at one of his guest-conducting engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I was mightily impressed, and was a bold enough teenager to go backstage and tell him so. Appropriately enough, considering the subject at hand, the concert concluded with Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben [A Hero's Life].)
Here in Seattle, I had the honor of working side-by-side with Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony's Music Director from 1985 until 2011. I was witness to many instances in which Gerry handled a difficult situation with consummate equanimity, which others in the same position mightn't have been able to do with nearly as much poise. One memory that sticks out is from about 1990, when Gerry was guest-conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He had chosen a wide-ranging program that included the West Coast premiere of a brand-new work by a prominent composer. What neither Gerry nor anyone else knew going in was that the performance materials – i.e., the handwritten score and parts – were not very well-calligraphed; the majority of rehearsal time, which should have been spent dealing with the piece's shape and emotional thrust, was taken up with answering players' copious questions about notes, rests and dynamics. (I was at the rehearsals, as I was still a Los Angeles resident at the time; I clearly remember the patience with which Gerry dealt with this disaster, even though it meant that the other pieces on the concert had their alotted rehearsal times shortened.) At the piece's final rehearsal, the composer was in attendance. Instead of offering any kind of thanks for anyone's efforts, the composer went into a minor tirade, complaining about the many flaws and imperfections he had detected during the run-through. The orchestra became visibly more demoralized as he fumed and fussed. In sum – and this was the last thing the performers would hear before the evening concert, as the new work was the last thing on the rehearsal – the composer said, "I must say that the whole thing sounds terribly under-rehearsed." Now, I know a lot of conductors – possibly including, I blushingly admit, myself – who would have, shall we say, taken exception to the composer's utter rudeness and called him on it in no uncertain terms. Gerry, however, stood on the podium, took a deep breath, and said to the composer, "I'll do better", and to the orchestra, "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen." To have thus absorbed the entirety of the composer's nastiness and thanked the orchestra for their supreme effort were the biggest things Gerry could possibly done at that moment, and he did.
During Gerry's tenure in Seattle, the Seattle Symphony performed and recorded many of the works of David Diamond (1915-2005), one of the last of the great American composers of the Copland generation. David's career had taken him all over the world, and his knowledge of the repertoire, from pre-Baroque to the present day, was voluminous; in spite of that, and of the hundreds (thousands?) of hours spent in the concert-hall listening to rehearsals and performances, he never lost his passion and pure, childlike awe for music, which was a real source of inspiration to me. (When I was a young student, a rather snide older colleague once told me, "You should become more of a musician and less of a music lover." As I thought – and still do – that both aspects could and should exist in equal measure, I wisely rejected his advice.) Whenever David was in town, he came to every rehearsal of every piece that Gerry and the orchestra were working on, whether his own music was being practiced that day or not. I remember one day when Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony was being rehearsed. How many times must David have heard it in his then-nearly-80 years? But he sat with me, watching the score, and periodically pointing to something and saying, "Look, look how marvelously Mendelssohn brings in the flutes here!", or, "Oh, isn't that use of the violas perfect!" To retain that much pure love for the art, to never get jaded or blasé as so many professionals have...that was enough to make David another hero in my eyes.
But my first hero – and ever the greatest – was my dad, a loving, giving and wise gentleman (he really was a gentleman, quite courtly compared to most men of his generation that I also knew) who truly practiced what he preached. He entered the business world almost by accident: his original intent was to be a teacher, but the necessity of employment steered him into the then-new (late '40s/early 50s) world of home electronics at the behest of his brother-in-law. He ended up a successful and respected executive for one of the world's major manufacturers of loudspeakers, JBL, and brought to his position the same high standards and disciplines that he would undoubtedly have embraced in the classroom. He certainly took his share of ribbing – he had a lot of cigar-chomping colleagues who chided him for his (in their eyes) overly-zealous respect for the English language, both spoken and written (Dad once insisted that his company reprint, at considerable expense, several thousand full-color ad slicks because he had discovered a misplaced comma), his unusually open manner (anyone in the company with a concern or problem, from whatever department, was welcome in his office for a one-on-one chat), and the high road that he invariably walked. Upon joining JBL in the late 1960s, virtually his first official action was to cut off all sales to South Africa, then still under apartheid rule. Even his competitors, some of whom no doubt benefitted from this action, gave him lip for it, wondering how he could possibly deprive his company of so many hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales. Dad's answer was simple: he would not have his company dealing with a country where fairness and equal rights were on a sliding scale determined by color.
At the end of a long work day, Dad was able to fall easily into a good night's sleep. No doubt his conscience made this more than possible.
Happy New Year!
We're hoping you've had warm and restful holidays to close out 2014. We've been on break since the 17th of December when we had an abbreviated rehearsal and then a sight reading session but this week we start rehearsing again for our concert coming up in 2 weeks (!!!). For these remaining rehearsals we'll be doing complete run-throughs of the concert, with soloists, picking up where we left off. Every rehearsal has been building up to these run-throughs, where the last few adjustments are made and the excitement among the musicians builds.
Preceding these run-throughs and concerts, though, were rehearsals that focused on many, many details--tiny building blocks that are assembled to make a larger work. If we don't really take the time to focus on these, then we risk losing the purpose of entire work altogether. These concerts, like many things in our daily lives, need a strong foundation in order to properly convey each work and for us to be doing this for our 70th anniversary, it takes a really strong foundation of support to stick around for this long.
For that, we're especially grateful. We're sincerely grateful for you for showing interest in us, for our supporters--people who donate their time or their money (or often both), and especially for our audience members. We're sincerely grateful for everyone that has helped us present this 2014-2015 concert season and all of the other seasons that came before.
Sometimes we'll receive letters of thanks in our mailbox that, in turn, reminds us of a fairly simple idea: we're all part of an amazing arts community here in the Seattle area. We're just one part of a much greater whole--and this greater whole is built on a solid foundation of support from concertgoers, lovers of art, just an energetic audience that allows all of us to do what we do year after year.
From all of us in the orchestra: thank you. All of you. We can't say it enough.
~ = ~
We hope to see you on the 17th at Benaroya Hall; for more information about the specific concert happening on that day and to order tickets, you can click here. (If you use the promo code "BACH" when ordering from our web page, you can get all of your adult concert tickets for $15!) Also, you can find us on Twitter and Facebook, too! Feel free to say hello!
"Conducting may be the only evidence I've ever had that telepathy does exist."
-- Jack Brymer (1915-2003) British clarinettist (Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra)
It has happened more times than even my reasonably good memory can count. In making introductory smalltalk with a stranger, the subject of occupations comes up. "What do you do?" they ask. I say, "I'm a symphony conductor." "Oh," they respond knowingly, "you mean--", at which point, by way of evincing comprehension, they go into a mime that is anywhere between an almost-accurate replication of an ardent bandmaster beating 2/4 and a policeman guiding motorists through a five-way stop at rush hour in lieu of a busted traffic signal. Further converse usually confirms my initial suspicion: many persons believe that the most important aspect of conducting is the most obvious one: the beating of time.
Well, of course that's important. The art of orchestral conducting as we now know it arose as composers demanded larger and larger orchestras and music became increasingly complex. (I'm not talking emotional depth here -- I don't think anyone goes deeper than Mozart -- but a conductorless orchestra would stand a greater chance of achieving an accurate performance of Eine kleine Nachtmusik than it would the Symphonie fantastique.) However, it is also true that the most important aspects of conducting go way beyond the gestures that delineate meters, dynamics and cues: the conductor's knowledge of a piece, her/his identification with it, and the confidence that says, in one way or another, "I respect everyone on this stage; simultaneously, the approach at which I have arrived is the way this piece shall go."
In a series of notes-to-self that the late filmmaker William Greaves (1926-2014) compiled prior to shooting his unique, provocative and ultimately fascinating feature/documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, he summarized his role as follows: "A good director is a person who gets his ego out of his own way, he is at best a collaborator and servant of nature...but who, paradoxically, firmly controls the conditions of spontaneity, theatricality, and drama on the set." This is in many ways an excellent analogy to the way I see conducting: part of my job is to have rehearsed a piece to the point where the members of the orchestra, individually and collectively, feel that they can "cut loose" at the performance in ways that might have seemed excessive in rehearsal but are entirely appropriate when in the heat of the moment (and this includes subtleties, too, not just louder dynamics and greater latitude with time). Antal Doráti, who wrote cogently and eloquently about conducting, put it so well: "The conductor who [does] not allow scope for his players' fantasy and initiative would miss -- or abdicate from -- a great deal of variety, spontaneity and overall liveliness in his performance. In fact, no performance is 'his', all of them are 'theirs'; and it is important that the conductor should know that."
(I can offer a little first-hand testimony regarding Doráti's espousal of a comradely attitude between conductors and orchestras. My conducting teacher, Gerhard Samuel, spent several seasons as Doráti's Associate Concertmaster of the Minneapolis [now Minnesota] Orchestra. When the orchestra would do run-out concerts, the venue to which another conductor might have insisted on being chauffered independently of the orchestra members, Doráti would ride in the same bus or train with them, chatting with his colleagues or studying his scores. While no-one ever questioned Doráti's authority, he was rarely, if ever, accused of being a primo uomo.)
At the same time, while relishing these moments of spontaneity, it is my job to keep the big picture in mind from first bar to last. If a section is bursting forth with a forte that could drown out other important elements of the orchestral fabric, I must request less volume; if so much time is being expressively taken by a player that it threatens the piece's cohesion, I must get that player's attention and guide them back on track. The ability to ascertain the need for, and make, these kinds of judgment calls is part of what defines an effective conductor, and goes considerably beyond the mere skill of beating however-many-beats per bar.
An important facet of a good orchestra/conductor relationship is trust. The conductor brings to the first rehearsal as much study as can be had, the foreknowledge of what s/he expects from the orchestra, and the deployment of whatever means are deemed necessary to get it. (Having watched several dozens of conductors in rehearsal over the last forty-plus years, I can offer a partial list of some of these means: cajoling, guilt-trips, impatience, joking, rages, sarcasm [veiled or not], the silent treatment, petulance, tears [!], self-reproach, ingratiation, and pledges of undying friendship -- at least until the concert for which they're in rehearsal is over.) Even more important than the mechanics, the orchestra must be convinced by the conductor's sincerity and sense of purpose. A conductor who can only wield the baton adequately but displays an intimate knowledge of and passion for the music is capable of getting a much better performance from an orchestra than a cold fish with an impecable baton technique. And humility -- before the orchestra, and especially before the composer -- is a plus, too.
The members of the orchestra bring to the table their considerable skills on their instruments, open-mindedness (whether the podium's occupant is a familiar face or a first-time guest), and objectivity regarding the music at hand. (If musicians only played music in a manner indicative of their personal feelings about it, the results would be comical, tragic, or both. There are members of the Philharmonic who don't like every single piece I program, and are comfortable enough with me to say so, but they never play with anything less than utter commitment.) If it is obvious from the first few minutes of rehearsal that the conductor is competent and trustworthy, there is a palpable shift in the atmosphere: what may have started as business as usual is elevated to a sense of excitement, greater concentration, and even fun. If, however, it is just as obvious that what is coming from the rostrum is of less than stellar quality, an invisible pall settles over the procedings and things get anything from staid to silently contemptuous. (I've never seen [nor, thank goodness, caused] an all-out mutiny at an orchestra rehearsal, but I've witnessed a few that might have gone that way had the orchestra been less professionally stoic.)
The conductor's powers of persuasion are not only important as a means of connecting with the orchestra, but with the audience as well. Unless it is impossible to worm one's way out of performing a major bomb (e.g., someone's $50K donation to your orchestra hinges on their horrid new symphony being performed by you and it), a conductor really should exercise the right to only program music in which s/he has an unshakeable faith -- a practice I joyously follow with the Philharmonic. This is especially true with more challenging music; if there is anything in the conductor's manner, whether in pre-performance remarks or in the performance itself, that suggests timidity or insecurity about the music, the audience can sense the unease and will be more liable to listen for reasons to dislike it. However, I am convinced that what may seem like the most thorny and potentially off-putting composition has a good chance of making a positive impression if it is rehearsed knowledgeably and caringly, and performed with love and zeal.
And then there is the wonderful, indefinable, indescribable something that can happen in the course of a performance -- those moments that go beyond accurate execution, beyond being a logical outcome of careful explanation and rehearsal, beyond clear stick and/or instrumental technique...those moments when time stands perfectly still because of the music's sublimity, or when a few seconds seem to have been mislaid because the music's sweep or passion or rage or unbridled joy has caused us all to move faster than the normal flow of time. These are the moments for which we -- musicians and music-lovers -- live most, whether it's Bach casting his spell yet again in one of his most familiar pieces, or in an unknown work yielding secrets and sentiments in sound that we've never yet enountered or imagined. These moments defy any logical explanation, which is part of their fascination and charm. But they could not exist without the intense communication between conductor and orchestra, built on tacit trust, mutual goals of quality and communication, and the give-and-take that allows for spontaneity within a nevertheless controlled framework.
To that extent, I -- who am not a karma/aura/afterlife kind of guy -- heartily salute Mr. Brymer's espousal of telepathy as it relates to music-making. But you knew I was going to say that, didn't you?
It’s hard to believe we’re at the end of yet another concert season, but this year has been one of trying a few new things—rolling with the punches that community arts organizations face on occasion, but we’ll elaborate more on that in a later post. For now, we’re less than 24 hours away from tomorrow’s concert and based on the level of excitement (especially in the last two rehearsals), we can’t wait to bring this concert to you.
Not only are we featuring our woodwind section in Beethoven’s Zapfenstreich March, we’ll also be featuring Seattle Symphony Associate Concertmaster Emma McGrath in Britten’s Violin Concerto. We could barely contain ourselves during our two rehearsals with her, and we sure hope you’ll feel the same way, too! This season, we’ll be closing with Tchaikovsky’s 6th and final symphony, the “Pathétique.” It's a symphony that ends quietly, but we're thinking about it in a "close one chapter and start a new one" kind of way (and that I’ve been sitting on this piece of information for a LONG time and can’t wait to turn loose).
In case you missed it, here’s a video of Maestro Stern talking about the pieces we’ll be featuring tomorrow.
While the information on getting to Meany Hall essentially hasn’t changed, there’ll be a few changes coming next year that, if you take a close look at the program tomorrow, you’ll notice one fairly wonderful change coming for next season that you've helped us make (I know I keep teasing about it, but it really is exciting for us to announce...but in due time!). If you’re not able to make it, stay tuned here, or better yet, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter as we’ll be making an announcement there, too.
One thing is certain: we couldn’t have done it with out you, we still can’t do it without you, and for that, we can only thank you from the bottom of our musical hearts.
So, tomorrow. We’re excited. Are you?
Regarding tomorrow’s concert, as mentioned earlier, it’s essentially the same, and based on the other things we need to get done in preparation, I’m going to (very shamelessly) copy as much of the previous information as possible:
Other pieces of information, inlcuding tidbits on getting to Meany Hall:
Again, please double check and allow for time to get to the hall (and to take care of any LivingSocial voucher formalities, etc.), and also please double check the bus schedules for route times—some routes aren’t operated on weekends or Sundays, and Sundays usually have a slightly different schedule! Also, the Fremont Fair is still happening on Sunday, and the 520 Bridge is also closed this weekend, so be ready for the possibility of traffic jams or any need to use an alternate route (we’re hoping there won’t be any).
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!
The last concert feels like it was yesterday with all of the work that has been going on and this Sunday, yes Sunday, we’re back at Meany Hall (yes, Meany Hall!). We’ll be joined by Rose Jo-Shih Cheng, our 2013 Don Bushell Concerto Competition winner, playing one of Edvard Grieg’s most popular works: the Piano Concerto in A minor. In the two rehearsals we’ve had with her, we can definitely say it’ll be a treat to her her play the concerto.
Come for the Grieg, but don’t forget to stay for the Dukas. That's right! This concert, we’re bringing music by Grieg and Dukas—a little bit of the familiar, and a little bit of a hidden gem. If you’re not familiar with Dukas’ Symphony in C Major, you might want to check out Maestro’s words about it in the preceding blog entry for some insight, as well as watching him speak about it in our video section.
If you’ve joined us for concerts before, it's worth mentioning that we’re back to the concert hall where we’ve performed for the past many years, at the same day and time. Whether you’re new to us this season or may have seen us perform before, here’s some helpful information. Some of it familiar, some of it with a slight variation from last time:
Other pieces of information, inlcuding tidbits on getting there:
Again, please double check and allow for time to get to the hall (and to take care of any LivingSocial voucher formalities, etc.), and also please double check the bus schedules for route times—some routes aren’t operated on weekends or Sundays, and Sundays usually have a slightly different schedule! Also, since we’re in Seattle, there’s some rain in the forecast, so be ready for the possibility of traffic jams (we’re hoping there won’t be any).
Sunday’s almost here, and once again we’re so excited. Join us for the familiar (with Rose Jo-Shih Cheng), and join us for something different. We hope to see you there—it’s going to be a fun concert!
Musical BFF's Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst are united in an exciting season finale. Acknowledged as his first true masterpiece, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is an homage to the English church music that the composer so deeply loved. Holst's The Planets, a work of stunning brilliance and immense imagination, never fails to move, intrigue and delight audiences. The concert also features a rare U.S. performance of Vaughan Williams' Piano Concerto.
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.
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Cristina Valdes, piano