February 28, 2009

How to Write Like a Genius: Open Secrets of Haydn's "Creation"

Question: How much can a creative genius learn from others? Answer: A lot. Take the fascinating evidence of Haydn’s Creation¸ which the RPO will be performing in honor of the composer’s bicentennial on Mar. 19th and 21st. Like any natural beauty, The Creation needs no special guidebook on how it should be admired. The piece “has it all”: serene melodies with perfect bone-structure and proportion. It has a great shape and soul. Sounds like a great date already. But there is an added bonus for the audience of this piece. It allows us to trace a fascinating trail of inspiration, from one genius to another.

The Creation is an oratorio, giving Biblical and poetic (Milton’s Paradise Lost) texts the operatic treatment. It is scored for an orchestra, solo vocalists and chorus. If you’re thinking this reminds you of another show you just attended in December, you would be right. Haydn was inspired to write his Creation (1796) after a visit to England where he heard several oratorios by Handel, including the ever-popular Messiah. At the height of his career, Handel made a name for himself writing Italian operas in the 1720’s and -30’s before he turned to setting sacred text with the same intensity around 1740. The Messiah has dramatic, visual images built right into the music. The soprano soloist “laughs” in long squiggles as she sings “Rejoice Greatly.” The chorus (intentionally) wanders apart while singing “All we like sheep have gone astray.”

Musical word-painting is everywhere in the Messiah, and it evidently impressed Haydn, who promptly honored (or lifted) the idea. The Creation begins with a famous passage about chaos before the earth was made. The music sounds strange and hazy, not pausing to rest in harmony. As light appears for the first time, the harmony shifts abruptly from dark minor to sunny major. And so on. The music itself underscores the meaning of the text. It is Handel’s model in Haydn’s pen.

The Creation takes on several grand subjects: a Creator, the universe, all mankind, all beasts. Haydn uses a fittingly beefed -up orchestra, with extra strings, contrabassoon, even trombones to accompany the vocal quartet and chorus… Wait a minute! This is beginning to sound like another piece that top most people’s Classical Top Ten, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the “Ode to Joy”!

Amazingly, it is possible to hear seeds of the Great Ninth in the Creation. Beethoven studied with Haydn, and his music is stamped all over with the inspiration of his teacher. For example, Beethoven’s signature Scherzos are unpredictable, oddities replacing the stately Minuet dance in Haydn’s symphony model. They are partly Beethoven’s tribute to the notorious humor in Haydn’s music (like the sudden explosions in his “Surprise Symphony.”) Also, Beethoven’s attention to structure and organization was probably fostered by Papa Haydn, who thus generated most of his 104 successful symphonies on demand during his thirty year job as a court composer. It is then very possible that Beethoven recalled a performance of Haydn’s end-of-life achievement, The Creation, as he composed his own definitive Ninth Symphony. It begins with its own primordial, hazy chaos, moves from darkness to light, and employs the biggest band available, etc.

For me, this flow of ideas to and from The Creation is really fascinating. One really great number to notice for old/new hand-holding is the ending of the fourth day (and Part One), “The Heavens Are Telling.” The vocal quartet alternates with the chorus in an up-beat anthem over rich orchestration. It is an updated chorus from the Messiah just decades shy of the “Ode to Joy.” This Creation is a grand and warm treat, just the thing to celebrate Haydn life and the end of winter (crossing my fingers for that!).

February 23, 2009

The RPO Goes to the Dogs …

I added a new skill today – pet wrangler! We hosted five dogs, two cats, and a tortoise this morning at the RPO offices when a reporter and a photographer from the Messenger Post came by to get pictures of five RPO musicians and their pets for a story in “Pet Tales.”

This project was the brainchild of P.R. maven Amy Blum and summer intern Erin Hogan, as a way to put a human face on the Orchestra musicians, since most of the time people just see the musicians on the stage in their concert attire. And the musicians were more than happy to talk about their pets.

Principal Percussionist Jim Tiller brought in his two pets – an elegant black-and-white “tuxedo” cat named Matty and a Bichon/poodle mix named Pansy. Principal Flute Rebecca Gilbert came with her Rhodesian ridgeback Nala, named for a character in The Lion King, since Nala’s heritage is African.

Oboist Anna Petersen Stearns has a friendly cocker spaniel named Murphy, and cellist Ingrid Bock came with her three pets – the coon hound Burberry, Chihuahua mix P.D. and petite cat Kleine, who was found near the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo.

Violinist Tigran Vardanyan brought the most unusual pet of the day – a Russian desert tortoise named Scratchy. To see more photos of the musicians and their pets, visit the RPO page on Facebook.

February 20, 2009

Mahler's Mysterious Tragedy

For the past few weeks I have been doing some detective work to supplement my job as a second violinist in the RPO. I have been trying to unravel the mystery of Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 , “Tragic,” which our orchestra is set to perform on March 5th and 7th under the baton of esteemed visiting conductor Gunther Herbig.

It all started with the idea to arm my students at a local college with enough understanding of the piece to appreciate its 80-minute splendor. I knew I could begin by selling them the special effects of the piece: the off-stage tuned cowbells, the biggie-sized brass compliment, and the Weekend Warrior moments, Mahler’s call for two or three climatic (real!) sledge-hammer strokes on a big wooden box as “blows of fate” in the finale. Then there is also a lot to like about the composer’s personal style. Mahler mixes Beethoven’s fury with Mozart’s Austrian Pin-point Neatness. He has all the solid heartiness of a good beer and the finish of a great wine.

As I prepared my lecture, I soon noticed that there is a big question mark hanging over the piece. The subtitle, “Tragic,” is obvious for the work, united by a heroic funeral march. But what could have made Mahler write this music? When Beethoven wrote his brilliant funeral march in the Eroica Symphony, he was obviously dealing with his deafness. But during the summers of 1903 and 1904 as Mahler wrote the Symphony no. 6, he appeared to have an enviable life, the stuff of today’s Hollywood’s top producers. As director of the Vienna Opera, he had power and creative freedom. He was newly married to a notably beautiful bride who was twenty years younger but who was no mere “trophy wife.” Alma Mahler, a fascinating character who later lived (nearly) nine lives with various geniuses, was a trained pianist and composer. She understood Gustav and his music. The couple had one small child and another on the way. They summered in the Alps. There was the annoyance of Anna von Mildenberg, a brilliant soprano (and her unruly, unkempt stray dog) who seemed to be following Gustav. But, really, why the long face?

Gustav Mahler (briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud) seems to be staging a kind of confession in this piece. He recycles two of his earlier songs, one about a wounded soldier in battle and one on the death of a child. I hear three main ideas in the piece: some kind of hero’s struggle (with fate?), a passionate woman (Alma) and music about children. I could speculate about the cause of his angst. Did his musically talented brother Otto’s suicide spark an episode of depression? Did his wife’s pregnancy remind him of his childhood when several siblings died of illness? Or, was his struggle a response to a gradually mounting tide of Anti-Semitism in Vienna? Mahler had officially renounced his Jewish roots as a pre-requisite for getting his plum appointment as Music Director. Did he then regret putting his religion and family heritage in a closet? There were also developing marital fault lines in the household. Gustav had asked Alma to give up composing to become his wife. She agreed, but they both paid an enormous price for this bargain. Alma’s absorbing autobiography reveals that she was privately devastated and irate about this arrangement. Had she too agreed to give up too much for their life together?

The mystery of this symphony is even more absorbing, because its gloomy view was to become strangely prophetic. Within a year, Gustav, like a modern-day Job, fell from his seat as King of the Viennese Mountain. His oldest child, five year-old Maria, died suddenly of diphtheria. Then, while recovering at a spa, Alma had an affair with a young, talented architect, Walter Gropius. Mahler learned about the affair when he read a love letter, mistakenly addressed to him (a Freudian pink slip?). Mahler himself was diagnosed with heart disease and left his post as director of the opera under increasing pressure from a hostile musical community.

I have long been a fan of the composer’s sweeping, dramatic style and team-spirit, stereophonic part-writing. I can’t resist the waves he creates, and I hope my students and the audience will enjoy them, too. Today I feel ever more respectful of the hidden, intense confessions of the Sixth Symphony. This cold case is worth a second look, and there are so many other helpful detective/authors, “Mahlerians” whose work points the way toward understanding the music. I am looking forward to our orchestra’s performances of this piece. It will be a tragic pleasure.

February 11, 2009

Real Men Do File Their Nails...

Dottie: Wait a minute -- run that business about the nail filing by me again, please?

Flo: So, a couple of members of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet are up in their dressing room at rehearsal, and they're standing there doing this group nail-filing thing. Of course, as guitarists, they need to have these lovely, long fingernails on their right hand to get the effect on the strings that they're looking for.

Dottie: If I meet them backstage, will they shake my hand?

Flo: Of course. They're really friendly and easy-going guys. But TALK about artistry...

Dottie: Really? What do you mean?

Flo: I heard them at rehearsal, and their individual and group technique is incredible! The audience will love them, and it's really rare to have any guitar quartet performing with orchestra, especially one of their stature.

Dottie: What's their setup going to look like on stage?

Flo: They sit in a semi-circle, and as you look at the orchestra, they're stting to Christopher Seaman's left so that they can connect with him during the piece. And they have really short music stands and foot rests to balance the guitar.

Dottie: How about the piece that they're playing? Not many people know about it, because this is only the second performance. San Antonio heard it last week at its world premiere, right?

Flo: Yes, San Antonio Symphony had the first performance. You'll hear lots of different musical styles in the piece -- called "Interchange" -- including Latin, Renaissance, Jewish, Spanish, jazz, interesting Brazilian syncopated rhythm, and even blues. At one point, three of them start clapping on the off-beat, while the fourth is playing a virtuosic solo.

Dottie: So, you know, this is the big romantic Valentine's weekend. Is this a good date concert?

Flo: Oh yeah! Romeo and Juliet (the star-crossed lovers), Carmen (the bad girl from Bizet's famous opera), and of course, Debussy's gorgeous and impressionistic "Iberia." A perfect Valentine's bouquet.

Dottie: Okay, I'm inspired. Off to file my nails. See you at the Theatre!

February 4, 2009

School Buses at the Eastman Theatre?

If you walked past the Eastman Theatre this morning, you might have wondered why there were so many school buses parked along Gibbs and Main Streets. Over the past two days, 3,600 fourth to sixth grade students attended the RPO’s Intermediate Concerts, with more concerts to come later this month.

Led by Michael Butterman, the program featured the teenage cellist Gabriel Cabezas, Junior Division winner of the 2006 Sphinx Competition, in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, as well as excerpts from works by Haydn, Bach, Gabrieli, and Mussorgsky.

The RPO provides schoolteachers attending the concert a curriculum guide, developed by area teachers, which helped them to prepare their students for the concert. Teachers also can have a volunteer docent visit their classroom to give a slide presentation about the Orchestra and the Eastman Theatre.

February 2, 2009

Cup mutes and seasons of life

I remember first coming to Rochester in the fall of 1986 as a freshman to study trumpet at the Eastman School of Music. I had actually never seen the school or Rochester before- I took one of the "regional" Eastman auditions that travelled around the country each year, this one in LosAngeles, California, close to my home town of Lakewood. I remember the first snow that year in Rochester was on my birthday in October, and that the "winter" jacket my parents had packed with me in California was not up to the task.

I also won an audition for the trumpet section of the RPO that October, and started performing with the orchestra later that month playing 4th trumpet. I remember in my first rehearsal I moved up and played second on a Smetena piece to the former Principal Trumpet, Dick Jones- he looked at me with a sort of wry smile and said "my cup mute is older than you. . ." I played third a lot that year, because the Third Trumpet, Doug Prosser, was out of town a lot, taking auditions and playing with different orchestras. The following October I was promoted to Third Trumpet, because Doug had won the Principal Trumpet job in Barcelona, Spain.

Fast forward 22 years to the 2008-09 season. Doug's been back for 13 years or so, as Principal Trumpet here at the RPO, and I sit next to him, just like I did that first year I played, only now I'm the second trumpet. He met and married a Spanish girl when he was in Spain, I married a Nebrasaka girl I met at Eastman (RPO Assistant Concertmaster Shannon Nance), he has 3 kids, and I have 4. Now we're the "old" guys bringing in students to play with the orchestra. Last week we performed Janacek's Sinfonietta, and we needed 12 trumpets (yes, 12!). Our regular section is Doug, me, Herb Smith and Paul Shewan. That leaves 8 more, so we looked to Eastman Trumpet Professor Jim Thompson and 3 of his best students, Bill Osinsky, Brett Long and Max Matzen. That left four more. So we brought in Roy Smith, a former student of Paul Shewan; Guy Piddington, a former student of Doug's; and Kris Westrich, a former student of mine who is at Northwestern University. That left one more, so we let Kris bring his friend Kyle from Northwestern. I asked Doug to have Kris and Kyle in my group on the Janacek, and that's what we did.

It turned out to be a terrific trumpet section, and it was a great moment for me to have Kris sitting next to me in the orchestra. Doug and I went a step further and split up some of the other pieces- he played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Guy, and I played the Smetena with Kris (who is older than my cup mute, by the way), which gave us a little more time with each of them and gave me a very strong sense of deja vu on the Smetena. There is a certain triumph to seeing a student you've taught and trained mature and become a great musician, and I know that this past week Doug, Jim, Paul, and I all felt this as we performed with our students on the Janacek, which has one of the most incredibly triumphant endings in the entire orchestral repertoire. It was an amazing experience!

Anyway, this week it's back to reality playing in an orchestra where the bass section outnumbers the trumpets and not the other way around. Surely not the way I'd set things up if I were in charge, but I'm not in charge, which is probably a good thing- maybe in another 22 years. . .