Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stuart's Summer Break

You’d think having the summer “off” means taking it easy but when Stuart Malina gives friends the “What I Did During My Summer Break” report, it can be pretty exhausting.

After conducting five outdoor concerts across the greater 4th of July Weekend with the Harrisburg Symphony – you can read more about them in earlier posts here and here – “taking a break” means conducting a concert with the Shippensburg Festival Orchestra Thursday evening, then being a pianist for two out of three programs for Market Square Concerts Summer Music series the following week!

This is the sort of thing many communities don’t get to experience. Most orchestras across the country have conductors who don’t live where the orchestra is based: these maestros may be very committed and dedicated to their orchestras and to the community’s cultural scene, but there are side benefits made possible when the conductor lives there and is personally involved in what else goes on in the area.

As he approaches his 10th anniversary with the Harrisburg Symphony, Stuart will be conducting the second of this summer’s Shippensburg Festival Orchestra concerts, their 40th Anniversary Season, this Thursday at 8pm. The program is tried-and-true with the Overture to “Der Freischütz” by Carl Maria von Weber, the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor.

Oh, and by the way, did I mention the soloist for the Bruch concerto? Joshua Bell, one of the great violinists on the stage today – on any stage anywhere!

Bell had recently been in Central Pennsylvania to help the York Symphony celebrate their 75th Anniversary Season a little over a year ago when he played the Mendelssohn Concerto with Robert Hart Baker conducting the orchestra. So we’re very lucky to have him back in the area so soon.

Friends who’ve heard Bell’s performances – most recently playing the Bruch at Tanglewood – always comment on what a genuine guy he is after the performance, meeting the audience, autographing CDs, just like a rock star greeting young fans. He’s the kind of player that inspires young would-be musicians and music-lovers not just by his artistry (which is amazing) but also by his being so down-to-earth about it (a trait that is perhaps even more rare than great talent). While many of us may still think of him as the eternally young teen idol from the beginning of his career not that many years ago, he has the distinction of already being dubbed “A Living Legend,” something usually given to artists twice his age (or four times his seeming age).

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

So now it’s time to take a break, right?

Not quite. The next week, Stuart once again takes to the piano bench to play chamber music with the Fry Street String Quartet as part of Market Square Concerts’ Summer Music 2009.

I’ll cover those concerts over at the Market Square Concerts Blog where you can read more about some of the repertoire – including the Shostakovich Piano Quintet which they’ll play Wednesday, July 22nd, at 6:00 at Market Square Church. In a few more days, I’ll post something about Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet that concludes the series Sunday afternoon at the Glen Allen Mill along the Yellow Breeches.

After that, Stuart tells me there's actually going to be some vacation time with the family - and then in August, getting ready for the Symphony's new season that begins with Dvořák's New World Symphony and the Four Seasons - not Vivaldi's set of violin concertos, but Astor Piazzolla's view from Buenos Aires, with violinist Alexander Kerr returning to the Forum to open the Masterworks Series October 3rd & 4th. But more of that later.

Meanwhile, enjoy your summer - and don't forget, Art doesn't take a vacation: you can enjoy it year 'round!

- Dr. Dick

Monday, July 13, 2009

Support for Supporting the Arts in Pennsylvania

If you've ever enjoyed a performance by any of the local arts groups as an audience member; if you have ever had an emotional response to a painting or to a theatrical production; if you have ever felt an epiphany from an experience with something artistic, whether it changed your life or just improved your day; if you have seen the expression on a child's face coming face to face with something artistic that cannot be explained in a government report, you know the importance of art in our every-day lives.

Tuesday morning at 11:00, there will be a rally in the Main Rotunda of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in support of supporting the arts in Pennsylvania.

Organized by Citizens for the Arts, you can read more about it on their web-site and find additional information at Dr. Dick's other blog, Thoughts on a Train.


- Dr. Dick

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Swingin' in the Rain: Negley Park, July 2nd

If you haven’t noticed June also rhymes with Monsoon or how those Old Testament Weather Patterns everybody’s been complaining about this Spring have now lingered into July, it’s possible a little rain isn’t going to dampen an outdoor concert for you.

Fortunately the weather was greatly improved for Friday night’s performance at downtown Harrisburg’s American Music Festival – you can catch a slide-show of Rebecca Barnett’s photos at the Patriot-News’ website, PennLive.com.

That was not the case the night before with the 2nd annual 4th of July Concert in Lemoyne’s Negley Park.

When I was the orchestra manager for the symphony back in the ‘80s and our “Barge Concerts” were held around the 3rd week of June, playing from a barge IN the river – see a great photo here – Barker Howland, then music critic for the Patriot-News, never failed to mention the role of Jupiter Pluvius if there was even the threat of showers. I don’t recall any of the concerts I was involved in getting completely rained out – a half-hour wind delay, once; another time it was cut short just as a sudden shower came up - but my heart went out to Sue Klick, the current orchestra manager, contending with her first summer outdoor concert.

So in memory of Barker, I should begin by saying Thursday night, Jupiter Pluvius had a field day! And it was a very soggy field by the time he was done with it...

The forecast had been “iffy” at best - 10-20% chance of scattered showers and possible thunderstorms before 11pm. The weathermen on TV were saying Thursday afternoon could be a repeat of the stormy days we’d had on Tuesday and Wednesday. I don’t recall what the official Harrisburg total was, but the rain-bucket on my front porch had about 2" of rain in it on Thursday morning.

Pleasantly, the weather turned beautiful for the afternoon. My friend N and I left to head over to Negley Park around 6:15, after checking the weather radar to see a blob of showers over Chambersburg around 5pm ominously headed straight for Harrisburg. Of course, these systems can “peter out” long before they get to the Susquehanna Valley so we put our portable canvas chairs in his car and with one umbrella between us, arrived at Negley Park around 6:30.

By then, however, it had clouded up suspiciously. The Consagra Jazz Combo was playing away under their small canopy to the left of the main-stage tent for the orchestra. Good idea to get a tent – last year’s concert didn’t make it past half-time when showers curtailed the program at intermission. Whatever audiences will put up with, musicians don’t like having their instruments rained on – summer humidity is bad enough – and it’s rough reading the music when it’s soaking wet.

The chairs and stands were all in place, the music was on the stands, the stand lights were lit, the mics for the sound system - everything was all in place. Except for the musicians.

And in a few minutes it began to drizzle.

We huddled in our unfolded chairs and tried to share the umbrella. The drizzle turned into a steady rain, a nice cool fresh-smelling spring rain. The sky to the west looked grimly gray but there was a clearing area behind it, so we figured it’ll be fine by the time the concert starts.

By 7:15, that clear area had long turned as gray and grim as the rest of the sky. The rain was now a steady downpour. Like most of the people already there, we joined the up-hill trudge back to the car, planning to sit it out, convinced it could still clear up in time. Water flowed downhill ankle deep...

Barely able to see out the window for the deluge, we decided then to drive to the Washington Heights Elementary School, the pre-announced rain location, just in case. It was already hard to find a parking place and by the time we’d gotten there, probably 100 or 150 other people had had the same idea: it’s raining, so the concert must be taking place here. Right?

Comfortingly, there were four string players already there. One of the violists was on the phone but was being informed the concert would still take place at the park after all. I assured them they, at least, would be under a tent. I realize I’m standing there wearing my Drowned Rat motif, so I don’t think they took me very seriously.

We joked that, after all, how many violinists were in the orchestra: would they really miss two? I hadn’t realized one of them, Franceso Salazar, was the acting concertmaster for these programs, since Odin would be standing out-in-front as the soloist for the Carmen Fantasy.

With 15 minutes to go before start-time but with no chairs or stands in view at the school, the definitive word had been received by one of the musicians: the rest of the orchestra was gathering at the park where the concert would take place.

Looking like I’d just been pulled from the river, Lucky Me made the announcement to the crowd gathered in the school lobby. Some were in disbelief. Others were angry. While there’s nothing the symphony could do about the weather, no one seemed to understand why they couldn’t just move the concert - blip - over to the school. *I* knew, having been there myself years ago, but to explain it to someone who doesn’t want to be sitting out in a downpour? Impossible.

Woodstock, it isn’t.

When I returned to the stage-tent, now even more damp around the gills than I was before, it was obviously not a good time to talk to any of the management. It was just too late to tear down the stage and move it all over to the school - they only had one set of stands, chairs and stand-lights for the orchestra, not to mention miles of electrical cords. It would take hours to re-set at this point.

Weather information, they told me, had indicated it would pass through by 7:00. Now they were hoping, if they delayed the start to 8:30, maybe it would go away by then.

And so at 8:30 – still raining – the program’s opening remarks began, welcoming everybody to the concert. The boy scouts presented the colors, the Cedar Cliff Chamber Choir gave a marvelous performance of the National Anthem a cappella, and Stuart, after thanking the stalwarts who had stayed for the concert, led the orchestra in the opening number, the overture to Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.” It might have been more appropriate to do the 4th Movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the storm scene, but it was also too late to change the program.

Even doing “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” or a medley from the musical “Two by Two” wouldn’t have made much difference. If you wanted to know what a “fan” was, all you had to do was look around at the 150 or so people, some sitting in chairs, some standing, some with umbrellas, others without. One couple clearly had found the right chair – a Kelsyus “canopy chair” just right for the occasion (see image, above) which they said you could buy at K-Mart, Target or BJ’s. I suspect we will see more of these next year at Negley Park...

And Stuart Malina, punning about “being loyal committed fans (or perhaps should be committed),” thanked them with enthusiasm and amazement. People responded with cheers, applause or pumping their umbrellas high over their heads.

That enthusiasm was also reflected in the players’ performance. You would think, playing for 150 instead of a 1,500 or more, their spirits would be dampened - and not just by the rain.

It’s not easy playing summer concerts. The humidity - tonight’s felt like it was 150% - does awful things to various instruments’ strings and wood, making it a challenge to play in tune. If it’s too hot, it’s just difficult to concentrate much less be comfortable. Imagine taking a breath and getting a mouthful of gnats before you start playing a phrase on your clarinet.

You remember the old joke about the musician who made a mistake and apologized because there was a fly on his music and he played him? At half-time, chatting with tuba player Eric Henry and reminiscing about Barge Concerts from 20 years ago, he showed me his part for the 1812 Overture, littered with the remains of squashed insects, a musical version of a chunk of amber.

And sometimes, the wind can be pretty bad. We had concerts in the past we were afraid a good gusty breeze would knock the stands over. Musicians learn to turn pages AND fix them down to the stands with large clothes pins. At one point, the concertmaster’s music wafted off the stand and Stuart stepped down off the podium to pick it up for him.

During the Salute to the Big Bands – especially Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” – members of the orchestra were clearly enjoying themselves, bopping along to the rhythms and digging in to the whole jazzy style. The trumpet section came out and had a blast with Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday” (the principal trumpet’s stand-light wasn’t working, so he was literally in the dark: he and Stuart joked about how he should know this piece by now, he’d had to play it at his audition “to get this gig”).

Even if we weren’t going to get “The Rain in Spain,” we remembered the help the American colonies received from the French during the American Revolution, a few years before they staged a revolution of their own against the Reign in France. Malina had arranged “You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louie” - and then sang Alan Sherman’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek lyrics while accompanying himself at the baton.

Then Odin Rathnam, usually the orchestra’s concertmaster, came out to play the Carmen Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate. Now, remembering what humidity can do to a violin’s strings and the placement of fingers on those strings (slip-and-sliding on the fingerboard), you don’t need any extra challenges to get through this fiendishly difficult piece. It may have been a lot drier on the Forum stage when Odin played it with the orchestra in May, but it was just as exciting hearing it in Negley Park.

By this time, the rain had slowed down, occasionally stopping (umbrellas down) for a tantalizing bit before starting up again (umbrellas up).

But we were listening to a performance as intense as if the musicians were playing before a Carnegie Hall crowd. More people had wandered back into the park, perhaps around 200 or so, maybe more now, certainly one of the smallest audiences the orchestra’s ever played for at a public concert but clearly a very dedicated one!

And so it went, through the second half of the concert: more bopping and grooving to the March from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Baby Elephant Walk” and the Pink Panther Theme in a tribute to Henry Mancini or some of the best music ever written for the American musical theater, from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Despite its size, the audience gamely whistled along with the orchestra in the Colonel Bogey March (used in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”).

During the medley of Armed Forces songs, Stuart asked any veterans in the audience or the orchestra to stand during the playing of their particular branch’s theme. It was not only touching to look around and see them as the rest of us applauded each one – including the principal 2nd Violinist (she’s a Marine) – but more than any patriotic music could do, it brought home the meaning of what Independence Day is all about: celebrating our freedom and honoring those who fought for it so we can continue to enjoy it today.

Which brought us to the conclusion – what 4th of July Concert would be complete without music by a Russian composer celebrating the defeat of the French in 1812 but Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture? By now, most orchestras play only the rousing conclusion, the last 8 minutes, but it’s still rousing, whatever the Russian National Anthem means to an American in the 21st Century, with its swirling church bells and booming cannons (deftly supplied by synthesizer, these days, and much easier to coordinate than real cannons). The only thing missing, as the orchestra wrapped everything up with the quintessential 4th of July March, Sousa’s “Stars & Stripes Forever,” was the fireworks.

But by this time, it was more gratifying to look up and see that the sky had begun to clear, the rain nearly completely stopped with a moon close to full shining over the eastern side of the park just behind us.

It may not have been the greatest, most comfortable concert experience we few have ever experienced – after wringing water out of my socks when I got home, I discovered the next day that the bills in my wallet were still damp – but it was one we’ll remember for a long time, I think, and not least because the orchestra played for us as if we were twenty times our number. I’m sorry so many people left the park before it even began or figured there was no point going – I really can’t blame them – but they missed a great evening, all the same. Sure, I would’ve preferred being dry, but it sure wasn’t the “wash-out” I would’ve figured, under the circumstances.

Fortunately, the weather was much more accommodating for the next night’s performance at Harrisburg’s American Music Festival, even if it was on a stage not designed to have maybe 60 musicians sitting on it. When Odin made his entrance, rather than walking through the orchestra to get to the front, he climbed a ladder up onto the stage! (Perhaps the Peter Pan Flying Belt was otherwise engaged.)

And on the 4th of July itself? The weather has been incredible all day long, there’s not a shower anywhere in Central Pennsylvania – and of course the orchestra is playing inside at Lebanon Valley College’s Lutz Auditorium!

Hopefully the weather will be as good and enjoyable on the 5th when they play outside on the Rush Campus of Dickinson College in Carlisle at 7:30, then rap up the tour of Central PA with a concert in McAlisterville at the East Juniata High School, inside on Monday night at 7:30.

A Happy, Safe – and Dry – 4th of July Holiday, everyone, as we remember the heroes of 1776 who brought our nation into being and all the men and women who’ve fought to keep our freedom safe ever since.

(Jupiter Pluvius has left the building.)

- Dr. Dick

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Photo credits: Robert Doisneau's famous photograph of a Parisian Cellist standing in the rain; an anonymous picture culled from the internet of a couple sharing an umbrella; the Kelsyus canopy chair with a canopy that can fold down against the back of the chair