Sunday, November 20, 2011

Surging Seas, Rabbits Out of Hats & the Rhapsody in Blue

You can go to concerts for years and never have any idea what’s going on “back stage.”

Then something happens and… well, like Saturday night with the Harrisburg Symphony’s “Masterworks Concert” Surging Sea when there’s a change – or two – in the program.

If you missed the opportunity to hear Saturday night's concert, there's still Sunday afternoon's concert at 3pm, if you're reading this in time (and don't forget Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic's pre-concert talk at 2:00).

So what's this all about?

Well, the original soloist, Lisa Daltirus, was scheduled to sing Samuel Barber’s nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and the three songs of Shéhérazade by Maurice Ravel and it’s unlikely both pieces would be in any given soprano’s repertoire.

Much less one who would just happen to be free the next day…

Singers being singers and the voice being what it can be, Ms. Daltirus turned out to be indisposed but unfortunately this was not determined until Friday night’s rehearsal, leaving only the dress rehearsal the next morning to find a solution for a concert taking place in less than 24 hours!

So, thanks to three little miracles, the concert went on not quite as planned but without any great inconvenience to concert-goers.

#1. Janice Chandler-Eteme (see photo, left) has Barber’s Knoxville in her repertoire – she lives in Baltimore – and she was available this weekend to come on short notice (to put it mildly) for the dress rehearsal. One other fortunate detail: she’d sung in Harrisburg for the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony back in March 2006, so she and Stuart Malina had worked together before.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have the Ravel in her repertoire so the next challenge was to find a Plan B, if not a second singer.

So, Stuart, as he told us at the beginning of the concert, pulled out his “rainy day piece” which just happens to be George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, this is a “rental only” piece, in the music biz, so it wasn’t something the orchestra just has lying around in its library or that you can order on-line and have it delivered in a few hours…

#2. It turned out the West Chester Orchestra had just played the piece and still had the music, not yet returned to the publisher. So before they sent it back, the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra Manager, Sue Klick, another hero deserving of a medal, drove down to West Chester Saturday morning to pick up the parts and drive back to Harrisburg in time for the 11am Dress Rehearsal.

#3. The Harrisburg Symphony has a conductor who can play the “Rhapsody in Blue” at the drop of a hat AND conduct it all at the same time – from memory!

And Little Miracle #4 – did I say there were four miracles? – is that this orchestra has this kind of symbiotic relationship with its conductor where playing and conducting a concerto at the same time turns a full orchestra into one big chamber music ensemble which requires individual players to listen more intently to each other and anticipate what other musicians are going to do musically.


This is where you truly realize what Stuart means when he says he's the luckiest guy in the world. Not every conductor and orchestra could get away with this.

So the Barber went ahead as scheduled but with a different singer. And Gershwin’s cross-over masterpiece opened the second half.

Meaning Stuart had to deal with playing the Gershwin and then, a few minutes later, turn around and head back out on stage to conduct Debussy’s La Mer which is no easy piece and which could have benefited from more rehearsal time, considering what had been spent on the Ravel songs in the first place and then the emergency preparation for the Gershwin.

So, how did it all turn out?

Was it flawless? No, not really, but under the circumstances, to notice is to nit-pick. (There were lots of people in the audience who wouldn't even notice.)

Was it exciting? YOU BETCHA!!!

Talk about the difference between a live performance and a recording...

There are so many variables in getting from the planning stage for a concert a year ago to walking off the stage after it’s over.

Ironically, Stuart said he felt amazingly calm backstage during intermission – not even the usual sweaty hands that need to be dried off before you end up slipping around on the ivories.

And he said, with La Mer, the orchestra seemed so relaxed it was a bit of “who cares: what else can go wrong?” combined with a healthy dose of “we’ve gotten through other things that seemed unrealistic,” so this should be like (pardon the pun) a stroll on the beach.

What other things have the orchestra dealt with this season so far?

Well, they lost most of their rehearsal-time for the September 11th Anniversary Concert because Harrisburg was closed down due to the worst flooding since 1972.

Then the first rehearsal for the opening Masterworks Concert was cancelled because some bricks came loose backstage at the Forum and there was belated concern the building might be “unsafe” following the August earthquake that had rattled the area. And doing Prokofiev’s 5th on less rehearsal time is not how you want to open your season.

Most recently, there was the Halloween Snowstorm the day before the pops concert, “Scary Scores.” Nothing like dealing with falling trees and power-lines on your way to a concert of scary music (for the record, friends of mine in Connecticut had their Halloween concert cancelled and it still took some of them over a week to get their power back…).

Yes, it helped that Janice sang Barber’s Knoxville with the Baltimore Symphony and Marin Alsop a few seasons ago but it’s not an easy piece and isn’t something that just rolls out automatically once you sing the opening note. She listened to Leontyne Price’s recording on YouTube to get it into her head again while working at it before she drove up to Harrisburg, arriving at noon-time for the only rehearsal which concluded at 1:30 for a concert beginning at 8pm.

And yes, it helped that Stuart had played the Gershwin earlier this year and was planning on dusting it off after Thanksgiving for a December pops concert in Tampa.

And yes, it helps that the Harrisburg Symphony has the kind of confidence in itself and its conductor that something like just rolls off them like (no pun intended) water off a duck’s back.

So, yes, sometimes a lot of little miracles come together to keep alive that old familiar slogan, “The Show Must Go On.”

Now… what could possibly go wrong for the next concert???

Don’t… even… think… about it!

- Dick Strawser

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The photographs were taken by Harrisburg Symphony Marketing Director Kim Isenhour: the top photo was taken at the children's concert on Friday morning with Stuart Malina conducting the Harrisburg Symphony in, among other pieces, La Mer. The other two photographs were taken at the talk-back session following Saturday night's performance with Ms. Chandler and Maestro Malina.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Knoxville Summer comes to Harrisburg: Autumn of 2011

While the Harrisburg Symphony will be performing two orchestral works fore and aft on this weekend’s program – Alan Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain and Claude Debussy’s evocation of the sea, La Mer on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum (with Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic offering a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance) – there are two other works on the program which need little introduction from me to give you any background about them but I thought it would be good to hear some performances of them if you’re not already familiar with them.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus will be singing three songs by Maurice Ravel, a rare opportunity for you to hear Shéhérazade live – and one of (I think) the most beautiful works ever written by an American composer, the nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber, a Pennsylvania-born composer originally from West Chester and who attended the Curtis School of Music as a composition, piano and voice major.

On a damp, chilly November day, perhaps thinking of some nostalgic summer music might help stave off the inevitability of winter. (I am also thinking of Erica’s aria from Barber’s opera Vanessa, “Must the Winter Come So Soon?”…)

Here is one of my favorite recordings of the work, with soprano Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on the Nonesuch label.

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[“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”]

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently, and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by: things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, paste-board, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber. A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping: belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks: the iron whine rises on rising speed: still risen, faints: halts: the faint stinging bell: rises again, still fainter: fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten.

Now is the night one blue dew. Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes . . . Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glones hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine . . . with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening. among the sounds of the night.

May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away. PPP After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

James Agee

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Barber adapted Agee’s text, originally a prose-poem written in 1938 that would later become the “prelude” to his novel, “A Death in the Family,” which was left unfinished at his death in 1955. It was in 1947 that Barber set Agee’s poem to music, a time when his own father’s health was deteriorating.

Agee reminisces about a childhood memory when he was five years old, the last summer his father was alive. This may have prompted Barber’s selection of the text, thinking back on the times he had spent with his father, perhaps lying on the grass at that time of evening, when people go by… moments that you may never have again but will always remember. 

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Soprano Lisa Daltirus will be singing music of Barber and Ravel with the Harrisburg Symphony: here she is singing “Visi d’arte” from Tosca (ignore the fact the first two lines of the aria have been edited from the clip).
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Also on the program are Ravel’ settings written in 1903 (around the time Debussy was beginning work on La Mer) of three poems by his friend who went by the very Wagnerian name Tristan Klingsor (taken from two Wagner operas, the misunderstood hero from Tristan und Isolde and the sorcerer from Parsifal). In fact, Ravel and Klingsor attended all 14 performances of Debussy’s revolutionary new opera, Pelleas et Melisande when it was premiered in 1902.

While inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights, this Shéhérazade (to use the French spelling of the name as opposed to the German used in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s familiar orchestral suite) tells no stories. By turns sensuous, voluptuous and evocative in oriental images, these poems find her traveling, thinking about how she will tell her tales. The second and third poems, much shorter, are “harem vignettes,” where the focus is on youthful passers-by outside the harem walls.

Here, mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne sings Shéhérazade with Leonard Bernstein conducting the French National Orchestra.
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La flûte enchantée and L'indifférent
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Quoting from Edward Lein’s program notes about the three poems:

On the surface, Asie appears to be little more than a catalog of exotic enticements available to travelers--but the music suggests that the narrator is someone who feels trapped in a mundane existence, with the only likely escape found in reading the adventures of others.

La flûte enchantée is a straightforward depiction of romantic yearning as it relates how lovers, separated by constraints of servitude, discover that they can still form an immediate connection through music.

At first reading, L'indifférent comes across merely as a libertine eyeing a would-be conquest; but through the music one is left instead with the impression of a traveler isolated in a foreign land hoping to make any sort of human contact to overcome deep loneliness, but who seems somehow emotionally powerless to interact. It becomes almost as though Klingsor, when heard through the amplification of Ravel's music, has captured in a few lines what Thomas Mann related in his 1912 novella, Death in Venice.

You can read more about the songs at Lein's website.

-- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Debussy's Surging Sea

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony sets sail with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, three symphonic studies depicting the sea at various times of the day. The program also includes other evocative works by Alan Hovhaness - his Mysterious Mountain - and Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 along with Maurice Ravel's exotic song cycle, Shéhérazade.

The S.S. Malina sails from the Forum on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk given by Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic an hour before each departure.

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Visiting the wild coasts of French Brittany in his youth, the novelist Marcel Proust wrote of the sea at his mythical Balbec:

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[With the radiant sun upon the waves] that leapt up one behind the other like jumpers on a trampoline… the snowy crests of its emerald green waves, here and there polished and translucent, which with a placid violence and a leonine frown, to which the sun added a faceless smile, allowed their crumbling slopes to topple down at last, [one morning it was a] transparent, vaporous bluish distance, like the glaciers that one sees in the background of the Tuscan Primitives. On other mornings… the sun laughed upon a water of a green as tender as that preserved in Alpine pastures… less by the moisture of the soil than by the liquid mobility of the light… It is above all the light, the light that displaces and situates the undulations of the sea, [with the sun’s] tremulous golden shaft scorching the seas topaz-yellow, fermenting it, turning it pale and milky like beer, frothy like milk… as if some god were shifting it to and fro by moving a mirror in the sky. [I was] impatient to know what Sea it was playing that morning by the shore, for none of these Seas ever stayed with us longer than a day. The next day there would be another, which sometimes resembled its predecessor. I never saw the same one twice.

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Proust was not the only author ever to be captivated by the limitless and changeable sea, nor was Debussy the only composer to come under its spell, but Proust, writing of his experiences with the sea along the English Channel coast in the 1880s, seems like a reasonable introduction to the music Debussy composed, having spent some of that time along the English Channel coast in 1904 (for the record, Proust’s Balbec – in reality, Cabourg – is south of the Siene; Debussy’s Pourville, near Dieppe, is north of it.

Debussy composed his musical portrait of the sea between 1903 and 1905 (he may have started some sketches in 1902). He began working on it in the town of Bichain which is actually far inland, perhaps a hundred miles southeast of Paris toward Switzerland, in the historic region of Burgundy. But much of the time he was working on it, he was staying in Pourville (see photograph of Debussy taken that summer in Pourville, though not looking out toward the sea).

Finishing it March, 1905, he spends the month of August on the English side of the Channel, at Eastbourne, and on August 7th he is correcting the publisher’s proofs in advance of the October premiere in Paris.

La Mer may be the longest orchestral work by Debussy, the closest thing we have to a symphony by him, but a symphony in all its Germanic essence would be antithetical to Debussy’s aesthetic. He subtitled it “Three Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra,” a suite, basically, the symphonic in this case referring less to the extended ‘development’ of ideas usually associated with a symphony.

The first movement is entitled “From dawn to mid-day on the sea,” and the final movement is the “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.” These are comparable to the substantial outer movements one might find in a symphony. The middle movement is a light, scherzo-like movement, almost a waltz, entitled “Play of the waves.”

But Debussy is not concerned about themes and developments and modulations and harmonic schemes like Beethoven would be – even though most of the material evolves out of the primal intervals – the perfect 5th – that open the work, a kind of reverse-Beethoven’s 9th, in a way, but just as cosmic (or, perhaps, oceanic).

As marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson noted, like the sea itself, the surface of Debussy's music hints at the brooding mystery of its depths, and ultimately the profound enigma of life itself – after all, mankind carries the primordial salt of the sea in our blood.

Here is Riccardo Muti conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in this 1994 video recording. (The work is complete in one clip.)

(please ignore the fact the poster from Japan refers to the work as La Mar... it happens, on the internet.)
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Debussy was a very visually oriented composer. Many of his works are small musical miniatures with evocative titles – think of “Claire de Lune” (Moonlight) or “Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” In fact, there are series of short works simply called “Images.” His studio was full of prints of paintings or those postcard-like souvenirs one might find at a museum – images which, given the vagueness of his harmonic style and almost anti-melodic approach to sound earned him the title “Impressionist.”

Usually, we tend to think of “Impressionism” in painting as soft and flexible, playing more with light than substance. This is easy to induce musically by the use of non-traditional scales, especially the whole-tone scale which has no harmonic function we associate with tonality, especially the strong functions of chord progressions like the dominant to the tonic resolution that gives it a satisfying, structural coherence. In several works by Debussy – think Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun or, again, “Claire de Lune” – the harmonic vagueness is matched by softer dynamics and even though there are climaxes, they are almost understated.

This is not the style in La Mer. This is at times very muscular music even though it may lack the harmonic bite some feel longer forms need to create forward motion. “Motion” here is like the motion of the sea, as Proust described it in the quote from “In Search of Lost Time” at the beginning of this post, vibrant and colorful – above all, colorful. This is not the French equivalent, sitting on the beach looking out across the sand, of the English pastoral school derided as the “Cow-Looking-Over-the-Fence” school of music.

In fact, Debussy would probably have had little patience with this "soft" approach to music: as a music critic, a career he followed briefly in the few years before he composed La Mer, he reviewed a work by Frederick Delius (usually considered an English Impressionist) as "very sweet, very pale - music to soothe convalescents in well-to-do neighborhoods."

And La Mer is anything but soft, sweet or pale.

Debussy may focus less on melody as he is on the “tracery and ornamenting” of a line much in the way Bach, that most German of composers, might have done, with a grace and suppleness both melodically and harmonically of his beloved Chopin (his first piano teacher was a big fan if not officially a student of Chopin’s). Debussy was just as influenced by the stylization of nature as seen in the landscape prints from Japan, particularly Hokusai whose “The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa” which he had in his studio and which adorned the first printed edition of Debussy’s score. But he was also influenced by the “infinite arabesques” and complex counterpoint of the Javanese gamelan, a unique and exotic sound-world he first heard in 1889 at the Universal Exposition in Paris.

Other influences, perhaps surprisingly, come from Russian composers at a time when Russian music was little known in Western Europe, especially Mussorgsky and his opera, Boris Godunoff, especially his spontaneity and freedom from traditional academic formulas (which caused many to consider Mussorgsky untrained or untrainable and even led his friends, like Rimsky-Korsakoff, to “clean up” many of his scores). He described these as “successive minute touches mysteriously linked together by means of an instinctive clairvoyance.”

In one of those serendipitous moments in music history, I love pointing out the one degree of separation between Tchaikovsky and Debussy – Nadezhda von Meck was a wealthy widow who was not only Tchaikovsky’s generous patron and musical confidant, she hired some musicians to form a piano trio when she visited Paris and traveled with them, taking them back to Moscow for two years where they lived in her house and played music for her and her friends. The pianist – whose additional responsibilities involved playing piano duets with her and giving her daughters lessons – was Claude Debussy.

He was 18.

While in Moscow, young Debussy would have been exposed to a great deal of Russian music, no doubt, though I’ve never read anything he has said about, for instance, seeing Boris Godunoff. Still, knowing that Mussorgsky’s opera didn’t make it to Paris until Diaghilev’s Russian Season in 1908, how else can you explain so many “revolutionary” concepts heard in Debussy’s opera, Pelleas et Melsiande which he began work on certainly by 1892 and which was premiered in 1902?

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Here is a chronological time-line of events in Debussy’s life during the time he was composing La Mer.

Some biographical background, first: Debussy married a poor seamstress named Rosalie (“Lily”) Texier in 1899, after having had a series of mistresses. Only five years later, in 1904, Debussy was already living with Emma Bardac, the wife of a wealthy banker who had earlier had an affair with Gabriel Fauré and whose daughter, Helene, was the inspiration for Fauré’s “Dolly Suite.”

But life sometimes gets messy and Lily did not take well to the idea of a divorce. In fact, in October of 1904, Lily attempted suicide by shooting herself in the stomach, and as the details became public, most of Debussy’s friends withdrew from him. In fact, much of the reaction against La Mer when it was premiered a year later had as much to do with the public’s distaste for the scandal as it did with its confusion over the music.

All of this, of course, is going on in the “background” while Debussy is composing La Mer (or is it the other way around?).

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In June, Debussy writes his last article as a music critic and in July signs a contract with the publisher Durand for a set of Images for piano, including three pieces for two pianos which, in 1908, becomes the Images pour orchestre.

Between July 10th and October 1st, Debussy stays at Bichain (in Bourgogne, about a hundred miles southeast of Paris), his third visit there. During this holiday, he begins work on La Mer and completes the piano pieces Estampes and works on preparing the full score of Pelleas et Melisande for publication (the opera was premiered in April, 1902).

October 14th, he signs a contract with Durand for a second opera, Diable dans le beffroi (The Devil in the Belfry), inspired by a story by Edgar Allan Poe which he thinks he will finish in May, 1905 (he never does).

November 15th, his “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’” (completed in 1894) is programmed on two separate concerts in Paris.


On January 9th, Ricardo Viñes premieres Estampes and on the 16th, Debussy accompanies a singer in the first performance of two songs, including one called La Mer.

During April and May, Debussy composes his “Two Dances for Chromatic Harp and Orchestra,” the Danse sacrée and the Danse profane.

Between August and mid-October, Debussy and his mistress Emma Bardac (the wife of a wealthy banker) stay in cognito at the Grand Hotel in Jersey, then goes on to Pourville on the Normandy Coast (see photo), working on La Mer and correcting proofs for the publication of Masques and Fêtes galantes, also reworks L’Isle joyeuse.

On the 13th of October, Debussy’s wife, Lily, attempts to commit suicide by shooting herself in the stomach. The news appears in the papers on November 4th and many of Debussy’s friends withdraw from him.


On March 5th, 1905, he completes the first draft of the score of La Mer and it will be published in July, made available to the public in November with its brightly colored cover after the Japanese artist, Hokusai (see photo).

On May 4th, Emma Bardac divorces her husband Sigismond; she is a few weeks pregnant.

In June, Debussy publishes Suite bergamasque for piano with its famous slow movement, Claire de lune. The work was composed in 1890 but Debussy did not finish it for publication until this time.

On July 17th, Debussy signs an exclusive contract with his new publisher, Durand and is also placed under a court injunction to pay Lily a month income of 400 francs (which will be paid through his publisher).

From the end of July through the end of August, Debussy and Emma Bardac stay in Eastbourne, England, spending a few days in London before returning to Paris.

On August 2nd, the Civil Court pronounces the divorce of Claude and Lily Debussy. He figures he has, perhaps, two friends left.

On August 7th, he is correcting the first proofs of La Mer

On October 15th, La Mer is premiered at Concerts lamoureux with conductor Camille Chevillard. Debussy complains that the orchestra is under-rehearsed and the conductor is more fit to tame wild beasts than conduct musicians. The next performance, on October 22nd, is better received.

On October 30th, Emma Bardac gives birth to Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma, always known as “Chouchou”.

--- Dick Strawser
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The quotation from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, now usually more accurately translated as In Search of Lost Time, is from the second of seven volumes, ”Within a Budding Grove” or ”In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, in the chapter “Place-Names: The Place,” translated by Scott-Moncrief and Kilmartin, published by Random House

Monday, November 14, 2011

Alan Hovhaness & the Mysterious Mountain of Echmiadzin

This weekend’s concert could be called “From Sea to Shining Sea and Purple Mountain’s Majesties” except it’s rather awkward as marketing tools go. Claude Debussy’s La Mer depicts the sea in all its beauty and awesomeness, and the opening work on the program – Alan Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain – depicts… well, the mysteriousness and awesomeness of mountains.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra – with guest soprano Lisa Daltirus in Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” and Ravel’s three songs from the 1001 Arabian Nights, Shéhérazade – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. There’s a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance with Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic.

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There is something that has always been ardently spiritual about this work to me – the very sound of it, much less the title which is borne out in the composer’s oft-quoted explanation:

“Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and the spiritual worlds. To some, the ‘Mysterious Mountain’ may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet. To some, it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside — Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta or Grand Teton.”

Here are three YouTube clips of the complete work – the first movement with the Akron Youth Symphony, recorded in 2007 (though I suspect the contrabassoonist is a ringer – understandably: not many youth orchestras would have a contrabassoon player, much less one already exhibiting male pattern baldness).

The 2nd and 3rd Movements are audio clips (with mountain-appropriate illustrations) from the recording with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Royal Liverpool Orchestra.


Even though this is easily Hovhaness’ most popular work, he did not particularly care for it and even told one interviewer in 1961 that “I go out of the hall whenever it’s performed.”

Most people are surprised to discover a work written in 1955 – at the height of post-war academic serialism that has given modern music such bad press – to be so accessible. While it’s a beautiful and evocative piece of music, it’s not exactly representative of Hohvaness’ output. As he himself has put it, “I have written much better music and it is a very impersonal work in which I omit my deeper searching.”

It came about because Leopold Stokowski, who’d conducted Hovhaness’ 1st Symphony, wanted a new work for his first concert with the Houston Symphony but when the composer sent him a brief fanfare called “To a Mysterious Mountain,” Stokowski said he wanted something more substantial and so Hovhaness responded with a three-movement work which he called his Symphony No. 2.

The implication is that it had been written earlier or perhaps put together from previous pieces (the second fugue in the middle movement came from his 1st String Quartet written in 1936). Most sources say it was composed “by 1950” and orchestrated in 1955 for Stokowski.

Stokowski asked if it had an opus number – “people like opus numbers.” When the composer said he hasn’t catalogued his works, Stokowski picked No. 132 out of the air, asking if he thought that would give him enough room for his earlier works. “Sure, that should be okay,” Hovhaness said.

“Oh, and I like your titles,” Stokowski told him. “Give it a title.” So he decided to call it “Mysterious Mountain.”

That story may sound disappointing to many listeners who hear the majesty and spirituality of great mountains and the expansive grandeur of nature in this music – and it’s not clear his admiration for mountains in general wasn’t behind the original composition – but mountains (and nature) have certainly featured in much of Hovhaness’ later music: there are other “mountain” symphonies – No. 20, “Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain,” No. 46 “To the Green Mountains,” and No. 50 inspired by Mount St. Helens, specifically, then No. 60 “To the Appalachian Mountains,” No. 66 “Hymn to Glacier Peak,” and his last symphony, No. 67 written in 1992, “Hymn to the Mountains.”

Though it is the work that put Hovhaness on America’s musical map, it’s also interesting that he never got paid for writing it.

(Digression No. 1: about the title, I am reminded of Krzysztof Penderecki’s work, one of the most frightening, searing pieces I’ve ever heard, called “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” Despite the intensity of the music and the power of its title, it was originally called 8’37” (its duration) – the idea of the Threnody was completely an afterthought.)

(Digression No. 2: about Hovhaness not getting paid for his 2nd Symphony, I am reminded of a comment by Elliott Carter (who will be celebrating his 103rd Birthday next month), talking about how much (or, more precisely, how little) money he received for composing his Variations for Orchestra, written the same year Hovhaness’ 2nd Symphony was premiered, which amounted to his earning $0.25/hr. While people in the audience nodded at the inhumanity of this, the way we regard artists financially, he said a woman wearing furs and dripping with jewels stood up and huffed disappointedly, “Mr. Carter! You mean to tell me you write for money???”)

- Dick Strawser

P.S. The title of this post refers to Echmiadzin which is actually a city in Armenia and was chosen, its Harry Potter-esque rhythm aside, not because of any relevance to Hovhaness' symphony though he did later compose a symphony he entitled "Etchmiadzin." Hovhaness's father was an Armenian born in what is now Turkey (then, the Ottoman Empire) and his original family name was Chakmakjian but the composer later decided to change it (since, he said, no one could pronounce it, anyway) to Hovaness after his grandfather's name (with the accent on the first syllable) but then Americanized it - that is, adapted it to suit the standard American mispronunciation - to Hovhaness (with the accent on the second syllable).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fun with Franz: Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody

It's a great way to warm up for the new season. The Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina start the new season this weekend - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - with Franz Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, one of the most familiar pieces of classical music, at least to an earlier generation.

While you can read about (and hear) the other works on the program - Rachmaninoff's 1st Piano Concerto and Prokofiev's 5th Symphony - I thought this post would be a little... well, more light-hearted.

First, an educational video with background information and a performance of the orchestral version of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt.

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(There's something about mentioning the various details of his love life while mixing in pictures of him as a priest. Yes, it's true, Franz Liszt later entered the priesthood but that was considerably later in his life.)

Originally a virtuoso piano piece written in 1847, the second of eventually nineteen rhapsodies for solo piano, this particular rhapsody was later orchestrated with help from Franz Doppler. Liszt himself made a piano duet version (four-hands, two pianists sharing the bench) in 1874. 

Here is an amazing performance of the piano version by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff (whose 1st Piano Concerto will follow it on this Harrisburg Symphony program):

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Oh, and did I mention Rachmaninoff plays his own cadenza near the very end?

Of course, its popularity has also made it the target of much fun-poking. For instance, this classic skit with Victor Borge and friend in a two-seater arrangement:
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not to mention another legendary performance by Bugs Bunny, or this other famous duet team, Tom & Jerry, cartoons that those of us who are 'of a certain age' remember fondly.
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Hope you can join us to celebrate the start of the new 2011-2012 Season this weekend at the Forum!

- Dick Strawser

P.S. (See comment below) A friend and former student wrote to tell me this post reminded her of a favorite childhood cartoon. If you can bear with one more cartoon version of Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, I now present Warner Bros.' Rhapsody in Rivets!
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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Prokofiev's 5th Symphony: Getting Behind the Music

The Harrisburg Symphony’s first concert of the new season - Saturday, September 24th at 8pm and Sunday, September 25th at 3pm at the Forum - is called “Russian Radiance,” and featured the work of two great Russian composers, one technically belonging to the 19th Century and the other one of the two leading composers of the 20th Century Soviet Union.

The program opens with Franz Liszt’s popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, inspired by the melodies of the Gypsies who’d settled in Hungary and, at least in the 19th Century, was synonymous with Hungarian “Folk Music” (technically, this is not the case, as they’re not ethnically Hungarian nor is the music “folk music” but an urban popular form of entertainment that would make it just as ridiculous to claim American Jazz was “folk music,” but I digress). PPP There is the 1st Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff (you can read more about that, here) and one of the most popular symphonies by a Soviet composer, Prokofiev’s 5th.

The first thing anybody usually finds out about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major with its nice round Op. 100 number, is that it was written during World War II and that Prokofiev said it was about the “grandeur of the human spirit,” that it was “intended as a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit. I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamored for expression. The music has matured in me, it filled my soul.”

It was written in one month in the summer of 1944 while the composer was staying at the ‘House of Creative Work,’ a government-supported artists’ refuge and “safe-haven” outside Moscow near the end of the war – in fact, by then, the end of the war seemed imminent, unlike the timing of Shostakovich’s two large-scale war-time symphonies, his 7th (shortly after the Nazi invasion began in 1941 and mostly during the horrific siege of Leningrad) and 8th Symphonies (an even darker work written in 1943). In the moments before Prokofiev brought down his baton to conduct his new symphony’s world premiere in Moscow on January 13th, 1945, the audience listened to a cannonade resounding outside the Conservatory’s Great Hall, saluting the Red Army’s crossing of the Vistula River in Poland, chasing the Nazi invaders back toward their own homeland and their eventual defeat.

But to us – and not just those of us listening to it today, sixty-six years later – does this really sound like a War Symphony struggling with heroism against evil before concluding with assured Victory? Compared to Shostakovich’s war-torn symphonies, no. It can certainly be appreciated as a work celebrating the “human spirit” (if you didn’t believe, in one sense or another, all art already does that, to some extent) and even, compared to the symphonies of Brahms and Tchaikovsky who seem its direct ancestors, an abstract work.

There are always risks listening to music that is “about” something – whether it’s telling a story like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, implying a program suggested by verbal images like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or suggesting something dramatic but unspoken like the struggles we associate with the opening Beethoven’s 5th and it’s triumphant conclusion.

Taking Prokofiev at his word is one thing but if we imply this is a War Symphony, do we start seeing evil erupting in the final moments of the 1st Movement? Or imply that the opening of the 3rd Movement is a tribute to the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata of Beethoven which supposedly was Lenin’s favorite piece of classical music? Or how the last movement ends as its “counter-subject removes its velvet gloves and bludgeons the main subject. Sorely wounded, the playful rhythm is mercilessly driven on, limping and weakening. As a baleful alarm sounds, it runs smack into a brick wall.”

Really? Well…

On the other hand, the “free and happy man” could be the composer himself – not the glorified Soviet Man, as is usually inferred. It was, otherwise, a fairly happy time in Prokofiev’s life and during the War, various restrictions on what Soviet composers could “get away with” were either eased or ignored.

There were, certainly, war-time works – after all, he’d just completed a mammoth opera setting Tolstoy’s mammoth novel, War and Peace, usually considered The Greatest Russian Novel Ever. But he also set an English Restoration Comedy to music in his delightful opera, Betrothal in a Monastery based on Sheridan’s “The Duenna,” a work whose rehearsals were interrupted by the invasion and postponed, however, till after the War. In fact, even as timely a work as War and Peace could not find its way to the stage until a few months after Prokofiev’s death in 1953!

While he wrote music for Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, he also wrote the ballet Cinderella. In addition to the three “War Sonatas” for piano (Nos. 6, 7 & 8), there’s the lyrical Flute Sonata which he later arranged for David Oistrakh as his 2nd Violin Sonata.

So, whether the War Effort was behind Prokofiev’s new symphony or not, one could argue either side. At times, it seems more on the verge of being epic rather than sounding heroic. The ending is certainly celebratory, light-hearted and joyful enough but hardly a victory lap!

(photo, left, of violinist David Oistrakh and Prokofiev playing chess.)

It’s very possible it really had nothing to do with the War or Soviet Socialist Realism at all, that it was just a well-written and appealing symphony.

As both Prokofiev and Shostakovich were well aware, what the music “meant” to the composer as he was writing it may not be anything the listener (concert-goer or government bureaucrat) might hear in it: witness the ‘secret program’ in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 where his initials (in the German notation) become a famous musical motive – DSCH.

Here is Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. For this post, I’ve specifically chosen (considering the few good performances available through YouTube) this transcription of an old LP recording, released in 1967 on the Soviet label, Melodiya, with the Moscow Philharmonic (the orchestra Prokofiev conducted at its world premiere in 1945) with the great violinist and close friend of Prokofiev’s, David Oistrakh conducting:
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1st Movement
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2nd Movement – Scherzo
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3rd Movement – Adagio
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4th Movement – Finale, Allegro giocoso  
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The Symphony, understandably, went on to become one of his most popular and frequently played works, both in the Soviet Union and in the West.

You can read more about the chess match between Soviet politics and music on my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

- Dr. Dick

Thursday, September 15, 2011

First Concert - Rachmaninoff's First

Daria Rabotkina, who played the Schumann Piano Concerto last year, returns to play Rachmaninoff with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony at the first concert of the new season, Saturday September 24th at 8pm and Sunday September 25th at 3pm. The program opens with Franz Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody and concludes with Prokofiev's triumphant war-time 5th Symphony.

But instead of the more familiar Rach2 or Rach3 as his two famous concertos are affectionately known, she's playing Rach1.

If Rachmaninoff hadn’t written his 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, this concerto would be played a lot more often. Of course, if he hadn’t written the 2nd and 3rd, the world would be a much poorer place, since they’re two of the most popular concertos around, full of beautiful melodies and daunting challenges for the soloist. It often happens that a youthful work shows promise that is then overshadowed by mature realization.

Sure, it's his Opus 1 - how early is that? - but he also revised it 25 years later and that's what everybody hears today: the reflections of a 44-year-old artist looking back on a piece written when he was 19.

And at 19, Rachmaninoff had a lot going for him. A brilliant student, he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory that May in a class that included Alexander Scriabin. He shared the Gold Medal in piano performance with Josef Lhévinne (originally Levin, but once his career began in Europe and the United States, he Westernized the spelling to match the Russian pronunciation – Lhévinne would go on to become one the of century’s leading pianists and teachers, teaching at Juilliard until his death in 1944, a year after Rachmaninoff’s). Scriabin won the “Little Gold Medal” that year but did not complete his composition degree because of disagreements with his teacher, Anton Arensky.

Rachmaninoff had written other works that year – a one-act opera, Aleko, which won the Grand Prize in Composition at his graduation; the Trio elegiaque No. 1 (often associated with Tchaikovsky’s death but that event happened the following year and inspired a second, less well known trio elegiaque) and a little thing called the Prelude in C-sharp Minor whose popularity would haunt him the rest of his life.

There had been an earlier concerto – in the key of C Minor (the same key as his famous 2nd Concerto) – begun but abandoned a few years earlier. It would not be unusual for a young pianist dreaming of a concert career (and he had been studying to realize that dream since he was 9 years old) to write a concerto for himself. And when young students began major works like this, the usual advice is to model it after something you like, something recognized as a good example. The next year, he wrote to a cousin he was working on a new concerto (the first two movements already composed, the third not yet written down) and this eventually became his first published work.

While I hear echoes of Franz Liszt’s 1st Piano Concerto in Rachmaninoff’s Opus 1, his actual model was the Grieg A Minor Concerto (at least its two outer movements) which he heard Alexander Siloti (seen on the left, here, with the composer, photographed in 1892 or so) practicing during visits to the Rachmaninoffs in 1890. Rachmaninoff was the soloist when the first movement was performed at the Conservatory in March of 1892 (a couple of weeks before his 19th birthday) but he dedicated it to Siloti who would play the whole concerto frequently. The composer himself apparently never played the concerto again, which may seem odd.

Odder still was that he’d wait 25 years before revising it.

The usual argument to explain why so few pianists perform this concerto dismisses it as a youthful work that doesn’t stand up to the later, more mature concertos. That may be, but when he revised it in 1917, he corrected some of these “youthful indiscretions” in terms of its form and harmony, thinning out a lot of the texture and replacing some “filler” with more compelling material. He also replaced the original opening of the finale which gets things off to a much more exciting start (aaaaaand they’re off!)

Yet he kept the best features of the early work, perhaps lacking in the Great Themes that the later two concertos have, but still full of vitality and spontaneity. So in that sense, the work is both a young work and a mature one – or at least a mature look back on a youthful one. Even then, though, it never became popular with audiences.

As he wrote to a friend, "I have rewritten my First Concerto; it is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily. And nobody pays any attention. When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third."

Ironically, Rachmaninoff emigrated from Russia following the two revolutions in 1917, driving across the border into Finland in a horse-drawn sleigh in the dark of a winter’s night, carrying with him only a handful of scores and notebooks, having lost his family’s estate and his wealth not to mention the whole lifestyle and culture that defined him as a Russian now that Russia no longer existed.

His first published work, written mostly when he was 18, also in a sense became one of his last. Because he needed to make a living and being a concert pianist was more lucrative in the short-term, he now had no time to compose. Cut off from the Russian world that nurtured his soul, he also found it difficult to be creative when he did have the time.

Once he’d finally settled in America and built a house, it was a re-make of Russia where everything was furnished like a Russian home, where they spoke only Russian, ate Russian food and observed Russian customs. However, even this failed to spark his creativity.

Of the six works he completed after 1917, there was a 4th Piano Concerto written in 1926 that also suffers by comparison to the 2nd & 3rd, though the world could not get enough of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, composed eight years later. There was a 3rd Symphony that never went over as well as the 2nd and his final work, the Symphonic Dances, also failed to please American audiences and prompted Rachmaninoff to tell Eugene Ormandy that, basically, he would never compose again.

Aside from the choral songs of Op. 42, the Corelli Variations for solo piano round out the original works he composed in the last 25 years of his life. The rest were small-scale transcriptions that became staples of his recital repertoire, many of them more like encores – including his take on some movements from Bach’s E Major Partita for solo violin which received its “world premiere” in the Forum in Harrisburg as part of a concert tour in the 1930s.

But still, everywhere he played, audiences clamored for the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, written the same year he finished his 1st Piano Concerto.

Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11 - A Community Remembers

Okay, with a recent earthquake, a hurricane and now a history-making flood in Central Pennsylvania, we need to start off by saying, "Yes, this concert is still going ahead as planned." Set for 3pm on Sunday, September 11th at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, it is still scheduled.
As HSO executive director Jeff Woodruff was quoted in a Patriot-News article, “The last thing we want to do is cancel this event. Unless the state or city closes the roads, we are going to play. Unless we absolutely can’t."

As of this posting, the highway exits into Harrisburg north from I-81 and south from I-83 and the South Bridge are both closed due to flooding. However, the Harve Taylor Bridge onto Forester Street is open and the State Street Bridge (behind the Capitol complex) was the only way in or out of the city during the Agnes Flood in 1972 and the 1996 Flood, so it also is open and, incidentally, will take you right behind the Forum (make a left and then an immediate right turn to the State Library Entrance, or continue around onto Walnut Street and the front of the Forum building). The river is expected to crest Friday night or Saturday morning (if it hasn't already) but the waters will not recede below the flood stage of 17' until later on Sunday.

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The concert is "9/11: A Community Remembers, A 10th Anniversary Musical Tribute" with the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina, a cross-genre “concert of remembrance” coinciding with the nation's observation of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. 

The concert will take place on Sunday, September 11 at 3:00 p.m. at the Forum in Harrisburg.
On the jazz-flavored first half, local jazz piano legend Steve Rudolph will be joined by saxophonists Tim Warfield and Jonathan Ragonese, vocalists Diane Wilson and J.D. Walter, and the orchestra. The program will feature the premiere of an original work called Remembrance, composed by Steve Rudolph for this special performance. Also on the program will be Never Let Me Go, Shower the People, His Eye Is on the Sparrow and a medley of patriotic tunes including The House I live In and America the Beautiful.
On the second half, Maestro Malina will conduct Mozart’s final work, his moving Requiem. The performance will include vocal soloists Sasha Piastro, Amy Yovanovich, Eric Rieger, and Damian Savarino, the Susquehanna Chorale, and the Harrisburg Symphony.
This special HSO Community Concert is generously sponsored by Chesapeake Energy, Capital BlueCross, G.R. Sponaugle & Sons, Inc., Rhoads and Sinon LLP, abc27, and The Patriot-News.
The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra presents 9/11: A Community Remembers at 3 p.m. on Sunday, September 11th at Forum, located at 5th and Walnut Street in downtown Harrisburg, PA. Tickets for this performance range from $10 to $35 depending on seating location and available online at or by calling the HSO office (717) 545-5527.
Steve Rudolph is a jazz pianist, composer, arranger and educator. He has had an inspiring career in his 40 years of professional music making. Jazz Improv magazine states, “Rudolph is a savvy, swinging, glimmering heavyweight… ...simply outstanding.” The winner of the Jazziz Magazine Piano Competition at the Seven Springs Jazz Festival in 2000, he was also awarded two Jazz Composition Fellowships from the PA Council on the Arts. With eleven acclaimed CDs as a leader, he has served as producer, arranger and performer on many recordings including CDs with Johnny Coles, Bill Goodwin, Ali Ryerson, Matt Wilson and Vinny Valentino. HIs latest CD, "Day Dream" - released in 2010, is a trio recording from a live concert at Bucknell University with drummer Phil Haynes and bassist Drew Gress. His vast experience encompasses concert performances with many jazz masters including Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, Terry Gibbs, Rufus Reid, Buddy Tate, Al Grey, Bill Goodwin, and Sal Nistico. He has toured throughout the U.S., India, Europe, Canada, Russia and the Caribbean. When at home in Harrisburg, Pa., Steve, a Yamaha Artist, can be found performing regularly at the Hilton Harrisburg on his Yamaha Concert Collection C-7 Grand. Steve is presently in his nineteenth year playing six nights a week at the Hilton.
Born in Evansville, Indiana, Steve studied trumpet and composition under scholarship at Butler University. He switched his main instrumental focus to the piano at age 22 and was hired by Buddy Morrow to perform with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1977. Since moving to Harrisburg in 1978, he has been largely responsible for the growth and development of the thriving jazz scene in Central PA. His devotion to the art of jazz inspired him to found the Central PA Friends of Jazz, now in it’s 30th successful season of monthly concerts, youth band, jazz camp, and annual Central PA Jazz Festival. Steve was the recipient of the 2002 Harrisburg Arts Award for dedication to the arts and community service. His detailed recording and touring information may be found at
Tim Warfield, Jr., a native of York, Pennsylvania, began studying the alto saxophone at age nine. He switched to tenor saxophone during his first year at William Penn Sr. High School where he participated in various musical ensembles, winning many jazz soloist awards including second out of forty competitors at the Montreal Festival of Music in Canada. After high school, Warfield attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. for two years before leaving to lead and co-lead groups in the Central Pennsylvania and Baltimore/Washington areas.
In 1990 he was chosen to be a member of trumpeter and CBS/Sony recording artist Marlon Jordan’s Quintet. In 1991 he was selected to record Tough Young Tenors on the Island/Antilles label, listed as one of the top ten recordings of the year by the New York Times. He also joined Jazz Futures, a world touring group assembled by George Wein to showcase some of the world’s brightest young stars in jazz. Also in 1991, Warfield placed third at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition held at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Warfield has made several television appearances including the Today Show, Bill Cosby’s You Bet Your Life (where he was a member of the house band until 1992), and Ted Turner’s 1998 Trumpet Awards. Additionally, he has made numerous stage appearances with such names as Donald Byrd, Michelle Rosewoman, Marcus Miller, Marlon Jordan, James Williams, Christian McBride, The Harper Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, Isaac Hayes, Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith, Nicholas Payton, Charles Fambrough, Eric Reed, Carl Allen, Terell Stafford, Stefon Harris, Orrin Evans, The Newport Millennium All Stars, “Papa” John Defrancesco, Joey Defrancesco, Claudio Raggazzi, Danilo Perez, and others. In 1994, he joined bassist and Verve recording artist Christian McBride’s group, where he remained a member until 1999.
Warfield’s first recording, A Cool Blue, was selected as one of the top ten recordings of the year in a 1995 New York Times critic’s poll, as was his 1998 recording Gentle Warrior (featuring Cyrus Chestnut, Tarus Mateen, Clarence Penn, Terell Stafford, and Nicholas Payton), proclaiming him possibly the most powerful tenor saxophonist of his generation. In 1999, he was awarded “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” in DownBeat Magazine’s 49th Annual Jazz Critic’s poll. In 2000, alongside crooner Loston Harris, Warfield performed at the MTV GQ Men of the Year Awards in New York City.
In the fall of 1999 Warfield exclusively joined forces with New Orleans trumpeter and Warner Bros. recording artist Nicholas Payton of with whom he toured and recorded until 2005.
In 2006, Warfield joined trumpeter and Maxjazz recording artist Terell Stafford’s Quintet.
Warfield has appeared on several GRAMMY-nominated recordings such as Stefon Harris’ “The Grand Unification Theory,” as well as “Dear Louis” and “Sonic Trance,” both under the leadership of trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
Tim is currently serving as a board member for the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz as well as an artist-in-residence at Messiah College in Grantham , Pa.
Jonathan Ragonese, composer-arranger-saxophonist, is a native of New Cumberland Pennsylvania. He has lived in New York City for four years, where he completed his undergraduate degree at the Manhattan School of Music. As a saxophonist he has performed and recorded with local and international performers, Terell Stafford, David Liebman, Tim Warfield, JD Walter, The Harrisburg Symphony & Stuart Malina, Steve Rudolph, Steve Wilson and James Moody. As a composer his works have been premiered by saxophonist Steve Wilson, the Vermont Mozart Festival Orchestra, the Harrisburg Symphony, and the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Orchestra. "Sweet for Duke", commissioned by the Vermont Mozart Festival was premiered in August of 2010. His latest large work, "Mother Goose Suite" a collection of dramatic nursery rhymes, was premiered in New York City with Steve Wilson, Glenn Zaleski, Harp and Winds featuring the narration of world-renowned composer, historian, and performer Dr. David Noon.
Diane Wilson is the winner of the 2007 Pennsylvania State Senior Idol competition and is known for her soulful renditions of jazz and R&B classics.
JD Walter is a Jazz singers singer - a purist and an innovator. Although his style has been compared to many vocal Titans, it is in the same breath, uniquely his own, and he has become a singular phenomenon on the music scene. Respected and lauded by the great musicians of the contemporary circuit, J.D. has shared the stage and recorded with many legendary artists. J.D. has currently recorded 5 CD's. "Sirens in the C-House", "Clear Day", a collaboration with master musician Dave Liebman, "Dedicated to You", "2Bass, a Face and a little skin", and "live in Portugal". JD has been a guest artist on many CD's, is also a member of pianist Orrin Evans Luvpk band, with 2 releases on Imani Records, as well as performing 3 songs on trumpeter Sean Jones latest release, "Kaleidoscope", on Mack Avenue records. J.D. has been a featured artist at countless American jazz festivals and clubs, performed at numerous festivals in Europe, the Middle East, Central America and toured Russia 25+ times, performing in over 100 cities. J.D. is in demand as a clinician at schools and universities. He has performed numerous clinics for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Music Educators National Conference, and has taught at the prestigious Sebelius Conservatory in Helsinki Finland, Jazz Palau De Valencia in Spain, The University of North Texas (invited back as the first vocalist ever on their lecture series), The Moscow Music Consort, and the Kazan Music Conservatory in Russia. JD is a regular on the Music Scene in New York having headlined at such venues as, Lincoln Center, The Jazz Standard, The Jazz Gallery, Joe's Pub, The Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Sweet Rhythm, Smoke, and can be seen frequently at the famed 55 Bar. He was also formerly on the faculty of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Currently resides in New York City, teaches at The Aaron Copeland School of Music, The New School, and can be heard at many major jazz clubs and events.
Sasha Piastro is a versatile professional singer, equally comfortable with classical and musical theater styles. Past season’s engagements include Djamileh with Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, L’Africaine with Amici Opera, Celia in Iolanthe with Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, Zerlina in Don Giovanni with Center Stage Opera, the soprano soloist for Handel’s Messiah with the Messiah College Choral Arts Society, Leïla in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles with Center Stage Opera, soprano soloist with the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra, and Cathy in The Last Five Years at the Mary Welch Theater in Williamsport, PA.
Ms. Piastro has sung with numerous opera and music theater companies including Emerald City Opera, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Center Stage Opera, Amici Opera, the New York Conservatory for the Arts, Pittsburgh Music Theater, Pittsburgh Opera, and Penn State Opera Theater. She has also sung with internationally respected conductors Robert Page and Stuart Malina, and with well-known directors such as Dorothy Danner, Sarah Meyers, and Jonathan Eaton.
Ms. Piastro received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in voice performance from Carnegie Mellon University and her Master of Music degree in voice performance and pedagogy from Penn State University. She is currently working on her Doctorate of Musical Arts in voice performance at Shenandoah Conservatory. Ms. Piastro is a member of the voice faculty at Grove City College, and has served on the faculties at Lycoming College and Susquehanna University. She is an active member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the Associated Guild of Musical Artists.
Amy Yovanovich started singing as a child. She is a 1989 graduate of Elizabethtown Area High School, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.  After high school she served as lead soloist at St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Ms. Yovanovich studied under Mr. John Darrenkamp, a well-known veteran of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City and currently studies with Ms. Kyle C. Engler, Mezzo-Soprano, Baltimore, Maryland. She has performed with the Pennsylvania Academy of Music Opera Theatre Workshop, Lancaster and Harrisburg Opera Companies. She has performed in a number of operas, including, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as Dorabella, Bizet’s Carmen as Carmen and Mennotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors as the Mother. Ms. Yovanovich has also performed many oratorios, including Verdi & Mozart Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and Judas Maccabeus, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. She has also performed in several productions at the Fulton Opera House including The Sound of Music as Mother Abbess, in Rags as Rosa, in Ragtime as Sarah’s Friend, in Carousel as Netty Fowler and Oliver at Widow Corney. In February of 2003, she made her non-musical debut with Ephrata ACT as Berenice Sadie Brown in Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding.”
In March of 1998, Ms. Yovanovich was the recipient of the prestigious Oxnard Gold Medal, First Place Award in the American Traditions Competition in Savannah, Georgia, sponsored by Savannah On Stage.  She also was Honorable Mention at the 1998 Metropolitan Opera District Auditions, finalist in the 1999 National Federation of Music Clubs Competition, and a winner in the 2000 Connecticut Opera Guild Competition.
Eric Rieger has consistently received critical praise for his beautiful singing and exciting performances throughout his impressive international career. hails his “erotic, radiant voice” and “cultivated manner.” The Trierischer Volksfreund applauds his “fine-timbered tenor voice” and “beautiful lyric singing,” and continues by stating, “There is bel canto style to be felt, skillfulness and every amount of talent.” Indeed, says, “this is a lovely tenor voice and a winning personality who will go a long way on both the recital platform and the opera stage."  He has had great success in opera throughout Europe, particularly in the repertoire of Rossini, Donizetti, Mozart, Handel, and Britten.  His busy career has led him to the opera companies of Zürich, Luzern, Basel (Switzerland), Trier, Regensburg, Kaiserslautern, Bremerhaven, Osnabrück, Nordhausen, Konstanz (Germany), and Novara, (Italy), as well as Zomeropera Alden Biesen (Belgium), Citizens Theatre (Glasgow, Scotland), Everyman Palace Theatre (Cork, Ireland), and the Mozart and Friends Opera Festival (New Jersey). 
Equally at home on the concert platform, Mr. Rieger has appeared with such notable orchestras as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Basel Sinfonietta, St. John’s Orchestra (London), the Luxembourg Chamber Orchestra “Les Musiciens,” and the Trier Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also been featured at the Claudio Monteverdi Festival in Italy, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  Frequent oratorio and concert performances have included Handel’s Messiah; J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Magnificat and many Cantatas; Mozart’s Requiem; Rossini’s Messe Solennelle; Orff’s Carmina Burana and Britten’s Serenade, among others. A passionate recitalist, he has been heard in the United States and Europe interpreting a vast array of song literature.  Mr. Rieger is also in demand as a voice teacher and is an active member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.  Currently, he serves as Visiting Assistant Professor of Voice at Texas Tech University.  He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Bass Damian Savarino is quickly gaining attention as one of today’s most talented singers.  With his rich voice, striking musicality, and commanding acting ability, he is becoming one of the most sought-after young performers in opera and in concert.  He has appeared throughout the U.S. performing such roles as Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte, Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, Sparafucile in Rigoletto, Zuniga in Carmen, and Guglielmo in Così Fan Tutte.  While at the Ohio Light Opera, he sang and recorded the roles of Colonel Lester in Victor Herbert’s Eileen and Lord Dramaleigh in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Utopia Limited for the Newport Classic label as well as performed roles in Patience, Eduard Künneke’s Der Vetter aus Dingsda, Romberg’s New Moon, and Camelot.
During the past two seasons, Mr. Savarino appeared with Teatro Grattacielo as Lo zio in Riccitelli’s I Compagnacci and L’uomo di Legge in Giordano’s Il Re at the Rose Theater, Lincoln Center.  Other appearances include the bass solos in Charpentier’s Filius Prodigus and Carissimi’s Vanitas Vanitatum with Musica Sacra (Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center) and Handel’s Messiah with the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra (Ithaca, NY).  He had also first performed with Teatro Grattacielo as Rocco in Wolf-Ferrari’s I Gioielli della Madonna.
In January 2010, Mr. Savarino sang the bass solos in Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass in Carnegie Hall with Distinguished Concerts International New York.  He has also recently sung Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra/Symphonic Choir, Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem with the Choral Arts Society of Messiah College, Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs with the West Shore Symphony (PA), and Schubert’s Mass in G with the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston.  During a trip to Greece, Mr. Savarino performed the bass solos in Mikis Theodorakis’ oratorio Canto General, based on texts by Pablo Neruda.  Mr. Savarino is also an active recitalist who has presented recitals in Germany, Greece, and Sicily.
The Susquehanna Chorale was founded in 1981 by Artistic Director Linda L. Tedford. The chorus is recognized for its artistic interpretation of choral works of many styles, for its commissions of 14 new works, and for its educational outreach programs. The Chorale is the recipient of Chorus America’s highest award: The Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence and is currently Ensemble-in-Residence at Messiah College. In addition to its series of performances throughout Central Pennsylvania, the Chorale performs regularly with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra and has toured Great Britain and Europe. The Chorale’s CD’s have received national recognition: Wondrous Love and American Treasures were offered for consideration for a Grammy Nomination.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Summertime Musictime

Does it seem like the summer has gone into fast-forward already, or is it just me?

Now that it is officially summer – as of 1:16pm, last Tuesday, June 21st – even though it felt like summer long before Memorial Day, here it is and the 4th of July weekend is right around the corner!

For those of us enjoy our music year-round, that means summer concerts – and the Harrisburg Symphony’s 4th of July Concerts start this Thursday, June 30th and wrap up on Monday, July 4th, a series of five free concerts across the midstate.

First of all, here’s the schedule: hopefully there’s one (or more) near you you can choose from. Four of them are outdoors and so it’s BYOB&C – in this case, “Bring Your Own Blankets & Chairs”

Thursday (June 30th) 8pm in Lemoyne
Negley Park (sponsored by the Lemoyne Business Association). Rain location: Cedar Cliff High School

Friday (July 1st) 8pm in Annville
The Lebanon Valley College Quad (sponsored by Lebanon Valley College) Rain location: Lutz Auditorium

Saturday (July 2nd) 8pm in Harrisburg
Metro Bank Stadium on City Island (Sponsored by Chesapeake Energy & Dauphin County Commissioners) Rain Location: the Forum

Sunday (July 3rd) 7:30pm in Carlisle
Carlisle Summerfair (Sponsored by Summerfair and Citizens of Carlisle) Rain location: Carlisle Theatre

Monday (July 4th) 7:30pm in McAlisterville
East Juniata High School Auditorium (sponsored by Lawrence L. and Julia Z. Hoverter Foundation and First National Bank of Mifflintown)

The program will include a mix of classical and pop favorites

Johann Strauss: Overture to “Die Fledermaus”
Tchaikovsky: Music from “Swan Lake”
Frank Proto: “Casey at the Bat” with Carmen Finestra & Jeff Woodruff sharing the narrating
Louis Prima: “Sing, Sing, Sing”
John Williams: Raiders March
Andrew Lloyd-Webber: Selections from “Phantom of the Opera”
John Williams: “Summon the Heroes” (with Phil Snedecore, trumpet)
Aaron Copland: Variations on a Shaker Melody (“Simple Gifts”)
A Salute to the Armed Forces
…and of course
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
Sousa: Stars & Stripes Forever

Summer concerts like these are always fun – that is, if the weather cooperates. So far, the forecast for Thursday the 30th looks pretty darn good (83°, clear skies and 0% chance of precipitation) which I can’t say is always the case. And of course, it’s always a gamble when you schedule these things: it’s not like anybody can control the weather – even a day in advance...

Everybody who’s ever been involved in outdoor summer concerts has their stories to tell.

In the ‘80s, the Harrisburg Symphony had initiated a series of annual concerts that were performed from a barge anchored to the lower walkway of Harrisburg’s Riverfront Park.

Sometimes, when we’d get there to start setting up the “stage” before 11am, there would already be groups of people staking out their territory along the upper bank, setting up blankets and chairs in the prime seating area for the 8pm concert. There would be boats in the river with City Island in the background, fireworks shooting off from the area around the beach house.

It wasn’t always as idyllic as this photograph might seem. The Barge Concerts of the ‘80s were usually held in late June, before the city’s 4th of July festivities and so, sometimes, we had to be concerned not just about heat and storms but also how high the river was.

There was one concert I remember when the river hadn’t receded yet after some heavy rains earlier in the week and the orchestra had to set up in the park along Front Street. There was a photo of this in the Patriot-News taken from City Island with the caption “Orchestra Plays From Top of Bank” (or something to that effect) but with the buildings in the background, you could see the sign for the Fulton Bank – well, no, not from that bank…

Another time, following a late-Spring near-flood, Mayor Stephen Reed spoke to the crowd but stumbled when he came to the idea of the beautiful backdrop of the river, the boats, the trees and the island – and instead said “dropback” and then “drawback”… well, understandable…

Aside from dealing with issues like sweat on the fingerboards and humidity-affected instruments (strings and reeds are especially notorious when it comes to humid summer weather), bugs were certainly a major issue – especially if you’re a wind-player needing to take sudden deep breaths, a hazard considering the usual cloud of mayflies hanging around the barge.

Another time, I’d checked out the barge right before the rehearsal the night before and was pleased to report to the musicians that there were hardly any bugs there at all.

A cheer went up from the wind section.

“The bats are eating them all…”

At one of those concerts, conductor Larry Newland went to turn a page and was bitten by a spider. (Considering the barge was located only a few miles north of Three Mile Island, too bad we didn’t have music to play from the Spiderman filmscores…)

One summer, we programmed Modeste Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” but with the less than stellar sound system strung through the park, then, the opening sounded more like “Gnat on Bald Mountain” – several players swore it was attracting gnats from as far away as Baltimore.

You’ve heard the old joke about the musician who apologized for making a mistake? “Maestro, I’m sorry, but there was a fly on my score and I played it.”

A couple summers ago, Eric Henry, who was the principal tuba player then and now, showed me the tuba part for the 1812 Overture. Over the years, these parts have become more fragile – they were old, then – so they’re now using photocopies of the originals. But there on his part were the photocopied remains of several mayflies and mosquitoes who had given their lives for art over twenty-five years ago…

- Dick Strawser