Excited for My 8th Season

Marlene’s Musings
August 20, 2017

The Wayzata Symphony Orchestra is a unique orchestra. None of its members get paid to play. Their dedication to the orchestra, their disciplined personal preparation, their commitment to allowing risk in this ever-changing global orchestral landscape, their desire to continually improve: All of these attributes make me proud to be at the musical helm.

But even more than that, the musicians of the WSO are exemplars of MN citizenry – the type of people that make MN such a great state in which to live – all contribute to our community through their vocations and avocations, all support the arts, they are great friends and neighbors, they are open-minded, they share their knowledge and gifts with young people, on both sides of the political isle they work together for the common good.

So, as I think about starting my 8th season, I look forward to being amongst them, learning from them and hopefully, offering inspiring and convincing interpretations of the repertoire we have chosen for the season.

Stay tuned for another blog in a couple weeks – there is much to talk about!

Holst, The Planets – Astrological and Astronomical

Marlene’s Musings
April 11, 2017

Holst, The Planets – astrological and astronomical

I have been wishing for the opportunity to conduct The Planets by Gustav Holst ever since a friend suggested I listen to it. We had just seen Star Wars (1977) and I was raving about the music saying that no one had ever written anything like that before. Naïve Marlene learned pretty quickly that I was totally wrong!

Mars, the Bringer of War

During the time of writing, Holst was interested in astrology. He was also living in a world about to unleash the horror of WWI.  Mars is the Roman god of war, whose red color symbolizes blood.   Holst wrote “hackles-raised” music using an unrelenting, brutally rhythmic motive in 5/4 time which the string players execute with the wood of their bows. The sound of wood on strings conjures an image of an approaching army bearing spears and shields.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace

The contrast between Mars and Venus is striking. The goddess of love and beauty is depicted right off the bat with a gorgeous horn solo. Throughout the work there are lovely solos for violin, cello and oboe. This is sensual, loving music with a backdrop of celestial, heavenly sounds from celeste, glockenspiel and harps. The music is not simple, far from it.  How interesting that Holst wrote music of great complexity to describe peace.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger

Fast, light, short. We wouldn’t expect any less from a winged messenger! Aside from the speed of the piece, a further challenge resides in the fact that there are two different keys (Bb and E) and two different rhythms right on top of each other throughout most of the piece. Holst loved this technique and did it often in his works. One would think it would feel unsettling or discordant – NOPE!  Just, really interesting!

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

This is one of my favorite pieces in the entire orchestral repertoire, in fact, at our wedding, my husband and I processed to the Hymn that is at the center of the movement. And, while I was Artistic Director at GTCYS, I made an arrangement of the Hymn for all 500 kids to play en masse at Orchestra Hall for the year-end concert.

There are at least five jolly themes spun in glorious ways and offered to every section within the orchestra.  In Roman terms, Jupiter was the leader of all the Gods and represented divine authority and was associated with freedom, exploration and merrymaking. Holst described him perfectly!

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age

The youthful exuberance of Jupiter is now replaced by the inevitable coming of old age. Holst first describes the approach of life’s last years – worry about being alone, the vanishing of friends, the failing of our earthly bodies, the closing of a familiar chapter. The basses play a very slowly moving theme that seems to suggest defeat. Then, Holst bestows the trombones with a chorale that is the voice of wisdom. There is a sense of acceptance of an ordered hierarchy of nature. The piece ends so beautifully with harps, celeste and high strings bringing things to an apotheosis.

Uranus, the Magician

This is such a fascinating piece for a conductor to study. There is one four-note motive that opens the piece. Immediately it is repeated in the tuba at double speed and then repeated again, in the timpani, at quadruple speed. Holst IS the magician because throughout the entire movement that same four-note motive is heard at many speeds and iterations – even played upside down, 12 times in a row, in a flurry of woodwind writing. At the end, there is a sudden collapse of sound as if the magician has made himself disappear. The music is slow and very quiet. But, the motive returns for a couple seconds to remind us of our magician’s dramatic skill.

Neptune, the Mystic

Neptune, in Roman mythology, is the god of the sea, and the deep blue color of the planet reflects this. Holst subtitles it the Mystic. Astrologers associate the planet with illusion, confusion and deception. No wonder, then, that Holst uses the composition technique of bitonality. There are many chords that are made up of a minor chord playing simultaneously with a major chord (e minor plus G# major, for example). There are no real melodies, just bits and pieces of melodies. At the end a woman’s chorus begins to sing without words. They are the ones who end the piece imperceptibly, suggesting the ongoing universe, far beyond our current ability to explore it.

 

 

Youthful Inspiration

 

Marlene’s Musings
July 25, 2016

During the summer when the WSO is off, I do other fun stuff.

For the past 7 years, I have been very fortunate to conduct the showcase concert for the Young Artist World Piano Festival held in St. Paul each summer. Two winners are chosen from the competitors who come from all around the globe: one winner age 8 to 12, and one winner age 13 to 18.

Every contestant plays the same piece. This year, it was Mozart Piano Concerto #17, 1st movement and Schumann Piano Concerto.

Finale Concert-54The talent is incredible.  Everything is in place from each competitor – no one makes mistakes or plays wrong tempi or has memorization lapses. These are young people who have gone way deeper than the tip of the iceberg. Their fingers fly! And their personalities emerge so clearly. That’s what happens when you go deep. Notes, rhythms, articulation, dynamics – that’s the beginning. When you can get beyond all that (after hours of practice, of course) the magic starts and the muse, who now knows you’re serious, visits you with an invitation to let your heart and soul speak. To be a listener when that happens is to feel something indescribable. You feel privileged to be present. Perhaps you can imagine the humble joy I feel as conductor of the orchestra whose job it is to accompany these wunderkinds.

Next up for me:

LAMF-LogoI’m gearing up to conduct a program called Bedtime Stories for the Lakes Area Music Festival. I get to conduct some of my favorites – Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky Firebird; Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade; Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Libby Larsen’s wind octet, Jack and the Beanstalk based on Roald Dahl’s irreverent telling of the age-old tale.

This orchestra is made up of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and many other national orchestras who come to Brainerd to enjoy the beauty of our lakes.

If you’re in Brainerd on Sunday, August 7 at 2:00, come to the free concert but come early – it’s always a packed house.

Pondering the Mystery

Marlene’s Musings
January 9, 2016

Eric Stokes photo

Eric Stokes

Music is for the people.
For all of us,
the dumb, the deaf, the dog & jays, handclappers,
dancing moon watchers,
brainy puzzlers, abstracted whistlers,
finger-snapping time keepers,
crazy, weak, hurt, weedkeepers, the strays.
The land of music is everyone’s nation – her tune,
his beat, your drum,
one song, one vote.

 -Eric Stokes

I love that poem. Music is everywhere for everyone. As I lie here with my leg aloft to heal my fused ankle, I have the luxury of time to ponder things like: “Where does music come from? Is it unique to our planet? Or, perhaps, is it part of the vast universe?”

Music emerges in extreme complexity from birds, it communicates messages from a pack of wolves or the surly cat, it roars loudly in rushing rapids, its complex rhythms are in the rain, in our heartbeats. It is in the vibrations of the earth – of course. We would know nothing about music if we hadn’t heard it there first, but how did humans ever figure out how to create the written language of music and further, how does the composer lift our emotions to the surface with just a few notes? How does a composer describe a country, a river, a thunderstorm, heartache, a party, or a whole culture of people?

220px-George_Gershwin-signedWe are doing Gershwin, An American in Paris for our February cycle (click here for our concert schedule). Gershwin figured out how to musically describe who we are as Americans. I asked my daughter, What does it mean to be an American?” She replied, “to be free, to be independent and to get to do what you want and say what you want… as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. To have a dream for yourself.” Does Gershwin’s music describe that? I think so. But how?

 

Gershwin’s parents were émigrés. As a young boy, George took piano lessons from Mr. Hambitzer, a musician who believed that any music that was any good had to come from European composers. So, young George practiced his Bach two part inventions and Mozart sonatas and play them for Mr. Bitzner every week. Sometimes, after playing his Mozart, George would say, “Hey, Mr. Bitzner, Listen to this, I wrote it this week. Isn’t it cool!!” Mr. Bitzner had absolutely no patience for that kind of music. In fact, he wrote a letter to George’s parents saying, “Your son is very talented but he keeps wanting to play this jazz stuff, this schlock. I simply will not allow it.”

George had the courage to continue to compose the music he heard in his head – music that was rooted in American soil – Native American chant and dance, African American gospel, spiritual and jazz. Jazz music is the ultimate in freedom – you play a tune and then you improvise something based on the tune – you get to do what you want as long as you keep the basic harmony and rhythm in tact. The immigrants who came here seeking freedom were surely improvisers – they had to create things for themselves out of basic surroundings. They were risk takers and perhaps a little wild – necessary character traits to chart such a perilous journey. Americans recognized themselves in Gershwin’s music and he became a household name.

George_Gershwin_An_American_in_Paris

 

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But the mystery! How is it that when we hear George Gershwin’s music we recognize ourselves in it? 12 different notes put together in such a way as to describe us? Is it the dominant chords that are prevalent throughout that include both the perfect and the flat fifth? Is it the swinging eighths? Is it the 25 key changes that suggest extreme flexibility?

Perhaps after three months of keeping my leg up I’ll be closer to some kind of answer – or not.

It’s enough to ponder.

I Hold In My Hands…

Marlene’s Musings
October 26, 2015

MarleneWithScoresIt is a humbling thing to hold a score in my hands for the first time. I know it sounds a little crazy but it is somewhat akin to holding our newborn daughter for the first time. I am filled with awe of the creation but also aware of the daunting responsibility of shepherding it forward. My job, as conductor, is to try and understand, through careful study, what the composer intended. As a mother I tried to honor my daughter’s a priori intent as a human being without imposing too much of myself. A lofty goal, indeed! The ironic thing is that you cannot possibly hope to give life to the composition unless you put your heart and soul into it.

On any given page there are hundreds of details to figure out – transpositions, harmonies, phrase structures, dynamic balances, articulation nuances, rhythmic intricacies. You tear it all down for your own understanding and then put it back together for the full effect. After all that, it really does become a part of you. So, when the time comes to lift the print off the page, you really hope you are honoring the composer’s truest “self.”

This concert is exciting because we will perform three pieces, all written within the last 10 years.

  • Imagine If You Will …. by Timothy Mahr (professor of composition and band director at St. Olaf College)
  • Grand Organ Concerto by Stephen Paulus
  • Clarinet Concerto by Spanish composer, Oscar Navarro

All are accessible and thrilling to experience on both sides of the podium and if you ask, I’ll be happy to put any or all of the scores in your hands.

Out of This World!

Marlene’s Musings
September 1, 2015

OrbitPhotoKarimFBOn October 11, the WSO will be performing Orbit: A Symphonic Fantasy by Karim Elmahmoudi I found out about Karim and this piece from the cover story of The International Musician. Anyone who makes the cover of that magazine is either a big shot or a unique, rising star in the music business. On a whim, I called to see if I could convince him to come here as our visiting composer. I knew I had a 50-50 chance he’d say “yes.”

Karim’s music has been performed all over the world, including Carnegie Hall, Disney Hall in L.A., and London’s Zankel Hall. He has received many awards for his classical music, film scores and video games. Currently, Orbit is played hourly at the California Space Center – permanent home of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Over three million people have already heard his composition.

While Karim is in the Twin Cities, we have scheduled for him to make presentations at local high schools and colleges. His journey to being a composer is really fascinating!  He was an aerospace engineering student before becoming a composer and, as you might imagine, has a keen interest in the links between science and music. He is a pilot, a certified Coast Guard skipper, a scuba diver and a trombone player!  His inspiring story will encourage young people to follow their dreams in whatever arena they choose.

Please join us on October 11 at 3:00 at Wayzata Community Church for this free performance!

Karim Elmahmoudi-Headshot“The overall felling I attempted to capture with this piece is one of vigorous heroism, evocative lyricism, and spirited adventure. The work is suggestive of this quote from Mark Twain: ‘Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’” – Karim Elmahmoudi

2015-16 Season Preview: Climbing Higher

Marlene’s Musings
July 5, 2015

The WSO has so much in store for the 2015 – 16 season: A world premiere, a composer in residence, well-known soloists and as always, we perform works from the standard repertoire as well as unfamiliar, fabulous creations.

KuenzelBWwebKarim Elmahmoudi-HeadshotOctober 11, 2015: Adam Kuenzel and Orbit: A Symphonic Fantasy
Guest Artist: Adam Kuenzel, Principal Flute, MN Orch
Pre-concert talk with composer Karim Elmahmoudi: 2:00
Concert: 3:00 Wayzata Community Church

MahrTimothywebDianaLeeLucker4November 22, 2015: Minnesota’s Own
Guest Composer: Timothy Mahr
Guest Artist: Diana Lee Lucker, Organ
WSO Concerto Competition winner: Tori Okwabi, Clarinet
3:00 Wayzata Community Church

patrick-harison1February 14 and February 21, 2016: Twist of Tango
Guest Artist: Patrick Harison, Accordion and Bandoneon
Feb 14: 3:00 Wayzata Community Church
Feb 21: 3:00 St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church Mahtomedi

MariaJette2May 1 and May 7, 2016: Maria Sings Maria
Guest Artist: Maria Jette, Soprano
May 1: 3:00 Wayzata Community Church
May 7: 7:30 Trinity Lutheran Church Stillwater
All of our concerts are free and open to the public with no ticket required. I hope to see you at any or all of our exciting programs!

Why do family concerts?

Marlene’s Musings
April, 2015

The Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov, had never heard an orchestra until his father took him to St. Petersburg to enroll in the College of Naval Cadets. He was 12 years old. When he went to the opera it was not the stage spectacle or the singing, but the great sound rising from the pit that excited him most. Early in 1857, he wrote home:

Imagine my joy, today I’m going to the theater! I shall see Lucia! I shall hear the enormous orchestra and the tam-tam!

That is the kind of experience many musicians tell of their first exposure to music. For me, it was hearing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite for the first time. For others, it was when the MN Orchestra came to their elementary school to give a concert. And for many young New Yorkers, attending Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic established a life-long love of music.

KidsThat is why I love conducting family concerts. To present to young ears the incredible spectrum of sound in the orchestra, to welcome them in to the sensory experience that only music can provide, to draw attention to the fact that all those instruments are “speaking” volumes of meaning without words. And, most importantly, to let them know that it is their birthright to participate. Robin Williams once said,

“You know what music is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in the universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even in the stars.”

Music is organic to the earth and therefore, to us.

MarleneJackLR

For our family-friendly concerts on May 3 and May 9, we will feature all those glorious sounds, section by section, and then join forces for Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterfully orchestrated Capriccio Espagnol and Klaur Badelt’s, Pirates of the Caribbean. There might even be a visit from Jack Sparrow!

Verdi Requiem – Opera in Disguise

Marlene’s Musings
January, 2015

MarlenePodiumShotWebThis is my fifth season as Music Director of the wonderful Wayzata Symphony Orchestra. I’m thrilled that a hallmark of the season will be our performance of Verdi’s Requiem at Orchestra Hall on Feb. 22, 2015.

I have been a lover of great singing since I was a kid. My paternal grandmother, though not an opera singer per se, was soprano soloist in their Lutheran Church in Austin, MN. She had the most glorious voice and would often hum as I nestled in for a cuddle on the couch. Very happy memories, indeed!

Although Verdi’s Requiem is not an opera, it cannot be performed or conducted unless one has a love and an understanding of opera. The four vocal soloists will be required to display virtuosity comparable to many of Verdi’s great arias. Our soprano will climb to a breathtaking high C at the climax of the final movement as she sings, “Deliver me, Oh Lord, from eternal death on that fateful day.” Spine chilling!

OrchHallSingersOur partners, Edina Chorale and Two Rivers Chorale, have been rehearsing for months. This is no walk in the park for singers. The Sanctus and Libera Me movements include masterful fugues that challenge the very finest of choirs. Their diction will have to be highly rhythmic in order to cut through the texture so that everything can be heard.

Everyone will be challenged by the extreme dynamic range which goes from f f f f to ppppp! One rarely sees five pianos in any score.

For Verdi, who was not religious, this work speaks about the fear of death in very human terms. He does not shy away from the thought that death and the afterlife might not be a pleasant experience. That fear of uncertainty is no more palpable than in the Dies Irae where the solo instrument is the bass drum. It is bone-crunching, terrifying music complete with 8 trumpets placed antiphonally, proclaiming the approaching day of judgment when all sins will be revealed.

This is dramatic music at its best and with Orchestra Hall as our venue, the electrifying energy in the music will be magnified onstage.

Never Say Never

Marlene’s Musings
November, 2014

Never say Never

Bartók_Béla_1927When I was interviewed for this job, I was asked what repertoire I thought the orchestra could perform. I said, “We won’t be able to do Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra but there are so many other things we will be able to do.” This orchestra has grown so much and committed to such excellence that we are now ready for the Bartok.

Why is it such a difficult piece? Simply put, it is full of music we, as musicians, don’t play very often. We were all trained using Western European models – major and minor scales, symmetrical rhythms and phrases. Bartok asks us to go way beyond those perimeters. Yes, he was a huge fan of Bach so there are traditional harmonies in some places AND many fugues and fugatos. He also admired Schoenberg so there are whole-tone, pentatonic and artificial scales. But, most interestingly, Bartok was a great exponent and recorder of folk music. With a primitive Edison cylinder machine Bartok travelled all around Hungary and the surrounding countries, recording and then transcribing thousands of songs. We think of folk music as simple and easily singable but, if you’re from Hungary or the Czech Republic, you didn’t grow up singing the folk tunes we did. The music Bartok recorded became influential in everything he wrote. Those melodies, rhythms and harmonies were foreign to the Western European ear. BUT folk music of any kind is compelling because it speaks of the human experience. I think that is one of the many reasons why Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra became an instant success.

When this piece was written Bartok felt his composing life was over. In 1943, weighing only 87 pounds, laying in a hospital bed suffering from symptoms of Leukemia which would eventually kill him, he was visited by the great conductor, Koussevitsky. He had been urged to do so by violinist, Joseph Szigeti and conductor, Fritz Reiner. All three icons of music loved Bartok’s music and did not want his creativity to end. They offered him a commission to write a work for the Boston Symphony. Initially he said “no” but an envelope with a sizeable down payment was left bedside and needing money desperately, Bartok accepted. Within 7 weeks, he had completed the masterpiece we all know and love.

So, with humility and LOTS of individual practice, we will perform Bartok’s Concerto on Nov. 16. I can’t wait!