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!

Osmo Vänskä Joins the WSO!

Marlene’s Musings
September, 2014

OsmoMarleneI’m SO excited to be starting my 5th season conducting the WSO – and what a season it will be! We open with Osmo Vänskä playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto! Since my first exposure as a young clarinetist, I have welcomed every opportunity to delve deeper into this beloved masterpiece. To have Osmo Vänskä in the house to perform it is such a thrill. NOT TO BE MISSED!

Two other audience favorites round out the first program. Sibelius wrote the tone poem, Finlandia, at a time when Finland was under oppressive Russian rule. The hymn heard near the end of the piece became Finland’s national anthem and continues to be heard whenever a Finnish athlete wins Olympic gold.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite contains some of the most recognizable tunes in the orchestral repertoire – Morning, Solveig’s Song, Anitra’s Dance, In the Hall of the Mountain King. WSO’s amazing musicians will bring their A-game to lift the music off the page.

See you on October 12th!

World Premieres by Daniel Kallman

Marlene’s Musings
April, 2014

Studying scores is a blast for me. But, studying a score that is brand new is even better. Holding a new score in your hands is a humbling thing, sort of like holding a new-born baby in your arms. You feel the wonder of a new creation and you feel the tremendous responsibility to try and nurture its path forward. The task is to figure out what is there, beyond notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. You try to get deeper. It takes a long time of study to begin to do that but when the desire is there, the time to do it becomes inconsequential.

Sea Creatures
DanKallmanI have known of Daniel Kallman’s music since hearing a piece he wrote years ago, performed by Plymouth Music Series (now Vocalessence) under the direction of Philip Brunelle. Since then I have heard many more of his masterful creations, performed by MN Orchestra and many other ensembles. In 1997, I commissioned Dan to write a work for Halama Wind Octet. We premiered Sea Creatures at Wayzata Community Church and it was recorded by MPR. It is a fabulous piece that has been published by Boosey and Hawkes and is now performed all over the world.

Dan and I have talked for several years about trying to procure the funding for the full orchestration. With help from the MN State Arts Board, the dream has come to fruition. Sea Creatures is a six-movement work. Prior to each movement, there is narration concerning aspects of the earth’s oceans. The four middle movements – Dolphin, Puffer Fish, Moray Eel and Shark – are musical descriptions of those remarkable creatures of the sea.

Jabberwocky
MNBoyChoirWSOAs part of the MSAB grant, Dan has also written a piece for the amazing MN Boychoir, directed by Mark Johnson. The piece, Jabberwocky, uses the text from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. The text uses lots of portmanteaus. For example, “galumphing,” “frumious,” and “huffish.” Dan’s music brilliantly ‘paints’ the made-up words. I’m certain this piece, along with the fully orchestrated Sea Creatures, will get many future performances by ensembles nationally and internationally.

What a thrill to be the facilitators of their first performances!

Inspiring Voices

Marlene’s Musings
January, 2014

Inspiring Voices – singer, Bruce Henry and composer, Florence Price

Back in 2003 I heard a podcast of Joe Carter and Krista Tippett (MPR “ON BEING”) talking about the ‘back stories’ for the Negro Spirituals. Normally I do other things while I listen but that day I sat down and listened to the entire show. What intrigued me was how VERY little I knew about those extremely familiar songs. I heard the re-broadcast of that podcast in 2010 after Joe had died and I promised myself I would find a way to get that music and the stories behind the music told to a broader audience.

BruceHenryWebsiteIn Bruce Henry, I found the perfect singer for the concert.

Bruce’s energy is infectious, his range of 3-1/2 octaves amazing and his musicianship truly inventive and engaging. And he is an educator, sharing his thorough knowledge of the history of black music with young people in schools here and in Chicago.

The hidden historical meaning of the texts will fascinate and the wonderful orchestral arrangements created for these concerts by Paul Gericke will surely enhance Bruce’s inspiring renditions.

Florence Price was the first African American woman composer to have a work performed by an American Orchestra (the Chicago Symphony premiered Symphony #1 in 1933). In the spirit of nationalism of the 20s and 30s, Price’s primary goal was to incorporate Negro folk idioms – spirituals, blues and characteristic dance music – into the symphonic form. The symphony achieved wide acclaim, catapulting her onward to write hundreds of other works including 100 songs, many of which were made famous by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to conduct Florence Price’s Symphony #1. With the resurgence of interest in her music, a recognized place among the finest American composers is hers.

Mozart and Brahms

Marlene’s Musings
November, 2013

Marlene_ErinKeefe_2013WebsiteAt the age of 13, Mozart became concertmaster of the Salzburg court orchestra. Responsibilities for that position included conducting from the chair (Conductors, as they are today, were not a part of the orchestra) and performing as soloist. In 1775, between April and December, at age 19, Wolgang composed 4 violin concertos for that purpose.

We’ll be playing the 4th with Erin Keefe, new Concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. Fiendishly difficult, it is the Mozart Concerto that violinists choose to show off.

The apparent ease with which Mozart created masterpieces was not a characteristic of Johannes Brahms but how could anyone follow in Beethoven’s titanic footsteps? When asked why he had not written a symphony, Brahms lamented, “You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.” It took twenty years of trial and error before he completed his first symphony at age 43. Embracing and expanding upon Beethoven’s symphonic expertise, Brahms created a masterpiece which garnered him a spot in the 3 Big Bs – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, each with a singular voice reflective of the changing world around them. Brahms symphony is a brilliant example of the extroverted emotionalism of the period of Romanticism.

Combining Mozart and Brahms in one concert will reveal a study in contrasts and musically illuminate the dramatic changes for humankind during the hundred-year-period from 1775 to 1875.

A Concert You Don’t Want to Miss

Marlene’s Musings
September, 2013

It has been a fabulous summer!

I have been to a few music festivals, conducted lots of repertoire, met fantastic musicians and learned a ton. But, I miss the WSO and really look forward to getting back on the podium in front of those great musicians who are also some of the greatest people on the planet.

TonyMarleneWebsiteOur first rehearsal is coming up on September 22, 2013. ALL DVORAK! Antonin and Tony – that’s our title for this concert. Tony Ross, principal cellist of MN Orchestra, will play Dvorak’s cello concerto – arguably the most famous of the genre. I can’t wait!

I’ve wanted to program The Noon Witch for a long time. The music tells the story of an unruly little boy whose mother scolds him and threatens that if he doesn’t cease and desist his annoying behavior, the noon witch will take him away. The boy’s behavior is portrayed by agitated and dissonant oboes, and 12 chimes signal the coming of the witch. I don’t want to reveal too much but even without the story the music is brilliant!

Dvorak’s 16 Slavonic Dances were the pieces that made him a household name. We will be doing #9 which opens with the sounds of a raucous party in the Bohemian countryside. The middle section, in the minor key, presents a reflective, mournful melody. Then we return to the fun of the folk music for which Dvorak was fiercely proud.

This is a concert you don’t want to miss.

2013-14 Pre-Season Highlights

Marlene’s Musings
August, 2013

Even though the full orchestra does not rehearse during the summer, members remain active serving the community of Wayzata. Here are the pre-season highlights from this season, and thank you to all the musicians that donated their time and talents to make this possible!

BrassRehearsal• Members of the brass section played quintet music for seniors on July 3 at The Boardwalk. Accompanied by root beer floats and a festive audience of seniors and their families, a great time was had by all!

• On August 22, members of the wind and string sections will play as a nonet at a fundraiser for Trillium Woods. We are honored to be a part of this, and most grateful that the WSO is the donor of choice for funds raised that evening. Thank you Trillium Woods!

• James J. Hill Days on September 7 and 8 will be two days packed with music, food and fun for the Wayzata Community. Please join us at the WSO booth, where we’ll have small groups playing, postcards with our season schedule, and lively conversation about the WSO’s upcoming season. See you there!

StringRehearsalWhile we are looking forward to our first concert on October 13, and mountains of preparation goes into planning and preparing for our season well before the orchestra’s first rehearsal on September 22, it continues to be a pleasure to watch members of the orchestra donate their time to the greater Wayzata Community throughout out the summer.

Carmina Burana

Marlene’s Musings
February, 2013

The fickleness of fate,
The treacherous territories of greed, lust and gluttony
The joy of spring
Love songs

220px-CarminaBurana_wheelThese are the age-old, timeless themes of Carl Orff’s amazing secular cantata, Carmina Burana. All of the texts were written during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Orff selected only 24 poems and writings from a huge and beautifully bound volume of 254 poems discovered in 1803 when the monastery, Benediktbeuern, was secularized. The title, literally translated, means Songs of Beuern.

I find the backstory of every piece of music fascinating but this one has special intrigue. Who were the poets? The texts are NOT AT ALL religious. In fact, some are bawdy and lascivious.

WHO WROTE THE TEXTS?

Probably travelling minstrels, defrocked priests, students satirizing the Catholic Church and many, scholars think, were written by the Goliards.

The Goliards were known for their rioting, gambling and intemperance rather than their scholarship. They were often erroneously supposed to have been a religious order, an idea that arises from their satiric order of St. Golias, the fictitious patron saint of debauchery. The actual word goliard may derive from the Old French and means “big mouth.”

You’ve heard of the troubadours, right? Well, the Goliards were to the Troubadours what John Belushi was to Sir Lawrence Olivier. Both the Troubadours and the Goliards earned food, drink and lodging from their songs and poetry. The audience for the troubadours was the high and mighty, so they created sophisticated songs for connoisseurs of music and poetry. The audience for the Goliards was the middle and lower classes, so the Goliards, who tended to be rebellious and irreverent, created witty songs for the connoisseurs of cynicism and raunch. Although the goliards were initially tolerated and protected, their multiplying numbers eventually turned into a plague of beggars and their irreverence provoked an increasingly conservative church hierarchy, which began suppressing the movement.

The texts are in three different languages – Old Provencal French, Middle German and Medieval Latin. This fact has caused quite a bit of angst for our fabulous singers. These are unfamiliar languages to all of them and to me. Making sure that every syllable is correctly pronounced has been quite a task. Since languages continue evolving, you can imagine the changes and morphing that has taken place since the texts were written 900 years ago! Is the “v” pronounced as a “v” or an “f?” Is “que” pronounced “kvay” or “kvee” or “quay” or “quee?” You get the idea.

THE MUSIC

170px-Carl_OrffEven if you don’t think you’ve heard the piece, I’m quite certain you will recognize the opening lines of “O Fortuna.” It has been used in movies, trailers, advertisements and commercials. Even at the 2013 Superbowl, when San Francisco rallied and it looked like they just might trump the Ravens, I heard the main theme. The text at that point speaks about never being too cocky about your good fortune. The goddess, Fortuna, whose wheel continues to turn, will elevate you and then debase you on a whim. It appears there is no escaping that inevitable part of human existence.

Musically speaking, there is almost no polyphony in the work. Rather, rhythm is the central feature. The piece is easy to listen to but far from pabulum. Even without motivic development or harmonic complexity, the texts are fascinating and the music riveting in its energetic and driven pace.

Carmina Burana is one of those pieces you’ll never forget – from the opening and most famous, “O Fortuna” to the greatest drinking song of all time, “In the Tavern,” to the rapturous high D in the soprano aria, “Oh, Sweetest One.”

A favorite of the soloist arias is “O Trutina.” The music is so glorious and tender as it accompanies such an internal struggle between virtue and desire.

With more than 200 people on stage this will be quite an event!

Everyone is working so hard. When the music is great, hard work is the gift we give ourselves in order to experience the powerful transformative feelings that only music can give. A reward in extremely valuable currency!

Pictures at an Exhibition

Marlene’s Musings
November, 2012

200px-Musorgsky_1874_bAs I study the score for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I am in awe of the creative genius of the composer, who wrote the piece for piano, and of the orchestrator, Maurice Ravel who transformed the piece for full orchestra. How does one take a brilliant piece written for piano and transform it into an orchestral masterpiece so perfect in color, character and variety?

For example, the very familiar opening Promenade is heard five times throughout the piece and represents the composer’s journey through an art gallery of works created by his friend, Victor Hartman. Could be boring to hear the same music five times, but on the contrary. Each repetition portrays a completely different mood. Ravel shortens or lengthens it, uses different instruments, changes keys, dynamics and tempi to create five completely different sounding iterations – proud, delicate, lumbering and tired, tranquil and finally triumphant.

For years I have played this piece and have met several saxophonists because or it. This work, along with precious few others, features the saxophone – BUT in only 1 of the 15 movements. We hear it in the movement entitled, The Old Castle. Hartman’s sketch evidently depicted a troubadour singing outside of a medieval castle. Once again, creative genius Ravel dreams up a brilliant idea and employs a rarely heard instrument with gorgeous, noble sound to portray this scene.

150px-Pictures_at_the_Exhibition_1st_editionHow do you musically portray a Polish ox-cart rolling along on enormous wheels? Ravel assigned the melody to the tuba! But, the part is written so much higher than in any other part of the piece. WHY? – Perhaps to put the figurative strain of the ox-cart onto the tuba player. It appears that, over the years, this strain has proved too much for tuba players because most often they bring a higher pitched instrument for this one solo. Many of us have heard it performed on the Euphonium – a beautiful instrument but the melody doesn’t have the strain of reaching for those extremely high, lip-busting notes!

There are movements that portray chicks popping out of their shells – high woodwinds, of course; There are women gossiping at a French market about a lost cow, false teeth and a drunken neighbor – lots of scurrying activity in upper strings and woodwinds; We hear a conversation between two Jewish men, one rich, one poor – brash, unison, slow, vibrato-rich strings for the rich bragger and a trumpet solo with an annoying, repetitive figure for the poor beggar. My favorite is The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, which is a musical portrayal of a day in the life of the Russian witch, Baba Yaga. She lives in a hut perched on hen’s legs and flies through the air in a black cauldron – the entire orchestra gets involved in chasing music to depict Baba Yaga as she lures her victims in.

In every movement there is magic! And I am the lucky one who gets to discover it every day!