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

Gershwin_Paris02

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.