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.
July 25, 2016
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.
The 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:
I’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.
January 9, 2016
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.
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?
We 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.
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.