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.
That 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.
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!
This 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!
Our 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
When 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!