Friday, January 13, 2017

Orion Weiss plays Brahms, COSB does Bartók and Kódaly

Orion Weiss

Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay
Norris Theatre, Palos Verdes Performing Arts

Any program-builder intent on including either of the Brahms piano concertos in a concert faces a somewhat different challenge from that posed by almost all other concertos. Basically, both are so huge that the fallback formula of overture/concerto, with a symphony following the interval, or variants thereon, would result in either an unacceptably long total program or a second half most likely to seem trivial or anticlimactic after the mighty first half.

Unsurprisingly therefore, Frances Steiner, Music Director of the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay,  made Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor the sole item in the latter part of the orchestra’s first concert of 2017 last Sunday evening in Palos Verdes, and she met the challenge of the necessarily brief first half in a pretty interesting way. She solved it – perhaps with Brahms’ affection for Hungarian dances in the back of her mind – by juxtaposing responses to their native folk music by two of the 20th century’s greatest Hungarian composers, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kódaly.

Both were assiduous field researchers and collectors of old Magyar folk melodies, and in many of their concert works were influenced by and sometimes incorporated folk elements. The two examples played at this concert, however, were starkly contrasted in style and content. Bartók’s six Romanian Folk Dances take just about that many minutes to perform, such plain and unvarnished transcriptions are they, even in the version for a small orchestra of winds and strings that he made two years after the original 1915 set for piano. 

On the other hand, Kódaly’s 1933 Dances of Galánta, for a larger but still relatively modest orchestra, amount almost to a romantic tone poem, with the five sections integrated into a single continuous whole, much richer harmonies, and orchestral color heightened by some judicious percussion. Neither treatment of the folk sources can be described as “right” or “wrong”, but the bare-bones effect of the Bartók was accentuated by tempi choices that seemed to me a little slow (at least until the final “Fast Dance”) and was further emphasized, not in a good way, by the excessively dry acoustic of the Norris Theatre. The Kódaly, on the other hand, went with a will, with the orchestra by now settled in and delivering plenty of impact under Ms Steiner’s direction.

Back when I first began to get an idea of what goes on “under the hood” of orchestral performance, one of my biggest surprises was to find that Brahms achieves the seismic roar and epic flourishes that open his first piano concerto not with some vast instrumental array (think Mahler) but by an orchestra barely larger, by a single pair of horns, than Haydn used in his last symphonies. So with this in mind it was not necessarily inappropriate – though still somewhat surprising – to find a chamber orchestra accompanying Orion Weiss in a performance of this grandest of concertos (at least in the standard repertoire). The crucial thing, though, is how Brahms scores this opening, with a blast from all four horns in octaves over a rumble of double basses, violas and timpani, and the drama then unfolding in grand strides by most of the remainder of the orchestra above that firm fortissimo foundation. CD owners are used to the sound of the world’s great symphony orchestras in this music, with eight or even more double basses providing bedrock underpinning to the other strings in proportion above; how would the far smaller numbers of the COSB fare?

The two best double basses in the world could not match what, say, the LAPO could muster, but the pair of COSB players did their best, and it was notable that the accompanying timpani roll, which could so easily have drowned out everybody else, was scaled back to maintain overall orchestral balance. Given also the auditorium’s unforgiving acoustic, it was as good as one could reasonably expect, and once Mr Weiss joined the proceedings with the piano’s first entry, so seemingly tentative yet so pregnant with foreboding, the success of the performance was assured. 

I have enjoyed many concerts by this pianist at the annual summer Festivals of Music at Bard College in upper New York State, but there he was almost always either playing solo, or with a chamber group or his wife (the equally talented Anna Polonsky), and most often in rare repertoire. This was my first experience of Weiss in one of the major challenges of the core concerto repertoire, and it was as much a joy as hearing him elucidate, say, a set of Bartók Bagatelles or Atterberg’s chamber arrangement of his Sixth Symphony (to mention just two past pleasures). His playing on this occasion was variously powerful, crisply articulated and sensitive as Brahms requires. I for one hope to see Weiss back in this part of this side of the continent, and soon.

As is customary with the COSB concerts, this one was preceded by a preview talk from Stephen Richards, illustrated with recorded examples from all three works, for which it was well worth making a point of arriving in time. 


Sunday, January 8, 2017, 8 p.m.; pre-concert talk 7.15 p.m.
Photo credit: Orion Weiss

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Seattle Opera is Weston Hurt’s Home Away from Home

Weston Hurt, photo Gabriel Couret

INTERVIEW: Weston Hurt

Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall, Seattle

Texas-born Weston Hurt has a great following in Seattle. The multi-award winning baritone has made role debuts here as the title character in Verdi’s Nabucco, Ford in Falstaff, and as Talbot in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Hurt returns to open the company’s first production of the new year, Verdi’s La Traviata, on Jan. 14, in one of his signature roles: the lead role of Germont, tenor Alfredo’s demanding but loving father. Hurt also appears in the upcoming special recital presentation of SO’s Wagner and More on Jan. 16. 

A veteran of other diverse leading roles such as the title role in Rigoletto, Scarpia in Tosca and Iago in Otello, Hurt is also an experienced concert and recital performer, and has given well-received master classes in his native Texas and across the country.

EM: Welcome back to Seattle, Weston! We’re so glad to have you back. 

WH: Thanks very much, I appreciate it. 

EM: How are rehearsals going? 

WH: Rehearsals have been going great. We had our first technical rehearsal in the theatre last night and we’re having an orchestra rehearsal this evening. 

EM: Are you excited for the opening this weekend? 

WH: I am, yes. I think it will be well received. 

EM: You sang your first Germont here in La Traviata in 2009. In fact, you wrote on your Facebook page that Seattle Opera has “become a second family.” Could you elaborate?

Photo, Alan Alabastro
WH: I do feel that way, absolutely. I’ve had the honor of being back a number of times here at Seattle Opera. I’ve also had the great pleasure of singing with the Seattle Symphony and Pacific Northwest Ballet. I feel like Seattle is a second home - it does feel like home when I come back to sing here. Certainly the people at Seattle Opera are like a second family, so welcoming. They’re great people. 

EM: They are indeed. 

WH: I also debuted as Ford here at Seattle Opera. Seattle Opera has been all debut roles for me except now, with my return of Germont. 

EM: That is amazing. No wonder you feel so comfortable here. What did you sing with PNB? 

WH: The summer of 2015, I was the baritone soloist in their Carmina Burana production. It was the first time I had done the piece with the ballet. I had sung it numerous times with various orchestras but I’d never done a stage production of it. Their version of Carmina Burana is very well known. The next month I came back to sing in Nabucco at the Opera. 

EM: I’m curious about your background. Where did you grow up, and how did you come to be an opera singer? 

WH: I grew up in Texas. My mom was a singer and a junior high school choir director, so I was constantly being badgered from her to be in music. But I was much more interested in sports. I grew up playing football. It wasn’t till high school that I was required to take an arts credit. I took choir and had a good time. That experience eventually combined with seeing my first opera my sophomore year at Houston Grand Opera. 

EM: Which opera was it? 

WH: Boito’s Mefistofele with Samuel Ramey. Which is a bizarre first opera. but I remember very vividly that production, which was built for him. It was very cool the way he ascended from hell on this big ladder through the orchestra pit, dressed as the Devil. I remember a big Garden of Eden scene, where all of the chorus members had to wear fake privates [Laughs], so especially to a 16-year-old boy it was like, “Wow, this is very, ah… visually interesting.” But the music was stunning, and of course his voice was amazing. That was sort of my beginning, along with high school choir and eventually being asked to sing solos. Then my competitive nature from being involved in football and La Crosse sort of bled over into singing. In Texas the All-State choir was a very big deal. I competed, ended up making All-State choir and from that experience I knew I wanted to study music in college. After attending Southwestern University at Georgetown, Texas, the fall semester of my freshman year I was cast as Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro. That experience solidified my knowing I wanted to be an opera singer as a career. 

EM: I played countless Figaros at the Met, including with Sam, who was one of the great Devils of all time. Figaro is one of the most wonderful roles ever. Not a bad way to start. 

WH: A very intimidating way to start. However, it was through that process that made me realize that was what I wanted to do. 

EM: I imagine once you get your feet wet with Figaro, you can pretty much progress into almost anything. 

WH: You’re absolutely right. Because it was the first opera I learned, it wasn’t something that later in life I had to learn how to sing secco recitative. It was something thrust upon me right from the beginning, a significant amount of it. Toward the beginning of my career it was more a lyrical fach, and I was able to graduate to singing the Count and a number of different operas with that sort of style - Rossini, Mozart, etc. 

EM: That’s a usual progression, as I’ve learned from other basses and baritones I’ve interviewed - starting with Figaro and Giovanni, moving on to Verdi. 

WH: One of the most amazing moments in my career was when I sang with Sam. He was my father in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore di tre re. To meet the man who initially had inspired me to become a singer and then sing with him was pretty amazing. Another huge moment for me was when I had the opportunity to make my debut at HGO, where I saw Sam sing Mefistofele - to finally make it full circle and debut as Scarpia in Tosca where I had seen my first opera. Every once in a while you feel there’s a “click” on the whole wheel of experience, like, “Oh, I’m not going to forget that.” 

EM: You’ve sung Germont in a number of houses and received high praise. Would you say this is one of your favorite or preferred roles? 

WH: Absolutely. For a number of reasons. I feel it suits my voice very well and it’s a role that over the years I have understood more and more with each production. Certainly now that I have a daughter of my own, these father-daughter roles mean a great deal more to me. Germont is absolutely one of my favorite roles to perform. With each new production I learn more about the role, the character, the relationships with the insight from each director. This one absolutely follows suit. 

EM: It’s a very complex role. Psychologically it must be fascinating to delve deeply into his psyche. 

WH: Yes. People tend to think Germont’s the bad guy who comes in and tries to tell the couple they can’t be together. But it’s deeper than that. I don’t think he initially steps out to ruin anyone’s life. He doesn’t really understand the impact his request is going to have on Violetta or his son, or more importantly himself. I think he has no idea the ride he’s about to go on emotionally. I think in the entire show his character has one of the largest arcs. He really does change. 

EM: He really does. Not only does he not know what he’s in for but he also doesn’t really have any choice at first. Maybe he hasn’t completely thought it through as to the impact he’s going to have, especially on Violetta. On the surface he only knows about her what most people know. 

WH: Right. 

EM: Once he realizes the depth of her character it causes him to get on this emotional roller coaster - as you said, quite the transformational arc. Not to mention that the vocal writing is so magnificent. It must be wonderful to explore this character vocally and dramatically. 

WH: It really is. This particular production is very interesting because we’ve stripped away all the typical things that actors, whether we intend to or not, hide behind. There really is no set to speak of. It’s a very bare production, with a series of curtains and one chair, which insists the audience focus on the relationships onstage between the characters. If the family were to know his son is involved with a courtesan it would never fly. We’ve gone a step further in that during the interaction between Germont and Violetta I bring my daughter onstage with me.

Photo, English National Opera
EM: That is definitely unique. 

WH: In that interaction between Germont and Violetta he has such a specific idea of how that is going to go, right from the beginning. It’s completely upended and thrown back in his face and that begins the frustration. At every turn, when he asks something of her she stands up for herself, which surprises him again - what a well-spoken and strong willed woman this is. He has one attempt after another of things to throw at her to convince her to do what he’s asking her to do, and her will and strength stands up for the most part. But it’s not going the way he planned. I think what we have is very believable but I think certain people will certainly be shocked when they see it. It’s a different take. 

EM: It sounds even more emotionally wrenching than usual. 

WH: Absolutely. I think Peter Konwitschny’s idea of this production is to really get at the heart of what the story is. It’ll be interesting to see what the public takes of this because it’s not your everyday Traviata

EM: Let’s talk about some of your other roles. Some that you’ve sung for the first time. Nabucco and Talbot in Maria Stuarda here in Seattle, Iago in Boston. Are those some of your favorites?

Photo, Jacob Lucas
WH: Yes. Recently I have added Nabucco, Scarpia, Iago to my resume. Maria Stuarda was a wonderful production. The cast here in Seattle all got along so well and the overall takeaway of that production was amazing, because we all had such a great time with each other. It is an interesting bel canto piece, but I would not put Talbot on the same level of interest of mine as a role like Nabucco or Scarpia or Iago [Laughs]. Those are a different beast. It was a pretty amazing past two years to have the opportunity to learn and perform these roles. 

EM: You’ve also done some unusual repertoire - Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and even Schreker’s Der ferne Klang. What was it like to sing those roles? 

WH: It’s been wonderful. I’ve sung three different productions of Die Tote Stadt. Korngold’s writing is lush, beautiful, very Straussian. I just love the music. The first time I sang Die Tote Stadt was in the famous Frank Corsaro New York City Opera production, which used a great deal of projections. A really interesting production. 

EM: I remember. That’s where I first saw it. 

WH: Korngold was one of the German composers who escaped the Nazis and came to Hollywood and did a lot of film scoring. Another colleague of his in a similar situation was Walter Braunfels, who wrote the opera Die Vögel, which I had the opportunity to sing at the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston ten years ago. I don’t know why they’re all German [Laughs], these “weird” operas I’ve sung. 

EM: That’s a whole other conversation. 

WH: [Laughs] Exactly. Die Vögel, Der Ferne Klang and Die Tote Stadt are beautiful music. The Franz Schreker I sang with the American Symphony and Leon Botstein doesn’t have much of the romantic qualities of Die Tote Stadt. Most of those were earlier in my career, and at the time you look at what’s being offered and you do the job. Sometimes there’s success that comes from that. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get my foot into a variety of repertoire, certainly initially.

Photo, Karen Almond
EM: Do you enjoy both opera and singing on the concert stage equally? 

WH: I absolutely love all three of those genres - opera, concert and recital - equally. Each one presents its own challenges of course, but it’s something that always was focused on in my training. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to do all those things professionally. I’m looking forward to the Wagner and More Society presenting Joshua Dennis, Maya Lahyani and myself in a recital on January 16. It’s nice to have the opportunity to again get up on the recital stage. And I love singing oratorio. When I first started singing I was a lower voice bass in high school. As I developed my instrument I gained my range half step by half step while luckily maintaining a lot of the lower register. So I’ve been able to sing quite a bit of bass and bass-baritone oratorio repertoire while utilizing the baritone repertoire on the operatic stage. 

EM: That’s great that you can keep yourself active in all of those. 

WH: That’s my goal, if I were to have my way I would have a completely full schedule that would balance opera, oratorio and recital.

EM: Sounds like a great plan. 

WH: [Laughs.] 

EM: You also give master classes all across the US. 

WH: Education is something I’m very passionate about. Over the years I’ve dipped my pinkie toe in academia. I was always the student in my professor’s studios who had a knack for the technical aspects and could explain it to other singers. Therefore I’m wildly interested in teaching. I’ve tried to balance my performing career with teaching. My next engagement after Seattle is to perform at New Orleans Opera and do master classes at Loyola University. It’s great to be able to work with young singers and try to ease that gap between their academic experience and what’s actually going on in the real world of performing. I don’t consider myself to be old by any means [Laughs] but I still try to think that only yesterday I was sitting where they’re sitting. 

EM: It’s an important part of any artist’s life, to inspire and pass on your knowledge to the upcoming generation. 

WH: Any kind of encouragement or presence that I’m able to have on those young singers’ lives I try to make it a very positive and honest one for them. 

EM: An academic organization should consider themselves fortunate to have a performing artist come and provide inspiration for their students. 

WH: It’s tricky to try and create an academic program that is going to prepare students for a career as a professional musician. It’s not just performing opportunities or song literature classes or vocal pedagogy understanding. A lot of it has to do with real live situations. Taking classes out to the performing organizations in the community, bringing those performing organizations into the schools, having a well-rounded education for those students, is of utmost importance. The more real-life exposure those kids are able to have with the people who are actually doing it and to understand what it is that involved, the better. 

EM: After Loyola, what’s coming up next for you? 

WH: The next engagement after this Traviata is Faust with New Orleans Opera. That’s what I’m preparing right now as I’m in rehearsals for Traviata. While I’m there singing I’m also doing the master class at Loyola. After that I’m singing another Scarpia with Tobias Picker in Tulsa. He’s the new artistic director there. From an artistic viewpoint it seems like another regional company, but I think Tobias Picker is making a huge effort to rethink what Tulsa Opera is about. I'll be back here in Seattle in July-August to sing Sharpless in Madama Butterfly.

EM: I'll look forward to it. Any Wagner in your future? 

WH: At this point in time - I just turned 42 and have no immediate plans to push myself into the heavier fach. I’m thoroughly enjoying singing the Puccini and Verdi repertoire with the occasional sprinkling of interesting new stuff in my schedule for now. What the future holds, who knows. Certainly for right now I’ll leave the Wagner singing to the Wagnerians. I’ll take care of Mr. Puccini and Mr. Verdi [Laughs]. 

EM: There’s much to love about that. Thank you so much for spending this time with me. Toi, toi for all of your performances. 

WH: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure speaking with you. 

Seattle Opera’s La Traviata runs Jan. 14-28 at McCaw Hall.


Photo credits: Gabriel Couret, Alan Alabastro, English National Opera, Karen Almond

Monday, December 12, 2016

Salute To Vienna Comes New Year's Day to Disney Hall

Salute to Vienna ensemble -- Photo: Glatz Concert Productions

PREVIEW: Salute To Vienna New Year's Concert

Glatz Concert Productions
Walt Disney Concert Hall (Music Center)

With Nutcracker and Messiah performances popping up like Yuletide poinsettias, can that more recent holiday classic, Salute to Vienna New Year's Concert, be all that far away?

Patterned after the cherished Viennese “Neujahrskonzert,” simultaneous versions of Salute to Vienna have for two decades toured North American cities from late December to early January. A fixture hereabouts for the last seven of those years, the music-cum-dance extravaganza -- that one need not fly to Austria for -- has never been performed on New Year's day itself in Los Angeles.

That changes on Sunday, January 1, when Salute to Vienna alights locally at Walt Disney Concert Hall, its Music Center home away from home. The good news is it won't face local competition from the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game. Never scheduled on Sundays, those two events will take place the following day.

Lara Ciekiewicz -- Photo: Glatz C.P.
Celebrated Viennese conductor Peter Guth, whose 2013 Vienna Konzerthaus performance has aired more than a thousand times on public television, is slated to lead the Strauss Symphony of America. The orchestra will feature a full measure of the greatest Strauss family waltzes, paprika-spiced with rare Old Empire tunes from Hungary and Bohemia, and this year also promising heart-stopping melodies from the two most famous operettas of all time, Strauss's Die Fledermaus and Lehar's Merry Widow. 

Joining the orchestra, a star-studded cast of singers and dancers (costumed in both ballroom and ballet styles) will whisk the audience through a journey of romantic vignettes that, by faithful tradition, always include the "Blue Danube" waltz and the "Radetzky March". The featured singers this year are soprano Lara Ciekiewicz (pictured at left) and tenor Brian Cheney.

For a flavor of the kind of show in store, catch the video trailer of the televised Salute to Vienna performance at Vienna’s Konzerthaus (co-hosted by mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and actor Maximilian Schell in 2013, with Vienna's Volksoper, the Vienna Boys Choir, and the Vienna State Opera Ballet).

After a bruising election season, you may be ready for a little escapism to kick 2017 off like it’s 1899 all over again.


WHAT: Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert

WHEN: Sunday, January 1, 2017 at 2:30 pm

WHERE: The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012

TICKETS: Start at $49.50, available from the Music Center online or call: 323.850.2000

MORE INFORMATION: Visit Salute to Vienna in Los Angeles or call 416.323.1403

Glatz Concert Productions, founded in 1987, produces, promotes, and manages classical, jazz, folk, country, movie, and video game music performances worldwide. For more information, click here.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Trio of Piano Quintets at Rancho Palos Verdes

Ernö Dohnányi (Photo: Wikiwand)

REVIEW: The Thies Consort play Schumann, Dohnányi and Shostakovich

Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, December 4

Four days into December and, with snowmen and Santas alighting in front yards and Christmas carols and chunks of Messiah invading concert halls, here was a concert in a church with nary a nut being cracked, nor a tinkle of tinsel, nor a Hallelujah! to be heard. Indeed, one wondered whether, as the name of the Thies Consort implied a variegated and variable line-up, three piano quintets with no leavening might not be a touch too rigorously undifferentiated a program. But no, Robert Thies (piano) and his colleagues Elizabeth Hedman, Jessica Guideri (violins), Shawn Mann (viola) and Jacob Braun (cello) had been much too canny in their planning for that.

In the absence of program notes (available on the SBCMS website, but regrettably not in the printed hand-outs), Mr Thies gave engaging spoken introductions to each work in turn, prefacing the performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44, by noting that with it Schumann effectively invented the form, as it has become conventionally known, by adding piano to the string quartet of two violins, viola and cello that was already the vehicle for many of the Classical and early Romantic eras’ most profound inspirations. He also registered the debt that its fertile invention owed to the influence and inspiration of his then new wife, Clara, and to the intervention of Felix Mendelssohn in some structural matters. As to the performance itself, this hewed to a tightly dramatic conception, with the omission (unless my ears deceived me) of the exposition repeat in the opening Allegro brillante movement (no lack of brillante here) adding to its impression of driven brevity.

The ensuing In Modo d'una Marcia, though quite slow, underplayed its funereal aspect by making the separated notes of the opening motif almost staccato. This, added to the Pacific Unitarian’s quite dry acoustic for a church, gave an emotional effect more numb than lamenting, but then the Thies Consort really played for all its emotional worth the turning-point into the movement’s Agitato central section. In the Scherzo, the first of the two trio sections was delicately contrasted with the opening upward-rushing scales, while after the scherzo repetition, the second trio scurried purposefully. Then in the Finale, the vigorous voice-leading of the fugal entries in the cyclic joining of its own main theme with that of the first movement – a structural tour de force said to have been inspired by Mendelssohn – typified the way in which the ensemble playing got better and better throughout the performance. So far, so excellent.

Onwards 70 years or so to the 1914 Piano Quintet No. 2 in E flat minor, Op 26, by the Hungarian Ernö Dohnányi (1877–1960) (above), usually regarded (if he is thought about at all other than as the father of the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi) as a “one-work composer” – though sadly even that one work, his Variations on a Nursery Tune Op. 25, seems largely to have disappeared from concert halls. Hearing other pieces by such figures more often than not makes one regret their disappearance rather than confirming posterity’s judgment, and this was certainly the case here. Robert Thies’ introduction clarified some reasons for the neglect of Dohnányi’s music. As well as a composer he was also a pianist and conductor and, from 1934 onwards, Director of the Budapest Academy of Music. In these roles his assiduous promotion and performance of other composers’ music was at the expense of his own, and later during the Nazi era he was the supporter and even savior of Jewish musicians who came under his jurisdiction. Under these circumstances it’s perhaps not surprising that his works never had much of a chance to shine, nor that his output was not large despite his composing career extending over some 60 years.

This performance of his second piano quintet confirmed that Dohnányi is more than a one-work composer whose other works, beginning with this one, don’t deserve oblivion. Memorable and powerful from the first bar to the last, with its portentous opening theme cyclically returning at the end of the finale (as with the Schumann, testifying again to the Thies Consort’s skillful program-building), this forgotten masterpiece could easily be heard to reflect the uncertainties and portents of a world on the brink of its first global war, the halting waltz that opens the second of the three movements seeming like a nostalgic, even haunted echo of more settled times lost forever.

Finally, after the interval, we had Dimitri Shostakovich’s single Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57. In contrast to Dohnányi, the Soviet composer is a frequent presence in concert halls, and this is one of the most familiar works in his voluminous corpus of chamber music. Like the Dohnányi, it was written in the shadow of world war, but around a generation later. Robert Thies pulled no punches in his outline of Shostakovich’s extraordinary career – decades of ducking and diving in response to the brutal dictates, artistic and otherwise, of the regime, and still delivering a very extensive and many-sided life-work that is impossible to encapsulate simply as reaction.

The Quintet’s five-movement arch form opens with a brief Prelude, heralded by declamatory chords on the piano and powerful uniform strings that then alternate with more apparently playful music. This forms an introduction to the succeeding Fugue: Adagio, much the longest movement, where the long lines were played with minimal vibrato, adding to the sense of time suspended and Shostakovich’s extraordinary ability to convey tranquility and unease simultaneously. The coping stone of the arch is a short Scherzo: Allegretto, in which chunky peasantish stamping and skirling banalities swirl in and out of dissonances like a barely-controlled automobile scraping crash barriers. After this near-hysteria, the Intermezzo: Lento, returns to the mood of the Fugue, with lonely violin lines weaving against the steady, almost Bachian tread of cello pizzicati, before the movement elides without a break into the almost-amiable Finale: Allegretto, ending in not-quite tranquility.

No composer is more characterized by emotional ambiguity than Shostakovich, and the Thies Consort’s ability to encompass the many turn-on-a-dime changes of mood in this masterpiece was a tribute both to their skill as performers and to the composer’s genius. This long program, demanding for performers and audience alike, made me for one look forward eagerly to future concerts by this ensemble.


Flyer photo: South Bay Chamber Music Society

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Nutcracker is Evergreen for Pacific NW Ballet Musicians

Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra -- Photo © Rodger Burnett
INTERVIEW: The Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet
McCaw Hall, Seattle

When Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote his final ballet, The Nutcracker, he could not have anticipated its lasting power as a much beloved classic over the centuries. Premiered just the year before his death, the ballet that seems to be the least serious of the composer’s three celebrated ones (the other  two being the earlier Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) actually contains some of his deepest, most introspective ballet music.

It was in the 1960s, the decade after Balanchine’s first annual performance of his staging of the work, that the Christmas tradition of presenting the ballet began to take hold in the US outside of San Francisco and New York. This season is the second in which Pacific Northwest Ballet will present the Balanchine production of the ballet; but members of the PNB Orchestra have been playing the music for many years, some of them for decades. How does it feel to perform this glorious score year after year? I caught up with PNB Concertmaster Michael Jinsoo Lim, founding PNB Orchestra members, violinists Ingrid Frederickson and William Boyd, and Press Relations Manager Gary Tucker in advance of this season’s Nov. 25 premiere to explore the issue.

EM: Ingrid and William, you two are founding members of the PNB Orchestra. Is the orchestra a completely separate entity from the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera Orchestra, or is there any overlap in personnel between orchestras? 

WB: Those of us who have been in town have performed and do perform with other groups if we’re asked to. But yes, it is completely separate. 

IF: It used to be the Symphony. Then the Symphony got really busy after they moved into Benaroya and couldn’t keep doing the Ballet, so a new PNB Orchestra was formed. 

WB: It’s been about 26 years now. 

EM: As founding members, can you talk about how it all started, how it was decided to form a whole new orchestra? 

IF: It was complicated, because you couldn’t have everybody audition for their spot in a brand-new orchestra. I think they gave a certain number of points for how much you’d played as a sub at the Ballet. 

WB: In my case I was a member of the core Seattle Symphony when they were playing the Ballet. I was acting principal in 1980 when we went to Europe. So I had a lot of points in the second violins because I was principal. I automatically became a second violin player because I’d played with the Symphony for years. 

IF: Yes, I did too. They also took most of Northwest Chamber Orchestra, which was in Seattle for 35 years, which I played in. Joseph Silverstein was our guest principal conductor for many years. He was amazing to work with. They took the core of the Ballet from that group, so there were probably 15 of us that came into the Ballet. 

EM: And now you’re all about ballet. Let’s get into the “meat” of Nutcracker, starting with Michael. How long have been playing Nutcracker? Do you have any idea how many performances? 

MJL: I do. I actually keep a tally and I just check in before the season starts. I’ve done 227, which I’m sure is less than these guys. Compared to them I’m just an amateur [Laughs]. But I started in 2009, so I’ve done 7 seasons of Nutcracker

EM: I’ve played the piece at ABT and New York City Ballet, so I’m familiar with “repertoire fatigue.” Some people can’t get enough of it. Your colleague Tom Dziekonski wrote in The Official Blog of PNB that he never gets tired of Nutcracker. How do you keep it fresh? 

MJL: I think it certainly starts with the fact that it’s such great music. If you didn’t hear it 24 hours a day on TV, radio and commercials all the time in December, if you actually can separate that, just listen to the music, it’s really fantastic music. That’s where I start. Also my teacher, Josef Gingold, among the many great tips he gave me, one was that one day you’ll be a professional and there may be pieces you’re playing for the 200th time, you should always remember that for most of the audience it could be their first time hearing it. So you want to give it that kind of respect, the respect the music deserves. 

EM: So for you, after repeated performances that’s one of your foremost challenges. 

MJL: Not so much a challenge but more of a responsibility where the audience is concerned. 

EM: Ingrid and William, having been in the orchestra now these many years, I imagine you probably started right off the bat with Nutcracker, or did that come a little later?

IF: I think it was right off the bat. 

WB: When it was the PNB Orchestra it was right away, but we'd already been doing it for a number of years. 

EM: Do you have a sense of how many years that adds up to for you? 

WB: Well, starting in ‘79. But I don’t keep track like Michael. 

MJL: [Laughs.] 

IF: My stand partner for many years, Irv Eisenberg, who’d been assistant principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy and a member of the Philadelphia String Quartet, started playing when the orchestra formed here. He was in his 70s, sharp as a tack. We started keeping track on this music [shows Violin II part] so…1989. I can’t remember if we stopped at some point, but that’s what we were doing on our music. The part is rather battered [Laughs]. 

EM: There’s a difference between yours and the opera parts. We tend to write in or reinterpret words being sung on stage, little funny things. So, ’79 to ’89, even though you haven’t kept tally do you have an approximate idea …400? 

PNB Student Matinee -- Photo © Lindsay Thomas
IF: Oh, I think between 500 and 1,000. 

WB: I would think so, yes. 

IF: I don’t know if I want to know [Laughs]. 

EM: I’m just trying to get a sense of what it must be like. For me 200 La bohèmes were more than enough. 

MJL: If it was more than 25 years, and some years there were more than 40 performances, it was definitely more than 1,000. 

IF: We don’t have to do all of them. We have to do two-thirds. For example when my children were young I chose to do less. Now they’re grown up I do more. 

WB: when I was performing at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, and had a lot of conflicts, one year I took a complete leave from Nutcracker to do one of the Broadway shows. But I choose to do as many Nutcrackers as I can because it’s wonderful music, and as Michael said, we need to perform every single performance as if it’s the first time the audience has heard it. You have to keep that in mind. In the Broadway pit, I think I did 276 performances of Annie and every one was exciting because of the fun the audience was having. It’s the same music, but every single performance you just put your heart out because you want it to sound like a recording every time. 

EM: And it has to be perfect every time. Michael, tell us about the violin solo in Act 1, the Party scene and video. 

MJL: It’s an entr’acte from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty that Balanchine put into his Nutcracker. It’s a nice chance to spotlight the music for a while without a lot of dance. It feels like a small movement of a Tchaikovsky violin concerto. It’s got that kind of scope and form. It’s a wonderful piece of music, really beautiful. I’m very grateful to get the opportunity to play it. 

EM: That’s nice for you. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake have wonderful fiddle solos. I can’t wait to hear this one. Have you played this since your very first Nutcracker

MJL: No, last season was our first doing the Balanchine. I think I’ve done it 35 times [Laughs]. 

WB: And beautiful every time.

IF: For me that was sort of a turning point of making it much easier to get through Nutcracker, Mike playing the solo [Laughs]. 

EM: Spoken like a true violinist. So much more fun for you. Who else wrote fiddle solos like Tchaikovsky? Everything of his is concerto-like. 

WB: Yes, it makes it a lot more interesting. 

EM: Your colleague Tom Dziekonski wrote that as a kid he couldn’t get enough of listening to Nutcracker and now has a “mere” 400 performances of the work under his belt. The music does inspire you after all these years. In that regard, you seem a lot less jaded than my former colleagues in New York. 

MJL, WB, IF: [Laugh.] 

EM: I remember in New York the dancers jokingly referring to “P.M.S” - repeated performances as Parents, Mice Soldiers. I guess when you’re playing a Soldier it’s not quite the same as being in the corps of La Bayadère or Giselle. They get to joke around a little. Does your orchestra have any buzzwords or in jokes about doing all these performances? 

WB: Every individual has their own approach. As Michael said, there’s a responsibility to the little kids out there. 

IF: I could tell you one funny thing. When I was with Irv all those years, he would get quite bored, and he would think of ways to keep his attention going. One year he had planned a vacation to Puerto Rico, so I would turn the page and see a beautiful picture of a beach and aqua-colored water. That’s kind of how it got him through. Me, too. 

EM: It keeps it interesting. As great as the music is, at times it can get really repetitive. You need a little something to change it up. 

WB: I always look forward when a new oboe player or flutist comes in to hearing how they’re going to play, what they’re going to sound like, how it affects the orchestra. It’s a distraction but in a positive way. I have different stand partners, and we always move around. We never sit in the same place. Ingrid moves around a lot, which is great. So it’s different every time we play with a new stand partner. Unlike Michael, who has to sit with the same people. 

MJL: [Laughs.] 

EM: Tell me about your conductor, Emil de Cou. I wrote about him recently.

PNB Orchestra, with Emil de Cou -- Photo © Lindsay Thomas
MJL: He’s our music director and principal conductor. He’s fantastic. I don’t know what it was like before Emil, but I can tell you he is really one of the best conductors I’ve ever played under. He has an amazing clarity, which as you know you really need in the pit. For ballet, where the tempo can change depending who’s up there, you need someone who’s exceptionally clear in addition to being a fantastic musician. 

EM: Ballet is much more strict than opera, with all its rhythmic changes. With dance it has to be strictly in tempo. 

IF: Emil is also extremely energetic, and that really helps because there’s a certain point where you just think, am I going to make it through. Having someone stand up there and have all this energy is important. 

EM: That’s what separates the great ones. The conductor reflects all the energy coming from the physical movement on the stage. What about former Nutcracker productions? You’ve all played the Stowell/ Sendak before the Balanchine. Bill, you’ve played the one before that, the Lew Christensen. 

WB: I seem to recall that one was more classically oriented. 

EM: Even if you don’t see everything that’s going on onstage, do you still get a sense of liking certain things about a given production, or do you not feel that much of a difference in atmosphere between productions? 

WB: When you start something new there’s always a change in your mind set as to how you approach it. But what we get and produce to the audience comes from Emil. We rely on him. If he’s more excited about something, then we play that way. That’s what good communication between a musician and a pit conductor is. If we get a bad conductor, that does the opposite. 

EM: A good conductor has to be a good communicator. Michael, can you see some of what’s going on? 

MJL: You can’t really see the dancing, just little glimpses. Mainly it’s kind of fun to see bits of the new sets and costumes. It’s also exciting to see how the audiences has responded. With the Balanchine last year it was overwhelmingly positive. Then there’s always the fear that, oh, we’ve been doing the Sendak for 25, 30 years and how’s the audience going to respond to changing something that’s been such a part of the fabric of their holiday experience. But it was great. Everyone seemed really excited. I heard so many positive comments from audience members, how much they loved this new-for-us production. 

WB: There are a few parents, mothers especially, who say, “I grew up with the Sendak. I wanted my daughter to experience what I grew up with.” 

EM: Is it true that some people decorate the pit? I can’t quite picture that. 

WB: [Laughs] It’s Tom. He’s the decorator. He absolutely loves doing it. 

EM: What kinds of things? 

WB: Strings of lights that have thematic material, he hangs all around the music stand. So each stand has its own thematic representation. 

IF: Any kind of decorative thematic light that you can imagine. For example, our acting principal violist, Betty. Her stand gets Betty Boop lights [Laughs]. 

MJL: Our tuba player is a big Green Bay Packers fan, so Tom puts Packers lights around his music stand. Of course as soon as the show starts, those lights come off. 

GT: It builds over the run. He’s got several hundred different string lights. You can say, “Do you have alligators?” and he’ll say, “Well, as a matter of fact I do.” 

EM: No wonder it’s so much fun. The Pink Panther, how did he do that?

GT: That was during the "Nutty Nut" performances that happened once a year during the Stowell/Sendak production. Usually the Christmas Eve performance. The dancers and orchestra took some liberties - to put it mildly [Laughs].

IF: Tom found this Pink Panther outfit you could only get in London. My sister is a cellist there. She had to go get it and mail it here. One of the dancers wore it a few times. 

WB: The music is hilarious. Tom did most of the arrangements. Often it became part of what was on stage. The Pink Panther comes out and we play [Sings theme] and it fits in with whatever we’re playing, rhythmically and harmonically - a musical joke. And Emil keeping a straight face. 

GT: The snow scene there would be an enormous amount of snow. They’d empty the snow bags, there’d be this huge downfall. The dancers would throw it at each other. The audience just loved it.

'Nutcracker' corps de ballet © Angela Sterling

EM: And there’s also food themes? 

IF: One of the cellists is brilliant at coming up with a theme for the whole season and subthemes for each performance. Each section brings food to go along with that. People become extremely creative [Laughs]. Our bass section, four guys, all good cooks, it was a Nutcracker cadaver [Laughs]. All the organs were edible. I couldn’t eat it. 

WB: Sausages were the entrails. 

IF: It gets pretty elaborate. Mike, you've done yours several times. Korean food.

MJL: Not since the Balanchine, where I have to play the solo [Laughs]. When it's the second violins I don't eat lunch that day. I know it's going to be good.
IF, WB, GT: [Laugh.]
MJL: I need to talk to my section. 

EM: Let’s touch on the Overture. Arguably it’s the most difficult to play of Tchaikovsky’s three iconic ballet overtures, especially for the violins: very delicate and exposed passagework high up in the range, with no brass to hide behind. Do you think you get appropriate credit for playing this piece? 

MJL: I’ve never thought of it that way, but I do always appreciate the audience reaction to it. There’s often quite a bit of applause after the overture, and you can feel the love from the audience, which is nice. They acknowledge our role in the production. They’re proud to have a ballet orchestra like ours.  

Elizabeth Murphy © Angela Sterling
WB: Having been there before you, I felt the orchestra when we first started was tolerated. Now we’re part of the family of the Ballet. It’s not just dancers and a bunch of people down in the pit. It’s the orchestra and the dancers and dressers. It’s a family thing, an entity within itself. When they go to New York we go with. We really appreciate that. It really feels good to be a part of that inclusion. And the audience does like the orchestra. 

IF: At one point when we were starting they wouldn’t even mention the orchestra in reviews. People had to ask the papers to please at least say we’re part of the performance. 

WB: That there’s an orchestra. Live music. 

EM: Things have changed, then. 

WB: A lot. I think Emil has a lot to do with that, and the management now, the change in artistic directors. Everything is very nice to be a part of.

GT: The orchestra also came to us and said, “We want to have a presence at the table. We want to make sure we’re doing as much as we can to support the organization, and the organization is acknowledging the orchestra. It’s something that makes this organization special. They’re coming to see Nutcracker with a LIVE orchestra. 

WB: Here, we have our own orchestra, which nationwide can be somewhat unique.

EM: Indeed. I can see that Nutcracker is going to be loads of fun and not to be missed. Thank you all so much.

PNB performs Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at McCaw Hall Nov. 25 through Dec. 28.


Photo credits: Lindsay Thomas, Rodger Burnett, Angela Sterling