Putting a concert season together is a bit like making a meal. It’s about assembling the right ingredients, combining them in an interesting and enjoyable way, and timing it all just so. Add a pinch of spice and hopefully a generous amount of inspiration and, well, maybe then you can create something special.
Today the Grant Park Music Festival's 2007 season – the 73rd – was unveiled in both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times. At times like these I can sit back, relax for just a second, and give thanks for having such a cool job. Getting there isn’t always so easy, but on days like today I am so glad I “do what I do.” and
I feel privileged to work with great conductors like Carlos Kalmar and Christopher Bell. They translate the artistic vision we all share into the great music you hear night after night. And then there is the virtuoso orchestra and chorus, filled with great musicians who come from all over the country to make Chicago their musical home.
What can you expect this summer? For starters, all four of Beethoven’s even-numbered Symphonies - not as often heard as their odd (numbered, that is) counterparts but full of wonderful surprises. How can you go wrong with Beethoven?
What else? Great pianists like Marc-Andre Hamelinopening the season with Brahms’ second piano concerto, Valentina Lisitsa performing both of Shostakovich’s powerful piano concertos in Orchestra Hall, and newcomer Ingrid Fliter playing Chopin. By the way, Ingrid appears in recital at the esteemed University of Chicago Presents series on Tuesday, April 24. Don’t miss it – she’s the real deal.
I’m excited about some of the out of the ordinary concerts, one featuring music from Asian composers; another, called the Devil’s Fiddler with the amazing Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos; Flamenco guitar and dancing, and some great choral works like Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Duruflé’s Requiem, Poulenc’s Gloria and Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.
There are fantastic singers, too, including Chicago’s own Jennie Larmore singing and recording Ravel’s Sheherazade for Cedille Records; one of my favorites, the remarkable Karina Gauvin singing Poulenc and Debussy; and the equally wonderful Nathan Gunn singing John Adams and Vaughan Williams.
Finally, there’s a big Leonard Bernstein Broadway celebration – but I’ll fill you in on that plus a surprise or two sometime later this spring. Stay tuned.
Mouse over to Outlook and mark down Wednesday April 4th from 7:00 - 8:00pm. It's the next meeting of our listening group and this time - at a more chat-friendly time - we'll be talking about Golijov's opera Ainadamar.
If the first thing you thought was "OMG, I don't want to listen to hours and hours of music." I hear you, but this one is an hour 20 minutes. Start to finish.
If the second thing you thought was "Golijov, must be modern. I pass." Give it a listen, you'll hear amazing singing, haunting orchestral colors, and a flamengo dance of bullets.
A recording by the Atlanta Symphony is available on itunes and includes 2 nifty new things. 1st, a booklet is downloaded as well. You can open it in Word. 2nd, there is a listening guide narrated by Osvaldo Golijov. That in itself is worth the download.
Last Wednesday we welcomed Ezequiel Viñao, composer of "The Wanderer," to Chicago for two rehearsals. The first was at Merit School of Music's Gottlieb Hall, with a few board members present. The second, which felt more high-stakes, was with the composer and about a dozen loyal subscribers at the Music Institute in Evanston.
I really like Ezequiel Viñao. He is almost terrifyingly intelligent. It was cool to have him speak briefly on Thursday as to why he chose the text and wrote the piece in the first place; in terms of its timing on the global scene, the U.S. had been engaged in the Iraq war for about a year when he wrote it. The work really is mostly a meditation on war and the futility of such destruction. He feels like a public intellectual to me; he has lectured on Anglo-Saxon music at the Library of Congress; and to have him in our midst was great.
I am starting to feel that, no matter what the outcome--no matter if we nail every single chord or not of this challenging piece--the enterprise will have been worth all the sleepless nights, all the effort. This is the most difficult piece of music I have ever taken on as a conductor. I have already been stretched as a musician, first to be able to hear and (mostly) understand Ezequiel's musical language, and second to be able to execute some of the tricky rhythms and meters, tempo changes, and the other things I have to do--sometimes more personal or emotional than strictly musical--to hold the ensemble together.
One of the subscribers told me that she was virtually hypnotized by the power of "The Wanderer." She couldn't believe what the composer and I were able to hear, especially *mistakes* in the somewhat dissonant score. I replied that this is just my job!
I like it (most of the time) when the singers show some initiative. At the end of the rehearsal, several of the singers said, "Hey, the subscribers have listened to us slog through really hard stuff... let's give them something fun that sounds like Argentina!" So they started to sing the "Malambo," a dance tune that we will perform so that Daniel Noce can perform this traditional masculine, energetic dance form from the pampas (plains) of Argentina.
It is exciting and humbling to be part of this enterprise. I am finally starting to appreciate, more than ever before, what it takes to produce great art in our chosen art form of classical music. The demands are relentless, the rewards fleeting, the praise sometimes nonexistent; still, we move forward. I wonder how it feels to be on the receiving end.
We've now had two rehearsals for "Through Argentine Eyes," and it's going well. The dance pieces are lovely, and the Ginastera "Lamentations of Jeremiah" are fantastic.
But there are some chords in our commissioned piece, "The Wanderer," that -- how can I say it delicately? -- are REALLY hard to tune. There's no other way to describe it. The singers are having a hard time finding harmonic things to hang on to.
The harmonic language moves between a number of different sound-worlds. Imagine a piece that sometimes sounds like 12th-century French polyphony, sometimes like modern reconstructions of music by Hildegard of Bingen, and sometimes like Poulenc on hallucinogens, and you have an idea of what "The Wanderer" sounds like. My job is to make it all hang together. It's not easy!
But when it works, it's really, really cool. Last week we got through a section and had all the chords tuning and lining up, everything in place -- and I went "Woo hoo! Yessss!" It was a great moment.
I listened to this piece, live, at the Library of Congress in October when Chanticleer performed it. The effect is quite hypnotic. The poem is dramatic, a stark 10th-century meditation on war and death and loss and loyalty. So now it's our turn at Chicago a cappella to bring it to life.
I'm not a fan of music that is dissonant for its own sake, in that self-indulgent way that a lot of music is, music that turned off audiences for decades. Fortunately, "The Wanderer" isn't like that -- but that still doesn't make it easy to tune in some places.
As a solution, I have been slogging through the score, telling the singers things like "Well, from measures 239 to 247 it is basically in B minor," and so on. Sometimes, however, the composer will throw in a completely dissonant note or two -- he has reasons of his own for doing this -- and I have to then balance the voices so that the dissonances don't overpower the sound, and especially so that the singers know who and what to tune to.
I am sometimes jealous of those people whose instruments will make the right note just because they moved their fingers in a way to produce the right pitch, regardless of what's going on around them harmonically. Singers are rarely that independent, even the very good ones. We have our work cut out for us.
Don't let that scare you away. Come hear us on April 13-14-15 -- the composer will be here, and we will give you, in the words of Ed Sullivan, "A really good shew." Have a good week.
Last week we were working in the home stretch of our upcoming "Songs for Lovers" concert. Patrick Sinozich is our longtime rehearsal coach who, for this concert, is serving as music director. I'm singing, and I decided that Pat's prodigious skills merited his being able to truly take the reins and shape the sound the way he saw fit. This is good, because when I'm singing I can only hear so much.
Pat was walking us through the first two of the Debussy "Trois chansons," fabulous a cappella pieces for mixed voices. (The third isn't about love, so I left it off the program.) It wasn't quite coming together the way I had hoped, but I was also lacking for words to describe what I was after. Then I remembered that I had appointed Pat music director, so even if I had strong ideas, I should shut up and let him work his magic.
In the first piece, it didn't take him long. He just said, "You all know how Debussy sounds when it's an instrumental piece: seamless, one long flow of shifting sound from start to finish, no real breaks." That seemed to click with the group. Pat also helped us find a better tempo than the slow one we had defaulted to (my bad).
The second piece was even easier to fix. Pat told us, "This song is about a tambourine. Imagine that your voice is just one of the little circles of metal that makes up the tambourine, no more. Then together you will make up the sound that we're after." That worked like a charm. It's a piece we know well, but it's always good to get a fresh perspective on the music.
We later ran both pieces in a row. The second worked better than the first; the first still needs more of a sense of transparency. Yet I did feel that conceiving of the piece as first and foremost a Debussy piece, and not an a cappella piece by Debussy, was what made it come together.
I had always heard that it was Debussy who said, "Music is the space between the notes." I worried that, by not having so many spaces in our seamless texture, we would miss some essential quality of the piece, but I think I was taking him too literally. There is still plenty of spaciousness in the two pieces.
This is why having brilliant colleagues is such a good idea!