More Cowbells

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“More cowbells,” Jan Gippo, the multi-talented woodwind player, mutters as he enters the backstage area of Powell Symphony Hall.
When Mahler Seven is on the program, the backstage area is contained chaos. Mahler demands a lot, and although there is no kitchen sink to be found, it might have been an instrument he considered. Here is what the score calls for: piccolo and four flutes, with one of the flutists doubling on a second piccolo; three oboes and English horn; three clarinets, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet; three bassoons and contrabassoon; tenor horn and four normal French horns; three trumpets; three trombones and tuba; timpani and percussion (including, notably, glockenspiel and cowbells); two harps, guitar, and mandolin; and strings.
Cowbells, one critic writes, “are always symbolic in Mahler of the spiritual rather than merely graphic presence of Nature.” If you grew up on a dairy farm, as I did, you know intimately what this means.
But you don’t need a pastoral background to love Mahler. Mahler, like the poet Walt Whitman, made works that were all-encompassing. He sought to reveal the totality of human experience. Yet, like Whitman, it would be too easy to label the work as grandiose or extravagant. Whitman and Mahler constructed their major works out of precise and lovely subtleties – and these small atomies come together to form a generous universe of sound.
Guest conductor Alan Gilbert understands this. I watched him from a backstage monitor yesterday: precise, direct – he shows an ease with complexity. He’s one who finds order amongst clarinets, trombones, bassoons, a mandolin, timpani and cowbells.
SLSO Assistant Conductor Scott Parkman just stuck his head in. “The Mahler is going to be great,” he says excitedly. “Top notch.”

Tux and Jeans

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Powell Symphony Hall is a multilayered palace of duties at midweek. My colleague Cara Crocker is walking a mound of paperwork that we couldn’t live without from seventh to sixth floor.
The descent to the stage area is accompanied by the reverberation of horns warming up. For the last couple days there has been a marathon photo shoot going on in the green room as musician portraits are — at last — being revised. The other day there was the sight of trombonist Stephen Lange in tux and jeans. Today Diana Haskell (clarinet), Melissa Brooks-Rubright (cello), and Angie Smart (violin) are waiting, holding their instruments, the women dressed in varying shades of fashionable black.
Diana joined the SLSO last season, coming from the Milwaukee Symphony. The clarinetist comments on the rigors of the Mahler Seven, “It’s a big blow,” and one that calls for endurance and concentration. “By the third movement my head is spinning.”
Backstage, where cough drops, bottles of Evian, and ear plugs are supplied for the musicians, Diana reaches for the ear plugs. The Mahler Seven calls for horn power, and Diana sits right in front of the trumpets. “The horns are great,” she says, “but they’re loud.”
Small plastic screens are situated about the orchestra to muffle the intensity of sound for those playing wood instruments. John Tafoya, SLSO librarian, says it was Jim Meyer, longtime SLSO clarinet player, who first brought a plastic screen onto the Powell stage with him. “At first,” says John, “everyone looked at him askance, but later, it was like a revelation.”
Guest conductor Alan Gilbert enters and the bustle of activity lessens. Moments later there is the opening phrase of the horn played by Jennifer Montone. And the sound of her horn is another kind of revelation.

Go Cards

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Not long ago the New York Times ran an article in the Business Section about a McDonald’s in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. If you drive up to give your order to that little screen at this McDonald’s in Cape Girardeau, your order is actually taken by someone in Colorado, who then sends it to the Cape Girardeau kitchen. Apparently, this system saves money and improves service.
I offer this little reality check because I think it gives some insight into what is special about the live symphony concert experience. We live in a world that increasingly disrupts our connections to the here and now. We watch people talk on cell phones in the Central West End and their awareness is of someone or some place a continent away. If there weren’t those little silver technological implements at their ears, we’d think there was an epidemic of schizophrenia.
The experience of being in the here and now is becoming a rarity. Yet, at Powell Symphony Hall you disconnect your cell phones and your beepers. You don’t sit back and watch a screen with images and stereo sound, but you are thrust into the moment of a live performance. Your presence is part of the music’s making – in the here and now. And whether the music was written 200 years ago or two months ago – it is always of the present, new, and cannot be duplicated. At times, it touches on the sublime. There’s nothing virtual about it.
Just the second day out and I need to clean up some mistakes from yesterday. I referred to one of the musicians I used to talk with during my journalism days as Gary Taylor. Who is Gary Taylor? I know of a Shakespeare scholar named Gary Tayor, but I meant Gary Smith. Smith is one our marvelous trumpet players, and I know him best because of his love of Montana, the last best place, which is where I grew up. Gary reads Wallace Stegner and Bill Kittredge and Norman MacClean and fly fishes. An all-around sweet, talented, charming guy.
Also, the SymphonEminder that went out yesterday — please make the following correction. The Community Partnership concert Music for Woodwinds will be held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 4712 Clifton, Sun, October 17 at 3pm.
And yes, as much as we anticipate the first rehearsal of the Mahler 7 tomorrow with Alan Gilbert, in our offices we are close to our radios and websites keeping track of the game. Cards up 8-2 as I finish this.

Introduction

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So how did this get started?
It was a bit of synchronicity. I have been with the SLSO for a year now following eight years covering the arts for the Riverfront Times. Here at the Symphony, we’ve been looking for ways to improve slso.org. The idea of a blog, an (almost) daily journal of life at the Symphony, had been on my mind as a possibility. And, as it happened, other people had been thinking the same thing. With my experience as a journalist and columnist, we thought I could record the inner life of the organization – running into JoAnn Falletta on the elevator, hearing Dominique Labelle let out a joyous “Woo hoo” at the end of a rehearsal, David Robertson sightings – as well as provide commentary and observations about the music itself, as well as the issues surrounding the world of orchestral music.
So here we are. My first disclaimer: I have no music training of any kind. I listened to rock & roll when I was younger and I still do. But somewhere along the way I heard classical music as well. I’m old enough to remember the Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on TV and recall being blown away by those smart New York City kids in the audience. Many years later, I’m still not as smart as them. I also remember going to a performance of Verdi’s Otello at the Portland Opera House (Portland, Oregon) on a junior-high field trip and sitting in absolute awe of the enormous scale of it all – the staging, the voices, the emotions. In the vernacular of the time, it really was a trip.
As a grownup, finding myself as a cultural critic and journalist, I came to the Saint Louis Symphony with more curiosity than background. I like the music. I like to listen to the music live in Powell Hall. What’s not to like? And talking to Orchestra members such as David Halen and Gary Taylor and Jan Gippo and Felicia Foland and Richard Holmes and Amy Oshiro and Morris Jacob, and then interviewing visiting artists such as Philip Glass and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and John Adams – I found out stuff, and hopefully passed on some of the stuff I found out to readers.
Lo and behold, things change. I now find myself among the musicians and staff I formerly admired, and occasionally criticized (tenderly), from the outside. In truth, I couldn’t have imagined a better place to land in St. Louis.
The blog. What will it be? I’m of the generation that learned creation as process. Let’s find out as we go along. There will be the offhand observations: those little hickies that are on violin and viola players necks aren’t there because the string section is incessantly romantic but because of the repeated placement and pressure of their instruments underneath their chins time after time. Believe it or not, it took me a while to figure that out. I’ll talk about current articles, books, films that in one way or another reflect on the orchestral world. Mostly, I hope this blog may help to open the orchestral experience to you in ways that will increase your pleasure and interest.
And if you wish to comment, or offer avenues to explore, email me at “eddies(at)slso.org”. I won’t be able to respond to you individually, but every month or so I’ll open the mail bag and present some of what I find.