Oboes

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This morning, amidst the rain and thunder, we have oboes among us. Mondays have been audition days at Powell, and this morning began with my greeting a young oboist as she found her way to a rehearsal space. She looked prepared, awake, and the least bit anxious.
Oboes can make as many noises as starlings, and after listening to some eight hours of them, as the members of the audition committee must, they can sound just as annoying. After a round of auditions a few weeks ago, I asked one of our musicians how she was holding up after a full morning of oboes with an afternoon more to come. “I’m grabbing the ibuprofen right now,” she told me.
For those of us who don’t have to live through an oboe marathon, there are the sounds of oboes that are marvelous to hear emerging from various floors and rooms: the trills and bleats and squawks and slurs and staccato voices of that lovely instrument.
Yet these audition Mondays come with the underscore of anxiety. Musicians are workers, and these are folks looking for a job in a business where such jobs are few and far between. With that in mind, I suggest you take a look at Sunday’s New York Times (October 17) for “Better Playing through Chemistry” by Blair Tindall, which discusses stage fright and medications some musicians take to relieve it. It’s an interesting piece. I’ll talk more on it tomorrow.

Last Donut

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The last Krispy Kreme donut was taken at 10:24am. I know. I saw it happen. Surprisingly, no violence ensued.
“A saxophone,” a patron whispered during the Thomson piece. Yes, a sexy, soulful, jazzy saxophone in the middle of Thomson’s folksy pastiche.
Laura Medendorp took the stage not in an Emily Dickinson-inspired white dress for the Copland work Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, but in a stunning gown of autumnal colors, which proved almost as colorful as her radiant soprano.
After a big ruckus of sound in Copland’s El Salón México, Diana Haskell’s clarinet settled everything down with a thick blanket of liquid gold.
We all have musicians we love to watch. Richard Holmes tenses, coils, then strikes the timpani, coils, then strikes again with a lightning-keen precision and power.
At the close of the final Copland piece, a voice high up in the balcony let out an exuberant, “Hey!”
If the first half of the program is to be described as New World Promise, Summer Sun, Winter Moon tells of broken promises: the two sides of the Enlightenment coin.
“Like the Lewis and Clark journey,” Rob Kapilow told the audience just before conducting his work, “this piece began and ended in St. Louis. It was written for you.”
When the half-hour cantata was complete, and the audience was filing out after a generous ovation, Kapilow was backstage, sweat glistening off his face, shaking hands with members of the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus, asking each one, “Did you have fun singing it? Did you have fun?”

Undaunted Courage

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Amy Kaiser, the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus director, stopped in this morning. Last night she was part of a long evening rehearsal of Rob Kapilow’s Lewis and Clark bicentennial commission, Summer Sun, Winter Moon. Despite the long hours, she looks energized and confident about the premiere. “I think it’s going to be very moving,” she tells me.
The chorus began rehearsals in early September. The text, written by Kapilow and Darrell Robes Kipp, includes both French and Native American phrases that needed to be learned and phrased and enunciated clearly. Kaiser says there are over 100 pages of music for the chorus, “and all very fast.” And how are they doing? “They sound great,” she replies effusively. In her 10th season as chorus director, Kaiser is the symbol of undaunted courage.
Come down to Powell Friday morning and grab a donut and coffee before the concert, if you can – it’s a Krispy Kreme concert. The program is repeated Saturday night. I’m going for the donuts tomorrow and will file my impressions after.

American Music

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This morning the golden harmonies of what could only be Copland filled the hall. Scott Parkman, who conducts the first half of this weekend’s program, was rehearsing a work by Virgil Thomson and two Aaron Copland numbers with the orchestra. And though none of these works fit in my meager list of familiars, the Copland is unmistakable, whether he is evoking the New England solitude Emily Dickinson or a South of the Border dance hall.
Copland has become so much a part of the musical vernacular it is as if he were one of the founding fathers. Of course, in a way he is. Copland-like melodies are found in film and TV, in advertising, so much so that they have become cliché, like Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth visually.
And like those painters, if you take time with the real thing, examine the art rather than the facsimile, with Copland there is more than the sentimental: a fresh, personal vision, so genuine in its understanding of American themes, even if you hear it for the first time, you recognize it as being of your native soil.

Kinder Konzert

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Just 15 minutes before Kinder Konzert time on a drizzly, cool morning, buses are still arriving, dispatching schoolchildren on the north side of the Hall where SLSO staffers await in fluorescent green caution garb, the same slickers you see road construction people wear. The buses begin to form long lines of yellow in the south lot after the children are dropped off.
Teachers stand counting heads as their students line up before entering Powell. Most of the kids are dressed field-trip casual, but a few have seized the opportunity, such as the girl who chose this day to wear her shimmery black dress. One school wears Pooh Bear name tags on their backs.
“This is wonderful,” one boy exclaims, standing in the foyer beneath the glowing chandeliers.
In the auditorium, our remarkably gracious, polite and efficient ushers get latecomers into their seats before the lights dim. As darkness slowly falls on them, the children let out the universal exclamation: “Ah!”

Euphonium

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This morning I asked Kathleen van Bergen, who functions as overseer of many artistic decisions here at the SLSO, what is the instrument Tim Myers plays that opens the Mahler Seven. I had mistakenly said last week that Jennifer Montone plays the opening theme on the French horn – then at the Saturday night concert I heard and saw Myers creating, on a peculiar brass instrument, the soft, full, thick, velvety sound that enriched the hall.
“That’s the euphonium,” van Bergen told me. “And Tim is one of the best euphonium players in the world.”
So I phone the Principal Trombone of the SLSO and ask about the euphonium. “Think of it as a half-size tuba,” Myers says. “The origins of the intrument are murky.” The euphonium is primarily a band instrument, he explains, in American concert bands as well as in British brass bands. Mahler actually calls for a tenor horn in the Seven, “which has a fairly narrower bore and a lighter sound,” than the euphonium, Myers adds.
Whatever Mahler was thinking, Myers’ euphonium introduced a texture of sound that immediately drew you deeply into the composition. This concert will go down as one of my all-time favorites at Powell. There were a couple of times my wife and I just turned to each other with expressions of amazement. At one time early on, she took her glasses off because she had become so mesmerized by the action of the double basses, “like watching riders on horses,” that she was losing a sense of the whole.
One of the pleasures of attending a concert at Powell is not just the sound quality – and the Mahler was ringing pleasantly in our heads long after we left the building – but the visual drama: Alan Gilbert eyeing the musicians motionlessly for many seconds before beginning the second movement; the interplay of instruments within sections, for instance as the three trumpets seemed in dialogue at times; and the ecstatic playing of Kathleen Mattis on viola.

Grace Notes

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In response to yesterday’s installment on the spiritual nature of cowbells in Mahler, one blog reader sent these observations: “I’ve heard rumors that Mahler uses cowbells in spiritual music because in his neck of the woods the cows in the mountains are allowed to graze at high altitudes. As one ascends on a hike, they’re the last thing you hear before you reach spiritual heights… heaven is up.”
And in such musical passages, Mahler is heavenly. At Powell we have a speaker system that delivers the rehearsals live to our offices. After a morning of listening to some of the “terrible beauty” Mahler renders, there came the most lovely, lilting, rhapsodic passages – that other beauty. My officemate Amber Elli asked, “What is that?” That’s Mahler too, which is why the marriage of Mozart and Mahler in this weekend’s program is such an intriguing coupling – the marriage of contraries that form a livelier union.
Yesterday afternoon, as the orchestra, soloist David Halen and guest conductor Alan Gilbert were rehearsing the Mozart Fourth Violin Concerto, I watched Gilbert transform on the podium. The strong, strenuous, formidable presence of the man who conducted Mahler minutes ago was now light on his feet, as if lifting phrases from the orchestra in one place and setting them down gently in another. Graceful, yet the grace of a bear rather than a deer. The Mozart the orchestra and Halen play with Gilbert does not lack for muscle, sinew, weight, or brilliance.
I’ll be attending the Saturday night concert. My next entry will be Monday and I’ll share with you some of my impressions of the experience. Hope you can make it to one of the performances this weekend.

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.