Monday, March 28, 2011

Mahler 6: Through A Musician's Ears and Eyes

Mahler 6: Through A Musician's Ears and Eyes
By Ellen Ritscher Sackett
This is a Jaap van Zweden week at the Dallas Symphony, and the orchestra has been in heavy-duty rehearsal mode, preparing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony since Monday afternoon. The piece is of epic proportions, 71 minutes in four movements. It is the one-and-only piece on this week’s program. The first of three concerts is tonight.

I am the second harpist. I’m what’s called an “extra” – not a contract player who is on salary, but a freelancer who is hired to play with the symphony as needed. I’ve been playing harp with the orchestra since 1988. My name has never been on the program, but when you look up at the harps from the audience, I’m the one sitting on the outside.

There are quite a few extras for this Mahler Symphony. While it’s visually impressive from the audience’s perspective, it’s pretty crowded from ours. Imagine well over 100 people sitting side by side for several hours a day, six days a week. We try to be considerate of each other. No heavy perfumes, hairsprays or colognes. No garlic at lunch. A pack of gum or breath mints handy.

The primary order of business for the musicians just before our first rehearsal is to jockey for space. We each need just enough to do our jobs well. String players, for example, have to have room to move their bows, and obviously, the larger instruments, like the harp and percussion, take up a fair amount of space. Once we’ve staked out our territory, then the next order of business is to make sure we each have an unobstructed view of the conductor.

Rehearsals always start on time. I have to be there plenty early to tune my harp. The other musicians also roll in ahead of time to warm up and practice the tricky spots. We have to be prepared because once Jaap takes the podium, our attention is on him and his every demand.

And demanding he is. If I had one and only one word to describe a rehearsal with Jaap, it would be “intense.” He immediately gets down to business, and every eyeball is focused upon him for the duration. Jaap’s goal is to push us into achieving his musical goals, beyond our comfort zones at times while stretching our technical abilities to the max.

We are, after all, the conductor’s instrument. The conductor is boss, and it’s our job to follow his instructions. We do our best to serve him and his intentions. This is true for all orchestras, not just the DSO. It helps when the orchestra respects its conductor, and certainly the DSO thinks highly of Maestro van Zweden.

As the second harpist, I don’t play as much as, say, the violinists who are busy almost all of the time, but that doesn’t mean I can relax. In between my “licks” I have many empty measures to count. I keep a watchful eye for changes in tempo. Sometimes the maestro conducts in two; sometimes, he switches to four, and sometimes there are meter changes.

Since there are a lot of stops and starts in a rehearsal, I listen to the conductor’s comments, even if it’s directed to the violas or the flutes or the French horns. That way, I can anticipate where he will begin next. He doesn’t give us a lot of extra time to find that next starting spot. Sure enough, the other day I leaned over to say something to my colleague, and that slight distraction caused us both to miss an entrance. My bad.

We got the glare. That’s the maestro’s very effective way of letting us know that HE knew we’d dropped the ball. The longer his stare, the worse the sin. Avoiding the glare is a high priority. Jaap doesn’t have to yell or jump up and down on the podium to get his point across.

Most of the time, however, Jaap is very polite. He shakes his head and says, “This isn’t working,” or “I’m sorry to have to tell you. You are rushing. Just a bit.”
“Do it this way,” he says. “It’s so very important.” And my favorite: “That was close to pretty good.” He explains what he wants through a combination of words and by singing how he wants the music to sound. Then he asks, “Can we do it once more?”

We do it once more. At least. He has us repeat the section until we get it right, however long that takes. He talks a lot about the dynamics – the louds and softs and everything in between. He fixes intonation. He works on articulation. He listens carefully and doesn’t miss a thing. Every correction is made with the music’s intent in mind. The orchestra rarely rides the wave of emotion for long before Jaap interrupts us to make a correction. That’s what rehearsing is all about. Making good music is all in the details.

By the time we get to the performance, the finer points will have all been addressed. It’ll be time to play. When the Maestro gives the downbeat tonight, we’ll be ready.

In addition to playing the harp, Ellen Ritscher Sackett is a features writer at the Denton Record-Chronicle. She can be contacted at

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An interview with GDYO percussion - why you should audition

Calling all percussionists!
It is once again time for auditions at GDYO. And we are in need of percussionists! 14 spots will need to be filled for the 2011-2012 season and if you are going to be a high school senior or younger and play percussion – than you need to audition.
We recently interviewed three current members who are percussionists. Here is what they had to say about performing with GDYO:

Austin Allen – Senior – Member of GDYO for the past five seasons
“GDYO is a high quality orchestra which many of us do not get to experience in our schools. It is an orchestra that is constantly pushing its limits and Mr. G always tries to find a piece that is both challenging and enjoyable for the percussion. We have awesome instruments we get to play. I auditioned because I want to be an orchestral percussionist. I realized this in 7th grade which is the year I auditioned and entered into the Philharmonic. At the time, it was a great inspiration because the other percussionists were all in high school so i guess I looked up to them a little.”
“Its great experience and I am really glad I got to do it for as long as i did. I really got to experience a wide selection of rep before even entering college. If you are truly serious about this, then it’s a good way to make connections cause there are a few other musicians as well that you will meet later on down the road.”

Adam Holmes – Junior – Member of the GDYO for one season
“ I like being in GDYO because it gives me a year-round opportunity to play with a full orchestra. In school, full orchestra is only done towards the end of the school year, while the rest of the year is only marching band and wind symphony. People who play in any of GDYO's ensembles are there because they want to be, not because they need to get credits. It's relieving being able to play with people who are musicians for the sake of making music.”

“At GDYO, Percussionists get to have sectionals with extremely respected professors and performers, such as Mr. Doug Howard from the Dallas Symphony. Oh, and we get to leave early/come late every now and then, which comes in handy whenever the schoolwork piles up. One of my private teachers first informed me about the GDYO at the beginning of my sophomore year, so it was too late to audition. I kept it in mind, and grew to love orchestral music more and more throughout that year, leading to my decision that I wanted to play in an orchestra as much as possible. Not to mention it's brilliant to have on a college resume.”

“I'm always excited to go to rehearsal, and playing at the Meyerson makes every second of rehearsal worth the time. I've become acquainted with people who have a scary amount of potential. Austin getting accepted into NEC, Brett being the first chair trombonist in the state (I don't think that was the first time), Cesar trying for the Columbia-Juilliard and NEC-Harvard exchanges, and the cellist, Amy Chayo developing a treatment for cancer at the age of 16. I feel confident that GDYO will let me look at somebody's name on the front page or on TV and say ‘Hey, we were in orchestra together!’”

Andrew Morreira – Senior – has been a member of GDYO for two seasons
“I like working with percussionists from other schools, and the level of musicians in the Wind Symphony. Playing with the Dallas Wind symphony was great and learning from the different directors is a good opportunity. Having a solo on the gembe was cool. I wanted to experience the music environment outside of high school, which is pretty intense. I am able to play timpani, mallets and snare in GDYO; at the school I go to we usually have to play the same instrument.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Program notes - Dvorak "From the New World"

This work will be performed on the March 6 GDYO concert "Young Virtuoso" at the Meyerson Symphony Center

Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”
Antonín Dvořák
Born on September 8th, 1841 in Nelahozeves, Bohemia
Died on May 1st, 1904 in Prague

One of Dvořák’s most beloved works, the “New World” Symphony captures the essence of the composer’s travels to America. He set sail for America on September 10th, 1892, with his wife and two children, Antonín and Otilie, leaving the remaining four children behind with their grandmother. Dvořák had been invited by Jeanette Thurber, the President of New York’s National Conservatory, to write a choral work for the ‘Fourth Centennial Celebration of the discovery of America by Columbus.’ Dvořák wrote his cantata, Te Deum, for this occasion. On October 9th of that same year, the New York Czech Circle held a banquet in the composer’s honor. A concert of Dvořák’s music took place on October 21st featuring the new Te Deum. The following month, he conducted his Requiem in Boston. All of these events preceded the “New World” Symphony.
Dvořák composed the symphony between December 1892 and May 1893. He added the famous subtitle, ‘From the New World,’ just before he sent the score to the conductor, Anton Seidl. The composer used the words ‘Impressions and Greetings from the New World’ to explain the subtitle. The premiere took place at Carnegie Hall on December 16th, 1893, with the composer in attendance. Within a year, additional performances took place in Boston, Brooklyn, London, and Czechoslovakia.
Dvořák’s exposure to America left a stamp on his works that can be heard, especially in this symphony, in his melodic lines and themes, although his rhythms remained Czech. The piece contains allusions to famous American tunes woven throughout, including ‘Three Blind Mice,’ ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ and ‘The Little Alabama Coon,’ as well as hints of ‘Yankee Doodle.’ Even more influential is the character of the African-American spirituals and Native American tunes throughout his work. The composer wrote:
It is this spirit which I have tried to reproduce in my new symphony. I have not actually used any of the melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, harmony, counterpoint and orchestral color.
In order to become more familiar with the spirituals, Dvořák invited Harry T. Burleigh, an African-American student at Mrs. Thurber’s National Conservatory in New York, to sing to him. The famous English horn solo in the second movement (familiar as “Going Home”) is heavily influenced by the spirituals. Dvořák was originally going to give that melody to the flutes or clarinets, but felt that the English horn shared the greatest resemblance to Burleigh’s voice.
The cello section begins the first movement with a solemn melody. An adventurous theme then takes over and recurs throughout the rest of the movement. This could represent Dvořák’s departure from his home land and the start of his travels in the New World.
The celebrated second movement opens with sonorous chords played by the French horns, leading up to the poignant English horn solo. The middle section of the piece contains a meandering melody that continues into a lighter, more playful tune. As the movement comes to a close, a string quartet plays the “Going Home” theme, creating an intimate atmosphere. Dvořák was homesick while in America and the second movement truly exemplifies his nostalgia.
Dvořák’s third movement, the scherzo, is a prime example of his use of Czech rhythms. The opening starts abruptly with percussion playing a strong role. The movement then transitions into the middle trio section. Dvořák then returns to the urgent and chaotic theme that was played in the beginning of the movement. A brusque ending creates a dramatic effect to a frantic movement.
Intensity opens the fourth movement as the strings play in unison, leading up to the trumpet’s grand entrance as they play a majestic and victorious melody. The following theme is adventurous and triumphant. Echoes of previous themes can be heard throughout the movement, along with suggestions of well-known American tunes. This movement ends Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony leaving the audience with an invigorating experience and a love for music. His masterpiece remains close to the hearts of people everywhere.
Dvořák scored the symphony for 2 flutes, one doubling piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, and strings.
Marlea Simpson (viola)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Weber Clarinet Concerto Program Notes

Program note written by Andrew Lee who will be featured on the March 6 concert performing the concerto.

Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra No. 1 in F minor. Op. 73; Mvt. I
Carl Maria von Weber
Born 18 November 1786 in Eutin, Germany
Died in 5 June 1826 in London, England
Throughout history, many composers have written pieces for specific players whose music making amazed and inspired them. As a result, we have wonderful music. Carl Maria von Weber as an excellent example of this practice. In addition, he has written what is considered today as fundamental clarinet repertoire.
Weber is famous for his chamber music pieces which were composed to accommodate several kinds of ensembles: Clarinet Quintet Op. 34, Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano op. 63, and the Piano Quartet op. 18. However, Weber has a larger reputation as a prominent opera composer. Some of his more famous works include Der Freischütz, Oberon, and Euryanthe. Less well known, but just as important to clarinettists, were his contributions to clarinet literature (being of comparable importance to Mozart and Brahms). Weber dedicated his Clarinet Concertino for Orchestra Op. 26 and both his Clarinet Concertos for his respected peer and clarinetist, Heinrich Baermann.
Weber first met Baermann in 1811 in Darmstadt. At the time, Baermann was a renowned clarinetist who had acquired fame after touring throughout Europe, including performances at England, France, Italy, and Russia. In Baermann's playing, Weber found a mixture of the French vivacity and German fullness with darker tone. Baermann's personal charisma, as well as his mature virtuosity on the clarinet, led to a close friendship between the men. For an upcoming concert in Munich, patronized by the Royal Minister Maximilian Josef von Montgelasm, at Baermann's request, Weber composed the Concertino in E-flat Op. 26. The concert sold out the entire hall , and was a big success with the audience. The Concertino in E-flat initiated a trio of solo pieces for clarinet and orchestra.
Weber composed the piece on this evening's program after the development of the ten-key clarinet, which allowed for more flexibility and smoothness of playing. He composed his two solo pieces with a Classical format, but incorporated a hint of Romantic drama. Weber's fine balance between the dramatic high points and subtle, technical passages makes his concerto an excellent example of his dual-musical personality. His reputation for the use of earlier Romantic style sets him apart from his more Classical contemporaries, and for this reason, Weber can be seen as a transitional composer who undergoes a change in style over the course of his lifetime.
Weber wrote the first movement of the concerto, including the entire orchestral part, in one day. Because he often wrote pieces rapidly and furiously, sometimes they lacked complexity and places where the soloist could truly exhibit technical skills or emotion. Carl Baermann, Heinrich Baermann's son and successor to the position of principal clarinettist at the Munich Orchestra, felt that the first movement of the concerto needed something more exciting to move from a playful, nimble section to the solemn, grave one. To accommodate this problem, Carl inserted a cadenza, or brilliant flourish for the soloist. The cadenza represents the younger Baermann's musical ideas. His incorporation of the candenza reflects the mixture of various influences in this concerto.
Instrumentation:two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo clarinet, and strings.

Andrew Lee, clarinet