From Mahler to Minnie the Moocher
Jeff Tyzik, our conductor for the pops programs up in Vail, told the audience the other night that you know you are working with incredible orchestral musicians when they can give a stunning performance of Mahler Symphony No. 6, and then come right back out the next night and do a fantastic concert of unfamiliar and difficult pops charts having had only one rehearsal.
He’s right, and they did.
In the middle of the residency we do four different programs in a row, and those just mentioned are the most difficult. Of course, we had performed the Mahler several times earlier in the season. But it’s never easy and, as you know, is relentless in its 80 minutes without intermission. I took the opportunity to sit in the theater and listen to my colleagues. It was truly an exceptional and moving concert.
Some of the audience members were probably not really up for hearing a work of this magnitude and length. And the house wasn’t terribly full, which means the program likely scared some people off who attend the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival to be entertained in a light-hearted way. But the festival didn’t apologize for this programming, which I applaud, and instead took the time to talk about the piece and why it was important to do.
The festival’s founder and Executive Director, John Giovando, spoke about how this music is so very compatible with being out in nature. He also told the story of Mount Mahler in Colorado, the only mountain in the US named after a composer: http://www.pomona.edu/Magazine/pcmsp04/AVfirstperson.shtml. Finally, he told the audience that this was the first time in 24 years that the symphony would be performed. It’s always cool to do the premiere performance of such a major work.
The “hammer blows of fate” in the last movement and the order of the inner movements were also mentioned. There remains some controversy about both issues, and both are always a matter of discussion in musical circles. There isn’t room here to go into the respective stories (a quick Google search will give you the basics), but I can let you know that Maestro van Zweden does two hammer blows instead of three, and always conducts the Scherzo prior to the Andante.
I can also take a few minutes to tell you about how those hammer blows are produced in concert. The sound has to be like nothing else in the orchestra, and it has to be “jump-out-of-your-seat” loud. The Dallas Symphony had an instrument made by a bass player in the Chicago Symphony named Roger Cline. Mr. Cline used speaker technology by suspending and cushioning the strike plate on both sides with foam which helps create additional resonance. The hammer is also custom made, and not your basic drum mallet.
Needless to say, this thing does the trick. Especially when Principal Percussionist Doug Howard goes at it full force. He scared the violin section half to death in rehearsal.
For good measure, here are the traveling cases for the unique instrument and hammer!
There is plenty of other fun stuff in Mahler 6, what with 106 musicians on stage. I liked how the cow bells were set up for rehearsal, complete with the player’s transportation accessories.
Mahler calls for large woodwind and brass sections, as well as celesta, two sets of timpani and four or more harps. We use “only” two, as most orchestras these days do. Costs a lot of money to put this piece on stage, not to mention travel with it. The players were very good-natured about my begging, pleading and cajoling to let me take photos of them at work both in rehearsal and prior to the performance.
The Mahler was really the main event for the orchestra in Vail this year. That’s not to say everything else wasn’t as important; it’s just that when a major work is programmed it can overshadow everything else in the players’ minds. It takes such a high level of preparation, concentration, craftsmanship and musicianship to perform this symphony well that when it’s over there is a collective sigh. And a real sense of accomplishment.
It’s no secret that orchestral musicians as a species are not crazy about pops concerts in general. But we well understand the need for those programs, and we give them our all just the same. Quality of repertoire, artists, music (I mean the actual parts), and conductors make a huge difference in how such a program is perceived by the orchestra. Which is really no different than for any other program.
We were thrilled by the concert Mr. Tyzik put together the night after the Mahler and hope we will be doing this show again back in Dallas. Turning the theater into a musical representation of Harlem’s 1920’s Cotton Club, the brass section sat on one side as the big band, and the strings on the other. Soloists Byron Stripling, trumpeter and vocalist, and Carmen Bradford, vocalist, wowed the capacity crowd both inside and out on the lawn.
Some of our own orchestra members were featured in solos throughout the evening, including Principal Trumpet Ryan Anthony and Principal Trombone John Kitzman. Mr. Tyzik’s point at the beginning of the evening was proved by these players as well as the rest of the orchestra. It’s amazing they can adapt so quickly to the different styles and physical requirements the various programs demand.
One of the highlights of the Cotton Club evening was Mr. Stripling’s tribute to Cab Calloway with his rendition of “Minnie the Moocher.” The audience was captivated, and sang their parts with gusto. It was easy to call up the memory of Cab in his all white suit, hat and walking stick, dancing and singing across the stage. I feel lucky to have worked with both of these gentlemen.
On my drive south through the mountains, my itinerary unfortunately didn’t take me to Mount Mahler. But I did find a couple of other peaks of interest. Colorado’s version of Matterhorn Peak reminded me that the town of Vail was modeled after Zermatt, Switzerland, where the original Matterhorn is.
And then, all of a sudden, there was Minnie Mountain. I’ll take it.