From the Orchestra Library


From Mahler to Minnie the Moocher

Posted in The Business,The Music,Touring by kschnack on July 11, 2011
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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.

The Hammer Blow Instrument

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.

Principal Percussion Doug Howard ready to strike the hammer blow

For good measure, here are the traveling cases for the unique instrument and hammer!

The Hammer has its own box!

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.

Cow Bells with Bike Helmet

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.

DSO Oboe Section for Mahler

Mahler Timps

Two Happy Harpists

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

DSO at the Cotton Club

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.

Colorado's Matterhorn Peak (middle)

And then, all of a sudden, there was Minnie Mountain. I’ll take it.

Minnie Mountain (left)

 

 

 

We’re Not in Kansas, or Texas, Anymore

Posted in DSO Colleagues,Touring by kschnack on July 6, 2011
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One of the most important times in our Vail residency is when there is…….

A Day Off.

Did you think I was going to say “Rehearsals” or something? Silly you.

Now, I know we are here to work, and to do our work at the highest professional level. This is not a vacation, and no one in the organization sees it as such. All of us take this obligation and opportunity seriously. To well-represent the Dallas Symphony Orchestra whether on stage or off is an honor and we are proud to do it. I love it when someone who hasn’t heard the orchestra in a long time says “Wow, the orchestra sounded really good before but now it sounds phenomenal!” Or, “I think the DSO is highly under-rated; it should be mentioned in the same breath with the top orchestras.” I heard both of these comments in the past week and it was a great feeling. So, work hard we do. When we are in the middle of the performance schedule there is a rehearsal and concert each day of completely different repertoire, and we must transition from classics to pops and back again in a way that looks and sounds effortless. It is a difficult job, and takes a lot of concentration and stamina.

But here we are in the mountains and the cool, dry air — which, after coming from Dallas is a gift for which we are most thankful. This is what registered on the car dashboard as I went through Wichita Falls on my way here last week:

June 28 temperature in Wichita Falls, Texas

A colleague who had driven up the day before said it was 116 in Childress when she went through. So, you can imagine the glee with which we embrace the change in environment and the fervor with which we plan our precious time off during the residency. We lug the hiking, camping and biking gear; we pore over trail guides and maps weeks in advance; if we are smart, we also get in shape beforehand so we don’t miss a chance to enjoy the surroundings.

When I saw this on the car dash two mornings ago, it made me smile:

Ahhh, relief!

We always have at least one day off during the residency, and usually two. The outdoor enthusiasts among us try to hit the ground running, literally, on that first day off so we have been known to push ourselves pretty hard in these mountains. Huffing and puffing in the thin air, and using muscles that haven’t been challenged in a while, we bag the summits, raft the rivers, bike the passes. Conditions right now are making things a little more difficult than usual though.

Gore Creek

This past winter and spring, Vail Mountain had a record snowfall of 525 inches, topping the previous 35-year record by some twenty inches. The result has been extremely high and fast creeks due to snow melt runoff. Trails that are open are muddy and slippery at best, or still snow covered (knee-deep) and impassable in places. And some of our favorite trails are closed.

Of course, all that extra snow makes for extremely gorgeous scenery and excellent subject matter for photography, another summer hobby for many in the orchestra. Although the pine bark beetle infestation has destroyed millions of acres of trees throughout the western and northern United States, the aspen trees and other vegetation seem to have benefited from the easier access to sunlight and additional moisture.

As with many music festivals, the location is a draw not only for the tourists and locals, but also for the musicians. It’s impossible not to be inspired by the surroundings. Music and mountains are an unbeatable combination in my opinion, and can only enhance the experience for performers and audiences. Some of the greatest symphonic music ever written is meant to depict the scenes and forces of nature.

One of the most stunning views up here is looking east from the Gerald R. Ford Ampitheater. When the concerts are over, between 7:30 and 8:00 each evening, the alpenglow over the peaks dares anyone to not stop and stare.

Can you blame us for wanting to get up there when we have the chance? I didn’t think so!

 

 

 

 


Sturm und Drang

Posted in The Music,Touring by kschnack on July 2, 2011
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If the late afternoon weather so far up here in Vail is any guide, the DSO’s performances at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival will be full of excitement, drama, and intensity. Our first concert Wednesday evening had all that and more. Music Director Jaap van Zweden was heard afterwards to say “It was one of the best Beethoven 7’s we have ever done!” I have to agree with him on that.

But it wasn’t an ordinary opening night by any means, let alone a normal concert.

The day started off well enough with perfectly fine conditions for a morning rehearsal of Beethoven.

First Vail rehearsal 2011

Even Mr. Conductor who guards the front of the theater was happy in the dappled sunlight.

Standing guard over the theater

Other than the process of getting situated in the environment, starting to acclimate to the altitude and dry air, dealing with the logistics of instrument and wardrobe cases, and adjusting to a different performance schedule, it was pretty much business as usual for a first day on tour.

After the rehearsal we all went about our afternoon routines with an eye on getting back to the theater during the five o’clock hour rested, refreshed and ready for the concert at 6 p.m. It’s actually pretty tough to keep energy and focus on this schedule, especially early in our time up here. I’m always impressed with how the players manage in the thin air — especially the ones who have to BREATHE. You wouldn’t know by listening to them that their bodies were all racing to make more blood cells and oxygen.

So, despite a few afternoon clouds, it was a lovely Colorado day. The players gathered on stage to begin the concert with the Star Spangled Banner. Senior Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson tuned the orchestra, Maestro van Zweden went out and gave the cue for the timpani roll, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was off and running in its first performance of the 2011 Vail festival season.

DSO Horn section getting ready to rock the Egmont Overture

After the banner, the orchestra launched into a vigorous Egmont Overture. They sounded great, and the horn section did indeed rock it; what fantastic music!

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto followed the overture with violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Peter Wiley, and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott (who is also festival Artistic Director) as soloists. Everyone had a great time and enjoyed the wonderful performance.

Senior Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson

At intermission we had a stage move to reset for Beethoven Symphony  No. 7.  This is one of the busiest times for an orchestra librarian during a concert — moving folders, picking up soloists music, exchanging full scores for the next work, and generally making sure everyone has their parts (and wind clips).

The orchestra then began the second half and I went into the lounge to start writing this blog. All of a sudden, as if on cue with the timpani, I heard a loud sound that was clearly not man-made and looked up at the skylight to see dark sky and trees waving wildly in the wind. Stormy weather had moved in without warning. Oh no, the music!

I raced out to the edge of the stage to see players frantically clipping their music while continuing to play. At this point, there wasn’t real rain, and after a few minutes things died down. The orchestra went on as if nothing had happened, and all seemed under control. It wasn’t long, though, before the storm decided to unleash its full force. Now there was rain coming in from the sides of the stage. Musicians were moving their stands and chairs away from the rain’s range, and some had to leave the stage altogether. At the end of the movement Maestro van Zweden begged the audience’s indulgence and waited a few moments to begin the slow movement. The orchestra did make it through that but just barely — it was now clear the concert couldn’t continue.

Once again the Maestro told the audience the orchestra would have to stop so the instruments were not ruined. But he asked them to wait, and we would try to come back and finish the symphony. That brought loud cheering and applause, and musicians and listeners alike waited for the wind and rain to abate.

And in true Colorado fashion, it did just that. A little bit later sun came through the clouds and a dazzling rainbow arced across the theater. The players moved back on stage, took their places, and completed the performance with a rousing Scherzo and Finale of the symphony. It really was a spectacular performance enhanced by nature’s drama and unpredictability. Live music at its best!

We shall see what transpires in our upcoming performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. With the Hammerblows of Fate, I doubt Mother Nature can resist a little atmospheric gift. See you then.

Back on stage after the storm

The beautiful rainbow that graced our performance