Tuesday, February 26, 2008

SymphonyKids Spotlight: Ah! Cappella

Using nothing but the instruments they were born with, the four singers in “Ah! Cappella” have wowed schoolchildren across the state with a varied and amusing program since their debut in 1999. All four are teachers as well as musicians, and expert at presenting a program that delights as it instructs. They perform a wide selection of music, from an early madrigal and part of a mass to an African-American spiritual and a coal miner’s song. It’s a great moment when they pull out concealed baseball caps and sing a marvelous version of “Take Me out to the Ballgame!” The “Geographical Fugue” is also a highlight; and the audience learns some Swahili to sing along with an African “coming of age” song. “Back of the Bus” is a touching and uplifting song about race discrimination. A question-and-answer period allows students to explore not only the group’s multicultural musical choices, but the lives of professional Vermont musicians too. Ah! Cappella’s show builds to the message that music as a universal language can bring the world closer together by singing together.

Soprano Claire Hungerford, of Enosburg; alto Linda Radtke, of Montpelier; tenor Nathaniel Lew, of Burlington; and baritone Brett Murphy, of Berlin, are all members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus. They have been singing together as a quartet for several years, and have developed a wonderfully informal and captivating way with student audiences. (Grown-ups love them too!)

This spring, Ah! Cappella has been chosen as the Burlington City Arts Residency group, touring to Burlington’s elementary schools. BCA funds these performances, bringing our SymphonyKids programs to an average of 2,250 Burlington-area students.

Upcoming performances for Ah! Cappella:
March 13 at Franklin Central School (9 AM), Berkshire Elementary School (10:15 AM), and Enosburg Elementary School (1 PM)
March 27 at Green Mountain High School (9:30 AM & 10:30 AM; students from Chester-Andover, Cavendish, and Proctorsville) and Floodbrook Elementary (1:45 PM)
April 3 at Stowe Elementary (9 AM), Morristown Elementary (10:15 AM), and Wolcott Elementary (1:30 PM)
April 10 at St. Mary’s School (9 AM), Bingham Memorial School (10:30 AM), and Bridport Central School (1:15 PM)
In addition to the BCA Residency performances, which have yet to be confirmed.

See all of our great programs by watching our SymphonyKids DVD. This five-minute clip show features footage from our Musicians-in-the-Schools groups, the Musical Petting Zoo, and our Orchestral Youth Concert, CREATE.

To book a SymphonyKids program in your school, contact Eleanor Long at (802) 864-5741 x 14 or e-mail Eleanor at vso dot org.
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The VSO asks Soovin Kim and Nancy Dimock five questions

Noted American violinist Soovin Kim will be the guest soloist for the forthcoming Vermont Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday, March 8 at the Flynn Center in Burlington at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, March 9 at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland at 4 p.m. Join us beginning at 6:30 p.m. on March 8 for desserts generously provided by Mirabelle's in downtown Burlington. Renew your Masterworks subscription that evening or become a new subscriber and enjoy a complimentary beverage on the VSO. Following this reception, join host David Ludwig, our New Music Advisor and composer-in-residence, and guests Jaime Laredo and Alan Jordan for a "Town Meeting," where information regarding the exciting 2008/2009 season will be announced. All ticket holders for the March 8 concert are invited to attend this free event and are encouraged to participate in the question-and-answer session to follow. The Rutland Sunday Matinee Series concert is preceded by Musically Speaking at 3 p.m., our preconcert talk featuring the guest artists providing entertaining insight into the composers, the music, and themselves. Vermont Youth Orchestra alumnus Soovin Kim returns to Vermont to team with his former teacher, VSO Music Director Jaime Laredo, who will conduct the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor by Jean Sibelius. This exciting concert also includes Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish” by Robert Schumann and Radiance by VSO composer-in-residence David Ludwig. VSO Principal Oboist Nancy Dimock will perform as oboe soloist. Stick around after the concert on Saturday night for a signing with Soovin Kim. His CD, Paganini: 24 Caprices, will be on sale in the Flynn Center lobby. Subscribers to the Sunday Matinee Series in Rutland are invited to a recpetion at Three Tomatoes in downtown Rutland following the concert where they can rub elbows with Jaime, Soovin, and others.

Soovin Kim is an exciting young player who, building on the early successes of his prize-winning years, has emerged as a mature artist, equally gifted in concerto, recital, and chamber music repertoire. Born in the United States (and raised across Lake Champlain in northern New York) into a family of non-musicians, he was given a violin at age 4, at his request. At 15, he was accepted to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and ultimately moved to the Curtis Institute of Music where he studied with Jaime Laredo and received his Bachelor of Music Degree in 1999. He has worked with some of the finest pedagogues and artist-teachers in the world blending qualities from various violin traditions. His musical activities encompass a wide range of repertoire from Bach to the works of living composers. Soovin Kim’s fifth recording is about to be released. Today he plays on a 1709 Stradivarius, the “ex-Kemper.” We asked Soovin five questions about his life as a professional musician.

VSO: As a professional musician, you probably don't find yourself at home too often. What item(s) can't you leave home without (except for your instrument and concert dress, naturally!).
SK: Unfortunately, my first responses are: laptop, cellphone, and organizer. Every once in a while this also includes an iPod, microphone, headphones for Studying music or listening to edits of recordings. And of course all of the necessary chargers. I guess all of these were designed to improve our quality of life and the laptop is certainly essential for checking weather.com each morning before getting dressed! I love that. But I find it amazing how these gadgets have become essential to living a dynamic life with the rest of the world. A day or so without email makes the next day of emailing that much worse. Maybe I should just close my account...

I am always carrying a pile of music around with me, the music I am playing on that trip as well as pieces I am playing in the future and then occasionally new repertoire that I'm just interested in learning for my own sake. A very fancy seat pad and neck pillow for my "aging" body on long plane trips also always go in the suitcase. Sunglasses, passport, vitamins, Sonicare, hair product, umbrella...are you sure you want to hear more?! :-)

VSO: Do you have a pre-performance ritual? How do you deal with nerves?
SK: I generally like to be at the hall and stay put so I can prepare quietly and slowly for the concert - maybe 90 minutes would be ideal. But often this can't happen for one reason or another and so we all have to make do with whatever time we have. Getting "warmed" up emotionally is a challenge for every performer and I spend that time trying to get into that state of being. Visualizing the hall, the people, and most importantly the music in general helps this focusing process.

I practice slowly to try to gather myself and then try to "perform" the music as the concert time approaches. I never eat a full meal backstage beforehand or I would fall asleep. Coffee is always appreciated!!

I am philosophical about nervousness. If it is truly nervousness it is usually because I am not prepared enough and in that case I deserve to be horribly anxious! If that's not the case then that flutter is usually an added excitement at sharing the great music with the other musicians on stage and the audience. This excitement will only enhance the performance with that magic that distinguishes concerts from practicing.

VSO: If you could be Maestro for a day, what would you program?
SK: First of all, I would not be Maestro!! I will never subject myself to that! And if I were Maestro only for one day then I had better program something easy because that's not much practice! But I know what you are asking. I can't put an actual program together right now but the first pieces I would be interested in doing would be Beethoven 5th Symphony, Brahms 3rd and 4th Symphonies, Tchaikovsky String Serenade, and Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. What an impossible question!

VSO: If you weren't a musician, what would you be doing?
SK: Maybe wishing I were a musician?! Unless I were a Major League Baseball general manager. Or a ridiculously talented writer.

VSO: What's your favorite aspect of Vermont?
SK: It is home for me. I grew up in Plattsburgh, NY but for me that was always an extension of Vermont. So many of the people closest to me either live in Vermont, are from Vermont, or spend a lot of time in Vermont. It never ceases to amaze me how many remarkable people there are in such a small area!

Nancy Dimock regularly performs throughout the northeast. She has served as principal oboist of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, has performed on the Prairie Home Companion radio show and PBS Great Performances television broadcast, and on numerous recordings. We asked her five questions about her life as a professional musician.

VSO: As a professional musician, you probably don't find yourself at home too often. What item(s) must be with you at all times? (except for your instrument and concert dress, naturally!)
ND: Toothbrush, reeds, reed tools and tuner are necessities for my instrument, and I usually have a bottle of water and an energy bar with me as well.

VSO: Do you have a pre-performance ritual? How do you deal with nerves?
ND: I try to spend some quiet time before I play studying my part/the score. That helps calm me down, usually. If I'm really nervous, I try to remind myself that what I'm doing is fun and I need to make a connection with the music and the audience, so letting nerves get in the way of that would be fruitless.

VSO: If you could be Maestro for a day, what would you program?
ND: Assuming that I would get to perform in the orchestra and not have to conduct (that would NOT be good!), I'd love to play Ibert's Escales (Ports of Call), Stravinsky's Symphony in C, and the Mozart Gran Partita.

VSO: If you weren't a musician, what would you be doing?
ND: Something in science, though at this point, I have no idea what. Probably something in the chemistry/biology field.

VSO: What's your favorite aspect of Vermont?
ND: The state itself is lovely, of course, and it's wonderful to get to see it during all four seasons, but what keeps me playing with the VSO is the people-- both the people in the orchestra and the organization, and the people I've met because of my work with the VSO.
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David Ludwig Radiance (and his answers to five of our questions)

David Ludwig (1972- )

Radiance was written during my time at the Yaddo Artist Colony in Saratoga, NY, in the summer of 2003. That area of the world is alive with glowing, radiant things in the summertime, and these fireflies, stars, long sunsets, and burning campfires became one with the piece and inspired the title. I wanted to capture the warm evening and all of its incandescent surroundings in this short work for oboe and string orchestra.

The piece itself is rather simple, like an extended song or, more appropriately, a nocturne serenade. The oboe opens with its own motive that is then echoed in the strings in a chorale texture. The motive transforms and develops over the course of the work, as the music alternates between chorale writing and a singing aria-like passage with the soloist. The climax is hushed and quiet, like a hazy summer night.

The Richmond Symphony commissioned Radiance, and premiered it in 2003 with oboist Michael Lisicky and Mark Russell Smith conducting. The Vermont Youth Orchestra also performed it at their Carnegie Hall concert in 2005.

--David Ludwig

VSO: As a professional composer, you probably don't find yourself at home too often. What item(s) must be with you at all times?
DL: Well, actually I'm at home quite a bit! That is, when I'm not teaching or traveling. But my home space is my workspace (like the stage for an instrumentalist), so I can tell you what's with me at all times here at home: my blue lead pencils, artsy fun erasers, a ruler, of course music paper, a stand for the piano, the cat, and a mug of coffee.

VSO: Do you have a pre-performance ritual? How do you deal with nerves? Do composers get nervous before one of their pieces is played?
DL: I get very nervous for performances! Several times friends have asked me why I get nervous if there's nothing I can do about the performance. I say, "that's exactly WHY I get nervous in the first place!" It doesn't matter if it's an elementary school choir or a good orchestra in Carnegie Hall, I just get nervous. I've learned to cope with it better in the past years and sort of pretend like I'm not there in a sort of "out-of-body" experience disassociation. That way, it can be more like, "oh look at that composer looking nervous!"

VSO: If you could be Maestro for a day, what would you program?
DL: I have been a Maestro for a day...that's a great question, anyway! I would program a concert in exactly the way they used to be programmed – all freshly composed contemporary works and one older piece to serve as an interesting contextualizing contrast. This is how it was for Beethoven – all of his concerts were new music with one old piece on it! Now it's quite the reverse, with all old music and one new piece (maybe) or some at time token nod to the 20th Century. (I'm sorry, but Prokofiev on a program does not fill a "modern work" quota!) It would require the same sort of paradigm shift back, and there would be great resistance, but ultimately understanding and a new kind of enthusiasm about classical music that it could use now. Music has completely changed from a vibrant and active, living art form, to one that is mostly about preserving literature. Let's leave that to the libraries and museums and zillions of recordings of this music!

My uncle Peter Serkin has been presenting programs with a very wide mix of pieces – from early Medieval and Renaissance music arranged for piano, to Bach, to the most "contemporary" and sophisticated works, and then with a large Beethoven sonata to finish. Aside from being really exciting, it allows for a wonderful sense of context as the listener sees threads that run deeply through the long and rich history of Western music. I think this is a pretty great approach, too.

VSO: If you weren't a composer, what would you be doing?
DL: Jeez, this is tough. I always liked the law, but I always liked writing more. The problem is that I am already a writer in a way, so that wouldn't be another profession.

Ah, yes, I would be the third baseman for the Phillies this season (since Lowell wouldn't come down from Boston for 50 mil – I would do it for half that!).

VSO: What's your favorite aspect of Vermont?
DL: That's a whole essay in and of itself! I just feel – and always have – a closeness to Vermont. I remember as a little boy driving up to spend the holidays with my grandparents. It would get colder and colder on the drive, but also more open and clear – more free! My mother would always point out the one room school house where she went to school and the maple taps on all the trees. I feel close to people I know here in Vermont. I feel close to the social beliefs and the social consciousness of people I've known in Vermont. But it's the value in culture – the investment in the arts that is the thing I like the most about Vermont.
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Sibelius Violin Concerto

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in d minor
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Sibelius styled himself a “dreamer and poet of nature…I love the mysterious sounds of the fields and forests, water and mountains.” One is struck by the visual image conjured by the mention of Sibelius’ boyhood habit of perching on a huge rock by a lake to play his violin, a veritable Nordic (violin-playing) Pan. Fierce nationalism and reverence for Finnish history and myth, particularly the epic Kalevala, were also fundamental ingredients in his musical creations.

The breeziness, breadth and freedom of a young man in his prime – this is what is heard in Sibelius’ first two symphonies, bursting with the indestructibility and self-assurance of youth. A distinct transformation takes place in the third symphony, however, and the years of change between the second and third symphonies are precisely those during which Sibelius crafted his only violin concerto, written in 1903, rewritten, and published in 1905. Sibelius suffered from ear disease that threatened him with total deafness. The “Nordic faun” was forced to come down off his rock to face his own mortality, and the ensuing compositions reflected some morbidity, but more importantly, reflected a refinement and conciseness of statement, a control which yielded music of a more individual and personal nature.

Sibelius began to show increasing respect for conventional forms, and despite its modern character, the violin concerto belongs to the romantic tradition of the 19th century. The rhapsodic mood of the first movement (Allegro moderato) is set in the melodic sweep of the first theme, spread out over thirty bars in a chant by the solo violin over a somber background of muted and divisi violins, soon echoed by the woodwinds. A second, more lyrical subject is introduced by the dark sound of the celli and bassoons, later taken up by the soloist. These themes grow and develop, providing a background for virtuoso display which always remains an organic part of the whole.

The second movement (Adagio di molto) starts with a poignant phrase in thirds for the woodwinds, and the violin begins a theme of tender melancholy. The movement moves towards a great climax with the violin providing decorative figurations over an orchestral treatment of the theme, suddenly dying away.

The final movement (Allegro ma non tanto) is a strongly rhythmic rondo often perceived as a “Danse Macabre,” but interpreted by the English conductor and program annotator Donald Tovey as a “polonaise for polar bears.” Violins and celli introduce a second theme, and the solo violin displays a seemingly endless variety of violinistic fireworks against the darker, more earthbound colors of the orchestral winds and strings.
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Schumann Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish"

Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert Schumann was perhaps the quintessential Romantic composer. His work is marked by lyricism, literary or other extra-musical inspiration, and a extreme self-expression. Often his pieces had personal associations – memories, feelings, specific events – of which biographers get only glimpses from the notes in his manuscripts. In his short and often tumultuous life (most of his last three years were spent in an insane asylum) he produced an incredibly diverse body of work – symphonies, songs, chamber music, piano music, choral music – usually working extremely fast during bouts of inspiration. His wife was Clara Wieck Schumann, one of the most famous piano virtuosi of the century, and the Schumanns were good friends with Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Brahms, Liszt, and Berlioz.

For much of his career, Schumann was better known as a music critic than a composer. As a youngster, he was just as interested in poetry and literature as he was in music, and he wrote prolifically throughout his life: articles, journals, diaries (including a joint “marriage diary” with Clara), letters, etc. He founded the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and was its owner and editor from 1835 to 1844. In a sincere effort to represent a dialectic way of thinking, he created various characters from whose points of view he would write, in criticism and in private correspondence. Florestan, Eusebius, and Meister Raro represented for him the ability to hold and embrace simultaneously conflicting viewpoints, to respect the value of both instinctive emotion and calculated thought and always listen to the voice of moderation to balance the two.

During the first parts of his compositional career, Schumann tended to explore particular genres for long periods of time, writing mostly piano music in the 1830s, songs and song cycles in 1840, symphonic works in 1841, and chamber music in 1842. His third symphony, however, was composed in November and December of 1850, the last of his four published symphonies (the fourth was initially written in 1841 and revised for publication in 1851). Its common subtitle “Rhenish” was not Schumann’s, but he would likely have approved. He had just accepted the position of Municipal Music Director in the capital of the Rhine Province, Düsseldorf, and was inspired by the good-natured outlook of the people in his new home to write a symphony that would have popular appeal, one which “here and there reflects a bit of local color.” He succeeded admirably: the first performance (under his direction on February 6, 1851) was greeted with enthusiastic cheers.

The spirit of the third symphony is uplifting throughout, with themes that rise in pitch and masterful motivic development that generates consistent forward momentum. Its form is unusual, stretching the typical four-movement Romantic symphony to five. The first and last movements, marked lebhaft (lively), are traditional outer movements in their rousing characters. The second and third are less conventional in that they contrast less than the typical symphonic scherzo and adagio movements; they might even be considered more intermezzo-style pieces than full symphonic movements.

Any emotional weight that might be wanting, however, is more than made up for in the remarkable fourth movement. Originally subtitled “In the character of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony,” the additional slow movement was reported to have been inserted into the standard form in order to commemorate the elevation of Archbishop Johannes von Geissel to the rank of Cardinal at the spectacular Cologne Cathedral. The consensus of Schumann scholarship agrees, however, that the sight of the cathedral itself was the composer’s inspiration. The Cologne Cathedral was one of the largest buildings in the world at the time. Originally begun in 1248, its construction continued on and off for literally centuries; renewed civic interest and advances in construction techniques in the nineteenth century had enabled a recommencement of the work in 1842. Upon completion in 1880, the cathedral was the tallest structure in the world until the erection of the Washington Monument, in 1884, and then the Eiffel Tower. Construction was ongoing during Schumann’s visit in 1850, and the highly emotional artist was clearly awestruck. The music he wrote as a tonal portrait is unique in the orchestral literature, notable for the intensity of its overlapping counterpoint and the solemnity and grandeur of orchestral color, incorporating trombones for the first time in the piece for the traditional sound of ecclesiastical music. The rising theme of the movement, like the cathedral itself, literally reaches for the heavens, celebrating the efforts of mankind to come ever closer to God.

--Gabriel Langfur
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