Friday, March 08, 2013

Humboldt Symphony Performs Beethoven’s Greatest Concerto

 Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Handel’s familiar Water Music and a rarely heard piece that evokes the jazz age of the 1920s headline the Humboldt Symphony concerts at Fulkerson Hall on March 8 and 10.

 “Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ is his last and probably greatest concerto,” said Humboldt Symphony conductor Paul Cummings, “and one of the greatest ever written.” The Symphony performs the first movement, which at twenty minutes “is as long as some complete concertos,” Cummings added. “It uses a very full orchestra—strings and wind sections as well as horns and trumpets. Though the piano has virtuoso solo passages, it also engages in dialogue with the orchestra in a kind of call and response format.”

 As winner of the HSU student concerto competition, Levi Walls performs at the piano.

 “The Creation of the World” by Darius Milhaud reflects the artistic energy of 1920s Paris, as American jazz was becoming a European craze. “This piece is very challenging to play, very complex,” Cummings said. “Frankly it isn’t a piece we would normally play, and it may well be the first time it’s been played here. But it happens that this semester we have the perfect combination of advanced players on all the featured instruments.”

 Also on the program is Handel’s Water Music Suite, which contains many of his most recognizable melodies, Cummings said. “It’s a very popular piece with a nice musical flow.” 

 The Karelia Suite is a 19th century Romantic work by Jean Sebelius. “This is beautiful writing for the whole orchestra, characteristic of Sebelius,” Cummings said. “ It makes great use of French horns, with English horn, clarinet and oboe solos. The entire second movement is only strings and woodwinds, while the third movement is one of the more famous orchestra marches ever.”

 The Humboldt Symphony performs on Friday March 8 and Sunday March 10 at 8 p.m. in the Fulkerson Recital Hall on the HSU campus in Arcata. $7/$3, free to HSU students. Tickets: 826-3928 or at the door.   Conducted by Paul Cummings, produced by the HSU Music Department.
Humboldt Symphony Conductor's Notes

Edited from an interview with Paul Cummings.

Not necessarily in program order:

 Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto #5 (1811.) Called The Emperor, this is the last he wrote for piano and orchestra. It’s considered his greatest piano concerto, and one of the greatest ever written. Levi Walls, the winner of our concerto competition, will perform on piano.

 We’re playing the first movement, which is one of the longest first movements written for a concerto up to this time. It’s about 20 minutes long, and there are entire concertos from this period that are not 20 minutes long. That’s rather remarkable and placed demands on Beethoven’s audience. The critics panned the concerto, partly because of its length. It has symphonic proportions—the dimensions and structures of a symphony—but it is actually a concerto. It’s considered a trailblazing work.

 It uses a very full orchestra—full strings and wind sections as well as horns and trumpets. And as my colleague Daniela Mineva points out, it’s one of the first concertos to treat the orchestra as an equal partner with the soloist. The orchestra is not in the subordinate role of simply accompanying the piano soloist—rather you’ll hear the orchestra on an equal footing. Often the orchestra and piano even dialogue with one another, in a kind of call and response format. The piano nevertheless has several cadenzas in this movement. Even from the opening 10 measures it’s very clear that this is a work that features the piano soloist. But when the piano is not playing cadenzas, there are equal forces at work.

 Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote this concerto. It’s said he absorbed the music through the vibrations of the piano strings he felt through the floor. So it’s all the more remarkable when you hear these opening measures where the piano is playing with such incredible technique, to realize this was a deaf composer who wrote this music. And if you’ve ever wondered what kind of pianist Beethoven was, this concerto really highlights the amazing piano technique.

 I’m in awe when I play this music. I can relate to composers like Sibelius and Milhaud, but when you stand in front of the orchestra for this piece, it’s just amazing music. The craftsmanship is impeccable, the music just seems to work for all the instruments he wrote for, and then there’s the synergy that is more than the sum of its parts. The cumulative effect is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Our student players love it as well.

Jean Sibelius: Karelia Suite (1893).  This is a three movement work for full orchestra: strings, woodwinds, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba and percussion. It’s very beautiful orchestral writing, which Sibelius is known for. It’s in the style of European Romanticism of the 1880s. Sibelius was never accused of being ahead of his time. He was like J.S. Bach—someone who uses the traditional harmonic language and adapts that to his own writing.

 This piece makes great use of all four French horns. You’ll hear them prominently displayed in both the first and last movements. As a late Romantic work this is a great challenge for us because it benefits from a larger string section than we have. There’s also beautiful writing for woodwinds, with solos for English norn, oboe, clarinet. The second movement uses only strings and woodwinds. Listeners may recognize the last movement of this suite, the march, because it’s one of the more famous orchestral marches.

 George Frideric Handel: Water Music Suite (1717.)  This is one of his famous and often performed works. Even if the title isn’t familiar, audiences will probably recognize some of Handel’s most popular melodies.

 Originally this piece was much longer, written for the full Baroque orchestra, so there were no clarinets or trombones or tubas. In the 19th century an Irish conductor and composer, Hamilton Harty, selected six movements from probably 30 or more that Handel wrote, and created the Water Music Suite. This was an art in itself, to cull it down to only six and put them in an order with a nice musical flow to it. He also added some dynamic and articulation markings, and parts for clarinets and flutes. There was a whole school of conductors who did this kind of thing so they could play Baroque pieces with modern orchestras.

 Darius Milhaud: La Creation Du Monde (The Creation of the World.) (1922-23.)  We’re doing part of this fascinating work from the 1920s. Milhaud was in Paris, as were so many great artists, musicians, dancers and theatre artists. There were several famous collaborations centered on a theatrical or dance work, especially those created by Jean Cocteau. Among composers he brought in Stravinsky and Ravel, and ripples went out even farther to include Gershwin and Copland, who were influenced by these Parisian salons.

 This piece is a good example of this period in artistic history, especially because it incorporates jazz, that new American art form. American jazz artists were playing in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. Milhaud traveled to New York to hear more. He went to nightclubs in Harlem, and was fascinated by this new style—the improvisation, the prominent use of saxophone, the ways piano and percussion were used.

 Milhaud applied his classical and jazz crossover idioms with a story of the creation of the world based on African oral traditions. He wrote four movements but they’re meant to be played without stopping, so it flows together. He wrote for an interesting combination of instruments, basically a little chamber orchestra configuration of four strings, two flutes, an oboe, two clarinets, a bassoon, two trumpets, a trombone and a variety of percussion. True to what he learned from jazz, the saxophone is featured in many sections of this work, and the piano has an important part—it’s not just an ensemble part, but it’s intended to be heard rather than blend with the other instruments.

 This is not a piece we would typically play here. I have a strong feeling that this is the first time it will be played at HSU. The reason is that it’s difficult and challenging. The complexity comes mostly from the jazz element—the second movement is a jazz fugue. The instruments are all treated soloistically, and the players all have to be fiercely counting their rhythms. We can do it this year however because we have the perfect combination of players on all of the required instruments. We don’t necessarily have that in a typical year. But this semester there’s a perfect storm of all the advanced instrumentalists actually available. It’s a great piece of music we can’t do very often, but we can do it for these concerts.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Travels with the Symphonic Band and Jazz Orchestra 

 The HSU Symphonic Band follows Handel in the Strand with some Strange Humors, and the Jazz Orchestra takes Seven Steps to Heaven in their shared concert on Saturday March 2 in Fulkerson Recital Hall.

 It all starts with a fanfare—the Gavorkna Fanfare by Jack Stamp, performed by the Symphonic Band. “It’s a flashy piece, showing off the really good brass section we have this year,” said conductor Paul Cummings. 

Strange Humors by contemporary composer John Mackey combines Middle Eastern and African music. “This is a very exciting piece by a composer who uses a lot of rock music elements,” Cumming said. “It features Neil Bost on the djembe, a West African drum. It’s a real tour de force performance.”

 Other pieces on the program are Percy Grainger’s Handel on the Strand (“a very tuneful piece that’s fun to listen to,” Cummings said,) Old Churches, a combination of the old and new by Michael Colgrass, and Rikudim by Jan Van der Roost, a lively evocation of Israeli folk dances. 

 Then the Jazz Orchestra takes over with “Seven Steps to Heaven,” a tune made famous by Miles Davis in a new arrangement featuring vocalist Jo Kuzelka.

Soloists on other tunes include: Nev Mattinson on vibes, Josh Foster on trombone and Nick Durant on tenor sax for “Bags’ Groove,” guitarist Dan Fair and pianist Alex Espe on Fair’s arrangement of “Besame Mucho,” and bassist Steven Workman and trumpeter McKenna Smith on the Dizzy Gillespie Band tune, “Two Bass Hit.” 

 The Jazz Orchestra set also includes “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star” by Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, and “Scorpio” by Mary Lou Williams, a movement from her Zodiac Suite. “It’s a psychological portrait of one or more people Williams knew who were born under that sign,” conductor Dan Aldag explained.

 HSU Symphonic Band and Jazz Orchestra perform on Saturday March 2 at 8 p.m. in the Fulkerson Recital Hall on the HSU campus in Arcata. Tickets: $7/$3/free to HSU students with i.d. from HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door. Symphonic Band conducted by Paul Cummings, Jazz Orchestra by Dan Aldag, in a concert produced by the HSU Music Department.

Media: Humboldt State Now, Arcata Eye
Symphonic Band Conductor’s Notes
 (excerpts from an interview with Paul Cummings)

 The Symphonic Band will play five works to open the concert.

 Gavorkna Fanfare by Jack Stamp is just what it says it is—a fanfare. It’s a flashy piece—high, loud, fast and short-- that really shows off the brass section. We have a really good brass section this year so we let them take the lead in this concert. Jack Stamp is an established contemporary composer, almost exclusively for wind band, and this is a full wind band piece. It’s probably his most performed composition.

 Handel in the Strand by Percy Grainger. This was originally written for string orchestra and piano, but in 1915 John Philip Sousa asked if he could arrange it for his touring Sousa band. It became one of his concert pieces in the teens and twenties, when his band toured extensively. A lot of people looked forward to Sousa concerts in the spring and summer, so Sousa was much more famous than Grainger.

 The version we play is a more recent arrangement by Keith Brion and Loras Schissel. The Sousa band was not very kind to the many and varied contrapuntal lines of the music, especially the woodwinds. Brion and Schiseel lightened the texture so we can hear all the independent parts. Counterpoint is a big part of Grainger’s music, with its independent musical ideas happening simultaneously. This piece is very tuneful, with a melody always present. The title refers to Handel who spent most of his adult life as a composer in England. Grainger depicts this earlier time when Handel was strolling down the Strand. It’s a delightful piece.

 Old Churches by Michael Colgrass. Colgrass is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, born in 1932. He worked his way through school as a jazz drummer, and became a composer when his percussion teacher suggested he go to some classical concerts. He did, and thought he could do better. His music is widely performed by bands and orchestras throughout the world. Though he wrote this piece on commission from Bandquest, with its mission to get prominent composers to write music that high school or even junior high musicians could play, it has some complex contemporary compositional techniques. For instance, senza misura, music without measure, or music without time signature or meter in some sections of the work...There’s also some aleatoric music, or music by chance. It’s very good for college music students to have experience with these.

 The piece itself attempts to capture the mood of music performed in medieval cathedrals, with Gregorian Chant melodies, but also passages intended to emulate the congregants murmuring. That’s where some of the senza misura and aleatoric music comes in. It’s an interesting combination of the old and the new.

 Rikudim by Jan Van der Roost.  This is a collection of Israeli folk dances, but with original melodies. It’s a very engaging piece—the harmonies are very western, very modern and straightforward, but combined with exotic Middle Eastern folk melodies. The faster sections especially are very lively, fun to play and fun to listen to. You can definitely picture the dancers as you hear the music.

 Strange Humors by John Mackey.  This is the newest piece on the program, written in 2006, for a very unusual combination of instruments: string quartet and the West African drum called the djembe. Mackey wrote it while a student at Julliard, and adapted it for the Parsons Dance company. There’s an interesting YouTube video of a performance. Once again, this has Middle Eastern melodic ideas and syncopated rhythms combined with contemporary harmonies, but this time also with the percussive accompaniment of African drumming. Neil Bost on djembe is featured out in front of the ensemble—it’s quite a tour de force. John Mackey is known as a crossover composer who uses a lot of rock elements. Almost all of his music has a strong rhythmic drive, and that’s certainly the case with this piece.

Jazz Orchestra Director's Notes
by Dan Aldag

We're playing:

 Bags' Groove
Composed by vibraphonist Milt Jackson of Modern Jazz Quartet fame. (Jackson's nickname was Bags). We're playing an arrangement by John Clayton written for his band, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and featured on an album they recorded with Jackson a year before his death. Featuring Nev Mattinson on vibes, Josh Foster on trombone and Nick Durant on tenor sax.

 Seven Steps to Heaven
 Victor Feldman's tune, best known from the version on a Miles Davis album of the same name. A new arrangement by Mike Tomaro to which we've added a vocal by Jo Kuzelka.

 Besame Mucho
A new arrangement by our guitarist Dan Fair of this well-known tune, based on a small group recording by Fapy Lafertin, the gypsy jazz guitarist. Features Dan and pianist Alex Espe.

 A Mary Lou Williams composition, one movement from her 12-movement Zodiac Suite. Each movement is a psychological portrait of one or more people Williams knew who were born under that sign. Originally for piano trio, this arrangement was written by Williams for the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the mid-1940s, but they never recorded it.

 Two Bass Hit
Recorded by the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1946, written to feature the great bassist Ray Brown. We'll feature our bassist, Steven Workman, and trumpeter McKenna Smith.

 I've Told Ev'ry Little Star
A tune from 1932 by Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers. The arrangement we're playing was written by Michael Philip Mossman for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. Mossman, the former music director for Latin jazz pioneer Mario Bauza, turns the song into first a cha cha chá, and then a mambo, with some humorous twists.