Lowell Liebermann’s Third Concerto has brought me to three corners of the US in a short few weeks. The Key West Symphony in Florida, did a wonderful performance with their dynamic music director, Sebrina Alfonso. The players hail from across the US, and I made many new friends. Key West has some beautiful streets to walk through, and I did some 3 miles a day of just that away from the typical tourist locations. Standing at the Southernmost tip of the US, 90 miles from Cuba, was a surreal experience. The audiences support their orchestra and enjoyed the new music very much, much due to Sebrina’s tireless dedication to this orchestra, which she founded.
Next was the Southwesternmost premiere, with the San Diego Symphony. I confessed to Maedtro Jahja Ling, that it did indeed take 15 years to finally make music together. It was well worth the long wait. Jahja is a warm and generous man, and wonderful musician. It was the beginning of a warm friendship, and the orchestra played superbly. The Gaslamp district in San Diego is a delightful potpourri of restaurants, of which I only sampled the night before I left. I also met a young man who is a pianist and also works for Qualcomm. I offered to teach him and he played splendidly through Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantaisie and some of Chopin’s Etudes from Opus 10. He tossed off the first two like child’s play. I also taught a master class at the university, and the playing was on an extremely high level. I am sure the balmy weather has to agree with everyone that lives there.
Next up was Anchorage, Alaska. For this trip, my wife and sons joined me. It was a school break and a working vacation. Firstly, the Anchorage Symphony played beautifully, led by their energetic conductor, Randall Craig Fleischer. He did an amazing job of getting the orchestra to play on a higher and higher level from the first rehearsal to the concert. We enjoyed this concert so much, and I look forward to collaborating with Randy with his other two orchestras. He’s full of spirit, which is evident in his rehearsal and concert style. For the vacation portion, we were scheduled to take a guided tour to the south of Anchorage, but due to an avalanche, roads and tourist spots were closed. We decided to take the guided tour north of Anchorage. Mind you, it snowed in New York while it was a balmy 40 degrees in Alaska! The tour included a magnificent view of the Chugatch mountains, windeing up the Hatcher’s Pass to a lodge for lunch. The views are unbelievable. On to the Musk Ox farm, which was remarkable in that these prehistoric animals faced extinction. At one time, they came from Canada via New Jersey, to Alaska. There, they bred and multiplied. The undercoat, Quiviut, is very expensive, and they send the undercoat to native Alaskans to make clothing with, hats, scarves, etc. It is the warmest outer clothing you can wear, and the prices do reflect that. The animals are interesting, in that they are bovine, but also have traits of the bull, as they ‘butt heads’. The oldest musk ox, a male, stared at me, and I stared back with the greatest respect for the eldest of the oxen.
We rented a car one day, and visited the Alaska Zoo, and on another day, drove the southern route on Seward Highway to the Turnagin Arm–an amazing sight! The warnings of falling rocks and avalanches was a bit unnerving, but the view more than made up for that. We did drive through the Wildlife Conservation Center, though it probably should have been closed to visitors. We got stuck in nasty ice chunks, and that the family of bear were just over the fence, didn’t make life easier! Had the roads been better, we would have enjoyed the experience more, but the animals are varied and quite interesting to see from your car. Just after the brief visit to Girdwood, we drove on to see if the Portage Glacier might be visible. I didn’t know to take the turn off on Portage Glacier Road, and found my way to a sign reading, ‘Welcome to the Kenai Peninsula’. I noticed the trees covered in snow, and the mountains glowing in the sunlight. It was absolutely breathtaking. My wife thought it might be a good idea to go back, since the roads were getting icy and we apparently missed a turn somewhere–and, we had a flight that night back to New York! Alaska is quite spectacular–I would like to see it in the summertime and visit the other cities as well.
After returning to New York on the 25th, I hopped a flight from New York on the 26th to Albuquerque via Houston–and I am writing this late at night the 26th while these details are still fresh in my mind. I last performed with the New Mexico Symphony in the late 1980s and 1990. The New Mexico Symphony will also play the Liebermann Third Concerto, and after this, it’s back to Springfield, Mass. for Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto next week, and then Leroy Anderson’s Concerto, Keith Emerson’s Concerto, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F throughout the US.
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Last night’s concert with the Charleston Symphony was perhaps the most emotionally charged of any I have ever performed. David Stahl led his orchestra so splendidly. We had a double rehearsal the day before, and it was a rather long day’s wait until we performed the piece after intermission at 9:15pm. After I went through countless passages on a Yamaha upright in the Green Room, I sat down to play the piece, and felt this amazing focus of emotuional energy take me over–before the orchestra even began. When the first notes sounded, I could feel my eyes well up a bit. Sure, there is a history of the Rach 3 and me. I learned it in 1981, and in 1982, I studied it with Adele Marcus, who has taught it to all of her best prize-winning students. There was a concerto competition at Juilliard, and Rach 3 was one of them. Adele didn’t wish for me to enter, and said, ‘I know how you will play this someday, and now is not the time’. I was crushed, of course, and did not enter. Fortunately, the year after, I won the concerto competition for the Prokofiev 2nd Concerto. In 1984, I entered a major competition in Europe and missed the finals by a half point–Rach 3, again. I witnessed another pianist play itn in the final round and take second prize. Fortunately, though, I won the Kapell competition in 1985 with the Prokofiev 2nd concerto. But the stigma of not getting this opportunity to play Rach 3 would haunt me. It was finally in 1996 that this opportunity came not once, but twice. I played it with my friend George Del Gobbo conducting the Lake Forest Symphony–first time for me! Shortly after, with my Bulgarian conductor friend, Ivan Anguelov, with the Istanbul State Symphony. Two years later, with my friend (and quasi brother!) Stuart Malina, and the Greensboro Symphony, which cemented our long-lasting friendship. Stuart suggested me to David Stahl, and here we are, ten years later, performing Rach 3 in Charleston!
I had found out just two hours prior to the concert in Charleston through a google search that an older friend had passed. He was Neil Levenson, who wrote ‘Denise’ (recorded by Randy and the Rainbows and later, Blondie) and other pop songs. Deeper than that, Neil was one of the best pianists I ever heard. He studied with Moritz Rosenthal and his wife, of the old world pedigree, and could sit down and play anything like a seasoned artist. He studied with me briefly, and traveled often to Israel and basically lived off the royalties of his songs. Oddly, my son asked my wife what ever happened to Neil Levenson just two weeks ago–he passed, unknown to us, on January 7. How strange for my son to ask at that time. Not sure what made me reach out to find out how he is–perhaps he was sending us messages. Perhaps then it became part of my experience performing last night. The audience screamed and jumped to their feet–Iwas overwhelmed–my cup runneth over. I am sure Neil was there too–along with Adele Marcus by my side.
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Here’s a press release for the release of the Leroy Anderson Concerto–I really love this delightful concerto, and am happy to share it especially in this centennial year of Leroy Anderson’s birth:
Pianist Jeffrey Biegel has been a strong advocate and dedicated fan of Leroy Anderson’s ‘Concerto in C’, composed in 1953. Following a hearing of the concerto in 1991, Mr. Biegel approached the family of Leroy Anderson regarding the concerto. Mr. Anderson’s widow, Eleanor Anderson, sent a copy of the handwritten two-piano score along with a cassette copy recorded from radio of the concerto’s world premiere from Grant Park, Chicago, in 1953. The premiere featured Eugene List at the piano, with Mr. Anderson conducting the Grant Park Festival Orchestra. This furthered Mr. Biegel’s interest in the concerto. In 1994, he brought the concerto back to the Grant Park Music Festival for the first time since the premiere in 1953, as well as to Carnegie Hall in New York City, for the New York Premiere of the concerto with Skitch Henderson conducting his New York Pops.Since then, Mr. Biegel has brought the ‘Concerto in C’ throughout the USA, and as far as Izmir, Turkey. He recently recorded the concerto with Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. The cd sees its release in January, 2008– the first of five cds featuring the complete catalogue of the music by Leroy Anderson, also marking the centennial of Leroy Anderson’s birth in 1908. More information about Mr. Anderson can be found at his web site, www.leroyanderson.com. Mr. Biegel’s web site is www.jeffreybiegel.com. More information about Naxos is available at www.naxos.com
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While flying into Charleston, South Carolina, I realized that in bringing the mercurial ‘Rach 3′ (Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto) to Charleston, I had done the same in 2005 for the same weekend in January to the El Paso Symphony–which, by the way, has always been a top-class orchestra. Perhaps it is karma; I should make sure to book Rach 3 the same weekend every year! I am indeed excited about this collaboration with David Stahl, music director for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. It is actually Stuart Malina, music director now of the Harrisburg Symphony (and one of my best friends of all time!) whom I need to thank. After we did the Rach 3 in Greensboro in 1998, he told me he was suggesting me to David Stahl, as he was assistant conductor in Charleston in addition to his duties in Greensboro. Finally, ten years later, we will meet later today and rehearse the Rach 3. Maestro Stahl had called me from his cell phone from Germany, where he he conducts regularly, and said, ‘I hear you play the best Rach 3, and we must do it together!’ Of course, I said many pianists deliver a beautiful Rach 3–it’s hard not to, such amazing music. I agreed on the spot. I’ll report back after the experience, which I am looking forward to immensely. I was particularly taken by the beauty of the city of Charleston. Reminds me a bit of New Orleans, due to the history, and King Street, at times, reminds me of a mix of Flensburg, Germany and the Hamptons of Long Island! Very special, with a Euro-American feel. Shops closed at night, and streets were empty, much like in Europe.
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During the holiday season, I have been asked by many choral directors to compose a new Hanukah piece. There is, by far, a wide ratio between Christmas choral music and Hanukah music. As a result, I composed a ‘Hanukah Fantasy’ for SATB/piano (with an eye to get it orchestrated as well) during the holiday season and would be happy to send the Finale files with a written request via personal email requesting to see it. My email address is email@example.com.
‘Hanukah Fantasy’ includes ‘Maos Tzur’ (in Hebrew), ‘The Dreidel Song’ (in English and Yiddish), ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ (in Hebrew), and, ‘O Hanukah, O Hanukah’. (In the last piece, the piano part has a short excerpt of ‘Se-vi-von’ juxtaposed to ‘O Hanukah’). Since it is in Finale format, if you do not have the Finale program, you can download Finale Note Pad gratis to view and print the files. It was great fun to compose, especially in giving the familiar tunes a fresh harmonic palette and choral flair. When I was in high school, I remember the brilliant Robert Shaw arrangement of ‘Ezekiel Saw de Wheel’ with the vocal effect of the spinning wheel. I made a bold attempt to create a spinning dreidel effect in my piece too.
Happy and healthy New Year to everyone!
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Photo: Courtesy of Brian Ach, Copyright 2007 www.BrianAch.com
On November 1st, David Foster celebrated his birthday in New York City with his friends, family, and Andrea Bocelli and his lovely family. The Ziegfeld Theater provided the setting for the Great Performances special of Andrea Bocelli in Tuscany, which David Horn produced and David Foster worked behind the scenes and on stage. His own music is featured and is unique that it blends Italian aria with Rachmaninoff -like musical imagery. David has always respected the great composers and opera, which provides him with the ability to transform these genres into his own wonderful individual style.
I met David through a fax. Through a channel of people starting with my friend, Keith Emerson, it was Keith’s suggestion that I send my pop music to David somehow. It was like Glinda telling Dorothy to find the Wizard of Oz to get home. Through Atlantic Records, I found my way to David’s then personal assistant, who told me to fax my ’stuff’ to their office. At the time, my web site featured my 1997 audio/video recital online. A few days passed, and my answering machine had this unbelievable message which David left, something like, “Hey man, if that’s you playing, call me”. I did, and several months went by and I visited David in Malibu and played my music for him, he coached me, and listened to me play Chopin’s ‘Ballade no. 1′. I have tremendous respect for David as a pop music composer, arranger, producer and in general, he is perhaps ‘the’ most generous man on the planet. He gives his time to as many people as he can humanly do, and has a foundation that raises millions of dollars to help families with children needing organ transplants.
David decided to throw himself a birthday bash in NYC just after the Ziegfeld show, to celebrate his birthday and to celebrate the collaboration with the great tenor, Andrea Bocelli. To listen to Mr. Bocelli in the concert-documentary, reveals his great gifts. He has an enormous range, in register and sound. He builds songs like architectural creations, taking you from the start and leaving you in a wonderful place each time. My wife and I met with him and he is warm, and kind. His aura is stellar, and you feel like you are with someone who cares about everything and everyone he comes in contact with. David’s girlfriend, Yolanda, joined David for the celebration. She is elegant, charming, and reveres David in a warm and beautiful way.
To celebrate David’s birthday, he asked some his friends to perform (on the spot!), which was spontaneous, and brought out the best performances we could offer. I chose Chopin’s best known ‘Polonaise in A-flat Major’, perhaps the safest piece for me to play considering David invited the top record executives on the planet who were sitting 10 feet away! They are the best in the biz and were as approachable as anyone I could imagine. The great songwriter, Neil Sedaka, sang and played a delicious medley of the songs we grew up on. Neil was also a pupil of Adele Marcus at The Juilliard School in the 1950s, and I also studied with the great Adele Marcus from 1979-85. We share a special connection, and we talked about Ms. Marcus during the party. There were other marvelous performers, and then David accompanied Andrea which was a magical event. To be within 25 feet of this voice is a special experience indeed. Happy Birthday, David Foster!
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This season has been, to date, devoted to performances of the “LL3″. What’s the “LL3″? A new car, a new enzyme, a new train, a moon of Pluto? No–it’s a concerto. It’s Lowell Liebermann’s Third Concerto. As students at Juilliard, we had short codes for pieces, like ‘Rach 3′, ‘Rachy 3′, ‘Prok 2′, ‘Prok 3′, ‘Rach 2′, ‘Tschaik 1′. I think LL3 is cool. I also find the piece to be quite remarkable, as this weekend brought me to two cities with excellent orchestras to perform it.
The Columbus Symphony in Georgia is one of 18 orchestras that co-commissioned the new concerto. I met their music director, George Del Gobbo in Lake Forest, IL in the mid-1990s. We performed the ‘Rach 3′ (Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto), and stayed in contact after the performance. George invited me to perform Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto in Columbus, GA in the late 1990s. During 2004, the orchestras agreed to represent Georgia to participate in the Liebermann Third Concerto project. When we first worked together in Columbus, they did not have the concert hall they have today, though it was a very fine orchestra. This weekend was an eye-opener for me. Returning after nine years and walking through a brand-new concert hall and arts center was like stepping into the new century–literally. The orchestra played the first rehearsal nearly at concert level–quite remarkable. George is a perfect collaborator–always there, never a worry. He’s been the music director for this orchestra for some twenty years. People come from far and wide just to work with him. He has a light sense of humor, which helps get things fixed and concert ready quickly. The Columbus State school is part of the arts center, and is a beautiful building. It was remarkable that Jon Kimura (‘Jackie’) Parker was spending a good deal of time with the students in master classes and collaborative chamber music concerts. We were pupils of Adele Marcus from 1979-into the 1980s. It’s hard to believe we go back nearly 30 years! I caught some of his teaching–fantastic! It was a very special feeling performing the ‘LL3′ knowing my friend was listening–with the same kind of ears our teacher had. I knew he was listening and understanding everything the new piece had to offer. I left with a wonderful feeling that Columbus has a wonderful new concert hall, a fabulous conductor, and a strong audience group. I do hope to be back there soon!
Early rise the next morning at 5am for a drive to Atlanta, flight to Detroit, connection to Traverse City, Michigan, and rehearsal at 5pm. I was in Traverse City last in 1995. Due to my friendship with Robert Hanson, music director of the Elgin Symphony in Illinois, he brought me to Traverse City in 1995 for the Grieg Piano Concerto. His associate, David Holland conducted that performance very well indeed. We performed in the Lars Hockstead Auditorium, which is part of the high school. It was a lovely performance, and David did a wonderful job–and he is in the viola section of the current orchestra. When Kevin Rhodes, music director for the Traverse City Symphony, brought his Springfield (MA) orchestra on board the ‘LL3 train’, he also brought the Traverse City Symphony into the project as well. I must say, the first rehearsal was startling, in that they played it so remarkably well. I am finding the level of the orchestras in the cities I had visited over a decade ago, to be playing on an extremely high level. The players out there are truly amazing. Our concert today is at Interlochen–I have never been there, and I look forward to performing there.
On another curious note, when the Ellen Taaffe Zwilich project, ‘Millennium Fantasy’ was assembled in 1998-2000, the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra joined the commission. Matthew Hazelwood was their music director, and I was told that Matthew is quite busy these days as the music director for the orchestras at Interlochen. I found his phone number and we chatted for a while–he lives in Traverse City! We worked together in 2000, so it would be rather special to see him if possible while here. He has a performance today as well with his orchestra off premises, but hopefully, we can find each other later on somehow. What is interesting is that we mark the passing of time by how much older our children are! (We get older too!)
In summation, I always love to perform the standard repertoire, as there are enough sandwiched in between the new pieces. But what I find truly gratifying is that these new commissioning projects have brought me to many new places, working with wonderful musicians and music directors, and forging new friendships in music. I find it amazing how cities and orchestras get better over long spans of time.
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Many years ago, I had been in contact with the South Dakota Symphony. I had heard very nice things about their conductor, Henry Charles Smith. Although we had not had the pleasure to work together, I was able to connect with their current music director, Delta David Gier. I initially met Maestro Gier in Bridgeport, CT, when he was assisting his teacher, Gustav Meier. We kept our contacts up, and when it came time to approach orchestras and conductors to join the Lowell Liebermann Third Piano Concerto consortium, David was a natural fit.
The South Dakota Symphony has grown enormously from what they have shared with me. Their Executive Director, Tom Bennett, is a very experienced executive director and a really nice fellow, who has helped to raise this orchestra to new heights throughout the city, along with David in his musical aspirations. I had the special pleasure to get to know Mary Sommervold. Mary has helped enormously to bring the orchestra where it is today. The relatively new Washington Pavilion, is quite a stunning hall. Native quartz rock juxtaposing woods create a wonderful ambience along with purple seating. A former high school, they dug out the center of this building, added two stories and made it soundproof from the rest of the building. The orchestra has excellent musicians, and David has been able to maintain their excellence with standard repertoire, and introduce new works to the orchestra and the community. Sioux Falls is quite a lovely city, with some wonderful sculptures adorning the streets.
I am eagerly awaiting our performances this evening and tomorrow, and will report about it shortly thereafter.
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In the late 1980s, I expressed my intense desire to perform with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. After meeting the brilliant Beethoven specialist and performer of the 32-Sonata cycle, Anne Koscielny, when she was a juror for the William Kapell Competition which awarded me the first prize in 1985, I was invited to perform on Anne’s Hartford Piano Society series several times. There, I also met Anne’s husband, the amazing pianist and teacher, Raymond Hanson–a pupil of Harold Bauer himself! Ray gave me one incredible lesson on Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ and Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’ during a visit to their peaceful farm in Western Massachusetts. Such vivid memories!
Anne promised she would speak in my behalf with Michael Lankester, then music director for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. I finally had the opportunity and great pleasure to perform with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. It was my first performance of the Rachmaninoff ‘Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini’. Then Artistic Administrator, Toby Tolokan, drove me back to my hotel and was as cordial as ever. (He is now in Indianapolis). He was responsible for my re-engagement the following season with Gottschalk’s “L’Union” with ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Donald Pippin, the great Broadway conductor and then Music Director of Radio City Music Hall conducted. (I met Don through his first teacher, Evelyn Miller in Knoxville–that’s another story for another time–dear Evelyn, also a friendship from the Kapell competition, passed recently. I had a memorable lunch visit in Knoxville’s ‘Regas’ restaurant to remember my first visit to Knoxville when Evelyn first took me there. If you go, Regas has the definitive Red Velvet cake! And a fantastic orchestra too!!)
While organizing the Lowell Liebermann Third Concerto project, I contacted Edward Cumming, current music director for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. We began a cordial email friendship, which resulted in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s participation in the project. I met Edward for the first time this past weekend, and he is indeed a warm and generous musician and neat guy. He conducted the score like a veteran–and had not heard the demo cd of the piece either! I was absolutely amazed. At this concert, who attended other than Anne Koscielny and her husband, Ray, who had turned 88 the day before. I told Ray, “You see, you lived a year for every key on the piano! But what about the Imperial Bosendorfer with the extra keys? You have a ways to go!” It was a homecoming of sorts, from over 20 years of friendship–all a result of going to a piano competition in 1985! By the way, Anne is performing the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas in Lancaster in 2008. A must see!
I humbly include the review in the Hartford Courant and hope to see as many friends at the concerts I will be giving this season!
Echoes Of Evangelical Revivals Heard At Bushnell
By JEFFREY JOHNSON SPECIAL TO THE COURANT
October 7, 2007
If it were possible to dial into hidden wavelengths in the harmony of the spheres and hear the vibrations of New England’s 19th-century evangelical revivals, it would sound like Charles Ives’ third symphony. This music opened the Hartford Symphony’s first program in the 2007-08 Masterworks Series in Mortensen Hall in the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Ives constructed his symphony by weaving and blurring hymn tunes. They are magnified, layered, transformed. Conductor Edward Cumming shaped the extended lyrical development of the work with clearly defined motion directed toward section closings. He even chose a slower-than-usual tempo for the second movement, with less emphasis on features such as its March episode than on the continual development of melodic gestures. The final movement was balanced with care, and the complex textures created by fragmented ideas called “shadow lines” moving against the rich polyphony created an ecstatic close. Ives intended for church bells to be sounded at the closing of the work, and scored quietly played orchestral bells. His editor, the composer Henry Cowell, felt that it would be closer to his intentions to play a recording of real church bells at this point in the score. The bells we heard were disappointing. They sounded like wind chimes and were too loud to produce the required atmosphere. They could almost have been the courtesy bells that signal the end of intermission.
To close the first half of the program, Jeffrey Biegel joined the orchestra for the Lowell Liebermann Piano Concerto No. 3. Biegel is the hardest-working classical musician in show business. He has a long history of developing innovative performance venues and creative commissioning formats. This new Liebermann concerto was made possible largely through his efforts. Eighteen orchestras, including the Hartford Symphony, pooled together for the commission.
The Liebermann concerto itself is a lengthy work packed full of wonderful surprises. It has been described as “accessible.” Perhaps. But it is not simple; and a good part of the apparent accessibility comes from construction with a divine pacing. Several strongly written lyrical passages surface amid frantic passagework in the first movement. The fugue theme late in the movement is extracted from solo piano music heard earlier with figuration transformed in the strings.
The second movement is a passacaglia. Layered and widely spread pianistic textures created the challenge. Biegel played with delicacy and an ethereal flair. The second movement also has a saloon-music cadenza that anticipates a ragtime episode in the final movement. The final movement is military music gone berserk. It is hard to describe without using the “S” word (Shostakovich), but it does provide a convincing close to a substantial concerto.
This is a work with a defined musical personality and the substance to have a shot at making a regular presence in this competitive repertory. At any rate, Biegel will show pianists of the future how this work is played.
After intermission, we heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. Cumming ramped up the volume in the first movement, creating a sense of energy surplus that helped power the symphony through the relatively short inner movements and well into the finale. Cumming has an engaging sense of how to unfold musical gestures to emphasize the rhetorical sense of this repertoire. The finest moments came at the irrational interlude in the coda leading the music suddenly into F-sharp minor. From there to the end, the orchestra sounded like a carnival; just as Beethoven would have wanted.
Copyright Â© 2007, The Hartford Courant
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During an interview with Sandra Okamoto in Columbus, GA today, Sandra asked how we can further young audiences at the symphony orchestra concerts. I shared that when I was in Knoxville recently, they had a blogger’s reception following the performance. They are friends, colleagues and love to share their ideas. Wouldn’t it interesting if orchestras can create a Young People’s Blogger Society at their Symphony? This can be incorporated into the school music programs, where students can learn about the composers, the music and soloists in the concerts they will attend. The symphony orchestra might have a special Young People’s Blog reception following a performance, and the children would have the opportunities to meet with their fellow bloggers and make new friends. What better way than this to build future audiences by using the technology of today, used by children every day in their learning and socializing.
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