Archive for October, 2007

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!

MUSIC REVIEW
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 © 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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