Thursday, November 14, 2019

Frederic Chopin's Scherzo in C-Sharp minor, Op. 39

It has been a busy week at work, but when a faculty colleague suggested I tag along to an on-campus student recital, I decided to forego the pajama-clad TV evening I had previously planned. These would be scholarship winners performing from the Bucks County Community College School of Music, both jazz and classical. The program included Vivaldi, Vaughan Williams, Mozart, Jobim, and two of my special favorites, Amy Beach and Frederic Chopin. 

We were in attendance to hear my friend's student, Zau Grin Wawhkyung, play Chopin's Scherzo in C# minor, Op. 39. While all of the performances were quite masterful, this Chopin piece was, for me, the most impressive. My non-virtuosic, non-competent experience with placing my fingers on piano keys has taught me to be in awe of fine players who not only master complex combinations of notes, but also play them from memory. Play this part loud, use the middle pedal for these 3.6 seconds, play this part softly, bring out the middle voice in this section...the performer is using every part of their brain to make that music happen, and in the case of Chopin's Scherzo in C# minor, Op. 39, will not lose concentration for just over seven minutes. I've attended hundreds of recitals and concerts, and I'm still fascinated by the concentration required to perform a piece like this.

Frederic Chopin
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) dedicated this piece to his student, Adolf Gutmann, who I've read was not the best pianist but was a special favorite of Chopin's because his large hands allowed him to play forcefully the big left-hand chord in the sixth measure which comes back again. Chopin and I have small hands and would be forced to arpeggio that chord, meaning play the notes in quick succession rather than all at once. Chopin and I wouldn't be able to reach all of those notes at the same second. (I never mastered that technique, but Chopin must have.) Gutmann and Wawhkyung managed that big chord, and in fact, Chopin had his student Gutmann premiere the Opus 39 for his friends so that they could hear how it was supposed to sound. If you are the type of listener who would enjoy an almost measure-by-measure analysis of this piece, check out the essay I was reading:

The Scherzo in C# minor, Op. 39, was composed in part on the
George Sand
island of Mallorca where he and his partner, the writer George Sand (real name Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), lived during the winter of 1838-1839. Chopin battled tuberculosis, and the climate was supposed to be good for him. He was miserable, though, because he felt awful and his piano took forever getting to the island, and then was caught up in customs until George Sand paid a large sum of money to get it out. Since the couple was not married and had a couple of her kids with them, they had a hard time finding a place to stay. Ultimately, they resided at a privately-owned monastery in Valldemossa, living in a suite of former monks' cells. This was a productive time for the couple: she wrote a book called A Winter in Mallorca and he composed some of his famous preludes and part of the Opus 39 Scherzo. He was sick most of the time in spite of the weather, and they found their way from Mallorca to Marseilles in France where he finished the Scherzo.

From what I read in my travel literature, Mallorca has some Chopin/Sand points of interest and a museum ready for me when I eventually get there. Descendants of the family who bought Chopin's Pleyel piano when the couple left the island are partially responsible for keeping the Chopin/Sand stories alive there, and pushing the destination to the top of my travel bucket list.

This is the monastery in Mallorca where Chopin and Sand stayed

By this time you may be interested in hearing this Scherzo from Mallorca. I hope you are. I don't have a video of virtuosic student Zau Grin Wawhkyung performing it, but I can fix you up with an Arthur Rubinstein video. Listen for the high cascading notes interspersed throughout. They give the piece a magical feel, don't you think? (And don't miss the Chopin portrait on the wall!)

Monday, October 2, 2017

La Palau de la Música Catalana

La Palau de la Música Catalana was the most spectacular example of Catalan Modernist architecture that I came across in my two weeks in Barcelona. No, this is not a Gaudi building. This magnificent concert hall was designed by Gaudi's teacher Montaner. I toured this music palace with an expert guide and mesmerized group. In Europe, all guides seem to be expert and ebullent. The experience of this place, guide + architectural elements, made me feel ebullent, too.

The corner of the facade
Looking up at the facade
The box office in a column

The elaborate vestibule is visible from the outside because of the clear glass walls. In fact, part of the vestibule's fanciness is attributed to the balusters holding up the banisters and balustrade rails. The center of each baluster is made of iron painted white and this post is surrounded by glass. This combination, glass surrounded by iron, is reminiscent of the building itself--clear glass at street level and stained glass higher up, all supported by iron.

These are the balusters: iron surrounded by glass

The Palau has its own matching cafe:

This venue hosts all types of music performances except opera because there is a separate opera house a mile or so away. I was lucky enough to attend an authentic Flamenco performance here with a group of writing colleagues. (I wonder what they are writing about this experience!) In my memory are glimpses of those energetic dancers from Gran Gala Flamenco who seemed to lose themselves in their art, at times almost seeming to go into trance-like seizures. Their feet tapped and stomped exotic, complicated rhythms as a band of six musicians and one vocalist accompanied. There were silken ruffles, lots of fringe, shawls slicing through the air, and many costume changes. Some numbers features two dancers, some featured one, and some featured four. I had the feeling while watching this performance that I transcended the cartoonish cliché Flamenco and entered a world of serious art. I put aside the cliché  and became mesmerized by the performers' virtuosity. Here's a taste of this spicy art:

The Palau Música de la Catalana heightened the magic of this performance. I've never been in a concert hall that featured stained glass windows, but this hall has stained glass on either side of the auditorium and an enormous inverted dome stained glass skylight which is shaped as a drop of water forming but certainly represents the sun. I couldn't resist purchasing a scarf featuring this design at the Palau's gift shop.

Breathtaking skylight (The ladies faces around the edge are supposed to be the faces of the women's choir for whom this palace was originally built.
Whimsical mosaic-covered columns hold up the ceilings and balconies which are also covered with mosaic. The proscenium arch is lavishly decorated with (plaster?) sculptures honoring European musical innovation. Beethoven and the Valkyries are there. And the stage: underneath the massive organ pipes and around the walls of the stage are depicted in terracotta and mosaic, eighteen muses of music from all regions of the world and various eras. Each wears a costume representing her region, and each plays an instrument from classical or popular (circa 1908 when the Palau was built) music. During the tour, we visitors were allowed to wander the stage to see these musical muses close-up. They are surrounded by a barn-red porphyry--a monotone mosaic which adds a celestial touch as does feldspar in porphyry. There must be an army of dogsbodies to keep this place dusted!

A close-up of some of the muses
A longshot of the stage, organ pipes, and auditorium. Notice the stained glass on either side.
Fortunately, I toured this amazing edifice near the beginning of my Barcelona stay. I walked past the facade almost every day and admired its sculpture and mosaics and relished the thought that I was one of a few in my group who knew of the secret beauty which is concealed inside.

My walk from class every day--La Palau is on the right
Some of the others would partake of its beauty at the Flamenco performance, and I couldn't resist telling them interesting (to me) historical and architectural tidbits.

This is the Interval (Intermission) Room. Notice the columns covered with mosaic tile just outside. Each is different!
Look up! Sometimes at the tops of columns there are palms.

I want to go back immediately and experience more concerts in this palace of music and whimsy!

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Harlem Renaissance Lecture

A few weeks ago, I delivered a lecture on the Harlem Renaissance as part of the Speakers' Series at Bucks County Community College's Zlock Performing Arts Center. The talk went well from my perspective, and most of the feedback I got was positive. Some feedback was VERY positive. I thought readers might like to know how this came about and what I was thinking during the experience. If you are not interested in that, then just skim through the text to the videos!

Before I walked on stage, I was feeling that my material was old and tired and the audience was not going to be much interested. I have taught a three-week course on the music, art, literature and dance many times (six? five?) at various retirement villages and adult schools in the area, so the material was very familiar to me. I've been interviewed about the topic and asked to guest-lecture on parts for literature courses. Even though I boiled down the six hours of course material to approximately ninety of the best minutes for the lecture, I thought it was stale. I tell my Effective Speaking students: "Remember WIIFM!" This means, always imagine that the people in your audience are asking "What's in it for me?" or "Why should I bother paying attention to you?" I've always used this tip when preparing classes or lectures and it works. I guess this is my version of performance anxiety: "My lectue just isn't fresh and exciting enough! :-("

I walked over to the new podium still thinking my material is stale, and was surprised to see that the house lights were way down and I could identify no faces! This might have freaked me out except that many years ago I had this same sensation when I walked out on stage with my high school jazz band. We played to the dark. My mother was out there, I knew, but I couldn't see her. I could hear the audience's applause for solos and after our charts were over. I quickly got used to the dark auditorium just as I did at the Harlem Renaissance lecture. It's a weird sensation, but a memorable one! I'm just talking to the dark...

 I used another Effective Speaking trick when I started the lecture: the Attention Getter. This could be an interesting "hook" sentence, a poem, a joke, or it could be an attention-getting video like this...
That's Whitey's Lindy Hoppers from a movie called Hellzapoppin' and it did get the audience's attention! I played it immediately after a quick hello, and I could hear their reactions!

After a few minutes, I stopped thinking my material was stale. The audience seemed to be enjoying it, and of course it was new to them! What was I thinking?! It wasn't stale! I talked about the art of the Harlem Renaissance and the Harmon Medal which was awarded to many of the best artists.
William H. Johnson's "Jitterbugs"--I got to see this up close at the Smithsonian American Art Museum less than a week before the lecture!
The audience coaxed me on, letting me know my lecture wasn't boring at all. It's strange how the time flies by while I'm focused on speaking. Suddenly it was time to advance the Prezi visual aid, and I knew that the video to pop up next was my favorite, the Nicholas Brothers' famous dance in the movie Stormy Weather called "Jumpin' Jive." This is a two-fer: it shows Cab Calloway, one of the two famous big band leaders at the Cotton Club (the other being Duke Eliington), and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers. It's a favorite whenever I teach this course, and I'm always excited to see the class's reactions. In this case I only heard gasps and laughter and ultimately applause:

I show another two-fer video which shows Duke Ellington and his band and the one singer Duke admired over all others, Ivy Anderson.

There's music throughout this presentation, but I move on to literature somewhere after the halfway mark. My favorite video in this segment is from the 1950s, but it shows Harlem Renaissance writer/poet Langston Hughes reading his own poem, "The Weary Blues." Even though it's more recent, I like to show it because it's the poet's own and it demonstrates so well the rhythm and syncopation so characteristic of Blues Poetry.

Did you catch it? This video also shows a white jazz band accompanying Hughes's reading. That would have never happened in 1920s Harlem, but in 1950s Canada where this was taped we've evolved some. I like pointing that out to students.

I could go on and on with these videos, but then I'd be showing you my whole lecture! I can't do that--I might have to deliver it again and I want to be sure it isn't stale. I do want to show you my ending, though. I always try to end on a happy note, and for this lecture, just like the course it came out of, I show a video of Adelaide Hall.

She was a singer during the Harlem Renaissance and got her big break when another singer died before she could take a part written for her by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields in the Broadway review Blackbirds of 1928. Adelaide Hall filled in and went on to have a great career in the Harlem Renaissance and for many years after. I found a video of her singing in a small club in 1989 and this clip just makes me feel good. She was 87 at the time of filming, and I get a kick out of her holding her microphone out (just like Bruce Springsteen does) so the audience can sing the song back to her. Here's my Big Finish, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" from Blackbirds of 1928!

So the lecture ended and I heard much applause from the darkened auditorium. I exited through the backstage area and into the green room where I untangled myself from the lavalier microphone which was hooked to my waistband and threaded through one of my buttonholes. I left the contraption on the table and headed out to the hall to greet my adoring fans. The first person I bumped into was a student from my class. Thrilled that he actually showed up, I asked him what he thought of my big Attention-Getter. He laughed and said he recognized it as such, and overall was impressed with how professional the presentation was. (Wow.)

And then a woman I'd never met came up to me and complained about the term 'Harlem Renaissance': "Renaissance of WHAT?" she asked. I repeated my explanation of the term from the lecture (it was coined much later in the 1940s by a historian to describe this boom in artistic creation...) and I didn't let her comment get me down. A very tall man asked me why I chose Ethel Waters to represent the singers. He would have chosen Bessie Smith. I explained that I like Ethel Waters and especially that video I showed because then we get to see John Bubbles! (It's another two-fer.) He didn't like my answer, but disappeared as the woman and the student had, and I was free to greet the people I know who came out to support me.

I was thinking this was another teachable moment for my Effective Speaking class: there's almost ALWAYS someone who has a gripe with your speech, lecture, presentation, or workshop, no matter how well it is received by the other 98% of the audience. Make a note of their suggestions, but move on and enjoy the accolades!

Here's Ethel Waters and John Bubbles from 1929 with "Birmingham Bertha."

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Vienna in Philadelphia

In last night's dream, Yannick Nezet-Seguin was a friend of mine. We went to the Camden Aquarium with other friends who I used to hang out with when I was working on my master's degree in Music Theory in the 1980s. (I'm not sure that the Camden Aquarium was there yet, but that's not important.) Nezet-Seguin would have been about ten years old then, living in Montreal, and there's little chance I would have let him drive my friends and me through Philadelphia and over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden's Aquarium. This stuff happens in dreams and fiction, though, and it's fun to think about. We had a great time at the Aquarium, us four.
Yannick Nezet Seguin - Orquesta Filarmónica de Rotterdam, 
photo by Quincena Musical
The truth is, he's been on my mind a lot since he took over as Music Director of my beloved Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. Riccardo Muti was the director when I was in school then, and he was a hero, too. (I was behind him in line at the Barnes & Noble once and noticed his stack of CDs before I noticed who he was.)
In-between, there were other directors, no less fantastic, I'm sure, but they had the misfortune to populate that post when I had neither the time or the money to visit the orchestra much. Then came Yannick, and he breathed energy and vitality into the orchestra without sacrificing artistry. He's charismatic on the podium and well-known on social media.

I discovered that the orchestra has a Cyber Monday sale (the Monday after American Thanksgiving) where fans can buy tickets at a good price. I bought three sets of tickets for the three Vienna concerts in January 2016 and invited friends to attend. I was thrilled to revisit these Viennese masters I had been studying and writing about since my two trips to Vienna this summer. (Read my short blog post about Vienna's surprises here.) We heard Strauss, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Bruckner, Schumann, Brahms, at these concerts, plus a more recent composer I'd never heard of: HK Gruber.

This photo is from a 2009 article by Geoffrey Norris in The Telegraph. Read it here:

HK Gruber was born in Vienna, was educated at the music academy there, and lives there now. In the program notes for this concert (1/16/16), Paul Griffiths describes Gruber as an "early postmodern transgressive." Rather than trying to translate that label, I'll describe him as a guy who has a lot of fun with his music and writes some interesting, energetic, and compelling stuff. You can meet him in this video:

Also from Griffiths's program notes, we learn that Gruber's first big-time composition was named Frankenstein!!, and included a part for Gruber himself as narrator in a scary style. That was 1978.

He composed the piece we heard in 1981 (Charivari) when he was obsessed with Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Perpetuum mobile" polka. Here's Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic performing that Strauss piece:

Gruber's piece is a deconstruction of the Strauss polka, and the listener can hear some of the original piece in the newer one. The name Charivari is taken from the title of a French satirical journal from the 1800s and means to bang on pots and generally make noise to annoy people (such as newlyweds). The audience at our concert demanded an encore, so Yannick and his crew performed the Strauss "Perpetuum mobile" polka. We got to hear where the newer piece came from. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra made this recording in 2007:

I really like the idea of programming a selection of music from the same place in a concert or concerts like this. Next year, Yannick Nezet-Seguin plans to take us to PARIS!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Wohnungs: The Strauss and Mozart Apartments in Vienna

Johann Strauss II in the Stadtpark
I have had a long-term relationship with the composers of Vienna: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, and Schoenberg, but during my two-week stay in Vienna I had to focus on just two. I was in the city for a summer residency, one of the requirements of the Pan-European MFA Program in Creative Writing at Cedar Crest College. We listened to lectures on art,  music, history, literature, and psychology, and visited some important places like Schonbrunn Palace, the Literature Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and further away Bratislava and Melk Abbey. I'm just skimming the surface here--we did way more than that in-between fantastic cafe meals and delicious desserts.

With my own writing projects in mind, I visited as many Johann Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart destinations as possible, and I was lucky enough to catch a tour of the famous Vienna State Opera House. This enormous building opened in 1869 with a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni which Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi") attended.

The Opera at night

The Opera's fountain
Inside the opera house
And then there's Johann Strauss II. Standing in below for JS is André Rieu at Schönbrunn Palace.

Johann Strauss II, "The Waltz King"
One of my essays for this writing program is a defense of the music of Johann Strauss. His waltzes, marches and polkas were intended to be light entertainment and succeeded in this genre. Strauss's face and music are iconic in his home city, so why is there so much resentment against him by high-brow music lovers and wannabes? In college, my classmates and I  were advised to ignore him by our snooty Music History professor. My essay argues for the man and his music and will benefit from my visits to some Viennese sites.

I had a Dickens of a time finding Johann Strauss's place. It's not well-marked and it's on the first floor which in Austria means up the first flight of steps. His apartment overlooks the Praterstrasse, a fashionable boulevard in the late 1800s when he lived there. I checked out his view and he could keep an eye on a good stretch of the Praterstrasse from his front room. The high-ceilinged rooms of the apartment are decked-out with memorabilia from his exciting life as Vienna's Waltz King. I saw newspaper articles about him, sheet music covers, a lock of his first wife's curly brown hair, his piano, and his violin in a fancy gold showcase. Listening stations are set up to provide the visitor with an audio experience, and all of the items are German. The item that made the biggest impression on me was the death mask. That was Johann Strauss's exact face in that glass case! I was surprised to see his teeth under that big mustache of his--do teeth usually show in death masks? Creepy: his right eye was slightly open. Creepy. (Photographs inside were verboten, sorry. You'll have to imagine the creepy death mask.)

The Stadtpark featuring the famous Johann Strauss II statue
 While walking around in the Stadtpark (the City Park), I found the famous golden statue of The Waltz King and snapped a few photos. This statue is quite the tourist spectacle, and it was fun to watch people attempting to photograph each other posing with the golden Strauss.

The Kursalon in the Stadtpark

Nearby is the Italian Renaissance Kursalon finished in 1867, where many Johann Strauss concerts were held. If you're looking for a venue for a big celebration, this could be your place.

I had time for one more visit on my last day in Vienna, so I chose the Mozarthaus, also known as the Figarohaus or MozartWohnung. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart figures prominently in one (or maybe two?) of my essays for the program and a course I'm putting together, so this visit was an efficient use of my time. This museum was much easier to find than the Strauss house, mainly because St. Stephen's Cathedral (its own subway stop) points right to it.
St. Stephan's Cathedral at the upper left, and Mozarthaus at Domgasse 5 at center right (Thanks, Google Maps!)
Mozart's house gave me shivers, but not the same kind of shivers induced by the Strauss death mask.. Even though there wasn't much authentic Mozart "stuff" in there, I was thrilled to look out the windows and see what he saw.

Looking out Mozart's front door at the Blutgasse
Mozart and his family (one wife, one child) lived in this space from 1784 to 1787, and composed The Marriage of Figaro here (hence the name Figarohaus). The rooms of the house/apartment are in the same configuration as they were in Mozart's day and before, but we are not sure which room was which. The curators of the space made some educated guesses and hung (mostly facsimiles of ) paintings and documents in each room. An inventory of Mozart's possessions at the time of his death exists, so we can make guesses: "Perhaps this is where Mozart's billiard table was since it is the only room big enough to accommodate it," and "This was probably Mozart's bedroom." Chills happened on my spine when the audio tour narrator said, "This is most likely where the Haydn Quartets were first performed for Haydn himself with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on viola and Leopold (his father) on violin." At that moment I was standing in the Billiard Room where light streamed in from the Blutgasse. It's the closest I'll ever get to time travel, and valuable inspiration for that new essay I've been mulling over.

And now if you will excuse me, I have to go do my homework.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Musical Treasures of Lobkowicz Palace, Prague

View from the terrace showing Prague, the Charles Bridge, and the Vltava River
The Lobkowicz name should be familiar to music aficionados as most of them were grand supporters of the arts. The family's palace is now a museum and the property has an interesting history of its own: it was confiscated by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II, and then again by the communists in 1948. William Lobkowicz, until recently an investment banker in Boston, managed to claim the family's property in the 1990s and turned it into a museum. The Lobkowicz Palace is part of the gigantic Prague Castle complex which overlooks the city and is mobbed by tourists every day. Our tour group was treated to lunch in one of the palace's sumptuous rooms and it looked like this:
We ate salad, goulash, and strudel.
Our group was treated to a short concert after lunch, at which a violinist, cellist, and pianist played selections from the family's heyday. Then, inside the museum, we found famous Canalettos, a Bruegel famous for being the first secular landscape painting, arms and armor, Lobkowicz family portraits, and decorative arts. The recorded tour is narrated beautifully by William Lobkowicz himself and takes about an hour.

One crazy-beautiful Lobkowicz ceiling!
 The Music Room brought tears to my eyes, though. Behind glass cases live manuscript scores of Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth symphonies, an early manuscript of the Op. 18 String Quartets used for the first performances, a printed copy of his Third (the "Eroica"), and a score of Handel's "Messiah" with corrections and reorchestrations by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There are more scores in the collection's archives, but these are the items on display.

It seems Beethoven met the 7th Prince Lobkowicz, Josef František Maximilián, when the two were in their twenties. They became friends and the Prince arranged for Beethoven to receive a pension or subsidy which continued beyond the Prince's death until Beethoven's own. Beethoven showed his gratitude by dedicating a number of his compositions, important ones, to the Prince: Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6, the six String Quartets Op. 18, the Harp Quartet Op. 74, the Triple Concerto, and the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte.

I mentioned that there is an early printed copy of the "Eroica" Symphony (Beethoven's Third) on display. While composing this heroic symphony, Beethoven was planning to dedicate it to Napoleon Bonaparte. He even went as far as to inscribe the title page, and then Napoleon declared himself emperor. This didn't sit well with Beethoven, and he erased the dedication. There's a hole in the paper of the manuscript where the writing had been. He substituted the inscription "To the memory of a great man," meaning "Hey, remember when Napoleon was cool?" Eventually, he re-dedicated the piece to his friend Prince Lobkowicz. This celebrated symphony, a quintessential specimen of this genre, was premiered privately a whole year before its public Vienna premiere in the Lobkowicz's other property, Jezeří Castle, in 1804.
Photographs are not allowed in the Collection, so here is a photo of the postcard I bought of the early Eroica edition.
 The scores and stories were enough to stop me in my tracks, but the room is filled with instruments from the castle's musical history. There's a wall of early clarinets, several oboes, trumpets, violins, violas, cellos, lutes, and guitars. The Lobkowiczes maintained their own court orchestra, and many of the instruments are from that ensemble. Following is the closest I could get on YouTube, the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Maestro Bernstein...

In order to preserve the treasures in the collection, photography is not allowed. BUT, if you are interested in seeing some of these items and learning more about the history of this notable family, click on through to the Lobkowicz Palace website!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hanging Out in Philadelphia's Kimmel Center

Verizon Hall exterior under the Kimmel Center dome
The reason I chose Temple University for both undergraduate and graduate Music Theory study was that I wanted to be in a big city with a big orchestra, a big opera company, a big ballet company, and a big amount of chamber ensembles and other music opportunities. By 'big' I mean well-respected and frequently offering performances. Back when I was in college and graduate school,
Inside the Academy of Music
most of these performances happened in the stately Academy of Music, built with opera in mind in 1857. Riccardo Muti conducted most of the time. Back in my heyday, there was talk of a future venue designed for the city's world-class orchestra, but I finished school and moved away before groundbreaking. That new venue turned out to be Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, a little over a block south from the venerable Academy, and approximately an hour's automobile or train ride from my current dwelling. While the Academy seats 2900 listeners, Verizon Hall seats a mere 2400 on more comfortable red mohair seats.

"It's only an hour away," I thought, as I examined the Orchestra's schedule of concerts. I was in a giving (to myself) mood and selected an early November program devoted to Mahler's Second Symphony, "The Resurrection," and a later November program which featured the Orchestra's first-chair clarinetist, Ricardo Morales. The concerts were fantastic as I expected they'd be, but the extra stuff before and after were unexpected delights.


I like getting lost in a Mahler symphony, but the real reason
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
I selected this concert was to watch the relatively new conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra conduct the giant piece. I hadn't seen Yannick Nezet-Seguin conduct yet, but I've been impressed with his social media presence and his outreach to the musically-interested community. He has a superstar reputation and held that orchestra in the palm of his hand throughout the over-eighty minute work.

This symphony first performed in 1894 is known as "The Resurrection" because it's the kind of work that builds and builds to a humongous climax as the huge orchestra and choir (the Westminster Choir College choir from Princeton) works out the melodies and motives and transforms them into a giant new sound. One of the delights of this afternoon was the pre-concert talk where I learned a bit about The Resurrection. There's no indication on the score, but Mahler described the 'program' or story in general terms. The listener should imagine themselves standing at the grave of a beloved deceased person and let the music of the first movement represent their grief. The second, third, and fourth movements are intermezzi in which the mourner reminisces on the deceased's life. Then in the fifth movement, the listener is graveside again, experiencing the pain of loss along with a glimpse of optimism that comes with thoughts of the last judgment and resurrection. (I struggle with words to describe this profound piece; the music says so much more.) It's during the fifth movement the the giant choir sneaks in, at first barely perceptible, but ultimately strong at the conclusion.

After the meal of Mahler, there was desert! three of the orchestra's cello players came back on stage to play some chamber music. Yannick Nezet-Seguin himself (in street clothes now) introduced this "Postlude,"Leopold Mozart's Frosch-Parthia in C major and the Beethoven Trio in C major, Op. 87, both works arranged for three cellos.


Ricardo Morales
After many years of playing the clarinet in school, college, graduate school, and in various ensembles afterwards, the clarinet seems to me my own voice. Back in the days when the orchestra performed in the Academy of Music, Anthony Gigliotti was the first-chair clarinettist that everyone went to hear and schlepped to Philadelphia to study with. Since 2003 that chair is held by Ricardo Morales, who, before his arrival in Philadelphia, was first-chair with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. (A career to envy!) Morales dazzled us with two clarinet works, the Debussy Rhapsody No. 1, for Clarinet and Orchestra and the Rossini Introduction, Theme, and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra, two pieces that I've studied and on my best day might have played at one-eighth the speed. Take a look at the photo at the left of Morales with his clarinets (orchestral clarinetists carry two, one in A and one in Bb). One of them is brown. This is unusual as most clarinets since the beginning of time are black as licorice and made from grenadilla wood or African mpingo. This orangey-brown wood is called cocobolo and comes from Central America. I want one. Here's a sample of a rehearsal of the Debussy piece with this very soloist:

The orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Juanjo Mena, also played Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (with all its fiery clarinet licks) and the Tchaikovsky Symphony #5. And there was desert after this: four orchestra members enchanted us with the Ravel String Quartet.


A soft-spoken veteran usher named Bill walked a gang of us through the Kimmel Center: Verizon Hall, the Perelman Theater, and the mysterious Roof Garden. Verizon Hall is where the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts happen along with other events including the venerable Philadelphia Speaker Series I also attend. The spectacular mahogany interior of this hall is shaped like a cello to enhance the sound, and (I didn't know this until the tour), is protected from subway noise by twenty-four-inch blocks of rubber under the building. The corridors we walk through to get into the hall also provide insulation from noise. Centered behind the stage is the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ with its 7,000 pipes. It is the largest concert hall organ in the United States.

Verizon Hall's stage set up for the Philadelphia Orchestra
The Perelman Theater was created for smaller performances and features a rotating turntable stage that I didn't know about. The seats on the floor (orchestra level) actually fold down and slide under the stage in order to permit even more varieties of events. The unexpected concrete floors add to the live acoustics of this hall.
Inside the Perelman Theater
And then there is the Roof Garden. I'd never seen this space, but I had heard that after only a few years it was necessary to renovate it. The story is it was meant to be a garden with trees and plants, but it was too hot to use in the warmer months. Under that glass dome temperatures rose to 130 degrees! So, the space was re-thunk and the Roof garden got its own roof and air-conditioning system and now accommodates parties, weddings, concerts, meetings, and other events that do not require oppressive tropical heat.

The Kimmel Center's cool Roof Garden space (looking north)

The Roof Garden again, looking west
Looking south at Broad Street (the Avenue of the Arts) from the Roof Garden
I'm pleased that I splurged these two orchestra concerts and their extras. All too often I get hung up on how things used to be back in the glorious college days and why do they have to change, EVER? I feel content now that Yannick Nezet-Seguin has replaced Muti, the Kimmel Center has replaced the Academy of Music, and Ricardo Morales has replaced Gigliotti. I just had to get to know them!