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Insights with Evan Mitchell

Notes from Edwin Outwater, KWS Music Director

Edwin writes about the details that go into the concerts of the Signature Series.



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Teddy Abrams Conducts Eroica

Due to an injury sustained in a recent cycling accident, Teddy Abrams is unfortunately unable to conduct this weekend. We are grateful that conductor Carlos Izcaray is able to join us on short notice. Prior to the change, Edwin & Teddy Abrams wrote these notes about the concert.
I first met Teddy Abrams in 2001, when I became conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. It was immediately clear that he was one of the most talented young musicians I have ever encountered. Now, he has his own orchestra and is doing fantastic work on the podium, and as a cultural leader. He is a friend and a kindred spirit, and I'm delighted to introduce him to our musicians and audience. Below, he shares some of his thoughts on our last 14/15 Signature Series concert. - Edwin.

Beethoven was perhaps the first “heroic” composer – a musician and creative individual whose contributions to musical art coincided with a period in history when the Artist could be elevated to legendary stature. Prior to Beethoven, most music was created for specific settings, and the vast majority of compositions were not heard after their premieres. Because Beethoven was such a daring and powerful creative force, and because that kind of individualism was cultivated during his lifetime in Europe, his compositions were venerated and performed repeatedly after his funeral (an event which, befitting a legend, attracted tens of thousands of people).

The Third Symphony of Beethoven is itself a legend; it is a piece that separates the early, youthful Beethoven of the Late Classical period from his Heroic Middle Period that includes many of his most famous works. Stories regarding the dedication – first to Napoleon, then updated to the general idea of a “hero” or “Eroica” – gave the work an attractive subtext and identity. It is the music itself, however, that is revolutionary and creative beyond anything that had come before: listen for it’s opening shocking chords, the early introduction of a “wrong” note in the cellos, the overtly dramatic funeral march, the lightning-quick third movement with its bizarre rhythms, and the masterpiece of a Finale that brilliantly philosophizes upon a competitor-composer’s upside-down cello part.

Beethoven’s Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus is an earlier work, and while it might not sound ground-breaking and revolutionary, it is filled with the brilliant development of motive and dramatic energy that are hallmarks of Beethoven’s style. Like the beginning of the Third Symphony, this Overture also has a surprising start (a kind of “wrong” chord), but quickly introduces a very positive, fast-paced opening motive that defines the rest of the composition, along with rhythmic jabs that are classic LvB (and found throughout the Third Symphony).

I’m also very excited to present the Tubin Concerto for Double Bass with KWS principal bass Ian Whitman. Solo pieces for the lowest orchestral instruments like Double Bass, Tuba, Contrabassoon, and Bass Clarinet are rare and force composers to contend with the acoustical challenge of featuring an instrument that doesn’t necessarily project above the orchestra in timbre and range. Eduard Tubin, a very much underrated Estonian 20th Century composer, handles this challenge beautifully with a melodic and populist work filled with both virtuosity from the soloist and attractive folk melodies and rhythms from his native land.

- Teddy Abrams, guest conductor


Edwin's Guide to Stravinsky

For me, this is the most interesting and exciting concert of the season. We will dig deep into the music of Stravinsky, one of my favorite composers. His music is basically perfect, and his influence on composers and music in general is still growing. Just last year I was at a performance of The Rite of Spring at the Chicago Symphony. I ran into the CEO of the orchestra and we were talking about how big the audience was for this piece. "We've found that this is our new Beethoven 5," she told me. "Whenever we play the Rite, our hall is full." Stravinsky is what I want music to be: clear, beautiful, exciting, and awe-inspiring in its construction. 

In this concert, we'll examine what made Stravinsky who he was as a musician, playing not only his music, but his arrangements of composers that influenced him: Debussy, Bach, and Gesualdo. When we arrive at the final, monumental piece on the program, the Symphony of Psalms, I hope the audience will feel and perceive the building blocks of this music. 

One bit of fun: the violins barely play in this concert. Stravinsky loved unusual orchestration, this concert shows that in spades. Also, our violin section works hard, and they never get a break. You'll see them for a fleeting moment in Stravinsky's Monumentum pro Gesualdo. Other, than that, they'll have the night off!

I hope you can join us for this amazing journey into the music of one of my favorite composers. It will be a unique and transcendent experience.

- Edwin Outwater


The Mozart Phenomenon

Some things never change. When Mozart was discovered to have preternatural musical talents, he was taken on a grand tour of Europe as a child star. If he were alive today, we would have seen the viral videos by now. While on tour, he met royalty, and was even said to have proposed to the young Marie Antoinette. He submitted to tests by an English lawyer and naturalist in London. He was shut in a room for a week by the Archbishop of Salzburg to prove that he was actually writing the music himself. What effect did all of this have on Mozart the child, and Mozart the artist?

When we look back his youth, we realize that Mozart was on display from the very beginning, a child in an adult world. We also notice a (not unexpected) rebellious streak, an urge to break out of the gilded cage in which he was placed. His music starts to rebel more and more as he grows up, constantly undermining the ceremonial, pompous gestures which were essential to the musical rhetoric of his time. He was a prisoner of a high-class world, but his ideals of art, beauty and expression were far higher. He wanted to elevate music, but also to undermine high society.

What caused Mozart's music to be so subversive? Could it have to do with his child star upbringing? We'll take a closer look in these concerts. We'll be joined by the young pianist David Fung, who was something of a child prodigy himself. He'll play one of Mozart's most famous piano concertos, and then we'll delve into some of Mozart's lesser-known, but equally delightful, symphonies. We'll even hear the piece Mozart wrote when he was locked in that room by the Archbishop.

- Edwin Outwater


Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto and Symphonic Dances

February 2015: Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances is one of the great orchestral works of the 20th Century. At once famous and unappreciated, the composer wrote this piece as a kind of endgame. History has shown that the great composers of the 20th Century who were derided as conservative have nonetheless endured. This includes Rachmaninoff, and also Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and Aaron Copland. Other lesser composers who chose either the "conservative" or "experimental" path have not lasted for reasons of quality, not genre. Great music is great music. 

The sadness of Rachmaninoff's life permeates this music, but so does his steeliness and strength, and many other things as well. To me, this music is great because of the emotional terrain it covers - subtle yet unforgettable combinations of nostalgia and whimsy, violence and humor, surrender and resistance, laughter and tears. These specific, sympathetic, yet undefinable feelings exemplify Russian literature and music. They are highly personal but also universal. 

One thing that I love about this piece and seems unique to me is the "haunted house" quality of the music. From the violent poltergeist blows of the first movement, and the phantasmic quote of his own failed First Symphony at its end, to the swirling chromatic ghost waltz of the second movement, to the glimpse of the beyond in the middle of the third movement, to the coda, which pits Dies Irae against Alliluya with no hint of the outcome, this piece is haunted and haunting - uncanny.

As we grow older, the ghosts begin to gather around us, some friendly, some frightening. They keep us company until the end. Few artists have brought their own ghosts to life better than Rachmaninoff does in this piece.

- Edwin Outwater


A Midsummer Night's Dream

January 2015: For me, poetry and the spoken word are special kinds of music. Sometimes when I am in the mood for a night out, there's nothing I like better than attending a play, with great actors speaking great words. The pleasure of hearing rhythm, diction, and inflection without melody and harmony is a kind of artistic spa day for me. It's relaxing, and lets me be a fan: someone who gets to enjoy and admire the hard work and artistry of writers and actors and NOT WORRY ABOUT IT. 

For this concert, I am joined by Mervon Mehta and Brigit Wilson, two wonderful actors associated with the Stratford Festival. To hear them recite Shakespeare along with Mendelssohn's youthful and magical score to A Midsummer Night's Dream will be a wonderful treat for me and the audience. We all know that composers are inspired by literature and poetry, but to hear the words of Shakespeare and then immediately hear the music inspired by them is a more immediate, illuminating experience. These two artists obviously didn't know each other personally. Words inspire music here, and the results have a sound and sense all their own. 

I've included music by two other composers to highlight the power and potential music possible in Shakespeare's words. Purcell's Suites from The Fairy Queen is the most famous early musical responses to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Purcell's musical numbers included here are short masques included in a 17th Century adaptation of Shakespeare's play. This music has the same playful, magical and mischievous quality as Mendelssohn's. Vaughn Williams's Serenade to Music takes it's inspiration from The Merchant of Venice. Here we do the version without vocal soloists, but the words will be projected on a screen behind the orchestra, and you will see how Shakespeare's glorious words inspired pure sound.

- Edwin Outwater


Appalachian Spring

November 2014: I have a great appreciation of music that's "deceptively simple." As I learned more about music, I came to realize how difficult and admirable it is to write notes that communicate directly, but are full of meaning and sophistication. In poetry it's called "sound and sense," and I think this applies to music as well. Aaron Copland's music exemplifies this. His goal as a composer (at least in the works we'll be playing) was to communicate with everyone. So you'll hear folk tunes, dance rhythms, simple melodies, and feelings that evoke individual and collective pleasure. Though his music has come to symbolize the "American Sound," in films, TV, and even Republican campaign commercials, Copland's agenda was different. Some of his more conservative supporters might be surprised to know that "Billy the Kid" was written by a gay Jewish socialist from Brooklyn. To me, Copland's music is indeed for everyone, but it whispers secrets to musicians. He trained with the refined French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and Boulanger's teach was Gabriel Fauré. I hear a direct connection from Fauré's music to Copland's. A carefully chosen soundscape - each note deeply considered, but perfectly natural. Thought and instinct combine into artistry. Listen carefully to Appalachian Spring and Our Town and you'll feel it.

Also on this program we welcome two very distinctive young artists. It takes a violinist with particular gifts to play the Barber Violin concerto. I'm captivated by Tai Murray's sense of storytelling as she plays the piece. The music unfolds as if she's narrating something off the cuff. But behind this initial impact of innocence, one begins to sense a tremendous game plan. Here again, there's great artistry behind the folksy address of the music. I love how Tai captures this, and makes the extreme virtuosic challenges of the music secondary to the expression it demands. 

I discovered the music of Riho Esko Maimets in a pile of scores. I'm always trying to discover more great Canadian music. Sometimes I hear about it through the grapevine, and sometimes I plow through a pile of music of people I've never heard of, with open ears, waiting for something to grab me. I included Riho's music in this program because his emotional starscape complements the emotional landscapes of Barber and Copland. I also think he shares Copland's gift of deceptive simplicity. In ...aux étoiles, he chooses his notes deliberately and carefully. He invests great emotional weight in them, and it pays off. He's very young, but already the notes he chooses have sound and sense.

- Edwin Outwater


Todd Yaniw Plays Grieg

For this concert, we welcome Tito Muñoz to join us. Below, he shares some of his thoughts about this special concert.

- Edwin Outwater

I am thrilled to return to KW with this wonderful program featuring two up-and-coming Canadian artists. The opening work, "Eris," was written by Abigail Richardson-Schulte who was born in England but grew up in Calgary. She based her work on the recently discovered planetoid, which is named after the Greek mythological goddess of chaos, discord and strife. The music narrates her story of jealousy and revenge which leads to the Trojan War. It will be my first time performing Abigail's music, so I am very much looking forward to it.

Also on the program is Grieg's Piano Concerto with Edmonton-native Todd Yaniw. Todd is gaining a lot of recongition in the music world through the many awards and competitions he has won and the numerous performances he is giving all around Canada and all over the world. We are very happy to be presenting him on this concert and I look forward to meeting him and getting to know his artistry.

Lastly, we will feature Schumann's First Symphony, titled "Spring Symphony." It was Schumann's very first symphonic work which he wrote in only one month! At the time, he was only known for his piano and vocal works, but his wife Clara encouraged him to write orchestral music. This is one of my favorite pieces to perform. It has so much magic and life, and it manages to be very lyrical and rhythmic at the same time, and this is the characteristic about some of Schumann's music that I love very much. He also recalls his piano piece "Kreisleriana" by using some of its material in the final movement of the Symphony.

- Tito Muñoz, guest conductor


Time for Three and Encores!

August 2014: I am completely thrilled to welcome Time for Three to our opening concert of our Signature Season.  They first joined the KWS on our Intersections series and created a sensation.  Since then, they've played with major orchestras all over the world and created a genre of music all their own.  Nick, Zach, and Ranan are a "classical music garage band," and bring a kind of exuberance, freedom and spirit to their performances that I've always yearned for in classical music concerts.  They back up their showmanship with impeccable musicianship at the highest level.  For our concert, they'll be playing a classical "mashup" of Grieg's "Holberg" Suite and lots of unexpected and wonderful melodies.  I really think these guys are part of the future of classical music, and if you haven't seen them in KW yet, you won't want to miss them.

As a bonus, check out the video to the right of Time for Three playing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," in my KW loft during their first visit here.  This video has been viewed almost 12,000 times! You can also see it on Youtube

I always like to begin the season on a lighter, festive note, and this season is no exception.  We'll be playing a collection of some of my favorite encores.  From John Estacio's Bootlegger's Tarantella to Fauré's famous Pavane, the second part of the concert will be full music that is, in a word, delightful.  

Joining me on this concert is our new assistant conductor, Daniel Bartholomew-Pyosner, who impressed all of us this spring in a very comprehensive and competitive audition.  He brings great skill, enthusiasm, and teaching experience to us, and we'll be thrilled to welcome him to the KWS family.  He'll be conducting Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture.

Hope you can take some time to join us for our opening concert!  See you there!  

- Edwin Outwater