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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.

Petrushka Finale

May 2014: The element of burlesque figures heavily into our concerts this week.  That's what Stravinsky's Petrushka actually is. Alongside passages of radical brilliance and color is a collection of ribald sounds: a contrabassoon fart sets the stage rather early on, and it continues from there. I personally have a blast working with these sounds in the context of orchestral music.  After all, we classical musicians spend so much time trying to play perfectly and beautifully that it's obsessive and almost oppressive.  Some of my favorite conductors are really good at finding the "dirt" in perfect music (Nicholas Harnoncourt and MTT come to mind).  I'm with them -- I want the music to sound human.  I want it to have warts and all.  If these sounds are brought to life and characterized in the right way, music takes on a different color and dimension, and stands out from the slick, soulless sounds that we hear too often today. Actually, Petrushka really doesn't work without these sounds!  It's a Russian thing, that earthiness, that grotesque humor.  How appropriate that it's a late spring up here in KW. I was on a farm yesterday and could feel and smell things growing: plants, birds, bugs, frogs.  It felt like Petrushka. Hopefully you'll be able to smell the fertilizer inside the concert hall as well as outside.

Stravinsky loved his dirty puppets in Petrushka, and in a similar way Ana Sokolovic takes a merry-go-round (Ringelspiel) as the source of her inspiration.  It's a piece that is dedicated "to all children, to the child in ourselves."  It evokes its own stunning sound-world.  By turns creepy, lurching, fairy-like, and nostalgic, Ringelspiel is quite a ride.  Sokolovic is a Canadian composer making quite a name for herself all over the world, and I'm very excited to introduce her to you.

Finally we have Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. It's shocking to think that this piece was perceived as brutal and ugly when it was premiered, but the piece keeps coming around like your favorite horse on a merry-go-round. People will be riding it as long as we humans are still around.

- Edwin Outwater

Billy the Kid and West Side Story

April 2014: Cowboys and Clarinets, Gangs and Glockenspiels, Mambos and Marimbas - it doesn't seem to make sense at first glance, but that's what this week's program is about.  In all of the pieces you're about to hear, the symphony orchestra is used as a kind of paintbrush for subjects that would seem unsuitable at first.  

It seems to me that this shows the limitless potential of the orchestra to be evocative.  The brutal percussion of the orchestra is expected and perfect for the gunfight scene in Copland's Billy the Kid. Immediately following this scene is a something completely unexpected: the teardrops of the solo violin as Billy's love weeps over his death.  Copland deftly mixes orchestral cliché with moments of unexpected wonder.  The incredible sound-palette of the modern orchestra allows him to do this.

Leonard Bernstein uses this palette with equal skill.  But in his music for West Side Story he pushes the capability of the orchestra further and forces it to be ... jazzy.  It's works like these that push the coloristic and evocative capabilities of the orchestra ever further.  Before Bernstein (and Gershwin), swinging were not a skill that orchestras were required to have; now, because of them, it is.  Bernstein celebrates and expands the potential of the orchestra in this beautiful, hot music.

Henry Cowell also wanted to push the sound of the orchestra ever further. Growing up in Northern California at the turn of the 20th Century, he was self-taught to a certain extent, and his sound-world was full of Western folk music as well as the music of East Asia.  One of his earliest musical decisions was to write a piece that calls for the pianist to play without striking a single key.  Instead, he or she must pluck the strings inside the piano.  You can hear our assistant conductor Evan Mitchell play one of these pieces this week at our pre-concert Preludes.  In Cowell's orchestral piece Synchrony, he too celebrates the sound-palette of the orchestra.  He revels in massed sound and harmony, and you'll hear great tectonic plates of sound moving with terrible majesty.

Robert Rival looks back to English Renaissance Poetry in his piece for chorus, winds, percussion and harp.  Like Copland, Robert brings old words and images to life with new sounds. The Renaissance with of Robert Herrick's "Delight in Disorder" is set to the unexpected sounds of Be-Bop.  Like the composers who share this concert with him, Robert delights in both the sound and sense of an orchestra in his colorful and powerful work.

- Edwin Outwater

Brahms the Progressive, Schoenberg the Romantic

March 2014:

The inspiration for this program came from an essay by Schoenberg, one I think about often, called "Brahms the Progressive." Even the title of it is a provocation since  Brahms was not thought to be a progressive composer. Rather, he was (and still is) known as the conservative guardian of German musical tradition, the heir to the other "Two B's," Bach and Beethoven.  He was seen as the polar opposite to Wagner, the radical experimentalist, who pushed music into new and unexplored directions.

A misunderstood composer himself, Schoenberg leaped to Brahms's defense in the essay.  Through deep analysis, and with lots of examples, Schoenberg revealed the innovate techniques hidden under the surface of Brahms's "conservative" style.  "The freedom of his language would be less surprising were he a dramatist," Schoenberg writes, showing Brahms's unusual and asymmetrical phrasing, and the inner links between melodic and accompanying figures that go beyond the bar lines to create music of profound expression. 

Schoenberg the thinker and critic constantly urges us to look deeper.  To him, "Mysteries conceal a truth, but direct curiosity to unveil it."  Schoenberg's own music seems mysterious at first listen, but if curiosity draws you in, the truth is unveiled.  Notes that seem strange and unconnected at first take on meaning, musical gestures that seem alien become familiar - in fact, they're gestures you've heard before.  Schoenberg the arch-modernist becomes part of an expressive, Romantic tradition, as well as an intellectual one, going back to Bach.  Like all of the great Austro-German composers, he fuses these intellectual and expressive streams into a cohesive whole. 

For me, Schoenberg has not only been a composer whose music I admire and love, but he has also been one of my guides to the music of the past, and one of my essential teachers who help me understand how music actually works.  

Using the voice of Schoenberg to guide you through the music of Brahms will reveal something different about him.  Schoenberg's music will reveal its own truth as well, if you allow your curiosity to unveil it.  

Paris Festival

Feb 2014:

Welcome to the Paris Festival!  The inspiration for this festival started with the idea of having fun -- mixing great masterworks with famous pieces like Offenbach's Can-Can and other ... surprises.  Meaning: those of you who know my work well are aware that I love to mess with the traditional concert format whenever there's a good reason to do so.  Searching, through history, I've found some other spirits who loved to do the same.  In previous concerts we've explored the work of John Cage and other composers related to the Fluxus movement, but that lineage extends to the turn of the 20th Century and composers like Satie.  Known for his twelve identical corduroy suits, bizarre performance directions (play this passage "Like a nightingale with a toothache"), and driving cars onstage, he brought randomness to the concert hall big time.

Here's a little movie we made based on his "diary," "An Artist's Day."  It kind of sums up what Satie was all about.  That's one of his "Gymnopedies" playing in the background.

So what's the point of these goofs?  That's up to you to decide, in a way.  For me personally, they shake up ritual and complacency, and cut away the faux pretensions that get in the way of experiencing music itself.  Also, for me, laughter is the great equalizer (that concept changed my perspective on a lot of things -- I first discovered it in a heavy lit crit volume in college by Mikhail Bakhtin, The Diaolgic Imagination. Check it out, it's great!)  When people laugh, their guards are down, and there are all kinds of ways artistically to take advantage of that.  That's what a lot of these French crazies were good at, and in our program, the master Satie will be joined by other naughty composers like Milhaud and Ibert.  Between pieces, we'll be playing some of Satie's Furniture Music. As far as I know, Satie wrote the first "ambient music" long before Brian Eno's Music for Airports.  As a bonus, the concert will also feature The King of the Monkeys Who Sleeps With One Eye Open, as well as a strange cortége.  

Of course, all these antics drove the composers of the French Academy crazy, and the first half of the program will feature these folks.  Saint-Saëns was super-conservative, but his music was really great.  I love it.  I think having super conservative music on the first half and crazy music on the second half will give the audience something to think about -- like what is the purpose and function of art anyway? -- after they leave the concert.

On Sunday we have "Salon Music," but not really.  We are in a concert hall after all. Basically it's all music that whispers.  It's intimate. It has secrets. And if you listen carefully, you'll hear them.  Fauré is one of my very favorite composers.  The forms are simple, he's not flashy, but the notes he chooses are sublime.  Just relearning the score of Masques et Bergamasques brought tears to my eyes several times. The notes themselves were just so beautiful, so human, so revealing.  They reveal how music works.  How did he do that?  


Zhang Play Rachmaninoff

Jan 2014:

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

- Edwin Outwater

This exciting program features three Russian masterpieces that have very little in common other than their ancestry. Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes is a ballet written for Georges Balanchine, first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1937. It was the first of Stravinsky’s ballets to be premiered outside Paris. The characters are the chief cards in a game of poker. Stravinsky’s wry and elegant music is a perfect match for an imagined tale of an impish Joker, distinguished Queen and roguish Aces. Although seldom heard, Jeu de cartes is one of Stravinsky’s indisputable neoclassical masterpieces. The music might remind you of his Symphony in C, which he would write a few years later.

It’s always a pleasure to perform Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with its sumptuous melodies and intoxicating rhythm. I’m especially looking forward to working with Haochen Zhang for the first time. Rachmaninoff is the perfect link between Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky: he is Tchaikovsky’s heir in terms of melodic beauty and romantic harmony, but not as distant from Stravinsky’s urbane modernism as one might think. Perhaps you will hear the Rhapsody afresh, through Stravinsky’s angular prism.

Michael Oesterle’s music is new to me, and as I write this note I’m enjoying learning his Short Symphony. For composer and conductor alike, it's always very exciting to hear a piece you’ve only been able to imagine in your head turned into real sound by a great orchestra.

Finally, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. This is one of the first pieces I conducted when I was a student at university, so it holds a very special place in my heart. From the very first chord in the winds, Tchaikovsky captures the angst and longing of Shakespeare’s drama, albeit in an extremely Russian way; Friar Laurence never sounded so slavic as in the opening bars! We can’t help but be swept up into the quarrel between the Montagues and Capulets (described in the main Allegro), we experience Romeo and Juliet’s burning love for each other in one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous and soaring melodies, and we feel Juliet’s devastation on finding Romeo dead. Everything is summed up in a kind of “life goes on” coda in which Friar Laurence’s music comes back, as he looks over the two dead lovers. This piece was very close to Tchaikovsky’s heart; he redrafted it countless times in order to find exactly the right sound world. The theme of impossible love was surely close to his heart. 

- Courtney Lewis

Tchaikovsky's Pathétique

Nov 18, 2013:

It's hard to overestimate the significance of the Pathetique Symphony in the history of music.  At once epic and intimate, it paves the way for the music of Mahler and other composers who lay their souls bare on the page.  Of course, this had been done before by Beethoven and others, but the developing symphonic tradition in Russia favored rhapsodic storytelling over structure.  This makes the music seem even more personal, and the symphony more of a vehicle of immediate expression than part of a tradition. Beyond this, it's still striking that Tchaikovsky's symphony is  so unabashedly sad.  Tchaikovsky forsakes the "darkness to light" trajectory of Beethoven and Brahms symphonies in favor of on from "darkness to death."  This sense of utter tragedy existed in opera and drama, but never to this extent in a symphony.  As we listen to it today, we are still awed by the capacity of this music to make us weep. I use the last movement of this symphony often in education concerts, to show how sad music can be, but also to connect new audiences to the physicality of orchestral music.  Perhaps no other piece of music mimics the labored heartbeat and breath of sadness better than the final movement of this symphony.  Strings weep and sigh, and the double basses (which also open the work with an evocation of darkness and death) trudge on till the very last moment with a throbbing irregular heartbeat.  The two movements in between the symphony's grim bookends are lighter in nature, but even they contain a sense of decay and unease.  The waltz of the second movement is in 5/4 time, and so never seems "quite right;" the third movement march is exciting, but to the point of being manic. The irony is that there is a sense of victory in all of this as Tchaikovsky suffers for his art: in his unblinking exploration of his own personal tragedy and sadness, Tchaikovsky finds total artistic and compositional freedom in his final symphony.

The music of Benjamin Britten opens the concert, and I am very excited to introduce my friend Nicholas Phan to our audiences.  He is one of the great interpreters of Britten's music, and his voice is a perfect fit for the masterful Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.  I can't think of a better setting of English poetry than Britten's in this piece.  It's haunting, beautiful and unforgettable. It also features our principal horn Martin Limoges playing the beautiful obbligato that runs throughout the piece.  

Mozart - Pianist and Conductor

Oct 16, 2013:

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

- Edwin Outwater

I am very excited about performing this program because it presents a unique meeting point between Mozart's early and late compositions. Each half of the program features two works: one from Mozart's youthful Salzburg years, and the other from his final years in Vienna. This gives us the opportunity to explore the development in Mozart's writing over the years, and the unique path that he decided to take after leaving behind his older life, and his father…

This program also gives us the opportunity to discover some rarely heard works, written while Mozart will still a teenager, traveling across Europe and making a name for himself. In spite of what many scholars have said about Mozart's early compositions, these works reveal an extraordinary, fresh, and intelligent writing, full of lyricism and exuberance. In Mozart's concerto no.8, the piano engages in some beautiful dialogues with the orchestra - something that none of Mozart's contemporaries had achieved before. In his single-movement Symphony no.23, the young Amadeus already expresses his love for drama and theatre, by writing a piece that strongly resembles some of his famous opera overtures, composed years later.

As I already mentioned, each one of these early pieces will be paired with a celebrated work from Mozart's Vienna years: the poetic and profound Symphony no. 40, as well as the radiant and very personal Piano Concerto no.17. I look forward to performing these four masterpieces with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

- David Greilsammer


Anton Kuerti Returns

Sept 17, 2013:

Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 has captivated musicians for centuries.  It may be the most understated of all of his works in this genre.  It doesn't burst at the seams like the Eroica Symphony (No. 3), nor does it try to completely reinvent the genre like his famous Fifth. It's comfortable in its own space, and in fact makes quite extraordinary use of what I might call "negative space."  In painting this could mean the areas on a canvas where nothing is happening; in music the negative space is the silence that surrounds the sound.  This to me is what the the symphony is really about.  The quiet, mysterious opening of this piece sets the stage for all that is to come.  A suspended B-flat, spanning several octaves, somehow shrouds the symphony in darkness, while strings in unison seem to float like ghosts, seeking some kind of resolution in the sound.  This is the space before creation.  You'll hear it many times throughout the whole symphony, even during the most fully orchestrated passages.  This is the symphony that seems to put us closest to Beethoven's subconscious, which is why musicians who study him closely love this piece so much: we feel we are close to the mysterious space of his creation, the source of his genius.

You might also be interested to know that Beethoven's symphony contains some of the most famous passages ever written for bassoon.  They're on every orchestral excerpt, and they're quick. If you don't pay attention they may pass you by.  In the second movement, there's a moment where the bassoon quietly rises above complete silence, one of those "negative space" moments I mentioned earlier.  Then in the fourth movement, there is a brief virtuosic passage of sixteenth notes, which sound elegant and charming, but are fiendishly difficult to play.

In this concert we also welcome back Anton Kuerti, one of the world's strongest Beethoven interpreters, in my opinion.  Through deep devotion and study, Anton has explored Beethoven's music as deeply as one can, and his interpretations on this music are at once highly individual, and yet connect back into a source we all recognize. Anton joined us for our Beethoven Festival a few years ago, and whenever he returns to the KWS it is an event.

We also open the season with a work by another friend, Scott Good, with his alluring overture, What the Chickpea Said to the Cook.  It's fast, strange, witty and a total romp.  I asked Scott to write a piece that was for the KWS, not just any orchestra, and he has certainly come through!

Finally, we round out the program with Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one of the most requested pieces by members of the KWS.  You'll hear why --  it's a lush, lyrical, moving work that takes advantage of the incredible sound of our string section.  

- Edwin Outwater

Finale Fantastique

May 27, 2013:

The Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz is the ultimate symphonic trip, and I mean that in the druggy sense of the word.  Inspired by opium-induced hallucination, the piece tells the story of obsession, betrayal, murder, and damnation.  The piece is full of strange sounds that haven’t been equalled before or since.  Rumbles, screeches, cackling laughter, distant calls, spinning dance music, and ancient chants on two tubas all coexist in this weird and wonderful symphonic world.  What’s particularly amazing about this music is that it was invented not long after the time of Beethoven, before Wagner and other Romantic composers cooked up their own magic potions.  This makes Berlioz’s achievement all the more extraordinary.  Where did those sounds come from?  They seem to be invented from pure imagination - from his mind to the page - without outside influence. 

An analogy might be the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson.  Take the song “Good Vibrations” for instance.  Sure, you can track some influences, but the overall combination of reverb, orchestral instruments, surf guitar, close harmony, theremin, and other weirdness seems to spring directly from Wilson’s creative and disturbed mind.  So as we play this twisted masterpiece, take a moment to listen carefully and you’ll hear how weird the music actually is.

- Edwin Outwater

Viennese Delights

April 25, 2013:

James Judd has become a regular and welcome guest at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.  This season he leads the orchestra in a musical tour through the city and history of Vienna.  You’ll discover that besides being a wonderful musician, James is a charming and insightful host and presenter. Below, he shares some of his thoughts about this special concert.

- Edwin Outwater

Perhaps the biggest 'Surprise' for you on this programme will turn out to be the Webern Symphony rather than the Haydn, which of course we all know and love. Webern, writing in the 12-tone technique of his mentor Schoenberg, takes us on a short and challenging journey in just 2 movements. In a way, the first pays homage to Bach since the composer using canons to develop his ideas. The second movement is based on the same 12-tone row as the first and is a set of 7 variations, each lasting just 11 measures packed with intense musical interest.
However you do not really need to know all this but rather I hope you will just open your ears and minds and let these rather sparse and exquisite sounds,with themes often passed note by note from one instrument to another, create pictures and feelings.

I have loved this strangely haunting music for a long time,and the same certainly is true of all the works tonight. I am especially looking forward to making music with our two fine soloists so please sit back and enjoy, and perhaps even be surprised!

- James Judd, guest conductor

Organ Superstar

April 1, 2013:

For this concert we welcome one of orchestral music’s real iconoclasts, Cameron Carpenter.  From the way he dresses, to the fact that he prefers digital organs to pipe organs, Cameron is shaking up the music world.  Luckily, this iconoclasm is combined with real musicianship and talent. 

Here are some other unusual things about this concert:

  1. We are playing Bach in a Signature concert.  This is so rare these days. Usually Baroque music is left to specialists and chamber orchestras.  Our orchestra plays  Bach all the time, in the Baroque and Beyond series and also with the Grand Philharmonic Choir.  I’m quite pleased to be sharing our orchestras formidable Bach skills with our Signature audience.  I think specialization is great, but I also think great music belongs everywhere.
  2. We are playing a piece written by our soloist!  These days composers generally don’t perform, and performers don’t compose.  I’m thrilled that Cameron has written a concerto for himself, and I hope this happens more often.  It worked for Liszt, Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninov, and many others. 
  3. Cameron will be playing Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in a version that combines the versions of generations of famous organists. 
  4. There will be improvisation!  Improvising almost never happens in classical concerts, but Cameron will be making music up on the spot.

The reason I’m listing all of these things is that they’re so rare in classical concerts, and I think they make concerts more fun.  I’m so glad that Cameron is joining us this season and shaking things up for the better.

- Edwin Outwater

Tchaikovsky Festival

Feb 13, 2013:

This season’s composer festival features another favorite, Tchaikovsky.  I can’t tell you how much of his music I’ve conducted over the years.  To me, performing Tchaikovsky is a lot like performing Mozart.  Meaning, it’s difficult!  His music is so perfect, everything is so beautifully in place, that slight miscalculations are easily noticed by everyone.  There’s also an incredible range of emotional intensity that must be accounted for.  Mahlerian outbursts of desperation must be balanced with music of the most refined elegance from the French and Italian musical traditions.  When it’s right, a whole universe of music comes alive. It’s a challenge worth undertaking. 

For the Tchaikovsky festival, we will be looking at his works in terms of scale.  On Friday  and Saturday nights, we present the Symphony No. 5 and the Piano Concerto No. 2.  Both are epic works, one well-known, one not well-known enough.  The Piano Concerto No. 2 is unfairly eclipsed by the more famous first.  In my opinion, this concerto is Tchaikovsky at his absolute finest, with a grand scale, incredibly inventive melodies, stunning virtuosity and inspiration in every bar.  I’m so pleased to bring this piece to the KWS with the fantastic Russian pianist, Yakov Kasman.

On the matinée program on Sunday, we visit Tchaikovsky on a much smaller scale.  His “Rococo” Variations for cello and orchestra and Serenade for Strings are brilliant and elegant like his ballet music. His first Symphony “Winter Dreams” is as precious and delicate as freshly fallen snow. 

If you experience both programs it will become clear that Tchaikovsky is a master of both the epic and the intimate.  Not many composers are.

- Edwin Outwater

Sublime Beethoven

Jan 3, 2013:

The pieces by Beethoven on this program deal, I think, with the sublime. 

The Violin Concerto is one of the most stately and elegant pieces of music ever written by any composer. It is a piece that does not derive its power from drama or extreme emotion, but rather from pure, ideal beauty.  It is full of gorgeous symmetries, and seems to me to be not only Classical but Classic in the Greek sense.  It reminds me of Greek buildings and statues because it is a large, epic work, but also full of calm and poise.  Its challenges is that it requires to play everyone to play absolutely beautifully all the time.  I’m very pleased to welcome back Stefan Jackiw.  His pure, silver tone and refined musicianship are ideal for this concerto.  

In his “Pastoral” Symphony, Beethoven also concentrates mainly on stillness, echoing pastoral painting to create music that causes deep calm and satisfaction in the listener.  Like nature, it is not afraid to repeat itself, and by doing this helps create a kind of static visual impression using sound.  At times these repetitions seem like the precursors to musical Minimalism. In both the Violin Concerto and the “Pastoral” Symphony, Beethoven uses stasis to great effect.

Even the opening work on the program, Missy Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea is anything but.  It’s a gorgeous meditation on nature by one of America’s most stylish young composers. 

This concert has a vibe.  All three works create sound, live and breathe, in a similar way.  You should come out of the concert with a certain feeling.

- Edwin Outwater

Edwin & Gustav: An Invitation

Nov 15, 2012:

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is one of the great showpieces for an orchestra, and one of the most moving and engrossing modern symphonies.  Mahler took a strong new direction with his 5th.  Previously, his symphonies were based on songs and stories, almost folkloric.  Here, Mahler moves in a more abstract direction - writing what would be considered “pure music.”  To me the symphony’s, long, virtuosic movements resemble Beethoven in that they seem fueled by the energy of the notes and counterpoint themselves.  Propelled by a trumpet call that echoes Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, we embark on a 65-minute journey through funeral marches, scherzos, rondos, theatre music, and a musical love letter, Mahler’s famous Adagietto

I should also mention that this symphony has two of the most famous orchestral parts for brass instruments ever written.  The opening mentioned above is an astonishing solo turn for the trumpet, and the third movement is anchored by a horn part that is a concerto in itself.  It will be an incredible concert for Larry Larson and Martin Limoges, and I know they have been practicing their parts for months!

Michael Tilson Thomas once commented that conducting a Mahler symphony was “like visiting a favorite national park.”  I think that’s a great way to listen to this music.  It’s so massive that it’s almost impossible to take it all in at once.  Mahler said that “a Symphony should be a whole world.”  In this concert I’ll spend the first half introducing you to Mahler’s world, with musical examples, excerpts, and other music to put it in context.  It’s an exciting way of presenting music that I hope you enjoy.  It’s also an opportunity for me to share my feelings about this music, which means more to me than I can express in words.  When I was young and Mahler’s world was revealed to me, it made me not only want to be a musician, but also introduced me to the awesome creative potential of an artist. 

- Edwin Outwater

Lefèvre's Romantic Discovery

Oct 19, 2012:

I’m very pleased to present a fantastic Canadian work for piano and orchestra by André Mathieu.  It’s a gorgeous, romantic and epic work, championed by our two guest artists, pianist Alain Lefèfvre and conductor Jean-Philippe Tremblay.  Below, Jean-Philippe Tremblay will tell you more about this amazing concert.  Enjoy! - Edwin Outwater

In the last ten years or so, pianist Alain Lefèvre has re-discovered and championed the works of french-canadian wunderkind composer André Mathieu on all continents.  The fourth piano concerto is probably the strongest work that Mathieu wrote in his short career.  It has a more personal feeling to it,  as if he had found his own voice.  I had the chance to conduct this piece with Alain in France, China and Canada and each time it is such a thrill to be part of this monster concerto demanding on both soloist and orchestra.  The amazing work of orchestrator Gilles Bellemare is to salute as only sound recordings of a two pianos version was available to him.  Truly a wonderful addition to the piano repertoire, and it's canadian !

Opening the program, Grieg's In Autumn is a wonderful piece by, again, a young composer.  The two piano version of this overture will have Grieg be the winner of the Swedish Academy Prize in 1866.  This will allow him to keep studying and working abroad.  The work has a clear "Mendelshonian" fell to it and is a wonderful window into the composer's early years and is a premise of his passion for his country's folklore.  Listen carefully to the ending of the piece where he uses an authentic norwegian "Springdans" to conclude the overture.  A habit he will never let go.

Sibelius was thirty four when he wrote his first symphony. He was a young man that was clearly influenced by classical conventions and certainly by Tchaikovsy as well.  But already we see his own genius and trademark quick mood changes all throughout the work.  His gift for melody and orchestration is clear.  His passionate writing is a real treat for us musicians as we are constantly challenged by both its technical challenges and by the energy required to give it justice.  This first symphony would give birth to six more amazing works that make him of the great symphonist of all times.

- Jean-Philippe Tremblay, guest conductor.

Ode to Joy, Ode to Kitchener

Aug 30, 2012:

To even begin to think about Beethoven’s 9th symphony is daunting.  The music itself is a whole universe, and very much from Beethoven’s late style - that is, full of meaning known only to Beethoven specifically.  Then there is the subject of the piece as a cultural artifact: popping up every New Year’s in Japan, or as counterpoint to the violence of A Clockwork Orange, or as a song you knew as a child.  There’s just so much.

What I want to discuss is the moment when the human voices emerge for the first time,  after the 45 minutes of music that begin this symphony.  It starts with three movements that, in a way, lack a human narrative. Rather, they seem to me to be a creation, more like something carved from stone and counterpoint.  When the voices finally emerge, the music becomes human.  It’s joyful, highbrow, lowbrow, vivacious, and finally yearning, looking above the stars for something more.  It’s as if Beethoven, the creator of this massive work, comes down to earth, joining the audience and orchestra, and tells us there’s more above the stars than even he can imagine.

I felt this earlier this year, as I helped the San Francisco Symphony record the Ninth.  Each night I sat in the audience and journeyed with them as they were awed, moved, and confused by the first part of the piece. It is uncompromising, unyielding music.  Then, when the baritone sings, “O Friends, not these tones!” and the chorus answers “Joy!” there was an uncanny feeling of recognition, relaxation, earthliness and transcendence.  The audience collectively exhaled.  It was magic. It’s why we go to concerts.

- Edwin Outwater

Beethoven: Triple Concerto and Symphony No. 7

May 18, 2012: Growing up in Southern California, every single day was beautiful like ones we've experienced here recently.  Now that I live in a colder climate, the joy associated with spring, its blooming flowers and the wonderful, inevitable greening of things is something I understand more deeply.  I don't think having four distinct seasons is necessarily better, but I will admit it's more emotional!

The joy of spring is reflected in our final Signature concert.  Michael Oesterle describes his piece Perennials as a "treat for himself."  He writes six very simple, lively orchestral portraits of flowers returning to his garden.  They're colorful of course, but they also have zippy solos, quick accents and the mercurial energy of things that are young.  

Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is also bursting with joy.  Its repeating rhythms mirror the pulse of dance and life itself.  The final outpouring of energy in this piece is beyond overwhelming.  Music becomes pure energy.  This stunning finale would not have the same impact without the previous three movements.  The first movement is a complex study of an elegant dance rhythm, and each movement subsequently becomes more simple and direct.  The second movement is a noble and deeply felt pantomime of grief, the third an spinning Italian dance, the last a romp.  It's one of the greatest rides in all of classical music.

- Edwin Outwater

Mozart: Composer and Comedian?

April 13, 2012:Think of Mozart as a comedy writer. Yes, he wrote some drama too, but overall, not that much. If you look through his work, you’ll find a G minor symphony or string quintet here and there, or a D minor piano concerto, but the rest is pretty Major key, pretty sunny. Of the operas, a few are serious, like Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, and a bit of Don Giovanni, but mostly it’s a lot of situation comedies, mistaken identities, costumes, goofy bird catchers, right? The strange thing is, we take Mozart very seriously for someone who wrote mostly comedy. Few comedy writers in any genre are so revered. We might think of Haydn in terms of comedy -- but Mozart?

There are two reasons for this. One is that beauty and perfection are the things that strike us first in Mozart’s music. This is true especially now, hundreds of years later, that the subversive elements in his music have lost some of their social and sonic impact. In terms of beauty, Mozart’s music is unmatched: the perfect melodies, the flawless structure, the warm, singing timbre of everything he wrote. Music is the most sensual of the arts, and the pure, miraculous beauty of his work casts a spell on us, and that spell can sometimes hide its other qualities.
We also tend to forget Mozart that worked in comedy because he used it for such serious purposes. The power of comedy is that it disarms and equalizes. When we laugh, we are outside of ourselves. Father and child, king and peasant, friend and enemy can be united, even just for a moment, with laughter. Mozart knew this about comedy and used it expertly. Think of his operas: they entertain and play over a period of hours, but we all remember those moments when, out of nowhere, he suddenly lands the sucker punch and we’re knocked out! Our hearts pound, and tears well up when we hear the Count’s pleading apology to the Countess at the end of Le nozze di Figaro, or when we hear the trio at the beginning of Così fan tutte that seems to bid farewell to honesty itself. Mozart uses comedy to get our guard down before he hits us with the real stuff. And when these moments do come, they are moments of truth and humanity, moments so strong that they break social and family conventions. In one instance, a philandering husband apologizes to his wife; in another, a young woman breaks free of her screaming, oppressive mother. In Mozart, maximum truth equals maximum beauty, and these moments of truth can be found throughout his works, whether they have words or not.

Hours of elegant farce, leading to a few big moments. It feels familiar. Mozart’s music is a metaphor for our lives. After all, if we add up the minutes of how we live, how many of them are truly serious? Don’t we spend most of our time making elegant, pleasant, witty maneuvers that allow us to get through the day unscathed, and allow to coexist peacefully with our fellow humans? And when the big moments of truth do arrive in our lives, don’t they seem to come out of nowhere, to knock us out, to change us, in an instant, forever?

- Edwin Outwater

Spanish Origins: Boléro and Rodrigo

February 13, 2012:What I love about this concert is that all four of these pieces revel in exquisite effect.  Each piece has a certain lightness, a certain elegance, a kind of sheen.  Of course, this all comes from Ravel, whom Stravinsky called "That most perfect of Swiss watchmakers."  Ravel creates beauty through precision, and you can hear this in his understated Mother Goose suite as well as the enormous climax of Boléro.  Certainly the Impressionist style of Ravel influenced Rodrigo which is only fair, since Spanish music lived in the soul of some of his most famous work.  Nico Muhly also has a lovely sheen to his music, though I don't recall discussing French music that much with him.  I know Britten is a big influence for Nico, and you can see that in this score.  But Britten himself was captivated by the French sheen - even as it became in his hands an English foggy dew.  So enjoy the music of Ravel and the results of his influence.  Enjoy the sound and color.

- Edwin Outwater

Musical Fireworks: Prokofiev 5 and Brahms' Concerto for Violin

January 6, 2012:It's so easy to be swept away by Prokofiev's music that it's easy to forget what it's actually about.  The Fifth Symphony is a great example of this.  It's full of wit, soaring melodies, pulsating mechanical rhythms -- but it really is a war symphony, composed in the midst of World War II.  It's a hymn to the spirit of the Russian people, full of heroism and a lament for the same people, decimated by war.  The very opening of the piece is a pastoral melody the spirit of nobility and peace.  But what will become of these farmers, these workers, these everyday people?  After the opening statement, the entire first movement is an awakening to war in all its triumph and horror.  The noble pastoral theme is transformed by the end of the movement into a slouching, brutal  military juggernaut.  It's thrilling, but also terrifying.  The two quick movements of the symphony alternate between dizzying musical acrobatics and maniacal mechanism.  Russian artists were fascinated with machines and this sense of Futurism pervades this music.  It's a great ride, but there is always a hint of danger, of things getting out of control, of the machine going off the rails. The third movement is the most personal, starting as a dirge, descending into madness and ending with a long coda that echoes Wagner's sleep music from Die Walküre.  An entire civilization, exhausted.

- Edwin Outwater

Russian Fire

November 16, 2011:Shotakovich, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky: they are Russian masters.  They all composed epic sprawling symphonies and ballets, full of unbridled passion both tender and violent. They're musical versions of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. These are the works of these composers we know well ... Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Shostakovich's wartime symphonies, and Rachmaninoff's massive piano concertos.

In this concert you won’t hear any of these works.

What you're going to hear is that most exquisite of musical forms, the Russian Minature.  All of these composers worked beautifully in the small scale as well as the grand.  Think of the incredible tone-painting of The Nutcracker, or the beautiful short Preludes for Piano by Rachmaninoff.  Folk tales, subtle emotion, beautiful neoclassical symmetry and a Mozartean sense of detail await you at this beautiful December concert.  Enjoy the color, the charm and the warmth of this special corner of Russian music. 

- Edwin Outwater

The Magic of Hugh Russell

October 21, 2011: Brahms wrote of his Second Symphony, "It is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning."  Brahms was joking. It is a pastoral work, written one summer by a beautiful lake. It's an exhale after the tremendous weight and anxiety of influence Brahms felt following Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with his own First. At times serene, at times jovial, it rarely lingers on the overtly melancholy.  But everything Brahms says has many layers of meaning.  I love reading over Brahms's letters to Clara Schumann and others.  The close readings of the scores they send each other, the care with which they craft their responses is a lost art today.  Often a line is ironic several times over.  So I wonder if Brahms was really happy when he wrote this symphony, whether there was some irony within irony here.  Brahms lived his life without companionship, only with an endlessly yearning love for Clara Schumann.  As he ages his works become increasingly inward, lonely, and final.  I don't think Brahms's music is possible without sadness. Even the Second Symphony, one of his sunniest works seems filled, at its most beautiful moments, with an overwhelming awareness that this beauty will pass. This feeling of temporality adds beauty to this peace as well as sadness, but this sadness is somehow more real and satisfying, happier.  So many levels of meaning, whispering like leaves in a summer breeze.

- Edwin Outwater

The Virtuoso Piano

September 19, 2011: It's hard to play Liszt in the 21st Century.  His pieces automatically take on a sense of irony that Liszt would never have intended. Today, we might call his music melodramatic, overwrought, or even (the dreaded) cheesy.   That's because Liszt was using vehicles for his music that have become cliché in our time.  We've heard his music in Flash Gordon TV serials, accompanied by the sight of model spaceships powered by sparklers.  We've heard Liszt in the Japanese Noodle Western Tampopo (which I highly recommend) as a musical apotheosis of the perfect bowl of ramen.  Let's face it: this music has been used ironically for a long time.  But can we get beyond this?  As listeners, can we tap into the Romantic Spirit? And don't we all really want that Romantic Spirit back?  These artists, Liszt, Wagner, Schumann, Coleridge, Shelly, Keats, believed that Art was Everything, that the Artist was God, that Music was a Demon that Possessed You, that a Piano Concerto could Unleash your Deepest Fantasies. And they did, in those days.  To play Liszt in the 21st century one must transport oneself, and believe in the music in a way that we don't today.  One has to conjure the Romantic Spirit in a way that can't be made ironic or shrugged away.  André Laplante can do this, and he will open our season playing both Liszt concertos, the dramatic, earth-shaking First Concerto, and the shockingly intimate Second.  He is a true believer, and so am I, and so is our orchestra.  Be prepared for your ironic distance to be burned away and to leave the concert infused with the Romantic Spirit.  You'll be filled with Liszt-O-Mania.

- Edwin Outwater