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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.


Grand Finale: Edwin’s Farewell

"As we come to my final concert as Music Director of this wonderful orchestra, I have put together a program that I think is a fitting final chapter. 

It was important for me to have a Canadian work in my final program, and I am delighted that Richard Reed Parry has written Outwater Fanfare for me. We recorded RR’s For Heart, Breath and Orchestra on our CD release, which gained so much acclaim all over the world. Since then, RR’s reputation as both a member of Arcade Fire and as a composer of classical music has grown steadily. Having a fanfare written for me personally is a tremendous gift and honor. 

I also wanted this concert to have a sense of newness and adventure. John Adams’s Harmonium is an incredible, groundbreaking work for chorus and orchestra, based on the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson. I love how vividly he brings these texts to life, and the rich, infinite “landscapes of sound” he creates. It’s an atmosphere of discovery and magic. John’s music was also part of my inaugural concert as Music Director ten years ago, so there’s a connection there as well. 

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is our final journey together in our exploration of the music of this wonderful composer. Our performances of both the 5th and 9th Symphonies have been highlights of my time here. I chose the 1st symphony because it is at once both forward looking and nostalgic. This certainly reflects my feelings as I move on to new things after ten wonderful years."

- Edwin Outwater

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto

"We are delighted to welcome Johannes Moser for these performances. Already known worldwide as a soloist with all the major orchestras, we greatly anticipate his debut with the KWS. He plays Dvořák’s cello concerto, a symphony unto itself. To me, this is perhaps the greatest of all Romantic concertos. It is the most successful at depicting the soloist as a kind of protagonist. Though the music doesn’t tell a specific story, the emotional journey of the protagonist/soloist is magical and vivid. From the dramatic and discursive first movement, to the inner journey of the second, to the long goodbye of the third, this concerto somehow tells the story of a life without a specific chronology. It is more of a mix of emotions and memories that look forward and backwards in time, and in that sense, it is more like our own memories, our own human experience. 

Brahms’s Third Symphony is a “protagonist” piece as well. It deals more specifically with the idea of a hero. The music begins with a dramatic flourish with an embedded code. F-A-F, the first three notes of the symphony, means Frei aber froh, (free but joyful), a response to Brahms’s friend Schumann’s musical code Frei aber einsam (free but solitary). However, from the moment this symphony begins, it seems to depart from the heroic narrative into worlds of intimacy, sadness, resignation, and rest. Through wit, drama, and structural sleight of hand, this symphony reveals itself to be more about the human behind the heroic mask, and despite its epic trappings, it tells a much more personal story. That is its genius. 

The concert begins with Evening Ablution, by the young Canadian/Estonian composer Riho Esko Maimets. You will hear a brilliant orchestrator with a deep sense of color. The piece is a meditation, where not much happens (on the surface). It evokes the sound of running water, which has been a part of the meditative state throughout human history. The tension of the ever changing textures and harmonies creates a beautiful contrast to the overall atmosphere of calm and bliss."

- Edwin Outwater

Beethoven's Fifth

"I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with your KW Symphony musicians on this program of extraordinary classics and a thrilling world premiere.

The music for this weekend also has a coincidental biographical aspect. I trained as a trumpet player while growing up in Buffalo, New York and it was my university major at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.  The La Forza del Destino Overture was the first work I conducted in public as a senior in high school before embarking on what would be a life in music.

Performing a world premiere is a fascinating process, made all the more special by the multi-community commission of this trumpet concerto by nineteen Canadian orchestras. Bringing a new work to life often involves a tremendous amount of time and focus by the composer, occupying months to years of one’s life. In this case, there is a solo instrument as the work’s foundation with practical opportunities and limitations. And after all the work to write the piece and for the soloist to learn it, the orchestra receives its material a few weeks before the performance and works together with the composer for just a couple of days to refine it for the premiere.

It’s amazing to me that these instrumental colors, rhythmical and melodic components and emotional temperament are conveyed from the composer’s ear to a listener through little dots on a page interpreted by skilled artists. I am always in awe of their talents and humbled by the fact that mostly they need to give the work over to others to bring it to life – a reality that is not for the faint of heart!

This new trumpet concerto is a beautiful interplay between soloist and orchestra with material shared among other brass-family members and a great deal of virtuosity for everyone on stage.

Currently, I split my conducting life between symphonic and operatic repertoire so it’s that much more fun to open this performance with a work by one of the greatest operatic composers, Verdi. His music always seems to be a perfect fusion of vocal might and dramatic orchestral color.

Beethoven expected so much of the artists performing his music, mostly by testing the extremes of what instruments could do and the stamina of those who play them. Achieving the heights Beethoven challenges us to strive for requires constant vigilance in the face of familiarity and a childlike awe for the miracle of live performance. The ubiquitous Fifth Symphony is never to be underestimated!"

- Michael Christie

Beilman Plays Sibelius

"Sibelius is a composer of organic change. His symphonies mirror nature itself. It’s the next logical artistic step after the Romantic Era awe of nature. Sibelius's draws us into nature’s progress, all the while reminding us that our own life, our own consciousness, is part of this progress. We are born; we live; we die.

His Symphony No. 7 is his masterpiece. In it an entire cycle of life unfolds seamlessly, from beginning to end, in about eighteen minutes. 

How does Sibelius achieve this? I’ll guide you through this in a special presentation from the stage before the piece is performed. So I’m not going to give it all away here!

We also welcome one of my favorite young violinists, Benjamin Beilman, to the KW Symphony to play another monumental work by Sibelius, his Violin Concerto. Ben and I first worked together at the San Francisco Symphony. He impressed audiences and musicians alike with his flawless technique, beautiful sound, and deeply expressive playing. The Sibelius Violin Concerto is his tour de force.

The concert opens with Mozart’s Symphony No. 25, a stunning example of 18th Century Sturm und Drang (storm and stress). Mozart transforms the usually polite Classical Symphony into a vehicle for all-out drama. Also notable in this symphony is the stunning writing for four French Horns, very unusual at the time. 

As I come to the end of my time as Music Director of the KWS, each concert becomes more and more expressive and personal. This one is no exception. I hope to see you there."

- Edwin Outwater


Debuts & Bijoux

"It is an amazing opportunity for me to be part of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony family for one amazing week. It is with great pleasure that I share a colourful French program. We are playing well-known masterpieces by Debussy or Ravel but also fascinating discoveries by Henri Rabaud and Eric Champagne. I am very happy to have one of the rising stars of Canada, Anastasia Rizikov, as our soloist for the week.

My dear friend and composer, Eric Champagne, wrote the Mouvement Symphonique No.1 some years ago. He is without any doubt one of the most gifted young Canadian composers and when I conducted this piece in Québec the public fell in love with its dramatic character.

One of the finest jewels of the French music history is of course the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. In a post-Wagner fin de siècle, Claude Debussy was searching for a different way of painting with sound. With this piece begins a revolution in musical literature, called also the French impressionism era. An amazing fact is that we know Brahms heard the Prélude before his death. As he was a conservative composer, he didn't criticize the work but admitted that he didn't understand it. This “sound-painting” is the most sublime example of the French perfume, taking the auditors almost into a trance by the fascinating sound of the flute coming heavenly from nowhere.

Ravel's piano concerto in G major is one of the best known and best loved piano concertos, and not only of the twentieth century. The 30's were a great period of jazz influence for Ravel. He enriched his music with jazz harmonies and rhythms after a US tour in 1928, saying himself that: “Jazz is a very rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers”. Being an incredible orchestrator, Ravel uses a very light instrumentation and I have to draw your attention on some fascinating solos in the wind section such as the piccolo, the trumpet, the horn or even the harp. But the most amazing of all is the well-known second movement. It is a touching adagio beginning with the solitary piano solo and a very simple melody sounding already like a distance memory. Of course, public gets another satisfaction because this melody comes back played languorously by the cor anglais.

I had the chance to hear Rabaud's Procession Nocturne in Québec 2 years ago and it was an amazing discovery for me. It is a symphonic poem as we know them from the works of Liszt or Richard Strauss. Here, Rabaud gives a vivid picture of one of the greatest mystical characters: Faust. Faust, a wise man, sold his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles. He did it to recover his youth and satisfy all his desires. The poem is divided in three parts: the first section depicts a desperate Faust on his horse wandering in the dark forest. Then he sees a procession of pilgrims passing by and the piece ends with Faust screaming in the night. Rabaud is a young man of 26 years old and very influenced by Richard Wagner. Chromaticism is the center of the work representing Faust's distress.

Mother Goose is one of the most played works by Ravel. Originally this little suite was written for piano 4 hands for his friends' little children. In fact it was created in 1910 by two children who were 6 and 10 years old. Years later he would compose “L'Enfant et les Sortilèges” but Ravel's interest in the theme of childhood was already very evident. The genius of Ravel is again his orchestration. Can you imagine the huge instrumentation of the Daphnis and Chloé ballet compared to a very fine writing in Mother Goose? This little suite is based on the Sleeping beauty which begins with the beautiful Pavane and ends with one of the most uplifting pages of the composer: the Fairy Garden."

- Andrei Feher


Edwin's Final Beethoven

“Edwin’s Final Beethoven!” Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? For the record, I hope to conduct more Beethoven after this weekend’s concerts; in fact, lots more!  Drama aside, this symphony is particularly important to me for several reasons. It was the very first Beethoven symphony I ever conducted, at age 19, when I began my tenure as music director of the Bach Society Orchestra at Harvard University.  In KW, it is the only Beethoven symphony that I have not conducted. This weekend’s concerts complete the cycle of symphonies that are the most important collaborative space for any conductor and orchestra. They are almost excruciatingly familiar to us, and the range of possibility of interpretation is enormous. The orchestra and I have developed a common language of playing these symphonies over ten years, and that deep mutual understanding and connection is something I will miss after I leave here. I enjoy conducting Beethoven the most with the KW Symphony because they deeply understand what I want out of the music.

So what about Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony? It’s a Classical symphony that is bursting at the seams. By the time we reach the 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” the seams are broken. It’s the violent tension between proportion and content that makes this symphony special. Beethoven is pushing towards larger forms in this work, stretching his simple materials to outrageous lengths. It’s here that the humorous energy of the early works, reminiscent of Haydn, gives way to something more violent and manic. It’s here that the performer starts to need the enormous reserves of physical and emotional energy required to do justice to Beethoven's music. I especially love the second movement, with its carefully etched musical adornments, and its long-form lyricism.

Korngold was one of the most talented European composers since Mozart, writing full-blooded Romantic music in the style of Richard Strauss by the age of 14. Forced to flee Europe during World War II, he settled in California and helped create the sound of the classic Hollywood film score. His violin concerto is one of his most successful works for the concert hall. Written in an unabashedly sentimental and romantic style, it has been unjustly maligned by so-called “serious” people. “More Korn than Gold,” is a refrain I’ve heard before. I don’t understand why some think it’s not ok for Korngold to be sentimental and not totally serious. To me, this concerto is an elegant entertainment, just like the violin concertos of Saint-Saëns, Bruch, and others. If it weren’t a great piece, it wouldn’t be played anymore! So, “serious people,” rather than malign it for not being something it was never meant to be, why not figure out what makes it beloved by so many musicians? Hear it for yourself, you’ll know what I mean. 

To underline the point above, I’ve paired the Korngold with another “anachronism,” the orchestral version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Once heard constantly in the concert hall, to the delight of audiences, it is now relegated to the world of cartoons and “pops.” It shouldn’t be. When a great artist writes a work that’s smashingly entertaining, it should be celebrated, not sneered at. I have a feeling that you’ll leave this weekend’s performances with a smile on your face, despite the dark overtones of “Edwin’s Final Beethoven!"

- Edwin Outwater


Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky

Sept 2016: I was in Sydney for the premiere of Mason Bates’ Mothership with the YouTube Symphony. This piece is the definition of High Concept. It's an orchestral piece with opportunities for guest improvisers, combined with an electronic dance track. What more could you ask for? The great thing about Mothership is how well and elegantly it all works: orchestra and electronics interweave seamlessly, and the right soloists make the improvisations seem totally natural and integrated as well. For our performances, we’ve invited a tabla and electric violin duo, Gurpreet Chana and Robert Mason, as well as one of the world’s greatest pedal-steel guitar players, Kitchener’s own Bob Egan.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is undoubtedly one of the most fiendishly difficult pieces for piano and orchestra ever written, if not THE MOST difficult. But it is also a sublime, rhapsodic, harmonically fascinating, wild, expressive, and over-the-top masterpiece. We are joined this week by Natasha Paremski, making her third appearance with the KWS. She owns this piece and is pushing us all to the limit as she scales the Mount Everest of piano works. 

We end this concert with a work I’ve been attached to for many years, the Fourth Symphony of Tchaikovsky. It’s his own version of Beethoven’s Fifth, a battle with Fate. You hear the fate motif at the very opening of the work, intoned with frightening intensity by the horns, then taken over by the rest of the brass who lead the melody down into a frightening abyss. The bulk of the movement is a kind of dramatic waltz, a dance with fate that resolves in a grandly tragic manner. 

The rest of the symphony is more personal: a simple, sad song passed among the sections of the orchestra; a playful, balletic scherzo featured plucked strings and toy-like woodwinds and brass; a finale that is full of bravura and cheer until it is interrupted by the fate motif once again.

Tchaikovsky’s answer to this final interruption is not to destroy fate or triumph over it. Instead, the music just goes on as it had before. It’s a very pragmatic, Russian answer to the question of fate: we may as well keep going and have fun while we can, because fate is coming for us. One day, who knows when, there will be no escaping it.

- Edwin Outwater


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