Hans Graf Talks Ravel & Debussy

Maestro Hans Graf

Houston Symphony Conductor Laureate Hans Graf. Photo credit: Bruce Bennett

This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes back Conductor Laureate Hans Graf for a program of Debussy and Ravel. Recently, I got to ask Maestro Graf a few questions about this shimmering program of musical Impressionism.

Calvin Dotsey: Ravel is known as one of the greatest orchestrators of all time. In terms of orchestration, do you have any favorite passages in Mother Goose or the Piano Concerto in G that stand out to you as particularly ingenious?

Hans Graf: Mother Goose is very moderate in terms of Ravel’s orchestrations, modest and beautiful. It has a couple of characteristic moments, like the contra bassoon solo depicting the Beast asking Beauty for mercy. There is also the Sleeping Beauty Pavane, with its clean clarinet and flute lines that are unlike anything else Ravel composed. The concerto is more like a piece of chamber music. Ravel used the clean colors of the orchestra’s instruments instead of thick combinations, which results in some of the greatest soli for the winds in all of the orchestral repertoire! There are some particularly famous solo parts for piccolo​,​ trumpet, bassoon, and English horn. In fact, Ravel’s wind soli parts in the concerto are so virtuosic that they’re always on the excerpt lists for auditions!

CD: Ravel and Debussy are often grouped together on concerts, recordings and in music history books. What are some of the most notable differences in their styles?

HG: If I had to describe each composer in two words, Ravel would be precision and brilliance, and Debussy would be warmth and color. Debussy is more improvisational, full of the unexpected, not at all “square.” Ravel is much more strict. Both are exceptional composers!

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker

CD: Jon (Jackie) Kimura Parker is a pianist with whom you’ve worked a lot.  What is it about his playing and his approach that appeals to you?

HG: I know him as a pianist of vigorous brilliance! We have never performed the Ravel concerto together. Ravel’s writing is gentle and small, but quite brilliant and bright – on the other end of the spectrum would be something very heavy, like Rachmaninoff. The Ravel concerto’s piano part is glassy and clear, lean and precise. It will be very wonderful for Jackie, because he has such a controlled power and brilliance when he plays, which will lend itself perfectly to Ravel.

Don’t miss Hans Graf with the Houston Symphony!

Ravel & Debussy
October 23, 25, 26, 2014
Hans Graf, conductor
Jon Kimura Parker, piano

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How to Dress Like a Virtuoso: Issa’s take on Sarah Chang

Aside from being a world class violinist, Sarah Chang is also quite the classical music fashionista. In this post, local Houston fashion blogger Issa of we wear things discusses Sarah’s signature style and gives us a few tips on how to get that glamorous virtuoso look.

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As you may have heard violin super star Sarah Chang will be in town performing with the Houston Symphony.  And while her talents will most definitely speak for themselves as you listen to her perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, I’m here to talk about her enviable taste in performance attire.

Style: "NOW"Sarah can be seen in classic full length gowns in a variety of colors, but always with a fitted bodice, which I think is not only most flattering but also helps with ease of playing.  You don’t want a big bulky gown to get in the way of your vibrato.  The dress pictured above happens to be my favorite, a classic gown with a trumpet hem to keep it fresh.  When asked about her fashion Sarah said:

“I adore fashion. I also think the whole concert experience is something very old-school Hollywood and special. I always think of the composer first and which piece I’m playing. Then I choose the color and the style of my evening gown to fit a specific composer. I believe that the concert-going experience is visual as well as auditory. The music comes first, but I also want my fashion choices to compliment the composer’s music, not distract from it.”

We should all take a cue from Sarah when it comes to symphony attire by keeping it classic Hollywood glam.

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How to Dress Like a Virtuoso: Sunday Beach on Sarah Chang

Aside from being a world class violinist, Sarah Chang is also quite the classical music fashionista. In this post, local Houston fashion blogger Lauren Mills of Sunday Beach discusses Sarah’s signature style and gives us a few tips on how to get that glamorous virtuoso look.

edp3982-007-MFThis weekend the Houston Symphony welcomes international violin superstar Sarah Chang to Houston for three performances of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Sarah has a strong sense of style and her love of fashion is evident in her concert wardrobe. She has become known for the gorgeous gowns she dons during her performances. Here’s what she has to say,

 I adore fashion. I also think the whole concert experience is something very old-school Hollywood and special. I always think of the composer first and which piece I’m playing. Then I choose the color and the style of my evening gown to fit a specific composer. I believe that the concert-going experience is visual as well as auditory. The music comes first, but I also want my fashion choices to compliment the composer’s music, not distract from it.

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Simple silhouettes in solid colors dominate Sarah’s style. She wears minimal accessories, which I imagine is a necessity when playing an instrument. I love that her style reflects the music she performs. Take a cue from Sarah and dress like a virtuoso for your next formal event!

fashion blog photos

BaubleBar 360 Pearl Studs | Edie Parker Dottie Acrylic Clutch | Herve Leger Bandage Gown | BCBGMAXAZRIA Gracie Gown | Adriana Orsini Faceted Sterling Silver Earrings | Jimmy Choo Metallic Leather Heels

 -Lauren Mills

Don’t miss Sarah Chang with the Houston Symphony!

Sarah Chang Plus Copland
October 2, 4, 5, 2014
Cristian Macelaru, conductor
Sarah Chang, violin

Buy tickets now!

 

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Q&A with Sarah Chang

Violinist Sarah Chang

Violinist Sarah Chang

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask violin virtuoso Sarah Chang some questions about her up-coming performances of Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Houston Symphony this weekend.

Calvin Dotsey: When did you first learn and perform this concerto?

Sarah Chang: I adore the Barber Concerto! I learned it only 2 years ago, and absolutely fell in love with it. It’s a relatively new friend, but it has quickly found a special place in my heart!

CD: How has your interpretation of this concerto changed since then?

SC: I learn something new about the work every day I play it. I love the near-perfect balance Barber captured between the beautiful lyricism in the first two movements and the technical monstrosity he created in the third movement.

CD: Has research into Barber’s life influenced your interpretation of this piece?

SC: It absolutely has. With every work I perform, I try to read up on the composer and soak up as much knowledge as I possibly can. Getting inside the composer’s head and trying to understand not only his biographical background but also his personal state of being helps mold my interpretation of his work.

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Sarah Chang performs Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Houston Symphony this weekend.

CD: Have you met any musicians who knew or worked with Samuel Barber? If so, did your interactions with them influence the way you play Barber’s music?

SC: I personally do not know anyone who had interactions with Barber. However, I have heard wonderful stories of his time at Curtis [Institute of Music], which is not far from where I grew up (I’m a Philadelphia girl), so I feel a connection there.

CD: This piece is being programmed with two other American works. How does this concerto’s “American-ness” influence your preparation and performance?

SC: There is something truly special and heroic about anything and everything that is American. American music, American movies, American sports…We aren’t afraid to show love and to put our hearts on our sleeves!

CD: I’ve read that spontaneity is one of the qualities you most value in performance. How do you balance the need to create spontaneity in the moment with the need to communicate the larger structure of a piece?

SC: I believe in intense preparation before a concert, but once you step onstage, it’s all about spontaneity and sharing that electric moment with the audience. I think the overall line and structure of a piece is paramount, but you need to give yourself as much freedom as the composer will allow and some liberties to take risks on the spot to make magic happen onstage.

CD: A number of our audience members will undoubtedly be amateur violinists (including myself), so here are a few questions specifically relating to violin playing. In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of performing Barber’s Violin Concerto and why?

SC: Ensemble in the third movement. There’s so much going on, you’re flying all over the fingerboard, and it’s incredibly technical for everyone onstage, not just the soloist. So, everyone has to juggle their parts as well as keeping their eyes and ears open the entire time.

CD: How do you practice? Describe your usual practice routine.

SC: I practice my basics every day. Doesn’t matter if I practice 20 minutes or 6 hours a day, I always do my scales, arpeggios and basic fundamental exercises.

Sarah Chang and her new puppy, Chewie!

Sarah Chang and her new puppy, Chewie!

CD: What do you like to do when you’re not playing music?

SC: I love movies. I’m such a movie nut! I also love fashion, and I recently got a puppy who is, unapologetically, the center of my universe!

CD: You always perform in the most beautiful dresses. How would you describe your sense of style?

SC: Thank you! I adore fashion. I also think the whole concert experience is something very old-school Hollywood and special. I always think of the composer first and which piece I’m playing. Then I choose the color and the style of my evening gown to fit a specific composer. I believe that the concert-going experience is visual as well as auditory. The music comes first, but I also want my fashion choices to compliment the composer’s music, not distract from it.

Love Sarah’s dresses? Check back later this week to find out how to dress like a virtuoso from some of Houston’s trendiest fashion bloggers. Don’t miss Sarah Chang with the Houston Symphony!

Sarah Chang Plus Copland
October 2, 4, 5, 2014
Cristian Macelaru, conductor
Sarah Chang, violin

Buy tickets now!

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Rachmaninoff in Love: The Troubled Genesis of a Masterpiece, Part II

rach heartLast time, we discovered how Rachmaninoff overcame composer’s block with the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl’s hypnosis therapy and ultimately produced once of his best loved pieces, his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor.  What I didn’t tell you, though, was that Rachmaninoff also fell in love during this period, much to the dismay of his extended family and the Russian Orthodox Church. Why were they so opposed to the feelings stirring in the twenty-something Rachmaninoff’s heart? Well, because Rachmaninoff was in love with…his cousin (and yes, his first cousin).

While marrying one’s cousin may seem an incestuous taboo today, before the twentieth century cousin marriage did happen from time to time, and as long as it didn’t happen too often in one family there were generally no ill effects. Charles Darwin, for instance, also married his first cousin (although this was before he formulated his theory of evolution, understandably). In some times and places cousin marriage was even considered especially romantic, but unfortunately for Rachmaninoff in early twentieth century Tsarist Russia cousin marriage was, if not impossible, at least rather frowned upon.

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Zverev and his students.

Rachmaninoff first got to know his cousin Natalia Satina many years earlier after a dramatic incident in his musical education. As a boy, Rachmaninoff lodged with his piano teacher, Nikolai Zverev (along with Alexander Scriabin, as fate would have it). As Rachmaninoff got older he became increasingly interested in composition, but his desire to compose was frustrated by the fact that all of the pianos in Zverev’s house were in one room, and there was always someone in there practicing, making it impossible for Rachmaninoff to sit at a piano and compose without distractions. One day in 1889, Rachmaninoff struck up his nerve and asked Zverev to buy him another piano and put it in a room separate from the others so that he could compose. Evidently, he didn’t ask nicely enough because Zverev was furious (he was generally against his students composing too much anyway, since time composing was time not spent practicing piano). Zverev wanted to kick Rachmaninoff out of his house, so the two of them went to visit Rachmaninoff’s family, and Rachmaninoff’s future as a musician was hotly discussed for over an hour. Unexpectedly, Rachmaninoff’s aunt (his father’s sister), Varvara Satina, took his side and offered to house, feed and clothe Rachmaninoff while he finished his studies at the Moscow Conservatory, and that is just what happened. The Satins* became a second family to Rachmaninoff, whose childhood had had its ups and downs (Rachmaninoff’s father had squandered the family fortune).

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Rachmaninoff with the Satin family.

It was only years later that his amorous feelings for Natalia Satina began to develop (she was four years his junior). Significantly, she was also an accomplished pianist, which no doubt made her a sympathetic companion for Rachmaninoff. Their desire to wed, however, posed some obstacles: it was against the law of the Orthodox Church, and to make matters worse, Rachmaninoff was not a regular churchgoer. Through family connections, they made arrangements to be wed at a military barracks, because barracks priests reported not to the Holy Synod, but to generals (such was the relationship between church and state in Imperial Russia). There was one last hurdle to clear, however; they had to receive permission from the Tsar during the ceremony in order for their marriage to be legal. Fortunately, the telegram came through and everything went off according to plan. After the rather business-like ceremony, the newly married Rachmaninoffs sped away for a three month honeymoon in Austria and Germany. As far as we know, their marriage was a happy one, and they had two perfectly healthy daughters.

Rachmaninoff completed his Piano Concerto No. 2 during the period of his courtship and engagement to Natalia. While no one could claim that Rachmaninoff wished to depict the events of his life in his music, many listeners have found his second piano concerto to be full of passion, melancholy, yearning, and ultimately triumph, and it is interesting to consider the events that may have led Rachmaninoff to explore these emotional states in his art. Rachmaninoff certainly had purely musical reasons for writing this piece the way he did apart from regaining his confidence after the failure of his first symphony and his struggle to marry the woman he loved. Nevertheless, one of the most beautiful things about music is that it can universalize personal emotions and ideas, allowing us to empathize with people from times and places radically different from our own. If we approach music with a desire to learn about and understand the people who create it, we can enrich both our appreciation of the music and of each other.

For those interested in learning more about Rachmaninoff’s life, I highly recommend Bertensson and Leyda’s classic biography, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music.

*In Russian, last names are feminized for women, usually by adding an “a” at the end of the name: hence Ivan Satin and Natalia Satina could be brother and sister (at least linguistically).

Don’t miss Watts Plays Rachmaninoff 2 with the Houston Symphony!

Watts Plays Rachmaninoff 2
September 19, 20 & 21
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
André Watts, piano

Buy tickets now!

Renowned pianist André Watts returns to Houston to perform Rachmaninoff’s deeply romantic Piano Concerto No. 2. Enduringly popular since its 1901 debut, the concerto’s themes have found fame in movies such as Brief EncounterThe Seven Year Itch and the popular song “All by Myself.” Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada also leads the heroic symphonic tone poem Ein Heldenleben by R. Strauss.

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