Discover Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose


Robert Schumann, composer.

This weekend, the Houston Symphony presents a never-before-seen production of Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose, featuring singers, contemporary dancers, chorus and orchestra. I recently got to ask the Houston Symphony’s new Musical Ambassador/Assistant Conductor Carlos Andrés Botero a few questions about Schumann’s choral masterpiece.

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose? What does it sound like? What story does it tell?

Carlos Andrés Botero: In 1851, Robert Schumann was hired by the Düsseldorf Choral Society and Orchestra to be their music director and principal conductor. The composer took advantage of this unique opportunity and composed several pieces which are today major contributions to the choral and symphonic repertoire.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Germany saw a surge in popular interest for simple folk stories and countryside mystique. The demand for such themes was so high that some of the most successful writers of the day, brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, made their careers solely publishing so-called “fairy (or folk) tales.”

From left to right, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm as painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann in 1855.

From left to right, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm as painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann in 1855.

Robert Schumann, newly appointed in Düsseldorf, composed his own “fairy tale” by transforming the genre of song cycle (of which he himself was a prolific creator) with the powerful forces now at his disposal. His source for the text is a poem by Heinrich Moritz Horn. The story tells us about the journey of a rose who is transformed into a human by fairy magic and over the course of a year experiences a wide spectrum of human emotions: rejection, fraternity, fear, fellowship, faith, romantic love, gratitude and motherhood.

CD: What makes this one of Schumann’s great masterpieces?

CAB: Of the techniques that Schumann displays like no other, his refined ability to convey the depth of spoken language with musical sounds stands out. Every note seems to be serving to literally paint with sound the development of the story. This is not a dramatic tale in the sense we today have developed of “romantic” sound. The Pilgrimage is a wonderful opportunity for our ears to explore the subtleties of color and sound that a musician of his caliber is able to evoke. I think this is precisely the reason why the work fits so well into our Music Director’s search of a New Sound for the orchestra.


The performances this Saturday and Sunday will feature contemporary dancers.

CD: Houston audiences will be treated to a new, semi-staged presentation of The Pilgrimage of the Rose this weekend. How will dance and lighting be incorporated into the performance?

CAB: What we have been working on for this coming weekend is a visual component that will add even more layers of meaning to the aural perception of the piece. This was not originally intended by the composer, of course, but  we are giving the characters created by the author ”bodies” in the form of dancers. So, if you want to follow either sound, movement or both combined, you will be able to enjoy the storytelling in the way that you prefer. From the first downbeat we are going to take our audience back to 1851 and watch the genius of Schumann telling us this compelling tale as if we were in an improvised street theater in Düsseldorf.

Don’t miss Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose, complete with contemporary dancers, singers, chorus and orchestra this Saturday and Sunday at Jones Hall!

If you would like to learn even more about this piece, join Carlos and Andrés at Rice University for a special “Musically Speaking” concert experience tonight! Learn more about our “Musically Speaking” Series here.

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Meet 19-Year-Old Violin Wonder Simone Porter


Simone Porter, violin

This weekend, 19-year-old violin wonder Simone Porter will maker her Houston Symphony debut performing Barber’s Violin Concerto. The Los Angeles Times, after referring to her as a “future star,” wrote, “Let’s strike the word ‘future.’ She sounds ready. Now.” Her performances have been described as “bold” (Seattle Times) and “virtuosic” (London Times), and she has already appeared with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and many other world-renowned orchestras. Recently, I got to ask Simone a few questions about herself and her upcoming performances.

Calvin Dotsey: When you first began learning to play music, what made you choose the violin?

Simone Porter: I became obsessed with the violin when I was 3 years old. While I can’t remember what it was that drew me to this specific instrument, I have a theory: I was initially introduced to classical music through opera—I fell in love with a CD of Puccini arias that my parents had in their collection. I think that when I was exposed to the violin, I was attracted to its singing tone and vocal capacities. I think the violin is the instrument that comes the closest to the most natural instrument of all, the human voice-  it functions as such for me, because absolutely nobody would want to hear me attempt to sing.

CD: At 19, you are one of the youngest soloists performing with the world’s major symphony orchestras. When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career as a soloist?

SP: When I first began to play, violin was a hobby—something I just did for the joy it gave me, and it evolved very organically into a passion, and finally a vocation. I was very fortunate to have a number of solo opportunities, and I realized that I loved performing solo more than anything in the world. I consider the experience of being on stage in front of an audience with other musicians all striving towards the same expressive goal a gift.


“I can’t think of any concerto that sings more than the Barber.”

CD: How would you describe Barber’s Violin Concerto to someone who has never heard it before? What do you love about this piece?

SP: I adore the Barber violin concerto. Earlier, I mentioned that opera was my gateway into classical music, and I can’t think of any concerto that sings more than the Barber. Barber wrote so many beautiful works for voice, and his inclination towards the human instrument is apparent in the lyric beauty of this violin concerto. Both the first and second movements are delectably melodious. The first movement is both intimate and expansive- its beginning is quite contemplative, but it crescendos to a sensual and dramatic climax. I think the second movement is the heart of the concerto. It’s my favorite movement, it features some sublimely gorgeous elegiac, evocative melodies. The third movement hits the ground running and never stops- it’s a paroxysm of frenetic energy! The interaction between the orchestra and the soloist in the Barber is also very unique. The parts are so intertwined, their conversations so vibrant, the result is an incredibly lush sound world.

CD: What do you like to do when you’re not practicing or performing?

SP: My main hobby is reading. I’ve always loved books—like music, they have the capacity to transport, to provide solace, entertainment, and inspire mental and emotional expansion. I also feel that my love of literature feeds and informs my music making! I spend the rest of my time gabbing away with my wonderful friends. Talking is a great passion of mine—my garrulousness earned me infamy and the title of “Chatty Cathy” throughout my entire elementary school career.

Don’t miss Simone Porter at Jones Hall September 25, 26, 27, 2015! Get tickets and more info here.

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John Corigliano’s New STOMP

John Corigliano

John Corigliano’s new piece, STOMP for orchestra, will receive its world premiere tonight.

The first classical concert of our 2015-16 season features the world premiere of John Corigliano’s STOMP. One of America’s most important composers, John continues to add to one of the richest, most unusual and most widely celebrated bodies of work any composer has created over the last 40 years. His numerous scores—including three symphonies and eight concerti among more than 100 chamber, vocal, choral and orchestral works—have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists and chamber musicians in the world. Houston Symphony Magazine recently spoke with John about STOMP for orchestra.

Houston Symphony Magazine: How did the idea to translate STOMP from a solo work for violin to an orchestral arrangement originate?

John Corigliano: Well, it was a combination of two things. First, the Houston Symphony asked me to write a piece. Because I am working on completing an opera right now—as I have been for the last two years—I knew I couldn’t write a big piece. I suggested that I might be able to take something and adapt it, or something of that nature. Second, I had heard a wonderful transcription of Bach’s Chaconne (for unaccompanied violin) for full orchestra, so I said this could be done. And I said why don’t I do that? Why not adapt STOMP for solo violin into STOMP for orchestra? It’s a lot of fun, this piece, and it’ll make a wonderful seven-minute opener.

HSM: Were there any particular challenges or opportunities in the translation of STOMP for orchestra?

JC: There were a tremendous number of challenges because STOMP for solo violin is a very unusual piece. Because I wanted to write a bluegrass fiddle piece, I used a technique called scordatura, which means “mistuned” in Italian. Composers have been mistuning strings for special purposes all the way back to the Baroque period. In the case of STOMP for solo violin, the mistuning gave me a really punchy, jazzy feeling. Among other things, I lowered the E of the violin tuning because I wanted to have open strings; a lot of bluegrass violins play open strings. And also, it has a wonderful ring in that register. It makes the violin sound like a viola. However, when I transcribed that for orchestra, I had to abandon those ideas. You do not mistune the orchestra. It’s very difficult for players to learn to finger a note in a different position. Nor is there rehearsal time to do that. And, there’s no need to do that anyway because I have my violas, with their E, if I want to use it in the music.

John CoriglianoThe other element that made this piece unusual and fun to play for solo violin was foot stomping, which fiddle music has in it. Performers tap the melody in off-beats or they stomp the on-beats. I incorporated this into the orchestral version as well. So in STOMP for orchestra, when the sections of the orchestra—the strings, the winds and the brass—are playing, they’re also stomping. It’s supposed to be fun for the musicians, but it’s a new technique. They must coordinate stomps and playing. So it’s a little tricky, but not terribly. And the audience, I think, will have a lot of fun hearing its orchestra playing as a giant country fiddle.

HSM: We’ve talked a little bit about the composition from your perspective and from the musicians’ perspective. Are there any other particular elements you’d like Houston Symphony audience members to be attentive to?

JC: I actually want the audience to sit back and have a good time. It’s a fun piece. It’s a piece that’s high-spirited and has a lyrical melody in the middle, and then it gets back to the high spirits and really goes wild. I want the audience to enjoy that and not to worry about analyzing the piece.

Don’t miss STOMP for orchestra this weekend! Get tickets and more info here.

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Joshua Bell’s Violin


Joshua Bell with his violin, the Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius.

World renowned violinist Joshua Bell joins the Houston Symphony to celebrate the Opening Night of our 2015-16 Season this Saturday, September 12, 2015. Mr. Bell plays a violin made by Antonio Stradivari with a fascinating story. Bell himself reveals the history of this remarkable instrument and how he came to play it below.

My violin is over 300 years old. Known as the Gibson ex Huberman, the revered instrument came into my life one fateful day during the summer of 2001, I was in London, getting ready to play a ‘Proms’ concert at the Royal Albert Hall and decided to stop by the famous violin shop J & A Beare  to pick up some strings.  As I entered the shop, Charles Beare was just coming out of the back room with a stunning violin in hand.  He told me that it was the famous Huberman Strad, and of course I was instantly intrigued.

The J & A Beare violin shop in London.

The J & A Beare violin shop in London.

I soon learned all of the known details of the violin’s remarkable history, which is complete with twists and turns to rival the film that I had only recently finished working on -The Red Violin.  Believed to be one of only five or six instruments made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari* in Cremona, Italy, the violin has belonged to many, including the English violinist George Alfred Gibson. But it was its connection to Bronislaw Huberman that I found particularly fascinating and somewhat personal.


Brahms (seated) and Joachim (standing) had been friends since early in their careers.

Huberman was a Jewish Polish violinist who lived from 1882-1947. He was a child prodigy who was revered for his remarkable virtuosity and daring interpretations. Huberman studied under Joseph Joachim** in Berlin, and by the age of 11 he was already touring Europe as a virtuoso. It was during one of those early tours that he met the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who was only six at the time, and had not yet achieved the legendary status that he came to hold. The two musicians remained lifelong friends.

At 13 Huberman had the honor of performing the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the composer himself, who was stunned by his interpretation. According to biographer Max Kalbeck, “As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, ‘You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully.’”


Huberman and Einstein in 1937.

Huberman became one of the most celebrated musicians of his time, but it was in 1929 that his contribution to humanity took on an added dimension.  During that year he visited Palestine and came up with the idea to establish a classical music presence there. During Hitler’s rise to power, Huberman had the foresight to realize he could save many Jewish artists while fulfilling his desire to start a Palestinian Orchestra. Huberman auditioned musicians from all over Europe. Those selected for the orchestra would receive contracts and, most importantly, otherwise impossible-to-get exit visas from their homeland to Palestine.  Huberman raised the money for the musicians and then their families, even partnering with Albert Einstein to set up an exhaustive U.S. fundraising trip in 1936. By the end of that tour, the money for the orchestra was secured and sixty top-rate players had been chosen from Germany and Central Europe.  All in all, it was a fantastically successful tour, barring one particular performance at Carnegie Hall on February 28th.


Violinist Bronislaw Huberman.

That night Huberman chose to play the second half of his concert on his ‘other violin’, a Guarneri del Gesu.  During the applause following his performance of the Franck Sonata, Huberman’s valet walked on stage to inform him that his Stradivarius had been stolen from his dressing room. The police were called while Huberman tried not to panic, continuing optimistically with his encores. The instrument had previously been stolen in 1919 from a hotel room in Vienna but was recovered days later when the thief tried to sell it. This time, Huberman was not so lucky.

There are several versions as to exactly how and why the violin was stolen, but what we know for sure is that the instrument ended up in the hands of a young freelance violinist by the name of Julian Altman.  Some say Altman’s mother convinced him to steal it; others report that Altman bought if off the actual thief for $100.  Regardless, Altman took great pains to conceal the violin’s true identity, covering its lovely varnish with shoe polish and performing on it throughout the rest of his career, which included a stint as first chair with the National Symphony Orchestra during World War II.


Huberman and the conductor Arturo Toscanini with the Palestine Orchestra after a public dress rehearsal on December 25, 1936, the day before the orchestra’s official debut.

Heartbroken, Huberman never saw his Stradivarius again.  However, his great dream was fulfilled when the new Palestine Orchestra made its debut in December of 1936 with the great Toscanini on the podium. I like to imagine that my own relatives might have been in the audience on that opening night, as my grandfather was born there and my great grandfather was part of the first “Aliyah”   of Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine in 1882. As for his violin, it was played by its suspected thief for over fifty years, and in 1985,  Julian Altman made a deathbed confession to his wife, Marcelle Hall, about the true identity of the instrument.  She eventually returned the violin to Lloyd’s of London and received a finder’s fee; and the instrument underwent a nine month restoration by J & A Beare Ltd which noted it was like “taking dirt off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

The instrument was then sold to the late British violinist Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus String Quartet. Previous to my fortuitous encounter with the violin at J & A Beare, Brainin had once let me play it after a rehearsal of the Mozart g minor string quintet which I had the pleasure of playing with him one evening in the 1990s. “One day you might be lucky enough to have such a violin,” he had said prophetically.


Joshua Bell playing the Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius.

And so here I was in 2001, buying some strings at the violin shop and I was introduced to the 1713 Stradivarius again. As it was handed to me, I was told it was being sold to a wealthy German industrialist for his private collection.  However, after playing only a few notes on it I vowed that this would not happen. This was an instrument meant to be played, not just admired.  I fell in love with the instrument right away, and even performed that very night on it at the Royal Albert Hall.  I simply did not want it to leave my hands.

This violin is special in so many ways. It is overwhelming to think of how many amazing people have held it and heard it. When I perform in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, I am always touched to think how many of the orchestra and audience members are direct descendants of the musicians Huberman saved from the Holocaust – with funds raised by concerts performed on the very same instrument I play every day. Who knows what other adventures will come to my precious violin in the years to come? While it certainly will be enjoyed and admired long after I am not around anymore, for the time being I count myself incredibly lucky to have been its caretaker on its 300th birthday.

* Back in the day when Latin was still widely used for scholarly publications throughout Europe, it was common for people to “Latinize” their names. Thus the Italian luthier (violin maker) Stradivari is often referred to as “Stradivarius.” Both names are correct.

**Joseph Joachim was a great nineteenth century violinist and one of Johannes Brahms’ best friends. Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto and Double Concerto for Joachim, and Joachim himself wrote the cadenza for Brahms’ Violin Concerto. If anyone could teach Huberman how to play Brahms it was Joachim!

Don’t miss our Opening Night Concert with Joshua Bell! Learn more.

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Matt Strauss on Carmina Burana

Matthew Strauss, Percussion

Matthew Strauss, Percussion

Yesterday, I got a chance to pose some questions to Houston Symphony percussionist Matt Strauss about this weekend’s performances of Carmina Burana and his work with the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic. Matt Strauss was one of fourteen musicians who traveled to Colombia in June 2015 to help prepare the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic for their visit to Texas. This weekend’s performances are part of the Houston Symphony’s new educational partnership with this orchestra. This interview has been transcribed and edited for print from an original audio recording.

Calvin Dotsey: Today was your first rehearsal of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at Jones Hall with the Colombian Youth Philharmonic. When the choruses and soloists join you, there will be over 300 musicians on stage. How will you all fit?

Matt Strauss: Luckily, this organization has recently had experience fitting all those musicians on stage. Some of you may recall when we did Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with our former music director, Maestro Christoph Eschenbach, and the crew did an excellent job building out a stage, and indeed they have done the same thing for these performances to fit the combined orchestras, the very large chorus and the children’s choir as well!

Andrés leading the Houston Symphony, the Colombian Youth Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony Chorus, the Houston Children's Chorus and a trio of soloists at last night's rehearsal of Carmina Burana.

Andrés leading the Houston Symphony, the Colombian Youth Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony Chorus, the Houston Children’s Chorus and a trio of soloists at last night’s rehearsal of Carmina Burana.

CD: Could you describe Carmina Burana to someone who has never heard it before? What is it like to listen to this piece? What is it like to perform it?

MS: Carmina Burana is a very popular piece, so as a musician in a professional orchestra I’ve played this piece many times. A lot of the melodies and songs that Orff composed for this piece have a very paganistic quality, despite the fact that the music is a setting of poems from medieval times. We tend to think of the middle ages as being very religious and unlike the modern world, but these poems are actually quite secular in nature and deal with issues that we deal with today. The music is easy for a listener to latch onto because the melodies are very clear—there’s not a lot of polyphony. The main melodies are not obscured by other musical lines, so people remember them. By the end of each movement, someone in the audience could probably sing many of the melodies, so it’s a great experience for the listener.

CD: What makes this presentation of Carmina Burana special?

MS: Well, there are two things that make this presentation special. It’s always a lot of fun to play the piece, but this is the first time with our new Maestro. We always like to see his take on a piece of music that we’ve never done before with him. The other thing that’s special, of course, is that we are doing this with our new friends from Colombia, this excellent bunch of musicians, and we’re able to connect with them through the language of music.

Matt Strauss working with one of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic's percussionists in Paipa, Colombia.

Matt Strauss working with one of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s percussionists in Paipa, Colombia.

CD: You were one of fourteen Houston Symphony musicians who traveled to Colombia to help mentor and prepare the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic for their visit to Houston. What was it like to work with them?

MS: It was excellent! I was looking forward to doing it before I went there, but after working with them I got to see how good they were. I wasn’t prepared to see how good the actual level of their playing was going to be. I thought it was going to be good, but it was even better than I had thought. And these kids(well, they’re not kids, most of them are in their twenties) are so dedicated. They’re dedicated; they’re ambitious; they want to learn; and they want to show you that they’ve learned. The other day I took the percussion section out to Ninfa’s—the original, on Navigation—to show them a little bit of Houston tradition, and I told them there that they are going to be friends for life.

CD: What was your favorite part of your experience in Colombia?

MS: It was working with the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic. Having that experience, especially a cross cultural experience, was very special. A lot of us in the symphony also teach and do work with younger people here in our country, but it’s also interesting when you have that opportunity to teach in another country, in a different culture, because the music’s the same, and the desire to learn is the same.

Andrés leading the Houston Symphony and the Colombian Youth Philharmonic in a rehearsal of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite.

Andrés leading the Houston Symphony and the Colombian Youth Philharmonic in a rehearsal of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite.

CD: The Houston Symphony and the Colombian Youth Philharmonic will also perform Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite together at the concerts this weekend. What is that piece like? Why does it go well with Carmina Burana?

MS: The Scythian Suite was originally composed by Prokofiev for a ballet that Sergei Diaghilev was producing for the Ballets Russes in Paris, but Diaghilev rejected the score even before it was completed. So Prokofiev reworked it into a suite with four movements. It’s got a lot of aggressive and loud music in it, but those parts are juxtaposed by some very beautiful, serene music. As with Carmina Burana, there’s a lot of aggressive, rhythmic music juxtaposed with beautiful, a more lyrical music. It’s a good pairing I believe.

CD: What unique qualities does Andrés bring to these pieces through his interpretations?

MS: Well, Andrés as I’ve been learning, having worked with him for over a year now, he likes to have it—if it’s dry, it’s gotta be more dry! If it’s loud, it’s more loud. If it’s soft, even softer, and he always brings these special qualities…he likes to go more extreme, which brings the music alive to the listener. He’ll also grab onto a certain moment, and wait a little bit longer before starting the next note, and things like this make the way Andrés interprets pieces special.  He brings something extra to the table.

Special thanks to Vanessa Astros for recording this interview. Don’t miss this epic performance of Carmina Burana, featuring over 300 musicians on an extended Jones Hall stage! For tickets and more information, click here.

Carmina Burana
July 17 & 18, 20015
Jones Hall

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Lisette Oropesa, soprano
Randall Bills, tenor
Elliot Madore, baritone
Houston Symphony
Filarmónica Joven de Colombia
Houston Symphony Chorus
     Betsy Cook Weber, director
Houston Children’s Chorus
     Stephen Roddy, director
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