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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A Voice from the Colombian Youth Philharmonic

Diego Hernández Vidal, a cellist in the Colombian Youth Philharmonic

Diego Hernández Vidal, a cellist in the Colombian Youth Philharmonic

Under the leadership of new Music Director and native Colombian Andrés Orozco Estrada, the Houston Symphony has begun an educational partnership with the Colombian Youth Philharmonic. As part of this partnership, fourteen Houston Symphony musicians journeyed to Paipa, Colombia to help prepare these talented young musicians for their upcoming visit to Houston, which will culminate in a side-by-side performance of Carmina Burana July 17 & 18. Recently, Vanessa Astros, the Houston Symphony’s Senior Director of Communications, had the opportunity to interview Diego Hernández Vidal, a cellist in the Colombian Youth Philharmonic. This interview has been translated from Spanish.

Vanessa Astros: Hi Diego! Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and the Colombian Youth Philharmonic?

Diego Hernández Vidal: My name is Diego Hernández Vidal, and I have been a cellist in the Colombian Youth Philharmonic since its inaugural tour in 2010. I’m grateful to be a part this project that goes beyond the music; the Philharmonic is like a family that seeks to develop its musicians’ potential artistically, personally and professionally. This project aims to help its members see their dreams come true. It shows you the right path to success, and the administrative and artistic staff works tirelessly to help us reach our goals.

VA: What’s the difference between your experience these last few weeks with the Houston Symphony and other residencies you have completed?

Andrés rehearsing the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

Andrés rehearsing the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

DHV: The Colombian Youth Philharmonic is known for bringing coaches of international caliber from schools and musical institutions from all over the world to better prepare the orchestra for concerts during artistic residencies. A little over a year ago, the Colombian Youth Philharmonic began a new educational strategy that, in my opinion, was a wise move. They decided to maximize the impact of the residency by unifying the faculty of the residencies, bringing musicians from one institution or orchestra at a time.

In this residency, the Houston Symphony musicians’ high level of musical knowledge and extensive professional experience resulted in a unified artistic conception of the twentieth-century repertoire that we’re working on, which has given me and the other students a unified perspective of a great professional North American orchestra.

I must confess that I’m very happy to be able to take a close look at how professional musicians of such a prestigious orchestra work, through listening to anecdotes told by our mentors and by spending time with them during coffee breaks, chamber music classes and social gatherings where we discuss politics, geography and the cultures of our countries. It’s also very gratifying to know that a young Colombian musician has earned—through hard work, discipline, excellence and a great artistic sensibility—the admiration and respect of dozens of brilliant musicians who are part of the Houston Symphony. I’m thankful for Maestro Andrés Orozco-Estrada for making this incredible exchange between the Houston Symphony and the Colombian Youth Philharmonic possible.

VA: Tell us about your Houston Symphony mentor. What was your relationship with him like?

Houston Symphony Cellist Chris French coaching a trio of Colombian Youth Philharmonic  musicians.

Houston Symphony Cellist Chris French coaching a trio of Colombian Youth Philharmonic musicians.

DHV: The cellos had the honor to work with Christopher French; he’s a total character! He won us over with his jovial personality and charisma, and of course, to say he’s a great cellist is an understatement!

The classes were very interesting. He always had something wise to say. We’d review passages of certain pieces and everything was seamless. Time would fly by! It was really fun having him as coach of our section. His spirit and desire to always give 100% was contagious.

On a couple of occasions, we had time left to go over other key subjects for us, such as what things to keep in mind when auditioning or attending master classes, and we even planned some “cello-related things” for when we’re in Houston and meet again with our tutor Brinton, who visited our country and orchestra last year (we will omit the details to protect the identities of those involved…hahaha!)

VA: How do you feel about performing with the Houston Symphony?

DHV: Wow! This is one of the greatest experiences of my life! I’ll be able to talk about this tour for years to come because aside from it being a privilege, I know it will be a fully enriching experience, artistically speaking. Imagine sitting next to the musicians of the Houston Symphony, being led by Maestro Andrés in highly demanding repertoire. You almost have no choice but to give it your all, “take it all in” and enjoy the energy that surrounds you. I think it’s going to be a rewarding challenge for all of us and an unforgettable experience.

VA: What excites you most about your trip to Houston?

DHV: I’m really excited about seeing a place I haven’t been to before. Plus, the places we’re going to are filled with history and things to discover. It’s a lot of fun knowing that we will travel with friends, which makes the trip even more exciting. And of course, there is the highly anticipated side by side performance with the Houston Symphony, which makes this part of the tour the most important event of the year.

Diego in rehearsal.

Diego in rehearsal.

VA: What are your career goals?

DHV: My main interest right now is to continue with my artistic training because I firmly believe that a solid academic training would allow me to grow musically, artistically and personally. I recently completed my undergraduate studies in cello and have already begun contemplating the idea of studying abroad. It’s a long process because you have to be cautious and selective in your choices since these decisions will affect your professional future.

After that, I’d like to be able to work for a top orchestra. Making symphonic music is one of the things I enjoy most.

Learn more about the Houston Symphony’s educational partnership with the Colombian Youth Philharmonic here.

Hear the Colombian Youth Philharmonic perform Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada for FREE this Sunday, July 12, 2015 at 3:00 pm as part of our 3rd Annual FREE Day of Music at Jones Hall!


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The Tour that Will Forever Change My Life #LaJovenEnTexas

On June 23, fourteen Houston Symphony musicians traveled thousands of miles to Colombia to begin our orchestra’s first ever educational partnership with one of Latin America’s finest youth ensembles, the Colombian Youth Philharmonic (Filarmónica Joven de Colombia). Our musicians have been in the small town of Paipa, Colombia working with this next generation of professional orchestral musicians on sectionals, coaching and musical mentorship. Carlos Andrés Botero, a conductor who has appeared with the Houston Symphony as Co-Host of our “Musically Speaking with Andrés” series at Rice University, joined the Philharmonic in his home country to further prepare them for the second and final part of this educational partnership, which will take place right here in Houston next month. Here he shares his reflections and excitement about the week our musicians spent with these talented young musicians.

Carlos Andrés Botero leading the Colombian Youth Philharmonic in rehearsal.

Carlos Andrés Botero leading the Colombian Youth Philharmonic in rehearsal.

The Filarmónica Joven de Colombia (Colombian Youth Philharmonic) is a very special orchestra, and one very close to my heart. It represents my dream of giving the best young musicians in my home country all the amazing opportunities that I never had growing up. It is the first time in the history of Colombia that we have the talent and the resources necessary to perform a piece like The Rite of Spring, which Houston audiences can see for themselves on July 12 at Day of Music. In many ways, the fact that we gathered for two weeks is the culmination of several decades of patient and constant effort of many musicians that have studied overseas and returned to build the Newer Generation of musicians in Colombia. This week represents my desire and commitment to be part of that wave of artists that dreams of changing the world one note at a time.

What makes this #LaJovenEnTexas tour so important is the preparation leading up to it. What’s even more special is that a group of musicians traveled thousands of miles to share their experience with our young musicians. The expertise that the Houston Symphony musicians brought to Colombia was vital in making our week of preparation swift, efficient and deep with meaning and artistry. Every single one of us has worked round the clock to nurture and reshape all the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s talent into a powerful and dynamic orchestra that sparks the natural talented enthusiasm of the young men and women.

The experience initially took us to the Bogotá airport, immediately followed by a four-hour road trip to the historic town of Paipa, 124 miles northeast of Colombia’s capital. The independence of Colombia was forged around this area almost 200 years ago, also by brave people in their twenties who dreamt of a different nation and a place of leadership in the world. I always find it quite fitting that the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s residencies are here, at the edge of a 50-acre artificial lake at the top of the Andes. The beauty and historic importance of the surroundings make this an inspiring location.

Houston Symphony Associate Concertmaster Eric Halen working with violinists of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

Houston Symphony Associate Concertmaster Eric Halen working with violinists of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

I led the 112-strong ensemble with the assistance of another conductor for two days prior to the arrival of the Houston Symphony musicians. Knowing that very few of the young musicians had played this music before, the strategy was to build a basic knowledge of the work via sectionals where the Symphony faculty could build each section of the orchestra in a personalized way. For the first three days, we were able to strike a balanced proportion of individual lessons, master classes, workshops by instrument and by instrument families, guided listening sessions, history and theory analysis, and Full Orchestra Rehearsals. Some of us have even found time each day to coach chamber ensembles in preparation for our concerts in Houston including the highly anticipated side-by-side performance and residency in Houston. It has been a busy week that went by too fast, but it was without a doubt a rewarding week with exceptional results; everything we wanted and more.

From a very rocky first rehearsal, we now have an orchestra that can play the hardest piece of music of the twentieth century. And even more, they can play it with confidence while following the nuances required making high quality music. On Saturday, June 27, just a few days after the experience began, I had my last rehearsals with them before maestro Andrés took the podium for the last days before the official start of the Tour. On top of Stravinsky’s brilliant score, we also prepared eight other pieces by different composers, all demanding substantial differences in our playing efforts and precise technique. They proved their commitment and focus by seamlessly switching from one to the other with accuracy in a matter of minutes!

Andrés and the orchestra acknowledging the audience's applause after their first performance in Medellín, Colombia.

Andrés and the orchestra acknowledging the audience’s applause after their first performance in Medellín, Colombia.

Taking all this talent, first shaped by many years of study in their schools, and building it into an ensemble that can stand now on its own feet will be one of my favorite moments of my life, I’m sure! To see their faces light up when even the most obscure passages start making sense thanks to the subtle changes of timbre in the woodwinds during rehearsal is so remarkable. I only wish everyone in our audience could have witnessed that process from the very beginning. It would surely make you love their effort and dedication as much as I do. Nevertheless, by attending the concerts you will witness an unforgettable concert by players who truly enjoy making music together.

And now now off to a series of concerts in Medellin, Bogota, Dallas and Houston!

Learn more about the Colombian Youth Philharmonic’s visit to Houston, which will include performances of The Rite of Spring and Carmina Burana. Get daily updates, photos and videos of our musicians’ journey in Colombia by visiting our Web site and following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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The Sound of Colombia’s Future

Me at Puente de Boyacá.

Me at Puente de Boyacá.

On June 23, I boarded a direct flight to Bogotá, Colombia, a place I’ve never had the opportunity to visit before. I’m fortunate that my job took me to a country I’ve always wanted to visit. I knew going in that Colombians were great people, so I never once doubted that this would be a good experience.

The next day, I was taken to Paipa, Boyacá, just northeast of Bogotá. That’s when the magic began. Little did I know that Boyacá had so much history, let alone mind-blowing scenery. As a Spanish speaker, I was able to enjoy many conversations with the locals: from Bogotá to Paipa, my driver, like the good Colombian he is, gave me a proper tour, giving me some context into each town we passed, and in between his fun commentaries we talked a little bit about everything…including fútbol! We were on the Bogotá-Tunja highway (110 km east of Bogotá) when he told me that he wanted to show me Puente de Boyacá, the place where Spanish and Colombian forces fought during the famous Battle of Boyacá. Led by Simón Bolívar, the Colombian soldiers fought in what became the decisive battle for the liberation of New Granada (now Colombia). I couldn’t resist: I had to take a selfie with Puente de Boyacá in the background!

Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman working with the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman working with the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic.

We got back on the road, and a few hours later, I was at my final destination: Estelar Paipa Hotel & Centro de Convenciones, a place where nature is the way of life! With 102 acres of forests and hills and the incredible Lake Sochagota, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with joy. I immediately got to work, greeting our incredible musicians who had traveled thousands of miles the night before to be in Paipa for Day 1 of our residency with the Colombian Youth Philharmonic. Then, without even checking into my room, I got together with the Colombian Youth Philharmonic staff to discuss our plan of attack for the next few days. I immediately hit it off with my counterpart at the Colombian Youth Philharmonic, Juan Andrés Rojas Castillo. Right away, we started discussing ways in which we could help each other to tell the story of the partnership between the musicians of the Colombian Youth Philharmonic and those of the Houston Symphony.

What happened after Day 1 is something I can’t quite describe with words. The bond created between our musicians and the Colombian Youth Philharmonic musicians was evident right away, despite the language barrier. The ten- to twelve-hour days didn’t feel like work. The young musicians were learning and absorbing everything their mentors were teaching them, and their mentors were doing everything in their power to make the experience worthwhile—from learning a bit of Spanish to practicing longer hours with their students.

Colombian Youth Philharmonic musicians hard at work in rehearsal.

Colombian Youth Philharmonic musicians hard at work in rehearsal.

I was fortunate enough to meet most of the young musicians and had very fun and deep conversations with them—everything from discussing their goals and career aspirations to simply sharing a few laughs. I can’t quite describe how rewarding this experience has been. These musicians in their twenties are more dedicated than I ever was at that age. The structure and intensity of the residency allowed for some real quality time with their mentors and great one-on-one coaching. But despite the long hours and intensity, what was even more powerful for me to see were the friendships we all created in this place. A lot of our musicians scheduled time with their students for extracurricular activities, like running and coffee breaks. These friendships were developing at a fast pace despite the language barrier and intensity of the practice schedule. It must be true what they say about music being a universal language!

Omelette with fresh eggs, anyone?

Omelette with fresh eggs, anyone?

Now let’s talk about our fourteen musicians and their experiences. First, I think all of us can agree that the cool temperatures and amazing scenery were incredible bonuses. I’d occasionally find some of our musicians staring into the horizon, at the trees or horses while sipping on a cup of espresso—because if you’re in Colombia, coffee is the way of life! The food was incredible to say the least. In fact, our harpist Paula Page thinks the food came from our backyard. Check out the photos! But the scenery, horses, and lake aside…for me personally, I feel grateful and thankful to have gotten to know these musicians that I admire and respect so much. We also had some good laughs whenever we had free time during meals or breaks.

I will miss waking up every morning to the sounds of violins and flutes; these talented musicians were practicing day in and day out. Walking the halls during the day and seeing them lug around their instruments from room to room was fun to watch. I thank the students and the staff for their hospitality, the great conversations and for allowing me to intrude during sectionals and rehearsals to capture the experience and share it with everyone in Houston and beyond. Check out my photos at!

Thank you, Colombian Youth Philharmonic and Houston Symphony, for giving me one of the best experiences of my life.

Me and our amazing Houston Symphony musicians!

Me and our amazing Houston Symphony musicians!

Learn more about the Colombia Youth Philharmonic’s upcoming residency in Houston here!

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Robert Franz & East Meets West

Robert Franz, Houston Symphony Associate Conductor

Robert Franz, Houston Symphony Associate Conductor

Tonight, Houston Symphony Associate Conductor Robert Franz will lead our orchestra in a fascinating East Meets West program at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Recently, I got to ask Maestro Franz a few questions about his inspiration for this unique and interesting concert.

Calvin Dotsey: For our third ExxonMobil Summer Symphony Nights concert this year, you have come up with an especially interesting program that explores connections between Western and Asian musical traditions. What inspired you to create this program?

Robert Franz: The program started with the idea of Debussy’s symphonic masterpiece, La Mer. Each piece has in common a connection with nature and an exploration between Western Symphonic Music and Eastern folk music and sounds. The “story” of this concert is really one of multiple civilizations inspiring each other. Two works on the program are by Chinese composers, and the work by Griffes and Debussy are great examples of Impressionistic Music. Much like its painting counterpart, this music revels in the exploration of timbres.

CD: The first piece on this program is Dance of the Yao People by Liu and Mao, a piece that may not be familiar to our regular classical audience. Could you tell us a little about this piece?

RF: This work is a folk song that comes from the southwest portion of China. The work itself may not be well known, but the sound is quintessentially Chinese.

CD: Next on the program is a well-known orchestral favorite, Smetana’s Vltava (a.k.a. The Moldau). What inspired you to include this piece on this program?

RF: This piece was included for two reasons. First of all, like the Debussy, this piece was inspired by nature. You can practically hear the river bubbling along. Also, the work is created to programmatically describe the sights and sounds you might hear on your voyage down this noble river.

CD: The next piece is also less often programmed: Griffes’ The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. What can you tell us about this piece and why you chose to include it?

RF: This work is very programmatic. Like The Moldau, this work takes you on a journey down a sacred river in China, ending up at Xanadu, the summer home of Kubla Kahn. This work is extraordinarily atmospheric. It is perfect for an outdoor venue like the one we are in this evening.

Changlu Wu, pipa

Changlu Wu, pipa

CD: We also have a special guest soloist for this concert, pipa player Changlu Wu. The pipa is not an instrument usually found in the orchestra. How would you describe the pipa to someone who has never seen or heard one before?

RF: The pipa looks like a “Chinese lute.” It typically has four strings, and has a wonderfully evocative sound. Changlu Wu is an incredible musician, and the moment I heard her play I wanted to do a concerto with her.

CD: Changlu Wu will perform another piece not often programmed on our Miller concerts: Qilian Rhapsody for Pipa and Orchestra by Han. What is a Qilian Rhapsody? How is it like a Rhapsody in Blue or one on a theme by Paganini?

RF: Qilian is a mountain range in China, and this piece uses folk music from that area of the country. A rhapsody typically is a work that organically moves from one section to another. This work does that with great ease and finesse.

CD: Last on the program is a staple of the repertoire, Debussy’s La Mer. What makes this piece a good fit for this program?

RF: Debussy wrote this piece during a period in late nineteenth century Paris when all things Asian were in vogue. This suited Debussy perfectly as he was attracted to the use of the pentatonic scale and a style of composing that focuses on the timbres of the various instruments. This piece is evocative of the movement of the waves and the power of the ocean. Debussy was inspired by the Atlantic Ocean, and I’m sure there will be moments when you will feel like you are sitting at the ocean with him!

This East Meets West concert is part of our FREE ExxonMobil Summer Symphony Nights series at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Don’t miss it tonight, June 26 at 8:30 pm! Learn more here.

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