Q&A with Betsy Cook Weber: Fauré’s Requiem

The altar of the Church of La Madeleine in Paris, where Fauré worked as an organist and where the first version of his Requiem was premiered in 1888.

The altar of the Church of La Madeleine in Paris, where Fauré worked as an organist and where the first version of his Requiem was premiered in 1888.

“As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.” —Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem is one of the treasures of the choral repertoire. Composed between 1887 and 1890, it has often been seen as a response to the grand, dramatic and even operatic requiems that were popular at the time. In contrast with the expected fire and brimstone, Fauré’s Requiem is suffused with tenderness and heavenly light, reflecting his view of death as “as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above…”

On April 28, 30 and May 1, renowned conductor David Zinman returns to Houston to conduct guest soloists, the Houston Symphony Chorus and the orchestra in this masterpiece. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Houston Symphony Chorus Director Betsy Cook Weber a few questions about this piece.

Betsy Cook Weber, Houston Symphony Chorus Director

Betsy Cook Weber, Houston Symphony Chorus Director

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Fauré’s Requiem to someone who has never heard it before? How is it different from other famous requiems?

Betsy Cook Weber: The Fauré Requiem is serenely, sublimely, seamlessly beautiful from beginning to end. It doesn’t contain the over-the-top drama of the Requiems by Mozart or Verdi, but is, instead, quietly and deeply reverent throughout.

CD: Fauré wrote relatively little music for large ensembles, preferring to focus on chamber music, solo piano works and songs. Do you find that this sensibility is reflected in the way he wrote this piece?

BCW: The premiere of this piece used large forces, and we are doing the same, but the entire piece feels intimate. It is as though those onstage are performing for themselves instead of to an audience.

CD: What are you thinking about as you prepare the chorus to perform this piece?

BCW: Maestro Zinman has asked us to sing Gallic or French-influenced Latin for this performance. In the past year-and-a-half, we have sung Italianate Latin for the Verdi Requiem and Austro-Germanic Latin for the Mozart Requiem and Carmina Burana. The differences are sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle; it’s easy to forget what is what!

In addition, I believe that the tonal quality for Fauré’s Requiem needs to be very different from that of Beethoven’s Ninth and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, the last two pieces the chorus performed. In the Beethoven and parts of the Bernstein, we worked for a big sound, with rich, full vibrato. The Fauré (as was true in certain passages of the Bernstein) requires a sound that seems effortless (although that is certainly not the case!) with minimal vibrato.  If the audience senses that we are working hard during these performances, we have failed.

Gabriel Fauré and his wife, Marie, in 1889.

Gabriel Fauré and his wife, Marie, in 1889.

CD: Do you have any favorite passages you would like to highlight for the audience? What do you personally love about this piece?

BCW: That’s a bit like asking which bite of chocolate cake was my favorite, but to offer just a few favorite moments:

I love the very opening measures. The chorus intones “Requiem aeternam” (Rest eternal), and, if we do it right, it should sound muffled, somber, and almost inaudible, as though we are sitting in a cathedral whispering to ourselves.

In the Agnus Dei, (Lamb of God) I love the single, shimmering pitch sung by the sopranos above a C Major chord on the words “Lux aeterna” (Light eternal). The rest of the chorus then enters on an A-flat Major chord. The individual melodic and harmonic ingredients of these measures are not at all remarkable, but Fauré’s treatment is magical; it “gets” me every single time.

In Paradisum (In Paradise) begins with a beautiful, arpeggiated figure in the organ. I am not the first person to describe this passage as the moment when a soul floats to heaven. The sopranos then enter with a very linear motif, intertwined by that beautiful organ part. It is fiendishly difficult for the sopranos (don’t tell them I said that!), but when it works, it is one of the most beautiful moments in all of classical music.

Don’t miss the Houston Symphony Chorus in Fauré’s Requiem April 28, 30 and May 1! Click here for tickets and more information.

Posted in 2015-2016 Season, Classical, Q&A | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Karen Gomyo Tangos with Mozart!

Violinist Karen Gomyo joins the Houston Symphony for Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 this weekend.

Violinist Karen Gomyo joins the Houston Symphony for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 this weekend.

Hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “a first-rate artist of real musical command, vitality, brilliance, and intensity,” violinist Karen Gomyo is taking the world’s music halls by storm with her brilliant and insightful performances. This weekend, she joins the Houston Symphony in Mozart’s sparkling Violin Concerto No. 3. Recently, I got a chance to ask Karen a few questions about her upcoming performances.

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 to someone who has never heard it before?

Karen Gomyo: This music gives the listener utter joy. The simplicity with which Mozart could express deep human emotion is truly genius. He touches the “inner child” in us. The music is elegant, happy and humorous in the outer movements and innocent and dreamlike in the middle movement.

CD: Has the way you play Mozart been influenced by the historically informed performance movement? If so, could you give an example?

KG: I think it’s always important to know how any music might have been played during the time in which it was composed. Of course we will never know for sure without recordings, which obviously didn’t exist back in the 18th century, but based on surviving written documents, we do have sufficient knowledge to have a pretty good idea. Also, instruments from that period have a lighter, crisper sound, and there are certain stylistic traditions that were followed at the time, such as the use of ornaments, different use of vibrato and treatment of tempo.

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“I love that [Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3] takes me back to my childhood.”

This is all information that I take into consideration when I work on music from the classical and baroque period, but the fact remains I am playing on a violin with a modern set up, with a symphony orchestra that also plays on modernized instruments. And we have a conductor. Back in the day this music would have been played without conductor, but rather led by the solo violinist leading the group and playing all the tutti sections together. So, there are key differences which make the outcome naturally different from how it would have been back then. It’s also interesting to wonder if Mozart would have embraced the many possibilities modern instruments provide, the playing technique that has developed a great deal since his time, as well as the romanticism that was the playing style of the “golden age” violinists of the 20th century, such as Arthur Grumiaux. To this day, Grumiaux is considered by many to be the most wonderful Mozart interpreter.

CD: What do you personally love about this concerto?

KG: I love that it takes me back to my childhood. My close friend was learning this piece when we were both eight years old, and I just loved the way he played it and the memories of our innocence that it brings back. Like a mini-opera, it is full of character and wit, and one can really tell a story with it.

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“Like a mini-opera, [this piece] is full of character and wit, and one can really tell a story with it.”

CD: Do you have any favorite passages you would like to highlight for the audience?

KG: My favorite passage in this concerto, if I had to choose one, would be the brief but absolutely gorgeous twelve-bar Andante section in the middle of the third movement, which is otherwise a joyous dance-like movement. The Andante comes seemingly out of nowhere, and is never repeated again. The strings in the orchestra play pizzicato, like raindrops, and the oboes have the most beautiful descending line over four bars. After these few seconds of bliss, the music goes back to the more energetic character until the end of the piece.

CD: You have taken a special interest in tango music, specifically the music of Astor Piazzolla. What about this music attracts you, and how is performing it different from performing, say, a Mozart concerto? Do you feel that playing tango music enhances your performance of other styles of music?

KG: I first heard Piazzolla’s music when I was about 14 and fell in love instantly. His Nuevo Tango is a departure from the traditional tango and is influenced by classical, jazz and synagogue music. It’s a true portrayal of the genuine interest Piazzolla took in different kinds of music while growing up in New York.

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“Also, nature is essential for me.”

What one learns from playing tango is the strong rhythmic discipline that acts as the foundation, over which one can play with incredible freedom. In classical music we don’t talk enough in detail about the importance of rhythmic character and discipline the way we talk about sound quality, intonation, vibrato, phrasing, etc. In music as simple and transparent as Mozart’s, rhythmic precision and character become very important. How to treat a rhythmic motif to best express the character of a certain passage or phrase can be a subtle detail that might really change the feeling of the music.

CD: What do you like to do when you aren’t practicing, performing or traveling to your next concert?

KG: I love spending time with my friends. I am lucky to have wonderfully diverse friends in music as well as outside of it. I get the most inspiration from our quality time together. Also, nature is essential for me. Some of my most moving memories are from a four-day backpacking trip in the Canadian Rockies and a solitary two weeks in the south island of New Zealand, being alone and one with untouched nature.

Don’t miss Karen Gomyo playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 April 14, 16 & 17 at the Houston Symphony! Click here for tickets and more information.

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The Final Four: A Symphony Slam Dunk!

Anna Diemer and student athletes at rehearsal preparing the national anthem.

Anna Diemer and student athletes at rehearsal preparing the national anthem.

What does the Houston Symphony have to do with the Final Four? More than you might think. A few weeks ago, Houston Symphony Chorus Manager Anna Diemer got a call from the Rice University Athletics Department. As co-sponsors of the Final Four, Rice University and the University of Houston are responsible for every detail of the tournament—including coordinating the singing of the national anthem.

This year the Final Four games will begin with the Star-Spangled Banner sung by student athletes from each of the four schools competing for the championship. The students were chosen based on both participation in college athletics and singing ability, and include Chevis Armstead from the University of Syracuse’s Men’s Track and Field team; Karlie Crispin from Villanova University’s Women’s Basketball team; Nico Melo from the University of North Carolina’s Men’s Soccer team; and Madison Ward from the University of Oklahoma’s Women’s Volleyball team.

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Anna and the students on the court.

The Rice Athletics Department needed someone to create an arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner and coach the singers to get them ready to perform it together. They heard that the Houston Symphony’s Chorus Manager, Anna Diemer, would be just the person to do it. In addition to working as the Houston Symphony’s Chorus Manager, Anna also works as a vocal coach and recently appeared as a soprano soloist with the Houston Symphony in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. “I’m a huge basketball fan,” Anna told us, “so I was very excited when I got the call.”

Anna contacted the singers individually and created an a cappella arrangement of the national anthem tailored to their individual voices. Symbolically, each singer gets a solo before they all sing together in harmony. She then began coaching them individually over the internet using FaceTime in advance of their rehearsals together in Houston. “Coaching over the internet was challenging,” she said. “But it’s been a delight working with each of these talented students, and they are going to sound great.”

The quartet will perform the Star-Spangled Banner on Saturday, April 2 at 5:00 pm before the two Final Four games, and their performance will be broadcast live on national television on TBS.

 

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Horner’s Collage: A Concerto for Four Horns Gets Its U.S. Premiere

James Horner

The Houston Symphony celebrates the legacy of the late Oscar-winning composer, James Horner.

Titanic. Avatar. Braveheart. Field of Dreams. Some of the biggest movies of the past 30 years have told their stories with the help of sweeping, colorful scores by the late James Horner. He entrusted some of their most poignant moments to the French horn: In Field of Dreams, for instance, the horn lent its glow to the first sight of the ballpark in the cornfield.

As the great horn parts accumulated, two veterans of Horner recording sessions, David Pyatt and Richard Watkins, began longing for something even juicier. They envisioned a Horner concerthall piece spotlighting the horn.

“His writing for horn was so unique, it needed to be done!” Pyatt recalls. Thus was born Collage: A Concerto for Four Horns, for which the Houston Symphony gives the U.S. premiere March 31-April 3. The orchestra’s Principal Horn, William VerMeulen, and Associate Principal, Robert Johnson, will share the solo roles with British guests Pyatt and Watkins.

Collage joins one of the orchestral repertoire’s tiniest niches: the four-horn concerto. The only example from a major composer is Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück, or Concert Piece, a blockbuster that VerMeulen and his Houston Symphony colleagues played in 1997 under conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Whereas the Konzertstück includes “incredibly virtuosic” horn parts, Watkins says, Collage sets a different tone.

“None of the parts require fiendish technical virtuosity,” Watkins explains. “It’s more a display of the instrument’s beautiful lyrical sound.”

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“Pyatt says his favorite among the Horner scores he played is Iris…Watkins singles out Horner’s ‘typically lush, romantic score’ in For Greater Glory…”

Watkins, former principal horn of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, juggles a busy solo career with teaching at the Royal Academy of Music; Pyatt is the London Philharmonic’s principal horn. Like generations of top London musicians before them, they’re experienced hands at recording movie soundtracks. Pyatt says his favorite among the Horner scores he played is Iris, a 2001 biopic about British novelist Iris Murdoch; its chamber-ensemble score interweaves Pyatt’s horn and Joshua Bell’s violin. Watkins singles out Horner’s “typically lush, romantic score” in For Greater Glory, a 2012 war epic set in Mexico.

“His music gets to the emotional heart of a film, without complication or irrelevance,” Pyatt says.

At the time For Greater Glory was recorded, Watkins says, the International Horn Society—which promotes the instrument’s performance, study and repertoire—had been backing him in commissioning works. He turned to Horner.

“I thought James would be an ideal choice, with his obvious love of the instrument,” Watkins says. “Although he never played professionally, he studied the instrument. James was thrilled at the prospect, and several weeks later suggested a concerto for four horns and orchestra.”

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The Houston Symphony’s Principal Horn, William VerMeulen.

There was one hitch, says VerMeulen, a former member of the Horn Society’s advisory council. Commissioning Horner to write a concerto was expensive, and the Society couldn’t quite cover the bill.

“I said, if I can get my orchestra to pitch in, can we secure the North American premiere rights?” VerMeulen recalls. “That in itself took some negotiating. The whole reason James was doing this was as a favor to his film horn players. He didn’t want it to be just a plain old project that any orchestra could get.”

But the deal fell into place, and the Houston Symphony gets “bragging rights. This is a big deal,” VerMeulen says. “The Schumann piece is such a singularity that having the North American premiere of another high-profile concerto for four horns is a huge feather in Houston’s cap.”

Horner gave the four-horn form his own spin, Watkins says, by treating the soloists as independent voices rather than a block, as in Schumann’s Konzertstück. Dividing the horns across both sides of the stage added a spatial element—most powerfully in the opening, where the soloists enter one by one “to stunning effect.”

Houston Symphony horn player Robert Johnson.

Houston Symphony horn player Robert Johnson.

Watkins, Pyatt and two other Horner veterans premiered Collage in March 2015 with the London Philharmonic. They recorded it in London last May, less than a month before Horner died in a crash of his private plane.

Now Collage arrives in the United States. Joining celebrated colleagues to introduce a major composer’s work will be a career milestone for the Houston Symphony’s Johnson.

“I dreamt of soloing with the Houston Symphony when I attended weekly concerts as a youngster at Rice University,” Johnson says. “For my dream to be realized in this fashion is beyond what I even imagined.” —Steven Brown

Don’t miss the exciting North American Premiere of James Horner’s final concert work March 31, April 2 &3! Click here for tickets and more info.

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Big Brothers Big Sisters at the Houston Symphony

 

Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician Jenna Barghouti (violin) chats with two of the unmatched "littles" from Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician Jenna Barghouti (violin) chats with two of the unmatched “littles” from Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Big Brothers Big Sisters brought some very special guests for the Houston Symphony’s “A Frosty & Frozen Christmas” Family Concert on Saturday, December 12 at Jones Hall. A mentoring network, Big Brothers Big Sisters makes meaningful, monitored matches between adult volunteers (“Bigs”) and children (“Littles”) in the Houston area. Before the concert, unmatched “Littles” and their families enjoyed a breakfast reception sponsored by the Houston Symphony and Macquarie.

The balcony lobby of Jones Hall was full of excitement during the breakfast reception. Throughout the event, Houston Symphony volunteers helped the children make crafts. The highlight of the event was a “meet & greet” with the Houston Symphony’s four Community-Embedded Musicians. Children of all ages were awe-struck as they interacted with Jenna Barghouti (violin), David Connor (double bass), Anthony Parce (viola) and Hellen Weberpal (cello).

Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman and Community-Embedded Musician David Connor pose with Joshua after the concert.

Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman and Community-Embedded Musician David Connor pose with Joshua after the concert.

The breakfast reception and Houston Symphony concert turned out to be an extra special treat for one unmatched little named Joshua. Joshua, who plays the double bass in his school, has attended several Houston Symphony concerts at the Woodlands but rarely is able to make the trip to Jones Hall. Joshua remembered meeting Houston Symphony Principal Bass Robin Kesselman at one of the Woodlands concerts and was eager to reconnect with him. He was also thrilled to meet Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician and double bassist David Connor. After the concert, both Robin and David met Joshua in the lobby of Jones Hall to talk about playing the bass and what it’s like to play in the Houston Symphony. “I really enjoyed the performance today and want to thank Big Brothers Big Sisters for letting me go and allowing me to see my friend Robin and my new friend Dave,” Joshua says. “I was really excited to see them, seeing as I’m a double bass player too.”

If you liked this story, you can help support these and many other Houston Symphony performances and activities. To make a gift, visit www.houstonsymphony.org/donate. You can also get involved and help mentor unmatched “littles” like Joshua through Big Brothers Big Sisters Houston. Stay inspired and happy holidays!

Posted in 2015-2016 Season, Community-Embedded Musicians, Education, Family | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment