Q&A with Lise de la Salle

Lise de la Salle, piano

Lise de la Salle, piano

This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes acclaimed pianist Lise de la Salle to Jones Hall for performances of Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2. Recently, I got to ask Lise a few questions about what it’s like to play this masterpiece.

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 to someone who has never heard it before?

Lise de la Salle: I would say that it’s a beautiful piece that’s very heavily influenced by Bach. The first movement starts very dramatically and seriously, but it includes very beautiful, lyrical melodies. The second movement has a very light and sunny character with lots of humor. Then the finale is this crazy excitement; it’s a very diverse concerto.

CD: What do you love about this piece?

LDLS: It’s very fun to play – it has all this joy, excitement and humor! Also, it’s very beautiful and widely accessible. I know that for some pieces, it’s the musicians who are playing it that enjoy the piece the most, and the audience might not find it so accessible. One of the great qualities of this piece is that I think it’s something that the audience will enjoy if you’re not too familiar with it, or even if it’s your first time hearing it. I love that this piece is like that, because I think it’s really important to maintain accessibility with the audience in classical music.

CD: How is Saint-Saëns’ piano music different from other composers’ piano music? What makes his way of writing for the piano unique?

"One of the great qualities of this piece is that I think it’s something that the audience will enjoy if you’re not too familiar with it, or even if it’s your first time hearing it."

“One of the great qualities of this piece is that I think it’s something that the audience will enjoy if you’re not too familiar with it, or even if it’s your first time hearing it.”

LDLS: I do feel that his way of writing music is really, very clear and easy to understand as a musician – it’s not like you need thousands of hours to understand where each voice is going and how he’s using it. To me, his writing is in a very classic way, because it makes sense immediately. That’s one of the greatest qualities I find in his music: it’s simple, easy and clear. Not in a negative way, of course, but in a positive way.

CD: As you mentioned earlier, many listeners hear the influence of Bach in the opening of this concerto. How does this musical reference to Bach’s style affect your interpretation and what do you think Saint-Saëns meant by it?

LDLS: I think the opening is like a choral by Bach, that’s very obvious to me. I don’t really know what he meant or why he did that, but it reminded me of the organ with the big opening with lots of power. Maybe it was because Bach was a model idolized by so many different composers?

Saint-Saens – from what I remember – was really enjoying the piano (which was still new at the time) since it had so much possibility, and he wanted to use all the abilities of this instrument. I think he wanted to use the piano like an organ from this opening, with all the amazing sound and power. It’s very interesting when you compare the first and second movements, because they are like complete opposites: the second movement is this playful, light character. You can really feel that he wanted to share the capabilities of the piano and show what was possible; that’s my understanding of it.

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

LDLS: I love exploring the cities I’m in. I’m lucky to be able to travel the world for my work, but it’s even better to be able to explore and really get to know new cities. I really like walking in new cities; that feels like the best way to get to know a city for me. If I have more time, I like going to museums, especially art museums – it’s one of my passions! I also like exploring good restaurants; I LOVE great food, drinks, wines and cocktails! :) Any city with great food is a great place for me!

Don’t miss Lise de la Salle with the Houston Symphony!

Graf Conducts Schumann
February 20, 21, 22, 2015
Hans Graf, conductor
Lise de la Salle, piano

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Meet HSL Concerto Competition Winner Ben Hoang!

Ben Hoang, 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition First Prize Winner

Ben Hoang, 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition First Prize Winner

On January 10,  16 young musicians competed to win the 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition. These students delivered many impressive performances, and at the end of the day the judges announced that the First Prize would be awarded to Ben Hoang, an eleven-year-old sixth grader from Austin who performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Recently, I got to ask Ben a few questions about himself and his amazing talent.

Calvin Dotsey:  Why did you choose the piano?

Ben Hoang: When I was 3, my sister started to play piano and I got to like the sound of the piano from listening to my sister practicing.

CD: When did you start playing the piano?

BH: I started playing at the age of 5.

CD: What musicians or people have inspired you most in your playing?

BH: Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, and of course, my teacher and my mom.

CD: Why did you pick this concerto? What do you love about this piece?

Ben Hoang performing Grieg's Piano Concerto at the 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition.

Ben Hoang performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at the 2015 Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition.

BH: I heard this Grieg concerto once on KMFA Austin 89.5, and thought it would be a nice concerto to play. When my teacher suggested for me to learn the concerto a few days later, I said yes already knowing how it sounds. We started with the 3rd movement, since it is more exciting. But I especially clicked with the 2nd movement which I find the most natural to express myself. Overall, what I love about this concerto is through it, I learn something about the Norwegian sea, with the seagulls and the ripples, and also the powerful waves.

CD: What are your favorite things to do when you are not practicing or doing homework?

BH: I enjoy reading and riding my bike, and of course, playing video games!!!

CD: What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

League_logoBH: I’m not sure yet about my hopes and dreams at this point. Maybe I can tell better in a few years.

Congratulations to Ben and all of the young musicians who participated this year. To learn more about the annual Houston Symphony League Concerto Competition, click here. You can watch Ben play the last movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra in the video below. Ben will perform the Grieg Concerto with the Houston Symphony at our upcoming Salute to Educators concert.

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Get to Know Pianists (and Twins!) Christina and Michelle Naughton

This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes acclaimed pianists (and twin sisters) Christina and Michelle Naughton to Jones Hall for performances of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos. Recently, I got to ask Michelle a few questions about what it’s like to play this masterpiece and share her career with her twin sister, Christina.

Christina and Michelle Naughton

Christina and Michelle Naughton

Calvin Dotsey: So, what do each of you like to do when not playing piano? Do you pursue your hobbies together or individually? 

Michelle Naughton: Aside from Christina’s interest in reading (and at one time writing) poetry and my quirky habit of enjoying medical literature :) , we, for the most part, share the same taste for (and on occasion visit together) jazz clubs, museums, ballets, operas, exhibits, art galleries, and Central Park on beautiful days. 

CD: What was it like learning to play the piano with your twin? Did you both learn the same pieces at the same time or different ones? 

MN: I think that the opportunity we had to grow “musically” together during every step of our development has made what is typically one of the “loneliest” musical professions (aka being a pianist) into a very interactive, social, and joyful endeavor for us :) .  During our training, we not only had the luxury of attending each and every one of each others’ lessons, but we also enjoyed countless family car rides to and from lessons and performances, festivals, concerts, and after-concert receptions and celebrations together! Early on, we actually made the decision to never learn the same pieces. Instead, we often learned different pieces by the same composer at the same time.  That way, we were able to dedicate periods of time to engrossing ourselves in the music and style of a particular composer, and we felt as though we were learning “double” the repertoire.  :)

CD: Could you describe how you prepare to perform a piece together? Do you have different tastes when it comes to interpreting a piece of music or do you tend to agree? 


“Every time we perform it [Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos], it is like visiting an old friend.”

MN: The process of learning and interpreting every piece we play is its own exploration and always goes through a unique “evolution.”  Shouting matches aside (just kidding—though interestingly and perhaps unsurprisingly enough, 95% of our disagreements in life occur at the piano), most of our preparation is what we would best describe as a “nonverbal dialogue.” :) Though in some ways how this works is still a mystery to us, it entails a great deal of playing our own and each other’s parts for one another.  Most of the time we are constantly adjusting and replaying for one another based on our involuntary, laser-sharp ability to know exactly what the other one of us is thinking and feeling about the musical ideas we just presented.  Perhaps the greatest thing about this “nonverbal dialogue” is the way it lends itself to ever-changing interpretations of works we perform constantly.  For instance, with this Mozart concerto, every time we perform it, it is like visiting an old friend.  As we have these “nonverbal dialogues” in our practice sessions, we begin to uncover different aspects of the “personality” of this old friend every time we “visit” him/her.  As the two of us continue to help each other discover various nooks and crannies throughout the score, we increasingly feel we are able to create a fresh and spontaneous experience on stage.

CD: Do you feel that your connection to each other as sisters affects the way you play music together? 

MN: Absolutely, our connection to each other as sisters (and twins) creates a feeling of unity within us. Perhaps more importantly, we desire this unity.  Since day one of our lives, we have become used to sharing everything—clothes, the last cookie in the cookie jar (actually maybe that we didn’t enjoy :) ), you name it—so sharing everything with each other is comforting rather than a constraint.


“The power of togetherness is something that we think can be very moving to people because there is so much in this world that divides people.”

We understand each other’s style of musical and verbal communication perfectly, so we have no need to go through all the steps we would go through with other musicians when preparing a piece.  Because people oftentimes can’t tell us apart, we ironically have developed a very strong sense of security in our individuality. This security helps in that neither of us has a strong need to “prove” our individuality (which would be extremely distracting in a duo), and we learned how to use our individuality towards the good of our team effort since we’ve had to work as a team our whole lives. The power of togetherness is something that we think can be very moving to people because there is so much in this world that divides people. There is such a strong need for things that bring people closer together.

Don’t miss Christina and Michelle with the Houston Symphony!

Mozart and Shostakovich
January 17 & 18, 2015
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Christina and Michelle Naughton, piano

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Making Friends through Music: Andrés and the Houston Symphony Inspire a 10-Year-Old Violinist

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Angel Vela and Angel's mother, Maria Vela, backstage at Jones Hall.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Angel Vela and Angel’s mother, Maria Vela, backstage at Jones Hall.

It’s not every day that a young, up-and-coming violinist gets to share the stage with a world-renowned conductor. In fact, most young musicians don’t get that opportunity until they perform with an orchestra. That was not the case for Angel Vela, a 10-year-old boy from Houston whose life was forever changed on November 14, 2014. On that day, Angel was at Jones Hall celebrating his mom’s birthday. On the program that night was Beethoven, one of his mom’s favorite composers. “My mom loves Beethoven, so I wanted it to be a special birthday.” The evening was also special for Angel, who attended the concert through the Art Through Composition initiative (read more below). In anticipation of meeting Houston Symphony Composer-in-Residence Gabriela Lena Frank as part of that program, Angel brought along his first violin for her to autograph.

After watching Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s energy on stage as he conducted works by both Frank and Beethoven, Angel was determined to meet him as well. When Andrés heard that a young violinist wanted to meet him, without any hesitation, he invited the young boy and his parents on stage following the concert. “It was a very special night for me, and I am glad I got to meet so many nice people. But even better, I made a new friend—Mr. Andrés,” said Angel.

What initially started as an autograph request transformed the life of a young boy and aspiring violinist. Angel—like many children his age—wasn’t convinced that playing the violin was something he really wanted to do in the long term. His experience at the Symphony that night, according to Angel’s mother, changed the course of his dreams and aspirations. “I can tell you that my son went from wanting to stop learning to play the violin to wanting to be the best violin player,” said Maria Vela, Angel’s mother. “My 10-year-old son, who has never been sure of what he wants to be when he grows up, now wants to be a conductor! All because Mr. Orozco-Estrada took 10 minutes from his day and made a lasting impression on my son.”

Houston Symphony Music Matters Coordinator (and part time elf) Allison Conlan delivers Symphony tickets to Angel (he is dressed up for his school play).

Houston Symphony Music Matters Coordinator (and part time elf) Allison Conlan delivers Symphony tickets to Angel (he is dressed up for his school play).

A few days after the performance, Angel penned a grateful note that has encouraged and inspired the entire Houston Symphony family in our work to share the joy and value of symphonic music. When Angel wrote, “Mr. Andrés made me feel like I belonged there,” he succinctly and poignantly shared the sentiment that we hope all Houstonians feel. Be it classical, pops or family concerts, the Houston Symphony has a place for everyone.

UPDATE: After hearing Angel’s story, an anonymous donor of the Houston Symphony made a phone call to the North Pole and arranged for Santa to bring Angel and his family an early Christmas present: a ticket package to the Houston Symphony! Santa’s elves delivered the tickets to Angel at his school on December 18. Angel’s orchestra teacher noted, “I’ve seen a huge difference in Angel’s engagement in orchestra class since all this has happened – it’s absolutely delightful.” We hope Angel and his family will continue to be inspired by Andrés and the Houston Symphony as they enjoy Santa’s early Christmas gift!

Gabriela Lena Frank Inspires Students to Create Art

As the Houston Symphony’s new Composer-in-Residence, Gabriela Lena Frank has already made an impressive artistic impact on audiences through the Symphony’s performance of two of her works during this classical season. Beyond these concerts, though, Gabriela shares the Houston Symphony’s passion for arts education and outreach, and she recently connected with Houston-area students to share this passion. Before the Symphony’s November 14 performance of her composition, Three Latin American Dances, Gabriela met with students from Houston-area elementary schools who had created paintings based on her composition as part of the Art Through Composition initiative. Prior to creating their masterpieces, in October, the students attended the Houston Symphony’s Cameron Explorer Concert where they learned how music can portray various landforms and geographical areas. More than 200 participating students—one of whom was Angel Vela, the young violinist in the accompanying story—were invited to bring a guest to the Jones Hall performance to hear the work performed live by the orchestra and to view their artwork on display in the lobby.

Houston Symphony composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank poses with students from Pearl Hall Elementary School and their artwork.

Houston Symphony composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank poses with students from Pearl Hall Elementary School and their artwork.

Gabriela is not alone in her outreach to the community, though. In any given week, Symphony musicians may be found throughout the greater Houston area presenting formal recital programs for seniors, reading books and demonstrating their instruments to young students in libraries, holding master classes at area high schools, strolling the halls at Texas Children’s Hospital or drawing a crowd at the Star of Hope Mission. Throughout the 2014-15 season, members of the orchestra will make more than 340 presentations at no cost to the community.

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Beethoven’s Fifth – The World’s Most Famous Symphony

Is it possible for a work of art to become too famous for its own good? Like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Beethoven’s Fifth is a work that has been so often reproduced, excerpted and remixed that it has become as easy to ignore a as flashing web banner. I will never forget the first time I heard Walter Murphy’s 1977 disco instrumental “A Fifth of Beethoven” as a freshman music major foraging for dorm-friendly comestibles in a tiny grocery store on Manhattan’s upper Upper West Side.

At first puzzled to hear the opening four notes of Beethoven’s famous symphony in a setting where Muzak was de rigueur, I soon realized that all was not as it seemed. This was yet another example of the seemingly endless adaptations of the world’s most famous symphony, along with the bleeding chunks of the first movement hewn together with the semblance of a baby-animal-in-danger storyline in Disney’s Fantasia 2000, a film about a lovable Saint Bernard, internet cat videos (one of which I admittedly posted to the Houston Symphony’s Facebook page in the interminable quest for more likes) and even a cartoon about Beethoven’s wig (even though wigs were totally out of style by the time Beethoven grew up):

Many might argue that these allusions to Beethoven’s symphony are signs of the work’s continued relevance to modern-day popular culture and are perfect examples of the postmodernist aesthetic of quotation and sampling. Others, though, might argue that they risk turning music that was once perceived as shocking and revolutionary into something familiar and banal. Perhaps the most difficult layer of shellacked meaning to scrub off of this war horse is the way in which Beethoven’s Fifth has come to represent Classical Music and modern Western Culture in general. The Fifth Symphony was used by the allies in WWII as a symbol of victory, since the opening “da-da-da-dum” rhythm happens to translate as the letter “V” in Morse Code. Thanks to Carl Sagan, Otto Klemperer’s recording of the first movement is spiraling ever further away from us in outer space on board the Voyager spacecrafts’ Golden Records. Also, many of you may remember KULTUR Video International’s use of the Fifth as intro music for its classical music, opera, and ballet videos.

While many of these uses of this piece can add layers to our understanding and appreciation of Beethoven’s symphony, they can also cause us to lose sight of the music itself and its message (if music without words can have a message). Just for a moment, let’s step back and think about how this symphony must have sounded before YouTube, television and interstellar space travel.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had a long and difficult birth. Beethoven began his earliest sketches of it in 1804 and did not finish it until 1808, a four year stretch that also saw the completion of the Appassionata piano sonata, the three Razumovsky string quartets, the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, the Sixth Symphony, the Mass in C and the first version of Fidelio. Writing music comes easily to some composers—Mozart, for instance, could write a symphony in a few days—but Beethoven was not one of them. He relentlessly sketched, reworked and revised the Fifth Symphony, and the transformation his original ideas underwent is astonishing. Beethoven wrote that for him, composing “begins in my head [with] the working-out in breadth, height, and depth. Since I am aware of what I want, the fundamental idea never leaves me. It mounts, it grows. I see before my mind the picture in its whole extent, as if in a single grasp.”

Napoleon infamously snatched the crown out of the Pope's hands and crowned himself emperor, as depicted here in a detail from Jacques-Loius David's "The Coronation of Napoleon."

Napoleon infamously snatched the crown out of the Pope’s hands and crowned himself emperor, as depicted here in a detail from Jacques-Loius David’s “The Coronation of Napoleon.”

Aside from Beethoven’s usually arduous process of composing, there were other factors that may have presented difficulties for him. For instance, Napoleon, Beethoven’s sometime hero turned nemesis, defeated Austria and occupied Vienna in 1805. Beethoven had initially been sympathetic to Napoleon and the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité that he seemed to represent as he promised to spread the French Revolution to all of Europe, toppling the ancient privileges of the aristocracy. Beethoven even planned to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon. When Napoleon infamously crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, Beethoven scratched out his name on the title page and rededicated it “to the memory of a great man.”

While Napoleon was bombarding Vienna, Beethoven hid in his brother’s basement with pillows stuffed over his ears, fearing that the explosions would further destroy his deteriorating sense of hearing. Beethoven’s loss of hearing was slow and painful: he first began to notice a ringing in his ears in 1796 at the age of 26, and gradually it got worse and worse. First the highest notes fell silent, more and more disappearing as time passed. As a pianist, Beethoven would have been painfully aware of where on the keyboard his hearing ended. By 1802 it was interfering with his ability to follow conversations, and during a retreat in the town of Heiligenstadt, he even contemplated suicide. Fortunately for all music lovers, he ultimately decided to persevere, writing, “such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.”

It was thus amidst the turmoil of war, revolution and personal crisis that Beethoven wrote his Fifth Symphony, a symphony that revolutionized music forever. From the opening four notes, gone are the powdered wigs, pastel colors and porcelain figurines of the eighteenth century, and we are plunged into a violent world of gunpowder and revolution. Beethoven obsessively pursues those first four notes—the entire first movement (and much of the others) is derived from them. Those first four notes have stuck in the ears of Western civilization because we’ve heard them before. The rhythm is a typical formula found at the ends of phrases in pieces by Haydn and Mozart, but Beethoven strips away the trills and grace notes and imbues this driving rhythm with a brutal emotional power. The essence of Beethoven’s genius was that he could take the simplest building blocks of the classical style and construct radically new, monumental works with them.

The firsts of this symphony are impressive: it was one of the earliest symphonies to use trombones (and the one that made them stick as members of the symphonic orchestra) and the first symphony to bring music from one movement back in another. But more important was the new emotional character and arc of the music. In his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven takes listeners on a journey from the darkness and violence of the C minor first movement to the exultant triumph of the C major finale. Years later Beethoven wrote about this progression from minor to major in one of his conversation books:

“Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain.”

Beethoven as depicted by Joseph Willibrord Mähler in 1804-1805.

Beethoven as depicted by Joseph Willibrord Mähler in 1804-1805.

Beethoven first discovered this new “Heroic” style in the first movement of his Third Symphony (the one he almost dedicated to Napoleon). The Fifth Symphony takes the theme of heroic struggle that Beethoven first explored in his Third Symphony and expands it to cover the entire four movements of the symphony. These works (and others in Beethoven’s oeuvre) forever changed what people thought music could do, what music could be. Now, I do not want to imply that earlier composers like Mozart did not write emotionally powerful music (anyone who has heard Mozart’s Requiem can attest to that), or even that Beethoven was the first to end a minor key piece in major (Mozart did that in his D minor Piano Concerto, his G minor String Quintet and other works). Beethoven was the first, however, to make us feel that the major ending comes out of the minor beginning, to write music that embodies the emotions of triumph in the face of adversity.

If we ask ourselves what this piece must have sounded like when it was first performed, the answer would be…not so good. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony premiered at the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, as part of a four-hour concert of Beethoven premieres. By all accounts, the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and the audience was cold and exhausted. Beethoven’s legendary symphony thus probably went relatively unnoticed upon its first performance, sandwiched as it was between his Piano Concerto No. 4 and excerpts from his Mass in C major. However, after the symphony was published a year and a half later, E.T.A. Hoffman (perhaps most famous for writing the story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker) penned a rapturous review of the symphony and later wrote the following description.

“How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!… No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord—indeed, even in the moments that follow it—he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound.”

By the time the next generation of composers came into their own, the Fifth was a cornerstone of the newly forming standard repertoire, and the rest, as they say, is history. This kind of minor-to-major, darkness-to-light journey became a model for composers for generations to come. Brahms’ First Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Mahler’s Fifth immediately spring to mind as examples, and composers continue to be influenced by this symphony to this day.

So, what is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony really about? Not a Saint Bernard, not animated butterflies in danger, not a wig, not disco fever, not victory for the allies, not a greeting for space aliens, not Western Civilization, Classical Music, Napoleon, or even Beethoven’s own heroic struggle to continue living and composing when faced with encroaching deafness. Beethoven’s Fifth is about triumph itself, about every hard won victory there has ever been or ever will be, even yours. Perhaps that is the real reason why Beethoven’s Fifth has come to be so famous and so symbolic of so many things. In the hands of a great orchestra and conductor like the Houston Symphony and Andrés Orozco-Estrada, we forget about the adaptations, the imitations, the symbolism and the history and experience triumph in its purest form for ourselves.

Don’t miss Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting Beethoven’s Fifth with the Houston Symphony!

Beethoven’s Fifth
November 14, 15, 16, 2014
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Frank Huang, violin

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