Category Archives: Classical

Kirill Gerstein Can Play with One Hand Tied Behind His Back!*

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, virtuoso pianist and long-time friend of the Houston Symphony, returns on January 22–24 to perform a program with Andrés and the orchestra that includes Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. We spoke with Kirill recently to welcome him back to Houston.

Houston Symphony Magazine: What is special to you about Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand?

Kirill Gerstein: It’s a wonderful piece that is perhaps not heard as often as many in the repertoire. It’s also a very different kind of Ravel than the Piano Concerto in G major, which I played with the Houston Symphony in 2010. Also, it’s in a special section of the repertoire, in that the piece is written for the left hand. Ravel really killed the competition in this arena, so to speak, because it’s such a masterpiece. It’s so cleverly written with how the orchestra and the piano are combined, and how it demonstrates the virtuosity that is possible with one hand. And I think, for various reasons, it’s one of Ravel’s darkest and most raw pieces, because often Ravel appeared like a precise Swiss watchmaker, where everything is perfectly in its place, perfectly masterful, and perfectly poised and beautiful. This is one of several of his pieces where the raw emotion and the darkness, as well as the triumphs, come through in a more open way.

Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

HSM: You happen to be left-handed, is that correct?

KG: Yes, but it really is of little help or difference in this case. More than being left or right handed by nature, I think that the training or conditioning that the repertoire provides us as pianists—the two-handed repertoire—is more crucial developmentally. I think the majority, if not every, pianist you speak to is going to have a very developed right hand because of the accent that the repertoire normally puts on that hand. The right hand is the one that does a lot of the visible virtuosic playing. But then, of course, hopefully every virtuosic pianist you speak with has equally developed hands. But it does take some extra work, in my opinion, to play with one hand alone, regardless of which hand that is. I didn’t find that my natural left-handedness made that much of a difference or gave much of an advantage in the performance of this piece.

HSM: Is there anything in particular you would like the audience to listen for in your performance of the concerto?

Maurice Ravel with Jacques Février playing the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in Paris in 1937

Maurice Ravel with Jacques Février playing the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in Paris in 1937

KG: I think I’d like to say no. That would be limiting and imposing on the audience. But in fact, I am very curious as to what the audience would hear. Somebody might pay mention to the clear influence of jazz in the music, and somebody might hear the beautiful melody of the second theme, and somebody might be taken by the virtuosity of the cadenza. So there’s really a lot to hear, and I think that a suggestion of what to listen for comes at the expense of the freedom and the fantasy for the listener’s ear. I would like to leave that to the audience.

HSM: You’ve been a friend of the Houston Symphony for quite a while now. Most recently, you were here to celebrate our tribute to Rachmaninoff—Rach Fest—in 2012, and you also helped select the Steinway piano that was a Centennial gift from the Houston Symphony League in 2013. This month’s visit marks your seventh performance with the Houston Symphony in a Classical subscription concert. What is it about Houston that attracts you?

KG: Houston is one of the orchestras I’ve been friends with for the longest part of my career. I remember playing there for the first time in the summer of 2004 at Miller Outdoor Theatre. I’ve played there many times with my good friend Hans Graf, as well as with several guest conductors. It’s actually very enjoyable, the way the musical relationship develops when you come several times, when you already know the people in the orchestra personally and musically. That’s a special feeling and, of course, I think there’s more musical trust when you have known each other for longer and have made music with different repertoire. Also, I always found the audience very friendly and open, and that’s the other crucial component. It’s a very enjoyable collaboration, and I always look forward to returning. It’s also fascinating to see the art of development over the years and how the organization and the orchestra change and evolve in an organic and continuous way. That is interesting for me to observe.

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Kirill Gerstein, piano

HSM: Have you performed with Andrés previously?

KG: No, this will actually be my first time. This is a special thing for me about this visit to Houston. We’re also going to be playing together with the Cleveland Orchestra, but that’s a few months from now, so this will be my first meeting with him.

HSM: We’re fortunate that a couple of weeks after you perform with the Houston Symphony, you’ll be returning to Houston for the International Piano Festival on February 5–7 at the University of Houston Moores School of Music.

KG: That’s correct. I’ll be playing a program that concentrates on fantasy in one way or another. The idea is to explore what composers call fantasy. Very often, I think it’s when the creative spirit takes them to places that don’t fit into some formal shape or genre. The composers use the word fantasy to describe these pieces, which are in this way the wildest children of the composers.

Don’t miss Kirill Gerstein with the Houston Symphony January 22, 23, 24, 2016! Get tickets and more information here.

*It is unlikely that Kirill Gerstein will actually tie his right hand behind his back for these performances, but he certainly won’t use it to play a single note!

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Jennifer Rivera Talks Handel’s Messiah

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera is one of the most dynamic personalities in opera and classical music today: her multifaceted career includes not only a busy schedule of international performances, but also blogging, arts advocacy and arts administration. Recently, I got to ask her a few questions in advance of her upcoming performances of Handel’s Messiah with the Houston Symphony this weekend.

Calvin Dotsey: Handel’s Messiah is one of the oldest pieces to have an uninterrupted presence in the standard repertoire—it has been regularly performed since its premiere in Dublin in 1742. Why do you think this piece is so enduring?

Jennifer Rivera: It’s interesting because while Handel’s operas fell out of the repertoire for many years, Messiah has always remained a part of everyone’s holiday presentations. I think the reason Messiah is so enduring is the same reason people are now rediscovering and loving hearing his operas—Handel has a gift for creating drama within melody, which is important even in an oratorio. The Messiah pieces are very emotionally compelling along with being just beautiful and exciting. That combined with the fact that people love to hear something familiar around the holidays makes the piece something we enjoy year after year.

CD: Handel wrote you a great part in Messiah. What do you think your voice brings to this part? Do you have any favorite numbers, and if so, why?

JR: I love “He was despised.” It’s so intense and well crafted—so often oratorio pieces, especially sacred oratorio pieces, don’t feel particularly dramatic. Handel had such a gift for creating dramatically compelling music. I think that each person brings his or her own artistry to these particular pieces, and I think the fact that I have performed a lot of Handel’s operas means I bring a lot of dramatic intention to the dramatic pieces.

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano

CD: When did you first begin singing? What inspired you to pursue a career as an opera singer?

JR: I started taking lessons when I was nine years old because I was performing in local musical theater and didn’t want to ruin my voice by “belting.” I ended up with a legit voice teacher who had sung opera, and she began teaching me true technique at that tender age. It could have gone horribly wrong, but she was a very good, careful teacher, and I liked developing the extremes of my range even as a kid. I didn’t know much about the career part of opera, but I knew that I liked exploring the whole range and dynamic capabilities of the voice, and that’s what lead me to classical singing.

CD: In addition to singing, you are also an active writer and blogger and have frequently contributed to publications like The Huffington Post. What inspires you to write? What do you want people to know about the music you sing?

JR: I started writing mostly as an outlet for communicating with people when I was alone on the road, but it has developed into more arts advocacy as I’ve gotten further along into writing. I started trying to talk to people about opera through my articles in ways that wouldn’t intimidate them and would allow them a window into what we do both through the insider’s perspective but also by highlighting my love for the art form and all I think it has to offer. I hope I can encourage people who might think opera or classical music isn’t for them to give it a chance because I truly believe music can be transformative, and I don’t want anyone to miss out.

George Frederick Handel, c. 1726–1728

George Frederick Handel as depicted by Balthasar Denner, c. 1726–1728.

CD: If someone who loves Handel’s Messiah wanted to discover more music similar to it, what would you recommend?

JR: As I mentioned above, Handel’s operas have started to come back into the standard repertory, and I’m so glad because they are some of my personal favorite operas. There are so many to choose from, but one of my absolute favorites of his operas is definitely Agrippina, which has such incredible music and is smart and even funny. (And I happen to be on one of the recordings of Agrippina!) Recently I sang in a very underperformed opera called Faramondo from his later catalogue – I wondered since it has been so forgotten whether it would be great – and it was! Some incredibly amazing virtuosic, dramatic music.

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

JR: I have a son who turns three this month. That answers all of the above questions. :) Actually, I also have a position at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City as Director for Artistic Development, and when I’m not performing, learning music, writing or spending time with my son, I am fundraising and helping to produce contemporary operas because I’m very passionate about contemporary opera as a wonderful way for new audiences to experience opera.

Don’t miss Jennifer Rivera in Handel’s Messiah at the Houston Symphony December 18, 19 & 20, 2015! Get tickets and more info here. Learn more about our performance at Sugar Land Baptist Church on December 17 here.

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Stephen Hough on Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Concerto

Pianist Stephen Hough will perform Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 5 this weekend.

Pianist Stephen Hough will perform Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 this weekend.

This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes British pianist, composer, and author Stephen Hough to Jones Hall for performances of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian. Recently, I had the chance to ask Mr. Hough a few questions about this concerto.

Calvin Dotsey:  How would you describe Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 to someone who has never heard it before?

Stephen Hough: I think this piece is all about the ‘exotic,’ especially in the 2nd movement with its Eastern sounds—both Middle and Far East. It was written at the beginning of the 20th century when many new ideas and tastes were being imported into Europe, and it also reflects Saint-Saëns’s adventurous travel tastes.

CD: What makes this piece “Egyptian”?

SH: Mainly the principal themes of the 2nd movement; he also wrote some of it when he was visiting Egypt.

CD: What do you love about this piece?

SH: Its elegance, pianistic sheen, its lovely melodies, its fizz and fun.

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

SH: Well, no one will ever forget the moment in the 2nd movement when the composer introduces an ear-tickling effect. It sounds like I’ve inserted something in between the strings, or even that I’m no longer playing the piano. You’ll not miss it!

Camille Saint-Saëns, photographed by Nadar.

Camille Saint-Saëns, photographed by Nadar.

CD: What makes Saint-Saëns’ way of writing for the piano unique? How does it feel in your hands compared to the piano music of other composers?

SH: He was a great pianist—you can hear this on the few early 78 recordings which survive. Very fast fingers, light, graceful, always elegant. Although it is highly virtuosic, everything lies under the hand—everything works on the instrument.

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

SH: I read, I write, I think, I eat…and I sleep as much as I can around all of that!

Don’t miss Stephen Hough in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian, this weekend! Click here for tickets and more information.

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Program Notes: Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings

Read the program notes for this weekend’s concerts below!

403px-Richard_and_Cosima_WagnerSIEGFRIED IDYLL

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

In a Tweet: Life and art interweave in Richard Wagner’s mellifluous “musical birthday poem” for his wife.

The Back Story: Richard Wagner carried on a seven-year affair with Cosima von Bulow, the wife of a disciple of his, until her divorce enabled them to marry in 1870. As a combined Christmas and birthday present that year, Wagner secretly composed a serenade for her, drawing on his recently composed Siegfried, the third opera of his saga The Ring of the Nibelung. On Christmas morning, he sneaked a chamber ensemble into their home, set up the musicians in the stairway and conducted the world premiere, the sounds of which wafted into Cosima’s bedroom. “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound which swelled fuller and fuller,” she wrote in her diary. “No longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming, music was sounding, and what music! As it died away, Richard came into my room…and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so was the whole house.”

The Instruments: 1 flute, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 1 horn, 1 trumpet and strings

Siegfried and Brünnhilde as depicted by illustrator Arthur Rackham.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde as depicted by illustrator Arthur Rackham.

What to Listen For: For a “symphonic birthday poem” between a man and a woman whom were at last legally joined, the symbolism is unmistakable. The Idyll ties in with the opera Siegfried’s radiant closing scene, in which Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the hero and heroine destined for one another, finally meet and unite. The Idyll’s opening, with its melody and mellifluousness that dominate the piece, grows from the music in which Brünnhilde vows that she will forever devote herself to Siegfried’s well-being. The oboe tiptoes into the Idyll singing a German lullaby, no doubt alluding to Wagner and Cosima’s son Siegfried, who was 18-months old when Wagner unveiled the musical Christmas gift. The Idyll’s climax comes from Brünnhilde’s ringing salute to “Siegfried, radiant youth!” In this context, the reference is to the real-life Siegfried, who grew up to conduct his father’s music and compose his own. Siegfried, however, was far off when Wagner composed the Idyll, which ends as gently as a lullaby. One of Wagner’s most ardent admirers, Anton Bruckner, will get the spotlight in the Houston Symphony’s April performances of Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 7.

The printed music for this work was donated by W. J. and Dorothy McCaine.


Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

In a Tweet: Dvořák turned a recycled melody into a lyrical gem for violin and orchestra.

The Back Story: The young Antonin Dvořák learned from his mistakes. When a Czech theater’s singers and orchestra gave up trying to learn his folk opera, The King and the Collier—in which he had emulated the intricate style of Richard Wagner—the 32-year-old realized he was on the wrong track. Dvořák not only rewrote the entire opera in a simpler vein, but he also examined his other works, destroying several. So much for his Wagnerian urges. Amid the works he rejected, though, a string quartet contained a lilting, pensive melody that deserved a second chance. Dvořák expanded it into his Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra, which his full-length concertos have overshadowed unjustly.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

What to Listen For: Don’t call the Romance a vignette. This lyrical, expressive work clocks in at about 12 minutes, making it a little longer than the Adagio centerpiece of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra sets up a gently rocking pace and hints at the melody, then the violin steps in, spinning out the theme with a freedom and eloquence that far outshine that of the tune’s original incarnation. After a new, vaulting theme adds a tinge of yearning, the violin grows rhapsodic and urgent, and a brief, ringing declaration from the orchestra provides the work’s climax. Then, the violin brings back the opening melody, and Dvořák gives it new shadings on the way to the peaceful close. The Houston Symphony has another underappreciated violin work in store for January, when European performer Patricia Kopatchinskaja solos in Robert Schumann’s introspective concerto.


Pablo de Sarasate

Pablo de Sarasate

Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908)

In a Tweet: A charismatic violinist transformed Hungarian melodies into a showpiece relished by generations of virtuosos.

The Back Story: During a time when most violin virtuosos were flamboyant yet crude, performer-composer Pablo Sarasate eclipsed them by virtue of his silkiness and polish. Carl Flesch, a leading 20th-century violinist and teacher, witnessed Sarasate’s charisma when Flesch was a student: “With awe, as if he were a supernatural phenomenon from a wonderland ever inaccessible to us, we boys looked up to the small, black-eyed Spaniard. …It was a unique experience to see this little man stride on to the platform with genuine Spanish grandeza, superficially calm, even phlegmatic…[then] play with unheard-of sovereignty and, in a rapid climax, put his audience into astonishment, admiration and highest rapture.” Gypsy Airs, which probably grew from the zesty folk bands he heard during an 1877 trip to Hungary, was one of many showpieces Sarasate composed to help whip up the frenzy.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle and strings

Pablo de Sarasate, as caricatured in Vanity Fair in 1889.

Pablo de Sarasate, as caricatured in Vanity Fair in 1889.

What to Listen For: Gypsy Airs begins with a czardas, which is a Hungarian dance that also inspired Franz Liszt, Johann Strauss and others. The first section, slow and free, allows the soloist to show off his tone and swagger. The pace quickens in the second part, which sets off salvos of violin pyrotechnics. The heart-on-its-sleeve tune that follows is actually not the work of gypsies. Rather, it comes from “There’s Only One Lovely Maid in the World,” a popular song whose composer, Elemer Szentirmay, wrote Sarasate after the work’s publication asking for credit. (Sarasate obliged in the next edition.) After reveling in the tune, the soloist takes off at a dash. The rapid-fire bowing, stratospheric flights and other fireworks make for a dazzling finish. In April, the Houston Symphony and violinist Caroline Goulding will set off more violin fireworks when they perform Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1.

The printed music for this work was donated by Ann & Kevin Casey.


Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

In a Tweet: As a young composer beginning to make his name, Dvořák poured his gift for melody into his Serenade for Strings.

The Musikverein in Vienna opened in 1870 and is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Musikverein in Vienna opened in 1870 and is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Back Story: Dvořák’s rewrite of his opera, The King and The Collier, premiered in November 1874, winning the young composer much-needed praise. More good news came in early 1875, when a Viennese troika that included Johannes Brahms awarded him an Austrian prize for talented, needy artists. Not only did the money come in handy, since Dvořák had a wife and young son to support, but his career gained its first toehold outside his Czech homeland. In May of that year, Dvořák created his melodious Serenade for String—in less than two weeks. When a member of the Vienna Philharmonic tried that summer to persuade the high-profile group to perform the new work, his colleagues shot the idea down, thinking the composer was too obscure. But the 1876 premiere in Prague magnified Dvořák’s reputation at home, and performances in other Czech cities gave his reputation an additional boost.

The Instruments: strings

What to Listen For: The mellow opening sets the tone for the entire piece, which unfolds in five concise movements. The pace picks up gradually as the waltzing second movement leads to the dashing third. Then, Dvořák turns inward. Even though the Larghetto’s main melody aims downward, it never sounds downcast. Instead, its depth enhances the music’s richness and soul. The finale unleashes the excitement that listeners know so well from Dvořák’s most jubilant Slavonic Dances. But here, Dvořák offers parting glances of the Larghetto’s lyricism and the opening’s serenity before the last burst of rowdiness. Dvořák will cap off the Houston Symphony’s classical season with the May premiere of The Cosmos: An HD Odyssey, which will meld the “New World” Symphony with NASA video of the heavens.

©2015 Steven Brown

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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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