Category Archives: Classical

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.

KG_011a

“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.

Mozart_drawing_Doris_Stock_1789

“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.

KG_002a

“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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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.”

posters

“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.”

Bill_vermeulen_square

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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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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