Category Archives: Classical

What the Flowers and the Animals Told Mahler in his Symphony No. 3

Gustav Mahler in 1892, the year before he began composing his Symphony No. 3.

Gustav Mahler in 1892, the year before he began composing his Symphony No. 3.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 radiates dynamism, charm and eloquence, and it closes with one of the most glowing slow movements in the orchestral repertoire. But let’s be up-front about one thing: It’s a journey.

Laid out in six movements, the symphony typically clocks in at 90-plus minutes. The ruggedly vigorous first movement takes a half-hour – a scale that astonished even Mahler. As he worked on that massive opening, he told a friend that he had tried to resist going big. But the symphony “has outgrown me and sweeps me along,” Mahler explained. “It is as though the torrent of creation has proved to be an irresistible force, after having been pent up for years. There is no escape!”

But don’t be intimidated, newcomers to the piece. Mahler himself left us guideposts to the musical voyage. Even he needed them, because he had aimed at a towering goal: to depict man and his troubles in the midst of the natural world that envelopes him and the spiritual world that offers him hope.

As the symphony took shape, Mahler created a verbal outline to help point his way. Here’s the final version, slightly abridged:

“A Midsummer Morning’s Dream”

  • First movement: Summer marches in
  • Second movement: What the flowers of the field tell me
  • Third movement: What the animals of the forest tell me
  • Fourth movement: What man tells me
  • Fifth movement: What the angels tell me
  • Sixth movement: What love tells me

Simply keeping those titles in mind might help you tune in to the music’s message. But a further glimpse at each movement reveals even more.

Summer marches in: The weighty, minor-key music that follows the opening fanfare might sound to some listeners like one of the fatalistic composer’s funeral marches. But Mahler actually had nature’s irresistible power in mind. When a protege, arriving at the mountain retreat where Mahler wrote the symphony, gazed up at nearby peaks, Mahler told him not to bother looking: “It is all in the music,” Mahler said. He told another friend: “The movement never stops advancing. As it approaches, it becomes louder and louder, gathers strength and grows like an avalanche until its din breaks above our heads in powerful rejoicing.”

A public domain image of flowers in a field! Claude Monet's Coquelicots, La promenade (Poppies), 1873

A public domain image of flowers in a field! Claude Monet’s Coquelicots, La promenade (Poppies), 1873

What the flowers of the field tell me: The next four movements are much shorter. Here, the music’s airiness and lilt evoke the pleasure that Mahler, who loved hiking and swimming, found in the outdoors. Though agitation breaks in, serenity prevails.

The animals of the forest sure have a lot to tell Mahler!

The animals of the forest sure have a lot to tell Mahler!

What the animals of the forest tell me: Listen for bird calls and a donkey’s bray. Mahler based this droll movement on “Relief in Summer,” a folk poem about a cuckoo that dies and a nightingale that sings gracefully in its place. Some of the symphony’s most magical moments come when the bustle gives way to faraway-sounding solos for the fluegelhorn, a mellow relative of the trumpet: Mahler told a friend that he had loved the fluegelhorn ever since hearing it in military bands when he was a boy.

What man tells me: Now vocalists join in. First, a contralto sings Mahler’s dark-hued setting of a poem from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra: “The world is deep, and … deep is its grief. Joy is still deeper than the heart’s suffering! … All joy seeks eternity – seeks deep, deep eternity.”

What the angels tell me: Jubilant bells wipe away the nocturnal stillness. As a boys’ choir sings along with the chimes, a women’s choir adds a jaunty song about angels celebrating forgiveness from sin. The contralto breaks in lamenting her wickedness, and the choir assures her: “Fall on your knees and pray to God. Love only God forever, and you will attain supreme joy!”

Angels playing music. Perhaps Mahler? Detail of El Greco's The Annunciation from the Museo Nacional del Prado.

Angels playing music. Perhaps Mahler? Detail of El Greco’s The Annunciation from the Museo Nacional del Prado.

What love tells me: If ever a piece of music needed no explanation, this is it. The vocalists fall silent, and the strings intone a broad, heartfelt theme that grows more and more radiant as the rest of the orchestra takes it up. In the score, Mahler repeatedly exhorts the musicians to fill their parts with feeling. “Very expressively sung,” he writes over the violins’ first phrase; “very expressive and solemn,” he tells the cellos right after that. On the last page, as the entire orchestra wells up fortissimo: “Not with raw force. Full, noble tone.”

Mahler, who ultimately believed in letting his music speak for itself, dropped his subtitles when the score went into print. But a decade after completing the symphony, he still invoked his verbal summary. So why shouldn’t we let it guide us, too? Or we can turn to the summing-up he sent to a soprano he was in love with.

“My work,” Mahler wrote, “is a gigantic musical poem. … It begins at the heart of inanimate nature and progresses to the love of God!”

steven_brown_150x150

Steven Brown
Steven Brown is a Houston writer specializing in classical music and the arts. He has been the classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle,Charlotte Observer (N.C.) and Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). 

 

Andrés Conducts Mahler 3
May 15, 16, 17, 2015
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor

Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano
Women of the Houston Symphony Chorus
     Betsy Cook Weber, director
Parker Elementary School Chorus
     Marianna Parnas-Simpson, director

Buy tickets now!

Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Classical | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discover the Secrets of Verdi’s Requiem

Verdi in 1876, two years after the premiere of his Requiem.

Verdi in 1876, two years after the premiere of his Requiem.

Here’s a riddle for you: Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, one of the most beloved of all choral works, came from a composer who wanted nothing to do with God or organized religion. Why would he write a massive sacred work? How could the result be so eloquent?

Let’s let Verdi and those near him tell the story.

You’re all mad!”

In 1872, the year before Verdi began working in earnest on the Requiem, his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, wrote to one of their friends about her husband. She thought his talent came from God, but he scoffed. “Everyone agrees in saying that there fell to his lot the divine gift of genius,” Strepponi wrote. “He is a jewel among honest men; he understands and feels every delicate and elevated sentiment. And yet this pirate permits himself to be, I won’t say an atheist, but certainly very little of a believer, and that with an obstinacy and calm that make one want to beat him. I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc., etc. It’s a waste of breath! He laughs in my face, and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying: ‘You’re all mad!’”

Giuseppina Strepponi was an acclaimed soprano who became Verdi's second wife.

Giuseppina Strepponi was an acclaimed soprano who became Verdi’s second wife.

The glory of Italy”

When Strepponi sent off that lament, the idea of writing a Requiem already lurked in Verdi’s mind. In 1868, he had mourned the death of his operatic forebear Gioacchino Rossini, celebrated creator of “The Barber of Seville” and “William Tell.” Verdi wrote a friend: “A great name has gone from the world! His was the most widespread, most popular reputation of our time, and the glory of Italy!” Verdi spearheaded a plan for himself and other leading composers to create a Requiem in Rossini’s honor, with each contributing a section. The collaborators went to work, and the Requiem’s climactic plea for deliverance from death, “Libera me,” came from Verdi. But the performance was called off; the musical memorial had to wait until 1988 for its premiere.

I am not fond of useless things”

A musician who helped organize the Rossini project, Alberto Mazzucato, studied Verdi’s “Libera me” and extolled it in a letter to its composer: “You have written the greatest, most beautiful and most immensely poetic pages imaginable,” Mazzucato wrote. Verdi replied, “Such is a composer’s ambition, your words arouse in me the desire, one day, to write the entire Mass. … But stay calm: It’s a temptation that will pass, like many others. I am not fond of useless things. There are so many, many, many Masses for the Dead. It would be pointless to add one more.”

Alessandro Manzoni, the author whose death inspired Verdi's Requiem.

Alessandro Manzoni, the author whose death inspired Verdi’s Requiem.

A model of virtue and patriotism”

The death of novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni in 1873 changed Verdi’s mind. As 19th-century Italy struggled to become a unified country rather than a cluster of unruly states, Manzoni was an icon. His magnum opus, the epic novel “The Betrothed,” not only symbolized Italy’s yearning for nationhood, but it helped forge a single Italian language transcending the babel of dialects that had existed for centuries. Immediately after Manzoni’s death, Verdi revealed his plan to write a memorial Requiem. He was driven, he wrote, by “a need from my heart to honor, as best as I could, this great man whom I held in such esteem as a writer, and venerated as a man, and as a model of virtue and patriotism.”

One of the original posters for the La Scala premiere of Verdi's Requiem.

One of the original posters for the La Scala premiere of Verdi’s Requiem.

True poets, true painters, true composers”

The “Libera me” from Verdi’s Rossini tribute helped supply the raw material for a 90-minute Requiem bursting with melody, soulfulness and drama. Verdi’s music brings out the Latin text’s human meaning – the universal hunger for serenity and deliverance from troubles. Audiences have loved the work ever since its premiere. Its impact on listeners regardless of their faith shows that Verdi lived up to a goal he described in a tribute to Manzoni’s “The Betrothed.” “This book is true, as true as truth itself,” Verdi wrote. “If only artists could grasp this idea of truth! There would no longer be futuristic and backward-looking musicians; no more impressionism, realism, or idealism in painting; neither classic nor romantic poets; but only true poets, true painters, true composers.”

 

steven_brown_150x150Steven Brown
Steven Brown is a Houston writer specializing in classical music and the arts. He has been the classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle,Charlotte Observer (N.C.) and Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

 

Don’t miss Verdi’s Requiem this weekend!

Verdi’s Requiem
March 20, 21, 22, 2015
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
, conductor
Amber Wagner, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Francesco Demuro, tenor
Alfred Walker, bass-baritone
Houston Symphony Chorus
     Betsy Cook Weber, director

Buy tickets now!

Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Classical | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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

Buy tickets now!

Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Classical, Q&A | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Classical, Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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? 

Naughtons_11

“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.

Naughtons_9

“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

Buy tickets now!

Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Classical, Q&A | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment