Tuesday, January 10, 2012

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Classical Guitarist Jason Vieaux

Classical guitarist Jason Vieaux will be performing with the Richmond Symphony this Saturday and Sunday, for Altria Masterworks: Piazzolla and Rodrigo.  Here is a small preview of his playing (via NPR). Below, his notes on Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which he will play this weekend.

So many people are familiar with this wonderful work for guitar and orchestra, and there are many others who may not know it by name but certainly know the 2 nd movement tune.  That theme has been in movies and commercials, interpreted by jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Chick Corea, and even featured during extended improvisations by Led Zeppelin during their 1977 tour.  

If you would have asked Rodrigo what the profoundly sad music of the 2 nd movement “meant”, he would probably have replied that all three movements of the Concierto simply represented his thoughts, feelings and inspirations surrounding the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a honeymoon location for Rodrigo and his wife, Victoria.  But Victoria would later reveal in her autobiography that the 2nd movement was composed quickly by Rodrigo, in an outpouring of emotion over the loss of their firstborn during childbirth.  Guitarist Pepe Romero reports that the final upper-register notes that the guitarist plays to finish the movement represent the child’s soul ascending to heaven.

I’ve probably performed Aranjuez well over 100 times at this point in my career, but the experience of performing it for a live audience only gets richer and more meaningful for me with each concert season.  I look forward to working with Maestro Smith and the Richmond Symphony in sharing this great music with you all this January in Richmond.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Carter Brey's thoughts on the Dvorak Cello Concerto

“On February 8, 1895, Antonin Dvorak inserted this terse note into the manuscript of the cello concerto that he was working on at the time:

"Today on February 8 very cold in New York and a blizzard." Dvorak, nearing the end of a three-year stay in America, was living in a Gramercy Park brownstone while performing his duties as Director of the National Conservatory of Music (now the Juilliard School). He was overcome with homesickness and longed to return to his homeland, Bohemia. During the composition of the Concerto he learned of the serious illness of his sister-in-law, Josefina, for whom as a young man he had cherished an unrequited love, and gave to the solo cello in the slow movement a quotation from one of his songs ("Leave Me Alone," Opus 82) which had been a favorite of hers.

I had known this about him for many years before the first time I visited Prague, but my first sight of this fairy tale city on the banks of its river, nestled and protected between the hills of Central Europe, brought these words immediately to mind and in that instant I understood the source of the sweet melancholy that pervades this score. Being a New Yorker, I have no trouble conjuring the bitter unwelcoming conditions of February in my city; when I picture that unhappy man, untethered from his roots and his family, probably overworked and struggling in an unfamiliar language, bent over his desk in an effort to sublimate his nostalgia into little black notes on lined paper while the gales of midwinter swirled outside his window, I believe I can approach him closely as a human being through his music.

Following his return to Bohemia, news of Josefina's death reached him and he completely reworked the ending to the Concerto, quoting another part of the same song (the music this time appearing in the solo violin) and extending the coda into an agonized dying away before the stormy and joyous last bars.  Like most cellists, I struggle with this passage each time I perform it, looking for the way to express the love and loss of the composer without descending into bathos. Like all great art, this music touches us not through its biographical specificity but through its universality.”

-Carter Brey
Carter Brey will perform with the Richmond Symphony this weekend (October 15-16, 2011). 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A note from Associate Conductor Erin Freeman about this Sunday’s concert


On September 11, 2001, my conducting seminar class was kicked out of the building. School was shut down, and we were told to go home to our families. I was new to town, and my brand new husband was a few states away. Like many, I didn’t know what to do, but somehow I was drawn to Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. I spent the rest of the late morning and early afternoon playing through both books of this masterpiece. I chalked it up to needing beauty and order in my life during this time of despair and chaos. What’s more perfect than Bach for those two human needs? On one end of the spectrum is the first C Major Prelude,

one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, even though it lacks a melody! On the other end of the spectrum is the complex and structured fugue, like the one in B-flat minor from book 2.

However, just a few days ago in a rehearsal for this upcoming Metro Collection concert, featuring music of Bach, as well as Kernis and Mendelssohn, the reason for my choice of activity became crystal clear. The Richmond Symphony Chamber Chorus and I were working on the second movement of the Bach Mass in F major, and I heard something in the music I had never heard before – a brief interplay of notes between the tenors, altos, and sopranos. This kind of discovery happens often with great music, but somehow this time I felt like we were instantly brought back to the moment Bach came up with this creative turn of the phrase. I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing (who knew that 9 notes could change someone’s outlook?). I’m sure the chorus thought I was a bit nuts when I stopped to cherish this moment of real connection. The singers, our pianist Michael Simpson, and the stage crew that set up the room made that moment happen, and I didn’t want to forget that bond.

That terrible day in 2011, I certainly needed beauty and order, but what I needed most was connection – connection to the past so that I knew that the future would be just fine. I found that solace of humanity and perspective in Bach.

This Sunday’s concert, at the Richmond Symphony’s second home of Randolph Macon College, shows us just how interconnected we are – and how far back in time these connections go. Bach wouldn’t have written his Mass in F without the inspiration of Medieval chant. (You’ll hear a few snippets of chant in the first movement of this delightful miniature mass:

– it’s a bit hidden in the bass. I’ll point it out on Sunday.) Mendelssohn relied on the model of Bach to add an intellectual component to his otherwise youthful and springy Italian Symphony. Listen to the last movement, and you may hear a little bit of Bach peeking through. (You’ll hear it at about 2:30 in this huge, over the top rendition by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.)

Of course, we wouldn’t even know much about Bach if it weren’t for Mendelssohn’s discovery of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829! Thank you to Felix, and the connection he made for us! In addition, Aaron Jay Kernis, whose music is fresh, new, and current, has relied on the model of his predecessors. A favorite of his is Bach, but in this particular piece, Musica Celestis, he relies on the spacious chants of Hildegard von Bingen. (Listen to these stunningly beautiful phrases – you’ll hear this type of sound come through in the Kernis.)

The connections in this concert aren’t confined to the inspirations and interweaving stories of these three composers, or to the performers during those cherished “aha-moments” in rehearsal. We are only a small part of the joining together of several centuries of humanity and culture. YOU, the audience members, are instrumental (so to speak) in making this music, this history, and this bond live in the present day and carry into the future.

I hope to see you this Sunday, September 25th at 3pm at Randolph Macon College for a treat for the ears, brain, and soul. Bring a friend and deepen the connection that music can bring! (Come at 2pm for a preconcert discussion with me and Jim Doering, professor of music at RMC).



Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Musician Profile: Ellen Cockerham, Current Acting Concertmaster and Principal Second Violin

Can you speak a little about your responsibilities being Principal Second Violin as well as your current role as acting concertmaster? How do the two compare?

It certainly has been interesting to switch between the two positions. Both present their own challenges and require different creative energies, but I think I enjoy both equally. When I am concertmaster, I am constantly making decisions that will affect the entire string section (and sometimes the entire orchestra). Principal second violin is a unique position within the orchestra in that it is the head of a section (the second violins), but it is also part of a larger section (the violins). When I am principal second, I am constantly working to maintain a balance between supporting the first violins and fearlessly leading the seconds.

My responsibilities as acting concertmaster include certain housekeeping tasks, such as making sure the orchestra tunes. Then there are the behind-the-scenes duties, such as determining what bowings to use. All of the string principals have to do this, but the concertmaster's decisions are copied throughout the strings section for uniformity. And people aren't just looking to me to know which direction to move the bow, they are watching to see what kind of bowstroke I am using, when to start or end a note, which string I am playing on, even what kind of vibrato I am using. It is also my responsibility to make sure that everyone is, in fact, paying attention to all of these details. And occasionally, I must emerge from the section to play a solo.

As principal second, I also have the (very) occasional solo, but I keep a lower profile in general. My role is to confirm everything the concertmaster is doing and to provide grounding for the stratospheric first violin lines. The big challenge is to know when to break away from the firsts and become an independent section. When I study a score in preparation for being principal second, I pay close attention to the ever-changing relationship between the first and second violins. Are we playing the same thing? Do we enter a measure before them? Is this an inner-voice (violas and second violins) figuration? Are the second violins the lead voice here? This is why, when I am principal second, you will see my eyes darting around from concertmaster to conductor to the other string principals. And sometimes to my music.

When did you first become interested in music?

I became obsessed with the idea of playing the violin at the age of 5. I went to a concert that featured a violin soloist and it stirred something in me that hasn't gone away since. I do love music, but I can't really see myself playing a different instrument. I've always felt a special connection with the violin.

What pieces or composers do you find most inspiring?

I think I am most inspired by music of great clarity (Bach cello suites, Schubert Symphony No. 5, Stravinsky L'histoire du Soldat) and music which sounds natural and improvised (Mahler symphonies, Bartok string quartets). And I will be eternally fascinated by the string quartets of Beethoven, which sound absolutely divine yet so utterly human.

What do you enjoy doing besides playing music?

I love riding my bike around town. I even ride to rehearsals when the weather is nice! I also love to write, so I am trying to nurture that hobby by reading a lot and keeping a blog. I recently started a container garden outside my Carytown apartment, which is something I've always wanted to do. And, of course, I love to cook. My favorite kitchen projects are things which you might not think of making at home such as peanut butter, ricotta cheese, clarified butter, bread, alfalfa sprouts and lattes. Speaking of which, if I'm not at home or at work, you can find me sipping coffee at Lamplighter Roasting Company.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“This Missa’s a Mutha” – Robert Shaw

I’m eagerly (and anxiously) anticipating our final Masterworks concert of the 10-11 season, featuring the Richmond Symphony and Chorus in a rare performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. I have been interested in (okay, obsessed with) Beethoven’s monumental Missa since I first heard it at the age of 18. I was a freshman at Northwestern, and I thought I would buy myself a ticket to go hear the Chicago Symphony and George Solti do some Beethoven.

Here’s my great confession: I walked away from that performance a bit confused. It was a powerful 90 minutes, that’s for sure, but I didn’t really “get it,” and I wanted to know why! It was only a few years later that the piece clicked.

What made the difference, you ask?


You see, I came to Northwestern knowing a lot about choral music. I had sung many of the masterpieces of the symphonic-choral repertoire – even Mahler’s Symphony of 1,000! But, I had never really heard a Beethoven Symphony, a Beethoven Violin Concerto, a Beethoven String Quartet, or Fidelio. Once I heard all these individually, then listened to the Missa again, I finally “got it!” In the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven put everything he had – psychologically, spiritually, and musically.

It’s difficult to describe how his soul appears in this music – that’s more easily felt in a live performance. But, I can at least try to prepare you for some of what you will hear musically. 

You’ll hear a master orchestrator – one for whom the woodwinds were just as important as the ever -present strings.
The opening of his Seventh Symphony, for example, features full orchestral chords, followed by lyrical woodwind solos.

You’ll hear a lover of the dramatic potential and lyrical vocalism inherent in opera.
Listen to these two excerpts from Fidelio - the passion of the first and the long, vocal lines of the second appear throughout the Missa Solemnis.

Duet: “O namenlose Freude”

Prisoners Chorus: (which you heard in the January Masterworks)

You’ll hear the compositional skill of a technical genius in the many (many!) fugues.
In a nod to the Baroque genius Bach, Beethoven takes the fugue to new heights. (A fugue is a complex round or canon – like “Row Row Row Your Boat” with a PhD). His most famous fugues can be found in his string quartets, like this one:

Opus 59, #3 – last movement:

You’ll hear a concerto composer who could get into the soul of a soloist.
Here’s the second movement of his Violin Concerto, which opens our 2011-2012 Masterworks season, and which also has a kinship to the Benedictus movement of the Missa Solemnis.

These are but a few of the many examples of how the Missa Solemnis encapsulates the powerful, emotional, and intricate voice of Ludwig van Beethoven.

We here at the Richmond Symphony always feel humbled and honored to be able to delve into the music of Beethoven, whether it’s his first symphony or his final mass. And, it is a truly a privilege to share that experience with you - the listener. I hope this blog post helps you get in the musical mindset of this genius. We look forward to seeing you at the concerts on May 21st and May 22nd. Remember to come early for the pre-concert discussion, where we’ll tie all this together and explore why Robert Shaw called this piece one “Mutha” of a “Missa.”

See you at CenterStage!

Associate Conductor and James Erb Choral Chair

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tai Murray, Violinist
Looking for something fun and exciting to do on the weekend of April 30? Acclaimed as "superb" by The New York Times, (twenty-eight year old) violinist Tai Murray will be performing with the Richmond Symphony on Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1.

Murray is a rising young star within the world of classical music, and only in her early 20s, she has already been rising for over a decade. Known for her beautiful, mature phrasing and graceful bow work, Murray has received critical acclaim from coast to coast. She has also drawn attention as one of the few African-American musicians involved in classical music.

Murray first asked to play the violin when she was just two years old. Finally, just before her fifth birthday, Murray received her first violin. She began to take lessons at the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago "because I wanted to," she told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I started asking at a younger age, but my mother thought I should wait until I was older. I've always been drawn to music."

Despite her intense practice and performance schedule, Murray finds time to enjoy life. She loves dance, both as an observer and a participant, including tango, salsa, ballet, swing, and modern. She also likes to read, knit, and spend time with her friends. In an interview with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, she described a typical day: "I like to get in two or three hours of practicing as soon as I get out of bed.… Late afternoon I might take a walk or read a book. I'm a bit of a night owl so after dinner…I like to practice into the wee hours of the morning." Her advice to young musicians: "Practice makes perfect, and quality over quantity."

Check out Tai Murray's Barber Concerto Presto:

Find more Tai Murray songs at Myspace Music

For ticket information, please call our Patron Services Hot line at 804.788.1212

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why Sing In the Richmond Symphony Chorus?

This season we are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Richmond Symphony Chorus.  It's an all-volunteer ensemble that you must audition for...so they're pretty good!  Read a couple of reflections from members of the Richmond Symphony Chorus on why they love it! 

"Why do I sing with the Symphony Chorus?  At least two reasons.  First, because I love to wrassle.  Emily Dickinson, in a poem set by Elliott Carter that we’ve sung with the Symphony, wrote that “Musicians wrestle everywhere.”  I know that’s true here in Richmond; the Chorus is in the Rhythm Hall most Tuesday evenings, grappling with music for upcoming concerts.  We are privileged, highly, to learn, polish and perfect compositions that are well-worth the struggle, pieces that repay the hard work many times over.  The Richmond Symphony Chorus—a great wrestling squad.

Second, we get absolutely the greatest seats in the house.  The Chorus is perched back there over the players’ shoulders, and we see up-close the effort, the physicality, and the tremendous skill that they devote to bringing music from the score, right there, in the moment.  And yet quiet moments are some of my most favorite.  For many concerts over the past two decades, I’ve sat just behind Jim Jacobson, our superlative timpanist.  He commands the most room-shaking instrument, but I love to watch him work during passages when the kettledrums aren’t called upon at all.  Timpani must be frequently retuned; the temperature and humidity in the room—the insistent breathing of all those darn singers—are critical and ever-changing factors to which Jim must react.  Watch closely, and you’ll see him, bent low over a drum, cheek nearly grazing the surface, tapping the drumhead ever so lightly with his fingertips, listening and tuning, listening and tuning.  The contrast between those watchmaker-fine adjustments and the bomb-burst explosions that follow continues to delight me."    ~Andrew J. Dolson, Bass

"The joy of singing with the Richmond Symphony Chorus centers around the talented singers and our conductor. It's stirring to hear the other sections polish up their parts in rehearsal.  It adds incentive to one's own preparation.  Erin's deep understanding of Beethoven's Missa brings great excellence to the process of preparing it.  She is helping us merge our goals with those of the composer.  It's humbling to be in the presence of such genius, both now and from the 19th Century."    ~Bob Blinn, Tenor

Hear the Richmond Symphony Chorus at the Carpenter Theatre in the last concert of the 2010-11 season sing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on Saturday, May 21 at 8PM or Sunday, May 22 at 3PM.