WV Symphony: Preview Video

WV Symphony Maestro Grant Cooper’s video preview for the symphony’s upcoming Celebrating Lyricism performances…

WVSO Celebrating Lyricism Schedule:
Thurs, October 16 • 7:30pm – Fairmont, WV (304-367-4240)
Fri, October 17 • 8:00pm – Charleston, WV
Sat, October 18 • 8:00pm – Charleston, WV
Sun, October 19 • 3:00pm – Parkersburg, WV

WV Symphony Official Site

Valentina Lisitsa: Interview & Upcoming WVSO Performance!

Valentina Lisitsa will return to perform with the WV Symphony in January. If her 2010 WVSO guest appearance was any indication, it should be a great concert. In the meantime, you can download and listen to an interview with Valentina by celebrated music critic and author Norman Lebrecht at the following link:

Valentina Lisitsa Interview (download page)

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Mozart’s Requiem”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Mozart’s Requiem” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend and I had the pleasure of attending Saturday night. The WVSO performed Richard Wagner’s “Prelude to Act III, Tristan und Isolde,” Johannes Brahms’ “Tragische Ouvertϋre” (Tragic Overture) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous “Requiem,” with accompaniment by Marshall University Chorus, West Virginia Symphony Chorus and four featured guest soloists.

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion, Maestro Cooper explained the difference in how American singers approach classical vocal pieces (to avoid a “twang” in their pronunciation) as opposed to singers from other countries. One of the more light-hearted moments came when Cooper demonstrated his point by singing a line from a country song. To which tenor Gerald Gray basically told him to keep his day job. Gray also emphasized the importance of proper, “internal” vocal technique over attempting to achieve an external, Pavarotti-like sound.

I was pleasantly surprised to see such a large crowd brave the bitter cold wind and remnants of the previous day’s snowstorm to attend the symphony. I’m obviously not the only one who couldn’t resist the combination of the WV Symphony and Mozart’s “Requiem.”

I’m not that fond of Wagner in general, but I did enjoy the WV Symphony’s performance of his “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde” four years ago. The prelude to the third act of Wagner’s opera was just as lovely, though a bit darker and more mournful. Since the piece isn’t drastically different from the original “Prelude,” I hope you’ll forgive my quoting from my 2009 review:

Wagner’s composition was mostly based on Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem “Tristan,” but it was also inspired by Wagner’s affair with married author Mathilde Wesendonck as well as the theories of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “Tristan und Isolde” is considered to be one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century (the 2006 James Franco film Tristan and Isolde was based on Wagner’s opera), and its tonality is often credited as turning classical music in a new direction for the early twentieth century. Wagner was influenced by Weber and Beethoven, but his own work would inspire Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, and countless other composers.

The work possesses a sweeping, cinematic beauty and elegance, and was handled with tender grace in the many capable hands of the West Virginia Symphony.

The main difference between the opera’s first prelude and the third is its exquisite English horn solo. I don’t know the reasons behind the WV Symphony’s decision to place their English horn player on one of the auditorium’s box seat balconies, but it was an incredibly effective stylistic choice which lent her solo an almost jazz-like quality.

Next up was Brahms’ “Tragische Ouvertϋre.” Despite its name and Brahms’ apparent attempts to elicit sadness with the piece, his overture didn’t strike me as particularly tragic. Compared with my favorite composers Mahler and Beethoven, Brahms’ work seemed almost light and spirited until its dramatic finish. Whatever the composer’s emotional intentions were, I enjoyed the beautiful results immensely as played by the WV Symphony. It made for a nice, refreshing opening act to the evening’s classical headliner.

I was, of course, most excited to hear the WV Symphony tackle Mozart’s “Requiem” and, as usual, they did not disappoint. The orchestra was joined by soprano Janet Brown, mezzo-soprano Mariel van Dalsum, tenor Gerald Gray, baritone Timothy LeFebvre and members of West Virginia Symphony Chorus and Marshall University Chorus with their conductor, David Castleberry.

It may seem odd given my affection for classical music that I’ve only recently warmed to Mozart. I think I disliked him more for his popularity than his actual work. But recently I’ve given him another chance and must admit the masses were right about his genius. His “Requiem” was actually completed by another composer, because Mozart died before finishing the work himself. Subsequently, there continues to be a lot of controversy over how much of the piece was truly composed by Mozart.

The “Requiem” is divided into fourteen movements, many of which feature choir and soloist vocals. The sound and structure of the piece were apparently influenced by Handel’s “Messiah” and it definitely has a similarly grand scope.

The orchestra was restructured to accommodate both the composition and to make room on stage for the large chorus. My date, Brendan, said it appeared as if there’d been “a rapture of string players.”

Soprano Janet Brown’s voice was clear and effortlessly gorgeous and Gerald Gray’s tenor vocals were smooth and melodic.

The chorus singers’ voices and the orchestra’s instruments rose and fell in lovely unison, especially during “Lacrimosa.” I was reminded of the Bible’s description of Solomon’s temple dedication at which the singers and musicians were as one.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this specific performance to share. But I found some free, legal audio on SoundCloud and WVSO’s site had a link to the YouTube video below.

WV Symphony Official Site

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “New World Symphony”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “New World Symphony” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend and I had the pleasure of attending Friday night. The WVSO performed Antonin Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World)” (a.k.a. the “New World Symphony”) and Anton Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 3 in D minor.”

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion, Maestro Cooper and orchestra member Tom Beal talked about the Germanic tradition of the two pieces. Cooper revealed that the WV Symphony will perform Bruckner’s eighth symphony in one year and have already started preparation for the performance.

Beal humorously compared the old rivalry between Brahms and Bruckner fans to East Coast vs. West Coast rappers, while Cooper compared Bruckner’s compositions to a “primordial mist” which allows the listener to “glimpse elements of all creation.” I had noticed in my preliminary research that Bruckner’s third symphony often receives incredibly negative criticism and Cooper addressed this, pleading with us to take Bruckner as he is – to be to “washed” and “bathed” in his music without expectations or comparisons.

Cooper then called Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” a “Top 10″ classical work, commending the unity and “incredible orchestration” of the piece. He joked about and hummed the “cheesy” “boogie woogie line” from the Czechian folk-influenced portion of the symphony, but overall deemed it “justly popular” and “a fabulous piece of music” that is very fun to play.

First up was “Symphony No. 3 in D minor” by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. A contemporary of my beloved Mahler, Bruckner’s music was influenced by Beethoven as well as his own deeply held faith that music is an extension of God’s creation. It was this spiritual belief, as well as his sensitivity to criticism, that restrained Bruckner from experimenting or expressing himself too much in his work.

His music was also heavily influenced by Wagner, particularly his third symphony. Subtitled “The Wagner Symphony,” Bruckner submitted an early version of his third symphony to Wagner for review, eventually incorporated direct quotes from Wagner’s operas into revisions of the piece, and dedicated the symphony to Wagner with the inscription “to the unreachable world-famous noble master of poetry and music.”

The first movement is full of grandiose, surging waves punctuated by sudden ebbs of silence and lovely, gentle laps of melody. The second movement begins with such an elegant lilt that Cooper almost appeared to be dancing as he gracefully conducted the orchestra. I don’t know if it was the brilliance of the WV Symphony’s performance or my heeding Cooper’s advice to just let Bruckner’s music wash over me, but I loved the hour-long, four-movement symphony.

The second half of the evening was devoted to “Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World)” by Antonin Dvořák. Dvořák’s ninth is perhaps his most famous work, at least here in America. The symphony’s many inspirations included Dvořák’s experiences in New York City, the traditional Czech and Bohemian folk music he heard in a small immigrant community in Iowa, and his interest in Native American music and African American spirituals. The result is one of the more modern sounding classical works.

A trumpet blare and the fluttering of flutes heralded the beginning of the first movement before a dramatic rumble as the rest of the orchestra joined in. The exquisite second movement of the New World Symphony, which was later adapted into the song “Goin’ Home,” is a melodic thing of beauty. There was something very lyrical about the underlying melody of the entire piece, particularly the first two movements. Yet even the dramatic bombast of the third movement is tempered by that intricate melody. The third movement also features unusual chiming embellishments that almost sounded like the ring of a vintage telephone. The fourth movement was literally cinematic – I could’ve sworn it sounded like the themes from Jaws and Star Wars intertwined.

Unbeknown to me, there had been a tornado warning in Charleston during the concert. Cooper did warn the audience about a pending storm and assured us that we were in the safest place if the power went out. We couldn’t even hear the storm during the spectacular performance and the skies were clear by the time we stepped out of the Clay Center. As Cooper himself said, “The weather outside is frightful, but inside is delightful.”

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But WVSO’s site had a link to this YouTube video…

You can download free, legal mp3s of the Columbia University Orchestra performing Dvořák’s New World Symphony here, and hear a discussion by Marin Alsop as well as excerpts of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performing the piece at NPR.

WV Symphony Official Site

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Mahler 1: Titan”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Mahler 1: Titan” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend.

Italian pianist Domenico Codispoti joined Maestro Grant Cooper and his orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor” and Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major.”

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion Saturday night, Maestro Cooper and guest pianist, Domenico Codispoti, discussed training for Mozart’s concerto. I appreciated Codispoti’s remark that people still “need to hear Mahler and Mozart.”

Maestro Cooper also explained the technical aspects of tailoring a piano’s tuning to the soloist, the orchestra and the work being performed. Codispoti spoke of the progressive intimacy between a pianist and his piano as well as the role a technician plays in that particular relationship.

Codispoti exited the stage when Cooper began to talk of Mahler. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death, leading to this tribute by the WV Symphony. Cooper shared portions of Mahler’s biography with the sparse “Preludes” audience, particularly the prejudice the composer faced and how he combined the earthiness of traditional Jewish music with the elegance of classic Viennese music. One fact that was new to me was what Cooper described as Mahler’s railing against “the star system” – a common practice at the time of using popular singers rather than those whose voices were best suited to the material.

Cooper’s affection and admiration for Mahler’s music mirror my own, yet heightened by his own knowledge as a conductor and composer. He expertly compared the success of a piece of music to that of any great work of art or entertainment – to be truly captivating requires both depth and character. He ended with an architectural metaphor to explain the struggle a conductor and orchestra face in interpreting a composer’s structural outline.

I wish I could have recorded Maestro Cooper’s words to share here, as they were quiet poetic as well as informative. I encourage WV Symphony attendees who have not been arriving early enough for the “Preludes” discussion to do so in the future, it is the appetizer to an evening of fine dining.

Guest pianist Domenico Codispoti joined the symphony for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466,” the first performance of the evening. Like Beethoven, Mozart really needs no introduction. The composer himself took on the role of soloist when this concerto premiered in Vienna in 1785.

Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on the WV Symphony’s performance of the piece as I was seated next to a very noisy and flailing child. Try as I might, it was impossible to concentrate on the orchestra amidst such chaos. While I appreciate any parent introducing their offspring to classical music, it was a sadly jarring distraction for everyone seated quietly around them.

I can say from my pre-concert research Mozart’s three-movement concerto begins with a dark, syncopated rhythm championed by the string section before the piano eventually joins the orchestra. The second movement has an almost song-like melody with G minor operatic embellishments. And the finale begins with what is known as a Mannheim Rocket – a rapidly ascending arpeggio that begins with the piano then spreads to the rest of the orchestra. The drama mood of the piece rises into a jubilant lightness for the conclusion.

Judging from the crowd’s standing ovation, Codispoti and the WV Symphony did not disappoint.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major: Titan.”

Thankfully, a gentleman and his wife a few rows infront of me got up to leave during the intermission and they graciously allowed us to take their seats for the Mahler performance when I explained my child-related predicament. I’m so grateful for the kindness of those strangers, as it was an astounding performance.

Mahler is one of my favorite composers (surpassed only by Chopin) and his first symphony competes with his eighth “Symphony of a Thousand” (I’d love to hear the WVSO tackle that one!) as my favorite of his works. To say I was thrilled to hear the WV Symphony perform the Titan symphony would be a massive understatement.

Like many of Mahler’s other works, the four-movement “Symphony No. 1 in D major: Titan” explores themes of nature, youth, love and death. The title “Titan” comes from Mahler’s original concept of a tone poem based on Jean Paul’s novel and the symphony includes themes from Mahler’s own “Songs of a Wayfarer.”

A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler’s extraordinary compositions are full of subtle intricacies as well as cinematic grandeur. More than any other composer, I think Mahler utilized, emphasized and glorified every instrument in the orchestra. His use of woodwinds and horns is always captivating, particularly in the first movement of this work as the trumpets imitate the sound of a cuckoo.

Mahler’s gradual introduction of each section of the orchestra at the opening of the first movement has the effect of a just dawning sunrise – beginning with the subtle shadows and silhouettes of the horns, then a few random rays of light from the strings before the entire horizon of the stage is filled with the warm, golden tones of the radiant symphony.

The final portions of both the first and second movements were so exhilarating bombastic, I saw several audience members visibly restrain themselves from breaking the unspoken no-applause-between-movements rule.

Maestro Cooper took a long, dramatic pause before beginning the magnificent third movement, which begins with a contrabass-led transformation of “Frère Jacques” as a hunter’s funeral march.

The movement then blossoms into what sounds like a Jewish folk song mixed with a waltz – a superb example of Mahler embracing his Jewish heritage while simultaneously paying homage to the classical composers he revered.

The third movement melts away as the fourth erupts with an unexpected, heart-pounding cymbal crash. The final movement beautifully expands on the themes of the preceding movements before its triumphant end.

The WV Symphony’s breathtaking performance revealed nuances in Mahler’s work that I hadn’t picked up from recordings before. The entire orchestra is to be commended, but I must give extra praise to the trumpeters and other horn players for really bringing Mahler’s complex arrangement to vivid life. The WV Symphony’s rendition of Mahler’s “Titan” was the most exciting, chill-producing live performance of my life.

When I compose a symphony, I compose the world.” – Gustav Mahler

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But WVSO’s site had a link to this YouTube video…

WV Symphony Official Site