Monday, December 17, 2007

Rachel Lee

I was asked about Rachel Lee, a young phenom (not yet 21) who was a guest soloist with the Hartford Symphony in late October.

The first thing I look for in a young soloist is poise, and that's something that doesn't come through completely until you get into the heat of performance. In this regard, Miss Lee was a total professional -- anything new and different on performance night did not throw her off in the slightest...if anything, she would merely smile and run with it.

But there was something else about her that struck me from the first rehearsal, and that was her courage to do what she felt Mendelssohn asked. The first movement of his Violin Concerto has the tempo marking, Allegro appasionato, but most violinists play the piece as if Mendelssohn writes "Allegro vivace." Miss Lee had the gumption to take a tempo that was not fast -- some might even think it was a tad too slow -- but the end result was that her tempo choice allowed her to fully express the 'appasionato' direction, giving her time to do things in between the notes that would not have been possible at a faster pace.

Interestingly, the orchestra was somewhat divided on her interpretation --- some wanted the 'usual,' while others were very taken with her unique musical point of view. (Our concertmaster, Leonid Sigal, was among those who were truly impressed with her.)

I would welcome the opportunity to make music with her again, and look forward to witnessing her continued growth as an artist.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Holiday Pops, and murmurs on Tchaikovsky

Truth be told, I cannot remember having more fun conducting a pops concert. For those of you at the evening performance on Saturday, there was a moment after our trumpet section had just put the finishing touches on their horse whinny in Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," and I started laughing and couldn't stop! Not the kind of thing you expect from a conductor in the middle of a performance. But I think what happened is, for that brief moment, I became a member of the audience, a spectator rather than a participant. And when I acknowledged Jay, Tom and Jerry, they stood up and pumped their chests out as if they had just played the call from Beethoven's Leonore Overture no. 3. Wow.

There were other moments...

Many of you have remarked to me how surprised you are to learn how nervous I get for my pre-concert talks before Masterworks concerts. Well, our Santa Claus was nervous as ever before the Holiday concerts, but you wouldn't have known it to see him in front of the audience. His biggest concern was remembering his lines. (I wrote two dialogues for him to do with me on Act I and Act II.) He only received the second dialogue on Thursday, which made him more nervous, and then, to throw him another curve, he rehearsed his lines with the Connecticut Children's Chorus (for their jaunty take on "Mr. Sandman" to the words, "Mr. Santa") only moments before the matinee concert, which only made him more nervous.

But when Santa told me he also sings the blues and plays guitar, I somehow knew he would be fine, no matter how nervous he was. (There is no substitute for having performed in front of audiences -- either you've done it, or you haven't. Santa had.) And I knew I'd be able to count on him in a pinch.

As it turned out, he was sensational. Our audiences loved him. When he started dancing to the kids' singing, I nearly lost it again. And rather than trip on his lines as he had feared, he ad-libbed new lines on both performances, throwing me curve balls that I had not expected. Well, given our mantra for "Expect the Unexpected," seems only proper that the music director get a taste of his own mediciine from time to time.

My favorite part of the program? Well, though I always love performing with the the Hartford Chorale (and Saturday was no exception), and though soprano Sarah Callinan was a revelation, my biggest thrill was conducting the finale to Act I of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, with orchestra, children's chorus.... and ballet. You see, I have never had the pleasure of conducting this ballet, for some reason. Music from the suite? oh my gosh, I cannot count how many times I have conducted this music...dozens upon dozens of times. But the Snow Pas de deux must be the most gloriously majestic C major music known to man -- it makes me weep and shiver to hear this music. And then the Pas de deux from Act II......oh lord help me, when the harps enter, and then the strings with their pizzicati, all acting as tapestry for the celli, as they play a descending G major scale. That's all it is, folks, a G major scale. But in Tchaikovsky's hands.....pure genius.

Music teachers everywhere tell their students: 'Music in the major mode is happy; music in the minor mode is sad."

Then why does Tchaikovksy's music in the major mode sound so sad, so poignant? His gift for melody has few equals, if any, and there are none who do [or did] it better.