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Guest Critic: In Rossen Milanov’s Final Concert of Season, CSO and Michelle Johnson Give Strauss Works ‘Life in Death’

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Review by Anthony Bannon:

The footing is difficult; the way to death is not easy, or clear. Art in its first, unique moments is difficult — as if finding one’s way into a new night.

A small end-of-season and under-threat-of-rain audience heard Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra first-class music filling the empty seats and the humid air of the Amphitheater’s huge space and beyond. 

The concert awakened dogs.

Soprano Michelle Johnson suggested, when she last performed here, that the CSO interpret Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” among the most extraordinary in the repertory of concert music, in good measure because of what it asks of the fragile relationship between orchestra and soloist, each to their roles, each in ensemble, each truly caring for the art of the other. It was a masterful, unforgettable experience.

Yes, it was, as billed, “Sensational Strauss,” though the two works at play summoned cerebral ideas of the first and the last: The beginnings of ideas and their last breath. The composer’s “Four Last Songs” were indeed Strauss’ last compositions, with lyrics for three by the poet with whom he shared so much of life’s direction, Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). The fourth song is by the deep Romantic Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857), who spares no fine words within his “At Sunset”: 

“The great peace here is wide and still / and rich with glowing sunsets: / If this is death, having had our fill / of getting lost, we find beauty — No regrets.”

This review is not about the waltz king from Vienna.

The German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) sought profound guides to aid his passage, sought poets, wise men, even a prophet. Zoroaster, the Persian thinker from 1500 to 1000 B.C.E., was a selected prophet, discovered in the novel of a fellow traveler, Fredrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the German philosopher whose recognition of the complexity, the contradictions and the shifting understandings in life had great influence. The two men — Strauss and Nietzsche — realized Zoroaster’s call for a self-aware search for truth, not rule-bound, but free.

A history of ideas cites Zoroastrianism as among the prototypical philosophies. One finds it in the Greeks, where an actively examined life is engaged by thought, word and deed as keys to an often contrary search for truth. This much also was central for such as Voltaire, William Butler Yeats and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Strauss had been moved by one of Nietzsche’s novels, written between 1883 and 1885. And Strauss responded by using the same title for his influential work, fully entitled “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Tone Poem (Freely After Fredrich Nietzsche) for Large Orchestra, in 1896. It holds a good bit of complex wisdom but does not presume to illustrate the philosopher’s poetic voice. Strauss had plenty within his own voice. Sometimes too much.

Strauss had entered the stride of his creative life. He had heard Johannes Brahms and was moved by the emotional depth of a powerful romanticism. He abided by the work of Richard Wagner, particularly in its interpretive referencing to nature. Aware of the dissolution of his time, Strauss responded in voice with Hesse and Nietzsche, expecting the hero, an Overlord, to overcome uncertainty.

For “Zarathustra,” Strauss created huge entrance, the sunrise theme that now is iconic. It has become a sign of a transformative higher power, that dawning moment memorialized in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as well as in its conclusion, when “Star-Child” was born. 

The Massey Memorial Organ, a symphonic instrument within the Amphitheater, holds more than 5,600 pipes. Its estimable presence, a resonant voice that is felt as much as heard, created a base to venture toward such a heroic understanding.

The performance was Saturday evening, in the last hour of Sabbath. The orchestra performed with ringing clarity, crisp enunciation from the crucial trumpet call that is so well-known, and a knockout summation. 

Plucked strings harshly, and a call of crows from beyond the Amphitheater, the audience freshened for the following ascendant grace, a passage called “The Great Longing,” proclaiming the good, as well as anticipating a countering discord. Such is the repeated challenge for the 33-minute-long tone poem. Heard with focus upon Strauss’ era, uncertain about its direction — with its new technology and its industry yet finding balance — “Zarathustra” asserts a will to persevere and struggle, manifest in the warrior spirit of a leader Nietzsche named “Overman.”

And outside the Amp, the sounds of a flight of geese. A great longing in the strings, and the yap of a small dog.

The orchestra’s work is to order the jagged narrative of the work. A sample of eight topics shows “The Great Longing,” followed by “Joys and Passions,” whereupon “The Song of the Grave” giving way to thoughts “Of Science and Learning.” Then at the last, “The Dance Song” and “Song of the Night Wanderer.” A swirling complexity of learning, shrill, painful experience, a repose, the sounds of birds and a darkness of doubt. An awful lot is managed, and under the baton of CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov, a standup, learned performance.

“Zarathustra” requires both elation and pain. Music has its right to require a world from its listeners, including promise of confusion and quiet; chaos with calm. Solutions may be hidden, riddles especially about sequence and development. And the puzzle may be repeated another way. At least opened, the poem then comes to an end. Extraordinary.

Michelle Johnson, the returning soprano, had opened the evening with death’s development. Strauss was notoriously opportunistic and loathsome. But his selection of Hesse’s poems “Spring” and “September” point toward a finally tranquil understanding of time’s passage. From “Spring”:

“I feel the healing touch / Of softer days, warm and tender/ My limbs tremble — happily, too much — / As I stand inside your splendor.”

And from “September”:

“With a final glance at the roses – / too weak to care, it longs for peace – / then, with darkness wherever it gazes, / summer slips into sleep.”

Then, in “When I Go to Sleep”:

“Now that day has exhausted me / I give myself over, a tired child …”

The majesty of the CSO with Ms. Johnson cites the miracle of spring with the miracle of the soprano’s voice. It finds openings to emerge from the orchestra, to counterpoint an instrument or to play as one with a section. The listener finds her within the violins, within the woodwinds, and then rise above and locate a beat or a breath as a time to emerge, and the orchestra swells.

Nietzsche spoke of his understanding of Zarathustra’s teaching as if it was “All,” or it was “Nothing.”

An orchestra, a team, is all, with each its recognized part. Or it is nothing. With the CSO’s fine work, this death cannot be proud, for there remains life, surely a life of art, within it. Ms. Johnson’s voice never forces its play, it sounds through its appearance a moment with all of its possibilities, always in company with the orchestra, never without. 

Ms. Johnson stood center stage with head slightly lifted, slowly regarding the curve of the space. She came to her part, entered, and gave it presence until completed, just 24 minutes.

There is an aesthetic to duration. Few, artists included, know how it works. But these songs were perfect. How much time is necessary to suggest there is life in death? The artists and their director had the answer.

Dr. Anthony Bannon received his undergraduate degree from St. Bonaventure University, and his advanced degrees in media studies and cultural studies from the English Department at the University at Buffalo. He is director emeritus at George Eastman Museum and the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. His new book, Portraits: William Coupon, features collected photographs from the artist’s long career with TIME magazine, and thereafter with tribal and countercultures around the world. It will launch at 7 p.m. Sept. 26 in the Burchfield-Penney.

Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and CSO to Explore ‘Asphalt Jungle’ of New York City

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Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform “I’ve Got Rhythm” at 8:15 P.M. on Thursday, August 25, 2016, in the Amphitheater. The band played to a packed house. Photo by Carolyn Brown.

Just 300 miles from Chautauqua, New York City is growing and changing. Tonight, two orchestras will bring the city to the Amphitheater.

In its last concert of the year, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will be joined by jazz composer Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru to perform “The Jungle” — an intense, wary exploration of New York City, at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, August 20 in the Amp.

“The Jungle” premiered in late 2016 with the New York Philharmonic, and has since seen only a handful of performances. Tonight, the piece will be performed in full for the first time in 2019.

Marsalis is a New Orleans-born composer and conductor. He is the winner of nine Grammy awards, and is the only musician in history to receive both jazz and classical Grammy Awards in the same year — which he accomplished twice.

For Marsalis, New York City is a place like no other — a huge, shifting, high-pressure city.

“New York City is the most fluid, pressure-packed and cosmopolitan metropolis the modern world has ever seen,” Marsalis wrote in his notes for the original program.

The city of almost 9 million is a hub for culture, trade and information of all sorts. Marsalis wrote that its social connections pass along ideas at lightning speed.

“The dense mosaic of all kinds of people everywhere doing all kinds of things encourages you to ‘stay in your lane,’ but the speed, freedom and intensity of our relationships to each other — and to the city itself — forces us onto a collective superhighway unlike any other in our country,” Marsalis wrote.

And any superhighway can be dangerous. Marsalis wrote that “The Jungle” is darker than some of his previous compositions, drawing from inequality and violence in the city — ills that could stunt an evolving society.

“It considers the possibility that we may not be up to overcoming the challenges of social and racial inequality, tribal prejudices, and endemic corruption,” Marsalis wrote. “We may choose to perish in a survival-of-the-fittest, asphalt-jungle-style battle for what is perceived as increasingly scarce resources, instead of coming together to create unlimited assets and to enjoy the cultural ascendancy that our form of democracy makes conceivable.”

“The Jungle” is Marsalis’ fourth symphony. Like some of his previous compositions, it features what he describes as “blues-tinged melodies,” “jazz and fiddle improvisations” and a variety of different musical styles and forms.

Like Marsalis’ metropolitan muse, “The Jungle” is a mosaic of different characteristics: various styles of blues and swing fused with the classical symphony. For New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini, Marsalis managed to “for the most part (find) the sweet spot.”

“The vernacular elements sounded freshest when Mr. Marsalis folded them into passages of symphonic mass, with thick, pungent chords and boldly fractured phrases,” Tommasini wrote. “Reflective passages full of poignant melodic turns and blues-tinged, plushly orchestrated harmonies alternate with vibrantly jazzy, fidgety episodes.”

Măcelaru will return to Chautauqua to conduct “The Jungle.” He said the piece is exciting on multiple levels, from its technical elements to emotional sound.

“In (‘The Jungle’), I find a world of contributing voices that together form a unique tapestry of sounds, emotions, feelings,” Măcelaru said. “I am looking forward to immersing myself again in this vast world of musical gestures that span centuries of musical forms, from fugues to shuffles, and passacaglia lines to the blues. It is truly a remarkable work of art, not just in its technical aspect, but also on a deep emotional level, a spiritual journey of sorts.”

Măcelaru is the music director and conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. For him, contemporary compositions like “The Jungle” are built from the same timeless motivations as their classical counterparts.

“I conduct Marsalis for the same reason I conduct Alban Berg and Beethoven: I am interested in their narrative,” Măcelaru said. “Music is simply the language we use to communicate these deep, unique emotions, which cannot be expressed in words. To limit ourselves in experiencing every voice is to deny our most basic human desire — connecting with each other.”

Marsalis is the music director and conductor of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Chris Crenshaw, a trombonist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, says performances of “The Jungle” change with every orchestra.

“We’ve performed it with other orchestras around the world, and it’s different every time,” Crenshaw said. “Every orchestra we’ve performed it with has their own approach — their own take. We’re looking forward to performing it with (the CSO) and hearing their interpretation, and for them to hear our interpretation.”

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Play One-of-a-Kind Chamber Recital in Lenna

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Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been making music for almost 30 years — and this year, they have a unique new program for Chautauqua.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will begin its weeklong Chautauqua residency with a performance at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. This is the final performance of the season-long Chamber Music Guest Artist Series, featuring nine concerts for a small audience.

Chris Crenshaw, a Juilliard-educated trombonist, joined the famous jazz orchestra in 2006. For him, Jazz at Lincoln Center  Orchestra’s sound is built on a long series of individual voices.

“It’s a continuum of all the big names that have come up through the eras of jazz, especially the Duke Ellington Orchestra,” Crenshaw said. “Jazz at Lincoln Center has its own voice. We’re built on the musicianship of playing together and wanting to achieve the same goal, and to put on a good show.”

This is the orchestra’s second residency at the Institution. Like in 2016, the orchestra’s chamber music performance is a unique program developed especially for Chautauqua. It features jazz tunes from the 1920s and ’30s and swing music, including George and Ira Gershwin’s influential “I Got Rhythm” and Louis Armstrong’s “Savoyagers’ Stomp.”

Crenshaw serves as music director for today’s performance and selected the 10-song program to fit the performance at Lenna Hall. He said he looks forward to performing “Robbin’s Nest,” a slower, almost ballad-style jazz piece by Charles Thompson.

“It’s one of those pieces that kind of has everything,” Crenshaw said. “It’s sophisticated, and it has a bit of the blues as well.”

For Crenshaw, “Robbins’ Nest” is appealing for its complex style and emotional range.

“It’s one of our slower numbers, and it’s mostly a soft piece with a few exclamation points, if you will,” Crenshaw said. “There’s a lot of counterpoint in it as well; a lot of moving points going on at the same time. Overall, it’s one of those pieces that just makes you feel good. There’s a lot of everything in it, in terms of emotional quality.”

Crenshaw first became involved with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra when Wynton Marsalis saw him perform as a student.

“One thing led to another, … and it was perfect timing; everything came together,” Crenshaw said.

Marsalis, a New Orleans-born trumpeter and composer, title. While Marsalis will not be performing in today’s chamber concert, he has written extensively on the purpose of jazz performances. To him, jazz is an exercise in unity.

“Jazz shows us how to find a groove with other people, how to hold on to it, and how to develop it,” Marsalis wrote in his book, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life.

Jazz at Lincoln Center has three key missions: to entertain, to educate and to advocate for the continued growth of the international jazz community. It leads several youth education initiatives, hosts annual gatherings for jazz musicians and produces an annual concert season.

To Crenshaw, the program’s missions are a mark of its longevity and continuity.

“Our mission is to entertain as well as educate and advocate,” Crenshaw said. “We’ve been about those elements for about 30 years. Members come in and out of the orchestra, adding their voices and making each night that we play better.”

Because of the expected demand for this concert, complimentary tickets are required, which are available at the Main Gate Welcome Center Ticket Office, which opens at 7 a.m. today

Guest Critic: Anna Clyne’s ‘DANCE’ ‘Echoes the Rich Understanding of Mahler’

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Review by Anthony Bannon:

Celebrate a wise new music in its second performance, an art that will be an enduring gift from our age, a struggle with opposites. This is the creation of Anna Clyne’s “DANCE” for cello and orchestra, softly at first, in the strings, an invocation of the evening and introduction of the full breath of the cello, a masterpiece expression of a 17th-century instrument and an important artist, Inbal Segev, honored at the Pablo Casals Festival and acclaimed by orchestras and publics internationally. “DANCE” was written for Segev, drawing upon text by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. Performed here as an East Coast premiere, it was co-commissioned by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz, California,  which presented the West Coast premiere two weeks ago.

For the poet, as for composer and her player, dance is central: It is within the broken-open, in the tearing off the bandage, in the middle of a fight, within the blood, and in the perfectly free — thus the five movements of “DANCE.” The art of sound is filled up and broken open; it is at the edge of silence and at the crest of chaos; it is a dirge and an emergence; it lives within the certainty of familiar melodies and within the ambiguity of the present, as if always in formation.

Split wood; I am there. Lift up a rock; you will find me there.” –Gospel of Thomas, the Gnostic Bible.

And the cello had begun like a flute, at its highest sounding, then developing — long and throaty, full-bodied, exquisite, taking its measure with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Thursday evening in the Amphitheater. And then, the dance fills with double stops; it fires, swirls, sings with the past. Is it Handel? A folk song? Stately, is it the Sarabande, itself a dance? 

“DANCE” recognizes through a glimpse of Charles Ives, an American composer of a century ago, the creation of the 20th century with such as Gustav Mahler, whose work was about music and transcendence, not some simile to wind through trees, morning birds or breaks of thunder. Mahler died in 1911. Clyne was born in 1980, and she, too, introduces words in her work and mixes melodies and atmospheres as if mixing media, pushing ideas to their presumed limits and therein creating a new aesthetic — a new way of being in the world.

Clyne is a genius for our time, knowing that when form meets form — music with words or visual art, or dance, or film — life takes hold, uniquely, as it did at first, where sea met shore. Her work is ever new and anticipated.  She is British-born and schooled and now lives in Brooklyn. Herself a cellist, she created “DANCE” for talent her equal.

Soloist Segev held her audience in a profound resonance to experience opposites, melody confronted with turbulence, those moments of the poet, where one feels acutely alive within the sharpness of pain — then surprised by underlying beauty. How apt that Clyne found a way to remember Rumi’s profound dance now, within a world characterized by division, the tension of the full orchestra. The soloist continues, expressing a new form, and giving it away to orchestra, and another and on. These are loops, interlocking like Borromean rings, an ancient sign of strength in unity. Such a victory, this music, a deep horizon. For this time, 23 minutes along, “DANCE” ends, but only after vigorous plucking of strings and bows against wood, harsh and assertive, all hands on deck, swirling and quoting melodies again, quieting within a false ending, a brief climax, and a soft ending after all, a rare understanding, absent the tired trope of a full-tilt climax. From within its surprising and singular frame, “DANCE” acts for its listener as a theory of everything, known and as yet unknown.

There is a sensibility in Clyne’s work that echoes the rich understanding of Mahler, particularly expressed in his Symphony No. 4 in G Major. Completed in 1900, and premiered to an angry audience the year following, Mahler’s Fourth is a forerunner in the 20th century’s declarative break with expectations. Art assumes a fluid shape. The century no longer plays a program of musical imitation of babbling brooks and butterflies gently riding the breeze. Mahler led the way; his work is music itself — music as a reach into the spirit, to those larger notions created by all that nature can give.

To achieve this vision, Mahler worked from past masters, as in the symphony’s Adagio, a vast plane for the strings, well beyond mind’s eye (and ear), as if pure essence. This third movement is among the most memorable adagios, yet under recognized, likely for its exuberant conclusion that breaks the peace. Mahler perceives through his own ear, not the license of a governing academy or school holding the rules. Mahler writes what will become the new rules, rendered, as with Clyne, through their own search.

And both composers use words: Mahler appropriates a series of folk song poems. The poem recognizes both the child’s innocence and the child’s proximity to endgames. Mahler’s fourth and final movement declares in song the doubling nature of humankind. In “The Heavenly Life” the song recognizes the presence of Harrod the Butcher as St. Luke slaughters the ox. The angels lead the lamb to its death.

Still, the food is fine, and the fish come swimming in for their death the day after the fast. Angels bake bread, and “we skip, and we sing.” This is about as good as it gets. Never mind musical babbling brooks, the breeze through the trees, and the joys of morning. Know that the terror of thunder and the fearful chasm of the sublime remain in the underside.

These two works by Clyne and Mahler are tightropes of quick changes, of forces that move mountains, and of calm. CSO Music Director Rossen Milanov carefully, subtly gathered the thin lines of the two compositions and led the orchestra to make sounds grand, gentle and whole: Rare leadership, save for allowing the orchestra to seize and swallow the low register from soprano Rebekah Howell in the concluding fourth movement and its important folk songs. Howell is a Chautauquan, performing here during the past three years with the Chautauqua Opera Company.

Free and rich, lyric, diverse, even contrary, yet always cozy with the supernatural, Mahler’s quest is to discover the supernatural in the face of horrible death. He recognized and embraced discord. The timpani had figured it out. Sound can simply be itself, or it can create melody; it can be left in the air, or it can carry its listener beyond. The rough has exchange with the smooth; the raw may be cooked.

At the last gasp of Mahler Thursday evening, big Chautauqua thunder made contact, and there were torrents and hail.

Anthony Bannon was an arts critic for The Buffalo News. He is director emeritus of the George Eastman Museum and the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State. His writing about the arts appears, according to the Online Computer Library Center, in 42 books, held by nearly 2,000 libraries worldwide.

Under Rossen Milanov’s Baton for Last Time This Season, CSO and Michelle Johnson to Perform Complex Strauss Compositions

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Music Director and conductor Rossen Milanov directs the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra as they play, “DANCE,” by Anna Clyne alongside cellist Inbal Segev as the first song of the, “Mahler 4,” concert on Thursday, Aug 15, 2019 in the Amphitheater. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Johnson

In the penultimate orchestra concert of the season, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform two philosophical pieces.

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, August 17 in the Amphitheater, the CSO and soprano Michelle Johnson will perform German composer Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” a series of pieces that Strauss wrote in the last year of his life. The concert will end with Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), a tone poem based on the novel of the same name by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

“Four Last Songs,” titled and published after Strauss’ death, is made up of “Frühling” (Spring), “September,” “Beim Schlafengehen” (When Falling Asleep) and “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset). Each song uses the text of a different German poem.

This is CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov’s last concert of the season — his fifth with the CSO. He said “Four Last Songs” is a unique experience.

“It changes you, when you hear ‘Four Last Songs,’ ” Milanov said. “Particularly the last song, which deals with saying farewell. It asks, ‘How do we wrap up everything that we have? How do we summarize our life? How do we define the important things that we have done?’ ”

Each song features a soaring soprano voice and dense orchestration. Milanov said Johnson, who first performed with the CSO last season, suggested the piece.

“We had a conversation, (and) I asked her, ‘What is your dream to sing?’ ” Milanov said. “And she said, ‘My dream is to perform Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs.’ I said, ‘We’ll do it.’ ”

Milanov, who has worked with Johnson on several other projects, said he is looking forward to this collaborative concert.

“She has an amazing voice, a generous heart and is one of the most amazing singers I’ve worked with,” Milanov said. “I’m so much looking forward to doing this concert.”

Johnson will be performing “Four Last Songs” for the first time in her career. She said she is excited for both the piece and the concert as a whole.

“This is my first time singing these four last songs from Strauss, and for me it’s a bucket list kind of deal — to be able to have such a fantastic orchestra to collaborate with is insane, and I love working with Maestro Milanov,” Johnson said.

To Johnson, “Four Last Songs” takes its source material — poetry about death — to a peaceful place.

“The poetry is about death, but Strauss pictures and paints it in such a beautiful way that it makes you not fear death, but accept it for the beauty of what your life was,” Johnson said. “It makes you accept that all things come to an end.”

Johnson said she appreciates “Four Last Songs” not just for its lyrics, but Strauss’ balancing of voice and orchestra.

“It’s just so gloriously written that the voice just soars through the density of the orchestra,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to sing it. I’m on pins and needles just waiting.”

The concert will end with “Also sprach Zarathustra,” inspired by Nietsche’s book, which explores the concept of eternal recurrence — that the universe repeats itself across time and space and will continue to do so forever.

Strauss’ piece follows the title character, Zarathustra, through selected chapters and plot points. The piece is known for its complexity and was used in the score of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

To Milanov, the piece is an excellent final note for his fifth season.

“The piece is a sonic celebration of symphonic writing,” Milanov said. “It’s powerful, it’s sublime and it’s very inspiring to listen to. For my last concert (of the season), it was a fitting choice for the orchestra to do something so complex, so important and so impressive.”

CSO, Rebekah Howell and Inbal Segev to Perform New Composition and Explore Heaven

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Conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra as they play, “The Isle of the Dead, op.29,” composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff as their first piece in their, “Don Quixote,” concert on Thursday, Aug 8, 2019 in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Howell
Segev

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s concert this evening will last less than two hours — but it will explore eternity. 

At 8:15 p.m. Thursday, August 15 in the Amphitheater, the CSO will perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, an orchestral and vocal exploration of heaven. The concert will also feature London-based composer Anna Clyne’s new concerto for cello and orchestra, “DANCE.”

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is made up of four movements that follow a child’s death and afterlife. Although the subject matter begins in a dark place, CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov said the piece is unforgettable.

“I envy the people who haven’t heard Mahler 4 and can hear it for the first time,” Milanov said. “It’s one of those pieces that you never forget.”

Renaissance-era artists often portrayed death as a skeletal figure playing the violin. Milanov said the CSO will echo this imagery with its instruments.

“In the second movement, the concertmaster will use two violins,” Milanov said, “one normal, and one which is tuned much higher. In many legends, Death itself played a violin — it would take you away, playing the sweet sound of a violin. So in that way, the final resolution of the symphony is already predicted somewhat. Death itself appears, taking the shape of a more awkward and shrill-sounding violin.”

Soprano Rebekah Howell will perform with the CSO in the final movement of the piece, which explores a child’s idea of heaven. Howell said this movement is a sensory, kinetic experience; the lyrics describe plentiful food, dancing saints and angelic music.

“It’s not at all what you would think of heaven, but it’s exactly what someone would think of when describing a simple, uncluttered life,” Howell said. “It makes you reconsider how blessed we are when we have those simple things: food to eat, things to do, fish to catch in the river.”

The symphony’s vocal portion ends with an awestruck description of heavenly music.

“At the very end, there’s a long, beautiful symphonic section that brings back a motif from earlier,” Howell said. “The ending stanza talks about the music in heaven — how there’s nothing else that can compare with it.”

The symphony ends with a quiet orchestral portion, Milanov said.

“The last miracle it describes is this beautiful celestial music in heaven, and that’s how the symphony finishes: this extremely quiet wave of sound that goes into eternity,” Milanov said.

The concert will open with Clyne’s new piece, “DANCE.” The concerto is based on a poem by medieval writer Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, often known as Rumi. The concerto’s five short movements are based on the five lines of Rumi’s poem:

“Dance, when you’re broken open. / Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. / Dance in the middle of the fighting. / Dance in your blood. / Dance when you’re perfectly free.”

Clyne wrote the piece for cellist Inbal Segev, an award-winning alumna of the Yale School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music.

Segev said “DANCE” explores the poem’s emotional qualities through a variety of styles.

“The first movement starts in a very special way; the cello sounds like a violin,” Segev said. “It plays very high and very ethereal, and I’ve never seen that in a concerto before. Then it’s kind of grungy and virtuosic and rougher in the second movement. The third is very spiritual, and the last two are more virtuosic — these beautiful, romantic melodies.”

Segev said new music has an important place in modern orchestra performance.

“(Classical compositions) are beautiful works, and I think we will always love them — as long as there are humans on Earth, we’ll play Bach,” Segev said. “But I think that, to move the world forward, we have to support composers and play new works.”

With Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong and Guest Conductor Timothy Muffitt, CSO to Perform Romantic Pieces from Bruch and Dvořák

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Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra opens the season with conductor Rossen Milanov and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk Thursday, June 27, 2019 in the Amphitheater. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Two of Chautauqua’s own will take a moment to shine tonight as guest conductor and soloist.

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra — featuring CSO Associate Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong and Music School Festival Orchestra Conductor Timothy Muffitt — will perform at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, August 13 in the Amphitheater. The program features two Romantic-era pieces: Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26, and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70.

Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is a central part of the violin’s repertoire. To Muffitt, the piece’s reputation is well-deserved.

“It’s extraordinarily beautiful, not only in the way the violin is used but in the interaction between it and the orchestra,” Muffitt said. “It really makes this stand out as one of the great Romantic-era violin concertos.”

Muffitt, who is also the music director and conductor of both the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra and the Lansing Symphony, said Armstrong is well-suited for the concerto’s solo part.

“(Armstrong) is a wonderful violinist, and he has a longstanding relationship with the other players,” Muffitt said. “It’s always exciting to have one of our own out there in the soloist position.”

Armstrong has served as the associate concertmaster of the CSO for 27 seasons. He said the Bruch concerto embodies the violin’s most famous qualities.

“This particular concerto is a favorite for violinists,” Armstrong said. “It’s got a lot of technical aspects that are fun to play, and it celebrates an aspect of the violin — that romantic singing quality. For many of us, that’s why we decided to play the violin in the first place.”

For Armstrong, the concerto is more than just a favorite — it was what pushed him to pursue a musical career.

“Anyone who’s learning to play an instrument goes through a period of time in which they wonder if they want to get really serious about it,” Armstrong said.

During this time, Armstrong attended a concert at Michigan State University. The university hosted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and violinist Pinchas Zukerman to perform Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in what Armstrong described as “essentially an old basketball gym.”

But in this old gym, Armstrong said, he heard Zukerman play and came to a decision.

“I was sold,” Armstrong said. “It was that concert that decided it for me. I said, ‘I really like this violin business; it’s time to get serious about it.’ … Somehow, they managed to put on this concert in a gym that changed my life.”

The experience stuck with him. To this day, he has a unique perspective on unusual venues, Armstrong said.

“Sometimes, as a performing violinist, I play in places that I don’t particularly enjoy,” he said. “But then I remember: Who knows who’s out there in the audience, and what effect this concert might have on them?”

Armstrong performs as a concerto soloist a few times per year. He said the soloist’s role is high-profile and important — and fun.

“Any time you play a concerto, the attention is on you,” Armstrong said. “You need to carry that. But it’s a fun thing to do, taking a moment to shine.”

The concert will also include Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. Dvořák, a Czech composer, wrote the piece in 1885, while his country struggled to define itself politically and culturally. After finishing the movement, he wrote to a friend that he hoped the uniquely Czech symphony would create an international stir.

“Now I am occupied with my new symphony (for London), and wherever I go I have nothing else in mind but my work, which must be such again as to make a stir in the world, and God grant that it may!” Dvořák wrote.

Dvořák created a symphony that, according to Muffitt, showed a new emotional range for the composer.

“The Seventh Symphony really stands out in Dvořák’s symphonic repertoire for its expressive scope,” Muffitt said. “It’s at a level of drama and intensity that the other symphonies — though wonderful — don’t go into that realm.”

Muffitt said Dvořák drew influence from many other popular composers of his day, but created unique work.

“We hear him as the composer, as the driving force — it’s not a derivative work; he was just absorbing a lot of what was around him and filtering it through his spirit,” Muffitt said.

To Armstrong, the two Romantic pieces will complement each other in the CSO’s performance.

“I think the orchestra has sounded fantastic this year; they’re playing with a beautiful sound and a beautiful ensemble — but also with a lot of heart and passion,” Armstrong said. “The Bruch violin concerto is the height of Romantic lyricism, and you have to put the Dvořák in the same category — just tuneful, joyous music.”

Paul Taylor Dance Company Closes Week-Long Residency with Three-Piece Bill in Collaboration with CSO

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Heather McGinley dances in “Dust” with from left, Sean Mahoney, Michelle Fleet and James Samson.

American modern dance visionary Paul Taylor was revered for his uncommon, unconventional  musicality: “I had no musical training. … Now, when I’m working with a piece of music, I count it in my own way, not as a musician would,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

Harmoniously, the Paul Taylor Dance Company will close its inaugural residency at Chautauqua Institution with a melodic collaboration, joined by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, August 10 in the Amphitheater.

Taylor founded Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1954, choreographing over 140 pieces until his death in the summer of 2018. The company’s residency at Chautauqua is a stop on its one-year tour commemorating Taylor’s life and legacy.

“Paul Taylor Dance Company is literally one of the most important ballet companies in the United States, and for me, it’s an incredible privilege to be able to provide the music for them, and for Chautauqua to have a company of that caliber on the line-up,” said Rossen Milanov, CSO conductor and music director.

The night will open with “Concertiana,” Taylor’s final work completed just before his death. The piece contrasts agitated, dynamic solos and duets with slower, simplistic silhouettes.

“Concertiana” is danced to “Concerto for Violin and Strings” by Eric Ewazen, a contemporary American composer whose works have been played in orchestra halls and on festival grounds — notably Woodstock — alike.

CSO violinist Krista Bennion Feeney will perform as a soloist in “Concertiana.” Feeney is a concertmaster for both the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.

Taylor choreographed “Dust” — the second of the three-piece bill — for a friend who was deaf and mute. Set to 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc’s “Concert Champêtre,” “Dust” illuminates mankind’s ability “to transcend all manner of physical and emotional disabilities,” said a Paul Taylor Dance Company spokesperson.

“ ‘Dust’ is a dark and twisted piece, both physically and emotionally,” said company dancer Robert Kleinendorst. “It is one of (Taylor’s) more physically demanding pieces.”

“Concert Champêtre” is a concerto for harpsichord and orchestra. In tonight’s concert, University of Kentucky professor of organ and CSO harpsichordist Schuyler Robinson will perform as the soloist in “Concert Champêtre.” Robinson has toured extensively both domestically and abroad.

The final piece, “Promethean Fire,” was created in the wake of 9/11, with Leopold Stokowski’s turn-of-the-century rearrangement of works by Johann Sebastian Bach.

“It is an architectural dance using pattern, space and time to its utmost,” Kleinendorst said.  “This piece is at once dark, passionate and ultimately hopeful.”

Throughout the week, Paul Taylor Dance Company members and Taylor 2 — the traveling company — have hosted Special Studies for both dancers and non-dancers, and open rehearsals, culminating in Wednesday’s and Saturday’s performances.

The Chautauqua Dance Circle will host a dance preview with the Paul Taylor Dance Company at 7 p.m. Saturday in Smith Wilkes Hall, prior to the company’s 8:15 p.m. Amp performance.

Celebrating 90 years of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra

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A Chautauqua Archives photo dated to the 1930’s shows the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performing under the baton of Albert Stoessel. An American Flag is hung above the orchestra that has 48 stars. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHAUTAUQUA ARCHIVES

A world war, a moon landing, global shifts in power and an evolving Chautauqua: The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra has played through it all.

The CSO celebrated its 90th year this season, making it one of the longest-running summer orchestras in the United States. What keeps the orchestra thriving into its nonagenarian years? To musicians and supporters alike, community is key.

“Only in Chautauqua”: 90 years of family

For Rick Evans, a childhood memory led to a lifelong involvement with the CSO.

“I think it probably began when I was 4 years old,” Evans said. “My mom would take me to the symphony, and I would sit in the choir loft — it was kind of my primer to great symphonic music. So it goes back 63 years, and I’ve enjoyed their performances every summer since.”

Evans did more than listen to the orchestra; he developed lifelong friendships with many of its members. He and his wife, Rainy Evans, even served as co-presidents of the CSO League, a supporting organization that encourages dialogue between the orchestra and the community it serves.

The CSO is inextricably involved with the larger Chautauqua community, Evans said. Many of the musicians return year after year, even living on the grounds and bringing their families.

“The community has always been heavily involved with the symphony,” Evans said. “When I talk to the musicians individually, there isn’t one who hasn’t shared with me just how close they feel with the Chautauqua community. It just buoys them up.”

But it’s not just about the musicians. For Evans, even the CSO’s venue of the Amphitheater makes music accessible for people of all ages.

“A grandmother can take her grandkids there and sit in a front-row seat,” Evans said. “And the kids don’t have to get dressed up in long pants or skirts, Grandma doesn’t have to drive 10 miles downtown, and when the kids get fidgety 20 minutes into the concert, Grandma can just pick them up and leave. Or she can send some of the kids home because they know their way home. Only in Chautauqua.”

Between the venue and the people, Evans said, the CSO has built something incredible.

“It feels so much more human,” Evans said. “There’s a bond between the community and the musicians.”

One such musician is Jeff Szabo, a cellist who has been with the CSO for 40 seasons — almost half of the orchestra’s existence. Szabo returns every year and even lives part-time on the grounds.

“We’ve evolved such good friendships because many of us have been here for so long,” Szabo said. “We look forward to seeing (our friends at Chautauqua) — our extended family. For a lot of people, it’s the highlight of their year to come back to Chautauqua.”


A Chautauqua Archives photo shows Judson House, left, and Albert Stoessel standing in front of Norton Hall in 1929. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHAUTAUQUA ARCHIVES

“One rehearsal, one concert”: A tradition of intensity

These relationships are vital, some musicians said. The CSO performs one of the most intense, compact seasons in the United States. Instead of the standard nine-month run, the CSO’s season is condensed to nine weeks.

For first violinist David Hult, this fast-paced season requires skill and dedication.

“All the musicians are seasoned professionals, which makes it possible to follow the schedule we do here: one rehearsal, one concert,” Hult said, explaining that many traditional orchestras only perform concerts about once per week. “Here, we do three concerts per week — each with separate programs — usually with one rehearsal each.”

Hult has been with the CSO for 41 seasons. That adds up to some serious experience — over a thousand concerts with the CSO alone.

When first violinist Lenelle Morse first joined the orchestra 27 seasons ago, a summer season’s intensity was more than just a challenge to her: It was a selling point.

“I just loved the atmosphere, the intensity of it, and the absolute love of orchestral music,” Morse said. “Many of us also were playing in seasonal orchestras, so it was helpful to have something during the summertime.”

With only one rehearsal per concert, the members need to be attuned to one another and with their instruments, Morse said. Even as an orchestra, she added, the CSO creates a musical conversation that rivals chamber music.

“The listening capabilities of this orchestra are phenomenal,” Morse said. “After one rehearsal, we can march in and play a quality concert. It’s like giant chamber music; everybody is listening and reacting.”

For five years now, Rossen Milanov has led the intense season from the conductor’s podium. Like Morse, he believes that the musicians’ skill and improvisational abilities allow the CSO to perform one-of-a-kind concerts.

“That intensity makes things fresher and less predictable,” said Milanov, the ninth music director in the CSO’s history. “It’s exciting to have an idea of the shape of the performance and then to create that musical sculpture onstage in front of everybody. If something goes wrong, we have to learn how to correct it so that it’s part of the organic whole.”

No two CSO concerts are the same in any given season; its offerings range from classical European pieces to brand-new compositions. For bassoonist Jeff Robinson, the CSO’s changing programs are part of a brave take on orchestral music.

“This is an orchestra that takes chances, and would rather have something exciting happen than something that was safe and on the dull end,” Robinson said.


“The best of music-making”: 90 more years of the CSO

Throughout its existence, the CSO has performed music from across centuries and continents. Even its first-ever conductor, Albert Stoessel, aimed to combine classical repertoire with modern music and American compositions.

While orchestral groups had done residencies at the Institution since 1903, the CSO did not formally begin until 1929. Under Stoessel’s leadership, the group found strong support among Chautauquans from the very beginning. On June 28, 1929, the Daily’s first issue of the season announced the orchestra as a continuation of musical excellence:

“Chautauqua has long been a summer center for music in America, and the program offered for the 56th Assembly will quite easily hold the high standard of past years and … bids fair to surpass in many ways the interests of former seasons,” the Daily reported. “Artists of national and international reputation and facilities of unusual excellence comprise advantages hardly to be equaled.”

The reporter’s predictions were bold, but it seems from the season’s last CSO article that the expectations were matched — and that the Chautauqua community had embraced their new program. In an August 19, 1929, Daily article titled, “FINAL CONCERT: The Symphony Orchestra ends the season with splendid concert,” the Daily summarized Chautauquans’ response to the new orchestra and its conductor:

“… Prof. Davis Edwards came forward at the close of the final Symphony Concert and read the following cablegram received from (Institution President) Dr. (Arthur) Bestor: ‘Greetings and thanks to our orchestra,’ ” the Daily reported. “Prof. Edwards then added a few words of appreciation from the Institution’s deep regard for the orchestra and its conductor, which it admires both as friends and as artists.”

At the end of the speech, “(a)s an expression of gratitude and sincere thanks,” audience members gave the “Chautauqua Salute” to Stoessel and the orchestra — hundreds of white handkerchiefs held up toward the stage.

The tradition continues: The CSO performs works from the likes of Amadeus Mozart to John Williams. Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, said the orchestra is a longstanding pillar of Chautauqua tradition.

“The CSO is really the musical heartbeat of the entire Institution,” Moore said. “Not only does everyone still flock to the CSO concerts, but the CSO is also what makes the opera possible, what makes the Inter-Arts Collaborations possible. … What we really focus on for the 90th anniversary season is not only looking back, but looking forward.”

Moore described the various ways the CSO is moving forward: Sunday matinees to reach broader audiences, Kennedy Center Link Up programs with area students and performances of both contemporary and classical compositions.

For Morse, this evolving program can survive the test of time — especially with its tradition of community support.

“It gives me hope for another 90,” Morse said. “It’s a vital part of the community, and it’s the best of music-making, in my opinion. To keep that up is a wonderful thing.”

Symphony of Opposites: CSO to Explore Complex Themes in Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff Pieces

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School of Music Artist-In-Residence Alexander Gavrylyuk performs Rachmaninoff’s Piano concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18 with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Thursday, July 12, 2018 in the Amphitheater. This was his third and final concert of the 2018 season. RILEY ROBINSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Comedy and tragedy, life and death: the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is a symphony of opposites.

The CSO will perform “Don Quixote” at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, August 8 in the Amphitheater. The concert features Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character” and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead.”

Each piece is a symphonic poem — music based on a pre-existing work of art or literature. And like their source material, the pieces explore complex ideas of life and genre.

Don Quixote is an early 17th-century novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Scholars such as Harold Bloom have labeled it as “the first modern novel” for its fledgling use of character development, and its content has inspired centuries of derivative work and literary tropes.

Like the chivalric romances it parodies, Don Quixote is the story of a roaming, adventurous knight — a 50-year-old Spanish nobleman who has lost his grip on reality after reading too much. Quixote and his world-weary “squire,” Sancho Panza, roam the decidedly non-medieval countryside, getting into fights with “giants” (windmills), “enchanters” (friars) and even an “army” (a flock of sheep).

But while the novel has many farcical moments, its tragic elements are clear: Don Quixote is a man swept up in a fantasy, regaining his sanity only in his final moments.

In Strauss’ composition, Quixote is played by the orchestra’s principal cellist: in this case, Jolyon Pegis. Pegis said both tragedy and comedy find their way into Strauss’ musical storytelling.

“It’s got elements of humor and elements of tragedy,” Pegis said. “I think it’s more of a tragedy than it is a comedy, but it’ll have great comedic moments.”

In one such moment, Pegis said, the orchestra’s brass instruments imitate the bleating of Quixote’s wooly enemies.

“There’s a great moment where the orchestra imitates a flock of sheep,” Pegis said. “And then there’s the charge, where Don Quixote attacks the sheep — I think that’s really fun.”

The symphony is composed of 14 shorter sections, including 10 variations that align with chapters from the novel. Pegis’ cello will be the voice of Don Quixote until the character’s tragic final moments.

“The end of the piece is a very poignant, very tragic moment where the character comes to his senses and then dies, so the very last notes that the cello plays are the very last breaths of Don Quixote,” Pegis said. “He’s been living in his fantasy world, and he comes to his senses right at the end.”

CSO Music Director and Conductor Rossen Milanov said the concert is a rare chance to see some of the orchestra’s own musicians as soloists in a complex, challenging piece.

“It’s a showpiece for the orchestra, because anything by Richard Strauss is a demanding, virtuosic type of writing,” Milanov said. “The chance to see Jolyon Pegis as a soloist is, I think, quite remarkable and anticipated by all of us.”

The concert’s opening piece is Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead.” Rachmaninoff wrote the symphonic poem in 1908, after seeing a black-and-white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s painting by the same title.

The painting is a solemn, mysterious scene: In a dark sea, a rocky islet looms, covered in cliffs and cypress trees. A white rowboat approaches it, containing a white-clad figure and a white coffin. Böcklin gave no full explanation to the scene, but described it as “a dream picture; it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.”

Milanov said Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead” is a hidden gem from the famous composer.

“I did not hear it until about 15 years ago,” Milanov said. “But when I heard it for the first time, I was shocked in a very pleasant way at the beauty of the piece — of the haunting quality of it.”

Milanov said the composition explores a mysterious transition between life and death — framed in a dramatic arc.

“Somehow that transition from life to final resting place, which is very solemn, is captured very powerfully in the piece,” Milanov said. “It’s expansive, it’s beautiful and it has this perfect arc of a form that starts one way and finishes exactly the same way, after developing intensely in the middle.”

Guest Critic: Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Performs with Violinist Augustin Hadelich

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During the last concert of the Russian Festival, from left, Violinist Augustin Hadelich performs “Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63” while Music Director Rossen Milanov conducts the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Thursday August 1, 2019 in the Amp. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Zachary Lewis:

Someone at the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra clearly knows what he’s doing.

Case in point: the group’s concert Thursday night in the Amphitheater, the third in the orchestra’s season-long Russian Festival with Music Director Rossen Milanov.

In both program and performance, not a thing was flawed. Every element was in its place. Indeed, it was as if the music and the performers were meant for each other, a case of artistic planning at its finest.

Whoever first invited violinist Augustin Hadelich to Chautauqua, and succeeds in bringing him back, is certainly a genius. A longtime and frequent guest whose bright star only continues to rise, Hadelich has been, and was again Thursday, an enormous addition to the musical life of this place. 

It’s not every violinist who can do what Hadelich did Thursday: lead an audience straight through the daunting twists and turns of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, without a single detour or moment’s wandering.

Where lesser violinists string together episodes to make some kind of whole, Hadelich wove three thoroughly cogent, seamless arguments, each more articulate and compelling than the last. The result was a reading that exposed both how deeply Prokofiev sits in Hadelich’s wheelhouse and how special his relationship is with the CSO.   

Struggle had no place in Hadelich’s performance. Every technical tool was there, at the ready, in a performance as collected and suave as possible. What’s more, that technique served the music. In the finale, especially, the violinist’s sense of freedom was both palpable and infectious. As he romped and frolicked with abandon, listeners did so, too, right along with him.

But the highlight of the performance was surely the Andante. Out of that haunting music, Hadelich crafted something truly memorable, a musical time-out that managed both to enchant and engage. That movement alone warranted an encore, and the concerto as a whole warranted an open invitation for Hadelich to return at will.

Another instance of programming brilliance? The second work on the program, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. If ever a conductor were suited to negotiate this nearly hour-long creation by the last great bastion of Russian Romanticism, it was Milanov. 

Never has an hour in concert passed so quickly. By keeping his sights trained on melody and motive, Milanov virtually sidestepped time altogether, grabbing and holding the attention of his listeners through each of the work’s four segments.

Lustrous string tone and continual upwellings of momentum made short, absorbing work of the opening movement, and the fourth under Milanov was no mad dash, but rather an irresistible recap, a propulsive survey before a dazzling finish. 

The second movement, too, was a thriller. The CSO all but devoured its first half, tearing into the music with ferocious zeal, and the second half saw an orchestra at the height of lyrical perfection.

But again, it was the slow movement, the Adagio, that stole the show. Aided by a golden clarinet, Milanov conducted this most famous of melodies the way Rachmaninoff himself might have played it on the piano, with shape and nuance and wave upon wave of emotion.

Many listeners Thursday left at intermission, daunted by the prospect of a 60-minute symphony. Boy did they miss out. Chalk it up to a lack of understanding. Unlike the CSO’s artistic planners, they must not realize what this group is capable of.

Zachary Lewis is the classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

CSO, Weiss, Wosner Deliver Unforgettable Premiere, Pay Homage to Composers of the Past

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Guest Critic: Zachary Lewis

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a slew of people were genuinely honored by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night in the Amphitheater.

Not only did the performances reflect well on guest conductor JoAnn Falletta, visiting from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the music itself also paid homage to composers of the past, and pianists and orchestra engaged in mutual acts of complementary imitation. 

The rarer of the two treats on the year’s fourth “Into the Music” program was “Concerto d’avorio,” a concerto for piano with four hands by former Chautauqua Opera Company composer-in-residence Jeremy Gill. In a venue not often home to new music, Gill’s 20-minute creation Tuesday enjoyed a memorable premiere, courtesy of Falletta and pianists Orion Weiss and Shai Wosner.

Gill is a gifted and smart composer, an artist exceptionally well-versed in music history and adept at writing for orchestra and piano. In “d’avorio,” a co-commission from the Buffalo Philharmonic, Gill ingeniously distills the essence of at least four great composers, all while sounding wholly original and making smooth, compelling use of four hands at one piano.

The echoes of Gill’s sources of inspiration were clear. Across the work’s four movements, echoes of Frédéric Chopin, Béla Bartók, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Liszt and others were readily detectable. Sharp, fitful gestures and restless mechanical music redolent of the 20th century yielded to and emerged seamlessly from silken melodies and virtuoso displays straight out of the 19th.

And what engaging music it was. “This and That,” the first movement, hung on thrilling cascades in every direction, and “Trumpets and Drums,” the second, boasted a jaunty little hummable tune. “The Voice,” meanwhile, conjured the age of Romanticism, and the finale, “The Machines,” saw a frenzy of activity that rose to and went out in a glorious blaze.

Concertos for piano four-hands aren’t exactly common. That Weiss and Wosner performed as a unit and never let slip a hint of strain or stress even as they practically bumped elbows is nothing short of amazing. What’s more, they didn’t just execute a digital feat. They made real, energizing music. No amount of applause could have flattered them enough.

The second offering on the brief, intermission-less program was Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in the transcription by Maurice Ravel. Here, in other words, was a work for piano brilliantly reimagined as a work for orchestra. Talk about imitation and flattery. 

Gill’s work, it seems, may have received the larger share of rehearsal time. Even as the performance Tuesday was generally effective and even stirring in places, the music also felt rushed, and moments of tonal insecurity were not scarce. 

Still, there was much to savor. The orchestra’s woodwind soloists made haunting work of “The Old Castle,” and the whole ensemble, like the characters depicted in the music, was deftly on its toes in the “Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells.”

Falletta also had no trouble conjuring the “Catacombs” with sweeping gestures and bold contrasts in dynamics, and “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” as played by the CSO Tuesday was a scene as crazed as they come.

These were no counterfeit “Pictures,” no half-hearted copies. So vivid were these treatments of Mussorgsky, in fact, one might even say they were inimitable.

Zachary Lewis is the classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Hadelich and CSO to Perform Challenging and Narrative Pieces in Last Russian Festival Concert

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Augustin Hadelich plays “Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35” with Rossen Milanov conducting the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra during the season finale on Tuesday, August 22, 2017 in the Amphitheater. PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

It starts with a lone violin. It ends with a great, lavish symphony. Tonight, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform the last concert of its Russian Festival.

Featuring Grammy Award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich, the concert, at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, August 1 in the Amphitheater, includes two compositions by 20th-century Russian writers: Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27.

Hadelich, a violin soloist who has performed with nearly every major orchestra in America, will accompany the CSO’s rendition of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. He said this concert is a homecoming of sorts.

“I always look forward to returning to Chautauqua,” Hadelich said. “This was the first place where I performed in the United States, in 2001, and this is actually my 11th visit to the festival.”

CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov said Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 opens one instrument at a time, creating almost a story of instrumental voices.

“It opens almost immediately with no orchestra introduction — with the solo voice of the violin,” Milanov said. “Gradually, the instruments enter one at a time and the piece unfolds in that way; a narrative type of way.”

Milanov said the concerto is demanding on its soloists — but Hadelich, called a master violinist by NPR, is up to the challenge.

“In the world of music — and certainly in the 20th century — it’s one of the most challenging pieces to play for the violin,” Milanov said. “Augustin is going to be amazing.”

Hadelich said the famously challenging piece is one of the most beloved violin works of its time — due in no small part to Prokofiev’s musical storytelling.

“Prokofiev was a storyteller, and this piece contains just about every character, from the lyrical and pastoral to the manic,” Hadelich said. “There are even some parts that sound a bit like witches riding around on broomsticks.”

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 is a composition in three movements. In the second movement, Milanov said, its narrative unfolds to a famously lyrical, rhythmic moment.

“The second movement is famous for its beautiful lyricism and the peculiarity of the opening theme,” Milanov said. “It’s very creatively scored in the orchestra; it’s something that would remind us of a clock ticking steadily in the background.”

That clock ticks into the third movement, Milanov said, where Prokofiev’s classical Russian roots are clear.

“The last movement is sort of pagan, resembling at certain movements the music of (Igor) Stravinsky with its (pagan characteristics) and references to old Slavic folklore,” Milanov said.

Hadelich agreed, adding that the world-roaming composer’s influences are as eclectic as they are classic.

“Prokofiev wrote part of the piece while he was in Spain, which is perhaps why he thought of using castanets in the last movement,” Hadelich said. “It’s an amazing fusion of folk music elements: While the dance of the last movement couldn’t be more Russian, the castanets add a hint of flamenco to the texture.”

After an intermission, the CSO will resume with a famously long, beloved symphony: Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. This composition, Milanov said, is Rachmaninoff’s most popular symphony and an important piece of Russian music history.

“It showcases Rachmaninoff as the extension of the symphonic writing of (Pyotr Ilyich) Tchaikovsky in the 20th century, continuing that tradition of big, lavishly orchestrated symphonies in the 20th century,” Milanov said. “It was Rachmaninoff who took this genre into more modern times.”

The piece is nearly an hour long, but Milanov said it remains a favorite due to its romantic qualities and the challenge it places on musicians.

Ivory Keys, Ivory Doors: JoAnn Falletta and Soloists Orion Weiss and Shai Wosner to Premiere Gill Composition and Perform Beloved Classic

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Members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra perform Bedřich Smetana’s Bohemian Forests and Meadows from Má vlast (My Fatherland) Tuesday, July 9, 2019 in the Amphitheter. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

 

Shai Wosner
JoAnn Falletta
Orion Weiss

 

 

 

 

 

At first glance, tonight’s two pieces have nothing in common. One is a brand-new, world premiere, and the other is a beloved 19th-century classic. But they begin at the same place: the ivory keys of a grand piano.

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and three guests will perform Modest Mussorgsky’s and Maurice Ravels’ famous “Pictures at an Exhibition” — one of the most well-loved orchestral pieces of all time — at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 30 in the Amphitheater. The concert opens with a world premiere of New York composer Jeremy Gill’s “Concerto d’avorio” (Concerto of Ivory). Pianists Shai Wosner and Orion Weiss will share one piano in Gill’s rare “piano-four-hands” concerto.

The two pieces form a striking contrast, according to Guest Conductor JoAnn Falletta, whose many hats include director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Brevard Music Center.

“There’s a contrast between an old favorite and something brand-new,” Falletta said. “ ‘Concerto d’avorio’ is completely unknown, completely new and very modern — that’s contrasted by a beloved piece that’s been around since 1874.”

Both pieces, Falletta said, are rooted in piano.

“ ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ was originally written for solo piano, and ‘Concerto d’avorio’ is tied in every movement to a composer who played the piano,” she said.

“Concerto d’avorio” is a musical study of the piano’s very nature, rooted in ancient stories of deception and ivory. Gill, who wrote the piece as a commission for the Buffalo Philharmonic and Chautauqua Institution, said he was fascinated with Virgil’s Aeneid.

“I love that image from the Aeneid, when Aeneas is leaving the world of the shades and going back to what we consider the real world,” Gill said. “He can go through two doors: one of horn, and one of ivory.”

Gill explained only true dreams can pass through the door of horn, and only false dreams can pass through the door of ivory. But a surprising choice brings Aeneas back to reality.

“But when Aeneas leaves, he goes out through the door of ivory — the door of false dreams,” Gill said.

That puzzling image, Gill said, led him to think about the nature of the ivory-keyed piano — and of the uncommon “piano-four-hands” style, which features two soloists at the same piano.

“The idea is that the piano is always pretending to be something else,” Gill said. “For example, if you have a very fluid, legato-seeming right hand, you’re imitating the voice. In four-hand music specifically, a lot of the repertoire is arrangements or transcriptions of orchestral music.”

Ivory keys, ivory doors — are they deceptive? “Concerto d’avorio” explores the versatile mimicry of piano music through an orchestra, two soloists and one set of keys. The piece’s four movements, Gill said, explore the piano’s mimicry of each part of an orchestra and take inspiration from pianist composers.

Gill said the first movement features “characteristic” sounds from each instrument: fanfares from the brass, melodies from the strings and “windy” scales from the woodwinds.

“You have the orchestra separated very clearly into parts — and the piano imitates all of that,” Gill said. “The piano takes scales from the winds, it plays fanfares like the brass does, and in the middle of the piece, the long string melody is played by the bottom part of the piano.”

Each movement, Gill said, continues to explore the relationship between piano and orchestra. The second movement features only brass, percussion and piano — all imitating ancient instruments and signals. The third movement features strings and piano, both imitating the human voice in song. Every instrument plays in the fourth and final movement, bringing the disparate elements of the composition back together.

The piece’s roots in piano are mirrored in its influences, Gill said. Each movement is inspired by a famous pianist and composer: Franz Lizst’s orchestral piano work, Béla Bartók’s percussive piano compositions, Frédéric Chopin’s graceful melodies and György Ligeti’s complex, machinal pieces.

After opening with “Concerto d’avorio,” the CSO will play one of the most beloved pieces in the orchestral repertoire: “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a powerful retelling of its composer’s love and loss.

Mussorgsky originally wrote the piece for solo piano after the death of his close friend, artist Viktor Hartmann. After Hartmann’s death, Mussorgsky spiraled into a yearlong depression. The composer found no outlet for his grief until 1874, when he attended a memorial exhibition of his friend’s paintings.

Falletta said the piece, which allows listeners to walk through the exhibit with Mussorgsky, is beloved for its musical and emotional power.

“He went to the exhibition and saw all the paintings, and that inspired him to write the piece, … a powerful testament of love and grief,” Falletta said. “There are little sketches, little sections, that are exactly the pictures that he saw from his friend. All of Viktor Hartmann’s paintings are memorialized there; Mussorgsky very lovingly created a musical picture of every painting that he saw.”

Years later, composer Maurice Ravel orchestrated the piano piece, Falletta said.

“It’s the original piano piece, now in dazzling orchestra garb,” Falletta said. “It has become one of the best-loved pieces in the orchestral repertoire.”

CSO and School of Dance to Bring Traditional ‘Nutcracker’ to Amphitheater

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Elena deGuzman and Noah Martzall, center, perform “Shostakovich” during the Chautauqua Dance Student Gala on Sunday, July 14, 2019 in the Amphitheater. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the blistering summer heat, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the School of Dance will welcome the holidays (just a few months early) with candy canes and marzipan.

At 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 23 in the Amphitheater, the CSO will perform the Act II score of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, for the collaborative concert “Nutcracker in July.” School of Dance students will present five divertissements, also from the second act, when Clara and her Nutcracker prince are welcomed into the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Land of Sweets. 

The Nutcracker doesn’t need much in the way of introduction,” said CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov. “For Americans, it is one of the most popular Christmas stories.”

The Nutcracker debuted in the late 1800s in Russia, with underwhelming success; however in the last century, the classic Christmas tale has experienced a revival, with American choreographer George Balanchine’s 1950s adaptation.

It was an American blockbuster of a performance: a gargantuan Christmas tree that grew onstage, indoor snow, and elaborate costumes. And the tradition continues; according to The New York Times, the New York City Ballet — Balanchine’s company — earns about 40% of its yearly revenue from The Nutcracker.

“It’s an American tradition, but in Europe, there’s no tradition,” said Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the School of Dance’s artistic director. “We’d perform The Nutcracker, but it had nothing to do with the time of the year. It’s just a story, but not just for kids.”

School of Dance Festival and Apprentice dancers will perform the “Spanish Chocolate,” “Arabian Coffee,” “Chinese Tea,” “Candy Cane” and “Marzipan” dances — all characters from the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Land of Sweets.

The choreography is a Bonnefoux-original, which premiered with Charlotte Ballet; the costumes featured at tonight’s concert are also from Charlotte Ballet. All the divertissements will be performed en pointe.

The concert will open with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s “Divertimento” from Le baiser de la fée. The “Divertimento” is a concert suite for orchestra that Stravinsky wrote based on music from one of his own ballets, Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss). The ballet, which draws influence from Russian fairy tales, tells the story of a young man spirited away from his village and fiancée by a powerful fairy.

Stravinsky, a towering figure of 20th-century music, was inspired as a child by a production of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty and dedicated this score to “the memory of Pyotr Tchaikovsky.”

“It’s going to be nice to hear the wonderful music of Tchaikovsky that the symphony is going to play,” Bonnefoux said. “It’s just wonderful to be working on the Amphitheater with the symphony. That’s really a treat.”

Story by Maggie Prosser and Val Lick.

Guest Critic: CSO and MSFO Bring Skill and Color to ‘Fiendishly Difficult Work’

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Review by Andrew Druckenbrod:

Think of the volume of a typical orchestral fortissimo and then double it. Then double it again. Now you have a good sense of the decibel level inside the Amphitheater Thursday night. The first amplification came with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” one of the loudest works in the Western canon. The second was due to the combination of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Music School Festival Orchestra under the baton of Rossen Milanov.

The count was 164 onstage in a piece that already calls for heft, including multiple bass drums, timpani and eight horns. The musicians were elbow-to-elbow but not cramped, a reminder of how important it is that Chautauqua Institution built the new Amp. The dual concert is a significant part of the School of Music season — yet another step into professional life for the students — and the facility, with its expanded stage, did not hinder it.

Anyone who knows the level of the music students here is aware they also wouldn’t hold the concert back. And that was the case, with ensemble, pitch, phrasing — anything you want — in fine form. It was in such good taste that Milanov recognized Maria Fuller, the MSFO’s conducting fellow this summer, for her work preparing it for the concert, aided in this effort by its music director, Timothy Muffitt. But I chuckled thinking about what those in the audience who neither knew this, nor the deliberately off-kilter score of Alfred Schnittke’s “(K)ein  Sommernachtstraum” that opened the concert, thought of the performance.

Composed in the mid-1980s, the work is on one level a metaphor for lost innocence. An inviolate pseudo-Mozartean theme meets a buzz saw that sends splinters of dissonance everywhere until it returns, troubled and transformed, at the end. After the dainty theme arrives in a trio of piano, violin and flute, it fractures into what seems like the out-of-sync, out-of-tune jangle of an elementary orchestra.

“The quality of the student musicians at Chautauqua isn’t what it used to be …” If that misguided thought actually occurred, it would have been immediately recanted in the superb rendering of “The Rite of Spring” that followed. Stravinsky’s music for the ballet by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in 1913, may not shock like it did a century ago, but its story does. Here, Schnittke’s lost innocence is replaced by the loss of an innocent, as the “Rite” is an imagined virgin sacrifice in a pagan ceremony. Stravinsky didn’t portray this in mythical terms, but exposed its brutality, one very soon to be matched in the trenches of World War I. 

Awash with strident playing and ground-pounding rhythms, “Rite” is a fiendishly difficult work. Milanov often played the role of a marching band conductor, although he wisely held back the full force of the orchestra early on to allow for intensification as it progressed. The musicians, with students and professionals sharing each desk, attacked the work’s almost capricious accents with precision and its walls of sound with clarity. The percussion and timpani players admirably led from the back in the most cacophonous moments. The strings, handling plenty of forceful down bows, were smooth and cohesive.

But one measures the success of a “Rite” performance in its quieter episodes. Here, soloists and sections, especially the horns and woodwinds, were on form and Milanov had space to craft phrases and bring out color. It all began with bassoon player Jeffrey Robinson’s glowing tone as he made quick work of the opening solo. 

Guest critic Andrew Druckenbrod is a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Pittsburgh and the former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has contributed to many music publications, including Gramophone, BBC Music and Opera News.

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