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

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

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’

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.

Guest Critic: In ‘Midsummer’ Inter-Arts Collaboration, CSO Provides ‘Bedrock’ for Students to ‘Flourish’

Review by Andrew Druckenbrod:

Puck’s famous epilogue at the end of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream apologizing if the play offended the audience is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. But after a sometimes goofy, often elegant but all-together pleasing multidiscipline production of Mendelssohn’s celebrated setting in the Amphitheater Tuesday night, it almost itself offended. After all, the audience witnessed — sometimes quite close-up — a frenetic and funny take on the classic by student performers that needed no apology.

With most of the performances in the Amp from artists in their prime (or at least well-known), here were performers of the future from Chautauqua Theater Company, School of Music Voice Program and School of Dance. The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra under Rossen Milanov formed a bedrock upon which the students could flourish, but they hit marks, often doubly so. The smart solution by co-directors Andrew Borba and Sarah Elizabeth Wansley to get all the young performers involved was to pair dancers and actors in many roles.

This strategy meant Puck stole the show twice as much as usual. Actress Kayla Kearney shared the role with ballerino Jack Grohmann. She channeled Mary Martin’s Peter Pan while he emphasized Puck’s impish side. Likewise, with mischievousness of their own, the dancers mirrored the actions of the actors, the lovers Demetrius, Helena, Lysander and Hermia. This clever mix of classic ballet technique and whimsical choreography shined in the scene when Puck sends the lovers into deep sleep.

Borne with, shall we say, a puckish modern translation by Avenue Q librettist Jeff Whitty, the young actors embodied the high school drama of the magically misdirected Athenian lovers, anchored by an appropriately self-assured Oberon. Sharp performances by all, but alas names were not attached to characters in the program. At one point, the frustration of the confused Athenians leads to a mad dash of singers and dancers throughout the audience. With the barest of sets, Dixon Reynolds’ costumes stepped in with eclectic and eccentric designs, from modern suits to matching T-shirts. I particularly liked the contrast between Lysander’s Chippendale look and Demetrius’ frumpy dad outfit, and Kearney’s bright green overall shorts were a deft touch.

My own apologia for not getting to the musical performances sooner. The singers from the Voice Program impressed, especially when joined together in the chorus, “You spotted snakes with double tongue.” With the focus on the development of the voice, by its nature an individual matter, blending by opera singers is not assured. It was nice to know the teachers here work on that, as well. That is not to say the soloists disappointed. To the contrary, they phrased well, displaying voices already rich but well on their way to fulfilling the potential that comes later to opera singers.

The CSO played gracefully, with lightness and precision in the elven music and with warmth and bloom in the full sections that followed. This is hardly difficult music for a professional orchestra, but Milanov crafted phrases with aplomb and the balance was excellent in the overture and incidental music alike.

VBO: ‘Music set ablaze’

A special secret about Chautauqua Institution is the chamber music performances that dot each week, usually during the day. Monday brought the smaller, but potent Venice Baroque Orchestra to Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall in a fiery performance that belied the undeserved notion that baroque music is background or church music.

The 15 string, harpsichord and lute players threw the gauntlet down at the onset with dynamic, well, dynamics as a diminuendo arrived so shockingly quick in the very first phrase. That was in a sinfonia from Vivaldi’s opera, L’Olimpiade, that ended with the 18th-century version of thrashing rock. A glorious treatment of the delicate opening to George Frideric Handel’s G-major concerto grosso, from his opus 6 set, progressed to clear soli phrasing and crisp tutti articulation.

Things got more wonderfully intense as the concert progressed, from bow strokes both bouncing and biting to furious, theatrical playing. A Vivaldi violin concerto in E minor brought the virtuosity of concertmaster Gianpiero Zanocco to the fore, and he led the charge in an electric and downright rowdy performance of Francesco Geminiani’s “La Follia.” Vivaldi’s C-major recorder concerto had violinist Anna Fusek pick up a soprano recorder for a lively end to the concert. Yes, there were many moments of exquisite — and quiet — music, but the overall impression was that of music set ablaze.

Andrew Druckenbrod is a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Pittsburgh and former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

CSO to Take Audiences to ‘Galaxy Far, Far Away’ With ‘Star Wars’ Concert and Film


If you find yourself with no plans tonight, there’s a new hope for you.

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform John Williams’ original score live as “Star Wars: A New Hope” plays overhead. “Star Wars: A New Hope — In Concert” will take place at 8:15 p.m. Friday, July 19 in the Amphitheater.

Stuart Chafetz, CSO timpanist and principal pops conductor for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the orchestra. He said movies-in-concert offer a unique auditory experience.

There’s nothing like a live orchestra,” Chafetz said. “I don’t care how loud the speakers are at a movie theater, there’s nothing like that real sound of an orchestra.”

Directed by George Lucas, “Star Wars: A New Hope” launched a global phenomenon when the film premiered in 1977. With a cast of beloved characters — and now a decades-long legacy — the film received six Oscars and a Special Achievement Award from the Academy — among numerous other accolades — including Best Original Score.

Williams’ score for “Star Wars: A New Hope” rocketed to its current iconic status. Parts of the score have hit top charts in multiple countries since the film’s 1977 premiere, and it includes some of the best-known themes in recent history.

Chafetz said Williams’ score is an integral part of the film — and the live orchestra accompaniment will highlight the score’s important role for the audience.

“The thing that ties the movie together is John Williams,” Chafetz said. “Not only is he a good composer, he understands how to help accentuate the story with music. When you see Luke come onto the screen for the first time, you hear his theme. When you see Princess Leia’s first appearance, you hear her theme. And I’m hoping that the audience will cheer every time something like that happens.”

Chafetz, who is known for his lively podium demeanor, has conducted several movies-in-concert. These movies include “Jurassic Park” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” — a concert that drew dozens of costumed fans. Chafetz described such concerts as similar to “a modern ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ ” because of the enthusiastic audience.

The popularity of franchises like “Star Wars,” Chafetz said, make symphonic music more accessible to a broad audience. 

“When we have the classical audience, it’s like preaching to the converted — they already know and understand the orchestra,” Chafetz said. “But very often, with these concerts, you’ll have people in the audience who’ve never heard a symphony orchestra. When they see ‘Star Wars’ live in concert, they’re going to come and they’re going to say, ‘Wow, this is what an orchestra sounds like. I had no idea, this is fantastic.’ ”

Reaching that audience is vital, Chafetz said.

“For me, reaching that part of the community is part of our mission — we’re reaching the people who already love classical music, but we’re also reaching out to everyone else,” Chafetz said.

The CSO performs a vast range of music, from 17th-century classical masterpieces to contemporary showtunes and scores. Chafetz said the orchestra’s flexibility is admirable.

“It says a lot about the Chautauqua Symphony — that they can play ‘The Rite of Spring’ the night before and play a movie score and play an opera and play pops,” Chafetz said. “They’re world-class.”

In fact, Chafetz said movies-in-concerts enrapture audiences even more than the original films.

I think it’s amazing because normally, when the end credits start to play, people leave,” Chafetz said. “With these concerts, so many people stick around for the end credits because music is playing underneath it. It’s an unbelievable experience to be a part of it. It’s an overwhelming sensation to hear a live orchestra with the

CSO League Connects Musicians and Community


The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra League aims to connect musicians and their audience at the Institution — both on and off the stage.

The CSOL will host several public events this season — including today’s 90th anniversary celebration, which will take place after the CSO’s 8:15 p.m. concert Thursday, July 18 in the Amphitheater. The celebration is at the Athenaeum Hotel and is open to CSOL members and CSO musicians. Memberships start at $15, and will be available at the door.

CSOL President Suzanne Shull said tonight’s 90th year celebration is more than an anniversary — it is a celebration of the CSO’s legacy.

It’s a big deal to have an orchestra for that long,” Shull said. “Not many orchestras in the United States can say that they’ve been around for 90 years — even some of the big ones.”

Tonight’s celebration is the CSOL’s largest event of the season, but the organization has also planned several smaller get-togethers, such as Q-and-A sessions after Tuesday night concerts at the Athenaeum and “CSO Friends and Family Fridays” at 12:15 p.m. Friday, and again on July 26 and Aug. 9 in Smith Wilkes Hall.

Last week, the season’s first Friends and Family Friday featured the CSO’s five Diversity Fellows, who participated in a Q-and-A session with attendees. Violinist Arman Nasrinpay, a 2019 fellow, said these social events can create dialogues between different audience members and the often-insular world of classical music.

“A lot of different people go to these concerts, and it’s nice for them to be able to get to know the musicians as people,” Nasrinpay said. “They get to learn what the process is like, how they were able to get there. … Classical music is often its own little bubble.”

Nasrinpay said engagement between musicians and audience members benefits both communities.

“And for us, we get to meet the community that we’re part of,” Nasrinpay said. “I think it’s important to have that collaboration; it keeps the orchestra and the community engaged with each other and relevant to each other.”

CSOL began in 2006, when a small group of orchestra members, their loved ones and their supporters decided to work together to build a community between those onstage and those in the audience. The group’s founders are Cliff Weidner, Hannah Weinberg, Jason and Nancy Weintraub, Pat Dougherty, Joe Prezio, Marge Sterritt, Lenelle Morse, Bernie Lieberman and Judith Claire.

Shull said CSOL encourages meaningful communication between those who play music and those who listen.

“The whole purpose of the organization is so that people on the grounds can get to know the musicians better,” Shull said. “They can have access to them instead of just seeing them onstage.”

According to Shull, the CSO community is like one large, musical family.

Some of them have been playing up here for years,” Shull said. “They think of themselves as the orchestra family here, and many of them raise their children here; it’s a very important place to them.”

Shull said many of these longtime community members live outside of the grounds, limiting their daily interactions with other Chautauquans.

“There are not so many opportunities to run into them on the grounds, however, because so many of them live off the grounds,” Shull said, adding that the CSOL pioneered their series of social events to help weave the two communities closer together.

Many festival orchestras host a new group of musicians every year. Shull said the CSO is unique in that its members return season after season, building a lifelong community.

“What’s unique about this orchestra is that you can expect to see some of the same faces year after year,” Shull said. “You can watch their kids grow up.”

According to Shull, there’s another benefit to building community with CSO members: a deeper appreciation of classical music.

I think (interacting with musicians) contributes to the enjoyment of music, of watching people play,” Shull said. “And the more you listen to it and enjoy it, the more you go to the symphony, the more you read program notes, the more you learn.”

CSO & MSFO Join Forces to Perform Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’

Timothy Muffitt conducts the Music School Festival Orchestra during the MSFO concert, Monday, August 13, 2017, in the Amphitheater. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Tonight, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Music School Festival Orchestra will perform a piece that changed the course of musical history and even started a riot.

The concert, at 8:15 p.m. tonight, July 18, in the Amphitheater, features Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Alongside Stravinsky’s piece, the orchestras will play Alfred Schnittke’s “(K)ein Sommernachtstraum.”

CSO Conductor and Music Director Rossen Milanov said “The Rite of Spring” “literally changed the way we hear music, the way music is composed.”

The piece’s influence began with a controversial premiere in 1913. Stravinsky’s original composition, combined with unorthodox choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, was instantly met with uproar. Witnesses said the orchestra’s music was impossible to hear in the roaring crowd; Stravinsky himself wrote that the audience’s fervor grew to “a terrific uproar.”

The audience’s confusion manifested in derision toward the orchestra. The piece’s first conductor, Pierre Monteux, wrote that, “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.”

Milanov said the piece’s reception was characterized by this controversy — some listeners embraced the groundbreaking piece, while others resented this break from traditional music.

“People were divided into two camps: the traditionalists and those who were looking for something a little different,” he said.

“The Rite of Spring” was met with one of the most mixed critical responses in musical history. Regardless of its initial public reception, Milanov said the controversial piece was an influential departure from tradition.

“The music is so innovative, so original,” Milanov said. “It was almost a revolution in musical history.”

The orchestras will open with another untraditional piece: Schnittke’s “(K)ein Sommernachtstraum,” a 1985 composition with a title based on the German translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The piece surprised audiences with an unorthodox beginning and uses what Milanov described as a combination of classical and modern influences.

“Schnittke was famous for his collage technique, providing a bridge between the music of the past and the music of our time,” Milanov said.

The entire MSFO, with more than 80 student musicians, will perform alongside the CSO.

Maya Fields, a violist in the MSFO, has performed with professional orchestras before — both as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra when they played with the Cleveland Orchestra, and as a member of the MSFO last year in collaboration with the CSO for their joint performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony.

“It was incredibly inspiring,” Fields said. “I think that it’s really good to have students work with professionals, because you sort of know what it is to rehearse professionally, what professionals are like, what it’s like to interact with the professionals (and) what it’s like to interact with really good conductors like (Milanov).”

The chance to share the stage with professional musicians encourages the students to be at their very best.

“You feel like you have to be really on your game,” Fields said, “because they’re professionals, and I think that they probably look at us and expect us to know what we’re doing.”

Voice Program to Present Britten’s Opera Adaptation of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’


Shakespeare is in the air at Chautauqua this season, and as the halfway point of the summer approaches, the School of Music Voice Program will put on four productions of Benjamin Britten’s three-act operatic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The show opens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 in McKnight Hall.

The voice students are not the only ones to tell the story this season — alongside Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Shakespeare’s original play and the Inter-Arts Collaboration performance that also hits the stage tonight, the Voice Program’s production is one of three versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be performed on the grounds. This version, however, is unique because it’s a full opera.

Besides cutting the first act of the original play and making some minor additions to account for this change, Britten’s version is “religiously faithful” to Shakespeare’s masterpiece, said Stage Director John Giampietro. The removal of the first act does a service to the music; instead of opening with an act set in the city of Athens, the opera begins in the forest, with a mystical mood.

Right off the bat, Britten starts us out with this mysterious, magical music, and we’re just plunged into the world,” Giampietro said. “If he started in Athens in the first act, the texture of the music would have been different. So this way, he just throws (us) into the middle of this magical world, which is great.”

Britten kept the language of the original text and even preserved much of the rhythm and meter of Shakespeare’s poetic intent in his melodies. However, those who are familiar with the original work will find something new in this opera — even Giampietro, who has directed the original play five times.

“I knew Shakespeare’s rhythms so well; they were just a part of me,” Giampietro said. “Then when I was studying the opera I almost had to unlearn the Shakespeare to get the Britten into my body and my heart.”

The music for the opera was originally written for a full orchestra, but Music Director Julias Abrahams managed to reduce the score for an ensemble of seven: two flutes, two horns, one trumpet, one trombone and one harp. This ensemble is composed entirely of members of the Music School Festival Orchestra.

The opera will have four showings this week, and will make use of a rotating cast — meaning that the major characters of Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, as well as the four lovers Lysander, Demetrius, Helena and Hermia, have multiple people cast and the person playing each character will change each show.

It has made rehearsing this an adventure beyond belief,” Giampietro said. “Because basically, we have to do everything three times.”

Tonight’s opening performance will feature countertenor Sam Siegel as Oberon, soprano Meredith Wohlgemuth as Titania, tenor Santiago Pizarro as Lysander, bass baritone Luke Sutliff as Demetrius, soprano Mackenzie Jacquemin as Helena and mezzo-soprano Sophia Maekawa as Hermia.

Additionally, School of Music alumnus, guest faculty and award-winning operatic bass Matthew Rose will play the part of Bottom — a particularly difficult role — in every show.

“He’s done the role,” said Donna Gill, head voice coach and coordinator of voice scheduling. “He’s sung a lot in Britain, he sings at the Met, he’s a very accomplished professional. … (It’s) good for the students to be working alongside a professional like that.”

The casts have been rehearsing for about three weeks — an incredibly short amount of time considering that professional operas might rehearse for four to six weeks with only a single cast, and that Britten’s music is sophisticated and complex. Additionally, it’s a long opera — about three hours in length, according to Giampietro.

“(The students) are amazing,” Giampietro said. “They’re rising to the challenge of the music and the piece. They’re collaborators in it — we’re building this thing together and they have something to say about the piece. And they’re so supportive of each (other), even the three who are sharing a role.”

Additional performances of the opera are at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in McKnight Hall. Seating, which will be partially outdoors, is limited to the first 100 attendees.

They’ll be brilliant,” Giampietro said. “I’m just eager to see them succeed and see them realize what they’ve done — what a challenge it was, and how they met it.

Inter-Arts Collaboration of ‘Midsummer’ to Bring Four Arts Disciplines to Amp Stage


Two Pucks, eight lovers — no, you’re not seeing double.

At 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 in the Amphitheater, four of Chautauqua Institution’s art disciplines — Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Chautauqua Theater Company, the School of Music Voice Program and the School of Dance — will come together for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Inter-Arts Collaboration is co-directed by CTC Artistic Producer Sarah Elizabeth Wansley and Artistic Director Andrew Borba.

“We’re excited about (this collaboration) because it takes one of our masterworks, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we all have these different contribution points to make it something that is not only well-known, but uniquely Chautauqua,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts.

The CSO will be performing Felix Mendelssohn’s score to Midsummer, directed and conducted by Rossen Milanov; CTC, School of Dance and Voice Program will follow the lovers — Demetrius, Helena, Lysander and Hermia — and fairies’ storylines. 

The different organizations are weaving their work together to create one interdisciplinary performance with a few essential design gestures,” said Maggie Wilson, CTC marketing and communications director.

Mendelssohn’s composition is made up of 14 shorter numbers, including instrumental songs like the famous “Wedding March” and vocal songs like “The Spells,” “The Removal of the Spells” and “Ye spotted snakes.”

“It’s a really known work,”  said mezzo-soprano voice student Sarah Zieba. “ ‘The Wedding March’ in the last movement is really the most famous part of it, so I’m excited to hear the whole piece because I’ve never heard it live, and being part of that is really cool.”

Zieba and soprano Lydia Graham will each have a solo as elves in the fairy chorus, part of Oberon and Titania’s — the king of fairies and his queen — court.

Honestly, they haven’t really told us much about it, so we’ll see how it goes,” Zieba said.

Apprentice and Festival School of Dance students will perform as core fairies and lovers, weaving and interacting with the actors and vocalists. Additionally, Festival ballerino Jack Grohmann will dance as Puck, alongside CTC’s Kayla Kearney.

In some scenes, the actors will replace the dancers during poignant moments throughout the comedy, according to Sasha Janes, the School of Dance director of contemporary studies. Janes also hinted that some dancers will have minimal speaking parts and will be dancing to the actors’ unaccompanied monologues.

If you’re going and expecting to see a Shakespearean play verbatim, you’re not going to see that — you’re going to see something different,” Janes said.

In addition to tonight’s performance, Voice Program students will stage Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opera at 7 p.m. tonight through Friday in McKnight Hall. CTC will be performing Jeff Whitty’s modernized A Midsummer Night’s Dream throughout the summer; the next performance will start at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Southern Tier Brewing Company.

Staff writers Julia Arwine, Duard Headley and Val Lick contributed to this report.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and CSO to Present Abridged ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and Balanchine’s ‘Rubies’

Story by Val Lick and Maggie Prosser-

Preparing for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Chautauqua performance was a considerable feat, as it involved coordinating artistic powerhouses in two cities. But the result, said PBT Artistic Director Terrence Orr, emanates the PBT’s, School of Dance’s and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s shared “love for dance.”

Returning to Chautauqua Institution for the first time since its debut in 2017, PBT will present two beloved ballets — George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” and an abridged Sleeping Beauty — at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 13 in the Amphitheater.

This is a Sleeping Beauty … of a different sort,” said Orr, who announced he will retire in June 2020. “I’m not really telling the story; I’m just going through and doing the divertissement, the different dances that go on.”

Orr’s Sleeping Beauty, accompanied by the CSO, will open with the christening of Princess Aurora and six fairy variations. Act I will include, in Orr’s words, the ballet’s “key scene” — the Rose Adagio, a pas de deux between Aurora and four suitors.

Act II will feature 24 students from the School of Dance in the garland dance, and Act III, the wedding, will feature six couples from the School of Dance, the usual line of characters — Bluebird, Puss and Boots, the White Cat — and PBT’s traditional ending to the ballet, Orr said.

In total, Aurora will be played by three PBT dancers and Aurora’s love interest, Prince Desire, will be played by two dancers.

The CSO’s rendition of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s musical score, under the direction of CSO Music Director and Conductor Rossen Milanov, will be the second of three performances in its inaugural “Russian Festival.”

Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is one of the three big ballets, alongside Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, that really made him one of the most important composers in the ballet world,” Milanov said.

Milanov said Sleeping Beauty focuses on the visual and auditory aspects of the performance, rather than dramatic elements.

Sleeping Beauty is a little more decorative in nature; it’s more about the ballet itself than having some big, dramatic, controversial, romantic story like Swan Lake,” Milanov said. “This one is mostly for the eyes, and of course the ears; Tchaikovsky was one of the most colorful orchestrators and masters of the short formats. … He had the gift to find the perfect music to match the dance variations that occur throughout the ballet.”

Prefacing Sleeping Beauty will be “Rubies,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.” “Rubies” — the electric second movement of George Balanchine’s three-act Jewels — will feature renowned pianist William Wolfram.

“This particular piece belongs to the period (of Stravinsky’s work) in which we could hear very strong influences of Russian folk music,” Milanov said. “It’s not as abstract as some of his later works, but it has this incredible ingenuity — the way he works with musical material and combines them together. There is always a fascination of how these collages of sound could function together.”

This will be PBT’s second performance with the CSO, its second performance on the Amp stage, and its first collaboration with the School of Dance. Prior to the performance, the Chautauqua Dance Circle will host a dance preview with PBT at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 13 in Smith Wilkes Hall.

This is going to be great fun,” Orr said. “It’s an honor to be part of such an incredible institution.”

CSO and Guest Conductor John Beal to Bring Magic to Amp With ‘Azkaban’ Film and Score

Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 3.11.23 AM

If the Institution grounds appeared on the Marauder’s Map, thousands of footprints would be appearing Saturday around the Amphitheater.

Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in Concert” at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 6 in the Amphitheater. Conducted by internationally recognized conductor and film composer John Beal, the CSO will perform the film’s score live while the film plays overhead.

Beal, who first visited the Institution last year as the guest conductor for “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Concert,” said there is no better way to experience a film’s score than with a live orchestra — and these scores will become the next classic compositions.

I am a strong believer that there is nowhere else but on the concert stage one can experience the emotional impact of a film score properly presented with a living, breathing group of master musicians,” Beal said. “This is the new ‘classical’ music of our era, and our major film composers are right up there, in my estimation, with the greatest composers of history.”

Many concert attendees may be unfamiliar with symphony music, Beal said — but the performances are an opportunity to experience the music beneath the movie.

“For some people, this is the first time they have ever heard a full symphony orchestra perform,” Beal said. “Some have no idea that this is what is happening underneath the dialogue and action in a movie. I hope these experiences will bring more and more people into the symphony hall to hear everything they possibly can from our musical heritage.”

Beal said the score of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is his favorite of film composer John Williams’ works because of the music’s versatility and complexity.

This particular score of John’s is quite interesting, in that it pays tribute to an extremely wide range of musical history, from early Renaissance to jazz to traditional John Williams,” Beal said. “The colors are fascinating, and the challenges of performing these incredibly varying tempos and styles while staying in perfect synchronization with the movie are psychologically and emotionally exciting, for both the orchestra and the audience.”

Beal finds that the Harry Potter franchise’s fanbase brings exceptional energy to the concerts.

“Every show is packed with fans of all ages wearing Harry Potter clothing,” Beal said. “I went to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl last weekend and there were 16,000 people — many of whom were quite middle-aged adults — in all sorts of Harry Potter looks.”

To Beal, audience excitement and involvement is an integral part of these concerts.

“One of my favorite things about conducting these great shows is being able to hear the audience responding — and we definitely encourage that,” Beal said. “We hear delighted children, we hear the cheers and boos from teens and adults. It makes the incredibly difficult challenge of intense preparation and performing worthwhile.”

Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, said that every season, Chautauquans turn up in the thousands for the Harry Potter events.

“One of the most exciting things for us is seeing the Amphitheater — every seat filled for an orchestra concert,” Moore said. “Even though we always have healthy audiences for orchestra concerts, we are not used to having almost 4,000 people for orchestra concerts.”

That audience, Moore said, is made up of all ages — especially young people, who can experience the films they grew up with in a brand new way.

Seeing every seat filled and seeing such an intergenerational audience is particularly thrilling for us, to see so many young people seeing a live orchestra performing something that is meaningful and magical for them,” Moore said.

CSO & Michael Preacely to Celebrate Independence Day with Crowd Favorites

The audience in the choir loft waves flags during the Independence Day Pops Celebration by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the Amphitheater, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will celebrate Independence Day with a special guest performer, musical favorites, and what guest conductor Stuart Chafetz calls a “festive party atmosphere.”

The CSO’s Independence Day Celebration will take place at 8 p.m. tonight, July 4, in the Amphitheater. It features Chafetz, principal pops conductor for the Columbus Symphony and CSO timpanist, as well as a newcomer to Chautauqua: baritone Michael Preacely.

Preacely, a professional opera singer and vocal soloist, first met Chafetz at a Cincinnati Pops Orchestra concert, where the two found that their excellent onstage chemistry led to an unforgettable concert.

“There was such good chemistry between he and I that after the concert, we were like, ‘Hey, when is another opportunity for us to connect?’ ” Preacely said. “(Chafetz) took my information, he contacted my agent, and hey — I’m here.”

The concert will feature a broad range of music: Broadway selections, songs from movie soundtracks and classic patriotic tunes. The setlist includes “The Star-Spangled Banner”; “The Impossible Dream” from The Man of La Mancha; “Cantina Band” from “Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope”; a tribute to American composer John Williams; and Alan Silvestri’s “The Avengers” theme, among others.

Preacely will sing with the CSO for seven of the concert’s 17 selections. Preacely said he and Chafetz designed the program to showcase their musical versatility and to make sure that all audience members find something to enjoy.

“(Chafetz is) very aware of my versatility as an artist, so he really wanted to showcase that as well as what he does; he’s very versatile in his program choices and his style of conducting,” Preacely said. “We have this type of platform where we want to show that. You want to give someone something that they can chew on, regardless of what their tastes may be.”
Conductor Stuart Chafetz turns to the crowd after end of the “1812 Overture” during the Independence Day Pops Celebration by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the Amphitheater, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Beyond that, Preacely wants to create an atmosphere where audience members can celebrate independence, music and their local community.

“We’ve had a really good time going back and forth putting together this program, and I want the audience to go away happy and excited — not only about celebrating Independence Day, but about the art,” Preacely said. “We’re going to talk, we’re going to sing, we’re going to dance, we’re going to have a great time in the name of independence — and in the name of just being together under one roof … with this beautiful music.”

Overall, Preacely said he is excited to visit Chautauqua for the first time — especially in such a festive, energetic concert.

“I’m looking forward to just experiencing the electricity of this atmosphere,” Preacely said. “I can’t wait for that.”

Chafetz is a timpanist with the CSO, and every summer he guest conducts the annual Independence Day concert and the Opera Pops concerts at the Institution. He said he tries to bring crowd-pleasing favorites to the audience for Independence Day.

“We try and focus on music that everybody loves,” Chafetz said. “We do a bit of movies, a little bit of Broadway, a bit of patriotic music and we have some American Top 40, which is so much fun to perform, especially with our festive party atmosphere.”

Chafetz said Preacely’s guest performance will play no small part in that atmosphere.

“Michael, he is an absolutely amazing singer and he’s going to just rock the house,” Chafetz said.

Chafetz hopes Chautauquans will enjoy the performance and celebrate Independence Day with CSO and Preacely.

“As with all of the Fourth of July performances, we want people to have a good time, sing and dance, and do whatever they normally would do on a festive holiday: feel right at home,” Chafetz said. “We want the Amphitheater to feel like their favorite party spot to enjoy, unwind and celebrate America with a great performance.”

Guest Critic: CSO Performs Tender Franz Schubert, Stirring Johannes Brahms

  • Conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of "A Saturday Evening of Symphonies" in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Review By Johanna Keller:

A pair of beloved Romantic symphonic masterworks — by Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms — were performed back-to-back without intermission to close out the first week of Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 90th season. The news of the night was that about half the concerts this year will be intermission-free, due to popular demand from the audience, a change announced by Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, in her opening remarks from the stage.

On a more serious note, Moore also paid tribute to Peter Haas, principal bass player of the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, who performed with the CSO for 24 years and passed away last autumn after a year-long battle with cancer. It was a profound loss for the close-knit community of Chautauqua, and in an interview after the performance, Haas was fondly remembered by bass player Kaitlyn Kamminga, who called him “a consummate professional and great colleague.”

The evening’s performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, dubbed the “Unfinished,” was appropriately dedicated to Haas’ memory.

So, it was in this somber mood that Music Director Rossen Milanov took the stage and stood for a long moment before conducting a singularly poignant interpretation of the two movements that Schubert wrote in 1822.

In the Allegro moderato opening, Milanov kept his gestures small, maintaining a restrained dynamic throughout. He pushed the lyricism of phrasing, demanding sweeping arcs of sound, so that the cellos and violins seemed to sing, while the sforzandi provided a muted punctuation. One of the most shattering moments in this work comes when Schubert abruptly halts the gorgeous second theme, follows it with a full measure rest and then brings in an unrelated chord, in C minor. The crispness of the CSO’s playing made this interruption freshly shocking. In the Andante con moto, each of Schubert’s unusual transitions and daring key changes — often a kind of pivot on a solo instrument — seemed transparent, even fragile. The pizzicati (plucked passages) in the low strings were on tiptoe.

I have heard the “Unfinished” played countless times with dozens of approaches — it can sound muscular, bouncy, tragic, dramatic, stately, yearning. But I have never heard it sound so tender. Such a subtle approach requires the kind of musical imagination that Milanov possesses, as well as a true fusion and trust between conductor and players that has obviously developed during his five years on the CSO podium.

Conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of “A Saturday Evening of Symphonies” in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The mystery of why Schubert never completed his Eighth Symphony has been the subject of much scholarly debate, and the consensus seems to be that after writing his first six symphonies that hewed to fairly conventional classical structures, Schubert suffered a kind of artistic crisis — and it certainly couldn’t have helped that he also contracted syphilis. It is theorized that he was blocked by comparing himself to Beethoven, then a towering musical figure at the height of his renown. Schubert had sketched out a Seventh Symphony and then set to work on the eighth, composing two movements and leaving a third movement in an incomplete sketch.

By the time of his death in 1828, at the age of 31, Schubert left dozens of projects incomplete or abandoned, yet he was among the most prolific of major composers. He had written more than 600 songs, nine or 10 symphonies (or sketches, depending on how you count them), 15 string quartets, two piano trios, two quintets, 21 piano sonatas, 10 operas and other incidental music for the stage, seven full masses and a whole lot more. The two completed movements of the “Unfinished” symphony show Schubert experimenting with bizarre key modulations and harmonies, in a direction Beethoven never pursued. We are left to wonder how much more Schubert would have written, and how his music would have evolved, had he not died so young.

By contrast, after a short pause (not an intermission), Milanov hopped onto the podium and dove headlong into Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Brahms. Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere, called this robust 1883 piece “Brahms’s Eroica,” referring to the nickname for Beethoven’s “heroic” Third Symphony. Both works open with a spirited Allegro con brio, and Milanov flung out his arms and stirred the orchestra into a full-out rendition that had the strings swirling while the brass and woodwind sections interwove those Brahmsian motives.

A particularly telling moment occurred in the third movement, Poco allegretto. The cellos introduce this throbbing minor key theme that is then handed around the orchestra and repeated again and again. This is a movement that can unfortunately become lugubrious and sentimental. But Milanov took it at a brisk pace and pushed the articulation in a fascinating way. Usually the two phrases of the main theme are played (bear with me here) Dah-dee-Daaaaah, Dah-dee-Dah. But Milanov demanded a legato that crescendoed into the second phrase with an extra surge at the top, so that it turned into Dah-dee-daaahHH-DAH-dee-dah. The difference in phrasing may seem minor, but it is just such a detail as this that turns a good performance into a great one, and demonstrates Milanov’s intelligence and refined taste.

Conductor Rossen Milanov, leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of “A Saturday Evening of Symphonies” in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Composers have often gotten their jollies by incorporating cryptograms — sequences of notes whose letters spell out words or names. Most notably, Bach spelled out his name (in German music, B-flat was named B and B-natural was H), and Robert Schumann inserted a form of his name into his music as well. Brahms had a friend and collaborator, Joseph Joachim, whose musical motto was “Frei aber einsam” (Free but lonely). A lifelong bachelor, Brahms converted Joachim’s motto into his own theme on F-A-F, to signify “Frei aber froh (Free but happy), and sprinkled it throughout the symphony.

Alas, it must be said that three times during the evening, dogs being walked by their clearly unmusical owners, added unwelcome interruptions, and always at the quietest and most sublime moments; why can’t Chautauqua institute a dog-free No Barking Zone on orchestra nights?

Speaking of acoustical matters, while I usually prefer to sit two-thirds of the way back to enjoy the surprisingly well-blended sound in the Amphitheater, I took this opportunity to take a seat in the choral section behind and above the orchestra, an experiment I recommend to any serious listener. Of course, the sound there is dry, like being in a recording studio, so that you hear the sections of the orchestra separately, including sonic details like the slight rasp of the bows. You also miss the visceral blare of the brass section (they are sitting 15 feet below with their bell ends pointed away from you). On the other hand, you get to closely observe the interactions of the players and see the conductor from the perspective of the orchestra members; it is revelatory to watch Milanov use his gaze and facial expressions to elicit the sound he wants from his players.

Finally, it should be noted that a new element has been added to the orchestral season — program books. Handsomely edited, the 51-page booklet contains repertoire, guest artist bios and David Levy’s fine musicological notes for the opening few weeks of the season. Best of all is the list of orchestra members with a photo of each and a note about their other institutional affiliations. Highlighting each musician is a great idea that all orchestras should adopt. It’s just another reminder of the atmosphere of Chautauqua, where each individual voice contributes to the whole.

Johanna Keller received the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for her essays on music in The New York Times. She writes for Opera and The Hopkins Review and teaches journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

Guest Critic: CSO Season Opener Delivers ‘Unforgettable Performance’

  • 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
Review by Johanna Keller:

The 90th season of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra opened with heavenly performances of three works that, in various ways, revolved around the theme of Hell.

Conductor Rossen Milanov, beginning his fifth season as music director, chose Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32, as his challenging opener, which immediately plunges the listener into darkness and the swirling, stormy sufferings of the underworld. Programming it as an opener was a bold move, since the slashing strings and eddying woodwinds allow no time for orchestra players to warm up — welcome to Hades.

Doomed lovers abound in literature and myth: think of Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet. Once just as well-known, the story of Francesca’s illicit love affair with her brother-in-law Paolo inspired numerous operas, including one by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The tale comes from Dante Alighieri’s epic “The Divine Comedy,” and there are no more beloved passages than those of the fifth canto of The Inferno, when the author Dante reaches the second ring of Hell. There, raging winds eternally buffet those who committed the sin of lust. In the midst of this storm, Francesca tenderly recounts how she and Paolo fell in love. Rendered in Dante’s delicately rhymed three-line stanzas (terza rima), Francesca’s story so moves Dante that when she finishes speaking, he writes that he faints from emotion.

Tchaikovsky’s 1876 fantasy on the Francesca theme alternates lyrical moments (props to the soaring phrasing by Chautauqua’s principal clarinetist Eli Eban) with thunderous tutti passages that depict the netherworld’s storms as well as the storms of sexual passion. Milanov drew on his enormous range of communicative gestures to pull out of the orchestra sweeping, singing phrases that built to a final climactic accelerando, and was answered by cheers from the audience. It was an auspicious beginning.

In the world of classical music, one of the most bizarre characters has to be violinist and composer, Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), who played so brilliantly, he was rumored to have sold his soul to Satan. Paganini’s abilities on the violin — he also played the viola and guitar — were the stuff of legend, and he invented new ways of playing the instrument in his 24 Caprices that bedevil violinists to the present day. A tall, spectrally thin man, Paganini brought some audience members to shrieks with the physicality of his performances — think of Mick Jagger crossed with a young Elvis. In recent years, much has been written about the theory — which was referenced by Chautauqua’s resident musicologist David Levy in his excellent pre-concert lecture in the Hall of Christ — that Paganini had Marfan syndrome, and was double-jointed, accounting perhaps for some of his unusual dexterity.

Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk took the stage for the fiendish, knuckle-breaking challenge of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 43. Like Paganini, Rachmaninoff was a virtuoso performer, one of the great pianists of his century, so the keyboard technical challenges are abundant.

Gavrylyuk, who also serves as the Heintzelman Family Artistic Advisor and artist-in-residence for the Chautauqua School of Music Piano Program, delivered an electrifying interpretation with propulsive energy, cascades of notes transformed into sheer veils and gigantic Rachmaninoff chords that demand not only power but astute voicing. Better known outside of the United States, Gavrylyuk is on track for a stellar international career. Milanov kept the orchestra with him every step of the way, with plaintive solo violin work by acting concertmaster Vahn Armstrong.

Theme and variations are playful forms that show off the inventiveness of the composer. Early on, Rachmaninoff gives us a wink with hints of the Dies Irae — the often-quoted Gregorian chant that summons up images of death — to allude to Paganini’s demonic reputation.

Most famously in this work, at the apogee comes a most exquisite tune (I hear it in my mind’s ear as I write these words), a tune you would recognize. Tchaikovsky invented it, or discovered it, when he inverted Paganini’s theme and recognized it as a stunner. He treats it with a full-out sobbing rendition in the orchestra and then lets the piano caress it alone, just once, before the next variation begins. A lesser composer than Tchaikovsky would have brought the hit tune back at the end, but instead, it gains all the more poignancy for its brief but spectacular, singular appearance. Milanov drove his orchestra through the final variations that pound out the Dies Irae to the shattering conclusion, with the tiny tail of a piano flourish at the very end that always brings a laugh from the audience. Wit indeed. The loudest cheering of the night came for Gavrylyuk, a favorite at Chautauqua.

At intermission, some of the audience filtered away, unfortunately missing one of the rare opportunities to hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony from 1939. On the surface, this extremely unusual work has nothing whatsoever to do with Hell. There are no infernos, no hellish storms, no Dies Irae, and no souls sold to the devil — or are there?

Throughout his early life, Shostakovich (1906-1975) suffered from the vicissitudes of the dictator Stalin, living in an atmosphere of terror that most of us (I hope) have never experienced and can scarcely imagine. Unfortunately for Russian artists, Stalin took a great interest in them and their work. A word misspoken or misunderstood, a work of art deemed “too formal” or “not socialist realism,” could land one on the wrong side of history — or in the gulag. Or shot. The midnight knock at the door: Such things happened under Stalin, when it is estimated that more than a million Russians died in the gulags over 20 years; others died uncounted.

In 1934, Shostakovich had written an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, that got him denounced by the Communist Party after an anonymous article appeared, perhaps written by Stalin himself. Shostakovich managed to redeem himself by composing, as his Fifth Symphony, a triumphant celebration of Soviet might. For his next symphony, he announced he would use poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s paean, “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” and would convey “spring, joy, youth.” On the surface, this plan sounded like a surefire way to further ingratiate himself to Stalin. But when it comes to Shostakovich — his music or his life story — the surface is always a betrayal.

Mayakovsky had been one of the most famous poets in Russia and tapped the young Shostakovich years before to provide some stage music. But the poet had his own political problems. He was a futurist: Stalin disapproved. The poet died by suicide in 1930, and afterward, and still to this day, there are arguments that it was actually an assassination.

So, for whatever reason, the symphony Shostakovich wrote was not as announced. There is no Mayakovsky poem, no chorus. Instead, it begins with a Largo that takes up more than half the work. Somber and based on minor third and diminished seventh motifs, its thickly orchestrated passages give way to moments when one instrument — piccolo, flute or English horn — are virtually isolated. It is impossible to hear this effect without thinking of the way Stalinist terror could isolate and silence individual voices. The composer finishes with two shorter movements: an Allegro and then a Presto that, for all their energy and verve, are underpinned with the bitter irony that mark this great composer’s work. There are various kinds of hell — and perhaps this symphony describes one of them.

Milanov and the orchestra members turned in an unforgettable performance — the strings bearing down on the lacerating passages, outstanding solo turns from the woodwinds and brass and percussion providing what sometimes sounded like an alarm. Milanov whipped up a galloping finale that propelled the audience to its feet and, after a sustained ovation, out into the safe and peaceful darkness of the charming streets of Chautauqua.

Johanna Keller received the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for her essays on music in The New York Times. She writes for Opera and The Hopkins Review and teaches journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk to Open Orchestra’s 90th Anniversary Season


The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 90th season opens tonight with a highly anticipated performance featuring one of Chautauqua Institution’s favorite musicians: internationally renowned pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk.

At 8:15 p.m. tonight, June 27 in the Amphitheater, the CSO will accompany Gavrylyuk in a performance from Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43. The concert will also feature Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, op. 32 and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 45.

For CSO Music Director and Principal Conductor Rossen Milanov, this concert marks the beginning of a landmark anniversary season.

“We have been planning the season for almost two years now,” Milanov said. “We were looking for something that would not only mark the importance of the anniversary, but also showcase the incredible diversity of approach that we have to the repertoire, the excellence of the orchestra, our connection to the audiences in Chautauqua and the importance of live music in the Chautauqua mix.”

Milanov is entering his fifth year as CSO conductor. He said that the CSO draws together the Institution’s unique performances by performing solo, with guests and with the Institution’s dance and opera companies.

“The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra is that connective tissue that pulls everything together,” Milanov said.

This season will show the importance of both the anniversary and the orchestra itself, according to Milanov.

“This is going to be a season like no other in recent years,” Milanov said. “We’re happy to mark this occasion and happy that the Chautauqua audience can hear the best of the repertoire, whether it’s traditional or contemporary.”

Milanov said that Gavrylyuk, a renowned musician and a local favorite, was the perfect choice for the CSO’s 90th opening concert. Gavrylyuk is the Institution’s Heintzelman Family Artistic Adviser for the School of Music Piano Program.

“I cannot possibly imagine a summer without Alexander being present both as a soloist of the orchestra and as a teacher with the piano department,” Milanov said. “He has a huge following; people love him, people love the freshness that he brings to everything that he touches.”

Gavrylyuk and Milanov performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini together at a set of concerts in Spain earlier this month. When the original guest for tonight’s concert, pianist Daniil Trifonov, was unable to attend, the Rachmaninoff piece was the natural choice.

Gavrylyuk said the piece is famously complex.

“(Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) is one of the most famous works for orchestra, and probably the most advanced compositions by Rachmaninoff for piano and orchestra,” Gavrylyuk said. “It’s a piece which has many variations, and each variation is like a miniature picture. … Every variation has a small message, like a small theatrical play or a small painting.”

Gavrylyuk said the piece’s variations make it challenging but rewarding for musicians and listeners alike.

“It’s quite difficult, this piece,” Gavrylyuk said. “It’s one of the most difficult works, but it is equally rewarding.”

Tonight’s concert will also open the CSO’s Russian Festival, which will feature two other performances of Russian compositions: “Sleeping Beauty” with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre on Saturday, July 13, and “Prokofiev & Rachmaninoff” on Thursday, Aug. 1

Flamenco Company of Columbus, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra deliver ‘colorful, evocative, technically adept’ season finale

  • Griset Damas Roche and Flamenco Company of Columbus perform "Tientos-Tangos Flamencos" on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018 in the Amphitheater. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Among themes for orchestra programs, few are more common than Spain. The evening of Spanish music.

Give the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra extra credit, then, for breathing new life into the concept. On its season finale Tuesday night at the Amphitheater, the CSO and Music Director Rossen Milanov rewrote the Spanish playbook, augmenting their own sparkling performances with the work of a legitimate flamenco dance troupe.

What a treat it was. Flamenco alone is compelling enough, but witnessing it in combination with live orchestra was an experience this listener won’t soon forget.

Not that the Flamenco Company of Columbus or dancer Griset Damas-Roche couldn’t have held their own. On the contrary, the troupe, which included a vocalist, guitarist and percussionist, easily could have headlined the evening. No offense to Milanov or the CSO.

On the company’s first appearance Tuesday, performing what was listed as “Tientos-Tangos Flamencos,” the four guest artists held the nearly-full house in the palms of their hands. For every varied, passionate phrase supplied by the musicians, Damas-Roche delivered an exact, ferocious replica with her heels or toes, tapping or stomping on a piece of special dance flooring.

The precision of it was remarkable. No matter how rapidly or slowly the guitarist strummed or the drummer pounded, the team remained in perfect alignment, collaboratively raising the pulses of every person under the roof.

Damas-Roche did the same thing two more times at evening’s end. In separate dances with fan and castanets, the dancer fleshed out her artistic personality and steered the CSO even clearer of any Spanish routine.

In Ruperto Chapi’s Overture to La Revoltosa, Damas-Roche treated the brilliant red fan in her hand as much more than an accessory. She didn’t just snap it open and shut, in traditional flamenco fashion. She waved, embraced and paraded it, as if it were a human partner. The effect was mesmerizing.

But the showstopper, literally and figuratively, was Las Bodas de Luis Alonso, by Geronimo Gimenez. There, Damas-Roche revealed herself to be a castanet virtuoso as well as a star dancer.

Milanov may have been the conductor, but it was Damas-Roche who was in charge, belting out incredible licks with her hands in time with the orchestra, even as she kept up twirling and stomping.  Never has the label “triple threat” applied so well.

The other half of the evening belonged to the orchestra, and the orchestra owned it. Milanov and the CSO may have been playing familiar scores, but their performances were such that the music sounded anything but tired or threadbare.

Chabrier’s España got the night off to a sparkling start. Thanks especially to vivid contributions from the orchestra’s brass and percussion sections, the brief rhapsody was impossible to resist.

Ditto the two suites from de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat.” In that case, though, it was harder to credit any one individual. The entire ensemble proved as colorful, evocative and technically adept as could be. What’s more, Milanov led with passion and a palpable understanding of the many dance forms involved. The crowd was right to clap in the middle.

No Spanish evening is complete without Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, and the CSO’s season finale was complete in every respect. Acting concertmaster Vahn Armstrong gave a dynamic performance of the work’s chief solo part, and his peers in the woodwind, brass and harp sections added character to an alert, well-paced reading already full of life and animation.

Had the evening ended there, listeners could have gone home happy. At that point, though, the CSO still had more to offer, in the form of Damas-Roche with her fan and castanets. After that, all went home ecstatic.

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

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