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Before Frodo … there was Siegfried

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In the Houston Symphony’s Wagner’s “Ring” Without Words, you’ll be able to follow this fantastic storyline as it’s projected on our in-house video screens, all while the orchestra plays its greatest themes.

Before Frodo, there was Siegfried

Not Siegfried from Siegfried and Roy … NOT THEM!  Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle is a series of four operas that not only marked a revolution in musical theater, but also paved the way for TV shows that leave us hanging for months, waiting for the next season.

Great marketing, really! But waiting is no fun …

We say that because Richard Wagner, the genius behind these masterpieces, wrote the two first operas, Das Rheingold ( The Rhine Gold) and Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), then starved his fans for twelve years before laying the final notes on Siegfried and the final installation, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods).  The whole thing happened in a 30-year span. That’s way too long to wait for the season finale!

But we digress …

Frodo was a hero.  Siegfried was a hero.  Frodo was fearless.  Siegfried was fearless – at least ‘til he saw the first woman he’s ever seen.  You see, the poor hero was brought up by a dwarf.  He didn’t know any better.  Or did he?  But Frodo was too.  Brought up by a dwarf, that is. Wait … it was a Hobbit!

Now I’m confused …

Sad as it is, Siegfried does not live to see the end of Wagner’s tetralogy.  On the other hand, Frodo does conquer evil at the end.

Tolkien actually did study Wagner’s operas before writing his books.  Though the stories are similar, they are the product of two incredibly creative geniuses.


Written by Houston Symphony

September 17, 2010 at 9:25 am

Wagner, his “Ring” and how Luke Skywalker comes in the picture

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Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell took the time to share a little about one of the musical loves of his life, Wagner’s “The Ring Without Words,” ahead of next week’s concert! We knew of the comparisons to the Lord of the Ring, but Star Wars? Learn more about it by reading below.

It should come as no surprise that I’m even more excited than usual for the Houston Symphony’s upcoming performances of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring Without Words,” because I am a child of the late 1970s.  Let me explain.

My introduction to Wagner’s great four-opera masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelung, was probably the same as many in my generation: through Star Wars.   This isn’t actually as far-fetched as it might sound, as there are a great number of parallels between Wagner’s masterpiece and George Lucas’.  (In fact, there are whole websites devoted exclusively to comparing the two.  See, for example, Kristian Evensen’s incredibly thorough exploration of structural, thematic, and musical connections between these operas and films).

Richard Wagner

The Ring, as it is affectionately known, is truly the greatest spectacle in all of opera; some believe that it is most impressive artistic accomplishment in all of classical music.  Just the scale of the works is astonishing: the shortest of the four operas (Das Rheingold) lasts two and a half hours, while the longest (Götterdämmerung) lasts almost twice that long.  The total duration of the four operas put together is an astonishing fifteen hours (experienced over four nights, naturally).  Lucas’s saga occupies a similar place in the pantheon of film achievement: His six Star Wars films clock in at a combined thirteen hours.

Even the time it took these create these two epics is similar: It took Wagner around twenty-six years (from 1848 to 1874) to compose the four operas of The Ring, while Lucas’s six-film saga spanned twenty-eight years (1977 to 2005).  In other words, while both Wagner and Lucas created other well-known, much-loved works (think only of Tristan und Isolde and Indiana Jones), they spent the majority of their creative lives on one, epic project.  Nothing similar has been attempted in either the world of opera or film, before or since.

Part of the reason both The Ring and Star Wars are so successful is because, while they both tell specific stories, they are archetypal tales; the stories are only vehicles for dealing with much broader, universal themes.  Both are epic sagas that explore love, betrayal, greed, desire…and they both deal with their own fair share of paternity issues!  (For those interested in delving a little deeper into these archetypes, I heartily recommend the late, great mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces).

Further inviting comparison between The Ring and Star Wars is that Lucas has always referred to these films as “space operas.”  He even convinced his musical collaborator, the great John Williams, to compose a symphonic, sweeping score, which was quite out of fashion when the series’ first film was released in 1977.  Not only did Williams write a full-blown, symphonic (i.e., Romantic, Wagnerian) score, he used a Wagnerian technique known as the leitmotif: a recurrent, instantly recognizable theme associated with a particular person, idea, or situation that occurs throughout a musical work.  Wagner uses leitmotifs throughout The Ring to instantly identify (among others) Valhalla (home of the gods), Siegfried (his main hero), and the concept of the renunciation of love; Williams does the same with the Death Star, Luke Skywalker, the Force, and many more.

Perhaps the most famous leitmotif from The Ring is “The Ride of the Valkyries”; the most famous from Star Wars (other than the Main Title) is likely Darth Vader’s theme, the Imperial March.  Both are so successful that they have long since escaped their original contexts and are found everywhere in our culture; even people who have never heard The Ring or seen Star Wars know these melodies.

This leads us back to the tremendous staying power of this phenomenal music that Wagner wrote for The Ring.  Once I learned of the many connections between Wagner’s work and Star Wars (sometime in my late teens), I promptly bought scores and recordings of all four operas, and listened through them one by one over the course of about a month.  As I got to know the operas better, I realized how many similarities there were between them and Star Wars, and fell in love with Wagner’s work just as quickly as I had with Lucas’s films and Williams’s music.

Even now, when I sit in a concert hall and listen to—or stand on the podium and conduct—music from Wagner’s Ring (which has become one of the great loves of my musical life), it’s hard not to think back to my first musical love affair: John Williams’s scores for the Star Wars films.  I first fell in love with Star Wars, then fell just as deeply in love with The Ring.  Having just conducted some of Star Wars here in July, I can’t wait to hear Hans and our spectacular orchestra take us all on an hour-long adventure through the exhilarating, passionate music of Wagner’s Ring.

Written by Houston Symphony

September 15, 2010 at 2:57 pm

A salute to Mexico’s Independence

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Intern Keith has returned to the blogosphere to give us a little bit of history on some of the Mexican composers we’ll feature during Sunday’s Chevron Fiesta Sinfonica concert. The concert is set to begin at 6 p.m. and is FREE to the public. Just visit us online to learn how to snag your ticket today!

Even the astute music lover can’t be faulted for missing some of the great works of Mexican classical music. Popular works of Villa-Lobos or Ginastera influence our conception of Latin American music, but we rarely get a specific look at the music of Mexico, a nation with such a strong musical tradition. It seems improbable that our concert halls aren’t bursting with classics from the Mexican canon.

This year, another improbability brings these classics to our ears for maybe the first time. 2010 is the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence from colonial rule, and the centennial of the Mexican revolution.

Chevron Fiesta Sinfonica, a Houston Symphony tradition, is celebrating this rare occasion by bringing a free program dedicated to the music of Mexico’s most celebrated composers.  Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell will lead the orchestra beginning at 6 p.m. Sunday — just four days before Mexican Independence is celebrated. You may not recognize some of the composers’ names, but the sounds are very familiar.

Arturo Marquez’ Danzon No. 2 is a lively piece interspersed with periods of virtuosic lyricism. The music changes frequently, all without losing its underlying tango rhythm. It’s a work designed to showcase an individual (there are solos for violin, flute, trumpet), a section (the percussion section is especially active), and the orchestra as a whole.

Marquez, whose father was a mariachi musician, seeks to incorporate his national influences into his works. Danzon No. 2, his most popular work, is named for a dance that originated in Cuba and Mexico. Premiered in 1994, the work has gone on to find worldwide acclaim. The electrifying piece has been called Mexico’s “second national anthem.”

The colorful life of Silvestre Revueltas is reflected in his music. Born literally at the turn of the 20th century –Dec. 31st, 1899 — he studied music in Mexico and the United States, conducted the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, and worked for the Republicans in Spain during the civil war, leaving after the Nationalists consolidated power. He composed music for Mexican films, and even appeared in one titled “Vámanos con Pancho Villa!” where he appears as a piano player. In the scene, a shootout erupts, and Revueltas is seen holding a sign reading, “Don’t Shoot the Piano Player.” During his tenure as conductor, he began writing a string of orchestral pieces, including his most famous work, “Sensemaya,” based on the poem by Nicolás Guillén.

Carlos Chavez

The music of composer Carlos Chavez shows a strong connection to the indigenous and folk music of Mexico. To him, it is “a reality of contemporary life, not…a relic to satisfy mere curiosity on the part of intellectuals.” Chavez wrote,  “The force of indigenous art is rooted in a series of essential conditions… and imported manifestations opposed to the feeling of the music have been unable to destroy it because they have not succeeded in changing the ethical conditions of individuals.” Chavez is at the same time indicting Western art music for subjugating folk music, and praising the strength and durability of folk music itself.

In this way, he is a kindred spirit to Bela Bartok, who, around the same time, was composing in a nationalistic style in defiance of Western culture. Like Bartok, Chavez synthesizes indigenous music with Western instrumentation. The result, Sinfonía India, composed in 1935, is an eclectic pastiche of sounds. Chavez wrote in the program notes, “The great expressive strength of indigenous art is rooted in its intrinsic variety.” Listening to the piece is like taking a tour from city to city, each with its own sound world, its own canción. Once a section is played, it may never be heard again.

Nationality is not the only commonality between these composers. They are also united by generation. That makes this concert the rare concert populated entirely by 20th century composers. This ensures that the range of styles will be diverse and extraordinary. These works are of inestimable value to an emerging Mexican canon that is only beginning to be explored.

Broadway really does Rock!

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You don't even have to leave Houston to get a taste of Broadway this weekend!

So, when looking around the conference room during a recent marketing meeting, our resident blog expert rested her eyes on me and said “YOU should right a blog for Broadway Rocks!”  Broadway Rocks, in case you are wondering, is the first POPS concert of the Houston Symphony’s 2010-2011 Season.  It opens this Friday, September 3rd.  The concert includes songs from what we are calling “the latest generation” of Broadway musicals.  The NEW classics (pardon the oxymoron).  Things like Wicked, Rent, Mamma Mia! and The Lion King.  Of course, there are some golden oldies.  How could you do a Broadway concert without a little Phantom of the Opera and the like?

Why did she suggest I write the blog about Broadway Rocks, you ask?  Well, because I am the just the biggest musical theater geek in this entire organization.  My conversations regularly are snippets of Broadway songs that are sung at whomever I’m addressing at the moment.  My belief is that it is a lot more fun to sing and dance your way through your everyday life.  It’s either that, or the fact that I did marketing for an organization that brought touring Broadway shows to local markets, and I worked there for many years.

Julia Murney, who played Elphaba in "Wicked" on Broadway, will be one of the featured vocalists this weekend.

One of the perks of my former job was that once a year, I was “required” to go to New York for a week and see as many shows as I could.  I know…such torture!  So, I’ve had the privilege to see many of the shows that are going to be featured in the upcoming Broadway Rocks concert.  When we first talked about programming this concert, my true colors were seen probably for the first time.  I was new at the time, and when this concert was mentioned, I started to grin and wiggle in my seat.  I couldn’t wait to hear what shows we were going to feature.  And I was NOT disappointed.  And imagine my near accident inducing excitement when I learned that Julia Murney who WAS Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and on tour is going to be here to perform with the orchestra!  It is going to be so amazing to have her and the other Broadway stars with us to perform this music.

So yeah, I’m a little geeked out by this upcoming concert, and I’m not afraid to admit it.  I have been that girl that stands at the stage door after a show to get my program signed when the cast emerges, and that’s okay.  Part of what I love about the Houston Symphony is that we have something for everyone to enjoy, whether it is a Beethoven, the Music of Led Zeppelin or even a little slice of heaven like Broadway Rocks.  Of course that is my slice of heaven, but to each his own.  If this is not up your alley, then I can guarantee we have something that you will enjoy.  And please don’t judge me, “I Am What I Am!”

The first person to comment with the name of the Broadway show I just referenced will win a pair of tickets to Broadway Rocks!

Congratulations to our Oh Snap Photo Contest winners!

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Thanks to everyone who participated in our first ever Oh Snap! Summer Symphony Nights photo contest! You guys took some awesome pictures during our concert series at Miller Outdoor Theatre in June and for the Fourth of July, making it hard for us to pick just one. The winner of each category will receive a pair of vouchers to use at one of our 2010-2011 season concerts! And now, it’s time to announce the lucky winners — drumroll, please…

Best Performance Shot

Photo by Aaron Kovach

Best Family/Friends Shot

Photo by Serdar Dogan, from his family album

Little Deniz – 6 months old when the photo was taken- immensely enjoyed the Foxtrot and Mendelssohn’s third by Houston Symphony last June, 2010.

Best Fireworks Shot

Photo © Bethany Quillin

I had such a wonderful time at the Independence Day concert! It had been quite a while since the last time I went to see the Houston Symphony so it was literally a breathtaking experience. Listening to sentimental patriotic songs and viewing the gorgeous fireworks display made the Fourth of July this year a night to remember!

Best Venue Shot

Photo by Adam T. Baker

I’ve been a Russophile for years, so I was counting down the days until the Houston Symphony played Tchaikovsky at the Miller Outdoor Theatre. To my delight, I noticed that the International Space Station (ISS) would fly overhead during the performance! As the moment drew near during the concert, I was focused on the symphony and almost forgot to look at the night sky. But, suddenly, the ISS flew overheard. It was truly magical to see the ISS while enjoying Tchaikovsky. I was floating 3 feet above the lawn. It took all my willpower to take my eyes off the ISS and snap a photo!

Best Audience Shot

Photo by oncke1

Check out all of the entries by visitng our Flickr group – and as always – we’d love you to submit your Houston Symphony-related photos to share with other fans!

Who Wants to Live Forever

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On July 22, The Music of Queen will join Houston Symphony for a full rock-band concert experience

So, I was recently asked what my favorite Queen memory is … and I honestly didn’t know the answer.

I’m too young to have experienced the greatness in person, but I’ve reaped the benefits of their immortality.  Most Queen moments in my life include singing at the top of my lungs in the car to Queen’s CD’s or to the classics I have loaded on my iPod.  And if you don’t already know, Queen is great running music.  They’re always my first choice, although my urge to sing along can make this difficult. I usually just end up looking like Chad from Burn After Reading on the treadmill.  Air drums are much easier than trying to sing along in that scenario.

I didn’t really know anything about Queen until I was in high school.  Of course, I knew some of their songs due to various happenings throughout my life, like “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World and “We Are the Champions” through back-to-back Houston Rockets Championship. And I also knew that “Under Pressure” sounded a lot like “Ice Ice Baby” (just as much as I know you die hard fans are cringing right now at that admission).  But I didn’t even know who sang those songs.  My big brother was the one who introduced me to the band, and I’m eternally grateful to him.

The thing I love the most about Queen is how they can relate to my everyday life.  I like to listen to “Fat Bottomed Girls” while running and “Bicycle Race” while riding the bike.  My husband and I like to duet to “Don’t Stop Me Now”  cause we’re “Havin’ a good time, havin’ a good time…”.

Anyway, once I became a Queen fan, I was always impressed how their music has stayed relevant and engaging.  As recently as last year, Queen music has been featured in TV shows, movies and even Broadway.  From Glee (Yes, I’m a proud Gleek) to Lady Gaga (who got the inspiration for her fame name from Queen’s “Radio GaGa”), to Wayne’s World, Moulin Rouge, Shaun of the Dead and Happy Feet. Did I mention they also got their very own Broadway and West End show? Their music is all around us even today.

Why is this the case?  Well, the music is just plain FUN.  It’s also relatable, sing-along-able, iconic and … well, fun.  The other reason it is picked to be in so many movies is because you can pretty much find a Queen song to go into any scenario.  Perhaps I am such a fan because of the theatricality of the group and their music, especially Freddie Mercury.  I feel like I’m in the midst of a BIG SHOW whenever I hear one of their songs.  It makes people (at least it makes me) want to sing and dance and put on lots of eyeliner.

Needless to say, I’m super excited that the Music of Queen is coming to the Houston Symphony.  And as a marketing person all I want to do is project this excitement to other people so they will come see the show.  Luckily, Queen has given us lots of tools to get the word out — what more could a marketing person ask for with songs titles like “The Show Must Go On” and “We Will Rock You” and one-liners like “It’s a kind of magic”?

If you join us on July 22nd at Jones Hall, we can promise a fun, sing-along-able, theatrical and still relevant concert that everyone can enjoy, and “We Will [definitely] Rock You.”  I’m living proof that you don’t have to be of the Queen era to love this music.  It transcends the 70’s and 80’s and lives on today!

So to all you Queen fans, since I was so lame and couldn’t think of just one favorite Queen moment, I want to hear your’s.  Comment and let us know what you remember about growing up with (or getting thrown into) The Music of Queen!

Written by Allison Gilbert

July 1, 2010 at 9:25 am

A Celestial Summer in the City

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One thing that is always fun for us while we’re planning our Summer in the City concerts, is that we’re able to go a little bit outside of the box with our programming and marketing. It’s our hope that by doing so, we’ll get some people to experience the Symphony who may have never done so before, and also offer up programming that has a fun and relaxing vibe perfect for the summer months. Fresh faces, new concert experiences and a varied audience are what make our July concerts great for everyone!

Think of it as a 3-week span in which you can not only hear famous, well-known classical pieces such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, but also get sprung forward to hear the Star Wars Suite, followed the next weekend by a double whammy – a symphony “rock concert” highlighting a classic band, and a video gamers dream concert (complete with a composer who attends the performance!)

Clarinetist Stanislav Golovin

Coming up next week, Hans Graf will be back in town, wholeheartedly welcoming you to the annual Houston Chronicle Dollar Concert on July 10. For only $1 per ticket, come hear your Orchestra in Jones Hall, as well as Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, performed by Stanislav Golovin, the grand prize winner of the Ima Hogg Competition.

And of course, we’re all excited to bring back two performances of The Planets — An HD Odyssey plus Star Wars on July 16 & 17. Those of you who didn’t make it to the January world premiere event now have the chance to experience this multi-media project before we take it to the U.K. in October.

So the question is: Will you be joining us?