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From Spring Riot to Summer Quiet

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Russian composer Igor Stravinsky is arguably the most important composer of the 20th century. Not only were his ideas new, complex and impressive to all who heard them, but his legacy as a musical risk-taker even landed him a spot as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the century.

This weekend in our 2009-10 Classical Season Finale, Maestro Graf leads the Orchestra in one of Stravinsky’s most notorious compositions – The Rite of Spring. Written for the famous company Ballet Russes, The Rite of Spring has a dramatic history connected to its 1913 premiere in Paris – a riot ensued as soon as the music began, halting the performance and cementing the event as one of classical music’s most unforgettable.

Of the event, Philip Glass wrote for TIME Magazine in 1998, “Trouble began with the playing of the first notes, in the ultrahigh register of the bassoon, as the renowned composer Camille Saint-Saens conspicuously walked out, complaining loudly of the misuse of the instrument. Soon other protests became so loud that the dancers could barely hear their cues. Fights broke out in the audience. Thus Modernism arrived in music, its calling card delivered by the 30-year-old Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.”

The theories floating around about the cause of the riot range from the story (pagan sacrifice), the ballet’s choreography (very suggestive), and the music itself (harsh, brutal rhythms, to be exact). Think of it as an early 20th century concert review that went terribly, terribly wrong. Who needs newspapers when you can throw punches? That was the rule of the day, after all.

Also on the program this weekend is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece feared by pianists, but highly respected among orchestras. Both “Rach 3” and The Rite of Spring remain incredibly popular to this day, although they are stylistically completely different.

As Maestro Graf said, The Rite of Spring is “one of the most glorious and powerful staples of every great orchestra’s repertoire.” Pair that with guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s tremendous energy, technique and amazing musicality and you are in for an adventurous evening in music.


Written by Melissa S.

May 19, 2010 at 11:11 am

Classical Music’s Rockstar Invests in the Future

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When you first see him walk on stage, there’s no question that this music superstar has a flair for the flashy – right down to his footwear (custom ADIDAS sneakers, to be exact). Pianist Lang Lang commands respect wherever he goes, not only because of the magic that comes through his fingertips, but because of what he means for his generation.

At 27, he has become a bridge between old and new generations of classical music fans, and through his art and philanthropy, has truly made a difference in the lives of millions of people. The Chinese piano prodigy is a prime example of what can happen when a child is exposed to music at an early age, and then has the opportunity to explore and develop that interest.

When Lang Lang was just 3 years old, he began playing piano in his hometown of Shenyang, a city in northeastern China. By age 5, he had won his first piano competition; at 9, he started studying at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music; and by 17, was a star.

His international popularity was further cemented when he appeared during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. He has single-handedly been credited with inspiring over 40 million Chinese children to take piano lessons – a phenomenon The Today Show labeled the “Lang Lang Effect.”

Because of that success, Lang Lang has dedicated himself to a philanthropic cause very dear to his heart – one that provides musical opportunities for children who may have never otherwise had them.

The Lang Lang International Music Foundation, Inc, has enabled the pianist to “support cutting-edge philanthropy programs using music education, exposure, and outreach to deliver messages of hope and inspiration to children around the world,” according to the organization’s website.

Exposing children to music is also one of our main focuses here at the Houston Symphony. Whether it be our Symphony Detective Concerts, Explorer Concerts, inviting student musicians to perform in-hall or even going out into the community during the summer Sounds Like Fun! series, we are always trying to reiterate that Music Matters! (which, by the way, is also the name of our outreach program).

It is through these programs, that we, just like Lang Lang, are able to provide an experience for Houston-area youngsters that will leave a lasting impression – and hopefully help them unlock a hidden passion for music.

Join us this Wednesday for a one-night-only Symphony Special concert featuring the rockstar himself, Lang Lang, and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra – made up of the world’s finest musicians under age 27. With former Houston Symphony Music Director Christoph Eschenbach on the podium, hear for yourself why Music Matters!

Written by Melissa S.

April 6, 2010 at 10:15 am

Two Brothers on a Mission

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Composer and pianist George Gershwin has left his trademark on both classical and popular genres of American music.  But for most of his theatrical works – which include more than a dozen Broadway shows – he had the help of his older brother Ira.  Their partnership will forever be remembered through the great songs they wrote together.  Songs that have touched the minds and hearts of Americans for many decades.

Ira Gershwin was the first lyricist to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the Broadway show, Of Thee I Sing.  His partnership with George also produced several timeless tunes and shows like Lady, Be Good! (1924), and Girl Crazy (1930).  They even co-authored an opera – Porgy and Bess – to which almost anybody can hum the tunes from “Summertime” or “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

If you haven’t done so yet, you should probably hurry and give a listen to some of the dynamic duo’s songs performed by the greats of the golden age of Jazz like Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Foggy Day,” or Billie Holiday’s husky interpretation of “Summertime.”

You’ve surely also heard Harry Connick Jr.’s “Love Is Here to Stay” from the soundtrack of the classic When Harry Met Sally, or Frank Sinatra renditions of the brothers’ songs. Either way, pour yourself a glass of red wine, light the fireplace (even if you have to turn the AC on, since we are in Houston after all), and enjoy the great music these two talented brothers have left us. You won’t be sorry you did.

Written by cevicente

March 23, 2010 at 10:30 am

Shostakovich: The Soviet Era’s Greatest Composer

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Composer Dmitri Shostakovich

As we wrote about a few weeks ago, one of the most interesting aspects of music history is hearing stories of beauty created through chaos. Hannu Lintu brought Sibelius’ Patriotic Second Symphony the energy it commanded this past weekend, and our first classical concert of April will tap into another historical struggle – the people of the Soviet Union and the restraints put upon them by Joseph Stalin’s regime.

Although he’s considered the greatest composer from the Soviet Era, Dmitri Shostakovich’s history was a rocky one. Very popular in the 1930s, the composer was suddenly condemned by his fellow countrymen and labeled as an “Enemy of the State” for writing music deemed dangerous. He composed his Fifth Symphony, in essence, to get back into the “good graces” of the Soviet government. The subtitle of the symphony — “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism” — spoke to the government and gained him his popularity again.

In reality, the work had subtexts of criticism, even if the Soviets were oblivious to it. Shostakovich even said of the Symphony years later, “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth Symphony. You’ve got to be a complete oaf not to hear it … The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’ You get up, stunned, saying, ‘My business is rejoicing, my business is rejoicing …’ ”

Had Shostakovich not lived with the struggles he did, we would not have this wonderful work. Can you imagine a world in which beauty was created only on the surface? …

Written by Melissa S.

March 23, 2010 at 10:25 am

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Rockin’ and a rollin’ with The Beach Boys

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It’s hard to find someone today who doesn’t know The Beach Boys. And even if you think you don’t know their music, as soon as you hear the first harmonies from “California Girl,” “Kokomo,” or “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” you realize you do. The Boys have cemented themselves as one of the most popular groups ever, and their music has stood the test of time for almost 50 years. As a 24-year-old marketing girl, you’d think those sun-soaked songs wouldn’t have an impact on me, but I may very well be one of the most excited staff members about their upcoming concert on March 19 – I even signed up for concert duty just so I could attend!

See, the first concert I ever went to was The Beach Boys. I was a wee little girl of 7, and had just moved to Chicago with my mom and new Stepfather. That concert was the first thing we really did together with our newly-formed family, and even though I had never heard of The Beach Boys up to that point, I learned a lot about the “golden oldies” from listening to the radio incessantly with the parentals (anyone from Chicago remember 104.3?) I absolutely loved the concert (at 7 you can imagine I was still quite impressionable), and it became one of my fondest memories.  But there’s also that other way that Mike Love and the gang made their way into my life …

As a young girl growing up in the early 90s, I (of course) was a fan of the TV show Full House, and you *know* The Beach Boys were known to make an appearance on the show from time to time. Remember the one where Uncle Jesse gets to sing with them?  Not to mention all of the times the Tanners would break out into an old Beach Boys song! (Side note: Actor John Stamos, who played Uncle Jesse on the show, actually did record and perform with the Beach Boys and even appeared in the music video for Kokomo!)

I don’t need to get all sentimental and tell you how those songs instantly bring a smile to my face and remind me of a childhood filled with great music, but the Boys and family do go hand-in-hand for me. Which makes me kind of curious – is there a musical group, or an old movie, or even a place out there somewhere that does the same for you?

Next week, I’ll be bobbing along to “Barbara Ann” and thinking about my step-family, Sweet Home Chicago and how lucky I am to be a part of an organization that’s responsible for having such a musical impact on its patrons. I hope you’ll be in the audience enjoying the concert, as well, making your own memories to last a lifetime.

Written by Melissa S.

March 9, 2010 at 9:19 am

Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 — beauty created amid chaos

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It was 1902 when Finnish composer Jean Sibelius finished his Symphony No. 2 – right at a time when his country was struggling with Russian oppression through extreme sanctions on the Finnish language and culture. While Finland fought for its independence as best it could, Sibelius’ composition became the unofficial light at the end of the tunnel – the voice of Finnish nationalism – and gave a renewed hope to the Finnish people, a perfect example of beauty created in the midst of chaos.

Art grows from the depths of the soul, and many of the greatest creations in history came to pass as a result of the artist’s emotional state and experiences. Just as German artist Käthe Kollwitz was deeply inspired by the atrocities she witnessed during Nazi-controlled Germany, and Beethoven’s love/hate relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte resulted in his Eroica Symphony, Sibelius, too, was influenced by the extreme oppression he lived in.

Regarded as one of his most popular works, the Slavic gloom present in many of Sibelius’ previous works is replaced with a “Mediterranean light” in Symphony No. 2. It was not only influenced by the optimism Finland tried to hold on to, but also by the Italian costal village where Sibelius was vacationing when he composed the piece.

Of the work, Finnish conductor and highly-acclaimed interpreter of Sibelius, Osmo Vänskä, explained its significance.

“The second symphony is connected with our nation’s fight for independence, but it is also about the struggle, crisis and turning-point in the life of an individual,” Vänskä said. “This is what makes it so touching.”

Hear this beautiful Symphony next weekend, with Hannu Lintu guest conducting his fellow countryman’s piece, along with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, featuring German cellist Alban Gerhardt.

Written by Houston Symphony

March 8, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Classical Music’s Greatest Love Stories

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Robert and Clara Schumann (circa 1847)

In honor of Valentine’s Day this weekend, we wanted to delve into something a little different – the love stories behind some of classical music’s greatest names. Whether it was Beethoven and his “Immortal Beloved,” or Robert and Clara Schumann, it goes without saying that some of the most beautiful pieces ever written came to pass because of a heart in love.

Ludwig van Beethoven may very well be the most well-known when it comes to unrequited love. In 1812 while he recovered from illness in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz, Beethoven wrote three letters to his “Immortal Beloved”—an unnamed woman who’s identity is still secret to this day. Filled with passion, it is from these letters that the famous signature “ever thine, ever mine, ever ours” came. The letters were found only after his death, and are worth a read if you haven’t seen them already. A few years earlier, in 1800, Beethoven met and fell in love with Giulietta Guicciardi. He went on to dedicate his famous Moonlight Sonata to her, and although they planned to marry, were not able to because Giulietta’s father didn’t approve. She went on to marry, but Beethoven never did.

One of the most influential composers of the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi, met Margherita Barezzi when her father, Antonio, chose him to be her music teacher. They fell deeply in love, married in 1836, and had two children, both of whom died as infants. Margherita passed soon thereafter, while Verdi was composing his second opera, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day). Already completely devastated at the loss of his family, when the opera failed, Verdi vowed to give up classical composition forever. Thankfully for us, he didn’t, because it wasn’t until 1850 that he composed one of his most masterpieces, Rigoletto.

Perhaps one of the loveliest stories is that of Robert and Clara Schumann. They first fell in love in 1836, but didn’t marry until 1840 because of her father’s adamant refusal. Schumann is said to have courted Clara through letters and secret rendezvous, even taking the chance to see her for only a few minutes after some of her piano concerts. The year they finally tied the knot, Robert wrote 168 songs, which is attributed to his marital bliss. When Robert died in 1856, Clara dedicated the rest of her days to performing his music and keeping his memory alive. There’s even a 1983 German Film called Frühlingssinfonie that portrayed their romance, as well as Twin Spirits—a special look into their story through words and music at the Royal Opera House.

The love felt through the pieces these men composed is a love that often comes from an untold story. We don’t know all of the meanings behind their work, but hope you’ll feel the music a bit more deeply the next time you hear it at the Houston Symphony.

Note: This blog posting was redirected from our SymphonE-News, a bi-weekly electronic newsletter from the Houston Symphony. To sign up for SymphonE-News, click here!

Written by Melissa S.

February 11, 2010 at 1:51 pm