Inside the Houston Symphony

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Home sweet home …

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Dear Dan Rather,

Thank you so much for coming to our concert last Thursday, and for tweeting praises about it!  Twice!  So glad you enjoyed the performance.  You are always welcome, please come again!



To everyone else who came, THANK YOU SO MUCH, too!!!  Our Carnegie concert was such a success because of you!


Friday, we all flew down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, exchanging freezing sidewalks for balmy beaches!  Our first concert on Saturday evening was at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.  There was a very large turnout, the audience was incredibly sincere and not without sense of humor.  There was hearty chuckling before the movement Saturn (Bringer of Old Age), and Uranus (well, how do you say it?).

Our final concert was Sunday evening at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.  Again, incredible turnout, even larger than WPB.  Very enthusiastic audience.  More chuckling before those two movements.  (Isn’t it said that we all revert back to our childhood as we age?)

Overall, both Florida performances were huge hits.  Our entire tour was a huge success!  Going on tour, wherever it may be, is so critical for the health of a major symphony orchestra.  To be able to share and spread our art and love of music increases our fan base, and garners more international support.  Touring is beneficial for the Houston Symphony, and also for a thriving, expanding, globalizing, prospering city such as Houston.  Not only do we represent ourselves, we also represent the city in which we are located.  I hope we may continue to tour more, as we have done in the past, in the future.

Many thanks and shout-outs to people, without whom this tour would be impossible.  Thanks to everyone on the Houston Symphony Board and Administrative Staff for organizing and arranging everything.  Thanks to HS management for taking such good care of us on the road (thanks Steve for letting me use your laptop!).  Big, big, thanks to the HS stage crew (Donald Ray!!!  Kelly!!!  Cory!!!) for being so awesome and magically switching the stage at least three times a night.  Finally, big thanks to Mario of Mario’s Catalina Restaurant for serving the best Cuban food… and Mojitos…

Now — home sweet home!  I’m going to relax and watch one of my favorite movies, Tampopo.


Written by kiju

February 4, 2010 at 11:25 am

The importance of great classical music halls

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A view to the top of Carnegie Hall

This past Thursday evening, I performed at Carnegie Hall for the first time.  What a life-changing experience!  There was such incredible energy amongst the musicians, the crew and staff, and (walking through the front lobby before the concert) the audience.  I was thrilled to step onto the stage and look out to a packed house, and I was thrilled to see this packed house jump to their feet at the conclusion of our performance.  Their enthusiasm was overwhelming, and I was so proud to be a member of the wonderful Houston Symphony, whose hard work and effort was most deserving of this positive reaction.

There is a reason why it is such an honor to be presented by Carnegie Hall – it is one of the greatest concert venues in the world.  The acoustics were absolutely incredible.  A colleague of mine in the symphony told me the moment she stepped onto the stage and heard the clicking of her shoes reverberate throughout the hall, she knew right away how amazing it was.  The acoustics were completely different from anything we experience in Houston.  It was so easy to hear myself play, and it was so easy for me to hear all of my colleagues play, which made it so easy for all of us to play together.  The easier it was to play together, the better connected we felt with one another, thus creating a more unified, musical experience. 

It is such a powerful feeling to create beautiful music.  It is even more profound to share this beautiful music with our audiences.  I want people who come to our concerts to have an enriched, *meaning-filled* experience.  I would like them to walk away from a concert feeling… just feeling… anything.  Whether it is a feeling of satisfaction, intensity, or curiosity, or whether they learned something or were inspired, I just want them to be affected.  Playing in an acoustically sound hall impacts everyone, it benefits everyone, and I feel we achieved this during our performance.

The Vienna Musikverein is considered one of the greatest music halls in the world--said to have "Golden Sound in the Golden Hall."

I hope that more people realize the importance of having a great classical music hall, especially in cities they truly care about.  To be able to have access to emotional, powerful, beautiful music is artistically, culturally, and humanistically beneficial for communities.  As cliché as it sounds, I firmly believe that music is a unifying force that brings people together, and for me that is the ultimate goal.

Getting off my soapbox, and into bed for a good night’s rest.  One last concert tomorrow evening, our final evening in Florida.  Stay tuned for exciting stories about the Florida leg of our tour in my next post!

Fun facts:

Dan Rather, native Houstonian, was spotted at our concert!!!

Can you imagine that in 1960, Carnegie Hall was almost demolished to be replaced by an office tower???  Thank goodness for Isaac Stern.

Written by kiju

January 31, 2010 at 11:17 am

Downtime between concert times–what do we do now?

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Principal Harpist Paula Page warms up ahead of Saturday evening's performance at the Kravis Center.

From a wind-chill in the teens in New York yesterday morning to the sunny shores of Ft. Lauderdale yesterday afternoon, the Houston Symphony has finally made its way back to more reasonable weather! Our time in New York—and especially our concert at Carnegie Hall—was phenomenal, but there’s only so much cold weather we Houstonians can take!

Orchestras on tour are very interesting organisms. Every musician and staff member has his or her own way of dealing with life on the road. I’m sure you and your family have taken family vacations, and have witnessed firsthand how differently every family member handles the stress of cars, flights, hotels, etc. Now multiply that by the more than one hundred of us currently on the road, and add to that the stress of playing three concerts in three separate venues over four days, more than 3,500 miles in the air, two different hotels, and countless bus rides, and you’ll have some idea of the craziness a life on the road entails.

While we’re all focusing on the task at hand—namely, playing our final two concerts this weekend here in Florida—we all have our own, unique ways of spending our downtime.  Some of us practice or study for upcoming concerts or recitals (while still keeping this week’s music in our heads and fingers – no easy task); from my personal experience, holing myself up in my hotel room with none of the usual distractions that home affords is one of the best ways I know to ensure that I get good work done!  Some take advantage of the time away to simply relax and recharge before heading back home to the full-time grindstone.  Some of us visited old friends while in New York, and some are doing the same here in Florida.  As Kiju pointed out in a previous entry, some of us take advantage of the great restaurants each city has.

The amazing thing is that no matter how we all choose to spend our downtime during the day, we refocus and come together each night to give the finest performance we can for each audience in each city we visit.  Orchestras bear their cities’ names, and we couldn’t be prouder to represent the city of Houston up and down the East Coast this week!

Written by bwmconductor

January 30, 2010 at 5:47 pm

A plane ride to NYC … hardly plain!

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Glenn Taylor, the Symphony’s Senior Director of Marketing, also took the trip up north and sent in photos and his personal take on the experience. Keep an eye out for more posts from Glenn in the future!

Houston Symphony's very own Aurelie, Amanda and Steve enjoying their time backstage at Carnegie Hall.

As I and 50 or so musicians began to board Continental flight 40 Wednesday morning, I wondered what would keep me occupied for the 3 hour trip to Newark airport. I was filled with excitement to be accompanying the orchestra to Carnegie Hall, but the plane ride itself … ehhh. The most I was hoping for was a smooth ride, to catch some zzz’s and get a bit of work done. Well, and that the provided in-flight snack would be yummy in my tummy of course. (Turns out it was a chicken wrap… not bad, Continental!)

Then the real excitement would begin once we got to New York and Carnegie, right? Well, not exactly.

Not that anything bad happened with the flight. It was a nice flight. But something occurred that I didn’t expect … a wonderful connection was made, and I ended up learning more about the behind-the-scenes life of a Symphony musician than I ever have done hanging around backstage at Jones Hall.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Ellie Herrera. Ellie’s a cellist in the orchestra, but we had never met before. Even though I’ve been working with the Symphony for almost 6 years now, it’s not uncommon to still not know everyone in the orchestra. We both looked at each other and said “Are you here with the Houston Symphony tour?” … “Yes.”

Turns out that Ellie’s a substitute cellist, but has been playing with the orchestra for a full season or two now. Her connections to the Houston Symphony go deeper than that though. Her father was a violinist, and had moved their family from England to Houston back in the late 70s to take a job as Co-Concertmaster with the orchestra. (How cool!) You can still hear Ellie’s British accent, albeit a bit hidden now behind her Houston Texas dialect.

Ellie’s mom wasn’t a professional musician per say, but also had ties to music through her love of playing the piano. And she was supportive of her husband’s music career. Ellie told me that the last time her mom went to Carnegie was to hear him perform with the Houston Symphony. Now, her mom has come along again to New York, but this time to hear her daughter perform with the Symphony. (Again … how cool!) That history and legacy with the orchestra and Carnegie is a neat backdrop to the entire experience this week. And imagine all the other similar connections and stories that may exist with every musician in the orchestra.

Back to the plane. After 3 hours of sharing back and forth with Ellie about our respective families, the environment, favorite Houston spots, and other randomness … we realized the flight was almost over. I don’t think I’ve ever spent an entire flight in discussion with the person next to me. I feel privileged that I could get to know one of our amazing musicians on that level. And now we’ve agreed to meet with our respective spouses at a Houston farmer’s market sometime soon. Turns out this cellist goes green. Nice.

The orchestra has just landed in Florida and is now gearing up for their next two performances–Saturday at the Kravis Center and Sunday at the Broward Center. Stay tuned for more updates–including a recap of the concert at Carnegie Hall!

Written by glenn taylor

January 29, 2010 at 2:52 pm

It’s almost showtime!

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After a beautiful, snowy morning here in New York City, the Houston Symphony finally took to the stage of Carnegie Hall this afternoon for a quick rehearsal before tonight’s concert.

Setting up the stage pre-rehearsal

As Assistant Conductor, when I’m not on the podium myself, my job is to do anything and everything musically necessary in rehearsal to support Hans and the orchestra’s work onstage.  One of those jobs is to be an extra pair of ears out in the hall, especially when we’re on the road, playing in a venue other the Jones Hall.  Orchestras get accustomed to playing in their “home hall,” and a different hall—no matter how great it is—takes some adjusting.  Every hall is different, and responds in its own, unique way to the sounds coming from the stage.  Helping to make sure that everything is balanced the way Hans and the orchestra want and are accustomed to takes some serious, in-depth listening, first at home (so you know what you’re listening for), then on the road (comparing it to our “home sound”).

One extra wrinkle in this program is that not only do we have our orchestra onstage, but we also have our women’s chorus offstage to sing at the end of “Neptune” in The Planets.  First and foremost, we have to ensure that they can be heard in the hall and that the aforementioned balance is satisfactory; in order to achieve that, the chorus’s actual physical placement changes from hall to hall.  Because every backstage area is different, finding a place where the chorus can both see and hear everything they need is always a challenge.  Here at Carnegie, the chorus is in a tiny alcove (no bigger than the living room of my Montrose apartment back in Houston) just offstage right.  In more ways than one, our chorus is definitely growing closer on this tour!

View from the Carnegie Hall stage ahead of the orchestra's rehearsal this afternoon.

Sometimes assisting Hans and the orchestra takes a different shape altogether.  After rehearsal proper finished this afternoon, Hans and the cello section stayed to work on an interlude in the Dutilleux work that we’re playing this evening.  There’s also a small celesta part in this interlude, and as our principal keyboardist Scott Holshouser had already left the hall, Hans had me play the part…thus marking my inauspicious onstage Carnegie Hall debut!

Now that we’ve got orchestra and chorus balances adjusted to everyone’s liking and the sound of Carnegie in our ears, we’re ready for tonight’s concert.  Then we start all over again on Saturday for the first of two concerts (in two different venues, no less) in Florida.  Thus the lives of touring orchestras!

Written by bwmconductor

January 28, 2010 at 5:16 pm

How I got to Carnegie Hall

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Violinist Kiju Joh shares a little bit about what she loves most in NYC–the food!

Hey everyone!  I am writing from New York City, where we kick-off The Planets–An HD Odyssey tour.  After an amazing and successful weekend showcasing The Planets program to our local Houston audiences, there is no rest for us yet.  Must, keep, momentum, going!  I am really looking forward to performing in Carnegie Hall on Thursday night (guess all of my practice, practice, practicing paid off?), especially since this will be my very first time doing so.  Going on tour is always an exciting experience – the musical preparation; the scattered trunks, traveling cases, and organized chaos backstage; the anticipation of traveling out-of-town; the allure of the cities to which we travel.

We officially start the tour schedule Thursday afternoon with a sound-check at the hall.  I decided to travel a few days early to NYC since I love coming here to visit family and friends, explore museums and shops, visit the not-so-secret best-kept-secret establishments, ride the subway…

Most of all, I love coming here to EAT.

Of course, pizza is a requisite part of one’s NYC gastronomical experience (I highly recommend the balsamic onion and goat cheese pizza at Otto Pizzeria on 5th Ave. Goat cheese, need I say more?  Also, the Margherita pizza at Ray’s on Prince St. is quite tasty).  Upon arrival to the city on Monday evening, though, I couldn’t help but notice all the ramen restaurants that have taken over lower Manhattan.  Was this my calling?  I felt strangely compelled to make ramen tasting my new epicurean mission (after bacon-y dessert making.  I’ll explain later).  Tuesday, lunch and dinner, was devoted to eating ramen.  All different kinds of ramen at all different kinds of places.  The good, the bad, and the “shi shi”.  It sounds overwhelming, but I did have help splitting bowls and received lots of motivational encouragement (thanks EMP).  Still, at the end of the day, I came to the realization, I had basically just eaten carbs all day.

In my defense, that is what we musicians do.  We eat.  We store up energy.  To me, it is a necessary component of our extremely physical livelihood.  Without sustenance, it would be impossible to move our arms up and down, wiggle our fingers, flail about, stomp our feet, do what is physically necessary to produce the sounds of music and enhance our art.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  (Watch another example of how one artistically utilizes carbs).

How did I get to Carnegie Hall?  I ate my way here.

Next post, my very first Carnegie Hall experience!  Next stop, Florida!

Written by kiju

January 28, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Taking it on the road

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We’d like to introduce you all to Meredith Williams–the first of our Symphony staffer bloggers! Meredith is still considered a newbie (as many of us are by comparison–you wouldn’t believe how many people have been here 10, 20, even 25+ years!), and is the assistant to our general manager. She’s been the go-to gal for everything related to this week’s tour to New York City and Florida, and wanted to share a little bit with you all about the planning that went into it.

Surely everyone in Houston felt the excitement that radiated from Jones Hall this weekend!  It was difficult to not get pumped about the Planets concert series.  I’ve only worked here at the Houston Symphony for 10 months, and I cannot recall a single day when the Operations and Production staff has not discussed or worked on The Planets – An HD Odyssey.  It amazes me that for some members of our staff, this weekend was the culmination of years of dedication and work.  Despite our successful weekend, our department has not quite celebrated – we aren’t done yet.  In case you had not heard, we’re taking it on the road.

As I mentioned, I’ve only been a staff member a short period of time.  In this brief period, I have had two major projects.  The first was to schedule ground transportation for the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela back in April. (Why is that a major project, you ask?  Well, that is a story for another blog…) The second project, and what I have considered my baby for the past seven months, is this tour.

In June I found out that I was to be the “Unofficial Tour Travel Agent and Schedule Coordinator.” Since then, I have booked 150+ flight reservations, over 200 hotel rooms, and 30 buses to accommodate all of the musicians, staff and guests that will be traveling between Houston, New York and Florida.  On the surface, booking travel arrangements is not a huge project, until you realize just how many people and details are involved.  I’ve had many hurdles and obstacles since I landed in the post of unofficial tour travel agent.  There were days (like the day we realized the Pro Bowl is in South Florida the same weekend we are in South Florida) that I wanted to pull out my hair and scream “REALLY?!?” at the top of my lungs.  However, I’m not whining.  In fact, as I sit here in my little cubicle under the stage of Jones Hall, I am quite happy to know that I played a part in helping the Houston Symphony (literally) get to New York and Florida.

The weekend was amazing, but the excitement is not over.  The orchestra officially left this morning to fly to New York and perform on that great stage known as Carnegie Hall.  Then, they’re flying to the sunny shores of Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to play for NASA’s Cape Canaveral neighbors.  I wish I could see it in person, but I know that this tour will be a huge success and will make Houston proud.

You didn’t think we were going to leave you hanging, did you? Violinist Kiju Joh, Assistant Conductor/American Conducting Fellow Brett Mitchell and others are going to be blogging from the tour—so keep an eye out to read the latest updates!

Written by Meredith Williams

January 27, 2010 at 11:41 am