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Singing for YOU, the audience

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As I pondered this entry earlier this week, I was determined to explain why I have done Messiah for 23 straight years, especially due to my original wandering from section to section (Tenor2 to Bass1 to Bass2, back to Tenor2) since my joining the Chorus in 1986. But then I noticed that the other bloggers were focusing on those very same themes … so I am going to take a slightly different tack – YOU, the audience!

Hallelujah! Comfort ye my people! Lift up your heads!

For without you, my friends, neighbors and momentary acquaintances, there would be no Chorus, or wonderful works like Messiah, to enjoy being a part of.

You allow me to be the singer, the ham, the voyeur, the artiste (well some may argue that point). It is your good taste, your desire to be entertained and swept away in the many nuances of Handel’s masterpiece, which inspires great works. With your sparkly holiday frocks (yes, we notice you fabulous dressers) your attempts to introduce your young children and disinterested teens to the joy of music, and your secret desire to sing out the recitatives and “Hallelujah” with your smuggled score in hand, you all add to the excitement of the season.

The people that walked in darkness! Then shall the eyes of the blind be open!

I know my parents always tried to instill in my siblings and me some cultural foundations, and how that would help us in life … bring us into the light … open our eyes. With all the current discussions about what is wrong with our educational systems, you, dear audience, are doing exactly the right things as my parents, even if it sometimes seems it is only for you. Keep trying.

Why do the nations so furiously rage? Let us break these bonds asunder!

So keep up the good work. Revel in the glory of not only Messiah but maybe also Verdi’s Requiem in January, or Scheherazade in April, or even the Pops tribute to Ray Charles in May. After all – you are the ones with good taste!

Amen! Hallelujah!

-Bob Alban, Tenor2

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Written by Houston Symphony

December 17, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Mastering melismas + other joys of the timeless “Messiah”

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This next post comes from William McCallum, who has been a Houston Symphony Chorister for over 12 years!

I have been a member of the Houston Symphony Chorus for over 12 years and this will be my eighth season singing Messiah. During the day I am an internal medicine physician and work predominantly with cancer patients in the Texas Medical Center (I am a member of the staff at both Methodist Hospital and St Luke’s). However, my perspective changes on Tuesday evenings when I arrive for rehearsal with the HSC.

These 3 hours are reserved for time to prepare any number of pieces that will be performed with Houston Symphony. Learning something new is fun and sometimes a great challenge depending on the time allowed for preparation and the difficulty of the piece.  Messiah is a piece that (by now) is very familiar to us as far as the outline of the piece and the notes are concerned; but it is like exercise that you must practice to achieve results. So with preparation for a new season, there is always a bit of anticipation as to how the conductor will conceive the performance of this work and thus make modifications to achieve his/her version of it. It is a work that lends itself, within a framework, to interpretation without losing the intent of the composer, who in regards to this piece did the same thing.

My score is filled with comments and explanations that various conductors have given us over the years. Many are very businesslike, but others are sayings and comments that show some of the conductor’s personality. For instance, at the beginning of For Unto Us A Child Is Born, one conductor started to conduct the chorus by saying “tick tock” and then off we would go. Another, demonstrating the contrasts in the chorus of Since By Man Came Death, referred to it as a Gin and Tonic conversation. It is easily understood when one hears this chorus that it has nothing to do with a drink.

An example of a melisma.

The vocal gymnastics (otherwise known as melismas – stretching one sound over a line of notes) in a chorus like For Unto Us A Child Is Born are difficult to learn, but once mastered are an accomplishment to be savored. For a Bass, certainly one of the highlights has to be when the Bass section begins the final grand “Amen” which brings this most beloved work to its conclusion.

The other joy for me is the appreciation and love for this music that the audience has. This is a piece that for many generations has brought joy not only through the musical beauty, but also family traditions that surrounds attending performances together.

-William McCallum, Bass/Baritone

A conversation between 15 conductors and Händel

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Our next blog entry comes from Catherine Howard, who teaches English at the University of Houston-Downtown.  She was a section leader in the Houston Symphony Chorus for four years.

People think I’m crazy to want to sing a piece over and over.  I’ve been in the Houston Symphony Chorus for 18 years, and this year I’ll perform the Messiah for the 71st time.  (And there are many people in the chorus way ahead of me on that number!)  Why on earth would a person DO that to herself?  It helps that the Messiah is such a complex and varied composition.  I find that I learn—really learn—a piece when given the opportunity to perform it three or four times in a concert series as we do with the Symphony, rather than just a single time. However, I can think of very few pieces that I’d want to sing more than 50 times.  Of course Händel has so many musical ideas—for instance repeated motifs, dotted rhythms to represent flagellation or to set the mood for royalty, gorgeous dramatic representations in the solos, and so on.  It’s difficult to get bored, even in the third or fourth concert in the series.  Even so, 18 years is a lot of years to work on this piece.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that one of the things I enjoy most is getting to know the different conductors and watching them interact with Händel . . .

Catherine's marked-up score

It’s always exciting when a new conductor comes.  Will it be baroque, transparent, light this year?  Or more Romantic, heavy, thoughtful?  Will we get to do “But Thanks”?  What kind of funny stories will we hear?  And what about all those wacky sit-and-stand cues that are different every time?  As the element of surprise quickly fades, old voices from my score take over and begin to interact with the newcomer.  When I started with HSC, I owned a score at home, but the chorus librarian would never let me buy the one I checked out to use every year—the one with all the interesting marks I was beginning to acquire.  So one year I just “took it hostage.”  Later that summer, Tropical Storm Allison flooded the lower levels of Jones Hall, and all Messiah scores were destroyed;  therefore, I have one of the only extant copies of our conductors’ notes going back in the years before that.  You wouldn’t believe how many permutations of rhythms are possible on the first page of “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Tempos can vary widely, too—looking back through my score, I found one fugue with metronome markings of quarter = 162 and quarter = 88 for different years.  But most conductors address more than just the mechanics of the piece.

They discuss technique (“bubbly, effervescent runs”; Nicholas McGegan:  “It’s quite easy in this piece to sound like pirates. ‘Loight’ instead of ‘light.’  And then we’d have to issue parrots . . . “;  Robert King:  “Your words are your bowing arm”), history (both influences/homages, as for example to Palestrina or Monteverdi, and foreshadowing—Will Lacey:  “a minor 9th!  That Schoenberg moment!”), analysis (Bernard Labadie:  “It’s in Ab major—as far as you can get from D major, the 18th-century key of light”;  Lacey:  “Here Händel associates the tri-tone, the ‘devil’s interval,’ with original sin . . .”), mood and tone (Jane Glover:  “That word!  So bleak . . .”;  Jean-Marie Zeitouni:  “bell tones of aggressive-passive contained anger”;  McGegan:  “Think ‘intimate’!”), and even philosophy (Christopher Warren-Green:  “separate ‘god . . . that . . .he.’  Then it is really rhetorical, which is what the baroque is all about”;  Zeitouni:  “Basses, if you are too energetic, it can sound like Santa”).

Who could forget McGegan quoting Pope’s “Essay on Man” in practically the same breath that he warned, “Don’t sing like Margaret Dumont in the old Marx Brothers movies”?  Or Christopher Seaman making us whistle the entire “His Yoke Is Easy”?  Or Glover pointing out Händel’s musical jokes?  Or Zeitouni making Sigmund the Sea Monster motions with his hands during “And the Glory of the Lord”?  Or King telling us to roll the r’s “like a whole choir of cats purring”?  Or Grant Llewellyn deciding at the intermission of the Sunday afternoon performance that we should be arranged in quartets for the evening performance two hours later (which nearly gave the chorus manager a heart attack, as she scrambled to rearrange the seating chart during our “in-between” party)?  Or Lacey imploring us to “Believe in something!” in the long pause between the final two “Amen”s?  Or Harry Bicket frozen in an elegant Christmas ornament pose, left hand up high at the end of a movement—for a full 3 1/2 minutes while a stagehand came out to remove a soprano who’d fainted?

No matter what, I try to keep in mind McGegan’s admonition that “There’s always going to be somebody who’s hearing this piece for the first time.”  The best conductors bring something new to the piece for me.  All of them make me think about what it means, musically.  Händel’s famous reply to the compliment applies here:  “Sire, I have endeavoured not to entertain you—but to make you better.”

So why am I doing this yet again this year?  It doesn’t matter whether I like the conductor or not.  No matter whether my excitement fades because of a ponderous interpretation or I’m uplifted by a sparkling “take,” my score gives me a conversation among fifteen conductors and Händel himself:  a debate and exchange and enactment of what the Messiah means—not just how to get the textual message across musically, but the true musical meaning of the piece.  Perhaps most important of all, though, is that more than for anything else we sing, the Messiah every year is a reminder that a composition is a living, changing thing.  THAT’s why I do this to myself.

—Catherine Howard, Alto II

Written by Houston Symphony

December 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

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.

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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!