Monday, October 15, 2012

Hartt Philharmonia celebrates Stephen Gryc (and Bartok, too)

With the birth of Sinfonia earlier this month, I suppose that means Philharmonia is off to a grand start as well, if only in name. (The Hartt Symphony Orchestra's acronym was, for me, just too close to another fine orchestra in town.)

On Sunday, we played Stephen Michael Gryc's Evensong with New York Philharmonic's principal trumpet, Phil Smith, and then the Gryc Violin Concerto, written for (and played by) Leonid Sigal, who brought a breadth to the work that we had not reached in our premiere performances in May 2011 with the Hartford Symphony.
On Saturday, we did Steve's Fantasy Variations, formerly for oboe and string quartet; in this version for soprano saxophone and string orchestra, Carrie Koffman was the soloist, and she was amazing, as always. On both nights, Glen Adsit conducted the premiere of Steve's Concerto for Wind Ensemble, a brilliant and welcome addition to the wind ensemble repertoire. (Both of my seatmates, non-musicians, absolutely loved it.)

But I wish to devote most of this post to a piece Mr. Gryc wanted on the program, side-by-side with his music, written by a composer who has meant a great deal to him as a composer, teacher and musician. These concerts were to be Steve's retirement party, and when a celebrated composer asks you to do something, you have to do it. Because of the work's healthy and considerable demands, I wouldn't normally start a school year with it. But for Professor Gryc, nothing else would do. And who was I to object? I love the piece. It's just that it's . . . . well . . . . it's really, really hard. And when you are preparing three other new works on the same program -- each with its own demands --you want to make sure that every piece gets the attention it needs.

We are speaking now of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.

My concern was confirmed when our dress rehearsal did not go as well as one would hope. The only things that really differentiate a dress rehearsal from a performance are (1) we're not dressed for the performance (the phrase is more apt for stage performers), and (2) there's no audience, and thus we are not quite as nervous, or, shall I say, as excited. Otherwise, everything should sound 'performance ready.'

But it didn't, and we weren't. I spent a great deal of rehearsal time just trying to get a good start on the finale. To be honest, my tempo -- on the fast side -- didn't help the violins, and the most minute difference in speed can mean the difference between success and failure. Once we got a handle on the opening, I went back to the first four movements, which were in fine shape, except for the fourth movement Intermezzo, which was somewhat shaky. For this, I had to take my share of the blame as well, because I'd left it alone for a couple of weeks, believing it to be performance ready (gulp). When we revisited it on the dress rehearsal, it felt like a new piece.

So, with five minutes left, I told the members of the orchestra that I would not schedule a warmup on the day of the concert, as had been my practice in previous years when we were not quite ready. Instead, I asked that they take a few seconds to look at their individual parts, and check the spots they might look at again, what passages they might practice a few more times, or that needed more attention. I thanked them for all of their hard work on the music by Steve Gryc, that perhaps our desire to do right by his music might have been at the expense of Mr. Bartok -- a very worthy cause indeed. (The players's pleasure in working on Gryc's music was evident throughout the rehearsal period.) Lastly, I conveyed my trust in their ability to be ready for the performance two nights later.

- - - - - - - - - - -

There is a moment in sports when the momentum shifts, or when a significant change has taken hold. For a golfer, it might be a long par-saving putt. For a football team, an interception can be a game changer. In our performance of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, there was a game changer.

The low strings began beautifully, with great tone, pushing and pulling, just as Bartok asks. The violas joined ever so quietly, underpinning the solo flute, and the three trumpets -- all fine. Everything was in place.

And then the violins came in.

I had given a lot of thought as to how I would bring them in, with much less preparation as I had done in rehearsals. To be blunt, I wanted to surprise them, without surprising them. (I know, that makes no sense, but if you know the music, then you know what I mean.) Well, I cannot recall ever having seen 36 violinists play as one. It was this big WHOOOOSH, and we were off. The intensity was overwhelming, and the entire orchestra picked up on it. It was, for us, the interception, the game changer. It was a basketball shot from half court that was nothing but net. Just thinking about it now gives me the chills. It was absolute musical magic.

Since Saturday night, audience members have been coming up to me, writing to me, expressing their enormous delight in the performance.

One person wrote, "I was following the score, so I know how extremely difficult the Bartok Concerto is to play. Your student musicians were fully up to the challenge. They are talented, certainly, but . . . . I can't imagine the work coming off better even with a professional orchestra."

Thank you, Steve, for asking us to play Bartok.

And thank you, VIOLINS, for those first four notes, played so passionately, so elegantly, so fervently, so perfectly together. It was an aural and visual delight, setting the table for what would be a riveting performance.

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