Classical Music Round-Up: January through March 2016

I’ve been on blogging hiatus for almost two months.  Here’s the low-down.

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (photo via)

It was announced that Gianandrea Noseda will take over the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra next season, while Jaap van Zweden will join the New York Philharmonic at the podium.  Two more white men in charge of major American orchestras?  No big surprise there, but Marin Alsop might have something to say.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be the City of Birmingham Symphony’s new leading lady, at only 29 years old.  *applause*  And another young conductor on the rise: 25-year-old Jordan de Souza will be heading up Komische Oper Berlin.

We lost some greats in recent months: business mogul turned self-taught conductor Gilbert Kaplan; pioneering composer Pierre Boulez; Pulitzer-winning composers Leslie Bassett and Steven Stucky; Dallas Symphony leader Louis Lane; conducting pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller; and — just today — maestro Nikolas Harnoncourt.

Now some feel-good stories: a Berlin horn player reflects on collaborating with Simon Rattle before the conductor relocates to London; Tafelmusik’s rendition of Beethoven 9 left one Toronto critic with nothing to criticize; bassist Jane Little just became the longest-serving orchestral musician ever, after 71 years with the Atlanta Symphony; and Ennio Morricone just won his first Oscar after working on the scores for over 500 films.

Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord recital was interrupted by Baroque-head “rioters,” while scholars have discovered that the taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris might be pitched in the wrong key, and the Yale School of Music launched its first ever MOOC on Coursera.

As 2016 got off to an alarming start (Donald Trump, anyone?), diverse voices shone — from a powerful performance in a Harlem crypt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter; to violinist Rosemary Johnson and the UK’s Paramusical Ensemble making music through disability; to Julia Wolfe’s big-deal commission — a piece about American women in the workforce — for the New York Philharmonic’s 2018-19 season; to composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ open sexuality.

In U.S. politics, WQXR explored classical music on the campaign trail, while Bernie is, apparently, a gifted maestro.  And in the classical crime beat, an opera singer’s “screams” alerted Amsterdam police, a former St. Paul cellist was caught in a massive drug bust, and a rare French horn stolen six years ago was reunited with its owner.

In Iran, the women of the Tehran Symphony face oppression.  In Germany, an emergency refugee camp is filled with the music of a children’s choir.

Gustavo Dudamel led the Youth Orchestra L.A. at Superbowl halftime.  Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian shares the woes of her name.  The Telegraph had a really interesting conversation with Renée Fleming, Anne Midgette profiled musicians who take time off from performing, and drama continues to unfold in the Buffalo Philharmonic oboe section.

A new Mozart opera was discovered and performed, while for the rest of the opera world, it’s same-old, same-old.

And finally, to end this round-up with a smile: watch a Bach duet played by a 90-year-old husband and wife.

Meet a Young Professional: Zac Hammond of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra

Zac Hammond, Principal Oboe of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Zac Hammond.)
Zac Hammond, Principal Oboe of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Robin P. Gould/courtesy of Zac Hammond.)

While still in his senior year of college, oboist Zac Hammond was already a professional, serving as Acting Principal Oboe of the Syracuse Symphoria.  Now the principal oboist of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Hammond was kind enough to talk with Classical Conditioning about his experiences as a young orchestral professional, advice for young people embarking on professional auditions, and what young musicians can contribute to the changes facing the classical music world.

CC: Tell us about yourself!

ZH: I  grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and began playing the oboe when I was in fifth grade with my elementary school’s music program.  I began lessons with a local musician when I was in seventh grade, but I didn’t really become serious about it until around my sophomore year of high school, when I began studying with Robert Morgan, the solo English horn and assistant principal oboist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  After high school, I did my undergrad at the Eastman School of Music, studying under Richard Killmer.  I also studied Baroque oboe with Geoffrey Burgess and was a part of Eastman’s Arts Leadership Program.

I was very lucky during my senior year at Eastman to be asked to play Acting Principal Oboe with Symphoria (formerly the Syracuse Symphony).  I was also a regular substitute with the Rochester Philharmonic and a few other groups in upstate New York.  I was later offered an official contract with Symphoria and decided after I was done at Eastman that I would remain in upstate New York and continue playing with them.  However, I also decided to begin taking more professional orchestra auditions, and I actually ended up winning the Principal Oboe spot with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra last fall.  So, in January of 2015 I moved to South Carolina to begin my new job in Charleston, and I have been there ever since.

Some notable performances for me include playing part of the Corigliano Oboe Concerto at the Banff Centre in Canada while John Corigliano was in the audience.  Also, in high school I played a side-by-side concert with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in Chicago with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.  And there are probably so many more that I am not thinking of right now.

Fun facts: I have an intense love for pickles (and I love that fried pickles are really common in Charleston), and I played football (center, specifically) for many years growing up and into high school.

CC: How, if at all, has being a young professional affected your experience in the orchestra?

ZH: Being one of the youngest members of the professional groups that I play with has actually proven to be a pretty positive thing most of the time.  I think with orchestras so eager to find ways to attract younger audiences, they are generally very receptive to working with younger musicians.  Of course, being young and new in a group with musicians who have been playing together for decades requires you to be aware of the traditions and personalities of the specific members of the group.  I find that a huge part of my job is related to getting along with people.

CC: There’s a lot of dialogue in the classical music world about making the genre accessible to younger audiences.  What do you think young professionals can contribute to this dialogue?

ZH: I think young classical musicians are pretty crucial when it comes to increasing the accessibility of classical music.  Because music is so easily accessed now via things like YouTube and Spotify, we need to start to shift the way that people listen to and experience classical music.  It is our job to remind people that the music industry is drastically changing and we need to make sure that classical music changes with it and doesn’t remain stuck in the past.  We also can help to make sure that the classical concert experience adapts to the times.  I think the idea of getting dressed up and going to the symphony on a Saturday night to listen to a traditional program of classical music is quickly becoming outdated.  Young musicians can help to push administrations to tailor classical music to things that actually appeal to younger audiences (current artists, mixing genres, allowing drinking/socializing/dancing, etc.).

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Warning: what follows is an extremely long, pointlessly detailed narrative about my first orchestral audition

I took my first professional audition back in the first week of May, in a small Ontario city about three hours out from my future home of Montreal.  I found out about the vacancy through Orchestras Canada‘s online woodwind job board, which I had begun periodically browsing ever since deciding to attend grad school in the Great White North.  The audition was only a three-hour drive from Rochester; it seemed worth the expense to rent a car, book a hotel for a night, and just give it a go.  If by some miracle I won the job — or, perhaps, made it onto the substitute list — then that would have been awesome.  If not, the trip would still have been worthwhile: I’d have had my first pro audition experience, gone through the process of preparing the rep, and would know what to expect the second time around.  And the third time.  And the fourth… John Ferrillo, longtime principal oboist in the Boston Symphony, took twenty-some-odd auditions before landing his first big job at the Met.  I have a ways to go.

Not comfortable making a big drive by myself, I roped a Canadian friend into tagging along.  It was finals week at school, so it was hard to find someone with a wide-open schedule who could spare some time to overnight in Ontario with me, and I’m really grateful that he came with.  Besides his invaluable help with GPS navigation (I 100% definitely would have gotten lost without him), it was really nice to have a familiar face cheering me on.

We arrived the night before the audition — later than I’d hoped to get there, thanks to a highway detour, but early enough for some panicked reed-scraping followed by a respectable seven hours of sleep.  The next morning, I woke up bright and early, donned the dress I’d worn throughout the grad school audition circuit, and noodled on my oboe — long tones, some scales, and three-in-a-rows (which is a warm-up I may have sort of made up, in which I play a short orchestral excerpt three times in a row from memory, just to get my brain and fingers oriented).  It being eight in the morning at a hotel, I didn’t want to disturb people in the neighboring rooms, so I kept my warm-up short and simple, then packed up my oboe and headed to the audition well before I had to be there.  Better early than late!

Most auditions are organized in groups, something I’m grateful to have experienced early on through semi-annual mock auditions at school.  Candidates are assigned to Group A, Group B, etc., the size and number of groups varying depending on the number of candidates auditioning.  This audition was a small one — only fourteen — so we were split between just two groups.  The week prior, we had all received an email detailing the schedule: Group A would convene at 9:30 and draw numbers that would determine the order in which they would audition; at 11:30, while the panel deliberated which members of Group A would advance to the next round (there would be three total rounds), Group B would meet and draw their numbers.  I was in Group B.

The campus where auditions were held.
The campus where auditions were held.

The audition was held in the music building of a college campus.  Though American schools were still in the throes of final exams, Canadian universities were out for the summer, which meant that there were open practice rooms aplenty.  I signed in with the personnel manager, who also happened to be the orchestra’s clarinetist, and she handed me a folder containing the day’s schedule, the list of repertoire, a campus map (featuring food locations — very important), and some brochures about the orchestra and the town.  Then I snagged an empty practice room, metronome-d my way through some Tombeau and Don Juan, ate a Clif Bar (white chocolate macadamia), checked Facebook, ran Mozart, thumbed through the brochures, played Tombeau again three-in-a-row (it is by far my weakest excerpt), then packed up my oboe and went for a walk around the campus.  I had gotten there way too early; if I had practiced for any longer, one of two things would almost definitely have happened: my chops would’ve become too exhausted to get through the audition; or my brain would have exploded.  Hence, the walk.

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Suggested Listening Special Edition: 5 awesome Italian oboe works you’ve probably never heard of

I’M GOING TO ITALY!!!  WOOHOO!!!  For the next three weeks I’ll be in Siena playing chamber music and speaking Italian, and I am absurdly excited.  This will be my last post for a month, then, so for this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC I thought I’d leave you all with some of my favorite random Italian oboe music!  I’ve chosen five pieces that are short and sweet and totally accessible for the Skeptic, but also kind of obscure.  Unless you frequent oboe recitals (and, let’s be real — who does?), I bet these will be new to you.  I hope you enjoy them!  Arrivederci!

  1. Cimarosa: Oboe Concerto in C Major 
    Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) was an opera composer — he wrote over eighty, the most famous being Il Matrimonio Segreto — and his operatic style is clear in this concerto.  It’s quirky and jaunty and very lyrical, with sudden stylistic changes swinging from a comfortable larghetto to a showy allegro to a mournful sicilana to a perky allegro giusto.  The video above is on the older side, from a 1959 recording of oboist André Lardrot with the Chamber Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera.  The sound is a bit different from what modern oboists strive for, but it’s gorgeous nonetheless, capturing all the operatic energy of Cimarosa’s weird little masterpiece.  Continue reading

William Bennett (1956-2013)

Just a brief note that Bill Bennett, the long-time principal oboist in the San Francisco Symphony, passed away earlier today.  A cancer survivor, he suffered a brain hemorrhage onstage while performing Strauss’ Oboe Concerto this past Saturday.

The Symphony’s official statement can be read here.

This is a great loss for the oboe world, the music world, and the whole world.  Though I never knew Mr. Bennett personally, he has been a student, teacher, and mentor to several of my own friends, colleagues, and teachers.  He was a kind person and spectacular musician.  His artistry absolutely sparkled in the orchestra, and his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony remains one of those few moments that truly inspire me as an oboist.

I am so humbled to belong to the community of oboists and orchestral musicians whose outpouring of kindness and condolences reminds me why I love what I do.  The music world is so small and so close-knit, each of its members only six degrees separated from the next — such that the loss of one deeply affects all of us.

RIP William Bennett.

Suggested Listening: “Fantasie” by Bohuslav Martinů

This week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC (a few days late — sorry about that) introduces us to a pretty obscure piece.  This is the Fantasie for theremin, string quartet, oboe, and piano, composed by Bohuslav Martinů and performed below by Carolina Eyck, theremin (Germany); the Keller Quartet (Hungary); Heinz Holliger, oboe (Switzerland); and Robert Kolinsky, piano (Switzerland).

About the Composer:

Born in Polička, Bohemia, Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) is one of the most celebrated Czech composers, right alongside Dvořak and Janáček.  He also happens to be my favorite composer (perhaps tied with Shostakovich).  As a result, this post will be a bit long — I love this guy and have a lot to say about him.

The life story of Bohuslav Martinů is super interesting.  His father was the town watchman, in charge of ringing the church bells to spread news, so the whole Martinů family lived in the bell tower — a fact which likely influenced Martinů’s music.  At a young age, little Bohus was noted to be awkward and aloof; though the diagnosis didn’t exist during his lifetime, scholars and friends of the composer have posthumously speculated that he had Asperger’s syndrome.  He was accepted as a violin student into the Prague Conservatory at age 16 but couldn’t adhere to the rigid schedule of the curriculum (possibly because of his alleged Asperger’s) and soon flunked out.  After that, he played and freelanced in several orchestras — including the illustrious Czech Philharmonic — all the while teaching himself composition.  After WWI, Martinů went to study composition in Paris, where his music absorbed French jazz influence.  He maintained his connections to his homeland, however — this got him blacklisted when the German armies rolled into France as WWII broke out.

Here is where the classical music geek will get really excited.  In 1941, Martinů fled to America and became inextricably woven into American orchestral history.  He taught at Tanglewood in 1942 alongside Copland (who spent that summer putting the finishing touches on his Rodeo ballet) and Koussevitzky (whose conducting students that summer included Bernstein and Fennell).  At Tanglewood, Martinů’s composition students included Alan Hovhaness and H. Owen Reed.  Many of Martinů’s works were premiered, commissioned, or championed by the great American orchestras, especially the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky.  (See?  Summer festivals do help with networking!)  Martinů’s music combines folk, jazz, and neoclassical elements from his three “homes” — Czechoslovakia, France, the U.S. — and is breathtakingly strange and unquestionably beautiful.  Continue reading