Simone Porter, A Star on the Rise

violinist Simone Porter
violinist Simone Porter

 

To finish the week, here are two pieces of violinistic ear candy, performed by Simone Porter, a 19-year-old rising star. Porter began taking violin lessons through the Suzuki method at the age of 3 and a half, eventually studying with Margaret Pressley in Seattle. She is currently a student of Robert Lipsett at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. Porter, who plays a 1745 J.B. Guadagnini violin on loan, has appeared on NPR’s From the Top with Christopher O’Riley.

Simone Porter has appeared with many of the world’s finest orchestras. This week she is playing the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Here is her performance of Fritz Kreisler’s Caprice viennois, a piece which Kreisler seems to have written as a nostalgic look back at elegant pre-war Vienna. Porter’s playing emphasizes fire and sparkle over sentimentality:

Here is a 2012 Salt Lake City performance of nineteenth century Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate’s Zapateado:

One Orchestra’s Eye Opening TV Ad

Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director Ward Stare is featured in the Eye Openers ad.
Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director Ward Stare is featured in the Eye Openers ad.

Orchestras belong to their communities. Like sports teams, art museums, and theater, they are important components of the cultural and economic fabric of a healthy city. It’s always exciting when an orchestra is able to shed a popularly perceived ivory tower image and engage the community in new and creative ways.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra has found a fun way to do this with a recent lighthearted TV commercial produced by Eye Openers Optical Fashions, a local business specializing in eyeglasses. Eye Openers features local celebrities and organizations in its ads. The RPO’s ad shows a handful of the orchestra’s musicians as well as Music Director Ward Stare and Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik. Eye Openers owner Richard L. Levy tries to sneak to the podium and ends up in the percussion section:

In 1993 the Seattle Symphony got a rare opportunity to venture into the world of TV news. Amid a rebranding effort, Seattle CBS affiliate KIRO used music for its newscasts performed by the Seattle Symphony and written by its Music Director, Gerard Schwarz. Listen to the music for the newscast’s open and close.

Remembering Conductor Jerzy Semkow

Polish-born conductor Jerzy  Semkow (1928-2014)
Jerzy Semkow (1928-2014)

Polish-born conductor Jerzy Semkow passed away last week at the age of 86. A longtime French citizen who resided in Paris, Semkow served as principal conductor of the National Opera in Warsaw (1959-1962), the Royal Danish Opera and Orchestra in Copenhagen (1966 to 1976), and as Music Director of the Orchestra of Radio-Televisione Italiana (RAI) in Rome. Between 1975 and 1979 he was Music Director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Semkow enjoyed long associations as a regular guest conductor with American orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony and the Rochester Philharmonic. His mentors included Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter and Tullio Serafin.

As a teenager, I heard the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra perform numerous times under Jerzy Semkow. His concerts left a powerful and lasting impression. Even after many years, I can still vividly recall the music which was performed on each program. His interpretations of Mahler and Bruckner seemed to come alive with an almost supernatural power. He brought a unique warmth and purity to Mozart. It’s likely that he left a subtle imprint on the sound and musicianship of the orchestra which remained beyond his guest conducting appearances.

Audience members and musicians will remember Jerzy Semkow’s slightly eccentric and aristocratic stage presence. Following the orchestra’s tuning, minutes would often elapse before Semkow appeared onstage, wielding his enormously long baton. During the final applause for a large orchestral work, he would often walk throughout the orchestra, acknowledging each section.

Semkow’s deep and inspiring musical vision became apparent in rehearsals. On one occasion, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra offered a solid first reading of the opening of the final movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony, a hushed passage which requires great control. Semkow called attention to the first note, which he found to be lacking in warmth and buoyancy. Immediately, the sound of the orchestra was transformed and the entire movement took shape.

The Detroit Free Press offers this tribute. Also, read comments by Leonard Slatkin, William Wolfram, Peter Donohoe and others at Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped DiscSubmit your own memories of Jerzy Semkow in the comment thread below.

Highlights from Jerzy Semkow’s Recordings

Schumann’s Third Symphony “Rhenish” performed by the Saint Louis Symphony:

Listen to the second, thirdfourth and fifth movements.

Here is a live 1978 performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with pianist Jorge Bolet and the Cleveland Orchestra:

Listen to the second, third and fourth movements.

A complete recording of Borodin’s opera, Prince Igor with the National Opera Theatre of Sofia:

A young Jerzy Semkow accompanies legendary French violinist Zino Francescatti in Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto:

Listen to the second and third movements.

Merry Mount at Carnegie

Carnegie HallLast Wednesday the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presented an outstanding concert performance of Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount at Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring For Music festival. In a previous post I provided some background on Hanson and the opera, which had not been heard in New York since its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1934.

If you missed the performance and the live radio broadcast, you can listen to it here. Read reviews of the performance here and here. The New York Times review referred to Merry Mount as a “period piece”, but its topic of religious fundamentalism and repression could not be more relevant today.

A Carnegie Hall performance not only showcases the visiting orchestra on an international stage; it also generates community pride at home, as this local news clip shows. With the RPO currently in the middle of a search for a new music director, this seems like an excellent time for the community to take stock of its hometown team. The recording above demonstrates the ensemble’s extraordinary polish and musicianship.

The following notes, which appeared in the program, discuss Merry Mount and Howard Hanson’s connection to Rochester:

“Be as a lion, dread Jehovah, and tear the flesh of unbelievers.”

So begins Merry Mount, the only opera that the American composer Howard Hanson wrote. Full of Puritanical hell-fire and brimstone, the quintessentially American story centers on the conflict between religious fanatics and hedonistic, free-thinking cavaliers, exploring age-old dichotomies between piety and desire, restraint and excess, spiritual and sensual—and exposing the dire consequences of repression.

No other composer would have been as fitting a choice as Howard Hanson for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Spring for Music program, for no other figure has shaped the city’s musical climate so profoundly. The Nebraska native came to Rochester in 1924 to be the director at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. During his 40-year reign, Hanson molded the school into one of the most highly-rated conservatories in the world, a legacy that continues to this day. At a time when established European works dominated the classical music scene, Hanson strove to give American music a place in the concert hall, initiating a series of American composers concerts at Eastman, and later, an annual festival devoted to American music. Hanson was instrumental in elevating Eastman’s international profile throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, simultaneously turning Rochester into a center for new American music.

A celebrated composer, Hanson continued writing throughout his tenure at Eastman, and it was during this time that he created Merry Mount. Although he composed throughout the rise of the 12-tone movement, his style remained steadfastly lush, Romantic, and approachable. His gift for melody shines through in tonight’s program. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Merry Mount had its stage premiere there in 1934, and met with an enthusiastic response (it still holds the Met record for curtain calls, a whopping 50). But despite the initial buzz, modern revivals and concert performances are rare.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is thrilled to bring Howard Hanson’s masterpiece back to the New York City stage, 80 years after its premiere and 50 years after Hanson’s retirement from Eastman. Today, Rochester remains a thriving musical hub steeped in world-class talent. The RPO and the Eastman School of Music enjoy the same synergistic relationship that was fostered during Hanson’s tenure, each contributing to a rich musical landscape that belies the city’s size.

Enriching this landscape has been a priority of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra since its founding. Committed to the importance of lifelong musical engagement, the RPO inspires audiences of all ages with a variety of offerings each season, bringing the thrill of live music to Rochester and the Finger Lakes region. Currently in the midst of an international search for its next music director, the RPO is well positioned to build upon its proud musical legacy for the next generation of concertgoers.

This concert production of Merry Mount embodies the spirit of everything that Howard Hanson helped to create and showcases everything that makes Rochester’s musical scene so special, joining young and old, current Eastman students, recent Eastman graduates, talented local singers, and the musicians of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for a celebration of Rochester—past, present, and future.

-Kathryn Judd

Howard Hanson, America’s Neglected Romantic

The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY
The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY, home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

This Wednesday, May 7, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Michael Christie will be performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the final Spring For Music festival. Since 2011, Spring For Music has showcased North American orchestras and innovative programming. After this year the festival will end due to lack of funding.

The RPO’s decision to present a concert performance of twentieth century American composer Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount, is significant. Hanson (1896-1981) was the long-time director of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He is widely credited with building the school into one of the world’s finest music conservatories. Industrialist George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, established the Eastman School in 1921 and founded the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra a year later.

As a composer, Howard Hanson’s conservatism made him a rebel. At a time when dissonant, atonal music was in style with the establishment, Hanson wrote music rooted in melody and harmony. His Romanticism blended the Nordic sounds of Grieg and Sibelius with the wide open spaces of America’s Great Plains (Hanson was born in Nebraska). As a result, Merry Mount, based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about Puritan oppression, was enthusiastically received by the Metropolitan Opera audience in 1934 (a Met record of 50 curtain calls), but was panned by most critics. Listen to a suite from the opera here and listen to a rare excerpt from the February 10, 1934 Met production here. Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony recorded the complete opera for Naxos.

With Hanson’s Merry Mount, the Rochester Philharmonic revives a neglected score and honors its rich history, which includes such notable conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman and Sir Mark Elder.

The facade of the Eastman Theatre bears the inscription:

For the Enrichment of Community Life

The words are a reminder that orchestras and music education belong to everyone. The joy of hearing a full orchestra never goes out of style. In each community, our challenge is to create, preserve and build on legacies such as George Eastman established in Rochester.

Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”

Here is the first movement of Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, performed by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony. The piece was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Pay attention to the way Hanson mixes the instruments of the orchestra to create unique colors (the expectation-building opening is a good example). Throughout the piece, you’ll hear conversations between voices (the horn, flute and clarinet 1:57-2:14 in the last movement).

Hanson’s music seems to have influenced Hollywood film composers (John Williams drew upon the last movement for E.T.), but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “movie music.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear music which deserves to be taken seriously:

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Here are the second and third movements from Leonard Slatkin’s equally excellent recording with the Saint Louis Symphony. Common motives and themes are developed throughout all three movements. For example, you’ll recognize the motive from the first movement at 1:40 in the second movement. In the climax of the final movement, themes from the entire symphony are blended together.

Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 can be described as a celebration of harmony and orchestral color in all of its subtle beauty. Out of style in the mid-twentieth century, Hanson’s music may come to be appreciated more with time.

An Exciting New Vaughan Williams CD

RPO small

British conductor Christopher Seaman and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra have released an exciting new CD featuring music of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The disk includes A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) and Serenade to Music, performed by RPO Concertmaster Juliana Athayde and singers from Mercury Opera Rochester. Music director of the RPO for 13 years, currently Seaman holds the title of Conductor Laureate.

Written in 1914, A London Symphony musically captures the varied moods of London from its dense fog to the chimes of Big Ben along the River Thames. The music is lushly atmospheric and this recording brings out a rich tapestry of orchestral color. Vaughan Williams draws on English folk music throughout.

Here are what some critics have said about the CD:

[quote style=”boxed”](A) fine recording of an English classic. It is rich in accuracy of detail and felicity of mood throughout. The majesty of the finale (of the symphony) is as impressive as I have ever heard. -Michael Kennedy, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)[/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]A wonderfully atmospheric account of VW’s London portrait … (Seaman) finds rapture and vitality in the symphony’s impressionist tableaux.—Andrew Clark, Financial Times (UK) [/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]They (the RPO) seem to have an instinctive feel and affection for Vaughan Williams’s language. —Andrew McGregor, CD Review (BBC Radio 3)[/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]The fruitful partnership here of British conductor Christopher Seaman and his American orchestra (after 13 years as music director Seaman is now Rochester Philharmonic’s conductor laureate) offers much gleam, warmth and vitality.—Fiona Maddocks, Guardian (UK)[/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]Seaman emphasizes drama, contrast, luster: the quick refrain pings, the marches are stirring, the forte is forte.—Deanne Sole, popmatters.com [/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]The playing from every section of the ensemble is first rate … always controlled and defined, but with plenty of punch too.—Gavin Dixon, classical-cd-reviews.com [/quote]

I highly recommend this recording. Start listening now and I’ll have a few more thoughts about A London Symphony in a future post.

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