Night on Bald Mountain

We’ve picked the final piece for the Spring concert for Highlands Chamber Orchestra — it’s going to be Night on Bald Mountain.  I wanted an epic show closer to get the audience on its feet.  I was pursuing a piano concerto kind of piece but there’s not enough time to prepare one with the soloist I was trying to recruit.  The HCO’s board and I bantied around a few ideas …. Die Meistersinger was a possibility.  But I got a recommendation from a string player to do Bald Mountain.  How could I say no?  🙂

chernabogNoBM has a little special place in my heart.  I played it ages ago with the Ottawa Youth Orchestra.  It was so much fun.  I first heard it on my CD of Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition with the Montreal Symphony and Dutoit so I was really happy to have a chance to play it.  And now I get to experience from the front of the orchestra.

To tell you the truth, I had looked quickly at NoBM because of it being a convenient one-movement symphonic poem with full orchestration (and well-known from Disney’s Fantasia) and thought the string parts were murder.  I even thought the piece might be too bang-crash-boom for a good performance.  i.e. it can very easily be overblown and plain old loud.  But I’ve quickly reconsidered that point of view.  Like with Sorcerer’s Apprentice last Spring, we have a few months to really perfect this and do really well with it.  Yeah, it’s dramatic, but I think we can invoke a demonic feeling while still being musical about it (conducting has really changed my view on dynamics and balance).  This is going to be a great learning and growing piece for the orchestra and for me.  I can’t wait to dig into our first reading this Friday.

Guest Conductor Application Submitted

Boom!  Done!  I just hit ‘send’ on the email containing all my application docs for Counterpoint Community Orchestra‘s call for guest conductors.  Cover letter, CV, past programs with the HCO, support letters, and program theme ideas.

I am *completely* psyched for this.  IMHO, I’m a total fit for their conductor/director requirements and I think we’d make beautiful musics together.

Now to somehow concentrate on work for the rest of the day… well, at least until it’s rehearsal time with the Highlands Chamber Orchestra.  I swear the clock slows right down on Friday afternoons…

The Mighty Berlioz

Today’s the day.  I’ve been waiting for this for a LONG time.  I did have a little kinda sorta second-hand brush with this a few years ago with the Highlands Wind Symphony.  I can’t count it for reals though.  So today it’s the real deal.  The genuine article.  From his pen direct to my baton…

I’m conducting my first original Hector Berlioz piece with an orchestra.  Namely, his ‘Marche Troyenne’ and the Highlands Chamber Orchestra.

With Berlioz as a whole, I feel like it’s going to be a life-long journey.  Conducting increasingly complex works of his as my conducting career progresses and as my skill and technique mature.  I do have a bit of a hit list of works of his and in [mostly] no particular order:

  • Overture to Benvenuto Cellini (the first Berlioz I played in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra)
  • Hungarian March from Damnation of Faust (the second Berlioz in OYO)
  • Roméo et Juliette
  • Le Corsaire overture
  • Waverley overture
  • Les Francs-Juges overtures
  • Symphonie Fantastique
  • Te deum
  • Requiem (maybe this one should be last with its HUGE proportions)
  • Love duet between Dido and Aeneas from Les Troyens – ‘Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie!’

So I’m starting with the Trojan March — not terribly difficult, or at least not insurmountable parts (notably, strings); the tuba part isn’t totally scary; there aren’t two tubas required; the tempo isn’t super nuts and in cut time; the rhythms aren’t full of syncopations.  And it can be pulled off with a smaller orchestra.  In other words, the Highlands Chamber Orchestra will do its magic with it.

It’s from Berlioz’ epic opera, Les Troyens.  Like – 4 CDs kind of epic.  Like – a performance starts at 5pm and, with various intermissions, it ends around 10pm.  It’s big and not often performed.  The Trojan March appears in various forms and orchestrations throughout the opera and represents the people of Troy and their leader Aeneas as they leave Troy, find Carthage (and Dido) and eventually leave there for Italy and Rome.

I do have a challenge with this:  how to not make this sound marchy and clunky.  I do love a challenge.

Reading: Intangibles of Musical Performance

I’m working on some reading.  I realized that my main reading is limited to articles and headlines on the Internets.  I don’t have any bedtime traditional paper reading.  I don’t know if the paper part is important, but it feels more tangible.  Like reading a musical score on IMSLP, or having the paper score in front of you.  It just feels better to have it right there.  Pencil notes are so satisfying.

intangibAnyhoo… I digress.  I picked up this book from my friends at Steve’s Music in downtown Toronto:  Intangibles of Musical Performance.  It’s by Edward S. Lisk and he’s got a whole set of books under the series called “The Creative Director“.

Why I picked up this book?  I’m looking for ways to coax musicality out of musicians in the orchestra.   Periodically, while I’m conducting in rehearsal, I observe people going through the motions of playing the notes but I don’t feel anything from them.  I don’t hear intensity in what they play and I don’t see them trying to convey an interpretation in their body language.

I felt like I was running out of ways to express what I’m looking for because the ensemble would often settle into mezzo dynamics and flatline in expression.  I’d like to simply say ‘play the written dynamics’ but it’s not that easy (and that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to musical expression).  There’s a lot going on for an instrumentalist:  reading the music, hand-eye coordination, keepping tabs on the conductor, breathing,  bowing, etc… so I can totally understand losing track of musicality at times.

But musicality is *very* important to performance – especially to live performance.  The audience can hear *and* see what you’re doing.  So you not only have to tell a story audibly, but also visually.  And to me, body language is SO important.  Consider this performance by Tafelmusik based out of Toronto:

Period baroque ensembles are fantastic examples of visual musical expression. For one, most of the musicians are standing.  You inevitably get some dancing and posturing, often synchronized, which shows that everyone is feeling the music the same way.  It reveals how much the musicians are ‘into’ and loving the piece they are playing.  I think it also helps that period ensembles are heavily invested in performance style, so they take musical expression very seriously.

Back to the book that inspired this post … I took a break from it over the holidays, but I do recall the chapter on intensity.  It was intense — no joke intended.  It involves trying to teach students intensity, starting with exercises of two people intently gazing at each other and attempting to transmit feelings or thoughts through this exercise (no music).  This is very important for conductor-musician communication in performance.  The conductor should be able to convey a thought or mood via eye contact and body language.  The chapter continues with having the student(s) play something as simple as a single note/chord, or a scale and to convey the intensity back to the conductor.

I’m looking forward to returning to this book, finishing it and revisiting earlier chapters to take it all in.  I think my next choice in the series will be “Artistic Nuance”.

New Year, New Concert Sessions, New Possibilities

Yay — 2016!  The Christmas season was pretty good, musically.  Three concerts that went very well.  Highlands Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra Toronto, but especially (and a little surprisingly) the Highlands Wind Symphony.  We nearly sold the house out, which is tonnes more audience than we’ve seen in a long time.  And the band played REALLY well.  It’s always a tough and fast adjustment to the Norther Lights Performing Arts Pavilion.  The sounds are so different.  But we did really well.  Particularly for ‘Christmas Lights’ that I conducted.  It’s a medley of various Christmas carols and tunes, with the Ukranian Carol present throughout.  The ending overlays it with ‘In dulci jubilo’ – almost like Berlioz in the ending of his overture to Benvenuto Cellini.  It’s really a lot of fun.

So then with 2016 — it begins anew.  Highlands Wind Symphony has had their first rehearsal this week and we’re sticking to a theme for this Spring concert:  An Afternoon at the Movies.  I’m going to be taking a second look at ‘Dances With Wolves’ – one of my favourite movie soundtracks in a pretty high quality highlights arrangement.

The Highlands Chamber Orchestra is also starting up this Friday and the core idea to our Spring concert will be concerti featuring orchestra members.  Flute Concertino by Chaminade, Havanaise for violin and orchestra by Saint-Saens, Concerto for two Horns by Vivaldi (rv 539), slow movement to Weber’s first clarinet concerto (that also features a gorgeous horn trio).  With also a possibility of a renaisance brass sextet and perhaps, if I can convince the soloist, a movement of a concerto for piano.

But wait – there’s more — that really vague post I did in the Fall about a new conducting opportunity… it’s back and can be identified now:  Counterpoint Community Orchestra.  Toronto’s LGBTQ community orchestra.  I played tuba with them years ago and in the Fall they let their long-standing conductor go.  This season will be filled three guest conductors, the first of which conducted them in a great Christmas/Holiday show in December.  The next conductor, a friend of mine, has already been confirmed.  That leaves one final opening and they will be announcing the position soon to take in applications.  Needless to say, I’m working on mine now.  I’m going to save the rest of this subject for a separate post.

For now — Happy Musical New Year to everyone.  See you in the rehearsal hall!

Godfrey Ridout’s Fall Fair

If there ever was a staple to the Canadian orchestral repertoire, it’s Fall Fair by Godfrey Ridout.  I’ve played it twice with Orchestra Toronto and I recall the first time I played it, my friend, Uri Rozen, who passed away a number of years ago, rolled his eyes in classic Uri fashion about having to play Fall Fair again.  In any case, it’s a freakin’ fun piece to play on tuba with lots of big brass sections and little nuggets just for the tuba.

But now I’m viewing the piece from the opposite side of the orchestra — I’ve programmed it in the Highlands Chamber Orchestra’s Fall Pops 2015 concert as part of the over-arching Haliburton 150th theme of Canadian, American and British music.  And seeing the full picture of the orchestra in play is wonderful.

First of all, Fall Fair is a tour-de-force of a piece. So many emotions and imagery being portrayed:  boisterous revelry, ho-down country fiddling, nostalgic look back to summer, and maybe even a little love theme in there too.

Here’s the bright opening with high woodwinds (plus trumpets and upper strings not pictured here).  Picc and oboe also introduce what I feel is the ‘excitement-and-anticipation’ theme as you’re on your way to the fair.  Also — keep that first bar in mind … it’ll come back later….


The opening and excitement theme: The Simpsons on their way to Duff Gardens — are we there yet? are we there yet? are we there yet? are we there yet? are we there yet?

Next is the major boistrous theme introduced fully by the trumpets and trombones, with a nugget for the tuba — you can’t help but come in bright and shiny to punctuate the phrase.


Bright brass, with hits from the horns and punctuation from the tuba.

The strings and some woodwinds also give us a hoe-down theme (think Aaron Copland’s Hoe-Down from Rodeo).  What kind of self-respecting county fair would not have some good fiddling going on?


A little fiddling hoe-down to get your toes tappin’

Next we have the main boistrous theme elongated in a solo for 1st horn.  I think we’re looking back to a great summer and wonderful memories.  Violins and celli take it on next to sweeten the moment.


ah — the memories of Summer … vacations, summer cottages, beaches, and good times with friends.

Finally we have a possible love theme introduced by the english horn with deep pizz by celli, basses and harp.  A nice big 3/2 to take your time in.  Violas and clarinet join in to help out, and the woodwinds over all repeat the theme.  Finally the whole orchestra is welcomed in with a big, deep and lush sound (dare I say schmaltzy?).  It’s goosebump material for me, whether on tuba or on the podium.


after a Summer apart, you spot your highschool crush and fall in love all over again

Take a closer look at that love theme though… the first four notes of it are the opening bar in the first pic above.  Clever, no?

You can discover more about Fall Fair at Ridout’s website, and have a listen to a recording at CBC Music.

Possible New Conducting Opportunity

I can’t reveal any details at this time but there might be some new conducting for me in the near future.  I’m completely obsessing about it and can’t stop thinking about it.  I keep reloading the ensemble’s web page to see what’s up and if they publicize any details.  Details I have are scarce, but I might be subbing in or interim.  And if things go the way I hope, I could audition for the podium.

To tell you the truth, I’ve been Oprah dream-walling this opportunity for a good while.  Out of the blue, I was contacted this past Spring about my conducting.  Things were very vague then and they’ve since focused a little bit.  So I’m super excited but keeping this under wraps to not jinx it.

*crosses fingers*

ps. this does not affect my commitment to the Highlands Chamber Orchestra – I see myself with them for a good long while, or at least until they get tired of me.