Stellar Mahler from the San Francisco Symphony in the first of 2 UMS performances

16143715-mmmainSusan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Nov. 15, 2014)

It’s cold. It’s dark. The ground is a little icy from a slick of snow. It’s a good night to be moving toward the light.

Whether they knew it or not, that’s where patrons of the San Francisco Symphony’s first concert of two at Hill Auditorium were heading Thursday evening: out of darkness toward dawn and radiant day via Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, sometimes called “Song of the Night.” If any chance to hear this infrequently performed Mahler symphony in the flesh is worth venturing out for, this performance, presented under University Musical Society auspices, was spine-tingling enough, even in just its first moments, to make you grateful to have come. The evening was a reminder of the exalting power of live symphonic music.

Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco’s music director and conductor, has made the orchestra our go-to band for Mahler in his 20 years at the helm, and if he has rightly talked about the schizophrenic nature of the Seventh, he nonetheless can make it all cohere, make it into a grand narrative without negating what is genuinely disjunct in it.

That was the way it read on Thursday evening. The music had an almost visceral presence. When the tenor horn issued its call after a few shudders from the winds and strings to open the piece, the dark resonance was somehow physical and enormous, a giant shape materializing and rising up to command the stage. That might have been only the first of a number of moments where you could feel the tears starting, along with the shivers.

The first movement was wonderful for the dramatic sweep of the musical gestures, the panoramic generosity of both marches and lyrical moments. When Tilson Thomas let the strings luxuriate at the top of the phrase, it seemed an echo of the vistas of the sterner material. The colors were clear, brilliant. Like hearing in Technicolor. Fanfares, plangent and muted, recalled armies on the move; but there was light amid the darkness already at the start. We did not want for illumination, swept in with magic by the harps.

Atmospheric would be an understatement to describe the three central “night music” movements that followed and that were Mahler’s starting place in writing the Seventh. Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco players brought humor to the first “Nachtmusik” section: it was forest and hills alive, birds twittering, chattering, tittering, odd creatures indulging in hulking marches, cowbells echoing, cellos swinging along in a sort of tango polonaise. The second “Nachtmusik” movement, intimate and amoroso, was a different sort of night music, a chamber serenade with guitar and mandolin. The intervening scherzo was the shadow between, a movement that seemed on Thursday all elemental boiling up, a place where unformed matter became things.

And what can you say of that last joyous and triumphant movement Mahler wrote to crown the Seventh? On Thursday, it was resplendent, a pealing of all the bells of the city, cacophony as jubilation and discord made concord, with all the world ringing, ringing with light. The streets were still icy as we exited Hill, but somehow it no longer mattered.

And there’s more to look forward to: Friday evening’s San Francisco Symphony concert at Hill, an evening of contrasts between works rather than within one work. On the bill: Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” Ravel’s luminous “Daphnis and Chloe,” with singers from the UMS Choral Union participating; and Gil Shaham as violin soloist in the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2. For tickets: UMS, (734) 764-2538, ums.org.

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Anton Nel: An old friend returns for A2SO’s ‘Tchaikovsky & Friends’

anton-nel-thru-piano-from-website-croppedjpg-6975ebad706069eeSusan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Nov. 13, 2014)

When your concerto soloist is marooned by a massive snowstorm and stuck 500 miles from the concert hall, who you gonna call?

For the Cleveland Orchestra, one winter back in the mid-‘90s, the answer was easy: If it’s Ann Arbor, just ring up Anton Nel.

Nel, a superb South African-born pianist with a big international career, a huge concerto repertoire and phenomenal recall, was then on the University of Michigan music faculty. So the Cleveland Orchestra tapped him, just hours before a Hill Auditorium concert, to substitute for a snowbound Emanuel Ax in the Brahms First Concerto. Ax made it out of New York after all, but Nel was cheerfully at the ready.

Before and after, Nel, who has been on the faculty at the University of Texas since 2000, has responded to many calls to play here in Tree Town, none of them last-minute. He’s in demand around the world, but Ann Arbor hasn’t lost its allure. When he returns Saturday as soloist in the big, beloved Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra at the Michigan Theater, it will be his ninth appearance with the group.

“There isn’t another artist even coming as a close second,” said Emily Fromm, the A2SO’s marketing and public relations coordinator. “So he is the one and only, as they say.”

The A2SO’s concert, billed as “Tchaikovsky & Friends,” also includes Rossini’s overture to “La Scala di Seta” and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish.”

Austin-based, Nel is frequently to on the road – or in the air – for concerts and other engagements. Early in October, when I caught up with him, he was in Oregon for a master class and solo recital before heading on to Cleveland and Oberlin for more of the same; then it was west again for California. No matter, he was ready and willing to take some time to talk Tchaikovsky, Ann Arbor – a town to which he’s very loyal — and music.

“Hi there,” Susan,” he wrote in an email. “This is working out well, since I’m on a plane most of the day, and can now happily answer these questions for you en route.”

Herewith, his high-flying responses:

How long has the Tchaikovsky concerto been in your repertoire?

I played it for the first time when I was 15, and at that point it was definitely the most difficult music I had ever worked on. My teacher, Adolph Hallis, had an incredible gift of choosing exactly appropriate repertoire for me at the various stages of my development and he knew that this would be a technical (but doable) challenge for me; he also wanted to make me aware of the work’s expressive qualities. That was a not easy for a fleet-fingered 15-year-old, but I very much enjoyed it.

Have you had memorable performances of it?

In the late ‘90s, the great Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov was scheduled to play this concerto with the Detroit Symphony with Neeme Järvi conducting. Very near the concerts it appeared that there had been a misunderstanding between managements, and that Sokolov could only play one of the subscription concerts. The DSO called me (in Ann Arbor) asking if I could play the second concert, but with the understanding that I would not be able to have a rehearsal with orchestra beforehand. Having worked with Maestro Järvi before (he is truly one of the finest concerto collaborators in the world), I said yes. The concert was very thrilling, and I still think that’s the best I ever played it.

What, to you, makes this concerto special? Or difficult? Favorite moments?

The concerto has so much in it that makes it immediately appealing (very much like all the other really famous concerti like the Rachmaninov 2nd, or Grieg): exciting writing for the soloist, and memorable themes… It is a concerto for a virtuoso and remains challenging to play. All the movements have significant technical issues: octaves, chords, sweeping scales and arpeggios, all having to sound effortless. I still think the opening of the concerto is wonderfully grand and heroic, and playing those famous chords up and down while the orchestra sings out the melody doesn’t get old. The cadenza at the end of the first movement is one of the finest examples of piano writing in the “grand manner,” and the coda of this movement is glorious. I also find the tender melody in the second movement very touching, and the central little scherzo is very exciting (and fiendishly difficult!).

And is it hard to keep this music fresh – both for you and for audiences that perhaps imprinted on the million-selling disc (America’s first!) of Van Cliburn back in the 50s? When was first time you heard this concerto? How do you come back to a piece like this to practice it? Is it sitting there, ready to go in memory, and even if so, what do you do before a concert to put it on a front burner?

I have not played this concerto in a number of years, and I’m happy to come back to it. Rather than “cram” it in a few days of intense practice, I’ve enjoyed bringing it back slowly, taking great pleasure in seeing my teacher’s markings from all those years ago in my music. Now that I’m older, I really do appreciate all the beautiful moments in it, and I’m working especially hard to make these come to life. (I’ve played this concerto more than any other, so most of it is lurking “up there,” but it’s important to me to make it sound fresh every time I play it.) Technically, there will always be challenges…

Yes, the Van Cliburn recording was famous, even in South Africa in the ‘70s when I played this for the first time. I believe I was about 10 or 12 when I heard it the first time (on a cassette!!) with Shura Cherkassky as the soloist. Has your interpretation of the concerto changed appreciably, do you think?

If anything, it’s quite a bit slower now, I think…

Favorite concertos overall? Does it figure there?

It’s not on my “top 10” favorite concerto list, but that’s mainly because there are so many fabulous piano concertos to choose from. After Beethoven 4th, a few Mozarts, Brahms, Schumann, I’m already up to almost 10! I also have a thing for some of the French repertoire: the Ravel Concerti, the Saint-Saens “Egyptian” concerto, etc. And of course I love the Russians, too…

And speaking of keeping things fresh, what was it like to play Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” so many times running in the Austin production of the Moises Kaufman’s play “33 Variations”? I’m curious, too, whether playing them in that context changed them for you, either temporarily or permanently (will you ever play them again, for instance?).

The pianist in “33 Variations” in New York was my friend Diane Walsh. After hearing and reading about her experiences, I thought it would be a great play for Austin audiences, and suggested it to the producer of our local theater company. Being part of the theater world for those two months will always be one of the highlights of my life. This was a unique experience, of course, since there is nothing else like it in the repertoire. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so many hours on an individual thing in my life, and it was all worth it. The Austin production was different from the one in New York since the piano moved on and off center stage throughout so I was literally an “actor” in the play and with the actors doing slightly different things every evening, I followed suit. I think we were starting to peak after about 15 or 16 performances, and none of us wanted the run to end. I will definitely play the piece again one day!

I see online you have loads of concerts and dates coming up, including a South African tour – if you wanted to say a few words about what’s ahead and what you are excited about, that’d be great.

Like “33 Variations,” I’m trying to do some new and different things in addition to my normal diet of concerti, recitals, and chamber music. Last season I did a very exciting project with the Mark Morris Dance Company, where I did an evening of Mozart Concertos choreographed by Mark. I went to New York to work with him, and it was an incredible experience to be coached by a dancer who has such a profound understanding of the finest details of music.

This season I’m broadening my horizons more, and a few weeks ago I made my fortepiano debut, playing Haydn and Mozart concerti with La Follia, Austin’s baroque orchestra. I had never really practiced for any length of time on this instrument, and have been amazed and delighted at its expressive capabilities. The bug has really bitten, and I will make some trips to see the wonderful fortepianist Malcolm Bilson this year to take lessons and really learn how to play it properly. I am very interested in giving more concerts on it and perhaps teaching it as well.

Speaking of teaching, I’m doing more and more masterclasses on my travels, and since last summer am spending a week teaching at the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival in addition to my work at the Aspen Music Festival and School — I have a wonderful life!

And is Ann Arbor “old home week” for you? Whom will you see, where will you revisit, eat, etc.?

I always love coming back to Ann Arbor. I think this is my ninth appearance with the symphony, and I so appreciate the opportunity to come back regularly. I always love to drive around the town, see the school, places I’ve lived, catching up with friends… Then I make time to visit Zingerman’s and scout out new eating places!

Tchaikovsky & Friends

    • Who: The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, Arie Lipsky, music director; Anton Nel, piano, guest soloist.
    • What: “Tchaikovsky & Friends” – Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, Rossini Overture to “La Scala di Seta,” Schumann Symphony No. 3.
    • Where: The Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor.
    • When: Saturday, Nov. 15, 8 p.m., with pre-concert lecture for ticket holder
    • How Much: $15-$62, online at a2so.com; via email, tickets@a2so.com; or by phone, 734-994-4801. Discounts for students, seniors and groups.

Read the original article at Mlive!

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When San Francisco Symphony returns to Ann Arbor, even what’s old is new

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Nov. 12, 2014)

The San Francisco Symphony – Mahler, Liszt, Prokofiev and Ravel

  • Who: The San Francisco Symphony
  • What: Two different concerts, featuring Mahler (Thursday); and Liszt, Prokofiev and Ravel (Friday).
  • Where: Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor
  • When: Thursday, Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m.
  • How Much: $14-$85, University Musical Society, Michigan League Ticket Office, 734-764-2538, and online at ums.org.

16143715-mmmain

Last summer, Elizabeth “Libby” Seidner, a University of Michigan senior studying flute and instrumental music education, spent five weeks with the San Francisco Symphony as a University Musical Society/University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance 21st Century Artist Intern.

Among the many takeaways from her experience: Innovation is central to both mission and music-making at this extraordinary American orchestra.

That message rang out loud and clear on the San Francisco’s visit to Ann Arbor, in 2012, when “American Mavericks” were the focus of its concert series at Hill Auditorium under UMS auspices.

But even the more-traditional programs the orchestra brings as it returns for a two-day UMS residency Thursday and Friday (Nov. 13-14), provide evidence of the orchestra’s desire to “surprise, delight and reaffirm the audience,” as Seidner put it. At a San Francisco Symphony concert, she noted, there’s almost always “something new and something that made you glad you came.”

The something new on Thursday is something old: Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, written in 1904-05, which forms the entire program. Though UMS has treated patrons to a lot of Mahler over the years, no orchestra has ever performed the Mahler Seventh on a UMS program.

Mahler and all his works are old friends at the San Francisco, however, where Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (familiarly known as MTT) has made a specialty of the composer.

The Seventh is not the most popular of Mahler’s symphonies, which number nine, with a 10th unfinished. San Francisco Symphony General Manager John Kieser remembers how in college, he and his friends were wild for Mahler, crazy for the “over-the-top emotion” they heard in his works. “But of all the Mahler symphonies,” he said in a recent phone call from San Francisco, “my least favorite was the Seventh.”

“It was quirky,” he said. “I thought, ‘Really?’ Now it’s one of my favorites. I like what MTT says about it: It has everything that you could imagine that goes into music.”

As the Ann Arbor concerts approached, Tilson Thomas took a moment to expand on the character of the music in the Seventh:

“Mahler’s Seventh Symphony,” he said in an emailed quote, “seems to reflect the more psychoanalytical side of musical expression. It’s really a schizophrenic piece, intellectually more advanced than anything else Mahler ever did. There is a real ‘mad-scientist’ aspect to much of it. The finale poses one of the greatest challenges to performers in any of the standard repertory. There are so many starts and stops, changes of direction, profound and utterly trivial ideas, alternating in what is at first a completely bewildering way. It seems as if Mahler is toying with us, enjoying telling us with a slightly malicious sneer, ‘And now for something completely different!’”

You can hear all this – and MTT and the orchestra’s fine translation of it – in a clip on YouTube, from the scherzo of the Seventh, http://bit.ly/SFSM7excerpt.

Friday night it’s hard to decide what’s the main attraction: the guest star, violinist Gil Shaham, in the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2; or the complete and completely gorgeous Ravel “Daphnis and Chloe,” with participation of members of the UMS Choral Union. (The concert also includes Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1.”)

One thing is for sure: neither the Prokofiev nor the Ravel has been a concert staple here. The complete Ravel – as opposed to the suites drawn from the full ballet score – saw a performance back in 1975, by the Boston Symphony and the “Festival Chorus” of the UMS Choral Union.The Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 has had two UMS airings, in 1959 and 1970. So though the Ravel dates from 1912 and the Prokofiev from 1935, it’s fair to think of these as novelties in our local concert halls. If innovation is a hard word to make stick in concerts in which the newest piece is a year shy of being an octogenarian, rarity is not.

And innovation there is aplenty in the events surrounding the two concerts. Previous San Francisco Symphony visits here have had a strong student-involvement component, with master classes and player talks on career issues. But with Seidner’s “embedding” with the SFS this summer, new activities suggested themselves.

The U-M’s Third Century Initiative funded four School of Music, Theatre & Dance summer interns in the new 21st Century Internship program. Each participant received a $4,000 living and transportation stipend for six weeks – parity with the amount interns in the sciences might get and a fabulous deal in the arts.

Seidner went to San Francisco; the three other interns went, variously, to Paris to work with Theatre de la Ville (Flores Komatsu); to New York to work with the Trisha Brown Dance Company (Hillary Kooistra); and to New York to work with Kyle Abraham/Abraham.in.Motion (Sophia Deery). Once back on campus, the students have continued the internship with a one-credit independent study, acting as campus ambassadors for the ensembles through a variety of projects.

“Developing entrepreneurship is a top priority at SMTD,” said the school’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Melody Racine, in a UMS press release. “The 21st Century Artist Internship program is a fantastic hands-on effort that will allow students to acquire critical, real-world skills with some of the world’s greatest performing arts organizations. It’s the ideal complement to our Performing Arts Management minor, and it will make a major contribution to our goal of graduation the future leaders in the performing arts.”

“Right from the start,” of the internship, said Jim Leija, UMS director of education and community engagement, “the communication level goes up ten-fold. We get real-time information from the companies, and it builds excitement within the ensembles as they develop a relationship with the student. There’s more of a willingness to do engagement activities in the community beyond the stage.”

The San Francisco folks didn’t need much convincing. They’re trying to shoehorn in as much as they can from their 3:15 p.m. Thursday arrival – they fly into Willow Run from Kansas City — to their Saturday departure — via bus, for Cleveland.

But ideas Seidner generated through her experience take the residency in new directions. For example, when she learned that some members of the orchestra play in small jazz combos in the Bay Area, she suggested they might work with jazz students at the U-M School of Music.That’s set up for after Thursday evening’s concert. And because she has taught at the Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra, she came up with the idea of having SFS musicians do some coaching of their own with the YYO. That will happen Saturday morning.

“One of the big lessons I learned in San Francisco was how the symphony works with a community partner to strengthen music in the community, not keep it separate in one space,” Seidner said. That lesson, she said, will come in handy as she prepares for a teaching or arts administration job.

Meanwhile, Seidner herself continues to play a part in the San Francisco Symphony residency: She’s the featured speaker at the UMS Prelude Dinner preceding Thursday’s concert; she created a blog for the “UMS Lobby; and interviews she conducted with soloist Shaham and with orchestra players, including clarinetist Carey Bell, a U-M alumnus, were set to go online in early November.

“These are all things that provide different ways into the ensemble for the audience,” Leija said. That’s a big UMS priority, and one that matches up perfectly with the San Francisco’s goal to innovate and take music beyond the concert hall.

Read the original story at MLive!

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If it’s Saturday, it must be the USA: A2SO concert highlights what’s homegrown

unnamedSusan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct. 12, 2014)

I’m reminded, as I write this review, of the scary name-that-tune tests we had to take in college music history: As the stylus descended on a mystery LP (yup, that’s what we had back then), we had to stop nibbling our pens and put them to paper to identify composer and piece.

The test at the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday evening at the Michigan Theater was a snap compared to those exams of yore, and way more fun. Drop the needle on any of the works on the orchestra’s “Made in the USA” bill, and, with the exception, perhaps, of the Barber Violin Concerto, you’d know in a second you were hearing American music.

You’d know, too, that you were hearing an orchestra that can both swing and sing, one that, to borrow a line from that most American of characters, Gypsy Rose Lee, is very ver-sa-tile.joan_kwuon-1920x1080_1

Certainly, the orchestra had its work cut out for it as it set out to entertain us. A2SO Music Director Arie Lipsky’s snapshots of American music ran from familiar scenes – Gershwin’s “American in Paris,” for example, and the Barber Violin Concerto, with guest soloist Joan Kwuon making an impressive Ann Arbor debut with the orchestra; to places less often visited – Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” for example. “Route 66,” by the well-known University of Michigan composer Michael Daugherty, who was on hand to take a bow, completed the album with its sassy, brassy ode to the open road. Americans do love their cars!

But before we could get on the Mother Highway, it was time to pray. There are beautiful ways to do that, but surely Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” which opened the program, is one, with its blend of Hebraic and Christian musical traditions. One moment you’re in synagogue (or elsewhere, see below); the next, you’re in church. And sometimes, you just can’t beat hearing a boy soprano (the excellent Francesco v. Bulow Saturday evening, singing Psalm 100, “The Lord is my shepherd” with heavenly simplicity and assurance).

The piece brought together the members of the A2SO with singers from the Boychoir of Ann Arbor and the Vocal Arts Ensemble — quite the congregation, and well-prepared for worship.  With the chorus way, way upstage, there were a few times when I thought the orchestra should have pulled back to let the singers soar over the instruments, but the music’s joy and its spell of peace were not impaired.

If there is vehemence enough in Bernstein’s setting of “Why do the nations rage” to make you forget Handel’s setting in “Messiah,” and darkness enough in a central orchestral interlude, elation there is aplenty in Bernstein’s setting of the psalms he chose, all sung in Hebrew. When the chorus and orchestra make a joyful noise unto the Lord, they are fully committed. It’s a feast of rhythm, complicated for singers and players and thrilling for the listener. Actually, it sounds rather like “Dance at the Gym,” from that other, more famous Bernstein work, “West Side Story.” No complaints. Everyone can worship at that altar.

Michael Daugherty (Courtesy photo)

Michael Daugherty (Courtesy photo)

From this 1965 gem – not so frequent in the concert hall because of its difficulties – Lipsky and the orchestra dipped back about a quarter century to the Barber Violin Concerto. Different time, different sound world, for sure.

And different mood. The presto perpetual-movement finale notwithstanding, the Barber is the most autumnal of concertos. That’s not just because it looks backward, to the Romantic era; it’s the material itself, the yearning it contains, rapturous at times, but always dark, even when the melody goes high to culminate in silken spider threads of sound.

Kwuon, beautifully contained in her playing, gave the concerto a throaty reading that cloaked the music in its full melancholy and highlighted its fall colors. The finale  was a feast of fast fiddling and jazzy inflections (ah, we ARE in America, after all); Kwuon handled it with the utmost aplomb while communicating urgency at the same time.  It was pretty thrilling.

But for sheer beauty, it was hard to beat the second movement andante. The oboe (Timothy Michling – gorgeous!) sings its plangent sorrows; the basses contribute an insistent pizzicato that tugs at the heart; and the orchestra is granted spacious elaboration before the violin finally joins to pour out its heart in shimmering phrases.

If the Barber might have confused a listener as to country of origin, there would have been no doubt with the works on the program’s second half, a nifty pairing of Daugherty’s “Route 66” with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

The Daugherty is wind-in-your-hair road music, best enjoyed in a convertible with the top down as you brake for clusters of neon-lit motels in little towns along the way. The Gershwin is foot music for a jaunty, dapper walker, a flaneur out to see the sights – bonjour to baguettes, berets and bonhomie – while watching out for those pesky, tooting taxis. The brass and percussion have a blast in both, clangorous in the Daugherty, soulful and bluesy in the Gershwin, where the solo violin (concert master Kathryn Votapek) also has a star turn. The orchestra was happy to turn on a dime between the two works — no broken U turns here – and the audience was happy to let them set the course.

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All-American: A2SO presents ‘Made in the USA’

Michael Daugherty (Courtesy photo)

Michael Daugherty (Courtesy photo)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct.11, 2014)

Arie Lipsky, music director of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, is a man on the move. Literally.

“I’m just dusty and trying to remember what I put where,” he said by phone recently from what, by the time you read this, will be his former home in Buffalo, N.Y.

He was keeping precious scores close as the movers packed the family – Lipsky, his wife, Rachel; and daughter, Inbal — for their new home in Ann Arbor, where they are relocating as Lipsky swings into his 15th year at the helm of the A2SO.

“I think it will take a couple of months to get rid of all these boxes,” he said. “So if I need something in the next three months, I’m putting it in a place I can get it. I want to make sure my scores stay within my reach and don’t end up on Route 66.”

Lipsky is using “Route 66” as a metaphor for far from Ann Arbor, but that iconic American road is on the tip of his tongue for another reason: it’s the title of a work on “Made in the USA,” the mainstage concert that comes up presto (as in Saturday, Oct. 11) after Lipsky hits Ann Arbor running Oct. 2. (Lipsky also conducts the orchestra’s family concert, “Mozart’s Magnificent Voyage,” Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Michigan Theater: Wednesday, he heads overseas to conduct in Israel.)

In addition to “Route 66,” by Ann Arbor-based composer Michael Daugherty, Saturday’s Michigan Theater program celebrates American music with Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” (featuring the Boychoir of Ann Arbor and the Vocal Arts Ensemble); the Barber Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Joan Kwuon); and Gershwin’s beloved tone poem “An American in Paris.”

Rich in internationally known composers and performers, Ann Arbor often reaps the bounty of their presence on a local level. Daugherty, for example, will work with the A2SO as it rehearses “Route 66.”

“That sort of input is so important,” Lipsky said. “It’s so rare to work with living composers, and he’s known to be one of the most performed living composers in the world. We’re just so lucky to have him around, and he happens to be in town this time.”

The pleasure, said Daugherty in a recent e-mail, is all his.

“I am someone who loves to get involved in the community where I reside,” said Daugherty, who has taught at the University of Michigan since 1991. He didn’t waste any time getting involved with local ensembles.

“Since 1991, I have had the opportunity to compose new works for the University of MIchigan Symphony Band, the Ann Arbor High School Bands, Slauson Middle School, Ann Arbor Symphony, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Chamber Winds.”

Saturday’s A2SO concert is hardly the first to have a Daugherty work on the program. Over the years, the orchestra has premiered his organ concerto and flute concerto; played his violin concerto; and a number of his orchestral pieces.

“I try to schedule one of his pieces every few years,” Lipsky said.

That’s fine with A2SO audiences, who appreciate the way Daugherty’s music incorporates American popular culture and vernacular styles.

And how, really, could anyone resist a piece like “Route 66,” where the tuba plays the role of traffic cop at the lone stoplight?

No one does.

In fact, said Daugherty, “’Route 66’ has become one of my most performed orchestral works. I love to take road trips, and ‘Route 66’ is the ultimate Americana rite of passage. While most of the original Route 66 has disappeared, the memories linger on.

“It is hard to believe that I composed Route 66 around 15 years ago. I have developed a great relationship over the years with the Ann Arbor Symphony, and I am thrilled that they have been performing my music frequently over the years. I look forward to working with them on what should be a great concert!!”

It’s not too much of a stretch to think of this “Made in the USA” concert as a road trip through the American musical landscape.

On Saturday, the Daugherty piece, composed in 1999 for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, is the last stop, chronologically, on the adventure.

The first is Gershwin’s 1928 “An American in Paris,” a much-adored tone poem that Lipsky calls “a beautiful collage of American music with some Parisian effects.” While Gershwin did not make scene indications in the score itself, as some other composers of tone poems do, he had a story in mind – one that’s easy to follow as his American visitor to the City of Lights saunters the boulevards, drops in to a café, feels blue (to the blues) and revives to enjoy the city’s vivacity, honking taxis included.

The next stop on the Mother Road of American music is the Barber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, from 1939. If the Gershwin is, as Lipsky put it, “probably the top of the list of American tone poems,” the Barber violin concerto, he said, “is “perhaps the only American violin concerto to join the exclusive list of top violin concertos.”

Unlike the Gershwin, which sounds so American, the American qualities of the Barber take a while to make themselves heard, Lipsky said.

“In a way, Barber is so ecumenical and cosmopolitan here that it’s only every once in a while, where you hear a little jazzy motif here or there, or in the last movement, where you say, ‘OK, you cannot hear that from a European.’ It takes some time to appreciate that.”

Lipsky has conducted violin soloist Kwuon in other concertos, and he is excited to bring her to Ann Arbor for her first appearance with the A2SO. Kwuon’s list of credits include appearances with many of the world’s great orchestras. She couples a busy concert career with teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Perhaps the least frequently performed work on the program comes from one of America’s best known names in classical and theater music, Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” composed for the 1965 choral festival at the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, opens Saturday’s concert.

Lipksy calls it his favorite piece by Bernstein. “The message is quite ecumenical,” said Lipsky, “combining Hebrew and Christian choral traditions together.”

The music is alluring – it comes after a period where Bernstein was experimenting with 12-tone music only to return to tonality (“The ‘West Side Story’ in him comes out full-fledged here,” Lipsky said; “he can’t help it.”). And its prayer for peace as relevant today as in the mid-‘60s. But it’s still a piece that’s more notable for its absence from concert halls than its presence.

Why?

”It’s exceedingly difficult,” Lipsky said.

He can count the ways: the emphasis on the No. 7, important in Hebrew numerology but hard as a musical interval to be sung or as a meter – like 7/4 time (Oy!); the need for a terrific boy soprano (Lipsky found four terrific candidates among the Boychoir’s members and settled on Francesco Van Bulow) as well as a good boychoir and other choral forces.

So as Lipsky makes the move to Ann Arbor as resident after all the years of commuting, he’s more grateful than ever for the resources that he’s been so fond of highlighting in the town he’ll now call home.

”Made in the USA”

    • Who: The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, with violin soloist Joan Kwuon; the Boychoir of Ann Arbor; and the Vocal Arts Ensemble
    • What: “Made in the USA,” a program of American music by Barber, Bernstein, Daugherty and Gershwin.
    • Where: The Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St.
    • When: Saturday, 8 p.m. Pre-concert lecture for ticket holders at 7 p.m.
      Pre-concert all-American Barbecue Dinner, catered by Zingerman’s Roadhouse, at the Michigan Theater at 5:30 p.m. Michael Daugherty will speak. Tickets, $25, cap of 100 people. Call the A2SO for information, (734-994-4801.
    • How much: $15-$62, by phone to the A2SO, (734) 994-4801, and online at a2so.com. Many discounts for seniors, students and groups.

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Sleight of hand: ‘Kiss & Cry’ offers a world of dreamlike illusion

Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele

Photo by Marteen Vanden Abeele

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct.11, 2014)

A miniature train loops around a track through a bucolic landscape where cows graze alongside an improbable giraffe. Toy people sit on park benches, watch their neighbors through dollhouse windows, stand in little frozen clusters on a hillside dotted with plastic trees. A stage crew creates fantastic effects with flashlights and smoke, sand and water.

We hear a love story, make that five, actually. A narrator speaks of loss, of a woman’s fleeting amorous attachments that were supposed to be forevers, of her lifelong search for a boy whose hand she once touched on a train. Music plays. And hands dance, becoming the lovers of the narrator’s stories and infusing life into the inanimate toy figures on stage.

This is the magical world, dreamlike, childlike, funny and moving, of “Kiss & Cry,” a production of Belgium’s Charleroi Danses conceived by choreographer/dancer Michele Anne De Mey and filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael. The University Musical Society presented “Kiss & Cry” Friday at Power Center; additional performances follow Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

It’s a peek-a-boo, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t world that “Kiss & Cry” offers: you can watch the action live as DeMey and partner Gregory Grosjean perform their “nano-dances” on the miniature sets scattered around the stage; or you can see the action supersized on screen as a crew on stage films it in real time. What occurs in a penumbral space on stage becomes bright on screen. What is small becomes large. What we can see in one space is invisible in another.

And what we can’t see is as important as what we can. When hands are magnified on screen, it’s what’s in the frame that counts. So if fingers become legs – and they do – or a thumb becomes an arm – and it does – then a forearm can be a trunk and the fact that there’s no head to be seen just means it’s not in the picture. We know it’s there.

That we can imagine what is not shown is a tribute to the articulate hands and minds of De Mey and Grosjean; their hands woo and coo, skate and party, caress and cajole, quarrel and make up. And there are moments – and not just in a pillow-talk bedroom scene for hands as lovers – where it almost feels voyeuristic to be watching, so intimate are their encounters. It all makes for terrific theater.

But perhaps the most beautiful moment of the show – which runs about 90 minutes without intermission – comes when De Mey and Grosjean are clearly enough illuminated, head to toe, so that we can shift between watching their duet — contained in space but filled with embraces and passionate intakes of breath — and the screen image, which just captures their hands emerging out of blackness. It’s like hearing the same story twice, from slightly different points of view, and it’s heady and emotionally resonant.

The only thing that tore me from the spell cast by “Kiss & Cry” was the sign on the miniature train station on set: Ann Arbor. I’m sure the company changes it for each town, but it was both a little too cute and too much a reminder of an Amtrak station in town that looks nothing like the storybook Victorian one depicted.

The false notes in this evening of theater ended there, happily.

Like some of the Baroque arias that “Kiss & Cry” uses – the score ranges from those to music by Cage, Gershwin, Prevert and Gorecki – the script, by Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig, favors the ritornello. As the heroine buries memories of each of her past loves, oubliette-like holes open in the snow, sand or sea to swallow her sorrows and her lovers. We see recurrent images of miniature hands nestled in memory boxes; they are like milagros, sacred talismans of what was and still could be. And the narration halts between each love affair for a pithy, offbeat simile. Some love affairs, we are told, for example, are like onions; others are like cheese graters. You’ll have to go to find out why. I wouldn’t want to spoil it.

There are additional performances of “Kiss & Cry” Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Power Center for the Performing Arts, 121 S. Fletcher St. Tickets: University Musical Society, (734) 764-2538, and online at ums.org.

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Who could ask for anything more? George Gershwin’s last piano makes U-M debut

Grijalva poses with the unrestored Gershwin piano shortly after its arrival. Courtesy photo

Grijalva poses with the unrestored Gershwin piano shortly after its arrival. Courtesy photo

Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct.9, 2014)

S’wonderful. Marvelous, too.

The last Steinway grand piano owned by famed American composer George Gershwin – the one on which he most likely composed “Porgy and Bess” – has a new life.

Donated to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 2013 by Marc Gershwin, George’s nephew – the crowning gesture of a partnership between the Gershwin families and U-M during the creation of the U-M Gershwin Initiative – the fully restored piano makes its debut Friday evening at a free School of Music Hill Auditorium concert.

The Gershwin Initiative provides U-M with complete access to the Gershwin archives to develop the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition and comprises student performances, new courses and scholarly symposia. (On Friday, afternoon and pre-concert panels focus on the piano itself and Gershwin’s music.)

‘The piano is the star of the concert,” said U-M Associate Professor of Musicology Mark Clague, a co-director of the U-M’s American Music Institute who heads up the Gershwin Initiative and is editor-in-chief of the critical edition.

It should well be the star. It is only one of three Gershwin-owned Steinways in the U.S. (one resides at the Library of Congress, another at the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame). It will also be the only one of the three to see frequent, regular concert use.

If the piano, in fact, figures in every piece on this all-star program featuring student and faculty performers – for example, in Gershwin’s “Three Preludes,” and in selections from “Porgy and Bess, including the Heifetz violin and piano arrangement of “My Man’s Gone Now” — it unquestionably gets top-of-the-marquee billing in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

That work is a concert headliner for numerous reasons: It receives an emblematic performance in its original 1924 jazz orchestration for Paul Whiteman’s band, The Palais Royal Orchestra, prepared from a Critical Edition score; and the newly refurbished piano that the evening’s soloist, Gil Chapman, plays is the one Gershwin took possession of as he prepared for the 10th anniversary tour of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Gershwin took delivery of the piano, a 1933, 6’4”-long Steinway Model A3, in January of 1934. It stayed with him until his untimely death at 38 in 1937, when it moved to the New York apartment of his mother, Rose Gershwin. When she died, in 1948, Marc Gershwin’s parents, Arthur and Judy, occupied the apartment, and so did the piano – until it left for the U-M in spring 2013.

Hardly played during that time, it was in need of a serious overhaul if it was to become the concert instrument destined for regular use that Marc Gershwin wanted it to be, rather than a Gershwin relic, venerated as a museum piece.

The job of restoration fell to the U-M’s Robert Grijalva, director and assistant professor of piano technology, who enlisted the aid of Patrick DeBeliso, proprietor and artisan/craftsman of PianoCrafters, Inc., in Plymouth, Mich. The Gershwin piano is the latest of several collaborations between the two, who speak about each other’s work with great reverence.

Grijalva has kept a fascinating blog of the piano’s progress, which you can find on the Gershwin Initiative website. In a recent phone conversation, this veteran of many a Steinway restoration said it was a long time before it really hit him hard that this was Gershwin’s piano.

“It didn’t happen until I was voicing the hammers,” he said, referring to the process of tone regulation, near the end of the restoration, through needling and otherwise treating the felt of instrument’s hammers.

“It was not till I actually sat down and stuck the first needles in that I thought, ‘I could screw this up,’ Grijalva said. I had a few false starts, but in the end, after that, it was almost like an easy voicing. The piano cooperated so well, it told me right away what direction it wanted to go. It took me no more than six or seven hours in the end. Beyond that, I could just sit back and relax and listen to the thing. I was sitting there in awe of the sound.”

So were pianists like the U-M’s eminent Martin Katz, said Grijalva, who stopped by for a play and sat to extemporize a la Gershwin. Grijalva says the instrument has a sound that is “classic American, both rich and clean.”

It’s also one that’s worthy of a piano longer than its 6 feet 4 inches. “It’s really a lot bigger than the size of that piano,” said DeBeliso by phone.

In fact, noted Grijalva, one of the reasons Steinway discontinued production of the A3 – it was made only between 1914-1942 – was because this shorter and less expensive instrument was too much competition for the pricier Steinway 6’11” Model B, an instrument coveted by serious pianists. (Steinway recently resumed making the A3’s shorter cousin, the 6’2” Model A.)
Since the Gershwin piano was destined for active performance, many of the decisions regarding its restoration were clear from the outset, Grijalva said.

The sound board, against which the strings vibrate, had lost its its vital crown. It also had a “Grand Canyon running down the middle of it,” Grijalva said. The moving parts of the action were worn, the ivories of the keyboard “dished” from all Gershwin’s use (You can imagine George Gershwin playing — he did that to this keyboard,” it has his DNA,” said Grijalva), and the hammers deeply grooved from repeated strikes of the strings.

As DeBeliso put it, who would want to sand those hammers to smooth them? “Those string marks created “Porgy and Bess.”

And so it was an easy decision, both say, to rebuild the instrument completely while at the same time preserving the old keyframe, keys and action intact. That way, they could leave those Gershwin grooves alone, leave the old action and keyboard alone (“I couldn’t see myself unscrewing action parts and putting them in a garbage can, as decrepit as they are,” said Grijalva. “They’re spent parts, but they’re George Gershwin’s spent parts.”) The action will be on display at the School of Music and – very important – can still be reinserted into piano when the occasion calls for it, providing a another tangible connection to the man himself.

Meanwhile, DeBeliso and Grijalva went about a meticulous replication of the piano’s original mechanisms and parts. “He had the belly, I had the action,” is how Grijalva describes the division of labor.

“Belly work” meant removing and duplicating the old soundboard.
Each Steinway bellyman, DeBeliso explained, had his own idea of how the board should taper around the edges.

“We made an exact replica of the original,” he said.
The new board has the name of the bellyman who signed the board back when it was made in 1933, and “then there’s our name and this year. You’ve got to pay homage those guys, they helped make this piano sound the way it sounds.”
The cast-iron plate was regilded, new strings installed. DeBeliso also forefinished a new keyboard, a requirement with Steinways. Forefinishing is the tedious and exacting process of hand-fitting the keyboard to the instrument.

“I can’t tell you how many people wanted to have their picture taken with the old keyboard,” DeBeliso said. “So many! They would say, ‘I just want to touch it.’ It’s so great that it’s preserved, and if someone is a Gershwin aficionado, all they have to do is slide the new action out and Gershwin’s in, and it’ll work and play.”

“I was blessed that Bob (Grijalva) asked me to do it,” DeBeliso added. “And Bob really nailed that action so nicely. It’s really impressive.”
“Once we had it all together, it just clicked,” said Grijalva. Patrick and I are kindred spirits when it comes to restoring a Steinway. I think if George was around, he would say, ‘My goodness, I love this piano.’”

If the piano sounds the way it might have when it was taken off the dolly in George’s apartment back in 1934, it also looks a bit the same: Grijalva took the same approach to the piano’s case as he did in restoring the Steinway that resides in the U-M Museum of Art – clean the case up, but leave it alone so that it looks of its period. “When you are walking up to it, it looks like a 1933 Steinway that has been used. We certainly wanted to retain that.”

There are those who may wonder, is it really Gershwin’s piano if all the innards are new? Grijalva has a ready answer, one that he relayed in our phone call and that he reiterated online, in the New York Times, in response to a reader comment following an article about the piano.

“The case of the piano and, to an extent, its iron frame are what define the soul and essential character of a Steinway,” he wrote. “As we like to ascribe pianos with human characteristics, the soundboard is the heart, and just like with humans, the heart of a piano can be transplanted with a new one, but the soul remains. As a rebuilder with experience in hundreds of Steinway restorations, I can attest that old Steinways with new boards still retain the sound of the era during which they were built. Pre-war Steinways, with their rims glued together with animal hide glue, don’t come out sounding like the current production pianos, which are assembled using different glues. This can only be the ‘fault’ of the case.”

Each rim on a Steinway, he told me, is “truly unique,” the product of its glues, the way the wood adapted itself to its new shape as it sat in the conditioning room for several months. “That’s what gives the piano its soul,” he said.
“I have a lot of faith that we treated this with all its due respect to George Gershwin and his family. And you can’t argue with the beautiful results.”

Who: Faculty and students from the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance

    • What: All-Gershwin concert to unveil the historic, recently restored George Gershwin piano.
    • Where: Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave.
    • When: Friday, 8:30 p.m., with pre-concert talk at 7:30 p.m.
    • How much: Free! For more information, visit http://www.music.umich.edu
      Also: Free panel discussion at 2:30 p.m. Friday, Hill Auditorium, on the piano’s restoration.

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