Marin Alsop to lead Yale Philharmonia in program of Bernstein, Beethoven

Marin Alsop. Photo by Adriane White

Yale Philharmonia Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian has described Marin Alsop as “one of the greatest conductors of her generation.” A 2005 MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”) recipient, Alsop has served since 2007 as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She has also led the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and has appeared with many of the world’s most celebrated ensembles. Alsop was recently appointed chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the latest in a series of “firsts” as a woman conductor.

“I’m very honoured to be the first, but I’m also rather shocked that we can be in this year, in this century, and there can still be ‘firsts’ for women,” Alsop told The Guardian. She made similar comments, at greater length, at the final concert of the 2013 BBC Proms.

Eager to see others succeed as she has, Alsop established the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which helps prepare women conductors for work on the podium and in offstage leadership areas, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, which was “designed to create social change and nurture promising futures for youth in Baltimore City neighborhoods,” according to the organization’s website.

Alsop has not been shy about using her position in the music world to point out inequities. Her social activism was inspired in part by her mentor, the late Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th birthday, which falls on August 25, the performing arts community has been celebrating.

“He was a very generous human being who believed in access and inclusion and equity for all people,” Alsop said of Bernstein, with whom she studied at Tanglewood. That legacy, she said, “inspires me to try to use the opportunities I have to create a more just landscape for people.”

On Friday, April 20, Alsop will lead the Yale Philharmonia, Yale Glee Club, and Yale Camerata in a performance of Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony, on a program that also includes Bernstein’s Opening Prayer and Chichester Psalms. Beethoven’s Ninth, she said, “was a critical piece for Bernstein,” one that represented possibility and hope. It’s a piece he famously conducted in Berlin, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a performance that featured musicians from East and West Germany, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. It was the hope that Bernstein found in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that Alsop is eager to celebrate, along with Bernstein’s birthday and his music.

In addition to Bernstein’s Opening Prayer, which was composed for the 1986 reopening of Carnegie Hall and eventually became part of his Concerto for Orchestra, the April 20 Yale Philharmonia program includes Chichester Psalms. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Alsop said, Chichester Psalms is “a piece about hope and possibility.”

Having worked closely with Bernstein certainly informs Alsop’s performances of his music. “Knowing a composer as a human being gives us that added dimension, that added insight” into the motivation for writing a piece, she said. It is her responsibility, and the Philharmonia’s, to tell the music’s story. And that’s the same wherever she’s conducting. “I approach every orchestra as professional musicians whom I respect,” she said. While more might be expected of her, in terms of providing insight or direction, from a younger orchestra than from a veteran ensemble, “I don’t think about it any differently.”

On Wednesday, April 18, Alsop will join School of Music Dean Robert Blocker for a conversation about Leonard Bernstein’s legacy and music, the pursuit of diversity in our field, Beethoven’s revolutionary Ninth Symphony, and working with the next generation of orchestral musicians.

On Friday, April 20, guest conductor Marin Alsop will lead the Yale Philharmonia, Yale Glee Club, and Yale Camerata in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, on a program that also includes Bernstein’s Opening Prayer and Chichester Psalms.

A CONVERSATION WITH MARIN ALSOP
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Published April 13, 2018
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Violist Josip Kvetek ’18MM, on being a soloist with an orchestra of his peers

Josip Kvetek ’18MM

When violist Josip Kvetek ’18MM played Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola on a recital here at YSM last year, it wasn’t with an eye on performing the piece with the Yale Philharmonia, which he’ll do on Friday, Jan. 26. “It’s not very serious music,” Kvetek said, explaining that the Paganini sonata is a fun piece of music, a quirky sonata that just happens to be, in the words of principal conductor Peter Oundjian, “probably the most difficult piece ever written for viola.” After Kvetek’s recital performance last year, his teacher, Ettore Causa, suggested that he enter the Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition, which Kvetek won in April 2017.

The sonata, Kvetek said, is “not standard repertoire for viola.” Paganini, he explained, “commissioned a piece from Berlioz” to be played on a five-string viola. Berlioz, in response, composed Harold in Italy, an orchestral piece with viola solos. “Paganini didn’t like the first draft of the piece,” Kvetek said, “so he decided to write his own piece.” The result is “a sonata for solo instrument and orchestra, which is very odd.”

Kvetek will perform the piece on a standard viola, an instrument without an added E string, which means “I have to play with an improvised thumb position” to execute passages in the instrument’s upper register. In terms of interpretation, Kvetek said, “it’s very simple, harmonically and melodically. It’s just simple from every angle.” Still, it’s a piece that can easily feel like blocks of virtuoso passages arranged without much cohesion. “It starts becoming 50 little tasks,” Kvetek said, “and not one, coherent story. The part that helps with that is it’s very operatic. It’s much easier if you let go of the classical way of thinking.”

Now in the second year of YSM’s master of music degree program, studying with Causa, and with Steven Tenenbom while Causa is on sabbatical, Kvetek has done his share of playing with the Yale Philharmonia as a member of the orchestra’s viola section. On Jan. 26, he’ll be out front, next to guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who’ll lead a program that also includes Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version) and Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Performing as the soloist with an orchestra of his peers is “a little bit more stressful,” Kvetek said, “because you do know all the people. The benefit is that they’re very supportive and very helpful in the process. Everybody is hoping or cheering that you play the best you can. It becomes much easier to play in that environment.” The stress, he said, comes from wanting “to present yourself well” in front of one’s peers.

Given the operatic nature of the Paganini sonata, Kvetek said, “The majority of it is on me to deliver a performance that other people can follow.” Part of that responsibility, to be sure, falls on Solzhenitsyn, with whom Kvetek hasn’t worked. Basing his impressions on YouTube videos, Kvetek described Solzhenitsyn as an expressive conductor, which “will help me connect with the orchestra and will help bring this piece together.” Because there’s no “prescribed way of how you perform” the Paganini, Kvetek said, “It’s up to me to play it just the way I want to play it.”

On Friday, Jan. 26, guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program that includes Stravinsky’s spellbinding Firebird Suite (1919 version), Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s inventive and affecting Symphony in D minor.

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Published January 18, 2018
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Ignat Solzhenitsyn, on “Firebird” and working with young musicians

Ignat Solzhenitsyn

Principal conductor Peter Oundjian has said that guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who’ll lead the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version, from the composer’s ballet score) on Friday, Jan. 26, “particularly wanted to do this piece with our students.” Solzhenitsyn recently pointed out that it’s “one of the very, very greatest orchestral paintings in our repertoire and a piece that, of course, is predicated upon the limitlessness of imagination.” Imagination, Solzhenitsyn said, is most fertile and open to influence during one’s youth. The Firebird Suite “is really a piece that, more than anything, is for young people,” he said. “It will showcase the Yale Philharmonia to beautiful effect.” The orchestra, in turn, will provide a capable vehicle for the stuff of Stravinsky’s imagination — and for the Russian legend that the composer explored — which will no doubt inspire the Woolsey Hall audience, just as it has long captivated audiences around the world.

With Solzhenitsyn, who serves as principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the Yale Philharmonia will also perform Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Kvetek recently said that the Paganini is “not standard repertoire for the viola,” and that while it’s “very simple, harmonically and melodically,” it’s not a piece that on its own tells “one coherent story.”

“The part that helps with that,” Kvetek said, “is it’s very operatic.” Kvetek “nailed it,” Solzhenitsyn agreed, saying the Paganini is a show piece, one that’s very difficult for the soloist. What makes it fun, Solzhenitsyn said, is the very notion that Paganini, a virtuoso violinist, produced such a piece for the viola. “Charm, wit, teasing, easy grace — those kind of words inform this work,” he said.

Asked about the Franck being a piece that’s gone in and out of favor with orchestras, Solzhenitsyn bristled. “It’s a concept I still have trouble wrapping my head around,” he said, pointing to the obvious fact that “the intrinsic worth of ‘X’ has nothing to do with if it’s popular or not, or has very little to do with it.” He’s among those who don’t understand why the Franck symphony is not performed more frequently, give that it is, undeniably, a “touchstone of the Romantic symphonic repertoire.”

“The beauty, the power, the innocence, the honesty of this music, I think, speaks for itself,” Solzhenitsyn said.

Seeing Solzhenitsyn on the podium will be a new experience for members of the Philharmonia. And working with Yale students, for Solzhenitsyn, will present a different opportunity than the experiences he’s had leading ensembles of more seasoned musicians. A collective sense of wonder and discovery that is at times diminished in a professional ensemble, he said, is right there, in all its glory, for everyone to see in a young ensemble.

On Friday, Jan. 26, guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program that includes Stravinsky’s spellbinding Firebird Suite (1919 version), Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s inventive and affecting Symphony in D minor.

DETAILS & TICKETS
WATCH A PREVIEW VIDEO

Published January 17, 2018
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