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Conductor Sam Hollister, on programming magic

Sam Hollister

Sam Hollister 

It took about two minutes for conductor Samuel Hollister ’18BA ’28DMA to program this coming Friday’s Yale Philharmonia concert, which will feature music by Richard Rodney Bennett, Jessie Montgomery, Ravel, and Sibelius. Hollister built the program around Bennett’s Marimba Concerto, which percussionist Michael Yeung ’22MM ’23MMA ’24AD will perform as the evening’s soloist. When Michael mentioned the Bennett Concerto to me I was surprised because I’d never even heard of this composer,” Hollister said, “but as soon as I listened to the opening of it I knew we were listening to music that comes from another world entirely. From the opening tremolo of the marimba to the oboe solo that accompanies it, it’s transporting us to a world of magic.”

Yeung, a winner of the Young Concert Artists' 2023 Susan Wadsworth Final Auditions and a recipient of the YCA Jacobs Fellowship, is someone who, when he has a musical idea, lives inside it,” Hollister said. “And I think that kind of commitment is necessary to sell a program that’s so driven by magical storytelling. He really inhabits his expression.”    

Once he’d heard the Bennett Concerto, Hollister started thinking about what repertoire “might capture similar curiosity about the magic of the world, and the first thing that came to mind is Sibelius’ Third Symphony.” Hollister has long had a fascination with Nordic orchestral music, in part because his mother’s side of the family is Swedish. “The music of Sibelius and his love of the Finnish countryside and of the mystic serenity of nature is really special to me,” he explained. “I think there’s something almost spiritual about his connection to the Finnish countryside and to nature in the Third Symphony. And it just gives you this good feeling. It’s good-natured, positive music.”

This is the second consecutive year that Hollister will lead the Yale Philharmonia in its annual concert in Morse Recital Hall. Last year’s program was marked by “a darkness and a heaviness,” he said, pointing to the mood of Atterberg’s Eighth Symphony, which closed the 2023 concert. This coming Friday, the Philharmonia will open the evening with a performance of Montgomery’s Starburst and continue with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite before performing the Bennett and the Sibelius. “After hearing the Bennett and thinking of the Sibelius and putting the two pieces together, I instantly knew this was a program about good feelings, a good-natured view and outlook on life,” Hollister said. “Expanding the program beyond these two pieces while thinking about Sprague Hall as the venue, it didn’t take me long to think of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Montgomery’s Starburst,” he said. “I was thinking about how to highlight the magic of Sprague Hall—thinking about this notion of magic, because Woolsey Hall [where the Philharmonia performs the balance of its season] is an incredibly powerful and rich hall, it’s wonderful for long lines and Romantic epiphanies in the strings and big brass fanfares. It really carries sound wonderfully and does some pretty spectacular things to it. Sprague Hall on the other hand is magical and clear. You can hear textures and appreciate their nuances in a way that’s hard to communicate so intimately in Woolsey. So I thought—especially after the success of Le Tombeau de Couperin—why not do another gem by Ravel, the Mother Goose Suite. It fits perfectly with this idea of magic.”

The Mother Goose Suite, though, “begins pianissimo in a very, very intimate and thin orchestration,” Hollister said. “It’s hardly a galvanizing concert opener. So I thought of Starburst by Jessie Montgomery as a short but fiery opening that could set the program in motion.” Montgomery, who recently won a Grammy Award in the “Best Classical Composition” category for a recording of Rounds by pianist Awadagin Pratt and the ensemble A Far Cry, has described Starburst in a program note as “a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors.” Conducting Starburst “almost feels like I give a downbeat and then suddenly I cast a magic spell,” Hollister said. “It’s a powerhouse of a piece. It’s very short, but it takes this energy and it runs with it and it never loses it, so it’s a great way to sort of spin this fairy tale and magical storytelling program into existence.”

It's an uplifting program, one Hollister thinks could give concertgoers something to take home. “I hope every single movement—not just each piece, but really every movement—will give each audience member something to hum as they’re walking out of the hall,” he said. “It’s a singsongy kind of program filled with magical effects and beautiful surprises.”

Samuel Hollister 18BA 28DMA leads the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of music by Richard Rodney Bennett, Jessie Montgomery, Ravel, and Sibelius, with marimba soloist Michael Yeung 22MM 23MMA 24AD, on Friday, Feb. 23, in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Memorial Hall. Learn more here.