A tale of two Tatianas: Yale Opera sopranos discuss challenging role

With performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin fast approaching, singers from the Yale Opera program are in their final stages of preparation. Sopranos Madeline Ehlinger ’20MM and Lauren McQuistin ’19MMA, who will be sharing the role of Tatiana, spoke with us about the rehearsal process and their reflections on the opera.

What do you think makes Eugene Onegin such a quintessential opera? 

Lauren McQuistin. Photo by Synthia Steinem

Ehlinger: I think a lot of the appeal of Eugene Onegin comes from its striking likeness to moments and people in our lives. Almost anyone watching this opera will see themselves or people they know reflected in these characters. This, coupled with the sweeping and unabashedly Russian phrases of Tchaikovsky’s melodies, creates an opera that has the ability to move any listener.

McQuistin: Eugene Onegin isn’t driven by its plot, especially compared to other operas. Despite this, it remains a staple in the operatic canon, which can be attributed to the idiosyncratic yet relatable qualities of the characters and their interpersonal relationships. The source material, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, is to Russia what Goethe’s Faust is to Germany. There is a reverence for this story that prevented so many composers prior to Tchaikovsky from even attempting to put it to music. You can clearly see how Tchaikovsky poured the more hidden parts of himself and his experience into these characters. This relation to them, paired with him being the master of melody, makes something that resonates with people in an unfiltered and very human way. There’s something enchanting about the bareness of the intentions of the characters—Tatiana’s uncensored confession of love, Lensky flying so quickly to anger, Olga’s unashamed wildness, and Onegin’s sole desire to fulfil his own needs. Their interactions and the way they grow (or fail to) create an electricity that drives the opera forward without a convoluted plot. The qualities they display are parts of ourselves that we conceal, but Tchaikovsky puts a magnifying glass on them and refuses to let us hide from them for three acts of exquisite music.

How would you describe Tatiana? How is this role different from other roles you’ve sung, and what have your preparations been like?

Ehlinger: Tatiana, on the surface, is shy, quiet, and lost in her world of novels. And though parts of that analysis are true, she is also bold, dynamic, and full of wit. In opera, you are not always presented with such a layered and complex character. Getting to explore the hugely contrasting elements of her personality through her words and her music has been a really rewarding experience. So many elements of my personality align with Tatiana’s, so I’m using those parallels to interpret her story in a way that feels authentic.

McQuistin: A lot of what has made Tatiana profound for me has come from my experiences as a woman. In operas, especially as a soprano, my role has been as an accessory to a man’s love story, to die, or to go mad. Much of the agency that I have attempted to apply to my characters wasn’t necessarily written into them by the male composers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Tatiana, however, is a character that is entirely in charge of her own destiny. She is an unashamed dreamer and a unique individual, despite those around her not understanding her. She doesn’t descend into madness or apathy, and, most important, she transforms her trauma into success on her own terms. This makes her already extremely relevant to the 21st century, rather than making directorial choices to achieve that. It’s very exciting to present that sort of power on the operatic stage. Her actions are deliberate, and her transparency is brave, which has required a lot of vulnerability during the rehearsal process. She is one of the characters in the opera who goes through a significant change in circumstances, so exploring how she presents before and after her defining moment of heartbreak, whilst maintaining her core values as a character, has been the main challenge.

Madeline Ehlinger. Photo by Andrew Saiz

What is the rehearsal process like for such a huge work? Has singing in Russian posed extra challenges?

Ehlinger: I am a little surprised at how smoothly and fluidly this rehearsal process has unfolded. It is quite a huge work. We all came into staging rehearsals with the music and text diligently learned, due to the help of our dedicated and knowledgeable coaches and teachers. With that base of knowledge, the staging rehearsals felt like the next organic step. And I think we would all agree that the staging has enhanced our singing and interpretation of the text. The Russian was at first a challenge, but it is a language that flows beautifully once it is understood. It was a bit of a challenge, but a rewarding one.

McQuistin: The level of commitment to Eugene Onegin has had to be nothing short of 100 percent from absolutely everyone involved. Due to the interpersonal relationships of these characters being so critical to the shows’ success we have had to commit fully to color them with our own experiences, imaginations, and everything we have in our artist’s toolkit—including dance and stage combat. I have been a Russophile since the age of 16, so I fortunately had a loose grasp of the language and history, but there is no room for approximation in this process. As a class we had the massive advantage of studying Russian lyric diction with Emily Olin last semester, which gave us the necessary tools to get started with reading and comprehension. The text in this opera is more like a novel than a play, with no repetitions of text and extremely florid language, so every ounce of our understanding is required. With the Russian language being so different from the many Romance and Germanic languages that opera fans are more acquainted with, we must be entirely clear with our interpretation and communication, else it becomes impenetrable for both ourselves and the audience. There are certain aspects of Russian opera that differ greatly from other operatic traditions. For instance, Italian emotional climaxes usually are conveyed with a high, sustained note, whereas in Russian opera the melodic lines will utilize descending lines and the lower parts of our range to indicate their points of great drama. Grasping certain characteristics like that is keeping this from becoming a one-size-fits-all operatic approach, and it’s been so exciting to explore and understand exactly how this vastly different musical tradition creates its distinctive sound world.

What has it been like to work with director Paul Curran?

Ehlinger: Working with Paul has been such a rich experience. He’s the best director I can imagine for this opera. He speaks Russian and knows the opera and story in great detail. His expertise has really elevated our work. I have been consistently pushed to overcome my fears as a performer, and Paul has taught me great ways to reach that fearlessness. And I have to mention Perry So, our wonderful conductor, who has really given this music a freshness and incredible energy.

McQuistin: Having direct contact with someone who has worked on the main stages across the world is an experience I will never forget. His resume and accomplishments speak for themselves, but even they can’t fully account for the level of commitment he has to the process, the amount that he demands from us, and his constant search for truth in our performances. As he has worked with the people we aspire to be, he can give us a first-hand account of their own struggles and successes within their individual process. This allows us space and acceptance for our own areas of development and what we still have to learn. The standard he holds us to is something to aspire to, but it is never forgotten that we are in a learning environment, and there is a firm kindness in what is expected of us. From a personal point of view, it is significant for me that he is Scottish. Though I am from Scotland myself, and lived there for most my life, I have never worked with a Scottish director. I believe there needs to be more visibility for Scottish artists, and I want to be a part of that. In my past I have hid my Scottishness to fit in in certain circles, so to work with someone so successful and so unapologetically Scottish has enriched my experience as a Scottish artist working internationally.

Madeline, now that you’re in your second semester of your first year, what are your reflections on your time here in the Yale Opera program thus far?

Ehlinger: I came into this program knowing that the work I was facing would be immense, and I hoped also rewarding. I am glad to say it has been more rewarding that I could have imagined. A lot of that is due to the fantastic group of singers I am surrounded by. The support for one another is abundant, and it really creates an environment with a perfect balance of seriousness and warmth. Yale Opera has helped me grow as a musician in every sense of the word.

Lauren, as a second-year student, now in your second semester, what are your reflections on your time here in the Yale Opera program?

McQuistin: I will never forget the sheer disbelief I felt when I received the call from Doris Yarick-Cross offering me a place in the program. For the longest time I couldn’t fathom that I could have earned a place in a program like this. The program sets a bar for you that initially seems like an absolutely impossible task, and eventually, through relentless support, encouragement, and tutelage, you are given opportunities and performances that make you realize you are achieving that level of performance you initially thought was impossible. Given the small size of the class, we have been able to create a supportive environment where we have been able to challenge ourselves in a safe and productive way. It is truly unique to have so much individual attention and care, which encourages us to take ourselves seriously as artists and performers.

Yale Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin on Friday & Saturday, Feb. 15 & Feb. 16, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2 p.m., at New Haven’s historic Shubert Theatre.

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Published February 4, 2019
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Yale Philharmonia to perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11

Commissioned by Soviet leaders to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday—January 22, 1905—a day on which members of the working class approached the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg asking that working and living conditions be improved, composer Dmitri Shostakovich didn’t write his Eleventh Symphony until 1957, a year after the Hungarian Uprising. Hundreds had died in St. Petersburg a half-century earlier, and thousands, over the course of a few weeks in 1956, had been killed in Budapest, all at the hands of Russian/Soviet troops.

Shostakovich was a savvy enough artist to make sure that his Symphony No. 11 was appreciated by Soviet officials when it had its premiere, in Moscow, in 1957. Still, what most listeners hear, beyond the familiar revolutionary songs and military evocations that imbue the music, is a composer railing against tyranny and its costs.

Though Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg less than a year after the events of Bloody Sunday, he endured the oppression that gripped Russia/the Soviet Union for most of his life. Shostakovich spoke largely, and enigmatically, through his music; his Symphony No. 11 captures the struggle of the many against the power of the few.

In a recent conversation with Sergei Antonov, an assistant professor of history at Yale who specializes in Russia after 1800 and who grew up in the Soviet Union, Yale Philharmonia Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian asked what led the working class, in January 1905, to rally at the Winter Palace of Tsar Nicholas II.

“Petersburg,” Antonov said, “had this mystique of this wonderful sort of legendary city, but in many crucial ways it was just like any other late 19th/early 20th century city: poor transportation, poor hygiene and sanitation, a lot of labor turnover, a lot of risk, poor health care. So, all of those issues were, of course, real. And there was a pretty powerful labor movement. In other words, workers gathering together, going on strike, asking for economic conditions. And then if you add to this a political component … we get this pretty volatile kind of climate.”

On January 22 of 1905, the Russian Revolution began with an event that Shostakovich recounted, more than 50 years later, in his Eleventh Symphony.

“We have this extraordinary scene of the palace square, pre-dawn, this iciness in the air as if people are gradually approaching at the beginning of the symphony,” Oundjian explained. “And then you hear a trumpet fanfare, which is extremely ominous.”

“These horns were a signal to open fire for the troops,” Antonov said.

“The second movement begins and suddenly the atmosphere changes,” Oundjian said. “Suddenly, we are in the action of things.”

Bloody Sunday, as it has come to be known, resulted in hundreds of deaths and marked the beginning of the larger revolution which got traction in 1917 and led to the establishment, in 1922, of the Soviet Union.

Oundjian has called Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony “one of the most powerful pieces ever written,” saying, “It is really about the power of the human struggle and about human defiance.”

Peter Oundjian will lead the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905” on Friday, Jan. 18, at 7:30 p.m., in Woolsey Hall.

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Published January 9, 2019
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Yale Philharmonia to perform music by student composers

The Yale Philharmonia, in rehearsal.

On Dec. 6, guest conductor and YSM alumnus Julian Pellicano ’07MM ’09MM will lead the Yale Philharmonia in a program of new orchestral music by the School’s student composers. As part of the New Music New Haven series, New Music for Orchestra is an annual occurrence, but each performance is distinctly different and offers audiences the opportunity to see brand-new works by YSM’s innovative and talented composition students.

Every year the concert features the orchestral works of different student composers, each of whom has a unique musical style. Tanner Porter ’19MM, whose work Here Comes the Rain will be performed on Dec. 6, said, “One of the things that makes the Yale composition department so particularly wonderful is the fact that everyone is working in largely different sound worlds. While musical tastes and interests overlap, the ways in which we internalize our influences and create from our experiences renders totally diverse works. Our many compositional styles are sure to give this concert a fantastic array of soundscapes to experience.”

New Music for Orchestra presents an exciting program to its audience, but it also provides YSM’s composition students an invaluable learning tool by enabling them to work closely with an orchestra throughout the rehearsal process. “The only way to learn orchestration is to hear your own work,” faculty composer and New Music New Haven Artistic Director Hannah Lash has said. “You can study scores all you want, but there’s nothing like having that hands-on experience.”

There is also something very special about having music performed by an orchestra of one’s peers, in this case the Yale Philharmonia. Ryan Lindveit ’19MM, who will present his piece Pray Away on the concert, said, “I love working with musicians who are around my age, because they are more likely to understand the particular set of cultural circumstances that led to my creating the music on their stands.” About his piece, Lindveit said, “Taking for granted my deeply held belief that music can be a vehicle for emotional transformation, Pray Away is a musical metaphor for unpeeling layers of personal shame to find authenticity.”

The concert on Dec. 6 will feature works by Porter, Lindveit, Aaron Levin, Grant Luhmann, Frances Pollock, Anteo Fabris, and Nate May. Asked about the importance of presenting new music in live performance settings, Porter said, “In my experience, the orchestra is one of the most powerful engines a listener can inhabit. Many of my most meaningful musical memories are from live concerts, where I witnessed the music I’d loved in recordings take shape as it reverberated through the space. But there’s nothing like falling in love with a new piece as you hear it for the first time, and in an orchestra hall—where you can not only listen to but sit inside of and feel the music as it forms.”

Guest conductor and YSM alumnus Julian Pellicano ’07MM ’09MM leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program of new orchestral music by the School’s student composers on Thursday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 p.m., in Woolsey Hall. This New Music for Orchestra program, presented by New Music New Haven, is free and open to the public.

Published November 30, 2018
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Oundjian explores “Also sprach Zarathustra” with Nietzsche expert

Karsten Harries, left, and Peter Oundjian

Peter Oundjian has conducted Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra many times. Never, though, has he dived so deep into Nietzsche’s text, which inspired the tone poem. “It’s a very rare thing to have the opportunity to speak with someone who’s lived with Nietzsche your entire life,” he said to Karsten Harries on Saturday, during a discussion at Harries’ Hamden home. Harries, the recently retired Howard H. Newman Professor of Philosophy at Yale (Harries is also a Yale alumnus and now Professor Emeritus), taught courses on Nietzsche, among others, and on the philosophy of art and architecture. He is also impressively well-versed in music.

In program notes for the work’s 1896 premiere in Frankfurt, Strauss wrote: “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work.”

“He chose which passages would suit his tone poem,” Oundjian, Principal Conductor of the Yale Philharmonia, said, paging through his score.

“There is a clear intellectual progression,” Harries said, a German-language copy of Nietzsche’s text in-hand. “He bends the Nietzsche text to his own ends.” Strauss, Harries pointed out, studied philosophy, aesthetics, and art history in Munich.

With a performance of Also sprach Zarathustra playing, Oundjian and Harries analyzed the music alongside Nietzsche’s text, discussing the notion of eternal recurrence—the idea that “time is a circle,” Harries said, paraphrasing from Zarathustra—and other elements of Nietzsche’s autobiographical narrative.

“It sounds completely like Wagner,” Oundjian said of the second section (“Von den Hinterweltlern”) of Strauss’ tone poem.

“Strauss is looking back,” knowing he has to distance himself from that, Harries said. “He thinks of Wagner as the Hinterweltlern (the “backworld”).” Similarly, Harries said, “Nietzsche clearly struggles with his proximity to Wagner.”

Just as the past is reflected in Strauss’ Zarathustra, the present and the future, and the conflict inherent in living with both in mind, is of importance in both Strauss’ and Nietzsche’s work. “To be human is to be open to the future,” Harries said. Joy, though, is only available in the present. To be human is also to engage with “the rabble,” he said, referring to Zarathustra’s descent from the mountaintop. Nietzsche’s famous line “God is dead” marks Zarathustra’s arrival at humanity.

As the recorded performance of Zarathustra arrived at “Das Tanzlied,” Harries gave Oundjian something to think about. While the music seems to offer a nod to the waltzes of Johann Strauss II (no relation), Harries dismissed that analysis. “I see very much the alpine element and the beer-hall element,” he said. Decades before he composed Zarathustra, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony had captured his fascination with the mountains. As for beer, Strauss’ mother, Josephine, was part of the Pschorr (now Hacker-Pschorr) beer-making family in Munich. Oundjian hadn’t made those connections. Harries’ opinion, Oundjian said, was a “complete enlightenment for me.”

As the recorded performance came to an end, Oundjian, conducting the music (something Harries had said seemed a difficult undertaking), remarked, noting Strauss’ harmonic manipulations, “He can’t resist being a genius.”

Earlier in the conversation, Oundjian had asked Harries, somewhat rhetorically and pointing to the Zarathustra text, “Is it possible that he could express all this musically?”

“I would argue that he was a very astute reader of Nietzsche,” Harries said.

Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian leads the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Strauss’ Nietzsche-inspired tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, with Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Sophiko Simsive ’18MM ’19MMA, on Thursday, Nov. 15, in Woolsey Hall.

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Published November 12, 2018
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Pianist Sophiko Simsive ’18MM ’19MMA, on performing with the Yale Philharmonia

Sophiko Simsive. Photo by Marco Broggreve

Asked about Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, which she will perform with the Yale Philharmonia on Thursday, Nov. 15, Sophiko Simsive ’18MM ’19MMA does not get into musical details. “I’ve been trying to think in a more abstract way,” she said, explaining, “I like to relate to pieces on a personal level.” Simsive described herself as “a musician that always tries to identify the emotion in a piece” and wants the audience to feel that though her performance. “I feel very strongly about this piece,” she said. “I want to bring out my personality and I’m trying to bring out the story I’m trying to tell with it.”

While Simsive has long been familiar with the concerto, it was not until she played a piano arrangement of the orchestra part, for a March 2017 recital here at YSM by Dong Won Lee ’18MM, that she started “thinking deep and really getting my hands on” the piece.

Just hours removed from her first rehearsal with the Philharmonia, Simsive said, “I feel very much part of the orchestra.” Thursday’s concert in Woolsey Hall, she said, will be a high point of her time here at Yale, largely because she will be performing alongside colleagues. “I feel completely like I’m playing at home,” she said.

At the first rehearsal, Simsive said a few words to members of the Philharmonia. “I felt so grateful for the opportunity to play with the Yale Philharmonia. I wanted to let them know that for me it felt like playing chamber music with each and every one of them.” Simsive has worked with many musicians in the YSM community and pointed out that she played piano, celeste, and organ as a member of the Philharmonia in September.

As the soloist on Thursday’s concert, Simsive is looking forward to sharing a bit of herself with the Woolsey Hall audience. “I can tell a lot of different stories,” she said, “but they have to feel something—and that something is my life at Yale.”

Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Sophiko Simsive ’18MM ’19MMA will perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, with the Yale Philharmonia on Thursday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m., in Woolsey Hall. The program also includes Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra.

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SOPHIKO SIMSIVE

Published November 12, 2018
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Yale percussionists prepare for “Symphonie fantastique”

Left to right: YoungKyoung Lee, Russell Fisher, and Jisu Jung

Just a few hours before guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni arrived on campus to start rehearsing the Yale Philharmonia for Friday’s concert in Woolsey Hall, the orchestra’s percussion section played through several passages of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The work, a wildly imaginative piece of program music that calls for a giant ensemble including four timpanists (in the third movement, specifically), will close Friday’s program and introduce concertgoers who are unfamiliar with Berlioz’s score to the heights of the composer’s creativity and the brilliance of his orchestration.

“We can’t help but remind ourselves to be sticking with the story of the music or how Berlioz was while he was writing this piece,” percussionist Jisu Jung ’19MM said.

The program notes (by Liam Viney, ed. Aaron Levin) for Friday’s performance explain: “In the printed program of the first performance, Berlioz provided an outline of the plot: the love-sick hero (presumably himself) is plagued by images of his beloved and troubled by a spiritual sickness. He … is constantly visited by his beloved’s image, accompanied by extreme emotional reactions. Eventually, disillusionment sets in during the third movement, and he poisons himself with opium to assuage the anguish of his unrequited love. Delirium sets in, and he descends into the horrific dream world of the fourth and fifth movements.”

In Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation and Modern Orchestration, percussionist Russell Fisher ’20MMA said, the composer “describes different instruments, he describes also the emotional responses that go along with them. You can really see that in this piece in particular.” And, Jung, said, “You can see how detailed he was when he was writing this.” Fisher added, “There’s very little left up to interpretation.”

“He even suggests sticking,” percussionist YoungKyoung Lee ’19MMA pointed out, which is “really rare, especially at this time.” Symphonie fantastique was composed and premiered in 1830, revised thereafter, and published in 1845.

As they rehearsed the timpani parts in the fourth movement (“March to the Scaffold”), percussionist Arlo Shultis ’20MMA offered, “YoungKyoung’s part and mine are so interlocked. Since I’m playing second timpani, I’m really watching her and watching the conductor, as well.” Shultis and Lee are using similar mallets and the same stickings.

With equal attention to time, sound, and consistency, Fisher and Jung ran through their bass-drum parts in the fifth movement (“Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath”), Fisher executing crescendos and Jung providing attack and decrescendos, with percussionist Kevin Zetina ’20MM playing the chimes. Discussion was had about dynamics, or course, though those will largely be up to Zeitouni, and, to a degree, to Woolsey Hall. That Zeitouni trained as a percussionist will likely factor in to how extreme those dynamics will get. “Our goal,” Jung joked, “is: Play until you get the hand,” the hand being a conductor’s “that’s too much” signal.

Returning to a more serious note, Jung said she and her colleagues (including Shiqi Zhong ’19MM, who doesn’t play on the Berlioz) are “very, very tight.” They bring the skills required of outstanding chamber musicians to the Philharmonia. “We just develop this huge trust in each other,” Fisher said.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni leads the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and music by Saint-Saëns and Debussy on Friday, Oct. 26.

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Published October 23, 2018
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Yale Philharmonia to perform Shakespeare-inspired program

Peter Oundjian. Photo by Sian Richards

Programming a Yale Philharmonia concert is always about providing context for each piece. To open the 2018-2019 Philharmonia season, Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian has put together a program of repertoire inspired by the words and works of Shakespeare: Berlioz’s Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict, based on the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing; Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, which uses text from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to celebrate the power of music; and selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. “There is a lot of extraordinary music that was inspired by arguably the greatest poet of all time,” Oundjian pointed out, explaining that “it’s the element of curiosity and adventure that make this kind of program so interesting.”

The challenge members of the Philharmonia have taken up with this program is, in Oundjian’s words, “to basically sound like many different orchestras in one evening. You need to be able to be many, many characters and describe many scenes.” For the Berlioz, he said, the musicians “need sheer virtuosity.” The Serenade to Music, for which the Yale Glee Club and the Yale Voxtet will join the orchestra, is intense in its serenity and introspection. (Reportedly, Rachmaninoff, who performed on the same program in 1938 that featured the premiere of the Serenade to Music, was reduced to tears by the piece’s beauty.) “This piece is magical,” Oundjian said, looking forward to collaborating with the Glee Club and Voxtet. “It’s a thrill to hear wonderful vocal groups. There’s nothing more immediate or direct than the singing voice.”

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, “one of his absolute masterpieces,” Oundjian offered, carries the listener from the tender to the tragic. For this performance, the Philharmonia will use Oundjian’s arrangement of the composer’s ballet score, whereas most orchestras perform one of the three concert suites that Prokofiev created. “The order of events, in the suites, is not respected,” Oundjian explained. “(Prokofiev) didn’t try to make the suites chronologically correct.” In creating his arrangement, Oundjian sought to offer a symphonic expression of the ballet. “I wanted people to be able to follow the story,” he said. The Philharmonia will tell that story, and those being told by Berlioz and Vaughan Williams with inspiration (and words) from the Bard.

Members of the Philharmonia, Oundjian said, are “extremely sensitized to deep human emotions. They’ve had to find a way to connect with deep human emotions because they play an instrument.” Together, they are able to convey and express what a composer—three composers, in the case of this program—sought to share with concertgoers. They enjoy the process of putting a program together and letting it take on a life of its own on stage in Woolsey Hall. “By the time the concert comes, there’s a camaraderie that they’ve discovered in a very short time,” Oundjian said. “There’s absolutely a sense of discovery and spontaneity.”

Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program of music inspired by Shakespeare on Friday, September 28, at 7:30 pm, in Woolsey Hall.

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Published September 20, 2018
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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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Winners of 2018 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition announced

The 2018 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition took place on Sunday, April 8. This year’s competition yielded three winners: tubist Jacob Fewx ’18MM, who performed Arild Plau’s Concerto for Tuba and Strings; pianist Sophiko Simsive ’18MM, who performed Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15; and flutist Jungah Yoon ’19MM who performed Carl Reinecke’s Flute Concerto in D major, Op. 283. As winners, these students will perform with the Yale Philharmonia during the 2018-19 season. Cellist Samuel DeCaprio ’18MMA was selected as an alternate, and violinist Ariel Horowitz ’19MM received an honorable mention.

The judges were violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv, who serves as assistant professor of violin and viola and coordinator of strings at the University of Connecticut, André-Michel Schub, who is on the piano and chamber music faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, and New York Philharmonic bass trombonist George Curran, who is a faculty member at Rutgers University and the Manhattan School of Music.

We congratulate our outstanding students and look forward to hearing them perform next season with the Yale Philharmonia.

Published April 9, 2018
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Yale Philharmonia Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Peter Oundjian. Photo by Sian Richards

On Friday, April 6, the Yale Philharmonia will perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Woolsey Hall. We spoke with Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian about the piece and the context in which it was composed.

Q: What is worth thinking about as an audience member listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony?

A: One thing that is pretty clear is that it has so much finality in it. Maybe we can even think of it as the final statement in what we might call the traditional language of classical music. This idea that it’s almost a prophecy of what’s to come is I think essential to understanding and listening to the Ninth Symphony of Mahler. He’s (also) taking you on a journey of contradiction, which is so important to Mahler’s whole world, because he had so many areas in which he was conflicted. Is he a conductor? Is he a composer? Is he cosmopolitan? Is he provincial? All these things tore him apart his whole life. His religion and hiding the fact that he was Jewish — so many things created this feeling of enormous conflict inside him. And so I think that in some ways the Ninth Symphony doesn’t need so much explaining, because it’s so accessible at the beginning and you realize that you are in between a kind of sense of fear and terror and great tenderness, and that it is a struggle to understand the meaning of life and the meaning of love, particularly.

Q: What is the story of this piece?

A: There’s a lot of death that is referred to in this music, and there’s very good reason for that. In his own personal situation, the fact that he’d just lost his daughter. The fact that he had this heart arrhythmia — there’s kind of a description of that uneven heartbeat at the opening. So there’s all of that, but there is also this death that a lot of people talk about, which is that tonality was ending and Mahler knew it.

Q: To what degree do you work with the members of the Philharmonia to get on the same page about the history and background of the work? 

A: I approach this a little bit like a director approaches a play. I think that they should come with some understanding of their role and certainly with the ability to play it. Part of what I enjoy (about) working with these wonderfully talented students is to engage them in discussion (about) the concepts and the philosophies behind it and the history and particularly that moment in Mahler’s life and how special it was.

Q: What are the challenges that an ensemble faces with this piece?

A: What we have to do is apply an incredible discipline to be able to play together while also allowing ourselves to have extremely spontaneous energy. That’s one of the things I value most about being on stage, that this is the moment and we’re going to lay it all out there. It doesn’t mean we lose discipline, but we take an enormous amount of risk. And that can be risk of great virtuosity and the risk of making yourself extremely open and vulnerable to very profound and tragic kind of feelings, which will only be projected into the concert hall and shared with our public if we all are in touch with those feelings.

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Published March 28, 2018
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