nso

Aug 21

Q&A with ERIC SHIN, NSO Principal Percussion

What university or conservatory did you attend?
I attended Cleveland Institute of Music and The Juilliard School.

Was it for music?
Yes

What is your favorite piece (or pieces) to play in the orchestra?
Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony. The satisfaction of laying down a 5 foot hammer during a symphonic concert - a particularly fun part of being a percussionist! 

Do you have a pre-concert ritual or routine?
I like to arrive early to make sure all of the percussion equipment and instruments are properly set up for the concert. A unique part to being principal percussionist is the responsibility of assigning the percussion parts and choreographing the percussion equipment and changes for the music.

Describe your favorite NSO moment:
The moment I won this job!

What are three songs or pieces you love to listen to?
In my playlist now: Tower of Power, Radiohead, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Did you grow up in a musical household?
My parents are not professional musicians, but they both love music. My mother was a great singer and my father played the piano and guitar at home. There was an endless stream of music playing from Dad’s LP collection: jazz, classical, Beatles, you name it.

What did you want to be growing up?
I grew up working in the tech industry in high school and college.

When did you know you wanted to be a professional classical musician?
I found working with computers to be unfulfilling and, instead, decided to pursue a career of what I loved most. 

What is your favorite thing about living in the DC area?
Living in such a culturally vibrant city! Wonderful people and food everywhere.

Where is your favorite DC hangout?
The many restaurants and bars in the 14th St Corridor or the music library at the Kennedy Center.

Do you have any pets?
Dexter, our Boston Terrier.

What is your favorite way to spend your free time?
Cooking, traveling, and finding an excuse to spend time outdoors!

Favorite movie:
The Godfather 2.

Favorite book:
The autobiography of Miles Davis. 

Favorite sports team:
The Detroit Tigers!

Name one thing people would be surprised to know about you.
I can cook a killer pizza.

Jul 21

NSO at Wolf Trap: Mary Chapin Carpenter: Songs from the Movie

August 1 at 8:15 p.m.
Tickets available here.

A LITTLE BIT MARY

Playbill note by Emil de Cou, NSO at Wolf Trap Festival Conductor

It’s time for me to fess up: I am, in fact, an Osmond brother switched at birth. Somewhere out there in Utah, among a large, happy Mormon family, there is a California-born Catholic schoolboy of Portuguese descent dishing with Donnie and Marie. Dig deep into my iPhone and you will discover that, beneath that classical and pop façade, I am truly a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n roll. Which is why I’ve been a fan of tonight’s soloist, Mary Chapin Carpenter, for so many years.

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Though Columbia Records began marketing Carpenter as a country singer when she signed with them in the late 1980s, and it is in that category that she has climbed the Billboard charts and garnered a shelf-full of Grammys, she is no coal miner’s daughter born in a Kentucky holler. The daughter of a successful publishing executive, she was born in Princeton, New Jersey, educated at fine prep schools, and graduated from Brown University in 1981. Like many dreamy teenagers of the era, she was greatly influenced by The Mamas & the Papas, Judy Collins, and that Goddess of Girl Guitarists, Joan Baez.

Carpenter cut her teeth as a performer at various clubs here in Washington, D.C., including the late, great Childe Harold pub just off Dupont Circle, where Emmy Lou Harris and Bruce Springsteen also played early gigs. Unlike Harris and Springsteen, Carpenter did not have a sandwich named in her honor, but like them she would develop a unique American voice not easily pigeon-holed. No matter what record company marketing executives say, to my ear she is a singer-songwriter who offers a unique blend of a little of everything: folk, pop, bluegrass, and country.

Her first album, Hometown Girl, made the public radio circuit, but it wasn’t until State of the Heart and Shooting Straight in the Dark when she started topping the charts and winning awards with hit singles such as “Down at the Twist and Shout.” Come On Come On would be a monster hit, easing her crossover to pop and adult contemporary. Performers like Joan Baez, Wynonna Judd, and Trisha Yearwood began performing her songs, and she even recorded a duet with Dolly Parton. By the late 1990s her repertoire expanded to include powerful statements on political issues that deftly touched the heart and soul without touching any live wires.

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As she comes home once again to Wolf Trap under the baton of Vince Mendoza, Carpenter brings us “Songs From The Movie,” based on her album of the same name. Arranged by Mendoza, the album features classic Carpenter (“Come On Come On,” “On And On It Goes,” “I Am A Town,” and “Goodnight America”) as well as tributes to her favorite film and orchestral music. Her eclectic inspirations ― from film composer Elmer Bernstein to orchestral composer Tobias Picker ― ensure that at this concert, in the waning days of summer, we will hear a little of everything wonderful from our Mary Chapin Carpenter, our hometown girl.

Jul 10

NSO at Wolf Trap: 2001: A Space Odyssey

July 19 at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets available here.

THUS SPAKE KUBRICK AND CLARKE

Playbill note by Emil de Cou, NSO at Wolf Trap Festival Conductor

Prepare to watch one of the greatest silent films ever made. Or rather, four of them to be precise, each an elaborate chapter of the past and the future as envisioned by two unlikely collaborators: Stanley Kubrick, a New York born film director who made his home in England, and Arthur C. Clarke, an English-born science fiction writer who made his home in Sri Lanka.

I say “silent” because there is precious little spoken dialogue in this two and a half-hour film.  There are animal grunts, a bit of space station chit-chat, and some memorable dialogue between a computer named Hal and an astronaut named Dave, but for the most part 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sensual journey. Desolate landscapes, planetary events, spaceship trajectories and kaleidoscopic worm holes are the stuff of this cult feast of iconic imagery.

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No less iconic is the score, which, like the screenplay, is more collage than narrative. Kubrick originally commissioned a full score from the great Hollywood composer Alex North, but when studio executives anxiously requested to see early previews of the film, Kubrick swapped in classical masterpieces at the last minute.  He liked what he heard, and the rest is music history:  Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra became synonymous with celestial phenomena, along with Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz, György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, and Aram Khachaturian’s Suite from the ballet Gayane. As Disney did with Fantasia, Kubrick mined the classical repertoire for its ineffable ability to communicate timeless human emotion: fear, hope, love, loss and the stuff that dreams are made of.

Though words like “epic,” “classic,” and “cult” are often used to describe 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is at its core a rather disjointed four-act play.  In Act One (“The Dawn of Man”) early hominids are disturbed by the emergence of an unidentifiable alien object. In Act Two (“TMA-1”) we join a space journey that hints at further disruptions in the cosmos  Act Three (“Jupiter Mission”) is the core of the film, with its chilling encounter between man, as portrayed by the peerless Keir Dullea, and computer, played by the deadpan-voiced Hal. Act Four (“Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”) brings us to the outer limits of time and space, enrapturing us with the curious face of the Space Child.

Should you seek coherence and meaning between these four chapters, don’t look to Kubrick or Clarke.  In numerous interviews after the film’s 1968 premiere, and in decades afterwards, they eschewed explanation, allowing the film to speak for itself. Meanwhile, sociologists, anthropologists, poets, philosophers, college students and all manner of armchair filmmakers have analyzed every frame.  A sequel, 2010: Space Odyssey Two, helped clear up a few plot lines (like why Hal went bonkers), but much is, and will always be, left to the imagination.

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Kubrick and Clarke were themselves cult figures in their respective genres, but with 2001 they influenced multiple generations of filmmakers, whose work often directly or indirectly pays tribute.  The Alien, Star Wars, Star Trek, Matrix, and Terminator series all borrow heavily from 2001 in their mythological battles and classical music scores. When I see Dave playing chess with Hal, I think of Matthew Broderick in War Games. When I see Dave winding down a colorful wormhole I think Jodie Foster in Contact.  When Dave crosses through a revolving corridor I think of Julia Roberts in Helix, the film within the film Notting Hill.  Last but not least, is the terrifying spacewalk, brilliantly re-imagined by Sandra Bullock in Gravity.

Though 2001 is, on the surface, a story of technology, it is at its core a human story: the thirst for knowledge and the discovery of the unknown, with all its comedic asides. It’s hard not to laugh as we watch 1960s “mod” stewardesses attempting to defy gravity, while space travelers watch movies on seatbacks and Skype birthday greetings home.  Eating is always a challenge, as is the, a-hem, other essential function: Kubrick winks by showing us the Zero-Gravity Toilet. And of course there is the growing sense of entitlement in the voice of Hal who, anxious about his imminent demise, advises Dave to “take a stress pill.” 

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If you are wondering why the amazing Keir Dullea, who plays Dave, seems so familiar, and yet so forgotten, well, to an extent he is and was: a well-regarded stage actor before and after 2001, he never again achieved the stature of such a leading role in film. His quiet beauty and controlled anguish carries the film ― much of the movie is just him, a disembodied voice and the camera.  Perhaps his range was limited, perhaps he had a lousy agent, but most likely, as with Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho, the actor and character became irrevocably, indelibly fused.

Considering how much film-with-orchestra has become an essential part of our summers together with NSO at Wolf Trap, it comes as a surprise that this concert this is the NSO debut of this production, presented by arrangement with Warner Bros., Southbank Centre London, and the British Film Institute.  How wonderful that this timeless space odyssey can now become part of our summer under the stars!

Jul 07

NSO at Wolf Trap: An Evening of Tchaikovsky, Ravel & Rossini

July 18 at 8:15 p.m.
Tickets available here.

HI-YO, NSO AT WOLF TRAP!

Playbill note by Emil de Cou, NSO at Wolf Trap Festival Conductor

Witty exchanges among composers are as rare as they are apocryphal.  Rare, because composers, cooped up in their studies with music forever running through their head, much of which will never be heard outside their imagination, are generally not the life of a party; what barbs they deliver are often at each other and at an ungrateful world. And apocryphal because they are handed down so many times that their accuracy becomes diminished. Still, the oral history of classical music is filled with as many ripostes as there are notes.

Among my favorites is the exchange that reportedly occurred between the great French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the great American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) while Ravel was touring America in 1928.  Gershwin expressed an interest in studying with Ravel, to which the Frenchman replied: “Why would you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?”  When Ravel inquired as to how much money Gershwin earned, the reply provoked him to say, “Perhaps I should be studying with you!” 

Money may not be the measure of success for a composer, but if there was a Forbes list of the richest composers all three of this concert’s composers would be near the top; all enjoyed the fruits of their labors while alive. Ravel’s success was perhaps the most surprising.  Repeatedly rejected by the musical establishment ― denied medals and prizes, forced out of conservatories ― he ended up usurping all of his peers in popularity.  Boléro is one of the most frequently performed works in the repertoire, as are La Valse, Rapsodie espagnol, Daphnis et Chloé, his masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and the two piano concertos, one of which we will hear performed by the masterful young (well, younger than me) pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet under the baton of our wonderful friend of the NSO, Andrew Litton.

Ravel’s popular success goes beyond profitability: his deft orchestration and sparing use of instrumental colors up-ended the heavy-handed Germanic styles that dominated the orchestral world in the late 19th century.  Like his French peers Chabrier, Satie, and Debussy, Ravel infused the classical music world with an impressionistic less-is-more aesthetic that broadened the palette of composition.  We owe as much of what we love about music ― not just in the concert hall, but in the musical theater, standards, jazz and even pop arrangements ― to Ravel’s elegant simplicity as we do to Bach’s structure and Wagner’s bombast.

That this program matches a French composer and a French pianist should not be considered favoritism.  Ravel, born of Basque and Swiss heritage, mined sources from Moscow to Harlem.  You’ll have no trouble detecting the jazz infusions in the Piano Concerto in G major.  Thibaudet is equally at home with Gershwin and Grofé as he is with the standard repertoire with the world’s major orchestras.  You can also hear his playing in Dario Marinelli’s film scores for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, the latter of which is the most brilliant use of the typewriter as a musical instrument since Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter.

Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to William Tell, lassoed by The Lone Ranger, became an American standardthrough no fault of its own. As the theme music for an adventure show that passed effortlessly from radio to film to television, the staccato “March of the Swiss Soldiers” was a logical accompaniment to hoof beats in pursuit.  That a tuneful work by Rossini (1792-1868) permanently entered our musical vocabulary should really not come as a surprise: at a time when opera was mainstream entertainment, Rossini was the most popular composer alive.  And prolific and enduring too:  though his cantatas and sacred works are rarely performed today, ten of his 39 operas remain in the standard repertoire of major opera houses.  Alas, his most famous work, The Barber of Seville, was also co-opted by another hero of popular culture, Bugs Bunny.

We conclude the evening with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, the triumphant achievement of the louder-faster-higher school of Russian music.  Though received with mixed reviews, in part because of its programmatic rather than formal structure, it remains a staple of the concert hall and the recording resume of every major conductor and orchestra.* Urgent, romantic and poetic, in it Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) struggles to maintain to the traditional German sonata architecture of a symphony, but inevitably spills from the head into the heart.

From France and Italy and Russia, with love.

*The NSO recorded it under its third music director, Antal Dorati, in 1972.

Jul 01

NSO at Wolf Trap: Disney Fantasia Live in Concert

July 11 & 12 at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets available here.

FANTASIA: THE JOURNEY

Playbill note by Emil de Cou, NSO at Wolf Trap Festival Conductor

Back in ye olden days, before video devices made us controllers of our content ― when “content” meant “happy” and “controller” had nothing to do with gaming  ― we were not nearly as hapless and helpless as today’s young’uns think we were. We may not have been able to micro-manage our daily entertainment by the micro-moment, but we had wise men and women of exceptional taste who created and curated entertainment on our behalf.

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Walt Disney was such a creator/curator.  He created, with the assistance of brilliant artists, completely original works that synthesized image and sound, establishing a cannon of animated and live-action films that are as much a part of the psychic bookshelf of young minds as the works of the Brothers Grimm or Rudyard Kipling (each of whom he borrowed from unabashedly). And he curated his wares with a keen business sense, knowing which cities would be best for premieres, how often to re-release his films to whet the public appetite, and how and when to ignite the power of theme parks and new technologies to extend the Disney brand.

It’s impossible to say objectively which is Disney’s “best” animated film, because there are so many to cherish, from his first major feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938) to Frozen (2013).  But without question, the most influential Disney film for those of us in the classical music field ― the one that helped set me on my professional path  ―  is Fantasia. No, I didn’t see it when it first premiered in 1940 in my home town of Los Angeles, but I did see it as a lad in short pants in the 1970s during one of its regular re-releases. With its mixture of avant-garde and slapstick, the film charmed common folk and critics at its debut and entranced this gawky kid thirty-something years later. In an era before MTV or VH1 or You Tube, the idea that you could be immersed in a wonderful world of color and characters and symphonic music was transporting. 

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Fantasia has been edited and enhanced for various editions, but I clearly remember my first viewing. Deems Taylor, the esteemed classical music critic and commentator, came up on the screen to introduce the program. (I thought he was Walt Disney; I was wrong.)  Then the great conductor Leopold Stokowsky ascended an immense podium. (I thought he was God; wrong again, but closer.) Then the giant shadows and blast of instruments brought Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor to life. The shock of that opening sequence never wears off, especially when I realize now how bold such aesthetics were at the time: in 1940 the public had barely accepted cubism and abstract expressionism in the fine arts, and here Hollywood, with its obsessive focus on the populist bottom line, embraced it fully. (And this was 15 years before The 5,000 Fingers of Doctor T, my second favorite psychedelic film!)

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In this concert we hear a mash-up of selections from the original Fantasia, as well as the sequel produced sixty years later, Fantasia 2000.  Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski have been replaced with a cavalcade of contemporary comics, and we begin not with my beloved Bach Toccata but with the mighty Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, envisioned in a series of thunderous shapes and colors, in homage to the original Bach overture. From there our parade of masterpieces unfolds: a mythic tableau of centaurs, cupids, and fauns gamboling to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”) followed by delicate figurines moving in colorful formation to the lush melodies of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”  Debussy’s Clair de lune, with its lone egret soaring in the moonlight, was cut from the original Fantasia but has since been restored.

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Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, with hippos in tutus, is pure cotton candy, but the dark cartoon that follows, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, reminds us that not all fables have a happy ending: our beloved Mickey Mouse reaches too far in his pursuit of magic powers and ends up awash (quite literally) in a nightmarish comeuppance.  We end the evening in grand style, with majestic selections from Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, starring Donald Duck as an unlikely ship’s mate to Noah, of Ark fame.

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A conductor often becomes immersed in the score to the point of distraction, especially when leading an ensemble as great as the National Symphony Orchestra, and even more so when the breeze of a summer evening swirls around the Filene Center.  But for me few musical experiences are as distracting ― perhaps transporting is the better word ― as Fantasia.  With its twists and turns from merry to scary, from high art to buffoonery, from magic to majestic, it is not just a synthesis of music and film.  It is a journey.

Won’t you join me?

NSO at Wolf Trap: Matthew Morrison

Thursday, July 10 at 8:15 pm
Tickets available here.

LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE MEN (AND THE LADY)

Playbill note by Emil de Cou, NSO at Wolf Trap Festival Conductor

Where are the leading men of yester-year? Those suave, versatile show-stoppers who can sing, dance, act and make’em laugh in any genre, as comfortable on the stage as they are on screens big and small. Where is Mr. James Cagney?  Mr. Bert Lahr? Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr. ? Mr. Robert Preston? Where are the heirs to these consummate entertainers?

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One of them most assuredly is joining the NSO at Wolf Trap: Matthew Morrison.  Before he became the heartthrob Spanish teacher/glee club coach on Fox television’s Glee, Morrison was already the real thing: a Broadway song-and-dance man who worked the boards in musical adaptations of films (Footloose, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hairspray), revivals of musical theater classics (South Pacific) and new works for the stage (The Light in the Piazza). And let us not forget his YouTube classic: ukulele rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the 2010 White House Easter Egg Roll.

Morrison’s accomplished professionalism and youthful verve come with that special something (perhaps the dimpled chin that his Glee nemesis Sue Sylvester mocks?) that empowers his let’s-put-on-a-show television cast to create fully choreographed, costumed, fully orchestrated production numbers in a matter of minutes. He is the consummate teacher-mentor in a cardigan, inspiring his students to aim high but always there in case they fall. He is Mr. Kotter, but without the New York wisecracks and with a music director always on call.

Morrison’s charisma on stage and screen are undeniable, and we look forward to seeing his many talents on the stage under the baton of NSO Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, but he is, in fact, part of a wonderful generation of leading men who can truly “do it all.”  If you’ve seen Hugh Jackman purr “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” onstage in Oklahoma! or shake his stuff in The Boy from Oz you’d find it hard to believe he’s Wolverine. If you confuse the womanizing Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, with the openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris, then you’ll be seriously befuddled by his Tony Award-winning performance as a transsexual rock star on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And let’s not forget those Broadway stalwarts, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane who, separately or together, can bring the house down in any and every genre they tackle.

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Of course, the one thing every leading man needs is a woman, and who better to join the NSO and Matthew Morrison than the lovely Laura Benanti. Nominated four times for the Tony Award (and garnering one for her performance as Louise in Gypsy) Benanti, like Morrison, is the tried and true Broadway professional, gliding easily from featured roles to leading roles in such productions as Swing!, Into the Woods, Nine, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  This past December international audiences enjoyed her as the Baroness Elsa in the NBC live television presentation of The Sound of Music.

We hear a lot about movie stars who pay a visit to Broadway now and then, perhaps because of a devout passion for the theater, perhaps to garner the imprimatur of a serious actor, perhaps to add a Tony to their trophy room. Some of them succeed, some of them flop. And their efforts should not be diminished. But they don’t quite compare to Broadway pros, like Matthew Morrison and Laura Benanti, who do what they do eight times a week, week after week, bringing cheering audiences to their feet. We expect no less at Wolf Trap.

Here’s wishing you a very gleeful evening!

Jun 19

NSO at Wolf Trap: Ben Folds

Wednesday, June 25 at 8:15 pm
Tickets available here.

BRIDGE OVER TREBLE MUSIC

Playbill notes by Emil de Cou, NSO at Wolf Trap Festival Conductor 

When most people think of “crossover artists” they think of contemporary transformations of well-known singers: country to pop (Garth Brooks), Christian to pop (Amy Grant), pop to classical (Josh Groban), classical to Broadway (Kiri Te Kanawa), or that triple-threat Carrie Underwood, who leapt from country to pop to her recent musical theater debut as Maria in the live televised version of The Sound of Music. There are also “crossover albums” that create fascinating mash-ups.  My favorites: Barcelona, featuring Montserrat Caballé and Freddie Mercury, and Our Favorite Things, featuring Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Plácido Domingo, and Vanessa Williams.

      But crossover artists have existed for centuries. Mozart wrote religious and secular works, Brahms wrote commercial music for women’s choruses and symphonies for the concert hall. In Ye Olde Twentieth Century the opera singer Ezio Pinza shocked the opera world by taking to the Broadway stage for South Pacific, turning “Some Enchanted Evening” into a number one hit in 1949.  Dave Brubeck studied composition with Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg before becoming a jazz legend. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Paul McCartney have each written several concert works in a more traditional mode, with Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Brian Eno offering edgier combinations with the classical idiom.

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      We cannot really call composer-performer Ben Folds a crossover artist because, from the beginning of his career, he defied labels. A native of North Carolina, he learned piano by ear and, while in high school, played piano, bass and drums in a variety of bands. He attended the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. He first found mainstream success as the leader of the Ben Folds Five, crossing alternative, rock and folk-jazz-blues-infused vocals and piano. He is both a consummate solo artist, as singer and pianist, as well as well-respected collaborator, and a well-respected producer, including an album with William Shatner.  (Yes, that William Shatner).  A resident of Nashville, he is a member of the board of directors of the Nashville Symphony. If that isn’t enough you might also recognize him as a judge from NBC’s a cappella competition “The Sing Off.”

Folds is also making a foray into the classical realm. A resident of Nashville, he is a member of the board of directors of the Nashville Symphony, with which he debuted his new piano concerto in May. Using a word unfamiliar to those of us accustomed to hearing structured works described in quaint Italian terms, like Andante or Allegro, Folds has been quoted as referring to his piano concerto as “kick ass.” In an interview with the Nashville Scene, Folds called his concerto “proudly and overtly derivative.”  Among his influences are Prokofiev, Gershwin and Ravel.

In this concert, Folds shares several sides of his talents with “The Ben Folds Orchestra Experience: A Tour of Symphonic Proportions.” Folds fans will be delighted to hear his popular (or shall I say “familiar,” since it is certainly not pop!) music fully orchestrated, not just with the lush sounds of the NSO as back-up, but with a thoughtful, thorough integration of genres. As an improvisatory artist, Folds will most certainly accompany his programmatic works with a variety of musical surprises.  Warning: if you demand an encore, expect the unexpected: in Nashville audiences were treated to a sing-along rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” 

Now if that’s not “kick ass,” what is?

Jun 11

NSO at Wolf Trap - You’ve Got a Friend in Pixar

Pixar in Concert
Tickets available here.

Playbill notes by Emil de Cou

Music has been an essential element of the cinematic experience since live pianists accompanied silent films. One could say these musicians were the earliest “film composers.” Lacking formal scores (at best distributors offered cue sheets) the local virtuoso (Aunt Florence, the piano teacher) improvised, interpolating popular songs of the day or famous classical melodies. Audience quickly learned the musical vocabulary:  tremolo meant suspense, plink meant pratfall, serioso meant heartbreak.

As talkies emerged, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs were synchronized into film, not just technically, but artistically.  Walter Donaldson’s “My Mammy” became synonymous with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, just as Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” made Top Hat as memorable as the footsteps of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Studios created vast musical organizations to weave music into the entire fabric of movies: scores were richly orchestrated, conducted and performed by outstanding musicians (many were refugees from Europe) and backed up with virtuoso voices.  The great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne got her start in the MGM chorus.

When Walt Disney developed feature animated films he was equally committed to the highest values of song and score. Disney movies in every decade have generated hit songs, which have often become touchstones to the human spirit as much as devices to advance character and plot. Read-along recordings with picture books were the staple of American households and pop crooners turned them into standards.  Seven little men made our labors lighter with “Whistle While You Work.”  A princess immortalized wistful dreams of love with “Some Day My Prince Will Come.”  And what would a fairy godmother or dancing bear be without, respectively, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” or “The Bare Necessities”?

But we need not look back to appreciate Disney’s brilliant marriage of hope and melody.  We need merely look up.  The joys of our evenings here with NSO at Wolf Trap are ever brighter because of a naughty puppet who would be a boy. “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the theme song for the Disney brand, also ranks in the top ten of the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movie songs of all time.  (Need I tell you number one? Hint: rainbow, Kansas, and a little dog, too.)

The 14 films that Pixar Animation Studios has produced, and The Walt Disney Company has distributed, have changed the way a generation perceives animation, but they ratcheted up the musical values as well. Only four composers are part of the Pixar canon, and you couldn’t ask for a more eclectic bunch: cousins Randy and Thomas Newman, descendants of Hollywood film music royalty; Michael Giacchino, a visual artist who cut his teeth scoring early video games; and Patrick Doyle, the esteemed Scottish composer known for his film and incidental music for the works of Shakespeare.  Collectively they command the gamut of musical styles from Acoustic to Zydeco.

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The first Pixar film, Toy Story, with music by Randy Newman, reflected the folkish warmth he embodied in pop songs like “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” and “Short People.”  For Toy Story he brought his avuncular style with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” a buddy song for all time. His jazzy mixture of the effortlessly familiar with the traditional American vernacular can also be found in the scores to A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc.

Randy’s cousin, Thomas Newman, was already well known for his film scores (The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty) before being recruited by Pixar for Finding Nemo.  The traditional Disney acoustical textures were enhanced with synthesizer, exotic instruments and traditional symphony orchestra. What with his technical acumen he was a natural choice to score WALL-E, but surprisingly his music is not all R2-D2 beeps and whistles. Perhaps in homage to John Williams’ space epics, the WALL-E score maximizes orchestral forces.

Michael Giacchino studied at New York’s School of Visual Arts, only later taking music classes to score his video games, including the Medal of Honor series. For Cars and The Incredibles, he demonstrated an impressive skill for driving traditional melody into technically complex scenarios. His touching, witty music for Ratatouille, with its pastiche of French themes, is among my favorite film scores of all time.  It takes tremendous heart and talent to turn a rat into a hero. His score for Up, which won an Oscar, offers a four-minute waltz sequence that would make Ravel weep.

For Brave, Pixar went back in time to 10th century Scotland to create its first modern female hero who needed no prince to fight her battles.  The studio plucked a composer from foreign soil to ensure the authenticity of Celtic sound: Scottish-born composer Patrick Doyle, well known for his partnerships with Kenneth Branagh on Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet.  Doyle’s playful score is filled with fiddling and bagpipes.

From Scotland to outer space, from a child’s bedroom to the race track, from the wilds of South America to Paris, from stage to the lawn, we welcome you into the world of Pixar, where music and adventure and imagination collide.

May your dreams come true!

Jan 07

Don’t miss the NSO in more than 50 free events around Capitol Hill and H St. NE, including two concerts at Union Station!
NSO In Your Neighborhood
Next week, NSO In Your Neighborhood heads to Capitol Hill and H St. Northeast bringing free chamber music, orchestral concerts, educational events, and more. Members of the NSO will break into small ensembles to present more than 50 performances and activities throughout the community, including two full orchestra concerts at Union Station. Locations include Rock & Roll Hotel, the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, and the Marine Barracks Annex John P. Sousa Band Hallas well as unique spaces like Homebody, Ebenezers Coffeehouse, Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Congressional Cemetery Chapel, and more. Don’t miss out!


Check out the full schedule of events.


Follow the NSO on Facebookand #NSOneighbor on Twitter for live updates on events.


Jan. 7–13 | Multiple locations

Don’t miss the NSO in more than 50 free events around Capitol Hill and H St. NE, including two concerts at Union Station!

NSO In Your Neighborhood

Next week, NSO In Your Neighborhood heads to Capitol Hill and H St. Northeast bringing free chamber music, orchestral concerts, educational events, and more. Members of the NSO will break into small ensembles to present more than 50 performances and activities throughout the community, including two full orchestra concerts at Union Station. Locations include Rock & Roll Hotel, the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, and the Marine Barracks Annex John P. Sousa Band Hallas well as unique spaces like Homebody, Ebenezers Coffeehouse, Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Congressional Cemetery Chapel, and more. Don’t miss out!
Check out the full schedule of events.
Follow the NSO on Facebookand #NSOneighbor on Twitter for live updates on events.
Jan. 7–13 | Multiple locations

Jul 30

NSO@Wolf Trap - COMPOSIN’ IN THE RAIN - Introduction to “Singin’ in the Rain” by Emil de Cou

Tickets available at http://www.wolftrap.org/Home/Find_Performances_and_Events/Performance/13Filene/0803show13.aspx

The most famous four notes in musical history belong to Ludwig van Beethoven: 

“Tee-tee-tee-tah!”

The second most famous four notes in musical history belong to Nacio Herb Brown:

“Deet-doo-dee-doo”

Nacio Herb Brown has not quite received the acclaim of Beethoven, and when we think of Singin’ in the Rain, which we enjoy Saturday (preferably without the rain) it is Gene Kelly’s iconic splash-dance number we think of, but it is Brown’s melodic gift that inspired that iconic moment in film; four simple notes and we’re all inspired to break out the umbrella.  And since NSO@Wolf Trap is as much about music as merriment, let’s hear it for the composer:  from the 1920s to the 1950s Brown was among the most prolific and successful songwriters.  Unlike most of his peers, who cut their teeth in New York’s “Tin Pan Alley,” Brown was born in New Mexico in 1896 and moved to Los Angeles at age five.  His teenage years coincided with the birth of Hollywood as the global center of film making.  Each year saw new stars, new directors, new technology, and ambitious young men and women eager to be part of the new gold rush. 

Though the early years of “talkies” were good for young composers like Brown who, with his partner, lyricist Arthur Freed, wrote dozens of hits, the flame of fame proved fickle for performers:  just as stars of Broadway didn’t make the cut to film (they declaimed  beautifully from the stage, but their looks didn’t hold up well under bright lights and close-ups), stars of silent film didn’t make the cut to sound (they had exquisite faces that captured light and expressed emotion, but their voices betrayed their image). Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, and John Gilbert didn’t make the cut.  Joan Crawford and Ronald Colman did just fine.  Unquestionably the biggest risk was Greta Garbo, whose mysterious allure, producers worried, might be compromised by her dusky Swedish accent.  When she made her entrance in 1930 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie all of Hollywood held its collective breath.  When she uttered those immortal words —“Give me a viskey.  Ginger ale on the side.  And don’t be stingy, baby.” ― all of Hollywood breathed a collective sigh.   

By the 1930s film musical stars emerged, such as Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, and every studio was clamoring for songs, mostly for review-type films that featured Broadway melodies alongside fresh material and specialty numbers.  Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed flourished in these years, with elegant songs that found popular success, despite the fact that many of the films in which their songs were featured were short on plot and substance.       

Singin’ in the Rain, from 1952, is a remarkable tribute to the last days of silent films and the early days of talkies and musicals.  It’s also an amazing tribute to Brown and Freed.  Despite his success as a lyricist, Freed went on to far greater success as a producer of musicals at MGM.  For Singin’ in the Rain he reached into the trunk-load of songs he and Brown had previously written for other films and, with the talents of screenwriters (and well-known lyricists) Betty Comden and Adolph Green, turned the sad tales of silents-to-sounds into serious fun.  Unlike 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, a noir classic in which a faded silent star becomes a grotesque recluse, or 2011’s The Artist, a modern-day silent in which a great silent star falls on hard times, Singin’ in the Rain  follows a zany trio of actors who, with pluck, hijinks, and enormous talent, make the cut by turning tragedy into comedy.  Co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly magnified the magic with choreography that at times seems to defy the laws of physics and furniture.

Singin in the Rain credit Emily Zoladz Copyright 2008 The Grand Rapids Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission

Strangely enough, Singin’ in the Rain was not a hit when it was released.  Its performance at the box office was mediocre, and it was nominated for few awards.  (The big hit that year was The Greatest Show on Earth, a blockbuster from director Cecil B. DeMille, who definitely made the cut from silents to talkies!)  Like many classic films it took decades to receive critical recognition and popular acclaim.  And that popularity refuses to wane:  Gene Kelly’s iconic dancing routine has been parodied in everything from the film Wall-E to the television show Glee.  Debbie Reynolds sang a snippet of “Good Morning!” on Will & Grace.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, known for his sober, moving performances in film, brilliantly recreated Donald O’Connor’s Make’em Laugh routine when he hosted Saturday Night Live last year.  

Of course, no classic film musical is ever fully anointed until it makes its NSO@Wolf Trap premiere with live orchestra. We hope for glorious weather Saturday, but we do hope you brought your umbrellas.  Should it rain we expect no less than for everyone to sing and dance! 

 Emil de Cou,

NSO @ Wolf Trap Festival Conductor