Tuned in With David Herbert. An Interview with Chicago Symphony Orchestra Bassoonists Keith Bunke and Miles Maner. Part II.
Tuned in With David Herbert. An Interview with Chicago Symphony Orchestra Bassoonists Keith Bunke and Miles Maner. Part I.
Tuned in With David Herbert. An Interview with Chicago Symphony Orchestra Second Flutist Emma Gerstein.
by Max Raimi, CSO violist. Published March, 2015.
Last November I took part in a series of Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Family Concerts. We put these concerts on under the rubric “Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.” The musicians of the CSO are invited to play or not as they wish; payment for these jobs is over and above our base salary, since they take place concurrently with a full subscription concert schedule. If not enough actual CSO musicians sign up, the orchestra is augmented with freelancers. To save money, there is only one rehearsal and we play with a reduced orchestra; about six players are cut from each string section. Since the wind, brass, and percussion players are all responsible for their own parts, they are on stage in full force and they overwhelm the strings when they are called upon to play loudly.
The show was pretty good, as far these concerts go. We had a celebrity guest, a man named Geoffrey Baer who is frequently on WTTW, the Chicago PBS station. On his TV show he tours local landmarks and shares his considerable knowledge of Chicago lore. The concert was called “Downtown Sounds” and the unifying thread was to tie the music we played to places in the city. For example, Smetana’s great tone poem “The Moldau” supposedly described a water taxi ride on the Chicago River. A movement of Ibert’s “Paris” Symphonic Suite, entitled “Le Metro,” was used to represent the El. The famous “Sunrise” that opens Strauss’s “Also Spracht Zarathustra” was summoned to bring to mind the mighty Chicago skyline. And so on.
As is often the case in these programs, the theme of the show was at cross-purposes with the music. The kids were never informed about what had actually inspired the music they heard; all of the pieces were retrofitted to the Chicago theme. There was a silhouette of the Chicago skyline created with shadows on the wall behind the stage. To make this visible, it was necessary to darken the stage, and so we were given stand lights. I find this a bit puzzling. I would hope that the point of doing these shows is to introduce young people to the orchestra. Why put the musicians in the dark, and hide them behind stand lights? To our management’s credit, the lights were turned up a bit on the second day after I wrote an email addressing this issue.
The kids certainly seemed to enjoy the concert, although my sense was that there was often a discernible rumble of conversation while Mr. Baer and the conductor Scott Speck (who is perhaps most famous for having written the book Classical Music for Dummies) were talking – despite the fact that they were both quite skilled at relating to the young audience. While I may not be entirely unbiased, I believe it was the music that really grabbed the kids.
So were these concerts successful? I am not sure how to judge. As far as I know, a very simple question has never been asked: What is it exactly that we wish to accomplish in these concerts? Is it to entertain and to amuse? Is it to give a young audience a favorable impression of a trip to Orchestra Hall? If so, then the concerts were a success. Both the adults and kids applauded enthusiastically at the end.
But I would argue that the Chicago Symphony should not be in the business merely of entertaining a thousand or so kids for an hour. Any number of video games can do that at least as well as we do. It seems to me that our role in this society is to ensure that classical music survives into the future long beyond our own life spans. I believe that everything we do should serve that goal. And I do not see how this was accomplished with “Downtown Sounds.”
I noted earlier that the conductor, Mr. Speck, authored Classical Music for Dummies. I have played and spoken at concerts in school gyms and auditoriums all over Chicago during the past three decades, and I have learned that it is all too easy to underestimate the intelligence of young audiences. There is no need to dumb down the programs; indeed what works best in these situations is to play great music (the quartet I currently play with has Beethoven, Dvorak, Schubert, Mozart, Ravel, and Shostakovich in its repertoire for these concerts) and to perform it at the highest possible level.
I regret that I did not sense the same respect for the audience’s intelligence at this show. For example, before the Ibert, the kids were told to imagine riding on the El, and asked to determine when their El ride was “smooth” and when it was “bumpy.” They were instructed to bounce up and down in their seats when it was “bumpy.” So they were thinking about bouncing up and down, and maybe they were thinking about riding on the El. One thing we made no effort to get them to think about was the music itself, beyond this oversimplified distinction between “smooth” and “bumpy.” It seemed that we had lost track of the thing that we were actually presenting.
This is not the only way that we are selling the kids short. When we throw together these shows on one rehearsal, with an undermanned orchestra augmented by freelancers who perhaps have never played together before, we are again denigrating the intelligence of our audience: “They won’t know the difference.” In my experience, this is profoundly wrongheaded. I have found that when I help to create a concert for children, the most important element in our success is the quality of the performance.
The same week that we played these concerts, we played the Bach Brandenburg Concertos for our subscription concerts in the evenings, featuring wonderful virtuosic turns by many of my colleagues and by an astonishing young harpsichordist in the Fifth Concerto. The conductor was articulate and charming. Surely we could have played some of the more athletic and immediately appealing movements from those works, and given the children a far more nourishing experience.
So why can’t we experiment with fashioning youth concerts out of the repertoire we are playing in the same week for subscription concerts, featuring the actual Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music that has been adequately rehearsed? I realize that there will have to be schedule changes to accommodate this. Perhaps children’s concerts could replace some of our Sunday afternoon concerts. Or we could schedule these concerts on the weeks when we put together our subscription concerts on three rehearsals – such as the weeks that feature “After Work Masterworks” concerts early on Wednesday evenings. We have never been able to sell that series anyway; the Gallery, the Terrace, and often much of the Upper Balcony are unsold for “After Work Masterworks.” Why not trade them in for a Thursday morning youth concert? We have contract negotiations coming up; I can hardly imagine this would be among the most difficult issues to hammer out.
No doubt, there are many viewpoints on what constitutes a successful youth concert. But may I make a modest proposal? Why don’t we play really great music, play it extremely well, and find somebody who can convey to the kids a profound love for and commitment to this music? When my quartet goes into the schools, we find this formula to be quite successful.
Read the article on the futuresymphony.org website.
Stephen Williamson Talks About Playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto for the Chicago Food Depository Benefit Concert.
Stephen Williamson will be performing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with Maestro Riccardo Muti conducting on June 13, 2016, during the special Benefit Concert for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. We asked him a few questions about the upcoming performance.
When did Maestro Muti first ask you to play the Mozart Concerto?
When I won the job as Principal Clarinet in May 2011, Maestro Muti said that he would like to perform the Mozart Clarinet Concerto together some day. We were scheduled to play the Concerto on four CSO subscription concerts in February 2016. At the last minute, Maestro Muti had to cancel his February concerts after suffering a fall and needing surgery. I ended up performing the concerto with Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. When the Chicago Symphony Musicians decided to produce our own benefit concert, which Maestro Muti immediately agreed to conduct, it was only natural that the Mozart Concerto would be on the program.
How do you feel about performing on this Benefit Concert?
I’m looking forward to playing in the Studebaker Theater. This concert will have a deeper meaning for me because it’s for a great cause, helping our Chicago community members who don’t have enough to eat. Healthy food is a basic necessity. We take it for granted that we have food on the table. Music reaches people of all races, colors, and creeds. It’s food for the soul.
What is special to you about the Mozart Clarinet Concerto?
The Concerto is a late work of Mozart’s, written at the same time as his operas The Magic Flute and La clemenza di Tito and his unfinished Requiem. Mozart wrote only 199 measures of what was first intended as a basset horn concerto. He apparently decided that the piece would work better on a basset clarinet. Anton Stadler, for whom the Concerto was written, had a clarinet made that would cover a larger range than a standard clarinet. Mozart loved Stadler’s low register, and transcribed his original draft to the key of A. Mozart admired Stadler so highly that after two years of friendship, he invited Stadler to become a Mason like himself. I think that the Clarinet Concerto is the greatest wind concerto Mozart ever wrote. I try to play it from a vocal perspective, like an opera singer. The piece has little to do with the clarinet at all!
What is it like to make music with Maestro Muti?
We seem to have a unified idea about how music should sound. It seems effortless, because Maestro Muti knows how to nurture my playing in the moment to bring out my best playing.
Matous and Simon Michal, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Violinists
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Music Director Riccardo Muti, Section Violin- 2 positions available.In the spring of 2015 a simple notice appeared in the International Musician, the monthly publication of the American Federation of Musicians:
The first part of the audition process started in late September 2015. In order to make the process as fair as possible, the CSO holds blind auditions. The nine CSO members on the audition committee can’t see the musicians who are taking the audition and don’t receive any information about them. The Personnel Office assigns each candidate a number and that’s how the audition committee refers to them. If a candidate receives a super-majority of votes from the committee he or she is invited to the final audition. Only then is a candidate’s name revealed.
At the end of one day of preliminary auditions, there was a finalist named Matous Michal. The next week there was a finalist who was named Simon Michal! After a quick Google search it was determined that they were brothers from the Czech Republic, studying in New York City. After six days of preliminary auditions, and 178 violinists, only eight violinists had been invited to the final audition, to be held on November 30, 2015. Finals are held when Maestro Muti is in residency, so he can confer with the audition committee in the selection of new musicians. After the finalists had all played and the votes of the committee were tallied, the two brothers came out on top, and Maestro Muti offered Matous and Simon Michal positions in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra violin section.
The newest members of the Chicago Symphony violin section joined the Orchestra on February 4, 2016. Matous and Simon, ages 24 and 22, are less than two years apart in age and were one year apart in school. Their father, Ladislav Michal, was their first violin teacher. They each began playing the violin at age 4. Their mother, Michaela is a cellist and teacher. The brothers grew up in Bezdekov, a beautiful village of 300 people where Mr. and Mrs. Michal still reside. Both Matous and Simon attended high school at the Prague Conservatory, a three-hour bus ride from their home. While studying at the Conservatory, the brothers took violin lessons with professors there, but during their weekend visits home their father expected them to play for him so he could check on their progress.
Matous was the first to come to the United States, in the summer of 2006, where he attended the Meadowmount School for Strings, an intensive 7-week summer program in upstate New York. Simon joined his brother at Meadowmount in 2007 and each of them attended for four summers. In 2010, Matous began undergraduate studies at Juilliard, receiving a Bachelor of Music degree in Violin Performance in 2014. This month he will receive a Masters Degree in Orchestral Performance from the Manhattan School of Music. As part of his degree requirements, Matous wrote a paper on performance anxiety with the guidance of pianist Carol Ann Aicher. Simon received a Bachelor’s Degree from Juilliard in 2015. Simon started a Master’s Degree program last fall at the Manhattan School of Music, but left after the first semester to join the CSO. Matous played in the Grant Park Symphony in Chicago last summer. Playing in the CSO is Simon’s first professional job.
We asked Matous and Simon a few questions:
When did you first start learning English?
Matous: We began studying English in school in the fourth grade, but a few years later our dad thought we needed more help, so we took private lessons with a famous translator who is a family friend.
Simon: Speaking English was a small problem during our first summers at Meadowmount. We didn’t speak very much, because we couldn’t understand what people were saying, so other students thought we were quiet. Years later when we ran into people that we had known at Meadowmount, they couldn't believe how much more outgoing we had become. But it was just that we had become more comfortable speaking English after having lived in New York.
How did your parents feel about you both winning jobs in the CSO?
Matous: “I think they were stunned and they didn’t believe it right away. My Mom told us that she woke very early one morning, and Dad wasn’t in bed. She went downstairs to check on him, and he was sitting on the couch. He told her that he couldn’t sleep ‘because I am so happy.’ ”
When did you last visit your parents?
Simon: “We went home for Christmas. Our parents are looking forward to their first trip to Chicago in June. The only other time they have travelled to the US was to accompany us on a school orchestra trip to New Mexico in the fall of 2007. They are especially looking forward to attending concerts at Orchestra Hall conducted by Maestro Muti. They also hope to be in the audience when the CSO performs in Vienna next January as part of a European tour.”
Simon and Matous Michal, Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinists
photo by David Taylor
Sunghee Choi, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Violist
Sunghee Choi joined the viola section of the CSO in October of 2015. We asked her to tell us about herself and her path to joining the CSO.
"I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. I started playing the violin at the age of nine. I played the violin for most of my life until I switched to the viola six years ago. I attended Seoul National University for my bachelor's degree and I moved to the U.S. afterwards to continue pursuing my dream of a music career. I received my MM from New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and enrolled at Rutgers University for my DMA. During my doctoral studies with Arnold Steinhardt, my teacher suggested that I try the viola, since I've always had a rich and deep sound. I immediately fell in love with it. During my third year at Rutgers, I decided to officially switch to the viola and study with Choong-jin Chang, the principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I am grateful to have finally found the perfect instrument for me. I was lucky to have worked with some of the best teachers in the world.
After concentrating on the viola for a year, I joined the viola section of the Grant Park Festival Orchestra and also started subbing with the New York Philharmonic. In 2012, I began to sub for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in 2013, I joined the viola section of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. At that time, I also subbed with Philly during the off seasons. Last fall, I finally won my dream job and joined the viola section of the CSO!
I love both symphonic and operatic works. It's impossible to compare Mahler’s symphonies to Puccini's operas. As a performer, I enjoy playing symphonies on stage, but dressing up and going to watch an opera has always been one of my favorite things to do.
The January 2016 tour was particularly special and emotional for me because our last stop was my hometown, Seoul, where my family was in the audience. The love and support that they have given me all these years is invaluable, and I would not be here today without them. The fact that they were able to watch me perform with the CSO is something I will never forget. They loved the first concert so much that they immediately bought tickets for the following night! It was a special treat for them, but also for me as well.
On my iPod, I have so many recordings of the CSO. I grew up listening to them all the time since I was little. It is difficult to put into words how grateful I am to be here and how honored I am to perform with Maestro Muti. Working with him is truly my dream come true.”
A double posting for the second violin section. Matous and Simon Michal join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Posted in CSO Sounds and Stories February 4, 2016.
Two young brothers from the Czech Republic, Matous and Simon Michal, have joined the second violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Their appointments, announced Feb. 4 by Music Director Riccardo Muti, took effect Feb. 1.
Both brothers served consecutive summers as concertmaster of Switzerland’s Verbier Festival Orchestra, and also held concertmaster posts at the Juilliard School in New York City and the Music Academy of the West Festival Orchestra in Santa Barbara, Calif. Last summer, Matous was in Chicago, performing in the first violin section of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. In 2014, he was concertmaster for the Verbier, a post that his younger brother subsequently held in 2015.
At Juilliard, Matous was concertmaster for four years while completing a bachelor of music degree there, and also served as concertmaster at the Manhattan School of Music, where he received his master’s degree in orchestral performance in 2014. While concertmaster of the Music Academy of the West Festival Orchestra, he also was a finalist in the Music Academy’s Concerto Competition in 2013. In 2010, he completed his undergraduate studies at the Prague Conservatory, where he also served as concertmaster.
Born in Prague, Matous began violin studies at age 4. Simon, 22, who’s a year younger than Matous, was born in Nachod, the Czech Republic. Matous and Simon both took honors at the Kocian International Violin Competition and the International Radio Competition for Young Musicians “Concertino Praga.”
Simon was concertmaster with the Juilliard Symphony and the Juilliard Opera from 2011 to 2015. At the Music Academy of the West Festival Orchestra, he was concertmaster for three years. In 2015, he was selected to be a Global Academy Fellow of the New York Philharmonic. He also served as concertmaster for the Prague Conservatory Symphony, where he received his undergraduate degree in violin performance in 2011. Simon is currently working on his master of music degree in orchestral violin at the Manhattan School of Music, and graduated last year from Juilliard School with a bachelor’s degree in music.
Read the story in CSO Sounds and Stories.
By Chris Kornelis of the Wall Street Journal. December 7, 2015.
People made fun of me when I first got it because it’s so bloody huge, but I use a Samsung Galaxy Note II to draw the stage diagrams I send to the crew that sets everything up for us. This afternoon we’re performing Leonard Bernstein’s score to the film “On the Waterfront,” and I’m personally playing snare drum, three toms, xylophone, bells, vibraphone and marimba. If the stage is not set up the right way, you get percussionists crossing paths and running into each other. I used to draw a diagram with pen and paper and take a picture of it, but the Note is really handy.
A lot of my gear doesn’t come from the music store. All of my triangle holders, for example, are made from bent coat hangers. My chime hammers are yellow acrylic mallets that I get at the hardware store—I don’t even know what craftsmen use them for. And fishing line is a must-have. Sometimes, a score calls for key chimes instead of wind chimes, so I’ll round up everyone’s old keys and string them up with fishing line.
I travel with Drummers Service Abel Concert snare drumsticks, which I never, ever, ever check at the airport. They go with my laptop as a carry-on. The three pairs I have were made by Bill Reamer [owner of Drummers Service], who passed away, so they’ll have to last me my whole career.
I’m protective of my own gear, because I tend to humanize inanimate objects. I got my Black Swamp tambourine in 1999, when I was an undergrad at the University of British Columbia. I’ve spent so many hours with it. I know it. I just have this relationship and I know what it’s going to do.
We had a BMW growing up and it saved our lives when we got into a huge accident once, so I love my 2008 BMW 335xi, even though I don’t drive it that much. I’m quite sensitive to sound, so I don’t actually listen to a lot of music in the car. I listen to the sound of the engine or NPR.
I still own a metronome, but I don’t use it much because you have to find a 9-volt battery or practice by an outlet to plug it in. These days I just use whatever metronome app I can get free on my phone. Right now, that’s one called Metronome Beats.
My mother was a great cook, and so was her mom, so I learned by watching them. I use a Zojirushi Neuro Fuzzy rice cooker. When I was growing up, everybody had a rice cooker. I’ve never seen it made any other way.
Read the article on the Wall Street Journal's Website at wsj.com.