Mendelssohnian memories, old & new

One of my favorite early memories of attending a Canton Symphony concert with my parents was when the orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor with Charles Treger as the soloist. I remember my dad telling me before the concert that it was one of his favorite pieces, and that at one time he had an LP with a performance of it (I think maybe by Isaac Stern) on one side, and a discussion/analysis on the other. He said he’d played it so much, he wore it out. The piece immediately became a favorite of mine, too, thanks to that concert. I remember sitting up close to the stage, right in front of the soloist (at least that’s my recollection… we may have been in the back of the hall for all I know). What’s crystal clear in my memory, though, is that Mr. Treger took lots of extremely loud sniff breaths between what seemed like every musical phrase. I remember it being so loud that it almost distracted from the music; but not quite, because it didn’t diminish the music’s effect on me one bit.

The next memory of a Mendelssohn performance by the CSO was when they played his Symphony No. 4 at the Palace Theatre on a program led by Peter Stafford Wilson, then the orchestra’s associate conductor. That may have been the only time they performed a full-fledged “classical” concert there, though they’ve held occasional Cameos and such at the venue. The Palace isn’t known for its music-friendly acoustics, but then it wasn’t built for that purpose. (John V. Russo conducted a particularly memorable live soundtrack to The Hunchback of Notre Dame there many years later, but that’s possible fodder for another post.) I’ll never forget how another piece on that Palace program with the Mendelssohn fourth, Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement, had some audience members laughing so hard that at least one man had to leave to catch his breath. The musical jokes in the piece are intentional, by the way; it had nothing to do with the orchestra’s performance.

All that to say… I’m now happy to be able to make some new CSO-related Mendelssohn memories with Callum. As we mentioned in the last post, we really enjoyed the Cameo concert at Massillon’s Lincoln Theatre last season, which was led by Associate Conductor Matthew Brown and opened with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Overture. So we’ve been looking forward to hearing more Mendelssohn from the full orchestra under his direction.

We attended Friday night’s rehearsal, their first for this Sunday’s concert. They were scheduled to rehearse just two pieces from the program:  Interlude No. 1 from the CIVIL warS by Philip Glass, and Mendelssohn’s 4th.  I’ll let Callum tell you about it first:

I like when the musicians wear their street clothes, because they look like different people than when they’re in their concert clothes. Matthew Brown only had them play the Philip Glass piece once. And I know why they only played it once. Because it’s the same thing over and over again, so if they play it right the first time, they’ll play it right the second, and the third, and…

I don’t remember where I heard this knock knock joke, but this piece reminded me of it.  It goes Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Knock Knock… WHO’S THERE?

Philip Glass

But I still like the piece; I actually think it’s cool. I always like his harmonies. I’m looking forward to seeing them perform it at the concert with the slides, because it might be more interesting.

Before the Mendelssohn, the horns wanted to move back to the side of the stage where they usually sit, so the orchestra tuned again while they moved. When Matthew Brown conducts, he sometimes moves really fast, and looks like he’s going to throw his baton. When he looks at a specific section of the orchestra, to remind them it’s their turn to play, he looks like he is saying something to them. He has a different conducting style than Gerhardt Zimmermann, but I still like it. In the middle of pieces, Mr. Brown sings how he wants them to play different parts, like Mr. Zimmermann does. When the piece gets fast and loud, Mr. Brown’s arms get tense and he moves really fast. When the piece gets slow and soft, his arms loosen, and he moves slowly.

When he was working with the orchestra on the Mendelssohn, he mostly worked backwards, because they worked on the first movement, then the last, then the third, and then the second. The last movement of the Mendelssohn is one of the most exciting pieces I’ve ever heard. Like Mr. Zimmerman, he had the orchestra sounding so much better at the end of the rehearsal than they did at the beginning. I can’t wait to hear how good they’ll sound on Sunday.

It was good, and interesting, to get an opportunity to see a different conductor rehearse the orchestra; up to this point we’d only been there for Gerhardt Zimmermann’s rehearsals. Matthew Brown of course has his own style of conducting and rehearsing, but it’s ultimately as musically effective. It becomes readily apparent that he’s a fine musician who knows exactly what he wants to hear from an orchestra, and how to get it. He has a very clear idea of where each musical phrase, section, and movement is going and how it should be shaped, and efficiently communicates that to the orchestra through his gestures, movements, and (when necessary in rehearsal), words. That’s of course a prerequisite for any good conductor, but unfortunately seems to be lacking in many, especially those as young as Brown.

What was also interesting at the rehearsal, at least from my perspective, was the difference in how the orchestra initially responded to Brown’s direction… or at least how quickly.  When they first played through the pieces, they sounded like a much different ensemble than you would ever hear under Zimmermann’s direction, even in the same first-rehearsal, first run-through situation. And this is not at all any direct fault of Brown’s, but in my opinion mainly due to the fact that he’s younger, much less experienced, and plain and simply not their music director. It’s almost like a substitute teacher situation in the classroom. But don’t get me wrong… there were no spitballs involved, or tacks on his conductor’s chair. It was nothing like that at all, and it wasn’t that they played that poorly at first. But I just can’t imagine them playing that way for “the Maestro”… ever. It reminds me of a great segment from the video “The Art of Conducting,” where a retired timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic recalled how Wilhelm Furtwängler’s mere presence could immediately transform the sound of the orchestra. He remembered studying a score during a rehearsal with a guest conductor, and hearing the sound of the orchestra suddenly change completely, much for the better. He looked up from the score and saw that Furtwängler had simply walked into the hall. The orchestra, seeing their maestro, suddenly came to “musical attention” it seemed.

I wonder if that’s especially the case with a very young orchestra like Canton’s, with high turnover each season due to the many Cleveland Institute of Music and other students among its ranks. Any assistant or associate conductor may, in a way, have to prove him or herself up to the task each season. Matthew Brown certainly does that. He clearly has the confidence, without any hint of conceit, to quietly and gently assert his musical will over the many musicians in his charge. Don’t miss hearing the results Sunday night at 7:30 (with the added bonus of seeing James Westwater’s musical choreography, as well).

Here’s a brief rehearsal video from the finale of the Mendelssohn:
(apologies for the poor sound and occasional audio glitches)

Callum & Dad

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