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Bernstein, Bowie and more: A BSO season preview

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Bernstein, Bowie and more: A BSO season preview (photo courtesy of Bangor Symphony Orchestra/Nate Levesque)

BANGOR – The Bangor Symphony Orchestra, led by musical director and conductor Lucas Richman, is set to kick off its 123rd season next month.

The BSO is one of the cultural cornerstones of our region. It has the lengthiest history of any of our area’s arts organizations. Indeed, it has one of the lengthiest histories of any community orchestra in the entire country, bringing music to the Bangor masses since the waning days of the 19th century.

The 2018-2019 season features the symphony’s standard selection of excellence, with the six shows of the Masterworks series taking place at the Collins Center for the Arts on the campus of the University of Maine. Other BSO traditions will continue to be observed as well – their beloved partnership with the Robinson Ballet on a production of “The Nutcracker” will happen in December, while their annual Pops concert (featuring the music of David Bowie this season) lands in March.

In addition, thanks to the symphony’s partnership with the Bangor Arts Exchange, the BSO is also providing a wealth of smaller-scale programming over the course of the year, with numerous events – many of them free to the public – taking place in the BAE building, located on Exchange Street in downtown Bangor.

Putting together a season is a complicated process. Richman and company try to program in ways that are not only engaging in the moment, but also in conversation with past performances and performances yet to come.

“I’ve always considered programming to be a bit like a puzzle,” he said. “A puzzle where are the pieces are all blank and you don’t know what the picture is as you try to assemble it.

“But there are certain parameters that that we put in place to give structure,” he continued. “My aim is always to build relationships between performances. Sometimes, we’ll want to do a certain work and we’re planning to do something else potentially related four years down the road; how is what we do now going to impact what we’re going to do then?”

Over the course of Richman’s near-decade at the helm – next year marks his 10th anniversary and the season will be built accordingly – he has shared a great deal of music with which he feels a very personal connection. This season is no different – in celebration of the centenary of legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, the Masterworks series will be awash in Bernstein work.

“As a composer, Bernstein is perhaps most well-known for the music of ‘West Side Story,’” Richman said. “There’s also ‘Candide’ and many other classical pieces. As a conductor, he worked with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic and other orchestras all over the world.”

Richman’s own connection with Bernstein comes from working with the man.

“So I have a particular connection with Leonard Bernstein because I knew him in the last ten years of his life,” he said. “I met him when I was 16 at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; when I was 24 he chose me to be one of the four conductors to go on tour with him in. We did concerts in Germany and London and Moscow in 1988. I knew him during that time - the last ten years or so of his life.

“I have conducted his music a concert of his music in front of him,” Richman continued. “That's one of the reasons that I was chosen to go on this tour - and much of the music was from ‘Candide.’ The music is absolutely extraordinary. Conducting his music in front of him was quite a remarkable thing. I had a chance to conduct 61 performances of ‘Candide’ in Los Angeles.

“Long story short, I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Bernstein and with his music.”

Music by Bernstein will grace a number of the programs in the BSO’s Masterworks series, the six large-scale performances that – along with the annual Pops concert and “The Nutcracker” – make up the meat of the season.

First up is Masterworks I, taking place on October 7. Titled “Goldstein Plays Ravel,” it features the titular Goldstein – Alon Goldstein – as the piano soloist, as well as the vocal talents of mezzo-soprano Joelle Morris.

Leading that program will be “Simple Song,” a piece by Leonard Bernstein that will feature Morris. Next comes Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in B” with Goldstein. And the program will conclude with Jean Sibelius’s “Symphony No. 2.”

“It’s lovely that we start the season with Bernstein’s music,” Richman said. “[‘Simple Song’ is] perhaps one of the most pure examples of his vocal writing. It was written as a commission to open the Kennedy Center ten years after the assassination of J.F.K. It’s a bit controversial - the kind of music that he wrote in, incorporating rock elements into the classical. ‘Simple Song’ is a beautiful way for us to open our season.

“Also on the program, we have music of Ravel and Sibelius,” he continued. “Maurice Ravel, the French composer – his ‘Piano Concerto in G’ will be played by Alon Goldstein, who has been here before. A wonderful friend and a great pianist; we’re thrilled to have him back in Bangor for our opening concert. All that and Sibelius symphony too.”

Masterworks II – “Beethoven’s 4th” – arrives on November 4. The featured soloist for this one is violinist Chloe Trevor, a rising star in the classical music world.

The concert will include two pieces by Beethoven. First comes the composer’s “Prometheus Overture.” The day ends with the aforementioned fourth symphony. Sandwiched between them is another Leonard Bernstein offering – “Serenade (After Plato’s “Symposium”)” – that will feature Trevor.

“The Beethoven is a continuation of a long-term cycle since I’ve been with the Bangor Symphony,” said Richman. “We’ve been going through all of the Beethoven symphonies. We just recently did the first symphony; prior to that, I believe we've done the second and the third, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh. We have yet to do eight and nine and we’re doing the fourth in November.

“It's a wonderful work that was actually being written at the same time as the famous Fifth Symphony,” he added. “it's one of my favorites. In fact, it's the piece with which I auditioned to become one of the conducting fellows to go on tour with Bernstein.”

Speaking of Bernstein …

“‘Serenade (After Plato’s ‘Symposium’)’ is an extraordinary work in five movements that displays every emotionally and technically demanding side of the violin,” Richman said. “It's a really good piece - a spiritual piece. For me, this is one of the pieces that is there really gets the core of Leonard Bernstein was as a composer.”

This particular instance also allowed Richman to expound a bit more on how programs fit together.

“It’s not necessarily specific - tonally or spiritually or what have you. It’s what fits in terms of the work; we’re thinking about orchestration. The size of the orchestra for the Beethoven is not as large as some other pieces. It doesn’t require a huge orchestra, so we look for what makes sense within the context of the Beethoven.

“Our soloist is Chloe Trevor,” he continued. “She's a rising star, a wonderful violinist that I have known for several years largely because she's the daughter of Kirk Trevor who was the conductor of the Nashville Symphony prior to my being the music director there, though we have not actually had a chance to collaborate yet.

“She has a very prominent social media presence and is kind of on the forefront of what a lot of classical soloists artists are these days. They are aware of their audiences in a different way that was not perhaps possible 40 years ago. She brings that sensibility to her performance of the series.”

Masterworks III is the first of 2019. “Strings Serenade” will be taking place on January 27. The featured soloist will be the BSO’s own Edward Allman on double bass.

The bill will feature the works of three different composers: George Friedric Handel (“Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 1”), Johann Baptist Vanhal (“Concerto for Double Bass in Eb Major”) and Antonin Dvorak (“Serenade, Op. 22, B. 52, E major”).

“In January, we are continuing with a recent tradition,” Richman said. “When we added another Masterworks to our schedule, it gives us the opportunity to feature a member of our orchestra as a soloist. And so we’re happy to have Edward Allman, our principal bass player, playing the Vanhal concerto.

“He’s perhaps not as well-known a composer as Beethoven or others on the docket, but Vanhal really shows off the double bass. And Edward is really deserving of having that spotlight; it’s wonderful to be able shine it on one of our own. Because [the BSO] is made up of a collection of virtuoso soloists; everybody is an incredible talent of their own right. They ALL deserve some of the spotlight, so it’s nice that we’ve been able to do that.

“The program is called ‘String Serenade’ because in fact it will just be strings; there are no other instruments. Strings all the time. The Dvorak is one of those pieces that is much beloved by not just audiences but as the string players themselves; it's such fun music to play you know it has. It borrows from a diverse heritage and runs the gamut, from beauty to really thrilling and technically demanding writing.”

Masterworks IV comes in February – February 24, to be exact. The program’s title is “Schumann and Shostakovich” and the featured soloist will be up and coming cellist Nicholas Canellakis.

First up will be “Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture” from Russian composter Mikhail Glinka, followed by Schumann’s “Cello Concerto in A minor” (featuring Canellakis as soloist). Closing things out will be “Symphony No. 9” by Dmitri Shostakovich.

“February will see us playing music by Russian composers. And the Bernstein connection continues with Shostakovich. Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic to play just a gorgeous Fifth Symphony; it's an incredible recording. There's a wonderful connection with this gorgeous music.

“We’re really delighted to be able to present this piece,” Richman continued. “We haven't done too much of Shostakovich’s music. We've done the Sixth Symphony together, but I don't think that we've done anything else in my time here and this is getting into my ninth season with the orchestra. Also on the program is the Glinka, the “Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture” which is just an incredible piece.”

Richman went on to offer some kind words about cellist Canellakis.

“Schumann’s concerto is a soulful piece featuring our soloist Nicholas Canellakis and I'm really happy to be collaborating with him. I have not yet had a chance to work with Nicholas, but his reputation proceeds him as an artist.”

April sees an exciting Masterworks V. On April 7, the BSO presents a program titled simply “Candide.” The bill – built around selections from the titular Bernstein work – will feature a pair of vocal soloists (Amy Maples and Christopher Sanders) and the combined efforts of the University of Maine Singers and the Oratorio Society.

Anchoring the day will be selections from Bernstein’s “Candide,” based on the classic novel by Voltaire, but there’s plenty more. Noted African-American composer William Grant Still’s “Can’t You Line ‘Em” leads things off, followed by an as-yet-untitled world premiere piece from none other than Lucas Richman, which will be in turn followed by Joan Tower’s “Made in America.”

“The whole program is music by Americans,” Richman said. “Beginning with a piece by the African-American composer William Grant Still. ‘Can You Line ‘Em’ is based on a folk song, a song sung actually by the chain gangs. Still took that song and incorporated into an orchestral piece. I’ve done several of Still’s works; he was an incredible composer whose music is not performed as often as it should be. I try to promote his music because it's worthy of being heard

“Also on the program it is Joan Tower’s ‘Made in America,’ which was part of a commissioned project; when it first premiered it was actually done in performance by an orchestra in all fifty states. In truth, it is hard to introduce a new classical work that gets repeat performances; too often, a piece is performed and then falls by the wayside. But some composers are able to break in with a piece or two - Joan Tower has certainly done this. And it’s a part of my mission to make sure that we do represent music by female composers as often as we can within our Masterworks and other presentations.”

And of course, there’s the new piece by Lucas Richman

“Ah yes, a piece by Lucas Richman – yet to be written,” he said with a laugh. “This is something that I offer for the orchestra as a fundraiser at our annual symphony soiree. Patrons can bid and the highest bidder then wins … me. I write a piece for a loved one of theirs and the money goes to the orchestra.”

But really, it’s all about “Candide,” the operetta with Amy Maples singing Cunegonde and Christopher Sanders singing Pangloss and some of the University of Maine’s very best vocal talents singing all the rest.

Closing out the series – and concluding the BSO’s 123rd season - is Masterworks VI, a program titled “Viennese Masters.” This one pairs Mozart’s “Symphony No. 33, K. 319, B-flat major” and Anton Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 4, E-flat major, ‘Romantic.’”

“Certainly if you ask people their favorite classical composer, they have specific ideas about what that means,” said Richman. “And much of the time, they mention Beethoven or they mention Mozart. And so it is difficult for us to not include a piece of Beethoven and a piece of Mozart.

“And so in fact we finish our season with Mozart, his 33rd symphony. By number, he wrote 41 symphonies in a very short lifetime; he wrote hundreds of works and each one is a delight.

“So this particular piece - the 33rd Symphony - sometimes I set up key relationship relations between the pieces,” he continued. “I think if you're living in that particular aural zone of a key center pitch, if you're in the key of D, for example, it ties things together. In that same mode, you try to do things that are really related keys. So in this case, the B-flat major sets us up for the second half and Bruckner’s fourth symphony.

“Each season I want to make sure we present some huge work,” he continued. “Work that requires investment from both the orchestra and the audience, simply because it is so massive in scale.”

(Editor’s note: From here, Mr. Richman went on a deep dive that I sadly don’t have room for in this piece. However, it is simply too compelling to abandon. And so, sometime before “Goldstein Plays Ravel” officially kicks off the BSO season on October 7, I’ll be writing a follow-up piece featuring even more from Lucas Richman.)

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All this, plus “The Nutcracker” with Robinson Ballet – December 15-16 – with three shows in those two days. And of course, the Pops – this year is “Space Oddity: The Ultimate David Bowie Experience,” featuring vocalist David Brighton and his band bringing you the very best of Bowie.

And that’s just the big stuff.

Richman and BSO Executive Director Brian Hinrichs have also been carving out a smaller-scale presence in downtown Bangor thanks to their tenancy at Bangor Arts Exchange. That partnership has allowed for the symphony to really expand its footprint and become even more entwined in the cultural fabric of the area.

“The BSO is really stretching itself in exciting ways for our 123rd season,” said Hinrichs. “At the Collins Center for the Arts, you can hear the full orchestra play everything from Beethoven to Bernstein to Bowie. Downtown at the Bangor Arts Exchange, audiences can take advantage of free and educational events that shed more light on our celebration of the Bernstein Centennial along with new programs that we hope will bring in new and different audiences.”

These BAE events include the free Kinderconcert series of classical performances aimed at children and the BSO “Deep Dives” series in which in-depth discussions about upcoming works being performed are more thoroughly explored through lecture and discussion. In addition, as part of the Bernstein celebration, the BSO will be hosting screenings at BAE of films that the legendary composer scored - “On the Waterfront” and “West Side Story.” Plus cabarets, book clubs and more!

The Bangor Symphony Orchestra is one of our most prominent and vital creative cultural institutions. If you’ve never seen what they do, check them out. If you have, check them out more. It’s a real privilege to have such talent and passion in our community – we’d be fools not to take advantage.

(For more information about the Bangor Symphony Orchestra or to buy tickets to an upcoming performance, visit the BSO website at www.bangorsymphony.org.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 12 September 2018 11:20

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