A Roundtable with Nicholas Stovall, Truman Harris and Sylvia Alimena
For the second subscription concert of Eclipse Chamber Orchestra’s 20th season on February 26, 2012, we decided to preview the festivities and some of the musicians, composers and conductors involved. Below is an edited transcript of a question and answer session we had with Eclipse Composer-in-Residence and Principal Bassoonist Truman Harris, Eclipse Co-Principal Oboist Nicholas Stovall and Music Director and Conductor Sylvia Alimena as they prepared for the concert.
Q: Let’s begin with you, Nicholas. This will be your first major solo performance in the Washington area since you joined the National Symphony Orchestra as Principal Oboe. Do you have a pre-concert ritual when you are the soloist? Does it begin the day of, the day before or the week before? What does it entail?
Nicholas Stovall: Playing concertos in front of an orchestra is such a rare occurrence for an oboist. I really can’t say I have a particular ritual around that. I am, however, frequently cast in the role of a soloist from within the orchestra in my position with the NSO. Playing the beautiful oboe solos in works like Brahms' Violin Concerto, Shostakovich's First Symphony and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony recently has helped me to hone a routine that includes quiet concentration and focus.
Q: And how long does it take you to learn a piece like the Vaughan Williams, which we understand is particularly demanding for the oboe soloist?
Stovall: I learned the Vaughan Williams Concerto when I was a student, but have never performed the piece. I took it out during the National Symphony's summer vacation last August and began to work slowly on the more difficult technical passages. Since the NSO's schedule can be pretty intense at times during the year, I've put the piece on the shelf a few times since August and taken it out again when I've had time. I also worked on the piece with my friend Audrey Andrist in a piano reduction. She and I recently gave a performance of the piece for friends, which I think helped immensely in my preparation for the upcoming performance with Eclipse.
Q: What about doing research on the piece? We know it was premiered during WWII and had to be performed outside London due to the threat of bombing. Do you listen to recordings, do you read about the composer, do you talk to Eclipse Music Director and Conductor Sylvia Alimena before rehearsing with the orchestra?
Stovall: Vaughan WIlliams is not a composer whose story we all know, so I did a bit of reading and listening to try and familiarize myself with his world. Colleagues of mine have commented that the Oboe Concerto is unfamiliar to them; however, I found no fewer than 15 professional recordings of the piece to study! I also got my hands on a study score to help me in my preparation. I find that studying the score to any orchestral piece aids in my understanding. Sylvia and I got together to talk and play a bit before rehearsals with Eclipse began. It was nice to find out that we are thinking about the piece in similar ways. I am looking forward to a very happy collaboration.
Q: So are we.
Let’s stay on the theme of collaboration and turn to our composer, Truman Harris. Truman, did you speak with Sylvia before composing the Serenade, which salutes Eclipse on its 20th anniversary? And did you have any of your Eclipse colleagues in mind when you composed it, or were you simply trying to write good music?
Truman Harris: I had in mind the sound of Eclipse Chamber Orchestra certainly. It’s an honor to be invited to write music for such fine performers and conductor. Sylvia Alimena has been generous and supportive, giving me both the performance time to enable the writing of a full-length work and the freedom of style and orchestration that is so helpful in carrying out the project.
Q: Sylvia, did you give Truman any advice on composing the piece? And conversely, did he give you instructions on what how he wants the piece to be played?
Sylvia Alimena: I never tell a composer what or how to compose. I just say ‘compose with all of your heart.’ The desire to compose is a divine gift. Composers feel compelled to compose and you can't ever squash their inspiration. The only caveat to this is the need to stay within the orchestra's instrumentation.
Truman and I will meet a few days before rehearsals begin to discuss the piece and what he is looking for in terms of gestures, colors, textures, style; anything that may not be readily apparent from the score itself.
Q: Now, Sylvia, we’ve heard the Serenade is a pretty tough piece to play. Will Truman get some good-natured ribbing from his colleagues for making the parts so hard?
Alimena: Absolutely! [laughter]
Q: OK, let’s get to the Serenade itself. Truman, what should we in the audience be listening for? How do you hope it will affect us?
Harris: The music is essentially tonal. I like the limitations of an orchestra that has a small wind section with only two horns in the brass and no percussion, something like the Serenades from other eras. This leads to some substitutions in the orchestration— sometimes fortissimo plucked strings take the place of percussion, muted horns replace trumpets, etc.
The themes are often built up through developed motives; for example, at the beginning of the first movement, the rising interval of a third is first heard alone and gradually grows into the main theme.
I hope that the listener will enjoy the music, the singing and dancing nature of it at a high emotional and intellectual level. In another example from the first movement, the form is ABA, with A singing and B dancing.
Q: Truman, let’s talk about composing itself. How long have you been composing and where did you learn to do it?
Harris: My earliest attempts were in elementary school, trying to write for the school band. I learned by studying scores, listening in rehearsals and talking with composers.
Q: Which composers do you like to listen to? Are they the same ones you like to play?
Harris: Yes, I like music between the wars, 1918-1945, particurlarly Stravinsky, Honegger, Hindemith, Poulenc, Françaix, for example. Playing them is fun, too.
Q: So you will enjoy the Feb 26 concert, which includes Honegger, Francaix and Vaughan Williams along with your music.
Q: As a veteran orchestral player, do you make mental notes about something a composer has done in a piece you're playing and hope to do the same in your own composing?
Harris: Oh, yes. I try to imagine what the music I'm hearing looks like in the score, to visualize the orchestration. The way ideas are developed and the limits that the composers set for themselves are instructive. I try to answer the question, ‘What makes this music powerful and compelling?’
Q: And how do you like to work? Gustav Mahler composed in a hut in the Austrian countryside each summer, shutting himself off from the rigors of conducting. Mozart, by the volume of work he left and the short time he was alive, must have composed anywhere, at any time and at great speed.
Harris: I play the piano well enough to improvise; if an idea comes that seems to have merit, I try to develop it into something larger. This produces notebooks of such ideas. Computers have greatly increased the productivity of composing. You now can be your own publisher, producing professional -quality materials with relative ease. Computer software enables me to work more efficiently, with fewer errors.
Q: We’ve heard of composers who revise pieces they’ve written. Some do so constantly. Have you ever revised a piece?
Harris: Yes. For example, my Concertino for Horn was premiered by Eclipse Chamber Orchestra with Laurel Ohlson, horn, and Sylvia Alimena conducting. After I heard the first performance I revised the orchestration to better support the solo instrument in subsequent performances.
Q: Now, Sylvia, does it help to perform a piece when the composer is just a phone call away? Or does it perhaps put more pressure on you and the orchestra? Or do the players just want to play particularly well because they’re colleagues of the composer?
Alimena: When it's a colleague or someone the orchestra knows and loves, it makes it more special to premiere a piece. From the beginning of Eclipse, the orchestra and I knew we wanted to encourage new compositions. We have been fortunate to have very talented composers-in-residence and other composers who were able to write for us.
While the score generally tells a conductor everything she needs to know, it's always enlightening to have added input from the composer. I always enjoy studying a new composition thoroughly without any input whatsoever from the composer. Then I get together with the composer to discuss the piece. It's fascinating to formulate my own perspective on a new work based on what I see in the score. It's also helpful for the composers with whom I have worked to know what their score is conveying on its own.
I can't say the orchestra plays better because the work is composed by our friend and composer-in-residence Truman Harris. They give 100% to everything they do. It's for the love of music in general that we play, not the love of a particular person or piece.
Q: I have to ask, when you were thinking of this season, how did you decide to program the Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto?
Alimena: When I program I always start with a long list of major works. Then I see who in the orchestra wants to perform a concerto. Once I know the concerto soloists’ wishes, I choose major works to complement the solo pieces so that the concert is cohesive, that the pieces work together. I'm very conscious of key relationships and style and whether or not they will give the program that subtle but important ‘wow’ factor. Although most audience members lack perfect pitch, I think they feel internally that pieces work together and that affects their enjoyment of the concert. Nick requested to perform the Vaughan Williams with Eclipse, and I’m so happy that he did. This glorious piece fits his glorious playing!
Q: Agreed. Now as we end our talk let’s get a bit informal. Nick, we’ve often seen you arrive to concerts on a bicycle and listening to an iPod. Is this a health thing?
Stovall: Yes, I enjoy riding a bicycle as an alternate mode of transportation. Washington is becoming more and more bike friendly, which makes it easy and fun to get around that way. I am a member of the Capital Bike Share, a program with bikes and docks throughout the city that allows you to pick up a bike in one location and drop it off in another. There's even a dock on the plaza at the Kennedy Center!
Q: And what’s on your iPod?
Stovall: Most of the time the music I'm listening to is something that I will be playing in the near future, and I'm listening for study purposes. Otherwise, I love to listen to podcasts of my favorite radio shows.
Q: And what do you hope the audience takes away after hearing you play the Vaughan Williams?
Stovall: I hope that the audience enjoys a beautiful piece that they might not have heard before in a live performance.
Q: Truman, you get the last word. As a composer what makes you smile?
Harris: I like this question. I would say lyricism without sentimentality, power without bombast, invention without excess complexity, wit without silliness. I hope I sometimes do so well!
Q: You do, absolutely. Thank you, Sylvia Alimena, Nick Stovall and Truman Harris.