The Harrisburg Symphony concert taking place twice
this weekend is about the most exciting ever in the long time I’ve been a fan
of the orchestra, and that’s really saying something.
I began attending HSO concerts when I was a child,
in the middle of the last century. When I returned to the area as an adult and
worked in radio, I did live broadcasts from the Forum, interviewed conductors
and visiting artists, and broadcast HSO previews. I also hosted the recorded concert
broadcasts. These days I’m on the board of the HSO and avidly interested in the
present and future of this admirable organization.
So what’s got me so excited about this weekend?
Here’s the short answer: a Beethoven symphony, a world premiere composed by a
local icon and a great cello concerto played by a hot cellist.
Beginning with the end, Beethoven’s 4th
Symphony concludes the concert. It’s a favorite of mine, shorter than many of the
composer’s 9 symphonies. Cheerful, tender, and lively are words that have been
used to describe it. It’s Beethoven at the peak of his powers.
According to HSO’s executive director Jeff
Woodruff, the 4th symphony hasn’t had a performance during Stuart Malina’s
tenure as conductor, and it’s overdue for a hearing. Its modest length serves
this concert well, because of the powerhouses on the program in the first half.
The concert begins with a work having its world
premiere–‘The Gift’, by Steve Rudolph.
The HSO’s board was in a quandary as Maestro Stuart Malina honed in on his 50th birthday a couple of years ago. What
would be an appropriate present for our beloved maestro?
Somebody suggested commissioning a new
composition, with a view to a performance by the HSO. It became obvious who
should receive that commission. In 2011 Rudolph wrote a jazz-tinged work called
‘Remembrance’ for a special HSO concert commemorating the World Trade Center
attack, and it was decided that he was the perfect composer for the job.
"He is a pillar of the musical scene in central
Pennsylvania," Woodruff said of Rudolph, through his work with the Central
Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz and his many performances as a jazz pianist and
"Stuart and I have a mutual appreciation of each
other," Rudolph said. "We have become good friends." He’s even taught jazz
improvisation to Malina’s son.
Rudolph explained to me his complex process of
creating ‘The Gift’. "I’ve found that I work better with rules and discipline
in my compositions. They come out stronger if I set a pattern of organization."
Knowing how important Malina’s family is in his
life, he used a technique employed by Bach, Liszt and many other famous composers.
By spelling out the first names of Malina, his wife and two children, he made a
kind of visual graph of notes assigned to those letters, and then applied them
to the musical scale.
The resulting pattern of notes gave him the melody
of the piece. He added harmonic and rhythmic elements to create a varied work
that incorporates many different kinds of music, including Broadway, with a nod
to Malina’s accomplishments in the world of show music. He even managed to
sneak in a snippet of Happy Birthday, he said. There is not a single note of
It took Rudolph a year to finish the piece. As his
deadline came closer, he worked through the night to get it right. But until
the first night of rehearsal, he won’t know what it sounds like as played by a
"I hope the sound in my head comes out of the
band," he said. This must be the concern of all composers hearing their music
performed live for the very first time, and all the more exciting for us too as
we hear it.
The third work on the program is the monumental,
romantic Dvorak cello concerto. Zuill
Bailey is coming to town to play it. Hearts flutter. Not only is Bailey a
phenomenal cellist, he has movie star good looks and has had a side career as a
cello-playing actor on TV.
He’s played with major symphonies throughout the
country and the world, but this is his first appearance with the HSO. He’s no
stranger to Central PA, however, having performed with Market Square Concerts,
Wednesday Club and the WITF’s Next Generation Festival.
The last time Bailey was in our area was 4 years
ago, when he played for a huge crowd at Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar to
celebrate the release of his recording of Bach’s suites for solo cello.
His first visit here was in 1987, when he played
the Dvorak concerto with the World Youth Symphony. He was just 15. "The Dvorak
concerto is an old friend of mine," he said.
He was in El Paso when I talked to him last week.
He’s artistic director of a very ambitious chamber music festival there, which
was just winding down. On his way
to Harrisburg, he’ll visit Ohio to play a recital in Oberlin and the Dvorak
cello concerto in Columbus.
I got to know Bailey for the first time 15 years
ago, when he was in Central PA to play chamber music with the Next Generation
Festival. Even then, his charisma, charm and communicativeness drew audiences
to him, but it’s his cello playing that’s made him a star.
"Be careful what you wish for," he said in jest,
about the success of his career. "I am very happy with how my life has evolved.
I am psychologically, mentally and physically ready."
His career now is split between giving recitals,
chamber music gigs and visits with major orchestras to play concertos. In
addition to the El Paso festival, he’s artistic director of festivals in Alaska
and Spokane. And wherever he goes, he participates in educational programs with
all age groups.
His recordings are uniformly praised and
successful, with his most recent release, a concerto and sonata by Benjamin
Britten, debuting at #1 on the Billboard Classical chart last week.
He affectionately called the Dvorak concerto a warhorse;
a massively important work that’s among most celebrated concertos in the
People ask Bailey how long it takes to prepare a
piece like the Dvorak cello concerto for performance with an orchestra. "I tell
them, 41 years," in other words, his whole life.
"It’s been an incredible journey," he said. "I’m so comfortable with it. Every time
I play it I learn something. It still gives me goose bumps. It’s a kind of
soundtrack to my life."
"I enjoy sharing music, seeing how it affects
people, he said. "My goal is to personalize music, to make it accessible for
everyone. I want to help change the way classical music is perceived."
If You Go: Harrisburg Symphony, 8 p.m. 2/8, 3 p.m. 2/9, The Forum, Fifth and Walnut Sts., Harrisburg. Tickets: $66-$12. Info: 717-545-5526 or harrisburgsymphony.org
Hughes writes about fine arts, classical music and performances in the area.
E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ellenbhughes.