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Maryland Symphony Orchestra says: 'Let's dance'

April 17, 2013|By KATE COLEMAN | katec@herald-mail.com
  • A Latin American dance-themed composition by Gabriela Lena Frank is part of "Orchestral Dances," this weekends concert program presented by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.
Submitted photo

“Could it be? Yes, it could.

Something’s coming, something good,

If I can wait!”

The wait will not be long. “Something” is coming this weekend.

The words are Stephen Sondheim’s in “Something’s Coming,” Tony’s anticipatory song in “West Side Story.”

Those lyrics also anticipate “Orchestral Dances,” the final masterworks concert of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra’s 31st season.

“The whole orchestra is in the spotlight for this concert,” wrote Music Director Elizabeth Schulze in an email. “I chose the program literally to show off just how good this orchestra has become. They can play anything from Bach to Broadway and play it all extremely well.”

The program opens with “Symphonic Dances,” music extracted by Leonard Bernstein from his musical, “West Side Story.”

Contemporary American pianist and composer Gabriela Lena Frank (see sidebar story) wrote “Three Latin American Dances,” next on the weekend’s bill. She credits Bernstein as one of her influences, according to press information.

The concert and the season will conclude with Suites Nos. 1 and 2 from Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloë.”

“I am so proud to be associated with this outstanding group of musicians, and I think we’ve had one of our very best seasons,” Schulze wrote. “We look to build on that for next year, too.”

“This is a great concert,” said Donald Spinelli, the MSO’s principal percussionist in a recent phone interview from his Northern Virginia home. “It’s probably as challenging and rewarding and interesting a concert for percussion — certainly that I’ve done all season — but probably the best percussion concert I’ve done in 20 years at the MSO.” 

Spinelli, who retired in 2007 from a 20-year career with “The President’s Own,” the U.S. Marine Band, organizes the section as principal percussionist. This huge percussion concert is a logistical nightmare, he said. The challenge is having enough room on stage.

“The Maryland Theatre stage is small and it has a hard shell, which doesn’t allow you any ability to drift off into the wings a little bit,” Spinelli explained.

Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” probably has the most variations for arranging percussion of anything he’s ever done with symphony orchestras, he said.

“It is done with anywhere from four to seven players,” he said. “And even if you have the maximum — we’ll have five — you’re still jumping, you’re still playing multiple instruments, every player.”

Spinelli provided the “very, very extensive list:” a drum set, which he’ll be playing, cowbells, bongos, cymbals, woodblocks, finger cymbals and suspended cymbals, xylophones and vibraphones, maracas, concert bells, tenor drums, concert toms, a police whistle, chimes, triangles, tambourines, bass drums, timbales and congas.

Frank’s piece has a completely different but no less formidable list, Spinelli said. He also is principal percussionist with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, where Frank has been composer-in-residence for the past two years.

“We have played a number of her pieces. Her stuff is terrific. I like her stuff, and she’s having a lot of success and I’m really happy for her,” Spinelli said. But, he added, she’s fond of symphonic grand marimbas, which are five octaves large, and of thunder sheets — sheet metal that is shaken to produce a rumble like thunder.

Principal Violist Phyllis Freeman also called the weekend’s program great but challenging, in a recent phone conversation from her Mount Airy, Md., home.

She’ll play a viola solo on “Somewhere,” in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances.

The viola part is not so intense in Frank’s piece, but she said violinists are saying their part is so hard.

“The Ravel is kind of a textural piece, and violas always kind of perform that role within in the orchestra — the middle voicing and blending,” Freeman said. She called the “Daphnis et Chloë” suites the equivalent of Impressionistic painting in music and contrasted them with the “very angular and very percussive” “Symphonic Dances.”

“It’s a totally different experience of music, I think,” she said.

Freeman, who has been with the MSO since the 1999-2000 season, also plays in the National Philharmonic and teaches at Maryland Talent Education Center, the community music school she runs. 

She likes Schulze’s not-typical-for-a-regional-orchestra programming for the MSO. Freeman said she told Schulze once last year that when she looked at the program, she wondered, “What is she thinking?”

“But then we actually did it,” Freeman said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, it was a great idea.’” 

“Elizabeth does really ambitious programs,” said MSO Principal Harpist Marian Rian Hays in a recent phone interview. “They’re terrific. It’s great for everybody in that orchestra.”

Hays has been performing with the orchestra since 2003. She and her 90-pound instrument travel from Great Falls, Va., to performances in Hagerstown two or three times a season for masterworks concerts and other times for pops and youth concerts that include harp. A freelance musician, Hays said she plays all over the Washington, D.C., area. She does recital work and chamber music, but the MSO is her “primary orchestral thing.”

She considers it “absolutely remarkable and quite a tribute” that the MSO is in Hagerstown. People ask her, “Really, they have a symphony up there?” Hays answers, “Yup. A very good one.” 

She will perform on all three pieces on the program. “It’s a big harp program. It’s a little unusual,” she said. There also will be another harp on stage — “lots of musicians in this program,” she added.

Hays called the first half of the program — the Bernstein and Frank — “a very nice pairing.”

And the Ravel?

“You close your eyes and you just get swept away,” Hays said. “Of course, I’m talking as a harpist. I mean I just love that piece of music. It’s music to die for. It’s gorgeous.

“It’s magical music for me, and the harps just go berserk in certain sections. There’s crazy, crazy, wonderful glissandos everywhere. I think it’ll be a great program and I certainly hope they have a good house because it’s very accessible music.”

Spinelli agrees. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world … It’ll be a terrific show.”

If you go ...       

WHAT: Maryland Symphony Orchestra Season Finale, Masterworks 5 concert, “Orchestral Dances”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 20, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 21

WHERE: The Maryland Theatre, 21 S. Potomac St., downtown Hagerstown

COST: Adult tickets cost $15 to $49 and may be purchased online at www.marylandsymphony.org; in person from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Friday, April 19, at the MSO office, 30 W. Washington St., downtown Hagerstown; or by calling 301-797-4000 during business hours. Students in grades one through 12 are admitted free to all Masterworks concerts. Rush tickets, if available, for college students (no reservations accepted) may be picked up at The Maryland Theatre box office just before each performance. The Maryland Theatre box office opens 90 minutes prior to MSO concerts.

CONTACT: Go to www.marylandsymphony.org, call 301-797-4000, or go to the MSO office in downtown Hagerstown.

MORE: Music Director Elizabeth Schulze and guest artists will talk about the program and composers one hour before performances during “Prelude.” The half-hour presentation is free for ticket holders.

Program notes and audio clips of the musical selections being performed are available at www.marylandsymphony.org.


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