The Orchestra Reborn

The Phoenix Blog

what we play

So in case you haven’t heard, we have a concert in a few days! It’s exciting. You should come. You might have also heard that that concert is supposed to entertain you.

One of the things we love doing at Phoenix is giving our audience more insight into why we do what we do. So when we play our Flight program on May 15th, why these pieces? Why not four other pieces? If that’s your question I promise you’re in the right place. Read on.

The pieces that end up on programs come from everywhere. Pieces we’ve always wanted to do, pieces that we just heard at another concert, pieces friends make us listen to late on a drunken Friday night. It starts with a blank slate. But something has to be the first drop of ink, and often that first drop becomes the centerpiece the rest of the evening is focused around.

Stravinsky - Pulcinella Suite

Sometimes that centerpiece is a holdover that didn’t fit on a previous program. I love Pulcinella. Everybody in the orchestra loves Pulcinella. It’s perfect for Phoenix, and we’ve wanted to do it since we started planning this first season back in October. It’s the right size orchestra, it shows off our incredible wind section and solo strings, it’s a great length to end one of our concerts.

We were slated to perform it on our debut concert in March, but as that program evolved Pulcinella just didn’t make sense anymore. It didn’t fit the venue, didn’t fit the mood. And when you’re programming a concert you can’t get too attached to any one piece. So we let Pulcinella go, hoping to return to it at a more appropriate time.

But in May everything that worked against Pulcinella in March worked in its favor. Both the venue and the atmosphere made sense and, on this program, Pulcinella could be what it’s built to be, the center of attention and a fantastic conclusion to our first season as an orchestra.

Biber - Battalia

But if Pulcinella would close the program, what would open it? Even as the last thing people would hear, Pulcinella would set the tone for the rest of the evening. When programming for Phoenix I’ve come to think of openers as appetizers – something to open the night after people have had a chance to grab a drink.

Like I said earlier, some pieces that end up on programs are the things you’ve waited forever to play but just never found the right spot for. I was first introduced to the Biber Battalia in music history at Boston University. At the beginning of the year our legendary professor, Joel Sheveloff, gave us a listening quiz where he asked us to identify the century in which a small set of pieces were composed. The century. Not the composer, not the nationality. Just the century. A hundred years of room for error.

Of course the quiz was full of tricks. To an undergraduate music student, the second section of the Biber sounds straight from the 20th century, not the 17th. I got a 3/10 on that quiz, which I’ll proudly note was one of the better scores in the class.

Ever since, I’ve wanted to program the Battalia on a concert. And now I finally had my chance. It’d be an ideal opener for our event and a chance to show out the virtuosity of our concertmaster, Zenas Hsu.

Mozart - Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter"

So the concert would start with Biber and end with Pulcinella. The bookends were set. But the program was going to need another substantial set piece. Something that would pair well with Pulcinella. Pairing pieces is a bit like pairing wines. Actually I have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ve never paired wines before, and I’m pretty sure you don’t actually pair wines with each other, I think you pair them with food. But I knew I was looking for a larger piece that would work well with Pulcinella.

So where to start? In Pulcinella, Stravinsky is essentially offering us a modern interpretation of the classical era, so choosing a symphony from that era (1750 – 1820 or so) was a sure bet. The two most likely candidates were Haydn and Mozart, and we’d played a Haydn Symphony on the first concert. So Mozart it was.

I went through the usual suspects. There are a lot of great Mozart Symphonies out there (I mean, the guy was alright at writing music, I guess). A friend who’d paired Mozart with Pulcinella before suggested the Jupiter Symphony (41), and a light went off. A bright, springy opening movement, a deep and emotionally complex slow movement, something Phoenix hasn’t really gotten a shot at yet (no offense, Haydn 60), and a finale that offers a perfect wrap for a first half of music. The more I thought about it, the more Pulcinella and Jupiter Symphony made sense together. 

Greenstein - Clearing, Dawn, Dance

So there was just one missing piece to the puzzle. Biber and Jupiter set the first half, but Pulcinella needed company in the second. The nice thing about finding the perfect piece? There’s a programming rule for Phoenix that would help guide me: Every Phoenix program has at least one piece by a living composer.

I wanted something on the small-ish scale, but I was having trouble finding the right piece. Frustrated, I reached out to my friend and contemporary music expert, Will Robin. If there was a piece out there for us, Will would know it.

He sent a slew of titles over, one of which was a piece by a composer I’d never heard of, Judd Greenstein. I gave it a listen and fell in love immediately, but I started banging my head on the table when I realized it wouldn’t fit the program. It called for all strings, as does the Biber we were already doing.

But my roommate, Phoenix PR Director Mary Ferrillo, and I ended up going though the rest of Judd’s website together. We loved everything on it, but when we landed on Clearing, Dawn, Dance, we knew we had it. It was groovy and calming, a great way to get things going coming out of a break, and it gave us a chance to show off some of our wind players. 

The Program

Biber, Mozart, Greenstein, Stravinsky. Sometimes there’s a moment when a program comes together that you look at it and know everything fits. It doesn’t happen every cycle. But it did this time. The way Biber would open the concert with zest and energy, leading into the joyous Mozart Symphony, the groove of the Greenstein pulling the audience out of a break, and Pulcinella capping the evening off with endless energy.

You know you have the right program when you get more and more excited about it as the concert nears. We’ve started rehearsing Greenstein, our first full rehearsal is tomorrow (minor heart attack), and I can feel the momentum behind this program. Four pieces, from four centuries, that will all make for one amazing night.

It’s one thing for a program to work for the musicians playing it. It’s another thing for it to work for the audience listening to it. So… how’d we do? Well. Sometime around 9pm on Friday come and tell me. I’d love to hear what you thought.

Matt SzymanskiComment