Williams tribute kicks off symphony season
BY STEVEN MARK / firstname.lastname@example.org
Charismatic performers and fascinating musical instruments highlight the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra’s spring season, which should provide enchanting moments for symphonic music lovers and some interesting challenges for the still-young orchestra.
HAWAI’I SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Spring 2014 Season
» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
“Star Wars & More: The Best of John Williams”
“Herbig Conducts Beethoven”
“Prokofiev & Strauss”
“Gershwin & Beethoven”
“Iggy Plays Paganini”
“Concerto for Koto”
“Grieg & Berlioz”
It all starts with music from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” — and we’re not talking 19th-century Europe here, at least not until Sunday. The season opens Friday with a pops concert of movie music by Academy Award-winning composer John Williams, with the orchestra led by timpanist Stuart Chafetz. That will be followed Sunday by an all-Beethoven concert with the dashing French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the authoritative German conductor Gunther Herbig.
“What it’s going to demonstrate is how versatile our musicians are,” said Jonathan Parrish, who stepped from the horn section of the fledgling orchestra to its presidency in November. “We don’t often get to showcase that. Two nights apart, we’re going to do ‘E.T.’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and then we’re going to do Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ piano concerto and Symphony No. 7.”
After the weekend’s concerts, the spring season will present an intriguing variety of performers and instruments. Audiences will get a chance to hear arguably the best violin in the world, a world premiere of a koto concerto and one of the brightest young stars in classical music.
“It’s going to be a great spring,” Parrish said.
Things get going with a bang with “Star Wars & More: The Best of John Williams,” a program Chafetz developed. He played timpani in Honolulu for 20 years but also conducted, including a position in Milwaukee, the home of Williams’ publisher, Hal Leonard Publishing. In 2012, the company asked Chafetz to put together a concert to honor Williams’ 80th birthday.
Chafetz designed a “signature” program, which he has since tweaked and performed with other orchestras. The program includes music from favorites like “Schindler’s List,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind, “Harry Potter,” “E.T.” and, of course, “Star Wars,” whose soundtrack was named the greatest in film history by the American Film Institute.
“What’s nice about it is that it’s an overview of John Williams’ palette,” Chafetz said. “It’s a great chance to explore his genius.”
As a performer and conductor of many different kinds of music — Chafetz was preparing to conduct an opera when interviewed — he has a lot of respect for Williams’ music.
“As a player, it’s terrifying because it’s incredibly difficult. There are a lot of notes. It takes a lot of stamina, and you really have to be on your game because things fly by so quickly. There are a lot of tempo changes,” said Chafetz, adding that he hears traces of the great Romantic composers such as Holst, Strauss and Brahms in Williams’ music.
Chafetz believes the concert will allow the orchestra to shine as an ensemble. “There’s no soloist or big name in front. It’s the orchestra that’s the big name.”
Although the symphony swings into its Masterworks series after Friday’s film-score fete, there will still be a movie connection in solo pianist Thibaudet, who is considered one of classical music’s most poetic and stylish keyboard artists. He has played for several film soundtracks, including the Oscar-winning score of “Atonement” and the Oscar-nominated score of “Pride and Prejudice.”
“It’s completely different” playing for film tracks as opposed to concerts, said Thibaudet, who performed with the Honolulu Symphony years ago. Musicians play while watching the movie, trying to match the emotion of the imagery. “Sometimes a two-minute, three-minute sequence, we might have to play it 17 times. … We’ll have a take, and they’ll say, ‘No, this is where the little boy feels this,’ and suddenly you’ll hear this silence and they’ll say, ‘This is it, we got it.'”
Thibaudet also has a reputation as a fashion trendsetter, working with London designer Vivienne Westwood for about 10 years. He remembers going to boutiques when he was a youngster looking for performance attire. “I would say, ‘I want this jacket and this shirt,’ and they would look at me and think, What’s wrong with this guy?” he said.
He has carried his interest in fashion to the stage, updating the image of male performers obligated to the stodgy tux. Most younger pianists don’t wear tails now, he said.
Thibaudet will play one of the transcendent works in all of music, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. The piece was nicknamed “Emperor” ostensibly because of its florid opening movement and majestic third movement, but Thibaudet has a special feeling for its reflective, hymnlike middle movement.
“It’s beyond greatness,” he said. “It’s not human; it comes from somewhere else. … It’s short but it’s a miracle. You feel like time is completely stopping, that you’re hanging through these notes and he creates that kind of stillness. It’s so moving that without even playing the notes, you want to cry.”
Leading the orchestra for Thibaudet’s concerto and in the rest of the all-Beethoven program will be Herbig. The 82-year-old maestro is considered one of the “grandmasters” of the classical repertoire, especially German repertoire, said JoAnn Falletta, the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra’s artistic adviser.
Falletta has programmed a nice variety for the spring season. Early April brings back conductor Junichi Hirokami, whose previous appearance was so animated that it had orchestra members stomping their feet in appreciation as he took his bows.
He will conduct a Strauss program. Also on the bill is violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who is returning to Honolulu to play Prokofiev. Meyers will perform on the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, a violin made in 1741 that is considered to be the finest-sounding instrument in the world. It is on lifetime loan to Meyers, who has said it has a range of color, a projection and a responsiveness like no other instrument. It was believed to have sold for more than $16 million in 2012.
Other highlights include pianist Sara Davis Buechner, whose performances here during the Aloha Piano Festival have been impressive, fun-filled renditions of everything from Gershwin to Japanese tunes, paired with returning conductor Maximiano Valdes.
May will feature Gerard Schwarz, who took the Seattle Symphony to major heights during a 26-year tenure as conductor, with symphony concertmaster Iggy Jang soloing in works by Mozart and Paganini.
“I ask him to solo every year, and he finally agreed,” Falletta said.
That will be followed by a concert featuring a world premiere of the orchestral version of a koto concerto composed by Daron Hagen and performed by Yumi Kurosawa, a pioneer of the traditional Japanese instrument. Conducting will be Naoto Otomo, who cut a truly maestro like presence onstage at the symphony’s debut in 2012.
Otomo returns for the final concert, which will feature pianist Conrad Tao. Falletta called Tao a “major, major star” even though he is just a 19-year-old college student. “I had the chance to work with him in a summer festival,” Falletta said, “and he lived up to everything people said about him. He played so brilliantly. … I said, ‘Conrad, I have to introduce you to people in Honolulu.'”
Falletta said the symphony’s second season is one that any music lover should cherish. While offering fewer concerts, the fall half of the season enjoyed fuller houses than the symphony’s first season in 2012 and included jump-to-your-feet audience reactions to flute master James Galway and pianist Joyce Yang.
Parrish, who was instrumental in helping reconstitute the orchestra after the collapse of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra four years ago, sees the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra as still in its embryonic stage.
“We still haven’t earned the confidence fully of the community,” Parrish said. “People are coming out to the concerts. They want the product — that’s good. But as far as supporting us, they still want to wait and see.”