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In Memoriam: Jess Isaiah Levin

Our friend and colleague Jess Isaiah Levin passed away suddenly on February 16, 2015.  A member of the North Carolina Symphony since 1974, he held the J. Felix Arnold First Violin chair.  This weekend's performances in Chapel Hill and Raleigh will be dedicated in his memory.

From an early age, Jess had designs on a career in science. He began serious study of physics while in elementary school, and went on to major in that subject at the Bronx High School of Science. However, as the son of one of New York’s premier violinists, it was not surprising that the music bug would bite him eventually. Jess began studying violin while in junior high school, and studied composition with Juilliard resident composer Hall Overton beginning at the age of 14.

During his teen years, the photography bug also took up permanent residence next to music and Jess pursued both creative areas from then on. An undergraduate degree in violin performance (with unofficial minor in composition) and a graduate school major in composition (with unofficial minor in violin) helped prepare Jess for his place in the First Violin section of the North Carolina Symphony.

Highlights of his career with the North Carolina Symphony included four performances of his own violin concerto (premiered in 1976), performances of Mozart’s Concerto No. 5, and the orchestra’s performances of two of his compositions – TAKI 183 for string orchestra, and Tessellation for full orchestra. His chamber works have been performed in Raleigh, Albuquerque, and several Wisconsin venues.

A continued fascination with physics and the other sciences provided just one area among the many that occupied Jess’s voracious appetite for reading that also included music and the visual arts.  Click here to see his blog, called Classical Photography. And, click here to listen to an interview from last year when Jess was featured on WCPE's "My Life in Music."

Our thoughts are with his wife, Pam Halverson.  She is also part of the North Carolina Symphony family, serving as Assistant Librarian.

Where words fail, music speaks. – Hans Christian Andersen

Here's Listening To You, Kid

The North Carolina Symphony will be saying “Here’s listening to you, Kid,” on Valentine’s Weekend, as it performs Max Steiner’s Casablanca score live while the film plays on a giant screen in Meymandi Concert Hall. 

One of the world’s most romantic films,Casablanca features iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  

"I think this is a great way to introduce new audiences to the thrilling sound of a live orchestra," says Constantine Kitsopoulos, who will be leading the North Carolina Symphony in this weekend's performances of Casablanca. 

Along with playing the score, is keeping score on the frames per second as the film runs. "I have a couple of video monitors in front of me," Kitsopoulos says.  The conductor uses the monitors to match music to the on-screen action.

The music from the original 1942 film was digitally removed from the soundtrack, while retaining the dialogue, sound effects, and even “As Time Goes By” from Dooley Wilson and his piano from the famous scene in Rick’s Café Américain. Max Steiner was a well-known Hollywood composer; among his many credits were the original King Kong and Gone With the Wind.  The Austrian-born Steiner was steeped in the Viennese classical tradition – taught by Brahms and Mahler, the composer Richard Strauss was his godfather.

Casablanca was one of the films discussed today on North Carolina Public Radio’s The State of Things, in a segment about memorable movie kisses.  Host Frank Stasio and film experts Marsha Gordon of N.C. State University and Laura Boyes of the N.C. Museum of Art, also talked about the Symphony’s performance on Valentine’s Weekend.


Peter and the Memories

The North Carolina Symphony’s NCS Kids Series continues on Saturday with a production of Peter and the Wolf, featuring the orchestra and the Triangle Youth Ballet.  Watching rehearsal today brought back in a rush the million and one times (that’s the total my parents probably would have told you) that I played my recording of Leonard Bernstein narrating the story, with the help of the New York Philharmonic. 

Peter and the Wolf is one of the beloved compositions in all of music, and is a great way to introduce young audiences to classical music, with the flute as the bird; the clarinet as the cat; the oboe as the duck; the bassoon as the Grandfather; woodwinds as hunters, with gunshots on timpani and bass drum; violins, violas, cellos, and basses as Peter; and French horns as the Wolf.  The Symphony’s collaboration with Triangle Youth Ballet, with direction by Tito Hernandez and narration by Heather Patterson King, and starring Joseph Gaitens as Peter and Kurt Uphoff as the Grandfather, also adds a delightful entrée into the world of dance and theater.


Holiday Magic

Each year, the North Carolina Symphony celebrates the holidays with a wide range of music, and our performances over the next couple of weeks highlight that versatility.

This weekend, Meymandi Concert Hall will come alive with the magical “A Pink Martini Christmas.”  Joining forces with Associate Conductor David Glover and the Symphony, Pink Martini band leader Thomas Lauderdale, vocalist Storm Large, and the “Little Orchestra” will offer the jumping blend of  classical, jazz, Latin, samba and good, old-fashioned pop that has made them one of the hottest acts in music. I was at rehearsal this afternoon, and I can safely say that Little Drummer Boy has never sounded so good!  You can click here to see some photos from rehearsal, and click here to read a preview in the Indy Week.  There are a few seats remaining for performances tonight at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., but don’t wait too long. 


Sculpting a Beautiful Messiah

The North Carolina Symphony will perform Handel’s Messiah, Friday and Saturday, December 5-6, at 8 p.m. in Meymandi Concert Hall in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, and Sunday, December 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Pinecrest High School’s Lee Auditorium in Southern Pines. 

Handel’s masterpiece will be led by Douglas Boyd, and will feature soloists Joélle Harvey, soprano; Susan Platts, alto; Robin Tritschler, tenor; Christòpheren Normura, bass; and the North Carolina Master Chorale, under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis.

Watching rehearsal this morning was like seeing stars swing into alignment on the horizon on a perfect night – Robin Tritschler’s tenor voice effortless and clear; Susan Platts’ alto rich and dramatic; Christòpheren Nomura’s bass notes full and low; and Joélle Harvey’s soprano silvery and soaring.  Conductor Doug Boyd worked with both hands, looking like a sculptor shaping clay to create something beautiful.


An Opportunity to Confound Predictability

One of the greatest attributes of the classical canon of music is its familiarity. The music has staying power. It has become the soundtrack for our lives. Imagine a graduation ceremony without "Pomp and Circumstance" or a wedding without Pachelbel's Canon. Familiarity can breed great love, but it can lead to predictability, or worst of all, boredom.


Copland in Mexico: Transformative, Beautiful

This weekend, the North Carolina Symphony will perform two concerts built around composer Aaron Copland’s transformative experiences in Mexico, showcasing magnificent music performed by the orchestra, plus actors, a multi-media presentation, and an iconic and beautiful film, with the soundtrack performed live.

Copland in Mexico,” which will be performed at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 7, and Saturday, Nov. 8, is the latest in the Symphony’s Explorations program, which uses music, art, and literature to provide a tool for examining culture more deeply.   The project is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Before each performance, “Copland in Mexico” creator Joe Horowitz and actors Mary Irwin and Matthew Bulluck will perform excerpts from Aaron Copland’s 1953 testimony before a committee chaired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.  The pre-concert events begin at 7 p.m. each night.

Following the orchestra’s first rehearsal this week, Joe and the actors got together to look at the scripts and run lines for the pre-concert reading and the performances with the orchestra. Sitting at a long table in the Symphony’s Green Room, Joe, Mary, and Matt brought to life the words of Aaron Copland and Silvestre Revueltas that will give the audience a glimpse into the creative lives and history of these amazing composers.   Click here for a video preview.

After a short break, the three began work on recreating testimony from Copland under questioning from McCarthy, who gained fame in the 1940s and 1950s investigating allegations of Communist influence in the United States – from the State Department and halls of power to the work of composers, artists, and musicians.

As he worked with the actors, Joe demonstrated a keen ear for accents, cadence, and pronunciation.  He also exhibited a wry sense of humor, saying at one point, “I’m not sure if I like the writing here, even though it’s mine!”  Matt and Mary came prepared, but were open to notes from Joe on the fine points of delivery, with Matt proving a quick study on the subtleties of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s speech rhythms.

Other events around Explorations: Copland in Mexico have included a talk by NCS Scholar-in-Residence William Robin, a roundtable discussion at Duke University with Grant Llewellyn, Joe Horowitz and Duke’s N.C. Latin American Film Festival Director Dr. Miguel Rojas Sotelo, and open rehearsals. 

The “Copland in Mexico” project will culminate with the performances at Meymandi Concert Hall tonight and tomorrow night. Led by Grant Llewellyn, the concerts include Copland’s Buckaroo Holiday from Rodeo and El Salón México, as well as Son and Duelo from Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca, Sensemayá, and the soundtrack from the film Redes, all composed by the visionary Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.  Redes will be shown on a giant screen in Meymandi Concert Hall, with live accompaniment by the orchestra.

Phantoms of the Orchestra

A collection of ghouls, goblins, and an “orchestra of the undead” is getting ready to descend on Meymandi Concert Hall on Saturday at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., as the North Carolina Symphony, with special guests Magic Circle Mime Co., presents “Phantoms of the Orchestra” as part of its NCS Kids Young People’s Concerts, sponsored by WakeMed Children's Hospital. 

At rehearsal this morning, I found Magic Circle Mime Co. co-founder Doug MacIntyre getting props together for the concert, including a very special light.  “I have to take the ‘creepy candelabra’ apart and reassemble for every show. We have a special traveling case for it,” Doug says.  “ I found in a thrift store, and when we wrote the Halloween concert I knew that we would use it.”  He uses pipe cleaners to fish the wires through the “candles,” which are actually small pieces of PVC pipe covered in dripped hot glue.  Doug quips that it looks just fine from “fifty feet and a fast horse.  You can get away with a lot.”

This is a fun show, based on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and the Symphony musicians really have a good time portraying the “orchestra of the undead.” Doug is looking forward to working with the orchestra again.   “This is our fourth time with the North Carolina Symphony, and we had an especially good time getting together with your Associate Conductor David Glover last night to bring out his inner Vincent Price.  Of course, he has a secret weapon to control these ghoulish musicians – the baton!”

Doug describes the concert is much like an old melodramatic Castle horror film, combined with Abbott and Costello.  He tells us that the entrance of the “orchestra of the undead” is not to be missed. “My fellow mime Maggie Petersen hits the chords to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on the organ and it draws them to the stage.”

If you are coming to the concert, we encourage you to celebrate the Halloween weekend by dressing up in costumes and entering the pre-concert costume contest. And, one hour before each concert, the Symphony will host the MetLife Instrument Zoo, which allows young concert-goers the opportunity to try out an instrument. It is going to be a “Boo-ti-ful,” family-fun experience all the way around.

Rehearsal Whirlwind

It was a whirlwind morning’s work today for guest conductor Eugene Tzigane as he prepared with the North Carolina Symphony and pianist Di Wu for tonight’s performance in Chapel Hill and this weekend’s performances in Raleigh.  Standing at the podium in Meymandi Concert Hall, Tzigane led the orchestra through the first piece on the program, Don Juan, by Richard Strauss.  Tzigane conducted with a closed score, and moved through the piece as a piece, returning to rehearse select moments with the orchestra.  Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, the second piece on the program received much the same treatment.  Click here to see more photos from the rehearsal.

At a break, the charismatic conductor met with students from Raleigh Charter High School, who were in attendance at the open rehearsal.  He fielded questions and in his answers showed a wide range of knowledge, not only of the music, but of the history surrounding the music.

One of the students asked about the length of time it takes to prepare an orchestra to play a concert.  Tzigane was obviously impressed with the musicians of the Symphony.  “The starting point for this orchestra is pretty high, because they come prepared, which isn’t always the case with other orchestras,” he said. “It also depends on the country, and who is in charge – you clearly have a great music director in Grant Llewellyn.”

After the break, the orchestra and Tzigane welcomed Di Wu to the stage to rehearse Tchaikovsky’s magnificent First Piano Concerto.  The Chinese-born pianist showed why she was a Cliburn Competition finalist, with a touch on the keys that ranged from feather light to powerful, but always elegant and joyful.  It is going to be an amazing concert.

Tales from the Tour

I am writing from western North Carolina, where the North Carolina Symphony is in Boone as part of a residency partnership with the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University (ASU).  I am pleased to report that the residency is off to a roaring start!

Last night we had an inspiring side-by-side rehearsal of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with the musicians of the North Carolina Symphony and student musicians from the Appalachian State University Orchestra.  Before the first note was even played, our musicians and the ASU students had the opportunity to meet at a dinner, which was graciously provided by ASU.  That way they made connections right away, even before they went in to the rehearsal, and I know that conversations included talk about careers and the musician’s life as well as about the piece.   The side-by side rehearsal process was exciting, and they made a lot of progress from the beginning of the rehearsal to the end of the rehearsal, in terms of balance and intonation in the work. 

This morning’s education concert at the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts was a full house, with students from Watauga, Avery, and Caldwell Counties. You could tell the elementary school students were excited entering the building.  Our Associate Conductor David Glover did a fantastic job involving the kids, with several musical demonstrations, plus he also had the students waving and singing… “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” sounded great!

This afternoon will find our Principal musicians conducting master classes and members of our administrative staff conducting a roundtable discussion on Orchestra Management.  And, as part of our PNC Grow Up Great North Carolina Music Discovery initiative, NCS Bassist Erik Dyke will visit and play for students at Hardin Park Elementary in Boone.

Tonight, the culmination of the residency is a public concert at 8 p.m. at the Schaefer Center on the ASU campus.  I can’t wait to hear the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg performed with the members of the North Carolina Symphony and the Appalachian State University Orchestra.  That is going to be a really big band!

It takes a lot of coordination to get the orchestra out on the road, and so we want to thank our partners at Appalachian State University, including ASU Hayes School of Music Dean Bill Pelto, ASU’s Director of Arts and Cultural Programming, Denise Ringler, and Chung Park, the conductor of the Appalachian State University Orchestra.  My colleagues here at the Symphony – President & CEO Sandi Macdonald, Senior Director of Statewide Development Rob Maddrey, Vice President for Artistic Operations and General Manager Martin Sher, our backstage crew, and of course our wonderful musicians of the North Carolina Symphony – are having a great time, and all of us are enjoying western North Carolina hospitality. 

Tomorrow, on the way back to Raleigh, we will give an education concert for Iredell County elementary school students in Statesville at 11 a.m., and will then travel to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where the North Carolina Symphony will conduct a side-by-side rehearsal of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with students from UNCSA.  All in all, a really fine road trip… fitting since our orchestra’s mission is statewide service and music education.

(This education and performance residency is presented by Appalachian’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programs as part of its 2014-15 Performing Arts Series. The residency is supported by The Mariam and Robert Hayes Trust.)


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