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Stories and Tales with Phoenix Orchestra

Sunday, April 23, 2023

On WCRB In Concert with Phoenix, Joshua Weilerstein conducts the chamber orchestra in a program that imagines far-off places and fantasy lands, from a fall through the looking glass in Caroline Shaw's "Entr'acte" to a night of revelry in Luigi Boccherini's Madrid and beyond.

Joshua Weilerstein, conductor

Luigi BOCCHERINI Night Music of the Streets of Madrid
Maurice RAVEL Suite from Mother Goose
Caroline SHAW Entr'acte
Aaron COPLAND Appalachian Spring

Recorded on December 12, 2022 at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall.

For more information about Phoenix and to buy tickets to future concerts, visit the Phoenix website.

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Hear Joshua Weilerstein discuss Phoenix, his podcast Sticky Notes, and the "Stories and Tales" program using the audio player above, and read the transcript below:


Kendall Todd I'm Kendall Todd from WCRB, and I'm here with Joshua Weilerstein, who is the artistic director, the music director, excuse me, of Phoenix Orchestra, the chamber orchestra in Boston. Joshua, thank you so much for your time today.

Joshua Weilerstein Thanks for having me.

Kendall Todd It's been an interesting couple of years since you have become music director of Phoenix. I believe it was 2021 when you began your career with them, right?

Joshua Weilerstein Yeah. And I . . . actually, our first concert was canceled due to the Omicron variant, so we had a little bit of a bumpy start, but the orchestra had been, and the ensemble had been working so hard during the pandemic to create so many new things that actually we were sort of able to just ride through it and keep on going from there.

Kendall Todd Yeah, what was it like coming sort of out of the pandemic and into this new phase of your career?

Joshua Weilerstein It was really exciting and felt a little bit like coming back home. I, you know, I went to school in Boston. My parents teach at New England Conservatory. So many of the members of the orchestra are either former students or current graduate students at the school. So it really felt like we were rehearsing in Brown Hall at NEC, where I spent hours and hours and hours rehearsing. So in that way, it really felt like coming home. And then there was this real bond between myself, Matt Szymanski, the executive director, and Christina Dioguardi, who is our operations manager, because we had all been to school together and we really felt like we were, you know, I was joining the team, but it felt like we were ready to start something new together.

Kendall Todd I know you spoke with my colleague Brian McCreath last year, or a couple of years ago, and one of the things that you mentioned that I really liked is that you envisioned Phoenix as being sort of . . . opening the gates to new classical music listeners, or people who maybe are not so interested in the traditional concert experience. How have you . . . since then, how have you and Phoenix been able to open those doors for people?

Joshua Weilerstein Yeah, I think, you know, I love the traditional concert experience in a lot of ways. I grew up with it with my parents. But I think for a lot of people, you know, we've heard a lot that people find it a bit intimidating. They don't know, you know, how to behave in the hall, whether to clap, when to clap, what to wear. And a lot of what Phoenix tries to do is remove all of those questions, because really there aren't any rules to our performances. And we do play a lot of traditional classical music, as well as trying to do a lot of new music, trying to open up and expand the canon, as we say. And so that aspect of it, you know, might seem a little bit like a traditional concert in terms of programing.

But we also try to go to venues that are not so typical for classical music performances. And then we just try to basically say, have a drink, have a great time, and enjoy the music in whatever way that you like to. And so that, we are hoping, allows people to kind of take off those intimidating barriers to enjoying something right away. And then maybe, you know, they realize that a classical concert isn't actually that intimidating and they go to Symphony Hall and hear the BSO play and there aren't so, so many rules there either. Or as many as they think they are.

Kendall Todd Does it feel different between playing a concert at like Bully Boy [Distillers], for example, or the Waterworks Museum in Chestnut Hill, versus playing in a place like Jordan Hall?

Joshua Weilerstein Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think especially for us who are, you know, musicians who are trained in these big halls, that has a different kind of sacred specialness to it. And the audiences do behave differently there just because it's a grander space. And there is you know, there is, unfortunately for us that our only problem with playing in halls that are sort of traditional is that there's a distance between the stage and the audience. And we like to, as much as possible, bridge that distance in a physical sense as well as, you know, in terms of breaking the fourth wall. And then in venues like Waterworks or Bully Boy or Artists for Humanity, where we played a lot, and other theaters, we're able to really integrate ourselves into the audience. And it feels like you're right up there getting the experience. And I think our audiences said that's something that they really enjoy about the venues that we plan.

Kendall Todd That's great. And so you're also the host of the classical music podcast Sticky Notes, which I really like, first of all. How has your work on the podcast informed your work as music director or as a conductor, or has it?

Joshua Weilerstein Yeah, a lot. I usually write shows about pieces that I'm conducting, which allows me to research in a different way, not just turning the pages of the score. I also am able to do a lot of deep research. I have an account on JSTOR, you know, like trying to get all of this academic information about these pieces and learning a lot about the historical background. And it really informs the way I conduct these pieces. I've made discoveries in Beethoven symphonies, for example, that I don't think I would have made without the podcast. And it's allowed me to bring an extra element to performances. So they definitely inform each other. You know, I always start every show with a little spiel about where I've been, where I've been conducting and what I'm doing next. And then often, you know, I have guests that I'm working with that week. And Martin Fröst, the wonderful clarinetist, the week that we were working together in Spain. So it — all of it informs the other. It's very symbiotic.

Kendall Todd That sounds like a great relationship between these two projects. Have you discovered anything that was surprising to you in your podcast research that informed the way that you conducted something?

Joshua Weilerstein I think rather than something specific, like a specific nugget of information that I, you know, was able to put directly into performing, it's more about getting a holistic understanding of who these people were. Because a lot of the point of the show is to bring context of what the composer's life was like at the time, what the world was like at the time. So, for example, I was doing the Eroica Symphony, Beethoven's Eroica Symphony last week, and in my research for the podcast, I just dug so much into French revolutionary politics and the Enlightenment and [German philosopher Friedrich] Schiller, and all of this stuff that was just roiling around at the time.

And it starts to be less surprising that Beethoven wrote such an unbelievably revolutionary piece, because that was what the zeitgeist was at the time, was revolution and creating something new and changing the world. And Beethoven seeing himself as like the Napoleon of classical music. So you know, that I knew on a certain level conducting the piece and studying the piece and knowing about it, but really doing all of that reading and talking with, you know, scholars like Jan Swafford, who is a wonderful composer and writer, you know, that kind of stuff really helped me bring something new to the orchestra that I was working with, and then to the audience as well.

Kendall Todd That's great. I'd like to talk about the Phoenix concert "Stories and Tales," which was at Jordan Hall, and I'm really curious about how this program and the theme and everything came together.

Joshua Weilerstein Well, the program ended up being very slightly different due to a COVID diagnosis the day before our performance. So we did have a wonderful piece by fantastic young composer Derrick Skye called Sunlight Spread, which we are going to be doing next season. But we lost our guitarist, which had a huge improvisatory part in it, and so we couldn't replace her at the last moment, unfortunately. So we replaced it with a piece that fit the theme, which was the Boccherini Nights in the Streets of Madrid. This is a piece that is one of those pieces from way back in the 18th century that you kind of can't believe was written in the 18th century because it's so weird and wild and unusual. And there's all these effects, and there's all this humor, you'll probably recognize one little bit if you saw the movie Master and Commander: [The Far Side of the World], when Russell Crowe suddenly decides to play the cello. So the idea behind the whole program was that classical music is an amazing vehicle for telling stories and fairytales.

And so the second piece in the program, Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, is obviously Mother Goose. The — all of these fairy tales are so kind of ingrained in our society, and we all know the stories. And Ravel just takes these little bits of the stories and kind of sprinkles these colors in them. You know, the most famous probably is the "Beauty and the Beast" movement, which is so vivid. You don't need to know who's Beauty, who is the Beast, and the way that he portrays it is so remarkable. And then my favorite movement in that piece is the last movement, "The Fairy Garden," which really started the idea of, oh, you know, fairy tales, stories.

And then the second half started with Caroline Shaw's Entr'acte, which is also a piece based on a fairy tale, to a certain extent. Alice in Wonderland, at least, it's all — with Caroline, there's always a million different influences. But Caroline had heard a Haydn string quartet and was really inspired by this one chord progression, and she said it reminded her of Alice in Wonderland and going through the looking-glass. And so I thought it would be perfect to fit in with this program. And then finishing with, I think, one of the greatest American pieces of classical music, Appalachian Spring, which is not, in its way, a fairy tale, but it has fairytale like elements in the music, especially the ending of the piece, not just "Simple Gifts," the famous part, but the very end of the piece, which Copland also thought was his favorite in the whole piece. And so the entire program, not one of those pieces actually tells a total story. Even Appalachian Spring is somewhat abstract in the ballet, but each one has this fairytale like element, and it really allows us to explore our imaginations throughout the program.

Kendall Todd Yeah, definitely. I'm so glad that you brought up how weird the Boccherini sounds for that era. I thought it was so shocking that it was written like pre-1800. One of the things that I read that Boccherini said about that piece is that it would basically be like nonsense to anyone outside of Spain at that time. And so he didn't want to . . . he didn't want to publish it, and it didn't publish until after he died. And so I'm wondering, how have you been able to take a piece that is so rooted in a specific time and place and make it connect with musicians and audiences in this time and place?

Joshua Weilerstein You know, I don't want to say the cliché “That's the power of music.” But in a sense, I don't find that piece difficult to understand at all. It's funny, it's so evocative, it's so beautiful, and it has such a spirit. You know, all you need to think about in that movement that is so famous is it's just a few drunk guys walking down the street singing to themselves, you know, that's all that . . . that is universal [laughs], fortunately or not. And it's just a piece that has such character that, you know, just like in the Ravel, just like in the Shaw, just like in the Copland, I think that that music really transcends, you know, the time and place that it's in. But it's also nice to know the time and place that it's in, it's nice to know that that's what he was portraying. But, you know, like a book where you get to take yourself out of your own life and put yourself somewhere else, I think that's what Philip Roth always talked about, that you can kind of bring yourself out. And that's why reading literature is so exciting. It's the same with this music. It just takes you to a different place. In this program, you go from Madrid to fairytale world of Ravel, to Caroline Shaw's music, to Copland, and it's just all of these different places and stories and fantasies.

Kendall Todd With the Caroline Shaw Entr'acte, how did you find your way to this piece? I think it's such an interesting piece.

Joshua Weilerstein I've done it so many times. I almost always propose it to orchestras to open programs because I find it so beautiful. The audience loves it, it's so creative, it's so well-written, it's so clear, in a way, the logic of the piece, and how it progresses from this very tonal start, which is, you know, I always joked with Caroline, it sounds like a kind of distorted version of Beethoven [Symphony No.] 5 to me, the very beginning. And then, there's this moment where the music kind of disintegrates, where you do get this feeling of going through the looking-glass, and then it transitions again until it almost results in this kind of bluegrass music by the end. And then the very, very end of the piece has this absolutely gorgeous cello cadenza solo passage, where she said to play it as if you were remembering an old story. Our wonderful principal cellist, Annie Jacobs-Perkins plays it so, so beautifully. I told her I'd almost never heard it better than that. It really is a piece that evoked so many different colors and ideas. Doesn't tell any kind of story, but it has that sense of fantasy and imagination that is in all of Caroline's music. It's why she's one of my favorite composers.

Kendall Todd Yeah, absolutely. That's really cool. I'm also really interested in the title of the piece Entr'acte as like something that is in between other pieces.

Joshua Weilerstein We did — I did do that once with the Entr'acte. I put it between two pieces of Haydn in Van— when I conducted it in Vancouver, and it worked really well. But, you know, I think part of the title, also the subtitle is a minuet and trio. And the inspiration of the piece came from this Haydn movement, which was a minuet. So it was a chord progression in the middle of a middle movement of a Haydn string quartet. And I think . . . so there's a little bit of an extra joke of calling it an Entr'acte, a minuet, talking about this chord progression in the middle of the piece. And so . . . but the thing is, it's so beautifully written that it can fit anywhere. And yes, I think ideally it would go in the middle. But then there's also those Entr'actes from Schubert's [incidental music for] Rosamunde that you can play at any time. So I think it can work no matter what.

Kendall Todd Yeah [laughs], well, it definitely worked here, so that's great. With the Ravel Mother Goose Suite . . . this is a piece that I feel like every, everyone plays. What is so . . . what is unique about playing it with Phoenix?

Joshua Weilerstein Well, we have a smaller orchestra, basically, than you would hear a symphonic orchestra play this piece. And so there's a transparency to the way that Ravel writes that we can actually really capture, I think, more easily than a symphonic orchestra, where you have to really play in a almost unfathomably delicate way to make that work. And Ravel's music is often delicate, but this piece really takes it to a new level. Some people even think it's too delicate. You know, this piece has detractors. I'm not one of them [laughs], but it's a piece that has such a naive innocence to it, and such a precious kind of feeling that if you touch it, it can break. And that's something that we worked on even in a small group. We thought, you know, if you play this too hard, it loses its magic. And so the whole piece is just about creating a magical sensation. And I think that's something that Phoenix can do really well because it's such a versatile ensemble.

Kendall Todd What do you tell orchestras to get them to create that fragility, that feeling?

Joshua Weilerstein There's some technical things with string playing, you know, playing more over the fingerboard, which creates a more fuzzy kind of sound. You can vibrate with the left hand a little bit faster than you normally would, and that can create a little bit more kind of sheen to the sound. With wind players, it's about the use of breath. I'm not a wind player, but, you know, this kind of transparency that you can try to create a very light touch. You know, even when the music is loud, it's not heavy. So basically, everything has to feel like it's just off of the ground slightly. And it's just . . . it's part of a kind of a mindset you have to have while you're playing the piece.

Kendall Todd I think that ties in really well to Appalachian Spring as well.

Joshua Weilerstein Yeah, absolutely. Appalachian Spring is much earthier in the sense that there is a dance element to it, and it's something that, you know, Martha Graham, when you watch Martha Graham dance this piece, which you can see on YouTube, it's remarkable what her understanding of it and how she found that sense of lightness, but also really worked in the parts that are more earthy and feel, you know . . . it's funny that because she came up with the title Appalachian Spring, and Copland always thought it was very funny when people said "Oh, I hear the hills of Appalachia in the music that you wrote," and Copland said, "That was not in my mind." The piece was originally called Ballet for Martha. And so, you know, we hear the things that the title evokes, but also Copland was thinking of something much more cosmic, I think, in the music. So there's that combination of the earthiness and the cosmic.

Kendall Todd Which version of the Appalachian Spring, was it the suite, or the full version that you —

Joshua Weilerstein It's the suite, the suite for 13 instruments. That's the original suite. Copland later orchestrated it for the full size, but I have to say I much prefer the smaller version. It's so much more intimate. And it really . . . I find it, you know, one of the most magical experiences in a concert setting to hear, but also on a recording. It can create a feeling like very few other pieces do in a concert hall. Kind of . . . the room feels like it's required some extra oxygen or something like that.

Kendall Todd That's so interesting. Can you talk about that more? Like, what is that feeling? Is there a way that you can define that, or does it just sort of happen?

Joshua Weilerstein In something Leonard Bernstein said, it's like when he knew he was doing a great performance the longer it took him to get back to the real world when it was over, like when he said that when the applause would start, and he would forget where he was, and the applause had to bring him back to Earth, that's when he knew he had done a good performance. And I think the Copland has a, on a meta-sense, an ability to do that for everybody.

There's this chord at the beginning of the piece, which is sort of the chord that comes back over and over and over again. And actually it's very moving, I learned this from a former teacher of mine, Murry Sidlin, who said that he visited Copland at his home, and Copland had severe dementia before his death, and he was nonverbal at this point. And he welcomed some friends in, and Copland and sat down at the piano — this is all he was able to do — and he just started playing that opening of Appalachian Spring over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. And Murray said that it was almost like he was communicating to them, like, this is the sound of the earth. This is what it is. That's it. And Murray said he never forgot that. And I was very moved by that story. And I think that aspect comes through in the piece, the sense of calm and peacefulness and remarkable ecstasy. The ecstasy of calm.

Kendall Todd That's really beautiful. And with the ending, or rather with the "Simple Gifts" section of Appalachian Spring, I think that's a piece that is like, "Oh, 'Simple Gifts,' you know, you've heard it a million times." How do you make it feel new and fresh, I guess, in conducting this piece?

Joshua Weilerstein There's a great audio of Copland rehearsing Appalachian Spring that's about 20 minutes, and it doesn't include "Simple Gifts," but he . . . I think about six or seven times stops the musicians and says, "Don't make this too sentimental. It's sentimental already. And if you try to make it beautiful or more sentimental, then it will lose its effect." He said "American music never shows itself on its face. It's always internal, intimate kind of sound." And so I think that's what I always tell orchestras when we play this piece, is "Don't try too hard, don't add too much sugar to it. It's already sweet, and let it speak for itself and play it, of course, with commitment and joy and love and all of that. But not to think that because the music is simple, you have to add something to it." And so when it is simple music in this "Simple Gifts" section, just to let it happen, I think makes it sound so much more beautiful. It's a little actually similar to something like Rachmaninoff, where if you try too hard to add something to it, it's already, I think Rachmaninoff famously said, you know, "I added enough sugar to it already. You don't have to add any more." And I think it's a similar thing with Copland.

Kendall Todd Yeah. Joshua Weilerstein It's been so good to talk to you today. Thank you so much for your time.

Joshua Weilerstein Thanks so much.