MSU Symphony plays Jalbert, Shostakovich, Bernstein

Oct 21, 2011

EAST LANSING, MI (WKAR) - MSU Professor of Music and Director of Orchestras designate Kevin Noe speaks with WKAR's Melissa Benmark about the next MSU Symphony concert at Wharton Center, beginning with a piece by American composer Pierre Jalbert.

KEVIN NOE: This is an orchestral piece called "Les Espaces Infini." (It) means "The Infinite Spaces." It's inspired by a trip that he took to Italy where he was gazing into Roman cathedrals and looking in the arches and feeling that they just sort of went on forever. It's a beautiful, beautiful piece, using very, very simple means, but painting a very vivid kind of picture.

MELISSA BENMARK: The Shostakovich Cello Concerto number 2 you've got a guest artist, Suren Bagratuni, and um, what drew you to this?

NOE: Well, I wish I could take credit for programming it because it's a really good idea to program this piece. But this actually comes from Professor Gregorian. This was already established before I was hired that they were going to do this with Bagratuni. And I'm so glad that he programmed it.

I didn't know this concerto at all. This is the second Shostakovich cello concerto. The first cello concerto gets played all the time. It's quite well known. And hardly anybody even knows the second one. And I must say, I think I prefer the second. It's very novel, very interesting, and I had a discussion with Professor Bagratuni about it, about why it doesn't get played as much. And he thought that perhaps, the novelty of it and the sort of deep, Russian sophistication of it might be somehow too much for people. But I find it an incredibly compelling piece.

And again, it's a piece that doesn't focus on running up and down scales and just showing off the technique of the cellist. Of course, it does do that, but more than anything it's just a piece of great music. This is a very soulful, contemplative, meditative piece by obviously one of the most intelligent, clever, and soulful composers of the 20th century.

BENMARK: Well, speaking of late additions to the canon, then, you have the Bernstein "Symphonic Dances" from "West Side Story." One thing I'm curious about is, when you are playing orchestral adaptations of something that was originally very vocally intensive, are there any special challenges involved with performing things that were originally written to be sung?

NOE: Oh, I think so. I think that if you really want to rise to the challenge, you try your best to paint that narrative, even without words. And this piece, I believe this is an absolute masterpiece of the 20th century.

I mean, for starters, my money would be on "West Side Story" for being the greatest work of American theater that we have. I can't really think of anything that captures, over all, you know, the American spirit better than that does. Both the good parts and the bad parts, of course.

But this piece, the "West Side Story Symphonic Dances," is not designed to be a medley of show tunes. Sadly, I must say, it's often played that way, and people don't get in and do the detailed work that's necessary to make it the real symphony that it actually is. But our challenge, and the way we've been working, is to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet without words, as a symphony, with a real arc that has with it it's lighter comedic moments, it has its obviously rapturous love moments, and it also has its moments of the deepest, blackest kind of tragedy. Senseless tragedy.

So yes, there are great challenges if you want to do it right. And if you want to gloss over it, maybe not. But I can tell you that this orchestra, that we've been regularly in rehearsal, while playing, singing words that go with the thing we're playing on the show, which is not something orchestral musicians do a lot. But I'm determined to try to tell that story in a compelling way.

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