Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, Greater Boston Youth Orchestras and Kentucky Youth Symphony has passed away at the age of 97. Marvin was one of the most universally admired and loved people I have ever encountered in the music world- a man remembered with deep affection by seemingly everyone who played under his baton, and deeply respected by every colleague he worked with.
Two great conductors and beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013
I last saw Marvin only a few weeks ago at my concert with the UW-Madison Symphony. It meant the world to me that he came to the concert because the main work on the program, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, had been the first piece of orchestral music I had ever heard live- played by WYSO under Marvin’s baton when I was just a very little boy. After the concert, we spoke at length about the piece, and Marvin’s intimate knowledge and love of the score was as inspiring as ever. Although he had not conducted the piece in decades, he remembered every metronome marking- something far too many conductors never bother to learn in the first place. Although Marvin’s eyesight and hearing had both been failing in recent years, it was clear to me that he had taken in every note and every nuance of that concert, and every other one he had been to in recent years, through sheer force of will and love of the art. Marvin was pleased to know I was living and working in Britain, and talked with great fondness about the year he came to this country to observe how the British youth orchestra programs worked. “My favourite program,” he told me, “was the one founded by Béla de Csilléry in Kent.” This moment, when the man who opened the door to me being a conductor talked about watching rehearsals at the Kent County Youth Orchestra, where I’ve been conducting regularly for nearly a decade, really hit home how deeply connected we all are in life. He then went on to describe, in both amusing and slightly horrifying detail, how Béla had chose the wrong team, so to speak, in World War II.
Marvin was, by all accounts, both a great musician and a great music educator, and he also understood how to create youth orchestras that had the right organizational framework and the right outlook to give young people a chance to experience great music first hand. Having conducted WYSO through its early years with great success, Marvin was that rare founder of an organization who was able to step aside gracefully. He was always available to the board, the organization and his successors as resource, sounding board or cheerleader, but never seemed to need to remind the world of his role in establishing the program.
I never had the privilege of watching one of Marvin’s clinics or coachings, but I’ve heard a number of music educators and conductors speak with awe of his ability to transform an orchestra of young players with a few suggestions, and to open the eyes of a colleague in profound way with a few gently shared insights into a score.
There is a moving and informative tribute from Jake Stockinger at The Well-Tempered Ear here. “… he made understanding music and making music seem like completely natural and totally necessary, even inevitable, acts. “
In 2011, Marvin received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin School Music Foundation. He was only the third recipient, the first being Les Paul. The foundation asked a number of us to record little video greetings talking about the ways in which Marvin had touched our lives. I thought I would include it here as a personal testament to the affection, admiration and gratitude he continues to inspire in so many of us who were lucky enough to come into contact with him.
PS- Recent thoughts on the impact of WYSO here.
I thought some readers might be interested in a little essay I contributed to the current edition of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ newsletter. A text version follows the scan.
Youth orchestras are incredibly important- they make a huge difference in all kinds of young people’s lives. Support the one in your community!
When I was still in preschool, my teacher took a few of us to hear Marvin Rabin rehearsing WYSO for an upcoming performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. My parents had an LP of the piece at home, but hearing that music live, and seeing young musicians play it so well was a transformational moment for me. It set me on the path to a lifelong engagement with orchestras, with Shostakovich, and with conducting. From that moment, I was determined to be a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Once I joined the orchestras, my years in WYSO were full of important firsts. Tom Buchhauser made every Philhramonia rehearsal exciting and enjoyable. Working with David Nelson, I remember playing the music of Mahler and Dvorák for the first time. As a senior, I was doubly lucky to be there for the arrival of James Smith as music director, and to be promoted to principal cellist. I had never felt anything was missing from my WYSO experiences up to that point, but Jim’s wisdom, musicianship, leadership and humor totally transformed the orchestra that year. Every rehearsal with Jim was productive, inspiring and challenging. We only studied about half as much repertoire as we had in previous seasons, but under Jim, we learned it in real depth. For a young musician who had already developed more than a passing interest in conducting, Jim was a perfect example of what a conductor should be, and what a great conductor can contribute to an organization. When that incarnation of WYSO finished its run after an East Coast tour, there were a lot of teary goodbye’s, but, happily, many of us have stayed in touch ever since. People I worked with in WYSO continue to be friends and colleagues to this day.
Jim set the bar very high in WYSO. Just how high I learned after graduation when I began my undergraduate studies in cello at Indiana University’s School of Music. On my first concert in the freshman orchestra, we played the very piece that we’d worked on with Jim for all of the previous year- Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony. I was so excited to do the piece with all these amazing music majors from all over the country, but in spite of a wealth of talent in the group, without the right kind of leadership, and an institutional commitment to excellence, the performance fell far short of what we’d managed in WYSO just a few months before. From WYSO I learned that the true measure of an orchestra is not how many hotshot players you can cram on stage, but getting them to work together, and making every rehearsal the best it can be.
I’ve conducted just about every kind of orchestra there is now, from the Royal Philharmonic right down to the most modest gathering of amateurs, but working with young musicians has remained a constant source of inspiration. During my years in Oregon, I founded a new youth orchestra, which has produced a number of wonderful young musicians in its first ten years, and WYSO was very much the model for that organization. Likewise, whenever I guest conduct youth orchestras, I try to remember it’s about more than putting on a concert. The lessons learned and discoveries made in WYSO shaped me as a musician, and serve as a reminder that youth orchestra is a place to open doors that can change lives forever.
It’s less than forty-eight hours now until recording sessions begin for volume 4 of Bobby and Hans- the complete symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann. We’re all very excited that the day is nearly at hand. YOU made it happen!
Interest in the project continues to pick up. Performance Today, American Public Media’s national digest of live classical music, has just rebroadcast our performance of Schumann’s 2nd Symphony, recorded in December 2011 as part of the sessions for volume 2 in the series. They’ve also included a selection from our recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, sung by the incomparable tenor Brennen Guillory. You can listen to the program online until Thursday the 5th of December here.
Also in America, Listen Magazine has published a new essay on “The Case for Hans Gal.” It’s in the Winter 2013 issue- on newsstands now or subcribe online. You can get a sneak peak here.
Finally, this memorable graphic from Zoe was one of the iconic images of the campaign:
Well, thanks to your generosity and tenacity, we can now fill in the blank box with the cover for vol 4, which will be released in March:
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
We look forward to seeing many of you on Tuesday. Thank you so much for your support!
The team at Listen Magazine (a great magazine you should subscribe to if you read this blog) gave me the chance to “make the case” for the music of Hans Gal. My response is in the Winter 2013 issue, on newsstands now. There are also cool features on Jonas Kaufman, an article on Wagner by Jens F Laurson and a very interesting piece on the meeting of Marian Anderson and Sibelius.
Re-blogged from the Bobby and Hans Campaign Indiegogo page
The countdown to our final Bobby and Hans project is underway. In one week, the orchestra will take to the stage for the first live performance of Gal’s First Symphony in over 43 years.Concert details are here.
There’s been a surge of interest in the project you made possible over the last few weeks, so we thought we might take a moment to update you.
Over at Capital Radio, music programming director Kent Teeters offers up an audio review of vol. 2.
The audiophile magazine Positive Feedback reviews vol. 3 in their most recent issue. “Woods, proves a persuasive advocate for the score, balancing an ear for detail with a sense of the music’s long line; … they produce polished, full-bodied sounds and phrase expressively.”
There’s an essay on Gal in the current issue of Listen Magazine. Ken discusses Gal’s life, music and importance, and offers a behind the scenes look into the process of learning and recording this long-lost music. “In 2009, I wrote a blog post entitled “Who is Hans Gál and why are you recording his music?” On that September morning, Gál was, in the words of one colleague, “the very best composer in the world that nobody has ever heard of.”
Fanfare Magazine has a review in their current issue for volume three in our series. “Woods’s album is a valuable addition to our understanding of the 20th-century symphony.”
Bob Shingleton, aka Pliable, cites our Indiegogo campaign in a stinging critique of classical music’s misplaced priorities. “Recordings of Hans Gal’s Symphonies by Kenneth Woods and Missy Mazolli’s opera are just two important projects that relied on crowdfunding. $13,500 was needed to deliver the acclaimed Gal Symphonies; 0.08% of the amount reportedly paid each year to Gergiev”
Radio host Rich Samuels at WORT-FM continues to broadcast performances from our series. His most recent show included the complete recording of Gal’s 2nd Symphony, which you can listen to online until Thanksgiving this week. The Gal starts at 2 hours 8 minutes
A review from Andrew Achenbach on the Classical Ear for volume 3: ”Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan lend this radiant and substantial score the most eloquent and affecting advocacy, and go on to give a comparably accomplished and invigorating account of Schumann’s masterly Fourth Symphony – a strikingly fresh-faced, spontaneous-sounding display, full of illuminating touches, personable warmth and genuine freshness of new discovery. Do investigate this bold, enormously rewarding coupling.”
Where possible, once I’ve learned and digested a score and forgotten everything I’ve ever heard other conductors and orchestras do in concert and on recordings, I like to do some serious comparative listening. It’s always interesting and often incredibly helpful see what conclusions other performers have come to about the piece at hand.
Video is often even more instructive. One can see what the conductor was actually doing: this is usually very helpful and interesting, and occasionally rather terrifying. Video also gives one a chance to see what bowings the orchestra is using, and how the players communicate with each other. It’s not at all unusual to listen to an entire performance I find wrong-headed, disappointing or sloppy, only to stumble on one idea, one bowing or one moment that makes the whole process worthwhile.
As I look ahead to recording the last installment in my Schumann cycle with the Orchestra of the Swan on December 2nd and 3rd, I came across two videos which I thought made for an interesting comparison, so I’ve decided to share them here. One is a performance (alongside a bit of rehearsal footage) of the group Spria Mirabilis, who play (very well) without a conductor.The other is by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin.
The reason the comparison is interesting is because the two groups are of similar size and share a number of the same players (most importantly Lorenza Borrani, who leads both groups) and the two performances were recorded only a couple years appart.
I’d welcome your reactions and comments- especially if we can get beyond “I liked the ________ one better.”
For me, the two performances raise some very interesting questions about what a conductor does or does not bring to a performance, how players listen and watch with and without a conductor, how an orchestra’s sense of line and meter changes with or without a conductor, and so on.
I normally avoid any discussion of living colleagues here, but in this case, it’s clear that these are both very good performances at a high professional level- what really struck me is that not only are the two performances quite different, the relative strengths and not-strengths are so different.
I think if you take in both performances attentively, you’ll find that it’s not possible to say “it’s better with/without a conductor” but you’ll certainly realize it’s different. For the conductor, it’s a chance to see what the players do when you’re not there than you can encourage the to bring to your rehearsals and concerts, and for the musicians, it’s a chance to see and hear what a conductor can bring to a performance and to think about how you can keep those qualities when you work without one.
Spira Mirabilis (performance starts about 10 mins in)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
It’s not so much a “I told you so” situation as an “I am still telling you now” one.
Back in September, controversy erupted when a well-known conductor was quoted as saying some bizarre and outdated things on the subject of women conductors.
I wrote a blog post at the time saying that however unfortunate his remarks (and I have no idea if he meant them as reported- my instinct is always to give people the benefit of the doubt), if writers and journalists wanted to improve the balance of opportunities for women conductors, they should spend more of their energy and column inches writing about women conductors:
So, dear music journalists, here is your challenge: write a feature article profiling at least 20 to 30 women conductors working today.
Many of my brilliantly gifted female colleagues know all-too-well the frustration of trying to get a critic to come to their concert or trying to get their latest CD reviewed. Find them- pay attention to them! Get out there, dear journalists, and please get beyond the absolute top-tier of major orchestras. If you want to know who is really up and coming, you’ve got to look at youth orchestras, community orchestras, university groups, new music ensembles, collectives and people in minor staff positions. Of course, there are a lot of important and well-established women conductors in the field making major professional careers other than the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony. Don’t forget them. Your list should include conductors at all stages of career and life.
Some thought I was being unfair to journalists, while others had already taken up the challenge. Jessica Duchen compiled a list of about 100 names of women conductors worth getting to know. Wonderfully, her list has had more hits than any other post in the history of her blog.
However, a month on from the initial controversy, and the conversation has moved on from what one guy may or may not think of women conductors to…. Wait for it….
What several more guys think of women conductors?!?!?!?!?!?!
(For a summary of this month’s news, click here)
So much more coverage in so many important places now means that we know a whole lot more about some men, and very little more about any specific women working today in the field.
So, I’m still telling you…. By all means, name and shame. It’s great linkbait. There are plenty more sexists in the business waiting to be outed. The business will be fairer and less creepy when we’ve seen the last of teachers whose profiles might be summarized as “the ass grabber,” “the man who brought domestic violence into the teaching studio” and the “no chicks in my class” guy. I guarantee you, there are plenty of people out there who know which three guys I just described. I won’t even miss the “breasts get in the way of conducting” guy.
However, if you want to create opportunities for specific, talented and deserving women in the industry, you have to make those women your focus, not men. You’ve got to find women conductors, observe them and write about them in detail and at length. Simply embedding a link to Jessica’s admirable list will not do, nor will adding the two other most obvious names to the now-automatic mention of the current Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony in your blog post about the latest foot-in-mouth moment.
I know- it’s way harder work than simply cutting and pasting something somebody said in an interview with another journalist. But there are so many great stories waiting to be told in the industry that nobody is telling. There are not just remarkable talents out there- there are proper, full-fledged artists who are working in near-obscurity. If you don’t have the resources to take up my challenge of doing detailed profiles of large numbers of women conductors, how about a feature piece on one deserving artist? It’s a job only music journalists can do.
See also this post from 2007 on the subject
A review from critic Jessica Duchen in the November 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine for Somm’s new recording of music for piano and orchestra by Franck, Falla and Turina with pianist Valerie Tryon
“..loving and attentive performances…atmosphere that could be cut with a butter knife. Woods draws the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra into a rapt stillness…”
A feature in the current (October 2013) issue of Classical Music Magazine on recent crowdfunding success stories includes discussion of the recent Indiegogo campaign in support of the final volume of the Complete Symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann on Avie Records.
The (now successfully concluded) campaign homepage is here. Recording is scheduled for December 2nd and 3rd of this year in Stratford-upon-Avon, and you can book tickets for the concert here.
Tune in to Vftp later this week for my more detailed thoughts on the crowdfunding experience.
Meanwhile, run, don’t walk, to your local newsstand to pick up your copy of the magazine!
If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg: the richness of inter-connectedness, articulation, unity in diversity, the ‘multi-faceted’ in ‘the one’.
Theodore Adorno, 1938
Sibelius fans rejoice.
Earlier this spring I was asked to write liner notes for this fascinating CD of performances by Hans Rosbaud and the WDR Koln of Sibelius and Debussy. The disc is out now, and I encourage you to add it to your collection. Rosbaud was one of the greatest Sibelians of all time, and his Debussy is really first rate. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the essay.
ROSBAUD CONDUCTS SIBELIUS AND DEBUSSY
“I have a very clear memory of his rehearsals because I learned so much from his extraordinarily “professional” attitude to whatever he was working on. I learned the practical side of conducting from watching him, from talks with him and from him I came to understand the essential relationship between the score as written and the score as performed”
In the early 1930s, as the music world came to recognise that Jean Sibelius’s compositional silence was might be permanent (his final masterpiece, Tapiola, was completed in 1926, and in 1931–2, word got out that he’d destroyed his Eighth Symphony in despair), tributes to his importance began to pour in. New York Times chief critic Olin Downes hailed Sibelius as the most important composer of the 20th century, a figure on a par with Beethoven. Bengt von Törne considered Sibelius a more important figure than Mahler or Schoenberg, and Sibelius enjoyed a huge reputation in the United Kingdom, earning the admiration and endorsement of Granville Bantock, Constant Lambert, John Barbirolli and Thomas Beecham.
This lionisation of the unapologetically tonal Sibelius clearly irked the influential philosopher and music theorist (and long-time advocate for the music of the Second Viennese School) Theodore Adorno, who, enraged by von Törne’s pamphlet on Sibelius, responded with an all-out critical broadside in the journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung. Adorno derided Sibelius as a ‘scribbler’, someone ‘at the level of amateurs who are afraid to take lessons in composition’. Soon, other influential voices joined the chorus of derision. Composer and critic Virgil Thomson (charmingly wrong about so many facets of 20th-century musical life), writing for the New York Herald Tribune, endorsed Adorno’s assessment and as late as 1955, theorist, composer and conductor René Leibowitz went so far as to describe Sibelius as ‘the worst composer in the world’ (one is tempted to invoke the cliché about composers who live in glass houses not throwing stones). Adorno’s attack on Sibelius went beyond a mere trashing of his accomplishments as a composer: Adorno suggested that Sibelius’s palpable connection to Nature was somehow in sympathy with the ‘Blut und Boden’ ideals of National Socialism, a completely odious and unfounded accusation, but one which seemed to stick for many years in post-war Germany.
From his early years at the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in the 1920s, conductor Hans Rosbaud (1895–1962) recognized the unique potential of the radio orchestra to educate audiences, expand the repertoire and shape the way people think about music. With Sibelius’s reputation in ruins after the Second World War, Rosbaud became the single most important interpreter of and advocate for his music in the German-speaking world. Rosbaud’s modernist credentials were above reproach – his stature as an authority on the music of the Second Viennese School surpassed that of even Adorno. He was widely considered the greatest living conductor of the music of Arnold Schonberg, with whom he maintained a close lifelong friendship. In his later years, he would become an important advocate for the music of the post-war serialist school of composition at the Donaueschingen Festival. Additionally, Rosbaud was one of the few leading conductors of his generation based in Germany (along with Eugen Jochum and Fritz Busch) to avoid any ethical entanglement with the Nazis. Given this combination of reputation for moral integrity and stature as an authority on the 20th-century musical canon, Rosbaud was uniquely well qualified to advocate a reassessment of Sibelius. Rosbaud had helped to invent the model of the modern radio orchestra in the 1920s and for him, the combination of generous rehearsal time, relative freedom from box office worries and radio’s power to reach an audience beyond the walls of the studio or concert hall made a group like the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra the perfect partners for instigating such a reassessment.
The Sixth Symphony is Sibelius for Sibelians – it has never attained the popularity of works like the Second and Fifth, and in 1950s Germany, it would have been almost completely unknown to players and audiences. But meticulously prepared by Rosbaud, who understood Sibelius’s language as few conductors ever have, this performance comes across not as a one-off by an orchestra getting to grips with a work well outside their repertoire, but as music completely in their bones.
Although Rosbaud’s posthumous reputation has rested largely on his performances of German repertoire, he was a musician of deeply international tastes, who gave influential early performances of works by composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Bartók, Milhaud and Poulenc. Throughout his career, he manifested a special affinity for French culture and music. During the Second World War, Rosbaud took up the position of General Music Director in Strasbourg after the annexation of Alsace. Despite the blatant attempts of the Nazis to ‘Germanify’ the region, Rosbaud proved a sensitive musical diplomat, defending the interests and positions of local musicians, building support and trust in the community, and maintaining, even enhancing, the Strasbourg orchestra’s reputation in French repertoire. After the war, Rosbaud was the first conductor German-speaking conductor invited to perform in France.
Debussy’s music was still something of a rarity in German musical life in the 1950s, and German orchestras have not always been known for their sympathetic performances of French repertoire. There is nothing ‘auf Deutsch’ about Rosbaud’s Debussy – his tempi flow with languid ease, free of Germanic ponderousness, and the orchestra shimmers with a transparent string sound, plangent winds and a palpable sense of flexibility, agility and nuance. Who would have guessed one would encounter such stunningly idiomatic Debussy performances in 1950s Cologne?
Kenneth Woods (www.kennethwoods.net)
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