Why I adore the Austin Symphony

When I arrived during the 1980s, the Austin Symphony was OK.

Fine artists. Respectable programs. Perhaps too much emphasis on visiting marquee soloists, but that’s what the group’s leaders felt sold tickets.

It was missing two crucial ingredients: Peter Bay and the Long Center.

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Peter Bay conducts the Austin Symphony at the Long Center in 2009. Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman

After a season-long audition process, Bay became music director and conductor in 1998. Instantly, the sun came out from behind the musical clouds. Young, friendly and charismatic, Bay was a perfect fit for Austin. He raised standards and — carefully at first, given the group’s inherent traditionalism — expanded the programming. He’s been the symphony’s top attraction ever since.

Trouble was, the ensemble still played at UT’s Bass Concert Hall, an excellent place for many types of performance, but not this group’s best friend. The artists struggled to overcome its vast arid volumes. (Those acoustical conditions have since been adjusted.)

In 2008, the symphony moved over to the Long Center, a remake of the 1959 Palmer Auditorium. No group benefited more from this new anchor for the arts than the city’s orchestra. Warm, intimate and embracing, the center’s Dell Hall made all the difference redefining the symphony’s now expanded range of sounds.

I was reminded of this evolution during the past three weeks when I heard the symphony three times. The group’s first ever attempt at Gustav Mahler‘s epic Symphony No. 6 was spun into 80 uninterrupted minutes of sonic gold. Bay did not shy away from the more modern elements in this piece that is still somewhat moored in the Romantic era. It was exhausting — in a good way — just to listen to it. I can’t imagine what it was like to conduct or play it.

The next week, the symphony sounded, correctly, more modest playing Wolfgang Mozart in tandem with Ballet Austin‘s merry and bright “The Magic Flute.” This time, Bay’s job was to keep the dancing afloat without overwhelming the night with music, also to help us to forget we were not hearing the human voices from the operatic version. The artists on the stage and in the pit collaborated as if part of one happy Mozartian family.

The third week, the symphony returned to a mixed bill, this time of Aaron CoplandJohn Corigliano and Antonin Dvorák. The theme appeared to be patriotism or perhaps nationalism, or something along those lines, but not just of the American kind, since Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 — expertly rendered — sounds quite European, in fact Bohemian. The two highlights turned out to be the Copland numbers, “Lincoln Portrait” and the Clarinet Concerto, the first with rousing narration by Gloria Quinlan, the second with an astounding solo from the symphony’s principal clarinetist, Stephen Gerko. 

I’m glad I lived in Austin during the 1980s and ’90s. But some things just get better with age. The Austin Symphony is one of them.

 

Reading the musical mind of Gustav Mahler

We’re excited about hearing Gustav Mahler‘s Sixth Symphony tonight at the Long Center.

Here’s a dab from our interview with Austin Symphony music director Peter Bay about the biographical context. Read the whole interview here.

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Composer Gustav Mahler as photographed by Moriz Nahr in 1907. Contributed

“Biographically, we know that composer Gustav Mahler was personally at his happiest and most satisfied from the summer of 1903 through the summer of 1904, the period during which he started and completed his Sixth Symphony.

“Yet this symphony — 80 minutes without intermission and being performed by Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony for the first time Friday and Saturday — is not a happy-go-lucky piece.

“Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to say artists create happy works when they are happy and sad works when things are not going well,” Bay says. “But of his nine symphonies — plus an incomplete one — this is by far the bleakest.”

Ernest and Sarah Butler give $1 million to support Austin Opera artistic director

Not long after she took the reins as Austin Opera’s general director, Annie Burridge told a reporter how she felt about the quality of company’s sound under Artistic Director Richard Buckley.

“The second the performance started, I bolted forward in my seat,” Burridge recalled. “I couldn’t believe the caliber of the musicianship.”

RELATED: Austin Opera general director turns to big data to engage audiences.

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Austin Lyric Opera Artistic Director Richard Buckley (left) coaches Wayne Tigges. American-Statesman

Soon after the article was published, major benefactors Sarah and Ernest Butler asked the general director over for tea. Burridge came away with a pledge from the Butlers — who have strategically given tens of millions of dollars to build Austin’s arts — to support Buckley’s position with $1 million.

“As long-time opera fans, Sarah and I are so pleased with the artistic achievements of Maestro Buckley and quite proud of the caliber of musicianship he has brought to Austin,” Ernest Butler said. “We are also very optimistic about the future of Austin Opera under the leadership of General Director Annie Burridge. We hope that our gift will enable the company to flourish for years to come.”

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Sarah and Ernest Butler. American-Statesman.

Son of a distinguished maestro, Buckley has conducted operas and symphonies far and wide. He has been part of 38 Austin Opera productions — 37 percent of them new to the company’s repertoire — going back to the 2004-2005 season with “Tosca” and “Electra.”

Along with setting high standards with familiar operatic fare, Buckley has won praise from Austin observers for daring ventures such as “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” “The Bat,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Dialogue of the Carmelites,” “Flight” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” To celebrate his 10th year as artistic director, the company staged Verdi’s formidable masterpiece, “Don Carlo,” during the 2013-2014 season, along with a revival of his first Austin opera, “Tosca.”

RELATED: Austin Opera conductor Richard Buckley celebrates 10 years.

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Austin Opera General Director Annie Burridge. Contributed.

When Buckley conducts around the world as a guest, he tends to win over even the toughest critics.

“He lifts the orchestra with incontestable spirit, rhythm and presence,” reported Le Figaro newspaper in Paris. “We have here a real artist.”

“Richard Buckley, who has matured into an exquisitely sensitive yet fiery conductor, characterizes every measure of the score,” judged the Miami Herald critic. “But Buckley does it in a natural way that never seems self-conscious, and his reading crackles with theatrical excitement. It is fluent, spontaneous, superbly proportioned and, when necessary, wonderfully hushed with suspense.”

In other Austin Opera news, Burridge recently announced the appointment of three new members to her leadership team: Jennifer Dubin will serve as the group’s chief development officer; Nathan DePoint is the Company’s director of operations; and Melysa Rogen is the Company’s new director of marketing and communications.

Watch new Austin Symphony and Ballet Austin videos

Austin arts groups are getting better at promoting their fare through videos. We not only approve, we hope to spread the good news.

Ballet Austin’s “The Magic Flute” plays the Long Center March 31-April 2.

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Ballet Austin’s “The Magic Flute.” Contributed by Tony Spielberg

Here’s Austin Symphony’s video on Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

Peter Bay and the orchestra play the long, tragic Sixth March 24-26. Watch this space for an interview we conducted with the maestro.

The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Photograph by Moriz Nähr. 1907.

What to hear at the Austin Symphony next season

There’s no other way to present the 2017-2018 season of the Austin Symphony without publishing the list in its entirety. Or close to that.

There’s a lot on here to celebrate, including the return of Austin’s top concert pianist, Anton Nel, to the marquee; another stab at “Beyond the Score,” this time dramatizing the background behind Prokofiev‘s Symphony No. 5; and the beginnings of the Bernstein at 100 celebration.

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MASTERWORKS SERIES

September 8-9, 2017

Anton Nel, piano/harpsichord

FRANCIS POULENC – Suite from Les biches (The Does)
W. A. MOZART – Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-Flat Major, K. 450
FRANCIS POULENC – Concert champêtre for Harpsichord and Orchestra
W. A. MOZART – Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K. 297 Paris

October 6-7, 2017

Bruce Williams, viola
Julia Taylor, soprano
Claudia Chapa, mezzo-soprano
Brian Yeakley, tenor
Charles Evans, baritone
Chorus Austin (Ryan Heller, director)

BEETHOVEN/BRUCKNER – Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13, Pathétique
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Flos Campi
MAHLER/BRITTEN – What the Wild Flowers Tell Me
ANTON BRUCKNER – Te Deum

December 1-2, 2017

Beyond the Score®

SERGEI PROKOFIEV – Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100

January 12-13, 2018

Bella Hristova, violin

GIOACHINO ROSSINI – Overture to Semiramide
J. S. BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. in G Major, BWV 1048
IGOR STRAVINSKY – Violin Concerto in D Major
ALAN HOVHANESS – Celestial Fantasy, Op. 44
JOSEPH HAYDN – Symphony No. 94 in G Major, Surprise

February 23-24, 2018

Rick Rowley, piano

ROBERT SCHUMANN – Manfred Overture
EDWARD MACDOWELL – Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 23
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No. 2. in C Major, Op. 61

March 23-24, 2018
Cameron Carpenter, organ

JOSEPH JONGEN – Symphonie concertante for Organ and Orchestra
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS – Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 Organ

April 13-14, 2018
Vadim Gluzman, violin

MICHAEL TORKE – Bright Blue Music
LEONARD BERNSTEIN – Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

May 18-19, 2018
Olga Kern, piano

TCHAIKOVSKY/STRAVINSKY – Pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY – Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF – Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44
SARAH AND ERNEST BUTLER POPS SERIES

Friday, October 20, 2017

Disney FANTASIA: Live in Concert

Disney shares one of its crown jewels of feature animation with a live orchestra concert accompanying scenes from Walt Disney’s original FANTASIA (1940) and Disney FANTASIA 2000, highlighting a selection of the magnificent repertoire from both films including Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite.

December 29-30, 2017

I Heart the 80’s

Come have the time of your life with music from The Police, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, and so much more! Bring your favorite food dish and enjoy this concert in a cabaret style setting.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Jurassic Park – Film with Orchestra

One of the most thrilling science fiction adventures ever made, and featuring one of John Williams’ most iconic and beloved musical scores, Jurassic Park transformed the movie-going experience for an entire generation and became the highest-grossing film of all time in 1993, winning three Academy Awards®. Now audiences can experience this ground-breaking film as never before: projected in HD with a full symphony orchestra performing Williams’ magnificent score live to picture. Welcome… to Jurassic Park!

June 1-2, 2018

The Rat Pack! 100 Years of Frank!

It’s hot! It’s cool! These performances celebrate the classic songs of Sinatra, Davis, and Martin, like “That’s Amore,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Mr. Bojangles,” “My Way,” and of course, “New York, New York” with brand new orchestrations. Choreographed and scripted with original Rat Pack routines, you’ll think you’re swingin’ at the Sands Hotel in Vegas. Bring your favorite food dish and enjoy this concert in a cabaret style setting.

FAMILY CONCERTS

  • Halloween Children’s Concert – October 29, 2017
  • Christmas in the Community – TBD
  • Texas Young Composers Concert – TBD

SPECIAL EVENTS

  • Handel’s Messiah – December 12, 2017