Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

American Music, Marin, and Mahler

I’ve been doing a lot of work with American music lately.  I’m performing Bernstein’s Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free in February, and we have our Opera 101: It’s in English! this evening.  I also went to two rehearsals of Marin Alsop’s with the Houston Symphony.  She’s performing Barber’s Symphony no. 1 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.  All of this has led me to going back through great American music – and we have some truly great American music. I had never heard Barber’s first symphony.  (In all the great repertoire from so many countries and over a few hundred years, it’s pretty easy to miss a great work!)  After hearing the Houston Symphony rehearse it, I can honestly say that I missed a wonderful piece of music.  I would say (perhaps without debate) that rhythm is the driving force between most American music.  If you think of Aaron Copland’s music, there is a very wide open sound to his music (think the music from westerns), and there is a driving rhythmic element to most of it.  This could perhaps be due to the fact that much of the music for which he is famous was written for the ballet, but I also think there is a deeper “America” to his rhythmic ideas.  Leonard Bernstein is probably most famous – aside from his conducting – for his music for West Side Story. There was again collaboration with dance in his work with Jerome Robbins, but again, I would suggest that there is a rhythmic drive that is American even in their purely orchestral works.

Barber’s music also has that American rhythmic drive to it, but in a way that is different from the music of Bernstein and Copland.  I believe that much of that difference arises from his sound concept.  Both Bernstein and Copland orchestrated their works to create a light and colorful sound.  (I’m generalizing and over simplifying, I know!)  In some ways, I always hear a French style to Bernstein’s and Copland’s orchestration – and I think it is because of the incredible color.  On the other side, Barber tends to be the more “Germanic” of the Americans.  I hear (again gross generalization) Brahms meets America in that there is a deep, dark, Germanic orchestra sound but with that American rhythmic drive and underlying pulse.

Speaking of American music, Houstonians have a great opportunity to see a great American conductor working with the Houston Symphony this week.  Full disclosure moment – I’ve done 3 masterclasses with Marin Alsop, and I think she is one of the better conducting teachers out there.  She really gives the student an idea of what you experience with professional orchestras on a daily basis.  When I was living in Paris, I remember seeing a headline for Marin’s concert with the Orchestre de Lyons.  It was Lyons or Bordeaux.  The title they chose for the concert was Un chef… une femme.  (A conductor… a woman).  Well, Marin Alsop isn’t a great female conductor – she’s a great conductor, and Barber is her bread and butter.  She is one of the foremost interpreters of Barber’s music these days.  She’s also performing one of my favorite pieces in Mahler’s first symphony.  You can catch it on Saturday or Sunday.  You can find more information on the Houston Symphony’s website.

Since those concerts are on Saturday and Sunday, you can catch Opera Vista’s Opera 101: It’s in English! tonight at Boheme Cafe and Wine Bar at 8:00PM!  See you there.

Also, I wanted to throw some love to the University of Texas.  They played a heck of a game after losing their star quarterback.  I thought Garrett Gilbert walked into a crazy situation and proved that he has a huge upside.  That team is going to be good for years!