Johann Sebastian Bach - Orchestral Suite No.3 in D, BWV 1068
Gabriel Faure Andante, Op.75
Traditional (arr. Woods/Snyder) Christmas Medley
Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Jason Treuting (blank)

The Classical Notebook

Classical KING FM announcers and featured musicians share their thoughts on local concerts, seasonal music and evergreen classical favorites.
by Jill Kimball posted Dec 8 2014 11:07AM

It's 30 minutes until showtime, but there's no pandemonium backstage. Dancers apply their makeup, stretch their limbs, and chat with one another at a leisurely pace. Stage hands grab snacks and joke about squeezing in a short nap. The orchestra pit is empty, and many instruments are still in their cases. There's no need to hurry: this show is a well-oiled machine.

At the end of this holiday season, after 32 years and more than 1,200 performances, Pacific Northwest Ballet is saying goodbye to the beloved Maurice Sendak sets and Kent Stowell choreography unique to its production of The Nutcracker. In 2015, they'll debut a Balanchine production with completely new costumes and sets. The fond farewell is bittersweet for many local arts lovers, including our staff. We went backstage at McCaw Hall during a Friday matinee performance for schoolchildren to find out more about the long-standing and soon-to-be-archived production.

At 30 minutes to curtain, McCaw Hall's giant stage is bare of sets, noise or people, save for one dancer rehearsing his fouettes. But venture through the stage door one floor below and it's another world entirely.



Backstage, you'll encounter hallways of tiny rooms full of twentysomething corps dancers listening to music, stretching, and joking. Their rooms are decorated with Christmas wallpaper, snowflakes, and miscellaneous photos. Almost all of the adult dancers do their own makeup for this production, so one huge room lined with lighted mirrors is empty except for two chairs, where only a handful of dancers will sit patiently as a makeup artist does her work.



The linoleum hallways backstage are lined with costume pieces. Shelves are stuffed with sandwich bags of hair extensions. Mannequins sport fantastic wigs, hats, and headdresses. Bodices are often fitted with seven or eight sets of hooks so that they'll fit whatever dancer wears them next year. And of course, there are giant poofs of multicolored tulle everywhere.



In the PNB laundry room, a few women take a well-deserved break between shows. The washers and dryers are quiet, and the racks and hooks of a small Dry Room, which imitates a Southwest summer climate in order to expediate costume air-drying, are empty. The laundry lull will be short-lived; by intermission, Act I outfits will already be spinning in the washers and soaking in sinks, and by the final bow, the Dry Room will be full of damp leotards and tutus.

Surprisingly enough, most of the costumes you see onstage are machine-washable...but "sometimes it feels like we have to hand-wash more than we machine-wash, since it's so time-consuming," says Larae Hascall, the Costume Shop Manager. One of the most challenging jobs the Costume Department has is keeping sweat-induced pit stains at bay, but the task is made easier with a spray bottle full of cheap vodka. "We used to buy cases of Everclear and dilute it with water," Hascall says. "But this stuff also does the trick."



Upstairs, in a giant hall, nearly 100 children mill around in various states of dress. Parents and adult volunteers apply pancake makeup, red cheeks, and thick eyeliner onto youngsters waiting dutifully in line. Teenagers sit quietly around a table, knitting hats for cancer patients at Seattle Children's Hospital. Little girls' hair is curled tightly and sprayed obsessively; before the show, they let curlers sit for at least an hour and a half to achieve a perfect spiral.



Life as a child PNB dancer--in total, about 250 will perform in The Nutcracker this season--is very, very busy. On top of the dozens of performances, these children attend school, play sports, play instruments, and participate in any number of other extracurricular activities. One parent shared her son's schedule that day: 15 minutes after the Nutcracker performance, he'd be heading downtown to his guitar recital. Then, he'd race back to McCaw Hall just in time for his evening call. By the end of the performance, she estimated he'd already be about an hour late to a classmate's birthday party in North Seattle...but he still insisted on attending.

When PNB's in-house kid wrangler says the word, the costumed youngsters form a neat line and head down to the stage. For the next two and a half hours, they'll do more waiting than dancing...and they'll do it quietly and admirably.

"Quiet" is a relative term here, as the noise of Tchaikovsky emanating from the orchestra pit is loud enough to drown out almost every backstage noise, from full-voice conversations to huge moving setpieces to dozens of dancers practicing their jumps before they step onstage. This conversation with PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal happened ten feet from stage in the middle of Act I, unbeknownst to anyone in the audience:

Peter Boal discusses why he loves the Nutcracker.

A video posted by Classical KING FM 98.1 (@classicalkingfm) on


One of this Nutcracker's most impressive features is that it's entirely human-powered. Black-shirted men covertly carry large, heavy setpieces across the stage in smooth motions; a large painted sheet is dragged from one side of the stage to the other to simulate a moving landscape; men use a wall of rope pullies to let down the famed snow at the end of Act I.

Spoiler alert: that "snow" is actually flame-retardant treated paper, which inevitably falls into the eyes and mouths of the snowflake dancers. The ballerinas admirably hold their smiles onstage, but once they're out of the spotlight, fits of gagging and coughing ensue as they try to avoid swallowing the bits of bitter-tasting paper.



At intermission, in the orchestra pit, music stands are decked out in funky Christmas lights collected over the years. There's even a festive tree in the corner. Some of the sheet music is marked up beyond recognition--which is understandable, given that some of these orchestra members have had more than 1,000 chances to finesse their performance of this piece.

A table in the orchestra's green room is piled down with at least 50 well-worn board games, but at Christmastime, musicians prefer to pass the time with themed intermission receptions. Once, the entire ensemble dessed up in lace. On another night, the orchestra members sported leather and fake tattoos. One theme in particular, Texas Big Hair Day, has become an annual tradition. Audience members walk to the edge of the pit at intermission to gawk gleefully at the cowboy hats and teased locks.

Back at stage level, it's all business. Giant brooms sweep across the stage in the snowstorm's aftermath, and setpieces are quickly swapped out. Dancers don't talk much as they change costume, stretch, and practice key dance moves for Act II. The kids are back in their own hall, and they'll be called on to come back downstairs in small groups to control the stage-level crowds and chaos.


At the show's opening, scenes involve huge numbers of dancers onstage at once. But in Act II, dancers take turns for stage time, and they spend most of their time in the wings, cheering on their friends or catching their breath between scenes. Unlike orchestra pit musicians who only have a small part to play and can leave when they're done, all the dancers must stay through the end to take a bow. They don't seem to mind the downtime.


The last curtain drops after guest conductor Stilian Kirov joins the dancers onstage for a final bow. I'm swept through a door I never noticed before, and suddenly I'm back in the red-carpet lobby of McCaw Hall, which is considerably cooler than the labyrinthine backstage hallways. Here, children and adults alike can spend time poring over costume exhibits, posing in front of setpieces, and interacting with life-size Nutcracker characters. One display even gives audiences a glimpse at the concepts, costumes and color palettes of next year's production.



---

The last Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker runs November 28-December 28, 2014. You can buy your tickets here. Tune in to KING FM on Christmas Day as we play a classic recording of Tchaikovsky's score by the PNB Orchestra.

Filed Under :
Location : Southwest
by Jill Kimball posted Dec 4 2014 3:26PM
Each December, we Washingtonians are spoiled for choice when it comes to holiday concerts. (If you don't believe us, just try to make your way through this monstrous list of excellent Christmas concert recommendations from classical critic Melinda Bargreen!) But it's especially exciting when something really big is on the season's menu.

One of this year's Big Kahunas? The internationally renowned King's Singers, a six-man vocal group from the United Kingdom. Their infectious vocal arrangements, lively stage presence, and impeccable close harmony has made them a household name among many music lovers. They come to Benaroya Hall on Monday, December 8, with a wonderful collection of holiday music from all over Europe. Miraculously, there are still a few tickets available.

We spoke with three members of the King's Singers this week as they began their American tour in Rexburg, Idaho.

---

Tell us about what we can expect to hear on this concert.

David Hurley: We begin with some lovely music from the Renaissance by Lassus and Praetorius. Then you'll hear arrangements of some of our favorite European carols, among them a lovely Polish Christmas carol and some beautiful carol anthems by Herbert Howells, who is a bit of a god in the choral world. Then there's something by Poulenc that's a slightly darker piece for a Christmas concert. It was written over Christmas in 1944, and it's about the hardship of life in France during the Second World War. Then we have a set of songs from Catalonia, a Northeastern region of Spain; those are some of my favorites. And as ever, we'll sing a group of everyone's favorite seasonal songs in close harmony, including Jingle Bells.

You sing so many Christmas concerts every year. Do you ever get sick of the music?

Christopher Bruerton: I've been in the group just shy of three years, so I'm one of the newest members. Honestly, the arrangements are so good that you can do them over and over.

What are some of your earliest singing memories? When was that moment when you realized you wanted to sing for a living?

David: Chris and I were both Cathedral choristers from a young age. I remember being a boy chorister in 1971 and falling in love with the Christmas Eve service, and it's just as enchanting as a member of the congregation at home these days. The music just makes the hair on my neck stand up.

Chris: I remember in 1994, I was in the congregation at church, and a solo boy soprano was singing Once in Royal David's City. And the lights came up, the congregation joined in...it was magical. That was the moment for me.

Jonathan Howard: Unlike David and Chris, I was never a boy chorister. My parents, perhaps stupidly, let me listen to whatever I wanted as a kid! So I had them singing along to all the Billboard hits on the radio. It wasn't until I was about 16 and I joined my school choir that I really got involved. But for me, too, it's Christmas music that I really fell in love with first. It's just so, so great.


The King's Singers have traveled all over the world. Tell us about your favorite destinations.

David: For me it's really the venues. Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw, Royal Albert Hall here at home. You pinch yourself to make sure you're really standing there. I've been everywhere, and I've enjoyed so many destinations, that it's hard to say what my favorite is. Last year we were in Brazil, Chile, and other parts of South America. That was pretty special. There's nothing quite like being in Italy. There are just too many places to mention.



Johnny: When you speak about the sense of the destination rather than the concert halls...I love places by water, on water, or on a frontier. That's why I'm always so excited to go to Seattle or New Zealand or San Francisco. When you look toward the Pacific Ocean, you just see this vast expanse of water. It's like being on the edge of the world.

Chris: Because I'm from New Zealand, I think being in Europe is so exciting. I've only been living in Oxford for a few years, so the idea of being able to leave home in the morning and get to France by lunchtime is still so exciting to me. I love the cobblestone streets. That's something the others might take for granted, being from here.


You've performed music of so many countries and genres. How has the music you've performed influenced the music you listen to in your free time?

David: I like listening to Symphonic Romantic music. I love jazz. I love the Renaissance. I think for me, I love being reminded of the power of music to move you. You can get so involved in the technicality that you forget that what you do comes from the heart. We did an album called Sacred Bridges with an ensemble called Saraband, and most of the musicians were Turkish. It was so extraordinary not just to listen to the tune but to hear the tuning of these pieces. They have a much more sophisticated sense of tuning. For example, between two half steps in the Western World, they have about ten semitones. It's the same when you listen to Indian music. We like to think that here in the Western world we're so sophisticated, but it's really kind of backward.


What moment in your King's Singers career are you most proud of?

Chris: I remember standing outside Carnegie Hall for the first time in the freezing cold, all decked out in scarves, and looking at a billboard of our concert with a big red "SOLD OUT" sign across the front. That felt really cool.

David: That's funny, because I remember something similar. We were in Washington, D.C., performing at the Kennedy Center. We were with another vocal group from the UK, and one person wanted to get tickets to the [Washington National] Opera, so we walked to the Kennedy Center and saw our concert billboard with the "SOLD OUT" sign. But for me, the true proud moment is always when you come offstage and feel like you've contributed something bigger than the sum of its parts. You allow yourself a little bit of self-congratulation. We just added a new tenor, and when we had performed together with after a while, you really felt us gel together. That is a wonderful feeling.

Johnny: We're lucky in that we've done two concerts at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. We also did a workshop right in the tourist center of the city, in a cathedral near Tiananmen Square. Because of the separation of church and state there, there's a ban on Western religious music. But we had organized a festival in this church, and they let us go ahead with it. I remember thinking it meant so much that they'd organized this for us.


How often are you at home?

Johnny: We tour seven months of the year, but we're not on the road that whole time. We make sure to take three weeks off at Christmas, three weeks off during Easter, and a six-week holiday in the summer. We spend a total of about five months at home, but it's broken up into small pieces throughout the year. For example, we just had a week off at home, and now we'll be on the road for three weeks on this tour. It's definitely hard sometimes for the members with families. I'm one of the two uncoupled members of the group, so as much as we're already on the road, I'd love to travel even more.


Is there a certain sort of music you haven't performed yet but would love to try?

Chris: I'd certainly like to sing more Scandinavian music. I was introduced to it in when I sang in the National Choirs in New Zealand. I don't hear a lot of it being performed.

Johnny: We're famous for singing music of all ages, from the 12th century to 12 days ago. But we don't do very much uptempo pop music since we don't have a beat-boxer. I'd love to explore more pop music while still keeping that signature King's Singers sound.

David: There's so much repertoire in the existing genres. I love the Renaissance, and there's loads of Renaissance stuff we haven't even touched. Of course we're always open to suggestions! Anyone can feel free to give us suggestions on Facebook or Twitter, and we'll give it serious thought.


by Jill Kimball posted Oct 30 2014 2:24PM


From Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor to Jaws, explore the music that gives us a fright...and learn why we find it so jarring.

---


We bet Johann Sebastian Bach never imagined his little Toccata and Fugue would become the piece of music most synonymous with all things spooky, creepy, and undead.

And who would have ever guessed that, decades after its release, John Williams' Jaws soundtrack would still be considered one of the most bone-chilling sound bites of all time?

There's a reason our spines tingle every time we hear Mike Oldfield's tubular bells, and it's not just because one of his pieces was featured in The Exorcist. There's an explanation for why the largo from Beethoven's 'Ghost' Trio freaks us out, and it's not just because we know Beethoven was studying Shakespeare's Macbeth as he wrote it.


‚Äč

As it turns out, there's a scientific reason why we consider certain types of music "scary." In a 2012 study at UCLA, scientists found a connection between what they called "nonlinear chaotic noise" and the feeling of fear in yellow-bellied marmots. Noises that seemed sudden, such as a scream or a rapid change in musical dynamic from soft to loud, seemed threatening to the marmots.

Looking for more Halloween music? Tune in to 98.1 or online at king.org on Halloween between 5pm and 7pm to hear a selection of scary classical music, and watch our YouTube playlist of Halloween music.

So they underwent similar experiments with humans, playing a variety of music and asking their subjects to record the emotions they felt as each track played. Music that used jarring, dissonant, and minor chords provoked negative emotions, such as fear. 

That explains well why Jaws, whose soundtrack opens with a simple yet sinister two-note pattern that quickens and crescendoes as a shark draws nearer to its human prey, is so effective in making us jump in our seats.

 

Whether it's because we've heard it so many times or because we've never actually found it scary, none of us is quite as creeped out by Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. (Maybe that's because we've never seen it paired with shark attack footage...yet.) Why, then, is it the ultimate piece of Halloween music?

The piece certainly wasn't associated with vampires, abandoned mansions, or gory science experiments in the first few hundred years of its existence. In fact, the piece was barely known to exist before 1833, when Mendelssohn discovered and published it--more on that here. In the 19th century, musicians believed the Toccata & Fugue was simply an entertaining, unique, and accessible virtuosic organ piece. Both Liszt and Mendelssohn used the work to inject lightheartedness into their recitals; Schumann, who had always admired the piece since its premiere performance, believed it exemplified Bach's clever sense of humor.

Starting around the 20th century, however, the piece was interpreted very differently. Once a fun musical romp, the short piece became something bolder and more dramatic in the minds of musicians and audiences alike. The advent of moving pictures helped cement the its reputation as a horror-soundtrack classic. New movie theaters all across the country installed pipe organs and hired professional musicians to accompany silent films however they wished. History tells us the Toccata & Fugue was a very popular selection, especially for scary or emotional movies. In the early years of talking pictures, the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde used the Toccata and Fugue in the opening credits to set a fearful tone. And the rest, as they say, was history.
 



 
Your annual or sustaining gift keeps your favorite KING FM broadcasts on the air.
Join KING FM's Performance Circle and get exclusive access to in-studio events.
Be the first to know about upcoming broadcasts, sweepstakes & more!
Recent Posts
Blog Categories
Blog Archive