Now Hear This: an Interview with Alex McDonald, Festival Director and pianist

Dr. Alex McDonald is well-known to our audience as the Basically Beethoven Festival Director: if you’ve attended the concerts you have heard his introductions, his phenomenal playing, and his groan-inducing musical puns. Here he gives our audience insight into the 2019 Festival and the June 21 program in particular, when he will be one of the Featured Performers.

Where did the name Basically Beethoven come from?   When FACP Co-Founder Rogene Russell founded the concert series, Mostly Mozart had been making waves in New York City for more than a decade. I think that’s where the alliterative part of the name came from. As to why ‘Beethoven,’ I think he was chosen because of his incredible appeal, passion, and his role at a turning point in the development of art music.

Why come to Basically Beethoven? What if someone doesn’t know much about classical music?                Firstly — its free! But perhaps more importantly, Basically Beethoven has great music of all kinds! We hope to have something for everyone: from the humorous to the profound, the sweet to soulful, sad to joyful. Our programming features both treasured classics to new, award-winning works. And, as an added bonus, our world-class artists are local. If the performance inspires you to want to know more or even pursue your own musical journey, the performers live relatively close by! 


Is there a specific piece being performed for the Festival this year that you’re particularly excited about?            I am excited to present Schumann’s piano quintet – which is a long-time favorite. And the chance to perform Beethoven’s  Piano Trio op. 1, no 1 (his first published work) is very exciting to me. 

What’s your job like as festival director? Do you have a favorite part of the gig – programming, performing, people, etc.?     This is an easy one. My favorite part by far is just listening to the music! Moody is such a great performance space, and the artists are such incredible communicators. The repertoire they choose is a wonderful extension of who they are as people. It feeds my soul and challenges me to go practice!

There are a lot of composers featured throughout the festival other than Beethoven. How do you decide who and what to program every week?     I always like to hear from the artists about what they want to play. To me, this helps keep the sense of creativity and interest and variety.

2020 will be Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the 40th annual Basically Beethoven Festival. Are there big plans in the works, and can you offer a sneak peak of anything to come?    There are big plans! No hints yet – but stay tuned. We are beyond excited at what is to come. 


Now Hear This: an Interview with Evan Mitchell and Jonathan Tsay, piano

Evan and Jonathan not only share a stage but a piano at the second concert of the 2019 Basically Beethoven Festival on Sunday, July 14. The program features music for “piano four hands” which is when two pianists share one instrument. They’ll be sharing the stage as performers for the first time for our Festival audience! They sat down after a rehearsal for our Q&A to give an insider’s look at what they’re doing and how they got here.


How old were you when started studying piano, and when you realized you could be a professional musician? JONATHAN: I started studying piano at 5 ½ years old – the realization that I could be a professional musician happened well after it probably should have, right after undergrad when I got my first significant paycheck from doing outreach concerts with The Cliburn (for the Cliburn in the Classroom program) for the first time. EVAN: I started at age 7. I was fortunate never to have had teachers or my parents say I couldn’t be a professional musician. I started to consider it more seriously in seventh or eighth grade after attending a competition held at a conservatory, when it hit me the students there pretty much did this full-time.

On the 14th, you two will be playing several pieces originally written for full orchestra. Can you explain what an arrangement is? EVAN: An arrangement is basically when someone has taken a piece of music and rewritten it, without changing the notes, for different performing forces. Sunday’s program all went from orchestral to piano settings, but the opposite happens frequently as well, where a piece (Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, for instance) starts as a piano work and is expanded for a larger ensemble. 

Do you all have experience arranging music yourselves? JONATHAN: I guess that’s sort of a yes and no answer for me. The extent of arranging for me is taking a piece that has already been reduced for piano (usually concerto accompaniment reductions) and adding or subtracting elements here and there based off of what I think sounds closer to the original orchestral texture. There’s a bit more leeway with the actual notes on the page when dealing with arrangements/transcriptions than say, a Beethoven Sonata.

What is different about learning/performing pieces like this (originally written for large ensembles) than for a more standard piano work? EVAN: With one person playing a solo piano work, there’s a degree of flexibility often built into the way the music is written — especially in the Romantic period — and sometimes added at the performer’s discretion. A large ensemble, though, has such inertia that changes in speed need to be really proportional. Think: the difference between a jet-ski and a cruise ship. To play in a fluid way and evoke all the colors of the orchestra, without some of the flexibility you’d normally have when interpreting music at the keyboard, is tricky.

How did the two of you meet and start collaborating? JONATHAN: Evan and I met while doing Cliburn in the Classroom (Evan as the pianist and me as host), and while we had been doing different concerts together for The Cliburn and Ensemble75, this concert Sunday will be the first time (out of many, hopefully) that we share the stage both as performers.

What makes playing piano four hands (two pianists sharing a keyboard) unique or special versus two pianists on two pianos performing one piece? JONATHAN: Real estate. Pianists are so very used to having the entirety of the keyboard (and the bench!) to themselves that once another body is added to a single keyboard, all of the angles (arms/hands/feet relative to the piano) change. Quite often there will be passages that require one person to play a note and then cede the note to the partner much quicker than if they were to be playing alone — a significant part of rehearsal is spent working out the choreography/traffic jam. On the plus side, the individual parts are usually a bit easier to learn and I have learned quite a bit from Evan during rehearsals, which is one of the main reasons I collaborate with people. EVAN: You really have to play as one, which is harder in some ways than playing as two polished performers in dialogue. The way you have to balance sounds across one keyboard, sometimes while contorted into pretty uncomfortable positions, is deceptively difficult.

Last year we had a program featuring two pianists on two pianos. Why would a composer choose to write something with pianists sharing one keyboard? JONATHAN: Like, pianos are expensive, man. Composing/arranging for one piano (whether it’s for one or two pianists) rather than two pianos increases the likelihood of it being performed. EVAN: But a full orchestra is expensive-er. And that’s exactly why many of these pieces were arranged for four-hand piano in the first place; before the advent of recorded sound, this was the only way for most folks to experience this music aside from hearing an orchestral performance.

The pieces you all will perform are all connected in a few ways: they have been in movies or TV shows, were all written in the 19th century; how did you choose your program for Basically Beethoven this year? JONATHAN: Very basically, I asked Evan about some pieces that would be a good fit with the Debussy (which I had performed before, but the two-piano version) and we negotiated around some works and they all happened to share the “outdoorsy” theme. EVAN: They’re all crowd-pleasers, which makes it fun for the audience. They also all happen to rely a lot for their effectiveness on orchestral colors and different timbres, which is a rewarding challenge for us to have to recreate on the piano.

What type of music did you listen growing up? What do you listen to now? JONATHAN: I listened to lots of things growing up — I think if you look up my Now Hear This from 2016 there’s a Dolly Parton story in there (Editor’s Note: indeed, there is!). It ranged from classical to alternative rock to whatever Taiwanese karaoke hits my parents sang. My current collection in my car (SD card reader is amazing) includes Radiohead, Hiromi Uehara, OutKast, Bill Evans, The Roots, other random collections of songs made for various road trips from artists I couldn’t name, as well as CDs of music of Lowell Liebermann, Evgeny Kissin’s 1984 debut performing both Chopin concerti, and the Cezanne Quartet’s album of music by Kevin Puts, Mendelssohn, and Bartok. That’s some of what I listen to when/if I’m not listening to a podcast. EVAN: I grew up right outside New York and loved going to jazz clubs throughout middle and high school, and whenever I’m back that way to visit. Classical’s always been part of it, especially from my high school years onward. I recently made a trip to Houston, and I’d say the drive was divided between Punch Brothers, Nas, and Tchaikovsky.

What piece or recording should everyone have in their music library? EVAN: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing the Rachmaninoff Fourth Concerto; Murray Perahia playing anything by Mozart or Bach. JONATHAN: Carlos Kleiber – Tribute to a Unique Artist.

Which piece are you most excited to perform on the 14th? EVAN: Probably the Mussorgsky. A Night on Bald Mountain is lots of fun, and with such a catchy opening, it’s one of those pieces that everyone, even musicians, thinks they know but may not actually be all that familiar with all the way through. JONATHAN: The Rossini. I have basically one moment that I need to get around (the first part of the Lone Ranger theme – harder than I expected!) and then I get to sit back and watch Evan sweat out all the hard parts.


Now Hear This: Kimberly Osberg, composer

The 2019 Basically Beethoven Festival opens with an afternoon of music for the clarinet, including a recent work by Dallas-based composer Kimberly Osberg. Read on to learn more about her influences, what Billy Joel and Igor Stravinsky have in common, and get insight into her piece Interplay, which will be performed at the July 7 concert, “The American Sound.”

 


 

Composer Kimberly Osberg

What does a week in the life of a composer in Dallas look like? Do you have time to compose built into your day?    I’m fortunate enough to be working with the Dallas Chamber Symphony, both for event operations and as librarian. Both jobs can get pretty time-intensive near concert time, but the flexibility of working from home most of the season allows me to make my own schedule—so my week can change a lot! I like the variety, however – it makes every day feel like a new one, which can be a really helpful way to reset after a bad composing session or a long day at the concert hall. Some weeks are less about writing music (I may not write a single note!) and more about meeting musicians or hearing new work; other weeks are more about learning new skills to help my business grow; some weeks I find time to write every day. There is always something going on in Dallas, so – especially as an artist – it’s been really great to adjust my schedule regularly in order to experience what the metroplex has to offer!

 

 

What kind of music do you like to listen to? Does what you listen to influence what you write?    I grew up listening to classic rock and jazz, and I think a lot of the rhythms and musical concepts I work with reflect that. In the last few years I’ve really challenged myself to branch out in my listening: I listened to a lot of dead, European composers when I was in school, so since graduating I’ve been moving away from that to see what the world of music has to offer—and it’s a lot! Rap, hip-hop, trance, indie rock, folk metal, experimental electoacoustic installations, the various trends in film music  – there’s a vibrant and meaningful community for everything, and I try to listen around as much as I can. I end up synthesizing some facet or sound or rhythm or texture from everything I listen to – but always within the context of my own soundworld. For example, I don’t try to write rap or use their instruments in my music, but sometimes the rhythmic interplay that an artist like Kendrick Lamar can pull out from text alone really changes the way I think about setting text in my own work.

 

 

When did you decide to pursue music, specifically composition, as a career?    It was more of a gradual realization that I would be pursuing composing. I wrote my first piece when I was in high school – for full orchestra – and I really loved the experience of writing music for my friends and trying to think of ways to make the piece fun for them. From there I ended up at the Tanglewood Institute, where it hit me that there were living people writing concert music—like, a lot of them! That summer really made me think about pursuing composition, and throughout the course of my liberal arts degree at Luther College it became more and more clear that writing music was going to be my full-time path.

 

 

Walk us through the process of receiving a commission to write a piece. Do you have constraints like time or ensemble size, or is that usually up to you?    Because I went to small schools for a large part of my education, it was always the case that you found the ensemble before writing the piece. For that reason, commissions have usually been the result of conversations between myself and musicians who were interested in working together: this means that the ensemble size/instrumentation is usually preordained by whoever I’m talking to. In short, I don’t write a piece and find players later. I always find the players first, and it’s usually my job to tell the players I’m interested in writing for them (though more players have approached me recently, which is very exciting!). Time constraints, technical features, extended techniques, mutes and so forth are things I discuss with the performers directly as I work on the piece; I like to make musicians part of the process because they feel more invested in the work, and they also tend to know a lot more about their instruments and capabilities. My favorite experience is to add something new to a musicians’ toolbox through my music—a new technique, a new favorite way to play their instrument, a new way to interact with their fellow performers—but I try to do so in a way that makes them feel comfortable enough to try.

 

The biggest two exceptions to this were my opera (which was my undergraduate thesis, though I had singers in mind as I wrote), and Rocky Summer, the work that was just premiered by the Dallas Chamber Symphony this past spring. Both were pretty challenging for me, because I was composing in a bubble—away from the input and collaboration of players. I still worked through issues and adjusted things in rehearsal, but the bulk of composing for these commissions was done in isolation.

 

 

As a composer, do you rely more on inspiration or a certain process to write your music? What inspired or helped you write your piece Interplay?   I tend to think of inspiration as “conscious excitement.” Once I get all the constraints—how long, will it be one movement or four, what instruments, what techniques do the musicians want to try out, what are the musicians’ goals, what is the venue, what other pieces are being programmed, etc.—I start generating ideas that I think will fit those constraints well. 

 

In the case of Interplay, the musicians and I had wanted to work together, and they had an upcoming concert at the Dallas Contemporary for an exhibit on work by internationally-acclaimed artist Ian Davenport—they would be performing a concert in front of the artwork at the gallery. [In composing,] I had not just the interests of the musicians, but of the artist, and the Dallas Contemporary to consider as well.

 

I met with the musicians, and we talked about what kinds of goals they had—they wanted to demonstrate the range of colors their ensemble had, the technical capacity of each individual, and their strength of playing well off of and with one another. The artist walked me through his exhibit and showed me several paintings, but one in particular seemed to be the one he really wanted the piece to be about (from his “Colorfall” series). After speaking with him, it was exciting to learn we thought about our crafts in a lot of similar ways—balance, a changing relationship with the art over time, rhythm and color, vivacity, and so on. The musicians and the artist talked a lot about relationships—colors and lines playing off each other in real time—so I had a title, Interplay, and the concepts I needed to work with

 

 

Some composers write their music at coffee shops, some have hidden cabins out in the mountains, some carry notepads and write down ideas as they come. Where do you like to compose, and why?    I wish I had a cabin in the mountains! Many of my favorite works in my catalogue have either been written in or about mountains. Since I travel a lot and maintain a pretty busy schedule outside of composing, I don’t tend to tie myself down to any one “composing place.” All I really need is some quiet, my laptop (or some paper), and my headphones. There are some great coffee shops in Dallas, but all of them play music over the speakers, so unless I’m really focused it’s actually pretty distracting to work there most of the time. Composing at home is usually my default these days.

 

 

Do you have a favorite piece, composer, or genre of music?   My two favorite composers growing up were Billy Joel and Stravinsky. I’ve had a lot of other favorites over the years, but those two have remained constant since I was in high school. It’s basically impossible for me to pick a favorite piece, but there are a lot of really great living composers out there right now; ones who I really admire include Andrew Norman, Nina C Young, Sky McKlay, Jake Heggie, Katie Balch, Joel Thompson, Kevin Puts, and Chris Cerrone.

 

 

What’s your favorite sound?    I really love the sound when you drop one wooden bowl into the other: that satisfying *clack* is one of the most perfect sounds I can imagine. Also laughter – people have so many unique, interesting, quirky laughs. Least favorite sound?    I despise wet, chewing sounds. I know they can be used effectively, but it hurts me.

 

 

What advice would you give 14-year-old you?    Soak it all up! The world is a really beautiful, exciting, vibrant place with many hidden wonders if you’re brave enough to look for them. Always be kind, even when someone won’t return that courtesy to you. Be the person people aren’t afraid to mess up around. Be bold in accepting and fighting for yourself when necessary, but be open to the idea you may not always be right. And always know where your health insurance is accepted.