Blog: Twickenham Fest 2013

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Day 1 – The Musicians Arrive

I woke up this morning in my house in Huntsville with a big smile on my face… It’s here! Twickenham Fest 2013 officially began today with the arrival of 10 of the 11 Fest Artists. Can hardly believe it.

After reveling in the last few hours of peace and quiet, the clamor of the Fest began. We finalized the rehearsal schedule, printed out nametags, gathered the music scores, settled the meal schedule, double-checked TShirt sizes, had the pianos tuned, and made sign-up sheets for the various outreach programs for the week. Then 4pm came, and the musicians landed at the Huntsville International Airport.

Twickenham Fest Musicians 2013

I must admit, every year I get nervous just before the Fest. It’s a LOT of work, and you’re never really sure if it’s actually going to work or not. Then something magical happens when you collect everyone from the airport: You remember why you’re doing it in the first place. When I saw the group today, I nearly bubbled over with excitement. I love hosting friends in my hometown, and I love familiarizing Huntsvillians with these phenomenal musicians. All the work leading up to this crazy crazy week seems to just make sense.

And now the real work begins. We all met up for a delicious dinner made by Mrs. McDonald (fried chicken? Um… yes, please.). Conversation started off a little quietly, but by the end of the evening everyone was chatting up a storm. Everyone seems excited to really get to know the community through the outreach programs (whew!) and more importantly, everyone is enthusiastic to just get rehearsing.

Tomorrow is an early day – 8am it begins with Educational Outreach. I’m certainly not an early bird at ALL, but right now I’m just chomping at the bit to get this Fest started. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s HERE! Let’s do this!

Day 2:  A Whirlwind

This morning began with a bang: Visits to the Elementary School, Middle School, and Upper School classes at Randolph, my alma mater for Kindergarten through Graduation. Being a “lifer”, it was crazy to go back and wander the halls a bit. We arrived bright and early for our first session with the elementary students. And boy did they wake us up! The best moment with that bunch was when a young boy asked Christopher Weiss, our resident composer, to improvise a piece that described the emotion “hungry”, which he did. Lots of grumbly bass notes…

This poster made me chuckle. Maybe I should get one to hang by my piano!

We chatted with the Upper School at Randolph, even if only for a few minutes. They were calm and subdued, which was a sharp contrast to our next bunch of 4th-6th graders. I must admit that this was my favorite group of the day. It was later in the day, so we had all had our coffee, and more of the TFest crowd joined us. The children were engaged and asked insightful questions that kept us on our toes.

Between sessions we had a few minutes to relax, so we went to the lobby of the Upper School where they had Kapla blocks laying around. Of course we channeled our inner 5 year old and began building top hats and towers. I can officially say that y’all should be grateful that I’m not an architect. Half the town would fall down if I were in charge of its construction. Think I’ll stick to my current vocation.

The afternoon was full of big rehearsals (Schubert, Brahms, Ravel… you name it). I began Schubert’s Auf dem Strom with Rebekah and Orion, and let me tell you: that’s going to be a great reading of that piece. Even just having met, we seemed to be on the same page musically, reading each other pretty well from the get-go. Auf dem Strom holds a dear place in my heart and we’ve actually performed the piece here at the Fest before, except with cello instead of French horn. Any combination for that piece makes me smile, but there’s something about the vocal qualities of the horn that make me feel like we’re really singing a duet.

Fiddling with Kapla Blocks at Randolph

Folks were pretty upbeat, though still a little shy. But there’s nothing like a great southern meal to get the conversation flowing. We all had to wrap up rehearsals by 6:30pm for my mother’s famous Shrimp ‘n Grits! We gathered around the table to relax and recover from the day. Then the two pianists got up, went to the piano, and began to sight-read 4-hands music. They played everything from the Schubert Fantasie to Mahler’s 5th symphony. As Matt put it, you could have replaced the music with a video game and replaced the pianists with 12 yr. olds, and it would have elicited the same amount of excitement. Several of us hung out on the living room couches listening, and somehow we got around to reading a 4-hands and soprano version of the fourth movement of Mahler’s 4th symphony… at 2:30am. Matt and I caught each others gaze and smiled. It’s moments like these that make the stress of the Fest worth it. There’s such happiness in making music with friends. I fell into my bed around 3am, and slept soundly with a smile on my face.

Day 3 – Swanky Soirée

As I nursed a strong cup of coffee this morning, the Patron Soiree seemed so far away. There were HOURS until it was to begin and still there was so much to do! First and foremost the rehearsals for the Fest continued, and I heard the sounds of Strauss, Santoliquido, and Schubert resounding through our houses. We spent the morning finalizing nametags, confirming catering, and having the piano tuned.

Orion warming up for the Soiree

Two wonderful women, friends of my family, brought us a delicious lunch of lovely sandwiches, fruit, chips, and of course garlic pickles. As thrilled as our mothers are to provide meals for the crew it’s always nice to have a little reprieve, especially when it comes from such wonderful women!

We had our first group rehearsal on the piece that TFest commissioned this year from Christopher Weiss. Set for string quintet (2 violins, viola, cello, and doule bass), bassoon & soprano, we jumped right in and explored this dark and dramatic piece. We have lots of work to do, but the piece itself is quite beautiful. It’s harmonically quite interesting, and yet still succeeds in finding a warm and inviting tonal language. We worked on the piece for a couple of hours and then went home to dress for the evening.

Andrew and the Harlequin

I know you’re not supposed to have a favorite concert every year, but if I had to choose mine would definitely be the Patron Soiree. It’s a time where everyone pulls out their party pieces, lets down their hair and has a good time. We perform in a home in the Twickenham district, in a kind of space intended for this kind of music. I can easily imagine that the living areas of many of those downtown homes were used as music salons and heard many of the great classical works in house concerts throughout the years. Hearing the music in the kind of space for which it was intended makes you listen differently. Continuing in that tradition our Soiree is quite the unique concert. The TFest musicians break out their party pieces and real smiles abound.

Last night was no exception. We kicked off the night with the first of the two Brahms song for voice, viola, and piano. That was the first piece Jennifer and I ever read together, and it was fun to collaborate again. Andrew stepped up with a Stravinsky showpiece for solo clarinet describing a Harlequin. Then more musicians showed off their skills to the Huntsville community with an amusing Donkey and the Driver, a silky Weiss piece for cello and piano, some piano 4-hands fireworks, and a heartfelt Some Enchanted Evening. Nikki and Itamar topped off the evening with a crazy Navarra that had the crowd cheering at the end.

As the musicians gathered at my house to chill out after the evening, Matt and I clinked our glasses. What a way to kick off the Fest!

A full house for the soiree!

Day 4 – Mozart at the Market

Reeling from last night’s Soirée, today was a reality check. The first concert is TOMORROW, and we still have so much we need to rehearse and only so many hours to do it. The rehearsals began at 10am with Prokofiev and Brahms. I wasn’t involved in those rehearsals, so I took the morning to take care of some errands for the crew. You know, it turns out that life doesn’t stop when you’re fiddling at the Fest.

Bekah playing at the Market - Love the little boy's face!

Then reality began to set in. With the ever changing and evolving rehearsal schedule, things were falling by the wayside. And on top of that we were scheduled to perform at the Greene Street Market this afternoon. I began to feel myself getting on edge. How was this all going to get done??? So I took that as my cue to take a short power nap and readjust my attitude. Sleep certainly does wonders.

The TFest Magicians Drew and Julia

Now let’s pause here to talk about this awesome Farmer’s Market in downtown Huntsville. The Greene Street Market began three years ago and has since grown into THE place to be on Thursday evenings. Homemade relishes, pickles, jams, and cupcakes compliment the abundance of fresh produce grown by local farmers. They often have live music so they invited us to perform a few pieces for the market goers. We hung out for an hour singing and playing for an ever-mixing crowd. One gentleman was overheard saying, “Only in Huntsville can you be at a Farmer’s Market with wonderful produce listening to Mozart by internationally acclaimed musicians.” It WAS kind of funny to sing Quando m’en vo to a bunch of tomatoes. A little bird told me that it was the birthday of a great friend of the family, so we ended the program with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday dear Jerry. Bet he didn’t see that coming!

We picked up some pickles and peaches on our way out and headed to Matt’s house for Taco night. Before delving into the Mexican fare, I popped in to check on Julia and Drew, our incredible development team. They were in the front room at Matt’s house (as they had been all day) taking ticket reservations, sorting and labeling tickets, organizing patron seating, double-checking our programming for the library outreach, and tying up all of the loose ends we inevitably left lying around. The Fest could not function without their incredible efforts this year. They are the best.

Itamar and Christopher digging into Taco Night!

So, here’s an update on our progress: We’ve exceeded last year’s ticket reservations, which is astonishing to me considering this is Labor Day weekend. To be honest, I expected a bit of a slump given people’s proclivity to take one last family vacation before the real start to the academic year. It’s been quite the opposite. In fact, the concerts on Saturday and Sunday are filling up fast, and our first concert (tomorrow night) is nearly sold out. I’m excited to get these concerts going so the Huntsville community can hear these musicians. I have a feeling that this weekend is going to be one to remember…

Day 5 – We made it to the first concert!

This morning began with a very calm and happy start. Coffee, catching up, and clear focus made the start to the day quite cheerful and civilized. That surprised me ONLY because we’re usually nervous about a thousand details the morning of the first concert. But somehow things seemed to be coming together.

My assignment was to find bows for the pews at the church (to delineate the Patron Section). So, off to Hobby Lobby and Michael’s I went to hunt wide TFest-green wired ribbon. That is surprisingly difficult to find. I’m sure it’s easier at Christmastime with all of the holiday gear around… but green ribbon in August is an anomaly. We ended up with a pretty cool looking burlap and green ribbon concoction, and Rita at Michael’s did a beautiful job tying all 4 bows.

Back to the house I went to meet up with the crew for lunch. Again the air was surprisingly calm. No freak-outs, no negativity, just happy people chilling out and rehearsing. That’s what TFest is about.

I rehearsed the Mozart Exsultate (the strings playing with me are ridiculously awesome, and it’ll be SO much fun to do that on Sunday) and then we met for Christopher Weiss’s piece. Today it seemed to gel in a way that it didn’t quite yesterday. It turns out that rehearsing makes things work better… who knew? We worked for a couple of hours with him to really get the feel of what he wanted. I love working with composers on pieces because they can help you find their voice in the piece. He’s been great in guiding Matt and me in our parts, and Matt and I are thrilled to have this new addition to the soprano-bassoon repertoire.

Co-founders and buddies, Matt & Susanna :)

At 5pm we all concluded our rehearsals to calm down for the evening – our first public concert: An Evening of Schubert. This is where the details seemed to begin to surface. We all ran a little late, the translations somehow didn’t make it out of Drew’s car, and the set-up took longer than expected. Things happen. During all of this the musicians were cool cucumbers, warming up, setting tempi, and hitting the tough licks of their pieces. Tonight could easily have been a disaster if there was a diva/divo in the bunch. However tonight was no catastrophe – it was a joy.

You know, there’s no danger of a piece of music becoming stale or tired here at TFest. The musicians (who don’t normally play together) are only here for a few days before their first concert, so “freshness” isn’t ever a question. But there’s a certain joy to that kind of playing. People let go of overworking the rehearsal details and MUST listen and react to each other intently in the performance.

That’s what happened in the Auf dem Strom with Rebekah and Orion tonight. We just jumped in there together, and it was such a musically rewarding experience. An impeccable group of moving Schubert songs, including several of my favorites, followed with Corey and Roman. The evening ended with a fiery and dynamic Trout Quintet filled with smiles and energy.

The audience really surprised me – there were a LOT of them (nearly 400) and there were many young people there (I mean, 40 %). Many people I didn’t know helped fill the church, which says to me that we’re reaching new parts of the Huntsville community. That really is a wonderful thing.

We ended the evening with a lovely dinner at The Bottle downtown, and headed back to Matt’s place to unwind. A reading of Mahler’s 4th Symphony arranged for piano 4-hands ended the evening in the perfect way, and I headed home to get my head to my pillow asap.

But I can’t sleep… Twickenham Fest has begun!

Day 6 – A new piece is revealed

This morning began VERY early with concerts at both the Madison and Huntsville Public Libraries. There were children and adults alike, and quite a good crowd showed up, especially considering it was the Bama game on Labor Day weekend. Our Fest musicians were gracious to get up on a concert day to get out into the community, and the community responded so positively with inquisitive questions and hearty applause.

Jennifer showed them how it's done.

At the very first session in Madison, a young girl mentioned that she played the violin in her children’s orchestra. She was fascinated by our violist’s presentation, as she had never seen a viola before. It surprised me that a member of an orchestra would not know a key instrument of the band, but as I spoke to her afterwards I realized that it was quite a feat that there was an orchestra at all. The viola is an instrument that not very many young people gravitate towards. People usually begin on another instrument and graduate to the viola (the mother and father of the violin). So a youth orchestra would probably suffer from a lack of young violists to fill the section. Her enthusiasm for learning about the instrument was encouraging to me, and I’m sure many young folks feel the same way in this area.

We finished the library concerts in time to go to a family friend’s home for a delicious lunch of chicken salad, veggies and fruit. Then we all focused on the afternoon rehearsals. I had a full day of Mozart and Weiss, the piece we premiered tonight. I must admit that after the early 7am wake-up (super early for someone in my line of work) and a full day of rehearsing, I was simply exhausted. After my last rehearsal of the day I made a beeline to my bed for a decent nap before this evening’s concert. It was an important concert to me, and I wanted to give it as much focus and energy as I could.

When Matt and I began discussing what we wanted for TFest, we very quickly agreed on one thing: Twickenham Fest would commission a new piece every year, for several reasons:

There isn’t a lot of soprano/bassoon repertoire out there, and we want to expand the catalogue.

New music is exciting and essential to the future of the classical repertoire.

Doing a commission like this is great for the Fest, for Huntsville, for the composer, for Matt and me, and for the audience who hears it for the first time. A win-win in every sense of the word.

Not every piece is going to be stunning and immediately be inducted into the annals of the great music catalogue. However every piece deserves a reading – a chance to make an impression – and the piece we performed tonight more than made an impression.

The audience at the end of Christopher's piece - Standing Ovation!

Tonight we premiered Christopher Weiss’s piece “Fragments from an Explanation”.  Suffice it to say that it was quite the experience to perform and to hear. The piece is a 20 minute drama for soprano, bassoon, and string quintet. We worked on it all week together, and the performance tonight was quite a moving experience for me. The audience must have agreed because they leapt to their feet at the end in appreciation for Christopher Weiss’s gorgeous music. This is a piece that will certainly merit many more performances.

The concert ended with a powerful and energetic rendition of the Brahms Horn Trio. I must say, it brings me great joy to see my friends so happy making music together and to play for my hometown community. We ended up back at Matt’s for a delicious dinner post concert provided by Lynn’s Gracious Goodness (deLISH!), and finished the night off with several rounds of Mafia.

Tomorrow is our last concert day, and I can hardly believe it. So much energy goes into the preparation of the Fest, and it goes by so quickly! I’ll be savoring every minute of tomorrow…

Day 7 – Fest Finale

I woke up with a bit of regret. We had agreed to sing at the prelude to the church service at Nativity, and 8am just seemed SO early. After all of the late nights we’d had so far, it took some serious willpower to lift my head from my pillow. Soon that regret disappeared into contentment. As we played Exsultate Jubilate (the first two movements at least… let’s face it, high c’s before 10am are just not a good idea) near the altar, we got to watch the church fill up with people. This was a surprise to the congregation, and a joy for me to sing for them with these wonderful players. We left the church all smiles, and headed to final touch-up rehearsals for the afternoon.

Ravel Piano Trio with Itamar, Roman, and Matt

Then the little things began to happen. The son of one of our musicians woke up in the middle of the night with a terrible cough and didn’t sleep a wink. Then a very minor but time-consuming medical situation happened in my family (everyone is doing just fine now). And THEN, Orion showed me a lovely bug bite that had the telltale target ring around it. Not a good sign… He wanted to play the concert, so we made arrangements to take him to a clinic at intermission to properly check it out. But even those hitches, any of which could have caused a wave of drama were small ripples in an otherwise superb day.

Our final concert began at 3pm to a remarkably full house. A potpourri program of Mozart, Santoliquido, Turina, Strauss, and Ravel was a dynamic and fun way to end the Fest. I couldn’t help but smile the whole way through. Matt and I kept saying, “I can’t believe it’s the LAST concert already”. With everything that went into this crazy wonderful week it went by SO quickly!

Group for Exsultate Jubilate - Itamar, Nikki, me, Tony, Matt, and Jennifer

You never know how the week will go, how well the musicians will get along, how we will manage to get everything done, if people will come to the performances. It’s always a cross-your-fingers-and-go kind of thing. Matt and I are careful to bring people to the Fest that will get into the community-oriented spirit of it. We performed at schools, libraries and churches, next to tomatoes and peaches, for audiences old and young alike, and all of that is extra to the three concerts they really came to play. This group jumped in with positive attitudes understanding the importance of bringing classical music to the community. I’m so grateful that it was Huntsville that received that benefit.

This year we played for more people than any previous Fest, packing the house at nearly every performance. To walk out on stage and see our community there to hear these concerts – to put their trust in Matt and me to program a fun evening of exceptional music-making – was a great feeling. When we began this project, Matt and I adhered to the Field of Dreams principle: If you build it, they will come. We did, and they have.

Now I’m on the plane headed back to the Big Apple to start rehearsals for Cosi fan tutte at the Metropolitan Opera tomorrow (thrilling!), and it will be fun to hand over the reigns to someone else for a bit. Coming off this week my heart is full. Someone asked me this week if the right job opportunity comes up if I would skip the Fest. My response was short and concise. No. This project reminds me why I fell in love with classical music. It allows me to make a contribution to the community that fostered my growth as a person and as a musician. It is as nourishing to me as it is hopefully satisfying for the audience. Nope, Matt and I are in this for the long haul. It’s important.

It’s been a blast to be home with my family and Matt’s family, both of whom did so much this week to care for our musicians, providing comfortable housing, home-made meals, practice space, and lots and lots of patience. We couldn’t do this Fest without them, and we thank them every day. Thank you to ALL of the volunteers who pitched in to pull off the details this week, from being gracious host families, offering their home for the soiree, providing meals, tearing tickets, moving the piano (up and down stairs!) and doing all of that with the TFest spirit. Thank you David Brown for the gorgeous photos you take every year. Thank you Dorothy Davidson and Shirley McCrary for giving us the foundation to plan for future years and expand our impact in the North Alabama community. Thank you to our e-steering committee for your frank feedback and guidance. Thank you to the Church of the Nativity for allowing us to hold the concerts in their beautiful sanctuary. Thank you to Julia and Drew for getting into the trenches with us this week and managing the devil in the details. To our gracious friends who agreed to come and play chamber music with friends in hot and humid Alabama, y’all are an inspiration. It’s a joy to sing and play with you, and thank you for sharing your gifts with our hometown.

And finally, thank you to Matt, my co-founder and my friend, the yin to my yang. Couldn’t and wouldn’t do this without you.

Twickenham Fest 2013 has finished! I hope to see y’all back in HuntsVegas next August. We’ll announce our plans for the next Fest soon. Now, it’s time to sleep and get back to studying Mozart recits.

Co-founders and buddies, Matt and me

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