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HOMAGE TO HENRY: Orchestras, League commission top composer to honor visionary leader

How does one pay suitable homage to Henry Fogel, arts visionary, longtime orchestra executive, and current dean and distinguished professor of the arts at Roosevelt University? For the League of American Orchestras, which Henry led from 2003 to 2008, the best way to honor the man who has fought tirelessly for the continued importance of classical music in America was to commission a piece from one of the world’s hottest composers working today, Osvaldo Golijov.

That piece, Sidereus, has been making the rounds of more than 35 orchestras that joined in a commission consortium—a group that includes the Kansas City Symphony, which performs it on subscription concerts March 18th through the 20thSidereusderives its title from Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”), the book written after the 17th-century scientist first observed the surface of the moon and the moons of Jupiter with a telescope.

It is that sense of discovery and learning that Osvaldo’s Sidereus honors, as it pays tribute to a Henry, a leader whose outside-the-box thinking has moved American musical life forward to a measurable degree.

“Henry’s a born cheerleader for the art form, and for the intent behind the art form,” says Symphony music director Michael Stern,who will conduct the concerts locally at the Lyric Theatre and Yardley Hall. “He believes in the redemptive power of the music and he thinks that, despite all the naysayers, concert music and musical life in this country is not only not doomed, but it has every reason to thrive.” Like Galileo—whose discoveries and their ramifications would ultimately get him into trouble with the Church—Henry has long built his career on the notion that music cannot be saved through conventional thinking. “The only thing that’s going to save us will be creative solutions to the same ongoing problems,” says Michael of Henry’s lasting legacy, which included 18 years as executive director of the Chicago Symphony during one of that ensemble’s most successful periods. “You’re not going to solve the problems with the same remedies, and you’re not going to solve them by not shaking up the status quo. Because the world is changing.” Galileo also knew about challenging the status quo, as his observations of the heavens consistently supported Copernicus’ radical idea that the earth was not the center of the universe.

Moreover this sense of shaking the foundations fascinated Osvaldo when he set about to address the Galileo problem. “With these discoveries, the moon was no longer the province of poets exclusively,” he said in an interview on his publisher’s website. “It had also become an object of inquiry: Could there be water there? Life? If there was life, then the Vatican was scared, because, as Cardinal Bellarmino wrote to Galileo: How were the people there created? How would their souls be saved? … How do we explain the origin of possible life elsewhere? … It’s the duality: the moon is still good for love and lovers and poets, but a scientific observation can lead us to entirely new realizations.”

Osvaldo has shaken a few foundations himself. Raised in Argentina but now living in the United States, he grew up immersed in classical music, Jewish liturgical music, Klezmer folk music and the “new tango” of Astor Piazzolla. Later at the University of Pennsylvania he studied with George Crumb, who helped him find his distinctive “voice.” More than just about any composer, Osvaldo has managed to synthesize a vast range of global musical styles into an intensely personal, and consistently accessible, idiom. Yet trying to summarize it in a few words is futile, Michael says. “What makes music American? And is he American? Is it Jewish music, is it South American music? Is it bandaleon, Piazzolla-type music? Is it spiritual music? It’s all of those things. He’s an extraordinarily fluent composer who is not only part of, but is adding to, thezeitgeist.” Typically for Osvaldo, Sidereus is dense in texture and concept, Michael says, “but it’s very clearly imagined music.”

Like Galileo’s discoveries, the piece tries to convey the luminosity of the moon’s surface, and its new possibilities as a living organism. “The whole idea of that sort of radical new awareness is sort of part of the appeal of the piece,” he adds.

Making a piece adaptable for the use of many orchestras large and small was the hard part, Osvaldo says. He did this partly by scoring Sidereus for a sort of large chamber orchestra, so that ensembles of any size could play it. “It certainly felt more abstract, writing a piece to be interpreted by 35 or more ensembles with different expectations, different audiences, different personalities,” Osvaldo says. “The challenge was trying to create something that would serve them all.” The result has been a hit at performances so far, a fitting tribute to the man Osvaldo says he has continually liked and respected. “I was always impressed with [Henry’s] mind, his long-term thinking, his love for what orchestras represent in our society,” Osvaldo says, “and his wisdom in helping orchestras not only to survive but to thrive, through strategies that are specific to each of the orchestras’ communities and conditions.”

The Symphony’s concerts of March 18th and 19th are at the Lyric Theatre, that of March 20th is at Yardley Hall. In addition to Osvaldo’s piece the program includes Penderecki’s Viola Concerto featuring guest soloist Roberto Díaz, Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps: Aristophanic Suite and Ginastera’s Four Dances from Estancia. For tickets call 816-471-0400 or go towww.kcsymphony.org. For more information about Osvaldo, and to hear and see excerpts from his wide-ranging output, go towww.osvaldogolijov.com.

STERN SPEAKS OUT: Music director talks about the future of the arts in KC and in the world

Speaking of Michael Stern, we recently sat down to chat with him about Osvaldo Golijov, about his new five-year contract with the Symphony, about the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and about the Symphony’s future in Kansas City. Here are some of his comments:

On his hopes for this next phase of the Symphony’s history, as it and other groups move into the Kauffman Center:

We have to hit it out of the park. The stakes are high, but we’re going to make it. We are absolutely on the right trajectory, and it’s a tremendous opportunity as well as a responsibility to make the new hall worthy of the publicity. The new hall is something fantastic in and of itself but it’s just that—unless it starts to live with the art that goes on inside. And we are absolutely ready to make that happen.

I have a very, very clear vision of where I want the orchestra to be, and what I like most is that the musicians are like-minded in that ambition, and want to see something of meaning happen. It’s not just, Let’s get through the year, Let’s just do these concerts. There has to be something bigger than that.

On how the arts community should behave during tough economic times:

Again this is where Henry Fogel comes in. At moments like this you don’t retrench, you move forward, and it’s terribly important to remember what’s essential, and to fight for it. You build up your reserves and protect yourself when times are good, so you can actually move forward in times like these. The circling the wagons approach? It’s the death-spiral. So I’m very gratified that people were happy I should extend my time here: I never saw the Kansas City Symphony as anything but a great possibility. And a lot of that is because of the town that we live in … this kind of resolve and belief in itself.

On where he envisions the Symphony will be in five years:

I want the orchestra to continue to grow both in penetration in the community and in excellence, and I want it to attract the attention that it deserves. I’m very gratified by the response we got for our recent recording [Britten’s Orchestra, which received two Grammy Awards, for Best Surround Sound Album and for Producer of the Year, Classical (David Frost)], and I’m looking forward to the next one [a disc of Elgar and Vaughan Williams]. The orchestra is coming into its own with every passing week, and that’s a very gratifying thing. But we have to continue to forge new relationships with the community, to be relevant in ways outside of just presenting concerts. And the concerts themselves have to continue to be ‘events’ that bring people together. That’s why you cannot let up on the programming. … So five years down the line I want this orchestra to be a friend of contemporary composers in a way that very few orchestras are—but also a sterling Mozart orchestra. … It’s important to keep pushing the envelope, because once we start playing it safe … then we’re in the wrong place. The people who are really doing well are those who have a singular vision of why music works and why it matters—orchestras that continue to champion experiences that are outside of what you ordinarily expect.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.


Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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