[Scene Magazine] Seasonal Work
This weekend’s Santa Barbara Symphony concert is all about ‘Seasons’
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
As the Santa Barbara Symphony continues on the path of its celebratory 60th anniversary season this weekend at The Granada, the “seasonal” theme runs hot. Vivaldi’s ever-popular set of “The Four Seasons” concertos is in the center ring, with young violinist Nigel Armstrong taking the dramatic soloist role.
Off to the side of expected fare, we’ll experience Russian composer Alexander Glazunov’s 1899 piece “The Seasons,” with the extra-musical touch of a live, onstage painting interpretation by Jett Green. Ms. Green’s resume leans heavy on Hollywood connections, and on matte paintings and effects wizardry through her work with Industrial Light and Magic and Dreamworks. This weekend, to the tune of Glazunov, she will create paintings anew onstage, projected behind the orchestra.
Putting all the pieces together and guiding the orchestra is guest conductor Gregory Vajda, making his debut with the Santa Barbara Symphony, and in performance locally. Hungarian-born, and ending his seven-year run as head of the Oregon Symphony, Mr. Vajda has become an in-demand guest conductor, in addition to his regular duties with the Huntsville Symphony and the Hungarian Radio Symphony. He is also an opera specialist, working with, among other organizations, the Salzburg Festival and the Hungarian State Opera. Also a composer, Mr. Vojda studied both conducting and composing with the increasingly famed Hungarian composer Péter E?tv?s.
We checked in with the maestro, in his Santa Barbara-bound maestro role, to get a picture of what’s in store at The Granada this weekend.
News-Press: You have conducted many orchestras, and are going deeper into that world of guest conducting. Is there an innate challenge in coming in to lead an orchestra with a limited exposure to the organization, with an excitement factor involved?
Gregory Vajda: Being a guest conductor is always a challenge. It is definitely very different from being a music director or principal conductor and working with your own group of musicians. You’ve got to be fast, efficient and very flexible. And that is true for both parties, the orchestra and the conductor. It is never easy to put things together in a short period of time but it is definitely a great feeling when the result is success.
NP: This is a very, ahem, “seasonal” program, with the Vivaldi and the Glazunov on the bill. Can you talk about the two pieces, and how they relate to each other?
GV: You mean other than, ahem, the title of the pieces? (laughs) Seasons, as a topic, fascinated artists — composers among them — since the beginning of times. From Vivaldi through Haydn and Glazunov to Piazzolla you can find many compositions inspired by the changing characters of the different seasons.
This program has an unusual set of Baroque concertos. They are unusual exactly because of the uniting theme. You will not find too many of those among the hundreds of concertos Antonio Vivaldi composed. In the second half we are performing the complete ballet music of Alexander Glazunov written for the famous choreographer Marius Petipa and his dancers. If you don’t know his music, think “Tchaikovsky with a twist.”
NP: Have you worked with the young violinist Nigel Armstrong before, and can you tell us something about his musicality?
GV: I have not. However we have exchanged countless emails full of exciting musical ideas. Be ready for some show-stopping unusual effects, cadenzas and more. All within the style of Vivaldi and his era, of course.
NP: And there will be a multimedia aspect to this performance, with live onstage painting by Jett Green. Do you feel that venturing into areas of visual or other media elements can make the orchestra concert experience more accessible to those who might not normally attend orchestra concerts?
GV: I feel that visuals do help audience members. We are living in a visual culture. Adding this element to the concert makes it a one-of-a-kind event. Now for those who don’t like this kind of “distraction” — yes, I am talking to you musical purists — just close your eyes. Or watch me conduct instead.
NP: You are also a clarinetist and composer. Do those disciplines and expressive practices feed into your experience as a conductor, and vice versa?
GV: Absolutely. Being a conductor is not just a profession. It is one side of me being a musician. Clarinetist, composer, conductor, interviewee; it all feeds into the same life experience.
NP: As a composer, do you feel a passion for promoting and programming the music of living composers, and contemporary music, generally?
GV: Yes, I am very active as a promoter of contemporary music. On the other hand, I regard this activity as part of everyday life of a symphony conductor. You must think of it not as a duty or requirement but rather as a vital part of classical music business. I always think hundreds of years of music — including contemporary pieces — when programming for concerts.
NP: What other projects do you have coming up that intrigue you?
GV: Season-closing concerts are coming up with both of my orchestras, the Huntsville Symphony and the Hungarian Radio Symphony. Then I dive into the opera world with two very different productions. I am conducting a concert version of Gyorgy Ligeti’s only opera, called “Le Grand Macabre.” This “anti-opera” will be followed by the semi-staged production of “Lohengrin” as part of the Budapest Wagner Days.
NP: Are you happy with the way things are coming together, in the various corners of your musical life, at the moment?
GV: Wow, thanks for the question. Interviewers usually don’t care about how conductors feel. They just assume we must be fine with all that power and music. Jokes aside, I am very satisfied with how things are going for me. Life is busy and I like it this way.