Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Art and Science of Conducting

December 19, 2011
Conductors are “multitaskers” in motion, using baton movements, body language, and eye contact to guide and inspire sixty (or more) orchestral players at the same time. In addition, they know musical scores inside and out, interpret and carry out each composer’s artistic vision, and expertly direct the audience’s attention during each performance.

Brett Mitchell (above) knows all about multitasking. As a former Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Ph.D. graduate of the University of Texas, and current Music Director of Michigan’s Saginaw Bay Symphony, Mitchell has a fascinating view from atop the podium and a passion for involving his audience. This maverick maestro is scheduled to speak at the Women’s Institute of Houston’s lecture luncheon series on January 20, 2012. We visited with him to get an advance preview.

WIH Reporter: How do most people regard conductors?
Mitchell: Most people think that the conductor’s job is to “beat time.”  While there is some truth to this view, it represents very little of what we do on the podium. The conductor’s function is similar to the managerial equivalent of “macro-managing”, making sure that there is a clear vision, but letting each team player take responsibility for executing their part of that vision. For the most part, a conductor’s job (especially with a first-class orchestra like the Houston Symphony) is to help the orchestra shape phrases and to guide the listeners’ attention.
WIH Reporter:  It’s interesting that you bring up the managerial perspective. There have been recent articles about CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other business professionals who are studying the management styles of top conductors.
Mitchell: I really view my entire job as consensus-building. While I certainly come to a first rehearsal with very clear ideas in my mind of how I’d like to shape a particular piece (what tempos and dynamics I’d like to try, etc.), I rely on my colleagues in the orchestra to bring their vast experience to the table as well.  More often than not, they’ll play a particular passage in rehearsal in a way that I hadn’t thought of, and we’ll run with that.  Additionally, if the oboist plays a particular phrase one way, the cellos will listen to that and play their next phrase in response to that. We all work together by listening to each other, both through the notes the orchestra plays and through the words we exchange, to ultimately arrive at the interpretation that the audience hears at the performance.  That interpretation is not one man’s (or woman’s) vision; it is a collective vision informed by the countless years of experience shared by everyone onstage.
WIH Reporter:
What are the most challenging pieces to conduct and why?
Mitchell: Operas are always a challenge to conduct, because not only are you working with a full orchestra, but there are singers (and sometimes a chorus) up onstage.  These singers all have to have memorized their music and words (most of the time in a foreign language in which they’re often not fluent). They are wearing costumes and dealing with lighting, blocking (where to stand and move), and moving scenery.  All these things can make for plenty of potential distractions for the singers onstage, and so much of the conductor’s attention throughout a 3, 4, or even 5-hour opera has to be devoted to those onstage.  There can be offstage musicians (mimicking the sound of some far-off military band, for example), and conducting them has to be achieved via either an assistant conductor who is watching on a video monitor offstage, or the musicians themselves watching on a big screen.  Needless to say, it is by far the most involved and complex kind of conducting there is!
WIH Reporter:What do people need to know about conducting and conductors?
Mitchell: Conducting is not a dictatorial or autocratic role; it is much more about being an arbiter of taste (e.g., deciding how softly a particular passage should be played) than being a micro-manager (e.g., deciding how every aspect of a particular passage should be executed).  The best conductors are those who let the musicians express themselves personally and most fully, while encouraging them to play better together than they ever thought they could.
WIH Reporter: What were the strongest influences in your life?
Mitchell: Leonard Bernstein, my primary conducting teacher Kevin Noe, and my parents. Also, something few people know about me is that my first musical love was Barry Manilow!
WIH Reporter: What books would we find on your night table?
Mitchell: Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” John Mitchison and John Lloyd’s “The Book of General Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong,” and the Collected Poems of W.H. Auden.
WIH Reporter: It sounds like the view from the seats is only a tiny fraction of the overall story. 
Mitchell: Conductors are not typically a breed most people interact with on a regular basis, so shedding some light on my line of work and how it relates to consensus-building in all walks of life is one of my great passions.
Brett Mitchell is scheduled to speak on January 20th, 2012 at 11 a.m. The lecture luncheon program meets five times a season at the River Oaks Country Club, and brings nationally recognized commentators to discuss issues and topics of current interest in a variety of fields. Three lectures remain in the 2011-2012 season; each of the remaining individual lectures can be attended for a fee of $80 or a prorated membership for $210 for three. The fee includes the lecture (11 a.m.), luncheon (12:00 Noon), and valet parking.

Are You Musically Informed?

December 20, 2011

Test your music trivia knowledge! 

1. Who was the first major composer NOT financially dependent on a benefactor?

2. Who wrote over 100 symphonies, taught Beethoven, strongly influenced Mozart, and was known as ‘Papa’?

3. Who composed all his overtures the night before they were to be performed and who would be disgusted to know that one of his pieces became the theme song for The Lone Ranger?

4. Which French composer created a fun piece to play for his friends and then became so worried that it would damage his reputation as a composer that he suppressed the publication of all but one movement of it in his lifetime?

5. Which famous composer had 20 children?


1. Beethoven was the first truly successful composer. He sold a single piece to several different music companies at once and made money off of each one.

2. Joseph Haydn

3. Gioacchino Rossini. The night before one of his operas premiered, the impresario locked Rossini in a small room with two guards, who were ordered to throw him out the window if the overture was not finished by dawn.

4. “Carnival of the Animals” is French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ most well-known piece. He composed it as private entertainment for his friends and did not allow it to be performed publicly while he was alive (except for an excerpt from “The Swan”). He did not want to be known for what he considered to be a frivolous piece.

5. Bach was married twice in his lifetime. Between his two wives, he sired a total of 20 children.


December 20, 2011

A lagniappe is a small, gratuitous gift given to a customer by a merchant over and above the initial purchase. In our newsletter, this lagniappe column adds something extra and unexpected!

In this month’s Lagniappe column, we offer a list of opera selections from well-known films:

1. Bel di (Fatal Attraction)
2. Con onor muore (Death of Butterfly) (Fatal Attraction)
3. Nessun dorma (The Witches of Eastwick)
4. Viens, Malika…Dôme épais (Someone To Watch Over Me)
5. Quando m’en vo (Musetta’s Waltz Song) (Moonstruck)
6. Addio…D’onde lieta usci (Mimi’s Farewell) (Moonstruck)
7. Una voce poco fa (Dark Eyes)
8. Ride of the Valkyries (Apocalypse Now)

9. Overture (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring) 
10. Ebben? Ne andrò lontano (Diva)
11. Au fond du temple saint (Gallipoli) 
12. Sola, perduta e abbandonata (Hannah And Her Sisters)
13. Firenze è come un albero fiorito (A Room With A View)
14. O mio babbino caro (A Room With A View)
15. Chi il bel sogno di Doretta (A Room With A View)
16. Intermezzo (Raging Bull)

***Available on the CD, “The Movies Go To The Opera”. 

Bigger than Life: Opera and the Movies

December 20, 2011
Ann Thompson

Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and my ears. – Lord Chesterfield

Since Lord Chesterfield’s time, the price of going to the opera has changed, but opera’s power to transform us is stronger than ever. According to Ann Thompson, operatic themes spilled over into the movies more than a century ago, and since then, the two arts have become intimately intertwined. Thompson has been speaking about opera for 30 years and can often be found giving pre-curtain lectures before Houston Grand Opera performances. We visited recently with Ann Thompson to find out about her latest class, “Opera and the Movies.”

WIH Reporter: Tell us about your upcoming class.
Thompson: To begin with, it will be very amusing as we will cover lots of movies you had forgotten about and lots of operas you have never heard of. We will listen to lovely music, follow wild stories, and discuss intriguing bits of trivia.

My class will change the way you think about opera.  Opera stands for so much more than just a grand night out, great singing, an emotional orgy, and sometimes a confounding experience. Opera is used as a symbol to denote education, passion, temptation, otherness, sensitivity, grandeur, and history, as well as offering a chance for us to experience low humor and the laying bare of human folly.

WIH Reporter: What is the relationship between opera and the movies?
Thompson: Long before the movies came along, literature used opera to illustrate the more intense moments in people’s lives, to allow a glimpse into their interior lives, to provide the venue for a life-changing experience, and to offer a liberating ambience. This spilled over to the movies.

Farrar as Carmen

Many of the electronic firsts that we now take for granted were tested using opera. Thomas Edison hoped that his inventions would make it possible for people to enjoy opera in their living rooms. Early efforts in movie making looked to opera for subjects, acting styles, makeup. It was hoped, at the time, that well-known opera stars like Geraldine Farrar, would help popularize the new silent movies. Everyone at that time was familiar with stories and stars from the opera, even if they never actually attended performances.

WIH ReporterWhich modern movie embodies the strongest operatic elements?
Thompson: When it comes to embodying the spirit of opera, the Godfather springs to mind: the grand sweep of the story, the passions, the violence, the intensity, even the musical theme is reminiscent of the tenor’s trumpet aria in Don Pasquale by Donizetti; the final episode in particular combines operatic tragedy with family tragedy.

WIH Reporter: What don’t most people understand about opera?
Thompson: Opera was for most of its 411 years of existence a sensitive barometer of currents of thought and historical events and thus presents an unusual view of our past, be it social, political, philosophical. Much of the present flowering of interest in opera stems from this all inclusiveness bolstered by the new movie techniques: surtitles, acting skills, directing techniques, design styles. 

A Montreal Opera performance of Rigoletto

WIH Reporter: What makes opera still relevant to us in the modern world?
Thompson: Opera remains interesting because its themes are universal and basic. Everyone hates, loves, envies, entertains murderous thoughts, is subject to politically incorrect impulses. Through opera, we live these emotions vicariously as, on the opera stage, they are acted out to greatest effect, with huge sound, huge emotions, huge voices, bold colors, huge sets, huge everything. All we have to do is submit to the magic, the illusion and, for a while at least, live in top gear.

For more information about this class or to register, click here

Writing for Healing and Transformation

December 20, 2011

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” – Carl Gustav Jung

Suzanne Adams teaches how writing can transform us and become a healing force in our lives. We checked in with Suzanne to learn more about her upcoming “Writing for Transformation” class.

WIH Reporter: What is important to know about your upcoming class? 
Adams: This class encourages writing with authenticity and resisting self-censure (a great hurdle with all writing) so that our stories can emerge from the deep wells of the heart. 

WIH Reporter: How does healing and transformation relate to the writing process? 
Adams: When we write about events and experiences that have had a profound impact on us, we are diving into the waters of truth and exploring how we feel, at a deeper level, about those experiences. After learning how to incorporate the tools for writing a healing narrative, we emerge from those waters with a new perspective and wisdom to carry with us into the next chapter of our lives. 

WIH Reporter: It sounds, in a way, like a kind of holistic medicine.
Adams: The interconnection between mind, body, and spirit is equally important.  When we suppress or ignore a vital part of our stories, that withholding tends to manifest itself in another area, as physical ailments or by negatively affecting our peace of mind. Integrating and honoring our stories through transformative writing can improve health and restore harmony.

WIH Reporter: Tell us more about your background.  
Adams: I write both fiction and nonfiction and was considering getting an MFA degree when I happened to read an article in Poets & Writers Magazine about a master’s degree program that focused on writing for healing and transformation.  After researching the program and reading several books on the subject, I felt I had found my calling.  Words are inherently powerful  - they can affect the quality of our lives and the state of our spirits.  As a writer and reader, I had already witnessed the power of words to initiate transformation, so this next step into education and facilitation was an invitation I couldn’t resist.  

WIH Reporter: Can you give us a preview of your upcoming class?
Adams: We will be engaging in memoir-type writing, but this class will move further into exploring particular methods that help us gain insight from our narratives.  And in the process, we’ll discover how the power of transformative writing can enrich our lives.

According to the course description, “This workshop is open to anyone who wishes to discover new meaning in the experiences of the past, reconnect with his or her core sense of self, explore new avenues of growth, and preserve the value of memories.  No writing experience is necessary.” To find out more or to register for this class, click here.