Power Play: The East Texas Symphony Orchestra

Published on Thursday, 24 April 2014 21:39 - Written by Stewart Smith ssmith@tylerpaper.com

The East Texas Symphony Orchestra will wrap up its 2013-2014 season this weekend, and with a concert lineup that includes a world-class pianist, music inspired by German legends and one of the hardest horn pieces ever composed, it promises to be one of the season’s most memorable concerts.

“I’m really curious to see how this concert resonates with people. It’s a tough thing to predict what people will find interesting. But for me, the uniqueness of this concert can’t be underlined enough,” said ETSO conductor and music director Richard Lee.

The concert will be bookended by two pieces centering on the ocean, the overture to Felix Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides,” and the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera, “The Flying Dutchman.” Both are pieces rich in imagery and even narrative, immersing the listener in the sights and sounds of the ocean and its unpredictable, often tumultuous nature.

“You can really sense this undulating pulse that’s in there. Mendelssohn sketched what he saw. It’s quite, in many ways, directly influenced by his visit to these Scottish waters,” Lee said, commenting on the feel of “The Hebrides.”

Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” overture stands out because of its tonal contrasts, shifting from ominous moments to those with more of a hopeful, sweeping and romantic feel. The opera is based on the German legend of the Flying Dutchman, in which cursed sailors are forced to spend all but one day a year at sea unless the ship’s captain can earn the true love of a woman.

Soloist Andrey Ponochevney will perform the evening’s penultimate piece, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Tchaikovsky completed composition of this piece in 1875 and has since gone on to become one of the composer’s most popular concertos.

The centerpiece of the evening, though, will be the performance of Robert Schumann’s “Konzertstuck.” The title literally translates to “Concert piece” and was written to be performed by four French horn players. It’s a fairly rare performance piece, however.

“The horn parts are incredibly hard,” Lee said. “It’s a great piece, but there is no horn player in the world who doesn’t get anxious playing this because it’s so notoriously difficult.”

Schumann composed the piece in 1849 and wanted to show off the newfound versatility of horns with valves.

“It was written in a time when a new set of valve horns was being introduced. In the olden times, horns were designed without valves and were able to play in one key only. So it could only play 12 notes. If you needed to switch keys, you’d either need to switch horns or add an extra bit of tubing to make it playable in a new key. The valve instruments were a new addition which allowed all the notes to be played without having to switch,” Lee said

The reason the piece is so difficult, however, is due to the fact that Schumann didn’t seem to realize that just because a piece is technically playable, doesn’t mean it’s practical.

“Schumann thought, ‘Oh, that’s neat. I’m going to compose a piece that uses all the notes. Low notes, high notes, really fast, I want to show off this new instrument.’ Frankly, part of the problem is that he underestimated musicians. The notes he wrote were technically possible, but not really. He didn’t know what the limits were and he went well beyond that,” Lee said. “That’s what makes this the hardest piece of music ever, especially the first part with high notes galore, fast notes galore. Neither of those things comes naturally to French horns as it’s hard to play high, it’s hard to play quick and that’s the issue, essentially. It’s just on the edge of playability.”

The horn never quite gets its due, Lee said, and he’s hoping this performance will help bring its intricacies and versatility to the forefront.

“The horn is an instrument that is incredibly festive, when you think of heralds or announcing royalty, all of these sorts of grandiose entrances. There is something very, very noble about the sound of a horn,” he said. “And yet I think it is an instrument that is not understood a lot. It is certainly not featured a lot at the front of an orchestra, like a piano or cello or violin. It’s more of an important background instrument and it’s very peculiar.”

The performance of Schumann’s piece will also hold special personal significance for Lee as it will feature French horn players from four distinct periods in his career as a conductor, making it somewhat autobiographical in nature. The musicians will include Brian Brown from Tyler, Mark Houghton from Fort Worth, Patricia Evans from Winnipeg, Canada and David Posner from Quebec, Canada.

“They’re all great horn players, too. There were no sacrifices made to have this bit of cheesy personal symbolism,” Lee said.

The concert, titled “Power Play,” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the UT Tyler Cowan Center. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 903-566-7424 or atwww.cowancenter.org . r (and have for the past several years) and yet somehow I’d never sat down with any member of the band to pick their brain. This needed to be rectified.

Thankfully, they have a show tonight at Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue (their most frequent venue of choice when playing Tyler), and I had the chance to chat with frontman Kevin Galloway about where the band is, how they’re evolving and how they’re dealing with being right on the cusp of something bigger.

As a band, Uncle Lucius is evolving, maturing, said Galloway. They’re operating on a level at which they’ve never before approached in the eight years they’ve been playing. They’re about to hit a new strata of the band’s evolution and visibility and it can all be pinpointed to a specific, recent show: headlining at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla. The show was the finale for a grueling four-day tour that went from St. Louis to Chicago to Minneapolis to Rochester and then finally Tulsa.

“It was totally insane. I don’t know what it was, something took over. Some kind of energy. It burst out. We’ve reached that other level,” Galloway said. “Trying to get some more national exposure, maybe more along the Americana realm and a big national radio push. We’re trying to break out, if you will. Overnight success in eight years.”

The roaring show at Cain’s (as well as the preceding four-day tour) served as sort of a microcosm of everything they’ve been working toward over the past eight years, Galloway said, and it served as an indication that the hard work the band has put in is about to start paying off.

“You’ve been doing it so much that you’re on the edge of being jaded, hoping for something more to happen. So when it does, organically, you realize this is all in due time, this is all supposed to happen. We couldn’t be where we are if the years before hadn’t happened,” he said. “So, I guess it just helps us to know our place and it reassures us that we’re on this right track and we’re ready to make that next step.”

That next step includes working on their upcoming studio album, the follow-up to their 2012 offering, “And You Are Me.” Galloway said they’ve all matured, sonically and personally, and he’s hoping the new album will reflect that growth.

“It’s time to use that wider palette,” he said. “We’re very open to experimentation. We’ll have more time to experiment. It’s not going to go too far from what you know as ‘Uncle Lucius,’ but I think it’s just a natural progression in my mind. Sonically, we’d like to keep experimenting. Instrument-wise, we’ll add a few more touches to the palette. I do the majority of songwriting, but we all write. Everyone’s ideas get heard.”

Galloway said he considers these new songs to be some of the best he’s ever written.

“For me, personally, in songwriting I’m paying more attention to what I’m saying. I’m paying more attention to every word and sentence. It’s very important to have an intention behind a song in order to get the most out of that short line you have to say something,” he said.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, from moment to moment, song to song. Galloway said he never tries to box himself in by writing to a particular theme, he simply wants to capture inspiration in its purest form.

“I think it shifts from song to song. It’s more an overlying filter. It’s where you are in life, what you’re paying attention to, what you’re listening to,” Galloway said. “Personally, I feel more at ease with it all. I’ve always questioned the nature of things, and there things that I just can’t change and I’ve accepted that. There’s an ease that comes with that. And through that filter, songs come. The best ones really do come when you’re just in tune and in that place, in that moment and ready for it, not forcing anything.”

No release date for the next album has been set, but you can catch Uncle Lucius tonight. The Bigsbys will open for them at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or viawww.outhousetickets.com .