Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s renowned conductor Cynthia Woods discusses ‘Angels and Heroes’ and describes her inspiration

On International Women’s Day, the Sleepless Critic pays homage to women who are making their mark around the world.  One woman who is thriving in the Boston area and beyond is renowned Cambridge Symphony Orchestra (CSO) conductor, Cynthia Woods.

Cynthia has toured around the world and put together Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s latest show, ‘Angels and Heroes,’ a one day only concert performance on Sunday, March 17 at Kresge Auditorium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Click here for more information and tickets.  The Sleepless Critic interviewed her about her exciting music background, what inspires her, ‘Angels and Heroes,’ and her future plans.

Angels and Heroes

Photo courtesy of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

Sleepless Critic:  Grammy award-winning composer Nan Schwartz has not only composed arrangements for Natalie Cole and is from a long line of women composers, but she has also created orchestration for several films such as My Week with Marilyn, Life of Pi, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and Julie and Julia.  What inspired the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra to take on Nan Schwartz’s latest work, the 15-minute trumpet tone poem, ‘Angels Among Us?’  I understand this piece will be performed live for the very first time.

Cynthia Woods:  I met Nan Schwartz a few years ago and immediately thought her music would be a great way to broaden our programming.  I asked her to keep me in the loop about her works for concert orchestra and she very kindly did.

Simultaneously, I was actively looking for some fresh concertos that use the brass to break up the piano or violin concerto routine and found a great fit when I heard Angels Among Us.   Its beautiful lines and lush melodies evoke shimmering imagery and its rich, jazz influence brings a breath of freshness to the concert repertoire.

SC:  One of the featured soloists for the afternoon is trumpeter Joseph Foley.  He has performed all over the country and his first solo CD makes its debut this year.  How did he become part of this performance?  I understand this is a particularly challenging piece.

CW:  I knew I needed an exceptional trumpet player who was also very comfortable crossing idioms and had a range that went much higher than what is considered standard.  Joe, whom I have known for years, came to mind right away as the perfect choice.

SC:  It is easy to see why this performance is called ‘Angels and Heroes’ because Joseph Schwanter’s powerful piece, ‘New Morning for the World’ pays tribute to the great Dr. Martin Luther King, JrReverend Ray Hammond of Bethel AME Church will narrate some of Dr. King’s most acclaimed speeches.

CW:  As you know, Art reflects the times we live in and the struggles we face as a society.  I wanted to program something that reflected some of our current struggles we face while adding a historical context.  Schwantner’s brilliant ‘New Morning for the World’ was a perfect choice.  Dr. King preached hope and love and Schwantner represented that by using bold, fractured rhythmic cells to represent the unrest and despair of inequity against the soaring, vocal-like writing of the strings and brass.

The text is drawn from a series of some of King’s most famous speeches including ‘Behind the Selma March’ ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and ‘I Have a Dream.’  We are thrilled Reverend Dr. Raymond Hammond is joining us to narrate these speeches and to bring renewed life and hope to Dr. King’s words.

SC:  The theme of this concert is using your voice to break through feelings of powerlessness.  Please expand on that.  I understand the pieces in this performance complement each other.

CW:  Yes, all the works in some way celebrate the human spirit and its ability to transform our lives for the better. The ‘Angels’ of Schwartz’s work are the ordinary people such as parents, teachers and friends, who, in the quietest way, change our lives for the better.  Schwantner reminds us while we may face many challenges and heartbreak in life, we must have hope for change ‘because the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). The Sibelius, which was inspired by the simple beauty of 17 swans soaring overhead, reminds us of the simple beauty and inspiration our lives hold on a daily basis.

SC:  You have worked all over the world.  Please tell me what first inspired you to choose a career in music and what has been your favorite career moment so far?

CW:  My parents enrolled me in a Preschool for the Performing Arts when I was three, and I think I have had the music bug ever since.  I have very vivid childhood memories from when my folks would take my brother and me to the local orchestra concerts, which were conducted by the pioneering conductor Catherine Comet. My eyes were glued to her and thought it looked like fun! My passion for music began early and never dimmed.

I have so many wonderful memories. One of my favorite moments might be our recent ballet production of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  It ended up being everything I could have hoped for artistically as a synthesis of music and dance, two of my favorite art forms.

SC:  Is there a particular conductor that has inspired you over the years?

CW:  It’s hard to choose because there are so many wonderful conductors out there, but my favorite one would be Bernard Haitink if I had to choose.  He seems to overflow with music every time he performs.

SC:  I understand you conducted Conrad Pope’s The Little Match Girl, such a compelling tale. You also worked on Morgan Neville’s documentary on Amar Bose.  Please tell me more about that.

CW:  Two seasons ago, the CSO was very fortunate acclaimed Hollywood composer Conrad Pope agreed to write The Little Match Girl for us.  With youth runaways and homelessness at an all time high, we envisioned a tone poem outlining a story that is still very relevant today. Instead, it found its essence as a ballet filled with various scenes of our heroine’s life, from snow ball fights to teasing a grumpy old man to her vivid memories of her grandmother waiting for her in heaven.  Due to this evolution, both Pope and I hope to see it fully staged at some point in the future.

I worked with Morgan Neville on his documentary about Amar Bose filmed on location at various parts of MIT where Bose was a student and he designed where the CSO performs, the Kresge Auditorium.  Anytime you work with artists of different fields, it gives you a broader sense of your own idiom.  It was an inspiring and rewarding experience.

SC:  When you are not conducting, you are also a lecturer and writer.  Any new projects you’d like to let people know about?

CW:  We are busy planning lots of great things for our 45th anniversary season next year including a newly commissioned ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. We also hope to commission a new work for our Family Concert series as well as continue to highlight diverse and relevant programming that inspires our audiences. I think it will be our most challenging and rewarding season yet.

Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s latest show, ‘Angels and Heroes will be held Sunday, March 17 at Kresage Auditorium at MIT.  Click here for more information on Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and for tickets.

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