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.

Flutist Sarah Paysnick delves into Grand Harmonie’s rollicking ‘March Madness’ concerts

For a musician, choosing the right instrument is the key to success.  For Grand Harmonie flutist and co-founder Sarah Paysnick, family and Sesame Street played a big part in her choosing the right one.  When a group of successful musicians got together to pursue something new and exciting, the innovative and eclectic music ensemble, Grand Harmonie was born.

Grand Harmonie group pic

Grand Harmonie in action Photo courtesy of Sarah Paysnick

Grand Harmonie will deliver March Madness, two exciting and inventive concerts that mixes a little bit of everything.  Featuring conductor Scott Allen Jarrett and soprano Jacquelyn Stucker with horn by Yoni Kahn, March Madness kicks off on Friday, March 24 at Arts at the Armory in Somerville, Massachusetts at 7:30 p.m.  On Sunday, March 26, March Madness will take the stage at the Second Church of Newton in West Newton, Massachusetts at 3 p.m.

Grand Harmonie Scott Allen Jarrett conductor

Grand Harmonie conductor Scott Allen Jarrett Photo courtesy of Scott Allen Jarrett

Sarah Paysnick discusses her music career, Grand Harmonie’s educational outreach, the excitement behind Grand Harmonie, and a closer look into March Madness.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Jeanne Denizard:  What first sparked your interest in music and what inspired you to pursue it as a music career?

Sarah Paysnick:  In kindergarten, many of my friends started learning piano.  They would teach me what they were learning, so I begged my mom for piano lessons. I remember wanting to quit after a short time, but my mom told me I had to finish the year. A few years later, many of my friends started learning string instruments.  I have a cousin my age that played the violin and she’d teach me when we got together. When I told my mom I also wanted violin lessons, she said that I have two cousins who play the violin and I should pick something else. Watching Bob on Sesame Street and because another cousin was learning it, I decided on the flute.

In 4th grade, when asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said I wanted to be a cantor because Judaism and music were important to me.  I didn’t have proper training as a singer.  Something told me, over the next few years, it would exclusively become a music career even though Judaism is still important to me. I never really thought about doing anything outside of music, though my music path has taken me in a variety of directions.  Ultimately, it led me to historical performance on flutes and teaching piano to children.

JD:  How did you become a founding member of Grand Harmonie and what do you enjoy most about this group?

SP:  I knew Yoni Kahn, our horn player and soloist for this concert!  With Yoni Kahn and a couple of other founding members, we were interested in starting something new and exciting. Though my favorite music to perform falls a bit earlier than Grand Harmonie’s core repertoire, I am constantly inspired by my colleagues who push me every day to be a better musician and honored to be an organizing member of the kind of ensemble people enjoy working with. Everyone has such a positive, generous attitude and it’s infectious!

Yoni Kahn Horn

Yani Kahn, horn Photo courtesy of Grand Harmonie

JD:  Grand Harmonie is very versatile and can transform from a symphony orchestra to an opera orchestra, or even become a chamber ensemble.  Is the unexpected part of what sets Grand Harmonie apart from other groups?

SP:  Yes, Grand Harmonie is a bit of a moving target.  People attempt to put us into a box and we don’t fit into one.  Every performance is different, but it also makes anything possible!

JD:  Grand Harmonie will be touring through Somerville and Newton on March 24 and 26 for March Madness.  Is this Grand Harmonie’s first time performing March Madness?  Where did the idea come from?

SP:  This is our first time doing this performance as well as splitting up the movements of a symphony and sprinkling them throughout a concert. In the 19th century, performances were quite different than they are today. Maybe a full symphony wasn’t performed or it was performed in its entirety but not straight through.  Perhaps a small chamber ensemble gave listeners a break from the big symphonic sound or a soprano would delight everyone with her beautiful voice.

Grand Harmonie Jacquelyn Stucker Soprano

Jacquelyn Stucker, soprano for March Madness Photo courtesy of Jacquelyn Stucker

These concerts were a social event and audiences didn’t remain silent as they think they are expected to today. Grand Harmonie wants to break the tension and allow people to clap when they want to, explore the space around them, and enjoy the concert without fear of getting stared down if they clap at the wrong moment or make a noise during the music.

On Friday night, the cash bar at the Somerville Armory will be open all night. Through a generous donation from Aeronaut Brewing Company, the first 30 ticket purchasers will receive one free beer!  On Sunday in Newton, we encourage people to relax and enjoy themselves, but the concert will not include alcohol and will be a more traditional performance.

JD:  This concert will be a particularly intimate and uplifting concert experience since it will take place in-the-round. Additionally, Grand Harmonie will deliver classical pieces in an entirely unique and rollicking way. Putting something like that together must have been a lot of fun.

SP:  Friday’s show is a really exciting experiment in how to make a “classical” concert more accessible and we can’t wait to experience it with our audience! Sunday’s show will be more traditional with the audience in pews and the orchestra in front, but we still expect it will be a rollicking good time!

JD:  For March Madness, Grand Harmonie weaves Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber into one big concert.  You have a unique way of breaking up Beethoven’s First Symphony during this “in the round” concert experience.

SP:  It may sound unique to split up a symphony today but this was not unusual in the 19th century! Sometimes even a single movement was chosen for a particular program.

JD:  Grand Harmonie also participates in educational outreach.  Please tell me about that.

SP:  Grand Harmonie has given master classes at the Longy School of Music at Bard College, MIT, and Harvard, among others. We have also given informational lecture/demonstrations at MIT and Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library. We love sharing what we’ve learned with musicians and music enthusiasts young and old!  Audience members are very curious about our instruments and we are happy to engage with them.

JD:   A few Grand Harmonie concerts are coming up before the end of the season.  Please tell me about Grand Harmonie’s future plans.

SP:  March Madness is the official close of our season, but we have plenty coming up!  We will be performing Haydn’s The Creation with Edward Jones and the Harvard University Choir and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang with Edward Jones and the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus. We have loved working with Ed at least once a year since we began and it’s fair to say we have a mutual admiration for each other.  In NYC, we will be partnering with On Site Opera to perform a wind octet Harmonie arrangement of Mozart’s The Secret Gardener by our own Yoni Kahn on horn and Thomas Carroll on clarinet. Also, keep an eye out for us during the Boston Early Music Festival the second week in June!

Grand Harmonie Group photo

Grand Harmonie group Photo courtesy of Hannah Shields

Click here for all of Grand Harmonie’s upcoming concerts and here for more on Grand Harmonie’s educational outreach.  Follow Grand Harmonie on Facebook and Twitter for upcoming events and more.