The CSO warms up for a championship season
The tempo is picking up as Opening Day approaches. Team managers are looking over their lineup cards for the coming season and making notes on the score book. The brass in the front office are checking out the roster of possible free agents, getting key signatures in place.
The players themselves are fine-tuning their pitches, getting the old rosin bag ready, working on their slides, tuning up the tools of the trade. In the pre-season, everybody looks like a natural, veterans and rookies alike, but sometimes a new player is particularly sharp.
Time out—we’re not talkin’ baseball. But there’s excitement in the air as the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra (CSO) members warm up for their opening night at the Tivoli next Thursday.
“That metaphor of a team is precisely the right way to look at it,” says Bob Bernhardt, long-time Chattanooga music maestro. “What works in Chattanooga is a team effort.” After 19 years as CSO music director (now emeritus) and five years as principal pops conductor, Bernhardt knows the score musically in and out, but he groks baseball too. He loves to tell audiences how, many seasons ago as a young prospect, he made the choice between America’s pastime and the music world.
“I played four pretty good years of baseball in college, and I got a try out with the Kansas City Royals,” Bernhardt says. “After a few days, they told me my future was in music.”
CSO team skipper, Kayoko Dan, will throw out the first pitch in her fifth season as music director and principal conductor for the CSO. She swings the baton for the Masterworks classical series on Thursday nights, beginning with Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” on Sept. 17 and continuing through April with six more classical concerts.
“Programming the season is one of the more fun things I get to do,” Dan says. “We have big opening and closing concerts, and in the middle we mix things up. ‘The Pines of Rome’—everybody’s favorite—that’s the first concert, with an outdoors theme. There’s a large orchestra, lots of instrumental solos, and the audience gets to hear the Tivoli organ, which is an unusual treat.
“Also that night we play Dvorak’s ‘Carnival’ overture, and one of my favorite pieces of all time, Barber’s ‘Knoxville Summer of 1915.’ His sound grips me differently than most composers, with such a very unique sense of color and melody, and the way he orchestrates the piece.”
The meat of the order for the classical season features the Brahms Requiem, an all-Russian composer evening, a Beethoven-Bach-Brahms evening, an animal-themed program, and a Stravinsky evening, finishing up with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Kayoko Dan gives a run-down: “The Brahms Requiem features our wonderful CSO chorus—it’s a beautiful, massive work, not written to mourn the dead, but for the people who are left behind, to comfort us. Then it’s nice to have the Russian concert with a standard format: the Tchaikovsky piano concerto is always performed, but the Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 is not performed so often.”
Looking at the CSO depth chart this year, Dan and Bernhardt have both old-timers and relative rookies who can pitch in. “When I came to Chattanooga,” Dan says, “it was my first professional music director job. Having veteran musicians to work with was very comforting, a huge asset for the orchestra. At the same time, the younger musicians bring some fresh air and excitement to the performance.”
One wily veteran is Chattanooga native Monte Coulter, who swings the big sticks as the principal percussionist. In his fourth decade as a professional musician, Coulter is “one of my go-to people,” says Bernhardt. “He’s been my colleague and friend since the day I arrived; we have a wonderful personal and professional relationship. If we have an issue about the percussion, Monte not only has an answer, he probably has the instrument himself that we need.”
Coulter backs up that yarn: “We did a piece a few years ago by composer Michael Daugherty that called for two sizes of ship’s bells, which are exorbitantly expensive to buy for one concert. I called another orchestra and found out they had used train bells, so I found one of those fairly cheap and the symphony bought it. But then I had an old school bell at my house up on a post, and took that in to the symphony hall to make the different sizes.”
Coulter has played with the CSO since 1980, with only a couple of years away for a doctoral degree in musical performance from the University of Memphis, and a nearly career-ending injury to his right elbow 12 years ago. He was on the disabled list for a full year of rehab after a serious accident while roller-blading in the driveway with his son, Monte Coulter IV, who’s now a bright prospect mastering the clarinet at Vanderbilt.
Now a full professor and the director of percussion studies at UTC, Coulter got his start in music in the minors at the Chattanooga Boys Choir, under the baton of legendary conductor Stephen J. Ortlip. “I don’t think I was a great singer, but I really learned to understand the music,” he says.
What does a veteran like Coulter bring to the CSO’s game? A percussion wunderkind in his day, Coulter by his own admission “was very good, very young as a player, but I didn’t have nearly the breadth of experience or historical perspective that an older player has about how a percussion section should be organized.
“In other sections of the orchestra, you can rank the players 1-2-3, and they play in that order,” he says, “but in the percussion section, the sound is much more the summary of the people who are there. I feel like a traffic cop as the principal percussionist, able to balance the abilities and strengths that we have in our section.”
After 35 years, he still feels the jolt of the approaching new season: “I get excited about playing familiar pieces again. I know how they’ll feel to me, but it’s different each time to hear how they’ll bounce off the walls of the Tivoli and how they’ll affect a new audience.” He waxes philosophical: “Unlike a piece of visual art, music doesn’t exist through time. It’s momentary and exists only in that instant. You can record it but you only experience it each time instantaneously, so the more times you experience the piece, the more you uncover, by turning it over in your hands and discovering something the composer put in there that you didn’t hear the last time.”
Coulter, Bernhardt, and Dan all tip their hats to a relative newcomer on the squad, Associate Concertmaster Josh Holritz, starting his sophomore season with the CSO as a violinist. Though not a Chattanooga native, Holritz spent his early teen years here in town, playing with the CSO Youth Orchestra and winning the youth soloist competition. He turned pro at age 19, and now with 12 years of professional experience, “it’s great reconnecting with a lot of people I knew in Chattanooga back then, and to know them now as colleagues,” he says.
In addition to his CSO conductors, Holritz looks to Concertmaster Holly Mulcahy for leadership of the whole string section. “The concertmaster holds a lot of power that results in the way the orchestra sounds,” he says. “She interprets what the conductor’s movements are, and from the front of the section to the back, the people follow her lead. The whole section has to sound like one fiddle playing, all articulating the same way. It’s actually a challenge to sit at the back of the section because of the delay in the sound, as well as the need for the energy and connection to the front of the group. The back of the section has to have very strong players.”
Holritz still brings a rookie’s excitement to each game of the season. “I played ‘The Pines of Rome’ last season in Atlanta, and every time you play a piece it’s a whole different experience; in this case the sound of the Roman army returning triumphantly, with the crowd on its feet cheering, like a sports parade.”
Other season-highlight tips from Holritz: Holly Mulcahy’s violin solo in “Scheherazade,” soprano Renee Fleming’s featured appearance on Oct. 7, and Arnaud Sussman’s violin solo for the three B’s concert.
Bob Bernhardt has a few pointers of his own for the Pops Season: a sure-fire sell-out for “Live and Let Die: A Symphonic Tribute to the Music of Paul McCartney” on Oct. 3; traditional favorites “Home for the Holidays” and “Big Band Fever!”; and a real barn-burner on March 5, with “Seth Carico: Chattanooga’s Own.” A native of Signal Mountain, Carico performs professionally in grand opera in Germany, occasionally sliding into his old home base: last summer to sing in “The King and I” at Signal Mountain Playhouse, where Bernhardt was bowled over by his professional chops.
“Seth blew me away with not only the excellence of his voice, but how well and naturally he expresses himself through his body and consonance,” Bernhardt says. “I love the idea of ‘Old Home Week,’ and we’ll have him do opera for half the program and Broadway for the second half.”
Just as major league baseball starts its season next spring, Bernhardt conducts the “Play Ball” Pops concert on April 9. “This concert will be just about as in-your-living-room as we can get it,” he says, “with the orchestra members wearing their favorite sport teams’ jerseys, and the audience encouraged to do the same. We’ll have the theme from ‘Rocky,’ ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ ‘Casey at the Bat,’ with special guests—you name it. And there’s a substantiated rumor that we will try to emulate the famous ‘Who’s On First?’ routine of Abbott and Costello.”
The CSO is leading off with a great season of classical and pops music, so it’s time for Chattanooga fans to step up to the plate and root-root-root for the home team.The team’s full schedule is available at chattanoogasymphony.org