Thursday, May 13, 2010

Puerto Rican flutist Josué Casillas looks forward to "adventure" of playing with the ASO

Puerto Rican flutist Josué Casillas will be performing a solo with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra on May 22-23 that he has never heard performed before. And he likes it that way.

“It’s one of those adventures, but I’m good at that,” he said. “In the years I played in Houston, Texas, I played with a group that presented new music at recitals – music that hasn’t been recorded. That’s art in its crudest and most valuable sense. It’s like a painter creating colors from scratch. It’s a privilege to create something fresh and new and make it alive.”

Casillas, 45, will be soloing during “Atmosphere as a Fluid System,” a composition by Minneapolis composer Libby Larsen. While Larsen is a popular and prolific composer, orchestras rarely perform pieces that audiences are unfamiliar with.

“It is usually the 20th Century (and earlier) composers that they are sure are marketable, such as Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart,” he said. “But there is something to be said for new music. It challenges our souls and our hearts. It makes us better human beings and better servants to society. Libby Larsen is an amazing composer. (“Atmosphere as a Fluid System”) is all about fluidity and the flow of the orchestra sounds into the flow of the flute sounds. It’s very modern in that way --- we live in a dynamic, ever-changing world.”

Despite flying in just a week before the concert from Puerto Rico, where Casillas is the principal flutist of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico and the flute professor at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, he said he will be prepared to play the piece with musicians and a conductor that he has never worked with before.

“Oh, it’s nerve-wracking, but thanks to tradition and discipline, we all have the same language – music,” he said. “The human spirit is the same, whether you’re from Puerto Rico, China or America – musicians are all just human. That’s how the collaboration can occur.”

Casillas said he also has pressure to perform for his sponsor, Suzanne Brock, who brought him to Alexandria after seeing him perform with The Orchestra and Community Choral Artists of the Tahoe Area in Incline Village, Nevada, over the course of four summers; and for former students – who he calls “my peoples” -- who will be flying in from all over the country to see his performance with the ASO. “I want to do a good job for them,” he said.

Casillas will also be performing with another flutist, Sara Stern, during Telemann’s “Double Flute Concerto.”

“It’s a privilege because we are not going to meet at a bus stop, or at the library or any other way people normally meet. Telemann has brought us together,” he said. “I have a college friend I met at the Cleveland Institute of Music, who is Chinese. English was her second language and English is my second language, but we had music.”

In addition to his duties rehearsing with the ASO the week of the concert, Casillas will take one day to fly to Winston-Salem to teach a master class at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

“Being Hispanic, we are famous for being laid-back,” he said. “I had to change my way of thinking. Orchestras are very competitive. I have to be prepared.”

-- You can read more about Josué Casillas here:
-- Or listen to his performances on YouTube:


Monday, May 10, 2010

Maestro Musings: 'Carmina Burana' still contemporary and exciting

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power,
it melts them like ice.

-- Carmina Burana

The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra's popular 2009-2010 season, entitled "Inspired by Nature" comes to an ecstatic conclusion in it's Grand Finale concerts on May 22-23. The centerpiece will be Carl Orff's timeless masterpiece, "Carmina Burana," which has reached far into popular culture, making it into the soundtracks for the films "Excalibur," "The Hunt for Red October," and "The General's Daughter." It has also been used by many pop musicians, including Michael Jackson.

Just what is the appeal of "Carmina Burana"? The poetry deals with timeless subjects of life, love and loss. Although written in thirteenth century Latin it has a surprisingly modern sensibility. The Latin language gives the poetry an extra punch and is ultra-expressive and descriptive ... sometimes shockingly so.

But it is the music -- the unforgettable rhythms, pounding and hypnotic -- that gets under your skin and makes your hairs stand on end. The music sounds contemporary and relevant. Even hip-hop music seems to pale in comparison to the primitive and expressive power of Orff's music.

So it's the combination of compelling and graphic poetry with this hyper-propulsive music that give "Carmina Burana" it's unique appeal—to both classical music lovers and popular culture.

So electrifying is "Carmina Burana" that is practically impossible for me to sleep after performances! Sharing the stage with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra will be The Metropolitan Chorus, Heritage Signature Chorale, NOVA Chorus and Alexandria Choral Society.

Also on the program are guest flute soloists Josue Casillas and Sara Stern playing music by Telemann and a fascinating work by Libby Larsen, entitled "Atmosphere of a Fluid System."

Our "Inspired by Nature" theme this season was so popular that we are extending it into an exciting new direction for our 2010-2011 season, entitled "Symphonic Vistas!" Headliners will be Garrick Ohlsson, Jenny Oaks Baker and Steffen Horn in a season featuring many of music’s greatest evocations of nature…and of man’s endless fascination and love of nature.

See you at the concert!

Kim Allen Kluge
Music Director
Alexandria Symphony Orchestra

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Composer is inspired by nature

I think of all music as existing in the substance of the air itself. — Libby Larsen

Alexandria Symphony Orchestra presents “Atmosphere as a Fluid System,” by American composer Libby Larsen

By Merrie Leininger

Libby Larsen is one of only 20-30 people in the country who make their living purely from composing music for orchestras and operas.

Most people, of course, hold down a second job -- most as a teacher at a university -- but Larsen is one of the most frequently commissioned American composers, and also is in demand as a speaker. She has written more than 400 works, including operas, songs, orchestra and chamber music, and has more than 50 recordings of her music.

“I like to keep busy. There are so many ideas to pursue — and life is short,” she said.

The Larsen work that will be performed by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra on May 22-23 is “Atmosphere as a Fluid System.” Maestro and Music Director Kim Allen Kluge picked the piece because it fits so well into the season’s theme: “Inspired by Nature.”

Larsen described how a plane ride led to the music:

“One day, years and years ago, I was flying somewhere, plastered up against the window watching light on the clouds, and I saw a rainbow cone in the clouds, and although we were moving, the rainbow was moving with us, and I could see right down the center of the cone,” she said. “I was fascinated by it, because I had never seen anything like it, and I began to study, I wanted to find out what it was. Turns out it was something called Ulloa’s Ring.”

Larsen said “Atmosphere” is meant to transport the listener into a cloud.

“Along the edges and in the middle of clouds, this fluidity is dynamic and we get tornados and hurricanes from this kind of thing. I wanted to write a piece from the inside of a cloud, and that’s what this piece is — it moves all the time, it is very fluid and moving and full of shifting colors, so it’s as if you as an audience member were inside the cloud, moving with the atmosphere.”

Nature is where she most often turns to for inspiration. She described the piece for two violas that she is currently working on:

“It’s really about the moment of quiet in the night where the stars are bright. It’s a suspended moment in eternity.”

Despite working in an industry that values the voices of dead European men over productive women who work and live among us, Larsen said that she feels like there is certainly room for growth and ground-breaking music on American stages.

“It’s an industry that has become a repackaging industry, and those of us who can add to that — contribute to the cannon — are vital,” Larsen said. “It’s less than from the public, that perception of boards of directors and marketing departments that an audience will not come to a performance of something they don’t know. It’s not the accepted thinking in any other form of art — not music, movies, art — but really only the classical music world who have bought that mythology hook, line and sinker.”

However, Larsen says she understands the restrictions that orchestras are often under, and how little time musicians have to learn a new piece of music.

“I like to challenge myself to make music that is interesting and idiomatic for the performers and resonates with the audience, in the way the notes are arranged. I don’t try to write music people simply ‘like,’ but are engaged with.”

She said being a woman in this demanding — and sometimes isolating — profession can be difficult, but she maintains contact with other women composers such as Jennifer Higdon, who just won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for composition.

“We have a wonderful community network, where we all e-mail. There is a league of women composers and wonderful trade associations. I support them where I can, but best of all is to be in communication, so we support each other,” Larsen said.

Larsen said she respects other composers and musicians and is pleased when they enjoy her work, but she said she is thrilled when her work inspires audience members to reach out to her.

“I’m always delighted when someone who has heard my work goes out of their way to be engaged — sends an e-mail or says something to me in the grocery store. Because composition is when you make a shape out of sound and time, in order to communicate what it’s like to be alive. When someone communicates with me about my music, it’s because I made this sound, and I feel like the work I do — which is an odd way to spend your life — has meaning.”

Larsen, who lives in Minneapolis, said she took up long-distance running a couple of years ago in order to get out of the head space where she often loses time to music.

“The sound is in my head, I hear everything in my head, and work in a different kind of time when I’m writing. Two or three days can go by, and suddenly, I realize I really need to get out of the house and talk to people who are living in flat time.”

Larsen said that keeping her life well-rounded only enhances her music.

“One can live an artful life, and the products of that artful life can be food, music, a perfect run, a fine interview, (art doesn’t imitate life), they are one in the same. If your life is an artful life, you live a mindful life, where mind and emotion are in balance.”

Learn more about Libby Larsen at her website.

Get tickets and more information about the May 22-23 concert, go to

Monday, November 30, 2009

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!

Happy holidays, music lovers! I'm so excited about Saturday's concert at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre. Not only is "The Nutcracker" one of my favorites, but we get the original and a special treat -- the Duke Ellington version! To get more information, go to the Website.

I'm having trouble finding Duke YouTube videos, but here's a version of the Duke Ellington band doing "Jingle Bells:"

Here's Duke and his band doing "Don't Mean a Thing:"

And, finally, Ellington's version of "The Nutcracker," as performed by the U.S. Army Blues Band:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Violin soloist prepares for the variety and fun of the Nov. 14 concert with the ASO

Violinist Olivia Haijoff says preparing for the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra's Nov. 14 performance at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall has been both challenging and comforting.

The playlist includes one of her favorite pieces to play – Arnold's "Concerto for Two Violins," and something she’d never even heard before, Piazzolla's "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires."

"I think this is a particularly good program; there is so much variety, the pieces are really fun, and there's nothing to be scared by -- everyone is familiar with the Vivaldi; the Piazzolla is really fun; the Arnold is short, and has a rhythmic quirkiness, when we've played it to audiences before, they really love it and find it interesting … the middle movement is very sensual, slinky and special…. And the Brahms is really warm. It's not the usual thing."

Haijoff will be performing, as always, with her husband, Marc Ramirez. The couple have been married since 1997. They live and teach violin in Vienna, Va., and met while studying violin at the University of Maryland. She came to the U.S. from England on a Fulbright Scholarship.

"We met in the violin class," she said. "He was nice to me after I played."
Haijoff said both she and her husband grew up with musicians in the family and came to the violin early on. She was 4 when her mother, a harpsichordist, took her to a concert, and Ramirez was 7 when a violinist performed for a small party at his parents' home. Both his parents, Connie and Abad Ramirez, had at one time served as president of the Arlington Symphony.

Both Ramirez and Haijoff are also past winners of the Lasley Scholarship program -- co-sponsored by the Symphony Orchestra League of Alexandria and the ASO -- that helps support and teach young musicians.

Haijoff said the competition really helped her develop into a professional musician.

"Just having to get ready for something like that, preparing a concerto, a major concert, makes you work hard, gives you a goal. And you know it's going to be taken seriously. Marc judged it a few years ago. The judges are people the students really respect, so it really stays with them."

Since then, the couple both taught at Shenandoah University, and now teach out of their home and perform all over the country and the world as Marcolivia violin duo. She said it's not difficult to both work and live together.

"Before we got married, we started doing duos in school, so we'd already been working together," she said. "I think we agree on quite a lot of things musically. We both try hard not to argue or bring other things into it, from our daily life. There's never been a piece that we disagree on. We like the same things. We are technically similar, we went to school together and learned from the same people, and teach the same way."

Haijoff said she loves to teach violin to people, whether they have a future as a professional musician or not.

"I just want them to always have music they can come back to later in life, whether they play in an orchestra, or just are able to go to orchestras and really love it. I've never been one of those teachers who say, 'You have to do it this way,'as long as they want to learn and show respect for the music, then I'm happy."
She said the beauty of teaching the violin is that amateurs and professionals are both always working on the basics -- it's not as simple as reading a note and then playing that note.

"It's like solving a puzzle -- there are always things to work out. I like to bring that out of them," she said. "The violin is really hard, it's much harder than anything they will do in school, or even anything they will do in life, but if I can help them to enjoy the puzzle solving, then they will know it's not something you're supposed to know how to do, and that's why they should love it."

"Lots of people come up to me and say, 'I played the violin once, I wish I hadn't given it up,' But no one ever says I wish I didn't play the violin."

The Marcolivia duo will bring that love of music and the violin to the stage on Nov. 14 with the ASO -- the only problem was deciding who would get to play what.

"I think I really wanted to play the Piazzolla, and I'm the more pushy one," she laughed. "This Piazzolla is unlike anything I've played before. I think the quirkiness really appealed to me; it's different, so it's always going to bring something new out. It's something like playing jazz -- there’s that freedom you get that you have on stage, there's a little bit of that."

Listen to Marcolivia at