Walter Bitner

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The Firebird

Image credit: snob.ru, Wikimedia Commons, veche.razved.ca

It is 1980, and I am 14 years old. I don’t know exactly when this happened but I feel sure it was in the summer or fall. I am standing before the record player I had received for Christmas a few years earlier, in my adolescent lair in the basement of my parent’s house in Camillus, New York. The turntable could be rotated on its side to hide within the wooden cabinet in which it was housed when not in use, and the spindle could accommodate up to 6 LPs at a time (by the time of this memory I had learned never to do this, with the hope of preserving the quality of my record collection as long as possible).

I have just unwrapped the 3 LP set Yessongs from its plastic shrink wrap and set the needle down on the record at the beginning of side A of the first LP. Yes was my favorite rock band when I was in high school (they still are) and I have saved up money from several weeks of early mornings on my bicycle delivering newspapers to buy this, only the second triple album in my collection (the first was Keith Jarrett’s Solo Concerts Bremen / Lausanne).

As I marvel at the stunning artwork by Roger Dean that not only adorns the cover but in fact nearly every surface of the package, what I hear at first are the sounds of an arena crowd anticipating a Yes concert to begin – Yessongs was the band’s first live album. But when the music begins, it isn’t Yes at all – instead I hear the tender horn solo over quiet tremolo chords in the strings that begins the Finale of Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet score The Firebird.

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2017 Gateways Music Festival

(l to r) William Johnson, Patricia Silva Weitzel, Anthony Morris, Evan Cannon after a performance at Gateways Music Festival, Rochester City Hall Council Chambers, August 11, 2017 (click all photos to enlarge)

Last month I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to attend Gateways Music Festival in Rochester, New York. Now in its 24th year, Gateways connects and supports professional classical musicians of African descent, and brings more than 50 solo, chamber, and orchestral performances to the Rochester community during the week of the festival. This was my first time attending a Gateways festival, and I was excited to witness several of the performances, meet friends and colleagues from around the country (and beyond), and make new ones.

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Martha Argerich: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon

(click photos to enlarge)

When Deutsche Grammophon released a box set of Martha Argerich’s complete recordings for their label in September 2015, I coveted it immediately, eventually succumbing to temptation and purchasing it for my CD library. This summer I made a project of slowly listening to all 48 CDs in order of release, savoring each recording and listening to many of them several times. OK, most of them.

Just in case you’re not a classical pianist, or slept through the last fifty years, Martha Argerich is widely regarded as one of our greatest living pianists, and certainly as one of the most important classical artists of the post-WWII era.

Which makes this stupendous collection – a wide-ranging survey of all of her recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and Philips spanning 55 years from 1959 to 2014 – perhaps the single greatest collection of recorded classical piano music in history. It’s astounding.

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Side By Side 2017

Curb Youth Symphony & Nashville Symphony musicians rehearse for the annual Side By Side performance, May 16, 2017 ~ photo by Kelley Bell (click to enlarge)

Last week – on Wednesday, May 17, Curb Youth Symphony joined the Nashville Symphony on the stage of Laura Turner Hall for our annual Side By Side concert. Curb Youth Symphony is directed by Carol Nies, and this year’s annual Side By Side event was conducted ( for the first time) by Nashville Symphony Music Director & Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. For two days many of Middle Tennessee’s most accomplished teenage musicians thronged the halls of Schermerhorn Symphony Center, rubbing shoulders with Nashville Symphony musicians backstage and sharing stands with them on stage as we rehearsed and performed this much anticipated event.

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Nashville Philharmonic: Spring 2017

“I’m really excited about our final pair of concerts this season!” said Christopher Norton, music director of the Nashville Philharmonic, Music City’s volunteer community orchestra. “There are so many connections to the Nashville community inherent in this program, and it encompasses the Nashville Philharmonic’s commitment to education, outreach, and the advancement of the arts.”

Last week I spoke with Dr. Norton and the soloists who are featured on the upcoming programs on May 7 and May 9, including the winners of the NPO’s 2017 concerto and composition competitions.

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Nashville Concerto Orchestra: Spring Concert 2017

Matthew Phelps conducts the Nashville Concerto Orchestra in rehearsal for their first performance, with Gil Perel, bassoon ~ June 25, 2016, Edgehill United Methodist Church, Nashville

Music City’s unique Nashville Concerto Orchestra will present their fourth concert next Saturday, April 15, bringing full circle the NCO’s first annual cycle of seasonal concerts that began with their Summer 2016 concert last June.

This week I spoke with the orchestra’s founder Roger Wiesmeyer and this concert’s soloists about the upcoming program and the special opportunities this ensemble provides.

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Barthold Kujiken with Music City Baroque

Barthold Kujiken

March is Early Music Month, an annual campaign to promote awareness of early music throughout the North American musical community. Early Music Month is promoted and designed by Early Music America, a national organization that facilitates and encourages communication, collaboration, raising awareness, and sharing resources for those interested in historical performance and music before the 19th century.

It’s therefore timely – and no surprise – that our fair Music City has several phenomenal events coming up this month that feature live performances of music from the old repertoires, including both performances by local ensembles and rare visits from acclaimed European musicians.

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Nashville Symphony EDCE at SphinxConnect 2017

Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement staff with Aaron Dworkin, founder of Sphinx and Dean of University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance, SphinxConnect, Detroit, February 10, 2017. (l to r) WB, Kelley Bell, Aaron Dworkin, Kimberly McLemore, Kristen Freeman.

Nashville Symphony EDCE staff with Aaron Dworkin, founder of Sphinx and Dean of University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance, SphinxConnect, Detroit, February 10, 2017. (l to r) WB, Kelley Bell, Aaron Dworkin, Kimberly McLemore, Kristen Freeman.

Earlier this month – February 9-12, 2017 – our entire Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement Department attended the Sphinx Organization‘s 20th annual Competition and 5th annual conference in Detroit, retitled SphinxConnect this year.

We spent an eventful four days attending concerts, interviews, panel discussions, and presentations, several networking (and celebratory) receptions, and other meetings. Some 500 people were there from all over the country (and some from other countries as well), many of whom only see each other a few times per year. The entire conference was imbued with a heady excitement.

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Nashville Philharmonic Premieres Chris Farrell’s Violin Concerto

Chris Farrell & Jessica Blackwell

Chris Farrell & Jessica Blackwell

Next week the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra will give world premiere performances of a new violin concerto by Nashville composer Christopher Farrell on the program of their upcoming “Royal Coronation” concerts on December 6 & December 11. Among Nashville’s (now several) volunteer community orchestras, the NPO is the most well-established and performs the most demanding and developed series of concerts each year. These performances will be led by NPO Music Director Christopher Norton and feature NPO Concertmaster Jessica Blackwell as soloist, for whom Farrell wrote the concerto.

Both Chris and Jessica are longstanding members of the Nashville Symphony. I first met them both years ago when I was directing Music City Youth Orchestra: Jessica led sectional rehearsals for our violinists, and Chris taught private lessons to some of our students. I’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with them on a number of projects here at the symphony over the last couple of years, and was excited to get together with them to talk about the new concerto.

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Felix Wang and the Nashville Concerto Orchestra Perform Michael Rose’s Cello Concerto

Michael Rose and Felix Wang

Michael Rose and Felix Wang

On Wednesday, October 19 at 12 pm, the Nashville Concerto Orchestra will give the first and second performances of Michael Rose‘s concerto for cello and orchestra Sedentary Dances in its full orchestration. Felix Wang – who premiered the concerto in January 2013 in its initial version with Michael playing a reduction of the orchestration at the piano – will again perform the cello solo, and the orchestra will be conducted by Joseph Lee. The concert will take place in the sanctuary of West End United Methodist Church, Nashville.

Last week I spoke with Michael and Felix, and with Roger Wiesmeyer, who is the founder and inspirer for the Nashville Concerto Orchestra – and is so often found at the heart of classical music happenings in Music City.

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