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Mark O'ConnorAs I am realizing now that the conclusion of this year’s SummerFest with Seattle Symphony has arrived, I am left with a sense of awe and inspiration that we could bring this great festival to the Benaroya Hall stage this year with only months to plan.

I have played a lot of festivals throughout my 35 years of performing, but this festival was unique. We asked some of the world’s best artists from classical, jazz and folk traditions to appear. We sought artists who transcended barriers and in the process becoming innovators with their own creative lives in music. We identified the kinds of artists that, by their very presence and inclusion in this festival, epitomized this musical tapestry of breadth and dimension in music.

We wanted music that was inspiring, performances that were moving, traditions that were held to new standards, and new musical ideas that brought us together and asked us to marvel at the possibilities of music and of art. For those of us who had a hand in planning this music festival, making the connection to Seattle music lovers, to Pacific Northwest music lovers, and to the national and international audiences the festival drew helped us accomplish our goal of extending both musical and cultural bridges. That goal was met with great results.

I wanted to lend a hand with inspiring a theme of participation at SummerFest — not just to entertain and delight audiences, but to inspire audiences to do wonderful things musically and culturally when they return home. And we did see audience members sampling our variety of concerts with this theme of anticipation and participation throughout the festival.

I loved performing my Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Maya Beiser and Seattle Symphony — and, especially, my opportunity to tell everyone that this music was to lift up and remember the heroes made in the aftermath of 9/11. Likewise, I loved stepping on stage at Benaroya Hall and playing my Six Caprices on the solo violin before a symphony audience, all with a renewed energy and physical stamina I had not realized before. And more great memories: Performing with my Hot Swing ensemble in tribute to one of my musical heroes and teachers, Stéphane Grappelli; sitting in with Earl Scruggs and with Wynton Marsalis during their respective concerts — what a festival!

Even introducing the shows and letting the audiences know what was coming in the following days was a rush! I played my slow piece, Appalachia Waltz, with some young string-playing prodigies from the area in front of toddlers and their parents for the Tiny Tots Extra. I could simply hear nothing but babies screaming! But I could sense something special in the room as we played, as parents rocked their babies back and forth. Then the parents led them in a standing ovation after that lullaby. It seemed as if we tapped in to something beyond what we could have imagined in very young children for a moment.

Years ago, I forged a new musical path. Sometimes a hard path to walk unimpeded, and it often still is not the easiest of ways. But I always felt that my three loves in music — my love for classical music, for jazz and for folk traditions — must co-exist in new, important, and in much better and more sophisticated ways than they had before. Sometimes it is the music and compositions that bring about the new dimensions, sometimes the performers do it on their own, and sometimes major American symphonies can represent these dimensions, as Seattle Symphony does in its programming and performing. Sometimes, too, it is a team of arts presenters that are responsible for thinking of staging such possibilities — such is the case Seattle Symphony Executive Director Tom Philion, who centered on a mission to create something beautiful for Seattle audiences. The wonderful and collaborative combination of these people and ideas became SummerFest.

We had classical audience goers at Earl Scruggs; we had folk audiences members at Wynton Marsalis; and we had jazzers at Mahler. Well, it was a dream scenario — participation through appreciation. That is the festival spirit, and that is what summer is all about for musicians. Those things, combined with the best weather in the United States in any July of any year, and some of the best food to taste and natural beauty you could ever see in any metropolis, this is something, really something to consider visiting next time. With your help we can grow to become a summer tradition in
Seattle come July!

Mark O’Connor

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Mark O'ConnorWhen I was an 11-year-old growing up here in Seattle, I was introduced to bluegrass music through recordings, and Earl Scruggs became one of my musical heroes. Even though I was learning the guitar and the fiddle, I wanted a banjo, too, and I bought the Earl Scruggs banjo book. I also took private banjo lessons, and even entered a local banjo contest in Woodinville. (Anybody remember the Seattle-area’s first bluegrass festival back in 1973?)

Butch Robbins, a great young banjo player booked at the festival — and a fantastic musician who played with Bill Monroe for a time — showed me some Scruggs licks, including the main finger roll in Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” To play that riff, I had to drop my right thumb from the fifth string to the second, over and over and over. Butch told me that this was how Earl Scruggs did it, and I shook my head in disbelief!

Even though my own banjo playing exploits were very short-lived (I quit playing the banjo when I was 12, though I did place second at the Woodinville contest!), I never quit being a huge Earl Scruggs admirer. I met him in person when I was 12, and attended many summer festivals at which his old playing partner Lester Flatt performed with his Nashville Grass group. The Earl Scruggs Revue, starring Scruggs and his three musician sons — Gary, Randy and Steve — took the stage at some point during these festivals, too. It was magical to be around this scene as a youngster.

Later, as a professional musician, I was invited to perform on Earl Scruggs’ second instrumental album, an album he loved doing because it featured his sons. I was the only additional instrumentalist invited to record with them; it was an amazing week of recording for me, because I felt like I was invited to the Scruggs dinner table as another brother, just hanging out and hearing lots of wonderful stories, and seeing how the Scruggs boys revered their legendary father.

Just last December, I was invited to play with Earl and Randy Scruggs again, this time at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. I was proud to do so. I showed up to the rehearsal and camera blocking and I assumed that I was going to be a part of a bigger band with Earl. But they decided it was going to be just a trio, made up of Earl, Randy and myself. Once again, I was able to share such a wonderfully close time with one of the legendary musicians of American music, a man who invented and made popular a great music tradition.

And, by the way, ol’ Earl tore it up! The audience loved it. Surely a musical highlight of the night for them. It was there at the Kennedy Center Honors that I invited Earl Scruggs to be a part of SummerFest. What a fitting closing finale for our festival!

Mark O’Connor

Earl Scruggs and an array of artists, including Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet featuring Béla Fleck, perform on July 14 to round out SummerFest 2008. Want tickets? (Really, who wouldn’t want tickets?) Grab them here.

In a last minute programming addition, SummerFest Music Director Mark O’Connor will now perform all six of his Caprices for Solo Violin at Thursday’s concert! You won’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see all six of these jaw-dropping showpieces played back-to-back by the composer himself, whose performances of them have earned him the title of “the reincarnation of Paganini.” Preview Caprice No. 2 below.

Prepare to be amazed. Get tickets here!

It’s a banjo bonanza! Last week, we blogged the Benaroya Hall debut of the up-and-coming Sparrow Quartet, featuring the cross-cultural stylings of Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck. This week, we’re shouting out to the legendary Earl Scruggs, banjo master and bluegrass icon. Here’s a peek at just a few of his many accomplishments:

  • Scruggs Style. Scruggs was instrumental (pun intended) in developing and popularizing the three-finger style of banjo picking — one which allows for more expressivity, precision and versatility — now referred to as the Scruggs Style.
  • Major Kudos. He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, holds a National Medal of Arts Award and has a star embedded in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What’s more, in 2005, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum dedicated special tribute in honor of his contribution to the world of music.
  • Recordings, recordings, recordings. Scruggs’s discography includes more than 30 CDs and DVDs, including solo albums, as well as those recorded with Lester Flatt and as part of the Earl Scruggs Revue. Even more impressive? Scruggs has worked with some of the biggest names in music, including The Byrds, Maybelle Carter, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Dan Fogelberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Kenny Loggins, Waylon Jennings, Linda Ronstadt and Loudon Wainwright III, among others.
  • Long Live the Legacy! Now 84 years old, Earl Scruggs is in his sixth decade as a recording artist, and still going strong. This past February, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, joining the impressive ranks of Doris Day, Cab Calloway and Itzhak Perlman.
  • And speaking of Grammys… Scruggs has snagged not one, but two Grammy Awards for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” now a bluegrass standard. Watch him pick this iconic tune on the David Letterman Show with actor, comedian and fellow banjo player Steve Martin (with whom he won the second Grammy) below:

You’ll be swimmin’ with the fishes (in a good way) at Seattle Symphony’s presentation of The Blue Planet Live!, a big-screen, underwater adventure with live orchestra accompaniment. Featuring a score by renowned film and television composer George Fenton — who will lead the Orchestra in two performances, July 8 & 9The Blue Planet Live! presents a natural history of the world’s oceans edited for the big screen.

Should be an experience you won’t soon forget. Says Fenton:

The boundaries between cinema and television are becoming progressively blurred. Most films are made with the television in mind, while at the same time, more and more people are able to enjoy television on high-quality screens and with stereo sound to rival the cinema. The true difference now lies in where and with whom you watch. This show is also about being part of a theatrical experience, which involves sharing these incredible images of incredible creatures in a way that we can’t in front of the television. The makers of The Blue Planet are only too aware that the oceans and their inhabitants are increasingly under threat. Attempting to understand and protect them is perhaps the ultimate aim behind these remarkable films.

Want to bone up on your undersea knowledge pre-screening? Read on for some seaworthy suggestions.

Take a trip to a Puget Sound–area beach (from Des Moines’ Redondo Beach to North Seattle’s Carkeek Park) and participate in Seattle Aquarium’s Beach Naturalist program [PDF]. Learn what seastars eat, why seaweed is slimy, and what you can do to help protect Puget Sound’s species-rich shores.

Looking for some saltwater fun this weekend? Check out Point Defiance Zoo & Acquarium’s Beluga Whale Play Day [PDF], from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. Can’t make it this weekend? Visit the Zoo & Aquarium any time for all kinds of underwater enterprises.

Or, simply stay at home with a few deep-sea flicks. Our picks:

  • Finding Nemo. Little fish, big ocean, incredible journey.
  • Whale Rider. A father-daughter tale from New Zealand.
  • The Hunt for Red October. Tom Clancy’s political thriller of a Soviet sub captain’s defection tricked out for the silver screen.
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Kirk Douglas vs. a giant squid. Need we say more?
  • The Abyss. Freaky underwater phenomena. Plus a funky submarine!
  • Free Willy. The story of a boy and his orca.
  • Jaws. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”
  • The Yellow Submarine. The Beatles (à la animation) take on the Blue Meanies with pop songs and psychedelia.

Photo courtesy BBC Worldwide.

Jane as Isolde

Welcome guest blogger Jane Eaglen! Read on for Jane’s take on playing the the tragically romantic role of Isolde in Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. And don’t miss her recreating that role in concert with Seattle Symphony, when she performs the heartwrenching Liebestod as part of Wagner and Mahler, June 26–29 at Benaroya Hall.

Isolde is a role very dear to my heart in many ways. It was while singing my first Isolde here in Seattle that I met my husband and subsequently moved here permanently. It is also a role, and an opera, which never fails to move me musically and personally. It’s the age-old love story of star-crossed lovers, destined never to be together, but heightened with some of the most emotionally moving music ever written.

Isolde’s Liebestod (literally, “love-death”) was actually called by Wagner her “transfiguration.” It is the climax of the opera, but is a wonderful self-contained work too. Combined with the Prelude, it still manages to convey the love story and the passion of the entire opera. Wagner sanctioned the two pieces together, which probably counts as the longest cut in opera — almost four hours of music cut!

I’m thrilled to be performing this work with Maestro Gerard Schwarz here in Seattle, a few months after we presented the piece in Helsinki, Finland. It’s always a thrill for me to have the honor of singing Wagner’s music, and to constantly find new things to marvel at and hopefully share.

Image above: Jane Eaglen as Isolde with Seattle Opera, 1998. Courtesy Seattle Opera / Gary Smith.

Richard Wagner at Benaroya Hall

SummerFest 2008 kicks off with a blockbuster Seattle Symphony concert: get set for the epic sounds of Wagner and Mahler, June 26–29, featuring local superstar soprano Jane Eaglen singing the heartwrenching Prelude and Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s über-tragiromantic opera, Tristan und Isolde. (Read all about her experience playing Isolde in Seattle Opera’s 1998 production here.)

Born in 1813, German composer Wagner was, hands down, among the most influential music-makers of the 19th century. His boundary-breaking ideas about melody, harmony, drama and aesthetics turned the opera world on its head, and spurred one of most heated and long-lasting controversies in the history of music.

Like to learn more about this colossal composer? Look no further: Below, find some factoids about Herr Richard.

  • Wagner the Lover. In 1863, after one failed marriage and several affairs, Wagner fell in love with Cosima von Bülow, the 25-year-old daughter of composer and pianist Franz Liszt. Even though she was married at the time to the famous conductor Hans von Bülow, she and Wagner moved in together and began a torrid and much-publicized affair that resulted in three children (two of whom — Isolde and Siegfried — were named for characters in Wagner’s operas) and an eventual marriage in 1870.
  • Wagner the Inventor. Not content with the capabilities of the brass section when writing his epic four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner devised his own tuba, the aptly named “Wagner tuba,” to provide a greater variety of brass sounds.
  • Wagner the Revolutionary. Wagner’s revolutionary tendencies were not limited to pushing the limits of musical convention. In May 1849, he participated in an uprising in Dresden, and was even suspected of creating explosive devices. Not long after, a warrant was issued for his arrest and he fled the city.
  • Wagner the Writer. Unlike most opera composers, who adapted pre-existing plays or used newly written libretti, Wagner wrote the texts for all his music dramas — himself!
  • Wagner the Megastar. Wagner fans, or “Wagnerites,” are still among the most fanatical classical music fans. The average wait-time for a ticket to attend the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth is seven years. But fear not: To tide you over while you wait, Symphonica, the Symphony Store, has stocked a supply of Wagner action figures (pictured above in the Samuel & Althea Stroum Grand Lobby at Benaroya Hall). No more Wagnerless nights for you!

And, if this isn’t enough for you, check out Seattle Opera’s online Wagner tribute.

NEXT WEEK … Catch Mahler Madness! Get acquainted with Gustav the Great, whose Symphony No. 6 follows the Prelude and Liebestod, June 26–29.