Brahms Double Concerto: Notes from the performer

It’s always a neat insight to speak to the soloist of a performance. It’s a chance to really get to see what they are trying to convey, more than just getting the notes right, it’s a chance to see their journey from practicing to the performance.

Cellist Dr. Ka-Wai Yu has been gracious enough to share with me his thoughts on this fabulous piece and his preparation for it. The following are his words. Don’t miss the chance to see him perform with Dr. Paul Abegg Friday, April 27th!

Brahms is one of my favorite composers.   His Double Concerto has always been one of my favorite concertos of all time— the rich symphonic sound paired with the unique combination of virtuosity and musical depth really attracted me.  Of course, it helps to have the cello begin with an extensive “cool” solo(like a monologue) in the beginning (after a brief orchestral intro) too, haha!    As a child I have always wanted to play it after watching performance recordings of it.  The idea of actually doing this began when I first started teaching at Dixie. Former SWSO director Gary Caldwell kindly invited me to play a concerto with the orchestra sometime in future seasons.  I talked to my colleague Dr. Paul Abegg and he was just as excited as I was about doing it together.   So I told Gary I would like to play Brahms.   When Lucas became the new director and was very enthusiastic about doing the Double Concerto, we decided to make it happen! I admire Lucas for challenging the orchestra musicians to the next level by bringing in repertoire such as Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony this season.  The Brahms piece its in perfectly with the Beethoven for the upcoming concert.

It is a very well-written piece where the solo violin and cello parts are conversational— sometimes commenting each other, sometimes playing in unison (like the second movement) and sometimes sound like interrupting or even arguing against each other.  The way Brahms wrote it, the soloists interact and juxtapose with the active orchestral parts organically.  I remember playing the orchestral cello part in concert before.  Unlike many other concertos where the orchestral parts sometimes get less interesting rhythm and long supporting notes too often, it is never boring to play the orchestral accompaniment part in Brahms’ concertos— think about the heaven-like extended cello solo in the slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2!

The Double Concerto is like another Brahms symphony rather than merely a piece for two soloists with accompaniment.  The solo parts sound like a part of the orchestra in many aspects.  And remember it is “soloists” not “soloist,” very unusual yet interesting to bring back the idea of featuring more than one soloist in the concerto, since Baroque concerti grossi and Beethoven’s famous Triple Concerto.

Paul and I have been practicing this piece together regularly since last Fall.  What an honor for me to perform with a great musician like him!  In order to prepare for this piece, each of the two of us has to master our own part first with deal with plenty of technical challenges and musical complexity.  On top of that, Paul and I have been spending as much effort and time practicing together as well in order to match each other in tempo, articulations, bowings, musical interpretation, among other things.  But I would say there is never a lack of fun and excitement as we are getting ready for the piece!

Written in 1887, this Double Concerto is Brahms’ final composition for orchestra.  There is an interesting story behind it.  The piece was actually Brahms’ gesture of reconciliation for his best friend — violinist Joseph Joachim, after their long friendship had been estranged after Joachim’s divorce with his wife Amalie (Brahms had sided with Amalie in the dispute).  I think the story of tested but reconciled friendship can be reflected in the beautiful yet deep music in this piece.  The cellist dedicatee of this piece Robert Hausmann was the cellist in the Joachim Quartet playing with Joachim— great friend with both Joachim and Brahms.  He premiered Brahms Cello Sonata No. 2 and championed Brahms’ chamber music for strings.

Feeding Body and Soul

Everybody needs nourishment. It is important to feed one’s spirit the same way that one feeds the body. As a pillar of the arts community here in Washington County, we at the Southwest Symphony dedicate ourselves to providing this ‘soul food’ to as many as we can. However, there are many right here in St. George that go without proper physical nourishment every day.

We at the SWSO want to expand our reach to help feed everyone, both body and soul. Our second Masterworks concert this season will be themed, “Feeding Body and Soul.” We are partnering with the Utah Food Bank to bring food, hope, and inspiration to all those in need. Please join us!

Our efforts will start this Saturday, April 14th. Volunteers from the SWSO, their families, and anyone who wants to join us will be heading to the Utah Food Bank from 9:00 am to 11:00 to lend a hand wherever it is needed.

On the night of the concert (April 29th, 7:30 pm), baskets will be placed at the entrances to the Cox theater for cash donations. 100% of all funds collected in these baskets will go directly to the Utah Food Bank.

Please join us this special night to help the Symphony expand our reach, and feed both bodies and souls!

Expanding our Reach

What is the role of a symphony orchestra within a given community?

More importantly, what can a symphony orchestra do within a community?

As our mission statement says, we (are here to) inspire and enrich audiences through the transformative power of symphonic music. We want the reach of that power to be as long as it can be. We believe that there is no limit to where that power can have influence.

In the coming weeks and months, and hopefully continuing on in the further development of the Symphony, we want to bring our efforts to reach the entire community to the forefront, especially to those with whom a connection with the Symphony will bring the greatest good, and make the largest impact, specifically children, and those with special needs.

Recent studies in achievement show that there are two elements that, if present in a child’s life, will open the door to them to achieve great things:

  1. The opportunity to hone a skill, any skill, over time and with persistent practice
  2. To receive the rewards of that practice, especially if those rewards are simply to perform the skill at a high level

These two elements combined help to cultivate what Angela Duckworth calls Grit. I will allow you to read her book and to learn all she has to say about the subject, but the abbreviated point here is that we want to inspire kids, kids who may not be able to hear a symphony orchestra under other circumstances, to play music, to hone a skill, and thus to develop grit and become agents of good in the world around them. What better way could there be to inspire and enrich the world?

We will be rolling out new outreach programs and opportunities for participation in the near future; please stay tuned!

Rossini: not just for Looney Tunes

Last post, I went through the list of pieces that will be performed by St. George’s amazingly talented youth on March 3rd. Be sure to get your tickets early for this event as it is very popular.

The Symphony has chosen a couple of pieces to play on their own, as well, including Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.” This piece is definitely one of those that you know, but you may not know that you know. How might you know? This piece is one of several classics that provided a backdrop for Bugs Bunny and pals during the golden age of Looney Tunes. Take a listen and see if you can see in your mind Bugs piling shaving cream and fruit on top of Elmer Fudd’s bald head.

While certainly Bugs and Daffy did their part to familiarize the public with certain classical works, I’d like to pick up where they left off and give you some different, hopefully more noble imagery to go along with this fantastic overture. For your consideration: Breaking Away, winner of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1980. The inspiring story of blue collar youth in a college town, and how one young man finds his place in the world on the seat of a bicycle. Oh yeah, and the score features many classical favorites. Here’s the clip featuring Rossini. As a warning, this scene doesn’t end well for the protagonist.

This movie was a huge part of my formative years, and as a result, whenever I hear the main theme to Barber of Seville start, I always hear the click and hum of a bicycling peloton. Looking for a great flick for a Valentine’s Day date night? Check out this family friendly oldie and find out what happens to Dave Stohler and crew as they take on the cycling team from Indiana University in Breaking Away.

Salute to Youth Preview

Last Wednesday, the Symphony held its first rehearsal in preparation for the upcoming Salute To Youth concert on March 3rd. Having participated in the Salute to Youth program many times in my own high school years, I have a special place in my heart for this program. It’s a singular experience to perform as a musician with a full orchestra behind you, an experience that stays with you for your whole life.

This year’s program offers not just a chance to see some marvelously talented young musicians, but the program contains a wonderful mix of “must-hear” classics and beautiful, innovative contemporary pieces:

Fans of opera will undoubtedly be familiar with the beautiful aria “O Mio Babbino Caro,” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, in which a woman pleads with her father to reconcile with the family of the man she loves.

It’s not often that you’ll hear a harpist play a solo with a full orchestra, but odds are you have heard Handel’s Concerto for Harp and Orchestra in B flat major, a classic of the repertoire and a great example of the baroque era.

The third movement of Saint-Seans’ Piano Concerto in G minor is a thrill-a-minute piece for both the soloist and the orchestra that is sure to liven up any evening at the theater.

Ney Rosauro is a modern percussionist and composer, and has written many beautiful pieces for marimba, and this year we have the opportunity to play his Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra with a talented young player. Surprisingly, I learned last night that several members of the Symphony are familiar with this piece and have played it before. This will be a first for me.

An eclectic evening such as this would be incomplete, of course, without Mozart, and we’re delighted to have a great young talent play the first movement of his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in G major to round out the evening.

The Symphony has a couple of other pieces in its pocket that we will be playing, as well, but more on those next week!

From Russia With Love

“That was a program worthy of any professional orchestra in the world,” said Deb Vradenberg, cello, after the end of the concert on Friday. And indeed it was. Preparing two pieces that showcased both incredible technical difficulty and the amazing conducting prowess of Mr. Darger, to say nothing of the stunning talent of Josh Wright, was a huge adventure for the Symphony and a major stepping stone toward a new era of classical music in the region.

I’ve focused plenty on the intricacies of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, so let’s take this post to show a little love to Rachmaninov and his 3rd piano concerto.

Although Rachmaninov himself was known to play this piece at a steady, breakneck speed, other pianists (such as Vladimir Ashkenazy) who have recorded it since have continued to mold and shape it to help bring out the intricacies of the melody. Josh Wright performs this piece much in the same vein, pushing the tempo forward and pulling it back, now slowing it to a crawl then racing ahead as fast as his fingers could carry him. The end result is tear-jerkingly beautiful, however it presents a unique challenge to an orchestra and especially a conductor, as we have to be aware of those tempo changes and know them well enough that we can anticipate them. And we only have two and a half rehearsals with the soloist in which to do it.

Concertmaster Rachel France and Josh Wright talk about Mozart’s troubled youth. “He was a member of the Wolfgang…”

First, the orchestra must spend adequate rehearsal time weeks before the soloist arrives playing through the piece to establish a solid base.

Second, Josh recorded himself playing the piece and sent it to Lucas a week before his arrival so that Lucas could see and hear his tempo preferences.

On the Wednesday before the performance, the Symphony rehearsed with Josh for the first time, adjusting their speed and marking their parts accordingly.

Thursday, Josh and Lucas spent hours together going over the more difficult points of the piece where Lucas must know precisely where Josh is in his score, so that he can cue the rest of the musicians as needed. I don’t believe that this was part of Josh’s original rehearsal itinerary for Friday’s performance; just an awesome guy being awesome.

Thursday evening was dress rehearsal: the first time the Symphony performed the Rach 3 with Josh from beginning to end.

Lucas says to Josh “It’s because they kept saying Bach, Bach, Bach,” to explain why Mozart had killed all his chickens

Friday, before the performance, Josh and the Symphony did a final spot check of a few points.

And so was the journey to this masterful performance. We very much look forward to doing it again! Look out, Brahms and Beethoven!


Roots of a Symphony Orchestra: Dr. Norman Fawson

Not long ago, I had the chance to reconnect with a friend of mine, Rebecca Fawson, with whom I had grown up playing in orchestras around the Salt Lake City area. I informed her that I had moved to St. George, and that I was that evening attending my first rehearsal with the Southwest Symphony. “Hey,” she said, “I love the Southwest Symphony! Keep an eye out for my grandpa Norman!” She went on to explain that her grandfather plays with the orchestra, but also serves on the board, and actually founded the orchestra in 1979. How fun it was to learn that during my youth I had been just two degrees of separation away from this great organization.

Dr. Norman Fawson had a prodigious beginning in music: he was invited to play with the Dixie College Orchestra while still in the 6th grade. After playing with the Dixie College String Quartet, the University of Utah Symphony Orchestra and other organizations within his medical school, he founded the Dixie String Ensemble with Irene Everett. This organization helped to form the orchestra that performed the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah in the St. George Tabernacle. It was then, and by necessity, that Dr. Fawson picked up the viola.

Serving as chairman of the board for the first 15 years of the Symphony’s existence, he helped engineer the shell that now sits behind the orchestra during its performances in the Cox Auditorium, arranged for the Symphony to purchase more than 100 musical instruments for children in the county school district, and helped establish and teach as part of a cooperative string instrument instruction program in county schools.

It’s an honor to play alongside a member of the community that has done so much to further the cause of music education and performance. Don’t miss Dr. Fawson playing with the orchestra this Friday!

Carrying the Legacy forward


If the thought ever occurred that orchestral music is a relatively new venture within Washington County, think again. St. George and its surrounding towns have been peppered with music for as long as there have been people here to play it. Started and supported by those families whose names you most likely recognize and associate with St. George history, groups have sprung up in such unlikely places and times as Enterprise in the 1920’s, Gunlock in 1880, Washington City in 1935, and more.


Indeed, the closer one looks, it almost appears as though a musical culture is one of the hidden underpinnings of the area, and cannot help but present itself. Although we have been without a professional orchestra, people of every walk of life have spent their off work hours honing their musical chops and getting groups together to share the joy of music with others.

The longer I live here and the deeper I dig, the more I find that this aspect of St. George has not changed in the slightest. You won’t have to look hard to find a friend or neighbor that is actually an accomplished musician, composer, arranger, or is simply passionate about organizing a group to play together. The Symphony itself, as you will read in the coming weeks, was started and is currently managed and peopled by non professionals that just love what they do. It’s a privilege to be a part of an organization that has inherited this rich legacy and seeks to carry it forward.




There is no off-season…

Last week, the Symphony held their final rehearsal of 2017. We have seen some great times so far this season, thanks to you. The Spooktacular sold out; Messiah received rave reviews. Time for the musicians to take a well-deserved break, right?

Think again. Our greatest performances of the season are still ahead of us.

Next on the docket are two WHOPPERS of pieces that you certainly won’t want to miss. First up, Josh Wright will perform Rachmaninoff’s epic 3rd Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. You fans of pop culture will remember that this is the piece that pianist David Helfgott was performing in the movie, “Shine,” when he went insane. While we are sure that Josh Wright is more than up to the task, don’t miss out on the chance to see this superlative work performed.

After a brief intermission, allowing everyone to catch their collective breath, the Symphony will perform Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. I have been waiting to write extensively about this piece for some time. To begin, I invite you to listen to this piece alongside Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony. Take note – Tchaikovsky wanted his 4th symphonic work to mirror Beethoven’s 5th very closely. Can you hear the “knock of fate” at the beginning of both works?

I want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and I will wish you a new year next week!

Messiah Close Up

Come relive this fantastic event by browsing through photos of the soloists and orchestra!

  • Tenor Philippe Clark Hall sings the Recitative "Comfort Ye"