Wednesday, April 22, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “S” – MARK SFORZINI, AMERICAN COMPOSER, CONDUCTOR AND BASSOONIST; DMITRY SHOSTAKOVICH, RUSSIAN COMPOSER


Let's face it; life can be a mess at times. Mine's been total chaos for a while, and is likely to remain so, until. . . whatever. Anyway, now that I've finally wrested control of my system back from She Who Will Remain Unnamed, I can get this here posty-post on the road. It isn't exactly what I was planning, and poor Mark is up to his ears in Shostakovich, Copland and Prokofiev, so, we DIDN'T get to finish our interview. We WILL however, fill in some blanks now, as Mark is a highly interesting person, as well as a highly entertaining one (don't tell him I said that!). But, I am easily amused as you can tell by this sound clip:


Actually, I think pretty much everything is back-breakingly hilarious, so who am I to judge? Anyway, apparently, Mark had a seemingly normal childhood in Alabama playing the bassoon, and being a kid. I'm jealous of the fact that he was a 1979 World Hula Hoop Champion during a time, when Alabama was still in the 50s and Hula Hooping was cool. Fifteen years earlier, when Hula Hooping WAS cool in other parts of the U.S., I stunk at it. Like “stink on ice” at it. One hoop rotation, and that piece of plastic was on the ground. My folks could Hula Hoop. Hell, the DOG could Hula Hoop. I couldn't. But my slinky didn't slink either, so I was like caught in some kind of nerd hell-scape from my day of birth.

courtesy:downtownstpete.ilovetheburg.com                              

I think Mark is the only person I know who could pull this off and look cool doing so.

Anyway, Mark went on from that triumph to become principal bassoonist of the Florida Orchestra for 15 years, and only left in 2007, to take a bold leap into the abyss and start an opera company in St. Petersburg, Florida, a burgeoning arts mecca. Since the inaugural production of La Boheme, The St. Petersburg Opera Company has presented more than 30 operas and attracted a loyal following. Not content with producing only Italian opera, as Opera Tampa is wont to do, The St. Petersburg Opera has presented Ariadne auf Naxos, by Richard Strauss, Norma, Susannah, and Samson et Delilah, by Camille Saint Saens. He tosses in a little Stephen Sondheim from time to time and many of these productions are Tampa Bay area debuts.


Mark Sforzini, Director of St. Petersburg Opera, and Conductor of the Tampa Bay Symphony

Mark's excellence, drive and energy and his ability to put people and music together and his willingness to take chances, have landed him on 2014 Musical America's Top 30 Musical Professionals (I encourage you to read this list; it is a WONDERFUL read!). The list is an international one, citing one conductor in Odessa, Hobart Earle, who took his orchestra to the Odessa open market to play Ode to Joy, flash-mob style, in a country now torn by war and strife.

Mark so aptly fits this model. He is one of the finest persons I've ever met. When we talked about this interview, I asked him why he chose the Tampa Bay Symphony. He answered simply, “I didn't. They chose me.” He had over 10 years experience conducting by the time he was approached. Most of his experience was conducting opera and he relished the idea of having a chance to conduct more symphonic music. Having played principal bassoon for 15 years in the Florida Orchestra under so many different conductors he felt like he knew the symphonic literature very well. His “audition” pieces for the positions were Smetana's Moldau, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. All three pieces present different challenges to the conductor and I think they're probably a good benchmark to understanding how a conductor is going to think and work out the problems each work presents.


Hobart Earle's Flash-mob "Ode to Joy" in an Odessa Fish Market is stunning. He's number 17 on 2014's Musical America's Top Music Professionals. Mark is listed at number 5. There were actually 2 nominees from the Tampa Bay Area. When Mark was asked why Tampa Bay, he looked at the inquisitor and asked "Why eat?" Good answer!

A relative later asked Mark why he would accept a position with an all-volunteer orchestra, since in professional orchestras (and even in “community-level” orchestras, where the players are paid a fee) the players have rehearsed the parts before hand, or already know the charts, the group rehearses 3 or 4 times, plays the concert or concerts and you're done; the first rehearsal sounds good, and it's a matter of polishing and interpretation, but Mark feels that:

there is something incredibly rewarding about exploring a concert program over a period of two to three months with people who have chosen to give of their time and talent for the joy of making music. Sometimes the first rehearsal doesn't sound so good, but by the concerts, the group is playing very well – and musically, with a solid interpretation of the works on the program. Each rehearsal shows noticeable results. Players in the symphony sometimes look tired when they arrive for the 7:00 pm rehearsal after working a regular job at the office, but often at 9:30 pm they are more energized and smiling more than when they arrived. I find the special journey from the very first rehearsal to the final concert with the people of the TBS highly rewarding. I’m a teacher by nature, and the community orchestra setting allows my educator/coach personality a chance to emerge more than it normally gets to in a one-week professional engagement period. That’s not to say that I’m ‘teaching’ them all the time, though. Quite the contrary, they have taught me so much about leading a large orchestra of eighty and have brought the notes on the page to life.”

That is one great answer! For people who think they're too busy, or too important to worry about what would seem to be a rag-tag bunch of volunteer musicians, I was really humbled by this answer. We, as the players, get so much out of our rehearsals. I'm in a unique position; I'm happy to be ANYWHERE playing, but to be back where I started and have this kind of experience is just a dream for me. I've learned more, and started to remember things I'd forgotten. Mark is ever patient with us and it's fun! We have a great time, but we're taking a bit of a darker turn here; like any art, music is not all happiness and light.

We've been rehearsing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 for Big Orchestra. When I found out we were going to play this piece, I was ecstatic. I love playing Russian music. I'm also out of my mind most of the time. Beethoven has a stern gruffness, and whilst playing Beethoven, I feel I can take anything being thrown at me. My biggest weak spot in the whole wide world and we've discussed this (for those of you reading along at home, or on the bus, or whatever, already know) is Mahler. There are times I cannot listen to Mahler, AT ALL. This is one of those times. Right now, Shosty is running a close second, and there are times I've just about folded up on the whole shootin' match, but I can't.

His Symphony No. 5 for Big Orchestra is an oddity. I asked Mark, “Why this symphony for this orchestra at this time?”

I would say a confluence of events at the time of picking this program: Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. At the time I was conducting Fiddler on the Roof which…. At this time, Russian and Ukraine were also all over the headlines. I kept thinking about Soviet oppression and how even though the USSR collapse in 1991, there are still so many examples in 2015 of oppression of the people. And, if you are oppressing the people, you are oppressing artistic spirit. This is where Shostakovich managed a triumph of sorts. In 1936, his writing had been called into question as being anti-Soviet. Masses of people were being executed during this time in Russia, and not just his art, but his very life were at stake. He published his 5th Symphony with the phrase “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism”. Yet, I, and many others, don’t believe he was simply pleasing the authorities. The amazing thing about Shostakovich 5 is that the composer manages to please the authorities and say something deeply meaningful to the common people all at the same time. There is very little marked in the score in terms of words so we must look very carefully at the notes. And a trained musician, can see hundreds of ways Shostakovich was telling his story through the music of the 5th Symphony.

I remember when I first heard this symphony and circumstances surrounding it, and thinking “Huh, Stalin either had a tin ear, or like Richard Strauss, Stefan Zweig, and Joseph Goebbels, Shostakovich was deemed too well-known to just have him executed by Levrenti Beria in the Lubyanka.” However, on reflection, Stalin was paranoid about EVERYTHING and Shostakovich was a master at hiding his sentiments within his music. If nothing else, playing this piece has taught me that. So, I think it's a case of the former and Mark has pointed these things out to us along the way. 


During World War II, and on the Eastern Front, which incredibly, I know much more about than I do the Western Front, Leningrad, was under siege by the Nazis for 900 days. The USSR was our ally, and they actually bore the brunt of the Nazi assault along a 1,000-mile front beginning with Operation Barbarossa, on June 22, 1941, and continuing until the tide was turned and the war was taken to the Germans and ended when Germany surrendered unconditionally at Reims on May 7 1945, to the Allies. Anyway, Dmitry Shostakovich was living in Leningrad at the start of the siege, and was a volunteer fireman. He wrote the first 3 movements of his 7th symphony there. He finished the symphony in Kuibyshev, where he and his family had been evacuated and it was to have been played by the Leningrad Philharmonic, but there were only 14 members of the orchestra left, so the conductor Karl Eliasberg had to recruit anyone who could play an instrument. It should be pointed out, that no one is really sure what Leningrad Shostakovich had in mind when he wrote the 7th symphony; if it was the one that withstood the German siege, or the one Stalin had destroyed, and Hitler merely finished off. The Russians and their crazy sense of humor!

Later on,  in 1943, when the family had moved to Moscow, the tide had turned for the Red Army and the Eighth Symphony debuted. The public and more importantly, the authorities expected another triumphant piece from their pet composer. Instead, they got the Eighth Symphony, perhaps the most somber and violent in expression, within Shostakovich's ouevre to date. The government, assigned the name "Stalingrad" to the symphony, explaining that it was an expression of "mourning the dead" in the Battle of Stalingrad, and then effectively, but unofficially banned it until 1956. Shostakovich himself was to have said, "When the Eighth was performed, it was openly declared counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet. They said, 'Why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now? At the beginning we were retreating and now we're attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic, that means he's on the side of the fascists.'"

His Ninth symphony was much lighter in tone, but that too, brought criticism. It was felt in certain circles, and again within the government, that he took the victory over the Nazis too lightly and his music was a fillip and not serious. Even the New York World-Telegram was dismissive of his work. 


Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitry Shostakovich and Aram Khatchaturian

He, along with several other composers would continue to be censured and limited in their work, until the death of Stalin. Once that dictator died, the strictures on music and other arts were freed up a bit. There is a new frost coming however, in the form of Vladimir Putin. He has made several statements and jailed several people for their musical output; the rock group "Pussy Riot" comes to mind. As long as people are not free to express themselves, people are not free. But, it's so encouraging to see people like Mark Sforzini and the men and women of Music America take their own fates into their hands and move ahead to bring freedom of expression to each and every one of us! Thank you Mark. Thank you for everything! 


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