Symphonic tendencies

Grant Cooper guest conducts the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in a collaboration with North Carolina Dance Theatre and the Chautauqua School of Dance on Aug. 13. Cooper steps to the podium again Saturday in the CSO’s penultimate performance of the 2011 Season. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Cellist Albers joins guest conductor Cooper in CSO’s penultimate 2011 Season performance

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Guest conductor Grant Cooper and cellist Julie Albers have worked together many times before but never have played together with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Join them in a concert featuring Edward Elgar’s cello concerto and Brahms’ fourth symphony at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.

Cooper said Albers is a real joy to work with and loves music deeply, which makes her a compelling presence onstage.

“I enjoy working with Julie because she understands the parameters of collaboration with an orchestra so instinctively and intuitively that we can trust each other,” he said.

Albers said Cooper always is very pleasant and easy to work with.

“In this world, anytime you can work with somebody two or three times … you get to know each other and know how to work with one another, and it just makes everything very comfortable,” she said.

Albers said the Elgar cello concerto is a cornerstone of the repertoire because it uses the cello in a different way.

“This concerto uses the cello as if it were a human voice, and I think that’s why it touches people about it,” she said. “(Elgar) has picked out the best qualities of a cello, as an instrument, and put them into this work.”

She described the piece as more of a chamber work than a large symphonic work, which creates an intimate, touching atmosphere to go with the concerto’s incredible, heart-wrenching moments. It’s not as technical as some cello concertos but requires deep musicality.

“That’s what makes or breaks this piece,” she said. “The more experience I have in life, the better I’m going to play it.”

The cello concerto has an indirect connection to the concert’s opening piece, Byron Adams’ 1991 “Capriccio Concertante.” Adams is a scholar of English music, particularly of Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

“His dedication to those two composers shows that the same kinds of principles that drove them to be very strong, immediate communicators with their audience imbues his own music as well,” Cooper said.

By programming this engaging piece, Cooper said, he hopes to show that contemporary music can be appreciated on first listen.

“It doesn’t mean that you can listen to it once and get everything that it has to offer, but it does mean that it’s a piece that intends to engage its listeners,” he said.

“Capriccio Concertante” uses compelling harmonies, clear melodic gestures and music from a well-known hymn in its second theme. Its sinfonia concertante form is a mini-concerto for the orchestra, designed to show off different sections with flamboyant writing.

Cooper described the “Capriccio Concertante” as an inviting entrance to a castle of works, where Elgar’s cello concerto and Brahms’ fourth symphony, both in E minor, are furnished very differently but cut from the same stone and orchestral color.

Cooper likened Brahms’ fourth and final symphony to a concentrated essence: Brahms releases it and then savors every fragrant note. Cooper said the symphony is the pinnacle of achievement of symphonic form.

“What I continue to find about Brahms, in particular, is my appreciation of the care taken by a beating musical heart,” he said.

Cooper explained what he meant by “care” with a Brahms adage: Brahms spends all morning working on a piece, and by lunch, he’s only committed one note to the score. After lunch, he continues working on the piece, and he takes the same note out. Cooper said part of this care comes from Brahms’ respect for the musical traditions that came before him.

The fourth symphony is an homage to Beethoven’s symphonic ideas and employs some of the same musical conventions in a new way, Cooper said. The symphony is remarkable in its form: sonata and passacaglia forms are built on the concept of repetition, but nothing is repeated in the symphony, and sometimes the changes are unbelievably subtle.

“Every time I have an opportunity to hear Brahms’ music, I take it,” Cooper said.

Brahms also is part of the reason why Cooper is a conductor. For 10 years, he played trumpet and conducted.

“And for five, it was OK,” he said. “I realized, as time went by, that my love of Brahms, for example, was able to be expressed in a more profound way by conducting.”

Cooper also composes. The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra just released “Tales from the West Virginia Hills,” an album of his original works. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts commissioned him to write a chamber music piece for its 2010 American Residencies program, and it will debut at the center in its upcoming season.

Cooper just finished his 10th season with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted CSO concerts since 2005, including two ballets with the North Carolina Dance Theatre in residence earlier this season, on July 12 and Aug. 13.

Tonight’s concert is Albers’ third performance with the CSO.

She grew up in a very musical family — her mother gave violin lessons out of their Longmont, Colo. home.

“I was 5 or 6 by the time I realized that everybody didn’t play an instrument,” Albers said. “I just thought this was the norm.”

Though she grew up with music, Albers didn’t always know she wanted to be a professional musician. She had the opportunity to spend her junior year in high school in the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Albers gave herself one year to see if she liked it and immediately fell in love with the environment.

She also plays in the Albers Trio with her sisters, violinist Laura and violist Rebecca.

“It came about because we never see each other,” she said. “One sister is in California; one is in Minnesota, and I’m in New York. We decided that we wanted to see each other more frequently, so we decided, what better way than to work together? It’s been a really fun addition to all of our lives.”

Albers is about to move to Atlanta to assume the cello chair at the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University. She enjoys the variety of her musical career in teaching, chamber music and concert performance.

“For me, it’s always just finding the right balance of those three aspects of music in order to make my life complete and feel very fulfilling,” she said.

Albers and Cooper will meet again in the upcoming West Virginia Symphony Orchestra season, in two concerts featuring Robert Schumann’s cello concerto on Oct. 21 and 22.