Stanford Philharmonia conductor orchestrates a set of challenges

Three 19th-century French works are paired with a world premiere by a local musician and composer, commissioned by a Stanford alumnus.

Each of the four works to be performed in Stanford Philharmonia’s first concert of the academic year presents a challenge of one sort or another, which is all part of Anna Wittstruck’s plan.

Anna Wittstruck

Anna Wittstruck conducts Stanford Philharmonia, which will perform two concerts this week. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Philharmonia)

Wittstruck, the acting assistant professor and interim music director and conductor of orchestral studies in the Department of Music, conducts Stanford Philharmonia, a select chamber orchestra comprising 55 Stanford students, postdocs, university staff, alumni and community members. Her goals for the orchestra include performing challenging and unfamiliar works, and collaborating with guest performers.

On Nov. 12 the chamber orchestra will perform a varied and evocative program of French and Spanish music in Bing Concert Hall. It features the chamber collective Ensemble SF in a world premiere by local composer and clarinetist José González Granero.

The concert opens with Claude Debussy’s intimate Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, followed by González’s Concerto da Camera. The second half of the program includes Hector Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été and Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. Mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich lends her voice to sing Berlioz’s piece.

Poetry and performance

The first piece in the concert program, Debussy’s Faune, is a challenge for the performers. It is based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s dream poem L’après-midi d’un faune depicting a fantasy about sexual coercion. “The words sound beautiful and sensual, the poem is beautifully written and the music that Debussy creates to complement Mallarmé’s symbolist solution to printing erotic/scandalous content is moving and alluring,” Wittstruck said.

“Yet the poem’s first person narration makes me feel complicit and uneasy, and that we are getting the faun’s perspective as he imagines a non-consensual encounter is all the more disquieting. It’s kind of like reading Lolita – which is also beautifully written, but uncomfortable to read.”

Wittstruck calls the work “an orchestral tour-de-force” that is extremely difficult, particularly for the principal flute, played by Adrian Sanborn. “It requires lots of concentration, but also lots of feeling, and, of course, wrestling with the oblique and sublimated rendering of the poem’s content,” she said.

Sanborn, who earned a master’s degree at New England Conservatory before coming to Stanford, is now a third year doctoral student in computer science. He said playing the Debussy piece is both incredibly exciting and nerve-racking. “It’s a huge responsibility because the flute is featured as a soloist throughout, and it is that voice which guides the whole orchestra through its mystical journey.”

In this election year where sexual assault is a central topic, Wittstruck is using the Philharmonia’s performance of Debussy’s work and the rarely performed Berlioz piece to examine portrayals of women in 19th-century French poetry and music. She is moving the conversation from the political arena to the performance stage with a dorm event for students, staff and faculty called “Pizza, Poetry, and Performance” Nov. 9 in Toyon Hall.

Wittstruck and Heather Hadlock, associate professor of music, will lead a discussion on how women are represented in 19th-century French poetry and music and how we continue engaging with art that aestheticizes sexual violence, such as the Mallarmé poem.

“My goal is for students to engage more fully with the music they perform by learning about its context and connecting it to other areas of their intellectual and emotional lives,” Wittstruck said. “With Faune, I wanted them to read Mallarmé’s poem, but also have a chance to digest it and discuss it through a cultural and historical framework.

“Though depicted obliquely through beautiful-sounding Symbolist text, the faun’s first-person narration, in which he dreams about a non-consensual sexual encounter with two young girls, invokes some uncomfortable realities for 21st-century audiences. This raises issues and ideas for our campus that extend well beyond one concert, and rather than ignore them, or opt not to perform this music, I think we have an opportunity to connect people to ideas and conversation in a powerful and healthy way,” said Wittstruck.

Philharmonia students, as well as Stanford Symphony Orchestra students and anybody planning to attend the Nov. 12 concert, are encouraged to attend the discussion to learn more about Mallarmé’s poem and the Berlioz songs and to hear guest Kindra Scharich sing two songs from Les nuits d’été.

Debut to drumroll

The second piece in the concert program, González’s Concerto da Camera, is a world premiere that is a collaboration with another group of musicians.

González is the principal clarinetist with San Francisco Opera and frequent composer for Ensemble SF. This new piece is a performance collaboration with guests from Ensemble SF; Rebecca Jackson, violin; Jonah Kim, cello; and ensemble co-founder and Stanford alumna Christine McLeavey.

Camera was commissioned by alumnus David Kaun and dedicated to the Hungarian-born composer and conductor Sandor Salgo, who taught and conducted the music and opera programs at Stanford from 1949-1973.

Kaun, who played in the Stanford orchestra under Salgo and is now a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, recalls Salgo fondly. “He was a superb conductor, but not easy.” Kaun’s most vivid memory of Salgo is not one of the maestro with his baton, but rather the man dancing with his young daughter in the Stanford Shopping Center courtyard.

Wittstruck said she loves opportunities to collaborate with guest artists because the energy and musical expertise they bring to the room is infectious and they make a lasting impact on orchestra students. “It is particularly exciting to work with a living composer. When we have a question, I say, ‘Let’s ask José!’ It’s not like you can do that when you’re playing Mozart,” she said.

French horn player David Simpson, who is finishing postdoctoral research in lung cancer at the School of Medicine, also appreciates the accessibility of the composer. “We are always trying to get in the head of the composer,” he said. “The advantage of working with a living composer is that we can directly interact with them and know exactly what they want, and often it can be something different than what we can infer from the printed music alone.”

Alas, Maurice Ravel is not around for Simpson.

Pavane pour une infante défunte is a notorious challenge for horn players because it features solo passages that are delicate, exposed, in an uncomfortably high register, and must be played softly. It is like performing a high wire act above the orchestra that is graceful while you are constantly aware there is no net. Horn players know to expect to play this under pressure as an excerpt in most high horn auditions,” said Simpson.

This concert is an opportunity to feature orchestra players like Simpson and Sanborn but also to collaborate with great artists from the community. The winter concert scheduled for Feb. 11 in Bing Concert Hall includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C Minor and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony no. 103 in E-flat Major, “Drumroll.”