During most nights of the year, Woolsey Hall’s 2,650 seats remain unoccupied. But the Yale Symphony Orchestra will likely be playing to a full house Monday night for its annual Halloween Show.
As in past years, the Halloween Show will feature a student-directed silent film with the orchestra accompanying with both classical and pop music. But while in past years the event has been a largely YSO-organized affair, this year marks the first time that the orchestra has invited non-YSO students to write the film’s plot and script. After soliciting student ideas, the YSO chose the concept — kept a secret until the performance — of Film and Media Studies major Connor Szostak ’17.
This year’s film will be a comedic parody of a recent popular movie, with some romance sprinkled in, said YSO French horn player Morgan Jackson ’18. Jackson directed this year’s Halloween Show film and compiled the accompanying orchestral music.
“This is the first year in which we’ve had a separate editor and director of photography,” Jackson said. “This let us spend much more time on each scene to make it better, and means that we don’t have a frantic rush job at the end as in past years.”
Because Halloween 2016 falls on a Monday, rather than on a Friday or Saturday as in the past two years, ticket demand for the show was lower this year. Tickets sold out this year in 10 minutes, which Jackson described as a “slowdown” compared to previous years. A policy limiting one ticket per person also slowed demand, Jackson said. In previous years, people were able to purchase more than one ticket per order.
Ticket sales went live at 10:31 p.m. this fall, a shift from midnight in past years, in an effort to make tickets more accessible for students who did not want to stay up late.
The show will consist of 28 musical pieces, three-fourths of which will come from the classical tradition and one-fourth from contemporary pop music, all adapted by YSO students. Jackson said the pop segments will play important roles at key moments in the film.
“I think it’s so ironic and funny for a full orchestra to be playing pop music,” said YSO bassist Arvind Venkataraman ’19. “Especially for us bassists, we usually have really subdued lines in classical music, but in these pop pieces, we have lines that are usually for the electric bass guitar and are really driving and almost like rock music.”
For members of the orchestra, the idea of performing in front of a full Woolsey Hall never loses its appeal, no matter how many times they have done it before.
“The Halloween Show is so awesome, because when else are you going to have thousands of people screaming at you as a classical musician?” said principal percussionist Adrian Lin ’18. “We as an orchestra definitely feed off of the energy of the audience — in our minds it gives us a glimpse of what it is like to be a rock star for a few moments.”
For students who were unable to purchase Halloween Show tickets this year, the show will be streamed live online with a link on the YSO website.
Student musicians said the Halloween Show attests to the value that the whole undergraduate body places on performing arts.
“I don’t think you can find any other college where people want to go to a concert on a Halloween night,” assistant concertmistress Annabel Chyung ’19 said.
The orchestra will rehearse three times before the final show — on Friday, the orchestra will learn their music for the first time, and then on Sunday and Monday they will practice matching the musical performance to the screenplay.
This year’s Halloween show was produced with a budget of roughly $500 over eight weeks.
Yale isn’t cheap. Everyone knows that tuition costs upwards of $60,000 a year. Books cost more than $1,000 a semester (DS, anyone?). Woads costs $5 a week. You may try to cut out extraneous expenditures, but when your friends want to have dinner at Harvest, all your penny-pinching promises go out the window. By May — once we’ve accounted for Claire’s cravings and Blue State runs and sales at Urban and late night Yorkside — our bank accounts are nearly depleted.
In my first year at Yale, I wasted a lot of money on impulsive, unsound investments. I did, however, make one investment that stood out from the rest. (No, it did not involve fossil fuels.)
In August, I bought a season pass to the Yale Symphony Orchestra. Though I’m a habitual and foolish spender, this was, without a doubt, the best purchase I made all year.
The season pass is worth the $39 (or less, if you’re willing to forego prime seating in the first balcony) purely because it will save you from developing a stress ulcer in an attempt to buy a coveted Halloween show ticket. While your peers might end up paying obscenely inflated prices to attend the famed spectacle, you will glide into Woolsey on All Hallow’s Eve (for only $15) and sit directly behind the seat reserved for President Peter Salovey (as I did this year).
In addition, you would most likely pay double the cost of YSO’s entire season to listen to the first song in their repertoire at Carnegie Hall or a similarly esteemed institution. Never again will we have the opportunity to enjoy classical music of this caliber at such a low price.
And on April 18, this year’s season will surely close with a bang, not a whimper. The final show will feature Prokofiev’s lyrical Piano Concerto No. 3 and Strauss’ famed An Alpine Symphony. As YSO violist Katie Martin ‘18 said, “This concert was special to me because it features one of my absolute favorite piano concertos, Prokofiev’s Third, which is joyous and melancholic and spirited and dolorous by turns, allowing our pianist to shine.”
In this year’s first concert, the “All French Program” on Sep. 27, the musicians gave gorgeous renditions of works by Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Fauré. I spent the first month of my Yale career anticipating this night, and the show was well worth the wait. The symphony began with Debussy’s Prélude de l’après-midi d’une faune, a perfect opening to the program and to the season as a whole. I was transported out of New Haven and into the enchanted meadow where I imagine Debussy’s titular faun resides.
YSO’s second performance was none other than the infamous Halloween show. (I showed up an hour early to ensure that I had the best seat in the house.) As the film and accompanying score began, I realized that this was the closest I would ever get to the heart of Yale. That moment encapsulated everything that the University represents for me: a steadfastly collaborative community celebrating art and creativity. The Halloween show displayed the highest point of student achievement I could imagine.
If the Halloween show was one high point of the season, YSO’s rendering of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in B Minor was another. As a YSO groupie, I had naturally attended a benefit concert at which YSO had previewed the symphony. I was instantly hooked.
I proceeded to listen to the “unfinished” work incessantly until YSO’s next official concert, which began with the YSO premiere of composer Thomas Duffy’s “Heart Throb.” I was initially skeptical of the contemporary work, since I’m a die-hard fan of classical music, but YSO delivered a gorgeous performance of an innovative and striking piece, whose piercing, pulsating rhythm had *my* heart throbbing with excitement. I brought a non-Yale friend along to enjoy my beloved Schubert with me, and the two of us were nearly in tears by the time YSO finished the “unfinished” symphony.
The final peak of an extraordinary season was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Having read Petrarch, Milton and Wordsworth, I was familiar with the authors’ quests for the sublime — I found the object of their pursuit in Woolsey that evening as YSO graced the audience with one of the most beautiful and powerful love themes in history. Despite the melody’s universal renown, YSO brought out something new in a piece I had heard hundreds of times before. I sat through the concert with my eyes closed, tears welling up behind my lids. I had no idea that an undergraduate orchestra could ever have that effect on me.
Renowned conductor Sir Gilbert Levine, known as “The Pope’s Maestro” for his close connection to John Paul II, graduated from the Juilliard School of Music, received an A.B. from Princeton and completed his M.A. here at Yale. Since then, he has strived to foster close connections between composer and conductor, conductor and orchestra, and orchestra and audience. His teachers include the notable Milton Babbitt and Nadia Boulanger, and his dynamic musical career has carried him to international stages from Italy to Krakow. In 1994, Pope John Paul II honored Levine’s efforts to promote common chords of understanding between Judaism and the Catholic Church by deeming him a “Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great.” Inspired by the great cultural figurehead Leonard Bernstein from a young age, Sir Gilbert has also conducted music for millions through public television. February 22 promises to be another winning spectacle as he channels composers Richard Danielpour and Gustav Mahler at the helm of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. The program includes narration from President Peter Salovey, soloists from the Yale Camerata and musicians from the Yale School of Music and Yale Glee Club. Earlier this week, Sir Gilbert serenaded WEEKEND with prescient thoughts on music, the art of conducting and the perks of channeling Mahler.
Q. How did you come to conduct the upcoming performance?
A. My son, Gabriel Levine ’14, is the principal bassoonist in the YSO. Toshi [YSO Musical Director Toshiyuki Shimada] asked me whether I would like to conduct the YSO and I said, “With my son in it? Of course.”
Q. So New Haven is not uncharted territory?
A. I received my M.A. here at Yale and I’ve been a fellow of Trumbull for many years and have done a number of Master’s Teas. So I’ve really enjoyed my university connection; however, this is the best — getting to conduct my son in the YSO. The program is just an astonishing Yale program because we’re doing a work by Richard Danielpour called “Washington Speaks” on, I believe, Washington’s birthday — which includes the words of Washington on religious tolerance. There is also a fantastic Yale connection to those words because Ezra Stiles, the third president of Yale, was the pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport and was present at the inauguration in 1763 of the Touro Synagogue, which was the synagogue to which Washington wrote the letter. So it’s like coming full circle.
So, this issue of religious liberty at Yale goes back to its founding and certainly to Ezra Stiles. Then you have this incredible arc to Peter Salovey, who comes from a great rabbinic family. The Soloveitchik rabbis are a legendary family of rabbis from White Russia and from Brest-Litovsk. To have as the President of Yale the son of a great rabbinic family and stretching back that tradition to Ezra Stiles, who befriended a rabbi in Newport, and to have Washington write that letter — there’s just a remarkable confluence there.
Then the Mahler Second Symphony is this gargantuan canvas, and because it’s so large and rich, we have the members of the YSO and we have students at the YSM who are filling out the sections, particularly the brass of the YSO. Then you have the Yale Glee Club and the Yale Camerata (an undergraduate and graduate ensemble) and you have students and a faculty members singing. I love that. That’s just a great Yale event. I’m really looking forward to that aspect of it.
Q. It seems the music is unifying all of these different parties.
A. That’s what it’s about and that’s what a lot of my life has been about is music as a unifying force. I did the Mahler Second Symphony at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome and the Imam of the Mosque of Rome at the concert called the Papal Concert of Reconciliation with the Pittsburgh Symphony and choruses from Krakow, London, Turkey and Pittsburgh and two German soloists. Again, bringing people together is what music does. So, this is the Yale cast. President Salovey has just been fantastic.
Q. Do you think these religious themes are particularly relevant today?
A. They’re more relevant today than maybe at any time in history if you look at the killing that’s going on around the world in the name of religion. We are a Holocaust family so we lost forty members of our family from racial hatred of the most extreme kind. If you look at what’s going on now in Syria among Muslims — it’s a deep human tragedy that people kill in the name of God. We can use whatever means (and I use music because it’s my art) to bring people together and to remind people of what we have in common: our human characteristics. It’s something which obviously formed the core of my relationship with Pope John Paul II, he being Polish-Catholic, I being of Polish-Jewish heritage (or Jewish with Polish heritage). Finding a bridge, finding a way to use music as a language of at-one-ment is extraordinary. When you have your art serve that purpose with one of the great spiritual leaders of all time, now to be made a saint on April 27, it’s an honor and a responsibility and a privilege as an artist.
Q. Was there a pivotal moment in your early years when you realized music was your art?
A. Most people are forced by their parents to practice. I may have been guilty about doing that to our sons a little bit but I was never forced. My family was a very unmusical family. We had a little spinet piano so my mother could play folk songs. I, from a very early age, couldn’t be dragged away from the piano. I’m sure that the sounds I was making were horrendous because I had no training and I was just pounding but there was something mystical about those sounds. They struck a chord with me that was really profound. I remember feeling that way from the earliest possible age, that music had that capacity for me to reach a different level of understanding with the world. It brought me away from the world in a way that was remarkable but also tuned me into the world in a way that was as remarkable. Later, I began studying seriously. It became clear music could be a profession, but at first it was a state of being. I learned I was more proficient at music than I was at language and I was more proficient at expressing myself through music.
When I encountered symphony orchestras, I guess at eleven or twelve, I said, “My God, somebody can make something sound like that?” It was sure no spinet piano. It was something quite remarkable. The person who did that was Leonard Bernstein. I met him once very late in his life at Tanglewood, but he was a television personality. There were no American conductors before him, so he was the first and I said, “Oh wow, I can actually do that!” He was my inspiration. My mother even wrote a letter to his assistant saying, “What do I do with this crazy kid?” He said to find somebody of impeccable credentials and have him give your son a brutally honest answer as to whether he has talent. So my mother trundled me off without telling me what was going on to audition for this guy and he called her just shortly after my lesson and said, “It’s okay. He’s got the goods.”
Q. What do you see as the ideal role of the conductor?
A. My job is first of all to have an idea, to understand a score sufficiently. You are the composer’s representative. And that’s not so simple because it takes a tremendous amount of abnegation of ego to put yourself in the service of composer. It takes endless hours of just trying to understand the creative impetus, the creative core of a piece of music and then to translate that in your own mind. My method of studying, for instance, is that I sit at a table with an open score — no recording, no nothing. I allow the notes to speak with me. I have to come to an understanding of what Brahms or Beethoven or Mahler is trying to say. My conductor’s brain comes in as far as translating that conception to the orchestra. That’s the talent. You have to take the composer’s view as you know it and then make that sum greater than the parts.
Q. What was your creative process in preparation for conducting Mahler?
A. When I went back to study Mahler’s Second again for this performance, I found new things that made sense to me. It’s like reading a Shakespeare play. You can read it in every decade of your life and you will understand it differently. Every time I do the Mahler Second Symphony, I learn new things that Mahler or Mahler’s culture imbued and imprinted into that symphony. There are many, many right ways of doing the Mahler Second. There’s only one right way for me right now this week.
Q. Some of the audience members in Woolsey this Saturday, I imagine, will be Mahler devotees.
A. But many not. And that’s very important because I conduct for everyone in the hall. If there are Mahler devotees, they’ll compare my performance with the 25 other performances they’ve heard. If they’re hearing it for the first time, that’s even better. You’re introducing them to the colossal masterwork. I am acutely aware that there will be people in the audience who will be very, very well versed and people who really will have nothing of an experience. Or there will be people who are deeply religious and come at it from that point of view and be uplifted by it spiritually. That’s a fascinating thing to see: that spiritual uplift that happens regardless of what you think you believe. I am about music and spirit, and bringing music and spirit together, because I think they are one and the same when they are done properly.
Q. So that they transcend …
A. Yes. When I was here getting a Master’s, Leopold Stokowski, a famous British conductor of Polish heritage, came and it was my job to prepare the Yale Philharmonia for his arrival. I prepared them on the stage of Woolsey; it was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This limousine pulled up to the stage door of Woolsey and Stokowski got out, aided by an assistant, and I don’t think he knew where he was. He was maybe ninety years old. But when he got on stage, he connected with the audience in an electric way. His spirit and his brain were turned on. He sat down and transformed the Philharmonia and made them come alive with his understanding. He was a genius conductor. That’s what music does — to those who make it and to the orchestra itself.
Q. And to the audience as well?
A. Yes! And that’s our goal, to be the medium for the composer to reach the audience with his or her music.
Q. And for people who are less familiar with Mahler or classical music?
A. They will be blown out of their chairs! And that is the truth. This piece will literally blow them away! The Mahler is a piece which brings people out of their chairs. It is overwhelming and uplifting in the way the Beethoven Ninth is. There are very few pieces where you walk away saying, “Wow! That was an unbelievable experience!” It is a great experience for somebody who’s never been to a concert. I think the Salovey and “Washington Speaks” element is wonderful as a Yale moment. Woolsey Hall will rock! I think every single person on campus and in the town will find it uplifting. I didn’t do that. Mahler did.
Correction, Feb. 21: a previous version of this article misspelled the name of Leopold Stokowski.