By Tim Munro
“It is intimate. You feel like you’re in nature,” says SLSO Concertmaster David Halen. “It makes you appreciate the Earth, this wonderful world we live in.”
Halen, perched on a stool in his cozy dressing room in Powell Hall, is talking about Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. He will play the work with Music Director Designate Stéphane Denève in February. As Halen speaks, his violin, held in one hand, traces flight patterns in the air. He had never played Vaughan Williams’ work before this past summer.
“It has an unusual niche,” he says. It is too short to program as a concerto, but its intimacy means it can be easily overshadowed.
That’s why Halen is so delighted that Denève has paired it with Vaughan Williams’ radiant work for sixteen solo voices and orchestra, Serenade to Music, which Halen calls “a stunning piece.”
When Halen and Denève collaborated on the giant violin solo in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Halen was struck by the insight of the SLSO’s next Music Director. “I’ve played Heldenleben many times, but with him I had a fresh set of ears.”
“He has a wonderful and infectious love of musical poetry,” says Halen, which will be perfect for The Lark Ascending, inspired by a poem by nineteenth century writer George Meredith, that conjures the flight and song of the lark.
At this point, Halen turns his focus to the work of his colleagues in the orchestra. “I like the fact that the SLSO tends to use the orchestra as soloists frequently,” he says. It works because the orchestra is of a consistent and very high quality.
“One of the biggest problems we have in an orchestra is that you’re one part in a very large piece of musical machinery.”
It is healthy, he says, for players to be challenged by the very different demands of solo playing.
“Solo performance helps you stay connected with a different part of your musical self, keeps you in shape.” It also allows for a moment of self-reflection. “It’s like giving a speech in public,” says Halen, “it forces you to listen to your own voice.”
Asked about what it feels like to soar with Vaughan Williams’ lark, Halen says that at its best, a performance can stop time.
“There is a zone I go into, and space and time are lost. It becomes about a meditation. There’s a certain inner peace, even with an audience, even in public.”
“If you’re wondering how you’re going to execute things, or if you’re hung up on something, then nothing really phenomenal happens that night.”
How does a musician know when that moment might occur? “That’s the life we live. It’s very precarious.”
“Music allows you stop and you reflect,” says Halen, “and realize how fortunate we are. We forget this 99.9% of the time. But to be able to look up at the clouds.” This thought brings him to the work at hand. “The Lark Ascending forces you to do this.”
"No, I really can’t.” SLSO Principal Flute Mark Sparks spins slowly on a rotating chair, waiting for inspiration. “It’s not there. I really can’t remember the first time I played it.”
“It” is Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto, which Sparks will play with SLSO Principal Harp Allegra Lilly and Resident Conductor Gemma New in April.
Sparks does vividly remember the first time he heard Mozart’s concerto. It was in this very hall, in Powell Hall, played by the SLSO’s then-Principal Flute Jacob Berg. Sparks is still haunted by the sound of his old teacher, by the sound of the work.
“That Mozart would choose that sonority, that combination of flute and harp. I have to think that at the time it was quite progressive, the idea of writing a concerto for flute and harp.”
Both instruments were at an earlier, more rudimentary point in their development. Sparks calls the concerto’s slow movement “one of the most divine things that Mozart wrote. It’s just on a level, in terms of the sheer sonority,” says Sparks, that Mozart never achieved elsewhere. And that is quite apart from the fact that it has one of the most beautiful melodies in the flute repertoire.
And Sparks feels honored to share the stage with Lilly. “Allegra is such a dream as a musician,” Sparks says.
The two have played chamber music together, including Debussy’s trio for flute, viola, and harp. Again, it is the sound that affects him, that draws him in. “Allegra’s sound is in a class by itself. To make that much sound with such a beautiful tone is quite rare.”
And balancing volumes in the Mozart concerto is always a challenge. With a quiet harpist and a more dominant flute, says Sparks, “it can start to sound like a flute concerto with harp backup. The harpist has to be a gladiator.”
Playing a duo concerto, with two soloists instead of one, adds an extra challenge.
“It’s an über-chamber music experience. There are a lot of moving parts.”
The key figure in this negotiation is the conductor, and Sparks is delighted to be collaborating with Gemma New on this project.
“I think she’s one of the most exciting musicians on the scene.”
What sets New apart? The job of an orchestral player, says Sparks, is to understand a conductor’s ideas and to put them into action. But with a conductor like New, “who has such a warm heart and appeals to you so openly as a musician,” he just wants to play for her. “She’s utterly and completely genuine.”
As we finish our interview, Sparks thinks again about that elusive first perfor- mance. “Maybe I was so scared of my first performance that I blocked it out.” Playing Mozart is like walking on a tight-rope. “If there’s the slightest thing that’s wrong, you feel totally naked.”
“It’s super-difficult,” he says, “but super-fun.”
This article appears in the January edition of Playbill.