Not so many years ago, conductor Stewart Robertson made a point of saying that he was determined to bring his Atlantic Classical Orchestra down from the Treasure Coast into Palm Beach County.
That intention is finally to be realized Wednesday afternoon when the Fort Pierce-based chamber orchestra opens its 24th season with the first of four free rehearsals at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens. These gratis concerts are designed as way to introduce the orchestra to north county audiences, and make listeners aware of another fine symphonic ensemble in their midst.
“This year we’re offering the dress rehearsals free as an incentive to come get to know the orchestra,” Robertson said last month from his home in California. “We’re going to try and cultivate some friends in the community who can maybe host some chamber music events in their homes and invite friends in.
“We don’t want to go in absolutely cold into a brand-new theater and stand and wait, and hope somebody comes,” he said. “We’d like to establish a base of people who have some kind of familiarity with the orchestra, how it plays and what it’s shooting for, so that we have some kind of cushion to land on when we go into the community.”
A wine reception will follow each dress rehearsal, so that patrons can talk to musicians about the orchestra (some of whom are familiar freelance faces in other local ensembles) and its mission.
“My son is involved in the technology world, and he says, ‘If you want to make a success of something, give something for nothing first. That’s the way to get people to literally buy into your project,’” Robertson said.
The north county appearance of the ACO comes after more than two decades of regular appearances by the group on the Treasure Coast. It gives its four-program series Thursday nights at the Waxlax Center in Vero Beach, and then two concerts Fridays at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart. It also operates a three-program series of chamber music performances on Saturdays at the Blake Library in Stuart and Sundays at the Vero Beach Museum of Art.
Founded by trumpeter Andy McMullan, the orchestra released its first disc last year on violinist Elmar Oliveira’s Artek label, an all-Schumann recording featuring Oliveira as soloist in the Violin Concerto, plus two relative rarities: the Hermann und Dorothea overture, and the Overture, Scherzo and Finale.
Robertson, 65, a Scot who studied at the Royal Scottish Academy and under the eminent Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy, was the music director of the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., for nearly 20 years, and also directed the music at Opera Omaha in Nebraska for three years and Florida Grand Opera in Miami, where among his achievements during his 11 seasons there was shepherding the world premiere of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina.
One of Robertson’s primary enthusiasms is repertory expansion, and it was under his guidance that Richard Rodney Bennett’s opera The Mines of Sulphur (1965), forgotten since its premiere, was revived at Glimmerglass and then New York City Opera in the past decade. His ACO programs this season feature a number of unusual pieces: Wednesday’s rehearsal will include an overture by Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s older sister and a formidable composer in her own right, Ginastera’s Variacones Concertantes and the important but rarely heard Symphony No. 1 (in D) of the French opera composer Charles Gounod.
“I’ve been beating the drum on this one for a number of years,” Robertson said of his programming focus. “The available repertory for a chamber orchestra is, shall we say, esoteric repertory in that you’re limited to the 18th century and the early 19th century, and a lot of the 20th century, but there’s a big hole in the 19th century where you really have to look for the repertory.
“So it’s been kind of a mission of mine to make the repertory as varied as I can possibly do,” he said.
He is being helped in that regard by the Rappaport Foundation, a family trust whose founder, Jerome Rappaport, is the chairman of the ACO’s board of directors. The foundation, which chiefly sponsors neurological research, public policy initiative and arts enterprises in greater Boston, established a $100,000 grant to commission four new American pieces for the ACO in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Last season, it sponsored a new piece by the composer David Conte.
Wednesday’s rehearsal will constitute the world premiere of the first 2014 commission, American Vignette, a short four-movement work by the young Garth Neustadter, who at only 27 is already an Emmy winner, receiving one for his score for a PBS American Masters episode on the 19th-century Scots-American naturalist and environmental advocate John Muir.
“Stylistically, it’s got a broadly conservative approach, very rhythmic, very American, very open, very straightforward,” Robertson said. “It’s very Coplandesque, Bernstein-y, with a little bit of John Adams thrown in.
“I hope the last movement will be one of these ones that will have the audience jumping to their feet,” he said. “It’s a very jubilant piece. I think the audience is going to like it.”
A son of band teachers from Green Bay, Wis., Neustadter is a graduate of Lawrence University, where he majored in violin and voice performance, and of Yale, where he studied composition under Aaron Jay Kernis and Christopher Theofanidis.
“I was really fortunate to be there. It was such a vibrant time, and of course it still is at (Yale),” Neustadter said of his studies in New Haven. “There’s such a legacy there, with people like Charles Ives and [Paul] Hindemith haunting the halls. But I think at the same time they’ve forged a really great palette of composers that represent all the aspects of the new identities of American music.”
Neustadter has written scores for Turner Classic Movies, Warner Bros. and CCTV in China, and was the first-prize winner of the TCM Film Composers Competition, which was headed by Hans Zimmer. He recently finished work on Tar, an indie-film story of American poet C.K. Williams starring James Franco and Mila Kunis, and which was directed by a host of New York University film students.
Composing for film on the one hand and concert music on the other requires Neustadter to go about each genre differently.
“For me, concert music and film music cannot necessarily be compared, in the sense that film is such a collaborative art. That’s what I probably enjoy most about working in fil,m is that process of collaboration and working toward a director’s vision,” he said. “And that’s really entirely different than the idea of the composer, especially the composer in the Romantic sense.”
It’s more like the collaborative environment that obtained in the early days of bel canto opera in Italy, in which the genre’s popularity forced composers such as Rossini and Donizetti to write music at a brisk pace.
And that’s what he does when writing film scores.
“Film music I’m usually able to crank out pretty quickly, and that’s usually by necessity of deadlines,” he said. “Concert music, I’ve always been somewhat of a slower writer than probably most. I’ve gotten a little more efficient, but it’s still something that is definitely a process for me, especially in the beginning. It takes me a long time to create that world for a new piece that I want to live in for the next few months as I’m working on it.
“Once you create the rules that you’re going to follow in writing that new piece, it becomes a lot easier to work within that, but you need to set some of your own boundaries and guidelines for the compositional world you’re going to spend time in.”
The world he’s looking at in American Vignette, is somewhat cinematic. He describes it in a program note as “four musical illustrations inspired by the American landscape as seen through the eyes of a traveler.” The first movement, Invitation, is a fanfare-like prelude, and the second, Cerulean Sky, a slow, pensive meditation full of the melodic phraseology and harmonic feel of Copland.
The third, Roadside Attraction, is a big, bustling dance broken up every now and then by comic brass afterbeats, while the finale, The Open Road, draws on Whitman for its sense of unfettered freedom and positive energy; both movements are reminiscent of Bernstein, and part of the finale is built on an Adams-style machine.
Bernstein was an influence in that he drew for his work on many of the same kinds of influences Neustadter does in his, including the popular music of the jazz era, he said.
“The energy, the way he uses a certain openness and brightness of orchestration, are the big things for me that define American music, that brightness and clarity of texture,” he said.
American Vignette’s melodic material has a strong affinity with the riffy nature of jazz.
“My first influences were really from the jazz world, and were more improvisatory in nature,” said Neustadter, who plays saxophone as well as violin and piano. “That’s something in my own style that I forget to analyze ; it’s just there … It’s this grabbing onto these often simple riffs and molding them and shaping them.”
He said the music of the French school of Debussy and Ravel has been important, as has the work of their compatriots in visual art, most notably Claude Monet’s celebrated Haystacks series of 1890.
“Monet would … paint from different perspectives, or find any sort of way of looking at something very simple from a slightly different viewpoint, or a different kind of light. It’s something that I try to do a lot my work,” he said.
Neustadter will be spending some of the next three months on the performance rather than the compositional side, singing in the Los Angeles Opera Chorus for the company’s production of Britten’s Billy Budd, which opens Feb. 22. In addition to small commercial music projects, he’s also begun working on a commission for a wind ensemble back in Wisconsin.
“As a composer, if you can eventually find a voice that feels sincere and genuine, that will always translate in some degree to the audience,” he said. “There are certainly many paths to that outcome, but for myself, if you can write music that feels really true to yourself … it comes down to sincerity. Audiences are wanting to hear something they can understand and relate to, but they don’t need to necessarily understand it in the musical sense of where we break down things to the harmonic and rhythmic levels.
“They just need to understand the concept, or at least what the composer was going for, and generally, things will work out pretty well,” he said.
February’s concerts (Feb. 4-5, 7) feature the venerable Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in the Beethoven Triple Concerto on a program with the Classical Symphony (No. 1 in D, Op. 25) of Prokofiev, and the great Symphony No. 39 (in E-flat, K. 549) of Mozart.
From March 5-7, composer Jeffrey Parola will have a world premiere with his new work for clarinet and orchestra, with soloist Paul Green, who also will solo in Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie. The program also includes Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and a chamber reduction by Klaus Simon of the Mahler First Symphony.
The Stuart-based pianist Lindsay Garritson is the soloist from April 2-4 in the Concerto No. 1 (in G minor, Op. 25) of Felix Mendelssohn; the orchestra also will perform the Barber of Seville overture of Rossini and the Beethoven Third Symphony (in E-flat, Op. 55, Eroica).
Chamber works this season include Beethoven and Schubert string quartets Jan. 18-19, an all American program of piano trios by Charles Wakefield Cadman, Amy Beach and Paul Schoenfield on Feb. 22 and 23, and a concert of tango music by the Chicago-based duo of pianist Ani Gogova and cellist Ian Maksin on March 22 and 23.
Robertson said he expects the ACO to be doing four concert sets for the next two or three years, but would like to play those programs as many as six times. He’d also like to follow the Schumann disc with recordings of the Rappaport commissions.
He said the musicians of the orchestra have been “phenomenally loyal,” and thinks that its regular forays into out-of-the-way programming is part of the reason.
“We have a decent amount of rehearsal, and they get to play some fresh new repertory,” he said. “Some they like more than others; so does the audience. But it’s always a challenge, and they like the breath of fresh air. They really enjoy playing for the orchestra for those reasons.”
The Atlantic Classical Orchestra offers its first free dress rehearsal starting at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Eissey Campus Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens. A wine reception follows. The formal concerts are set for 8 p.m. Thursday at the Waxlax Center in Vero Beach, and at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart. Tickets for the concerts are $55-$60; call 772-460-0850 or visit www.atlanticclassicalorchestra.com.