St. Louis Public RadioTonight was exhilarating! Orli told St. Louis Public Radio’s Robert Peterson. They spoke during the intermission of Saturday night’s concert, right after Orli had performed Stumble to Grace with David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony.  That conversation was part of St. Louis Public Radio’s live broadcast of the St. Louis Symphony concert.

You can listen to this interview, as well as an interview with Steve Mackey, on this webpage.

Listen live tonight!

radioLast night’s world premiere performance of Steve Mackey’s Stumble to Grace by Orli Shaham and the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson was fantastic by all accounts. 

Right after the concert, Steve Mackey (@mackeysteven) tweeted:

 I’m thrilled with Stumble to Grace premiere! Robertson and SLSO were brilliant. Sweet, elegant Shaham turns out to be a ferocious soloist!

And in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sarah Bryan Miller writes:  

“Stumble to Grace” is a real tour de force for Shaham, who manages to make it all seem deceptively simple. She and Robertson made its difficult antithetical rhythms work and made it all seem like absolute fun; the orchestra did a superb job with its end of the deal – and Mackey gave everyone a lot to play with.

You can read the entire review HERE.

Tonight’s performance promises to be every bit as good. If you can’t get to Powell Hall tonight, you can hear the entire concert (including Mahler’s Symphony No. 1), on the radio.  KWMU radio will broadcast the concert live tonight beginning at 8:00 pm (that’s 8 pm Central time; 9 pm Eastern time).  In St. Louis, tune in to 90.7 FM on your radio. Outside of St. Louis, visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org/ on your computer for live webstreaming.

Tonight is the Night!

A Concerto is Born!

“The orchestra sounds great!” said Orli, about today’s dress rehearsal with the St. Louis Symphony.  “It’s amazing, mind-boggling really, how quickly David [Robertson] and the orchestra mastered this new concerto.”

Now it’s just a couple of hours before the very first performance of Steve Mackey’s Stumble to Grace, and Orli is beyond excited. “I tried to take a nap this afternoon, but there was no way I could even shut my eyes,” she said.

It’s been quite a week for Orli. On Monday, she and her family welcomed a brand-new nephew into the world. So this week ushers in the birth of two new Shahams. You can hear (at least) one of them loud and clear in its birth week – either in person at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis tonight and tomorrow night, or in a live broadcast on KWMU radio (Saturday only).  In St. Louis, tune in to 90.7 FM, everywhere else, visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org/ for live webstreaming.

Orli Shaham“I can’t even describe how exciting this is,” Shaham says. “This concerto was written for me! How lucky am I?”

 We, the followers of A Concerto Is Born, already get how thrilled Orli Shaham is about the concerto that Steve Mackey is writing for her.  And now, just a few days in advance of Friday’s premiere, much of the rest of the world knows it too, thanks to Sarah Bryan Miller’s great article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Click here to read the entire article.

The Composer as Rock Star

Steve Mackey's Sneaky March at Baby Got Bach

Performing Steve Mackey's Sneaky March at Baby Got Bach

While Steve was meeting with Orli and David at their apartment last week, the couple’s four-year old twin boys arrived home from nursery school. The adults took a break from their business, and introduced the kids to Steve.  When the boys found out that this was the person who wrote “Sneaky March” – one of their favorite songs from the Baby Got Bach concert series, “They went crazy!” said Orli. “They started singing the song, and performing the gestures that go with it – reaching up high, and squatting down to touch the floor. It was an amazing thrill for them to meet the composer.”  Did they treat Steve like he was a rock star?  “Beyond rock star status,” said Orli, “They were absolutely beside themselves with pure joy.”

amending the score

Earlier this week, Orli Shaham, Steve Mackey and David Robertson had a meeting.  It’s common, if not customary, for the composer, conductor and soloist to have a huddle before the premiere of a concerto.  At that meeting, the three talked about the details of the composition, especially the ending.  “There are great musical ideas there,” said Orli, “but the epilogue seemed to need just a little something more after the end of the fugue.”

Inspired by Orli’s comment, Steve asked rather casually if Orli and David were “secretly wishing the piece ended with unqualified bigness?”

“In all honesty, Steve, yes. I do want to get ‘butts out of seats’ with a big ending,” Orli replied.  “The fugue that comes before builds up a lot of momentum, and a lot of tension.  The audience needs a release from that tension – a big ending is the least you can do for them.”  Ultimately, she left the choice to the composer, “As a performer my job is to be committed to what you’d like to communicate.  All I can do is promise to execute either possibility with total conviction.”

As it turned out, Steve had already written a “big finish” a while ago, but then he decided to go in a different direction. The story the concerto follows is the developmental progress of Steve’s young son, Jasper.  As Steve was working on the composition last year, Jasper had two seizures.  Fortunately, those incidences were not repeated, but that served as a blatant reminder to Steve about the fragility of life.  At that point, Steve set aside his sketch for the jaunty, mirthful ending he had written, and he choose instead to go with a bittersweet, reflective conclusion.

One might think it would be a hardship on the performer to learn a whole new section, just days before the premiere performance. Steve himself was afraid that would be problem for Orli.  But as it turned out, Orli mastered it immediately, “I suddenly understood the piece much better from a thematic standpoint,” she said. “It brings together so many of the musical ideas of the piece; it’s just so logical and organic, and it has a very cool-sounding part, technically.  It was a non-issue to learn it, AND, it was much easier to learn than the end of the fugue, which I am still working on,” Orli added, with a wry grin.

~ ~ ~ ~

Orli Shaham and the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson will perform the world premiere of Steve Mackey’s Stumble to Grace on September 23 and 24 at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis, MO.  More information at STLSymphony.org.  KWMU radio will broadcast the concert live on Saturday, September 24 at 8:00 pm.  In St. Louis, tune in to 90.7 FM, or visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org/ for live webstreaming.

It’s the beginning of September.  For many – including Orli Shaham’s family – it’s time to go back to school and back to work. For Orli herself, with just two weeks to go til the premiere of Steve Mackey’s piano concerto, Stumbling to Grace, with the St. Louis Symphony, it’s time for some intense “nose-to-the-keyboard” work.

It’s not as if Orli took the summer off.  On top of all the performances she gave over the summer, she was at the keyboard for hours every day, getting Steve’s work under her fingers, and going over the tougher passages until she is able to execute them flawlessly. 

And now the real push begins.  “I know all the notes, and I feel I understand Steve’s concept for the piece; how he came to this music as a metaphor for the evolution of a person’s intellectual maturity,” says Orli. “Now it’s my job to communicate that message in my interpretation.”

“I’m working at it now so that every moment is second nature, and I can pull it off under any condition, even once we bring the orchestra in for the first time. For me this is the most intense phase of learning a piece, and the most rewarding,” she says, adding, “It’s very different to put a concerto together when you can’t actually go to a recording and listen to it.  That’s the challenge of giving the world premiere performance of a piece.”

Steve’s reaction to Orli’s long hours and laborious efforts on behalf of the new piece: “I’m glad you are sweating a little bit … it is a concerto after all! … and fortune favors the bold.”

Pianist Orli Shaham and composer Steve Mackey
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Sneaky March

In the midst of this composition process, Orli approached Steve to request that he write another composition – a short one for pianist and audience of children. “I thought it would be great to have a piece like that for my classical kids series, Baby Got Bach,” says Orli. 

Sneaky March at Baby Got Bach

Hiding behind the silk scarf for Steve Mackey's "Sneaky March" at Baby Got Bach

The criteria for the composition, Orli told Steve, would be to include musical hooks that will cue the children to take some specific action. Steve, who with his wife Sarah was expecting his second child at the time, came up with “Sneaky March”.  

“It’s a wonderful piece, especially for the audience,” says Orli. Each kid is given a little silk handkerchief which they use to hide behind, wave in the air or touch the floor, depending on what they hear in the music.  “It’s such a great tune, straightforward and catchy, that my 3 ½ year old sons have tried their hand at playing it on piano – and they do it surprisingly well,” beams Orli. 

“Sneaky March” was such a hit at Baby Got Bach that an encore performance was included later in the spring, and the piece just might become part of the core repertoire for the program, alongside Bach, Mozart and Mussorgsky.


 Steve says:

More and more as I get older as a composer, it’s more important for me to have a personal connection with my compositions.  We’ve got a toddler and a baby at home, and Orli and David have two toddlers.  

Our first baby was premature and was in the hospital’s intensive care unit for six weeks.  David and Orli were very supportive through that, they sent clothes and toys, and we bonded over that. 

The piano can be a formidable adversary for the orchestra.  With your ten fingers and your two feet, you can make a big sound.  And the piano has this plinkety quality – the sound of hitting a chord and immediately releasing most of the notes, and leaving just one.  I love this plinkety quality. 

You hear this staccato and this note rings and sounds almost like a broken toy, as if a string were broken.  My idea was to really start the piece with a childlike perspective on the piano.  I’m imagining a narrative where the piano starts off as this broken toy, and over the course of the piece it becomes a rich, warm, full instrument.