Nine Questions for Maestro Barbara Yahr of the Greenwich Village Orchestra
The Greenwich Village Orchestra, as their name implies, draws on some of the finest classical talent from a neighborhood that’s been synonymous with artsy downtown New York for decades. They play a diverse and characteristically thematic program this Sunday, November 20 at 3 PM: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture; Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 16th and Irving Place. There’s a reception to follow: all this for a suggested donation of $15. The orchestra’s dynamic musical director, Barbara Yahr, took some time to answer a few lingering questions about this elite ensemble:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: The GVO seems to be one of New York’s hidden treasures. You get major grants, you’ve played innumerable world premieres and New York premieres by important current-day composers. You are held in high esteem especially by musicians – it seems that practically everyone at your concerts is one! I’ve been going to your concerts for over a decade at the auditorium at 16th and Irving Place.
Barbara Yahr: I’m so glad to hear that!
LCC: Has this become a comfortable home for you?
BY: This is a wonderful home for us…with fantastic acoustics!
LCC: Does this have anything to do with the fact that audiences can literally get on top of the orchestra and experience the rush you get from being so close to the beast? I remember being a kid at Carnegie Hall and sneaking down from the peanut gallery to the orchestra during intermission. Here, it doesn’t cost $100 to get a good seat for the entire show….
BY: Low ticket price is only one of the great things about the GVO experience – but it does make a difference. We love the fact that the audience is so close – at family concerts, we like to bring kids up on stage! The next one is December 11 at 3 PM.
LCC: You remember the uproar when Alan Gilbert increased the number of rehearsals per concert for the New York Phil? How many rehearsals does the GVO typically have per performance?
BY: We usually have six – not that many when you realize that most fulltime, professional orchestras only have four and occasionally five.
LCC: In what way if any does your orchestra’s somewhat less hectic workload impact the quality of your performances, by comparison to, say, the Philharmonic or the New York City Opera?
BY: We get to live with the music for several weeks, which is a delightful luxury. We can get into the inner workings of a piece of music, really take it apart and put it back together.
LCC: You like themes. I’m assuming that you’re the one responsible for coming up with with the November 20 program, right? And would you say that this particular one is more thematic musically, or narrative-wise?
BY: This program is only thematic in extra-musical terms. All of the pieces make use of imagery. This way of writing music, as opposed to an abstract symphony with no clear extra-musical idea, does affect the composers, but these are three – four if you count Ravel, who orchestrated the Mussorgsky – very different composers.
LCC: There’s obviously a lot of camaraderie in this ensemble. To what degree if any is this a democratic institution, for example, if an inspired member of the winds says, “We ought to do this a certain way,” for example. How do you as conductor handle that?
BY: I love it when a player has an opinion – and if I like it, or find it interesting or exciting, of course we go with it! If it’s something I don’t feel works musically, then we have a discussion. An orchestra cannot be a pure democracy but it’s not a dictatorship. It requires leadership, but in the end, the best performances are collaborative.
LCC: Dynamic contrasts and the desire to portray one thing or another via the music seem to be especially important to this orchestra. Among these pieces, are there parts that you’ve singled out specifically for the orchestra to focus on? For example, in the Mussorgsky, how creepy are you going to make The Gnome? Or are you going to see how quiet and mysterious you can get with The Catacombs?
BY: I think the Gnome is pretty darn creepy, and yes, this piece is full of contrasts…but the heart of the work is found in understanding the backstory, the friendship between Mussorgsky and the painter of the Pictures, Victor Hartmann. For me, we are there, with the composer, at the exhibition of his friends’ works, walking from picture to picture. At the end, after he has visits the Catacombs, he confronts and accepts the death of his friend and is perhaps celebrating his friend with the finale, the Great Gate. This is a personal interpretation but it is, for me, a meaningful narrative for the piece, and helps us to understand the work as more than just a series of attractive pieces depicting a set of paintings.
LCC: Are you recording this? Any plans to release any of this material in the future?
BY: We always record our concerts— stay tuned!
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