Seattle Times: ‘All-Star Orchestra’ premieres classical music on TV

Composer Samuel Jones and violin soloist Anne Akiko Meyers after the TV filming of his new concerto for “All-Star Orchestra.”

Composer Samuel Jones and violin soloist Anne Akiko Meyers after the TV filming of his new concerto for “All-Star Orchestra.”

The Seattle Times
By Tom Keogh

What do Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1951 one-act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” Igor Stravinsky’s 1962 “The Flood: A Musical Play” and Samuel Jones’ 2014 “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra” have in common?

They are some of the only works of classical music whose world premieres were television productions, sans concert hall or live audience.

Those three are part of an exclusive club, with Tacoma resident Jones’ piece making history in its debut on public television’s Emmy-winning series “The All-Star Orchestra.”

Some have already seen Jones’ “All-Star” episode pairing “Concerto” with Mozart’s magnificent “Posthorn Serenade,” which was recorded at SUNY Purchase College in New York and is being broadcast over 80 PBS stations this winter. Seattle’s PBS station KCTS-9 has quietly tucked the program’s local debut (at 4 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 17) into the end of a four-hour marathon of the current “All-Star Orchestra” season.

That’s a somewhat indifferent presentation that doesn’t befit the broadcast’s regional significance or extensive roots in Seattle Symphony Orchestra history.

Jones, a founder and longtime dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, has a long and fruitful association with SSO. Beginning in 1997, he spent 14 years as the organization’s composer-in-residence (with a total of 13 premieres), 16 years as director of the annual Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop and two terms on the board of directors.

It’s no wonder Gerard Schwarz, while nearing the end of his own 26-year tenure as SSO music director, conducted a “Samuel Jones Celebration” in June 2011. The following night, Schwarz led the ensemble in the world premiere of Jones’ “Reflections: Songs of Fathers and Daughters,” commissioned by a group of donors led by Seattle real-estate businessman Charlie Staadecker.

These key relationships — between Jones, Schwarz and Staadecker — carried over to the “All-Star” presentation of “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.”

Staadecker (who with his wife, Benita, had also commissioned Jones’ 2009 “Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra”) put together another consortium of donors to back the new work.

Meanwhile, Schwarz wanted his longtime collaborator to join him in working without a net. He offered a televised world premiere of the violin piece as an exciting — if nerve-wracking — special event, without the security of collective rehearsals, performed by the ready-for-anything All-Star Orchestra and renowned violin soloist Anne Akiko Meyers.

Schwarz’s post-Seattle passion project, “The All-Star Orchestra” debuted in 2014, bringing together 95 top orchestral musicians from across the country to perform no-audience, in-studio concerts, shot with 18 high-definition, roaming cameras. The series satisfies Schwarz’s lifelong desire to bring classical music to a broader audience.

Meyers learned the piece’s expressive and complex three movements over several weeks. The All-Star players prepared individually as well.

“On the day of taping,” Jones said, “the orchestra was right there. You would never believe this was being played for the first time.”

“It was a thrilling experience to have that kind of wonderful pressure,” said Schwarz.

“The concerto is about the life path of an artist,” Jones explained, “and runs parallel to Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, the line about faith, hope and love — the greatest of the three being love. I changed the order to hope, faith and love. The artist desires to do great things, grows a belief in the help of teachers, and in the third movement, love symbolizes the freedom and joy that comes from being an artist.”