by Michael Caruso
Although the vast majority of students who take lessons on one instrument or another at any of the six branches of Settlement Music School are doing so for the simple pleasure of it and with no professional career consideration in mind, every so often a young person has professional plans. Wyndmoor’s Matthew Flynn, 18, a student with Michael Stambaugh at Settlement’s Germantown Branch, will start his first year as a freshman at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore following his graduation from Germantown Friends School.
“I started making music at a very young age,” Flynn explained. “My parents have so many videos of me as a 1 or 2-year-old ‘playing’ the guitar and singing along to different songs. When I was 3, they put me in a group program at Settlement for really young kids, but my first real lessons were with Lois DiDomenico at Settlement for classical piano, which started when I was in first grade.”
A few years later Flynn joined the Keystone State Boychoir as a treble. When he was 13, he switched from classical to piano jazz, studying with Scott Coulter. “I only started lessons with Mike [Michael Stambaugh, who teaches both piano and composition] my sophomore year in high school,” he said. “Mike has helped me improve my music in a lot of ways.
“He exposes me to a lot of things, like different techniques for all the instruments and new kinds of modern classical music. He also gives me a lot of different opportunities, connecting me with musicians who can perform the music I compose, and taking me to rehearsals of professional groups that he works with.”
Speaking of the process of composition, Flynn explained, “Every week we take a look together at what I’ve been writing and he asks me questions about it, making sure that I understand my own music, and pushing me to continue what he has suggested while still maintaining my own creative voice in the music.”
Explaining his choice of music as a profession, Flynn said, ”I love music. It’s something I’ve been involved in for so long, and I’ve never stopped loving it since the very beginning. Call me idealistic, but I think that with hard work, anyone can follow their dreams and be successful. My dream is to write music for big-budget films and video games. To that end, I’ll be studying ‘Music for New Media’ under Thomas Dolby at the Peabody Conservatory.”
In an “it’s a small world” validation of that dream, the great film composer Alex North, who was born in Chester, studied at the downtown Mary Louise Curtis Branch of Settlement Music School, taking piano lessons in the very studio in which I now teach. He then attended both the Curtis Institute of Music here in Philadelphia and Manhattan’s Juilliard School before heading west to Hollywood. Once there, he composed the scores for motion pictures such as “Cleopatra,” “Spartacus,” “The Misfits,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Long Hot Summer” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” For the record, I’m a Peabody alumnus.
“I chose Peabody,” Flynn continued, “because they are the only music school that offers a program like this at the undergraduate level. The Music for New Media degree is similar to a composition degree, but with a focus on writing for video games, film and television.”
Flynn explained that his “audition” wasn’t a regular audition, at all. Instead, it was an interview. “Professor Dolby invited me into his office and he asked me about pieces in the portfolio that I had submitted. Then we talked a little bit about the function of music in media, as opposed to concert music, which stands on its own, and also where music and the video game industry are headed. It was a fairly short interview, but after I left I felt that Professor Dolby had liked me and that we’d had a good conversation.”
Flynn recalled that a few months later, on March 15, he was walking around the Philadelphia Public Library with a few of his friends when he checked his phone and got an email informing him of an update on his application to Peabody.
“At first,” he remembered, “I put my phone back in my pocket, thinking I would check when I got home, but after about five seconds, the suspense became too much, and I went to the application management website. There was no shouting for joy — I was in a library — but I was filled with excitement. Peabody had been my top choice since my visit there, and to finally be admitted was a great feeling.”
‘RACHY #1’ x 3
Although Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Opus 13, is rarely performed these days, music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra played it in two consecutive series of subscription concerts in June. They also performed the score during their final concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall, emphasizing beyond question the important place the particular work and Rachmaninoff’s music more generally hold in their historic repertoire.
That, of course, is partly why the German recording company DGG (the world’s leading label for classical music) is capturing these interpretations by Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians “live in concert” in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall.
Not shying away from the concert format tradition so firmly established by his predecessor, Eugene Ormandy, of overture-concerto-intermission-symphony, Nezet-Seguin placed Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in the program’s second half both times around.
Igor Stravinsky’s “Funeral Song” opened the June 6 & 8 performances while Anna Clyne’s “Masquerade” opened the June 15 & 16 concerts. Both were receiving their first renditions by the Philadelphians. The Stravinsky is a lovely early work that reveals the looming “Firebird” and “Petrushka” that were to follow shortly. “Masquerade,” composed in 2013, makes clever allusions to some of Hollywood’s greatest film composers — Miklos Rozsa in “Ben-Hur” and Curtis Institute of Music alumnus Nino Rota in “Death on the Nile,” for instance — while managing to assimilate them into the overall arch of the music.
The two concerti were Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Opus 26, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K. 297b, for Winds & Orchestra. The soloist in the Prokofiev was Beatrice Rana; those in the Mozart were oboist Richard Woodhams, clarinetist Ricardo Morales, Chestnut Hill bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa & French hornist Jennifer Montone. Woodhams is the recently retired Philadelphia Orchestra principal oboe while the other three players are currently holding those positions for their instruments.
Although Saturday evening’s audience went wild for Rana’s performance, I found her playing relentlessly loud and fast and her interpretation unapologetically metallic and lacking in even a hint of lyricism. The woodwind players, on the other hand, gave the Mozart an exquisitely choral reading that sparkled with energy in the first and third movements and glowed with sweet intimacy in the second.
As for the Rachmaninoff First Symphony, well, there’s no denying that it’s a tad wayward in its rendering of classical symphonic form and sonically bombastic far too often in its orchestration, yet there are moments of super-romanticism that point the way to the composer’s symphonic masterpieces, the Second and Third Symphonies and the Symphonic Dances. They and his four piano concerti and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano & Orchestra are also being recorded by DGG.
As he always does, Nezet-Seguin displayed a surprising affinity for such music even though he was born 32 years after Rachmaninoff died — in Beverly Hills, of all places — and is as “modern” a maestro as the Philadelphians have ever had. Without a touch of embarrassment yet also without even a hint of puffery, he channeled the composer’s distinctive melancholy by eliciting playing from the Philadelphians of lustrous tonal beauty and captivating rhythmic vitality. And he held together its sprawling shapes more efficaciously than anyone else I’ve heard dealing with them. Ormandy would have been delighted, and Rachmaninoff would have been grateful to have been given the chance to hear such a sterling set of performances.