Trading places

Two local orchestras to swap conductors this winter

'Tis the season for exchanges -- of gifts, of course, but also holiday greeting cards, fancily decorated cookies and, in the case of the Redwood Symphony and Palo Alto Philharmonic, of maestros.

Palo Alto Philharmonic hosts the first of two planned podium exchanges at Cubberley Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 10, as Redwood Symphony Music Director Eric Kujawsky will conduct his slightly southern colleagues in what he describes by phone as "a program that is heavy on neo-classicism."

Palo Alto Philharmonic Music Director Thomas Shoebotham will return the musical favor on Feb. 11, 2017, at the Cañada College Main Theatre. He'll lead the Redwood Symphony through works by Richard Strauss, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arvo Pärt.

"I proposed the idea to Tom," said Kujawsky, when asked about the origins of the swap. "It's a good way for conductors to gain experience with other ensembles, and it's something you can add to your résumé and so on."

"We have a lot of musicians in common and like each other, so it seemed like a good match," he added.

"I've known Eric pretty much since I first arrived in the Bay Area in 1996," Shoebotham recalled. "I heard about his orchestra, which he had already established. Then some years later, when I became music director of Palo Alto Philharmonic, we would hear about each other's programs and occasionally come to each other's rehearsals or performances."

"I think it's easy to do between orchestras of similar budget size," Kujawsky replied, when asked about the logistics of these swaps. "I certainly would not even consider asking the San Francisco Symphony to switch podiums with me. But at this smaller level, it works out pretty well."

With podium exchanges, the visiting leader chooses the repertoire and soloist(s). Kujawsky invited Louise Costigan-Kerns for Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2. ("Many people will know [it from the "Fantasia 2000" film," he pointed out. "It's a beautiful piece").

"Louise was supposed to have done a performance with my symphony a year ago and had to cancel," he went on to explain. "I offered her an appearance while I was guest conducting Thomas' orchestra, and she was happy to do that."

Kujawsky's choices for the Palo Alto Philharmonic also include Emmanuel Chabrier's "España" ("such a wonderful tour de force — it's very difficult to do," he said); Alfred Schnittke's "(K)ein Sommernachtstraum" ("it never fails to make musicians laugh when they hear it"); and Beethoven's 8th ("my absolute favorite Beethoven symphony").

"His orchestra is smaller than mine, so he has the opportunity to do much bigger, sprawling sorts of works, which he's taking advantage of," said Kujawasky of Shoebotham. "And with his orchestra, I get to do a program of my very favorite pieces."

"The main work on the program, consuming the largest chunk of time, will be the Strauss 'Alpine Symphony,'" Shoebotham noted of his choices for the Redwood Symphony. "It's one of the great orchestration masterpieces, really, of all orchestra writing.

"Now what's interesting is that Eric is not particularly fond of it," he went on to reveal. "He said, 'If you want to do it, that would be great.' So I was happy to do it."

Shoebotham will have the Redwood Symphony open with Williams' "Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus." More people are familiar with Williams' more popular "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," he realizes:

"That is one of the most beautiful pieces for massive string orchestra," he declared. "This piece is of a similar kind, but it's not nearly as well known. It's absolutely one of the most gorgeous string pieces I've ever heard, though.

"Then there'll be a short, concerto-like piece by the contemporary Finnish composer Arvo Pärt," Shoebotham said of "Ludus" from "Tabula Rasa." Redwood Symphony violinists Heather Katz and Danny Coward are the soloists.

The Redwood Symphony and Palo Alto Philharmonic have each embraced works composed during the past 120 years. "They've done a lot of the big Mahler pieces," he said.

"Eric's been famous for doing those and also the really big orchestra pieces."

The Palo Alto Philharmonic, in turn, attempts to have a piece penned in the 21st Century "on nearly every program," shared Shoebotham. "Not quite every concert, and there are one or two cases where we fudged it for something in the late '90s."

With both musical institutions geographically close and even sharing some players, there's a sense of camaraderie between Shoebotham and Kujawsky and "a friendly rivalry" at most, according to the former, between the two groups. Each organization advertises in the other's concert programs, and both Music Directors hope to grow their audiences through these two events.

"The two orchestras get exposure to other faces," Shoebotham concludes. "It's great for conductors to broaden their experience through doing this, and it's really a good way to keep things fresh for everybody."

What: The Palo Alto Philharmonic with guest conductor Eric Kujawsky (of the Redwood Symphony)

Where: Cubberley Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Saturday, Dec. 10, 8 p.m. (pre-concert talk at 7:30 p.m.)

Cost: $10 (students), $18 (seniors), $22 (general)

Info: For more information on the Dec. 10 concert in Palo Alto, go to Palo Alto Philharmonic. For more information on the Feb. 11 Redwood Symphony concert with guest conductor Thomas Shoebotham in Redwood City, go to Redwood Symphony.

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