Kevin Noe has been coming around for about five years now. In that time, he’s gained admirers. Publicize his appearance on the podium, and crowds will gather. They seem to do so increasingly with each visit.
Currently, Maestro Noe is on an extended Bloomington stay, having already prepared and conducted the IU Chamber Orchestra’s opening concert of the new season. He’s continuing to work with that orchestra, which serves as pit ensemble for the IU Opera Theater’s October production of “Little Women;” he’s music director for the opera. And he then plunges into rehearsals with the Philharmonic for its mid-November concert featuring Mahler’s Symphony Number 4, along with the First Piano Concerto of Chopin.
Recognizing the success he’s been having with the public, including more than the usual share of young people, and the enthusiasm that students who play for him exhibit while under his command, I decided the time was right to meet Kevin Noe and to see what happens when he interacts with his charges. Besides, I wanted to converse with a musician who has pleased me repeatedly.
We set up an appointment. We talked. I sat in on much of a rehearsal. I heard the concert and reviewed it. And we communicated again for after thoughts.
A traveling Texan
Noe, age 41, is as ebullient off stage talking as he is on stage conducting. He lives in Austin where, from 2000 to 2005, he served as music director of orchestras on the faculty at the University of Texas. He loves the place, he says, but obviously does not hesitate to revisit Bloomington where he has “a comfortable relationship with all I work with,” where “students respond to me and I to them,” where “I’m encouraged to take risks with young musicians who are interested in working with me in behalf of music.” He’s also fond of Pittsburgh, where he focuses energy and attention on that city’s New Music Ensemble as its executive artistic director.
Elements of Noe’s beliefs emerge during our conversation as answers move way beyond the scope of questions. For those familiar with his work here, what he says to me reinforces practice. For instance: “I believe in moving the art form forward. Composers are at the bottom rung in influence. They have the least say, and they give us 98 percent of music’s satisfaction. I want to right that ship and put the focus on composition.” Noe has programmed new music here. He’s lectured about it to audiences prior to performance. And he’s waved scores in triumph over his head while accepting applause for himself and his players.
For another instance: “I try to make compelling programs and do nothing by rote. And if my program is short, so be it. I never heard anyone yet tell me, ‘Your program is too short.’ If the hour is rich with shared sensations, what more do we need?” His recent Chamber Orchestra concert lasted an hour (Beethoven’s Second Symphony and Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite). From the sound and length of the ovations, the package satisfied.
And this: “Part of what an audience feeds of is a sense of courage from the stage. People want to be inspired. My role, our role, is to feel strong on stage, to strive to hold attention by giving them a reason to be there. Music itself is the best possible teacher if you can get everyone to hear it.”
“Everyone” means not only listeners but the musicians. “They have to hear the music while, all at once, negotiating it,” he explains. “I must try to make my orchestra hear the greatness in a score, to feel it. My job is to bring every player to the music and, then, let the music speak for itself. In truly great performances, everyone is sharing the same attention. … In Pittsburgh, with my professional musicians, no time is spent practicing. Technical prowess is a given. When we come together, the immediate focus is on the music. We then negotiate a shared opinion. With students, we have to work longer toward mining an interpretation. But the rewards can be the same, even more so because of those extra efforts.”
The final two-hour rehearsal for that Beethoven-Copland Chamber Orchestra program was all starts and stops as Kevin Noe worked up a physical and emotional sweat, striving for performance goals. String balance problems were dealt with. So, too, “undernourished” double basses. The winds were judged as “not doing enough” and urged to “send sound to the back.” Horns were asked to “make it brighter,” to “equal the color of the trumpets.” Time and again, he insisted: “You’re rushing. Don’t. Finish the phrase you’re on before moving ahead. You’re too worried about experiencing the next bar. Concentrate on the now.”
He danced. He acted. Voice, feet, torso, face, hands extended by baton: all worked feverishly toward student understanding of goals. When a lesson sank in, “That’s it,” he would say. Or “This is perfect.” Or “That feels totally different, doesn’t it?” Or “That was smoking.” Or “Can anyone not appreciate the gravitas of what you’ve just done, the incredible power of everyone committed to something?”
Following the September 22 concert, which more than filled Auer Hall, I wrote that the Beethoven performance “was rich in interpretive ideas, these. not imposed on the music but seemingly inspired by it.” In the Appalachian Spring Suite, he “drew a remarkable range of moods and nuances from his players,” and “seemed — if one can imagine it — to make the music a ballet in sound.”
I asked Noe later how successful the concert was in his view, if his wishes were met, and whether he achieved any of those moments when the music gained “the incredible power of everyone being committed?”
His answers: “The Beethoven went, I’d say, probably a little better than I thought it would. It seemed that the work, in particular, we did the day before had a huge impact on the maturity of the performance…. Certainly, there were moments of greatness there.” As for the Copland, it “seemed terrifically successful with the audience, and I’m thrilled about that. I’m not certain it was our best performance of it, but I was pleased that we were able to take it as far as we were.”
As for the event, he noted: “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, interestingly enough, what was happily perhaps the most important — the audience! What a joy to have so many people there, in a hall that was small enough to really feel like we could connect with them, and to have the audience bring so much obvious enthusiasm and energy to us on the stage. …Every once in a while, this happens, and when it does — what a joy!”
• This afternoon at 4 in Auer Hall, Espen Jensen directs the IU Latin American Popular Music Ensemble.
• This evening at 6 in Auer, Edmund Cord directs the IU Brass Choir in works of Schein, Bach, and American composers Walter Piston (Ceremonial Fanfare), David Diamond (Elegy in Memory of Maurice Ravel), and David Bilik (Sonata for Brass), along with Hindemith’s Konzertmusic, with Shigeo Neriki as piano soloist.
• This evening at 7 in First United Church (2420 E. Third), the Jacobs School voice faculty presents a cabaret. Participants include Mary Ann Hart, Alice Hopper, Brian Horne, Sylvia McNair, Carlos Montane, Tim Noble, Marietta Simpson, Patricia Stiles, Michael Sylvester, and Carol Vaness.
• Monday evening at 8 in the Musical Arts Center (MAC), Brent Wallarab directs the IU Jazz Ensemble.
• Tuesday evening at 8 in Auer, Jacobs organ faculty chairperson Janette Fishell inaugurates a three-year cycle of 21 Bach organ performances (others to take place at various campus locations and Bloomington churches). A mix of secular and spiritual works will be played.
• Friday evening at 7:30 in the Ruth Halls Theater of the Lee Norvelle Theater and Drama Center, IU Theater presents Jonathan Larson’s rock opera “Rent.” George Pinney directs; Terry LaBolt handles the music. Additional performances on Saturday evening and next week. Tickets: $22 for adults, $16 for seniors, $15 for students.
• Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 in the MAC, IU Ballet Theater presents “A Choreographer’s Evening,” containing “Noir” (the work of Twyla Tharp), “Allegro Brillante” (George Balanchine), “Glinka Pas de Trois” (Balanchine), and the world premiere of “The Baker Dances” (Joshua Bergasse), with music by IU’s David Baker. Tickets: $10-$20 for adults, $8-$16 for students.
• Friday evening at 8 in Auer, the University Singers, directed by Richard Tang-Yuk, sing Janacek’s “Otsenas” (Lord’s Prayer) and Dvorak’s Mass in D Major.
• Saturday afternoon at 4, guest carillonneur John Gouwens plays the Metz Carillon.
• Saturday evening at 8 in Auer, a faculty recital features cellist Sharon Robinson and pianist Chih-Yi Chen.
All of the above events, save those for which ticket information is provided, are free.
• On WFIU at noon today, Saint Paul Sunday presents IU alums, violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Frederic Chiu, in music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Sarasate.
• And at Showplace East next Saturday afternoon at 1, the Metropolitan Opera’s first “Live in High Definition” transmission of the new season brings us “Das Rheingold,” the first installment of a new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. James Levine conducts a cast that includes Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Eric Owens as Alberich. Tickets available at the theater box office.