classical American Music for the soul 

On Boise Philharmonic Conductor James Ogle and "American Voices"

A conversation with James Ogle, the music director of the Boise Philharmonic, can lead to deep thoughts. It doesn't have to, it just can. At only 56, Ogle suffered a stroke 14 months ago that has changed his life and the future of the Philharmonic.

At the time of the stroke, Ogle had been working as a conductor continuously for 33 years. Like many people, he defined himself by the work he did and pushed himself hard to be successful at it. He considered himself "a poster boy for a healthy middle-aged man" when the stroke hit. He called the experience, "terrifying, life-changing." Within three months he had recovered physically "99.9 percent."

During recovery he re-evaluated the balance of his life and decided it had been "unbalanced toward work." He now feels his "stress level has decreased enormously. I'm a kinder, gentler guy."

Redressing the imbalance has involved Ogle stepping out of the position of artistic director and conductor into the role of artistic advisor and director of major gifts and planned giving. Which is another way of saying a symphony orchestra is only slightly less complex than the space shuttle but needs more than hot air to make it soar.

You might think a job that can lead to a life-threatening crisis in your fifties would be unable to attract applicants. Not so. According to Ogle, "word travels fast in the industry." Before the Philharmonic board had even advertised for a new conductor, they had received over 300 applications. These were "thick files of resumes, extensive musical pedigrees, bios and even CDs of their work."

To handle all of this, six board members and six elected members of the orchestra broke into groups of three to select 30, then 16 and finally "around 10 to 12" candidates. All of the candidates will be invited to be guest conductors over this and next year's season. Audiences are encouraged to vote and comment on an evening's guest conductor.

Ogle says he will be conducting this month's concerts on January 26 and 27 and one, maybe two, next year. He also says if you are thinking of dipping your toe into classical music waters, this all-American concert, aptly titled "American Voices," is the one for you. All of the composers are American and one, John Williams, is still alive. He is the man who wrote the music for the Star Wars movies and other blockbusters. "The Cowboys" overture is from a John Wayne movie and, pilgrim, it doesn't get any easier on the ears than that.

Another piece you'll hear, Copeland's The Tender Land, premiered on April Fool's Day, 1954. The opera is about living in the Midwest during the Depression.

There's also a version of Charles Ives' "America" Variations and it's a kick. According to Ogle, "You can't help laughing when you hear it."

George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is a straightforward blending of jazz with classical sensibilities. During the premiere, Gershwin only had time to write out the music for the orchestra and played the piano part from memory. The Philharmonic's guest artist, Anthony Molinaro, will almost certainly play it from memory as well. Molinaro reportedly plays classical piano during the week, but can play honky-tonk like nobody's business, saving it up for Friday night.

If you want to learn more so you can impress your friends, show up early for "Musically Speaking," a pre-concert lecture with Jamey Lamar in Nampa or Steve Trott in Boise or visit www.boisephilharmonic.org. You can also hang out at the Symphony Lounge, a relaxed casual gathering (not a performance) at the MilkyWay Restaurant with Lamar on Wednesday nights during concert weeks.

Finally, I approached Ogle with my own searing life question: "Maestro, I hate Brahms, and my wife loves him. Can our marriage be saved?" He replied, "Grasshopper, have you tried listening to it?" I answered, "I have. It drives me crazy." After a moment of possibly irritated silence his wisdom poured forth like a spring of clear water, paraphrased here.

The smorgasbord of music can be delightful, filling and nutritious to the soul without harming arteries or livers. Some dishes, the Webern, Stockhausen, Stravinsky or Schoenberg may be still twitching or bubbling and are not for everyone. Beethoven will benefit those of robust appetite who still want vitamins with a zesty sauce.

Brahms is like sushi. A newcomer should first taste the California roll, cooked and familiar. So are the "Hungarian Rhapsodies" comforting to our musical palate. Then, as courage builds, the tuna should be presented, cool and calm as an island of peace. Such we find the Brahms Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2.

Much as a great chef might prepare sushi, Brahms' more mature Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4 are like sea urchins and octopus, seemingly a chaos of spikes, tentacles and suckers to the unready, a delight to the person with a prepared mind.

You may scoff, but I tried it. I popped Brahms' Symphony No. 3, transcribed for two pianos by the composer, into my CD player. It was good. I now realize I have spent my life trying to choke down squid eyeballs when I really wanted to order fish and chips. That is how a newcomer to the Boise Philharmonic might approach this month's concert. This is tasty, comfortable food you are familiar with. This concert is the hamburger and fries with a pale ale of the international concert repertory. Next month is the tuna. I hope I'm ready.

Friday, January 26, 8 p.m., $15-$28, Nampa Civic Center, Swayne Auditorium, 311 3rd St. S., Nampa, 208-468-5500, http:// nampaciviccenter.com.

Saturday, January 27, 8 p.m., $24-$49, Morrison Center, 1910 University Dr. Call 208-344-7849 for more information or to purchase tickets, www.boisephilharmonic.org

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