Albany Symphony To Celebrate The Uncanny Theremin

Nov 8, 2019

Leon Theremin’s strange electronic musical instrument that leant its otherworldly sound to cheesy horror movie soundtracks and was emulated on The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” is about to mark its 100th birthday. To celebrate, the Albany Symphony on Saturday will perform a work that showcases the theremin.

Warming up before rehearsal at the Palace Theatre, Carolina Eyck is playing a theremin. She’s waving her hands around what appears to be a wooden box on legs with an antenna sticking out of either side, one upright, the other a closed loop.

Eyck, who grew up in Germany, has been playing the theremin since she was 7.

“The notes are anywhere, right? So you can just move your hand…and there’s a sound,” demonstrates Eyck.

Eyck has developed an eight-finger-position technique for coaxing notes out of space. A virtuoso of the invisible, it looks likes she is playing keys.

“And now I can play a scale by slowly and gradually opening my hand…”

The theremin can sound like a human voice, a violin. Or something else…

“We can get really low bass…out of the instrument, right? So the range is almost endless,” says Eyck.

On Saturday, Eyck will join the Albany Symphony in performing a work written by composer Dalit Warshaw.

Like Eyck, Warshaw also discovered the theremin at an early age. In the 1980s, she learned from Clara Rockmore, the artistic muse of the instrument’s inventor and namesake.

“I resolved to, as a composer, add to the repertoire of this instrument, but showing it, revealing it as a concert instrument. One that can convey intense humanity and soul, and a romantic musicality,” says Warshaw.

Warshaw’s piece is called “Sirens: Concerto for Theremin and Orchestra.” There are three movements, and she says each addresses a different idea of what the word “sirens” implies.

“The first movement is called ‘Clara’s Violin,’ which tells Clara Rockmore’s own life story. Starting out as a violinist, meeting the inventor Theremin and playing a duet with her sister, Nadia Reisenberg, who was a pianist.”

“The second movement is entitled ‘Ulysses’ and it addresses Kafka’s version of the sirens story of Homer’s Odyssey. And Kafka maintains that even more devastatingly seductive than the song of the sirens itself was when they stopped singing.”

“The Third movement is called ‘Fugalhorn,’ and it addresses the alarm definition of ‘siren.’ It’s comical, the theremin glissandos all over the place. And in the middle, the orchestra itself becomes a theremin.”

Sirens will be performed alongside works by Russian masters: Borodin’s Prince Igor overture and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.

Music Director and Conductor David Alan Miller says the Albany Symphony strives to do something unusual and exciting with each concert.

“I always think it’s kind of like food. You know, you don't want to eat meat and potatoes every night. Sometimes you want to go really crazy and have really exotic, unusual new tastes,” says Miller.

With its Albany debut, “Sirens: Concerto for Theremin and Orchestra” also has some local significance. Westinghouse in Springfield, Massachusetts and General Electric in nearby Schenectady decades ago were subcontracted by RCA to manufacture the original theremins.

“If there needed to be another ideal reason for this concerto to be done by the Albany symphony, I can't think of a better one!” says Warshaw.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday program begins at 7:30.
For more information visit: http://www.albanysymphony.com/