Category Archives: Arts and Music

War and Reflection

June 2019 marks the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I after five years of brutal conflict. In recognition of this epochal event La Jolla Symphony & Chorus’ 64th season, “Lineage: A Memory Project,” draws to a fitting conclusion with a program built around the composers and soldiers of the Great War.

Like most French composers Maurice Ravel was suspicious of German music, with one exception: he was an unabashed fan of the waltz. In “La Valse” Ravel develops surprising themes and variations on the distinctive waltz rhythm, and the result is one of the best examples of Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental colors and textures.

Charles Ives’ “From Hanover Square North…” commemorates the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915. That moment when Ives and his fellow commuters heard the news on a Manhattan subway platform became the inspiration for his composition, but in typically idiosyncratic fashion Ives didn’t render the scene realistically; rather, it was the starting point for a musical meditation in which Ives registered the emotional impact of what he had witnessed.

Originally written as the second (slow) movement of a string quartet, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” became one of the most popular symphonic works of the 20th century in its orchestral arrangement. The solemnity of the Adagio led to its frequent use as mourning music, much to Barber’s dismay since it was not his intention to write a requiem. Whatever its unintentional cultural accretions, Barber’s melody is still both beautiful and powerful after countless hearings.

Commissioned in 1936 to compose a large-scale piece for a choral society’s centenary celebration, Ralph Vaughan Williams instead wrote for them a cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra entitled “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Give Us Peace”) – and it was anything but a celebration piece. This cantata was a protest against war and a heartfelt cry for peace at a time of growing international tension. Sadly, three years later Vaughan Williams’ worst fears would be realized.

Like the Lake Poets, George Butterworth’s works grew directly out of his contact with the English countryside. This is exemplified by “The Banks of Green Willow” with its evocation of pastoral life in all its idealized simplicity and tranquility; indeed, the composer characterized it as an “idyll.” As was common in his music Butterworth based this piece on several old English folk melodies, creating a series of brief fantasias on each of the themes before drawing to a peaceful conclusion.

Watch — Remembrance of Things Past – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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The Little Symphony in F

“Light-hearted” is not a word one normally applies to works by Ludwig van Beethoven, but it perfectly suits his Symphony No. 8. Falling between the exultant Seventh and the monumental Ninth, Beethoven’s “little symphony in F” seems out of place. It is the shortest of his symphonies and the one that most closely follows standard classical practice as developed by Haydn and Mozart (at least until the surprising fourth movement). For the attentive listener, beneath its genial surface the nimble Eighth abounds in unusual sounds, intentional “wrong” notes, catastrophes cleverly avoided, and other musical jokes, revealing a side of the composer rarely on display in his oeuvre.

The Eighth’s joviality is all the more remarkable considering the circumstances of Beethoven’s life surrounding its composition. Beethoven was grappling with profound deafness, legal battles with his sister-in-law, financial issues, a turbulent relationship with his nephew Karl, and unrequited love (for the mysterious “Immortal Beloved”). Yet, there is no trace of these travails in the Eighth; rather the music finds its composer in a good-humored and expansive mood. The piece is energetic – it has no slow movement – but never aggressive or overbearing. However knockabout the symphony seems at times (deliberately so) Beethoven is always firmly in command of his craft, and the high spirits are leavened with beautifully lyrical passages.

Beethoven wrote both the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies in quick succession in 1812, but while the Seventh was immediately proclaimed a masterpiece, the Eighth was met with indifference. According to contemporaries the composer was greatly annoyed by this reaction, insisting that the Eighth was the better symphony. Over time many critics and conductors have come to agree with Beethoven’s assessment, and the Eighth’s reputation continues to grow. Whatever its merits for professional musicians and for critics, for listeners one attraction emerges supreme: Symphony No. 8 is, quite simply, a lot of fun. One gets the sense that Beethoven relaxed from his normal preoccupation with posterity and was enjoying himself, encouraging performers and audience to do the same.

Watch Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Contrast and Concordance

In his program notes for the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus concert entitled “Bernstein Centennial,” conductor Steven Schick notes that:

At first glance, this concert program seems like a straightforward juxtaposition of light and dark: we have Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent Kaddish —his prayer for the dead— and, on the other hand, Beethoven’s genial Eighth Symphony. Tying them together— metaphorically if not musically—is Laurie San Martin’s evocatively titled, nights bright days.

As is the case with other concerts in the Symphony’s 2018/2019 “Lineage” season, those juxtapositions are more complex than is evident at first encounter.

Leonard Bernstein’s Third Symphony takes its name, Kaddish, from the Jewish hymns of praise to God. Interestingly, though frequently associated in the popular imagination with Jewish mourning rituals the word and/or concept of death is never mentioned in the text; rather, the intention is to express a continued commitment to life (chayim) and faith in God in the face of overwhelming loss. Bernstein’s music moves metaphorically through the well-known stages of grief, at times lyrical and serene and at others discordant and tempestuous, reflecting the struggles of post-Holocaust Jews to maintain their core identity and beliefs while reaching an accommodation with an often-hostile world. Bernstein dedicated this piece to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, whom Bernstein had befriended at Harvard and who was assassinated three weeks before Kaddish’s premiere. The dedication bestowed a universal sense of sorrow, mingled with hope, upon a work rooted in Jewish tradition.

The contrasts most evident in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 are with that composer’s other symphonies and the fraught circumstances of his life. The Eighth is Beethoven’s shortest symphony and the one which most closely adheres to classical norms as established by Haydn and Mozart. In comparison to his better-known symphonies, most notably the Fifth and epochal Ninth, the Eighth (which Beethoven called “my little symphony in F”) is jovial, light on its feet, and even – dare I say it – humorous. This is all the more remarkable considering that at the time he wrote it Beethoven was grappling with deafness, his estrangement from his nephew, and unrequited love. Perhaps the composer was seeking solace in familiar forms, but whatever Beethoven’s motivations his Symphony No. 8 stands as a beacon of clarity in turbulent times, both Beethoven’s and ours.

Laurie San Martin’s nights bright days takes its title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43:

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

San Martin notes that she wrote this piece in the middle of the night, and like Bernstein’s Kaddish, nights bright days contrasts light with dark, tranquility with anguish. The small hours of the morning are frequently a time for uncertainty mixed with reflection, with the approaching dawn promising the possibility of, if not resolution, perhaps a renewed sense of confidence.

Watch — Bernstein Centennial – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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In Search of Unique Sounds

“For myself, tone color, texture and ‘unique sounds’ (growls, double buzzes etc.) …can be every bit as musical as harmonic expression can be, and ultimately I hope to meld [them] together hand and hand.” – Stephanie Richards

Trumpeter Stephanie Richards has performed and/or recorded with such luminaries as Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris, and the Pixies. With her acclaimed debut solo album in 2018 Fullmoon, Richards announced her intention to expand the boundaries of contemporary jazz, and demonstrated the skills to do so. For her 2019 release Take the Neon Lights, New York City-inspired poems from cultural icons including Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Allen Ginsberg provide the backdrop for a sonic portrait of NYC that is equal parts dazzle and grit, like the fabled city itself.

Richards is a UC San Diego Music Department faculty member and co-director with trumpeter Dave Douglas of New York’s Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT), and has inaugurated a West Coast version of FONT in collaboration with Fresh Sound, UC San Diego Extension, the San Diego Symphony, and others. In the FONT West concert, also entitled Take the Neon Lights, she performs at San Diego’s intimate White Box space with some heavyweight collaborators: bassist Mark Dresser, keyboardist Joshua White, bass clarinetist Brian Walsh, and drummer Andrew Munsey.

Richards’ interest in “tone color, texture and ‘unique sounds'” is on full display as the music ebbs and surges; at times lyrical, almost plaintive, while at others times it growls and roars. Underpinning these shifting sonorities is a sense of restless exploration; each band member probes the boundaries of conventional structure and their defined roles in a jazz ensemble while maintaining a three-way dialogue with fellow musicians and the listener. This is adventurous, challenging music that resists easy categorization, but the audience’s engagement is amply rewarded.

Take the Neon Lights marks Stephanie Richards as a talent to be reckoned with.

Watch Stephanie Richards: New Trumpet Music

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Past, Present and Future

For the La Jolla Symphony’s 2018/19 season, Music Director Steven Schick chose the title and theme of “Lineage.” Among other things this word suggests a continuum, an unbroken linkage between past, present and future, and this concept is central to both the season and the “Deep Roots” concert.

The past is invoked by Anton Bruckner’s much-revised Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. In his day Bruckner was known for his devotion to Richard Wagner, yet there is no discernible Wagnerian influence in this music. Rather, Brucker drew on other sources for inspiration – classical form, sacred music (Bruckner was a devout Catholic), and the folk tunes of his Austrian youth – and synthesized them into a style further influenced by Bruckner’s experience as a pipe organist and characterized by long melody lines and large-scale thematic shifts. Above all, the Symphony reflects Bruckner’s love of brass instruments. Though despised by contemporary critics, his work was admired by other composers, notably Franz Liszt and Gustav Mahler, and has enjoyed a popular resurgence since the 1950s.

For the present the La Jolla Symphony turns to contemporary American composer Philip Glass. Glass created the scores for each of the experimental documentaries comprising Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy, and the final film score, Naqoyqatsi (Hopi for “life at war”) provided the basis for his Cello Concerto No. 2. Glass dropped sections of the score and re-worked others to accommodate a more prominent (and difficult) role for solo cello. The music has all the hallmarks of Glass’s mature style, including insistent rhythms, rapid changes in meter, crystalline textures, and constantly-shifting tonal colors. Contrasted with the often-turbulent proceedings are reflective passages for the cello, either solo or with minimal accompaniment. Though derived from a film score this piece doesn’t attempt to tell a story; rather, it should be considered a purely musical experience.

Fittingly, the future is given voice here by the work of a young, up-and-coming composer, in this case Community Acoustics by LJ White. As White explains,

The phrase “community acoustics” is a name used by some scientists for the phenomenon of acoustic niche separation, in which sounds within an ecosystem organize themselves into distinct frequency layers and interlocking patterns, allowing for communication within species and overall ecosystem function.

In Community Acoustics White challenges the rigid structures of symphonic music and the customary classical concert format, providing an environment in which the music evolves along more egalitarian lines than is the norm. The players have greater control over their role in creating the sonic environment, and the audience are also encouraged to contribute at the end of the piece. “Community Acoustics” points out one possible path towards an active and immersive listening experience.

Watch Deep Roots – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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