Tag Archives: concerto

The Intimate and the Cosmic

La Jolla Symphony and Chorus’ December 2019 concert is comprised of three pieces that seem disparate at first glance: the premiere of Celeste Oram’s “a loose affiliation of alleluias,” Robert Schumann’s “Violin Concerto in D Minor,” and John Adams’ “Harmonium.” As LJS&C’s Music Director and Conductor Steven Schick points out, however different these compositions are stylistically – and they are very much so – they nevertheless share key thematic interests. Chief among these is an examination of how and where mystical introspection intersects with shared public experience.

Nee Commission recipient Celeste Oram’s piece blends the orchestra with improvising violin soloist Keir GoGwilt and three offstage singers dubbed “Teen Angels” in an inventive mélange of Renaissance-derived styles, popular song, postmodern modalities and other sources. “a loose affiliation…” also employs elements of theatre. What emerges is a contemplative work that simultaneously embraces both the intimate and the cosmic.

This examination of the mystical and metaphysical continues (albeit in a different form) in Robert Schumann’s concerto. Schumann’s music often expresses his concern with spirituality and how one reconciles its demands with mundane daily life, something with which the composer himself struggled. His approach to this question became increasingly elliptical as his career progressed; indeed, the “Violin Concerto in D Minor” has been dubbed “enigmatic” and “mysterious.” Seemingly conventional in style, the concerto leads the listener through intricate layers of sound meant to engage the curious mind in spiritual inquiry while appealing to more casual listeners. Virtuoso violinist Keir GoGwilt returns to the stage as the featured soloist.

Upon the 1981 premiere of John Adams’ choral work “Harmonium” one prescient critic noted that “a major new talent has arrived.” Like Oram’s piece this work experiments with form by mixing styles, and like Schumann’s concerto it expresses a concern with spirituality, in this case by setting poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson to music. In each section Adams’ subtle modulations gradually gather energy, resulting in near-celebratory climaxes; in the final movement, based on Dickinson’s sensual “Wild Nights,” following this exultation the music subsides into a long, quiet coda as it fades from our hearing. In its original usage this piece’s title, derived via French from the Latin “harmonia,” simply means “harmony,” and the composer uses constantly shifting tonal patterns to evoke what he called “always moving forward over vast stretches of imaginary terrain.” It’s not too great a leap to dub this a metaphysical journey, or to apply that term to the concert selections as a whole.

Watch — Oram, Schumann, Adams – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Creative Spirits

La Jolla Symphony and Chorus is known for mixing favorites from the standard repertoire with the new, the unfamiliar, and the undeservedly overlooked. The November 2019 concert, the first of the 2019/2020 season, continues this tradition with works by Giaochino Rossini, Florence Price, and Bela Bartok.

Rossini’s Overture to William Tell (1829) is familiar to audience members of a certain age through its association with The Lone Ranger radio and TV series (“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…”). Written for Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell, the piece is essentially an instrumental suite in four parts. The last of these, marked Allegro vivace, is the most familiar section, and was written seven years earlier as a march for a military band. It’s the only part of the Overture (and its parent opera, rarely performed today) known to many people outside opera circles. Perpetual-motion violins, inspired brass and insistent percussion power this music to a galloping conclusion.

Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 (1932) was the first work by an African-American woman to be performed by a major American symphony orchestra. It was a singular achievement that should have secured Price’s place in modern musical history, yet her work came perilously close to being forgotten altogether. We can thank the 2009 chance discovery in a ramshackle house of several Price scores previously thought lost that led to renewed interest in her work. Among the manuscripts were two violin concertos: Violin Concerto No.2, performed by La Jolla Symphony last season, and the First Violin Concerto, written in 1939 (exactly 70 years before its re-discovery) and presented in this program. This concerto is lyrical and traditional in form, with beautiful writing for both soloist and orchestra. Indeed, Price’s devotion to the traditional idiom may have contributed to her obscurity in an era that scorned such “old-fashioned” music. Hopefully, our contemporary eras renewed appreciation of those traditional forms bodes well for the music of Florence Price to at last find its audience.

The concert concludes with Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943). The words “difficult,” “challenging,” and “uncompromising” are often applied to Bartok’s music, but not so this piece. The Concerto is a perennial favorite with conductors and audiences alike, and it’s easy to see why. The five movements move through a surprisingly broad range of emotions, from brooding to philosophical to playful to a final exultant rush of energy, with humorous moments yes, humor in Bartok – verging on the parodic. Bartok was terminally ill with leukemia during the Concerto’s composition, but he nevertheless referred to it as a “life assertion.” It is indeed that, and the final expression of an indomitable creative spirit.

Watch — Rossini, Price, Bartók – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Giving Back

La Jolla Symphony & Chorus kicks off its 2019/2020 season in traditional fashion with the annual Young People’s Concert. Conductor Steven Schick notes that this free concert is one means for the Symphony to give back to the community, with the added goal of encouraging an interest in music among children (and perhaps their parents, as well).

Steven Schick serves as host and narrator, guiding the audience through excerpts from Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No.1 as well as the complete William Tell Overture by Rossini. Schick places particular emphasis on the orchestra’s organization and how the various sections interact with each other, with each of the musical selections serving as examples – duets in Bartók, the solo violinist in Price, and the four brief but distinctive movements of the Rossini, including the famous finale (aptly described as a “gallop”). Schick also solicits questions from his young audience, the topics ranging from “How many strings does a harp have?” and “What is the loudest instrument?” to “What sparked your [Schick’s] interest in music?” Following this introductory presentation, the three selections are performed in the first regular concert of the season, giving students and parents the opportunity to hear the pieces in their entirety.

In his concert program notes Steven Schick says this about the “uses of music:”

“The usefulness of music gets at its true power: the ability to shape our lives and, in small and large ways, to connect to other people’s lives…Music can be used as a cultural adhesive, binding our experiences one to the other.”

The Young People’s Concert and other classical music performances can be a valuable tool in helping children to begin forming their own tapestries of cultural memories and shared experiences.

Watch — Young People’s Concert 2019 – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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