Category Archives: Arts and Music

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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Celebrating Cultures

In the past forty years several of America’s largest cities have made or renewed a commitment to support public art and performance, whether by creating new spaces or by adapting existing venues. Public art (or civic art) is seen as a vital component for enhancing urban life and contributing to a healthy community by providing residents with a commonality of experience.

This installment of the Helen Edison Lecture series brings together three innovative curators who have created change-making public arts programming in Houston and Los Angeles. Moderator Jonathon Glus, Director of City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, leads the panel in discussing their mission to boost government and audience engagement, as well as some of the practical considerations and implications – financial, logistical, political – of contemporary arts production/presentation in high-volume public spaces.

Marc Pally, Independent Curator based in Los Angeles, discusses the Santa Monica Glow Festival, a dusk-to-dawn arts event on the beachfront which attracted over 150,00 people in 2008, 2010 and 2013. Susanne Theis, Program Director of Houston’s Discovery Green Urban Park, outlines the history and purpose of the 12-acre park in the heart of downtown Houston, which opened in 2008. Karen Farber, Executive Director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, discusses her organization’s interdisciplinary collaboration with the University of Houston in inviting leading artists and creative thinks to the UH campus for workshops, public presentations, exhibitions, and performances.

Though differing in the nature and scope of their activities, the three curators share a common commitment to public art and performance as a unifying force in increasingly diverse communities. They extol the benefits of investment in civic art as including:

• Economic growth and sustainability
• Attachment and cultural identity
• Artists as contributors to society and the local economy
• Social cohesion and cultural understanding

The curators hope their experiences will encourage other towns and cities to explore and celebrate their own local cultures.

Watch — Contemporary Art and Performance in Public Spaces

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The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew

The 2019 edition of UC San Diego Geisel Library’s “Dinner in the Library” series celebrates new acquisitions from the estate of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, most of which have never before been exhibited publicly. The Library’s Special Collections already houses over 20,000 items related to Geisel, including sketches, paintings, cartoons, letters, and manuscripts, and these new arrivals will further enhance its status as the world’s premiere repository of Seuss miscellany.

University Librarian Erik Mitchell welcomes a distinguished panel to discuss their reactions to the unveiling of Geisel’s “private art.” Seth Lerer, moderator and Distinguished Professor of Literature at UC San Diego, traces the development of Geisel’s stylistic vocabulary though doodles and rough sketches not intended for publication, and invites fellow panelists and the audience to consider the proper placement of these works within Geisel’s larger oeuvre. Rob Sidner, Executive Director of the Mingei International Museum, notes that many of the new acquisitions were exhibited in Geisel’s home and speculates on their personal significance to the artist. Mary Beebe, Director of the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, discusses Geisel’s acrylic paintings on display, noting they are uncharacteristic of Geisel and yet valuable for that reason. Beebe also cites Geisel’s delight in wordplay as a consistent feature of his work.

Other topics featured in this wide-ranging discussion include the challenges of exposure to a hitherto-unknown facet of an artist’s work, influences on Geisel’s development such as theatre and Surrealism (most notably Salvador Dali), the underlying social commentary in many of Geisel’s cartoons and books, his frequent portrayals of “sympathetic monsters,” and the importance of acknowledging that, in Seth Lerer’s words, “not everything in this collection is happy or funny; some of it is in fact quite dark.”

Theodor Geisel famously maintained that he wrote his books for adults, and that their adoption as beloved icons of children’s literature was a fortunate happenstance. The new additions to the Geisel Library’s Special Collections contribute to a fuller portrait of this complex and prolific artist, one possessed of considerable skills whose range of styles and thematic concerns is greater than previously appreciated.

Watch — The Private Art of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel – Dinner in the Library 2019

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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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