Category Archives: Classical/Symphonic Music

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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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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