Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Season Preview: Podcast & Survey

It's time to get ready for the new season with the Harrisburg Symphony, another year of great Masterworks concerts at the Forum.

Well, it's the end of summer, according to the calendar, though it was a chilly fall-like day when I arrived on Stuart Malina's door-step a few minutes early and caught him practicing the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto.

Not surprising: he'll be playing it with the orchestra at the February concert, just one of the many things he has to prepare - and look forward to - as the new season begins in just a couple of weeks.

So we settled down to chat about the up-coming 2009-2010 Season with the Harrisburg Symphony and what we might expect during his 10th Anniversary Year with the orchestra.

You can listen to the SEASON PREVIEW PODCAST here.

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The Season begins in a little over two weeks with "Old & New Worlds" during the first weekend of October. The "New World" part refers to the Dvořák Symphony on the program known as the "New World Symphony" (more formally, "Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, From the New World") but it also refers to a work by Astor Piazzolla from Buenos Aires, Argentina (founded in 1536, it's one of the oldest European settlements in the New World). His violin concerto, "The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires," pays homage to the Old World view of the Four Seasons, a collection of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. Old World Europe also implies the overture Gioacchino Rossini wrote for his opera Semiramide, a typical operatic tangle of love, passion, murder and revenge set in an even older world, ancient Babylon.

Alexander Kerr (above, right) returns to the Forum to perform the concerto by Piazzolla. You can hear more about him in this podcast as well as the next one, previewing the opening concert.

In November, it's one of the great choral works in the repertoire. Haydn's monumental oratorio, The Creation (sung in English) will be performed with the Susquehanna Chorale, the Wheatland Chorale and the Messiah College Concert Choir joining the orchestra and soloists. After Haydn had completed his 104 symphonies and some 80 string quartets, he wrote mostly settings of the mass for the newest generation of the Esterhazy princes who had employed him since 1761. Following his visits to London, he became intrigued by the English oratorio. In 1798, the world first heard what many regard as his masterpiece, The Creation. It became one of the most frequently performed large-scale choral works across Europe during the remaining decade of his life. He was regarded as the greatest living composer when he died in 1809, two hundred years ago.

At the end of January, Augustin Hadelich returns to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto. In the podcast, Stuart talks about how the orchestra was so taken by his playing of Mozart's "Turkish" Concerto a few seasons back - and he thought Hadelich's nobility of style would suit Beethoven's concerto perfectly: a larger, more epic kind of concerto, it follows in the tradition of Mozart rather than the more virtuosically focused concertos that became the standard in the 19th Century.

Also on the program will be "SkyLine," the opening section of Jennifer Higdon's multiple-movement orchestral tribute to Atlanta called "City Scape." If you remember the enthusiasm Harrisburg audiences had for her Percussion Concerto and "Blue Cathedral" from past seasons, you'll enjoy this lively concert opener. For lovers of lush Romanticism, there's Rachmaninoff's valedictory Symphonic Dances, a belated farewell to the great 19th Century dances, even though it was written in 1940.

Then in February, it's "Spotlight on the Maestro." What better way to celebrate Stuart Malina's 10th Anniversary?

Usually, when concerto soloists come to town, they do the concerto and that's it, sitting around backstage during the first piece, waiting and trying not to feel nervous, and maybe afterward, sitting around backstage waiting for the rest of the concert to be over. Stuart won't have that chance: he'll start by conducting Jacques Ibert's delightful send-up, the Divertissement (originally composed for an Italian wedding farce called "The Italian Straw Hat"), then come out and play Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Concerto, conducting the orchestra from the piano (speaking of multi-tasking), then after intermission come out to conduct one of the great (and long) symphonies in the repertoire, the "Great C Major" Symphony by Franz Schubert (that's not why it's called 'Great' but the name has stuck: if the shoe fits, &c &c). He may be exhausted by the end of the weekend, but it was his idea...

Myth & Magic are the subject for the February concert which starts with two film-scores. The suite Prokofiev wrote for a film called "Lt. Kije," is about a man who exists only because people were too afraid to correct the Russian Emperor when he mispronounced a name (they create a fictional person to go along with the mispronunciation but when the tsar announces he'd like to meet this hero, they have to concoct his untimely demise). Then, the classic film score Leonard Bernstein wrote for "On the Waterfront," one you don't hear very often in concert. It's Bernstein's only true film-score, written for Elia Kazan's 1954 film starring Marlon Brando, best remembered for its famous line, "I coulda been a contender."

The second half of the concert features two "tone-poems," one usually relegated to children's concerts though it's really a very fine score on the adult level. Paul Dukas' musical telling of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice” may be better known for its use in Walt Disney's original film, Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse as the hapless apprentice battling the brooms in a spell gone very very wrong. The last piece, then, quite different, is Richard Strauss' “Death & Transfiguration” with its transcendent conclusion.

Another great symphony is on the program for the April concert – Brahms 2nd – which will feature another member of the orchestra as the soloist. This year, it will be principal cellist Fiona Thompson (see left) playing the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saëns. A special feature of this performance will be the instrument she'll be playing: new to her, it's played in the orchestra for decades, having belonged to former principal cellist John Zurfluh who died just a couple of years ago.

Kevin Puts' Symphony No. 2 “Island of Innocence” opens that program. Stuart describes the work as a musical response to the events of September 11th and how things changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001. Harrisburg had a chance to hear the world premiere of a new work by Kevin Puts (see right) this past season with Concertante.

The final masterworks concert includes two very well-known 19th Century favorites, with Berlioz' “Roman Carnival Overture” and the Piano Concerto by Robert Schumann, performed by a recent prize winner, Daria Rabotkina, winner of the 2007 Concert Artists Guild International Competition (you can hear her play in this Concert Artists Guild video-clip).

The concert concludes with a gorgeous symphony by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams whose music you might remember from past performances of his “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” or the choral work, “Dona nobis pacem” that had been paired with Beethoven's 9th a few seasons ago. Vaughan Williams' 2nd Symphony, known as “A London Symphony” takes the season full-circle: after opening with a Czech composer's evocation of the excitement he felt being in New York City in 1893, Vaughan Williams brings us back to Old World London with a loving tribute in his symphony, written only twenty years later in the innocent days before the First World War.

For more information about tickets for the new season, check out the website or call 717-545-5527.

- Dr. Dick

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photo credits: The Harrisburg Symphony from the Forum Stage by Carl Socolow, and Stuart Malina at the piano by Alan Weycheck, both from Stuart Malina's website; Alexander Kerr, from the Indianapolis Symphony; Augustin Hadelich, playing the Beethoven concerto with the Santa Barbara Symphony, by David Bazemore of the Santa Barbara Independent; Fiona Thompson's photo, courtesy of the Harrisburg Symphony; Kevin Puts' photo by Andrew Shapter; Daria Rabotkina's publicity photo by Christian Steiner, from the artist's website

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