Friday, November 5, 2010

A Video-Chat with Stuart Malina about the November Concert

The season seems like it just got started and yet here it is, November already, and 2010's almost over! Where does the time go?

It's time for the second Masterworks concert – Saturday Nov. 13th at 8pm and Sunday Nov. 14th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg – which will feature internationally renowned guitarist Sharon Isbin playing the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez on a program that includes two 5th Symphonies - one by Schubert, the other by Sibelius.

There's a pre-concert talk with Truman Bullard an hour before each concert and then after each performance, conductor Stuart Malina will host a "talk-back session" with the soloist during which the audience can ask any questions they want about the music or the performers.

The other day, Stuart and I had a chance to sit down and chat about the concert.

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The Rodrigo Concerto is usually considered THE Guitar Concerto, in addition to being one of the most popular concertos (for any instrument) from the 20th Century. The music is undeniably delightful, from the scintillating opening to the joyous dance-like finale, not to forget one of the most soulfully gorgeous slow movements in between.

Yet it was written at one of the most anxiety-filled times in 20th Century history: the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (in which it is estimated 500,000 people died) were just ending, even though they would haunt the nation for decades to come, and the clouds of the 2nd World War were already gathering on the horizon, with Hitler's invasion of Poland happening only a couple of months after Rodrigo completed his sunny, pastoral concerto.

Here is "an audio" of Sharon Isbin playing the opening movement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez that was posted on YouTube (there's a live performance but the sound quality is not very good): though uncredited, I'm assuming this is her Teldec recording with José Serebrier conducting the New York Philharmonic (the photo image is cover-art from a different recording).
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(This link will take you to raw video footage of a live performance recorded in the Church of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, with the opening section of the concerto's slow movement. The sound's not too bad even if the filming is a bit amateurish – it'll give you an idea of what you'll hear, though.)

Rodrigo's title, by the way, refers to a famous royal palace that had been built by Philip II, the great Spanish king during the 16th Century, on a site originally chosen by Ferdinand and Isabella. From the late 19th Century, it had served as the "spring residence" of the Spanish royal family.

Rodrigo composed the work while living in Paris in 1939, far from the fighting in Spain physically, but never far away from his mind. During this horrible time in Spain's modern history, then, it might be easy to understand why Rodrigo would want to remind people of their nation's glorious past. There would also be a not very subtle reminder of Spain's royal heritage, following the Civil War and the establishment of Franco's dictatorship.

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In that sense, the Sibelius 5th Symphony also comes from an anxious time. Finland was still part of the Russian Empire, longing for independence, and the 1st World War had already begun to tear across Europe, called by some "The Great War" (more for its sense of almost universal involvement) and by others "The War to End All Wars" (which, alas, proved not to be true).

Again, like the Rodrigo, this is nothing you'd guess from hearing the music.

As I mention in the video-chat, Sibelius (seen right, in 1918) wrote this for his own 50th Birthday celebrations originally in 1915 but he revised it a couple of times over the next three years. So basically it occupied him for the duration of the war.

While the war may not have made any imprint on this symphony, there is one thing we know about that did inspire something in it: the great sweeping bell-like theme in the horns near the beginning of the last movement (about 1:25 into the video clip below). Sibelius described how one afternoon, his work was disturbed by the sound of swans nearby. When he went outside to see what was happening, he saw sixteen great swans take off and fly across the sky past him. This was such a striking moment and it ended up being turned into a striking musical moment as well.

Here is the Swedish Radio Symphony conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in the final movement of Sibelius' Symphony No. 5:
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(Listen especially to the build-up of tension beginning around 8:00, as this "swan-call" motive is stretched all over the place before resolving into one of the most dramatic silences in symphonic music at 9:39.)

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Schubert's 5th Symphony would hardly seem tied to any such historical significance, yet it was written during the heady times following a generation of Napoleonic warfare. (Perhaps he still remembered being a student in 1809 when a French bomb narrowly missed the school where he was attending classes.) Between 1814-1815, Europe's crowned heads and diplomats gathered in Vienna to redivide the continent following Napoleon's defeat. The following summer, a 19-year-old Franz Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 5.

Usually, when we think of "Fifth Symphonies," we think of Beethoven's Fifth with its famous "Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door" motive and its depiction of triumph over adversity. Beethoven completed his 5th around 1806 and it was premiered two years later, when Schubert was 11.

So what did Schubert (left) think of his famous contemporary?

Keep in mind, around that time, he was studying with Antonio Salieri who had been one of the most important composers in Vienna during the earlier part of his career (the rivalry with Mozart aside: good theater, not the most accurate history – but yes, they were on opposite sides of the musical fence).

On June 16th, 1816, Schubert attended a celebration for his former teacher, honoring the 50th Anniversary of Salieri's arrival in Vienna. That night, Schubert made one of his rare journal entries, thinking how "fine and enlivening it must be" for an artist of Salieri's stature to be surrounded by so many of his students and hear music they had composed in his honor:

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" hear in all these compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the eccentricity that is common among most composers nowadays, and is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists [i.e., Beethoven]; that eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings and that which is most holy with harlequinades, without distinction, so as to goad people to madness instead of soothing them with love, to incite them to laughter instead of lifting them up to God."
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That was Schubert at 19 on Beethoven – who had recently completed his 7th and 8th Symphonies.

That statement was written in mid-June. Schubert began his 5th Symphony sometime during September of that year and completed it on October 3rd. (Incidentally, though it was played once by one of those amateur "reading-orchestras" Schubert played in, it was not heard publicly until 57 years later, 45 years after the composer died.)

Now, Schubert's attitude toward Beethoven certainly changed later – and not much later. The imprint of Beethoven's influence is all over Schubert's search for the grand symphonic form we hear in his Unfinished and Great C Major Symphonies, in the final string quartets, the String Quintet and the last several piano sonatas. But at the age of 19, not so much.

Here's the first movement of Schubert's "anti-Beethoven" Symphony No. 5 with Gunther Wand (who was around 80 when he recorded this) conducting a North German music festival orchestra:
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As Stuart mentioned in our conversation, this music may have been created in trying times but the composers managed to transcend them. We're certainly living in trying times ourselves when many people are concerned about national and international politics, our economic or physical well-being and certainly the state of the arts, not just in our country. Whether this music gives you the opportunity to put aside these concerns for a moment and 'escape' from reality or whether it refreshes your soul and inspires you to realize that we have managed to survive in the past, it still gives us an opportunity to see beauty in things around us when sometimes we wonder if it will ever exist again.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The First Podcast of the New Season! Pulling Out All the Stops!

Ta-daaah! The first pod-cast of the new season -- now with VIDEO -- as Stuart and I talk about the Harrisburg Symphony concert he'll be conducting this weekend - you can read more about the music on the program, here.

And join us either Saturday, Oct. 2nd at 8pm or Sunday, Oct. 3rd at 3pm at the Forum at 5th & Market Streets in Harrisburg!

Thanks to Marketing Director Kim Isenhour for filming and editing our conversation!

-- Dr. Dick

Pulling Out All the Stops: The New Season Begins!

The New Season begins! The first concert of the Harrisburg Symphony's Masterworks Series is this weekend at the Forum – Saturday (Oct. 2nd) at 8pm and Sunday (Oct. 3rd) at 3pm. Stuart Malina conducts a program that includes four works – beginning with Stokowski's orchestration of Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, originally for organ, two works for piano and orchestra – the Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise by Frederic Chopin and the Piano Concerto by Keith Emerson, both with pianist Jeffrey Biegel (left) – and the Symphony No. 3 by Camille Saint-Saëns, known as "The Organ Symphony." Small wonder, given the keyboard connections, the entire concert is called "Pulling Out All the Stops."

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One of the most famous organ pieces of all time is Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor. When audiences couldn't hear the great works of Bach in most concert halls – for lack of suitable instruments in those days – this music was fair game for arrangers to adapt them for the orchestra. And one of the most famous of these was the one made by the conductor Leopold Stokowski. It was this work, with Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, that opened Walt Disney's 1940 film classic, Fantasia.

The Disney animators took classical music and "accompanied" them with animations, long before the days of MTV and pop song videos. In some cases, the music "told a story," so the film interpreted that story. But in Bach's case, there was no "story," the music isn't "about" something – it's just abstract music about music. And so Disney used it as a light show to showcase the conductor and the orchestra as well as using geometric shapes (often inspired by the instruments playing at the moment) and abstract designs that might make you wonder what these guys were smoking in the animation room.

Here's a clip from the opening of Fantasia with Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor.
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(Unfortunately, the famous moment when Bugs Bunny dashes up to the podium, tugging on the maestro's coattails ("Mr. Stokowski! Mr. Stokowski!") is not included in this clip...)

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There are two works on the program, featuring guest artist Jeffrey Biegel (left) who's played Rachmaninoff's 3rd Concerto as well as Billy Joel's Piano Concerto in past seasons. On this visit, he'll play works by Chopin and Emerson.

This year marks the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Frederic Chopin, the great Polish-born composer and pianist who wrote almost exclusively for the piano. After trying to play back tunes he'd hear his mother play on the piano, then making up a few of his own, he finally was given his first lessons when he was 6 years old and gave his first concert the following year, when he wrote his first "official" compositions, two polonaises.

By the time he was 20. he had written two piano concertos but, after settling in Paris, decided he was not cut out for the life of a traveling virtuoso like his friend Franz Liszt. In fact, his nerves could barely stand performing in public at all, and most of his concerts were held in intimate salons.

The short work included on this concert is really a combination of two works. The Grande Polonaise was written first, almost immediately after the concertos as he was setting out on a career, having left Poland following Poland's failed 1830 uprising against Russian rule. Now in Paris – his father had been a French soldier who stayed behind in Poland during the Napoleonic era – Chopin was frequently homesick. The polonaise is a stately dance from Poland and spoke of a by-gone age to the many emigres who'd left their country (or what was left of it) behind.

A few years later, Chopin composed one of his long-lined nocturne-like piano solos which he called "Andante spianato" (spianato means smooth, perhaps in the sense of the unruffled surface of a lake though "spinning" would work here as well, intended or not). He decided to preface the Grande Polonaise, which he felt started too abruptly, with this calmer andante, joining the two with a fanfare in the horns. Later, he also arranged the Polonaise for piano quartet (so it could be played by an amateur pianist with a few string players in the parlor – the 19th Century amateur market for household concerts like this was a major staple for composers' incomes – and eventually for solo piano as well.

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Keith Emerson was a prodigy as well, starting to play the piano at 4 but only taking a few years of lessons when he was 8. He's best known as the pianist for the English 1970s rock band, Emerson Lake & Palmer.

His Piano Concerto No. 1 was written in 1977 for the groups' "return" album following a short hiatus, and Emerson recorded it with the London Philharmonic conducted by John Mayr (who helped him with the orchestration). Emerson wrote it "was born out of a series of variations inspired by the English countryside, paricularly the home I had at that time, which was grand early Tudor and formerly owned by Sir James Barrie (author of Peter Pan). An annex to the main house presented a huge barn studio, where my nine-foot Steinway concert grand awaited, always demanding attention I could not resist. The piano's sonorities would ring out, inspiring me while attracting wild birds to nest in the beams. I incorporated many techniques into the Concerto, such as a twelve-tone scale with Baroque ideas in fugal style. Presented in traditional form, the work tells a story of nature's cycle – its joy, its destruction and, in the block chords of the third movement, its optimistic triumph."

Jeffrey Biegel, who played a concerto arranged from some of the short pieces "in classical style" by Billy Joel a few seasons ago with the Harrisburg Symphony, returns with this bona fide concerto by Keith Emerson which he'd heard on that initial 1977 recording and which wasn't getting any performances. He contacted the composer and worked with him to bring it back to the public's awareness.

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update: be sure to read Jeffrey's comment, posted below!
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By the way, this is not the first time music from Emerson Lake & Palmer appeared on a Harrisburg Symphony program: a few seasons ago, a new trombone concerto by Scott McAllister called "Tarkus" was given its world premiere by HSO principal trombonist Brent Phillips. The concerto was inspired by ELP's half-tank/half-armadillo creation, Tarkus.

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Camille Saint-Saëns began taking piano lessons when he was 2 years old, after it was discovered he had perfect pitch. (I guess that would classify him as a child prodigy.) He wrote his first composition when he was 3 and he was still composing when he died at the age of 86. So that means he had an 83-year-long career as a composer.

Like most composers, Saint-Saëns earned a living (and quite a reputation) as an organist as well as a concert pianist. For 20 years, he was the organist at the Madeleine Church in Paris where, in 1866, Franz Liszt heard him improvise and pronounced him "the greatest organist in the world." 20 Years later, Franz Liszt died and Saint-Saëns dedicated his newly completed 3rd Symphony to his memory.

The Symphony No. 3 in C Minor is usually called simply "The Organ Symphony" though the composer's original title "Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, "with Organ" is more realistic. It's not a concerto though it's got a very prominent part to play. It's heard only in the slow movement and the finale, but it does tend to be memorable when it stands out.

Technically, the organ is only part of the orchestra. But the orchestra for this symphony also calls for two pianists at one piano (a four-hand piano duet) which has by comparison a lesser role to play. It is also scored for "triple woodwinds" which means, usually, 2 Flutes & 1 Piccolo, 2 Oboes & 1 English Horn, 2 Clarinets & 1 Bass Clarinet, and 2 Bassoons and 1 Contrabassoon, including the usual 4 horns, 3 trumpets and 3 trombones. (If you want to see a really full stage, come to hear Mahler's 3rd Symphony next April which uses quadruple winds (actually, 5 clarinet players) and brass (with 8 horns).

Even though Saint-Saëns said this symphony was in two movements – with an actual break only in the middle – each half breaks into two parts itself, all of which corresponds to the traditional four-movement symphonic plan. The first half consists of a dramatic fast opening movement (after a mysterious, slow introduction), followed by a lyrical slow movement; the scherzo and finale are connected for the second half.

The organist for this weekend's performance with the Harrisburg Symphony will feature Eric Riley, organist at Harrisburg's Market Square Presbyterian Church. Eric frequently joins the orchestra as a member of the orchestra - this time, he gets the Saint-Saëns Spotlight.

Here's a series of video clips from YouTube with the complete Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony performed at a BBC Proms Concert with the Radio France Philharmonic conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. The organist in this performance is Olivier Latry.

Part 1: "1st Movement" Adagio; Allegro moderato
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Part 1: "2nd Movement" Poco Adagio
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Part 2: "3rd Movement" Scherzo
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Part 2: "4th Movement" Finale
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I remember the first performance of the then new Forum Organ with the Harrisburg Symphony. Edwin McArthur conducted and Paul Calloway, the organist of the National Cathedral, played Samuel Barber's Toccata Festiva. Now, my archive of concerts and repertoire is out on loan at the moment, so I can't check the date or what the other piece was on the program – I suspect it was the Saint-Saëns "Organ" Symphony, what else? – but it was an exciting concert and Harrisburg was very happy to have the instrument.

The console (the keyboard and casing of the instrument which the organist plays) was actually housed in the Forum's pit – back in the days when there was a pit. This was later covered over to expand the stage not just to accommodate a larger orchestra but to improve the acoustics by getting the strings out from under the proscenium arch. So the organ was then moved into a special "cave" built behind the stage which had been used to store stands and chairs and things (mostly "things") and unfortunately, over the years, the instrument was not used very often and began to deteriorate.

As orchestra manager for the symphony in the '80s, I remember dealing with renovations to the instrument and using it for several performances, including the Saint-Saëns as well as less conspicuous parts in works like Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" and Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. The organ console would be rolled out from it's cave, the long umbelical cord (the hose for the instrument's air-supply and wiring) snaking across the stage under chairs and risers. Each time, I needed to admonish the musicians not to step, trip or fall on this hose because even the slightest puncture could render the instrument breathless, not something that could be easily fixed. The other problem was tuning the instrument which is quite an undertaking, needing to check and adjust each of the pipes – and there are 3,481 of them! Being in tune with itself is a problem for an instrument that was not kept under regular care, but one time when the organ was scheduled to be played in a concert, it was found its intonation was too low for the orchestra to adjust to and there was no time to have the organ properly tuned (an electric instrument was brought in, instead).

But now it has been refurbished again and it's ready to roll!

"Pulling Out All the Stops," indeed!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tickets for the New 2010-2011 Season

The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra proudly offers Live Music in Real Time!

The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, led by Maestro Stuart Malina, proudly announces its 2010/11 season performance schedule. The season titled Live Music in Real Time features seven Masterworks concerts, four Capital BlueCross Pops Series, as well as five special events, including the annual “Stuart & Friends” concert; Picture Yourself in Paris…at the Moulin Rouge, a special fund-raising event; Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra Holiday Spectacular; The Little Dragon, the first of a new Family series; and the reunion of the HSO and the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet for the annual CPYB performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker ™ at the Hershey Theatre.

Both the Masterworks and Capital BlueCross Pops series offer subscription packages. The Pops series offers a Full Season subscription to the four concerts and the Masterworks series is available in four packages including Full Season, “Flex 3” and “Flex 4” subscriptions.

In addition to a discount of up to 39% off single ticket prices, season subscribers enjoy reserved seating at the Forum and a subscription to the Fanfare newsletter. Season subscribers also qualify for the Symphony’s very liberal exchange policy allowing them the opportunity to exchange tickets for a different performance date or return unused tickets for a tax credit. Ticket exchanges and returns must be handled by the Symphony Box Office at least 24 hours prior to the concert.

The Harrisburg Symphony is proud to continue “Get Hooked on the Classics,” the specially priced new subscriber program launched during the 2007-08 season. The program offers a 50% discount off the regular subscription rate to anyone who has never subscribed to the Masterworks Full Season. There are seven seating areas to choose from, presenting options for every budget.

The “Sound Foundation” program also continues to introduce students to classical music. Students (kindergarten through 12th grade) accompanied by their parents or teachers are eligible to purchase the Full Masterworks series for only $27! The “Sound Foundation” program is a part of Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing commitment to fostering a love of live classical music in our community’s youth. This program is valid for sections 101 and 103 of the Forum.

Please visit for more information or call the office at (717)545-5527 to subscribe.
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The HSO kicks off the 2010/11 Season with a sonic festival of keyboards... piano and organ. Special guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel has an electrifying technique and mesmerizing touch that have received critical acclaim and praise worldwide. The evening concludes with special guest Eric Riley and a rare chance to hear the Forum’s 3,841-pipe organ in all its magnificent glory for the Saint-Saëns “Organ Symphony”

Bach/Stokowski: Toccata & Fugue in D Minor
Chopin: Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante
Keith Emerson: Piano Concerto No. 1
(both with Jeffrey Biegel, Piano)
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 "Organ Symphony" (with organist Eric Riley)
(In Memory of David A. Elias, Jr. and Marie Graupner Elias)


Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique and versatility, Grammy Award winner Sharon Isbin has been hailed as one of the leading classical guitarists of our time. She joins the HSO for a performance of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, one of the most popular concertos of all time.

Schubert: Symphony No. 5
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (with Sharon Isbin, Guitar)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5

CATCH A RISING STAR  January 15-16

Twenty-five contestants from seven states participated in the second Rodney & Lorna Sawatsky Rising Stars Concerto Competition at Messiah College on January 22-23, 2010. Walking away with top honors was 15-year-old pianist Yen Yu Chen from Philadelphia. Ms. Chen, a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, will perform the Piano Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel.

Rozsa: Theme, Variations & Finale
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G (with Yen Yu Chen, Piano)
(Guest Artist Sponsor: Messiah College)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique"


La Bohème may be the world’s most popular opera, and for good reason - it’s the quintessential portrait of romance, high-spirited friendship, and the idealistic pursuit of love and art. (Sung in Italian with English Supertitles.)

Puccini: La Bohème
-Inna Dukach as Mimi
-Dinyar Vania as Rodolfo
-Jane Redding as Musetta
-Grant Youngblood as Marcello
-Susquehanna Chorale; Linda Tedford, Conductor
-Harrisburg Singers; Susan Beckley, Artistic Director


Join long-time friends Bach and Beethoven, and our very own Julius Wirth, for an intimate dalliance with life, dance, elegance, and reminiscence. Bach’s Suite No. 3 is a wonderful set of French dances that surround what is possibly one of the most beautiful, most beloved melodies of all time – the Air on the G String. While Beethoven might often be considered brooding and restless, in his Symphony No. 8 we meet the other Beethoven – one who proves to be a happy, gentle, and quite lively companion.

Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3
Lukas: Viola Concerto (with Julius Wirth, Viola)
Ives: The Unanswered Question
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8


Mahler’s Third Symphony was conceived as a musical portrait of the natural world. Mahler was inspired by the grandeur around him and stirred at a profoundly deep, emotional level.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3
(with Women of the Messiah College Concert Choir; Linda Tedford, Conductor
Susquehanna Children's Chorale; Judith Shepler, Conductor)
(Sponsored by the Glatfelter Family Foundation)


A night of Brahms kicks off with the Brahms Fan-Fare, arranged by our own Maestro Stuart Malina. Brahms’ only violin concerto features HSO Concertmaster Odin Rathnam in his 20th season with the HSO. This concert concludes with the Symphony No. 1, a remarkable and impressive achievement that was the result of a fourteen-year gestation period, and established Johannes Brahms as the leading German symphonist of his generation.

Malina: Brahms Fan-Fare
Brahms: Violin Concerto (with Odin Rathnam, Violin)
Brahms: Symphony No. 1
(Sponsored by The Hall Foundation)



Take a stroll down lover’s lane with this program full of dancing and romancing as guest artists Teri Dale Hansen and Nat Chandler join the HSO. Be swept away by lush arrangements of “Moon River,” “The Days Of Wine And Roses,” “Dear Heart,” “Charade,” and orchestral favorites such as “The Baby Elephant Walk,” “Peter Gunn,” “The Pink Panther,” and “Victor Victoria.”

SIMPLY SWINGIN' with Sinatra & Friends - January 29-30

The HSO joins Steve Lippia with a romantic repertoire of timeless classics. Hear the biggest hits of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Nat King Cole in smooth, classic, velvety style! Enjoy great hits such as Beyond the Sea, Unforgettable, Mack the Knife, Almost Like Being in Love, On the Street Where You Live, What Kind of Fool Am I, Just in Time, The Good Life, and I Left My Heart in San Francisco.


Back by popular demand, clarinetist Dave Bennett brings his sextet and vocalist Carol McCartney back to Harrisburg with a new show saluting the biggest clarinet stars of all-time: Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey, Acker Bilk, Pete Fountain, and Benny Goodman.


Best known for his role in The Phantom of the Opera, Franc D’Ambrosio is “The World’s Longest Running Phantom,” having played the role over 3,000 times. His deep, rich tenor voice and flawless delivery will delight audiences with this revue of Broadway hits and love ballads performed with the HSO.



Immerse yourself in a night of Parisian ambiance with wonderful French Bistro cuisine, music, and art. Surrounded by strolling musicians, artists-in-progress, and can-can dancers, you can stroll the Champs-Élysées for our silent auction, and wander through Montmartre for our special event selections. After dinner, enjoy performances by special guests Edith Piaf and Mimi, from La Bohème, (accompanied by Stuart Malina )...and so much more! We hope we see you there.

C’est magnifique!


The Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra and its new Music Director, Tara Simoncic, ring in the holiday season at this annual concert. The region’s brightest young musicians and high school choirs present a selection of exciting orchestral repertoire and holiday classics.

The Holiday Spectacular will be held at the Forum at 3PM with general admission tickets.


Revel in the warmth of the season as Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet dances to the sounds and orchestration of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stuart Malina . December 18th at 1 & 5 PM and December 19th at 2 PM at the Hershey Theatre.


Maestro Malina’s reputation speaks for itself. Experience his energy, grace and skill in this special setting as Stuart and a select group of musicians from the HSO present this enchanting program. Stuart & Friends is underwritten by Marilynn R. Kanenson in memory of Dr. William Kanenson.


Irish melodies collide with eccentric characters and jaunty dances in the Tales & Scales’ beloved Musictelling adventure about caring, courage, and the power of the imagination. Tales & Scales Musictellers join the HSO and conductor Tara Simoncic in The Little Dragon! The Little Dragon will be held at the Mechanicsburg Middle School at 3 PM with general admission tickets.

All Masterworks and Capital BlueCross Pops performances are at the Forum at 5th and Walnut in downtown Harrisburg . Saturday performances are at 8PM and Sunday performances are at 3PM. Each Masterworks Series concert features a pre-concert lecture that begins one hour prior to the performance. Special Events have varied locations, please see specific Special Event for the location and ticketing details.

Maestro Stuart Malina is one of America ’s most versatile and accomplished conductors. In a wide variety of concerts, from masterworks and grand opera to pops, Malina’s ease on the podium, engaging personality, and insightful interpretations have thrilled audiences and helped to break down the barriers between performer and listener wherever he has worked. Malina has been music director and conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra since June 2000.

Malina made his Carnegie Hall debut in February 2007 conducting a sold-out performance with the New York Pops in an all-Gershwin tribute including “Rhapsody in Blue,” which he conducted from the keyboard. He returned to Carnegie Hall on Oct. 26 to conduct the New York Pops in a salute to the golden era of Hollywood .

Malina won a Tony Award for orchestration with Billy Joel for the musical “Movin’ Out,” which Malina helped to create with director and choreographer Twyla Tharp. He is the music supervisor for both the National Tour and the London/European Tour of the show.

An accomplished concert pianist, Maestro Malina has impressive credits as a soloist, having performed in numerous concerts in the United States , the Netherlands , and with the acclaimed Piccolo Spoleto Contemporary Music Festival.

Additional information about Malina is available on his website at

Tickets for performances at the Forum range from $10 to $55 depending on seat location and are available online at or by calling the HSO office (717) 545-5227. Subscription packages and single tickets are now available!

- Kim Isenhour, Marketing Director

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Jennifer Higdon Update

If you remember the performance of Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony in March of the 2007-2008 Season with our principal percussionist Chris Rose as soloist, consider this post “an update.”

The composer was so impressed with his playing, she arranged the orchestral part of the concerto for band – which Chris then premiered with his “other” ensemble, the United States Marine Band - The President's Own -  on May 10, 2009.

Usually, you'd see Chris in the Forum, along with other members of the symphony, in “concert black” – white tie and tails for the men, black dresses for the women. Here's a photo taken after the premiere with Master Sergeant Christopher Rose with composer Jennifer Higdon (looking very civilian) and conductor Col. Michael Colburn following the premiere of the band version of Higdon's Percussion Concerto.

I've posted it here today (with Jennifer's permission) because she'd just posted it on Facebook, which she finally broke down and signed up for (yeah, there goes a lot of composing time, I bet...).

In past seasons with the Harrisburg Symphony, Stuart Malina has conducted several works by Jennifer Higdon – music aside, they were classmates at Curtis and were born a day apart – in addition to the Percussion Concerto, there was “blue cathedral” and, this past season, 'Skyline' from “CityScape.”

Earlier this year, Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Violin Concerto, composed for Hilary Hahn who then recorded the work for Deutsche Grammophone. In another post, I'd written about listening to the concerto when the Liverpool performance was broadcast on-line through the BBC last summer.

That recording will now be released on September 21st, 2010.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What If Musicians Hit Only 30% of Their Notes?

As summer begins to fade into fall – pending the weather and whether or not you follow a calendar whose “New Year” is predetermined by the start of school – the symphony is getting ready for its new season and musicians (back from playing summer festivals) are finishing up a much-needed respite (what others may call “vacation”) before digging into the new season's repertoire.

While over at my blog, Thoughts on a Train, I've been working hard getting my music appreciation thriller, “The Lost Chord,” posted on the installment plan, I wanted to take this moment to post something here that's part of an on-going series on the topic you can find around the web, especially on You-Tube.

Given the budget cutting and meltdown of arts funding in the country today, a frequently asked question is "Why is music important in the public schools?"

If someone in your family is getting ready for school – or perhaps already back in the swing of academic things – here is something to ponder.

Normally, I am not one for sports analogies but I like how this one drives the point right across the plate.

How important is music in our schools? If you think sports are important – and they are – think about music this way:

A baseball players with a .300 batting average is considered (so I'm told) very good – in fact, even bordering on excellent (.400 being a nearly unachievable goal: even Babe Ruth had a career average of .342).

But that really means he's only hitting the ball 30% of the time, right?

Now, imagine if you were listening to the orchestra and they only hit 30% of the notes right.

When you go to a concert, you expect the musicians to hit one out of the park every time they pick up their instruments, much less at least make contact with the note.

And speaking academically, most students (and their parents) would be very happy to have a score of 95% on a math or history test. That's enough to be awarded an A, right?

Listen to this short clip (beginning around 2:50) to hear what a band of high school musicians would sound like if they only hit 95% of their notes right!

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Jack Stamp is one of the best-known names in band music and music education in this country today, as a conductor and clinician as well as a composer and arranger. He's also head of the department and the director of bands at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The audio of this clip (sorry there's no video to watch) was recorded at a presentation in which he talked about the importance of music education in our public schools, especially having band programs for young musicians to learn their performance skills.

Because, really, if they played less than 100%, you'd notice it and you wouldn't think they were very good if they only did as well as someone who has a .300 batting average or still got an A on a math test (who might go on to college as an engineer or a pre-med student and end up working where lives depend on their accuracy).

Just something to think about in this hazy if not quite lazy days at the end of Summer...

I'll be back soon with information about the new season set to get underway with the Harrisburg Symphony very soon. Meanwhile, check out the Season Preview Stuart Malina and I recorded back in the spring – and check out this wonderful new program for public school students to attend Harrisburg Symphony concerts!

- Dick Strawser

Monday, June 28, 2010

New Assistant Conductor & Youth Symphony Music Director

The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra announces the appointment of Tara Simoncic as the new Assistant Conductor and Harrisburg Youth Symphony Music Director.

(UPDATE: you can read David Dunkle's article about her that appeared in the Patriot-News on-line.)

“During my time as Music Director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony, I have built the program from four orchestras to six, adding a very successful mid-level orchestral winds training ensemble as well as a top level chamber orchestra that performs free concerts in the surrounding communities” says Simoncic.

Tara Simoncic joins the HSO from her current appointment as Music Director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony in Norwalk , Connecticut .  She had previously been the conductor of their Principal Orchestra prior to her Music Director appointment. While with the NYS she founded and conducted the Chamber Orchestra which performed free and benefit concerts and collaborated with the Greenwich Ballet Academy. Ms. Simoncic will assist Maestro Stuart Malina as his Assistant Conductor and become the new Harrisburg Youth Symphony Music Director, filling the position of the recently retired Dr. Ronald Schafer.

In addition to her NYS position, she was also the Music Director and Conductor for the Histoire Chamber Orchestra, Conductor of the Flexible Orchestra (in NYC), Cover Conductor for the Manhattan School of Music (NYC), and Pre-Concert Lecturer and Assistant Conductor for the Greenwich  (CT) Symphony Orchestra.

Her previous appointments include Guest Conductor for the Connecticut Music Educators Association High School Orchestra, Music Director for the Adelphi Chamber Orchestra (Paramus, NJ), Guest Conductor for the Omaha Youth Symphony (Omaha, NE), Assistant Conductor for the Martha Graham Dance Company (NYC), Guest Conductor of the Ballet School of Stamford (Stamford, CT), Guest Conductor for the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra (NYC), Guest Conductor for the Kinhaven Music School (Kinhaven, VT), Guest Conductor for the Kingsborough Symphony Orchestra (NYC), Guest Conductor for the New Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra (NYC), Conductor for the Seminar Orchestra at C.W. Post Music Festival (Long Island, NY), Director of Orchestras for the Wachusette Regional School Distric grades 4-12 (Holden, MA), Choir Director for the First Congregational Church (Holden, MA) and Apprentice Conductor for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (Knoxville, TN).

Originally from Stockton , California , Ms. Simoncic grew up in a musical family. Her father a composer and her mother a flautist, Tara was encouraged to study several instruments at an early age, but chose to focus on the trumpet at the age of six. Tara was bitten by the conducting bug while she was pursuing her Bachelor of Music degree in trumpet performance at the New England Conservatory of music. There, she founded the Stravinsky Septet, an ensemble which toured New England with a staged production of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat and other works with similar instrumentation that were commissioned by the ensemble. Deciding to further her studies in conducting, Ms. Simoncic received her Masters of Music degree in orchestral conducting from Northwestern University . Soon after, she won the position of assistant conductor with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, a one-year position during which time she covered subscription concerts and conducted the orchestras pops, run-out and chamber orchestra concerts and was the conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra.

In 2000, Ms. Simoncic was accepted into the doctoral program in conducting at the University of Kansas City, Missouri and appointed assistant conductor of the Kansas City Ballet but declined the position to be one of two students accepted into the first conducting class at the Manhattan School of Music. Since then, she became one of the most active conductors of her generation in the New York area, working with the Brooklyn, Kingsborough, New Amsterdam and Greenwich Symphony Orchestras and the Bergen Philharmonic. Ms. Simoncic served on the conducting faculty at the C.W. Post Music Festival ( Long Island , NY ) for three years, and has been a guest conductor at the Kinhaven Summer School of Music in Vermont. An advocate of contemporary music, Ms. Simoncic has worked with the Manhattan School of Music Composers Orchestra and was appointed conductor of the Flexible Orchestra in 2004.

Her conducting training extended to Europe, where she has studied extensively in master classes at the Canford Summer School of Music (England) and with the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic (Czech Republic), the West Bohemian Symphony Orchestra (Czech Republic), the Adygeya Republic National Symphony Orchestra and the Astrakhan Symphony Orchestra (Russian Republic), where she had recently been invited back as a guest conductor. She studied with Zdenec Macal, David Gilbert, Iloh Yang, Victor Yampolsky, George Manahan, George Hurst and Kirk Trevor.

Ms. Simoncic will join the HSO and HYSO staff following a trip to Italy with her current Norwalk Youth Symphony during the last week of June. 

- Kim Isenhour, Marketing Director, Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, June 24, 2010

2010-2011 - The Season Preview

Stuart and I had a chance to sit down in his living room and look ahead to the Harrisburg Symphony's new season, "Music in Real Time" for 2010-2011.

You can hear the PodCast here.

We talked about which concerts he's most looking forward to (all of them, of course, but two especially stand out) and the different programs, the repertoire and soloists throughout the year. Not to mention one new role for this conductor, pianist, chamber musician, arranger and raconteur (as well, on occasion, chanteur) -- composer!

The first concert - October 2nd & 3rd - indeed "Pulls Out All the Stops," featuring the Forum Pipe Organ in a performance of Camille Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3, the "Organ Symphony" with organist Eric Riley joining the orchestra. Jeffrey Biegel, who last played the Billy Joel Piano Concerto a few seasons ago, returns with a performance of Keith Emerson's Piano Concerto No. 1 -- and that's Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, though this is an original work, not an arrangement of "greatest hits." Biegel will also play Chopin's "Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise." The concert opens with a great organ warhorse - even though there's some scholarly argument that the work was originally for violin and maybe not even by Bach, initially: Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, transcribed for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski and familiar through its use in the original Walt Disney film, Fantasia.

The November concert - Nov. 13th & 14th - features one of the leading guitarists on the international scene, Grammy-winning Sharon Isbin who'll perform what is generally considered the most popular concerto for the instrument, if not of the entire 20th Century, the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. The program also features two 5th Symphonies but not by the usual suspects, when you think of "Fifths" - one, by the teen-aged Franz Schubert and the other, the one Jean Sibelius composed to celebrate his own 50th Birthday.

In January - Jan. 15th & 16th - you'll get a chance to "Catch a Rising Star" with the winner of the symphony's latest "Rising Stars" competition, pianist Yen Yu Chen, who'll play the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major. The program opens with the little known "Theme, variations & Finale" by Miklos Rosza, a Hungarian composer whose concert works were overshadowed by his great film scores. The concert concludes with the well-known 6th Symphony by Tchaikovsky, the "Pathetique."

Following the recent success of the concert performance of the complete opera, Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini, Stuart Malina will be bringing two of those same singers back along with a few more for another Puccini favorite, La Boheme, complete with "supertitles" to provide the translation.This is an opera that has long been one of the staples of opera houses around the world and both Stuart and I fell in love with its music when we were high school (though I have quite a few years' drop on him, there). Those performances will be on February 26th & 27th.

The March concert - March 26th & 27th - features the orchestra's principal violist, Julius Wirth, as the soloist. You can hear the podcast where Stuart describes how they decided to program the Viola Concerto by Hungarian composer Zdenek Lukás - if it's a work I've never heard of before, I'm pretty sure it's going to be a discovery for 99% of our audience! ;-)

But the other works may be discoveries (or "revelations" as the concert is called) because, even though everyone will probably recognize Bach's famous "Air on the G String" (as it's unfortunately often called), you don't hear the whole Suite it's taken from that often. While Beethoven Symphonies are staples of any orchestra's repertoire, his 8th is perhaps one of those less frequently heard. Actually, Beethoven himself considered it a favorite and preferred it as a better work than the wildly popular 7th! Don't look for Charles Ives to "explain it all for you" - his enigmatic "The Unanswered Question" is like many philosophical discussions: more questions than answers but you always grow from thinking about them.

If you've heard recent performances of Mahler Symphonies here in Harrisburg - the 9th most recently as well as the 1st and 2nd ( the Resurrection) - you'll want to make sure either April 16th or 17th is on your calendar when Stuart Malina conducts Mahler's 3rd Symphony, a work that is not that frequently programmed even in places like New York City. It is, to put it mildly, an epic symphony. Mahler originally gave picturesque titles to its six different movements, including "Pan Awakens: Summer Marches In," "What the Flowers of the Field Tell Me," "What the Angels Tell Me," and the great finale, itself as long as many classical symphonies, "What Love Tells Me."

From Mahler to Brahms for the final concert of the Masterworks Season on May 14th & 15th. Concertmaster Odin Rathnam will be the soloist for the Violin Concerto, usually regarded as one of the two greatest violin concertos ever, and another epic symphony - shorter than Mahler's, perhaps, but almost 25 years in the making: Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. But the program opens with a "Brahms Fan-Fare" by a big fan of Brahms, conductor Stuart Malina, himself. Listen to the podcast to hear him talk about the whole process of how this work will come about! (No pressure, there...)

Check the website for more details about the season - and about ordering subscription tickets. Or call 717-545-5527.

- Dick Strawser

Summertime & the Music Continues

It's officially Summer even if it's felt like it for weeks – and with summer comes summer concerts.

The Harrisburg Symphony will be playing free concerts during the 4th of July Holiday all around the mid-state with great music for a family-friendly (and hopefully weather-friendly) experience.

Stuart Malina will be conducting the orchestra in a program that will include Franz von Suppé's “Poet & Peasant” Overture, dances by Dvorak and Brahms, selections from Richard Rodgers' Broadway classic “South Pacific,” Leroy Anderson's “Fiddle Faddle,” music from “Harry Potter's Wonderful World” along with a patriotic sing-along, an Armed Forces Salute – and of course, the “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky.

The Concerts begin on Thursday July 1st at 8pm in Negley Park, Lemoyne, a performance sponsored by the “Concert at Negley Committee.” (In case of rain, the concert will be held indoors at Washington Heights Elementary School.)

On Friday, July 2nd at 8pm, the orchestra will perform on the Quad of Lebanon Valley College, a performance sponsored by the college. (In case of rain, the concert will be held indoors at Lutz Auditorium.)

The orchestra plays along the Harrisburg Riverfront on Saturday July 3rd, beginning at 8:30pm, and that performance, sponsored by the Dauphin County Commissioners, will move indoors to the Forum in case of rain.

Sunday is July 4th – and at 7:30pm the concert in Carlisle is part of Carlisle Summerfair which, along with Citizens of Carlisle, has made the concert possible. (In case of rain, this performance will move indoors to the Carlisle Theatre.)

And then Monday's performance, on the 5th of July, will be held rain or shine at 7:30pm at the Juniata High School in Mifflintown, a performance sponsored by First National Bank of Mifflintown and the Lawrence L. & Julia Z. Hoverter Foundation.

So I hope you'll be able to make one (or more) of these performances in your area and have a great time with family and friends!

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, May 23, 2010

So What Did You Think of the Concert?

Stuart Malina has a poll set up at his website where you can let us know what you thought of this weekend's concert, if you attended either Saturday evening's or Sunday afternoon's performance.

Stuart's trying to find a new set-up for polls on his website, but you can follow this link to leave him your comments about the concert - or you can leave a comment here, if you wish.

As we conclude the 80th Season of the Harrisburg Symphony and bring Stuart Malina's tenth year with the orchestra to a close, it was great to see four members of the orchestra honored for their 25-or-more years of service, playing in the orchestra, all (coincidentally) from the lower range of the symphonic palette: bassoonist & contrabassonist Richard Spittel; principal Tuba, Eric Henry; bassist Charles ("Chip") Breaux; cellist Sheldon Lentz.

What was cool for me - aside from realizing how long I've been enjoying their contributions to the orchestra all these years - was realizing I was at their auditions when they were hired, back when I was the assistant conductor and (around that time) personnel manager!

More recently, the orchestra has begun a new tradition, recognizing a musician for his or her contribution to the ensemble, an award voted on by the orchestra (not the management, Jeff Woodruff, the executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony, pointed out).

Congratulations to this year's recipient, violist Marjorie Goldberg!

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Schumann Writes a Concerto on the Installment Plan

This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony and conductor Stuart Malina may be called “A Tale of Two Cities,” focusing on Berlioz' “Roman Carnival Overture” and Ralph Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony.” But in between there's a stop-over in Germany with Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor, performed by Daria Rabotkina. The performances take place on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Come an hour early to hear Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk.

You can read a brief bio of our soloist here which also includes a video of her solo performance with music of Scarlatti, Prokofiev, and Haydn including an excerpt from Schumann's "Symphonic Etudes."

You can read about the Vaughan Williams symphony in an earlier post, here.

This post focuses on the better-known Schumann concerto.

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The story of Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto is a fairly complicated one, and I thought it might be interesting to look at what was going on in his life around the time he started it until the time he finished it.

The story is fairly well known that he wrote the first movement as a single-movement Fantasy for Piano & Orchestra in 1841 and that his wife, Clara, one of the greatest concert pianists of the day, had urged him to write two more movements to make a full concerto out of it, which he finally did four years later.

For the first part of his compositional career, Schumann had been a composer almost entirely of piano music. Having decided the study of law was not for him, he wanted to become a concert pianist, studying with Frederich Wieck, whose daughter Clara Wieck was already an accomplished virtuoso in her early teens, having composed a Piano Concerto in A Minor of her own. It too had begun life as a one-movement work which she later expanded but in this case, it was the finale that was written first, when she was 14 (it was orchestrated by Robert Schumann), and then the following year she added the first two movements, doing her own orchestrations by then. It's interesting to think of their relationship being entwined in two piano concertos like this, both in A Minor, though that's certainly just a coincidence.

It's one of the better known love stories in classical music, this romance between Robert and Clara Schumann, but it was not an easy one.

First, there was the paternal objection since Wieck did not feel Schumann was a suitable husband for his daughter. He had not demonstrated enough talent as a composer (yet) and he had injured his hand from over-zealous practice (misusing a contraption Wieck had invented to strengthen the fourth finger) which made it impossible for him to play the piano. There were also, doubtless, fears Wieck would lose control over the income from Clara's performances and, of course, the fear that married life would distract her from her all-important career. (Keep in mind, even before she'd been born, Wieck was determined his child-to-be would be a great pianist!) There were numerous nasty legal battles but, finally, Frederich Wieck lost.

On September 12th, 1840, Robert Schumann married Clara Wieck. He was 30; she was one day shy of her 21st birthday.

During that year, Schumann wrote 168 songs.

Then, suddenly, in 1841, he began composing a symphony, something Clara had been urging him to do: it was a sign of compositional maturity and “arrival.” Between January 23rd and 26th, he sketched out a four movement symphony in B-flat (which later became known as the “Spring” Symphony) which he orchestrated between January 27th and February 20th. By March 28th, it was ready for rehearsal and Mendelssohn conducted its premiere three days later. Also on that concert, Clara Schumann appeared for the first time in public under her married name. Though his symphony was well received, it must have been obvious to Robert that Clara was the real star of the evening.

On April 12th, Robert began an Overture in E which he completed in score 5 days later. On May 8th, he finished two additional movements, a Scherzo and a Finale to create a “Suite” which he later called a Symphonette. At the premiere in December, it was called “Overture, Scherzo & Finale” though it was basically a symphony without a slow movement.

No sooner had he finished that symphonic work, he began a new Fantasy in A Minor for Piano & Orchestra which he finished scoring on May 20th. Clara was rehearsing it with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on August 13th and gave the premiere a few days later.

On September 1st, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Marie.

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(typical of the casual editing one encounters on YouTube, the last seconds of the second clip are actually the beginning of the slow movement which is then continued in the third clip, posted below...)
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Ten days after having finished the Fantasy, Schumann began work on another new symphony, this one in D Minor which wasn't completed until Sept 9th. Then, on September 23rd, he “roughed out” the first movement and scherzo of a Symphony in C Major; the next day, the slow mvmt & finale. By the 26th, the sketch of this symphony was basically complete. But then he stopped work on orchestrating it.

He had become distracted by thoughts of an opera. In August, he had already begun work on the libretto for “Paradise & the Peri” which he now worked more seriously but ended up doing nothing with it for another two years (by which time it became an 'oratorio' instead).

In November, there was an important concert tour to Weimar: Clara performed and Robert was present for a performance of his B-flat Symphony.

Then in December, the D Minor Symphony was premiered along with the “Overture, Scherzo & Finale,” but the new symphony was not satisfactory and so he put it aside. It wasn't until ten years later that he completed the revisions he'd had in mind and it was only then it was finally re-premiered and published as his Symphony No. 4. The sketches of the Symphony in C were meanwhile set aside: this is apparently an entirely different symphony from the one that eventually became his Symphony No. 2, also in C Major.

There was another tour in February 1842 which saw another performance of the “Spring” Symphony which Schumann declined to conduct (claiming he was too “short sighted”). In March, he returned to Leipzig to continue work on his music journal (the famous “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” which he'd started in 1834) while Clara traveled on to Copenhagen where she stayed for a month, playing concerts & recitals.

Schumann spent much of the time she was gone feeling depressed, “drowning in beer & champagne” and unable to compose. He worked on counterpoint exercises and the writing of fugues. There were thoughts of taking Clara to America. Her father, meanwhile, was spreading the rumor that the couple had “separated.” In the midst of all this, Schumann started studying the string quartets of Beethoven & Mozart.

Clara returned from her tour on April 26th. On June 2, Schumann began what he called “quartet essays” (sketches for a possible string quartet) which by June 4th materialized into a String Quartet in A Minor. On June 11th, he began a second quartet even before the first onet was finished. Between July 8th and 22nd, he wrote his third quartet, this one in A Major.

In the midst of this burst of activity, he wrote a libelous article that almost landed him in jail (a sentence of 6 days was commuted to a fine), after which they took a holiday. The quartets were ready for rehearsal on September 8th.

Then, on September 23rd, he began the Piano Quintet, completing the 'fair copy' on Oct 12th. (Incidentally, Stuart Malina will join the Fry Street Quartet for a performance of Schumann's Quintet at the Glen Allen Mill on July 25th, Sunday afternoon at Market Square Concerts' Summer Music 2010.)

Despite dealing with “constant fearful sleepless nights,” he soon began work on a Piano Quartet on October 24th which he finished a month later.

Presumably he took the month of November off because the next item on his calendar doesn't take place until December when he completed a piano trio in A Minor. Then, by the end of January, he completed an Andante & Variations for 2 Pianos, 2 Cellos & Horn, though neither work satisfied him. He would later revised both of them: the trio became the Fantasy Pieces, Op. 88, seven years later; the Andante & Variations were revised for just two pianos in 1843.

With the new year, Schumann became involved in other projects. In February, Hector Berlioz visited Leipzig and, rather awkwardly, Clara and eventually Robert both reconciled with Clara's father. Apparently, Wieck considered Schumann's success with writing symphonies as the mark of a new-found maturity – a bit ironic since most people these days would agree that Schumann's earlier piano pieces are his most original and most successful works.

That same month, Schumann finally began work on a long-planned choral piece, “Paradise & the Peri,” a “secular oratorio,” which he completed June 16th.

In April, Mendelssohn opened the new Leipzig Conservatory and Robert was listed as a “professor of piano-playing, composition & playing from score.” On April 25th, a second child, a daughter Elise, was born.

After completed “Paradise & the Peri” in June, Schumann struggled with various projects the rest of the year, completing nothing, though he made his conducting debut with the premiere of “Paradise & the Peri” in December. Most people found him “an indifferent” conductor as well as teacher.

In January 1844, he took time off from the Conservatory and his journal to travel with Clara for a much anticipated tour of Russia – well, anticipated by Clara and dreaded by Robert. They arrived, finally, in St. Petersburg by March 4th with a series of successful concerts including a private orchestra's performance of Schumann's B-flat Symphony. During this tour, they did not meet any of the major Russian composers of the day (Glinka, the foremost). In April, they went to Moscow where his Piano Quintet was a success. They returned to Leipzig on May 30th.

During this tour, Schumann was often “tortured” by illness and bouts of melancholy, mostly brought on by being “Mr. Clara Schumann.” He was also annoyed he was “wasting time.” He had wanted to work on a new opera based on Faust since November but for the four months of this tour, he was unable to compose. At least while he was laid up sick for a week, he was able to sketch out some scenes from Part II of Goethe's Faust).

Back in Leipzig, he gave up editorship of the 'Neue Zeitschrift' to spend more time composing but Faust was soon supplanted by an opera to be based on Byron's The Corsair which in July was replaced by an idea for a “magic opera” based on a poem by Hans Christian Andersen. Neither of them came to anything and in August, Schumann returned to Faust, completed the first three sections of what he now began thinking of as more as an oratorio but which eventually became only “Eight Scenes from Faust,” lost somewhere between not being an opera and not being an oratorio, either.

But in August 1844, he had a very serious nervous breakdown during which he was unable even to listen to music which, he wrote, “cut into my nerves like knives.”

In October, the Schumanns went to Dresden where Robert continued to be tortured by “fearful imaginings” and sleepless nights, spending each morning “awash in tears.” Dresden was rather dull and conservative by comparison to Leipzig but they moved there officially in December. During this period he began a slow convalescence.

To while away the time, Robert began teaching Clara counterpoint in January 1845, once again spending his time in the academic study of writing fugues.

On March 11th, their third child, a daughter Julie, was born.

In April, Schumann wrote two organ fugues, the first on B-A-C-H. Having obtained a “pedal piano,” he composed a series of fugues for it between April 29 and June 7.

Then, suddenly, he wrote a Rondo in A Major for piano and orchestra, followed by an Andante, also for piano and orchestra which he completed on July 16th and which he appended to the Fantasy in A Minor to create what was now the Piano Concerto in A Minor. Clara premiered the whole concerto in January 1846 in Leipzig.

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(perhaps it's just my computer, but the audio/video coordination here drives me nuts... good performance, though...)
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Schumann's health was still not good and he was forced to cancel a trip to Bonn for the unveiling of the Beethoven Monument in August. In October, he revised the finale of the “Overture, Scherzo & Finale,” put off hearing Wagner's new opera Tannhäuser which he hadn't cared for after looking at the score but changed his mind after he went to a performance in November. On December 12th, Schumann began a Symphony in C Major, finishing its first draft by the 28th, though he didn't begin orchestrating it until late February, 1846, not long after Clara gave birth to their fourth child, their first son, named Emil.

And so the lives – both personal and musical – continued for the Schumanns throughout Robert's alternating periods of creativity and illness. Only months after they had met a 20-year-old composer and pianist named Johannes Brahms who had showed up on their doorstep with a bundle of sonatas under his arm, Robert Schumann attempted suicide in February, 1854, by jumping off a bridge in Düsseldorf, neighbors fishing him out of the Rhine and carrying him home. A few days later, at his own request, he was taken away to what was then called an insane asylum. By the time he died there in 1856, Clara never saw him again.

It is one of the sadder stories in classical music as well, though far removed from the sparkling music of the concerto he composed on the installment plan in the first years of their marriage.

Considering he was himself originally a pianist who had written so much wonderful piano music and that he was married to one of the foremost pianists of the day, it's odd that he didn't write more for the instrument – another concerto or two, perhaps. He certainly would have had a built-in performance commitment for anything he would compose.

Ironically, there are two wonderful single movement works for piano and orchestra written later in his career which are usually overlooked today, both in terms of performance as well as recordings. The first is the “Introduction & Allegro appassionato” in G Minor, also known as “Konzertstück” (or Concert Piece) for Piano & Orchestra which he sketched in mid-September, 1849, in three days, the year before he wrote his last symphony (the last one to be composed, that is), the famous “Rhenish” Symphony and the elegiac Cello Concerto in A Minor. In 1853, now settled in Düsseldorf, he wrote the “Introduction & Allegro in D Minor” over the period of a week between August 24th and 30th, followed a few days later by a Fantasy in C Major for Violin & Orchestra. There were a few shorter pieces between that and the Violin Concerto in D Minor he began on September 21st and completed on October 3rd, just a few days after he'd met Johannes Brahms.

This violin concerto has a very strange history of its own, but that needn't concern us, here. But still, one wonders what we might have had if Schumann had decided to add a few more movements to these two short works and turn them, also, into complete piano concertos. Classical music, of course, is full of such “What Ifs.”

- Dick Strawser

Schumann's Piano Concerto with Daria Rabotkina

The soloist for this weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony is Daria Rabotkina. She will be performing the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann with Stuart Malina and the Orchestra, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum.

She is a young, Kazan-born pianist now living in Philadelphia who combines a phenomenal technique with sensitive musicality and musical mastery. Rabotkina has appeared in many major concert halls in Moscow, New York and San Francisco and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, Kirov Orchestra, the New World Symphony, among others, collaborating as a soloist with conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas, Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Feltsman. A laureate of the Montreal International Musical Competition, the Sendai Competition in Japan and the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati, Daria Rabotkina gave her first solo recital at the age of ten.

You can read my "up-close & personal" posts about the Schumann Piano Concerto here and about the Vaughan Williams Symphony that's also on the program, here.

 Dick Strawser

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vaughan Williams' London Symphony: A Personal Recollection

This is Part 2 of an "up-close & personal" post about Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 2, "A London Symphony" that Stuart Malina will conduct with the Harrisburg Symphony at this weekend's concerts, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. You can read my earlier post about the symphony here.

This is a more personal recollection about the piece.

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We all have favorite composers or pieces of music that have been important to us when we were growing up. Sometimes, our attitudes to them change as we develop and redefine ourselves with age and the events of a lifetime that occur around us.

I was still in high school when I bought my first Vaughan Williams recording, sight unseen or perhaps more accurately “sound unheard.” The description of the 5th Symphony's opening on the back of the album cover was enough to talk me into spending allowance money on a composer I'd never heard before (except for an early song I didn't like). With some trepidation, I put the record on but quickly fell in love with it. In short order, I purchased several other Vaughan Williams recordings and borrowed biographies from the library – including the one by his widow, Ursula Wood Vaughan Williams.

I liked him even before I found out he was a cat person - in fact, even before I found out I was a cat person, myself!

Since so many of his works were written in his later years - his 5th Symphony was written when he was 70 and most figured it would be his last, yet he wrote four more and was getting ready for a recording session of his 9th when he died in his sleep at the age of 86 - we most often see him pictured as a rumpled old man in a rumpled old sweater or three-piece suit. The top photo was taken closer to the time he composed "A London Symphony."

Here is a wonderful photograph of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his second wife, the poet Ursula Woods Vaughan Williams (see left).

(You can read my post on the 50th Anniversary of Vaughan Williams' death here.)

His “London Symphony” became part of my growing collection not long after that first recording. I have only heard it live once, when a guest conductor whose name I can't remember, a very old man from England who was a friend of the composer's and had a long history of conducting his music (but not Sir Adrian Boult), came to town to conduct the Rochester Philharmonic while I was a grad student as Eastman.

Judging from what we composition students smuggly thought was “cool” by that stage of our lives and musical awarenesses, I was wondering how I would react to hearing this again, even if it were only five years after I'd first bought the recording.

It was during the slow movement when the “big tune” comes swelling up for the climax about seven minutes in that I realized I had a tear streaming down my cheek.

There was always something about this passage – especially the end of the phrase – that grabbed me emotionally. Perhaps it's my English roots,courtesy of my grandmother and her family from England if not exactly from London, that reacted to this music like they rarely react to any other music I've heard. But there I was, tearing up at this beautiful, simple tune.

Then I glanced over at a friend sitting next to me, a composer who had an even keener interest in avant-garde music than I (though he was also a fan of James Joyce's Ulysses) and who was often loudly derisive as students can sometimes be toward old-fashioned, "out-moded" composers. And I noticed he was quietly brushing aside a tear on his cheek...

I don't know what it about that moment that had this effect on me. It doesn't happen with every beautiful tune and it's not just tonal music that is capable of getting me like that (the ending of Berg's “Lulu” is just as effecting to me as the ending of Puccini's “La Boheme”). I could describe the passage in technical terms but that only describes what he's doing, not why it has this emotional impact on me.

The theme comes in in B-flat (I think: I don't have a score handy to check) but it's a modal tune like many English folk songs, here in B-flat Major but with an A-flat instead of an A-natural in it. This swings back and forth with D-flat Major but with a G-natural instead of G-flat in it. This alteration of a D-natural one time and then a D-flat the next gives it a kind of Major/Minor inflection that usually gives me a harmonic tug-at-the-heart anyway, what trendy people like to call a "frisson." But when he adds an unexpected G-flat to the extension of the phrase in B-flat Major, another “minor inflection,” I just lose it. I have no idea why.

It's been years since I've really listened to the symphony. I know I'd played it on the radio a few times, especially when the new Chandos recording of the original (and longer) version of the symphony'd been released a few years back, but how many times I've listened to it since my days at Eastman in the early-70s would probably number between 9 or 10 times.

And yet, after spending so much time with Berg's “Lulu” these past few weeks (and seeing it live at the Met over the weekend), after years of listening to so much of Elliott Carter's more challenging “high fiber” music which I love and after all my own stuff that I've written in the past almost ten years since I started composing again which would hardly seem compatible with Vaughan Williams' style – often derided as the “cow looking over the fence” school of music – here I was, last night, listening to Sir John Barbirolli's recording of Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony,” and I heard this same spot coming up again and teared up almost instantly - and this, in the midst of news about the oil spill in the Gulf, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy and unemployment and all the negativity in the incessant campaign ads (not that they will end once the Primary Election passes into history after tomorrow), here is a single, simple phrase of music that can have the power to still affect me so deeply.

And then I recall the lines from H.G. Wells' novel, Tono Bungay (which I've never read) that inspired the ending of the symphony,

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"Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes...."
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and I am reminded why art, why music especially is so important to me: because, once all that other stuff passes, the music remains.

- Dick Strawser

A Tale of Two Cities: Vaughan Williams' London

How will the future look back on the events we're living through at this very moment in time? Will it earn a phrase so wonderfully memorable as the one Charles Dickens used to open his story set around the French Revolution, a novel he wrote in 1859 – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”?

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony takes its audience on a musical trip – without ever having to leave the Forum, Saturday night at 8pm or Sunday afternoon at 3pm. (Come an hour early and catch Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk.)

Welcome to “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Now, Dickens' novel evokes London and Paris – but this concert offers you musical depictions of Rome (by way of Paris) and London (with a Symphony by a Londoner) plus in between a side-trip to Biedermeier Germany in the 1840s for Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto.

The program begins in Rome with an overture by French composer Hector Berlioz who'd won the prestigious Prix de Rome, spending some time there working on his Symphonie fantastique and finding several inspirations for later works – Harold in Italy, for one, but also a huge opera based on the life of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. It is an interlude from the Cellini opera, describing the Carnival Season in Rome, that has become famous in the concert hall as “The Roman Carnival Overture.”

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Ralph Vaughan Williams may not be a name that well known to many American audiences – his first name should be pronounced “Rafe” and his last name is a double-barreled non-hyphenated name that is also frequently misspelled 'Vaughn' – but Harrisburg has heard two of his works in the past decade – the very familiar “Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” for string orchestra and a less well-known major choral work, the “Dona nobis pacem” combining biblical texts and poetry by Walt Whitman written in 1936 during the very unsettled decade before World War II.

In past seasons, the Lancaster Symphony had also performed his first symphony, an all-choral setting of Walt Whitman's poetry and one of Vaughan Williams' more performed large scale works, “A Sea Symphony.” Then, more recently, the Reading Symphony played his 6th Symphony, an intense score that many saw as commentary on the aftermath of World War II or a much-feared future nuclear war.

The Tallis Fantasia and the rapturous “A Lark Ascending” (not to mention a Christmas chestnut like his Fantasia on Greensleeves) are often tops on lists of radio listener favorites, both here and in England.

This weekend, Stuart Malina has chosen to end the current season with Vaughan Williams' 2nd Symphony which is officially “A London Symphony,” not “THE London Symphony” perhaps in part to distinguish it from Haydn's last symphonic work, one of a set of twelve written for London in the 1790s – but also in part because Vaughan Williams thought of it more as “A Symphony by a Londoner.” Rather than being about London, it's more like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony – “impressions of a Londoner upon walking around the city."

Vaughan Williams (see photograph, left, taken in 1920) was not a Londoner by birth. He was born in the Cotswald village of Down Ampney and grew up in Surrey, south of London – Dorking, primarily, and the family home at Leith Hill. He joked he had been born “with a very small silver spoon in my mouth,” a member of a privileged upper-class family where Charles Darwin was a great-uncle and his mother was descended from the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood. His first wife, Adeline Fisher, was a cousin of Virginia Woolf.

He moved to London after they got married in 1896, living primarily in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, after 1905. Unfortunately, his wife's illness – she suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis – eventually required them to move back to Dorking, but that was years after he composed his symphonic tribute to the city he considered a vital part of his life. After his wife died in 1951, he remarried and quickly moved back to London.

Michael Kennedy, author of one of the better biographies of the composer's life and works – wrote that “[s]ome tentative attempts at a symphonic poem about London were resurrected and 'thrown' into symphony form.” It was his friend and fellow composer George Butterworth who'd suggested he turn these sketches into an all-orchestral symphony following his success with a choral one.

Vaughan Williams had just received his 'big break' with two pieces composed in 1910, works we don't think of being “surprising” or “original” today.

The justly famous Tallis Fantasia was an early example of modern composers basing their 'new music' on something very old – in this case, an English composer from the late 16th Century: when French and Italian composers would make this “grave-robbing school” all the rage after World War I, they would go back to the early 1700s for their material.

The “Sea” Symphony is a choral symphony but unlike most choral symphonies who, following Beethoven's example, reserve the choir for the last movement, Vaughan Williams uses it throughout. People may argue it's more a four-movement cantata than an actual symphony, but then Gustav Mahler wrote his 8th Symphony in 1906, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” though several hundred would be more accurate. But it wasn't premiered until September 12th, 1910, exactly one month before Vaughan Williams' “Sea Symphony” was first heard.

These two works made Vaughan Williams “famous” or at least gave him his first recognition. The symphony was premiered on his 38th birthday. Keep in mind his very first published work was a song, “Linden Lea,” which didn't see its way into print until he was 30, making him something of a late-bloomer when you compare him to the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn. Considering Schubert died at 31 and Mozart at 35, had Vaughan Williams had such a short life, we wouldn't know anything about him.

Fortunately, he was still composing when he died at the age of 86, leaving a cello concerto and a new opera incomplete on his desk just as he was preparing for the recording of his 9th Symphony. In fact, he composed his last four symphonies after one he completed when he was 70: most people considered the radiant 5th Symphony, premiered in the midst of the London Blitz, his swan-song.

His “London Symphony” is usually listed as having been composed in 1913, though he had already played through the first two movements for a friend the year before, when he'd turned 40. Though Vaughan Williams revised the symphony periodically – even in the early 1950s when Barbirolli was recording all six of the symphonies he'd composed so far and the composer was turning 80 – he told the conductor “the London Symphony is past mending – though indeed with all its faults I love it still – indeed it is my favourite of my family of six.” (Three more were written in the last six years of his life.) It was the 1920 revision where Vaughan Williams dedicated it to the memory of George Butterworth who died in a battle on the Somme in 1916 at the age of 31.

Like other travelogue symphonies, there seems to be an elaborate “program” behind the music – musical snapshots of the location or themes inspired by scenery or a mood or perhaps a snatch of a song overheard there.

Perhaps the most famous early example of this would be Beethoven's Pastoral, inspired by visits to the countryside outside Vienna, many of which, in the years of urban development since 1806, are now within the city limits. But even Haydn paid tribute to London in the last of his “London Symphonies,” basing a theme on a street peddler's cry which audiences in 1795 London would have been likely to recognize (call it a pop culture reference, if you want).

Mendelssohn wrote symphonies following visits to Scotland and Italy, incorporating actual melodies (or at least “actual-like”) in the course of the works. Even Berlioz, in his symphony-concerto-symphonic poem, “Harold in Italy,” borrowed a song sung by an Abruzzi mountaineer to his sweetheart for his third movement, also incorporating the sound of the pifferari, the shepherds who played wind instruments in a style that became a special Italian Christmas tradition in all those Christmas-related works written by 18th Century Italian composers.

If a 21st American listeners hears nothing more than Big Ben's Westminster Chimes near the opening and closing moments of the symphony, that is enough to evoke an aural image of London. But in the second movement, he quotes the song of another street vendor, this one less riotous than Haydn's and one more attuned to a reader of Dickens' novels. The viola solo near the middle was purportedly sung by a seller of lavender, and its inclusion should be nothing surprising for a composer who'd already spent many a day tramping around the country-side listening to and jotting down folk songs sung by the countryfolk which may bring to mind the importance Bela Bartok placed on the role of folk song. Vaughan Williams was already doing this in 1904 when Bartok heard his first truly authentic Hungarian folk-song which sparked his life-long interest in the folk cultures of Eastern Europe.

“A London Symphony” – incidentally, the composer did not refer to it as his Symphony No. 2 – is in the four basic movements – a slow introduction preceding a rousing main theme and contrasting second theme; a slow movement; a scherzo; a finale that, at the end, returns to the material first heard in the introduction.

For a 1920 performance, Vaughan Williams allowed the conductor Albert Coates to supply descriptions for the program notes, though the composer's own comments are sufficient to give an idea behind the music's inspirations. Though many of his later symphonies – most notably the 6th – would seem to have possible programs, the composer steadfastly refused to make any comments on the matter then.

1st Movement: Lento – Allegro risoluto The symphony opens quietly as if at night, London perceived through the fog along the Thames (not far from Vaughan Williams' home at the time). The Westminster Chimes are heard, played on the harp. Then, after a short pause, the main section begins, vigorous and often quite loud before leading to a second theme, dominated by the wind and brass, that composer said evoked “Hampstead Heath on an August bank holiday" (a famous park dating back to the 10th Century, the Heath was a popular destination for Londoners taking in the fresh air, comparable, perhaps, to New Yorkers and Central Park).

2nd Movement: Lento Vaughan Williams described this as an evocation of one of London's famous garden parks, “Bloomsbury Square [see above] on a November afternoon." Quiet themes played by the English horn and a solo viola (with its lavender-seller's song) contrast with an impassioned climax before the movement gradually returns to its original quiet opening mood.

3rd Movement: Scherzo (Nocturne) As Vaughan Williams wrote, "If the listener will imagine himself standing on Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of The Strand, with its great hotels on one side and the 'New Cut' on the other, with its crowded streets and flaring lights, it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement."

4th Movement Finale  – Andante con moto  – Maestoso alla marcia  – Allegro  – Lento  – Epilogue The last movement opens with a grim march which Vaughan Williams described as 'The March of the Down-and-Outers.” This is contrasted with a lighter fast section after which the march returns. Then the main theme from the first movement returns us to the embankment along the Thames as the Westminster Chimes strike once again. The symphony concludes with a quiet Epilogue, which the composer said was inspired by the last chapter of H. G. Wells' novel Tono-Bungay:

"Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes...."

Here is a student orchestra (listed in the video feed only as GMEA All State, so I'm assuming Georgia?) conducted by Randall Swiggum of the last movement of Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony.”
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You can read my personal reminiscences about Vaughan Williams and his "A London Symphony" here.

- Dick Strawser