Thursday, September 30, 2010

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!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this wonderful survey for the performance! I might add, that Keith Emerson told me that after he completed the second movement of his Piano Concerto, there was a horrific fire which took down the place where he composed--with the first two movements of the Piano Concerto! He had to re-write the entire piece, and, in his fury, wrote the energetic and furiously exciting third movement!