Life-force

The title A Line Broken affirms the simple but profound truth that all things must eventually end, whether a piece of music, a concert, or a human life. One powerful expression of this reality is Courtney Bryan’s remarkable As Yet Unheard, a work for orchestra and chorus that commemorates Sandra Bland’s tragic death in police custody in 2013. Using the text of Sharan Strange’s poem, soprano Helga Davis speaks to us in Bland’s voice, prodding us to relive the circumstances of her death and to seek answers to painful questions too long unasked.

Bryan’s piece is perfectly complimented by Gabriel Faure’s luminous Requiem. The requiem has long been a popular form among composers, and celebrated practitioners of the genre include Mozart, Verdi, Brahms, Berlioz, and Britten. Unlike those of his fellow composers, Faure’s Requiem contains no Sturm und Drang, no thundering crescendos or rallying cries to the deceased. Rather, it’s a gentle, contemplative work, more of a meditation on transience than an exhortation. It contains most of the form’s familiar elements, including mixed chorus and soloists (in this instance baritone Jonathan Nussman and soprano Priti Gandhi), but they are employed in service of an effect that is uniquely Faure’s own. This piece has steadily gained in popularity and the final section, “In Paradisum,” is familiar to many from its use in several films, television programs, and commercials.

Asher Tobin Chodos’ adventurous arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman places a quartet of jazz soloists within a symphonic context. Just as innovator Coleman sought to reframe jazz conventions in an idiosyncratic style, so Chodos’ arrangement seeks to reposition this 1959 work in a modern idiom, one that embraces and even expands upon the challenges of a composition that, in Chodos’ words, “occupies a middle ground between specificity and discrepancy.” Most importantly, this new take on a classic preserve the beauty and immediacy of Coleman’s original.

Rounding out the program is Rand Steiger’s ingenious Template for Improvising Trumpeter & Orchestra. As noted by the title, this piece centers on the talents of virtuoso trumpeter Peter Evans in a performance that is largely (though not entirely) improvised in performance. Evans’ tones are manipulated at times by the composer through digital signal processing, in what amounts to another interdependent and improvised performance; indeed, the watchwords for the entire enterprise are exploration and collaboration.

In his program notes Conductor Steven Schick comments that “Music is the natural medium for life-force,” and in this concert’s seemingly disparate selections we hear that life-force in all of its manifestations.

Watch A Line Broken – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.

Jazz Rules the World

Contributed by John Menier

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F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the 1920s the “Jazz Age,” and recent inventions such as radio and phonograph records helped to spread the popularity of two quintessentially American musical genres, jazz and blues, across the country and beyond our borders. In 1926 a Paris-based music magazine began its review of recorded jazz with the observation that “Jazz truly rules the world,” and a growing number of influential European composers were jazz fans, including Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, and Poulenc. Maurice Ravel spent several happy nights with George Gershwin at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom listening to jazz, a testament to the music’s appeal.

For a time these foreign composers included jazz elements in some of their works, with varying degrees of success, but by the mid-1930s their ardor had cooled as new forms of modernism took hold on the Continent. It was left then to American musicians to continue nurturing the confluence of their native jazz and “serious” music that began in the early 1920s, and they did so brilliantly.

Three of the foremost practitioners of this hybrid form were George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland. Though they came from different backgrounds and training, and each developed a singular musical personality, they shared an interest in elevating the jazz/classical fusion from a novel experiment to a vibrant art form. They shared another quality, harder to quantify but nevertheless distinctive: their music was unmistakably American, with all that implies.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in the Gershwin masterpieces on this program, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” In both pieces, the jazz/blues influences are on prominent display, as the music alternates in mood from contemplative to nostalgic to swaggering, and from Paris to Harlem. Gershwin insisted that both pieces are examples of sonata form, but whether sonata or tone poem or concerto or potpourri, it’s not important how it’s categorized. What matters is that this is fun music, as full of personality as anything you’re likely to hear.

It’s been said that Duke Ellington embodied the very soul of jazz. Ellington wrote some of the first extended jazz compositions to appear in the concert repertoire, and the two pieces on this program, “Mood Indigo” and “Solitude,” amply demonstrate his versatility and sophistication as a composer. Ellington was also an innovative, idiosyncratic orchestrator, and what became known as the “Ellington Sound” is a constant feature of his music – elusive, hard to define, harder still to imitate, but once heard, unmistakable.

Aaron Copland was a city boy who brought a certain polished urbanity to his work. After extensive studies in Paris Copland initially worked with then-voguish European styles, but gradually his native “Americanism” emerged and he established himself as the premiere American composer of his generation. “Quiet City” is a mood piece, a tone poem in miniature, originally written for a friend’s play. The play failed but the music lives on as a popular concert selection. The influence of jazz and/or blues is perhaps less overt in this haunting work than in the Gershwin and Ellington pieces, but it’s there in the tones and phrasings of the featured trumpet and oboe combined with the dotted rhythms of the string orchestra.

The program is rounded out with an exhilarating premiere work by Asher Tobin Chodos, “Concertino for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” Joining the composer on piano is Cecil Lytle, who also performs on “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Watch: Crossing the rue St. Paul – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

Simply Fun

Contributed by John Menier

32822In his remarks from the podium, La Jolla Symphony & Chorus Conductor Steven Schick notes that the 2017 edition of the “Young People’s Concert” features music by two composers with differing influences, temperaments, and styles: George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. While acknowledging the contrasts Schick also points out some surprising similarities shared by the two men: both were born to Russian-Jewish parents in Brooklyn, both studied in Paris, both had an interest in jazz and popular music, both experimented with different genres, and both came to prominence in the Jazz Age. First and foremost, Gershwin and Copland were American, with all that implies; as Gershwin put it, “True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”

Perhaps the best expression of what’s been called “the American touch” may be found in two of Gershwin’s most popular scores, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” Both pieces reflect Gershwin’s abiding interest in jazz and blues, two indisputably American art forms, and both touch glancingly upon some of the conflicts and contradictions of American life (then and now). Ultimately, though, the most profound and appealing quality shared by the compositions is that, in the words of the Conductor, “they are simply fun.”

By comparison to the high-stepping confidence of the Gershwin tunes, Copland’s “Quiet City,” originally written for a failed play, reflects another, more contemplative aspect of the American character. One reading holds that the longing and unfulfilled aspirations evoked by this piece warn of the consequences of not being true to one’s self, an ever-present danger in a fast-moving, ambitious society. Perhaps. However one interprets “Quiet City” (if it needs any interpretation at all) there’s no denying the work’s beauty, the result of a perfect balance between string orchestra and two soloists on trumpet and oboe.

Throughout his remarks, Steven Schick notes the empathy and intricate interplay between the various sections of the orchestra, by turns tempestuous and serene as required by the score, and the absolute need to serve the music and the composers.

Watch Young People’s Concert 2017 – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

La Jolla Symphony & Chorus: The Lovers

8232When Dr. David Chase assumed leadership of the La Jolla Symphony Chorus in 1973, it consisted of 60 members. Over the succeeding years, Dr. Chase grew the chorus to 130 voices while expanding the group’s repertoire to include contemporary works as well as proven classics.

To mark his retirement after 44 years as Choral Director in June 2017, Dr. Chase assembled and conducted an eclectic program inspired by love and passion under the appropriate title, “The Lovers.” The first piece, the charming “Overture to Beatrice and Benedict,” is a concert staple from Hector Berlioz’s opera comique based on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Next on the bill is Arnold Schoenberg’s tone poem “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”), the composer’s interpretation of a German romantic poem. It is widely considered one of this modernist composer’s most accessible works. In the program’s final piece, “The Lovers,” American neo-Romantic composer Samuel Barber sets a cycle of poems by celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda for baritone, mixed chorus, and full orchestra.

Taken as a whole the three pieces form a compelling examination of both the complexities of love and music’s ability to speak directly to the heart. Not coincidentally, the program also reflects David Chase’s passion for music and lifelong devotion to popularizing lesser-known works and is a fitting culmination to his tenure with La Jolla Symphony & Chorus. Dr. Chase will be ably succeeded, but he can never be replaced.

Watch La Jolla Symphony & Chorus: The Lovers

Verdi’s Requiem

8232George Bernard Shaw once remarked that “the English take a creepy sort of pleasure in requiems.” I can’t speak to the truth of this statement, but there’s no denying that requiems are among the most popular works in the orchestral/choral repertoire, in England and elsewhere. Composers as diverse as Haydn, Brahms, Berlioz, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, and Britten have assayed the form, each bringing their own unique sensibilities to the challenge of interpreting a liturgical service in musical terms.

Arguably, the two best-known examples of the requiem are those written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (considered by many to be the template for the genre) and Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, which premiered in Milan in 1874, is based on the Roman Catholic funeral mass and scored for four soloists, double (sometimes triple) choir, and orchestra. Verdi composed the piece in memory of poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, whom he greatly admired. It consists of seven major sections, within which are several sub-sections of varying and often contrasting moods. In order to heighten the inherent drama and poignancy of the liturgical mass Verdi brought to bear the skills and devices he’d mastered as a composer of operas: expressive orchestration, assertive rhythms, beautiful melodies, vocal pyrotechnics, and dramatic contrasts over an exceptionally wide dynamic range. Indeed, following the Requiem’s premiere many traditionalist critics complained that the music was far too “operatic” in style and not appropriate for the solemn subject matter. Fortunately for us, that view has not prevailed.

Undertaking performance of such a mammoth work, involving 300+ performers on stage, requires both abundant skill and a degree of intrepidity, traits which La Jolla Symphony & Chorus have amply demonstrated in their programming choices. Under the baton of conductor Steven Schick the musicians and vocal soloists render the complexities and subtleties of the piece with both confidence and sensitivity, and if it’s not sacrilegious to say so, the result is thrilling.

Contributed by arts and humanities producer John Menier

Watch Verdi’s Requiem.