La Jolla Symphony and Chorus is known for mixing favorites from the standard repertoire with the new, the unfamiliar, and the undeservedly overlooked. The November 2019 concert, the first of the 2019/2020 season, continues this tradition with works by Giaochino Rossini, Florence Price, and Bela Bartok.
Rossini’s Overture to William Tell (1829) is familiar to audience members of a certain age through its association with The Lone Ranger radio and TV series (“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…”). Written for Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell, the piece is essentially an instrumental suite in four parts. The last of these, marked Allegro vivace, is the most familiar section, and was written seven years earlier as a march for a military band. It’s the only part of the Overture (and its parent opera, rarely performed today) known to many people outside opera circles. Perpetual-motion violins, inspired brass and insistent percussion power this music to a galloping conclusion.
Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 (1932) was the first work by an African-American woman to be performed by a major American symphony orchestra. It was a singular achievement that should have secured Price’s place in modern musical history, yet her work came perilously close to being forgotten altogether. We can thank the 2009 chance discovery in a ramshackle house of several Price scores previously thought lost that led to renewed interest in her work. Among the manuscripts were two violin concertos: Violin Concerto No.2, performed by La Jolla Symphony last season, and the First Violin Concerto, written in 1939 (exactly 70 years before its re-discovery) and presented in this program. This concerto is lyrical and traditional in form, with beautiful writing for both soloist and orchestra. Indeed, Price’s devotion to the traditional idiom may have contributed to her obscurity in an era that scorned such “old-fashioned” music. Hopefully, our contemporary eras renewed appreciation of those traditional forms bodes well for the music of Florence Price to at last find its audience.
The concert concludes with Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943). The words “difficult,” “challenging,” and “uncompromising” are often applied to Bartok’s music, but not so this piece. The Concerto is a perennial favorite with conductors and audiences alike, and it’s easy to see why. The five movements move through a surprisingly broad range of emotions, from brooding to philosophical to playful to a final exultant rush of energy, with humorous moments yes, humor in Bartok – verging on the parodic. Bartok was terminally ill with leukemia during the Concerto’s composition, but he nevertheless referred to it as a “life assertion.” It is indeed that, and the final expression of an indomitable creative spirit.