The Persistence of Memory

For La Jolla Symphony & Chorus’ 2018-2019 season, Music Director Steven Schick has chosen an encompassing theme entitled “Lineage: A Memory Project.” As Schick explains,

A critical component to living an ethical life is how we remember, how we create lineage. It answers important questions: Who are we? To what echoes of our history do we resonate and how do we memorialize them? And, most importantly, what do we need to do today so that, in the future, we will be remembered by someone who will recognize herself in her memories of us; who will examine her lineage through our lives and be grateful?

This concept guided Schick when programming the season’s concerts, as he sought to highlight linkages between seemingly disparate composers and styles. The inaugural concert, also titled “Lineage,” is a case in point, as it unites three composers widely separated by era, location, upbringing, native culture, and modality.

The first offering, “Lineage,” is by young Canadian composer Zosha di Castri. According to di Castri the piece was inspired by the memories her Italian immigrant grandparents shared with her as a little girl in Alberta, against which she contrasts the noises and rhythms of her contemporary life. Di Castri invites the listener to dive under the work’s modernist surface to discover the echoes of a vanished era; some effort is required to sift through the shifting textures and impermanent rhythms to reach memory’s deep core, but the rewards are great.

Like di Castri’s composition, Tan Dun’s innovative “Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra” evokes the past, in this case the composer’s childhood in rural China. Tan Dun considers the sound of water to be universal and fundamental, even primal, to the human experience; after all, the aqueous environment of the womb is the first sound we hear, and a connection to the Earth’s oceans and waterways is hardwired into mankind’s DNA. Accompanying the sounds of water, as played by three featured percussionists, are the metallic sounds of spiritual rituals and the suggestion of chants conveyed by voice-like effects in the orchestra. All combine to portray a culture that is at once ancient and contemporary, but always rooted in immutable truths.

Composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Igor Stravinsky’s beloved “Petrushka” draws upon memories of Stravinsky’s youth, in particular the Shrovetide Fairs popular in rural Russia and the Ukraine. The music tells the story of three puppets whose tangled love affairs and jealousies result in tragedy. Mixed with this narrative are the sounds of festival barkers and fair-goers and traces of Russian folk melodies, all melded together in a style that pointed the way for composers who followed.

Taken together, these three pieces make a strong case that music in all its forms is a most effective means for recognizing and celebrating our diverse lineages.

Watch Lineage – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

Young People’s Concert

“My music is best understood by children and animals.”
– Igor Stravinsky

Each year the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus inaugurates its new season with a presentation for San Diego-area students. The Young People’s Concert, sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of La Jolla and hosted by Music Director/Conductor Steven Schick, aims to introduce students to the symphony and encourage an active interest in music. Schick guides the audience through the intricacies of the orchestra by means of excerpts from two works appearing on the full concert program, Tan Dun’s “Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra” (also known simply as the “Water Concerto”) and Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.”

Though very different in form and style, these pieces are each reflective of the overall theme Schick has chosen for the 2018/19 season: Lineage. Tan Dun drew inspiration for the “Water Concerto” from his childhood in rural China, noting the paramount importance of water in everyday life and, indeed, as the source of life itself. In that sense water becomes a truly universal instrument, one instantly familiar to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Set half a world away, Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” evokes childhood memories of Russian Shrovetide fairs, and in particular the puppet theater that was a popular feature of those festivals. Originally written as a ballet for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, “Petrushka” went on to become a concert staple and one of Stravinsky’s most beloved scores.

Between excerpts Schick and orchestra musicians answer questions from the audience, such as “Why does the harp have different color strings?” (an excellent question) and “How long have the violinists been playing?” This interactivity, sadly uncommon in orchestral music circles, de-mystifies symphonic practice for the uninitiated and helps the students to gain an appreciation for the process of rehearsing and performing as a unified ensemble. Throughout, Steven Schick emphasizes the joy to be found both in collaboration and in active listening.

Watch Young People’s Concert 2018 – 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

Nosferatu with Werner Herzog

Contributed by John Menier

32822“For such an advanced civilization as ours to be without images that are adequate to it is as serious a defect as being without memory.”
― Werner Herzog

The Carsey-Wolf Center at UC Santa Barbara has created a series entitled “Hollywood Berlin,” featuring screenings and discussions of films by five prominent German directors: Werner Herzog, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and Billy Wilder. With the exception of Herzog these artists are representative of the wave of German exiles and immigrants who left Europe in the 1920s and 1930s to work in Hollywood, and counted among their number producers, directors, actors, writers, technicians, and cinematographers. In addition to their professional expertise that generation of émigrés brought European influences to American cinema, as reflected by film noir, increasing sophistication in comedies, and a willingness to address serious social issues.

In the inaugural program of “Hollywood Berlin” celebrated filmmaker Werner Herzog joins Carsey-Wolf Center Director Patrice Petro for a discussion of his film, “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” based on F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” (“Noserferatu, a Symphony of Horrors”). Upon the release of Herzog’s film in 1979 many critics expressed surprise at his choice of subject matter. Herzog was already well-known as the auteur of idiosyncratic art-house works based on his original screenplays. Pundits assumed that Herzog’s film was simply a remake of Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece, and they were puzzled. As Herzog explains in this program, that assumption was mistaken; his version of “Nosferatu” was intended not as a slavish imitation but as an homage both to Murnau’s film and to a seminal era of German filmmaking. In terms of plot and characters it falls midway between Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” and Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (which was an unauthorized version of Stoker’s novel), incorporating elements of both while adding the director’s well-known pictorial sense. Herzog sees his film as providing an explicit link between his generation, the “New German Cinema,” and what he calls “our grandfathers,” those movie-makers whose mass exodus left behind a German film industry that was moribund until the advent of Herzog, Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Wenders, von Trotta, et al in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Using “Nosferatu” as a jumping-off point for conversation, Herzog elaborates on a variety of topics including his writing process, his relationships with collaborators, the importance of music, and his philosophy concerning the primacy of the image. He also addresses some of the myths and misconceptions (mythconceptions?) that have arisen from his storied career, most of which cast Herzog as an uncompromising artist who undertakes his projects with a humorless, single-minded zeal bordering on madness. While it’s true that the prolific Herzog is passionate about cinema – he once said that “we are starved for images, and it’s my duty to provide them” – he displays a healthy sardonic humor regarding himself and his public image. (“I am not Teutonic. I am Bavarian.”)

Witty, articulate, intellectually rigorous, and disarmingly honest, Werner Herzog is the perfect introduction to a series celebrating the work of German filmmakers past and present.

Watch Nosferatu with Werner Herzog

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