Friday, December 07, 2012

Concert Notes by Paul Cummings, Humboldt Symphony Conductor

We’re doing a program every other year now in which the orchestra combines with the University Singers and the Humboldt Chorale.   As in the past, we’re doing the orchestral portion of the program first, then the orchestra combines with the two choirs after intermission.

The orchestra will perform 3 pieces in the first half:

“March to the Scafford” by Hector Berlioz, the fourth movement from his Symphonie fantastique, one of his most famous compositions. It’s about an artist who in this movement has a vision about being marched to his own execution, because of his reckless behavior while in love. Berlioz is known primarily as one of the greatest orchestrators ever, and his use of the instruments in a wide variety of combination is really remarkable. It really comes through in every measure of this short piece.

   Petite Suite by Claude Debussy: This is 180 degrees from the previous piece. Berlioz is extraverted and even bombastic—as a composer he liked to have 200 musicians on stage. Debussy wrote in a much more intimate style. As the title suggests, this is four short movements, miniatures really, originally written for piano four hands. It has gained popularity in this orchestral form, even though it is still done for piano four hand as much or perhaps more. We’re hoping to bring on two pianists to play just the first movement, to give the audience a sense of how a piece can be transcribed from piano to orchestra and still be effective.

  Debussy is very economical in his writing, and yet there’s incredible variety in this suite, with its movements of two or three minutes each. Debussy doesn’t repeat ideas—he writes one and moves on to the next, which is really a challenge to play because it keeps the musicians on their toes.

Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson:  This is a lighter, fun piece that everybody knows, but maybe not in its original orchestral form. It’s usually heard in all sorts of later arrangements and transcriptions, but this is the form in which Anderson originally wrote this piece.

Then the orchestra combines with the choirs for works by two major composers:

Mass in G by Franz Schubert. In this composition, Schubert is looking back to his German predecessors J.S. Bach and Mozart, who also wrote settings for the Ordinary of the Mass. Schubert uses the same musical structures such as fugue and chorale and a traditional or common practice counterpoint.

The Credo in particular represents some of Schubert’s best writing—it’s a very haunting portion of the Mass, with some very profound, almost hypnotic music. It’s generally considered the greatest moments in this Mass.I find it especially amazing that Schubert wrote this profound music when he was only 18 years old, all in a five-day period in 1815.

We have three vocal soloists: Dylan Kinser, Katherine Johnson and James Gadd. Katherine in particular has a very demanding solo part and she does a terrific job. The orchestra uses only strings—no winds or percussion.

Finally, we perform three movements from Handel’s Messiah. The orchestra alone performs the Overture, and with the choirs we perform two choruses, “Glory to God in the Highest” and “Hallelujah.”

These are very well known excerpts from the Messiah. They involve a lot of Baroque counterpoint, but Handel’s music can be distinguished from that of his contemporary J.S. Bach by its more extraverted style. You hear fanfares and flourishes, and there’s less dense texture in the music of Handel as compared to Bach. That comes out really clearly in these two choruses. I’ve often thought that Bach could never have written the Hallelujah chorus in particular. It’s almost as if Handel wrote music for the outdoors, whereas Bach’s music seems much more formal and based indoors, inside the Cathedral.

We’re attempting to be faithful to Handel’s original score, including four bassons, two oboes, two trumpets, tympani and string orchestra. And we’re especially excited to invite the audience to join us in the singing of the Hallelujah chorus. We’ll provide the words, and we hope to see everybody on their feet joining us.

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