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Virtuosic talent on display: Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra injects energy, emotion and rhythm into their spring concert featuring great opera music inspired by dance
Orange County, Calif. — February 29, 2016
An outstanding performance by Southern California’s most talented young symphonic musicians, grades 9-12, is on tap when Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra (PSYO) rules the stage for a diverse and entertaining spring concert led by Assistant Conductor Roger Kalia. Full of energy and passion, the evening includes an impressive and exciting range of repertoire, all of which began as opera music—from Saint-Saëns’ thrilling “Bacchanale” from the opera, “Samson and Delilah,” to Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story” and Strauss’ luscious Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier.” The concert takes place Sunday, March 20, at 7 p.m., in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Thanks to generous sponsors Jane Xu and Sheng Jiang, PSYO concerts are free to attend this season (but tickets are required). To reserve a general admission seat, call the Symphony’s box office at (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.
“This program is inspired by dance and color,” says Maestro Kalia. “The music by Strauss features the Viennese waltz, while the Bernstein features American swing music and Latin mambos. Furthermore, there is a sense of color in terms of sounds that is extremely unique to this program. In the Strauss, there is a lushness and lyricism in the music, while the Bernstein calls for a pureness. Artistically, the program is extremely varied, fun and stretches the students while helping them grow as musicians. You will not see many high school youth orchestras perform works of this caliber at such a high level.”
The concert begins with “Bacchanale” from “Samson and Delilah,” an opera written by Camille Saint-Saëns, who was a master at more than just composing. In addition to being a virtuoso pianist and organist, he was also a conductor, caricaturist, playwright, poet, philosopher and essayist on botany and ancient music. He wrote with authority on science, mathematics, astronomy and archaeology. He was a critic and a scholarly editor of music and composed nearly 400 works, touching every field of music, including the first significant score by a major composer for the fledgling art of the cinema—and opera.
Saint-Saëns’ work “Samson and Delilah,” based on the Biblical story, is the composer’s only opera regularly performed—and yet, originally it wasn’t intended to be an opera at all. When the idea of turning the Biblical tale into music first entered Saint-Saëns’ head, he conceived it as an oratorio, but was eventually persuaded to try it as an opera. It turned out to be a dazzling virtuoso and expressive vehicle for two leads, and is admired for its combination of brilliant sound and dramatic emotion. Those qualities are evident in the famous “Danse Bacchanale,” which occurs at the height of the opera’s climax and is an orgiastic, percussion-driven dance that precedes Samson’s destruction of the Philistine temple in Act III.
Generally speaking, a “danse bacchanale” is a ballet scene inserted into an opera, a standard practice in 19th-century French grand opera. A wild, frenzied dance, it originally was meant as a tribute to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Beginning with stirring passion and drama tinged with exoticism, the piece found in “Samson and Delilah” includes music in the ancient Jewish “Ahava Rabah” mode, a scale common to Jewish and Arabic music and prominently featuring two augmented seconds. A contrasting theme displays soaring lyricism and romantic love before a rousing climax.
“Saint-Saëns’ ‘Danse Bacchanale’ is the most well-known and performed work from ‘Samson and Delilah,’” says Kalia. “He masterfully captures the exoticism of such a scene, using Middle-Eastern tunes (characterized by melodic intervals of an augmented second) and a full array of colors and effects. There are moments of lyricism intertwined with a rhythmic energy that is simply contagious.”
Leonard Bernstein composed numerous works for the Broadway stage, bringing a harmonic and formal sophistication to the genre. “Symphonic Dances” are a selection of numbers from his musical ”West Side Story” that he turned into a cohesive sequence for the concert hall. A modern retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” takes place in an impoverished area of New York (interestingly, right where Lincoln Center would be built and a decade later Bernstein would conduct the New York Philharmonic). Two rival street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, are fighting to determine which gang will control the neighborhood. In addition to its stark depiction of urban violence and contemporary social issues, “West Side Story” is also unique in its integration of dance into the story.
The music contains a potent combination of aggressive, energetic music, often driven by vibrant rhythms, and more reflective romantic material, plus elements of Latin American music. But two other qualities distinguish this amazing score—among them, the brilliant orchestration and memorable melodies.
“‘Symphonic Dances’ is one of my favorite works by Bernstein,” says Kalia. “I absolutely adore the music of ‘West Side Story’ and I’ve always enjoyed the rhythmic groove of the piece, particularly in the “Cool” section. I’ve been working with the PSYO musicians in understanding how swing works and the concept behind jazz. Bernstein essentially transforms the symphony orchestra into a big band from the swing era in this work, and the effect is astounding. In addition to swing rhythms, there are plenty of Latin grooves like in the ‘Mambo,’ which will feature our percussion and trumpet section. There are also moments of great lyricism and beauty, like in ‘Somewhere.’”
In 1960, Bernstein extracted these dance sequences from the musical for use in the concert hall.. Bernstein’s musical style is quite similar in both the concert and Broadway works, although the concert works tend towards greater dissonance. Half a century after it hit Broadway, this brilliant music remains relevant.
The final piece on PSYO’s program is Richard Strauss’s Suite from his opera, “Der Rosenkavalier.” Still experimenting with form, content and harmony, his earlier operas were filled with highly chromatic and dissonant music and portrayed violent, licentious action. Considered scandalous, they ironically were met with great success. Begun soon after, “Der Rosenkavalier” represented a different direction for Strauss. The harmonic language in this opera is significantly more conservative and less discordant than his earlier work. It marked the beginning of a new phase of his career when he would write highly expressive music.
Many early critics and historians viewed “Der Rosenkavalier” as a step backward. However, the score for the opera contains delectable waltzes and passages of ravishing beauty, which proved extremely popular with audiences and ultimately, “Der Rosenkavalier” would prove to be Strauss’s most-loved opera. Taking place in 18th-century Vienna, it is largely based on the 1787 novel Les Amours du Chevalier de Faublas by Louvet de Couvray. Deliberately archaic, “Der Rosenkavalier’s” musical language refers to Mozart, Johann Strauss and Verdi, yet its formal structure is more modern.
“Strauss’s Suite from ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ is made up of the most famous selections from the opera,” explains Kalia. “The work opens with a majestic fanfare in the horns, which represents the youthfulness of Octavian, followed by a gorgeous solo in the oboe that represents the Marschallin’s love of Octavian. One of the most famous sections of the work is the waltzes that Strauss includes in the middle of the Suite.”
Strauss culled two “Waltz Sequences” from the score for performance in the concert hall. Two decades later, he consented to another version of his score for orchestra. “Der Rosenkavalier Suite” was extracted from the opera, arranged for concert use and published in 1945. The suite revels in the splendor, opulence and charm of Vienna’s golden age and opens just as the opera does, with bellowing horns. The music that follows is delicate and rapt.
“There is a sense of rubato and elasticity that is necessary, and the PSYO musicians have done a stellar job with it,” says Kalia. “There is also a wonderful violin solo during this section featuring our concertmaster, Phil Chen. The ‘Final Trio’ scene at the end of the Suite features the lush sound of the PSYO strings, and the Suite concludes with the waltz returning in a quicker and more energetic fashion.”
Strauss authorized this arrangement but did not work on it himself; it was most likely done by Artur Rodzinski, who conducted its premiere at the New York Philharmonic in 1944. The proceeds from its publication helped Strauss financially in the wake of World War II. The last trio of the “Rosenkavalier Suite” was performed at a memorial service following the composer’s death in 1949.
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