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Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra's 2017-18 Season Takes Flight With Stravinsky's "Firebird" And Revels In Berlioz's "Roman Carnival Overture," As It Explores The Music Behind "Stories And Myths"

Orange County, Calif. — October 24, 2017

Once upon a time there was an awesome concert called “Stories and Myths,” held by Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra (PSYO) to open their 2017-18 season of musical delights. The story behind the outstanding PSYO, comprised of Southern California’s most talented young symphonic musicians, grades 9-12, is impressive, entertaining and worth hearing—especially as they set off on this latest musical journey. Each season, Assistant Conductor Roger Kalia designs an opening program that best demonstrates the orchestra’s versatility and talent, as well as highlights the different sections of the orchestra. The three “chapters” for this concert include: Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture,” Austin Wintory’s “Journey Suite,” featuring the outstanding young soprano, Chelsea Chaves, and the mythical marvel, Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

Talent rules the stage for this diverse concert, which takes place Sunday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m., in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Thanks to the generosity of sponsors, this season’s concerts are free to attend, 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.

“While I didn’t program this concert with a specific theme in mind, one emerged,” says Maestro Kalia.  “Each of the three pieces PSYO will perform are programmatic in their own way and tell a story. Berlioz’s ‘Roman Carnival Overture’ takes material from an earlier opera that he composed, ‘Benvenuto Cellini,’ while Austin Wintory’s ‘Journey’s Suite’ is the first-ever Grammy-nominated video game score, which follows the journey of the main character. One of the movements features a vocalist who sings text based on ancient stories such as the ‘Aeniad,’ ‘Beowulf,’ and ‘The Illiad,’ among others. And Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite’ is based on the Russian folktale of the Firebird. So, with that being said, the theme and title of this opening program is ‘Stories and Myths!’ ”

To open the concert is Berlioz’s most popular and virtuosic overture, “Roman Carnival Overture,” which is actually a concert piece that has close ties to an opera. After the premiere of Berlioz’s opera, ‘Benvenuto Cellini,’ based on the autobiography of the Italian Renaissance sculptor, the composer never forgave the conductor for his lifeless delivery of the second act’s saltarello (a lively musical dance) finale. So, 10 years later, he used the saltarello as the opening of his “Roman Carnival Overture,” conducting it himself in its first performances.

Right from the start of this vivacious overture, the entire orchestra is playing fast eighth-note flourishes in unison. The work then features one of the most famous English horn solos in the repertoire, which was intended to depict a beautiful love song. The violas also have one of the most famous excerpts in the repertoire, a passionate and loving melody that Kalia calls “absolutely gorgeous.” “Roman Carnival Overture” then dives into an energetic dance by the entire orchestra, the saltarello, which represents music being heard at a carnival in Rome. Joyful and spirited, it’s no wonder that this piece was one of the hits of its day.

“As an opener, you couldn’t ask for a more jubilant and energetic piece than the Berlioz,” says Kalia. “For me personally, I wanted to make sure that the whole orchestra was featured on the opening piece of this program, and I can’t think of a better work than the Berlioz to accomplish this. In fact, each piece on the program features every section of the orchestra, and while two of the pieces are known classics, I am thrilled that our young musicians will be able to play a work by a living composer.”

That living composer is Austin Wintory, whose “Journey Suite” is a three-movement work that uses music from the 2012 video game, “Journey,” about a robed figure in a vast desert, traveling towards a distant mountain. Kalia describes the video-game score as “neo-Romantic, with lush and cinematic moments. The music is extremely lyrical and almost trance-like in the sense that the phrases flow into one another and there is a constant rhythmic energy.” The last movement, “I Was Born For This,” features soprano Chelsea Chaves, an accomplished opera singer and a graduate of Chapman University, who has sung with Pacific Symphony on Class Act Youth Concerts and Family Musical Mornings performances.

It was during his tenure as the music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles that Kalia first met Austin in 2013. “We performed a concert of video game music in Hollywood, and Austin’s work was on the program,” recalls Kalia. “Austin is a fantastic composer, and I’m very excited for him to work with the orchestra in rehearsal on this piece. Collaborating with a living composer is an experience that these young musicians will never forget, especially since many of them are so familiar with the video game!”  

The concert’s final work is a very colorful, engaging and beautiful fairytale from old Russia, illuminated through music that delights the imagination as much as the ears. Tales of the mythical “Firebird” have captivated people for centuries, including the great Russian composer, Stravinsky, who was inspired to write one of his most compelling works. Originally written as a full-length ballet, it became the turning point in his career. Stravinsky’s rendition tells the story of an adventure in a magical realm by Prince Ivan, who falls in love with a beautiful princess and encounters an enchanted and mysterious Firebird that helps him defeat the evil Kastchei.

“For these young musicians to experience a work by Stravinsky such as ‘The Firebird’—it will remain with them forever,” remarks Kalia. “I remember hearing the work performed by the New York Philharmonic while I was a junior in high school and the experience left me overwhelmed and in tears in the most positive sense.”

The major challenge in Stravinsky’s work is navigating the rhythmic complexities and contrapuntal nature of the work. “There is so much happening at once, especially in the ‘Infernal Dance,’ ” Kalia says. “The other challenge is getting the right sound, which in this case is a combination of French and Russian. The melodies are very Russian in character, and Stravinsky even quotes a number of Russian folk tunes. However, since he wrote this for the Ballet Russes and Diaghilev in Paris, there is a certain French color that highlights all of the melodies.

“For young musicians, it can be hard to play with this lightness and sparkle, which is common in French music like Debussy and Ravel,” Kalia says. “There are also a number of amazing solos in the work, especially in the bassoon and French horn. The musicians are putting their heart and souls into this piece, and I know it’s going to be an amazing experience for all.”