I actually won’t be doing much of this in my new job at the Pacific Symphony, but just to get started I was asked to write brief descriptions of some pieces for the glossy season brochure. We decided that we wanted, basically, two sentences on each piece; these will be highlighted somehow by the brochure designer. Anyway, here are a few that I did. They are much trickier to do than you’d think.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5
The opening motto, three short notes and a long, launches the work on a trajectory from defiant anger through exultant triumph. On a strictly music level, Beethoven’s Fifth defined a new model for the symphony — as tightly wound, rhythmically, thematically and harmonically, as a clenched fist and packing a pugilist’s punch.
Andre Previn’s “Almost an Overture”
One of the most versatile American musicians, Andre Previn is now enjoying a remarkable Indian summer as a composer. His late works exhibit an autumnal charm and masterly fluency, the music of a man creating at his pleasure and drawing on a lifetime of experience. “Almost an Overture” was written in 2017; this is its West Coast debut.
Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8
Bruckner was inspired by Wagner but composed a different kind of music, at once spiritual, architectonic and impersonal. The Symphony No. 8 conjures visions of natural wonders, vast and rocky, or monumental empty cathedrals shot through with shafts of light. It is Bruckner’s most colossal work.
Smetana’s “The Moldau”
The symphonic poem “The Moldau” is a landscape on water, the listener put right in the boat with a painter’s eye view. We start at the springs of the mighty river and travel through backwaters, the main current and rapids, through woods, fields and meadows, where peasants dance at a wedding. The melodies are flowing and folksy.
Elgar’s Symphony No. 1
Edward Elgar is credited with lifting British music out of the two centuries of mundane mediocrity in which it had been mired since the death of Henry Purcell. His much anticipated Symphony No. 1 of 1908 — richly scored, luxuriantly melodic, nobly sentimental — received some 100 performances in just more than a year of its premiere.
Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”
As both a tribute to a fellow artist (Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann, a painter) and an essay in musical imagery, “Pictures at an Exhibition” has never been surpassed. Ravel’s orchestration discovers layers of meaning and drama implicit in the black and white original, for piano alone, all the while turning it into an unrivaled showpiece for orchestra.
Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”
With “West Side Story,” Bernstein brought a new kind of athleticism to the American musical, the percussive jostling of rhythm and meter and Latin dance. The Symphonic Dances manage to capture that same feel of the urban jungle, adding a touch of glitter and muscle without losing the grit.