2017–2018: Plus One

ComiConcert!

One of the advantages of living in the twenty-first century is the variety of musical genres to which one may be exposed to in a single symphony orchestra concert. A good example is today’s ComiConcert, which combines two well-known classical works with an eclectic mix of music inspired by comic books, fantasy, sci-fi movies, and televisions shows, and has the added attraction of a performance by Amanda Dee, the winner of our 2018 Student Concerto Competition.

The French composer, conductor, critic, and author HECTOR BERLIOZ was born on December 11, 1803 at La Côte-St-André, near Grenoble. His father was determined that Hector should study to become a physician, but the child’s impulse toward musical expression was so strong that he began composing at the age of twelve. In his nineteenth year, while a medical student in Paris, he revolted against his parents’ choice and decided to devote himself to music. Berlioz gained admission to the Paris Conservatory and succeeded in winning the coveted Prix de Rome for his work. Eventually, after years of struggle, he achieved recognition as one of the greatest nineteenth-century Romanticists, as well as one of the most significant French composers.

Like other composers of the time, Berlioz’s great ambition was to write an opera, but the premiere in September 1838 of his first attempt, Benvenuto Cellini, was a fiasco. As Berlioz recalled, although the overture was “extravagantly applauded … the rest was hissed with exemplary precision and unanimity.” Undiscouraged, five years later, he mined the opera for thematic material for a new overture that he could use as an independent concert work. The result was the Roman Carnival Overture. At its premiere in Paris on February 3, 1844, this piece proved a resounding success, and it has joined the Symphonie Fantastique as the most popular of Berlioz’s music.

The Roman Carnival Overture begins with a brief statement of a saltarello, a lively folk dance in triple meter of Spanish and Italian origins, which will become the main theme of the overture. In an extended lyrical passage, the English horn introduces a new beautiful melody, derived from the opera’s first act trio. Ascending and descending woodwind flourishes signal a return to the saltarello, which soon explodes with uninhibited vigor. The bassoons and trombones reprise the English horn melody, now accompanied by the dance rhythm. Then the saltarello resumes to close this musical Mardi Gras with some dazzling rhythmic and harmonic surprises.

DIMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) was a Russian composer and pianist who is especially renowned for his 15 symphonies, numerous chamber works, and concerti – many of them written under the pressures of government-imposed standards of Soviet Art. Heavily influenced by the neo-classical style pioneered by Igor Stravinsky and by the late Romanticism associated with Gustav Mahler, Shostakovich is generally regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century.

Shostakovich wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102 in 1957 as a gift for his then nineteen-year-old son Maxim, who premiered the work at his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. Cast in a typical three-movement concerto form, it is an uncharacteristically cheerful piece that has remained one of Shostakovich’s more popular works.

The main theme of the Allegro first movement is introduced by the bassoon which is soon accompanied by the clarinets and oboes. The piano enters lightly and unassumingly, giving the beginning an air of chamber music. The scoring is lean and rather athletic, allowing the melodic line (containing very surprising twists, reminiscent of Prokofiev) to take precedence. The piano part contains much of the melodic material, often doubled at the octave in both hands.

The Andante second movement is subdued and romantic. Its mood is tender with a touch of melancholy. The strings start gently in C minor with a short introduction before the piano comes in with a gentle triplet theme in C major. Although it remains slow throughout and works within a comparatively small range, the movement is marked by the recurrence of three-against-two rhythms.

There is no pause between the second and third movements; abruptly and surprisingly the piano ushers the piece into the dancelike Allegro finale. Soon, the second theme is introduced, in 7/8 time, with the piano accompanied by balalaika- like pizzicato strings. After a short time, a new motif arrives in “Hanon” exercise mode, with scales in sixths and sixteenth note runs, this section being a joke for Maxim’s graduation. [Note: For those who are not pianists, exercises composed in 1900 by C. L. Hanon are fundamental fare for beginning players.] These three themes are then developed and interwoven before a final statement of the 7/8 theme and a virtuoso coda in F major.

While sci-fi music is a relatively recent creation, it has already established a distinguished pedigree. Arranger CALVIN CUSTER, who played keyboard, horn, and string bass with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in addition to composing and conducting, opens Star Trek Through the Years with mysterious “space” music followed by the original theme written by Alexander Courage for the television Star Trek series first shown in 1966-69. Next is the Deep Space Nine theme and then a haunting melody – written by another associate composer, Jay Chattaway – from the Next Generation episode “The Inner Light,” in which Captain Picard learns a flute melody from a lost civilization. The piece ends with Jerry Goldsmith’s “Voyager” and “The Motion Picture/Next Generation.”

In the late nineties and early 21st century J. K. Rowling’s volumes tracing the exploits of Harry Potter became one of the most best-selling book series of all times. Warner Brothers Studios subsequently turned the books into eight movies with scores by several composers. The Harry Potter Symphonic Suite, a compilation of several themes written by JOHN WILLIAMS and arranged by JERRY BRUBAKER, has been extracted from the soundtrack of first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (released in 2001).

“Video game music” is the newest component in the symphony orchestra’s repertoire. You probably all know what a video game is, even if you have never played one, and that there is often a constant background of music. Game music and film music are similar, but one difference is that film music can follow a plot, while video games don’t have a “plot” in the usual sense, because as you play them, unexpected things happen, and the action is frequently controlled by the game player. Many games, such as Mario Brothers, have simply repetitious tunes, but more dramatic games have full symphonic background music. The composer must create music that fits the mood of the game and anticipates possible player-caused events.

Video Games Live Suite features a sampling of the most stunning music from the video game genre. As arranged by RALPH FORD it includes themes from some popular video games including Halo, Civilization IV, Bounty Hunter, and Kingdom Hearts. The suite features relentless rhythms, dramatic marches, and ethereal elements – the compilation of the ideas of a committee of writers rather than the creation of a single composer.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor who is best known as the author of the classic high-fantasy works The Hobbit (1936), The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), and The Silmarillion (1977). Between 2001 and 2003, WingNut Films, a New Zealand-American venture, produced three films based on the Lord of the Rings directed by Peter Jackson: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003). Considered to be one of the most ambitious film projects ever undertaken, with an overall budget of $281 million, the entire project took eight years, with the filming for all three movies done simultaneously and entirely in New Zealand.

The gifted composer HOWARD SHORE wrote, orchestrated, and conducted the music for the soundtracks of the trilogy, and the Symphonic Suite from the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings is a medley of his themes from the first film of the series as arranged by John Whitney.

JOHN WILLIAMS is arguably the most popular and successful composer of American film music, having written scores for more that 150 movies and television shows over several decades. Aside from Star Wars, he is best known for his work with Steven Spielberg on films including Jaws, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In 1977, 20th Century Fox released the first Star Wars film which was followed by two sequels, released in 1980 and 1983, a prequel trilogy of films released between 1999 and 2007, and two new films in 2015 and 2017. The series is credited with beginning the revival of grand symphonic scores in the style of old Hollywood. In creating the musical soundtrack for these movies, Williams used a technique that the grandest of opera composers, Richard Wagner, introduced in his epic music drama – the “leitmotif” – a phrase or melody that signified a character, place, plot device, mood, idea, or relationship.

The Imperial March from Star Wars Suite, or “Darth Vader’s Theme,” is one of the most pervasive and well-known themes in John Williams’ Star Wars scores, perhaps because it is an ideal musical symbol for Darth Vader and the “evil” of the Empire in general. The march is exemplary because, as analyst Mark Richards explains, “Rhythmically, it projects a strong, confident, and forward-driving tone; orchestrally, it emphasizes the powerful brass instruments and the menacing sound of the instruments’ low registers; harmonically, it focuses on the dark sound of minor chords and presents distorted version of what would otherwise be normal progressions; contrapuntally, it makes use of dissonance to give a fearful sound; and melodically, the theme is constantly moving in the downward direction, suggesting the heavy hand of the Empire literally bearing down on the Rebels.”

Superman Returns was the fifth in a series of eight live action films based on the DC Comics character Superman. A box office success upon its release in 2006, it received generally positive reviews from critics who praised its visual effects, story, musical score, and style. JOHN OTTMAN composed the soundtrack. Greatly influenced by John Williams, Ottman stipulated before taking on the assignment that he would preserve the theme Williams wrote in 1978 for the first film in the series, Superman: The Movie, and he later referred to his score for Superman Returns as a homage to and not a rip-off of Williams. The Victor López arrangement of the musical soundtrack of Superman Returns that we play today includes Williams’ “Theme from Superman”, “Can You Read My Mind?”, as well as Ottman’s “Memories” and “Rough Flight.”

— Jane Rausch

Sunday, May 6, 2018 at 3:00 p.m.

Holyoke Community College

Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2

  • Amanda Dee, piano
  • 2018 Student Concerto Competition winner

Plus music from Star Trek, Star Wars,
Harry Potter, Superman, and
The Lord of the Rings

Tickets: $10-15 general, $5 under 12

Please support our Symphony’s very important fundraising concert.

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With Our Thanks for Their Support:

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This program is supported in part by a grant from the Holyoke Cultural Council and South Hadley Cultural Council, local agencies which are supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency.

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