Rousing season opener for La Jolla Symphony & Chorus
Music Review: Performance notable for more cohesive playing than in past
The Lone Ranger rode once again Saturday evening, Nov. 2, 2019, courtesy of conductor Steven Schick and the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.
Its season-opening concert at Mandeville Auditorium, on the UC San Diego campus, returned the audience to those thrilling days of yesteryear with Rossini’s “Lone Ranger Theme” — er, the “William Tell Overture.” For concertgoers old enough to have experienced the radio or television version of “The Lone Ranger,” or fans of Gore Verbinski’s 2013 film, the association of Rossini’s rousing call to arms is inescapable. However, that famous music is only the final section of the “Overture.”
It begins with a dialogue between a solo cello and the other cellos and basses, which was daintily played by the low strings under Schick’s direction. A storm follows, thrillingly rendered by the orchestra, and then a pastoral melody sweetly sounded by Heather Marks-Soady on English horn and Elena Yarritu on flute. What Rossini conceived as a shepherd’s song in “William Tell” took on its own unintended association, thanks to cartoon composers who used it to signify sunrises or mornings. Many conductors lead the final section of the “Overture” as quickly as possible. Schick chose a moderate tempo with successful results.
This overly familiar work began the program, but it was followed by a concert hall rarity — the “Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major” by Florence Price. There is no evidence that the work, although composed in 1939, was performed during Price’s lifetime. Unpublished, the work vanished after Price’s death in 1953. In 2009, someone bought a fixer-upper in St. Anne, Illinois, and found piles of manuscripts within. That house had been Price’s summer home, and many significant compositions were saved from oblivion.
This happy discovery has contributed to a renaissance for Price. Last season, LJS&C performed her one-movement “Violin Concerto No. 2” with David Buckley as soloist. Price’s first violin concerto had a more traditional three-movement structure. Her harmonic language is tonal, conservative for its time, but remarkable for its incorporation of African American elements. This was most noticeable in the slow movement, which had a theme reminiscent of spirituals.
The first movement, though structured in classical sonata form, had a capricious quality that disguised its European scaffolding. Two pauses in the first movement tricked some listeners into thinking they’d encountered the ending, judging from the applause following those rests.
The Romantic conception of the concerto sets up a dialogue between soloist and orchestra, often confrontational. Price’s concerto is a lyrical collaboration between violin and orchestra. The scoring for the accompaniment is usually lean. Shifting combination of winds and brass mirror the rhapsodic qualities of Price’s melodies and her unexpected harmonic changes.
The 1930s were an amazing decade for violin concertos: Bartók, Barber, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Britten and Walton all composed works that are still programmed. Surely, there is a place for Price’s first violin concerto amid that company. Peter Clarke, LJS&C co-concertmaster, gave a strong account of Price’s concerto, with Schick and musicians providing admirable support.
Bartók wrote his “Concerto for Orchestra” four years after Price’s composition. It is a wonderful synthesis of Bartók’s arch forms — first and fifth movements, and second and fourth scherzo-like movements go towards and away the slow third movement — with the less abrasive harmonies that characterize his late style. With its generous solos, it is a test for an orchestra’s skill, one which the La Jolla ensemble passed. Schick energetically conducted the musicians in a performance notable for more markedly cohesive playing than the past few seasons. If they can maintain this level of playing throughout the season, it will be a season well worth attending.
• IF YOU GO: La Jolla Symphony & Chorus next performs Dec. 7-8, 2019. Find its 65th season schedule for 2019-2020 at lajollasymphony.com or call the box office at (858) 534-4637.
— Christian Hertzog is a freelance writer.