Classical Views: The season starts early
Symphony Opening Night.
It is always something to look forward to.
The summer is over. Vacations are a fading memory. Across the country, school has started. Things at work begin to get busy again. And all of us, hopefully rested from weekends at the shore or in the mountains, are ready to start a new season.
The Allentown Symphony Orchestra usually begins its classical season in October, but this year we are doing something different. We are starting off with a bang at 8 p.m. Sept. 13 and 3 p.m. Sept. 14 with a stellar concert that features one of the world's most respected pianists, Garrick Ohlsson.
I've been trying to book Garrick Ohlsson for quite a few years now, but the dates never quite worked out. One of our goals for the past few seasons has been to bring top-quality guest artists to Miller Symphony Hall that normally you would have to drive to Philadelphia or New York to hear.
We started last year with Midori, and wanted to follow it up this season with Garrick Ohlsson. With a little persistence, we discovered that if we began our classical concerts in September, Garrick was available and excited about coming to perform with the Allentown Symphony. Thus, our September Opening Night.
Garrick Ohlsson began playing piano at the age of eight, attended Juilliard and won First Prize at the 1966 Busoni Competition, the 1968 Montreal Piano Competition and 1970 International Chopin Competition. He was also awarded an Avery Fisher Prize in 1994 and the Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in 2014.
He is sought-after as a Chopin expert, yet his overall solo repertoire is quite diverse. With the Allentown Symphony, he will perform Rachmaninoff's famous "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," a piece based on the melody from Paganini's 24th Violin Caprice. This is a virtuosic piece comprised of 24 variations on this famous tune.
To balance out the program, we have two exciting pieces, also by famous Russian composers, Borodin and Shostakovich.
The concert opens with the "Overture to the Opera Prince Igor" by Borodin, which many of us remember because the melodies from the Polovestsian Dances from the same opera were made into the pop song "Stranger in Paradise" from the 1953 musical "Kismet."
The orchestral focal point of the concert, however, is the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. Written in 1937 at a difficult time in Shostakovich's life, this piece capture his determination, his humor, his introspective sadness, and his desire to be a musical voice for the people of Russia.
A few years after the premiere, Shostakovich said the following about the piece: "The theme of my symphony is the making of a man. I saw man with all his experiences at the center of the composition ... In the finale the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living."
Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 is one of my favorite works, particularly because I studied conducting in Russia in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) with a conducting teacher who had studied with Yevgeny Mravinsky, the man who conducted the premiere of this symphony.
Connecting closely with a piece of music and being able to live in the country and city where the work was written and performed, makes this piece very meaningful to me. I can bring to the performance a deeper musical understanding, and communicate that through the music to the audience.
Russian melodies, a famous pianist and the superbly talented musicians of the Allentown Symphony make for a very exciting Opening Night at the ASO. It is a great way to get back into the swing of things. I hope to see you there.
Diane Wittry is Music Director-Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director (USA), International Cultural Exchange Program for Classical Musicians, Sarajevo Philharmonic, Bosnia; and author, "Beyond the Baton" (Oxford University Press).
Concert tickets: Miller Symphony Hall Box Office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; allentownsymphony.org; 610-432-6715