Gerald Carpenter: Music Academy Festival Orchestra to Bring Britain to Santa Barbara
Last April 12, the word from Miraflores was: “The Music Academy of the West and the London Symphony Orchestra today announce a major new partnership, based at the academy’s annual Summer School and Festival in Santa Barbara, Calif., and at the Barbican and LSO St Luke’s in London. Michael Tilson Thomas, the LSO’s conductor laureate, will be in residence in Santa Barbara each summer as signature festival conductor, joined by principal players from each section of the LSO during the eight-week festival, to teach and mentor academy fellows. Twelve of the 95 fellows will be selected via audition to travel to London the following winter for 10 days of intensive training with the London Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Sir Simon Rattle …
“This summer, Michael Tilson Thomas will participate in a special panel discussion, and six LSO guest artists will be in residence. Elim Chan, winner of the 2014 Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, will conduct the Academy Festival Orchestra and five LSO section principals, David Alberman (second violin), David Elton (trumpet), Rebecca Gilliver (cello), Andrew Marriner (clarinet) and Neil Percy (percussion), will teach, perform and will oversee the audition process for the London training program.”
We are already witnessing the fruits of this partnership, what with the performance of LSO musicians in last Tuesday’s Faculty Artists concert at the Lobero Theatre — featuring a work by Minnesota-born Elizabeth Ogonek, who earned her doctorate at the famed Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London and who recently had a work commissioned by the LSO — and by this coming Saturday’s concert by the Festival Orchestra.
It also will feature a work by Ogonek and will be conducted by the spectacularly gifted Chan, who has burst upon the international music scene with the brilliance of a supernova. Among her many firsts, the Hong Kong-born, American-educated Chan was the first female to win the Donatello Flick competition and, as of the 2019-20 season, she will become both the youngest and the first female chief conductor in the history of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in Belgium.
The concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Granada Theatre, and the program will consist of three works: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), the West Coast premiere of Ogonek’s Sleep and Unremembrance (2016) and Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets (1916).
Vaughan Williams and Holst collected folk songs together. Their researches are often reflected in the works of Vaughan Williams (though not in the Fantasia, which is based on a tune by 15th-century English polyphonist Thomas Tallis), less often in the work of Holst, whose suite, The Planets, reflects his interest in astrology (he regularly cast horoscopes for his friends) rather than astronomy. Later compositions by Holst show his increasing involvement in Hindu philosophy, but both he and Vaughan Williams were patriots of a rather lofty stripe. After World War I, Holst adopted the soaring, hymn-like melody in “Jupiter, the bringer of jollity” (The Planets, Mvt. IV) as the setting of a patriotic poem, “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” which is still sung today.
Ogonek, who often collaborates with poets and turns to poetry for much of her inspiration, wrote her own program note for Sleep and Unremembrance:
“Written in 2015, Sleep and Unremembrance for orchestra is a reflection on the poem ‘While Sleeping’ by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. This particular poem, which was one of the last written before her death in 2012, grapples with the idea that memories often change so dramatically that they simply end up disappearing. What remains is a frantic quest to remember all of the things that mark our lives as special until we come to terms with the fact that forgetting is part of the cycle of life. Unique to Szymborska is her ability to find beauty and spontaneity in the simplest and most mundane objects and everyday activities. In this poem, for example, dreams become a metaphor for time; sleep, a metaphor for death; drawers, a metaphor for secrets; snow, a metaphor for frailty. To me, this lends Szymborska’s poetry a profound sense of humanity.
“The music that I have written attempts to capture the spirit and energy of this poem. Simple musical ideas such as a four-note ascending, scalar figure (heard at the opening of the piece) and sequences of parallel sixths are molded into highly recognizable gestures that reach far beyond their ordinary structural characteristics. As the piece develops, these kinds of ideas recede into the background as if they have changed or cannot be remembered anymore. Though this is only an excerpt of the piece, what will ultimately set the completed version of the work apart from the poem is perspective. Szymborska undoubtedly knew that she was near to her death when she wrote the poem, making the text a powerful opportunity to look back on life past. I, however, see it as a reminder that behind every corner lurks mystery, surprise and change. Thus, the music twists and turns in search of its own memories and its true identity.”
Ogonek’s music in this piece has a kind of expressionistic, East European shimmer — rather like, and I mean this as a compliment, something Alban Berg might have produced if he hadn’t grown up in the brooding, morbid atmostphere of the dying Hapsburg Empire. It is, at any rate, a very effective meditation.
The Festival Orchestra Series enjoys the warm and generous support of Mary Lynn and Warren Staley, who are also, with Linda and Michael Keston, lead sponsors of the London Symphony Orchestra partnership. Additional support has been provided in remembrance of Léni Fé Bland.