Tuesday, October 4, 2011

celestial angels

celestial angels 
sing God's praises, fanfare of horns,
sunlight breaking through clouds

Sunday afternoon we attend a concert by Orchestra Iowa at the Sondheim Theater here in Fairfield. The orchestra is celebrating 90 years with an orchestral showcase which includes three pieces. Ours is the last of three performances around Iowa and we may well be the smallest audience, but we make up for it with our enthusiasm. 
          The first piece, Musica Celestis by Aaron Jay Kernis, is a string orchestra arrangement inspired by the medieval image of celestial angels endlessly singing God's praises and the music of the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Writing about his musical philosophy, Kernis says, "I want everything to be included in music: soaring melody, consonance, tension, dissonance, drive, relaxation, color, strong harmony, and form -- and for every possible emotion to be elicited actively by the passionate use of those elements." I am a great lover of medieval music, especially Hildegard, and I find this modern piece to be extremely beautiful.
          The second piece, Konzerstuck for Four Horns and Orchestra, Op. 86, by Robert Schumann, is a celebration of the valved horn. Invented in 1818 but slow to catch on, the valved horn allowed the player to play all twelve chromatic pitches along the full range of the instrument. The three linked movements of this work have related themes, mostly in the fanfare mode, which shows off the range of the instrument in all possible keys. When the horn players come on stage, they stand in front of the orchestra in order from first to fourth, and their parts correspondingly range from highest to lowest in range. The first and second horns get most of the exhausting bravura passages. During short orchestral interludes, the horn players quickly pull open their vent tubes to discharge fluid, then return to puffing away. At the end, we give them a well-deserved fanfare of a standing ovation.
          Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, is the grand finale. The famous four-note theme that begins and repeats throughout the work is so familiar that it's hard to imagine how revolutionary it was 200 years ago. It was the first time that a rhythm rather than a melody became the main subject. Beethoven wove the rhythm into the entire fabric of the symphony. In addition to the integration of the four-note rhythmic motif in the entire first movement, the second movement is also innovative. From two contrasting themes, one in the strings and one in the brass, Beethoven produces a double set of variations. In addition, the second theme augments the four-note rhythm of the first movement. I especially enjoy watching the principle cellist, who really gets into the music, swaying his curly mop of hair, lifting his left hand from the strings and flourishing his bow. The symphony begins in C minor and ends in C major, and the triumphant finale feels like sunlight breaking through dark clouds. It makes you want to stand up and cheer, which we do, after the final notes open up a space of profound silence, followed by waves of applause.

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