The first event of the new year presented by the Community Arts Music Association (CAMA) will be a concert by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra — conducted by Bramwell Tovey, with pianist Jon Kimura Parker as guest soloist — at 4 p.m. Sunday at The Granada Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara.
Edward Top, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, wrote Totem in 2012 on a commission from the symphony. Here is a little of what he has to say about it: “The symphonic composition Totem is not associated with totem poles, but with the broader sentiments of totemism. One view of totemism is that it is a way of life, a belief that humans are transcendental beings or direct descendants from a particular totem, some kind of family or clan symbol ...” Not very suggestive of music, but verbal statements rarely are. Mr. Top is a young man of decided views. I suspect we are in for a wild, brief, ride.
Very little needs to be said about the Grieg concerto. Everything that a romantic piano concerto must do, it does — with dignity and passion. It was premiered in 1868 and has been in the concert repertory ever since. It is also ubiquitous in popular culture — you never know when it is going to pop up next, whether in The X-Files or a Range Rover commercial. (My favorite pop-culture reference was in an early 1960s murder mystery in which a woman killed her husband because he wouldn’t stop humming the opening theme of the concerto.) The second movement is especially spacious and evocative.
The first half of the 20th century witnessed a tremendous flowering of the symphony in many Western countries, though not in its native turf (the Germanic countries of Central Europe). In England, there were the works of Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams; in America, there were Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, Howard Hanson and George Antheil; in France, there were the splendid, usually overlooked essays of Albéric Magnard and Albert Roussel; in Sweden, there were Hugo Alfvén, Kurt Atterberg and Allan Pettersson; and best of all (perhaps), in Russia, there were the symphonies of Rachmaninov, Glière, Glazunov, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. All these works are conservative, the composers pouring their passionate music into the recognizable forms of the romantic — as distinguished from “classical” — symphony. They are also, by and large, nationalistic in spirit.
Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, composed in 1944, was the first work in the form by Prokofiev since his voluntary return to the Soviet Union 11 years before. It is very much a wartime symphony, and bears a striking similarity to other works composed in the Allied nations during the same period — not just Shostakovich’s ”Leningrad” Symphony, but Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, Antheil’s Fourth Symphony, Harris’ Fifth Symphony and Ross Lee Finney’s extraordinary Symphony No. 1 “Communiqué”.
Prokofiev’s mood is patriotic, defiantly hopeful and epic. The music expands as we listen. There is little to suggest that — as was in fact, the case — the composer was under a more or less permanent cloud on account of his bad attitude. At one point, when he and Shostakovich were being read the riot act by some lapdog bureaucrats claiming the status of state musicians, Prokoviev simply turned his back on his accusers and muttered insulting comments in Shostakovich’s ear. But there is nothing ironic in the Fifth Symphony. It is his masterpiece in the form.
Single tickets to the Vancouver Symphony are $38-$88 and are available at The Granada Box Office, 1214 State St. Click here to purchase tickets online, or call 805.899.2222.