Thursday, May 24 , 2018, 1:45 pm | Overcast 62º


Santa Barbara Symphony to Paint Musical Pictures of Italy

This weekend's 'Festa Italiana!' features an all-orchestral palette.

It would be impossible to prove that the Italians actually invented music as we know it, but whoever tries to make such a case would have plausibility on his or her side. The Santa Barbara Symphony makes no such claim, but the program for its next concerts, Saturday and Sunday at the Granada Theatre, certainly salutes Italy as a musical epicenter.

Calling the program “Festa Italiana!,” Maestro Nir Kabaretti will conduct an all-orchestral slate (i.e., with no concerted works) consisting of Hector Berlioz‘s Roman Carnival Overture, Felix Mendelssohn‘s Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Opus 90, “Italian,” Gioachino Rossini‘s Overture to his opera L’Italiana in Algeri, the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi‘s La Forza del Destino, the Intermezzo from Giacomo Puccini‘s Manon Lescaut and Pyotr Tchaikovsky‘s Capriccio Italien, Opus 45.

Three of the six works were composed by Italians; three were composed by musicians from other European countries who visited Italy, fell in love with the place and just had to set their feelings to music.

The Italians are all opera composers, which is logical — there is no doubt that the Italians invented opera — but, in an all-instrumental program, I think they might have found a place for something by Respighi or Busoni. It is interesting that Verdi is represented by La Forza, the gloriously dramatic and tuneful product of his middle career, instead of the tedious and tuneless late operas such as Othello and Falstaff so beloved of critics and academics.

King Louis XIV of France established the Prix de Rome in 1663, to enable promising artists (painters, sculptors and architects) to travel to Italy to develop their talents while staying at the luxurious Mancini Palace in Rome. In 1803, music was added to the categories; in 1804, engraving. (The Prix itself was suppressed in 1968 by the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, and has not been reinstated.)

Berlioz tried four times for the Prix de Rome and finally won it in 1830. He was 26 years old, morbidly romantic to the point of psychosis, and uncontrollably in love with Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he had just seen play Juliet in the Shakespeare play. Legend has it that he came out of the performance vowing to marry Juliet and write his greatest symphony on Romeo and Juliet.

“I never said it,” Berlioz wrote in his fabulous Memoires, “but I did both.” As he took the carriage south to Rome, young Hector was obsessed with the conviction that Harriet was being unfaithful to him, though they had not yet met. Later, he would try to sneak back to France, dressed as a woman, carrying two loaded pistols, but that is another story.

In Rome, Berlioz met and became lifelong friends with Felix Mendelssohn. They used to explore the cafes together. Once, when they were strolling along the top of a broad staircase, Berlioz speaking loudly against religion, Mendelssohn neglected to watch his step, slipped and rolled to the bottom of the staircase.

“Typical,” said Berlioz, as he helped his friend to his feet. “I blaspheme and you are struck down.” Berlioz reports that Mendelssohn did not find this joke very funny.

Saturday’s concert will start at 8 p.m.; Sunday’s at 3 p.m. Tickets are available at the Granada Box Office (805.899.2222), from the symphony (805.898.9386) or online (click here).

Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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