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Gerald Carpenter: Symphony Goes for ‘Ooh-La-La’ Effect

Saturday and Sunday concerts will play to Mathieu and Franck

The January concerts of the Santa Barbara Symphony will be at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at The Granada. Music director Nir Kabaretti will conduct a program with the motto “Ooh-La-La,” consisting of two works: André Mathieu’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with celebrated Québécois pianist Alain Lefèvre as soloist, and César Franck’s 1888 Symphony in D Minor.

At 10 years old, André Mathieu was performing in Paris and hailed as a genius by Sergei Rachmaninoff
At 10 years old, André Mathieu was performing in Paris and hailed as a genius by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Now, to call a program “Ooh-La-La” implies, to a provincial such as me, that what we will hear is French — even Parisian — music. To be sure, Mathieu and Franck both spoke French as their first language, and both spent significant parts of their lives in Paris. But neither composer is, speaking strictly, French. Mathieu was Canadian, born in Montreal on Feb. 18, 1929, while Franck was Belgian, born in Liège on Dec. 10, 1822.

The French-Canadians may or may not like to be called simply “French” — there are, after all, complex political issues involved, and they no doubt think of France (never England) as the “mother country.” But the Belgians tend to be touchy about such things. Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot; recall the steely alacrity with which he corrects anyone who refers to him as a “Frenchman.”

The foregoing having done its job as a hook for some biographical facts, I freely admit that France, as a world civilization, is of course the patroness of this program. Not Canada. Certainly not Belgium.

Mathieu’s story is remarkable. He spoke his first words at age 4 months and began composing at 4 years. At age 6, he entertained the patrons of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal with a concert of his own works. At 7, he was playing one of his compositions on the CBC (radio). When he was 10, playing concerts in Paris, he was lionized by the critics as “a Canadian Mozart,” and Sergei Rachmaninoff called him a “genius.”

Then, as with so many careers in 1939, came the long interruption of World War II. Mathieu returned to Montreal for a holiday and got stuck in this hemisphere for the duration. He continued to compose and perform — to ever greater acclaim. If you wonder why you haven’t heard more of him, there’s a short answer — booze — and a slightly more nuanced answer that involves him dying in 1968 — a time of radical cultural transformation, when the pop music-driven baby boom reached voting age.

The Canadian musicians that most of them were interested in were Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Besides, Mathieu composed in the late romantic idiom of Rachmaninov, Delius, Scriabin — grand gestures, soaring melodies — and there was little chance he would be taken up by the American avant garde, unless to lampoon his decadence.

Nevertheless, he has remained popular in Canadian concert halls, and when you hear his concerto, you’ll know that patriotism hasn’t all that much to do with it. He is quite a discovery.

Concert tickets are available from The Granada box office at 805.899.2222 or 1214 State St., or click here to order online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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