Friday, March 23 , 2018, 10:14 am | Fair 60º


Santa Barbara Symphony Goes All Out for Love and Mendelssohn

Soloist Jennifer Koh promises to be a highlight performance.

The Santa Barbara Symphony will offer a “Valentine’s Concert” on Saturday and Sunday at The Granada. Maestro Nir Kabaretti will conduct, with the gifted young violinist Jennifer Koh as soloist.

Violinist Jennifer Koh will play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Santa Barbara Symphony.
Violinist Jennifer Koh will play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Santa Barbara Symphony. (Janette Beckman photo)
The concerts were originally planned to do double duty as a celebration of the Felix Mendelssohn Bicentennial, with a program of three of his works, including the “Italian” Symphony (Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Opus 90), but that delightful musical travelogue was urgently needed for the symphony’s “Festa Italiana!” in January. So, the symphony decided to “make do” with Mozart. The program now consists of two works by Mendelssohn (1809-1847): the Athalia Overture, Opus 74, and the Concerto in e-minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 64, with Koh doing the honors on the fiddle. In between the Overture and the Concerto, we will hear Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s exquisite Symphony No. 40 in g-minor, K.550 — far and away his greatest essay in the form and a work of haunting, uncanny beauty.

Jean Racine’s tragedy, Athalie, was written in 1691, at the request of Louis XIV’s pious mistress (whom he secretly married in 1686), Madame de Maintenon. It is derived from a biblical story, and biblical stories about women tend to be grim; Athalie is no exception. Athaliah’s story is mainly to be gathered from 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. She seems to have ruled Israel for six years before they got to her: “For the sons of Athaliah, that wicked woman, ...”

Racine’s play was not a popular success, despite incidental music by Moreau. Racine scholars have been much kinder.

“The just judgment of posterity,” said the 11th Edition Encyclopedia Britannica, “has ranked Athalie, if not as Racine’s best work (and there are good grounds for considering it to be this), at any rate as equal to his best.” Handel wrote an oratorio on Racine’s play in 1733. Mendelssohn wrote his incidental music in 1843, for a Berlin production of the Racine. The overture begins with a slow introduction whose striking melody is taken from a women’s chorus near the end of the work. This is followed by a broad, powerful tune in the flutes and clarinets, accompanied by harps and strings, which leads to the development of the high points of the drama, leading to the full orchestra in a triumphant climax.

The late Viennese conductor Bruno Walter, whom Leonard Bernstein called “one of the saints of music,” was so in awe of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, that he refused to conduct it until he was over 50. While that still left Walter with 35 years of triumphant performances, we should be grateful that other conductors have not felt bound by Walter’s example.

When, every once in awhile, orchestras ask their patrons what music they most want to hear, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto usually heads the list, and is always in the top three. Thus, while the music is undeniably “romantic”, it is not that quality which qualifies it for this concert: the audience’s undying love of the work makes a performance of it the perfect Valentine’s Day gift.

Saturday’s concert begins at 8 p.m.; Sunday’s at 3 p.m. Tickets to these concerts are available from the Granada Box Office at 805.899.2222 or from the symphony office at 805.898.9386.

Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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