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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony Offers the Pick of the ‘Seasons’

The Santa Barbara Symphony’s next concerts — at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, both in the Granada Theatre — promise to be as exciting to the eye as they always are to the ear.

Guest conductor Gregory Vajda
Guest conductor Gregory Vajda

Along with a sure-fire hit of a program, guest conductor Gregory Vajda has enlisted the services of Jett Green, a painter and/or visual artist, to provide projected images that illustrate or visually echo the second work on the program.

There are two works on the program, two works with virtually the same name. First, the set of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi that the composer himself gave the title, The Four Seasons (with the dynamic young violin virtuoso Nigel Armstrong as soloist); and, after the intermission, the sumptuous ballet by Alexander Glazunov called The Seasons, Opus 67 (with Green’s colorful ad hoc images).

What art historian Sir Kenneth Clark called “The Worship of Nature” established itself in the hearts of civilized Europeans during the 18th century. The depiction of natural scenes, and natural cycles, became a major theme of European art. Before 1789, nature was presented as a benign mistress, an enlightened despot.

James Thomson’s quartet of long poems, The Seasons, which became the sacred text of pre-Revolution nature-lovers throughout Europe, was published in 1730. Curiously, it was not turned into a libretto of a major choral work until 1801, when Joseph Haydn brought out his oratorio, Die Jahreszeiten/The Seasons, and Haydn — supreme genius that he was — was not at all in touch with the spirit of Thomson’s poem. Ludwig van Beethoven would have been my choice to set Thomson, but Beethoven, though an ardent nature-worshipper, expressed his love instrumentally, in works such as the Triple Concerto and, of course, the Pastoral Symphony.

After 1789, nature’s visage darkened, and grew fierce. (The Marquis de Sade’s “Nature … hungers at all her pores for bloodshed!” was an extreme, but not untypical, artistic assertion of the revolutionary era.) By the dawn of the 20th century, with the works of Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky, “Nature” had become an all-purpose symbol for both Mahler’s pantheism and Stravinsky’s primitivism.

Vivaldi, like his native Venice, took a different route and got there first. The Four Seasons was composed in 1723, and published in 1725 — five years before Thomson’s poems — as the first four concertos in a set of 12 called Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention), Opus 8. Four sonnets in Italian, commonly assumed to have been written by Vivaldi (each sonnet is in three movements, like a concerto), accompanied the publication, so the “Seasons” title is not something tacked on later by a hack publicist.

It is not surprising that the concertos are dazzling and delightful; what is surprising, considering the era, is the quasi-romantic emotional power of the inner movements, especially of “Winter.”

Glazunov was, musically, a classicist and an arch-conservative; he did not have the capacity that his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov had to appreciate the merits of valid innovations and new ideas. The Seasons, his best-known work today, was premiered in 1901, with choreography by Marius Petipas, who commissioned the work. While not entirely free of academicism the ballet is exquisite and flows easily into the consciousness. If any music can be said to have achieved perfection, this is it.

Tickets to the symphony range from $35 to $100 and can be purchased from the Granada box office at 805.899.2222 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are his own.

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