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Gerald Carpenter: Chamber Orchestra Aims for the Sublime

Its season-opening concert will be held Tuesday in the Lobero

Many local performing arts organizations will begin their 2010 seasons this month, the first being the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, which will offer its first concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 5 in the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.

Composer Ottorino Respighi
Composer Ottorino Respighi

The concert will be conducted by the orchestra’s venerable music director, Heiichiro Ohyama, and will feature the piano virtuosity of guest artist Adam Neiman.

The luscious program includes three works: Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3 (1931); Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Opus 47 (1905) and Frederic Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 11 (1830), with Neiman as soloist.

It may be that when you hear the Respighi, you will exclaim, “Where has this music been all my life?” — which may, indeed, be what Respighi exclaimed when he first discovered Oscar Chilesotti’s Da Un Codice del Cinquecento (“transcriptions for lute or guitar,from a 16th-century lute manuscript”).

Respighi was a composer of rare delicacy, even when writing his enduringly popular potboilers — The Pines of Rome, The Fountains of Rome, et alia. When he came to set the lute pieces for small orchestra, the result, in the words of music historian Janice May, “was a highly-appetizing blend of simple line with sumptuous orchestration.”

With his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, plus the rather similar Gli Uccelli (The Birds) of 1927 — which transcribes pieces from the baroque rather than the Renaissance — Respighi seems to have invented if not an art form, at least a genre.

Composers have been assembling dance suites since there have been composers; it is likely that such suites are the prototypes of the symphony. Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and a host of lesser composers regularly produced transcriptions of folk songs and folk dances. It was for Respighi to discover pieces by composers whose names were known, though unfamiliar, and to make them his own via his talent for exquisite orchestration.

Among English-speaking music lovers, Respighi’s pioneering efforts are somewhat obscured by Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, but there exists hardly a score more aptly illustrating the point of Congreve’s “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast” than these Ancient Airs and Dances. Elgar’s gorgeous Introduction and Allegro, too, have an antiquarian element, inasmuch as they features a smaller group of instruments — in this case a string quartet — playing against a larger group, very much like a 17th century concerto grosso.

Both of Chopin’s concertos are more accurately described as piano sonatas with continuo, for the orchestration is neither assertive nor terribly original. Formal quibbles aside, they are perfectly beautiful.

Tickets to this concert are $39 and $44 and are available at the Lobero box office. Click here or call 805.963.0761.

— 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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