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Gerald Carpenter: Symphony’s Season-Opener Spans Centuries

Sunday's From the Top concert will feature the talents of young violinist Augustin Hadelich

The Santa Barbara Symphony opens its 2009-10 season this weekend, with concerts at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in The Granada.

William Schuman
American composer William Schuman (Carl Mydans photo)

The program for both concerts, rather mysteriously titled “From the Top,” will be conducted by music director Nir Kabaretti and will feature the talents of the meteorically rising young violinist Augustin Hadelich.

The program includes three works, one each from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries: the “American Festival Overture” by William Schuman, Wolfgang Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219” (with Hadelich in the solo role), and the well-known and well-loved"Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64” of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

On April 13, 1930, when he was a few months short of 20 and was still pursuing a business degree at NYU’s School of Commerce, Schuman went with his older sister, Audrey, to Carnegie Hall to hear Arturo Toscanini conduct the New York Philharmonic in works by Richard Wagner, Zoltan Kodály and Schumann.

Schuman had played the violin and banjo as a child — except during baseball season — and in high school he formed his own dance band, Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra. But he hadn’t seriously considered a career in music until attending this concert.

“I was astounded at seeing the sea of stringed instruments,” he wrote years later, “and everybody bowing together. The visual thing alone was astonishing. But the sound! I was overwhelmed. I had never heard anything like it. The very next day, I decided to become a composer.”

Throughout most of the 1930s, Schuman’s compositions attracted neither popular nor critical enthusiasm, but he did gain the admiration and friendship of Roy Harris, Aaron Copland and a young whipper-snapper of a Harvard student named Leonard Bernstein. Those three became his patrons and champions.

Harris, with whom Schumann had studied privately from 1933 to 1938, pressed the younger composer’s case to the eminent conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky, and persuaded him to conduct Schuman’s “Symphony No. 2” in 1939.

Koussevitzky also was responsible, through the Koussevitzky Foundation, for commissioning two of Schuman’s best-known works — the “Symphony for Strings (Symphony No. 5)” of 1943 and the “American Festival Overture,” written for the Boston Symphony’s Festival of American Music and which premiered Oct. 6, 1939, about 70 years ago.

In 1939, Schuman was virtually unknown to the American public. By 1945, he had won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Music (for his 1943 cantata “A Free Song,” based on poems by Walt Whitman), had become president of the Juilliard School and had founded the Juilliard String Quartet. He had arrived, and he had come to stay.

From then until his death, on Feb. 15, 1992, at 82, he remained in the front rank of American musicians, celebrated as a composer, pedagogue and a wit (one of his compositions, “Mail-Order Madrigals” in 1972, sets texts from the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog).

Click here for tickets to the concerts, visit The Granada box office, 1214 State St., or call 805.899.2222.

— 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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