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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony Opens with Two-Concert Weekend

The program for Saturday and Sunday will feature works by Adams, Elgar and Berlioz

The Santa Barbara Symphony, conducted by Music Director Nir Kabaretti, opens its 2011-12 season with a pair of concerts at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in The Granada Theatre.

Composer John Adams
Composer John Adams gives new life to the phrase “occasional music.”

The great cellist Lynn Harrell — a musician without peer — will be guest soloist.

The program for these concerts will include three works: Tromba Lontana by American composer John Adams, the Concerto in E-Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 85 by Edward Elgar and the Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un Artiste en Cinq Parties (“Fantastic Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts”) Opus 14 (1830) by Hector Berlioz.

Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2002 choral work On the Transmigration of Souls, but his most famous work so far is his 1987 opera, Nixon in China. He would no doubt resist any one-word characterization of his music — and rightly so — but without doing him too grave an injustice, I think we might place him within the broad category of “minimalism.”

Everything I have heard by him, much of it quite beautiful, has sounded as if it were composed on the general principle of deriving music from the juxtaposition and overlay of repeating figures. To my taste, within that category, Adams is much better at coming up with lovely sounds by this method than his fellow travelers, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Tromba Lontana (Distant Trumpet) was written in 1986 (the same year as his famous Short Ride in a Fast Machine) on a commission by the Houston Symphony, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico.

Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto in 1919. Before World War I, he had been an unquestioning patriot and virtually the official composer of the British Empire — some wags have suggested that the term “Edwardian Age” derived as much from Sir Edward Elgar as from King Edward VII.

Be that as it may, the war shattered his faith in imperialism and in the idea of progress. The Cello Concerto, his last major work, reflects this sea change. Before the war, his music was lyrical and possessed a stately nostalgia. The Cello Concerto is tragic and searching, getting us ready for W.H. Auden’s “Lest we should see where we are/Lost in a haunted wood/Children afraid of the dark/Who have never been happy or good.” The old certainties are gone.

Nearly 150 years after his death, Berlioz remains largely unassimilated. He is granted a place of honor in the canon, but his works — even the Symphonie Fantastique — still make people uncomfortable. This is what Byronic romanticism sounds like, and George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron, was not the sort of guy you would want to hire as a babysitter. In this work, a rather unbalanced poet, desperately in love, takes an overdose of opium and suffers a series of wild, vivid hallucinations, including his trial and execution for the murder of his beloved, and a witches’ Sabbath that is rather too convincing in its macabre fury.

Berlioz himself was fairly eccentric in his youth, but he settled down to regular habits of a working musician, making contributions to his art that are still criminally undervalued to this day. Mainly, however, he was also a great prose writer, and he was often sharply observant of his contemporaries, who did not always appreciate his eloquent candor. The mediocre are an unforgiving bunch.

Tickets to these concerts are available from the Granada box office at 1214 State St. or 805.899.2222, or click here to order online.

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

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