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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony, State Street Ballet Stage ‘The Firebird’

Saturday, Sunday performances at The Granada Theatre will feature a Stravinsky masterpiece

The success of their last collaboration with the State Street Ballet — sold-out performances — has encouraged the Santa Barbara Symphony to try it again. At 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at The Granada Theatre, the symphony, conducted by music director Nir Kabaretti, will team up with the State Street Ballet, under the direction of Rodney Gustafson, to set the stage afire with Igor Stravinsky’s L’oiseau de feu/The Firebird. To fit other works onto the program, the dance will be shaped to fit Stravinsky’s own Suite from the ballet, rather than the full score.

The concert, dubbed “The Firebird,” will open with the symphony’s superb principal harpist, Michelle Temple, fronting the band with a performance of Claude Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane for Harp and String Orchestra, followed by what, under other cirstances, would be the main event of the evening: Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F-Major, Opus 90.

Composed in 1904 for something called a “cross-strung” — or “chromatic” — harp and string quintet, on a commision from the Pleyel company, the Danses sacrée et profane have long outlived the instrument for which they were written, the invention of Pleyel director, Gustave Lyon. As for the sacred and profane — leaving aside the question of how familiar Debussy was with either concept — they sound reconciled in these pieces, a yin and yang of religious feeling.

“It is very seldom he can make anything whatever of his themes,” Gustav Mahler wrote to his wife, about Brahms, “beautiful as they often are.” (emphasis added) Most of us don’t listen to Brahms as fellow composers, as colleagues. I can see Mahler’s point, but while I agree with him utterly about the beauty of Brahms’ themes, my complaint about his developments is just the opposite: If it meant getting more of the sublime tunes, I would be willing to forego the developments altogether. Usually, in his orchestral music, he is quite stingy with his gorgeous melodies, as if he can’t wait for them to be over so he can get to work on them, ruthlessly develop them. Finally, though, in the Third Symphony, he starts to get the point. Musicologists generally used to skip over the Third Movement, and one can see why. What is there to say about it, other than that it is one perfect song for orchestra, and a feast for the yearning soul? I begin to hear the truth of Robert Craft’s statement: “Beethoven is primarily an instrumental composer, even when writing for voices, Brahms a vocal one, even when writing for instruments.”

Back in the days of vinyl, it was not at all unusual to find The Firebird Suite on one side of the disk, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or Suite on the other. Both are about birds, of course: one of gold and one of fire. More to the point, however, is that fact that Korsakov was Stravinsky’s most important mentor, bequeathing to his genius student his greatest possession, the romantic orchestra at its peak of oriental splendor. Everything he learned from the older composer about the orchestra, Stravinsky poured into his first ballet. The Rite of Spring made him world-famous, but it was The Firebird that made him the man to watch.

Tickets to the symphony range from $42 to $130. Click here to purchase tickets online, or call The Granada Box Office at 805.899.2222.

— 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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