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Gerald Carpenter: Symphony Salutes City of Light

The Santa Barbara Symphony closes out its 2016-17 season with a program it calls From Paris to Broadway, to be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 13, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 14, both in the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.

Maestro Nir Kabaretti will conduct, and the dazzling cellist, Zuill Bailey, will be the soloist in the concerted work.

The Santa Barbara Symphony will play Wolfgang Mozart's Symphony No. 31 in D-Major, K. 297/300a, "Paris" (1779), Camille Saint-Saëns's Cello Concerto No. 1 in A-minor, Opus 33 (1872); Franz Liszt's Symphonic Poem No. 3, "Les Préludes" (1854); and George Gershwin's tone poem An American in Paris (1928).

"What did the wife of the soldier get

From Paris, the City of Light?

From Paris she got the silken dress.

Oh, to possess the silken dress

She got from the City of Light!"

Bertold Brecht

Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called Paris, the Capitol of the Nineteenth Century, a title I found so evocative and fecund, I was scared to read the essay itself, for fear of a letdown (ditto Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).

One instantly knows what he meant, almost by instinct. This program celebrates Paris for its glorious history as a crucible of the arts. People often went there to glimpse the future.

Mozart was six when he first visited Paris; his father took him and his sister there to show them off as child prodigies. The queen of France held him on her lap and found him adorable, but would not let him kiss her.

"Who would not be kissed by Mozart?" demanded the little genius. Who indeed?

He returned to Paris several times as a performer before he went there in 1778, looking for a job, with security and benefits. He wrote the Symphony No. 31 while he was there; it was performed, and became very popular.

Mozart was hailed as an important composer. The "Paris" is considered the first of his mature symphonies.

No one offered him a job.

Saint-Saëns was born and raised in Paris. It was the epicenter of his career, but he had no great affection for the town. He preferred Tuscany, or North Africa.

One smug musicologist once said of Saint-Saëns that he "was the only great composer who was not a genius."

Patently nonsense. In the first place, he was a genius. In the second place, what about Bruckner?

Saint-Saëns actually wrote two cello concertos, and the second one is very good, too, though one hardly ever hears it in concert. One hardly ever hears his first two fiddle concertos, either, or his first two symphonies.

His colleagues didn't care much for him. Saint-Saëns was too detached and scathingly witty (he once remarked, "the chance to say something bad about Debussy was a good excuse for going to Paris" from his country estate).

His students, like Fauré and Ravel, revered him as a master and loved him as a friend.

Liszt lived in Paris off and on. While he was making a name for himself as a virtuoso, he made the city his center of operations, but I can find no specific connection between Paris and Les Préludes.

The first appearance of the work was in the form of an overture to a choral ode that set four poems by Joseph Autran — a French poet, to be sure, but one born and raised in Marseilles, which is where Liszt met him, in 1844.

When Liszt wished to refashion the overture into a symphonic poem, and needed a literary program, he turned to the work of Autran's mentor and hero, Alphonse de Lamartine.

De Lamartine's Nouvelles Méditations Poétiques gave Liszt the idea for the after-the-fact program he devised for Les Préludes.

He wrote in his preface to the score: "What else is our life but a series of préludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?" A morbid lot, those Romantics.

Gershwin was already world famous when he went to Paris in the 1920s, but he was famous as a songwriter, and for his musical comedies, and he craved legitimacy as a classical composer.

His Paris sojourn would have made a great subject for a Preston Sturges film. He wanted to study with Ravel.

(When he met a great composer, he would always beg to be taken on as a student. When he asked Schoenberg, his tennis partner in the mid-1930s, to accept him as a pupil, Schoenberg said: "But that would just turn you into a bad Schoenberg, whereas you are such a good George Gershwin.")

He did manage to persuade Ravel to give him a few lessons, but the net effect was more that Ravel started sounding more like Gershwin than the other way around.

On the way, Gershwin picked up a lot of French music which came in handy as local color for the great concert overture he had begun to compose, An American in Paris.

Gershwin completed An American in Paris his second trip to Paris in 1928, when he was ostensibly in town to study with Nadia Boulangier (can't doubt his taste).

While the overture is Parisian around the edges, the great blues lament the trumpet sings about halfway through could only be the work of an American, and only George Gershwin, a great American composer — if not our greatest, at least the most American.

Single tickets to the Santa Barbara Symphony concert are $29-$134. Group sales discounts of as much as 20 percent are available.

Patrons ages 20-29 can buy $20 tickets; students with valid ID can buy $10 tickets. Seating in both cases is confined to selected sections of the Granada.

Tickets can be purchased from the Granada box office, 899-2222, or on line from www.granadasb.org.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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