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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony Searches for ‘The New World’

Composer Karen Tanaka paints a musical portrait of a “Guardian Angel” in the weekend concerts by the Santa Barbara Symphony.
Composer Karen Tanaka paints a musical portrait of a “Guardian Angel” in the weekend concerts by the Santa Barbara Symphony. (Courtesy photo)

The Santa Barbara Symphony plays its April concerts at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 11, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 12, both in the Granada Theatre.

Maestro Nir Kabaretti will conduct, and Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint will be guest soloist.

The program will consist of three works: Karen Tanaka's Guardian Angel  for Clarinet, Harp, Percussion & String Orchestra (2000); Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto in D-Major, Opus 35 (1945) and Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E-Minor, Opus 95 "From the New World" (1893).

The symphony has named this program "The New World" — a reference to the fact that all three of these composers were born in other countries but spent some very creative time in America. Tanaka was born in Tokyo in 1961, went to Paris in 1986, where she made a hit with the European musical scene, taught composition for awhile at UCSB, and now teaches at Cal-Arts in Los Angeles. Korngold (1897-1957) was born in Hapsburg Brno (now in the Czech Republic), was a child prodigy who was hailed as a genius by Mahler and Strauss, had a huge success in Vienna with his opera, The Dead City, Opus 12 (1920), came to Hollywood the first time in 1934, returned to stay in 1938, became a U.S. citizen in 1943 and died in Hollywood. Dvořák (1841-1904), born near Hapsburg Prague (also now in the Czech Republic), was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City 1892-95, went back to Prague and spent the rest of his life there.

I haven't heard Tanaka's Guardian Angel, but based on my experience of the dozen or so other Tanaka compositions I have heard, I imagine it is sublimely beautiful. She is not a nationalist in her music — hardly anybody is, these days — and her travels were not dictated by political events, so her commonalities with the other two composers on the program are limited. Musically, it is a "New World" indeed, and she is very much a citizen of it.

Korngold is very dear to me. All his life, his achievements were undervalued by the musical establishment: first, because his father was the eminent, powerful music critic, Julius Korngold, and all the envious nobodies attributed his successes to his father's influence; then, because he wrote film scores in Hollywood, and all the snobs dismissed him as a Hollywood hack (nothing so disappoints a music snob like a composer able to earn a decent living for himself and his family). His reputation began to revive a couple of decades after his death, when a few brave souls began to stop sneering and start listening. Now, his string quartets, his symphony, and above all, his violin concerto, are heard fairly regularly in our concert halls, and opera companies are staging The Dead City with gratifying frequency.

The concerto was written for Jascha Heifetz, who premiered it, but it was dedicated to Alma Mahler. This ought to remind us that Korngold was a dues-paying member of a tragic generation of European composers. He was one of those commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of Ludwig) to write a piano concerto for the left hand, after he had had his right arm shot off in World War I. Others who provided such concerti were Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Alexandre Tansman, Sergei Prokofiev, Franz Schmidt, Sergei Bortkiewicz, Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel.

Dvořák only stayed here three years, in which time he managed to invent a plausible "American" music. More than that, if we consider the major works he wrote while he was here — the New World Symphony, the String Quartet No. 12 in F-Major, Opus 96, "American" (1893), the String Quintet No. 3 in Eb-Major, Opus 97 "American" (1893) and the Cello Concerto in B-Minor, Opus 104, (1895) — we might be forgiven for thinking that, as much a he gave to us, we must have given him something valuable as well.

Tickets to this concert are $28 to $133, with special rates for seniors, students and groups. Discounted student tickets are available for $10 with valid student ID. Single tickets can be purchased from the Granada Box Office at 805.899.2222 or online by clicking here.

— 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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