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Gerald Carpenter: UCSB Chamber Ensembles Take Stage at Lehmann Hall

UCSB's Chamber Ensembles (a.k.a. Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Players) will have their autumn concert at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 28, in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall on the UCSB campus.

I can't offer you any of the names of the participants. The Music Department website gives only "TBA" as the program director. The "Chamber PLayers," however, are an impromptu ensemble made up of the winners of the quarterly UCSB Chamber Music Competition. Who plays what will be obvious when we sit down with our programs.

The concert will consist of four works: Johannes Brahms's "Tragic Overture in d-minor, Opus 81 (1880)"; Igor Stravinsky's "Suite #2 For Small Orchestra (1915)"; the "Rákóczi March" from Hector Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust (1846)"; and Felix Mendelssohn's "Symphony No. 4 in A-Major, Opus 90, 'Italian' (1833)".

Brahms wrote both of his two great concert overtures — in effect, one movement symphonies — in 1881. One was complacent and jolly, even smug; he gave it the title "Academic Festival." The other was moody and restless, darkly Byronic; he called it "Tragic." "One laughs," he wrote to a friend, "the other cries."

The two "Suites for Small Orchestra" are orchestral arrangements of eight works for two pianos, four hands, which Stravinsky called "Easy Pieces" — the origin, in fact, of the title of the Bob Rafaelson movie, which starred Jack Nicholson. Stravinsky's account of their composition is, as usual, exact, penetrating, and full of intriguing vignettes:

"The eight 'Easy Pieces' were composed in Morges [Switzerland], the 'Polka,' 'March,' and 'Valse' [from Suite No. 2] just before "Reynard" in 1915, and the others after the completion of that ballet. I wrote the 'Polka' first. It is a charicature of Diaghilev, whom I had seen as a circus animal trainer cracking a long whip.

"The idea of the four-hand duet was part of the caricature because Diaghilev used to play four-hand piano music with his lifelong friend Walter Nouvel. The simplicities of the music, especially of the bass part, were also designed for the small range of Diaghilev's technique.

"I played the 'Polka' to Diaghilev in a hotel room in Milan, in 1915, in the presence of [composer] Alfredo Casella, and I remember how amazed both men were that the composer of 'Le Sacre du Printemps' should have produced such a piece of popcorn.

"For Casella, however, a new path had been indicated, and he was not slow to follow it: so-called 'neo-classicism,' or one aspect of it, was born in that moment. But Casella was genuinely enthusiastic about the 'Polka,' and I promised to write a little piece for him, too. This was the 'March,' composed immediately on my return to Morges.

"A little later I added a 'Valse' in Homage to Erik Satie, a souvenir of a visit with him in Paris. Satie had suddenly become old and white, a very touching figure for whom I felt profound sympathy. I wrote the little ice cream 'Valse' for him on my return from Paris to Morges. ...

"The remaining five pieces were composed as music lessons for my son and daughter, Theodore and Mika."

The original version of the "Rákóczi March" was composed anonymously in the 1730s. The Gypsy violinist János Bihari played it all over Europe, 1809-1820. Hector Berlioz heard it, orchestrated it, and put it at the end of Part One of his "Dramatic Legend," "La Damnation de Faust" — yet another of his unaccountably neglected masterpieces.

(On the only recording I have of the complete work — Munch, Boston — Martial Singher, such an important part of the Music Academy in the 1980s, sings Mephistopheles.) Berlioz called the "Rákóczi March" the "Hungarian March," and indeed, the piece was, until fairly recently, the unofficial anthem of Hungary.

Too little attention has been paid to Mendelssohn's uncanny gift for capturing the spirit of a place. The "Hebrides Overture" and the "Scotch Symphony" are windswept visions of rocky shores and misty forests, the romantic lands of Ossian and Sir Walter Scott.

The "Reformation Symphony" an ode to Luther and the "Augsburg Confession," is solemn and righteous as a German burger, and not entirely untouched by the Teutonic hysteria of the Reformation. In contrast, the "Italian Symphony" is sunny and nimble, with the flowing grace of the best Italian music.

Mendelssohn and Berlioz met in Rome and became friends. As they strolled together around the Eternal City one day, Berlioz favored his new friend with some irreligious witticisms. At the same moment, Mendelssohn tripped and fell on his face. "Ah," said Berlioz, "I blaspheme and you are struck down."

Tickets for this concert are $10 general admission, $5 for non-UCSB students with ID, free for UCSB students with ID, and for children under 12.

Tickets may be purchased at the door of the venue, at the AS Ticket Office window (UCEN Room 1535, across from Corwin Pavilion), by calling the AS Ticket Office at 893.2064, or online at www.music.ucsb.edu.

— Gerald Carpenter is a Noozhawk Contributing Writer.

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