Orchestra gets chance to shine

Spoleto Festival USA 2012 - Orchestra Uncaged

The concerts by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra have always been a welcome chance for the orchestra to be heard outside its usual home in the opera pit. With this year’s opera selections ignoring the important anniversaries of Verdi, Wagner and Benjamin Britten, and with no primary conductor since the departure of Emmanuel Villaume in 2010, there should be a couple of good all-orchestra concerts to fill the void for these excellent players.

For the first of these concerts, conductor Stefan Asbury has chosen a program that will show off the orchestra in dance-infused late-Romantic splendor. Except for the Rimsky-Korsakov, these are rarely heard blockbusters but not war horses done by every orchestra.

Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his “Capriccio on Spanish Themes,” oddly always known in the West with the mangled Italian/French title “Capriccio espagnol,” in 1887. It is a tour de force of sparkling orchestration, capturing the liveliness of the Spanish themes.

Rimsky-Korsakov famously said that the Capriccio was NOT an example of great orchestration, not where themes are assigned to various instruments, but a work in which various instruments play the themes in their highly individual idiomatic styles. The brilliant cadenzas, especially those for clarinet and violin, are not rivaled anywhere else in the orchestral literature.

There is an “alborada,” a dance which welcomes the dawn, some variations featuring the French horns, a varied repeat of the alborada, a gypsy song, and of course a fandango to end — five short movements played without pause.

From 1914-17 comes Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s “The Wooden Prince,” a suite of excerpts from a ballet of the same name. Bartok’s later style in works like the Concerto for Orchestra is rarely anticipated here. The score for “The Wooden Prince,” evocative of nature, is richly romantic, influenced (unexpectedly perhaps) by Wagner and Richard Strauss.

The ballet is rarely done. It has the usual enchanted forest where a princess falls in love with a wooden version of the prince, brought to life by a fairy so it can dance. Here are some elements of the plots of Stravinsky’s earlier “Firebird” and “Petrushka,” though none of his musical vein. The real prince is united with the princess at the end.

What we will get is the suite Bartok selected for concert use, capturing the most interesting orchestral passages and giving up on the silly plot. It is scored for a large orchestra, including the saxophone, as is Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

When Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Symphonic Dances in 1940 he was the last standing example of the great pianist-composers of the Romantic era. The work is symphonic in scale, and as the composer’s last work, consciously so. It is a summary of his life’s music, brooding and Slavic. Subtle self-quotations are woven in, and the last movement is a musical struggle between life (represented by an Orthodox chant used in the composer’s Vespers) and death. Death is symbolized by the “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”) chant from the Requiem mass, a theme that figured in other Rachmaninoff compositions, as well as those of Berlioz and Liszt.

There are three movements, a symphony in all but name, with a second movement waltz and slow-movement material integrated into the finale. Rachmaninoff hoped that Michel Fokine would choreograph it, but this never came to pass. Like the Bartok, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is best appreciated in the concert hall, though the element of dance is the thread that binds this wonderful program together.

William D. Gudger is an organist and retired professor of music.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to reflect the following clarification: While the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra may not have a primary conductor, John Kennedy is the festival’s resident conductor and director of orchestral activities.