Concerts Feature Romantic Composers’ Juicy Operatic Repertoire
MONTROSE – “Whew! I need a cigarette!” one cellist exclaimed out loud after a run-through of the Intermezzo to Act II of Puccini’s opera Manon Lascau, at a Valley Symphony Orchestra rehearsal last Thursday. The shamelessly passionate piece describes Manon’s journey into exile, and really puts the cello section through its paces.
But the cellists aren’t the only ones feeling slightly steamy in the run-up to this weekend’s VSO winter concert, “Makin’ Overtures – Great Opera Overtures and More,” to be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday Feb. 25 at the Delta County Center for the Performing Arts, and again at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26 at the Montrose Pavilion.
The whole 40-to-50-member strong community orchestra, which draws on volunteer talent from Grand Junction to Ouray to the North Fork Valley and beyond, has been feeling the heat as it prepares a juicy repertoire of mostly operatic music from the Romantic Period.
“You have to remember that opera is generally about sex and violence,” explained VSO director Mike Kern matter-of-factly. And opera from the Romantics? Well, let’s just say that puts a little extra spice in the salsa.
Orchestra members have been driving through dark snowy nights for weekly rehearsals in Delta since early January, and practicing for hours on end to master the difficult material, which features crowd-pleasing favorites like Rossini’s Barber of Seville (think Bugs Bunny making fruit salad on Elmer Fudd’s head) and the William Tell Overture (Theme of the Lone Ranger), Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida (stand by, elephants!), and Georges Bizet’s Carmen Suite, with its sensual tango-esque Habenera and magnificent Les Toreadors.
“This is the first time that I have programmed a complete concert from the Romantic Period,” noted Kern, who has directed the VSO for 19 years. “Romantic music tends to be very demanding and requires that the music be approached with passion and feeling. We have had to work really hard to prepare this presentation, and hope that our audience feels some of the passion of these great examples of the Romantic Period in music.”
Aside from the whole sex and violence thing, and the visions of Looney Tunes cartoons that may well prance unbidden through your head when you hear the stuff, the music featured at this weekend’s VSO concerts is a lesson in what it meant to be a composer during the Romantic Period.
Coming on the heels of the Classical Period, during which the great composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were more or less kept men who spent their lives of in the service of aristocracy (or in the case of Beethoven, composing for aristocratic patrons), the music of the volatile Romantic Period in the 1800s was eclipsed by the social and political realities of the time – the French and American Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars.
“Aristocrats did not have as much money, and could not afford to have their own musicians and composers anymore,” Kern explained. “When you get to the Romantic era, musicians were starving half the time ... like today.”
Instead of writing because they had an assignment due, Romantic composers approached their work as “more of a pouring out of the inner soul,” Kern said. “It’s very autobiographical.”
Felix Mendelssohn's The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) Overture, completed in 1830, is a perfect example of this new approach. Mendelssohn was inspired to write the piece while visiting Fingal’s Cave, a sea cave on a wild island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland which said to be a natural cathedral. The cave's Gaelic name, Uamh-Binn, means “cave of melody.”
In his piece, Mendelssohn develops a swelling and sighing, tempestuous yet lyrical theme that is “the story of the waves crashing against the rocks in the cave,” Kern said. Though labelled as an overture, it is not attached to an opera, and is intended to stand alone as a complete work.
Like Dvorák’s Carnival Overture, which is also part of this weekend’s concert line-up, Fingal’s Cave follows the Sonata Form, a balanced structure which travels from an opening statement to a place of heightened tension, and then into resolution with the return to the original theme. These two pieces offer the longest, most complex and technically difficult material of the VSO’s winter concert fare.
VSO musicians represent a real slice of life from the Western Slope community. “We’ve got teens to 90-year-olds,” Kern said. Nonogenarian violist Marian Harvat from Olathe has been there since the beginning, when the VSO got its start in the North Fork Valley 41 years ago. Also among the musicians’ ranks are a pediatrician who is pregnant with twins, a school janitor, a court clerk, a chiropractor, an insurance salesman, a couple of retired high school band directors, and plenty of other busy, professional people and retirees who simply crave music in their lives.
A handful of professionally trained musicians, including concert mistress Debra TenNapel, add sparkle and virtuosity to the mix.
Kern has seen the orchestra grow in scope and talent over the years. “It started as a group of people who just wanted to get together and play,” he said. “It’s a much better orchestra than it used to be. We’re putting on some good concerts. It used to be, we were lucky if we had one French horn player, and there were times when we had one cello and one or two violas and no string bass player. We had a tuba player that played the double bass part.”
Now, under the umbrella of the Valley Symphony Association which also includes a chorus and youth orchestra, the VSO puts on five concerts per year, filling the valley with splendid music and at times, passion.
Tickets for this weekend’s concerts are available online at valleysymphony.net or at the door, and cost $15/adults, $10/seniors 65 and up, and $5/students 17 and under.