Far Excursions with DPO at Schuster Center
By Pat Suarez
Photo: Composer Michael Kevin Daugherty’s “Bay of Pigs” will be featured during the Far Excursions program by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra on Nov. 1 and 2 at the Schuster Center
Consider what Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman has brought to his orchestra and its leaders and patrons: nearly two decades of dazzling programming, community service, education, humor and even costumes on Halloween. Perhaps his keenest asset, one vital to filling the seats in the Mead Theater, is Gittleman’s ability to select just the right combination of works that the DPO will perform and – more specifically – campaigning to the orchestra’s programming committee for lengthy, post-intermission pieces unfamiliar to committee members and, more importantly, unknown to most of the DPO’s audience. Over the years, in Memorial Hall and the Schuster Center, Gittleman’s bets have paid off: Britten’s “War Requiem,” Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 and Adams’ “Harmonielehre” were grand successes that helped continue the DPO’s reputation. Where Gittleman could have played it safe with a yet another Brahms’ First or Beethoven’s Sixth, he instead paid thousands of patrons the immeasurable favor of presenting unforgettable music new to them.
For the Far Excursions concerts on Friday, Nov. 1 and Saturday, Nov. 2, the maestro will revisit uncharted musical waters for one of the nineteenth century’s unjustly overlooked masterpieces, the Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, subtitled “Lobesang” (“Hymn of Praise”), composed by Felix Mendlessohn in 1840. It would be a fair assumption that a majority of those in attendance have not ever heard Mendelssohn’s choral wonder. But after this 70-minute work is done, the audience will wonder where this symphony has been all of their lives.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was just 13 years old and fresh in Mendelssohn’s mind when he decided to write a choral work to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing press. Since Gutenberg printed the Bible, what better source for soloists and choruses than passages from that book?
But Mendelssohn had a dilemma: Beethoven’s Ninth was clearly a symphony, but the 32-year-old composer wanted more than just a chorus and soloists in a last movement: He wanted a choral work, but not a cantata, and spent time tinkering with different forms, including an oratorio and a Beethoven’s Ninth homage.
To resolve his quandary, Mendelssohn opted for an opening sinfonia – an extended overture for orchestra – followed by a collection of shorter vocal and choral pieces. In its final form, “Lobesang” opened with a three-movement, 20-minute sinfonia, with the three movements played without inter-movement breaks, followed by nine movements featuring the human voice, running about 50 minutes.
Mendelssohn needed an attention-getter out of the gate, and he found it in the trombone section. He opened the work with a majestic theme in B-flat, which appeared throughout the symphony, for three trombones, including bass trombone. The full orchestra echoed that theme, bounced back to the trombones, then back to the orchestra until everybody settled on a very uplifting and propulsive allegro. There’s a pulse and glow to this sinfonia that draws one in, acting as an extended invitation to the vocal glory to follow.
Although numbered “2,” this was Mendlessohn’s fourth symphony, chronologically. He had visited faith and religion before, in his famous “Reformation” symphony 10 years before, and he would return to those themes in the final nine movements of “Lobesang.” For his texts, Mendelssohn used Psalms 150, 33, 145, 103, 107, 56, 40, 116, 7, 28, 31, 51 and 96, Ephesians 5:14, Isaiah 21:11-12 and 59:9, Romans 13:12, I Chronicles 16:8-10 and Psalm 150 in the finale.
Following the sinfonia, the choruses of “Lobesang” fill the theater with a driving, energetic Psalm 150 (“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord”). Audience members should listen for how Mendelssohn uses the organ to provide a room-shaking bedrock of low frequency to the musical swirl occurring above it. In fact, Mendlessohn’s orchestra produces a potent sound space with fairly modest forces given the work’s lofty ambition: just two each of the woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, tympani, strings and – that secret sonic weapon – organ.
Mendelssohn employs two sopranos and a tenor with the choruses in the vocal movements and maintains an unflagging air of momentum, optimism and joy – to hear it, especially live, is to believe that tomorrow will offer the sort of hope and promise that have fled from the lives of most people. For the finale, Mendelssohn revisits Psalm 150 and the solemn opening trombone theme, here expanded for a soul-soaring conclusion.
The DPO “Lobesang” could not come at a better time. Given the current level of angst, unrest and occasional outright hostility in our world, Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony offers a unique bright ray of light, an unflagging invitation to a higher spirit.
The program’s first half features Brahms’ legendary “Academic Festival Overture” and Michael Kevin Daugherty’s “Bay of Pigs,” a work for guitar and orchestra whose inspiration was 1961’s unsuccessful invasion of Cuba that still reverberates with Cuban-Americans more than a half-century later.
For the performance of “Bay of Pigs,” guitarist Manuel Barrueco will accompany the DPO. For the Mendelssohn symphony, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus is joined by Rebecca Davis, soprano, Sofia Selowsky, mezzo-soprano and Patrick O’Halloran, tenor.
The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra presents Far Excursions Friday, Nov. 1 and Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, 1 W. Second St. Tickets are $- $59. Special Take Note pre-show events at 7 p.m. both nights. Concert at 8 p.m. both nights. For more information, please visit daytonperformingarts.org.