Arts and humanities aiken symphony plays sibelius and more features aikenstandard.com gaz 67

Among many fond memories of growing up in suburban Philadelphia was taking the commuter train to center city to attend concerts at the venerable Academy of Music, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra until 2001. During my formative years, the orchestra, one of America’s “Big Five,” was conducted by the inimitable Eugene Ormandy, whose association with that musical organization spanned an astonishing 44 years.

This was a time when people bought record albums; and although those pieces of vinyl have recently made a comeback of sorts among music lovers, it is no longer easy to find the original LP versions of classic performances. One exception is Ormandy’s recording of the First Symphony of Jan Sibelius, whose association with the Finnish composer was especially close in the 1950s. The recording has been remastered on CD, but I remember holding in my hands the original LP record, whose cover featured a photo of Ormandy and Sibelius taken when the two met at the composer’s home in 1955.

All of this information serves as preface to the topic of this week’s column, the final offering of the Aiken Symphony Orchestra in their 2017-2018 concert season. The anticipated highlight of that May 12 program is the one and only concerto by Sibelius, his violin concerto of 1904/1905. The composer loved the violin – it was an instrument that he himself studied and mastered – so one can imagine the care he lavished on this individual work.

Noted for its technical demands, particularly in the third and final movement, the Sibelius concerto should provide a suitable showcase for the talents of soloist Sandy Cameron, a crossover artist equally at home with jazz and pop as well as classical music. Noted almost as much for her stage choreography as for her instrumental skills – she admits that she cannot stand still when the music moves her – Cameron has been called a “showstopper”; and the Sibelius concerto will certainly give her plenty of opportunity to show off her virtuosity, both musical and dramatic.

The other two works that Maestro Donald Portnoy has chosen to include in the upcoming concert are George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” and Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” They both fit into the category of “tone poem,” a piece of symphonic music that tells a story or expresses a particular mood. In other words, the tone poem makes reference to extra-musical subject matter.

In the case of his “Cuban Overture,” Gershwin attempts to recreate a festival atmosphere, a musical celebration not unlike one that he himself may have experienced during a trip to Havana in 1932. During that two-week holiday, he heard many traditional Cuban melodies and met the noted Cuban composer Ignacio Pineiro; the overture that he composed upon his return home was inspired by some of those traditional tunes and dance rhythms as well as pieces written by Pineiro. Originally entitled “Rumba,” the work also showcases popular Cuban percussion instruments: the bongo, the claves (two solid cylindrical rods played by striking one on the other), the gourd and the maracas.

Unlike the “Cuban Overture,” which is played as a single, unified piece, the popular “Pines of Rome” was conceived by Respighi in four parts, each corresponding to a particular setting at a specific time of day. The first movement conjures up an image of children playing in the gardens of the Villa Borghese, famous now as a repository of works by Caravaggio and Bernini; the second, dirge-like movement may very well serve as music by which to explore the catacombs; the third movement is suitable for a night visit to the Janiculum, the hill that once featured the Temple of Janus; and the final movement is meant to recall Roman soldiers making a triumphal return to the city along the Appian Way after a military victory in a far-off land.