In a short poem extolling the beauty of women, 19th-century Romantic poet John Keats asked the memorable question, “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?” If he were alive today and living in Aiken, he might very well find his answer in next Friday’s concert by the Symphony Orchestra Augusta.
For its April 26 concert at USCA’s Etherredge Center, the last offering in the orchestra’s annual three-concert season in Aiken, the SOA will be performing three works that herald nature’s awakening and its consequent influence on the creative imagination.
For the first piece in the program, a 16-minute composition that serves as an overture of sorts, Maestro Shizuo Kuwahara has selected a work by one of America’s most important female composers of our time, Joan Tower. Inspired by the giant redwood tree, Tower attempts in this tone poem to describe in music the giant redwood tree from its massive trunk to its needles. The piece is divided into three continuous movements, which replicate, to some extent, how the trunk rooted to the soil is counterbalanced by the tree’s leafy canopy.
The first half of the program concludes with a keyboard masterwork by Maurice Ravel. One of the composer’s last compositions, the “Piano Concerto in G major” was written as a personal vehicle for Ravel himself – he had intended to play the piano at the premiere in 1932 – but by that time, the brain disease that was to incapacitate him for the last six years of his life precluded any such involvement.
For the Aiken performance, French pianist Pascal Godart will take center stage. Since 1996, when he won first place in an international piano competition in Athens, Godart has toured the world and made a number of recordings for solo piano and with orchestra. The Ravel concerto is one of his favorites.
The work itself is a product of Ravel’s acquaintance with American music, especially the jazz idiom. He had toured this country for four months in 1928, playing his own compositions for the piano; and it is known that he met George Gershwin, who introduced Ravel to some of the jazz clubs in Harlem, and that he visited jazz venues in New Orleans as well.
One of two piano concertos by Ravel – the other one for left hand only was a commission by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had last his right arm in World War I – the “Concerto in G Major” is divided into three movements. The first is marked by sharp shifts in mood, from dreamy, melodic, blues-influenced moments to more brassy, dissonant passages; the second has been described as a “rhythmically dislocated waltz”; the third and final movement returns to the more frenetic tempo of the first.
After the intermission, the orchestra returns to the stage to perform a work by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, whose name is synonymous with the symphonic form, particularly in its late Romantic incarnation. For the April 26th concert, Maestro Kuwahara has chosen the fifth of Sibelius’s seven symphonies.
Oddly enough, the “Symphony No. 5” was composed by Sibelius as a birthday gift to himself. Because he was by that time in his life considered a national treasure, the Finnish government commissioned him to write the piece in honor of his own 50th birthday in 1915. Sibelius tinkered with the work for four more years, and the current version was premiered in 1919.
The work, divided into three movements, has all the rich melodic invention that audiences have come to expect from Sibelius. In the third movement, for example, there is a motif played by the horns that was presumably inspired by the vocalizing of swans – the composer himself rhapsodized about having once witnessed 16 of the birds taking simultaneous flight – and this “swan call” passage has subsequently been borrowed often in popular music.
For more information on this last concert in the SOA 2012-2013 Aiken season, visit the orchestra on the web at www.aikensymphonyguild.org. For ticket availability, call the Etherredge Center Box Office, Monday through Friday, at 803-641-3305. Adult admission is $40; children and students can enjoy the concert for only $7.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack currently holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” will be featured at the South Carolina Book Festival in Columbia, May 17-19.