Since 1986, the Aiken Symphony Guild has made it possible for the Symphony Orchestra Augusta (SOA) to extend its musical outreach to counties on the South Carolina side of the river. Most notable are the Guild’s Youth Concert Series, which introduces hundreds of fifth-graders in Aiken and Edgefield Counties to the glories of orchestral music each year, and the SOA in Aiken Concert Series, which features three musical performances for the general public.
The 2013-2014 SOA in Aiken Concert Series has recently been announced, and this year’s schedule offers a new twist. Instead of the traditional holiday concert in December, the orchestra will be hosting a chamber concert in January. The rest of the calendar, however, should be familiar to all current season ticket holders.
The Aiken season begins Nov. 9 with the customary “Fall Classic.” This one will feature harpist Vonda Darr in two compositions written expressly for her chosen instrument: Handel’s “Harp Concerto No. 6” and Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro for Harp.”
First performed in London in 1736, the harp concerto was initially embedded in Handel’s choral work “Alexander’s Feast or The Power of Music,” which recreates a banquet held by Alexander the Great in the conquered Persian city of Persepolis.
During the course of this feast, the great warrior is repeatedly affected by the shifting moods of the songs performed by Timotheus, who accompanies himself on his lyre. The 13-minute harp concerto originally followed one of those vocal parts, one stringed instrument presumably echoing another.
The Ravel piece was written in 1905 and first performed in Paris two years later. It was a commission from the Erard Company for the purpose of showcasing the recent manufacture of its new harp with an innovative double-action pedal. Constructed in two movements played without a break, the “Introduction and Allegro” was intended to challenge the musical resources of both the instrument and the player; Darr has her work cut out for her.
The rest of the concert features another work by Handel: “Concerto Grosso in A Minor.” This is just one of a set of 12 “grosso” or “grand” concertos composed by Handel, all considered among the best of baroque musical compositions. Like the harp concerto, these works were intended for performance during intervals in the composer’s larger vocal works, particularly his great oratorios. “Number 4” is divided into four movements; the first and third, both slow, are often touted as containing some of Handel’s most lovely melodies. The fourth and last movement is a reworking of a soprano aria in his opera “Imeneo.”
The “Fall Classic” concludes with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98,” composed in 1792 in London. According to the composer’s biographers, this was the first piece written by Haydn after learning of the death of his friend Mozart. The first movement is often regarded as his homage to Mozart, containing as it does echoes of the latter’s “Jupiter Symphony.”
Replacing the traditional holiday pops concert is the new “Winter Classic,” which highlights this year the artistry of the Manhattan Piano Trio: Wayne Lee, violin; Dmitry Kouzov, cello; and Milana Streseva, piano. This prize-winning chamber group will performs for an Aiken audience on Jan. 10.
The 2013-14 season concludes with the “Spring Classic” on May 3. For this concert, Maestro Shizuo Kuwahara has selected two blockbuster works: Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique).”
Prokofiev was at the keyboard for the premiere of his third and best-known piano concerto in Chicago in 1921; he later recorded the piece in 1932 at the Abbey Road Studios in London. This particular concerto has long been considered one of the most virtuosic showpieces for any keyboard artist. Both Martha Argerich and Evgeny Kissin won Grammys for their recordings of the work. For the Aiken performance, Canadian pianist Ryo Yanagatani will be the soloist.
The second half of the program will feature Tchaikovsky’s sixth and final symphony. In fact, the composer himself conducted the orchestra at the symphony’s premiere, just nine days before his death. The Russian title of the work “Pathetique” means “passionate” or “emotional”; indeed, the work is full of highs and lows – some commentators argue that Tchaikovsky intended the work to suggest, in general terms, the fickleness of fate; others think that it may mirror his tormented attraction to his nephew and heir Vladimir Davydov to whom he dedicated the symphony.
The work is often associated with the abiding controversy surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death. The old explanation credits his falling victim to cholera after drinking unboiled water; contemporary theorists, however, contend that he may have committed suicide out of fear that his identity as a gay man was about to be revealed. Whatever the cause, his last symphony remains a testament to the rich melodic invention of one of the world’s most popular composers.
Subscription tickets are $116 per person; adult admission for a single concert is $45. All tickets can be ordered by going online at www.aikensymphonyguild.org or calling the office of the Symphony Orchestra Augusta at 706-826-4750 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The fall and spring concerts will be held at USCA’s Etherredge Center; the winter concert will be at First Presbyterian Church on Barnwell Avenue in Aiken.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book entitled “A Shared Voice,” co-edited with Andrew Geyer, is scheduled to be published by Lamar University Press this month.