Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Big Three at Governor's Academy

Symphony by the Sea pulls into The Governor's Academy on Sunday for its second performance of the season, with a program of Romantic works by the Big Three of 19th-20th-century England — Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar. But the interesting thing about "Fantasia: Gems from the British Isles" is not the program itself, as impressive as it is, but how it demonstrates the versatility of the 30-piece orchestra, which practically reinvents itself for every piece. Britten's "Simple Symphony, Op. 4," as the name implies, is a pretty straightforward piece, but in Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
," the orchestra incorporates a separate string quartet. And in Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47," the quartet remains, but the orchestra will split in two pieces, with the smaller part, roughly 10 players, echoing and adding detail to the first. The program also includes Gerald 
Finzi's "Interlude for Oboe and Strings, Op. 21," with its uncommon instrumentation, reaching back to the Baroque, despite its Romantic pedigree, and a piece perhaps destined to be lost in the long musical shadows of his contemporaries — or, as Symphony by the Sea music director Donald Palma puts it, "exquisite, unique and unknown, which, paired with the three big names, seemed like the right piece" for the program.

Jonathan Knox, principal oboist with Symphony by the Sea since 1985, is the soloist for the Finzi. Conspiro Quartet, which comes out of New England Conservatory, where Palma is a faculty member, will perform with the orchestra in the Williams and Elgar. The man with the baton, a native New Yorker, started out on double bass and has built a serious resume: Juilliard School of Music, Leopold Stokowski's American Symphony Orchestra at 20, Los Angeles Philharmonic at 24. In addition to his regular duties at New England Conservatory and Symphony by the Sea, he is also a faculty member at the Yale School of Music and a founder and regular performer with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. "Yeah," he says, "I'm pretty busy." Palma was named Symphony by the Sea conductor in 2008, replacing Jonathan McPhee at the podium. He had been special guest conductor for Symphony by the Sea six years ago, leading a program that included Mozart's "In Nomine Domini" and Tchaikovsky's "Rococo Variations," so making the new gig was a no-stress event. "I felt very much wanted," he says. "I didn't feel nervous taking over, I didn't feel like I had to prove anything. It was like coming back to a friendly family. "

The work bridges the 19th and 20th centuries. It's late Romantic and is "very accessible, very lovely," says Palma, but the musical touchstones come from Central Europe, not England. (Think Dvorak, Suk, Martinu). Then as now "someone writes a good piece and everyone jumps on the bandwagon," says Palma. "Music is not made in a vacuum. Influences come from all over the place. Of course, it was a much slower assimilation. You couldn't just pop onto YouTube and see what was happening. England really took off with it. They made it very personal ... with its own kind of sounds. It's very British (and) evocative of all things English."

UST THE FACTS, MAN: Symphony by the Sea will perform "Fantasia: Gems from the British Isles," at 8 p.m. Jan. 23 at First Universalist Church, 211 Bridge St., Salem, and at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 24 at The Governor's Academy's Performing Arts Center, Center Street, Byfield. The program will include Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
," Edward Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47;" Gerald 
Finzi's "Interlude for Oboe and Strings, Op. 21
," featuring Jonathan Knox on oboe; and 
Benjamin Britten's "Simple Symphony, Op. 4." A pre-concert talk with conductor Donald Palma will begin at 7:15 p.m. in Salem and at 2:45 p.m. in Byfield. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at the door or on the symphony's web.

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