It’s not all dark and brooding music at the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra concert Sunday at the Pantages Theater. The show will start with the fast and furiously gleeful runs of Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmilla” overture, everyone’s favorite Cossack dance.
But after that, things get deeper: a concerto for double bass – the orchestra’s lowest-sounding instrument – by the man who wrote the scores for some of cinema’s darkest moments, and a symphony written in angry defiance of a terrifying regime. Add to that a conductor auditioning for the symphony’s artistic director post and you have a recipe for a fascinating concert.
“You can hear the cinematic influences in this piece,” said Chris Burns, the symphony’s principal bassist, who’s playing the solo work, Nino Rota’s “Divertimento Concertante” for double bass and orchestra.
Never heard of it or Rota? Ah, but you’ve heard of “The Godfather” probably. And “Romeo and Juliet,” maybe, or “81/2.” A child prodigy composer and conductor who had his first oratorio premiere at age 13, Rota (1911-1979) was an Italian composer who’s most famous for his 170-odd film scores, including the first two “Godfather” movies by Francis Ford Coppola, Franco Zeffirelli’s famous film versions of Shakespeare plays in the 1960s, and every film Federico Fellini made. To those scores, he brought a modern, neo-classical quirkiness of harmony along with subtle instrumentation and a highly refined sense of the dramatic, influenced also by a year of study in the United States in 1931 when Aaron Copland, Gershwin and Hollywood were in full swing.
But Rota also was a highly regarded classical composer, heading up the Bari Conservatory for two decades and writing 12 operas and 74 concert works.
One of these is the bass Divertimento that Burns is playing Sunday – and it’s unusual in many ways.
“There are a lot of bass concertos coming from people who are great bass players but maybe not great composers,” said Burns, a Florida native who studied and worked in Vienna and Houston before moving to the Northwest. “And there are concertos by lesser-known composers. We’re really fortunate to have a bass concerto written by a really good composer.”
Unlike many good composers, though, Rota knew the bass. A good friend of bass virtuoso Franco Petracchi, who revamped bass technique and also taught in Bari, the composer collaborated closely with Petracchi on the Divertimento in the early 1970s, rewriting passages so they fit the sometimes cumbersome physicality of the instrument.
Compared to, say, a violin, the double bass is extraordinarily challenging. Having evolved from the viol da gamba after the Renaissance, it’s tuned in fourths (not fifths like a violin) and so it covers fewer notes in the same space of fingerboard – meaning more work for the left hand. Having such a low sound (it’s one octave lower than the cello and often doubles that instrument’s lines underneath, hence the name) and thick strings to match, it’s harder to both achieve and project the sound. It’s also heavy (about 20 pounds) and taller than a person, so it requires some physical fitness just to get around it.
As if all that weren’t enough, the actual pitch and timbre of the sound is actually quite soft, and easily covered by other instruments in the orchestra.
All of this explains why the bass often isn’t heard as a solo instrument – and why Burns was sold on the Rota Divertimento: It’s well-written for the instrument, from the opening arpeggios to the jaunty little harmonic dialogue with the piccolo in the fourth movement.
“It fits well, it uses extended techniques but it’s still comfortable,” said Burns, who has been working on the piece for the last year. “It’s usually paired up with smaller groups, often high woodwinds; their timbre is different so it helps the bass be heard.”
The piece is very clearly the work of a film composer, with perky short notes, long sweeping melodies and quick changes of mood.
It’s a perfect match for Burns, who admits to a “Fellini phase” when he was in his teens; he said he has watched all the movies for which Rota won acclaim – and an Oscar. He’s even discovered, by researching interviews with Petracchi, that Rota’s sweeping melody in the epic third movement was originally a sketch for “Dr. Zhivago” (a film eventually scored by Maurice Jarre), describing sunlight breaking through a cold Siberian wasteland.
“It’s pretty cool,” Burns said.
The other main work on the TSO’s Sunday program, however, is much darker. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his fifth symphony in 1937 on Stalin’s orders, with directions to make it pro-Soviet and uplifting. The composer, who had fallen out of favor with the party for writing music too complex and pessimistic, had seen friends and relatives arrested and disappear. He composed himself out of it with a brilliantly clever piece with subtle irony and satire that went completely over the heads of the party, who loved it – while audiences heard plainly the suffering and protest they were themselves going through. The piece has been loved ever since. If the Rota is neo-Classicism with the black-and-white drama of film, then Shostakovich’s Fifth is neo-Classicism mocking its own simplicity with desperation.
Sarah Ioannides, the first of four candidates for the orchestra’s artistic director position who’ll be conducting Sunday’s concert as her audition for the job, chose the piece because she said it resonates deeply with her.
“I was introduced to it early on in my teenage years, and I found it inherently powerful and miserable,” she said. “But that was nothing to when I really started to explore what was going on in Russia at the time. Unless you’ve been there, you can never understand what it was like to go through such desperation. Every phrase has a double meaning: One moment feels unhappy but at the same time happy; it’s uplifting when nothing uplifting’s going on. It’s an immensely brilliant composition.”
For Ioannides, the Shostakovich – and her direction of it – also will determine whether she’ll be the conductor to lead the Tacoma Symphony into the future. A lot rests on the shoulders’ of the artistic director: the orchestra’s skill and identity, programming, community involvement, even healthy finances.
A decision will be made in December after each of the other three finalists – Paul Haas, Kevin Rhodes and Scott Speck – has performed.
Meanwhile, for Tacoma audiences it’s a chance to see a new conductor, and hear a new piece played by an instrument that isn’t often in the spotlight.
“I’m so excited,” said Burns. “It’s rare that the bass player gets to do the concerto.”
If You Go
What: Tacoma Symphony performs its “See Change I” concert with works by Glinka, Rota and Shostakovich. It will be under the direction of artistic director candidate Sarah Ioannides and feature soloist Chris Burns on double bass.
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
Information: 253-272-7264, 253-591-5894, tacomasymphony.org
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Vote on TSO conductor candidate Sarah Ioannides’ performance after Sunday’s concert on our Facebook page: facebook.com/ tacomaentertainment foodadventureRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts