“Fantastique Philharmonic" — Themes and Variations




George Walker
(1922 - )

In 2005 Las Vegas turned 100 years old!  Our city has been celebrating all year, and amidst the hoopla, some special pieces of music were commissioned for performance by the Las Vegas Philharmonic.  These works are being premiered throughout the 2005-2006 season, adding to the world-class music the Phil has been performing for years.

Tonight’s premiered piece was named, appropriately, “Hoopla (A Touch of Glee).”  Its composer, George Walker, explained in the program notes that “The inclusion of ‘A Touch of Glee’ in the title of the work is meant to suggest that the music is not hysterically rambunctious.”  He wasn’t kidding: the tone, while stylish and quite pretty, was surprisingly calm.  Ever been on the Strip on a Saturday night?  It’s hysterically rambunctious.  Maybe Mr. Walker was writing about the Fremont Street Experience.



Aram Khachaturian 
(1903-1978)


Just when we were thinking a hundred years was a long time, guest soloist Jennifer Frautschi took the stage carrying a 1722 Stradivarius.  The occasion was Aram Khachaturian’s Concerto For Violin and Orchestra.  The opening movement featured furious runs of 1/32 notes, showing off Frautschi’s agility and hinting at another of Khachaturian’s works, the truly hysterical “Saber Dance.”  This concerto, written in the traditional three-movement style, smoothly blended the solo parts with the orchestral backing.  In fact, the andante second movement seemed to contain no solos at all as it paraded somberly along.  The third movement brought back the energy, but with a pleasant 3/4 tempo.  Call it Two Touches of Glee.




Hector Berlioz
(1803-1869)


“It is often said that Hector Berlioz was far, far ahead of his time,” writes Associate Conductor Dr. Richard McGee.  The composer’s most significant work, Symphonie Fantastique, was created 150 years before the “Just Say No” campaign.  “Unabashedly programmatic,” the symphony depicts five bizarre dreams experienced by a fictitious musician when he tries to kill himself with an opium overdose after being rejected by a woman.  Berlioz had in fact fallen for an actress he saw playing Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet before writing this symphony.  Did he himself also experiment with drugs?  Judging by his hair, I’d just say yes.

The first movement, “Passions,” eases us into the fantasy with soft, dreamlike passages that rise and fall, accelerate and then relax.  The object of his love (and the reason for his despair) appears as a musical phrase that returns in varying forms throughout the symphony as an idée fixe, or fixed idea.  The second movement, “A Ball,” opens with a sense of expectancy before settling into a lively but composed waltz.  In the symphony’s context, the very pleasantness somehow hints at something darker to come.






Here it comes.  The third movement depicts “A Scene in the Countryside” that soothes the despondent musician’s heart — for a while.  The music opens with a gorgeous English horn solo that is surprisingly mournful — no happy Hungarian peasant dances in this countryside.  The ending, with the horn returning above soft tympanis, gives a sense of lost love, fading hope, and terrible foreboding.

For several years after the French Revolution, the guillotine was known as “the national razor” because it shaved so many necks.  In the fourth movement, the drugged musician dreams he has murdered his beloved, and “March to the Scaffold” depicts the procession to his execution.  Lost hope is now replaced by a sense of lost sanity, and “Dream of a Sabbath Night” completes the symphony with a host of witches and monsters dancing and shouting at the musician’s macabre funeral.  The Phil’s lead clarinetist performed his solo part marvelously, portraying with happy abandon the demons’ dancing — and a musician gone off the deep end.  I guess opium and Shakespeare will do that to you.

Click for Vegas Blog from Jetsetters MagazineBerlioz himself died (of old age) around the time the Romantic and Impressionistic styles were coming to France.  They in turn paved the way for the highly picturesque music of the twentieth century.  However, in a world still accustomed to Bach and Mozart, Symphonie Fantastique must have seemed quite eccentric.

The Las Vegas Philharmonic will perform works from Bernstein, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and other eccentric geniuses as the season of celebration continues in our city of eternal hoopla.

By Rob LaGrone, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Entertainment Editor.

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