Sunday, January 26, 2014

Classical Afternoon with the Prometheus Symphony Orchestra

My wife just sent me an article about the decline in interest in Classical music. That may well be so, but that wasn't what I saw in Oakland, California today, when I attended a packed church to hear three renowned classical pieces.

I play in an orchestra myself, so I like to go hear this music performed whenever I can. I have several friends in the Prometheus Symphony Orchestra in Oakland, so when I found myself free today, off I went.

The orchestra is celebrating its 49th season, which is a remarkable accomplishment. Working through Merritt College, a local community college, it has grown and matured over the years to an ensemble of notable power and capability. Although the group rehearses at the college, performances are at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in the scenic part of the city of Oakland, right by Lake Merritt.

I drove along Grand Avenue and located the church. The problem, of course, was parking, but with a few minutes to spare, I found a good spot two blocks away. I arrived just in time to walk through the large wooden doors and receive my nicely-designed and information-packed program.

As a bassist, I chose to sit where I could watch my fellows, selecting a spot on a hard wooden pew on the right side, a few rows back from the musicians. As the orchestra members assembled, I noted that the men were dressed in tuxedos, the women in black dresses. It was a formal occasion! Naturally, the audience was more casually attired, but there was the right sense of decorum but friendly excitement.

Classical music is better with some explanation, and we got an excellent preparation to hear each piece from Eric Hansen, the conductor and music director since 1997. Like Leonard Bernstein used to do, Hansen, with humor and insight, told us about the composers and the pieces we were about to hear.

Hansen's talk really helped with the first selection, Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question. Ives, a greatly talented man who composed while working full-time in the insurance industry, was not well understood in his time, but has since become a significant figure in 20th-Century music. The Unanswered Question combines a very slow and subtle string part over which a Q and A takes place between solo trumpet and a group of woodwinds. In fact, the two parts are so different that Hansen brought in a second conductor to keep the strings moving slowly while the winds did their thing. It worked for the audience, who seemed to appreciate the work.

Moving then to Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite, the music became a little more familiar. Copland, a major 20th-Century figure during his long lifetime (1900-90), wrote music that sounds like the cowboy west (Marlboro Country) and reminded me too of Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme. Copland borrowed Folk and Jazz motifs and worked with great artists and dancers of the time. In fact, the Appalachian Spring Suite is subtitled Ballet for Martha, for dancer/choreographer Martha Graham. The 1945 piece went over well, and then, off we went to chat with some of the musicians and other listeners outside. By the way, Copland received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for this score.

After a brownie and some surprisingly good coffee, I found my seat and got ready for the main course. Antonin Dvorak's Concerto for Cello in B Minor Op. 104 is a grand and familiar piece. We got the special treat of hearing 16-year-old soloist Ila Shon, who won the Felix Khuner Young Artist Concerto Competition. The award, now in its 25th year, is named for violinist Felix Khuner, who retired from the San Francisco Symphony and played with the Prometheus. His son, Jonathan, later conducted the orchestra. This award goes to two deserving young musicians each year. The other musician in this year's competition will play at the next Prometheus concert on March 23rd.

Shon, who has already studied cello for ten of her 16 years, was a sensation, playing with feeling and exquisite precision. The way she brought her bow up with a flourish after a particularly lively solo passage was dramatic, and she seemed to be having a good time.

All too soon, the concert ended, and people filed out of the handsome, clerestoried church onto the street. The sun was just going down on an unseasonably warm January Sunday afternoon, and all seemed right with the world.

Classical music is here to stay, and there's plenty of it out there, if you know where to look and how to listen. The Prometheus Symphony Orchestra, by presenting five free concerts throughout the year, is doing a lot to keep it accessible. Although the concerts are free, you are encouraged to donate, during intermission and anytime. I did, and it was a deal!

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