The lofty themes of human destiny, anticipation of an ideal afterlife, and striving for the goal of universal brotherhood are combined to permeate the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra’s season finale on Friday, April 20.
Ludwig von Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony and Johannes Brahms’ introspective “Song of Destiny,” each a 19th-century masterpiece, will feature the full orchestra, four soloists representing the fine voice faculty at Northern Arizona University, and the combined choral forces of the Master Chorale of Flagstaff and NAU’s Shrine of the Ages Choir.
Concluding his first year as musical director of the FSO, conductor Charles Latshaw leads the instrumental, choral and solo vocal forces in the Beethoven work, a landmark composition which he considers to be “one of the greatest symphonies ever written.” Edith Copley, NAU’s director of choral studies, will be on the podium to direct the Brahms work for choir and orchestra, which introduces the evening’s challenging and stimulating repertoire.
A sense of fatalism characterized the life and career of Johannes Brahms, whose music exemplified a unique combination of respect for an earlier heritage and forward-looking attributes of 19th century classical music. His outlook on life during that frequently tumultuous period in history found expression in three important compositions with liturgical and poetic settings. Each make use of both instrumental and vocal elements in his “German Requiem,” the “Alto Rhapsody,” a setting of a Goethe poem for Contralto and Male Chorus, and the “Song of Destiny,” written in 1871. The latter was inspired by a poem of Friedrich Holderlin. Brahms’ setting is in two contrasting parts, the first representing “the blessed sprits” who enjoy a heavenly reward and existence and the second depicting “mortal man, the plaything of a blind destiny that flings him, in his helplessness, upon the rocks and finally into the abyss of the unknown.” Annotator David Johnson provided that description in liner notes to a recording of “Song of Destiny” by the legendary conductor Bruno Walter in 1963. So as not to conclude on such a morbid note, Brahms designed an A-B-A construction for the piece, returning to the opening theme of hopefulness, suggesting that “mankind may at last be free of implacable fate and share in the peace of the immortals.”
Considered to be one of the greatest musical conceptions of all time, Beethoven’s final symphony was first performed on May 7, 1824, and met with a mixed reception. Excoriated by many critics, the symphony met with a more a favorable reaction when performed in Vienna, a musical environment perhaps more accustomed to the always innovative and groundbreaking methods of the composer. Beethoven considered his later works to be intended “for a later age,” and this remarkable work is certainly no exception. The composer had considered a musical setting for Friedrich von Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” as early as 1792 and ultimately decided upon its inclusion in the last section of what would also be his final symphonic work. Two important ideas are extracted from the poem of Schiller, the theme of universal brotherhood and the relationship of that ideal to a loving God in heaven.
In addition to chorus, the Ninth Symphony calls for four solo vocalists. Recognizing the excellent voice faculty at Northern Arizona University, we will hear soprano Christine Graham, mezzo-soprano Judith Cloud, tenor Ricardo Pereira and bass Robert Allen Saunders.
As a bonus prior to Friday’s concert, the FSO is offering a free showing of the award-winning film “Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony” at the Orpheum Theater, Thursday, April 19. The screening begins at 6:15 p.m. with doors opening at 5:30 p.m. This family friendly event will appeal to all ages and is an excellent introduction to music that will be heard at Friday evening’s concert.
Looking ahead to its 2018-2019 season, the Flagstaff Symphony and Director Latshaw have announced a diverse program for the 69th year of the orchestra’s engagement in the musical and artistic life of the Flagstaff community. Opening the season Sept. 28 will be a tribute to American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) whose centennial is being universally celebrated this year. Works by Bernstein (excerpts from “Candide” and “West Side Story”) bracket a contemporary piano concerto with a visiting guest pianist and a piece by an important living composer, Mason Bates. In October the orchestra’s strings are featured in works by Vivaldi and Vaughan-Williams and an opportunity will be offered for young local string players to play side-by-side with symphony members. The program concludes with Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” considered by that composer to be possibly his finest work. The always popular and sold-out “Nutcracker” ballet with local dancers takes its usual pre-Christmas slot on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. Beginning the new year, a “Broadway by Request” show features selections resulting from an audience questionnaire. A concerto for saxophone by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov is paired with music of Bach, Respighi and Hindemith on February’s program. In March, the traditional combined FSO and Master Chorale/Shrine Choir linkup highlights the beautiful “Lux Aeterna” by the dean of American choral composers Morton Lauridsen. Brahms’ Third Symphony concludes that program. In the final program of the season, April 26, 2019, the FSO Masterworks series spotlights the orchestra’s brass section in two contemporary works for brass ensemble and a suite by Dmitri Shostakovich featuring both woodwind and brass instruments.