FSO Nutcracker

The Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra. Courtesy photo

Following an enthusiastically received program of contemporary Broadway hits last month, the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra returns to a more customary program Friday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Ardrey Auditorium. 

Friday’s lineup of 20th-century orchestral works includes transcriptions of two pieces originally written for keyboard and an infrequently heard "Concerto for Saxophone" by Alexander Glazunov. It concludes with what was originally a ballet score written in the 1940s by the important 20th-century composer Paul Hindemith.

One of the more significant English composers of the 20th century, Edward Elgar often transcribed or arranged the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach during his tenure as organist at St. George’s Church in Worcester. An agreement with his contemporary Richard Strauss in 1920 to orchestrate Bach’s "Fantasia & Fugue in C minor" was never honored by the Austrian composer, and Elgar went on to complete the transcription in 1921. Elgar said he “wanted to show how gorgeous and great and brilliant Bach would have made it sound if he had our means” (a typically 19th-century approach to music of an earlier era).

Bach’s "Fantasia & Fugue" is an example of the secular works he wrote for his own use as an accomplished organist, prior to his subsequent long career in the service of the Lutheran church and his voluminous output of liturgical works. Bach often served as a consultant for new instruments in his region of Germany, and he may have used this piece to demonstrate the sonic and tonal characteristics of some of those instruments. It was probably written as a “ceremonial” piece in about 1716 during his tenure as a “court organist” in Cöthen and Weimar.

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Russian composer Alexander Glazunov was one of those many composers whose careers bridged the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was considered to be old-fashioned by his younger compatriots Shostakovich and Prokofiev. At the urging of a German saxophonist of his acquaintance, Glazunov eventually honored that request for a concerto for the instrument that was not invented until the middle of 19th century but which now has an important role in both classical and jazz genres. “Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings” was written in 1934, near the end of the composer’s life. 

The Flagstaff Symphony has maintained a long tradition of honoring the talents of members of the Northern Arizona University music faculty, and on Friday we will hear soloist John Bergeron, professor of saxophone at the university. It's a rare opportunity to hear a work for this instrument cast in a romantic vein and performed in a relatively uncommon symphonic role.

French impressionist composer Claude Debussy originally wrote his “Petite Suite” for piano four hands, to be accessible to “skilled amateurs.” A pastiche of characteristically French dance forms, the piece is now best known in its orchestra transcription by a French composer, organist, teacher and writer named Paul-Henri Büsser. The Debussy work is a substitution for the originally programmed “Concerto for Four Horns” by another obscure composer Carl Henrich Hübler. The Argentinian Bayres Horn Quartet that was scheduled to perform that work apparently found more lucrative work elsewhere and cancelled their Flagstaff appearance. 

Concluding Friday’s lineup of 20th-century music, Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” will be a lively conclusion to the evening’s musical fare. Hindemith began his career in Germany but later became an American citizen and made numerous contributions to 20th-century music as both a composer and academic. Utilizing themes by the early 19th-century master Weber, the “Metamorphosis” was originally commissioned by the choreographer Massine, a collaboration that did not materialize and is based upon some piano duets and operatic themes by Weber. Musicologist and commentator Jan Swafford describes the piece as “the liveliest of Hindemith’s orchestral works. The four movements are more or less a symphony, complete with jazzy, percussive scherzo and bracingly Hollywood-vulgar march.”

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