When conductor Scott Speck raises his baton on Sept. 24, it will open Mobile Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-2017 season with a show that is distinctly American, in both tone and background.
“This is a program of immigrant families. Sergei Rachmaninoff emigrated from Russia. George Gershwin was the son of Russian immigrants. Erich Korngold was a great Austrian composer who just happened to be Jewish in the 1930s, so Europe’s loss was our gain,” Speck said.
Music Director Speck earmarked the last of those composers for first impact. Korngold’s overture for the 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler film “The Sea Hawk” carries the requisite attitude.
“The beginning has an upward, quick, very confident, braggadocious kind of sweep that says ‘here I am,’ exclamation point. We thought it appropriate to be the first piece of the first concert of our new season. ‘Here we are,’” Speck said.
Korngold was set for a heady career at the concert podium back in Austria as a throwback to the faded Romantic period. About the time Hollywood fell in love with his abilities, the Nazis annexed Austria and his family managed to escape.
“We always thought ourselves Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish,” Korngold said. The twist of fate worked, though.
“It was people like him as well as [Max] Steiner who did ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘King Kong’ and Franz Waxman who did ‘Bride of Frankenstein.’ They created the early 20th century American film score style which was like late Romantic German music, full of huge brass fanfares,” Speck said.
Gershwin’s seminal work “Rhapsody in Blue” follows the opener. It appeared at a time American composition and music more fully bloomed, when classical composers forged a style for the culture and jazz emerged as an entirely new musical form indigenous to the nation.
Though classically trained, Gershwin worked as a Tin Pan Alley composer of popular music and became adept at synthesizing all the sounds he encountered. That’s why he was challenged by bandleader Paul Whiteman with creating a new piece for a 1924 concert at Aeolian Hall.
Gershwin delayed work until two weeks before deadline, when the rhythmic pattern of a train played muse to his inspiration. The resulting piece was a landmark moment in American culture, an announcement to the world about America’s path and position in the 20th century.
The result is rife with jazz allusions. Its voicings, rhythmic tinges and improvisatory flourishes are a direct result of Gershwin’s broad ear.
“We’re trying to recreate some of the improvisatory spirit although we’re not actually changing the music. One way is by bringing in pianist Charlie Albright, who is an improv master able to capture that same feel through playing the same notes,” Speck said.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 fills the last section of the concert. Written after he relocated to Dresden to concentrate on composing rather than performance, the work bolstered his self-confidence.
Only a decade later, Rachmaninoff would flee to America on the heels of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Though his new life was comfortable, he never accepted the change.
“Rachmaninoff never lost his Russian soul. Everything he writes is very close to two things: Russian folk songs and the Russian Orthodox church. You’ll have long, snaking melodies where every note is just one step away from the one next to it with few leaps. It’s all connected and definitely a riff on Russian Orthodox chants, almost like Gregorian chants,” Speck said.
The conductor said he heard echoes of Rachmaninoff when he attended church services during a visit to Russia. He also heard the composer in the atmosphere outside the place of worship.
“He also tried to make the music sound like church bells. When the brass comes in all at once you can imagine it being like church bells on Red Square,” Speck said.
Then there’s the recognizable clarinet solo in the third movement “borrowed” by pop musician Eric Carmen for his 1976 hit “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.” It was the second appropriation by Carmen — he used a portion of the Russian master’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for his 1975 hit “All By Myself” — and earned him legal notice from the Rachmaninoff estate.
The Sept. 24 show starts at 7:30 p.m. The Sunday, Sept. 25 matinee begins at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range $15-$75 and can be acquired at mobilesyphony.org.
“We have more blockbusters per square inch in this season than any other we’ve had. With the Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, the 1812 Overture, Beethoven’s Ninth and Dvorak’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ it’s pretty amazing. They’re all super-famous for a reason because they’re really, truly great monuments of classical music,” Speck said.