Want to find evidence of our global times? There’s no better place than the Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.) when Arabian royalty, Russian genius and Asian prodigy all meet in an American port town.
Those elements blend for the Mobile Symphony Orchestra’s April 9 and 10 shows “1,001 Nights” under the baton of maestro Scott Speck. The short program carries a deceptive dynamic of emotion thanks to a pair of Russian titans.
Composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov found his calling in roundabout fashion. He was originally drawn to literature, then aimed for a military career but discovered his unshakable attraction to music late in adolescence.
His gift for composition arose quickly. Extensive international travel and voracious reading habits exposed him to a universe of influences, a cerebral pursuit that became his hallmark.
Eventually, Rimsky-Korsakov joined a revered quintet of St. Petersburg, Russia, composers who branched from the Romantic movement to seek a specifically Russian sound. Like many geniuses, he suffered backlash from his innovations, endured periodic creative droughts and witnessed a ban of his work following his nation’s bloody revolution.
A century later, Rimsky-Korsakov is considered one of Russia’s most enduring musical masters. His contemporary Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — perhaps the only Russian composer more famous — joins him on the MSO program.
Where’s the Arabian princess? She’s the namesake and subject of the Rimsky-Korsakov show-opening work, “Scheherazade.” Inspired by the collection of Middle Eastern and Indian tales used for the concert’s title, the suite reflects the storytelling bent of the composer.
The young wife of an easily dissatisfied sultan, Scheherazade realized if she could weave fanciful stories with nightly cliffhangers then it would forestall the decapitation her predecessors met. By the time she wound through sagas of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor and more, the sultan had fallen in love with her.
The composition’s four movements represent four of her tales — Sinbad, the Kalandar Prince, a young royals’ love story and Festival at Baghdad — and also mirror emotional dynamics between the storyteller and her husband. Its lone motifs are a surly bit for the sultan and a solo violin for the worried young wife.
What about the Asian prodigy? Well, that’s acclaimed featured guest performer for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Conrad Tao.
The pianist’s parents, engineer Sam Tao and research scientist Mingfang Ting, provide a typical American tale. A pair of Princeton grads from China, they settled in Urbana, Illinois, before Conrad was born in 1994.
Conrad Tao was piecing together songs on the piano at 18 months and held his first recital at age 4. His concert debut was at age 8 with the Utah Chamber Music Festival Orchestra where he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major.
His family relocated to New York City so he could enroll in Juilliard’s pre-college program at age 9. Tao’s versatility became evident when he won the 2003 Walgreen’s National Concerto Competition as a violinist.
Tao won eight consecutive ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Awards from 2004 to 2011. His first piano concerto premiered in 2007 and he has been featured on both PBS and NPR.
In June 2011, the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars and the Department of Education named Tao a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts awarded him a YoungArts gold medal in music.
“I find relaxation overrated. I find myself most satisfied and happy when I’m working [or] actively involved in anything. That is where I’m most content,” Tao said in a 2012 interview.
His diligence becomes the audience’s delight on Saturday, April 9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 10, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $75 and can be purchased online by phone at 251-432-2010, at mobilesymphony.org or at the symphony box office (257 Dauphin St.).
Reduced-price student tickets are available through the MSO Big Red Ticket program, wherein students in grades K-12 can attend the Sunday performance free if accompanied by a paying adult. Details can be found online at mobilesymphony.org.
MSO’s Take Note program will be available Saturday when Dr. Robert Seebacher has a pre-concert talk at 7 p.m. in Room 1927 next to the Saenger entrance. It is supported by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The concert is sponsored by the University of South Alabama, PNC Bank, the Mary Josephine Larkins Foundation and the Metcalfe Charitable Trust.
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