Despite our best intentions, most of us are still prone to stereotypes. It’s a long-standing human pitfall.
This tendency plagues our perception of art as well. Mention classical music and the average bloke will describe long-dead Europeans, maybe in knickers, powdered wigs or frilled shirts.
In this age, little could be further from reality. Exploding that classical music stereotype is one of the aims of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra’s American Masters series.
On Jan. 16 and 17, MSO will lead the Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.) audience in plumbing the ever-deepening wealth of national culture. It will feature not just three of our most widely respected and loved musical artists but also contemporary talent worthy of notice.
Of course there’s the “Dean of American Composers,” Aaron Copland. His popular work “El Salón México” is not only a venture beyond the U.S., so often conjured in his work, but a bit of a cipher, too.
Copland openly admitted he had struggled to fully grasp the complexities of Mexican culture and took several trips there in the 1930s. After borrowing from local folk melodies, the composer fashioned a single movement alive with the verve and vitality of our Latin neighbor.
Curious, though, was the story he told of its inspiration. Copland said he was led to an unusual place, its namesake venue wherein various classes of people danced and celebrated to the sounds of a Cuban orchestra.
In the years since, no one has successfully determined where this mysterious Salón México was located or if it even existed at all. Veracity aside, the work portrays a mixing of social classes appealing to a composer awash in the national mythos of class fluidity.
Two-time Pultizer-winner Samuel Barber is known to most modern Americans for his near-elegiac “Adagio for Strings,” thanks to its presence in films and the repertoires of numerous professional orchestras. While it is on the bill for this concert, it’s his piece “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” which might be the most appropriate for the setting.
Barber’s work is an extension of the writings of Tennessee-born Pulitzer-winning writer James Agee. While a lauded film critic, the journalist and author’s work is most closely associated with the American South thanks in no small part to his study of Depression-era Alabama sharecroppers entitled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
That same regional focus is in Barber’s ode. The lush piece takes excerpts from Agee’s prose poem of the same name, sets it to music and scores it for soprano or tenor. Its dreamlike depiction of an evening in the Deep South is tailor-made for Mobile sensibilities.
On hand will be the fresh talents of soprano Julia Bullock. The St. Louis native has earned a wealth of accolades from major U.S. markets. When descriptions like “remarkable showstopper” (San Francisco Chronicle), “poised for a significant career” (New York Times) and “a gifted and committed artist (Washington Post) accompany your name, it’s a wonderful harbinger.
Bullock will serve as the centerpiece for MSO’s rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from his musical “West Side Story.” MSO will continue the Bernstein theme with its interpretation of three dance episodes from the musical “On the Town.”
What might be most revelatory to Mobile audiences is the inclusion of works by American composers Christopher Rouse and Austin Wintory. Unlike their older colleagues on the program, both are still active and contributing composers.
Wintory is the younger of the pair, having been born in 1984 in Denver. He’s chiefly made his living composing for films and video games.
His work in video games has been groundbreaking. After meeting game developer Jenova Chen during their enrollment at the University of Southern California, Chen’s idea to have a central musical idea to span the entire playing experience of his 2012 game “Journey” resulted in a soundtrack album. In turn, Wintory earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, a first for a video game.
Around the time of the nomination, Wintory described the video game as having become “a full-blown art genre right alongside literature and any other form of storytelling.” MSO will perform his piece “Apotheosis” from the game’s soundtrack.
Rouse has kept to more traditional mediums, having penned four symphonies and 11 concertos. He’s also earned a Grammy Award, a Kennedy Center Friedham Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He currently works as composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic.
His featured piece for the Mobile show, “Rapture,” is in keeping with Rouse’s neo-romantic bent. Its ecstatic sweeps and ascendant structure through variations of tone and tempo propel the listener into an effective emulation of bliss. It lifts, then levels, then lifts again.
The show promises to be one of the highlights of the cultural season. It’s auspicious, emboldening, varied and ambitious.
Saturday’s show begins at 8 p.m.; the Sunday matinee is at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are $20-$75. They can be purchased online at mobilesymphony.org, by phone at 251-432-2010 or at the symphony box office (257 Dauphin St.)
The concert is sponsored by WKRG-TV, the J.L. Bedsole Foundation, Allan and Nancy Rowe, and Paul and Anne Low.
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