Grand Rapids Symphony Performs Stravinsky's 'Symphony of Psalms'
In 2000, Time magazine published an extensive list of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century. In selecting the Best Classical Composition of the 20th century, Time choose Igor Stravinsky's haunting Symphony of Psalms.
In 1930, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned Igor Stravinsky to compose a new piece, the orchestra asked for something "symphonic." His publisher suggested he write something popular. Cleverly, Stravinsky found a way to do both with Symphony of Psalms.
Marcelo Lehninger will lead the third concert of the 2019-20 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series at 8 p.m. in DeVos Performance Hall. Spectrum Health is the Concert Sponsor.
Lehninger also leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in Kabbalah by contemporary Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre. Not only did Lehninger himself conduct the premiere of the driving, rhythmically energized work, but the 80-year-old composer is Lehninger's godfather.
With Symphony of Psalms, the Grand Rapids Symphony's 90th anniversary celebration continues with the work, featuring the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, which Stravinsky composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 50th anniversary.
Lehninger leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in Richard Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser and his Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde.
The opera Tannhäuser is a combination of two different stories: The legend of Tannhäuser from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (a collection of German folk poetry), and the legend of a singers' contest. Wagner believed an overture should give a short synopsis of the drama to follow. The overture, which is 14 minutes long, isn't short, but it fits perfectly.
The tale of Tristan & Isolde is a tale of intense romantic yearning full, and the Prelude and Liebestod (or prelude and death song), is one of the most emotionally wrenching pieces of music ever composed.
Marlos Nobre, who is 80 years old this year, is one of the most important Brazilian composers of today. A friend and colleague of such composers as Aaron Copland, Alberto Ginastera and Oliver Messiaen, considered a worthy successor to Brazil's most famous composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Nobre spent much of his career in the United States and Tanglewood as well as at Yale, Juilliard and several other American universities. Kabbalah is a Hebrew term meaning "that which is received," but a song from the Xingu Indians of South America is the main theme for the highly rhythmic, 10-minute work.
Symphony of Psalms, according to critic Tom Service of The Guardian, "is, for me, one of the most deeply moving and genuinely spiritual pieces Stravinsky ever wrote." The Russian-born composer, already famous for works such as The Rite of Spring, had recently rediscovered the Russian Orthodox faith of his childhood when he composed Symphony of Psalms.
Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus will perform "Symphony of Psalms" for the first time in 20 years and the first prepared by Chorus Director Pearl Shangkuan. At least eight members of the chorus who sang it under John Varineau in November 1999 still are with the volunteer ensemble.
Remarkably, in the 23-minute work, Stravinsky shifted the relationship between the chorus and orchestra. Instead of an orchestra that accompanies a chorus, he created a work in which "the two are on an equal footing, neither outweighing the other." In part, he accomplished that by omitting violins, violas and clarinets from the score, though there are extra flutes, oboes and bassoons. Stravinsky chose fewer strings and more winds because he wanted the instruments, along with the chorus, "to breathe."
When asked to explain its title, Stravinsky famously replied, "It is not a symphony in which I have included psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the psalms that I am symphonizing."
The composer added that his definition of "popular" was "universally admired."
Though 20th century Russian composers, including Stravinsky, frequently employed irony in their music, the "Symphony of Psalms" is a most ironic work. Stravinsky himself inscribed on the dedication page:
To the glory of God and the Boston Symphony.
Tickets for Tristian & Isolde start at $18 and are available at the Grand Rapids Symphony box office, weekdays 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. at 300 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 100, (located across the street from Calder Plaza). Call (616) 454-9451 x 4 to order by phone. (Phone orders will be charged a $2 per ticket service fee, with a $12 maximum).
Tickets are available at the DeVos Place ticket office, weekdays 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. or on the day of the concert beginning two hours before the performance. Tickets also may be purchased online at GRSymphony.org.