Columbus Symphony This Weekend: All Romance?

Jacques Lacombe conducts the Columbus Symphony this weekend(Photo: New Jersey Symphony)
Jacques Lacombe conducts the Columbus Symphony this weekend(Photo: New Jersey Symphony)

The Columbus Symphony performs Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Friday and Saturday in the Ohio Theatre. Jacques Lacombe conducts, with cellist Zuill Bailey.

Pre-concert talks with yours truly start one hour before each performance.  Classical 101 broadcasts this concert on Sunday, April 6 at 1 pm.

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) was taking a risk writing symphony for a late 19th century Parisian audience. The French had not embraced the symphonic form for many years. Berlioz Symphonie fantastique dates from 1830. There’s a lovely Symphony in C by Georges Bizet,  but it was lost for many years and not performed until 1935.

Parisians had been wallowing in opera since 1850: the huge spectacles of Giacomo Meyerbeer, and with everyone loving a scandal, the music dramas of Richard Wagner. Wagner’s music had little to do with the tightly controlled music of Mozart and Beethoven so loved by the Parisian elite. Wagner’s music, with his long leitmotifs (“signature tunes”),  and unending harmony, was thought to be a disorganized mess.

Franck was known as a fine church musician, who had little business in the symphonic world, especially since Franck’s hero in music was Wagner.

The d minor symphony is a large, bombastic work, and its development of a few themes-signature tunes-and its length, 40 minutes, brought it too close to Wagner for comfort. It is said that the orchestra of the Paris conservatoire refused to play the work, and did so only at the urging of its conductor. The audience, predictably was horrified.

Today, we enjoy a robust symphony. It’s a big orchestra, and lacks the grace of French music going back to Couperin. What it does have is a strength and a swagger. This is music unafraid to grab an audience and leave them stirred up rather than lulled.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) didn’t have to reintroduce anything. He was the natural heir to Smetana, the greatest Czech composer. His music always has the energy and the color of folk music along with a wonderful rhythmic punch. Just try to forget a Dvorak melody once heard.

For me, the cello is the instrument closest to the human voice. It can express deeper shades of meaning. Dvorak’s Cello concerto has it share of tunes. It also has a presence, an importance in its statements. And a lot happens before the cello enters, repeating the opening theme at 4:10 mark.

Dvorak’s Cello concerto comes from 1895. The composer was living in New York, and had heard the cello suites of Victor Herbert. Thus encouraged, he completed this concerto the following year. It was intended for the Czech cellist Hanus Wihan. Composer and soloist performed, the work privately, but the premiere was in London with cellist Leo Stern.

And so to >Peer Gynt. Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote incidental music for Ibsen’s monumental play in 1876. Ibsen’s play with its aspects of metaphysics and dreams was controversial, but Grieg’s music was an instant hit.

The Suite no. 1 gives us Morning Music; the Death of Ase-Peer Gynt’s mother-a seductive dance by the Moorish enchantress Anitra, and the famous Hall of the Mountain King. I promise you, with Peer Gynt you will be saying “Oh I know this” thoughout the 15 minute performance.

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