In 1922, the English poet AE Housman wrote:
When summer’s end is nighing
And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
And all the feats I vowed
When I was young and proud.
I always find the end of summer a deeply nostalgic time. Perhaps it’s the memories of going back to school as a child: that sense of something magical ending accompanied by the excitement of a new year, or maybe it’s just the oddness of putting on trousers after months in T-shirts and shorts! As we prepare for the opening of the new Jacksonville Symphony season on September 30, the same nostalgic haunts me.
Having sweated profusely for the last week while moving into a colonial-style house in Avondale, I can’t say it feels like summer is ending in Jacksonville! But it has been a wonderful summer. Like many musicians in our orchestra, I spent it working at a music festival. For nine weeks I lived in Salzburg in Austria, the birthplace of Mozart and Herbert von Karajan, assisting the composer and conductor Thomas Adès on the première of his new opera, The Exterminating Angel. Based on a 1963 movie by the Spanish director, Luis Buñuel, the opera tells the terrifying tale of a group of aristocrats who find themselves unable to leave a dinner party for no reason other than their lack of willpower. It was thrilling to witness the birth of a masterpiece, especially after the success of our own performances of the same composer’s symphonic work, Asyla, here in Jacksonville in May.
We open our season with what I hope is becoming a signature blend of the well known and the new. First, a piece by the English composer Julian Anderson written in 2002, entitled Imagin’d Corners. This thrilling tour de force features five French horn players who move around the stage during the performance. Sometimes we see them right in front where a soloist would stand, sometimes on different sides of the stage calling to each other, other times not at all, hidden off stage. It’s a wonderfully theatrical way to begin the season.
Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is perhaps his most loved. It begins quietly with the soloist playing an ominous set of chords that build inexorably before the orchestral strings burst forth with a passionate, nostalgic and deeply Slavic melody. We welcome the Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, artist in association with the New York Philharmonic, for his Jacksonville debut. Inon is a mesmerizing pianist of great sensitivity, nuance and power. I’m delighted he’ll be in town and you won’t want to miss him.
Finally, our concerts end with the most influential music of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s score accompanied a ballet with a terrifying story. In pre-historical pagan Russia, spring has finally come, ending the bitter winter. The ancient people thank the Earth for its arrival. To do this, they chose a virgin from their tribe who must dance herself to death as a sacrifice. The première is the most notorious in musical history. Stravinsky’s score broke with every tradition, full of dissonant, pounding chords, complex irregular rhythms that make you feel like the ground is sinking beneath your feet, and an unabating power that appeals to our most primal selves. It caused a riot, with conservative composers like Saint-Saëns booing in disgust, while progressives like Debussy yelled enthusiastically. The audience threw things at the stage, and fist fights broke out as people tried to leave the theatre. Despite this, the music has an intoxicating, thrilling and seductive power. It’s a virtuosic orchestral showpiece that sounds completely modern even after 103 years. And despite being firmly entrenched in the repertoire, it hasn’t been played in Jacksonville for nearly 40 years. This is one of the pieces with which I was obsessed as a teenager, and it convinced me I needed to spend my life with music. Twenty years later, it still sends shivers of excitement down my spine, and I’m delighted to share that with you in two weeks’ time.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Florida Times-Union.