Reflections from the Past

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In Back to the Future, Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) travels from 1985 back to the time when his parents were young, ancient 1955.  He experiences all sorts of awkward situations, but in the end discovers that he shares many traits with his parents.   In essence, they are not really much different (although he is a lot cooler, naturally). Marty learns valuable lessons from the past that help him alter the perspective of his own life (and, of course, save the day).

The human mind has always been fascinated with the past, whether it’s our individual lives, or the collective history of an entire civilization.  We somehow believe that it is possible to find something important by studying the past. It might be lost wisdom.  Perhaps it is secret knowledge.  But in the end, all that we are really trying to do is understand something about ourselves.

Artists have long been inspired by this fascination.  Without it we would not have most of the Shakespeare plays, works by Michelangelo, or operas of Wagner.  In fact the genesis of opera was simply an attempt to reinvent Greek drama into an art form that would resonate with people of the late 16th century.  But the past provides more than material, it also provides fuel for the imagination—both for the artist and the observer.  For the art of music, the role of observer is found in both performer and audience. We are all listeners.

I get to climb into my musical DeLorean this week and take a similar journey. (sans Biff, hopefully).  On Thursday, I’m conducting the Utah Philharmonia in two works that are filled with orchestral melody, energy, and color, yet trace their creative inspiration to the past: Grieg’s Holberg Suite and Respighi’s Church Windows.

For Edvard Grieg, his inspiration was a past era.  The official title of the work is Suite in Olden Style from Holberg’s Time.  Ludvig Holberg was a Danish writer who lived from 1684-1754.  Grieg was trying to evoke the style and feeling of Holberg’s era with music based on dance forms from the late Baroque.  But this is not a mere rehash of an older style.  While Grieg used forms, rhythms, instrumentation, and musical gestures from “olden times,” he wrote a piece of music that evokes the sensibilities of his own era.  The work is completely contemporary for 1884 Scandinavia, and still speaks today.  It is filled with charm and energy and reflects the myriad facets of life.

The “flux capacitor” for Ottorino Respighi, was Gregorian chant.  His Church Windows (Vetrate di Chiesa) evokes the past and reflects on the present in a highly imaginative way.  Respighi was as an Italian searching for his own musical meaning.  He was fascinated with the traditions, message, and inherent potential of this ancient church music.  It is a music that is deeply embedded in the Italian experience, and Respighi felt a visceral connection to it.  Chant quotes appear in many of his most famous works, including the Roman trilogy (Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals). But his use of chant is not merely a quaint compositional device.  On the surface, Respighi uses it as a window to the past, much like a stained-glass window. It presents the listener an invitation to ask deeper, more personal questions.  In his hands, Gregorian chant contains the potential to instruct the modern seeker as well as evoke the ancient scribe.

Funny thing is, neither work started out as orchestral music.  Both were piano works (with the exception of Respighi’s last movement).  The composers saw the potential in expanding the music into orchestral works.  In the case of Church Windows, Respighi added the descriptive titles only after deciding to re-orchestrate the works.  So in a way, the unrealized potential of the music had the power to alter his original intent.  The music evolved.  That’s the stuff of unlimited potential.

I hope you can join us as we perform these works on Thursday, April 5th in Libby Gardner Concert Hall.   It is an honor to work with these talented young musicians. The Graduate String Quartet will also perform Astor Piazolla’s Four, For Tango on the program.  All in all, it’s a great program, fit for a season budding with color as well as a week of reflection.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

Event Information

Utah Philharmonia
Conducted by Robert Baldwin, the School of Music’s distinguished orchestra will present “Reflections from the Past,” featuring Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” and Respighi’s “Church Windows.”
Date: Thursday, April 5, 2012
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Contact: School of Music
801-581-6762
Location: DGH- Libby Gardner Concert Hall – (view map)
Parking: Free parking at Rice Eccles Stadium lot, no shuttle service
Cost: Adults $7 Students $3 Arts Pass
Website: http://www.music.utah.edu
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2 thoughts on “Reflections from the Past

  1. Reblogged this on afcbenburt and commented:
    Robert Baldwin, Music Director for the Salt Lake Symphony and Director of Orchestral Activities at the University of Utah, shares his insight into Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” and Ottorino Respighi’s “Church Windows.” The Utah Philharmonia will be performing these pieces this Thursday at the Libby Gardner Concert Hall.

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