By Jenny Neyman
It was written 130 years ago, on another continent, involving different countries, by a composer who spoke a different language and was immersed in a different culture. Yet Tchaikovksy’s “1812 Overture” still viscerally — and literally — resonates with American audiences today.
Blasting cannons, clanging chimes and reverberating brass fanfares will do that to you.
In selecting the program for this year’s Kenai Peninsula Orchestra’s Summer Music Festival gala concert, KPO Director Tammy Vollom-Matturro was initially drawn to the fun factoid factor of the piece — the “1812 Overture” played in the summer of 2012. But she soon came to appreciate why the piece has remained one of the most popular in classical music repertoire, even in all the years not ending in “12.”
“That’s what started it, it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, 200 years — 1812 to 2012.’ It was sort of a quirky thing to do, but as I got into it more it was like, ‘Man, this is one incredible piece of music. It’s huge. It’s just, wow,’” she said.
Vollom-Matturro has especially come to enjoy how the music tells the story of the War of 1812.
Historical side note, here — the “1812 Overture,” though often played at Fourth of July celebrations and
generally being cemented into the American nationalistic repertoire, actually has nothing to do with the American War of 1812 against the British. Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s successful defense against the French in 1812 in turning back Napolean’s advancing army. The story of that battle is told through the music.
It was September, and Russian forces made their only concerted stand against Napolean’s seemingly invincible army in Borodino, west of Moscow, resulting in significant casualties. The French moved forward to occupy Moscow but found themselves lacking provisions to survive the winter, and so, in October, started a long, harrowing retreat out of Russia.
Tchaikovsky includes the drama, suffering, adversary, violence and, finally, victory of war in his piece.
“You can hear the entire war in this piece of music. You can hear them fighting, you can hear when people
have victory, you can hear the elements of the weather. You hear marching music then you hear the strings do these big flourishes that sound like wind, and that’s the French getting pushed back by the weather. And you can hear the celebration at the end when the bells are pealing, the Russians win, the cannons go off and the French go away,” Vollom-Matturro said.
Conveying not just the events of a monthlong period of war in a 16-or-so-minute piece of music, but the emotional weight and nationalistic pride surrounding those events that Tchaikovsky imbues in the music, makes the “1812 Overture” a daunting challenge. To play it well, the orchestra must do battle with the music to subdue the complicated clash between pastoral nationalistic anthems, charging martial themes, furious flourishes and brass fanfares.
“It’s a really difficult, complex piece of music with lots in it. The complexity of the piece is almost overwhelming at points, but the musicians have worked amazingly hard on this piece. It’s incredibly difficult and I am blown away by what they’ve accomplished so far,” Vollom-Matturro said.
Esther Eagle, of Kenai, said that the “1812 Overture” is her favorite selection from Tchaikovsky, and one of her favorite classical pieces overall. Being a French horn player, she gets to blast out the stirring marching melody for which the piece is known.
“We get the melody and it’s just really fun to play. It’s a really exciting piece,” she said. “I played ‘1812’ in
high school when I was a sophomore in Seattle, and I’ve been wanting to play it ever since.”
At the complete opposite end of the musical spectrum, the orchestra also will perform Mozart’s “Divertimento.” If the Tchaikovsky is pride, power, conflict and victory in war-torn, winter-swept Russia, the Mozart is tea and napkins in a civilized, well-manicured countryside. “Divertimento,” in Italian, means diversion or amusement, and the style of music is known for being light and entertaining.
“The ‘Divertimento’ is a really good balance in this program. It sort of grounds everybody. It’s precise and musically pleasing to the ear and very enjoyable and comforting and dignified. You can sit back and pretend you’re in the 18th century sipping your tea and enjoying a divertimento. The contrast from that piece to the Tchaikovsky is immense, so I think it’s a good pair,” Vollom-Matturro said.
She also chose the Mozart because it features the orchestra’s strings section.
“It’s a spot to show off our really, really good strings players that we have on this peninsula. It’s amazing what they can do,” she said.
The orchestra brings in clinicians to work with the various instrument sections in preparation for the gala concert each year. For the past five years the Madison String Quartet has come from New Jersey to perform as part of the KPO Summer Music Festival, and the musicians sit in with the orchestra to perform the gala concert, lending their skills and experience to the local musicians.
“The idea is that we have many, many years of experience doing this, we know the pieces backward and forward and we know how to tell people the right articulation, bowing and how to practice. It’s not the same with a wind player, but with a string player you can see what we’re doing with our bow and our fingers,” said Gerall Hieser, who plays violoncello with the quartet. “We’re so happy to be here. We know more people every year. It’s a very special place.”
And the orchestra is even happier to have them, Vollom-Matturro said.
“We have grown musically with their help for five years. We have made incredible progress with them. We are significantly different from what we were six years ago because the Madison String Quartet has really mentored the strings,” she said.
Rounding out the program is another widely recognized piece from the upper echelon of the famous classical music oeuvre, Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.”
“I think it’s a good balance. They’re all pieces people know and can relate to and recognize, and that’s a comforting thing to the audience, ‘Well, gosh, I know that, I’ve heard that,’” Vollom-Matturro said.
Whereas the “1812 Overture” often is thought to reference America, and doesn’t, the “New World Symphony” is about the U.S., even though not everyone realizes it. Dvořák, a Czech, wrote the piece to reflect his visit to the U.S. from 1892 to 1895.
Dvořák references several American musical motifs, from African American spirituals, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” to popular cultural items, like, “Three Blind Mice,” and Native American themes.
“All those American elements that he listened to and incorporated into his music, he didn’t actually take one of our tunes. He heard it, heard what was in his head and wrote it to sort of mimic our music we had here, so even though these melodies sound like they’re American, they’re actually his melodies. It’s very, very neat how he was able to do that,” Vollom-Matturro said. “And you can hear a lot of his roots, his Czech and Bohemian roots, in some of the second movement and some of the third. It’s kind of like, ‘I’m writing this music but I’m kind of homesick for where I’m from.’”
The “New World Symphony” is Dvořák’s best-known piece. It, the “Divertimento” and “1812 Overture” are famous for very good reasons — mainly because they are so powerful to listen to.
“There’s so much in it. I like it because it has everything. There are lush melodies, there are parts that sound absolutely angry and intense — and I love it — and there are parts that are absolutely gorgeous. And there are parts that are musically so complicated that we don’t really know where the beat is,” Vollom-Matturro said.
“Maybe not as of the orchestra rehearsal Saturday in Kenai, but come the gala concerts at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mariner Theatre at Homer High School and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School (with an informative lecture 45 minutes prior to each concert), the orchestra will have the program fine-tuned.
“I am incredibly impressed about how much people have been practicing this year. Wow,” Vollom-Matturro said Saturday. “Sometimes it’s a little scary about now, but I’m already feeling very comfortable about the music.”
Charlie Walsworth, a trombone player from Homer, wasn’t quite as comfortable Saturday, but was dedicated to further practice to get polished up for the gala concerts. In an orchestra with only 45 or so musicians, every part is prominent. That can be good, in making a musician feel needed, and bad, in making them nervous to not flub a note.
“You’re one second trombone part and you have to play your part of this magical thing that the composer put together. And if your part isn’t there it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb. So you’re on the spot and responsible for this community song, so that’s a neat thing to be a part of,” Walsworth said.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Summer Music Festival continues. The annual Tutka Bay dinner cruise and performance was Sunday, and the Madison String Quartet performed over the weekend in Soldotna and Homer. This week, a series of free concerts continue at noon every weekday through Friday at locations in Homer and the Kenai-Soldotna area. Those are getting increasingly popular, so go early to get a seat.
“People are starting to know what we do in these two weeks and what we offer the community as far as live music. It’s very cool,” Vollom-Matturro said.
Tickets to the gala concerts are $18 for general admission, $15 for seniors and $12 for youth and Homer Council on the Arts members, available at the door or in advance at Charlotte’s in Kenai, River City Books in Soldotna and the Homer Bookstore. For more information, including upcoming noontime concerts, visit the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra page on Facebook.