By Jenny Neyman
There’s comfort in familiarity. There’s power in discomfort. There’s a music festival about to play on both.
The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra kicked off its 30th annual Summer Music Festival on Monday, with two weeks of live music performances culminating in gala concerts in Kenai and Homer that promise to enthrall as well as challenge.
This year’s program includes two beloved standards of classical music, the boisterous “William Tell Overture,” by Gioacchino Rossini, and Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1.”
The “William Tell” piece is the overture to the last of Rossini’s 39 operas, which premiered in 1829. Starting slowly, the piece builds to a rollicking finish that will be familiar to anyone who’s heard much classical music used in popular culture. In particular, the finale theme of the piece has been used in TV ads, Disney cartoons, Stanley Kubrick’s movie “A Clockwork Orange” and, most famously, as the theme to “The Lone Ranger” TV show.
But the pop cultural timing this summer is purely coincidental, said Tammy Vollom-Matturo, conductor and artistic director of the orchestra.
“When I chose this program a year ago I had no idea Johnny Depp was doing a remake of ‘The Lone Ranger,’” she said. “People ask if that’s why I picked it, and I say, ‘No, no, no — I didn’t know.’”
Rather, its selection is due simply to the piece being a heck of a lot of fun — a challenge to the audience to not foot tap or head nod along.
Following will be a performance by Rodney French, singing an aria from Puccini’s opera “Tosca,” a short aria packing a depth of emotion far surpassing its brief length.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful, beautiful aria. He is singing and about dying and it’s just heart-wrenchingly gorgeous,” Vollom-Matturro said.
Rounding out the fist half of the concert is Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1,” written in 1875 as the score of a play of the same name by Henrik Ibsen. Grieg is acknowledged as Norway’s greatest composer, and the “Peer Gynt Suit No. 1” contains two of his most-famous creations.
The first movement, “Morning Mood,” is the theme for daybreak, with its melody alternating between flute and oboe, evoking images of low-angle sunbeams, foliage straining to shed its dew, and birds cueing up their daytime songs.
Ibsen’s plot, for which the song was meant to accompany, is much more ominous than the cheery, bleary, yawn-and-stretch-and-turn-on-the-coffee images of the “Morning Mood” that have endured in popular listenership, which makes the progression to the fourth movement seem a bit unexpected.
Whereas the first movement is associated with tweetie chirps and unfurling flowers, the fourth movement, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” has become cemented into the Halloween music oeuvre, with its sneaking bassoon line whipping into a frenzied race of strings, woodwinds and percussion.
“It sounds crazy, like, ‘Here comes a whole flock of middle-schoolers — run for your life!’” Vollom-Matturro said. “Everybody will know it. It’s a very popular piece. It’s a great way to sort of ground the audience and play stuff that will be very comfortable to them.”
After intermission comes the not-so-familiar part. If, as American humorist Finley Peter Dunne opined, one should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, few pieces could demonstrate that advice as well as Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5.”
It debuted in 1937 in Leningrad, Russia, as a huge success — much needed for Shostakovich, who had previously run afoul of Stalin and his regime for compositions that were thought to be too coarse and vulgar. In the 1930s, many of Shostakovich’s friends, colleagues and his biggest patron were arrested and/or killed.
Desperate times call for desperate music, and thus was his fifth symphony born. On the surface it snuggles tamely into the conservative style of the time, winning acclaim and a reprieve from the crosshairs of the Stalin regime. But there’s just enough tweaking of that conservatism for the composer’s own, more radical and subversive style to come through. Kind of like the auditory equivalent of a couch cushion set atop an anvil.
“It’s an amazing piece of music, just absolutely phenomenally well written. There are places where, even though there’s not a hummable melody, you can hear what he’s trying to do with the music, how torn from writing what he really wants to write, to writing music that is very militaristic and very to-the-point. You can hear this tearing apart of the music. You can hear his torment and loss of loved ones and friends that have been killed because of what he was doing artistically. It’s a horribly beautiful piece.”
There are elements of what would have been expected of Russian music at the time — order and formality — but at the same time a mocking of it with unbridled retorts that sound, in comparison, particularly chaotic. The opening of the piece, for example, has the same rhythmic pattern as the Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Beethoven was an acceptably popular influence at the time, Vollom-Matturro said.
“He does it for three measures, like he’s saying, ‘I know you want me to write like Beethoven,’ but then he’s almost saying, ‘But I can’t do it.’ He just dead-ends the music — bam! — right there,” she said.
“Then the second movement is hysterically funny. It’s supposed to be like slapstick, like shtick. It’s supposed to be a grotesque waltz and you can hear the musicians having fun and playing funny things — slurring their notes, swooping their notes and having a grand old time.
“And the third movement is so incredibly, hauntingly beautiful. You can almost not play it without crying. It’s intense and pretty crazy,” she said.
The fourth movement ends with a triumphant major chord — everything a power-hungry dictator would want in nationalistic music. But Shostakovich takes it a half step further to a B flat.
“Everybody’s happy. But, then, are we really happy, or are we told we need to be happy? Wow, the clash of this note. The ending is brilliant and uncomfortable,” Vollom-Matturro said.
“It’s incredible and it’s crazy and wild and heartbreaking and intense — and at least the audience will be grounded in the first half of program,” she said.
Members of the orchestra have been requesting to perform the piece for years, and Vollom-Matturro drug her feet, fearing it would be too much to take on.
“Every year I’d say, ‘No.’ … I knew the piece, and I started to study it and get very intimate with the score, and it is amazing. It sort of has been on the back burner for 15 years. People have wanted to play this for their entire lives,” she said. “It’s one of these pieces that are standard as far as great orchestral works, and it was just time to venture there.”
With all-member rehearsals now in full swing — musicians from Homer and the Kenai area all meeting together, including returning musicians from Anchorage, California, Washington and elsewhere coming back to play — the piece is coming along nicely, she said.
“It’s really hard. It stretches every single musician that’s playing. Sometimes a piece will stretch the strings players, or there’s a crazy trumpet part. This piece stretches every musician to their abilities,” Vollom-Matturro said.
“The French horns have a part in this for 16 measures where they sound like tubas because they’re playing so low, way out of the comfortable range of a French horn player. He wanted the tone quality of the French horns struggling to get those low notes.”
There have been some wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights stares, Vollom-Matturro said, but there’s also been mounting success.
“It’s going to happen. Everybody’s rising to the occasion and then some. It’s really cool,” she said.
The gala concerts will be held at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9, at Homer High School, and Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium of Kenai Central High School.
Several favorite staples of the Summer Music Festival return this year, including chamber music concerts at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Soldotna Methodist Church, and 7:30 p.m. Monday at Faith Lutheran Church in Homer, featuring the Madison String Quartet.
The musical Kachemak Bay cruise will head to Seldovia this year, with hors d’oeuvres and dessert served on-board the M/V Kachemak Voyager, champagne and a concert by the Madison Strings Quartet in Seldovia, and dessert on the voyage back to town. Meet at the Seldovia Bay Ferry at 6 p.m. Saturday for a 6:30 p.m. departure. Tickets for all these events are available at River City Books in Soldotna and the Homer Bookstore.
The festival also features free concerts and at noon Mondays through Friday through Aug. 9 at venues throughout Kenai, Soldotna and Homer, including Kaladi Brothers on Kobuk in Soldotna on Wednesday, the Kenai Community Library on Thursday, Veronica’s Café in Kenai on Friday, Fine Thyme Café in Soldotna on Monday, Charlotte’s Restaurant in Kenai on Tuesday, the Soldotna Public Library on Aug. 7, Odie’s Deli in Soldotna on Aug. 8 and the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Aug. 9.