For violist Sarah Switzer ’19, the four pieces that the Yale Symphony Orchestra will play Saturday night have a theme in common: a sense of place.
At 8:00 p.m. in Woolsey Hall, the YSO will perform works by Bela Bartok, Sir Edward Elgar, Ottorino Respighi and Yale School of Music composition professor Christopher Theofanidis. The concert will be led by William Boughton, the YSO’s interim conductor, and feature Switzer, a 2018 William Waite Concerto Competition winner, as a soloist for the Bartok piece.
“I love working with these students,” Boughton said. “From the first week, I recognized that they were a highly talented group of students.”
Hungarian composer Bela Bartok worked on his Concerto for Viola in 1945, during the final months of his life. Boughton said that the concerto reflects influences, such as folk music, that shaped Bartok’s entire compositional career. Bartok, who was interested in ethnomusicology, often incorporated folk traditions of central and eastern Europe into his music.
Boughton suggested that Bartok’s viola concerto has a near-death quality that sets it apart from the rest of the composer’s work.
“When he wrote ‘Concerto for Orchestra,’ [Bartok] weighed something like 80 pounds,” said Boughton. “Whether he knew of his impending death, I don’t know.”
But the presence of death is felt, Boughton added, in the “ethereal” nature of the music. For example, Boughton noted that the second movement is marked “religioso,” a musical direction that connotes qualities of quiet spirituality.
Boughton said that while listeners often associate Bartok with “strident harmony,” the viola concerto is “extremely poetic.”
Switzer added that Bartok’s music can pose a challenge for the listener.
“It’s kind of inscrutable for people listening the first time, because it’s very sudden,” Switzer said.
In her performance, Switzer hopes to convey the appreciation that she has developed for the piece, particularly the work’s “lyrical and melodic” qualities. She hopes to present the concerto in a way that “gets people to like the piece.”
To YSO President Laura Michael ’20, the concerto is an opportunity to showcase the viola, an often under-appreciated instrument.
“I think it’s really great that we have a viola winner,” she said, adding that violinists and pianists often dominate concerto competitions.
Switzer agreed that the Bartok concerto will highlight the capabilities of her instrument. Switzer said that a concerto — a piece of music where a solo instrumentalist plays alongside an orchestra — “pushes [the instrument] to its limits.”
Saturday’s performance will also include two works inspired by Italian settings: Edward Elgar’s “In the South (Alassio)” and Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” both written in the early 20th century.
Elgar, a British composer, was inspired to write “In the South” after a vacation in the Italian Riviera. But Boughton said that the piece is more German than Italian in manner.
“This tone poem is more akin to Richard Strauss,” Boughton said, referencing Strauss, a 20th-century German composer and contemporary of Elgar. “It is not an English work at all.”
Respighi stayed closer to home in “Pines of Rome,” a musical depiction of his nation’s capital city. Boughton described the piece as a “spectacular orchestral showpiece, a day in the life of the sun and pine trees around Rome, and how the sun creates shadows through the pine trees.”
In “Pines of Rome,” Respighi makes use of the orchestra’s more unusual powers, including a group of trumpets that will play from an offstage location unknown to the audience. Michael noted that all the players must be “especially sensitive” during such moments.
Christopher Theofanidis’s “Rainbow Body,” which premiered in 2000 and won the 2003 London Masterprize competition, also draws from outside inspiration. Theofanidis wrote on his website that the piece was inspired by chant melodies of medieval composer and mystic Hildegard von Bingen. The piece takes its title from the Buddhist concept of the “rainbow body,” or the dissolution into light of an enlightened being’s body after he or she dies.
Playing music written by a living composer has its unique rewards, said Michael. “As classical musicians, we spend a lot of time thinking ‘Oh, what would Beethoven have wanted?’ But here, there’s no question,” she explained.
Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” was first used as graduation music during the Yale Commencement ceremony for the class of 1905.
Stefanos Jones | firstname.lastname@example.org