Albany Symphony Orchestra conductor David Alan Miller has wanted to conduct William Walton’s ruggedly romantic first symphony for years.
“It’s the undisputed greatest English symphony,” Miller said. “But I couldn’t find a place to fit it.”
That predicament changed last year when the New England Conservatory invited him to conduct the Walton with the conservatory’s orchestra and scheduled the concert for December. Miller saw not only his chance to have a first crack at a work that he said was very difficult, he asked Jaime Laredo to fill in for him for the ASO’s December concerts and he programmed the Walton for the ASO’s April 18 concert.
Albany Symphony Orchestra with flutist Alexa Still
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Palace Theatre
HOW MUCH: $49–$20; $15, students
MORE INFO: 465-4755 or www.albanysymphony.com
IN ADDITION: As part of the Orchestras Feeding America food drive, non-perishable food will be collected prior to the concert in the lobby and will be donated to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.
“It’s very exciting,” Miller said.
Although it was proclaimed a masterpiece when it was premiered in 1935, the symphony is rarely performed outside of England, he said.
“It’s written in his young, gutsiest style. It’s fearless,” Miller said. “The rhythmic drive is big, colorful, almost Beethovian. At the end of the first movement, you want to scream, it’s so exciting.”
William Walton (1902-1983) came from a musical background and attended Oxford University for a couple of years only to drop out and become part of London’s avant-garde cultural scene that included T. S. Eliot, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the Sitwell family of poets. Generally self-taught as a composer, he immersed himself in jazz and the new compositional elements espoused by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Poulenc and Ibert.
His first symphony was said to be the result of the end of an intense five-year love affair. Perhaps this fueled the work’s feverish intensity, which Miller said is unrelenting. “Instrumental parts are virtuosic and exposed within a beautifully scored orchestration. The sound is so colorful that it is almost Beethovian in its extreme,” he said.
In the decades that followed the work’s premiere, despite the huge successes Walton had with other pieces, such as his Viola Concerto (premiered by Paul Hindemith, the composer), the Violin Concerto (written for Jascha Heifetz) and the many film scores (behind Laurence Olivier’s many Shakespeare films), his music was considered old-fashioned.
But in 2002, when Walton would have turned 100, orchestras and choral groups worldwide began to rediscover his musical portfolio, which is now considered as beguiling as it is filled with bravado.
“I’m not an apologist but an advocate for his music,” Miller said. “He was the 20th century’s Mozart — a titan of English music spoken in the same breath as Britten and Vaughan Williams. His music is thrilling.”
Miller’s next challenge was what piece could pair with the Walton symphony. By good luck, he conducted the premiere of John Corigliano’s percussion concerto with Evelyn Glennie with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra last season. Corigliano is popularly known for his score for the film “The Red Violin” (played by Joshua Bell), which won an Oscar in 1999.
Miller and Corigliano became good friends and Corigliano suggested he might want to do his “Pied Piper Fantasy” — a piece Miller did not know.
Although it was written for flutist Sir James Galway, Corigliano suggested internationally known New Zealand flutist Alexa Still.
Not only is she the only flutist to have memorized the virtuosic part, she has recorded it (Koch 2004) and has played it so often that she’s become identified with the work. She even plays in costume.
Because the work is programmatic and based on the tale of the pied piper, Miller engaged several local teenage flute players who follow the pied piper; members of Darlene Myers’ Northeast Ballet Company will dance as the rats.
Still said the work, which is about 40 minutes long, is physically draining not only to meet the virtuosic technical demands Galway requested, but that a huge sound is needed to project over the orchestra. Coordination with all the players is also quite tricky.
“The piece is stunning,” Still said in an email. “The end just takes your breath away.”
Fortunately, Still is not coming from Sydney, Australia, where she teaches at the Sydney Conservatory just for this concert. Nine days will be spent in the Capital District to play rehearsals, give the concert and do a master class at 1:30 p.m. at the College of St. Rose for its first Flute Day. The class is open to the public at no charge.
Still is also rehearsing for an August recording date in New York City (her 14th compact disc) and will then play a fundraiser in Wisconsin.
Corigliano will be at the concert.
“Hearing these two major, daring works on the same concert is the sort of thing you’ll only hear at the ASO,” Miller said.
“We’re very proud. It will be a real art happening.”