String envy

Redding’s musical environment inspiring

PICTURE OF VIRTUOSITY <br>North State Symphony’s best attack the works of Ravel, Elgar and more on Laxson’s stage.

North State Symphony’s best attack the works of Ravel, Elgar and more on Laxson’s stage.

Photo By Tom Angel

Review: North State Symphony The Virtuoso Orchestra Sat., Nov. 19 in Redding Sun., Nov. 20 at Laxson

I sit among a crowd of fourth-through ninth-graders in the handsomely new, 600-seat auditorium at Redding’s Sequoia Middle School. The place is full, and on the stage sits the North State Symphony. As I write, symphony section leaders are playing brief, catchy tunes on their instruments—strings, winds, brass and percussion—moving from highest to lowest. The young audience is paying pretty good attention—especially for a pre-Thanksgiving Friday morning. In a few minutes, someone will ask the assembled students how many of them play stringed instruments. More than half of them will raise their hands.

As a Chicoan over the last 35 years, I find myself feeling envious. Why does Chico not have a similar string/music program? Why does Chico have no middle-sized auditoriums comparable to the one I sit in or the magnificently refurbished Cascade Theatre, where the Symphony will play two nights hence? I suspect it is because Redding has no state university and knows it must build its cultural establishment on its own—and has.

By this point, the Symphony is playing portions of Argentinean composer Alberto Ginestera’s Concert Variations, a variously-textured, mid-Twentieth-Century collection of variations featuring selected instruments (and revealing what an excellent array of first-chair players are present).

Next, a slender man carrying an age-darkened, 270-year-old cello takes the stage. He is Michael Reynolds, and many students around me recognize him.

Indeed, Reynolds, who lives near Boston, teaches at Boston University and has concertized around the world, has been a driving force behind Classics for Kids, a foundation deliberately created to maintain and develop classical-instrument training in as many as 25 selected elementary and middle schools around the nation. Redding contacted Classics for Kids in an effort to rejuvenate its music programs, and, to judge by those around me, the project has been an enviable success.

Reynolds plays two first movements of Edward Elgar’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E-Minor, a piece whose post-World War I sadness (augmented by sounds of Slavic melancholy borrowed from Dvorak’s great cello concerto) will knock the Redding audience (and me) off our feet Saturday evening.

This work is followed by the Symphony’s playing Ravel’s La Valse, which, with its brilliant clarity and distinctiveness, will be a hit with both the Chico and Redding audiences ("The most challenging work we’ve played in the five years I’ve been in town,” Director Kyle Wiley Pickett will tell me later).

Partly a kind of abstracted apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, La Valse is also a reflection of the first World War, a fact Pickett did not fully realize until after he had put the concert program together. Indeed, both it and the Concerto reflect the societal and cultural devastation this war represented.

At a distance of nearly 90 years, we now see how, following a 50- or 60-year period of relative peace and social and material progress such as the world had never seen, World War I, with its massive scope, millions of deaths, airplanes, machine-guns, gas attacks, and terrible, drawn-out trench warfare, ushered in a century of wars, mass killings, uprisings, revolutions and fear that seems, sadly, to be with us still.

This can clearly be heard in the Elgar Concerto‘s melancholy and also in La Valse‘ s depiction of the breakup of the quintessential nineteenth-century dance—celebrated both in elegant mansions and in lowlier cafés such as those made famous in Renoir’s paintings of dancing couples dressed up in their Sunday best. With its growling bass introduction, its snare-drum rattattattats, its booms and broken lines, La Valse pictures the destruction of an era that is gone forever.

[A personal note from our long-time contributor, who is moving from the area.] In all likelihood, this is the last symphony review I will write for this paper. I am most grateful—not only for the compliments I have received over the years, but also for the opportunity to concentrate deeply on so many musical works (I write copious notes, which help me think, but which I rarely re-read), and, in the process, learn so much—about both writing and music.