The Tulsa Symphony kicks off its 2012-2013 season next week with "Blue," the first offering in what it is calling "Spectrum of Sound and Color." The season starts with "Blue," and will eventually give us "Green," "Yellow," "Red," "Violet," and "Orange" before the season ends. There will presumably be no singing in that last one, as the lyrics wouldn't rhyme.
"Blue" will feature the music of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and César Franck, as TS hopes to capture the essence of the color blue in a synesthetic portrait of the color's calm overtones that occasionally spill over into vibrancy and urgency.
Originally written as a four-hand piano piece for Ravel's neighbors' children, Mother Goose Suite kicks off the evening. The suite brings us five movements, each intended to be evocative of a fairy tale -- tales we know as Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, and Beauty and the Beast, to name a few.
The music of this work is at times playful, sometimes wistful, but almost always beautiful. It's a great piece from a really powerful composer.
You know Ravel, by the way, from his most famous piece, Bolero. If you've seen the movie Ten, you know this piece. If you haven't seen that flick, I'm pretty sure you've heard this somewhere before. The fact that Ravel himself hated it makes it all that much more fun to listen to, am I right?
The second selection making up "Blue" is a staple of the Impressionist canon. Debussy's La Mer is a musical rendering of the sea. You've heard it -- at least pieces of it -- before, I promise. It's a brilliant work inspired by the Impressionist poets and painters with whom Debussy preferred to socialize as opposed to other musicians.
True to the nature of the rule-breaking Impressionists, Debussy fiddles with the symphonic structure a bit, making La Mer not actually a symphony. But Debussy sidestepped semantic arguments by subtitling the work Three Symphonic Sketches.
Rounding out "Blue" is César Franck's Symphony in D. While Franck isn't exactly a household name, and is kind of a tragic story in and of himself, this is arguably his most popular work, and also arguably his best. The symphony is one of the composer's later works, and wasn't actually ever performed until about one year before Franck himself died. Musical politics conspired to make the symphony's debut a dismal critical failure, but those same politics helped create a backlash that pushed the symphony to the forefront of the performing world, and within just a few years of its composition, it was being performed by orchestras throughout Europe.
As mentioned above, the symphony's season this year has a color-schemed theme. That's not just something cute that somebody thought would sell tickets, according to Todd Cunningham, who serves as the marketing director for TS.
"It all started with the rainbow in The Wizard of Oz, which lead us to Newton's Opticks," he said. "Once we understood his correlation between the musical scale and the color spectrum, it became pretty easy to make it all work."
While different colors connote different pitches (and vice versa) for different synesthesiacs, and although Newton's theories about the relationships between the colors of the spectrum and the seven degrees of the scale were eventually disproven, Newton's idea has nonetheless sparked many interesting undertakings, much like TS's "Spectrum of Sound and Color."
And choosing a season's worth of music based on colors was anything but a no-brainer, but Cunningham and the rest of TS feel good about what's coming.
"Is some of it a bit of a stretch? Of course," he said. "It's marketing license to do so. But it was actually easier to make it fit than I first thought it would be."
And that makes sense. It does, on second thought, seem obvious for La Mer, about the sea, would make it into the program for a night called "Blue." Mother Goose Suite? Well, it's marketing license.
At any rate, Cunningham spoke briefly about the process of choosing pieces for a season, and TS (an artistic organization without an artistic director) doesn't exactly follow the norm for its model.
"Because our rep is selected by the musicians themselves, rather than by an artistic director, every piece we do has some significance to a portion of this musician-run organization," he said.
This means that there are players who might want this or that piece it for their own reasons. For instance, if I'm the timpanist, I totally want to play Strauss's Also Spracht Zarathustra, which you may know better as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There's a pretty iconic tympani part in there, which I totally want to play in public, especially if there's a woman in the audience I want to impress. If I play the piccolo, then my top choice might be Stars and Stripes Forever. Or maybe I'm a cellist who just loves to play Brahms, irrespective of whether there's a kickass cello part to show off my chops.
"When the committee debates a work or a composer, someone always has more of an affinity for that piece or person than some of their colleagues," Cunningham said. "What is really nice about the way this works is that the musicians always have the best interest of the audience as their top priority. They work very hard to either give the community something they love or something that will help to expand their knowledge and appreciation of classical music."
Guest conductor James Paul will lead TS on its blue journey. He has conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre Symphonique Français in Paris, and pretty much every major orchestra in the United States.
Before his travels as a conductor began in earnest, Paul took the Baton Rouge Symphony to new levels, eventually sharing an award for innovating programming with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
Since then, he's gone on to travel around the world spreading orchestral music all about, either as guest conductor for various orchestras as he will be doing here next week, or in several staff positions he holds with a few orchestras around the country.
How he came to be a part of this evening is much the same as any other guest conductor for TS: they asked, and he agreed.
But it's not like they just found him in the phone book, Cunningham said.
"Tulsa Symphony has an artistic committee comprised of musicians that selects the repertoire for the entire season," he explained. "They also match up the best available conductor to each program."
The committee, feeling that Paul was the best choice for this program, chose him to do it, and now, here he comes.
And when he arrives, he and the symphonic musicians will have less than a week together -- and an exciting, nerve-wracking few days to play, play, play, and pull the program together under a guest baton.
To be completely honest, most musicians love this kind of challenge.
"The symphony gets less than a week of rehearsal with each conductor," Cunningham said. "The conductor arrives the first part of the week and the performances are Saturday night."
So you know your part before you show up, and from there, the conductor's job is to get from the players the performance he has already heard in his head. And that ain't always easy. However, TS's "Blue" will likely be every bit as satisfying as pretty much any other evening with the symphony, which is to say very much so.
"Blue" will be performed in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Chapman Music Hall at 7:30pm on September 22. Tickets available at tulsasymphony.org or by calling 918-596-7111.
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