By John Lydon
The La Jolla Symphony & Chorus will open its season in a burst of color Oct. 30 at Mandeville Auditorium on the UCSD campus.
The concert will begin with the overture from Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta “Candide,” a lilting and light-hearted appetizer that shows off the many hues of the orchestra.
“It’s probably one of the best-known contemporary concert openers you can imagine,” said Steven Schick, music director and conductor. “Even if you think you don’t know the piece, you’ll know it.”
After the jaunty starter, the concert will turn to what for many is uncharted territory, Alexander Scriabin’s “Prometheus,” for large orchestra, piano soloist, chorus and “color organ.”
Scriabin, a pianist, composer and mystic, had synesthesia, a condition where the stimulation of one sense could also be experienced by other senses. Music was for him not only an auditory phenomenon but also a visual one. It was perhaps because of this that he gave “Prometheus” an extra dimension through the color organ, a keyboard that produced visual displays.
“His notion was that an experience with a piece of music should be as complete as possible, it should involve the eye as well as the ears,” Schick said. (Scriabin also envisioned scents wafting through the hall at performances of “Prometheus,” but Schick promises to keep it “as fragrance-free as possible.”)
Scriabin is said to have seen specific colors as the complements of different keys and tones, and the color organ part in the score follows the changing moods and keys.
The score, however, describes the visual changes in vague terms rather than specific colors, Schick said.
So whenever you do the piece, you have to have somebody who ‘realizes’ the color organ part, someone who puts the vision that exists in the score into something practical.”
Enter video artist Ross Karre.
Karre has designed a program of video images, spotlight projections and visual techniques related to the 1960s rock-concert light shows. Much of his artwork will be generated by computer — plus several helpers with spotlights – but it’s not automated.
Schick: “He suggested — and I think it’s brilliant — that the color organ part be played by people who have light instruments, rather than just a pre-programmed set of images.”
“Prometheus” is in some ways an enigmatic piece. Is it a tone poem, a piano concerto?
Schick said that he and Noriko Kawai, “a noted Scriabin interpreter” and the pianist in the performance, recently mused about whether “Prometheus” is a concerto.
“There are moments that it seems that way, and then there are moments that the piano seems to be a part of the texture of the orchestra,” he said.
But there’s no question of the mysticism in the piece, he said.
“You know, the turn of the century was full of a new-age atmosphere that swept through a lot of composers … and that is really communicated by this piece.”
The last piece on the program, the First Symphony by Gustav Mahler, who many call was the last symphonist in a tradition reaching back to Beethoven, returns to familiar territory. But Schick points out similarities between Mahler and Scriabin.
It’s not just that they were contemporaries, “they each reached out of the purely concert musical realm into something evocative. … In a way the concert stage wasn’t big enough for either of them.”
Scriabin sought added meaning in color, Mahler in his quotations of scraps of the popular music of his day.
Often, these held some hidden meaning and touched on experiences from his life.
“I think that’s really interesting,” Schick said, “but it’s not my goal in the interpretation to project Mahler’s life; my goal is to make it relevant to a listener today.”
The quotes, Schick said, show Mahler drawing from all kinds of music, the classical and popular, just like we do today.
And that link with our world is crucial, he said.
“We’re not trying to speak to an anonymous classical-music-loving audience out there. We’re trying to speak to the people [of our community], and we’re trying to offer something that makes sense to them right now and right here.”
IF YOU GO
- What: La Jolla Symphony & Chorus season opener
- When: 8 p.m. Oct. 30; 3 p.m. Oct. 31
- Where: Mandeville Auditorium, UCSD
- Tickets: $29-$15
- Contact: (858) 534-4637; lajollasymphony.com