The Wichita Symphony Orchestra presents a program of musical and visual virtuosity on Saturday, March 16 and Sunday, March 17 via an evening of film and music.
In collaboration with astronomer and visual artist Dr. José Francisco Salgado, the WSO will perform Maurice Ravel's Daphnis & Chloe while the audience takes in the spectacular film Moonrise, which Salgado has prepared.
This helps serve as a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing as well as the virtuosity of the artistic talents involved. The symphony, under the direction of conductor Daniel Hege, will also perform Bela Bartok's Symphony For Orchestra without accompanying visuals.
Both the Saturday and Sunday performance will be held at Century II Concert Hall.
Hege and Salgado recently spoke with KMUW about the event, the visuals, and the music.
Jedd Beaudoin: Tell me about this new program that we're going to be seeing this weekend.
Daniel Hege: We're featuring Daphnis & Chloe by Maurice Ravel for the movie Moonrise, which José Francisco Salgado put together. José Francisco is an astronomer. By avocation, he loves music and graphic arts. He responds well to music. He comes up with imagery to match music. We're playing two suites from Ravel's one-act ballet to accompany the film. Very virtuosic for the orchestra.
What's the challenge for you as a conductor in this particular case?
He's made the film with a particular recording in mind. That recording has particular tempos and I have to stick to those tempos as much as possible because it's choreographed. While there is some flexibility for him and how sets the movie up, it pretty much runs on its own course. The music has to line up to that imagery.
You're also performing Bela Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra, which will not include a film.
It's also very virtuosic. It was a path-breaking work when it came out in 1945. It's in the first half.
You've mentioned virtuosity quite a bit. Do you think about that when you're selecting companion pieces for an evening?
Absolutely. When these pieces were written, they were really intended to show off the orchestra, that was really one of the purposes. If you look at Ravel and Bartok, they were almost exact contemporaries. The size of the orchestra and the virtuosity of the orchestra was growing at the same time. They're approaching it from different angles but there are certain commonalities between the two pieces.
When we realized we'd be performing the Ravel composition, we realized we had a very large orchestra and the piece would show them off. We thought, "What would be a great companion piece that could also utilize that many players?"
Ravel is a different kind of virtuosity. It's such a euphonious, beautiful sound. It has a different quality to it, a different sound because it's music by a French composer. You almost have more perfume and exoticism in the music.
Bartok is often referred to as one of the first ethnomusicologists.
There are pictures of him sitting with headphones on, listening to music and taking dictation.
He's writing down a lot of the music that had been codified and taken down from many ages past. He actually infuses his music with those folk idioms. He doesn't always lift the folk tunes directly or verbatim but he takes from them the way that they're used. There are rhythms and certain aspects of the melodies that he lifts, he creates his own rhythms and melodies from that. We hear a lot of that folk idiom in Concerto For Orchestra. This was the last big symphonic work that he wrote. He lived in Europe during most of his life and it was only during World War II that he came over to the States. He was a little reluctant to do that but he did and spent only a few years here before he died from leukemia.
He was commissioned by the Boston Symphony to write this piece. It's really one of his splashiest and most accessible works. Sometimes people say, "Bartok, twentieth century composer. I'm not sure if I'm going to like it." Some of the music he wrote before this was a little bit spikier, a little bit more difficult to wrap one's mind around. This one is really something that embraces everybody. It has an incredible life-affirming energy all the way through it even though he was basically on his deathbed when he was writing it.
Help me understand the phrase "concerto for orchestra."
We like to feature at least one individual or a couple individuals as concerto soloists. The definition of what a concerto is is "solo instrument with full symphony orchestra." When you say, "concerto for orchestra," it's an almost a contradictory term. You might say, "Shouldn't it be symphony for orchestra?" It's showing off the different parts of the orchestra, all the different sections and all the different instruments.
That's what Bartok had in mind when he wrote it. It's a piece about the orchestra. We're going to show off the different sections and families of instruments throughout the entire work. It's a great way to celebrate our 75th anniversary and show them all off in this wonderful work.
Let's talk about Ravel. For many people, there's Bolero.
[Laughs.] That's undoubtedly his most famous work. He was always surprised by that because he's hit two extremes there. He's hit the extreme monotony of the same rhythm going over and over and over again in the snare drum, which governs the whole piece. There are two pieces of a melody that also repeat over and over again.
The opposite end is that there is endless variety in the colors and the color spectrum that he uses. He combines different instruments in different harmonies.
Daphnis & Chloe was written as a ballet and from that Ravel excerpted two concert suites from it. Sometimes, when people hear suites that are excerpted from an opera or a ballet, they're mixed up in ways that are not chronological to the story. You might be hearing the end of the story in one suite and then, something in the middle and so on. In the case of Ravel's suites, they're actually in order and they're not changed from the ballet.
It's incredibly athletic, visceral music all the way through.
Virtuosity for the symphony in these pieces.
Virtuosity for the conductor as well?
To a certain degree, although I have to say, in particular, that sometimes my job can be extremely tough and it always is in its own way, but, for me, for the Ravel, it's going to be more about staying within the guidelines that the film would impose on me.
With the Bartok, it's about getting the piece prepared in rehearsals and then letting them really have fun with it and then being there to guide, in the concerts, and remind them of the things that they've done. Certainly, there is an amount of virtuosity that's involved there, yes.
A few words with Dr. José Francisco Salgado, Astronomer and visual artist.
Jedd Beaudoin: How did this idea of putting together film and music first come to you?
Dr. José Francisco Salgado: This project, which is now called Science & Symphony Films, started in 2005. The Chicago Symphony approached me about producing some sort of visual backdrop for two performances that they were having of Gustav Holst's The Planets. It covered so many interests that I have: Music, astronomy, the graphic arts.
I said I would do it but rather than just making a slideshow, I would make a film that that really follows what's happening in the music? Something that really follows what happens in the music, really supports it, instead of being something pretty that's being projected, which might cause a distraction if it's not there in support of the music.
It's kind of like a soundtrack in reverse. The composer writes music to support a film that has been edited already. Here, I'm editing a film for a piece of music that has been composed and is a masterpiece.
That's been something you've continued to do.
It led to the foundation of a non-profit, KV 265, which I direct. What we do is use the arts, visual arts and music, as a way to engage people and communicate to them about science. People come to the concert hall to hear these great masterpieces but then they're exposed to science. We hope that they will feel curious and be inspired to learn more about what's one screen.
When we're in a town, we visit some schools and do some outreach, show them some excerpts from the films. Oftentimes, we have a pre-concert lecture. I'll come onstage and introduce the film, provide some context.
I remember a music teacher playing a note on the piano for our class and explaining that music was really about physics. I thought, ‘That's amazing! I want to know more about physics now!'
Absolutely. We don't believe that these disciplines are mutually exclusive. They're not. There's so many connections. Many scientists play instruments or are very art-oriented individuals.
What attracted you to astronomy? Did you look at the stars as a young person and want to know more?
I did. My dad had this book, I think it was a giveaway at a gas station, about the Apollo program. I found it at home when I was in third grade. It was literally like a new world. I saw the photographs and the illustrations of the rockets and the astronauts training to go to the moon and then going to the moon. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. Even before I knew the word astronomy, I knew that I wanted to learn and study space.
What happens when you're in the auditorium and you see the film and the orchestral performance come together. Can you have a sense of awe about it or are you thinking more about the technical elements?
Once I know that everything's working well from the technical side, I just look around and enjoy people enjoying the film. I simply say, "Yes, this is what I should be doing."