NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 18, 2013

Feel like dancing

Dance-like quality to symphony's concert

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — The first audience to hear Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in 1813 liked the second movement so much they made the orchestra stop and play it again.

Those musical themes should be just as thrilling next Sunday, when they play Beethoven’s Seventh at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield. The orchestra will also give an earlier performance at Abbott Hall in Marblehead one week from tonight.

But in choosing Beethoven’s work for their spring concert, conductor Don Palma was drawn to another aspect of his music, elements that led Richard Wagner to describe it as “the apotheosis of the dance.”

“He just heard this as a very strong and visceral kind of dance-like symphony,” Palma said.

After making the Seventh the center of his program, Palma searched for other pieces that fit Wagner’s description, and used the latter as a title for the concert as a whole.

“I thought I’d take some of Mozart’s ballet music, in one of his early operas, ‘Idomeneo,’” Palma said. “Mozart was imitating Gluck, who would include ballet in his operas. This is the finale.”

He also chose Mendelssohn’s violin concerto Opus 64, which was first performed in 1845 and was one of the composer’s last orchestral pieces.

“The last movement was very influenced by folk music and dance,” Palma said. “He did many walking tours around Europe and was taken by dance music he heard.”

Of the three compositions, only Mozart’s was written to accompany a specific dance, but they all share the qualities that Wagner identified in Beethoven’s symphony.

“There’s something visceral and engaging about the rhythm,” Palma said. “They’re not just relating to the melodies. There’s something about this music — both the ‘Idomeneo’ and the last movement of the Mendelssohn and the outer movements of the Beethoven — that gets under your skin and makes you want to move.”

Selecting the Mendelssohn, in addition, gave Palma an opportunity to invite violinist Robyn Bollinger to play the concerto’s solo part with the symphony.

“She’s a phenomenal player,” Palma said. “I’ve heard her play numerous times over the years, and she’s a delight to work with.”

Bollinger, a 21-year-old senior at New England Conservatory of Music, played one of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in Symphony by the Sea’s family concert two years ago.

She started studying violin the week before she turned 4 and first played the Mendelssohn concerto when she was 10.

“It’s usually one of the first major concertos that someone will learn,” she said. “It’s hard. It’s not the hardest technically, but it is because everything is so exposed, everything is so clear.

“The violinist is always present, and heard. It’s clear and clean and pristine, and available to the audience. That’s what’s so hard about it.”

A concerto features a soloist with an orchestra and is usually not as long as a symphony, which orchestras play without solo accompaniment, Bollinger said.

“This concerto is unique and really changed concerti from this time on,” she said. “Usually, up until this point in music history, there’s always a big section at the beginning where the orchestra introduces the main themes of the piece. Mendelssohn doesn’t do that.

“The second thing about it is, up to this point, normally, a concerto has three movements with a pause in between. He wrote it as one continuous piece. There are three sorts of movements — fast, slow, fast — but there’s no break. It works seamlessly.”

In terms of style, Mendelssohn’s music combines “the lightness and classicism of someone like Mozart, but it also has more of the angst and romanticism and freedom of expression of Brahms and others,” she said. “He bridges those two sound worlds.”

In addition to appreciating Mendelssohn’s innovations, Bollinger is fascinated by the challenges to classical music posed by digital technology, and has experimented with visual projections and live monologues to enhance her performances.

“The multi-media format is another way to draw people in,” she said. “Music is about people and it’s for people. The things that interest me about music are relationships — to the composer, to the music, to the audience and my fellow players.”

Bollinger won’t be employing any technological enhancements at next week’s concerts, however, where her focus will be on her own technique and the inherent appeal of Mendelssohn’s concerto.

“You have to play light and clean,” she said. “The second movement is very lilting. It sways, and I could see someone dancing to that. And the last movement is light and fun.”

IF YOU GO What: Symphony by the Sea When: Sunday, April 28, 3 p.m., The Governor's Academy, Byfield. An earlier show will be held on Thursday, April 25, 7:30 p.m. at Abbot Hall, Marblehead. Tickets & info: Tickets $35 for adults, $5 for kids in kindergarten through grade 12. Available online at www.symphonybythesea.org or The Book Rack, 52 State St., Newburyport. Tickets will also be available at the door.