San Juan Symphony Music Director Thomas Heuser will launch the 34th season in twin concerts this weekend. On Sept. 28 and 29, “Absolute Refinement” will distill the clear and elegant music of Mozart, Mendelssohn and a 20th-century admirer of the classical idiom, Sergei Prokofiev.
“I’m excited to share this music,” Heuser said. “We’ll be performing some of my favorite works. In fact, Prokofiev’s conception is a deliberate distillation of the classical craftsmanship of Mozart and Mendelssohn, and in this concert, we will explore the similarities and discover the expressive powers of pure orchestral music.”
An evening of cut-glass, classical music may remind us that not all eras are as confusing and contentious as ours. Mozart, Mendelssohn and Prokofiev’s light meditation on classical style may remind us of that old-fashioned remedy for despair – sheer beauty.
The program will open with Mozart’s “Overture to Idomeneo,” from his opera of the same name. A brilliant fanfare leads to a darker storm theme that appears throughout the opera about a Trojan princess held captive on the island of Crete. The overture is short, ultimately solemn and dignified, and a perfect foil to lead into Prokofiev’s little “Classical Symphony.”
Composed in the turbulent, early 20th century, Prokofiev composed this small, musical idyll almost as a pastoral escape from various Russian uprisings that concluded in Lenin’s campaign to transform the country into a Communist state. In that political cauldron, Prokofiev crafted a miniature symphony in four movements that lasts only 15 minutes – in a clear, classical style, not unlike Mozart or Haydn.
In 1917, Prokofiev retreated to the country outside St. Petersburg and created his baby symphony partly for the fun of it. To make his musical intentions clear, he titled it: “Classical Symphony.” Be sure to read J. Michael Allen’s program notes to further understand why this early work stands alone in the body of Prokofiev’s output.
To close the program, Heuser and company will unspool Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, his “Italian” symphony.
The piece was inspired by the sounds, sights and beauty of Italy on a trip Mendelssohn made in the early 1830s. The first performance took place in 1833, but the composer wasn’t entirely satisfied. He revised it many times, and the 1837 version is the one performed most often. It’s a big work with a joyous, spirited opening movement. The slow, majestic second movement may have been inspired by a sacred procession through Italian streets with priests, acolytes and parishioners carrying religious relics. The third movement is somewhat pastoral in nature, and the final movement is as fast as high-energy Italian folk dances can be. Listen for a shift in key signature, over to minor, which gives the music a bittersweet quality.
It looks like a high-spirited beginning to a new year, which will shift into drama come November and then the big Beethoven 250 celebration all over the world in honor of the composer’s birth in 1770.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.