Bizet, Broadway and Brontosauri

The brazen Carmen shocked Parisian opera audiences with her depiction of a lusty factory girl who smoked, seduced and paid the ultimate price.

Selections from Carmen, The Music Man and Jurassic Park round out the Itasca Symphony’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday

While the Itasca Symphony Orchestra celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday, it opens the second half of the performance with a piece that celebrates its own 145th birthday: Bizet’s Carmen.

Just like Beethoven, Georges Bizet was an incredible gifted piano player. Franz Liszt, who wrote some of the most challenging piano pieces of the Romantic period, declared Bizet of one of the three finest pianists in the world.

Indeed the Paris Conservatory broke its age restriction to allow the young Bizet to become a student at the age of nine. Though touring as a virtuoso would have brought much more wealth, Bizet held steadfast in his desire to compose, efforts that were largely unrewarded until after his death from a massive heart attack at age 36.

Bizet’s idols were Mozart, Mendelssohn and… Beethoven. While Beethoven had passed away before Bizet was born, he likely would have been impressed – and a little shocked – by Bizet’s Carmen.

Certainly the audience was shocked. The central character, a smoking, fighting, drinking cigarette-factory girl with a gypsy heart was far too vulgar and sensual for much of the Parisian opera-going public. It was panned by the critics, yet both Massenet (the composer of the Meditation from Thaïs that the Symphony performs in the first half) and Saint-Saëns were at the premiere and loved it.

Richard Strauss summed it up: “If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores – study the score of Carmen.” In fact, that was one of the critics’ complaints: subordination of the voice to the ‘noise’ of the orchestra. Apparently, critics felt there was too much orchestration and not enough emphasis on the singers.

Bizet lamented that Carmen was “a definite and hopeless flop”; he would die on the night of the 31st performance in Paris believing that to be true.

Yet as soon as Carmen found its way to Vienna less than six months after its premiere in Paris, it became a smashing success – Brahms attended 20 performances. It is now one of the most performed operas in history.

It is certainly music that, once heard, is difficult to forget. The first four pieces of the Carmen Suite No. 1, adapted for orchestra from the opera, are generally more sweet and lyrical than what might be expected from an opera with some real barnstormers. But the final piece of the suite, Les Toreadors, will be recognized by just about everyone in the audience.

That final piece of the Suite, the representation of the bullfighter that Carmen falls in love with, spurning her former lover Don Jose, leads into another barnstormer of sorts: Jurassic Park.

Written by John Williams, one of the most famous (if not THE most famous) cinematic composers of all time, the score stands up to some of his best works, including the Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones and Harry Potter movie scores.

Jurassic Park, released in 1993, would become the highest grossing film of all time until unseated by Titanic in 1997.

As with another Spielberg film he scored, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Williams felt he needed to write “pieces that would convey a sense of awe and fascination,” emanating from the “overwhelming happiness and excitement,” from seeing live dinosaurs.

He also said that, while trying to “match the rhythmic gyrations of the dinosaurs,” he ended up creating “these kind of funny ballets.” Similar to Carmen, Williams’ score has several themes that you simply can’t get out of your head once they’re heard.

The music makes the most of the orchestra’s lush strings, deep percussion and energetic brass for a really enjoyable ‘romp through the park’!

Finally, the concert concludes with another fun romp: 76 Trombones, the big hit from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

Premiering on Broadway late in 1957, The Music Man was such a success that it took home 5 Tony awards – in the same year as West Side Story. Set in a fictional version of Mason City, Iowa, it has all the elements of a classic Broadway hit like Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma: a smooth-talking man, an innocent female love interest and a great score.

76 trombones is one of the many memorable songs from the Music Man, a song that shuckster Harry Hill uses to get townspeople excited to buy band instruments for their children. While the Symphony only has 3 trombone players, they make the most of it with music that you can’t help but smile and tap your toes to.

Join the local musicians of the Itasca Symphony Orchestra this Valentines Weekend on Saturday, February 15 at 7 p.m. at the Reif Center. Celebrate Beethoven, Bizet, Broadway and brontosauri. Then join the musicians and fellow audience members for a nightcap at Grand Rapids’ newest wine bar, UnWined Up North, and enjoy food and wine specials inspired by the concert plus enter to win ‘Fondue for Two’ with a wine tasting. Tickets are available now!

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