Editor’s note: The Galveston Symphony Orchestra is opening 2018 with a pops concert. Music Director Trond Saeverud talked about the program.
Q. As the program suggests, a lot of that eastern influence came through Hungary. The Austrians and other central Europeans fought the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Why this fascination with Eastern influences by Western composers? Is this a case of art leading to a better understanding among human beings?
A. Yes, I do believe that art often has this role and did so in this case.
Europe’s fascination with music — and so much else — from the East, may be mostly a desire for the exotic and unknown, often found among composers. For most of our history, it was the direction you went to visit “far away” places. Occasional glimpses of the grandeur and sophistication of China and its neighbors stirred the imagination, and Mongol invasions and other large events brought a significant amount of new instruments and musical styles — often carried by nomadic peoples, such as the Gypsy or Roma. Their imprint on European classical music is substantial and lasting to this day.
Q. You have two versions of “La Sultane” on the program. Why did you decide to do that?
A. The piece is strong and interesting enough to be heard in two versions, and it is thought-provoking to consider the composer, Darius Milhaud, fleeing war torn Europe arriving in the United States — and almost immediately turning to this early baroque piece. I imagine he found some solace in its dignified strength. To me, his version feels like a musical antidote to the horrors of World War II in an impassioned, dramatic orchestration. I hope our audience finds it interesting to hear the same material in its original form and style from 1695 — and this was a good way to present a young string quintet from the Bay Area Youth Orchestra.
I do need to admit that the original context of this piece is far from the dignified mood the music presents today — as illustrated by the fairly risqué paintings that accompany some of its YouTube performances.
Q. Are you slyly trying to erode the distinction between “serious” and “popular” music? Some critics have written that Brahms wrote the “Hungarian Dances” as trifles to relax between bouts of more serious work. But, judging by the recordings, every generation loves this music.
A. Yes! I liked being able to include such a “serious” composer at a pops concert. And these are indeed fun pieces with immediate appeal. But I don’t believe Brahms took this task lightly. I think he would agree that it is extremely challenging to write lighthearted works — as demonstrated by his deep admiration for Johan Strauss Jr., who is usually represented in these programs!
Q. If memory serves, the first piece you conducted with the Galveston orchestra was a Borodin symphony. Is he a favorite? Why did you choose him as an example of the Russian composers, many of whom were interested in Eastern music?
A. Yes, I remember that concert and was very inspired by the response to his symphony — by the orchestra as well as by the audience. This particular piece was chosen for its quiet serenity. We need some still before the stormy Tchaikovsky finale.
Q. Some critics say that a disproportionate number of people who listen to orchestral music came to that love of music through Tchaikovsky, who had a gift for melody. So much of his music has been popular for so long, it must have been hard to choose just one piece. What brought you to “Marche Slave”?
A. It is popular, exciting; a great and effective end piece, and the minor key gives artistic weight to our finale without this reducing its popular appeal. I am very often asked to program this particular piece — and it is fun to play!
Q. And “Carmen” — everybody will be humming for a week after the concert. We’ll love the tune, but can you tell us about the Eastern influence?
A. Gypsy music has had a major role in shaping European music for centuries and its main stylistic elements came from the East. Yes, Bizet’s music is not generally associated with this influence, but Carmen does stand out by including several Gypsy-inspired details. More importantly: the heroine Gypsy girl, Carmen, must be one of the most recognizable and exciting stage embodiments of her vibrant culture!