Star-crossed Symphony

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

The bard, it seems, is here to stay. Just six days after Perseverance Theatre's all-Tlingit "Macbeth" closed, William Shakespeare is back at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31, in the Juneau Symphony Orchestra's evening of concertos and Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2."

Prokofiev (1891-1953) was well known for his satire and his dark social commentary, especially in the eve and wake of World War II, but his "Romeo and Juliet" (1935-1936) is a faithful, and above-all romantic, retelling of the tale.

"If Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet,' with the rapt intimacy and romantic passion of its depiction of young love, did not exist, few of his admirers would have felt the need to invent it," once wrote musicologist Bernard Jacobson.

"For all his Protean powers of transformation, these are not qualities that we usually associated with the man. And yet, along with the wit and flash and pageantry appropriate to other aspects of the action, they are the qualities that have made Prokofiev's ballet one of the most widely enjoyed and celebrated treatments of a story that has not lacked for musical interpretation."

Though "Romeo and Juliet" will be the finale, Saturday's show is meant as a showcase for three local soloists. French horn player Bill Paulick will star on Richard Strauss' "Concerto For Horn," euphonium player Nathan Bastuscheck has chosen Nino Rota's "Concerto for Bassoon" and Juneau-Douglas High School senior Bryan Diebels will play piano in Dmitri Shostakovich's "Concerto for Piano."

The symphony will tackle the second suite of Prokofiev's ballet. The half-hour section covers many of the well-known scenes of Shakespeare's story: the audience meets the Montagues and the Capulets, Juliet is introduced, Romeo speaks to her at the balcony, Friar Laurence is introduced, Romeo and Juliet get married, Romeo heads into exile, Juliet appears to be dead but is actually drunk on potion and Romeo kills himself at the grave. (Tybalt and Mercutio appear in Prokofiev's full ballet.)

"It's a very faithful telling of the story," Symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett said. "Ballet is not really my thing, but I do like some of the modern ballets, and Prokofiev really does tell the whole Shakespeare from beginning to end, and tells it all in dance. He can be kind of whimsical and funny, but this is him at his most passionate and beautiful and powerful."

Those who attended Belorussian pianist Alexander Tutunov's September performance at JDHS will remember his version of Prokofiev's "Sonata No. 7 in B-Flat, Op. 83," a three-sonata, anti-war trilogy on damage and destruction. Prokofiev's ballet is much lighter, though it does make good use of dissonance.

"When a 19th-century composer wanted to express anguish, they wrote movements full of rhythm and activity," Pickett said. "When a 20th-century composer wants to express anguish, he does it with a clashing of sounds. So you have this real dichotomy of some harsh, unpleasant clashing sounds and some really beautiful harmonious sounds for the love scene. And then the idea running though Romeo and Juliet of fate pushing things forward."

Unlike Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which was played by the whole orchestra for most of the piece, Prokofiev's score jumps from section to section - flute to cello to violins and so forth. It also includes rare parts for the tenor saxophone (Todd Hunt).

"One of the ways I've characterized this piece to the orchestra is it's chamber music for the whole orchestra," Pickett said. "It requires a lot of sensitivity and a lot of real listening, and feeling the connection between the players."

• DIEBELS & SHOSTAKOVICH: Diebels, 18, won a solo last June in the symphony's 2003 Youth Concerto Competition. He picked Dmitri Shostakovich's (1906-1975) "Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra," the piece he also played in the youth competition. He first heard it on a DVD copy of "Fantasia 2000," in which the music is set to an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "Steadfast Tin Soldier." Shostakovich's concerto was published in 1957.

"When I started playing it, I was only in my third or fourth year of playing piano, so I was limited by what I could play," Diebels said. "It's a really exciting piece. It's really powerful. I get to pound on the keyboard a lot."

Diebels also plays alto saxophone with the Juneau-Douglas High School band and wind ensemble. He first picked up piano under Missouri Smyth and has studied with Mary Watson for the last four years.

"There's a lot of really fast runs that have to be pretty even to line up with the symphony correctly," Diebels said. "I practice with a CD, and the tempos change a lot more with the symphony."

• BASTUSCHECK & ROTA: Bastuscheck and his wife, Julia, were introduced to the music of Italian composer Nino Rota (1911-1979) by Seattle friend Beth Chandler, who will be guest-playing violin with the symphony on Saturday. Chandler played a collection of Rota songs on her piano and sent them a cassette recording.

"When I first listened to the piece for bassoon, I was struck by the scoring," Bastuscheck said. "It was pretty spare, and it gave the bassoon a chance to be heard. The bassoon is not meant as a loud instrument. What that meant to me was I would be able to play within myself, not have to overdo anything to be heard and hopefully be true to Rota's intention with the piece."

Rota wrote two semi-famous operas, "Il cappello di paglia di Firenze" and "La visita meravigliosa." But he owed his international renown largely to his scores for the cinema, many of them composed for the films of Federico Fellini. Rota eventually wrote for about 150 film soundtracks, including "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II."

Rota wrote many concertos but did not have a chance to record them. Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra was published in 1983, four years after his death. The bassoon is a woodwind instrument with a reed, while the euphonium is a conical, four-valved brass instrument and a member of the tuba family. Still, Bastuscheck believes the piece translates well. The piece includes a harp part, which will be played by guest Candace LiVolsi of Redding, Calif. The symphony bought LiVolsi's harp last year, so she's returning to play her own instrument.

"There are two notes (C and B) that just aren't in my range, that I have to take up an octave," Bastuscheck said. "But most of it, 97.5 percent, I play off the written page."

Bastuscheck is the symphony's longtime principal tubist. He also plays with the Thunder Mountain Big Band, CrossSound, the Nimbus Ensemble and accordionist Dale Wygant for Oktoberfest at the Mount Roberts tramway.

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