Painting with Music

The Juneau Symphony, with portraits and landscapes of America

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

The pictures are invisible because they are painted with sound.

Saturday night the music of the Juneau Symphony will evoke the Tennessee twilight, the sweep of the Midwestern prairie and a jazzy party for the great Gatsby.

The theme for the evening is "American Memories" and the program is built around a piece by Samuel Barber. Soprano Joyce Parry Moore will join the symphony for "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," lending lyrics to a composition that symphony Director Kyle Wiley Pickett called a tone painting. It's long been a favorite for both musicians.

"It's not a story so much as images and pictures. What Barber did was set musical mirrors for those pictures," Pickett said. "So when Joyce is singing about the streetcar passing, you hear the bell, the rumble and the spark of the wires the streetcar is running on."

Barber was inspired by the writing of James Agee, by a nostalgic reminiscence of his childhood in Tennessee. The text captures the essence of a summer evening in small-town America.

"It's not explicit," Pickett added, "like a composer imitating a bird with the sound of a bird, but it's unmistakably representative of the things Joyce is singing about."

Parry Moore said she's a storyteller, and the 65 members of the symphony paint the scenery and the backdrop with music. She said the piece describes that time in twilight when folks are settling down for the evening.

"He captures really beautifully that feeling of home," Parry Moore said. "You know how telling a story about one night in your life can sum up so much? It can connect you to so many people - they relate to it. Whether you're talking about the locusts, the starlight or the rocking chairs on the front porch."

The concert will open with "Fanfare for the Common Man," by Aaron Copland, a contemporary of Barber. "Fanfare" was written in 1942 as American soldiers shipped overseas.

"It's an American anthem, in a way," Pickett said. "Copland wrote it during World War II as sort of a tribute to the normal guy, the average guy who had enlisted and was serving in Europe and Japan."

Another tone painting will be featured Saturday, also with a quintessentially American theme, F. Scott Fitzgerald's book, "The Great Gatsby." Written in 1986 by Boston composer John Harbison, the piece is a musical interpretation of the novel. It features soprano saxophonist Todd Hunt, who has conducted the symphony at past concerts.

Pickett said "Remembering Gatsby, a Foxtrot for Orchestra," opens with a stormy passage correlating to Gatsby at a dock looking across the water. It moves to a party scene and introduces the foxtrot.


"The sounds and music evoke a party atmosphere that gets drunker and more wild as it goes," Pickett said. "Cars and telephones play a prominent role in the novel, so you hear the horns honking, and the phone ringing. Throughout is this great saxophone, playing a jazzy '20s melody."

The second half of the concert is Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's American-inspired "New World Symphony," written in 1893.

"He wrote it in America, in New York," Pickett said. "He spent a year in Iowa and it has the feel of the open spaces. It's kind of contemplating what America stood for in the late 1800s, the wide open spaces, the plains. Again, you have the ideas reflected musically about the wide open West."

Pickett said the symphony had a profound influence on American composers.

"It sort of sparked an American school of composition," he said. "He pushed American composers to embrace their own music."

Pickett said the "New World Symphony" is one of his most widely requested pieces. It's also the first piece of music he remembers hearing as a child.

"I can still picture the record my parents had," he said. "It had one of those really bright days in New York with the Statue of Liberty on the cover."

Pickett will offer a free preconcert talk at 7 p.m. to enhance appreciation of the music and point out specific examples of tone painting.

"I might even play a few examples, clue people in where to listen," he said. "It's not a lecture, but what's interesting about this music to me."

A silent auction in the Juneau-Douglas High School commons will precede the concert and continue during the intermission. The auction of 25 donated items will benefit the Juneau Symphony.

The symphony presents "American Memories" at 8 p.m. Saturday in the JuneauDouglas High School auditorium. Tickets are $16, $14 students and seniors in advance at Hearthside Books, and $2 more at the door. Children's tickets are $5 in advance and at the door.

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