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Baldini to conduct Mozart mass, Gershwin suite and double viola concerto

Christian Baldini, conductor of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, shows off a complex 4-foot-tall score by British composer Brian Ferneyhough, "La terre est un homme," on which he worked with musicians in the BBC Symphony Orchestra in February. Courtesy photo

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May 10, 2011 | Leave Comment

Hear it live

What: UC Davis Symphony concert

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: $12-$17 general, $8 students; http://www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787

The UC Davis Symphony performs three substantial works during Sunday’s 7 p.m. concert in Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center — and those three works couldn’t be much more of a contrast.

“It’s quite a big program,” said conductor Christian Baldini.

First up: “Catfish Row,” a 20-minute suite adapted by George Gershwin in 1936 from music in his opera “Porgy and Bess,” which had premiered the previous year.

Gershwin had broken into the music business in the 1919 as the composer of the highly sentimental, uptempo song “Swanee,” which was recorded by the enormously popular Al Jolson, a Broadway star who sang the tune exuberantly in blackface.

But by the time Gershwin wrote “Porgy and Bess,” his thinking and his music had evolved. Gershwin pictured “Porgy and Bess” as an American folk opera. The original cast featured classically trained African-American singers, rather than white entertainers in blackface.

Audiences of that era weren’t entirely sure what to make of this serious artistic effort from a composer they’d previously associated with entertaining shows on the Great White Way — and to some extent, that situation still lingers today.

“I hesitate to call ‘Porgy and Bess’ opera — but you can’t call it anything else,” Baldini said. “It’s got a great piano part — also a little bit of banjo. It’s fun, and it has a lot of raw energy. At the same time, it’s lyrical. And it’s Gershwin; he’s one of the great American composers.”

And yes, “Catfish Row” includes a little bit of the most famous melody from the opera, the oft-recorded “Summertime (and the Living is Easy).”

Next up: A piece called “Double-Franken-Trouble-Stein for Two Amplified Violas and Orchestra,” which is a new concerto by UC Davis faculty composer Kurt Rohde. The piece is based, to a degree, on a chamber concerto for two violas and small ensemble called “Double Trouble,” which Rohde composed for the Empyrean Ensemble.

Rohde said he’s “re-imagined” the earlier piece “using a very large orchestra as the accompaniment” this time around. Rohde also has added quite a bit of new music.

“It’s not simply a re-orchestrated version of the earlier work,” he said, adding that “my music has changed a lot since I composed the earlier piece.” The new version features amplified viola parts, giving the soloists’ sound an electronic edge, almost like rock and roll guitarists.

All told, “my remixed version of ‘Double Trouble’ is a reassembled, reconstructed, reanimated creature — not unlike Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s creature in her book ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’ ” — the seminal novel published in 1818. Hence, Rohde’s new title for the concerto.

Rohde, who performs regularly in the viola section with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, will share the spotlight as soloist with viola instructor Ellen Ruth Rose of the UC Davis music faculty.

Third up, after intermission: The orchestra will be joined by the University Chorus and several soloists for Mozart’s “Great Mass” in C minor, K. 427, which Mozart wrote in 1782-83.

“It is a massive piece, with some of the most beautiful musical moments in all of Mozart — and that’s a lot to say,” Baldini explained. “For me, if I had to choose only one composer, it would be him.

“Some people refer to the ‘Great Mass’ as ‘the other Requiem,’ ” Baldini added. “They’re both in a minor key, whereas most of his other settings of the mass are major. For Mozart, using a minor key somehow seemed to have a completely different nature; it seemed to be like a confession for him, in a way.

“It’s a piece which is also very operatic. The solo parts are incredible; the first soprano part is just out of this world. It’s a very dramatic piece. It’s also full of joy and hope.”

Tickets for Sunday’s concert are$12-$17 general, $8 students, available at http://www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787.

Baldini is coming off several months of intense activity. In February, he not only conducted the two performances of the Béla Bartók opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” at UC Davis, he also flew to London, where he worked with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, preparing the musicians for a performance of British composer Brian Ferneyhough’s incredibly complex score from the 1970s, “La terre est un homme.”

“This was an unusual task. They called me up, and said they wanted me to conduct 12 hours of rehearsal a day for two days,” Baldini said.

Ferneyhough’s music is so complex that the score is as big as a small blanket.

“The score is like four feet high,” Baldini said.” The pages are huge, they had to give me a special music stand that was extended with cardboard and wood to hold it. I worked with the orchestra’s woodwinds, then the brass, then the percussion. Then a group of two harps, harpsichord and other keyboards.”

After that adventure in England, Baldini went to Spain, where he conducted a concert that included a piece by Elliott Carter, the 102-year-old American composer whose music is ordinarily considered to be rather dense and complex.

“But after conducting Ferneyhough, Carter seemed easy!”

More travel is in the cards for Baldini.

“This summer, I will be going to Guadalajara, in Mexico. I’m conducting a concert and teaching a conducting workshop. And I’ll be doing a residency in Florida at an artists retreat called The Hermitage, where I will be composing some music. They give you a space right by the ocean.”

During spring break, Baldini also found time to enjoy the sights in San Francisco with his wife and their two young children.

“We went to the cable car museum, we went to the zoo to see a tiger, and we took the boat to Alcatraz,” he said.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterpise.net or (530) 747-8055.

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