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Holoman returns to podium to conduct Elgar’s oratorio

Kern Holoman will direct the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra in Elgar's biblical oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius" on Sunday, March 10, at the Mondavi Center. Courtesy photo

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From page A7 | March 06, 2013 |

Check it out

What: UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, University Chorus and Alumni Chorus, conducted by D. Kern Holoman

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, March 10

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: $12-$17 general, $8 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787

Conductor D. Kern Holoman — who retired as conductor of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, passing the baton to Christian Baldini — will return to the podium as conductor emeritus at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 10. He’ll lead the orchestra, the University Chorus and Alumni Chorus in a performance of Edward Elgar’s oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius” at the Mondavi Center.

The concert will honor the memory of Marya Welch, who was a prominent figure at UCD for many years.

Elgar wrote “Gerontius” in 1899-1900, as the long and formal Victorian era faded away, and the Edwardian era began. Elgar began composing the oratorio shortly after completing “The Enigma Variations,” one of his most popular orchestral works.

The oratorio is considered by many to represent Elgar at the height of his creative powers. As such things are reckoned — at least by English audiences — “Gerontius” ranks as one of the “big four” oratorios — the others being “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel ( 1742), “The Creation” by Josef Haydn (1798) and “Elijah” by Felix Mendelssohn (1846). All are closely associated with the British Isles.

As Holoman described in his writings, the premiere of “Gerontius” at the Birmingham Music Festival, which had commissioned the piece, was problem-prone. Elgar was late turning in the score to his publisher Novello, and Novello ran later still printing up the choral parts. The chorus master died and was replaced by a stand-in, and the soloists proved to be something less than ideal for their parts.

But subsequent performances proved more successful, and “Gerontius” was soon established as an audience favorite. Clocking in at about 90 minutes, it is a full concert program by itself, though it is about an hour shorter than “Messiah” or “Elijah.”

While “Gerontius” is distinctly an English piece, it is not Anglican. Elgar was a Catholic, and he drew on an 1865 text by Cardinal Newman. With the references in the text to purgatory and the last rites (invoking Catholic theology), some portions of the libretto were excised when the oratorio was performed at certain venues early on, though it is hardly controversial by today’s standards.

“It’s a Catholic work in Anglican territory,” Holoman said, “and an English response to Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ in the waning days of Queen Victoria. The music is, quite simply, glorious.”

Holoman noted that Welch, to whom the concert is dedicated, “was a devout Catholic — Cardinal Newman’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ could not be a more apt meditation on her passing” in June 2012.

Welch was “a legendary figure,” Holoman said, a founder of the modern UCD campus, a venerated pathfinder in women’s athletics, a naval aviator, a Ph.D., a licensed real estate agent, the dean of women and a grand marshal of the Picnic Day Parade. A residence hall and the tennis center at UCD are named in her honor.

Welch also was a devoted fan of the UCD Symphony Orchestra, seldom missing a performance.

Holoman said he’s looking forward to once again conducting his old orchestra.

“It’s always a thrill to be standing at the confluence of the choruses, orchestra and high-profile vocal soloists,” he said. “I love the harps and the organ, and that Jeffrey Thomas (the University Chorus director) will play the organ part. I’m looking forward to working with mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen, with whom we did Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ in 2007. Likewise, tenor Wesley Rogers, a favorite of the University Chorus, who suggested him.”

Bass-baritone Kevin Deas completes the trio of vocal soloists.

Having spent much of the past few years writing books, Holoman also admitted that while it is “exhilarating to be back on the podium, I confess my shoulders are a little sore.” Conducting, after all, is a physically strenuous and arguably athletic activity, in addition to the musical and spiritual dimensions of interpreting a piece like “The Dream of Gerontius.”

Tickets for the 7 p.m. performance in Jackson Hall are $12-$17 general, $8 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.

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