Not Julie or Julia: Mastering the Art of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra

A local blogger writes about the music in the upcoming Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Season

I’m sure that many of you have seen or heard about the movie “Julie and Julia.” The conceit of the movie is to intertwine the stories of Julia Child’s travails as she trains to be a French chef and the challenges of an “ordinary person” blogger (named Julie, of course) who reports on her quest to make all the recipes in Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”  (I was hoping for a poignant final scene where Julia, on her deathbed, summons Julie to her house as an esteemed colleague where they make one final omelet together—but evidently the late Nora Ephron didn’t have the dramatic imagination to tie up the movie in this perfectly satisfying way.)  Yet, my purpose here is not to start a contest to re-write the endings to movies in sore need of revision (e.g., “Casablanca”). 


No, I want to become the new Julie—without the hollandaise.  Actually, I don’t know anything about cooking, but I do pretend to know a bit about classical music—in the same “ordinary person” mode.  And, I am on the Board of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.    So what I propose to do is to go through all the pieces on the IPO’s up-coming 2012-2013 season with one blog post per piece.  (Disclaimer: the contents here are not previewed or sanctioned officially by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.  I’m speaking for myself.  And it is quite possible that the IPO management will soon develop the same scorn toward this effort that the real Julia Child had for the real Julie Powell blog.)


I sometimes write the program notes for the IPO, but that is different from what I want to do here.  Program notes have a fairly routine format where first, the composer’s career is discussed--especially what was happening at the time of the composition on the program.  Then, the composition’s genesis is presented and its reception.  Finally, the music itself is dissected or highlighted in a manner to help the listener make some sense of the piece, especially if the piece might be relatively new or difficult.


There is really no place for the personal comment in that type of format.  Here, I would like to take a mostly personal approach to the pieces.  This should allow me to become irreverent, irrelevant, irresponsible, and maybe even just irritating. 


The first piece on the program for next season is The Incredible Flutist by Walter Piston.  This is a piece that has haunted me since my high school days.  You probably think that this means that I have known and loved this piece since my teenage years.  Not really.  I first listened to the music this week--almost 40 years after it “haunted” me.


What I mean by this is that in high school I was enrolled in a two-semester course in music theory.  There, we learned how to harmonize melodies without the nausea-inducing (if you are the immortal J. S. Bach) forbidden parallel fifths and octaves, as well as try to write down melodies that were dictated to us, and most of all, to analyze pieces of music by identifying the function of the chords in the standard harmonic scheme—you know like “tonic” and “dominant.”  This harmonic analysis is like diagramming sentences but not nearly as exciting.   And just as you don’t have to be Hemmingway to identify the object of a verb, you really don’t have to have any musical talent (e.g., me) to analyze harmonies.


So what does this have to do with The Incredible Flutist (I think I’ll just call it “TIF” from now on)?  Well, our textbook was called Harmony by Walter Piston who was a music educator at Harvard as well as a composer.  And his most famous piece, always mentioned but never actually listened to by the class, was TIF.  So Walter Piston was a substantial part of my formative years. And his book was just referred to as “Piston” as in the famous high-school query, “I left my Piston at home today, can I borrow yours?” Or in our present household my wife (an actual trained musician) might ask me, “Is that your Piston or mine?”  (To which I would reply, “That’s yours, my Piston has the cover taped together.”)


Since my experience with Piston was in the—let’s face it—really dry realm of theory, I expected TIF to be some sort of academic, neoclassical, Hindemith-like explosion of non-melodic flute riffs.  But no.  The CD booklet tells me that the piece was written for a collaboration between the Boston Pops (you know, the orchestra that used to do the Beatles’s medleys after their intermission) and a dance company.  It’s a ballet with a slightly racy story.  A sleepy (of course) southern town is doing its routine somnolent activities when the circus rolls in.  Not only does this shake off the summer doldrums, but the playing of the circus flutist (circus flutist?) is such that it stirs the amorous feelings of the town’s women including a merchant’s daughter (building on the both the Pied Piper legend and the randy, farmer’s-daughter-traveling-salesman-joke tradition).  The upright moral universe is restored when the flutist relents, the women calm down, and the circus leaves town.  So TIF (actually the Suite from the whole ballet is what we will be hearing) is a set of dance numbers originally for a pops orchestra.  This seemed *so* much more promising than my imagined academic flute concerto as I popped the CD (by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony) into the machine.


I hope it’s not the kiss of death to say the music is utterly charming.  A highlight for me is the “Tango of the Merchant’s Daughters,” an accessible and strikingly beautiful number—though not at all sexy in the mode of the tangos by Piazzolla.   As a matter of fact, it sounds something like popular, lighter Bernstein music.  (And wasn’t Leonard Bernstein taught by Piston at Harvard?  Hmm…) Evidently, there is a tradition that the members of the orchestra howl with delight (and also actually howl like dogs) during (and after) the “Circus March”—and this was subsequently written into the score.  (Think of the word “mambo” shouted out by the orchestra during Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Double hmm…) The solo by the flutist seems to hold more Debussyan languor, than Petrushka-puppet-master mysteriousness.  (Personal note, if you want to see about ten “Magic Flute” posters, you are welcome to visit my medical office.)  The final two dances are a “Sicilliana,” also quite beautiful, following a tradition of Bach through Faure of writing in this stately rhythm, and a “Polka Finale,” this latter sounding like a preview of Bernstein’s Candide or Divertimento.  (Personal note, two of my grandparents were from Sicily but didn’t dance in 12/8 time that I recall.)


So the new IPO music director, David Danzmayr, picked a little, unknown American gem for his opener.  (And in the process, he will complete a circle in my musical existence.)  Neat! 



But unlike Julie’s readers, you don’t have to just accept this blogger’s opinion.  Just download a copy of the music or pick-up a CD.  The first IPO concert is the 10th of November.


Next week, the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra.





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