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Griffin Sinfonia debuts with Wagner, Copland and Barber
Sunday, January 20, 2008
The griffin in Purdue’s official seal conjures up images of strength and tradition, so when searching for a name for Purdue’s new chamber orchestra - hand-picked from the university’s most talented players - conductor Andrew King thought Griffin Sinfonia seemed appropriate.
A group of 19 student musicians, all present or former principal players with the Purdue Symphony Orchestra, will debut as the Griffin Sinfonia at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, at University Church on the corner of North and Grant streets in West Lafayette.
It will perform works by Wagner and Copland and spotlight guest soprano Karen Goff, a frequent Bach Chorale soloist, in Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” The ensemble is sponsored by Purdue Bands & Orchestra. Suggested donation at the door is $10.
King says the Griffin Sinfonia musically challenges his top players and showcases their advanced skills. He calls the first concert an experiment to see how audiences respond to a chamber orchestra concert as well as the student musicians.
“If it’s a huge hit, I hope to do one concert each semester. We won’t always use the same instrumentation (because of varying demands of pieces presented) so the Sinfonia won’t always be made up of the same members,” the conductor says.
For the debut concert, King picked three pieces he “always wanted to conduct but never had the right kind of group to do them with until the Sinfonia.” Besides Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” there’s a short non-operatic work by Richard Wagner, “Siegfried Idyll,” and the original version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” scored for 13 instruments.
Romance colors Wagner’s symphonic poem. He composed “Siegfried Idyll” as a birthday present for his second wife Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. It was first performed on the morning of Christmas Eve 1870, Cosima’s birthday, by a small ensemble perched on the stairs of their Swiss villa. Cosima awoke to its opening melody.
Usually performed by large orchestras, the Griffin Sinfonia’s presentation of “Siegfried Idyll” takes it back to the way it was first heard, King says.
Likewise, Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is usually fodder for large orchestras but it was written in 1942 for a Martha Graham ballet and premiered by an orchestra of 13 because that was all the musicians that would fit in the Coolidge Auditorium orchestra pit at the Library of Congress.
“It’s much more intimate with 13 musicians and it better captures the feelings Copland was going for,” King says. Copland won a Pulitzer Prize for the score which captures the essence of an ideal America, one of open fields and endless possibilities, and music critics have always been in awe of Copland’s ability to capture such a vast emotional world within the limits of the 13-piece orchestra.
Themes of innocence and country life run through “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a piece that’s a particular favorite of King’s. The nostalgic text, to be sung by Mintoyne Elementary music teacher Karen Goff, was written by James Agee about his hometown of Knoxville, TN. “He was a poet with writer’s block who started writing in a stream of consciousness to get over it, and ended up publishing the results.” King says.
Agee’s short story is a simple, dreamlike depiction of an evening in the American South. King likes what Barber did with the text. Composing during a time when a lot of experimenting was going on, “Barber never lost the sense of melody and tunefulness,” King says. “He incorporated contemporary techniques that made his music interesting but not difficult to listen to.”
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