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Off the Rails with the Arapahoe Philharmonic

A preview by Betsy Schwarm

When a community orchestra has passed its 65th birthday, one imagines that a certain level of trust has developed.  Its audiences have learned to rely on the ensemble for interesting music that’s both enjoyable and exciting, whether or not it’s familiar.  With its upcoming November concert this year, the Arapahoe Philharmonic finds itself in that happy position:  able to offer very new music – including two newly commissioned works – to its audiences, and to its performers as well.

Devin Patrick Hughes

As conductor and music director Devin Patrick Hughes declares, “They like their Beethoven and Brahms, but… the most excitement is for the new things.”  This November’s concert has plenty of that.  Along with Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo (1942) (think “Hoedown”), there’s music by Villa-Lobos, and also three works by current composers, two of them utterly new commissions.  All of it relates in one fashion or another to the program theme, “Off the Rails” and the railroad imagery it suggests.

The Copland ballet suite – for which dancers from the Rocky Mountain Ballet Academy will join the ensemble – may not be specifically train-related, though how, after all, did those cowboys get out to the Wild West that Copland envisaged?  However, in the fourth movement of his Bachianas Brasilieras no. 2 (1933), Villa-Lobos specifically says he was imagining a little country train steaming out of a village station with cars full of farm workers on their way to town for their day off.  He even included steam-like effects in the music, as well as a steady, chugging beat.

Jennifer Higdon

Then there’s the newer music.   Jennifer Higdon’s Loco (2004) was written for the Chicago Symphony’s summer festival at Ravinia, located adjacent to a busy rail line:  the specific plan was for something that would reflect these neighbors.  Higdon says she decided to imagine a “crazy train” in musical terms.  So the title Loco applies in more than one fashion, and everything from piano to piccolo to bass trombone, as well as a host of percussion, contributes to the musical imagery.

Brian LaGuardia

So far, it’s mostly 20th century music, with one toe dipped into the 21st century.  But wait, there’s more:  two brand new commissions, one composed specifically for the Arapahoe Philharmonic.  That one is a new work by Brian LaGuardia, whose father Vince was Arapahoe’s music director for decades and whose mother Tracy is still its concertmaster.  LaGuardia’s new work, Rhapsody in Orange, which will premiere at this concert, is a violin concertino especially for his mom, and reflecting her artistry.  He admits that his childhood was filled with her practicing, though not only of the great classical works.  He remembers her also being “a phenomenal fiddle player who could play Orange Blossom Special… like few others could.”  So along with classical techniques, Rhapsody in Orange draws on tactics drawn from fiddle playing, reflecting its inspiration.  The orchestra gets into the fun as well.  LaGuardia observes, “I don’t like to relegate the orchestra to accompaniment only.”  After all, LaGuardia essentially grew up with this ensemble.  Some of its players he’s known for decades:  he wouldn’t leave them loitering in the musical wings, even if his mother is the soloist.

Zhou Tian

Furthest afield geographically, though not inspirationally, is Chinese-American composer Zhou Tian.  He remembers vividly the new openness that came when he was a youth:  “I experienced first-hand this rush of new ideas, including all kinds of western music that people were prohibited to even listen to just a few years before.”  He studied in the US at Curtis and Juilliard.  At Curtis, he was a student of Jennifer Higdon, whose music is also featured on this Arapahoe Philharmonic program.  Since then, Zhou has been based largely in the West.  As for the Wild West, that appeared in his catalog with a commission two years ago in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad.  This was a joint commission from various smaller orchestras, mostly located along the course of that railroad, which pooled their financial resources so as to be part of something very new. 

The result is Zhou’s Transcend.  Of the three-movement work, the composer says“the epic and intimate passages go hand-in-hand in evoking the darkness and lightness, as if going through tunnels on a fast train.”  He also keeps his musical heart open to the plight of the workers on that line, since, after all, many of them shared his heritage without finding his good fortune at the end of the journey.  Additionally, Zhou notes that in his research for Transcend, he visited with many people great and small along the rail route, borrowing ideas here and there.  One group of Utah school kids suggested that there should be “’Flat’ melodies to symbolize the plains and deserts, “jagged” melodies to symbolize the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain ranges” and “Huge surprising blasts inspired by dynamite and blasting through mountains and rocks.”  That – and much more – is exactly what listeners shall find.

Being staffed by a great many avid amateurs and having only a very few professional players, relatively few community orchestras would dare to take on a newly commissioned piece, let alone two of them, to say nothing of a program comprised entirely of three recent works and two 20th century offerings.  However, conductor Devin Patrick Hughes is unconcerned:  “We’ve been having extra sectional rehearsals, especially for the strings.  But everybody gets on board as they realize it’s really fun to try something new, and composers are impressed that we invest the time and energy in them.  That’s why we’re in the arts: to energize the present and create the future.”  That’s also why its audience has long remained faithful to the Arapahoe Philharmonic:  to be part of those new discoveries, as well as the more familiar re-discoveries.

The “Off the Rails” program of the Arapahoe Philharmonic (joined by the Rocky Mountain Ballet Academy) with music by Copland, Villa-Lobos, Higdon, LaGuardia, and Zhou, will be presented Friday, November 1, at 730pm at Denver First Church of the Nazarene, 3800 E. Hampden in Cherry Hills.  Tickets and further information are available at the ensemble’s website:  https://www.arapahoe-phil.org/events/

Arapahoe Philharmonic

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