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Symphony ends season on high note

Albany’s symphony orchestra made it through its last concert of this 2011-12 season in good form, hanging onto its thematic objective of spotlighting the city’s various entertainment and cultural venues. This one spot lit Theatre Albany, adding a kind of sub-title: “Mavericks of the theater.”

Steven Byess, the night’s guest conductor, played four entertaining works beginning with Georges Bizet’s mesmerizing Suite No. 1 from his equally affective opera Carmen (1875).

Next came The Last of the Mohicans — a 20th century dramatic musical score of incidents from the first real American novel of the same name by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), published in 1826. This modern score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman was made in 1992. They selected four “entrails,” so to speak, beginning with the novel’s title, continuing with “Fort Battle,” “Promentory,” “The Massacre,” ending with a character description of “Cora.”

Although this music is not well known, we were interested to hear its association with one of America’s classic novels. Repeated hearing will, perhaps, engender a more objective judgment anent its status against such a literary masterpiece.

The following work, Jacques Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), is a work that we believe tends to prove the point attempted above. Here, the composer is well known. His works, produced for the famous Paris Opera Comique, enjoyed an undisputable popularity in their day and have survived the test of time even to the present.

The subject is, undoubtedly, most interesting as the inquisitive godling Orpheus descends into the kingdom beneath the earth to explore that place where humans have never been, are loathe to go. It conjures up to many visions of devils, witches, fire and who knows what else. Nonetheless, Paris audiences are just as inquisitive as is Orpheus, so they flocked to the theater to enjoy and experience with him, although vicariously, his daring adventure.

But instead of encountering the usual notions of happenings in this underworld, or this part of it (called Hades), Orpheus instead braves this unknown realm, or Hades, not to explore some daring adventure, but in search of his wife, Eurydice, who had been carried there by the god of Greek mythology, Pluto.

The beautiful Eurydice is desired by others who mount various intrigues to take her for themselves. She dies of snakebite, is brought back to life by Pluto only to be taken by Jupiter, the “king” of all the gods, who in turn presents her to Bacchus, who, smitten by her uncommon beauty, makes her into a bacchante where she, as such, remains forever in that state of eternal revelry — the bacchanal.

What happens to Orpheus? The tale simply says that he finds a note from her and realizes that he is pleased to be rid of her. The objective here is to entertain involving nymphs, shepherds, gods, goddesses, bacchanalia, the fun reaching its climax in the famous “Can-Can” dance.

The post-intermission music marked the climax of the evening. The proscenium was lifted and six actors from Theatre Albany now shared the stage with orchestra and conductor to dramatize a farcical, satirical, yet serious short drama to the music of contemporary composer and conductor Andre Previn. “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” (1977) is a spoof on the erstwhile Soviet Union’s fear of dissidents. The setting is an incarceration scene in which the prisoners were still in protest in their own helpless way against the “system”; feigning bouts of madness, hunger strikes, etc. that constantly upset the authorities who were aware of the free world’s watchful eyes.

Previn’s accompanying music was more than adequate in providing descriptions of character and ever changing moods of these unfortunate incarcerated people, victims of no more than expressing either verbally or actively the natural yearning of all people to live freely without fear of the state imposing its will based upon some contrary theory about life undergirded by political power.

Wholly speaking, the program was a splendid example of contrasts in music, literature and drama put together and performed in a most engaging manner. It was a fitting end, despite some leadership misfortune, to a well done season. We now look forward to a new season and continuation of the imaginative thrust and playing we’ve enjoyed lo these past 25 years.

James Marquis is a composer and emeritus professor of music, retired, at Albany State University.