Conductor Eric Kujawsky likes big, heavy, complicated modern symphonies. That’s why the Redwood Symphony, of which he is music director, performs composers like Mahler and John Corigliano. Last Saturday at Cañada College, it was the turn of Christopher Theofanidis, a contemporary American composer whose Symphony No. 1 Kujawsky heard on CD and decided to program.
This symphony is a large, sometimes brutal work with weird and fascinating combinations of sounds. The first movement features a recurrent theme that seems Native American in style. It’s first played by an unearthly combination of massed oboes and clarinets, and later reappears all over the orchestra. But the most captivating part of the movement, and the work, is an interlude of slowly cohering fragments for brass and percussion.
The second movement begins with a string theme that Benjamin Britten might have written, and then transmutes into something like fantasy adventure movie music — 1960s Japanese Godzilla flicks, perhaps. Then comes a quick rough scherzo.
The finale begins, and ends, with a timpani solo and, in between, features much gruff rumbling and growling for the lowest-pitched instruments in the orchestra, as if it had been composed by a bear.
At times, huge walls of dissonance roll out toward the audience. Even when it’s quiet, the music is never ingratiating, though the weird sounds are mesmerizing. Kujawsky told the audience that he expected we would like this work. I don’t think it’s capable of being liked, exactly. You have to be friendly and approachable for that. But it sure is awe-inspiring.
All four movements end quizzically, without big bangs. So Kujawsky capped the symphony with an encore of the angular “Dance of the Knights” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This famously harsh dance fit perfectly with the mood, though next to the Theofanides it felt almost meek.
That comparison will give you an idea of what the symphony sounded like. On the noisy scale in which Aaron Jay Kernis is a 10, this gets an eight. Only the denizens of rock arenas would remain unimpressed.
Being ingratiating at this concert was the job of David Garner, a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory who recently arranged Six Persian Songs — that’s the piece’s title — for soprano and orchestra. The soprano was Iranian expatriate Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, Garner’s former student, who brought the songs to his attention.
A professional opera singer used to performing in Italian, Shehabi-Yaghmai looked delighted to be bringing us songs familiar to her, sung in her own native tongue, for a change (English supertitles were provided).
The four traditional and two modern melodies were well served by Garner’s orchestration. He provided graceful counter-melodies in a light scoring that did not interfere with the clarity or audibility of the voice, except deliberately in the concluding bouncy paean to the attractions of Kurdistan.
Much of the backing was for harp or light winds, giving a bit of a French sound to the music. The cultural mixture of Persian and traditional Western is just what Shehabi-Yaghmai was looking for when she enlisted Garner. Their goal, as they explained in a pre-concert talk, was to mix the two styles thoroughly as artistic rapprochement between Iran and the Western world.
The six songs varied in mood; dancing, romantic and sad. Most successful was “My Homeland,” an exile’s lament by Davood Sarkhosh. Garner’s scoring was at its best here. The orchestra builds up strongly, without either covering the soprano or feeling like it’s only popping up when she stops to take a breath. Shehabi-Yaghmai sang with passion.
The French sound made a further appearance in the concert in Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite. This is an early work of Debussy’s, tuneful and charming. The Redwood Symphony performance was fine in the winds. The strings betrayed more of the orchestra’s amateur status. Yet they gave the music the gentle lilt that makes it work.
Redwood Symphony’s next show is a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s classic grisly operatic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, June 1 and 2 at Cañada College. Tickets and information at www.redwoodsymphony.org.