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Classical View: Fiery “Carmen” in Allentown Symphony Orchestra concert

“I like to say this concert presents ‘ The Three Dons’: Don Quixote, Don Giovani and Don Jose,” says Diane Wittry, Allentown Symphony Orchestra Music Director and Conductor.

Allentown Symphony Orchestra presents “The Passion of Carmen,” 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 and 2 p.m. Feb. 11, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.

“The concert opens with our ‘anchor’ piece, ‘Don Quixote for Cello, Viola and Orchestra, Op. 35,’ also known as ‘Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character’ by German composer Richard Strauss,” says Wittry.

Comprised of 12 movements in theme and variations, it is considered a “tone poem,” music which illustrates the contents of a poem, novel or short story.

Strauss premised his work on “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” the 1605 Spanish epic novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

The main character, Don Quixote, believes himself to be, in fact, a knight as depicted in the numerous books he read about knighthood and corresponding chivalrous deeds dealing with enchantments, battles, quarrels, challenges, wooing, loves and storms.

Quixote decides to become a knight-errant wandering the land in search of adventure to prove his chivalric virtues.

“Strauss does an ingenious job telling this story in music,” says Wittry.

“Quixote goes off to fight evil giants, but the giants are actually windmills. Strauss used a wind machine to produce the sound of windmills,” notes Wittry.

In the “Battle with the Sheep,” Quixote believes the sheep to be groups of approaching armies. Ingeniously, Strauss composes such that the orchestra sounds like sheep.

“To follow the absurdity of these adventures, a screen with supertitles will be provided,” says Wittry.

To accompany him on his quests, Quixote recruits as his squire a simple farm laborer, Sancho Panza.

“Our guest artists, in fact, represent the two primary characters who are easily discernable as they each have their own theme,” Wittry says.

Quixote’s theme is one of nobility and rueful grace, represented by the cello played by Luigi Piovano.

Panza’s theme is jolly, happy, always questioning things and always complaining, represented by the viola, played by Cynthia Phelps.

Piovano has been first principal cello soloist of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, for more than 20 years and plays a cello Francesco Ruggeri “detto il Per” (Cremona, 1692) on loan from Francesco Michel.

Piovano has performed at the Salzburg Festival, in Carnegie Hall and at the Newport Festival. He has made solo appearances with numerous leading orchestras such as the Tokyo Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Seoul Philharmonic, Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Kyoto Symphony and the Hyogo PAC Orchestra.

His recent recordings include the six Bach Suites, Saint-Saëns’ complete works for cello, music of Schubert and a recording of the Goldberg Variations for string trio with Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Yuri Zhislin.

Piovano is Musical Director of the Orchestra ICO della Magna Grecia in Taranto.

Phelps is Principal Violist of the New York Philharmonic and world-renowned viola soloist. She has performed with numerous orchestras and appeared as soloist with the New York Philharmonic across the globe, including Vienna’s Musikverein, London’s Royal Festival Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

A compelling performer of traditional works including the Bartok Viola Concerto and Strauss’s Don Quixote, Phelps is an advocate of contemporary composers, having performed premieres of works by Larry Lipkis, Stephen Paulus, Sofia Gubaidulina and Julia Adolphe.

Phelps has collaborated with numerous artists including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Yo-Yo Ma and Yefim Bronfman.

Phelps is on the faculty of The Juilliard School, Mannes and the Music Academy of the West.

Her most recent recording for flute, viola and harp was nominated for a Grammy Award.

After intermission, the concert continues with the “Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Composed in 1787, Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” is premised on the legend of Don Juan, a fictional character introduced by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina in his 1630 play, “El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra.” Mozart’s opera blends comedy, melodrama and supernatural elements. The overture sets the tone.

The program closes with selections from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” The opera was first performed in Paris in 1875 with principal characters Don Jose and Carmen, but was not initially well-received. It was not until 10 years later that it gained significant success.

Two suites of orchestral music from the opera were compiled after Bizet’s death. However, these do not follow the chronological order of the opera. Wittry has rearranged the movements. Supertitles will follow the opera’s storyline.

Says Wittry, “While all the movements are quite impressive, I am very pleased to showcase ASO Concertmaster Eliezer Gutman and Principal Horn Jonathan Clark in the beautiful “Nocturne” (“Michaela’s Aria”).

“Although Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ is the most well-known piece on this program, I consider Richard Strauss as one of the most genius composers ever,” says Wittry.

“Composer John Williams was inspired by Strauss and how he utilized the orchestra to create sound effects that would later be used in films. So, if you love the music of John Williams, you’ll love Strauss,” Wittry says.

“The Passion of Carmen,” Allentown Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10; 2 p.m. Feb. 11, Miller Symphony Hall, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; Tickets: box office; 610-432-6715; https://www.millersymphonyhall.org

“Classical View” is a column about classical music concerts, conductors and performers. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnon-line.com

Luigi Piovano
Cynthia Phelps