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A funny thing happened while he was composing classical music

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By David Amos

SAN DIEGO–The next series of concerts by the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra will be on Sunday, January 31, and Tuesday, February 2, and the theme will be Humor in Classical Music.

 Comedy in classical music can be a delicate commodity. What is funny to some people may be blasphemy to music purists, who cherish the classics and prefer to hear them as they were intended to be presented.

 But, in this program, the intention is to show how great composers were having a good time, poking fun at themselves or at other fellow composers. We visualize historic composers as being constantly serious, ever-suffering, solemn and stern, but this is not the case at all. Many of them were viciously funny.

Mozart wrote his “Musical Joke” as a parody on how lesser composers might try to write. His four movement suite for strings and two horns is full of musical gags; it pokes fun with repeated melodies, redundancies, simple harmonies and unresolved phrases. As we know, Mozart, one of the sublime composers of all time, could behave immaturely in social situations. His humor was raw and unsubtle, and this is clearly manifested in this composition. But, as you might expect, the Mozart genius is always there, and his musical identity is present throughout the work. Maybe only up to the next to the concluding three chords.

Haydn was a court composer, the father of the symphony, and the creator of hundreds of masterpieces of choral, orchestral, and chamber music. His creative genius was always “politically correct”, but his subtle sense of humor surfaced in many of his works. In the slow movement of his “Surprise Symphony”, he wanted to wake up the snoozing royalty, and the unexpected loud chord near the beginning and other dynamic changes may have accomplished the desired effect.

Rossini, the great composer of operas containing great overtures, was notorious for his wicked sense of humor. He was quoted as saying, “Give me a laundry list, and I’ll set it to music!” He wrote a brief piece for two sopranos and orchestra titled the “Cat Duet”, where the singers only sing the word “Miauuuuu” in different styles and melodies. Two TICO favorites, Sylvia Hartman and Delynn Ketcherside will be the vocal felines.

Twentieth Century French composer Jacques Ibert was not known for his humor, but for his impeccably tasteful and economic use of the instruments. In contrast, his “Divertissement” for chamber orchestra is a jolly romp of light French music which makes an occasional quote you may recognize, but has the spirit of the Keystone Cops in its various short movements. It may be light music for the listeners, but certainly not for the performers!

 Composer Peter Schickele is best known for his fictitious and very funny creation of PDQ Bach, “one of J.C. Bach’s twenty one odd children, and definitely the oddest”. He has created many wonderful pieces in the name of  PDQ Bach, and one of the most popular and clever is his “Unbegun Symphony”, which quotes the music of no less than 35 famous composers. It only has a third and fourth movements! As Professor Schickele says, “there isn’t a single original melody in this work”. You may have a great time just keeping up with familiar tunes, and trying to place them with their true composer.

And for the finale, we were able to rent from England the outrageous “Concerto Popolare, a Concerto to end all Piano Concertos”. Jewish-German-English composer Franz Reizenstein was commissioned in 1956 to compose this one movement work for the legendary Hoffnung Festivals in London. It takes the listeners through a   battle of wills of the piano soloist (Sylvia Hartman) and conductor, where the two can not decide whether to play the Tchaikovsky or the Grieg Piano Concertos. Many other familiar melodies creep in as the musicians in the orchestra try to help, and the result is a chaotic, hilarious, and unquestionably a skillful and entertaining juxtaposition of the two main concertos with additional surprises. This may be the first time that this work is presented in the United States.

 The concerts will be presented on Sunday, January 31, 4:00 pm, at the First United Methodist Church of Chula Vista, and at the orchestra’s home, on Tuesday, February 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Tifereth Israel Synagogue’s Cohen Social Hall. A season brochure, describing all the programs is available upon request. Be sure to be included in the TICO mailing list.

To purchase season ticket packages, or individual concert tickets or for any other information, go online at http://www.tiferethisrael.com/TICO, or call the Synagogue office, (6129) 697 6001. The Chula Vista United Methodist Church is located on Paseo Ranchero and East H Street, and the phone number is (619) 656 2525.

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Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.

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