By Ted AYALA
The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra begins its 2011-12 season in splendid fashion this Saturday. Ending with Tchaikovsky’s ever popular Fifth Symphony, the program will begin with two musical works representing opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean: the Saibei Dance by Chinese-Canadian composer An-lun Huang, and the late Violin Concerto of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
In his youth, Korngold had achieved great fame and prestige as a wunderkind. His compositions had impressed musicians such as Gustav Mahler, Arthur Nikisch, and Richard Strauss before he turned 10. In his 20s he was a celebrated composer of operas, his best known being Die tote Stadt, and his works became repertoire staples in Europe.
But the rise of the Nazis ended his European career, banning his music and seeking the composer‘s arrest. Korngold, an Austrian Jew, found refuge in Los Angeles where he, along with fellow émigrés Max Steiner, Miklos Rosza, Dmitri Tiomkin, and Franz Waxman, became one of Hollywood’s most respected composers. His scores for films such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Elisabeth and Essex” and “The Sea Wolf” were recognized as some of the greatest film scores ever penned, earning their composer acclaim and a pair of Academy Awards.
Yet his fame as a composer proved to be a double-edged sword. After World War II, Korngold’s music for the concert hall and theatre had descended into obscurity. The composer’s musical language, never stridently modern, withered under the critical eyes of both traditionalists and partisans of the avant-garde: the former disparaging his concert work as “mere” film music; the latter for Korngold’s ripe, late Romantic idiom.
His Violin Concerto, composed for Bronislaw Huberman, but premiered (and recorded) by Jascha Heifetz, has become his best-known work and an integral part of the repertoire of today’s violinists. But at the time of its premiere, music critics received the work coolly, with one wag famously referring to the concerto as “more corn than gold.”
James Ehnes, one of the leading violinists of his generation, will be playing the Korngold concerto with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra this Saturday under the baton of guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen. Ehnes, who made a benchmark recording of the work with the Vancouver Symphony under Bramwell Tovey for the Onyx label back in 2006, explained the pull Korngold’s work has on him.
“I got to know it through my teacher,” he said. “He had a copy of Heifetz’s recording, which I played pretty frequently. But it wasn’t until I was around 20 that I started playing this concerto.”
Listing its melodic charm, warm harmonies and brilliant orchestration, Ehnes further explained his love of the work.
“Korngold was a really great composer and this is one of his very greatest works. I think one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed playing it all this time is that it has a little bit of everything in it.”
Speaking of his anticipation with collaborating with the Pasadena Symphony, Ehnes voiced his eagerness to meet the orchestra.
“I’ve been in Pasadena before, but never worked with the orchestra,” he said. “But I’m very excited to finally get the chance to play with them. I’ve heard many great things about them and the Ambassador Auditorium.”
Pasadena Symphony program will be performed twice on Saturday: at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Tickets range from $35 to $100.
For more information, call (626) 793-7172, or visit the Pasadena Symphony’s website at www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org.